Democracy Prep: “No Excuses” Schools that Build Citizens?

Professors, pundits, and Cassandras intone that democracy is dying. Global surveys of nations show that democratic processes, rights, and responsibilities have taken hits over the last decade. No longer is the U.S. A Nation at Risk (1983), now democracies are at risk. Including America, say  historians and social scientists (see here).

Since the early 20th century, Progressive educators–think John Dewey, Ella Flagg Young, George Counts, William Kilpatrick, and later in the same century Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier–have seen schools as cradles, nay, crucibles of democracy. And over the past century, such schools committed to civic engagement and building citizens out of children and youth have, to varying degrees, made that commitment part of their daily program (see here, here, and here).

With the shadow cast from A Nation at Risk, preparation for global competitiveness has turned U.S. schooling, both K-12 and higher education, into a new vocationalism where students are expected to emerge equipped with knowledge and skills to enter the information-saturated workplace. All well and good since preparation for jobs has historically been part of the American Dream and mission of tax-supported schools. But so has building citizens been a priority in that mission–as parents, educators, and tax-payers have said repeatedly (see here, here, and here).

One charter school network has elevated that commitment to its central mission: Democracy Prep.

History of network

Beginning in 2006 with a handful of sixth grade classes in various schools, the network of Democracy Prep schools has grown to 6,500 students–called “scholars” by DP staff–in 22 schools (with most in New York City and the rest spread across various states. In these lottery-driven, open enrollment schools nearly all are minority and eligible for free and reduced lunch–the measure of poverty used in public schools. The network’s goal is:

Our mission is to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship.

Its motto is: “Work Hard. Go to College. Change the World.”

Democracy Prep is a “No Excuses” school— of a kind such as the national charter network of Kipp schools and Success Academy (New York City charter school network)–closely managing student behavior and a teacher-directed manner of classroom instruction. As one article put it:

At Democracy Prep Harlem Middle School, a sixth grade math teacher started her class by giving her students exactly four minutes to solve a problem involving ratios. When her watch beeped, homework was collected and all eyes turned to the front of the room.

“Pencils in the groove and you’re tracking me in three, two, one and zero,” she said, using a term common among charter schools where students are frequently instructed to “track” a speaker with steady eye contact and full attention.

Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.

Democracy Prep is among several charter networks with a “no excuses” philosophy. Like other charter schools the days are long, running from 7:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and the academics rigorous. But there is also a culture of discipline that can cut both ways. In some schools, and with some families, the tough approach has worked well while for others it has prompted students to leave….

“No excuses means that there’s no excuse for our kids not being successful in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship,” said Seth Andrew, founder and Superintendent of Democracy Prep….

“Active citizenship” is wrapped into the school curriculum, classroom instruction and regular activities in the community. As the evaluation report said (for full report, click “download publication”):

Democracy Prep encourages civic behavior in students through a variety of curricular and experiential means, including visiting legislators, attending public meetings, testifying before legislative bodies, and discussing influential essays on civics and government. Each election day students participate in a “Get Out the Vote” campaign. Students receive tee-shirts and pamphlets with the slogan “I Can’t Vote, but You Can!” and canvass highly frequented street corners to distribute the message…. As seniors, students enroll in a capstone course in which they develop a “Change the World” project to investigate a real-world social problem, design a method for addressing the issue, and implement their plan….

The clearest indicators of Democracy Prep’s success in promoting civic engagement are the extent to which its students register to vote and participate in elections after they reach age 18. In this report, we measure the impact of Democracy Prep on the key civic outcomes of voter registration and participation in elections. We use Democracy Prep’s randomized admissions lotteries to conduct a gold standard experimental analysis that distinguishes Democracy Prep’s effect from the effects of families, students, and other outside factors….

Does concentrating on civic engagement in such “no excuses” schools, then, –where behavioral rules are strictly enforced and teachers’ direct instruction dominate–make a difference in Democracy Prep’s graduates’ behavior in registering to vote and actually voting?

According to an independent evaluation released recently, the answer is “yes.”

Two key findings are:

  • We find a 98 percent probability that enrolling in Democracy Prep produced a positive impact on voter registration, and a 98 percent probability that enrolling produced a positive impact on voting in the 2016 election.
  • Democracy Prep increases the voter registration rates of its students by about 16 percentage points and increases the voting rates of its students by about 12 percentage points.

Yes, this is only study of Democracy Prep’s outcomes on actual civic participation. And, yes, again the positive effects on adult graduates behavior in registering and voting in an election is one striking outcome but how many served on juries, participated in community organizations, ran for local office, met with neighborhood and city officials, wrote letters, etc. –remain unmeasured outcomes for these alumni.

