Category Archives: leadership

On Getting an Award

On October 25, 2019, I received an award from the Alumni of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education for Lifetime Achievement. Three other graduates of GSE received awards for Excellence in Education. Here is what I said upon receiving the award.

I thank my family and friends who have come out tonight.

Two people who I wish were here tonight are not. They helped me become the person I am today: Barbara Cuban and David Tyack. I miss them a great deal.

In these brief remarks I want to talk about my career as a teacher/scholar, what the award means to me, and the importance of knowing about the past particularly when it comes to school reform.

1. My career path since I began teaching in 1955 has been unplanned and uncommon.

I had been a high school history teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. for 14 years. While I have never been a school principal, I did work as an administrator in the D.C. district office. In that position I came in frequent contact with the superintendent. I learned a lot about leadership and bureaucratic decision-making and slowly came to realize that I could do the work of a superintendent, a job that I had once thought was well beyond my grasp as a teacher. But I needed an advanced degree.

So at the age of 37 my family and I came to Stanford. I came for only one reason: I wanted to be a superintendent and needed a doctorate. David Tyack made it possible for Barbara, my daughters, and me to come here. Living in Escondido Village were great years for my family. David Tyack was my adviser. Under him, I researched and completed a dissertation on three big city superintendents and in 1974 got that degree.

I then applied for superintendencies. After 50 rejections, I was finally appointed superintendent in Arlington (VA). I served seven years in one of the most exhilarating and exhausting jobs I have ever had. Then I returned to Stanford to teach, do research, and write. I did all of that for five years and then applied for big city superintendencies across the nation. I was a finalist time and again but was not chosen. Failing to become an urban superintendent, I remained at Stanford to teach, advise doctoral students, write, and publish.

What ties together my zigzag career path is the teaching I did in high schools, the teaching I did as superintendent, and, of course, the teaching I did as a professor.

I describe my unplanned and uncommon career path because of the award I receive this evening. My students in the decades that I taught here have honored me with awards as a teacher.   

This award for lifetime achievement, however, recognizes my scholarly work, advising students, and real-life school experiences. I see myself today as a teacher/scholar.  Teaching, researching, and publishing have been central to my journey. Particularly around the issue of school reform. A few words about that never-ending American effort to improve schooling.

2. David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform for a decade. History was central to our work because we believed that not knowing of past efforts to alter public schools is similar to individuals having amnesia. Forgetting your past and how you became the person you are is a tragedy. Not knowing how earlier generations of well-intentioned reformers tried again and again to improve public schools is a forgetfulness, an intellectual disaster that blinds and deafens those who think they know best how to make schools better. But teaching such a history to those who see themselves as future reformers has a downside.

Idealistic graduate students eager to improve schools often told us at the end of the course that studying decades of failed efforts to reform schools depressed them and battered their idealism.  

They would often ask David and me: Are you pessimistic about improving public schools? My answer was always no. I do have hope for the future of public schools. My optimism, however, is tempered and realistic.

I would ask our students to compare improving schools to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible climbers would want a guide who has climbed the mountain before and can point out the crevices and where to step carefully. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, candor, and humility are as crucial to reaching the summit as they are in making a school reform work.

Hope for success in both climbing a mountain and converting reform policies into classroom practices rests in expertise, problem solving, courage, and yes, a touch of luck. But–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain is still worth the effort even if success is not achieved. Being realistic about the task is crucial. Realism and hope, then, are married in my mind. 

Although the history of reform shows clearly that schools cannot transform society, competent and committed teachers can influence their students’ minds, hearts, and actions. They can and have helped the young grow into adults who can work to reduce societal ills. That is the tempered, realistic optimism that I continue to have after six decades as a teacher/scholar.

So thanks to all of you who have made possible this award.

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Breaking the Cycle of Reforming Again and Again (Thomas Hatch)

In a recent article in International Education News, Professor Tom Hatch, Teachers College, Columbia, offered a reasonable and do-able way for policymakers,  parents, and voters to outflank the seemingly inevitable cycle of school reform that researchers, policy analysts, and historians of education have documented for decades. Hatch sets out ideas that prompt questions about which reforms best fit the particular setting. These ideas are anchored deeply in historical and contemporary policy making. The questions Hatch proposes flow from these ideas and can (and must) be asked of policy makers, researchers, political officials, and donors or anyone proposing the next best reform in school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction.

Such questions need to be asked openly. And answers need to come from those who have the authority and money to put proposed reforms into practice.

 

…. Building on Cuban’s work with his colleagsue David Tyack in Tinkering Toward Utopia  and further analyses by David Cohen and Jal Mehta in “Why reform sometimes succeed”, my colleagues and I have been looking at some of the reasons that so many policies and reform initiatives fail to produce the fundamental changes in schools and classrooms that they seek. In a nutshell, this work suggests that too often the goals, capacity demands, and values of reform proposals do not match the common needs, existing capabilities, and dominant values in the schools and districts they are supposed to help.

Admittedly, this is a simple heuristic, but it provides one quick way to anticipate some implementation challenges and to explain how reform initiatives evolve. Although this example is drawn from the US, the basic approach to identifying the challenges of improvement and implementation can be applied in many settings outside the US as well.

