Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Lennox teacher lauded for starting reading club for boys

Lennox teacher lauded for starting reading club for boys

Diego's Dudes lunchtime reading club at Felton Elementary School in Lennox. Fourth grade teacher Alex Carrera brings her Chihuahua Diego to class as a mascot to help boys improve reading skills. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
Diego’s Dudes lunchtime reading club at Felton Elementary School in Lennox. Fourth grade teacher Alex Carrera brings her Chihuahua Diego to class as a mascot to help boys improve reading skills. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

Not long ago, Alex Carrera was killing time at a yard sale when she spied a book that caught her attention: “The Trouble With Boys. ”

The fourth-grade teacher at Felton Elementary School in Lennox fished a dollar out of her purse and made the purchase.

The message of the book by Peg Tyre jibed with Carrera’s classroom experience: Girls are outperforming boys in academics, and the gap is growing.

Inspired, Carrera came up with the idea for “Diego’s Dudes,” a reading club that involves her, a handful of boys who struggle with reading and Diego, the mascot of the club and the calmest of Carrera’s three Chihuahuas.

This fall, the small group began meeting three days a week, sitting on the floor of the empty classroom while the rest of the boys and girls romp outside during recess. For 15 minutes, the four boys read out loud passages from books of their own choosing while Carrera moderates. (Then they join their classmates for the second half of recess.) As for Diego, well, he tends to just lay on the floor and blink.

“He’s a good listener, and he doesn’t judge,” Carrera said. “He just wants to hear a good story. ”

The voluntary club is merely a drop of medicine in an ocean of need, but it sure made an impression on the SoCal Honda Dealers Association. Recently, the organization selected Carrera among five teachers in Southern California to be honored for Teachers Appreciation Week.

Carrera was nominated for the award by her principal, Scott Wilcox.

“It’s boys, and it’s Hispanic boys and minority boys, who are dropping out of high school,” he said. “You stop kids from dropping out of high school by intervening with something out of the box like this in the early grades. ”

Felton Elementary serves a high-risk population. Nearly 95 percent of the students are Latino; about 70 percent of the students are native Spanish speakers who are still learning English.

One of them is Edgar Vera, a member of the club. At the beginning of the year, Edgar not only felt shy about reading, but he also refused to speak English. Now he’s an eager participant during reading time.

“This club made me think that reading is fun for me,” he told a reporter during a visit. “I learned words and now I like a lot of reading. ”

Another student in the club, Charles Allen, said the group has helped with his comprehension of certain words, like “embarrassed. ”

“I used to say ’embraced,’ ” he said.

The gender gap in reading is a phenomenon that transcends ethnicity. A 2010 study by the Center on Education Policy found that boys lag behind girls in reading in all 50 states.

Males also are increasingly outnumbered by females on college campuses. It is widely reported that women in the United States now earn 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of all master’s degrees and more than half of all doctoral degrees.

Taking a page out of “The Trouble With Boys,” Carrera decided that the key to getting boys excited about reading – especially those who are “reluctant readers” – is to let them choose the materials.

With this in mind, Carrera was careful to recruit one of her most rambunctious boys, Miguel Tuznoh, to select the books for the group.

“He’s had trouble in the past with behavior,” she said. “He’s considered a leader. I picked up on that, and so rather than using his leadership skills in a negative way, I decided, ‘OK this is going to be my ringleader.’ ”

Miguel shared his criteria for book selection: anything “Gooey, disgusting, worms, sports … ”

“Boy stuff,” Carrera chimed in.

The reading list thus includes books like “How to Eat Fried Worms,” “Tales from the Crypt: Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid” and “The ‘Air’ Apparent: Kobe.”

The group is currently reading a book by Ellen Potter called “Slob,” about a fat kid who is a genius inventor but gets picked on. Carrera suggested that because she is female, she might have been subconsciously out of touch with the kind of selections more appealing to the male gender.

“They want to read biographies, irreverent humor, comic books,” she said. “Girls want to read about superstars. Right now Taylor Swift is big in my class. ”


The boys not only selected the books, but they also came up with the three rules of Diego’s Dudes.

“The only thing I say is ‘Give me three rules that have to do with character,’ ” Carrera said. And so they did.

Rule No. 1: Treat the books and mascot with care.

Rule No. 2: Come to the club meetings on time.

Rule No. 3: Respect our friends when they’re reading out loud.

“Mind you, they came up with that,” Carrera said. “We can’t laugh, we can’t make fun. And you see, they are helping each other out. ”

Next year, Carrera wants to add an element to the program in which male role models come to the class to read out loud to the boys.

