Category Archives: Reforming schools

“Successful” Schools? Looking at MetWest High School and Social Justice Humanitas Academy

For the past two years I have been researching and writing about definitions of “success” and “failure” in U.S. education. As I have done with all of my book projects, I draft posts for this blog to clarify my thinking and learn from reader comments. Then I revise what I have written and those revisions become part of the book I am writing.

A year and a half ago, I posted a series on “success” and “failure” in schools (see here, here, and here). Since then I have written a few chapters for this forthcoming book that answer questions driving this study.

  1. How have “success” and “failure” been defined and applied to reforming schools and judging programs past and present?
  2. From where do these ideas of “success” and “failure” come?
  3. How were these ideas transmitted to Americans then and now?
  4. Who decides (and how) whether schools “succeed” and “fail?”
  5. What does “success”and “failure” look like in contemporary classrooms, schools and districts?
  6. So what?

Now I have four chapters that tentatively answer the first four questions. Last month I began research on the fifth question by looking at two schools deemed “successful” by current metrics but have gone beyond traditional definitions of “success” to carve out a larger, expansive view of what student, teacher, and school “success” look like.

Both California schools are non-special, that is, neither a charter nor magnet in their districts. MetWest High School* with about 160 students is in the Oakland Unified School District. It is a Big Picture school launched in 2002 that combines academics and community internships for its largely poor and Latino students (see here and here).

The other school is Social Justice Humanitas Academy with just over 500 high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. A school founded and governed by teachers as a school-within-a-school at a nearby large high school in the early 2000s and eventually becoming an autonomous school in a new facility in 2011.

I visited these two small high schools between February and March 2019. I read documents, observed teachers, listened to students, and interviewed key staff members. For MetWest, I have published descriptions of the school and observations of four teacher lessons (see here, here, here, and here). I will have more posts about classrooms and internships there in the next few weeks.

And shortly, I will begin publishing posts about SJHA and lessons I have observed.

These visits to two different schools in California aim at describing two small non-charter, non-magnet schools that have an expanded and expansive view of what constitutes student, teacher, and school “success” and, more important, what that expansive view looks like up close. I do this not to suggest that all public high schools, big and small, should copy these two schools. While there are similar high schools like MetWest and SJHA elsewhere in the nation, albeit in small numbers, there are two other reasons I concentrate on these schools.

First, most Americans overlook a basic fact: there is no one national system of American schooling. There is great variety among U.S. public schools (e.g., 50 state systems, over 13,000 school districts, and over 100,000 urban, suburban, and rural schools). Yet there is one definition of “success” and “failure” that dominates  policy talk and action, the rewards and penalties, the metrics used in judging all U.S. schools: A “successful” school has higher than average test scores, graduation rates, college admissions, etc

I describe and analyze MetWest and SJHA to demonstrate that broader definitions of “success” not only exist amid the prevailing narrow view of “success” but also that these expanded definitions have been put into school and classroom practice.

In describing these two schools I want to show that variation among U.S. schools also shows up in how schools define “success” for their students, teachers, and sites, revealing that there are notable exceptions to the prevailing monolithic view of “success” across U.S. schools. And just because I identify only two schools does not make exceptions insignificant.

In short, these two schools are an “existence proof.” They demonstrate what has been done by public school administrators and teachers who define “success” in far broader terms than conventional ones.  How these two urban school staffs bent bureaucratic rules in large districts in joining traditional “success” metrics with other criteria that capture a far more expansive view of what constitutes student, teacher, and school “success” shows that mixes of the conventional and unconventional can be brewed into a do-able hybrid public school serving youth of color. Such hybrid definitions of “success” exist in the very neighborhoods that are too often judged as inhospitable to experimentation and excellence.**

Second, both of these high schools are at the margins of both systems, not a part of a growing core of schools in each district. Both have achieved a “protected niche” within each district and they have survived and thrived. Moreover, their approach to teaching and learning are instances of what some observers have called “deeper learning” (see here and here). To achieve such “deeper learning,” these schools have to overturn the historical “grammar of learning” (e.g., age-graded school organization, rows of desks, whole group instruction, homework, frontal teaching, tests) that continues to dominate public and private education in the nation. A most difficult task. I am not sure these two schools do but they surely grasp for that evanescent deeper learning and teaching.

