Category Archives: school leaders

Why Principals Differ: Joe, Ralph, and Edna

The film Lean on Me portrays high school principal Joe Clark in Paterson, New Jersey in the early 1980s rescuing a school mired in violence and poor academic performance. In one dramatic scene, over two hundred troublemakers are on the auditorium stage. The rest of the student body sitting in the auditorium watch as Clark at the microphone–played by a young Morgan Freeman– quiets everyone including those students standing behind him. Clark tells the students that those on stage have caused all the trouble and to turn around this school, they must be removed.

Facing the two-hundred mischief-makers milling around on stage, Clark points his finger at them and says: “You are expurgated! You are no longer welcome in this school.” The school security staff in blue blazers shoves them out of the doors.

Joe Clark’s kicking out troublesome students pleased movie crowds 30 years ago as it did the country when they learned about this baseball bat-toting principal. In real life, Joe Clark got in trouble with the school board over expelling the students yet he had his 15 minutes of fame and continued as an educator until he retired.

joe-clark-time.jpg

But he was a sprinter principal, not a marathoner.

Lean on Me lays out the fantasy Americans have about their principals. We want fearless school leaders but get managers with keys dangling on their belts. This expectation of principal-as-Superman (or Wonder Woman) is fairly common but few principals are Clark Kents in mufti. Most principals want to be leaders but cannot because they are caught in the middle between their district bosses wanting them to follow policy, parents wanting their requests fulfilled, teachers wanting to be left alone, and students wanting teachers who teach. Principals learn to navigate among potential conflicts by being managers and politicians juggling competing expectations and constituencies. The DNA of the job is managing and taking few risks.

Take Ralph, a veteran administrator who presides over a suburban elementary school. He is a friendly, forty-ish fellow who is fond of playing the guitar for sing-alongs with kindergartners. He trusts his teachers to do the right thing so he seldom visits classrooms. Neither children nor teachers, however, give him headaches. Parents do.

As he sees it, parents press their children to achieve, achieve, and achieve. He sees that pressure in the third-grade girl bursting in tears at a “B” on a report card or the fifth-grade boy throwing a tantrum at being asked to re-do homework. Parents constantly ask him to assign their children to particular teachers whose students perform well on state tests. If Ralph hesitates in responding to their requests, they are on the phone to the superintendent asking why Ralph is always dragging his feet.

Yet Ralph also knows that these are the same parents who raised $30,000 for the school to meet teacher requests for laptops and class trips. Ralph is trapped by the conflicting expectations of teachers, parents, and his bosses. His primary task is to keep parents satisfied, teachers protected, and children working. He manages as best as he can but he is caught in the middle.

A few principals, however, are like Edna who was appointed to a working-class black and Latino middle school. A Ralph-like principal had been there ten years letting teachers do what they pleased even as the school’s academic performance plummeted. The superintendent told her to raise those test scores. Edna knew that her largely white staff needed prodding and support if they were ever to share her belief that all students can learn.

In the first year she observed classrooms constantly, determining which teachers would stay and which would go. She made teachers responsible for what happened in hallways. She recruited parents and teachers to become part of a new school council to help her make school-wide decisions. She got students to volunteer to paint murals on hallway walls and pick up litter on school grounds.

Then she turned to academics. She asked teachers for a plan to improve academic instruction. The teachers’ plan was reviewed by parents, amended, and put into practice in year two. She scrounged funds to support teacher summer training.

Not until year four, was there a flutter in test scores. But what made the superintendent, parents, teachers, and students ardent supporters of Edna was that the school was becoming a community where children and adults had come together to work for the school rather than for themselves.

In year five, the superintendent appointed Edna to be his assistant superintendent and assigned another Ralph to the school.

Why are there more Ralphs than Ednas? The answer is: A job that forces risk-averse principals to manage bosses, parents, teachers, and students creates Ralphs. Risk-seeking Ednas relish managing conflicts and escape the trap of being caught in the middle. But too often end up leaving the principalship.

