Tag Archives: big city districts,

Some Donors Give Up Too Soon: Patience and School Reform

The path to successful school reform–moving from an adopted policy to classroom practice–is long, twisted, and filled with sinkholes. The journey requires thoughtful attention, persistence and, most of all, patience. Two instances of impatient, fickle, and inattentive donors is on full display in the two headlines below that you might have missed in the sea of media we swim in:

Broad Foundation Suspends $1 Million Prize for Urban School Districts

Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2015

City Students at Small Public High Schools Likely to Graduate, Study Says

New York Times, January 25, 2012

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The Gates Foundation and small high schools.  Beginning in 2000, Bill and Melinda Gates spent nearly $2 billion to transform U.S. high schools. Many grants went to creating  a few thousand small high schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia to improve student academic achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.  In 2009, in his Annual Letter, Bill Gates said that “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” No more money to spur small high schools; the Foundation turned to assessing teacher effectiveness. In less than a decade the deep-pocket Foundation walked away from what began as a promising initiative to turn around urban high schools.

Now here is the punch line. A number of studies since the Gates Foundation turned off the money faucet (see here, here, and here) have established that these small high schools have, indeed, improved student achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.

Patience, persistence, thoughtful attention and time are crucial ingredients for baking school reforms in the oven; pulling out the cake too soon, as happened in this instance, is a recipe for disappointing those who have worked hard, invested themselves into the effort, and were there for the long haul.

What the Foundation has done in the past few years, while continuing to invest in teacher effectiveness and other improvements, is to shift more of its funding to organizations advocating policies that advance its school reform agenda. Of course, adopting policies is a media-friendly way of giving the illusion that schools are, indeed, changing but ignores the baking time and careful attention it takes for an adopted policy to reshape what happens in first grade classrooms and Advanced Placement history courses.

$1 million Broad Prize for urban school districts.  After 13 years, Eli Broad said enough. According to the President of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Bruce Reed, “Eli has kept a close watch over the prize throughout its existence and over the past year he has become more concerned than ever about the slow pace of progress.” Reed went on to say that “we’ve seen some of that, but not enough and not fast enough.” The Broad Foundation, however, continues to offer $500,000 prize to charter schools.

In an interview for Forbes magazine, Broad said: “we don’t give money away. We invest it, and we expect a return. What do I mean by that? We want to see a return in the form of student achievement and the closure of income and ethnic gaps among students.”

Impatient donors are well within their rights to give up on solving educational problems. After all, it is their money and they can say “oops!” whenever they feel like it.

Under the law, donors have no accountability for mistakes. They are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office, so they have no responsibility to district leaders, individual principals, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. If their grants fail to achieve desired objectives, philanthropists can shrug and walk away.[i]

For venture philanthropists and their supporters, this unaccountability provides valuable flexibility in taking actions for the public good and is in the best tradition of a democracy.[ii] As some have argued: “[S]uch virtual immunity represents foundations’ greatest strength: the freedom to take chances, to think big, to innovate, to be, in the words of the late Paul Ylvisaker of the Ford Foundation, ‘society’s passing gear.’”[iii]

Being society’s “passing gear” assumes that funders and their retinue of experts  identify educational problems correctly, sort out symptoms from fundamental causes, and adopt solutions that target those causes. Yet as one observer noted: “Just because you were great at making software or shorting stocks doesn’t mean that you will be good at … ensuring that kids can read by the third grade. If you’re worth billions, though, nobody may tell you that.”[iv]

And few do.

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[i] Walking away from a grant—usually three years in length—was common among donors when early returns appeared unpromising. See Gary Lichtenstein report on what happened at Denver’s Manual High School in the early 2000s when the high school was reorganized to become three small schools. See Gary Lichtenstein, “What Went Wrong at Manual High: The Role of Intermediaries in the Quest for Smaller Schools, “ Education Week, May 16, 2006

[ii] Rob Reich, “What Are Foundations For?” Boston Review, March 1, 2013 at: http://www.bostonreview.net/forum/foundations-philanthropy-democracy Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iii] Edward Skloot, “The Gated Community,” Alliance Magazine, September 2011 at: http://www.hudson.org/content/researchattachments/attachment/1197/alliance_magazine_edward_skloot.pdf Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iv]David Callahan, “Be Afraid: The Five Scariest Trends in Philanthropy,” Inside Philanthropy, October 31, 2014 at: http://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2014/10/31/be-afraid-the-five-scariest-trends-in-philanthropy.html Retrieved December 2, 2014.

