Category Archives: Educational Leadership

Airing “real differences”

I was about to find refuge from the New York City humidity (not yet even 9 am and it’s feeling like a collective eight-million-person-plus armpit in my apartment!) when I encountered a short piece in the New Yorker about the recent firing of General Stanley McChrystal that had me really thinking–thinking so much that I had to come back to my computer and write this quick post.

Here’s the quote of interest for educational leadership from Richard Holbrooke:

People sit in a room, they don’t air their real differences, a false and sloppy consensus papers over those underlying differences, and they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross-purposes, even actively undermining each other.

I was thinking about some of my experiences in schools and about how important it is for school and district leaders to encourage the norms of professional discourse to center on honesty and presenting difficult ideas, questions, and beliefs. Without norms that encourage underlying beliefs to emerge and without the structures in place to unpack and explore those beliefs and differences of opinions surrounding those beliefs, the group’s work to further the organizational tasks–on the long run–is really lost.

A big part of leadership is about challenging underlying beliefs and finding ways to articulate among those in the organization a coherent vision and logic, so that when individuals return to their tasks in solitude, they approach the work with the common goal in mind.

There is nothing new about this idea, perhaps the article just re-affirmed something I already believed about leaders and group dynamics. I just think that we work too hard for us to “paper over” the real divisions among a team, and it takes courage for a leader to both provide a space for different beliefs and a functional set of structures for all those at the table to work toward a common understanding.

We work too  hard to be working at cross-purposes.

A bottom-up view of policy I can get behind, Part 1

One of the most satisfying parts of being in a doctoral program is having access to great research and ideas. Recently I have been able to make time for reading research related to the areas I would like to study while in my graduate program at Teachers College: inequality, educational policy, access to high quality teaching, race, and English language learners.

I picked up an issue of Educational Researcher (the AERA’s official journal) and began flipping through the articles yesterday. Like most education journals, the trouble with me is narrowing down the articles to read because so much is related to the question of how to transform American schools so that they promote equity rather than continue to reproduce the social order and larger inequitable political forces at work in our city governments, schools, and American life more generally. I started with the first piece, and I am still lingering over it now:

Raudenbush, S. W. (2009) “The Brown legacy and O’Connor challenge: Transforming schools in the images of children’s potential.” Educational Researcher, 38(3), 169-181.

So the idea here is that since Brown v. Board of Education, we have been making gains in reducing inequality (generally and in schools). Something happened though in the 1990s (and that something is pretty concisely summarized in 8 paragraphs of the article) where we began to see that there was a “cumulative effect of the concentration of disadvantage among those living in the poorest neighborhoods” (171). While the application of the term “disadvantage” still creeps me out when it appears in research pertaining to actual people, communities, and cultures who even in concentrated poverty have many “advantages,” I do think that Raudenbush has it right that trends in physical and economic segregation over the 70s and 80s resulted in our present American reality that race all too often correlates to educational (and hence economic) disadvantage.

In this article Roudenbush posits that we can transform the “amount, quality, and organization of schooling” to make good on the “O’Connor Challenge” of our post-secondary institutions no longer needing affirmative action policies because our schools would “be producing enough strong minority applicants by then to achieve diverse student bodies at prestigious universities without the aid of affirmative action policies” (170). His hypothesis is that policy can mobilize schools to take on the awesome challenge of providing and ambitious instruction capable of changing the game for those students traditionally locked out of our educational system. Instead of the overarching, top-down educational reform policies of our past, he argues that we should increase the amount, quality, and organization of our schools through “a shared, systematic approach that emphasizes teacher accountability and schoolwide collaboration” (178).

There is a lot in the this article to chew on, and that will come in Part 2 of this post once I have another go-round with reading it. I will though leave with an excerpt from the summary that inspires me to dig in to the ideas it presents:

In sum, the shared assumption is that college success is a natural outcome of continuous engagement in ambitious intellectual work from early preschool through secondary school. The central premise is that nearly all children will thrive intellectually if exposed to ambitious instruction carefully tailored to frequent, objective assessments of student progress throughout the schooling years. Such instruction requires that the privatized, idiosyncratic notion of teaching that characterizes U.S. schools give way to a shared, systematic approach that emphasizes teacher accountability and schoolwide collaboration. In such a system, teacher expertise in using the system will vary, and schools will e organized to motivate and support advances in expertise. This conception of the effective school has broad implications for school leadership, parent engagement, social services, and teacher preparation. Clarifying how such an approach can be conceived, implemented, tested, and broadly shared requires a novel sense of how practitioners and researchers should interact, with implications for how universities should best organize themselves to support powerful urban schooling.

