Tag Archives: big city districts,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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School Leaders as Marathoners, not Sprinters*

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

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

The Superintendent as Superman or Wonder Woman

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

Matching the Person, Place, and Time

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

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

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

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

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

WHICH STORY IS POPULAR? WHICH STORY IS TRUE?

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

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

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

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

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

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Stellar History Teaching in Failing Schools (Part 2)

Taking pills and sprays to remedy illness is ubiquitous in the U.S.  Ah, if there were only such quick cure-alls for lousy teaching. Say, like aerosol cans that can spray “good” teaching into a classroom. 07teachers-art6-articleInline

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or maybe principals can ship cans of breakfast food to certain teachers’ homes.

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Contrary to this magical thinking, first-rate teaching takes a lot of smarts, time, energy, and determination, not sprays or cans. In this post, I will describe one example of what I consider “good” teaching based on my recent observation of the teacher and his class in a history lesson in a minority-dominated high school on the East coast.**

Burt Taylor* is completing his fifth year as a world history teacher at Charlotte Forten High School (CFHS). After graduating college, he served in the U.S. Army for over three years. While serving in Afghanistan, his mother sent him Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man and urged him to consider teaching after he left the service. He did. In 2007, He joined Teach for America. After his five weeks of training in Philadelphia (which he found of little use in his first year as a teacher), he was sent to a large Eastern urban school district. He began teaching world history there in 2009.

While he did not major in history as an undergraduate, he does have (and did enjoy) a “passion for reading and studying history since I was a kid.” The African American and Latino high school students he faces for 80- and 90-minute courses four times a day, while coming to school with “many challenges,” has made teaching at CFHS “rewarding.”

Finishing his fifth year, Taylor remembers well the turmoil in the school since he began teaching. The turmoil, however, came not from students but from the district office. Because of persistent low test-scores on standardized tests, poor attendance, high numbers of dropouts, and a graduation rate of just over 50 percent, district administrators “restructured” CFHS twice, meaning that the first “restructuring” didn’t work and meaning that Taylor had to reapply to teach history each time and a new principal had to decide whether to hire him.

I observed Taylor’s world history class for 70 minutes and interviewed him afterwards. In the class of 25 who are enrolled, 15 were present sitting at pods of three desks clustered around the spacious room. Student were 10th and 11th graders, many of whom had failed the course in the previous year. The lesson I observed, student attendance for that class, materials Taylor used, and participation were, in his word, “typical” of other classes he has taught.

The materials Taylor used was drawn from a pool of lessons available online from the project “Reading Like a Historian.” He has used other lessons offered by the Stanford History Education Group. I asked: how did he come to this website? From district or school professional development? From a fellow teacher? No, he said. He had stumbled over the website, liked it for the focus on concepts and the work of historians, and ended up adapting lessons to his classroom.

The lesson I observed was the “Invasion of Nanking.” Basically, Taylor used the source material–photos, one excerpt from a Japanese textbook and one from a Chinese text on the invasion and then a final selection from an eminent historian of Chinese history on what happened in the city in 1937–to get across the idea that textbooks are biased, have points of view and, like a detective, it is critical to figure out the perspective buried in the text.

On the whiteboard in front of room, Taylor had listed each activity the class would do with times allotted for each one. An alarm on his desk would ding to end activity. Here’s how Taylor unfolded the lesson on the invasion of Nanking.

+ For the “warm-up” activity as students entered the class and settled into their seats,  Taylor had a photo with no caption on his “smart board” with questions for the students to answer about the photo (“List what you see in photo. What questions do you have? What conclusions do you have?”).

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+He walked around the room to see what students were writing and marked each student’s “Daily Participation Grade” sheet which they had picked up on entering room. The sheet has a section set aside for “Warm Up” and two boxes for teacher to mark: “Partial” and “Good To Go.”

+Teacher then compiled on “smart board” what students have written down about the photo. He called on students by name and a few raised their hands (no questions to entire group with choral responses from students). From clues in the photo, students realized that it showed a post-battle scene in an Asian city many years ago.

+Taylor then told students that the scene in the photo occurred in Nanking in 1937 after the Japanese invaded China. “We are,” he said to class, “going to figure out what happened in Nanking in that year.” In a mini-lecture–he asked students to take notes–he gave them the background of the invasion and what happened in the 1930s in Japan. Of the 15 in class, 13 were writing as Taylor lectured for about ten minutes. He then told the class that they will read two different paragraphs from textbooks about the same event–the invasion of Nanking–and challenged them to detect which description came from a Japanese text and which from a Chinese text.

