Category Archives: Reforming schools

Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools

In the heart of Silicon Valley where start-ups are a way of life, open space offices and teams rule the landscape. Even at the biggest of the big companies such as Google and Facebook, power struggles among and between bureaucrats are a thing of the past. “Move fast and break things” is a Facebook’s slogan. Flat organizations, no elaborate hierarchies, and constant change dominate. Or so, everyone seems to say. See here, here, and here.

Then along comes a Stanford professor who says: “Sorry Kids, Corporate Power Hasn’t Changed.” Jeffrey Pfeffer at the Graduate School of Business since 1979 has studied organizations for decades. According to Pfeffer, Silicon Valley firms–big and small–recruit engineers and programmers to become managers by saying:

We’re not political here. We’re young, cool, socially networked, hip, high-technology people focused on building and selling great products. We’re family-friendly, have fewer management levels and less hierarchy, and make decisions collegially.

It just ain’t so, according to Pfeffer. He points out that hierarchies exists in all organizations and power, acquiring status, and control over ideas and practices are in play unceasingly. He points to the power struggles that occurred at the birth of Twitter and the frequent turnover of CEOs as Hewlett-Packard. And hierarchy is alive and well at Facebook and Google where dual classes of stock “allow the founders to retain the lion’s share of control.” An infographic on hierarchy at both firms would have strengthened his argument even further.

Pfeffer concludes his article with the flat-out statement:

Competition for status and advancement exists not only over time and across countries but also in virtually all species. In short, whether we like it or not, the rules of power abide largely unchanged. People who ignore these principles do so at their peril.

I was struck by Pfeffer’s points that amid all of the talk about change, flat organizations, and team-work, the constancy of competition within companies for power and status remains. Even in Silicon Valley.

Power, Status, and Hierarchy in Public Schools

A similar rhetoric pervades the quest for effective schooling. Reformers, both on the political left and right, say teachers need to collaborate, network, and build strong school cultures where instruction and learning are primary goals. See here, here, and here. But talk is cheap. Beyond the words, what are the organizational realities (i.e., tall or flat, hierarchical or teams) in public schools?

Most U.S. elementary schools are already “flat” organizationally. There is a principal, a few administrative and instructional aides, building staff, and the largest group of all, the  teachers who report to the principal. That’s it. In larger secondary schools there are more administrators, staff, and rules but few hierarchical strata separate teachers from their principals. The largest number of staff in middle and high schools are teachers. But rules also come from district and state offices.

Regulations abound in schools because districts are creatures of the state which, in turn, makes educational policy for everyone. So district administrators try to make sure that local and state policies are followed in schools. School-site principals do the same with teachers. In short, even with a flat school-site organization, bureaucratic levels exist in school districts and the state which means that elbowing for higher status and getting more clout occur in schools, districts, and state departments of education. Here’s the catch, however.

With all of the rules and hierarchical levels from classroom through the state superintendent of education, teachers have one things in their power to do: close the classroom door. They are (and have been) gatekeepers for student content, skills, and attitudes.

What about charter schools that have autonomy and are free from most district and state regulations? KIPP, Aspire, and other groups of charter schools have state and national organizations that make rules for individual schools to follow. As in public schools, however, charter school teachers can close their doors.

Teachers as gatekeepers exist because the organizational reality of both regular and charter schools is that they are age-graded and each teacher has a self-contained classroom with a door to close. Teachers have power within their classroom but little outside of it unless they develop a support network, a culture within the school. And, from time to time, that has occurred in both charter and regular schools.

Consider all the talk of moving to project-based learning and shifting the teacher’s role from the sage-on-stage to guide-on-the-side. Periodically, school reformers for more than a century have coerced, urged, and pleaded with teachers to change their dominant teacher-centered forms of instruction into more student-centered ones along the lines mentioned above.

On occasion, some of the reforms have stuck in some schools where teachers  weathered criticism and supported one another through cascades of hype and criticism. In these scattered instances, teachers kept their doors open and built a stable school culture supporting such instructional reforms as teaching in small groups regularly, sustaining open classrooms, using project-based learning, and creating rich student-centered activities (see here and here). But not most teachers who returned time and again to practices that worked better for them than the “new” reform simply because they could close their classroom doors.

These are (and have been) abiding features of public schools and companies that no amount of talk and hype about doing business differently has changed. Even in Silicon Valley.



Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

Learning from the Past: The Economy and School Reform Then and Now*

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce.   

Theodore Search, President of the National Association of  Manufacturers, 1898 (quoted here, p. 29)

No issue will have a bigger impact on the future performance of our economy than education.  In the long run it’s going to … determine whether businesses stay here.  It will determine whether businesses are created here, whether businesses are hiring here.  And it will determine whether there’s going to be an abundance of good middle-class jobs in America….The countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  That’s a simple fact.  And if we want America to continue to be number one and stay number one, we’ve got some work to do. 

President Barack Obama, speech to National Governors Association, 2012

I begin with these quotes covering more than a century to make a simple point: Past and present, policy elites have connected the economy to education and pursued school reforms to tie the two together.

Between the 1890s and 1920s when the U.S. was competing with Great Britain and Germany in selling products in a global marketplace, progressive reformers created a vocational curriculum in addition to the dominant college preparatory program in secondary schools making career preparation a goal of U.S. public schools. (see here and here)

For the past three decades, business and civic leaders have talked extensively about how more efficient and effective schools will lead to economic growth and improve global competitiveness. Resulting actions have stripped away most vocational programs in exchange for an academic program geared to prepare students for higher education–just like the high school in the 1890s.

The goal of career preparation remains from both periods of school reform but has shifted from job preparation for an industrial economy—a high school diploma–to job preparation for an information-driven economy—a bachelor’s degree.

