Book Notes & Thoughts: Improvement by Design

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It’s been awhile… I think every blogger goes through a spell when it’s really hard to write. In January, I set out a writing plan for the spring, which involved blogging a book per week. Easy, right? I made it through the first month, but the blogging never happened. And now I’m in a total writing block, unable to tap out the literature review that is past due! So, my goal is to get back in the saddle, as they say, and use this for what it’s always been good for: making me write, organize my thoughts, and document my work. I’ve pulled down all the books off my shelf from the library that I’ve read (okay, skimmed) over the past few years. In the next few days, they are going to get reviewed and returned. Forward progress and decluttering!

The first book is Improvement By Design: The Promise of Better Schools, by Cohen, Peurach, Glazer, Gates, and Goldin (2014). I’m all about improvement these days, heading to present a poster at the Carnegie Summit in a week, and I also am increasingly sold on the idea of education as the design for learning, which I wrote about LOOOONG ago, in the days before I did this reading and thinking for a living. So naturally, when I saw the title, I was intrigued.

I’m really curious right now about how people are using words around educational reform right now. The contents of the book talk about improvement, implementation, suitability, and building systems. Interestingly they do NOT say innovation, which is what I usually put alongside improvement. Here are MY definitions of a few terms:

  • Improvement – making the system better
  • Systemic Improvement – using a systems approach to make the system work better
  • Innovation – creative application of a new-to-you idea
  • Infrastructuring – the process of creating the connections, relationships, individual knowledge, and agency for change (based loosely on definitions from Penuel, 2015, and DiSalvo & DiSalvo, 2015)

But back to the book. The book examples three examples of Comprehensive School Reform (CSR), which is where they take an entire school model, externally developed, and attempt to replicate it on top of an already existing school. They look at America’s Choice, the Accelerated Schools Project, and Success for All. These were models developed in the 1980s and 90s. “Each sought to effect simultaneous, coordinated change in the day-to-day practices of students, teachers, and school leaders through simultaneous, coordinated change in the roles of those who worked in schools, in the structures and culture in which they worked, and in the technologies of schooling” (p.1). Wow.

CSR is a huge undertaking, and there are a lot of hoops to get through to get selected into being the school, but it is the opposite of the start small, learn fast design approach that I have mostly read about. This continuum, from starting small to comprehensive, is interesting to think about. In the replication or replacement model, people don’t get to design the system, and therefore lack the knowledge they would have gained in the process, the relationships and trust with the people as it was built, the connections to other people, and the sense of agency and investment. In other words, I think that CSR attempts to impose a technical infrastructure but does not account the social infrastructure already present.

The scale of this was impressive as well: “At their peak of operations, each intervener reported supported a state-size system of elementary schools” (p.2). All models were aimed at “improving education for disadvantaged children” (p.2). (I increasingly dislike the term “disadvantaged”. Too individualized and deficit-based. I guess maybe under-served would be better? Under-served at least indicates the fact that it was a system that did not provide them the advantages everyone else got.)

There was significant policy and financial support for these programs at the time, though only Success For All continues to get grants, I believe. The authors talk about the work as “qualified success.” I do think it provides an important less about school reform. Balancing scale between micro and comprehensive, balancing what works somewhere vs. what doesn’t work here, the unit of analysis as the school or student, pace of school change vs. policy cycles (because CSR was so big, they were more vulnerable to big shifts in policy priorities).

Reading this book was also helpful as a model for what I might do with my 3 case study dissertation. Their analysis was organized into 4 parts:

  • design – constructing plans
  • implementation – what happens when things start, including what doesn’t work
  • improvement – how the model responds to what doesn’t work
  • sustainability – how to address what is not working and keep the viability of the model

“Most earlier school improvement schemes centered on organizational change with no instructional content, like decentralization or mayoral control, or on efforts to change a single element of instruction, usually curriculum, thus dealing with a single part of instruction in isolation from the other parts on which it depended for effective use” (p.169). The more success these programs had, the more schools they had to enroll, meaning they had schools that did not ask to be part of the program, which undercut their success.

This book really made me consider some of my assumptions about change in education. I firmly believe that change must be done WITH, not TO or FOR. But that is also easy to say when I am not the one doing the change. I believe that teachers need to be involved – they are the boundary. They need to have voice and participate. I believe that context matters, but not as an element to be minimized, but as feedback for redesign – it is a feature, not a bug. And I believe that design needs to be both a noun and a verb. Those most close to the change need to design with each other to create the change. This is how the social infrastructure, aka culture, gets built.

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