I also was puzzled by the contradiction between the ‘no excuses” regime in the school and the lack of efforts to introduce democratic practices into classroom and school cultures. Life in school, as Dewey’s Lab School and other similar schools over the past century have shown can have strong student participation and voice.  Yet in such “no excuse” schools without such student voice and participation, there were positive outcomes in registering to vote and actual voting. I wonder how those past and present progressive educators would explain this apparent contradiction.




Leave a comment

Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Khan Lab School (Part 2)

The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs….It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active processing of information.

Salman Khan, The One World Classroom (2012)


From Francis Parker to John Dewey to Ella Flagg Young, to Vito Perrone to Deborah Meier to Theodore Sizer, complaints about the “old classroom model” have echoed through university lecture halls, academic monographs, oodles of conferences and, now, in education blogs. Criticism of existing public schools has spawned generation after generation of reformers looking for ways to alter the dominant “factory model,” “assembly line,” or “batch processing” way of schooling over the past 150 years.

Their target has been the historic structure of the age-graded public school with its  buildings divided into hallways lined with box-like classrooms where teachers distribute slices of curriculum grade-by-grade using whole and small-group instruction, homework, tests daily. The regime ends in June with either students being promoted to the next grade or being retained in the grade for another year.

Imported from Prussia in the late 1840s, that generation of reformers touted it as an innovation that was superior to the one-room schoolhouse. And it was. Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, the age-graded public school took in millions of immigrants from western, eastern, and southern Europe. These immigrants became Americanized through schooling and the workplace.

But there were critics of the age-graded school then and now. In 1902, John Dewey warned educators that “the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child … really controls the whole system.” That “machinery of instruction” is what David Tyack and I called the “grammar of schooling” in Tinkering toward Utopia.

So Salman Khan joins a queue of reformers targeting the “old classroom model” in starting a brand new school unlike traditional public schools. There is a direct line from John Dewey’s Lab School (1896-1904) to progressive public and private schools in the 1920s to small “free” schools popping up in the mid-1960s, the small schools movement in the 1990s and now currently micro-schools gussied up with new technologies . The lineage is anchored in the quest to create settings where students learn from one another regardless of age, pursue their intellectual curiosity and passions at their pace, and where knowledgeable and skilled teachers  guide students to reach their individual potential.

Consider micro-schools. The one-room schoolhouse of yesteryear is the model for micro-schools. Small—anywhere from 25 to 150 students of mixed ages–with a few teachers committed to integrated content and skills such as multi-subject projects on climate change, answering big questions on why countries go to war, producing a newspaper, and connecting daily to the world outside of the school. Learning is active occurring in small groups and independent (a.k.a. “personalized learning”).

Dispensing with grade levels, traditional pedagogy, tests geared to state curriculum standards, and using space and furniture differently than in regular schools. Micro-schools vary in their origin–public (charters, school-within-a-school to free standing ones) and private. Most, however, are largely private and charge tuition in the tens of thousands dollars (see here, here, and here).  They also vary in their challenge to the “grammar of schooling” ranging from individually paced mastery-based learning to wholly project-based and experiential programs–some schools even combining these features.

New York and San Francisco-based Alt/Schools, for example, are privately-funded micro-schools that charge tuition and create schools with different systems unlike those found in nearly all public schools. No “machinery of instruction” in Alt/Schools (see here, here, and here). The policy Nirvana of “going to scale,” that is, creating more Alt/Schools and lowering the cost of schooling per student, however, has stumbled.

Is the Khan Lab School also a micro-school? Yes it is.

KLS is a Lab School in the tradition of challenging the dominant “grammar of instruction” in public schools going back to the first one operated by John Dewey (and later wife, Alice) at the University of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century.




The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets.  Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change. Highly touted at the time as the premier challenge to traditional public schooling, conflicts between the University’s leadership and the Deweys led to their departure in 1904 (see here and here)

While KLS is not affiliated with any university as was Dewey’s Laboratory School–it is an extension of private, non-profit Khan Academy–KLS remains committed to both “research-based instruction and furthering innovation in education” and, at the same time, putting into practice the ideas of its founder.

The tradition of challenging the dominant structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” continues to this day with micro-schools in Silicon Valley and elsewhere illustrating anew that such reforms to the traditional “machinery of instruction” have resided, for the most part, in private schools where tuition runs high and students bring many economic and social advantages school. In a profound way, the high cost of these private schools and the resources available to their founders in experienced teachers, aides, technologies, space, and materials show clearly the prior conditions necessary not only to operate such schools in public venues but also what is needed to contest the prevailing “grammar of schooling.”



