What passes for school reform in America’s cities is actually little more than symbolic tinkering at the margins of the status quo by insiders like teachers’ unions, superintendents and others, if we are to believe the authors of this book. And their six case studies of school systems in urban centers—Boston, Memphis, New York City, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Seattle—provide plenty of convincing evidence to support their claim.
It Takes a City, a sequel to Paul Hill’s (and Mary Beth Celio’s) Fixing Urban Schools, is a practical guide for mayors, civic leaders, foundation heads, individual donors, and school board members on how to overcome the wishful thinking that surrounds urban school reform.
Fixing Urban Schools showed how seven reform options—retraining of teachers, raising standards, decentralizing decision making to individual schools, using new school designs to create or redesign schools, chartering, contracting out, and vouchers—cannot by themselves greatly advance or sustain an urban education reform agenda. It Takes a City is a clear and masterful argument that what our urban schools really need is a judicious but strong combination of these strategies anchored in three interdependent elements:
Performance incentives for schools: Those who work in schools must be required to produce positive learning results and must be rewarded for doing so. Conversely, no family should be forced to send a child to a school where little or no learning occurs.
Building capacity: The knowledge and skills of those working in schools or those starting new schools must be developed so that they understand how to create schools where genuine learning occurs.
School freedom of action: Those who work in schools must have the operational, educational, and fiscal autonomy in their school to do what’s needed for students to become proficient learners.
The first three chapters of It Takes a City draw lessons from the political and managerial failures of today’s urban education reform strategies, focusing especially on the six case study sites. The final four chapters provide ideas about how community leaders, especially non-educators, can create and sustain a long-term strategy to fix urban schools.
For donors, the question is what is the most likely way to get an urban school system to change and improve the way it does a business? Hill and his colleagues describe one response to this question as “insiders’ baseball.” This viewpoint enjoys the support of powerful constituencies in the education community, including teachers’ unions and state and local education agencies. Their primary strategies for changing the system include higher standards, professional development, new school designs, and decentralization.
A second theory of action—exemplified by support for charter schools, contracting out, and vouchers—is more often than not advanced by those outside the education system. This “outsiders’ pressure” approach arises from the frustration that these advocates feel with the poor results that many urban school systems routinely report, usually based on reform efforts led by those inside the system.
So for a potential donor, the choice is clear, work inside the existing system or exert an outsider’s pressure.
Another problem donors face is determining how best to ensure long-term program effectiveness. The authors believe the best chance for truly reforming the schools may lie in new institutions outside the traditional public school system.
Among these could be a civic reform oversight group, an independent watchdog organization composed primarily of education consumers that could foster an environment for reform while providing educators with cover for making tough decisions. Another idea posited by the authors would be to set up a professional organization to coordinate school inspections and publish performance information about educators.
The authors also endorse a “new school incubator,” an organization that would recruit community leaders onto a team for creating an area’s new school, or designing its existing one.
And they imagine a real estate trust that would manage, buy, and sell conventional school buildings while at the same time overseeing ways in which a community’s cultural assets might be leveraged as extended “schools” for educating young people.
This book presents a provocative and attractive vision of how to change the way we educate our young people, with a new focus on performance and the educational consumer. It offers donors interested in improving schools several new and exciting ideas about how we can get serious about urban school reform.
Bruno V. Manno is senior program associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a contributing editor to Philanthropy, and co-author of Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education.