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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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A Second Look at iPads in Los Angeles

The rollout of iPads in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is becoming a classic case study of what not-to-do when implementing any innovation whether it is high-tech or low-tech.  I wrote about the adoption of the innovation six months ago.

What is clear now is that teachers and principals were excluded from the decision-making process. The Total Cost of Operation (TCO) was a mystery to the Board of Education who made the decision. And the initial deployment of the devices was so botched that the pilot project was put on hold.  Phase 2 and the eventual distribution of devices to all LAUSD students remains to be decided once errors have been sorted out.

Called The Common Core Technology Project, each iPad costs the district $678,  higher than the price of an iPad bought in an Apple store, but it comes with a case (no keyboard, however) and an array of pre-loaded software aimed at preparing students for the impending Common Core standards and the state online testing system. The Board of Education and Superintendent John Deasy want each student to have access to an iPad. With  mostly Latino and poor students in LAUSD, the eventual cost of this contract with Apple Inc. could run over $400 million.

Were the Board and Superintendent to have paused and examined the history of using technology in public schools, they might have thought twice before major bollixes occurred.

1. There is no body of evidence that iPads will increase math and reading scores on state standardized tests. There is no evidence that students using iPads (or laptops or desktop computers) will get decent paying jobs after graduation.

These are the most common reasons boards of education and school administrators across the nation give for buying tablets for K-12 students. But not in LAUSD.

Acquiring 1:1 iPads for students, according to the LAUSD press release is to: “provide an individualized, interactive and informative-rich learning environment” for every student. One would have to assume that such an “environment” would lead to gains in test scores. But it is an assumption. Since many low-income families do not have computers at home or Internet connections, providing iPads is a worthy reason–what used to be called “closing the digital divide“–for the large expenditure.

On what basis, however, will the district determine whether to move to phase 2 of the plan? Again, according to the official press release, the assessment of this first phase “will include feedback … from teachers, students, parents and other key stakeholders.” That’s it. No hard data on how often the devices were used, in what situations, and under what conditions. Nor mention of data on student outcomes.

Now, informal surveys of teachers and school administrators show mixed reactions, even disaffection for iPads in classrooms.

2. Apart from “closing the digital divide,” the main reason for the Apple Inc. contract is that Common Core standards and accompanying online tests are on the horizon and due to arrive in 2014-2015. LAUSD wants teachers and students to be ready.

3. The true cost of this experiment runs far higher than the projected $400 million to give iPads to 655,000 students. That is what Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) means. The cost for the iPad is given as $678 per unit (remember, there is no keyboard usually listed at $100 which will have to be bought eventually for secondary school students).Now, budget-watchers discovered that the devices will cost even more. An Oops! that surprised the Board of Education.

Funds to hire school technical assistants, providing the wireless infrastructure, loss of tablets, and repair of broken tablets, insurance, professional development for teachers, costs for replacement devices when three-year warranties expire—I could go on but these numbers double and triple the published hardware and software costs. Consider that the reports of the $30 million contract with Apple Inc. omitted that the Board of Education approved $50 million for this first phase to accommodate some of these other costs detailed above.

And just a few days ago, a major Oops! was announced when the Board of Education, in questioning a top administrator, discovered that the software license to use the math and English curriculum expires after three years—the clock began ticking last July when the Board approved the contract. Renewal of the license in just over two years will cost another $60 million. Add that to the TCO.

Intel, a company with a vested interest in Microsoft tablets and a losing competitor in the LAUSD bid for a contract, produced a white paper that pointed out that TCO runs from two to three times higher than the announced price of the device. No one said a word about that.

The point is that administrators and school boards eager to buy devices hide TCO in separate documents or glossy verbiage. In other instances, they simply do not know or care to find out in their enthusiasm for the innovation.  LAUSD experienced a perfect storm of mistakes in plunging into iPads without much forethought and a glance in the rear-view mirror for earlier reform debacles in putting into practice a high-tech innovation.

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Turning Around Urban Districts: The Case of Paul Vallas

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Lee Iaccoca, Steve Jobs, and Ann Mulcahy were CEOs that resurrected  Chrysler,  Apple, and Xerox from near (or actual) bankruptcy to profitability. They were turnaround heroes–saviors, if you like–to their corporate boards and shareholders.