+To insure that students knew the geography of the photo and sources, he had them go to a shelf holding a classroom set of world history texts and turn to page 594 to see map of Japan, China, and region. He asked questions about location of countries. He then told class that he will ask a “trick question” about the photo and the excerpts from the texts. So they “should pay attention” to what he says and what they read.

+Each three-person pod was a small group made up of a “reader,” “materials manager,” and “discussion leader.” He called on “material managers” to come up to desk and get textbook excerpts. They did. Taylor then instructed “readers” to read aloud to their group each excerpt, labeled A and B. For words students did not know, they were to underline them and try to figure out what they mean. The “reader” in the group near me stumbled on the word “atrocity” and was discussing it when Taylor, carrying a clipboard to assess each student’s participation, came by.

+Afterwards, he asked each group to decide whether A and B were from either a Japanese or Chinese text. “Discussion leaders” in each group worked to get agreement about texts–one group was excited enough to give each other fist bumps on completing their choices.

+Taylor then recorded the student votes for text A coming from a Japanese text (8) and (7) voted for B excerpted from Chinese text. He then asked individual students to give their reasons why they voted as they did using the text for evidence supporting their answer. After the back-and-forth of this discussion, Taylor offered the students another chance to vote and many crossed over from their original vote, agreeing that A came from a Japanese textbook.

+The teacher then asked: “Which of these two textbook accounts do you trust?” Students raised hands and Taylor also called on students who had not participated in whole-group discussion. Students largely agreed that you cannot trust either one because each side wanted to portray the Nanking invasion as either common in wartime or that it was a massacre. When the teacher asked what they had learned so far, many responded with variations of: there are at least two sides to listen to when something occurs; you cannot believe that textbooks tell the “truth” of the past.

+Then, Taylor called for “materials managers” to come up to desk to get a final excerpt written by a historian of Chinese history. They did. “Readers” sprang into action, and the “discussion leaders” led exchanges in the group to determine what the historian contributed to their earlier decision on Text A and B. For the 10 minutes of this final activity, Taylor, carrying his clipboard, listened in to each group, asked and answer student queries, and jotted down notes.

+Finally, Taylor asked students what they learned from reading the historian’s account and Text A and B. Answers varied a great deal from those who raised their hands to reply. The teacher also called on a few students who did not raise their hands. Students felt that the historian’s view of the invasion of Nanking was most accurate because the historian used Chinese, Japanese, and non-Asian sources who were there at the time. Taylor nodded his head and said the historian “corroborated” his account of what happened with other sources, an essential in writing about the past.

I had to leave the room to observe another teacher as Taylor was winding down the lesson.

I felt that Taylor demonstrated much planning, extraordinary management of the material and class organization, and was constantly assessing what students were doing and their level of understanding of the questions and tasks he had assigned. For me, this lesson was stellar.

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Note to Readers: Burt Taylor told me in a subsequent phone interview that he would be leaving CFHS in June to  take a position in a federal agency. When I asked him whether he plans to return to teaching history at CFHS or any high school, he said, he probably would not.

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*I promised confidentiality to teachers in this study so individual and school names in post are pseudonyms.

**Note carefully that this instance of “good” teaching is a hybrid of teacher-centered and student-centered traditions in instruction(see here). Note further that I will not determine whether the teacher is successful (see Part 1).

 

 

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Stellar Teaching in Failing Schools (Part 1)

How can “stellar teaching” and “failing schools” be in the same sentence?

Failing schools have been defined as ones with low test scores, attendance, and high school graduation rates. They also include high numbers of dropouts and disciplinary referrals with frequent turnover in principals and teachers and presence of far more inexperienced than experienced teachers. Over decades of being in such schools I observed many traditional and non-traditional lessons. Some were forgettable not only by students but also by me–although I kept notes to remind me how the low-level content and skills were taught and how classroom management was, at best, uneven and, on occasion, chaotic.

But I do not want to describe forgettable lessons in low-performing schools. Such examples have been noted often by reformers usually omitting, however, that such teaching also occurs in schools serving upper-middle income neighborhoods. Readers can recall such teaching that echo the caricatured history teacher who droned on and on about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The frequency of poor teaching, however, occurs much less often in these predominately white, middle-class schools than in the urban ones labeled failing.

