The Persistent Dilemma of Play, Work, and Testing in Prekindergarten

New York City schools welcomed 50,000 four year-olds to prekindergarten last week. Ginia Ballafante summarized crisply the dilemma facing over 4,000 pre-K teachers:

“How the city’s educators will cultivate an environment of thrilling, digressive learning while aiming to reduce the enormous word deficits many children come to school with and at the same time keep the tensions and pressures of high-stakes testing from filtering down to the world of tiny people with Pixar lunchboxes remains one of the most significant and least explored questions around the expansion of prekindergarten. How they will nurture the distinct kind of teaching skill required to execute play-based learning successfully is yet another.”

And Ballafante is right on the mark. If kindergarten is the new first grade as some progressive critics point out, then prekindergarten threatens to become boot camp for kindergarten.

First, let me establish that kindergarten is, indeed, becoming the new first grade. In a recent study looking back at how kindergartens have changed in the past 15 years under a regime of testing and accountability, researchers found the following:

*The percentage of teachers who indicated that incoming kindergarteners need to know most of their letters or count to twenty doubled. In 1998 less than one-third of kindergarten teachers agreed that children should learn to read in kindergarten. By  2006 that number had more than doubled to 65 percent.

*Time spent on reading and language arts rose about 25 percent or from 5.5 hours to 7 a week.

*There was no change in percent of time spent on math instruction but there were significant drops in teaching time spent on social studies, science, art, and  physical education.

Many urban children come to preschool (and kindergarten) with many strengths (often unrecognized in school settings) and weaknesses such as deficits in words that are the currency of formal schooling. The onset of testing five year-olds has commenced–25 states mandate assessing 5 year-olds. So how to get young children up to speed to do well on these tests has accelerated the move toward academic instruction for kindergarteners with the pressure inevitably seeping down to three year olds.  This shift toward academic instruction has put the spotlight on exactly how much of school experiences for three-to-five year-olds should be play and how much academic work in light of the demands of testing for determining first grade for young children and teacher evaluation.

Two Bank Street College educators (New York City), however, do not see a conflict between work and play for pre-kindergartners. “This is a false choice,” they say. “We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.” They continue:

As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time.

What does play look like in a room filled with three- and four year-olds?

When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

 In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.
Work and play become one. “Play,” they say, “has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school.”
During the summer, these pre-K teachers were worried over the impact of testing in kindergarten trickling down into their classrooms in worksheets, drills on words and colors, and group lessons on phonetics and numbers.
kindergarten1
The idea that play and work are intimately connected and in young children learning is not separated into bins–silos are favored academic-speak–but are as one means that there is no dichotomy, no dilemma. It is a classic case of reframing what appears as a dilemma into a problem that can be solved. That is what these educators are trying to do. They end their op-ed by saying:
But we still need to help parents, administrators and policy makers see what the children themselves know intuitively: Classrooms that pulse with meaningful play are our smartest investment.
So true.

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, technology use

Cartoons about Teaching and Learning Science

Last month, I featured cartoons on teaching and learning math. This month I turn to science. Enjoy!

3e36b097166ec44716e8e878e787db4e

 

loopholes

 

b3513032c589e9587f50313483112402

 

BioCartoon4

 

Rocket Science: The online course.

 

images

 

goldie58_0

 

Physicists disputing whether the clock moves backwards or forwards according to season change.

 

'No, this is its nucleus, not its cell phone.'

 

volkswagen

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under how teachers teach

School Leaders as Marathoners, not Sprinters*

Most urban superintendents serve between four to six years and move on. I call them sprinters. Think Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C. (2007-2010) and John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified School District (2011-2014). A precious few serve a decade or more. Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents?

Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District served a decade or longer. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with problems that went unsolved and criticism that stung but all of them remained quietly and steadily effective. They sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals.  Two story lines, one popular and one true, explain Sprinters nad Marathoners. Consider each explanation.

The Superintendent as Superman or Wonder Woman

These schools chiefs are rare; they are extraordinary individuals. They have turned around districts that were nearly terminal cases due to chronically low student performance, bureaucratic resistance to change, and managerial incompetence. They persuaded their bosses to install new systems of parental choice and teacher evaluation, to refocus bureaucracies on improving teaching and learning, and to create portfolios of different kinds of schools. By sheer force of individual will, together with political smarts and enormous expenditure of energy, these superintendents have succeeded. And test scores have risen. They are super-stars.

Matching the Person, Place, and Time

The key to success comes down to being in the right place at the right time. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appointed Joel I. Klein the system’s chancellor in 2002 and served until 2011—the longest tenure of a New York City schools chief since the early 1970s. Bloomberg’s predecessor, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, however, engineered the appointment and departure of two schools chancellors—Ramon C. Cortines and Rudolph F. Crew—in less than seven years.

If timing is crucial, so is context. Each of the chancellors Mayor Giuliani wanted had been hailed as a super-star in his previous urban district. In each case, however, the mayor decided that the school chief didn’t fit him or the city.

Or consider Carl Cohn, who shepherded the Long Beach district through a decade of changes yielding strong gains in student achievement—a record sufficient to win the Broad award for urban district excellence. Cohn retired from Long Beach in 2002.

In 2005, the San Diego Unified school board hired Cohn to heal the district’s wounds after six years of struggle and the forced exit of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin. In December of 2007, barely two years into his tenure, Cohn left San Diego. His 40 years of urban school experience and extraordinary work in Long Beach could not find traction in San Diego.

For marathoner superintendents, then, it’s best not to look for a super-star. Leadership depends on finding the right person for the time and place. Cohn in Long Beach and Klein in New York City are examples of perfect pairings; Cortines and Crew in New York City, along with Cohn in San Diego, were imperfect ones.

WHICH STORY IS POPULAR? WHICH STORY IS TRUE?

Of the two story lines, Superman/Wonder Woman is currently the most popular explanation for superintendent success. America idolizes heroes. Yet it is the biggest gamble of all since saviors are rare, they depend upon others to do the work, and even get fired by school boards. Closer to the truth is the “best match” explanation and a tad less risky.

How is picking a superintendent a gamble? A school board assesses whether the person is going to fit the current situation and has sufficient expertise and experience to carry off the task and then bets that prior success will repeat itself. Some superintendents do have winning streaks in a string of jobs–and become heroes. But winning streaks—like playing the horses and blackjack—end. And school boards or mayors simply do not know when. That is why picking a superintendent, CEO, and football coach is gambling, pure and simple.

Yet even the “best match” explanation for superintendent success and longevity must also come to terms with the limits to fundamental changes inherent in urban schools. Here are social and political institutions strongly affected by a city’s demography, history, and economy—and by deeply embedded, often unbending socioeconomic structures in the larger society. Institutions constantly dealing with the human consequences of inequitable resources, community neglect and discrimination have limits that even a Superman or Wonder Woman cannot overcome.

To lessen the inevitable disappointment that follows the appointment of a savior school chief, mayors and school boards would do well to downsize expectations, display more patience, seek leaders who believe in incremental changes toward fundamental ends, and pay far more attention to sniffing out better matches between the person and the city than betting on a super-star bearing a tin-plated reputation.

_______________

*This post is a revision of an earlier one in light of Thursday’s resignation of John Deasy after three years as Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District.

2 Comments

Filed under leadership, school leaders

Teaching World and U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 4)

In earlier posts, I have described and interpreted how a high school history teacher taught history in a failing school (see here and here). In Part 3, I described a veteran history teacher in the same school and the four lessons he taught when I observed him in November 2013. Gary Hart (a pseudonym) taught world and U.S. history. In all of the lessons I watched, the sequence of activities unfolded in the same order: students signing in when they entered, sitting and talking until Hart caught their attention directing them to answer questions on the white board, the teacher supervising their  answering questions with scattered students chatting and having to be admonished repeatedly before settling into the task. In each class, Hart used worksheets drawn from the textbook covering particular pages and then supervised students by walking around as most (but not all) students completed the task. At the end of the period, Hart collected  both students’ answers to questions on the whiteboard and the worksheet. Occasional interruptions for dealing with cell phones and PA announcements jiggled the routines during the four lessons. Nonetheless, the activities occurred in this sequence.

Overall, what I saw in the four lessons I can sum up briefly.  Most students were disengaged from the content of the world history unit on late-19th century imperialism in Africa. A climate for learning content and skills of thinking was absent in each and every class I observed. A few students would answer questions asked by the teacher but the Q & A was, at best, dispirited. Surely, except for occasional disruptions, there was compliance; most of the students did as he directed. There is no question in my mind that the teacher had prepared lessons drawn from the textbook and knew that content thoroughly. His skills in managing the class were evident although there were moments, especially over cell phone use and persistent chatting, that became dicey.

If Mark Allison, his veteran colleague, (see here) went beyond the textbook and engaged his classes in African American history and they responded to questions on the photos he presented even asking questions from time to time, I saw no such engagement in these four world history and U.S. history lessons.  Clearly, these two teachers got compliance from their students, at least the ones that attended, and one of them went beyond compliance by creating a reasonable facsimile of a learning climate and interest in the Civil Rights movement.

So what sense do I make of what I observed? As in an earlier post, I return to contextual factors that I believe influenced Hart’s teaching.

First, the contextual factors. In Part 2 of these four posts,, I laid out how student backgrounds come to influence in positive and negative ways how students respond to history lessons. Nearly all students in the school, for example, are eligible for free and reduced price meals–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement. Ill health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences take their toll. Poverty is not an excuse for either behavior or achievement; it is, however,  an abiding factor that cannot be ignored.

Also the organization of Greenwich as an age-graded high school with departments and its place in the district affected what happened in classrooms.

For example, classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance, Hart did reasonably well given the organizational factors within which he labored. School and district policies made low attendance and high tardiness a school norm. Moreover, Greenwich has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal had been notified that the school would be restructured which meant teachers that teachers  would have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” often erodes teacher motivation to teach at the top of his or her game.

There is another contextual factor that matters for Hart and his colleagues. The state has adopted the federally funded Race To The Top program of teacher evaluations in order to secure additional monies. And that means 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation depends on the student standardized test scores.

That bothered Hart a great deal. He complained about the unfairness of a system that based half of his evaluation on student test scores. Because Greenwich students did poorly on these tests year after year there was no way that he could reach the highest category (“Accomplished”) when the principal evaluated him  even if he taught stellar lessons. For Hart, the evaluation system was skewed against him and his fellow teachers.

While these contextual factors surely played a part in what and how Hart taught, there were individual factors that mattered also. Hart claimed that he rewarded students with pizza parties and displayed work of successful students. That he did all of that, I have little doubt. However,  in the four lessons I observed, he lacked passion for the lesson content and the activities that he designed. In every lesson, he marched the group mechanically through routines in which students were clearly disengaged. The 40 minute lesson was something both students and teacher endured.

For 2014-2015, the “reconstitution” year, the principal chose Mark Allison and not Gary Hart to teach at Greenwich.

14 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Teaching World and U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 3)

It is 8:00AM and the chimes have rung for first class of a 10-period school day. Ninth graders dribble into their world history classroom in ones and twos. They wait to sign in on a sheet located on a desk near the door. The teacher who is standing at the door asked one student to remove his hat. By the time the tardy chimes ring, there are 12 students in the class. In the next 10 minutes, seven more students enter the classroom. Twenty-nine students are enrolled. One student entered using his mobile phone. The teacher said to the student, “we can do this the hard way or the easy way. Put it away now or I will take it and return it to you at 2:30.” The student pockets the phone. [i]

On the front whiteboard, veteran history teacher Gary Hart[ii] has written the following:

*History standard 9.1.C: Analyze the reasons that countries gained control of territory through imperialism and the impact on people living in the territory that was controlled.[iii]

*Read pp. 345-350.

Underneath the History standard are three questions:

  1. What is racism?
  2. What is social Darwinism?
  3. Who is Shaka?

On a bulletin board fixed to the back wall, Hart has posted student papers with perfect scores on a quiz of multiple-choice questions.

The classroom is large compared to most rooms for academic subjects. It was once the Home Economics Clothing room when Greenwich had a full array of vocational courses. Over one door near the teacher’s desk is a closet-size room with a placard saying “Fitting Room.” Student desks are arranged in rows. As students trickled in they sat with friends or alone. The teacher’s desk was in the center rear of the room facing the whiteboards. Except for the laptop on the teacher’s desk, there were no other computers in the room.

-1

At 8:10, Hart, over 6 feet tall wearing a brown suit with a brown tie on a beige shirt, sits on a stool in the center of room and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please copy down three sentences on the board. They will be on the test Wednesday.” About half of the class takes out a notebook from their backpack or one that they had stowed in the metal rack underneath their desk. Three students ask classmates for sheets of paper and pens. After waiting a few minutes for those students to write down the questions, Hart asks: “Now, ladies and gentlemen, what is the answer to the first question?”

No one responds. He says, “we talked about this on Friday. Look at your notes.” Two students are resting their heads on the desks. On one side of the room, four students are talking to one another as the teacher waits for a response. Hart turns to the four chatting students and asks: “Are we working or talking?” No response from any of the four; they continue to talk.

