Book Review

Breaking Through: Transforming Urban School Districts

by John Simmons, Teachers College Press, New York, N.Y., 2006, 250 pp. with index, $25.95 softcover

What if tomorrow you could bring into your conference room some of the best thinkers about education reform to help guide you through improving your urban school district? In a sense, that meeting is arranged for you by John Simmons in his book Breaking Through: Transforming Urban School Districts.

Simmons, president of Strategic Learning Initiatives, initiates the discussion with some painful realities about the nature of urban school reform. Given this awkward history, one might be inclined to give up the battle for improving urban schools. With a prose that is direct and clear, however, Simmons offers some real hope around three organizing principles (consistency, simultaneity and quality) along with four necessary strategies (create leaders at every level; transform structure and culture; improve instruction; and involve parents) for saving schools.

In the second section, Simmons steps back to let some of the key thinkers on education reform comment about the principles and strategies mentioned earlier in the book. One takes away a sense of the author’s view of urban reform based on his work in districts like Chicago, Boston and Houston coupled with research-based theories that support meaningful systems change.

Simmons finds support for successful systems change in business and military models. Although I remain unconvinced by his application of the business mentality for improving urban schools, I do recognize the value in his push for communicating high expectations to all school staff and students, for paying close attention to the input of front-line professionals, for adequate and equitable funding and for creating positive organizational cultures.

I suspect that for today’s urban superintendents a meeting of the minds may be in order and Simmons’ book might be a key piece to the agenda.

Reviewed by Zach Kelehear, associate professor of educational leadership, University of South Carolina