Great Schools On Purpose

On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character
by Samuel Casey Carter
(Corwin, 208 pp., $30.95)

There are several reasons to like this book. In the first place, it is written in good clean prose. (It reminds me of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style). Secondly, it is a litany of the positive. Here are schools that the author finds exemplary, a welcome change from the litany of travail so frequently mirrored in books on school reform. Finally, such a listing—a series of “lighthouse schools”—is exactly what people are looking for. Not that the list included in this book is remotely exhaustive, one hopes. But at least it suggests that there is some answer to the question frequently posed by the philanthropic community: how as a nation we can scale up educational reform.

However, to cite a familiar cliche, the devil is in the detail. Frankly the sub-title, “How great school cultures form strong character” bothers me. Exactly what does this mean? One might just as easily say that strong character makes great schools, rather like the famous dictum “manners maketh man” (Winchester, in the l5th century). In other words, the definitions of culture and character provided in the preface strike me as arbitrary.

Moreover none of the four secondary schools appearing in the book uses a national assessment to validate the excellence of their students. The Advanced Placement program does not appear in the index. The somewhat comparable International Baccalaureate program is mentioned in passing at the elementary level, and an AP teacher is mentioned at Providence St. Mel.

I am also somewhat troubled by the inclusion of the Arlington Traditional School in the list. Arlington has always had a good school system, as so many suburban area would claim. At all events, it is hardly reflective of the crisis in American education, where so many schools in places like Newark, New Jersey, or Detroit, Michigan are not able to discharge their responsibilities effectively.

I also wonder whether Mr. Carter’s analysis of culture is entirely convincing. Let me quote directly from his book: “It is only in knowing exactly what you intend your school to achieve, that you can begin to do it and every day on purpose”; “The goal is not perfection of excellence, but a striving to do your best”; “Schools need to become places that teach about the true, the good and the beautiful”; “Schools are for children. Classrooms need to be student-centered” – surely a simplistic notion. Of course, I realize that by quoting these excerpts out of context, I do them a disservice. Nevertheless they have a pietistic quality which borders on the cliche.

It is interesting, nonetheless, to try to synthesize the commonalities among the schools cited: Clarity of mission. Institutional purpose has to be front and center, which is difficult in a world of increasing social, economic and cultural diversity. Dedicated and inspired teachers. In every case, the author emphasizes the critical importance of teacher quality. Without this component, the relations both between teachers and between the principal and the teaching staff are seriously impaired. Good teaching is the sine qua non of student learning. The importance of the commitment of the principal to academic excellence cannot be overstated. He or she is certainly more important than anybody else in embodying and defining the ethos of the school. It was gratifying to find the core knowledge curriculum so frequently embedded in the elementary schools featured. There can be no better springboard for the subsequent academic success of the students.

Little of this is revelatory. All these characteristics of effective schools have been part of the fabric of post-World War II school reform. But rhetoric aside, we all need to focus on these commonsense initiatives if progress is to be made. Although Mr Carter’s approach is rather homespun, his book has a plethora of useful insights.

-A. Graham Down

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