Category Archives: Reforming schools

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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Is Progressive Schooling Just Around the Corner? (Part 2)

Predicting the future, well, is iffy. Except for an occasional Nate Silver who became famous in calling the 2012 election of Barack Obama, more often than not, predictions of what is around the corner range from goofy to funny. I do laugh at the big bloopers made by smart people about the future (see here). And I have gotten off a few clumsy ones of my own. So, at best, I am somewhere between occasionally right and, more often than not, wrong.

But my lack of success has yet to stop me from looking around the corner. The previous post asked whether a progressive coalition was forming to challenge frontally the current efficiency-driven, standards-based, testing and accountability movement that has dominated public schooling for the past three decades. I would like to think so but my experience, research, and ability to read portents of the future do not add up to an enviable record. So, readers beware.

Here are some fragments of a potential coalition that I do see emerging:

*Parents, educators, and students drawn from the political left and right (e.g. progressives, home schoolers, and Tea Party advocates) opposed to the amount and spread of standardized testing–the op-out movement–including mounting anxiety over new tests for assessing student learning of Common Core Standards;

*Traditional progressive groups (often splintered and small) that have low profiles for a long time yet continue to support educating the whole child, holistic education, democratic and social justice education, alternative schools including career academies, project-based learning, etc.

*The Maker movement (Do It Yourself–DIY) to invent, innovate, and work with everything by hand and through technology from rockets to crafts applied to schools.

*Personalized learning (see previous post)

*Donor, corporate, and parental supporters of urban school hybrids including charter schools and blended learning.

The last item needs some elaboration since it is hardly a self-evident emerging interest group.

The charter school movement has roots in a progressive agenda that, as educator Joe Nathan wrote in Rethinking Schools in 1996, viewed charters as “an important opportunity for educators to fulfill their dreams, to empower the powerless, and to help encourage a bureaucratic system to be more responsive and more effective.”

In the previous post, I mentioned some progressive charter schools. Beyond those self-defined progressive charters are emerging hybrids of schools that stress both teacher- and student-centered instruction and learning. Sure, it is still hard for many to combine traditional (think KIPP) and progressive teaching and learning in the same sentence (see here). But combinations of progressive and traditional approaches, including social-emotional learning do exist now and have existed (see here and here).

Some urban schools have embraced blended learning models that mix individualized  instruction with traditional approaches (see here for range of examples).

Whether these different fragments can coalesce into a political movement, I do not know. Pulling together Democrat and Republican partisans, educational progressives and conservatives, KIPP champions and whole-child enthusiasts is not only risky but a Herculean feat. Can it be done? Yes. Will it occur?  I do not know. What I do know is that a shift from the current center of gravity of seeing schools as a powerful tool for economic growth to one where historic goals of tax-supported public schools such as graduating thoughtful, literate, and well-rounded young men and women engaged in supporting and helping their communities is imperative. It will, however, require a coalition of different groups to act politically in making the changes occur. Whether my timid prediction will turn out to be a blooper or not, time will tell.

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Efficiency-Minded Reformers Today Draw from Efficiency-Minded Reformers of a Century Ago

The crusade among reformers for data-driven decision-making in schools and evangelizing new technologies didn’t just begin in the past decade. Its roots go back to Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s application of scientific methods a century ago to what workers do each day to increase their efficiency and productivity. In the decade before World War I and through the 1930s, borrowing from the business sector particularly manufacturing where Taylorism reigned, institutions as varied as farming, medical practice, municipal government, justice, and schools adopted Taylor’s techniques of time-and-motion studies to increase employee efficiency and find the “one best way.”

Consider Louis Brandeis, a lawyer who fought for unions, the 10-hour work day for women, and similar causes in the first decade of the 20th century. He believed in the superiority of science in gathering facts to make an argument rather than one’s opinions. Brandeis coined the phrase “scientific management, according to his biographer, and in 1914 wrote the foreword for a book written by one of Taylor’s followers called Primer of Scientific Management. Like Taylor, he saw the merits of applying scientific processes to labor and management. As a lawyer who presented briefs before state and federal courts, his biographer wrote, Brandeis brought together “the need for facts … the need to mitigate some of the harsher aspects of industrialization and the use of law as a social instrument of social policy” (p. 217). Eventually, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court justice; he served between 1916 and1939.