Hart then asks students to turn to pp. 345-350 of the text (Roger Beck, et. al., Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction, published in 2008). The text is located on metal rack below the seat of each desk-chair. The teacher directs them to answer the three questions on the board and complete a one-page worksheet that he has copied from the teachers’ manual for the text. At this point in the lesson, nearly 15 minutes after the tardy bell rang, and with 25 minutes left to the period, there are 19 students.

Hart passes out the worksheets and three-quarters of the students retrieve their text, open it up to the assigned pages, and begin working on either the three questions on the whiteboard or filling in answers on the worksheet of six questions taken from textbook (“Imperialism Case Study: Nigeria”). In a genial manner, Hart walks around helping individual students. At one point he turns again to the four students chattering to one another and says: “I’m hearing a hen party.” They stop talking and write, resuming their conversation after two minutes. Hart then moves one of the four students—without much opposition from the student–to a desk next to me at the rear of the classroom.

Within five minutes, all of the 19 students, except for the three still talking to one another, are answering questions on the whiteboard and filling in answers to questions on the worksheet. The quiet is shattered by an announcement from the principal’s office about end-of-school day sport activities. After the interruption, Hart threads his way among the rows to see how individual students are doing and if they have questions. Three do. He responds quietly and directly to each of their questions.[iv]

It is now 8:35, and Hart tells the class: “OK, the bell is about to ring in a few minutes. Put your books under the desks.” He repeats this three times. When the chimes do ring, Hart stands at the door collecting completed worksheets and answers to the questions on the whiteboard.

Hart teaches three classes of world history to ninth graders and one of U.S. history between 8:00 and 11:00 AM.[v] He then takes a lunch period and returns to teach two more world history class in the afternoon. He has taught in the [district]  for 16 years, the last eight at Greenwich from which he graduated in the mid-1970s. Between classes, Hart told me about his students and the school. Between his first and second period classes, he said:

“The biggest problem I have is the tardies. There are no consequences for them. They just show up with a pass from the office. Just a few days ago, I called a Mom about her daughter who was often late to class and was acting out in class. She told me that her daughter was my responsibility between 8 and 2:30. She then hung up on me.”

Hart complained about the pressure he feels from the administration on turning in reports—“more paperwork now than ever before”—and the pressure from being evaluated by the principal when he has to teach a lesson and meet with the principal afterwards. He pointed out to me that 50 percent of the evaluation of his performance comes from student test scores on the Ohio Graduation Test.[vi]

He also told me about his four-times-a-year pizza and root beer parties for students that get As and Bs. It is an “invitation only” after-school party. His wife handled pizza and he handled security at the door, he said, where only students with printed invitation could enter.

Part 4 of this series on teaching history in academically low-performing urban schools offers my interpretation of these lessons.

___________________________________________________________

[i] School policy prohibits cell phones in class. That policy is publicized in numerous large wall posters on each floor of the three-story building. Many classrooms also have the No Cell Phone placard. If a student refuses to put it away or give it to the teacher, the teacher can blink and let it go or call a security aide to come to his classroom and take student out because he or she refused to give teacher the mobile. That occurred in the teacher’s third period class when a security aide entered the room and removed a student.

[ii] All names are fictitious. I observed four straight classes that Hart taught on November 13, 2013. The lesson described here is what I saw in one of the four classes. A few of the student and teacher actions described in this vignette, however, occurred in one or another of the three periods I observed (e.g., cell phone occurred in second period; announcements in third period).

[iii] District policy is that every teacher is to list the Ohio state standard for world history that he or she is working on in the lesson. The principal or assistant principal include in their written evaluation of the teacher whether or not the standard appears somewhere in the classroom. Hart explained that procedure to me when I asked about the standard listed on the whiteboard.

[iv] Public announcements—PAs for short—occur throughout the 10 period school day. During a 10-minute homeroom period (10:08-10:18 which is part of the 3rd period) students and administrators cluster their announcements about after-school club meetings, varsity sport games, deadlines for submitting college applications, etc.

[v] The U.S. history class of 29 students focused the entire 40-minute period going over vocabulary, concepts, sample questions, and critical thinking skills that have been on previous years’ Ohio Graduation Test (OGT). They would take OGT in the spring. From OGT manual:

The OGT in social studies contains 32 multiple-choice, four short-answer and two extended-response test questions that measure student achievement

related to the seven academic content standards (see:            http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/Topics/Testing/Ohio-Graduation-Test-OGT/2011-Family-Guide.pdf.aspx.

