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Beating the Odds: High Schools as Communities of Commitment


reviewed by Alice Ginsberg - 2004

coverTitle: Beating the Odds: High Schools as Communities of Commitment
Author(s): Jacqueline Ancess
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807743550, Pages: 177, Year: 2003
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In Beating the Odds: High Schools as Communities of Commitment, Jacqueline Ancess intimately explores the working lives of teachers and students at three public high schools: a vocational-technical school in suburban Delaware composed almost entirely of working class students; a New York City international high school for immigrants learning English; and a “last chance” school for failing students, primarily African-American and Latino. What draws these seemingly diverse schools together is that they all provide examples of schools where students feel listened to and cared for, both inside and outside the classroom. Likewise, these are schools in which teachers do more than simply “transmit” knowledge to students. Teachers, administrators and students are genuinely involved in all aspects of the running of the school -- acting both as policymakers and implementers, developing curriculum, fostering a school community, and, working collaboratively, creating a culture of success.

The book’s chapters are not organized by case studies, but rather by helping readers to understand what it means for a school to be a “community of commitment” (Chapter One). Woven throughout each chapter are compelling examples of how schools might be reorganized structurally (Chapter Two); how teachers can create caring relationships with students (Chapter Three); and how curricular and pedagogical approaches need to be changed from a lecture driven format to one that truly engages students (Chapter Four). This last is accomplished not only by showing them the relevance and meaning of what they are learning to their everyday lives (essentially creating what Ancess describes as a “need to know” atmosphere), but by involving students in the design of learning.

At the

Paul M. Hodgson Vocational-Technical High School , for example, students were asked to “assess the school’s implementation of its mission” (p. 39). Staff met with students in small groups and asked questions such as “You’ve seen our mission statement. How are we doing? How do you feel about this? How can we improve this? Are we getting there? What can we do to get there” (p. 39). Student responses questioned why the faculty wrote the mission statement without them in the first place, indicating a kind of investment in school which is rarely observed, especially in communities where students have been made to feel that schools present them with an untenable dilemma: either assimilating into a culture which treats them as second class citizens or dropping out and risking joblessness and poverty.

Yet as Ancess describes the schools in rich detail it becomes apparent why students, despite the odds, are enduring and succeeding -- they came to feel that their teachers respected and trusted them, and genuinely cared about them as individuals. One student eloquently notes: “Caring is the main thing. You can’t get an education until you get personal” (p. 63). Another noted, for example, that:

We got [assistant] principals and teachers here that we can talk to. They can understand us and put things together. They can adjust themselves in our shoes and know how we feel about the situation and whether they can do something about it (p. 69).

This is echoed by students throughout the book. Such a caring atmosphere is created, in part, because teachers also engage with students outside the classroom, some even keeping “tabs” on graduates who have no family by seeing them on holidays, sending care packages, becoming advocates for needed social services, and taking on the role of surrogate family (p. 64). The assumption is that “if they can’t take control of their lives in nonacademic areas, it’s going to affect the academic area also” (p. 65).

The glowing endorsement by students quoted throughout the book does not mean, however, that this process is an easy one. The book is made much more authentic as Ancess also illustrates the struggle teachers and administrators face trying to reach students who have experienced years of alienation from the schooling process. She quotes a teacher, for example, who honestly admits that, despite her best efforts, “you can still feel minute-to-minute frustration” (p. 75), and a teacher who considers the “enduring dilemma”: “How do we hold kids responsible for meeting standards and wanting to provide them unlimited opportunities? (p. 75)” One answer to this question, as Ancess so insightfully notes, is that in these schools “student resistance and ambivalence, often regarded as pathological willfulness, is normalized” (p. 128). Teachers “push” students, but they do so because they believe in their individual characters and abilities, making it “harder to fail than succeed (p.74). Teachers “nudge, nag, punch and stroke” (p. 74) students, but students understand that it is with their best interests in mind, and that the teachers will do everything possible to help them succeed. The culture is thus not one of punishment, but of expectation and mentoring.

