Tag Archives: school & district leaders

Day in the Life of a Principal (Part 1)

Jessica Johnson is Principal of Dodgeland Elementary School in Wisconsin. This day-in-the-life appeared on her blog April 26, 2009.

I am guilty of having thought as a teacher and even as an assistant principal, “What is the principal doing all day? Why hasn’t he/she done x, y or z yet?” Well, now that I’m the principal, I take back all of the thoughts I had back then, because you can just never understand what the principal does all day until you live it!

There are so many things that could happen in a day that couldn’t even be shared with staff, because: A) I don’t want to set the tone of the school by complaining B) Some information has to be filtered by me or it would just give teachers more to stress over C) There’s a lot of confidential information contained within a principal’s day. So, I want to write a list of all the crazy things that could happen on any given day.

Monday morning arrive to work at 6:30 am. Turn on the computer and start looking at my list of things to accomplish today (includes 7:35/3:05  Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, teacher observation, teacher meeting, parent conference, call McDonald’s for additional donations of ice cream coupons for student of the month awards, write monthly principal newsletter, finalize summer school course packets, sort through the junk mail still piled up from last week-because I didn’t get to it over the weekend, complete purchase requisitions, file pink copies of all purchases for budgeting, get into classrooms).

7:00 receive call from sub-caller, write down list of teachers out today—we ran out of subs so I have to figure out coverage for one of the first grade teachers. Write a note for the secretary regarding this, tell her I’ll be to the class at 8:00, but for her to keep looking for coverage.
7:05 Try to start on paperwork, but a teacher comes in to tell about a phone call she received from a parent after school on Friday regarding a bus incident—record the information to investigate.
7:10 Try to start on paperwork, but get a call from a teacher that our online student information system (for attendance and grades) is down again. Put in a call to tech director to get it fixed…send out an email to all staff that the problem should be fixed soon *hopefully*.

7:20 Parents are here for the IEP meeting…show them to the conference room to wait….no chance of getting paperwork done now. Go to get IEP information for the meeting and see the voicemail light flashing again…check it and hear that a teacher got stuck in traffic and won’t make it in time…go tell the secretary and then run back to the IEP meeting.

7:35-8:00 IEP meeting…this one went well. Now I have to run to cover that class.

8:00-8:30 Teaching a lower grade level, no lesson plans (note to self-remind teachers to get emergency sub plans/folders ready) making it up as I go.

8:30 Call from the office that one of our Emotional/Behavioral Disability (EBD) students needs to be removed from the room—an aide is coming to cover the class instead.

8:35-9:15 Remove EBD student—severe physical aggression, I’m sure I’ll have some bruises from this one—not to mention the mess the conference room is in now (we don’t have a time-out room). I’ve had my glasses broken before, so glad that didn’t happen this time. He/she finally is calm/compliant and I escort the child back to class…
Fortunately another substitute was able to come in and cover that other class now. Thank goodness, I can get to my list…
Check my voicemail—1 teacher call with a question about the new report card, 1 teacher call requesting me to come speak with her about a student, 1 parent call angry about a bus incident, another angry parent upset with a teacher.

9:20 put the sign on my door that says “I’m out in classrooms to see what students are learning” and get to each of the teachers that left me voice messages. Make a move to classrooms for walk throughs—first one has guided reading groups and centers with 1st grade kids reading amazingly well! Start to enter the 2nd classroom of the day when I’m called for on the school loud speaker (I don’t carry my walkie-talkie when I’m going into classrooms and my secretaries know only to call for me in an emergency). Hurry back to the office to find that one of our special needs children ran off from the aide (he/she has never done this before!) I make a special all-call to the staff to let them know we’re looking for ______ and then several of us split up to search….10 minutes later we find her/him in an unattended office in the dark pretending to type on a computer. Whew!

10:00-10:30 Morning Recess-I don’t end up making it out there for all 30 minutes, because I get stopped by 3 different teachers on my way out. (Question about grades deadline, information shared about a student and another technology question)

10:30-11:15 Back out to classrooms. Get into 4 of them (with a note to myself on needing to meet with a teacher for classroom management concerns)

11:15-11:45 Meet with the 4 students that had bus conduct reports. 1 has had enough to be suspended from the bus…make the phone call home and get yelled at by the parent that they can’t pick them up. I’ll spare the rest of the details. Meet with 2 other students that have “earned” after school detention for continuously disruptive classroom behavior.

11:45 Head for the fridge to grab my sandwich for lunch, but get called to a classroom for another EBD student. Fortunately, this child is calmed down much easier than the one this morning.

12:00-1:00 Lunch room duty—grab a slim fast to drink on the way. No, I’m not dieting, but I keep them in the fridge for days like today when there is no time to eat. I sometimes refer to my hour-long lunch duty as migraine hour (because it’s always loud), but I secretly enjoy this hour. Our kids sit at round tables and actually get the chance to talk with their peers. I’ve seen schools where the kids have to eat silently, but I think that’s just mean. I enjoy the chance to walk around to each table and chat with the kids. If I’m not walking around (using proximity) they do try to get away with things (however, they know that if I catch them throw any food they then have lunch room clean up duty!)

1:00 Talk to a couple teachers about student behaviors in the lunch room as they pick up classes (friend issues)

1:05 Get back to the office and secretary tells me that a parent has tried calling several times and is very angry. Go back to my office and check my voice messages—there are 6 of them (not all from the one parent)! I have a classroom observation at 1:30, so I write them all down and just call back the angry one–this parent calls daily, so I’m used to it…I’d like to tell this parent to get a job so he/she has something to do each day, but I refrain from expressing that opinion! The parent again tells me they’re going to call the school board to complain…I’m not worried, because I know that what we’re doing on the school end is the right thing and I’ve already talked to a couple school board members about this parent. Note to any potential administrators reading this—be prepared for threats such as, “I’ve got a lawyer on retainer,” “I’m going to call your superintendent,” “I’m going to report this to the school board” and “I’m going to report you to the state department of education.” If you’re doing your job right, you have nothing to worry about. I now just give them the phone number and am usually able to add, “I’ve already spoken with the superintendent regarding this issue.” I don’t like surprises or hiding things from my superintendent or the school board, so I keep those lines of communication open.

1:30-2:15 Classroom Observation: I love doing formal classroom observations, because you get to see so much more than just in walk-throughs (of the teacher,

instruction and the students). I do think I’m getting carpal tunnel, because I’m so insistent on scripting everything—gives me good information when I’m writing up the evaluation and when I meet with the teacher.

2:15 bathroom break—I seriously think this was my first one today—I’m dying!

