Is It Really Possible That Professional Development Doesn’t Work?

TNTP’s new report, “The Mirage,” is essential reading for anyone interested in educator effectiveness. It’s smartly researched and delivers an uppercut of a conclusion: Today’s professional development doesn’t work.

There’s just one small problem. I’m not sure I believe it.

To trust its findings would mean admitting that we’ve wasted hundreds of billions of dollars. It would mean we’ve misled millions of educators and families about improving the profession. It would mean a load-bearing wall of the Race-to-the-Top and ESEA-waiver talent architecture is made of sand. All of this would be hard to swallow, but I suppose it’s possible.

But to accept and act on these findings would mean putting our full faith in today’s approach to evaluating educator effectiveness. It would mean believing generations of schools, school systems, PD providers, institutions of higher education, and parents were wrong when it comes to assessing and improving teacher performance. For me, this is a bridge too far.

The study encompassed four large school operators and surveyed thousands of educators. It used multiple measures to assess teacher effectiveness and tried to find variables that influenced whether a teacher improved (things like “growth mindset,” school culture, and access to different types of PD).

Some of the findings are staggering. The districts spent about $18,000 per teacher, per year on development. This amounts to nineteen full school days of PD annually. Despite all of this, “most teachers do not appear to improve substantially from year to year.” The average veteran teacher (ten years of experience or beyond) “has a growth rate barely above zero.”

Moreover, the researchers found no commonalities that distinguished teachers who did improve from those who didn’t. “We looked at dozens of variables…every development strategy, no matter how intensive, seems to be the equivalent of a coin flip.”

The measures of effectiveness seem to be wholly untethered to teachers’ self-assessments. Despite wide variations in assessed performance, more than 80 percent of teachers gave themselves a four or five on a five-point scale. More than 60 percent of teachers found to be low-performing rated themselves as a four or five. Among teachers whose classroom practice was found to have declined, the vast majority still said their instruction had improved.

If TNTP is right, we should be beside ourselves. We’re spending billions, most teachers aren’t seeing their performance rise, and we have no idea why improving teachers are getting better. If TNTP is right, teachers aren’t getting better like they think they are.

If TNTP is right, a major federal push seems terribly unfair. The teacher evaluation reforms encouraged by RTTT and ESEA waivers were sold with promises that they weren’t meant to punish teachers, but instead as a means to help them improve. Now we have state laws with tough consequences for teachers who persistently underperform, but we’re saying, “Oops, we actually don’t know how to help you get better.”

If TNTP is right, this would be like dystopian YA lit meets education policy—bleak as the day is long.

Maybe I’m whistling past the graveyard or just obstinately refusing to accept evidence. But it seems implausible to me that our systems of developing educators have had virtually no utility. So I want to offer an alternative hypothesis. My point is not to defend PD. It’s to question how we’re assessing educators.

To be clear, I think that for way too long, our systems for evaluating teachers were primitive, poorly implemented, too detached from student performance, and warped by policies that disincentivized critical ratings. I believe that the last several years of reforms have moved us in the right direction; I’m a supporter of new observation rubrics, student surveys, SLOs, VAMs/SGPs, and other innovative ways of triangulating teacher performance. But I also believe that we still have miles to go.

I’m of the mind that we’re still not fully or fairly articulating—at least in the policy world—what it means to be a great and improving teacher. So my inclination is to rely (probably more heavily than my reform-oriented friends) on the accumulated wisdom reflected in current practice. That means I’m skeptical when any organization, even one that I respect as much as TNTP, argues that longstanding practice is misguided.

My immediate reaction after reading “The Mirage” was to advocate for a total realignment of PD. But now I’m not so sure, because I don’t think we’re clear about the target at which it should be aimed—what it means to be that great, improving educator. My view is that we still have lots of work to do here.

For example, many of us increasingly believe that teaching “grit” is invaluable, but the leading researcher wants to pump the brakes on how it’s measured and tied to teachers. This very good piece by Peter Greene argues that since public schools emanate from communities, each community should have a say in what effective teaching in its schools looks like. Robert Pondiscio and Kate Stringer recently made a compelling case about the civic role of schools, which is seldom discussed in the context of educator evaluations. Some schools seem to be fostering social capital inside and outside their walls, but we’re still not sure how. The “Moneyball for Education” project argues there are good measures we’re not using and probably even better measures we haven’t thought of yet.

In short, I’m wondering if important elements of great teaching and continuous improvement are found in today’s PD but are not captured by our evaluation systems.

Maybe the real mirage is today’s too-confident definition of “highly effective teacher.”

– Andy Smarick

Revisiting the Coleman Report “Equality of Educational Opportunity” on its 50th Anniversary

In 1960, U.S. Deputy Marshals escorted from school six-year-old Ruby Bridges, the only black child enrolled at the time in William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans.

In 1960, U.S. Deputy Marshals escorted from school six-year-old Ruby Bridges, the only black child enrolled at the time in William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans.

The aim of racial integration of our schools should be recognized as distinct from the aim of providing equal opportunity for educational performance.
To confound these two aims impedes the achievement of either.

–James S. Coleman,
“Toward Open Schools,” The Public Interest (1967)

Equality of Educational Opportunity, also known as the Coleman Report, sought answers to two burning questions: 1) How extensive is racial segregation within U.S. schools? 2) How adversely does that segregation affect educational opportunities for black students? In answering the first question, James S. Coleman and his co-authors documented the de facto segregation found in all parts of the United States, including the South, where the Supreme Court had declared de jure segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Regarding the second question, Coleman reported that families were more important for learning than were school resources, and, further, that school resources varied more by region than they did by a school’s racial composition within any specific region. Yet Coleman also noted that the composition of a student’s peer group was more important for learning than any other school-related factor, a finding used by the Johnson and Nixon administrations to reinforce their strenuous desegregation efforts in southern states.

