Category Archives: school reform policies

East Side Prep Not “Going to Scale” and Why (Part 2 1/2)

In the last post, I wrote about a private non-profit school located in East Palo Alto (CA), a predominatly Latino and African American city across the expressway from affluent Palo Alto. East Side Prep is a high school that by all conventional measures is a success. Such successful schools, dependent on private donors to underwrite student tuition and the overall cost of running a day and residential program, often get pressured to clone themselves elsewhere.

Yet for the 22 years since it was founded it has remained–and grown–where it is. No satellite schools. No franchisees. It did not scale up in the familiar manner that a Christo Rey–a chain of private Jesuit schools have. Nor has East Side Prep gone the way of charter school networks as KIPP, Aspire, Green Dot, and YES Prep.*

So I wondered why.

In the original post, I said:

I am not suggesting that ESP copy such franchising in going to scale. I have not discussed it with Chris and Helen at all. For all I know, they and their Board may well be following a non-scaling up approach. That is, a successful school hangs in—continues to improve it self and avoids cloning. ESP fills the need for better schooling in an area that lacks such successful schools, and leaves it at that. Opposite to scaling up is hanging in and not looking to replicate what one is already doing well.

My hunch is that Chris and Helen have been approached many times by donors and others to spread what they have done in East Palo Alto. Generous givers may want more ESPs. So why no clones of ESP? Why haven’t Chris and Helen journeyed forth and spread ESP seeds elsewhere?

I can only speculate but to create another ESP with its history in the neighborhood, its many moving parts in a complex program, a stable and experienced faculty, continuous neighborhood support, and enduring leadership is neither easy to duplicate nor worth doing since these leaders would not be able to continue their work at ESP as they have for over two decades. Hanging in as a strategy and continuing good work with teachers and students in an under-resourced neighborhood is surely seen as inefficient by those who tout scaling up. f it works here, let’s do it everywhere. There is, however, no one best way to school those who want to be the first in their families to go to college. East Side Prep is only one and very hard to reproduce in a different setting with different leaders.

Before I had written the post, I had contacted Chris Bischof, one of the school’s founders to ask why. He responded November 10, 2017 so I am updating the previous post with what he said about scaling up.

We have had several donors in the past ask us to “scale up” by either increasing our enrollment and/or starting similar schools in other communities. Our general response is that we still have so much work to do at our current site. As we always say, it’s definitely a work in progress and we’ve chosen to focus all of our efforts on continuing to improve the quality and rigor of our program each year. We have also “scaled up” over the years by expanding the scope of our program. I guess you can say that rather than adding more students per grade, we chose to take a more longitudinal approach by supporting students all the way through college and onto successful careers. We are committed to making sure that our students’ hard work at Eastside will pay off for them long-term. I’d be happy to talk with you more about this if you have any further questions.


*Readers have pointed out to me that in the San Francisco Bay area are highly touted charter schools serving a similar population that East Side Prep serves. Envision Schools and Leadership Public Schools both founded in 2002 have three schools in each of their networks. It seems that these two charter networks are equally as sensitive to the perils of “scaling up” after 15 years as is East Side Prep.



Filed under school reform policies

Scaling Up: The Story of East Side Prep (Part 2)

East Side Prep is a private, non-profit school located in East Palo Alto (CA). Founded in 1996 by Chris Bischof and Helen Kim, Stanford University graduates, the school has aimed at serving low-income minority students who will be the first in their family to attend college. East Side Prep has grown from a class of eight ninth graders to a secondary school serving over 300 students including a residential component. Demographics capture the intent and reach of the school.*






The cost is $19,000 for a day student or $29,000 for a residential student. No student or family pays that amount. Donors–individual (85%) and corporate (15%)–pay the full tuition for each student with each family contributing at least $250 a year. Also each family is expected to volunteer at least 20 hours a year at the school.**

The multi-faceted program includes a heavy academic load, arts and humanities offerings, after-school competitive sports, and much tutorial and remedial help including a full summer term (see here, here, here, and here)


With over 30 full- and part-time faculty, most of whom are veteran teachers who have taught at ESP for up to a decade or more, there is much stability in the staff. At one Open House I attended on October 19, 2017, six of these veteran teachers spoke of how they came to ESP and why they have stayed as long as they have and the closeness of the faculty in working together to solve problems.