In 2014, we persist with economically-driven school reform, one that has evolved into a market-tinged policy agenda embraced by both national and state political and business leaders: more parental choice in selecting schools, more teacher use of high-tech in classrooms, focus on academic standards, testing, and accountability including the new Common Core national roll-out, and using student outcomes to evaluate student, teacher, and school effectiveness.

But newspaper ads, policy elite rhetoric, and a common vocabulary among leaders, as past reforms have shown, do not make much difference in classrooms (see here, here, and here)..

And this lesson about classroom implementation is one that generations of reformers have too often missed. There are crucial differences between policy talk, policy decisions, and classroom practice that can help supporters and opponents of current reforms, anchored as they are in the past, to crack the mystery of reform occurring again and again.  These policy distinctions have existed for over a century foiling the best laid designs to closely link U.S. schools and classrooms to the economy.


Policy talk refers to past and present reformers whose words of gloom and doom about schools are often followed by over-confident and untested solutions to schools in crisis. For example, those over 50 years of age can recall talk about the Apple IIe desktop computer decades ago, or now, classroom Smart Boards, iPads, and online instruction revolutionizing classroom instruction. Perhaps they can also recall the dire predictions since the 1980s about declining U.S. global competitiveness as graduates enter the job market unprepared for the new economy. Such policy talk is important in framing problems, mobilizing political coalitions, and getting educators to roll up their sleeves to solve school problems. Seldom, however, do doom-tinged words or ambitious talk about transformations make a reform happen. Words have to be converted into policies.

Policy adoption refers to actual decisions governors, mayors, superintendents, and legislators make to solve problems framed in the purple rhetoric of policy talk. Examples of policy action include legislatures authorizing mayors to take control of schools; boards of education buying tablets for kindergartners. And New York State’s Board of Regents approving the Common Core standards.

Policy implementation in districts, schools, and classrooms, however, differs from both talk and action.

Implementation means putting an adopted policy into practice. Consider what so often occurs after a state or district adopts new technologies to increase student engagement and test scores. When observers go into classrooms to see how teachers use new devices in lessons, they find great variation across districts and even ones within the same school. Some teachers pick and choose what to use in their classrooms; others just ponder when to begin implementing, and even others ignore the policy. Because of school cultures and organizational structures, change is gradual, scattered, and sporadic. What happens in schools and classrooms, then, is a world apart from the lofty promises policymakers make and when they adopt new policies.


These distinctions become very clear when it comes to Common Core standards in New York. Ambitious, even fiery, talk from advocates about how the new standards will lead to high school graduates having the wherewithal to enter college and then graduate with a bachelor’s degree. With degree in hand, graduates would get decently paid middle-class jobs that would strengthen the economy while increasing the U.S.’s global competitiveness.

The New York State Board of Regents adopted the new standards in 2010. The state department of education piloted reading and math standards across the state even having students take versions of the new tests that will accompany the Common Core standards. Lots of glitches showed up when the standards and tests entered classrooms, especially the steep drop in student test scores. With sharp conflict emerging over districts’  unreadiness to implement and the impending Common Core tests being used to evaluate teacher performance, the Regents have delayed full implementation for five years (see here and here). Amid all of this furor, however, is a welcome sign from the past: the New York State Commissioner of Education and the Department of Education have allocated funds for professional development of teachers and other tools to help make Common Core standards much easier to put into practice.

Time will tell whether policy elites distinguishing between policy talk, adoption, and implementation, distinctions that have made a difference in understanding prior reforms aimed at importing market-driven ideas and practices into classrooms, will come to matter in New York state where in nearly 4,800 schools over 211,00 teachers teach 2,700,000 students after they close their classroom doors.

*A version of this post appeared February 28, 2014 in the blog of the City University of New York Education Policy at Hunter College.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

The Personal Side of Superintending (Part 3)

In The Managerial Imperative: The Practice of Leadership in Schools (1988), I wrote of my experiences as a superintendent, husband, and father and how the job intersected with my life during and after the workday. In the post here, my wife is Barbara and my daughters are Sondra and Janice. All of what follows occurred between 1974-1981.

The superintendency was both exhilarating and exhausting. As a line from a song put it “Some days were diamonds; some days were stones.” What values I prized about public service and helping people were enacted daily; what skills I had were tapped frequently, and the post pushed me into learning new skills and plumbing hidden reserves of energy. In short, being superintendent stretched me in ways I keenly felt were worthwhile. I enjoyed the job immensely. But–there has to be a but–there were a number of job-related issues that arose over the years, softening my rosy assessment, forcing me to face the inevitable trade-offs that accompany the top executive post in a school district.

What initially turned our lives topsy-turvy was the time I had to spend on the job after two years as a graduate student and, before that, as a teacher. The days usually began at 8:00 A.M. in the office and ended at 11:00 P.M. about two to three nights a week (and even more nights out during budget season). On those long days, I would race home for dinner at 5:00 P.M. and leave two hours later for a board meeting, work session, or some other community event. During the week, I saw my family for a few minutes in the morning and at dinner. Fatigue tracked me relentlessly the first few years; I’d fall asleep watching the evening news and take long afternoon naps on weekends. Adjusting to new time demands proved difficult for all of us.

While we had not given too much thought to the issue of privacy,Barbara and I had made a few decisions about our family time. We had agreed that Friday evening dinners to celebrate the Sabbath were a high priority. I had asked the school board to be excused from obligations on Friday evenings, and they honored my request for the seven years, except for those few instances when I decided that I had to attend a meeting or event. Apart from critical county board meetings on Saturday, my bosses made few demands upon me during the week-ends, apart from phone calls.

A listed telephone number proved to be less of an issue than we had anticipated. I rarely received more than a half-dozen calls a week from parents, students, or citizens, except during snow storms or when I made a controversial recommendation to the school board. Surprisingly, we received few crank or obscene phone calls.

