Andrea Gabor’s 2018 educational case study argues for a set of reforms that are a far cry from the approaches of most big-money charter schools. She advocates for schools driven by “small-d democracy”—low-level reforms driven by students, parents, and teachers on a classroom’s front lines, enabled by schools that are granted a high of independence by governing bodies in exchange for increased accountability.
To make this argument, she takes us on a national tour through four exemplar approaches: To New York City, where MacArthur Genius Debbie Meier founded the small schools movement that transformed behemoth school buildings into amalgams of schools-within-schools designed to have less bureaucracy and more flexibility; to Brockton, Massachusetts, where a languishing school district is revived via process iteration by local reformers; to the Leander School District outside of Austin where a superintendent studies W. Edwards Deming and applies his processes of continuous improvement to the Leander schools; and to New Orleans, where the vacuum left by Hurricane Katrina attracted legions of national-profile charter schools that mostly fail to achieve their promised results.
Gabor is skilled at teasing out the many threads of the bureaucratic processes inherent in any large public system. While her narrations of political jockeying and broken alliances place the reader squarely in the scholastic sausage factory, they often result in a story that’s practically impenetrably dense. Nonetheless, her case-studies are compelling. In particular, Deming’s ideas that emphasize process iteration with input from line engineers—in this case, teachers and students—make intuitive sense in a way that’s less moralistic and more pragmatic than arguments that e.g. “students have a right” to have input into curricula. Still, I found myself clamoring for data. Are the successful case studies out of East Harlem, Brockton, and Leander blueprints for Gabor’s “small-d” reforms? Or are they outlier cases in which particularly charismatic individuals were able to breach local and bureaucratic dams. I’m not sure the answer can be found in this book.