Category Archives: school leaders

"We Are All Reformers" (Part 3)

So what do I remember of those years in the three Pittsburgh Public Schools I attended? Two non-spoiler alerts to readers about what I experienced in elementary and secondary schools.

The first alert is my fallible memory. Bits and pieces of being in school come back to me albeit in blurred, inexact ways. But those memories persist. Nonetheless, it is not a spoiler to alert readers to the inherent flaws of trying to remember what occurred decades ago. As the Italian writer Primo Levi put it:

Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features.

The second alert is that going to school is only one part of a child’s life—albeit an important one. Multiply 180 days (average number of days the 50 states require school to be in session over past few decades) by the hours that most U.S. students spend in school  (6.5 hours), the total is nearly 1200 hours a year in school.

Consider further that in such a year the child and youth is awake nearly 6,000 hours (subtracting 8 hours of nightly sleep). In other words, in each year, about 80 percent of a student’s life is spent outside of school. This is a round-about way of saying that while tax-supported schooling in a market-driven democracy is essential if for no other reason than granting credentials that are required to complete high school, finish college and enter the workplace with proper pieces of parchment, it takes up about one-fifth of a five year old’s life or a senior’s last year prior to donning robes for graduation.

For readers, then, I note my flawed memory of the stint I spent in elementary and secondary schools and the huge chunk of time I spent in family, neighborhood, and religious institutions outside of school. With these two cautions in mind, I return to what I remember of those experiences between the ages of 5 to 16.

At age five, I was put into first grade. All of the other children who were a year older than me had been in kindergarten–a reform adopted and expanded by Progressive reformers–but I had not attended kindergarten. Somehow either my mother convinced the Minersville principal that I was ready for school or the principal unilaterally decided to assign me there. I was put into a first-grade classroom

I entered the first grade uninitiated in the school and classroom routines that most of my classmates had already absorbed a year earlier. They had been taught to listen to the teacher, obey directions, know when they could talk and when to be quiet. They knew when and how to ask permission of the teacher to go to the bathroom and sharpen their pencil. They had already picked up what schooling teaches the young—what academics call “socialization” or the “hidden curriculum”–that is not in teachers’ lesson plans. Moreover, my classmates already knew the colors of the spectrum, could count to ten, and some were actually reading. I was way behind my peers socially and academically.

While I graduated high school at the age of 16, many classmates and teachers thought I was really smart and had skipped grades. As my elementary and secondary school transcripts document, at best I was average, receiving a lot of  “satisfactory” and “C” grades on my report cards. I was a year or two younger than other students simply because my mother has gotten me into first grade at age five.

Some background on my family might make this precipitous entry into school understandable. My family of five moved from Passaic, N.J. in 1936 (of three sons, I was the youngest at 2, my middle brother was 11, and my eldest brother was 17). Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia, my parents who spoke Russian, Yiddish, and English had a mom-and-pop grocery store that was boycotted by the German-American Bund—a group that had grown quickly in the wake of Adolph Hitler’s becoming Germany’s Chancellor in 1933.

Closed by the boycott, my mother and father moved to Pittsburgh where they had family. We arrived there in the midst of the Great Depression. We found housing in what then was called the Hill District largely inhabited by a mix of some Jewish immigrant and mostly black working and middle-class families. My father, like so many other unemployed, could not find any work until he landed a job with the federal Works Progress Administration. Eventually he found work with a food distributor selling meats, pickles, and diary products off of a rented truck to immigrant-run mom-and-pop stores in Pittsburgh and nearby towns. By this time, my two older brothers were teenagers attending junior and senior high schools in the Hill District and working at odd jobs after school contributing to the family finances.

Across the street from our rented apartment was Minersville Elementary School. Largely black in enrollment—I remember one other white girl in the school—racial encounters occurred outside of school, not inside, as I recall. The first-grade teacher’s major task was to get students to read through phonics. I finally learned to read with understanding by the second or third grade and grasped it like a life preserver growing up. As an elementary and secondary school student, the Carnegie Library in Oakland became my second home.

My memory fails me in recovering experiences from those early years in elementary school. This is not to say that I didn’t absorb parts of the Progressive curriculum. I slowly grasped reading and arithmetic basics.

What I can recall most vividly is my fear and anxiety over not knowing all of the informal rules that my peers practiced without thinking. How to walk single-file in hallways, Lining up at the classroom door to go to the bathroom. Sitting with hands folded at the desk until the teacher told us what to do. Carefully scrawling the shape of individual letters pictured above the black slate boards as an introduction to cursive writing and then more sitting at a desk until the teacher directed us to the next activity. It was a world apart from living with my parents and brothers and roaming the neighborhood. I was scared by all of it.

So I do remember looking around constantly to make sure that I was doing what other six year-olds were doing. Was I anxious? Must have been since even writing down these fragments of memory dredge up feelings of unease, of worrying over being out of sync with others. I quickly picked up the alphabet and putting words together and adding numbers—never learned, however, to tie my shoe laces into bows–but the informal social rules of the classroom and fear of the teacher got to me from time to time. Once I was sent home for soiling my pants. Other times, classmates broke into laughter when I misunderstood the teacher’s request. This is what I remember.  

Outside of school, on upper Center Avenue where black middle-class families had moved out of the lower Hill District, I recall vividly being bitten on the thigh by the German Shepherd of our neighbor—a minister in a nearby black church. I also recall being hit by a Kaufman’s department store truck making a delivery while playing next to the curb and my mother taking me to the nearby hospital. 

At age 7, after the U.S. entered World War II—I remember that Sunday in December and the hushed conversations in our second floor apartment—when the President announced on the radio that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. The next year, we moved to Greenfield, a largely Italian and Irish Catholic neighborhood. There were few Jewish families in the neighborhood. The U.S. Army and Navy had drafted my brothers; they served until the end of the war. I entered the second grade at Roosevelt Elementary School and was there for four years. Whether it was because I was new to the school, Jewish, or some other reason, I heard lots of nasty epithets going to school, during recess, and while sprinting home two blocks once the last bell had rung. When there were fights, I was usually on the losing end.

