When Will We Learn: Top Down, Rigid Models (Race to the Top) Never Produce Positive Outcomes, The “Answers” Are Found by the Superintendents, School Leaders, Teachers and Parents.

On June 30th the 700 million dollar Race to the Top federal grant to New York State ended, and, to quote TS Eliot, “Not with a bang but a whimper.” The dollars allowed the state to implement the Common Core State Standards, we all know how well that went, and, to create a new teacher evaluation system (3012-c and the just approved 3012-d); clearly another stunning achievement, excuse my sarcasm.

Mayor de Blasio announced to fanfare, an invited audience of 300 and a major education policy speech, three new initiatives: additional literacy (fka reading teachers) teachers for the second grades in select high-needs schools, dollars to create Advanced Placement classes in small high schools without such classes and a “Shepard” program, individual mentoring/guidance services for students in grades six through twelve in select high needs schools.

At the same time a major report highlights the widening achievement gap.

…a new book titled “Too Many Children Left Behind” … traces the story of America’s educational disparities across the life cycle of its children, from the day they enter kindergarten to eighth grade.

Their story goes sour very early, and it gets worse as it goes along. On the day they start kindergarten, children from families of low socioeconomic status are already more than a year behind the children of college graduates in their grasp of both reading and math.

And despite the efforts deployed by the American public education system, nine years later the achievement gap, on average, will have widened by somewhere from one-half to two-thirds.

Twenty years ago Larry Cuban and David Tyack, in “Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (1995) summarized endless, futile efforts to reform our school system. One reviewer wrote, ” … new vocabulary about school reform … to some extent … has assumed the same role as the prayer book of the Episcopal Church — by repeating the words you are supposed to be improving yourself and the world around you.” Tyack/Cuban conclude, with a simple statement: school reform, whatever that means, only succeeds if the people on the ground, teachers and parents, buy into the reform initiative.

Whether from the hallowed halls of Washington, or Albany or Gracie Mansion, the press releases, the edicts, the ukases, are rarely “sticky,” little changes until the folks in the trenches, school leaders/teachers/parents drive the changes.

After a couple of years of trying to make educational foie gras, (force-feeding ducks and geese) Commissioner King was eased out with the state educational system in disarray – one on five students opting out of state tests, a teacher evaluation system that neither evaluates nor informs teachers and principals, teachers and the governor hurling diatribes and a nervous legislature and a divided Board of Regents searching for answers.

The “answers” are always discovered locally, at the school or district level when a school leader and/or a superintendent actually lead their school or district.

Unfortunately in New York City mayoral control has created the classic top-down leadership model. The Chancellor, to fanfare announces whatever and the message is transmitted through the ranks to the classroom teachers – a classic dysfunctional para-military structure – everyone down the line salutes – and tries to ignore.

Principals visit neighboring schools, watch lessons, and share whether the lesson was Highly Effective, Effective, Developing of Ineffective according to the Danielson Frameworks; basically a waste of time. Do we explore how a school leader interacts with teachers to improve instructional outcomes? The observation/post observation conference/written observation report does not improve performance; a collaborative school culture encourages teachers to take risks, try new approaches, to work with colleagues and to learn from colleagues. How many school leaders ever teach a class? How many superintendents ever meet with teachers?

While the decentralized system in New York City (1970-2002) suffered from corruption and mismanagement in some districts others were examples of high functioning models. From Superintendent Anthony Alvarez in District 2 (mid-Manhattan) to Kathleen Cashin in District 23 (Brownsville) to John Comer in District 22 (Flatbush-Marine Park), and a few others, they created cultures in which parents, teachers and school leaders created and flourished. In District 22 the superintendent fully embraced school-based management and school-based budgeting. School Leadership Teams created school budgets, the district office fully supported schools, elaborate training programs supported school teams. Even under the frequently changing Bloomberg-Klein years a few stars emerged: a few network leaders created communities of learning: schools creating their own principles of effective instruction, network leaders leading school faculty meetings, a network leader led a monthly teacher “think tank” to explore some education article or concept. The gems, the examples of innovative and effective practices grew out of fertile soil at the school and district levels.

Today the Common Core is dogma, written in stone and the Engage NY curriculum modules the prayer book – no deviation permissible – the role of the school leader or the superintendent to assure compliance. The motto emblazoned at the school entrance should be “Lasciate ogni speranza voi che entrate.”

Adding Advanced Placement classes to schools in which students can barely pass Regents exams is foolish, how many students will actually take the exams? Has anyone thought of a term-long exploration resulting in a college level research paper? How is plopping a literacy teacher into a second grade for a year or two going to change outcomes?

An exception to the top-down model is a part of the New York City teacher contract, Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence, known by the acronym PROSE, allows schools to alter the provisions of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and Department regulations to implement a program approved by the Department and the union. The program is in its second year with over 100 schools participating. Rather than the high profile press conferences and the top-down initiatives far more effective would have been a challenge: The goal of the program, an action research model, is to increase outcomes as measured by: perhaps reading and math scores, attendance, higher parent participation, etc., we (the Department) will fund a planning/implementation year and follow the outcomes for three years providing training and guidance … in other words … encourage schools to design and assess programs.

The process requires schools to dive deeply into data, to explore a wide range of approaches, to design their own assessment tool, to gain a skill-set that will last far beyond the length of the program.

The entrepreneurial private sector, for example Google, tells teams of employees, here is the problem, what resources do you need? Solve the problem, instead of: here’s the Engage NY module, no questions, just teach it.

BTW, charter schools are stultifying examples of mindless educational environments only concerned with a test score, the worst kind if an education.

A simple mantra:

Hire the best (Superintendents, school leaders and teachers); provide extensive on-site professional development and support, trust your employees in a nurturing supporting environment, and, hold them accountable for outcomes.

Yes, some schools/school districts do not have the skills to innovate and create; highly structured organizations may be necessary as long the path to a collaborative culture is available. The New York City Chancellor’s District, a very highly structured model for the lowest achieving schools in the city was intended to embed the skills so that schools could learn and grow. Decades of rigid top-down cultures are not an answer, only a station on a journey to creating cultures of excellence.


5 responses to “When Will We Learn: Top Down, Rigid Models (Race to the Top) Never Produce Positive Outcomes, The “Answers” Are Found by the Superintendents, School Leaders, Teachers and Parents.

  1. For an example of the antithesis of top-down, test driven instruction, occurring in NYC high schools today, see the NY Performance Standards Consortium . Their ‘data’ report shows stellar results as well as provides a summary of what they do. Even the test-crazed Regents, before the new members even joined, agreed to allow the Consortium to expand. It’s still a small part of a huge system, but proves the main point made in this blog.


  2. Peter, do you know that DOE won’t release the PROSE plans, but demands that you FOIL them? If they’re so promising, why the secrecy?


  3. I think the Italian quote says “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”


  4. Ten bonus points for “educational foie gras”– that’s exactly it.


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