“Understanding dropouts: Statistics, strategies, and high-stakes testing”

CitationNational Research Council. (2001). Understanding dropouts: Statistics, strategies, and high-stakes testing. Committee on Educational Excellence and Testing Equity. Beatty, A., Neisser, U., Trent, W.T., Heubert, J.P. (Eds.) Board on Testing and Assessment, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Photo on 2009-09-12 at 22.32This 2001 report put out by the National Research Council is the most recent collection of data connecting high-stakes testing with high school dropout in America. The study makes five key recommendations for better, more systematic data collection documenting the links between high-stakes graduation testing and high school completion. Those five recommendations are at the bottom of this posts. Preceding these recommendations are the study’s findings on trends among dropouts and the high-stakes tests necessary to graduate from high school.

In terms of answering the question of WHY kids dropout, the study found:

  • There is no one reason for dropping out but rather a group of common factors that often work in concert over time to impact a student’s decision to dropout of school
  • School-related factors include: number of students in a school who are low-achieving, number of less experienced and/or less qualified teachers, lack of access to small group settings with individualized attention;
  • Home/life factors include: single family home, large family home, teen parent, family income in lowest 20% of population, being Latino or African-American;
  • Dropping out of school is a gradual process of disengaging from school over many years and is affected by multiple contributing factors like those listed above.

There are patterns that allow schools to identify students in danger of dropping out but interventions after 9th grade have not proven to be effective. Interventions targeted at students in late elementary and middle school have been shown to be more effective. Early indicators are:

  • absences
  • poor grades
  • poor achievement on tests
  • retention
  • schools with limited resources, and a climate that does not engage students

Research shows that grade retention only hurts students’ chances of graduating on-time:

Given the difficulty and cost of preventing students from dropping out once the process of disengagement from school has begun, it is clear that neither requiring a student a retake the grade nor a promoting a failing student, by itself, a sufficient response to his or her academic difficulty. The value and importance of addressing struggling students’ difficulties directly and specifically as soon as they are apparent are paramount. Moreover, the strong association between retention in grade and dropping out suggests that retention is usually not a beneficial intervention (7).

Do alternative programs and certificates give more students access to a basic high school education?

Alternative programs and certifications have been developed in response to the reality that secondary students’ needs, goals, strengths, and weaknesses differ, and we recognize that these alternatives can offer valuable options for many students. However, the alternatives and their effects on students’ lives need to be better understood… Entering adulthood without a diploma or with a lesser alternative to one is associated with serious economic and other consequences that can be discerned throughout life (23-27).

How are dropouts counted?

  • Event dropout rate = the # of students in a particular category who were enrolled but left school without completing the requirements within a specific period of time;
  • Status dropout rate = % of young people of age to be enrolled in or have completed school but are not attending or have not received a diploma;
  • High school completion rate = proportion of students in a certain age category who have received a diploma or other credential (GED)
  • On-time graduation rate = students who graduate in a given year and were enrolled in 9th grade three years earlier
  • Attrition rate = students who were enrolled in an earlier grade, usually 9th, and are no longer enrolled by 12th grade

The variety of measures for dropout rates causes confusion and miscounting of dropouts across states and jurisdictions.

What data sources are used for measuring dropouts?

  • National-level data comes from the US Census Bureau, the National Center for Educational Statistics.

What about students who are “pushed out”?

Many others have identified categories of students who leave school not entirely of their own volition. Such students, often called ‘pushouts,’ include students who have presented significant discipline problems, students who have been reassigned to special education programs (in some cases because thy are discipline problems rather than because of a diagnosed disability), and students who are discouraged from continuing in school by formal policies or informal practices. The relative dearth of data on these students is another piece of the puzzle observers face when they try to understand the problem of dropouts (34).

In theory, the standards-based reform movement is aimed to help the students most in danger of failure:

By making expectations for all students explicit, reforms have helped many jurisdictions understand the educational needs of the range of students they serve. Well constructed and properly used programs, can assist policy makers, administrators, and teachers in ensuring that all students are offered what they need to meet established goals and to make needed improvements in teaching, curricula, and other program elements (38).