“A lot of boys who struggle with reading don’t really have a male role model who they see reading,” she said. “I want to include male role models to come in and say, ‘This is my favorite book. Check it out.’ “

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

San Pedro High throws surprise party for exceptional teacher

San Pedro High throws surprise party for exceptional teacher

San Pedro High School English teacher David Crowley was honored Monday with a surprise party and equipment donation from Honda. Crowley has been teaching at the school for 12 years, is instrumental in the school's Gay Straight Alliance Program and started a Glee club. Crowley shows hi surprise as he walks into a classroom full of people waiting to honor him. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)
San Pedro High School English teacher David Crowley was honored Monday with a surprise party and equipment donation from Honda. Crowley has been teaching at the school for 12 years, is instrumental in the school’s Gay Straight Alliance Program and started a Glee club. Crowley shows hi surprise as he walks into a classroom full of people waiting to honor him. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)

San Pedro High School English teacher David Crowley was going about his business Monday morning when he was told there was a distraught student in the multipurpose room who badly needed his counsel.

Crowley didn’t think much of it. After all, he’d been the adviser of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance since founding the club 12 years ago – his first year working full-time at the school. Being there for kids who felt like outcasts was second nature.

But when he entered the room, he was greeted by a small swarm of news cameras and a cheering crowd of students, faculty, friends, family and a handful of young adults in blue T-shirts bearing the Honda logo.

“What’s going on here?” were the first words out of his mouth. He repeated the question at least once before taking a seat in the front row and getting his answer.

Crowley is among five teachers from San Pedro to Simi Valley being honored for Teachers Appreciation Week by the SoCal Honda Dealers Association. The association is recognizing one teacher per day through its Helpful Honda program, a seven-year-old campaign of community goodwill that includes other events such as surprising people with complimentary roses on Valentine’s Day and paying for gas at the pump when prices skyrocket.

Monday was the day for Crowley, who’d been nominated by his principal, Jeanette Stevens.

“Thank you for being a catalyst for change,” she told him, prompting more cheers.

20130506_083455_crowley2_300In addition to starting theGay-Straight Alliance, Crowley this fall helped students launch a glee club, a singing club at a school bereft of a choir due to budget cuts. He also became San Pedro High’s first-ever social media teacher, creating the school’s Facebook page, YouTube channel and Twitter feed.

He organizes an overnight retreat with students involved in a program called Advancement Via Individual Determination – known better as AVID – whose main purpose is to prepare disadvantaged students for college.

But fellow teacher Anthony Saavedra said those accomplishments only scratch the surface of Crowley’s abilities.

“When it comes to the controversy of testing, Dave’s motto is ‘Bring it on,’ ” he said, speaking into a mic before the audience. “His students consistently do well. ”

As Crowley sat down in the front row, still dumbfounded by the attention, a student holding a mic on stage began singing a song, ABBA’s “Thank You for the Music.” It crescendoed to include a chorus of kids. Crowley dabbed tears as he watched, and somebody brought him a box of tissues. At some point, Crowley’s 10-year-old son, Caden, sat in his lap.

Other students later took the mic to express their appreciation.

“You care for students – you understand,” said Jesse Gonzales, a junior with a streak of green in his long hair, shredded blue jeans and painted nails. “That’s very hard to come by these days. ”

Aundrea Fizer, a sophomore, said that thanks to the glee club and Crowley, school no longer feels scary to her.

“I’ve opened up to new people, met new friends – I never thought I’d have something like this,” she said.

In addition to the accolades from students and colleagues, Crowley was awarded $5,000 worth of gear from Helpful Honda that included several iPads, a karaoke machine, a digital camera and a MacBook computer.

“Gosh – I don’t think I’ve ever felt this appreciated,” said Crowley, a tall and slender man with wispy blond hair and dark-framed eyeglasses.

Crowley still remembers the first meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Students crowded around the door – not to go in, necessarily, but to see who was going in.

“The first meeting was met with a lot of curiosity,” he said. “Hundreds and hundreds of kids showed up. I think they wanted to see who was gay. ”

Crowley had actually been coming off a tough week. Due to the school’s declining enrollment and his place on the faculty seniority list, Crowley had just been informed he is due to be displaced next school year.

Because the school’s headcount is expected to shrink by about 230 students, he is among six teachers slated for reassignment to other schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“I don’t want to leave,” he said. “This is my home. ”

Asked what it takes to be a good teacher, Crowley said it is important to talk to kids, not at them.

By this, he means treating them more like colleagues than underlings.

For instance, Crowley has a method for discussing classroom rules on the first day of school.

“I just stare at them,” he said. “After a while, I go, ‘What are the rules? I mean, there’s a lot more of you than there are of me. So you guys could easily kick my butt if you wanted to. So I guess we better figure out how we’re all going to get along.’ And then they start suggesting rules, and then I slowly guide them to the ones that I’m OK with. “

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

47-year-old teacher back from the bloody front lines in Afghanistan

47-year-old teacher back from the bloody front lines in Afghanistan

Not many people experience combat for the first time at age 47. But Jonathan Stamper, a science teacher at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, tends to write his own rules.
Not many people experience combat for the first time at age 47. But Jonathan Stamper, a science teacher at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, tends to write his own rules.

Not many people experience combat for the first time at age 47.

But Jonathan Stamper, a science teacher at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, tends to write his own rules.

Stamper joined the military at age 41, inspired by a newly enlisted student who came to class in uniform. Since then, he’s logged three tours, one in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.

During those first two expeditions, Stamper was lucky enough to avoid getting shot at or witnessing violence, death and bloodshed. Not this last time.

He returned to the classroom last week after a six-month deployment in Afghanistan. One day last week, his colleagues cut cake for him in the teachers’ lounge. Like last time, he told some stories. But while his previous yarns of making a difference in the villages had an uplifting quality, “this time, it was like, ‘oof,’ ” said Peninsula Principal Mitzi Cress. “I guess that’s kind of how things are going over there. Very scary.”

For his part, Stamper seems eager to share the stories, in part to keep from suffering psychologically. Talking, in fact, is a prescription from the company chaplain.

“If it fades away, and you can talk about it, clinically, that’s good,” he said, recalling the chaplain’s assessment. “If it comes back to haunt you at night, you got yourself PTSD.”


Stamper’s return comes at a time when violence in the war-ravaged country is escalating, with Afghan soldiers increasingly turning their weapons on the Americans who trained them.

It also comes on the eve of an expected drawdown of American forces, in hopes that the Afghan government and its fledgling military will be able to uproot and fend off the Taliban on its own.

Stamper’s assignment dovetailed neatly with that broader mission. As a sergeant with the Civil Affairs unit, he’s an emissary, not a warrior.

But this is a land where those aims blur together. So rather than taking an office job, Stamper joined the foot soldiers of a platoon. Like them, he took “showers” that consisted of standing on a pallet and dousing himself with bottled water. At first it bothered him, but it was during these showers that he was struck by the beauty of the desert.

“You can see the Milky Way galaxy, I was able to see the Andromeda galaxy — the planets, the stars and Orion,” he said.

And while he carried dolls, harmonicas and other trinkets for the kids, he also toted an M-16.

The mission, this time around, was to repopulate a ghost-town village of 40 families in the notoriously dangerous province of Kandahar.

The people had been shooed from their homes by the Taliban and were living out of lean-tos in the nearby desert. Their village, Jogram, was littered with improvised explosive devices, commonly known as IEDs.

The aim: Clear the IEDs, repopulate the village and persuade the people to notify the authorities of any Taliban efforts to move back in.

Sweeping for IEDs proved the most harrowing task. It involved a single-file patrol led by a soldier with a metal detector. He marked a path for safety using the white powder from a can of Ajax cleaner, but it was easy to stray. One man did so by a footstep too far, triggering an explosion.

The next thing Stamper knew, he was holding a white sheet to provide relief in the 120-degree heat for a frantic team of medics as they applied tourniquets to the bloody legs of a screaming Afghan soldier, who was about to become a double-amputee.

Stamper then helped hustle the stretcher to a helicopter in the middle of a field, fully expecting to draw fire from Taliban insurgents lurking in the shadows, or, worse, to step on another deadly IED.

“I’m sitting there going, I’m 47 years old, I’m C.A. (Civil Affairs), and I’m dealing with kinetic — they call it (combat) kinetic activity,” he said.

That wasn’t the worst of the IED incidents. Another time, an Afghan soldier became overconfident during a sweep and broke into a sprint ahead of the gingerly advancing platoon. Again, there was an explosion.

Stamper has no memory of trying to help the man, who died. But the commanding officer later praised him for his bravery.

“I didn’t realize I helped out on this, but a surveillance balloon was filming us the whole time,” he said.

In the film, he watched himself wrap the man’s leg with bandages.

“I don’t remember it at all,” he said. “I just remember seeing the guy — his face and the blood and the bones and all that, and thinking, `God this is horrible, but keep your wits about you.’ And I remember carrying him to the helicopter.”

Stamper isn’t always given to following protocol. Sidestepping endless amounts of red tape, he enlisted his church back home — Anza Avenue Baptist — to send along seeds for farmers who struggled to grow anything beyond poppy, a lucrative crop used for producing heroin. Sending seeds amounted to a breach of bureaucracy, but Stamper nonetheless smuggled the tomato, squash, pumpkin and watermelon seeds into the village by getting the congregation to stuff them into a shipment of toys.