Like lawyer Brandeis and business and civic leaders who enlisted in the movement to use “scientific management” in every day tasks, educators including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to it. “Educational engineers” created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, checklists of what made a school building good, and measured anything that moved or was nailed down.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives” who wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant student-centered learning in schools–adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency.

These “administrative progressives” saw “scientific management” with its meticulous registering of statistics applied to every single task as the Holy Grail, a system that would bring standards, productivity, regularity, and order to public schools.

In Raymond Callahan’s Education and The Cult Of Efficiency (1962), he documents Newton (MA) superintendent Frank Spaulding telling fellow superintendents at the annual conference of the National Education Association in 1913 how he “scientifically managed” his district (Review of Callahan book). The crucial task, Spaulding told his peers, was for district officials to measure school “products or results” and thereby compare “the efficiency of schools in these respects.” What did he mean by products?

I refer to such results as the percentage of children of each year of age [enrolled] in school; the average number of days attendance secured annually from each child; the average length of time required for each child to do a given definite unit of work…(p. 69).

Spaulding and other superintendents measured in dollars and cents whether the teaching of Latin was more efficient than the teaching of English, Latin, or history. These “administrative progressives” recorded how much it cost to teach vocational subjects vs. academic subjects.

What Spaulding described in Newton for increased efficiency (and effectiveness) spread swiftly among school boards, superintendents, and administrators.  Academic experts hired by districts produced huge amounts of data in the 1920s and 1930s describing and analyzing every nook and cranny of buildings, how much time principals spent with students and parents, and what teachers did in daily lessons.

That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful data to inform policy decisions about district and school effectiveness continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” or the application of scientific management to schooling appears in the current romance with Big Data and the onslaught of models that use algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.

Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., “good” and which ones are inefficient, i.e., “bad” by reporting students’ test scores teacher-by-teacher as has  occurred in many big city districts such as New York City and Los Angeles Unified School District are not shockers to anyone familiar with the history of the business model in schooling. That model of competition, incentives, productivity, and efficiency has seeped into the bloodstream of schooling over the past century. Those crude efficiency studies of yesteryear are no more. But the ideas of Taylorism are present today in “standardization, the split of planning from doing, … the setting of precisely defined tasks, the emphasis on efficiency, and productivity to the exclusion of all else” (p. 501, Kanigel)

So the new “administrative progressives,” drawn from efficiency-minded wealthy donors, top state and federal policymakers, business and civic leaders, have pushed for Core State Standards, abolishing teacher tenure laws, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, charters, and online instruction as policies to make U.S. schools efficient and productive.

I say that Taylorism is alive and far too well in 2014.

 

 

 

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Schools as Factories: Metaphors That Stick

You have seen images like these time and again:

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The idea of the school as an efficient factory assembly line has a long but surprising history. A century ago, the notion of schools delivering finished products to a democratic society was both new and admired. Here is what Professor Ellwood P. Cubberley, of Stanford University said in the early 20th century:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.

In the midst of the progressive-inspired school efficiency movement, sparked by “scientific management,” Cubberley captured the prevailing beliefs of most school reformers then. Critics of the day, such as John Dewey, did question this efficiency-driven mindset that dominated schools then arguing that the purpose of public schooling in a democracy goes beyond preparation for the workplace. But their voices were drowned out by champions of uniformity, productivity, and more bang for each dollar spent  in every aspect of schooling.

Within a half-century, however, the affection for the metaphor of school-as-factory shifted 180 degrees and reformers of a later generation turned the image into an indictment. Standardization, efficiency, and up-close connections to the economy–the values earlier reformers applauded–became epithets hurled by self-styled progressive school reformers of a subsequent generation. So  recent images represent students and teachers as cogs in a constantly whirring machine:

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Of course, schools-as-factories is only one of the many metaphors for schooling used since the onset of tax-supported public schools. Philip Schlechty and Ann Joslin, for example, wrote three decades ago about different images that have been used by both advocates and critics of what schools should be doing:

the school as a factory
the school as a hospital
the school as a log in a pastoral setting with Mark Hopkins on one end and a
             motivated or able student on the other end
the school as a family
the school as a war zone

All of these have a history and were used by both reformers and their opponents. Embraced by different sides of the school reform spectrum at two different moments in time, competing metaphors, like those above, lagged behind or seldom appeared in policy proposals advanced by reformers. The one metaphor that has persisted over the 20th century outstripping the others has been the image of the school-as-a-factory even with its shifting positive to negative connotations.

