As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin
reviewed by James H. Nehring - April 27, 2010
Title: As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin
Author(s): Larry Cuban
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674035542, Pages: 304, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com
Policy talk in education tends to cycle. We know this to be true because Larry Cuban and David Tyack provide persuasive evidence in Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (1995). In recent decades, policy talk has cycled with respect to race and class based student achievement gaps between the view that schools are powerless in the face of larger social and economic forces and the view that schools, alone, can and should close the achievement gap regardless of external factors. Cubans new book, As Good As it Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin, is largely an effort to inform policy talk on the question of student achievement gaps with a thick slice of reality. By thoughtfully examining one urban districtAustin Independent School District (AISD)that benefited from a very capable superintendent for ten years, Cuban presents us with a scenario for urban school district improvement which is as good as it is likely to get and asks, under the best of circumstances, what happens to the achievement gap? Cuban begins by re-creating the historical context for Austins school system. He then describes the actions of key organizational players with a special focus on Pascal Forgiones ten year tenure as Superintendent from 1999 to 2009.
The history, as Cuban reconstructs it, mirrors national patterns during the last century. At the beginning of the 20th century, the color line for place of residence and occupation in the city of Austin was clear. 80 percent of blacks lived in east Austin, with many adults making a daily trek to white neighborhoods to work as domestics, mechanics, construction workers and the like. In the 1920s, the growing population of Mexican Americans was also driven into East Austin in neighborhoods adjacent to blacks. With a Texas school segregation law passed in 1905, education became an added component of the citys racialization and by mid-century a three way caste system was well entrenched. Cuban writes that by 1954, large gaps between Austin whites and minorities in health, family income, and contact with the criminal justice system mirrored gaps between white and minority students in academic performance, attendance, graduation, and dropout rates (p. 34).
The Austin response to Brown v. Board, according to Cuban, was piecemeal and anaemic until the late 1960s when the effect of federal litigation, bolstered by civil rights legislation, against footdragging local officials, began to be felt. Then, beginning with the Nixon years, a policy of Benign Neglect and an increasingly color blind Supreme Court slowed desegregation efforts, and traditional patterns of race-separated schools were resurgent. On the ground, little actually happened until lengthy litigation by the Federal Government against the Austin Independent School District was decided in 1980, resulting in court ordered busing for the first time. As Cuban describes it, then-superintendent John Ellis managed the hostile climate as well as he could while adhering to the court decree for several years. Then, with a plan to create magnet schools-within-schools, Ellis won official release from the court mandate in 1986. As a result, busing ended, and the elite magnet schools served mostly white students within otherwise black high schools. Racially isolated elementary schools rose from 6 to 20 out of a total of 64. A new strategy evolved that accepted racially/ethnically segregated schools and sought a separate but equal solution by providing added resources to schools in black and Mexican American neighborhoods.
Cubans analysis continues. The mid-1980s saw the rise of intrusive accountability measures emanating from the State Legislature and Governor, which led to the departure of Superintendent Ellis who wrote to his staff, Im tired of the flood of top-down dictates. The 1990s saw a revolving door of superintendents, local policy confusion from shifting reform agendas, and, finally, scandal over manipulation of test and drop-out data.
Enter Pascal (Pat) Forgione, appointed Superintendent at the end of the 1990s as the AISD was reeling from organizational chaos, board level squabbling, and a districtwide rating by the Texas Education Agency of Unacceptable. Cuban devotes substantial attention to Forgiones ten year term, holding him up as an exemplary urban superintendent who displayed patience, panache, strategic savvy, and a reform agenda that took hold. Under Forgione, the Austin Independent School District became as good as it gets for American urban school districts.
Cuban divides Forgiones reform efforts into three phases. In the first phase, Forgione sought to restore public trust with a new accountability department which oversaw data collection and analysis. He also began to establish a core curriculum with common content standards and then cultivated professional development that connected his agenda with classroom practice. The second phase built on the first by forcing closer curriculum alignment and developing benchmark assessments. The third phase focused on high school redesign with an emphasis on the creation of professional learning communities, advisories, and conversion of large high schools to smaller academies.
How good did it get? The record, as Cuban represents it, shows that, under Forgione, improvement occurred in the form of higher test scores and a shrinking test score gap between minorities and whites. Cuban points out, however, that these and other indicators of improvement are not necessarily attributable to the various reforms put into place during the Forgione decade. In addition, the greatest gains occurred in schools located in white, higher wealth neighborhoods and the number of failing schools remained steady, concentrated in black and Mexican American neighborhoods. On the whole, one could argue, the district held steady with respect to student learning during the Forgione years. Steady state is not improvement.
At the same time, NCES Statistics, not included in Cubans book, show that between 2002 and 2007 the percentage of students in the AISD eligible for free and reduced lunch mushroomed from 50.2 to 60.9 while the percentage of Hispanic students grew from 49.6 to 57.0, and the percentage of white/non-hispanic students fell from 32.5 to 26.8. This means that from roughly the beginning to roughly the end of the Forgione years, demographics shifted significantly in the direction of students with historically lower levels of school success. For indicators of student achievement to remain steady in Austin in the face of these shifts suggests a gain.
Cuban provides a complex analysis, carefully situating the findings from scores of contemporary research studies of AISD Schools and programs within a meta-narrative written from an historians perspective. Cuban demonstrates that schools are bound up within a matrix of socio-historical forces that renders schools neither powerless nor omnipotent in the production of positive change. After all is said and done, Cuban leaves us with a deeply ambiguous assessment of both the reality and the possibility of urban school improvement. At the heart of this assessment stands the question of the schools role in closing achievement gaps. In assessing views that either minimize or inflate the power of schools to close that gap, Cuban concludes, Neither extreme squares with the facts. Responsibility rests with both community and district, both school and family, both teachers and students (p. 114).
United States Department of Education (2003). Characteristics of the 100 largest: Public elementary and secondary school districts in the U.S. 2001-2002. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved April 10, 2010 from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/100_largest/tables/table_08_1.asp
United States Department of Education (2009). Characteristics of the 100 Largest public elementary and secondary school districts in the U.S. 2006-2007. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retreived April 10, 2010 from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/100_largest/tables/table_a09.asp?referrer=report