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

Joseph P. McDonald (2014). American School Reform: What Works, What Fails, and Why. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Revolutionaries tend to have short memories. As a veteran of the education reform movement, Joseph P. McDonald has become skeptical when he hears younger reformers call for radical changes to the American school system. McDonald remembers that the present educational crisis is nothing new: his own work dates all the way back to the late-1980s, and the key issues haven’t changed much since then. A number of radical reforms have been attempted, with mixed results. McDonald feels that the present generation of revolutionaries might approach the problem of school reform a little differently if they knew more about the successes and failures they’re too young to remember.

His book, American School Reform: What Works, What Fails, and Why, is primarily a history of the attempted educational revolutions of the 1990s. It is also a meditation on the nature of organizational change: how does a large, complicated institution, such as a school district, go about reforming the way it does business? McDonald offers case studies from Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City and the Bay Area.

In 1987, US Secretary of Education William Bennett publicly declared the Chicago Public Schools the worst in the nation. Bennett’s negativity spurred the Chicago government into reform. According to McDonald, the Chicago Public Schools were famous for their bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of transparency. Some have even argued that the system’s opacity was deliberate, as it was “effective in warding off decades of civil rights complaints” (p. 30). The first reforms were intended to give local communities a more active role in how schools were run. Each school was to have a Local School Council, consisting primarily of parents and a few teachers, which was responsible for hiring principals and setting much of the school’s budget.

In 1989, Chicago elected a new mayor, Richard M. Daley. Daley was interested in school reform, but he was skeptical of the decentralized decision-making of the Local School Councils. Instead, Daley instituted a movement of dramatic centralization. He stripped the Local School Councils of much of their power and convinced the Illinois legislature to put the Chicago Public Schools under direct mayoral control. Daley wanted the school system to be run like a business. He put his budget director, Paul Vallas, in charge of the schools, calling him a CEO rather than a superintendent.

According to McDonald, Daley succeeded in tapping into the cultural momentum of the previous reform movement, even though his own reforms went in a very different direction. Despite taking power away from local communities, the goal of the reforms—to get rid of the system’s bureaucratic inefficiency—remained the same. Daley thought that a different kind of centralized power, one based on business principles, was the solution.

McDonald points out that the new CEO of the school system, Paul Vallas, “became the first of what would become a string of big-city school leaders across the United States with little or no previous experience as professional educators” (p. 34). The Daley administration was counting on Vallas’s business acumen to be transferrable to the problems of education. Vallas’s approach was to give the top-performing schools the freedom to do what they liked, while most of the system had stricter regulations, and the worst schools were declared failures and put “on probation.”

Vallas’s regime was partly successful. Most observers say he succeeded in making the Chicago Public Schools more efficient and accountable; however, he did not succeed in turning around the city’s worst schools. In McDonald’s account, Vallas struggled with the finer points of education: for example, the system’s standardized test scores showed little improvement because the new curriculum did not match very closely the material covered by the test. Vallas also received criticism for making it harder for struggling students to be promoted to the next grade, a policy which many education researchers consider counterproductive. His relationship was the local teachers’ union was poor, and his management style was considered abrasive. Vallas resigned in 2001 to run for governor, and was replaced by his Deputy Chief of Staff Arne Duncan.

Arne Duncan shared many of Vallas’s reform priorities, but Duncan was also a grassroots activist and a former pro-basketball player, rather than a businessman. Duncan’s tenure as CEO of Chicago’s schools was defined by his policy of closing down the worst schools and replacing them with new schools: usually small, independently-managed charter schools. Duncan frequently faced strong criticism from families and teachers from the schools that had been shut down. These schools were typically in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, and critics argued that the new charter schools were designed with middle-class gentrifiers in mind.

In response, Duncan initiated a new approach in which failing schools would not be shut down, but the whole administration and teaching staff would be replaced. While this tactic was also severely criticized, evaluations found it was sometimes successful. In describing these evaluations, McDonald says that such piecemeal successes were not the revolution that was promised: “These are the kind of findings that researchers call ‘mixed,’ and that reformers who had hoped for the success of particular strategies often find disappointing” (p. 39).

In Chicago, reformers had complete control of the school system for two decades, under a single mayoral regime, and yet their results were mixed at best. McDonald contrasts the Chicago reforms with those in Philadelphia, where reformers were often in conflict with the state government.

In the mid-1990s, Philadelphia school superintendent David Hornbeck had an ambitious plan to turn around the city’s schools. The plan was considered radical at the time, though today its solutions are mainstream. Hornbeck wanted to create a new system of standardized testing to keep schools accountable, decentralize the district’s power structure to give school principals more authority, and use new funding from the state and from private investors to create new programs for students and support services for teachers. Furthermore, Hornbeck wanted to initiate the whole scheme all at once, instead of phasing it in gradually over several years. He hoped that his dramatic vision would galvanize the community for the sake of their children, but it didn’t work.

The new governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, refused to provide any more funding for Philadelphia’s schools. Without state support, private investors were wary. Hornbeck argued that the state’s chronically low levels of support for the city’s schools had racist motivations, but the state refused to budge. In 2000, the school board was facing a financial crisis and opted to cut key programs; Hornbeck promptly resigned.

