School Turnarounds In All Their Complexity

Inside School Turnarounds: Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories
by Laura Pappano
(Harvard Education Press, 200 pp., $21.95)

Inside School Turnarounds by Laura Pappano is a no-nonsense book delineating, sometimes in excruciating detail, the circumstances that surround genuine and courageous attempts at urban school reform. As the author defines the term, “turnaround is about rapid and dramatic improvement not just on test scores, but also in culture, attitude and student aspirations.”

She quite properly concentrates on the high school, the institution most impervious to change. Despite significant changes in schools’ ethnic make-up—particularly recently—high schools are very much the same as they were 50 years ago in the way classrooms are organized and instruction is delivered. Even the architecture of most urban high schools reflects the ethos of the 19th rather than the 20th century.

Most of the turnaround strategies Laura Pappano describes are standard operating procedures in the current reform era. They include school uniforms, partnerships with corporations, the use of standardized tests to evaluate student progress, some kind of accommodation with the local teachers union (some of which are remarkably tractable, given their  reputation to the contrary), and dynamic leadership from  the top (despite fascinating differences in leadership style).

While the reader may be thinking “I have heard all of this before,” the power of this book lies in the awareness of complexity the author demonstrates. She cites in detailed chapter and verse the extraordinary range of challenge involved in genuine school turnaround. As Clemenceau once observed, “It is easier to move a graveyard than to change a school curriculum.” But the curriculum, important as it is (as illustrated by the success of E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program, especially in elementary schools), is a relatively small piece in the puzzle. Certainly as—and possibly more—important is the knowledge base of teachers and their capacity to motivate and inspire.

The social conditions surrounding schools are so much more complex than they once were. As Laura Pappano puts it “One of the big questions about inner-city school reform is whether parents—average parents—become invested enough to be a force in school reform.” Finally, as the rich get richer and the poor poorer (an indisputable conclusion in all highly developed countries), it becomes harder than ever to honor the time-honored principle of equality of educational opportunity.

Laura Pappano is not just an outstanding journalist, she is also a talented teacher. Let me summarize the questions she raises:

  • Chapter 1, referencing the Law and Government Academy at Hartford Public High School, “Is there a point beyond which schools ought not to be expected to reach a student, or does this run counter to the very idea of turnaround and educational equity?”
  • Chapter 2. The Superintendent of Hartford City Schools clearly believes in school uniforms and partnerships with external agencies. Do you agree that they make a real difference?
  • Chapter 3. The Raymond E. Betance School, also in Hartford, has made only modest improvements. Should it have been closed?
  • Chapter 4 describes the induction procedures used by Achievement First, a successful charter school network. Conventional schools tend to assume that new teachers arrive with more teaching experience and skills. Which is likely to work better, and can teachers from different backgrounds be expected to work together?
  • Chapter 5 describes the principal of Taft Information Technology High School, also in Hartford, who requested immediate public support from the community, making it abundantly clear that his ‘covenant’ was with the community not the school board.  Is this a viable approach or can the two be integrated?

To summarize, “This is a well-researched, well-written and timely book” (to quote from one of the book’s blurbs, by Alan Khazei).  The book does not paper over the cracks; it portrays the challenges as they are. Turnaround is never complete or totally finished. I would rate this book as an invaluable primer for people engaged in fighting the good fight.

-A. Graham Down

More book reviews by Graham Down are available here.

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