Improvement by Design: The Promise of Better Schools

reviewed by Kara S. Finnigan - September 26, 2014

coverTitle: Improvement by Design: The Promise of Better Schools
Author(s): David K. Cohen, Donald J. Peurach, Joshua L. Glazer, Karen E. Gates, & Simona Goldin
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022608938X, Pages: 240, Year: 2013
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Given the prominence of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in both educational and mainstream discourse, the timeliness of this book is extremely important. As the authors of Improvement by Design note, the success of the CCSS initiative will be in the alignment of resources, instructional practices, and assessments with internationally benchmarked standards for student performance. Yet a key assumption underlying this movement is that schools—the same ones that have not improved under prior accountability-driven reform efforts—will have the internal capacity to respond positively to this new challenge. This book calls into question not only this assumption, but also whether the larger environment will support—or work against—deep and lasting change.  

The authors chronicle the activities of three organizations working with schools for decades: the Accelerated Schools Project (ASP), America’s Choice (AC), and Success for All (SFA). This book was developed out of a larger study—the Study of Instructional Improvement (SII)—conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.  It examines four domains of activity between 1996 and 2008: the schools they served, the designs they constructed, the organizations they created, and the environments in which they operated. All three emerged during a different era of reform, but continue to operate today. All three developed national networks of high-poverty, low-performing schools—in fact, at their peak they rivaled state education agencies in their scale of operations.

The central premise is that all three organizations used a strategy called improvement by design. The authors point out that what was unusual was that all three, at least at inception, did not target narrow approaches or leverage points but rather attempted to simultaneously coordinate change in practices, structures, cultures, and technologies of schooling. The interveners had different underlying philosophies and resulting designs, yet they shared the optimism that improvement was possible in even the most challenging environments.

Chapter One offers background context, including federal and philanthropic, and argues that the central problems of the U.S. educational system were large resource inequalities among schools, the weak capacity of district and state leaders in supporting improvement, and inadequate training of teachers and school leaders. As a result, the interveners each had to create an infrastructure to support coherent and sustained change in practice, and “they tried to build new sorts of vision-driven, mission oriented school systems inside much larger, vision-neutral, bureaucratic, and inhospitable systems” (p. 14).

The next four chapters focus on central puzzles of design, implementation, improvement, and sustainability. Chapter Two provides background context on weaknesses at the school level in curriculum and assessment, collaborative planning, and leadership. The interveners began by creating their own infrastructure, but were hindered in bringing about the types of schools they envisioned by environmental challenges: weak professional education, poor working conditions, and high levels of mobility. In Chapters Three through Five, the authors discuss how the evolving nature of the designs, combined with rapid expansion, interacted with conditions in schools and led to weak or superficial implementation. They suggest that the groups had a firm understanding of the importance of comprehensive reform, but underestimated the influence of local policies and practices. To truly impact the schools, the interveners found they had to influence the larger systems in which they operated, which made interventions more complex and time intensive; they were also forced to adapt their programs—in some ways undermining their philosophies and missions—to remain viable.

The final chapter emphasizes the importance of the systemic nature of these reforms; they not only rebuilt the culture to ensure educators were focused on more engaging and effective teaching and learning, but also built a supportive infrastructure. They argue that current policies highlight the importance of academic engagement and coherence, but do little to build the internal capacity at the school, district, or state level to improve teaching and learning onsite. As they note, turning ineffective schools into effective ones requires intensive work and years of sustained practice. The authors note particular funding and policy mechanisms to support comprehensive reform networks; however, grappling with the benefits and drawbacks of relying on external providers versus revamping the layers of the educational system would have provided a richer discussion.

While intended for policy makers, practicing educators and reformers, and educational researchers, the book is likely most useful to educators and reformers in providing detailed accounts of the organizations’ changing strategies and philosophies as research-based programs were put into practice in turbulent environments—effectively illustrating the difficult task of improving the lowest performing schools. Educational researchers and policymakers may also find it a valuable resource; however, a strong theoretical grounding around learning and design and connections to the related research on system-wide reform might have been more useful for researchers, while a more in-depth policy-focused discussion might have been more useful for policymakers.

Improvement by Design provides a valuable contribution to the knowledge base by showing that even comprehensive, research-based designs falter without the right level of support. The book provides strong evidence that it is time to stop blaming educators within these schools and begin identifying ways that educational policies at the local and state level can better facilitate and sustain complex change. This book is a good reminder as to why improving low-performing schools is so difficult, and why educational policymakers must target resources in support of lasting change.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 26, 2014 ID Number: 17700, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 8:34:57 PM

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