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Shipps, Dorothy. (2006). School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880-2000. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Pp. xi + 294     $19.95     ISBN 0-7006-1450-8

Reviewed by Jon N. Hale
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

May 9, 2007

The politics of urban schooling and reform have long been of interest to educators, parents, community activists, and scholars. Especially under contemporary federal guidelines found under the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the achievement gap, individual student performance and school reform have come under the purview of various stakeholders: community reformers, state legislators, classroom educators, district administrators and parents. At a time when a high percentage of urban schools continue to be “at-risk” or “failing” and unprecedented numbers have taken interest in American education, Dorothy Shipps in School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880-2000, addresses the issue of urban reform, its complex development and meaning for contemporary efforts. Shipps specifically examines urban school politics in Chicago from the corporate perspective, analyzes the nature and history of corporate school reform, and asks, “if corporate power was instrumental in creating the urban public schools and has had a strong hand in there reform for more than a century, then why have those schools failed urban children so badly?” (p. x).

A daunting, yet relevant and imperative question indeed. By focusing on system wide change and following the tenets put forth by urban regime change theory, Shipps begins to examine why Chicago reform efforts have failed its students. Although the theory and principles of urban regime change warrant further explanation, especially for those unfamiliar with the idea, the foundational principle states that effective change occurs when a cross-sector coalition of a city’s political authorities, major civic and economic actors, and the city’s bureaucracy commit resources and leadership to an initiative.

Dorothy Shipps
This “civic capacity” requires consensus on an agenda, extended resources and leadership to carry an initiative through. As one main goal of Shipps is to shed light on the role of corporate voice in educational reform and to understand how this coalition emerged, readers come to understand how a coalition must be guided by a viable agenda, in this case vocational education or fiscal responsibility, and be maintained by effective leadership, substantial resources, and sustained commitment by coalition members. Hence, Chicago’s major economic actors are given primary consideration in this analysis as a coalition that has been able to generate and utilize its civic capacity. As the largest factor in initiating and maintaining reform since the late nineteenth century, corporate actors are properly introduced by Shipps as the central subjects in this narrative. What becomes clear is that a corporate agenda had become embedded in educational reform during the Progressive Era and corporate actors would henceforth maintain a legitimate and powerful standing in such efforts.

To begin addressing the question of corporate development and historical influence, Shipps has sought to examine Chicago’s history of “successive school reform attempts over time” (p. 7). Readers are then presented throughout the majority (four of five chapters) of the book a well-researched, clearly articulated history of one city’s reform agenda. Through sound historical methodology, Shipps embarks on the historical project of explaining change over time. By the book’s conclusion, Shipps not only narrates a reasonable explanation of Chicago school reform over the past century, she provides insightful commentary on the future of educational reform.

In the first chapter, Shipps demonstrates how between 1880 and 1930 the Commercial Club of Chicago, a tightly knit organization of the city’s leading business executives, set the educational agenda during the Progressive era, when scientific, but more importantly, business notions of management and efficiency governed educational discourse. As a result, not only was the school governance centralized and professionalized (p. 33), there was a major push for vocational education, an agenda that still exists today. While alternative coalitions, in this case labor unions (representative of class conflict), were able to challenge corporate influence, they were largely relegated to merely tempering the ultimate corporate agenda (p. 49). In this way, unions were able to prevent a separate system for vocational education, as the financial leaders had advocated. However, as the corporate interests were able to establish themselves as a primary governing coalition, a management hierarchy was established, and issues of business-efficient management and reform had become embedded within the system, which, of course, can still be observed today.

Issues of race, which directly and indirectly create issues of overcrowded classrooms and undemocratic management, are the foundational ideas of the second chapter. Additionally, Shipps skillfully illustrates the development of machine politics and the rise of Richard Daley’s style of politics that would come to dominate city politics between 1930 and 1980. Under Daley, schools became a site for patronage and custodians were soon to make more than teachers, who were often underpaid, when they were paid at all. School management was centralized early in the process, yet thru machine politics was expanded to include corporate and labor interests as teacher unions were granted collective bargaining (pp. 62-64). That commercial interests converged with those of the unions disintegrated a class divide, yet a racial cleavage emerged instead. As racial issues came to the fore after the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision and the Civil Rights Movement, and African American votes posed a potential threat to the mayor’s electoral coalition, we learn that the system was temporarily decentralized, and there was some incorporation of minority voice in the governing coalition. “As a response to the racial crisis gripping the schools,” Shipps writes, “decentralization delayed integration until it was largely irrelevant” (p. 75). While race is framed in this chapter as a “new” challenge, the old challenge of financial bankruptcy and destabilization would be a continual threat. As observed during the Progressive era, corporate response would carry the most influence, and reforms would continue to address what was seen as managerial, rather than systemic flaws (p. 88).

