Chicago Charter Schools

I wrote this blog post back in February, but before I managed to post it the world changed rather dramatically. Now we begin to settle into our new normal, I’m revisiting what has formed the way I think about education. We will return to our schools (whenever that may be) I hope with a renewed vigour to improve the educational chances of our students. We should always be asking: what does great look like? This post is about a time when I was sure I was seeing “great”.

In 2012, I was granted a week’s leave by a kind Headteacher to be able to take part in a visit to see Chicago’s Charter schools with the charity Teach For All. It’s a visit I come back to again and again, often with the sad corollary question: why can’t we replicate the extraordinary success of the US Charter schools?

I started to teach in 2010, the same year that the documentary “Waiting for Superman” came out. As such, I was exposed from the early days of my teaching career to the incredible feats of learning happening in schools like the KIPP schools; I was exposed to the thinking of the short-lived but much-lauded chancellor of DC public schools, Michelle Rhee, and I was introduced to the British version of this in my training weeks with Teach First: King Solomon Academy.

I’ve frequently heard educators say that America is always five or ten years ahead of the UK in terms of education, and so a visit to their leading schools was likely to become a formative event.

An attitude that all the schools we visited seemed imbued with was success at all costs. We visited three schools – one elementary, and two high schools – all of which massively outperformed the local public schools, all of which had incredibly deprived in takes.

At the elementary school, in the middle of an estate strewn with boarded up and broken windows, an intake which was 96% free or reduced lunches moved around the building silently and were taught traditionally. Flags celebrating their teachers’ universities adorned the hallways, a feature notable across all the Charter schools we visited. Even the Maths examples were linked to university (“if you have a college degree, you earn 20% more than someone who does not. Work out what your take home salary would be with or without a degree for the average state salaries of these ten states”).

Yet I also witnessed heart breaking bullying of a child with clear special educational needs, who on the particular day I visited appeared to receive no specialised support at any point – not even a teacher giving her extra help in the lesson. When the teacher in one class asked the children to choose their partner, she tried in vain to get someone to work with her as her peers pretended she didn’t exist, before turning to me – the observer – and saying: “can I work with you please?” In terms of the ethos and culture of the school, the messaging seemed to begin and end with: we’re going to get to university.

Of course, it is unfair to judge a school on a one-day visit, but school culture inevitably pervades. This culture was evident in our next visit, to a high school where 75% of students received free or reduced lunches. The mission of university for all pervaded the school – though students were “tracked” into three streams, the expectation was that all would make it to university. One student told me that they were learning to be more independent (for example, students picked up work from a central area to complete if they had missed any school) because: “in college no-one will hold your hand.” What shone through most at this school, though, was love – the children we met absolutely loved their school. They proudly showed us their “anti-bullying pledge wall,” and were incredibly loving and accepting towards one another. This was most touchingly revealed when we saw lockers that were covered in wrapping paper, sometimes with balloons tied to them – a tradition that happened for student birthdays (we even, sweetly, found they had “wrapped” a teacher’s door having found out it was her birthday).

The final school we visited had an intake where 84% of students had free meals, 10% reduced lunches. The school mascot was this big cat, which they coloured in every time someone won their university place along with posting a copy of the acceptance letter.

Incredibly, on our visit day our staff orientation was interrupted to announce that the final member of the senior class had won their university acceptance: the cat was complete. 100% of that class had been accepted to a four-year university course, the most prestigious kind in America.

At this school, they didn’t just talk the talk of university – they also managed the practicalities. Students had three hours of classes a week on university: how to apply, how to get funding, how to study, how to live independently, how to balance work and university.

The students described incredibly tough discipline, starting with demerits and detentions, and escalating to Saturday detentions. If a student received more than four Saturday detentions, they would be held back a year in school. As you can imagine, this was quite a deterrent.

It is clear that the challenge for schools in England is tough: our system necessitates some children leaving our institutions at the age of 16, so we have more limited control over university acceptances. We can’t hold students back a year for poor behaviour. In other ways, of course, Americans face a far steeper challenge: excessive university fees, as well as access to healthcare and other benefits being more challenging.

This trip was formative for me though. Until you actually see it, you don’t truly believe it is possible – or else, I didn’t. I thought I had high expectations, but what I saw in the Charter school classrooms exposed these as frighteningly low.

And while the details differ, this visit taught me some overarching eternal truths about schools.

