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Inside School Turnarounds: Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories

reviewed by Mike Schmoker - February 10, 2011

coverTitle: Inside School Turnarounds: Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories
Author(s): Laura Pappano
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1934742740, Pages: 184, Year: 2010
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Perhaps every educator should read a book like Laura Pappano’s Inside School Turnarounds.  Her purpose is to “offer a window” into this “adrenalin-filled moment,” in which enormous hope and huge amounts of funding are being poured into the lowest-achieving schools to achieve rapid, dramatic change. The book’s primary focus is on schools in Hartford, Connecticut. But in Pappano’s view, Hartford’s turnaround story is “in many ways, America’s education story.” And she may be right.  

The book reveals both the promise and the pitfalls of working to achieve so much, so fast. Pappano’s question, posed fore and aft, is: did turnaround work in Hartford? Will the considerable labors of these self-sacrificing, hard-charging leaders have their intended impact? Her deftly delivered answer appears to be: maybe not. Despite its heroic exertions, Hartford is hobbled by its failure to learn from the most obvious lessons of the last 30 years of school reform, that is, that novel school arrangements are no substitute for decent curriculum and sound instruction, every day. In this sense, Hartford’s story is indeed “America’s education story.”   

Pappano rightly admires Hartford’s urgent, mission-driven superintendent, Steven Adamowski. His assistant superintendents are described as having the same impressive commitment and work ethic. As a result, scores are up and there is more order and positive student behavior in the classrooms.  

All good, but then she allows us to see how much better these schools could be. The presumable priority of “turnaround” is to prepare more students to be successful in college or careers. But Hartford’s operative priority is clearly to raise test scores through the adoption of complex, innovative school structures. These goals aren’t always in harmony. Like so many schools and districts, Hartford seems blind to what becomes apparent by the end of the book—that the pursuit of “innovation” and higher test scores can actually impede efforts to prepare students for work or college.

We see how this plays out at Hartford High School, to which Pappano devotes her most considerable and interesting reportage. The primary strategy for improvement there is to “redesign” the school into several smaller, theme-based academies. These are developed by a full time “assistant superintendent of school design,” Christina Kishimoto. By Pappano’s account, Kishimoto spends enormous amounts of time and energy drafting, designing, submitting, refining, implementing and then fine-tuning the various designs for the academies at Hartford High School. It might have been helpful if Pappano had pointed out that, to date, there is no known evidence that breaking schools into small theme-based academies translates into substantive improvements in learning (a finding not lost on Bill Gates, who has now turned his attention away from creating small schools and toward improving instruction).  

Pappano does, and helpfully, point out the critical disconnect between the well-meant machinations of designing these academies and the way students actually decide among them. That is, for all the outsize effort to create a “Law and Government” or a “Culinary” academy, students and parents often choose on the basis of the style of uniforms or favorite teachers.    

Of equal concern is the inordinate emphasis on raising test scores, regardless of how this might distort their purported mission of preparing students for college. As one advocate put it, “I don’t care if the test is imperfect, scores have to go up.” Higher test scores are not all bad—if they result from the implementation of a sound, college preparatory curriculum. But, alas, there is no record in these pages of the critical encounter, something underperforming schools must have with the conventional curriculum; and this is invariably at odds with what students need in order to be prepared for college. Only the most privileged now receive an education rich in those elements most needed for college (and career) success: a coherent content-rich curriculum abounding in opportunities for students to read widely and deeply, to discuss and write about what they read. This is what prepares students for college and careers; it is also the surest, fastest route to higher test scores.  

But we hear nothing, in any of Pappano’s book, of such a curriculum overhaul. There is one fleeting reference to how one academy made some minor adjustments to its science curriculum. And in one telling vignette, we find out that the principal of the Culinary Academy is being replaced for emphasizing, of all things, reading and literacy. The district office decides to remove her in favor of a principal with culinary experience and stronger links to the “entrepreneurial community.”  

Papanno’s account of the redesign and reorganization of Hartford High School brings to mind Jacqueline Ancess’s observations (2008), made after a fortune was spent to organize hundreds of schools into such small academies. For all this well-intentioned effort, researchers found that students at these schools were never given true college-preparatory opportunities, for example, to:

compose, write, [or] revise extended analytical papers. They have never been required to analyze ideas from multiple perspectives and reach thoughtful conclusions supported by compelling evidence. They could recall little opportunity to discuss and debate ideas . . . they had never built the habit of getting to engage material to make meaning from it: struggling through text, figuring it out. (Ancess, 2008, p. 48)

Maybe Hartford—indeed all schools—can learn from diverse, high poverty Brockton High School in Massachusetts. Despite their 4100 students, they rejected the flimsy rationale for small academies. Instead, they chose to revise curriculum and instruction, in every course and discipline, around college-preparatory reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning. In their very first year, they made the largest gains in the state. They are now in the upper 10% of schools in Massachussets. Brockton’s college acceptance rates have soared (Szachowicz, 2010).  

In the final chapter, Pappano alternates between hope and dismay. Scores at Hartford High are up and students are more serious about school. But she rightly avers that surely a true “turnaround” must be more than “a bump in scores.” Despite gains on the state test, she notes that college entrance scores are still abysmal, and there doesn’t appear to be much interest in revising the curriculum to correct this. For all these exertions, there is no evidence that more students are attending college or are better prepared for it.    

“It is not clear,” Pappano concludes, “whether Hartford Public High School is actually being turned around.” The book ends with descriptions of which academies will be abandoned, which are in the works. Would it not be more productive to convert the energy being spent on academies to ensuring that all students receive, at long last, a content-rich curriculum with a pervasive emphasis on reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning? In this respect, Hartford’s story is indeed America’s story.


Ancess, J. (2008, March). Engaged and on track. Educational Leadership, 65(6), 93-94.

Szachowicz, S. (2010, November). Transformed by literacy. Principal Leadership, 11(3), 18-23.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 10, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16336, Date Accessed: 1/29/2022 12:10:02 AM

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  • Mike Schmoker
    Independent Scholar
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    MIKE SCHMOKER is the author of Results Now (ASCD, 2006) and FOCUS: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (ASCD, 2011).
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