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Humanize schools

Posted by Oct 11th, 2010.

Sabrina Stevens Shupe is an education advocate and former Denver teacher. This is cross-posted from her Failing Schools blog.

One main reason I stopped believing in the dominant narrative about school reform is because I experienced firsthand how top-down policy churn impacts teachers’ ability to focus on our actual work. When people who are too far removed from the classroom attempt to control what’s happening there, problems arise. Standardization becomes virtually irresistible, because it makes it so much easier to perform “quality control” (which then ends up being more about conformity than actual quality). And of course, there has to be some way of tracking what’s going on, so documenting and reporting on your work becomes an urgent responsibility. This documentation has to be friendly to the non-educators who increasingly run schools, too, which means it will most likely be reductive in nature.

That, of course, has the unfortunate consequence of turning principals and district personnel into paper pushers, teachers into paper generators, and students into numbers (the flip-side of what politicians call “accountability”). For example, there were several days last year where virtually all of the teachers in our school had to hire substitutes to cover our classes while we worked elsewhere in the building, administering tests and finishing forms in order to meet district and state reporting deadlines. While there are some great substitutes out there, for the most part, sub days are days lost to instruction. It’s simply not the same to have a stranger step in and attempt to pick up where you left off with your students. (And it doesn’t help the substitutes any when bored, stressed out, over-tested kids look at them and think “PLAYTIME!”)

It’s bad enough that teachers often have to take this kind of work home in order to have time to complete it and plan good lessons– that depletes our energy, which makes us less alert and able to respond to children’s learning needs during the school day. But when these requirements (along with the time lost to testing) literally steal instructional time, it becomes all the more important for us to stop and examine if what has been sacrificed is worth what’s been gained.

Apparently, what has been gained is very little (for the kids, anyway– if you make tests or data tracking systems, you’ve gained quite a bit!). All of these attempts to track and verify what is going on in classrooms have not delivered meaningful improvements in learning. The first 30+ years of this experiment with increasingly centralized control and oversight has been a period of increased dropout rates and high remediation rates for new college students. Twelfth-grade scores on our most well-reputed test (the NAEP) have moved just one point in reading and two points in math. As someone who was personally told to spend time on worthless assessments that generate graphs at the expense of meaningful ones that diagnose reading difficulties, I’m not surprised.

This is counterproductive. How can we hope to improve schools if teachers and principals are forced divert serious attention away from their mission (educating students) and toward satisfying the demands of powerful adults? (And am I the only one pained by the irony of sucking up instructional time in an attempt to make teachers prove they’ve improved instruction?)

Instead of devoting ever more resources to propping up these false accountability systems, why not invest in people? Start with building up schools of education and raising professional standards for teachers (rather than trying to skimp at the front end and then compensate for it with external rewards and punishments later)**. The best school systems have highly trained, highly respected educators who are then given the freedom to use their expertise to create powerful learning experiences (aligned to a set of lean but important standards). The leaders of those school systems are themselves career educators*, who understand the nature of teachers’ work and can offer meaningful support  and guidance. There is absolutely no reason why we couldn’t build that here, but it would require us to stop looking for shortcuts (replacing teachers with cheaper interns, scripting curriculum, etc.) and give educators the respect and trust we deserve.

*I also find it ironic that the “let’s make schools like business” crowd has ignored the work of Jim Collins. His book, Good to Great is especially instructive in this area. He finds that companies that are able to make the transition from goodness to sustained greatness almost always (90% of the time) grow their leadership from within, and they give employees the flexibility to be creative as long as they adhere to the company’s mission. Micromanagers are bad managers.

**ETA: Most who know me have already inferred as much, but I’m not at all suggesting that there are serious deficiencies in teacher training programs to begin with. One huge trend many teachers will note is the extent to which they’re prevented from doing the great things they learned in ed school because of the nonsense they have to do for their school and district leaders. However, there are certainly some programs which are better than others. I feel we need to make sure all programs offer comprehensive training (balancing content and pedagogy, for example) and are thoughtfully planned, rather than trying to marginalize the entire group of them and promoting “shortcut” programs at their expense.

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20 Responses to “Humanize schools”

  1. Alexander Ooms says:

    Huh? I thought the “dominant narrative about school reform” focused on the rise of those evil charter and innovation schools — except those are not subject to “top-down policy churn” and instead are primarily defined by their increased independence from Districts. One of the central ideas behind these schools is to embrace a variety of models and move away from any standardization. Even the DCTA has embraced this movement and started their own school. In fact, I don’t believe I have ever read any education reform proponent ever advocate increasing the power and control of school bureaucracies.

    I’m sure you can find other reasons to disparage those of us interested in education reform, but I don’t think that “increasingly centralized control and oversight” should be on the list.

    • Tom Hoffman says:

      This is the typical response of a member of the policy elite who will always be the reformer and never the reformee. Nobody actually says they want to increase the power and control of bureaucracies, yet somehow that’s always what happens. And the beauty part of it is, people like you never even need to know.

      • Alexander Ooms says:

        Hhmmmmm. While celebrating my conferred status of “policy elite” — though tempered by being “typical” and part of “people like you,” I must confess any lack of knowledge here is absent need, since I have no absolutely no idea what you are trying to say.

  2. 1- When have you ever heard me rail against charters or “innovation schools” as such? (I have no problem with the idea of public school choice. I have a problem when such “choices” are forced on a school or community as part of a federally-mandated turnaround, or because the powerful people in a given community want to create more of them. Also, the majority of such schools are not actually innovative or significantly different from regular public schools…)

    2- How would you describe mayoral control, national standards, test-based accountability schemes, and inflexible turnaround strategies mandated by the federal government if you don’t see them as examples of centralized control and oversight of schools?

    • Alexander Ooms says:

      1. You railed pretty hard a few days ago against Oprah’s show on Superman and the implicit support for charters with a strikingly similar theme (this post: “dominant narrative about school reform” and that post: “trusted media personalities like [Oprah] advance a one-sided narrative”).

      2. I think you might be confusing oversight and control. If I tell you that I expect you to reach a specific destination (national standards), that is oversight. If I tell you the exact method to get there, that is control. But all the examples you give are of oversight by setting academic expectations, while the core of RTTT, charters, and other reform strategies is increasing autonomy over the method by which one may get there (the popular nomenclature is “loose-tight” models). There is increased control over programs that do not make it to the destination by mandating a turnaround, but even then there is no proscribed method (other than the people that ended up in the wrong place probably should not get back behind the wheel). But increased control over the types and methods of education is anthesis to education reform, not a dominant theme.

      • Re-read those posts. I didn’t get into charters in either, and when I talk about the crisis narrative, I’m talking about the persistent message that schools are “in crisis” and that bad teachers/their unions are largely to blame. You are projecting other people’s messages onto mine. Not all people who disagree with you are the same.

        Also, as someone who actually *taught* under these conditions, I’d have to say that you’re the one who’s confused. There doesn’t *need* to be overlap between oversight and control, but there currently *is*. Teachers in struggling public schools are experiencing a decline in our ability to exercise our professional judgment; we have been forced to adhere to scripted curriculum (especially in schools that receive Reading First funds), required to use certain assessments and not others, etc.

        What you’re noticing (or should be, anyway) is the hypocrisy and confusion inherent in this movement. The high-level *talk* is about freedom and choice and flexibility and progress; the on-the-ground reality is much different. That’s one main reason why I started my blog– what’s actually going on in “failing schools” and what outsiders think is/should be going on are often two very different things.

        • Alexander Ooms says:

          I read the posts – I’d be happy to own up to a misinterpretation, but could you clarify if when you say that you “have no problem with the IDEA [my emphasis] of public school choice” you mean that you are in favor of charter schools? That would clear this point up once and for all.

