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Improvement by Design

The Promise of Better Schools

One of the great challenges now facing education reformers in the United States is how to devise a consistent and intelligent framework for instruction that will work across the nation’s notoriously fragmented and politically conflicted school systems. Various programs have tried to do that, but only a few have succeeded. Improvement by Design looks at three different programs, seeking to understand why two of them—America’s Choice and Success for All—worked, and why the third—Accelerated Schools Project—did not.

The authors identify four critical puzzles that the successful programs were able to solve: design, implementation, improvement, and sustainability. Pinpointing the specific solutions that clearly improved instruction, they identify the key elements that all successful reform programs share. Offering urgently needed guidance for state and local school systems as they attempt to respond to future reform proposals, Improvement by Design gets America one step closer to truly successful education systems. 


Improvement by Design takes a fascinating look at an approach to and a period of educational reform that has not been fully examined. By providing a powerful illustration of the weaknesses and turbulence that reformers continue to ignore at their peril and cogently arguing for the development of a much more sophisticated infrastructure to support teaching and learning, the book makes a valuable contribution to the literature.”

Thomas Hatch, Teachers College at Columbia University

“Are public schools irretrievably broken, as their critics claim, and charters the only solution? Over the past quarter century, and with no fanfare, several thousand schools have put in place strategies that promise to strengthen teaching and learning. In Improvement by Design, David Cohen and his colleagues masterfully show how two such approaches have succeeded in generating steady improvement in some of America’s most disadvantaged schools. It’s a tale that every would-be reformer needs to take to heart.”

David L. Kirp, author of Improbable Scholars

Improvement by Design describes the efforts of three path-breaking organizations that sought to improve the quality of education in a large number of schools serving primarily children from low-income families. Most important, it explains the opportunity that the Common Core State Standards present to the country and the enormous changes in the organization of American schooling that are necessary to take advantage of this opportunity. It is essential reading for anyone who cares about improving the quality of education for American children.”

Richard J. Murnane, Harvard Graduate School of Education

“This book inspires hope by showing in detail how educators have created and sustained large networks of effective public schools serving the nation’s most disadvantaged children. At the same time, the authors clarify why school improvement is so arduous and so exceptional. In short, the most effective networks of schools have succeeded by doing what national, state, and local policy have failed to do: to provide systematic support for coherent curriculum, true teacher professional development, and reliably effective classroom instruction. The book thus enables us to envision a transformative American educational policy.”

Stephen W. Raudenbush, University of Chicago

Table of Contents

1 Improvement by Design
2 The Design Puzzle
3 The Implementation Puzzle
4 The Improvement Puzzle
5 The Sustainability Puzzle
6 Building Systems
Appendix: Research Procedures

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