Local Control Versus State Obligation











Even a careful observer of education policy could wonder, “Who’s actually in charge of public schooling?” That is, at which level of government does the buck stop?

The long shadow cast by NCLB and all of the attention paid to ESSA might convince you that the feds are in control. We also know from experience, though, that local school boards and superintendents make the lion’s share of key decisions. And aren’t state departments and boards of education also important?

It gets even more confusing when there are public disagreements between these different government entities. States and districts routinely quarrel about funding levels. There’s a battle now in Illinois about local and state oversight of charters. In Michigan, there’s a clash over a new state body that could exert control over Detroit’s schools. Uncle Sam infamously got involved in Common Core, which raised state and local hackles galore. Thanks to Pierce, there are also the constitutional rights of parents limiting the authority of all levels of government. The list goes on and on.

The simple (if messy) answer to the basic question of who’s in charge is this: no one and everyone. Like much else in our constitutional system, powers are distributed in a layer-cake or marble-cake fashion (for more detail, see this great Fordham report). While that answer might satisfy in an American Government 101 lecture hall, it’s not much solace to those trying to figure out how to get stuff done right now.

So thank goodness for the Education Commission of the States’ new short issue brief on the subject. Titled “Constitutional Obligations for Public Education,” the report explains that, in most cases, state governments have both the responsibility to ensure kids are well educated and the authority to decide how.

Most of the brief is a very helpful table that lists the provisions in state constitutions that put state governments on the hook. Though several of the table’s columns are important (e.g., on funding, students with disabilities, religion), the third, especially, is key. It has the operative language for what each state government must do; for instance, provide a “thorough and efficient” system of schools (New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio), a “common” system of schools (California, Idaho, Iowa), “general and uniform” schools (North Carolina, Minnesota, South Dakota), a “liberal system” of education (Alaska).

There’s lots to be learned here; if you’re interested in K–12 policy, this is definitely worth the read. But let me highlight three particular things. First, Uncle Sam isn’t calling the shots in most instances. As the brief notes, the Supreme Court decided in 1973 that there is no federal constitutional right to education. Thanks to Brown and decisions that proceeded from it, states and districts can’t have discriminatory systems of schools, but plaintiffs are seriously limited in their ability to appeal to the federal government for how such systems are otherwise arranged.

Second, though the brief doesn’t discuss it, the issue of “local control” is obviously important. Though states have the ultimate K–12 obligation, they have decided to delegate authority to state-created entities, generally known as “districts.” Today, these districts typically have been in operation for generations, have democratically elected school boards, reflect community values, enable ongoing micro-changes, and much more.

So districts might be thought of as a kind of educational “common law.” They are essentially evolutionary entities in that they continuously adapt, reflecting immediate, real-word issues. So while state governments wield de jure educational authority via constitutional obligations and statutory and regulatory powers, districts have substantial de facto control.

I think there is prudence and wisdom in this general approach—namely a great deal of deference to longstanding, local institutions and the communities, families, and practitioners that inform them.

My third point is an observation: You can bet on turmoil any time this formula is disrupted.

It may not be perfect, much less tidy, but our complicated system of schools has generally been in equipoise. Most decisions are made locally; state governments set the direction and create conditions for success; and the federal government gets involved when something’s become unjust.

When the federal government arrogates to itself too much power from the states (e.g., NCLB, Race to the Top), or when states impinge on local authority (e.g., curricular or staffing requirements), the policy disequilibrium results in political disquiet.

One big benefit of the ECS report is that it gives us another way to look at these types of disputes: Each upsets the state government’s constitutional role in schooling.

In some cases, the state government is right to point the finger at Uncle Sam: Why are you getting involved in content standards or teacher evaluation? That’s our role! Read our “thorough and efficient” clause!

But in some cases, the state needs to look in the mirror. A good example relates to local protests when a state takes over a failing district. State leaders know the state government is ultimately responsible for making sure kids are well educated. By delegating that work to a single local entity, the state has painted itself into a corner if the district persistently underperforms. The state then feels compelled to take control of the district, but that runs headlong into local control—hence the protests.

This raises a question very much worth pondering: What is the best way to arrange a city’s system of schools given our tradition of local control and the state’s ultimate constitutional obligation?

—Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on Flypaper.



How Family Background Influences Student Achievement

ednext_XVI_2_egalite_img01On the weekend before the Fourth of July 1966, the U.S. Office of Education quietly released a 737-page report that summarized one of the most comprehensive studies of American education ever conducted. Encompassing some 3,000 schools, nearly 600,000 students, and thousands of teachers, and produced by a team led by Johns Hopkins University sociologist James S. Coleman, “Equality of Educational Opportunity” was met with a palpable silence. Indeed, the timing of the release relied on one of the oldest tricks in the public relations playbook—announcing unfavorable results on a major holiday, when neither the American public nor the news media are paying much attention.

To the dismay of federal officials, the Coleman Report had concluded that “schools are remarkably similar in the effect they have on the achievement of their pupils when the socio-economic background of the students is taken into account.” Or, as one sociologist supposedly put it to the scholar-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Have you heard what Coleman is finding? It’s all family.”

The Coleman Report’s conclusions concerning the influences of home and family were at odds with the paradigm of the day. The politically inconvenient conclusion that family background explained more about a child’s achievement than did school resources ran contrary to contemporary priorities, which were focused on improving educational inputs such as school expenditure levels, class size, and teacher quality. Indeed, less than a year before the Coleman Report’s release, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law, dedicating federal funds to disadvantaged students through a Title 1 program that still remains the single largest investment in K–12 education, currently reaching approximately 21 million students at an annual cost of about $14.4 billion.

So what exactly had Coleman uncovered? Differences among schools in their facilities and staffing “are so little related to achievement levels of students that, with few exceptions, their effect fails to appear even in a survey of this magnitude,” the authors concluded.

Zeroing In on Family Background

Family income may have a direct or indirect impact on children’s academic outcomes.

Family income may have a direct or indirect impact on children’s academic outcomes.

Coleman’s advisory panel refused to sign off on the report, citing “methodological concerns” that continue to reverberate. Subsequent research has corroborated the finding that family background is strongly correlated with student performance in school. A correlation between family background and educational and economic success, however, does not tell us whether the relationship between the two is independent of any school impacts. The associations between home life and school performance that Coleman documented may actually be driven by disparities in school or neighborhood quality rather than family influences. Often, families choose their children’s schools by selecting their community or neighborhood, and children whose parents select good schools may benefit as a consequence. In the elusive quest to uncover the determinants of students’ academic success, therefore, it is important to rely on experimental or quasi-experimental research that identifies effects of family background that operate separately and apart from any school effects.

In this essay I look at four family variables that may influence student achievement: family education, family income, parents’ criminal activity, and family structure. I then consider the ways in which schools can offset the effects of these factors.

Parental Education. Better-educated parents are more likely to consider the quality of the local schools when selecting a neighborhood in which to live. Once their children enter a school, educated parents are also more likely to pay attention to the quality of their children’s teachers and may attempt to ensure that their children are adequately served. By participating in parent-teacher conferences and volunteering at school, they may encourage staff to attend to their children’s individual needs.

In addition, highly educated parents are more likely than their less-educated counterparts to read to their children. Educated parents enhance their children’s development and human capital by drawing on their own advanced language skills in communicating with their children. They are more likely to pose questions instead of directives and employ a broader and more complex vocabulary. Estimates suggest that, by age 3, children whose parents receive public assistance hear less than a third of the words encountered by their higher-income peers. As a result, the children of highly educated parents are capable of more complex speech and have more extensive vocabularies before they even start school.

Highly educated parents can also use their social capital to promote their children’s development. A cohesive social network of well-educated individuals socializes children to expect that they too will attain high levels of academic success. It can also transmit cultural capital by teaching children the specific behaviors, patterns of speech, and cultural references that are valued by the educational and professional elite.

In most studies, parental education has been identified as the single strongest correlate of children’s success in school, the number of years they attend school, and their success later in life. Because parental education influences children’s learning both directly and through the choice of a school, we do not know how much of the correlation can be attributed to direct impact and how much to school-related factors. Teasing out the distinct causal impact of parental education is tricky, but given the strong association between parental education and student achievement in every industrialized society, the direct impact is undoubtedly substantial. Furthermore, quasi-experimental strategies have found positive effects of parental education on children’s outcomes. For instance, one study of Korean children adopted into American families shows that the adoptive mother’s education level is significantly associated with the child’s educational attainment.

Even small differences in access to the activities and experiences that are known to promote brain development can accumulate.

Even small differences in access to the activities and experiences that are known to promote brain development can accumulate.

Family Income. As with parental education, family income may have a direct impact on a child’s academic outcomes, or variations in achievement could simply be a function of the school the child attends: parents with greater financial resources can identify communities with higher-quality schools and choose more-expensive neighborhoods—the very places where good schools are likely to be. More-affluent parents can also use their resources to ensure that their children have access to a full range of extracurricular activities at school and in the community.

But it’s not hard to imagine direct effects of income on student achievement. Parents who are struggling economically simply don’t have the time or the wherewithal to check homework, drive children to summer camp, organize museum trips, or help their kids plan for college. Working multiple jobs or inconvenient shifts makes it hard to dedicate time for family dinners, enforce a consistent bedtime, read to infants and toddlers, or invest in music lessons or sports clubs. Even small differences in access to the activities and experiences that are known to promote brain development can accumulate, resulting in a sizable gap between two groups of children defined by family circumstances.

It is challenging to find rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental evidence to disentangle the direct effects of home life from the effects of the school a family selects. While Coleman claimed that family and peers had an effect on student achievement that was distinct from the influence of schools or neighborhoods, his research design was inadequate to support this conclusion. All he was able to show was that family characteristics had a strong correlation with student achievement.