Is there a fit between reform proposals and the needs, capabilities and values “on the ground”?

 Asking a succinct set of questions provides one quick way to gauge the “fit” between reform proposals and the conditions in the schools and communities where those proposals are supposed to be implemented:

  • How widely shared is the “problem” that the initiative is supposed to address?
  • What has to change for the initiative to take hold in schools and classrooms to have an impact?
  • To what extent do teachers, administrators and schools have the capabilities they need to make the changes?
  • How likely is it that the key ideas and practices of the initiative will be consistent with socio-cultural, technological, political, and economic trends in the larger society?

What’s the problem the initiative is designed to solve and who has “it”?

When problems are widely shared by many of the stakeholders involved, initiatives that address those problems are more likely to be seen as necessary and worth pursuing – a key indicator of whether those “on the ground” are likely to do what the initiative requires.  

In the case of the teacher evaluation reforms, proposals for changing evaluation procedures grew along with concerns that the emphases on accountability and teacher quality in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 were not yielding the desired improvements in outcomes in reading and mathematics (which was also predictable even before NCLB passed into law but that’s a different blog post…). Those concerns came together with increasing interest in looking at growth in student learning through “value-added” measurement approaches and with the observation popularized by the New Teacher Project’s report on “The Widget Effect” that almost all teachers were given satisfactory evaluation ratings.

For whom was the system of teacher evaluation a problem? Policymakers, funders, and some administrators seized upon teacher evaluation as a critical problem. These “policy elites”, however, are those primarily engaged with managing the education system; but “fixing” teacher evaluation did not appear to be at the top of the list of concerns for many teachers, parents, and students, or for major stakeholder groups like teachers’ unions. As a consequence, considerable resistance should have been expected.

What has to change? To what extent do teachers, principals, and schools have the capabilities to make the changes?

The more complicated and demanding the changes are, the more difficult they will be to put in place.  Simply put, the likelihood of implementing a policy or improvement initiative effectively drops the more steps and the more convoluted the plan; the more time, money, resources, and people involved; and the more that everyday behaviors and beliefs have to change.

At a basic level, the “logic” of the teacher evaluation reforms seemed fairly straightforward:

If we create better estimates of teacher quality and create more stringent evaluation systems…

…. Then education leaders can provide better feedback to teachers, remove ineffective teachers, reward more effective teachers…

… And student learning/outcomes will improve

However, by unpacking exactly what has to happen for these results to be achieved, the complications and predictable difficulties quickly become apparent.  Among the issues:

  • New instruments have to be created, criteria agreed upon, new observation & assessments deployed, and trainings developed
  • Principals/observers have to have time for training and to carry out observations/assessments
  • Principals and other observers have to be able to give meaningful feedback,
  • Teachers need to be able to change their instruction in ways that yields measurable improvements on available assessments of student performance

Of course, these developments are supposed to take place in every single school and district covered by the new policy, and, at the school and classroom level, these new procedures, observation criteria, and feedback mechanisms have to be developed for every teacher, at every level, in every subject.

In addition to highlighting the enormity of the task, this analysis also makes visible critical practical and logistical issues. In this case, for example, the new evaluation procedures are supposed to be based to a large extent on measuring growth of student learning on standardized tests. Yet, the policy is also supposed to apply to the many teachers who do not teach “tested subjects” and for whom standardized tests are not adequate for assessing student learning and development.

But even if all the logistical and practical problems are addressed, to be effective, the policy still requires administrators and teachers to develop new skills and knowledge: Administrators have to improve their ability to observe instruction and to provide meaningful feedback (in many different subjects/levels); Teachers have to know how to use that feedback to make appropriate changes in their instruction that lead to improved performance on available measures. Further, even if administrators were able to put in place new evaluation procedures and develop the capabilities to deploy them, using the results to sanction or reward individual teachers conflicts with the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and norms of behavior in many schools.

(Among others, Michael McShane draws on Pressman & Wildasky’s 1984 book Implementation to highlight the issues related to reform complexity; David Cohen, Jim Spillane, and Don Peurach have written extensively about the need to develop a much stronger “infrastructure” to support the development of educator’s knowledge and skills and to improve instruction across classrooms and schools; and Rick Hess cites James Q. Wilson’s work to stress the difficulty in counteracting local incentives and prevailing institutional cultures.)

How do the proposed changes fit with the values, trends, developments at the time?

Changes proposed that reflect enduring values as well as the socio-cultural, political, technological, and economic trends can take off in concert with other developments in society.  Conversely, conflicts over basic values and shifts in trends can also mean that support and public opinion may wane relatively quickly before changes have time to take root.

In this case, the teacher evaluation policies evolved as conflicting trends were emerging. On the one hand, the new approaches to teacher evaluation fit with long-standing concerns about the efficiency of education as well as with the development of new technologies, new approaches to data use, and interest in performance accountability among leaders in business, government and other fields. On the other hand, those policies also had to be implemented in a context where concerns about academic pressure and the extent of testing were growing among many parents and educators and where advocates for local control of education were becoming more concerned and more vocal about their opposition to the development of the Common Core Learning Standards.