Whether Roosevelt teachers taught in Progressive ways–encouraging play, curiosity, exploring science, math, and other academic and non-academic subjects–I neither remember nor could put into words those few vague wisps of memory. I do remember an art teacher who encouraged my drawing sufficiently for me to enter radio-sponsored art contests for young children. Didn’t win. I also recall that I knew all of the informal rules of how to behave in the classroom, during recess, and on the playground.While there are adults who look back fondly at their early years in school calling up the very names of their teachers, as much as I ransacked my mind, I cannot call up any names or classroom instances that are memorable.

What I do recall are events that occurred outside of Roosevelt. Since I went to school during World War II, rationing coupons, neighborhood fights and frequent anti-Semitic taunts and epithets come back to me. What eventually saved me was getting polio.

I remember well war-time rationing. Sacrificing for the war effort were lessons I learned in and out of school. Priority goods went to soldiers and sailors—like my brothers–serving in Europe and the Pacific. My parents received monthly ration coupons for meat, sugar, canned items, gasoline, tires, and other items. When our monthly coupons ran out, that was it. I do remember my parents speaking in Russian and Yiddish worrying about what they could and could not get in the remaining days of each month.

Patriotism in supporting the war effort became part of the school curriculum. Students, teachers and parents collected tinfoil from discarded gum and cigarette wrappers and rolled them into balls that we turned in to collection centers. I collected chicken fat from my mother’s kitchen and neighbors as well. My parents gave me a dime weekly to buy saving stamps and later defense bonds at school.

Then in the summer of 1944, a polio epidemic swept the nation and  I got it. But I was lucky. While other children were put into “iron lungs” to stay alive or youngsters had to wear leg braces—as President Roosevelt did–all that I contracted was a damaged left leg where my calf muscle atrophied. I have walked with a limp ever since.

Because polio was a scourge that devastated the young and no one knew how children contracted it, fear of getting it–like a latter-day fear of AIDs in the early 1980s–was omnipresent on Loretta St. When I returned from the hospital. No one came near me. I was in sixth grade preparing to enter a nearby junior-senior high school. I had missed a month of school–and I could barely stand when I returned home in early June. That is what I remember from those years at Roosevelt Elementary School.

During the War, my father had bought his own paneled truck to sell delicatessen products to family owned grocery stores in the city and elsewhere earned enough to fulfill my mother’s dream of moving into a Jewish neighborhood called Squirrel Hill. I was hardly ready to enter the seventh grade at Taylor Allderdice.

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Teacher Platforms (Ben Williamson)

Ben Williamson is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute at the University of Edinburgh. His research traces the connections between educational policy, digital technologies, and practices in schools and universities. He is the author of Big Data in Education: The digital future of learning, policy and practice (Sage, 2017) and over 30 research articles and chapters.

Amazon has launched a new service allowing teachers to sell and buy education resources through its platform.

The massive multinational platform company Amazon has announced a new service allowing teachers to sell lesson plans and classroom resources to other teachers. The service, Amazon Ignite, is moving into a space where Teachers Pay Teachers and TES Teaching Resources have already established markets for the selling and buying of teaching materials. These services have reimagined the teacher as an online content producer, and Amazon has previously dabbled in this area with its Amazon Inspire ‘open educational resources’ service for free resource-sharing. But Amazon Ignite much more fully captures the teaching profession as a commercial opportunity.

The operating model of Amazon Ignite is very simple. Teachers can produce content, such as lesson plans, worksheets, study guides, games, and classroom resources, and upload them as Word, Powerpoint or PDF files using the dedicated Amazon Ignite platform. Amazon then checks the resources to ensure they don’t infringe any copyrights before they appear in the marketplace. In these ways, Amazon is now in the business of ‘shipping’ educational content across the education sector in ways that mirror its wider online commerce model.

Amazon claims the Ignite platform offers a way for teachers to ‘earn money for work you’re already doing’ by paying users 70% royalties on the resources they sell. The company itself will take 30% of the sales, plus a transaction fee of 30 cents for items under $2.99, though it also has discretion to change the price of resources including by discounting the cost to customers. This makes Amazon Ignite potentially lucrative for Amazon as well as for successful vendors on the platform.

Although Ignite is available only in the US in the first instance, the platform exemplifies the current expansion of major multinational tech companies and their platforms into the education sector. The extension of the commercial technology industry into education at all levels and across the globe is set to influence the role of the teacher and the practices of the classroom considerably over coming years.

Teacher brand ambassadors
The edtech industry, and the wider technology sector, are strongly involved in defining the characteristics and qualities of a ‘good teacher’ for the 2020s. While commercial businesses have long sought access to schools, the National Educational Policy Center (NEPC) in the US recently launched a report on teachers as ‘brand ambassadors’:

Corporate firms, particularly those with education technology products, have contracted with teachers to become so-called brand ambassadors. A brand ambassador is an individual who receives some form of compensation or perk in exchange for the endorsement of a product. Unlike celebrity endorsers, teachers can be thought of as ‘micro-influencers’ who give firms access to their network of social influence.

Teacher brand ambassadors, as well as ‘product mentors’, ‘champions’ and ‘evangelists’, have become significant edtech marketing figures. They often use social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, to promote and model the use of specific educational technologies. They might even be involved in the development and testing of new software features and upgrades, as well expenses-paid trips to conferences, summits and trade events where they are expected to attend as representatives of the brand.

The NEPC reported that teacher brand ambassador programs raise significant ethical issues and conflicts of interest, while delivering return on investment to producers when their product is introduced into classrooms and students are exposed to their brand.