Separating out the independent effects of family education and family income is also difficult. We do not know if low income and financial instability alone can adversely affect children’s behavior, emotional stability, and educational outcomes. Evidence from the negative-income-tax experiments carried out by the federal government between 1968 and 1982 showed only mixed effects of income on children’s outcomes, and subsequent work by the University of Chicago’s Susan Mayer cast doubt on any causal relationship between parental income and child well-being. However, a recent study by Gordon Dahl and Lance Lochner, exploiting quasi-experimental variation in the Earned Income Tax Credit, provides convincing evidence that increases in family income can lift the achievement levels of students raised in low-income working families, even holding other factors constant.

Two percent of U.S. children have a parent in federal or state prison.

Two percent of U.S. children have a parent in federal or state prison.

Parental Incarceration. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 2.3 percent of U.S. children have a parent in federal or state prison. Black children are 7.5 times more likely and Hispanic children 2.5 times more likely than white children to have an incarcerated parent. Incarceration removes a wage earner from the home, lowering household income. One estimate suggests that two-thirds of incarcerated fathers had provided the primary source of family income before their imprisonment. As a result, children with a parent in prison are at greater risk of homelessness, which in turn can have grave consequences: the receipt of social and medical services and assignment to a traditional public school all require a stable home address. The emotional strain of a parent’s incarceration can also take its toll on a child’s achievement in school.

Quantifying the causal effects of parental incarceration has proven challenging, however. While correlational research finds that the odds of finishing high school are 50 percent lower for children with an incarcerated parent, parents who are in prison may have less education, lower income, more limited access to quality schools, and other attributes that adversely affect their children’s success in school. A recent review of 22 studies of the effect of parental incarceration on child well-being concludes that, to date, no research in this area has been able to leverage a natural experiment to produce quasi-experimental estimates. Just how large a causal impact parental incarceration has on children remains an important but largely uncharted topic for future research.

Family Structure. While most American children still live with both of their biological or adoptive parents, family structures have become more diverse in recent years, and living arrangements have grown increasingly complex. In particular, the two-parent family is vanishing among the poor.

ednext_XVI_2_egalite_fig01-smallApproximately two-fifths of U.S. children experience dissolution in their parents’ union by age 15, and two-thirds of this group will see their mother form a new union within six years. Many parents today choose cohabitation over marriage, but the instability of such partnerships is even higher. In the case of nonmarital births, estimates say that 56 percent of fathers will be living away from their child by his or her third birthday. These patterns can have serious implications for a child’s well-being and school success (see Figure 1). Single parents have less time for the enriching activities that Robert Putnam, Harvard professor of public policy, has called “Goodnight Moon” time, after the celebrated bedtime storybook by Margaret Wise Brown. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 1- to 2-year-olds who live with two married parents are read to, on average, 8.5 times per week. The corresponding statistic for their peers living with a single parent is 5.7 times. And it’s likely that dual-parent families in general have many other attributes that affect their children’s educational attainment, mental health, labor market performance, and family formation. More-rigorous quasi-experimental evidence also documents significant negative effects of a father’s absence on children’s educational attainment and social and emotional development, leading to increases in antisocial behavior. These effects are largest for boys.

Recent research by MIT economist David Autor and colleagues generates quasi-experimental estimates of family background by simultaneously accounting for the impact of neighborhood environment and school quality to investigate why boys fare worse than girls in disadvantaged families. Comparing boys to their sisters in a data set that includes more than 1 million children born in Florida between 1992 and 2002, the authors demonstrate a persistent gender gap in graduation and truancy rates, incidence of behavioral and cognitive disabilities, and standardized test scores.

Policies to Counter Family Disadvantage

Policymakers who are weighing competing approaches to countering the influence of family disadvantage face a tough choice: Should they try to improve schools (to overcome the effects of family background) or directly address the effects of family background?

One- to 2-year-olds who live with two married parents are read to, on average, 8.5 times per week.

One- to 2-year-olds who live with two married parents are read to, on average, 8.5 times per week.

The question is critical. If family background is decisive regardless of the quality of the school, then the road to equal opportunity will be long and hard. Increasing the level of parental education is a multigenerational challenge, while reducing the rising disparities in family income would require massive changes in public policy, and reversing the growth in the prevalence of single-parent families would also prove challenging. And, while efforts to reduce incarceration rates are afoot, U.S. crime rates remain among the highest in the world. Given these obstacles, if schools themselves can offset differences in family background, the chances of achieving a more egalitarian society greatly improve.

For these reasons, scholars need to continue to tackle the causality question raised by Coleman’s pathbreaking study. Although the obstacles to causal inference are steep, education researchers should focus on quasi-experimental approaches relying on sibling comparisons, changes in state laws over time, or policy quirks—such as policy implementation timelines that vary across municipalities—that facilitate research opportunities.

Given what is currently known, a holistic approach that simultaneously attempts to strengthen both home and school influences in disadvantaged communities is worthy of further exploration. A number of contemporary and past initiatives point to the potential of this comprehensive approach.

Promise Neighborhoods

“Promise Neighborhoods,” which are funded by a grant program of the U.S. Department of Education, serve distressed communities by delivering a continuum of services through multiple government agencies, nonprofit organizations, churches, and agencies of civil society. These neighborhood initiatives use “wraparound” programs that take a holistic approach to improving the educational achievement of low-income students. The template for the approach is the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a 97-block neighborhood in New York City that combines charter schooling with a full package of social, medical, and community support services. The programs and resources are available to the families at no cost.

Services available in the HCZ include a Baby College, where expectant parents can learn about child development and gain parenting skills; two charter schools and a college success office, which provides individualized counseling and guidance to graduates on university campuses across the country; free legal services, tax preparation, and financial counseling; employment workshops and job fairs; a 50,000-square-foot facility that offers recreational and nutrition classes; and a food services team that provides breakfast, lunch, and a snack every school day to more than 2,000 students.

Research by Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer demonstrates that the impact of attending an HCZ charter middle school on students’ test scores is comparable to the impressive effects seen at  high-performing charter schools such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (known as KIPP schools). Students who win admission by lottery and attend an HCZ school also have higher on-time graduation rates than their peers and are less likely to become teen parents or land in prison. Although some community services are available to HCZ residents only, results show that students who live outside the HCZ experience similar benefits simply from attending the Promise Academy. That is, Dobbie and Fryer do not find any additional benefits associated with the resident-only supplementary services that distinguish the Promise Neighborhoods approach.   (In many instances, the mean scores for children who live within the zone are higher than those for nonresidents, but these differences are not statistically significant.)

There are two caveats to keep in mind in regard to this finding that support the case for continued experimentation with and evaluation of Promise Neighborhoods. First, many of the wraparound services offered in the HCZ are provided through the school and are thus available to HCZ residents and nonresidents alike. For instance, all Promise Academy students receive free nutritious meals; medical, dental, and mental health services; and food baskets for their parents. The services that nonresidents cannot access are things such as tax preparation and financial advising, parenting classes through the Baby College, and job fairs. It may be that both groups of students are accessing the most beneficial supplementary services.

The second caveat is that the HCZ is a “pipeline” model that aims to transform an entire community by targeting services across many different domains. Therefore, we may have to wait until a cohort of students has progressed through that pipeline before we can get a full picture of how these comprehensive services have benefited them. The first cohort to complete the entire HCZ program is expected to graduate from high school in 2020.

The main drawback of the Promise Neighborhoods model is its high cost. To cover the expenses of running the Promise Academy Charter School and the afterschool and wraparound programs, the HCZ spends about $19,272 per pupil. While this price tag is about $3,100 higher than the median per-pupil cost in New York State, it is still about $14,000 lower than what is spent by a district at the 95th percentile. If future research can demonstrate that the HCZ positively influences longer-term outcomes such as college graduation rates, income, and mortality, the model will hold tremendous potential that may well justify its costs.

HCZ is a “pipeline” model that aims to transform an entire community by targeting services across many different domains.

HCZ is a “pipeline” model that aims to transform an entire community by targeting services across many different domains.

Early Childhood Education

Early childhood programs can provide a source of enrichment for needy children, ensuring them a solid start in a world where those with inadequate education are increasingly marginalized. Neuroscientists estimate that about 90 percent of the brain develops between birth and age 5, supporting the case for expanded access to early childhood programs. While the United States spends abundantly on elementary and secondary schoolchildren ($12,401 per student per year in 2013–14 dollars), it devotes dramatically less than other wealthy countries to children in their first few years of life.

Four years before James Coleman released his report, a group of underprivileged, at-risk toddlers at the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan, were randomly selected for a preschool intervention that consisted of daily coaching from highly trained teachers as well as visits to their homes. After just one year, those in the experimental treatment group were registering IQ scores 10 points higher than their peers in the control group. The test-score effects had disappeared by age 10, but follow-up analyses of the Perry Preschool treatment group revealed impressive longer-term outcomes that included a significant increase in their high-school graduation rate and the probability of earning at least $20,000 a year as adults, as well as a 19 percent decrease in their probability of being arrested five or more times. Similar small-scale, “hothouse” preschool experiments in Chicago, upstate New York, and North Carolina have all shown comparable benefits.

Preschoolers at the Harlem Children’s Zone

Preschoolers at the Harlem Children’s Zone

Unfortunately, attempts to scale up such programs have proved challenging. Studies of the Head Start program, for instance, have uncovered mixed evidence of its effectiveness. Modest impacts on students’ cognitive skills mostly fade out by the end of 1st grade. Such results have led many to question whether quality can be consistently maintained when a program such as Head Start is implemented broadly. Indeed, recent research has revealed considerable differences in Head Start’s effectiveness from site to site. Variation in inputs and practices among Head Start centers explains about a third of these differences, a finding that may offer clues as to the contextual factors that influence the program’s varying levels of success.

Although the policymaker’s challenge is to figure out how to expand access to such programs  while preserving quality, evidence suggests that investment in early childhood education has the potential to significantly address disparities that arise from family disadvantage.

Small Schools of Choice 

Traditional public schools assign a child to a given school based exclusively on his family’s place of residence. As Coleman pointed out, residential assignment promotes stratification between schools by family background, because it creates incentives for families of means to move to the “good” school districts. Under this system, schools cannot serve as the equal-opportunity engines of our society. Instead, residential assignment often replicates within the school system the same family advantages and disadvantages that exist in the community.

