The First School District to Put Itself Out of Business

Published by — Nowhere in America has a school system leaped forward so fast.  Apparently, it takes a hurricane to inspire that much responsiveness to kids.

In 2003, Louisiana’s state department of education created the Recovery School District (RSD).  New Orleans’s schools were among the worst in the country, so the state asked the RSD to start with 5 that were the worst of the worst.  While the RSD officials knew the state would likely add more schools, they never dreamed that in 2005, Hurricane Katrina would suddenly jack the total number up to 102.

The jury is in.  The RSD did a whole lot better by the kids than the old Orleans Parish School District.  The graduation rate is up by 23 percentage points since 2005.  In 2007 only 23 percent of the kids K-12 were on grade level in math and reading, but now 57 percent are.  Nowhere in America has a school system leaped forward so fast.  Apparently, it takes a hurricane to inspire that much responsiveness to kids.

The critical thing to know is that the RSD never wanted to be a traditional school district.  They weren’t sure what their district structure would or should look like.  But they knew the traditional Central Office model hadn’t worked in spectacular ways, so they seized the opportunity to avoid reproducing it.  Good choice.

I’ve always marveled that Central Offices have managed to hang on as the industry standard.  Except in tiny districts, Central Offices make life-altering decisions about kids’ education at a distance from the schools themselves.  They negotiate labor contracts and set policies that principals have to make work, somehow.  Central Offices often require certain professional-development training without consulting building-level staff.  Such decisions, labor contracts and districtwide policies effectively micro-manage the work of people who actually know the unique set of students attending their building.  Repeatedly, reformers tried to collapse the disconnect by implementing “site-based management,” whereby the school controls budgets, curriculum, hiring and so forth.  But such efforts rarely withstand Central Office’s overwhelming urges to reclaim and subjugate schools.

Furthermore, Central Office is a natural petri dish for culturing adult needs that infect the educational health of the kids.  Look no further than the 2003 Orleans Parish District which couldn’t account for $71 million in federal dollars.  Its School Board President was headed to jail for taking bribes — on top of managing terrible schools.  So the RSD accidently became the nation’s first radical experiment in Central Office redesign.

When Katrina hit, neither the Orleans nor the Recover districts had much capacity to speak of.  In the wake of the storm, they had to get schools up and running fast.  Orleans, with a Board that still fights publicly, held onto a handful of higher-performing schools in less-devastated areas.  The RSD had the rest and so turned to charter operators, both big charter management organizations and small independent groups who submitted proposals.  The state and feds both kicked in dollars to rehab some of the old school buildings.  And fortunately, some of the charter-world’s best young talent, who’d already started successful schools elsewhere, were excited by the prospect of creating new schools in the city then riveting the nation’s attention.

The RSD was still managing 34 traditional schools even as it handed out charters.  But what a pain.  Acting as Central Office by default, they still had to hire staff, develop policy and manage endless individual budgets.  Try as they might, their schools were of poorer quality than the charters, on average.

Charters are effectively contracts, usually for 5 years.  If their officials mismanage funds or produce failing students, the charter is revoked.  Closing any school is upsetting and unpleasant, but with charters everyone knows the rules of accountability up front.  So increasingly, the RSD transferred their own authority to independent operators who manage themselves, and have full responsibility to use educational strategies that actually succeed.  Or go out of business, as some have.

Eventually the RSD announced they would phase out their own Central Office duties entirely.  As of this coming fall, the RSD will have no district-run schools.  They will be a lean infrastructure that oversees a portfolio of charter schools.  Their responsibilities will include collecting data and holding all schools to accountability standards.  They built a single-application system so parents can apply to 8 schools at once, ranking their preferences, instead of dropping off applications all over town.  That system allows the RSD to monitor equity and access for all kids, especially those with special needs.  Likely they’ll help the schools where economies of scale apply, with health insurance and technology purchases, for example.  The first pure-charter experiment will surely stumble and make mistakes — and already has — but the new problems will never be as inhumane as letting kids languish in terrible schools indefinitely.  And the lessons learned could be invaluable for other cities struggling with their school systems.

In fact, the officials governing the schools in Washington D.C., Newark, Kansas City and Detroit are closely watching this experiment.  Would converting to an all-charter portfolio pull more of their students out of the academic mud?  Fortunately New Orleans has experimented so bravely that a cure for Central Office ineffectiveness might be on the horizon.  Stay tuned on this one.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Rhode Island Legislates Low Expectations

Published by — You would think the RI Legislature would be knocking itself out to back workforce development… but no.

Currently, Rhode Island has the highest unemployment in the nation.  As unemployment was falling nationally, RI stayed high even as train-wreck states like Michigan (with the near demise of the auto industry) and Nevada (massive real estate bust) improved.  Business-climate reports put RI at or near dead last in their rankings, including on the quality of the workforce.

So you would think the Rhode Island Legislature would be knocking itself out to beef up the economy by backing all manner of workforce development, like making high school diplomas more meaningful.

But no, quite the contrary.  They just dismantled years of work designed to make students accountable for learning a bit of math and English.

As of the graduating class of 2014, students were required to “pass” the statewide test, NECAP, in English and math, to earn a diploma.  “Pass” merely meant achieving better than Level 1, or “substantially-below proficient.”  Students who failed had multiple chances to re-take the test, and even then only needed to show improvement.  They could also take other tests.  And districts were allowed to grant waivers and give out diplomas anyway to those who failed all testing efforts.  The bar couldn’t have been lower.

But the Legislature, and those who have the Legislative ear, got a violent attack of enabling and decided to spare the kids this super-minimalist expectation.  So for the next three years, schools are forbidden to hold students accountable for their test performance.  If kids feel like blowing off state exams, no prob.  The Legislature got them off the hook.  Whining to the right people in RI helps you weasel out of a lot. The message to the kids is:  “We hold you to low expectations.  We feel sorry for you.  We’ll protect you from facing this academic challenge.”

Just up the coastline, Massachusetts has been showing the world that high expectations via “high-stakes” tests in high school will inspire the schools and most importantly, the kids to rise to the occasion.  In 2003 when their state test, the MCAS, first counted towards graduation, the number of high school students who passed the test on the first try rose 20 percentage points over the prior year.  Kid didn’t get smarter, they got serious.  They had a dog in the fight.  If MA students want a diploma, they work for it.  As well they should.

Last year, roughly 4,000 of the 11,000 juniors in RI’s graduating class of 2014 failed to get out of Level 1.  The protest against the test requirement was deafening, while the lack of curiosity about those 4,000 seemed mind-boggling.  For example, did they go to school regularly?  I ask because a study that examined the MA students who failed the 2003 tests found that most were chronically absent, defined as missing 10 days of school or more.  Regularly-attending English-language learners and special-needs students passed at far higher rates than their peers who were absent 10 days or more.  No matter what your challenge, going to school improves performance.

If RI’s Level 1 failures didn’t bother going to school regularly, why should they get diplomas?  What does it mean to “earn” such a diploma?  A local research study found that 20 percent of RI’s 2009 graduates were chronically absent during high school.  The same study goes on to show that graduates with horrible attendance enrolled in college at lower rates and washed out at higher rates than those who regularly went to school.

In other words, the Legislature is making it official that RI diplomas can be placebos, nice confections of convenience.  They certify nothing.  RI’s Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has been absolutely right to push schools to give out diplomas that mean something.  Feel-good diplomas don’t feel so marvelous when the kid’s academic skills are so poor she’s taking remedial classes in college, or hasn’t the 9th-grade skills required for job training.  Workforce development, anyone?

Good parents will tell you that if you set an expectation with a consequence, you’d better follow through.  If not, your kids get the idea that boundaries are squishy and that they can dodge obligations and accountability.  That’s how we create brats and under-performers.  RI students have known they could stay another year in high school to earn a real diploma, however unappealing that may be.  Or else pay better attention in the first place.

Protecting kids from hard challenges at which they might fail is the legacy of the self-esteem movement.  It’s no favor to the kids to enable them to feel good and effective when in fact they’re not.  Actually, it’s kinda horrible.  All kids need high expectations and high support.  They need the adults to be there for them, encouraging their efforts and holding them responsible.

Ah Rhode Island.  I do love it.  But it’s like loving an oppositional-defiant, special-needs child.  My heart’s in it, but it’s oh so hard.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Seniority and Tenure, the Absence of Human Decision-Making

Published by —  The only big surprise regarding the Vergara v. California decision is that it took so long.

I first read a teachers contract 20-ish years ago.  A group of parents who were furious about their kids’ schooling had organized an advocacy group.  Of its several subcommittees, I joined the one examining the contract.  Cluelessly, I thought the meetings would be like a book group, where smart, funny people reflected on what they’d read.  Well, the people were smart, funny and reflective, but the contract itself was terrifying, the meetings upsetting.  My darling twins were in kindergarten at the time.  This contract was governing their education?  My family was in no position to start funding a couple of lifetimes of private school.

But suddenly I did understand how those kindergarten teachers could saunter in 5, 10, 15 minutes after the bell, still chatting and sucking down iced coffee.  Tenure made them virtually untouchable.  When I complained to the principal, he shrugged and said he had to pick his battles.  At least they weren’t bad teachers, he assured me.  But making a stink about their tardiness would sour the teacher atmosphere in the building; vengeance would rain on him torrentially.

Then a Teacher-of-the-Year was laid off, aka “bumped,” out of his teaching position for lack of seniority.  Despite the wealth of evidence about his effectiveness, the Last In, First Out, or “LIFO” rule applied.  No one could stop this insanity?  Well, no, LIFO is still a problem, all over the nation.

During the annual summer ritual called “cattle call,” teachers bidding on open jobs wrote their date of hire on placards so as they bid, holding up the cards, administrators could determine seniority.  This was the process for giving college-educated professionals the responsibility for educating children.  Teachers were “excessed” because a program got cut or enrollment dropped got preference for hiring, so “consolidations” in another district school sent four utterly incompetent teachers into one of my kids’ 9th grade.  The year was disastrous for him.

Over my 20 years as an education columnist, the kids inside the public education industry grew ever more invisible behind a dense thicket of district, state and federal rules, on top of contractual provisions.  Students were trapped in environments designed to serve the adults, first and foremost.

Then last week my inbox was flooded with press releases from myriad organizations, hailing or decrying the Vergara v. California decision.  In brief, Judge Rolf Treu agreed with nine student plaintiffs that laws and labor agreements cementing teachers’ rights to tenure and hiring by seniority did constitute a violation of the students’ civil rights.  With refreshingly dramatic flair, he compared his decision to that of Brown v. Board of Education which exposed racial segregation in schools.  His point was that like segregation, teacher tenure and seniority adversely affect kids.  So why, pray, do we keep these horrible practices in place?

The only big surprise regarding this decision is that it took so long.  Many court challenges have already failed.  And this one might still fail, as it winds its way through layers of court systems.

On the upside, diverse advocates are out banging drums, pots, pans, anything loud, begging other states to mount similar challenges as soon as possible.  They hope to fashion a rational decision in the court of public opinion long before the U.S. Supreme Court takes their shot.  Honestly, the decision entices my now-jaded self back into close observance of education’s legal morass.  It could be fun to see the kids win a few.

But here’s the downside: in the big picture, seniority and tenure are merely two trees in a large, dense forest shrouding kids’ opportunities.  The charter school movement has taught us that even the ability to hire and fire based on merit is far from a panacea.  By definition, charters are free from a number of similarly-bad local and contractual regulations, but still even the successful ones struggle.  Local, state and federal ordinances and regulations are still in force, many of which are specifically hostile to charters.  The regulatory forces affecting schools are by no means laser-focused on doing right by the kids.

Teachers unions assert that contractual provisions are no biggie.  The problem is that kids and their families are getting worse.  You can’t make great cars, clothes, buildings without good materials.  Increasingly, dysfunctional families send emotionally chaotic or even feral kids to school.  And it’s true that all too often home support is thin, if not completely lacking.  Kids’ addictions to electronic sitters, sedatives and time-wasters are undermining their ability to read, never mind pay attention in school.  The unions are not wrong about this.

But to use the troubles of the kids themselves as an excuse for the failures of the education industry is wrong.  Education’s problems are many and across sectors.  Every single issue needs to be addressed.  But we can certainly start with the glaringly obvious places where we see contracts, policies or laws serving adult interests, not the students’.

So celebrate the Vergara decision as a small, important victory.  But don’t think for a moment that the kids are even remotely out of the woods.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Graduating From High School With Great Work Habits

Published by — At this school students take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning.

“Aaaaah, someone let the chickens out.”

Melissa Hall, Vice Principal of Greene Charter School in W. Greenwich, RI, has been keeping an eye out the window behind her desk while she and others were answering my questions.  A staff member looks up from her work in the school’s cramped administrative office and offers to deal with it.  Pausing a moment, Hall says, “No… Not yet.  There are kids out there.  Let’s wait to see if they handle it.”

Clearly, the 9-graders responsible for tending to the school’s chickens got distracted and had an oops.  Chickens, compost and a garden are integral to Greene’s focus on the environment.  Each staff member heads up a “crew” of 15 students who meet daily, at least, and together they steward their local eco-system while learning to be a team.

After a bit, Hall turns her back to the window, pleased to report that the escaped poultry were back in their coop.  At no point were the adults particularly fussed about the problem.  They were on it, if need be, but far better to let the kids have a minor panic about their carelessness.  Natural consequences are great teachers.  Adults do kids no favor by jumping up to fix things for them before they have had a chance to make things right themselves.

This is huge.  And, as Head of School Deanna Duncan points out, it takes patience and gobs of attention to cultivate an atmosphere of accepting responsibility.  Many parents and teachers struggle mightily with just getting the kids to do their school work, never mind doing service in the community or turning compost.  But the Expeditionary Learning (EL) approach that Greene has adopted believes that “We are crew, not passengers.”  Adults and students alike are “strengthened by acts of consequential service to others.”  They have jobs and obligations for their mutual benefit.  They’re in it together, and they’re not passive.

