“Successful” Schools? Looking at MetWest High School and Social Justice Humanitas Academy

For the past two years I have been researching and writing about definitions of “success” and “failure” in U.S. education. As I have done with all of my book projects, I draft posts for this blog to clarify my thinking and learn from reader comments. Then I revise what I have written and those revisions become part of the book I am writing.

A year and a half ago, I posted a series on “success” and “failure” in schools (see here, here, and here). Since then I have written a few chapters for this forthcoming book that answer questions driving this study.

  1. How have “success” and “failure” been defined and applied to reforming schools and judging programs past and present?
  2. From where do these ideas of “success” and “failure” come?
  3. How were these ideas transmitted to Americans then and now?
  4. Who decides (and how) whether schools “succeed” and “fail?”
  5. What does “success”and “failure” look like in contemporary classrooms, schools and districts?
  6. So what?

Now I have four chapters that tentatively answer the first four questions. Last month I began research on the fifth question by looking at two schools deemed “successful” by current metrics but have gone beyond traditional definitions of “success” to carve out a larger, expansive view of what student, teacher, and school “success” look like.

Both California schools are non-special, that is, neither a charter nor magnet in their districts. MetWest High School* with about 160 students is in the Oakland Unified School District. It is a Big Picture school launched in 2002 that combines academics and community internships for its largely poor and Latino students (see here and here).

The other school is Social Justice Humanitas Academy with just over 500 high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. A school founded and governed by teachers as a school-within-a-school at a nearby large high school in the early 2000s and eventually becoming an autonomous school in a new facility in 2011.

I visited these two small high schools between February and March 2019. I read documents, observed teachers, listened to students, and interviewed key staff members. For MetWest, I have published descriptions of the school and observations of four teacher lessons (see here, here, here, and here). I will have more posts about classrooms and internships there in the next few weeks.

And shortly, I will begin publishing posts about SJHA and lessons I have observed.

These visits to two different schools in California aim at describing two small non-charter, non-magnet schools that have an expanded and expansive view of what constitutes student, teacher, and school “success” and, more important, what that expansive view looks like up close. I do this not to suggest that all public high schools, big and small, should copy these two schools. While there are similar high schools like MetWest and SJHA elsewhere in the nation, albeit in small numbers, there are two other reasons I concentrate on these schools.

First, most Americans overlook a basic fact: there is no one national system of American schooling. There is great variety among U.S. public schools (e.g., 50 state systems, over 13,000 school districts, and over 100,000 urban, suburban, and rural schools). Yet there is one definition of “success” and “failure” that dominates  policy talk and action, the rewards and penalties, the metrics used in judging all U.S. schools: A “successful” school has higher than average test scores, graduation rates, college admissions, etc

I describe and analyze MetWest and SJHA to demonstrate that broader definitions of “success” not only exist amid the prevailing narrow view of “success” but also that these expanded definitions have been put into school and classroom practice.

In describing these two schools I want to show that variation among U.S. schools also shows up in how schools define “success” for their students, teachers, and sites, revealing that there are notable exceptions to the prevailing monolithic view of “success” across U.S. schools. And just because I identify only two schools does not make exceptions insignificant.

In short, these two schools are an “existence proof.” They demonstrate what has been done by public school administrators and teachers who define “success” in far broader terms than conventional ones.  How these two urban school staffs bent bureaucratic rules in large districts in joining traditional “success” metrics with other criteria that capture a far more expansive view of what constitutes student, teacher, and school “success” shows that mixes of the conventional and unconventional can be brewed into a do-able hybrid public school serving youth of color. Such hybrid definitions of “success” exist in the very neighborhoods that are too often judged as inhospitable to experimentation and excellence.**

Second, both of these high schools are at the margins of both systems, not a part of a growing core of schools in each district. Both have achieved a “protected niche” within each district and they have survived and thrived. Moreover, their approach to teaching and learning are instances of what some observers have called “deeper learning” (see here and here). To achieve such “deeper learning,” these schools have to overturn the historical “grammar of learning” (e.g., age-graded school organization, rows of desks, whole group instruction, homework, frontal teaching, tests) that continues to dominate public and private education in the nation. A most difficult task. I am not sure these two schools do but they surely grasp for that evanescent deeper learning and teaching.

So MetWest High School and SJHA become part of my book as proof that an expansive definition of “success” exists in public schools and aspire to forms of “deeper learning.”  Both schools deserve our full attention in a society unthinking in its acceptance of economic and social inequalities and one driven by individualism rather than community and by attaining fortune rather than friends and family.


*As of this date, MetWest High School has no website.

**There are also private schools catering to parents who can afford high tuition costs that have expanded views of “success” such as Sudbury Schools , Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, etc.




Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Cartoons on Leadership

Leadership, leadership, leadership–the word is everywhere. Across schools and universities, corporations, foundations, and–of course–government, just-in-time leadership will solve all problems. The idea of the man or woman who can rescue an organization from its low performance is (and has been) prevalent in a capitalist democracy where the individual reigns supreme. And so, getting the right leader and practicing “good” leadership continues to grip management science as well as popular prescriptions for ending failure and achieving success.

Let’s see what cartoonists with their wicked pen and ink have said about leaders and leadership. Enjoy!




























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Filed under Uncategorized

Teaching Integrated Science at MetWest (Part 4)

On a table next to me is a fan whooshing air. A few students are waiting in line to see if a design of a pinwheel windmill they made out of thin wooden rods, rubber bands, scotch tape , twine, corks, and glue will twirl its blades as it holds a cup of at least eight pennies. I watch as the  teams of two to three students stand in front of the fan to see if their design works.

I am observing an integrated science class at MetWest taught by Jake Puzycki.*  He is wearing a Lehigh College T-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. As students entered the class, Jake held a basket into which each student dropped his or her cell phone. There are 18 students sitting in a horseshoe arrangements of desks–one side of horseshoe facing the other side–with a large open space with the teacher’s desk at the front near a large whiteboard. Next to one wall is a table holding raw materials for the pinwheel including a bucket of pennies and a fan blowing air.

On one wall of the spacious classroom is a poster:

Norms of Engagement

* I can participate fully

* I can honor my experience and the experiences of others

* I am Science-able and I can celebrate failure and learn from it

* I can create the environment I need to be successful

Previous lessons worked on the design and  all of the variables that go into make a simple wind turbine that can carry weight. Today is the test of the turbine and the completion of a worksheet. Photo below illustrates one kind of prototype. Also see YouTube segments of students trying out his creation in other science classes


The design, building, and testing out the prototype is part of a unit on energy. The class had built a small steam engine, studied fossil fuels, and made an electric motor. Now they are working on a wind turbine. Figuring out all of the different variables that go into constructing a light-weight pinwheel with blades that turn easily and can carry the weight of pennies in a cup has challenged this class. The enthusiasm over testing out the design they constructed with the fan and seeing how many pennies can be put in the cup beyond eight led to a highly competitive contest between a few of the teams–I describe that below.

The lesson involved students finishing up the manufacturing phase of completing their prototype and then trying it out. Groups of students at their tables were at different stages of building prototype. If the pinwheels or blades did not turn, then teams returned to their tables to jigger which of the variables (e.g., curvature of the blades, string, wooden rods, cork) had to be re-done. When reconfigured, team woul return to fans (there were two in the room) and then try again.

So there was a lot of movement, lot of engaged noise in the room as Jake (students call their Teacher/Advisor by first names at the school) moved around the room asking and answering questions and taking notes on his clipboard about what each team was doing.

As I scanned the room, most of the class was thoroughly engaged in the tasks. I did note that some team members had done the lion share of the design and testing leaving the team-mate uninvolved or doing minor work. A few students to my left were talking and off-task but Jake’s wending here and there throughout the large room brought those students back into their teams and focus on the overall task. The three dropped in and out of the class flow on testing their windmills.

What becomes clear as time passes is that particular teams were competing to see how much weight in pennies could be carried in the cup hanging from their pinwheel. At one point, Jake says aloud to the class: “We got a windmill with nine pennies here.” The team next to me is led by Tony. He asks Bryan, a student across the room, how many pennies he has in the cup. Bryan tells him 12. Tony and his team-mate confer and team-mate grabs more pennies from the class bucket to put in the cup.

Tony tries out the windmill and blades do not turn with more pennies in cup. He returns to his desk and fiddles with blades, takes off scotch tape on a few and adjusts length of string and tries again. Jake says to class: Y’all have 15 minutes left.”

I had asked Tony about the point of building a windmill and he explained to me the unit on energy. He understood the steam engine but when Jake told class that they would build a prototype wind turbine with an attached cup holding eight pennies, Tony said to me:” I didn’t think it would pick up any weight at all.”

Competition grows heated between at least four teams. Calls of “we have 14 pennies.” Bryan gets up to 15 and then Tony’s cup has 20 in it. Much  laughter at exchanges. Intensity increases as various teams strive to add pennies and still have the pinwheel blades rotate.

Jake asks a student near me: “What did you learn from the taped blades?” Student responded (I could not hear what he said). Jake tells student to look again at the worksheet on designing and constructing the windmill.

Rivalries grow heated between teams. In one instance, a team member near me uses the F-word in frustration and exchanges of F-words follow. Jake hears it and says: “language, language, please.” I hear no more swear words from that team.

I turn to another team and ask two students what the point was of building a wind turbine. One knew and the other did not.