 

 

 

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How Hard It Is To Translate Policy into Practice: The Broad Superintendency Academy (Part 1)

One would think that top decision-makers and philanthropists would learn a few lessons after these many years they have struggled in negotiating the pot-holed strewn road from adopting policies to changes in school and classroom practice. Perhaps a touch of humility in face of the complexity they face in improving urban schools. Or more consideration of the professional expertise that practitioners have. Not yet. Consider the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s Broad Superintendents Academy (BSA).

Eli Broad made it clear that he knew how to run successful businesses. He wanted customer-driven knowledge to be applied to urban public schools. At one conference, he said, “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that, but what we do know about is management and governance.” What Broad did not say was that managing and governing are not the same as converting key policies into classroom lessons.[i]

The BSA was created to prepare a new breed of market-aware district leaders to raise student academic achievement and reduce the test score gap between minorities and whites. BSA, however, has quietly struggled with the trip from policy to practice. It is an 18-month program of extended weekends and internships for educators and non-educators (for example, ex-military officers, business leaders, and government officials). But determining how many graduates have become urban superintendents and how long they have served is difficult because of fragmentary and biased data salted liberally with conflicting accounts from Broad and its critics.[ii]

In attracting fresh recruits from the military, businesses, and government to enter urban education posts, the Academy has, to a small degree, altered the administrative workforce in urban settings. But whether Broad graduates stay longer or perform better as school chiefs than those trained in traditional university administration programs, I do not know. I do not know because since 2002 when BSA began, none of its nearly 200 graduates have stayed in a district superintendency for over seven years—a term that some observers believe is sufficient to show signs of student success. Broad officials say five years is the minimum, but I could still only find two BSA graduates who served that long: Superintendents Abelardo Saavedra in Houston (TX) and Mark Roosevelt in Pittsburgh (PA).[iii]

Lacking data on longevity and performance of urban school chiefs has persuaded independent observers (including myself) that the Broad pipeline into top leadership posts has not led to better test scores or significantly altered existing school structures.[iv]

Part 2 takes up the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s recent suspension of the $1 million prize for urban districts that had improved student achievement and reduced the test score gap between and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations dropping of their decade-long journey to improve U.S. high schools.

 

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[i] Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine, “Bill Gates School Crusade,” July 15, 2010 at: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_30/b4188058281758.htm#p2

[ii] For press releases from Broad Superintendents Academy, see website: http://www.broadcenter.org/academy/newsroom/category/press-releases For a highly critical view, see Sharon Higgins, a parent who has followed Broad graduates of the Academy and other programs at: http://thebroadreport.blogspot.com/p/parent-guide.html

As of 2011 there were 165 graduates. The Foundation released no figures for 2012 and 2013.

[iii] Angela Pascopella, “Superintendent Staying Power,” District Administration, April 2011 at: http://www.districtadministration.com/article/superintendent-staying-power

Retrieved November 3, 2024.

[iv] Further evidence of the struggle to go from policy-to-practice is the announcement that the Broad Foundation no longer will give a $1million prize, begun in 2002, to urban districts that have improved student achievement and reduced the test score gap between minorities and whites. See: Howard Blume, “Broad Foundation Suspends $1-million Prize for Urban School Districts,” Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2015. For a recent study of the correlation between superintendents and student achievement, see Larry Cuban, “Superintendents and Test Scores,” October 14, 2014 at: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/superintendents-and-test-scores/ Retrieved November 17, 2014.

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The Persistent Dilemma of Play, Work, and Testing in Prekindergarten

New York City schools welcomed 50,000 four year-olds to prekindergarten last week. Ginia Ballafante summarized crisply the dilemma facing over 4,000 pre-K teachers:

“How the city’s educators will cultivate an environment of thrilling, digressive learning while aiming to reduce the enormous word deficits many children come to school with and at the same time keep the tensions and pressures of high-stakes testing from filtering down to the world of tiny people with Pixar lunchboxes remains one of the most significant and least explored questions around the expansion of prekindergarten. How they will nurture the distinct kind of teaching skill required to execute play-based learning successfully is yet another.”

