Book Review: Vertigo: Transforming Teaching and Learning in Public Education by Dena R. Cushenberry with Leonard C. Burrello (Elephant Rock Books, 2021)
Prepared by: Bruce G. Barnett, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at San Antonio
Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in the early 1980’s, public education has been under constant scrutiny from federal, state, and local policymakers; the business community; and the media (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Schools have been pushed to develop rigorous academic standards for all students, create STEM programs, and more recently, implement online instructional platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic. High-stakes testing to hold schools publicly accountable for student achievement is at an all-time high. Policymakers have kept a watchful eye on schools, punishing those that do not meet standards, regardless of the social and economic conditions of the student populations they serve. Increasing school choice by funding charter schools and promoting voucher programs have become popular tactics for politicians to re-distribute funds from neighborhood public schools. This political pressure has greatly affected our public-school systems – teaching is being viewed as a less-desirable career path and school administrators are rethinking their willingness to continue leading schools and systems.
Although this situation paints a bleak picture of public education, Vertigo: Transforming Teaching and Learning in Public Education by Dena R. Cushenberry with Leonard C. Burrello, portrays how school systems thrive when tackling these challenges head on in order to transform teaching and learning. Rather than a fool-proof formula or series of steps that should be undertaken, the book reads like a case study of the six-year journey of Dena’s tenure as the superintendent in Warren Township, a low-income and ethnically-diverse community in metropolitan Indianapolis, Indiana. The authors uncover the underlying philosophy driving Dena’s vision for teaching and learning, the internal challenges thwarting her vision of excellence, and her patience to implement school improvement reforms. The journey clearly reveals her stance regarding how public schools can impact students’ future success, her personal theories of change, and her tireless belief in developing the capacities of the district leadership team and others in the school system to implement needed reforms. The book also portrays the highly-human side of Dena as she builds strong relationships with people throughout the school system and community.
The book revolves around the eight challenges Warren Township dealt with during Dena’s tenure. These challenges produce feelings of vertigo (dizziness, disruption, confusion), which will resonate with district-level leaders across the country – state standards and assessments, school closures and resource distribution, teaching and learning transformation, human potential and capacity development, teacher retention and development, superintendent-board relations, high school innovation, and school community alliances and funding. A separate chapter is devoted to each challenge, capturing Warren Township’s context and history regarding the challenge, important conceptualizations underlying the problem solution, voices of the district leadership team, and the responses to and rationale for addressing the challenge. Ample opportunities for individual reflection are offered; each chapter concludes with the personal and professional lessons Dena learned in transforming teaching and learning and reflective questions for readers to ponder in their own contexts.
Much of the Warren Township story of transforming teaching and learning processes is supported by existing literature on effective superintendent and district leadership practices. Some evidence suggests that superintendents and school districts have negligible effects on student achievement compared to principals and teachers (Chingo, Whitehurst, & Lindquist, 2014). One of the reasons for this small effect is because most superintendents do not stay in the position for more than three years, so their reforms do not have enough time to reap benefits for student performance (Chingo et al, 2014; Whittle, 2005). In fact, research indicates the longer superintendents remain in the role, the greater their impact on student achievement (Waters & Marzano, 2006). As I explore below, Dena’s seven-year tenure in Warren Township allowed her to lay the framework for needed reforms, garner support, implement them, and make alterations based on emerging data.
Dena’s leadership practices clearly align with the research evidence of how effective superintendents and districts influence student performance. Examples of recent large-scale empirical studies and research summaries include a study of 45 Canadian school districts (Leithwood, Sun, & McCullough, 2019), an analysis of 30 years of research (Anderson & Young, 2018), and a meta-analysis of studies conducted since 1970 (Waters & Marzano, 2006). Anderson and Young’s (2018) analysis provides a useful framework for examining Dena’s practices by focusing on: (1) developing and delivering high-quality education, (2) structuring and managing the organization and its resources, and (3) supporting and leading people in schools and the district.
