Tag Archives: big city districts,

Principal Eric Guthertz of Mission High School in San Francisco (Kristina Rizga)

This is the fourth and final excerpt taken from Kristina Rizga’s new book Mission High. With her permission I have published descriptions of math, English,  and history lessons. In this post, Rizga describes the principal of the school. Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.


As the head of a school at which students carry passports from more than forty countries, Eric Guthertz probably has one of the most multicultural closets of any principal in the nation. Dressed in his usual getup this morning—slim-fitted, button-down shirt, dark grey slacks, and a large, black walkie-talkie pinned on his belt—Guthertz shows off dozens of his favorite clothing items that he wears throughout the year for various cultural events. Hanging on the wall in his office that doubles as a closet, there are several guayaberas—formal men’s shirts worn in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean—which he wears to the students’ Latino Club celebrations. There is a traditional Moroccan cream-colored shirt with black buttons that a student from Morocco gave him. The Black Student Union gave him a traditional kufi hat and scarf from West Africa. His favorite piece is a dark navy, three-piece suit that students from the Chinese Club gave him five years ago.

In Guthertz’s universe, hustling to find funding to keep Mission’s cultural clubs and events alive is as important as improving test scores. As an educator with twenty-seven years of experience in inner-city schools, Guthertz is convinced that multicultural and student-run clubs, after-school programs, and extracurricular activities not only engage more students in the core academic subjects, they also teach crucial skills for success after high school: familiarity with different cultures and worldviews, experience working through cultural misunderstandings with respect and common sense, and the ability to see diversity as an asset of a community….

Guthertz’s convictions come at a price. The continuity of school funding—and with that the job security of teachers and staff who run many of these programs—depends on the school’s ability to show consistent growth in standardized test scores. In 2009 Guthertz almost lost his job to secure SIG (School Improvement Grant) funding for the school, as part of President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. The $4 billion education funding package awarded competitive grants to states that agreed to meet a set of principles, such as using standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, easing restrictions on the number of charter schools, and restructuring or closing low-performing schools (as measured by test scores). Race to the Top offered hard-to-resist financial “carrots” during the economic recession to low-performing schools like Mission in exchange for “sticks.” Mission High had to choose between firing a principal, firing half of the teachers, closing the school, or replacing it with a charter school. The district found a loophole to avoid all of these scenarios. Guthertz had been a principal for less than two years and could be listed as a recently “replaced” principal. In 2012 the school’s score on the Academic Progress Index (API) dropped by one point (out of the total of one thousand maximum points any school in California can receive on its API, which is calculated primarily based on standardized test scores), and the school faced the loss of close to $1 million, about 12 percent of its annual budget.

The district appealed the decision and requested recalculation of the scores, which came back with a one-point gain, saving the jobs of at least seven teachers, Guthertz says.

Despite these external pressures to prioritize test scores in math and English, Guthertz refuses to tell educators at Mission to “teach to the test” at the expense of giving up rich curriculum or hands-on projects, field trips, and music and art classes, or of closing student clubs and elective courses. He is convinced that such a pedagogical stance pays off, and he has data about his school to prove it. College enrollment went up from 55 percent in 2007 to 74 percent in 2013. While the API index fluctuates from year to year, there has been an overall gain of 86 points since 2009. School attendance has been rising. The graduation rate went from the lowest in the district, at 60 percent in 2008, to 82 percent in 2013, on a par with the district average. The graduation rate for African American students was 20 percent higher at Mission than the district average in 2013. While the rest of the country is embroiled in a debate over how to reduce suspensions, Mission High has reduced its suspensions, from 28 percent in 2008 to 3.9 percent in 2014. In the yearly student and parent satisfaction survey of 2013, close to 90 percent said they like the school and would recommend it to others….

While Guthertz and his team spend at least half of their time building a healthy and inclusive school culture outside of the classrooms, most of the work that helps students develop as mature and compassionate adults happens in the classrooms, Guthertz says, echoing Pablo’s view. That’s why teacher-leaders and the administrative team regularly observe classrooms and comb through reams of data, paying particular attention to the number of referrals and suspensions, as well as the number of Fs and Ds desegregated by ethnicity and race, to see which students and teachers need extra support. When teachers struggle, Mission High provides one-on-one coaching by successful and experienced educators [at the school]. Teachers meet regularly to plan units together and analyze student work collectively. As a result, unlike most inner-city schools, Mission High has very low attrition among teachers—by district and national standards. Mission High is the only school in the district that teaches high numbers of African American, Latino, and low-income students and is no longer considered a “hard-to-staff” school, according to the San Francisco Unified School District’s chief communications officer, Gentle Blythe. “Mission High is famous at the district because it is known as a learning community and good, supportive place to work,” Dayna Soares, who has now been teaching math for two years, tells me. “It’s hard to get a job here.”

The Mission High School museum maintains a deep archive of historic photographs of the school and its people, athletic trophies, and articles, as well as newspaper clippings featuring alums. There are portraits of Nobel Prize–winning Maya Angelou, Grammy-winning Carlos Santana, and the award-winning chef Charles Phan. The museum is full of multigenerational stories, like the sister and brother security guards, Iz (or “Izzy” as the staff call her) and Ed Fructuoso, who both graduated from Mission High and still work here. Ed’s daughter, Reign, recently graduated from Mission High. Principal Guthertz’s daughter, Eva-Grace, started at Mission in 2014.

Almost every week a former graduate or a family member of a former graduate comes to Mission High to look at the graduation photos dotting the hallways and other memorabilia the school has been archiving in the museum, Guthertz tells me one morning in May 2014, as we walk down the hallway toward Mission High’s school museum. Just last week Veronica Gomez—the granddaughter of Mission alumnus Ronald Gaggero—came to see the school her late grandfather used to talk about when she was a little girl. Gomez told Guthertz that her grandfather dropped out of school in 1960 to enter the workforce just two months before he graduated. His girlfriend—who became his wife of forty four years—had gotten pregnant. Gaggero became a successful owner of several small businesses in San Francisco and raised three children with his wife, but he always told his granddaughter that his biggest regret was not getting his diploma. Guthertz and his team invited Gomez to attend the graduation of Mission High’s class of 2014 and presented her with an honorary high school diploma for her late grandfather.

