Category Archives: Reforming schools

Long Distance Runners Make the Best Reformers

In 1971, John Gardner, then head of Common Cause, a grassroots organization dedicated to keeping government open and accountable, hired a young staffer to work on cleaning up the dirty money that flowed into Presidential campaigns during Richard Nixon’s term of office. Fred Wertheimer lobbied U.S. senators and congressmen and women to put limits to campaign spending and to keep the donations open to public inspection. At that time, Gardner told Wertheimer, “reform is not for the short-winded.” Over forty years later, Wertheimer continues to work on cleaning up campaign financing and says about Gardner’s advice: “He never told me it was 41 years and counting.”

School reform (championed by the political right, center, or left), like campaign financing, is for long distance runners who have overcome short winded-ness. I made that point when analyzing short-term superintendents like sprinters Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. and John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified. But short-windedness also applies to the long-haul necessary for incremental school reform in districts to accumulate into something that matters in the lives of students and teachers.

Like building a house, putting in a foundation, wall framing, putting on a roof, wiring and plumbing are done in increments that end up being a finished house. So it is for school reform. Most zealous reformers–be they policymakers, school boards, philanthropists, CEOs–know that in their heads but seldom practice it. Building a house, of course, means the purpose and direction of change is obvious. Not so, for school reform.

District policymakers, administrators, and activist parents–stakeholders–seeing themselves as “agents of change”– seldom ask: change toward what end? Change in of itself becomes the desired outcome, not the district’s long-term direction (e.g., prepare students for an information-driven economy, build decent adults engaged in helping themselves and others). And that is why the short-winded are attracted to school reform. From charter schools to “disruptive innovations” to delivering computer devices en masse to students and teachers, rarely is the question asked: Do these new things take us in the direction that we want to take tax-supported public schools in a democracy? If yes, how? If no, why invest scarce resources in them?  Sprinters worship speed and seldom ask these questions; they want to make grand changes fast and cheap. Marathoners have the time and energy to ask the questions and figure out how to get from here to there in chunks, not all at one time. They seek quality–“good”–over fast and cheap.

I have written a few times about long distance runners as urban superintendents (see here). District marathoners means serving at least a decade in the post. Consider Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with political, economic, and demographic challenges over which they had no control. Moreover,  because they were mostly minority districts there were continuing problems of low achievement and test score gaps between minorities and whites that were tough to solve. Criticism often stung. Yet these marathoners quietly and steadily chipped away at these problems.  Their teachers, by and large, were supportive of their school chiefs’ efforts even when local teacher unions disagreed with parts of each one’s reform agenda. These urban superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Then there are a few smaller urban districts that have shifted from mostly white to mostly minority and, in doing so, have still maintained academic achievement even though school boards have changed membership, budget crises occurred, governance shifted, and states required districts to alter programs. In such an ever-changing political context rife with socioeconomic problems, these superintendents hung in, starting new programs here, bolstering older programs there. They worked closely with teachers either within collective bargaining contracts or through meet-and-confer. They not only knew that teachers and teaching were central to student improvement but acted again and again to help teachers do what they did best. In these smaller districts, they worked incrementally towards overall district goals amid demographic shifts and ever-increasing state requirements. One such district prided itself on long-winded superintendents who, with its school board, achieved enviable student outcomes over decades.

The urban district is Arlington (VA).  Since the late-1970s, through shifts in school board governance–Arlington went from appointed to elected board members–and long-serving superintendents, the district has established and maintained a reputation for academic excellence (however measured) as it has changed gradually from a majority-white to majority-minority district. Between 1974 and 2015, for example, the district has had only five superintendents. The current superintendent has been in the post since 2009 and was recently selected as Virginia superintendent for 2014. Public participation in an array of citizen committees including parent involvement in school site decision-making have become an Arlington tradition. Although collective bargaining is banned by the state, teacher and administrative unions have worked closely with district leaders in achieving the school board’s strategic plan. Incremental changes aimed at achieving desired student outcomes have been executed decade after decade to achieve that vision. Sure, there are organizational, curricular, and instructional issues that bother both parents and teachers and need attention. But for an urban district, that kind of continuity in district leadership, public participation, and sustained high academic performance is uncommon.

As John Gardner said: “reform is not for the short-winded.”