As the big tech firms have closed in on education, they have begun to merge the marketing role of the brand ambassador into a professional development role–such as Google’s Certified Educator program. Amazon’s AWS Educate program enables whole institutions to become AWS Educate members, in effect bringing whole institutions into its branded environment. The ‘perks’ include providing educators access to AWS technology, open source content for their courses, training resources, and a community of cloud evangelists, while also providing students credits for hands-on experience with AWS technology, training, and content.

Platform gig teachers
Amazon Ignite, however, represents the next-stage instantiation of the brand ambassador and the teacher as micro-influencer. On Amazon Ignite, teachers are not contracted as platform ambassadors, but invited to become self-branded sellers in a competitive marketplace, setting up shop as micro-edubusinesses within Amazon’s global platform business. Without becoming official brand ambassadors, teachers become gig workers engaging in market exchanges mediated by Amazon’s platform. This in turn requires them to become micro-influencers of their own brands.

So who are the teachers who participate in the Amazon Ignite educational gig economy? Amazon Ignite is ‘invitation-only’ and as such makes highly consequential decisions over the kinds of content and resources that can be purchased and used. This might be understood as high-tech ‘hidden curriculum’ work, with Amazon employees working behind the scenes to make selections about what counts as worthwhile resources and knowledge to make available to the market.

It is not really clear that Amazon Ignite will even empower existing classroom teachers to become content producers and sellers. A brief review of the current ‘featured educators’ on Amazon’s Digital Education Resources page gives an indication of the kind of invited participants who might thrive on Ignite. Most of these appear as established micro-edubusinesses with well-developed brands and product ranges to sell. Amazon offers extensive advice to potential vendors about how to package and present their resources to customers.

[The list of ‘featured educators’ on Amazon Digital Education Resources is at:  https://www.amazon.com/b/ref=dervurl?node=17987895011]

The featured educator Blue Brain Teacher, for example, is the branded identity of a former private education curriculum adviser and Montessori-certified educator, who focuses strongly on ‘brain-based’ approaches including ‘Right-Brain training’. An established vendor on Teachers Pay Teachers, the Blue Brain Teacher also has a presence on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, is a Google Certified Educator, and officially certified to offer training on Adobe products.

Another featured educator, Brainwaves Instruction, also has a glossy website and existing web store of printable resources, a blog featuring thoughts and lesson ideas on mindfulness, growth mindset, and the adolescent brain, and all the social media accounts to amplify the brand.

These and many of the other featured educators on the Amazon Digital Education Resources store give some indication of how the Amazon Ignite market will appear. Many are existing TpT users, active and prolific on social media, have their own well-designed and maintained websites, write blogs, and are highly attentive to their brand identity. Some, such as Education with an Apron, are not limited to the selling of educational resources, but have their own teacher-themed fashion lines such as T-shirts and tote bags (‘I’m the Beyonce of the classroom’). These are teacher gig workers in an increasingly platformized education sector.

Amazon Ignite, at least at this early stage, also seems to be overwhelmingly feminized. Most of its featured educators present themselves through the aesthetics of lifestyle media and family values, as examples such as The Classroom Nook indicate. It suggests the reproduction of a specifically gendered construction of the teacher.

This is balanced, in many cases, with sophisticated social media-style iconography, and significant investment in various technology industry programs. Erintegration, for example, shares resources, lesson plans, reviews, and tips for using iPads, Google Apps, and other devices ‘to engage digital learners in all curriculum areas’, and is already involved in other Amazon programs:

Erintegration is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Erintegration is sometimes provided free services, goods, affiliate links and/or compensations in exchange for an honest review.  All thoughts and options are my own and are not influenced by the company or its affiliates.

Not all the featured educators are single individuals either. Clark Creative Education is a team of educators, authors, designers and editors, whose founder is a ‘top-milestone author on Teachers Pay Teachers’. Amazon Ignite is, then, not simply empowering practising teachers to ‘earn money for work you’re already doing’ but is actively incentivizing the expansion of a market of educational startup content producers.

Children can even be content providers. According to the Terms and Conditions, ‘A parent or guardian of a minor can open a Program account and submit the minor’s Resource-Related Content as the Content Provider’. Given the role of young celebrity micro-influencers on social media, it is possible to speculate here that school children could also establish positions as ‘edu-preneurial’ content producers.

Platform classrooms
All in all, Amazon Ignite is encouraging teachers to see themselves as empowered and branded-up personal edubusinesses operating inside Amazon’s commerce platform. It is easy to see the attraction in the context of underfunded schools and low teacher pay. But it also brings teachers into the precarious conditions of the gig economy. These educators are gig workers and small-scale edu-startup businesses who will need to compete to turn a profit. Rather than making select teachers into brand ambassadors for its platform, Amazon is bringing teacher-producers and education startups on to its platform as content producers doing the labour of making, uploading and marketing resources for royalty payments. It expands platform capitalism to the production, circulation and provision of classroom resources, and positions Amazon as an intermediary between the producers and consumers in a new educational market.

By making selections about which educators or businesses can contribute to Ignite, Amazon is also making highly significant and opaque decisions about the kind of educational content made available to the teacher market. The criteria for inclusion on Amazon Ignite are unclear. What kind of educational standards, values, or assumptions underpin these choices? Curriculum scholars have long talked about the ways aspects of culture and knowledge are selected for inclusion in school syllabi, textbooks and resources. Amazon is now performing this function at a distance through its selection of educational content creators and market vendors.

Over time, Amazon Ignite is likely to produce hierarchies of vendors, since Amazon claims the Ignite resources will show up in search results. This raises the prospect of algorithmic recommendations based on a combination of vendor popularity and users’ existing purchases—a ‘recommended for you’ list tailored to teachers’ search and purchase histories. The Terms and Conditions specify that Amazon ‘will have sole discretion in determining all marketing and promotions related to the sale of your Resources through the Program and may, without limitation, market and promote your Resources by permitting prospective customers to see excerpts of your Resources in response to search queries’.

