Tag Archives: big city districts,

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:




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

Every kid specialimages-4

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.


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.



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.



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.


Filed under school reform policies

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.


Filed under school reform policies

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.


Filed under leadership, school reform policies, technology use

Turning Around Urban Districts: The Case of Paul Vallas


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.


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


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

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.


Filed under leadership, school reform policies, testing

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.


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?


Filed under leadership, school reform policies

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.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

Reframing Shame: How and When Blame for Student Low Achievement Shifted

The shame that many teachers and principals feel at being made responsible for a school’s low academic performance is a recent phenomenon. Historically, policy elites and educators explained poor academic performance of groups and individual students by pointing to ethnic and racial discrimination, poverty, immigrants’ cultures, family deficits, and students’ lack of effort. School leaders would say that they could hardly be blamed for reversing conditions over which they had little control. Until the past quarter-century, demography as destiny was the dominant explanation for unequal school outcomes.

Things began to change by the mid-1970s. Other explanations for low academic performance among different groups of students gained traction: The school—not racism, poverty, family, culture, or even language differences–caused disadvantages in students. This explanation grew from research studies of urban elementary schools with high percentages of poor and minority students that did far better on national tests than researchers would have been predicted from their racial and socioeconomic status.

These high-flying ghetto and barrio schools had common features: staff’s belief that all urban children could learn; the principal of the school was an instructional leader; staff established high academic standards with demanding classroom lessons, frequent testing, and an orderly school (PDF el_197910_edmonds-2).  These “effective schools” proved to many skeptics that high poverty urban schools could be successful, as measured by tests. Students’ race, ethnicity, and social class did not doom a school to failure. And most important, that committed and experienced staff working closely together could make a decided academic difference in the lives of impoverished children of color. No longer could teachers and administrators blame students and their families for failing. Now, it was the responsibility of school staff to insure student success.

This fundamental swing in blame for the causes of inequities in outcomes are captured in the words of national leaders who often  admonish teachers and administrators to avoid the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” This reversal of responsibility for inequitable outcomes has shifted the burden for academic success completely from students’ shoulders to those of their teachers, principals, and superintendents.

While most of us cherish the egalitarian thought—enshrined in NCLB that all students will test proficient by 2014–research studies and the facts of daily experience should give us pause before nodding in agreement. Perhaps this total equality in results may occur in heaven but not on earth where variability in families’ behaviors and students’ talents, motivation, interests, and skills remain stubborn facts.

Thus, within a few decades, a 180-degree shift in responsibility for chronic academic failure has occurred. Neither extreme, however, squares with the facts. Responsibility rests with both community and district, both school and family, both teachers and students.

Blaming others may be momentarily satisfying but unhelpful in either improving schools or motivating students to do their best. On the one hand, expecting a school staff to have the full responsibility for students’ academic results neglects the long history of research and daily experience of students who come to school unready to learn. Family income, parental education and interest, health, neighborhood, and other factors influence what happens to growing children even before they enter kindergarten. If there is one fact researchers have established over and over it is that family income and education play a large role in children’s behavioral and academic performance in schools.

Striking a balance between documented facts of inequities among students when they appear at the schoolhouse door and documented facts of some educators’ shabby inaction while other educators turn basket-case schools into high-fliers is essential. But it is hard to strike this balance in the current unforgiving climate of state and federal accountability rules that name, blame, and shame districts and schools for gaps in achievement, high drop out rates, and low graduation numbers (SAN11-01).

In the current frenzied climate of state and federal penalties for low performance, what students bring to school, both their strengths and weaknesses, are seldom mentioned publicly because of policymakers’ and educators’ fear of being called racist, making excuses, or having low expectations. The dominant one-liner repeated again and again is that efficient, well-managed schools and districts are accountable for students’ academic success.

This situation pains those federal, state, and local policymakers and reformers who want to address those socioeconomic structures in the larger society that contribute to economic inequalities and students’ disadvantages such as tax policies favoring the wealthy, residential segregation, lack of health insurance, immigration policies, and discriminatory employment practices but find it hard to do in a political climate where top-down, business-driven reforms that blame teachers and their unions and use test scores to determine futures of teachers and schools blow like gale-force storms.

In such a climate, entrepreneurial reformers, federal policymakers, and wealthy donors direct attention to only fixing schools, a strategy that is both politically attractive and economically inexpensive compared to the uproar that would occur from attacking those who enjoy privileges from leaving those policies and structures untouched.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Can Superintendents Raise Test Scores?

John Deasy, who was appointed superintendent of the 672,000-student Los Angeles district in January, will be evaluated … on improvement in the graduation rate, student proficiency and attendance. But he also has the opportunity to earn up to $30,000 in bonuses if the district sees an 8 or more percentage point increase in 3rd-grade scores on the state’s reading test, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in 9th-grade algebra, and the four-year-graduation rate….

