Category Archives: leadership

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

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

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

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

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

History of network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two key findings are:

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

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

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

 

 

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Insider vs. Outsider Superintendents

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

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

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

Why is that?

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

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

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

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

Washington, D.C. Schools

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

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

Los Angeles Unifed School District

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

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

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

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do insiders or outsiders stay longer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Lessons Learned in School Reform(Frederick Hess)

This article appeared December 13, 2017 in the American Federation of Teachers’ magazine, The American Educator

“Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on K–12 and higher education issues. He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog “Rick Hess Straight Up.” Since 2001, he has served as executive editor of Education Next.

Before joining AEI, Dr. Hess was a high school social studies teacher. He teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard University.”

 

It’s been three decades since I started substitute teaching for beer money in Waltham, Massachusetts, back in the 1980s. It’s been a quarter century since I stopped teaching high school social studies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s been two decades since I first started teaching education policy at the University of Virginia. And it’s been 15 years since I became a scholar of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

In other words, I’ve been in and around schooling for a long time. And, while I’m not the quickest study, like anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in education, I’ve got a gut reaction to the term “school reformer.” For some, it summons images of heroic charter school leaders. For others, it brings to mind “deformers” bent on destroying public education.

For me? It’s something a bit different: I find myself wondering why the handiwork of passionate, well-meaning people so often disappoints. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I say all this as someone who, for many long years, has been labeled a school reformer.

Now, a few reformers will deny that reform has disappointed. They’ll argue that dozens of new teacher-evaluation systems have delivered, never mind the growing piles of paperwork, dubious scoring systems, or lack of evidence that they’ve led to any changes in how many teachers are deemed effective or in need of improvement. They’ll insist that the conception and rollout of the Common Core State Standards went swimmingly, never mind the politicized mess, half-baked implementation, or fractured testing regime. They’ll tell you it doesn’t matter that the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants didn’t move test scores or that Education Next reports that charter schools are less popular today than they’ve been in 15 years.

I’m going to set such claims aside. Having spent a lot of time with reformers over the past 25 years, I can confidently report that most will privately concede that much didn’t work out as hoped or as they’d anticipated. If you think I’m wrong, that things are working out splendidly and just as advertised, then feel free to skip this article and my recent book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer.

Now, at this point, there are those who will sigh, “Of course those reforms didn’t work! They were never supposed to!! They’ve all been part of an ideological crusade to undermine democratic schooling and privatize public education.” They’ll argue that two decades of school reform, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top, was never really intended to be about improving schools. If this is how you see things, you too will probably want to skip this article. Because, after long experience, I’ve found that the lion’s share of reformers—whatever they get right or wrong—are passionate and sincere about wanting to make schools better.

But, if we can agree to set aside hyperbolic claims that reform has “worked” and avoid suggesting that missteps are just part of an evil scheme, we can get to the question I want to discuss: Why have good intentions and energetic efforts so often disappointed? What exactly have we learned from all of this?

What I’ve Learned

On this count, I think I have something useful to share. I want to talk about three lessons I’ve learned along the way.

The Role of Policy

Policy turns out to be a pretty lousy tool for improving education because policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well. And, when it comes to improving schools, doing things well is pretty much the whole ball game. As a policy wonk with a PhD in political science, this realization pained me to no end. Now, don’t get me wrong. I still think policy has an important role to play. Our schools and systems were never designed for what we’re asking them to do today—to rigorously educate every child in a diverse nation. Making that possible will indeed require big changes to policies governing staffing, spending, and much else. That’s why I’m a school reformer. But policy is better at facilitating that kind of rethinking than at forcing it.

Reformers, for instance, have attempted time and again to devise policies that would “turn around” low-performing schools. There was the 1990s-era Comprehensive School Reform Program, the interventions mandated by No Child Left Behind, and the Obama administration’s $7 billion School Improvement Grants program. Unfortunately, the research has found no evidence that any of this worked consistently. Indeed, a recent federal evaluation of the School Improvement Grants program couldn’t unearth any significant effects on learning, no matter how the data were diced. Schools can turn around—we just don’t have a clue about how to make this happen via policy.

