School & District Management Opinion

Powerful Reforms With Shallow Roots

By Michael D. Usdan & Larry Cuban — February 27, 2002 9 min read
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Dramatic changes in large, long-established urban systems take time, stable leadership, and political will.

For the past year, we have been exploring with several colleagues major governance and leadership changes in six large urban school districts: Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Seattle. We have focused on cities in which either mayors have become much more involved in school reform (for example, by appointing school board members) or nontraditional superintendents have been appointed. Our findings will be published this spring by Teachers College Press.

Several core questions are central to our analysis: Why did business and political leaders in these cities alter the traditional school governance structures? And what can policymakers, business leaders, and informed citizens learn about urban school reform from these specific governance and leadership changes; what do they mean in terms of political support, management, and instructional capacity?

We examine in our book several basic assumptions driving these reforms, including the following:

  • Linking urban school governance to existing political structures (including the business community) will lead to improvements in teaching and learning, as measured by standardized- test scores.

  • Managers drawn from noneducational organizations are better at making urban schools more efficient and effective in raising academic achievement than are the educators who traditionally hold these top school system posts.

  • When noneducators who lead urban school systems are connected openly to the city’s existing political structures (including the business community), chances of improving and sustaining students’ academic achievement increase.

  • Urban superintendents and principals, whether educators or noneducators, have to discharge three primary functions for improvements in academic achievement to occur: managing a system efficiently and effectively, mobilizing and sustaining political support for the reform agenda, and leading practitioners to actually improve students’ academic performance.

The thrust of our analysis, then, is to examine emerging reforms in urban school governance, study their basic, underlying assumptions, and determine what can be learned from them to improve the schooling of one-third of the nation’s children.

Our six case studies capture a range of variations in governance and leadership, from one city where the superintendent serves on the mayor’s Cabinet as one of many department heads (Boston), to another where a retired general was brought in to lead the schools (Seattle). The cases also reflect, in the short term, interim successes and failures.

Despite the significance of contextual factors, which caused governance reform to play out in very different ways in the six cities we analyzed, there are a number of important generic issues that surfaced in each of the communities. The following is a brief summary and our quick assessment of issues we believe will have consequential implications for all urban communities trying to improve both their governance structures and academic achievement.

Focusing on student achievement, building the instructional infrastructure.

Frustration with the slow pace of improving student achievement is the primary force driving the politically powerful business-and- civic-coalition push to radically change urban school delivery systems. This emphasis on improving student outcomes will persist in the immediate future as the dominant factor in determining the shape, as well as the success or failure, of big-city governance-reform strategies.

Although there is not conclusive evidence in these six cities that governance and leadership changes have resulted in substantial gains in student achievement, we believe that in a number of cities these changes have created the political stability that may be an essential precursor to sustained educational improvement. In several communities where education governance has been a volatile issue for decades, the involvement of influential civic and business leaders has provided a welcome political equilibrium that offers hope for sustained improvement.

Managers drawn from noneducational organizations are better at making urban schools more efficient.

  • Accountability. This will continue to be the defining concept on which urban school reform is predicated. The standards movement, with all its pluses and minuses, will maintain its saliency as the major force driving school reform, and the continued emphasis on accountability will increase the influence of state and federal officials as they implement batteries of tests to assess student achievement.

  • Teacher Quality and Staff Development. The sine qua non of efforts to improve student outcomes is the work being done to improve the quality and training of the teaching force. This issue also will persist as a priority in the years ahead.

  • Reconfiguration of Leadership. Efforts to reconfigure the political, managerial, and instructional leadership dimensions of educational leadership at the building and district levels will escalate. Examples of distributive or team leadership and differentiated responsibilities will multiply.

  • Status of High Schools. While there is some evidence of improvements in the earlier grades, many urban high schools remain seemingly impenetrable and immune from efforts to change or improve them. Large high schools will remain a daunting, special challenge to urban school reformers.

Building external civic capacity at the cost of internal influence.