Why standards-based reform does not necessarily translate into practice:

Ensuring that curricula are aligned with standards and tests, ensuring that students have been taught the material and skills for which they are being held responsible, ensuring that needed resources are in place, modifying teaching strategies, and the like can all present challenges much larger than those that come with instituting new testing requirements” (38-39).

Hence, adopting the tests that are aligned with standards is much easier than actually ensuring that each school is poised to actually able to provide the instruction to get students prepared to take the tests. Implementing testing procedures is much more expedient than the difficult work of equipping teachers and schools to meet the challenge of providing rigorous, excellent instruction in all subject areas. Due to conditions on the ground, tests may not even be valid or reliable, but students in many cases are the ones held accountable for low scores:

Test results may penalize students who are the victims of ill-prepared teachers, poorly run schools or districts, or other circumstances beyond their control (40).

The role of grade retention and student success:

Grade retention is pervasive in American schools, and it is more common among black and Hispanic youngsters than among whites. The report also documents the considerable evidence that students who are retained  in grade (even as early as elementary school) preform less well in school (even when results are controlled for age and number of grades completed) and are significantly more likely to drop out of school… Among 15- to 17-year-olds, about 50 percent of black males and 30 percent of white females are at least one grade behind most students their age. Hauser further shows that students who are retained in any grade are significantly more likely to drop out of school than those who are not, even when factors such as sex, race and ethnicity, social background, cognitive ability, and other factors are controlled (43-44).

How will graduation exit exams affect students’ decisions to dropout?

The likelihood is that eh effects of these tests will vary significantly, depending on the ways in which they are constructed and implemented and on the ways in which their results are used. However, there is reason to believe that both exit testing and other high-stakes testing may sometimes be used in way that have unintended harmful effects on students at risk for academic failure because of poverty, lack of proficiency in English, disability, and membership in population subgroups that have been educationally disadvantaged (45).

Hence, despite the efforts of nation-wide movements to standardized instruction through high-stakes testing (think NCLB), the data on the effects (positive or negative) of these tests on improving student outcomes is variable and inconclusive. Many educators are skeptical that the existing accountability schemes are having the intended effect of improving student access to high quality curriculum and instruction, and as a result, it is doubtful that test scores will raise for those populations who have historically had the most limited access to successful schools and teachers.

In the end the data is just not available to really understand the roles that high-statkes testing plays in students’ decision to dropout. This study makes the following recommendations for collecting data:

Data Recommendations

#1: We need to look at key existing data that is desegregated to show statistics for different populations of minority subgroups, ELLs, and students with disabilities; data should include the number of students receiving GEDs or credentials different from standard graduation, the nature of the academic credentials that lead to alternative certificates, the process for allowing students to receive alternative credentials, and the later educational and employment outcomes for students with alternative credentials.

#2 The current data collection practices for alternative programs is insufficient. Schools and districts need to collect data on all types of alternative graduation certification, the knowledge and skills required by these certifications. Further, school completion data for schools and districts should desegregate data of those student who leave with GEDs rather than standard high school diplomas, and this data should be desegregated by race, ELL, and Special Education.

#3 There is an urgent need to collect data on sub populations (race, ELL, SPED) that allows valid comparisons across states and smaller jurisdictions with regard to standard and alternative graduation rates. There needs to be longitudinal data that tracks the increasingly diverse pathways for high school graduation, and that tracks where students go after meeting alternative standards for graduation. Finally, schools and districts should improve their data tracking of students in danger of dropping out during middle school.

#4 The U.S. DOE should take a leadership role in providing oversight of collecting this data on high school completion; they should work closely with the U.S. Department of Labor to track these students.

#5 Jurisdictions with exit exams required for graduation should collect data on students who fail exit exams  in the 12th grade, tracking what happens to them after high school. That data should be desegregated by race, ELL, and SPED status.

Happy Inspired Birthday to Me–Thank You Chicago Public Schools


I am so inspired by Nancy Slavin who is part of the Chicago Public Schools HR Department. She is so good and doing such amazing work. Watching people make transformative change is so powerful. It makes me believe that change in possible even in hierarchical systems that tend to reward and sustain mediocrity. She described the beginning of her job as feeling like she started as “captain of the titanic,” and yet she still transformed her domain. I like this example. Let me restate that: I love this example. When I’m around leaders like this, I am inspired with every part of my being to actualize my leadership potential. Greatness seems to come from Chicago these days.

I thought my favorite birthday present was going to be the Maureen Dowd column I discovered this morning imagining Sarah Palin’s current dairy. This experience tops that. Happy inspired birthday to me!

Superintendent? UELP’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Today we met the cohort that is two years ahead of us. They seem so far ahead of us, mostly working as district leaders–some already superintendents and even former superintendents. Perhaps they came in more seasoned than we are now, but perhaps two years from now we will have grown into the leaders they clearly are now.

As I sat in the resource management class (focused on HR this week) our two cohorts are jointly taking at TC this summer, I wondered how much all of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy established by the Organization and Leadership department at TC. To what extent are they district leaders now because the program named them as a cohort ready for the challenges of leadership in urban districts? To what extent will they stay with the work because of the cohort model and because of the training UELP is providing? To what extent do I now (as of 4 hours ago) see the path toward becoming a superintendent as possible and perhaps desirable because of the frame of this program?
I actually realized today that under the right leadership, working in a district could be satisfying work that pushes toward wide scale change. At first, I felt out of place sitting in a classroom where the instructor asked us to frame a vision for how we wanted to manage human resources in our district. This is a level of questioning I have never been exposed to, and I knew at some point in this program, we would begin to shift in this direction. The work we have done in the first two weeks immersing ourselves in the research has felt pleasantly familiar, like an old high school or college buddy you see again after 3 years and realize that you still connect. I’m good at being a graduate student and scholar.
Working alongside more established school leaders this past two weeks has pushed me to feel more comfortable calling myself a leader publicly. I have always seen myself as someone with strong leadership skills, experience, and dispositions, but this is the first time in a while I have actually identified with and embraced the title of leader. When I decided to enter to realm of urban education 13 years ago as an outsider who grew up in a rural homogeneous community, I disassociated with the identity of leader. I knew that I had so much learning to do, so much listening, and so much living. I have been consciously building my practice in a field I care passionately about; I have been pushing myself to become competent and established enough to be on firm ground when I assert that we can and should transform urban systems to be more just and equitable. I finally feel ready to assume a formal leadership role in this field.
I have to trust that I belong with these two cohorts of established principals, executives, district leaders, and superintendents. I remain open to a variety of leadership roles, and today I accepted for the first time that included in the list of possible leadership roles is the title superintendent. Where do I go from here? That’s still up to the NYC job market the opportunities I find through TC. I’m curious to see where this path leads me in the near future. The next two years will likely be largely shaped by UELP’s vision, connections, and requirements, and I look forward to be looking back measuring the likely inevitable exponential growth two years in this program will produce.

Literacy for Freedom Schools Initiative

I’ve always been passionate and driven. I’ve always had a clear vision for the direction and arc of my life and a strong set of hypotheses about how to set about making that vision a reality. I believe that there is meaningful, impactful, and urgent work for me to do at the nexus of community and schools. I believe that we can create equitable and just educational systems truer to promise of the ideals that launched the great American democracy experiment. This sense of purpose and vision formed early for me–at sixteen, in a public high school in rural Vermont. My teachers, my classmates, my community, my family all played central roles in forging my identity as an achiever, activist, and educator.

At points in my career, I have struggled to identify the best way forward–this past couple of months of career and life transition being the most recent example. Happily, this past weekend at Teachers College provided enough perspective and opportunity for deep thinking and reflection to allow me to find some clarity and articulate a strong set of hypotheses about the arc of my life and work in education.

Hypothesis 1: University-School Partnerships is the best lens for my academic and professional work going forward.

I have a diverse set of interests and competencies: teaching literacy across the high school curriculum, history curriculum development, school leadership, new teacher development, bilingual education, dropout prevention, equity in classrooms, participatory action research, teacher leadership, building a culture of achievement in low-performing schools, school-community partnerships, family engagement, community service learning, technology in the classroom, professional development, inclusion/special education. These represent what I have done and have been interested in as a practitioner and as a researcher over the past ten years in urban schools. I am stepping in the Urban Education Leaders Program recognizing these as assets and potential areas of further development in my pursuit of my own personal development to become a district leader in urban school reform.

