Category Archives: school leaders

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 insiders or outsiders stay longer?

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

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

The answer 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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What Roles School Practitioners Have to Perform Daily

I just read a report that argued for superintendents to exert their political skills to build coalitions of support in order to achieve the goals they have set for their years as school chief. I wondered to myself after reading the report how much the authors grasped the core activities that  teachers, principals, and superintendents, working in their classrooms, offices, and suites do every day, in their own ways. Teachers, principals, and superintendents have to–yes, “have to”–perform three different roles in their different venues: instructional, managerial, and political.

For superintendents who have been teachers and principals, and four out of five have, These roles and actions are baked into the DNA of teaching, principaling, and, yes, superintending. So those former teachers and principals who become district office staff before getting picked to be a school chief already have acted politically in their earlier roles. They may not have called what they did “political,” but they know how to build coalitions and forge relationships to get things done. It is in their bones.

Here are the roles that teachers, principals, and superintendents must perform to initially survive and then thrive.

Instructional role. For teachers, that is obvious. For principals and superintendents, the pressure on these administrators to assume responsibility for instructionally guiding teachers has grown dramatically in the past three decades.

Since the 1980s, mainstream thinking about principals has shifted markedly from managing school-site decisions to re-asserting the importance of  being instructional leaders. Now, principals and superintendents are expected to help teachers in meeting state academic standards, aligning curriculum, textbooks, and tests to those state standards, evaluating teachers, and producing higher student test scores.

Managerial role. Principals and superintendents have always been hired to administer schools. Superintendents expect their principals to set priorities consistent with district goals, use data for decision making, plan and schedule work of the school, oversee the budget, hire staff, and many other managerial tasks—including punctual submission of reports to the central office. School boards also expect their superintendents to discharge the managerial role. Currently, efforts by reformers to call superintendents and principals  CEOs elevates the managerial role. And teachers, well, controlling a crowd of students to pay attention to a lesson, complete classroom tasks, and parcel out help to individual students requires sharply acute administrative skills.

Political role. A century ago, progressive reformers divorced partisan politics from schooling. The norm of political neutrality held that superintendents, principals, and teachers hide their political party preferences.

So most principals, superintendents, and teachers have avoided partisan politics in the workplace but they do act politically within the school community and classrooms. For example, to advance their school agenda, principals and superintendents negotiate with parents, individual teachers, student groups, central office administrators, and even city officials. They figure out ways to build political coalitions for their schools at budget time or to put a positive spin on bad news during crises. Such politics aim to improve a school’s image, implement an innovation, or secure new resources. Most principals and superintendents see this as going about their daily business, not politics. But it is acting politically.

And, yes, teachers also act politically when they figure out which students in their classes are the leaders, which students need to be cajoled into compliance or  helpfulness, which students can help advance the teacher’s goals. Astute teachers build a coalition of support among their students for reaching the goals the teacher has set for the class. Experienced teachers often carry out that political analysis the first few weeks of the school year. Teachers are also political in dealing with their principal and district office in helping or hindering their school site leader achieve school goals.

Dilemmas inevitably arise when educators come to see that they are stronger at some roles than others, prefer some roles over the other but realize that often times they have to perform roles that they are less strong at and hardly prefer doing. This is the persistent dilemma of multiple core roles.

So the report  surprised me for its lack of basic understanding of the three roles baked into the DNA of being practitioners in classrooms, school offices, and district suites. Anyone becoming a superintendent knows from prior experience as a teacher and principal–although he or she may not use the word “political”–the importance of forging coalitions inside and outside the school to gain support to achieve desired goals.

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What’s the Difference Between Engineering at a Tech Company Versus a School? (Sam Strasser)

This is an interview that Ranjani Sundaresan, a junior at Seattle University and intern at EdSurge over the summer, conducted with Strasser. This post appeared on EdSurge, September 16, 2017.

What’s it like for an engineer to dive into education?

Sam Strasser is Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Summit Public Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. But he also has had a long career working as an engineer at companies including Microsoft and Facebook. At Facebook, he helped develop Summit’s personalized learning platform, which is now used in more than 100 schools throughout the U.S. Strasser spoke with the EdSurge Jobs team about how school looks from an engineer’s point of view.

EdSurge Jobs: So, give us a 60-second description of your career trajectory up until this point in your life.

Strasser: I started my career as a software engineer at Microsoft for a couple of years. I worked for a few edtech companies as a engineer and engineering manager and then as a contracted engineer. The contracting phase really helped me find the next thing that would be a good fit for me. Summit Public Schools was one of the organizations I worked for as a contract engineer.

As you may know, Facebook partnered with Summit to provide the engineering support for Summit’s personalized learning platform. I eventually moved over to Facebook, working as an engineer and then as a product manager. My most recent move has been back to Summit as the CIO.

What was that ’something’ that made you jump into education and edtech?

When I was working in the tech world, I didn’t feel my work was connected to the things I wanted to contribute to the world. It wasn’t fulfilling for me. Education is something that has interested me for a long time. In college, I wrote my senior essay on the intersection of technology and education. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do in education, but I knew it mattered to me so I decided to pursue that path.

So, why did you join the particular edtech startups and companies that you did? What was the draw towards those particular ones?

I believed in the educators who were leading them. They have all been led by an educator or very deeply co-led by one. One of my fears when moving into education was that we, engineers, would see only engineering problems and lose sight of our users. Because of that, I always try to make sure that the loudest decision-making voice has had some real education experience.

That’s very interesting. As an engineer, which of your skills have been the most important in your career?

I would say the most important skills haven’t been related to any algorithms or coding or architecture, but learning how to apply an engineering-style thinking and problem-solution thinking, particularly to complex problems like education.

What skills have you had to develop on the job?

Working for and with a school is very different than working for a tech company. I’ve had to adjust and learn new skills working in this environment. Some of the differences are surface-level, like benefits and paid time off, but others are pretty deep, like collaboration and feedback style.

Here’s one example of these differences: A big part of teaching is reinforcing positive behaviors. By contrast, part of my [engineering] job is soliciting critical product feedback to make improvements. When I first started at Summit, I noticed that teachers were very good at finding positive things to give feedback on. This quality is great in the teaching context, but can be challenging when trying to get at a product’s flaws. I’ve learned on the job how to create safe places for educators to give more critical feedback and how to better glean insights from feedback that might not be as overtly critical as I was used to.

Having been in education and edtech for so long, what is the toughest part of having a career in this particular sector?

I think there is a funny disconnect in the industry. A lot my engineering friends say, “I really would love to find a way to contribute and use my engineering skills to help out schools.” And a lot of my teacher friends say, “If only I had some technological solution for X problem so that I could focus on the part of my job that I want to be doing.” There seems to be some kind of mismatch between edtech companies and end users.

Learning how to work with a school, understand its needs, build a product and build a business around it is not a clear path by any means. There are some really positive examples out there of companies that have done it. However, the hardest part of this industry is learning how to understand the needs of a school or an educator and then turning those insights into an actual solution to their problems.

Well, you’ve already answered this question a bit, which was: What advice do you have for folks who are interested in engineering in the education field? Is there anything you would like to build on?

I think by far my biggest advice is this: If you don’t have classroom experience and are building a product, it’s tempting to think you know exactly what you’re doing because we all went to school, and we think that we know what school is.

But, we don’t know what school is. And we definitely don’t know what teaching is, especially as engineers. So my advice is to over-correct for this and build empathy for actual teachers in actual classrooms—not the theoretical idea you have about what teaching should or could be or was for you. Because that almost certainly is not going to land with educators today.

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Coaching a Math Teacher (Education Realist)

This post comes from the blog Education Realist. While I usually avoid postings from anonymous authors, this full time teacher who writes under the pseudonym of Education Realist is someone I have come to know and respect as a teacher and person. I have observed this teacher in math and social studies lessons; we have also met and had lunch discussing many issues in public schools. It appeared October 22, 2017

In 2011’s Personal Best, Atul Gawande recounts his desire to “up his game”, by hiring a retired surgeon who had once trained him, Robert Osteen, to act as a coach.  I often reread the article just for the best passage in an already great piece: when  Osteen gives Gawande feedback for the first time.

Prior to his own coaching experience, Gawande explores the difference between “coaching” and “teaching” in the teaching career itself. He sits in on a lesson and coaching session with  an 8th grade math teacher. One of the coaches was a history teacher, the other a math teacher who’d given up teaching to work at the district. While Gawande implies coaching is unusual, many school districts have coaching staffs, usually made up of history teachers and middle school math teachers, just like this one.

Everything that crackles and glows when Gawande describes Osteen’s observations falls with a thud in the teaching section. The lesson on simplifying radicals sounded fairly traditional, but seemed dull in the telling. The coaching feedback was similar to what I’ve experienced–banal platitudes. Socratic questioning. “What do you think you could do to make it better?” (Translated: I personally have no idea.) Not the same assertive advice Osteen gave Gawande, but carefully scripted prompts. Critzer seemed to like the “feedback”, such as it was, but I found the whole exchange extremely antiseptic. In no way were the two coaches “operating” (heh) on the same level as Osteen’s expert.

In 2011 I was a newbie. Now I’m edging towards a full decade of teaching and have now mentored  three teachers through induction and one student teacher. I’m better prepared to think about coaching, both as provider and recipient, and the stark differences in those two passages keep coming back to me.

My ed school supervisor , a full-metal discovery proponent, gave me one of the great learning experiences of my entire life. She never tried to convert me or push particular lesson approaches.  I can still remember the excitement I felt as she pushed me to think of new methods to achieve my goals, while I realized that regardless of teaching philosophy, teaching objectives remain resolutely the same: are the kids engaged? Are they learning, or parroting back what they think I want to hear? Am I using time effectively?  Osteen’s feedback reminded me of those conversations, and as I moved into a mentor role, she became my model.

A couple weeks ago, a district curriculum meeting ended early and I went back to school just in time for fourth block to observe my newest induction mentee.  This was an unscheduled observation, but she welcomed me into her pre-algebra class for a lesson on simplifying fractions prior to multiplication. Through the lesson, the students worked on this worksheet. The concepts involved are not dissimilar from the ones in Jennie Critzer’s lesson.

Here’s my feedback, delivered immediately after the bell rang.

“Okay, I’m going to split my feedback into three categories. First up are issues involving safety and management that you should take action on immediately. Everything subsequent is my opinion and advice  based on my teaching preferences as well as what I saw of your teaching style. I will try to separate objective from method. If you agree with the objective but not the method, then we’ll brainstorm other ideas. If you disagree with the objective, fine! Argue back. OK?” She agreed.

“For immediate action, make students put their skateboards under that back table, or in a corner completely away from foot traffic. The administration will support you in this in the unlikely event a student refuses to obey you, I’d also suggest making all the students put their backpacks completely under the desk. It’s like ski week around here, you nearly tripped twice. Now for the suggestions…”

“Wait. That’s the only mandatory change? My classroom management is good?”

“Yes. Kids were attentive and on task. But I want you to move about the room more, as you’ll see, and the way your kids strew their stuff around the floor, you’ll kill yourself.”

“I was worried about management because the students often seem…slow to respond.”

“We can talk more about your concerns before our formal observation so I can watch that closely. I’d like more enthusiasm, more interest, but that’s a subjective thing we’ll get into next. They listen to you and follow your requests. They’re trying to learn. You’ve got buy-in. You’re waiting for quiet. All good.”

“Phew. I’m relieved.”

“Now, some opinions. I’d like you to work more on your delivery and pacing.  You are anchored to the front of the class during your explanation time. Move about! Walk around the room. Own it. It’s your space.”

“I am never sure how to do that.”

“Practice. When you have a few sentences nailed down, just walk to the back by the door,  stand there for a minute or so, then move to another point, all while talking. Then go back up front. Do that until it feels comfortable. Then ask a question while away from the front. Then practice introducing a new topic while away, and so on.”

“I didn’t think of practicing. I thought it would come naturally.”

“I’m as big a  movie star teacher as they get, and what I just described is how I escaped the front-left cellblock.”

“OK.”

“Next up: you’re killing the flow of the lesson.  Here’s what you did today: give a brief description of method, work an example, assign two problems, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Then assign two more, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Lather, rinse, repeat. This precludes any concentrated work periods and it’s hurting your ability to help your top students. It’s also really boring.”

“Yes, many of my students have worked all the way through the handout. But I have to help the students who don’t get it right away and that takes time, right?”

“Sure.  So give a brief lecture with your own examples that illustrate two or three key concepts–NOT the ones on the worksheet. And while that lesson is going on, my advice is to insist that all students watch you. Right now, the strong students are completely ignoring your lesson to work the handout–and from what I can tell, occasionally getting things wrong.”

“Yes, they don’t know as much as they think they do in every case. But it’s good that they’re working, right? They’re interested?”

“Not if they aren’t paying attention to you. You are the diva. Attention must be paid.”

“But if they know it all…”

“Then they can finish it quickly after your lesson–as you say, they sometimes make mistakes you covered. So do an up front lesson of 15-20 minutes or less, depending on the topic. Then release them to work on the entire page or assignment. Let them work at their own pace. You walk around the room, giving them feedback. Don’t let the stronger kids move ahead in your packet. Have another handout ready that challenges them further You might have an answer sheet ready so kids can check their own work.”

She was taking notes. “How do I get these more challenging handouts?”

“Ask other teachers. Or I’ll show you how to build some. I know you’re using  someone else’s curriculum, but you can have additional challenges ready to keep your top kids humble. Math gets much harder. They need to be pushed.”

“So then I teach upfront and give them 30-45 minutes to do all the work, giving the kids who finish more work. Maybe a brief review at the end.”

“Bingo.”

“Got it. I’m going to try this.”

“Last thing on delivery: you’ve got a Promethean. Use it. It will free you from the document camera.”

“I don’t know how. I asked the tech guy for guidance and he said you were one of the most knowledgeable people on this brand.”

“Well, let’s do that next. Now, onto the much more difficult third topic: your curriculum. I could see you often backtracking from your own, authentic instruction method to return to the worksheet which forcefeeds one method: find the Greatest Common Factor or bust.  I could tell you didn’t like this approach, because you kept on saying ‘they want you to use GCF’, meaning the folks who developed the worksheet.”

“Yes, I kept forgetting to avoid my own method and  support the worksheet’s method.”

“Why?”

“Well, I have to use that worksheet.”

“Toots, you don’t have to use a thing. You’re the teacher. They can’t require you to teach it. I don’t dislike the curriculum, but that particular worksheet is flawed. As I walked round your room, I saw kids who just cancelled the first factor they saw, and then had an incomplete simplification. So 9/27 became 3/9 because the kid turned 9 into 3×3 and 27 into 9×3.”

“Yes, that’s what I saw, too. They didn’t realize it wasn’t fully simplified, because they weren’t realizing the need to find the GCF.”

“That’s because the method isn’t as important as the end result.  Who cares if they use that method? That’s what the one student said who challenged you, right? You were trying to push her to find the GCF, and she pushed back, saying ‘what difference does it make?’ and you were stuck because you agreed with her, but felt forced into this method.”

“God, that’s so right,” she groaned.

“But you weren’t giving them any plan B, any way to see if they’d achieved the goal. How much advanced math have you taught? Algebra 2, Trig, Precalc? None? You should observe some classes to see how essential factoring is. I talked to many of your students, and none have any real idea what the lesson’s purpose was. Why do we simplify at all? What was the difference between simplifying fractions and multiplying them?  What are factors? Why do we use factors?  I suggest returning to this tomorrow and confess that the student was correct, that in the case of simplifying fractions by eliminating common factors, there are many ways to get to the end result. Acknowledge you were trying to be a good sport and use the method in the handout, but it’s not the method you use.”

She wrote all this down. “And then I need to tell them how to know that they have fully simplified.”

“Exactly. Here’s what I saw as the two failures of the worksheet and your lesson: first, you didn’t tell them how they could test their results for completeness. Then, you didn’t tell them the reason for this activity. Namely, SIMPLIFY FIRST. When using numbers, it’s just an annoying few extra steps. But when you start working with binomials, failing to factor is disastrous for novices.”

“OK, but how can I circle back on this? Just tell them that I’m going to revisit this because of what I saw yesterday?”

“Yes! I recommend a simple explanation of  relatively prime. That’s the goal, right? The method doesn’t matter if that’s the end result.  And then, here’s a fun question that will startle your top kids. Given “two fourths”, why can we simplify by changing it to 2×1 over 2×2 and ‘canceling out’ the twos, but we can’t simplify by changing it to 1+1 over 1+3 and ‘cancel out’ the ones? Why don’t we tell them to simplify across fractiosn when adding? ”

“Wow. That’s a great question.”

“Yes. Then come up with a good, complicated fraction multiplication example and show them why all these things are true. Make them experience the truth by multiplying, say, 13/42 and 14/65. They might not retain all the information. But here’s what’s important, in my view: they’ll remember that the explanation made sense at the time. They’ll have faith. Furthermore, they’ll see you as an expert, not just someone who’s going through a packet that someone else built for her.”

“Ouch. But that’s how I feel.”

“Even when you’re going through someone else’s curriculum, you have to spend time thinking about the explanation you give, the examples you use. This isn’t a terrible curriculum, I like a lot of it. But fill in gaps as needed. Maybe try a graphic organizer to reinforce key issues.  Also, try mixing it up. Build your own activities that take them through the problems in a different way. Vary it up. You’ve got a good start. The kids trust you. You can push off in new directions.”

I then gave her a brief Promethean tutorial and told her I’d like to  see a lesson with some hands on activities or “cold starts” (activities or problems with no lecture first), if she’s interested in trying.

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Mid-career teachers, like those in any other profession, are going to vary in their desire and interest in improving their game. Twitter and the blogosphere are filled with teachers who write about their practice.  Perusing social media is a much better form of  development than a district coach that isn’t experienced in working with the same population and subject. Conversations with motivated colleagues interested in exploring their practice, but hared to find the time or interested participants.

But  unlike other professions, we teachers are given ample, and often paid, opportunity to be coaches, and not the weak-tea district sorts. Induction and other new teacher programs give us a chance to push others to find their best.  I find these activities also lead me to review and improve my own practice.

If you’re tasked with helping beginning teachers, then really dig in. Challenge them. Encourage them to push back, but do more than ask a few questions. They’ll thank you later. Often, they’ll thank you right away.

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