Why has school-as-factory stuck?

The metaphor serves the interests of both contemporary advocates and critics of standardized curriculum and instruction. Of course, current advocates avoid the vocabulary of assembly line and factory made products. They–yes there are some advocates who even use the phrase schools-as-factories (see here)–talk about the need for schools to be efficiently run (principals and superintendents as managers and CEOs), effectively producing better test scores on international tests than European and Asian competitors, being held accountable for what students achieve and what classroom teachers do, and, most important, cranking out graduates ready to enter the labor market fully equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge. Advocates want schools to build human capital, especially in urban districts, and link those schools to a growing economy.

Critics of the metaphor, however, look at curricular and instructional standardization, ubiquitous testing, and coercive accountability as harming both students and teachers. This cartoon says it all.

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The sharp increase in snarky cartoons and irritable comments on Common Core standards and pervasive standardized testing from both the political left and right, I believe, stems from the century-old disputes over what purposes schools serve in a capitalist democracy. This age-old question is seldom openly debated and too often has been lost in the rhetoric and metaphors used by reformers over the past century.

And that, I believe, is the reason why schools-as-factories has stuck as an image used in reformer squabbles over the generations.

 

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Failing Schools: Conflicts over How to Write, Talk, and Make Films about Them

I have been a social studies teacher for 14 years in schools that were black and poor. Even before test scores determined whether a school was failing, the three urban schools I taught in were viewed as ____ (choose your favorite word: losers, basket cases, lousy, failures) because of the neighborhood in which the school was located and the color of the students’ skin. And that was over a half-century ago.

When I would read newspaper articles about where I taught then, the school often had the adjective “ghetto” or “slum” in front of it. Both were accurate insofar as characterizing students’ color of skin, family income and residential segregation that kept families where they lived but was far too simplistic in overlooking the many men and women in these neighborhoods who took pride in their homes, brought back weekly paychecks, and urged police officials to rid their streets of muggings, gangs, and drug-related crime.

Here is where my values come into conflict in writing about failing schools. I prized, then and now, the honest portrayal of unassailable facts of any low-performing school including the ones I worked in more than a half-century ago. By all academic criteria, they were doing poorly. The numbers graduating high school, dropouts, suspensions–name any school-wide metric–and they would have registered on the failing side of the ledger. The schools were in the center of neighborhoods that were different from the rest of the city as a result of residential and class segregation. Non-working and working poor families mixed with upwardly striving ones sometimes on the same street. Sure, those schools were housed in old buildings containing under-resourced science labs and libraries with  few books. The truth of those meager investments  and failure on common academic measures has to be told.

Yet–you knew there was a “yet” coming–another value that I prize is capturing the complexity of what happens in failing schools decades ago and now. As  an insider in those schools, I saw first-hand the cadre of teachers who stayed late and came in early to work with students who wanted to succeed academically. I saw the many students, the first in their families to attend college, put in super-intense work in their academic classes. And not to be ignored, I saw first-hand the consequences of poverty that spilled over the school in dozens of ways. I also saw uncaring teachers, administrators who twiddled their thumbs, and students who, for any number of reasons, acted out and eventually left school.

So how do I capture, then and now, the mix of persistent effort by some determined, hardworking teachers, students, and upwardly-striving parents who succeed in the midst of neighborhood poverty within a school doing poorly academically? For sure, not a black-white picture but ones shaded in gray.

Yet authors, artists, turnaround specialists, and even academic experts over the decades–I have learned–are far less interested in grays. Black and white hats fit their tastes better. For over the past half-century,  portraying urban schools as unredeemable failures has become a cottage industry of books, articles, speeches, and films.

