Category Archives: Reforming schools

In Plain Sight: Pervasive Inequalities

This post will not be filled with statistics about the worst gap ever–yes, ever–in income between rich and poor in the United States or how badly the U.S  fares  among developed nations in the world on inequality measures.

This post will not rail at the moral unfairness or growth of mistrust among Americans as a result of such economic, social, and political disparities.

Now will this post recommend ways for reducing the growth of a two-tiered society.

What this post will do is look at effects of inequality and how they are pervasive, taken-for-granted, and even encouraged in everyday transactions.

There are many obvious examples of inequalities such as the current protests across the nation’s cities over white police officers shooting black men and disproportionate percentages of minority and poor arrested and convicted for “broken window” crimes. Current protests against the police’s lethal mistreatment of African Americans capture the abiding anger and resentment over this historic inequality. In this post, however, I offer only three prosaic ones to make this point about inequalities in plain sight: airplane travel, hospital emergency rooms, and schools.

Airplane Travel

Yeah, I know that this may strike readers as either whining or a silly example but many Americans and international  visitors have flown somewhere on a U.S. airline.  Inequalities are taken for granted. Sure, they are temporary–disappearing when you leave the aircraft–and dependent upon how much money individuals are willing to spend on air travel but, most important, status differences–inequalities–are intentionally designed to incite envy. Let me be specific.

While not all airlines treat customers in the same way, I fly United Airlines and know first-hand about these temporary status differences. First, you have to line up according to whether you are a “frequent flier” and what status you have acquired from United Airlines: Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Global Services, etc.;  those allowed on the aircraft first have the most miles flown (or are business- and first-class passengers who have paid much more for their tickets); they get a crack at the bins for their roller suitcases, packages and coats. By the time the last passengers–economy cabin–are called to board, most of the overhead space has been taken and many annoyed people have to check their roller suitcases and pick them up at baggage claim at their destination.

Then there are the curtains and bathrooms that separate economy from business- and first-class seats. Shall I mention big differences in size of seats and legroom? Forget snacks–juice and soft drinks are free–for United passengers in economy but for those in the big-seat sections, they get multi-course meals. Or the amenities passed out to big-seat passengers on international flights and nothing given to those in economy. Enough. the point is made.

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One passenger had this to say about the class distinctions and inequalities in flight dependent upon how much money you spend for a ticket;

This stark class division should come as no surprise: what’s happening in the clouds mirrors what’s happening on the ground. Statusization — to coin a useful term — is ubiquitous, no matter what your altitude. While you’re in your hospital bed spooning up red Jell-O, a patient in a private suite is enjoying strawberries and cream. On your way to a Chase A.T.M., you notice a silver plaque declaring the existence within of Private Client Services. This man has a box seat at a Yankees game; that man has a skybox. And the skybox isn’t the limit: high overhead, the 1 percent fly first class; the .1 percent fly Netjets; the .01 fly their own planes. Why should it be any different up above from down below?

No, I am not whining. I am describing how inequalities and grasping for status are so embedded into American experience that both appear in plain sight when anyone flies the “friendly skies.”

Hospital Emergency Rooms

Not so for hospital emergency rooms where the inequalities hit you directly in your face and cannot be ignored. These inequalities ares not temporary. They are consequential and reflect the two-tiered system of health care in the U.S.

In ERs the inequalities that appear before your eyes are deeply embedded in the social, political, and economic structures of a market-driven democracy. For anyone who has had to go to a hospital ER before or after the Affordable Care Act (2010)–about one out of five Americans have been to an ER at least once a year–some facts become obvious.

*Most of those in need of medical attention are poor and minority.

*Most of those who arrive in ERs do not have health insurance (61 percent) and have no access to medical attention except at the hospital ER.

*While middle- and upper-middle class families–young and old–with health insurance do go to ERs, most  have health insurance. Moreover, they have access to their primary care physician or other medical services while most poor young and old do not have access to alternative medical attention.

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The inequalities in access to medical attention in the U.S., even after the Affordable Care Act became law, are apparent to anyone who has spent time in an ER.

Public Schools

I have worked as a teacher, administrator, and researcher in largely poor and minority high schools for the past half-century.  I returned this year to three high schools in two different cities  where I had taught between the 1950s and 1970s to see what changes, if any, had occurred in the past half-century. Sure, there were changes but all three continue after a half-century poor and minority and, for the most part, located in racially and ethnically segregated neighborhoods.

I walked the halls, listened to teachers and students, and watched many lessons in each school. What was apparent to any informed observer was that security to protect students and keep order was pervasive:  Each school had metal detectors and security aides sweeping students out of hallways during classtime. Motivational posters urging students to graduate hung from walls on every floor; while there were instances of superb teaching in each of these schools, in most classrooms I observed students clock-watching and half-heartedly following teacher directions; there was compliance in doing worksheets and answering questions but that was about it.  I did see clumps of highly motivated, achieving students (including English Language Learners) in each school but they were immersed in an academic culture of doing the least amount of academic work to pass the course. Student suspension rates ran high, large numbers of 9th and 10th graders dropped out, and low percentages of students graduated. Two of the three high schools had been “reconstituted” twice–yes, twice in the past five years–when the entire staff and principal were removed and had to reapply for posts in each school.

Each of the school districts had initiated projects to revitalize these low-performing schools and progress was in inches, not feet or yards. Each of the districts had portfolios of options available to parents from which to choose: charters, magnets, alternative schools. High-tech hardware and software had been purchased and deployed in the schools I visited. Teachers were being evaluated on the basis of student test scores. High-performing teachers received bonuses. Much district effort to turn around low-performing schools had been made.

Yet, overall, these high schools remained examples of sheer economic inequality in the dollars that districts generated in property taxes, how officials spent that money, and what families contributed to their children’s education. These inequalities became obvious when compared to conditions in other schools.

I say that because I have also been in elementary and secondary schools where mostly middle-class and upper-middle class students, both white and minority, attend. What these districts generate in education dollars may be similar to low-performing ones but the resources families bring to the schools and their children’s lives is far more than many poor families can contribute. Moreover, to sit in classes, walk the halls, listen to teachers and students in these urbanized suburbs reveal that the overall culture and the quality of work performed by both students and teachers differ dramatically. The idea that there is a two-tiered system of schools in the U.S., one for the poor and one for everyone else becomes inescapable. None of this, of course, is new to anyone who has spent time in urban, suburban, and exurban U.S. schools or watched media reports on high-achieving and low-achieving schools.

These three everyday examples that adults and children experience show the sheer persistence of inequalities wrapped into the daily fabric of American life.

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Although economists are divided over the causes and consequences of the huge gap between poor and the wealthy, between the middle-class and the rich, a gap that has grown even larger in the past two decades, all Americans pay a price for this inequality. Distrust between police and minority communities is one cost of inequality that has made current newspaper headlines and television coverage. Loss of confidence in society being fair bites at many Americans when the chances of a black child going to prison are significantly higher than a white child or when corporate leaders pull down huge compensation packages as compared to their typical employee. Or feelings of disgust over political elites passing laws that create tax code loopholes and government-protected share of markets to both increase and protect the sheltered wealth of their supporters. Economic, political, and social disparities are (and have been) in plain sight and the entire nation pays high prices for becoming an increasingly divided society.

Figuring out what to do about this problem of an increasingly obvious two-tiered society has split social scientists. Mainstream economists argue that unjust differences are not the problem because inequalities naturally arise from the rapid globalization of the U.S. economy, increased uses of  technology, and spreading automation. They argue that government intervention can worsen the problem since these larger factors determine what occurs and little can be done to avert inequalities. Efforts to slow down globalization, use of technology, and spread of robotics and automation will only end in even deeper  inequalities. Watching and waiting until the system corrects itself, and it will–they say, is what needs to be done to decrease these differences.

Other social scientists say that the injustice of disparities is a moral hazard in a democracy, made by humans not machines. The problem is that wealth means access to political power. Access to political power means helping friendly legislators and executives at local, state, and national levels gain office. Friendly legislators and executives then jerry-rig the system to further the interests of the wealthy few rather than the majority of Americans. Such dissident social scientists point out that the U.S. political system has been hijacked by the rich and now serves their interests by passing laws that deregulate government oversight and shield their wealth-seeking efforts. They argue that this is a problem made by people with interests to protect. The problem can be solved by political action from the majority.

While I favor the latter point of view, it is clear to me that even framing the problem remains in dispute among economists and other social scientists, many of whom advise top policymakers in making choices about what to do about increasing gaps in wealth and the costs of such inequalities within a democratic society. Those costs of inequality have daily consequences when Americans travel, go to hospitals, and attend school.

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“This Will Revolutionize Education” –A Story That Needs To Be Told Again and Again

I needed to write a post yesterday morning. I had on my desk a few ideas from articles I had cut out of newspapers, suggestions that friends and family had sent to me, and pieces  from a chapter on donors that I had drafted and wanted to try out on my blog.

Before I decided which of these items I would expand into a post, I checked my website to see how many views I had overnight, what comments had come in and whether they needed responses from me, and, of course, dumping the spam that had collected overnight. I also checked to see who had clicked onto the site for that is a way I find out who is reading posts and a chance for me to pick up different ideas. And that is how I found today’s post. One reader had downloaded my monthly cartoon feature on technology for kids and adults to her website and also gave a link to a video called “This Will Rev0lutionize Education.” That caught my eye. I watched it. And I was startled by its accuracy, brevity, and elan in taking apart that common phrase used time and again by wannabe school reformers eager to put the next new technology into classrooms.

As a historian of school reform, I have written more than I want to remember about those rose-colored, feverish, high-tech dreams that appear time and again promising to transform classroom practice and how students learn. This video is seven minutes long and it vividly captures the hollowness of each generation’s claim that “This Will Revolutionize Education.” But far more important the video zeroes in on the centrality of the teacher to student learning beyond conveying information which new technologies are superb in doing.

At a time when blended learning, flipped classrooms, MOOCs, and, “disruptive” innovations pop up incessantly in media and rhetoric of school reform, what Derek Muller presents is worth seeing. So I now present the YouTube video: “This Will Revolutionize Education:”

Click on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEmuEWjHr5c

 

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Software Will Not ‘Eat’ Education (Ben Stern)

Ben Stern is “the Manager of Education Partnerships at TeachBoost and an advisor to Ponder. Formerly a history teacher and technology integrator….” This appeared in EdSurge September 11, 2014.

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Marc Andreessen, with the support of long-time colleague and amateur rapper Ben Horowitz, famously leads Andreessen Horowitz with the thesis that software will “eat the world.” Naturally, I wonder whether it will “eat” education.

Most recently, Andreessen and Horowitz suggest healthcare, education, and government are poised to be eaten. They may be right about healthcare. Government, they admit, is a longer way off. Education may be more imminent. Andreessen explains,

Technology is not driving down costs in…education, but it should…[Access is] the critical thing. We need to get every kid on the planet access to what we consider today to be a top Ivy League education. The only way to do that is to apply technology.

Ostensibly supporting this thesis is the growing edtech industry, in which I work. $452 million of VC money in 2013 is no small potatoes. Andreessen and Horowitz must be on to something, right?
No – at least, not as they frame the issue.

The biggest problem in education is not, and never will be, that too few students have access to Harvard. Let’s ignore for a moment the discussion about the value of an Ivy League education. Instead, consider the myopia of this view of education. K-12, as opposed to higher ed, is more relevant to the vast majority of Americans. Rightfully, getting every kid into Harvard is far from the top concern of anyone involved in this space, whether as a student, parent, educator, policy-maker, or entrepreneur. Let’s get every kid into and through high school first.

