Category Archives: school reform policies

Whatever Happened to “No Excuses” Schools?

Nothing. They are still around in big cities. What has changed is the rhetoric of reform. Where once the phrase “No Excuses” was plastered on car bumpers. It was a popular label that one wing of urban school reformers used with pride, but now it has fallen out of favor. Although the sticker has been stripped from the bumper, “No Excuses” schools remain.

The substance of these mostly charter network schools–curriculum, instruction, organization, and governance– continues largely as they have been (e.g., Knowledge Is Power Program–KIPP–Uncommon Schools, YES Prep). As “policy talk” goes–the rhetoric of reform–charter school spokespeople avoid “no excuses” as much as they would in talking about their undergarments.

In two decades, the phrase has gone from a proud label charter school advocates used to fierce rejection by many of the same boosters. Listen to Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academies in New York City in a 2017 interview:

“We’re not a no-excuses school. We’re just not. I don’t really know how to respond to that nomenclature…. That doesn’t mean you don’t believe that high levels of learning can occur in chaos,and we do believe that students do need to say please and thank you to the lunch ladies. We do assign school uniforms to simplify things for parents … and really allow us to focus on learning [instead of clothes.]”

What Problems Do “No Excuses” Schools Intend To Solve?

The problems such schools attack are the achievement gap in test scores between whites and minorities and small numbers of low-income, minority high school seniors entering higher education. No Excuses schools, then, seek to raise the low test scores plaguing minority and poor students in urban districts. They also prepare minority low-income students for college entry and long-term success. See here and here.

What Do “No Excuses” Schools Look Like in Practice?

A teacher at one such school described her experience:

Amistad is a No Excuses school, in the mold of high-profile charter networks such as KIPP and Success Academy. The programs are founded on the notion that there can be “no excuses” for the achievement gap between poor minorities and their more affluent, white counterparts. To bridge that gap, they set high expectations and strict behavioral codes. School days are long. Not a moment is to be wasted. Classes even rehearse passing out papers quickly so they can save every second for drilling academic content. Instruction is streamlined with methods that data says lead to strong performances on standardized tests, which lead to college acceptances.

Or take Democracy Prep:

At Democracy Prep Harlem Middle School, a sixth grade math teacher started her class by giving her students exactly four minutes to solve a problem involving ratios. When her watch beeped, homework was collected and all eyes turned to the front of the room.

“Pencils in the groove and you’re tracking me in three, two, one and zero,” she said, using a term common among charter schools where students are frequently instructed to “track” a speaker with steady eye contact and full attention.

Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.

Democracy Prep is among several charter networks with a “no excuses” philosophy. Like other charter schools the days are long, running from 7:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and the academics rigorous. But there is also a culture of discipline that can cut both ways. In some schools, and with some families, the tough approach has worked well while for others it has prompted students to leave….

“No excuses means that there’s no excuse for our kids not being successful in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship,” said Seth Andrew, founder and Superintendent of Democracy Prep….

Do “No Excuses” Schools Work?

Using measures of providing safety, structure, high test scores, and college admissions the answer for low-income and working class families is a resounding “Yes.” Much less resounding, however, are college completion rates. These schools are less successful in having their graduates earn bachelor’s degree in four to six years. See here and here.

Why has the once popular label “No Excuses” fallen into disuse

Criticism of classroom disciplinary codes, whole-class direct instruction, and less than stellar results in college completion have eroded the image of No Excuses schools (here and here). Epithets–“militaristic,” “rigid,” “rote learning”–spilled over mainstream and social media. The phrase lost its initial luster. Moreover, some charter networks (e.g., KIPP, Achievement First) questioned whether their students were acquiring the necessary skills to succeed at the next level of education. They began expanding student autonomy encouraging teachers to alter lessons to get students to think independently (see here and here).

So No Excuses may have fallen into the dust-bin of abandoned catch-phrases but particular charter school networks evolving as they–and other schools so often do–modified a few aspects of their curriculum, instruction, and behavioral codes, continue many of the features that have characterized them for decades.

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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.

