The System Works*

If schools produce dramatic gains but leave students feeling scared, and scarred, are they still successful? An eighth grader poses some tough questions…

Traumatized. That’s the word my friends and I use when we talk about our school. It really scarred us. We were so used to freedom, like being able to walk to lunch in groups. All of a sudden, we were treated like children. Our lockers were taken away. Instead we had cubbies in our classrooms. We were like *cubbies? Are you joking???* We weren’t allowed to transition; our teachers transitioned. We stayed in the same room, in our chairs for 8 hours a day. We only moved when we went to lunch. We had to line up in a particular order and if you weren’t in the  right order or if somebody was talking, you’d have to go back to the classroom and start again.  There was one time when we missed lunch because we went through this process fifteen times.

They said that discipline led to academic success. They were incredibly strict about the uniform and we weren’t used to that. In the morning when we walked in we had to lift up our pants so that they could make sure we were wearing the socks we were allowed to wear, check to make sure we had a belt and that we had the school logo on our shirts. They’d say *if you don’t have the logo, we’re not going to let you in. We’re going to send you to the dean’s office and you’re going to get a uniform and you’re going to get out­-of­-school detention.* What really bothered me was that even if you had an excuse, like your uniform was in the laundry, and your mom called, they would still send you to the dean’s office.    

teach western massMost of the teachers were young—they were like 21­-25 years old. I was like really? Really? If you’re going to give me teachers, give me teachers who know how to teach. I get it. There are going to be points where teachers are brand new and they’re learning from us, but if you’re going to make a school to improve our grades and our discipline, why would you have teachers who’ve never taught before? There were some teachers who we respected because they had more experience. They were very much enforcers of the rules but we didn’t feel the need to talk in their classes because we respected them.     

The white teachers were so into the system. They loved it. The Hispanic teachers were the only ones who understood us. We connected with them because they didn’t like the system either. There was one Hispanic teacher who was very honest with us. She’d enforce the rules and give us demerits and detentions, and tell us that if we disrespected her, she was going to disrespect us back. She was very firm about that. But she always told us how much she hated the system.  All of the Hispanic teachers left; they didn’t want to work there.    

I think the school thought that discipline led to good grades. But discipline led to good grades because they scared us. I was a high honors student at that school because of the horrible system. We didn’t want to be punished and we were punished for everything.

I think the school thought that discipline led to good grades. But discipline led to good grades because they scared us. I was a high honors student at that school because of the horrible system. We didn’t want to be punished and we were punished for everything. The system works in the sense that our MCAS scores improved. We got our scores back and we were number 1 in ELA and math and number 2 in science. Yes, we improved, but I feel like it’s just fear that drives  it—fear of all of that discipline and getting into trouble.     

UAK-Fall-2016-Website-Banner.png (800×360)At the end of the day, I think what made us the maddest was that we never had freedom of speech. Honestly, it felt like we had dictators running our school. We had no freedom. We couldn’t question authority. We weren’t allowed to say anything about the school’s system or we’d be sent to the dean’s office. We were told *this is the system. You have to deal with it.* Our friends who went to different schools that didn’t have the system we had were always asking us how we could live. *How do you not just explode in there?*    

At the end of the year, we came up with a little plan to make a statement. We posted a status on Facebook telling people not to wear uniforms on Monday. We didn’t think anyone would do it. Everyone showed up out of uniform.The entire eighth grade did it. The first people to walk in got sent to the dean’s office right away. Then more and more students came in, and all of them were out of uniform. When the sweetest and nicest girl in the class walked in and she was out of uniform, the deans were like *what???* The dean’s office got so full that they had to move some of the 8th graders to a second office along with the seventh graders and a few sixth graders who did it.     

We tried to explain to them that this wasn’t about us being disrespectful. This was about us expressing ourselves. *We don’t like your system. This is our last day of school and we don’t want the sixth graders and the seventh graders to suffer the way we’ve suffered.*    

I was only in that system for a year, but what about students who are in it since they are little kids? They’ll end up just going along with anything anyone says. The government will make a  dumb rule and they’ll be like *let’s just follow it.* These kids won’t know how to speak up.