The most promising social policy for combating the effects of family background, then, could well be the expansion of programs that  allow families to choose schools without regard to their neighborhood of residence.  An analysis of more than 100 small schools of choice in New York City between 2002 and 2008 revealed a 9.5 percent increase in the graduation rate of a group of educationally and economically disadvantaged students, at no extra cost to the city. Positive results have also been observed with respect to student test scores for charter schools in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and New Orleans.

Small schools of choice might also build the social capital that Coleman considered crucial for student success. First, small schools are well positioned to build a strong sense of community through the development of robust student-teacher, parent-teacher, and student-student relationships. Helping students to cultivate dense networks of social relationships better equips them to handle life’s challenges and is particularly vital given the disintegration of many social structures today. While schools may not be able to compensate fully for the disruptive effects of a dysfunctional or unstable family, a robust school culture can transform the “social ecology” of a disadvantaged child.

A small school of choice also engenders a voluntary community that comes together over strong ties and shared values. Typically, schools of choice feature a clearly defined mission and set of core values, which may derive from religious traditions and beliefs. The Notre Dame ACE Academy schools, for instance, strive for the twin goals of preparing students for college and for heaven. By explicitly defining their mission, schools can appeal to families who share their values and are eager to contribute to the growth of the community. A focused mission also helps school administrators attract like-minded teachers and thus promotes staff collegiality. A warm and cohesive teaching staff can be particularly beneficial for children from unstable homes, whose parents may not regularly express emotional closeness or who fail to communicate effectively. Exposure to well-functioning adult role models at school might compensate for such deficits, promoting well-being and positive emotional development.

Implications for Policy

Determining the causal relationships between family background and child well-being has posed a daunting challenge. Family characteristics are often tightly correlated with features of the neighborhood environment, making it difficult to determine the independent influences of each. But getting a solid understanding of causality is critical to the debate over whether to intervene inside or outside of school.

The results of quasi-experimental research, as well as common sense, tell us that children who grow up in stable, well-resourced families have significant advantages over their peers who do not—including access to better schools and other educational services. Policies that place schools at center stage have the potential to disrupt the cycle of economic disadvantage to ensure that children born into poverty aren’t excluded from the American dream.

In opening our eyes to the role of family background in the creation of inequality, Coleman wasn’t suggesting that we shrug our shoulders and learn to live with it. But in attacking the achievement gap, as his research would imply, we need to mobilize not only our schools but also other institutions. Promise Neighborhoods offer cradle-to-career supports to help children successfully navigate the challenges of growing up. Early childhood programs provide intervention at a critical time, when children’s brains take huge leaps in development. Finally, small schools of choice can help to build a strong sense of community, which could particularly benefit inner-city neighborhoods where traditional institutions have been disintegrating.

Schools alone can’t level the vast inequalities that students bring to the schoolhouse door, but a combination of school programs, social services, community organizations, and civil society could make a major difference. Ensuring that all kids, regardless of family background, have a decent chance of doing better than their parents is an important societal and policy goal. Innovative approaches such as those outlined here could help us achieve it.

Anna J. Egalite is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at the College of Education, North Carolina State University. 

Using Blended Learning to Design Schools that Motivate Students














In the book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve SchoolsMichael B. Horn and Heather Staker offer a practical guide to implementing blended learning techniques in K-12 classrooms. In this excerpt, they explain how blended learning makes it possible to organize schools around the things students care most about: accomplishing something and having fun with their friends, and how Summit Public Schools, a California charter network, has reimagined middle and high school along these lines. Michael Horn is co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, and Heather Staker, adjunct fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, is founder and president of ReadytoBlend.

9781118955154_MF.pdfWhen schools get the design right from the students’ perspective, so they feel that school aligns well with the things that matter to them, students show up to school motivated and eager to learn. The first task for blended-learning teams therefore is to understand the student perspective and to design with student motivation as a guiding star.

Schools are not alone in struggling to design an offering that their end users will willingly show up to devour. More than 75 percent of new products introduced each year fail, and that’s true even if they are backed by big companies, popular brand names, and aggressive advertising.

Companies struggle so desperately to predict whether a customer in a given demographic category will buy a new product because from the customer’s perspective the market is not structured by customer or product category. [5] Customers just find themselves needing to get things done. They have “jobs” that arise regularly that demand resolution, so they look around for a product or service that they can “hire” to help them out. This is how customers experience life.

Students’ Jobs to Be Done

Similar to people who deprioritize the job of “maintain my physical health,” many students languish in school or do not come to class at all because education isn’t a job that they are trying to do. Education is something they might choose to hire to do that job—but it isn’t the job. Teachers can work extraordinarily hard to improve the features of their products, in the hope that more engaging lessons, media, and student-response clickers will improve student motivation. But their efforts are in vain if they are aimed at providing an even better way for students to do something that they were never trying to do in the first place. Of course, schools can try punishments and rewards to coerce students to learn. Ultimately, however, if this is the best school can offer, many students will hire other solutions to solve the problems that arise in their lives, and school will descend to a lower and lower priority.

This is not to say that a school should not instill in students certain core knowledge, skills, and dispositions; rather, that in order to accomplish these objectives, the school must create an experience that is intrinsically motivating for students. School can be a place where students find joy in learning. The key is to crawl into the learners’ skin and see their circumstances—including their anxieties, immediate problems, and innate motivations—from their point of view. The jobs-to-be-done theory is a tool to help you do that.

We have observed that there are two core jobs that are the highest priority for most students. First, they want to feel successful. They want to feel that they are making progress and accomplishing something, rather than experiencing nothing but repeated failure or running up against walls. [9] Second, they want to have fun with friends. That means they want positive, rewarding social experiences with others, including with peers, teachers, coaches, advisors, and other potential friends.

Fulfilling the Job for Students

Summit Public Schools, a charter school network based in Redwood City, California, stands out as among the most groundbreaking innovators. Several years ago, a group of parents in Silicon Valley came together to reimagine the middle and high school experience, with the goal of radically improving student readiness for college and for life after school. They hired Diane Tavenner, a former assistant principal at Mountain View High School, to launch Summit Public Schools and serve as its CEO. Diane opened Summit’s flagship school in 2003, and has since added five additional schools, which serve roughly 1,600 students in grades 6 through 12.

By 2011 Summit had already achieved national acclaim. Newsweek listed it as one of the top ten most transformational high schools in America, and its schools consistently outperformed their peers on California’s Academic Performance Index (API). [13] But that fall, the network’s leaders decided to make a change. They were concerned about data that showed that although nearly all of Summit’s students had gone on to college, some students were struggling when they arrived there. [14] The leaders began thinking about ways to design a set of experiences that better prepared students with the content knowledge, cognitive skills, habits of success, and real-world practice necessary to thrive in college and beyond. At first they experimented with a Station Rotation model for math at two of their schools, but over time they evolved to deliver a much more personalized, Flex model for all subjects across all the Summit schools. Their efforts are already paying off, they report, even as they continue to experiment, learn, and iterate accordingly.

Summit’s SMART goal is to personalize learning so that 100 percent of its students are prepared to succeed in college and life. To get there, it developed experiences that help students want to hire education so that they show up ready to learn. For the purposes of this chapter, we describe eight meta-experiences that Summit identified as critical from the students’ perspective.

1. Student agency. Summit believes that for students to feel successful and make progress every day, one essential element is empowering them to set individual learning goals for their own personal learning plans and then providing them with enough time and the right processes each day to make progress toward those individualized goals. Faculty believe students need to experience making personal decisions about the direction of their learning and choosing from multiple options to learn the required concepts. Summit even extends this to incorporating student feedback into improving its school design and asking students to rate the menu of lessons its teachers develop.

2. Individual mastery. Summit’s faculty think that students should make progress as quickly or slowly as they are able to demonstrate their preparedness to move on, and that each student’s pace should be individual, not collective. As Tavenner says, when you realize how irrational the current system of schooling is—in which students advance based on time regardless of whether they have mastered material, which has significant repercussions for their odds of success on future work—and then you give students a rational, competency-based schooling system—one that just makes sense because it is set up for them to be successful—they want more of it. Inherent in this concept is that students work on skills that are “just above” their own current capabilities: not too difficult and not too easy, with occasional opportunities to stretch or challenge themselves. [15]

3. Access to actionable data and rapid feedback. Following from the emphasis on student agency and individual mastery, Summit decided that giving students rapid feedback and data about their performance would be a critical experience for them to accomplish their job of feeling successful. Without data, students would not know how they were doing and what they needed to do to be successful. But armed with data and rapid feedback that was actionable—meaning students could use it to figure out where they needed to do more work and improve their performance—students would be able to achieve success. [16] Having data also helps students have positive experiences with their friends—from fellow peers to teachers—because they can collaborate productively on how to make progress.

4. Transparency in learning goals. To help students understand what success means, Summit thinks it is also important to provide students with a clear view of what they are trying to achieve, not just in the course of a given unit but over their entire academic career at Summit. This means that students should have not only a clear picture of what competencies they will be expected to master but also a sense of the time frame in which they must master those competencies to stay on track to realize their broader goals for success in life.

5. Sustained periods of quiet, solitary reading time. Although having opportunities for students to engage in productive group work is vital—so students can master teamwork skills, but also to help students have fun with friends—Summit’s philosophy is that all too often schools overlook the importance of providing students with quiet time when they can immerse themselves in a book. Students often do not have this type of an experience at home, and without this opportunity they may struggle to build the reading capacity they need to be successful in so many other parts of their schooling. Training students to set apart time for extended focus on a book is an important experience that Summit believes is necessary for students to fulfill their success job. [17]

6. Meaningful work experiences. Summit’s theory is that students are more likely to hire school when their experiences there help them connect the acquisition of knowledge with the ability to be successful in life. School is better when it feels relevant. As Tavenner says, students are smart. They will opt out of something that they know is not what schools say it is if it does not appear to help get them where they want to go. In many cases, this means that schools have to help students understand the range of career opportunities and life pathways that are possible so that they can develop a broader notion of what they might want to do when they grow up—beyond what the adults in their immediate lives have done—and to see how learning would be critical to achieving those goals. Incorporated in this experience is not only connecting what students do as part of their schooling to what and why it will make them successful, but also giving students the opportunity to work—and have fun—with friends, teachers, and others in the community.