Filed under Uncategorized

The Khan Lab School in Silicon Valley (Part 1)


Thomas is nine years old.* It is 9:45 AM during Advisory time, one of the first blocks of time in daily schedule (there are seven such blocks in the Lab School day that runs from 9AM-4PM). In a large open space, he, like 18 other students scattered across the ample room, is sitting alone at a desk typing on a Chromebook. Three adults– they are teachers but called in KLS argot, “Advisors”–are working with individual students a half hour at a time reviewing their daily “Playlist” (see below) and Goal Tracker (see below). The other students are reviewing their daily “Playlist” that need attention. During this block of time, individual students arrive at and depart from the three “Advisors” for their one-to-one review of their work, ideas, and what’s on their minds.

I approach Thomas who is in Independence Level 2 (there are currently six such levels at KLS) and ask if I can sit down and find out what he working on. He says “yes.”

Thomas tells me that he is working on the school newspaper and he volunteered to write an article about student responses to a proposed school rule concerning email among students. The proposed rule is that students will look at email once a day and when they do they can only keep two tabs open at the same time. His deadline, he tells me, is tomorrow morning.

I asked Thomas why was this rule proposed. He said that students were looking at email too often during the day and keeping multiple tabs open and that distracted many students from tasks they had to work on. Thus far, he has interviewed 12 other students from each of the six levels in the school–there are no designations of 1st grade, 4th grade or 6th grade  just different ages running from 5 to 16.

Thomas showed me what he written on his screen thus far. I asked him what he thought of the rule. He said he liked it because it forced him to focus on what goals and tasks he expects to work on–he showed me his Goal Tracker. I then asked whether he would include his opinion in the article he was writing.

“No,” he said. I asked why. He said he was a reporter and reporters do not enter their opinions into what they are writing. He reports what fellow students said about the proposed rule. I thanked Thomas for his time in answering my questions.

I then walked over to meet Heather Stinnett,** a Lead Advisor who had just sat down with Nancy, a nine year old. Nancy said it was fine if I sat and listened to what they discussed. Heather starts the 30-minute discussion asking Nancy about her weekend and what she did. Then Heather segued to Nancy’s Goal Tracker, a digital way of tracking what Nancy is doing and how she is progressing in reaching her goals. Heather shows Goal Tracker on her screen and Nancy pulled out her Chromebook and clicked rapidly to have her Goal Tracker on screen. This constant self-assessment is built into daily schedule, i.e., Playlist, and time with each student’s advisor. (for a sample, see Goal Tracker)


Advisors also follow up on the other end by serving as accountability partners to ensure students accomplish their goals. Students reflect on their goals each week when they sit down for their one-on-one advisory meetings and they update their goals accordingly.

Then they turned to Nancy’s Playlist, a schedule that Nancy follows during the day (Here is what a generic daily Playlist looks like). They discussed where Nancy was on Zearn (online math software) and the written reflection Nancy had decided to do. She showed Heather the reflection and then read it to her. I watched while Heather took notes on paragraphs that Nancy read to Heather from the screen. Heather complimented Nancy on wording, grammar, and thoughtfulness. I left to visit another Advisor and student at work.

For student accounts of their day at KLS over the past three years, see here, here, here, and here.


Khan Lab School is a private school with around 140 elementary and secondary school age students of whom 80 are in the Lower School. Tuition runs from $28,000 to $33,000 depending on whether child is in Lower, Middle, or Upper school.

Established in 2014 by Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, it is an avowedly experimental school that Khan and colleagues built to transform traditional schooling into  experiences for children that mirrors the ever-changing world that they will enter. As Khan wrote in The One World Schoolhouse (2012), “The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs….It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active (original italics) processing of information.”

As viewed by KLS leaders, the differences between regular schools and the Lab School look like this:


Renting space set aside for business offices in Mountain View (CA), the school is furnished with modern office furniture adapted for children who spend most of their time in an open space yet can go to scattered nooks. Closed spaces for Content Specialists in reading, writing, math, world language, and computer science accommodate up to 8-12 students. How the space and furniture were arranged is intimately connected to pedagogy, mastery-based learning, collaboration among and between students and adults, and schedule (see here).





