Category Archives: leadership

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.

 

Advertisements

16 Comments

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

“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.

 

6 Comments

Filed under leadership, school leaders, school reform policies

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.

4 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, school reform policies

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.

10 Comments

Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school leaders, technology use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________

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

5 Comments

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

Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 2)

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

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

Second stratum of reform in SJHA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third stratum of reform in SJHA

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

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

*Teachers “adopt” students

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

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

*Summer Bridge

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

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

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

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

____________________________

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

1 Comment

Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Comments

Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies