Beating the Odds: High Schools as Communities of Commitment

by Jacqueline Ancess (Teachers College Press, 192 pages, $19.95) reviewed by Kathy Simon

It is hard for most of us who attended and began teaching in standard-issue schools in this country to visualize how schooling could be truly different We can stretch our imaginations to picture a particularly exciting project, a spectacular field trip, or maybe smaller class sizes. But it is hard, without living it, to envision schools that are different at the core, where all of the structures and relationships are designed to nurture students’ needs for meaning, purpose, mastery, connection, and growth.

Describing the work of three CES high schools??”Paul Hodgson Vocational-Technical High School in New Castle County, Delaware; International High in Queens, New York City; and Urban Academy in Manhattan ??”Ancess provides vivid images of schools that are set up on a different paradigm from the current norm. These schools are by no means carbon copies of each other; each is substantially shaped by its faculty, its community, its history, and the particular groups of students it serves. But each of the schools has succeeded in creating what Ancess calls a “community of commitment,” characterized by a shared vision, a culture of caring, a willingness to engage in productive struggle, and a sense of mutual accountability among all community members. Teachers, parents, administrators, and students at these schools have created environments that bring out the best in all the groups, succeeding particularly in unleashing their students’ energy and intellectual vitality. Ancess quotes Urban Academy Co-director Herb Mack, describing the vision of this sort of community as “a people-centered educational community in which adults provide students with opportunities to learn and develop; people are the most important thing; who we are and who we want to be drives the school; individual needs, not institutional needs drive the school; decisions are made around constellations of people-issues rather than external requirements.”

In this “age of accountability,” Beating the Odds provides an alternative understanding of the notion of accountability. As Ancess puts it, “conceptions of accountability must change from compliance to collective responsibility for student outcomes.” As teachers, we resist taking responsibility for the failure of any particular student when it seems beyond our power to help, and in large, impersonal schools, it often is beyond our power to help. We take responsibility, by contrast, when we have a sense of power and efficacy Ancess’ portraits demonstrate that it is possible to construct schools in which teachers actually do feel powerful??”because they work in teams that can lend support, because they have flexibility to create curriculum that works for individual students, because they have few enough students to get to know them well, because the school culture supports the idea that students deserve individual attention.

Ancess worries, as I do, that schools like those she describes will be written of as “boutiques,” schools that can’t be replicated on a large scale. The emphasis that these schools put on individual relationships and caring, in particular, may seem at odds with the needs for efficiency and achievement. But as Ancess argues, “the problem lies in our collective imagination, which refuses to consider large-scale possibilities of successful breakthrough schools.” Beating the Odds??”and the classrooms and schools it depicts??”helps us develop a more powerful collective imagination, convincing us that we can create a whole system of public schools that are places of caring, meaning, and accomplishment.