LA Superintendent rumored to resign

The superintendent of the country’s second largest school system may step down from his post within months. Officials in Los Angeles Unified School District told the Los Angeles Times that Superintendent John Deasy will resign, but Deasy has yet to submit a formal letter of resignation or confirm that he is leaving.

John Deasy

John Deasy

The rumors come in the wake of LAUSD’s failed one-to-one iPad initiative, where within a month the devices were taken away from students. Deasy would have other, more enduring legacies in the district, though. Since taking the post in April 2011, he pushed through a new policy that ties teacher evaluations to student test scores and weakened the influence of seniority in determining layoffs.

Deasy has also become an enemy of the teachers union. In April, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) polled their members, finding that 91 percent had “no confidence” in Deasy. On a scale of 1 to 5, he earned a 1.4. The UTLA’s website proclaimed Thursday: “It’s about time.”

“It is no secret that UTLA has had major concerns with John Deasy’s leadership,” said UTLA President Warren Fletcher in a statement. “Nonetheless the future of LAUSD is not about one man. The challenge going forward is to make sure students and schools get the resources they so badly need after five punishing years of recession. UTLA believes new leadership at LAUSD holds the potential to make that happen.”

Not everyone took the news so well. “John is a courageous advocate for kids and the best superintendent of America,” said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, a California-based group that supports parent trigger laws nationally. “This is a gigantic loss for the kids of Los Angeles and the city of Los Angeles, and it could take a decade to put humpty dumpty back together again.”

The Hechinger Report will be updating the story throughout the day with more reactions for LA and thoughts from experts about what this means nationally.

Update: Some education experts see broader implications in Deasy’s potential departure. “There seems to be a growing trend away from data-driven superintendents who are focused on managerial solutions,” said Diane Ravitch a historian and former U.S. assistant secretary of education, “and a search instead for those who are more attuned to human dimension of education, both in terms of staff and students.”

Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, predicts that a quick departure from Deasy will lead to more calls to rethink the governance of large school systems. “Many reformers are already skeptical that sustained improvement is possible when systems are overseen by elected boards – boards that are often beholden to the employees of the district,” he said. “Expect to hear renewed calls for mayoral control and other forms of governance reform.”

But Fredrick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, was skeptical that the change in leadership would be felt outside the district. “I think he’s a smart, dynamic leader and that he’ll be missed.” He said. But “there’s so much noise and turbulence right now anyway, that I think his departure won’t have a lot in the way of national implications.” Hess noted that within the past year Chicago, the country’s third largest school district, and Clark County, the sixth largest, had superintendents step down without national ramifications.

Update: UTLA President Fletcher told The Hechinger Report that the news made sense to him after the “iPad debacle.”

“I was not expecting to hear it yesterday,” he said. “In the longer view, I was not wildly surprised.”

Fletcher also criticized how Deasy came to LAUSD originally, as a deputy superintendent. He says there was no attempt to seek outside input from teachers or community members during the search. “It was a deeply flawed process when he was hired,” Fletcher said, adding he hopes that next time the board will select someone who doesn’t make all decisions based on “a private sector, private business model.”

Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency, a California-based group that monitors teachers unions, is doubtful that the union will like whoever Deasy’s eventual replacement is. “Maybe a Google search would turn up praise for some previous superintendent by UTLA, but I doubt it,” he said.

And there might not be many people even interested in the job, said Timothy Daly, president of TNTP, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Because of the highly political board and the size of the district, [LAUSD] has been close to ungovernable for a long time,” he said. “It will be very difficult for the board to attract capable candidates.”

How to close the “opportunity gap?” Let’s find out

In 2006, researchers at Johns Hopkins University drew an important conclusion after a quarter-century following rich and poor students in Baltimore from childhood to adulthood. The summer, they said, is a major reason students from low-income families are continually playing catch-up with their wealthier peers. Affluent children stay academically engaged during enriching summer camps, museum excursions and other travel experiences, not to mention more frequent library visits. Each fall they come back ahead of where they left off in the spring, while poor students tend to stay the same or fall behind.

Of course, summer isn’t the only source of the problem. From the time babies are born, there is a huge disparity in access to brain-building stimulation and activities. A study just released by Stanford University found that, by 2 years old, children from high-income families are six months ahead of their future classmates in language proficiency.

In neighborhoods plagued by violence, parents must make keeping their children safe their top priority; getting them ahead comes second.

By sixth grade, the disparities translate to an estimated 6,000-hour difference in learning opportunities. Six hours a day in school 180 days a year is nowhere close to an adequate solution.

But what is the answer to the opportunity gap? A year-round academic calendar in poor neighborhoods? A longer school day? More after-school and summer programs? Internships and apprenticeships?

Around the country, there have been many efforts to adopt all of the above. But we know that longer doesn’t always mean better. Quality is necessary as well. So what are the most effective ways for students to spend their “extended learning time”? How can community organizations help under-resourced schools and share responsibility with overworked educators? Is there such thing as too much time in school? And in hard budget times, where should extended learning fall in the long list of priorities?

During the next year, The Hechinger Report will embark on an in-depth exploration of this topic, sending reporters to cities around the country to explore what works, what doesn’t and what’s needed to provide equitable opportunities –– inside school and out. We’ll be producing stories in partnership with various media outlets as well as posting regular blog entries here, and we welcome the submission of opinion pieces. If you have suggestions, please join our discussion publicly, or email contributing editor Sara Neufeld at

We’ll see you after school.

Common Core slow to change English classrooms

English teachers generally like the new national curricular standards known as the Common Core, but few of them have actually made the most important shifts required, according to a survey released Wednesday.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, surveyed 1,154 English, language arts and reading teachers in the 45 states that have adopted the Common Core, a set of math and English standards developed by two national organizations that aim to increase critical thinking and problem solving skills.

The survey was conducted in early 2012, though, and the results are likely already outdated, said the paper’s author Tim Shanahan. Its primary purpose is to serve as a baseline to which Fordham can compare follow up surveys. “Obviously if we went back and surveyed today, I’d expect to see some changes,” Shanahan said. But “we’d probably be very upset that things hadn’t changed as much as they should have.”

A recent Hechinger Report project that took an in-depth look at how Common Core is affecting teaching and learning in seven states came to similar conclusions. While some teachers were actively changing their curriculum to align with the new standards, others were approaching the change with more caution – particularly in states with uncertainties about whether the standards will remain in place or how they will be tested.

In Kentucky, for instance, the first state to adopt the Common Core and begin introducing the standards in classrooms, there is still large variation in how devoted teachers and principals are.

In the Fordham survey, 62 percent of teachers said they thought that Common Core would have a positive impact on students and 65 percent said they had gotten professional development on it. But most of these same teachers were still failing to adopt some of the most crucial changes the new standards bring.

Most notably, Common Core requires students to be taught grade-level texts, a stark shift from the conventional wisdom that has dominated English classrooms for decades and dictates that students should be assigned readings that match their current skill level, even if it is below what is expected for their grade. Sixty-four percent of elementary teachers surveyed said that they “make substantial effort” to pair students with books at their level.

The teachers aren’t necessarily at fault, though, says Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “You have to blame people like me for that. We taught them if the text was hard, move to something easier,” he said. “Common Core is really saying, ‘If you want to get kids to high levels of language, you’re going to have to have them reading some complex texts.’”

So what will it take for Common Core to start making its mark on all classrooms? Shanahan predicts that will happen as soon as the Common Core-aligned tests are released in the 2014-2015 school year.

“When you think of how big and diverse and disconnected the system is…it’s not shocking that it takes that long to roll out any kind of implementation,” he said. “In 2015, you’d better be seeing some really significant changes.”


Mixed reviews to Common Core the highlight of Education Nation Town Hall

NBC News - Education Nation - Season 2013Students and teachers at the annual Education Nation town hall on Sunday expressed mixed reactions to the Common Core, mirroring divisions in the wider national conversation about new standards in math and English adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

“I see students rolling their eyes,” said Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC host and moderator of the Student Town Hall, after College Board president David Coleman – who was deeply involved in writing the standards – promoted their value before several hundred students.

Coleman explained that the new standards would allow teachers to spend more time teaching basic concepts and create a solid foundation for learning.

Why, then, a student audience member asked, were some states backing away?

Coleman answered by listing supporters of the Common Core, including what he said were almost 80 percent of teachers and a bi-partisan coalition of Democratic and Republican governors.

A high school student and Coleman’s fellow panelists didn’t seem satisfied.

“Can you answer the question?” a student on the panel insisted.

Coleman responded by denying that states were backing out of the initiative but added that they were tweaking the Common Core standards to meet their own needs and address their own concerns.

States including Alabama, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Louisiana are some have been distancing themselves from the Common Core or are reconsidering their adoption.

Not everyone was satisfied.

“David Coleman just showed a roomful of students that tap dancing is more important than giving a straightforward answer,” tweeted a music teacher from New Jersey.

At the Teacher Town Hall, later in the day, Common Core once came up again, as many in the audience of some 300 teachers expressed concern that they lacked preparation to teach the new standards. (A report released earlier this year showed half of teachers across the country were worried about the standards as well).

A teacher from Oakland California complained there is too often a myopic focus on the technical aspect of how teachers do their job, and noted there are other important aspects of teaching that people fail to take into account.

“At the end of the day what matters most is relationships….meaningful relationships with students, teachers, families,”  he said causing the room to fill with thunderous applause from his fellow teachers.


Will technology improve teacher-student relationships, or hurt them?

ComputersSchool districts from the sprawling Los Angeles Unified to the tiny Nome Public Schools in Alaska have embraced technology in the classroom based on the promise that it can improve learning by increasing student engagement.

A game which allows students to use a virtual scalpel to prod and poke muscles and blood vessels in the human body, for instance, is likely to be more attractive to a ninth grade biology class than an anatomy lecture.

Couple such a game with an instant feedback mechanism that provides real-time data on the student’s performance and that’s further enticement to schools to bring more devices into the classroom. Proponents of such individualized instruction say the technology allows teachers to assess how their students are doing in class more accurately, showing teachers how to help students in a more targeted fashion.

But is expanding access to iPad, laptop, and smart phone screens in school taking away from human interaction between teachers and students? And does it actually lead to more learning?

We don’t know the answer to these questions just yet. Greg Anrig, author of Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schoolspublished last spring, says there is currently little research on the impact increased technology use may have on the teacher-student relationship. But he asserts that effective use of technology depends on good human relationships.

In the book, Anrig cites a study that found two or more students working together and sharing one computer learned more than an individual student working on a computer alone. Other research  shows that technology can help improve student achievement but only in conjunction with other factors including effective teacher development, better modeling by teachers and student collaboration when using these devices.

“We don’t know yet in a lot of ways what some of these new devices will be able to do with the learning process but it’s definitely a concern if the idea is…that they’ll take over for what teachers can do,” said Anrig, who is also vice president of policy and programs at The Century Foundation, an independent progressive think-tank. “The question is are teachers going to be integrating them into what they’re already doing ideally in ways that are creating more effective interactions rather than substituting for them?”

What concerns him most in the promotion of education technology is the assumption that just handing kids new devices will be sufficient for them to make gains in learning, when there is no research showing this to be the case. Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, agrees.

“Look at the disaster in L.A. schools right now — they purchased 600,000 iPads and are having all kinds of problems,” he said in an email, referring to students who learned to bypass the security system on the districts’ iPads in order to access restricted sites. The iPads have now been taken away from some school campuses.

“Relationships are what matter in schools. Any deep exploration of successful schools reveals relationships to be at the core — whether at private schools, public schools, elementary schools or high schools,” he added.

Schneider wrote about his own relationship with students as a high school history teacher in a recent Washington Post blog. Former students do not reach out to him years later to compliment him on how he taught a particular history lesson, he said, but to thank him for being there for them as a good role model. Schneider argues education reform should include ideas for how teachers can create meaningful relationships with their students, instead of only focusing on how to increase achievement.

“To be clear: I am not saying that academic rigor is in any way a matter of small importance,” he wrote. “Instead, what I am saying is that our current policy dialogue gives the distinct impression that academic rigor is the only thing that matters.”

The rise of technology in the classroom makes this concern more urgent: Will an increasing fixation on using data to identify our students’ strengths and weaknesses cause us to start viewing them as machines that the teacher has to tinker with to produce the desirable numbers?

Anrig says there’s no answer to this yet. But just as more and more technology is being used in the classroom, more research is also being done on its impact. Anrig believes the results will show that collaboration between students and teachers in the use of technology — rather than students working on their devices by themselves while teachers stand back and track their progress — is what will lead to real student learning.


Head Start hit hardest by federal shutdown, but other education programs face problems in long term

For the short term, most schools will likely be unaffected by the federal government shutdown that went into effect today. But if the impasse in Congress lasts a long time, schools may feel the financial squeeze.

The shutdown is a result of the House and Senate’s failure to agree on a funding bill, which forced more than 800,000 federal employees into furlough Tuesday morning.

U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Katie Harbath)

U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Katie Harbath)

If it lasts beyond one week, the government interruption is expected to delay funding to school districts, colleges and universities that rely on federal funds, according to a U.S. Department of Education contingency plan. With more than 90 percent of its employees expected to be furloughed, officials at the Department of Education will be unavailable to assist school districts or answer questions as they attempt to implement reforms, The Washington Post reports.

The biggest immediate impact could be felt in Head Start programs, though, which are still reeling from federal sequestration cuts that pushed 57,000 children out of the preschool program for low-income children. According to the National Head Start Association (NHSA), an advocacy group, 23 programs in 11 states with grant cycles that begin Oct. 1 are poised to lose grant money due to the shutdown.

“Beyond the headline numbers, this shutdown has real consequences,” said NHSA Director Yasmina Vinci in a statement. “Government shutdown is one cut atop an already deep wound.”

In Prentiss, Miss., a town of about 1,100 people an hour south of Jackson, the Five County Child Development Program closed its Head Start classes on Tuesday after failing to receive funding. “The only funds we have coming in are the federal dollars,” said Jonathan Bines, director of the Head Start program, which serves about 900 children.

Bines says he has received phone calls from parents who are struggling to deal with the closure. In Jefferson Davis County, where Prentiss is located, the median household income is about $26,000, and about one out of every four residents lives in poverty.

“They don’t have any childcare,” said Bines. “Some of them are working. They’re trying to scramble to find a place to leave their children.”

While institutions of higher education are expected to largely escape the effects of the shutdown for now, it is still unclear exactly how colleges and universities or postsecondary students would be affected if it continues, according to Inside Higher Ed. Prior to a near-shutdown in 2011, several agencies said they would be unable to award new research grants or help with existing grants. While the administration of student financial aid programs will most likely not be affected, a prolonged shutdown could delay federal funding to colleges and universities.

Schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education will most likely not be affected, according to the National Indian Education Association (NIEA). The BIE currently oversees 183 elementary and secondary schools and two post-secondary institutions across 23 states. According to the agency’s contingency plan, the Department of Education has already provided funds to sustain operations for the remainder of the 2013-14 school year.

But if the shutdown continues, it is unknown if tribal colleges would remain open. In anticipation of the 2011 near-shutdown, the Associated Press reported that the two Bureau of Indian Affairs colleges would have been forced to shut down after seven days. A request for comment from BIE officials was not returned as of press time Tuesday.

On Monday, Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, said in a statement that tribal colleges, which are not forward funded, will only be able to operate as long as funds remain available. In general, the Navajo Nation depends on federal funding for two-thirds of its budget, according to New Mexico’s The Daily Times.

“It is unconscionable that the federal government will come to a complete halt due to a few unreasonable members of Congress,” Shelly said. “By failing to provide funding, Congress is once again failing to honor its trust responsibility to America’s first people.”

