06/09/2011 04:46 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2011

School Reform by Making a Headline or by Reading the Book?

School reform -- or at least talking about school reform -- has been the flavor of the month for quite a few months now. However, what we have seen has not been discussion or debate about what constitutes sound reform, but rather debate by headline.

It's been a quick, dirty, and somewhat superficial battle of catch cries. However, what this shout-fest has ignored for quite a while now, is the fact that there is a lot of research and evidence around what allows school reform efforts to succeed and what are some of the key pitfalls to avoid. It has been a false dichotomy of one slogan or one quick fix to a complex issue. These arguments have been manufactured or set up to provide one villain or one antidote to the problem. But, there isn't one villain, and there is rarely one antidote.

If there is one thing that the majority of school reformers agree on, it is that those who form the basis of what is trying to be reformed should be brought along in the process. Failing to do so robs the reform of both its constituents and its rationale.

What we have seen over the past 12 months in a number of districts has been a failure to engage stakeholders and bring constituents along. Whether or not you agree with what former Schools Chancellor Rhee has tried to do in the district -- evidenced via the mayoral election of 2010, which was broadly viewed as a referendum on her school reform efforts -- stakeholders were not empowered and too frequently felt disenfranchised by the process.

Michael Fullan, who has been involved with school and district reform efforts for several decades, outlined the essentials of school reform in Leading in a Culture of Change (2001) as effectively communicating with all stakeholders, embracing resistance as a time to learn or discuss, and building and sustaining relationships inside the school and with community stakeholders.

If this is true, it contradicts what has been occurring across a number of district-wide reform efforts recently. Relationships, and relationship building with stakeholders, he stated, cannot be underestimated. And who are the stakeholders necessary for effective school and districts reform? Teachers, educators, their students and the community.

Linda Lambert, in Leadership Capacity for Lasting School Improvement (2003), echoed Fullan's work, outlining how relationships and the development of synergy amongst the stakeholders allows for sustainable change -- change that outlasts the person at the helm -- to occur.

The attention to stakeholder empowerment comes up again and again across school reform research.

Mike Rose in the April 2010 edition of Educational Leadership called for:

"a different orientation to school reform -- one that embodies a richer understanding of teaching and learning."

Clint Swindal, in Engaged Leadership (2007) stated that successful directional leaders -- those that are able to set a vision for all to target -- are able to provide a path that engages all members of their team, and:

"there is perhaps no better way to build consensus than to have buy-in from employees at all levels."

Julie Kowal and Joe Ableidinger in a recent publication on school turnaround efforts, struck similar points -- that leaders cannot accomplish change alone, but instead must rely on the work of others, and that the most effective leaders use "a consistent combination of motivating and maneuvering tactics" to communicate vision, and success and that discussions with stakeholders must move away from "excuse making and blaming to problem-solving."

What is essential in any school or district reform effort is to make sure that stakeholders are empowered and brought along in the process because without buy-in, the people that constitute what you are trying to change, don't come along for the ride.

What we have seen in places like New York City -- with its revolving mayoral-chosen school chancellors -- Washington D.C., across New Jersey, and even in Los Angeles Unified School District-- with its eagerness to allow public disclosure of teacher evaluations -- have been districts which have alienated, or at least not actively empowered, a key constituent group.

Supporters of what has been tried in these districts and cities will argue that broad scale change is required, that the status quo is broken, and that some of the stakeholders may be the problem.

Whether that is true time will tell, but research suggest that these school reform efforts will likely have short-term change in contrast to long-term sustainable growth.

A far more interesting discussion, which has never taken place, is whether broad scale district reform actually needs a personality that is upfront and confrontational to get the ball rolling. Are there advantages to have someone in charge who consciously rocks the boat? Is a strong personality required to move reform? Where and when does self-assurance in their particular school reform method change from being a positive to a negative? Is raising awareness -- via successful use of the media -- an advantage or a hindrance for the reform process?

This is a more nuanced debate that requires a more thoughtful and objective discussion. Certainly it takes away the shouting and name calling, but you never know we might actually learn something useful in the process.