________________________

*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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“How The Other Half Learns”: A Review (Part 1)

Robert Pondiscio’s recent book about a New York City elementary school is an uncommon example of research and writing on school reform.

Why uncommon?

Few former teachers, journalists, and academic researchers have done what he did in spending a year at Bronx 1, part of the network of Success Academies in New York City that former city official Eva Moskowitz founded in 2006. Now a charter network of 47 schools in New York City enrolling 17,000 low-income children of color, Success Academies are both extolled and criticized (especially in the media). There is precious little middle ground when it comes to reformers, parents, teachers, and others when it comes to judging the network’s worth. Writing in 2014, a few years before Pondiscio became embedded in one Success Academy school, he wrote an op-ed in a New York newspaper asking: “Is Eva Moskowitz the Michael Jordan of Education Reform, or is she the Mark McGuire? (p. 10)”. One athlete, the finest of all basketball players in the 20th century and the other a disgraced steroid-filled home run hitter. He wasn’t sure. But two years later he wanted to find out.

Surprisingly, Moskowitz agreed to let Pondiscio to spend a year at Bronx 1 observing classes and teacher meetings, shadowing the principal and staff members, interviewing parents, teachers and administrators, meeting with children–“scholars” as they are called–in and out of school. He also attended teacher training sessions and staff development workshops. That Pondiscio was a former teacher in a Bronx low-income, low-scoring elementary school and affiliated with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an organization that boosts charter schools and whose leadership had praised her work in New York City may have helped in making her decision.

Which brings me to another reason for the book’s uniqueness. Except for Jay Mathews book on the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) a decade earlier (Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America, Pondiscio is the only journalist and former teacher to examine in depth a charter network that prides itself on high test scores year after year outscoring affluent elementary schools in the state—a focus that drives anti-charter critics and student-centered enthusiasts to sucking their thumbs.

In the past 35 years in U.S. schools the unfurled umbrella of business-driven standards-based reform, testing and scores have been the center of attention in improving urban schools. The resulting literature on school reform has been dominated by pundits, policymakers, and passers-by who equate high test scores with teacher and school effectiveness. Test score gains have become the coin of the realm and schools blessed with those higher scores have become darlings of donors and policymakers. Success Academies have produced annual gains even outscoring those New York City schools with low poverty rates and mostly white enrollments.

This book, then, is an anomaly in its in-depth portrayal of children, staff, parents, and leadership in a neighborhood that by all accounts–including the nearby one in which Pondiscio once taught–should have been overwhelmed by its surroundings. Yet Bronx 1 was not. It excelled insofar as test scores. Although Pondiscio makes clear that test scores are a narrow measure of student learning, he gives readers his take on why the school did excel.

In praising the uncommonness of this book, I have not forgotten academic researchers who have gone into schools. They (including doctoral students) have indeed spent time in schools using both quantitative and qualitative methods to paint pictures of schools and classrooms at one point in time. And they have written about their before-and-after studies of experimental programs in schools and deeply detailed case studies–all using the outcome measure of standardized test scores.

Few researchers, however, who have written about schools and districts–the basic units of reform–have taught in similar settings and have actually spent at least a year in those classrooms, schools and districts observing, interviewing, and capturing incidents and details that make school cultures in those places dance before a reader’s eyes.* To do so takes experience of teaching in such schools and the skills of a writer to pull out the significant incidents and flesh out the main players in words that grab attention and stay fixed in the readers’ mind. Not an academic researcher but ex-teacher and journalist, Pondisco does exactly that. **

Still I wanted to see if other academic researchers, journalists, or others had written comparable volumes that would make How the Other Half Learns part of a tradition rather than being uncommon. So before I sat down at my computer to write this review I went through my library and pulled out the books that did what no pundit, policymaker, or passer-by could do. I do not claim that my library covers the entire literature of school reform in districts and schools yet in my selective collection of books I found a handful that met the above criteria of skillful writing, spending a year or so in the setting, and getting the story published. None of the writers, however, had teaching experience. Sure there are other studies that I missed. So be it. But these, I believe, are comparable to Pondiscio’s book.

#Former Washington Post journalist and later a university sociologist, Gerald Grant spent a year at a Syracuse High School working with teachers and students recording daily activities, interviewing teachers and students, and observing classrooms and meetings. He places the high school in a historical context, that is, going from a mostly white, privileged enrollment to a desegregated one with a substantial minority presence. The turmoil of the Vietnam War, court decisions expanding students’ rights and ending, shifted authority and the ways that students and teachers interacted. The World We Created at Hamilton High School was published in 1988.

#Linda Perlstein, another journalist at the Washington Post, published Tested: One American School Struggles To Make the Grade in 2007. She writes of her year spent at Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, (MD). Mostly African American children from low-income homes, the school scored well on state tests and had earned a reputation for academic excellence. Perlstein describes the principal, teachers, and students over the course of a year.

#Jay Mathews, longtime Washington Post columnist on education wrote about the two teacher founders of the KIPP schools in 2009 (see above). He observed classes, spent time in schools, and revealed to a general audience what he saw thereby challenging the prevailing myths that surrounded these particular charter schools.

#Finally there is a high school in San Francisco that let a journalist spend four years–yes, four years–to observe classes, interview staff and students, and meet with them inside and outside school. Kristina Rizga’s Mission High School (2015) unravels the puzzle of a high school with low test scores year after year and yet over four of five graduates get admitted to college. Challenging the existing concentration on test scores as a proper measure of school and student achievement, Rizga’s analysis provides answers to this disparity between low test scores and college going graduates.

These books are the ones that I found in my library. Readers might supply their own examples of embedded journalists and researchers, some with teaching experiences and some not, who have spent considerable time in classrooms, and with students and parents. Each of these books, as Pondiscio’s, has embedded the all-important contexts–local, state, and national–into their accounts. Even were my list incomplete, when one counts up such rich examinations of schools, they are but a thimbleful of the literature on urban school reform.

Parts 2 and 3 dig into How the Other Half Learns raising questions about the tilt that the author has toward parental choice for low-income and working class minority parents, a single curriculum for all students, and a culture that makes extraordinary demands upon both parents and children.

___________________________________

*One example (there are probably others) is researcher Louis Smith at Washington University in St. Louis who teamed up with William Geoffrey, a seventh grade teacher in a local school. Smith the outside observer recorded what happened every day for a semester in Geoffrey’s classroom. This micro-ethnography was published in 1968 as Complexities of an Urban Classroom: An Analysis toward a General Theory of Teaching.

**In this review, I omit first-hand accounts by teachers (e.g., Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers) and principals (e.g., Lean on Me) because they narrowly describe one classroom or one school from only the teacher’s or administrator’s view. Observing and interviewing many teachers reveals the variation that exists in a school. Awareness of the school and district detailed contexts rarely appears in such books.

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On Getting an Award

On October 25, 2019, I received an award from the Alumni of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education for Lifetime Achievement. Three other graduates of GSE received awards for Excellence in Education. Here is what I said upon receiving the award.

I thank my family and friends who have come out tonight.

Two people who I wish were here tonight are not. They helped me become the person I am today: Barbara Cuban and David Tyack. I miss them a great deal.

In these brief remarks I want to talk about my career as a teacher/scholar, what the award means to me, and the importance of knowing about the past particularly when it comes to school reform.

1. My career path since I began teaching in 1955 has been unplanned and uncommon.

I had been a high school history teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. for 14 years. While I have never been a school principal, I did work as an administrator in the D.C. district office. In that position I came in frequent contact with the superintendent. I learned a lot about leadership and bureaucratic decision-making and slowly came to realize that I could do the work of a superintendent, a job that I had once thought was well beyond my grasp as a teacher. But I needed an advanced degree.

So at the age of 37 my family and I came to Stanford. I came for only one reason: I wanted to be a superintendent and needed a doctorate. David Tyack made it possible for Barbara, my daughters, and me to come here. Living in Escondido Village were great years for my family. David Tyack was my adviser. Under him, I researched and completed a dissertation on three big city superintendents and in 1974 got that degree.