 

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What Makes a Great School? (Jack Schneider)

Jack Schneider is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is  “a historian and policy analyst who studies the influence of politics, rhetoric, culture, and information in shaping attitudes and behaviors. His research examines how educators, policymakers, and the public develop particular views about what is true, what is effective, and what is important. Drawing on a diverse mix of methodological approaches, he has written about measurement and accountability, segregation and school choice, teacher preparation and pedagogy, and the relationship between research and practice. His current work, on how school quality is conceptualized and quantified, has been supported by the Spencer Foundation and the Massachusetts State Legislature.

The author of three books, Schneider is a regular contributor to “The Washington Post” and “The Atlantic” and co-hosts the education policy podcast “Have You Heard.” He also serves as the Director of Research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.”

This piece appeared October 23, 2017.

 

What are the signs that a school is succeeding?

Try asking someone. Chances are, they’ll say something about the impact a school makes on the young people who attend it. Do students feel safe and cared for? Are they being challenged? Do they have opportunities to play and create? Are they happy?

If you’re a parent, getting this kind of information entails a great deal of effort — walking the hallways, looking in on classrooms, talking with teachers and students, chatting with parents, and watching kids interact on the playground.

Since most of us don’t have the time or the wherewithal to run our own school-quality reconnaissance missions, we rely on rumor and anecdote, hunches and heuristics, and, increasingly, the Internet.

So what’s out there on the web? Are our pressing questions about schools being answered by crowdsourced knowledge and big data sets?

As it turns out, no.

There’s information, certainly. But mostly it doesn’t align with what we really want to know about how schools are doing. Instead, most of what we learn about schools online — on the websites of magazines, on school rating sites, and even on real estate listings — comes from student standardized test scores. Some may include demographic information or class size ratios. But the ratings are derived primarily from state-mandated high stakes tests.

The first problem with this state of affairs is that test scores don’t tell us a tremendous amount about what students are learning in school. As research has demonstrated, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores — about one-third of what student and family background characteristics explain. Consequently, test scores often indicate much more about demography than about schools.

Even if scores did reflect what students were learning in school, they’d still fail to address the full range of what schools actually do. Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking. School quality is multidimensional. And just because a school is strong in one area does not mean that it is equally strong in another. In fact, my research team has found that high standardized test score growth can be correlated with low levels of student engagement. Standardized tests, in short, tell us very little about what we actually value in schools.

One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality. We talk about schools as if they are uniformly good or bad, as if we have complete knowledge of them, and as if there is agreement about the practices and outcomes of most value.

Another consequence is that we can make unenlightened decisions about where to live and send our children to school. Schools with more affluent student bodies tend to produce high test scores. Perceived

as “good,” they become the objects of desire for well-resourced and quality-conscious parents. Conversely, schools with more diverse student bodies are dismissed as bad.

GreatSchools.org gives my daughter’s school — a highly diverse K–8 school — a 6 on its 10-point scale. The state of Massachusetts labels it a “Level 2” school in its five-tier test score-based accountability system. SchoolDigger.com rates it 456th out of 927 Massachusetts elementary schools.

How does that align with reality? My daughter is excited to go to school each day and is strongly attached to her current and former teachers. A second-grader, she reads a book a week, loves math, and increasingly self-identifies as an artist and a scientist. She trusts her classmates and hugs her principal when she sees him. She is often breathlessly excited about gym. None of this is currently measured by those purporting to gauge school quality.

Of course, I’m a professor of education and my wife is a teacher. Our daughter is predisposed to like school. So what might be said objectively about the school as a whole? Over the past two years, suspensions have declined to one-fifth of the previous figure, thanks in part to a restorative justice program and an emphasis on positive school culture. The school has adopted a mindfulness program that helps students cope with stress and develop the skill of self-reflection. A new maker space is being used to bring hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math into classrooms. The school’s drama club, offered free after school twice a week, now has almost 100 students involved.

The inventory of achievements that don’t count is almost too long to list.

So if the information we want about schools is too hard to get, and the information we have is often misleading, what’s a parent to do?

Four years ago, my research team set out to build a more holistic measure of school quality. Beginning first in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, and then expanding to become a statewide initiative — the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment — we asked stakeholders what they actually care about in K–12 education. The result is a clear, organized, and comprehensive framework for school quality that establishes common ground for richer discussions and recognizes the multi-dimensionality of schools.

Only after establishing shared values did we seek out measurement tools. Our aim, after all, was to begin measuring what we value, rather than to place new values on what is already measured.