Moreover, Amazon claims ‘sole ownership and control of all data obtained from customers and prospective customers in connection with the Program’, thereby gaining the advantage of using buyer and seller data to potentially further maximize its platform profitability.

Amazon Ignite anticipates an increasingly close alignment of classrooms and platforms in coming years. ‘As with social media platforms in the 2000s, educational platform providers will be working to expand the scope of their “walled gardens” to encompass as many user practices as possible’, argue the authors of a recent article outlining likely trends in education technology in the 2020s. Along with Amazon’s ongoing attempts to embed its Alexa voice assistant in schools and universities, Amazon Ignite has now further expanded the walls of Amazon’s huge commerce platform to enclose the education sector. Amazon is inciting educators to become platform teachers whose labour in platform classrooms is a source of profit under platform capitalism.

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How the Other Half Learns: A Review (Part 3)

Robert Pondiscio’s book is about Success Academies, a highly praised and critiqued charter school network in New York City. Once connected to those urban schools called “No Excuses’–a term that founder Eva Moskowitz hates (p.52)–How the Other Half Learns enters the highly-charged arena of fiery reform rhetoric over publicly-funded urban charter schools that has raged for the past two decades. *

Boosters and opponents of charter schools have argued incessantly over their effectiveness compared to regular public schools (e.g., test scores, degree of innovativeness) and broadening parental choice (e.g., give poor and minority families a choice in schools beyond the one in the neighborhood). Using public funds for charters, critics have said, drained scarce monies away from regular public schools and encouraged the privatization of a public good (see here , here, and here).

Pondiscio’s book becomes fuel for one side or the other in this continuing rancorous struggle over charter schools.**

What this book is clear on is that Success Academies screen parents. Only those parents who can adhere to strict school requirements can have their children enter the lottery for kindergarten and higher grades. Success Academies do not “cream”students from public schools; they select parents who want their sons and daughters to be safe, challenged academically, follow the rules, and achieve academically. There are many parents who want exactly what Success Academies offer. And parents have to work hard in getting their children to accept Bronx 1’s routines and demands.

In many cases, parents cannot abide by the dress code, “color-coded behavioral charts, codes of conduct, data walls with children’s reading levels…” Such a demanding school culture “leave no room for doubt about what is expected, praised, or frowned upon (p. 329).” As a result, only about half of those parents who win the lottery eventually enroll their children in the school (p. 332).

Students of parents willing to accept this kind of school are enthusiastic, engaged and, clearly competent to meet the high bar of many requirements. To have such highly motivated parents send their sons and daughters to Success Academies surely boost students’–they are called “scholars”– motivation to do well in school. “It would be dishonest,” Pondiscio writes, “to pretend that Success Academy is not a self-selection engine….” (p. 333). If this is “creaming” as charter school critics allege, Pondiscio says, so be it. He asks further whether minority and low-income parents who want such schools should not have access to them. Do they not have the right to go to schools of their choice as suburban and wealthier parents seek out? Pondiscio says they do. And I agree.

What is troubling about the story that Pondiscio tells are the facts of student dropouts from kindergarten through 12th grade (Success Academy High School graduated it first class in 2018). Of the 73 elementary school students, “only sixteen remained” to accept the diploma (p. 160). Also see here.

Critics claim that Success Academies’ sloughing off of “scholars” explains large test score gains and high student performance. Pondiscio counters by offering one study of New York City school transfer rates arguing that mobility rates are high among low-income families. He cites figure that Success Academies retained more students than city schools do. I was unconvinced by that one study. There are many reasons for students leaving these schools and surely other factors deserve respectful attention.

Finally, there is the matter of whether such a demanding culture of behavioral management, direct instruction, and one common curriculum prepare 8th graders for high school and, later, for college. Pondiscio writes that it will take “decades” to determine such outcomes. Perhaps. Success Academy leaders, however, can do more more than wait.

The author cites the KIPP experience and notes that student data after high school and college enrollment has been tracked and the low percentages of college completion have spurred KIPP to build an infrastructure of ongoing support after high school with college counselors, mentors, and tutoring. Success Academy, Pondiscio writes, “has no plans to create a similar program” (p.163).

Overall, this ex-teacher’s in-depth study of one Success Academy in New York City written in clear, richly detailed prose paints a complex school with high expectations for student achievement and behavior flowing from teachers, administrators, and parents. Such schools have high attrition among students and teachers and faces dilemmas that can only be managed rather than solved. This is not a school for all low-income, minority parents but it is one that attracts mothers and fathers who want structures, norms, safety, and solid academic achievement from their sons and daughters. So far, Bronx 1 provides that to its “scholar’s” and parents.

Moreover, Pondiscio believes that Bronx 1 is a “great” school. The author meets a couple who have applied to kindergartens in 47 charter schools in NYC. Bronx 1 is at the top of their list. They attended an orientation meeting and Langston, their five year-old son, was accepted. He arrived on the first day of school with parents in tow. On the steps of the school the parents and Pondiscio and begin talking to one another. One parent is a NYC special education teacher and the other drives tourist buses in Manhattan. They discover that Pondiscio is writing a book about his year at the school. The father asks Pondiscio if the school is “good.” The author replies: “It’s a great school… You’re really lucky” (p. 337).

Surely, the author is correct that the parents lucked out in getting their son into the Success Academy kindergarten. Whether Langston will survive and thrive through high school, given the previous high attrition rates is another story for another time. Yes, the school is “great” in Pondiscio’s judgment. But “great” for all parents? All children? Probably not.

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*Readers who wish to read other reviews of How the Other Half Learns, see here, here, here, and here.