Buffering the family from the job was tough enough. Deciding what to do about those social situations where much business was transacted informally, without reducing time spent with my family troubled me. The first week on the job, for example, a principal who then headed the administrators union invited me to join a poker game with a number of principals and district office administrators that met twice a month. My predecessor, he said, had been a regular player for the five years that he was superintendent. Moreover, it would offer me a splendid chance to meet some of the veteran staff away from the office in relaxed surroundings. Aware of the advantage in joining and the costs to my family, I thanked the principal for the generous invitation but said no. It had also occurred to me that I would be making personnel changes and a certain amount of social distance from people I supervised might be best.

Dinner invitations proved troublesome as well. Invariably at these affairs, conversations would center on school matters and juicy political gossip. These evenings became work for me and difficult for Barbara who was immersed in completing her undergraduate degree. The last thing both of us wanted to hear on a Saturday night out was more about the Arlington schools. Except for socializing with the few friends that we had made in the county whom we could relax with and not be concerned about what we said, mainly members of the school board, we turned down most invitations after our second year in town.

We remained, however, part of the ceremonial life in Arlington. I ate chicken at boy scout dinners, sampled hors d’oeurves at chamber of commerce affairs (until I dropped out from the organization because of its persistent attacks upon the school budgets), spoke at church suppers; and represented the school board at civic meetings.

We were fortunate to have had a network of close friends in the Washington area since 1963. I could see now, in ways that I could not have seen earlier, that by entering the community as an outsider and remaining separate from existing social networks, that there would be certain costs. That was, I believe, one price we paid for being outsiders and for trying to prevent the superintendency from completely invading our home.

But, of course, the shadow of the superintendency, with all of its pluses and minuses, fell over the family nonetheless. For example, our daughters (ages ten and thirteen in 1974) were not only singled out,both positively and negatively by teachers, they also had to deal with all of the complications of being teenagers, losing old friends and gaining new ones, and coping with schoolwork and family issues. The desire to be accepted and just like the others put a constant strain on both girls; from early on they were singled out as being different because of their father’s position in the community and their religion. Active, smart, and friendly, Sondra and Janice both enjoyed and hated the attention. While some teachers were especially sensitive to the awkward position the girls were in, others were callous. Principals of the schools they attended were very understanding and tried to help, but little could be done with the occasionally insensitive teacher.

When salary negotiations heated up, for example, two of their teachers (in two separate schools) made caustic, remarks to each girl about her father’s lack of concern for the teachers’ economic, welfare. The pressures were such that our eldest daughter wanted to try another school. It proved to be the hardest decision that Barbara and I made while I was superintendent. For us, her welfare was more important than concerns over what others might think of a superintendent pulling his daughter out of the public, schools. We transferred her to a private school in Washington, D.C., where she began to thrive academically and socially. Of course, the local newspaper carried an article about it. Our other daughter went to a private school for one year but wanted very much to return to the Arlington schools and did so for her high school years.

Barbara was clear on what she wanted. She did not wish to be “the superintendent’s wife.” She wanted to complete her undergraduate degree and enter a profession. In seven years, she finished her degree at George Washington University and earned a masters in social work from Catholic University while completing the necessary internships for a career in clinical social work. Between caring for a family, doing coursework, research papers, tests, and coping with a tired husband, Barbara had little time or concern for meeting others expectations of how a superintendent’s wife should act.

Yet, try as we might, it was difficult to insulate ourselves from the fact that I was a superintendent in a small city. My efforts, for example, to keep my family and my job separate when serious decisions had to be made often did not work. Firing a teacher, determining the size of a pay raise, recommending which schools to close, and dozens of other decisions had to be made. After listening to many individuals and groups, receiving advice from my staff, and hearing all the pros and cons from my closest advisers, I still had to make the decision. At these times, I might discuss the situation with Barbara. Often, however, there were family concerns that required our attention instead.

Yet I would still come home with the arguments ricocheting in my mind; and I would carry on an internal dialogue while I was eating dinner, raking leaves, playing with the girls, or on a weekend trip with the family. I was home, but I was distant.

Over the years I became more skilled at telling my family that something from the job was bothering me and that if I seemed distracted it had nothing to do with them. But I never acquired the knack of leaving serious Issues on the doorstep when I came home. Some-times, escaping the job was impossible. Newspaper articles or the 11:00 p.m. television news reports on the schools entered our home whether we liked it or not.

What did stun me, however, was the lengths that some people would go for political advantage, including destroying someone’s reputation. Elected officials, accustomed to the political in-fighting, might find such back-biting trivial. It jolted me and my family.

I’ll give one example. Shortly before the school board reappointed me for another four years, a board member called to ask if I had ever been arrested in Washington, D.C., on a drug charge. No, I hadn’t, I told her. She said that there was a story that would appear in the next day’s newspaper stating that I had been arrested and put in jail for possession of heroin. Within the next hour, I received a dozen calls from county officials, parents, friends of school board members, and the head of the teachers’ union asking me if the newspaper story were true and if there was anything they could do to help. Finally a newspaper reporter called to say that they were printing the story and did I have any comments to make. I told the reporter that there was no basis for the allegation and that before printing such a lie they would do well to get a record of the alleged arrest and other documentation. The newspaper did not print the story.

What shocked me most was the fragility of a professional reputation, the willingness of people to believe the worst (this occurred a few years after Watergate), and the lengths some people would go to destroy someone they disliked politically.

The seven years as superintendent taught me a great deal about the mixing of public and private lives for officials like myself. More prosaic than senators who party or congressmen who resign for disclosure of sexual jaunts, or corrupt governors our experiences still map an unfamiliar terrain for a superintendent and family who tried to maintain privacy.


Filed under raising children, school leaders

Superintendents’ Daily Schedules, 1975-2011 (Part 2)

Part 1 of this series on what superintendents do daily looked at early 20th century superintendents and what they typically did. Fast forward to October 24, 1975 and look at what my schedule and activities were on a particular day when I served in Arlington (VA) between 1974-1981. All names are actual people I worked with. This section is taken from “The Managerial Imperative and The Practice of Leadership in Schools” (1988), pp. 163-166.

