The Formula for Successful School Reform: One part Legislative Humility Mixed with Three Parts Hard Work at the Grass Roots

Remaking America's Schools for the Twenty-First Century
Harold Kwalwasser
February 7, 2013

by Harold Kwalwasser, the former General Counsel of the Los Angeles Unified School District. He currently writes and consults on education policy from Washington, DC.

I wrote my new book on education reform, Renewal, Remaking America’s Schools for the 21st Century, to address two concerns. One was that the legislative solutions being proposed when I decided to write the book (back in 2009), many of which have now been adopted, are not likely to bring about the reforms intended. 

The second concern was that parents and community leaders needed to be encouraged to get more involved in school and school district governance. But encouraging them without giving them a handbook about what to do is a waste – or worse. It may create activists, but of the “bull-in-the-china-shop” variety, who are likely to do as much harm as good.

The research for the book centered on my visits to forty high performing and transforming school districts, charters, private and parochial schools. After almost two hundred interviews with administrators, teachers, school board members, and others, the case for heightened parental and community involvement is clear and compelling. These people’s stories also re-affirmed my belief that legislative fixes from Washington or some state capital, no matter how well crafted, are likely to have only a limited impact in building the kind of schools we want to see.


American schools are in a period of transformation. For most of the 20th Century, they used a “mass production” model. It was one teacher, teaching from one textbook, one way, in one classroom, with the details of curriculum and instructional practice dictated from the central office. The inflexibility of the model guaranteed it would not work for many kids, but so long as there were factory jobs and other semi-skilled avenues to the middle class, few cared about the shoddy results.

However, once it became clear that every child needed to have a much better education in order to compete in the globalized, high-tech 21st Century, that mass production model clearly would not do. The realization alone, however, did not guarantee success. Achieving the transformation of such an entrenched way of doing business is hard. There are no silver bullets, no one shot fixes. There has to be thoroughgoing systemic change.

The good news is that some places in America have done it. I saw it in many of the districts I visited, and reported the results in Renewal. We do know how to educate all of our children, but, as I also reported, we have real trouble getting educators – not the kids – to sign up. They are used to the old ways and loath to change, and the system that has grown up around the mass production model has been painfully slow to adapt.

So here is where my two concerns intersect. Virtually all of the legislative fixes deal with only a small piece of the puzzle (and that does not even address the question of whether the fixes are smart enough even to accomplish their limited goals). For example, invoking test scores in teacher evaluations, one of the big pushes from both conservative state lawmakers and the Obama Administration, does not make sense standing alone. It only will have value if the school culture values high-quality instruction, and if the district provides real, effective professional development to help teachers found wanting. Without all of those other systemic changes, merely changing the evaluation formula is not likely to get us anywhere. (At the end of the book, I have an appendix that itemizes all the key changes that have to be undertaken to make the transition to 21st Century education.)

But changing culture cannot be dictated from afar. Nor can wholesale changes to a wide range of inter-related, co-dependent practices. Any law that tries to mandate the same details for change in all of our 14,000 school districts is doomed to cookie-cutter silliness. Moreover, the very idea of such arbitrary top-down direction is exactly contrary to today’s widely-accepted theory of management that decision-making should be pushed out from the central office and given to those who deal most directly with the customer. 

Great schools have undergone extraordinary changes not only in their instructional practice, but also in their values. Unlike their less successful counterparts, they believe every child can learn, that collaboration among teachers and administrators is important, and that continuous improvement driven by data is absolutely essential to success. Without those values, otherwise successful practices are likely to curdle like two-week old milk. 

These schools’ transitions were not magical. They took time and required concerted effort to drag along the naysayers and slugs. That often required a prod from people who are close to what is happening every day. It is the parents, school board members, and community leaders who can best see whether there is real progress. They are the ones who sit through the presentations at board meetings, and it is their kids who come home every night to recount what happened in class. They alone are in a position to see if all the working parts of systemic reform are coming together to create successful change. 

Which gets me to the ultimate message of Renewal. In many areas of government policy, we outsource the responsibility for the most important decisions to Washington, or Albany, or Sacramento. When it comes to school reform, that is a wrong-headed notion. There are certainly things that the federal and state governments must do to facilitate change, but the ultimate package is only likely to come together for a district or a school when there is real participation from the rest of us.