The many issues in K-12 –the achievement gap, funding disparities, and teacher attrition rates, to name just a few –are not issues that can be resolved by instant access. In fact, they are not software problems. They are human issues, political issues. Software alone will not change ,  much less save ,  the world of education.

Software can help, under three conditions:

  1. Edtech should be designed to focus on a narrow set of problems. The complexity of the American education system can be frustrating for companies, but it exists for a reason: educating 77 million students isn’t simple. Certain parts of it must exist to manage so many people. Companies aiming to
    1. overhaul education with their product are DOA. Instead, they should be targeting inefficiencies in the system. Companies ought to recognize that there are certain confines within which they must operate.
    2. Related, edtech companies ought to make sure the problem they solve is a real problem, not a mere annoyance. Often, great edtech software never gets adopted because it’s solving a problem that doesn’t yet exist, or won’t exist until 20 years of innovation have transpired. Companies that believe that their software will help to usher in a whole new educational model, who will truly disrupt or “eat” education, probably won’t. Iterative –not radical – change is itself ambitious in education, an industry in which the most successful companies thus far reinforce the status quo.
    3. To focus on the right problem, companies must assume a purely Socratic approach  :  know that they “know nothing,” and be inquisitive, open-minded, and responsive . By asking rather than answering questions, companies can deliver software that helps humans improve teaching and learning.

    Using good software, humans begin to chip away at the big issues of the day: software might free up time to focus on the issues, surface data that elucidates the issue, and empower teachers and learners to grow in new ways But humans do the important work. Software must strike a delicate balance between innovating and meeting current, non-technological needs–a balance that’s harder to strike in education than anywhere else. But who said startups should be easy?

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Squelching Public and Professional Voices: Big Donors and School Reform

There have been many criticisms of big donors in the past decade (see here and here). They have been criticized for trying to privatize public schools and throwing their considerable weight around in advocating policies that will increase numbers of charter schools, spread vouchers, evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores, and, in general, oppose teacher unions. I will take up each of these criticisms in a chapter I am now drafting for a book on educational philanthropy that will be published in 2015.

For this post, however, I want to describe another criticism that is often mentioned but seldom developed, one that, I believe, should be front-and-center in the debate over the role that big donors play in pushing a reform agenda. What follows is a first draft. I have excluded footnotes documenting statements in this post that will appear in next draft. Any comments would be appreciated.

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One criticism I want to examine is that In centralizing governance of schools, policymakers, supported by major donors, have squelched public and professional voices.

The background to this criticism is that the Gates, Walton, Broad, and other foundations have advocated mayoral control in cities, state laws that expand choice of schools, and parent trigger laws that, in effect, strip local school boards of their authority to make decisions, shrink public participation in educational affairs, and diminish teacher and principal professional judgment.

Donors supported state laws expanding charter schools, urged adoption of Common Core standards, and endorsed mayoral control of city districts in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago because it made grant-making for small high schools, charter schools, and changes in teacher evaluation easier when school authority was fixed in the appointed superintendent’s or chancellor’s office. Here is Bill Gates on mayoral control of schools:

The cities where our foundation has put the most money in, is where there’s a single person responsible – in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system, and so instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person. And that’s where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things, and we’ve seen very good results in all three of those cities, so there are some lessons that have already been learned

No extended time going through messy public vetting of each proposal. No squabbling over school board members’ questions and community hearings when decisions could be reached in the mayoral appointed superintendent’s office.

I do not suggest that educational philanthropists have caused centralized policymaking or loss of faith in professional educators’ judgment since both had begun in the mid-1960s with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act underwriting federal and state actions and continued through the 1980s–A Nation at Risk called for states to act on their recommendations–and into the 1990s with the spread of mayoral control in big cities. And of course, No Child Left Behind (2002) has the U.S. Secretary of Education intervening into local schools as never before.

I do suggest, however, that “muscular philanthropy” has accelerated consolidation of authority at local, state, and federal levels with the consequence of even further shrinking citizen and school professional participation in governing schools.

