April 01, 2001 6 min read
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WALL OF FAME: One Teacher, One Class, and the Power to Save Schools and Transform Lives,by Jonathan Freedman. (AVID Academic Press, 409 pages, $25.) Teachers at Clairemont High School in San Diego approached the first day of school in 1980 with trepidation. Court-ordered desegregation was bringing 500 mostly poor and minority students to Clairemont that fall, and many of the school’s white, middle-class students were transferring as a result. Some teachers had decided to leave, too. Of those staying, a few boasted that they were not about to compromise their high academic standards for a bunch of “ghetto” kids.

English teacher Mary Catherine Swanson didn’t intend to lower her standards either, but she also understood that these new students, some non-English speakers, would need intensive help if they were to succeed at Clairemont and go on to college.

It was her desire to see these students do well that drove Swanson, portrayed here by Pulitzer Prize-winner Freedman as the Joan of Arc of teaching, to create AVID, short for Advancement Via Individual Determination. Her idea was to recruit C students who wanted to do well and give them one period a day of enrichment in addition to their regular course loads. Most kids who lag behind academically get remediation, but Swanson rejected that approach in favor of acceleration. Instead of boring AVID kids with basic math and English, she insisted that they take high-level courses. A small grant enabled her to hire college kids from the University of California, San Diego to provide intensive one-on-one tutoring during class.

The AVID story has been told by many journalists but never like this. Freedman’s compelling, in-depth account gets at the nuances of the program, the little things that make it work. Early on, for example, Swanson noticed that AVID tutors were answering students’ questions instead of challenging them to think through sticky problems themselves. She quickly changed the protocol. Then there was the matter of taking notes; AVID students were clueless. As it turned out, one of the tutors had learned the Cornell method of note taking— information on the right side of the page, concepts and questions on the left— and taught it to Swanson, who incorporated it into the program.

While Swanson’s ability to bob and weave was important, Freedman came to see that the real key to AVID’s success was the close-knit culture of learning that emerged organically over time within each cohort of students. Together, the students felt emboldened to tackle anything—from geometric theorems to Shakespearean sonnets. College became an expectation. Since AVID’s inception, 93 percent of participating students have gone on to college. The names of those students and their colleges are listed on a “Wall of Fame” mural created by AVID students at San Diego’s Crawford High School.

Thanks to this record—and a little marketing by Swanson—the program has grown dramatically in recent years; it is now offered in more than 1,000 schools in 16 states. Although he touches on this growth, Freedman stays focused on Swanson and her work at Clairemont, writing with dramatic flair about her early challenges. He tells one particularly troubling story about a skeptical biology teacher who made AVID students in his class retake a test because he was convinced they’d cheated on the first one. To his astonishment, they got the same high scores the second time. Swanson also was bullied by the local educational establishment. Many administrators, it seems, could not bear to see an upstart teacher succeed with a program she’d developed on her own.

This, then, is a story about perseverance, a testament to a daring, committed teacher and the many foundering students who chose to grab hold of the academic lifeline she dangled in front of them. At several points in the book, Swanson tells Freedman she never intended to change the education system. Yet some might argue that, by giving struggling students the tools to succeed, she has done just that.

ALL CHILDREN CAN LEARN: Lessons From the Kentucky Reform Experience,edited by Roger Pankratz and Joseph Petrosko (Jossey-Bass, 384 pages, $25.) In the early 1990s, Kentucky virtually invented what we have come to call systemic school reform. Rather than tinkering around the edges, state policymakers decided the only way to soup up their lagging schools was to overhaul the system. They increased school funding, developed academic standards and assessments, rewarded successful schools and assisted failing ones, and created new opportunities for professional development. The hope was that all these initiatives would work together to drive improvement.

While the researchers and policymakers who contributed to this volume applaud Kentucky’s initiative, they convincingly make the case that the massive—and expensive—reform effort has not produced the desired results. The original student assessment system, criticized from the beginning for being too subjective, has been replaced by traditional fill-in-the-bubble tests. Attempts to get more parents involved in schools have failed, and teacher groups have resisted efforts to develop tough professional standards. But the most ominous finding reported here—certainly one that gives the volume’s title an ironic twist—comes from a survey of Kentucky teachers in which one out of three disagreed with the reform plan’s central premise that “all children can learn.”

This informative book should serve as a warning to lawmakers in other states who think they can, with the right policies, manage teachers and direct student learning. No state has tried harder and longer to do this than Kentucky, yet most of this volume’s contributors seem to agree with the assessment of one prominent district superintendent who said the reform effort merited a B minus or C plus. That’s not much to brag about, especially in this era of grade inflation.

TEACHERS AND EDUCATIONAL CHANGE: The Lived Experience of Secondary School Restructuring,by James Nolan Jr. and Denise Meister (State University of New York Press, 224 pages, $19.95.) The authors, both professors of education at Penn State, spent a year examining a major restructuring effort at an unnamed private school from the perspective of five teachers. Administrators had asked the teachers, for reasons never adequately explained, to implement team teaching and block scheduling. While the educators gave the reforms a gallant try—creating a number of interdisciplinary units with such names as “Jurassic Park” and “Wild West”—the result was a disaster.

The major problem, the authors write, was that the teachers found it difficult “to remain loyal to both their subject matter and team.” The history teacher, for example, believed in taking a chronological approach to his subject and felt hampered by themes the team rather arbitrarily decided should begin, say, in 1905. The science teacher was at a loss for how to adapt his curriculum to topics likes immigration and the Holocaust. He and his students received media coverage for filling a coffin with sunflower seeds—each seed representing a Holocaust victim—but exactly what this had to do with science is unclear.

Nolan and Meister’s message, though, is quite clear: Administrators should think twice before rushing into voguish reforms such as these. Unless well conceived, they may very well cause more problems than they solve.

—David Ruenzel


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