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Reforming the Reform

Problems of Public Schooling in the American Welfare State

An expansive study of the problems encountered by educational leaders in pursuit of reform, and how these issues cyclically translate into future topics of reform.

School reform is almost always born out of big dreams and well-meaning desires to change the status quo. But between lofty reform legislation and the students whose education is at stake, there are numerous additional policies and policymakers who determine how reforms operate. Even in the best cases, school reform initiatives can perpetuate problems created by earlier reforms or existing injustices, all while introducing new complications. In Reforming the Reform, political scientist Susan L. Moffitt, education policy scholar Michaela Krug O’Neill, and the late policy and education scholar David K. Cohen take on a wide-ranging examination of the many intricacies of school reform.

With a particular focus on policymakers in the spaces between legislation and implementation, such as the countless school superintendents and district leaders tasked with developing new policies in the unique context of their district or schools, the authors identify common problems that arise when trying to operationalize ambitious reform ideas. Their research draws on more than 250 interviews with administrators in Tennessee and California (chosen as contrasts for their different political makeup and centralization of the education system) and is presented here alongside survey data from across the United States as well as archival data to demonstrate how public schools shoulder enormous responsibilities for the American social safety net. They provide a general explanation for problems facing social policy reforms in federalist systems (including healthcare) and offer pathways forward for education policy in particular.

336 pages | 20 halftones, 3 line drawings, 10 tables | 6 x 9

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

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Public Policy

Sociology: Individual, State and Society


"This multifaceted and fascinating book contributes on so many levels. Like no other work, it illuminates the policymaking stages between legislative passage of policy reforms and frontline implementation, centering on mid-level actors whose consequential decisions occur far from the limelight.  As a case study in contemporary education policy, it vividly demonstrates the complications of foisting social policy responsibilities onto K-12 schools, to compensate for the threadbare safety net elsewhere. And it gives voice to teachers, principals, district officials, and others who must navigate the fresh problems arising from the collision of new reform efforts with old capacities and policy terrains. An unparalleled, expert analysis of the promise and pitfalls of the American policymaking system in education and well beyond."   

Andrea Louise Campbell, author of Trapped in America’s Safety Net

"This book meticulously analyzes an enduring tension between change and continuity in education policy. Focusing on policymaking in the middle, between national legislation and frontline practice, the authors cogently theorize how knowledge, organization, and politics interact to enable and constrain policy and practice. By using the words and experiences of policymakers in state agencies, county offices, and school districts, the authors animate mezzo-level policymaking and its entailments for policy implementation.  A must-read for all education policy scholars and for practitioners of policymaking and implementation!"

James Spillane, Northwestern University

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
1 What Happens after Reforms?
2 Inherited Terrains: The Political, Economic, and Social Foundations of American Public Schools
3 How Reforms Create Problems: New Policies, Inherited Terrains, and New Problems
4 Problems of Policy Spillover
5 Problems of Policy Overload
With Cadence Willse
6 Problems of Policy Pockets
With Cadence Willse
7 Problems of Policy Sparks
8 Learning from Reforms to the Reform
Technical Appendix A: Supplemental Tables
Technical Appendix B: Methodological Approach

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