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Meaningful Urban Education Reform (Confronting the Learning Crisis in Mathematics and Science)

reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight - 2006

coverTitle: Meaningful Urban Education Reform (Confronting the Learning Crisis in Mathematics and Science)
Author(s): Kathryn M. Borman and Associates
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791463303, Pages: 285, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

Urban education has long been under attack for not serving the academic needs of students. Low achievement scores in math and science exacerbate the issue and send educators into a frenzy about what can be done. Many schools have adhered to a behaviorist pedagogy that imposes on the students what they are to learn and how they should learn it. Borman’s focus in this book is on "systemic reform," which makes her text crucial to urban educators in regard to viewing education from a more wholistic perspective.  Traditionally, school reform has focused on change in a very specific way:  by teasing out the particular variable that is the perceived cause of the urban concern and addressing that particular variable, be it teachers, parents, testing, school size, or location. When the focus is on one particular variable the other variables often lose momentum, thus placing the endeavor out of sync and unbalanced.  According to the author, “school culture either sabotages or facilitates change” (p. xi-xii); others agree with her point of view (Fullan, 2001; Resnick & Hall, 1998). School culture must be viewed as a mediating set of factors (or in this case drivers) that influence the creation of social ties and relationships. Oftentimes it is the critical element enhancing or curtailing effective teaching and successful student outcomes. If not, we end up with some idiosyncratic successes but not systemic reform.

The author is by discipline an anthropologist but understands well the issues of educational reform with a fresh eye. She describes for us the importance of the use of constructivist pedagogy. This pedagogy engages students actively in the learning process and assists the students in becoming successful. Poor performing schools have not provided students with this type of pedagogy and thus with the knowledge necessary to be successful in society. In this model of systemic change all students are able to achieve high academic standards using the constructivist pedagogy. This book is meant for the activist researcher—an individual that ensures that work done in the field is connected with praxis. That favorable change in the urban areas will occur if there is a concerted effort to make the systemic changes needed for the success of all in the community of learners.

The author buttresses her project through the use of a mixed method design—one that is both multifaceted and multileveled and gives credence to the complexity of the educational system. The sources of the data included NSF performance evaluation reviews; NSF end of the year reports; school improvement plans; and interviews and focus group questionnaires with district level officials, principals, community members, teachers, and students. There were also individual surveys from teachers and students as well as classroom observations.  Additionally, 47 schools took part in this study.  The schools were chosen if they reasonably represented the school district, were invested in the USI reform movement in a variety of ways, and were likely to present limited confounding variables.  There were a total of 20 elementary schools, 15 middle schools, and 12 high schools across the 4 cities that participated in the study.

In each of the four cohorts being analyzed over 58 % of the teachers had been teaching 12 or more years. In analyzing this percentage, it is somewhat of a concern that in order to create systemic reform in schools those new to the profession would be the important majority. Psychological studies have indicated that change comes from the ground up. Those new to the profession are sometimes more receptive to new ideas. The richness of the data is found in the 230 teachers that took part in the study.  Their experiences are brought to life for the reader through the participants’ shared insights concerning the teaching of math and science.  The teachers in the study were diverse in both gender and ethnicity, and thus the reader acquires a peek into the reality of the school settings. Five teachers from each of the sample schools were chosen for an in-depth study, thus giving the study some qualitative aspects. The characteristics of the teachers in Table 1.3. (p. 24) provide us with information about the teachers we are reading about.  

Borman’s study trenchantly explores the part played by significant personnel at both the district and school levels and, therefore, illustrates the role of specific agents engaged in policy making for systemic reform. One of the issues of paramount importance to the study is the issue of leadership both at the individual and institutional level.  Leadership is pivotal on all levels as it is the facility to recognize the abilities and talents of the individuals in the community of learners and to use those abilities to best suit that community.  The author and her colleagues found that “those at the top . . . were not specific as to where most responsibility for reform rested” (p. 31).  Those working in urban reform are often frustrated by the lack of leadership and hence aim for reform.  From the data it is shown that it was a matter of perception as to who holds the responsibility for reform (state, district, or local school).  In Table 2.2 (p. 45), the author delineates in her survey the perceived roles of the administrators as instructional leader, professional developer, community collaborator, facilitator, policy implementor, or participant in diverse roles. The issue brought to light by this data is the way "roles" operate within the structure.  The structure provides the framework for the community of learners to participate effectively. The clarity of the boundaries of the specific roles will allow administrators to participate in the role effectively.  Simultaneously, the boundaries of the role of the principals and all the others who are part of this framework will allow engagement on a very profound level.

