American School Reform: What Works, What Fails, and Why

American School Reform: What Works, What Fails, and Why

by Joseph P. McDonald, Cities and Cities and Schools Research Group

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Dissecting twenty years of educational politics in our nation’s largest cities, American School Reform offers one of the clearest assessments of school reform as it has played out in our recent history. Joseph P. McDonald and his colleagues evaluate the half-billion dollar Annenberg Challenge—launched in 1994—alongside many other large-scale


Dissecting twenty years of educational politics in our nation’s largest cities, American School Reform offers one of the clearest assessments of school reform as it has played out in our recent history. Joseph P. McDonald and his colleagues evaluate the half-billion dollar Annenberg Challenge—launched in 1994—alongside many other large-scale reform efforts that have taken place in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area. They look deeply at what school reform really is, how it works, how it fails, and what differences it can make nonetheless.
McDonald and his colleagues lay out several interrelated ideas in what they call a theory of action space. Frequently education policy gets so ambitious that implementing it becomes a near impossibility. Action space, however, is what takes shape when talented educators, leaders, and reformers guide the social capital of civic leaders and the financial capital of governments, foundations, corporations, and other backers toward true results. Exploring these extraordinary collaborations through their lifespans and their influences on future efforts, the authors provide political hope—that reform efforts can work, and that our schools can be made better.   

Editorial Reviews

Jeffrey Henig

American School Reform offers a substantive contribution to school reform debates, focusing on what it takes to create, sustain, and—importantly—continually renew the conditions for successful reform. It combines a notion of the precariousness of reform with optimism, outlining a pragmatic path of incremental improvement that recognizes the very severe and systemic obstacles in its way without stoking frustration or backlash that would undermine the long-term aspiration.”
Teachers College Record
“McDonald and colleagues make a valuable theoretical contribution to the field of district-level school reform through their integrative framework and nuanced cross-case analysis of diverse school reform efforts.”
Larry Cuban
American School Reform importantly advances a historically grounded conceptual framework to understand how the arguments, theories of action, and action space devoted to school reforms change over time, fail, and then get reincarnated in other forms as actors and contexts shift. The authors appreciate and use the past to underscore how earlier reforms have influenced contemporary ones, how the debris of collapsed reforms become building blocks for newer ones. In this way they do what many historians—but too few reformers—do: account for both continuity and change.”
Robert Rothman
“Urban school districts have been the focal points for intensive reform efforts over the past two decades. All of these efforts have been highly contentious, and they have produced mixed results. The more that is known about what makes reform successful and unsuccessful in these contexts, the greater the likelihood for success in the future. American School Reform makes a significant contribution to this knowledge. It tells important stories about significant reforms in four cities and provides a new way of looking at reform that can be useful moving forward.”

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American School Reform

What Works, What Fails, and Why



Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-12469-8



To answer the three questions in its title—what works in school reform, what fails, and why—this book raises other questions meant for readers. What do you think about when you think about school reform? Are you hopeful about it or skeptical? What do you think is at stake for you? And what arguments would you make—whether to educators, policymakers, funders, or others—about how to pursue positive outcomes? These questions are not meant to lead toward answers we authors have worked out in advance. This is not that kind of book. These questions simply invite readers to enter the territory we've staked out with certain perceptions heightened.

The territory has both a landscape and a timescape. It features major school reform efforts in four places—Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and the Bay Area—over two decades. Our own studies of these efforts form the basis of our accounts, supplemented by the work of the other researchers and journalists we cite. Our learning from each other over two decades informs the accounts too. Since the mid-1990s, the authors have participated in a learning community that we call the Cities and Schools Research Group. Its purpose has been to pool our understanding of large-scale school reform and make it available for others to use. The group's name reveals an original intention, later modified. This was to add substantially to what is known about big-city school reform, as if big-city school reform were distinctly different from school reform in other places. Today, we think this difference is often overplayed. Although we continue to respect the role that context plays in school reform, we think that some reform dynamics stay constant across contexts, and we focus here on these dynamics. The inclusion of the Bay Area among our research sites—with its three big cities and numerous small ones, as well as vast suburban and rural swaths—helped us understand this. One might say that it disrupted our intention nearly from the start, and this book is partly about the ways in which disrupted intention can be plumbed for creative advantage. Moreover, we noticed over time that our other three sites influenced school reform policy nearly everywhere, not just in other cities.

Our research and writing partnership was created at the invitation of the Annenberg Foundation and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. It was led originally by Donald A. Schön of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, until his death in 1997. And it remains inspired by his perspectives—for example, on the value of pooled understanding in matters of great civic importance, and on the need for grounding reform in rigorously honed theories of action. Since 1997, the group has been led by Joseph McDonald, who is also the principal author of this book, the one charged by the group with figuring out a way to pool understanding and to make the result lively and accessible. Thus the book is not a compilation of separate chapters prepared by separate authors, with an introduction and conclusion meant to tie them together. Nor is it written, as some research reports are, in a corporate voice. The book has a single distinctive voice throughout—one that is, as we suggest below, an indispensable element of its message. Still, the book draws substantially on and cites the original research, writing, and thinking of all the other authors. Thus Jolley Bruce Christman's and Tom Corcoran's research is at the heart of our Philadelphia stories, as Mark Smylie's is for Chicago. Our Bay Area account rests on Milbrey McLaughlin's and Joan Talbert's research there, and our New York accounts on that of Norm Fruchter, Gordon Pradl, and Gabriel Reich. Yet their individual contributions have been refracted by years of conversation, drafting, and rhetorical experimentation.