Between 1980 and 1990, the third chapter’s historical scope, Shipps observed a continuation of both racial and financial issues that were dealt with by the governing, corporate coalition thru decentralization. After Daley’s death, the black voice was strongly heard in the electoral process; Harold Washington was elected, for instance, on an unprecedented minority coalition (p. 90). While calls for decentralization had been a general trend in Chicago’s history, this time it was with, under mayor Washington’s leadership, a greater minority voice (p. 114). Backed by legislative action, decentralization had become institutionalized. Community-based, parent controlled local school councils were granted governing powers and access to political platforms, although their duration was tenuous from the start. More importantly, however, financial decision-making was still granted to an oversight board (the School Finance Authority), which was under the discretion of corporate leaders, although more racially mixed (p. 129). Hence, from 1990-2000, the scope of chapter four, issues of management, oversight and meeting standards were the dominant themes of Chicago school reform. Another continuation that would prevent any stable electoral coalition was an influx in immigration, which presented new racial challenges in a growing, diverse city. The democratic decision making process that was established in the previous decade had begun to wane as grant writing and unfunded, strenuous commitment to local decision making rendered grassroots control unsustainable (pp. 140-142). Partly because of a Republican conservative takeover in national politics, and hence the Illinois legislature, reform that focused on recentralization, fiscal responsibility and accountability, corporate style reform (with the mayor as CEO) once again emerged as the model of reform at the close of the twentieth century. The united front of corporate leaders was not as strong as in the past, however, as issues of privatization in lieu of more centralized reform would now divide the city’s corporate interests. Regardless, the historical trends would continue and top-down managerial reform was firmly embedded in citywide educational discourse at the start of the twenty-first century.

In the fifth and concluding chapter, Shipps departs from an historical overview to provide more contemporary analysis. Shipps recapitulates the corporate influence on school reform as a “self-reinforcing, path-dependent process” (p. 170), but then draws from her research several alternative reform agendas or “governing regimes,” rather, that constitute different constituencies and resources. Hence, what emerges is a typology of non-corporate entities and agendas that emerged in Chicago’s history but were never pursued. As a corporate agenda had become embedded in educational reform during the Progressive Era and corporate actors would henceforth maintain a legitimate standing in such reform, Shipps suggests that this is not the only viable option. Although an empowering regime, for instance, is naturally inherent to greater difficultly in creating and sustaining coalitions of parents, politicians, and researchers (pp. 190-191), it is still a viable option to corporate reform. In other words, the future of educational reform does not have to be corporate dominated. In expanding upon this conclusion, Shipps illustrates and maintains this point by suggesting that teacher unions, specifically the Chicago Teachers Union, are a viable coalition, backed with historical justification. As Shipps concludes, “the privatization and outsourcing now being envisioned by a narrow coalition of corporate leaders pose such major problems for both teachers and parents that their collaboration may be the only viable alternative” (p. 210).

Shipps presents readers with a well-researched narrative, which reads as good histories should. Perhaps this is to be expected, as Shipps has consulted and worked with such pioneers in the field as Larry Cuban and David Tyack. The readers are presented a text, then, that would be useful in policy and history of education coursework, and its significance as a contribution to the field of educational reform is clearly established. Firstly, Shipps methodology seems to be thorough, efficient and a major contribution; her purview of secondary literature is a great introduction to the field and other archival work, such as newspaper or correspondence analysis is carried out with equally impressive vigor. In answering a contemporary, politically oriented question, the quality of historical work is surprising and impressive. Furthermore, this work is strong in general aesthetics and readability in the sense that the key characters, the Commercial Club, are fully explained and major themes such as the continuation of managerial efficiency are clearly articulated. With this history, we are able to see how educational reform has developed in Chicago and why, perhaps, such reform has failed to meet the need of students. Another notable contribution of this text is Shipps assertion that teacher unions should, if not must, be active in creating a coalition for more accountable, student-responsible educational reform. Historians of education could certainly observe the relevance and importance in connecting historical research with contemporary policy issues, a goal in which many fall short.

The book is at times dense, however, and the intricate web of connections between corporate elites, mayors, politicians, union members and community activists can be mildly confusing if one does not have the intimate knowledge of the subject as Shipps possesses. Luckily for the reader, Shipps has the ability to clarify its major themes so that a total understanding of this history’s nuances and connections are not necessarily required of the reader. In regards to Shipp’s historical methodology and project, the issue of contextualization struck me while reading this text. As the historical project is largely concerned with contextualization, Shipps could have further enhanced the historical value of this project by expanding the contextualization of some main points. For instance, most readers would not take issue with the assertion that Chicago’s educational reforms are taken or perceived as a national indicator or trendsetter in the field, yet Chicago could be placed into a national context to make the national relevancy of Chicago more pertinent. If readers are given a general idea of what was happening at the same time in New York, for instance, a better idea of Chicago’s representative character may be better established. Also, ideas of positivism, scientific and business-like management emerged from a burgeoning “scientific” tradition, which, if further explored by Shipps, may have created a better idea as to why such reforms emerged. No doubt corporate influence dictated early twentieth century reform, but within the intersection of positivism and corporate agenda setting lies an interesting understanding and clarifying concepts as to why alternative solutions to age-old problems are not readily accepted.

What Shipps presents in School Reform, Corporate Style, finally, is an engaging text that addresses pertinent issues of urban education reform. Its historical value is of great import, and its utility in academia and the classroom should become known to students, educators and researchers alike. Most importantly, while urban reform continues to trouble policy makers and various educational coalitions, Shipps presents an opportunity, rather than a problem, for contemporary practitioners to seize.


Jon N. Hale

About the Reviewer

Jon N. Hale is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His specialization is in the history of education and his specific research interests include critical pedagogy, educational reform, and democratic education. His MA thesis examines the historical development of the Mississippi Freedom Schools in 1964. He has presented his research at conferences sponsored by the American Educational Research Association, Southern History of Education Society, Midwestern History of Education Society, and American Educational Studies Association.

Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.

Editors: Gene V Glass, Kate Corby, Gustavo Fischman

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