Category Archives: leadership

We Need Many “Grammars of Schooling” (Part 4)

In a recent conversation with an educational entrepreneur* about the power inherent in the organization of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling,” I was asked if I wanted to disrupt the “grammar of schooling.” I said I did not. I wanted–and he put it in words I wished I had used–many “grammars of schooling.”

What did I mean? There is not just one way to organize a school. Age-graded is simply a choice that policymakers made many decades ago. It is the “one best system” that has characterized U.S. schools since the late-19th century. There are other ways to organize schools.

One room schoolhouses  where children of mixed ages learn content and skills under the tutelage of a teacher. Ungraded schools where groups of mixed-age students learn at different paces the prescribed content or a curriculum jointly constructed by teachers and students. Cyber schools where students learn at home or at different sites are another way of organizing a school. And there are combinations of all of these. Each of these ways of operating schools contains a “grammar of schooling,” that is, a theory of learning and teaching, implicit and explicit rules to follow, and a organizational framework that shapes the social and individual behavior of both children and teachers.

Historically, then, many ways of organizing schools have existed. Thus, multiple “grammars of schooling” were in play. Not now.

But my critique of age-graded schools is not a preface for a call to eliminate all such organizations. I do not wish to see age-graded schools replaced wholesale either by fiat or choice. For many students and their parents, that “grammar of schooling” is just fine. High-achieving age-graded schools in cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural communities where both children and parents are satisfied should continue. Or KIPP schools and similar ventures that attract children and youth to their classrooms have parents who want the familiar “grammar of schooling” to continue since it has worked with their daughters and sons. Until parents become dissatisfied with the schooling their children  receive, these age-graded organizations will remain the places that the majority of U.S. parents want.

What I seek is more experimentation in organizing schools, more choice for alternative arrangements, more “grammars of schooling.” Donors willing to invest in different ways of putting a school together and local districts that seek different ways for children to learn and teachers to teach. Parents and teachers joining hands to create schools that depart from the familiar model. Private schools that have public versions like Waldorf and Montessori add to the mix of different ways to run schools. That is what I support: far more alternatives to traditional age-graded organizations than exist now.

There were instances of such experimentation in organizing U.S. schools in earlier periods. In a post I wrote years ago, I described a part of that history. To make my point of having many “grammars of schooling,” I reprint it here.

I was stunned when I walked into the classroom of Carmen Wilkinson at Jamestown Elementary School in 1975 (all names are actual people and places). In my first year as Arlington (VA) school superintendent, I had already seen over 300 elementary classrooms. This was the only one I had seen that had mixed ages (grades 1 through 4) and learning stations in which 50 students spent most of the day working independently and moving freely about the room; they worked in small groups and individually while Wilkinson–a 27-year veteran of teaching–moved about the room asking and answering question, giving advice, and listening to students. Called “The Palace” by parents, children, and staff, the class used two adjacent rooms. Wilkinson teamed with another teacher and, at the time, two student teachers. She orchestrated scores of tasks in a quiet, low-key fashion.

In the rest of the school, there were 17 self-contained classrooms of which only one was similar to The Palace. Wilkinson’s informal classroom was unusual at Jamestown and rare in the 500 other elementary classrooms in the Arlington public schools.

Of course, the original ungraded school and classroom pre-dated Wilkinson by well over a century.  The one-room schoolhouse in mid-19th century rural America had a lone teacher instructing  children and youth ages 6 to 14 in all subjects in the district curriculum while at the same time insuring that there were enough books, writing supplies, heat, water, and outdoor toilets for everyone.

As efficiency-driven superintendents in the 20th century consolidated scattered one-room schoolhouses into centrally-located age-graded schools, they have nearly disappeared. But the ideas of multi-age groupings and children learning at different paces persisted in different attempts to break the lock-step age-graded schools where teachers in self-contained classrooms delivered chunks of content to be learned within a school year and students were either promoted or retained in grade.

Too often we forget, that there were late-19th critics of age-graded schools. They saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates and causing  dropouts from elementary schools as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because they flunked.

The development of twice yearly promotions and ability groups smoothed out some of the inherent problems of age-graded schools. But not the overall structure of the age-graded school that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class and that every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be retained for another year. These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and persisted decade after decade.

Beginning in the 1930s and stretching through the 1960s, progressive reformers launched non-graded schools and multi-age, team-taught classrooms time and again. Whole elementary and secondary schools used flexible scheduling where teams of teachers grouped and re-grouped students by performance in math, reading, and other subjects rather than what grade they in. Open classrooms flourished in the late-1960s and early 1970s–and this is when The Palace came into existence.

Over time, however, these experiments in non-graded schooling and classrooms withered and disappeared. Even though researchers found sufficient evidence that these innovations were just as successful as traditional age-graded schools, multi-grade classrooms and non-graded schools found little traction among superintendents, principals, and parents (see REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-1992).

There were (and are) exceptions, however. As part of a state reform, Kentucky ungraded all of its primary grades in the 1990s. But this reform and other ungrading plans in elementary schools across the nation soon gave way to test-driven accountability. Still amid standards based testing for the past three decades, ungraded public schools and classrooms soldier on. There is the Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., a school that has done multiage grouping ever since it opened in 1890. There is the open classroom in San Geronimo (CA) in operation since 1971 and many others scattered across the nation.

Why so few? Why is so hard to disrupt the age-graded structures that shape how children learn and teachers teach? In a previous post I mentioned the potent social beliefs among parents and educators about what a “real” school is. I also pointed out that state mandated standards, college entrance requirements, and federal and state laws that mandate testing in 3rd to 8th grade are all married to the age-graded structure.