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Educators’ Love Affair with Change

I put a dollar in a change machine. Nothing changed. George Carlin, comedian [i]

The quip echoes a disappointed reformer eager to improve public schools and classrooms but coming up with zilch. The one-liner suggests that change and its flip side, stability, are inextricably tied together. Just as a shadow cannot exist without light, change and stability cannot be separated from one another in organizations. Constancy and change, as another instance of yin and yang, helps explain why so often well-intentioned leaders often fall on their faces after adopted policies aimed at altering what happens daily in the nation’s classrooms end up unimplemented. Smart, energetic decision-makers frequently miss the importance of seeing both continuity and change at work in classrooms, schools, and districts. Like George Carlin, they insert a dollar when they adopt policies and are disappointed when they see little change.

The embrace of change (one can substitute “progress” or “improvement”) as an unvarnished good, particularly in public schools, is understandable in the U.S. The idea of change is highly valued in the culture and daily life (e.g., high-fashion and automobiles get re-worked annually, re-inventing one’s self is common, moving from one place to another is a national habit, standing in line overnight to buy the most recent technology is unremarkable). Change is equated with progress toward material or spiritual success (or both). Opposition to whatever planned change is proposed in a family, workplace, school, or community is often clothed in negative labels such as “resistance” or “supporting the status quo.” [ii]

Improving education as a worthy goal in of itself has fueled myriad reform efforts over the past century. Reformers from the political left and right—each seeking different goals for U.S. schools–have assumed that public school officials and practitioners often oppose designed changes to keep things as they are. That assumption is in error.[iii]

The organizational concept of “dynamic conservatism” involving both continuity and change to maintain a tenuous balance in classrooms and schools comes into play here. Institutions often fight and embrace change in order to remain the same. Families, hospitals, companies, courts, city and state bureaucracies, and the military frequently respond to major reforms by adopting those parts of changes that will sustain stability.

Consider, for example, school districts where administrators add new courses on critical thinking to meet reformers’ demand for 21st century skills. Or teachers urging students to bring their laptops to class to do Internet searches, take notes, and work in teams to make PowerPoint presentations to class. These teachers have made changes in how they teach while maintaining their usual order of tasks and activities in lessons. They “hugged the middle” between traditional and non-traditional ways of teaching. [i]

Reform-driven policymakers, however, dead-set on redesigning classrooms and schools scorn hybrid teaching practices. They want transformation, not some cosmetic changes. Institutional stability is dysfunctional, they argue. It keeps worthy fundamental changes at arm’s length. Such policymakers see schools as complicated organizations that need a good dose of castor-oil rationality where incentives and fear, not habits from a bygone era, drive employees to do the right thing in schools and classrooms. [ii]

When policymakers intent on improving schools err in viewing schools as complicated rather than complex systems, hurdles multiply quickly to frustrate the turning of reforms into practice. Too many decision-makers lack understanding of “dynamic conservatism” in complex organizations or understand it and choose to ignore it because they see these systems as ineffective, even pathologically unworkable, and in need of re-engineering.

In adopting reforms that will jolt the system sufficiently to substantially alter teaching and learning, policymakers have mistakenly grafted practices borrowed from business organizations onto schools (e.g., zero-based budgeting in the 1970s; “management by objectives” and “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; pay-for-performance).

No surprise, then, that policymakers treating complicated systems as complex ones in adopting and implementing school reforms–have triggered both active and passive parent, student, teacher and administrator resistance.

Analyzing the idea of “dynamic conservatism” at work in complex systems leads to a deeper understanding of why teaching over the past century has been a mix of old and new, both continuity and change. Change occurs all the time in schools and classrooms but not at the scope, pace, and schedule reform-driven policymakers lay out in their designs for reform. Sadly, such policymakers fail to understand the complex interaction between stability and change in nearly all organizations. In this failure of understanding lurks the many errors that decision-makers make in repeated efforts to transform schooling, teaching, and learning.

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[i]“Funny Comedian Quotes and Videos” at: http://funnycomedianquotes.com/funny-quotes-and-jokes-about-change.html Retrieved March 10, 2015.

 

[ii] Robert Nisbet, The History of the Idea of Progress (Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1995); Henry Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, fourth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995).

 

[iii] For a recent and typical example of this genre of critique see Jeff Livingston, “3Ways to Radically Remake U.S. Schools and Education,” U.S. News and Report, February 5, 2013.

 

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Hollywood, HBO, and School Reform (Part 2)

In Part 1, I discussed the doctoral dissertation of Derisa Grant who tried to unravel the puzzle of Hollywood films moving from superhero teachers to “bad” teachers over the past few decades. In Part 2, I point out how Hollywood films about teachers epitomize the dominant American cultural value of an individual overcoming all obstacles ignoring the substantial influence of the school and community. Consider the film portrayals of English teacher Erin Gruwell and math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski.

Not only 3000 miles separate English teacher Erin Gruwell at Wilson High School in Long Beach (CA) in the film “Freedom Writers” from math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski (Mr. P.) at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School in Baltimore (MD) in HBO’s “The Wire.” Based upon an actual novice white teacher, the celluloid Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank, spurs her class to overcome poverty, gang banging, and utter pessimism about their future to write in their journals and eventually go to college. Mr. P, also a novice white teacher, played by Jim True-Frost, tries hard to get his 8th graders, to learn fractions, long division, and probability and stay out of selling drugs. Mr. P, however, is a fictitious character.

Yet what separates the two films about teaching poor and minority youth under grim conditions is neither the distance between Long Beach and Baltimore nor between high school English and middle school math or that one teacher is real and the other fictitious. What separates the films from one another is the implicit view in “Freedom Writers” of the road to reform being paved by stellar teachers while in “The Wire” that same road would require overhauling the entire institution. Ironically, then, Mr. P/Jim True-Frost, a fictitious teacher, captures the gritty conditions that urban school principals and teachers face far better than the film about an actual teacher Erin Gruwell/Hilary Swank.

To say that the Hollywood version of “Freedom Writers” is less true in portraying teaching in gang-ridden schools then HBO’s “The Wire” is only to re-state the obvious popularity of the film genre of innocent white teacher—think “Dangerous Minds”–making mistakes with troublesome students, encountering conflict after conflict with gang members and close-minded administrators only to overcome them amid a crescendo of music. Not only white females dominate this genre. “Stand and Deliver,” based on the experience of Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, follows the same pattern. The clear message is that gutsy, smart, hard working individual teachers can overcome student apathy and the powerful tug of the Street. Of course, there are such superheroic teachers who do the impossible 24/7. But they are not typical novices who, after a few years leave in droves from such schools.

Hollywood over-sells individual teachers while understating the institutional complexity of working in inadequately staffed, overly regulated schools where city politics, bureaucratic inertia, and sheer drudgery shape classroom practice as much as what students bring to school. HBO gets it right in fictitious Tilghman middle school where Mr. P, a former police officer, teaches.

Why is Mr. P’s portrayal closer to the truth of urban schools? Over five seasons, “The Wire”—title refers to a police unit recording drug dealers’ business transactions to gather evidence for their arrest—goes well beyond West Baltimore and those who sell drugs. The series explored families involved in the drug trade and families not yet hooked, corrupt police bureaucrats, City Hall politics, dirty union leaders at the Port of Baltimore, and, for an entire season, schools. “The Wire” looked at institutions and how racial politics in the police department, among city officials, and the schools interact to affect one another. A newly elected ambitious white mayor of a predominately black city and bureaucracy, for example, has to find a new police commissioner, cut the budget, and do something about the school district whose schools are underperform academically.

Enter Mr. P., a former Baltimore City police officer, who has neither charisma nor teaching experience. He makes the usual novice mistakes, has a hard time managing his 8th graders, and an even harder time getting them to focus on math. Unruly students erupt into fights at real or imagined slights. Many cannot follow the textbook. A few are super-bright and with a little prodding grasp the math concepts. Mr. P’s patience and decency slowly wins over a core of students but not all. Finally, he gets some students interested in learning probability through throwing dice. But at the next faculty meeting, the assistant principal announces that because the school’s test scores are so low all classes will focus on reading and math skills for the upcoming state test. Good soldier as he is, Mr. P switches lessons and prepares his students for the state test at the same time that a few of the promising 8th graders get enmeshed in the drug trade.

The Hollywood genre of heroic teachers overcoming obstacles promises better schools through individuals staying the course. While such films are popular, this optimistic strategy of reforming urban schools is doomed because it ignores the institutional side of schools and how teaching and learning are affected as much by the Street as they are by school bureaucrats, city officials, and other agencies. HBO’s “The Wire” portrays schools as deeply flawed institutions sailing through teachers’ and students’ lives more concerned about surviving than teaching or learning. Surely, the Mr. Ps in this world salvage individual youngsters but are tossed about like confetti on a windy day. This complex, realistic view of urban school reform as institutional renewal has little room for heroics. And truth be told, are hard to translate to the screen and make money. Far easier is to focus on the individual rather than the organization. Even highly-touted films of urban charter school (e.g., “Waiting for Superman“–a documentary and “Won’t Back Down“–a Hollywood production showing two mothers who seize the school from a corrupt teachers’ union)  succumb to the fairy tale view of superheroes conquering poverty and difficult students. These film versions of school reform may have box-office appeal (one was a financial hit; the other was a flop). But in focusing on iconic teachers conquering all obstacles, they offer little guidance to today’s policymakers or for teachers caught in the web of institutional shortcomings and the poverty that continue to pervade U.S. urban districts.

 

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iPads and Teachers: Why Technology-assisted Learning Will Never, on Its Own, Solve Our Education Crisis (Peg Tyre)

Peg Tyre is a journalist. This article appeared in Bright, April 6, 2015.

At the Carpe Diem-Meridian School in Indianapolis, row after row of students are wearing headphones and staring into computer screens. Although they look like employees at a call center, they are actually fifteen-year-olds tackling algebra concepts. Their lessons were delivered earlier in the day by a software program offered by Edgenuity and reinforced by an instructor. Now the students are working through problems on their monitors, to show they have mastered it. Their results will be quickly fed back to their instructors, who will use it to shape the next day’s instruction.

Two students finish quickly and check the overhead monitor for their next task. Others are sweating through sophisticated problems. A few, who are struggling with the material, are working on problems that a software algorithm has determined are simpler but will help build the foundational skills they need. And, as in any classroom, some students are using ancient technology that has become less central at Carpe Diem schools — a notepad and a pen — to make abstract doodles.

Improvements in public education, we are told, are going to be accelerated, disrupted, and finally transformed by technology-assisted personalized learning (also known as blended learning). For the first time in the history of schooling, kids can interact with their teachers through personal computers or iPads. With adaptive assessment, continuous feedback will create a constantly changing portrait of what kids know, allowing algorithms to recalibrate lessons to fit students’ needs.

The promise is this: all children, particularly those in isolated rural communities and those in chaotic schools with inexperienced teachers, will be able to get the kind of education that was once reserved for the elite.

Technology will create private tutors that are masters of their subjects. But unlike human teachers — who are expensive and time-consuming to train, have variable levels of talent, and leave the profession in droves — the electronic versions will be cheap, top-notch from the very start, easily updatable, and available 24/7.

In theory, it should work. Kurt VanLehn, a researcher at Arizona State University, conducted a meta-analysis of more than 80 studies of “intelligent,” computer-based tutoring systems — ones used to teach physics to college students, physics, or medical students about cardiovascular physiology — and found that the best of these systems can nearly match the performance of human tutors.

Schools like KIPP Empower, Carpe Diem, and Rocketship, along with sites like Khan Academy, show anecdotal evidence that given the right circumstances, blended learning works. Enticed by incentives from the federal government and deep-pocketed philanthropy, superintendents all over the country, from Tulsa to Ann Arbor, are recasting budgets and issuing bonds in order to invest in the hardware needed to bring blended learning to their struggling districts.

Blended learning models, which were pioneered for corporations and the military, have been around since the 1990s. The rush to add blending learning in classrooms, though, began in earnest about a dozen years ago. Thus far, however, solid research on the effects of K-12 blended-learning is thin. Smaller studies, most often conducted with older students, suggest that blended-learning can produce a modestly positive effect on learning — although researchers warn the uptick is just as likely to be a product of extended learning time and focus, rather than any alchemy of teaching and technology. It seems to work best when students are learning math, which relies in part on students learning, practicing, and applying procedural knowledge.

Still, everyone wants the magic bullet that will help all kids — especially poor kids — learn more with less.

There have been some high profile setbacks. In Los Angeles, the $1.3 billion effort to give iPads to 650,000 public schools students went up in flames. The software was incomplete, and many students used the tablets to play Candy Crush rather than watch historic presidential speeches. Within a few months, the superintendent was out of a job and the entire initiative was under investigation by the FBI. Across the country, the school district in Guilford County, North Carolina, once held up as a model early adopter, struggled and hit the reset button on their program, too.

To be sure, schools are successfully using education technology for targeted tasks, like streamlining parent-teacher communication, collecting homework, disseminating grades, filing permission slips, and letting teachers share lesson plans. But efficient, low-cost, sustainable blended learning in the classroom is turning out to be hard to do right. And in many cases, it is freighted with hidden costs: replacing broken hardware, updating software, retro-fitting old buildings for WiFi, and providing adequate training to new teachers.

These days, it’s common to find schools obtaining impressive student gains with technology-assisted learning — but it may be equally common to find schools where it was announced with great fanfare but died a quick, quiet death. Those classrooms are now littered with racks of unused iPads and broken Chromebooks.

Teaching kids, especially those who lag behind, is hard. It requires focus, energy, deep knowledge and resources. Technology changes the equation — but perhaps not as dramatically as blended learning evangelists want us to believe.

Here are four observations that ground the conversation about personalized learning in the messy realities of educating young people — and especially our vulnerable learners.

1. There is no magic device that helps kids learn more.

When you hear about some grand new initiative to give every student an iPad or smartphone, be very skeptical. No single piece of technology has yet to change the basic nature of teaching and learning. Radio, television, CDs, Smartboards, and personal computers were all hailed as transformative educational innovations in their day. They were not. iPads won’t be either. There is a big difference between finding new ways to deliver information and true educational innovation, which a far more complicated endeavor. Yes, an iPad can make an endless supply of images, books and instructional videos available to students any time, anywhere. But learning is about engaging with that material in deep, essentials ways that help build, extend and ultimately create new knowledge. It takes more than swiping.

2. For the most part, education software is worse than you think.

Teaching may look easy, but great teaching is complicated.

Master teachers are something like NBA stars; they have a seemingly endless supply of tiny, almost gestural moves that can have a big impact on a kid’s cognition. They make split-second choices about how to introduce new ideas, speak in a way that resonates, order concepts for maximum comprehension, and reinforce ideas and skills. Those choices depend on the teacher’s reading of the subtleties of a specific situation.

Technology-assisted personalized learning has come a long way, but it’s hard to get software to replicate what teachers do. And too often, it ends up being a simple lesson and an electronic worksheet buried among some zippy graphics.

Getting it right will require continual investment on the part of many software designers. What’s the holdup? It’s not clear what the financial incentive will be. Great teachers aren’t likely to buy into the vision of any single ed tech company. They want to integrate ideas — likely from several sources, designers, and companies — into their own creative processes. Schools that are trying to move from terrible to so-so might grab hold of a one-size-fits-all software package. But until education entrepreneurs develop easy-to-use, software than can be splintered in many different ways, great teachers won’t use it and the promise of technology-assisted personalized learning will be unfulfilled. “It’s like the printing press has been invented,” said one teacher in New Orleans wistfully. “But the great books have not yet been written.”

3. Tech-assisted personalized learning is not going to be the answer for every kid.

For those in the education reform community, making a visit to a Carpe Diem schools is like the hajj. You are strongly advised to do it once. And for good reason. Carpe Diem schools, which exist in Arizona, Indianapolis, Ohio, and soon Texas, look and run differently than the high school you probably attended: no gym, no lockers, no pep rally. Instead, Carpe Diem instruction is delivered through computers and supplemented by face-to-face instruction. Their tasks are directed by overhead airport-style monitors. There are no ringing bells to mark the end of class. Students advance at their own pace.

Since adapting the blended-learning model in 2006, results at the first Carpe Diem school in Yuma, Arizona have been strong. The sixth graders there were first in the state in math in 2010. Other Carpe Diem schools have boasted similar results. The per-pupil cost is lower than at traditional public schools, too.

Carpe Diem schools are not for every kid, though. Founder Rick Ogston cracked that he opened Carpe Diem to provide kids with a great education — but many of the initial applicants had exactly the opposite idea in mind. “They took one look at the computers, the lack of supervision and oversight, and thought it would be good way to avoid getting a great education,” he said. “And that’s what we have to watch out for.” He’s joking, of course, but there’s a grain of truth there.

Indeed, in a recent survey by the education tech company TES Global, only twenty-four percent of 1,000 U.S. teachers who used their products agreed that technology “improves student engagement.”

In other words, three-quarters of teachers using educational technology — remember, these are not Luddites but teachers that are already logging in — believe it has no effect, or worse, is a distraction.

4. Technology-assisted personalized learning is not going to get rid of a central problem in American schooling: We are not training and retaining nearly enough great teachers.

Everyone wants a plug-and-play school, with cheap, portable, high-quality lessons originated by a single instructor and delivered to thousands of students. It’s a vision — think Khan Academy on steroids — that promises to resolve what has become a seemingly intractable problem in American public education: we aren’t producing that many great teachers. One charter network in Ohio is experimenting with robot teachers — four foot plastic towers topped with a video image of the (off-site) teacher’s face.

Up close, technology-assisted personalized learning doesn’t seem to reduce the need for great teachers; in fact, the most successful programs seem to rely on them. In the Bricolage Academy, a charter school in a middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans, first grade teacher Diana Turner uses technology to amplify what she does best: explain and reinforce complex mathematical concepts so that six-year-olds can grasp and retain it. She then provides the children with opportunities to use that knowledge in a variety of different ways.