7. Mentoring experiences. Mentoring is a big deal at Summit. School leaders knew that mentors would be vital to help students make progress toward rigorous but attainable goals and that students would benefit from that social relationship if the mentors were good. Summit views mentorship as a critical part of helping students learn to build social capital—or networks of people—that students can use to achieve success throughout their lives.

8. Positive group experiences. Summit also believes that students must have positive group experiences in which they work with others to tackle hard projects and discuss issues that are of importance to them. Fostering these experiences helps students have fun with their friends and builds their capacity to relate to and get along with others.

What to Integrate, and How

To create the experiences of student agency and individual mastery, Summit believed there was no available software that provided the right functionality. So it partnered with several organizations—the Girard Education Foundation, an education philanthropy based in San Diego; Illuminate Education, a student data platform company; and the Alvo Institute, a company that helps schools design blended-learning environments—to create new software called Activate Instruction. This free online tool gives students access to a variety of learning resources curated by teachers and organized by competency in what it calls “playlists.” Students working on Activate have multiple options—from online videos to articles and games—for how they learn any given competency through the playlists.

This in turn allows Summit to offer students eight hours a week in school and eight hours a week at home of what it calls Personalized Learning Time. During this time, students cycle through the process that the following figure illustrates. They set learning goals for the week; develop a plan to achieve the goals using Activate’s playlists; and work through the plan. When they feel ready, they can take assessments, which are available on demand, to show evidence that they have mastered the concepts or skills. That means that if students already believe they understand a concept, they can take an assessment at the outset and skip ahead. If they fail, then they work through their individual playlist until they are capable of showing evidence of mastery.


After taking assessments, students receive pass/fail feedback, as well as a detailed explanation of their performance. This short-cycle feedback loop allows students not only to make progress—and feel ownership of their progress—in steady, frequent increments, but also to have access to actionable data. With these data in hand, each Friday students sit down with their mentors to reflect on their weekly progress, how they feel about their learning experience, what worked well, and what to improve.

Because students can progress as fast as they master material, Summit had to create, up front, a coherent scope, suggested sequence, and associated playlists of resources for the entire set of competencies a student should master—meaning all the way through high school. That means for teachers, there is no lesson planning the night before. The ancillary benefit of this is that Summit posts this scope and sequence in its software so that students can see what’s ahead. Summit even has a graphical line in its student-facing data system that moves with the calendar to help students see where they should be in their learning if they want to complete high school on time and that allows them to make adjustments accordingly.

To give students sustained periods of quiet, solitary reading time, the school created Summit Reads, a block of time each day for students to free read. Summit uses an e-reading platform, called Curriculet, during this period, to deliver texts that contain a layer of embedded questions, quizzes, and rich media annotations. Curriculet allows Summit teachers to test for understanding in real time and provides them with a dashboard to view quiz results, time on task, and other metrics that help them coach more effectively.

Summit uses these experiences to free up large blocks of time for students to tackle “deeper learning” through project-based learning, which Summit believes is uniquely capable of accomplishing the dual purpose of helping students fulfill their jobs to be done and also helping Summit fulfill its own job of ensuring that 100 percent of students have the cognitive skills and habits of success necessary to succeed in college and life. Exhibit 5.1 shows a typical daily schedule for a Summit student and how project-based learning figures prominently into the day.

Exhibit 5.1

A Day in the Life of a Summit Public Schools Student

7:30 Begin to arrive; work on personalized learning plan
8:25 Schools start with project time (math and science)
10:20 Break
10:35 Personalized Learning Time
11:35 PE or sustained reading time (using Curriculet)
12:35 Lunch and recess outside
1:20 Project time (English and history)
3:15 School ends; can stay and work on personalized learning plan

Note: On Fridays, the student spends most of the day on a personalized learning plan and has a one-on-one check-in with her mentor.

In addition, Summit provides its students with eight weeks a year of “Expeditions,” in which students learn largely off-campus in the real world. Students explore their passions in everything from elective courses to real internships to learn about career options. Expeditions give students the chance to build strong relationships with their Expedition teachers and people in outside community organizations. Summit also has an internal mentorship program, which consists of weekly ten-minute, student-led, one-on-one meetings with an assigned teacher who becomes a student’s academic coach, college counselor, family liaison, and advocate. Students lead one to three meetings a year with their mentor and family. Each teacher mentors roughly fifteen students per year.

Finally, both the expeditions and project-based learning provide students with ample time for positive group experiences. Summit supplements this with forty-five minutes per week of community time, in which students meet together in small groups to engage in discussions about issues important to them.

Schools like Summit are taking advantage of two breakthroughs to make it easier for them to integrate the right academic and social experiences from a student jobs-to-be-done perspective. First, online content is improving such that it is gradually becoming capable of serving as the backbone for student learning in some courses and subjects for some students. As schools are able to deliver content via online platforms, teachers are left with more time and energy to devote to creating the most positive, interactive learning experiences possible for students on their campuses. Summit teachers are able to invest more time in one-on-one mentoring because they are no longer focused on their next lecture. Instead, they can turn their attention to developing students’ habits of success by creating deep personal relationships with students. Second, in some cases online content is accelerating the mastery of basic skills and compressing the amount of time spent on them. This opens up blocks of time for activities like project time and Socratic discussions, which not only help schools accomplish their job of developing articulate, critical thinkers, but also, conveniently, help students fulfill their job of having fun with friends.

5. This section and the next two sections of Chapter 5 are based largely on Disrupting Class, Chapter 7.
9. There are several points of evidence supporting this observation. First, when we use the phrase “want to feel successful,” we do not mean the kind of surface-level idea of success that constitutes praising a child no matter how she performed on a given activity, under the mistaken idea that building “self-esteem” in this vein is a good idea. Instead, we mean true success, when the student in fact accomplishes and achieves something real and makes progress. A discussion of the perils of the former can be found in George Will’s discussion of Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. See George F. Will, “How to Ruin a Child: Too Much Esteem, Too Little Sleep,” Washington Post, March 4, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/03/AR2010030303075.html. Further evidence that feeling successful is a primary job of students—and of all people—emerges from the field of cognitive science. As Daniel T. Willingham writes in Chapter 1 of his book Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009):
Solving problems brings pleasure. When I say “problem solving” in this book, I mean any cognitive work that succeeds; it might be understanding a difficult passage of prose, planning a garden, or sizing up an investment opportunity. There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking. In the last ten years neuroscientists have discovered that there is overlap between the brain areas and chemicals that are important in learning and those that are important in the brain’s natural reward system…. Many neuroscientists suspect that the two systems are related. Rats in a maze learn better when rewarded with cheese. When you solve a problem, your brain may reward itself with a small dose of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical that is important to the brain’s pleasure system. Neuroscientists know that dopamine is important in both systems—learning and pleasure—but haven’t yet worked out the explicit tie between them. Even though the neurochemistry is not completely understood, it seems undeniable that people take pleasure in solving problems…. It’s notable too that the pleasure is in the solving of the problem. Working on a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable.
In addition, in a book by Susan A. Ambrose, Michele DiPetro, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman,How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), the authors cite several other studies that support this hypothesis. In particular, the authors dedicate a chapter to the research on motivation, in which they summarize that “When students find positive value in a learning goal or activity, expect to successfully achieve a desired learning outcome, and perceive support from their environment, they are likely to be strongly motivated to learn.” In particular, they write, “there are two important concepts that are central to understanding motivation: (1) the subjective value of a goal and (2) the expectancies, or expectations for successful attainment of that goal. Although many theories have been offered to explain motivation, most position these two concepts at the core of their framework (Atkinson, 1957, 1964; Wigfield & Eccles, 1992, 2000).” The ability to experience success, in other words, is one of the central underpinnings of motivation. As the authors write, “Although one must value a desired outcome in order to be motivated to pursue it, value alone is insufficient to motivate behavior. People are also motivated to pursue goals and outcomes that they believe they can successfully achieve.”
Richard E. Mayer and Ruth C. Clark, in their book eLearning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning Second Edition (San Francisco: Wiley, 2008), also discuss how learners experience enjoyment as they successfully solve problems. As Barbara Gaddy Carrio, Richard A. DeLorenzo, Wendy J. Battino, and Rick M. Schreiber note in Delivering on the Promise: The Education Revolution (Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2009), “A fundamental principle of the RISC Approach to Schooling is that student motivation and engagement have a great deal to do with student success.”
What is distinct about understanding motivation from the jobs-to-be-done perspective is that we learn that all students are motivated to feel success; but for many, school is not something they can hire to experience success. Therefore students often turn to other avenues, but that does not mean these students are unmotivated.
13. “High School Rankings 2011: Newsweek Ranks America’s Most Transformative,” Newsweek, June 21, 2011, http://www.newsweek.com/high-school-rankings-2011-newsweek-ranks-americas-most-transformative-67911 (accessed December 26, 2013). Many people also know Summit Public Schools from its starring role in the documentaryWaiting for Superman.
14. Matt Wilka and Jeff Cohen, “It’s Not Just About the Model: Blended Learning, Innovation, and Year 2 at Summit Public Schools,” FSG, http://www.fsg.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/PDF/Blended_Learning_Innovation.pdf. Incidentally, the percentage of Summit Public School’s former students who were succeeding in college—55 percent—was far higher than the national average, but Diane and the school’s teachers felt strongly that their mission was to educate all students to be successful in life. If any students were failing in college because they were not prepared adequately in any way, then they believed they were not meeting that mission.
15. There is considerable evidence that, as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham writes, “Working on problems that are of the right level of difficult is rewarding, but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant.” A key to helping students experience success is borrowing a concept from the world of gaming and allowing students to learn at the point that will maximize their chances of success while still being sufficiently challenging or interesting that they will experience that triumph as a real moment of progress so that they will want to keep learning. Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for Your Classroom, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), Ch. 1.
This idea relates to the notion of the Zone of Proximal Development, which was developed by Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist. See the Wikipedia entry, “Zone of proximal development,” for a high-level summary of the concept athttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_proximal_development#cite_note-4(accessed April 7, 2010). An often-cited definition of this term is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers,” as written in his own work (see L. S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes [Cambridge: Harvard, 1978], p. 86).
In addition, the gaming industry teaches us that people are most motivated when success is almost within reach, but still on the horizon. William “Bing” Gordon, a top executive in the video game industry, said that “one principal of gamification is you only get motivated when you’re 90 percent of the way to success.” Kevin Werbach, “Gamification” course, Coursera, https://class.coursera.org/gamification-003/lecture (accessed April 13, 2014), timecode: 07:37.
16. Data and feedback are not always good for learning. When a student receives feedback but cannot do anything useful with that feedback, it has a negative influence on student learning. Conversely, when the student can do something with the data, then it has a positive impact on learning. According to Delivering on the Promise: The Education Revolution(Kindle Locations), pp. 1624–1630:
Relative to student feedback, findings from research might best be summed up by saying that feedback in and of itself is not necessarily useful. In fact, the long-used practice of simply telling students which answers are right and which are wrong (a practice with which most readers likely have considerable firsthand experience) has a negative influence on student learning (see Bangert-Drowns, Kulik, Kulik, & Morgan [1991], cited in Marzano, 2006). Conversely, ensuring that students are clear about the criteria that will be used to judge their responses, providing students with the correct answers, giving them explanations about why their responses were correct or incorrect, and asking students to continue responding to an assessment item until they correctly answer are all practices that research shows can result in statistically significant gains in student achievement (Marzano, 2006).
17. More researchers are worrying that the practice of scanning and skimming when people read online is having a negative impact on the ability of people to read longer texts and engage in deeper reading. See Michael S. Rosenwald, “Serious Reading Takes a Hit from Online Scanning and Skimming, Researchers Say,” Washington Post, April 6, 2014 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/serious-reading-takes-a-hit-from-online-scanning-and-skimming-researchers-say/2014/04/06/088028d2-b5d2–11e3-b899–20667de76985_story.html). We also recommend this thoughtful response to this article: Dan Willingham, “Don’t Blame the Internet: We Can Still Think and Read Critically, We Just Don’t Want To,” RealClearEducation, April 16, 2014 (http://www.realcleareducation.com/articles/2014/04/16/dont_blame_the_web_we_can_still_think_and_read_critically_we_just_dont_want_to_942.html).

Ali Carr-Chellman: “Gaming to re-engage boys in learning”

(Link to her Ted Talk about the subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/ali_carr_chellman_gaming_to_re_engage_boys_in_learning?language=en)

So I’m here to tell you that we have a problem with boys, and it’s a serious problem with boys. Their culture isn’t working in schools, and I’m going to share with you ways that we can think about overcoming that problem. First, I want to start by saying, this is a boy, and this is a girl, and this is probably stereotypically what you think of as a boy and a girl. If I essentialize gender for you today, then you can dismiss what I have to say. So I’m not going to do that. I’m not interested in doing that. This is a different kind of boy and a different kind of girl. So the point here is that not all boys exist within these rigid boundaries of what we think of as boys and girls, and not all girls exist within those rigid boundariesof what we think of as girls. But, in fact, most boys tend to be a certain way, and most girls tend to be a certain way. And the point is that, for boys, the way that they exist and the culture that they embrace isn’t working well in schools now.

01:08How do we know that? The Hundred Girls Project tells us some really nice statistics. For example, for every 100 girls that are suspended from school, there are 250 boys that are suspended from school. For every 100 girls who are expelled from school, there are 335 boys who are expelled from school. For every 100 girls in special education, there are 217 boys. For every 100 girls with a learning disability, there are 276 boys. For every 100 girls with an emotional disturbance diagnosed, we have 324 boys. And by the way, all of these numbers are significantly higher if you happen to be black, if you happen to be poor, if you happen to exist in an overcrowded school. And if you are a boy, you’re four times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD — Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

02:02Now there is another side to this. And it is important that we recognize that women still need help in school, that salaries are still significantly lower, even when controlled for job types, and that girls have continued to struggle in math and science for years. That’s all true. Nothing about that prevents us from paying attention to the literacy needs of our boys between ages three and 13. And so we should. In fact, what we ought to do is take a page from their playbook, because the initiatives and programs that have been set in place for women in science and engineering and mathematics are fantastic. They’ve done a lot of good for girls in these situations, and we ought to be thinking about how we can make that happen for boys too in their younger years.

02:50Even in their older years, what we find is that there’s still a problem. When we look at the universities, 60 percent of baccalaureate degrees are going to women now, which is a significant shift. And in fact, university administrators are a little uncomfortable about the idea that we may be getting close to 70 percent female population in universities. This makes university administrators very nervous, because girls don’t want to go to schools that don’t have boys. And so we’re starting to see the establishment of men centers and men studies to think about how do we engage men in their experiences in the university.If you talk to faculty, they may say, “Ugh. Yeah, well, they’re playing video games, and they’re gambling online all night long, and they’re playing World of Warcraft, and that’s affecting their academic achievement.” Guess what? Video games are not the cause. Video games are a symptom. They were turned off a long time before they got here.

03:52So let’s talk about why they got turned off when they were between the ages of three and 13. There are three reasons that I believe that boys are out of sync with the culture of schools today. The first is zero tolerance. A kindergarten teacher I know, her son donated all of his toys to her, and when he did, she had to go through and pull out all the little plastic guns. You can’t have plastic knives and swords and axesand all that kind of thing in a kindergarten classroom. What is it that we’re afraid that this young man is going to do with this gun? I mean, really. But here he stands as testament to the fact that you can’t roughhouse on the playground today. Now I’m not advocating for bullies. I’m not suggesting that we need to be allowing guns and knives into school. But when we say that an Eagle Scout in a high school classroom who has a locked parked car in the parking lot and a penknife in it has to be suspended from school, I think we may have gone a little too far with zero tolerance.

04:55Another way that zero tolerance lives itself out is in the writing of boys. In a lot of classrooms today you’re not allowed to write about anything that’s violent. You’re not allowed to write about anything that has to do with video games — these topics are banned. Boy comes home from school, and he says, “I hate writing.” “Why do you hate writing, son? What’s wrong with writing?” “Now I have to write what she tells me to write.” “Okay, what is she telling you to write?” “Poems. I have to write poems. And little moments in my life. I don’t want to write that stuff.” “All right. Well, what do you want to write? What do you want to write about?” “I want to write about video games. I want to write about leveling-up. I want to write about this really interesting world. I want to write about a tornado that comes into our house and blows all the windows out and ruins all the furniture and kills everybody.” “All right. Okay.” You tell a teacher that, and they’ll ask you, in all seriousness, “Should we send this child to the psychologist?” And the answer is no, he’s just a boy. He’s just a little boy. It’s not okay to write these kinds of things in classrooms today.

06:00So that’s the first reason: zero tolerance policies and the way they’re lived out. The next reason that boys’ cultures are out of sync with school cultures: there are fewer male teachers. Anybody who’s over 15 doesn’t know what this means, because in the last 10 years, the number of elementary school classroom teachers has been cut in half. We went from 14 percent to seven percent. That means that 93 percent of the teachers that our young men get in elementary classrooms are women. Now what’s the problem with this? Women are great. Yep, absolutely. But male role models for boys that say it’s all right to be smart —they’ve got dads, they’ve got pastors, they’ve got Cub Scout leaders, but ultimately, six hours a day, five days a week they’re spending in a classroom, and most of those classrooms are not places where men exist. And so they say, I guess this really isn’t a place for boys. This is a place for girls. And I’m not very good at this, so I guess I’d better go play video games or get into sports, or something like that, because I obviously don’t belong here. Men don’t belong here, that’s pretty obvious.

07:06So that may be a very direct way that we see it happen. But less directly, the lack of male presence in the culture — you’ve got a teachers’ lounge, and they’re having a conversation about Joey and Johnny who beat each other up on the playground. “What are we going to do with these boys?” The answer to that question changes depending on who’s sitting around that table. Are there men around that table? Are there moms who’ve raised boys around that table? You’ll see, the conversation changes depending upon who’s sitting around the table.

07:36Third reason that boys are out of sync with school today: kindergarten is the old second grade, folks. We have a serious compression of the curriculum happening out there. When you’re three, you better be able to write your name legibly, or else we’ll consider it a developmental delay. By the time you’re in first grade, you should be able to read paragraphs of text with maybe a picture, maybe not, in a book of maybe 25 to 30 pages. If you don’t, we’re probably going to be putting you into a Title 1 special reading program. And if you ask Title 1 teachers, they’ll tell you they’ve got about four or five boys for every girl that’s in their program, in the elementary grades.

08:11The reason that this is a problem is because the message that boys are getting is “you need to do what the teacher asks you to do all the time.” The teacher’s salary depends on “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” and accountability and testing and all of this. So she has to figure out a way to get all these boys through this curriculum — and girls. This compressed curriculum is bad for all active kids. And what happens is, she says, “Please, sit down, be quiet, do what you’re told, follow the rules, manage your time, focus, be a girl.” That’s what she tells them. Indirectly, that’s what she tells them. And so this is a very serious problem. Where is it coming from? It’s coming from us. (Laughter) We want our babies to read when they are six months old. Have you seen the ads? We want to live in Lake Wobegon where every child is above average, but what this does to our children is really not healthy. It’s not developmentally appropriate, and it’s particularly bad for boys.

09:24So what do we do? We need to meet them where they are. We need to put ourselves into boy culture. We need to change the mindset of acceptance in boys in elementary schools. More specifically, we can do some very specific things. We can design better games. Most of the educational games that are out there today are really flashcards. They’re glorified drill and practice. They don’t have the depth, the rich narrative that really engaging video games have, that the boys are really interested in. So we need to design better games. We need to talk to teachers and parents and school board members and politicians. We need to make sure that people see that we need more men in the classroom. We need to look carefully at our zero tolerance policies. Do they make sense? We need to think about how to uncompress this curriculum if we can, trying to bring boys back into a space that is comfortable for them.All of those conversations need to be happening.

10:20There are some great examples out there of schools — the New York Times just talked about a school recently. A game designer from the New School put together a wonderful video gaming school. But it only treats a few kids, and so this isn’t very scalable. We have to change the culture and the feelings that politicians and school board members and parents have about the way we accept and what we accept in our schools today. We need to find more money for game design. Because good games, really good games, cost money, and World of Warcraft has quite a budget. Most of the educational games do not.Where we started: my colleagues — Mike Petner, Shawn Vashaw, myself — we started by trying to look at the teachers’ attitudes and find out how do they really feel about gaming, what do they say about it. And we discovered that they talk about the kids in their school, who talk about gaming, in pretty demeaning ways. They say, “Oh, yeah. They’re always talking about that stuff. They’re talking about their little action figures and their little achievements or merit badges, or whatever it is that they get. And they’re always talking about this stuff.” And they say these things as if it’s okay. But if it were your culture, think of how that might feel. It’s very uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of that kind of language. They’re nervous about anything that has anything to do with violence because of the zero tolerance policies. They are sure that parents and administrators will never accept anything.

11:45So we really need to think about looking at teacher attitudes and finding ways to change the attitudes so that teachers are much more open and accepting of boy cultures in their classrooms. Because, ultimately, if we don’t, then we’re going to have boys who leave elementary school saying, “Well I guess that was just a place for girls. It wasn’t for me. So I’ve got to do gaming, or I’ve got to do sports.” If we change these things, if we pay attention to these things, and we re-engage boys in their learning, they will leave the elementary schools saying, “I’m smart.”

New York City sued by students and parents over school violence

This article is tell tale of our society today, this is not only a NYC issue it is an issue nationally of how we educate our urban youth.
Nearly a dozen students and their parents have filed a class-action lawsuit against New York City claiming public schools are so dangerous that it has deprived them of their constitutional right to an education.

The federal complaint, filed in Brooklyn on Wednesday against the U.S. Department of Education, asserted that the “staggering” level of violence in city schools disproportionately affected minority students.

“The violence knows few boundaries, except that, on average, white and Asian students encounter far fewer incidents of school violence than black and Hispanic students,” the lawsuit said. It also claimed that younger students, disabled students and gay, lesbian and transgender students are targeted more frequently for abuse.

New York has the nation’s largest public school system, with 1.1 million students in some 1,800 schools.

The children who are plaintiffs in the case suffered bullying or attacks by other students and in some cases by their teachers, the lawsuit said.

The parents and their children, who were not identified by name, accused the education department of failing to enforce regulations aimed at addressing violence between students or between teachers and students. Students who report such incidents often experience retaliation from their schools, the lawsuit said.

In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he shared the concerns of all students and parents about safety in New York City schools but maintained that conditions have improved in recent years.

“I was a public school parent as recently as last June, and we never want to see a weapon in schools. I view each incidents as obviously troubling. However, when we look at the facts, school safety is doing a very good job continuing a trend that started in the last administration and continues.”

Major crime in schools is down more than 14 percent in 2016, and other crimes have been reduced by nearly 7 percent, he said.

The lawsuit seeks to mandate new anti-bullying and anti-violence regulations and to force the education department to enforce policies already on the books.

A spokesman for the city’s law department said it was reviewing the complaint.

The plaintiffs also include Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter school organization.



Why Education Needs Disruption

On Collaboration As An Industry

Hopefully we can agree that education–as it exists–isn’t good enough. I know this is a tired argument, but it’s an underlying assumption of this concept: education needs reform. Iteration. Evolution. Transformation. Whatever word reflects the level of urgency you’d assign it all.It’s curious that in seeking this evolution, we turn to the product of the system rather than the systems themselves. We criticize the egg instead of understanding the chicken. Of course, the bits and pieces–the gears–of that chicken are complex to the point of obscurity. This makes self-correction through iteration–the current model for ed reform–a challenge.And this in lieu of so much creativity and knowledge and expertise out there because these same experts get behind the machine and push. We seek approval from the same power holders and institutions that nod their heads yes or shakes their heads no, not realizing it is their way of thinking that got us in this mess. We seek change not just from within, but from above.In response, we need collaboration between and across innovators and experts that is disruptive even if it’s simple for the sake of disrupting. Make noise. Draw attention. Walk into a movie theater and scream “fire!” Unplug the television. Turn off the WiFi, because this whole thing isn’t getting anywhere quickly.

Disruption in general is about unsettling, and is often thought of in terms of chaos. Disruptive collaboration is working together to force change. It’s the artful unsettling of that which has become inartistic. Reconfiguring systems that can no longer see themselves, or replacing them altogether. It’s about shifting the locus of control.

On Collaboration In Thought

We could talk about helping our students collaborate disruptively–and we should–but most immediately, this is about teaching and learning. As educators, we should first want our thinking disrupted–taken apart and criticized and handed back to us in pieces. And not as contrarians, but equal partners seeking to understand one another.

We should seek collaboration that torpedoes our ideas–and the ideas of the power holders up top that have shut off their innovation trying to please the folks above them–and then emerges on the other side a kind of hybrid of what we think together. And then want it all to disappear and only come back to us in bits and pieces that we can’t recognize as my thinking, but only thought.

We should want to stop seeing ourselves or the people we collaborate as having ideas, but ideas having people so that the stink of bias and diplomacy and friendliness and compliancy is swapped for careful thinking that actually stands a chance to survive the whole clumsy process.

And once these ideas are articulated and broken apart and transparent and nobody’s thinking, let’s color them with the wonderful stain of idea exchange so that we can own them as a whole thing ourselves. And then we can produce something of worth together.

On Collaboration & Its Products

We should want the product of our collaboration to be disruptive, too. Existing systems already have their own momentum and don’t need our help. They don’t need our hashtags or likes or affection. They’ve yielded the context that necessitates our collaboration to begin with.

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. So let’s build something that offers viable alternatives for everyone–especially those marginalized by the system that exists. Let’s stop demanding rigor and accountability, and instead create something ourselves that is scalable beyond the walls of your school, or the reach of the concept of “academia” that continues to haunt learning everywhere. Something that thinks not in a pattern of school->curriculum–>content–>proficiency, but instead person–>learning–>knowledge–>lots of people–>lots of learning–>social capacity–>wisdom.

Let’s connect and build something that doesn’t serve you or the past or what’s already here butothers and the here and now. Let’s build something we’ve never had–and do so by empowering everyone that’s a part of this.

Something that isn’t built to make your school or classroom spin faster, but rather is built for the real work of understanding something.

Everything You Need to Know About Minecraft

Everything You Need to Know About Minecraft

If your kid has been swept up in the Minecraft craze, you’ve probably come to realize that resistance is futile. It isn’t only the game itself that kids obsess over. There are Minecraft YouTube videos, a whole Minecraft language, Minecraft-like games, and more.

Get the know-how you need to engage with your kid on one of the coolest games out there.

Minecraft Games Age Guide
One of the best-selling, independently developed and published video games, Minecraft immerses kids in creative thinking, geometry, and even a little geology as they build imaginative block structures. Here’s the scoop on the games that make up Minecraft‘s offerings:

  • Minecraft, age 8; platforms: Linux, Mac, Windows, Xbox 360
    Minecraft is an open-ended, exploration- and creation-focused environment. Players can create items and buildings from scratch using materials they harvest from the world around them. Given carte blanche to sculpt virtually any creation of their choice in this 3-D space, kids can try tons of possibilities while working toward simple objectives. An option to work with others on larger building projects can help kids develop collaboration skills.
  • Minecraft – Pocket Edition, age 8; devices: iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android, Kindle Fire
    Minecraft – Pocket Edition is a mobile version of the popular PC game. Players can build essentially anything in this game, so long as they’re able to mine the appropriate resources.
  • Minecraft: Story Mode, age 10; platforms: Mac, Nintendo Wii U, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Windows, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iPhone
    Though part of the fun of Minecraft is creating the story as you go along, Story mode offers a story line, characters, and plot for kids who prefer a narrative. This game offers positive messages about teamwork and diplomacy, and its learning curve isn’t as steep as the original.

Minecraft Basics 
Minecraft comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities for parents. Learn the lingo, discover the most important aspects of the game, and get tips on managing your kid’s playtime.

Minecraft on YouTube
Since Minecraft is a game that spans many ages — and has infinite possibilities — not all YouTube videos will be appropriate for your kid. Here are some of our faves for young players.

  • Wonder Quest (for age 6+)
    This YouTube program is inspired by Minecraft, and its central character hails from creator Joseph Garrett’s other Internet hit, Stampylonghead. The videos do an excellent job blending comedy, adventure, and quality educational content under the premise of its heroes’ efforts to thwart a villain’s plan and return a collection of gems to their town. There are even social lessons that promote cooperation, kindness, and perseverance.

Games Like Minecraft
Because of its complexity, mild violence, and online community, we recommend Minecraft for kids age 8 and up. So what if your younger kids want to play but aren’t quite ready? These games can occupy them with a very similar style, without some of the tougher stuff. (Check out our full list of games like Minecraft.)

  • Blox 3D Junior, age 5
    With a style similar to Lego and Minecraft, this app’s 3-D creation environment empowers kids to create, encourages visual acuity, and fosters critical thinking.
  • The Robot Factory by Tinybop, age 6
    This exploratory app for early elementary school-age kids is tailor-made for players who love to create, design, and experience free play.
  • Toca Builders, age 6
    Toca Builders offers sandbox-style play where kids can create worlds. It’s easier to pick up and play than Minecraft, and there’s no fighting or monsters.
  • Hovercraft – Build Fly Retry, age 7
    Kids can learn about physics and problem solving as they design, test, and rebuild a hovercraft.

The 7 pillars of today’s digital leadership


(originally posted on http://www.eschoolnews.com/2016/04/08/7-pillars-of-todays-digital-leadership/)

School and district leadership isn’t about a position or title–it’s about improving practices around digital learning

If educators want to see results in student engagement and achievement, they must adapt their leadership practices to an increasingly digitally-focused learning environment.

This was the focus of a CoSN 2016 spotlight session by Eric Sheninger, a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education and a former high school principal.

“Leadership is not about position, titles, or power. Leadership is about the actions you take,” he said.

During the session, Sheninger highlighted seven pillars of effective digital school leaders and talked about how, during his time as a high school principal, he and his staff modeled each pillar. Those pillars focus on how school leaders can ensure that their policies and practices highlight the best examples of digital learning success in schools.

“The environment in which kids learn is dramatically different,” he said. “We fault our kids for being so engaged with technology…how can we prepare kids for the future if we, those tasked with educating kids, are stuck in the past? If teaching, learning, and leadership don’t change, we’re never going to get results.”

Pillar 1: Student learning and engagement

“Technology is a tool–it’s not a learning outcome,” Sheninger said. “What do you want in your vision? What do you want your kids to be able to do with technology that will allow them to demonstrate conceptual mastery?” Engagement can begin with creating projects and learning opportunities that mean something. “If you don’t get instructional design right, technology is just going to speed up the rate of failure. It’s about building a foundation.”

Pillar 2: School environment

When he was principal of New Jersey’s New Milford High School, Sheninger said a change in learning spaces changed student engagement for the better. In fact, he said, data indicates the learning environment design can impact student engagement and achievement by up to 25 percent.

Pillar 3: Professional learning and growth

An unlimited number of professional learning opportunities are available on social media and through professional learning networks (PLNs), Sheninger said. Modeling the practices educators want to see from students is the first step.

Pillar 4: Communications

Communication has changed drastically because of technology, Sheninger said, and now educators are in an era of mass dialogue. “Don’t we want to take advantage of that in our own leadership capacity?” he asked. School stakeholders want news about school events, staff and student accomplishments, and district successes. “It’s about being proactive, not reactive,” he said. “Digital leadership is not just about information; it’s about meeting your stakeholders where they are.”

Sheninger also advised using multiple methods of news distribution, because people use various social media channels and communication methods. “You can’t put all your eggs in the Twitter basket or the Facebook basket,” he said.

Pillar 5: Public relations

“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will,” he said. “You need to tell stakeholders what actually happens in your schools and in your district. There are great stories to share–leverage the media.” Digital leadership is about becoming a storyteller-in-chief and sharing school accomplishments. Sheninger advised pushing out good news and accomplishments in various forms–news stories, photos, etc.–across various social media channels.

Pillar 6: Branding

Branding is a combination of your vision, mission, and values. “In education, a brand is not about selling. It’s about sharing, telling, and building relationships,” he said. A school brand should convey student achievement, teacher and administrator quality, extracurriculars, innovation, and partnerships.

Pillar 7: Opportunity

Digital leaders should consistently look for opportunities to improve existing programs, strategies, and resources.

Schools combine meditation and brain science to help combat discipline problems

When students and teachers learn together about how their brains influence behavior, one expert says, discipline can become less of a confrontation and more of a partnership

It was the Friday morning before spring break, and Deanna Nibarger’s fifth-graders were noisily chatting and enjoying their breakfast of milk, granola bars and raisins when a woman’s voice crackled over the school intercom:

“Sit up straight and close your eyes,” the woman on the intercom said.

The room immediately went silent as the woman’s command was followed by a series of short, high-pitched “dings,” as if someone were hitting a key on a metal xylophone and letting the sound reverberate.

A trance settled over the class for nearly a minute. Then, the daily morning announcements resumed, and the class sprang back to life as everyone stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Rarely do such moments of calm appear in elementary school classrooms, but it’s exactly this kind of focus that Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township is looking to build in its students. The dings over the intercom are one example of ways teachers at the school have armed students with meditation-like practices to help increase focus and attention.

It might sound strange, but in a fast-paced classroom, teachers at Crooked Creek say just having their students close their eyes and listen for a minute can help them improve their ability to focus. It’s part of the school’s efforts to incorporate the tenets of the growing academic field known as “educational neuroscience” into the classroom.

The field of educational neuroscience is at the intersection of cognitive psychology, education and neuroscience, and some of its teachings suggest findings from brain research can be applied to classroom management and discipline techniques.

Some trend toward the area of “mindfulness,” such as attempting to sharpen students’ focus through meditation. Other facets of the field that Crooked Creek teachers employ in the classroom include taking short breaks from instruction to ward off boredom and teaching children explicitly about parts of the brain and how they respond to stress.

Crooked Creek has been working with teacher and college professor Lori Desautels to help infuse elements of educational neuroscience into the classroom.

Desautels isn’t just teaching brain science to the teachers. She’s also helping children understand how their own brains work to in an effort to help them learn to change their behavior.

The educational neuroscience field is in flux, and some of its teachings — especially ones that directly tie student learning outcomes to brain science — still leave neuroscientists skeptical. But that’s not at the core of what Desautels is doing in Indianapolis schools. Rather, it’s about using what experts know about the brain to build stronger relationships and classroom culture.

“We are in a new time in education,” said Desautels, who works with teachers and students in several Indianapolis schools. “We hear about reform every day in the paper. We read it, we hear it in the news, but what’s really at the crux of all of this is educational neuroscience. Students are learning about their own neuroanatomy, and they are loving it.”

A growing field

Researchers have been exploring how brain science and education work together for about 50 years, but Desautels said the field has recently morphed into something new that is taking off across the country and outside the U.S.

“It’s a brand-new discipline that is catching on fire right now,” Desautels said.

The idea is to introduce both teachers and students to a basic understanding of how the brain works. If teachers have an idea of what’s going on behind the bad behavior, they can more effectively reach their students because they know it might not just be a child choosing to be defiant or difficult. When students know how parts of their brains work, they might better understand why they might feel frustrated or aggressive. That can help them develop strategies to lower stress so they can work to improve behavior in the future.

“Neuroanatomy knowledge eases their stress because they know they are not alone and can have control over that,” Desautels said.

Deanna Nibarger leads her class in a "morning meeting" where they can check in with each other and build relationships as a class.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Deanna Nibarger leads her class in a “morning meeting” where they can check in with each other and build relationships as a class.

The exact relationship between the how the brain works and how kids learn — and how teachers should teach — isn’t fully fleshed out, said Lise Eliot, a neuroscience professor from Chicago Medical School and Rosalind Franklin University.

“The so-called ‘neuroscience of education”… it’s not ready for prime time yet,” Eliot said. “There are a lot of very good neuroscientists who are interested in translating our understanding to how our brain learns to better educational practices, but I would say that at this point, improvements in educational practice have come only from the behavioral level.”

And that’s mainly where Desautel’s work lies — in using new strategies and information to improve behavior. The methods are especially relevant as schools look to correct disparities in instances of school discipline. Indiana, like many places across the country, has acknowledgedracial differences in the way that suspensions, expulsions and other punishments are meted out.

Nibarger, the fifth-grade teacher from Crooked Creek, had a background in special education and behavior management before she ever met Desautels. The year she came to Washington Township just happened to be the first year Desautels piloted her approach with the Crooked Creek fifth-graders.

Since she started working with Desautels three years ago, she’s seen school culture begin to change, and she’s more sure of her own teaching. The very first year of the pilot, no students were suspended, and school office referrals decreased, she said.

Understanding what her kids’ brains might be going through during moments of stress or frustration has helped Nibarger make sense of a lot of disparate classroom management concepts she’d already learned.

“It has kind of affirmed a lot of what I already knew to be best practice,” she said. “When people asked me what I was doing for behavior, I didn’t have research or knowledge to do that. Now I know why I do what I do.”

Educational neuroscience, Desautels said, is the intersection of cognitive psychology, education and neuroscience. The element of it that encourages building relationships through better understanding of how emotions and stress impact the brain informs some of the philosophies behind discipline strategies becoming popular in the U.S, she said.

At Crooked Creek, Nibarger has taken the lessons to heart and uses them on a daily basis.

“If you were to come to room 18, we talk a lot about emotions being contagious.” Nibarger said. “We do morning meetings, and we talk through conflict. I teach the kids about neuroplasticity; their brains being able to change because of their experiences in life.”

Using brain knowledge to better behavior

One of the first things Desautels teaches students and teachers is “the 90-second rule,” which admittedly has a much larger following in psychological circles than neuroscientific ones.

“Our body rinses clear and clean of negative emotion in 90 seconds,” she said. “Why do we stay irritated for so long? We keep thinking about it, replaying it and generating more negative emotions.”

The premise is championed by Harvard-educated brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor, who essentially says the chemicals that course through the brain during a stressful experience dissipate after 90 seconds. Eliot said she wasn’t familiar with the concept. But while emotional recovery time is likely different from person to person, the point, Desautels said, is to let kids know they can have a hand in controlling their emotions.

Things don’t always run smoothly in classrooms, between teachers and students or between kids themselves — conflict is inevitable. But rather than focusing on just being reactive, Desautels said, teachers and students can arm themselves with strategies early on so moments of stress don’t turn into meltdowns.

There are three key ways to de-escalate a conflict that are known to reduce stress as well: movement, time and breathing.

When kids can release energy by moving around, take some time away from the stressful moment or just breathe, Desautels said, they can calm down and actually think about what’s going on around them. Otherwise, they stay stressed out and might lash out more, she said.

The same goes for teachers — those strategies can ease their tension so they can respond constructively to a student. Desautels recommends asking these questions: What do you need? How can I help? What can we do to make this better?

“Consequences don’t need to be immediate,” Desautels said. “That, neurobiologically, is the worst thing we can do.”

When the brain is under stress, Desautels said, the part that controls problem-solving, logic, planning and organizing — known as the “prefrontal cortex” — isn’t getting enough blood and oxygen. Instead, all the blood is heading to the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotion. That’s why feeling upset might make a child yell or hit before it makes them sit back and talk a problem through. Plus, the prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to develop, so children are already more likely to respond emotionally to stress than adults.

“We have to prime the brain for discipline and learning before we can do anything else,” Desautels said. “Unless we teach the behaviors that we want to see, many times emotional regulation, which is what negative behavior is all about, it’s not there. And we just assume everybody is born having great ability to emotionally regulate.”

Fifth-graders at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township eat breakfast before their morning announcements.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Fifth-graders at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township eat breakfast before their morning announcements.

Teaching neuroscience to kids isn’t quite as hard as it sounds — First, they’ll start with model that lets them learn each part of the brain and what it does.

In Nibarger’s class, it’s clear the teaching has taken hold. Her students use words and phrases like “neurons” and “brain trauma” in regular classroom conversation. On the day before spring break, she asked them to tell her what happens when you have “hidden anger.”

Almost immediately, one boy piped up. He said a lack of sleep can cause trauma in the brain that blocks synapses from firing, which mean the brain works more slowly. Another girl said keeping anger to yourself means you can’t connect well to your friends.

“If you don’t talk about it and get it out of your system, you get frustrated and isolated,” she said.

Aside from the three basic strategies of movement, time and breathing, Desautels encourages teachers to use “brain breaks” to keep kids from drifting off during class.

“The brain pays attention to novelty,” Desautels said. “It’s a good way to change up because the brain is lulled to sleep with routine.”

A brain break could be almost anything — kids can get up and balance on one foot or play coordination games that ask them to hold out both hands and switch between making an “L” with one hand and a Sign Language “I” with the other. Or, it can be chimes on the intercom to give children a moment of calm in the morning.

Using the brain breaks and attention exercises throughout the school day not only helps kids shake things up if they need to refocus, but they are strategies they can turn to in times of stress.

The approach isn’t magic — managing behavior can still be slow-going, Desautels said, especially if kids become aggressive and don’t yet trust their teachers.

One third-grade class she’s working in this year at Washington Township’s Greenbriar Elementary School is particularly challenging — many of the students come from low-income families, and some have parents in jail.

Sometimes, they’ll yell or swear or even knock over a desk. Desautels said that can be typical for students constantly living in a state of stress, but the class is making progress. She encourages teachers to carve out areas of their classrooms where kids can go to take a break and calm down. Teachers at the school are partnered with each other so they have extra hands if one needs to the leave the classroom with the student or contact a parent.

How to deal with frequently disruptive, or even violent, students is a question common to most all classroom management or discipline techniques. There isn’t an easy answer Desautels said — it takes time for teachers and students to build trust. Incorporating aspects of educational neuroscience can help ensure that when confrontation does happen, frustration and rash decisions aren’t king.

“For teachers who say it’s too gentle, I say absolutely not,” Desautels said. “What we have to do is set up those procedures and transitions and boundaries, and the hardest part is we have to stay connected emotionally to those students during the worst of conflicts.

And regardless of the particular field you’re in, Eliot said, that connection piece is paramount to success in the classroom.

“What we know about human brain function is that it can’t be divorced from social environment,” Eliot said. “The more teachers appreciate how crucial that is to have healthy positive, nurturing relationships and extensive bonding and connecting and mentoring of their students, the more successful they’ll be, the healthier their students will be and the better they’ll learn.”

How to Develop a School Culture That Helps Curb Bullying


After years of dealing with school bullying through traditional punishments, Carolyne Quintana, the principal of Bronxdale High School in New York City, introduced restorative justice approaches at her school because she wanted students to feel trusted and cared for.

“It wasn’t just about bullying incidents, it was about the whole school culture,” she said.

To build community and handle “instances of harm” among the students, teachers bring the kids together to talk in “restorative circles,” where everyone has an opportunity to listen and be heard. Bronxdale uses circles for most of its group communications, including parent meetings and ninth-grade orientation. The circles are a natural outgrowth of the Socratic method teachers use in class, Quintana said.

What’s crucial in building the right culture is the twice-weekly advisory sessions—“the hub for restorative circles,” Quintana said—and the distributed guidance system at Bronxdale, which calls on all adults to look out for the social and emotional well-being of the students.

Bronxdale doesn’t track bullying rates, but Quintana said that students are now more conscious of the forms bullying takes, and are more apt to express concern for their peers and to sign agreements with one another. Some students who didn’t like to come to school because of bullying now do, she said. Further, students who misbehave are still held accountable.

“Restorative practices don’t get rid of discipline,” Quintana added. Rather, they supplement other discipline, so that kids who are suspended, for example, learn what they did wrong and why it matters. “It’s the restorative practices that will prepare kids for the world beyond high school,” she said.

Treating bullying as a hurtful act that violates shared values, rather than as a character defect, encourages kids to understand why their behavior was wrong, and to apologize and make amends, according to James Dillon, a retired school principal and author of Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities.

“Bullying shouldn’t ever be acceptable, and students should be held accountable—but also learn how and why what they did is wrong, and not just suffer the pain of consequences,” Dillon says.

This restorative justice model, where kids are coaxed to accept responsibility, figure out ways to remedy the harm and restore the damaged relationship, helps them learn from their actions and internalize a moral code.

“Punishment makes things worse,” said danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. “Schools have to start from a place of empathy. Why is a student doing something harmful to other students?” she added. Zero-tolerance policies toward student misbehavior have been shown to have the opposite effect of what was intended by their adoption: A task force set up by the American Psychological Association to study the issue found that zero-tolerance policies in schools worsened school climates, provoked more student misbehavior and led to higher expulsion and suspension rates for minorities. And no-questions-asked penalties against kids who mistreat their peers stunts the growth of personal conscience; the punished child will instead fixate on his “unfair” penalty rather than the harm he committed.

And when it comes to social media, ugly exchanges among kids can feel like a scourge to school administrators. But the customary ways schools have responded, including some variation of assemblies, lectures, and disciplinary action, seem to have had little effect.

“The current rules and punishment-based approach that schools are using is not working to address the concerns of bullying in school,” says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age. “And it certainly will not be effective in addressing hurtful acts via social media, because schools are not making the rules for social media.”

What can schools do to reduce bullying among students on school grounds and online?

Drawing from social science research and experience in schools, some experts on bullying, learning and social media have fresh ways of thinking about and responding to the problem.

Build the right culture. “It is easier to think that the problem is because of character flaws in a few students or to blame parents for not doing a better job of raising their kids,” says Dillon.

In fact, to reduce aggression among kids, school leaders need to start with the climate within the building. Schools with an authoritarian and hierarchical ethos teach kids that obeying rules as decreed by the grown-ups in power is what counts; this only exacerbates jockeying for status among the students, which inspires bullying. A better approach would have school officials and teachers talk with students about what matters and then rally around the collective values and beliefs on which they agree. When adults try to influence rather than control kids, the grown-ups are more likely to be heard. “Real accountability should be toward those commonly held and articulated values of the school community,” Dillon said.

Encourage influential kids to take the lead in changing the culture.In an ambitious yearlong study of 24,191 middle school students during 2012 and 2013, social scientists Betsy Levy Paluck, Hana Shepherd and Peter Aronow found that kids with abundant social connections were effective in changing school norms. Anti-bullying messages created and propagated by these influential students reduced conflict in school by a statistically significant margin. Notably, the student body, rather than the teachers, identified the well-connected kids.

Introduce social and emotional learning for students and teachers.“What’s been missing from school is the affective dimension of learning,” says Janice Toben, who heads up the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning in Menlo Park, California. For 27 years, Toben taught elementary and middle school children how to self-regulate and handle conflict, and now educates teachers on best practices for social and emotional learning.

“We challenge teachers to engage in the social and emotional dynamic of their students, because learning is social and emotional,” she said.

Schools could make space for more face-to-face interactions among students, and encourage all teachers to ask reflective questions and focus on students’ personal or social insights. Sharing responses like these builds empathy and develops emotional skills in children; they learn how to construct an emotional vocabulary, communicate honestly and directly, and resist online retaliation.

One method she designed is called “Open Session,” where adolescents share their worries and challenges with one another; in return, they receive support and real-life wisdom from their peers, and clarify for themselves the real source of worry. Regular meetings like this, along with mindfulness practices and even improvisation, can give kids the tools to understand themselves better, react less impulsively, and show more compassion for others. Teachers, too, need social and emotional support, Toben adds, and would benefit from Open Sessions with their colleagues. What’s essential to making this kind of learning work? “Time,” Toben said.

Work with the majority of kids who don’t bully and don’t approve of it. Fellow students are well-situated to deflate a bully’s barbs, but few kids intervene when they see abusive behavior directed at their peers. Student witnesses to bullying are more likely to stand up for peers in schools with caring and inclusive climates because bullying violates school norms. But how can school leaders get those kids to step up? First, don’t alienate them with language that seems to blame them for a behavior — bullying —t hat they didn’t commit. Instead, tell them how important they are in building a stronger school; they are leaders and allies in constructing a better school environment, and should be told so repeatedly. “The most important belief driving positive change and reframing bullying prevention,” Dillon writes, “is that students are the solution to the problem not the cause of it.”

Ensure that teachers, coaches and school administrators aren’t modeling bullying. When kids see adults at school mistreat one another, they can’t help but conclude that such conduct is actually OK, regardless of what they’re told. Of even greater harm is when teachers and coaches oppress the kids they’re instructing; screaming at athletes for making mistakes, for example, or humiliating kids in the classroom, underscores a message that harsh interpersonal behavior is the way of the world.