Salvaging a sinking business means that the CEO charts a new direction, outsiders     arrive  and veterans exit, novel products appear and old ones disappear–constant and unrelenting change is the order of the day in saving a company.  A tough job that  demands a thick skin with little time for regrets.

Turning around low-performing urban school districts is in the same class as CEOs turning around failing companies.

After serving in Chicago for six years, Philadelphia five years, and New Orleans four years, Paul Vallas put the saga of urban superintendents in stark, if not humorous, terms:

“What happens with turnaround superintendents is that the first two years you’re a demolitions expert. By the third year, if you get improvements, do school construction, and test scores go up, people start to think this isn’t so hard. By year four, people start to think you’re getting way too much credit. By year five, you’re chopped liver.”

Vallas’s  operating principle, according to one journalist who covered his superintendency in Philadelphia, is: “Do things big, do them fast, and do them all at once.” For over a decade, the media christened Vallas as savior for each of the above three cities before exiting, but just last week, he stumbled in his fourth district–Bridgeport (CT) and ended up as “chopped liver” in less than two years.

Vallas is (or was) the premier “turnaround specialist.” Whether, indeed, Vallas turned around Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans is contested. Supporters point to more charter schools, fresh faces in the classroom, new buildings, and slowly rising test scores; critics point to abysmal graduation rates for black and Latino students, enormous budget deficits, and implementation failures. After Bridgeport, however, his brand-name as a “turnaround specialist,” like “killer apps” of yore such as Lotus 1-2-3 and WordStar, may well fade.

Turning around a failing company or a school district is no work for sprinters, it is marathoners who refashion the company and district into successes. Lee Iaccoco was CEO of Chrysler from 1978-1992; Steve Jobs was CEO from 1997-2011, and Ann Mulcahy served 2001-2009.

Among big city superintendents, marathoners like Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Pat Forgione in Austin (TX), and Tom Payzant in Boston (MA) took over failing districts and, serving over a decade in each place, built structures and leadership continuity that eventually earned awards for improved student achievement.

Superintendents with savior-like visions sprint through basket-case district for a few years and depart (e.g., Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., Rudy Crew in New York and Miami-Dade, Jean-Claude Brizard in Rochester and Chicago.

In many instances, sprinter superintendents follow a recipe: reorganize district administrators, take on teacher unions, and create new schools in their rush for better student achievement. They take dramatic and swift actions that will attract high media attention. But they also believe—here is where ideological myopia enters the picture—that low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities are due in large part to reluctant (or inept) district bureaucrats, recalcitrant principals, and knuckle-dragging union leaders defending contracts that protect lousy teachers from pay-for-performance incentives.

Such beliefs, however, seriously misread why urban district students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate high school. As important as it is to reorganize district offices, alter salary schedules, get rid of incompetent teachers and intractable principals, such actions in of themselves will not turn around a broken district. While there is both research and experiential evidence to support each of these beliefs as factors in hindering students’ academic performance, what undercuts sprinter-driven reforms in these arenas is the simple fact that fast-moving CEOs fast-track their solutions to these problems, get spent from there exertions or create too much turmoil, and soon exit leaving the debris of their reforms next to the skid marks in the parking lot. Swift actions certainly garner attention but sprinters quickly lose steam after completing 100 meters.

Consider long-distance runners. They carefully scrutinize and adapt reforms as they get implemented. Behind-the-scenes, they build teacher and administrator expertise to put changes into practice, mobilize staff and community to support long-term changes in teaching and learning, and, most important, create a pool of leaders ready to assume responsibility for sustaining the ever-shifting reform agenda.

They ask hard questions that few sprinter superintendents ask:

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., small high schools, pay-for performance plans, new reading and math curricula, parental choice) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn achieve the goals set by policy makers?

Sprinter superintendents neither have the breathing capacity nor motivation to ask and answer these questions. They are too busy eyeing the finish line. Marathoners spend time and energy on these questions although 2 and 3 get skimpy attention from even the best of the long-distance runners. Still, urban children are better served by superintendents willing to go the distance rather than those swift runners who flash by without a backward glance.

Paul Vallas is (or was)* a sprinter at a time when marathoners are needed for turning around failing districts.

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*A hearing on the removal of Vallas will occur in the Fall before the Connecticut Supreme Court

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Cheating Scandals Reaffirm, Not Diminish, Testing

Not until the trials (or plea bargains) are over, will a verdict be rendered on former Superintendent Beverly Hall’s guilt or innocence in what is called the Atlanta cheating scandal. Hall’s indictment follows on the heels of finding El Paso Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia guilty last Fall. He is now serving three and a half years in jail (see here and here).

Even before a judge or jury decides on her guilt or innocence, anti-testing groups, feeding on Atlanta, El Paso, and the investigation of tampering with test scores under Washington, D.C. school chief, Michelle Rhee, have grabbed the case to further their cause. Moreover, over the years, journalists have uncovered oddities in test scores jumping sky-high in one year in other districts across the nation.

Foes of standardized tests feel the rush of adrenalin in saying that these examples of dishonest adults raising student test scores to receive applause and cash awards are pervasive. Defenders of standardized testing and accountability, however, see the  cheating as exceptions, as a few rotten apples in a barrel full of worm-free ones. Most educators, advocates of test-driven accountability say, are decent, hard working professionals who play by the rules and can be trusted to do the right thing.

In this volleying back-and-forth between advocates and foes of standardized testing,  school scandals have been compared to cheating in baseball, bicycle racing, and other sports.

From Mark McGuire‘s stained home run record to Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong‘s admission that he doped while racing, these and other sports have come under a dark cloud of suspicion–an outcome damaging to top athletes, companies dependent upon income derived from professional sports, fans turning into cynics, and disappointed youth who only want to play the game by the rules.

Cheating in both sports and schools can be traced to the unleashed and fierce competition in performing better and better to gain ever-larger rewards. Professional sports are money machines and being a top performer is rewarded handsomely; scores on international tests, ranking schools within a state and district based on performance, a broader array of school choices, and federal regulations in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top  have ratcheted upward intense pressure to beat  state tests.

Also common to school cheating and drug-drenched sports is betraying the public trust to gain personal advantage.  When adults erase student answers and professional athletes take illegal drugs to enhance performance, such acts erode the faith that adults and youth have in social institutions being fair.

Another common feature is the unshaken confidence that current authorities have in written and computerized tests assessing student learning and drug tests determining whether athletes are cheating. When cheating is uncovered, few decision-makers question the tests. Tighter security and better tests are the solutions.

*Few decision-makers question whether there might be something wrong in professional athletics (i.e., expansion of baseball, football, hockey, and basketball leagues and over-the-top competition for more money).

*Few decision-makers question whether most toddlers and young children from low-income families should be tested especially since they bring to school very different strengths and weaknesses than children from middle and upper-income homes. Or that such early testing of young children squeezes inequities into judgments of what they can and cannot do in preschool and elementary school classrooms.

*Few decision-makers question the national obsession with student test scores as the correct metric to judge schools, teachers, and students.

This deep reluctance to question powerful interests invested in socioeconomic structures and cultures in which cheating occurs is why I believe that standardized tests in schools, like drug testing in sports, will be reaffirmed rather than overturned. There will be continuing challenges–as there should be–but standardized testing will remain rock-solid. Why?

First, note that most of the cheating incidents have been largely in districts where high percentages of poor and minority students attend school. Sure, there are exceptions but when you look closely at where dishonesty is found, those charters and regular public schools enroll large numbers of children from low-income families. I have yet to find any district school boards, investigators, charter school leaders or policymakers recommend examining the tests to see if they do what they are supposed to do or, after conducting such an examination, finding unworthy tests and getting rid of them. Yes, there have been protests by educators, students, and middle- and upper-middle class families against too much standardized testing (see here and here). These protests have led to occasional boycotts but none have occurred, to my knowledge, in poor neighborhoods. If anything, there is a reaffirmation of tests, calls for greater security, and plaudits for any whistle-blowers.

The point is that these tests sort students and schools by scores that  reinforce rather than erase existing gaps in achievement. And sorting is necessary to determine who, beginning at the age of four, shall climb each rung of that ladder reaching college. The system of private and public schooling requires such tests to distinguish high achievers from others. If the tests were really that accurate in making such distinctions across children and youth of being smart on paper, with people, and in life now and later, then, perhaps we need such tests . But that is not the case now… by a long shot.

Second, to underscore the above point, consider the experience of cheating on the SAT. After a scandal revealed that high-scoring individuals with fake IDs were paid to take the SAT test, Educational Testing Service tightened security at test sites. No challenges of the test itself occurred. SAT scores remain crucial for college admission and no school boards, teachers, or parent groups called for the end of the test.

Count on cheaters getting more clever and investigators still hunting them down. Amid increasing numbers of cheating incidents, standardized tests will be challenged, maybe the numbers even reduced, but nonetheless, they will reign for the immediate future.

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Districts as the Engine of School Reform: Past and Present (Part 2)

Districts have again become the darlings of school reformers. Where once reformers, past and present, skipped back and forth lining up their cross-hairs on the best targets  for improving schooling such as individual teachers and principals, whole schools, and districts, today’s school reformers generally target districts. Many reasons explain the shift to districts but one, in my opinion, that accounts for the current passion among self-proclaimed reformers to turnaround failing schools and a mediocre national system of K-12 education is the increased authority that state and federal officials have accumulated over time to make local decisions.

Historically, states have the constitutional duty to provide education. States created districts and delegated authority to run schools. U.S. education, then, has been a decentralized operation for two centuries. In the early 1930s, there were nearly 130,000 districts in 50 states. Since then, the trend has been to merge districts into larger ones (there are now 14,000 districts). Mergers continued and since the 1960s with the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, federal and state authority over district schools have become more and more centralized.  State and the federal authorities now mandate what curriculum standards have to be taught in districts, what texts have to be used in classrooms, which tests must be given, what happens when students fail to perform satisfactorily on tests, and–increasingly–how content and skills should be taught. Oops! Did I forget that states (44 percent) and feds (nearly 10 percent) supply most funding for districts?

To state and federal officials, mandates, money, penalties for non-performance, and the stigma of shame are the primary levers to institute desired changes in districts from offering parents choices in charter schools to adopting Common Core standards to evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores. Yet to these reform-driven officials, too many districts lack the political will and resolve to turn the corner on poor performance. Mandates, money, penalties, and shame seem to have little effect on persistently low-performing schools and districts.

What’s an eager state and federal official, armed with the authority to make rules and dispense funds to do when district inaction or minimal compliance occurs? One answer may be to look at districts, past and present, that have succeeded in turning themselves around, in adopting reforms that they worked at for years, and ask: how did they do it? What factors were common to them?

A recent article on Union City (NJ) does exactly that. David Kirp details what district officials in this largely immigrant and poor school system (10,300 students in 2013) did over a quarter-century–yes, 25 years–to make incremental changes from adding preschools to curriculum overhaul to a culture of learning and respect for community to, even new technologies. All of these changes were coordinated and eventually funded under the state Supreme Court’s Abbott decision. Stable leadership from school boards and superintendents  over decades converted these changes into standard operating procedures. Current school chief is Stanley Sanger who has spent a decade as ssuperintendent after a career as social studies teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent–all in Union City. These incremental and steady changes accumulated into a success story, including the district’s one high school.

Push the rewind button  and go back in time to 1907 in Gary (IN). A company town literally owned by U.S. Steel, the Gary school board appointed William Wirt  superintendent; he served over 30 years. Influenced by the ideas of John Dewey and the emerging efficiency movement, Wirt introduced an innovative way of organizing schools, teaching, and learning for mostly immigrant students to work-study-and play called the Gary Plan or Platoon school. At a time when urban schools across the nation were looking  for ways to solve the problems of slums, overcrowded schools, and how to teach immigrant children the Gary Plan offered solutions.

The innovation was introduced into reorganized schools holding children from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. Administrators divided each school’s students  into two groups or “platoons.” One platoon would be in the classrooms or auditorium while the other would be in the basement where there were woodworking, printing, and other shops; upstairs in music, art, and play rooms; or outside on the playground. During the day, each platoon would change places, giving each child academic, practical, recreational, and aesthetic experiences while using the entire facility. While most urban elementary school children before World War I stayed the entire 6-8 hour school day in a self-contained classroom with one teacher, Gary pupils worked-studied-and played during an eight-hour day, even receiving released time for religious instruction. Adults used the school at night to take English courses and pick up other job skills.

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Such a work-study-play-community school arrangement—a revolutionary shift in school organization and curriculum—made it possible to have many more students attend school–over 20,000 in the 1920s–since the schedule permitted all available space to be used by students during the day with adults taking courses at night. The Gary innovation spread swiftly across the nation but by the 1930s and the Great Depression had largely disappeared from the agendas of reform-minded policymakers.