What I do want to describe are the handful of urban teachers in schools labeled as failures who teach superb lessons often, are respected by their students, and have stayed in these failing schools year in and year out. There are scores of low-key Jaime Escalantes, Rafe Esquiths, and others who have gone unrecognized and unfilmed. Such teachers do not write books or articles about their teaching. Nor do songwriters, film producers, or journalists feature them in their songs, movies, and stories. Yet, they have earned the respect and admiration of their students, peers, and principals who enter and exit these schools.

The truth is that these teachers seldom form a critical mass in a failing school. Nor does their influence spill over to the rest of the school. Nonetheless, non-super star but highly competent teachers are often overlooked when state and district policymakers restructure schools by firing all teachers and the principal. These teachers are lost in the rush to transform failure into success–an outcome that requires collaboration between the principal, a majority of teachers, and most students while building a vital connection with the community. Such a process takes years and only occasionally happens because of the continuing turbulence that rattles reconstituted schools like tremors following an earthquake.

OK, a reader may say, I get the part of islands of excellent teaching in schools that are failing by current metrics. So what do you mean by stellar teaching?

Keep in mind that there are competing definitions of “good” teaching ranging from the Teaching and Learning Framework that the Washington, D.C. public schools use for evaluating teachers to lists of behaviors that top-notch teachers exhibit (see here, here, and here). And, for me, there is the crucial but often ignored distinction between “good” and “successful” teaching, a difference that I and others have written about often.

To be clear, then, when I say a teacher is teaching a “good” lesson I refer to both traditional (teacher-centered) and non-traditional (student-centered) approaches. Of course, there are hybrids of both (mini-lecture, worksheet, small group work, individual work at learning stations)–all in one lesson. There is, then, no single definition of first-rate teaching that cuts across different students, different subject matter, and in different situations. I do not refer to student outcomes of the lesson, i.e., “successful” teaching either since there is no single definition of “successful” (or “effective”) that cuts across all students, academic content, and settings. Sure, the current constricted definition is standardized test scores constructed by top policymakers  but, over the years, other definitions of student “success” have been constructed by administrators and teachers in different fields such as improved student writing, math problem-solving, acquisition of particular critical thinking skills, etc.

Still, even with the distinctions I have drawn there are common elements to “good” teaching across the many differences noted above: stellar teaching requires teachers to plan, manage their students to keep them involved in lessons, and assess what students have learned. Keeping in mind the variety of differences that teachers must finesse along with common features that generically define superb teaching makes describing high-performing teachers in low-performing schools a slippery task especially when”good”teaching get continually overlooked in failing schools.  Why does that happen again and again?

The neglect of first-rate teaching occurs in low-performing schools because of the myopic approach to school improvement (and teacher evaluation) currently in vogue among policy elites.

The near-sightedness begins in figuring out why schools fail. Different explanations for the problem of failure arise. Political muscle determines which explanation gets converted into solutions and then receive attention and resources. Three explanations have historically appealed to policymakers:

1. The problem is that adults in the school are to blame for failure. The solution: change people (e.g., draw recruits from new and different pools of teachers and administrators, get rid of those who have been around a long time without schools improving) and school success will follow. For decades, this has been the dominant explanation for failure in not only schools but also, sports teams, businesses, higher education, and federal and state governments.

2. The problem is that existing structures (e.g., age-graded schools, departmental organization in secondary schools, size of school, how time is spent daily) are to blame for failure. Change the structures (e.g., install testing and accountability, create charter schools and small schools, reorganize K-5 into K-8) and low-performance will metabolize into high-performance.

3. The problem is the process of schooling (e.g., how teachers teach and how they are evaluated, the lack of a learning culture in the school, how adults connect to students in and out of classrooms) Change the process (e.g.,  concentrate on better ways of teaching and evaluation, develop new school-wide norms and rituals, experiment with different forms of grouping in and out of classrooms) and better schools will emerge.

While every reform movement in the past century has defined the problem and solutions differently thus creating their own mix of (i.e., changing people, structures, and process) the current business-oriented reforms over the past three decades have had sufficient political clout and near-sightedness to focus mostly on changing people, occasional dabbling with structures, with hardly any attention to process except for using new forms of teacher evaluation as a way of getting rid of teachers.

For example, restructuring, reconstitution, or any “re-” has come to mean in current reform lingo that teachers and principals must be replaced and new ones chosen to turnaround the failing school.This blame-driven, myopic “solution,” largely funded by federal (Race to the Top) and state initiatives prevail among top policymakers.

