An Enigma: Why Do Schools With Similar Student Bodies Differ In Results: Principals? Teachers? Data Manipulation?

Over the last few months hundreds of teachers have commented on the Gotham Schools site about the unfairness of school closings as well as the schools selected as turnaround schools.

“We get the most difficult kids, overage, under credited, special education, English Language Learners, high poverty, it’s simply not fair, we’re being set up to fail.”

As you check the demographics the cries of teachers are justified, the so-called failing schools have large numbers of kids who are at risk.

Jackie Bennett, on the Edwize blog explains, in detail, how Progress Report grades track with student characteristics – see blogs here and here

Although the Department has tweaked the Progress Report metrics, Rhonda Rosenberg shows us that the methodology is still biased against a category of schools. See detailed analysis here

The Progress Report is the “report card,” the metric which assigns a school a numeric score which is converted to a letter grade from “A” to “F.” Schools are clustered into peer groups, schools with similar students. Similar means entering 8th grade State ELA/Math scores, special education and overage. Schools are assigned an index number and the peer group is the twenty schools immediately above and below your school. Schools are “competing” against other schools in their peer group – the metrics for high schools are credits accumulated each year, grades on Regents examinations and graduation rates. The formula takes into account achievement, growth, attendance and parent, teacher, student survey data.

As you look at a school’s peer group what strikes you is the wide disparity in grades. With kids with the same demographics some schools are getting “D” and “F” grades while other “A” and “B” grades. Why are some schools with similar kids stumbling and thriving?

Is it the teachers? (better instructional practices), the principal? (better leadership skills) or data management? (better abilities to fudge data – legally or illegally)

Cynics argue, “They cheat,” or, at least, the principal of one school can manipulate data better than the principal at another school. Guess we could have an interesting debate on whether the ability to manipulate data is a positive leadership skill. Let’s be honest: all principals operate at the edge of the rules, they try and manipulate data for the advantage of their school.

Do schools organize themselves in ways that maximize the chances of kids succeeding?

What do we know about the adolescent psyche?

Kids seek stability and direction and a strong positive role model in their lives.

Frequently they find the stability and the role model in an antisocial setting – the gang. Sometimes they find it in school.

In my experience schools with more fragile kids are more successful if they design themselves into structures that address the needs of the kids.

* Longer blocks of instruction with fewer periods in the school day, usually referred to as block scheduling, William Ouchi devoted a recent book to the topic, with dense statistics, showing greater academic success for the kids. Teaching three or four periods a day rather than five periods allows teachers to spend more time with fewer kids … nothing dramatic here but surprisingly few schools have adopted block scheduling models.

* Sometimes called “looping,” staying with the same kids for the 9th and 10th grades. Teams of teachers with the same kids and daily common planning time can not only build close relationships with the kids but can plan together across classes to address specific academic needs and supports.

* Mini schools or small learning communities, or whatever the term du jour, unfortunately succumb to the large school mentality. The programmer or the assistant principal or some school bureaucrat can’t or won’t figure out a way to create “smallness” in a large setting.

* An advisory class is essential in the 9th grade and 10th grade. By giving every teacher, regardless of their assignment an advisory, you can reduce the size of the class. There are a wide range of advisory curriculum, the class ties the student to a specific teacher, provides a “comfortable” space, some schools even have single sex advisories to encourage more personalized zones for guided discussions.

* The English teacher teaches a double block of ELA, the advisory and team teaches in the Social Studies and Science classes. The same teacher stays with the same group of kids throughout the school day. This model was used in the Chancellor’s District High Schools, with significant success, and was ignored under the “let a thousand flowers bloom” Klein anarchy.

* Rethinking the semester organizational pattern: we moved from two semesters to annual organization. Now, a few schools are converting to a trimester system. Two terms, with longer blocks of instructional time (seven period instead of an eight period day), with third trimester for either repeating a failed course, or, an elective. It will be interesting to follow and track the effectiveness.

A few large high schools and many small high schools have adopted some of the practices supra; unfortunately too many large high schools plod along with rigid organizational structures suited to the needs of the adults not the kids.

Teachers will protest: we really love our kids and we have close relationships; too often the teachers, unconsciously, have ratcheted down the rigor of the work to the level of the kids – what Ted Sizer refers to in his classic “Horace’s Compromise( .” A teacher in an about to be closed high school proudly told me that the fifteen kids who attend her class every day would pass the Regents. Unfortunately the other fifteen never attended, they were absent or wandering the halls. The teacher was a success, her school was a failure.

I am not arguing for a French lycee approach … next Thursday in any classroom across the French Diaspora the same lesson will be taught.