          I do believe that our public school system, particularly in urban centers, is in “crises” given the number of dropouts and low proficiency rates. I’m happy to disagree on this point.

          I’ll also happily disagree that the “dominant narrative” in education reform is about more autonomy and less centralized control. If your baseline is that teachers in schools with poor educational outcomes for students continue to have the freedom to do whatever they want without adherence to any set standards or curriculum — well, that’s a pretty low bar. But the thrust in both policy and practice is giving schools more autonomy and then holding them accountable for improved outcomes.

          If increased autonomy is your focus, I’d encourage you to try (start?) a school that has the increased independence you seek. You clearly have the passion to do so, why not put your ideas into practice?

          • I’m not trying to fight with you here, but I’m really perplexed that you’re basically trying to say that what I’ve seen and experienced (and what many other teachers have, as well– working in these schools isn’t happening, and that I don’t know my own stances on key issues better than you do. What gives you that kind of confidence?

            I clarified my views on a number of these issues here:
            Re: charters- “I don’t believe in or support charter schools that are run by corporate management chains. I do like charters that operate transparently, and are started/run by community members and educators. I also think their teacher and administrator compensation should be comparable to regular neighborhood schools if they receive public funds.”

            I agree that there’s a crisis going on in this country, that disproportionately affects low-income people. However, school failure is a *symptom* of that crisis. We’ve seen an unconscionable transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the wealthy, which has resulted in increasingly desperate circumstances for those left behind. 1 in 5 kids in this country shows up to school without their basic needs met, and too often after experiencing or witnessing violence. Some children are forced to work to help support their families, which takes their focus away from school (and contributes to the drop out problem). Others keep falling behind and give up (and it’s hard to fault them; try being a struggling reader who has to compete with 30+ other kids for the teacher’s attention!). But those point to systemic problems, not merely deficits in teaching.

            Teachers have been forced to pick up the slack when business leaders, government leaders, social services, etc. are unwilling or unable to meet the needs of the poor, and blamed when we fail to make miracles. Until we’re collectively willing to own up to our responsibilities to *all* of America’s children– and confront the fact that our system wasn’t really designed to serve all children well (– we will never see large-scale transformation of these kinds of schools. Isolated success stories, yes, but not the paradigm shift we need.

            And I have to repeat that standardized tests (the basis of your “low proficiency rates” observation) don’t do a good job of assessing the true capabilities of different kinds of learners, especially when the stakes are so high. When we buy into the idea that some kids are “less than” because some test said so, and approach them from a deficit perspective, we’re all but ensuring that they really *will* become failures, because we stop giving them better opportunities, and waste our energy trying to build on weakness instead of strength.

            The thrust in practice is not increased autonomy! That’s my whole point– teachers in “failing schools” are literally being handed dumbed down scripted programs and ordered to read/proceed lockstep through an impoverished curriculum. Something I’ve never understood– if we understand that bureaucratic minutia is an impediment to progress, why aren’t we allowing the schools that need the most help to opt out of it?

            And where are you reading that I don’t think we should have to adhere to any standards? Quoting myself from the piece above: “The best school systems have highly trained, highly respected educators who are then given the freedom to use their expertise to create powerful learning experiences (aligned to a set of lean but important standards).” I think a coherent set of standards, and a thoughtful curriculum are good things; I object to trained professionals being forced to read out of a teacher’s manual like robots.

            I am working with some teachers who are beginning to plan the kind of school we can actually believe in, but I also believe it’s important to expose the problems in the schools we keep leaving behind. It’s important to document the mismatch between our leaders’ stated aims and what is actually happening, so we can try to learn from the mistakes (and maybe even hold them accountable!) as we build something better.

  3. Kevin Crosby says:

    “Increasingly centralized control and oversight” must be on the list because it is a problem. It’s a Catch-22. Local districts move too slow so the state passes laws to try to force change. Then the feds get in the picture because the states are moving too slow… Now, administrators are unable to make simple decisions about their own schools because the rule book is so burdensome.

    Ironically, many who support NCLB or SB this or that also support charter schools so the charters can at least in part escape the very laws they supported in the first place! And actually, that makes sense because charters have a leg up if the “regular” schools are hamstrung by a plethora of wackadoodle laws. Hmmm… can you say conspiracy? Are all these mandates REALLY about improving the system?

  4. jeff says:


    We hear about charters and innovation schools most often in public discourse but that does not make them the dominant reform narrative (the loudest, maybe). Far more schools are subjected to centralized mandates than escape them to any extent. And some of those who try to escape via the Innovation Schools Act find that the autonomy gained may not be as robust as they had imagined.

    And in my understanding, a key part of DCTA’s mission in starting MSLA was to demonstrate that the collectively bargained agreement does not, in fact, create any impediment to a high quality and effective educational program. They did not open a charter school and they did not seek waivers under the innovation schools act. How do they align with your thinking? Have you found a point of common ground with the union? That would be an encouraging development.

    • Ben says:

      Actually, MSLA did require waivers in order to allow for a lead teacher to evaluate teachers rather than an “administrator” as defined in state statute.

      • jeff says:

        They did request and receive that waiver but, as I said, they did not use the Innovation Schools Act to get it. If I recall, they specifically avoided that avenue.

        It would be far better for someone from MSLA to weigh in on the subject but I think they want to show that with teacher leadership, schools can succeed within the framework of existing law (with the noted exception) and contract.

    • Alexander Ooms says:


      Good points. I’ve always argued that the advantages of Charter and Innovation schools is freedom from specific policies of both Districts and collective bargaining agreements. The second gets all the attention; I think the first is equally important.

      I have several points of common ground (I think, anyway) with Teacher’s Unions – the one I cite most often is discipline policy, but I agree on many points surrounding PD and Assessment.

      I’ve always tried to be clear that I oppose specific policies, not general institutions, in much the same way that I think one can support quality schools of any type.

  5. Michael Kane says:

    Thank you for writing this Ms. Steven Shupe. You are absolutely correct in your assessment of the current wave of reforms. Again, thank you for stating this so eloquently.

  6. Mark Sass says:

    Isn’t MSLA using a teacher with a type D to evaluate and make employment recs with teachers? I thought until SB 191 passed it was a violation of state statute to have teachers make employment recommendations about other teachers.

  7. Alexander Ooms says:

    Apparently we capped out the maximum number of replies, which is probably a sign to wind down this thread, and I’m not sure I can match you for volume regardless. I expect we’ll continue to disagree on many of these, but , but let me try to respond:

    1. I don’t question the validity of your personal experience, just that it is appropriately representative of a very broad movement (which you call the “dominant narrative”). Given the choice between the anecdotal experiences of a few teachers (your link is an anonymous post of a single teacher) and the broad thrust and coalitions of something like RTTT, I would bet the latter is more indicative of “dominant narrative.”

    2. Do you consider KIPP (which like most Charter CMOs is a nonprofit) to be a “corporate management chain”? Or do you limit your opposition to the actual for-profit chains like White Hat (where, incidentally, I share your concerns).

    3. I think the choice between fixing education and fixing poverty is clearly and patently false: — No one in education reform is asking that work to alleviate poverty be stopped (any many people like myself support these efforts); why do the people who are more interested in solving these broader systematic problems insist that they must trump efforts at improving education?

    4. I agree that standardized tests are only one view, and I find them less helpful for more sophisticated levels of education (such as distinguished between proficient students), but they are very useful in drawing a baseline. If one is in 8th grade and reads at a 3rd grade level, one is going to struggle, and it is critical to get to grade-level proficiency to enable the sophisticated learning that is best measured by other means. The distinction between Dickens and Shakespeare will be lost if you cannot read either.

    5. Determining if a student is low proficiency is crucial to enable interventions and support that bring them back to grade level. If those kids are viewed as “less than”, you need to change the way adults view them, not pretend the student does not need additional help to address the deficit in proficiency.

    6. The question is what to do when teachers who have the “freedom to use their expertise” for learning experiences aligned to standards are unable to educate kids to meet those standards. My belief is one needs to either change the teaching methods or change the teacher. You identify a third option in which I do not believe: blame poverty.

    I look forward to your school and applaud your willingness to encourage change.

  8. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    Re: representativeness– When I initially starting having problems at DPS, I assumed that my school was some kind of anomaly. I came to the public education “cause” with a lot of the same assumptions many people on this site have, and thought that if we just had more knowledgeable teachers, things wouldn’t be so bad.

    I was wrong– the majority of teachers are skilled and hard-working, but the caliber of the person matters little in a dysfunctional situation. High-quality teachers will either leave or become dysfunctional if they stay in such a situation for too long. After I started sharing my story, and listening to others who are sharing theirs, I realized that this is a systemic, nationwide issue– not an isolated case. I can direct you to loads of teacher bloggers and activists (anonymous and public) from cities all over America who are seeing and saying the same thing I am. Fair warning, though– if you’re struggling with my attitude, you’ll REALLY struggle with some of theirs! Or, if you don’t believe us, read Kozol, and Kohl, and Meier, and Goodman, etc.– they’ve been writing about this stuff since I was a baby and before.

    Re: charter management– Yes, I’m talking about organizations like White Hat. I have philosophical differences with KIPP, and wonder about the sustainability of a model like that, but overall I feel that if they’re working for someone, they have a place in the educational landscape. Just don’t force it on people who don’t want it.

    Re: proficiency– The concept of “grade level” is necessarily relative. Our understanding of it comes from looking at the performance of “average” kids and then judging all children by that standard. That necessarily means that some kids are going to fall “behind”– all children are different. As a teacher interested in developing powerful learners, I’m not interested in how a child does when compared to other children. I’m interested in whether or not each particular child has the skills they need to continue learning, and I build from there. This is why I favor assessments like miscue analysis over things like DIBELS– one is diagnostic, the other is comparative. This is why I have trouble fitting into the current paradigm, which insists that all children do things at the same time as everyone else, and subjects them to boring/humiliating interventions when they don’t. I believe those interventions do more harm than good, by making kids feel badly about themselves (which further hampers learning and depresses performance) and hate school.

    Also, being “below grade level” does not mean a kid can’t think powerfully. Kids who don’t read well are still *very* capable of sophisticated thinking. Assumptions to the contrary aren’t grounded in a true understanding of cognitive development, and that unfairly holds kids back.

    Re: poverty & teacher quality– I believe in working on schools and society at the same time, and if you’ll notice, the first solution I talked about in this post was ensuring teacher quality :) In a situation where teachers have such freedom to use their expertise (which hasn’t been the case in many “failing” schools since at least Bush II), and they’ve been genuinely found wanting, I believe in documenting those problems and getting those teachers out! Teachers are the first to say that we are not supportive of colleagues who don’t do their fair share; their shortcomings make all of our jobs that much more difficult.

    But those people are far more rare than one would gather from watching the news. What I’m saying is that I think it’s unfair to put teachers in a situation where they’re asked to do the virtually impossible (compensate for all the ills of poverty, as opposed to focusing on classroom instruction), and then firing them when they fail in that task. For instance, DC’s new teacher evaluation system requires that all teachers’ students make at least 1.25 years worth of “growth” in order to be considered competent enough to keep their jobs. Putting aside for the moment the pitfalls of defining what counts as 1.25+ years of growth, it’s kind of crazy to insist that a person do more than a year’s worth of work in a year to even be able to consider keeping his or her job. We need to do a better job of defining what really is within teachers’ control and what isn’t, and stop holding teachers accountable for the latter.

    • Alexander Ooms says:

      I agree completely that we put many teachers in a position where it is hard for them to be successful — I think we have better teachers than we have teaching due to the impediments before them — and I’m deeply interested at how to remove these obstacles. And yes, I agree that District policies contribute to these barriers.

      My disagreement on proficiency is more one of degree than of kind. Yes all kids are different and there is an acceptable range of achievement (particularly in the early grades), and yes, outside of Woebegon there will be always be 50% of kids below average. But this has its limits — again, if a 8th grader is reading at a 3rd grade level, it’s simply not okay, regardless of individual learning style. Proficiency rates of 30-40% for 8th graders is not okay. A high school 50% drop out rate is not okay. Schools with math proficiency in the single digits are not okay. Graduating high school and being unable to read a job application is not okay. These are absolute failures, not relative. Sure, there are constraints with comparative tests, but comparison itself — particularly at a baseline level or proficiency — is both valid and necessary.

      I personally would like to see a more fluid labor market for teachers (which includes mutual consent and the ability to shift districts and states more easily). Some teachers may have a particular skill and desire to try to make up 1.25+ years in a single year’s time; some may not. We need to allow for greater differentiation and focus for teachers (the uniformity in teacher compensation, placement and advancement in most CBAs is a policy which clearly limits this flexibility).

      But I would argue that this enhanced learning and urgency is precisely what many of our kids in urban schools need — and if they need it, we have a responsibility to provide a structure and find teachers who are willing to take on the challenge. We no longer can afford to put kids who – for whatever reason – need above-average learning into a system and with teachers for whom average growth is the maximum limit. This simply cannot be about what is acceptable to teachers, it must be about what is possible for kids.

      • Now there’s something we can both get behind– making reciprocity agreements between states actually mean something! I wasted 5 school days over two years working through issues related to changing my PA teaching license to a CO one. Meanwhile, one of my substitutes threw out my lesson plans, and taught all my students about the mechanics of firing a gun. Another listened to his iPod while students built a fort in our classroom library, and another stole from my desk and nearly killed our hamster. But I digress…

        I agree that no one should graduate without being able to read, etc. But if we continue define proficiency in just one way–including using a baseline that’s based on an average– we’re ensuring that the appearance of failure persists. We need to have multiple, meaningful ways for kids to demonstrate what they can do, so that bad test takers can prove that they’re still able (as many of them are)– and so that kids who are good at tests can’t hide behind their scores. I had one student in particular who looked great on certain reading assessments, but had no ability to apply the information she learned from written text to problem-solving situations. Many of the “low readers,” by contrast, could. Likewise, one of my students reading at a DRA 18 (mid-2nd grade level) passed the DPS 5th grade benchmarks. If I took those test scores at face value and focused on them the way our leadership wanted, I wouldn’t have done either of them any favors.

        My point about DCPS’ eval system was not that this needs to be acceptable to teachers at the expense of kids (talk about a false dichotomy), it’s about clarifying workable, sustainable expectations for teacher performance. (I fail to see how making teachers stressed out and fearful serves children. The reform at-100-mph schtick makes great television, but it does nothing to support cognition.) What constitutes a year’s worth of growth will necessarily change each year as the student population changes– and it will change after the fact, when the year is over and nothing more can be done. Schemes like this appear to be about closing the achievement gap, but the rhetoric and good intentions hide the fact that there’s no meaningful way to ensure that it happens, because there’s no way to predict or plan for it. They’re chasing a moving target. Codifying that is a guarantee that we’ll continuously churn through (largely inexperienced) teachers, which would be disastrous for these kids.

        I’m all about achieving what’s possible for kids– I’ve helped nonreaders become readers, and I’ve helped kids who were demoralized by reams of tests realize just how powerful their minds really are. That doesn’t happen when you’re focused on the numbers, it happens when you’re focused on the child. Focusing all of our attention on the end of the process (passing out praise and blame on the basis of summative achievement tests) instead of creating conditions that support a truly child-centered education is counterproductive.

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