Transforming Urban School Districts
Transforming Urban School Districts
by John Simmons
Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University: New York and London. 2006: 250 pp
In recent years, concerns about how to effectively transform schools have taken on increased urgency, in part because of the No Child Left Behind act.
No matter what your politics (or whether you agree or disagree with the current Washington administration’s particular take on how to measure educational outcomes), few educators can ignore the reality that many schools simply aren’t working for far too many students. The achievement gap between high versus low-income districts persists, and equitable funding for all schools and students continues to be an elusive goal.
Author John Simmons, president of Strategic Learning Initiatives, a not-for-profit organization that focuses on organizational improvement, throws down the gauntlet in his preface, charging that “Every day large urban school systems in America founder in their missions, fall short of their goals, and lose the opportunity to provide all students with the basic skills they need to avoid a lifetime of poverty-wage job. The leadership of the central office staff needs to determine how to better support the work in all schools, not mandate it.”
That point is echoed by esteemed and renowned educator Deborah Meier, in the book’s foreword: “Changing school districts can release energy—and time–inside each school and classroom. We know that having a strong say in one’s work–for teachers and students—is an effective way to improve our learning curves. We know that doing work that seems important, significant and valued—not only to us individually but also to the larger community—produces higher-quality work.”
Fine—so now what?
Through case studies, interviews, examples and often provocative questions embedded in specific articles, the various contributors offer possibilities. Topics range from school-site decision-making, what superintendents have learned, how to train and recruit better leaders, what works with high school redesigns, and how to improve transitions from nursery and pre-school settings to elementary school, among others.
One contributor, Richard F. Elmore, a professor of education at Harvard University, states that “The disease of the current institutional structure of public education is incoherence.” Few educational professionals would disagree with this assertion, I suspect, and would concur with his remedy that “The treatment for this pathology is a focus on direct accountability of professionals and the schools they work in for the quality of instructional practice and performance for all children and the construction of deliberate strategies of instructional improvement in schools and school systems.”
Or, as W. Patrick Dolan, a consultant, asks, “Why is it so hard to scale-up best practice from one school to most schools? Maybe it’s the nature of schools, somehow, or the folks who choose the profession, who like to work in private.”
There is certainly plenty to ponder and debate. The prose is lucid, and often provocative. The chapters work on their own, as well as part of this extremely well-integrated argument.
Not surprisingly, the ultimate take-away message of this volume urges educators to be sure that both the classroom teachers and central administration share the same vision about what to do in the schools. Sounds simple in theory—clearly the trick is to make it happen on the ground, in the schools.
This is a worthwhile and important book that would be an excellent homework assignment for the upcoming year’s staff development discussions.#