Book Review

As Good As It Gets

What School Reform Brought to Austin

by Larry Cuban, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2010, 288 pp. with index, $25.95 hardcover

 

In 2005, Superintendent Pat Forgione informed the Austin Independent School District in Texas that it would become a “world-class school district by 2010,” and that achievement gaps would be “eliminated.”

 

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In As Good As It Gets, Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and a former superintendent, provides a case study of the district and its struggles to meet that promise. In so doing, Cuban generally analyzes the education reform efforts that have been in vogue in the nation’s urban school districts in recent years.

When Forgione arrived on the scene in 1999, the district was in trouble. The Texas Education Agency had just rated the district’s performance as “unacceptable.” Cuban chronicles the steps taken (“reforms”) by the new superintendent to remove that rating and to begin moving the district in a positive direction. These reforms unfolded in three phases, the first being the restoration of public trust in district data and the building of an instructional infrastructure (1999-2002). This was followed by efforts to strengthen classroom teaching and learning (2002-06) and high school redesign (2004-06), the goals of which included closing the achievement gap, increasing the numbers of graduates and strengthening preparation for college and the job market.

To accomplish this, the superintendent directed, among other things, that high schools provide weekly advisory periods for teachers to meet with small groups of students to discuss academic and non-academic issues. Further, each high school was broken down into smaller learning communities and directed to create professional learning communities.

These strategies are prevalent in the literature on urban school reform. However, Cuban points out little research shows they translate into substantial changes in the classroom or in raising test scores.

Although the Austin district still has a “bottom tier of schools with high dropout rates, low numbers of seniors graduating and stark achievement gaps,” Cuban says Forgione’s 10-year tenure as superintendent is considered successful — or as he points out, “as good as it gets in urban districts.”

Reviewed by Leonard H. Elovitz, associate professor of educational leadership, Kean University, Union, N.J.