Scheduled Appointments 7:30AM-10 AM

Henry Gardner, director of personnel(15 minutes): discussed proposed Corrective Action procedure for use with all employees; reviewed workshop for administrators on the new process of evaluating them.

Todd Endo, executive assistant (35minutes): in an effort to begin coordinating all locally and federally funded multicultural programs, Endo had taken the initiative to determine where the problems were and which people were needed. His judgments on bilingual programs and negotiations with the federal Office of Civil Rights’ position were weekly matters that we discussed. He developed proposals to plug the holes we encountered in dealing with underserved populations in the district. We discussed a broad range of issues and how we should move ahead to bring order to unconnected programs.

Ed Oliver, director of employee relations and collective bargain-ing, (15 minutes): Oliver reported the grievances that had been filed that week, his estimate of the legitimacy of the complaint, and recommendations on what to do if they went unresolved, that is, should we go to arbitration. On those issues that were clear losers for the school board, I had to decide whether or not the principle embedded within the grievance was worth going to arbitration given the board’s and superintendent’s goals.

Joe Ringers, assistant superintendent for business and facilities(25 minutes): Ringers briefed me on the renovation plans for Washington-Lee high school; the last meeting of the school’s citizen-staff advisory commission to the board on their views of the renovation; some glitches in busing special education students; and more complaints from the district office staff on parking.

Hal Wilson, associated superintendent for instruction (25 minutes): discussed where we should go with the Teacher Innovation Fund next year; two problems with teachers at Washington-Lee that he wanted me to be aware of; told me of his plans to keep an orchestra in the high schools by trying to have the offering at the centrally located new Career Center. We went over his recommendations for budget cuts mandated by the county board because of shortfalls in state and federal revenues announced last week. We both knew that the county board would not pick up the lost revenues and that we would have to make mid-year program and staffing reductions. I wanted to be ready when the board asked for recommendations. I deleted two items that he had on the list and suggested one that he balked at. We compromised on another.

Tom Weber, principal of Stratford Junior High (25 minutes): was still having trouble doing his Annual School Plan (one of the criteria I would use in evaluating his performance) and wanted to see if he was on the right track. We went over the guidelines and compared them to what he had been doing with a few members of his faculty. We discussed at length the importance of his broadening teacher involvement in the ASP. I asked him to tell me what he would like to see Stratford become and discussed how he might take a piece of his vision for the school and make an ASP goal out of it.

Allan Norris, director of Planning,Management, and Budget (15 minutes): brought the most recent simulations for closing Madison, Taylor, and Woodmont elementary schools. We reviewed the data to make sure what the board wanted and the criteria that they had approved were included in the printouts. I made some minor points and told him to get it ready for next week’s public work session with the board.

School visit to Tuckahoe Elementary (three hours)

Visited seven classrooms that I had missed on my last visit in the spring.Talked with John Willis, the principal, before and after about how things were going and issues of importance to him.

Unscheduled Appointments 3PM-5PM

My office had three doors. One door connected from inside the office to my associate superintendent for instruction, Hal Wilson, and one to the clerk of the school board. The third door was to the outside area where Bettye Dudley, my secretary, had her desk and where visitors checked in. Since that door was left open (except for confidential meetings) staff members, including principals and teachers, knew that they could see me if the door was open. On this particular day, I spent about an hour with eight drop-ins on a variety of topics: construction problems at Washington-Lee, which Hal Wilson and Joe Ringers brought in, Judy Gillies, public information officer, sensed that the questions a Washington Post reporter was asking about an incident at a school might be more serious than the principal had told us and that I might wish to tell the board; and Adele Pennifull, clerk to the school board, reviewed items for next week’s agenda.

Phone Calls and Desk Work

On this day I spent over an hour and a half on the following: Drafting a speech I would give to teachers who had been awarded Innovation grants. Drafting a Dear Colleague letter on my views about staff development for teachers and principals.

Spoke with board members Ann Broder and Diane Henderson, who had called about a variety of complaints they had received from parents and teachers; discussed what the district was planning to do about the surge in Vietnamese students arriving in Arlington; and discussed the memorials ervice that we were to attend that evening for Floyd Gravitt.Took two phone calls from parents about their special education children and the long time that they were spending on the buses in the morninga. Afternoons were alright. I listened and took notes for Joe Ringers to respond. Put a reminder in my tickler file under Ringers’ name to check later.

Wrote short notes to seven teachers I had visited at Tuckahoe.

Reviewed letters to two principals about their ASPs. Ralph Stone, a principal on assignment to me (funded by state monies that Endo had discovered), reviewed and assessed ASPs that I had already read. We discussed each and talked through the main points to be included in the letter that he would draft. Took a phone call from a former Glenville student who lived in Washington, D.C., and wanted to get together.

Read draft of Newscheck, important information Gillies had prepared for all employees about the district that was enclosed with paychecks. Signed letters I had dictated to Dudley yesterday and documents (retirement papers for teachers, award certificates, special payroll vouchers for employees that had missed their checks, and so forth).


After going home at 5:30 for dinner, I left at about 7:30 to attend a memorial service for Floyd Gravitt, our director of human relations, who had been found murdered in his Washington, D.C. apartment the previous week. Hank Gardner and I had gone to his funeral a few days earlier in a small town in Southside Virginia. The service brought together hundreds of friends and admirers, adults and students of the popular Gravitt who had been the first black to serve in a top position in the district office and had worked hard to bridge the large differences that still existed in a school system that had formally desegregated its last all-black elementary school in1971. I arrived home at 10:00 P.M.

For readers that wish to examine schedules of superintendents in the past few years and compare early 20th century superintendents with early 21st century ones, see the following:

*Article describing Superintendent Kimberle Ward of Naples (NY) early days on the job in 2009; 

*Newspaper account in 2010 of Jon Felske, Superintendent of Wyoming and Godwin Heights districts (MI);

*There is also a YouTube video of Superintendent Edgar Hatrick of Loudon County (VA) in  2011.


Filed under school leaders

What Superintendents Do Daily (Part 1)

In this blog over the past few years, I have posted accounts of a day in the life of a principal and what some teachers do daily. But I have not looked at what district superintendents do at work.

In this three-part post, I will present what I have found over the years of what superintendents did daily on the job over a century ago, 85 years ago, 40 years ago, and the work schedule of contemporary superintendents.

Getting a picture of what superintendents do every day, then and now, is useful in understanding the multiple roles that superintendents perform with the school board who hire and fire them, interactions with teachers and principals, parents, local politicians, and the unpredictability of their work. The high expectations that educators and non-educators have about superintendents arise from these many daily tasks they have performed for over a century. In the last post, I will also offer one superintendent’s views of the impact of a superintendent’s job on one family.


William Chancellor, a former superintendent who served in large and small cities wrote what a typical day looked like for the school chief in a district at the beginning of the 20th century.

1. Inspected school building. Sent messenger for painter to repair window glass. Notified chief of police to follow up street “hoodlums”who broke glass.

2. Read mail; business letters from places large and small: correspondence with colleges; teachers’ applications, requests for subscriptions to help national charities, calls to give addresses here and there, generally gratis; answered mail.

3. Talked to mayor about next year’s appropriations.

4. Looked into a new textbook.

5. Visited a school; sent one child home who had apparently an infectious disease, discussed salary with a discontented teacher.

6. Dictated circular letter to board of education regarding educational and financial matters.

7. Saw a textbook agent.

8. Ate lunch; interrupted by call from mother of sick child.

9. Read and signed letters of reply to morning mail.

10. Called at business place of board member, saw two politicians there; discussed three R’s as usual.

11. Held grade meeting; gave sample lesson on mensuration of

12. Visited by Catholic sisters from parochial school, regarding truants.

13. Read afternoon mail; sent notes regretting absence from office to following callers: Presbyterian minister, carpenter to discuss repairs in a school building, mother of child suspended from school for misconduct.

14. Made a statistical table.

15. Ate dinner; caller on school matters came at seven o’clock,

16. Went to evening engagement and was called on to speak.

17. Read an hour and retired for the night.

Chancellor commented that this was an easy day. Were it a “hard day”, one would need to “add a board or committee of the board meeting, a formal public address or the making of a test.”

1928: National survey of administrators

In that year a national survey of 663 principals and superintendents in various-sized districts reported on which tasks were performed and how frequently. Four of five superintendents reported that they did the following;

*Go to the post office

*Deliver messages to teachers

*Draft special reports to state and U.S. Bureau of Education,prepare annual reports for school board

*Prepare letters of sympathy

*Conduct visitors through schools

*Examine school work sent to office

*Prevent salesmen from canvassing schools

*Answer questionnaires

*Gather school publicity data

*Adjust complaints of parents

*Consider applications, examine credentials, consult with principals in selecting teachers for district

*Secure substitute teachers

*Suggest professional books and articles for teachers

*Investigate criticism of teachers

*Assist teachers to find lodgings

*Attend summer school

*Visit schools elsewhere

*Talk before community groups

*Attend church social functions

Both lists of what superintendents do can be found in Larry Cuban, The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership in Schools (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), pp. 125-128. See: ED304758-1


The next post will document a day I spent as Superintendent in the Arlington (VA) schools nearly 40 years ago.


Filed under school leaders

Principals Helping Teachers Grow: A Task That Too Often Goes Unnoticed

Although I have never served as a principal, I have been a student under three elementary and secondary school principals and worked for six high school principals as a teacher. As a district superintendent, I supervised and evaluated nearly 35 elementary and secondary school principals for seven years. From below and above, then, I have seen principals up close and personal.

I have written in this blog about the core roles  that principals must perform (see here, here, and here). In this post, I describe my experiences with one of those six principals I worked—I was going to write “under”–but decided that a better word for my experience with Oliver Deex is “with.” Those years with Deex helped shape me intellectually, grounded me in practical classroom experience, and gave me a perspective on school reform.

First, some personal background.

I was the third son of Russian immigrants. I saw that my brothers who had to work during the Great Depression to provide family income and then serve the country in World War II lacked the chances that I had simply because I was born in the 1930s and they were born in the 1920s. Because sheer chance made me the youngest, I did not serve in World War II; because I had polio as a child, I could not serve in the Korean War. So I finished college in Pittsburgh and became a teacher in the mid-1950s, landing a job on Cleveland’s East side.

Meeting with Oliver Deex, Glenville High School’s new principal at a local deli a few days before school opened in 1956, was a new experience for me. I had never met with a principal one-on-one since I was a student in high school and the reasons then had nothing to do with my teaching responsibilities.

Talking with Deex, I was startled to find out that the school was over 95 percent black—the word then was Negro—and that he, too, was a tad nervous moving into his first high school principalship after leading a nearby junior high school. He told me  about segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the expanding black ghetto on the East side and the pristine white ghetto on the West side with the Cuyahoga River separating the two. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the city’s numerous ethnic and racial ghettos.

Although I had grown up in Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, my memories of being one of a handful of white children in the neighborhood  elementary school were unpleasant and not calculated to instill sensitivity. Moreover, in 1955, I saw the popular film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Glenn Ford as an idealistic high school teacher—yes, I identified with Ford—and Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier as cunning adolescents smoking in bathrooms and becoming lethal toward teachers such as Ford. The film shook me up as did the music: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” played loud and often throughout the film.

