Category Archives: leadership

Educator Discussions That Avoid “The Problem”

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

____________________________

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

 

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Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

Can Superintendents Raise Test Scores?

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

 

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

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

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

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

Here is what the researchers found:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Whatever Happened to Site-Based Decision-making?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does site-based decision making work?

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

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

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

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

What has happened to site-based decision making

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

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

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

 

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Why Principals Differ: Joe, Ralph, and Edna

The film Lean on Me portrays high school principal Joe Clark in Paterson, New Jersey in the early 1980s rescuing a school mired in violence and poor academic performance. In one dramatic scene, over two hundred troublemakers are on the auditorium stage. The rest of the student body sitting in the auditorium watch as Clark at the microphone–played by a young Morgan Freeman– quiets everyone including those students standing behind him. Clark tells the students that those on stage have caused all the trouble and to turn around this school, they must be removed.

Facing the two-hundred mischief-makers milling around on stage, Clark points his finger at them and says: “You are expurgated! You are no longer welcome in this school.” The school security staff in blue blazers shoves them out of the doors.

Joe Clark’s kicking out troublesome students pleased movie crowds 30 years ago as it did the country when they learned about this baseball bat-toting principal. In real life, Joe Clark got in trouble with the school board over expelling the students yet he had his 15 minutes of fame and continued as an educator until he retired.

joe-clark-time.jpg

But he was a sprinter principal, not a marathoner.

Lean on Me lays out the fantasy Americans have about their principals. We want fearless school leaders but get managers with keys dangling on their belts. This expectation of principal-as-Superman (or Wonder Woman) is fairly common but few principals are Clark Kents in mufti. Most principals want to be leaders but cannot because they are caught in the middle between their district bosses wanting them to follow policy, parents wanting their requests fulfilled, teachers wanting to be left alone, and students wanting teachers who teach. Principals learn to navigate among potential conflicts by being managers and politicians juggling competing expectations and constituencies. The DNA of the job is managing and taking few risks.

Take Ralph, a veteran administrator who presides over a suburban elementary school. He is a friendly, forty-ish fellow who is fond of playing the guitar for sing-alongs with kindergartners. He trusts his teachers to do the right thing so he seldom visits classrooms. Neither children nor teachers, however, give him headaches. Parents do.

As he sees it, parents press their children to achieve, achieve, and achieve. He sees that pressure in the third-grade girl bursting in tears at a “B” on a report card or the fifth-grade boy throwing a tantrum at being asked to re-do homework. Parents constantly ask him to assign their children to particular teachers whose students perform well on state tests. If Ralph hesitates in responding to their requests, they are on the phone to the superintendent asking why Ralph is always dragging his feet.

Yet Ralph also knows that these are the same parents who raised $30,000 for the school to meet teacher requests for laptops and class trips. Ralph is trapped by the conflicting expectations of teachers, parents, and his bosses. His primary task is to keep parents satisfied, teachers protected, and children working. He manages as best as he can but he is caught in the middle.

A few principals, however, are like Edna who was appointed to a working-class black and Latino middle school. A Ralph-like principal had been there ten years letting teachers do what they pleased even as the school’s academic performance plummeted. The superintendent told her to raise those test scores. Edna knew that her largely white staff needed prodding and support if they were ever to share her belief that all students can learn.

In the first year she observed classrooms constantly, determining which teachers would stay and which would go. She made teachers responsible for what happened in hallways. She recruited parents and teachers to become part of a new school council to help her make school-wide decisions. She got students to volunteer to paint murals on hallway walls and pick up litter on school grounds.

Then she turned to academics. She asked teachers for a plan to improve academic instruction. The teachers’ plan was reviewed by parents, amended, and put into practice in year two. She scrounged funds to support teacher summer training.

Not until year four, was there a flutter in test scores. But what made the superintendent, parents, teachers, and students ardent supporters of Edna was that the school was becoming a community where children and adults had come together to work for the school rather than for themselves.

In year five, the superintendent appointed Edna to be his assistant superintendent and assigned another Ralph to the school.

Why are there more Ralphs than Ednas? The answer is: A job that forces risk-averse principals to manage bosses, parents, teachers, and students creates Ralphs. Risk-seeking Ednas relish managing conflicts and escape the trap of being caught in the middle. But too often end up leaving the principalship.

 

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XQ Is Taking Over TV To Make the Case That High School Hasn’t Changed in 100 Years. But Is That True? (Matt Barnum)

“Matt Barnum is Chalkbeat’s national reporter covering education policy and research. Previously he was a staff writer at The 74, the policy director for Educators for Excellence – New York, and a middle school language arts teacher in Colorado.” This article appeared September 6, 2017

Here is a classic example of how the debate over reforming schools confuses policymakers, donors, practitioners, and parents. What does the word “change” mean? The concept of “change” is the fuel that drives school reform policies past and present. But policymakers and donors seldom ask: what kind of “change” do we want? Incremental? Fundamental? Nor do these well-intentioned but ill-informed decision-makers ask the essential question:   change toward what ends? 

 

Education policy rarely makes national television. But on Friday night, a special focused on redesigning America’s high schools — and featuring Tom Hanks, Jennifer Hudson, and Common — will be taking over the airwaves of ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX.

The broadcast, “XQ Super School Live,” is an extension of XQ, a project of the Emerson Collective, the organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs…. In the last year, XQ has awarded $100 million to innovative schools across the country, including some with a heavy emphasis on technology.

The goal: to call attention to how high school “has remained frozen in time” and to support promising alternatives.

“For the past 100 years America’s high schools have remained virtually unchanged, yet the world around us has transformed dramatically,” intones the familiar voice of Samuel L. Jackson in a video promoting the TV event.

It’s a view U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shares. “Far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago, and the world today is much different,” DeVos recently said while visiting a Florida charter school.

But is it true? Is it really the case that high schools haven’t seen major change over the last century?

Chalkbeat asked several education historians for their take. They said no, schools have changed — in some respects significantly — over the last several decades.

However, XQ has a point in saying that the basic setup of schooling has remained largely intact, they said.

“The ‘grammar’ of high schooling has stayed fairly static,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “Kids take seven or eight subjects, the major subjects have stayed fairly static, [students] move from room to room, school begins around 7 or 8 and ends around 3.”

“I can understand why in a lot of ways, in terms of structure, it feels like high schools haven’t changed,” said Ansley Erickson, an assistant professor of history and education at Columbia University Teachers College. But, she said, there has been a massive transformation of high school from an institution for a chosen few into a mass institution for virtually all teenagers in the country.

“To say that high school hasn’t changed might potentially miss that major transformation,” Erickson said.

Zimmerman largely agreed.

“If by this claim [XQ] is asserting that high schools today share some fundamental elements with high schools 100 years ago, I’m with them,” he said. “But that’s very different from saying nothing has changed.”

Like Erickson, he pointed to the “birth of mass high school” as a major change. “It’s not until the 1930 that the majority of adolescents attended high schools, and it’s not until the 1950s that the majority graduate from one,” Zimmerman said.

He also pointed to several ways the content and structure of American high school has changed, and sometimes changed back: the development and decline of vocational tracks; an increased emphasis on “life skills” followed by a greater focus on academics post-Sputnik; the diversification of high school offerings (into what some have called the ”shopping mall” high school) followed by the rise of small high schools.

Jack Schneider, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, was more scathing in his assessment of XQ’s assertion.

“Ahistorical claims about outmoded schools are designed to persuade us that public education is run by incompetents,” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “If that’s the case, maybe disruption is the cost we need to bear in pursuit of progress. But the truth is that the schools have been constantly evolving over time, in ways large and small.”

In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, Schneider elaborated on what has changed:

“A century ago, teachers were largely untrained and oversaw very large classes in which rote memorization was the rule. Students brought their own books from home and the curriculum varied from school to school. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common and classical languages still maintained a strong foothold. Students of color, when educated, were largely denied equal access, and special education did not exist. It was a different world.”

In recent years, America’s graduation rates have been rising and dropout rates have been falling. National test scores have generally been flat, overall, for high schoolers. (There remains significant debate about the causes of those trends, including the impact of changing student demographics and graduation standards.)

History aside, the key policy question today is whether high schools would benefit from the kind of dramatic rethinking XQ is encouraging.

The underlying assumption of XQ is that the relatively static nature of some aspects of high school suggests the answer is yes. But the fact that these methods have been persistent could also mean just the opposite.

“There are other moments when people have said we need to reconceptualize high school,” said Erickson. “This is not the first one of these.”

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A Story about District Test Scores

This story is not about current classrooms and schools. Neither is this story about coercive accountability, unrealistic curriculum standards or the narrowness of highly-prized tests in judging district quality. This is a story well before Race to the Top, Adequate Yearly Progress, and “growth scores” entered educators’ vocabulary.

The story is about a district over 40 years ago that scored one point above comparable districts on a single test and what occurred as a result. There are two lessons buried in this story–yes, here’s the spoiler. First, public perceptions of  standardized test scores as a marker of “success” in schooling has a long history of being far more powerful than observers have believed  and, second, that the importance of students scoring well on key tests predates A Nation at Risk (1983), Comprehensive School Reform Act (1998), and No Child Left Behind (2002)

 

I was superintendent of the Arlington (VA) public schools between 1974-1981. In 1979 something happened that both startled me and gave me insight into the public power of test scores. The larger lesson, however, came years after I left the superintendency when I began to understand the potent drive that everyone has to explain something, anything, by supplying a cause, any cause, just to make sense of what occurred.

In Arlington then, the school board and I were responsible for a district that had declined in population (from 20,000 students to 15,000) and had become increasingly minority (from 15 percent to 30). The public sense that the district was in free-fall, we felt, could be arrested by concentrating on academic achievement, critical thinking, expanding the humanities, and improved teaching. After five years, both the board and I felt we were making progress.

State  test scores–the coin of the realm in Arlington–at the elementary level climbed consistently each year. The bar charts I presented at press conferences looked like a stairway to the stars and thrilled school board members. When scores were published in local papers, I would admonish the school board to keep in mind that these scores were  a very narrow part of what occurred daily in district schools. Moreover, while scores were helpful in identifying problems, they were severely inadequate in assessing individual students and teachers. My admonitions were generally swept aside, gleefully I might add, when scores rose and were printed school-by-school in newspapers. This hunger for numbers left me deeply skeptical about standardized test scores as signs of district effectiveness.

Then along came  a Washington Post article in 1979 that showed Arlington to have edged out Fairfax County, an adjacent and far larger district, as having the highest Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores among eight districts in the metropolitan area (yeah, I know it was by one point but when test scores determine winners  and losers as in horse-races, Arlington had won by a nose).

I knew that SAT results had nothing whatsoever to do with how our schools performed. It was a national standardized instrument to predict college performance of individual students; it was not constructed to assess district effectiveness. I also knew that the test had little to do with what Arlington teachers taught. I told that to the school board publicly and anyone else who asked about the SATs. Few listened.

Nonetheless, the Post article with the box-score of  test results produced more personal praise, more testimonials to my effectiveness as a superintendent, and, I believe, more acceptance of the school board’s policies than any single act during the seven years I served. People saw the actions of the Arlington school board and superintendent as having caused those SAT scores to outstrip other Washington area districts.

The lessons I learned in 1979 is that, first, public perceptions of high-value markers of “quality,” in this instance, test scores, shape concrete realities that policymakers such as a school board and superintendent face in making budgetary, curricular, and organizational decisions. Second, as a historian of education I learned that using test scores to judge a district’s “success” began in the late-1960s when newspapers began publishing district and school-by-school test scores pre-dating by decades the surge of such reporting in the 1980s and 1990s.

This story and its lessons I have never forgotten.

 

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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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