Making Education Work

By Herbert Kohl

Urban Schools, Public Will:
Making Education Work for All Children

By Norm Fruchter
Teachers College Press (2007)

Khet: Strategy at the Speed of Light
Innovation Toys, LLC, New Orleans

For almost 50 years Norm Fruchter has been a gentle, compassionate, and consistent warrior in the service of creating justice, equity, and quality in the public schools. In the late 1960s, he helped found Independence High School in Newark, N.J., one of a handful of new small progressive high schools based on school-based control of pedagogy, serving students from poor families, and community organizing as a strategy to develop support for democratic education.

Arguably, some of these schools provided models for what has recently become a small schools movement. Certainly, some of the individuals involved, including Fruchter, are still active in school reform.

Over the years Fruchter has been a community school board member in Brooklyn, a funder at the Aaron Diamond Foundation (where he was instrumental in the development of the New Visions Schools in the New York City public schools), director of the Center for Education and Social Change at New York University, and, now, Director of the Community Involvement Program of the Annen-berg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. I can’t think of anyone more qualified, experienced, committed, and articulate writing about the recent history of school reform. His new book, Urban Schools, Public Will: Making Education Work for All Children, deserves a careful reading by all people committed to public school systems that can succeed.

Fruchter provides portraits of three school districts that are engaged in wide-ranging progressive reform: District 2 in Manhattan, the entire public school system in Kansas City, Kansas, and the public schools in Hamilton County, Tenn., which includes Chattanooga. All have large minority student populations and manifest major performance deficits. Over the years, each has shown considerable improvement; they are also works in progress, something Fruchter readily admits.

In describing these districtwide reforms, Fruchter points out factors that lead to improved teaching and narrowing of the achievement gap. They include parental choice, a school board that supports a progressive superintendent, support for teacher development and curriculum reform, and creating a welcoming school environment in which both teachers and students feel good about their school lives and are proud of their work. In other words, central to these transformations is nothing short of changing the entire culture of schooling.

One of the other central aspects of these reforms comes from the local communities. In perhaps the most important chapter in his book, Fruchter describes the role of community organizing in empowering poor communities so that they take an active, often
leading-role in school change.

Any informed teacher committed to equity, justice, and closing the performance gap will learn something from this book. He or she might even be motivated to become an organizer-teacher and play a role in districtwide change.

Chess, Egyptian Style

On a completely different note, I would like to suggest a new game, Khet, which I just discovered. This two-player game is a dressed-up and simplified version of chess in Egyptian style with, for example, the king as Pharaoh. The other three pieces are Obelisks, Pyramids, and Djeds (I’m not sure what this represents).

The game has two unique and challenging features: the pyramids and the djeds have mirrors built into them. Each player also has a laser embedded into the side of the board, which is raised. When fired, the laser bounces off the mirrors it hits, moving on at a right angle. (The way the laser bounces around the board depends upon how the board is initially set up, which the players can control before the game begins.) After the players make a move, they fire their lasers. The goal of the game is to hit the opponent’s pharaoh with a laser.

I’m still playing around with my set of Khet and almost everyone I know, from children to adults, is intrigued with the game. We all are equal in figuring out how the lasers work and how the game plays.