Haltingly, I asked him questions about how many classes I would be teaching—five, he said. How large the classes were—between 25-30, he said. Then, he asked questions of me since he knew nothing about his new hire which is why he invited me to the deli. I told him about my background and eagerness to teach history. From that initial conversation with Deex, a working relationship evolved  between  a principal in his late-50s  and 21 year-old novice teacher.

In the first few years, I was a politically and intellectually naïve teacher pushing my unvarnished passion for teaching history onto urban students bored with traditional lectures and seatwork. At Glenville High School, I designed new lessons and materials in what was then called Negro history (see here). My success in engaging many (but not all) students in studying the past emboldened me to think that sharp, energetic teachers (yes, like me) creating and using can’t-miss history lessons could solve the problem of disengaged black youth. My principal supported my efforts in getting me a ditto machine, paper, and speaking to downtown district officials about what I was doing.

A former stock broker who after the crash of 1929 turned to education to support his family, got his degrees, taught, and then entered school-site administration, Oliver Deex was a voracious reader,  charming conversationalist, and skeptical of district office policies aimed at school improvement. I was a college graduate but had never seen Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others magazines. Why he took this interest in me, I have, until this very day, no idea. But he did.

His insistent questioning of my beliefs and ideas and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching. Our monthly or so get-togethers to discuss books and articles left me with a great hunger for ideas and intellectual growth the rest of my life. And not only me.

Deex often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing more and more Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. This group of teachers and one counselor stayed together as an informal group for the entire time I taught at Glenville and even morphed into a social group around making investments bringing in spouses to the mix of teachers.

Oliver Deex took an intellectual interest in me and supported me in my efforts to get a masters in history, apply for a one-year fellowship at Yale, and scrounged funds from the budget and downtown officials to advance what I was doing in my classes.

Today, Deex would be called a “mentor.” He supported, prodded, and encouraged a young teacher to grasp ideas and apply them to life and teaching. It was not part of his job description and surely went unnoticed by his superiors. But it had enormous influence on my life and career.


Filed under school leaders

A Superintendent’s Dreaded Decision

School closings due to snow and bad weather in the Midwest and along the East coast have occurred weekly this winter. While doing research at two high schools in Washington, D.C. in early December, sleet and rain mixed with snow closed schools in the city and surrounding counties. Winter storm Janus just a few days ago shut down schools from Boston through Washington, D.C.

Does closing schools harm student achievement? Probably not since most districts add “snow days” to the Spring calendar for every day schools are closed. One commentator even made the argument that closing schools helps students and their families. I have no opinion on the pundit’s point since I really do not know.

What I do know is that when I was Arlington (VA) superintendent for seven years (1974-1981), it was the one decision of many that I made that I dreaded. Over those years, I moved several elementary school principals for not improving academic achievement and a high school principal for inept leadership, survived teacher union votes of no confidence, consolidated seven schools–shutting them down permanently–and built a system of teacher professional development and accountability for student academic achievement.  Yet after all of those  consequential decisions, weather forecasts of snow between December and March scared me silly.


1. We lived in a weather zone where a change of a few degrees in temperature would turn a cold rain into sleet, hail, or inches of snow. Thus, we depended heavily on weather predictions and even ones within 24-hours generated by advanced computer models would often give a range of temperatures making a decision a nerve-wracking one.


2. Closing down 35 schools for 15,000 students (in the 1970s) meant that their health and safety–too wet and cold outside for students to wait for buses, roads too slippery and dangerous for school buses, public transportation, and private cars to negotiate–were primary considerations in making a decision.

images-13. Because up to half of the school population came from families where single parents or both parents worked outside the home, closing down schools would mean that these parents would have to scramble to get child care for the day. many could not locate child care the last moment and parents had to skip work or deal with kids being taken care of (or not). This factor also weighed heavily in any decision I made.

4. The superintendent makes the decision. In the first year of my superintendency, the procedure was for the assistant superintendent in charge of transportation, buildings and grounds calling me during the early evening and give me the forecast for the next day. He would then make a recommendation, based on some of his lieutenants being out on the streets seeing the conditions first-hand,  for keeping the schools open or closing them. I was tempted a few times to have him make the decision but resisted that temptation since any mistakes would fall on me as the superintendent, not him. Better, I felt, that I make the decision and take the heat should the decision go awry. And some did.

4. Because of the dicey weather zone we lived in, it was possible to close schools and end up with snow turning to rain and having a wet day rather than 5-10 inches of snow. Or worse yet, an unexpected clearing up of bad weather and at 1 PM in the afternoon the sun is shining. That happened to me once in seven years and the comments I got then, well, I do not want to pass them along.

5. Our two daughters were in the public schools at the time and it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to hear that their friends called them when bad weather was predicted for the area and asked whether I would be closing the schools tomorrow.  Sometimes, an unexpected weather front would move in during the school day and we had to decide to close school early. Those decisions would be easier than closing schools the next day because all you had to do was look outside and see for yourself.


For these and many other reasons, I dreaded making decisions about keeping schools open or shutting them down. But I did. And the reason is that such a decision is a human judgment not one driven by an algorithm. Sure, human judgments are flawed just as surely as the weighted factors that go into an algorithm.


Filed under school leaders

Classroom and School Cultures: Contradictions (Part 1)

One of my former colleagues in anthropology once told me that he gags every time he hears the word “culture.” Why? Because “culture,” he said, has come to mean  everything under the sun and has thus become meaningless.

With my colleague’s gagging in mind, I will try to be careful in using the c-word in this post.

So let’s imagine going into a school.

What do you see? What do you hear the teachers and other staff members saying? What do the bulletin boards look like? How easy was it to enter the school? What are the children saying and doing? How noisy is it? Do you feel welcome or afraid? What is the general “feel” of the environment? All these questions and more pertain to the underlying stream of values and rituals that pervade schools. This underlying stream is the culture of that particular school.