**My position is that publicly-funded charter schools are here to stay and overall they offer choices to parents who previously lacked alternatives to neighborhood schools.

As for for-profit charters, they should be excluded from receiving public funds. State and local regulation of charters to deter academically and financially bankrupt schools and networks from continued operation using public funds is also a must. Nonetheless, poor and working class parents should have access to different kinds of schools than the one down the block much as economically well-off parents have choices.

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“How the Other Half Learns:” A Review (Part 2)

What happens inside classrooms remains beneath the notice of education policymakers and pundits. I have long believed that this indifference to curriculum and instruction is a significant impediment to progress.

Robert Pondiscio, How the Other Half Learns, p. 10

Inside classrooms is where teachers, students, curriculum, and instruction gel into lessons and daily activities. Pondiscio describes both Success Academy’s curriculum and instruction in great detail in selected classrooms. Teacher moves, academics, and emotions interact seamlessly as kindergarteners sit in circles on rugs and 4th graders struggle with or zip through math worksheets, according to the author. Pondiscio does readers a favor by describing in detail lessons he endorsed and ones he found disturbing.

While I separate curriculum from instruction in describing them in this part of the book review, anyone familiar with classrooms knows that they are joined at the hip in every lesson that teachers teach.

There is a single Success Academy curriculum that founder and director Eva Moskowitz expects principals and faculties in each one of the 47 schools to follow and use in daily lessons. It is this set curriculum and mode of instruction that, according to Pondiscio, accounts for the consistently high test scores registered by schools in the network (including intense preparation in the weeks before the state tests).

As Pondiscio observes most curriculum in schools is left to teachers to pick and choose from. “The default curriculum in American education, at least in elementary and middle school,” he says, “is simply stuff teachers find on the Internet (p. 144).” Not at Success Academy.

When Dacia Toll, the founder of Achievement First, another high-achieving charter network, and a group of teachers visited Success Academy to find out how and why they do so well on test scores the observers concluded that one key piece was the prescribed curriculum. Toll said:

“I remember just looking at the texts that were in front of the kids. The poetry, the literature, the nonfiction….It was both high rigor and high engagement. She [referring to Moskowitz] was Common Core before we knew about Common Core” (p.172).”

The prescribed curriculum merges with the singularity of how each classroom looks the same and how teachers are expected to teach.

“Walk into a Success Academy anywhere in New York and you will see the same rugs and furniture, the same posters on the wall,” Pondiscio writes (p. 145). But the classrooms do not only look the same, “they sound (original italics) the same….Children read in ‘2-2-2′ (two feet on the floor, two hands on the book, two eyes on the page) Teachers don’t discuss; they “discourse.’ They set the level of classroom conversations at ‘zero noise’ or ‘restaurant level.’ After giving instructions, teachers frequently check for understanding, asking in Italian, ‘Capisce.’ Thirty-odd children invariably repeat in unison, and not in Italian, ‘Caposh.’ The curriculum, culture, routines, and pedagogy are so consistent that if a student attended a different campus every day of the week, she might not miss a beat (p. 146).”

Pondiscio describes lessons where direct instruction mixed with student participation in planned activities under the watchful eye of the teacher unfold. While most of the lessons the author observes show nicely how content, skills, pedagogy, and managed student behavior are thoroughly integrated, some lessons are bumpy.

Second grade teacher Elena Ortiz is having a difficult time. In her Hunter College room [all classrooms are named after the teacher’s alma mater]. She is “lead” teacher for the three second grade classrooms. Often becoming a lead teacher ends up in a promotion to school post in another Success Academy. Ortiz has a large number of difficult students assigned to her class. A particularly challenging seven year old boy, Adama. is missing today. Pondiscio describes the lesson Ortiz is teaching.

Things are ragged and rough….noticeably so compared with the others I’ve seen. She struggles to keep her students focused and engaged, and unlike in nearly every other classroom, there is no full-time assistant teacher in the room to help her maintain order. [With class sizes around 30, Success Academy classrooms ordinarily have two teachers]. When she sends the children to their desks to get pencils and their whiteboards to lean on while they complete a worksheet on capital letters and punctuation, they don’t move with the crispness and purpose of the other classrooms. They dawdle, vibrate, and bounce off one another, oblivious to Ortiz’s narration and small corrections. One girl gets a demerit for talking. ‘Every transition we do is silent,’ Ortiz tells the class. But it takes several un-silent minutes before the class is settled back on the rug with whiteboards in their laps and pencils resting on the black lines bordering each square, as their teacher had instructed, with name and date on their papers. ‘Ten more seconds for name and date, then I expect you to have your hands locked on your whiteboard and your eyes on me.’ Those ten seconds drift well past a minute, even as Ortiz continues to narrate, praising compliance, giving out occasional warnings and marks and growing frustrated. ‘Whoever is tapping their whiteboards needs to stop!’ she says curtly before finally launching her lesson.’Each of the sentences has a problem,’ she begins. ‘You guys are writing detectives. You’re going to tell me what’s wrong with each of these sentences’ (pp. 68-69).

While Pondiscio describes many classroom lessons, particularly of teachers he admires for their creating a culture where student attention, engagement, and behavior are both obvious and consistent with the goals of Success Academy, the intersection of curriculum, instruction–including behavioral management–merge in a single lesson, albeit a rocky one, in a second-grade classroom.

A strength of this book, then, is its close attention to teaching and curriculum and how both are crucial to any determination of “success” or “failure” in a school or network of charter schools.

Shortly before Thanksgiving break, without notice to anyone, Elena Ortiz quits.

There are, however, soft spots, vulnerabilities to this well-written and attentive book, that I take up in the final post on this book.

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Design Tech High School (Part 1)

It is 8:30 AM. I am standing with 30 faculty and staff meeting in a circle in a large room called the Design Realization Garage (more about this space below). This is a daily faculty meeting. Everyone is standing and as Melissa Mizel, Director of the school, holding an open laptop in one hand, makes announcements, describes activities that will be occur during the day, and then asks assembled group if individuals have anything to add. A few teachers speak up: one needs a projector in 205, another announces a special activity in a class, and the counselor tells the group which colleges will be on campus today. Just a few minutes shy of 8:45, Melissa asks for any more announcements. There are none and she says “we are adjourned.” every person in the circle turns to the next person and gives a high five. The stand-up faculty meeting is over.

Design Tech High School, hereafter d.tech, is a charter high school in the San Mateo Union High School District. Students are admitted by lottery. Authorized as a charter in 2014, the school has moved quarters three times, the last occurring in 2018 when they moved into a new building located on the campus of Oracle, a for-profit technology company.  The high school cost $43 million to build and Oracle agreed to lease the building to the charter school for one dollar a year. While d.tech has its own school board and is independently operated, this is the first public high school located on a corporate site.*

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Students participated in the design of the building. You enter the school into a well-lit, expansive atrium that is the centerpiece and assembly hall for student gatherings, lecturers, and classes.

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Hallways are broad, lit by both natural and artificial light, and places where students work in small groups and independently. Tables, desks, cushions are arrayed in these spaces which also have alcoves.

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Then there is the Design Realization Garage, a two-story, 6,000square feet of workshop space devoted to teachers and students designing projects, building prototypes, and making things.

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The D.tech building houses about 550 students. Admittance to the school is by lottery with priority given to families residing in Sequoia Union and San Mateo Union high school districts. For students living outside of those districts, a long waiting list is available.

Demographically in 2018, the largest racial group is white (48 percent) followed by Asian and Filipino (24 percent), Latino (14 percent), African American and multi-racial (13 percent). Females are 42 percent of the enrollment. Fifteen percent of the students are poor as measured by families who qualify for free and reduced price lunch. Ten percent of students are identified as special education. I could find no data on percentage of students who are English Language Learners.

Insofar as academic achievement on standardized tests, data are limited. On state standardized tests, d.tech students scored 71 percent proficient (state average is 49 percent) and in math d.tech students were 62 percent proficient (state average 38 percent). For the two standardized tests for college admissions, the average highest score for the SAT was 1270 and for the ACT was 26.  Seventy-seven percent enter four-year institutions and 16 percent go to two-year community colleges.

What draws students to this charter school is its commitment to design principles anchored in intellectual analysis of problem finding and solving and empathy for those who seek solutions to their problems. D.tech’s mission is clearly stated:

We believe that the world can be a better place
and that our students can be the ones to make it happen.

And design thinking makes that mission concrete, according to Ken Montgomery, co-founder and Executive Director of the school,

“Design Thinking is not just a human-centered problem solving process. It is also a capacity building strategy. By teaching design thinking all four years at d.tech, students are able to identify and solve problems, develop a sense of optimism and self-efficacy, and have creative impact on their environment to make the world a better place.”

So the three stand-up faculty meetings that I attended with announcements of special events and details about the daily program ending with the high-five hand slaps at first seemed far removed from the mission of the school. As Montgomery told me, these meetings reflect a “bias toward action” which is part of the design thinking philosophy driving the school and linked to the school’s goals. Because there are (and have been) many changes in program, staff requested that there be daily meetings to “get an update on anything new for the day.”

Connecting this mission and goals to program features such as offering an Innovation Diploma along with the traditional high school one, scheduled Lab Days every week, two week Intersessions, and a competency-based grading system became clearer to me as I spent time in classrooms, hallways, and advisories.. Subsequent posts take up classroom lessons and each of these program pieces.

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*While there have been private schools established by Henry Ford, Elon Musk,  and others to train and educate children and youth as Natasha Singer reports, an independently operated public high school on a corporate site is unique…thus far.

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Breaking the Cycle of Reforming Again and Again (Thomas Hatch)

In a recent article in International Education News, Professor Tom Hatch, Teachers College, Columbia, offered a reasonable and do-able way for policymakers,  parents, and voters to outflank the seemingly inevitable cycle of school reform that researchers, policy analysts, and historians of education have documented for decades. Hatch sets out ideas that prompt questions about which reforms best fit the particular setting. These ideas are anchored deeply in historical and contemporary policy making. The questions Hatch proposes flow from these ideas and can (and must) be asked of policy makers, researchers, political officials, and donors or anyone proposing the next best reform in school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction.

Such questions need to be asked openly. And answers need to come from those who have the authority and money to put proposed reforms into practice.

 

…. Building on Cuban’s work with his colleagsue David Tyack in Tinkering Toward Utopia  and further analyses by David Cohen and Jal Mehta in “Why reform sometimes succeed”, my colleagues and I have been looking at some of the reasons that so many policies and reform initiatives fail to produce the fundamental changes in schools and classrooms that they seek. In a nutshell, this work suggests that too often the goals, capacity demands, and values of reform proposals do not match the common needs, existing capabilities, and dominant values in the schools and districts they are supposed to help.

Admittedly, this is a simple heuristic, but it provides one quick way to anticipate some implementation challenges and to explain how reform initiatives evolve. Although this example is drawn from the US, the basic approach to identifying the challenges of improvement and implementation can be applied in many settings outside the US as well.

Is there a fit between reform proposals and the needs, capabilities and values “on the ground”?

 Asking a succinct set of questions provides one quick way to gauge the “fit” between reform proposals and the conditions in the schools and communities where those proposals are supposed to be implemented:

  • How widely shared is the “problem” that the initiative is supposed to address?
  • What has to change for the initiative to take hold in schools and classrooms to have an impact?
  • To what extent do teachers, administrators and schools have the capabilities they need to make the changes?
  • How likely is it that the key ideas and practices of the initiative will be consistent with socio-cultural, technological, political, and economic trends in the larger society?

