Not Every Success is Scalable: Uncommon Principal, Great School:

Stories of uncommon principals who labor for decades to create structures, cultures, and political success are popular in national media. The story-line is that a principal arrives at a low-performing, minority and poor school and through much work turns it around into a successful school, as measured by test scores, low teacher turnover, and parental support. No, I am not referring to charter schools or magnets. I am referring to neighborhood schools. When such schools emerge policymakers and champions of school success call it a model and urge replication of the school. Make more of them, they cry. Scaling up such successes is rare as any observer (or participant) can tell you. It is devilishly hard to reproduce such victories over mediocrity in another neighborhood much less across a district, state, and nation. Think of KIPP for a moment. In 21 years, KIPP has created 183 schools enrolling 70,000 and done so by preparing principals and teachers, monitoring closely the quality of each school–its five pillars and school culture–and raising large sums of money.

Why is it so hard? In most cases, success comes from complex, interacting factors: the principal who has been there a long time; he or she plays three competing roles well (instructional, managerial, and political); the principal has selected a staff that works closely together learning from its mistakes; the principal has built structures that engage in constant improvement; the community supports the school and acts to keep it flourishing. This mix of ingredients is hard to replicate–no algorithm, no online tutorials, no university program–can do it. The fit between principal, staff, children, parents and community is tight.  Yet it is fragile and can easily unravel. Were the principal, a few of the key teachers, and parent advocates to leave within a short time such a school can easily slide back into the mediocrity existing before that principal and teachers appeared on the scene.

Consider Jack Spatola and P.S. 172 in Brooklyn as described in a recent New York Times article. Appointed principal in 1984, Spatola who came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1970, took over a school that was predominately Puerto Rican. Thirty-one years later, Spatola leads a school that has mostly Mexican and Latin American students with more than 85 percent eligible for free lunch. One in four students are designated Special Education. The reporter described the school’s academic success:

Demographic realities have not hindered achievement. Last year, 98 percent of third, fourth and fifth graders, those required to take state exams toward the end of the year, passed the math test. Seventy-six percent passed the language test. Those figures far exceed citywide averages, which sit in the 30s for both disciplines, and they match or surpass scores at many affluent schools. On the tests administered this past spring, students at P.S. 172 did better than students at P.S. 234, a celebrated school in TriBeCa, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

Steady increases in city test scores has brought crowds of out-of-state educators and business gurus like Jim Collins–of Good to Great fame–to the school. Spatola labored long and hard to build a strong, stable staff inhabiting a culture that prizes both student and adult learning.

Teachers, students and administrators are engaged in a constant process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t; why, for example, one student might be quickly gaining an understanding of symbolism in reading while another isn’t. Professional development is an experience that is not relegated to occasional seminars but is lived daily. Strikingly, members of the school’s senior staff have an extended shared history of knowing what is effective and what isn’t — Mr. Spatola’s assistant principal, Erika Gundersen, has been with him for more than 20 years; the math and literacy coaches on hand to work with teachers to enhance practices have been with him on average more than 12 years.

And he is an ace at finding money in and out of his school budget for all of the professional and academic activities that have become routine at the school.

Mr. Spatola doesn’t use textbooks, which are notoriously expensive…. In the past fiscal year, the city and state spent $100 million on textbooks in New York City schools. At P.S. 172, the allocated money is used to buy primary texts, works of fiction and nonfiction selected by teachers and administrators. Students will, for instance, use the Internet to research how the branches of government work. The many dollars left over are spent on other services…

Spatola believes that textbooks “cheapen the experience of learning.” Instead, the school creates its own lessons and units for each grade and maintains notebooks on each child’s performance. Nearly $50,000 of budgeted funds are supposed to go to buy expensive curriculum packages recommended by the district to meet Common Core standards.

It is absolutely crazy to me that a company out west would really have any idea what my children need,” Mr. Spatola said. “If you are a professional, you take ownership of the curriculum.”

Spatola uses the money for materials teachers choose and develop.

Are the structures and culture that Spatola and teachers have created at P.S. 172 scalable? Not impossible but hard to do given a principal who manages well, guides instruction, and provides political leadership to a staff and community. He and his staff have built by hand a successful school over many years that fits its students and community in Brooklyn.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

10 responses to “Not Every Success is Scalable: Uncommon Principal, Great School:

  1. If not every success in education is scalable, education is doomed to fail.
    Look at any successful organization, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, 7-11, They ALL have been able to replicate the success, achieved in a single event to scale across the organization, using best practices, and reinforced facilitation.
    This is because they defined, up front, what their end success was, then determined what the best practices were to achieve that end goal consistently, time and time again.
    This is a defined, accountable, collective, systematic, approach that is aligned to their strategic objectives, mission and vision.
    This does not happen by chance, nor can you attribute it to miracle event.
    (1) Where does traditional education and traditional educators fall short? (2) And can they scale success?
    (1) First traditional education is institution focused not student focused. They have lost sight of their end objective, mission/vision, which is to empower individual students to be successful; to graduate them in their relevant, chosen field of study; to enable them to obtain a relevant job consistent with their degree; and to provide them with the ability to become a sustained contributor of society.
    They question they DON’t ask when they build a new building, add a rock wall or develop a new initiative is: How will this directly and measurably contribute to our end goal, to empower students with sustained success outcomes, leading to performance improvement outcomes? They just decide whats best for the institution, pretend its good fore the students and go ahead with it, to find out later it didn’t benefit their end goal.
    Traditional education is SOOOO entrenched with the ineffective and inefficient one size fits all status quo that they constantly try to maintain it by improperly engaging thew wrong items to deliver the current paradigm quicker to more students, without advancing student success outcomes (whiteboards, tablets, social media, etc.)
    (2) Can success be scaled.? Of course it can, but the current once size fits all teaching paradigm MUST be replaced with a 21st century learning paradigm, supplemented with educationally innovative technology.
    Traditional education and traditional educators MUST take ownership of their profession, understand and embrace and implement 21st century learning best practices methodology as well as education reform best practices methodology.
    Education will NOT improve unless educators improve education.
    Just like professional sales, education has an art element that is brought to the table by very talented individuals, BUT effective and efficient sales methodology can and IS scalable over large organizations with the correct approach. This is also true in education, if traditional educators are willing to change. Currently traditional educators ARE NOT willing to change for their professional benefit as well as for the benefit of their students…go figure.
    WE know what works, we know what to do, the supporting research, products and services are readily available, but we continue to nay-say and continue to make excuses why education is different .
    Education is not different. Traditional educators ARE different, because they don’t want to embrace best practices change to align with their only reason for existing: to advance student success outcomes.
    The time is NOW for positive change. NO MORE excuses.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • tomsmcdonald, I agree with a lot of what you have to say as far as what the school’s mission is and that they lose sight of it. However, I’m not sure what “21st century learning best practices methodology as well as education reform best practices methodology” are.

      To me, the “one size fits all” is much more true of the reform movement than of traditional schools. I myself (I’m now retired), after the first five years of teaching, always designed my own curriculum. I was lucky that my field, foreign languages, is not considered “core” and I didn’t have to worry about non-educator amateurs trying to tell me how and what to teach.

      I also think I always did a good job of seeing each student as a unique individual; I think I’m a pretty open-minded person and I think I may be a bit on the autism spectrum, which I think helped as far as understanding students who were “different” in any way (I always thought they were the most interesting.)

      I also realized toward the end of my career that I was creating a community within each classroom; the key to this is treating each student with respect as a unique individual. If the teacher treats every student with respect, the students will treat each other (and the teacher) with respect. It also helped when I switched from Spanish, of which there were three teachers, to French, where I was the sole teacher, so after first year the students and I knew what to expect of each other.

      To me, “best practices” means using cognitive psychology.

      One problem I have with traditional schools is that most of the principals I had had taught very little; they went into administration because they didn’t like or understand teaching. Which made it difficult for them to be “instructional leaders”, to say the least.

      You say “WE know what works, we know what to do, the supporting research, products and services are readily available”. I’m not sure who WE is or what these products and services are.

  2. JoeN

    “If you are a professional, you take ownership of the curriculum.” One of the most insightful and valuable comments I have seen in many years, and one which explains why so many educational resource projects, by publishers and tech companies, are fundamentally misguided.

    What this principal and his colleagues have achieved is indeed mountainous and slow to replicate, but there are many heads, teachers and policy makers currently being paid to “improve” schools, who would benefit simply by adopting that single insight.

  3. Pingback: Schools create haven for troubled kids — Joanne Jacobs

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