Most of all, like the air we breathe, the age-graded school with its  “grammar of schooling” is taken for granted. It is everywhere and has been around for forever. But it is made by human hands. As Carmen Wilkinson knew and her like-minded innovators decades before her and since, the age-graded school structure was invented to solve a problem a century and a half ago. It can be re-invented to solve new problems.

No, I do not seek to disrupt the one “grammar of schooling” that dominates U.S. schools. I seek many “grammars of schooling.”


*I was speaking with Joel Rose, co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms, a nonprofit that offers a personalized learning platform for middle and high school math students called Teach to One. Over the past three years after writing about one of the math programs his team had brought to ASCEND Charter School in Oakland (see here), he and I would have free-ranging conversations about school reform and its contradictions, particularly with the spread of Teach-to-One programs.



Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 2)

Geological strata reveal historical periods of plant and animal life eons ago. Schools  birthed in reform unveil similar strata.

In Part 1, I recounted teacher-founders’ (Jose Navarro and Jeff Austin) creation story of Social Justice Humanitas Academy, a Los Angeles Unified District school located in the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley. These founders placed its origin initially at Sylmar High School where they and other teachers established a Humanitas school-within-a school, offspring of an interdisciplinary curricular reform sponsored by the Los Angeles Education Partnership. LAEP’s Humanitas innovation began in the mid-1980s and slowly spread through the 1990s across LAUSD high schools. Aimed at engaging low-income Latino and African American youth to take academic courses that would prepare them for college, the teacher-led Humanitas program at Sylmar High School gained traction with a growing number of students. The teacher founders who had designed and governed the school-within-a-school, however, wanted more autonomy. They wanted their own school.

Second stratum of reform in SJHA

At the district level, the Board of Education at this time sought to expand parental choice in those neighborhoods where predominately low-income minority children and youth attended low-performing local schools. The reform idea of giving parents more choices among LAUSD schools gained speed and political support. In 2009, the Board of Education approved a Public School Choice resolution to establish innovative and rigorous schools designed to turn around low-performing schools across the district. Teams of teachers, parents, community activists, and others drafted plans for new schools in each of four rounds that Public School Choice sponsored. The superintendent’s review team critiqued proposals. In many cases, proposers revised and re-submitted their plans.

At the same time, another LAUSD reform was underway called “Pilot Schools.” The two streams of reform converged as the teachers at Sylmar High School wanted a separate school and the autonomy that a “pilot school” had.

Copying Boston’s Pilot Schools that had extended to particular schools freedom in governance, budget, hiring personnel, and curriculum, LAUSD and the teacher union, UTLA, agreed to the stipulations laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Signed by both parties, LAUSD officials established Pilot Schools in 2007. The MOU put a cap of 10  pilot schools in the district.*

The MOU specifically allowed school site discretion (see here, pp. 11-23) in the following areas of decision-making. I have rephrased the autonomies that the MOU granted to pilot schools.

Staffing: Pilot Schools can select and replace their certificated staff to create a unified school community. In Pilot Schools, teachers can decide on the staffing pattern that creates the best learning environment for students. Pilot Schools can reassign teaching staff (into the District pool) that do not fulfill those needs. The LAUSD-UTLA Collective Bargaining Agreement as it pertains to reduction in force must be adhered to when hiring teachers.

 Budget: Pilot Schools receive resources through a per pupil dollar allocation depending on grade level. This lump sum per pupil budget permits the school to decide how to spend budgeted monies based on what programs and services that best meet their students’ needs. Students with special needs will receive additional dollars through categorical funding (i.e., English Language Learners).

 Curriculum and Assessment: Pilot Schools have the autonomy to re-structure their A-G curriculum [college admission requirements for the California university system], as long as they are equal in rigor to or better than the District’s in order to meet students’ learning needs. All Pilot Schools are held accountable to state and federally required tests yet these schools have flexibility to determine curriculum and assessment practices that will fully prepare students for state and federally mandated tests.

  • Schools have autonomy from central office curriculum mandates. They can choose what content to cover and how to cover it.
  • Promotion and graduation requirements are set by the school, although they must be equal to or tougher than District requirements.

All Pilot Schools are required to administer the state mandated tests. Pilot Schools can opt out of District-required tests as long as they have other tests in place that are equal  to District ones in tracking student progress. Pilot Schools are encouraged to adopt performance-based assessments such as portfolios and exhibitions.

 Professional Development: Pilot Schools have the freedom to determine the professional development in which faculty engage.

 Governance: Pilot Schools design their own governance structure with increased decision-making powers over budget approval, principal selection, and programs and policies, while being mindful of state requirements on school councils.

  • A Pilot School’s Governing School Council is responsible for principal selection, supervision, and evaluation with final approval by the local area superintendent. The Council sets school policies and approves the budget.
  • Pilot Schools can set their own policies that the school community feels will best help students to be successful. This includes policies such as promotion, graduation, discipline, and attendance as long as they are in alignment with state and federal laws, and consent decrees.

 School Calendar: Pilot Schools can modify school days and calendar years for both students and faculty in accordance with their principles and instructional program as permitted by their budget, and as long as they meet the state required daily and annual instructional minutes; and number of instructional days.

After the Board of Education had adopted Public School Choice in 2009, UTLA and other organizations lobbied the Board to raise the cap of 10 pilot schools by an additional 20  to allow greater parental and teacher involvement. By 2011, there were 32 (see here).*

In that year, the SJHA proposal entered the second round for Public School Choice and was now designated as a Pilot School. The LAUSD superintendent recommended the teacher-designed SJHA’s proposal and the Board of Education approved it (see YouTube video with teachers and students called “The New School 2012”).

In September of 2011, SJHA moved into the Cesar Chavez Academies campus in the city of San Fernando housing three other small schools and began their work with a mostly Latino population drawing from adjacent neighborhoods.

The Humanitas high school curriculum program, Pilot Schools, and Public School Choice were reform-embedded layers within LAUSD laid down over three decades from divergent streams of reform. Each district innovation was a tributary of a reform-filled river that twisted, turned, and meandered as years passed and as political coalitions, worried about low-performing schools in largely poor minority neighborhoods, sought solutions for under-resourced and poorly performing schools. At times these streams unintentionally converged. A group of high school teachers working with District and foundation officials initially at Sylmar High School becoming over time SJHA, a pilot school, at 1001 Arroya Avenue in the city of San Fernando.

But streams of reform in LAUSD running parallel to or pouring into a river of district change did not cease. Another tributary poured into SJHA and soon became another stratum of layered reform: community schools.

Third stratum of reform in SJHA

Community schools are both academic and neighborhood institutions that through partnering with other agencies offer after-school programs, health clinics, mental health staff, and parent support options becoming in the current phrase a school with “wraparound” services.

LAEP which has been involved with SJHA for years, funded a “community coordinator. Jennie Carey, shortly after SJHA became part of the Cesar Chavez Academy complex. Over the next few years, Carey, other agencies, and SJHA teachers built on existing parts of the program as well as initiating an array of services for students, teachers, and parents: restorative justice; focus on the “whole-child,”  interdisciplinary teaching; family engagement; broadened learning opportunities; and on-campus wraparound supports filling student and community needs, including physical and mental health, housing assistance and legal support. In addition, SJHA launched other programs:

*Teachers “adopt” students

Teachers take on added responsibility for following up on those students struggling academically and with family problems by meeting with them face-to-face and helping students cope with issues that get in the way of academic success.

One SJHA teacher said: “I know it works….” He describes one 9th grader who he has adopted this year and how he was able to overcome the obstacles in his way. “I push him to make better decisions, he promises to do so, then messes up, and I talk to him again. And again. And again. He’ll get there. I’ve seen my adopted kids do better in grades as well, but it’s funny because I rarely get a chance to celebrate their victory because by then it’s part of their DNA. They almost forget about who they were, and I usually try to forget so I can enjoy who they’ve become.”

*Summer Bridge

A three week program for ninth graders initially but now two weeks. These first year students get to know one another, become familiar with the mission adn curriculum of the school, and develop relationships with classmates and teachers. Developing a community prior to coming to school eases entry for those students into a brand new school.

In 2015, federal funds became available for community schools. That was also the year that SJHA was recognized by the national Coalition of Community Schools for excellence. LAUSD tapped those funds in 2017 and launched more community schools.

Thus, SJHA in of itself contains strata of district reform policies laid down by divergent streams of reform extending back to the 1980s. These strata are evident to the observing eye in 2019.  Piled atop of one another, SJHA is living proof of how district reforms layered one on top of another have to be analyzed to make sense of the school even before one enters a school’s hallways and classrooms.

Part 3 goes inside SJHA to observe how teachers were teaching in February 2019.


*According to an email from Jeff Austin (March 18, 2019) to me, teachers Navarro and Austin had been elected to the UTLA House of Representatives in order to participate in the voting for the expanded MOU.

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Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

I Used to Preach the Gospel of Education Reform. Then I Became the Mayor (Rahm Emanuel)

Rare, indeed, do political leaders question the received wisdom they follow when they have power. Mayors pursuing school reform, as Emanuel did, came with an agenda for turning  under-performing districts into high performers. After serving as Chicago’s mayor for eight years and now leaving office, Emanuel explains what he believed to be true in 2011 and what he has learned on the jobsnce. He admits that he erred in thinking about turning the school district around and went on to change his mind about the assumptions he had when entering the post. So few school reformers ever admit to doubts or the wisdom that they swear by.

Emanuel is the 44th mayor of Chicago. He previously served as President Obama’s chief of staff and as chairman of both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Democratic Caucus.

This article appeared in The Atlantic online February 5, 2019.


During my first campaign to be Chicago’s mayor, in 2011, I promised to put education reform at the forefront of my agenda. Having participated in Washington policy debates for the better part of two decades, I felt confident that I knew what to do. Then, as now, education reformers preached a certain gospel: Hold teachers solely accountable for educational gains. Expand charter schools. Focus relentlessly on high-school graduation rates. This was the recipe for success.

Three years before that, when President-elect Barack Obama tapped me to be his White House chief of staff, I argued that leaders should never let a good crisis go to waste. I was now determined to take my own advice. At the moment of my inauguration, Chicago’s schools were unquestionably in crisis. Our students had the shortest school day in America. Nearly half of Chicago’s kids were not being offered full-day kindergarten, let alone pre-K. Teacher evaluations had not been updated in nearly 40 years. During my first months in office, I hit the ground running, determined to change all that. Then, much to my surprise, roughly a year into my reform crusade, circumstance prompted me to begin questioning the wisdom of the gospel itself.