Jake announces that it is clean up time and that each student had to complete the worksheet before leaving class. A few students say “no, let’s keep working on it.”

By this time, Bryan’s team had nearly 30 pennies in cup with blades turning while Tony’s team amassed over 40 pennies and, sure enough, when he put the prototype windmill that he had continued to rejigger as the cup weighed more and more, the blades rotated albeit slowly.

Jake comes over to Tony’s desk after he had yelled out that they had 47 pennies in the cup. Tony’s team-mate tells Jake that all of what they doing is like a propeller on one of those early planes lifting the weight of the wooden plane off the ground–like the Wright brothers did. Jake nods.

Most of the students are now writing on their worksheets. The three students near me who were dipping in and out of the task during the competition are still chatting with one another.

Jake tells class, “no clean up,” no cell phones.” Students clear desks, return materials to side of room, and toss out waste. Jake returns phones after inspecting desks. Class leaves and new bunch of students enter integrated science.


*A few MetWest teachers focus on content subjects and are not advisors who meet with students and their mentors in the community. Jake Puzycki is one such teacher.














Filed under how teachers teach

The Growth Mindset Problem (Carl Hendrick)


This appeared in Aeon, March 11, 2019

“Dr Carl Hendrick is the co-author of What Does This Look Like In The Classroom: Bridging The Gap Between Research And Practice (2017). He holds a PhD in education from King’s College and lives in Berkshire, England where he teaches at Wellington College. He is currently writing a book with Professor Paul Kirschner on foundational works in education research.”


Over the past century, a powerful idea has taken root in the educational landscape. The notion of intelligence as something innate and fixed has been supplanted by the idea that intelligence is instead something malleable; that we are not prisoners of immutable characteristics and that, with the right training, we can be the authors of our own cognitive capabilities.

Nineteenth-century scientists including Francis Galton and Alfred Binet devoted their own considerable intelligence to a quest to classify and understand human cognitive ability. If we could codify the anatomy of intelligence, they believed, we could place individuals into their correct niche in society. Binet would go on to develop the first IQ tests, laying the foundations for a method of ranking the intelligence of job applicants, army recruits or schoolchildren that continues today.

In the early 20th century, progressive thinkers revolted against this idea that inherent ability is destiny. Instead, educators such as John Dewey argued that every child’s intelligence could be developed, given the right environment. The self, according to Dewey, is not something ‘ready made’ but rather ‘in continuous formation through choice of action’. In the 1960s and ’70s, psychologists such as Albert Bandura bridged some of the gap between the innate and the learned models of intelligence with his idea of social cognitive theory, self-efficacy and motivation. One can recognise that there are individual differences in ability, Bandura argued, but still emphasise the potential for growth for each individual, wherever one’s starting point.

Growth mindset theory is a relatively new – and wildly popular – iteration of this belief in the malleability of intelligence, but with a twist. In many schools today you will see hallways festooned with motivational posters, and hear speeches on the mindset of great sporting heroes who simply believed their way to the top. These are all attempts to put growth mindset theory into practice through motivation. However a growth mindset is not really about motivation, but rather about the way in which individuals understand their own intelligence.

According to the theory, if students believe that their ability is fixed, they will not want to do anything to reveal that, so a major focus of the growth mindset in schools is shifting students away from seeing failure as an indication of their ability, to seeing failure as a chance to improve that ability. As Jeff Howard noted almost 30 years ago: ‘Smart is not something that you just are, smart is something that you can get.’

Despite extraordinary claims for the efficacy of a growth mindset, however, it’s increasingly unclear whether attempts to change students’ mindsets about their abilities have any positive effect on their learning at all. And the story of the growth mindset is a cautionary tale about what happens when psychological theories are translated into the reality of the classroom, no matter how well-intentioned.

The idea of the growth mindset is based on the work of the psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford University in California. Dweck’s findings suggest that beliefs about ourselves can have a profound effect on academic achievement and beyond. Her seminal work stems from a paper 20 years ago that reported on a research project with schoolchildren that probed the relationship between their understanding of their own abilities and their actual performance.

In the experiment, a group of 10- to 12-year-olds were divided into two groups. All were told that they had achieved a high score on a test but members of the first group were praised for their intelligence in achieving this, while the others were praised for their effort. The second group were subsequently far more likely to put effort into future tasks while the former took on only those tasks that would not risk their initial sense of worth. Praising ability actually made the students perform worse, while praising effort emphasised that change was possible.

Dweck’s work suggests that when people believe that failure is not a barometer of innate characteristics but rather view it as a step to success (a growth mindset), they are far more likely to put in the kinds of effort that will eventually lead to that success. By contrast, those who believe that success or failure is due to innate ability (a fixed mindset) can find that this leads to a fear of failure and a lack of effort.

Imagine two children who are faced with taking a test on a tricky maths problem. The first child completes the first few steps but then hits a wall, and instantly feels demotivated. For this child, the small failure is incontrovertible evidence of simply not being good at maths. By contrast, for the second child, this small failure is merely a barrier to eventual success, and confers an opportunity to improve overall maths ability. The second child relishes the challenge, and works to improve – that child is displaying a growth mindset. According to the theory, the key to encouraging this disposition is to praise the effort and not the ability. By telling children that they are smart or intelligent, you are merely confirming the idea of innate ability, fostering a fixed mindset, and actually undermining their development. Dweck’s claims are supported by a lot of evidence, indeed she and her associates have spent more than 30 years exploring this phenomenon, including taking the time to respond to criticism in an open and transparent way.

Growth mindset theory has had a profound impact on the ground. It is difficult to think of a school today that is not in thrall to the idea that beliefs about one’s ability affect subsequent performance, and that it’s crucial to teach students that failure is merely a stepping stone to success. Implementing these ideas has been much harder, however, and attempts to replicate the original findings have not been smooth, to say the least. A recent national survey in the United States showed that 98 per cent of teachers feel that growth mindset approaches should be adopted in schools, but only 50 per cent said that they knew of strategies to effectively change a pupil’s mindset.

The truth is we simply haven’t been able to translate the research on the benefits of a growth mindset into any sort of effective, consistent practice that makes an appreciable difference in student academic attainment. In many cases, growth mindset theory has been misrepresented and miscast as simply a means of motivating the unmotivated through pithy slogans and posters. A general truth about education is that the more vague and platitudinous the statement, the less practical use it has on the ground. ‘Making a difference’ rarely makes any difference at all.

A growing number of recent studies are casting doubt on the efficacy of mindset interventions at scale. A large-scale study of 36 schools in the UK, in which either pupils or teachers were given training, found that the impact on pupils directly receiving the intervention did not have statistical significance, and that the pupils whose teachers were trained made no gains at all. Another study featuring a large sample of university applicants in the Czech Republic used a scholastic aptitude test to explore the relationship between mindset and achievement. They found a slightly negative correlation, with researchers claiming that ‘the results show that the strength of the association between academic achievement and mindset might be weaker than previously thought’. A 2012 review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK of attitudes to education and participation found ‘no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes, although there were several studies attempting to provide explanations for the link (if it exists)’. In 2018, two meta-analyses in the US found that claims for the growth mindset might have been overstated, and that there was ‘little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students’.

One of the greatest impediments to successfully implementing a growth mindset is the education system itself. A key characteristic of a fixed mindset is a focus on performance and an avoidance of any situation where testing might lead to a confirmation of fixed beliefs about ability. Yet we are currently in a school climate obsessed with performance in the form of constant summative testing, analysing and ranking of students. Schools create a certain cognitive dissonance when they proselytise the benefits of a growth mindset in assemblies but then hand out fixed target grades in lessons based on performance.

Aside from the implementation problem, the original growth mindset research has also received harsh criticism and been difficult to replicate robustly. The statistician Andrew Gelman at Columbia University in New York claims that ‘their research designs have enough degrees of freedom that they could take their data to support just about any theory at all’. Timothy Bates, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh who has been trying to replicate Dweck’s work in a third study in China, is finding that the results are repeatedly null. He notes in a 2017 interview that: ‘People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.’

An enduring criticism of growth mindset theory is that it underestimates the importance of innate ability, specifically intelligence. If one student is playing with a weaker hand, is it fair to tell the student that she is just not making enough effort? Growth mindset – like its educational-psychology cousin ‘grit’ – can have the unintended consequence of making students feel responsible for things that are not under their control: that their lack of success is a failure of moral character. This goes well beyond questions of innate ability to the effects of marginalisation, poverty and other socioeconomic disadvantage. For the US psychiatrist Scott Alexander, if a fixed mindset accounts for underachievement, then ‘poor kids seem to be putting in a heck of a lot less effort in a surprisingly linear way’. He sees growth mindset as a ‘noble lie’, and notes that saying to kids that a growth mindset accounts for success is not exactly denying reality so much as ‘selectively emphasising certain parts of’ it.

Much of this criticism is not lost on Dweck, and she deserves great credit for responding to it and adapting her work accordingly. In a recent blog, she noted that growth mindset theory ‘is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house’. In fact, she argues that her work has been misunderstood and misapplied in a range of ways. She has also expressed concerns that her theories are being misappropriated in schools by being conflated with the self-esteem movement: ‘The thing that keeps me up at night is that some educators are turning mindset into the new self-esteem, which is to make kids feel good about any effort they put in, whether they learn or not. But for me the growth mindset is a tool for learning and improvement. It’s not just a vehicle for making children feel good.’

For Dweck, it’s not just about more effort, but rather purposeful and meaningful effort. And it’s not just in the classroom where she feels that the growth mindset is being misunderstood, it seems to be happening in the home too: ‘We’re finding that many parents endorse a growth mindset, but they still respond to their children’s errors, setbacks or failures as though they’re damaging and harmful,’ she said in an interview in 2015. ‘If they show anxiety or overconcern, those kids are going toward a more fixed mindset.’

Dweck might be right that the theory is not always well understood or put into practice. There is always the danger of disappointment in the translation from educational laboratory to classroom, and this is partly due to the Chinese whispers effect, whereby research becomes diluted and distorted as it goes through its journey. But there is another factor at work here. The failure to translate the growth mindset into the classroom might reflect a profound misunderstanding of the elusive nature of teaching and learning itself.

Effective teaching, at its best, defies prescription. The same resources and the same approaches that are successful in one classroom can be completely ineffective in another. In his book Personal Knowledge (1958), Michael Polanyi defined ‘tacit knowledge’ as anything we know how to do but cannot explicitly explain how we do it, such as the complex set of skills needed to ride a bike or the instinctive ability to stay afloat in water. It is the ephemeral, elusive form of knowledge that resists classification or codification, and that can be gleaned only through immersion in the experience itself. In most cases, it’s not even something that can be expressed through language. As Polanyi put it so beautifully in his book The Tacit Dimension (1966), ‘we can know more than we can tell’. As a contrarian colleague once said to me about his frustration with the increasing codification of the classroom: ‘Perhaps we should be brave enough to allow it to remain a mystery.’

Good teachers are like good actors, not in the sense that they are both artists, but in the sense that the best teachers teach you without you realising that you’ve been taught. If students get a whiff of being part of an ‘intervention’, then it is likely that the very awareness of this will have a detrimental effect. The growth mindset advocates David Yeager and Gregory Walton at Stanford claim that these interventions should not be seen as ‘magic’ and should be delivered in a ‘stealthy’ way to maximise their effectiveness – miles away from the standard use of motivational stories, posters and explanations of brain plasticity. As they put it in 2011: ‘if adolescents perceive a teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects of the intervention, not increase its benefits.’ Pedagogy is not medicine, after all, and students do not want to be treated as patients to be cured.

How students learn well can be very counterintuitive. You might think it is safe to assume that, once you motivate students, the learning will follow. Yet research shows that this is often not the case: motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation. If you try to ‘motivate’ students into public speaking, they might feel motivated but can lack the specific knowledge needed to translate that into action. However, through careful instruction and encouragement, students can learn how to craft an argument, shape their ideas and develop them into solid form.

A lot of what drives students is their innate beliefs and how they perceive themselves. There is a strong correlation between self-perception and achievement, but there is some evidence to suggest that the actual effect of achievement on self-perception is stronger than the other way round. To stand up in a classroom and successfully deliver a good speech is a genuine achievement, and that is likely to be more powerfully motivating than woolly notions of ‘motivation’ itself.

One reason for this might be the over-generalised picture of the growth mindset: it tends to be talked about as a global or general skill as opposed to a domain-specific one. Many interventions focus on kids having a kind of global attitude to their own intelligence that can then be transferred to any learning situation but this is rarely the case. For example, some students can have a positive mindset in maths but a negative mindset in history due to a highly variable range of factors. The idea that a workshop on the plasticity of the brain and some videos of famous sportsmen who have failed in the past can translate into a domain-general growth disposition is simply unrealistic.

Students are most engaged when they are being supported through specific tasks to stretch their understanding beyond its current base, but ‘engagement’ doesn’t necessarily mean they’re learning anything. As the New Zealand education researcher Graham Nuthall showed in The Hidden Life of Learners (2007), ‘students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50 per cent of what the teacher is teaching.’ Nuthall’s work demonstrates that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do, as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. The psychologists Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and Robert Bjork at the University of California, Los Angeles, describe such activities as ‘desirable difficulties’, which refers to the kinds of things that are difficult in the short term, but that lead to greater gains in the long term. These point to a range of strategies that are more prosaic and less attractive than growth mindset interventions – familiar strategies such as testing, self-quizzing and spacing out learning.

Clearly, something has gone wrong somewhere along the way between the laboratory and the classroom. The US education scholars Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle outline a fundamental problem with the education system. Teachers, they say in their book Inside/Outside (1992), are subject to top-down models of school improvement, and are often passive objects of study in the educational research that underpins those models:

The primary knowledge source for the improvement of practice is research on classroom phenomena that can be observed. This research has a perspective that is ‘outside-in’; in other words, it has been conducted almost exclusively by university-based researchers who are outside of the day-to-day practices of schooling.

