Book Review

Inside School Turnarounds

Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories

by Laura Pappano, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2010, 187 pp. with index, $21.95 softcover


The answers to widespread calls for education reform are everywhere. The experts, products, services, policy changes, new curriculum programs, etc. have proliferated — all with claims to solve various educational ills. Journalist Laura Pappano stepped inside school houses and unearthed a different reality in her work Inside School Turnarounds: Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories.

Inside School Turnarounds

Pappano spent time with the superintendent in Hartford, Conn., Steven Adamowski, and other school leaders who have overseen significant improvements. She concludes that turnarounds are not simply about pushing the right buttons on a complicated machine. Money helps, but it also can become a distraction.
The heart of the reform efforts she studied were the people who brought various strategies to life. Pappano captures the frustrations, joys and resiliency of passionate administrators, teachers and parents.

One Hartford innovation is student-based budgeting whereby students have “grade weights” and “need weights.” The district operates a consumer-style competition among schools with families to secure students. In another new approach to changing the district’s relationship to schools, Adamowski has a color-coded performance matrix outlining the overall rates of improvement for each site.

For all its order, the Hartford turnaround approach is built and reworked by a pragmatic central-office team. Together they focus on results. Principals are encouraged to take risks. Parents are taught what they need to do. Community partners are found for every redesigned school. Everything does not always work in practice — hence, the constant mantra is “Fix what’s not working.”

The last chapter of this readable book is titled “There Is No Finish Line.” The author closes with this hopeful note: “If reformers will hang in long enough — not just to satisfy a bump in scores but to earn the trust of those being asked to work and achieve differently than they were asked to do in the past — then they may see signs of better schools and better lives.”

Reviewed by Arthur Stellar, superintendent, Burke County Public Schools, Morganton, N.C.