I was only in that system for a year, but what about students who are in it since they are little kids? They’ll end up just going along with anything anyone says. The government will make a dumb rule and they’ll be like *let’s just follow it.* These kids won’t know how to speak up. The school is worried about a grade on a piece of paper or looking better than other schools. They don’t want open-­minded kids who speak out.     

I’m free now. It’s kind of sad to look at all of these sixth graders coming in. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. And their parents don’t know either. They just think it’s a middle school.

The student attended UP Academy Oliver, a zoned neighborhood *restart* school in Lawrence, MA during the 2014-2015 school year, part of the growing UP Education Network. According to the Boston Globe, UP consistently delivers dramatic gains across all levels and tested subjects in a single year. This story was recorded and edited for length. 


  1. This reminds us to question any new reforms in education – is there a cost, and do the benefits outweigh the costs?

    1. And what is the appropriate ratio? Is a little bit of discomfort acceptable if it gets results? (As I once heard a reform leader in New Orleans quoted as saying…)

      1. The ratio I remember from my behavioral psychology classes was 80% positive reinforcement and 20% negative produces the same achievement results as the other way around–except the human cost of the other way around is much greater!

        1. This is a not-unimportant point. When critics of traditional schools of education rail against all of that “useless theory,” that includes theories of child development, behavioral psychology, etc. Just saying…

    2. Our school lost our dean last year due to age discrimination (and the principal’s/assistant principal’s malevolence, but that’s another story). The students who were most outraged over the dean’s departure, to the point where they started a protest on social media, were the ones who had spent the most time in her office. My point is that when a school hires a dean like ours, i.e., someone who is respectful of students while also enforcing reasonable discipline, the students “get it.”

      As to the rest of the article, it strikes me that it could just as easily have been written by almost any teacher at my school, or at other schools. The majority of our teachers are white, and we abhor the system that is currently in place. Education is being destroyed across the board, and it starts with the disrespect shown toward teachers and students.

      1. Thanks for this – I think you’re onto something. Let me know if you’d be interested in writing a piece for my blog!

  2. Thanks for this post – it is so seldom that we hear from the people most affected by these “innovations” brought to us by charters and charter management companies. Kids aren’t a “system” and they deserve to be treated as real live girls and boys who get what they need to be active participants in a democratic society. Looks like the non-uniform day organizers have learned about active civic engagement despite the oppressive system imposed on them. Bravo!

  3. Authorities need to investigate if a student’s civil and human rights are being violated by academic and discipline policies at particular schools. Are students being crippled psychologically and academically for future success in school and life?

  4. “Growing UP”
    This is the most appalling school ever.
    I think that many are like this.
    UP Academy Oliver, a zoned neighborhood *restart* school in Lawrence, MA during the 2014-2015 school year.

    1. That’s a great title – I hope you don’t mind if I steal it for future use!

  5. The question is not whether white *teachers* like this system. It’s whether white *parents* would subject their own children to it. I see no evidence that they are, or that they would.

    1. But isn’t his take on which teachers were OK with the system and which weren’t worth contemplating as well?

      1. I have a friend who has been in Lawrence a year. She is white and she hates teaching there and this is one big reason. This discipline system is being implemented at many schools. She had always worked at Title Ones. She had no idea that the discipline was going to be so rigid and top down. She is at a “regular” school but parts of the discipline are like this and she is leaving.

        1. If your friend would like to write something about her experience, please put her in touch with me: One reason this style of discipline is so popular now is that young teachers with no experience can be plugged right into it, which is important in districts like Lawrence where teacher turnover is quite high. And, most importantly, rigid, top-down discipline works to get those test scores up, up, up. But talk to students in Lawrence and they’re very aware of what’s happening – and also very well organized. This student-made video will give you a flavor of what’s going on: Or listen to the podcast episode I did recently about Lawrence.

    2. There are a number of military schools in the country which offer very strict discipline, and I see a number of white faces among the students. I think that this is some evidence that some white parents would subject their own children to a highly disciplined school environment.

      1. Note also that because this is a zoned neighborhood school, it’s not being “chosen” by parents. So the relevant question here is would you see the same schooling model introduced in a white, affluent neighborhood school–not would a handful of white parents select it. And the answer is “of course not.”