In a very real sense, teachers have been given answers to questions they didn’t ask, and solutions to problems that never existed. It is not surprising that they feel subject to fads and theories about students that do not hold up to scrutiny. For example, the problem of how to plan lesson content to match the individual ‘learning style’ of students has now been proven to have been a waste of time, and a sad indictment of how much time and energy has been expended on theoretical interventions with little to no evidence to support them.

Recent evidence would suggest that growth mindset interventions are not the elixir of student learning that many of its proponents claim it to be. The growth mindset appears to be a viable construct in the lab, which, when administered in the classroom via targeted interventions, doesn’t seem to work at scale. It is hard to dispute that having a self-belief in their own capacity for change is a positive attribute for students. Paradoxically, however, that aspiration is not well served by direct interventions that try to instil it. Yet creating a culture in which students can believe in the possibility of improving their intelligence through their own purposeful effort is something few would disagree with. Perhaps growth mindset works best as a philosophy and not an intervention.

All of this indicates that using time and resources to improve students’ academic achievement directly might well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. In their book Effective Teaching (2011), the UK education scholars Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds note: ‘At the end of the day, the research reviewed has shown that the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger that the effect of self-concept on achievement.’

Many interventions in education have the causal arrow pointed the wrong way round. Motivational posters and talks are often a waste of time, and might well give students a deluded notion of what success actually means. Teaching students concrete skills such as how to write an effective introduction to an essay through close instruction, specific feedback, worked examples and careful scaffolding, and then praising their effort in getting there, is probably a far more effective way of improving confidence than giving an assembly about how unique they are, or indeed how capable they are of changing their own brains. The best way to achieve a growth mindset might just be not to mention the growth mindset at all.



Filed under how teachers teach, raising children, school reform policies

How a Taxi Ride Changed My Life (Ed Bridges)

Ed Bridges died on March 7, 2019.

I posted a talk he gave in June 2012 to Stanford University doctoral and masters graduates.

Bridges was Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University. His focus on educational administration, leadership, principal preparation, and problem-based learning has earned him the respect of colleagues and students for decades. We have been colleagues and friends for over 30 years.

I re-post his talk for two reasons. First, what Ed said is filled with hard-earned wisdom for those who wish to live a full life. Second, because I miss him.


It is an honor and a privilege to be your commencement speaker. After accepting the invitation to be your speaker, I consulted my oldest and one of my dearest friends. Since he had served as the president of four Canadian universities and the Chairman of the Board for the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, I knew that he had listened to many commencement speeches and delivered a few as well. Over a Guinness, I said, “George, what advice could you give me?” He paused, leaned over, and spoke softly and slowly. Here is what he said, “A commencement speaker is like a body at an Irish wake; the organizers need you for the party and don’t expect you to say much.”

I intend to follow my friend’s advice and talk briefly about how my life was changed following a taxi cab ride I took more than 40 years ago. However, before recounting this story, let me preface my remarks with a few things that don’t appear in my bio or curriculum vitae. They provide a context for the important lesson I learned during my taxi cab ride.

Elliott Eisner speaks of career planning as an oxymoron. John Krumboltz refers to professional careers as a happenstance. Both of my colleagues are right as far as I am concerned. To their cogent observations, I would add the words spoken nearly 41 years ago by one of my three sons, then six. At the dinner table one evening, my son said, “Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a baseball player. What do you want to be when you grow down?” How prophetic that question was. Since retiring, my height has shrunk two inches, and I am still trying to figure out what I want to do next.

My professional career certainly had a life of its own. As a 16 year old, I walked across the stage at Hannibal High School in Hannibal, MO to receive my high school diploma. Having received first place in the state for a news story I had written for the school newspaper which I edited, I planned to enter the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri and become a reporter. To offset my expenses, I worked one summer in a shoe factory and another summer as a Gandy Dancer, an occupation immortalized in a song titled, “The Gandy Dancers Ball.” Believe me, it was no ball. During the day we laid railroad tracks in the hot Missouri sun, drove spikes, shoveled gravel, and set railroad ties. At night we slept in box cars on a railroad siding. The closest I came to journalism school was to marry one of its graduates, Marjorie Anne Pollock, who became the reporter in the family. Next month we celebrate our 58th wedding anniversary and a wonderful life together.

Now let me turn briefly to that fateful taxi cab ride and the lesson I learned that had a profound effect on my life. The lesson I learned concerns choices.

