Harvard Educational Review
  1. So Much Reform, So Little Change

    The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools

    by Charles M. Payne

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008. 264 pp. $26.95.

    In So Much Reform, So Little Change, Charles Payne advocates for a deeper understanding of why urban schools fail the youth they teach. Payne suggests that those who think “surely, by now, we have had enough talk about and experience with failure? Let’s focus on what works” (5) are well-intentioned for their sense of urgency but are unlikely to make systemic progress because they only partially understand the causes of school failure. With bold, engaging, and sometimes humorous prose, Payne deftly unfolds the profundity of urban school failure and shows readers that improvement efforts must engage both structural and cultural features of schools to bring about success.

    Payne illustrates the dismal state of urban schooling with anecdotes that depict the demoralization and lack of efficacy common among adults in urban schools. He begins with a story of Joyce Kingon, a new South Bronx teacher who enters a world of broken clocks, revolving-door reading programs, and colleagues who scream at students to communicate with them. Because her principal maintained a “laserlike focus on bulletin boards” (19)—an effort that would impress district administrators and visitors—Joyce never had an opportunity to engage in any deep examination of classroom practice. Payne also describes his own experience studying Chicago’s Westside High School, a notoriously dysfunctional setting where staff endured at least three plans to improve the school’s wild hallways though none gained traction. Payne observed that despite their efforts, the staff never believed that any plan would actually work.

    Payne also synthesizes research that links the quality of human relations in urban schools to their rates of success or failure. He discusses a series of studies the Consortium on Chicago School Research commissioned from 1995 to 2006, which identified lack of trust among colleagues as a significant factor in school failure. Payne also describes Helen Gouldner’s 1978 study of black teachers in all-black classrooms in which she found that teachers’ inherent beliefs about students’ abilities dictated student performance in the classroom. Whereas students whom teachers regarded as “advanced” acted so, the students whom teachers assumed were less capable performed as though they were. Payne argues that lack of trust and differentiated student expectations are indicative of low levels of social capital and that ignoring these features of schooling diminishes the capacity for genuine improvement.

    In a society where urban school failure reproduces itself almost automatically, where ideologies of class, race, and power blend with the structures of society and schools to create an indomitable force, readers may expect Payne to be skeptical that school reform efforts could positively affect youth. Indeed, readers may finish the book with a sense that their work with urban schools is futile because the problems are more complex than they originally considered. In creating this sentiment among readers, Payne might widen the distance between those committed to school reform and practice. Yet, through poignant counterexamples he posits a more promising conclusion. For instance, in chapter 3 he highlights features of black schools in the South before desegregation in which adults kept high standards of social and intellectual performance and exhibited a personal investment in students’ academic trajectories. And in the epilogue, Payne describes his father’s schooling experiences, which guided development of the whole self, demanded high standards, and fostered a sense of community among classmates. Today, scholarship translates these school features into two main constructs of social capital—academic press and social support—and Payne cites current research indicating that high levels of these constructs have a positive impact on student performance. While much reform overemphasizes changes in structural aspects, like money and curricula, Payne reasons that the social and cultural context of schools is equally critical to consider. Thus, applying lessons from these historical examples to urban reform efforts could improve school culture and student achievement.

    Payne’s recommendation for urban school reform is an amalgam of the research, personal experiences, and historical examples he has contemplated during his decades as an educator. He advocates for instructional leadership; professional communities that ensure high levels of coherence and accountability; high-quality instruction; and attention to the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of youth. Borrowing from Johns Hopkins’ Talent Development model, he argues that instead of focusing on one or more of these traits, successful reform efforts will operate comprehensively and intensively toward sustained improvement. Viewing reform this way, he believes, will allow readers to be smart about transforming urban schools.
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    The Editors

    Book Notes

    So Much Reform, So Little Change
    by Charles M. Payne

    Corridor Cultures
    by Maryann Dickar

    In a Reading State of Mind
    by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp