Schools as Conservative Institutions

Over the years, I have written often about the contradictory obligations that U.S. public schools face. Since the origins of tax-supported schooling in the 19th century and its surging growth in the 20th century through immigration and national reform movements aimed at bringing schools and society closer, two competing responsibilities appeared time and again.

The first was to change students, imbue them with knowledge, skills, and values that they would use to gain personal success and make America a better place to live in. The duty of public schooling as an agent of individual and societal reform took off in the early 20th century as Progressivism and has been in the educational bloodstream ever since.

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

Often conserving such values can be seen in rules posted in nearly every classroom across the nation at the beginning of the school year. For example:


So here is a national institution that has had from its very earliest years conflicting goals–reform and conserve.

Most policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers are far more familiar with  efforts to reform schools over the past century than the persistent urge for conserving family, community, and national practices and values.

From the educational Progressives of the early 20th century to 21st century charter school and “personalized learning” advocates, beliefs that schools then and now failed their students and society and programs and practices had to (and have to) change. Even though there were splits among Progressives during their heyday of reform (1890-1940)–efficiency-minded and pedagogical wings–they sought and achieved major changes in what many reformers sneeringly called “traditional schools.”

Yet there were educational conservatives during these decades who insisted that traditional schools transmit a common curriculum of academic subjects through classroom practices to all children and youth. Such schooling had to remain the norm and not be changed.

Diane Ravitch in Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform resurrects critics William Bagley and Isaac Kandel who from the same pulpit as  Progressives William Kirkpatrick and Harold Rugg, that is, Teachers College, Columbia, voiced sharp objections to the mainstream Progressivism flowing through the nation’s schools. Bagley, Kandel and others wanted an academic curriculum that all, not just some, students took. They wanted children and youth, in Bagley’s words, to acquire knowledge and skills in “industry, accuracy, carefulness,steadfastness, patriotism, culture, cleanliness, truth, self-sacrifice, social service, and personal honor” (Ravitch, p. 285).

Historian of education, Adam Laats in The Other School Reformers points to what occurred in the Tennessee Scopes trial in the mid-1920s over the teaching of evolution in the schools, the struggle over Progressive social studies textbooks in the late-1930s, the battle over progressive ideology controlling district leadership in Pasadena (CA) in the early 1950s, and the conservative attack on school texts used to subvert community and family beliefs in Kanawha County (WVA) during the 1970s. Each episode, Laats asserts, reveals the strong countervailing effort by conservatives to slow down the steamroller of Progressive reform in the 20th century.

And those challenges persist. Today conservatives of all stripes, across ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic status challenge reform-minded boards of education, administrators, and practitioners about both the quality of the schooling their children receive and the values embedded in what their sons and daughters learn. Conservatives today seek more school competition (e.g., establishing charters, issuing vouchers) and transmitting a uniform curriculum (e.g., E.D. Hirsch’s “core knowledge”), teaching patriotism (e.g., controversy over Advanced Placement U.S. History in Colorado), and reduced federal intervention in education and greater role for states and local districts in managing public schools (e.g., Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015). In short, there are many strains of conservatism at play among and between reformers in 2019.

Educational conservatives of all stripes, of course, are not allergic to change. They seek stability and many realize that stability can be maintained only when some changes occur. Called “dynamic conservatism,” examples of cooperation between Progressives and conservatives then and now are evident. No Child Left Behind (2002) joined Congressional Republicans and Democrats to pass the first bill in President George W. Bush’s initial term. Introduction of Common Core Curriculum standards across most states (although many educational conservatives believed it had too many federal thumbprints on it) is another instance of achieving a common course of study for all students. Both conservatives and certain Progressives legislators and donors  have joined forces to expand parental choice (although many current progressives oppose vouchers). “No excuses” schools such as KIPP and Success Academies practice what conservatives have sought in traditional schooling for decades. And Progressive changes in classroom practices, that is, teachers shifting more instruction to small groups and independent work from whole-group teaching and increased use of technologies in classroom lessons, conservatives have embraced.

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.





Filed under Reforming schools

Principals And Test Scores

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

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

First the key parts of the post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Filed under school leaders, testing

A Witness to the Desegregation—and Resegregation—of America’s Schools (Kristina Rizga)

Kristina Rizga is a writer based in San Francisco. She is the author of Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph.

This article appeared May 1, 2018 in The Atlantic Online





On Rebecca Palacios’s first day in front of a classroom, one of her white students picked up his chair and threw it toward her, declaring that he refused to be taught by a “Mexican teacher.” It was 1976, Palacios was 22 years old, and many of her first-grade students were at the school because of a recently launched busing program in Corpus Christi, Texas, that the courts had mandated in an effort to racially integrate campuses. Large numbers of white students were now traveling across town to her school—Lamar Elementary—which for generations had served mostly working-class Mexican American children.

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Palacios learned about American discrimination against Latinos first-hand. Her father, a World War II veteran who worked for the public-park service in Texas, spoke frequently about the daily humiliations of being a Latino in America—of not being able to eat in certain restaurants or use certain water fountains. He would recount stories of teachers prohibiting him from speaking Spanish in school, sometimes hitting him when he spoke it with his friends.

The use of Spanish was still discouraged in Corpus Christi school buildings when Palacios became a student in the 1950s. Designed to funnel Latinos into vocational tracks such as factory jobs or secretarial work, these segregated schools didn’t offer academically ambitious students like Palacios the advanced classes they needed to attend college. But thanks to her high-school teachers—both white and Latino—who created the necessary coursework using their own resources, Palacios became the first person in her family to go to college.

Those teachers had a profound impact on Palacios’s life, and, in turn, on the thousands of students she taught in Corpus Christi. Over the three decades that followed that September day in 1976, Palacios would go on to became one of the most distinguished early-childhood educators in the country, renowned for promoting her students’ sense of agency, intellectual curiosity, and love of learning. The arc of her career captures some of the major shifts—desegregation, resegregation, and declines in public funding—that have shaped America’s schools over the past several decades.

Palacios’s first two years of teaching at Lamar Elementary were some of the toughest in her life, she recalled earlier this year, sitting in her office in downtown Corpus Christi. Palacios retired in 2010 and now works as a consultant for the district as a coach of teachers. Behind her, pictures of Palacios’s five children, her husband, and their grandchildren dotted a bookshelf.

The Corpus Christi busing program that began around the time Palacios started teaching was the byproduct of a ruling by a federal judge in 1970 that made the city the first in the United States to extend the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to Mexican American students. Prior to the 1970 ruling, Corpus Christi officials argued that Brown only applied to black-white segregation. It wasn’t until Jose Cisneros and 23 other fathers—all members of the United Steelworkers union—sued the district for isolating Latino students in inferior, underfunded schools that the courts recognized Mexican American students as a minority group with their own history of discrimination in education. In establishing that Latino children deserve the same protections as their black peers, the Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District ruling had far-reaching consequences for every school in the nation: It prompted additional rulings that eventually extended Brown’s protections to all historically marginalized students of color.

Around the same time that the Corpus Christi district started providing funding for its busing program, the federal government began sending money to schools serving children who’d grown up in poverty. Project Follow Through, which was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, funded intensive coaching of teachers, medical care for children, engagement of families in school governance, and parenting classes. These investments, which at their peak had a budget of $60 million, contributed the most to Palacios’s teaching successes as a bilingual early-childhood educator early on.

About half of Palacios’s first-graders at the time were white, and many of their parents weren’t happy about the new busing arrangement. But many supported the idea of integration and lobbied district officials to bring in new resources to the school, like art and science supplies, and advanced classes. Palacios recalled those years as an intense period of growth that pushed her to go beyond traditional teaching methods focused primarily on content delivery and memorization. She yearned to create engaging learning environments that challenged her students to ask questions, deliberate answers with their peers, and learn how to integrate diverse ways of thinking about the world.

In 1982, Palacios enrolled in the graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin to work toward her doctorate in education, which would, she reasoned, help her ground her innovations in the latest research, and give her more authority to bring those changes beyond the confines of her classroom. The following year, Eduardo Torres, who had left Lamar to become the principal at Zavala Elementary, asked Palacios to join his team as an early-childhood educator, where Palacios ended up working for 24 years, focusing her methods entirely on preschool-age children.

While at Zavala, Palacios developed an innovative curriculum—in collaboration with her colleagues—that the district adopted for all preschools from 2001 to 2010. Palacios’s two-week units were based around the theme of families: human, animal, plant, and insect “families.” With that change, for instance, rather than reading a book on farm animals, and then developing vocabulary by answering simple questions about the book, and memorizing key words and concepts, Palacios’s lessons now integrated multiple disciplines in every hour of instruction, including literacy, math, science, and social studies. As students investigated farm animals—often guided by their own questions about the topics—they could leverage and build on previous knowledge they learned while exploring other families.

Because integration of different disciplines helps children engage with new concepts through familiar themes and patterns, such approaches can make classrooms more inclusive and engaging for diverse children with varying skills and interests. A child who finds certain math tasks, like memorization and repetition, boring or too abstract, for example, forgets that she is engaging in those tasks by counting the wheels of the farm trucks or comparing the shapes of the buildings on a farm.

For Palacios, such approaches—which fall under the rubric of teaching “the whole child,” in education jargon—require well-trained educators, sustained funding for learning materials, such as building blocks or paint, and supportive administrators like Torres. “When my teaching partner and I would come to the office of Mr. Torres, asking for something to implement our latest innovation, he’d always say, ‘If it’s for the kids, we’re going to make it happen.’ Having that stance was a critical base for my ability to succeed and stay in teaching as long as I did.”

Just as Palacios reached a degree of success in her sixth year of teaching at Lamar, the Corpus Christi school district, the courts, and the Cisneros plaintiffs were sparring over the mechanics of busing. District officials were constantly changing bus routes and school assignments, which exacerbated the growing resistance to integration among many parents. By 1982, the plaintiffs agreed to end the court-mandated busing, settling for a district program that would allow students to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods but wouldn’t cover the cost of transportation. The court also mandated increased funding to high-poverty schools like Zavala and Lamar as the means of fulfilling the 1970 ruling.

This marked the end of one of the 20th century’s most significant civil-rights battles. Corpus Christi schools soon resegregated. Today, 93 percent of students at Zavala Elementary are Latino, and 95 percent are poor. Roughly two-thirds of its students, meanwhile, are labeled as “at risk of dropping out” based on their achievement levels and disciplinary issues. Most of the extra local funding that came as a result of the Cisneros lawsuit also disappeared over time, compounded by the deep state cuts, which have reduced the overall pool of funding for all of Texas public schools.

Meanwhile, Palacios continued to refine her methods, developing “journals” to detect what her 4-year-olds—who typically can’t yet read or write fluently—learned every day. Students would respond to Palacios’s questions by drawing pictures and telling stories about them, using new concepts and words they’d learned. She also started coaching parents every six weeks, including by modeling lessons on how to teach reading at home, which she said became one of the most effective strategies she’d implemented in her career.

“The hardest part about teaching before I retired was seeing the disintegration of support for public schools,” Palacios said over lunch at a local restaurant, during an all-day training session for preschool teachers she organized in collaboration with the district. “What I’ve seen over time, especially in the last 10 years, [is that] there are so many new, unfunded demands and programs. STEAM [science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics] initiatives, for example, require resources. You can’t talk about granite if the kids haven’t seen granite. You can’t talk about water pressure, water displacement, or buoyancy without water droppers, PVC pipes, or water tables that make up these experiences.”

When touring classrooms in the Corpus Christi district a few years ago as part of a teacher-training initiative, she observed that worksheets had replaced the paint, glitter, and building blocks that once dominated preschool learning spaces.

Despite the retreat from integration efforts and anti-poverty programs by the courts and the government, Palacios still views the legacy of the Cisneros case as crucial progress. “Schools resegregated, but the eyes were open: Separate is not equal.”

These days, as Palacios coaches dozens of teachers in Corpus Christi, she talks to them about the importance of leadership and advocacy, just as much as she talks about teaching practices. Palacios tells them how she created a pre-kindergarten professional association, which, at one point, convinced the school board not to cut the district’s paraprofessional positions. She also hosted a yearly open house in preschools for school-board members and administrators across the district to show them the promise of effective and engaging teaching through sustained funding.

“I know it takes a lot of energy to do all that, but if you’re going to complain about it, it’s never going to make a difference,” Palacios said at the end of a long day of coaching teachers. “You’ve got to be in there, be the advocate, and make the changes for the children.”


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Fiddling with Time in Classrooms: Whatever Happened to Block Scheduling?

Time in school is a precious resource. State policymakers determine how many days a year schools will be open; district boards of education decide when school will open in the morning and adjourn in the afternoon. And classroom teachers constantly check the clock on the wall, their wrist watches, or other time pieces to insure that current pace of lesson will end tidily when the bell rings. Policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers assume that how much time students spend with teachers in class makes a difference in what is learned, the classroom climate, while growing the all-important relationship between teacher and student. Thus, time in school is both scarce and precious (see here, here, and here).

No surprise, then, that given these assumptions about the importance of time state and district policymakers–the U.S. has a decentralized system of schooling rooted in 50 states and more than 13,000 districts–have fiddled with the school’s daily schedule. Most schools in the U.S. meet for at least six hours a day–since it is the primary instrument for distributing time to classroom learning and other activities.

Consider the unrelenting efforts to reform the nation’s secondary schools since the 1890s–yes, over a century and a quarter of efforts to improve what were once called junior and senior high schools, capstones of U.S. public education (see here, here, and here). In nearly all instances, reformers have included changes in secondary school daily schedules especially since the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.

Enter block scheduling as a reform of the traditional daily schedule.

What is block scheduling and when did it begin?

Block scheduling takes the traditional daily schedule of 6-8 classes a day of between 45-50 minutes–a schedule that dates back to the 1920s–and reorganizes the day into blocks of 60-90 minutes for various subjects on different days of the week. There are variations of block scheduling.

A traditional daily schedule:


A 4X4 schedule with 90-120 minutes for subject daily; students complete a course within one semester:




The most popular version of block scheduling is the A/B:



And there are hybrids that mix block and traditional scheduling for a student’s and teacher’s day:




What problems did block scheduling aim to solve?

Students took too many subjects a day (five to seven daily) with teachers seeing 125-150 students daily. That was a constant in the age-graded secondary school since the early 20th century. Within the traditional schedule, there has been insufficient time to develop concepts, build relationships between students and teacher, and cover subject matter and skills. Block scheduling offers students fewer subjects with enough time to handle a subject and lower the daily number of students each teacher faces than does the traditional high school bell schedule. Champions of block scheduling claim that the problems of low achievement, lack of interest in school subjects, chaos of constant movement of students through the school day and academic stress would decline.

Has block scheduling worked?

The answer depends upon who and what you read. Some researchers have become advocates of the reform and their research focuses on what they call “successful” instances (see here and here). Other researchers who have looked at all the studies–called meta-analyses–done on block scheduling and its various forms–reach different conclusions ranging from slight positive differences in one or more factors to no differences between traditional and block scheduling in its various incarnations (see here, here and here). The varied returns promised by block scheduling have yet to appear sufficiently to say that altering the time students spend with teachers in a block schedule has “worked.”

What has happened to block scheduling?