These authors and artists have faced no dilemma. They have created simple tropes that tell hero and villain stories about failing urban schools.  Over time, they have resorted to blaming students, families, neighborhoods, and teachers for school failures.Consider Hollywood films such as “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Cooley High” (1975), Boyz in the Hood (1991) that fastened images of bad kids, bad teachers, bad principals, and crime-ridden neighborhoods onto the public consciousness. That tradition continues with “Bad Teacher” and “The Substitute.” Books, such as Shut Those Thick Lips have pursued similar tropes:

Not all of the stories use these “bad” tropes. Some artists and experts flip the negative and make bad teachers (and principals) into heroes and bad kids into likable, hard-working students who, with a little help, can pull up their socks and succeed. “Good” tropes replace “bad” ones.  There is the heroic teacher in To Sir with Love  and Dangerous Minds and those hard working Latino students and ever-demanding teacher in Stand and Deliver. Don’t forget that in-your-face principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me,  and entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada who rescues the classroom, school, and neighborhood in “Waiting for Superman.” Good or bad stories still have villains be they families, students, teachers, principals, and “the system.”

So here is the policy point I want to make in analyzing conflicts I face in writing about failing schools. What too often goes unnoticed in today’s scramble to turning around failing schools–“dropout factories,” where district officials fire the entire staff and restructure the school to convert a loser into a winner is how even in those failing schools effective work by cadres of teachers, students, and parents exist. I don’t think it is uncharitable to point out that there is little evidence that firing staffs works to turn around schools–called “restructuring.” I am reminded of some critic of the U.S.’s failed Iraqi policy, called that strategy “clumsy gestures based on imperfect knowledge.”   Current turnaround policies are anchored in tropes that no longer blame young children and youth as they did decades ago. Instead, top decision-makers resort to other familiar ones to explain failure: bad teachers and bad administrators.

Other alternatives? Some say the best thing to do is just close the school and start anew. Others, including myself, say that working closely and investing in those teachers, students, and parents who have somehow overcome the academic disengagement, the inertia, and  negative peer-driven cultures in these failing schools is the route to take. Both alternatives, however, are experiments since no body of evidence clearly supports either. But at least the latter one avoids creating anew the villains that populate so many films, stories, and accounts of failing schools.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cutting Through the Hype: Principals as Instructional Leaders

Jane David and I wrote a book called Cutting through the Hype: (Harvard Education Press, 2010). This is one chapter on principals. I have updated some references and language.

Effective manager? Savvy politician? Heroic leader? School CEO? Reformers press for principals who can not only play these roles but also raise test scores and do so quickly. These days principals can earn thousands of dollars in bonuses for boosting student achievement.

Principals are expected to maintain order, to be shrewd managers who squeeze a dollar out of every dime spent on the school, and astute politicians who can steer parents, teachers, and students in the same direction year after year. They are also expected to ensure that district curriculum standards are being taught, as well as lead instructional improvement that will translate into test score gains.

Being a principal is a tall order. As one New York City small high school principal put it: “You’re a teacher, you’re Judge Judy, you’re a mother, you’re a father, you’re a pastor, you’re a therapist, you’re a nurse, you’re a social worker.” She took a breath and continued: “You’re a curriculum planner, you’re a data gatherer, you’re a budget scheduler, you’re a vision spreader.” Yet, at the end of the day, the pressures and rewards are for raising test scores and graduation rates, today’s measure of instructional leadership.

Where did the idea of instructional leadership originate?

Historically, the title principal comes from the phrase “principal teacher,” that is, a teacher who was designated by a mid-19th century school board to manage the non-classroom tasks of schooling a large number of students and turning in reports. Principals examined students personally to see what was learned, evaluated teachers, created curriculum, and took care of the business of schooling. So from the very beginning of the job over 150 years ago principals were expected to play both managerial and instructional roles.

Over the decades, however, district expectations for principals’ instructional role have grown without being either clarified, or without lessening managerial and political responsibilities. Over the past quarter-century, the literature on principals has shifted markedly from managing budgets, maintaining the building, hiring personnel, and staff decision-making to being primarily about instruction. And, within the past decade, directly being held accountable for student results on tests has been added to the instructional role. As instructional leaders, principals now must also pay far closer attention to activities they hope will help teachers produce higher student scores such as aligning the school curriculum to the state test.

Today’s reformers put forth different ideas of what instructional leaders should do to meet standards and increase achievement. Some argue that principals need to know what good instruction looks like, spend time in classrooms, analyze teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, and provide helpful feedback. Other reformers say principals need to motivate teachers and provide opportunities for teachers to learn from each other and from professional development. Still others say principals should focus on data, continually analyzing student test scores to pinpoint where teachers need help.