It looks like this. First, Turner gives her full class a high-energy lesson on how to add two digit numbers in their heads. “What does 54 plus 24 equal, Ce’ Leb?” she asks. Ce’ Leb knits his brow. She waits for the answer. “88,” he says finally. “Why do you think that?” she asks. While explaining how he broke the numbers down into tens and ones, he realizes his mistake and amends his answer.

By her students’ facial expressions and body language, Turner can tell which kids are getting it (most) and which kids aren’t (four kids in particular seem a little foggy on the whole idea.) She puts the bulk of her class to work on a simple pencil-and-paper worksheet and quickly reteaches the concept to two of the laggards.

After a few minutes, she reformulates her class again. A group of eight kids begin representing a list of two-digit numbers by counting beans into tens and ones cups, giving them a physical sense of place value. Five others grab chunky plastic covered iPads, don headphones, and listen to Turner via some homemade videos she posted to YouTube. In the videos, she is coaching her students to add two digit numbers on a dry erase board, photograph their results, and send it to her Google Docs account. With fourteen of her students learning with iPads and YouTube or Dixie Cups and dried beans, Turner is free to give a quick private lesson to two students who need it re-explained.

Bricologe principal Josh Densen believes blended learning is great “because it allows us to enhance the teacher’s effect. But it only works so well because we have a great teacher who is running it.”

Can technology-assisted personalized learning work with sub-standard teachers or teachers who work remotely and never meet their students at all? “I’ve seen schools try that,” said Densen, with a shrug. “It’s not something we think is viable.”

School staffing is notoriously unstable. Superintendents come and go, principals are increasingly on the move, and most teachers leave the profession in five years. What happens when superstar teachers like Turner move on?

Densen’s formula is to make sure technology enhances but doesn’t replace the relationship between teacher and student, which from his perspective, “needs to be at the center of every kid’s learning experience.” And that means investing in technology for the classroom but also investing in coaching to help Bricolage teachers grow.

Finding and growing great teachers is devilishly hard. Retaining them is very expensive. Without them, though, technology-assisted personalized learning is just not a way to do more with less. Rather, it is a way to deliver less with less. And that would be a promise unfilled.

Part 2 of this guest post will be a response to this post from Matt Chandler, CEO of 4.0 Schools.

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Charter Schools, Politics, and Democracy (Part 3)

Yes, publicly-funded charter schools in the U.S. are here to stay. More than 6,400 exist in the U.S. with most located in big cities (there are 100,000 regular schools). Charters enroll over 2.5 million students (over 50 million attend U.S. public schools). No, charter schools will not become the majority anytime soon. But they will be an important albeit small fraction of U.S. schools in 2050.

The “charter wars” over whether they are efforts to “privatize” public schools or whether charters are more effective than regular public schools or whether they are really “public” will continue to be fought by pundits, politicians, and warring factions but they will be skirmishes that won’t even deserve a footnote in the next generation’s doctoral dissertations. For better or worse–I believe better–the political invention of charter schools a quarter-century ago has been one of the legacies left by market-based school reforms, a movement dating back to the early 1980s. Largely located in urban districts, charters have offered hope to highly motivated parents trapped by poverty and circumstance that their children can escape the ravages of imposed economic inequality. The next generation of publicly-funded charters extending into the middle of the 21st century will be better monitored than they are now but, as before, will be largely found in urban districts unless major changes in the socioeconomic structures of the U.S occur to rid cities of residential segregation and severe economic inequalities.  Minority parents in 2050 will continue to be stuck and publicly-funded charters will, as they do now, offer a rung to grab climbing the ladder out of poverty .

Why am I so sure about charters being around mid-21th century?

Because the history of public schools in the U.S. has been a gradual stretching of the word “public” when it comes to schooling the young. Few remember or consult the history of U.S. education to note that nearly all schooling in the 18th and early 19th centuries was private. There were a handful, at best, of tax-supported public schools. Sure, the Puritans in New England mandated that communities with at least 50 families had to establish a school funded by property holders. Few were established, however. Those parents who wanted their children to read the bible, compute numbers, and write had to pay tuition to send their children to private academies and “dame” schools. For the urban poor in early 19th century cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, philanthropists organized “charity” schools where young children could learn to read, write, and do arithmetic. Still, most children went unschooled.

The mid-19th century  “common school” movement established tax-supported public schools for children (none, however, for slaves or free “colored” of those times) across the Northeast and Midwest. Taxes went to school the young, both male and female, to make them literate and law-abiding adults who would contribute to their communities and the nation. Reformers of that generation saw public schools as the “balance wheel of the social machinery” and making democratic citizens. They were political institutions.