The question I think about a lot is: Does a school culture influence strongly what values and rituals turn up in academic classrooms?  Can, for example, a school’s athletic success stir pride in students studying history to show up before the tardy bell rings? Sit down at their seat and start answering questions on the whiteboard that the teacher puts up daily? Can winning the state championship in football spill over into math and science classrooms so that students become engaged in studying the content, work quietly with partners in doing an assigned problem, and turn in homework regularly?

I do not know the answers to these questions. I will explore them in this two-part post.

Let me sketch out an example I saw up close recently.*

I sat in four social studies classes in a California urban high school that is largely minority and poor. With nearly a thousand students in 9th through 12th grades, the school, one of a half-dozen in the city, ranked the lowest of the city’s schools on annual state tests and graduated less than 60 percent of its students. Metal detectors and pat-downs by uniformed security personnel were daily rituals. Its football team had won state championships and provided an annual pipeline of scholarships for athletes to universities.

Since I saw only one teacher teaching classes in U.S. history and world geography, I will not generalize about classroom cultures elsewhere in the school.

While 20-plus students were enrolled in each class, only one had more than 20 students appear. The other classes had 10-15 students. Most were in their seats at the tardy bell but late arrivals entered throughout the period. The 16-year veteran social studies teacher was prepared for each class, amiable with students, and firm in following school and classroom rules.

One of the four classes (the largest with 24 students but 30 enrolled) was U.S. history but this day they were preparing for the state graduation test by going over items from a booklet prepared for this test. The teacher had an overhead projector with transparencies of test questions and topics from previous years. She marched through the items slowly by asking various students what the correct answers were and explaining why they were correct. Of the two dozen students about 8 were engaged with the lesson, the rest chatted until admonished by the teacher, applied cosmetics, had their heads down on the desks, or were engaged in other tasks. Late-comers gave slips to the teacher. The period lasted 43 minutes. The students packed up their belongings a few minutes before the bell rang.

The three ninth grade world geography classes were studying 19th century European imperialism in Africa. The teacher had the state standard for the lesson and assignment listed on the chalkboard with three questions for students to answer as they filed into the class.

There were 10-15 students in each of these classes. The teacher walked around the room making sure that cell phones were put away (a school-wide rule). She passed out  a worksheet drawn from the textbook chapter on imperialism. After 15 minutes, the teacher orally went over each question (she told them that for these questions they had copied down, the answers could be found on pp. 345-350 in the textbook and that they were going to be on Friday’s test).

Most of the students completed the worksheet and gave it to the teacher when the period ended. At least a third or more of the students in each class, however, chatted most of the time, slept, and did not complete the worksheet.

I do not know if these four classes were representative of classroom cultures in the rest of the school. Nothing much was expected of the students beyond textbook and worksheet answers. Most complied. The teacher worked hard at completing the lessons, collecting worksheets, and grading and returning them the next day. That was it.

From my perch in the back of the room in these four classes, I saw that students were largely disengaged from each lesson’s content. While school rules were enforced, the values, rituals, and habits favored the least amount of academic work possible. There were no disciplinary incidents that occurred in any of the four periods; the teacher maintained an orderly, safe classroom.

At the end of the fourth period class, I walked down the hall and stopped in and watched a joyous assembly of 11th and 12th grade students honoring athletes who had been chosen as all-stars to play in a U.S. Army-sponsored  football game.

And here is where the contradiction I noted above about school and classroom cultures occurred. I take it up in the next post.


*I have disguised where the school is located and certain details to protect the privacy of participants.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Kindergarten Teachers’ Effects on Five Year-Olds’ Futures

I never went to preschool. I also missed being in kindergarten when I went to a Pittsburgh (PA) elementary school in the early 1940s. It was my loss.

Why a loss? Because there is much evidence–both quantitative and qualitative–that what five year-olds learn in kindergarten when strong ties exist between them and their  teachers produce short- and long-term effects (e.g., cognitive gains, social behaviors, and psychological benefits) that last into adulthood.  In the past few decades, educational researchers and social scientists have fastened upon metrics that seemingly prove that  such outcomes have occurred (see here and here).

More recently, economists have gotten on board with their algorithms and cost-benefit analyses and found that preschool and early childhood school experiences did, indeed, have long-term effects on adult earnings, getting married, raising families, and daily behavior in the community. See here, here, and here. Because economists have accrued outsized influence on U.S. policies in health care, education, government operations, and other sectors, their cost-benefit analyses have helped in building political coalitions supporting investments in early childhood education, especially for low-income families.

But you do not need social scientists to tell parents or early childhood educators that kindergarten helps all children build mind, body, emotional strengths, and lifetime habits. For decades, preschool and kindergarten teachers have believed that such effects lasted beyond preschool into elementary and secondary grades. Middle class parents also.

Remember Robert Fulgrum’s best seller, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten?  Although critics have called the collection of short essays trite and sugary, the book  has sold over seven million books since 1988 and continues to sell well a quarter-century later. The part about kindergarten sums up what so many Americans still believe are core values and behaviors learned in families and school.

Share everything.
Play Fair.
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Sure, these behaviors are learned in families first and then in preschool and kindergarten. Academics call these learned behaviors socialization . Five year-olds learn how to behave in groups in the next dozen years as students and as adults later.  Ah, but trying to get metrics to capture these all-important learned behaviors  still remain beyond the reach of current social scientists including economists.

If Fulgrum’s platitudes annoy social scientists and educational researchers, few ever  ask adults about their memories of those early years in school. Even fewer researchers listen to those parents who remember well their kindergarten teachers–experiences at least three to four decades earlier. But all of that has now changed with the foot-to-the-pedal, standards-based school reform since the early 1980s. Those reforms have altered the character of kindergartens.

Kindergartens today have become academic boot camps for first grade. Much time is spent on getting children to read, learn arithmetic and getting tested.There are now pre- and post-tests for reading and math, most often timed to get supposedly accurate measurements. And Common Core standards for kindergarten are yet to be implemented with more of the same academic concentration.