Within classrooms it’s the teacher(s) responsibility to determine what novels or short stories or plays or documents to read, the vocabulary may be challenging, teachers are expected to provide “scaffolds” to assist the students, and the principal provides enough time by “designing” the program appropriately. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a standard ninth grade book, it’s vocabulary is difficult and the regional speech increases the problems, maybe start with Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” and “Prometheus,” shorter, more accessible, and deeply complex texts. A worthwhile discussion for the teachers, perhaps facilitated by an assistant principal, or a coach, or an expert outsider.

A principal who can create the space which maximizes the opportunity for success of teachers by fostering creativity within the space.

Large high schools in which teachers commonly have five classes a day and see 150 kids or more daily tend to be mechanical – you get to know only a few kids. It is a triage model. If the kid is absent or cuts or has trouble with the work – too bad. The principal rags on the assistant principals who threaten the teachers who push back – a culture of animosity and blame-placing. There are plenty of small high schools with the same culture.

Yet, in the galaxy of 400 high schools some have figured out how to maximize instructional time and create spaces in which kids feel safe and teachers have the freedom to work together and work closely with kids.

Pushing teachers, and principals, off the end of a pier, in manacles, only succeeds for Houdini.

Smart principals and creative teachers have “figured it out,” why keep it a secret?


7 responses to “An Enigma: Why Do Schools With Similar Student Bodies Differ In Results: Principals? Teachers? Data Manipulation?

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    Beats me! The hope was that the network structure would identify and generalize the successful practice you’ve identified. Perhaps if schools were accountable for the success of the bottom 10% of the students in all of the schools within their network, there would be more of a reason to work together and learn from the accomplishments of other schools.


    • The bottom 10%? So, you’re really talking about non-academic social services or special special education for students not necessarily classified but missing enormous chunks in their academic development. Or you think this can be handled by super teachers with super lessons, in which case I would have to go Christie on you.


  2. Too mechanistic.
    Two missing elements:
    1) School Mission/Vision or attracting features “selects” different kinds of students, while “demographically” they may look exactly the same. Often certain kinds of kids will choose/not transfer from an architecture-focused school and other kinds will opt/not leave a school focused on the performing arts, for example. And of course the specific mission itself plays a role beyond what you’ve covered.
    2) There’s a difference between schools that have been handling a huge percent of high-risk kids and schools that reach those percentages abruptly
    by students being dumped in.


    • Also, there are the matters of tipping points and snowball effects regarding school culture, staff morale, administrative desperation and toxicity.


  3. Carole Silverstein.

    Your blogs are most interesting and educational even for us retired teachers . Too bad the powers who control the schools still don’t listen. They appear not to listen or even want to trust the current philosophy of educating our children. I say ours because we believe in the ability of our colleagues and students to reach out and be willing to change together. In the past ,most of us have reached into ourselves and achieved a very successful level of education. You have to want to succeed and be part of society. I am still in touch with several students who have done well for themself. Others have graduated with several degrees but social or economic factors have prevented them from going forward .


  4. David Shulman

    One thing for sure–there are a lot of newly formed institutions out there claiming to have the answers and sucking the monetary resources out of public classrooms. Despite all the questionable claims, and chicanery such as creaming the best, denying the most challenging, credit recovery, dumbing down the Regents ( yes the NYS Regents), etc. decent statistical reviews of the data reveal no magic bullet within the grasp of schools and school systems. See Gary Rubinsteins blog entries earlier this year for graphical and verbal info. (

    So what’s to do? If the US is really interested in educating kids to their individual maximum potential, then every kid needs an IEP and schools need to be non graded, but achievement based. Social promotion is a farce if you believe in the bell shaped curve of talent (including educational talent). Parents must be held accountable for getting kids to school every possible day, with food in their bellies and homework in their hands. States must provide equity in funding across school districts-funding that actually reaches schools and is not siphoned off. The US must demonstrate value in the craft and talent and science of teaching by assuring that there are many applicants for every teaching position ALWAYS, not just during a recession, and encouraging teachers to make a career of it, not just serve two years. Teachers and schools must have the legislative and intestinal fortitude to make and enforce proper educational placements for their students own good (with proper parental input).

    What’s to lose? The US Public schools unify the country’s population in many ways. The current trend to small schools may be good for some kids, but opens the door to divergent quasi religious, quasi philosophical, separations and inequities that are not in the public good.

    Lastly, we must not succumb to the BS that the US is not educating well. Comparing US schools that admit all students (including recent illiterate and innumerate immigrant kids) to other countries where many kids are prevented from completing school beyond a certain point is a malicious, untruthful device aimed at discrediting what the US does well, but not as well as it could.


  5. Carole Silverstein.

    Thank you, David, It was freshing to hear you debate education,again.


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