So MetWest High School and SJHA become part of my book as proof that an expansive definition of “success” exists in public schools and aspire to forms of “deeper learning.”  Both schools deserve our full attention in a society unthinking in its acceptance of economic and social inequalities and one driven by individualism rather than community and by attaining fortune rather than friends and family.


*As of this date, MetWest High School has no website.

**There are also private schools catering to parents who can afford high tuition costs that have expanded views of “success” such as Sudbury Schools , Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, etc.




Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Principals As Instructional Leaders: Hype and Reality

Six years ago, I published a post on the highly popular slogan of principal as instructional leader. Following up on this blog’s post of Chicago Mayor’s Rahm Emmanuel’s publicized reversal of his initial school reform beliefs and what he ultimately learned about the importance of Chicago’s principals in turning around schools’ low academic performance, I re-visited this earlier post.  I was surprised that few, if any, observational studies of principal behavior linked to student achievement have been published since 2013. The one I did find is included below.

The strong belief held by practitioners and researchers that of the three essential roles principals perform (instructional, managerial, and political), they “must” be first and foremost, instructional leaders continues its dominance in the literature in spite of weak evidence.



Past and current research on principals reveal that school-site leaders perform managerial, instructional, and political roles in and out of their schools. Of these multiple (and often conflicting) roles, however, the instructional leader role has been spotlighted as a “must” for these men and women because, as the theory (and rhetoric) goes, it is crucial to improving teacher performance and student academic achievement.

Yet recent studies (

of principal behavior in schools makes clear that spending time in classrooms to observe, monitor, and evaluate classroom lessons do not necessarily lead to better teaching or higher student achievement on standardized tests. Where there is a correlation between principals’ influence on teachers and student performance, it occurs when principals create and sustain an academic ethos in the school, organize instruction across the school, and align school lessons to district standards and standardized test items. There is hardly any positive association between principals walking in and out of classrooms a half-dozen times a day and conferring briefly with teaches about those five-minute visits.The reality of daily principal actions conflicts with the theory.

Much of the rhetoric of instructional leadership flowing from true believers in the theory rings hollow when researchers actually go into schools and shadow principals, observing what they do day-after-day in a school a week or more at a time. Such time-and-motion studies have been done ever since the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor and “scientific management” in the early 20th century. When such studies were done, they showed that the bulk of the a principal’s time was spent on managing the building, teachers, students, and parents. That was then.

Now, a few published studies make the same point: what principals do is largely manage people and buildings spending most of their time outside of the classroom, not inside watching teachers teach.

A recent report ( Shadow Study Miami-Dade Principals) of what 65 principals did each day during one week in 2008 in Miami-Dade county (FLA) shows that even under NCLB pressures for academic achievement and the widely accepted (and constantly spouted) ideology of instructional leadership, Miami-Dade principals spend most of their day in managerial tasks that influence the climate of the school but may or may not affect daily instruction. What’s more, those principals who spend the most time on organizing and managing the instructional program have test scores and teacher and parental satisfaction


results  that are higher than those principals who spend time coaching teachers and popping into classroom lessons.

The researchers shadowed elementary and secondary principals and categorized their activities minute-by-minute through self-reports, interviews, and daily logs kept by the principals.

In the academic language of the study:

The authors find that time spent on Organization Management activities is associated with positive school outcomes, such as student test score gains and positive teacher and parent assessments of the instructional climate, whereas Day-to-Day Instruction activities are marginally or not at all related to improvements in student performance and often have a negative relationship with teacher and parent assessments. This paper suggests that a single-minded focus on principals as instructional leaders operationalized through direct contact with teachers may be detrimental if it forsakes the important role of principals as organizational leaders (p. iv)

Two things jump out of this study for me. First, the results of shadowing principals in 2008 mirror patterns in principal work that researchers have found since the 1920s although the methodologies of time-and-motion studies have changed.