2:20 Check with my secretary-2 more phone calls passed through to my phone—nothing major though, so I’ll check them later. Try to tidy up my desk before parent meeting at 2:30. Since I am on the run so much and hardly in my office, I have several piles on my desk. I don’t have a great system yet for organizing yet, but I know where everything is. I once had a principal that said “If you’re desk is a mess, it’s because you’re doing your job well—you’re out in classrooms and not sitting at your desk.” I’ve worked for a principal that was adamant about keeping the desk clean, but I still agree with the previous one!

2:30 Meeting with parent: she wants to request a specific teacher for next year. This is something on my list that I haven’t gotten to yet—working on the class list procedures and a letter to parents explaining why we can’t honor specific teacher requests. I explain it to her and tell her about the letter that will be coming home in a month and ask her to think about her child’s learning styles/needs and not just the teacher that the older sibling had. This isn’t how the previous principal did things, so she’s a little annoyed, but agreed to it. (Note to self—get moving on writing that letter and meeting with staff about class lists)

2:50 Pop into grade level meeting (teachers have grade-level collaboration time

2:40-3:30 on 2 week rotation. Aides cover the class 2:40-3:00 to give them someadditional time). I’d like to sit in on these meetings for the full time to help facilitate discussions on student learning, but it hasn’t happened all year.

3:00 Walk the halls quickly as students are being dismissed. I have a particular student that I walk to the bus each day and remind him/her about how to be safe on the bus.

3:05 IEP meeting…this one goes on forever. Parents are not on the same page as everyone at school. Gets quite heated and I have to do quite a bit of mediation. At 5:00 I finally say that we will have to come back at a later date to finish (No, IEP meetings do not normally last this long!!)

5:05 Back to my office…finish checking voice messages and start calling a few back (had to prioritize which ones can wait until tomorrow). Now to my list from this morning—hadn’t touched any of them! Write my principal newsletter because it was due last Friday. Check my mailbox and add it to the stack of mail from last week (never knew how much mail the principal gets—good grief!) Pull out time sheets, absence sheets, and purchase requisitions because those are time sensitive, but leave the rest. It’s 5:45 now and my husband has called three times asking when I’ll be home. I grab some files to shove in my bag, along with my flash drive so I can type up the teacher evaluation at home).
6:00 Finally home—didn’t have a bad day, but still feel like I got run over by a semi. I’d love to just lay on the couch and crash, but have to make supper, clean, play with my son. After he’s in bed I type up that teacher eval (most of it) until I’m too exhausted and go to bed at 11:45.

I must say that the kids are the easiest part of this position. I can’t even get into detail on some of the difficult conversations with parents and teachers each day that get my stomach churning (and I mean that literally…but now I am on meds for the ulcer, so I’m doing better with that!)


Johnson spends a great deal of her time managing tasks that are both on-going and unexpected. She is in and out of classrooms also and in short bursts of time sees parents, children, and teachers again and again over the course of one day. How typical is her day-in-the-life of a principal compared to one in a middle school or high school? Compared to principals in large suburbs and big cities? I take up the answer to those questions in Part 2.

For previous posts that I have written on principals, see here, here, and here.


Filed under school leaders

Cheating Scandals Reaffirm, Not Diminish, Testing

Not until the trials (or plea bargains) are over, will a verdict be rendered on former Superintendent Beverly Hall’s guilt or innocence in what is called the Atlanta cheating scandal. Hall’s indictment follows on the heels of finding El Paso Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia guilty last Fall. He is now serving three and a half years in jail (see here and here).

Even before a judge or jury decides on her guilt or innocence, anti-testing groups, feeding on Atlanta, El Paso, and the investigation of tampering with test scores under Washington, D.C. school chief, Michelle Rhee, have grabbed the case to further their cause. Moreover, over the years, journalists have uncovered oddities in test scores jumping sky-high in one year in other districts across the nation.

Foes of standardized tests feel the rush of adrenalin in saying that these examples of dishonest adults raising student test scores to receive applause and cash awards are pervasive. Defenders of standardized testing and accountability, however, see the  cheating as exceptions, as a few rotten apples in a barrel full of worm-free ones. Most educators, advocates of test-driven accountability say, are decent, hard working professionals who play by the rules and can be trusted to do the right thing.

In this volleying back-and-forth between advocates and foes of standardized testing,  school scandals have been compared to cheating in baseball, bicycle racing, and other sports.

From Mark McGuire‘s stained home run record to Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong‘s admission that he doped while racing, these and other sports have come under a dark cloud of suspicion–an outcome damaging to top athletes, companies dependent upon income derived from professional sports, fans turning into cynics, and disappointed youth who only want to play the game by the rules.

Cheating in both sports and schools can be traced to the unleashed and fierce competition in performing better and better to gain ever-larger rewards. Professional sports are money machines and being a top performer is rewarded handsomely; scores on international tests, ranking schools within a state and district based on performance, a broader array of school choices, and federal regulations in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top  have ratcheted upward intense pressure to beat  state tests.

Also common to school cheating and drug-drenched sports is betraying the public trust to gain personal advantage.  When adults erase student answers and professional athletes take illegal drugs to enhance performance, such acts erode the faith that adults and youth have in social institutions being fair.

Another common feature is the unshaken confidence that current authorities have in written and computerized tests assessing student learning and drug tests determining whether athletes are cheating. When cheating is uncovered, few decision-makers question the tests. Tighter security and better tests are the solutions.

*Few decision-makers question whether there might be something wrong in professional athletics (i.e., expansion of baseball, football, hockey, and basketball leagues and over-the-top competition for more money).

*Few decision-makers question whether most toddlers and young children from low-income families should be tested especially since they bring to school very different strengths and weaknesses than children from middle and upper-income homes. Or that such early testing of young children squeezes inequities into judgments of what they can and cannot do in preschool and elementary school classrooms.

*Few decision-makers question the national obsession with student test scores as the correct metric to judge schools, teachers, and students.

This deep reluctance to question powerful interests invested in socioeconomic structures and cultures in which cheating occurs is why I believe that standardized tests in schools, like drug testing in sports, will be reaffirmed rather than overturned. There will be continuing challenges–as there should be–but standardized testing will remain rock-solid. Why?

First, note that most of the cheating incidents have been largely in districts where high percentages of poor and minority students attend school. Sure, there are exceptions but when you look closely at where dishonesty is found, those charters and regular public schools enroll large numbers of children from low-income families. I have yet to find any district school boards, investigators, charter school leaders or policymakers recommend examining the tests to see if they do what they are supposed to do or, after conducting such an examination, finding unworthy tests and getting rid of them. Yes, there have been protests by educators, students, and middle- and upper-middle class families against too much standardized testing (see here and here). These protests have led to occasional boycotts but none have occurred, to my knowledge, in poor neighborhoods. If anything, there is a reaffirmation of tests, calls for greater security, and plaudits for any whistle-blowers.

