Skip to main content

American School Reform

What Works, What Fails, and Why

Dissecting twenty years of educational politics in our nation’s largest cities, American School Reform offers one of the clearest assessments of school reform as it has played out in our recent history. Joseph P. McDonald and his colleagues evaluate the half-billion-dollar Annenberg Challenge—launched in 1994—alongside other large-scale reform efforts that have taken place in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area. They look deeply at what school reform really is, how it works, how it fails, and what differences it can make nonetheless.
McDonald and his colleagues lay out several interrelated ideas in what they call a theory of action space. Frequently education policy gets so ambitious that implementing it becomes a near impossibility. Action space, however, is what takes shape when talented educators, leaders, and reformers guide the social capital of civic leaders and the financial capital of governments, foundations, corporations, and other backers toward true results. Exploring these extraordinary collaborations through their lifespans and their influences on future efforts, the authors provide political hope—that reform efforts can work, and that our schools can be made better.   

208 pages | 4 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Education: Education--Economics, Law, Politics, Pre-School, Elementary and Secondary Education


“McDonald and colleagues make a valuable theoretical contribution to the field of district-level school reform through their integrative framework and nuanced cross-case analysis of diverse school reform efforts.”

Teachers College Record

American School Reform offers a substantive contribution to school reform debates, focusing on what it takes to create, sustain, and—importantly—continually renew the conditions for successful reform. It combines a notion of the precariousness of reform with optimism, outlining a pragmatic path of incremental improvement that recognizes the very severe and systemic obstacles in its way without stoking frustration or backlash that would undermine the long-term aspiration.”

Jeffrey Henig, Teachers College, Columbia University

American School Reform importantly advances a historically grounded conceptual framework to understand how the arguments, theories of action, and action space devoted to school reforms change over time, fail, and then get reincarnated in other forms as actors and contexts shift. The authors appreciate and use the past to underscore how earlier reforms have influenced contemporary ones, how the debris of collapsed reforms become building blocks for newer ones. In this way they do what many historians—but too few reformers—do: account for both continuity and change.”

Larry Cuban, author of Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice

“Urban school districts have been the focal points for intensive reform efforts over the past two decades. All of these efforts have been highly contentious, and they have produced mixed results. The more that is known about what makes reform successful and unsuccessful in these contexts, the greater the likelihood for success in the future. American School Reform makes a significant contribution to this knowledge. It tells important stories about significant reforms in four cities and provides a new way of looking at reform that can be useful moving forward.”

Robert Rothman, author of Fewer, Clearer, Higher

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Introduction

Chapter 2. The Theory of Action Space

Chapter 3. Action Space in Chicago and New York

Chapter 4. Action Space in Context: Philadelphia and the Bay Area

Chapter 5. Learning from Collapse in Philadelphia and Chicago

Chapter 6. Learning from Connections in New York

Chapter 7. Implications for Practice





Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press