“How The Other Half Learns”: A Review (Part 1)

Robert Pondiscio’s recent book about a New York City elementary school is an uncommon example of research and writing on school reform.

Why uncommon?

Few former teachers, journalists, and academic researchers have done what he did in spending a year at Bronx 1, part of the network of Success Academies in New York City that former city official Eva Moskowitz founded in 2006. Now a charter network of 47 schools in New York City enrolling 17,000 low-income children of color, Success Academies are both extolled and criticized (especially in the media). There is precious little middle ground when it comes to reformers, parents, teachers, and others when it comes to judging the network’s worth. Writing in 2014, a few years before Pondiscio became embedded in one Success Academy school, he wrote an op-ed in a New York newspaper asking: “Is Eva Moskowitz the Michael Jordan of Education Reform, or is she the Mark McGuire? (p. 10)”. One athlete, the finest of all basketball players in the 20th century and the other a disgraced steroid-filled home run hitter. He wasn’t sure. But two years later he wanted to find out.

Surprisingly, Moskowitz agreed to let Pondiscio to spend a year at Bronx 1 observing classes and teacher meetings, shadowing the principal and staff members, interviewing parents, teachers and administrators, meeting with children–“scholars” as they are called–in and out of school. He also attended teacher training sessions and staff development workshops. That Pondiscio was a former teacher in a Bronx low-income, low-scoring elementary school and affiliated with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an organization that boosts charter schools and whose leadership had praised her work in New York City may have helped in making her decision.

Which brings me to another reason for the book’s uniqueness. Except for Jay Mathews book on the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) a decade earlier (Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America, Pondiscio is the only journalist and former teacher to examine in depth a charter network that prides itself on high test scores year after year outscoring affluent elementary schools in the state—a focus that drives anti-charter critics and student-centered enthusiasts to sucking their thumbs.

In the past 35 years in U.S. schools the unfurled umbrella of business-driven standards-based reform, testing and scores have been the center of attention in improving urban schools. The resulting literature on school reform has been dominated by pundits, policymakers, and passers-by who equate high test scores with teacher and school effectiveness. Test score gains have become the coin of the realm and schools blessed with those higher scores have become darlings of donors and policymakers. Success Academies have produced annual gains even outscoring those New York City schools with low poverty rates and mostly white enrollments.

This book, then, is an anomaly in its in-depth portrayal of children, staff, parents, and leadership in a neighborhood that by all accounts–including the nearby one in which Pondiscio once taught–should have been overwhelmed by its surroundings. Yet Bronx 1 was not. It excelled insofar as test scores. Although Pondiscio makes clear that test scores are a narrow measure of student learning, he gives readers his take on why the school did excel.

In praising the uncommonness of this book, I have not forgotten academic researchers who have gone into schools. They (including doctoral students) have indeed spent time in schools using both quantitative and qualitative methods to paint pictures of schools and classrooms at one point in time. And they have written about their before-and-after studies of experimental programs in schools and deeply detailed case studies–all using the outcome measure of standardized test scores.

Few researchers, however, who have written about schools and districts–the basic units of reform–have taught in similar settings and have actually spent at least a year in those classrooms, schools and districts observing, interviewing, and capturing incidents and details that make school cultures in those places dance before a reader’s eyes.* To do so takes experience of teaching in such schools and the skills of a writer to pull out the significant incidents and flesh out the main players in words that grab attention and stay fixed in the readers’ mind. Not an academic researcher but ex-teacher and journalist, Pondisco does exactly that. **

Still I wanted to see if other academic researchers, journalists, or others had written comparable volumes that would make How the Other Half Learns part of a tradition rather than being uncommon. So before I sat down at my computer to write this review I went through my library and pulled out the books that did what no pundit, policymaker, or passer-by could do. I do not claim that my library covers the entire literature of school reform in districts and schools yet in my selective collection of books I found a handful that met the above criteria of skillful writing, spending a year or so in the setting, and getting the story published. None of the writers, however, had teaching experience. Sure there are other studies that I missed. So be it. But these, I believe, are comparable to Pondiscio’s book.

#Former Washington Post journalist and later a university sociologist, Gerald Grant spent a year at a Syracuse High School working with teachers and students recording daily activities, interviewing teachers and students, and observing classrooms and meetings. He places the high school in a historical context, that is, going from a mostly white, privileged enrollment to a desegregated one with a substantial minority presence. The turmoil of the Vietnam War, court decisions expanding students’ rights and ending, shifted authority and the ways that students and teachers interacted. The World We Created at Hamilton High School was published in 1988.

#Linda Perlstein, another journalist at the Washington Post, published Tested: One American School Struggles To Make the Grade in 2007. She writes of her year spent at Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, (MD). Mostly African American children from low-income homes, the school scored well on state tests and had earned a reputation for academic excellence. Perlstein describes the principal, teachers, and students over the course of a year.

#Jay Mathews, longtime Washington Post columnist on education wrote about the two teacher founders of the KIPP schools in 2009 (see above). He observed classes, spent time in schools, and revealed to a general audience what he saw thereby challenging the prevailing myths that surrounded these particular charter schools.

#Finally there is a high school in San Francisco that let a journalist spend four years–yes, four years–to observe classes, interview staff and students, and meet with them inside and outside school. Kristina Rizga’s Mission High School (2015) unravels the puzzle of a high school with low test scores year after year and yet over four of five graduates get admitted to college. Challenging the existing concentration on test scores as a proper measure of school and student achievement, Rizga’s analysis provides answers to this disparity between low test scores and college going graduates.

These books are the ones that I found in my library. Readers might supply their own examples of embedded journalists and researchers, some with teaching experiences and some not, who have spent considerable time in classrooms, and with students and parents. Each of these books, as Pondiscio’s, has embedded the all-important contexts–local, state, and national–into their accounts. Even were my list incomplete, when one counts up such rich examinations of schools, they are but a thimbleful of the literature on urban school reform.

Parts 2 and 3 dig into How the Other Half Learns raising questions about the tilt that the author has toward parental choice for low-income and working class minority parents, a single curriculum for all students, and a culture that makes extraordinary demands upon both parents and children.

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*One example (there are probably others) is researcher Louis Smith at Washington University in St. Louis who teamed up with William Geoffrey, a seventh grade teacher in a local school. Smith the outside observer recorded what happened every day for a semester in Geoffrey’s classroom. This micro-ethnography was published in 1968 as Complexities of an Urban Classroom: An Analysis toward a General Theory of Teaching.

**In this review, I omit first-hand accounts by teachers (e.g., Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers) and principals (e.g., Lean on Me) because they narrowly describe one classroom or one school from only the teacher’s or administrator’s view. Observing and interviewing many teachers reveals the variation that exists in a school. Awareness of the school and district detailed contexts rarely appears in such books.

3 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, school reform policies, testing

3 responses to ““How The Other Half Learns”: A Review (Part 1)

  1. Thank you for including Mission High on this distinguished list, Larry! I wanted to add one more: my favorite book on charter schools written by a veteran journalist and now the executive editor of Boston Globe’s investigative unit on education, Sarah Carr. Sarah’s “Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate American Children” (2013) reads like a novel, follows the lives of students, parents and their young charter school teachers, and describes the diversity of views among black parents in New Orleans when it comes to charter schools with unparalleled nuance, in my view (although I haven’t yet read Pondiscio’s book). Look forward to reading your review in the coming installements. Happy Holidays!

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