The point is that these tests sort students and schools by scores that  reinforce rather than erase existing gaps in achievement. And sorting is necessary to determine who, beginning at the age of four, shall climb each rung of that ladder reaching college. The system of private and public schooling requires such tests to distinguish high achievers from others. If the tests were really that accurate in making such distinctions across children and youth of being smart on paper, with people, and in life now and later, then, perhaps we need such tests . But that is not the case now… by a long shot.

Second, to underscore the above point, consider the experience of cheating on the SAT. After a scandal revealed that high-scoring individuals with fake IDs were paid to take the SAT test, Educational Testing Service tightened security at test sites. No challenges of the test itself occurred. SAT scores remain crucial for college admission and no school boards, teachers, or parent groups called for the end of the test.

Count on cheaters getting more clever and investigators still hunting them down. Amid increasing numbers of cheating incidents, standardized tests will be challenged, maybe the numbers even reduced, but nonetheless, they will reign for the immediate future.


Filed under leadership, school reform policies, testing

Does Collective Teacher Autonomy Make Any Difference for Student Achievement? (Kim Farris-Berg), Part 3

Farris-Berg is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. She is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

High-performing organizations assess performance and act upon results to improve performance. The teachers who have collective autonomy to make decisions influencing school success do too.

Of course these teachers and their students participate in state standardized tests. Under No Child Left Behind they must. But, like many other teachers, they are concerned about the current policy context in which their school quality is judged by the percentage of students who score “proficient” on these tests—especially in comparison to other schools.

Many teachers who participated in our study pointed out that mean proficiency scores (high or low) cannot isolate the contribution of school and teacher quality from other contributors, such as family background and prior educational experience, no matter how good the test. My colleagues and I have argued that we also cannot learn much about the effects of practice (for example, teachers’ chosen learning approach) in each school so that we can really determine which practices work best. For that, we’ll need an altogether different research approach.

Autonomous groups of teachers want to score well enough on state standardized tests to maintain their autonomy (and consequently their approach to schooling), but otherwise they don’t worry much about a measurement of quality that, in their view, cannot withstand serious scientific scrutiny. Moreover, many teachers reported their resentment that so much school funding and time is spent on state- and district-required tests that are not useful for making decisions about how and what to teach individual students.

These teachers do, however, find a use for testing. They want to know individual student progress down to the specifics, and some choose to spend discretionary funding on assessment tools that they determine most valuable for providing this information. These teachers don’t just want to know if Johnny is doing well in math. They want to know what areas of math Johnny understands, and what areas he doesn’t so he can reach his own next level of achievement.

But individual academic improvement is not the only quality indicator autonomous teachers use to evaluate their practice. And, when you step back and think, this just makes sense. Think about how you evaluate restaurants, cars, and even your significant other. It’s almost never based on a single measure of quality. Why should it be any different for schools and teachers?

A number of teacher groups have opted to use The Hope Survey, for example, to determine students’ psychological adjustment in a school environment over time. Teachers can learn how well they are doing in addressing students’ sense of autonomy, belongingness, and goal orientation.

Teachers also develop their own rubrics and use portfolio assessments, public learning exhibitions, and rounding (just as medical doctors round with patients) to assess students’ nonacademic abilities in areas such as self-direction, time management, team work, information retention, self-advocacy, community interaction, active citizenship, persistence, risk management, flexible thinking, and critical thinking.

One group of teachers serving students in grades 6-12 created the Raised Responsibility Rubric, a tool used by both teachers and students to track students’ development of intrinsic motivation. The more a student develops, the more responsibility she is granted to manage her own time throughout the day.

So, does collective teacher autonomy make any difference for student achievement? The answer is yes. Autonomous teachers value a broader range of achievement than is currently valued in K-12—so much so that they are seeking, designing and financing new ways to assess this achievement. They use all the information they deem valuable to improve teaching and learning in their schools.

I imagine that some folks started reading this blog with the expectation that I would report a nice summary of the state standardized test scores of schools run by teachers in comparison to conventionally governed schools. Out of respect for the ideas and practices of teachers who call the shots, we opted not to report these scores in our work. It wasn’t because we couldn’t say anything good about the scores or because the teachers wanted to avoid measurement. We simply didn’t want to participate in anyone’s attempt to boil everything autonomous teachers do down to a single measure of quality—a measure that doesn’t begin to reflect all they do or their work’s relevance to the future of K-12 schools.

If we are open to trusting teachers, we ought to be open to their broader definition of student achievement and its implications for measuring school quality. These trailblazers could be kicking off a major period of innovation in K-12. Encouraging them will likely require less snap judgment and more confrontation of our nation’s tolerance for the hard work of change.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

Are Teachers Interested in the Opportunity To Call the Shots? (Kim Farris-Berg) Part 2

Farris-Berg is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. She is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

If we made it loud and clear, in both policy and practice, that teachers can have autonomy to collectively make the decisions influencing whole school success, would any teachers take advantage?

Collective teacher autonomy isn’t for everyone. It is a working arrangement that some teachers long for, but others never imagine for themselves. Teachers who are now calling the shots in more than 50 district and chartered schools around the country describe themselves as pioneers both in the professionalization of teaching and in the modernization of schools and schooling.

Pioneering is intense and difficult work, they say, especially in an education culture that values and even manages toward “sameness.” Yet it is also enormously rewarding. The teachers report that they thrive in these environments where they work with their colleagues to make what they determine to be necessary changes and see their commitment’s positive influence on student learning.

There’s evidence that, if the opportunity was firmly on the table, many more teachers would be interested. Public Agenda tested a national sample of teachers’ attitudes toward new arrangements and reported the findings in Stand by Me: What Teachers Really Think About Unions, Merit Pay and Other Professional Matters (Farkas, Johnson and Duffet 2003). Fifty-eight percent of teachers were somewhat or very interested “in working in a [chartered] school run and managed by teachers.” Sixty-five percent of these teachers had worked less than five years, and 50 percent had worked more than 25 years.

Of course, there are also reasons why teachers currently don’t take the leap. To ask for something, you need to know about it, and many do not. Plus, among the teachers who are interested, many are afraid of what might happen to their professional reputations if they ask for authority.

Others fear getting only partial, informal authority. In these cases, teachers worry about making the time investment (in school design, school management, and lobbying school district or state leaders to adapt management practices to support teacher autonomy) only to have their authority pulled back. Teachers have seen this happen too many times before when, as the former 22-year Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Louise Sundin puts it in Zero Change of Passage, “the bureaucracy [asked for innovation, but ultimately]…couldn’t tolerate…differences in delivery or design.”

