Book Notes & Thoughts: An Elusive Science, by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann


Every time I go to a conference, I try to bring a book to read, usually one that has been sitting on my shelf waiting for me. The book fills those little in-between moments of travel waiting in line or on the plane, downtime after sessions finish, or in the quiet time before bed when there are no children to be tucked in. This time it was An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research, by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, former Harvard GSE dean and current research professor at Bard College. This was a nice follow up to reading and blogging about Reese’s history of K-12 schools, as that provided the context for Lagemann’s history of what was happening in research. As I become a member of this research community, this book gave me the historical perspective of my field.

My advisor, Rich Halverson, and Erica Halverson quote Lagemann in their chapter in the Sage Handbook, Education as Design for Learning, A Model for Integrating Education Inquiry Across Research Traditions. This was one of the foundation articles in how I think about education research. They draw on Lagemann to understand the foundations of educational research. As I try to formulate my own schema for situating design, improvement & innovation, and educational research & development, I wanted to understand the history of the field.

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Book Notes & Thoughts: America’s Public Schools, by William Reese


America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind,” by William J. Reese, 2011.

I subscribe to Larry Cuban’s blog, which means I get an email every few days with his historian perspective on new initiatives like Personalized Learning or Coding for All. As I work on my research to understand how change does (or does not) happen in education, I felt like some historical context might provide perspective on the conversations I am having today.

William Reese is a professor here at UW-Madison in Education Policy Studies and History, though I’ve not had the opportunity to take a class with him. I had previously read Pillars of the Republic, by Karl Kaestle and Shopping Mall High School, by Powell Farrar and Cohen, but I was particularly interested in this book about the more recent times of NCLB. Nonetheless, I learned much about the progressive era, Dewey, curriculum, urban vs. rural schools, and the wrestling of a common goal for public schools. One of the key trends that was new to me was the consistent assumption that held up urban schools as the ideal and rural schools as backwards. This is written as the dominant narrative of public schools, with some attention paid to integration orders after Brown v. Board and the different experiences of non-white and poor students in schools.

p. 13-14. “School-houses and churches are the true symbols of New England civilization, as temples, pyramids and mausoleums were the symbols of ancient civilizations,’ declared a college professor at mid[19th-]century…. Schools, he said, were not like clocks, once wound ticking of their own accord; someone needed to operate and guide them. Moreover, ‘no reform is carried in the State or the world without a reformer. Improvements originate with original minds, and are usually presented to the people by interested advocates.”

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Book Notes & Thoughts: Organization Theory

org theory

Over the last few days, I read a textbook. And if I’m honest, I loved it. Graduate school continues to feel like a privilege and a luxury, to learn about ideas that I find interesting, do engaging and meaningful work with teachers and other researchers, and try my best to write in a way that captures my thinking.

I remember a high school English teacher telling me that the easiest (and therefore worst) way to write a summary is to do so chronologically: “And then, and then, and then.” It’s the easiest to write, because it’s also the easiest way to understand. This is what I needed to wrap my head around organization theory, which I want to use for the conceptual framework for my dissertation.

This book, Organization Theory, by Mary Jo Hatch, gave me an entry point into the scope of study, both chronologically (from classical, modern, symbolic/interpretive, to post-modern) and topically (core concepts, decision making, power, politics, change, and learning). Not only did this give me an entry point into this field, but it also allowed me to see where my interests are. What does thinking about schools through the lens allow me to see, understand, and say? And of course, how do I limit my view by seeing it through these theories?

Classical period, 1900 onward; Modern, 1950s onward; Symbolic/Interpretive, 1980s onward; Post-Modern, 1990s onward. Theory = a system of ideas; Social theory = a perspective on reality. Continue reading

Book Notes & Thoughts: Going to Scale with New School Designs: Reinventing high school


As part of our personalized learning in practice study, we visited, studied, and worked with a number of small district charter schools across Wisconsin. We talked a lot about High Tech High and Big Picture Schools. When I found this book (again, perusing the education stacks), it was in the area that I am thinking about: scale, design, and new models for learning. Reading it gave me a window into how to do education research at an organizational level.

Going to Scale with New School Designs: Reinventing High School, by McDonald, Klein, Riordan (2009).

The late 1990s was a time when the small school movement was rising, and there was interest and support for restructuring. This was the time of charters and vouchers, with the idea of choices and new designs. Similar to the Improvement by Design, this book is largely a story of the challenges of replication. In fact, they are an interesting (though unintended) juxtaposition. Whereas the goal of CSR was to replicate large traditional schools, the goal of “going to scale” with Big Picture was to replicate small, instructionally innovative schools. But their questions for inquiry are quite similar: how to install and support their design across contexts?, what challenges might be expected? how to manage these? what are the roles of the designer and client?

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Book Notes & Thoughts: Change Leader, by Fullan


Next up on the read it and return it list is Change Leader: Learning to Do What Matters Most, by Michael Fullan (2011). This book was cited in something I read and I happened to be wandering the education stacks (yes, some people still do this) and I picked it up. I was curious about the first chapter: Practice Drives Theory: Doing is the crucible of change. Definitely in my court.