I then applied for superintendencies. After 50 rejections, I was finally appointed superintendent in Arlington (VA). I served seven years in one of the most exhilarating and exhausting jobs I have ever had. Then I returned to Stanford to teach, do research, and write. I did all of that for five years and then applied for big city superintendencies across the nation. I was a finalist time and again but was not chosen. Failing to become an urban superintendent, I remained at Stanford to teach, advise doctoral students, write, and publish.

What ties together my zigzag career path is the teaching I did in high schools, the teaching I did as superintendent, and, of course, the teaching I did as a professor.

I describe my unplanned and uncommon career path because of the award I receive this evening. My students in the decades that I taught here have honored me with awards as a teacher.   

This award for lifetime achievement, however, recognizes my scholarly work, advising students, and real-life school experiences. I see myself today as a teacher/scholar.  Teaching, researching, and publishing have been central to my journey. Particularly around the issue of school reform. A few words about that never-ending American effort to improve schooling.

2. David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform for a decade. History was central to our work because we believed that not knowing of past efforts to alter public schools is similar to individuals having amnesia. Forgetting your past and how you became the person you are is a tragedy. Not knowing how earlier generations of well-intentioned reformers tried again and again to improve public schools is a forgetfulness, an intellectual disaster that blinds and deafens those who think they know best how to make schools better. But teaching such a history to those who see themselves as future reformers has a downside.

Idealistic graduate students eager to improve schools often told us at the end of the course that studying decades of failed efforts to reform schools depressed them and battered their idealism.  

They would often ask David and me: Are you pessimistic about improving public schools? My answer was always no. I do have hope for the future of public schools. My optimism, however, is tempered and realistic.

I would ask our students to compare improving schools to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible climbers would want a guide who has climbed the mountain before and can point out the crevices and where to step carefully. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, candor, and humility are as crucial to reaching the summit as they are in making a school reform work.

Hope for success in both climbing a mountain and converting reform policies into classroom practices rests in expertise, problem solving, courage, and yes, a touch of luck. But–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain is still worth the effort even if success is not achieved. Being realistic about the task is crucial. Realism and hope, then, are married in my mind. 

Although the history of reform shows clearly that schools cannot transform society, competent and committed teachers can influence their students’ minds, hearts, and actions. They can and have helped the young grow into adults who can work to reduce societal ills. That is the tempered, realistic optimism that I continue to have after six decades as a teacher/scholar.

So thanks to all of you who have made possible this award.

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The Case for Teaching about Sharks and Mummies, Not Captions and the Main Idea (Natalie Wexler)

This article appeared August 6, 2019 in Chalkbeat.

“How do students best learn to read? Equally important, how do students learn to love reading? The Common Core emphasizes reading comprehension skills, like identifying the main idea of a text. Yet in her new book, “The Knowledge Gap,” Natalie Wexler argues that teaching those skills in a vacuum, rather than centering instruction around interesting and rigorous content knowledge, hurts both student achievement and engagement.

In the excerpt below, Wexler observes two elementary school classrooms, each one taking a different approach to teaching reading.”

On a sunny November morning, Gaby Arredondo is trying to initiate twenty first-graders into the mysteries of reading.

Today’s particular mystery is captions. Ms. Arredondo recently gave a test that asked her students to identify a caption, and — even though she had spent 15 minutes teaching the concept — many chose the title of the passage instead. Her goal today is to show her students that what makes something a caption isn’t where it appears on the page or what it looks like but what it does: it’s a label that describes a picture.

“What is a caption?” Ms. Arredondo begins brightly to the five students gathered before her at a semicircular table. As she speaks, she writes caption on a whiteboard next to her chair. No one answers. Ms. Arredondo writes a second word: label.

“It’s a label,” volunteers one girl.

“What kind of a label?” Ms. Arredondo prods.

A boy chimes in: “It’s a label that describes things.”

“What kinds of things? Does it tell us the author or the title?”

“It tells us the author and the title,” the boy repeats dutifully.

“No,” Ms. Arredondo says. “It tells us about the picture.”

She shows them a photo from a book called “Mothers,” which has the words “daughters,” “mother,” and “son” superimposed in the appropriate spots. “So, what is a caption?”

“Words?” a girl named Nevaeh ventures.

As Ms. Arredondo goes through other books with subsequent small groups, the children pepper her with questions about the pictures — what a shark is eating, or whether a planet is Mars or the moon. She deflects them. The point of this lesson isn’t to learn about sharks or planets. It’s to learn about captions.

– – – –

In a first-grade classroom in another school, teacher Adrienne Williams is about to read aloud a book on mummies. But first, she asks the kids what they already know about the subject—or what they think they know.

“They chase you!” says one.

“They don’t exist.”

“They walk like they’re crazy!”

“They’re wrapped in paper.”

“They kidnap you.”

“You all have a lot of ideas about mummies,” Ms. Williams says calmly. After taking some questions (“Are they real?” “What do they do?”), she puts the book into a projector so the kids can follow along.

“Eww!” they chorus delightedly, as the screen reveals a photograph of a mummy with its hands pressed to its cheeks, its teeth fixed in a ghoulish smile.

The children are rapt as Ms. Williams reads about how mummies are dead bodies that have been preserved, sometimes for thousands of years, and the things that scientists can tell about them: that one ancient man used hair gel, that another’s last meal was vegetable soup.

Along the way she casually points out the “text features” that, in a typical elementary classroom, would be the focus of instruction: the table of contents (“So if I want to make a mummy, what page do I go to? … Yes, page 18, ‘How to Make a Mummy’”), and a text box that contains a definition of bacteria (“You already know about bacteria after studying germs,” she reminds them). There’s a picture of a sarcophagus. “We’re going to learn that word,” she says.

– – – –

Both Ms. Williams and Ms. Arredondo were teaching at schools serving low-income populations on a first-come, first-served basis. Both were considered effective and well-trained teachers. Ms. Williams is naturally gifted, but the fact that her lesson was so much meatier and more engaging was largely a matter of luck: her school happened to be using a curriculum that emphasized building knowledge. A few years before, Ms. Williams’ school had used the kind of curriculum used by Ms. Arredondo — which is the norm — and she could see that her students weren’t particularly engaged. “It was just an isolated set of skills,” she says. “There was no bigger context.”

The theory that has shaped the American approach to elementary education goes like this: Reading comprehension is a set of skills that can be taught completely disconnected from content. Teach children to identify captions in a simple text — or find the main idea, or make inferences, or any one of a number of other skills — and eventually they’ll be able to grasp the meaning of any text put in front of them.

But cognitive scientists have known for decades that the most important factor in comprehension isn’t a set of generally applicable skills; it’s how much background knowledge the reader has about the topic. If you don’t have enough knowledge and vocabulary to understand the text, no amount of “skills” practice will help. Given the lack of attention to building knowledge in school, the system ends up further privileging the kids who are already privileged — those who have highly educated parents and are more likely to pick up sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary at home.

Another widespread belief among educators is that history and non-hands-on science are inappropriate for young children. That, too, is not supported by the evidence — including the anecdotal evidence from Ms. Williams’ classroom. The fact is, history is a series of stories. And kids love stories. The same is true for science topics that don’t lend themselves to hands-on activities. It’s ironic that truly abstract concepts like captions are considered appropriate for six-year-olds, but informational tales about history, science, and the arts are not.

When young children are introduced to history and science in concrete and understandable ways, chances are they’ll be far better equipped to reengage with those topics with more nuance later on. At the same time, teaching disconnected comprehension skills boosts neither comprehension nor reading scores. It’s just empty calories. In effect, kids are clamoring for broccoli and spinach while adults insist on a steady diet of donuts.

The good news is that a growing number of elementary schools, like the one where Ms. Williams taught, are recognizing that it’s not only OK to focus on building children’s knowledge, it’s vital to their chances of success. And that kids love it.

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