Jean-Claude Brizard, the chief executive officer of the 409,000-student Chicago schools, will be evaluated on such performance measures as: increasing the percentage of high schoolers who graduate within five years from 55.8 to 60 percent; improving from 27 to 35 percent the share of high schoolers who earn at least a 20 out of 36 on the ACT college entrance exam, and increasing the percentage of students passing the state standardized test for 3rd-grade reading from 57.8 to 70 percent….

Because school boards and mayors assume that measures of good schools can be found  in rising test scores, high school graduation rates, and college admissions, they hire superintendents to be instructional leaders, astute managers, and wily politicians to carry out board mandates and ensure that desired improvements occur. They also push out superintendents–just ask Chicago’s Jean-Claude Brizard who just left days ago after 17 months in office.

So superintendent contracts include clauses on raising test  scores. But can they do so? The literature on the superintendency, with few exceptions, answers  “yes” to the question.  When writers, policy makers, and administrators mention successful school chiefs they point to increasing scores on standardized achievement tests, high percentages of graduates entering college, and National Merit Scholarship finalists (SuperintendentLeadership)

Yet when superintendents are asked how they get scores or graduation rates to go up, the question is often answered with a wink or a shrug of the shoulders. Even among most researchers and administrators who write and grapple with this question of whether superintendents can improve test scores, there is no explicit model of effectiveness.

How exactly does a school chief who is completely dependent on an elected school board, district office staff that prior superintendents appointed, a cadre of principals in schools whom he or she may see monthly, and teachers who shut their doors once class begins–raise test scores, decrease dropouts, and increase college attendance? Without some model by which a superintendent can be shown to have causal effects, test scores going up or down remain a mystery, a matter of luck that the results occurred during that school chief’s tenure.

Many school chiefs, of course, believe they can improve student achievement. They have in their heads what I call the Rambo or Michelle Rhee model of superintending. Strong leader + clear reform plan + swift reorganization + urgent mandates + crisp incentives and penalties =  desired student outcomes. Think former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, ex-Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew, and Alan Bersin in San Diego.

There are, of course, other models that are less heroic and mirror more accurately the complex, entangled world of moving policy to classroom practice through a school board, superintendent, principals, teachers, students, and parents. One model depicts indirect influence where superintendents shape a district culture of improvement, spend time on instructional issues, train principals to run schools, and work closely with teachers in supporting and prodding them to take on new challenges in their classrooms. Think Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston (MA) and Laura Schwalm in Garden Grove (CA). Such an indirect approach is less mythical, takes a decade or more, and is less dependent upon the superintendent being Superman or Wonder Woman.

Whether school chiefs or their boards have a Rambo model, one of indirect influences, or other models in their minds, some theory exists to explain how they have an impact on student academic performance. Without some explanation for how they influence district office administrators, principals, teachers, and students to perform better than they have, most school chiefs have to figure out their own personal cause-effect model or rely upon chance.

Some superintendents, for example, figure that working 60-70-hour weeks insures that there will be payoff in student improvements. Other superintendents figure that showering the district with reforms will eventually produce some results that might improve student performance. And even other superintendents size up the situation as mysterious; they hope that they will get lucky and the students tested next year will make higher scores than this year’s group. The lack of attention to linkages between superintendent actions and student outcomes prompts those in office to keep their fingers crossed behind their backs.

What is needed are GPS navigation systems imprinted in school board members’ and superintendents’ heads that contains the following:

*A map of the political, managerial, and instructional roles superintendents perform, public schools’ competing purposes, and the constant political responsiveness of school boards to constituencies that inevitably create persistent conflicts.

*a clear cause-effect model of how superintendents influence others to do what has to be done,

*a practical and public definition of what will constitute success for school boards and superintendents.

Such a navigation system and map are steps in the direction of accurately answering the question of whether superintendents can raise test scores.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

School Reformers Who Disagree Find Common Ground (John Thompson and Neerav Kingsland)

The following post was written by teacher John Thompson of Oklahoma City  and Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. They introduce themselves below. The post was published by Rick Hess, a blogger for Education Week on September 21, 2012.

 There is much we disagree on – don’t worry we’ll get to that. But in writing this joint post we hope to flesh out some common beliefs that unite two very different people – and, perhaps, two different wings of current education debates. The recent events in Chicago make very clear that there is a great divide between different factions of reform and that this divide continues to greatly impact children. We hope that this divide need not be permanent – and that a common agenda may be found between different reform camps. At the very least, we have found common ground where few would have expected.


Some Background on Us

I (John) taught and participated in whole school and district-wide reforms in the Oklahoma City Public School System (which is 90% low income). On the eve of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I served on the steering committee of a bipartisan reform effort that was a down home version of the Broader, Bolder Approach – and was a team member of a school that was improving faster than any other high school in the district. I blame NCLB for wrecking our promising community-wide school improvement effort, driving hundreds of students out of my school, and turning it into the lowest performing school in the state.

I (Neerav) am the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), which launches and scales charter operators and human capital organizations. NSNO has been an accelerator of the New Orleans reform efforts – which has led to over 80% of New Orleans students attending charter schools. I (Neerav) blame local government monopolies for taking power away from educators and parents – as well as for operating stagnant school systems that fail to harness entrepreneurship, innovation, and competition.

Where We Agree

We agree that top-down, command and control governance, has failed. And that it will continue to fail regardless of the talents of the elites who run these systems. Technocratic reformers will never be able to design enough “transformational policies” to solve the complex problems facing families, educators, and communities. We are against: district-wide curriculum mandates, legislatively enforced teacher evaluation systems, and personnel decisions driven by central office bureaucrats. We’ve each seen some of our generation’s greatest minds seduced by the idea that “if I’m in power, I’ll be able to fix this.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this agreement: a “labor activist progressive” and a “Relinquisher” both feel that the much of the current reform movement is extremely misguided. And we both point to overreaching bureaucratic elites as the source of the problem – even if we sympathize with their intentions and are hopeful that they succeed in increasing student learning.

Where We Somewhat Disagree: How to Empower Educators

We agree on the problem, but our solutions take somewhat different paths. In short, where we agree and, yet, start to disagree is with school autonomy. Both of us are for it – but in different ways.

I (John) steadfastly oppose vouchers and worry about charter chains (CMOs). I never criticize charters. I’ve always celebrated when my students get into charters, magnets, or (below the radar) get into suburban schools. I believe that the safest way to gain the benefits of autonomy can be through “enterprise schools,” or neighborhood schools that are granted autonomy. These schools should be governed by “thin contracts” that allow for collective bargaining agreements but do not restrict the operational autonomy of school site decision making for educators.

I (Neerav) believe that true autonomy can only be achieved by government relinquishing its power of school operation. I believe that well regulated charter and voucher markets – that provide educators with public funds to operate their own schools – will outperform all other vehicles of autonomy in the long-run. In short, autonomy must be real autonomy: government operated schools that allow “site level decision making” feels more Orwellian than empowering – if we believe educators should run schools, let’s let them run schools.

Where We Really Disagree: Standardized Testing

Our biggest disagreement is all about standardized testing. The gulf here is significant but not as wide as one might think…

I (John) have mixed feeling about graduation examinations, but they are state mandates ratified by the voters. Educators should not impose high stakes standardized tests without the consent of educators and students. Choice schools, whether they are charters or enterprise schools, should be free to use high stakes tests if they choose. Educators in those schools, however, should stand with their colleagues and oppose such testing in neighborhood schools. We should unite in condemning value-added evaluations that are likely to increase primitive test prep and drive teaching talent out of schools where it is harder to raise test scores.

I (Neerav) am very conflicted about standardized testing. The libertarian in me just wants to give parents choice, provide them with a lot of information, and let the market work itself out. The pragmatist in me is familiar with the research on parents being unaware of the poor performance of schools to which they claim deep allegiance. I also have mixed feelings about annual high stakes testing (compared to once every couple of years) – which I worry (a) forces schools to shallowly cover grade level material and (b) is at odds with personalized learning. That being said, I feel that the near term costs to student achievement would be high if we eliminated testing – but am very open to the idea that long-term testing mania may have deleterious educational effects. So, for now, I’m on board.

A Not Quite Manifesto

To sum it all up: we agree that the progressive labor movement and Relinquishers should unite in support of the areas where we find common ground. We enthusiastically welcome all allies in liberating educators and schools from top-down management. And we feel that ideological blinders continue to prevent educators from supporting all forms of autonomy. Yes, we disagree on the structure of autonomy and standardized testing – but both of us are aware of the risks of our preferred approaches – and neither of us vilifies the other for his beliefs.

The outcome of current educational debates will affect the happiness and prosperity of the future adults of our nation. The stakes are high.

So let us end with this:

We believe that educator empowerment – in some form or another – must be the North Star of reform efforts.

We believe that the coalition in support of educator empowerment can cross political, ideological, and geographical lines.

And we believe that the coalition around education empowerment should air its disagreements on crucial issues – but that these issues should (for now) take a back seat to educator empowerment.

And we encourage you both to visit Oklahoma City and New Orleans. They are truly wonderful places.


Filed under school reform policies