Book Review

Against the Odds

Insights From One District’s Small School Reform

by Larry Cuban, Gary Lichtenstein, Arthur Evenchik, Martin Tombari and Kristen Pozzoboni, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2010, 184 pp. with index, $49.95 hardcover, $24.95 softcover

“In any district, sustaining reform depends on the commitment and support of the superintendent and executive team, the school board, a critical mass of school staff and district personnel and the community.”

For many school administrators, a commitment at this level — as expressed in Against the Odds: Insights From One District’s Small School Reform — may seem an utopian dream. But as co-authors Larry Cuban, Gary Lichtenstein, Arthur Evenchik, Martin Tombari and Kristen Pozzoboni chronicle, this was indeed the scenario in the Mapleton, Colo., school system they studied.

For nearly 20 years, test scores had been declining in the district, and by 2001, Mapleton was one of the state’s lowest performers. The catalyst for change was the appointment of Charlotte Ciancio as superintendent in 2001. A Mapleton native from a family of 10 children, she understood the schools she was leading from a student, teacher and administrator perspective.

This easy-to-read book tells the story of the successes and frustrations of a small, urban, largely minority and low-income district near Denver as the leadership transforms two traditional high schools into seven small schools, each enrolling fewer than 400 students.

The authors, who conducted 75 interviews and focus groups as the basis of this work, identify several useful lessons from Mapleton’s experiences in putting its reforms into practice, but the overwhelming lesson is that reform is highly contextual and that even proven educational practices may fail to raise achievement in a different context despite the commitment of all stakeholders. As the authors point out, “No reform once set in place will produce the same favorable results year after year.”

Reviewed by Valerie A. Storey, co-coordinator of educational leadership, Ross College of Education, Lynn University, Boca Raton, Fla.