Acting Small in an Overly-Large System

George Couros, one of the most thoughtful voices in my RSS feed, recently wrote about leading in a large school district. The post was triggered by an administrator with a good question: “Do you really believe that you can make this change happen with such a large district?”

That “large” district serves 30,000 students and it started me thinking again about the overly-large school district in which I worked for many, many years.1 If this person has trouble wrapping their head around steering a system that size, what does it take to significantly change course in one with more than 188,000 students? As I’ve said, overly-large.

One of George’s suggestions is that “leadership needs to always act small”, regardless of the actual size of the system. He wonders whether teachers and others actually know who the superintendent is, and by extension in a large system, the other members of the “leadership team”.

Does your leadership go into schools? When they do, does anyone know? Do they show up with their “entourage” and pop in and out? Do they hang out in classrooms, sometimes bring their laptop, and sit in classrooms to understand the impact of their decisions on classrooms? You should never make decisions for classrooms, students, and teachers unless you are present in those classrooms.

I know when any of the superintendents I worked for visited a school, it was a major press event. They never sat in a classroom without plenty of notice and several assistants in tow. Plus at least one photographer. Same for school board members, most of whom seemed to make principals very nervous.

Later in the post, George makes this observation.

Your district or school might be gigantic, but if you are in a leadership position, your job is the same; you serve students and educators.

In an overly-large district like ours, I think the superintendent and most of the leadership team often lose sight of that idea. Their days (and many nights) were often taken up by various political factions and issues, both internal and external, leaving little time to consider the everyday process of teaching and learning. Occasionally some of them will talk about “change”. It’s usually in very general terms, using the cliches drawn from the most current issue of their ed journals, and little of it gets translated into policy.

Now, none of this is intended to be critical of the people themselves. Most of the leaders in our district were well meaning (with the exception of a few nutball school board members) and believed their work was in the best interest of students. It’s the nature of the job that they have no time to develop a good understanding of the impact their decisions made in the thousands of classrooms of our district.

Currently the Fairfax school board is looking for a new superintendent to try and steer this colossus. They hired a “top” recruitment firm to conduct the usual “exhaustive national search”. Screening for the qualities of vision, leadership, and the ability to make data-driven decisions, at the top of the impossibly long list. The board should be getting close to making a decision, at least if they want that person in place for the start of the annual budget wrestling season.

But, I fully expect the person they hire will be far more CEO than educator. The little time spent in classrooms will be for show, when time allows. As to using social media to “create visibility during times that you can’t physically get into classrooms”, as George suggests, don’t hold your breath. It will be interesting to see if this one has any online footprint at all. Beyond newspaper articles and press releases, that is.

The Fallacy of School Choice

With the new administration pushing the privatization of public schools, headed by a Secretary of Education even less qualified than me, you hear from a lot of advocates for “school choice”.

They tell you that if all parents had the option to send their children to any school of their choice – charter, private, or public – all would be well with American education. Or at least scores on the NAEP and PISA tests would skyrocket, which is about the only way most school reformers understand learning and student “achievement”.

The Secretary and her friends in the charter school industry maintain that picking a school should be like any other purchase in the free market. After all you have lots of options when it comes to buying a car and many places to buy one. Why not offer at least a few choices when it comes to something even more important?

There are some major issues with a “free market” system for something that should be a public good, more than enough for several long posts. However, the specific concept of “choosing” as school for a child includes a big problem I haven’t seen discussed much.

Unlike finding a new minivan, the vast majority of parents don’t have enough information about the complexities of school to make a real, informed choice. And many, if not most, don’t have the resources, expertise, or time to become sufficiently informed. That’s not a criticism of most parents. Unless you’re as rich as DeVos, parents don’t have a lot of time to spend on research.

But schools, private or not, also don’t make it easy to comparison shop. Some work very hard to hide any meaningful data on their programs, outcomes, and finances. Public schools have been known to fudge the numbers. And the information provided by most private schools and charters often comes in the form of marketing brochures. Material that’s more about recruiting than transparency.

In addition to having enough information is providing it in a form that can actually be compared. When you research that new car, most of the basic metrics have common units and language that can be lined up in columns. You also have some relatively independent organizations that test drive vehicles and speak a common language about the vehicles.

No one “test drives” schools. There are few common metrics between all schools. Much of the common language – world-class, mindset, high tech, innovation, STEM – is at best vaguely defined. Test scores can’t be compared because not all schools use the same evaluations and students in charters are often not required to take them. Even graduation rates are not measured in the same way.

So, the goal is to allow every parent in the US to decide where their children will receive the basic education that will impact the rest of their lives. How do we provide them with the necessary, relevant, and comparable data to do that? Something more than websites and flyers with pictures of happy kids and competent-looking teachers, mixed with important sounding educational jargon.

That’s a serious question. One that I rarely hear the advocates of school choice address. Because without sufficient, understandable information, how does anyone make a critical decision about something as important as a child’s education?

Hey, here’s a radical idea! How about if we spend more time and resources on improving pubic schools for all children everywhere in this country? That too is a serious question.

Debating Charters, Intelligently

The concept of debate has been severely corrupted in the age of 24-hour talking head television. Boxing up two to six people on a TV screen and letting them yell opinions over each other for five minutes may make for higher ratings but it certainly doesn’t provide any context for whatever the topic is.

A more interesting approach is a public radio series called Intelligence Squared US (IQ2US), the American branch of a fifteen year old UK organization founded with the “goal of raising the level of public discourse” on important current issues. I’ve listened to a number of their programs over the years and most are a nice learning experience. More than a few found me yelling back at the speaker while driving.

The format uses what they call the “Oxford” style of debate2 in which two people on each side present their arguments for or against a specific resolution. The debate begins with each person in turn given a fixed amount of time to present their case. In part 2, the moderator and audience members get to ask questions and the participants can interact with each other, dealing only with information, not opinion. Finally each person gets a couple of minutes to present a closing argument.

Each debate does declare a winner, based on votes from the audience. Before starting, they vote for or against the resolution, or declare themselves undecided. The same vote is taken at the end. The winner is the team that has the largest percentage change to their side. The organization also takes pre and post votes on the website but it’s not clear if those numbers are included.

Last week I discovered that IQ2U events are being streamed on YouTube and I got the chance to actually watch the debate proceedings live. It’s very different from the podcast, which is only audio and obviously edited from a much longer discussion.

This particular debate (embedded below) was of particular interest since the resolution being address was “Charter Schools Are Overrated”.

I’m not going to try and summarize more than 90 minutes of discussion but I do have a few observations.

On the side opposed to the resolution was the founder of an organization that promotes school choice and a former Florida commissioner of education. They didn’t seem like they had spoken at all before coming on stage and were reciting their own list of talking points, with lots of anecdotes and very little evidence.

I thought the two college professors and researchers on the supporting side did a better job but also had some communications issues. Both brought plenty of data to the table but should have spent more time prior to the debate boiling it down to a few, very relevant points.

The moderator does get a little involved in the proceedings, while staying pretty neutral, and that’s a good thing. I liked that he challenged speakers on both sides to restrict their statements to evidence and not try to their opinion as fact. The people on the “news” channels could learn something.

Finally, there’s the proposal itself. As with many, even most, of the topics on this series, the statement is far too broad. It’s also not the most important issue when it comes to charter schools. We should be debating whether charters are a good format for the overall improvement of public education. But this was a good start.

Anyway, go watch the whole thing (I won’t spoil the ending by saying which side won), although you may want to do it in private. If you’re like me, you may feel like very vocally joining the debate.

With Charters, Everyone Wins. Almost.

We now have a Secretary of Education who believes charter and private schools are the solution to “failing” public schools. Despite plenty of data, from her home state and elsewhere, demonstrating that’s pretty much crap. And the fact that many, if not most, public schools are

Propublica logo

doing a good job with completing their somewhat outdated mission.2

A great investigation by ProPublica provides a great deal of evidence of just how bad charters can be by looking at “alternative” charter schools in Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. They found that many of these schools are simply being used to improve the accountability ratings of public schools, and the bottom line of charter corporations.

The Orlando schools illustrate a national pattern. Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.

As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found.

In the case of the Florida charter schools, students who dropped out were coded as “leaving for adult education”, which means that the public school they were transferred from did not have to count them on their dropout records. Their score remains high, the charter gets paid for the enrollment, and everybody wins.

Except the student, of course, most of whom are minority children, often with limited English skills or disabilities.

No Child Left Behind was supposed to improve educational outcomes for students long overlooked — including those who were black, Hispanic and low-income. Yet as the pressure ramped up, ProPublica’s analysis found, those students were precisely the ones overrepresented in alternative classrooms — where many found a second-tier education awaiting them.

Barbara Fedders, a law professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said alternative schools too frequently fail to halt students’ downward trajectory, simply isolating them, instead.

“They create little islands of segregation,” Fedders said. “If they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, it’s unclear why we have them at all.”

Actually it’s very clear. They are supposed to warehouse students who likely will not pass the standardized tests. And to earn a profit for the companies who run them.

While the ProPublica researchers focus their story on Florida, take a look at the map of Michigan, where the new Secretary of Education has invested a lot of her money and time into charter corporations. It shows a “steep rise in the alternative school population”, largely due to charter schools. Something being repeated in other states, and that the Secretary would like to expand nationwide.

Although the whole piece is rather long, it’s well worth your time. In addition to lots of data, they also include some compelling data stories about victims of these “alternative” programs, which are little more than holding cells for students who don’t fit into the narrow “accountability” culture that’s been forced on American public schools over the past almost two decades.

We Just Need Better Ads

The BBC reports that the Education Select Committee of Parliament is concerned about “significant teacher shortages” in the UK.

The Education Select Committee has called for a long-term plan, as schools struggle to recruit enough teachers and pupil numbers continue to rise.

Teacherswanted 619x365

MPs want more active efforts to reduce the numbers quitting teaching.

The Department for Education said there were currently record levels of teachers.

A spokesman said: “We recognise there are challenges.”

As in most parts of the US, the greatest shortages are in fields like Physics, maths2, and computer science.

Also similar to the US, a large percentage of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

So what is the Department doing to address their challenges?

A £1.3bn2 recruitment campaign, “featuring a series of high-profile advertising campaigns for teaching”. Also, “financial incentives focused on attracting recruits into shortage subjects”.

Although the reporter found someone late in the piece to bring up a “lack of pay raises” for teachers, and had the requisite union rep quote about “distractions” in the classroom, there was no indication anything like better pay or working conditions was being considered by the government.

They just need better marketing.