In my work with establishing New Mission’s dropout initiative with professors Theresa Perry, John Diamond, and Terry Meier in Boston, I have experienced the power of university-school partnerships to catalyze change in schools. In reading about examples of schools that have created a culture of achievement for students of color–like the University Park School in Worcester, MA–I have been inspired to explore further just how deep and powerful those university-school partnerships can be. My recent interest in larger-scale urban reform like the Harlem Children’s Zone has pushed me to consider the yet-to-be-realized possibilities for university, school, government, and community organization partnerships to create expansive change in urban districts in terms of increased equity for students and families.

I think my diverse interests (past, present, and future) all can find a home under the research umbrella of university-school partnerships, and I’d like to use this lens to focus my dissertation research and my practice.

Hypothesis 2: In my practice I can have the greatest impact in urban education reform by becoming a principal, launching one or more schools in concert with university partners. Down the road I will seek both district leadership positions and eventually a college/university professor position to the end of improving school leadership and equity.

I know that I have the capacity to be an outstanding school leader, and I would like the opportunity to create a team of educators, university partners, and families to found a 6-12 school centered on Literacy for Freedom–rooted in the traditions and history of African American, Latino/a, and other groups’ struggles to achieve full citizenship, freedom, and liberation in America and around the globe through literacy and education. I see my time at Teachers College as a way to study efforts like the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering (as well as other examples) in order to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully launch my own school. I can imagine collaborating with professors like Theresa Perry at Simmons and Terry Meier at Wheelock College whom I have already begun working with over this past year to embed the transformative ideas and legacy of freedom for literacy in the curriculum and school culture of one Boston pilot school.

This is an ambitious project, but my work in Boston over the past 10 years and the opportunity to do the Urban Education Leaders Program in New York at Teachers College over the next four years should afford me the contacts, knowledge, and resources to begin implementing this vision.

I propose the Boston Literacy for Freedom Schools Initiative.

The Wire

The Wire, in my view, is the Invisible Man of our times—a story whose characters both symbolize and actually live at the fraying edges of our awesome and terrible American society. At once fiction, literature, and entertainment, this moving, breathing, speaking novel deftly crafts a Baltimore where the lives of urban residents unfold believably, at once intertwined and individually distinct. Mirroring our American entertainment culture, The Wire does not entrust its social justice mission to one narrator, one character to which we pin our aspirations, our judgments, our own moral authority. We walk in Snoop’s shoes, see know McNulty’s nose, take in Michael’s burdened breaths. As viewers and readers of the American urban experience, we find the human experience in each of The Wire’s characters—though we crave with an unexplainable hunger those moments when The Wire allows us to live Omar’s code, Stringer’s smarts, or D’Angelo’s vulnerability on screen.

The character Bunny Colvin reappeared last night on the 59th episode of the 60-episode arc of The Wire. We see him as a foster parent sitting in the audience of an Urban Debate League competition in Baltimore. He proudly watches the character Namond argue in favor of the resolution that the U.S. should substantially increase health aid to Sub-Saharan Africa. Namond it appears, once a corner boy and school delinquent, is the only one of a group of four (Michael, Dukey, Randy, and Namond) adolescent Baltimore boys to find a place the city and in the city’s schools. We have seen the other places that the other boys find in the city, and none of us would want our sons and students to settle for long in those places.

I was struck last night by the use of the Urban Debate League; I am a coach in the league, and the pride I felt swelled as my own aspirations and judgments aligned with those of Bunny Colvin. I am Boston Public School teacher, a cultural outsider to American cities, a proponent for social justice, a college educated woman, and a current urban dweller: one of many types of fiercely loyal fans this TV show attracts. I am proud of my affinity for the show; I know that it says something about the way I believe the world is and the way the world should be. The character of Bunny Colvin, in my view, is the moral and the story of this TV show. I see in him my desire to reform, to do right by people—regardless of class, race, and the like—to exercise my professional obligation as a public servant. Next to that, I see the cautionary tale to potential system-wide reformers, to people like me. I see Colvin’s fall and forcible, disgraceful ejection from the system he so passionately sought to fix.

I believe in The Wire. I believe in David Simon and Ed Burns, their experiences, their vision. My friends, my colleagues, and my students all eagerly await episode 60. We crave this fresh, intricately woven re-telling of the great American novel.