What would you predict?

This quick survey provides one view of the challenges faced by efforts to change teacher evaluations:

  • A lack of a shared problem
  • Requirements for massive, complex, and coordinated changes at every level of the education system
  • Demands for the development of new knowledge, skills, attitudes and norms of behavior
  • In a context of conflicting trends and values

Under these circumstances, the prognosis for effective implementation was never good.  Of course, the hope was that the new policies could kick-start or set in motion many of the desired changes that could encourage the kinds of interactions between administrators and teachers that would improve student learning. Given the challenges laid out here, the fact that some aspects of teacher evaluations across the US appear to have changed could be seen as remarkable. In fact, the NCTQ report makes clear that states and districts did respond to the policies.  In particular, many more states are now requiring multiple observations of some or all teachers and more than half of all states now require that all teachers get annual summative feedback.

However, the NCTQ report also explains that elements of the policy critical to the basic logic are falling by the wayside. Ten states have dropped requirements for using “objective evidence of student learning” (though 2 states have added such a requirement), and “No fewer than 30 states have recently withdrawn at least one of the evaluation reforms that they adopted during a flurry of national activity between 2009 and 2015.” The Education Week coverage also notes that states like New Mexico have rolled back tough accountability provisions. New Mexico had instituted a student-growth score that accounted for 50% of a teacher’s overall rating but has since dropped that requirement after “more than a quarter of the state’s teachers were labeled as ‘minimally effective’ or ‘ineffective.’ Educators (including highly rated teachers) hated the system, with some burning their evaluations in protest in front of the state education department’s headquarters.”

Notably, this analysis also highlights that the policies were largely indirect: The were esigned to develop an elaborate apparatus to measure teacher’s performance – with the hope that those changes would eventually affect instruction. Yet there was relatively limited investment in figuring out specifically what teachers could do to improve and the kind of feedback and support that would make those improvements possible. Under these circumstances, one could anticipate that many districts and schools would make some effort to introduce new observation and evaluation procedures, but that those new procedures would be grafted onto old ones, shedding the most complicated and controversial propositions in the process (providing another example of what Tyack and Cuban describe as a process of “schools changing reforms”).

The lesson from all this is not for the advocates to lament this rollback or the critics to revel in it.  Nor is it to abandon ambitious visions for rethinking and transforming the school system we have because the work that needs to be done is difficult or controversial.  The point is to use our knowledge and understanding of why changing schools is so difficult so that we can design improvement initiatives that take the predictable stumbling blocks into account.  It means building common understanding of the key problems that need to be addressed, coming to terms with the concrete changes that have to be made in classrooms and schools, and building the capacity to make those changes over time.

 

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School Principals I Have Known

Although I have never served as a principal, I have been a student under three elementary and secondary school principals and worked for six high school principals as a teacher. As a district superintendent, I supervised and evaluated nearly 35 elementary and secondary school principals. Since the 1980s, as part of school-based research studies I have completed, I observed at least 20 different principals do this crucial (and often overlooked) job. So from below as a student, above as a superintendent, and next to as a researcher, I have seen principals up close and personal.

I have written in this blog about the core roles that principals must perform (see here, here, and here). In this post, I describe my experiences with one of those six principals I worked—I was going to write “under”–but decided that a better word for my experience with Oliver Deex is “with.” Those years with Deex helped shape me intellectually, grounded me in practical classroom experience, and gave me a perspective on school reform. How common my experience as a teacher was with this unusual man, I do not know.

First, some personal background.

I was the third son of Russian immigrants. I saw that my brothers who had to work during the Great Depression to provide family income and then serve the country in World War II lacked the chances that I had simply because I was born in the 1930s and they were born in the 1920s. Because sheer chance made me the youngest, I did not serve in World War II; because I had polio as a child, I could not serve in the Korean War. So I finished college in Pittsburgh and became a teacher in the mid-1950s, landing a job on Cleveland’s East side. I had been hired to teach high school history a few days before Labor Day–the traditional end of the summer and beginning of school. I hurriedly packed and drove to Cleveland.

Meeting with Oliver Deex, Glenville High School’s new principal at a local deli the weekend before school opened in 1956, was a new experience for me. I had never met with a principal one-on-one since I was a student in high school and the reasons then had nothing to do with my teaching responsibilities.

Talking with Deex, I was startled to find out that the school was over 95 percent black—the word then was Negro—and that he, too, was a tad nervous moving into his first high school principalship after leading a nearby junior high school. He told me  about segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the expanding black ghetto on the East side and the pristine white ghetto on the West side with the Cuyahoga River separating the two. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the city’s numerous ethnic and racial ghettos.

Although I had grown up in Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, my memories of being one of a handful of white children in the neighborhood  elementary school were unpleasant and not calculated to instill sensitivity. Moreover, in 1955, I saw the popular film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Glenn Ford as an idealistic high school teacher—yes, I identified with Ford—and Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier as cunning adolescents smoking in bathrooms and becoming lethal toward teachers such as Ford. The film shook me up as did the music: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” played loud and continuously throughout the film.