        1. Indeed that is the problem with “all and only” geographically based admission criteria. I look forward to your post apposing those admission standards, pointing out that they result in a compromise approach to education that is ill suited to students who inhabit the tails of the distribution and that those admission criteria reinforce the segregation in housing.

          I say I look forward to it, but do I think it will happen? The answer is “of course not.”

          1. I would certainly read such a post were someone else to write it. I might even consider offering said writer a place to post said post…

          2. Since we are reading and/or listening to the same things and appreciating them, maybe our differences have more to do with the proposed solutions than the problem… I would add to this list two excellent books: sociologist Carla Shedd’s Unequal City which looks at the intersection of education reform and urban housing reform in Chicago And Matt Delmont’s fantastic Why Busing Failed, which is the subject of my next podcast, out next week.

      2. Pretty much as punishment. There may be some white parents who actually prefer an authoritarian environment, but among educated parents, they’d be outliers. Otherwise, they send kids to military school entirely as punishment or out of desperation when their kids are acting out.

  6. This would be a fantastic time for Jennifer to write two companion pieces.

    The first should be about the state learning at Oliver Middle School before UP arrived. My guess is that kids weren’t learning a whole lot. [From everything she’s written (and implied by not writing about it), it seems that Jennifer isn’t bothered when kids don’t learn.] If that’s not the case, then there’s an expose to be had about why the turnaround was needed. Probably something about philthy philanthropists.

    The second should be about effective alternatives to “no excuses” school turnarounds. We all get what she thinks doesn’t work to improve schools, but there is a striking lack of productive writing on this site and elsewhere about ways to close achievement gaps that she would prefer. I’m not sure if it’s because there aren’t other models that have been tried, or they don’t actually work to get kids to learn. (Or that they don’t fit her snark schtick [say that 3x fast]). But here’s my challenge – find models / ideas that are working and champion them instead of or in addition to tearing down the hard work of others.

    PS – I hear you were invited to visit UP Oliver, but haven’t. Why not?

    1. Actually I DID write that story, way back as the state was taking over. (In my AFT days). This school was an example of criminal neglect. In fact, someone in the district had decided that it was appropriate to house young students and much older students who were transitioning from juvenile justice programs IN THE SAME SCHOOL. But the turnaround story at the Oliver is complicated because UP led part of it and a group of teachers led another. Both efforts produced measurable results.

      As for question number two regarding alternatives to no excuses, I’ve run two pieces on that subject in recent months. This one by Baltimore teacher Corey Gaber: and this one by a young teacher at a high-performing charter network who is tired of feeling like a cop: A forthcoming episode of my podcast series is about an innovative district curriculum in San Francisco that’s producing big gains for at-risk ninth graders. If I can swing it, I’m going to head back out there to take a look at what KIPP is doing with restorative justice. And whenever I have the opportunity I try to pass the mic to students who seem to have a very clear sense of what their schools – charter, district or, ahem, Third Way, could do better.

      I pick on UP because it really represents the future of urban education in Massachusetts – and beyond. That fancy event that I attended last week on the waterfront in Boston was filled with men in fancy suits talking up UP, very eager to help it scale.

      btw: I accepted the offer to visit UP Oliver but never heard back. I don’t think I’ve ever turned down an offer to visit anywhere! Most people complain that I won’t go away…

      1. OK now I get it, the juvie pupils: That’s why the description reminds me of prison. I wonder, did the kids get free tattoos? Did they get to work out on iron piles? Overall, what are “big gains” for kids. How about the ability to be kids, and then grow up? Let’s try something really novel: total local, public control of all school districts, and the districts tell the state and federal governments how much money they need to provide free, public education for everybody? Yes, and the teachers and other school workers get to organize and bargain collectively. Now that’s what I would call big gains for everybody. After we get all that, then we can worry about the problem of too much conformity that public education seems always to foster.

      2. You really “Rock!”, Jennifer.
        I hope the ignoramous
        ” math teacher” grows a pair and reveals her/ his name. It would be interesting to know which Charter entrepreneur pays his/ her salary and what kind of atmosphere exists in that
        ” Math teacher’s “class.

        1. I have to speak up on Math Teacher’s behalf. He and I are, if not friends, *frenemies* 🙂 And I’ve been to his class and have only good things to say about what I saw. He’s a great teacher, we just have a deep difference of opinion about education reform. But thanks for the love!

          1. thanks for you comment. my friend who works at Oliver and invited you has a lot on his plate these days. maybe re-reach out to him.

        2. Hi Peg, (can I call you Peg?)

          I have a pair, thank you very much, though that is fairly personal information to share on first meeting. You should come to my sex ed classes sometime to learn the ground rules about talking about other people’s bodies.

          My name is Paul Friedmann. In case you’re not aware, it’s common for people on the Appalachian Trail (which I haven’t hiked) and the interwebs (which I have) to take on alternate names. You know, like Edushyster. I also try not to name call as I think it’s beneath me. To each his or her own, I guess.

          I’m a charter school school teacher in Boston (Brooke Roslindale) and close friends with some of the people who work/ed at UP Oliver. They’re excellent teachers and highly dedicated to their craft and the kids they work/ed with.

          Thanks Jennifer for your support – I appreciate that you liked my math class, as I know you sometimes fear things that are kind of “math-y.”

          1. Hi Paul,
            Thanks for your rather lengthy
            ” reply”. ( interesting that your own “Snark Schtick” reveals your obvious sense of superiority, and Mensa grade intellectualism. )
            I am not as gracious and classy as Dr. Jennifer Berkshire PhD, so I am at liberty to mention that your suggestions to her sounded a little like they were written at the level of the students you teach, disingenuous at best.
            As you can see, I also have a Snark Schtick similar to yours.
            I don’t think that Dr, Jennifer would have any trouble with Middle School ” math-y ” stuff …or any other level of advanced Mathematics.
            How condescending of you…

            My hope is that the Brooke Schools do not even vaguely resemble the school that precipitated this blog post.

            I hope that you have a successful career and that you love teaching as much as I do.

          2. Thanks for your loyal support, Peggy. And for reminding the world that I am indeed a Dr! Alas, Paul is not exaggerating my fear of math-y things. It runs deep and dates back to my elementary school days. I can’t pinpoint the exact occurrence, although I suspect timed worksheets may have been involved. In my travels I’m often invited to visit math classes and have even had some success with 3rd grade Common Core lessons. I think that bit about showing your work could have helped my 10-year-old self. At least it helped when the 3rd grader I was paired with in Chicago last year showed his work when calculating area 🙂 Btw: I wasn’t offended by Paul’s tone and didn’t think his questions evinced a sense of superiority. (Or certainly no more than my use of *evince* just did!). He and I have been engaged in a battle of ideas now for almost FOUR YEARS. And neither has done bodily harm to the other, even though one is in possession of a light saber, whereas the other is armed only with (her) wits.

    2. Live by the tests, die by the tests.

      The “achievement gap” consists solely of the spread of points on “standardized” tests measuring students’ testing skills in the areas of math and ELA. Those tests are engineered to produce a bell curve, with most in the middle and few at either end. They do not measure intelligence, aptitude or even the all-popular “college and career readiness”. Moreover since the tests are now never released in full, researchers are unable to examine them for poor questions, biases, confusion or appropriateness, let alone validity, reliability and replicability.

      Yet these are the instruments used to determine if a school is “failing”.

      Searching for miracle cures by “turning around schools” i.e. suspending collective bargaining agreements; jettisoning seasoned, experienced, traditionally trained teachers and replacing them with alt-certified Teacher for Awhilers and principals with business school backgrounds is futile.

      Let’s fully fund our public schools which accept all comers. Let’s insist that kids have fully certified teachers who intend to spend a career becoming better at their profession. Let’s stop using our schools, the kids in them and the professionals on the front lines as scapegoats for our refusal to do the moral thing. Let’s end poverty.

      1. My friend who worked at UP Oliver in the year after turnaround said that their eighth graders came to them never having written more than a couple of sentences at a time and were reading on approximately a 2nd grade level. Not sure what that is except an achievement gap. And look, I didn’t reference a standardized test.