The three case studies are interwoven throughout the first four chapters, sometimes making it difficult to get a grasp on any one of the schools. It is also worth noting that most of the ideas, although compellingly presented in these examples, are already recognized in the field of progressive school reform, e.g., that high schools, ideally small, must be places where teachers and students have authentic and caring relationships with each other; where teachers raise “unexamined and conflicting ideas” (p. 88); where teaching is collaborative and “de-privatized” (p. 12); and where teachers (and students) have the “freedom and authority” to make important decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, classroom organization, and the larger school community in which they reside (p. 118). It is also important to note that, no matter how many times these ideas are proven to be effective in overcoming the overwhelming failure of so many public schools, they remain, tragically, anomalies in a national reform system obsessed with high-stakes standardized testing and accountability based on numeric scores rather than with real student engagement and recognition of their individuality and diversity.

Thus, in Chapter Five, Ancess addresses the politics of school reform more directly, and it is here that the book makes a most significant contribution to the field, Ancess bluntly asks: Why treat these schools’ success as a deficit? Why repeatedly insist upon trying to make the unfixable model workable? (p. 126). Ancess continues:

While these schools may not be typical, to deny that they can be typical is an assertion of will to prevent them from being typical and a repudiation of the belief that environment can affect human behavior (p. 131).

Ancess has an excellent understanding of the way that reform policy flows from the top levels (national, state, and local) down to individual schools, underscoring that large administrative and teacher turnover can be deadly for schools which are on a steady but slow path to reform, and that new administrators often needlessly shift the focus of reform making “no innovation, no matter how successful,…secure” (p.132). She further notes: “In educational tradition, policy continuity is an anomaly” (p. 132), astutely observing that “Conventionally, school systems manage crisis by shifting the location of their problem” (p. 133), counting on local schools to manage problems internally (such as overcrowding) that should be dealt with at the district or state level.

Ancess concludes by recommending that school system central offices need to “reculture,” (p. 138) which basically means changing the entire way that they operate to be more aligned with the needs of the schools and the budding communities within them:

By reculturing, I mean transforming the values and assumptions upon which central offices function and their ways of doing business as well as reconceptualizing the role and function of the central office in the areas of monitoring, professional development, accountability, authority, power relations with schools, standardization, and scaling up reform. (p. 138)

A hefty list, for sure. But in the end, anyone who has worked inside an urban public school – as Ancess herself has, spending more than 20 years in the

New York City school system, where she taught English in the South Bronx – will find the ideas presented in this book very difficult to argue with. One particularly compelling question raised by Ancess is: “Do we trust our schools to prepare youth to take a close and hard look at our society” (p. 121)? Embedded in this question is the suggestion that one reason why this kind of school reform has not taken root is because empowering students—particularly poor students, students of color, immigrant students, and generally all those considered “at-risk” —threatens the systems of privilege and power that have existed in our country since its origins. Thus the book’s title “Beating the Odds” is well crafted, for this is exactly what these teachers and students are faced with. The reader is left feeling optimistic that there are schools where students are, in fact, beating the odds, and, at the same time, left with troubling questions about equity and education. As Ancess suggests: “To be careless in the education for our future is to be careless with our democracy” (p. 141).


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 362-365
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11175, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 4:29:46 PM

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About the Author
  • Alice Ginsberg
    Consultant
    E-mail Author
    ALICE GINSBERG is a consultant who specializes in the areas of educational equity, gender studies, school reform, and educational philanthropy. Her recent clients include the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the Caroline and Sigmund Schott Foundation. Ginsberg holds a B.A. in Women’s Studies from Temple University and a Ph.D. in “Education Culture and Society” from the University of Pennsylvania. From 1990-1998 she was Program Officer at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (the state’s partner to the National Endowment for the Humanities), where she developed and directed GATE (Gender Awareness Through Education), a three-year professional development program for teachers, administrators and parents in a large urban school system. She is the author of numerous articles on gender, diversity and equity in urban educational reform, most recently in Women’s Studies Quarterly and Comparative Issues in Contemporary Education. She is also the co-author of the book Gender in Urban Education: Strategies for Student Achievement (forthcoming, Heinemann, 2003).
 
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