Category Archives: leadership

Lessons Learned in School Reform(Frederick Hess)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I’ve Learned

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

The Role of Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crucial Partnership between Talkers and Doers

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

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

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

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

How I Hope to Do Better

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

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




Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Scaling Up “Successful” Reforms (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Insider or Outsider? : Superintendents in Big Cities

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

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

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

Why is that?

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

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

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

Washington, D.C. Schools

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

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

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

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do insiders or outsiders stay longer?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



Filed under how teachers teach, leadership

Schools and Obesity (Part 1)

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

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

Why is that?

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

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

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

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


Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Charter Schools, Politics, and Democracy (Part 2)

Deborah Meier offered her views on the purposes of publicly-funded charter schools in Part 1. Part 2 offers views of others who have supported and opposed charters over the past decade. Before offering their views, however, I would like to frame the overall back-and-forth on charters historically–a debate that has been ongoing since their origin in Minnesota in 1991 but stretches back to the beginnings of compulsory, tax-supported public schooling.

1. Compulsory, tax-supported public schools are political inventions. They have been established to achieve political, social, and economic purposes. Publicly funded charter schools are the most recent incarnation of this fact. Current political debate contests the different purposes of schooling in a democracy. So in Part 1 Deborah Meier says: make all public education less selective, less tracked, and more consciously democratic. That is a political purpose for public schools. The political split among charter supporters and opponents, many of the former pushing an economic, marketplace-driven purpose for schooling and some of the latter a democratic, civic engagement one, tries to elevate one historic purpose of public schooling over another. Politically contesting the purposes of compulsory public schools is neither new nor transient: it is constant.

2. Charter schools are here to stay. After every reform movement in the history of U.S. public schools, some reforms have disappeared (e.g., the Platoon School and the Dalton Plan) and some have stuck (e.g., age-graded schools, kindergarten, standardized tests and accountability). Charter schools will stick. In expanding parental choice, publicly-funded charter schools have found a niche (currently six percent of all public schools) in urban districts. As long as there are urban and suburban schools that fail their students (as measured by test scores, graduation rates, well-being of students, etc.), charter schools will flourish.

3. Variation among charter schools in quality–however measured–is similar to variation in regular public schools. Whether the yardstick is test scores, graduation rate, college attendance (all three, or add one of your choice), there are high performing, middle range, and low-performing charters and conventional public schools. Percentages may go up or down but the variation remains constant in each realm.


I use these statements to frame the initial post by Joe Nathan on March 26, 2015, part of Deborah Meier’s response (Part 1) and then other comments that were posted to a threaded discussion by a group of Meier’s colleagues. First, Joe Nathan.

Deb, we’ve agreed to discuss what I call “chartering” and the “charter public school movement” represents. Here’s what I see, both good and bad.  As Ted Kolderie, one of the founders of chartering explained, it’s a “simple yet radical idea: allowing enterprising people — including teachers and other educators — to start innovative public schools.” I’d add that chartering permits people to create new public schools within some limits. The schools must be non-sectarian,  open to all, no admissions tests permitted, and required to have a contract (also known as a charter) specifying results to be achieved over a set period. In exchange for explicit expectation for results, charters receive waivers from many state requirements. Charters are required to use buildings that meet state requirements, take state assessments, and follow federal laws.

Thus, chartering does not represent any single curriculum, instructional approach, or philosophy about the best way to organize learning and teaching. There’s no “typical” chartered school.

Charter laws vary, but these expectations are included in the model state law that some of us developed, and which has been refined by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

At best chartering provides:

1. Opportunities to help youngsters like Pierre and Alia. These were high school students who had not succeeded in traditional high schools.  They blossomed at High School for Recording Arts, a terrific charter in St. Paul that St. Paul that helps youngsters use their love of music to create videos, as develop stronger academic and social skills. This school doesn’t have a terrific four-year graduation rate or high test scores.  But it has helped hundreds of previously unsuccessful youngsters “find themselves,” graduate and enter some form of further education or work. 