  • Greater Mayoral Involvement. The trend toward greater mayoral involvement and control of urban schools will expand, with the ultimate result of closing the chasm that continues to exist between schools and general-purpose government in most communities. Ultimately, there will be a resurgence of interest in greater collaboration among schools and health, social-services, mental-health, and related agencies.
  • Greater Business Involvement. Likewise, business and civic leaders will continue to be influential in leadership-selection processes and in shaping urban school policy. They also will be increasingly supportive of choice, charters, and other alternatives to public schools, unless the latter improve much more quickly than they have, for example, in Philadelphia.
  • Reduced Influence of School Boards. As mayors and business elites have become more involved in schools, bringing their considerable political clout, the influence of school boards has ebbed. The trend toward mayoral appointment of board members has centralized authority in city hall, but it also has triggered some backlash at the grassroots level, particularly in minority communities, where the loss of the prerogative of electing boards of education is viewed as depriving the community of access to those who set policy for their children’s schools. A growing backlash, bringing a swing back to elected boards, is a distinct possibility.
  • The Centralization, Decentralization, and Recentralization Seesaw. Continuous structural changes and “tinkering” will persist, as the debate continues about the relative advantages and disadvantages of centralization. The evidence from our six cities shows clearly that the search for structural panaceas will continue. All of the cities have experimented with both decentralization and centralization over the past two decades. The need to balance “top down” initiatives with “bottom up” involvement of teachers, principals, and other frontline workers will remain a perplexing and crucial concern.

The roles of other major players.

  • Teachers’ Unions. One of the sources of greatest frustration to advocates of education improvement has been the difficulty of sustaining reform initiatives. Our title acknowledges this reality and the difficulty of “scaling up.” Continuity in implementing change strategies in seemingly intractable, change-immune large school systems remains a challenge.
  • States. The political pressure for increased accountability and improved student achievement will further strengthen the role of the states, and the influence of state authorities will continue to escalate. Urban systems like Baltimore and Philadelphia that are perceived to be failing will continue to be subject to state takeovers.
  • Higher Education. The postsecondary sector has not been a particularly relevant or influential participant in urban governance issues. Unless there is much more responsiveness to urban school realities on the part of higher education, staff-development activities increasingly will fall under the purview of local school systems and new leadership and teacher-development academies that are divorced from traditional postsecondary education.

One of the sources of greatest frustration to advocates of education improvement has been the difficulty of sustaining reform initiatives. Our title acknowledges this reality and the difficulty of “scaling up.” Continuity in implementing change strategies in seemingly intractable, change-immune large school systems remains a challenge.

As our case studies reflect, however, powerful and well-designed educational reforms are being planned or implemented in major urban school systems throughout the country. The emphasis on student achievement and the concomitant standards, assessment, and accountability strategies certainly have enormous potential for reshaping teaching and learning. But dramatic changes in large, long-established urban systems take time, stable leadership, and political will. It is too early to tell whether such conditions are sustainable in the cities we studied.

We found in a number of the cities much promise in relatively recent developments that have given school systems greater political stability. New coalitions of business and political leaders in Boston and Chicago, for example, have provided a buffer and given political cover to superintendents as they push their standards-based reform agendas.

Linking urban school governance to existing political structures will lead to improvements in teaching and learning.

Yet even in these communities, powerful education reforms exist in politically fragile environments. In Boston, for example, reform has been largely the product of a synergistic relationship between a popular mayor and a respected superintendent. The reforms are “shallow” in the sense that they are heavily dependent on the continuity and influence of these two leaders. And as recent developments in both Philadelphia and Memphis, Tenn., demonstrate, reform structures and strategies can be altered and dismantled very quickly.

In San Diego, the reform-minded school administration has gained the support of the community’s business and political leadership, but maintains only a tenuous 3-2 majority on the school board. In other words, a change in just one seat on the elected board could undo an impressive systemwide strategy for improving student achievement. The city’s reforms are made even “shallower” because of the contentious relationship that continues to exist between the superintendent and the teachers’ union leadership.

Indeed, the long-term viability of the reforms we studied may be fatally compromised by what many teachers and administrators perceive to be a dysfunctional top-down approach. Rightly or wrongly, this strategy has alienated many of the frontline practitioners, who feel they have not been adequately involved in determining changes they will be required to implement in the classroom.

Also of concern will be maintaining the commitment of business and civic leaders, who often chafe at the tedious pace of change in the public sector.

For these and other reasons, we remain uncertain of the prospects of institutionalizing such “powerful” reforms. And the aptness of our “shallow roots” metaphor seems—for now at least—clear.

Michael D. Usdan is a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. Larry Cuban is a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. Their book, Powerful Reforms With Shallow Roots: Educational Change in Six Cities, will be published this spring by Teachers College Press.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Powerful Reforms With Shallow Roots


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