With Hornbeck gone, the state took control of Philadelphia’s schools. Under the state’s guidance, sixty low-performing schools were put under the control of a for-profit educational organization called Edison Schools. Community and education activists fiercely protested what they saw as a cash-grab at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable schoolchildren. Eventually, the Philadelphia school system settled into a scheme where some low-performing schools were administered by for-profit companies like Edison, others were run by nonprofit groups (such as local universities), and others were run by a special branch of the school department.

According to McDonald, the school assignment process was kept out of the public eye and featured little transparency: parents could not choose where they sent their children, for example. The result was a quasi-experimental set-up: the new, privately-managed schools could be compared to the control group of schools still run by the district.

Four years later, a review of this experiment by the Rand Corporation and Research for Action found that the privately-managed schools were doing no better or worse than comparable schools in the area. In other words, fears of privatized, for-profit education proved unfounded in this case. However, the evaluation found that turnaround schools left under district control were doing even better than the privately-managed schools.

McDonald argues that Philadelphia’s privatization scheme was not as radical as it may have appeared: there were counterbalancing forces like the No Child Left Behind Act which kept the school system centralized. According to Research for Action, “what appeared on the surface to be a radical experiment with privatization ended up looking more like a public-private partnership. . . . The externally managed schools actually became part of the more centralized system in practice” (p. 61). McDonald even says the resulting system “resembled the one Hornbeck had imagined” (p. 61).

However, the new plan did not solve the school system’s budget problems. The privately-managed schools, it turned out, were not any less expensive. Several superintendents resigned when they were unable to solve the persistent budget shortfalls. One of the problems was that a number of schools had been shut down to be replaced by charter schools, leaving the school district in charge of a network of vacant buildings that had to be maintained.

The book’s account of New York City and the Bay Area are less conclusive. In New York, the book describes how the reform-minded mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg and Educational Chancellor Joel Klein radically changed how the city’s schools were organized. In a city as big as New York, the schools had long been organized into semi-autonomous districts. Bloomberg and Klein first reorganized the districts, then got rid of them altogether. Individual schools were left to be largely independent, though they could rely on local “school support organizations” for assistance. However, the book does not say whether this radical decentralization and elimination of bureaucracy led to a more efficient school system or better outcomes for students.

The book’s account of the Bay Area follows a single organization, the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC. This organization was founded in response to the perceived weakness of California’s municipal governments. BASRC wanted to bring together the many small school districts in the San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco areas around a single agenda. Initially, the plan was to designate 86 “leadership schools” to use innovative curriculums and receive extra funding and support, and these schools could then spread their best practices to other schools in the area. However, once again results were mixed. While the leadership schools saw gains in performance, they were unsuccessful in reducing the achievement gap between the best and worst students, which had been their primary goal. Furthermore, the leadership schools didn’t seem to have any influence on neighboring schools: “most never figured out how to ‘lead,’ or lacked sufficient time, resources, or other capacity to do so. Nor were ‘followers’ much in evidence” (p. 76). Critics argue that BASRC’s goals required a long-term investment in the region, yet the organization only had the capacity for short-term programs. The organization still exists today as a statewide educational consulting firm.

In comparing these four case studies of reform, Joseph McDonald drives home the point that changing a large organization like a school district rarely goes according to plan. One recurring theme in these stories is the transience of key actors: superintendents, mayors and governors leave office suddenly, abandoning the programs they had championed. Also, powerful stakeholders commonly advocate diametrically opposed courses of reform, and the result is often a compromise that each side might say is worse than the status-quo. In the end, all those grand efforts can seem to have little impact “on the ground.” In the end, students continue to learn at about the same rates as they did before.

McDonald is not pessimistic about the value of reform, but he’s skeptical of revolutionary projects that promise to create a completely new system overnight, especially when these movements seem to be ignorant of recent history. McDonald has documented the slow and irregular March of progress in the hopes that future reformers will be able to focus on more practical goals.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How do you feel about school reform? What kinds of things do you think should change about schools? What do you think is the best way to achieve these reforms?
  2. In the area where you live, has the school system changed a great deal in recent years? How do you feel about the changes? What goals do you think the reformers had in mind, and do you think they were successful?
  3. What do you think about McDonald’s portrayal of how large organizations change? Do you feel it ought to be easier for people in power to reform a public institution like a school department?


  1. Joseph P. McDonald describes how school reform—or any large organizational change—is typically a long and difficult process that does not go according to plan. His aim is not to show that reform is impossible, but that it requires different methods than reformers commonly expect.
  2. McDonald’s organizing concept in this book is the idea of “action space,” which he defines a specific coalition or movement with the power to change the system. An action space has three parts: its human capital, its political power, and its financial capacity. An action space eventually ends, either in failure or by becoming the status-quo.
  3. McDonald’s primary motivation is for new reformers to be aware of the failures and successes of the earlier generation of reformers, to know what works and avoid repeating their mistakes.

Peter Bass
© 2018 CYS

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