High-quality education. Early in her superintendency, Dena revealed her vision for student success rested on three non-negotiable student performance goals (Leithwood, 2010; Leithwood et al 2019; Waters & Marzano, 2006). She continually communicated these unwavering goals to: (1) personalize student learning, (2) employ a culturally-relevant behavior intervention and support system to foster social and character development, and (3) impact college and career readiness. These three goals are embedded in the district’s school improvement framework, which articulates Warren Township’s vision and purpose, core values, district focus, and mission. Knowing these goals were going to push the thinking and practices of teachers and administrators, Dena turned to other experts for assistance in shaping these goals (Leithwood, 2010). To better understand how to personalize student learning (goal #1), she worked with her leadership team, a core of teachers, and colleagues in the Indiana State Department of Education to review the Common Core standards and college and career standards to develop more personalized student assessment measures. To enhance goal #2 (social curriculum), she visited several New York City schools to learn about their COR character development program, focusing on Civility, Order, and Respect. Because of the district’s and her commitment to promote equity and excellence, the program was renamed to CORE to emphasize this commitment.
Organizational structure and resources. Dena understood that the key to successfully achieving her goals was to align resources and commitment to the district’s vision for student success (Leithwood, 2010; Leithwood et al 2019; Waters & Marzano, 2006). She clearly articulated her “constancy of purpose” in approaching transformation in a long-term strategic fashion by establishing a vision for effective instruction for personalized learning, building an educational infrastructure to support instructional improvement, and thinking systemically about how these components complement one another (Leithwood, 2010; Murphy & Hallinger, 1988).
One of the most critical groups to achieve this alignment was the Board of Education. From the outset, she worked tirelessly with board members to communicate her goals, aspirations, and processes needed to achieve success. Numerous examples are scattered throughout the book; she obtained board approval to create a new district report card assessing student outcomes; close two elementary schools; restructure middle-grade education; revise the year-round and semester calendar; and renew a $140 million bond and pass a $40 million local referendum for facility upgrades, K-12 STEM improvements, and greater teacher compensation. Dena also was a mastermind in involving, selecting, and supporting other key players, including the district leadership team and campus leaders. She had a keen eye for the qualities leaders need to achieve the transformation she desired for the district. My personal favorites are: leaders “know how to shut down the noise and keep the main focus, the focus”, “[have] the ability to learn on the job and adapt into a collaborative leadership style”, and “[have] a work ethic and commitment to moving student success to higher levels” (p. 150).
People in schools and district. Dena realized the talent and expertise of others across the district were essential to achieve her desired goals for student success. She believed innovation and initiative occur by growing leadership at the district and campus levels. Numerous illustrations are provided of how she distributed enormous responsibility and authority to others across the system (Honig, 2008): the head football coach became the youth sports coordinator for the entire community; the district leadership team reassigned over 800 elementary students to academies housed in the middle school; several principals oversaw the new 5th-6th grade curriculum and develop parent and community communication protocols for students attending the new school; and the instructional specialist team developed classroom-embedded professional development and technical assistance to increase the quality of instruction at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels. Dena also tirelessly advocated for equity, seeking ways to promote success for all students, especially those from under resourced families (Koshoreck, 2001; Rorrer, Skrla, & Scheurich; Theoharis & Brooks, 2012) as well as diversifying leadership in the district by increasing the number of teachers, teacher leaders, and campus leaders of color.
The book has a number of other features readers will find helpful to better understand the realities of navigating school district transformation. In dealing with these eight challenges, Dena’s philosophy, views, and actions are shaped by important underlying concepts. For instance, we learn that her philosophy of change management reflects the two-loops model of how systems evolve over time (Bond, 2017), considers how to scale up change (Spillane, Hopkins, & Sweet, 2018), and employs a strengths-based approach to school improvement (Burrello, Beitz, & Mann, 2016). In addition, the book unveils her beliefs about the concepts affecting personalized learning (Kim, 2015), a developmental model of human potential (Sanford, 2017), and teacher evaluation systems that assess the quality of instruction from novices to expert teachers (Darling-Hammond, 2014).
Dena also provides great insights about weathering the inevitable conflict and resistance that arise when systemically transforming teaching and learning. First, she reveals her thoughts and strategies when confronting difficult personnel matters, including replacing and reassigning staff members when closing two elementary schools, working for four years to remove and replace administrators who sought to sabotage her efforts, and confronting a racist school board member. Second, her patience in allowing change and innovation to thrive is illustrated by using a full school year to pilot test, set policy, and train people in digital technology and by taking three years to implement the CORE elements in the high school before revising the teacher evaluation system. Her patience clearly demonstrates Dena’s understanding of how the two-loop change process requires ample time for teachers and administrators to grapple with implementing and adjusting innovations. Finally, by garnering resources from federal and state funding and developing partnerships with local agencies she was able to improve the visibility and reputation of Warren Township as a vital resource and contributor to community development.
