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Excellence for All

How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America's Public Schools

Jack Schneider

Publication Year: 2011

By the early twenty-first century, a startling consensus had emerged about the overall aim of American school reform. In an era of political discord, and in a field historically known for contentiousness, the notion of promoting educational excellence for all students was a distinct point of bipartisan agreement. Shaped by a corps of entrepreneurial reformers intent on finding “what works” and taking it to scale, this hybrid vision won over the nation’s most ambitious and well-resourced policy leaders at foundations and nonprofits, in state and federal government, and in urban school districts from coast to coast. “Excellence for all” might, at first glance, appear to be nothing more than a rhetorical flourish. Who, after all, would oppose the idea of a great education for every student? Yet it is hardly a throwaway phrase. Rather, it represents a surprising fusion of educational policy approaches that had been in tense opposition throughout the twentieth century—those on the right favoring social efficiency, and those on the left supporting social justice. This book seeks to understand why the “excellence for all” vision took hold at the time it did, unpacks the particular beliefs and assumptions embedded in it, and details the often informal coalition building that produced this period of consensus. Examining the nation’s largest urban school districts (Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York), the author details three major reform efforts in chapters titled “The Right Space: The Small Schools Movement”; “The Right Teachers: Teach for America”; and “The Right Curriculum: Expanding Advanced Placement.”

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. ix-x

I do particularly wish to thank a distinct subset of readers who, while leafing through this book, will be struck by a sense of familiarity if not complete recognition—those who encountered the work in various stages of its evolution and left indelible marks on it. This includes the publications staff at Taylor & Francis, Ltd., who granted...

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pp. 1-10

“We can’t continue like this,” President-elect Barack Obama observed in late 2008, announcing Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan as his pick for education secretary. “It’s morally unacceptable for our children and economically untenable for America.” In order to build a “twenty-first-century education system,” Obama noted...

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1. The Right Time: 1980-2010

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pp. 11-40

By the time of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the idea of excellence for all had been firmly established as the highest aim in American education reform. Equally well accepted was the notion that by taking an entrepreneurial approach to the nation’s education problem, reformers could identify “what works” and...

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2. The Right Space: The Small Schools Movement

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pp. 41-71

In the last decades of the twentieth century, education reformers made the case that America’s urban public high schools had reached a point of intolerable failure. In an era in which higher education was being more frequently seen as a prerequisite for active economic participation, reformers bemoaned urban public schools as outdated...

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3. The Right Teachers: Teach for America

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pp. 73-103

Getting the right teachers in the classroom has been a major part of the school reform agenda for as long as policy makers have sought systemic change in education. As school quality depends in large part on teacher quality, school reformers across the twentieth century worked to establish criteria to identify suitable teachers...

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4. The Right Curriculum: Expanding Advanced Placement

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pp. 105-133

The 1980s ushered in a new era of concern over the quality of the school curriculum. At a time when economic competitiveness demanded greater educational achievement, standardized test scores revealed that American students were continuing to fall behind their international counterparts.1 And, in the post–civil...

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pp. 135-144

In 1991, education writer Thomas Toch observed that public schools had reached a pivotal point in their history. They were, as he wrote, “poised to take the American experiment in free universal education to a new level, one where all students have not only an equal right to walk through the schoolhouse door but...


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pp. 145-181


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pp. 183-190

E-ISBN-13: 9780826518125
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826518101

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2011