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Mathematics Education at Highly Effective Schools That Serve the Poor: Strategies for Change

reviewed by Alan H. Schoenfeld - March 05, 2007

coverTitle: Mathematics Education at Highly Effective Schools That Serve the Poor: Strategies for Change
Author(s): Richard S. Kitchen, Julie DePree, Sylvia Celedón-Pattichis, & Jonathan Brinkerhoff
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Mahwah, NJ
ISBN: 0805856897 , Pages: 248, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

Poverty is a strong predictor of all sorts of things, including school failure. One sees dramatic narratives of the type written by Jonathan Kozol (1992); one sees NAEP data indicating strong correlations between SES and mathematics achievement. Yet, poverty is not destiny. Some schools buck the tide, defying statistical predictions. What attributes do they have, and what lessons can we learn from them?

That question is the focal point of Mathematics Education at Highly Effective Schools That Serve the Poor: Strategies for Change. The book reports findings from the Hewlett-Packard High Achieving Schools Grant Initiative, which examined nine schools that, despite having free- or reduced-lunch rates of 50% or more, demonstrated sustained exemplary academic achievement, especially in mathematics. After providing a description of the overall study, the volume devotes alternating chapters to three main findings (discussions of common practices across the schools) and to three case studies. It concludes with a look back and recommendations for further research.

In a sense, the main findings of the book are obvious. Of course schools that work have high expectations for students and sustained support for academic excellence. Of course schools that work focus on challenging mathematical content and high-level instruction. Of course schools that work have a sense of community, in which teachers share common goals and students feel welcomed and enfranchised. How could things be otherwise? Of course things are otherwise, most of the time, in schools that serve the poor. The subheads that organize the summary chapters in this volume, with slight modifications, could well be goal statements that should grace the halls and offices of every school:

High expectations:

Teaching and learning are priorities to support high academic expectations

Supplemental support is provided for student learning

Review of basic skills

Teaching resources are available

Teachers have regular access to professional development opportunities

Challenging mathematical content:

Focus on Problem Solving

Focus on conceptually central content matter

Students communicate mathematically and engage in inquiry

Teachers prepare their students to be successful on standardized tests, but teach beyond the test

The importance of building relationships:

Build and maintain a strong and well-defined sense of purpose among mathematics faculty

Faculty collaborate and support each other

Teachers focus on student disposition toward mathematics

Teachers understand and care for their students

There is evidence, both in this volume and outside it, to back up these contentions. There is, for example, a remarkable congruence between the findings of this volume and the more general discussion of the “90/90/90 schools,” in which 90% of the student body: are eligible for free and reduced lunch; are from ethnic minorities; and meet or achieve high academic standards (Reeves, 2004, especially Chapter 19). There is mounting evidence that skills-focused instruction produces students who have skills but little else by way of understanding, while a balanced diet of skills, concepts and problem solving produces students who are as competent at skills as their skills-only peers, but have also developed conceptual understandings and an ability to solve problems. There is evidence that collaboration and community build resilient and effective departments and schools. And, the general and mathematical alienation of poor and minority students is well known, testified to both in students’ words and drop-out rates. Thus, there is good reason to implement the practices listed above—especially in schools that serve the poor, where there may be a need to provide some resources that are not otherwise available to students.

One learns from the summary chapters and the case studies that the practices listed above are consciously established and supported in the nine schools. Teachers talk about the administrative surround, in which administrators work to support the right goals. Administrators work to foster communities of teachers who view themselves as professionals with shared goals and expertise. Each school has its own way of working at its goals, and it takes them seriously. At all, “teachers came to school to teach and students came to learn” (p. 148), meaning that establishing firm but not oppressive climates, in which students learned that they were expected to toe the line disciplinarily; but then, once that and high expectations were established, teachers worked as hard as they could to make the content engaging. (Observations by the research team indicated an average, across the nine schools, of on-task engagement in mathematics classes of more than 4 on a 5-point scale.) The teachers worked to make personal connections with the students and to provide meaningful support so that students could do their work. If the math is really important and kids aren’t getting it, allot more time. Have double periods; have after-school sessions. And more. Three of the schools issued their teachers cell phones and gave the students the teachers’ phone numbers. If a student was having difficulty with that night’s homework, the student was to call the teacher! (And they did.)

Will this lead to burnout on the part of teachers? Quite possibly. Some of the schools are explicit about the fact that they need teachers who will devote body and soul to the current effort; if they need to be replaced in a few years, so be it. Defying the odds has its costs. But, it also has its rewards.

The findings in this book are important, and not only for schools that serve the poor. I have seen much more “advantaged” schools than the schools examined in this volume falter for lack of instructional vision, or coherence, or the kinds of professionalism described here. Most importantly, I have seen them fail to serve their historically underserved students because they do not make the commitments to high standards for all students, and back them up in the ways described here. To the degree that this book provides motivation and a vision, it does a real service.

If I have any concerns, they are that the book does not go beyond that and does not live up to its subtitle, “Strategies for Change.” What I find missing, despite the case studies, is enough detail to understand the practices discussed above; as a reader I am left on my own to imagine the richness of the environments. More importantly, the book does not tell a developmental story. How did the schools get to the point where they are now? How did the communities get built, the practices put in place? That information would help readers apply such ideas to their own contexts, above and beyond admiring what the nine High Achieving Schools managed to do on their own. One hopes such information will come, in a follow-up volume.


Reeves, D. (2004) Accountability in action: A blueprint for learning organizations (2nd ed.). Englewood, CO: Advanced Learning Press

Kozol, J. (1992). Savage inequalities. New York: Harper Perennial.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 05, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13722, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:53:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Alan Schoenfeld
    University of California at Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    ALAN SCHOENFELD is the Elizabeth and Edward Conner Professor of Education and Affiliated Professor of Mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley. A main focus of his work has been problem solving. He has organized projects that produce mathematics assessments, that study teaching, and that examine issues of equity and diversity, with the goal of making meaningful mathematics truly accessible to all students. Schoenfeld is concerned with finding productive mechanisms for systemic change and for deepening the connections between educational research and practice.
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