My initial doubts emerged four days into what turned out to be the first Chicago teachers’ strike in three decades. After a series of arduous negotiations with Karen Lewis, the union president, we’d arrived at the basic contours of an agreement. In return for higher salaries, Lewis accepted my demands to extend the school day by an hour and 15 minutes, tack two weeks onto the school year, establish universal full-day kindergarten, and rewrite the outdated evaluations used to keep the city’s educators accountable.

One key issue remained: the autonomy of principals. The question was whether individual principals would have the ability to hire faculty of their own choosing, or whether, as Lewis preferred, principals would have to select from a limited pool maintained downtown with the union’s strong input. Honestly, because I’d gotten everything I really wanted, I was tempted to fold. The reform gospel doesn’t pay much mind to principals. Moreover, the new accountability standards promised to rid the schools of bad teachers.

But while I was preparing to brief reporters assembled at Tarkington Elementary on Chicago’s South Side, Mahalia Ann Hines, a former school principal (who happens to be the artist Common’s mother) pulled me aside. Hines, who holds a doctorate from the University of Illinois, had spent 15 years as a principal, at grade levels from elementary through high school. If we were going to make lasting improvements to Chicago’s schools, she argued, principals needed that flexibility. Without it, they would not be able to establish the right culture or create a team atmosphere. And, at least as important, principals would not have the leverage to coach teachers struggling to help their pupils succeed.

Thinking about it now, years after I decided to abandon the gospel of teacher-focused reform for an approach centered on empowering principals, Hines’s advice sounds almost like common sense. But at the time, it was a momentous decision. Parents are rarely surprised when I note that even the best teachers can be rendered ineffective in a dysfunctional school, or that a great principal can turn a good teacher into an extraordinary educator. But even today, reformers rarely take the impact of principals into account.

The union was loath to give in, and the strike dragged on for two additional days. But eventually they agreed, and I then decided to go all in on principal-centered reform. We raised principals’ salaries, particularly for those working in hard-to-staff schools. Chicago established a new program explicitly designed to recruit and train new school leaders. We collaborated with Northwestern University to improve professional development for principals. And we gave the best-performing principals additional autonomy by establishing a system of independent schools, subject to less oversight from the central office.

Today, the Chicago Schools CEO, its chief education officer, and two of the seven members of the board of education, including Hines, are former Chicago public-school principals.

That evolution in thinking prompted me to also question other elements of the reform gospel, including the movement’s unbending support for charter schools. No one disputes that some charter schools, like the Noble Network here in Chicago, are terrific. But what many reformers fail to acknowledge is that a lot of more traditional alternatives—places such as Poe Elementary, an award-winning neighborhood school on the South Side—are great as well. That reality has profound implications. I closed both neighborhood and charter schools as mayor, because mediocre schools of any type fail their students. The 20-year debate between charter and neighborhood is totally misguided, and should be replaced with a focus on quality versus mediocrity. It’s high time we stop fighting about brands, because the only thing that really matters is whether a school is providing a top-notch education.

The reform gospel’s focus on graduation rates obfuscates what’s really important for students in grades nine through 12. Sure, every kid should earn a high-school diploma, and in Chicago we’ve gone from a 59.3 percent graduation rate in 2012 to a 78.2 percent graduation rate in 2018. But we spend too much time talking about graduation like it’s the end of the line. If students don’t know where they’re headed after they finish 12th grade, they lose interest in their education well before the 12th grade. High school needs to be seen as a bridge to the next thing, no matter whether it’s college, military or civilian service, or a specific job. That’s why we’ve grown Chicago’s dual-credit/dual-enrollment program into one of the largest in the country, equipping half our high-school kids with college credits before they receive their diploma. Between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of CPS students enrolling in college grew from 53.7 to 68.2. That says something profound.

Finally, before I became mayor, I largely ignored conservative complaints about government subsidies for the wraparound services that complement what happens in the classroom. Elitists love to argue that education dollars should be focused exclusively on improving classroom instruction. Today, however, I realize just how profoundly asinine those arguments are. It’s unconscionable for anyone who underwrites their own kids’ private tutors, music lessons, after-school activities, summer camps, and summer jobs to argue that children from less-advantaged backgrounds should not have the same privileges and support.

Kids today spend 80 percent of their time outside the classroom, and most well-off parents have the resources to augment what happens at school. As mayor, I decided to extend those same sorts of interventions to everyone. Our after-school program has grown to serve 125,000 students. We hired teachers to staff libraries in order to help kids with their homework every school-day afternoon, and we created a summer reading program, Rahm’s Readers, to combat the so-called summer slide. Moreover, we implemented a new standard: To be eligible to land one of the now 33,000 summer jobs that the city sponsors, you have to sign a pledge to go to college. Closing the achievement gap inside the classroom requires investments outside the classroom.

Three decades ago, the Republican Education Secretary Bill Bennett disparaged Chicago’s schools, blithely asking reporters, “Is there a worse case? You tell me.” Today, I’d invite him to come back, order a deep-dish pizza, and eat his words.

Our students now make more progress between the third and eighth grades than their peers in 96 percent of the nation’s other districts. Taken together, my administration’s reforms ensure that children beginning their public education will get more than four years’ worth of additional classroom time before their high-school graduation. The percentage of students meeting or exceeding grade-level norms for reading grew from 45.6 percent to more than 61 percent between 2013 and 2018. And college enrollment has grown 20 percent since 2011.

Few things irritate progressives more than when conservatives deny the fact of climate change. That’s for good reason—the science is irrefutable. Well, the evidence on education reform is irrefutable as well. After studying what’s happened in Chicago, the Stanford education professor Sean Reardon declared: “These trends are important not only for students in Chicago, but for those in other large districts, because they provide an existence proof that it is possible for large urban districts to produce rapid and substantial learning gains, and to do so in ways that benefit students of all racial and ethnic groups equally.” The nation needs to take notice.