Houston reforms, often overshadowed, now in the limelight with Broad Prize

Philanthropist Eli Broad, left, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, right, congratulate Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier after announcing that Houston is the winner of the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.  As the winner of the award that recognizes the public school district making the greatest performance and improvement gains in student achievement, Houston will receive $550,000 in college scholarships for its high school seniors. The three other finalists—Corona-Norco Unified School District in California, Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina, and the San Diego Unified School District —will each receive $150,000 in college scholarships. (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for The Broad Foundation/AP Images)

Philanthropist Eli Broad, left, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, right, congratulate Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier after announcing that Houston is the winner of the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education. (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for The Broad Foundation/AP Images)

Houston has long been a darling of education reformers with its extensive and deeply rooted charter school network and experimentation with controversial ideas like merit pay for teachers. Still, the city’s efforts to shake up its education system tend to get less notice than places like New Orleans or Washington, D.C., where reforms have led to heated and sometimes vitriolic debates about the role of teachers unions, charter schools and accountability for teachers.

Houston is getting more attention lately, though, both good and bad, for its long-running reform agenda. One of its main local charter school networks is about to go national, and it just won its second Broad Prize at a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday after winning in the prize’s first year in 2002.

The Broad Prize recognizes advances made in student achievement in urban school districts. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan presented the prize, which will pay for $550,000 in college scholarship money for Houston students.

Headed by Superintendent Terry Grier since 2009, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) serves over 200,000 students. Nearly 90 percent are African American or Latino and 80 percent are low-income.

HISD has the highest SAT participation rate among urban districts, according to the press release announcing the prize. The percent of Latino and African-American students who take the test is especially high. In 2012, 87 percent of Houston’s students participated in the SAT, and 84 percent of Latino and 80 percent of African-American students took the exam.

Duncan praised Grier for “making tough choices,” including holding teachers accountable through a tiered evaluation system based on student test scores that has awarded teachers at the high-end as much over $136 million in bonuses while providing those in the low tier “growth plans” on how to improve. (A 2012 report by the National Council on Quality Teachers, a pro-accountability research group based in Washington D.C., gave the state of Texas overall a low rating for not providing adequate teacher training and because state data systems do not have the capacity to provide evidence of teacher effectiveness.)

Houston won the Broad Prize in 2002 for making significant increases in student achievement in all grades from elementary to high school, and also because it narrowed the achievement gap between ethnic minorities, something it was recognized for again this year.

Eli Broad, co-founder of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, said that public schools tended to receive negative attention in the media, but that this was an occasion “to put all of that aside and focus on the positives.”

Last year, the Miami-Dade public schools system won the prize mainly because of its success in increasing the graduation rate by 5.6 percent in one year, to nearly 78 percent in 2011.

The three runners-up this year will each receive $150,000 in scholarship money.  San Diego Unified School District and Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina were both first-time finalists. The Corona-Norco Unified School District in California had been nominated in the previous year as well.



Employers and students still prefer brick-and-mortar—not online—education

Credit: Public Agenda

Credit: Public Agenda

Virtual learning is on the rise as more students enroll in online courses at both online and physical universities. The enthusiasm for online learning, including the increasing interest in MOOCs—free massive open online courses—has led some to question the future brick-and-mortar institutions.

But employers still like to see traditional, in-person educational experiences on the resumes of job candidates, according to a new survey.

The poll released by Public Agenda, an independent nonprofit research group, shows that 56 percent of employers prefer a job applicant with a degree from an average school where they attended physical classrooms rather than one from a more elite university where they took only online coursework. Only 17 percent prefer a degree from the latter.

Public Agenda surveyed more than 600 human resources staff at employers in four cities – Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia and the El Paso-Las Cruces metropolitan area.

Proponents of online courses say the classes can be more accessible, sometimes cheaper and that they allow for personalization – a buzzword that refers to the ability to learn at your own pace and style. In addition, online coursework may provide more data about students that can point them in the direction of improving their performance. But 49 percent of employers thought students in online-only programs learned less compared to 45 percent who thought they learned about the same, suggesting many remain skeptical of the quality of such learning.

“Right now clearly our findings suggest [employers] are quite happy with the traditional model, maybe not for everybody, but overall that’s the safer bet for them,” said the lead researcher on the poll, Carolin Hagelskamp.

Employers interviewed in focus groups were more partial towards older job applicants who had online degrees, however, because they found applicants with prior work experience and the ability to juggle family obligations and school more impressive. They were split fifty-fifty about whether young people could get a high-quality education online because of the greater discipline it requires.

Community college students had mixed feelings about online courses. Hagelskamp said this demographic was particularly highlighted in the study because community colleges in particular have been undergoing innovations in how they deliver education. Forty-one percent of community college students surveyed said they would rather take fewer courses online, while 39 percent thought they were taking the right amount of online classes. (Although the sample size of community college students was only 215, Hagelskamp said it was weighted to be nationally representative.)  Public Agenda will be conducting similar research on other demographics of college-goers in the future.

Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY), which includes 29 community colleges in its system, said SUNY’s move to launch more online degree programs in the last 10 to 15 years is allowing them to accommodate the needs of students who do not wish to attend classes in person.

“We’re thinking about that market who for a whole host of reasons can’t come to campus, but needs to be educated,” Zimpher said at the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference last week. “We’ve got to do a lot better job of figuring out how to package an online experience that speaks to that market.”

Hagelskamp’s research suggests colleges must try even harder to give their students an online education experience worth their while.

“What stuck out to me was this feeling around community college students, there was almost a little bit of frustration around these courses,” Hagelskamp said. She said many students believe online courses require more discipline and quite a few said they’re harder to pass. Nearly half said they’re not learning as much as they would in a traditional setting.

“That combination shows there’s a lot of unhappiness with those courses,” she said. “So that raises a bit of a flag as we’re moving forward with online education.”


Unlike ‘Superman,’ Guggenheim’s new film champions teachers

In Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” teachers and their unions were the antagonists. They looked out for their own interests, regardless of the impact on children, and were to blame for the U.S. educational problems. In his new film, “Teach,” Guggenheim has swung to the opposite end of the spectrum. The four teachers he follows throughout the course of a school year are the unquestioned heroes, hardworking and devoted.

The film, which aired last week on CBS, features shots of teachers leaving school as the sun sets, carrying work home with them, and scenes of tearful goodbyes on the last day of school.  At times, it’s easy to see the movie as an acknowledgement of the shortcomings of “Waiting for Superman,” or as The New York Times put it, “a valentine to the teaching profession.”

The documentary’s problem isn’t that it overcorrects at the expense of the truth – the vast majority of teachers I meet while reporting care deeply about their students and try their best to help them succeed, just like the teachers featured in the movie.  The problem with “Teach” is that it fails to effectively get beyond this premise to what Guggenheim has said the true goal of the film is.

“This was an attempt to show what a really effective teacher is,” he told the LA School Report. “If we could understand that, maybe we could get more of them in the classroom.”

“Teach” does touch upon many important issues in education today, such as the student poverty, tracking, and interventions. But with so much ground to cover, and so much time spent convincing us that these teachers love their students, these topics often are addressed only superficially.

For instance, Shelby Harris, a seventh-grade math teacher in Kuna, Idaho, experiments with using Kahn Academy, a free series of online videos that teaches everything from algebra to art history. In the middle of the year, things are going poorly, Harris says, and she feels like she is failing her students. She spends some time talking to the people at Kahn Academy and watches the videos from her couch at night. By the end of the year, (spoiler alert) things have turned around. The classroom is running smoothly.

But “Teach” never addresses on a deeper level what exactly wasn’t working originally and what changes were made to improve things.  There is no broad discussion about how and under what circumstances digital learning works well.

During a brief segment in the middle of the film, some of the teachers sit down with their administrators to go over a lesson that had been observed, presumably as part of their annual teacher evaluation. Evaluations have been a centerpiece of most states’ education reforms. Unions and lawmakers may disagree about whether those evaluations should include test scores and what the consequences attached to them should be, but both sides agree that improving evaluations will help the teaching profession and raise academic performance. “Teach” mentions none of this.

One of the most intriguing dilemmas highlighted in the film occurs in Lindsey Chinn’s ninth-grade algebra class in Denver. Her students are exceeding district averages on the material that she has covered thoroughly, according to mid-year assessments. But the class is behind schedule. Chinn and her administrator debate if it is better to cover less material, but truly master it, or teach everything that will be covered on the end-of-year standardized tests, knowing the pace would be too fast for most students to grasp the concepts.

It’s an important issue and one that gets to the heart of the debate on standardized testing for accountability. But after raising the question, the film doesn’t address possible answers for teachers trying to encourage mastery while simultaneously trying to cover all the material on the test. Thus, “Teach” misses the opportunity to have a real conversation about the quality and use of the standardized tests and ways in which they might help and hinder teaching.

Much like “Waiting for Superman”  set up a persuasive argument that something is wrong with America’s schools, “Teach” makes a case that effective teaching can make a difference. It just doesn’t go far enough to define what that is.

Eric Nadelstern Q&A: NYC mayoral candidates don’t understand what public schools need

As Michael Bloomberg’s term in office comes to an end in New York City, mayoral candidates are quick to denounce many of his education policies. A recent poll found that a majority of residents disapprove of the outgoing mayor’s handling of public schools, and the current crop of candidates are unhappy with school closures and the school grading system currently in place.

Eric Nadelstern

Eric Nadelstern

Eric Nadelstern, former deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Bloomberg and currently a professor of Practice in Educational Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, spoke to The Hechinger Report about his thoughts on the future of public education in New York City and his book 10 Lessons From New York City Schools, about his 40 years of experience working in public education.

Question: There’ll be a new mayor in the city soon. Any trepidation that some of the policies you talk favorably about in your book might end?

Answer: Sad to say, but I think they’ve changed already under the old mayor. I see networks being redirected away from school support to more central office compliance matters which disturbs me. I see the core curriculum being mandated in a way that was reminiscent of the old days in the way superintendents mandate curriculum rather than rolled it out in a way that creates a lot of options for schools on how to creatively engage around it or not if they choose to. And those decisions and policies trouble me.

Certainly under a new mayor I think two main areas in greatest jeopardy are the issues of school closings that also creates the opportunity to open new schools as well as whether the non-geographic network structure may return to the old-time district structure headed by superintendents. Politicians in particular favor the old structure because they could exploit it to their benefit more easily.

Q: What changes are you talking about?

A: I think now more than any time in the mayor’s 12-year tenure, City Hall is directing education in a more directed, unedited, and obstructive way. They always had authority, but when Joel [Klein] was chancellor he would filter their input in a way that would allow his staff to continue doing the good work they were engaged in. I think when you put a deputy mayor in charge of the schools, and the deputy mayor is simultaneously chancellor of the New York public schools but continues to hold his deputy mayor portfolio, that proves more problematic. Mayoral control does not mean that the mayor or his cabinet at City Hall should become the direct leadership of the school district. There needs to be little more of separation there; separate both by creating different positions and maybe by giving the educational priorities panel greater authority.

Q: On the New York City Leadership Academy, an independent organization started by Klein that trained teachers to become administrators: How do you make sure good school leaders stay in the NYC school system?

A: My recollection in years past is that the [New York City Leadership Academy] has a requirement that the students have to put in at least three years of service. I think the future probably involves having the department develop collaborations with a broader range of principal preparation programs and then have the opportunity to track the student outcomes in schools led by principals coming from a variety of different institutions using different approaches. Then using that both as a learning opportunity for holding institutions at the department it collaborates with and then also steering it in the direction of those programs that are the most successful.

Accountability can’t be just for students, or for students or teachers or for students and teachers and principals. But it also has to be for everyone involved in every aspect of public education – those who work in schools, those who work in central offices, publishers who provide the materials that are used and the exams and the exam-scoring capacity, and universities. Universities need to be not only equal partners but they have got to be equally accountable.

Q: You criticize principal prep programs in institutes of higher education in your book; what do you find wrong with them?

A: I think the model is wrong. I think that the idea that teachers who ultimately teach in a wide variety of districts come to a single location in a form of a brick and mortar building all receive the same quality of education that will prepare them for the range and variety of districts and schools they could possible work in is a very outdated 20th century idea. I think what the 21st century demands is partnerships with schools and universities, where universities customize their offerings for the needs of a particular set of schools or the needs of that particular district and are willing to partner with school practitioners in helping prospective schools and students meet those needs and deliver those services where teachers interact with students on a regular basis, which is namely in schools not in institutions of higher education.

I think we’re in a transitional stage but that ultimately the future and success and continuation of higher education depends on our ability and capacity to change with the changing needs of schools and school districts. My prediction is that the changes will be something along the lines of what I just described. As I direct the summer principal academy at Teachers College I’m guided by that thought. We have already started partnering with cities around the country and the next stab is really to figure out how to customize the work we do to meet the specific needs of communities as diverse as New Orleans, Indianapolis, Miami, New York City, or a small rural district in New Hampshire. How do we take what we know principals need in order to be successful and tailor that so that their success is not meant in a general sense but it’s targeted to a particular district’s needs for the particular  kinds of schools serving very specialized populations based on who attends that school?

Q: What do you make of the many people in the education sector who are weary of big businesses they believe are infiltrating public education just to make more money. Do they have a point?

A: You know what I say in the book which is a deeply held belief that in the 20th century when America monopolized the world’s resources, we could afford firewalls between sectors in society so that public not-for-profit and private were separated from each other and it was very hard to collaborate across those barriers. The ability of the country to succeed in the 21st century rests in large measure, I think, on our willingness to tear down those barriers and to have all sectors of society to work together to try to solve problems as complex and important as educating our children.

What educators fail to understand though – when most educators talk about collaboration with the private industry what they’re talking about is give us money and other resources. Private industry will participate in public education, but will participate in and on its own terms, which is generally how do we make profit for shareholders. And I think through that competition with the public sector the result of that will be improved schools. I’ve got a deep conviction that choice and competition leads to innovation and improvement over time.

Q: You are in favor of closing down failing schools, yet many parents in the city are against such measures. How do you convince them you’re right?

A: Many of the schools we closed had graduation rates barely at 30 percent. But that means close to a third of the kids were successful and it’s often the parents of a third of the kids that were succeeding in that school that fight most vociferously to keep the school open, that’s the first piece. The second piece is more complex, that is most of the people I socialize with when seeking a school for their children, public or not, look for the best possible schooling based on their aspiration for their children and their perception of their needs, not necessarily the school closet to where they live.

We have convinced poor people that there’s a value in sending your kids to the school closest to where you live. I know there are wealthy people who share that value and therefore have the opportunity to purchase expensive real estate approximate to schools they consider to be good schools. But for the most part in New York, middle class parents are okay for their kid to travel somewhat in order to ensure the kid winds up in a better school. So, the City really needs to take a more active role in ensuring that all kids have an equal opportunity to get into any school that can meet their needs–I would say by lottery–and then expending the resources necessary to provide the transportation so that poor students are not sentenced to a terrible school down the block.

Q: In your book you talk about 10 lessons, or strategies, that if applied can lead to real school success. What is one strategy that, if applied in earnest today, can turn schools around?

A: I’ll tell you what the central issue is. Most superintendents including every chancellor I’ve ever worked for except Joel Klein thought the job was [to] identify two or three packaged off the shelf curricular programs and instructional approaches, apply them uniformly throughout the system and hope that students will do better. In fact, the best of those leaders were able to get a short term bump in fourth grade reading scores, they had no impact on eighth grade outcomes and they couldn’t alter high school graduation outcomes.

What I came to learn under Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein was that the legitimate role of the central office was to create a robust pipeline – to go out and find the best people you can to be principals, to support them, to develop them, to protect them from outside interference, to provide them with incentives when they do good work but ultimately to hold them accountable for the decisions they make in the school. The important decisions about what kids need to learn and how they could best learn it are best made at the local level and then to hold them and their school faculties responsible for the outcomes, not micromanage the inputs. In other words, not tell them how to do it. That is a critical difference in how to go about managing a larger school district that I think too few people in this country understand and appreciate and even fewer can implement.

Q: Are you excited by any of the mayoral candidates’ education plans?

A: Thus far I was pretty uniformly disappointed by the quality of the debate around the needs of public education. Most of the leading candidates have very superficial thoughts. They break into two camps: those that will say anything in order to get votes and those that have focused on a few disconnected ideas like give everyone an iPad or tax the rich to pay for pre-school. No one has evidently a comprehensive understanding of the needs of children or the problems faced by public education in a way that would provide confidence that they are capable of solving the problems or even attracting the people capable of solving the problems.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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