Haltingly, I asked him questions about how many classes I would be teaching—five, he said. How large the classes were—between 25-30, he said. Then, he asked questions of me since he knew nothing about his new hire which is why he invited me to the deli. I told him about my background and eagerness to teach history. From that initial conversation with Deex, a working relationship evolved  between  a principal in his late-50s  and a 21 year-old rookie teacher.

In the first few years, I was a politically and intellectually naïve teacher pushing my unvarnished passion for teaching history onto urban students bored with traditional lectures and seatwork. At Glenville High School, I designed new lessons and materials in what was then called Negro history (see here). My success in engaging many (but not all) students in studying the past emboldened me to think that sharp, energetic teachers (yes, like me) creating and using can’t-miss history lessons could solve the problem of disengaged black youth. My principal supported my efforts by getting me a ditto machine, paper, and speaking to downtown district officials about what I was doing.

A former stock broker who after the crash of 1929 turned to education to support his family, got his degrees, taught, and then entered school-site administration, Oliver Deex was a voracious reader,  charming conversationalist, and skeptical of district office policies aimed at school improvement. I was a college graduate but had never seen Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others magazines. Why he took this interest in me, I have, until this very day, no idea. But he did.

His insistent questioning of my beliefs and ideas and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching. Our monthly get-togethers to discuss books and articles left me with a great hunger for ideas and intellectual growth the rest of my life. And not only me.

Deex often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing more and more Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. This group of teachers and one counselor stayed together as an informal group for the seven years I taught at Glenville and even morphed into a social group around making investments and bringing spouses into the mix of teachers.

Oliver Deex took an intellectual interest in me and supported me in my efforts to get a masters in history, apply for a one-year fellowship at Yale, and scrounged funds from the school budget and downtown officials to advance what I was doing in my classes.

Today, Deex would be called a “mentor.” He supported, prodded, and encouraged a young teacher to grasp ideas and apply them to life and teaching. It was not part of his job description and surely went unnoticed by his superiors. But it had enormous influence on my life and career.

I suspect that many principals across the country do the same with rookie teachers today. I hope that those teachers would honor their mentors as I do here in this post.

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From Policy To Practice: Reforming American Schools and Classroom Lessons

I have just sent in my manuscript to the publisher entitled “Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools.” Every book I have written in the past decade since I started this blog, I have posted the argument, drafts of chapters, and vignettes of schools and teacher lessons.

Now I am considering my next project. I would like to draw together certain themes that I have lived, taught about, and researched since I began teaching over a half-century ago. The title of this post captures those themes. For this post, I am offering the condensed argument I have thought of making in my next book. I attach no endnotes or citation of sources at this point. Just the distilled argument.

I am concerned that the logic of the argument is clear, crisply stated, and coherent. So I ask readers of this post to look for holes, errors, and missing parts that should be included. I would appreciate reader comments.

What teachers teach and students learn in American classrooms are (and have been) shaped (but not determined) by political, organizational, and social forces:

First, there is the decentralized system of governance and funding of schools over the past two centuries.

Second, the age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the reliable vehicle for moving state and local policies into classroom lessons.

Third, the constant flow of social, political, and economic problems in the larger society often get converted into reform efforts to improve schooling, classroom practice, and the larger society.

These three forces have created both stability and change in tax-supported public schooling indelibly marking  the journey that policies take from federal, state, and district suites into teachers’ classrooms.

PART 1

  1. For the past two centuries, the U.S. has had a decentralized system of governing public school. That is, there are 50 states, 13,000-plus school districts, nearly 100,000 schools with 3.2 million teachers in charge of 51 million-plus students.

There is no national ministry of education or federal authority as there is in France, Sweden, and, China determining what schools can teach, which teachers to hire and fire, and when school begins and ends each year.

This decentralized system also unequally funds districts within a state (e.g., poor Buchanan and wealthy Arlington Counties in Virginia) and occasions lopsided differences between states—think Mississippi and New York–across the nation. Racially discriminatory practices from banks redlining areas (e..g., avoiding investment in largely black or Latino areas) to white families leaving recently integrated neighborhoods in cities for nearly all-white suburbs causing even more residential segregation in both cities and inner-ring suburbs.  These funding disparities and discriminatory policies affect the quality of brick-and-mortar school buildings, selection and retention of teachers, and student access to instructional materials including new technologies.

Funding public schools comes from three sources: state, local district, and the federal government. The latter provides less than 10 percent of all funds for schools. Because property taxes are the largest source of local and state funding inherent inequities occur simply because there are high wealth districts such as Arlington County (VA) and Beverly Hills (CA) for example–that out-spend dramatically low-wealth districts –Buchanan largely white County (VA) and mostly black Compton (CA)–in per-student spending.

That system of state and local governance in which states provide unequal amounts of money to districts even when adjusted for high- and low-wealth, however, does not slow down the flow of state policymaking where districts are expected to put those policies into practice. Federal policies, especially between 2002-2015 with No Child Left Behind  (the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2016 shifted NCLB mandates to state authorities) also enter the mix of what states, districts, and schools are expected to do. Moreover, district boards of education affected by local issues that parents and elected officials bring to them such as school lunches,  segregated schools, busing schedules, inappropriate history textbooks, and student dress codes.  School boards enact policies that parent lobbies, business leaders, and superintendents recommend. For these federal, state and local policies to get implemented in schools and classrooms, one organizational structure in existence for nearly two centuries–—the age-graded school—is (and has been) the primary vehicle for principals and teachers to turn policy into practice across the U.S.