For some components of the framework, we turned to districts, which often gather much more information than ends up being reported. For many other components, we employed carefully designed surveys of students and teachers — the people who know schools best. And though we currently include test score growth, we are moving away from multiple-choice tests and toward curriculum-embedded performance assessments designed and rated by educators rather than by machines.

Better measures aren’t a panacea. Segregation by race and income continues to menace our public schools, as does inequitable allocation of resources. More accurate and comprehensive data systems won’t wash those afflictions away. But so much might be accomplished if we had a shared understanding of what we want our schools to do, clear and common language for articulating our aims, and more honest metrics for tracking our progress.

 

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How Much Do Educators Care About Edtech Efficacy? Less Than You Might Think (Jenny Abamu)

Jenny Abamu is a reporter at WAMU. She was previously an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covered technology’s role in K-12 education.

She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Master’s degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College.”

 

This article appeared in EdSurge, July 17, 2017

Dr. Michael Kennedy, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, was relatively sure he knew the answer to this research question: “When making, purchasing and/or adoption decisions regarding a new technology-based product for your district or school, how important is the existence of peer-reviewed research to back the product?” Nevertheless, as part of the Edtech Research Efficacy Symposium held earlier this year, Kennedy created a research team and gathered the data. But, to his surprise, the results challenged conventional wisdom.

I hypothesized that the school leaders we talked to and surveyed would say, ‘Oh yeah, we privilege products that have been sponsored by high-quality research.’ Of course, we found that that wasn’t exactly correct

Michael Kennedy

“I hypothesized that the school leaders we talked to and surveyed would say, ‘Oh yeah we privilege products that have been sponsored by high-quality research,’” says Kennedy. “Of course we found that that wasn’t exactly correct.”

With a team of 13 other academics and experts, Kennedy surveyed 515 people from 17 states. Out of those they surveyed, 24 percent were district technology supervisors, 22 percent were assistant superintendents, 7 percent were superintendents, 27 percent were teachers, and 10 percent were principals. Within this diverse group, 76 percent directly made edtech purchases for their school or were consulted on purchase decisions. This was the group Kennedy expected would put its trust in efficacy research. To his team’s surprise, however, about 90 percent of the respondents said they didn’t insist on research to be in place before adopting or buying a product.

In contrast, respondents prioritized factors such as ‘fit’ for their school, price, functionality and alignment with district initiatives; these were all rated by those surveyed as “extremely important” or “very important.” In the report, one of the administrators interviewed is quoted saying, “If the product was developed using federal grant dollars, great, but the more important factor is the extent to which it suits our needs.” Kennedy also noted other statements made him pause.

“Research, according to one of the quotes I received was the icing on the cake,” says Kennedy “Having a lot of research evidence, like the type demanded by the feds, was cool but not essential. I found that to be pretty surprising and a little bit troubling.”

The consumer is the one who is going to have to demand the market changes. If school districts say, ‘I am not buying with without any research evidence,’ that would be the only thing, I think, the business community will listen to.

Kennedy defines randomized control trials, a research methodology that tries to remove bias and external effects as much as possible from the experiment, as the gold standard of research. Though this type of extensive and carefully planned research is expensive, the federal government does offer funds to support groups willing to go through the process. However, without schools demanding such research, Kennedy says while the government has made a way, but there is no will—and that could dry up funds.

“The consumer is the one who is going to have to demand the market changes. If school districts say, ‘I am not buying with without any research evidence,’ that would be the only thing, I think, the business community will listen to,” says Kennedy.

So what explains theme educators who did put research at the top of their list? Kennedy speculates it’s a question of exposure to quality research and district funding.

“Some people who responded to our survey had doctorates, other had advanced degrees, and they understand the value of research,” says Kennedy. “Some respondents are from districts that are very well-funded, and they have the luxury of being picky. Other districts have very limited budgets, very limited time and they are going to what is cheapest and easiest.”

Whether rich or poor, all school districts do have to answer to their tax bases, who often foot the bill for edtech purchases. Schools that cannot show academic gains are often under more scrutiny from outside forces, including parents and local officials. However, Kennedy notes that the complicated nature of education and all the variables that can affect student achievement water down any accountability that can be placed on edtech product purchase decisions made by the school districts.

