Harvard Educational Review
  1. Common Purpose

    Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America

    By Lisbeth B. Schorr

    New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1997. 482 pp. $27.50

    In Common Purpose: Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America, Lisbeth Schorr sets out to refute those who view social reform efforts as inexorably inadequate to the problems facing our society — and refute them she does. Focusing on reform efforts aimed at welfare, child welfare, and schools, Schorr identifies a host of programs across the nation that have produced impressive results and explains why.

    Common Purpose
    is divided into three sections. In Part One, “Spreading and Sustaining Success,” Schorr carefully outlines the attributes of successful interventions. For example, she argues that successful programs are comprehensive in scope — aimed at addressing the constellation of problems facing those in need rather than offering discrete interventions. These programs, often long-term, aim to assist families, entire neighborhoods, or communities, rather than provide a specific service to a given person. Further, successful programs evolve and adapt to the needs of their clients over time. Staff members who run these programs are consummate professionals, expert at what they do. In addition to developing well-considered policies and procedures, however, they also invest considerable energy in establishing trust with their community partners.

    Common Purpose provides a devastating critique of our social system and explains how various social structures prevent successful programs from proliferating. Replicating or even sustaining such programs has proven extremely difficult. Schorr explains:

    We have not acknowledged that the attributes of effectiveness are consistently undermined by the institutions and systems on which they depend for funding and legitimation. . . . Protective bubbles can be created by foundation funding, by a powerful political figure, by a leader who is a wizard, by promises that the effort will be limited in scale and time, or by some combination of all of these. The problems arise when the successful pilot program is to expand and thereby threatens the basic political and bureaucratic arrangements that have held sway over the decades. (p. 19)

    In chapter two, Schorr explores how three programs have grown and expanded, despite the long odds — YouthBuild, which helps young people in urban areas develop academic and leadership skills while engaged in renovating low-income housing; Healthy Start, a home-visiting program that assists new parents and has significantly reduced the incidence of child abuse; and New York City’s Beacon Schools, which provide multiple services onsite.

    Chapter three is an exploration of how bureaucracy constrains innovation — how rules and policies limit the flexibility of local efforts and tie the hands of program staff. Schorr then describes specific strategies that have “tamed” the bureaucratic beast. Here, and throughout the book, she acknowledges that reform is difficult, explains why, and describes programs that have been successful in spite of the challenges.

    In Part Two, “Reforming Systems,” Schorr looks closely at interventions in three specific areas — welfare, child welfare, and schools. In each chapter, she outlines the current efforts being undertaken, notes their shortcomings, and then offers examples of programs that have succeeded. For example, in chapter eight, “Educating America’s Children,” Schorr offers a concise overview of what she terms a consensus regarding successful schools. For example, she finds that successful schools see academic learning as central to their mission. Many are “intentional communities” that underscore and attempt to convey communal and societal norms and values.

    Finally, in Part Three, “Rebuilding Communities,” Schorr describes in detail seven “neighborhood transformation initiatives.” She underscores the importance of systemic reform — grappling with issues of economic growth, educational improvement, and community-building concurrently. Schorr also explores the paradox that sustainable initiatives are built both on the resources of the community itself — “strengthening the norms, supports, and problem-solving resources that link individuals to one another and to institutions of their community” (p. 362) — and through securing external resources that bring “clout and influence” (p. 363). Finally, she underscores the importance of designing initiatives on the basis of “plausible theories of change” (p. 364) — whether that knowledge is gained through research or experience.

    Schorr’s book is a reminder that thinking broadly and outside current structures is a prerequisite for meaningful change in social systems. Although the bureaucracy and political clout supporting the sometimes dismal status quo is considerable, there are examples of programs and initiatives that have persevered — grown and thrived and made a difference. Educators will find that Common Purpose not only introduces model programs and outlines concrete principles for successful educational initiatives, it also helps place educational institutions within larger societal structures. The book underscores how successful innovation often requires far broader efforts and less conventional partnering than is currently practiced. Educators, policymakers, researchers, and all who care about children will benefit from reading this useful, and ultimately hopeful, book.

    M.H.
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