Policy is a blunt tool, one that works best when simply making people do things is enough. In schooling, it’s most likely to work as intended when it comes to straightforward directives—like mandating testing or the length of a school year. Policy tends to stumble when it comes to more complex questions—when how things are done matters more than whether they’re done.

Here’s what I mean: Say a governor wants to mandate that all schools offer teacher induction based on a terrific program she’s seen. Her concern is that if the directive is too flexible, some schools will do it enthusiastically and well, but those she’s most concerned about will not. So, she wants to require schools to assign a mentor to each new teacher. But then she worries that the “problem schools” will treat the mentoring as busywork. So, she also wants to require that mentors meet weekly with their charges and document that they’ve addressed 11 key topics in each session. But this still can’t ensure that mentors will treat their duties as more than box-checking, so she wants to require…

You see the problem. Then it gets worse. Far too often, in fact, policy unfolds like a children’s game of telephone. In Washington, D.C., federal officials have a clear vision of what they think a change in guidance on Title I spending should mean. But when officials in 50 states read that new guidance, they don’t all understand it the same way. Those officials have to explain it to thousands of district Title I coordinators, who then provide direction to school leaders and teachers. By that point, bureaucracy, confusion, and nervous compliance can start to become the law of the land. Now, multiply that a hundredfold for the deluge of state and federal rules that rain down. When all this doesn’t work out as hoped, there’s a tendency for those responsible to insist that the policy is sound and any issues are just “implementation problems.” I’ll put this bluntly: there’s no such thing as an implementation problem. It took a while, but I eventually learned that what matters in schooling is what actually happens to 50 million kids in 100,000 schools. That’s all implementation. Calling something an implementation problem is a fancy way to avoid saying that we didn’t realize how a new policy would really work.

We Can’t Patronize Parents…or Give Them a Free Pass

We’ve mucked up the relationship between parents and educators. We’ve lost the confidence to insist that parents have to do their part. Now, it’s important here to remember that the conviction that every child can learn—and that schools should be expected to teach every child—was not always the norm. It represents a tectonic shift and a hard-won victory. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, American education paid a lot of attention to the quality of parenting and far too little to the quality of teaching and schooling. Complaints that parents weren’t doing their part too often seemed to be an excuse for leaving kids behind. I taught and mentored student teachers in that era, in a number of schools across several states, and can testify that it wasn’t unusual to hear educators declare that certain students were unteachable and that it was their parents’ fault.

Today, that mindset is regarded as unacceptable. Teachers are expected to teach every child. That’s a wonderful thing. I fear, though, that the insistence that parents do their part has been lost along the way. Talk of parental responsibility has come to be seen as little more than a case of blaming the victim. The result is that we just don’t talk very much anymore, at least in public, about whether parents insist that their kids do their homework or respect their teachers. When students are truant, we hesitate to say anything that would imply parents are at fault. When only a handful of parents show up at parent-teacher meetings, reformers are conspicuously mum. If they do take note, it’s usually only to lament that parents are overworked and overburdened.

Obviously, these are thorny questions. Parents frequently are overburdened. But there’s a necessary balance here, and we’ve managed to tip from one extreme to the other. Education is always a handshake between families and schools. It can help to think about this in terms of healthcare. When we say people are good doctors, we mean that they’re competent and responsible; we don’t mean that they perform miracles. If a doctor tells you to reduce your cholesterol and you keep eating steak, we don’t label the physician a “bad doctor.” We hold the doctor responsible for doing her job, but expect patients to do their part, too. When the patient is a child, the relationship is the same—but the parents assume a crucial role. If a diabetic child ignores the doctor’s instructions on monitoring blood sugar, we don’t blame the doctor. And we don’t blame the kid. We expect parents to take responsibility and make sure it gets done.

When it comes to the handshake between parents and educators, though, that same understanding has broken down. Talk of parental responsibility is greeted with resistance and even accusations of bias. Yet parents have an outsized impact on their children’s academic future. Children whose parents read to them, talk to them, and teach them self-discipline are more likely to succeed academically.

The point is decidedly not to scapegoat parents or to judge them. I know all too well how tough and exhausting parenthood can be. The point is to clarify for parents what they should be doing and help them do those things well. Today, we ask educators to accept responsibility for the success of all their students. Good. How students fare, though, is also a product of whether they do their work and take their studies seriously. Some of that truly is beyond the reach of educators. So, by all means, let’s call teachers to account—let’s just be sure to do it for parents, too.

The Crucial Partnership between Talkers and Doers

School reform isn’t about having good ideas—it’s about how those ideas actually work for students and educators. This can be hard for those gripped by a burning desire to make the world a better place in a hurry. Reformers need to sweat things like perverse incentives and paperwork burdens—even when they’d rather focus on larger issues like equity or injustice. They must consider how reforms will affect the day-to-day lives of students, families, and educators. It can seem like good ideas and good intentions should count for more than they do. They don’t.

Most educators innately know all this, of course. After all, they spend their days working in schools. They tend to think granularly, in terms of individual students, curricular units, and instructional strategies. Educators are deeply versed in the fabric of schooling and experience the unintended consequences of reforms. This is why it’s easy for them to get so frustrated with self-styled reformers.

Educators are right to be skeptical. Reformers and practitioners will inevitably see things differently. But what frustrated teachers can miss is that this is OK, even healthy. Educators are looking from the inside out, and reformers from the outside in. In all walks of life, there are doers and there are talkers. Doers are the people who teach students, attend to patients, and fix plumbing. Talkers are free to survey the sweep of what’s being done and explore ways to do it better.

Ultimately, serious and sustainable school reform needs to be profoundly pro-doer. When talkers wax eloquent about students trapped in dysfunctional systems, they often forget that many teachers feel equally stymied. The bureaucracy that reformers decry can also infuriate and demoralize the teachers who live with it every day. Educators see when policies misfire and where existing practices come up short. Talkers have the time to examine the big picture, learn from lots of locales, and forge relationships with policymakers. Talkers have the distance to raise hard truths that can be tough for educators to address simply because they strike so close to home. But it’s ultimately the doers—the educators—who have to do the work, which means talkers need to pay close attention to what educators have to say. There’s a crucial symbiosis here: teachers and talkers need each other.

How I Hope to Do Better

Look, I’ll offer a confession: I’m not an especially nice guy. When I suggest that talkers and doers need to listen to those who see things differently, that policymakers are well-served by humility, or that reform needs to work for teachers as well as students, it’s not because I want everyone to get along. It’s because education improvement is hard work. Doing it well is at least as much about discipline and precision as it is about passion. What I’m counseling is not niceness but professionalism. This means listening more deliberately and speaking more selectively. It’s tough to listen, though, when we’re constantly shouting at one another.

It may not fit the tenor of the times. But I’ve learned that, if we’re to do better going forward, we all need to respect the limits of policy, ask more of parents, and appreciate the symbiosis of talkers and doers—while also always remembering that in schooling, it’s the doing that counts.

 

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Scaling Up “Successful” Reforms (Part 1)

Recently a journalist contacted me to discuss the closure of a Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis after five years and the jeopardy of the charter network’s expansion from its original Yuma (AZ) location (see here and here; YouTube marketing video here).

We talked about the historic difficulties of “scaling up” innovations in public schools. I offered some examples of how hard it is to take a “successful” innovation and grow it quickly elsewhere in the name of efficiency (economies of scale) and effectiveness (to help more children and youth). In many instances, pressure to “scale up” from pilot projects to networks of schools seeded in different locations came from ambitious school officials, impatient donors, and entrepreneurial investors. Too often they overlooked the common teacher practice of adapting an innovation to the specific setting, a practice that is as old as teaching itself. Classroom adaptations, of course, alter the innovation.

After we got off the phone I recalled other innovations over the past 60 years that tried to “scale up” from pilot projects. Many stumbled in their expansion, especially those aimed at altering how teachers traditionally teach, for  reasons that contemporary reformers might heed before thinking big.

One that came to mind was the Higher Horizons Project in New York City between the late-1950s through the mid-1960s.

A 1964 report summarized the program’s origin in a pilot junior high school and then its rapid expansion to scores of other city schools.

Higher Horizons originated as a program to uncover latent ability among culturally deprived children and to provide the gifted children with remedial instruction and “enrichment” experiences, such as trips to art galleries, concerts, and the theater. The ultimate object was to lift the aspirations of gifted youngsters from the slums by encouraging them to believe in their ability to advance their station in life through education. Success of the experiment is indicated by the fact that a relatively large percentage of the participating pupils have completed high school and gone on to college.

The program has now been opened to any child who can benefit from it, whether or not he has more than average ability. Each school is free to choose any part of Higher Horizons that fits the particular needs of its students. In general, the program provides extra teachers or “curriculum assistants,” remedial classes (especially in arithmetic and reading), activities that draw parents into closer relationships with the schools, and field trips and other excursions for cultural enrichment.

In “scaling up” New York City school officials extended the mission of the program to nearly all students responding, in part, politically to the growing civil rights movement in the city protesting segregated schools and funding inequities.  In broadening the program to many more schools and permitting schools to pick and choose pieces of the innovation, district officials spent little time or attention upon school-site implementation or how teachers taught. Moreover, they provided less money and staffing to newly-labeled Higher Horizon schools than in the pilot junior high school. Subsequent evaluations of the scaled-up program showed little to no gains in academic achievement or school improvement (see here and here).

What New York City officials did in the 1960s to “scale up” a promising demonstration program and spread it to many other schools to increase both teacher and school efficiency and effectiveness has occurred many times over the past half-century and continues to exist in 2017.

Consider, for example, Rocketship charter schools, a network that began in 2005 in one K-5 San Jose elementary school enrolling mostly poor Latino students. Co-founder John Danner, who had made his wealth in selling a Silicon Valley start up, became a middle school teacher and then afterwards established a cluster of schools, using mostly Teach for America newcomers. The idea was to alter dramatically how elementary schools are structured and, at the same time, use online lessons in reading and math. The school divided children’s time between a large chunk of time sitting in cubicles–the “Learning Lab”–doing online lessons supervised by teacher aides and another chunk of the school day in classrooms with teachers doing regular lessons (see here  and here,). In accepting the prestigious McNulty Prize in 2010, Danner said:

Today, we have three flourishing schools in San Jose, California; in just five years, we intend to increase that number to 30 schools, and in 10 years, we will have built out a national network of hundreds of successful schools.

Danner left Rocketship in 2013 when there were seven schools in the San Jose area, a school in Milwaukee, and plans for a school in Nashville. By that time, Rocketship had secured approval to open 30 schools in Santa Clara County in five years.

In 2017, however, there are 14 Rocketship schools in the Bay Area, Milwaukee, and Nashville including one that opened last year in Washington, D.C.

Going to the scale that the co-founders of the charter network sought has been an arduous process marked by program shifts, slow growth, and the inevitable stumbles that accompany expansion of programs aiming to alter school structure and traditional teaching.

Which brings me back to the journalist’s question about the Carpe Diem charter that closed in Indianapolis. Part 2 of this post analyzes why “scaling up” is so hard to do.

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Insider or Outsider? : Superintendents in Big Cities

In Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board appointed an insider–Michelle King–superintendent earlier this year after a string of prior superintendents came from outside the district.

In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio appointed an insider–Carmen Farina– Chancellor in 2014 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg had appointed three outsiders since 2000.

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

Why is that?

Outsiders have been appointed time and again in these districts because the unspoken and strong belief was that the serious educational, social, and political problems besetting the schools needed an innovative, energetic, outsider, unbeholden to those inside the district. An outsider, policy elites assumed, would shake the system by the scruff of its neck in turning around a failing district–disrupt is the fashionable word today. Insiders who had risen through the ranks would prize stability while looking for incremental improvements. Insiders have been immersed in a network of relationships with peers and subordinates would be reluctant to disturb bureaucratic procedures, rules in effect for decades, and bonds of affection and respect for long-time peers and subordinates. Insiders would be loath to importing new staff and  innovations from elsewhere. They would rather seek new ideas and programs from sharp, knowledgeable insiders.

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

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

Washington, D.C. Schools

This situation now faces the mayor of Washington, D.C. who has to replace exiting Chancellor Kaya Henderson who has served six years. Her predecessor outsider Michelle Rhee who brought in Henderson with her was Mayor Adrian Fenty’s first mayoral appointment; she served 2007-2010. Now with the departure of Henderson,  Mayor Muriel Bowser who recently announced a national search for a successor to Henderson is faced with a similar issue of appointing an insider or outsider after the search is completed (see here) The Mayor knows well that the District of Columbia schools have had a long string of school-board appointed outsiders. To be specific,  over nearly sixty years, there have been 14 superintendents (excluding interim appointees) of whom 11 were outsiders (including Rhee and Henderson). The three insiders were Vince Reed, 1975-1980, Floretta McKenzie,  1981-1988, and Andrew Jenkins, 1988-1990. Reed and McKenzie served with distinction; Jenkins was fired.

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

Scholars who have written about “superintendent succession”–the academic phrase for picking the next district leader–have studied this issue for over a half-century. Looking at insiders and outsiders who school boards appoint to the highest district post has produced a growing body of literature on a series of questions arising from who follows whom in a school district. Such questions as:

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do insiders or outsiders stay longer?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

So D.C.  Mayor Muriel Bowser doing a national search to replace Kaya Henderson–such a search already tilts toward appointing an outsider–should at the very least consider what researchers have found out about superintendent succession.

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

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School and Classroom Cultures: Easy To Describe but Tough To Create and Sustain

Probably the most important—and the most difficult—job of an instructional leader is to change the prevailing culture of a school. The school’s culture dictates, in no uncertain terms, ‘the way we do things around here.’ A school’s culture has far more influence on life and learning in the schoolhouse than the president of the country, the state department of education, the superintendent, the school board, or even the principal, teachers, and parents can ever have. One cannot, of course, change a school culture alone. But one can provide forms of leadership that invite others to join as observers of the old, architects of the new. The effect must be to transform what we did last September into what we would like to do next September.

Roland Barth, “The Culture Builder,” Educational Leadership, 5( 8) May 2002, p. 6

 

We speak of classroom and school cultures glibly. Listen to both experts and practitioners describe creating and sustaining a positive school culture for learning as if building it were as easy as a paint-by-numbers picture (see here, here, and here).

Both principals and teachers are leaders who can and do create cultures, knowingly and unknowingly, with the aid of students. Consider that teachers create from scratch a culture for learning (or not learning) in their classrooms. If they are novices, newcomers bring a clean slate although student carry into classrooms expectations and attitudes about what classroom teaching and learning should be all about. Experienced teachers in a school have already created cultures that students have heard about from brothers and sisters and other students. In even the most dismal of “dropout factories” in big cities, there will be some teachers whose classroom cultures have created islands of learning in a failing school. When that teacher leaves the school, the island disappears.

In entering elementary and secondary school classrooms, say after two months of the academic year have gone by, students and astute observers can see and feel immediately that there is “the way we do things around here.” Even if students cannot put into words what they feel about a particular teacher’s classroom, they surely sense the unwritten rules when they move from their kindergarten teacher to the first grade classroom across the hall. So do secondary school students as they shift classes every hour from math to English to history to science. Not only are subjects different but each teacher’s beliefs, attitudes, academic focus, and daily practices shape that classroom culture. Consider the way the teacher gets students’ attention–countdown from 5 to 1, hand claps. Or asks questions–call names of students before or after question. Or listen to students–eye contact and building on student answers. Or get students to participate and collaborate–small groups, pairs. The signals and unwritten rules reflect the norms, rituals, and beliefs about learning that teachers have created for their 600 square feet of turf. Classroom cultures span different but crucial continua such as between positive to negative, active to passive, safe to unsafe in asking questions, the prizing of curiosity to enforcing compliance. Students and keen visitors pick up these different aspects of classroom culture in the agenda for the classroom lesson, the kind, amount, and quality of the back-and-forth between teacher and students, what’s on the walls of the room, how the furniture is organized, and scores of other clues. Culture becomes the air students breathe when they enter and exit classrooms.

Same issue of culture, of how “we do things around here,”  applies to the school. and here is where the principal enters the scene. Principals of 500- to 1500 students schools cannot directly create a positive climate but they surely can create the conditions for both teachers and students where one can flourish. If any research finding has persisted over time, it is that principals have an indirect effect on students attitudes, behaviors, and academic performance through building structures and conditions that communicate at a glance and in a few words “how we do things around here” (see here, here, and here).

But a school culture is not a thing that can be put together like a LEGO truck. It is a fragile creation. Neither is there a technology that can fix a school culture by a pill, an injection, or even dumping the principal. Nor is there a recipe where tablespoons of vision, teaspoons of collaboration, and salt and pepper individuals create the positive, learning-prone, problem solving ethos that pervades some but hardly most schools. There are many moving parts to a school culture that interact in a moment in time. In a flash–the departure of a principal, sudden staff turnover–can cripple a school culture. No recipe exists for re-building that previous culture. It is a mix of ineffable ingredients that include a principal’s beliefs, character, traits, determination, and political finesse to create a coalition of teachers, students, and parents to secure resources, and slowly build brick-by-brick a school culture that meshes with the community.

 

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Schools and Obesity (Part 1)

Recent articles trumpet that rates of children and adult obesity are not getting better (see here and here). In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched an anti-obesity campaign “Let’s Move” to reduce rates of childhood obesity. While the campaign has gained traction results have been disappointing. As she said recently: “Right now, one in three kids in the U.S. is overweight or obese – for African American and Hispanic kids, the rate is nearly 40 percent. And obesity is now one of the leading causes for preventable death and disease in the United States.”

The “Let’s Move” campaign has cultivated close ties with large corporations (e.g., Wal-Mart) to persuade large companies to sell healthy product, directed media attention to overweight children and perils to their health as adults, and gained bipartisan support for a federal law in 2010 that mandated free-and-reduced price meals for 21 million children containing more healthy ingredients like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy products . The First Lady has gone to schools highlighting healthier lunches, bans on sugary sodas and fast food, and increased physical activity during the school day. She exercised with children and ate the nutritious meals served at lunch-time. While schools have been an important of the campaign, they have not been a wholly exclusive part of “Let’s Move” for the past five years. Note the words: “important” and “wholly exclusive” in referring to the role of schools in this and similar anti-obesity campaigns. As has national socioeconomic problems in the early 20th century such as Americanizing waves of eastern and southern European immigrants, seeking racial equity in desegregation since 1954 and, since the early 1980s, a stronger economy through tougher standards, accountability, and testing, the U.S.’s obesity problem has not become “educationalized.” Schools are part of any solution to obesity, campaigners assert, but the epidemic of obesity reaches into homes, stores, and the structures of a market-driven capitalism.

Why is that?

As rates of obesity in both children and adults trend upward–the U.S. has the highest per-capita rate among developed nations–and its effects on health have shown up in higher rates of diabetes,cancer, and heart diseases, obesity, especially among minority and low-income families, is seen as a multi-layered, complex phenomenon rooted in family habits, social class, cultural patterns, and corporate profits gained from marketing and selling fast foods and sodas. (Some of these long-term effects and complexity of obesity is captured in the sci-fi film WALL-E about morbidly fat earthlings circling the planet on ships waiting for it to be habitable). Focusing on public schools, then, would be short-sighted, incomplete, and diversionary from disentangling the many threads that have created a society that over-eats and under-exercises.

The entangled roots of obesity reach far beyond being an individual or even a school problem. It is a community and national issue that involves a mix of political, economic, and social actions (e.g., large food purveyors lobbying Kentucky’s legislators to permit use of food stamps for buying fast food restaurants like Taco Bell) is captured in recent proposed policies to reduce numbers of overweight children and adults. For example,  increased taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, more calorie disclosures and color-coding of labels, new zoning regulations that would restrict fast food outlets near schools while providing incentives for healthy food stores in underserved neighborhoods.

That obesity is a multi-faceted problems anchored in cross-cutting factors that go well beyond schools is picked up by some cities that have launched comprehensive programs to improve the inhabitants’ health. Consider Louisville (KY). With foundation help and public funds, the metropolitan area has taken on the task of improving the health of its residents. The Project lists socioeconomic factors that affect a community’s health (e.g., social support for family, jobs, education, income, community safety); health behaviors (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, obesity); clinical care (e.g., access to physicians, dentists, and health screenings); and the physical environment (e.g., parks, roads, air and water quality). Like other cities engaged in such an effort, policymakers see the complexity of obesity as a health problem rooted in many factors that have to be addressed, one of which is schools.

That wisdom about the problem of obesity has yet to emerge among those reformers who see schools as the prime mover in decreasing poverty and economic inequalities. I take up how obesity and poverty as major problems facing the nation have contrary strategies in Part 2.

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