Second, there is an association–a correlation, by no means a cause-effect relationship–between principals who spend more time managing the organization and climate of the school than those principals who spend time in direct contact with teachers in classrooms.

Another study of first- year urban principals prepared by New Leaders,  a program imbued with beliefs in instructional leadership, revealed that new principals, a large fraction of whom left the post after two years, had little impact on student achievement even while observing and monitoring teacher lessons (see RAND_TR1191)

A few studies, of course, will not banish a theory lacking convincing evidence, temper the rhetoric of principal-as-instructional-leader,  or alter principal preparation programs.  Current rhetoric and ideology highlighting instructional leadership trump research studies, past and present, again and again.

Some donor-funded efforts try combining the results of the above studies and earlier research about principals managing the instructional program with their direct involvement in teachers’ classroom practices. See, for example, the Wallace Foundation’s recent publication The-School-Principal-as-Leader-Guiding-Schools-to-Better-Teaching-and-Learning.    In their well-intentioned effort, however, they give life to a failed theory and pump oxygen into the prevailing rhetoric.

The rose-colored view that principals of schools, big and small, urban and suburban, elementary and secondary, can throw fairy dust over teacher lessons and improve student academic performance continues to dominate professional associations of principals and university preparation programs.


Filed under research, school leaders

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

School Reform for Social Justice?*

Should public schools in a democracy prepare students for what is or what should be?

This question about the fundamental role of public schools in a democracy has been asked repeatedly by reformers since John Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed” appeared in 1897. The question continues in reformers’ quest for Kipp-like schooling for poor children of color and charter schools with the phrase “social Justice” in their title or those reformers who swear by common core standards making U.S. schools competitive with Shanghai and Singapore, and, of course, advocates for transforming schools into high-tech havens. Tracking the use of the phrase “social justice” in English language publications since the early 1900s, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, the graph line indicating increased use of phrase climbs steeply since the early 1990s.

Finally, add those champions of “critical pedagogy” to that list of what public schools in a democracy should be doing. Beyond preparing students with the language, social, and academic skills for a highly competitive labor market (e.g., “Everyone Goes To College,” Common Core Standards), “critical pedagogy” and its various incarnations seek to equip low-income minority students with the language skills and academic content to analyze the culture and structures of power  in the U.S. and use both to gain access to equal opportunities and alter the trajectories of their lives with confidence rather than embarrassment (see Ball and Alim pdf Preparation, Pedagogy, Power, and Policy). Proponents of Black English, for example,  (see PDF Critical_language_awareness )  state that “[o]ur pedagogies should not pretend that racism does not exist in the form of linguistic discrimination. Nor should they pretend that linguistic profiling does not directly affect the personal and family lives of our students who speak marginalized languages.” An arsenal of sociolinguistic approaches exists to answer the question: “How might the vernacular of African American children be taken into account in efforts to help them do better in schools?” Scholar John Rickford at Stanford University has spelled out different strategies and their classroom applications. All of these efforts seek to disprove that low-income minority African American, Hawaiian, Mexican American language practices brought into classrooms are deficits; they can be, in the hands of knowledgeable and skilled teachers–strengths.

That mission requires schools to attack political, social, and economic inequalities.  For that to occur, a critical mass of teachers holding these beliefs and possessing the requisite language and literacy knowledge and skills to engage children and youth have to be in classrooms. State and district leaders, teacher education institutions, and reliable funding also have to be mobilized to support teachers and schools as the vanguard in creating a better society.

