On Changing Fortunes and Administrative Attentions (Michele Kerr)

Principals perform three competing, overlapping roles (managing, leading instruction, and politicking). In doing so, they are forever caught in the middle between competing interests. In serving bosses in the district office, teachers who they lead, and parents who want the best for their sons and daughters they inevitably make decisions that become fodder for critics among those groups. It goes with the territory. Medical clinic directors, FBI agents in charge of field offices, and appointed project leaders in software firms experience similar tensions in trying to manage, lead, and politick to reach  personal and organizational goals. Nothing new here. For those principals who have succeeded well in parlaying the conflict that inevitably arises from performing these competing roles, even those principals may need to inspect a far more subtle factor–personal taste in people and their “fit” within the school–when it comes to staffing classrooms. Here is one such concern raised by an experienced teacher.


At my first school, I was looking for jobs long before they gave me my layoff notice, knowing full well I wouldn’t be called back. I had no reason to think so; my classes were well-run, my reviews were good, administrators made no requests or complaints, and in fact the ostensible reason for my departure was staffing restrictions. It made no difference; I’d told friends as early as September that I would need to find a new job the next year, no matter what my evaluation said.

At school #2, administrators looked right through me. They’d send out notes asking for volunteers to teach after school classes in math or test prep. I would often indicate interest, get no response, and then see a new note asking again for volunteers. Meanwhile, the administrators approached other teachers, who often hadn’t volunteered, giving the extra hours to them whether they wanted the job or not. I got the hint, quit volunteering.

You’re thinking hey, duh, they thought you were a bad teacher. But that wasn’t it. I taught tough kids for all three years in question. I passed most kids with realistic grades, often convincing students with a long history of failure to try just one more time. Test scores were solid. At both schools, other new teachers were eviscerated by their students, unable to run a classroom without a supervisor on standby. Several classes were “collapsed” (ended) because the teachers couldn’t maintain control. My induction advisers thought very highly of me. I got along well with my colleagues. I wasn’t obnoxious, wasn’t a rabble-rouser. Like all new teachers, I tried to keep my head down. And yet, I knew those other teachers who struggled with discipline, who were trying to figure out how to teach, who had high failure rates and low scores, were well-liked by the administration while I was at best tolerated.

Besides, ineffective new teachers get lots of attention, as administrators coach, advise, warn, watch constantly. As I said, I was completely ignored. Administrators never said directly or indirectly that my teaching was a problem. They never once reprimanded me or in any way told me I had to change. I’m leaving things out to avoid criticizing anyone directly or indirectly, but nothing I’m leaving out would change this fundamental reality: I was a good teacher, the principals thought I was a good teacher, and yet no one on the administrative teams at either school particularly liked me or wanted to keep me.

I didn’t get a formal evaluation the first year at my second school, just a brief observation and a paper to sign near year-end, but “meets expectations” was checked. My second year had no preconditions, no warning of the need for dramatic improvement. Being no fool, I nonetheless looked desperately for jobs over the summer between the first and second year at that school. I did get a job offer, but unfortunately late in August, after the new year had begun, and I regretfully declined. In May of that second year of my second school, I resigned despite not having any job offers (I am eligible for rehire, if you’re wondering). A few months later, I accepted a job at my current school, where I’m in the middle of my second year.

Things couldn’t be more different. I floated away from both my yearly evaluations ten feet off the ground. If there’d been water, I’d have walked on it. They like me here. Last year, when I had a mild concern about an issue, I emailed the principal to ask if I could speak to him, something I would never have done in my last two schools, because I would have been ignored for anything short of a catastrophe. He responded with a meeting time. I stop and chat with all the administrators, who look at me and smile and even wave at me across the quad. I was moved to a bigger room with a Promethean projector, I’m teaching a lot more advanced math, and in a bunch of little ways, I get treated as a teacher considered to be of some value to the school.

I’m the same teacher, using the same methods. My kids still sit grouped by ability, I don’t lecture much, I don’t use textbooks often, I build my own curriculum, I have the same commitment to student success, I still weight tests heavily and don’t care much about homework. Jeans, teeshirts, and neon-colored sneakers, then and now, are my daily attire. For those people wondering if my certainty, my er, confident attitude is somehow the problem (and of course, it could be), I am—on the surface anyway—unhumbled by the low regard with which I was held. I’m the same. The bosses have changed.

