“No Big Thing”: At Turnaround Schools, and Elsewhere, Student and Teacher Cultures Drive Achievement

The first period had begun and the school security scanning line twisted down the block. A group of kids was standing on the corner.

I asked, “Did the first period begin?”

“Yah, a few minutes ago.”

“You’ll be late to class, you don’t go to class, you fail.”

“No big thing, you take that credit thing on the computer, only takes a few days.”

I was rushing to attend a meeting on creating better curriculum maps. The real map was created by the kids, attending class was “no big thing,” the school had reacted by memorializing a culture that denigrated attending classes, after all, credit recovery only took a few days.

“You don’t like class?” I asked the kid.

“Listen to that bullshit all day … it’s boring.”

The school should asking, “Is it bullshit?” “Is it boring?”

Something told me that curriculum maps, while necessary, were not going to address the core issues of the school.

A few years ago I was visiting a middle school in mean the streets of East New York. As I walked toward the office a kid walked up to me in the school uniform, all the kids were wearing the uniform. He held out his hand, “My name is Henri, I’m a sixth grader, and who do I have the pleasure of addressing?” I was taken aback. I later found it was the culture of the school to greet all visitors with an introduction.

School culture, the unwritten mores that drive student and faculty behavior create a milieu that fosters academic success.

The acquisition of non-cognitive skills: perseverance, dependability and consistency are the most important predictors of students’ academic grades.

School leaders need to create a culture among the staff members, a culture that centers on cycles of collaboration and self-improvement.

Sitting in a teachers’ room for a few periods can tell you more about a school than speaking with the school leader.

Does “bitching” and whining dominate the chattering?

Are teachers busily hunched over computers?

Are teachers talking about lessons and kids?

Or, pouring over the NY Post?

Are the Yankee and Met fans dueling over last night’s disaster?

Are the racial and ethnic divides obvious, (except to the staff)?

The principal campus council meeting got around to security. How serious did the fight have to be before you suspended the kid?

As an outsider I had only observed, finally I asked,

“Do you meet the with the gang leaders?”

A principal snapped back, “Why would we want to meet with them, we want to get rid of them.”

Me, perhaps unwisely, “because they run your building.”

In spite of the Department expectation of  “cycles of brief observations with meaningful feedback” and an array of data tools school culture drives staff and student behaviors.

The turnaround model calls for replacing half the staff and the principal if s/he has been on the job for more than two years. The reason: to create a new school culture.

The new principal rids the school of the weak teachers, maybe, but clearly gets rid of the trouble-makers, who may or may not be weak teachers. In fact, the curmudgeon may be an excellent teacher, with high standards, and, a complaining pain in the ass.

The brand new, bright-eyed youngster may be compliant, and, has difficulty keeping the kids in the room.

The student academic achievement jumped in my school. The marks on Regents exams, SAT scores, scores on Advanced Placement exams, and the outside world noticed and the principal basked in the adulation. He referenced new curriculum designs, professional development; he praised the commitment of the staff, and somehow failed to mention that a quarter of the school was now made up of recently arrived Russian immigrants.

Ivan what does your father do, “Is cab driver.”

What did he do in Russia, “Was physicist.”

Changing the student body does wonders for changing student achievement.

Closing schools chase the lowest achieving kids to other struggling high schools increasing their chances for failure. Too often turnaround schools keep the same kids and ignore school cultures among the kids and the faculty, cultures that are immutable and drive schools to failure.

School must strive to change unhealthy school cultures.

There is overwhelming evidence that embedding non-cognitive skills precedes academic success.

Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and one of the world’s leading figures in the study of human capital policy, has found that programs that encourage non-cognitive skills effectively promote long-term success for participants.

Although current policies, particularly those related to school reform, put heavy emphasis on test scores, practical experience and academic research show that non-cognitive skills also lead to achievement.


“Numerous instances can be cited of people with high IQs who fail to achieve success in life because they lacked self-discipline and of people with low IQs who succeeded by virtue of persistence, reliability and self-discipline,” Heckman writes in his forthcoming book…

“Our analysis challenges the conventional point of view that equates skill with intelligence, and draws on a body of research that demonstrates the importance of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills in determining socioeconomic success,”

Surveys of employers show they most value job stability and dependability in employees, Heckman points out. Other studies show perseverance, dependability and consistency are the most important predictors of students’ academic grades,

Because non-cognitive skills are more easily improved during adolescence than are cognitive skills and they often stabilize in the formative years, public policy can help stimulate their development over longer periods. For instance, while IQ is well set by age 8, non-cognitive skills such as dependability continue to develop.

