Category Archives: school leaders

Why Streaming Kids According to Ability Is a Terrible Idea (Oscar Hedstrom)


Oscar Hedstrom is a secondary school teacher in Melbourne, [Australia]. He is interested in creative and critical thinking in education. This appeared in Aeon , May 3, 2019.


Mixed-ability classes bore students, frustrate parents, and burn out teachers. The brightest will never summit Everest, and the laggers won’t enjoy the lovely stroll in the park they are perhaps more suited to. Individuals suffer at the demands of the collective, mediocrity prevails. In 2014, the UK Education Secretary called for streaming to be made compulsory. And as the former British prime minister David Cameron said in 2006: ‘I want to see it in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works.’ According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 98 per cent of Australian schools use some form of streaming.

Despite all this, there is limited empirical evidence to suggest that streaming results in better outcomes for students. Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, notes that ‘tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative equity effects’. Streaming significantly – and negatively – affects those students placed in the bottom sets. These students tend to have much higher representation of low socioeconomic backgrounds. Less significant is the small benefit for those lucky clever students in the higher sets. The overall result is relative inequality. The smart stay smart, and the dumb get dumber, further entrenching social disadvantage.

In the latest update of Hattie’s influential meta-analysis of factors influencing student achievement, one of the most significant factors – far more than reducing class size (effect: 0.21) or even providing feedback on student work (0.7) – is the teachers’ estimate of achievement (1.57). Streaming students by diagnosed achievement automatically restricts teacher expectations. Meanwhile, in a mixed environment, teacher expectations have to be more diverse and flexible.

While streaming might seem to help teachers to effectively target a student’s ZPD, it can underestimate the importance of peer-to-peer learning. A crucial aspect of constructivist theory is the role of the MKO – ‘more-knowledgeable other’ – in knowledge construction. While teachers are traditionally the MKOs in classrooms, the value of knowledgeable student peers must not go unrecognised either.

It is amazing to watch a student explain an idea or skill to her peers in ways that their teacher would never think of. They operate with different language tools, different social tools and, having just learnt it themselves, possess similar cognitive structures. There is also something exciting about passing on skills and knowledge that you yourself have just mastered – a certain pride and zeal, a certain freshness to the interaction between teacher and learner that is often lost by the expert for whom the steps are obvious and the joy of discovery forgotten. As a teacher, I often find I do a better job teaching material that I am not overly familiar with. In these circumstances, we hit authentic learning snags where I am not an expert-knower, but become an expert-learner, and we all have to negotiate the learning together.

Having a variety of students of different abilities in a collaborative learning environment provides valuable resources of relative-experts who are able to help each other meet their learning needs, never mind the benefits to communication and social skills. Look to the old adage: the best way to learn something is to teach it. If so, streamed classrooms reduce authentic opportunities for peer-to-peer teaching and learning, with both less and more capable students disadvantaged. And today, more than ever, we need the many to flourish – not suffer at the expense of a few bright stars. I go on a hike with a motley array of student once a year. It is challenging. The fittest students realise they need to encourage the reluctant. There are lookouts who report back, and extra items to carry for others. The laggers – who have never walked more than a kilometre their entire life – struggle, blistered, chafed and out of breath. But they also inevitably surprise themselves. We make it – together.



Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Making Schools Business-Like: The Case of Summit Charters (Part 3)

Many educators use business-speak. Students are customers. Principals and superintendents are CEOs. School board members ask staff what the return on investment is. Another common phrase educators use borrowed from the corporate community, especially when seeking dollars from donors, is “scaling up.”

Going to scale is what occurs when an innovation “works” (in quote marks for the word has different meanings to different people) and donors or high-ups want to spread the “success” (ditto for this word also) to other schools in the district, state, and nation.

The history of diffusion of innovation–that is the phrase that academics have used–is a checkered one. Some innovations have, indeed, spread (think of the mid-19th century age-graded school and early 20th century kindergartens, and small high schools later in the century) but when an innovation is complex with many moving parts, permeable to outside forces, and dependent on relationships with teachers, students and parents for the program to work, then scaling up is damn hard to do. Variation in putting the innovation into practice occurs frequently making it difficult to impossible to assess whether the new model or innovation caused changes in student and teacher outcomes. Recall what has happened to the innovative New Math in the 1960s or the Common Core standards in the past decade.

