Book Review: American School Reform

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American School Reform: What Works, What Fails, and Why

byJoseph P. McDonald, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill., 2014, 199 pp. with index, $25 softcover


 Review - American School Reform

Joseph P. McDonald and his colleagues at the Cities and Schools Research Group have been at the forefront of evaluating many of the most ambitious school reform efforts of the past two decades. In American School Reform, they share their insights in an easy-to-read case study format. The lessons they’ve learned in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and the Bay Area can be applied universally.


The authors note that successful reform requires political will, professional skill and money. When these elements are assembled, an “action space” is created in which change can occur.

With a clear theory of action and good evaluators, we can learn from both successes and failures. Although all reforms eventually fail, they can plant seeds for the next level of reform.

As for what works, the authors cite three common indicators of success: finding the right scale, developing the right attitudes and attracting partners. Many reforms have failed because there was too little money, spread too thinly. Developing the right attitudes requires building and growing professional skills. Partnerships support momentum and keep new resources coming.

This book tells the story of how school reform works. Rather than quick fixes, district leaders will find lessons that sharpen their theory of action and may make the difference between what works and what fails.

Reviewed by Larry L. Nyland, superintendent, Seattle Public Schools, Seattle, Wash.


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