Book Review                                      Online Exclusive


The Allure of Order  

High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled

Quest to Remake American Schooling


by Jal Mehta, Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y., 2013. 396 pp., $29.95 hardcover

Jal Mehta, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls for a course of action that would turn the school reform movement upside down. In The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling he explains why the reform movement that began in the Progressive Era and evolved into No Child Left Behind will never improve student performance.

Mehta traces the history of the reform movement and its key players, illustrating in convincing detail how the forces at play in business, the military, universities and government have contributed to the dysfunctional system in place today. He also shows how each of these players contributed to the development of a top-down, output measuring, efficiency-based policy system that attempts to motivate teachers and students extrinsically.

Citing research that compares American schools with countries that have significantly higher student performance, Mehta identifies four components necessary for school reform: developing a knowledge base, developing human capital (teachers), effective work site organization and an overall performance management system. Our reform movement, he notes, has only the last of these.

The author argues this is the result of teachers’ unions that are focused on job security and benefits with little interest in developing a knowledge base and increasing skill. This separates them from active play in the reform movement. Mehta claims their absence means no one argued for the first two of the four critical components he sees as absolutely necessary for successful school reform.

Mehta provides recommendations for a successful reform movement by turning the current movement’s “pyramid of control” upside down. The key component is a change of culture that empowers and intrinsically motivates teachers. The structure and system above teachers becomes a force that enables growth rather than one that enforces compliance. Mehta argues that teachers must become professionals whereby they have at their disposal the resources to collaborate in the study of their work and to engage in continuous development.

Mehta’s research and commentary leaves the reader struck by the stark reality of the dysfunctional mess that has been created and promoted throughout the history of the school reform movement. The key players’ quest for order continues to dominate the movement, exerting an inverted pyramid of top-down power and control.

He makes it clear that what is in place will never work. He offers a realistic, research-based approach that could move American schooling to a higher level. Implementing his proposals would require change that seems unlikely given the current entrenched reform movement, but they do provide the potential for real reform.

Reviewed by Jim Frenck, associate professor of teacher education, Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, N.Y.


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