And that is the story captured by recent articles on what has happened to the Summit Learning Program for “personalized learning” (ditto again) that Summit charter schools have given away free to many schools and districts. Donors gave a pile of money to Summit schools to prepare the high-tech tool and transfer the model elsewhere in the nation. Keep in mind that these pieces come from an intricate, organic, and complex operation deeply dependent upon teachers, a complicated weekly schedule, mentoring, a software tool that becomes a dashboard for each student’s work, and frequent enrichment activities. Also that parents choose to send their sons and daughters to the schools (see David Patterson’s comment below). Teachers’ expertise and relationships with students are at the core of the 11 Summit Charter Schools. The Summit Learning Program–the components and tools given away to schools and districts–is the skeleton of the program bundle. Unbundling a complex operation into its constituent parts of an interconnected whole  and claiming that it can individualize learning and make students “successful” (ditto again) is as close to magical thinking as any prior effort to “scaling up” innovations, what business-driven entrepreneurs strive for.

The Summit Learning Program

The program promises personalized learning:

Summit Learning gives every student:

  • Support from a caring mentor
  • Life skills that they can apply to real-world situations
  • An ability to use self-direction to develop self-confidence, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and prepare themselves for life after graduation

What is the program?

Summit Learning seeks to replicate each aspect of the Summit high schools in California and Washington. Or as the website says:

Creating a Summit Learning environment requires a fundamental change to the way teachers and students approach learning, so enthusiasm and a growth mindset are critical. Everything from grading policies and assessments to bell schedules and how teachers and students spend their time will need to be thoughtfully designed to create the conditions for successful implementation.

Subject matter embedded in the projects within which students work span four academic subjects. Directions and help to introduce teacher mentoring of individual students, altering the calendar and schedule, and providing student self-direction are part of the package given to schools.

Student self-direction comes from a software platform (using Clever software) that provides teachers and students with nearly 200 projects connected to the world outside the classroom (see here), a dashboard that shows each student’s goals, and their individual progress in completing current projects. The platform dashboard is accessible to parents also (see overview video).



To achieve the Summit model’s transfer of content knowledge, skills, and personalizing of learning to schools enlisting in the program, each school/district has to make an explicit commitment to Summit Learning, make the requisite changes in how the school (or pilot) is organized and, move expeditiously to putting the program into practice. Summit Learning trains teacher teams a few times a year and provides coaches to help teams implement the new program, schedule, and use of software (see here).

The rollout of the program has been documented extensively (see here and here).

As of 2018, according to the Summit Learning website, it is in 330 schools  working with nearly 2500 teachers and serving 54,000 students. Promotional videos show its entry and use in, for example, the Pasadena (TX) district serving 56,000 students (see here).

Media accounts, of course, also describe those schools and districts where parents and students object, walkout, or dump the program (see here, here, and here). Keep in mind that program implementation of innovations adopted in schools within a district and  across other districts historically has encountered stumbles and disasters. No news there. In this instance, thus far, donors’ deep pockets continue to fund Summit Learning to “scale up” and spread the Summit model across the U.S.

So what is Summit Learning’s effort to replicate its apparent success in high schools and “scale up” a case of?

Is it the business model of franchising McDonalds or 7/11s across the country? No, it is not. Franchisees have to invest their money into franchise and must follow the requirements of the franchiser or risk losing the investment.

Summit Learning is free to schools and districts. Schools and districts have to agree to follow terms but there are no penalties for adapting program components.

Is it the careful, tightly controlled expansion of “Success for All,” an elementary school program located in low-income and minority neighborhoods to insure fidelity to the model (see here)?. No, it is not.

Success for All requires fidelity to the model dropping sites that omit components, adapt elements, and, in general, do not follow the implementation plan.  Success for All has a blueprint that expects schools entering the program to follow.

So what is Summit Learning’s effort to “scale up” a case of?

As I read the background and history of Summit Learning and its launch, the outreach program to replicate Summit High Schools in many other U.S. schools is a case of seeing the problem of personalizing learning in schooling, especially for low-income minority youth as a technical problem that can be fixed inexpensively by adopting a working model that seemingly “succeeded” in 11 high schools in two states.

The cost of replicating the entire model of Summit schooling with its many inter-connected components to many schools is extremely high (the Summit network has not released actual and total per-pupil costs of running the program). Summit Learning then–donors and boosters believe–is an inexpensive way of solving the problem of high schools individualizing teaching and learning and reaping the benefits of increased academic achievement, graduation rates, and college admissions as has occurred in the original model in the San Francisco Bay area. Summit Learning is a low-cost, efficient ways of transforming teaching and learning.  It reeks of the Silicon Valley magical thinking that any social, political, economic problem can be solved technologically.

But I could be wrong. The growing resistance to Summit Learning documented in media articles could just as well be a case of schools and districts coming face-to-face with the historic and persistent grammar of schooling that has pervaded U.S. public schools for nearly two centuries. The next series of posts examines the possibility that resistance to Summit Learning involves the grammar of schooling.








Filed under school leaders, school reform policies, technology use

The Geology of School Reform: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles (Part 1)

Many readers have visited the majestic Grand Canyon. It is an unforgettable sight.




What is obvious to visitors are the strata, geological layers of different shades of red, beige, and brown, that reveal plant and animal life that lived eons ago.





OK, Larry, I get the strata part giving a glimpse of past life in layers piled atop one another. What’s the connection to school reform?

Every district, every school in the U.S. has historical layers of reform piled atop one another although the time frame is far less than an eon. A case in point is the Social Justice Humanitas Academy located within Los Angeles Unified School District. Consider the following official information about the school.

Our mission is to achieve social justice through the development of the complete individual. In doing so, we increase our students’ social capital and their humanity while creating a school worthy of our own children.

According to the website, that mission is the school’s vision of what it aspires to:

A school’s vision is its inspiration, articulating the dreams and hopes for the school community. At Social Justice Humanitas Academy, our vision is: We will achieve self-actualization [original bold-faced]. The concept of self-actualization comes from Abraham Maslow, a leader in humanistic psychology, who understood a good life to be one in which an individual maximized their potential to become the very best version of who they are.

Directly below the mission statement is the following graphic.


While the above statement is general, the mission for the 9th grade entering class in 2018 is more specific:

Our mission is to provide a loving transition into young adulthood by:
-Providing relevant, authentic and rigorous instruction,
-Further developing academic, social skills and self worth,
-Fostering a growth mindset and self-efficacy,
-And prioritizing parent engagement and community activism.
As a result, students will self-actualize.

These mission statements act as a guide to all decision making” for a school that opened in 2011 on a new campus. Consider the school’s demographics and academic profile then and now.

Since SJHA opened its demographics have stayed consistent. SJHA has 513 students (2019) enrolled in 9th through 12th grades. On race and ethnicity (2015), 95 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent African American and one percent each for Caucasian and Native American. Of that number 12 percent were English Learners. Special education students were 10 percent of enrollment. And 88 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch (the poverty measure for LAUSD schools).

And some of the academic results were sufficiently eye-catching to attract media attention (see below).

* Graduations rates increased between 2011 to 2015 from 83 to 94 percent. Both exceed LAUSD and state rates of graduation.

*Ninety-six percent of students have an individual graduation plan.

*Seventy-five percent of students passed all college required courses.

*Suspensions sunk to 0.2 percent in 2014.

*Six Advanced Placement courses are offered (English language, English literature, analytic geometry/pre-calculus, macroeconomics, Spanish language, Spanish Literature)

Yet much work remains to be done in boosting academic achievement.

Consider that in 2018, 25 percent of 11th grade students tested proficient in math (state average  is 39 percent) and 64 percent did so in English (state average is 56 percent).

The school’s demographic profile has remained fairly constant since its re-location into the new building housing Cesar Chavez Academies. Academically there have been improvements and much work remaining, given the mission statements noted above.

But a school is not an island. District changes spilled over SJHA prior to its becoming an Academy and in the subsequent decade after it re-located in 2011 to become one of the four academies in the Cesar Chavez complex. LAUSD reforms going back to the early 1980s are as visible as strata in the Grand Canyon in SJHA.