The Research Base

Our partnership took root when we tried to devise a cross-project evaluation of eighteen diverse school reform efforts funded by the Annenberg Foundation and collectively known as the Annenberg Challenge (Annenberg Foundation, n.d.). The Challenge was announced at the White House in late 1993 by media magnate, philanthropist, and former US ambassador to Great Britain Walter H. Annenberg and his wife Lenore in the company of President Bill Clinton. At the time, the Annenbergs' $500 million gift was the largest philanthropic investment ever in K–12 public education. The places we write about here—Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and the Bay Area—were early beneficiaries of the gift, using the funds to launch major projects. Other cities and metropolitan areas benefited too, including Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, South Florida, Atlanta, Chattanooga/Hamilton County, and Boston. There was also a Rural Challenge.

Our conception of a cross-project evaluation design for this massive effort included summative and formative studies of the locally designed projects, to be done using locally available evaluation experts. The summative component would employ a set of common measures keyed to what we called an impact map. The latter was the first iteration of the theory of action space that we sketch out in this book. The formative component involved a plan, first, to help project leaders clarify the theories of action underlying their unique projects and, second, to align these theories across multiple levels of design and action. The underlying idea is captured by the title of a monograph by Schön and McDonald, published by the Annenberg Institute in 1998: Doing What You Mean to Do in School Reform: Theory of Action in the Annenberg Challenge. The monograph suggests that alignment between meaning and doing is intermittent at best in projects that initiate complex change, yet crucial to the projects' development and impact; and it holds that external perspectives (such as those evaluators may supply) are invaluable aids toward continual realignment.

Both our formative and summative plans depended on the creation and persistence of a strong cross-project community of researchers and practitioners who would review each other's work in the manner of critical friends. Our hope was that the combination of common measures, a different kind of formative evaluation, and the involvement of researchers and reform practitioners across multiple contexts would sharpen the effectiveness of the Annenberg reforms, and prove influential as an evaluation design.

However, our efforts failed. In fact, no common approach to formative evaluation was implemented across all of the Challenge projects, and no common summative measures were adopted. Thus the opportunity to affect the direction of a giant natural experiment in school reform, and to track its impact, mostly vanished. Several factors account for the failure. They include the sheer complexity of the Challenge itself; the high cost of evaluating it as we proposed; the hesitation of some funders and some reform projects to undergo such thorough evaluation; the diversity of research expertise and research perspectives among the local evaluators; and the fact that, in the mid-1990s, our conception of the kind of research needed simply seemed outsize to many. As we demonstrate in this book, however, some of the Challenge projects proved nonetheless influential in terms of school reform policy. But the influence was of a kind rarely acknowledged—one associated with what we call connection. More about this below.

With respect to evaluation design, the influence of the Annenberg Challenge has been even more indirect. Several of the Annenberg cities— as well as other places—eventually built at the local level the capacity for cross-project formative and summative evaluation of school reform that we imagined. They are using this capacity to build longitudinal tracking systems and ongoing data analysis systems with good feedback loops to districts and schools (Sparks, 2012). Most have been inspired in this regard by the success of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, one of whose earliest projects was the evaluation of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. One purpose of our book is to encourage more cross-city conversation about such local studies. Indeed, our book exists (despite the failure of our larger plans) because the Spencer Foundation invested in our cross-city conversation. It sensed the value of the community of practice we had formed within the context of the Annenberg study and hoped that others might learn from it. We had visited each other's projects, had read and responded to each other's research reports, had talked together regularly about the prospects and pitfalls of contemporary school reform, and had begun to write together. Spencer provided funding to keep our community of practice going post-Annenberg—long enough to gain a better perspective on the data we had collected in a small number of Challenge sites; to share data and perspectives on similar work we did later; to refine our emerging ideas of how meaning and doing relate in the context of school reform; to construct a theory of how ambitious reform arises, proceeds, collapses, and in a sense survives; and to report on all this. This book is our report.

Theory of Action Space

Four interrelated ideas emerged from our study. They constitute what we call our theory of action space. We introduce these ideas briefly below, then explore them more thoroughly in the next chapter. Finally, we illustrate them throughout the book in stories.