Educational systems are indeed complex bureaucracies, and thus the author emphasizes resource allocation as another area of importance for those attempting to foster fruitful systemic change. For the author, resource allocation refers to materials such as computers, graphing calculators, or professional development monies and/or opportunities for teachers. The issue regarding resource allocation is that teachers express dismay at how unevenly that distribution takes place (Darling-Hammond & Sunder, 2003). It is not only providing materials that are critical for effective classroom instruction, but also the ongoing support for teachers who are using new mathematics and science material so that they can be empowered to do their best in the area of their expertise (Kilgore, 2005). To dwell on one example, the teachers in both Chicago and Miami Dade pleaded for more time to reflect on and to implement the new strategies they were being taught. This information is truly valuable to administrators who want to assist the teachers in a sense of empowerment. In another example in Chicago, the teachers wished to have access to the materials to be able to use the strategies they had been taught in summer school programs. It was not available to them. In the survey data from the teachers, they indicated that they did not have adequate knowledge of mathematical concepts to teach effectively (Ma, 1999; Hiebert et al., 1997; Knight, 1994; Knight & Becker, 1994). Undoubtedly this is a key and pivotal issue to reform that hasn’t been given adequate attention. The teachers really need assistance in their knowledge of practical mathematical concepts and familiarity with how numbers work. This issue implicates the instructional practices that were used by the teachers. The author has carefully laid this information out in both statistical tables and meaningful vignettes.   The researchers described the teacher-created assessments used in their classrooms as meaningful and developed; however, they described the standardized tests imposed by the State as somewhat disconnected from instruction leading to disempowerment of the teachers.  The researchers also reported that, on the whole, the level of student engagement was minimal. Teachers were unable to communicate the concepts effectively to the students.  Consequently, there was little student involvement in the process of learning and many of the lessons were merely regurgitation of facts.

Connected to this issue of instructional strategies are the homework practices. They found that homework was ineffectual because the level of instruction did not match the level of homework assignments. The students were often asked to do tasks that they were not prepared to do. This resulted in poor attitudes about doing mathematics. Homework was most effective when accomplished in the presence of the teacher who could assist the students. These findings assist the reader in understanding the school climate to be somewhat behaviorist in orientation and in need of constructivist overarching principles, especially an understanding of how students construct knowledge.  Without this, a climate of frustration will prevail in the learning community.

The section on the analysis of classroom practices and professional development triangulated with student achievement enlightens the reader in regard to what works in the learning community. For example, in Table 8.1 (p. 207) we see that networking or participating in study groups concerning the improvement of teaching had the highest effect on student achievement. In Table 8.4 (p. 209) the data indicate that teachers need assistance with classroom practices such as the use of manipulatives, selecting or adapting instructional material, and the use of step-by-step procedures. Both of these tables help us understand aspects of systemic reform that will enhance both the work of the students and the teachers.     

Borman and her colleagues present us with a well-crafted understanding and analysis of urban reform in mathematics and science. Moreover, she ends the book as she began with an emphasis on the NSF six driver model necessary for systemic reform.  She emphasizes the model in order for reform to be carried out system wide. She further states that there needs to be a school culture that is supportive of all the stakeholders as well as standards that drive the curriculum, instruction, and assessment. The narratives as well as the statistics in the text support this notion.  With this in mind, the text is organized and accessible in a manner that is energizing and informative.  As an urban practitioner reading the book, I think that everyone involved in urban education would find her analysis provocative and insightful.  A summary of her trajectory of the NSF driver model is evident in this passage:

Professional development at the school level that takes place in an atmosphere of trust and support, uses teaching case material, relies upon standards-based materials, and employs mathematics and science specialists as support is likely to enhance teachers’ classroom practices and result in student achievement gains. (p. 214).  

Borman remains true to her promise of presenting the reader with an informed study of what transpires in the process of urban reform.  She presents us with the insights that give fuel to the passion many have for urban education.  


Fullan, M. (2001). The new meaning of educational change (3rd Ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Hiebert, J.  et al. (1997). Making sense: Teaching and learning mathematics with understanding. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Darling-Hammond, L., & Sunder, J. (2003). Organizing schools for student and teacher learning: An examination of resource allocation choices in reforming schools. In M. L. Plecki & D. H. Monk (Eds.), School finance and teacher quality: Exploring the connections. The 2003 yearbook of the American Education Finance Association. Larchmont, NJ: Eye on Education.

Kilgore, S, (2005). Comprehensive solutions for urban reform. Educational Leadership, 62(6), 44-49.

Knight, E. (1994). Teacher preparation in elementary math: Students’ response to an emphasis on understanding. (unpublished dissertation). University of Illinois, Chicago, Illinois.

Knight, E., & Becker, J. (1994). Connecting the past with the future: Preparing to teach elementary mathematics. Teaching Education. (6) 223-27.

Resnick, L. & Hall, M. W. (1998). Learning organizations for sustainable education reform. Daedalus, 127, 89-118.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 851-855
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12143, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:51:32 PM

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About the Author
  • Eileen Knight
    Saint Xavier University
    E-mail Author
    EILEEN QUINN KNIGHT has taught in the School of Education at Saint Xavier University for 20 years. She is an expert on methods for teaching math, statistics for educators and law enforcement, and the foundations of education. She received a 2004 grant from the Chicago Math and Science Initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to teach a pilot class on middle school mathematics. She works for several foundations including the Golden Apple Foundation and the Music and Arts Grants of the Union League Club. In the 2004-05 academic year, Knight was assigned to the board of directors of ACE Tech, one of the charter schools for Mayor Richard Daley's Renaissance 2010 initiative. She is also an outside evaluator for Mother McAuley High School in the area of reasoning skills, and she serves on the Illinois Board of Higher Education Faculty Advisory Committee. Her publications include: Knight, E.Q. & Knight, P.M. & Stirling, T. (2005). Higher Education, Corporations and the Trades: exploring the collaboration through the ACE Tech Charter High School in Proceedings from the 23rd International Conference in Innovation in Higher Education. Belfast, Northern Ireland. Avgerinou, M.D., & Knight, E.Q. (2005). Assessing the visual literacy skills and perceptions of pre-service math teachers. International Visual Literacy Association. 38th Annual Conference of the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA)- Pilanesberg Game Park, South Africa.
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