I found it difficult to locate any recent reliable estimate of the number of U.S. secondary schools that use versions of block schedules. I did find state estimates. In Washington state, about one-third of all high schools used one or another version of the schedule (see here). In some states, the percentage runs much higher. North Carolina had in 2009 nearly 90 percent of its high school using some form of block scheduling.  In some places such as the metro Washington, D.C., school districts have tried block scheduling but decided to return to traditional ones. But at no point in the lifespan of this reform have I found evidence that a majority of U.S. secondary schools use block scheduling. The traditional schedule of six to eight periods of around 45-50 minutes continues to dominate the daily life of public secondary schools in the U.S.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Cartoons on Efficiency and Productivity

I have been thinking and writing about the concepts of efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity in different occupations. A question crossed my mind: how do cartoonists look at these concepts? Thus, this month’s feature displays cartoons on these topics. Enjoy!















lemonade cartoon 20 oct 2011 personal data.png
















Filed under Uncategorized

“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See”

David Kirp wrote the following review in the Washington Post of a recently published book by Milbrey McLaughlin–“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.” Full disclosure: McLaughlin has been an admired colleague and friend of mine for decades. She  is Emeritus Professor of Education at Stanford University. 

David Kirp is Emeritus Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley,

A dozen years ago, while taking a walk with a friend on the miles-long beach at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, I learned a valuable lesson — two lessons, actually — about how research ought to be conducted.

“There’s this amazing study about the effects of preschool,” my friend told me, but I was dismissive. “The effects fade out quickly,” I responded, recalling the devastating 1969 Westinghouse study of Head Start.

My friend was having none of it. “These kids have been followed into their 20s, and the impact has persisted — significantly more kids graduating from high school, going to college, staying out of jail and off welfare, earning more.”

As you’ve probably figured out, my friend was talking about the iconic Perry Preschool study. A few months later, a follow-up analysis found that these gains persisted into middle age, and when economists converted those life results into dollars-and-cents terms, they found a benefit-cost ratio that would turn Warren Buffett’s head. (In fact, it did turn the heads of Buffett’s children, who, when tasked by their father to identify a social investment comparable to his private-sector investments, zeroed in on early education.)

Lesson one — take a broad view of impact. Research on the effects of an education initiative typically looks only at later educational outcomes, but these investigators examined the impact of preschool on the totality of these children’s lives. What they found has transformed our understanding of why early education matters.

Lesson two — take the long view. Most education research adopts a short time horizon, rarely looking at the impact of a program beyond two or three years. But the Perry study lasted decades, and that made all the difference. Had the researchers ended the study after third grade, as so many studies of preschool do these days, they would have concluded that the Westinghouse report was right and that preschool’s effects dissipate. Only later — sometimes decades later — did the full significance of the program emerge.

It’s a long way from down-and-out Ypsilanti, Mich., in the mid-1960s to a violence-ridden Chicago neighborhood in the early 1980s. It’s also a long way from an iconic preschool program to a model out-of-school venture. But the big lesson to be gleaned from “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See,” Stanford emeritus professor Milbrey W. McLaughlin’s important new book about a K-12 program called CYCLE, which operated in Chicago from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, is much the same.

The book describes how a program that places a heavy emphasis on academics, if designed carefully and carried out thoughtfully, as CYCLE was, carries the prospect of rewriting the script of children’s lives, not just improving their grades or test scores. What’s more, the ripple effects from this experience persist for a lifetime, as accomplishments lead to more accomplishments, altering not only the lives of the participants but affecting their children’s fortunes as well.

CYCLE pitched its tent in the Cabrini-Green housing project. This was one of those high-rise war zones, plagued by gangs, that Alex Kotlowitz wrote about so memorably in “There Are No Children Here.” Jobs were scarce in this almost entirely black community. So were men; it was the women, mothers and grandmothers and aunts, who assumed responsibility for raising the children.

The public schools operated as dropout factories, graduating fewer than 30 percent of their students. Educators had bottom-of-the-barrel expectations for their charges, blaming the neighborhood for these dismal outcomes. Students who later transferred to better schools were jolted by the realization that they were years behind their classmates. When William Bennett, then the U.S. secretary of education, pronounced Chicago’s public schools to be the worst in the nation, these schools were the worst of the worst.

Out-of-school ventures have a decidedly mixed track record, especially those in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage like Cabrini-Green. How could it be otherwise? How could a program that filled a couple of hours of a child’s daily life make any difference in such an inhospitable world? But CYCLE bucked the odds.

Here’s why attention should be paid: About 90 percent of the youngsters who participated in its scholarship programs and mentoring activities graduated from high school, and about a third went to college. That’s astonishing, but what’s more astonishing still are the long-term reverberations.

The CYCLE alumni are now middle-aged, and the impact of the program continues to be felt. Among the alumni are two medical doctors, 11 with doctorates and a host of master’s degree holders. Most of the alums, McLaughlin noted, “live middle-class lives; they are teachers, social workers, small business owners, administrators, coaches.”

“The impressive accomplishments … show that the negative outcomes predicted for kids who grow up in concentrated poverty like Cabrini-Green … are not inevitable,” she wrote. “They result not from a so-called ‘culture of poverty’ but from a poverty of opportunities.”

Why did CYCLE succeed when so many programs with similar aspirations fail? And what are the broader implications of the CYCLE story for policy and practice?

Ask any professional who works with kids what has probably the most memorable impact on their lives and you invariably hear the same answer — what’s needed most is a caring, stable adult. When researching “Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Changing Children’s Lives and America’s Future,” I visited youth-oriented organizations with a solid track record such as YouthBuild and Diplomas Now. The refrain from the teens with whom I talked was the same: “They have our back.”

The core of the CYCLE program was its after-school tutoring program, and the volunteer tutors definitely “had their back.” There was no cookbook for them to follow, no set curriculum for them to inflict. Rather than trying to “fix” the students’ deficiencies, as so many social-service programs see their mission, the tutors took young people where they were and encouraged them to aim high. They became mentors as well as tutors, developing close ties to the students they spent time with, figuring out what would be most helpful, not to the group generally but to each individual.

Those relationships reached far beyond the realm of academic improvement. The tutors took the youngsters into their lives, introducing them to worlds they hadn’t imagined, making connections for them, building up what sociologists call social capital, giving them a dose of what middle-class parents provide for their own offspring. As one youth said, they became “our experienced friends.” When the kids’ lives took a wrong turn, CYCLE stood by them. “Never give up on a kid” was the program’s mantra.

“Dead or in prison by 21” is the fatalistic way many inner-city youths describe their future. But when adolescents are shown alternative pathways — summer jobs, college scholarships and the like — and given a solid chance to follow those pathways, they can seize the day. The corollary to “you can’t be what you can’t see” is that growing up in a place such as Cabrini Green need not be a life sentence.

Some of the CYCLE kids were part of an “I Have a Dream”-type program that guaranteed that, if they graduated from high school, they wouldn’t have to pay college tuition. This pledge mattered, of course, for it brought higher education within financial reach, but it was the encouragement from all sides, the constancy of adult support, that made the possibility of going to college seem real.

After spending a few years in the program, many of the CYCLE youngsters became junior staff, role models to the younger participants — “our gang of excellence,” a staffer called them. The kids they spent time with benefited from this attention, and the newly minted mentors benefited at least as much. They took their responsibilities seriously, collaborating on activities that would pique the kids’ interest and building a tight network of support. Three decades later, friendships among those staffers continue.

These relationships are what altered people’s lives. They are the “secret sauce.” But evaluators who are interested only in statistics — what percent of students graduated from high school or what percent enrolled in college? — miss this “soft” data.

As McLaughlin pointed out, “Without this long-term perspective, it is impossible to decide whether a life course has been transformed or only temporarily modified.” That vantage shows how graduating from college isn’t the only outcome that matters. Many of the program’s alumni who didn’t earn a college degree have built strong families and economically productive lives. Conversely, one college graduate, on paper a success story, became the consigliere to a Chicago gang.