For those who look to the past for lessons, the history of school reform could easily discourage those current reformers who press schools to be agents of social justice. John Dewey’s glow for that outcome ebbed after leaving his beloved Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. Prior efforts before World War I,  in the 1930s and then in the 1960s to move schools to be in the front lines of making a better society ran aground (see 03-ERv33n5_Kantor-Lowe)

But looking to the past can be dispiriting–which is probably why many reformers spurn history. For those who argue that “rather than harming linguistically profiled and marginalized students, our goal should be arming them with the silent weapons needed for the quiet … wars that are waged daily against their language and person,” the Ann Arbor (or Black English) court decision in 1977 and the Ebonics episode in the Oakland (CA) school district in the early 1990s speak to the uphill road facing them in the second decade of the 21st century. (see PDF Critical_language_awareness)

What John Dewey unleashed in the last years of the 19th century with his Creed and the unrestrained enthusiasm of pedagogical progressives then and civil rights reformers since to transform school and classroom in order to make a better, more just society has motivated generation after generation of reformers to see the school as tip of the lance in making societal change (see social_justice_-ok). Those selling “21st Century Skills,” “college for all,” KIPP, charter schools, common core standards, and evaluating teachers by test scores, however, want schools to prepare children and youth for what is, not for what society should be. These advocates have seen, and continue to see schools as boot camps for society as it is. And they aver that equality of opportunity and social justice is what they seek just as  John Dewey did over a century ago.

Yet each generation of reformers has contained those who also see public schools as instruments of social change that can make the lives of marginalized children far better than now exist. They are hardy and tough-minded; they do not let the facts of the past cloud their dreams nor halt their efforts. The question, then, remains open as it was when John Dewey wrote his Pedagogic Creed in 1897: What role should public schools in a democratic society play?


*This post was initially published February 12, 2011. I have revised and updated it.


Filed under Reforming schools

Basic Dilemma Teachers, Principals, Superintendents Face: Supervising Others While Seeking Approval



In the second week of my superintendency in the mid-1970s–I came from outside the district and had no entourage–the head of the principals group (there were 35 schools in the district), met me in the stairwell of the Administration building and we chatted a few moments about the weather and the beginning of the school year. He leaned toward me and whispered whether I would like to join a Friday night poker game with a small group of veteran principals. He added that my predecessor and key district office administrators had played weekly for years. I paused and said: “Let me think about it.”

After dinner when the kids had gone upstairs to do their homework, I told my wife about the invitation and we discussed it thoroughly. My wife pointed out that the invitation was a very important gesture on the part of veteran administrators who had been clearly unenthusiastic when the School Board appointed me. I was an outsider and first-time superintendent who had worked across the river in the largely black D.C. schools for nearly a decade as a high school teacher and district administrator. She pointed out that it was a splendid opportunity for me to satisfy a strong personal need that we had discussed prior to taking the post. That is, I wanted to secure the respect and approval–and eventually trust–of those I am expected to lead and who report to me. We had talked about the tension between seeking approval of subordinates who I depended upon while at the same time being in a position where I would have to judge their performance annually. She and I chewed on that dilemma for a long time.

Then she reminded me that Friday nights were supposed to be set aside for the family’s Sabbath meal. In offering me the job, I had asked the Board to keep Fridays clear of any meetings or assignments. They had agreed. So after further discussion, my wife and I decided that I would the forego Friday night poker games. I called the head of the principals’ group, thanked him for the invitation and told him I would not be able to join the group.

In the seven years that I served the district, 30 of those 35 principals retired, transferred to other posts, left the district, or I fired. I never regretted that decision about the Friday night poker group.

The tension I felt, however, between wanting the approval (affection and respect as well) of those I supervised while, at the same time, being responsible for judging their performance is not peculiar to the superintendency. New principals and teachers also feel those tensions.

Consider the principal of an elementary school overseeing 30 teachers. That principal is the instructional leader, manager, and politician for not only those teachers but also 20 other staff members, 500 students, and 800 parents. District administrators expect the principal to raise test scores, insure that students are ready for middle school, etc. Our principal knows that she is utterly dependent upon the teachers to achieve those numbers and other goals that she and the staff have set for themselves beyond test scores.