My conversations with other teachers suggests that tenure doesn’t end the tale of changing fortunes. One teacher was a step away from dismissal procedure when the principal left; her replacement gave that same teacher a glowing review and extra duty. Another English teacher was so despised by his administrator that she refused to assign him any subject classes, giving him a full day of “responsibility center” duty–the place kids go when kicked out of class. He, too, weathered the storm until her departure and is now happily back teaching English. More than one teacher at my last school consoled me when I confided in them, wondering why I was ignored and so apparently unwanted, and they all had similar stories: non-re-elected twice, fired mid-year once, now I’m permanent, everything’s fine. The advice is the same: if you have tenure, hunker down. If you don’t, go back to Edjoin and start all over again.

This isn’t a sad tale of bad principals. Rather, perfectly competent administrators occasionally act on their biases by replacing or discouraging good teachers. Nor are these good teachers reliably replaced with other good teachers; every staff has seen an excellent teacher rejected or chased off, to be replaced with a well-meaning newbie with little talent—who is let go in a year or two as well.

Think of it as a luxury, a job perk. Most of the time, principal preferences are perfectly aligned with good practice; they evaluate new teachers fairly, give struggling teachers a chance to improve, thank the gods gratefully for good new ones. They secretly hope that their weaker permanent teachers will behave badly, since it’s much easier to get rid of teachers for misconduct than bad teaching.

But every so often, they can just shrug and turn up their noses and say “yeah, just not a good fit.”

I came from the real world before I taught; I understand that the entire job market is fraught with difficulties, that everyone everywhere is bound to capricious employers. But teaching careers can be utterly derailed, permanently, by administrator whim.

A second year teacher who’s been let go not for being a terrible teacher, but just a “bad fit” will face suspicions while interviewing. All principals understand emotionally that their counterparts act on bias, but when they hire, they often operate on the received wisdom is that principals only reject or discourage objectively “bad” teachers.

Tenured teachers are suddenly, often randomly—at least it seems that way—targeted by an administrator. They will do their best to hunker down, but if the administrator wants to go through the hassle of firing them, will often just leave. They might be terrible teachers. They might not. They’ll leave if they can, because otherwise they’ll find it nearly impossible to work again. Of course, if they’re older, it’s worse. Age discrimination is rampant throughout the working world; older teachers have all these problems plus they can’t set their own salary and are far more expensive. A teacher forced out because of one administrator’s dislike is going to have a brutal time finding a new job. Better to leave first, where at least the story will be “currently employed, looking for better”.

For this reason, the recent study showing that DC’s IMPACT evaluation system resulted in voluntary attrition or higher performance does not, as its proponents say, show that tough evaluation systems lead to improved teaching. What it shows is that teachers who could give principals what they wanted did. Teachers who couldn’t, left. The mistake lies in assuming that principals wanted good teaching. They might have. They usually do. But not always.

Some advocates of education reform, such as Whitney Tilson, hold that administrators should have absolute control over staff—that a “bad teacher” is any teacher the administrator doesn’t want, regardless of the reason. If the teacher doesn’t fit the new vision, it’s time to move on. However, this argument doesn’t have many takers, precisely because everyone understands that a terminated teacher will have a difficult time finding a new job, and that outcome is only desirable if the teacher in question is terrible. But experience and anecdote tells me that this isn’t always true.

I don’t have any policy changes to advise. I do think, however, that should the Vergara lawsuit succeed, we will see principals getting rid of teachers not because they are objectively poor teachers, but because those principals don’t see them as valuable. I don’t think that random administrative preference will provide us with the teaching force our country needs


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Data-Driven Teaching Practices: Rhetoric and Reality

Much has already been written on the U.S. obsession with standardized test scores.  Add to the obsession the passionate belief that policymakers who gather, digest, and use a vast array of numbers can reshape teaching practices.

I refer to data-driven instruction–a way of making teaching less subjective, more objective, less experience-based, more scientific. Ultimately, a reform that will make teaching systematic and effective. Standardized test scores, dropout figures, percentages of non-native speakers proficient in English–are collected, disaggregated by ethnicity and school grade, and analyzed. Then with access to data warehouses, staff can obtain electronic packets of student performance data that can be used to make instructional decisions to increase academic performance. Data-driven instruction, advocates say, is scientific and consistent with how successful businesses have used data for decades in making decisions that increased their productivity.