Donors have also helped governors and state legislatures compete for federal funds offered through Race To The Top by bankrolling organizations helping officials negotiate federal eligibility rules to apply for funding. State legislation allowing more charter schools, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, and adopting Common Core State Standards and tests strengthened state applications for federal funds. Few local school boards were involved or practitioner voices heard as these state laws imposed top-down requirements on every district and school.

Centralized governing of schools over the past decades has been done not only in the name of increased efficiency in operations and developing excellence in schooling but also in seeking egalitarian outcomes: leave no child behind, college for all, and equipping minority and poor students with essential skills to enter a 21st century workforce. This deep concern for those who have been educationally disadvantaged over decades is part of the belief system of foundation and corporate executives who push for centralized governance, curriculum and testing mandates, and accountability rules.

The sum total of these public and private ventures has meant that large donors have not only set the reform agenda but gone way beyond agenda setting to promote state laws that eroded, no, a more precise word would be—diminished—local public participation and professionals’ judgment in significant decisions.

Although these donor-supported policies have inadvertently drowned the public voice in local decision-making and shifted power to technocrats who guide policy into schools, I doubt that foundation leaders intended to consolidate school decision-making higher up the authority ladder away from local policymakers, professionals, and citizens. Nonetheless, that is what has unintentionally happened over the past 30 years in identifying the problem as failing U.S. schools and the solution of getting schools to be efficient, effective, and excellent through a business-driven, technocratic model of governing schools.

I find much merit in this criticism.

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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.

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*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.

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Arguing Over What Public Schools Should Do?*

“Why do people argue so much about education?”

I heard this question as I pumped up Mt. Hamilton. Biking up a California mountain forces you to think about many things or else you note how goofy you are for taking five hours to climb nineteen miles just to eat peanut butter sandwiches in the parking lot of the James Lick Observatory. So two friends and I chat about biking, the panoramas of the Santa Clara valley and, yes, even education.

About halfway up the mountain my friends and I began talking about the constant disagreement over schools. Victor mentioned the uproar over whether a high school should provide condoms to students. Deborah remembered a conversation with an aunt who was a “creationist.” They knew I was an educator and this led to Deborah’s question: “Why do people argue so much about education?” Let me pick up the conversation as we passed a sign that said five miles to the top.

“There’s a lot of agreement among Americans,” I said. “Most folks believe that kids have to learn the basic skills,” I paused for some breath. “They want kids to know the humanities, sciences, and arts. They want their children to be prepared for college and getting a job. And most people believe that computers help kids learn more.”

Victor said: “OK, let’s say you’re right about the agreement but what about those controversial issues we just talked about? They show less consensus and more dissensus.” I liked how Victor could use those 50-cent words.

“Well, you’re right. Even with all of the agreement, there are serious differences among people about purposes of schooling.” I took a quick breath and said: “Many people want orderly schools where kids study academics, do well on tests, and get into college.”

Victor said that they had those schools when he grew up. I said: “Fine, but there are other people who want schools to help kids become independent thinkers  who will use their minds and hearts to live full lives while working with others to build a better, more democratic society.”

Victor turned and looked at my face to see if I was joking. “Do you have anything else in that water bottle? Those are beautiful sentiments but are there people who think schools can do that with kids?” Before I could answer, Deborah said to Victor: “I do.”

Deborah said she had gone to a middle school where teachers and students worked in teams on projects that included math, science, writing, and social studies. For one project the class worked with elderly poor people in a neighborhood facility. She read the newspaper to an old man who had no children. In school, they studied what the town and state did for the elderly and the problems they have. She marveled at how much she recalled from those experiences.

We stopped for a break two miles from the summit but the conversation continued. While I munched on carrot sticks, Deborah recalled class discussions about whether euthanasia was right or wrong. She wrote short stories and even had one published in the school newspaper; for the first time math made sense to her because teachers made sure that every project–including learning about the elderly-blended math with other content. What she remembered best, as we resumed our last pull to the top, were the teachers and friends she had made that year. She wanted her kids to go to that kind of school.

No one interrupted Deborah’s recollections. When she had finished, Victor said: “Deborah, your school was really different than mine but I’m not sure I would like my kids to go to that kind of school. It sounds too loose.” He continued, “I want a school that is a real school where they teach you what you have to know to get the right job or get you into college. It is nice to help out old people and have discussions but that’s not what schools are about.”

As Deborah started to protest, I said: “Hey, look, here we are finally reaching the top of the mountain on a beautiful day and we are arguing about which schools are good for kids. Don’t you see,” I said, “that there is no right answer here. There is no one best purpose for public schools. There is no one best system of schooling. There is no one best way of teaching or learning. People are going to disagree because their values differ.”

As I sat in front of the planetarium soaking up the sun, I continued. “That’s why parental choice keeps coming up over and over. That’s why many districts offer kids different programs. Both purposes are attractive to different people. Too few educators and public officials, however, lay out these differences in purposes and then try to seek the best of both.” And that,” I ended, “is why schools have been a battleground.” There was an awkward silence. As I got back on my bike I knew that this conversation was over. The discussion had gotten me up the mountain but it gave us no neat answers to a puzzling question. And on that swift, beautiful descent down Mt. Hamilton I thought about other things.


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*An earlier version of this post appeared November 25, 2009

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Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped (Ellie Herman)

Taken from “About” in her blog:

My name is Ellie Herman.  If you want to find out what I’m doing here and why, click here on why I’m writing this blog.  I’ve been working on this project since the beginning of September….

As for my bio, I’m a writer and English teacher.  From 2007 to 2013, I taught Drama, Advanced Drama, Creative Writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.

Before that, I was a writer/producer for many TV shows, including The Riches, Desperate Housewives, Chicago Hope and Newhart.  My fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection.

I attended public schools in Winnetka, Illinois from kindergarten through high school and graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in English.  I have a teaching credential from Cal State Northridge.  My three children attended Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley.  My husband, David Levinson, is a writer who runs the non-profit Big Sunday.  Our basset hound, Lou, appears ineducable, having channeled all of his energy into his good looks.  We live in Los Angeles.

Posted on July 11, 2014

Boxes crowd the hallways, moving in and moving out. I’m in an empty office at Animo Phillis Wheatley Middle School in South L.A. talking to Principal Nat Pickering, who has resigned after three years so that he can go back to being a teacher. Back when I was teaching, I worked with him; he was a history teacher for years before he became Assistant Principal of our school. I will forever be indebted to Nat, who despite being insanely busy, voluntarily met with me two or three times a month to coach me on the plethora of problems I was having in my various classes; he helped me shape my curriculum, talked me through issues with students and, more times than I can count, simply listened to me venting.

In 2011, the LA School Board took over Henry Clay Middle School on 122nd and Western Avenue in South L.A., one of the most historically troubled schools in the city, with chronically low test scores and continual issues on campus of absenteeism, fighting and chaos. The board turned the school over to the Green Dot charter system. Green Dot divided the school into two separate, smaller schools, renamed them and gave each its own principal. Nat was asked to be principal of one of them.

Now, after three years as Principal of Animo Phillis Wheatley, he’s leaving the job to go back to being a classroom teacher. By all accounts, his stint at the school has been successful. Why would such a talented principal choose to leave the job?

Amidst the boxes, in the empty office, he reflects on his three years at the school. “The first year was a shock,” he says frankly. “In retrospect, we were a little naïve about what we were getting into.” Unlike many schools in South Los Angeles, Animo Phillis Wheatley has a large percentage of parents who themselves attended the school back when it was Henry Clay. “Henry Clay used to be synonymous with getting your ass kicked. ‘I survived Henry Clay’ is a saying around here among some of the parents. Older members of the community remember it from the sixties, they were fond of the programs and things that were happening, but it was never an amazing place. My vision was that this neighborhood deserves a great school as much as any neighborhood.”