In the Lower School, I spent one morning in early May observing one-to-one advising, Content Specialists teaching language arts and other subjects, and students working independently on the mastery-based curriculum and their projects (worked on during Studio block of time).  I also spent time with Orly Friedman,** Head of the Lower School and Interim Head of School, who oriented me to the space and the program that day (Friedman describes the school in a brief video here).

At KLS, teachers perform one of two roles. One is Content Specialist in a content area–math, writing, world language, reading or computer programming. The other is as Advisor–30 minute one-on-one conversations about student’s life, current work, issues that need addressing, and review of where student is on his or her Goal Tracker. This splitting of the teacher’s role is uncommon in private and public schools–most teachers have to do both at the minimum–and at KLS, I was told that it plays to what each teacher does best and likes to do.

I went into an English Language Arts Specialist’s small, snug room where Katherine James was already into the 45-minute session she is teaching with seven children, ages 7-9.



Students are reading Ian Whybrow’s Little Wolf’s Book of Badness. When I arrived, each of the students was already reading in the book and Katherine was working one-on-one with students asking questions about the book and listening to each student’s answers.

As the session comes to an end, Katherine reminds students to work on their questions  reflecting on the section they read in Whybrow’s book. She lines up the seven children and then dismisses them one-by-one to go to the next activity. No bells ring to end a session with the Content Specialists.

Students’ self assessments and teacher judgments are frequent activities. There, are however, no report cards. Because KLS groups children by how well they demonstrate knowledge and skills in various areas–Independence Levels 1-6–rather than being first or third graders, the staff has developed rubrics or ways of knowing how well students are doing in a subject or skill and when individual children have reached a particular independence level (see here ). These KLS assessments go to parents twice a year.

There is much more to the KLS that can be captured in a description of one morning there. KLS has numerous digital documents describing their mission, beliefs, faculty, schedule, and activities at their website. In this post, I have included student and teacher accounts of their experiences in KLS. Additionally, others have written about the school that offer glimpses of it at different times since it was founded nearly five years ago (see here, here, and here).

Part 2 will deal with KLS as another example historically of private, micro-schools and their effort to break the “grammar of schooling.”






*All student names are pseudonyms.

** I use actual names of Advisors, Specialists, and Head of Lower School.



Filed under Uncategorized

Can You Be a ‘Good Teacher’ Inside a Failing School? (JennyAbamu)

This article appeared in EdSurge, April 2, 2018

“Jenny Abamu is an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covers technology’s role in both higher education and K-12 spaces. She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Masters degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.”


Here’s a popular movie plot: Great teacher goes into a troubled neighborhood and turns around a low-performing school. Educators love the messages from these films, and even children are inspired. Unfortunately, many school districts never find the Coach Carters or Erin Gruwells who bring such happy endings. In fact, in a broken district such as Detroit’s, schools in hard-bitten neighborhoods sometimes go from “turnarounds” to closure.


Fisher Magnet Upper Academy is a middle school located within one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, stricken with poverty and crime. In 2013, local news reports named the area the third most violent zip code in America. In 2016, Fisher was named one of the 38 campuses at risk of closure after the Michigan legislature passed a bill saying any school ranked at the bottom 5 percent of state campuses for three years in a row would be subject to consequences.


Despite a relatively new building, constructed in 2003 as part of a former superintendent’s turnaround project, Fisher has suffered from consistent low performance—falling far below state standards on exams and adjusted growth targets designed specifically for the school. During the 2015-16 school year, only 0.7 percent (3 out of 451) of students met state standards in math, and only 4.5 percent met English Language Arts standards.

Carl Brownlee, a former United States Marine officer, is a middle school social studies teacher at Fisher Magnet Upper Academy. He has been teaching at Fisher for over 10 years. He believes changes in academic performance can happen in a struggling school like Fisher but says he has only seen it happen in the movies.

“The only person I have seen that had the ability change this type of climate and culture was Joe Clark, or Morgan Freeman in that movie, ‘Lean On Me,’” says Brownlee. That doesn’t mean he thinks improvements are implausible, though. He says: “I think there were some good ideas that movie that you could translate into schools.”

Brownlee believes that he is a good teacher, in spite of what test scores may reflect. And he feels as though his students have been slighted by ineffective teachers in the past. So he plans to stay at Fisher, where he hopes to bring advanced teaching skills to students that other educators may ignore.

“My children are being cheated because they are not given the same experiences as their counterparts in other schools, and that’s not fair,” says Brownlee. “That’s one of the reasons I stay where I am at.”