Not a new idea. Teachers had always assessed learning informally before state- and district-designed tests. Teachers accumulated information from pop quizzes, class discussions, observing students in pairs and small groups, and individual conferences. Based on these data, teachers revised lessons. Teachers leaned heavily on their experience with students and the incremental learning they had accumulated from teaching 180 days, year after year.

In the 1990s and, especially after No Child Left Behind became law, the electronic gathering of data, disaggregating information by groups and individuals, and then applying lessons learned from the analysis to teaching became a top priority. Why? Because stigma and high-stakes consequences (e.g., state-inflicted penalties) occurred from public reporting of low test scores and inadequate school performance that could lead to a school’s closure.

Now, principals and teachers are awash in data.

How do teachers use the massive data available to them on student performance?  Studies of teacher and administrator usage reveal wide variation and different strategies. In one 2007 study of 36 instances of data use in two districts, researchers found 15 where teachers used annual tests, for example, in basic ways to target weaknesses in professional development or to schedule double periods of language arts for English language learners. There were fewer instances of collective, sustained, and deeper inquiry by groups of teachers and administrators using multiple data sources (e.g., test scores, district surveys, and interviews) to, for example, reallocate funds for reading specialists or start an overhaul of district high schools. Researchers pointed out how timeliness of data, its perceived worth by teachers, and district support limited or expanded the quality of analysis. These researchers admitted, however, that they could not connect student achievement to the 36 instances of basic to complex data-driven decisions in these two districts.

Wait, it gets worse.

In 2009, the federal government published a report ( IES Expert Panel) that examined 490 studies where data was used by school staffs to make instructional decisions. Of these studies, the expert panel found 64 that used experimental or quasi-experimental designs and only six–yes, six–met the Institute of Education Sciences standard for making causal claims about data-driven decisions improving student achievement. When reviewing these six studies, however, the panel found “low evidence” (rather than “moderate” or “strong” evidence) to support data-driven instruction. In short, the assumption that data-driven instructional decisions improve student test scores is, well, still an assumption not a fact.

Another study offers little relief to those advocates of data-driven school and classroom decisions.

In a 2014 study of three districts, researchers used the concept of “sensemaking” to understand why responses from district office administrators, principals, and teachers to data-driven instruction differed. They concluded that the roles these educators play (district administrators, principals, and teachers) and their ideas about what data mean and toward what ends data should be used matter greatly in making decisions for the district, school, and classrooms.

For example:

“In one district, there were clear divisions among roles … regarding perspectives on data. For example, central office members felt that data should be thought of holistically, with each form of data providing another dimension or “piece of the puzzle” about students…. Rarely did central office members discuss data in terms of specific educational practices. Rather, they emphasized understanding about the needs, motivations, and histories of students.”

 Principals in this district, however, “saw data more specifically in terms of practice. They saw data as being important to meeting individual students’ needs. One described this as choosing “the right kids to work with on the right objectives at the right time.” They also saw data as supporting programmatic decisions, such as when designing interventions for struggling students or making course scheduling decisions.”

 And when it came to teachers in this district “the general sentiment … was that “data” were about testing…. Teachers at different levels named different tests, with the common thread being that teachers were required to give students assessments, but not to systematically reflect or act upon their results. In other words, these teachers viewed “data” as being about compliance and reporting information to central office, not necessarily ‘use.’”

 In another district, “teachers presented yet another view about data…. The general sentiment from teachers was that ‘data’ were about testing. These teachers, unlike [those in the other districts] did not focus on any particular test. Teachers at different levels named different tests, with the common thread being that teachers were required to give students assessments, but not to systematically reflect or act upon their results. In other words, … teachers [in this district] viewed ‘data’ as being about compliance and reporting information to central office, not necessarily ‘use.’ [for altering practices]”  

Thus far, then, not an enviable research record on data-driven (or informed) decision-making either being linked to classroom practices and student outcomes.

Numbers may be facts. Numbers may be objective. Numbers may smell scientific. But numbers have to be interpreted by those who do the daily work of classroom teaching. Data-driven instruction may be a worthwhile reform but as now driving evidence-based educational practice linked to student achievement, rhetoric notwithstanding, it is not there yet.