What’s the problem the initiative is designed to solve and who has “it”?

When problems are widely shared by many of the stakeholders involved, initiatives that address those problems are more likely to be seen as necessary and worth pursuing – a key indicator of whether those “on the ground” are likely to do what the initiative requires.  

In the case of the teacher evaluation reforms, proposals for changing evaluation procedures grew along with concerns that the emphases on accountability and teacher quality in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 were not yielding the desired improvements in outcomes in reading and mathematics (which was also predictable even before NCLB passed into law but that’s a different blog post…). Those concerns came together with increasing interest in looking at growth in student learning through “value-added” measurement approaches and with the observation popularized by the New Teacher Project’s report on “The Widget Effect” that almost all teachers were given satisfactory evaluation ratings.

For whom was the system of teacher evaluation a problem? Policymakers, funders, and some administrators seized upon teacher evaluation as a critical problem. These “policy elites”, however, are those primarily engaged with managing the education system; but “fixing” teacher evaluation did not appear to be at the top of the list of concerns for many teachers, parents, and students, or for major stakeholder groups like teachers’ unions. As a consequence, considerable resistance should have been expected.

What has to change? To what extent do teachers, principals, and schools have the capabilities to make the changes?

The more complicated and demanding the changes are, the more difficult they will be to put in place.  Simply put, the likelihood of implementing a policy or improvement initiative effectively drops the more steps and the more convoluted the plan; the more time, money, resources, and people involved; and the more that everyday behaviors and beliefs have to change.

At a basic level, the “logic” of the teacher evaluation reforms seemed fairly straightforward:

If we create better estimates of teacher quality and create more stringent evaluation systems…

…. Then education leaders can provide better feedback to teachers, remove ineffective teachers, reward more effective teachers…

… And student learning/outcomes will improve

However, by unpacking exactly what has to happen for these results to be achieved, the complications and predictable difficulties quickly become apparent.  Among the issues:

  • New instruments have to be created, criteria agreed upon, new observation & assessments deployed, and trainings developed
  • Principals/observers have to have time for training and to carry out observations/assessments
  • Principals and other observers have to be able to give meaningful feedback,
  • Teachers need to be able to change their instruction in ways that yields measurable improvements on available assessments of student performance

Of course, these developments are supposed to take place in every single school and district covered by the new policy, and, at the school and classroom level, these new procedures, observation criteria, and feedback mechanisms have to be developed for every teacher, at every level, in every subject.

In addition to highlighting the enormity of the task, this analysis also makes visible critical practical and logistical issues. In this case, for example, the new evaluation procedures are supposed to be based to a large extent on measuring growth of student learning on standardized tests. Yet, the policy is also supposed to apply to the many teachers who do not teach “tested subjects” and for whom standardized tests are not adequate for assessing student learning and development.

But even if all the logistical and practical problems are addressed, to be effective, the policy still requires administrators and teachers to develop new skills and knowledge: Administrators have to improve their ability to observe instruction and to provide meaningful feedback (in many different subjects/levels); Teachers have to know how to use that feedback to make appropriate changes in their instruction that lead to improved performance on available measures. Further, even if administrators were able to put in place new evaluation procedures and develop the capabilities to deploy them, using the results to sanction or reward individual teachers conflicts with the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and norms of behavior in many schools.

(Among others, Michael McShane draws on Pressman & Wildasky’s 1984 book Implementation to highlight the issues related to reform complexity; David Cohen, Jim Spillane, and Don Peurach have written extensively about the need to develop a much stronger “infrastructure” to support the development of educator’s knowledge and skills and to improve instruction across classrooms and schools; and Rick Hess cites James Q. Wilson’s work to stress the difficulty in counteracting local incentives and prevailing institutional cultures.)

How do the proposed changes fit with the values, trends, developments at the time?

Changes proposed that reflect enduring values as well as the socio-cultural, political, technological, and economic trends can take off in concert with other developments in society.  Conversely, conflicts over basic values and shifts in trends can also mean that support and public opinion may wane relatively quickly before changes have time to take root.

In this case, the teacher evaluation policies evolved as conflicting trends were emerging. On the one hand, the new approaches to teacher evaluation fit with long-standing concerns about the efficiency of education as well as with the development of new technologies, new approaches to data use, and interest in performance accountability among leaders in business, government and other fields. On the other hand, those policies also had to be implemented in a context where concerns about academic pressure and the extent of testing were growing among many parents and educators and where advocates for local control of education were becoming more concerned and more vocal about their opposition to the development of the Common Core Learning Standards.

What would you predict?

This quick survey provides one view of the challenges faced by efforts to change teacher evaluations:

  • A lack of a shared problem
  • Requirements for massive, complex, and coordinated changes at every level of the education system
  • Demands for the development of new knowledge, skills, attitudes and norms of behavior
  • In a context of conflicting trends and values

Under these circumstances, the prognosis for effective implementation was never good.  Of course, the hope was that the new policies could kick-start or set in motion many of the desired changes that could encourage the kinds of interactions between administrators and teachers that would improve student learning. Given the challenges laid out here, the fact that some aspects of teacher evaluations across the US appear to have changed could be seen as remarkable. In fact, the NCTQ report makes clear that states and districts did respond to the policies.  In particular, many more states are now requiring multiple observations of some or all teachers and more than half of all states now require that all teachers get annual summative feedback.

However, the NCTQ report also explains that elements of the policy critical to the basic logic are falling by the wayside. Ten states have dropped requirements for using “objective evidence of student learning” (though 2 states have added such a requirement), and “No fewer than 30 states have recently withdrawn at least one of the evaluation reforms that they adopted during a flurry of national activity between 2009 and 2015.” The Education Week coverage also notes that states like New Mexico have rolled back tough accountability provisions. New Mexico had instituted a student-growth score that accounted for 50% of a teacher’s overall rating but has since dropped that requirement after “more than a quarter of the state’s teachers were labeled as ‘minimally effective’ or ‘ineffective.’ Educators (including highly rated teachers) hated the system, with some burning their evaluations in protest in front of the state education department’s headquarters.”

Notably, this analysis also highlights that the policies were largely indirect: The were esigned to develop an elaborate apparatus to measure teacher’s performance – with the hope that those changes would eventually affect instruction. Yet there was relatively limited investment in figuring out specifically what teachers could do to improve and the kind of feedback and support that would make those improvements possible. Under these circumstances, one could anticipate that many districts and schools would make some effort to introduce new observation and evaluation procedures, but that those new procedures would be grafted onto old ones, shedding the most complicated and controversial propositions in the process (providing another example of what Tyack and Cuban describe as a process of “schools changing reforms”).

The lesson from all this is not for the advocates to lament this rollback or the critics to revel in it.  Nor is it to abandon ambitious visions for rethinking and transforming the school system we have because the work that needs to be done is difficult or controversial.  The point is to use our knowledge and understanding of why changing schools is so difficult so that we can design improvement initiatives that take the predictable stumbling blocks into account.  It means building common understanding of the key problems that need to be addressed, coming to terms with the concrete changes that have to be made in classrooms and schools, and building the capacity to make those changes over time.

 

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School Principals I Have Known

Although I have never served as a principal, I have been a student under three elementary and secondary school principals and worked for six high school principals as a teacher. As a district superintendent, I supervised and evaluated nearly 35 elementary and secondary school principals. Since the 1980s, as part of school-based research studies I have completed, I observed at least 20 different principals do this crucial (and often overlooked) job. So from below as a student, above as a superintendent, and next to as a researcher, I have seen principals up close and personal.

I have written in this blog about the core roles that principals must perform (see here, here, and here). In this post, I describe my experiences with one of those six principals I worked—I was going to write “under”–but decided that a better word for my experience with Oliver Deex is “with.” Those years with Deex helped shape me intellectually, grounded me in practical classroom experience, and gave me a perspective on school reform. How common my experience as a teacher was with this unusual man, I do not know.

First, some personal background.

I was the third son of Russian immigrants. I saw that my brothers who had to work during the Great Depression to provide family income and then serve the country in World War II lacked the chances that I had simply because I was born in the 1930s and they were born in the 1920s. Because sheer chance made me the youngest, I did not serve in World War II; because I had polio as a child, I could not serve in the Korean War. So I finished college in Pittsburgh and became a teacher in the mid-1950s, landing a job on Cleveland’s East side. I had been hired to teach high school history a few days before Labor Day–the traditional end of the summer and beginning of school. I hurriedly packed and drove to Cleveland.

Meeting with Oliver Deex, Glenville High School’s new principal at a local deli the weekend before school opened in 1956, was a new experience for me. I had never met with a principal one-on-one since I was a student in high school and the reasons then had nothing to do with my teaching responsibilities.

Talking with Deex, I was startled to find out that the school was over 95 percent black—the word then was Negro—and that he, too, was a tad nervous moving into his first high school principalship after leading a nearby junior high school. He told me  about segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the expanding black ghetto on the East side and the pristine white ghetto on the West side with the Cuyahoga River separating the two. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the city’s numerous ethnic and racial ghettos.

Although I had grown up in Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, my memories of being one of a handful of white children in the neighborhood  elementary school were unpleasant and not calculated to instill sensitivity. Moreover, in 1955, I saw the popular film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Glenn Ford as an idealistic high school teacher—yes, I identified with Ford—and Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier as cunning adolescents smoking in bathrooms and becoming lethal toward teachers such as Ford. The film shook me up as did the music: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” played loud and continuously throughout the film.

Haltingly, I asked him questions about how many classes I would be teaching—five, he said. How large the classes were—between 25-30, he said. Then, he asked questions of me since he knew nothing about his new hire which is why he invited me to the deli. I told him about my background and eagerness to teach history. From that initial conversation with Deex, a working relationship evolved  between  a principal in his late-50s  and a 21 year-old rookie teacher.

In the first few years, I was a politically and intellectually naïve teacher pushing my unvarnished passion for teaching history onto urban students bored with traditional lectures and seatwork. At Glenville High School, I designed new lessons and materials in what was then called Negro history (see here). My success in engaging many (but not all) students in studying the past emboldened me to think that sharp, energetic teachers (yes, like me) creating and using can’t-miss history lessons could solve the problem of disengaged black youth. My principal supported my efforts by getting me a ditto machine, paper, and speaking to downtown district officials about what I was doing.

A former stock broker who after the crash of 1929 turned to education to support his family, got his degrees, taught, and then entered school-site administration, Oliver Deex was a voracious reader,  charming conversationalist, and skeptical of district office policies aimed at school improvement. I was a college graduate but had never seen Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others magazines. Why he took this interest in me, I have, until this very day, no idea. But he did.

His insistent questioning of my beliefs and ideas and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching. Our monthly get-togethers to discuss books and articles left me with a great hunger for ideas and intellectual growth the rest of my life. And not only me.

Deex often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing more and more Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. This group of teachers and one counselor stayed together as an informal group for the seven years I taught at Glenville and even morphed into a social group around making investments and bringing spouses into the mix of teachers.

Oliver Deex took an intellectual interest in me and supported me in my efforts to get a masters in history, apply for a one-year fellowship at Yale, and scrounged funds from the school budget and downtown officials to advance what I was doing in my classes.

Today, Deex would be called a “mentor.” He supported, prodded, and encouraged a young teacher to grasp ideas and apply them to life and teaching. It was not part of his job description and surely went unnoticed by his superiors. But it had enormous influence on my life and career.

I suspect that many principals across the country do the same with rookie teachers today. I hope that those teachers would honor their mentors as I do here in this post.

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