The same is happening in many charters.  I’ve charter all over the nation, such as Grizzly Prep in Memphis and Codman Academy in Boston.  Both are great inner city schools promoting character development, arts and academic excellence. Among many other examples are the Yes Prep group of schools in Houston.  This is a group of junior/senior high school charters with many youngsters who report they are doing far better than they did before. Yes Prep also has encouraging statistics about the percentage of their students from  (mostly) low income families who are continuing and graduating from some form of higher education.

I’d say the same for several of the KIPP schools that I’ve visited. In many, art and music are strong promoted, along with strong academics and a belief that young people can succeed.

2. Opportunities to create professional opportunities for educators.  For example, Minnesota New Country School,  and EdVisions. This group developed to support MNCS and more than 30 other schools, are great examples. (Full disclosure – EdVisions serves as our fiscal agent). At Minnesota New Country and other “teacher led” or “teacher powered” schools that MNCS has helped develop, teachers are a majority of the board that runs the school. They set their salaries, hours and working conditions. A poll last year found that a majority of teachers would like the opportunity to work in such a school.  There are other examples of conversions from district to a chartered school.   For example, Yvonne Chan and Vaughn Next Century Learning Center converted from a Los Angeles United district school. Educators were able to obtain equipment and supplies much more quickly and sometimes less expensively by negotiating directly with companies, rather than through the complex district process.

3. A new environment in which sometimes districts respond to chartering by providing e new opportunities to their own educators. For example:

* Boston (District) Pilot schools, initially suggested by the Boston Teachers Union and rejected by the local school board. But when Massachusetts’ legislature adopted a charter law, the local board reconsidered and approved the Pilot idea. The Center for Collaborative Education
has done a wonderful job documenting what’s happened with Pilots.

* A Minnesota law suggested by teacher unions allowing them to create new district options. We’re currently working with unions to obtain startup funds.

* Traditional districts that asked their educators to create, for example, Montessori or Core Knowledge options after parents proposed them, were rejected and discussed creating charters.

4. Interest in broadening how student growth is assessed.  Some charters use, for example, portfolios, performance and other, broader approaches along with state tests. This is in part because they have contracts for performance and are expected to show progress with students. Responsibility for results beyond anecdotes helped produce a recent report on how to assess “alternative” public schools. Another is the effort to assess persistence and goal setting, called the “Hope Survey.” 

5. Support for two deep, important beliefs:  First, that a wide variety of youngsters, regardless of background, can do better. I think this is one of the reasons chartering has grown so far in the last

twenty years. It’s not a belief that schools can solve all of society’s problems.  But it’s a belief that we can do better. Second, a belief that educators should have opportunities, within some limits, to create the kinds of schools they think make sense. Teachers legitimately complain that they are being held accountable for results but often are not given opportunities to organize schools as they think the schools should operate.

6. Alternatives in rural communities to school consolidation. Some of the finest charters are in small, rural communities which were threatened with, and in some cases, had their local school(s) closed by school boards that bought into the “bigger is better” or “bigger is less expensive” ideas. Often, neither is true.

Those are good things. Now here are a few of the things that concern me:

1. Failure to skillfully, successfully monitor how some charters operate.  You’re familiar with scandals involving charters.  Some people have exploited opportunities. This happens in some traditional schools and teacher unions too.  But it is infuriating, wherever it happens.  We are learning more about how to monitor schools.  But there have been scandals and unacceptable exploitation of opportunities that chartering provides.  

2. Abuse of freedom to sometimes make huge profits and pay unseemly salaries.

3. Some over-reliance on traditional standardized measures.   You and I have agreed on the importance of multiple measures.  Some involved with chartering agree.  Others promote their schools primarily on the basis of test scores and/or graduation rates.

4. Unwillingness in some cases to work creatively with students with special needs.  Again, I see this in the district sector as well, with creation of district or regional magnet schools with admissions tests that exclude many youngsters with special needs.  Public schools, district or chartered, should be open to all.

5. Unwillingness, sometimes, to learn from some district school successes, and previous efforts to improve schools.  There are some great district schools and educators.  We all need to respect and learn from them.  So a big “shout out” to Educators for Excellence-Minnesota.  They regularly convene district and charter educators to learn from eachother.

