Reflections on Elmore’s “School Reform from the Inside Out”

I’ve really enjoyed reading Elmore’s book on school reform: School Reform from the Inside-Out: Policy, Practice and Performance (2008). It is clearly grounded in a US context but it still presents a coherent argument about the (lack of) interplay between policy, practice and accountability, which is relevant across all education systems. He exposes policies such as No Child Left Behind as flawed, in their construction; done to educators rather than done with them; in their narrow focus on accountability via results, and in their failure to acknowledge the crucially important role of instructional capacity in the improvement process and then make investments in it. He sees the irony of how for policy makers schools are simultaneously regarded as “the cause(s) of failure and the source(s) of success” (Elmore, 2008, p217).

Incentives for improvement are so far not on the agenda in Scotland as far as I know, but our neighbours south of the border may be more familiar with some of them, for example attainment data published as league tables, designation of failing schools etc. Elmore describes these as “blunt instruments” (p113) which have no relationship to the practice of improvement and don’t articulate a method for improving the learning and performance which will provide the response to the sanction or incentive.

On so –called failing schools, Elmore shares observations from many schools he has visited and makes a very interesting and insightful comment.  He sees more similarities between failing and successful schools than might be imagined, notably problems in identifying and articulating quality of instructional practice.  The “successful” schools produce performance data that is based not on quality instructional processes but on the “income and cultural capital of parents and communities (that) overrides the defects of the schools” (Elmore, 2008, p237).  In effect Elmore is suggesting here that successful schools are experiencing the same problems as failing schools with identifying effective instructional practice that improves student learning and performance, they just disguise the instructional problems with affluence and parental interest/engagement. This sounds like a very good reason for not pairing successful and failing schools in the name of school improvement. The successful school is unlikely to be in a position tobe able to state in terms of practice and instruction why it is successful, therefore also unable to supply the necessary knowledge for the failing school to improve.

Elmore sees the practice of improvement as being about changing three things fundamentally and simultaneously:

1 the values and belief of people in schools about what is worth doing and what it is possible to do;

2 The structural conditions (my italics) under which the work is done;

3 The ways in which people learn to do the work (i.e the cultural conditions)

And later identifies 5 reasons why schools don’t improve:
1. All practice is essentially invented and reinvented in classrooms. Teachers have little access to challenging ideas that will help them do their work better.
2. Existing norms reinforce the belief that experience alone increases expertise, and all teachers are equal in their skill therefore they can’t learn from each other.
3. Teaching is a largely undifferentiated profession. Teachers with strong expertise in certain areas can face resistance if they assume the role of professional developer, coach or mentor without the endorsement of management, structures, professional organisations etc.
4. The design of work in schools is incompatible with improvement. Teachers work in isolation and opportunities to engage in “continuous and sustained learning about their practice in the setting where they actually work” (Elmore, 2008; p127) are difficult to build into the structures of schooling.
5. Lack of guidance on performance and accountability. Internal accountability needs to reflect external accountability. Schools weak in internal accountability see a causal link to outside factors beyond their control and develop a sense of passive helplessness. Schools with strong internal accountability know their success is due to themselves and their own practices, shared values, knowledge and skills.

Much of this will be already largely familiar to the SELMAS readership, but in case you’ve not come across him before, I’d  warmly  recommend this author and this very readable text to you.Elmore


School Reform from the Inside-Out: Policy, Practice and Performance (Harvard University Press, 2008).

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