Critical Role of Teacher Culture

The Importance of Teacher and School Culture:
Social Capitol and School Change

“Three beliefs -the power of teacher capitol, the values of outsiders, and the centrality of the principal in instructional practice- form the implicit and explicit core of many reform efforts today. Unfortunately, all three beliefs are rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research” argues Carrie R. Leana in the Fall, 2011 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. Instead, Leana and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh argue that “social capitol” or how teachers treat and interact with each other in the school setting, will contribute far more to lasting change and improvement.

To be clear, explains Leana, “I am not opposed to recognizing the contributions of outstanding teachers or to holding bad teachers accountable for poor performance. But I believe in the power of objective data.” Leana provides the following example, “Social capital… is not a characteristic of the individual teacher but instead resides in the relationships among teachers. In response to the question “Why are some teachers better than others?” a human capital perspective would answer that some teachers are just better trained, more gifted, or more motivated. A social capital perspective would answer the same question by looking not just at what a teacher knows, but also where she gets that knowledge. If she has a problem with a particular student, where does the teacher go for information and advice? Who does she use to sound out her own ideas or assumptions about teaching? Who does she confide in about the gaps in her understanding of her subject knowledge?”

The implications of the study not only suggest the many complications of assessing “merit” and attaching incentives, but also the need to comprehend the dimensions of school culture at the deepest levels. “This is not an area that is easily understood or influenced”, suggests Wayne Ogden of Education Resource Consortium, “many leaders do not have these skills, do not even consider such strategies, and almost all schools are handicapped these days by severe limits on after-school planning and problem-solving time for teachers working in small groups. We’ve thought this stuff was fluff and that a focus on testing would cut through the performance issues, but experience and studies such as this are proving otherwise.”

Please see the link below to the full article:


Boards & Teaching Practice

Time to Bring School Boards Up-to-Speed with Teacher Performance

Wayne Ogden

Taxpayers in Michigan want their school boards to work. A recent survey of registered voters in that state revealed that just under half of the respondents believed that the number one job of school board members is improving student performance. It seems logical that this would be a universal expectation for board members across the country. However, the requirements for the training of school board members to perform this critical set of duties vary widely among the fifty states.

When and where state mandated training does occur it is often of short duration and broad in topic orientation. Since 2003 in Massachusetts, for example, newly elected school committee members are required to receive 8 hours of training in the following topics: school finance, open meeting law, public records law, conflict of interest law, special education law, collective bargaining, school leadership standards & evaluations, and school committee roles & responsibilities. State monitoring of such training is lacking, however, and neither student performance nor teacher performance is specifically mentioned on this list.

The realities of school board training to support their district schools in improving achievement seems on a collision course with emerging federal and state regulations that will change teacher and principal evaluations procedures in the very near future, in some states as early as 2012. States that are in receipt of federal “Race To The Top” (RTTP) funds are expected to include student performance data in the evaluations of teachers and principals. Many states and school districts are now introducing the concept of performance-based merit pay into their collective bargaining agreements with teacher unions. This all seems to be happening at warp speed yet, few school boards have much understanding of what constitutes good teacher performance is and, correspondingly, what good teacher evaluation looks like.

Educational researchers know that collaborative, highly-skilled teachers working with school leaders who monitor and support the planning, instruction and assessment practices of their faculty combine to create and sustain schools with strong student performance. School leaders also know that the supervision and evaluation of instructional performance is the most important, difficult, complicated and time-consuming work they do. Despite these realities, school board members throughout our nation remain amazingly agnostic of their own districts’ expectation, practices and challenges around teacher evaluation.

In an experience that contrasts this national disconnect, I had the pleasure of working with Superintendent/Principal Charlie Meyers of the Fishers Island School in New York State. Supt. Meyers was running the first in a series of trainings to orient his five newly elected School Board members to the complexities of supervision and evaluation of the Island’s educators, and thereby to the intricacies of their own work in helping to oversee it.

Leading up to this orientation session were almost two years of work by Island educators and their school leadership spent in developing a teacher supervision and evaluation rubric intended to take the mystery out of the evaluation process and establish very clear standards for performance. While the School Board was willing to include the new process and tool as parts of its collective bargaining agreement with the teachers, they had not had an opportunity to understand its full complexity and the significant improvement it would be over their previous evaluation tool.

Superintendent Meyers and I decided that the best training for the board members would be for them to assume the role of observer and evaluator of a teacher’s in-class performance. Using video of a volunteer teacher from another school district I asked the board members to view and judge the teacher’s performance using two different tools. The first process required them to make a summary judgment (giving the teacher a grade) for the instruction they observed using a rating scale of 1 (low score) – 5 (high score) and then to describe salient characteristics of the teaching that caused them to make their judgment. The superintendent participated in the exercise but spoke last in the rating and discussion activities to minimize his impact on the judgment of board members. The ratings of the school board’s five members varied by 3 points on the scale (a low of 3 to several members rating it a 5). The superintendent’s assigned rating of 2 broadened the range further.

The discussion that followed the rating exercise was rich and enthusiastic, and often perplexing, as board members and the superintendent probed each other’s thinking. Board member awareness of the potential for problems in the face of such variation among the observers was increased dramatically. A subsequent reassessment of the teaching performance after our discussion period saw each of the raters move to a score of 3, the midpoint of the scale.

After a second debriefing of their collective judgment/ratings about the instruction, the board was asked to reevaluate the teaching segment by applying the school’s new teacher performance rubric. That rubric correlated likely teaching behaviors into state-aligned performance standards, descriptive indicators, and four possible levels (judgments) of teacher adherence to performance levels.

While the time available to us did not allow completed discussion of each teaching standard, their associated indicators, and performance levels, a significant learning moment happened for board members as they began to realize the power and complexities of making claims about teaching performance using evidence gathered in the observation process, followed by making judgments according to the indicators of teaching practice contained in the rubric. As we wrapped up the training session, board members were animated about their “ah-hah” moments, expressing a new appreciation for the complexities of teacher performance, and how difficult the process is to evaluate such performances with fairness and accuracy. The meeting closed with all board members enthusiastically requesting to revisit this topic several more times in the coming year.

Boston's Golden Decade

Boston’s “Golden Era”- 1995-2005

In the context of big-city school systems, beset as they are by the challenges of budget, leadership stability, struggling families, political in-fighting, union-management disaccord and the legacy of racism and poverty, Boston experienced what one might call a decade of unique opportunity and favorable circumstances. From 1995-2005 the city was home to a ground-breaking union contract, the schools had the support and attention of a new, “Education Mayor”, and perhaps most importantly, enjoyed a virtually unprecedented sense of continuity with the tenure of Thomas Payzant, a highly-respected superintendent and former Assistant Secretary of Education. A new School Committed, appointed by the Mayor, was anxious to bring the city’s policies in line with a recently-passed state Education Reform Act and to help counter any potential impact from the new Charter School movement. A series of major grants from The Carnegie Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding for a sustained focus on literacy in all classrooms, the transformation of several large, failing high schools into small autonomous schools and the development of a new “Pilot” (in-district charter) schools to push for innovation. Payzant revamped the graduation standards, established a “cluster system” to be more attentive to the management of schools stretched across the city, convened a high school renewal think tank of inside and outside players and pressed for more involvement from the higher education community.

Three life-long educators who shared aspects of that decade of experience in Boston gather to look back and recall impressions, and possible lessons.

Pedro Antonio Noguera is a professor in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University and has published on topics such as urban school reform, conditions to promote student achievement, youth violence, the impact of school choice and race and ethnic relations in American society.  He has been a classroom teacher, has advised youth organizations and school districts on closing the achievement gap and has worked with charter school start-ups in inner city neighborhoods. Dr. Noguera served on the ASCD Task Force on the Education of the Whole Child and serves on the board of the Alliance for Excellent Education.  His books include Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools and  The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education.

Deborah Meier has spent four decades working in public education as a teacher, principal, writer and public advocate. The elementary and secondary schools she helped create in New York City and Boston are considered exemplars of performance-based home-grown standards. She is the author of popular books such as In Schools We Trust and The Power of Their Ideas. She is currently a senior scholar at NYU's Steinhart School of Education, and in 1987 was awarded a McArthur Foundation "Genius" Award, the first educator to be so honored.

Larry Myatt was the Founder of Fenway High School, a pioneer in Boston’s small schools movement, and was its Headmaster for twenty years before accepting an assignment to advise Boston's High School Renewal Initiative. Presently he is as a principal in the Education Resources Consortium, after serving as Senior Fellow for Leadership and Education Ventures at the School of Education/CPS at Northeastern University. He co-founded Boston's Center for Collaborative Education and designed and directed the Greater Boston Principal Residency Network  from 2000-2008.  Dr. Myatt is a recipient of the Harry S. Levitan Prize from Brandeis University for career accomplishment in education.


Tell us please what each of you was doing in Boston during this time period?

LM- At the outset, I was on a leave to work at Brown University in Ted Sizer’s Essential Schools shop, which was then in the process of merging with the new Annenberg Institute, after Walter Annenberg’s $500 million gift to public education. I came back to Fenway High School, at the time known as Fenway Middle College, to be part of taking the school in a new direction with the advent of the Mass Ed Reform legislation.

DM- I came part-time in ’95 to get Mission Hill going as a new Pilot school, and full time in ’96 to be its founding principal. My arrival came shortly after Tom Payzant began his administration. Surprisingly, the mayor invited me to lunch to talk schools -I think Tom may have suggested it- and the Boston Globe was spending a good deal of time reporting on the education movement in Boston. It was an interesting time.  That media attention and political energy helped create a context for people coming together around ideas for good schools.

PN- I was in Boston and Cambridge, working out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 2000-2003. I led a project called Pathways to Opportunity.  I had the chance to work closely with Tom Payzant and some of his deputies on high school reform initiatives. I was mainly involved at the Jeremiah Burke HS, the O'Bryant exam school, The English HS, what was then the unified Dorchester HS, and a few of the new small schools. I also worked some with Felix Arroyo from the school Committee, working on some outreach efforts in the Latino community.


What do you see as some of the potential forces at work in Boston out at the outset of the Payzant era?

DM- Well certainly we have to mention the agreement among the Superintendent, School Committee and the teachers union, and pushed by the Mayor and his people. Menino was a new Mayor and proclaimed himself very much focused on improving the schools. And charters were new and both the school district and union were anxious about what that might mean. But an agreement of that kind, to allow for schools with a high degree of autonomy, and a process to create more, was unprecedented.

LM- We had some schools in the city threatened with the loss of accreditation at the time, so the Mayor stepped in. And he had recently won the ability to appoint people to the School Committee. Of course that cut both ways – a loss in terms of the democratic back-and-forth people had come to expect, but a much more orderly policy environment in which to focus on improving the schools. Also, there were rumblings of privatization in several Eastern cities which I think got the attention of the union and there was anxiety that some good schools might leave the district for state charters, taking families and dollars with them. It was quite astounding to have them all on the same page.

DM- For me, that Pilot agreement was clearly the most important factor. It was astounding.  In fact, it was at first the union's "baby".... highly unusual. I think it had the greatest potential to change schools, and in a way that could be led by the educators themselves.

PN- Small schools and extended autonomies seemed to pay off at the schools with strong leaders.  Other schools were foundering and not receiving enough support to my mind.   I was struck by how little learning and sharing of practices was occurring among the schools. There was very little time for talk among them. Even when schools were located in the same building there was very little exchange of information.  I recall presenting research findings to Boston high school principals and was struck by how few questions were asked when I explained the disconnect between what the principals thought they were doing and what was actually happening in classrooms.  I was also struck by how little accountability there was from the central office. I also had some contact with the Mayor's office in discussions about the implementation of the 2 - 6 initiative.  I was somewhat critical of what I saw as lack of coordination at school sites and lack of attention to quality control.

LM- I can’t disagree at all with Pedro’s points about the differing conditions. Its related somewhat to Deborah’s comment on the climate -the first generation of pilot schools, through the late 90’s, were largely created around a strong sense of mission and vision, unlike many of the latter Pilot schools, which seemed focused mainly on getting out from under the yoke of central office and/or union strictures.  And at the time collaborators such as the Center for Collaborative Education and the Private Industry Council, and later on Jobs for the Future, were getting involved with convening, technical assistance, and policy push to get at some of those shortcomings.


One of the hallmarks of the Payzant administration was a focus on the high schools, including re-making several schools into smaller ones. Was this a good thing to focus on, and what seemed to work?

LM- I think the push for small schools was definitely a good thing, and a way to address some of the scale, culture and quality issues that he refers to. As Headmaster of Fenway, we had a high percentage of students coming from other high schools that were unsafe and unable to provide good teaching and support. The idea of scale- for knowing students, working together as a staff and making key decisions- gave us a fighting chance to make change. For me, that was a way to re-professionalize the schools, creating an on-going conversation among teachers and leaders. At one point, there was even talk at the School Committee level about making all of the high schools into units of 500 or less

DM- I’ve always been a believer in small settings. We saw what they could do in New York and elsewhere. I like to be able to have the faculty gather around one large table. That’s the best setting for making decisions about teaching and about kids.

PN- I think the development of the new small schools, especially the Pilot schools, was one of the most innovative and effective reforms implemented during this period. Several of these schools, particularly the ones headed by Larry, Debbie and Linda Nathan (Boston Arts) were outstanding and demonstrated what was possible when you gave a group of dynamic educators a chance to work together around a common vision.  However, the big disappointment for me, and a lost opportunity, was that there was so little sharing and exchange of ideas between the Pilots and the traditional schools.   As far as I could tell, they did not even meet together.  When I shared the findings from the pathway study with principals, a study that deliberately included a variety of schools including charters and pilots, I was surprised and disappointed to see that principals from all types of schools did not participate in the discussion.  This inability to think about schools can learn from each other is still occurring today and it is one of the reasons why our best schools, traditional public or charter, do not serve as a catalyst for further change.


What role were the colleges and universities able and willing to play in the equation?

DM- In terms of active support, the universities were not as involved as one might suspect, given their abundance in the city. Pedro’s extensive project out of Harvard was somewhat of an exception. At Mission Hill we did get student teaching interns from a variety of colleges, many of who were fabulous, and some of whom remain as full-time veterans at the school. Vito Perrone at Harvard Graduate School of Education was an incredibly helpful ally, but not necessarily because of his Harvard connection. Eleanor Duckworth from HGSE taught a course at Mission Hill for several years, and Northeastern University, when James Frazier was the Dean, provided subsidized courses for our teachers to get special education certification.   CCE, CES, and Ted Sizer, at Brown during that period, gave us energy and support.

LM- I recall that Pedro and the team of researchers he assembled pushed hard to pay attention to climate in the high schools, especially through the students-as-researchers initiative. He was asking some different and hard questions. He helped to get them audiences with the Mayor, Superintendent, principals, etc. They had a lot to say about students’ poor connections with adults and anonymity in the big high schools.

PN- Through my project I was able to get a lot of folks into the schools, asking questions, listening to what young people had to say, and hopefully bringing in some fresh air.  Through that program, students were engaged in researchers in their own schools and were asked to collect data in a scholarly way related to school culture.  They did this through survey research, interviews and observations, and they learned to present it factually but with heart.  I wrote two papers on that work, “How Listening to Students Can Help Schools to Become Safe and Transforming High Schools”.

LM-  As a progressive principal, it was great to have Pedro and university folks’ work to help in convincing the superintendent and school committee that we needed to do something about the big high schools. I think Tom really understood what kids were saying and really had his heart in the small schools effort to the extent it was feasible politically and policy-wise at the time. I regret that his successors have not kept that flame alive and that the Gates Foundation abandoned the work so quickly and with such little understanding of its dynamics. Money has been scarce for this kind of complicated work so when big players like Gates bounce from one good idea to the next, it hurts.


The Payzant Era coincided precisely with the national frenzy on testing, standards and alignment. Looking back, could there have been any other way? Did it pay off?

PN- When I was working with several high schools in Boston it was clear that the students were not being taught the material that would be covered on the MCAS.  I said this to the superintendent during a debate on Beacon Hill. I asked, "How can students be held accountable for material that you know they haven't been taught?"  Tom said that he felt the emphasis on testing would force schools to improve over time.  I suppose he is right to some degree given that Massachusetts is recognized as the leader on the NAEP and its standards are seen as the most rigorous in the country.

But there have been casualties in their pursuit of higher standards.  The first year the MCAS was given over 6,000 students failed.  Many of these were kids in big high schools in Boston, like Madison Park, where 50% of the seniors in the first year failed the MCAS.  The administration there readily admitted that students weren't being prepared to take the exam and felt they didn't have the time to address the poor teaching at the school.  Rather than working on improving instruction, they brought in Kaplan test-prep courses.  There were also schools where we found students who were receiving A's in their classes but couldn't pass the MCAS.  I saw very little being done in BPS to address the lack of alignment between the curriculum, teaching and the assessments. If the choice was to make testing as priority, which we could debate, even then the systems were not put into place and quality instruction was not addressed.

DM- I think that Payzant came into the job with a position on testing that was quite compatible with my own. What's interesting is that he also tolerated a test-boycott that lasted 4-5 years by Mission Hill parents.  He even came to speak to them--and the staff--about it, doing his best to explain why he thought testing was the right place to invest, but respected the MH community’s decision. But he chose not to stand against the pro-testing people locally who were quite extreme in their thinking that testing was going to expose poor teaching and we could go from there.


When you look back at this time period, what are the one or two things that really were helpful in improving the  schools, what stands out?

LM- I think Tom really engaged around the complicated policy and programming issues in a way that not all superintendents are willing to do. It’s often ceded to people further down the food chain, but he was very much in the fray. Something really smart that Tom also set in motion with Kathi Mullin from the High School Renewal office was establishing a “cross-functional” work group to involve all of the departments in supporting the birth of the new small high schools. In that way, they could be helpers instead of resistors, and they had permission to innovate. That way, the success of the schools and the HSR Office was their success as well. Before that, they were often either by-standers or unsupportive, since the work was different and potentially made their lives more complicated.

PN- I think the thing that was most helpful was Tom’s willingness to experiment.  He was not stuck doing things the same old way.  He was open to new approaches and he willing to work with people from non-traditional educational backgrounds.

DM- Without question, the greatest opportunity was having the autonomy to make our own decisions, through the Pilot Schools contract, and the support and conversation with our allies among the Pilot Schools --Young Achievers and Fenway, in particular, were CRITICAL. Sadly, the union-management alliance didn't hold up as well as we needed it to. Many people saw the pilots as the administration’s vehicle to introduce longer hours without compensation. I think it became divisive. It would have required a great deal more conversation among all the parties involved, but no one really stayed committed to convening that conversation.

LM- I agree with Deborah, and Pedro’s earlier comment - we never went deep enough to create the real capillaries between the district’s procedures and policies and those of the Pilots, and build relationships around that, but it was remarkable that we created a space for autonomy and innovation in the district with the support, leadership and involvement of front-line teachers and the community. If you look at the schools that did well, and are still doing well, they have incredible teacher leadership, and strong boards with ties to the community. The other great thing was the High School Renewal effort. It had all the right pieces and players, and was on its way to re-making the secondary school landscape, including a rich portfolio of alternative options to get at the drop-out issues. Unfortunately, it was a job that required a decade, and the new administration after Tom did not pursue that work.

RtI Finding Its Way

Interview with ERC Response-to-Intervention Consultant Jeff Cohen

ERC’s Craig Levis: There are many different approaches to helping school districts develop and implement tiered intervention systems. What distinguishes the work you are doing with districts from other consultants in the field?

Jeff Cohen: There are two critical factors that distinguish our approach from many other organizations supporting the work on Response to Intervention (RtI). First, we facilitate a comprehensive self-assessment at the building and district levels. Our involvement in this process sets the tone for a collaborative and supportive relationship and ensures that we capture all of the essential elements of RtI that may already exist within the district.  An accurate awareness of strengths and needs is paramount to building a sustainable tiered intervention system.