And Ballafante is right on the mark. If kindergarten is the new first grade as some progressive critics point out, then prekindergarten threatens to become boot camp for kindergarten.

First, let me establish that kindergarten is, indeed, becoming the new first grade. In a recent study looking back at how kindergartens have changed in the past 15 years under a regime of testing and accountability, researchers found the following:

*The percentage of teachers who indicated that incoming kindergarteners need to know most of their letters or count to twenty doubled. In 1998 less than one-third of kindergarten teachers agreed that children should learn to read in kindergarten. By  2006 that number had more than doubled to 65 percent.

*Time spent on reading and language arts rose about 25 percent or from 5.5 hours to 7 a week.

*There was no change in percent of time spent on math instruction but there were significant drops in teaching time spent on social studies, science, art, and  physical education.

Many urban children come to preschool (and kindergarten) with many strengths (often unrecognized in school settings) and weaknesses such as deficits in words that are the currency of formal schooling. The onset of testing five year-olds has commenced–25 states mandate assessing 5 year-olds. So how to get young children up to speed to do well on these tests has accelerated the move toward academic instruction for kindergarteners with the pressure inevitably seeping down to three year olds.  This shift toward academic instruction has put the spotlight on exactly how much of school experiences for three-to-five year-olds should be play and how much academic work in light of the demands of testing for determining first grade for young children and teacher evaluation.

Two Bank Street College educators (New York City), however, do not see a conflict between work and play for pre-kindergartners. “This is a false choice,” they say. “We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.” They continue:

As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time.

What does play look like in a room filled with three- and four year-olds?

When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

 In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.
Work and play become one. “Play,” they say, “has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school.”
During the summer, these pre-K teachers were worried over the impact of testing in kindergarten trickling down into their classrooms in worksheets, drills on words and colors, and group lessons on phonetics and numbers.
kindergarten1
The idea that play and work are intimately connected and in young children learning is not separated into bins–silos are favored academic-speak–but are as one means that there is no dichotomy, no dilemma. It is a classic case of reframing what appears as a dilemma into a problem that can be solved. That is what these educators are trying to do. They end their op-ed by saying:
But we still need to help parents, administrators and policy makers see what the children themselves know intuitively: Classrooms that pulse with meaningful play are our smartest investment.
So true.

 

 

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School Leaders as Marathoners, not Sprinters*

Most urban superintendents serve between four to six years and move on. I call them sprinters. Think Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C. (2007-2010) and John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified School District (2011-2014). A precious few serve a decade or more. Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents?

Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District served a decade or longer. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with problems that went unsolved and criticism that stung but all of them remained quietly and steadily effective. They sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals.  Two story lines, one popular and one true, explain Sprinters nad Marathoners. Consider each explanation.

The Superintendent as Superman or Wonder Woman

These schools chiefs are rare; they are extraordinary individuals. They have turned around districts that were nearly terminal cases due to chronically low student performance, bureaucratic resistance to change, and managerial incompetence. They persuaded their bosses to install new systems of parental choice and teacher evaluation, to refocus bureaucracies on improving teaching and learning, and to create portfolios of different kinds of schools. By sheer force of individual will, together with political smarts and enormous expenditure of energy, these superintendents have succeeded. And test scores have risen. They are super-stars.

Matching the Person, Place, and Time

The key to success comes down to being in the right place at the right time. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appointed Joel I. Klein the system’s chancellor in 2002 and served until 2011—the longest tenure of a New York City schools chief since the early 1970s. Bloomberg’s predecessor, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, however, engineered the appointment and departure of two schools chancellors—Ramon C. Cortines and Rudolph F. Crew—in less than seven years.

If timing is crucial, so is context. Each of the chancellors Mayor Giuliani wanted had been hailed as a super-star in his previous urban district. In each case, however, the mayor decided that the school chief didn’t fit him or the city.

Or consider Carl Cohn, who shepherded the Long Beach district through a decade of changes yielding strong gains in student achievement—a record sufficient to win the Broad award for urban district excellence. Cohn retired from Long Beach in 2002.

In 2005, the San Diego Unified school board hired Cohn to heal the district’s wounds after six years of struggle and the forced exit of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin. In December of 2007, barely two years into his tenure, Cohn left San Diego. His 40 years of urban school experience and extraordinary work in Long Beach could not find traction in San Diego.

For marathoner superintendents, then, it’s best not to look for a super-star. Leadership depends on finding the right person for the time and place. Cohn in Long Beach and Klein in New York City are examples of perfect pairings; Cortines and Crew in New York City, along with Cohn in San Diego, were imperfect ones.

WHICH STORY IS POPULAR? WHICH STORY IS TRUE?

Of the two story lines, Superman/Wonder Woman is currently the most popular explanation for superintendent success. America idolizes heroes. Yet it is the biggest gamble of all since saviors are rare, they depend upon others to do the work, and even get fired by school boards. Closer to the truth is the “best match” explanation and a tad less risky.

How is picking a superintendent a gamble? A school board assesses whether the person is going to fit the current situation and has sufficient expertise and experience to carry off the task and then bets that prior success will repeat itself. Some superintendents do have winning streaks in a string of jobs–and become heroes. But winning streaks—like playing the horses and blackjack—end. And school boards or mayors simply do not know when. That is why picking a superintendent, CEO, and football coach is gambling, pure and simple.

Yet even the “best match” explanation for superintendent success and longevity must also come to terms with the limits to fundamental changes inherent in urban schools. Here are social and political institutions strongly affected by a city’s demography, history, and economy—and by deeply embedded, often unbending socioeconomic structures in the larger society. Institutions constantly dealing with the human consequences of inequitable resources, community neglect and discrimination have limits that even a Superman or Wonder Woman cannot overcome.

To lessen the inevitable disappointment that follows the appointment of a savior school chief, mayors and school boards would do well to downsize expectations, display more patience, seek leaders who believe in incremental changes toward fundamental ends, and pay far more attention to sniffing out better matches between the person and the city than betting on a super-star bearing a tin-plated reputation.

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*This post is a revision of an earlier one in light of Thursday’s resignation of John Deasy after three years as Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District.

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Stellar History Teaching in Failing Schools (Part 2)

Taking pills and sprays to remedy illness is ubiquitous in the U.S.  Ah, if there were only such quick cure-alls for lousy teaching. Say, like aerosol cans that can spray “good” teaching into a classroom. 07teachers-art6-articleInline

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or maybe principals can ship cans of breakfast food to certain teachers’ homes.

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Contrary to this magical thinking, first-rate teaching takes a lot of smarts, time, energy, and determination, not sprays or cans. In this post, I will describe one example of what I consider “good” teaching based on my recent observation of the teacher and his class in a history lesson in a minority-dominated high school on the East coast.**

Burt Taylor* is completing his fifth year as a world history teacher at Charlotte Forten High School (CFHS). After graduating college, he served in the U.S. Army for over three years. While serving in Afghanistan, his mother sent him Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man and urged him to consider teaching after he left the service. He did. In 2007, He joined Teach for America. After his five weeks of training in Philadelphia (which he found of little use in his first year as a teacher), he was sent to a large Eastern urban school district. He began teaching world history there in 2009.

While he did not major in history as an undergraduate, he does have (and did enjoy) a “passion for reading and studying history since I was a kid.” The African American and Latino high school students he faces for 80- and 90-minute courses four times a day, while coming to school with “many challenges,” has made teaching at CFHS “rewarding.”

Finishing his fifth year, Taylor remembers well the turmoil in the school since he began teaching. The turmoil, however, came not from students but from the district office. Because of persistent low test-scores on standardized tests, poor attendance, high numbers of dropouts, and a graduation rate of just over 50 percent, district administrators “restructured” CFHS twice, meaning that the first “restructuring” didn’t work and meaning that Taylor had to reapply to teach history each time and a new principal had to decide whether to hire him.

I observed Taylor’s world history class for 70 minutes and interviewed him afterwards. In the class of 25 who are enrolled, 15 were present sitting at pods of three desks clustered around the spacious room. Student were 10th and 11th graders, many of whom had failed the course in the previous year. The lesson I observed, student attendance for that class, materials Taylor used, and participation were, in his word, “typical” of other classes he has taught.

The materials Taylor used was drawn from a pool of lessons available online from the project “Reading Like a Historian.” He has used other lessons offered by the Stanford History Education Group. I asked: how did he come to this website? From district or school professional development? From a fellow teacher? No, he said. He had stumbled over the website, liked it for the focus on concepts and the work of historians, and ended up adapting lessons to his classroom.

The lesson I observed was the “Invasion of Nanking.” Basically, Taylor used the source material–photos, one excerpt from a Japanese textbook and one from a Chinese text on the invasion and then a final selection from an eminent historian of Chinese history on what happened in the city in 1937–to get across the idea that textbooks are biased, have points of view and, like a detective, it is critical to figure out the perspective buried in the text.

On the whiteboard in front of room, Taylor had listed each activity the class would do with times allotted for each one. An alarm on his desk would ding to end activity. Here’s how Taylor unfolded the lesson on the invasion of Nanking.

+ For the “warm-up” activity as students entered the class and settled into their seats,  Taylor had a photo with no caption on his “smart board” with questions for the students to answer about the photo (“List what you see in photo. What questions do you have? What conclusions do you have?”).

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+He walked around the room to see what students were writing and marked each student’s “Daily Participation Grade” sheet which they had picked up on entering room. The sheet has a section set aside for “Warm Up” and two boxes for teacher to mark: “Partial” and “Good To Go.”

+Teacher then compiled on “smart board” what students have written down about the photo. He called on students by name and a few raised their hands (no questions to entire group with choral responses from students). From clues in the photo, students realized that it showed a post-battle scene in an Asian city many years ago.

+Taylor then told students that the scene in the photo occurred in Nanking in 1937 after the Japanese invaded China. “We are,” he said to class, “going to figure out what happened in Nanking in that year.” In a mini-lecture–he asked students to take notes–he gave them the background of the invasion and what happened in the 1930s in Japan. Of the 15 in class, 13 were writing as Taylor lectured for about ten minutes. He then told the class that they will read two different paragraphs from textbooks about the same event–the invasion of Nanking–and challenged them to detect which description came from a Japanese text and which from a Chinese text.

+To insure that students knew the geography of the photo and sources, he had them go to a shelf holding a classroom set of world history texts and turn to page 594 to see map of Japan, China, and region. He asked questions about location of countries. He then told class that he will ask a “trick question” about the photo and the excerpts from the texts. So they “should pay attention” to what he says and what they read.

+Each three-person pod was a small group made up of a “reader,” “materials manager,” and “discussion leader.” He called on “material managers” to come up to desk and get textbook excerpts. They did. Taylor then instructed “readers” to read aloud to their group each excerpt, labeled A and B. For words students did not know, they were to underline them and try to figure out what they mean. The “reader” in the group near me stumbled on the word “atrocity” and was discussing it when Taylor, carrying a clipboard to assess each student’s participation, came by.

+Afterwards, he asked each group to decide whether A and B were from either a Japanese or Chinese text. “Discussion leaders” in each group worked to get agreement about texts–one group was excited enough to give each other fist bumps on completing their choices.

+Taylor then recorded the student votes for text A coming from a Japanese text (8) and (7) voted for B excerpted from Chinese text. He then asked individual students to give their reasons why they voted as they did using the text for evidence supporting their answer. After the back-and-forth of this discussion, Taylor offered the students another chance to vote and many crossed over from their original vote, agreeing that A came from a Japanese textbook.

+The teacher then asked: “Which of these two textbook accounts do you trust?” Students raised hands and Taylor also called on students who had not participated in whole-group discussion. Students largely agreed that you cannot trust either one because each side wanted to portray the Nanking invasion as either common in wartime or that it was a massacre. When the teacher asked what they had learned so far, many responded with variations of: there are at least two sides to listen to when something occurs; you cannot believe that textbooks tell the “truth” of the past.

+Then, Taylor called for “materials managers” to come up to desk to get a final excerpt written by a historian of Chinese history. They did. “Readers” sprang into action, and the “discussion leaders” led exchanges in the group to determine what the historian contributed to their earlier decision on Text A and B. For the 10 minutes of this final activity, Taylor, carrying his clipboard, listened in to each group, asked and answer student queries, and jotted down notes.

+Finally, Taylor asked students what they learned from reading the historian’s account and Text A and B. Answers varied a great deal from those who raised their hands to reply. The teacher also called on a few students who did not raise their hands. Students felt that the historian’s view of the invasion of Nanking was most accurate because the historian used Chinese, Japanese, and non-Asian sources who were there at the time. Taylor nodded his head and said the historian “corroborated” his account of what happened with other sources, an essential in writing about the past.

I had to leave the room to observe another teacher as Taylor was winding down the lesson.

I felt that Taylor demonstrated much planning, extraordinary management of the material and class organization, and was constantly assessing what students were doing and their level of understanding of the questions and tasks he had assigned. For me, this lesson was stellar.

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Note to Readers: Burt Taylor told me in a subsequent phone interview that he would be leaving CFHS in June to  take a position in a federal agency. When I asked him whether he plans to return to teaching history at CFHS or any high school, he said, he probably would not.

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*I promised confidentiality to teachers in this study so individual and school names in post are pseudonyms.

**Note carefully that this instance of “good” teaching is a hybrid of teacher-centered and student-centered traditions in instruction(see here). Note further that I will not determine whether the teacher is successful (see Part 1).

 

 

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Stellar Teaching in Failing Schools (Part 1)

How can “stellar teaching” and “failing schools” be in the same sentence?

Failing schools have been defined as ones with low test scores, attendance, and high school graduation rates. They also include high numbers of dropouts and disciplinary referrals with frequent turnover in principals and teachers and presence of far more inexperienced than experienced teachers. Over decades of being in such schools I observed many traditional and non-traditional lessons. Some were forgettable not only by students but also by me–although I kept notes to remind me how the low-level content and skills were taught and how classroom management was, at best, uneven and, on occasion, chaotic.

But I do not want to describe forgettable lessons in low-performing schools. Such examples have been noted often by reformers usually omitting, however, that such teaching also occurs in schools serving upper-middle income neighborhoods. Readers can recall such teaching that echo the caricatured history teacher who droned on and on about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The frequency of poor teaching, however, occurs much less often in these predominately white, middle-class schools than in the urban ones labeled failing.

What I do want to describe are the handful of urban teachers in schools labeled as failures who teach superb lessons often, are respected by their students, and have stayed in these failing schools year in and year out. There are scores of low-key Jaime Escalantes, Rafe Esquiths, and others who have gone unrecognized and unfilmed. Such teachers do not write books or articles about their teaching. Nor do songwriters, film producers, or journalists feature them in their songs, movies, and stories. Yet, they have earned the respect and admiration of their students, peers, and principals who enter and exit these schools.

The truth is that these teachers seldom form a critical mass in a failing school. Nor does their influence spill over to the rest of the school. Nonetheless, non-super star but highly competent teachers are often overlooked when state and district policymakers restructure schools by firing all teachers and the principal. These teachers are lost in the rush to transform failure into success–an outcome that requires collaboration between the principal, a majority of teachers, and most students while building a vital connection with the community. Such a process takes years and only occasionally happens because of the continuing turbulence that rattles reconstituted schools like tremors following an earthquake.

OK, a reader may say, I get the part of islands of excellent teaching in schools that are failing by current metrics. So what do you mean by stellar teaching?

Keep in mind that there are competing definitions of “good” teaching ranging from the Teaching and Learning Framework that the Washington, D.C. public schools use for evaluating teachers to lists of behaviors that top-notch teachers exhibit (see here, here, and here). And, for me, there is the crucial but often ignored distinction between “good” and “successful” teaching, a difference that I and others have written about often.

To be clear, then, when I say a teacher is teaching a “good” lesson I refer to both traditional (teacher-centered) and non-traditional (student-centered) approaches. Of course, there are hybrids of both (mini-lecture, worksheet, small group work, individual work at learning stations)–all in one lesson. There is, then, no single definition of first-rate teaching that cuts across different students, different subject matter, and in different situations. I do not refer to student outcomes of the lesson, i.e., “successful” teaching either since there is no single definition of “successful” (or “effective”) that cuts across all students, academic content, and settings. Sure, the current constricted definition is standardized test scores constructed by top policymakers  but, over the years, other definitions of student “success” have been constructed by administrators and teachers in different fields such as improved student writing, math problem-solving, acquisition of particular critical thinking skills, etc.