  1. The age-graded organization is (and has been) the primary vehicle for converting goals and policies into classroom lessons.

Those goals and policies are aimed at both changing and conserving what happens in thousands of schools presided over by principals and hundreds of thousands of individual teachers located in separate classrooms in those schools responsible for groups of 25-35 students. Classroom teachers ultimately decide which of the overall district goals, policies, and curricular content and skills assigned to be taught in fourth grade or high school physics turn up in actual lessons.

Thus, the role of the individual teacher located in these age-graded classrooms gives  teachers a constrained autonomy in determining what of a curriculum guide or textbook will be taught. After shutting their classroom doors, they can and do decide what and how to teach a lesson. Teachers, then, are both gatekeepers and classroom policymakers.

State and local decision-makers can promote innovations and predict splendid outcomes in their policy talk. They can adopt policies that offer shrunken versions of the hyperbolic policy talk, and they can even mandate that teachers put these adopted policies into classroom lessons. Beyond mandates, incentives, or even threats, however, they can do no more. Age-graded school structures with separate classrooms assigned to individual teachers in of themselves both isolate and insulate teachers—remember those doors that can be closed—from their bosses. Teachers retain limited autonomy.

No state superintendent of education or official in the state department, no district superintendent or central office administrator, even the school principal can predict, be certain of, or verify that teachers are teaching (and students are learning) what they are supposed to. Thus, teachers are “street-level bureaucrats” who decide what’s best for their students every day.

In short, what happens in classrooms is loosely tied to what goals and policies the state  determines, school districts desire, and principals expect to happen. Teachers decide what occurs in their lessons once the tardy bell rings. These age-graded structures and the rules that govern them—daily schedules, taking attendance, periodic tests, nightly homework, report cards, waiting one’s turn, permission to go to bathroom, honor rolls–are called the “grammar of schooling.”

That “grammar of schooling” shapes how and what teachers teach and students learn. Its direction is conservationist in keeping the school looking like a “real” school that parents and grandparents attended. Yet over time as policy-driven reforms have spilled over public schools that “grammar” has incrementally changed.

PART 2

  1. Most major reforms come from outside the schools. These externally-driven reforms stem from larger political, social, and economic problems that policy elites believe schools can ameliorate if not solve. Existing goals, policies, and practiuces change incrementally as the abiding “grammar of schooling” tames reforms aimed at overhauling schools.

Policy elites, for example, drafted public schools in the late-1950s to make America stronger during the Cold War with the Soviet Union by churning out more scientists and mathematicians. When weak economic growth and stiff economic competition with Japan and Germany occurred during the 1970s, civic and business leaders urged schools to create more “human capital”— academically prepared students who could score higher on international tests and enter the job market prepared for a post-industrial America. In the early decades of the 21st century, having schools become vehicles for reducing societal inequities (e.g., re-segregation of schools in most cities, expanding numbers of minority teachers in schools with mostly white faculties; end tracking in secondary schools) and increasing social justice (e.g., curricula that stress defects in capitalism and how racial and economic oppression operates in the U.S) has been on reformers’ agendas. The history of school reform in 20th century America, then, is a history of policy elites “educationalizing” societal problems and claiming fundamental changes when only incremental ones occurred.

The rhetoric of “fundamental” reform and selective policy adoption did happen but seldom to the degree that reformers in each generation sought for alterations in what teachers taught. None of the advertised “fundamental” reforms, however, altered the existing “grammar of schooling.”

4. In most instances, what happens to externally-driven policies is that schools and teachers adapt the often over-hyped instructional innovation, curricular addition, or organizational change to the contours of the local age-graded school.

More, faster, and better teaching and learning through technology, for example, began with placing one computer on a teacher’s desk in the early 1980s, then locating desktop computers in libraries then setting up separate computer labs and eventually buying laptops for each student. Now in 2020, classroom carts with 25-30 tablet computers are stacked and ready for student use in most classrooms. Yet dominant ways of teachers  organizing classes, arranging activities, and teaching lessons continue as before but now they use devices and software to achieve the same ends. In short, schools adopt reforms and adapt them to fit the prevailing “grammar of schooling” embedded in age-graded schools.

5. There are also internally-driven reforms initiated by administrators and teachers. Without fanfare and below media radar, bottom-up governmental, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes have altered many aspects of schooling.

From teacher-run schools to block scheduling of the school day, to teacher-initiated courses, to teachers adapting lessons–changes have happened unnoticed by mainstream media because they are done over time with no drum rolls or press releases. None of these bottom-up changes, however, significantly modified the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

6. Most external and internal reforms occur in schooling largely through incrementalism.

That has been the prevailing pattern of change in public schools, not fundamental change (e.g., shifting from property taxes to fund public schools; replacing age-graded structures with ones that end the current “grammar of schooling”; replacing teacher-centered with student-centered instruction; ending segregated schools). Such overhauls have been attempted but seldom have stuck in schools to the continual disappointment of fervent reformers. Policymakers and entrepreneurs often use the rhetoric of fundamental change, but end up with downsized policy versions of the changes they seek.When put into practice, they become incremental replacements (e.g., the new math, new biology, and new physics curricula in the 1960s turn into different textbooks for students).