For example: the building doesn’t matter. Charter schools often open in the actual building of a failing school. Technology doesn’t matter. These schools all used blackboards and the occasional overhead projector (I might be the last generation of teacher who remembers these in their childhood classrooms!). Class size doesn’t matter. These schools are often widely oversubscribed, and classes were much larger than the state averages.

But culture matters. Parental support matters. Quality teaching – and all the attendant concerns like teacher development – matters. Curriculum matters. And belief matters. That core belief: it is possible, it is being done, we can do it too.

Why can’t we replicate the extraordinary success of the Charter schools? We can, we just haven’t yet.

The human side

I haven’t written for a while. It’s always busy at the start of the school year, but it has not been that busy, and it is suddenly October. But I had to write about what happened on Thursday.

Our school population is changing, and rapidly. At the end of last year, we began to have an influx of in-year admissions, with a heavy bias towards those for whom English is an additional language. That trend has intensified this term. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented at my school, and we are moving rapidly to put in place a more comprehensive programme for EAL learners. But it is embryonic, so I won’t write about it now. I want to write about the human side of EAL.

I want to write about G. G is new to year 7. Two days new. I noticed him first on Tuesday, where he was sitting at the back of our ‘Aspire to Oxbridge’ assembly with this sort of blank look on his face. Entirely still from the tummy up. Legs dancing on the floor ceaselessly from the tummy down. I saw him on Wednesday, when he was late in, and I mimed PE for him before taking him to the class, much to the hilarity of the reception staff. I’ve seen him in lessons, sitting happily compliant, his legs a constant dance below the table, clearly at sea. It is so hard for G.

At lunch today, I saw him during my canteen duty. He was eating alone, but with others – we make our students fill every gap, so no one is ever sitting alone. As usual, those legs were going. I said hello and he replied, merrily, before leaving. He returned ten minutes later.

A lot can happen in a school canteen within ten minutes. For one, I’d spotted a lull and started eating my own lunch in the same spot G had eaten in, so I was right there when he lolloped back to his place. I had a front row seat. And I’ve never seen anything like it: he crumpled in two, and wept. He convulsed with heaving sobs. The boys behind him turned to see what the noise was. I gave them my ‘look.’

‘What’s wrong G?’ but he couldn’t understand me; or if he could, he couldn’t tell me. The year 7 to G’s right clocked it faster: ‘he’s lost his bag. He’s come back to look for it, and it’s gone.’

I didn’t know what to do. I got G to sit down, and he wept on the table.

‘Romanian?’ I guessed. G did not look up. ‘Romanian?’ I prodded further. He looked up and nodded. I used the radio to locate a Romanian-speaking student I knew of on the playground, who came in and spoke to G. Two sentences. Then the student turned to me: ‘he’s not Romanian. He doesn’t understand me.’

But the young helpful man continued to speak to G, and then turned to me. ‘He’s Bulgarian, Miss.’ A few more calls on the radio, and we had a native Bulgarian before G, who had stopped crying, but was still visibly distressed. It hits me in a wave: this goes beyond his bag. It’s the fear he has lost something he will never get back, compiled with the fear of all these strangers in a strange place speaking a strange language.

‘Miss! I don’t even remember Bulgarian! Is so long since I’m there!’ said my native Bulgarian, whose patchy grammar belies his actual home language situation. I suspect Bulgarian may be one of many languages he speaks.

As my so-called Bulgarian tried to talk to G, G suddenly broke into a wide smile. He was laughing. I don’t know what about – was it the old Bulgarian’s broken language? Or was he joking in the language? I have no idea what was happening.

‘Tell him we will find his bag! Tell him not to worry!’ I pressed.

‘Miss, Miss, I can’t even remember “find,”’ my helper protested. ‘Use Ms C’s phone. Use Google translate.’ I do; tell him: G, don’t worry, we will find it. I send him away with his two helpers.

And then comes H, another year 7.

‘Miss! Miss! I found G’s bag!’ Because what had happened? K, the student sitting next to G, had noticed G had left his bag, and had picked it up to give it to him. This has all stemmed from an attempt at kindness.

We move rapidly to the playground to locate G, and I trust I know where he will be. And it is so. He is sandwiched on the bench where my Romanian and my old Bulgarian sit every lunchtime. All are laughing. He grabs the bag with such glee, without even the words to thank his helper.

That afternoon, I pen an email to his father. I write that G was upset about his bag, but that he found it. I write that I hope he is ok, and that he should let me know if there is anything else I can do to support his son. I then stick the whole thing into Google translate and press send.

Twenty minutes later comes the reply:

‘I will talk with him when he gets home. I’m trying to speak English with him at home so he can learn quicker. And thank you so much for your email that was very kind of you trying email me in Bulgarian. Next time you can just email me in English.’

Just one book: leadership

In this post I’ll be exploring just one book on school leadership. I’ve previously written on curriculum, assessment and teaching, and my next post will be on ethos.

Leadership is a somewhat tricky subject, in that there are so many bad books on it. Many leadership books seem to spend an inordinate amount of time exploring semantics: what is a leader, and what is a manager? Indeed: what even is leadership?

At a school level, it is simply the people who make the decisions which run the school. On that basis, the book I have chosen seems to me to be the best one out there on the mechanics of how to run – or lead – a school.

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This book outlines how a great school should be led, with concrete examples of what works. To begin with, Bambrick-Santoyo states: “Exceptional school leaders succeed because of how they use their time: what they do, and how and when they do it.” Specifically, “instruction and culture are vital, and both must be led simultaneously.”

Data-driven instruction

Noting that: “standards are meaningless until you define how to assess them. Assessments, therefore, are the roadmap to rigour,” the author advises meeting after each assessment and “asking probing questions and deeply considering the results,” while great leaders guide this conversation “from the back pocket” – that is, keeping their “answers” in their pocket, and asking the right questions to guide people’s thinking.

Observations

The greatest lesson I learned from this book was the value of weekly developmental observations, coupled with “bite-sized action steps that allow a teacher to grow.” As the author notes: “you don’t get results by placing your best teachers strategically – you get them by coaching each and every teacher to do excellent work.” Finally, an alternative to pointless graded observations, where we are not judging where teachers are currently, but coaching them to improve student learning all the time.

Planning

Bambrick-Santoyo remarks that too often teachers receive “insufficient guidance” in planning, particularly at the start of their careers. Much more, it is suggested, ought to be centralised, and planned according to “assessment”, which is labelled the “roadmap to rigour.”

Training

Quite simply, with professional development: “increasing student achievement is the ultimate goal… if PD isn’t changing how our students learn, it’s useless.” Bambrick-Santoyo posits that “effective PD must start by answering a basic question: what will teachers be able to do at the end of this session?” The benefits of this are maximised by building in time to make the PD relevant to current practice: “giving teachers time to apply their learning is the difference between an engaging afternoon and sustained improvement in instruction.”

Pupil ethos

It is hard to argue with the assertion that “in schools with strong cultures, students receive a continual message that nothing is as important – or as engaging – as learning.” Bambrick-Santoyo advises that the top leaders “transform their vision into meticulously built systems.”

Staff culture

The culture of the school needs to be embodied by both staff and students, and care must be taken of teachers: “when teachers are out with friends or family, what do you want them to say about your school? How do you want them to feel?” The author advises being careful to pick up non-verbal signs from teachers, as not everything (anything?) is captured in formal surveys. Interestingly, Bambrick-Santoyo notes that: “it’s imperative that a leader confront warning signs as they come. Initially, if a teacher seems disengaged during professional development, a leader may be tempted to let it go; perhaps the teacher’s having a bad day… Yet unless it is addressed immediately, it is likely to weaken your culture.” We must always be vigilant to uphold our school culture; one small chink can undermine the entire organisation. The best way to reinforce culture is to continually reference the school’s mission: “by emphasising a common mission, the leader creates an internal motivation to work harder rather than imposing yet another external incentive to perform.”

Yet this is clearly not a blueprint we can pick up and apply to any school indiscriminately. Only those who are observant and have great listening skills will pick up on how to implement these ideas effectively for the context in which they find themselves.

Not only that, it is clear to me that leadership is about vision, and it is only when you harness the belief and motivation of the whole staff body to buy into that vision do these aspects work most effectively: as Bambrick-Santoyo states, “the core principle of a staff culture turnaround is that teachers need to know the school’s core mission… and must be unified in putting it into practice.” But I am not sure it is a book that will tell you how to have a vision, or how you can inspire others to believe in it: that can only come from your own beliefs, which are often informed by experience. And if you can’t imagine what is possible, you need to see a great school in action. And, of course, if you can’t work out why all kids deserve that then it’s not a book you’re in need of.

So far, this series has explored leadership, curriculum, assessment and teaching. The final post will be on school ethos.