Category Archives: Reforming schools

Insider or Outsider? : Superintendents in Big Cities

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

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

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

Why is that?

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

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

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

Washington, D.C. Schools

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

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

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

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do insiders or outsiders stay longer?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Failure of U.S. Schools as “Guardians of Democracy”

“If 50 percent of a school district‘s graduates could not read, we‘d fire the superintendent. Yet regularly less than half our graduates vote. In our ―accountability era, no superintendent has been fired for failing in this core mission of our ―’guardian of democracy.’ ”

The  quote comes from a paper written by Michael Johanek in 2011 about the century-old history of civic education in the U.S.. However,  since the early 1980s business-minded state and federal reformers “re-purposed”  K-12 schools into building  a stronger, globally competitive economy through higher academic standards, increased testing, and tougher accountability for student results; the traditional goal of civic education has become a “Second Hand Rose.” That has been the case for the past three decades.

Relegated to applause lines in graduation talks, making students into citizens who are engaged in their communities gets occasionally resuscitated by national commissions, occasional reports and books, and pronouncements from top officials (see here, here, and here), but the sad truth is that until the dominant  rationale for schooling the young shifts from its current economic purpose to its historic role as “guardian of democracy,” only   fleeting references to the civic purpose of schooling will occur.

I do not know whether such a shift will occur in the immediate future. I surely want it to occur.  Trimming back the prevailing economic purpose for tax-supported schools and correcting the current imbalance in preparing children and youth for civic participation is long overdue. Consumerism  has enveloped public schools over the past three decades. The role of schools to teach democratic values and skills and insure that students have opportunities to practice the skills and values in their communities has been shoved aside. Were such a political change to occur,  it will be gradual as more and more parents, taxpayers, and policymakers come to see the harmful imbalance among the multiple aims for schools in a commerce-driven democracy. Were that political shift in purposes to occur, the crucial question of what kind of a citizen does the nation want will re-emerge as it had in earlier generations of school reformers.

That question of what kind of citizen has been around since tax-supported public schools were founded two centuries ago. No one answer has sufficed then or now because there are different ways of viewing a “good” citizen (see here and here). Nor has any answer in the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s–when schools were expected to prepare students to participate and engage in the community–sufficed. Arguments over the kinds of citizenship that should be practiced in and out of school, the threadbare quality of the programs, and frequent conflicts over whether teachers should deal with controversial topics within the school day arose time and again (see here, here and here)

Professors Joel Westheimer and Joe Kahne, knowledgeable about the history of civic education in U.S. and Canadian schools, have been wrestling with these different views and have come up with a conceptual map laying out three types of citizen: personally responsible, participatory, and social justice oriented  (WhatKindOfCitizenAERJ).   Westheimers recent book, What Kind of Citizen, summarizes these different views.

Personally Responsible Citizen

The core assumption for this kind of citizen is that to “solve social problems and improve society, citizens must have good character; they must be honest, responsible, and law-abiding members of the community.” Such a citizen would, for example, donate blood, recycle, and contribute food to a food drive.

Participatory Citizen

The core assumption here is that “to solve problems and improve society, citizens must participate and take leadership positions within established systems and community structures.” Such a citizen would, for example vote, serve on juries, form a street Neighborhood Watch to combat crime,  help organize a food drive, join the town’s recycling committee, and help register voters.

Justice-oriented Citizen

For this kind of a citizen the basic assumption is that “to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must question, debate, and change established systems and structures that reproduce patterns of injustice over time.” This kind of citizen would analyze the current structures and culture that create, say, hunger, homelessness or an epidemic of drug overdoses; the person would write letters, meet with local officials, and join committees seeking out ways of solving these problems.

For decades, these different views of a citizen have been embedded in the curriculum, especially in the 1930s and 1960s, and taught in schools. One kind of citizen, however, is not better than the other. In a democracy such divergent views of  citizenship are normal. Of course, these differences also lead to the larger question of what kind of democratic society do parents, voters, and taxpayers want their schools to work toward. No such debate, unfortunately, exists now.

But some public and private schools over the decades, surviving reform wave after wave, have practiced their version of preparing children and youth for citizenship. Often mixes of the above views of citizenship has emerged over time.

A few examples in 2016 are:

Sudbury Valley School–1968 (Framingham, MA)

Jefferson County Open School–1969 (Colorado)

El Puente–1982 (New York City)

Mission Hill--1997 (Boston, MA)

Bell Gardens High School –pp. 22-23 of report and here (Los Angeles, CA)

Westside Village Magnet School (Bend, Oregon)

That such schools (and these are a sampling) enact different forms of citizenship laid out above by Westheimer and Kahne is a proof point that schools enacting democratic practices exist. In these schools, student exercise responsible behavior in and out of school, participate in and out of school in various civic institutions from restorative justice programs to community service, and analyze causes of socioeconomic problems while working to reduce their effects in their communities. These schools, with much variation among them, embody different answers to the question: What kind of  citizen?

But such schools are scarce in the current market-driven reforms harnessing schools to the economy. Whether a swell of popular opinion will rise and crest into political action to reassert the fundamental civic aim for tax-supported public school, I cannot predict. But I sure hope it will.

 

 

 

 

 

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Schools That Integrate Technology: Silicon Valley

As complex as it is for an individual teacher to integrate daily use of high-tech devices into routine classroom practices, technology integration at a school level is even more complex. A classroom teacher with 25-35 students can alter the structures of her classroom and create a culture of learning, achievement and mutual respect. Hard as that is, it is do-able. I and many others have profiled teachers who have created such classrooms.

Imagine, however, schools with 30 to 100 classrooms and getting all of those teachers to work together to create school-wide infrastructure and a learning, achieving, and respectful culture–across scores of classrooms that seamlessly integrates computers to achieve the school-site’s goals. A complex task with many moving parts that is fragile yet strong. It does happen but remains uncommon.

I have observed a few schools in Silicon Valley that have integrated new technologies across the entire school requiring teachers to teach lessons using particular hardware and software. These schools vary from one another but tout that they “personalize learning,” blend instruction, and differentiate their lessons to meet differences among students. Invariably, they say they use project-based instruction.  They have created both an infrastructure and culture that subordinates technology to the larger tasks of preparing children and youth to do well academically and socially, graduate, and enter college (and complete it) or enter a career directly.

Considering what I have observed in Silicon Valley, documented nationally in my studies, and retrieved from the research literature on such schools elsewhere in the U.S., what are the common features of such schools?

Here are eight different yet interacting moving parts that I believe has to go into any reform aimed at creating a high-achieving school using technology to prepare children and youth to enter a career or complete college (or both). Note, please, that what I have garnered from direct observation, interviews, and the literature is not a recipe that can be easily cooked and served. Listing features I have  identified is not an invitation to insert some or all of these into a formula for producing such schools near and far. These schools are rooted in their contexts and context matters.

These features are:

*Recruit and train teachers who have the subject matter knowledge and skills to work with students  before, during, and after the school day.

*Recruit and train school site leaders who have the expertise and skills to lead a school and be a pillow and sandpaper simultaneously with teachers, students, and parents.

*Students have access to non-academic subjects that cultivate the mind, heart, and sensibilities.

*Equip all students with the knowledge and skills not only to enter college,  persist through four years and get a bachelor’s degree but also have the wherewithal to enter a career immediately.

*Organize the school day, week, and month that provides students with sufficient time in and out of class to learn the prescribed material and core cognitive skills to master a subject, acquire the essential skills of planning and assessing their progress in each course they take, receive tutorial help when student skill levels are below and above par, and time for students to receive mentoring from teachers they trust.

*Build a culture of safety, learning, respect, and collaboration for both youth and adults.

*Create a decision-making process that is inclusive, self-critical, and strong enough to make further changes in all of the above.

*Do all of this efficiently within available resources.

Note the absence of new technologies in the features that I have listed. Why is that?

Simply because such schools containing these features have administrators and teacher who figure out when to use software to achieve desired outcomes, create an infrastructure to support staff in using new technologies, determine which new technologies efficiently advance students in reaching these goals, and create the conditions for easy, supported use of the hardware and software. Note, then, that computers and their software are subordinate to the overarching goals for students and adults in the school.

Summit schools, a charter network in Northern California, has been working and re-working a design containing these moving parts for nearly 15 years. Over that period, they have amended, deleted, and added program features as administrators and faculty learned what worked and what didn’t. The time span, the stability in staff, their awareness of context and shifting demographics all came into play as Summit leaders and faculty figured out what to do since 2003.

Over the past two months I have visited two of Summit’s seven charter schools in the Bay area and in those two schools have watched teachers across different academic subjects teach 90-minute lessons during what the schools call “project time.” I have also interviewed administrators.  Each school was part of a different district in Silicon Valley. While one of the schools had a separate building in its district well suited to its mission, scheduling, and space for students, the other school was located on a high school campus in another district where both students and teachers worked in a series of portable classrooms. Also each drew from different populations.*

The network of Summit charter schools has been written about often and positively (see here, here, here, and here). In all instances, these teachers I observed had integrated the software they had loaded onto students’ Chromebooks, the playlists of videos and links to articles for units that teachers created, and students’ self-assessment exercises into daily lessons with varying degrees of student engagement. The charter network claims that through their Personalized Learning Plan (also see here) teachers could give each student individual help while students negotiated their ways through academic content and skills. In the two schools, I observed students during 90-minute classes in different academic subjects working on teacher-chosen projects. Students were using their Chromebooks frequently to access PLP voluntarily and at teachers’ direction.

The cliched statement said over and over again by advocates of new technologies in schools: “It is not about technology, it is about learning,” captured what I saw. Overall aims for Summit students to acquire academic content, cognitive skills, “habits of success,” and the know-how allowing students to assess their own progress involved online work  before, during and after lessons. Clearly, the school did not have to use Chromebooks and extensive software to reach the schools’ overall goals and each student’s personal ones. The technology did enable, however, the process of learning to be more efficient, more timely, and  give real-time feedback to students.

The two Summit schools in very different contexts contained these features I listed above. While differences existed between the two schools in context and staffing, both have implemented these features as best they could. Creating and massaging these many features of the Summit Schools is no easy task. It is not done once; it is a process that is constantly monitored, assessed, and altered by site leaders and staff.  Thus, listing the essential features that mark such enterprises is not a blueprint for action; it is an after-the-fact synthesis of what I saw and not easily replicable for those who have dreams of “going to scale.” It is what emerged from such efforts over a long period of time and requires tender, loving care every day. The program is fragile and easily broken by inattention, changes in leadership and staff, and declining resources. May it continue to thrive.

___________________________

*Diane Tavenner, a founding teacher at Summit Prep and director of Summit Schools Network and Chief Academic Officer, Adam Carter–also a founding teacher at Summit Prep–picked the two schools. In both schools, I interviewed the principals (called Executive Directors), and they suggested various teachers I should visit. Because of scheduling difficulties, I could not see all of those recommended to me. So in both schools, I reached out to other teachers, introduced myself and asked them if I could observe their classes.  The nine teachers who permitted me to spend a 90-minute block with them taught English, social studies, science, and math. For readers who wish to see my published observations, see posts for March 13, 2016, March 16, March 21, March 23, March 29, April 1, April 6, April 12, April 18.

 

 

 

 

 

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Substance Beats Flash: District Superintendents and Minority Achievement Network (S. David Brazer and Robert G. Smith)

A former high school principal, David Brazer is Associate Professor (Teaching) and Faculty Director of Teaching Leadership Programs at Stanford University; former superintendent of the Arlington (VA) public schools, Robert Smith is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at George Mason University. They co-authored Striving for Equity (2016).

 

 

The contemporary education reform climate seems to value flash over substance, grand ideology over hard work, and narrow quantitative impact over steady progress in nurturing environments. Lost in all this noise is the steady effort of school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, students, and parents striving to make the most out of school-age years, from pre-school through high school graduation. The gross exaggerations of “the schools are failing” or “this will revolutionize education” are exposed by the deliberate, effective approaches to improving student achievement of 13 superintendents who tell their stories in Striving for Equity: District Leadership for Narrowing Opportunity and Achievement Gaps (Harvard Education Press, 2016). They pursued results rather than headlines.

Instead of chasing a “best practices” holy grail, these superintendents worked with their communities—both within and around their inner-ring suburban school districts—over long periods of time, following a series of steps that adhered to their commitment to equity and reflected their practical experiences as education leaders. They began by helping parents, teachers, and board members understand that inequities were embedded in their districts’ student outcomes. Most of them were ahead of their time, recognizing opportunity and achievement gaps long before these terms were widely used. Publicizing the data demonstrating achievement differences between the majority population and students with disabilities, in poverty, speaking languages other than English, or identifying as non-white helped these superintendents rally their communities to their gap-closing agendas.

Many of the tactics superintendents employed were pedestrian in nature—funding pre-school, unifying elementary curricula, and keeping their boards educated on the nature of the problem and district progress. Other actions were more complicated, such as providing professional development so that teachers were better equipped to implement curricular changes and reach changing student populations. Additionally, these superintendents also took substantial risks when they focused their professional staffs on understanding unintended bias and institutionalized racism, dismantled entrance requirements for their districts’ most challenging courses, or addressed poverty by taking programs into housing projects or working with health insurance companies to provide coverage for impoverished students. There were no magic bullets or secret sauces, just sensible policies and procedures that focused their agendas to narrow opportunity and achievement gaps for all of their districts’ students.

We identified this group of dedicated superintendents based on their membership on the Governing Board of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN). MSAN, as the name suggests, is committed to success for students who stand outside the majority population on at least one dimension. All of the superintendents valued MSAN for its ability to bring together colleagues and their students from across the country to share ideas and stimulate each other’s thinking about how to address the persistent gaps that dog public education. They attribute many of their good ideas to stimulation that came from MSAN meetings, but no one believed that MSAN provided specific tactics to be implemented. Instead, sharing successes and setbacks and learning from peers, superintendents tended to focus on the principles undergirding shared initiatives rather than trying to replicate particular recipes or procedures. This approach led to innovations adapted and tailored to their specific school districts.

The common experiences of these superintendents highlight central challenges of the job for those who seek to have schools and school systems live up to their equalization potential in US society. The superintendents continually balanced competing demands on resources, shifting politics, and the need to demonstrate progress so that they could remain in their posts long enough to see the effects of their carefully crafted changes and programs. Not all of them stayed more than four or five years, but those who did were able to demonstrate important transformations in their school districts that were making a difference for students long marginalized in their systems. Their examples point to two important factors that are uncommon in public school districts today: 1) longevity in the superintendent role supports long-term improvement, and 2) meaningful reform is multi-faceted, requiring strategy, time, and resources to take hold.

Each of the 13 superintendents pointed with pride to major accomplishments that narrowed achievement gaps in their school districts. None, however, could claim to have closed any of the gaps they identified. Any educator who has tried at any level to help a child succeed will understand that moving the needle on achievement is a thorny, baffling process with many stumbling blocks. Long after the fad or reform du jour has passed from the scene, superintendents, teachers, principals, and other educators dedicated to equitable student outcomes will be chipping away at the gaps in their schools and districts, eventually eliminating minority status as a predictor of student achievement. These superintendents lead the way to that more promising future.

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Integrating Technology In Classrooms: Teach To One in a Oakland Charter School

“Personalized learning” joins “disrupted” and “transform” as popular hyped words used by policymakers, entrepreneurs, superintendents, online enthusiasts, and wannabe reformers. As with the other catch-phrases, “personalized learning” means different things to different people (see here, here, and here). What all do share is a commitment to another often-hyped but less attractive phrase: “competency-based learning” or individualized mastery learning that has nearly a half-century of experience in U.S. schools. Now, with digital tools available and a climate hostile to the “factory-system of schooling”, the capacity to convert “personalized” learning into daily school work has spread.

So, no surprise that when “personalized learning” is translated into practice, the concept appears in different forms. Rocketship schools, AltSchool, Agora Cyber School, and the rural Lindsay Unified School District in California’s Central Valley blazon their “personalized learning”  (or “competency-based learning”) placard for all to see. It is a marketplace where different brands compete for the shopper’s attention. Within this branding competition sits Teach To One.

Teach To One is a middle school math program that re-arranges traditional classroom space and furniture, tailors daily lessons for individual students, and uses different forms of teaching (“modalities” is their favored word) within a 90-minute period. The program grew out of a venture in New York City called School for One that got rave reviews (see here). Two of its founders left and created a non-profit that markets Teach To One; it is now in 28 schools in eight states teaching math to 10,000 students. Teach To One has received rave reviews in its early growth years (see here and here).*

On May 15, 2016, I spent an hour and a half shadowing Lupe (a pseudonym), an eighth grade student at ASCEND charter school** in Oakland where she and about 100 classmates (sixth graders were on a field trip) received their daily math instruction through Teach To One. The Director of Teach To One, Winona Bassett (a pseudonym) briefed me on the first-year program, answered a number of questions I had and found the student I would shadow. She explained to me the different “modalities” I would see during the morning.

