You’re Fired!

The idea that schools can be fixed by firing teachers has become a fixation. In this episode of Have You Heard, Jack Schneider and I discuss the origins of the idea, which he has helpfully distilled here in this amazing graphic. We hear from three Boston teachers whose schools are about to be turned upside down, the lives of their immigrant students made even more chaotic in these unsettled times. As scholar Tina Trujillo explains, the turn-and-churn model of school reform reflects a larger erosion of the idea that public education is public good. Be sure to listen to the very end of the episode (or skip down to the bottom of the transcript below), where we announce our guest for episode #3. Fine, I’ll give you a hint. She was in the running to be Secretary of Education… If you have a question you want us to ask her, flag us on Twitter at @BisforBerkshire or @edu_historian, or leave a comment here. And if you missed episode #1 of this season, Vouchers: a Love Story, you can catch it on Soundcloud, or iTunes.


Berkshire: Welcome back. I’m Jennifer Berkshire. We’ve been talking about school turnarounds in this episode of Have You Heard and we have a special guest on the line. Tina Trujillo is an Associate Professor at UC Berkeley. Tina are you there?
Tina Trujillo: Hi, I am here. It’s good to be here.
Berkshire: We’ve been hearing from some teachers at two different Boston high schools that are in the process of being turned around. All of the teachers are having to re-apply for their jobs. One thing that came out so clearly is the teachers high level of skepticism about this particular policy path and as you’ve been arguing for some time now, research actually bears them out.
Trujillo: Absolutely, yes. I would say that the warnings about these types of competition-oriented, test-driven reforms, they didn’t start with my work with Michelle Renee. Jack has done great work and pointed to the weaknesses in these theories, historically speaking. Others have looked at this for some time. We have over two decades of solid, empirical evidence that explains the reasons why these types of high-stakes turnaround reforms are destined to fail. We have work that looks at early efforts to reconstitute staff and it shows not just that student achievement did not change, or did not significantly change, gaps in achievement between different racial or linguistic or socioeconomic groups. They don’t change under these models. What does happen is there are other counterproductive effects and I would imagine that those are some of the concerns that the teachers you’ve been talking to intuitively understand about what happens professionally when you completely lay off a staff and change the composition of the faculty and the principal. We have the research that shows us this.
We can also think of this from the commonsensical perspective and not the dominant common sense that we hear so much about –the market mentality and the need to just get tough on schools and have higher standards. Thinking about it from the students’ perspective, what happens when you walk into the school door and every adult looks different and all the teachers are new and there’s a new principal and that principal has enormous challenges facing her or him as far as developing the skills of an entirely new staff immediately to attain some kind of dramatic gains in test-based achievement. It just doesn’t happen. Stability goes down in schools, the climate suffers, teacher churn increases— even the teachers whose jobs aren’t threatened. We’ve seen in DC and elsewhere from other evaluations and research that they voluntarily leave and they’re not necessarily the worst or least experienced teachers who leave. They’re teachers who are demoralized by these types of threats that they know from their own professional judgment, they know that this is not the way that you improve and learn new skills.
Schneider: Tina, I did my best to try to lay out some of the policy assumptions that guide belief in turnarounds and reconstitution. I’m wondering if you could maybe speak for a minute about what you think the logic is and what the evidence base of those who support emptying a school out and then repopulating it with teachers and a new curriculum etcetera, what evidence would they point to and how would you explain the policy logic that underlies that kind of work?
Trujillo: If you think about the original policy logic or the theory of action, if you would call it that, behind school turnarounds and the reconstitution of staff, it comes out of business and industry. In business and industry, there was once an assumption that if you can lay everybody off and use a much more dramatic approach to making big, bold changes in the composition of who is working for you that you can dramatically turn around a company quickly. In the research world, we know from the business and management literature, that that logic didn’t play out there either. Schools have actually adopted an approach that has already been disproven in the industry where it originated.
I think that the theory of action behind school turnarounds and reconstitution rests on a few assumptions. One is that teachers aren’t motivated enough to change, but if they know that their job is threatened, that they don’t have job stability, then they will then know what to do to change and those changes can actually result in significant improvements in student achievement. We also assume that there are better, more qualified teachers available to fill those vacancies just like we assume there are better, more qualified principals to replace those outgoing principals, but we don’t have evidence that this happens. We have evidence that, in fact, the replacements for these teachers are often of an equal quality or lower. We also have evidence that these coercive threats of losing your job or being sanctioned in one way or another, they demotivate teachers, they demoralize them and they push them out. We don’t have evidence that supports those types of assumptions.
Berkshire: I want to ask you, there’s been, obviously we’re in a very robust period as far as education news. There’s been so much going on that the previous administration’s enormous investment in school improvement grants and the disappointing results that that effort produced got a little bit lost in the shuffle. The responses to that were pretty interesting. I saw, some people were saying, this basically shows that you can’t turn a school around. This is making an even stronger case for-
Schneider: Shutting them down.
Berkshire: Voucher programs. For shutting them down, opening up more charter schools, etcetera. For teachers like the ones that I’ve been interviewing who feel so strongly that this isn’t the right path, what kinds of policies should they be pushing for?
Trujillo: That’s a great question. I share your concern, Jennifer. There’s a lot of discourse right now in education and what’s happening nationally, a lot of rhetoric around vouchers and choice. There are, and this isn’t to oversimplify things, but we know of more productive, more promising policies and reforms. We know that school integration is one of the strongest ways to close different gaps between racial and socioeconomic groups; integration policies are one. Adequate funding is an enormous issue right now and it’s a challenge that schools are facing in all 50 states, the inadequacy of the general funding and the inequitable systems for allocating funds across districts. Those finance systems need to be reformed.
We also know that increased learning time in the form of extended learning opportunities that are high-quality, that that makes a difference in student achievement over the long-term. We have more affluent communities where the families can make up for whatever time that students aren’t in school with music lessons, with summer camp, with after school programs, different opportunities for enrichment. Then we have much more economically, which are also oftentimes racially, isolated schools in communities where those resources don’t exist. We know that extended learning time, high-quality extended learning time, is something that is related to higher student achievement. We know that investments in early childhood education pay enormous benefits over the long-run of the students’ academic careers as well as their long-term life outcomes. We know that reforms that are embedded in more community-based efforts and that engage the community can be sustained for longer. This work comes out of long-standing work out of Chicago and elsewhere, like Bryk and his colleagues have said, they have found that the more the community is engaged with the reform itself rather than being threatened or losing the school entirely, the more likely that that reform is to really be sustained over a number of years.
Schneider: Tina.
Trujillo: There’s also just the issue of timing and giving a reform time to work. I want to hear what you have to say in just a second, Jack.
Schneider: Sure.
Trujillo: Most of the appeal of the turnaround model is that it sounds really sexy and dramatic. You can do something really quickly overnight, but that’s not, and we know from a research perspective and from a practitioner perspective, that’s not the way schools change. Jack you were going to say?
Schneider: I want to make an observation here. It’s an observation about how politics work because you mentioned two kinds of approaches. One is desegregation and the other you gave us a series of research backed interventions that of course cost a lot of money so extended learning or wraparound programs, universal early childhood education, high-quality early childhood education. The observation that I have here is that these things take a lot of political and financial capital and they involve people giving up some of their own private good for the public good. Desegregation, the idea there is that everybody is going to be better off but you may not get to go to the very kind of school that you wish to because there is a greater good that we’re after here.
I just wanted to make an observation that the failures of efforts to marshal people around the idea of the collective good in the sixties and seventies kind of led directly to this approach birthed in the eighties and coming to fruition in the nineties and early oughts which would be we don’t need to give anything up, you don’t need to make any sacrifices, you don’t need to divert your tax dollars to poor kids, you don’t need to send your kid to school with kids of color because we can replicate what works. We can create a good school anywhere. We can have excellence for all and all we need to do let’s look at what works, we’ll get a good building, we’ll get good teachers, we’ll get a good curriculum and of course those assumptions are really easy to make if you’re engaged in this simplistic policy thinking about what makes a school.
Whereas when you’re seeing a school as an ecosystem and as a rich highly contextual place where each part affects all of the others and, for instance, swapping out all of the teaches is going to have a devastating impact on the ecosystem. That’s a very different way of looking at it. I’m wondering if you can comment and then I think we need to move on. Jennifer is giving me the wrap it up look.
Berkshire: I am. I also happened to catch your reference to excellence for all.
Schneider: Yeah that’s a plug.
Berkshire: I’m pretty sure you were plugging one of your previous books.
Schneider: Oh yeah. I get a dollar for every one that’s sold but so the question that I’ve got is do you see any hope for revitalizing the common mission of education, education as a public good and getting people politically motivated around the kinds of reforms that we know work so integrated schools, universal Pre-K, high quality Pre-K, providing schools with all of the resources they need even if it is additional services to give kids equal opportunity?
Trujillo: I think you are hitting on one of the largest challenges that is facing public education right now, Jack, and that is thinking about a common good or a collective good or a public good. Thinking about education as a public good, that is no longer the dominant way of thinking about public schools. We now have generations, decades, of test-based reforms and discourse around schools that very much focuses on individual achievement and individualized attainment of different educational resources and goals and things like that. What we have, then, is a society that is very much socialized to think in terms of me, not in terms of us, not to think about education as something that is a common good. Thinking of education as a public good means sometimes making certain sacrifices or doing something that is going to benefit the broader collective or the community or society, and not only thinking about my individual children and what is only best for my children, instead of thinking about what is best for the group.
I see that in my students. My students who have never taught before the era of high-stakes testing and accountability, they don’t yet have well-developed notions of what a common good is or how public education in this country is an inherently communitarian concept. They talk about-
Schneider: And of course-
Trujillo: They talk about themselves and their identities in terms of their students’ test scores. A good example is I had a student just last year where we were reading John Dewey and we were reading about progressive education and his critique of John Dewey was that John Dewey didn’t establish benchmarks and that Dewey was not explicit about his measurable results.
Schneider: Measurable gains. You’ve got a Teach for America core member on your hands there.
Trujillo: He dismissed Dewey and these notions of progressive education because they didn’t fit into this schema that he had developed as a teacher who has only worked in this very individual-focused, individualistic, test-based, competitive culture of public schools. I cut you off, Jack. What were you going to say?
Schneider: No you didn’t cut me off. You kept me from cutting you off. You had a clear line to the goal line there and you were not going to be tackled.
Trujillo: Sorry.
Schneider: I was just going to add that, of course, people say that the Secretary of Education doesn’t have a tremendous amount of power but of course Betsy DeVos who is a big supporter of choice and particularly of vouchers, has the power of the, it’s a mini-bully pulpit, but to foster this vision of education as a private good, as a market commodity that people can shop for.
Trujillo: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Berkshire: Tina Trujillo I want to thank you for letting us pepper you with questions. If people don’t know your work, they should look you up. Tina Trujillo at UC Berkeley. Tina, hang out on the line for just a second because Jack and I are foreshadowing our next episode and I think you’re going to be very interested. Jack do you want to do the honors?
Schneider: Sure.
Trujillo: I’m excited.
Schneider: Coming up on episode three for those who have managed to sit through two episodes will be a special guest, Michelle Rhee will be joining us. If our listeners want to brush up, they should rewatch Waiting for Superman or at least check out the famous Time Magazine cover with Michelle Rhee holding a broom on it. If people want to send us questions in advance, things that they would like us to talk about, they can tweet those at us using the hashtag #haveyouheard or directing them @bisforberkshire or @edu … I believe it’s an underscore.
Berkshire: You’re an underscore.
Schneider: I’m underscored. Edu_historian. Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Snyder. Tina if you want to give us a question that you should be thinking about before our conversation with Michelle Rhee, we will put you on the spot here.
Trujillo: Oh, at this moment? Okay. There are quite a few questions that I think are important to ask Rhee at this point. I think talking to Rhee about her record and the lack of positive results in her record, that’s a conversation that could be rehashed, but I think we already know what happened in Washington DC. I’m more interested in whether she is considering the decades of evidence that point to the lack of promise behind the types of reforms, choice-based reforms, that she promoted and that she continues to promote. I think moving forward at a national level, that is an enormously important question to ask of anybody who is engaged in the national scene on educational policy. These notions of choice and competition-oriented reform—if you look at the evidence, and do not just stick to ideological beliefs, we don’t have the evidence to support them. Is she expanding her considerations of the roles of teachers unions, of community-based reforms, more democratic investments in schools and communities? Because that’s where the evidence lies.
Berkshire: Excellent questions all. We will be back in a few weeks. I’m Jennifer Berkshire.
Schneider: I’m Jack Schneider.
Berkshire: This is Have You Heard.

Vouchers: a Love Story

Have You Heard kicks off season 2 with a look at all things voucher-y. Jack Schneider and I talk about the history of school vouchers, the movement’s strange bedfellows, and why the public has remained remarkably skeptical towards vouchers. We mix it up with school choice superfan Travis Pillow over who is really using vouchers in states like Indiana, Maryland and Wisconsin. And I use an, um, unusual descriptor to describe the results of Louisiana’s voucher program. Let me know what you think!

Podcast: Peanut Butter and Persistence

Have You Heard drops by a San Francisco high school where ninth grade social studies students are diving deep into a topic that concerns them directly: school lunch. The students are part of a new ethnic studies curriculum that puts them at the very center of what happens in the classroom. And it’s producing big results: the kind that have researchers salivating more than a kid excited for chicken nugget day in the cafeteria.

Warning: what’s happening in San Francisco looks (and sounds) absolutely nothing like the standard reform recipe being served up in cities across the land! 


Aaron French: Hey, everyone. Welcome to another edition of Have You Heard? I’m Aaron French.
Jennifer Berkshire:  I’m Jennifer Berkshire.
Aaron: Jennifer, I hear we are headed out west this week.
Jennifer: That’s right. We’re going to San Francisco.
Aaron: A beautiful, beautiful city. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if you got to see the Golden Gate Bridge while you were out there.
Jennifer: By an amazing coincidence, it just happens that the high school that we’re going to visit overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge.
Aaron: Pretty sweet. Sightseeing aside though, what are we talking about today?
Jennifer: Let me ask you something, Aaron. Does it make sense to you that if students have a chance to study something that they’re really engaged in or care about, or feel like affects them in their world, that they’re maybe going to be more interested in the school?
Aaron: I’d say so. If I were given the opportunity to study Neil Diamond’s sequin jumpsuits over the past twenty years, I’d definitely do it.
Jennifer: I have nothing to say to that. Back to San Francisco. We’re going to go and meet some ninth graders and we’re going to hear from them about their new social studies curriculum. Now it happens that these students are studying the school lunch, but what they’re really learning from this curriculum is how to keep going when somebody throws up an obstacle in their path.
Aaron: Now that I think about it, there is this word we use in my [inaudible 00:01:26] circles. I’m missing it, but I think it rhymes with Brit.
Jennifer: Nope. I am not familiar with that word. That is not what this episode is about.
Aaron: Be that as it may, shall we head to San Francisco?
Jennifer: Let’s go.
The school day has just started at San Francisco’s Washington High School. In David Coe’s ninth grade Ethnic Studies class, the talk is all about lunch.
Student: At 10:00, you usually don’t expect to have lunch. It’s usually around breakfast or late breakfast. If you have lunch that early and you have classes later in the day, you’ll obviously be hungry. If the teachers don’t let your in class, then you’re screwed.
Jennifer: All year long, these students have been learning how to identify, analyze, and come up with solutions to community problems. The class chose to take on the topic of school lunch and they’ve been examining the issue from every angle. The first students I talked to are taking on Washington’s crazy lunch schedule. What they’re learning goes way beyond the issue of how to time lunch for 2,000 students.
Student: The main thing we’ve been learning is something called practice which is basically identifying the problem, analyzing the problem, trying out a solution, and then seeing if the solution works. It’s been really good so far because you can apply it to almost everything in life.
Jennifer: The semester will be over soon, which means that the push is on to get final projects done. The students I talk to next seem to be struggling a bit. They decided to focus on nutrition by interviewing kids about the food choices they make when they go off campus versus staying at school to eat. First, they had to figure out how you do an interview.
Student: I was pretty nervous my first time. I got used to it though. I don’t know. It just felt good the second time.
Jennifer: Social Studies teacher, David Coe, says that he’s constantly having to remind himself that most of the ninth graders he’s working with have never done anything like what this class requires.
David Ko: It’s their first time doing a lot of different things. Especially with the next phase, after they’ve gathered the information and trying to change something, for most students it’s the first time they’ve done anything like that.
Jennifer: The most important lesson these students are learning may have little to do with how to conduct a survey or even how to fix the school lunch schedule. They may not realize it, but they’re learning how to bounce back when things don’t go their way like the students who found out that when you want to interview your peers about their food choices, you can’t just walk into a class and announce that you’re ready to start the questions.
Student: Man, that’s tough. We learned that the hard way. We got yelled at. It’s hard.
Jennifer: The official name for this class is Ethnic Studies. A more accurate title might be, “How to Navigate the Great, Big, and Personal Bureaucracy that is High School.” The students who’ve determined through their surveys that the extra short lunch period on Thursday is causing more of their peers to be marked tardy. Now they have to figure out how to document that without running afoul of student privacy rules.
Ko: Yeah. Definitely, and trying to figure out what information students are allowed to have access to and to see if it’s confidential, find out which person they talked to and find out when they can talk to them, find out the best way to contact that person, see if it makes sense for all of them to be there or just one of them to be there. That is not necessarily directly in state content standards, but it’s a useful skill that I’m not sure where students learn if not here.
Jennifer: The concept behind a course like this is pretty straightforward. Give students an opportunity to study something they care about, something they feel like they have a stake in, and they’ll be more engaged in school. Until recently though, no one had really looked whether this approach actually works. Does it?
Emily Penner: A lot of interventions don’t have this magnitude of effect. This is a very big effect.
Jennifer: That’s researcher, Emily [Penner 00:05:36], part of a team at Stanford who’s been studying San Francisco’s Ethnic Studies curriculum. She and a colleague followed ninth graders who had GPAs below 2.0 and were at-risk of dropping out, and were then assigned to the Ethnic Studies Class.
They compared them with a group of ninth graders who had slightly higher GPAs, but who didn’t take the class. What they found was striking.
Penner: Their attendance in all of their classes was 21 percentage points higher than the kids just above the threshold. They earned 23 additional credits by the end of the school year and that corresponds to about 4 additional semester courses worth of credit. Their GPAs were 1.4 grade points higher and that’s in classes that exclude Social Studies, so not in their Ethnic Studies class. We actually threw that GPA out to make sure that they weren’t just getting easy grades in the class, and that was inflating their GPA.
Jennifer: Those are big gains and the students who made the most dramatic progress, says Penner, were the ones who’d started out being the least engaged in school.
Penner: If you can get some of those kids to buy into showing up every day, investing some time in paying attention, and turning in assignments, there’s a lot of space for improvement. Making those kinds of changes can have big effect.
Jennifer: What makes the study so unusual isn’t just what researchers found, but how it was done. When those ninth graders who’d struggled the year before showed up on the first day of high school, they got what researchers call a strong nudge to take Ethnic Studies. It was on their schedules. If they wanted to get out of it, they had to meet with a counselor and sign-up for something else.
Emily: Usually when schools design courses like this, they let whoever wants to take the class take it. They just say, “Hey, we’re offering this new thing. Anybody’s who’s interested, sign-up.” In this case, they actually wanted to target the class and a particular type of student. That’s not very typical, I think, of how a lot of courses are designed or at least how they’re ultimately implemented in terms of who gets to enroll.
Jennifer: Penner says that the researchers have several explanations as to why the Ethnic Studies curriculum turns out to be so effective. In addition to the persistence lessons that we heard going on in Mr. Coe’s class, these classes also help students understand why their own identity is valuable.
Penner: They spend a lot of time trying to help students identify stereotypes and then talk about the ways in which those stereotypes might be negatively impacting them. They spend a lot of time coaching students on how to learn about their own backgrounds, and identities, and families, and communities, and then write reports about why those backgrounds are valuable.
Jennifer: The, they, that Penner is talking about are San Francisco’s Ethnic Studies teachers, which gets at something else unusual about this experiment. This curriculum was largely designed by teachers like Mr. Coe. They came up with the course, they tried it out, and then they refined it to make it better.
Penner: This is a place where a district said to its teacher, “Go meet with each other,

Podcast: Why College Won’t Fix Poverty

Have You Heard heads to campus to talk to three current and former students. They *get* what researchers are just beginning to understand: that going to college isn’t the silver bullet to solving poverty. By saddling students with debt and degrees that aren’t worth that muchif they finish at allcollege may even be making the problem worse.

If You Have a Voice, Use It

Have You Heard road trips to Lawrence, Massachusetts to hear what students have to say…

On a frosty spring Saturday (does New England have any other kind???), Have You Heard co-creator Aaron French and I piled in the car and motored to Lawrence, Massachusetts to spend the day listening to students who, it turns out, have quite a lot to say. These student writing leaders and story tellers, part of an organization called Andover Bread Loaf that I’ve written about here, are determined to write a different future for themselves and their city. You’ll be dazzled by their eloquence… But wait – there’s more! The students also have something to say about the city’s schools, subject to a state takeover five years ago, and widely recognized as a turnaround success story, and a model for struggling districts elsewhere. Except that no one appears to have talked to the students in Lawrence who were being turned around. Working with the Lawrence Youth Council and Elevated Thought, a local arts organization, students surveyed more than 600 of their peers across the city, asking them questions like *what kind of subjects would you like to study?* *how do you like to learn?* and *what opportunities are missing for kids in Lawrence?* Their findings, and the months they spent researching education, inspired this remarkable film called What Is Education? In other words, episode #4 of Have You Heard is a multi-media affair both eye-opening and ear opening.

Don’t forget that sharing is caring, and feel free to send comments to You can also find the Have You Heard team on Twitter: @EduShyster and @AaronMoFoFrench.