Secondly, we develop a shared understanding by involving as many stakeholders as possible in the development and implementation phases.  Many organizations offer canned programs in this domain if they do it at all, but this work is generally too complex for that kind of approach. Our experience shows us the more involved teachers and administrators are in the decision making process, the more committed they are in its successful implementation.  We have designed six interactive training modules that will provide all of the background knowledge and information necessary for districts to fully implement RtI, but these modules are modified and facilitated to meet the unique needs of every district.  I like to role up my sleeves and work with the staff through each step of the development.”

Craig: Once the self assessment is completed, what are the next steps for a district?

Jeff: We present the results of the self-assessment to a district leadership team and facilitate a dialogue session on mapping out what the scope of the work will look like based on building and district needs.  As we identify the steps in the action plan, we also identify who will be involved.  We ask each building to commit an RtI team to the process.  Each RtI team must have one representative on a district RtI team.  We work hard to build capacity and  it is through these teams we begin to create enduring change.

This model has been effective in large urban districts (I facilitated for several years in Boston Public Schools and across Massachusetts) as well as suburban and small rural communities.  The personalization and distributive leadership characteristics of our model increase buy-in and staff resolve. We collectively become part of the solution.  I sometimes spend a lot of time talking about the relationships that have to exist for change to happen and perhaps less on the specifics of RtI, initially. But this is where I feel most districts go awry.  So much is being put upon school boards, administrators, and teachers in the form of mandates and initiatives.  Even though RtI isn’t necessarily a new concept, it is a new and very substantial challenge for most districts.  The stakes are high, and with dwindling resources, the uncertainty of change, or simply being asked to do more with less, can be paralyzing to the school transformation process.  Only by developing strong collegial relationships and a common conceptual framework for why the change is needed can we persevere. This is something that ERC takes very seriously and does well.

Craig: Can you describe what the scope of work might look like in a district?

Jeff: “Recently I worked with a district that was celebrating their successes in RtI at the elementary level but was just beginning the raising awareness stage at the middle and high schools.  After the self-assessment was completed, I met with a leadership team from each level.  The elementary team felt very good about having clear consistent protocols and an effective problem-solving process in each building.  One area of need they identified was the availability of interventions at tiers two and three, and the fact that they were not consistent across elementary schools.  A second concern was the lack of a consistent process of analyzing and recording student performance data to be used for special education learning disability identification (LDID).  One of my roles was to facilitate the elementary level team in creating a system to share resources and interventions, including professional development on specific interventions. Teachers are not always used to challenging conversations about values and practices. They don’t have as much time together as in past years and some have lost a part of that skill, so we support getting back to deep conversation with expert facilitation.

In that district we also spent time looking at what protocols other districts were using for the LDID process.  We developed a series of forms based on state guidance and had the forms approved for use by the district attorney.

At the secondary level, I facilitated whole school professional development using our activity-based training modules, to develop a shared understanding of RtI.  Using Principles of Adult Learning, I lead the faculty through exercises that connect the essential elements of RtI to current practices and beliefs in their school.  Universal Design for Learning (CAST.org), Differentiated Instruction (Tomlinson), Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe) are crucial components to the pre-requisite of a comprehensive intervention system: a core curriculum that meets the needs of most learners. Faculty and administrators need to walk away believing that RtI is a win-win strategy.  What teacher wouldn’t want to be able to identify a solution for every student when it comes to academic or behavioral challenges? How much failure does a student need to experience before he/she can find success? Presenting RtI in these terms, I have found that once there is a common understanding, most faculty want to be part of the solution.

Craig: I can sense your passion for students and teachers in your responses. I started by asking you what sets ERC apart when it comes to facilitating the development or improvement of a sustainable RtI system in a district. It is apparent that your ability to establish trusting relationships with all stakeholders is crucial to your success.  What are the outcomes that districts can expect from your work with them on RtI?

Jeff: It is important for districts to have an accurate assessment of what they do well and where they need improvement before a tired intervention system can be implemented. You need to know your precise starting point to develop an effective action plan. Once we identify the strengths and needs, I will work with the buildings and districts in building internal capacity in designing, developing and implementing a problem-solving approach to RtI.  This includes shared responsibilities, data driven decision making, and the Learning Disabilities Identification process.   The district will have clear protocols and resources for tiered behavioral and academic interventions as well as a consistent process that is seamless between grade levels and buildings.  Because it is driven by district personnel, it is more likely to be sustainable.  We continue to provide ongoing consultation as needed once the system is in place.  In our model, a district no longer needing my support speaks volumes about our success!

Math for the 21st Century


Just in case you missed it in the NY Times in late summer, David Mumford and Sol Garfunkel have sounded the latest call for a dramatic re-envisioning of secondary math education in America’s public schools. A similar movement in the mid and late 1990’s was quashed by the testing movement and math “purists”, but hopefully, as testing continues to lose its luster and energy, and  widespread alarm continues to grow about the state of our math education, Mumford and Garfunkel have taken up the torch. No computational slouches in their respective careers, Garfunkel is the executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications and Mumford an emeritus professor of advanced mathematics at Brown.

The nation’s on-going anxiety about math can be traced to the poor performance of American students on various international tests. All this worry, however, is based on the assumption that there is a single established body of mathematical skills that everyone needs to know to be prepared for 21st-century careers. That assumption is wrong, say Mumford and Garfunkel. Different sets of math skills are necessary for different career paths, yet American math education has failed to change to reflect that reality.

Today, most American high school students pass through a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, and pre-calculus. Some make it to calculus. This pathway has now been adopted by the Common Core State Standards in more than 40 states, not to the authors liking. Such a highly abstract curriculum, say Mumford and Garfunkel, is simply not the best way to prepare the vast majority of high school students for productive work and civic lives. How often do most adults need to solve a quadratic equation, or need to know what constitutes a “group of transformations” or “complex numbers”? Professional mathematicians, physicists and engineers do need to know such things, but most citizens the authors argue would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed, and or how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood.

A math curriculum focused on real-life problems would still expose students to the abstract tools of mathematics, in particular the manipulation of unknown quantities. But there is a world of difference between teaching “pure” math, with no context, and teaching relevant problems that will lead students to appreciate how a mathematical formula models and clarifies real-world situations.

Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering. In the finance course, students would learn the exponential function, use formulas in spreadsheets and study the budgets of people, companies and governments. In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages. In the basic engineering course, students would learn the workings of engines, sound waves, TV signals and computers. Science and math were originally discovered together, and they are best learned together now.

Traditionalists will object that the standard curriculum teaches valuable abstract reasoning, even if the specific skills acquired are not immediately useful in later life. This reminds one of the last generation’s traditionalists who argued that studying Latin helped students develop linguistic skills. Garfunkel and Mumford write that studying applied math, like learning living world languages, provides both useable knowledge and abstract skills.

In math, they pose, what we need is “quantitative literacy,” the ability to make quantitative connections whenever life requires (as when we are confronted with conflicting medical test results but need to decide whether to undergo a further procedure) and “mathematical modeling,” the ability to move between everyday problems and mathematical formulations (as when we decide whether it is better to buy or lease a new car).

Parents, state education boards and (reluctant) colleges deserve a choice, now,  say Mumford and Garfunkel. The traditional high school math sequence seems less and less the best and certainly not the only road to mathematical competence. The authors believe that the best way for the United States to compete globally is to strive for universal quantitative literacy: teaching topics that make sense to all students and can be used by them throughout their lives. It was through real-life applications that mathematics emerged in the past, has flourished for centuries and connects to our culture now.

(NY Times, Aug. 24, 2011)

ERC Keynote at NEASC

ERC Co-Founder Keynotes NEASC Showcase

ERC Co-Founder Dr. Larry Myatt was invited to present the Keynote remarks at the Fall High School Showcase of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in October. Dr. Myatt who is currently working on projects in more than 20 schools in a dozen school districts chose to focus on the distractions and detours that, in his words, “have prevented high schools from fulfilling the promise of an unprecedented spate of new knowledge in critical fields –human development, cognition and neuroscience, inquiry-based teaching, organizational development, the link between resilience and achievement, to name a few”.

Dr. Myatt also expressed that a number of factors including the lack of imagination, declining professional standards, poor accountability thinking and an undue focus on the minutiae of standards and testing have detained efforts to improve our schools.  But, he posed,  as educators realize the lack of progress and the loss of what was once a monopoly, and reunite around student-centered learning and professional community, we are in a position to take three steps that have the potential to transform our schools –defining rigor, recreating our schools as learning organizations and taking control of the renewal agenda.

The NEASC event was held in Westford MA and was attended by three hundred educators, representing teams from across New England.

New Leader Support

Helping New Leaders Survive and Thrive:
Why it’s Critical for School Districts to Re-Think Support and Mentoring

by Wayne Ogden

In the midst of a massive demographic exodus in school leadership, new candidates for leadership who care about leading, want to lead, and feel able to lead in current circumstances are as rare as mosquitoes in the snow.”
-A. Hargreaves, 2002

In the decade since Professor Hargreaves penned this description, one could say that the recruitment and retention of new school leaders has almost become “mission impossible.” Many large districts report turning over as many as one third of their administrative hires within five years. Although some graduate schools of education have demonstrated considerable success at teaching future leaders much about educational and leadership theory, few of our nation’s school principals credit their graduate programs with actually teaching them how to do well at the job.

Most principals readily admit that they learned the most about that role through on-the-job training. In a report from the Education Alliance at Brown University the authors observed, ‘the fact is, principals have traditionally been thrown into their jobs without a lifejacket, and they are expected to sink or swim. Unfortunately, far too many principals in the early years of their career go directly to the bottom.”

In her 2004 article in the AASA Journal, Suzette Lovely described the dilemma of rookie principals as follows,

“Prospective leaders are expected to conquer the motorway without any behind-the-wheel experience. The dilemma can be framed this way: In the university you spend extended periods of time reflecting about a problem and posing solutions. In the principalship, problem resolution is expected yesterday. In a university class, you might read a case study on searching a school locker for drugs and debate with classmates whether the search should be conducted. As a principal, you hear about possible drugs in a locker 10 minutes before dismissal and you need to act quickly. Principals manage complex organizations with unpredictable demands. No matter how ready candidates think they are, it is always a shock to their system when they finally get buckled into the driver's seat.”

In an effort to counter decreasing numbers of principal candidates at a time when the job is becoming ever more complex, school districts are turning to mentoring or coaching programs to provide both a lifeline and a structured induction period for educational leaders starting out in new principal positions.

So, how can mentoring and/or coaching programs designed to counter new principal’s limited readiness? To begin with, mentoring and coaching programs are actually designed quite differently.

Mentoring programs typically assign a currently working, experienced principal from inside the new principal’s school district. This senior, “expert” colleague is usually a volunteer and may or may not receive a stipend for her/his work. Such programs are most often informal, involve little or no training of the mentor and depend to a large degree on the notion of mentoring on one’s spare time to share or learn tricks of the trade. And often these mentor/mentee matches are more matters of convenience, regardless of the pair’s styles, listening and advising skills, and personality characteristics that can make or break this kind of relationship.

In the real world of school leadership mentors rarely have the luxury of time to give generously to their protégés. More often than not, mentors find themselves needing to react to the many new and unexpected situations in which new principals find themselves on a day-to-day basis. Demands of the work for both partners doom many of these relationships from the outset.

In some circumstances, superintendents declare themselves as mentors to their new building leaders and many school boards expect that from their highly compensated district leader. Yet, two things suggest that superintendents will have the same limited success as colleague mentors do. First, superintendents, even in the smallest school districts, rarely have adequate time to sit attentively with their principals. Managing their boards, the budget, the political context, the media, state departments of education, parent groups, and the union leave superintendents little time to nurture beginning administrators. And, even in the unlikely situation where the district leader can make time, there is an inherent conflict between the role of confidential mentor and “the boss”, who evaluates the principal’s performance and often performs that work in a political domain where issues of power and perception undermine genuine critical friendship. How can we expect an inexperienced principal to candidly share their weaknesses, needs, confusions and challenges with the person who will write their summative evaluation?

In-district mentoring for beginning school leaders may be better than nothing, but dedicated, confidential coaching provided by a skilled coach from outside the school district has proven to have a far better likelihood of helping a new principal to survive and thrive in the challenging and hectic world of leading a school.

A coaching relationship typically has several different characteristics. Again, coaches should come from outside of the school district to provide both experience and perspective. The coach should be expected to provide ongoing, structured, support that must be confidential, nurturing, and rooted in “best practice.” Collaboration between the new principal and coach should be based not only on the coach’s knowledge and past experiences, but also in readings, case studies and text-based discussions rich in connoisseurial insights. As the Brown study suggests, “What (principals) value most from their coaches is the opportunity for reflective conversations, emotional and moral support, and the affirmation that they are doing a good job.” When possible, expert coaches will supplement their one-to-one work with new principals by convening role-alike groups for small groups of new principals often sharing experiences and frustrations in their jobs. These peer relationships frequently provide enduring support networks long after the coach as moved on.

Coaching programs generally come with a higher cost than do in-district, quasi-volunteer mentoring programs that we commonly see. However, as principal candidates become scarcer driving up the costs of searches, the length of principal contracts and the salaries that they are paid, the relative costs of true coaching programs seem small. In addition, dedicated coaching programs seem better matched to a new generation of school leaders and the challenging conditions they encounter in their work.

Second Wind

Fall River Transformation School Gets “Second Wind”

 What do struggling students in an Indiana high school, violent convicts in Georgia, and anxious test-takers have in common? The answer is: the practical benefits of meditation, exercise,  and self-expression, and they all  came together in late February at the Doran Transformation K-8 School, part of Fall Rivers educational  “Innovation Zone”.

The Doran School, struggling with achievement for the past few years and with a 50% new staff in place, is in the throes of implementing its redesign plan, and according to Maria Pontes, Principal, improving student readiness to learn is a big factor. So much so, that with help from ERC founder Larry Myatt, the school has created an expanded “Wellness Team” that is developing a whole new menu of care coordination for students and staff. Part of their February professional development was to learn “Second Wind”* techniques from Jeffrey Cohen. Cohen brought and demonstrated a repertoire of classroom strategies that help teachers to mentally and physically engage students, and increase their powers of concentration and focus.

Neuroscientists, psychologists and counselors and school practitioners are benefitting from new studies that mark distinct benefits of old and new techniques involving neural blood flow. Schools are concluding that letting go of exercise and the arts to focus on testing strategies has had a negative effect on student’s readiness to learn, and therefore limiting their achievement.

Remember our three examples from the top of this article? Three dozen struggling students come to their mid-western school each day an hour early for high-intensity exercise workouts that have raised their self-esteem, grades, and behaviors. The novel approach has taken root to the extent that other clubs and elective gym classes are appearing in the school and visitors are coming to explore the methods and approaches. In Georgia, an experiment with a correctional institute’s most violent offenders, using yoga and meditation, has proven to be a huge asset to prison conduct as well to inmate’s personal habits and behaviors. And a study of nervous, typically under-achieving test-takers has shown that a combination of meditation, visualization and writing, conducted just before starting a test, has lowered test anxiety and substantially improved scores.

Ms. Pontes described the Doran “Second Wind” session, at which every faculty member participated voluntarily and enthusiastically, as “awesome” and something she feels many of her teachers will adopt and will want more training from Cohen. Practices based on Second Wind have been a fixture in some of Boston’s high-performing Pilot Schools, where they help students extend concentration and turn on their preferred methods for increased performance.

The Doran’s efforts have been of note to Carol Nagle, who heads Fall River’s Family Services Association and also serves on Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown’s 2020 Scenario Development Team. She has become an enthusiastic supporter of the school’s efforts, hosting a Wellness Team retreat and making skilled professionals from her organizational available to the school’s student support staff and students. If this new Doran Wellness model proves to be as effective as early signs indicate, the school district expects to codify the practices and design features and adopt it in other schools.

For more information on the benefits of Second Wind download the flyer

More LA Charters

Charter firms to operate seven more L.A. Unified schools

In a heated, mid-March Los Angeles school board meeting, major charter school organizations won the right Tuesday to operate at seven of thirteen schools under a policy that allows bidders inside and outside the Los Angeles Unified School District to take control of start-up or academically struggling campuses. Charter schools got most of what they wanted by the end of a 5 and 1/2-hour meeting in which the Board of Education divided up or relinquished ten new campuses, including seven new high schools and three low-performing schools with an enrollment of 20,000 students  next year.

District officials were lobbied to support more charter schools than last year, when groups of district teachers, often working with administrators, prevailed on most plans. This year, the recommendations of L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines included more charters, but a board majority went even further to relinquish control of district schools to outside organizations.  California charter schools are publicly funded and independently run.

Cortines had pressed for low-achieving Clay Middle School to be split between a team from the existing school and Green Dot Public Schools, a highly-regarded charter organization. He spoke in favor of exploring the potential to demonstrate how a charter and a district operation could collaborate. Board President Monica Garcia, however, pushed to have the entire school turned over to Green Dot. Garcia, the close ally of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, was joined by the mayor's other allies in approving the full handover. Villaraigosa has spoken frequently of schools being put under the control of groups with "proven track records".

The board also overruled Cortines by giving a new Echo Park elementary school to the Camino Nuevo charter group. He had favored a local coalition of teachers and neighborhood residents because, he said, the charter's emphasis on Spanish language instruction in the early grades was not the right choice for all the students attending that school.

The board did uphold Cortines' recommendation to give a new West San Fernando Valley high school to a district administrator-and-teacher-led  group. That school will includes a performing arts academy.

Some Board members questioned whether the district could afford such an arts magnet program amid an ongoing budget crisis and the potential layoffs of thousands of teachers.

Altogether, seven of eleven charter school proposals prevailed including Synergy, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, PUC and Aspire — all well-established charter organizations. There were not charter bids for every campus. Another winner was MLA Partner Schools, a non-profit that will manage Muir Middle School, where all employees will be required to re-interview for their jobs. Cortines recommended against MLA because of what he characterized as the group's mixed record at two high schools already under its control, but MLA, which isn't a charter, operates schools under the union contract and has faced less opposition from charter-school opponents and leaders of the teachers union.  (Los Angeles Times)

Teacher Prep Lacking

American Teacher Preparation Out-of-Step with High-Performing Nations

The first ever International Summit on Teaching, convened in March New York City, showing perhaps more clearly than ever that the United States has been pursuing an approach to teaching contrary to that pursued by the highest-achieving nations. It was the first time that government officials and union leaders from 16 nations met together to exchange experiences and pursue consensus about how to create a well-prepared and accountable teaching profession. Linda Darling-Hammond  of  Stanford University,  founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future,  and former president of the American Educational Research Association, Darling-Hammond , reporting from the Summit, writes in the Washington Post that the growing de-professionalization of teaching in America was recognized as out of step with the strategies pursued by the world’s educational leaders.

In stark contrast to America’s approach to improving teacher quality, still mired in merit pay debates, officials from countries like Singapore and Finland described how they have built a high-performing teaching profession by enabling all teachers to enter high-quality preparation programs, generally at the masters’ degree level, and receiving a salary as they train. There they learn research-based teaching strategies and practice with experts in lab schools connected to their universities. They enter a well-paid profession (earning as much as beginning doctors in several countries), are supported by mentor teachers, and have 15 or more hours a week to work and learn together. Engaging in shared planning, action research, lesson study, and observations in each other’s classrooms goes a long way in removing feelings of isolation and frustration so often expressed by beginning teachers. And they work in schools that are equitably funded and well-resourced with the latest technology and materials.

Darling-Hammond, who also serves as a convener for the Forum for Education and Democracy, compared such approaches with American states’ willingness to lower standards rather than raise salaries for the teachers in poor districts, and the growing number of recruits who enter the profession with inadequate prior training, learning on-the-job with the uneven, or no mentoring. A third of U.S. beginning teachers leave within the first five years, and those with the least training leave at more than twice the rate of those who are well-prepared. Teacher preparation at the university level in the U.S. rarely includes the development of cultural competence, collaborative teaching and planning, and action research

For the full article, go to:   http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/darling-hammond-us-vs-highest-achieving-nations-in-education/2011/03/22/ABkNeaCB_blog.html