For most of my career, I preached the old gospel of education reform. But now research and experience suggest that policy makers need to embrace a new path forward and leave the old gospel behind. Principals, not just teachers, drive educational gains. The brain-dead debate between charter and neighborhood schools should be replaced with a focus on quality over mediocrity. To get kids to finish high school, the student experience should center on preparing them for what’s next in life. Finally, classroom success hinges on the support that students get outside school. If other cities follow Chicago’s lead in embracing those ideas, they’re likely to also replicate its result


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

Remoralization of the Market (David Brooks)

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. This op-ed appeared January 11, 2019.

In many of the posts over the past nine years I have pointed out how schools reflect the larger society especially when policy elites press upon the schools reforms that are solutions to larger political, economic, and social issues in the U.S. For nearly four decades the drumbeat of reform has been for schools to be harnessed to the larger economy by producing “human capital,” i.e., high school and college graduates ready for a post-industrial, information-based market economy. Other purposes for tax-supported public schools have been subordinated to this economic imperative. 

David Brooks’s piece which does not mention schools once describes accurately the extreme (and amoral) focus since the 1970s on economic gains with inequality seen as just desserts for those who are not the best and the brightest. This ascendancy of judging everything through an economic lens, he argues, is bad for democracy and, I would add, for the nation’s public schools.

For those policymakers, politicians, practitioners, and parents who applaud for or rail against schools becoming strictly vocational in cranking out graduates who enter the workplace prepared for the New Economy, the context Brooks describes for this profound shift in schooling explains the power of policy elites to use tax-supported education to solve larger national problems.


Suddenly economic populism is all the rage. In his now famous monologue on Fox News, Tucker Carlson argued that American elites are using ruthless market forces to enrich themselves and immiserate everyone else. On the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are telling left-wing versions of the same story.

In an era of tribal emotionalism, you’re always going to be able to make a splash reducing a complex problem to a simple narrative that separates the world into the virtuous us, and the evil them (the bankers). But I’d tell a third story about our current plight, which is neither economic populism nor free-market fundamentalism.

My story begins in the 1970s. The economy was sick. Corporations were bloated. Unions got greedy. Tax rates were too high and regulations were too tight. We needed to restore economic dynamism.

So in 1978, Jimmy Carter signed a tax bill that reduced individual and corporate tax rates. Senator Ted Kennedy led the effort to deregulate the airline and trucking industries. When he came into office, Ronald Reagan took it up another notch.

It basically worked. We’ve had four long economic booms since then. But there was an interesting cultural shift that happened along the way. In a healthy society, people try to balance a whole bunch of different priorities: economic, social, moral, familial. Somehow over the past 40 years economic priorities took the top spot and obliterated everything else. As a matter of policy, we privileged economics and then eventually no longer could even see that there could be other priorities.

For example, there’s been a striking shift in how corporations see themselves. In normal times, corporations serve a lot of stakeholders — customers, employees, the towns in which they are located. But these days corporations see themselves as serving one purpose and one stakeholder — maximizing shareholder value. Activist investors demand that every company ruthlessly cut the cost of its employees and ruthlessly screw its hometown if it will raise the short-term stock price.

We turned off the moral lens. You probably know the example of the Israeli day care centers. Parents kept showing up late to pick up their kids. To address the problem, the centers experimented with fining the late parents. But the number of late pickups doubled. Before, coming to pick up your kid on time was a moral obligation — to be fair to the day care workers. After, it was seen as an economic transaction. Parents were happy to pay to be late. We more or less did this as an entire society — we switched to a purely economic lens.

A deadly combination of right-wing free-market fundamentalism and left-wing moral relativism led to a withering away of moral norms and shared codes of decent conduct. We ripped the market out of its moral and social context and let it operate purely by its own rules. We made the market its own priest and confessor.

Society came to be seen as an atomized collection of individual economic units pursuing self-interest. Selfishness was normalized. As Steven Pearlstein puts it in his outstanding book, “Can American Capitalism Survive?” “Old-fashioned norms around loyalty, cooperation, honesty, equality, fairness and compassion no longer seem to apply in the economic sphere.”

Anything you could legally do to make money was deemed O.K. A billion-dollar salary for a hedge fund manager? Perfectly acceptable. The Apple corporation exists because of American institutions. But, as Pearlstein notes, Apple parked its intellectual property in an Irish subsidiary so it could avoid paying taxes in America and support those institutions. It saved $9 billion in 2012 alone. This is clearly sleazy behavior. Apple employees should be humiliated and ashamed.

But today the amoralism of the trading floor governs corporate decision-making. Pearlstein quotes Carl Icahn: “I don’t believe in the word ‘fair.’” So Apple paid no reputational price when it stiffed its own country.

Social trust arises from a covenant: I give to my company, my town and my government, and they give back to me. But that covenant was ripped. Now the general perception is: When I give, they take. As we disembedded individuals from traditional moral norms we disembedded companies from social ones. Human beings are moral animals, and suddenly American moral animals found themselves in an amoral economic system, which felt increasingly alienating and gross.

We wound up with the secession of the successful, and in many parts of the country we wound up decimating the social trust that is actually a prerequisite for economic prosperity.

Capitalism is a wonderful system. The populists are perpetually living in 2008, when the financial crisis vindicated all their prejudices. They ignore everything since — the 19 million jobs that have been created, the way wages are now rising at 3.2 percent.

But capitalism needs to be embedded in moral norms and it needs to serve a larger social good. Remoralizing and resocializing the market is the great project of the moment. The crucial question is not: How can we have a good economy? It’s: How can we have a good society? How can we have a society in which it’s easier to be a good person?


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

Educator Discussions That Avoid “The Problem”

In 1942, Progressive educator Paul Diederich wrote “The Light Touch: 27 Ways to Run Away from an Educational Problem” for Progressive Education. He wrote this piece after being part of intense discussions with hundreds of teachers during summers in the late-1930s when the Eight Year Study was being implemented in 30 high schools across the nation.*

Like Diederich, I have participated in thousands of discussions with teachers, principals, superintendents, board of education members, researchers, and policymakers over my half-century in public school work. I might be able to add one or two but Diederich does a fine job, in my opinion. When I think of (and listen to) current debates about problems like inequality, racism, and poverty as they influence what teachers do, how schools operate, and effects on students, I recall many times when I heard and saw school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents engage in what Diederich lists below. Here is what he wrote in 1942.


“Most educational problems become, sooner or later, a desperate attempt to escape from the problem. This is often done clumsily, causing unnecessary embarrassment and leaving the group without the comfortable feeling of having disposed of the problem.  Educational leaders long ago worked out adequate techniques for dodging the issue.

The following list, of course, is a tentative, partial, incomplete, a mere beginning, etc. but it should give group leaders a command of alternative modes of retreat and enable them.
1. Find a scapegoat. Teachers can blame administrators, administrators can blame teachers, both can blame parents, and everyone can blame the system.
2. Profess not to have the answer. That lets you out of having any answer.
3. Say that we must not move too rapidly. That avoids the necessity of getting started.
4. For every proposal set up an opposite and conclude that the “middle ground” (no motion whatever) represents the wisest course of action.
5. Point out that an attempt to reach a conclusion is only a futile “quest for certainty.” Doubt and indecision promote growth.
6. When in a tight place, say something that the group cannot understand.
7. Look slightly embarrassed when the problem is brought up. Hint that it is in bad taste, or too elementary for mature consideration, or that any discussion of it is likely to be misinterpreted by outsiders.
8. Say that the problem cannot be separated from other problems. Therefore, no problem can be solved until all other problems have been solved.
9. Carry the problem into other fields. Show that it exists everywhere; therefore it is of no concern.
10. Point out that those who see the problem do so because of personality traits. They see the problem because they are unhappy— not vice versa.
11. Ask what is meant by the question. When it is sufficiently clarified, there will be no time left for the answer.
12. Discover that there are all sorts of dangers in any specific formulation of conclusions; of exceeding authority or seeming to; asserting more than is definitely known; of misinterpretation by outsiders— and, of course, revealing the fact that no one has a conclusion to offer.
13. Look for some philosophical basis for approaching the problem, then a basis for that, then a basis for that, and so on back into Noah’s Ark.
14. Retreat from the problem into endless discussion of various ways to study it.
15. Put off recommendations until every related problem has been definitely settled by scientific research.
16. Retreat to general objectives on which everyone can agree. From this higher ground you will either see that the problem has solved itself, or you will forget it.
17. Find a face-saving verbal formula like “in a Pickwickian sense.”
18. Rationalize the status quo; there is much to be said for it.
19. Introduce analogies and discuss them rather than the problem.
20. Explain and clarify over and over again what you have already said.
21. As soon as any proposal is made, say that you have been doing it for 10 years. Hence there can’t be possibly any merit in it.
22. Appoint a committee to weigh the pros and cons (these must always be weighed) and to reach tentative conclusions that can subsequently be used as bases for further discussions of an exploratory nature preliminary to arriving at initial postulates on which methods of approach to the pros and cons may be predicated.
23. Wait until some expert can be consulted. He will refer the question to other experts.
24. Say, “That is not on the agenda; we’ll take it up later.” This may be repeated ad infinitum.
25. Conclude that we have all clarified our thinking on the problem, even though no one has thought of a way to solve it.
26. Point out that some of the greatest minds have struggled with this problem, implying that it does us credit to have even thought of it.
27. Be thankful for the problem. It has stimulated our thinking and has thereby contributed to our growth. It should get a medal.






*I thank Laura Chapman for bringing the Diederich piece to my attention. There are differences between the piece in Progressive Education and the document that historian Robert  Hampel included in his collection of Diederich articles. I relied on Hampel’s source.



Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

Can Superintendents Raise Test Scores?

I first asked this question in a post published over six years ago. I have updated and revised that post because the answer is popularly and resoundingly “yes” although the evidence is squirmy.  I revisit both the question and answer.


After Atlanta (GA) school administrators and teachers went to trial and were convicted and sentenced to jail for cheating and before that the El Paso (TX) superintendent convicted of the same charge and in prison, the generally accepted idea that district superintendents can pump up student  achievement has taken a serious hit. Cheating scandals across the country have turned the belief in superintendents raising test scores into something tawdry.

For decades, many superintendents have been touted as earnest instructional leaders, expert managers, and superb politicians who can mobilize communities and teacher corps to improve schools and show gains in students’ test scores. From Arlene Ackerman  in Philadelphia to Joel Klein in New York City to Kaya Henderson in Washington, D.C., big city superintendents are at the top rung of those who can turn around failing districts.

Surely the Atlanta cheating scandal and others around the country have tarnished the image of dynamic superintendents taking urban schools from being in dumpsters to $1 million Broad Prize winners. A tainted image, however, will not weaken the Velcro belief that smart district superintendents will lead districts to higher student achievement. Just look at contracts that school boards and mayors sign with new superintendents. Contract clauses call for student test scores, graduation rates, and other academic measures to increase during the school chief’s tenure (see here and here).

Then along comes a study that asks whether superintendents are “vital or irrelevant.” Drawing on state student achievement data from North Carolina and Florida for the years 1998-2009, researchers sought to find out how much of a relationship existed between the arrival of new superintendents, how long they served, and student achievement in districts (see PDF SuperintendentsBrown Center9314 ).

Here is what the researchers found:

  1. School district superintendent is largely a short-term job. The typical superintendent has been in the job for three to four years.
  2. Student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service within their districts.
  3. Hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.
  4. Superintendents account for a small fraction of a percent (0.3 percent) of student differences in achievement. This effect, while statistically significant, is orders of magnitude smaller than that associated with any other major component of the education system, including: measured and unmeasured student characteristics; teachers; schools; and districts.
  5. Individual superintendents who have an exceptional impact on student achievement cannot be reliably identified.

Results, of course, are from only one study and must be handled with care. The familiar cautions about the limits of the data and methodology are there. What is remarkable, however, is that the iron-clad belief that superintendents make a difference in student outcomes held by the American Association of School Administrators, school boards, and superintendents themselves has seldom undergone careful scrutiny. Yes, the above study is correlational. It does not get into the black box of exactly how and what superintendents do improves student achievement.

Ask superintendents how they get scores or graduation rates to go up.  The question is often answered with a wink or a shrug of the shoulders. Among most researchers and administrators who write and grapple with this question of whether superintendents can improve test scores, there is no explicit model of effectiveness. That is correct, there is no theory of change, no theory of action.

How exactly does a school chief who is completely dependent on an elected school board, district office staff, a cadre of principals whom he or she may see monthly, and teachers who shut their doors once class begins–raise test scores, decrease dropouts, and increase college attendance? Without some theory by which a superintendent can be shown to have causal effects, test scores going up or down remain a mystery or a matter of luck that the results occurred during that school chief’s tenure (I exclude cheating episodes where superintendents have been directly involved because they have been rare).

Many school chiefs, of course, believe–a belief is a covert theory–that they can improve student achievement. They hold dear the Rambo model of superintending. Strong leader + clear reform plan + swift reorganization + urgent mandates + crisp incentives and penalties =  desired student outcomes. Think former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, ex-Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew, ex-Chancellor of Washington D.C.and ex-school chief Alan Bersin in San Diego. Don’t forget John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified School District. And now, Pedro Martinez in San Antonio Independent School District

There are, of course, other less heroic models or theories of action that mirror more accurately the complex, entangled world of moving school board policy to classroom practice. One model, for example, depicts stable, ongoing, indirect influence where superintendents slowly shape a district culture of improvement, work on curriculum and instruction, insure that  principals run schools consistent with district goals, support and prod teachers to take on new classroom challenges, and communicate often with parents about what’s happening. Think ex-superintendents Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston (MA) and Laura Schwalm in Garden Grove (CA). Such an indirect approach is less heroic, takes a decade or more, and ratchets down the expectation that superintendents be Supermen or Wonder Women.

Whether school chiefs or their boards have a Rambo model, one of indirect influences, or other models, some theory exists to explain how they go about improving student performance. Without some compelling explanation for how they influence district office administrators, principals, teachers, and students to perform better than they have, most school chiefs have to figure out their own personal cause-effect model, rely upon chance, or even in those rare occasions, cheat.

What is needed is a crisp GPS navigation system imprinted in school board members’ and superintendents’ heads that contain the following:

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

*a clear cause-effect model of how superintendents directly influence principals and teachers and they, in turn,influence students to do better as in creating incentives and sanctions, a culture of trust that encourages both risk-taking and willingness to learn.

*a practical and public definition of what constitutes success for school boards, superintendents, principals,teachers, and students beyond standardized test scores, higher graduation rates, and college admissions.

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


Filed under leadership, testing

Whatever Happened to Site-Based Decision-making?

A majority of voters–with or without children in public schools– have to say “yea” to tax levies to erect and maintain buildings, pay teachers, buy books, equipment, and supplies to cover costs of educating the community’s children and youth. Moreover, state laws compel parents to send those children and youth five and older to the age of 16 or so to school.

Governance of these tax-supported public schools reflects the history of a nation suspicious of centralized authority lodged in one person such as a king or a president. So there is no national ministry of education in the U.S. Because the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that powers not mentioned in the Constitution belong to the states and since “education” or “schools” go unmentioned in the document, states govern public schools. Every state authorizes local districts to have school boards to govern districts. California has over a thousand districts, Hawaii has one.

So the nation’s schools are decentralized: 50 states and territories make decisions about schooling in over 13,000 school districts across America. Sure there is a U.S. Secretary of Education who sits in the President’s cabinet meetings. Keep in mind, however, that the vast bulk of money spent on schools comes from states and local districts; the federal contribution to school spending is less than a dime out of every dollar spent on public schools.

State and locally elected representatives serve on school boards that decide policies from constructing classrooms, changing curriculum, and requiring teaching credentials to setting high school graduation requirements, determining which tests to give students, and establishing the format of report cards.

