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)

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Improvement by Design”

Chapter 2 of Organizing Schools for Improvement

This is a follow up post to yesterday’s introduction & chapter 1. I’ve been enjoying this reading immensely because it quantitatively presents an understanding the support systems of a school and shows interactions between them. Many of the questions that I have had around emergent properties like how innovation affects school culture could be approached with these methods. The primary phenomena investigates is “how to better organize schools to support improvements in student engagement and learning” (p.48).

I find myself drawn to this more descriptive approach to research rather than as an interventionist. I think this is because the questions that I ask are on a large scale, so the idea of creating an intervention to “test” them would take years. It makes me think of the Hertzpring-Russell diagram, a plot of the absolute magnitude and temperature of stars, revealing the “main sequence” of stellar evolution. I wonder if I could make something like that for restructuring of schools… Hmmm.

Chapter 2: A Framework of Essential Supports

In this chapter the thrust is to explore the framework that emerged from the data. It’s worth noting that the criticism of business in the mid 80s was that large bureaucratic organizations were failing because they did not “respond well to local needs, had little capacity to learn, and stifled rather than nurtured innovation” (p.46). Sounds like the Chicago Public Schools, thus the Chicago School Reform Act. With more autonomy for restructuring at the school level, it makes sense to look at the school as the unit of research. This departs from some reform efforts at that time, which focused exclusively on instruction and the role of the principal as instructional leader.

The stated goal of the “theory of school organization and its improvement” (p.44) is to be grounded in practice. The tension between theory and practice is longstanding. (I have seen theory and practice best unified through design, so it will be interesting to see if there are similarities there. Also, it is hard for me to both approach this work as a practitioner and as a researcher, but if that is the goal it will be important to evaluate it from both perspectives.)

Second, the framework is meant to be analytic, in the sense that a practitioner could use it as a tool to guide school improvement. (This resonates with me after what I said above about creating a H-R-like diagram of school characteristics that creates a “main-sequence.”) The framework is based in organizational theory but also informed by contingency theory, given that this is an analytic tool meant to guide school improvement rather than a recipe for how to do the best school improvement.

They get at this with the “baking a cake” analogy to the concept of “essentiality.” You have to have certain ingredients (e.g. flour, sugar, eggs, baking powder, and salt) to make a cake, but the exact ratios are a little flexible. This is like school improvement: without one ingredient, the improvement isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, focusing exclusively on the exact right amount eggs also isn’t going to make it happen if you’ve got no flour. This is why it’s emergent. All ingredients need to be there.

Figures 2.1-4 – these give the four levels of organization.

IMG_2837 IMG_2838 IMG_2839 IMG_2840

(I debated whether to post these because I don’t want to violate copyright, but seeing them next to each other is really helpful. In the book they are separated on different pages and this way you really get the zoom out of each level and a sense of just how complex the system is!)

An interesting component that they notice was missing from their data collection is the managerial dimension of school leadership. The researchers note that this became obvious after 1996 when the focus was on non-improving schools and found that there were schools where just the basic routines were not getting done. Management is a necessary but insufficient condition for improvement.

5 subsystems: School leadership, parent-community-school ties, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, instructional guidance. There are 14 indicators for these subsystems developed to “capture the degree to which the essential supports developed in Chicago elementary schools” (p.71).

Up next, Chapter 3.

Book Review: Sticks and Stones, by Emily Bazelon

Side note: I used Evernote on my phone to take notes while I read. Because I was traveling and rarely reading in the same place, my phone was something always close by. I was able to type in quotes when I wanted or take pictures of paragraphs. I would love to see our students take advantage of this kind of resource gathering or curating.

Our critical friends group decided to read a book together this summer and put together a LONG list, but eventually we settled on Sticks and Stones, by Emily Bazelon. Since our group has teachers from PreK to Seniors, social/emotional dynamics came out as a common topic that applied to everyone.

I’m glad that I personally read it, rather than just listening to a summary or review on the radio. It was valuable to me to read the complicated stories of the three kids because it broke down the media sound bites that I remember. I think Bazelon does an excellent job of making it clear how complicated each tale is.

A few quotes that resonated with me:

  • As I always suspected, Bazelon states earlier on, “The internet and the cell phone don’t cause bullying on their own … and they haven’t created a new breed of bullies.” (10)
  • The FCD folks who come visit once per year have also talked about social norming, so this wasn’t new for me, but a good reminder nonetheless:  “The idea is that students often overestimate how much other kids drink and drive, and when they find out that it’s less prevalent that they think – outlier behavior rather than the norm – they’re less likely to do it themselves….. Bullying, too, isn’t the norm…. when kids understand that concerted cruelty is the exception and not the rule, they respond: bullying drops, and students become more active about reporting it.” (13)
  • “Teenagers, and even young kids, have to have their private spaces. It’s a tricky balance to strike, the line between protecting kids and policing them.” (13) Yes yes yes. And I will probably freak out about it when my son is a teenager too.
  • I LOVE this: Delete day! Students held an event in the computer lab for people to come in and get help deleting unwanted social media tags, photos, posts, etc. and possibly even deleting accounts on websites such as Formspring. (290)
  • “The research showed that news outlets frequently give no useful information about how to prevent bullying, even as they call it “epidemic” – false – and portray it as the biggest problem kids face today – also false.” (297) Can I make myself remember this next time a sensationalist story comes along?
  • From researcher danah boyd: “the kids who live in places where physical roaming is more restricted who tend to socialize the most online.” (306) I’m most fascinated by this from a parenting point of view. Where do I need to live in order to provide space for my child to roam? This is more of a personal link, but I like the resources on Free Range Kids.

I used to be frustrated that schools were asked to “solve” bullying. “We all need to share the load – whereas at the moment, we’re mainly asking schools to shoulder it.” (16) But after reading this, I’ve come to the conclusion that schools are the only communal organization anymore that can reach most kids in a community, so it makes the most sense for schools to take the lead on this. Arguably, the first and foremost goal of schools is to help kids grow into healthy adults. Our mission at Oregon Episcopal School specifically states, “by inspiring intellectual, physical, social, emotional, artistic, and spiritual growth.”

This may be my number one takeaway: the importance of establishing a positive community for the healthy growth of all its members.

Bazelon comes back to this at the end where she states that developing “character and empathy” (305) are the most crucial things we can do as parents and teachers to proactively address bullying, not to mention improve student success (however you want to define success).

Overall, this book has been a positive affirmation of the independent international school where I grew up and the two independent schools where I have taught. These small communities, where each individual is known and cared for, provide the foundation for all other pursuits. I realize now how much I took that for granted in my first years of teaching as I focused almost exclusively on academics.

I appreciate the candor and humanness with which Bazelon approaches this subject, which is quite messy and emotionally loaded. One of my favorite phrases recently has been “the human condition,” when I’ve been faced with messy interpersonal relationships. Maybe it helps me feel like we are all in this together.