In an interview with a central office administrator in charge of social studies, the supervisor told me that the main job social studies teachers have is “ to teach what is on the OGT. State standards tell teachers what content and skills to teach and the OGT covers the standards.” Interview with administrator November 14, 2013.

[vi] Details of Cleveland’s teacher evaluation system can be found at: http://www.clevelandmetroschools.org/Page/2767

 

 

 

17 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

The Power of a First Grade Teacher (Selma Wassermann)

So many adults can remember public school teachers who have had super-sized influence on them in elementary and secondary school classrooms. Stories of how teachers turned around an ill-behaved young child in the second grade or an algebra-hating student into young man pursuing a math major at a university are legion. Such stories resonate with teachers, parents, and policymakers since they refresh our beliefs in the power of an individual teacher making a hefty difference in the mind and heart of a child or youth.

But what about stories of teachers who have ill-effects on students? Not necessarily on their test scores or even on grades but whose non-academic collateral lessons hurt children. Along with those goose-bump renditions of teachers who made a positive difference in a child’s life are the less-told tales of teachers who squelched students. Yet those very same intimidated students turned out to be gifted teachers decades later. Here is one such story.

Selma Wassermann, professor emerita from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has written widely and extensively from a pedagogically progressive view about reading instruction, science teaching, getting students to reflect in classrooms, and teacher use of case studies in lessons. She has been an elementary school teacher and reading specialist for many years in the New York area before earning her doctorate in education. She brought a barrelful of child-centered knowledge and skills to her graduate students—even returning to teach at an elementary school while on a sabbatical. In the late-1960s, she and her family moved to Vancouver, Canada where she became a founding faculty member at Simon Fraser University. She retired nearly two decades ago and has continued to write for Kappan, Childhood Education, and other journals. She has also become a software designer and CEO of Wrinkled Pants creating iPad apps called  the My Word Reader for children.

The following excerpt comes from her book, This Teaching Life (Teachers College Press, 2004) where she records her memories of one first grade teacher in the mid-1930s who had a profound effect on her life. *

Miss Stellwagon, my first-grade teacher was my “first teacher.” She taught me about favorites (I was not one) and about talking in class (I was one). She taught me about keeping young children at arm’s length, lest their poverty rub off on the teacher’s middle class self. She taught me that discipline meant humiliation and loss of self-esteem, which diminished you. She taught me that even if you tried to please the teacher, unexpressed standards and expectations would kill your chances of being chosen for a part in the play. She taught me that what I enjoyed most (reading) could be made excruciatingly painful, when the same story was read orally, line by line, up one row and down the other, until all meaning and pleasure were extinguished. She taught her slum children “the King’s English….” She taught us to sit still without moving, for 3 hours in the morning and 2 in the afternoon no matter what physical urges came upon you—for to move, or speak, or ask to go to the bathroom would incur a wrath that was terrifying. We waited  for spring, for the trees to bloom, for the windows of the classroom to be open, for the end of the term, for the end of Miss Stellwagon.

“And now, boys and girls, I have some very good news for you. Guess who your teacher is going to be next term?”

“Who?” we shouted in excited anticipation.

“I am,” she said, her mouth forming into that bird’s beak smile.

“Aren’t you pleased?”

“Yeesss, Miss Stellwagon,” we chanted, our hearts sinking.

Two years with Miss Stellwagon left such an imprint that I can remember it still—the smell of the room(chocolate-covered graham cracker cookies mixed with chalk dust), the bleak beige of the unadorned walls with only back-and-white alphabet cards to divert the eye, the steam coming in staccato spurts out of the vent on the radiator, the perfect handwriting on the blackboard, the door with the little window, offering a tantalizing glimpse of the outside, where real life ran counterpart to our still-life experiences.

I didn’t know it then but Miss Stellwagon’s teaching would be pivotal in my own professional development, my loathing of her so intense that I could only become her antithesis.

______________________

*Selma Wassermann has been a long-time friend. I wrote the Foreword for This Teaching Life.

3 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

Superintendents and Test Scores

Amid media stories about the Atlanta (GA) Public School administrators and teachers going to trial for cheating and the El Paso (TX) superintendent convicted of the same charge and in prison, the generally accepted idea that district superintendents can pump up student  achievement has taken a serious hit. Cheating scandals across the country have turned the belief in superintendents raising test scores into something tawdry.

For decades, many superintendents have been touted as earnest instructional leaders, expert managers, and superb politicians who can mobilize communities and teacher corps to improve schools and show gains in students’ test scores. From Arlene Ackerman  in Philadelphia to Joel Klein in New York City to Kaya Henderson in Washington, D.C., big city superintendents are at the top rung of those who can turn around failing districts.

Surely the Atlanta cheating scandal and others around the country have tarnished the image of dynamic superintendents taking urban schools from  dumpsters to $1 million Broad Prize winners. A tainted image, however, will not weaken the velcro belief that smart district superintendents will lead districts to higher student achievement. Just look at contracts that school boards and mayors sign with new superintendents. Contract clauses call for student test scores, graduation rates, and other academic measures to increase during the school chief’s tenure (see here and here).

Then along comes a study that asks whether superintendents are “vital or irrelevant.” Drawing on state student achievement data from North Carolina and Florida for the years 1998-2009, researchers sought to find out how much of a relationship existed between the arrival of new superintendents, how long they served, and student achievement in districts (see PDF SuperintendentsBrown Center9314 ).

Here is what the researchers found:

  1. School district superintendent is largely a short-term job. The typical superintendent has been in the job for three to four years.
  2. Student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service within their districts.
  3. Hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.
  4. Superintendents account for a small fraction of a percent (0.3 percent) of student differences in achievement. This effect, while statistically significant, is orders of magnitude smaller than that associated with any other major component of the education system, including: measured and unmeasured student characteristics; teachers; schools; and districts.
  5. Individual superintendents who have an exceptional impact on student achievement cannot be reliably identified.

Results, of course, are from only one study and must be handled with care. The familiar cautions about the limits of the data and methodology are there. What is remarkable, however, is that the iron-clad belief that superintendents make a difference in student outcomes held by the American Association of School Administrators, school boards, and superintendents themselves has seldom undergone careful scrutiny. Yes, the above study is correlational. It does not get into the black box of exactly how and what superintendents do improves student achievement.

Ask superintendents how they get scores or graduation rates to go up.  The question is often answered with a wink or a shrug of the shoulders. Among most researchers and administrators who write and grapple with this question of whether superintendents can improve test scores, there is no explicit model of effectiveness.That is correct, no theory of change.

How exactly does a school chief who is completely dependent on an elected school board, district office staff, a cadre of principals whom he or she may see monthly, and teachers who shut their doors once class begins–raise test scores, decrease dropouts, and increase college attendance? Without some theory by which a superintendent can be shown to have causal effects, test scores going up or down remain a mystery or a matter of luck that the results occurred during that school chief’s tenure (I exclude cheating episodes where superintendents have been directly involved because they have been rare).

Many school chiefs, of course, believe–a belief is a covert theory–that they can improve student achievement. They hold dear the Rambo model of superintending. Strong leader + clear reform plan + swift reorganization + urgent mandates + crisp incentives and penalties =  desired student outcomes. Think former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, ex-Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew, ex-Chancellor of Washington D.C.and ex-school chief Alan Bersin in San Diego. Don’t forget John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified School District.

There are, of course, other less heroic models that mirror more accurately the complex, entangled world of moving policy to classroom practice. One model, for example, depicts indirect influence where superintendents slowly shape a district culture of improvement, work on curriculum and instruction, insure that  principals run schools consistent with district goals, support and prod teachers to take on new classroom challenges, and communicate often with parents about what’s happening. Think ex-superintendents Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston (MA) and Laura Schwalm in Garden Grove (CA). Such an indirect approach is less heroic, takes a decade or more, and ratchets down the expectation that superintendents be Supermen or Wonder Women.

Whether school chiefs or their boards have a Rambo model, one of indirect influences, or other models, some theory exists to explain how they go about improving student performance. Without some compelling explanation for how they influence district office administrators, principals, teachers, and students to perform better than they have, most school chiefs have to figure out their own personal cause-effect model, rely upon chance, or even in those rare occasions, cheat.

What is needed are GPS navigation systems imprinted in school board members’ and superintendents’ heads that contain the following:

*A map of the political, managerial, and instructional roles superintendents perform, public schools’ competing purposes, and the constant political responsiveness of school boards to constituencies that inevitably create persistent conflicts.

*a clear cause-effect model of how superintendents influence principals and teachers to do better.

*a practical and public definition of what constitutes success for school boards, superintendents, principals,teachers, and students.

Such a navigation system and map are steps in the right direction of  answering the question of whether superintendents can raise test scores.

16 Comments

Filed under leadership, school reform policies