Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform

Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Almost everyone agrees that America's urban schools are a mess. But while this agreement has fostered widespread support for aggressive reform, Frederick Hess argues that much of what ails urban education is actually the result of continuous or fragmentary reform. Hess explains that political incentives drive school superintendents to promote reforms--to demonstrate that they are "making a difference." Superintendents have to do this quickly, both because their tenure is usually three years or less and because urban communities are anxious to see educational improvement. However, the nature of urban school districts makes it very difficult to demonstrate concrete short-term improvement. The result is what he terms "policy churn," which distracts teachers and principals from efforts to refine classroom teaching while seldom resulting in successful long-term changes. Hess argues that policymakers have misallocated resources by pursuing the "right" structure or the "best" pedagogy while paying insufficient attention to the more mundane--and more important--questions of how to implement, refine, and sustain a particular approach in their particular district. Hess explains that previous research on high-performing schools suggests that the best schools are characterized by focus and by an ability to develop expertise in specific approaches to teaching and learning. To help educators and policymakers adopt and nurture a focused agenda, he recommends institutional changes that increase the effectiveness of performance outcomes and reduce the incentives to emphasize symbolic reform.
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About the author

Frederick M. Hess is the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He is the coauthor (with Michael J. Petrilli) of No Child Left Behind Primer (Peter Lang, 2006) and editor of Educational Entrepreneurship (Harvard Education Press, 2006).

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Additional Information

Publisher
Jessica Kingsley Publishers
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Published on
Dec 31, 1999
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Pages
228
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ISBN
9780815736356
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Features
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Language
English
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Genres
Education / Educational Policy & Reform / General
Social Science / Sociology / Urban
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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The growth of for-profit providers in the K–16 education sector has generated more than its share of controversy. From the emergence of charter schools to post-secondary options like the University of Phoenix, for-profit providers have been lauded for their capacity to serve historically underserved populations but derided for their pursuit of profit—which, critics argue, is at the expense of the public good.

This important volume takes stock of the debate, neither demonizing nor celebrating the for-profit sector, to understand what it takes for for-profits to promote quality and cost effectiveness at scale. Contributors address how policymakers and other education stakeholders can create an environment where the power of for-profit innovation and investment is leveraged to better serve students. The role that private enterprise can and should play in American education needs to be brought to the forefront of reform discussions. Editors Hess and Horn move beyond heated rhetoric to offer a thoughtful and probing analysis that will enable stakeholders to craft a viable future for public education.

Contributors: John Bailey, Tamara Butler Battaglino, Stacey Childress, KC Deane, Whitney Downs, Todd Grindal, Andrew P. Kelly, Mickey Muldoon, Matthew Riggan, Chris Whittle, Ben Wildavsky

“The public and private sectors often interact in an uneasy and unstable dance of cooperation, but education has come later to the dance hall than other areas of public policy.  There is much we still need to learn, and this broad and diverse collection provides an excellent place to start.” 
—Jeff Henig, Chair, Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis, Teachers College, Columbia University

“No subject in education reform is more polarizing than the role of for-profit enterprises. But as Hess and Horn demonstrate in this volume of remarkably objective analyses, both the for's and the anti's have the issue all wrong. Business has important roles to play, but specifying them takes the kind of nuanced thinking that ideologues hate. Policymakers would do well to read this engaging volume and tune out the noise that has obscured serious debate.” 
—John Chubb, Interim CEO, Education Sector

What if it's the system that's the problem? What if the key to breakthrough school improvement is not mandating new solutions built on an elusive combination of the right standards, pedagogy, and assessments but removing entrenched bureaucratic barriers and rethinking restrictive norms and routines? What if we were free to start from scratch? This is the greenfield reform strategy: Create an environment that invites new solutions to surface and provide the infrastructure necessary for them to succeed.

In Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling, Frederick M. Hess advocates for an entrepreneurial approach focused on supporting outstanding teaching and learning. Sharing the examples of organizations whose bold alternative strategies represent promising shifts in K-12 education, Hess builds a case for


* School systems marked by data on performance and productivity and compelled to compete on cost and quality.
* Personnel policies designed to attract, retain, and reward teachers and leaders committed to excellence.
* Education funding configured to support new ventures and foster creative problem solving.

The goal, Hess argues, ought not to be the creation of a new "best" system but schools capable of evolving with the students and society they serve. Education Unbound is a catalyst for conversation and change and a must-read for practitioners, policymakers, would-be education entrepreneurs, and anyone committed to school excellence and the next steps in education reform.

For more than a decade, school choice has been a flashpoint in debates about our nation's schooling. Perhaps the most commonly advanced argument for school choice is the notion that markets will force public schools to improve, particularly in those urban areas where improvement has proved so elusive. However, the question of how public schools respond to market conditions has received surprisingly little attention. Revolution at the Margins examines the impact of school vouchers and charter schooling on three urban school districts, explores the causes of the behavior observed, and explains how the structure of competition is likely to shape the way it affects the future of public education. The book draws on research conducted in three school districts at the center of the school choice debate during the 1990s: Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio; and Edgewood, Texas. Case studies examine each of these three districts from the inception of their local school choice program through the conclusion of the 1999 school year. The three school districts studied did not respond to competition by emphasizing productivity or efficiency. Instead, under pressure to provide some evidence of response, administrators tended to expand public relations efforts and to chip holes in the rules, regulations, and procedures that regulate public sector organizations. Inefficient practices were not rooted out, but some rules and procedures that protect employees and vocal constituencies were relaxed. Public school systems are driven by political logic, according to Hess, and their incentives lead them to respond generally through symbolic and metaphorical gestures. Choice-induced changes in public school systems will be shaped by public governance, the market context in which they operate, and their organizational characteristics. Revolution at the Margins encourages scholars and policymakers to think more carefully about the costs and benefits of educational competition, to understand how competitive effects will be heavily shaped by the outcomes of more conventional efforts to reform schooling, and to reevaluate some of the facile promises of market-based education reform.
Almost everyone agrees that America's urban schools are a mess. But while this agreement has fostered widespread support for aggressive reform, Frederick Hess argues that much of what ails urban education is actually the result of continuous or fragmentary reform. Hess explains that political incentives drive school superintendents to promote reforms--to demonstrate that they are "making a difference." Superintendents have to do this quickly, both because their tenure is usually three years or less and because urban communities are anxious to see educational improvement. However, the nature of urban school districts makes it very difficult to demonstrate concrete short-term improvement. The result is what he terms "policy churn," which distracts teachers and principals from efforts to refine classroom teaching while seldom resulting in successful long-term changes. Hess argues that policymakers have misallocated resources by pursuing the "right" structure or the "best" pedagogy while paying insufficient attention to the more mundane--and more important--questions of how to implement, refine, and sustain a particular approach in their particular district. Hess explains that previous research on high-performing schools suggests that the best schools are characterized by focus and by an ability to develop expertise in specific approaches to teaching and learning. To help educators and policymakers adopt and nurture a focused agenda, he recommends institutional changes that increase the effectiveness of performance outcomes and reduce the incentives to emphasize symbolic reform.
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