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Principal Eric Guthertz of Mission High School in San Francisco (Kristina Rizga)

This is the fourth and final excerpt taken from Kristina Rizga’s new book Mission High. With her permission I have published descriptions of math, English,  and history lessons. In this post, Rizga describes the principal of the school. Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.


As the head of a school at which students carry passports from more than forty countries, Eric Guthertz probably has one of the most multicultural closets of any principal in the nation. Dressed in his usual getup this morning—slim-fitted, button-down shirt, dark grey slacks, and a large, black walkie-talkie pinned on his belt—Guthertz shows off dozens of his favorite clothing items that he wears throughout the year for various cultural events. Hanging on the wall in his office that doubles as a closet, there are several guayaberas—formal men’s shirts worn in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean—which he wears to the students’ Latino Club celebrations. There is a traditional Moroccan cream-colored shirt with black buttons that a student from Morocco gave him. The Black Student Union gave him a traditional kufi hat and scarf from West Africa. His favorite piece is a dark navy, three-piece suit that students from the Chinese Club gave him five years ago.

In Guthertz’s universe, hustling to find funding to keep Mission’s cultural clubs and events alive is as important as improving test scores. As an educator with twenty-seven years of experience in inner-city schools, Guthertz is convinced that multicultural and student-run clubs, after-school programs, and extracurricular activities not only engage more students in the core academic subjects, they also teach crucial skills for success after high school: familiarity with different cultures and worldviews, experience working through cultural misunderstandings with respect and common sense, and the ability to see diversity as an asset of a community….

Guthertz’s convictions come at a price. The continuity of school funding—and with that the job security of teachers and staff who run many of these programs—depends on the school’s ability to show consistent growth in standardized test scores. In 2009 Guthertz almost lost his job to secure SIG (School Improvement Grant) funding for the school, as part of President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. The $4 billion education funding package awarded competitive grants to states that agreed to meet a set of principles, such as using standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, easing restrictions on the number of charter schools, and restructuring or closing low-performing schools (as measured by test scores). Race to the Top offered hard-to-resist financial “carrots” during the economic recession to low-performing schools like Mission in exchange for “sticks.” Mission High had to choose between firing a principal, firing half of the teachers, closing the school, or replacing it with a charter school. The district found a loophole to avoid all of these scenarios. Guthertz had been a principal for less than two years and could be listed as a recently “replaced” principal. In 2012 the school’s score on the Academic Progress Index (API) dropped by one point (out of the total of one thousand maximum points any school in California can receive on its API, which is calculated primarily based on standardized test scores), and the school faced the loss of close to $1 million, about 12 percent of its annual budget.

The district appealed the decision and requested recalculation of the scores, which came back with a one-point gain, saving the jobs of at least seven teachers, Guthertz says.

Despite these external pressures to prioritize test scores in math and English, Guthertz refuses to tell educators at Mission to “teach to the test” at the expense of giving up rich curriculum or hands-on projects, field trips, and music and art classes, or of closing student clubs and elective courses. He is convinced that such a pedagogical stance pays off, and he has data about his school to prove it. College enrollment went up from 55 percent in 2007 to 74 percent in 2013. While the API index fluctuates from year to year, there has been an overall gain of 86 points since 2009. School attendance has been rising. The graduation rate went from the lowest in the district, at 60 percent in 2008, to 82 percent in 2013, on a par with the district average. The graduation rate for African American students was 20 percent higher at Mission than the district average in 2013. While the rest of the country is embroiled in a debate over how to reduce suspensions, Mission High has reduced its suspensions, from 28 percent in 2008 to 3.9 percent in 2014. In the yearly student and parent satisfaction survey of 2013, close to 90 percent said they like the school and would recommend it to others….

While Guthertz and his team spend at least half of their time building a healthy and inclusive school culture outside of the classrooms, most of the work that helps students develop as mature and compassionate adults happens in the classrooms, Guthertz says, echoing Pablo’s view. That’s why teacher-leaders and the administrative team regularly observe classrooms and comb through reams of data, paying particular attention to the number of referrals and suspensions, as well as the number of Fs and Ds desegregated by ethnicity and race, to see which students and teachers need extra support. When teachers struggle, Mission High provides one-on-one coaching by successful and experienced educators [at the school]. Teachers meet regularly to plan units together and analyze student work collectively. As a result, unlike most inner-city schools, Mission High has very low attrition among teachers—by district and national standards. Mission High is the only school in the district that teaches high numbers of African American, Latino, and low-income students and is no longer considered a “hard-to-staff” school, according to the San Francisco Unified School District’s chief communications officer, Gentle Blythe. “Mission High is famous at the district because it is known as a learning community and good, supportive place to work,” Dayna Soares, who has now been teaching math for two years, tells me. “It’s hard to get a job here.”

The Mission High School museum maintains a deep archive of historic photographs of the school and its people, athletic trophies, and articles, as well as newspaper clippings featuring alums. There are portraits of Nobel Prize–winning Maya Angelou, Grammy-winning Carlos Santana, and the award-winning chef Charles Phan. The museum is full of multigenerational stories, like the sister and brother security guards, Iz (or “Izzy” as the staff call her) and Ed Fructuoso, who both graduated from Mission High and still work here. Ed’s daughter, Reign, recently graduated from Mission High. Principal Guthertz’s daughter, Eva-Grace, started at Mission in 2014.

Almost every week a former graduate or a family member of a former graduate comes to Mission High to look at the graduation photos dotting the hallways and other memorabilia the school has been archiving in the museum, Guthertz tells me one morning in May 2014, as we walk down the hallway toward Mission High’s school museum. Just last week Veronica Gomez—the granddaughter of Mission alumnus Ronald Gaggero—came to see the school her late grandfather used to talk about when she was a little girl. Gomez told Guthertz that her grandfather dropped out of school in 1960 to enter the workforce just two months before he graduated. His girlfriend—who became his wife of forty four years—had gotten pregnant. Gaggero became a successful owner of several small businesses in San Francisco and raised three children with his wife, but he always told his granddaughter that his biggest regret was not getting his diploma. Guthertz and his team invited Gomez to attend the graduation of Mission High’s class of 2014 and presented her with an honorary high school diploma for her late grandfather.

Mission High serves an often overlooked but vital role in the community. It is a central meeting ground and celebration space for the predominantly working-class parents whose children go there, as well as a repository of its collective memories and community pride. The yearly choir and Latino Club performances bring out hundreds of parents. When in December 2014 the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown—unarmed black men killed by police officers who were later acquitted—sparked national protests across the country, Mission High’s Black Student Union organized a community event for students and parents in the city. The Gay-Straight Alliance, as well as Teachers for Social Justice, hold their national gatherings at Mission High….

Guthertz loves giving personal tours, including stops at the museum, to any outsiders who come to Mission, because he can show all of the qualitative and quantitative factors besides test scores, which he believes tell a more accurate story about the place that he has called home for thirteen years—first as an English teacher and now as an administrator. “We sent more African American students to college this year than any other school in the district,” he says as we enter Mission High’s school museum. “Our achievement gap in grades is almost half of that in the district, thanks to the hard work of our teachers.”

“Sorry, I talk too much,” Guthertz stops himself midsentence. “My father was a PR man,” he adds. “I probably get it from him, but we have such amazing students and teachers here. The best in the city, in my opinion.”


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Reimagining the U.S. High School (Part 2)

“The XQ Institute is in service of parents and pioneers, entrepreneurs and teachers, business leaders and administrators, youth and education experts—who are joining a movement to rethink America’s schools. Together, we can use our knowledge, rigor, and creativity to create a new model for school itself.”

“What if we could scrap the blueprint, change the model and truly innovate? What if you’re the one who helps America rethink high school?”

“This is a challenge to empower all of America to change high school. Together, we can transform communities and build schools that inspire new possibilities.”

“The system of public high schools in America really hasn’t undergone any kind of serious transformation in 100 years,” [ Super School Project CEO, Russlyn H.] Ali said. “It was built for an economy and a system that is no more.”


From these quotes taken from the website for Super School Project, Laurene Powell Jobs and chief executive Russlyn Ali are interested in transforming the existing high school. No proposals for tinkering accepted here. Change is an ambiguous word that needs to be parsed. The Super School Project is not in the market for “incremental changes” to the high school of 2015. They want “transformational,” “revolutionary,” or fundamental change. What’s the difference?

