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Volume 26, Number 6
November/December 2010

Inverting the Pyramid of School Reform

Practice should drive research and policy, not the reverse


25th Anniversary ImageWhen I was eight years old, I was sure that I knew how Santa Claus worked. I knew that the story my parents were telling me could not be true, because mathematically it just did not make sense. There were more than 5 billion people in the world, of which at least a billion were kids. There were only 86,400 seconds in a day. There was no way Santa could get to all of those chimneys. So how did my presents arrive at 402 Winston Avenue in North Baltimore?

Well, I figured that I told my parents what I wanted; they called the Baltimore City Santa Claus Department and passed on the word; and on Christmas Eve, after I went to bed, someone from the city showed up with the presents.

Right from the start, I had an outsized faith in the power of benevolent social planning.

In one sense, my professional life has been a kind of tug-of-war between my eight-year-old idealist self, who believed in the power of the state to achieve equitable and good outcomes, and my older self, who slowly came to realize that it was more complicated than I initially imagined. For example, having a regionally departmentalized Santa system might be better than leaving distribution to the private market (where some kids don’t get presents at all), but it would likely have problems of its own, especially if it worked as well as most Baltimore city services! Much of my academic work has focused on understanding the possibilities and challenges of these kinds of large-scale social delivery systems. I still retain my eight-year-old faith in what we can accomplish collectively, but now I believe that to do so will require rethinking how we put the pieces together.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

On moving from a compliance-based organization to a learning organization:
P.C. Schlechty. Leading for Learning: How to Transform Schools into Learning Organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

On new models of knowledge and R &D:
S. Bryk and L.Gomez. Ruminations on Reinventing an R & D Capacity for Educational Improvement. Stanford: CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2007. Available online at:

On human capital:
B. Auguste, P. Kihn, and M.Miller. Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching: An International and Market Researched-Based Perspective. New York: McKinsey & Company, 2010.

R. Curtis and J. Wetzel, eds. Teaching Talent. Cambridge: MA: Harvard Education Press, 2010.

J. Hannaway and D. Goldhaber, eds. Creating a New Teaching Profession. Washington D.C.: Urban Institute Press, 2009.

On organizational processes in schools:
A. Bryk et al., Organizing Schools for Improvement. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009.