Today, questions about the effects of changes in housing patterns and recent Supreme Court decisions that weaken desegregation efforts remain central to discussions of educational opportunity and racial achievement gaps. On the first issue, more specifically, have changes over time in housing and school attendance patterns reduced the isolation of black children in the public schools? The answer depends on the specific way progress is measured. If we ask whether the average black student is exposed to more white students in public school today than a half century ago, the answer is yes, although fewer than in the 1980s; after rising in the 1970s, the rate of exposure has declined markedly since 1988. Another measure of progress toward integration is the dissimilarity index, which measures how much the racial composition of the schools would have to change for each school to have the same percentage of whites and blacks as these groups constitute in the school-age population as a whole. By this measure, schools are closer to complete integration than ever before, and thus racial composition would have to change less now than when the report was released. How can two questions that seem so similar have such different answers? The explanation is in the changing demographic composition of the schools: the percentage of students who are white has declined dramatically over the past 50 years, while the percentage of students who are black has changed very little.

Detailing these changes is my first task. My second task is to inquire into the consequences for achievement of the racial segregation that still persists. Unfortunately, it is difficult to speak definitively about this matter. The required social scientific research has yet to be pursued adequately, despite the pathbreaking contribution of the Coleman Report and serious scholarly inquiry since. One can say—without much scholarly help at all—that racial segregation is undoubtedly harmful to the well-being of a multi-ethnic society that aspires to equal opportunity for all. But if one digs deeper to measure the adverse effects of segregation on the learning of African American students, a topic to which Coleman gave full attention, then one can only reach cautious judgments. The best answer, in my view, is that the consequences of racial segregation for student learning are probably adverse but not severely so.

School Enrollment Patterns since 1968

In 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education found legally segregated schools to be unconstitutional, but it was not until the legislative and executive branches put the full strength of the federal government behind desegregation efforts, by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that serious progress was made in the South. Even then, many hiccups occurred as public opinion wavered between the idealism of the civil rights years and the backlash instigated by civil unrest in major cities during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Courts, too, varied in their commitment to desegregation. In Milliken v. Bradley (1974), the Supreme Court found that de facto segregation, which occurred as the result of residential decisions made by individuals, did not violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. These were private decisions, not decisions made by government, and therefore not subject to constitutional constraint. Many white families left city schools for nearly all-white suburban districts when integration plans were put forward.

In 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of education found legally segregated schools to be unconstitutional, but serious progress was not made in the South until the 1960s.

In 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education found legally segregated schools to be unconstitutional, but serious progress was not made in the South until the 1960s.

In the 1990s, the Court softened its previous position on desegregation in schools that once had had de jure segregation. It said that districts had merely to take all practical steps to end the legacy of segregation (Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell, 1991). The Court also decided that school districts could not be held constitutionally responsible for low student achievement in segregated settings (Missouri v. Jenkins, 1995).

Given the ups and downs in the legal and political environments, it is entirely possible that both the rate and direction of school desegregation have fluctuated significantly over the 50 years since the Coleman Report. To ascertain whether this is the case, I draw on the best available public data on the racial composition of the nation’s schools: the Public Elementary and Secondary School Enrollment and Common Core of Data issued by the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education. To capture the shifts that took place during four distinctly different time periods, I identify the state of racial segregation in schools for the years 1968, 1980, 1988, 2000, and 2012. (Reliable information for the small number of students attending schools in districts with enrollment below 300 is unavailable for the years prior to 2000.)

Three interrelated pieces of information characterize school enrollment patterns, and I document changes over time in all three: the degree of interaction, as measured by black student exposure to white students; dissimilarity indexes for schools and districts; and overall demographic composition. For each of the five years, Figure 1 presents three data points:

1) The exposure index measures the likelihood that a black student will interact with white students, as measured by the average percentage of black children’s schoolmates who are white.

2) The dissimilarity index measures the extent to which schools and the overall student population are racially dissimilar, by calculating the percentage of blacks that would need to change schools if all schools were to have the same percentage of black students. The index is equal to 0 if there is complete integration and 100 if there is complete segregation. As the potential for desegregation efforts is determined by the distribution of students among districts, I report the index for districts as well as for schools.

3) A simple demographic indicator identifies the percentages of students who are black, white, or from another racial group.

Residential choices, school choices made by families, and district school attendance rules jointly determine student enrollment patterns. The enrollment data do not provide information on residential location or private school enrollment. A dissimilarity index at the district level, however, measures the dissimilarity of districts and the overall student population in the area, and provides information on changes over time in racial differences in the distribution of students among districts.

The Trend Data

ednext_XVI_2_rivkin_fig01-smallI begin with a discussion of the exposure index, as contact between black students and white students was a major focal point of the Coleman Report. As Figure 1a shows, the exposure index rose rapidly between 1968 and 1980, from 22 percent to 36 percent, a change in the extent of racial interaction that has not been matched since. Over that period, the federal government was aggressively promoting school desegregation in the South, and civil rights groups were attempting to extend their efforts to other parts of the United States. Few remember that the Nixon administration conditioned federal aid to southern schools on their compliance with desegregation court orders; that policy appears to have aided the desegregation efforts that federal courts were insisting upon. The trend line stabilizes during the 1980s and heads downward after 1988, slipping to 31 percent by 2000 and 27 percent in 2012, landing above the level that existed at about the time the Coleman Report was released.

Figure 1b shows the dissimilarity index—the percentage of blacks who would need to change schools if blacks and whites were to attend each school in the same percentage as their percentage of public school enrollment. This school dissimilarity index fell from 81 percent to 71 percent between 1968 and 1980, when southern schools were taking strong steps to eliminate de jure segregation. And it continued to decline—albeit at a slower pace—after 1980, falling to 66 percent by 2012.

How is it that segregation continued to decline as the exposure rate fell? The explanation can be found in the dramatic change in the composition of the public school population (see Figure 1c). Between 1968 and 2012, the percentage white of overall student enrollment in public schools dropped from 80 percent to 51 percent. Between 1988 and 2012, when the exposure index slid 9 percentage points (from 36 percent to 27 percent), the white percentage of all public-school enrollment tumbled by 20 percentage points (from 71 percent to 51 percent). As the white population was becoming older, other groups were capturing an ever-larger share of the student population. African Americans were not replacing whites—their share of the school-age population edged upward by less than 1 percentage point over the entire 44-year time period. Rather, an influx of Hispanic and Asian families transformed the composition of the schools. The result is a declining black‒white exposure rate: it became increasingly difficult to increase interactions between blacks and whites because there were ever-fewer whites in the schools.

The steps taken to desegregate schools and increase black student exposure to white students were not strong enough after 1980 to offset the demographic shifts that were increasing the amount of contact between both whites and blacks and the children of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the decline in the exposure index prompted former Business Weekcorrespondent William C. Symonds, in “Brown v. Board of Education: A bittersweet birthday” (May 2004), and others to decry the resegregation of America’s schools. That claim overlooks the powerful effect demographic change has had on the possibility of increasing black student exposure to white students.

Figure 2 shows trends in the demographic composition of schools in the four geographic regions of the U.S. The percentage of white students has fallen steadily in the Northeast and Midwest, with modest upticks in the proportion of students who are black, Hispanic, or from other groups. The West has seen the most dramatic decline in white students and the largest increase in Hispanic students. Schools in the South have arguably seen the greatest increase in diversity as the four trend lines come closest to converging.



White Flight and District Policies

A pronounced increase in Hispanic and Asian public-school enrollment and consequent decline in the white enrollment share, not a pattern of resegregation, has driven the fall in the exposure of black students to white schoolmates. This does not mean, however, that family decisions, court policies, and school board responses are irrelevant to the patterns of racial segregation that continue to persist. For example, white flight from integrating schools, a topic that Coleman (in other studies) explored in considerable depth, certainly slowed the rate of desegregation, especially during the years 1968 to 1980, when the most aggressive desegregation steps were being taken.

Between 1968 and 1980, segregation by district increased, reflecting the effects of both white flight from desegregation and longer-term trends, including suburbanization.

Between 1968 and 1980, segregation by district increased, reflecting the effects of both white flight from desegregation and longer-term trends, including suburbanization.

The 1974 Supreme Court decision inMillikin v. Bradley found no constitutional violation when de facto segregation resulted from the private choices of individuals to live in one part of a metropolitan area rather than another. As a result, white suburban school districts were under no constitutional requirement to integrate their schools when their new white students had fled a central-city school district that was promulgating a desegregation plan. Between 1968 and 1980, the district dissimilarity index (which measures the amount of black students who would have to move to another district in order to achieve the same percentage of whites and blacks in all districts) increased from 64 to 66 percent. Thus, by this measure, district segregation was increasing at the same time that the overall rate of school segregation was falling by 10 percentage points. This does not capture any movement of white students to private schools.

A closer examination of the district dissimilarity index offers some suggestive evidence as to the forces at work. Between 1968 and 1980, segregation by district increased, reflecting the effects of both white flight from desegregation and longer-term trends, including suburbanization. In contrast, following 1988, segregation by district fell by almost 10 percent, from 66 to 61. Black‒white segregation among districts in 2012 is roughly 5 percent lower than it was in 1968, prior to the onset of the most far-reaching desegregation efforts.

Housing patterns are the primary determinant of segregation among districts, but the district dissimilarity index provides only a crude measure of the extent of housing segregation. First, private school‒enrollment levels influence the measure of district segregation. Second, trends in segregation by district do not capture changes in residential segregation within districts. Therefore, it is important to examine residential segregation directly, and evidence clearly shows a decline in housing segregation during this period. Using 1980, 1990, and 2000 U.S. Census information, John Iceland and D. H. Weinberg in 2002 constructed dissimilarity indexes of residential segregation by census tract in 220 metropolitan areas in which at least 3 percent of the residents were black or which had at least 20,000 black residents in 1980. The median index declined from 0.75 in 1980 to 0.65 in 2000, a decrease of more than 13 percent. William Frey finds in a 2015 study that the decline in residential segregation continued to 2010, at least in the 102 metropolitan areas with populations greater than 500,000. Over that more recent decade, there was a decrease in residential segregation of 3.1 percent within these large metropolitan areas.

As Coleman observed, white flight from desegregation intensified segregation between districts. Finis Welch and Audrey Light published a study in 1987 that used 16 years of data on enrollments and desegregation program status to study in detail the changes in white enrollment surrounding the implementation of 116 major desegregation plans between 1967 and 1985. Among other findings, they concluded that 1) white enrollment declined much more in the year of plan implementation than in subsequent years, 
and 2) pairing and clustering, the desegregation technique that involved the joining of schools with initially very different black and white enrollment shares into a single attendance zone, produced the largest average white-enrollment losses surrounding plan implementation in the period of greatest desegregation activity. Because pairing and clustering mandates student involvement in desegregation and typically requires that students travel greater distances than under the redrawing of school catchment areas or other voluntary desegregation plans, the finding that this plan type produces the largest enrollment response is consistent with expectations.

It is not clear a priori whether white flight would be greater in urban districts surrounded by suburbs or in large countywide districts found in the South. The larger geographical spread of countywide districts raises the cost to families of moving out of the district but also raises transportation issues for school districts that want to desegregate throughout the entire county. Welch and Light found that white flight is generally less in countywide districts than in central-city districts (surrounded by a suburban belt) despite the fact that the countywide districts take stronger steps to reduce segregation within the schools. Apparently, the costs to families of moving out of the countywide district for predominantly white outlying areas are so large they more than offset any perceived advantage of escaping the changes in the demographic composition of the schools. Also, a separate study by Sarah Reber has shown that the more districts within a metropolitan area, the greater the white flight, another indication that families balance their school preferences against the cost of moving long distances. White flight almost certainly altered the effects of desegregation policies in 
many cities, especially in places such as the Northeast, where school districts within metropolitan areas tend to be small and numerous.

After 1980, district segregation stabilized and eventually began to subside (see Figure 1b). It is possible that whites became more tolerant of a black presence at school, or that districts began relying more extensively on voluntary tools to desegregate schools, avoiding the politically unpopular measures that provoked so much opposition in the years immediately following the release of the Coleman Report.

A growing number of school districts have been released recently from court supervision as the result of court decisions handed down during the 1990s, raising the possibility of resegregation of public school districts where desegregation had taken place. A small but growing body of research has investigated the effects of release. Studies by Sean Reardon and his colleagues in 2012 and Byron Lutz in 2011, using variation in the timing of court supervision to identify the effects on segregation, discern an increase in segregation following the cessation of court supervision, although the magnitude appears to be modest.

Academic and Social Outcomes

The Coleman Report revealed substantial achievement differences by school racial composition and emphasized the importance of considering various factors that contributed to those differences:

· different facilities and curricula in the school itself

·  variations in educational deficiency or proficiency of fellow students that are correlated with race

· effects due to racial composition of the student body apart from its level of educational proficiency.

Unfortunately, Coleman’s methodological approach was not capable of identifying the independent effect of each of these factors.

Subsequent research has grappled with these issues in one form or another in an effort to gain a better understanding of the determinants of racial differences in academic, economic, and social outcomes. But isolating the causal effect of school desegregation has proven difficult. Consider the substantial improvement of black students relative to white students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) during the 1970s and 1980s. The timing coincides with the desegregation of many school districts, especially in the South, but other policy, economic, and social changes may also have influenced the achievement gap. Most notably, economic and social opportunities were broadening for African Americans, the civil rights movement may have given the black community higher expectations for its youth, and white respect for black peers may have increased in the larger society, regardless of the racial composition of the school.

Despite the challenges of isolating the impact of school desegregation on student achievement, a small but growing body of research provides valuable evidence on the relationship between segregation policies and students’ academic and social outcomes. A 2009 study I conducted with Eric A. Hanushek and colleagues uses administrative data from the State of Texas Department of Education for multiple student cohorts to identify the effect of racial composition of the classroom on learning. By controlling for a wide variety of other characteristics, including the students’ own prior performance, our analysis is able to estimate the likely effect of desegregation within the school. We find that black achievement levels are negatively associated with the percentage black in a grade, indicating that desegregation policies that reduced this percentage were having the desired effect. Interestingly, those who had higher initial achievement levels benefited the most from a desegregated environment. These findings are based on variations in racial composition of grades within a given school. While informative, they do not conclusively show the effects of policies that alter the overall racial composition of a school through changes in attendance patterns, the policies that are of greatest concern to both the courts and to state and district policymakers.

The absence of an evaluation component from most desegregation programs has complicated efforts to measure program effects.

The absence of an evaluation component from most desegregation programs has complicated efforts to measure program effects.

A handful of experimental studies of desegregation programs compare participants with nonparticipants. Thomas Cook, writing in 1984, concludes that meta-analyses of results from all the studies, taken together, support the view that the effects on the mathematics and reading achievement in elementary school are quite small or even zero. The small sample sizes common to the studies he summarizes, however, make it difficult to identify potentially important effects. In addition, these studies capture only the most direct impacts of the desegregation program and are limited to a few interventions that may not be typical.

Several studies have examined the average effect of either the introduction or the removal of desegregation programs using variation in timing across districts. Jonathan Guryan in 2002 used the desegregation plan data assembled by Welch and Light to study the change in high-school dropout rates between 1970 and 1980, and found that the implementation of desegregation during the 1970s reduced the high-school dropout rate during that period. In addition, Lutz’s 2011 study found that resegregation increased the probability of dropping out for blacks living outside of the South. Even though these studies are among the most compelling in this area of research, the complications introduced by the purposeful choices and responses of families and schools temper the strength of the findings.

In a 2014 study, Stephen Billings and his colleagues used administrative data and variation in school assignments for students who lived on opposite sides of new catchment area boundaries in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, following the district’s release from court supervision to identify the effects of changes in racial composition and school resources. The paper reveals substantial evidence of resegregation and a significant increase in the probability of being arrested for black students, but no increase in the probability of dropping out of high school as a result of the change in the racial composition of the school. Importantly, it appears that changes in resources rather than peer composition drive the results.

Taken as a whole, the evidence on racial composition, desegregation, and resegregation effects suggests that desegregation had a positive but likely uneven effect on academic and social outcomes. It is very likely the case that program effects differ by both programmatic details and context, and consequently variation in findings does not constitute evidence that some studies must be flawed. The absence of an evaluation component from most desegregation programs has both complicated efforts to measure short- and long-term program effects and hindered the development of more effective strategies to improve outcomes and reduce achievement gaps.

Coleman’s Legacy

Half a century has passed since the publication of the Coleman Report, and the persistent racial gaps in achievement, academic attainment, earnings, crime, poverty, and extensive school segregation that remain provide prima facie evidence that equality of opportunity remains elusive. Nevertheless, the report served as a catalyst for a fundamental change in education research and the framework within which policymakers, educators, and citizens conduct debates over education policy. Such discussions are no longer conducted in a vacuum. On the contrary, requirements for the reporting of extensive information on academic outcomes and basic characteristics of schools, including their demographic composition, have been embedded in federal and state laws. The creation of the Institute of Education Sciences illustrates another legacy of the Coleman Report: a commitment to rigorous quantitative research.

The greater breadth of today’s research agenda is likely to move our understanding of the contemporary impact of racial isolation and the policies introduced to ameliorate it. Research on teacher quality, charter schools, school leadership, class size, and other factors in school quality is likely to be as or more important than research on race-specific policies for reducing gaps in student achievement. The legacy of the Coleman Report enhanced the research community’s commitment to improve the measurement of school and teacher performance. It also broadened public understanding of the types of interventions that will elevate the academic, social, and economic outcomes of disadvantaged students in a manner that will give meaning to the notion of equality of opportunity.

Steven Rivkin is professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Are Black and Latino Students Stuck With Low-Performing Teachers? Vergara Might Give Us an Answer

(Written by Halli Bayer is a proud non-practicing attorney and former middle school English teacher.)

I used to teach in a Los Angeles Unified school, so the Vergara court case about teacher tenure is not just an abstract legal decision to me. It’s personal.

That’s why I joined some 80 other observers in a courtroom last week for the hour-long Vergara appellate hearing.

I’ve learned from and worked alongside outstanding educators in Los Angeles. And I’ve also witnessed what happens when some of the most vulnerable students in the district are taught by tenured teachers who do the absolute minimum to get by.

In fact, a tenured teacher in the classroom next door to mine showed her students the movie “The Lion King” in every single period. She taught sixth-grade English; when her former students came to me for seventh-grade English, I was supposed to teach them how to write persuasive essays, but they didn’t yet know how to write paragraphs.

“She didn’t teach it to us,” they told me.


As most of us education nerds know by now, Vergara focuses on the personnel laws that govern California’s teacher tenure, layoff and dismissal policies.

Last year, the trial court found that these laws all violate California’s equal protection clause and also deny students their fundamental right to education because the laws, as they’re applied, result in the state’s low-income African-American and Latino students having many more low-performing teachers than their peers in wealthier, whiter schools.

Our gathering of courtroom observers were clearly mixed in their views of the case. Personally, I hope that the Court of Appeals upholds the decision because I know that every student in my city deserves a good teacher, and I’ve seen the ways in which these laws make it hard for our most inspired and effective teachers to stay in the schools where they are needed most.

The schools serving the most advantaged students can cream the best teachers in the system simply because of demand and low turnover. Conversely, the most challenged schools serving high populations of low-income black and brown children struggle with the instability of constant turnover. This forces principals to lay off teachers based on seniority rather than skills and makes it extraordinarily difficult to push out teachers who have given up on their students and their profession.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, the hearing provided some fascinating insights into the nuance of these laws.


There was one interaction about halfway through the hearing that brought me and most of the 80 people in the courtroom to attention.

This was the point at which Associate Justice Brian M. Hoffstat, one of three justices hearing the case, interrupted attorney Theodore J. Boutrous (representing Beatrice Vergara, et al.) to ask whether the teacher personnel laws in question “inevitably” lead to low-income black and Latino students having a disproportionately large share of low-performing teachers.

As Boutrous had pointed out, having a series of low-performing teachers ultimately affects students’ entire life trajectory, including their likelihood of becoming pregnant as teens and their earning potential.

So, to the question of inevitability—do California’s layoff, tenure and dismissal laws inevitably create inequity for students?

Boutrous, with impressive agility, danced around this question for a while and eventually offered up evidence of a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) human resources officer who was unable to dismiss hundreds of ineffective teachersbecause of California’s teacher tenure and dismissal statutes.

Where Boutrous may have circumvented the question of inevitability, the California Teachers’ Association (CTA) attorney Michael Rubin answered it directly, stating multiple times that the laws in question do not make it inevitable that low-income African-American and Latino students are placed with lower-performing teachers. In fact, he argued, it is local school district policies, not the statutes, that have created an inequitable distribution of teachers.


Will the Court of Appeals ultimately require that LIFO, tenure and dismissal lawsinevitably harm black and Latino students in order to find the laws unconstitutional?

If so, this is a pretty high bar. California is home to nearly 1,000 school districts, and it’s likely that a bunch of those districts don’t have inequitable distribution of teachers because they are so small that all students attend the same elementary, middle and high schools.

And maybe some districts are so vigilant about placing and retaining great teachers in high-needs schools that their best teachers are distributed evenly among students of all socioeconomic statuses.

So, perhaps it’s not inevitable that these statutes disparately impact low-income students of color.

But just because these statues don’t create conditions that violate the constitution inevery district in the state doesn’t mean that they don’t violate the constitution.

In Serrano v. Priest (1976), for example, the California Supreme Court held that the state’s public school financing system violated the Equal Protection Clause in that it allowed educational opportunities to “vary” in substantial and unjustified ways.

According to this logic, even if inequitable distribution of teachers isn’t inevitable for all California districts, enough inequitable distribution within and among districts may be sufficient for the Appellate Court in Vergara to uphold the lower court’s findings.

It’s time for a change here in California. As Boutrous stated toward the end of his argument, the legislature “isn’t going to do anything” to create that change.

And as a former teacher who is committed to creating more equitable schools, I want the Appellate Court to uphold the lower court’s findings because I want every single seventh-grader in my city to be able to write not just paragraphs but entire essays full of their own brilliant ideas, dreams and opinions.

New York City’s Small-Schools Revolution

If one is looking for a symbol of the rise and fall—and resurrection—of the American high school, one need but take the #1 IRT subway to 225th Street in the Bronx, then walk a few blocks up Marble Hill along the north shore of the Harlem River. The eight-story building covering some four city blocks looks as if it was lifted from the drafting table of a Soviet bloc architect.

1th grade students work together in a living environment lab class at New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities

11th grade students work together in a living environment lab class
at New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities

Opened in 1972, John F. Kennedy High School housed in its heyday between 3,000 and 6,000 students—4,500 started that first September. According to Iris Zucker, who taught there in the 1990s, “It was as big as some towns. We had 350 teachers.” It had everything for everyone—except an education. By the end of the century, only one-third of its students graduated. Furthermore, it was dangerous, described in a 2004 New York Times story as a school that “has turned out more horrifying tales than success stories. There was the substitute teacher whose hair was set on fire, the assistant principal hospitalized after being knocked down by students, the assorted objects—trash cans, ceramics projects—hurled from windows, sometimes into teachers’ parked cars. In 2002, one summer school student fatally stabbed another outside the school. A few months later, things became so rowdy after a fire drill that the police officers on duty used Mace…”

Today, the building still holds some 3,000 students and 300 teachers, but a huge banner hanging from its towering façade announces a makeover: it lists five high schools. And even that is behind the times, since there are now seven: Marble Hill High School for International Studies (MHHS), the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy (BETA), the Bronx School of Law and Finance (BSLF), the English Language Learners and International Support Preparatory Academy (ELLIS), New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science (NVAMS), the Bronx Theatre High School (BTHS), and New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities (NVH). Each school educates the same mostly poor, mostly black and Hispanic students as entered the building in 1972. Most now graduate at least two-thirds of their students and boast far more “success stories” than “horrifying tales.”

What happened to Kennedy happened all over New York City. Between 2002 and 2008, the number of high schools in New York increased from just over 250 to nearly 450, even as the number of high school students in the system remained the same. This resulted from closing 30 large schools, shrinking others (such as Kennedy), and creating dozens of small, themed high schools, with 100 students per grade instead of 1,000. At the same time, discovering that tens of thousands of high school students were hopelessly behind and on the fast track to dropping out, the district created a system of even smaller transfer schools.

As a series of studies began to emerge in 2012, it became clear that what Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein had done in New York City over the preceding decade was real. While the nation seemed transfixed by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core State Standards, “one of the most wide-ranging reforms in public education” during that time, according to a group of researchers from Duke and MIT, “was the reorganization of large comprehensive high schools into small schools” in New York City. Not only did the district, the largest in the country, take on a student population that had come to symbolize the impossibility of educating a certain kind of child—the urban poor who entered high school two and three grades behind—but it succeeded in getting those students to graduation. What worked in New York was a multifaceted, multibillion-dollar, multiyear overhaul of the city’s high schools. In an era when a high school diploma is the difference between a career and a lifetime on the dole, New York’s high-school reforms have increased the economic mobility of tens of thousands of students.

Characteristics of Success

Part of the reason that the small-schools effort was so remarkable is that it bucked the reform instinct to start when kids are young; it was also notable because it was so long in coming. The 1983 report A Nation at Risk called out comprehensive American high schools for their “smorgasbord” curricula that were “homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose.” Many urban educators complained that the large high school was simply too big to work and too impersonal to reach every child, much less hundreds of children. What had been conceived as an educational melting pot had for many become a cauldron of educational failure.

By the 1990s, alternatives were in the works. Through the $500 million Annenberg Challenge, Reader’s Digest founder Walter Annenberg provided matching grants ranging from $1 million to $53 million to 2,400 schools in 35 states, much of it to create small high schools. New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit established in 1989, launched a small-high-schools effort in New York City in 1993 with Annenberg’s help. By 2000, when New Visions created a separate organization, New Century High Schools, to run and expand its small-high-schools effort, the collaboration had created 40 such schools. Despite these efforts and the Annenberg philanthropy devoted to them, the academic performance needle for most urban students barely moved.

Fast-forward 15 years, and the story is radically changed. When Bloomberg and Klein took the reins, in 2002, the stage was set for top-to-bottom transformation. West Coast billionaire Bill Gates had begun steering his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to education, and would eventually devote a billion dollars to the small-high-schools effort, spreading its largesse to some 300 school districts across the United States, including New York City.

According to Becky Smerdon and Kathryn Borman, who led the Gates-sponsored research team that evaluated the initiative, by the late 1990s some consensus had emerged among reformers about what made schools successful: “a shared vision focused on student learning, common strategies for engendering that learning, a culture of professional collaboration and collective responsibility, high-quality curriculum, systematic monitoring of student learning, strong instructional leadership (usually from the principal), and adequate resources.”

A growing body of research supported the idea that these characteristics were more easily achieved in smaller schools than in larger ones. The Gates grantmakers created seven “attributes of high-performing schools” that would guide its giving to those who wanted to create small high schools: a common focus; high expectations; personalization; respect and responsibility; time to collaborate; performance-based instruction; and using technology as a tool. Properly implemented, the foundation believed, these attributes would “lead not only to better outcomes for students attending the schools, but to increased demand for such schools.”

High schools that received grants from the Gates Foundation had positive results with personalization and collaboration.

High schools that received grants from the Gates Foundation
had positive results with personalization and collaboration.

Unfortunately, in the first five years of the initiative, according to the Evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s High School Grants Initiative: 2001–2005 Final Report, released in August 2006, there were mixed results at best. The researchers who studied the project, from the American Institutes for Research and SRI International, analyzed the grants to a sample of 17 school districts in 11 states. Their report found that most districts in the sample registered positive results with personalization and collaboration, but struggled with efforts to raise the expectations bar and implement performance-based instruction. For a program that was supposed to improve the educational outcomes of low-income high-school students, this was not good news.

In a book that Smerdon and Borman would curate for the Urban Institute in 2009, Saving America’s High Schools, many of the members of the research team expanded on the findings from the Gates report, offering a wealth of specific findings for many of the larger districts receiving Gates funds. The conclusions were the same: the major problem was implementation, especially with academics.

In the end, according to the final report of the Gates Foundation, “both new and redesigned schools needed more help with issues of curriculum and instruction.” As Smerdon and Borman would conclude in their subsequent book, “there is good reason to expect that the success of this ‘raise-the-bar’ approach to school improvement will depend on stakeholders’ abilities to provide the academic supports that students, particularly struggling students, need to be effective learners. Without these supports, the benefits of entering a ‘rigorous’ high school with more course requirements or a college-preparatory mandate may not be realized….”

Indeed, though the Gates Foundation would move on to other things, Smerdon and Borman had, in effect, suggested why New York City’s small-schools program has worked: academic instruction.

Sovereignty, Not Johnny Appleseed

Robert Hughes recalls his first meeting with Joel Klein, in 2002, at an opening-day ceremony at South Bronx High School, the newest of New Century’s small high schools. “And it’s a beautiful day and he sees what we’re doing,” recalls Hughes, who had taken the top job at New Visions in 2000, “and he turns to me and he says, ‘Can you create 200 more of these?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ because you always say ‘Yes’ to the new chancellor.”

But Hughes recognized immediately what that question meant. One of the lessons from the failed Annenberg Challenge, he would later explain, was that “You have to have superintendency”—by which he means authority—“so you start to change the system itself… You want to find new ways of supporting education improvement as a matter of routine.”

To make improvement a matter of routine may have been Bloomberg’s and Klein’s greatest contribution to New York’s public school ethos.

“Another critique of Annenberg,” says Hughes, “was that its theory of change was a little bit like Johnny Appleseed. You sprinkle good schools throughout a system and they’ll start to grow and sprout and other people will replicate them.”

Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane echo Hughes’s Johnny Appleseed observation in their bookRestoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education. Previous efforts, they said, were characterized by “a lack of a cogent framework for structuring these schools.” School administrators, they continued, often “viewed [seed schools] as exceptions in a system of centralized control, tolerating them only because they pacified innovative educators who would otherwise have been more vocal critics of the system.”

Until Bloomberg and Klein, the system tolerated the new small-school “seeds,” but didn’t fertilize them. By backing up the reform efforts, Bloomberg and Klein provided the “cogent framework”—the fertilizer, the water, the sun. And that was just the beginning.

Engaging Educators

Chancellor Klein hit the ground running, talking to Michele Cahill, a senior program officer at the Carnegie Corporation with vast experience, the day after his July 2002 appointment—and asking her to lead the high-school reform efforts. This sent a signal to the bureaucracy that change was coming. The following October, just after posing the question to Hughes, Klein announced the district’s intent to open 200 new small high schools.

While at Carnegie, Cahill had worked closely with New Visions and helped, in the spring of 2001, to secure an additional $30 million for New Century High Schools from the Gates Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and Carnegie, each interested in a different piece of the pie.

“Carnegie was interested in systems, how do we systematically think about reform, and wanted us to look at both small schools and large school transformations,” recalls Hughes about the $30 million small-schools grant he received in 2000. “Gates was about small, so small was an option that we put on the table. And Open Society was about highest need.”

Balancing those funder desires, New Visions created a Request for Proposals to all community school districts and high school superintendents in the city, inviting any group of educators to propose a small high school—limited to some 100 students per grade—with a focus on the Bronx, which had the highest concentration of low-performing schools.

“Annenberg was all about outside groups coming in,” explains Hughes, “so we wanted to use community-based organizations to drive change and ensure that there was a sense of urgency from the community, a kind of youth development perspective or civic perspective, that could be incorporated in what was going on in education.”

The Request for Proposals that had gone out was still reverberating when Bloomberg became mayor on January 1, 2002. The mayor’s reform efforts were aided by the fact that veteran teachers and administrators were excited again about school because of the small-schools efforts spearheaded by New Visions. Dozens of new school-team hopefuls had responded. “We all had a passion for this,” recalls Kirsten Larson, an English as a Second Language teacher at Morris High School in the Bronx. Larson was one of four teachers, an assistant principal, and guidance counselor from Morris determined to take the plunge. “But the writing was also on the wall,” she recalls. “They were going to close Morris.” Morris, like Kennedy, had become a dropout factory. Its last principal had described it, in 2001, as “a place out of control.”

New Visions and the New York City Department of Education provided technical assistance to the 75 applicants, convening workshops and advising the teams about curriculum, parent engagement, student engagement, teacher recruitment, the grading system, the floor plan, administrative priorities, and New Century’s 10 principles. Number one was “a rigorous instructional program.” That meant a Regents diploma curriculum. And a Regents diploma meant earning 22 credits of core subject courses and passing five different (and rigorous) domain-specific tests (in English, math, science, U.S. history, and global history).

The Bloomberg administration’s small high schools team succeeded in creating 200 mission-driven schools, most with a specific theme or subject, including college prep and career and technical specialities.

The Bloomberg administration’s small high schools team succeeded
in creating 200 mission-driven schools, most with a specific theme or subject,
including college prep and career and technical specialities.

In the end, Larson and her colleagues were 1 of only 15 of the 75 applicants that made that first cut. They moved to the eighth floor of Kennedy High School, then in the process of being remade, and opened Marble Hill School for International Studies in September 2003. Today, with 440 students, Marble Hill has a four-year graduation rate of 89.7 percent.

Over the next six years, the small-high-schools team succeeded in creating the 200 schools that Klein had imagined. All were mission-driven, most with a specific theme or subject, including college prep and career and technical specialties. And these were the schools that would prove so successful: raising graduation rates of previously underperforming students by some 10 percentage points.

“We never lost track of the fact that it was about graduating more kids career- and college-ready,” says Hughes. “But I think equally important was the fact that you had everybody at the table, and so you could learn and make mistakes together and build a sense of collective trust as you went forward.”

Building a System That Works for Kids

Eventually, Cahill and her colleagues would draft a Secondary Education Reform Plan that included literacy programs, introduced “small learning communities” in to larger schools, and provided the administrative support necessary to ensuring success.

Cahill had realized early on that there were several tracks to the high-school turnaround gauntlet, and that she didn’t have enough data to be sure exactly what kind of system to build.

“We knew what made effective schools,” she recalls. “Leadership, high-quality teaching, coherence, mission, youth development…. But we didn’t know how many of what kind of kid was actually in the system.”

Cahill coaxed her longtime collaborator JoEllen Lynch into joining the effort. Lynch had worked in the trenches of inner-city education for nearly 20 years, helping a nonprofit organization called Good Shepherd Services create education alternatives for the city’s most disenfranchised children. Cahill and Lynch reached out to the Parthenon Group, a data analysis and research firm in Boston, to find out how many of which kind of student was out there, which students fell behind, how they progressed through the system, what the outcomes were, and how those outcomes differed by program.

Parthenon began gathering data on every student who entered New York City’s high schools in 1999, nearly a quarter million of them, and by 2005, as education journalist Sarah Garland reported in a 2010Washington Monthly story, had accumulated data that were “shocking”: “Nearly 140,000 high-school-age youth in the city were at least two years behind where they needed to be to graduate on time. They had failed one or more grades in elementary or middle school and were way behind in accumulating the 44 high school credits they needed to graduate.”

Cahill asked Parthenon to find out the exact role played by school size in student outcomes. “So many people were saying to me,” she recalls, “‘If size is the problem, why isn’t it the problem for Stuyvesant?’” One of eight specialized public “exam” schools in New York, Stuyvesant had 3,200 students and a 98.4 percent four-year graduation rate.

Parthenon discovered that school size mattered much less (it explained 9 percent of the variation in outcomes) than did concentrations of low performers in the schools (which explained 22 percent of the variation). And with another statistical flourish, Parthenon determined that, together, school size and concentrations of low performers explained 41 percent of the variation in the outcomes.

Just those two variables, concluded the Parthenon researchers, were a “a powerful predictor of an individual school’s ability to prevent Level 1 and Low Level 2 students from falling behind.” (Level 1 and Level 2 were New York State score categories on standardized state math and ELA tests, where Level 1 was not proficient and Level 2 was below proficient. Thus Level 1 [L1] and Low Level 2 [LL2] scores on 8th-grade exams, though not a perfect metric, suggested that a student was one to three grade levels behind when entering high school.) Together with the significance of school size, the predictive power of the concentrations of L1 and LL2 represented something like the keys to the kingdom. The researchers could then measure a high school’s “preventive power”—its capacity to prevent students from becoming over-age and under-credited.

The Parthenon report put 14 sample high schools on a chart to illustrate the point. The Manhattan Village Academy, with just 359 students—52 percent of them L1/LL2—had a preventive power score of 86. This meant just 14 percent of its low-performing students would become over-age and under-credited with a high probability of dropping out before graduating. At the other end of the chart was Richmond Hill High School with 3,696 students, 58 percent of whom were L1/LL2. Parthenon determined that Richmond Hill had a preventive power score of just 55, that is, 45 percent of its students would end up over-age and under-credited—in other words, it was a dropout factory.

In sum, the report provided Cahill and her team with powerful evidence that they were on the right track in their pursuit of a small-schools strategy. But now they knew that not only would they need to create what Parthenon called “beat-the-odds” small schools, but they also had to dilute the concentrations of low performance in those schools. And so in 2004, a citywide system of choice for middle school students going to high school was born. With the new open-enrollment system, educators believed they could capitalize on the Small Schools of Choice reform.


After jump-starting small school creation in New York City and in districts throughout the country, the Gates Foundation has since turned its attention away from small schools. “Foundation president Bill Gates concluded that small schools did not have the effect on college readiness and graduation rates that he expected,” explained researchers from Duke and MIT.

New York City, however, showed how important all the other “attributes” are. Academic rigor andpersonalization are critical, and the layers of implementation require administrative expertise, management finesse, and political savvy. “Personalization,” for instance, doesn’t just mean making eye contact. It means giving teachers and students a focus to their school mission and a personal stake in the school, and creating a system that ensures accountability for results.

“The new small schools actually only worked because we were making systemic changes,” says Cahill, to ensure “that teaching and learning, human resources, finance, facilities, accountability, procurement, partnerships would be coordinated and problems solved rather than going into the black hole of bureaucracy.”

“In summary,” concluded a 2012 MDRC report that first gave evidence to the stunning success of New York’s small-high-schools program, “the present findings provide highly credible evidence that in a relatively short period of time, with sufficient organization and resources, an existing school district can implement a complex high-school reform that markedly improves graduation rates for a large population of low-income, disadvantaged students of color.”

MDRC issued a 2014 follow-up report, noting that “these graduation benefits do not come at the cost of higher expenditures per graduate.” Why? Because Cahill and her team worked smarter and, by getting so many more kids to graduation a year earlier, cheaper.

New York has proved that high school reform is possible; that boosting graduation rates of the poor and unprepared, even if the effort is begun in high school, is possible; that small alone is not enough; that choice alone is not enough. The package of elements that make for successful schools, identified by educators for several decades, is what is needed. And by following the money and making sure that it is targeted toward student achievement, it is a package that is affordable.

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.

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, 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, (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, 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 at 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, (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 (–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 (

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

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.