Saturday, December 09, 2006

People who suck; teacher quality data; horror stories from the trenches; why New York City schools are more chaotic than Newark's

I thought hard about using my friend's phrase "people who suck" in my last email because I recognize that some who read that might think, "He's anti-teacher." Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. I LOVE capable, committed teachers and want to treat them and pay them MUCH better than they are currently. It's the incapable, uncommitted teachers that I have a problem with. Unless they can quickly improve their performance, they need to be removed from the classroom as soon as possible so students don't continue to suffer and so the teacher can find a profession in which he/she can succeed.

Why is it controversial to say that some (and, too often, many) teachers and principals are lousy at their jobs? It's not controversial to say that some plumbers, doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, police officers, etc. are lousy at their jobs – and I can assure you that many money managers are!

I think there are two reasons why it's not politically correct to criticize educators:

1) Education is viewed as a noble profession, involving great self-sacrifice. In some cases this is true, but in generally I'm not convinced that teachers are making any greater sacrifices than nurses, police officers, firemen and the like. In fact, overall, as these slides show (, teachers are quite well paid, have excellent benefits and extraordinary job security.

2) Because there are few sophisticated accountability systems, it's hard to tell who is lousy. But let's be clear: MANY are.

How many? I've never seen any data on principals, but there's some on teachers. The most shocking data is on pages 3, 18 and 19 of this slide deck on teacher quality ( Page 3 is based on a Bain & Co. 1998 study of Boston public schools: they measured student ability in math and reading at the beginning of the year and end of the year to see how much students had learned. Then, they sorted by teacher and grouped the teachers into three groups, based on student learning. As you can see ONE-THIRD of students failed to learn ANYTHING over the course of an ENTIRE YEAR!!! And Boston isn’t even close to being among the worst school districts in the country – imagine what the data would look like in Newark, Washington DC, etc.!

Slides 18 and 19 are based on a study in Illinois. It’s not as good of a study because teachers were ranked based in INPUT measures, rather than the output that we care about, student achievement. But the input measures are pretty robust:

1) % of Teachers from More/Most Selective Colleges

2) % of Teachers With at Least 4 Yrs of Experience

3) % of Teachers Failing Basic Skills Test on 1st Attempt

4) Teachers’ Average ACT Composite and English Scores

5) % of Teachers with Emergency/Provisional Certification

Based on these five measures, the teachers were ranked. The bottom decile teachers were ones who went to nonselective colleges, have little experience, failed the basic skills test on the first attempt, had very low ACT scores and are uncertified. While some of these bottom-decile teachers are excellent, I’d bet my last dollar that the great majority would be in the bottom 1/3 in the Boston study (e.g., fail to impart much if any knowledge to students).

Then, the Illinois study looked at which schools received the top teachers and which received the bottom teachers. Slides 18 and 19 show that SIXTY PERCENT of the teachers at the highest-poverty and highest-minority schools (undoubtedly mostly in inner-city Chicago) are in the BOTTOM TEN PERCENT of the Teacher Quality Index!

There’s lots more data among these slides that tells a similar story. Hence, my estimate on page 9 that “20-30% of teachers in these [high-poverty, high-minority] schools are highly ineffective” – and I’m probably being conservative. Until these highly ineffective teachers are improved or, more likely, replaced, there will be little progress on closing to achievement gap.

I’m not letting principals off the hook, however. Let me tell you stories I heard this week from one current and two former NYC public school teachers that will curdle your blood. (These are from memory, so are not exact quotes.)

Keep in mind that what these teachers are describing is happening RIGHT NOW and it’s NOT UNUSUAL! In fact, my impression is that for middle schools and especially high schools serving primarily low-income, minority children, both in NYC and in other big cities, this is the NORM!

In a million years, I could not imagine sending one of my children to schools like these, yet every day of every year, we force MILLIONS of low-income, minority children to attend catastrophically failing schools like these (four million children nationwide attend public schools that have been designated as failing for SIX CONSECUTIVE YEARS). This is especially tragic when much better schools (like charters, parochial and other private school) are often literally right down the block, in many cases struggling to survive for lack of resources, while we pour more and more money into our very worst schools. THIS IS MORALLY BANKRUPT AND CERTIFIABLY NUTS!


I’m a second-year teacher at a public school [on the West side of northern Manhattan] that shares a building with a kick-ass charter school. Let me tell you two stories that will tell you all you need to know about my principal. First, at a recent meeting of all of the school’s staff, she announced that the state would be evaluating the school and would be rating it undeveloped, proficient or good on a range of factors. She said, “We aren’t good at anything, but I don’t think we’re undeveloped at anything either.” Way to set the bar high! Later in the meeting, she was asked if she planned to make the school an Empowerment School. Her reply (keep in mind, this is to ALL of the staff at the school): “No way. Then I’d be accountable for students’ test scores.”

Story #2: We recently had a day off for professional development. These days are a total joke – we usually end up stuffing paper into binders. So, I had the idea of taking some of the new teachers down the hall to visit the highly successful charter school so that we might actually learn something (I’m friendly with the principal). I knew the principal wouldn’t like it, so I slipped it into a last-minute memo, hoping she wouldn’t notice it, but she did and said I couldn’t do this. I did it anyway. When she found out about it, she totally lost it, put a letter of insubordination in my file and spent 20 minutes at the next staff meeting going on a total rant about how insubordination destroys the school’s culture (like there is a culture).

FORMER NYC TEACHER #2 (now teaching in Newark)

At my old school in New York, the principal barely ever showed up, mostly because he was studying toward a law degree pretty much full time. The assistant principals were no good either, so the school was a mess. To hide the mess, they massively cheated on the student tests. A couple of other teachers and I documented this and went to the district office. The person there told us they would definitely look into it.

A few weeks later, we were thrilled to see state examiners show up. They crawled all over the school and we were so excited when, at the end of the process, they called a meeting of everyone at the school. Here’s what they said: “We wanted to come see what you were doing to produce such remarkably good test scores. We’re really impressed with everything we saw. Keep up the great work!”

After I left the school, I found out that they eventually got the principal.

Here’s another story: I wanted to start an after-school basketball program for the students at my school, but ran into a problem with the union rep because I was going to do it in my spare time and not get paid for it. This is a big no-no because if one teacher starts going the extra mile, unpaid, for his or her students, this might lead other teachers to feel pressure to do the same. Fortunately, my union rep was cool and agreed to look the other way and I created a very successful and popular program.

FORMER NYC TEACHER #3 (also now teaching in Newark)

I taught in a large 1,000+ student school in northern Manhattan that was a mess as well. It was a four-story building and didn’t have elevators, so the security guards never went to the 4th floor because they were too lazy or perhaps too fat to endure the climb up the stairs, so the 4th floor, where I taught, was particularly chaotic.

There were two stairwells that were designated as “off limits”, which of course meant that only adults never went there, so the kids knew that’s where they could go to do anything they wanted. I’d often find used condoms in the stairwell – and these were 6th through 8th graders!

After I left, they broke the school into four smaller schools, one on each floor. Two weeks ago, I stopped by to see the school and, unchallenged, walked right in and up to the 4th floor. It was pure bedlam. Though classes were in session, there were more kids in the hallway than in the classrooms, singing, dancing and fighting. I’ve seen a lot of chaos in schools, but this was the worst I’ve ever seen!

My observation is that there is more chaos in New York City schools than in Newark’s for two reasons:

1) You can’t touch the kids or you’ll get sued – it’s much more litigious than Newark – and because of the media. Every day or two, the NY Post runs a story about teachers beating kids, which is nearly always not true, but they publish whatever the kids say anyway. Newark doesn’t have these newspapers. I remember one time a student who I’d angered ran out of the school and down to the local police precinct and told the police that I’d thrown him down the stairs (I hadn’t been within 100 feet of him)! And another time, another teacher tried to break up a fight and got slugged in the face and the principal was furious AT THE TEACHER! It’s so bad that if you come across two kids in the hallway, pounding on each other, you can’t grab one of them (I’m a big guy) and pull him away. In Newark, you can do this and nothing happens.

2) The other reason New York is more chaotic is larger classes – often 35 kids vs. maybe 20 in Newark. This is perhaps the only benefit of the huge amounts of money that Newark is spending per pupil [more than $16,000 vs. $11,000, still very high, in NYC] – it’s easier to control a class of 20 than 35. The quality of the teachers in Newark is horrible and the kids aren’t learning anything, but at least there’s a bit less chaos.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Where's the urgency?; If I were czar

As I wrote the last two emails (sorry for so many today -- catching up!), I gotta say that what really drives me crazy is the lack of URGENCY around reforming our schools so that they provide a decent education for EVERY child.  Why is this?


I think there are many reasons.  It’s partly because there’s a fierce and unresolved debate about how to fix the system – even reasonable, well-informed, well-intentioned people have very different views about how to approach this.  But there are many other key reasons: one is that the system, while failing millions of children, works very well for the adults.  Over time, the trends have been toward more pay, fewer hours worked and greater job security – and it’s not just teachers who are benefiting; it’s principals, administrators, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc.  The adults are well organized and extremely politically powerful, especially in large cities (where, not coincidentally, the schools are the worst).  These powerful entrenched interests benefit from the status quo – and fight fiercely to preserve it. 


But even this wouldn’t be enough to maintain the status quo, year after year, in the presence of catastrophic failure of the schools “serving” millions of children, UNLESS the victims of the failing system weren’t the most marginalized, powerless people in our society: the poor and minorities.  I hate to play the race card, but let’s not kid ourselves: if wealthy white families had to send their children to failing schools, there would be a hue and cry and the schools would be improved FAST!


So, if I were czar, here’s what I’d do: starting with the President, then all senior staff in the White House, every Senator and Congressperson and their senior staffs, then every governor and state rep, and finally every mayor and city councilor in the country – ALL of them would be required to send their children to a randomly chosen public school in the city in which they live or serve (e.g., the President’s children would go to a randomly chosen public school in Washington DC, etc.).  Now THAT would fix the system in no time!  (I'm kidding, but you get the idea...)

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John Kirtley's comments

John Kirtley with some spot-on comments from my email this morning:

Thank you in particular for this comment:

This is especially tragic when much better schools (like charters, parochial and other private school) are often literally right down the block, in many cases struggling to survive for lack of resources, while we pour more and more money into our very worst schools.  THIS IS MORALLY BANKRUPT AND CERTIFIABLY NUTS!

I often have this conversation with education reformers. I have had the frustrating experience on many occasions where reformers (some with tons of money) say, “We are totally pro-school choice, but we only support charters.” Sometimes it’s because “it’s too hard politically to do anything but charters.”  But sometimes it’s because they let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Some only want low income parents to have access to KIPP or Amistad type schools. If only that were possible. But as you say these kids need help right now, and there is a school down the street that happens to be a faith based school that works well enough to get her kid to grade level in a couple of years. Why would a true reformer not want to help save that kid right now?

There is an existing inventory of schools in low income areas that can help kids right now. In the Florida tax credit program we have roughly 900 schools with an average tuition of $4,300 serving the 17,000 students on the program. Over 70% are faith based, but most are non-denominational. Most of these schools are in low income areas, and in most of those neighborhoods, you aren’t going to find a charter school—and certainly not (yet) a KIPP or Amistad school. You won’t for years to come. What do you tell the mother who has kids who need help right now? Wait until we can get a KIPP school to your neighborhood?

Whenever I argue that faith based schools cannot be left out of the reform equation, it’s not because I am eager for children to have a religious education. It’s simply because for most of the kids being poorly served by some public schools, faith based schools are the only existing alternative that might help them right now. To argue that you are truly pro-school choice and then say you only support charters is contradictory.

Keep up the great work,


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More on TFA alums

A friend at Teach for America added some comments about the discussion earlier this week about TFA teachers staying "only" for two years:

-- Historically, while we only ask for a two-year teaching commitment, about half of our corps members continue teaching for a third year, almost all of them in a low-income community (and most in their original placement schools). We let our partner principals know that the commitment is a floor, not a ceiling, and they should feel free to encourage corps members to stay at their schools beyond the two-year commitment.
-- In addition, the majority of our alumni are still working or studying full-time in education. Of our 12,000 alumni to date (some of whom joined the corps more than 15 years ago), 60-65% are still working or studying full-time in education.
-- We also believe it will take committed leaders working in all sectors to effectively tackle the broader systemic issues that are contributing to the achievement gap. Most of our alumni who have branched out into other sectors (e.g., law, policy, business, medicine, journalism) are still contributing to our mission in some way.

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Court Reviews Race as Factor in School Plans

Looks like my prediction will prove to be correct:

By the time the Supreme Court finished hearing arguments on Monday on the student-assignment plans that two urban school systems use to maintain racial integration, the only question was how far the court would go in ruling such plans unconstitutional.

There seemed little prospect that either the Louisville, Ky., or Seattle plans would survive the hostile scrutiny of the court’s new majority. In each system, students are offered a choice of schools but can be denied admission based on their race if enrolling at a particular school would upset the racial balance.

Court Reviews Race as Factor in School Plans

Published: December 5, 2006

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Comments on how to reform a district ("Bucking Tide of School Reform, a Superintendent Gets Results")

Am I just being paranoid, or does the NY Times go out of its way to find stories that undermine and disparage that remarkable, revolutionary school reform efforts that Bloomberg and Klein have undertaken in New York City? 
There have been plenty of hiccups to be sure, especially in the execution, but let's be real: this is, by far, the biggest school system in the country (encompassing -- I was going to write "educating" but, sadly, that's not true -- 2% of U.S. K-12 public school children) and it was (and, to a lesser extent, still is) a terribly broken, dysfunctional, bureaucratic, unaccountable system filled with WAY too many mediocre people (or, to quote from my friend in my last email: "people who suck"). 
Now add extremely well organized and powerful adults in the system, who benefit hugely from it and will fight to the death to protect their perks and the status quo, and it's truly amazing that ANY reform takes place.  The idea that reform would happen smoothly is truly ludicrous!
I know that there are plenty of nits to be picked, but I also know that Bloomberg and Klein "get it" -- their hearts are in the right place, they have the right mindset and framework, Bloomberg has made bold school reform among his very top priorities and they're being remarkably courageous in many of their actions, so let's not complain that our glass is 10% empty.  I just got back from Los Angeles last week and heard from school reformers there -- what they would give to have a mayor like Bloomberg and a Chancellor like Klein!!!
So, moving on to my comments about the article earlier this week that triggered this rant...  Here are the first few paragraphs of the article:

Kathleen M. Cashin is responsible for some of the roughest territory in the New York City school system — vast stretches of poverty and desolation from Ocean Hill-Brownsville and East New York in Brooklyn to Far Rockaway in Queens, all part of Region 5, where she is superintendent.

Already this school year, two of her students have been shot dead, including a 16-year-old killed last week. The area has more homeless shelters than any other part of the city. For generations, the local school districts she now runs were marred by racial strife and corruption.

Yet in the last three years, Dr. Cashin has produced one of the school system’s most unlikely success stories. Since 2003, her elementary and middle schools have consistently posted the best total gains on annual reading and math tests, outpacing other regions with similar legacies of low achievement.

“It’s not a job, it’s a lifework,” she often tells her staff. “You are saving children’s lives.”

Dr. Cashin’s results should be an easy reason for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to gloat, a triumph in their takeover of the nation’s largest school system. But in many ways, her success raises questions about the thrust of their recent efforts to reshape the school bureaucracy.

While Mr. Klein has derided the “status quo crowd” and sought to bring outsiders into the administration, Dr. Cashin is a lifelong city educator. While Mr. Klein wants to free principals from the control of superintendents like her, Dr. Cashin believes even the best principals need an experienced supervisor.

Where Mr. Klein insists that school administration must be reinvented to reverse generations of failure by generations of educators, Dr. Cashin, a product of the old system, insists she can get results with a clear instructional mission, careful organization and a simple strategy of every educator’s being supported by an educator with more experience.

In short, Dr. Cashin stands, in a way, as the antithesis of Mr. Klein’s mission to slash midlevel bureaucracy and let principals sail on their own, a challenge to the notion that changing governance structure is the key to turning around schools.

I've done some due diligence on Kathleen Cashin and she has indeed made improvements -- but the real story is much more nuanced than this article makes it out to be.
First of all, the performance of her district, while better than before, hardly calls for hosannas.  It outperformed other districts, but not dramatically in most cases, and the high school graduation rate is BELOW most others (which the NYT story didn't mention).  This district is not doing well by any objective standard -- it's just gone from being truly awful to merely lousy.
Second, I don't buy the argument put forth in the article that her district's improvements are entirely due to her -- and especially due to her bucking of the new system.  Klein has implemented big changes over many years that are beginning to move the needle in the right direction across the city -- if I recall correctly, in both NY state and national data, NYC showed more improvement than all other large cities in the state and nearly all nationwide -- so why wouldn't Cashin's district be benefitting as well?
Finally, and more importantly, it's critical to understand HOW Cashin has achieved the gains we've seen in her district.  Generally speaking, there are two approaches to reforming big, broken systems, whether we're talking about General Motors, the old Soviet Union or the NYC public school system: you can either keep the existing system in place, but wring incremental improvements out of it by exercising extreme command-and-control, or do the opposite and try to reform the broken system by changing incentives, setting up accountability systems and pushing power and control down to the local level.
Cashin is a classic example of the former, whereas Klein has adopted the latter.  Turning to Cashin first, according to a friend who's in the know, she is "a total control freak" and runs her district with an iron fist.  If a principal tries to buck her in any way, she fires and blackballs him/her.  Cashin's educational pedagogy has merit, however, so imposing it on a district that had no sound educational approach at all yielded some incremental improvements, as noted in the NYT article.
BUT, there are severe limits to Cashin's approach.  Fundamentally, the system and the biggest problems within it -- lack of human talent and motivation -- haven't changed at all.  So, my prediction is that Cashin's district will not show much if any incremental improvement and will remain merely lousy -- UNLESS Klein's reforms kick in.
Klein's approach is, at its core, the exact opposite -- and is, obviously, the one I think has the most long-term promise.  But it also has real risks -- trying to reform a deeply entrenched broken system in the face of massive resistence (not to mention mostly hostile media coverage) is REALLY HARD and messy, as noted above.  If too much autonomy is pushed down the school level before the accountability and motivational systems and human talent are in place, the results would be disastrous.  That's why I like Klein's incremental approach with Empowerment Schools: it started with just a few schools, was expanded to 48 schools last year and is now 321 schools, approximately 1/4 of the schools in the entire city.
This debate between total centralized control at one extreme and total school-level autonomy at the other is a huge and important one, and every school organization is dealing with it, be it KIPP or the NYC school system.  To be clear, I don't think the answer is extreme autonomy, but something perhaps 80% of the way toward that end of the spectrum.


Bucking Tide of School Reform, a Superintendent Gets Results
Published: December 4, 2006

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