Category Archives: school leaders

Insider or Outsider? : Superintendents in Big Cities

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

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

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

Why is that?

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

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

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

Washington, D.C. Schools

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

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

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

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do insiders or outsiders stay longer?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Not Every Success is Scalable: Uncommon Principal, Great School:

Stories of uncommon principals who labor for decades to create structures, cultures, and political success are popular in national media. The story-line is that a principal arrives at a low-performing, minority and poor school and through much work turns it around into a successful school, as measured by test scores, low teacher turnover, and parental support. No, I am not referring to charter schools or magnets. I am referring to neighborhood schools. When such schools emerge policymakers and champions of school success call it a model and urge replication of the school. Make more of them, they cry. Scaling up such successes is rare as any observer (or participant) can tell you. It is devilishly hard to reproduce such victories over mediocrity in another neighborhood much less across a district, state, and nation. Think of KIPP for a moment. In 21 years, KIPP has created 183 schools enrolling 70,000 and done so by preparing principals and teachers, monitoring closely the quality of each school–its five pillars and school culture–and raising large sums of money.

Why is it so hard? In most cases, success comes from complex, interacting factors: the principal who has been there a long time; he or she plays three competing roles well (instructional, managerial, and political); the principal has selected a staff that works closely together learning from its mistakes; the principal has built structures that engage in constant improvement; the community supports the school and acts to keep it flourishing. This mix of ingredients is hard to replicate–no algorithm, no online tutorials, no university program–can do it. The fit between principal, staff, children, parents and community is tight.  Yet it is fragile and can easily unravel. Were the principal, a few of the key teachers, and parent advocates to leave within a short time such a school can easily slide back into the mediocrity existing before that principal and teachers appeared on the scene.

Consider Jack Spatola and P.S. 172 in Brooklyn as described in a recent New York Times article. Appointed principal in 1984, Spatola who came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1970, took over a school that was predominately Puerto Rican. Thirty-one years later, Spatola leads a school that has mostly Mexican and Latin American students with more than 85 percent eligible for free lunch. One in four students are designated Special Education. The reporter described the school’s academic success:

Demographic realities have not hindered achievement. Last year, 98 percent of third, fourth and fifth graders, those required to take state exams toward the end of the year, passed the math test. Seventy-six percent passed the language test. Those figures far exceed citywide averages, which sit in the 30s for both disciplines, and they match or surpass scores at many affluent schools. On the tests administered this past spring, students at P.S. 172 did better than students at P.S. 234, a celebrated school in TriBeCa, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

Steady increases in city test scores has brought crowds of out-of-state educators and business gurus like Jim Collins–of Good to Great fame–to the school. Spatola labored long and hard to build a strong, stable staff inhabiting a culture that prizes both student and adult learning.

Teachers, students and administrators are engaged in a constant process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t; why, for example, one student might be quickly gaining an understanding of symbolism in reading while another isn’t. Professional development is an experience that is not relegated to occasional seminars but is lived daily. Strikingly, members of the school’s senior staff have an extended shared history of knowing what is effective and what isn’t — Mr. Spatola’s assistant principal, Erika Gundersen, has been with him for more than 20 years; the math and literacy coaches on hand to work with teachers to enhance practices have been with him on average more than 12 years.

And he is an ace at finding money in and out of his school budget for all of the professional and academic activities that have become routine at the school.

Mr. Spatola doesn’t use textbooks, which are notoriously expensive…. In the past fiscal year, the city and state spent $100 million on textbooks in New York City schools. At P.S. 172, the allocated money is used to buy primary texts, works of fiction and nonfiction selected by teachers and administrators. Students will, for instance, use the Internet to research how the branches of government work. The many dollars left over are spent on other services…

Spatola believes that textbooks “cheapen the experience of learning.” Instead, the school creates its own lessons and units for each grade and maintains notebooks on each child’s performance. Nearly $50,000 of budgeted funds are supposed to go to buy expensive curriculum packages recommended by the district to meet Common Core standards.

It is absolutely crazy to me that a company out west would really have any idea what my children need,” Mr. Spatola said. “If you are a professional, you take ownership of the curriculum.”

Spatola uses the money for materials teachers choose and develop.

Are the structures and culture that Spatola and teachers have created at P.S. 172 scalable? Not impossible but hard to do given a principal who manages well, guides instruction, and provides political leadership to a staff and community. He and his staff have built by hand a successful school over many years that fits its students and community in Brooklyn.

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Cartoons on School Boards, Superintendents, and Principals

This monthly cartoon feature looks at those in authority in the 14,000-plus school districts in the U.S.  Cartoonists’ pens caricature those in positions of authority–a favorite among those who draw for a living–and reveal both the strengths and shortcomings of citizens and educators who serve the community’s children and adults. Enjoy!

'The superintendent is saving money by training driver's ed students in school buses.'

 

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'The recurring poor enrollment prognostications plays havoc with our school district's budget. What will next year's enrolment be.'

 

mission-statement-chorus

 

'There's a meeting at school tonight, Dad. The superintendent, the principal, the school board, and you.'

 

'Making all of our district schools more adept at teaching math and science sounds like a good idea. Run it by legal first.'

 

'I chose 'Superintendent' for Career Day and fired all the math teachers.'

 

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cartoon186

 

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On Changing Fortunes and Administrative Attentions (Michele Kerr)

Principals perform three competing, overlapping roles (managing, leading instruction, and politicking). In doing so, they are forever caught in the middle between competing interests. In serving bosses in the district office, teachers who they lead, and parents who want the best for their sons and daughters they inevitably make decisions that become fodder for critics among those groups. It goes with the territory. Medical clinic directors, FBI agents in charge of field offices, and appointed project leaders in software firms experience similar tensions in trying to manage, lead, and politick to reach  personal and organizational goals. Nothing new here. For those principals who have succeeded well in parlaying the conflict that inevitably arises from performing these competing roles, even those principals may need to inspect a far more subtle factor–personal taste in people and their “fit” within the school–when it comes to staffing classrooms. Here is one such concern raised by an experienced teacher.

 

At my first school, I was looking for jobs long before they gave me my layoff notice, knowing full well I wouldn’t be called back. I had no reason to think so; my classes were well-run, my reviews were good, administrators made no requests or complaints, and in fact the ostensible reason for my departure was staffing restrictions. It made no difference; I’d told friends as early as September that I would need to find a new job the next year, no matter what my evaluation said.

At school #2, administrators looked right through me. They’d send out notes asking for volunteers to teach after school classes in math or test prep. I would often indicate interest, get no response, and then see a new note asking again for volunteers. Meanwhile, the administrators approached other teachers, who often hadn’t volunteered, giving the extra hours to them whether they wanted the job or not. I got the hint, quit volunteering.

You’re thinking hey, duh, they thought you were a bad teacher. But that wasn’t it. I taught tough kids for all three years in question. I passed most kids with realistic grades, often convincing students with a long history of failure to try just one more time. Test scores were solid. At both schools, other new teachers were eviscerated by their students, unable to run a classroom without a supervisor on standby. Several classes were “collapsed” (ended) because the teachers couldn’t maintain control. My induction advisers thought very highly of me. I got along well with my colleagues. I wasn’t obnoxious, wasn’t a rabble-rouser. Like all new teachers, I tried to keep my head down. And yet, I knew those other teachers who struggled with discipline, who were trying to figure out how to teach, who had high failure rates and low scores, were well-liked by the administration while I was at best tolerated.

Besides, ineffective new teachers get lots of attention, as administrators coach, advise, warn, watch constantly. As I said, I was completely ignored. Administrators never said directly or indirectly that my teaching was a problem. They never once reprimanded me or in any way told me I had to change. I’m leaving things out to avoid criticizing anyone directly or indirectly, but nothing I’m leaving out would change this fundamental reality: I was a good teacher, the principals thought I was a good teacher, and yet no one on the administrative teams at either school particularly liked me or wanted to keep me.

I didn’t get a formal evaluation the first year at my second school, just a brief observation and a paper to sign near year-end, but “meets expectations” was checked. My second year had no preconditions, no warning of the need for dramatic improvement. Being no fool, I nonetheless looked desperately for jobs over the summer between the first and second year at that school. I did get a job offer, but unfortunately late in August, after the new year had begun, and I regretfully declined. In May of that second year of my second school, I resigned despite not having any job offers (I am eligible for rehire, if you’re wondering). A few months later, I accepted a job at my current school, where I’m in the middle of my second year.

Things couldn’t be more different. I floated away from both my yearly evaluations ten feet off the ground. If there’d been water, I’d have walked on it. They like me here. Last year, when I had a mild concern about an issue, I emailed the principal to ask if I could speak to him, something I would never have done in my last two schools, because I would have been ignored for anything short of a catastrophe. He responded with a meeting time. I stop and chat with all the administrators, who look at me and smile and even wave at me across the quad. I was moved to a bigger room with a Promethean projector, I’m teaching a lot more advanced math, and in a bunch of little ways, I get treated as a teacher considered to be of some value to the school.