Mission High serves an often overlooked but vital role in the community. It is a central meeting ground and celebration space for the predominantly working-class parents whose children go there, as well as a repository of its collective memories and community pride. The yearly choir and Latino Club performances bring out hundreds of parents. When in December 2014 the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown—unarmed black men killed by police officers who were later acquitted—sparked national protests across the country, Mission High’s Black Student Union organized a community event for students and parents in the city. The Gay-Straight Alliance, as well as Teachers for Social Justice, hold their national gatherings at Mission High….

Guthertz loves giving personal tours, including stops at the museum, to any outsiders who come to Mission, because he can show all of the qualitative and quantitative factors besides test scores, which he believes tell a more accurate story about the place that he has called home for thirteen years—first as an English teacher and now as an administrator. “We sent more African American students to college this year than any other school in the district,” he says as we enter Mission High’s school museum. “Our achievement gap in grades is almost half of that in the district, thanks to the hard work of our teachers.”

“Sorry, I talk too much,” Guthertz stops himself midsentence. “My father was a PR man,” he adds. “I probably get it from him, but we have such amazing students and teachers here. The best in the city, in my opinion.”


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Evidence-Informed Policy: Looking at Post-Katrina New Orleans Schools

In the past few weeks as the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approached, a veritable gale of first-hand observations and research reports swept through the media about improvements in New Orleans public schools. In reading those reports, however, researchers and pundits have warred with one another over the degree to which the Orleans Parish schools have improved over the past decade.

A revolution had occurred, say some researchers and politicians (see here and here) Others say no. Changes have surely occurred with nearly all schools being charters but these top-down changes have created a fragmented system, minimized citizen participation and spent more private and public money than Orleans Parish had ever seen (see here  and here). Moreover, student test scores have dramatically improved, say researchers and policymakers (see here and here) No, others reply, results are mixed and some students had even been overlooked (see here).

In the cacophony of research reports and political statements, sorting out the sizzle—charter-dominant district, more money, new teaching force–from the steak—are students learning more and doing better than before Katrina–is very hard to do. Listening to elected politicians talk non-stop about an improved better city and schooling while citing research studies require large doses of salt before swallowing. Why? because squabbling researchers point fingers at one another’s designs, methodologies, and interpretations of findings in their reports (see here). Getting consensus in research findings is like a unicorn appearing. In a democratic society where facts and figures are highly valued in making public policy, educational researchers quarreling with one another confuse policymakers in one sense but also give them the latitude to pick-and-choose among research reports that best fit their beliefs and stated policy positions.

None of this back-and-forth is trivial. The stakes are high for students and parents in Orleans Parish as they are for champions and critics of school reform. Disputes over the successes and failures of post-Katrina public schools, for example, have become proxy battles over the worth of charter schools across the nation. Is New Orleans a proof-of-existence that urban districts can fire all of its teachers, abolish attendance zones, have nearly all of its schools become charters, and succeed? If so, then can what occurred in New Orleans be scaled up to other big cities where poor and minority students reside (see here)? Answers to these policy decisions lurk in the background of the hype over the resurrection of the Big Easy’s schools.

Yet for those policymakers and practitioners that call (or yearn) for evidence-based policy, the swirl of research reports on the 10th anniversary of Katrina is hardly a god-send. Big questions go unanswered.  And this is where the dilemma over evidence-based policies arises. Federal, state and district policymakers prize using evidence to buttress their policy recommendations. Rational decision-making calls for attending to research and evaluation studies. Yet those very same policymakers value highly getting their choices politically approved by media, foundation officials, and, ultimately voters. Popular policies open the doorway to re-election. Thus these conflicting values of rationality and popularity have to be managed.  All of this is much harder to do when research studies reach contrasting conclusions.

Contested educational research, of course, is stale news; conflicting accounts of the same phenomenon have been common for the past century. From the value of intelligence tests in the early 20th century to the New Math in mid-century to small high schools a decade ago and the worth of laptops as an instructional device–need I continue?–have yielded research findings that some researchers and policymakers have embraced but many have scorned. University-based social, behavioral, and natural  scientists historically have looked down upon the applied research that educational academics have produced. Teachers have criticized educational researchers for decades in asking questions that they find irrelevant to their classrooms. Add further the belabored arguments researchers have had over the design of studies, the methodologies used, and interpretation of findings. Such criticism of educational research has been so common in the U.S. that many critics have come to agree with historian of education Carl Kaestle when he asked in 1993: ” Why is the reputation of educational research so awful?”

Kaestle, along with earlier and subsequent critics of educational research, pointed to how studies have been unhelpful to policymakers, shifting priorities among multiple goals driving tax-supported public education, the politicalization of research, the lack of federally subsidized research and development producing usable knowledge for policymakers and practitioners, and the fragmented ways of informing the public and practitioners of what exactly has been found through research. That “awful” reputation of educational research has not been helped by the back-and-forth of post-Katrina studies.

Evidence-based policy based upon research studies remains a dream. At best, evidence-informed* policy, allowing for the conflicting values of rationality and political popularity that come into play, remains a tough dilemma facing decision-makers.

Part 2 looks at the historical influence that research has had on classroom practice.


*While others may have used the phrase before and since, I ran across it in Andy Hargreaves and Corrie Stone-Johnson, “Evidence Informed Change and the Practice of Teaching” (pp. 89-110) in John Bransford, et. al. The Role of Research in Educational Improvement (Harvard Education Press, 2009)



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Teaching English at Mission High School (Kristina Rizga)

This is the second post (see here) drawn from journalist Kristina Rizga’s account of teaching and learning at San Francisco Unified School District’s Mission High School. Rizga is a journalist who spent four years observing and interviewing teachers and students at Mission High School in San Francisco. Her book, Mission High (New York: Nation Books, 2015) contains descriptions of both students and teachers inside and outside classrooms.* Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.

