On Purpose

How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character

by Samuel Casey Carter

Corwin, 208 pp., $30.95

Over the past 18 months Race to the Top—the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion program designed to advance public school innovation and student achievement—has prompted furious competition between state and local school districts, raising expectations that some sort of breakthrough in K-12 education may be at hand. Yet skeptics might be forgiven for harboring doubts about an imminent turnaround, despite the eye-popping stimulus-funded incentives and number-crunching requirements. As Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” makes clear, the absence of federal funding and mandates hasn’t been the problem.

Guggenheim targeted the teachers’ unions but set aside issues like rigorous academic standards and practices that inspire a school-wide culture of mutual respect and high achievement. The fine points of reform won’t keep movie audiences on the edge of their seats, but Samuel Casey Carter argues that school leaders imperil reform by ignoring foundational work and the ambitious, disciplined follow-through that produce change.

On Purpose aims to remedy the data-driven tendency to focus on limited strategies to boost scores and transmit technical facts and skills. Carter seeks to renew an appreciation for the way an engaging, morally grounded school culture nurtures and guides students’ aspirations for fulfillment and academic success. The most effective school leaders accomplish this through “purpose-driven” principles and practices that make full use of the entire school day, leaving nothing to chance. Twelve detailed case studies of schools link organizing principles with classroom practices, and their mission statements echo a desire to “harness character to drive achievement,” and to this end, have created what Carter calls a “comprehensive rather than programmatic approach.”

Carter is brutally honest on one salient point: The creation of a school “family” with institutionalized rules of conduct is not for the faint of heart. He reached this conclusion during an unusual career as both an educator working on charter schools and as a reform-minded scholar. In No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools (2000), he repudiated the common justifications for inner-city school failures, and then served as president of National Heritage Academies, a charter school management company that oversees more than 60 schools in six states.

This present volume is the result of an ambitious study commissioned by the Center for Education Reform, where Carter recently directed a review of 3,500 schools renowned for their records on character formation. Researchers excluded elite private establishments, “strict observance” religious schools, and military academies. Carter looked for schools that encourage students to make “explicit, voluntary choices” to excel and do good.

The impetus for creating a healthy school culture usually arises “in response to a need.” In the case of a middle-class public high school in Illinois with a tradition of fierce athletic competition, for example, two student suicides prompted a reassessment of bullying. Once an urgent need is established, administrators and faculty look for principles capable of prompting a shift in values and behavior.

But the most daunting task in the process still lies ahead: introducing and testing new practices that make virtues “explicit.” At a California middle school, daily student-run broadcasts present a virtue of the month, and in one show, two popular teachers help their audience refine their understanding of “integrity.” Such exercises help students distinguish between right and wrong—no small thing, really—but they also draw teachers out of their comfort zone. At a top Virginia magnet school, teachers issue weekly progress reports that keep students alert, parents informed, and faculty on their toes.

This engaging, jargon-free primer will be helpful to founders of charter schools, as well as principals of traditional public schools poised to upset the status quo. But its author remains pessimistic about any system-wide adoption of his approach, and the most formidable obstacles are the familiar ones: educational bureaucracies and federal mandates that discourage distinctive approaches. For that matter, most teacher certification requirements repel the kind of engaged, academically strong candidates who believe “the true, the good, and the beautiful can be experienced firsthand.”

Joan Frawley Desmond, who writes on religious and social issues for a variety of publications, lives in Maryland.

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