Harold Kwalwasser is the first to say that he is “perversely proud” of having been general counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District under Roy Romer, 2000–2003. He came to the position by way of a career in public service, having served on the staffs of three U. S. senators and as chief of staff for a California state senator. Now a writer and consultant on education, Kwalwasser says he wrote Renewal: Remaking America’s Schools for the Twenty-First Century (Rowman & Littlefield) more for parents and community leaders than for educators. But make no mistake, he thinks education reform is everyone’s business—and attainable.
To write Renewal, Kwalwasser studied 40 high-performing and/or transforming schools around the country—public, private, religious, and charter schools among them, serving students from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds—to analyze what works and present in detail what it takes for an educational system to succeed.
He divides the book into four sections, each addressing key questions of school reform: (1) how to recruit, train, and motivate school leaders; (2) how to recruit, train, and motivate service providers (i.e., teachers); (3) how to continuously improve and adapt the schools; and (4) how to not to lose sight of the customer (i.e., students).
For most of the 20th century, Kwalwasser asserts, American education was “mass-produced”—from the way teachers were employed and trained to how children were taught. He says the old system operated more like a car plant than a place committed to the “professional, artisanal instruction” designed to graduate students with skills needed in the 21st century. Kwalwasser’s premise in Renewal, and the one he found to be the key to success at the schools he studied, was to get administrators, teachers, community leaders, and parents to abandon the outdated mindset of mass production in schools in order to see education “as a service business.”
“I am not asking parents to micromanage their school districts,” says Kwalwasser. “I want them to understand what good schools look like.”
Going back to that car plant for a moment: Kwalwasser found that schools that adopted the total quality management tenets (proposed by W. Edwards Deming and others) that turned the Japanese auto and other industries around after WWII were the key to successful schools in this century.
“Total quality management is tough,” he says. “And there’s a lot of push-back and resistance.” Teachers already feel overworked, he acknowledges, but Kwalwasser says time and again the schools that called for quality and remained committed to evaluating and training the educators were most successful.
From years of consulting and his research for Renewal, Kwalwasser says he was assured that “good education is going on.” He says, “We know how to do it. The great challenge is getting adults to actually do it.”
While all schools will not be able—or even should—adopt the same methods to improve and revitalize education, says Kwalwasser, Renewal presents a set of goals the most successful districts have pursued to bring about true reform to serve their true customers, the students.