The book concludes with Dena’s thoughts on how public education can thrive in a post-pandemic world. She offers important insights about how personalized learning not only allows individuals to take control of their own lives, but also prepares them to consider the circumstances of others in our society. If, as she suggests, we are serious about leveling the playing field between the “have and have nots”, then leaders and citizens must be willing to compromise their own aspirations for the greater good of our society. Recognizing the post-pandemic challenges school leaders will encounter in the coming years, she raises the need to address the significant learning loss experienced by many under privileged students, provide teachers with professional and personal support to deal with remote and live teaching platforms, and understand moving to a personalized learner-centered approach requires a major paradigm shift for many teachers. Dena’s final comments underscore her hopes and beliefs for the future of public education, a message all educators and community members will find refreshing and inspiring.
Dena’s story is an important contribution to our understanding of the systemic nature of a district’s transformation. Sustaining these initiatives following her departure is another important part of the story that deserves attention. Although she hand-picked her successor and communicates with him often, I would have liked to know more about the district’s leadership succession plan. Several questions arise: (1) who is being groomed internally to continue the transformation? (2) what qualities and experiences should her successor possess? (3) how can her successor honor and build on personalized learning, character development, and college and career readiness? and (4) how can school board members and the district leadership team ensure her successor is committed to these reforms?
I believe Vertigo is a valuable resource for helping school boards, district leaders, and campus leaders to consider their current state of affairs and how they can systematically reform their systems to examine opportunities for growth and change. Because “many practitioners do not have access to peer-reviewed journal articles or the knowledge of which organizations produce high quality research reports” (Anderson & Young, 2018, p. 15), they have difficulty accessing the knowledge base about effective school district leadership. Vertigo, however, is a highly-accessible, readable, and useful resource, which practicing and aspiring district leaders can utilize immediately. For instance, district leadership teams can conduct book studies to stimulate thoughtful discussions about their district by considering the reflective questions at the end of each chapter and conducting an analysis of their district to determine how their challenges compare with those experienced in Warren Township. In addition, leadership preparation programs can use this as a program text, especially for courses dealing with school district leadership, change, and school improvement. Aspiring leaders can use the ideas and reflective questions to examine their own districts, sharing their findings with district leaders, instructors, and fellow graduate students.
In conclusion, for those districts embroiled in the challenges of transforming teaching and learning, this book is not a one-time read. District leadership teams and board members can constantly refer to and reflect on Dena’s ideas, underlying rationale, and solutions as they encounter vertigo in their own transformational journeys. This book is a gem and could not have been published at a more appropriate time in our nation’s educational history.
Anderson, E., & Young, M. D. (2018). If they knew then what we know now, why haven’t things changed? An examination of district effectiveness research. Frontiers in Education, 3(87). doi: 10.3389/feduc.2018.00087.
Bond, B. (2017). Two loops model: Exploring how systems change. Retrieved from: https://stream.syscoi.com/2018/02/28/our-theory-of-change-the-berkana-institute/.
Burrello, L. C., Beitz, L. M., & Mann, J. L. (2016). A positive manifesto: How appreciative schools can transform public education. Ashford, CT: Elephant Rock Books.
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Rorrer, A. K., Skrla, L., & Scheurich, J. J. (2008). Districts as institutional actors in educational reform. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44, 307-357.
Sanford, C. (2017). The regenerative business: Redesign work, cultivate human potential, achieve extraordinary outcomes. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Spillane, J. P., Hopkins, M., & Sweet, T. M. (2018). School district educational infrastructure and change at scale: Teacher peer interactions and their beliefs about mathematics instruction. American Educational Research Journal, 55(3), 532-562.
Theoharis, G., & Brooks, J. S. (Eds.) (2012). What every principal needs to know to create equitable and excellent schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
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Whittle, C. (2005). Crash course. New York: Riverhead Books.