The strata of SJHA

To fully appreciate this LAUSD school (neither a charter nor a magnet but a pilot school) is to dig into its history.

First layer: Humanitas 1980s-1990s.

In 1986, four Los Angeles foundations, the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP) and LAUSD launched an interdisciplinary high school program combining literature and history, science, and art and other combination of subjects to engage students in conceptual and critical thinking skills, writing, and other learning activities around themes that cut across disciplines. The program sought to engage both the minds and hearts of teenagers. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1991:

At the heart of Humanitas are small teams of teachers who volunteer to work long hours together, creating interdisciplinary curricula aimed at making lessons relevant to students’ daily lives. The approach creates small “communities” of teachers and students, providing a more personal, supportive environment for youngsters at very little added cost to the district.

The themes–including the American Dream: From Rags to Riches; Women, Race and Social Protest, and the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism–are vehicles for coordinated instruction in English, social studies, art and sometimes science or math.

Although the courses meet state and district curriculum requirements, many teachers chuck textbooks in favor of novels, biographies or writings in politics and philosophy, and substitute for standard classroom fare materials they pull together themselves.

Extensive writing assignments are an integral part of the program, as is student interaction.

Humanitas students, recruited with the help of school counselors, have many of the same classmates throughout high school, while their teachers share ideas and notes on their progress, lending hard-to-find continuity and intimacy to crowded urban campuses.

By 1991, Humanitas enrolled 3,500 students including English Language learners and potential dropouts in 29 of 49 LAUSD comprehensive high schools.

A decade later at Sylmar High School in Northeast San Fernando Valley where mostly poor and Latino youth attended, a group of teachers designed a Humanitas program for a small number of students that slowly expanded.  As Jose Navarro, one of the founding teachers, put it:  Our job is to make these four walls magic… the reality is that education starts way before they enter my room. So we need this collaborative environment and not just on campus. It has to be in the community. (See 12 minute YouTube called “The New School” about how these Sylmar teachers teach in their Humanitas program and then decided to propose a separate school in a newly built high school nearby).

Another founding teacher, Jeff Austin, described the growth of the program within Sylmar to become a school-within-a-school and then the Humanitas teachers’ decision to start an entirely separate, free-standing school outside of the large high school.

This movement towards more started in 2000 when three teachers came together to start the Multimedia Academy at Sylmar High School. These teachers wanted to develop engaging interdisciplinary lessons to better support their students. By 2006, this group grew to become the Humanitas Academy, one of several Small Learning Communities at Sylmar. Humanitas included three teams that brought together a history teacher, an English teacher, and an art teacher working with students in grades 10-12.

We had incredible success with students who faced challenges in a community overrun by poverty, gangs, crime, and low expectations. We were doing a lot right. Our test scores were the highest in the school, our mentor program became a model schoolwide, and we introduced student-led conferences. Our students were getting accepted to universities. But it still wasn’t enough.

So we began to push our school to let us do more. Many pushed back. Some teachers said that we only worked with the best students. District officials had little confidence that we could build something better than their policies. Even some of our own students said that we were asking too much. In response, we did something that, at the time, was rare for teachers in Los Angeles—we stepped outside of our school buildings and began to search for solutions.

We networked with other Humanitas schools through the Los Angeles Education Partnership, developing our own benchmark assessments. Soon after, we were given exemption from district assessments by the superintendent. At every turn, when we brought solutions, people moved out of our way.

But our journey toward designing a better learning experience for our students had plenty of speed bumps. The further we pushed, the more we encountered people who didn’t think a group of teachers could do all this. In 2009, we began to seek more independence, and we first learned about the pilot school model—a small school led by teachers who have autonomy over many of the school’s operations. To get there, we would have to battle union politics, district policy, and a paradigm in which teachers didn’t call the shots.

A year later, we joined forces with a group of like-minded 9th grade teachers, and Humanitas became a full 9-12 grade small learning community. We were given permission by the principal to interview and hire our own math and Physics teachers, and we created our own master schedule. The school set aside special space for us and even remodeled a classroom so our students could stay in that room for science classes.