Despite his vision and optimism, change was not easy, especially the first year. “The education crisis is a mental health crisis, is a medical crisis, is a political crisis. All of that is layered into the school zone.” Nat was taken aback to find that 18% of the students were in Special Ed. “We thought they were overidentified. Turns out they were underidentified.” When I ask why there were so many kids with special needs, he’s not sure. Part of it, he thinks, is that the number of kids in foster care may be a factor, because foster kids are often moved from school to school, not staying long enough for their issues to be identified. “It’s just conjecture, but kids in foster care, they’re often in foster care because their parents were on drugs or couldn’t take care of them, well, are you more likely to be unable to take care of a kid with special needs and behavior problems?”

Whatever the cause, he says, “this is a neighborhood that’s been neglected in all capacities.”   The community was in continual flux. “We average losing a kid or gaining a kid every single day. In October, 25% of our kids weren’t there at the beginning of the year, and the later they come in, the higher the odds that they have problems” due to having been dumped by another school or transferred by frantic parents.

Nat quickly learned that the original game plan of providing order and excellent instruction would make a good start, but was not going to address the deeper issues. The school started adding wraparound services to address socioemotional needs, adding more assistant principals, a dean and other support staff. “What’s evolved for us over the years is that we try to offer a cocktail of a therapeutic environment, individualized supports for kids who need it and rigorous academic expectations.”

The school’s scores have slowly improved. After the first year, the staff at the high school next door came over to thank Nat and his team. “They said, just the safety, you don’t understand the impact you’ve had. We used to have kids jumping the fence, there used to be ‘fight Friday.’” A girl took him aside to tell him the school was much better. “We haven’t had a trash can fire all year,” she told him.

But the deeper issues of the community remained, and fighting them was an ongoing, exhausting battle. “What’s so hard is keeping yourself open to 600-plus students, over 100 adults on campus, the parents, the community…there’s no rest, there’s no stop. How many things can happen in a day? At the end of every day I’ve heard six things that I’m not okay with, a kid who stabbed another kid with a pencil, a parent who called a kid out of class and hit him with an extension cord, I hated sending kids out on a 5150 [mental illness designation].”

On top of that were the non-emergency stresses of everyday staff management. “In the night when you’re sleeping, a teacher’s kid gets sick, other people have gotten sick and you get a call at five in the morning saying they’re not coming in that day. You have to preserve a part of your brain for wondering what bad things are gonna happen.” Still, no matter how much he planned, “a lot of the job is showing up and being punched in the stomach.”

For all the successes, after three years, he couldn’t face another year of non-stop work and stress, with no time for family, hobbies or any outside interests including basic home maintenance. “It was like trying to turn around the Titanic. The cynical side of me says you either burn out or you close yourself off. Sure, you can take time for yourself, but if you do, here’s a list of 17 things that are not happening at your school.” A stint as an instructor for a Saturday remedial class reminded him of how much he enjoyed simply working with kids.  At the end of the year, he left his job and applied for teaching positions within Green Dot, ending up back at his original school (and mine), where he will be an English teacher.

He’s proud of what he’s accomplished in three years but has no regrets about leaving. “I will never, I will never do this again,” he says. “I don’t know whether I didn’t take care of myself right or there wasn’t enough of a system to keep me mentored. There’s no playbook for this.” But if he could name one thing that would make the job more sustainable, he instantly says “money”–not for himself, but for the school. “If we weren’t held back by trying to squeeze as much out of every dollar as possible, then maybe that would have been a little more manageable.”

I’m happy for Nat and for his students, who will be lucky to have him as a teacher. Not every talented educator needs to be an administrator. But his observations cut deep into one of the most serious issues in education, which is attracting and retaining strong principals. As I said in an earlier post, one of my biggest takeaways this year is that what we call “effective instruction” is meaningless in the absence of effective leadership. But if great leaders are essential and the job of leading a school in an historically underserved high-poverty community is so draining and underfunded that it’s barely sustainable if done well, isn’t that actually our core problem?  When are we going to stop demanding accountability without also demanding sustainable working conditions?

If attracting and retaining effective principals is our core problem, how are we trying to solve it?

 

 

 

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