Every choice involves a sacrifice, for oneself and for others. That statement is hardly profound; however, its consequences are. Oftentimes, we are so blinded by our wants and desires that we ignore the sacrifices inherent in the choices we make. My work in the shoe factory and later as a Gandy Dancer led me to appreciate that everyone, regardless of their station in life, has wisdom to share if you bother to listen. Many years ago I flagged a cab in Chicago and began a conversation with the cabby. Here is what he said that influenced my life:

“I wanted a nice home for my family in the city, a summer home on Lake Michigan, and a car for my wife and each of my two children. To afford these, I needed to work two full time jobs. We had the nice home, the summer home on Lake Michigan and cars for everyone in the family. My wife divorced me, and my children would have nothing to do with me. By working two jobs, I got what I wanted, but I lost what I had. What I had was more important to me than what I wanted.”

This cabby, fine man that he was, was so blinded by his desires that he failed to consider the sacrifices for his family and himself. Sadly, this is an all too common mistake.

Equally sad, if I had been riding with the same cabby today, I probably would not have learned this valuable lesson. Instead of listening to him, I would have been talking on my cell phone, surfing the internet with my smart phone, texting, or tweeting.

In light of this cabby’s story, let me ask each of you in the audience and on stage two questions, each one a variant of the same question.

  1. What are the three or four most important things in your life?
  2. What sacrifices are you unwilling to make no matter what the choice or opportunity is?

These are tougher questions to answer than you might think and even more difficult to act upon.

Not too long after the cabby told me his story, I created a mental list of the things in life that meant the most to me. This list exerted a major influence over my choices for the rest of my professional career:

  1. my family
  2. my students including teaching and advising
  3. my research and writing on practical problems, no matter how controversial they were or whether they were valued by members of the academy

With the benefit of hindsight, I should have added a fourth—my own personal health.

For some reason faculty meetings did not make my list.

Thanks to that cabby, I can enter the check-out line when my time comes with few regrets. I am not estranged from my four children. My wife and I like, as well as love, each other. I have students who continue to care about me as I continue to care about them. I have several really close friends, the kinds who feel comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other. Strangely, the more I paid attention to the sacrifices and set aside my desire for professional recognition, the more recognition I received.

At every Irish wake, it is customary to offer a toast to the body. Instead, let me offer a toast to this year’s graduates. May you experience success, enjoy your journey, and end your life with few regrets because you did not let your desires blind you to the sacrifices inherent in your choices.



Filed under Uncategorized

Principals As Instructional Leaders: Hype and Reality

Six years ago, I published a post on the highly popular slogan of principal as instructional leader. Following up on this blog’s post of Chicago Mayor’s Rahm Emmanuel’s publicized reversal of his initial school reform beliefs and what he ultimately learned about the importance of Chicago’s principals in turning around schools’ low academic performance, I re-visited this earlier post.  I was surprised that few, if any, observational studies of principal behavior linked to student achievement have been published since 2013. The one I did find is included below.

The strong belief held by practitioners and researchers that of the three essential roles principals perform (instructional, managerial, and political), they “must” be first and foremost, instructional leaders continues its dominance in the literature in spite of weak evidence.



Past and current research on principals reveal that school-site leaders perform managerial, instructional, and political roles in and out of their schools. Of these multiple (and often conflicting) roles, however, the instructional leader role has been spotlighted as a “must” for these men and women because, as the theory (and rhetoric) goes, it is crucial to improving teacher performance and student academic achievement.

Yet recent studies (https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/grissom%20loeb%20%26%20master%20instructional%20time%20use_0.pdf

of principal behavior in schools makes clear that spending time in classrooms to observe, monitor, and evaluate classroom lessons do not necessarily lead to better teaching or higher student achievement on standardized tests. Where there is a correlation between principals’ influence on teachers and student performance, it occurs when principals create and sustain an academic ethos in the school, organize instruction across the school, and align school lessons to district standards and standardized test items. There is hardly any positive association between principals walking in and out of classrooms a half-dozen times a day and conferring briefly with teaches about those five-minute visits.The reality of daily principal actions conflicts with the theory.

Much of the rhetoric of instructional leadership flowing from true believers in the theory rings hollow when researchers actually go into schools and shadow principals, observing what they do day-after-day in a school a week or more at a time. Such time-and-motion studies have been done ever since the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor and “scientific management” in the early 20th century. When such studies were done, they showed that the bulk of the a principal’s time was spent on managing the building, teachers, students, and parents. That was then.

Now, a few published studies make the same point: what principals do is largely manage people and buildings spending most of their time outside of the classroom, not inside watching teachers teach.

A recent report ( Shadow Study Miami-Dade Principals) of what 65 principals did each day during one week in 2008 in Miami-Dade county (FLA) shows that even under NCLB pressures for academic achievement and the widely accepted (and constantly spouted) ideology of instructional leadership, Miami-Dade principals spend most of their day in managerial tasks that influence the climate of the school but may or may not affect daily instruction. What’s more, those principals who spend the most time on organizing and managing the instructional program have test scores and teacher and parental satisfaction


results  that are higher than those principals who spend time coaching teachers and popping into classroom lessons.

The researchers shadowed elementary and secondary principals and categorized their activities minute-by-minute through self-reports, interviews, and daily logs kept by the principals.

In the academic language of the study:

The authors find that time spent on Organization Management activities is associated with positive school outcomes, such as student test score gains and positive teacher and parent assessments of the instructional climate, whereas Day-to-Day Instruction activities are marginally or not at all related to improvements in student performance and often have a negative relationship with teacher and parent assessments. This paper suggests that a single-minded focus on principals as instructional leaders operationalized through direct contact with teachers may be detrimental if it forsakes the important role of principals as organizational leaders (p. iv)

Two things jump out of this study for me. First, the results of shadowing principals in 2008 mirror patterns in principal work that researchers have found since the 1920s although the methodologies of time-and-motion studies have changed.

Second, there is an association–a correlation, by no means a cause-effect relationship–between principals who spend more time managing the organization and climate of the school than those principals who spend time in direct contact with teachers in classrooms.

Another study of first- year urban principals prepared by New Leaders,  a program imbued with beliefs in instructional leadership, revealed that new principals, a large fraction of whom left the post after two years, had little impact on student achievement even while observing and monitoring teacher lessons (see RAND_TR1191)

A few studies, of course, will not banish a theory lacking convincing evidence, temper the rhetoric of principal-as-instructional-leader,  or alter principal preparation programs.  Current rhetoric and ideology highlighting instructional leadership trump research studies, past and present, again and again.

Some donor-funded efforts try combining the results of the above studies and earlier research about principals managing the instructional program with their direct involvement in teachers’ classroom practices. See, for example, the Wallace Foundation’s recent publication The-School-Principal-as-Leader-Guiding-Schools-to-Better-Teaching-and-Learning.    In their well-intentioned effort, however, they give life to a failed theory and pump oxygen into the prevailing rhetoric.

The rose-colored view that principals of schools, big and small, urban and suburban, elementary and secondary, can throw fairy dust over teacher lessons and improve student academic performance continues to dominate professional associations of principals and university preparation programs.


Filed under research, school leaders

Jobs and Automation: Anxiety is Historic

A new report predicts that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation. The study, compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute, says that advances in AI and robotics will have a drastic effect on everyday working lives, comparable to the shift away from agricultural societies during the Industrial Revolution. In the US alone, between 39 and 73 million jobs stand to be automated — making up around a third of the total workforce.

But, the report also states that as in the past, technology will not be a purely destructive force. New jobs will be created; existing roles will be redefined; and workers will have the opportunity to switch careers. The challenge particular to this generation, say the authors, is managing the transition. Income inequality is likely to grow, possibly leading to political instability; and the individuals who need to retrain for new careers won’t be the young, but middle-aged professionals.

The First paragraph jump-starts anxiety. Second paragraph is supposed to ease it with words about “new jobs will be created.” But it doesn’t when its mentions growing income inequality, political instability, and retraining middle-aged professionals.

The fact is–and it is a fact that I document below in cartoons–fear of job loss to new machine has been part of American and global culture for the past century.

The larger question of preparing children and youth for future jobs–one of at least four historic purposes of U.S. public schooling– becomes apparent in light of predictions of job loss (“between 39 and 73 million jobs stand to be automated” by 2030). When the primary focus of school reform for the past four decades has been preparing the next generation for the workplace, such predictions question whether job preparation should be the purpose of tax-supported public schools. So the anxiety over job loss to new machines spills over what curriculum to teach the young, what forms of instruction, and how best to organize schooling. Questions rise anew as to exactly what is the purpose of public schools in a democracy.

Put the point about schooling being connected to fears of unemployment and job losses to the back of your mind, however, as I show cartoons and newspaper headlines that capture the persistent anxieties of Americans over new machines replacing workers.

The first is a drawing of British workers in the 1830s destroying machines that would end their expertise in weaving and finishing textiles and replace them thereby impoverishing their families.



Nearly a century ago, this headline appeared in the New York Times.



And during the Great Depression.






And when “talkies” replaced silent movies in the 1920s and 1930s, musicians who played during the silent films and were fired, had their say.




And beginning in the 1950s, automation entered industry after industry.






And Europe was not spared as this cartoon in Germany illustrates.







Fear of job loss to machines has a long history as these cartoons show. That history of automation replacing humans (from horse-and-buggy cabs to elevator operators to bank tellers to switchboard operators at telephone companies) has been in the foreground of what gives Americans and Europeans the willies for over a century. And those societal anxieties eventually lead to uneasiness over what schools are doing that can prepare the next generation for an ever-changing workplace. Enter the next school reform cycle.









Filed under school reform policies