Incremental changes aim to end the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of existing structures and cultures of schooling including classroom teaching. By structures, I mean the goals, funding, facilities, and the age-graded school that are (and have been) basic building blocks of the system of tax-supported schooling in the U.S. By cultures, I mean the norms, expectations, and beliefs in the classroom, school, and district that color daily activities.

Promoters of incremental change view the basic structures and cultures of schooling as largely sound but in need of improvements. There are inefficiencies and ineffective practices that undermine the productivity of the system. The old car, to use a familiar metaphor, is sputtering and rusting but solid. It needs a paint job, tires, brakes, a new battery, and a tune-up—incremental changes. Once improved, the system will work as intended.

Examples of incremental changes in schools would include adding new courses to high school curriculum; introducing new tests; adopting pay-for-performance for teachers and principals; decreasing class size from 30 to 25; Each of these changes, of course, seeks increased efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

In the classroom, incremental changes would include the teacher introducing a new unit in her math course that she had never taught before. Perhaps a teacher who designs a behavioral modification plan with rewards and penalties for good and bad classroom behavior. Or a teacher who decides to use the mobile cart with 30 laptops for one of her classes.


None of this for the Super School Project. The founder and CEO reject any change smelling of incrementalism. The project seeks “fundamental changes,” designs that will go far beyond tinkering.

Fundamental changes aim to transform—alter permanently—those very same structures and cultures. The idea behind fundamental change is that the basic school structures and cultures are irretrievably flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul or replacement, not incremental improvements. That old car is a jalopy far beyond repair. We need to get a new car or consider other forms of transportation.

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then the late-19th century innovation of the kindergarten is an instance of fundamental change. Other examples would be broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, desegregation). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas. That is what the Super School Project seeks for tax-supported public schools now anchored in an information-driven economy.

Applied to the classroom, advocates of fundamental change would transform the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to one who guides students to their own decisions, who helps children find meaning in their experiences, and urges them to learn from one another. These reformers seek to upend traditional teaching where the teacher talks, students mostly listen, use a textbook for the main source of knowledge, and pass tests that determine how much has been remembered. They want classrooms where teachers organize activities that help students learn from subject matter, one another, and the community. Assessment is less taking multiple-choice tests and more working on real world tasks.

Efforts to transform high schools have a long, tortured history (see here and here). Even when fundamental changes do occur at a moment in time such as the creation of tax-supported academic high schools in the late 19th century, the innovative comprehensive high school of the 1920s or the “open classroom,” those deep and powerful changes seldom last as past efforts have shown for the following reasons:

Many changes intended to be fundamental become incrementalized. Often the rhetoric of a planned change clearly intend to make profound shifts in the current school. Recall the words surrounding charter schools, 1:1 laptops, and small high schools in past decades. Promoted by corporate leaders and public officials these innovations sought fundamental changes. Yet once they left the designers’ hands and entered schools and classrooms theses changes were either piecemeal ones where certain portions of the design were implemented and other parts were not.

Because so much work is involved in mobilizing support and resources for fundamental changes there is far more success in talking about major reforms than in adopting the planned changes. And there is even more of a gap between officials’ actions and what principals and teachers actually put into practice. Because of these gaps between talk, action, and implementation, intended fundamental changes get incrementalized and become just another spoke in the organizational wheel.

Far more incremental than fundamental changes get institutionalized in schools. It is simply easier organizationally and psychologically to add to a system than go in a different direction. Increasing requirements for high school graduation is easier than dropping the Carnegie unit which is the very basis for counting credits toward graduation and school accreditation. Shipping computers to schools and buying software is far easier than altering dominant teaching practices. Creating charter schools is actually easier than charters seeking non-graded organizations and introducing project-based learning.

These are lessons from the past that the Super School Project should keep in mind as their staff and consultants consider the high school of the future.


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Reimagining the U.S. High School: An Open Letter to Laurene Powell Jobs (Part 1)

Dear Mrs. Laurene Powell Jobs:

I commend you for initiating a national challenge to transform the comprehensive high school into a Super School and putting $50 million on the stump for experts, parents, practitioners, and academics to compete for in creating better high schools than exist now. Reinventing the high school should generate an enormous range of suggestions for your expert panel to consider after the national round of open meetings end in November. What you are launching is worthwhile especially if it were to spark a national conversation about the goals of tax-supported public schools in a democracy where the economy has shifted from industrial-based to an information-driven one. Whether that conversation (and debate, I hope) will occur depends greatly, I believe, on you and your associates knowing about how high schools have, indeed, changed over the past century and, of equal importance, the checkered history of efforts to “transform” the U.S. high school. That historical knowledge should be one ingredient in considering different groups’ proposals inspired by your challenge.

The most recent serious effort to alter the comprehensive high school was when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured over $2 billion into creating small high schools 15 years ago, an effort that the Gates Foundation shut down in 2009. Yet “small high schools” persist–it is one of the changes in high schools that I refer to above–because they personalize instruction for many students heretofore ignored in conventional comprehensive high schools.

Knowing that public high schools have changed in small and big ways over the past century is essential in making wise funding decisions. The original comprehensive high school in the 1920s with its diversified curriculum catered to the broad range of student interests and aptitudes. It was an innovation that “transformed” the previous academically narrow high school of the 1890s. Since then, repeated efforts to reform the reform have occurred. In the 1950s, for example, former Harvard University president, James Bryce Conant, called for an overhaul of the high school; a decade later, attacks on the sterile comprehensive high school produced a flurry of alternative and “free” high schools. Ted Sizer launched the Coalition of Essential Schools in the late 1980s with its nine “common principles” and hundreds of those high schools exist across the nation. In the early 1990s, a privately funded venture called the New American Schools Development Corporation, later shortened to New American Schools, spread “whole school reform” models to elementary and secondary schools throughout the U.S. As one advocate put it: those seeking grants from NASDC will have to “cast aside their old notions about schooling–to start with a clean sheet of paper, and be bold and creative in their thinking, and to give us ideas that address comprehensive, systemic change for all students for whole schools.” And in the early 2000s, the Gates Foundation underwrote the move to downsize large comprehensive high schools into small ones. My point is that the high school you want to “transform” has changed many times in past decades. It has never been frozen in amber.

In all of those previous reforms, fundamental questions divided those seeking major changes in the comprehensive high school  then and now.

*What should students learn?

*Should all students learn the same thing?

*how should students best learn?

*Who should decide answers to these questions?

Every attempt to “transform” the comprehensive high school since the 1920s wrestled with these questions. Each generation of reformers came up with answers only to see that a subsequent generation of reformers supplied different answers to the same questions. Knowing that history and the particulars of past efforts to “transform” the high school is essential to the current generation of reformers that you seek to inspire, Mrs. Jobs.

I write this open letter to you not to depress you or your staff about earlier efforts to “revolutionize” high schools.  Historians have gained a bad reputation by pointing out previous failures in trying to reform government, medical practice,  the criminal justice system, and yes, public schools. What historians do know is that economic, political, and social contexts change and when past reformers bent their minds and hearts to “transforming” the public high school in the 1920s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, and since the 1990s those times differed greatly one from the other. History as a wise observer once said, surely doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. Which brings me to my one suggestion.

Among your retinue of experts to advise you on funding proposals, I ask that you include a historian of education who knows the past and its rich collection of previous attempts to bring the high school into alignment with a society undergoing profound economic, political,and social changes as is occurring here and now. There are many fine historians of education. A short list might include Jonathan Zimmerman, William Reese, Geraldine Clifford, John Rury, Diane Ravitch, Carl Kaestle, Ellen Lagemann, and David Labaree. I hope you will tap their knowledge and insights.

Knowing about past high school reforms, I believe, will inform your decisions about which grants to approve amid current controversies over Common Core standards and increased state testing. If you want to increase the probability of success in this venture, such historical knowledge can arm you and your staff sufficiently to make wise decisions when it comes to “transforming” U.S. high schools.


Larry Cuban




Filed under Reforming schools

Cartoons on Kids and Parents in School and at Home

Here’s a selection of cartoons that amused me about the return to school this month in the U.S.  I also included cartoons that picked up on the foibles of parents and kids in this high-tech society. Enjoy!




