When fundamental changes in schools do actually occur, more often than not, they come from beyond the schoolhouse door such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ended de jure racial segregation in U.S. schools yet for decades political coalitions blocked desegregation plans until the U.S. Supreme Court decided upon the constitutionality of each plan incrementalizing the court decision. And since the 1990s, state and local inaction has led to de facto segregation in most cities and suburbs. Or Katrina, a hurricane that fundamentally altered New Orleans schools drastically has triggered a reconfigured public school system of nearly all charter schools. Yet these charter schools remain age-graded and practice the familiar “grammar of schooling.”

Incrementalism differs. In small steps over years, instruction, curriculum, school organization, and governance changes. Over the past century, classroom lessons that relied wholly on whole-group instruction have shifted slowly to a mix of whole-group, small-group activities, and independent student work. Curricular additions from Advanced Placement courses to ethnic studies to sex education have been added to high school courses. Expanded school organization now includes pre-schoolers. Since the 1990s many urban high schools are around 500 students rather than the usual 1500 or more students. Standardized testing of students has increased. Even in funding and governing public schools, charter schools and mayoral control of big city school systems have gradually spread since the 1990s across the educational terrain. And do not forget the cultural changes in dress, attitudes toward drugs and sex that slowly unfolded during and after the 1960s showing up in schools as female teachers wearing jeans instead of dresses, male teachers no longer wearing ties and sports coats, teachers drinking coffee in class, and displaying far more informality in classrooms than in the 1950s.

Many of these incremental changes have no noticeable direction toward a long-term goal. They pop up when societal and governmental pressures from business and civic leaders, taxpayers, parents, and practitioners call for certain changes (e.g., more state tests, altering attendance boundaries,  adding ethnic studies courses to curriculum, increasing 45-minute classes to hour-long ones).

Such small steps, more often than not, do not add up to a fundamental change. A long-term vision of making small changes that will move classrooms, schools, or districts in a clear direction to overhaul the existing structures and activities is rare. It is uncommon because cultural changes in the larger society seldom occur in one fell swoop. Few tectonic plates shift dramatically; movement is in inches and feet.

There are, of course, occasional teachers who moved from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction over a decade. Just as there are schools where once students moved in lockstep progression from one teacher-directed activity to another to schools where students make independent choices, work closely with peers, and see their teachers as coaches. And there are districts that, over time, in bite-sized increments move from rigid top-down policymaking to more decentralized decisions that include principals and teachers in formulating, adopting, and implementing new ideas (e.g., Long Beach Unified School District, California). Incrementalism can be patchy, fragmentary and direction-less or it can be, over time, a collaborative movement inching toward a desired goal.

SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT

In moving from goals to policy to classroom practice, stability and change have marked tax-supported public schools in the U.S. for two centuries. American schools and classroom teaching have been fashioned by social, political and organizational factors. Local dependence upon property taxes and the decentralized system of school governance and funding in the past two centuries have accounted for economic and racial inequities in schooling. The perennial age-graded district school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the unswerving vehicle for adopting, adapting, and implementing state and local goals and policies into classroom lessons. Finally, the constant flow of problems in the larger society–including huge gaps in the distribution of wealth and grossly unequal funding of schools–has created patterns in school reform that often get converted into ad hoc incremental changes to improve both schools and society. Reform-minded policymakers, parents, practitioners, and researchers have to understand these three forces before undertaking what they would characterize as meaningful and substantive changes in goals, policies, and classroom practices.

 

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“Great” Superintendents? Context and Longevity Matter

Judging the greatness of superintendents has gone on for decades. Longevity is usually trotted out as the gold standard for being a “good,” “effective,” or “great” superintendent. How long did the superintendent serve? Superintendent-watchers usually dismiss school chiefs who served less than five years as wannabe “great” ones. Between five to ten years, well, perhaps, they can be considered. Serving more than a decade? Then, clearly a candidate.

Why is time such an important factor in judging “greatness?” Every district superintendent is hired to accomplish one or more key tasks defined by the school board or mayor that appoints the eager candidate. Those tasks may be to sustain a successful system, improve a middling one, or resuscitate a collapsed district. As most often happens in the latter case when a school board expects their school chief to turn around a failing district, the newly appointed superintendent even a veteran such as Rudy Crew in Miami-Dade County— disappoints supporters mostly through piling up enemies after tough decisions, budget retrenchment, and political slips with the school board, teachers, or community (or all three).

After serving in Chicago and Philadelphia before taking up the top post in New Orleans (and leaving that position after four years converting most public schools to charters), Paul Vallas put the saga of urban superintendents in stark, if not humorous, terms:

“What happens with turnaround superintendents is that the first two years you’re a demolitions expert. By the third year, if you get improvements, do school construction, and test scores go up, people start to think this isn’t so hard. By year four, people start to think you’re getting way too much credit. By year five, you’re chopped liver.”