Still, even with the distinctions I have drawn there are common elements to “good” teaching across the many differences noted above: stellar teaching requires teachers to plan, manage their students to keep them involved in lessons, and assess what students have learned. Keeping in mind the variety of differences that teachers must finesse along with common features that generically define superb teaching makes describing high-performing teachers in low-performing schools a slippery task especially when”good”teaching get continually overlooked in failing schools.  Why does that happen again and again?

The neglect of first-rate teaching occurs in low-performing schools because of the myopic approach to school improvement (and teacher evaluation) currently in vogue among policy elites.

The near-sightedness begins in figuring out why schools fail. Different explanations for the problem of failure arise. Political muscle determines which explanation gets converted into solutions and then receive attention and resources. Three explanations have historically appealed to policymakers:

1. The problem is that adults in the school are to blame for failure. The solution: change people (e.g., draw recruits from new and different pools of teachers and administrators, get rid of those who have been around a long time without schools improving) and school success will follow. For decades, this has been the dominant explanation for failure in not only schools but also, sports teams, businesses, higher education, and federal and state governments.

2. The problem is that existing structures (e.g., age-graded schools, departmental organization in secondary schools, size of school, how time is spent daily) are to blame for failure. Change the structures (e.g., install testing and accountability, create charter schools and small schools, reorganize K-5 into K-8) and low-performance will metabolize into high-performance.

3. The problem is the process of schooling (e.g., how teachers teach and how they are evaluated, the lack of a learning culture in the school, how adults connect to students in and out of classrooms) Change the process (e.g.,  concentrate on better ways of teaching and evaluation, develop new school-wide norms and rituals, experiment with different forms of grouping in and out of classrooms) and better schools will emerge.

While every reform movement in the past century has defined the problem and solutions differently thus creating their own mix of (i.e., changing people, structures, and process) the current business-oriented reforms over the past three decades have had sufficient political clout and near-sightedness to focus mostly on changing people, occasional dabbling with structures, with hardly any attention to process except for using new forms of teacher evaluation as a way of getting rid of teachers.

For example, restructuring, reconstitution, or any “re-” has come to mean in current reform lingo that teachers and principals must be replaced and new ones chosen to turnaround the failing school.This blame-driven, myopic “solution,” largely funded by federal (Race to the Top) and state initiatives prevail among top policymakers.

That dominant logic is deeply flawed. First, there are many factors that go into a school failing beyond the adults licensed to teach and administer schools. Of course, teachers and principal are part of any failure but not entirely since other highly important factors are involved: principal and teacher turnover every few years, more inexperienced teachers assigned to schools designated failing than to schools deemed “effective,” lack of district-level support, high student mobility–students entering and exiting– and, yes, the help (or lack of it) that students receive at home from parents and extended family.

Second, policymakers crunch “good” and “successful” together into one concept–especially when it comes to teacher evaluation. This is a mistake that teachers pay for, not policymakers.

Third, even in those failing schools there are some teachers  who are tough, demanding, and superb in their teaching. And they get disappointed, some even cynical, as they go ignored in the sweeping removal of all teachers and their re-applying for jobs within which they have been perceived and evaluated as “effective.”

Part 2 describes a “good” lesson in a school that has been reconstituted not once but twice. And the teacher was re-hired twice for the job. But now, sad to say, that teacher, has decided to leave the profession.

 

 

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Failing Schools: Conflicts over How to Write, Talk, and Make Films about Them

I have been a social studies teacher for 14 years in schools that were black and poor. Even before test scores determined whether a school was failing, the three urban schools I taught in were viewed as ____ (choose your favorite word: losers, basket cases, lousy, failures) because of the neighborhood in which the school was located and the color of the students’ skin. And that was over a half-century ago.

