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

The genesis of this book was a report titled “School Reform in Chicago: Lessons and Opportunities” by the Chicago Community Trust. The authors have revised their original papers for this project. The focus is not just on Chicago as this work applies to any urban school district interested in scaling best practices from a few classrooms and schools to all — in less than seven years.

Fifty years of research into large organizations and complex urban school systems have yielded some critical understandings of what it takes to transform these institutions. Superintendents can lead effective and massive change by learning how to apply these condensed lessons and supporting school-based personnel, rather than forcing compliance.

This collection of authors covers what works in high-achieving schools, case studies of Boston, Chicago, Houston and San Diego, how to create effective leaders, whole school reform, labor-management collaborations, improving instruction, parental engagement, leading change and other related issues.

School administrators will find this book chock full of useful advice from the simple to the complicated. An example of the former is the three principles for shifting the educational paradigm and speeding up improvements. An example of the latter is the comprehensive model developed by the author that integrates four core strategies for closing the gap.
While the entire work can be tackled in a couple of hours, educators serious about raising student achievement will want to take notes or flag selected pages.

Reviewed by Art Stellar, superintendent, Taunton Public Schools, Taunton, Mass.