After the Civil War, the idea of tuition-free public schools was stretched again to include ex-slaves. The establishment of tax-supported public schools, legally segregated by skin color, lasted until the late-20th century. Then the idea of “public” stretched to include other minority children and youth previously relegated to segregated schools or who went unschooled such as children and youth with disabilities.

Private schools–those earlier academies–run by religious and non-religious groups, of course, continued over two centuries expanding and contracting as time passed. The success of tax-supported public schools can be seen in the 90 percent of U.S. children attending those schools (2011). But as any reader knows, the quality of those public schools vary tremendously, especially across and within urban, suburban, exurban, and rural districts.

Toward the end of the 20th century, another stretching of the meaning of “public” occurred, again, aimed at mostly under-served urban minority children in the nation. Alternative schools (magnets, “open” and “free” schools proliferated from desegregation and challenges to the K-12 structures), began in the 1960s and spread. An in the early 1990s, publicly-funded chartered schools opened in Minnesota, one of the first being City Academy High School in St. Paul where three teachers welcomed 25 high school dropouts. Since then more charter schools have spread across the country, mostly in cities. Charters are now 6 percent of all public schools (24 percent of the nation’s schools are private).

Looking through the telescope rather than the microscope permits me to take the long view when it comes to publicly-funded charter schools. I see 2015 as part of another stretching of the term public to include charter schools. And that is why I believe charter schools are here to stay.

 

 

 

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Choosing Reform-Minded Urban Superintendents

If I had to choose an urban superintendent between Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C.(2007-2010) and  John Deasy in Los Angeles Unfied School District (2011-2014), I would choose Christopher Steinhauser, Long Beach (CA) superintendent since 2002. Why? Because Rhee and Deasy were sprinters in a job that requires marathoners like Steinhauser. Both Rhee and Deasy knew that teachers were the linchpin to achieve any degree of success and both ended up alienating the very people they depended upon. Steinhauser and his predecessor, Carl Cohn, who had served a decade earlier built close ties with their teachers over two decades.

Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents? Answer: Sprinters want 180 degree change fast; in doing so, they rarely gain respect and confidence of teachers; marathoners work with teachers steadily from day 1 of their tenure.

Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District served a decade or longer. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with problems that went unsolved and criticism that stung but all of them remained quietly and steadily effective. Their teachers, by and large, were supportive of their school chiefs’ efforts even when local teacher unions disagreed with parts of each one’s reform agenda. These superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Sprinter superintendents, however, embrace a reform agenda that assumed what existed in each of their districts when they became school chiefs was awful and had to be dumped. They refused to be identified with the status quo. Out with the old, in with the new. And fast. The “new” and “fast” meant swift fundamental change, especially with teachers and administrators. On the Richter scale of reform, fundamental change translated to major earthquakes of 7.0 and above. No changes that registered as tremors.

So Rhee, appointed by D.C.’s elected mayor, Adrian Fenty, fired both teachers and principals within the early months of her brief tenure in D.C. She pushed through new salary arrangements where experienced and effective teachers would increase their salaries dramatically but would have to give up tenure in exchange. As a former Teach for America alumna, she relied upon recruiting from that pool of new teachers and elevated other alumni to administrative posts.Her statements about teachers and administrators who had been in the D.C.  schools prior to her arrival were tinged with disrespect for their work in schools, particularly if these practitioners expressed how difficult it was to work with students who arrived in their schools from poor families with limited academic skills. Rhee was one of many new leaders that trumpeted the slogan of “no excuses”for low student performance. Schools could reverse low achievement. She designed a new system of evaluating teachers that included multiple observations of teachers by principals and “master educators” with one segment of the evaluation dependent upon how the teacher’s students did on district standardized tests. All of these actions occurred within the first two years of Rhee’s administration. To say that the hard-working, feisty Chancellor alienated the majority of teachers in D.C. would be accurate from one simple fact: Mayor Adrian Fenty ran for re-election in 2010 and lost. Many D.C. teachers worked for his opponent. And Rhee admitted her mistake in not gaining the respect and confidence of teachers. She resigned shortly afterwards.

John Deasy’s short three years in Los Angeles Unified School District differed from Michelle Rhee’s experience in that the school board that appointed him changed into one that became increasingly hostile to him including a former teacher getting elected.  Even the Los Angeles Times which supported his superintendency right up to the moment he resigned gave Deasy a parting editorial that sung his praises for his accomplishments in getting rid of ineffective teachers and raising student attendance and graduation rates but also pointed out his errors in alienating teachers–he testified in one law suit against teacher due process and seniority rights –and the massive iPad purchase from Apple in which the superintendent pushed unrelentingly and ended in a debacle.

Rhee and Deasy sought fundamental reforms, no holds barred and as swiftly as possible. Payzant, Cohn, Schwalm  knew  (and Steinhauser knows) that designing and persisting with incremental changes that barely toggled the Richter scale of reform. Marathoners worked slowly and patiently with teachers knowing that success with students would occur. Sprinters gain media attention fast. They revel in it mistakenly thinking that such instant snapshots means things are changing in classrooms. That is not the case. Marathoners see the big picture and fill in the dots gradually over the years.

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Democracies Need More Than One Kind of “Good” School

This post is a revised and updated version of one I wrote June 2, 2010

[A good education] “teaches you how to ask a question… it is knowing what you don’t know….”

“Ideally, one should know who Shakespeare was and why Shakespeare was important to us…. At the same time, one should know who Toni Morrison is and why her voice and take on America is important to us.”

“An educated high school grad must read, compute, persevere, organize, and problem-solve well enough not just to attend college, but to graduate from college.”

[A good education should instill] “a love of lifelong learning.”*

No surprise that views of what makes a good education differ. Such opinions about what makes an education “good” have differed for millennia among religious leaders, Greek philosophers, and those rebels in the 13 colonies who shaped a democratic experiment in America. Not now, however, in a democracy increasingly and wholly shaped by market capitalism.

In the past quarter-century, one narrow version of a “good” education has become groupthink  among policymakers, civic and business leaders, parents, and voters. That version says a “good” education is one where a school—note that schooling and education merge as expressed by the above  educators—meets state curriculum standards, has satisfactory test scores, and moves all students successfully into college.

Paradoxically, this constricted but familiar definition has occurred amid an explosion of options available to U.S. parents seeking “good” schools. In fact, differentiation among public schools now through magnets, charters, homeschooling, cyber-schools, and online learning have become available. But when one looks at the thousands of small high schools, charters, and magnets created in the past 15 years particularly in urban districts nearly all these diverse options concentrate on college preparation, meeting state standards, insuring that students pass required tests, and getting graduates into higher education. But many other schools depart from the dominant model; they work with a different definition of a “good” school that develops students’ cognitive, physical, artistic, and emotional talents. They see schools as incubators of democratic citizenship. They see children as whole beings, not just brains-on-sticks.

Why is it a constricted definition of “goodness” to send everyone to college?

First, everyone does not go to college (62 percent do). Second, the majority of high school graduates who enter college, don’t finish (56 percent do). Third, less than 30 percent of jobs require a higher education degree which helps to explain why so many degree-holding graduates are over-qualified and under-employed.

There are other reasons to go beyond group-think and see many kinds of “good” schools.

Historically, many versions of “good” schools have existed in the U.S. Among consolidated rural schools and even one-room schoolhouses, for example, some were (and are) outstanding examples of multi-age children and youth led by savvy, committed teachers and principals where students learned from one another, were fully engaged in the worlds of farming, village commerce, and their local communities.

Or consider those schools established to become miniature democracies such as John Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago in the mid-1890s or the Sudbury Valley School in the late-1960s.

Or consider those schools dedicated to serve and improve their immigrant communities such as New York City principal Leonard Covello who ran Benjamin Franklin High School in the 1930s and 1940s.

Or take those small urban schools such as Boston’s Mission Hill School founded by Deborah Meier and a small group of teachers in 1997 or El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, New York, founded in 1982, that focuses on youth and community development.

Both historically and currently, there have been diverse versions of “good” schools that educate children and youth toward different ends than the present orthodox view. I raise this issue again because unrelenting pressures from the business community, civic leaders, and state and federal policymakers on public schools to conform (through financial incentives mixed with strong penalties) to a one-size-fits-all “good” school has been on the reform agenda for past three decades. This group-think amplified frequently in the media with facts about life-time earnings of college graduates, reinforces the argument that public schools serve the economy. And that economy has to grow through skilled and knowledgeable graduates entering the labor market. This rigid mind-set excludes alternatives legions of college prep schools.

Such group-think among very smart people forget that democratic governments  for a nation of immigrants require many different types of “good” schools.When all students, including those who have no interest–much less desire–to sit in classrooms for four more years, prepare for college to better serve an economy and gain a higher rung on the ladder of financial success–diversity in “good” schools loses out. Schools are, and have been, vital institutions that sustain democratic ideas, thinking, and action. They need more than one version of a good school.

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*Randal C. Archbold, “What Makes a Good Education?” New York Times, January 14, 2001, p.27

 

 

 

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Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders