Category Archives: Reforming schools

Bankers and Teachers: Scandals and Accountability (Part 1)

Wells Fargo, a bank that made more than $80 billion in revenue  and has a market value of $277 billion, was fined $185,000,000 by federal regulators for creating 1.5 million fake credit card accounts. In the plea bargain that regulators made with bank officials, Wells Fargo admitted no responsibility for the financial misconduct. The company had fired more than 5,000 of their lowest-paid employees but neither the senior vice-president for community banking where the fraud occurred nor the CEO lost their positions. CEO John Stumpf, named in 2013 as Morningstar’s CEO of the Year and earning about $20 million a year, did face U.S. Senate Banking Committee questions about the phony accounts last week. In testimony, the CEO did say “I take full responsibility for all of the unethical practices in our retail banking business.”A member of the Banking Committee, Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem.-Mass) said what the bank did was a “scam” and that Stumpf “should resign… and you should be criminally investigated.”

Looking back at the fallout from the Great Recession of 2008 in lost billions of investors’ dollars, millions of home foreclosures, and crushed hopes of a generation of hard-working American retirees–apart from one senior trader at Credit Suisse who was convicted and served 30 months—not one single CEO of an investment house, bank or insurance company hip-deep in deceiving and defrauding Americans was indicted or served a day in jail.  Yes, federal regulators fined other banks like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America billions of dollars but they like Wells Fargo admitted no unlawful conduct and took no responsibility for their actions (see here, here, here, and here). Contrast that with the savings-and-loan bank failure in the 1980s when over 1,000 bankers  went to jail for fraud and similar charges. That was then, this is now.

Immunity from accountability is currently widespread in the private sector. But not in the public sector.

Take the case of the Atlanta Public Schools and the cheating scandal between 2009-2015. Superintendent Beverly Hall led the district between 1999 and 2010. In 2009, she was named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. After an investigation by state officials in 2011 triggered by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revelations in 2009 that nearly 180 teachers and officials in 44 schools raised students’ test scores, Hall  and 31 teachers and administrators were indicted and stood trial.  Most of these educators took plea deals; Hall died of breast cancer during the trial. Eleven educators accused of tampering with students’ test scores were convicted in 2015 and are now serving from one to seven years in Georgia prisons.

No immunity from accountability here.

Lawyers and historians say often that before rushing to judgment, one must become familiar with the circumstances, the organizational setting and the mind-set of those who committed the crimes. So what were the contexts for Wells Fargo’s fraud and Atlanta’s cheating scandals?

Wells Fargo

Beginning as early as 2009, individual employees, many of whom earned less than $15 an hour, were expected to sell Wells Fargo products (e.g., credit cards, over-draft protection, checking and  savings accounts) to existing customers in order to meet their monthly goals. If they  fell short, sales representatives were written up, reprimanded or let go. Managers put intense pressure on their employees to meet these targets. Rita Murillo, a bank manager who left the company said: “We were constantly told we would end up working for McDonald’s. If we did not make the sales quotas … we had to stay for what felt like after-school detention, or report to a call session on Saturdays.”

Wells Fargo quarterly profits continued to climb in the years following the Great Recession. Investors were pleased.

As the years passed, word of bogus credit cards, checking and savings accounts and angry customers leaked out. The Los Angeles Times published an expose of the practices in 2013. The intense race to meet monthly goals created a culture where sales staff were pushed again and again to meet their targets or else. Phone calls from bosses were dreaded. After newspaper articles appeared, managers fired employees. Even after the LA Times‘ revealing of these practices and the dog-eat-dog ethos at Wells Fargo, bogus credit cards and new accounts continued.  Then state and federal regulators entered the picture. Fines were levied against Wells Fargo but not one senior executive was either admonished or forced to resign.

This is the context for Wells Fargo (see here, here, and here).

The Atlanta Public Schools

The high-poverty, mostly black district had struggled for decades with low graduation and high dropout rates and state test scores near the bottom of Georgia’s public school systems. Within the segregated district–there are a few largely white schools and the rest are largely black–academic gaps between white and black have been large and persistent (e.g., majority white Grady High School graduates 82 percent of its students while majority black Douglass High School is 42 percent).

Pressure to raise state test scores and graduation rates rose and fell as superintendents came and went in the 1990s. With the appointment of Beverly Hall in 1999 and the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law (2002), that pressure increased considerably. Rewards and sanctions accompanied goals of raising test scores across the district. All teachers in schools meeting 70 percent of their goal, for example, would receive bonus payments. The superintendent’s contract had a similar provision for increases to her salary. Sanctions for low test performance under NCLB led to closed schools, firing principals and reprimands for district office administrators not meeting state and federal goals under Adequate Yearly Performance (AYP).

Hall was determined to improve Atlanta’s student performance. And the numbers rose over the years. Bonuses went to many schools and the superintendent. Rumors of tampering with test scores circulated and were dismissed. A number of teachers reported principals fiddling with test score results. Nothing happened except strong district office messages to be quiet or leave. A culture of fear blanketed schools. Then the Atlanta Journal Constitution investigated the rumors and published their startling report in 2009 on how much adult cheating occurred on district tests. State officials then completed their investigation in 2011 (see here).