But what’s even huger, to my mind, is that Greene and their EL design consultants have not only brought back from the near-dead, but enhanced one of my all-time favorite educational innovations: “advisories.”  Back in the late 1980s, the seminal work Turning Points insisted that public schools “personalize” education.  That horribly impersonal word referred to having small groups of students regularly hang with an adult to ensure that every kid was known well by at least one adult in the building.  Advisories were designed to counter the lack of attention kids were getting at home and in their communities.  So-called “factory-model” schools just replicated kids’ starvation for healthy attention, and in many ways made it worse.  Private schools have always had some form of advisory to make good on their promise to give “personal attention” to the student.

Advisories seem like a well-duh of education.

Sadly, these days, many schools that still schedule advisory time allow teachers to waste the time by letting the kids do their homework, talk or text.  At Greene “Crew” has a curriculum of its own designed to teach students Habits of Work (HOW), including giving them tasks they have to figure with their team.  The Crews stay together for 4 years, so if you’re not getting along, you’d better learn how to.  These behavioral expectations, the HOW, are spelled out in detail.  Students learn both the sort of chore-related reliability and good ‘tude habits that everyone needs to keep a job.  But math and literacy are also woven throughout.  One goal states:  “I can demonstrate basic financial math to promote my understanding of our economic system.”

The over-arching questions of Crew are:

* Who am I?

* How am I doing?

* Who do I want to be?

The habits are graded according to two big categories.  Students can get straight “A”s in their academic subjects, but if they blow their performance on HOW, privileges and choices are reduced.  If students fail either of the HOW grades, they’ll need to do 30 hours of community service over the summer.

So, for example, Jamiel, a senior from Johnston, says, “I had big trouble with the math.  Math is everywhere; it’s part of everyday life.  If you can’t do math, you can’t do much.  So I had to have tutoring over the summer.  But here at Greene, we have this “yet” thing.  I can’t do this YET.  You can’t say ‘I can’t,’ but you can say ‘I can’t do that yet.’  So I work with being in the moment with the work.  I’m growing a positive mindset.”

Crews explore colleges together and help one another with the applications.  They act as a peer-accountability system that helps emerging adults mature into habits of self-control and self-maintenance that are at least as important as academics when starting out post-high-school.

Duncan says, “Our students know what it means to learn the good habits that will help them be successful out in the world.  We intentionally spend as much time focused on climate and culture as on academics.  Students need to take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning.  We all have to be responsible to our community.”

Including those wanton chickens.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.


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2014, When All Kids’ Performance Were Supposed To Be Equal

Published by — I wish America could see how mean it is to its kids.

In January 2002, the worker bees were settling into their jobs at the Rhode Island Department of Education after the Christmas break.  I was sniffing around for stories and ran into Dr. Dennis Cheek, the head of research, who was uncharacteristically angry, pounding about his business and repeating, “Not statistically possible!”

I figured Cheek was referring to the late 2001 Congressional passage of reams of changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  The new monstrosity was No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Like most American-education reform, it had very little to do with children, never mind how they learn.

He looked up, saw me and snarled that we were being set up for failure.  While 2014 seemed comfortably far off at the time, Cheek was quite sure states and schools couldn’t lockstep all children in all schools so that by 2014 they’d all be “proficient,” per the mandate of the new federal law.  Given how clueless that mandate was, could schools make any academic progress at all?  He accurately predicted widespread cheating on tests.  He predicted that the states would set their cut scores with pathetically low goals to protect schools from being labeled failures.  Cheek had no patience with bad teachers, curricula or leadership.  But the law was all stick, no carrot, threatening under-performing schools with increasing sanctions.  Common sense argues that setting an unreachable goal will not inspire anyone’s best work.

I wasn’t taking notes, but at the end of his rant, he barked, “And you can quote me.”

So here we are:  2014.  My, how time flies.  What did we learn?

I learned two things.  The first is that having good data is really useful.  The results of the NCLB tests were disaggregated by race, gender and poverty, so the world could see if any kids were being discriminated against.  (They were.)  NCLB forced all states to collect much better data on their students, so people like me can now see the education landscape with increasingly clarity.  If you know what you’re doing, “anchoring” statistics can verify the quality of statistics.  All facts are friendly.  Having good facts helps us help kids.

Ah, but do we actually want to help children?  I ask because the second big take-away from NCLB, to my mind, is that it proved that we’ll never be able to punish students or schools into improvement.  Won’t happen.

Maybe only a researcher like Cheek fully understood the impossibility of arriving at nirvana in 2014.  But along with pretty much everyone, he hated the punitive approach built into the law.  As a compulsive reader of international education and child welfare news, I can tell you that American culture is unique in its faith in punishment as a solution to problems.  We believe in bad kids and bad schools that should just be eliminated if we can’t somehow beat their badness out of them.

Kids behave badly if no one teaches them the rules, or helps them learn community-appropriate habits.  Or they misbehave as a way of flagging trouble of some kind, at home, among bullies, academic struggles, or whatever.  There are no bad kids, only bad behaviors.  No evidence shows that loveless, alienating, retributive discipline produces anything but rotten academic achievement.

Similarly, punishing under-performing schools abdicates responsibility for getting at the root of why they’re producing such bad results.  Generally, bad schools are horribly organized or governed.  For example, school labor and management personnel often have conflicting goals, focusing attention on the interests of the adults.  When adults fight, punishing one another for this and that, student achievement suffers.

Under NCLB, schools labeled bad, however euphemistically, had to send letters home to parents confessing and explaining their scarlet “F.”  Continued poor performance forced them to divert their precious Title 1 funds — for the free-lunch kids — to educational-support agencies of dubious quality, anointed by the feds, like corporate tutoring companies.  NCLB gave states a taste for publicly grading their schools for an annual naming-and-shaming exercise, as if the students in the building didn’t get chewed up in the process.

Such mean behavior isn’t built into the Common Core, the newest massive education movement.  Let’s see if we can manage to use the data for something more positive this time around.

Still, I wish America could see how mean it is to its kids.  How can smart adults not see that their desire to help kids become “globally competitive” is an adult wish?  What kids want and need is attention, kindness, safety and help — long before they get near any desire to beat out Korea and Finland.  Kids need clear consequences for their foolish actions, like letting them get an “F” when they deserve one.  But they don’t need punishment.  And neither do the schools.

It’s 2014, and the kids aren’t in significantly better shape than they were in 2001.  They didn’t become proficient because frightened school personnel force-fed them test-prep.  Punishment didn’t work.  It was a dismal failure.  In 2014, the question before us is:  what will work?  Only, let’s be honest this time.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Terrific School Morale Improves Math Scores

Published by — Sometimes top-down reform is necessary, but that lasting, significant change depends on staff morale.

“I think if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated.”

– Michelle Rhee, former D.C. Schools Chancellor, now founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, at the Aspen Institute’s 2008 education summit.

These days, heavy-handed, top-down management reigns as the current ideology in educational leadership, especially in large urban districts. Get the upper hand and firmly grip the steering wheel. With military resolve, these superintendents consolidate and close schools, fire excess or incompetent staff, impose strict regulations to combat chaos.

Sometimes, education reform is a dirty job.

To be fair, when Michelle Rhee first became Chancellor, the D.C. schools were a disaster. Initially, anyway, they deserved her General Patton approach. She’s not a patient woman, and collaboration takes tons of time, at least at the beginning. She’s not talented at consensus building, not that it was important to her. Top-down superintendent-generals deploy middle managers to engineer each aspect of the education machine, to teacher-proof the school day, right down to the scripted curricula.

Dreary work, though I get that such tough moves are sometimes necessary.

But what about morale? Having gotten through the worst, where’s the appealing vision of staff uniting like a practiced sports team going for the big win? When’s the good part? Parents flock to charter schools, even academically mediocre ones, because they’re warm communities full of adults who feel good about their work. Good teachers will happily work together to meet district, state and national goals. But constantly being told what to do makes them crabby.

Now, at long last, comes hard research that says, in essence: good staff morale will improve your math scores. The top-down approach is murder on collegiality. And since math scores are now education’s Holy Grail, finally staff morale matters.

Dr. Carrie Leana is a professor in the business school at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert in organizational behavior.

She recently published “The Missing Link in School Reform,” in the Stanford Social Innovations Review. She discusses businessy ideas like “human capital” – individual capabilities – versus “social capital” – the capabilities and effects of a group or team on individuals. This distinction is critical to understanding how our current obsession with teacher effectiveness is way off track, with its hyper-focus on evaluating individual teachers.

To study teacher effectiveness, she and her colleagues surveyed huge samples of teachers in New York City, Pittsburgh and other large urban districts. They asked, among other things, whom teachers went to for teaching advice and support.
She writes, “What we found is that in most instances, teachers seek advice from one another. Teachers were almost twice as likely to turn to their peers as to the experts designated by the school district, and four times more likely to seek advice from one another than from the principal. As one New York City teacher explained, ‘It’s dangerous to express vulnerability to experts or administrators because they will take your professional status away’ and replace it with scripted textbooks.’”

So, Leana reports, districts import outside experts to beef up the abilities of the individual teacher via coaching, mentoring and workshops. The new evaluation rhetoric about using “multiple measures” certainly doesn’t include measuring teachers’ skills as effective teammates. Nor do they take into account the resources and opportunities, or lack thereof, for them to make decisions as trusted community assets. (Devolving decision-making powers to the school community is known as site-based or school-based management. It’s the opposite of top-down.)

Leana goes on to say, “Most striking, students showed higher gains in math achievement when their teachers reported frequent conversations with their peers that centered on math, and when there was a feeling of trust or closeness among teachers. In other words, teacher social capital was a significant predictor of student achievement gains above and beyond teacher experience or ability in the classroom. The effects of teacher social capital on student performance were powerful.”