In Part 3, I offer one more example of a district reform and then offer answers to the questions asked above: how did districts do it? What factors were common to them?

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Legacies of the Civil Rights Era: Accountability and Attention to Poverty (John Spencer)

John P. Spencer is a former high school social studies teacher and an associate professor in the Education department at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of In the Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform.

 The past decade has brought a steady stream of commentary on how education is the “civil rights issue of our time,” most recently from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But education has been a civil rights issue for decades—and not just in Brown v. Board of Education or Little Rock, but in urban communities with low-performing schools.

Revisiting the 1960s shows us that the civil rightsera left a dual legacy in school reform, half of which echoes loudly today and half of which is too often ignored. The part that still echoes is an ethos of accountability: sixties-era activists and educators helped to pioneer the idea that urban schools should be held accountable for student achievement. The part that is being ignored is a recognition that achievement is also powerfully shaped by what goes on outside of schools—especially the effects of poverty. Unfortunately, neglect of the latter lesson is seriously undermining the potentially useful impact of the former one.

The movement for “community control” of urban schools in the late 1960s is a striking example of how the activism of the civil rights era prefigured the current accountability agenda, in spirit if not in terms of specific policies and approaches. The battle lines of community control will sound familiar to anyone following recent controversies over charter schools, “parent trigger” laws, and the like: on one side, black parents and community activists fed up with low-performing schools and eager to take charge of them; on the other, teachers unions and school bureaucracies. In the most famous case, in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, the activists managed to fire unionized teachers, sparking a bitter and prolonged strike. (The teachers were reinstated.)

The community control movement shifted the spotlight from problems in communities to problems with schools. Since the early 1960s, explanations for low achievement in urban schools had focused on the idea that black students, many of whom had migrated from the rural South, were “culturally deprived” and caught in a self-defeating “culture of poverty.” It was a liberal idea at the time—a way of saying urban students were struggling not because they were black (as racists had insisted) but because they were poor. In the late 1960s, though, civil rights activists vehemently rejected the cultural deprivation argument as a form of racism. They believed the problem was low expectations in schools. Dwelling on the impoverished background of the students was, as one critic said in a newly coined phrase, “blaming the victim.”

We hear a similar argument today: to emphasize the effects of poverty is to make excuses. Reformers may make this argument in various ways and for various reasons (with some standing to benefit from emphasizing the deficiencies of schools that in turn become candidates for privatization); but with the language of “no excuses,” they all tap into the unrealized expectations of the civil rights era. Unfortunately, the advocates of holding schools accountable tend to neglect or dismiss an equally important legacy of the 1960s, to the detriment of their professed goal of eliminating achievement gaps: the Coleman Report (1966) and nearly five decades of subsequent research showing that socioeconomic status, cultural capital and other non-school factors have even more impact on academic achievement than do teachers and schools.

How to focus on those external factors while maintaining high expectations of schools? One example from the 1960s was the leadership of African American educator Marcus Foster. Foster earned acclaim as a principal in Philadelphia and superintendent in Oakland, before being assassinated by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973 in a bizarre protest against an allegedly racist school system.

Foster exemplified the accountability ethos of the civil rights era: “Inner city folks . . . want people in there who get the job done, who get youngsters learning no matter what it takes,” he once wrote. “They won’t be interested in beautiful theories that ex­plain why the task is impossible.” But Foster did not win awards for improving achievement in struggling schools by pitting communities against educators; he got communities and schools to work together—and to insist upon accountability from taxpayers and political and economic institutions, too. On one occasion, for example, he closed the Oakland schools and transported thirty busloads of Oaklanders to the state capitol to seek more support for needy urban students—resulting not only in more money but in “three-thousand folks of all persuasions saying, ‘We stand together for schools.’”

Foster’s accomplishments in the 1960s, including his call for broader societal support, are echoed today—though not often enough—in such efforts as the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, which calls for school reform to be combined with policies aimed at improving the health, the early childhood learning, and the out-of-school experiences of underachieving children. Not using poverty as an excuse to blame the victim is an important lesson from the 1960s. But it’s only half the story for those who truly hope to make equal education a civil right.

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