As students trickle in Brownlee’s classroom on a Friday morning, he stands by the door to greet each of them. He instructs them to grab their work folders and get into groups. The 6th, 7th and 8th graders entering Brownlee’s class in their uniforms are respectful, quiet and—though naturally distracted from time to time with whispers and giggles—appear to be on task. They ask questions and support one another as they move around in groups through learning stations Brownlee has set up in class.


Technology has a role to play in Brownlee’s effort as well. Using the free version of tools such as Edmodo, Kahoot, and Google Forms, Docs and sometimes Slides, Brownlee varies his lessons on topics such as Chinese history and the Missouri Compromise. He opens up classes with hip-hop education from Flocabulary, then goes into worksheets, videos, group assignments, and desktop assignments—incorporating cell phone apps and music in the activities. He constantly walks around the room, refocusing off-task students and offering feedback on their work. His classroom does not fit the “before” image in most romanticized school turnaround stories.


“The skill sets that I have, I like to use them with these young people instead of going to another school where you might get the test scores that people are asking for,” Brownlee continues, noting that he is not looking to teach the “ideal student” in an exemplary school. “My kids don’t come from that, so I try to hang in there and do my best. They need it. They deserve it.”’

By “doing his best” Brownlee means constantly learning, often looking for resources outside of the district for support. He is also trying to incorporate more personalization into his classroom, noting that the State Department of Education has embraced the implementation of such instructional models.

Since Fisher does not have enough Chromebooks for every student, teachers share a cart of laptops that travel from class to class. Teachers also combine technical and non-technical ways of personalizing instruction. For Brownlee, part of personalization means gauging the social and emotional well-being of students each morning, so he knows how to approach them throughout the lesson.

“Are they ready for school work? You might have [a student] come in who just had a loved one die the night before. We have had that on many occasions. They still come to school,” explains Brownlee. “You can’t just go into teaching when they come into the classroom if you don’t know where they are at.”

To meet students where they are, Brownlee has a couple of go-to tools. He uses apps such as Quizlet to encourage students to learn independently. In addition, he uses Edpuzzle when students are having a hard time with particular topics in class. The app allows them to rewatch annotated video lessons.

“I have done it with several of our resource students,” Brownlee explains, noting how one struggling 7th-grader has been showing improvement since using apps like Edmodo and Edpuzzle. “He comes to class every day, and you can see that he is trying. He wants to understand what is going on. He likes to look at the videos, and his effort is starting to show in his work. You get a little joy when you see them getting it.”

Brownlee also has digital portfolios that he uses to track student mastery and growth, something all teachers in his school incorporate. Yet, he notes that this method has yielded mixed results, particularly since many teachers serve a large number of students–and struggle to keep records up to date.

Brownlee works with 198 students daily and admits its difficult for him and other teachers to add student work to the portfolios consistently. “It’s just very difficult when you have so many students to try to personalize for each one,” he says. “You can tailor for each student, but only to a certain extent.”

Despite the difficulties, Brownlee has not given up trying to tailor instruction for his students. He makes time to celebrate the small gains he sees students making, like the lessons he teaches that students remember long after they graduate. But he admits that there are days that he gets tired, particularly noting the difficulties keeping up with changes in the district.


His district has flipped between state and local control over the years and has had a number of different superintendents and principals; most of them bring new initiatives with them. This school year Brownlee has a new superintendent and a new school principal, but real-world challenges facing students in and out of his school continues. He is cautiously hopeful that things can in improve, but the familiarity of changes that don’t yield academic results is haunting— causing him to work overtime with his happy-ending out of sight.

“No matter what you do you are still going to be accountable for the test score. It does not matter if the students just came from another school or district. It does not matter if they came to you four grades behind, if that child’s family is impoverished, or if the child has any type of learning disability that may be undiagnosed,” says Brownlee. “It is more like a professional football team. If the team does not win, it is the coach’s fault, and the coach is fired.”



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Insider vs. Outsider Superintendents

In Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board just appointed an outsider, Austin Beutner. Former investment banker, current philanthropist and one-time deputy mayor. Nearly three years ago, the school board appointed insider–Michelle King–superintendent year after a string of prior superintendents came from outside the district.

In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio appointed an insider–Carmen Farina– Chancellor in 2014 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg had appointed three outsiders since 2000; in 2018, the Mayor appointed Alberto Carvalho, a veteran educator but outsider from Florida as Chancellor.

These appointments of insiders to big city districts, people who spent their careers within the district as teachers, principals, and district office administrators, are the exception, not the rule. For large urban districts the rule has been appoint outsiders who promise major changes to solve serious problems.

Why is that?

