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The Heart of a High School

reviewed by Dick Corbett - 2003

coverTitle: The Heart of a High School
Author(s): Holly Holland and Kelly Mazzoli
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325003939, Pages: 320, Year: 2001
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Holland and Mazzoli’s The Heart of a High School is a refreshingly incomplete look at urban high school reform.  The work is “incomplete” in that the authors concentrate on the second year of a four-year, $10,000,000 foundation-funded, high school initiative in a single school district; and, so, the reader never learns the rest of the story – i.e., what worked, what did not work, and why.  This approach is so refreshing because it makes it impossible for the book’s audience to latch prematurely onto any “research-based best practices,” “lessons learned,” or “proven strategies” to try elsewhere, especially in this day and age of obsequious obsession with “what works.”  Obviously it is important that educators be able to learn from one another’s travails, but too often reformers act as if good ideas can be transported intact from one setting to another without careful reflection about what made the idea successful in the prior place and what is different about the new situation that would require adaptations.  With The Heart of a High School, the reader is simply unable to jump to quick conclusions about what high schools should do to improve, and thus is forced to consider the circumstances in which this particular reform becomes embedded.  And therein lies the tale. 


As with probably most high schools, the studied reform was not the first for the two high schools in Gladstone School District.  Indeed, the authors detail sixty years of local attempts to shape the schools to fit particular images of what good education should be in that community.  As was inevitable, the current effort – a Freshman Academy structured around a flexible schedule, team-teaching, external coaching, and an after hours alternative school for troubled students and the gradual introduction of upper level academies that would emphasize students’ eventual occupational and professional interests – quickly ran up against and into this history.  The resulting interaction among intentions, actions, and context provides grand fodder for all with an interest in school reform.  The core message, of course, is that a bold plan that overlooks the idiosyncratic nuances of the setting in which the plan is to be implemented is no plan at all.


And, what were some of these idiosyncratic nuances that sidetracked, reshaped, and benefited the initiative?  Several are noteworthy, since they also likely will be present in many situations.  First was a reliance on administrators who admittedly viewed themselves as managers rather than leaders.  This equivocal leadership meant that teachers received little more than verbal encouragement to change and occasionally suffered from decisions made on the basis of smooth operation instead of support for change, as when the chief administrator boosted the ninth grade academy’s enrollment suddenly and dramatically to solve enrollment issues in the district.  Second was the interplay of outsiders and insiders involved with the reform effort.  The foundation understandably wanted input into the changes to be made, partially because its staff worried about the district’s ability to take the necessary steps to improve.  The educators felt that their professional province had been invaded.  Thus both sides distrusted each other, and no attempts were made to alter the foundation’s view that the insiders were too “parochial” and the educators’ perspective that the outsiders were too oblivious to the realities of school life.  Third, the authors repeatedly observe that discipline, not instruction, was the core concern of the school staff.  In several instances, ranging from the opening day assembly to the classroom, Holland and Mazzoli describe how an ingrained compulsion to keep students in line could mute potentially constructive opportunities to learn.  The above contextual features were just three of many that the book richly details. 


The book is written in a journalistic style.  That is, the authors make no attempt to detail research methods that others could use to replicate the results, nor do they claim that the incidents and interviews described in the book were representative of a much larger collection of such data sources.  Instead, they simply offer an interesting and illuminating amalgam of anecdotes, references to educational experts’ opinions, and editorial comments to help the reader reflect on the Gladstone situation and how it fits into the overall picture of secondary school reform.  


The authors’ frustration with the intransigence of secondary education is obvious; in the preface, in fact, they refer to their book as “the story of an American institution in desperate need of repair.”  They deride much of the processes the school district used over the years to investigate what should be done and to implement those plans.  They attend carefully and frequently to how the regularities of high school life went on untouched even as political battles vehemently were fought outside the walls.  However, their respectful and revealing interactions with administrators, teachers, and students show that the ingrained resistance to change is not so much the product of mindless, knee-jerk obstinence but rather an understandable – and almost justifiable – contextually-based coping mechanism. 


Ultimately, the story is not one of failed reform.  Despite the host of contextual issues that faced educators, parents, students, and community members, there was still the chance that at least some of the hopes of the initiators of the effort would be realized and they could add another layer of change to all the many layers that had preceded it.  Indeed, one student’s assessment of the ninth grade academy’s first year was:  “At my home high school, if you don’t do a good job, you just fail; here, you keep going until you do quality work.”  The real story, however, is one that should alert policymakers and educational leaders with glowing red lights and blasting sirens that changing schools is not as simple as adopting a slogan and swinging the stick of narrowly-defined accountability.  People and institutions and history all muddy the water considerably, not hopelessly so but demandingly so, and true reform can only come from thoughtful and wise reflection on how best to marry the setting and reform aspirations.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 4, 2003, p. 576-578
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11026, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 9:13:57 AM

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About the Author
  • Dick Corbett
    Independent educational researcher
    E-mail Author
    DICK CORBETT is an independent educational researcher who spends his time studying reform in low-income schools. Currently he is investigating the effects of several Comprehensive School Reform models, including Talent Development, Onward to Excellence II, Different Ways of Knowing, Middle Start, and Mississippi’s Whole Schools Initiative. Recent books are Listening to Urban Kids (State University of New York Press, 2001, with Bruce Wilson) and Effort and Excellence in Urban Classrooms (Teachers College Press, 2002, with Bruce Wilson and Belinda Williams).
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