The list goes on. Some reformers argue that principals should exercise instructional leadership by hiring the right curriculum specialists or coaches to work with teachers on improving instruction. Finally, others suggest that the most efficient way to improve instruction and achievement is to get rid of the bad teachers and hire good ones, an option not always open to leaders of struggling schools. Most of these ideas are not mutually exclusively but together pose a Herculean task, landing on top of all the other responsibilities that refuse to simply disappear.

What problem is the principal as instructional leaders intended to solve?

The short answer is raise a school’s low academic performance. New Leaders for New Schools, a program that trains principals for urban schools, captures the expectation that principals can end low academic performance through their instructional leadership:

Research shows – and our experience confirms – that strong school leaders have a powerful multiplier effect, dramatically improving the quality of teaching and raising student achievement in a school.

Such rhetoric and the sharp focus on the principal as an instructional leader in current policymaker talk have made principals into heroic figures who can turn around failing schools, reduce the persistent achievement gap single-handedly, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

If the immediate problem is low academic performance, then the practical problem principals must solve is how to influence what teachers do daily since it is their impact on student learning that will determine gains and losses in academic achievement.

Does principal instructional leadership work?

The research we reviewed on stable gains in test scores across many different approaches to school improvement all clearly points to the principal as the catalyst for instructional improvement. But being a catalyst does not identify which specific actions influence what teachers do or translate into improvements in teaching and student achievement.

Researchers find that what matters most is the context or climate in which the actions occurs. For example, classroom visits, often called “walk-throughs,” are a popular vehicle for principals to observe what teachers are doing. Principals might walk into classrooms with a required checklist designed by the district and check off items, an approach likely to misfire. Or the principal might have a short list of expected classroom practices created or adopted in collaboration with teachers in the context of specific school goals for achievement. The latter signals a context characterized by collaboration and trust within which an action by the principal is more likely to be influential than in a context of mistrust and fear.

So research does not point to specific sure-fire actions that instructional leaders can take to change teacher behavior and student learning. Instead, what’s clear from studies of schools that do improve is that a cluster of factors account for the change.

Over the past forty years, factors associated with raising a school’s academic profile include: teachers’ consistent focus on academic standards and frequent assessment of student learning, a serious school-wide climate toward learning, district support, and parental participation. Recent research also points to the importance of mobilizing teachers and the community to move in the same direction, building trust among all the players, and especially creating working conditions that support teacher collaboration and professional development.

In short, a principal’s instructional leadership combines both direct actions such as observing and evaluating teachers, and indirect actions, such as creating school conditions that foster improvements in teaching and learning. [i] How principals do this varies from school to school–particularly between elementary and secondary schools, given their considerable differences in size, teacher knowledge, daily schedule, and in students’ plans for their future. Yes, keeping their eye on instruction can contribute to stronger instruction; and, yes, even higher test scores. But close monitoring of instruction can only contribute to, not ensure such improvement.

Moreover, learning to carry out this role as well as all the other duties of the job takes time and experience. Both of these are in short supply, especially in urban districts where principal turnover rates are high.

The solution … in our view

By itself, instructional leadership is little more than a slogan, an empty bumper sticker. In some schools principals follow all the recipes for instructional leadership: They review lesson plans, make brief visits in classrooms, check test scores, circulate journal articles that give teachers tips, and dozens of other instructional activities that experts advise. Yet they do not manage to create school-wide conditions that encourage teacher collaboration, high standards for student work, and a climate where learning flourishes for students and teachers. Creating these conditions is the essence of instructional leadership.

Principals who are effective instructional leaders do not follow a recipe. Like teachers, they diagnose their school’s conditions and figure out what actions are needed to create a school environment where teachers feel supported and where students, parents, and teachers strive to achieve common goals and have a stake in helping one another do their best. When all pull together, the chances of test score gains and other measures of academic achievement rise also.

 

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[i] Of the many studies and books Cuban has examined, one in particular offers both a conceptual design and practical techniques to increase the leadership of principals in supervising and evaluating teachers, major functions of every school-site leader. See, Kim Marshall, Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

 

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