When I would read newspaper articles about where I taught then, the school often had the adjective “ghetto” or “slum” in front of it. Both were accurate insofar as characterizing students’ color of skin, family income and residential segregation that kept families where they lived but was far too simplistic in overlooking the many men and women in these neighborhoods who took pride in their homes, brought back weekly paychecks, and urged police officials to rid their streets of muggings, gangs, and drug-related crime.

Here is where my values come into conflict in writing about failing schools. I prized, then and now, the honest portrayal of unassailable facts of any low-performing school including the ones I worked in more than a half-century ago. By all academic criteria, they were doing poorly. The numbers graduating high school, dropouts, suspensions–name any school-wide metric–and they would have registered on the failing side of the ledger. The schools were in the center of neighborhoods that were different from the rest of the city as a result of residential and class segregation. Non-working and working poor families mixed with upwardly striving ones sometimes on the same street. Sure, those schools were housed in old buildings containing under-resourced science labs and libraries with  few books. The truth of those meager investments  and failure on common academic measures has to be told.

Yet–you knew there was a “yet” coming–another value that I prize is capturing the complexity of what happens in failing schools decades ago and now. As  an insider in those schools, I saw first-hand the cadre of teachers who stayed late and came in early to work with students who wanted to succeed academically. I saw the many students, the first in their families to attend college, put in super-intense work in their academic classes. And not to be ignored, I saw first-hand the consequences of poverty that spilled over the school in dozens of ways. I also saw uncaring teachers, administrators who twiddled their thumbs, and students who, for any number of reasons, acted out and eventually left school.

So how do I capture, then and now, the mix of persistent effort by some determined, hardworking teachers, students, and upwardly-striving parents who succeed in the midst of neighborhood poverty within a school doing poorly academically? For sure, not a black-white picture but ones shaded in gray.

Yet authors, artists, turnaround specialists, and even academic experts over the decades–I have learned–are far less interested in grays. Black and white hats fit their tastes better. For over the past half-century,  portraying urban schools as unredeemable failures has become a cottage industry of books, articles, speeches, and films.

These authors and artists have faced no dilemma. They have created simple tropes that tell hero and villain stories about failing urban schools.  Over time, they have resorted to blaming students, families, neighborhoods, and teachers for school failures.Consider Hollywood films such as “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Cooley High” (1975), Boyz in the Hood (1991) that fastened images of bad kids, bad teachers, bad principals, and crime-ridden neighborhoods onto the public consciousness. That tradition continues with “Bad Teacher” and “The Substitute.” Books, such as Shut Those Thick Lips have pursued similar tropes:

Not all of the stories use these “bad” tropes. Some artists and experts flip the negative and make bad teachers (and principals) into heroes and bad kids into likable, hard-working students who, with a little help, can pull up their socks and succeed. “Good” tropes replace “bad” ones.  There is the heroic teacher in To Sir with Love  and Dangerous Minds and those hard working Latino students and ever-demanding teacher in Stand and Deliver. Don’t forget that in-your-face principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me,  and entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada who rescues the classroom, school, and neighborhood in “Waiting for Superman.” Good or bad stories still have villains be they families, students, teachers, principals, and “the system.”

So here is the policy point I want to make in analyzing conflicts I face in writing about failing schools. What too often goes unnoticed in today’s scramble to turning around failing schools–“dropout factories,” where district officials fire the entire staff and restructure the school to convert a loser into a winner is how even in those failing schools effective work by cadres of teachers, students, and parents exist. I don’t think it is uncharitable to point out that there is little evidence that firing staffs works to turn around schools–called “restructuring.” I am reminded of some critic of the U.S.’s failed Iraqi policy, called that strategy “clumsy gestures based on imperfect knowledge.”   Current turnaround policies are anchored in tropes that no longer blame young children and youth as they did decades ago. Instead, top decision-makers resort to other familiar ones to explain failure: bad teachers and bad administrators.

Other alternatives? Some say the best thing to do is just close the school and start anew. Others, including myself, say that working closely and investing in those teachers, students, and parents who have somehow overcome the academic disengagement, the inertia, and  negative peer-driven cultures in these failing schools is the route to take. Both alternatives, however, are experiments since no body of evidence clearly supports either. But at least the latter one avoids creating anew the villains that populate so many films, stories, and accounts of failing schools.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Reforming schools