Filed under Uncategorized

OECD Report: Puzzles To Solve (Part 2)

In this post, I will sketch out two puzzles that emerge from the OECD report, “Students, Computers, and Learning.” The first arises from the gap between high PISA test scores and low use of computers in school in particular countries. The second puzzle is trying to explain the inattention that media both mainstream (newspapers, magazines, network news) and side-stream (opinion and curated blogs, Twitter) has paid to this report.

Puzzle 1: Students from countries that score high on PISA in 2012 spend less time in school using computers than European and North American students.

International test comparisons have driven the past thirty years of school reform in the U.S. Doing poorly on international rankings has prodded reformers to call for U.S. students to copy Asian and Scandanavian countries in their language, math, and science lessons. The OECD report on computers in 60-plus countries’ schools, however, offers empirical data that raise serious questions about one sturdy pillar of U.S. school reform: more access to and use of high-tech devices and software will improve teaching and learning.

Consider that 15 and 16-year old students in Singapore, Korea, Japan, China (Hong-Kong and Shanghai),  have scored higher on PISA (first, second, third, fourth, and sixth) than the U.S. (twelfth) yet–this is one big “yet’–have less access to computers in their schools and spend less time in school on the Internet (pp.18- 22). Thus, the report concludes: “PISA results show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education” (p.15).

How come? Why the disparity in the above countries between access and use of computers in schools (all of the above countries have very high rates of computers in homes) and scores on PISA. No cause and effect do I suggest. This is a puzzling correlation that goes against the non-stop championing of school reformers who tout the virtues of getting more and more devices and software into U.S. classrooms. The OECD report does suggest one tantalizing (and possible) reason, however. Maybe, just maybe, the thinking and writing skills necessary to navigate the Internet and read with understanding web articles and documents, as the OECD report says, can be just as well taught in conventional lessons without use of tablets, laptops, and top-of-the-line software (pp. 15-16). The puzzle remains.

Puzzle 2: Media attention to the OECD report has been minimal, especially in high-tech rich areas.

The report appeared on September 13, 2015. “Warp speed” news in the 24/7 media cycle guaranteed immediate reference to the report. And a flurry of articles in U.S., European, and Asian news outlets appeared (see here, here, here, and here). Within days, the report had been picked up by bloggers and occasional tweeters. Many of the articles and news briefs leaned heavily on OECD press releases and statements in the document by Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills for OECD. In the U.S., national and regional newspapers and network TV stations ran pieces on the report (see here, here, and here).

In those areas of the U.S. where high-tech businesses are crucial parts of the economy (e.g., California’s Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, Boston, Massachusetts) barely a passing reference to the OECD report. None at all (as of 9/22) appeared in news organizations in the San Jose-to-San Francisco corridor. Of course, it may be a matter of time–I scoured Google’s references to the OECD report for only 10 days after it appeared. In the face of the ever-hungry news cycle, however, if the OECD report went unnoticed after it appeared, chances that the report’s findings on computer access, use, and academic performance turning up later are slim, given the media imperative to produce fresh news hourly. There may well be analyses in magazines, journals, and the blogosphere that appear weeks or months later but after 10 days, the report will be stale and forgettable news.

Here’s what’s puzzling me: National coverage in the U.S. of the OECD report was spotty. While the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post ran pieces on the report, The New York Times has not made reference to it. And in the nation’s hot spots for birthing hardware, software, and apps in northern California, Texas, and Boston, barely a mention. How come?

I can only speculate about the little attention that this eye-catching report on the connections between computer access, use, and performance has attracted at a moment in time in the U.S. when entrepreneurs and vendors promise efficient and effective management of resources and student improvement in reading, math, and science. Across the nation more and more school districts are spending scarce dollars on tablets, laptops, and software. My hunch is that the mindsets of high-tech entrepreneurs, vendors, media executives, foundation officials, and school district policymakers  contain deep-set beliefs in the power of technology to make fundamental changes in every sector of society, including schools. When occasional reports like the OECD one  appear that challenge the beliefs, it is occasionally noted but not taken seriously or simply ignored. Academics call this inability to absorb information running counter to one’s beliefs, “confirmation bias.” My hunch is that the OECD report has been largely dismissed by ever-scanning mainstream and side-stream media editors, journalists, and bloggers precisely because of this bias toward the power of computers and technology to whip schools into academic shape.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use