What distinguishes Rizga’s book from so many journalist and researcher accounts about high schools with largely minority and poor students are two facts: First, she spent four years–a life time to researchers–at the school. Few researchers or journalists ever spend more than a year in a high school. The second fact is that Rizga addresses a long-time paradox buried at the core of  U.S. schooling in an age of accountability-driven reform when federal and state mandates (No Child Left Behind) label many schools as failing. The paradox is straightforward. Mission High School had been tagged as a failing school–“low performing” is the jargon of the day–and had been a step away from being shut down through No Child Left Behind rules. Yet 84 percent of its graduates were accepted to college, attendance rates have risen above the district high school average and suspensions have fallen between 2008 and 2014 nearly 90 percent. As one student put it: “How can my school be flunking when I am succeeding?”  Indeed, the contradiction of a school labeled by authorities as failing, succeeding with students beyond what other district high schools achieve is the puzzle that Rizga unravels in this book.    

With Rizga’s permission, I offer here descriptions of lessons in math, social studies, and English. This post describes an English lesson taught by Pirette McKamey, a 25-year veteran of classroom teaching.

“I want to say something important about writing,” Pirette McKamey tells her English class one Tuesday afternoon in October 2012. “Writing is very, very hard, and it’s never finished. I’ve re-read some of my essays twenty times and I still go, ‘I can’t believe I made this mistake or that mistake.’ So, this is a long, difficult process.” Dressed in white cotton pants, a patterned shirt, and black leather loafers, she is standing in front of twenty-five seniors.

“I’m going to read Jamal’s essay as a model today,” says McKamey, who reads students’ work at the beginning of each class as a way to honor their craft and effort. “I like his essay because of the heft of its content. It also feels real. It was written with real engagement and honesty. That makes it worth reading.” In his essay Jamal has compared his life ambitions with the goals of two other people he has chosen from the many real and fictional people the students have studied in a five-week-long “quests” unit in which students considered the deeper meaning behind different types of individual journeys while developing their reading and writing skills. Jamal has picked Jackson Jackson, the main character from Sherman Alexie’s short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” and Haiti’s former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A month later Jamal uses this essay as a foundation to develop a ten-page research paper entitled “Black on Black Violence,” which examines the root causes of homicides in his community.

“‘A successful quest requires support, yearning, and perseverance’,” McKamey begins, reading Jamal’s words. “‘Everyone experiences some kind of a quest in their lifetime. Some take longer than others, some are more important than others, and some are not even intentional, but are a part of our everyday life. Some quests are very internal and personal. Others are external, rooted in collective memories and yearnings.’” As she reaches the end, five minutes later, she looks up from the paper and asks, “What did you like about the essay?”

“I love how Jamal brought three parts and three very different people together,” Alex jumps in.

“I liked that a lot too,” McKamey responds. “What else?”

“His connections and transitions from one person to the next were really good,” says Ana a little more hesitantly, glancing at the teacher for affirmation.

“That’s true,” McKamey replies.

“I felt passion and enthusiasm in his essay,” Roberto comments. “Passion that fuels a bigger purpose is the theme that drives the essay—in making music, in searching for your past, in wanting more freedom for your country.”

“Exactly,” she responds. “That’s a really good observation.”

As the discussion winds down, Max Anders—the student teacher McKamey is coaching this year—passes out a handout titled “Punctuating Titles: Underlines or Quotation Marks?” Meanwhile, McKamey explains to me that when she and Anders graded everyone’s essays yesterday, they noticed one common mistake: despite previous practice, students still weren’t always sure which titles needed to be underlined, italicized, or put in quotation marks. Anders has created a short guide using real examples from student work and a worksheet for students to practice some of these skills.

Students then get to work while both teachers walk around to answer questions.

After a brief punctuation lesson from McKamey, Anders steps up to the front of the room. “Last class we learned about the Vietnam War, and we focused on Vietnamese history,” he says. “Today we will continue by reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the American perspective.” The students read a chapter titled “The Man I Killed.” When they’re done, Anders asks them to pick out a quote they found intriguing, to be analyzed collectively.

“Let me remind you what analysis is,” McKamey says, standing in front of the class. “When I was little, I remember I used a hammer and screwdriver to crack a golf ball open. I really wanted to see what was inside. As I cracked that glossy plastic open, I saw rubber bands. And I went, ‘Ha! I didn’t know there were rubber bands in golf balls. I wonder what’s inside other balls?’ It made me curious about the world. So, we are doing the same thing. We’ll analyze the author’s words to dig in deeper. That will allow us to engage with the text on the author’s terms.”

David raises his hand. He reads a line from the chapter:

He was a slim dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.

“What do you notice in this passage?” McKamey probes.

“The man the narrator killed is the same age as him,” Roberto comments.

“Exactly,” she replies. “Now you are one step deeper. What do I feel inside when I think of that?”

“Guilt, regret,” Ajanee jumps in.

“That’s right,” McKamey comments. “I personally would use the word compassion. But what you said is 100 percent correct. It’s just that all of us will use different words to analyze this. And what does that do when we realize that this man is the same age as us?”

“It makes me think that he’s young, likes girls, probably doesn’t want to fight in a war,” Robert says.

“Exactly. Now, take that even deeper.”

“It’s like he is killing himself?” Roberto asks.

“Perfect! Now you made a connection,” McKamey says, excitement in her voice. “That’s what this quote is really about. Now, why is O’Brien saying ‘star-shaped hole’? Why not ‘peanut-shaped hole?’”

“That’s very unusual,” Irving comments.

McKamey nods. She remains quiet for a minute, looking around the class.

Ajanee raises her hand and offers an answer, “The image in his mind is burned.”

“Exactly!” McKamey replies. “O’Brien wants us to keep that same image in mind that he had as a young soldier in his mind. It’s the kind of image you never forget. That’s what writing is really about.”


*Full disclosure: for this book, Rizga and I had several conversations about the history of school reform past and present. I also visited Mission High School for one day, saw three lessons, and interviewed the principal.

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Burned Out Teachers (Part 2)

There are three ways to reduce the kind of burnout that so many K-12 teachers, particularly in low-income minority schools such as Spanish teacher Alli Baugher at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. experienced. Change the work conditions or change yourself (or both).

Change working conditions. The age-graded school was a mid-19th century innovation imported from Prussia and planted in the U.S. Within a half-century, the innovation slowly and irrevocably replaced the one-room schoolhouse throughout the nation. Erecting a “grammar school” housing eight grades with separate classrooms where teachers teach six year-olds in one room and ten year-olds in another reorganized the very nature of schooling in the U.S. The principal and teacher would determine whether each student had learned that portion of the curriculum allotted to that grade in one year’s time most often through tests. If the student passed the various tests he or she advanced to the next grade; if not, the student was held back for another year or assigned to a different room.

The age-graded school has defined “normal” academic progress within elementary school, junior high school (now middle school) and high school ever since. The age-graded school also  has shaped how teachers taught. By the 1930s, for example, in the high school the daily workload of teachers was to teach five or six 45-60 minute classes of 25-30 students. Thus, this organizational innovation embedded within ever larger brick-and-mortar buildings has had enormous influence on how students learn and how teachers teach.

Since the 1980s, school reform has focused on raising curriculum standards and graduation requirements, increasing standardized testing, and imposing accountability rules that contain both rewards and penalties. All of these reforms have intensified teachers’ intellectual, emotional and physical workload leading to high attrition rates among teachers, especially in urban districts threatened with school closure or state takeover.

Altering the age-graded organization and teachers’ working conditions conditions is one way of reducing large numbers of teachers exiting schools, especially in low-income, largely minority schools. Abolishing age-gradedness—having K-3 units for children ages 5-9—grouping and re-grouping children by performance in math, reading, and academic subjects rather than age–means that students’ mastery of knowledge and skills determines progress in school, not sitting at a desk for 36 weeks. While it may appear obvious, few efforts, if any, have occurred over the past century to alter the age-graded school. In the 1960s, non-graded elementary schools sprouted across the country with “open” classrooms and “open-space” schools. The sprouts shriveled, however, within a few years and migration back to the traditional organization occurred. Today, enthusiasts for online courses tout the benefits of students learning at their individual speed and not bend to the demands of a “normal” school year. Yet even these cheerleaders for online instruction accept the age-graded structure.

The fact is that moving away from the age-graded school would have an enormous influence on teacher working conditions and how students learn. Few such efforts, however, are on reformers’ agendas. Which means that avoiding burnout and exiting the profession is up to the individual teacher.

 Individual teacher renewal. Effectiveness in every people-serving occupation (e.g., teaching, therapy, nursing, clinical medicine) requires developing relationships with those served be they clients, patients, or students. In teaching, the building and sustaining of relationships with children and youth are essential for student learning. Such work, over time, while satisfying and rewarding drains one’s  energies and commitment. Renewal—repotting—is essential.

Teaching is energizing but also exhausting work. Each day teachers spend the rich intellectual, physical, and emotional capital that they have accumulated over the years on their students. Because of that loss in capital, teachers need to re-invest in themselves by doing what expert gardeners do with favorite potted plants.

Because plants can become pot bound, that is, the roots of the plant become cramped and form a tightly packed mass that inhibits growth they need to be re-potted in different soil and larger pots so they can flourish. Yes, re-potting entails risks and often causes stress but staying potted in the same place means little intellectual growth, diminished enthusiasm for students, even a slow slide into habits that get teachers through the day.

For teachers, re-potting may mean shifting to another grade, tossing out old lessons, introducing new ones, taking a short or long break from the classroom and doing something else that engages one’s passions.

Changing the organization of the age-graded school is not on the agenda of the current generation of efficiency-driven school reformers. Current reforms from Common Core standards to charter schools to accountability, if anything, reinforce with steel rebar the age-graded school. Thus, sad to say, it is up to individual teachers to take charge of their personal renewal.



Filed under Reforming schools

Teaching Math at Mission High School (Kristina Rizga)

Kristina Rizga is a journalist who spent four years observing and interviewing teachers and students at Mission High School in San Francisco. Her book called Mission High (New York: Nation Books, 2015) contains descriptions of both students and teachers inside and outside classrooms.* Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.

What distinguishes Rizga’s book from so many journalist and researcher accounts about high schools with largely minority and poor students are two facts: First, she spent four years–a life time to researchers–at the school. Few researchers or journalists ever spend more than a year in a high school. The second fact is that Rizga addresses a long-time paradox buried at the core of  U.S. schooling in an age of reform when federal and state mandates (No Child Left Behind) label many schools as failing. The paradox is straightforward. Mission High School had been tagged as a failing school–“low performing” is the jargon of the day–and had been a step away from being shut down through No Child Left Behind rules. Yet 84 percent of its graduates were accepted to college, attendance rates have risen above the district high school average and suspensions have fallen between 2008 and 2014 nearly 90 percent. As one student put it: “How can my school be flunking when I am succeeding?”  Indeed, the contradiction of a school labeled by authorities as failing, succeeding with students beyond what other district high schools achieve is the puzzle that Rizga unravels in this book.    

With Rizga’s permission, I offer here descriptions of lessons in math, social studies, and English. The first is a math lesson taught by Taica Hsu, a seven year veteran teacher.



Taica [Hsu] came to Mission High right after graduating from Stanford in 2007 and has been teaching math for seven years he says, sitting in front of a large bookshelf that contains a small microwave, a sewing machine, and rows of books on algebra, CI math, statistics, and precalculus. He taught math more “procedurally” in the first two years at Mission and then more “conceptually” in the last five. Taica is convinced that the approach he learned at Stanford — which also informed the new Common Core Standards — is a better way to learn math and help more students like the subject.