“I suspect they will look at how are we teaching reading and math because technology is often used as a supplementary tool,” says Kennedy. “I hear parents say they want more technology, but they don’t know what they want. They think any tech is good tech, and I think that myth has pervaded as well. It’s a wicked problem, a layered contextual kind of issue, that will take more than the field can do to fix.”

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Principals And Test Scores

I read a recent blog from two researchers who assert that principals can improve students’ test scores. The researchers cite studies that support their claim (see below). These researchers received a large grant from the Wallace Foundation to alter their principal preparation program to turn out principals who can, indeed, raise students’ academic achievement.

I was intrigued by this post because as a district superintendent I believed the same thing and urged the 35 elementary and secondary principals I supervised—we met face-to-face twice a year to go over their annual goals and outcomes and I spent a morning or afternoon at the school at least once a year—to be instructional leaders and thereby raise test scores. Over the course of seven years, however, I saw how complex the process of leading a school is, the variation in principals’ performance, and the multiple roles that principals play in his or her school to engineer gains on state tests (see here and here). And I began to see clearly what a principal can and cannot do. Those memories came back to me as I read this post.

First the key parts of the post:

A commonly cited statistic in education leadership circles is that 25 percent of a school’s impact on student achievement can be explained by the principal, which is encouraging for those of us who work in principal preparation, and intuitive to the many educators who’ve experienced the power of an effective leader. It lacks nuance, however, and has gotten us thinking about the state of education-leadership research—what do we know with confidence, what do we have good intuitions (but insufficient evidence) about, and what are we completely in the dark on? ….

Quantifying a school leader’s impact is analytically challenging. How should principal effects be separated from teacher effects, for instance? Some teachers are high-performing, regardless of who leads their school, but effective principals hire the right people into the right grade levels and offer them the right supports to propel them to success.

Another issue relates to timing: Is the impact of great principals observed right away, or does it take several years for principals to grapple with the legacy they’ve inherited—the teaching faculty, the school facilities, the curriculum and textbooks, historical budget priorities, and so on. Furthermore, what’s the right comparison group to determine a principal’s unique impact? It seems crucial to account for differences in school and neighborhood environments—such as by comparing different principals who led the same school at different time points—but if there hasn’t been principal turnover in a long time, and there aren’t similar schools against which to make a comparison, this approach hits a wall.

Grissom, Kalogrides, and Loeb carefully document the trade-offs inherent in the many approaches to calculating a principal’s impact, concluding that the window of potential effect sizes ranges from .03 to .18 standard deviations. That work mirrors the conclusions of Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin, who estimate that principal impacts range from .05 to .21 standard deviations (in other words, four to 16 percentile points in student achievement).

Our best estimates of principal impacts, therefore, are either really small or really large, depending on the model chosen. The takeaway? Yes, principals matter—but we still have a long way to go to before we can confidently quantify just how much.

I thoroughly agree with the researchers’ last sentence. But I did have problems with these assertions supported by two studies they listed.

*That principals are responsible for 25 percent of student gains on test scores (teachers, the report account for an additional 33 percent of those higher test scores). I traced back the source they cited and found these statements:

A 2009 study by New Leaders for New Schools found that more than half of a school’s impact on student gains can be attributed to both principal and teacher effectiveness – with principals accounting for 25 percent and teachers 33 percent of the effect.

The report noted that schools making significant progress are often led by a principal whose role has been radically re-imagined. Not only is the principal attuned to classroom learning, but he or she is also able to create a climate of hard work and success while managing the vital human-capital pipeline.

These researchers do cite studies that support their points about principals and student achievement but cannot find the exact study that found the 25 percent that principals account for in student test scores. Moreover, they omit  studies that show  higher education programs preparing principals who have made a difference in their graduates raising student test scores (see here).

I applaud these researchers on their efforts to improve the university training that principals receive but there is a huge “black box” of unknowns that explain how principals can account for improved student achievement. Opening that “black box” has been attempted in various studies that Jane David and I looked at a few years ago in Cutting through the Hype

The research we reviewed on stable gains in test scores across many different approaches to school improvement all clearly points to the principal as the catalyst for instructional improvement. But being a catalyst does not identify which specific actions influence what teachers do or translate into improvements in teaching and student achievement.

