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Book Review: Bringing School Reform to Scale

If you haven't yet read Heather Zavadsky's savvy 2009 Harvard Education Press book Bringing School Reform to Scale, it deserves a careful look. Zavadsky, who helped build out the Broad Prize methodology and spent several years elbow-deep in these districts, has penned a volume that offers up lessons from some of today's most admired systems. (Full disclosure: I've conflicts of interest all over the place here, as the book is part of my HEP series and I sit on the advisory board for the Broad Prize.)

Zavadsky argues that, for all the headlines about Race to the Top, those districts which gain traction tend to excel at blocking and tackling. She dings scattershot efforts to break large high schools into smaller communities, adopt performance bonuses for teachers, or push algebra down into earlier grades--if those efforts are not linked to a coherent curriculum, disciplined professional development, or strategies for teacher recruitment and textbook selection. As she says, "These examples demonstrate a hard lesson: piecemeal reform seldom works."

To explain how districts can operate smarter and better, she examines what it took to drive improvement in Aldine, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Garden Grove, California; Long Beach, California; and Norfolk, Virginia. Because Aldine has a highly mobile student population, it works to ensure that the curriculum is aligned vertically (from Pre-K-12) and horizontally (across schools). This means students moving from one Aldine school to another can pick up where they left off in their previous school. Educators carefully monitor assessment data, and leaders conduct structured classroom walkthroughs. The trick is that the administration has managed, Zavadsky reports, to weave all this supervision into a culture of "trust and customer service" rather than one of "gotcha." Doing that, of course, is never as easy as it looks.

Former Boston superintendent Tom Payzant garnered much well-deserved praise during his decade-long tenure. But Zavadsky argues that "the most noteworthy improvements--those having the biggest effect on student achievement--were the reinvention of the district's human resources department, the redefinition of the role of deputy superintendents as campus support, and the marked increase in using data to drive decisions." It was these moves, she says, which "effectively connected the right system pieces."

Garden Grove illustrates the import of focusing on getting past the pleasing rhetoric of "college readiness" and taking real steps to boost learning throughout the curriculum. The superintendent explained, "In Kindergarten you see kids writing two and three sentence paragraphs; we used to think kids should just write a word."

Zavadsky closes with five key takeaways: commit to a clear and consistent curriculum and razor-sharp academic goals; build a skilled staff from top to bottom; align practices to support curriculum implementation; use data to monitor student progress and anticipate needed interventions; and provide structured interventions aligned with the instructional program.

These are easy things to say. What strikes me about Zavadsky's work is how adeptly she puts districts that are walking the walk under the microscope, clarifying what it means to do it and not just talk about it.

[Author's note: this piece is slightly amended from an earlier post this morning. It drops a reference to a recent AEI publication by the same name and instead emphasizes that this material is originally found in the book above. Sorry for any confusion.]

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