Still more teachers have trouble imagining the arrangement’s possibilities for their own professional careers and for their students. Just ask Janesville, Wisconsin high school teacher Stephanie Davis.

A highly-qualified teacher, Stephanie got her first teaching job at the 1,780-student Craig High School. Doing everything her district and school leaders asked of her, she applied the skills and knowledge gained from her training for the good of her students. She felt proud to work at Craig, where everyone worked hard to make a great school.

So Stephanie was crushed when, like so many other teachers, she was laid off by the Janesville School District amidst state budget cuts. She hoped for another job in Janesville, and eventually district leaders assigned her to a school chartered by Janesville Public Schools called Tailoring Academics to Guide Our Students (TAGOS Leadership Academy).* But she was furious. TAGOS was known as a place full of “bad” kids. Stephanie thought, “I am a good teacher. How can I do what I was trained to do in a place like that?”

The TAGOS Leadership Academy teachers welcomed Stephanie and explained that their learning program of choice focused on individualizing learning for students, not staying on a specific track. They had requested a colleague like her so she could help realize the goal of getting each student to his or her personal next level of achievement. They had the authority to collaboratively manage the school, they said, and could make whatever changes needed.

At first Stephanie was so focused on how things usually work—and how TAGOS was breaking convention—that she failed to digest her colleagues’ request. “Then we went on winter break, and I had time to reflect on what they were asking of me,” she explained. “Suddenly I got it. I had a real opportunity at TAGOS. My voice mattered. I could lead [my colleagues]—work together with them—to create a learning program that would really change how our students learn!”

“I hadn’t really thought about how prescribed everything I was doing at Craig was,” she continued. “I had to use the prescribed book list, in the prescribed order, at the prescribed pace, using a prescribed budget. There was so little opportunity to tailor what I was doing for the individual students I was working with, whether they were far beyond or far behind. . . Here at TAGOS was a chance to do all the things I thought might work better.”

Stephanie was as nervous as she was excited. She realized that in exchange for such decision-making authority, she and her fellow teachers at TAGOS Leadership Academy would be accountable for the learning program they developed in addition to all of the other choices they made.

“It was a scary idea at first,” she said. “I hadn’t ever pictured myself in this position. But now that I’ve worked with [collective] autonomy, I realize that I was missing out on professional opportunities to [decide with my colleagues] what would work for our students. . . It’s not that I was unhappy at Craig, but this is just a much more satisfying job. I am a much better teacher for having worked in this way.”

Stephanie’s story is worth considering. How many more teachers would flourish and find more satisfaction in their jobs if we made it clear that they could have full, professional authority to make the decisions influencing school success?


*Note, some teacher groups have hiring autonomy, but TAGOS Leadership Academy teachers do not.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Can We Trust Teachers To Successfully Manage Whole Schools? (Kim Farris-Berg) Part 1

Can we trust teachers with authority to manage whole schools? Would teachers even want the opportunity to manage schools? And, when they are in the position to manage schools, will it make any difference in student achievement? Kim Farris-Berg explores these questions in this three-part guest blog .

 Farris-Berg is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

Everyone knows that many K-12 public schools are not producing desired results. The big question is: how will we improve them? The dominant assertion today is that if we can just get better at telling teachers what to do, and how to do it, then improvement will follow. In this climate, “getting tough” with teachers appears to be the only solution. Fortunately for those of us not fond of one-bet strategies,   other assertions are entering the discussion. One of these assertions is that trusting teachers, and not controlling them, is the key to school success.

Some policymakers and education leaders in states and school districts are granting groups of teachers who request it collective autonomy to make the decisions influencing whole school success. These groups of teachers have the opportunity to choose—even invent—the learning methods and job structures they think will best improve learning for the students in their schools.

My colleagues and I recently studied what teachers in 11 of these groups do with their authority and published our findings in a book called Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots (R&L Education 2012).

We contemplated for some time how we would determine whether teachers who call the shots make “good” governance decisions. The central question of any improvement strategy is whether it has the potential to achieve superior results. Ideally we’d want to know what strategies prepare students to lead successful lives, from an individual and societal point of view. But there are not any empirical measurements for this sort of “real life” result, so we needed a proxy for evaluating the potential of the choices autonomous teachers make.

We considered numerous research approaches and decided that a reasonable proxy for whether a school has the potential to achieve superior results ought to be associated with the characteristics of high-performing organizations. According to our review of literature, organizations are considered “high-performing” if they achieve results that are better than their peers over a period of time. By inference, their cultural characteristics are associated with success. It makes logical sense that autonomous teachers’ choices are good if they emulate these characteristics.

We gleaned nine cultural characteristics of high-performing organizations from the literature and used the detailed findings about each to develop survey and interview instruments that examined autonomous teachers’ approaches and behaviors in each area. We found that teachers who call the shots do emulate these characteristics and that their most prominent practices flow from their cultivation of the characteristics.

When teachers have collective autonomy to make the decisions influencing school success, they:

     1. Accept ownership. They welcome authority and responsibility for making decisions. When they make the decisions, they are willing to accept accountability for outcomes.

2. Innovate. They take risks to try creative new things, challenge old processes, and continuously adapt. Here’s an example: Autonomous teachers often group students by skill and not by age—that is, if students work in groups at all. Many students direct their own learning in consultation with teachers, even peers, as appropriate.

3. Share purpose. They co-create their schools’ mission, vision, values, and goals. They say this is the reason why they buy in. Purpose statements aren’t just words, but the basis of their collective decision-making. In the 11 schools, teachers’ shared purpose always focused on students as individuals.

4. Collaborate. They participate in collaboration and leadership for the good of the whole school, not just a classroom. Their cultures are characterized by consultation, listening, being open to different opinions, working together, and mutual respect.

5. Lead effectively. Many teachers want to focus on learning and not administration, so they select principals and lead teachers to handle these duties. These leaders are seen as accountable to, and in service to, the group of teachers that is responsible and accountable for school success. Teacher autonomy puts in motion an entirely different structure of accountability.

    6. Function as learners. Their cultures are characterized by a sense of common challenge and discovery, rather than a culture in which experts impart information.

7. Avoid insularity. They are influenced by students, parents, youth culture, and technology trends. They are less influenced by leaders in business, future educational institutions, unions, and school districts. Teachers say these leaders’ decisions are often barriers to their innovations.