How could it be otherwise? Teams of teachers charged with common goals can form personal bonds, mentor one another and in the end, leverage each others’ success. Collegial teams naturally induct new teachers and serve as their mentors, instead importing outside experts. Pleasant working conditions lower staff turnover in all professions.

Furthermore, when we teach kids leadership skills, we emphatically preach that cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are most likely to produce the best results. Kids and adults want to build and belong to caring communities. Does top-down management?

Leana says, “With collaboration, you are exposed to other teachers’ priorities and are better able to incorporate them to broaden your own approach in the classroom.”

Top-down systems, on the other hand, atomize teachers into “cogs,” resembling the factories after which schools were first modeled in the 19th century. Atomized teachers get easily pitted against one another. Of course teachers need individual evaluation. But only along side of the feedback of the team itself, among other helpful indicators.

Actually Thomas Payzant did an amazing job of empowering his schools’ staffs in Boston, when he was Superintendent between 1995-2006. As big systems go, Boston has notably high morale, and test scores that while not ideal, do support Massachusetts’ claim to have the best public schools in the nation.

It can be done. Organization affects how the staff feels. And morale matters hugely to the quality of the work.

Really? We needed research to tell us this?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Face It: Helping All Kids Graduate Requires a Second Shift of Supportive Adults.

Published by — teachers aren’t enough — a host of adults in various roles are required to support kids throughout their educations.

Of the 20-year-olds who were unemployed during the recent recession, roughly 70 percent were high-school drop-outs.

Dr. Robert Balfanz asks, “With no diploma and no work history, are they ever going to work? Every year we (America) put a million kids into that pipeline.” Which leads to prison, chronic unemployment, and reliance on social services. Maintaining this pipeline is not in our national interests, to say the least.

A researcher at John Hopkins University, Balfanz co-directs the Everyone Graduates Center. He also works on Colin Powell’s project, the America’s Promise Alliance with the specific goal of raising the nation’s graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020. Currently, it’s about 75 percent. This means getting 600,000 more kids across the stage each year.

“But if you remember,” he muses, speaking recently at the Rhode Island Foundation, “90 percent was also the graduation target for (the Clinton-era’s) Goals 2000.” We’re not making much progress.

Improving graduation is a hard, hard job.

Still, Balfanz argues that the job is absolutely doable. Read a description of what he calls his “Civic Marshall Plan,” designed to accelerate the little bits of progress made so far. But despite its clear, commonsensical nature, the Plan is dauntingly ambitious.

Today let’s consider one piece of it, perhaps the toughest for most people to swallow. Balfanz makes inspiring suggestions for how schools could become attractive, effective places where kidswant to come and learn. But even if schools achieve such improvement, many kids will still need what he calls a “second shift of adults” to keep them on track.

Imagine a healthy path that reliably takes kids through high school to finishing the post-secondary training they need to thrive in this economy. Balfanz would say that kids on that healthy track have the A, B, Cs – Attendance, Behavior, and Course Completion. They have learned how to get their own butts out of bed, how to stay out of trouble, and how to earn at least a “B” average overall. It’s not such a tall order.

But imagine how easily it is to fall off that track. Many kids have incompetent parents, for whatever reason. Some suffer untreated trauma. Poverty, violence, mental illness and substance abuse might affect either the parents or the kids, resulting in a kid’s school problems. Adolescents get moody and disaffected. Schools themselves might be alienating, harsh, impersonal or dull.

So at any point in kids’ lives, circumstances may push or entice them off that healthy path and into the stream coursing toward the drop-out pipeline.

The second shift, then, are those individuals and agencies standing ready to catch the kid the moment she’s slipping. Someone needs to figure out what the root problem is, and respond with the right support or intervention, at the right scale and intensity. Or she’s gone.

One kid may simply need an encouraging mentor asking after her homework every day. But another needs heavy-duty social services to work with his whole family to get him back. Others may need tutoring, a friend, a father figure, a grief therapist, or someone reliable to give his grandmother her insulin shot during the day so he can get to school. Kids who’ve experienced social or academic failure avoid repeating the horrible feeling of failure by withdrawing effort. “I don’t care and I won’t try.” Someone has to pull them back.

The challenge is massive.

“But the good news,” Balfanz enthuses, “is that this is a giant engineering problem and America is good at engineering.”

How would he have us begin this engineering feat?

Start with good data. No Child Left Behind forced schools and municipalities to build robust data systems, so those systems can help us know where each and every kid is at regarding the A, B, Cs.

A kindergartner’s spotty attendance is a red flag. Middle-school kids getting suspended are surely in trouble. Intervene asap, before the problem gets bigger.

Balfanz gestures wildly, dramatizing the data’s evidence that “by the 6th grade, certain kids are waving their arms and yelling I’m going to drop out.” Two-thirds of incarcerated boys and two-thirds of girls who get prematurely pregnant were, when they were in 6th grade, chronically absent, getting suspended, failing English or math, or some combination.

But, monkey see, monkey do. How many kids have plenty of adults and older kids around them, modeling and teaching the self-management and personal organization needed to pull off A, B, and C?

Precious few. Especially in low-income communities.

“If we don’t have interventions, diagnoses are meaningless.”

So who steps in?

Balfanz says, “Kids need much more than a good lesson every day. A teacher has 20 kids – or 120 – and can be heroic with, like, 5. So how many adults do we need to mobilize to see to it that all kids are getting what they need?”

He doesn’t pretend to have that answer. Yes, AmeriCorps, Scouts, clubs, sports and recreation departments are big contributors. Non-profits and the business communities are stepping up more lately. Still, oceans of kids need basic daily nurturing: “I’m here to help, and I like you.” Only such a personal approach will support a struggling child to develop her own self management.

Balfanz concludes by offering “A Nobel prize to the person who figures out how we get that second shift.”

It’s a profoundly daunting challenge. But I’m sure he’s right.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at

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Persistently Low-Performing Schools Need More Options from the Feds

Published by — Obama and Duncan’s four turnaround models for failing schools are a step in the right direction, but they comfort the status quo.

In 2009, the Obama/Duncan administration announced that they would spend serious money and attention redeeming the 5,000 worst schools in the nation. To my mind, this has been their best idea.

But then they came up with four — and only four — models for how to deal with these schools. I remember reading them over and over again looking for the good one. In vain. By its very nature, education policy made a million miles from a classroom – by Congress, say – risks insensitivity to the everyday reality of flesh-and-blood teachers and kids.

But let’s back up and look at the feds’ big plan for struggling schools.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) strategy left over from the Bush administration had two good results. First, states were forced to upgrade their data systems, so the public could get a better idea of whether kids were learning. Second, that data revealed conclusively that certain populations, like kids in poverty, were being sadly under-served. The problem with NCLB was that its main strategy for helping children was to heap a lot of bad test scores, threats and humiliating name-calling onto schools.

Frankly, we didn’t learn much of positive value from all that naming and shaming.

The new administration decided to focus instead on supporting innovation. Good, much more positive approach.

In the case of what they call “the persistently low-performing” schools, they allocated significant money for districts to support big changes at these schools. If the education industry can learn how to fix these schools in specific, it will learn how to help the poor, minority and special-needs children who are disproportionately stuck in them.

So, at the dawn of 2010, the feds told each state to create criteria to identify their most troubled schools, including all high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.

The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that 15,277 schools, or 16 percent of all schools nationwide, were identified as “persistently low-performing” schools. Each became eligible for federal School Improvement Grant money. Some schools opted out of the grants because other reform efforts were already underway.

The others, however, had to fix their problems by choosing from among the four federal models. They are:

Closure – Close the school altogether and transfer its students to high-performing schools in the district.

Turnaround – Replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff.

Restart – Open the school under a third-party education management organization, one that is independent of the district, such as a charter operator.

Transformation – Reform the entire instructional environment, develop teacher and school leader effectiveness, reward teachers based on student performance, increase community engagement, and extend learning time.


The first three models mainly reveal the policy-makers’ doubt that these schools might have any strengths. But in my experience, even badly-troubled schools sometimes have a core of fabulous people working under impossible circumstances. These three models change the circumstances by evicting most or all of the adults, presuming they are the root of the problem. And to be sure, they might be. But if they’re not, what a waste of the best thinking and experience of the people most intimate with the kids.

The fourth, Transformation, does just the opposite. It leaves the people AND the circumstances absolutely in place. Even the vague “extended learning time” can mean 5 paltry minutes. So under Transformation, the school district officials and the new principal can design a plan, but if they want to be able to hire teachers from outside the district, the union can always say no. If the principal wants to be free of a deadly curriculum, the district can say no. Transformation provides no leverage.

Recently I heard the new principals of four problem schools give presentations of their transformation strategies. Utterly gutless. The thinking seemed same-old, same-old. Every job was preserved, with the same person in it, probably doing pretty much the same thing, despite some nice-sounding programs – a triumph of rhetoric over action.

Not surprisingly, 74 percent of the nation’s “persistently low-performing” schools chose Transformation.

If I were able to add a 5th option, I would describe it as:

Radical Site-Based Management with Teeth

This model would identify a talented, committed core of people already in the building – assuming there is one – and empower them to take control of their own destiny. The district and community could decide if such a core exists and who, precisely, they are. Then, give them charter-like powers to develop their own strategies and unshackle themselves from any provisions of labor contracts and district policies they consider detrimental to teaching and learning. Give them power over and responsibility for their budget, personnel, strategy, schedule, and so forth. Free them to make a plan they believe will make them successful – within their budget. Keep the core staff and give them real power to change the circumstances.

Like creating any school, site-based management is not for the lazy. But trusting a core of existing staff would build on existing strengths. Experienced, talented adults who know their kids and their needs are the perfect people for the job. They have strong feelings about what’s been holding them back. Capitalize on their knowledge. What’s to lose?

These models all have risks. But empowering the best of an existing staff would show some respect for what good there is even in some of our most troubled schools. And they’d be more likely to turn things around for the kids faster than some outside group starting yet another new charter school.

At least give them a shot.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at

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Ron Wolk, How Education Resources Waste Minds

Published by — Ron Wolk book is about how our education system is outdated, mismanaged, and how we might start getting it right.

Now in his 80s, Ron Wolk has no patience for mincing words. So Wolk, the founder and original editor of Education Week, wrote Wasting Minds – Why our education system is failing and what we can do about it.I

It’s a fast read, rich with vivid stories. The message is dark. He says flatly, “States have spent nearly 20 years formulating 21st-century standards for a 19th-century school system.” Wolk has been working in education well over 30 years, making policy with education luminaries as well as walking school hallways observing the good, bad and the ugly.

He summarizes what he’s seen in his brief preface: “In the early 1970s, the United Negro College Fund conducted a public advertising campaign centered on the slogan ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste.’ The slogan became part of the American vernacular. Sadly, evidence makes clear that the minds of millions of students of all races are still being wasted today.”

You’ll be glad to know he’s not big on blaming anyone in particular for this waste. We are all responsible. “School boards, administrators and teachers are not bad people who want schools to fail, but they feel compelled to protect their routines, their status and their turf, and they weave a rationale to justify that.” They’re human.

Wolk gave an overview of the problem last spring when he spoke to a group gathered at the Annenberg Foundation. “For the last 30 years, I’ve spent most of my waking hours thinking about education. And I tried for years to write about education. But it’s a system. So you’d start on, say, teaching, but get all tangled up in the details. Eventually I had an epiphany: the system is based on a number of assumptions that are flawed or flat-out wrong.”

Wasting Minds, then, is about the flawed assumptions underlying our school systems, assumptions that desperately need to be replaced. Most importantly, the assumption Wolk insists should be newly planted at the center of education is:

“To help motivate children and maximize their abilities, we must educate them one at a time and tailor their education to their interests and needs.”

In other words, if each kid’s desires, hopes, dreams and motivations can’t somehow be factored into how educators make policy and how teachers teach, education will never be designed to serve flesh-and-blood kids.

Wolk says, “We know that no matter what we teach, students will not learn what they don’t want to learn.” But the education industry knows very little about student motivation. Wolk uses the second half of his book to give examples of how some schools get it right, and to dream of an even more student-centered future.

But the book’s first half focuses on why schools aren’t kid-centric now. I found it painfully compelling. He articulates 10 assumptions built firmly into federal and state educational policy. I’ll discuss only the first assumption here. But just the chapter titles are a pleasure to read: “If it Moves, Test It.” And “The Quest for the Supreme Leader.” I don’t agree with him on every point, but it’s a relief just to spend time with someone who is also observing the same naked emperor I see.

Assumption number one is: “Students are not performing adequately because they and their teachers don’t work hard enough. The solution is a “get-tough” policy like No Child Left Behind.”

This statement is partly true. Wolk writes, “There is no denying that too many students are unmotivated and unengaged; they find schools boring at best and alien places at worst.” And “there are undoubtably teachers who retired long ago and didn’t tell anybody.”

But he goes on, “to assume that the problem of poorly-performing schools and students can be solved with threats and penalties is to misunderstand both the institution and the people in it, and to further widen the achievement gap.” The federal NCLB law was supposed “to focus on the plight of the disadvantaged.” But in practice, it promoted tons of testing that was supposed to hold adults accountable. The law’s mandate to “sanction,” which is to say punish schools for getting the wrong test scores means that the schools with the most challenged kids are under almost constant threat of humiliation and sometimes firings or closure.

Who does their best work under threat of punishment? No one questions that we needs good data that tells us what kids are learning and what they aren’t. Schools are super-complex organizations, and we need to understand the effectiveness of our efforts.

But NCLB’s punitive approach has demoralized and brow-beaten many schools into becoming frightened, hostile environments. Challenged, disengaged or defiant kids have become such a liability, they threaten teachers’ jobs. Naturally, teachers want the “bad” kids out. This, Wolk notes, is where the “school-to-prison” pipeline begins.

And prisons are the ultimate waste of human lives.

Impassioned, Wolk writes, “An effective education system is, in many ways, a prerequisite to finding solutions to all of the other formidable problems the nation faces. Without it, where will we get the people, the ideas, the creativity, and the technology needed to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of this new century?”

And an ineffective system such as we have now is a multi-billion dollar waste of kids’ minds and potential.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see or contact her at

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