The results of that investigation led to charging the superintendent, principals and teachers in over three dozen schools with changing student test scores. The report pointed to the high-stress placed on raising test scores and the pervasive fear among school employees of retaliation if anyone reported abuses. Some quotes from the state inquiry:

*“Throughout this investigation numerous teachers told us they raised concerns about cheating and other misconduct to their principal or SRT [School Reform Team] … only to end up disciplined or terminated.”

*“[T] message was: ‘Get the scores up by any means necessary;’ in Dr. Hall’s words, ‘No exceptions and no excuses.’”

*“In sum, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation permeated the APS system from the highest ranks down.”

At both Wells Fargo and in the Atlanta public schools hard-driving managerial pressures created fear-strewn workplaces where success-filled data became the goal. Similar contexts in a public and private institution turned up.

Yet accountability for fraud in these two institutions differed greatly. How come?

Part 2 tries to answer that question.


Filed under school leaders

Summer is Over, School Begins in August

At this time of year, journalists and bloggers write about the new fact of schools starting before the first weekend of September, the traditional start time for U.S. schools for nearly a century.  A few writers (and parents also)  ask why the date for the end of summer vacation keeps creeping backward into August (see here, here, and here). Answers include increased teacher efficiency  (more time to prepare students for standardized tests), catering to students and families (smoother closing of first semester before Xmas and getting out of school in late May which reduces graduating seniors’ shenanigans in last few weeks of school), while preserving other vacations during school year such as in February and April.

Current talk about shorter summers, however, is empty of the highly-charged, crisis-ridden vocabulary of 30 years ago about U.S. students spending far less time in schools than international peers who were beating the pants off Americans on tests.  In the 1980s, the short school year of 180 days was believed to be the cause of U.S. students’ mediocre showing on international tests. Recommendations for a longer school year (up to 220 days) came from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. In 2008, a foundation-funded report, A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk, found that the 180-day school year was intact across the nation. The length of the school year even with current earlier starts in August today remains around 180 days of school.

What about year-round schools?  There is a homespun myth, treated as fact, that the annual school calendar, with three months off for both teachers and students, is based on the rhythm of 19th-century farm life, which dictated when school was in session. Thus, planting and harvesting chores accounted for long summer breaks, an artifact of agrarian America. Not so.

Actually, summer vacations grew out of early 20th- century urban middle-class parents (and later lobbyists for camps and the tourist industry) pressing school boards to release children to be with their families for four to eight weeks or more. By the 1960s, however, policy maker and parent concerns about students losing ground academically during the vacation months— in academic language, “summer loss” — gained support for year-round schooling. Cost savings also attracted those who saw facilities being used 12 months a year rather than being shuttered during the summer.Nonetheless, although year-round schools were established as early as 1906 in Gary, Indiana, calendar innovations have had a hard time entering most schools. Districts with year-round schools still work within the 180-day year but distribute the time more evenly (e.g., 45 days in session, 15 days off) rather than having a long break between June and September. As of 2011, over 3,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public schools had a year-round calendar enrolling about four percent of all students. Almost half of the year-round schools are in California. In most cases, school boards adopted year-round schools because increased enrollments led to crowded facilities, most often in minority and poor communities —not concerns over “summer loss” in academic achievement.

What about lengthened school day? Since the 1990s, especially in urban districts, children and youth coming to school earlier and leaving later with the addition of after-school programs has extended the school day in districts across the nation.

In the past half century, as the economy has changed and families increasingly have both (or single) parents working, schools have been pressed to take on childcare responsibilities, such as tutoring and home work supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 a.m. for parents to drop off children and have after-school programs that close at 6 p.m. PDK/Gallup polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before-and after-school programs. Instead of the familiar half-day program for 5-year-olds, all-day kindergartens (and prekindergartens for 4-year-olds) have spread swiftly in the past two decades, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Innovative urban schools, such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), run longer school days. They routinely open at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. and also schedules biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.
If reformers want a success story in fixing school time, they can look to extending the school day, although it’s arguable how many of those changes occurred because of reformers’ arguments and actions and how much from economic and social changes in family structure and the desire to chase a higher standard of living. According to recent studies, high-quality after school programs improve children and youth attitudes, behaviors, and achievement (see OSTissuebrief10-1    ) .But those schools still run on 180-day schedules.
After thirty years of reform furor over long summers and insufficient time in school, reformers of that generation can look today at increasing numbers of  districts opening in mid-August yet many others still hanging on to an early September opening.  Extended day with child care and after-school programs have spread across the nation’s schools. For those school reformers then and now who still believe that more time in school leads to higher performance on tests, the results are, at best, mixed.
Even with reformers intense pressure to get U.S. students schooled for longer periods of time, pushback from parents, voters and taxpayers have kept the number of school days in session and vacations pretty close to what they have been for decades.



Filed under Reforming schools

Charter Schools’ 25th Anniversary: Why This Reform Has Lasted (Part 2)

In investigating school reforms that have taken place over the last century and a half, I have divided them into incremental and fundamental changes (see here and here). Incremental reforms are those that aim to improve the existing structures of schooling; the premise behind incremental reforms is that the basic structures are sound but need improving to remove defects. The car is old but if it gets fixed it will become dependable transportation. It needs tires, brakes, a new battery, and a water pump–incremental changes. Fundamental reforms are those that aim to transform, to alter permanently, those very same structures; the premise behind fundamental reforms is that basic structures are flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul, not renovations. The old jalopy is beyond repair. We need to get a completely new car or consider different forms of transportation–fundamental changes.

If new courses, new staff, summer schools, higher standards for teachers, and increased salaries are clear examples of enhancements to the structures of public schooling, then the introduction of the age-graded school (which gradually eliminated the one-room school) Progressive educators’ broadening the school’s role to intervene in the lives of children and their families (e.g., to provide medical and social services) in the early 20th century, and more recently the introduction of charter schools in the 1990s are examples of fundamental reforms that stuck.

The platoon school, classroom technologies from film and radio to laptops and tablets, project-based learning, and charter schools, however, are instances of attempted fundamental change in the school and classroom since the early 20th century that were adopted, incorporated into many schools, and, over time, either downsized into incremental ones or slipped away, leaving few traces of their presence. Why did some incremental reforms get institutionalized and most of the fundamental ones either became just another part of the “system” or simply disappeared?

Some scholars have analyzed those hardy reforms that survived and concluded that a number of factors account for their institutionalization (see here and here).

They enhance, not disrupt existing structures. Many prior reforms added staffing, particularly specialists, to deal with the variety of children that attended schools. Separate teachers for children with disabilities, math and reading teachers, counselors to help children pick courses to take and to prepare for college and the job market. Similarly, additional space for playgrounds, lunchrooms, and health clinics enhanced the school program. charters remain age-graded schools just like traditional neighbors. Moreover, after 25 years some charter school heads are working out cooperative arrangements with district school boards that help one another (see here and district_charter_collaboration_rpt).

They are easy to monitor. These reforms were visible. They could be counted (e.g., hot lunches, health clinics, year-round schools, and charters. Such easy monitoring gave taxpayers evidence that the services were being rendered and changes had occurred.

They create constituencies that lobby for continuing support. New staff positions such as special education teachers and counselors created demands for administrators and supervisors to monitor their work. Newly certified educators, imbued with a fervent belief in their mission, argued for more money. Consider that the spread of charter school and competition for state funds flowing to school districts created interest groups (e.g., charter advocates) that lobbied donors and state officials for more funds. Commercial interests serving new programs (e.g., for-profit cyber schools, vendors of computer products) championed charters. Finally, parents persuaded by the influence of the services and programs on their children joined educators to create informal coalitions advocating the continuation of these reforms.

This answer to the question of why some reforms stick has a superficial neatness that omits some reforms that fail to fit nicely into the above categories (e.g., desegregation of schools since 1954). Moreover, there is a static quality implied in the notion of reforms that attained  longevity, that is, such reforms were incorporated into public schools and remained as they were as if frozen in time. Those fundamental reforms that became incrementalized and stuck, however, continued to change as they adapted to ever-shifting demands and resources.

Studies of non-school organizations offer richer clues that go beyond the crisp, static answers suggested here. For example, the theories of Robert Merton, Philip Selznick, Alvin Gouldner, and their students produced numerous studies of organizations founded in the heat of reform movements whose original goals have been transformed over decades although their names remain the same. The imperative for organizational survival vibrates strongly in Selznick’s (1949) analysis of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Mayer Zald and Patricia Denton’s (1963) investigation of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

Other studies, closer to public schools, also document adaptability in organizations founded to end social ills. These institutions maintained their professed goals yet shifted in what they did operationally in order to survive. David Rothman’s (1980) analysis of 19th century reformers’ inventions of rehabilitative prisons, juvenile courts, and reformed mental asylums records the painful journey of institutions established in a gush of zeal for improvement of criminals, delinquents, and the mentally ill; within decades, the reformers ended up pursuing scaled-down goals that maintained the interests of those who administered the institution. Barbara Brenzel (1983) analyzed a half-century’s history of the first reform school for girls in the nation (State Industrial School for Girls in Lancaster, Massachusetts). Here, again, the initial goals of reforming poor, neglected, and potentially wayward girls through creating family-like cottages and separating younger from older girls gave way to goals that stressed order and control.

The point is that there are institutional reasons why some reforms are like shooting stars that flare and disappear and some reforms stick. Organizational and political reasons (e.g., vague and multiple goals, innovations that fit existing structures, are easy to monitor, and have active constituencies) explain how schools and districts adapt their goals, structures, and processes to an uncertain, ever changing environment to incorporate new ideas and practices.

And that is why charter schools will be around for the next quarter century.





Filed under 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 difference between districts appointing insiders or outsiders (see here, here, and here).

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

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

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

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


Filed under leadership, school leaders

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.







Filed under Reforming schools

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.







Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology use

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.


Filed under school leaders