“Approaching math conceptually is not just about doing calculations quickly or memorization,” Hsu explains. “You are still learning procedural fluency, but you are also seeing connections, patterns, choosing your own strategy in solving something and justifying it. You are seeing how it interprets and explains the world around you. It allows students to develop a more intuitive understanding and a deeper connection with math.”

It is nearly ten in the morning at Mission High, and a stream of eighteen freshmen has just entered the classroom for their Algebra I class. Rasheed, a tall young man with a head full of long, black braids, drops his backpack on the table. The desks are organized in rectangles, and students sit in groups of four. Rasheed sits down near Jenny, who noticed her friend as soon as he walked through the door.

Jenny is wearing thick sweatpants over her light blue jeans on this cool, grey February morning in 2011. She has been out sick for a week and has asked Brandon to help her finish her homework. “I believe you multiply first before you add here,” Brandon is explaining patiently while writing out every step of the solution on a separate piece of paper. “Jenny, you are really smart,” he adds. “You can do it. You just need to take your time.” Joaquin, a young man with a pink, boyish face partially covered by an oversized “Golden State Warriors” hat, walks in and stretches out on the two chairs at his desk. He puts his hat over his face and closes his eyes. Joaquin is about two heads shorter than Rasheed, who is a about a foot taller than the rest of his ninth-grade classmates.

Warm and charming, Rasheed is a formidable social force in the classroom. He can pull his friends away from work in an instant, but when class is in session, he uses that power to engage them with math. For now, before the bell rings, Rasheed puts his large headphones on Jenny’s ears and plays some songs for her. Shipra is trying her earrings on Jenny’s ears. Brandon throws a little paper ball at Shipra’s head and turns away sharply to hide his prank. Unlike their peers in the twelfth grade across the hall, these freshmen are buzzing with electricity as they are settling in their seats—shouting, joking, flirting, and fidgeting.

“And that was our bell,” twenty-seven-year-old Hsu says as he starts the class. He is dressed in a grey T-shirt, dark blue jeans, and turquoise Puma sneakers. “Happy Friday, everyone,” he greets the class as the noise drops. “I want to thank many of you who came to see me after school if you had any questions. I really appreciated that.”

“Please sit at the same table as on Wednesday,” he continues. “Start with the ‘Do Now’ and then continue to work on the ‘group challenge’ from last week. Remember, everyone needs to participate in the challenge. What are some ways in which we participate?”

“Asking questions,” students take turns answering. “Justifying steps. Answering questions of others. Asking for help. Plugging in numbers. Using resources from previous classes. Listening to someone else’s ideas.”

“Smart, smart, smart! Let’s get to work,” Hsu responds and starts walking around the classroom, gliding between the desks. Hsu’s colleague, special education teacher Blair Groefsema, checks in with the other tables that need attention. This class has seven students with special needs, including one student in a wheelchair who communicates through a voice-activated electronic device.

Within a few minutes, Hsu notices a common error as students work through the ‘Do Now’ exercise, in which they are reviewing skills and knowledge from their previous lessons. Several students have mixed up distribution steps today and solved 3(x+2) incorrectly, as 3x + 2. Hsu sits on the edge of his desk and reviews the correct sequence of the steps with his students. Joaquin gets up to view what Mr. Hsu is demonstrating more closely.

As the students get back to work, Hsu continues to move around the classroom quickly, with a calming presence—asking questions, naming different skills students are exercising, praising effort. “I see Jenny and Brandon are drawing boxes,” Hsu comments. “That’s a really good technique. I really like how Irene is referencing her homework to help her solve this problem.”

“Check your answers with everyone in the group before you finish,” he reminds them.

“Mr. Hsu, are these ‘like’ terms?” Jenny asks with her hand raised.

“Yes, they are. Can you combine them?”


“What do you think you should do here, Joaquin?” Hsu walks over to the next table. “How did you get that answer?”

After the exercise, Hsu moves on to the group challenge, a multistep, “open-ended” math problem that students are asked to solve in a workshop-style group of four. Such exercises may or may not lead to a single answer, but they always allow for different paths to various solutions. Hsu says that open-ended problems illustrate the real depth of math for students and show them that math—like most things in the real world—requires multiple skills and approaches. “If you are only solving for ‘x,” Hsu explains to me after the class, “the problem has only one path and one solution. Students who get stuck on one, small step throw their hands up and say that they are not good at math. In open-ended group problems, students are more likely to keep trying. They realize that there are many ways to approach problems, and if you are not good at one part of math, it doesn’t mean that you are not good at all of it.”

Today’s group challenge is asking students to analyze and graph different types of lines—parallel, perpendicular, and intersecting—and solve for points of intersection. Students are asked to interact with each line as multiple representations—as a graph, equation, and a table—as well as to make a connection between solutions and visually represented points on the graph. The same lesson in a traditional classroom would be taught in narrower way, Hsu notes. Students might be asked to memorize the equations of the lines and a few conclusions without visualizing them as multiple representations. When students are only asked to solve the equation, they may not completely understand all of the connections. When students don’t make such connections, Hsu says, they are not learning deeply, but simply memorizing equations that are mysteries to them. Such knowledge is more likely to fade quickly.

Following the group challenge, students do individual exercises in which they are asked to practice their skills and knowledge. As students do the work, Hsu walks around and provides personalized coaching. Individual practice time in Hsu’s classes is typically followed by a low-stakes “mini-quiz” without any help from the teacher. He reviews these quizzes at the end of each day to make notes on which students need extra help and adjust his lesson plans for the next day.

Traditional classrooms typically don’t follow this format. In most American classrooms, students watch their teachers lecture and model exercises at the front of the room. After a lecture or demonstration on the blackboard that many don’t fully absorb, students are then asked to practice tasks individually, some in class but most at home… Students who can get help with homework at home usually progress smoothly. Students whose parents work long hours or who can’t afford expensive tutors typically fall behind.

Such teaching allows for an efficient delivery of the standardized content. The problem is that this standardized approach doesn’t work, because no one is “standard,” Hsu argues. That’s why Hsu—along with his co-chair of the math department, Mary Maher, and other math teachers—has spent the last several years working to update the traditional script. Hsu’s classrooms function more like group-style workshops than like lecture halls. Students spend most of the time producing work, alone and in groups, talking about math to their teacher and peers, while Hsu provides individualized coaching.

“Who would like to present their findings?” Hsu asks.

The students in Rasheed’s group raise their hands.

“First of all,” Rasheed begins, pointing to equations on the projection, “how did we know that these lines are perpendicular? We saw that the line is crossing. Second thing we noticed is that slopes are switched around.”

“What’s the only solution?” Hsu asks.

“Four and minus one,” Jenny answers.

“Why?” Hsu probes.

“It’s the only place where the lines cross,” she adds.

“How did you know to go down three, and over two?” Joaquin asks.

“This part of the formula,” Rasheed points at the board.

“Does this make sense? Are we convinced?” Hsu turns to the class.

“Yes,” several students respond.

“Does anyone disagree?” he asks.

No hands go up.

“Time for a quick, individual check-in, everyone,” says Hsu, who calls tests and quizzes “check-ins” to help ease the testing tension.

“I’m not prepared for this test,” Shipra admits, clearly upset.

“I’ve seen you do these problems many times, Shipra,” Ms. Groefsema reassures her.

The students get to work. A young man trained in working with students who use electronic devices for communication, is helping a student in the wheelchair.

A few minutes later Jenny exclaims that she is done. So does Rasheed. Hsu walks over to them. Joaquin gets stuck and asks for help. He has forgotten how to pick numbers for the table to draw a parabola. Ms. Groefsema reminds him with a series of questions. He gets back to work. Hsu looks over Shipra’s quiz. She has mixed up the steps: added first, rather than multiplied, he tells me quietly. She was asking for help more than anyone today. She will need extra one-on-one work with Hsu and a lot more individual practice to help her develop self-reliance and more confidence.

The bell rings, and Hsu finishes collecting the rest of the quizzes.

“I am so smart, I can teach this class,” Rasheed says with a slight smirk on his face, as he looks back at Jenny.


*Full disclosure: for this book, Rizga and I had several conversations about the history of school reform past and present. I also visited Mission High School for one day, saw three lessons, and interviewed the principal.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Teaching History in an Academically Failing High School

In my forthcoming book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change, I describe how I taught history and social studies in the 1960s in two urban high schools, one in Cleveland (Glenville High School) and one in Washington, D.C. (Cardozo High School).  I returned to those very same high schools in 2014 where I observed and interviewed four history teachers at Glenville and three at Cardozo. Some of those 2014 teachers,  in varying degrees of success, engaged their students in the historical approach to teaching the subject, that is, teaching students to read, think, and write like historians (see here ). Here is oneof the three teachers at Cardozo who I observed.


On the front wall above the “smart board” Mike Topper (a pseudonym) had posted classroom rules on the first day of the semester for the 9th graders in his world history course:

  1. Be Respectful!
  2. Work Hard!
  3. Keep Head Up and Off Desk!
  4. Raise Hand to Speak One at a Time, and Stay on Topic!

Just to the side and below the “smart board” or interactive whiteboard (IWB) the teacher has printed out in large black letters a list of rewards and penalties for behavior. The title is “Four Token System.” The following items appear:

*Keep all of your tokens to receive daily rewards, weekly positive phone calls, and monthly prizes.

*Loosing [sic] tokens results in negative consequences as follows:

1st token lost—warning.

2nd token lost—no rewards. Written up in Discipline and Behavior Log.

3rd token lost—phone call home or home visit. Student completes Behavior Reflection.

4th token lost—Referral to administration.

Before the 90 minute period began, I asked Topper about the token system and he told me that it is really a “warning” system for misbehavior. He does not use tokens anymore.

The IWB is in daily use. For example, on the “smart board” is the “warm up,” an activity that the district expects its academic subject teachers to begin a lesson, often uses a question, puzzle, or proverb. As students enter the room, they know that they are supposed to take out paper and begin writing in their notebooks.

After the opening “warm up” activity, Topper told me that he usually moves into a 10-minute lecture. During the lecture, Topper said he often flashes slides from his laptop onto the IWB to illustrate points in lecture; he also would display text and worksheet assignments on the “smart board.” [i]

Today, however, there is no “warm up” exercise. The IWB contains announcements and an agenda for the lesson in a unit taken from the textbook called *Reunification of China:

*Test tomorrow

*Read ‘Print Invention’ on p. 249. Do 3-2-1

*Read ‘Young People in China’ section and answer the three questions on the page.

*Read p. 266 and do 3-2-1.”[ii]

To the side of the front “smart board” on a whiteboard are listed the daily lesson objectives, the world history standard under which the lesson falls, and what students will be able to know and do as a result of the lesson.[iii]

In the rear of the room on a sidewall is a large poster showing a pyramid with levels of cognitive skills drawn from Bloom’s Taxonomy.[iv] Next to it is a bulletin board displaying student work that received a score of 100%. On the floor next to the opposite wall sits a large box holding “interactive notebooks” for each of the students. When students enter they take their notebook from the carton; at the end of the period they put it back. Along the rear wall of the classroom sit five new desktop computers with chairs and desks.

The teacher has arranged the classroom furniture into rows of desks facing the front of the room. The teacher’s desk, with an open laptop is in a corner at the front of the room near the “smart board.”

Twelve 9th graders arrive before tardy bell. Topper, a thin young man about 5 feet 7inches is wearing a sport shirt with a multi-colored tie and dark pants He tells students in a crackly voice that he will lock the doors now because a “hall sweep” is occurring. Such “sweeps”—particularly in the week before a holiday—happen when security aides, uniformed and in civilian clothes, round up students in corridors after the tardy bell has rung. These aides take the late students to the cafeteria where an administrator records their name and then issues a pass to class. Being caught in sweeps repeatedly can lead a student to be suspended from school.[v]

After pointing to the IWB about the day’s lesson, Topper says: “Listen up! Still a little sick from yesterday and throat is sore, so don’t let me talk over you.” He continues: “The questions in the textbook you will answering are level 1 questions, not application or evaluation.”[vi]

He then looks at one student and says: “Mr. Washington, help me out and take off your hat.” He addresses all students “Mr.” and “Miss.” Student takes off cap. [vii]

Topper directs student attention to IWB and addresses each item on the lesson agenda including the test tomorrow. He asks if there are any questions. There are none. He reminds students that they will write in their interactive notebooks on clean pages and at the end of the period will turn in answers to the questions and 3-2-1s.

Eight students rise and get textbooks sitting on a shelf at the side of the room. The rest sit and chat. As students turn to textbook pages and begin writing in their interactive notebooks, a few yell out questions about items they will have to work on. One student calls out, “Topper, I need help.” The teacher walks over and listens to the student and then answers questions. Another student walks over to door, slips the wooden “bathroom pass” off the wall hook and exits classroom. A hum from students talking to one another rises in volume. Two of the chatting students have yet to retrieve a textbook. Topper tells them to begin on assignment. They begrudgingly get a text while whispering to each other as they return to their desks and open the books. Another chatting 9th grader balks and says to Topper: “Leave me alone.” He does. The student who took the bathroom pass earlier returns; another student takes the wooden pass from that student.

Thirty minutes after tardy bell all of the students are seemingly working on reading the text and writing the 3-2-1s. In the next 25 minutes, Topper takes a cell phone call by walking out of room into the hallway. When he is out of the room, seven students stop reading or writing and begin talking to one another. When Topper returns in two minutes, he walks around the room checking to see if students are on task, writing in their notebooks, and if there are any questions.

The bell rings for the daily homeroom period that occurs during this period. Homeroom is a 10-minute intermission in the school day for the principal, other administrators and students to pipe in announcements of the day’s activities, upcoming events, and names of students who must report to the office. As the words pour out of a wall-mounted speaker, few students pay attention to the announcements. When the PA system came on, Topper returned to his desk at the front of room and worked on his laptop.

After announcements end, Topper asks students to resume their work. He reminds the group that there will be a test tomorrow and that answering all of the questions will help them on the test. He tells them that their notebook pages will be collected before the bell rings ending the period. It is their Exit Pass, he says. [viii]

About five minutes before the bell, Topper says to the class to return the textbooks and interactive notebooks to the cartons on the floor near the sidewall. After returning to their desks, students get their backpacks and belongings together as they await the bell. When it rings, eight of the twelve hand in pages torn out of their notebooks to Topper who reminds them of the test the next day.

Since completing a semester of student teaching and graduating college in a nearby city, Mike Topper entered Cardozo as a first-year teacher of history. In the World History I syllabus, Topper wrote the following for the course:

The purpose … is to view civilizations from the Fall of Rome to the Age of Revolutions and think historically about how such civilizations impacted the development of the world. We will continually wrestle with questions that cannot be easily answered. In order to do so, we will develop a toolbox of ‘historical thinking skills’ that will be useful for everything inside the classroom and for being a powerful citizen outside of the classroom.[ix]

The three goals and objectives for the course would make any partisan of the historical approach beam with pride.

  1. Formulate (develop) historical questions and defend answers based on inquiry and interpretation.
  2. Communicate findings orally in class and in written essays.
  3. Develop skills in reading strategies, discussion, debate, and persuasive writing.

Topper specifies in the syllabus which historical thinking skills he seeks to develop in his 9th graders such as: being able to explain “historical significance,” find and use evidence, analyze primary sources, and figure out what is the “cause and consequence” of a significant event.

These are ambitious goals for a first year teacher anywhere, much less at Cardozo. He told me that he likes it at Cardozo “because expectations for academic work are higher than [the city where he did his student-teaching].” “Here,” he said, “administrators come into your classroom and observe what you are doing. Also ‘master educators’ [former teachers hired by the district to observe and evaluate other teachers] have already come by a few times. Here, you really need to work with kids.”


[1] As part of the district instructional guidance for and evaluation of teachers, called the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework Resources Overview, there is a template for every lesson taught in a District of Columbia classroom. See here.

In the framework, the template for the “warm up” says: “Teacher hooks students to the content, activates students’ prior knowledge, and introduces the objective.” P. 13.

[ii] The text the class uses is the 1100 page World History: Modern Times (2005) written by Jackson Spielvogel. The book contains many graphics, photos, charts, and sidebars with vignettes of historical personalities. Accompanying each unit in the book is a “Primary Source Library.” There is a classroom set of the texts along one wall for students to use when the teacher assigns pages to read and questions to ask in a lesson. The 3-2-1 is an acronym for a teaching technique that gets students to summarize a reading and think about its meaning. Students were familiar with the technique and had used it for readings in the text and in primary sources. Each student would write on one sheet of paper: “Three things you learned from reading; two things you have found interesting; one question you still have.”

[iii] When I asked two other Cardozo social studies teachers (there are four in the department) why the curriculum standard, daily objective, and what teacher expects students to learn was written on all of their whiteboards, each one independently told me that the District requires these to be listed. The lesson template mentioned above states that teachers must have the curriculum standard and daily objective displayed for all students to see. When evaluators—the school principal or D.C. “master educators” entered the room—either arranged beforehand or unannounced–it is one of the items that these evaluators expect to see.

[iv] Bloom’s Taxonomy is part of the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework (see pp. 4-6). The district expects all academic teachers to sort out the content and skills they teach and use the language of the taxonomy in stating their daily objectives.

[v] A student sitting next to me explained what the “hall sweeps” were. I confirmed this with Topper and other teachers.

[vi] Level 1 questions—factual recall of dates, events, and people—refer to Bloom’s taxonomy levels of which a poster is on a wall in the room. I assume that he has taught the levels to students earlier in the semester. Whether the students understand the clarification about the questions they are expected to answer, I do not know.

[vii] Cardozo school rules call for no cell phones during class lessons, no hats to be worn in classrooms, and students to have uniforms. Gray Polo tops and khaki pants or skirts for grades 6-8, purple Polo tops and khakis for grades 9-10, and black Polo shirts and khakis for seniors. No street clothes allowed—there are loaner shirts available to students who break rules. In the two weeks I was in the school, I noted that about half of the students wore uniforms. See Cardozo website at: http://www.cardozohs.com/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=207589&type=d&pREC_ID=408163

[viii] Exit Passes are ways that teachers can determine quickly and briefly what students know and understand in the lesson. As a form of assessment, it is often used by teachers to see whether what has been taught has been learned.

[ix] Mike Topper (pseudonym), Department of Social Studies, 9th Grade Academy, “Syllabus for World History I, 2013-2014,” p. 1. In author’s possession. I cannot give web link to syllabus because it would reveal actual name of the teacher.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Hollywood, HBO, and School Reform (Part 2)

In Part 1, I discussed the doctoral dissertation of Derisa Grant who tried to unravel the puzzle of Hollywood films moving from superhero teachers to “bad” teachers over the past few decades. In Part 2, I point out how Hollywood films about teachers epitomize the dominant American cultural value of an individual overcoming all obstacles ignoring the substantial influence of the school and community. Consider the film portrayals of English teacher Erin Gruwell and math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski.

Not only 3000 miles separate English teacher Erin Gruwell at Wilson High School in Long Beach (CA) in the film “Freedom Writers” from math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski (Mr. P.) at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School in Baltimore (MD) in HBO’s “The Wire.” Based upon an actual novice white teacher, the celluloid Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank, spurs her class to overcome poverty, gang banging, and utter pessimism about their future to write in their journals and eventually go to college. Mr. P, also a novice white teacher, played by Jim True-Frost, tries hard to get his 8th graders, to learn fractions, long division, and probability and stay out of selling drugs. Mr. P, however, is a fictitious character.

Yet what separates the two films about teaching poor and minority youth under grim conditions is neither the distance between Long Beach and Baltimore nor between high school English and middle school math or that one teacher is real and the other fictitious. What separates the films from one another is the implicit view in “Freedom Writers” of the road to reform being paved by stellar teachers while in “The Wire” that same road would require overhauling the entire institution. Ironically, then, Mr. P/Jim True-Frost, a fictitious teacher, captures the gritty conditions that urban school principals and teachers face far better than the film about an actual teacher Erin Gruwell/Hilary Swank.

To say that the Hollywood version of “Freedom Writers” is less true in portraying teaching in gang-ridden schools then HBO’s “The Wire” is only to re-state the obvious popularity of the film genre of innocent white teacher—think “Dangerous Minds”–making mistakes with troublesome students, encountering conflict after conflict with gang members and close-minded administrators only to overcome them amid a crescendo of music. Not only white females dominate this genre. “Stand and Deliver,” based on the experience of Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, follows the same pattern. The clear message is that gutsy, smart, hard working individual teachers can overcome student apathy and the powerful tug of the Street. Of course, there are such superheroic teachers who do the impossible 24/7. But they are not typical novices who, after a few years leave in droves from such schools.

Hollywood over-sells individual teachers while understating the institutional complexity of working in inadequately staffed, overly regulated schools where city politics, bureaucratic inertia, and sheer drudgery shape classroom practice as much as what students bring to school. HBO gets it right in fictitious Tilghman middle school where Mr. P, a former police officer, teaches.

Why is Mr. P’s portrayal closer to the truth of urban schools? Over five seasons, “The Wire”—title refers to a police unit recording drug dealers’ business transactions to gather evidence for their arrest—goes well beyond West Baltimore and those who sell drugs. The series explored families involved in the drug trade and families not yet hooked, corrupt police bureaucrats, City Hall politics, dirty union leaders at the Port of Baltimore, and, for an entire season, schools. “The Wire” looked at institutions and how racial politics in the police department, among city officials, and the schools interact to affect one another. A newly elected ambitious white mayor of a predominately black city and bureaucracy, for example, has to find a new police commissioner, cut the budget, and do something about the school district whose schools are underperform academically.

Enter Mr. P., a former Baltimore City police officer, who has neither charisma nor teaching experience. He makes the usual novice mistakes, has a hard time managing his 8th graders, and an even harder time getting them to focus on math. Unruly students erupt into fights at real or imagined slights. Many cannot follow the textbook. A few are super-bright and with a little prodding grasp the math concepts. Mr. P’s patience and decency slowly wins over a core of students but not all. Finally, he gets some students interested in learning probability through throwing dice. But at the next faculty meeting, the assistant principal announces that because the school’s test scores are so low all classes will focus on reading and math skills for the upcoming state test. Good soldier as he is, Mr. P switches lessons and prepares his students for the state test at the same time that a few of the promising 8th graders get enmeshed in the drug trade.

The Hollywood genre of heroic teachers overcoming obstacles promises better schools through individuals staying the course. While such films are popular, this optimistic strategy of reforming urban schools is doomed because it ignores the institutional side of schools and how teaching and learning are affected as much by the Street as they are by school bureaucrats, city officials, and other agencies. HBO’s “The Wire” portrays schools as deeply flawed institutions sailing through teachers’ and students’ lives more concerned about surviving than teaching or learning. Surely, the Mr. Ps in this world salvage individual youngsters but are tossed about like confetti on a windy day. This complex, realistic view of urban school reform as institutional renewal has little room for heroics. And truth be told, are hard to translate to the screen and make money. Far easier is to focus on the individual rather than the organization. Even highly-touted films of urban charter school (e.g., “Waiting for Superman“–a documentary and “Won’t Back Down“–a Hollywood production showing two mothers who seize the school from a corrupt teachers’ union)  succumb to the fairy tale view of superheroes conquering poverty and difficult students. These film versions of school reform may have box-office appeal (one was a financial hit; the other was a flop). But in focusing on iconic teachers conquering all obstacles, they offer little guidance to today’s policymakers or for teachers caught in the web of institutional shortcomings and the poverty that continue to pervade U.S. urban districts.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools