Published Online: June 7, 2010

Book Backgrounder

Uncovering the 'Invisible Barriers' to Student Success

You can read the Teacher Book Club discussion here.

The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons From An Innovative Urban School
by Linda F. Nathan
Beacon Press, 2009, 185 pp.

Linda Nathan is a former teacher and the founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy, an arts-focused public high school that has gained widespread attention for its unconventional methods and strong academic record. Some 95 percent of BAA graduates are said to be accepted into college. And that statistic is all the more impressive when you consider the school’s demographic: Nearly 80 percent of BAA's students are minority and 60 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Teacher Book Club

The online discussion of The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test with author Linda Nathan took place the week of July 12-16.

In The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test, Nathan sets out to describe her schools' development and its approach to education. That approach is suggested in the book's title: Nathan believes that the key to a school’s success lies in directly investigating and addressing the often difficult questions that students and school communities face—whether they be academic, cultural, or racial. "If I've learned anything during my years in schools," she writes, "it is that change can only come from a rigorous questioning process."

Rather than relying on standard school practices and generic curricula, Nathan explains, she and her faculty have engaged in intensive questioning processes to develop programs that fit the particular needs and aspirations of their school community. Among other things, this approach has led BAA to create specific frameworks of intellectual and social goals (e.g., “Vision with Integrity”) that inform student projects and school-wide discussions. In the process, Nathan says, the students become stakeholders in a unique and specialized school mission.

This emphasis on dialogue and investigation is also apparent in Nathan's philosophy on supporting teachers. Skeptical of the renegade hero-teacher archetype often depicted in movies about urban high schools, Nathan says that she and her colleagues have striven to create structures at BAA that enable teachers to share ideas and work on problems together. Time is built into teachers' schedules to meet regularly and build relationships, to observe one another's classrooms, and work together on curriculum development and student issues. Nathan writes with particular pride about an initiative at BAA that requires all teachers, regardless of subject area, to co-teach a core seminar on writing. This assignment, she believes, gives teachers shared experiences and responsibilities that bolster their sense of professional community.

But Nathan's—and BAA's—educational philosophy is perhaps most vividly illustrated in the section of the book in which she describes the school's attempts to address a disturbing racial achievement gap, particularly with respect to the struggles of African-American boys. Instead of immediately instituting intensive test-prep sessions or some other "tactic of the month," Nathan and her colleagues embarked on a series of sometimes uncomfortable discussions on the connections between race, classroom practice, and academic achievement. These deliberations then led to potentially risky initiatives to help teachers look more closely at the way they interact with African-American boys in their classes and to open up the conversation to the students themselves. The immediate results, Nathan says, were promising.

As she writes toward the end of her book, Nathan sees a school's role, in part, as working to uncover the "invisible barriers" that often keep students from reaching their full potential. While some readers may disagree with some of her tactics, or feel that she occasionally pushes too hard—or too instinctively—on issues of race, class, and power, it's hard not to agree, on the evidence of her book, that she has helped create a striving and intellectually vibrant high school.

Author Linda Nathan joined us for an online discussion of her book during the week of July 12-16.

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