School Smarts: The Four Cs of Academic Success
reviewed by Maria Mejorado - 2005
Jim Burkes School Smarts: The Four Cs of Academic Success offers an engaging guide for educators concerned about students who do not readily experience academic success. It is evident that a major source of his inspiration and motivation for writing this book is his students, who experience academic struggles similar to his own. Burke uses the most compelling and relevant literature regarding disenfranchised students available to state his case and weaves in responses and solutions to close the academic gap.
Chapter 1, Understanding Academic Success, gently reminds educators that low-performing students struggle in part because they do not have adequate exposure and access to the cultural capital for school success available in academic families. Yet teachers treat all students as if they have the same tools and strategies at their disposal. Burke illuminates the culture of academics, which includes behaviors and habits not always visible unless one is born into it. With its own language, the culture identifies what is important and how much effort to invest in various aspects of schooling. For students from this culture, school becomes an extension of home, as the same values, skills, and expectations made explicit at the dinner table are echoed in the classroom. Burke convincingly argues that all students can learn the language and customs of this strange new country called school (p. xv). Programs such as Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID), ACCESS, and Puente provide a home within a school to help students develop skills and knowledge needed to be successful. At the end of the chapter Burke introduces the four Cs he developed for students and to help teachers in designing instructional objectives and teaching.
In chapter 2, The Four Cs of Academic Success, the author reflects upon his school experience and career as he applies the four Cs (commitment, content, competencies, and capacity) to explain his success. For each of the four Cs, he offers a definition and identifies the most critical factors that affect it. He argues that the four Cs apply equally to students, teachers, parents, and educational institutions.
Chapter 3 defines Commitment as the extent to which students care about the work and maintain consistency in their attempt to succeed (p. 38). In this chapter, Burke addresses the whole child in listing the following as important elements of commitment: consistency, effort, emotional investment, faith, and permission. He reminds us that some students depend on the school to make the commitment to success that their parents have foregone (p. 41). This requires a special level of commitment by teachers, parents, students, and administrators, and that commitment must be internalized by all involved and become part of each persons identity.
Factors affecting commitment, according to Burke, are identity, allies, and engagement. Identity, he writes, is a fundamental aspect of developing and maintaining commitment and schools play a role in the construction of that identity (p. 49). Students also need allies, guides, and coaches, according to Burke. He suggests that students greatly benefit from a haven at school where they can feel known, welcomed, and cared for. Burke drives home the point that the discussion about the engagement factor applies equally to teachers. Given the realities of todays scripted curriculum, it takes more time and effort to engage students to the degree that students tune in and discover an emotional attachment to the subject . . . and . . . get fired up in ways that allow them to brim over with ideas that alter their view of themselves and the world (p. 53).
Burke begins chapter 4, Content, by reminding us that what is included in curricular content is debatable and changes over time. It is influenced by standards, textbook companies, and standardized testing, resulting in preprocessed content. Yet Burke believes that content must be engaging, meaningful, challenging and useful (p. 61). It must meet childrens needs as students and future employees, citizens, and parents. The curriculum, he argues, should include academic as well as intellectual, moral and social, and personal and practical knowledge.
The first factor affecting content, according to Burke, is ethos, and it is applicable to the content, the teacher, and the text used to deliver the content. That content, he emphasizes, must be important, practical, challenging, and of the highest quality. For effective instruction, Burke stresses, teachers must be knowledgeable and incorporate students culture, experience, and background knowledge into the content. The chapter includes four useful guides for effective instruction and concludes with the description of a collaborative effort within Burkes English department to examine ways to teach poetry most effectively.
Competencies, the subject of chapter 5, are skills students need to be able to complete an assignment or succeed at some task (p. 81). They include, according to Burke, the ability to communicate ideas; evaluate and make decisions; and generate ideas, solutions, and interpretations. He differentiates between the competencies needed to excel in a subject and those needed for overall school success. Burke has developed a summary of skills he has observed in successful students. The 14 competencies he identifies embrace the whole student. They include the importance of making daily decisions based on priorities and goals; having at least one or two allies to support doing ones best; giving oneself permission to try; and the importance of being organized. The factors that affect competencies were developed by Burke (2003) and are illustrated in The Continuum of Performance (p. 102).
In chapter 6, Capacity, Burke applies his experience of getting into cycling shape to help his students increase their reading skills. He recognizes the importance of quantifiable aspects of performance, which include confidence, dexterity, fluency, joy, memory, resiliency, speed, and stamina. Tolerance of risk and complexity are factors identified by Burke as affecting capacity. Burke ends the chapter by reiterating that achieving academic success is a developmental process and that the four Cs are teachable to help successful and struggling students alike.
In chapter 7, A Practical Prologue: The Four Cs in Action, Burke takes each of the four Cs and offers additional ideas for administrators and teachers. Staff development, according to Burke, is very important for equipping teachers with the tools necessary to help students strive for excellence through the four Cs.
Through the work depicted in this book, Burke has lit the sacred fire, a fire by which our students can not only warm themselves but guide themselves through the future they must help create (p. 125). May he continue to keep the sacred fire roaring for students and educators. We eagerly anticipate his response to one of his former students, Maria, with his next book answering her question Why do you care?
Burke, J. (2003). The English teachers companion: A complete guide to classroom, curriculum, and the profession (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.