It Takes A City: Getting Serious about Urban School Reform


Paul T. Hill, Christine Campbell, James Harvey


The fundamental premise of this book is that, although none of the currently popular approaches to school reform has worked, the authors have analyzed those approaches and discovered what would be necessary for an effective strategy.  On this basis, they purport to answer the question,  “How can mayors and other leaders construct reform strategies that promise to be powerful enough and last long enough to make a difference?”

The authors identify seven policy approaches to improving urban school systems:


1.     Standards

2.     Teacher Development

3.     New School Designs

4.     Decentralization & Site-based Management

5.     Charter Schools

6.     School Contracting

7.     Vouchers


They argue that none is effective alone, that they are stronger in combination, but that even in combination they are not sufficient.  They further argue that any approach to systemic improvement of an urban school system must have three essentials:

1.     Incentives for school performance

2.     Ways of increasing school capabilities

3.     Opportunities for school staff to change how they serve students

The question at the heart of this volume is, “How can mayors and other leaders construct reform strategies that promise to be powerful enough and last long enough to make a difference?”  p. 27  To help answer that question, the authors describe “significant, well-regarded, nationally applauded reform efforts” (according to “nominations from knowledgeable researchers and educators”) in six major cities, plus the findings from simulation exercises they conducted in three communities. 

Note that this is a PR driven research strategy.  It is also a "trust the experts" approach.  It is not a results-driven approach.  It is, in other words, exactly the same approach we've been taking for decades.  The only difference is the experts involved.   Not one of the examples is a situation where a strategy or set of strategies has been implemented and proven to work.  Not one of these cities was selected because of superior results with students.  The assumption is that the researchers are smart enough to closely analyze the beginnings of an effort and determine what is and isn't working, then make policy recommendations.  The track record of this "let's analyze something that has not yet played itself out and make recommendations" approach isn't very good.  

Boston:  Thomas Payzant, Supt. -- standards, site councils, Whole School Change (Annenberg grant)

Memphis:   Gerry House, Supt. – New American Schools Development Corporation, increased spending on professional development, 14.5% gain in test scores for schools using designs (1997-1998) compared to other schools, but “teachers and school office staff are skeptical that any educational improvement can benefit Memphis’s (sic) poorest children” and “many teachers and principals are exhausted by all the extra work imposed by the citywide reform initiative and feel underappreciated.”

New York City District 2:  Anthony Alvarado, Supt. --  [Note the “cult of the superintendent" aspect of each of these descriptions.]  Focused on professional development and becoming “an adult learning system”, but also emphasized hiring good principals who could use the New York system’s bureaucracy to move poor performing teachers into other New York districts.  For specific criticisms of the way CD2's results have been "pushed,"  see "Research or Cheerleading?  Scholarship on Community School District 2, New York City" by Lois Weiner, and the response by Laura Resnick, "Reforms, Research and Variability: A Reply to Lois Weiner."

San Antonio:  Diana Lam, Supt. – Organization reform made money available for school-based “instructional guides”, required adoption of New American Schools design, and changed curriculum to focus on acquisition of basic skills  Used reconstitution successfully with one faltering high school, but ran into trouble when she tried to apply it to the district’s “flagship” high school.

San Franciscio: Waldemar Rojas, Supt – Extensive use of reconstitution as a tool to achieve reform and improvement.

Seattle:  John Stanford, Joseph Olschefske, Supts. – The authors list  CEO-leadership from principals, choice for parents, building-level control of resources, per-student weighted allocation of resources to schools, standards, district-developed tests, including exit exams and a C average requirement in high school as keys.  Many of these are credited to Stanford.  However, during a visit to Seattle in March, 2001, I learned that many of the key changes (choice, weighted funding) where the ideas and policy initiatives of a Board member, Don Nielsen.  Many of the other elements cited by the authors (exit exams, for example) did not survive even initial implementation attempts.

Implementation Problems

After describing these reform efforts, the authors outline implementation problems in each system, including:

·       Loss of Superintendent

·       Weakening of Board Support

·       Teacher resistance

·       Failure to sustain funding

·       Temporizing (delays, half-measures, strategy creep)

In Seattle, they claim that per-pupil funding was shelved “to protect central office control of more than half the budget and to protect schools whose teachers were all at the top of the district’s pay scale.”  p.42. (Click here for my concerns, which I pursued on the Nashville school board, about the equitable distribution of highly effective teachers.

From Wishful Thinking to Reform

The authors then return to their argument for three essentials:

·       Incentives

o     Open choice

o     Competition

o     Opportunities for high-performing teachers and principals

o     Individually negotiated teacher contracts

·       Investments

o     Money set-aside for each school to increase its capacity for teaching and learning (professional development)

o     New, independent institutions (e.g., Chicago research foundation)

o     “venture capital” for new assistance organizations

o     “incubator” for new schools

·       Independence

o     Performance agreements

o     Money under school’s control

o     Ability to spend savings

o     Control over organization and staffing

o     Control over hiring and salaries

They suggest three possible combinations of theses strategies:   CEO-Strong Schools, Diverse Providers, and Community Partnerships.  However, the note the difficulty of getting from here to there in most districts, given current state laws, union contracts, etc.  “Except in states that allow districts to become all charter and let charter school leaders control real-dollar budgets and staffing decisions, none of these strategies is possible under current laws and regulations.”  p. 72.          

Additional resource:  National Commission on Governing America’s Schools, “Governing America’s Schools:  Changing the Rules”.

The authors suggest the possibility of a “Community Board” to control all money for schools, plus for social services for children, plus private contributions.  That’s a tremendous amount of money and power to concentrate in one group.  Where are the checks and balances?  Where is the evidence that such a concentrated power structure has worked?

p. 84:  No city “knows how to run a parent choice system that cannot be manipulated by aggressive families or does not exacerbate class and race segregation.”  Note that this assumes that high-quality teaching and learning and excellent educational outcomes cannot be obtained in racially or financially segregated schools.  However, schools that are achieving these goals do exist.  Whether we can have a number of high-achieving majority-minority or majority-poor schools in a district is another question.  But, there are very experienced educators who believe and have demonstrated that such schools may actually be the best way to get the best educational outcomes for minority or poor students.

The book ends with suggestions for new institutions, but little in the way of analysis as to the conditions that might actually allow for the creations of such institutions.  There seems to be a suggestion, not clearly spelled out, that threatened state takeover of a badly failing system might serve as the impetus for creation of some of the institutions suggested by the authors. 

Two quotes from the end of the book seem worth recording:

p.111  “Superintendents who have ascended through the ranks know they must prove themselves fast by ‘bold and unprecedented changes.’  School boards typically reinforce this by avoiding the hard work of hammering out agreement on priorities before advertising.  A search for a talented individual on whom to place hopes – preferably one who compensates for weaknesses of predecessors – is more interesting and less upsetting than working through agreements with fellow board members.”

As a former Board member who participated in the beginning of one search, then watched it “morph” into a search for an “answer person” (despite that being explicitly rejected at the beginning), this paragraph strikes me as very true.

p. 122 “Except in Tennessee, no urban district is able to link annual changes in students’ academic growth to placement in a particular school or classroom.”  True.  Linking to schools isn’t important, but linking to teachers is.  And, in general, no Tennessee system has done anything meaningful or powerful with that data.

Future research topic suggested by this book:  Urban School Reform @ Brookings, especially work on system databases and community-based analytic capacities.  Also, any implementation of site visits in Boston.