      2. Christine,

        Good to know that there is no real “achievement gap” between the graduates of New Trier High School and Marshall Metropolitan High School. Any perceived differences are simply the result of those meaningless standardized tests.

    3. This is an important question. Are there other models that have been tried, and do they work to get kids to learn? Well, of course: many kids learn very well in schools with an approach that engages students in making meaningful decisions about their learning and their classroom communities. You can find such schools in wealthy suburbs, middle-class towns and suburbs, and in other countries — say, Finland.

      Are you asking whether students growing up in poverty can learn in a constructivist, project-based, student-centered school? I would say there is plenty of evidence that they can. You can see examples at (which, as the name suggests, can be somewhat utopian, but also has many stunning examples of students deeply engaged in creative and collaborative work), the Buck Institute for Education, the Deeper Learning Network, and the Coalition of Essential Schools. See also David L. Kirp’s article from the NYTimes, “Make School a Democracy”:

      Your challenge is a good one, and I would love to see more attention given to different school models as well as different definitions of success. Education is not something that exists outside ourselves; it isn’t something we can measure like volume or temperature. It is what we define it to be, and our definition may include not only math and language skills (which I agree are important), but also habits of critical thought, cooperation, democratic participation, intellectual discourse, reflection, and self-advocacy. How are schools inculcating the skills, values, and dispositions necessary for engaged citizenship and independent adulthood?

  7. Bravo to this student for making his voice heard, and for standing up for his fellow children, and congratulations to his classmates for their dress code insurrection.

    These children are citizens, ostensibly with the same constitutional rights as everyone else, and yet they are treated as if they are convicted criminals. “It’s for their own good” is an excuse that’s been used by institutional abusers throughout history.

    I was subjected to similar abuses as a traditional public school student, though the abuse was at least far less organized. There, abuse was incidental to the curriculum, not inherent in it. And when it comes to authoritarian institutions like a school, I’ll take chaos and incompetence over ruthless efficiency any day of the week.

    Anyone who thinks this movement is truly about “academics” or “data” or “success” or “closing achievement gaps” is deluded. You’re even more deluded if you believe that all those eager businessmen in suits and ties slumming around in the ghetto have suddenly taken an interest in educating the poor because they’ve had some deep spiritual awakening. This is all about power and dominion–the corporate-controlled State versus the individual human being. Put away your grade books, teachers, and pick up Brave New World.

  8. Jennifer,

    Thank you for handing sharing your space online with students, as precious few media outlets take them seriously. Your post confirms that if we would only listen carefully to our young people, we could learn a heckuva lot about what is and isn’t working for them.

  9. I just found a pdf of UP Academy Lawerence’s dress code:

    It says that students pants must be “khaki” and cannot be “baggy, (or) overly tight.” (page 2)

    For the students, I guess you have to hit a sweet spot of some kind… you know … in a non-baggy, yet non-tight kinda way. Oh, and try not to grow too much while you’re at it, or you’ll have to cough up more cash for new uniforms. Some of the time, I imagine that what constitutes that happy middle ground would depend on the subjective opinion of the teacher or the administrator.

    And what if you demerited one kid for having for having a too-tight fit, or a too-baggy fit, yet the next day, another teacher or administrator let a kid with same fit — the same as the one the kid you gave a demerit to — slide, and the student or parent claims selective prosecution of the dress code?

    As a teacher, I imagine I would find this policing of student clothing — including the proper fit — to be quite maddening, if not downright creepy. After all, I didn’t spend years obtaining a teaching credential, only to spend my time looking at, fretting over, and judging how closely (or not) my students’ clothes fit their torsos, crotches, and buttocks.

    I mean … seriously … WTF???!!! Would parents want the teachers constantly check out their kids this way? I imagine not.

  10. The student wrote: I’m free now. It’s kind of sad to look at all of these sixth graders coming in. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. And their parents don’t know either. They just think it’s a middle school.

    Too bad this student went from an UP school to the ninth grade academy at the high school – which is basically an unofficial UP school, run by the same people and the same philosophies.

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