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The New Reality for Suburban Schools

reviewed by William J. Glenn

coverTitle: The New Reality for Suburban Schools
Author(s): Jessica T. Shiller
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433128144, Pages: 156, Year: 2015
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Jessica T. Shiller’s book, The New Reality for Suburban Schools: How Suburban Schools Are Struggling with Low-Income Students and Students of Color in Their Schools, describes the findings from a case study of “Barrow County,” which is described as “a relatively large district, [that] lies just outside of a mid-sized, postindustrial city in the Northeast” (p. 22). The book is organized into six chapters, plus a preface and an epilogue, and critiques how three middle schools educate students in a district experiencing increasing student diversity.

In the preface, Shiller describes how her experiences as a child in suburban Newark and as a teacher of “low-income students of color” (p. x) in New York City inspired her to conduct the research. She discusses how she connected with various people at the schools and “became the ‘eyes and ears’ of the principals” (p. xi). In Chapter One, Shiller provides an overview of the history of American suburbs. She discusses how suburbs grew rapidly after World War II through 1970, and how black families were barred access to suburbs due to redlining, discriminatory home loans, blockbusting, and restrictive covenants. In the 1980s, the suburbs began to diversify. These demographic changes have brought low income students and students of color into districts that are not prepared to educate them. Suburban schools often approach such students from a deficit perspective not conducive to providing a high quality education.

Chapter Two describes Barrow County, which Shiller loosely defines as an “inner-ring, transitioning” suburb (p. 22). The increasing diversity of the county is more pronounced in the schools because the incoming families tend to be younger and have more children than longtime residents. Barrow County schools adopted practices, such as an increased focus on test scores, which led to results that are all too typical across the country: low test scores for students of color and low-income students, discriminatory disciplinary outcomes, etc. Shiller concludes the chapter by discussing what the Barrow County schools could do to improve, which seems premature since she has not introduced the cases yet.

Chapter Three introduces the reader to Lanfield Middle School, one of the lowest performing schools in the district, where Shiller describes poor performance and low levels of student engagement. The school responded to these issues by concentrating on instructional practices, not issues related to diversity or relationships with students and families. Shiller contends that this approach was not optimal for the students, and concludes the chapter by arguing that Lanfield faculty emphasized test scores in order to avoid discussions related to diversity.

Chapter Four analyzes Goodwin Middle School. Students at Goodwin also perform poorly, with students of color experiencing lower achievement than white students. The problems of low student engagement, poor relationships with students and families, and excessive concerns about test scores were present at Goodwin, too. However, Shiller discusses a theater teacher who was able to forge strong connections with his students. Shiller found that students at Goodwin believed that better relationships between the school staff and students and families would lead to overall school improvement.

Chapter Five covers Oakwood Middle School, which Shiller appears to regard as a better school than the others. Oakwood possesses a more diverse faculty, which may partially explain the better relationships teachers had with students and families. Shiller states that faculty members did not blame families for not caring about education. Some teachers used culturally relevant pedagogy that engaged their students, but many failed to do so. However, Shiller argues that the teachers’ expectations of their students were too low. She describes Oakwood as having “care without rigor” (p. 106), which is not enough.

Chapter Six ties together the three cases and suggests improvements for the schools. The most important suggestion is the need for “warm demanders” (p. 117), caring teachers who build strong relationships with students and families and hold high expectations for students. Shiller also suggests that suburban schools partner with successful urban schools and offers ideas for ways that teacher preparation programs could produce more warm demanders.

The book concludes with a brief epilogue in which Shiller discusses her time at Springdale Middle School, an exemplary school in which she started this research. Shiller could not complete her work there, however,  because after about a month, the Springdale principal said “she was not interested in [Shiller’s] feedback” (p. 128).

Shiller’s book addresses an important issue regarding the preparedness of suburban school systems to educate an increasingly diverse student body. Shiller identifies some of the root causes underlying the problem, including low expectations, poor relationships with students and families, and the lack of a culturally relevant curriculum. She implies that the schools would better serve the students by placing less emphasis on test scores and more emphasis on letting students know that their teachers care about and believe in them.

My critique of the book involves two issues related to the research. First, I am not sure what makes these schools worth studying. Shiller identifies problems and offers suggestions for improvement, but the suggestions are not based on findings from Barrow County. It is unfortunate that Springdale Middle School pulled out because the book would be stronger if Shiller could assess whether a high performing school employed the human factors that she argues would help the other schools.

The second issue involves inattention to details in reporting the findings. The book has many numerical inconsistencies. One example occurs on page 69, where the percentages of black, white, Hispanic, and Asian students at Goodwin are listed, but the sum of the percentages is 107%. Similarly, the total number of students is 638, but the sum of the black, white, and Asian students listed equals 640, not including the 58 Hispanic students. The qualitative data have similar inconsistencies. For example, at one point Shiller writes that “Oakwood teachers did not say that families did not care or that they were not interested in their children’s education” (p. 104), however she also writes, “Many [Oakwood teachers] said that students did not work as hard as they could or that there were obstacles preventing [students] from working harder, such as no support at home or that they and their families did not see the value in school” (p. 109). Finally, Shiller tried to disguise the identity of the district and the schools; however, the state is identified several times in the text, and the district is identified at least three times in the references. Issues such as these detract from my perception of the credibility of the findings.

Schiller’s book is an interesting read that covers a very important topic. Some of her insights are important and meaningful. Future studies of the effectiveness of suburban schools in educating a more diverse student population would benefit from a stronger choice of cases and closer attention to the details of the research.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22356, Date Accessed: 10/18/2018 12:22:16 AM

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