“All the best concepts to be deeply experientially grounded.” (p. xi) This book comes after Fullan worked on whole-system reform, engaging with practitioners and policymakers to change large, complex education systems. “The most effective leaders use practice as their fertile learning ground. They never go from theory to practice or research evidence to application. They do it the other way around: they try to figure out what’s working, what could be working better, and then look into how research and theory might help.” (p.xii)

  • “Doing is the crucible of change” (p.3)
  • “Effective change leaders … walk into the future through examining their own and others’ best practices, looking for insights they had hitherto not noticed” (p.11)
  • adaptive challenge (require new discoveries and behavioral change) vs. technical problems (we know the answer, solution just needs to be applied) (p.17-18)
  • “balance between capacity building and accountability interventions” (p.19)

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Book Notes & Thoughts: Improvement by Design


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)

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Book Notes & Thoughts: How Organizations Develop Activists, by Hahrie Han


The author of this book, Hahrie Han, is a political scientist who gave a riveting, heartfelt, and compelling keynote address at last year’s Carnegie Summit (which I wrote about here). I finally got around to opening the book, which I had out from the library since last spring, in order to get more details.

Over the course of two years, she investigated two civic associations. One thing I liked best about her methods was that she spent a year learning about them and drawing on quantitative data and ethnographic fieldnotes, then returned the next year with small trials to see if her theories played out.

Her goal was to find out why some chapters had high-engagement from their members and others didn’t. She goes to great lengths (which I won’t here) to articulate what she means by high-engagement and how she paired the comparisons.

Ultimately, she describes three different “models of engagement”: lone wolves, mobilizers, and organizers. L0w-engagement sites combined lone wolves and mobilizers, whereas high-engagement combined mobilizers and organizers. Lone wolves are just what they are called: they have individuals who are “star volunteers,” who work alone, power themselves, and do great things, alone. Their focus is on the issue, not the organization. Mobilizers get more people involved. They capitalize on the interest people already have on an issue and get them to show up. For example, this might mean really long email lists that go out with information, which may or may not pay off in terms of people taking action. Finally, organizers focus on developing leadership and capacity. They invest in volunteers by giving them opportunities and support for leadership.

Particularly relevant in the context of civic organizations, a healthy democracy requires that people have a voice. Having the opportunity and knowing how is part of this. How organizations get people to come out and vote, protest, and lead is critical. “By bringing people together for collective activity, associations teach people the basic skills of democratic citizenship while advocating for their members’ interests in the public arena … Through the ways in which they reach and engage people, these associations can become engines of activism that propel people to higher levels of involvement” (p.28).

Reflections: While this book is outside of my field, it was instructive in terms of the methods and formulation of an argument. I’m not sure whether some of these concepts (lone wolves, mobilizers, organizers) will apply directly to my research, but that is why I write about them here, in commonplace book in the commons.

Book Notes & Thoughts: Despite the Best of Intentions, by Lewis & Diamond

best of intentions

The fall semester kicks off tomorrow so I’ve been trying to get a jump on reading. One of my classes is called Race, Class, and Educational Inequality, with Professor John Diamond. He and Amanda Lewis recently (2015) published this book, Despite the Best of Intentions.

Goal of the book: Examine the school based factors of the “racial achievement gap” as it is enacted in practice at a well-resourced, affluent high school that explicitly states diversity as one of their values but still feels like two different schools.

Thesis: “Through a combination of the structural, institutional, and ideological forces and despite the best of intentions of most of those who work in, attend, and participate in the school, racial stratification gets reproduced in places like Riverview” (p.15).

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Book Notes & Thoughts: How Scholars Trumped Teachers, by Larry Cuban

phd082508sThis summer I had a long reading list… but my writing list had better deadlines. Inadvertently, I did manage to read this book, How Scholars Trumped Teachers, by Larry Cuban.

Larry Cuban is a Professor Emeritus of Education from Stanford University and very well known for his book (along with David Tyack) called Tinkering toward Utopia on school reform (or lack thereof). I found out that he had been posting on his blog about Personalized Learning, which we’ve also been studying. So I looked up his books and found this one and requested it from the library. But instead of sitting on my desk with all the other books from the library, I started reading it, even when I didn’t really have the time. (Sometimes I call this “productive procrastination.”)

In his book, he examines two questions:

  1. “Over the last century, how have university structures and processes, including curricular reform, influenced the academic work of research and teaching?”
  2. “Why has scholarship trumped teaching in universities?” (p.2)

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Book Notes & Thoughts: The New Institutionalism in Education (2006), Edited by Heinz-Dieter Meyer and Brian Rowan

new institutionalism

Eight chapters into the book and I returned to the beginning to remind myself of the definition of “New Institutionalism.” Amazing how we can get lost in jargon and think we’re understanding what we read. Seriously though, the jargon in this field is terrific! Pages go by when I realize I don’t know what is being said. I know all the words, but not what they actually mean together. As always, this is why I blog, so that I have a chance to put my thoughts into words. It is this act that makes me clarify my thinking.

New institutionalism was a shift in how institutions were studied. Up until the 1970s, there was a focus on the goal of the institution and how it was structured. The people in it were considered rational actors. But researchers at Stanford began to notice that, in fact, institutions were “loosely coupled” (Weick), meaning that what was intended was not actually done. This has often been cited as the reason reforms don’t make an impact. I think of this like trying to move a mattress: you start to lift at one end but the other end is wobbling on its own accord. When we then look at schools today, they are actually quite tightly coupled between standards and assessments, though perhaps not in all realms. Spillane and Burch (chapter 6) write about make “instruction” less monolithic and breaking it down by subject, because math instruction might be tightly coupled with assessments, but social studies might not.

Stanford organization theory researchers proposed that actions taken followed myths and ceremonies, rather than rationality. For example, it might be in a teacher’s best interest to change how they teach because it would raise test scores, but they would reject it because it is not consistent with the mission of the school and would not be considered legitimate schooling by the public. I think of this in the case of Rocketship schools, where kids sit in cubicles staring at screens (or at least this is how it is described). This may improve test scores, but it is not seen widely as a legitimate form of education for all. Importantly, this is neither good nor bad. These practices are complex & contradictory, as Meyer and Rowan say in the introduction (p.11).

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