What I observed are clear instances of both teachers and students seamlessly integrating technology in a lesson on scientific notation. The math skill of scientific notation is listed on the online Portal  (for a video explaining the Portal, see here) The Portal shows the playlist and the skill the student is working on for that day  (it is numbered A 280–“I will solve real world problems involving numbers in scientific notation”). The Portal (see here) also includes each student’s all important Exit Slip which contains multiple choice questions that the student has to answer. It is an assessment of grasping and applying the skill. One Exit Slip question, for example, asks: “A website had approximately 300 thousand visits in 2010. The number of visits rose to 6.31 X 10¹° in 2011. In scientific notation, how many more visits were there in 2011 than in 2010?” The student has four choice from which to choose. The central server in New York City reports to the staff how well or poorly each students has done on the questions. How many were missed, how many correct. Using the Portal, students (and their parents) can see exactly how they are faring on each skill, how much work they have to do and whether they have “room for growth, are almost there, and great and perfect”  (Teach To One calls these skill levels “Foundational, Core, and Extension”). Lupe is working on a skill that is “at grade level.” This version of “personalized learning” also is “competency based.”

The student’s answer to these Exit Slip questions each day determines what the student will work on the following one. All Exit Slips are sent electronically to New York City, graded, and “using, ” in the Director’s words,  “algorithms and human judgment,” the next day’s Exit Slip is sent back within hours  to the director and teachers of the program. Through accessing the Portal, students then know what they will work on the next day and whether or not they are progressing or regressing (or mastered) each skill. All math skills are aligned with Common Core standards in a highly flexible physical environment unlike a traditional classroom.

The physical space. Taking over the school’s library, the large space is demarcated into four separate rooms each with a sign of a local university (e.g., San Jose State, San Francisco State). Each room is designed with Teach To One space consultants. has long tables–each movable chair clearly numbered–capable of seating up to six students.

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There is much noise from different segments of the room since library shelving units separate the spaces. Students, teachers, and aides went about their business amid ebb and flow of sound across the divided space. One space is used for a teacher-directed lesson on scientific notation (see below), another space is used for students to use their Chromebooks to work on the individually designed lesson on scientific notation (based on their results of work the previous day recorded on their online Exit Slip–see below); the third space is for collaborative work between and among students and teachers. The fourth space is used for a teacher-directed lesson on circumference. This morning, the seventh and eighth graders are distributed between the four “rooms” spending a half-hour in each space before moving on to the next “modality.” For each segment of the 90-minute class, students sit at different tables with different classmates.

The students. Ages 13-14, these seventh and eighth graders, mostly Latino boys and girls (see demography of ASCEND below) range in size from large to pint-sized, exhibiting varying stages of puberty. They are filled with energy, zest, and seriousness mixed with playfulness. As an old white man on a cane, I stand out among them and when I sit at a table next to the student I am shadowing, many ask my name and what I am doing there. I tell them that I am shadowing Lupe and will write about the class on my blog. I tell them my name and one student yells out: “Larry, the Cable Guy.” The name sticks as I move from one “modality” to another. As I observe them in each “modality,” I see students using their Chromebooks and reading from the screen and writing in a large notebook. There is much back-and-forth between students about the task they were working on and playful kidding with each other as they exchange information about friends, how each looked. etc.

ASCEND students have a dress code. They wear tee-shirts or hoodies  marked with an ASCEND logo on the front; on the back of the tee-shirt is printed one-liners  called the Six Ways to ASCEND:

•”Take Charge of Your Own Learning”

∗Be kind and considerate

•Help Each Other

•Persevere

•Be Responsible for yourself, your family, and your community

•Be reflective”

The teachers. For the 50 students there this morning, there are two credentialed teachers and two teaching assistants. I watched both teachers in their different spaces for 30 minute periods. Chimes ring during the 90 minutes they take math signaling students when to switch “modalities”(e.g., go from 10-minute Math Advisory–like a “homeroom”–to a teacher-directed lesson, etc.) and when they must complete their Exit Slip, and when they move to their next ASCEND class.

The first teacher I observe is doing what the program calls “Live Investigation.” An experienced teacher, Julia Kerr (a pseudonym) has 10 students at three tables. For 30 minutes she conducts a recitation/whole group discussion/Q & A on converting standard notation to scientific notation. She begins with a matrix of four cells on the whiteboard, each cell holding the following symbols: +, -, x, ÷  .  Students open their  notebooks and draw the matrix. She then asks students: “what are the rules when we add decimals?” She calls on students by name.

At my table, there are two boys and two girls. They have their Chromebooks open and have taken out their notebooks and pens. As they exchange information and gossip, they move easily between Spanish and English. One of the boys is a big, non-stop talker who prods the much shorter, slight boy with jokes and comments about others in the class. The smaller boy laughs but hardly responds back. The two girls say nothing to the larger boy’s comments. The teacher who scans the class constantly sees what is happening and admonishes the boy by name. He quiets down and returns to his Chromebook and notebook.

Teacher asks: “What do you do when when you multiply (3.4 X 10-²) by (6.2 X 10−³)?” A few students raise their hands and reply. She builds on their responses and gives examples to tie down point. She then moves to subtraction part of matrix. Kerr moves around room while talking and insuring that everyone is on task. When one student yells out an answer to one of her questions instead of raising hand and waiting for teacher to call upon him, she looks directly at him and says: “You have a warning.”***

Teacher moves through each cell of matrix giving examples and asking students by name to respond to her questions about how to convert standard to scientific notation. They use their calculators on the Chromebook and move easily back and forth between paper and screen. As she walks around, students show her their screens and notes they have taken.

Chimes ring a five minute warning. Kerr begins to sum up by asking students to “pay attention.” She goes over rules students should follow in doing conversion and asks a student–the large boy at my table–to “do it for me.” He does. Then she asks students to work with partner to review each other’s work. They do. No back-and-forth at my table. All work. Kerr puts up on whiteboard another example of converting from standard to scientific notation. Chimes ring and the 10 students disperse to work in a different “modality.”

I asked Lupe what she got out of the class. She told me that Ms. Kerr helped her understand better what scientific notation is. She will use her notes when she works on her Exit Slip. When I asked if she can convert standard to scientific notation, she paused, hesitated, and murmured something I could not hear. She smiled and we went to the next class.

In this “modality,” Lupe and classmates will work individually in their Chromebooks, consult their notebook, ask veteran teacher Donald Percy (pseudonym) questions about scientific notation that they are stuck on. There are 24 students in the room. They open their Chromebooks and notebooks. Most dig right into the task. Some are clearly stuck. Percy sees this whether they raise their hands for help or not. He moves easily in and around the tables, questioning a student, making suggestions, and going to white board to show what a student is stuck on and what the student needs to do. At my table there is one boy and four girls. The boy cracks jokes and one girl occasionally laughs. He is working from another sheet of paper and answering questions on paper. It is his “Independent Practice” handout. While some students who work at Independent Practice use Chromebooks for their handouts, some do not. I learn later from the Director of the program that he is having a very hard time with previous skills and the current scientific notation. The girls at my table generally ignore him and proceed to move back-and-forth from notebook to Chromebook. Percy works with three boys at another table who need help. He goes to the whiteboard and writes down examples, explaining how to go from standard to scientific notation. Chimes ring signaling that everyone transitions back to 10-minute Math Advisories to complete there Exit Slip.

Those at my table begin doing so. Quiet descends in the room. Students click away on the questions they have to answer, given where they are in mastering the skill. Some consult their notebooks. Before the chimes ring, the teacher praises the entire group for their diligent work and then asks students as they leave to plug in their Chromebooks to recharge them. They do. In a few minutes, this session ends and students move to their next ASCEND class.

I met with the Director to debrief. I was curious about the switching between paper and screen and she explained that this was a teacher decision, not a company one, since teachers wanted a record, “evidence” was the word she used, that staff could assess and then compare what they see on paper with students’ progress through the competency-based math curriculum via Exit Slips. She explained to me the rapid electronic turnaround between New York City servers and staff, Teach To One accessibility to distant staff, and the ups-and-down of being a first year program. Her enthusiasm was infectious and I thanked her for setting up the shadowing of a student.

 

 

 

 

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*Joel Rose, one of the founders of School of One who joined with Christopher Rush to start-up New Classrooms, contacted me in March 2016. He wanted to discuss Teach To One with me. We met for coffee talking about his vision of schooling, “personalized learning,” and his work in expanding New Classrooms. Afterwards, I asked him if he could arrange my visiting its Oakland Unified School District site in ASCEND charter school. He did.

**ASCEND is a Oakland public charter school that opened in 2001. The charter serves 430 students in grades K-8 with 24 students in every class. Students are 80% Latino, 8% Asian, 6% African American, 5% Multi-Racial, and 1% Filipino (2015). Poverty rate in school, determined by number of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, is 95 percent (2013).

***the classroom disciplinary policy is ASCEND’s. Verbal warning first. Then with another violation, name goes on whiteboard. Next time a check mark next to name. After two check marks, detention, and with three check marks, student goes to principal. I learned this from the student I shadowed and classmates. None of the students knew of anyone who had been ejected from their math class.

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What Guides My Thinking on School Reform: Pulling the Curtain Aside *

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. But I do embrace certain principles that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. And also this blog for the past six years. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

Context matters. Suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible because the setting in of itself influences what happens in the school and classrooms. There is no  reform I know of aimed at improving classroom teaching and student performance that should be applied across the board (e.g., school uniforms, teaching children to code, project-based learning). Policies and programs delivered to teachers need to be adapted to different settings.

No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in teachers’  tool kits. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., online “personalized” lessons, project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.

Small changes in classroom practice occur often and slowly; fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.

Age-graded school structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms. Teachers adapt to this dominant structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare lesson to get students ready for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.

Yet adding new structures to shift the center of gravity from prevailing teacher-centered lessons to student-centered ones (e.g., “personalized” learning, project-based instruction) while retaining the larger organizational structure of the age-graded organization fails to alter daily classroom practices.

Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions ala Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise.

These principles guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning.

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*This is a revised version of a post that appeared September 15, 2015.

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Rubik’s Cube and School Reform (Part 1)

When the Rubik Cube appeared in the early 1980s, I tried twisting and turning the colors to get them all aligned. I failed. Finding out that there are 3 billion possible ways to turn the cube’s corners, edges, and center to get the solution comforted me not a bit. Nor did knowing that one out of seven people on the planet (yes, the planet) have tried to solve the puzzle. Especially after I read that the speed record–established in November 2015–for solving the puzzle is now under five seconds (not minutes nor hours, but seconds). A blindfolded participant (yes, blindfolded) in the China Championship (2015) solved the Rubik Cube in 21 seconds. I gave up. And I have not tried since. This is the end of my confession of failure to solve the Rubik’s Cube.

Now what does the Rubik Cube have to do with school reform then and now? The Rubik Cube is complicated; school reform is complex. I and many others have pointed out the distinction between complicated and complex. This post offers another distinction, one that is crucial for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers to consider before adopting and implementing policies in school curriculum, organization, governance, and pedagogy that touch children and youth. That distinction is: changing school structures and culture to reshape classroom pedagogy is far harder to do than solving Rubik’s Cube.

Like the Rubik’s Cube, there are many moving parts to altering what teachers do in their classrooms such as school structures, culture, and interactions (many of which can not be predicted) between and among adults and children, and life outside of school. These moving parts have to work in sync in order for students to benefit. When they do it is a beauty to behold. But most of the time they do not. Why? Because reformers believe that reforming a school is a matter of providing the right incentives to motivate children and adults, laying out clear and measurable objectives, planning the tasks to be done step-by-step, executing those tasks efficiently, measuring results, evaluating the outcomes, and correcting errors. Then repeat the cycle. But reforming a school goes beyond clever design, putting the right people in the right slots,  efficient execution of tasks, and measuring results. Which is why reformers get stumped by the complexity of altering a school and what teachers do.

What makes it hard (i.e., complex) to create and sustain a “successful” school–however measured–is that there are no algorithms–as there are for the Cube–to get from here to there. Space flight to the moon, shuttles to a space-station orbiting the earth, and preparations for an eventual mission to the planet Mars are enormously complicated efforts that have been planned and executed (albeit with a few disasters) flawlessly. But complicated does not equal complex. There is no Mission Control for school reform in a decentralized national system of schooling. One example of the complexity of school reform will illustrate what I mean.

Take the U.S. high school. Begun in the mid-19th century, subsequent reforms created the comprehensive high school with college prep, commercial, and vocational curricula housing 1500 or more teenagers in the 1920s. Since then the institution has been praised and attacked every single decade for nearly a century. Policymakers have adopted reform-after-reform: from many curricula in the high school to everyone-goes-to-college; from conventionally organized schools with 50-minute periods and academic departments to ones that are re-organized (e.g., hour-and-a-half block for periods, subject matter departments disbanded, team teaching); from 1500 to 2000 or more students to small high schools (e.g., 500 students or less); from dominant teacher-centered pedagogy to more personalized and individualized ways of teaching (e.g., project based learning, student-centered teaching, online instruction)–see here, here, and here.

Some reforms stuck, many did not. No surprise then that the high school that U.S. viewers’ parents and grandparents attended would be familiar to them even now. Altering school structures and cultures is tough to do because high schools are complex organizations situated in a mercurial, ever-shifting political, social, economic, and technological environment. Surely, there have been changes in size, curriculum offerings, use of technologies, and instruction but these changes–actually political responses to clamor among those who make policy, pay taxes, vote, and demand changes–preserved the essential organizational and governance arrangements (e.g., age-graded school, subject matter departments, hour-long periods of instruction, etc.) and, truth be told, how most teachers teach.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine some of the moving parts and myriad interactions that have to occur in designing a very different kind of high school aimed at those students who want to go to college and succeed economically in the U.S. Here are the elements that I would imagine have to be in place and occur for such an imagined (and complex) high school.**

*Recruit and train teachers who have the subject matter knowledge and skills to work with youth before, during, and after the school day.

*Recruit and train school site leaders who have the expertise and skills to lead a school and be a pillow and sandpaper simultaneously with teachers, students, and parents.

*Every student takes a college prep curriculum, aligned with district standards, that enables them to enter any higher education institution in the state.

*Every student has access to non-academic subjects that cultivate the mind, heart, and sensibilities.

*Equip all students with the knowledge and skills not only to enter college but have the wherewithal to persist through four years and get a bachelor’s degree.

*Organize the school day, week, and month that provides students with sufficient time in and out of class to learn the prescribed material and core cognitive skills to master a subject, acquire the essential skills of planning and assessing their progress in each course they take, receive tutorial help when student skill levels are below par, and time for students to receive mentoring from teachers they trust.

*Build a culture of respect, safety, and focus on collaboration and learning for both youth and adults.

*Create a decision-making process that is inclusive, self-critical, and strong enough to make further changes in all of the above.

*Do all of the above efficiently within available resources.

Note that the design takes-for-granted the age-graded high school structures of administrators, academic departments, and teachers in self-contained classrooms. Note further that none of the elements of the design favor any particular pedagogy–neither teacher- or student-centered lessons or hybrids of both.

Easy as it is to list the components of such an imagined design, there is much that goes unmentioned. Nowhere, for example, do I note the required interactions (both routine and unexpected) between and among students, teachers, administrators, and parents that occur daily. Nor have I listed the unanticipated changes that occur regularly within political institutions such as schools (e.g., fund cuts, parental crises, student suicide, illness of a highly-respected administrator; spike in teacher turnover). All of the design pieces and these elements are moving parts that have to come together at a moment in time to work. Friction, mishaps, and stumbles occur all the time as people and events interact. Longevity of such designs are rare. A short, happy life of such high school reforms is the norm.

Is high school school reform easy as a Rubik’s Cube? Hardly. Part 2 will describe a network of schools that has put into practice most of the above design.

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**Some readers may ask: where do these features come from? The answer is that decades of research and experience with high school reform from the effective schools research of the 1980s and 1990s, the federally-subsidized research on Whole School Reform, and both research and experience gained from the small high schools movement form the basis for generating these features. Also there is the evidence drawn from small high school models launched and sustained within urban charter schools across the nation such as by Aspire, Kipp, Green Dot, Leadership Public Schools, and Summit Charter Schools. Finally, my experience as a high school teacher for 14 years, a superintendent of a district for seven years,  a trustee for a charter school organization for three years, and a researcher studying successful and failing high schools have given me a framework for analyzing and imagining high school  improvement.

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