CYCLE isn’t a model in the “replicate the model” sense. Rather, it’s a strategy. The core values are essential, but the specifics must vary with the needs of the community — what works in Chicago wouldn’t necessarily go over in Little Rock.

Community schools, which serve up an array of activities such as art and sports before and after school and during the summer, represent the next generation of out-of-school-time programs. Their number has increased rapidly in recent years, and the National Center for Community Schools estimates that there are 5,000 such schools nationwide.

Studies of community schools show that this strategy, when well executed, improves how students fare in school. To gauge the full effects of this strategy we need a long view, following the students in a program such as the New York City Children’s Aid Society’s community schools well beyond their school years.

Like CYCLE, these programs may well be changing the trajectory of children’s lives.


Filed under raising children

A Story about District Test Scores

This story is not about current classrooms and schools. Neither is this story about coercive accountability, unrealistic curriculum standards or the narrowness of highly-prized tests in judging district quality. This is a story well before Race to the Top, Adequate Yearly Progress, and “growth scores” entered educators’ vocabulary.

The story is about a district over 40 years ago that scored one point above comparable districts on a single test and what occurred as a result. There are two lessons buried in this story–yes, here’s the spoiler. First, public perceptions of  standardized test scores as a marker of “success” in schooling has a long history of being far more powerful than observers have believed  and, second, that the importance of students scoring well on key tests predates A Nation at Risk (1983), Comprehensive School Reform Act (1998), and No Child Left Behind (2002)


I was superintendent of the Arlington (VA) public schools between 1974-1981. In 1979 something happened that both startled me and gave me insight into the public power of test scores. The larger lesson, however, came years after I left the superintendency when I began to understand the potent drive that everyone has to explain something, anything, by supplying a cause, any cause, just to make sense of what occurred.

In Arlington then, the school board and I were responsible for a district that had declined in population (from 20,000 students to 15,000) and had become increasingly minority (from 15 percent to 30). The public sense that the district was in free-fall, we felt, could be arrested by concentrating on academic achievement, critical thinking, expanding the humanities, and improved teaching. After five years, both the board and I felt we were making progress.

State  test scores–the coin of the realm in Arlington–at the elementary level climbed consistently each year. The bar charts I presented at press conferences looked like a stairway to the stars and thrilled school board members. When scores were published in local papers, I would admonish the school board to keep in mind that these scores were  a very narrow part of what occurred daily in district schools. Moreover, while scores were helpful in identifying problems, they were severely inadequate in assessing individual students and teachers. My admonitions were generally swept aside, gleefully I might add, when scores rose and were printed school-by-school in newspapers. This hunger for numbers left me deeply skeptical about standardized test scores as signs of district effectiveness.

Then along came  a Washington Post article in 1979 that showed Arlington to have edged out Fairfax County, an adjacent and far larger district, as having the highest Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores among eight districts in the metropolitan area (yeah, I know it was by one point but when test scores determine winners  and losers as in horse-races, Arlington had won by a nose).

I knew that SAT results had nothing whatsoever to do with how our schools performed. It was a national standardized instrument to predict college performance of individual students; it was not constructed to assess district effectiveness. I also knew that the test had little to do with what Arlington teachers taught. I told that to the school board publicly and anyone else who asked about the SATs. Few listened.

Nonetheless, the Post article with the box-score of  test results produced more personal praise, more testimonials to my effectiveness as a superintendent, and, I believe, more acceptance of the school board’s policies than any single act during the seven years I served. People saw the actions of the Arlington school board and superintendent as having caused those SAT scores to outstrip other Washington area districts.

The lessons I learned in 1979 is that, first, public perceptions of high-value markers of “quality,” in this instance, test scores, shape concrete realities that policymakers such as a school board and superintendent face in making budgetary, curricular, and organizational decisions. Second, as a historian of education I learned that using test scores to judge a district’s “success” began in the late-1960s when newspapers began publishing district and school-by-school test scores pre-dating by decades the surge of such reporting in the 1980s and 1990s.

This story and its lessons I have never forgotten.



Filed under leadership, testing