For the first time, our students had only Humanitas teachers. This meant that when students left my classroom, I knew it was to learn with another teacher who offered the same level of engaging and rigorous instruction. It also meant that I working as part of a dedicated community fostering a positive learning experience.

The Humanitas program in LAUSD is the first layer of reform. It took root in Sylmar in the early aughts. As Humanitas became a school-within-a-school, the teachers wanted independence. In LAUSD as charters and magnets expanded and parental choice became the bumper sticker, the District adopted the Pilot School idea (initially in Boston) which extended even more autonomy to teachers and principals. And the Pilot School phase is the second stratum of school reform that helped shape the Social Justice Humanitas Academy.

I take up that stratum in Part 2.








Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Principals As Instructional Leaders: Hype and Reality

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

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



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

Yet recent studies (

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

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

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

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


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

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

In the academic language of the study:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under research, school leaders

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, school leaders

Teacher-Led Schools: The Mouse and Hippo

Groups of teachers founding charters, taking over failing schools, or simply creating different ones is a smart idea. It is worthwhile and needs much support to spread since teachers can design, implement, and administer such schools as well as if not better than policymakers hiring  principals and high-paid consultants. After all, one doesn’t have to know too much history of U.S. public schools to remember that teachers ran their own schools when rural one-room schoolhouses prevailed a century and a half ago and before principals (remember the first ones were called principal-teachers). Nonetheless, there are some facts that cannot be ignored.

First, some teacher-run schools will fly and some will crash.

Second, as these teacher-run schools get established, they will be a small (but nonetheless, important )contribution to the necessary mix of schools needed to improve urban districts. Even though :Os Angeles, Detroit, and other districts have authorized teacher-run schools there are still less than 100 across the nation (of about 100,000 public schools). This is where the mouse and hippo enters the picture.


New schools including charters come from policymakers who decide that such schools can alter what usually occurs in traditional schools. Politicians and policymakers create most schools. The hippo. And teacher-run schools, the mouse, will always be small in comparison but, as in the Mike Twohy story, can be both a friend and a guide to “good” schooling.

Such teacher-led schools will mobilize many teachers (Teach for America graduates, deeply committed novices and a chunk of mid-career professionals) and parents to form democratic cooperatives (mostly charters) and run schools but fall far short of a majority of teachers–there are over 3.5 million in the U.S.–since most teachers went into teaching to teach, not to organize and govern schools.

So what? Sure, some teacher-run schools will flop. Designing new schools and running them is as complicated and risky as starting any new venture as edupreneurs say repeatedly. Failure is common. And, sure, most teachers didn’t enter teaching to run schools but to teach children and youth. So these ventures, like homeschooling and charters, will always be a small fraction of public schools.

The over-riding reason for having teachers organize and govern schools, especially in urban and rural poor districts, is that having a mix of different kinds of schools (KIPP, Green Dot, Aspire, hybrids of high-tech and traditional classrooms, magnets, cyber schools, community schools that offer wraparound services, etc.) offers diverse ways of organizing and governing schools with possibilities for teaching children differently and well.

Offering a menu of choices is sensible when you do not know for sure which ways are best to get minority and  low-income children to learn, achieve, and succeed in school. And, the fact remains that we do not know how to school, much less educate, the diversity of low-income children that enter public schools.

A menu of choices is democratic when different definitions of “good” schools compete with one another. To many parents and policymakers, a traditional school–a “real” one–is “good.” That is, students in each grade determined by age, one credentialed teacher in a classroom, students sitting in desks, same state curriculum, bells ending lessons,  textbooks, homework, testing, and after school clubs and sports.

To other parents, a teacher-led school that organizes itself around multi-age groups with similar performance levels who work on student-generated projects that probe deeply into content and skills cam be “good.”  And even other parents and teachers judge schools to be “good” that seek social justice by problem-solving and working closely with community groups. There are even other parents who see cyber-schools as “good” because each student can work at his or her pace and meet performance objectives.

Both sensible and democratic, the creation of alternative schools can (and has) become experimental laboratories for the vast majority of public schools to borrow and implement new ideas. Teacher-led schools add to the menu of potential “good” schools in the two-century old decentralized system of U.S. public schools.






Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies