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School Smarts: The Four Cs of Academic Success

reviewed by Maria Mejorado - 2005

coverTitle: School Smarts: The Four Cs of Academic Success
Author(s): Jim Burke
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325006326, Pages: 142, Year: 2004
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Jim Burke’s 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 person’s 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 today’s 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 children’s 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 Burke’s 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 one’s 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 teacher’s companion: A complete guide to classroom, curriculum, and the profession (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2533-2536
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11827, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 7:09:18 PM

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About the Author
  • Maria Mejorado
    California State University
    E-mail Author
    MARIA G. MEJORADO is an assistant professor in the Bilingual/Multicultural Education Department of the College of Education at California State University, Sacramento. She currently coordinates the department’s graduate program and teaches graduate courses and courses about English language learners. Her recent publications include “Parents and Community Working Together: Making a Difference” (Multilingual Educator, April 2005) and (with P. Gandara) “Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Mentoring as a Strategy to Increase Access to Higher Education” (in W. Tierney, ed., Nine Elements of Effective Outreach, State University of New York Press, 2004).
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