Many teachers and parents have complained about the loss of play-time and children choosing activities. As standards-based testing and accountability have seized three-to-five year-olds, parents and teachers have noted increases in thumb-sucking and bed-wetting. In short, top-down pressures to teach academics to young children has reshaped the relationship between early childhood teachers and young children in negative ways (see here and here).

So test-driven policies using easily quantifiable measures have indeed influenced how kindergarten teachers practice by squeezing students to achieve academically and, in doing so, has eroded the all-important teacher-child relationship, one that remains central to what five year-olds learn and practice for years to come.

And here is the rub. Policymakers have largely ignored the teacher-child relationship–arguing that they are more concerned with tangible outcomes not how teachers teach or children learn. As for researchers, they have been of little help since they have a hard time identifying metrics that capture the quality of that child-teacher relationship and its links to socializing children and subsequent academic and non-academic effects  on adult behavior. Without quantitative measures to capture the impact of the   teacher-child  relationship, policymakers skip over it and grab at what can be reduced to numbers; that all-important relationship is missing-in-action when policymakers make decisions. And that is unfortunate.

In the current climate of test-driven standards and coercive accountability, policymakers and researchers depend far too much upon test scores and not whether what is measured captures the cognitive and social-psychological habits young children acquire and the all-important relationship they have with their teachers. If there are no measures, then these important outcomes do not exist.


Thanks to Susan Ohanian for finding the above cartoon


Filed under how teachers teach, preschool, Reforming schools

The Tomato Harvester, the Smart Gun, and The Age-Graded School: Reframing the Problem

Machines picking thick-rind tomatoes, a gun that won’t fire in the hands of someone who doesn’t own it, and schools where six year-olds work with eight year-olds, where 14 and 16 year-olds, regardless of grade, engage in academic lessons–all are instances where historic problems have been reframed in creative ways.

Take the tomato harvester. Mechanizing agricultural work reduces labor costs and produces larger profit margins. But there was a problem with machines picking tomatoes. Early versions of the harvester would crush too many of the tomatoes as they scooped up the entire plant, shook the tomatoes free of the stalk, and then piled them high in trucks.

Then a few scientists in California looked at the problem differently. Rather than a better machine, create a different tomato, one  with thick rinds that could withstand the jostling and the weight of piled up fruit in a truck. Trial after trial finally produced the “vf-415″ or “square tomato.” In 1961, about 1 percent of all tomatoes in California were picked by machines; seven years later, 95 percent was.


Then there is the “smart gun.”  Because so many Americans own guns, accidents occur when children and youth unintentionally kill siblings and friends, commit suicide or use stolen weapons. For decades, blame for these lethal accidents has been on those who have improperly secured weapons in their homes. So attention has focused on home security devices that keep guns out of children’s and teenagers’ hands.

Now here is where reframing the problem occurs. Rather than focus entirely on gun owners using weapons safely and security devices as the National Rifle Association has done, some inventors using the latest technologies have looked at the gun itself. Using sensors, magnets, fingerprint recognition, and other bio-metric devices, “smart guns” have been developed where only the person owning the weapon can use it. If stolen, the gun will not shoot. If discovered in the back of closet by a five year-old, it cannot be discharged. Flipping the perspective from the gun owner to the gun itself can eventually–only a few have reached the market yet– curb avoidable mayhem.


And then there is the age-graded school.


The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, solved the  problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to masses of children entering urban schools.  Today, the age-graded school is everywhere. Most Americans have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by age to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks, and, after an annual test would be promoted. The age-graded school worked well but, nonetheless, has caused serious problems past and present.

Late-19th and early 20th century critics of age-graded schools saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates and causing  dropouts from schools as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because they flunked.

The development of twice yearly promotions and ability groups smoothed out some of the inherent problems of age-graded schools. But left untouched the overall structure of the age-graded school that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class where every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be held back. The notion that children differ in how fast they learn knowledge and skills was foreign to the age-graded school.  These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and has persisted decade after decade.


Instead of endorsing drop-out programs, pulling students out of classes and remedial teaching, reformers reframed the problem as the age-graded school itself. They created  ungraded schools.

Beginning in the 1930s and through the 1970s, reformers launched non-graded schools and multi-age classrooms time and again. Whole elementary and secondary schools used flexible scheduling where teams of teachers grouped and re-grouped students by performance in math, reading, and other subjects rather than what grade they in. Open classrooms flourished in the late-1960s and early 1970s.

Over time, however, these experiments in non-graded schooling and classrooms withered and disappeared. Even though researchers found sufficient evidence that these innovations were just as successful as traditional age-graded schools, non-graded schools found little traction among superintendents, principals, and parents (see REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-1992).

There were (and are) exceptions, however. Still amid standards-based testing for the past three decades, ungraded public schools and classrooms soldier on. There is the Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., a school that has done multiage grouping ever since it opened in 1890. There is the open classroom in San Geronimo (CA) in operation since 1971 and many, many others across the nation.

Why so few?

Dominant social beliefs of parents and educators about a “real” school, that is, one where children learn to read in 1st grade, receive report cards, and get promoted have politically narrowed reform options in transforming schools. For example, when a charter school applicant proposes a new school the chances of receiving official approval and parental acceptance increase if it is a familiar age-graded one, not one where most teachers team teach and groups of multi-age children (ages 5-8, 9-11) learn together ( see metz-real-schools).

Just as paying attention to the tomato rather than the machine and seeing the gun rather than the gun owner as the problem to be solved, the age-graded school has to be seen anew as the problem to be solved, not teacher unions, insufficient iPads, or policies that instill fear into teachers or tighten standards-based testing.  Ungrading schools create different structures for students to learn at their different paces reducing dropouts while giving teachers time and flexibility to teach what has to be taught.


Filed under Reforming schools