I’m the same teacher, using the same methods. My kids still sit grouped by ability, I don’t lecture much, I don’t use textbooks often, I build my own curriculum, I have the same commitment to student success, I still weight tests heavily and don’t care much about homework. Jeans, teeshirts, and neon-colored sneakers, then and now, are my daily attire. For those people wondering if my certainty, my er, confident attitude is somehow the problem (and of course, it could be), I am—on the surface anyway—unhumbled by the low regard with which I was held. I’m the same. The bosses have changed.

My conversations with other teachers suggests that tenure doesn’t end the tale of changing fortunes. One teacher was a step away from dismissal procedure when the principal left; her replacement gave that same teacher a glowing review and extra duty. Another English teacher was so despised by his administrator that she refused to assign him any subject classes, giving him a full day of “responsibility center” duty–the place kids go when kicked out of class. He, too, weathered the storm until her departure and is now happily back teaching English. More than one teacher at my last school consoled me when I confided in them, wondering why I was ignored and so apparently unwanted, and they all had similar stories: non-re-elected twice, fired mid-year once, now I’m permanent, everything’s fine. The advice is the same: if you have tenure, hunker down. If you don’t, go back to Edjoin and start all over again.

This isn’t a sad tale of bad principals. Rather, perfectly competent administrators occasionally act on their biases by replacing or discouraging good teachers. Nor are these good teachers reliably replaced with other good teachers; every staff has seen an excellent teacher rejected or chased off, to be replaced with a well-meaning newbie with little talent—who is let go in a year or two as well.

Think of it as a luxury, a job perk. Most of the time, principal preferences are perfectly aligned with good practice; they evaluate new teachers fairly, give struggling teachers a chance to improve, thank the gods gratefully for good new ones. They secretly hope that their weaker permanent teachers will behave badly, since it’s much easier to get rid of teachers for misconduct than bad teaching.

But every so often, they can just shrug and turn up their noses and say “yeah, just not a good fit.”

I came from the real world before I taught; I understand that the entire job market is fraught with difficulties, that everyone everywhere is bound to capricious employers. But teaching careers can be utterly derailed, permanently, by administrator whim.

A second year teacher who’s been let go not for being a terrible teacher, but just a “bad fit” will face suspicions while interviewing. All principals understand emotionally that their counterparts act on bias, but when they hire, they often operate on the received wisdom is that principals only reject or discourage objectively “bad” teachers.

Tenured teachers are suddenly, often randomly—at least it seems that way—targeted by an administrator. They will do their best to hunker down, but if the administrator wants to go through the hassle of firing them, will often just leave. They might be terrible teachers. They might not. They’ll leave if they can, because otherwise they’ll find it nearly impossible to work again. Of course, if they’re older, it’s worse. Age discrimination is rampant throughout the working world; older teachers have all these problems plus they can’t set their own salary and are far more expensive. A teacher forced out because of one administrator’s dislike is going to have a brutal time finding a new job. Better to leave first, where at least the story will be “currently employed, looking for better”.

For this reason, the recent study showing that DC’s IMPACT evaluation system resulted in voluntary attrition or higher performance does not, as its proponents say, show that tough evaluation systems lead to improved teaching. What it shows is that teachers who could give principals what they wanted did. Teachers who couldn’t, left. The mistake lies in assuming that principals wanted good teaching. They might have. They usually do. But not always.

Some advocates of education reform, such as Whitney Tilson, hold that administrators should have absolute control over staff—that a “bad teacher” is any teacher the administrator doesn’t want, regardless of the reason. If the teacher doesn’t fit the new vision, it’s time to move on. However, this argument doesn’t have many takers, precisely because everyone understands that a terminated teacher will have a difficult time finding a new job, and that outcome is only desirable if the teacher in question is terrible. But experience and anecdote tells me that this isn’t always true.

I don’t have any policy changes to advise. I do think, however, that should the Vergara lawsuit succeed, we will see principals getting rid of teachers not because they are objectively poor teachers, but because those principals don’t see them as valuable. I don’t think that random administrative preference will provide us with the teaching force our country needs

 

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Choosing Reform-Minded Urban Superintendents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Democracies Need More Than One Kind of “Good” School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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