Researchers find that what matters most is the context or climate in which the actions occurs. For example, classroom visits, often called “walk-throughs,” are a popular vehicle for principals to observe what teachers are doing. Principals might walk into classrooms with a required checklist designed by the district and check off items, an approach likely to misfire. Or the principal might have a short list of expected classroom practices created or adopted in collaboration with teachers in the context of specific school goals for achievement. The latter signals a context characterized by collaboration and trust within which an action by the principal is more likely to be influential than in a context of mistrust and fear.

So research does not point to specific sure-fire actions that instructional leaders can take to change teacher behavior and student learning. Instead, what’s clear from studies of schools that do improve is that a cluster of factors account for the change.

Over the past forty years, factors associated with raising a school’s academic profile include: teachers’ consistent focus on academic standards and frequent assessment of student learning, a serious school-wide climate toward learning, district support, and parental participation. Recent research also points to the importance of mobilizing teachers and the community to move in the same direction, building trust among all the players, and especially creating working conditions that support teacher collaboration and professional development.

In short, a principal’s instructional leadership combines both direct actions such as observing and evaluating teachers, and indirect actions, such as creating school conditions that foster improvements in teaching and learning. How principals do this varies from school to school–particularly between elementary and secondary schools, given their considerable differences in size, teacher peparation, daily schedule, and in students’ plans for their future. Yes, keeping their eyes on instruction can contribute to stronger instruction; and, yes, even higher test scores. But close monitoring of instruction can only contribute to, not ensure, such improvement.

Moreover, learning to carry out this role as well as all the other duties of the job takes time and experience. Both of these are in short supply, especially in urban districts where principal turnover rates are high.

I am sure these university researchers are familiar with this literature. I wish them well in their efforts to pin down what principals do that account for test score improvement and incorporate that in a program that has effects on what their graduates do as principals in the schools they lead.

 

 

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Yes, Definitions of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Have Changed Over Time (Part 2)

The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “modern cult of efficiency,” or the application of scientific management to business can be seen at a host of companies and in U.S. schools.

Consider Amazon, a company that earned little revenue in its early years yet in 2018 was valued at over $700 billion. Using technology to achieve swift purchases and delivery to customers account in part to its “phenomenal success.” Amazon’s quest for efficiency would cause Frederick Winslow Taylor to applaud.

One observer, for example, reported in 2015 on the newly-opened one-million square feet Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville (NJ) where orders are “fulfilled.”

Upon arrival, each new product is identified using a computer vision system that catalogues it rapidly, feeding its weight and dimensions into a central tracking system. At the heart of the building, items stored on tall, square shelves are kept stocked by humans working with a team of 2,000 squat orange robots. The robots zip around the storage area, picking up shelves and either arranging them in neat rows for storage or bringing them over to the human workers, who stack or pick from them. Further along the fulfillment line, workers charged with packing up orders for shipping are automatically given the optimal size of shipping box and even the correct amount of packing tape. Before those boxes are sent to trucks, a system weighs them to make sure the correct products are inside.

Amazon updated the century-old practices of Taylorism in “standardization, the split of planning from doing, … the setting of precisely defined tasks, the emphasis on efficiency, and productivity to the exclusion of all else” (see here, p. 501)

Turn now to schooling. The current incarnation of “Taylorism” and focus on student outcomes can be seen in the standards, testing, and accountability movement launched over three decades ago in the wake of A Nation at Risk report. The application of business practices and lingo under the umbrella of scientifically acquired evidence reappeared anew albeit with different labels.

Since the 1980s, reforms that called for uniform curriculum standards and increased testing while holding districts and schools responsible for student outcomes aimed to harness education to a stronger economy. With the increased power of computers to gather and analyze data, new techniques to prod schools to teach more, better, faster, and cheaper appeared (see here, here, and here)  *

The frequent gathering and parsing of test data, school-by-school, district-by-district, state-by-state, and nationally became a major enterprise. The lure of increased productivity and efficiency through evidence-based decision-making in light of huge (and available) data-sets has led to increasing use of algorithms to grade performance of individual schools, evaluating teacher performance, and customizing online lessons for each student (see here and here).

States and districts now evaluate the performance of schools based on test scores, growth in achievement, graduation rates, and other measures and then assign rankings by issuing a grade to each school ranging from an A to a F, awarding one to five stars, or similar systems. Such grades signal parents which schools are high-performing and attractive to enroll their children and which schools are to be avoided—an efficient way of sorting out schools especially since parental choice in public schools has expanded.

Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., “effective,” using students’ test scores has occurred in many states and big city districts. Such outcome measures should not shock anyone familiar with the spreading influence of the business model (e.g., earning profits, market share, and return on investment) upon schooling.

Policymakers’ concerns over inefficiency in sorting effective from ineffective teachers (most districts graded 90-plus percent of teachers satisfactory) led to an embrace of an economic model of providing incentives to increase organizational productivity and efficiency.

Within classrooms, both effectiveness and efficiency have come to the fore in customizing lessons for individual students. Earlier efforts to introduce “teaching machines” in the 1920s and later in the 1950s testify to the history of educators seeking ways to tailor teaching and learning to fit individual students. With the spread of faster and cheaper technologies since the 1990s, new classroom models of integrating devices and online programs took hold in many schools. The growth of huge data-sets of information on student performance in math, reading, and other school subjects also segued into a Niagara of software spilling over schools in the past two decades. The rationale for extensive buying and distributing of new devices and software has been to make teaching and student learning faster, better, and individualized.

The U.S. Secretary of Education made this point in 2010:

Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add‐on or for a high‐tech reproduction of current practice. Again, we need to change the underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money.

By far, the best strategy for boosting productivity is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.

Those sentiments reign supreme among policy elites when it comes to schooling. Efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness a holy trinity to earlier generations of educators remain sacred to current school officials. Faster and better teaching through new technologies producing improved student outcomes in less time and money is precisely what Frederick Winslow Taylor would have recommended (see here and here).

This recent surge of technology-enhanced schooling called “personalized learning” merges the polestars of school reform since the 1890s. First, there is a reunion of efficiency and effectiveness, and second, the two wings of the progressive movement—“administrative” and “pedagogical” reformers, under different aliases have reappeared, reunited, and now use similar vocabularies.

Personalized learning as both efficient and effective: Past and present

Today’s reformers promoting “personalized learning” might salute their yesteryear Progressive cousins. A century ago, these reformers wanted public schools to turn children and youth into thoughtful, civically engaged, whole adults. Those early Progressives drank deeply from the well of John Dewey but ended up following the ideas of fellow Progressive Edward Thorndike, an early behaviorist psychologist expert in testing who was a doyen of efficiency in schooling.

A century ago, this efficiency-minded, behaviorist wing of the progressive movement overwhelmed the pedagogical progressives passionate about developing the entire child  and using a range of cognitive and social skills to benefit students and society. Thorndike trumped Dewey.

Now in 2018 behaviorists and believers in the “whole child” wear the clothes of Deweyan reformers and educational entrepreneurs. They tout scientific studies showing lessons tailored for individual students produce higher test scores than before, or that project-based learning creates independent, creative, and smart students who go on to lucrative careers and help their communities.

What exists now is a re-emergence of the efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” from a century ago who now, as modern-day entrepreneurs and practical reformers, using the vocabulary of pedagogical Progressives want public schools to be more market-like where supply and demand reign, and more realistic in preparing students for a competitive workplace.

These reformers are of two types. Some want individual students to master the content and skills found in district and state curriculum standards in less time than usual while spending the least amount of money to achieve mastery. Examples would be current versions of competency-based learning aligned to, say, Common Core standards or programs such as Teach To One.

Other entrepreneurs and technology advocates see schools as places to create whole  human beings capable of entering and succeeding in a world far different than their parents faced. To these reformers, efficient ways that reduce waste while integrating student interests and passions into daily activities with the help of teachers. Students make decisions about what to learn and take as long as they can to demonstrate mastery while meeting curriculum standards and posting high scores on state tests.

No surprise that a catch-phrase like “personalized learning,” using technology to upend traditional whole group lessons and “factory-like schools” has birthed a gaggle of different meanings. Is it updated “competency-based learning?” Or “differentiated learning” in new clothes or “individualized learning” redecorated?  (see here, here and here). Such proliferation of school reforms into slogans is as familiar as photos of sunsets. “Blended learning,” “project-based teaching,” and “21st Century skills” are a few recent bumper stickers that have generated many meanings as they get converted by policymakers, marketeers, researchers, wannabe reformers, and, yes, teachers into daily lessons.

The struggle today is between re-emergent, century-old wings of educational progressives in a context where individualizing instruction and being held accountable for meeting district standards occur at the same time. For some voices that challenge such a resurrection, see here, here, and here.

Yes, these differences among reformers resemble another instance of a family fight but in a very different context than existed a century ago. These efficiency-minded school reformers, filled with optimism about the power of new technologies to “transform” teaching and learning, have appropriated the language of “whole child” Progressives.  Imbued with visions of students being prepared for a world where adults change jobs a half-dozen times in a lifetime, these efficiency-minded reformers tout schools that have tailored lessons (both online and offline) to individual students, turned teachers into coaches, and structured activities for student collaboration where thus reflecting the changed workplace of the 21st century. Efficiency-minded reformers’ victorious capture of the vocabulary of “personalized learning”  has made parsing the present-day world of school policies aimed at making classrooms havens of “personalized learning” most confusing to those unfamiliar with century-old struggles over similar issues.

_______________________________

Laura Chapman pointed out a piece I had not seen that appeared in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008. Researchers priced out the cost of different school subjects similar to the quest of early 20th century “efficiency” experts. The first paragraph reads:

How much does it cost to provide a high school math course? What about remedial English? An Advanced Placement (AP) course in history? As the economic outlook continues to darken, school districts will be looking for ways to cut costs, and they will no doubt wrestle with some difficult issues.

 

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Yes, Definitions of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Have Changed Over Time (Part 1)

My next book has the working title: “Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in Schools.” I describe and analyze the ways educators have defined “success” and “failure,” where these concepts originated, and the consequences flowing from their use in classrooms, schools, and districts.

The first question in the book is: Have definitions of “success” and “failure” in U.S. schools changed over time?

The answer is yes. Here is how I arrived at that answer.

The history of how educational policy elites politically defined “success” in school reform between the late 19th century and mid-20th century reveals such a change. In those years, classrooms, schools, and districts that practiced “efficiency” in expanding access of students to public schooling, following scientifically designed procedures in creating appropriate curriculum for each level in age-graded schools, and using public funds parsimoniously and wisely were “successes” (see here and here)

Using scientific findings, ”educational engineers” (historians call them “administrative Progressives“) in the early 20th century used the most recent research of the day determined the best ways for students to learn, teachers to teach, administrators to manage, and school boards to govern.”Scientific management” and “educational efficiency” were the slogans educators used then to tout “success’ and “failure.”

Policymakers asked: how much does it cost to teach Latin? Can teachers get fifth grade students to learn more by lesson worksheets done in class or homework? How can money be saved in heating the building during the winter? How can school boards divest party politics from making educational decisions? Researchers of the day answered such questions (see here and here). These policymakers also wanted “social efficiency,” that is, graduates of age-graded schools were to be prepared to enter the rapidly expanding industrial workplace and act as responsible adults—public schools were to serve both the economy and society.

Overall, then, that generation of reformers assumed that efficient schools and districts were also effective in doing what they were supposed to do, i.e., make literate citizens who can enter an industrialized workplace. Efficiency and effectiveness were one and the same to these 20th century reformers but the concept of efficiency dominated both theory and practice.

Challenges to this educational consensus on efficiency occurred at the time from those academics and practitioners who saw the goals of schooling–producing literate citizens who could enter a changing workplace–best achieved through “learning by doing” and developing the “whole child.” Reformers of this stripe (historians called them “pedagogical Progressives“) sought to create classrooms and schools that gave students more choices, positioned teachers as guides rather than drill sergeants, created curricula that crossed disciplinary boundaries, and integrated family, community, and the larger world into classroom experiences. To these reformers, “success” and “failure” went far beyond “efficient” classrooms and schools. The definition of “successful” schooling that they constructed sought students’ well-being and intellectual, social, emotional, and physical growth. But their challenges to the dominant view lost in these years although their definitions of “successful” schooling, beliefs and practices have persisted into subsequent decades.

Fast forward to the late-1960s. In that decade, the half-century prevailing consensus over “efficiency” as the dominant way to determine “success” and “failure” broke apart.