These elected representatives scattered across a decentralized system govern about 100,000 public schools housing over 50 million students taught by more than three million teachers. These trustees, often unpaid and part-time, make policy for the district be it small, mid-sized, or large. They are removed from the neighborhood elementary school where decisions have to be made on how much to spend on new books, whether to hire a janitor or a librarian, and what to do with obsolete computer devices.

When one-room schoolhouses dominated the topography of U.S. schooling, local trustees who lived in the rural community, hired and fired the teacher, insured that the official curriculum was taught, and maintained the school building. But as schools and districts grew larger particularly in towns and cities, states permitted locally elected school boards to make such decisions. They still do. However, in big cities with scores, even hundreds of schools and thousands of employees these elected school boards are far removed from children, teachers, principals, and daily operations of each and every school.

As long as urban and suburban schools seem to fulfill what taxpayers and voters expected, say between the 1920s and 1950s, the system seemed to be working. At different times, however, especially since the mid-1960s growing  disaffection with  public schools, anger at low academic performance, high incidence of drugs and teenage pregnancies, stories of in-school violence and gangs, rising dropout rates and low percentages of students going on to college prompted many reforms including ones that changed how schools were governed. Prompted by the report A Nation at Risk (1983) state and federal authorities searched for different ways to toughen public schools so that U.S. students could better compete with international ones. One of these reforms aimed at restoring higher academic and behavioral norms through neighborhood parents together with teachers and principals at each school either advising decision makers or making decisions themselves. Or what has come to be called site-base decision making or management.

What is site-based decision making and when did it begin?

At the height of its popularity in the mid-1990s, site-based decision making varied greatly–as one would expect–in a decentralized system of national schooling. Here is how Jane David described it then:

Most variants … involve some sort of representative decision-making council at the school, which may share authority with the principal or be merely advisory. Some councils have the power to hire principals, some hire and fire, some do neither. Some can hire other personnel when there are vacancies. Some councils specify that the principal be the chair, others specify that the principal not be the chair.

The composition of site councils also varies tremendously. In addition to teachers, parents, and the principal, they may include classified staff, community members, students, and business representatives. Educators may outnumber non-educators, or vice versa. States or districts may list constituencies who must be represented, or simply leave it to individual schools…

A number of states approved policies (e.g., Kentucky, Illinois) that allowed and even directed districts to establish site-based decision making (e.g., Chicago).

What problems does site-based decision making aim to solve?

The surge of governance reforms aimed at local citizens making key decisions on school budgets, hiring and firing personnel, curriculum, and services offered occurred in the late-1980s through the 1990s when student performance on international and state tests fell short of policy elites’ expectations for U.S. schools at a time when U.S. economic competitiveness with other nations lagged. Better schools were viewed as engines for a stronger economy.

Assumptions were that top-down decision making left school staffs to being technicians hired to put into practice what policymakers thought they should be doing. Giving teachers and other staff authority to make school-wide decisions would lead to school staffs to work harder to improve schools and increased morale which, in turn, would produce gains in students’ academic performance. Another assumption was that district offices were too top heavy with administrators who were out-of-touch with local school sites; reducing district office officials through firing and re-assignment and strengthening the capacities of locals would improve both decision making and school performance.

As in businesses that had learned to restructure their operations by reducing central administration and driving decisions down to the site that did the actual work, i.e., the school, governance reform swept across states and big cities as a way of improving students academic performance. The primary assumption was that participatory decision making was strongly linked to improved test scores (see here, here, and here)

Does site-based decision making work?

No evidence that I have seen confirms the assumption that participatory decision making in of itself improves student achievement as measured by test scores. While there may be correlations between the two, no causal connection, to my knowledge, has been established (see here and here).

In Chicago where Local School Councils (LSCs) were established in by state law in 1988, each district school–there were over 550 schools–elected parents, teachers and community members to determine policy for the school. These parent-dominated LSCs hired and fired principals, made budget decisions, designed the curriculum, and determined school procedures. In 1995, the state allowed the mayor to control of schools and LSCs lost much of their decision making authority but do continue (see here and here).

Researcher Tony Bryk and colleagues in the Consortium on Chicago School Research  looked closely at these LSCs and concluded that such neighborhood decision making increased student achievement in many but not all schools governed by LSCs if they had put into place certain features (here and here).

That the process of school-site decision making improves the climate of the school, teacher morale by participating in school-wide decision making, and the sense of community–mediating variables between decision making and gains in academic achievement–there is evidence albeit a few decades old (see here).

What has happened to site-based decision making

The Chicago example of LSCs with full decision making authority lasting less than a decade and continuing into 2018 with far shrunken duties in 2018 sticks out as uncommon among governance innovations. Although surveys of district officials establish that every district has some local school mechanism for teacher, parent, and community decision making–in 1994 it was 56 percent of all public schools–but with some inspection many of these school sites have an advisory role rather than full-fledged authority to make critical school-wide decisions.

What has happened since the 1990s, has been an increase in site-based decision making in the growth of charter schools. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia allow publically funded and independently operated charter schools. In 2018, there are over 7,000 charter schools in the U.S enrolling over 3 million students. States do not require that governing boards for charter schools be elected.; they are appointed (full disclosure: I served as a trustee on a four high school charter network called Leadership Public Schools in the San Francisco Bay area for three years). Massachusetts has strict rules for governance mechanisms of charter schools with great variability among the other states that grant charters to individual schools for three to five years.

So site-based decision making continues in various districts across the U.S. that have elected school boards devolving decision making authority to schools but the largest, recent growth in school site governance has been within charter schools.



Filed under leadership, school reform policies