Outsiders have been appointed time and again in these districts because the unspoken and strong belief was that the serious educational, social, and political problems besetting the schools needed an innovative, energetic outsider, unbeholden to those within the district. An outsider, policy elites assumed, would shake the system by the scruff of its neck in turning around a failing district–-disrupt is the fashionable word today.

Insiders who had risen through the ranks prize stability while looking for incremental improvements. Insiders have been immersed in a network of relationships with peers and subordinates would be reluctant to disturb bureaucratic rules in effect for decades, and bonds of affection and respect for long-time peers and subordinates. Insiders would be loath to importing new staff and  innovations from elsewhere. They would rather seek new ideas and programs from sharp, knowledgeable insiders.

These strongly held beliefs about insiders and outsiders have shaped the appointment of superintendents to big city posts for well over a half-century.

In brief, the folk wisdom surrounding superintendents or chancellors heading urban districts says to appoint insiders if you like what has been happening in the system under the exiting superintendent in order to extend and protect what is working well for students, teachers, and the community. Stability and tweaking what works is the order of the day when insiders are appointed school chiefs. However, if you dislike what has been happening in the system, the dysfunctions, mediocre performance, the proliferation of problems, and the accompanying disarray, for heaven’s sake, appoint an outsider.

Washington, D.C. Schools

This situation now faces the mayor of Washington, D.C. again. Mayor Muriel Bowser replaced exiting Chancellor Kaya Henderson who had served six years with Oakland (CA) superintendent Antwan Wilson. Henderson’s predecessor was outsider Michelle Rhee (2007-2010) who had brought in Henderson after Mayor Adrian Fenty had appointed Rhee. Then, a few months ago, Wilson resigned after serving just over one year.

The current Mayor knows well that the DC schools have had a long string of school-board appointed outsiders. To be specific, over sixty years, there have been 15 superintendents (excluding interim appointees) of whom 12 were outsiders (including Rhee, Henderson, and Wilson). The three insiders were Vince Reed, 1975-1980, Floretta McKenzie,  1981-1988, and Andrew Jenkins, 1988-1990. Reed and McKenzie served with distinction; Jenkins was fired.

Los Angeles Unifed School District

Since 1971, the District has had 14 superintendents since 1962 of whom seven were insiders (Ray Cortines came from outside the district and served twice as interim superintendent and once as regular superintendent). The longest serving insider was William Johnston who served a decade (1971-1981). The longest serving outsider was ex-governor of Colorado, Roy Romer (2000-2006). Of the outsiders, three had experience as superintendents elsewhere (Leonard Britton, Ray Cortines, and John Deasy) and one (David Brewer) was a retired U.S. Navy admiral. Austin Beutner will be the first business leader tapped to lead LAUSD.

What Does The Research Say on Insider and Outsider School Chiefs?

Scholars who have written about “superintendent succession”–the academic phrase for picking the next district leader–have looked school board appointees of insiders and outsiders have asked a series of questions:

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do insiders or outsiders stay longer?

*Does superintendent succession resemble succession in corporations and other organizations?

*What does matter when decision-makers (e.g., school boards, mayors)  in choosing an insider or outsider?

The answer to the first two questions is no. To the third question, the answer is yes. The last question I answer with more than one word.

On performance, thirty years of research have determined that neither outsider or insider school chiefs perform better because of where they come from. Sure, how one defines performance is important and will vary. But on various measures of the district’s  student outcomes,  teacher and parental satisfaction, relationships with community and unions, there is no substantial difference between districts appointing insiders or outsiders (see here, here, and here).

As to length of service for insiders or outsiders, studies of big cities show little difference also (see here and here)

Superintendent succession, researchers have found, is similar to  CEOs and other top leadership posts in non-school organizations (see here, here, here, and here).

I have no idea whether the LAUSD School Board considered such research. By picking a business leader, the Board is saying that the major problems of the district are managerial and political. Why else pick such a person?

Were the DC Mayor to become familiar with the research,  she should also consider the factors that come into play in influencing how either an insider or outsider appointee will perform. Such factors as the fit between school boards’ or mayors’ goals and the candidate’s experiences with, for example, the political decision-making that occurs in making educational policy and the features of the organizational setting and community and their match with the knowledge and skills of the applicant. These and other factors have to be considered in deciding whether to pick an insider or outsider to head a district. Simply picking one or the other because it is time to do so,  is a mindless way of making the most important decision for a major city’s schools.



Filed under leadership, school leaders

Whatever Happened to One-Laptop-Per-Child?







Where did the idea of One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) originate?

In the early aughts of the 21st century, the cost of a laptop ran close to $1000. The idea of producing one that would sell for $100 and be sent to children in Latin America, Africa, and Asia who may or may not have had a schoolhouse or teacher caused giggles among tech engineers, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists.  A contemporary of Seymour Papert and head of a center at Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Nicholas Negroponte believed that cheap, durable, and Internet-connected machines could revolutionize teaching and learning. He told conferees in 2010:

One the things people told me about technology, particularly about laptops in the beginning, “Nicholas, you can’t give a kid a laptop laptop that’s connected and walk away.” Well you know what, you can. You actually can. And we have found that kids in the remotest parts of thew world, when given that connected [laptop], like some of the kids in these pictures, not only teach themselves how to read and write, but most importantly, and this we found in Peru first, they teach their parents how to read and write.

OLPC launched in 2006-2007 and the price was around $150 per laptop but crept up to just over $200 over the next few years. Negroponte contracted with ministries of education in various countries to buy laptops.

What is OLPC?

The hardware and software of the initial laptops distributed in Nigeria, Uruguay, and later Peru, Rwanda and other developing nations was simple enough:


The rugged, low-power computers use flash memory instead of a hard drive, run a Fedora-based operating system and use the SugarLabs Sugar user interface…. Mobile ad hoc networking based on the 802.11s wireless mesh network protocol allows students to collaborate on activities and to share Internet access from one connection. The wireless networking has much greater range than typical consumer laptops [of those years]. The XO-1 has also been designed to be lower cost and much longer-lived than typical laptops.


Depending upon the country, ministry officials distributed the devices to children directly in villages and towns and in rural and urban schools between 2007-2014. OLPC came to the U.S. in 2008.



What problems did OLPC seek to solve?  Massive poverty in economically developing countries was the chief problem. Education was the solution. But building schools and providing teachers was costly. Children and youth were motivated to learn but lacked access to schools. And where schools were available, tuition and inadequately trained teachers often made education a rote-filled sequence of lessons resulting in high student attrition. OLPC connected to the Internet was seemingly a solution to problems of limited access to schooling and traditional teaching by permitting students to use software to acquire knowledge and cognitive skills in a variety of subjects beyond memorizing lessons.  The belief that increased access to schools, teachers, devices, and the like would break the shackles of poverty continues.

Or as the OLPC project said:

We aim to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

Negroponte believed that children could be “agents of change” to create their own learning with these laptops (see video of Negroponte talking about OLPC in Afghanistan here).

Did OLPC work?

Amid that optimism, the issue of putting the devices into hands of teachers and students–implementation–was given short shrift. Without careful thought and action on Internet-connected devices and software into hands of teachers and students (or children and youth not in school), any definition of “work” becomes suspect. There was a magical belief in OLPC, like a fairy Godmother turning a pumpkin into Cinderella’s carriage to take her to the ball.

How teachers were to use the laptop or how students were to magically learn led one skeptic to put it this way:


If “work” means that students used the devices until they wore out or had to be trashed because once broken they could not be fixed, then OLPC “worked.” But if “work” means that students learned more, faster, and better (as measured by existing national tests or other metrics of academic achievement) available evidence is close to nil (see here, here, and here). And if “work” means as the founders sought, that is, With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together, no evidence of such grand dreams for OLPC exists.

What happened to OLPC?

OLPC exists today. It is a small operation with projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (see here and here).

The details of the splitting apart of OLPC into two organizations since 2008, the departure of the founders including Negroponte, the constant searching for new contracts in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and the shell of the once expansive organization that continues to exist now is described here, here, and here.

Did OLPC fail? Succeed? Depends on how “success” and “failure” are defined,  who does the defining, and the criteria used to make the judgment.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

Thirty Fifth Anniversary: A Nation at Risk



In the late-1970s, at a time when Japanese and German products began outselling U.S. cars and electronics and an economic slump loomed, corporate leaders expressed deep concerns over weaknesses in the economy and the lack of skilled employees. The industrial workplace was moving toward an information-driven society where a workforce needed different knowledge and skills. These were also the years when U.S. students came up short on domestic and international test scores. Appointed by the then U.S. Secretary of Education, a national commission turned in a report (1983) to President Ronald Reagan about the poor quality of U.S. schools and recommended a new direction to achieve a competitive workforce. Responsibility for mediocre test scores and by inference responsibility for a weak economy and a non-competitive workforce, was laid upon schools. As A Nation at Risk stated:

We conclude that declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted.
Schools, therefore, must reform to produce both excellent graduates in an equitable way who are ready to work in an information-driven economy. No mention of societal and economic inequalities that spilled over the schools decade after decade. Schools, then, must change in order to defend the nation and lead to economic prosperity. Unless there was widespread school reform immediately, then inequalities will worsen.

A Nation at Risk answered the question of which fork U.S. public schools should take by recommending higher curriculum standards, standardized testing, and accountability for results. If implemented, these recommendations, they claimed, would produce better schools, knowledgeable and skilled graduates, and a stronger economy. The U.S. could then be again a globally competitive nation.

The report triggered federal, state, and district reforms that continue to this day. Between the 1980s through Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), U.S. schools have focused on getting more students to graduate high school fully equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to enter higher education and the work place. Schooling has become the handmaiden of the economy. This is the second time that such a marriage has been arranged–or to switch metaphors, the same fork in the road taken.

Hit the rewind button and return to the 1890s.

Listen to Theodore Search, President of the National Association of  Manufacturers in 1898:

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce.    (quoted here, p. 29)

Over a century ago,  business leaders and progressive educators, holding this vision of schools helping the economy prosper, reorganized school system governance of large, politically appointed superintendents and patronage-ridden school boards by creating small, non-partisan, corporate-like school boards that hired professional managers. These policy elites invented junior high schools and created large comprehensive high schools where they installed newly developed vocational curricula to prepare students for an industrial labor market. They compiled test scores that compared students from one district to another so taxpayers would know that their monies were being spent efficiently (see here and here).

In short, these early 20th century educational entrepreneurs copied successful business practices and used findings from the latest scientific studies to change public school goals, governance, organization, staffing and curricula to tie more closely public schools to the nation’s economy. Many of those changes still exist today.

Now, push the fast-forward button to the 1970s when U.S. products were losing to foreign competitors. Another generation of business leaders linked weak sales in the global marketplace to declining scores on international tests and poor schooling. The economy was changing and schools were failing to keep pace. So A Nation at Risk seeking a revived economy looked to schools, as did policy elites over a century ago.

It is now 35 years since the report appeared. And what is the verdict of this second round of business-inspired reforms aimed at making schools responsible for serving the larger economy.

From Milton Goldberg, former staff director of the Commission that produced A Nation at Riskcame the following judgment:

There have been positive changes in the education system since “A Nation at Risk” was published. There is now general acceptance of higher standards and expectations for student learning and achievement. We’ve seen new emphasis on the quality of teaching, as exemplified by the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The numbers of students taking the new basics curriculum defined in “A Nation at Risk” has increased exponentially. The growth of charter schools demonstrates the willingness of states and school districts to seek organizational changes for improved student performance.

A Harvard University professor sees the results differently,

The report, published years before many young teachers today were even born, was groundbreaking in emphasizing the importance of education to economic competitiveness and the failings of American schooling in comparison with international competitors. It presented a utilitarian and instrumental vision of education, and argued that schools, not society, should be held accountable for higher performance, and that performance should be measured by external testing—assumptions that underlay the state standards movement in the 1980s and 1990 and persist today in federal policy through No Child Left Behind.

On the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, journalist Richard Rothstein had this to say:

A Nation at Risk therefore changed the national conversation about education from the Coleman-Jencks focus on social and economic influences to an assumption that schools alone could raise and equalize student achievement. The distorted focus culminated in the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002, demanding that school accountability alone for raising test scores should raise achievement to never-before-attained levels, and equalize outcomes by race and social class as well.

A Nation at Risk was well-intentioned, but based on flawed analyses, at least some of which should have been known to the commission that authored it. The report burned into Americans’ consciousness a conviction that, evidence notwithstanding, our schools are failures, and warped our view of the relationship between schools and economic well-being. It distracted education policymakers from insisting that our political, economic, and social institutions also have a responsibility to prepare children to be ready to learn when they attend school.

There are many reasons to improve American schools, but declining achievement and international competition are not good arguments for doing so. Asking schools to improve dramatically without support from other social and economic institutions is bound to fail, as a quarter century of experience since A Nation at Risk has demonstrated.

From the political left to right, views of the report’s influence on existing school policies differ. Contemporary views of the report and the reforms it spurred mirror the three decade-plus arguments from liberals and conservatives over the best course to follow then and now.  All points of view do agree, however, that school reform rose on the political agenda for the following decades and remains close to the top even now 35 years later.

So for the second time in U.S. history, schools have been tapped to serve the larger economy while banishing educational inequalities. As before, schools become again another game of Whac-A-Mole.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies