Pacific Standard Magazine

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.

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.”