In those years, expanded federal legislation to improve public schooling for poor children and youth–The Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 (ESEA)–led to direct infusion of funds into states and districts to improve schools serving poor children. This generation of policy elites slowly made a 180-degree switch in defining “success” from one of research-driven “efficiency” to one of  judging how well students performed. These reformers, unlike there older reform cousins, wanted student outcomes (e.g., raising student test scores, increasing high school graduation rates and lowering number of dropouts) to define “success.” Sure, efficiency, that is, reducing waste and increasing teacher and student productivity, remained important but emphasis had now shifted to student outcomes as measures of “success” and “failure.” Effective schools–as they were called–were now in the foreground; efficient schools slipped into the background.

From ESEA (1965) to No Child Left Behind (2002) and now the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), federal, state, and district policymakers defined “success” and “failure”  using test scores. Economists would say that educational policy over the past century has shifted from inputs–how much and how well money is spent per student–to outputs–student test scores thereby summing up the flip-flop history of defining school “success” and “failure” in the 20th century.

Increased emphasis on students’ academic outcomes and public rankings of schools and districts spread through the 1970s until today when new technologies permit policymakers to use large caches of information to reach swift judgments of “success” and “failure.” Now parents with laptops and smart phones can directly access their children’s academic performance on a daily basis and their school’s performance on state tests.

Determining the effectiveness of classrooms, schools, and districts by measuring student outcomes in test scores, graduation rates, student dropouts, and college admissions reigns supreme. Of course, efficiency remains highly important since education dollars are scarce and cutting waste in spending money remains on the to-do list. Not until the rise of “big data,” “data-based decision-making,” and the arrival of algorithms has both effectiveness and efficiency become equal partners again, a development that would have made Edward Thorndike smile and John Dewey grimace.

The shift from primary emphasis on “scientific management” to advance efficiency in schools and classrooms–what later critics called “the cult of efficiency“– to a focus on effectiveness, i.e., student outcomes, in the late-20th century to determine  “success” and “failure” is prologue to what is now occurring in 21st century U.S. schools.  Part 2 looks at the current generation of entrepreneurs and technology advocates resurrecting another “cult of efficiency”  that is reshaping anew current notions of “success” and “failure.”

 

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Insider vs. Outsider Superintendents

In Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board just appointed an outsider, Austin Beutner. Former investment banker, current philanthropist and one-time deputy mayor. Nearly three years ago, the school board appointed insider–Michelle King–superintendent 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; in 2018, the Mayor appointed Alberto Carvalho, a veteran educator but outsider from Florida as Chancellor.

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 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 within 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 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 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. again. Mayor Muriel Bowser replaced exiting Chancellor Kaya Henderson who had served six years with Oakland (CA) superintendent Antwan Wilson. Henderson’s predecessor was outsider Michelle Rhee (2007-2010) who had brought in Henderson after Mayor Adrian Fenty had appointed Rhee. Then, a few months ago, Wilson resigned after serving just over one year.

The current Mayor knows well that the DC schools have had a long string of school-board appointed outsiders. To be specific, over sixty years, there have been 15 superintendents (excluding interim appointees) of whom 12 were outsiders (including Rhee, Henderson, and Wilson). 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.

Los Angeles Unifed School District

Since 1971, the District has had 14 superintendents since 1962 of whom seven were insiders (Ray Cortines came from outside the district and served twice as interim superintendent and once as regular superintendent). The longest serving insider was William Johnston who served a decade (1971-1981). The longest serving outsider was ex-governor of Colorado, Roy Romer (2000-2006). Of the outsiders, three had experience as superintendents elsewhere (Leonard Britton, Ray Cortines, and John Deasy) and one (David Brewer) was a retired U.S. Navy admiral. Austin Beutner will be the first business leader tapped to lead LAUSD.

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 looked school board appointees of insiders and outsiders have asked a series of questions:

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do outsiders stay longer than insiders?

*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 to 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, is similar to  CEOs and other top leadership posts in non-school organizations (see here, here, here, and here).

I have no idea whether the LAUSD School Board considered such research. By picking a business leader, the Board is saying that the major problems of the district are managerial and political. Why else pick such a person?

Were the DC Mayor to become familiar with the research,  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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