At a time when Facebook and “friending” are ubiquitous, if the new principal does not know herself very well and seeks the staff’s personal approval, even affection, then the principal may lean over backwards to satisfy teacher requests even when those requests challenge her judgments about what should be done for students. In such situations, evaluating teacher classroom and school performance becomes doubly hard. Were she to succumb to that need for teacher approval, ultimately neither affection or respect for her work would emerge.

Similarly, new teachers who yearn for the approval and trust of their students, especially with the availability of Facebook for older students, wrestle with this dilemma. Teachers, like principals, and superintendents are totally dependent upon those they supervise–that is, their students–for their effectiveness as professionals. For novice teachers, particularly recent college graduates, age differences appear small in high schools and friendships beckon.

And that is where it gets sticky even for teachers of young children when it comes to getting to know each student’s personal strengths and limitations, their family backgrounds, and dreams for the future. Forging classroom relationship as a basis for learning neither erases boundaries nor distinctions between adults and students. Smudging the fundamental distinction between being the teacher and being a student insofar as authority, knowledge, skills, and professional responsibilities has earned many young teachers hard knocks when grades had to be assigned and went into permanent records.

Knowing one’s self well enough to sort out personal needs for approval and friendship from professional responsibilities as a teacher, principal, and superintendent is an essential lesson that novices and veterans have to learn (and re-learn) but goes unmentioned and untaught. Yet leadership in classrooms, schools, and districts depend upon learning that lesson well.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, school leaders

Strict and Nurturing Parents: Cycles in Child Rearing and Schooling

In 2011, Amy Chua laughed all the way to the bank at the fuss she kicked up about her tough-love parenting of daughters–no sleepovers–in “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”  Time magazine reported that her Wall Street Journal op-ed garnered over a million readers, 5000 comments, and an animation made in Taiwan. (video of Chua describing book is here).

For educated, financially comfortable non-Tiger Moms, however, the thought of giving up “Baby Mozarts,” chants of “well done” to build self- esteem, and, yes, even sleepovers–is too much.  In response to Tiger Moms, Ayelet Waldman said, developing empathy in children, nurturing them, and giving them room to decide things for themselves, while still achieving high grades and gathering awards, are traits that she and other non-Tiger Moms want to develop.

Competing ways of rearing children, of course is nothing new. Since the 17th century, ministers, mothers, and, later, physicians, and psychologists have written manuals to guide parents in raising children. My wife and I read Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care –the prevailing advice of the day–as each of our daughters were infants, toddlers, and when they began preschool and kindergarten. “Read,” of course, does not mean we followed the friendly and “use common sense” approach Spock advocated but it surely informed our parenting.

Historians have analyzed these advice manuals (see here). What they have found are basically two child rearing models that are similar to Tiger Moms and Guilty, Nurturing Moms.

I label them Strict Parent vs. Nurturing Parent. Of course, these models span a continuum and are not mutually exclusive. Many parents use hybrids of the two in their families. And just as obvious is that all parents presented in advice manuals are not white, middle and upper-middle class Moms and Dads. Race, ethnicity, social class, religion, and geography shape the views parents have as they enact Strict, Nurturing, and hybrids of each in parenting.

Strict parent model teaches children right from wrong by setting clear rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishments, typically mild to moderate but sufficiently painful to get attention. When rules are followed and children cooperate, parents show love and appreciation. Children are not coddled since a spoiled child seldom learns  proper behavior. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant by following the rules and listening to parents.

Nurturing parent model teaches children right from wrong through respect, empathy, and a positive relationship with parents. Children obey because they love their parents, not out of fear of punishment. Parents explain their decisions to children and encourage questioning and contributing ideas to family decisions. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being nurtured and caring for others.

No surprise that these competing models of child rearing have been replicated in schools. Parents want their schools to be extensions of what is taught at home. Nor is it a surprise that the ideological and practical conflicts in schools today are anchored in these rival approaches to child-rearing.

In the early 19th century, for example, taxpayers, parents, and public officials saw public schools as proper places for the tenets of Protestant Christianity, steeped in Biblical views of parental authority, where teachers would teach that disobedience was a sin. Thus, raising children to respect authority, be self-disciplined, and know right from wrong–the Strict Parent model– was expected in one-room schoolhouses and, later, age-graded elementary schools. This dominant Strict Parent model of raising and schooling children was viewed as natural and, best for children and society before and after the Civil War.

In the late 19th century, another view  (history of progressivism schools PDF)  emerged challenging the religious-based popular model of child-rearing. The onslaught of industrialization, rapid urban growth, an emerging middle-class, and massive immigration spurred reformers to advocate a more “progressive” view of how best to raise and school children. Confined initially to manuals for middle-class parents, readers were urged to cultivate the innate goodness of children rather than dwell on their potential sinfulness. Parental love and example, not punishment, would produce respect for authority, self-discipline, and moral rigor in children.

For post-Civil War urban reformers who saw hard-working immigrant parents living in slums, traditional schools were inadequate. They got schools to expand their usual duties and take on nurturing roles that families had once discharged. Schools offered medical care, meals, lessons to build moral character including respect for authority and job preparation. Teachers were expected to develop children’s intellectual, emotional, and social capacities to produce mature adults who acted responsibly. This rival ideology became the progressive model of schooling.

By World War I, then, these competing progressive and traditional ideologies constituted different faiths in the best way of raising and schooling children. These beliefs had become embedded in educators’ language and school programs thus creating a platform for subsequent struggles over what “good” schools were and should be. The “culture wars” since the 1960s over teaching reading, math, science, and other content in schools are variations of this century-long see-saw struggle of ideas over what ways are best to raise and school children.

And today, the struggle continues. Parents worry over what is the best way to rear their children and youth (see here and here) as they seek out schools that mirror their strict, nurturing, and hybrid views of what they say are “good” schools. From Montessori schools to Core Knowledge to KIPP parents choose schools that mirror their beliefs and values about child rearing. Child rearing and type of schooling are joined at the hip.




Filed under raising children, Reforming schools

Whatever Happened To the Non-Graded School?

Ask a teacher, principal, superintendent, or school board member about the non-graded school and you will get a “huh” or perhaps a blank stare. The educator might whip out a smart phone and tap away at the tiny keyboard, wait a few seconds and then get a raft of websites and definitions. The non-graded school does exist. Few know about it, however.

This post is part of a continuing series about what happened to educational innovations that spread virally at first (before there was Twitter) but within a few years nearly disappeared from the U.S. landscape of schooling.

Where and When Did the Idea Originate?

Throughout the 19th century, non-graded schools were everywhere. At that time, such places were called the one-room school. Children and youth from age 6 to 14 or so gathered in the schoolhouse every morning and over the course of the day, the teacher taught different subjects to individuals and small groups that kept changing as the content changed. By the late-19th century, however, the innovation of the age-graded school of eight classrooms with a teacher in each one room transmitting a portion of the curriculum to children grouped by age–six year olds in the first grade, eight year olds in the third grade took hold initially in urban districts and then in the emerging suburbs. By the middle of the 20th century, urban, suburban, and rural schools were age-graded and the one-room schoolhouse had nearly disappeared.

Beginning in the 1950s, scholars and practitioners seeing the shortcomings of the age-graded school (e.g., students failing and repeating a year, all students do not learn at the same speed) and wanting individual children to master content of different subject at their own pace and in mixed-age groups started a small number of elementary non-graded schools (see here and here). Throughout the next decade and a half, such schools flourished in both talk and action (see here and here).  Few secondary schools became non-graded. One that was highlighted in the 1960s was Melbourne High School in Brevard County (FLA)–see here and here.

What Problems Did the non-Graded School Intend To Solve?

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by their ages to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks to be annually promoted (or retained). Obviously, students do not learn at the same pace. If some fail to learn fractions in the allotted time, then algebra becomes a serious problem later in their school career. And just as obviously, all teachers do not cover the assigned content and skills within the time allowed. So students then become unprepared for the next grade or sequence of academic subjects. These students became “misfits.”

Educators called them: pupils of low, I.Q., ne’er-do-wells, laggards, slow learners, occupational learners, slow learners, mental deviates.

The message of the labels was clear: There were students who simply did not have
smarts, and the pedagogical answer was to teach them different things in a different way
in a different place (see here).

The non-graded organization tries to solve these problems inherent to the age-graded organization.

What Does a Non-Graded School Look Like?

Three features capture non-graded schools. Multi-age grouping, team teaching, and small group and individual work on academic content and skills until each student masters both. Students are not assigned to classrooms or centers strictly on the basis of age. The galvanizing idea is that students will make “continuous progress” as they proceed through language arts, math, science, and social studies. That said, there are many variations of non-graded schools now as there have been in the past. In fact, even parts of age-graded schools can have primary non-graded (e.g., ages 6-9 being taught by a group of teachers). See here

At Madrona School in the Edmunds district (WA), school staff inform parents about non-graded schooling:

Facts about Madrona: Q & A

Q:  What does “nongraded” mean?

A: Madrona is called a “nongraded” school not because no grades are issued, but because children are not put into traditional Grades as in most other schools.  Instead, children are put into “Centers”, which are multiage classrooms that hold 3 grade levels.

Q:  What is a Center?

A:  A Center is a classroom consisting of 2 teachers who team-teach around 50 kids, covering 3 grade levels.  A Primary Center consists of grades 1 – 3; an Intermediate Center covers grades 4 – 6; Middle School comprises 7th and 8th grades….

Q:  What’s the difference between nongraded and combined classrooms?

A: Combined classrooms consist of 2 or more groups that are each being taught their grade-level curriculum.  Nongraded classrooms contain children who are learning at one or more grade level.  For example, a child may excel at math, but be not very strong in reading.  In a Primary classroom, a first year student might therefore be learning math with second year kids, but read with other first year students.  Social studies, science, and art are taught on a 3-year rotation, so each child experiences that portion of his/her education only once.

Q:  Are 7th and 8th Grades handled the same way as Primary and Intermediate centers?

A:  At Madrona’s Middle School, with the exception of math, all classes are taught on a 2-year rotation.  Placement in math classes is dependent on standardized test performance and classroom performance in the lower grades….”

Did Non-Graded Schools Work?

The research and evaluation of non-graded school achievement, as one has come to expect in assessing the worth of educational innovations–is mixed. Studies that show academic gains as measured by achievement test scores in math and reading have been published as have studies that show no difference between non-graded and age-graded students. See here, here, here, here, and here.

As frequent readers of this blog know, adoption of an innovation in schooling has less to do with what the research says and far more about what school leaders and practitioners believe about students, teaching, learning, and knowledge. In the case of non-graded schools, even were the research and evaluation evidence to be overwhelmingly in favor of such an organization, getting teachers, parents, and district officials on board the train to introduce multi-age grouping of students, team teaching, and “continuous progress” is an instance of switching train tracks of one gauge to another in a railroad yard. Politically and organizationally, regardless of what the research says, that is one tough task to complete.

What Happened to Non-Graded Schools?

The age-graded school continues to reign across U.S. schools. The brief spurt of non-graded schools–nearly always elementary–in the 1960s and 1970s died a slow death in following decade but has not totally disappeared.

For example, as part of a state reform, Kentucky ungraded all of its primary grades in the 1990s. But this reform and other ungrading plans in elementary schools across the nation soon gave way to test-driven accountability. Still amid standards based testing for the past three decades, ungraded public schools and classrooms soldier on. There is the Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., a school that has done multiage grouping ever since it opened in 1890, the above Madrona school, The Northern Cass school district (ND) that embarked on competency based learning,  Hodgkins elementary in Westminister (CO),  and many others scattered across the nation.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools