The more eagerly politicians promise us improvement in schools, the more urgently researchers try to tackle the problem of defining it. The difficulty is that both groups have only a limited and short-term range of outcomes to draw upon.
The distinguished authors of Improving Schools: performance and potential (Open University Press pound;14.99) studied 12 anonymous secondary schools over two years in an attempt to identify not just the extent of improvement given their circumstances and intake, but also the factors that might have caused it.
John Gray, David Hopkins, David Reynolds, Brian Wilcox, Shaun Farrell and David Jesson looked at any changes that were taking place, and how they were being put into effect and evaluated. Their case-history approach makes for thought-provoking reading and their judgments, though subjective, are perceptive and persuasive. They concluded that classroom-focused changes appear to earn the biggest pay-offs and that it is the more effective schools - those that look beyond mere tactical change towards what the authors call capacity-building - that tend to achieve the most improvement. Nothing succeeds like success.
It's a politically convenient conclusion, as it transfers the onus of improvement from politicians onto the individual school. But what we need to know is whether all schools are equally open to the process of self-improvement, and if not, what factorsmake the difference?
The answer, say Peter Mortimore and his colleagues at the Institute of Education, University of London, is in The Culture of Change (Institute of Education pound;14.99). Their study of this title looks at four specific schools that have each achieved "success against the odds". Two of the schools are in inner London and two, in stark contrast, are in Singapore. The striking thing is the similarity of the approaches. Vision and leadership are central, but so are high expectations, consistency and a constant care for the sharing of learning. Above all, change needs to be carried out by the school itself. There are lessons here for every school and every policy-maker.
These are reinforced by the International Handbook of School Effectiveness Research, edited by Charles Teddlie and David Reynolds (Falmer pound;19.95). This overview of 20 years of study in the field is for the research community rather than teachers, and it's not exactly bedside reading. However, it does emphasise the complexity of the issues. Strong strategies of intervention, it concludes, need to respect the "context specificity" of individual schools.
Yet strong strategies of intervention are everywhere. What effect do they have, asks Th Life and Work of Teachers (Falmer pound;18.99) on the classroom teachers who are seen everywhere as priority targets for policies of educational reform and reconstruction? Editors Christopher Day, Alicia Fernandez, Trond E Hauge and Jorunn M?ller argue that the typical pattern "is for policy-makers and administrators to mandate those who work in schools to make a new policy work, often without adequate or appropriate support and assistance".
So how does this relate, they ask, to the conventional picture of the self-managing school? Their reassuring conclusion, based on a wide range of international comparisons, is that teachers are collectively learning to subvert the cruder manifestations of production-line control.
John Smyth, Alastair Dow, Robert Hattam, Alan Reid and Geoffrey Shacklock, the Australian authors of Teachers' Work in a Globalizing Economy (Falmer pound;17.99), cover some of the same ground but come to less optimistic conclusions. They are profoundly critical of "the eloquent fiction of the free market", which they see as the driving force of change. "The policies that have so demonstrably failed in the economic arena are the same that have been used relentlessly to assail schools around the world," they say. Schools have become "annexes of industry, spot-welded to the economy", and teaching is characterised by ever closer technical, bureaucratic, ideological and corporate levels of control.
What's to be done? In two case studies - an independent school and a depressingly familiar inner-city comprehensive - the authors sketch the limitations of what they call "contrived and bounded collaboration", under constant pressure to increase productivity. The real answer, they say, lies inre-asserting the democratic and egalitarian vision of good schooling.
Yet standards can be raised without levers of ideology and control. Phil Green demonstrates in Raise the Standard (Trentham pound;14.95) that what matters is shared experience, realistic planning and targeted resources. This handbook is exactly what it sets out to be - a practical guide to raising ethnic minority and bilingual pupils' achievement. It describes projects from 19 European cities, co-ordinated by the ComeniusSocrates funding programme.
The key is multi-level action, directed at housing, health and parents as well as schools. You look up your project (reading partnerships in Bradford, for example, or Dutch as a second language for new immigrants in Rotterdam) and find the contacts, criteria and caveats listed for you. There are no interventions, no controls, and no promises - just realistic pointers for improvement.