Idea 1: The necessity of reframing deeply held beliefs about school reform

In 2005, newly sworn-in US senator John Thune spoke to a New York Times reporter about having just met newly sworn-in US senator Barack Obama. "Barack and I have talked about exchanging visits," he said, "him coming to South Dakota to see a working ranch or an Indian reservation, and me coming to Chicago to see the inner city" (Stolberg, 2005, p. A21). We have not been able to determine whether this exchange of visits ever took place, but we think it was a good idea, and Thune's mention of it helps us illustrate what reframing is. In our terms, he implicitly invited his new colleague to help him reframe what he calls "the inner city"—which for him is as tangible as a ranch or an Indian reservation, though it is also in some sense elusive, requiring an interpretive guide. To our ears, Thune's phrasing conveys attraction but also fear—a familiar combination in the American context whenever race is involved. As Thune may have sensed, seeing first hand is fundamental to working out this tension. He may also have understood that seeing is not enough, that it must be followed by reflective conversation about what is seen, always in tension with what might be seen.

Over the years, several scholars have explored the difference between this is and this might be—beginning with Erving Goffman (1974), and including Lee Bolman and Terry Deal (1997), Frank Fischer (2003), George Lakoff (2002, 2004), and Donald Schön and Martin Rein (1994).

The frames our minds favor in ordinary perception are rooted in class, race, age, gender, geography, and political and cultural orientation, as well as other sources of "common sense." As Schön and Rein (1994) put it, these frames rest on belief and appreciation. In other words, we ordinarily see what we expect to see and also what we like to see—a formidable combination that makes our ordinary frames inescapable without the conscious effort that Schön and Rein call frame reflection and that we call reframing.

Reframing is what Thune and Obama planned and what we think school reform requires. It is a necessary precursor to gaining the resources that support reform. In this book, we explore the reframing of certain deeply held beliefs. Some of these beliefs are positive—or, as we put it, encouraging—with respect to taking action. For example, there are the widespread beliefs that school reform can save the economy, and that it can also end social inequality. And there is the similarly widespread belief that business is a good source of ideas for how to conduct school reform. These three beliefs have arisen from the larger political economy in which all schools and reformers operate, and they seem compelling to many people as a spur to action, a matter of common sense. However, they may encourage too much, raising false expectations. And they may propel action at such high speed and with such unwarranted confidence that the action falls short of its mark. Reframing uncovers this downside, and leads to inventive ways to avoid it. Meanwhile, other beliefs, also widely held and deeply felt, are negative with respect to taking action. They discourage it. These also need to be reframed. For example, there is the widespread belief that many schools serving low- income communities are essentially incorrigible, and that money spent on school reform there is wasted.

Of course, reframing does not alter facts about schools—ones that include incoming reading scores and reading readiness, teacher qualifications, children's birth weights, family income and access to medical care, neighborhood violence and employment statistics, and more (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, and Easton, 2010; Neuman, 2009). Nor does it alter large social trends that include obstacles in the United States to social mobility and educational attainment (Chetty, Hendren, Kline, and Saez, July 2013; Duncan and Murnane, 2011). However, the frames people bring to facts affect whether they invest in gathering them, whether they pay attention to them, whether they want to change them, whether they think they can change them, and, finally, what they think change should entail.

Idea 2: The surprising impotence of school reform arguments

Arguments for school reform prescribe particular courses of action: do this or do that. They are the offspring of encouraging beliefs. The pronouncements about reform that we typically encounter are more declarations than arguments in a strict sense because they are unburdened by evidence. Thus we use the word somewhat in the manner of Lawrence Levine, who quipped that arguments are "examples of how things do not happen" (1996, p. 29). He meant that arguments do not come easily to the ground, being too rigid in their construction to accommodate actual contexts and their complications. Instead, they hover in the air, contributing a sometimes confusing, if nonetheless helpful, strategic chatter. Arguments are insistent, even strident. They seem sure of themselves. When revealed, their actual limitations can take proponents by surprise.

In chapter 2, we present and explore a list of contemporary school reform arguments, but for readers already feeling lost in abstraction, here are a few examples, drawn from a recent film called Waiting for Superman (Chilcott & Guggenheim, 2010). We use imperative verbs to capture their stridency: (1) fire ineffective teachers and hire better ones; (2) close the big failing neighborhood schools and open an array of small, choice-based ones; (3) surround schools with social services to overcome the effects of poverty on learning. Even when such arguments are made more concrete—use value-added assessments to identify ineffective teachers; open no-excuses charter schools; replicate Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone—they still tend to oversell themselves. And they sometimes resist combination. The fiercest proponents of each reform imply that theirs is all that is needed, and that it is adoptable instead of merely adaptable. Their arguments become in the process alluring beyond reason, and a source of incoherence. In any given context, stakeholder groups crucial to a civic alliance for reform—parents, educational leaders, teacher unions, politicians, business roundtables, and foundations, among others—find themselves attracted to arguments, though often different and conflicting ones. Or they may be attracted to different interpretations of the same argument but lack opportunities to discover and bridge the differences. Thus arguments make the politics of reform very complex.


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Meet the Author

Joseph P. McDonald is professor of teaching and learning at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. He is the author or coauthor of many books, including, most recently, Going Online with Protocols and Going to Scale with New School Designs. The Cities and Schools Research Group consists of Jolley Bruce Christman, Thomas B. Corcoran, Norm Fruchter, Milbrey W. McLaughlin, Gordon Pradl, Gabriel Reich, Mark Smylie, and Joan Talbert.


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