6. Unwillingness by some charters to share information about public funds are spent. Most state laws requre yearly financial audits, made available to the public. But some schools resist providing information about how they are spending public funds.

These are not my only concerns. But any fair assessment of chartering ought to acknowledge strengths and shortcomings.

My apologies, as I’ve gone on too long. But you asked important questions.  So I wanted to try to give comprehensive answers. 

On balance, I think chartering is a lot like America.  Freedom provides great opportunities for creativity, innovation and progress.  However, among our biggest challenges are to maximize constructive use of freedom, and minimize abuse. 

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools


Next is Joseph “Jay” Featherstone, professor emeritus of teacher education at Michigan State University. He was for years faculty co-leader of one team in the MSU teacher certification program. He is the author of Dear Josie, Witnessing the Hopes and Failures of Democratic Education (TC Press, 2003), and co-editor with others of  Transforming Teacher Education, Reflections from the Field (Harvard Education Press, 2007). This appeared April 6, 2015 in response to Joe Nathan’s post and Deborah Meier subsequent email.

I’m a critic and  opponent of the national charter movement,  but I also worked for three years to start a k-8 arts oriented charter serving a population that included special needs and free lunch kids  in Mass.     I know  there are outstanding charter schools serving what I think of as genuinely public functions (teaching poor kids,  special needs kids, experimenting in curriculum and other useful and promising ways),  but I am also dismayed by the growth and power of a charter movement nationally that is  privatizing,  anti-union, anti-public school, promoting further segregation, and so on.   The real damage from  charters  to public education places like Philadelphia is evident.  I also know there are some states where charters are carefully regulated (Mass, where I live, is one) and other states where charters have been tossed out like candy bars  to for-profits, religious schools, and anyone else,  with a complete disregard for competence, honesty, or any public purposes. (Michigan, where I ran a school-based teacher education program at MSU is a sad example of the latter.)  I also see that the charter movement nationally fits in all too well with the resurgence of right-wing, privatizing anti-government, anti-public education  politics in extreme form. I don’t think we can ignore the way that charters have become integral to the more general campaign on the part of wealthy and powerful interests to roll back government and public services in politics more generally.  Republican governors around the country have a list that invariably includes expanding charters at the expense of regular schools, and is invariably a version of teacher-bashing—and invariably has the same list of big donors. 

            One way to begin a dialogue within the charter movement and maybe with educators more broadly would be to revisit the role of charters and try to get clear about who deserves to get a charter from the state.  I go back to Al Shanker and Ted Sizer who proposed a vision of charters that would fulfill public purposes in two ways:

 1. Serve populations not now well served by the district public schools, and or

 2. Experiment in some way that might further open thought and possibilities in education and practice,  e.g. curriculum or educational design.  

By these two public standards, many current charters would flunk, I believe.

Next is Diane Ravitch:

I agree with Jay Featherstone. 

 Charters have something to contribute if: 

 1) They stop boasting about test scores

2) They take the kids with the greatest needs

3) They collaborate with Public Schools instead of competing

4) They were not allowed to push out kids who have low scores

5) For-profit charters were banned


The language and emotion contained within these excerpts do show clearly the political conflict over the purposes of compulsory, tax-supported public schools in a democracy. Charter schools has been a top-of-the-agenda item on Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama’s list of things to do in education. Moreover, the charter  school political coalition includes Republican governors, the Walton Foundation and other donors, U.S. Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And I did not even include the American Federation of Teachers or National Education Association as longtime opponents. Those contending coalitions only underscore the current political contest over charters.

Some supporters and opponents, however, not only call for less competition and more cooperation between charters and regular public schools, but actually do it (see here, here, and here, here. Toning down the “charter school wars” and getting past the rhetoric is a crucial next step in the political process. Another is to reframe the question of which purposes of U.S. public schools should guide charters to another question:

The relevant question today is no longer whether charter schools are good or bad as a group. Rather we ask, can charter schools be taken in a better direction—one that finds inspiration in the original vision of charters as laboratories for student success that bring together children from different backgrounds and tap into the expertise of highly talented teachers?


Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, school reform policies

Some Donors Give Up Too Soon: Patience and School Reform

The path to successful school reform–moving from an adopted policy to classroom practice–is long, twisted, and filled with sinkholes. The journey requires thoughtful attention, persistence and, most of all, patience. Two instances of impatient, fickle, and inattentive donors is on full display in the two headlines below that you might have missed in the sea of media we swim in:

Broad Foundation Suspends $1 Million Prize for Urban School Districts

Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2015

City Students at Small Public High Schools Likely to Graduate, Study Says

New York Times, January 25, 2012


The Gates Foundation and small high schools.  Beginning in 2000, Bill and Melinda Gates spent nearly $2 billion to transform U.S. high schools. Many grants went to creating  a few thousand small high schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia to improve student academic achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.  In 2009, in his Annual Letter, Bill Gates said that “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” No more money to spur small high schools; the Foundation turned to assessing teacher effectiveness. In less than a decade the deep-pocket Foundation walked away from what began as a promising initiative to turn around urban high schools.

Now here is the punch line. A number of studies since the Gates Foundation turned off the money faucet (see here, here, and here) have established that these small high schools have, indeed, improved student achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.

Patience, persistence, thoughtful attention and time are crucial ingredients for baking school reforms in the oven; pulling out the cake too soon, as happened in this instance, is a recipe for disappointing those who have worked hard, invested themselves into the effort, and were there for the long haul.

What the Foundation has done in the past few years, while continuing to invest in teacher effectiveness and other improvements, is to shift more of its funding to organizations advocating policies that advance its school reform agenda. Of course, adopting policies is a media-friendly way of giving the illusion that schools are, indeed, changing but ignores the baking time and careful attention it takes for an adopted policy to reshape what happens in first grade classrooms and Advanced Placement history courses.

$1 million Broad Prize for urban school districts.  After 13 years, Eli Broad said enough. According to the President of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Bruce Reed, “Eli has kept a close watch over the prize throughout its existence and over the past year he has become more concerned than ever about the slow pace of progress.” Reed went on to say that “we’ve seen some of that, but not enough and not fast enough.” The Broad Foundation, however, continues to offer $500,000 prize to charter schools.

In an interview for Forbes magazine, Broad said: “we don’t give money away. We invest it, and we expect a return. What do I mean by that? We want to see a return in the form of student achievement and the closure of income and ethnic gaps among students.”

Impatient donors are well within their rights to give up on solving educational problems. After all, it is their money and they can say “oops!” whenever they feel like it.

Under the law, donors have no accountability for mistakes. They are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office, so they have no responsibility to district leaders, individual principals, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. If their grants fail to achieve desired objectives, philanthropists can shrug and walk away.[i]

For venture philanthropists and their supporters, this unaccountability provides valuable flexibility in taking actions for the public good and is in the best tradition of a democracy.[ii] As some have argued: “[S]uch virtual immunity represents foundations’ greatest strength: the freedom to take chances, to think big, to innovate, to be, in the words of the late Paul Ylvisaker of the Ford Foundation, ‘society’s passing gear.’”[iii]

Being society’s “passing gear” assumes that funders and their retinue of experts  identify educational problems correctly, sort out symptoms from fundamental causes, and adopt solutions that target those causes. Yet as one observer noted: “Just because you were great at making software or shorting stocks doesn’t mean that you will be good at … ensuring that kids can read by the third grade. If you’re worth billions, though, nobody may tell you that.”[iv]

And few do.


[i] Walking away from a grant—usually three years in length—was common among donors when early returns appeared unpromising. See Gary Lichtenstein report on what happened at Denver’s Manual High School in the early 2000s when the high school was reorganized to become three small schools. See Gary Lichtenstein, “What Went Wrong at Manual High: The Role of Intermediaries in the Quest for Smaller Schools, “ Education Week, May 16, 2006

[ii] Rob Reich, “What Are Foundations For?” Boston Review, March 1, 2013 at: Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iii] Edward Skloot, “The Gated Community,” Alliance Magazine, September 2011 at: Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iv]David Callahan, “Be Afraid: The Five Scariest Trends in Philanthropy,” Inside Philanthropy, October 31, 2014 at: Retrieved December 2, 2014.





Filed under leadership, school reform policies