8. Engage and motivate one another and their students. They put students in a position to be active, ongoing learners.

9. Assess performance. They set and measure progress toward goals and act upon results to improve performance. They use peer evaluation and encourage coaching and mentoring colleagues to ensure continuous improvement. They focus on students’ individual learning growth and expect students to achieve in areas beyond academics.

These promising results suggest it’s time to trust teachers. The next question is, would teachers be interested in the opportunity to call the shots? Part II will explore the answer.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things? Thinking about School Reform

Examples are legion. Recall President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Or Director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus resigning over extra-marital affair. Or shrewd investors in Bernard Madoff’s company losing their financial shirts.

Switch to education and consider El Paso (TX) Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia who went to jail for inflating student test scores and giving a no-bid contract to his mistress.

OK, Larry, you made your point. People with smarts, power, and position caved in to their impulses. They did dumb things.

Actually, I want to go beyond that self-evident point made elsewhere and say that very smart educational policymakers also engage in folly not involving sex or money. Two stories make that point.

The first happened in New York City public schools in the early 1980s over abolishing “social promotion.” For many years, reformers had criticized educators for moving students to the next grade when they lacked the requisite knowledge and skills. The then Chancellor instituted a “Promotional Gates Program” in elementary and middle school grades with high-stakes tests in reading and math. If students didn’t pass they would have to repeat the grade. After a few years, so many students failed the test and were retained in grade that they eventually dropped out of school. When data confirmed that outcome, the Promotional Gates program disappeared.

Then a decade later, Another Chancellor attacked “social promotion” by holding back 35,000 students, requiring them to take special summer classes to advance to the next grade. Of that number, nearly 25,000 had failed the annual tests but almost a fifth of those failures occurred because of mistakes made by district officials. The Chancellor at that time quickly ended the program. But in 2000, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein railed again at “social promotion” and, yes, you guessed it–another version of the “promotional gates” was resurrected.  Putting an untested policy into action the first time might be chalked up to error. And then putting those same ideas into practice a second time is dumb. But a third time? Well, That’s plain stupid.

Now consider the story of an elite university sliding into dumbness.

In the late 1960s Stanford University administrators secured federal funds to build a multimillion dollar facility called the Stanford Center for Research, Development, and Teaching (SCRDT). A fully furnished television studio with “state-of-the-art” cameras, videotape recorders, and monitors occupied the main floor with the star-in-the-crown of the new building located in the Large-Group Instruction room (LGI).

The amphitheater-shaped room with half-circular rows looked down on a small stage with a lectern, a massive pull-down screen, and two large monitors suspended from the ceiling. At most of the individual seats was a small punch-button pad called the “student responder.” The responder contained the numbers 1-10 and letters T and F.

At the very top of the amphitheater was a glass-enclosed technician’s station where an aide could assist the professor with simultaneous interpretation of various languages, show slides or films, and put on monitors data that the professors wanted.  Administrators had designed the room for professors to enhance the delivery of lectures.

For lectures, the student responder came into play.  Students punched in their choices to communicate answers to the professor’s questions, such as “If you agree, press 1, disagree, press 2.” “If statement is true, press T.”  As students pressed the keypad, the data went directly to a mainframe computer where the students’ responses were immediately assembled and displayed for the professor at a console on the lectern. The lecturer was then able to adjust the pace and content of the lecture to this advanced interactive technology, circa 1970, that linked students to teacher.

By 1972 when I came to Stanford as a graduate student, the LGI was being used as a large lecture hall for classes from other departments. The now-disconnected keypads were toys that bored students played with during lectures. The pull-down screen was used for overheads and occasional films. The fixed position cameras purchased in the late 1960s were already beyond repair and obsolete.

In 1981, when I returned to teach at Stanford, the SCRDT had been renamed the Center for Educational Research at Stanford (CERAS). In the LGI, none of the original equipment or technology (except the sound system) was used by either students or professors. The student responders, however, were still there.

In 2011, nearly a half-century after the SCRDT installed the LGI, the amphitheater room was still in use as a regular lecture hall. When I came to hear a professor lecture, yes, you guessed it, my fingers crept over to the “student responder” and I began to click the keys.

In 2012, however, a long awaited renovation occurred and the responders were gone. Finally.

In the past two years, however, Stanford faculty and administration have been swept up in offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The pervasive belief among many faculty including top University administrators is that MOOCs will “revolutionize” U.S. higher education teaching, learning, and college course offerings.  The belief in the power of disruptive technologies such as MOOCs to upend an institution is deep and abiding.

Perhaps there is another reason smart people do dumb things beyond succumbing to sex and power. They are too smart, they are too facile in devising clever responses to turn away arguments, logic, and historical evidence that challenge their beliefs and policies. They then end up doing foolish and even stupid things.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

Legacies of the Civil Rights Era: Accountability and Attention to Poverty (John Spencer)

John P. Spencer is a former high school social studies teacher and an associate professor in the Education department at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of In the Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform.

 The past decade has brought a steady stream of commentary on how education is the “civil rights issue of our time,” most recently from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But education has been a civil rights issue for decades—and not just in Brown v. Board of Education or Little Rock, but in urban communities with low-performing schools.

Revisiting the 1960s shows us that the civil rightsera left a dual legacy in school reform, half of which echoes loudly today and half of which is too often ignored. The part that still echoes is an ethos of accountability: sixties-era activists and educators helped to pioneer the idea that urban schools should be held accountable for student achievement. The part that is being ignored is a recognition that achievement is also powerfully shaped by what goes on outside of schools—especially the effects of poverty. Unfortunately, neglect of the latter lesson is seriously undermining the potentially useful impact of the former one.

The movement for “community control” of urban schools in the late 1960s is a striking example of how the activism of the civil rights era prefigured the current accountability agenda, in spirit if not in terms of specific policies and approaches. The battle lines of community control will sound familiar to anyone following recent controversies over charter schools, “parent trigger” laws, and the like: on one side, black parents and community activists fed up with low-performing schools and eager to take charge of them; on the other, teachers unions and school bureaucracies. In the most famous case, in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, the activists managed to fire unionized teachers, sparking a bitter and prolonged strike. (The teachers were reinstated.)

The community control movement shifted the spotlight from problems in communities to problems with schools. Since the early 1960s, explanations for low achievement in urban schools had focused on the idea that black students, many of whom had migrated from the rural South, were “culturally deprived” and caught in a self-defeating “culture of poverty.” It was a liberal idea at the time—a way of saying urban students were struggling not because they were black (as racists had insisted) but because they were poor. In the late 1960s, though, civil rights activists vehemently rejected the cultural deprivation argument as a form of racism. They believed the problem was low expectations in schools. Dwelling on the impoverished background of the students was, as one critic said in a newly coined phrase, “blaming the victim.”

We hear a similar argument today: to emphasize the effects of poverty is to make excuses. Reformers may make this argument in various ways and for various reasons (with some standing to benefit from emphasizing the deficiencies of schools that in turn become candidates for privatization); but with the language of “no excuses,” they all tap into the unrealized expectations of the civil rights era. Unfortunately, the advocates of holding schools accountable tend to neglect or dismiss an equally important legacy of the 1960s, to the detriment of their professed goal of eliminating achievement gaps: the Coleman Report (1966) and nearly five decades of subsequent research showing that socioeconomic status, cultural capital and other non-school factors have even more impact on academic achievement than do teachers and schools.

How to focus on those external factors while maintaining high expectations of schools? One example from the 1960s was the leadership of African American educator Marcus Foster. Foster earned acclaim as a principal in Philadelphia and superintendent in Oakland, before being assassinated by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973 in a bizarre protest against an allegedly racist school system.

Foster exemplified the accountability ethos of the civil rights era: “Inner city folks . . . want people in there who get the job done, who get youngsters learning no matter what it takes,” he once wrote. “They won’t be interested in beautiful theories that ex­plain why the task is impossible.” But Foster did not win awards for improving achievement in struggling schools by pitting communities against educators; he got communities and schools to work together—and to insist upon accountability from taxpayers and political and economic institutions, too. On one occasion, for example, he closed the Oakland schools and transported thirty busloads of Oaklanders to the state capitol to seek more support for needy urban students—resulting not only in more money but in “three-thousand folks of all persuasions saying, ‘We stand together for schools.’”

Foster’s accomplishments in the 1960s, including his call for broader societal support, are echoed today—though not often enough—in such efforts as the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, which calls for school reform to be combined with policies aimed at improving the health, the early childhood learning, and the out-of-school experiences of underachieving children. Not using poverty as an excuse to blame the victim is an important lesson from the 1960s. But it’s only half the story for those who truly hope to make equal education a civil right.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

Can Superintendents Raise Test Scores?

John Deasy, who was appointed superintendent of the 672,000-student Los Angeles district in January, will be evaluated … on improvement in the graduation rate, student proficiency and attendance. But he also has the opportunity to earn up to $30,000 in bonuses if the district sees an 8 or more percentage point increase in 3rd-grade scores on the state’s reading test, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in 9th-grade algebra, and the four-year-graduation rate….

Jean-Claude Brizard, the chief executive officer of the 409,000-student Chicago schools, will be evaluated on such performance measures as: increasing the percentage of high schoolers who graduate within five years from 55.8 to 60 percent; improving from 27 to 35 percent the share of high schoolers who earn at least a 20 out of 36 on the ACT college entrance exam, and increasing the percentage of students passing the state standardized test for 3rd-grade reading from 57.8 to 70 percent….

Because school boards and mayors assume that measures of good schools can be found  in rising test scores, high school graduation rates, and college admissions, they hire superintendents to be instructional leaders, astute managers, and wily politicians to carry out board mandates and ensure that desired improvements occur. They also push out superintendents–just ask Chicago’s Jean-Claude Brizard who just left days ago after 17 months in office.

So superintendent contracts include clauses on raising test  scores. But can they do so? The literature on the superintendency, with few exceptions, answers  “yes” to the question.  When writers, policy makers, and administrators mention successful school chiefs they point to increasing scores on standardized achievement tests, high percentages of graduates entering college, and National Merit Scholarship finalists (SuperintendentLeadership)

Yet when superintendents are asked how they get scores or graduation rates to go up, the question is often answered with a wink or a shrug of the shoulders. Even among most researchers and administrators who write and grapple with this question of whether superintendents can improve test scores, there is no explicit model of effectiveness.

How exactly does a school chief who is completely dependent on an elected school board, district office staff that prior superintendents appointed, a cadre of principals in schools whom he or she may see monthly, and teachers who shut their doors once class begins–raise test scores, decrease dropouts, and increase college attendance? Without some model by which a superintendent can be shown to have causal effects, test scores going up or down remain a mystery, a matter of luck that the results occurred during that school chief’s tenure.

Many school chiefs, of course, believe they can improve student achievement. They have in their heads what I call the Rambo or Michelle Rhee model of superintending. Strong leader + clear reform plan + swift reorganization + urgent mandates + crisp incentives and penalties =  desired student outcomes. Think former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, ex-Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew, and Alan Bersin in San Diego.

There are, of course, other models that are less heroic and mirror more accurately the complex, entangled world of moving policy to classroom practice through a school board, superintendent, principals, teachers, students, and parents. One model depicts indirect influence where superintendents shape a district culture of improvement, spend time on instructional issues, train principals to run schools, and work closely with teachers in supporting and prodding them to take on new challenges in their classrooms. Think Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston (MA) and Laura Schwalm in Garden Grove (CA). Such an indirect approach is less mythical, takes a decade or more, and is less dependent upon the superintendent being Superman or Wonder Woman.

Whether school chiefs or their boards have a Rambo model, one of indirect influences, or other models in their minds, some theory exists to explain how they have an impact on student academic performance. Without some explanation for how they influence district office administrators, principals, teachers, and students to perform better than they have, most school chiefs have to figure out their own personal cause-effect model or rely upon chance.

Some superintendents, for example, figure that working 60-70-hour weeks insures that there will be payoff in student improvements. Other superintendents figure that showering the district with reforms will eventually produce some results that might improve student performance. And even other superintendents size up the situation as mysterious; they hope that they will get lucky and the students tested next year will make higher scores than this year’s group. The lack of attention to linkages between superintendent actions and student outcomes prompts those in office to keep their fingers crossed behind their backs.

What is needed are GPS navigation systems imprinted in school board members’ and superintendents’ heads that contains the following:

*A map of the political, managerial, and instructional roles superintendents perform, public schools’ competing purposes, and the constant political responsiveness of school boards to constituencies that inevitably create persistent conflicts.

*a clear cause-effect model of how superintendents influence others to do what has to be done,

*a practical and public definition of what will constitute success for school boards and superintendents.

Such a navigation system and map are steps in the direction of accurately answering the question of whether superintendents can raise test scores.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Business and Schooling in Arlington (VA)–Part 2

That big, middle-size, and small businesses were heavily involved in the Arlington public schools, an urban district across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. in the mid-1970s, was evident by the end of my first year as superintendent. The extent of business participation in Arlington differed little from that in other districts and mirrored arrangements made years before I was appointed.[i]

The Arlington School Board annually contracted for millions of dollars worth of items and services from local banks, food suppliers, and construction companies. From buying Worcestershire sauce to paying retainers to legal firms to using pest control companies, Arlington firms did business with the School Board daily.

Business leaders brought Junior Achievement programs into high schools annually. Local firms contracted with the district’s center for adult education to train and hire non-English speaking and low-income residents. Each of our three comprehensive high schools had vocational education programs that sent hundreds of students into local firms to work a few hours a day. The district’s Career Center enrolled 10th through 12th graders in over a dozen different programs that blended classroom and workplace training in construction, hospitals, motels, television studios, auto body shops, and beauty salons. A network of business-school contacts existed throughout Arlington that produced two-way traffic between classroom and workplace. The district celebrated local and national companies’ involvement with schools each June at luncheons at which I awarded prizes to top students while praising cooperating business firms.

There were also formal relations between school board and business leaders. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, which I joined in my first year as superintendent, represented small businesses, professionals, and corporate satellites’ in the city-county. Each year the Arlington County Chamber of Commerce presented at Board budget work sessions their views on next year’s expenditures and revenues. Their recommendations seldom varied in my tenure as superintendent: cut administrators, raise class size, reduce proposed teacher salary increases, drop bilingual programs, and get rid of “frills.”

For each of the seven years that I served, the Chamber of Commerce fought increases to the school budget, damned teacher salary raises, called for lower taxes, and criticized programs for non-English speaking children as costly extravagances. The Chamber did support the Career Center. After a few years of experiencing this pattern of treatment, I resigned from the Chamber. Adversarial relations between the Chamber, myself, and the School Board, however, had little effect on the richly textured relationship of the business community to the schools, as described above.*

Finally, there was indirect business involvement through individual service of civic-minded corporate managers. Local business owners and executives often sat on board-appointed committees or served on advisory councils to neighborhood schools. Occasionally, firms would release employees to tutor students and participate in career days held in various schools.

Based on my Arlington experiences, I offer three obvious points about linkages between businesses and schools. First, a school district is inevitably part of the business community as a tax-supported institution buying products and enlisting the help of companies to provide services.

Second, efforts to improve schools necessarily involves key business leaders because the school board is dependent upon the business community for tax-based revenues, expertise, and political support. Vital interests, however, clash when school officials seek more revenues to provide basic services by urging higher tax rates that clearly affect business profits.

Third, businesses’ direct and indirect involvement in schools may cause tensions simply because they differ in fundamental values. While schools seemingly behave as business organizations in many respects and even perform business-like functions (e.g., managing people, planning, providing services, and budgeting), they still are expected to meet public obligations and are held politically accountable for student outcomes—e.g., elections–an accountability mechanism absent from businesses.

Consider other distinctions between education and business. One difference resides in the values that attract individuals into varied occupations. What brings many people into teaching is serving the young. Like medicine, nursing, and psychotherapy, and social work, teaching is a helping profession. What keeps those who continue in their career as educators, however, is a complicated meld of private interests—job satisfaction, summers off, social status–and public values, one of which is influencing the minds, character, and lives of the next generation.

Those who enter and stay in business are driven by different values–not better or worse, just different. Love of competition, rising to the top of an organization, successfully building a business and reaping its financial rewards and helping others–all enter into the ineffable mix of motives and values that distinguish those who pursue business careers from those who stay in education. Rather than draw too sharp a contrast, there are educators who start businesses or join firms in sales, marketing, and managing. So, too, do corporate employees leave investment banking, marketing, and engineering to become teachers. A  two-way traffic between business and education careers exists precisely because some people hold both kind of values and take risks to shift careers.

My experiences in Arlington with businesses, while revealing tensions and occasional conflict, have been bland compared to current back-and-forth criticism among policymakers and practitioners about “corporate reformers” and “privatization of public schools.” What is more disturbing, however,  as I look back at my experiences as a teacher, administrator, and professor, is the gradual creep of marketplace values into schooling that go far deeper than  charter schools, Teach for America, KIPP, and use of student test scores as the bottom line of schooling. I take up the spread of cash incentives and marketplace thinking in Part 3.

[i] I adapted the section on my superintendency from Larry Cuban, “Corporate Involvement in Public Schools: A Practitioner-Academic’s Perspective,” Teachers  College Record, 85(2), 1983: pp. 183-203.

*I received the following comment from the current President of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce on August 27, 2012:

“Dr. Cuban –

Can’t resist offering an update to your post about your experience with the Arlington Chamber of Commerce during your distinguished term as Superintendent of our fine school system. First of all, a few caveats: I am a product of Arlington schools (5th -12th grade) and they prepared me well for my college days. My wife has been a teacher in the Arlington school system for many years. And all three of our children went through K-12 in Arlington. None of these, however, factor into the policy making of my employer of 22 years, the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.

There was scant recorded history of the Arlington Chamber when I arrived and so I considered that the Chamber had a “clean slate” to start my term. Since then:
* the Chamber has supported every one of the school bond issues
* the Chamber has made the sitting Superintendent a voting member of our Board of Directors
* the Chamber has formed a close alliance with the Career Center and its programs
* the Chamber has been the largest promoter of the PRIME summer intern program
* the Chamber offers two scholarships to Arlington students each year (paid for by Arlington’s caring business community)
* the Chamber’s Education & Workforce Development Committee continues to do fine work under the able leadership of the Schools’ STEM “guru”.
* this committee is currently leading our participation in a large-scale workforce development project

The Chamber of the ’70s has faded away. In it’s place is a community building, relevant, and respected organization that cares about all our community. I suspect that this is true of most Chambers these days. Thank you for your insight and recollections. I would welcome the opportunity to meet you sometime.

Rich Doud, President
Arlington Chamber of Commerce”


Filed under leadership

The Paradoxical Logic of School Turnarounds: A Catch-22 (Tina Trujillo)

TINA TRUJILLO is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. She earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of California at Los Angeles and an M.A. in education from the University of Colorado Boulder. This commentary appeared in Teachers College Record on June 14, 2012. Sources cited here are listed in the online article.

In the 1955 classic novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller chronicles the absurdity of the bureaucratic rules and constraints to which a conflicted Air Force bombardier and countless others are subjected. Each character lives under the absolute, yet illogical, power of these policies. One by one, they come to see the paradoxical nature of the policies, and eventually the bombardier realizes that the main policy—Catch-22—is an empty one, based on illogical reasoning. Its real purpose is to justify the behavior of those in power and maintain the status quo.

The Obama administration’s 2009 school turnaround policy is in many ways a catch-22.  After announcing its intention to turn around 5,000 of the nation’s lowest performing schools over the next 5 years, the federal government poured an unprecedented $3.5 billion into the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Such a worthy goal, in the administration’s view, required quick, drastic action at the school level. Out of four policy options prescribed by the administration, districts that receive SIG monies choose the turnaround option the second most frequently for schools (Hurlburt, LeFloch, Therriault, & Cole, 2011). This policy mandates that schools fire the principals and teachers and change schools’ overall management. If the schools’ performance does not adequately improve (each state sets the definition of improvement), states can pull the funding.

Yet the assumption behind school turnarounds—that rapid, dramatic changes in staffing and management can fundamentally improve persistently low-performing schools—is inherently paradoxical because the turnaround option rests on faulty, unwarranted claims. In fact, the policy exists despite evidence to the contrary. Such reforms engender the exact conditions that long lines of research have linked with persistent low performance—high turnover, instability, poor climate, inexperienced teachers, and racial and socioeconomic segregation.

In this way, the policy presents schools targeted for turnaround with certain impossible dilemmas, or catch-22s, because implementing the policy is likely to lead schools back to the original problems that the turnaround was supposed to solve.

For example, architects of the turnaround concept ignored earlier research on analogous reforms that have been implemented to dramatically change school staffing, organization, and management in an effort to achieve similarly dramatic changes in student performance. This research documents a range of negative unintended consequences of these reforms, such as heightened racial or socioeconomic isolation and organizational instability (Mathis, 2009).

Consider reconstitution, the practice whereby employees are forcibly transferred out of chronically low-performing schools. This research shows that firing and replacing school staffs not only fails to yield the intended gains in test scores but also reproduces the same challenges that the reconstitution aims to ameliorate. In Chicago, reconstitution resulted in deteriorated teacher morale and staff replacements of no higher quality than their predecessors (Hess, 2003). Under these same reforms, low-income African American and Latino communities’ democratic participation in schools was restricted when the central office made reconstitution decisions in lieu of the discretion of local school councils—the district’s earlier school governance structures that were composed largely of parents and community residents (Lipman, 2003). In San Francisco, reconstituted schools repeatedly showed up on later lists of low-performing schools (Mintrop & Trujillo, 2005). In Maryland, in addition to not being associated with higher student performance, reconstitution inadvertently reduced schools’ social stability and climate (Malen, Croninger, Muncey, & Jones, 2002). Another study showed how hiring difficulties in five states forced many reconstituted schools to begin the school year with high numbers of substitutes (Center on Education Policy, 2008).

In the Philadelphia School District, where district and state leaders pinned their hopes on turnaround-style reforms and outsourcing of school management for over a decade, administrators recently announced the dissolution of the entire district (Mezzacappa, 2012). The turnarounds were too costly and just did not work (though former district administrators still plan to farm out the remaining schools to external management providers).

Recent examinations of the initial SIG turnaround efforts have documented other ways in which logistical challenges associated with the dramatic staffing overhauls may outweigh potential benefits. In New York, districts that selected the turnaround option struggled to find enough qualified personnel to fill vacant slots; they ended up swapping principals from one SIG school to another. In Louisville, over 40% of the teachers hired to work in turnaround schools were completely new to teaching (Klein, 2012).

From an empirical perspective, reconstituting school staff appears to precipitate the same conditions that led to the low performance in the first place. It destabilizes schools organizationally and socially. It undermines the climate for students and teachers. It increases racial and socioeconomic segregation. It does not improve the quality of new hires. And it actually breeds more problems with turnover and permanent staffing.

Like the characters in Heller’s novel, educators in potential turnaround schools can earnestly try to improve the situation quickly, yet when the conditions triggered by the policy mirror the conditions that led to their dismal situation to begin with, research shows that they find themselves, and their students, stuck. They’re stuck in a catch-22.

Despite this paradox, advocates of turnarounds maintain that education should take up such dramatic reforms because presumably they have produced the desired results in the corporate sector from which the interventions have been borrowed (e.g., Murphy & Meyers, 2007).1  However, research also shows that corporate turnarounds rarely yield the positive results that reformers expect (Altman, 1968; Nystrom & Starbuck, 1984). Studies show how turnarounds in the corporate sector have fared little to no better than less dramatically reformed organizations (Hassel & Hassel, 2009). Some analysts have found that such popular management techniques are associated not with greater economic performance but with greater perceptions of innovation (Staw & Epstein, 2000). Others have found that the most popular turnaround approaches successfully improve organizational performance in only a quarter of the cases (Hess & Gift, 2008).

By ignoring this evidence, architects of the federal turnaround policy don’t just overestimate the promise of turnarounds to bring about radical school improvement; they misrepresent the record of corporate turnaround practices and their applicability to public schools.

If we know that turning around a chronically low-performing school is unlikely to happen under such a policy—in part because of the policy’s inherently illogical rules and the conditions it facilitates—why does the federal government prop up the policy with such conviction?

Heller offers us some ideas here, too. In the novel, a character decides to sell chocolate-covered cotton to the government. Why? Because he knows it looks good on the surface. People will want it, at least for a while, because the lack of substance on the inside is hidden from view. In his bureaucratic environment, the visual appeal of his product is enough to hide the lack of deep, authentic quality.

School turnarounds are a lot like chocolate-covered cotton. Turnaround policies look good on the surface. The government pours extraordinary funds into the school. A flurry of staffing changes occurs. It’s a spectacle. But deeper changes are not required. The policy does not address the racial and economic isolation of schools targeted for turnaround. It sidesteps the challenges of building a pipeline of qualified teachers and principals into the hardest to staff schools and districts—and retaining them. It says nothing about how to deepen educators’ professional learning opportunities.

The federal turnaround policy creates the outward appearance of well-intentioned policy makers without addressing broader systemic inequities. And in a political environment that puts a premium on bureaucratic accountability and managerial efficiency in schools, appearances go a long way (Trujillo, 2012; Trujillo, in press).

Unfortunately, when all is said and done, the current policy is grounded in the familiar arguments in support of corporate-style reforms—arguments contradicted by empirical evidence. The policy is paradoxical. It uses our nation’s neediest schools—those serving primarily poor children and children of color—as laboratories for educational experiments, notwithstanding existing proof that the experiments will not succeed because they recreate the conditions that produced the needs in the first place.

The upshot of this paradox is an illogical reliance on turnarounds as a tactic for lifting the performance of chronically low-scoring schools, and an exaggerated promise of a strategy for dramatically altering the staffing, organization, and management of our country’s neediest schools. In doing so, the current turnaround policy distracts the public from more fundamental questions about the types of policies that can genuinely challenge the status quo by securing the necessary conditions for all students to succeed. Because at the end of the day, the schools targeted for turnaround are still caught, inescapably, in a catch-22.


Filed under leadership, school reform policies