The curricular focus in all disciplines is on academic preparation for the rigors of college, and
emphasizes critical reading, expository writing, research methodology, and mathematical
problem solving. The academic course plan all students take meets the University of California
and California State University a-g admissions requirements, and all students complete
coursework that exceeds the requirements for UC/CSU freshman admissions.
Students are untracked with the exception of math and Spanish, for which tracking is based on
entering algebra preparation and native language designation. All students are required to take
four years of the following: English, including AP English Language in their junior year; laboratory
science, with either AP Physics, Advanced Chemistry, or Advanced Biology in their senior year;
mathematics, ending in AP Calculus (AB or BC), AP Statistics, or Pre-calculus/Statistics; and
Spanish with the exception of native speakers who finish their 3rd year in AP Spanish Literature
as juniors. Students take a year of World History, U.S. History, and a semester each of AP U.S.
Government and AP Microeconomics.
Students enroll in College Readiness courses in their 10th, 11th and 12th grade years for skill
development, test preparation, and senior college prep, a course in which seniors complete their
college applications and prepare to transition to college.
In the senior year, students also take Senior Research Institute (SRI), a research and writing based
course that culminates in a 25-page research paper and a 30-minute presentation of research….
In addition to computer science, Eastside offers a variety of electives including fitness,yearbook,
art and photography, drama, piano, band, and choral ensemble. Sports options include basketball,
soccer, volleyball, track and field, cross-country, weightlifting, and strength and conditioning.
A variety of student clubs, such as robotics, Student Council, and the community service club,
Interact, foster community building as they give students a chance to assume leadership roles on
campus. There is an emphasis and a connection in all of these activities to the mission of the
school and the importance of high standards


In addition, there is a Resource Program for students who need extra support–the school estimates 10-20 percent of students need such help. A faculty Advisory system began in 2001 that brings each teacher with a group of students together to meet regularly in each of the four years students will be at ESP including scheduled Advisory lunches between a student and his or her Advisor. (For video reports of teachers, students, and program, see here, here, and here)

There is much more that I can describe about the school’s residence program, the athletics, the ups-and-downs, yes even an outstanding school has problems that the administration, staff, and parents work on continuously and together. But I won’t. Readers can refer to above links for more information about the school from local sources and the school’s website.

Going to Scale

The fact of the matter is that this is an extraordinarily “successful” school by conventional measures. Donors have supported the school year in and out. Working class parents in East Palo Alto and nearby neighborhoods seek entry for their sons and daughters. ESP has graduated seniors who go on to college and earn a degree in numbers that most high school principals and faculties can only admire and respect.

This school has existed for 22 years. There is no other ESP in adjoining neighborhoods and other cities. It is one of a kind.

Yet other private non-profit schools aimed at a similar population have spread their work to other cities such as the Jesuit created Christo Rey that began in 1996 on the South Side of Chicago and since then a secondary school network network of 32 schools across 21 states and the District of Columbia. Combining a rigorous academic curriculum with students paid to work through a Corporate Work Study Program, donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have given large sums of money to spread the network. Each of these schools is locally owned and operated with a national office helping individual schools stay true to the model.

I am not suggesting that ESP copy such franchising in going to scale. I have not discussed it with Chris and Helen at all. For all I know, they and their Board may well be following a non-scaling up approach. That is, a successful school hangs in—continues to improve it self and avoids cloning. ESP fills the need for better schooling in an area that lacks such successful schools, and leaves it at that. Opposite to scaling up is hanging in and not looking to replicate what one is already doing well.

My hunch is that Chris and Helen have been approached many times by donors and others to spread what they have done in East Palo Alto. Generous givers may want more ESPs. So why no clones of ESP? Why haven’t Chris and Helen journeyed forth and spread ESP seeds elsewhere?

I can only speculate but to create another ESP with its history in the neighborhood, its many moving parts in a complex program, a stable and experienced faculty, continuous neighborhood support, and enduring leadership is neither easy to duplicate nor worth doing since these leaders would not be able to continue their work at ESP as they have for over two decades. Hanging in as a strategy and continuing good work with teachers and students in an under-resourced neighborhood is surely seen as inefficient by those who tout scaling up. f it works here, let’s do it everywhere. There is, however, no one best way to school those who want to be the first in their families to go to college. East Side Prep is only one and very hard to reproduce in a different setting with different leaders.




*I have known both founders of ESP as students in a social studies curriculum and instruction course they took with Lee Swenson and me in the graduate Secondary Teacher Education Program at Stanford University in the early 1990s. I have visited the school multiple times, most recently in mid-October 2017.

**This data comes from East Side College Preparatory School, “Programs and Best Practices,” 2016-2017.





Filed under school reform policies

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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.


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.


Filed under how teachers teach, school leaders

A Memoir’s Humble Tale of Teaching (James Forman Jr. and Arthur Evenchik)

I have not published a book review on my blog in the eight years I have written posts. Usually I read the book and mention it in a post.

This particular review of a novice teacher re-connecting with her students as a lawyer years after her brief stint in a Helena (ARK) alternative school is unusual in its candor about relationship with students, and its insights into the linkage between schooling and poverty. Inspiration, dedication, and humility–particularly the latter–seldom appear in such books written by former teachers.

I have not yet read Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick but am moved to do so after reading this review. Perhaps (or perhaps not) others might reach a similar conclusion.

The two authors of the review are former teachers in a Washington, D.C. charter school. James Forman Jr., who teaches at Yale Law School, is the author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.; Arthur Evenchik is the coordinator of the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University.

The review appeared October 20 on Atlantic Online


In books and films about failing schools attended by poor students of color, a suspiciously upbeat plotline has become all too familiar. A novice teacher (usually white) parachutes in, overcomes her students’ distrust and apathy, and sets them on the path to college and worldly success. Such narratives are every kind of awful. They make the heroic teacher the center of attention, relegating the students to secondary roles. They pretend that good intentions and determination have the magical power to transform young people’s lives, even in the most adverse circumstances. And they treat schools as isolated sites of injustice, never connecting educational disadvantage to other forms of inequality.

Michelle Kuo is a writer who resists the mythmaking impulse, with its clichés and wishful thinking. In her penetrating, haunting memoir, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, she confronts all of the difficult questions that the teacher-as-savior genre claims to have answered, and especially this one: What difference can a teacher actually make?

Her credibility stems, in part, from her willingness to make her misjudgments and failings an integral part of the story she tells. At age 22, after graduating from Harvard, Kuo frustrates her immigrant parents’ ambitions for her by joining Teach For America. She takes a job at an alternative school in Helena, Arkansas, a blighted Mississippi Delta town populated by the descendants of black families who stayed behind during the Great Migration. By her own admission, her first year in the classroom is a disaster. She arrives hoping to teach African American literature to her eighth-grade students, but she blinds herself to the fact that most of them read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, and so they are bored and frustrated by her lessons. She wants the students to know “their history,” by which she means the history of racist violence in the Delta. But she knows nothing of the trauma they have inherited; when she passes around a picture of a lynching, a boy named David brings her lesson to a halt by putting his head on his desk and muttering, “Nobody want to see that.” Instead of defying her school’s authoritarian culture, Kuo initially succumbs to it. Once, she recalls, “I tore up a student’s drawing, which I’d thought was a doodle, in order to jolt him into paying attention; he never forgave me, and I will regret it forever.”

Eventually, Kuo does begin to reach some of her students, but she gives them most of the credit for their progress as readers and writers. When they perform A Raisin in the Sun in class, she looks on, amazed, as they compete for the part of the matriarch Lena Younger—a character they admire because “she don’t play.” When she creates a classroom library and schedules silent-reading periods, she sees their adolescent restlessness give way to concentration. Before they relinquish the books they like, the students inscribe endorsements on the inside front covers. Until now, Kuo points out, they had never been handed a play or allowed time to read books of their choice. Just look, she seems to say, at what they make of these opportunities.

Her descriptions of individual students are unusually perceptive and moving. A boy named Tamir, asked to write a poem about himself, looks afraid “and peers at a classmate’s paper, as though this was the kind of assignment one could copy.” A girl named Kayla, who had been removed from the district’s regular high school for fighting, writes herself a letter that says, “I hope that when trouble come your way, you would just hold your head high and walk away with a smile on your face.” Patrick Browning, a student with a history of absenteeism, seems lost as he starts eighth grade, “as if he’d gotten on the school bus by accident.” He sits at the back of Kuo’s class, quiet and easily overlooked. But over the course of his eighth-grade year, he develops eclectic tastes in reading—everything from Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and wins the schoolwide award for “Most Improved” student. When rainwater leaks through the classroom ceiling and destroys much of the book collection, it is Patrick who says to the other students, “Stop crying, y’all,” and fetches a bucket and mop.

After two years in the Delta, Kuo decides to leave her job and go to law school. (“With a law degree, you can multiply your impact,” a friend assures her. And her parents are thrilled.) But what might seem the natural ending to her story proves not to be an ending at all. Kuo returns to Helena three years later when she learns that Patrick has been arrested and charged with murder. She begins to visit the county jail where he is awaiting trial, bearing books and writing assignments. Her account of the seven months she spends as his tutor and fellow reader occupies the heart of the book, and it unfolds with all the starkness and immediacy of a two-character play. Scene by scene, it asks what brought them to this place and what can come of their time together.

The night Patrick was arrested, he had gone out looking for his younger sister, but he couldn’t find her. Then she arrived on the family porch with Marcus, a man she was dating. Marcus was drunk and belligerent, and when Patrick ordered him to leave, he started talking loudly and acting aggressively. Believing that Marcus was armed, Patrick picked up a knife he had left on the porch earlier in the day. He just wanted to scare Marcus, he says, but then they fought. He can’t remember the fight itself—just the sight of Marcus limping away and then falling to the sidewalk.

Patrick doesn’t realize that he has a plausible self-defense claim. A white man fending off an intruder on his property could invoke principles such as “stand your ground” or the “castle doctrine.” But Patrick is a black man in the Delta, and the prosecutor goes for a massive overcharge: first-degree murder. There is no question of bail: for sixteen months, Patrick awaits his trial in a jail so unsanitary and poorly managed that the state of Arkansas later shuts it down. And though his public defender eventually gets the charge against him reduced, they never meet until Patrick has his day in court.

The first time Kuo comes to the jail, Patrick blurts out, “Ms. Kuo, I didn’t mean to,” in what she calls “a tone of supplication.” But she soon realizes that he feels an intolerable sense of guilt. Patrick imagines that all the mistakes he has ever made led inexorably to the act he is now locked up for. He is haunted by a litany of wrongs he has no way to redress. “The problem,” Kuo writes, “was not that he wouldn’t confess but that he had confessed too much; it wasn’t far-fetched to think he might spend the rest of his life confessing.”

And yet maybe he needed his guilt; otherwise the death would have happened for no reason, a result of senseless collision—of mental states, physical impulses, and coincidences. He needed, for his own sense of meaning, to knit his failures into a story. “Cause and effect,” as he put it. The thread was that he messed up by ignoring God.

But I didn’t believe the story he told himself. I wanted to break it. For me to do that, we needed to forge a connection. But what did I have that I could share with him?

All I could think of was books. There were other things he liked—he’d tended lovingly to his go-cart and said once that he wanted to be a mechanic. I didn’t believe that reading was inherently superior to learning how to fix a car, or that reading makes a person better. But I did love books, and I hadn’t yet shared with him anything I myself loved. Had I known how to sing, I would have had us sing.

The bond they establish during their jailhouse sessions eases his torment, as Kuo hoped it would. Yet Patrick never ceases to hold himself responsible for Marcus’ death. After he takes a plea deal and is convicted of manslaughter, Kuo asks him, “Do you feel guilty?” and he replies, “I know I guilty.” It’s not the answer she wanted. But she comes to see that if she had undermined his sense of himself as the agent of his own actions, she would only have deepened his despair. No teacher can “break” a student’s story, his understanding of his life, and replace it with her own.

In other ways, too, the course of the relationship between Kuo and Patrick diverges from her original intention. When she discovers that his literacy skills have deteriorated, she promptly resumes her English-teacher role—marking every last error in his writing, assigning “extra homework to eliminate future mistakes.” This makes her sound overzealous, and sometimes she is. Yet Patrick, who at first dismisses the idea of homework (“Nah, it’s over with,” he tells her), makes greater progress than she had anticipated. “For me and perhaps for him,” she writes, “the task of making a sentence perfect had the effect of containment: It kept unbearable emotions at bay.”

Once they begin reading, Kuo is continually surprised by Patrick’s responses. When she gives him C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, she thinks of it as a diversion: “a magical book, where the heroes were children, and children on the side of good.” But Patrick doesn’t see it that way. He is drawn to the character Edmund, who acts wrongfully but makes amends, and who grows stronger and wiser in the process. The story matters to Patrick because it allows him to envision the possibility that a person can change.

Similarly, Kuo is not prepared for the intensity of Patrick’s reaction to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. He reads it in a concrete stairwell at night, away from the other inmates, and persists even when he finds himself painfully identifying with the slaves Douglass describes. She half-expects him to deride the exuberance of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but instead he writes lines imitating it, picturing landscapes and cities he has never seen. At such moments, Kuo recalls, “he appeared to me anew, as a person I was just beginning to know.”

For one of his final assignments, Patrick composes a letter inspired by a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Addressed to his baby daughter, it describes a journey they might one day take together. The writing is so evocative that it humbles Kuo to read it. “I was searching for myself,” she admits, “for deposits of our conversations, memories he’d shared or words I taught him. But I was barely there. Each word felt like a tiny impulsive root, proof of a mysterious force that exceeded me.”

* * *

Back when she was a classroom teacher, Kuo engaged in a sort of triage. “There are just certain kids for whom you bring all your hope,” she writes, and Patrick was one of them. It makes sense, then, that news of his plight would have drawn her back to the Delta. But Kuo doesn’t allow us to forget that his tragedy is not the only one. She hears, soon after her return, that her former student Tamir is living on the streets in Little Rock, a crack addict begging for money. On a school-district report listing the students who dropped out of school in Helena the year after she left, she recognizes a long series of names along with Patrick’s. And when he finally appears in court, she sees many of those names again on the crowded docket of criminal cases:

I tried to count the number of black males of my sixty-something students over two years who had at some point gone to jail, and I ran out of fingers. The docket was the coda to the STUDENT DROPOUT REPORT—the county jail was where the dropouts landed. There were no jobs in Helena. They had no skills. Most had a disability or an emotional or mental disorder. Where else had I thought they would go?


Nothing Kuo has done for Patrick frees him from this dynamic. After the plea bargain, he is sent to an overcrowded prison. Two and a half years later, when he is paroled for good behavior, he returns to Helena with all the liabilities that come with having a violent felony on his record.

By then, Kuo is working as a public-interest lawyer in California. “I begin to think,” she confesses, “that those seven months didn’t really happen, that I had imagined the mystical silences we shared while Patrick wrote. I must have dreamed the poems we memorized, because I cannot remember the lines anymore. On the way to work, holding the metal bar of a subway, I wonder what it was all for and consider the idea that once you stop thinking about something, it disappears.”

But this is not her final word on the subject. If Kuo distrusts the romanticism of the teacher-as-savior narrative, she also resists the kind of fatalism that would have prevented her from becoming a teacher in the first place. She does wonder sometimes what would have happened had she never left Helena. Could she have kept Patrick from dropping out of school or confronting Marcus? Not likely, she says. Besides, she is wary of talking about Patrick “as if I think I could have saved him, as if I think I’m so important in his life. It’s not like that.” But then, exhibiting the kind of impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom that set her book apart, she adds:

Or maybe it is, in the sense that the alternative, the rational thought, would be to say to myself, You can’t do that much, you’re not that important, there are so many forces in a person’s life, good and bad, who do you think you are? That’s what I said to make myself feel better after I left the Delta, and sometimes I still say it. But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.

Maybe there are prospective readers who noticed Kuo’s memoir on a bookstore shelf, leafed through its pages, and put it back, saying to themselves, “I know this story already.” But in all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading With Patrick.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Whatever Happened To MOOCs?

The splash began in 2012 when Massive Open Online Courses were touted as the coming revolution in higher education.

Wait, Larry, that was only five years ago, a mere blip in the life-cycle of an educational innovation.  Why are you including MOOCs when you have featured posts asking “whatever happened to” half-century old innovations such as Open Classrooms, Total Quality Management, and Behavioral Objectives?

With advances in digital technology and social media, the life cycle of a “disruptive innovation,” or a “revolutionary” program has so sped up that what used to take decades to stick  or slip away now occurs in the metaphorical blink of the eye. So whatever happened to MOOCs?

Where Did the Idea Originate?

One answer is that MOOCs are the next stage of what began as correspondence courses in the late 19th century for those Americans who wanted to expand their knowledge and found going to college was next to impossible. From home-delivered lessons to professors on television delivering lectures to online courses since the early aughts, MOOCs evolved from the DNA of correspondence courses.

Another answer is that in 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened up its list of courses for anyone to take online at no cost. Through Open Courseware, professors’ syllabi, assignments and videotaped lectures were made available to everyone with an Internet connection.

And a third answer is that in 2008, two Canadian professors George Seimens and Stephen Downes who offered a course through the University of Manitoba creating the first officially labeled MOOC called “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge” from a regular class they taught for 25 students to over 2200 off-campus adults and students for free who had Internet-connected computers.

All three answers suggest that the lineage of MOOCs has a history located in higher education seeking to educate students who lacked access to college and universities.

What erupted in 2012 was a lava flow of MOOCs from elite U.S. universities accompanied by hyperbolic language and promises for the future of higher education becoming open to anyone with a laptop. Since 2012, that hype cycle has dipped into the Trough of Disillusionment and only now edging upward on the Slope of Enlightment. Verbal restraint and tamed predictions of slow growth, smart adaptations, and commercial specialization have become the order of the day. And, fortunately, a humility about the spread and staying power of innovations initially hyped o steroids. All in five years.

What is a MOOC?

Taught by experts in the field, a Massive Open Online Course in higher education is accessible and free to anyone with an Internet connection. College students, those who work and are not registered in a college or university, and others who simply want information about a topic in which they are interested take courses. See a brief video made at the beginning of the MOOC innovation that explains what they are.

What Problems Did MOOCs Intend to Solve?

Limited accessibility to knowledge and skills offered in higher education. High cost of going to universities. MOOCs offer broader accessibility to students who because of geography, age, cost, and having a family could not take courses. Now anyone with a computer can learn what they wanted to learn. MOOCs are, as one reporter put it:  “Laptop U.”

Do MOOCs Work?

Depends upon what someone means by “work.” Since the usual measures of “success” in taking courses are attendance, grades, test scores, and similar outcomes, only one of these familiar measures has been applied to MOOCs: how many students completed the course?  Attrition has been very high. About ten percent of enrolled students in the early years of MOOCs did all of the assignments, communicated with course assistants, and took the final exam. Sorting out claims of “success” amid sky-high attrition rates has been an issue for both champions and skeptics of the innovation See here, here, here, and here)

What Happened to MOOCs?

They are still around but strikingly downsized and in the middle of being monetized and re-directed. The initial cheerleaders for MOOCs such as Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller, and Andrew Ng formed companies (e.g., Udacity, Coursera) that either stumbled badly, and subsequently altered their business plan. Many of these founders also departed for greener pastures (see here, here, and here).

MOOCs persist but as in the case of so many other hyped innovations using new technologies, a slimmer, more tempered, and corporate version exists in 2017 awarding certificates and micro-credentials (see here and here).



Filed under higher education, technology use

What Are Success and Failure in Schooling? (Part 3)

If only policymakers, practitioners, and parents agreed upon what “success” and “failure” mean for schooling. No such agreement exists leading to miscommunication and contradictions. Just as there are complications in figuring out the meaning of these common words in business, military operations, and hospital care, so it is for the nation’s public schools (see Parts 1 and 2).

Recall that for the past half-century, there has been an on-going controversy between political conservatives and liberals over whether the nation’s schools are failing or have failed (note the difference between using the present tense–they are failing–as opposed to present perfect tense–they have failed; the latter is a judgment closing the door while the former offers, even invites, hope for improvement). What makes determinations of failing U.S. schools perplexing is that on Gallup polls parents give low grades to the nation’s schools (47 percent satisfied in 2017) but express  higher satisfaction (79 percent in 2017) for the local school their sons and daughters attend.

I date the current controversy’s origin to the late-1970s with the official bemoaning of the drop in  Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) scores. Concerns for the declining quality of public schools accelerated with the A Nation at Risk report (1983) that linked U.S.’s public schools to an economy that must compete globally. U.S. students doing poorly on international tests was to policy elites a forbidding sign of decline in quality of the nation’s public schools.*

The Report’s recommendations prompted changes in state graduation requirements and beefed up academic plans for public schools. Many initiatives throughout the 1980s and 1990s came from business leaders, political liberals and conservatives, academics and think tanks. They viewed the nation’s schools as crucial to a strong economy and in need of major curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms to get students to measure up to their international counterparts.

Over the past three decades, expanded parental choice in the form of vouchers, charter schools (especially in poor and minority neighborhoods) and business-inspired plans of setting national goals and holding schools accountable for student outcomes entered public schools (see here, here, and here).

Both Republican and Democratic Presidents supported these reforms (except for vouchers which Democrats opposed and charters over which Democrats split). These reforms created higher curriculum standards, more testing, and accountability in state after state. The capstone bipartisan effort was the federal law No Child Left Behind (2001-2016).

NCLB called for all public school students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014 and established a federally-driven testing and accountability system managed by the states to insure that students scored well on standardized tests. Schools meeting their numerical targets set by the law would be rewarded and those falling short would be penalized. By 2011, the weaknesses of this federally-driven system had become obvious to legislators–48 percent of U.S. schools had been labeled “failing.” In 2016, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act and President Obama signed off on a law loosening federal regulations on accountability (but not testing or publishing of racial and ethnic statistics) and giving states far more latitude in designing reforms (see here).

As the polarized political climate worsened, right-of-center supporters of vouchers and charter schools coalesced supporting policies that would rescue the nation’s failing schools. Ditto for left-of-center critics increasingly challenging the charge that U.S. schools have failed or are failing. These critics on the political left pointed to national reports, improving test scores, and the trash-talking about failing schools a “manufactured crisis” (see here, here, and here).

Some critics went further and charged that reformers with a politically conservative bent who sought more vouchers in schools and expanded numbers of charter schools  were trying to “privatize” public schools (see here and here).

Thus, the controversy that began four decades ago over whether U.S. schools are “succeeding” or “failing” continues with another generation of politically polarized reformers split over how best to improve the nation’s schools.

What complicates the debate over schools are errors in policy thinking and different perspectives being ignored. I offer a few examples of these errors in making sense of this ongoing controversy over all public schools failing.**

#In analyzing the four-decade debate, I have found repeatedly that advocates and opponents of either schools as “failures” or “successes” do not distinguish whether they are talking about all public schools or really have largely minority and poor urban schools in mind. The confusion can be cleared up–but seldom is–if one sees the nation’s schools as a three-tiered system of schooling based upon performance and socioeconomic status.

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Scarsdale (NY) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 60 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet state standards and send most of their graduating classes to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being closed. Occasionally, stellar principals and staffs will lift such schools into the second tier but that is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S maintains social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth .

But too few members of the policy elites see these crucial differences in the U.S. system of schools and instead mush together potatoes, onions, green beans, and zucchini into one sticky veggie stew.

#A second error is that the concepts of “success” and “failure” become “either/or thinking,” “good vs. “bad” ways of making policy and running schools. As if there are no degrees of “success” or “failure” in either children learning, teacher outcomes, school, and district performance. Omitting the in-between, the gray, surely makes decisions less complicated and simpler to make but such decisions are mistaken. Not distinguishing between, for example, between partial or complete “success” and “failure” or sudden or gradual, or sustained and precarious are just a few ways of avoiding dichotomous thinking.

#Another error is forgetfulness about the historic multiple (and changing) mission of tax-supported public schools. Presently and for the past four decades, the highest priority for public schools is to produce graduates ready for an ever-changing labor market in a fluid, growing economy. Schools serve the economy. Yet in other periods of schooling, becoming a contributing member of a school and adult community, building strong moral character, and graduating thoughtful problem solvers were front and center as the mission of public schools.

In each instance of these multiple goals for public schools shifting over time, definitions of what is a “success” or “failure” vary depending upon what policymakers and reformers see as the prime target that schools must hit. Those policymakers advocating that schools must go beyond preparing all children and youth for college and engage students in using their knowledge and skills acquired in school to become active members of the community, serving the old and the young and helping to build strong relationships between differing groups would have different metrics for “success” and “failure” beyond test scores and percentages of students going to college.

As I see it, this continuing controversy over U.S. schools “failing” over the past 40-plus years between and among political conservatives and liberals has been worsened by  policy elites’ errors in trying to improve U.S. schools. These errors,  I believe, have confused defining “success” and “failure” and consequently had mercurial effects upon reform after reform applied to public schools.


*The current reforms launched since the late-1970s are, of course, part of a historical continuum.  Earlier generations of reformers have assailed the failure of public schools beginning in the late-1890s–John Dewey’s cohort–extending through the post-World War II generation who pointed to schools lacking in rigorous academic content and skills before and after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. And on and on the soap opera of school reform marched forward to the present moment (see here, here, and here)

**I offer a few of these policy errors here reserving others for subsequent posts.




Filed under school reform policies

Scaling Up to Mediocrity: The Myth of Grow or Die (Part 1)

In this and subsequent posts I will look at the popular policy solution to improving chronically failing schools by pinpointing “good” schools that year after year do well and then policymakers and donors pressing the leaders of those schools to “scale up.”  What the phrase means–borrowed from the practical world of business–is that an elementary or secondary school deemed successful (using typical measures of high test scores, low dropout rates, students graduate and nearly all get admitted to college) receives pressure and funding to replicate what made that school “successful” across dozens of other schools (see here and here).

After all, in the business world, the mantras are “grow or die” and “bigger is better.” So a successful business–reaping profits annually–can create franchise outlets just like the mother business that started it all–think McDonalds, Roundtable, and 7-Eleven. The franchisee receives the brand name and a way of operating the business daily. In business and schooling, “scaling up” is both popular and seen as essential—see N-gram of the growth of this phrase in U.S. published materials since the 1920s.

These posts will argue that schools deemed “successful” by popularly accepted measures can (and do) lose by expanding their reach through trying to duplicate their “success.” Further, I will argue that there are individual “successful” schools that should continue as they are improving what they do yearly and avoid the Ebola virus of replication.

Grow or Die

Why do policymakers and donors prod “successful” school experiments to scale up? Because they  assume that “successful” schools can be exported to other settings and when that occurs school officials get economies of scale and increases in productivity. It is “good” education at lower cost. Goodbye chronically failing or mediocre schools. Scaling up, then, is a solution to the persistent problems policymakers have identified over the past three decades: failing U.S. schools.

“Scaling up” is the mantra that entrepreneurial policymakers, venture capitalists and donors pushing cash into schools not only expect from any “success” that their monies have produced but also demand of those who achieved “success.” The direction goes like this: You did a great job here, now do the same here, here, and here. If not, we can’t keep funding you. In public and private schools across the country, experimental schools get hosannas and media attention but experience strong pressures to expand.

This process of “scaling up” has a long history going back to the Platoon School  before World War I and the Dalton Plan in the 1920s when innovative, school wide programs spread across the U.S. Failure to replicate these innovations in other schools was an old story a century ago.

In the 1990s, “scaling” up “successful” models of schooling re-appeared and, sad to say, the high hopes of those deeply committed entrepreneurs a quarter-century ago went the way of their older cousins. This first post will look at Tesseract schools “scaled up” by Education Alternatives, Inc. and the scaling up of Edison schools. Both for-profit companies took their brand name and models of pedagogy, curriculum, and school organization that “worked” in one setting and tried to replicate them in districts that each company had contracted with.

Tesseract School

In 1991, South Pointe elementary school of 500 children opened in Miami (FLA). The Dade County School Board had contracted with Education Alternatives, Inc., a for-profit company, to operate the school using the Tesseract model. Developed by businessman John Golle in Minneapolis in two private schools, the model, as described by an enthusiast, had the following components:

The Tesseract model stresses active learning in every subject and true ownership of

learning by students. Teachers work with students to “plan, do, and review” their

learning activities. Teachers are gentle and nonintrusive and work with students to learn

how to learn, and learn how to make choices. No subject is fragmented–it is whole

language, and whole social studies. No workbooks or xerox sheets are used. Students

work together, learn about each other’s learning styles, confer, and review and make

presentations. Education is personal. Every student at South Pointe has a “mentor,”

either a parent or a recruited senior citizen. Teachers, mentors, and students together

develop the student’s personal education plan.

The Dade County Board ended the contract when test scores had not risen after a few years. EAI and the Baltimore City School Board contracted in 1992 to run a handful of schools. The School Board canceled the contract in 1996. In 2000, EAI, now called Tesseract filed for bankruptcy.

Edison Schools

Entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of Channel 1–a for-profit venture in public schools that eventually nose-dived–founded the Edison project in 1992. He and his partners believed that they could get students to learn more and better than regular public school could and, at the same time, return a tidy profit to investors. According to an evaluation report:

Edison schools are organized by grouping 2 or 3 grade levels into academies. Within the
academies, the students are organized into multigrade houses of 100-180 students. The
students in each house are largely taught by the same team of teachers throughout the
time they are in that academy.


Edison Schools Inc. has a curriculum that includes reading, math, history/social studies,
science, writing, and world language as the core subjects, with classes in character and
ethics, physical fitness and health, music, dance, visual art, drama, and practical arts and
skills offered at various levels. Four methodological approaches to instruction are
reportedly used in the classrooms: project-based learning, direct instruction, cooperative
learning, and differentiated learning.


Edison Inc. was the first for-profit school-management company to be traded on a stock exchange. They got contracts from urban school districts (e.g., Wichita, KN; Philadelphia, PA, Ravenswood, CA) to  use their model of a “good” school to convert failing schools into “good” ones in other districts  but stumbled into one political difficulty after another  with unions, parents, and administrators (see here and here).

Their stock had reached a high of $40 a share in 2001 and then, as problems piled up, dipped to 14 cents later in the same year. Dissatisfied with Edison, districts began canceling contracts for financial, political, and managerial reasons. By 2005,  there were still 153 schools for over 65,000 students but the company was already dumping their school management business and had turned to  securing contracts to  provide tutorial services and other products districts wanted. By then, Whittle had found private lenders who aided him in converting the publicly traded company back into a private one.


Both business-driven models of Tesseract (EAI) and Edison Schools grew but died. They scaled up and nose-dived after a few years giving investors the Willies.

Are there stories of “successful” schools growing into networks and thriving? Yes. Think of the KIPP model (1994) that has grown into over 200 schools nationally with 88,000 students in almost a quarter-century. Or Aspire (1998) with 40 schools enrolling 16,000 students in two states. Or Summit Charter Schools network (2003) has eight high schools in California’s Bay area and the state of Washington. Slow and steady with careful attention to selection and training of staff, constant program monitoring, and building cultures that sustains the ideology of the school have led to some scaled-up schools. But it ain’t easy. The scaling up took a great deal of donor money, long-term stability in top staff, and exceedingly fine-tuned attention to each new school’s adoption of a torch passed on by the founders to the next generation.

So should a private school located in a predominately minority and poor neighborhood that has been, by all popular measures, a stellar school for over 20 years spread? Part 2 offers an answer to that question.





Filed under school reform policies