That dominant logic is deeply flawed. First, there are many factors that go into a school failing beyond the adults licensed to teach and administer schools. Of course, teachers and principal are part of any failure but not entirely since other highly important factors are involved: principal and teacher turnover every few years, more inexperienced teachers assigned to schools designated failing than to schools deemed “effective,” lack of district-level support, high student mobility–students entering and exiting– and, yes, the help (or lack of it) that students receive at home from parents and extended family.

Second, policymakers crunch “good” and “successful” together into one concept–especially when it comes to teacher evaluation. This is a mistake that teachers pay for, not policymakers.

Third, even in those failing schools there are some teachers  who are tough, demanding, and superb in their teaching. And they get disappointed, some even cynical, as they go ignored in the sweeping removal of all teachers and their re-applying for jobs within which they have been perceived and evaluated as “effective.”

Part 2 describes a “good” lesson in a school that has been reconstituted not once but twice. And the teacher was re-hired twice for the job. But now, sad to say, that teacher, has decided to leave the profession.

 

 

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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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Slogans in Businesses and Schools

Located in Menlo Park (CA) near the tidal marshes at the southern edge of San Francisco Bay, Facebook has 11 open-space buildings holding 6,000 employees. Open space architecture means no one has an office with doors.  You want privacy, wear earphones.

None of the open-space arrangements surprised me. What did, however, surprise me in the description of Facebook’s workplace was that there were posters everywhere that “exhort changing, hacking, and fearlessness.” Corporate slogans like “Hack,” “Taking risks gives me energy,” and “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” adorned walls, partitions, and employee entrances as constant reminders of what the company values (see slide show of Facebook, Google, and Twitter buildings).

My surprise may well be because of my limited exposure to these companies other than what I have read in articles and books plus what I heard from friends and their sons and daughters who work in these organizations. Apparently, company leaders believe that posting slogans everywhere strengthens the workplace culture and keeps the corporate vision and values driving Facebook at eye-level. Do such displayed slogans actually increase the sense of community and shared values and lead to higher job performance? I do not know.

There is another reason I was surprised by the ubiquity of placards in the Facebook workplace. In my experience as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I had seen in the past three decades many similar posters in low-income, largely minority schools exhorting students and teachers to learn and achieve. In these schools strenuous efforts to create a culture of achievement, success, and right behavior for every student is everywhere. For example in KIPP elementary and secondary schools, such posters abound:

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And here are some photos of wall posters in other urban schools that are 90 percent minority and poor:IB poster

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My memory fails me, however, about the days that I taught in three urban, largely minority high schools between the mid-1950s and early 1970s, I do not recall such posters urging academic success and responsible behavior. Yet when I returned to those very same schools in 2013, such posters as shown above, are everywhere in the school.

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So I asked myself: when did such posters appear in urban schools? What influenced schools to post these slogans–similar to Facebook’s placards–to get students and teachers to work harder and produce higher student achievement?

When Did Posters Exhorting Students and Teachers Begin To Appear?

No doubt there is no one single moment or even year. But my guess is that such posters began appearing in the late-1960s to early-1970s in alternative schools formed to uplift ethnic and racial pride. The belief was that pride in race and ethnicity is a precondition for academic improvement.

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Beyond guessing, I am more sure of the movement to spread Effective Schools, beginning in the early 1980s, on the appearance of posters urging urban students to respect themselves, work hard in school, do well on tests, and succeed. Correlates of “effective schools” included “Climate of High Expectations,” “Clear and Focused Mission,” for example.  As attention and resources shifted to student outcomes in these years, efforts to make schools “effective” by following five, six, or more factors associated with high-achieving schools in low-income neighborhoods prompted many school leaders and teachers to display posters in school hallways and classrooms.

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Furthermore,  the effective schools movement in  the 1980s converged with numerous initiatives within the corporate sector to restructure and re-culture firms to improve an organization’s performance. Those were the years (e.g., Nation at Risk) where harnessing school improvement to a stronger economy became the central task of policy elites and national leaders. Swapping ideas and practices between for-profit businesses and schools have occurred periodically in the past and were strongly encouraged by both corporate and national leaders then and since.

Do these slogans work? I really do not know for either the Facebook company or schools. Such school slogans certainly reassure students, teachers, parents, and school visitors that key values are displayed and important. Surely, the climate of a school, its norms, ceremonies, and traditions matter to how children, youth, and adults carry out their daily work. But far more critical is that school leaders, faculty, students, and community not only share the vision and values embedded in those slogans but also have the skills, wherewithal, and will to make them happen daily in hallways, cafeterias, and classrooms.

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Contradiction of School and Classroom Cultures (Part 2)

In the last post, I described a visit to a Southern California urban high school’s four social studies classes where the dominant culture expressed values of doing the least amount of work to pass the academic course. For most of the students, classroom habits revealed far more tedium than enthusiasm for, or even interest in, learning. Most of the disengaged students treated the classes like buzzing mosquitoes that had to be endured for 43 minutes before freedom came when bells ended the period.

Then after the class observations, I walked down the hallway and watched an assembly of a few hundred juniors and seniors sitting quietly and respectfully  honoring three school athletes who, through hard work, self-discipline, and display of skills had become national all-stars. They also had football scholarships to universities in hand. These players were on a team that had consistently beat rivals and was on the cusp of becoming state champions.

The disconnect between what values and habits I saw in these classrooms and the values and habits displayed by members of the football team who practice daily, play in interscholastic competition, and have to pass academic classes got me thinking about whether a school’s athletic  achievements and the spirit that flows from such hard work and grit spill over to the rest of the school influencing how non-athletes behave in classrooms and achieve academically.

Of course, I only saw these four social studies classes. How many of those 9th and 10th graders were on athletic teams, I do not know. Nor did I visit honor classes in math, science or Advanced Placement (the school had AP chemistry and calculus) that prized academic achievement, hard work, and self-discipline. Let’s grant that  such courses and classroom cultures existed in the school.

Keep in mind, however, the high school’s high dropout rate–less than 60 percent of students graduated high school–and persistent low performance on annual state tests. My hunch is that while such classes and academically engaged students were present,  in the face of such statistics, these classes hardly put a dent in the overall academic culture pervading most classrooms.

So I return to this disconnect, this apparent contradiction, between a school’s success in sports seemingly stopping at the classroom door by asking a few questions.

What does the research say about the connection between academic achievement and participation in high school sports?

No surprise here: The findings are mixed. One study of Ohio high schools concluded “that high schools that devote more energy to sports also produce higher test scores and higher graduation rates.” One writer summed up research on links between student athletes and academic achievement;

“One 2010 study by Betsey Stevenson, then at the University of Pennsylvania, found that, in a given state, increases in the number of girls playing high-school sports have historically generated higher college-attendance and employment rates among women. Another study, conducted by Columbia’s Margo Gardner, found that teenagers who participated in extracurriculars had higher college-graduation and voting rates, even after controlling for ethnicity, parental education, and other factors.”

But most students do not participate in interscholastic sports–40 percent is cited as the national average but if one were to look closely at some low-income, largely minority schools participation in competitive sports would be no more than 20 percent. For the 60 to 80 percent who do not compete, there is no research that I can find that shows a spillover affect from winning seasons in high school sports to academic culture in classrooms. What researchers and critics of high school sports programs have pointed out, however, is that so often academic programs are starved while dollars flow for hiring coaches (many of whom are not teachers), new locker rooms, and better turf for the playing field.  Some critics urge high schools to abandon interscholastic sports and spend more money on academics. See here and here.

But research findings are seldom invoked in providing resources for such value-laden policies as financing sports programs and cultivating academic success. Beliefs trump research time and again.

What  beliefs dominate current thinking about competitive athletics in high school?

For the high school I visited in Southern California and similar high schools elsewhere in the country (e.g., Dallas’s Carter High School, Cleveland’s Glenville High School), many adults believe that competitive sports are pipelines to university scholarships and an education that leads directly to middle and upper-middle class status. They also believe that winning teams build pride-in-school and community, promoting a spirit of achievement that flows across the entire school. See here and here.

So I return to the contradiction that I noticed when visiting social studies classes and then stepped into a sports assembly. Does a school’s athletic  achievements spill over to the rest of the school influencing how non-student athletes behave in classrooms and achieve academically?

From only watching four social studies classes in the California high school, I did not see it. But the sample is too small and may be unrepresentative of the larger school.  From what I have heard from athletic boosters clubs at every school I have taught at and observed, I want to say “yes.” When I turn to the research on high school sports and academics, one has to scratch to find such studies. Moreover, I have yet to see the spillover effect in a high school. So without seeing it or have studies that confirm such a connection, I can only say: I do not know.

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