That has occurred enough times in the last four decades to account for urban school chiefs’ tenure being just over five years. A new report says it is now six years. Longevity and effectiveness (as perceived by the school board, media, and the public) in accomplishing critical tasks surely become standards to judge “greatness.” But there are other criteria.

Has the superintendent raised student test scores, improved graduation rates, and prepared students to enter college and career?

As with teachers and principals, this standard in determining whether the superintendent is “good” comes from the past three decades of the standards,  testing and accountability movement launched in the mid-1980s with the A Nation at Risk report (1983). What added muscle was the No Child Left Behind law (2002-2015) putting the testing and accountability movement on steroids. Champions and opponents of current school boards or mayors trumpet loudly annual gains and dips in test scores as evidence of success or failure for the current school chief. One has to read no further than articles on any sitting superintendent to get the picture (see here and here)

Because the political role superintendents have to perform is more intense than the politicking teachers and principals have to do, beginning in the 1970s, superintendent careers have surged and some have crashed on the basis of student outcomes. Even though stability in test scores is statistically suspect, clauses paying superintendents annual bonuses for gains in student achievement began to appear in the 1980s, accelerated in the 1990s, and is now a fixture in urban superintendents’ contracts. The belief that big city superintendents can lift student test scores remains strong and abiding.

So here we have three practical measures of superintendent “greatness:” Longevity, achievement of key tasks, and improved overall student outcomes.

Some recent superintendents have met these standards: Carl Cohn, Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston, Laura Schwalm, Garden Grove (CA), and Pat Forgione in Austin.

But here’s the rub. Being a “great” teacher, principal, or superintendent in one place at a particular time does not easily transfer to another setting at another time. Being satisfactory or even inadequate in one classroom, school, or district may become “greatness” elsewhere. Context, for example, trumped greatness for Carl Cohn after Long Beach and for Tom Payzant in San Diego before Boston. “Great” superintendents in the 1920s during the height of progressive education would hardly earn the label by today’s standards.

So there are standards–shaped by the setting and times–used to judge “great” superintendents, principals, and teachers. Except for longevity.

In a world where fast, fast, fast dominates daily life, where social media fire-up or doom a career within weeks and an ever-shifting economy put a premium on moving from one job to another, where staying in one position for ten-plus years is often seen as a negative—(Teach for America novices still sign up for two years), the gains in expertise and wisdom that come to certain reflective superintendents in working their magic are seldom appreciated or encouraged. Both context and longevity may not be sufficient conditions for “greatness,” but they are surely necessary ones.

 

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Bread Crumbs and School Reform

In  the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, the Grimm brothers’ version had the children taken into the forest by their step-mother during a famine to rid the starving family of two mouths to feed. Attracted to a sweet-smelling gingerbread cottage, Hansel and Gretel find a hungry evil Witch who puts the two in cages to fatten them up for a meal. But the quick-witted boy and girl get out of the cages and toss the witch into a boiling pot of water, take the gold that she had collected from other travelers and escape. They follow a trail of bread crumbs they had strewn in the forest earlier to find their way home. They discover that their step-mother had died and the family, now wealthy, is re-united and live happily ever after.

OK, Larry, I get the fairy tale but what’s the connection to school reform? The bread crumbs. Yes, it is a stretch but stick with me.

The bread crumbs were markers guiding the lost boy and girl out of the forest. There are large historical markers along the often trod trail of school improvement that the current generation of wannabe reformers, should they be as wise as Hansel and Gretel, might heed and avoid repeating the errors of earlier generations. Except this time instead of minute bread crumbs, let’s talk about large croutons that even myopic reformers could see on the zig-zag path to improving teaching, learning, and student performance in tax-supported public schools.

stack-crispy-rye-crouton-bread-600w-1055386802.jpg

Crouton markers for changing how teachers teach daily lessons

Time and again, policymakers, civic and business leaders have glommed onto a better way for teachers to teach reading, math, history, science, and foreign language. From phonics to integrated math to new science standards, instructionally-driven reformers have mandated teachers (if not ordered to teach new curricula then strongly urged) to alter traditional ways of teaching these subjects and adopt the innovative (and better) way.  In most cases, teachers adapted the innovation to fit the familiar ways they had taught to the students they had in front of them.

The repeated mistake these reformers made was to conceptualize, adopt, and require changes without involving teachers in the decision. Rather than directly involving teachers in the decisions to adopt curricular and instructional innovations (beyond a token representation)—think the New Math, interactive whiteboards, “personalized learning”– they made top-down decisions. In the name of speed and efficiency, they said.

Slower and more efficient over time would have been directly involving teachers in the decision process and increasing their expertise and building capacities to teach in different ways. State and local school decision-makers think (and thought) that public schools are (and were) command-and-control organizations. Adopt policies that tell teachers what to do and they will do it. Didn’t happen. The more top-down decision-making for teacher lessons, the more variation.