To ignore, or worse, to reinforce attitudes and behaviors that are antithetical to school and life success are tragic, and, all too commonplace in schools.

David Conley, the nation’s leading researcher on college and career readiness supports the Hechman data.

Recent research has shed light on several other key components of college success. Most relevant for this paper are a range of cognitive and metacognitive capabilities, often referred to as key cognitive strategies, which have been consistently and emphatically identified by those who teach entry-level college courses as being as of equal or greater importance than any specific content knowledge taught in high school. Examples of key cognitive strategies include analysis, interpretation, precision and accuracy, problem solving, and reasoning

The ability to write well is the single academic skill most closely associated with college success, but the “big ideas” of each content area are also very important elements.

Of equal importance are the attitudes and behavioral attributes that successful college students tend to possess. Among these are study skills, time management, awareness of one’s performance, persistence, and the ability to utilize study groups. These are both specific skills and more general attitudes, but all of them require high levels of self-awareness and intentionality on the part of students as they enter college.

Do we require/reinforce writing in every classroom every day? Do classrooms foster discussion in challenging settings? Defending ideas?

Yes, the dysfunction of the community surrounding the school, crime, unemployment, foreclosures and generations of living in a racist-tinged world places a burden on the children attending inner city schools.  Throwing up one’s hands and blaming factors the school can’t control is unacceptable.

The right school leadership and the right teachers can make the difference. The “answers are in the room, in the school.”

Kids must be saying, “Going to college, of course, it’s no big thing.”


5 responses to ““No Big Thing”: At Turnaround Schools, and Elsewhere, Student and Teacher Cultures Drive Achievement

  1. Well now, let’s see-should we “…memorialize a culture that denigrated attending classes, after all, credit recovery only took a few days.” and increase the passing percentage and graduation rate.

    Should we emphasize “perserverence, dependability, consistancy and analysis, problem solving, reasoning, and self discipline” ?

    I guess it depends on what the Mayor and his wanna-be-a-teacher Chancellor want. One path gives them “good” statistics, and the students the wrong impression about life as well as a ‘pretend’ diploma.

    There is another way–promotion by achievement, with support along the way for students who are having trouble. We need to uncouple from the annual promotion design which embarrasses kids for whom learning is difficult (or those with inadequate home support).

    What we cannot do is to dumb down the subject matter as that will surely create a train wreak for ALL students. Nevertheless, NCLB, and what has flowed from it (see the dumbed down NYS Regents) has put us on that path. Thank you George Bush!

    The charter school industry, creaming off the most motivated kids, and rejecting those requiring special help, resembles a vulture picking on a carcass.

    If the Mayor (or his successor) would decide to help by turning the resources of the other City agencies loose to help the schools by preventing parents from allowing truancy, or requiring kids to come to school fed, properly clothed, and with homework in hand, etc, the schools might have a chance to do their job.

    The kids with the ‘pretend’ diploma who head off to college will accumulate a five figure debt before they drop out, or will get a pretend diploma from some ‘college’ that will be useless because those schools have similar lower than low standards.

    Eric Nadelstern, Shael Suranski, and the host of standards-be-damned ‘educrats’ like the Broad crowd, the Teach for America phonies, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, etc. will be judged by history as those who pushed American Public Schools off the cliff.


  2. Retired- no longer Public Enemy Number One.

    “No Big Thing” describes the truth. Still, none of the big shots or hired consultants care about the kids. Not at all- their job is to make sure the educational Potemkin Villages are freshly painted. They think all is well when a nice youngster greets an adult on the sidewalk near the school using the same greeting they’d hear on entering any big box store or calling a micromanaged corporate customer service queue.

    Taxi driver here, physicist in Russia. How proud the parents are that the children will have a better life than they had, here in America! Parental care and concern, a sense of responsibility, and prioritizing education- what a concept!

    You could change all the administrators and teachers, but still nobody cares about the students!

    Now, someone asks my kids “what did your father do?” They reply “he was a teacher in NYC- award winning and all, but, you know, he was treated as the cause of all the problems of society.”

    And you?”

    “Oh, we have respected, professional jobs, and so will never be teachers. He will die happy knowing that we have a better life in America than he did.”


  3. Pingback: Remainders: More Common Core math guidelines have arrived | GothamSchools

  4. Olivia Koppell

    Yes, yes and yes. One of the best articles……..but who is reading/listening?


  5. Pingback: ?No Big Thing?: At Turnaround Schools, and Elsewhere, Student and … | Bbc Kids

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