He also asked his wife to send him a clump of dirt and some seed for a little patch of grass. He initially feared it could get him in trouble. On the contrary, his platoon leader encouraged the men to walk across it barefooted before every patrol.

Said the commander: “That way you can say if you die today, the last thing you did is step on American soil.”

Colorful Characters Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Teacher Heads off to War

Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Teacher Heads off to War

Like many high schools in affluent areas, Palos Verdes Peninsula High School sends very few recent graduates off to war. But next week one of its teachers will be departing for the danger zone – for the second time in two years.

 U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Jonathan Stamper is also a Physics and Chemistry teacher at Peninsula HS. He just received orders that he is being deployed to Afghanistan. He returned from a tour of duty in Iraq last spring. Stamper in classroom at Peninsula. (Robert Casillas)
U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Jonathan Stamper is also a Physics and Chemistry teacher at Peninsula HS. He just received orders that he is being deployed to Afghanistan. He returned from a tour of duty in Iraq last spring. Stamper in classroom at Peninsula. (Robert Casillas)

Chemistry and physics teacher Jonathan Stamper, a sergeant in the Army Reserve, will leave behind his Bunsen burners, pencil sharpeners, periodic tables and the safety of his classroom for the exotic landscape of Afghanistan, where he will don his military uniform, bulletproof vest and pick up a rifle again.

His deployment comes less than a year after returning from a 12-month stint in Iraq.

Although he had expected the first assignment, the second one came as more of a surprise. Especially in light of how the United States has been drawing down, not beefing up, its presence in Afghanistan.

But an order arrived just before the holiday break, in the form of a letter from the military. Stamper had felt like he was just getting back into the teaching groove.

“All of a sudden the Army says, `Nope, you gotta go again,”‘ he said, with a sigh. “But the nice part about it is, there’s a greater good. … We might make a difference in some Afghani lives.”

Stamper, 46, did not witness any combat in Iraq. Rather, he served as a member of Civil Affairs, traveling the arid and dusty terrain to talk to farmers and sheep herders, with an eye toward assessing the effectiveness of U.S. and global efforts to help create a sustainable economy.

But he witnessed firsthand the ravages of war: children with missing limbs and eyes, merchants selling goods out of stores with blown-out walls, partially destroyed churches. At all times, the specter of violence loomed. One of Stamper’s friends and counterparts in the Civil Affairs department was killed by sniper fire in a village, shot in the vulnerable patch of space under the arm.

The mile-by-mile base where Stamper stayed was shelled so often that the sound of the alarms – overlaid with a speaker intoning the words “incoming” over and over again – became routine. Sometimes, the explosions were close enough to feel the shock waves inside whatever bunker he’d taken refuge in.

Inspired by a student

Stamper is the rare late-in-life military enlistee. He was inspired in part by the story of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who turned down a multimillion-dollar contract from the Arizona Cardinals to join the military shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was killed in the mountains of Afghanistan.

But it was a conversation with a student that finally spurred him to enlist in late 2006. The young man had joined a program that allowed him to finish boot camp between his junior and senior years, and had shown up to class wearing his uniform.

“I told him, `If I had a second chance, I would do it,”‘ Stamper remembers. “He looked at me and he said: `Mr. Stamper, do you know that they raised the enlistment age? … They raised it to 42.’ I was 41 1/2.”

He went to the recruiting office that very day. A few months later, Stamper was in boot camp, getting yelled at, running drills, shooting guns and sleeping in a big room with 60 other guys who were less than half his age. His memories of that particular experience are not fond.

“I’m trying to get it out of my mind,” he said, shaking his head with a smile while sitting at a table in the school library. The biggest challenge wasn’t the physical training or the drill sergeants, but rather the high energy of the 18-year- olds at bedtime.

“Every night, it was like `Be quiet!”‘ he said. “I was yelling at them, `Be quiet!”‘

The drill sergeants – also a good 10 years younger than him – put Stamper in charge of his fellow soldiers as a platoon sergeant.

“I was like their dad.”

Serving in the reserves can be a little like living in an episode of “Quantum Leap.” One moment you’re in a certain setting, completely immersed in a job, and then the next minute, poof! Your stint either ends or a new one begins.

Such was the case for Stamper when he was in Iraq. He was just settling into an assignment that involved learning how to spin wool with a loom. A German company had donated one to a group of widows so they could eke out a living selling textiles. The women just needed to learn how to use it.

“I was just getting ready to teach that – I had classes all set up and ready to go,” he said. “And that’s when (the military) started to do the pullback.”

Just like that, he was back in the classroom, in January 2011. By this December, he was just getting to know a new crop of students. And then, the letter arrived.

Palos Verdes Peninsula Principal Mitzi Cress said her first reaction upon learning of Stamper’s next assignment was one of worry.

“I was like, `Oh my gosh, that’s just terrible,”‘ she said. “But the next (reaction) was `I’m so proud of you.”‘

Last week, the school held a send-off assembly for Stamper in the amphitheater, complete with a choir performance and speeches – despite his reticence to be recognized.

“His colleagues are the ones that did all the planning,” said Cress, who also sent the Daily Breeze a press release about his upcoming adventure.

The letter from the military originally had him reporting to duty on Jan. 9. But Stamper begged his military commanders to delay the start date a few weeks, so he could get his students past final exams, which finished up on Friday. The higher-ups consented.

A native son of The Hill

Soft-spoken, articulate and emphatically agreeable, Stamper – a native son who attended schools on The Hill as a kid – does not exhibit the taciturn nature of the archetypal military man. He is open and easy-going, with a streak of independence that borders the rebellious.

For instance, in Iraq he swapped out the name tag on his uniform for another one written in Arabic. That simple gesture greatly endeared him to the locals. But it went against military policy and he was scolded. He reattached his English name tag, only to quietly swap it out again in the field, though he says the rules are in place for good reason: To ensure safety.

In any case, Stamper quickly learned the code of conduct of the land, internalizing many “nevers” that are foreign to Americans. Never show the soles of your feet when sitting. Never greet somebody with your left hand. Never initiate a conversation with a woman.

Likely he is valuable to the military for a fortuitous blend of attributes, which include a general aptitude for science, an ability to teach and an all- around peaceable nature.

In Iraq, Stamper primarily worked with farmers and spent much of his time inspecting everything from beehives to livestock operations to olive-oil presses.

“He’s a perfectionist,” Cress said. “You just know darn well that when he was over there in Iraq that he did everything right. I bet when he did reports they were A-plus.”

Still, it is not a high-paying gig: Embarking on the mission means Stamper’s normal paycheck will be cut in half. But he said he and his wife Eva, with whom he owns a home in Hermosa Beach, have been saving up.

“We’ll be fine,” he said.

His next mission will actually require several weeks of training on the East Coast. He’ll begin his duties in Afghanistan in March. Stamper said he will probably stay for about a year.

As for Eva, he said she is supportive of his need to serve the country, but will be happy when his eight-year commitment is finished – which won’t happen until 2015.

In his absence, she will take care of their three Jack Russell terriers.

“If she was all by herself, I’d be concerned, but the dogs always help,” he said. “And we have a good support group with the church (Anza Avenue Baptist), we have a good support group with family, and we have good support with friends.”

Follow Rob Kuznia on Twitter at

Pacific Standard Magazine

What Are American Schools Doing Right?

Amid the hand-wringing over the parlous state of U.S. education, experts suggest that successes demonstrate that lasting reform will require constellations of effort, not just stars.

What Are American Schools Doing Right?

We hear it over and over again: The public education system in the United States is broken. Smart teachers burn out and leave early. The achievement gap between poor minority students and their affluent white peers won’t budge. America is losing ground to other developed nations on test scores.

By now, anyone who has ever read a newspaper — assuming, alarmists may add, that you can read at all — understands that the American public education system is rife with problems. But, surely, some practices work. Isn’t there a way to look at examples of success and replicate them?

With these questions in mind, talked to a handful of leading education experts. Some say the American public education system is ripe for a re-boot and should emulate European countries like Finland, where students don’t take standardized tests, and where local teachers and administrators — not the government — design the curriculum. Others point to the early success of a program in Chicago in which every new teacher receives an instructional coach for two years. Still others argue that while there is always room for improvement, schools in the United States remain the world’s finest and are performing at peak levels.

Whatever the case, there are, of course, plenty of success stories. Often, they center on the innovative efforts of an inspiring, charismatic individual who is able to single-handedly boost the test scores and overall learning experiences of hundreds of students.

Take the story of a 35-year-old teacher in California named Alex Kajitani, now known as “The Rappin’ Mathematician.”

The Rappin’ Mathematician
By 2006, Kajitani had been teaching for a couple years and was on the verge of burnout. It’s a typical scenario: Half of the nation’s new teachers quit the profession by their fifth year.

Raised in Boulder, Colo., Kajitani had landed his first job as an educator teaching eighth-grade algebra in one of the poorest parts of the San Diego metropolitan area. At Mission Middle School in Escondido, 9 in 10 students are Latino, and just as many are categorized as poor. More than half are still learning English, and two-thirds of their parents never finished high school.

What’s more, the neighborhood sees gang activity and violent crime thrive.

Needless to say, it was difficult to get the kids interested in learning their quadratics and polynomials.

“I couldn’t get them to pay attention or remember anything I was teaching,” Kajitani said. “Then I noticed a rap song came out on the radio on Monday, and by Tuesday, they pretty much had the whole thing memorized.”

Kajitani had an epiphany. He would write a rap song based on algebra. That night, he labored away on a song called “Itty Bitty Dot.” It was about decimals.

The next morning, a reinvigorated Kajitani came to school equipped with a large pair of sunglasses. At the beginning of the class, he put them on and performed his rap for the students. Their reaction wasn’t encouraging.

“It was just an absolute disaster,” he said. “I got completely laughed at.”

Kajitani figured he was finished. Dejected, he trudged off to lunch. Then, a funny thing happened. While walking past a table in the cafeteria, he heard kids singing the “Itty Bitty Dot” song. The next day, the students ran into his room, eager to be there, asking if he had plans to appear on MTV.

Kajitani wrote more songs. The test scores of his students soared. He cut a professional CD with the help of a music producer and gave himself a catchy, if endearingly nerdy, moniker: “The Rappin’ Mathematician.”

Later, Kajitani began bringing a boombox into the classroom. His unorthodox method caught the attention of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Kajitani was nominated to become the teacher of the year in the Escondido Union School District. He won, putting him in the running for 2009 teacher of the year in San Diego County. Again, he won, making him a candidate for the California’s Teacher of the Year award.

Once again, the Rappin’ Mathematician prevailed, earning him the praise of California’s superintendent of public instruction, Jack O’Connell.

Now, Kajatani is one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award. (The winner will be announced in April.) His CD is sold to teachers around the country, and his students are scoring “proficient” in all algebraic categories, putting them just above the statewide average.

“Now that I look back on it, it wasn’t really about rapping, it was about connecting,” Kajitani said. “It’s connecting with my students on their level in a way that is actually culturally relevant to them.”

Like Robin Williams’s performance as a spirited, book-destroying teacher in the critically acclaimed movie Dead Poet’s Society, Kajitani’s story is inspiring. Upon hearing it, school districts everywhere might consider purchasing his CD by the dozen. Inner-city teachers might be tempted to write songs around their lessons, or at least figure out ways to become more culturally relevant to their students. Administrators might strive to make room in their budgets for boomboxes and sunglasses.

If only it were that easy.

After spending years researching successful education systems, Boston College professor Andrew Hargreaves likes to issue a warning that, at first blush, seems a little odd: Beware the educational innovators.

Beware of Innovators
It’s not that the results of people like Kajitani aren’t legitimate. It’s just that an innovator’s successes usually cannot be replicated and tend to fizzle in the wake of his or her departure, said Hargreaves, the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.

“You can always point to an interesting example of innovation; they always exist: a teacher here, a school there,” he said. “Our evidence is that most of those collapse over time and are not sustainable — because they are exceptions.”

Does this mean the quest for sustainable reform is fruitless? Absolutely not, says Hargreaves, author of the award-winning book Teaching In The Knowledge Society: Education in the Age of Insecurity.

According to Hargreaves, though educational innovators are beneficial, the best beacons of reform are not individual teachers, principals or schools but entire districts, cities and even nations.

Because every district, city and nation has its own unique history, what works for one might not work for all. In other words, successful system-wide reform comes in many shapes and sizes. But Hargreaves argues that the standouts share several underlying principles. It’s the principles, he says — not any specific practice — that must be internalized.

One of the key principles, Hargreaves said, is this: Successful reformers know how to build on the best aspects of their cultural past to take them into a prosperous future.

As an example, Hargreaves and many others point to Finland. The Nordic country of 5 million people is the world’s top performer on a global test called the Programme for International Student Assessment, which is given to students of every developed nation for comparative purposes.

The country’s economy is bustling, owing in large part to its technological creativity and corporate transparency. (Although in recent months, Finland’s economy has taken a hit like nearly all the others in the world.)
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, the country was considered a rural backwater. Its education system went unnoticed by most experts in the field. Through the 1970s and ’80s, Finland’s economy depended on trade with its neighbor, the Soviet Union. But the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 opened up trade to other parts of the world for Russia — Finland had lost its captive market.

A crisis ensued. Unemployment in Finland shot up to nearly 20 percent. The nation’s leaders convened in emergency meetings to brainstorm ways to reinvent themselves. As a small country covered in snow for half the year, Finland does not enjoy the luxury of easily accessible natural resources.

Eventually, the leaders concluded that the country’s most valuable resource was its own people. After all, it’s a creative population: The country boasts more musical composers and orchestras per capita than anywhere else in the world. The leaders decided to build an economy based on knowledge, which required providing its citizens with the finest public education anywhere.

The general idea, Hargreaves said, was to connect its cultural past of creativity to a future of economic innovation.

It worked.

In his research of Finland, Hargreaves made several key observations. There, it is not easy to become a teacher. Only 1 in 10 applicants get the job, which affords the position a certain cachet. In keeping with the country’s creative past, all students take performing and creative arts until they graduate high school. With an eye toward the country’s economic future, students are also exposed to a rigorous math and science curriculum.

On a policy level, the standards and expectations are clear but broad: Local educators enjoy a good deal of professional flexibility. The details of the curricula are decided not by the government but the local teachers themselves, who hammer it out together in a culture of trust and cooperation, Hargreaves said.

“They feel responsible for all the children, not just the ones in their grade or department,” he said. The teachers, in other words, feel like they are a part of something large and important.

Moreover, there is no standardized testing. Every year a random sample of students is assessed but only to decipher how well any given school is performing. This discourages instructors from “teaching to the test,” because they don’t know who will be tested.

Hargreaves notes that critics of looking at Finland as an educational paragon often point out that the small, homogenous country can’t be compared to large, diverse nations such as the United States.

But he said many of the same principles are at play in other miracle-story school systems, with entirely different student populations.

The Story of Tower Hamlets
Hargreaves cites Tower Hamlets, an impoverished borough of London filled with Bangladeshi immigrants.

In 1997, of all the local school districts across England, the district in Tower Hamlets fared dead last based on test scores. By 2007, the district, which includes about 100 schools, was scoring at or above the national average in every subject while the demographics of the system remained the same.
What had changed?

In this case, it started with a strong leader who sought to re-configure the system in a way that would outlast her tenure, Hargreaves said.

As in the United States, the United Kingdom sets the improvement targets for all the nation’s school districts. But the new leader decided that in order to spur reform, new standards and targets had to be crafted for Tower Hamlets that were more ambitious than those given to them by the government.

Similar to what has been done in Finland, the district’s educators were brought in to set the new targets together.

Also, in 1997, teacher quality was often poor. This is because many teachers came from out of the country for the purpose of enjoying London for a couple years before moving on. More energy was devoted to attracting and retaining teachers who either hailed from the community or had designs to stay there.

In addition, in Tower Hamlets, the stronger schools band together to help the weak. A high-performing school may lend a struggling school extra resources — such as teachers or administrators — during tough times. When this occurs, the stronger school is reimbursed by the district.

Finally, Hargreaves said, in Tower Hamlets, the district makes a point to hire assistants for virtually every teacher. The assistants often are residents of the community, meaning many are Bangladeshi parents. In fact, about half of every school’s total number of paid employees are assistants from the community. This accomplishes two things: It frees up time for teachers to focus on instruction, and it fosters a relationship between the school staff and the parents, Hargreaves said.

Despite the radical differences between the Bangladeshi immigrants of the Tower Hamlets district and the largely homogenous population of Finland, Hargreaves argues that the two systems benefited from some of the same underpinning principles.

In both places, the professional educators were called upon to take ownership of an urgent mission, local educators were tasked with the responsibility of crafting their own set of standards, the school systems made conscious attempts to hire good teachers, and, rather than competing against one other, all the schools within each system rallied together, pooling resources and — in the case of Tower Hamlets — devoting extras to the laggards. (Hargreaves said the Finnish system doesn’t really have laggards.)

“What matters are the principles,” Hargreaves said. “What we have in most of America are principles that completely contradict everything I’ve just discussed, except for the sense of urgency.”

One thing Tower Hamlets didn’t do, in the face of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s national program, was farm out schools to the private sector.

One counterintuitive conclusion that Hargreaves touts is that school districts have a better shot at turning around weak schools when they are bigger. This flies in the face of the “smaller is better” ethos of many American public school educators.

“Some people want to put an end to districts, but I don’t think that is realistic,” he said. “Change that and you change one of the foundations in American democracy. But you can open your district up to learning from other districts.”

Hargreaves, however, allows that U.S. school-reform efforts are succeeding on one front: teacher training.

Chicago New Teacher Center
Over the past decade or so, a movement to pair new teachers with coaches or mentors has been growing in America. One such program, called the Chicago New Teacher Center, started three years ago. There, every new teacher in the schools serving the roughest areas of the city receives a coach for two years. The neighborhoods include some of the most violent in the country, including the one where the mother, brother and nephew of actress and singer Jennifer Hudson were killed in October.

As part of the program, the coach — typically a seasoned teacher, yet many years away from retirement — visits the classroom a couple times a week to act, at first, as a kind of assistant, helping to set up bulletin boards and decorate the classroom. As the weeks wear on, the coach assumes the role of confidant, asking the new teacher to talk about the most difficult aspects of the job.

Eventually, the coach provides feedback, which is expected to be non-threatening because the coaches are employed by the nonprofit New Teacher Center, not the school district. The idea is to objectively gauge how well a teacher is preparing his or her students to meet the state standards.

The coaches may offer pointers on handling some of the more delicate aspects of the job, such as parent-teacher conferences.

“Start with something positive,” advises Tamiko Clark, who taught elementary- and pre-school-aged kids in the Chicago area for 18 years before being recruited by the New Teacher Center. “Then you might get some information from the parents — ask what their concerns are.”

Only after making these efforts, she said, should teachers delve into their concerns about the child.

During the first two and a half years of the Chicago program, the retention rate of the roughly 90 teachers who received a coach the first year is 83 percent. So far, at least, the retention rate is on pace to significantly surpass the dismal national rate of 50 percent by the fifth year.

Also, early evidence suggests the test scores of the students are on the rise.

“School districts across America are starting to pay attention to this aspect of the work,” said Ellen Moir, executive director of the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which helped spearhead the Chicago project. “In the last few years, we’ve seen greater emphasis on teacher quality, instead of just letting them sink or swim.”

Middle School Success
Effective educational practices are especially vital when it comes to teaching what may be the most challenging age group: middle-schoolers. It’s an interesting and even difficult age as students learn to think abstractly.

Middle-school students, in their study of social-justice issues, develop an intellectual understanding of the concepts of fairness and egalitarianism. Yet when the bell rings, they don’t think twice about tormenting someone in the hallway.

“They can think about how, ‘Yeah, I know that’s the right thing to do,’ but they can’t always put it into practice,” said Debby Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform.

Since 1999, the forum has identified nearly 200 exceptional middle schools and summarized the highlights of each school on its Web site.

Unlike the gold-star schools that have come to characterize the perennial lists of U.S. News & World Report, the forum’s exemplars tend to post test scores that are average. But average scores are often a major achievement for schools serving disadvantaged populations.

Take Torch Middle School in Los Angeles County’s City of Industry. Ninety-four percent of the students are Latino — a third are still learning English, and 86 percent are considered poor.

Torch’s test scores have skyrocketed in three years, and now not only hover around the state average but also fare in the top 10 percent when stacked against schools across California with similar demographics.

At Torch, students are required to wear uniforms, thereby discouraging social competition. To ease the transition from the elementary grades to high school, movement from class to class in minimized: Sixth-graders leave their classroom only for their elective and P.E., and seventh- and eighth-graders split their day into two main 104-minute periods.

As with many of the schools deemed successful by the forum, teachers at Torch meet with each other frequently and are good at sharing information on individual students. The students’ writing portfolios, for instance, are passed from one grade level to the next.

“Another thing we find is that the teachers and the administrators love being at these schools,” Kasak said. “They are great places to work. Over time, the culture has been built up.”

United States Still No. 1?
Not all education experts agree that American schools are on the wrong path.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that contrary to what we always hear, American schools have never been better.

“I happen to be one of those people that very much is convinced that in spite of the issues we have in public education in America, it’s still the best school system in the world,” he said. “We are the standard.”

Domenech said that partly due to the American education system’s constant push for improvement, it’s easy to view the data pessimistically.

“Yes, we can point to the fact that the graduation rate is only 70 percent and we should be doing better,” he said. But “it’s not like we dropped from 80 percent. The graduation rate continues to grow year after year. Fifty years ago, the percentage of kids graduating from high school was maybe 30 or 40 percent.”

Domenech concedes that the test scores of some countries have surpassed those of the United States, such as Singapore, New Zealand and, yes, Finland.

But these countries are small and homogenous, he said.

“Do we want to compare Finland to one of our rich suburbs? … Let’s face it, some of the finest schools in the world are in our suburbs.”

As an example, Domenech cites Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, Va., where he once served as superintendent. In December, for the second year in a row, U.S. News & World Report listed Jefferson High as the nation’s No. 1 public high school.

“Does Finland have a better high school than Thomas Jefferson? I doubt it,” he said.

What separates America from the rest of the world, Domenech said, is diversity.

“In Japan, all the students are Japanese,” he said. “In Fairfax, we had over 140 languages that were spoken. I didn’t even know that there were that many languages spoken in the world.”

Domenech said America’s educational success comes down largely to the country’s abundance of money.

With money, he said, American schools have been able to reduce class size, hire teachers at higher salaries, purchase sophisticated grading and attendance software and furnish classrooms with good computers.

Invariably, he said, the schools that fall behind are the ones filled with students who are poor.

“This isn’t brain surgery here,” he said. “The more wealth, the better the kids are going to do in school. If we want to close the achievement gap, we need to drive the money and the resources.”