Crouton markers for changing  school organization

The historic lure of altering how schools are organized in order to improve how teachers teach and what students learn has driven policymakers, administrators, and political leaders to adopt such reforms as the elementary school comprised of eight grades in the mid-19th century to the junior high school and comprehensive high school in the 1920s and 1930s to the middle school in the 1960s and small high schools in the 1990s.  Looking across the nation’s 13,000-plus school districts, periodic efforts to reorganize schools from K-5 to K-8 elementary school from grades 7-9 junior high schools to 6th to 8th grade middle schools and four year high schools to six year secondary schools occurred time and again. The idea that reorganizing the grades of the age-graded high school would lead to better teacher and student performance has been a fool’s errand that reformers have pursued over and over (see here and here)

Crouton markers for governing tax-supported public schools

Past and present reformers among educators, civic, and business leaders have argued again and again if only schools were governed differently, teachers would teach well and students would learn more, faster, and better. So there have been continual struggles over whether local school boards–those 13,000-plus districts–should be elected or appointed (or done away with completely). Super-heated rhetoric about improved school board governance (or abolition thereof) leading to leaner, more efficient ways of schooling children and youth has no basis in factual evidence yet persists in 2019 (see here and here).

Getting rid of school boards, mostly in cities, and replacing them with mayoral control has grabbed policymakers’ attention since the 1990s. Big cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Chicago  made their public schools another department of the mayor’s cabinet.  Since adoption, increased efficiencies in teaching, learning, and improved student performance has continued to dance just beyond reformers’ outstretched hands (see here; one study , however, does show positive effects but a review of the study questions its findings).

For Hansel and Gretel, there was a happy ending to the fairy tale. The children were reunited with their father–the stepmother had departed. But school reform is not a fairy tale. There are real consequences for children, teachers, parents and communities when reformers chase the next new curriculum, instructional innovation, reorganization, and nifty governance scheme. There are large historical markers, not bread crumbs, but croutons, that can guide reformers along a path that is slower but truer should they be wise enough to heed.

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Goodbye AltSchool, Hello Altitude Learning

Begun by wealthy high-tech entrepreneur (and ex-Google executive) Max Ventilla in 2013, AltSchool made a splash with its string of private “micro-schools” in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area (tuition was $26,000)–see here, here, and here. Ventilla saw AltSchool as a string of lab schools where progressive ideas could be put into practice and the individualized software that staff designed and used in the “micro-schools” could be bought and used in public schools.

AltSchool “micro-schools’ were ungraded, used project-based learning complete with individually designed “playlists,” small classes, and experienced young teachers. Were John and Evelyn Dewey alive, they would have enrolled their six children in AltSchool.

But, there is always a “but,” running these “micro-schools” was expensive. The business plan (Ventilla raised venture capital of $176 million) was anchored in a dream drawn from the film Field of Dreams: “build it and [they] will come.” The plan depended upon tuition and licensed software bought by public schools. Didn’t work out as Ventilla had dreamed. Spending $40 million a year and taking in $7 million in revenue is a recipe for financial disaster. Ventilla closed some of the “micro-schools in 2017.

And on June 28, 2019, in a press release, came the news:

AltSchool to become Altitude Learning, an educator-run startup powering the growing learner-centered movement

Expanding support for districts nationwide with new approaches to professional development and the products schools need to shift to learner-centered models

  • Altitude Learning to formally launch later this fall
  • As R&D focus ends, tech co-founders pass torch to education industry veterans: Ben Kornell and Devin Vodicka
  • Fast growing partner network representing 300K students: 50% of new contracts for 19-20 school year are public districts, from Alaska to Texas
  • Lab schools to continue, operated by Higher Ground Education, using the Altitude Learning platform

In a blog post six months earlier, Ventilla signaled readers that AltSchool would be changing.

In 2017 we were fortunate to attract a number of world-class career educators and administrators to our team, to guide everything we do. Moving forward, I am pleased to announce Ben Kornell will become President of AltSchool. Ben joined our team back in 2017 as VP of Growth. He’s dedicated his life to reducing educational inequity; he started as a Teach for America middle school teacher and later went to Stanford Business School to learn how to cultivate educational change broadly. As COO of Envision, he helped lead a network of charter schools and scaled a performance assessment system to public schools across the country. Since joining AltSchool, Ben’s led our company’s transition to partnering with public and private schools nationwide. As we continue to integrate the platform into existing school systems, it is essential to have education leaders like Ben at the helm.

I interviewed Ventilla and AltSchool classrooms in November 2016. The creation story of AltSchool, according to Ventilla goes like this:

He and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.

In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He saw beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wanted to do well by doing good.

In 2019, that dream has foundered. New leadership has been appointed. Another organization takes over the remaining “micro-schools.”

Now this is a familiar story about start-ups in Silicon Valley. Plenty of hype, promises, and dreams at the beginning and then the initial slog to turn a profit. More often than not, the pain of hemorrhaging dollars leads to death. Employees update resumes and seek other jobs. But start-up schools are much harder to create and sustain than start-up companies. And when they go belly-up or shift to other managers, both students and their parents plus teachers bear the consequences.

And what did Ventilla learn as he stepped aside as leader. Here is the lesson he learned after six years running AltSchool:

People often ask what I wish I’d known before starting AltSchool and I say: However difficult you think working in education is…multiply that by 10. Life at a startup is hard, but education is exponentially harder.

No kidding.

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