Monday, October 27, 2014

Some thoughts on budget cuts and school choice

Normal disclaimer that this is my personal blog and I don't speak for KIPP Philadelphia. And yes, I know it's been over a year since my last post. Two boys under 4 and a busy job will do that to you. Onward...

I believe in school choice. I think all parents should have multiple quality choices about where to send their children to school. As a parent of two young sons, I want to have the option to send my sons to the charter elementary school I run, the local district elementary school that is practically in our backyard, or a number of other good options. Unlike most parents in Philadelphia, I’m lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where the local district school is one that sends lots of students to selective district programs and has a good reputation in our neighborhood. While I have not yet visited, I have no doubt it is a place full of dedicated, talented teachers who I would love to teach my boys.

But with the incredible financial hardship of the last few years, district schools have lost invaluable programs, staff, and supplies, making even the best schools retreat into survival mode where simply maintaining some basic level of education is the best that can be hoped for. Drastic budget cuts means absurdly large class sizes, no art or music education, and teachers scrounging for even the most rudimentary supplies. I don’t want to send my children to a school like that and neither should any parent. For too many families they have no choice but to send their child to a school decimated by these budget cuts.  

As a principal of a charter school, I believe deeply in the promise of charter schools to provide families more choice and more great schools. Since charter schools are free and must serve all students, (I know not all do) this choice is open to everyone, not just those with enough money to live in the best neighborhoods or to pay for private school. While some charter schools in Philadelphia haven’t lived up to this promise, there are many that are doing a great job educating students in ways that anyone in Philadelphia would be proud to send their own child there.

At the same time, there is no substantive choice in education in Philadelphia without strong schools in the district. We need more great schools in Philadelphia, not less, and right now the massive budget cuts in the district are creating fewer great schools. No matter where you stand on the debates about charters, unions, the SRC, or any other hot button issue, what is happening in the district has to make you furious. As both a parent and someone who cares about the city I live in, I hope that the school district gets the substantial infusion of money it needs to do great things for kids. Right now, they don’t and that lack of choice hurts everyone in Philadelphia.

Friday, August 30, 2013

On How We Think About Sending Kids to the Office

What follows is a long piece of writing that explains how we at KPEA are thinking about when, how, and why teachers send students struggling with their behavior to the "office" and what happens when they get there. The leadership team and I used this essay to kick off a discussion with our teachers about some pretty big changes to this system that will bring our student office visit approach more in line with our overall student culture ideas.

The full text is below the fold, but the main idea is contained in these two excerpts:

This is not about lowering the bar in any way – what we’re talking about is confronting the reality that traditional ways of looking at office visits don’t make student behavior better and often times can make it worse.

All of our kids, even our most challenging ones want to do well and we know that is true because when we did make progress with Ramon, Talyse, or anyone else it was not because they went to this magic place called “the office” that changed how they behave, it was because we worked as a team to problem solve what was challenging for them, thought about how to support them in the skills they were lacking, and made expectations and boundaries really clear.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Teacher Professional Development Week Notes...

Here are some quick notes as KPEA is starting to wrap up our 3 weeks of teacher professional development and get ready to welcome our new kindergarten students on Thursday:

  • Inspirational family story - One of our families that includes three students at KPEA, was planning on moving to New York this summer. This is a family who has been through many ups and downs in their two years with us and as a result many teachers on staff have a close relationship with the students and parents. Based on challenges this family has had in the past, when they told us that they would be moving this summer we both worked to give them advice and connections with schools in New York, while also wondering if they would end up moving back to Philadelphia quickly since this is where the rest of their extended family lives. Teachers tried a couple of times during the summer to get a hold of the mother to see how things were going and all her numbers were disconnected - not an uncommon fact for this family. So we waited to hear something before we had to officially drop them from our rolls and take new students off our waitlist this week. And then on the same day we were going to contact new students, one of our teachers gets a call from the mother. In her words, her children kept asking when they were going to get to go back to KIPP because in his 7-year old words "KIPP is home". As a result, she decided to move back to Philadelphia so her children could continue at KPEA. In fitting timing, we got this news just as teachers were in a training on how we build powerful, lasting relationships with families and when teachers heard the news there were tears of happiness. Like I wrote here, keeping our kids is core to what we believe at KIPP and KPEA and that happens when great teachers build deep relationships with kids and families.  

  • Our teachers and staff have been doing a lot of work with ideas from the book Lost at School and I couldn't recommend it highly enough for teachers and leaders thinking deeply about how to work successfully with challenging students. The book is full of both deep ideas and practical strategies with the most foundational being the switch in thinking from "Kids do well if they want to" to "Kids do well if they can". It might seem like a little change but the impact on how we see our roles supporting challenging students is profound, because the role of teachers and support staff changes from "making kids want to behave/punishing them into not wanting to get into trouble" to "giving kids the skills and support to be able to do well". We're working hard to combine these big ideas with our already strong focus on clear expectations, social skills education, and strong use of teacher moves from Teach Like a Champion. I'll blog more about how this goes throughout the year, but I'm really excited to continue the work of shifting our student culture to one that is always about purposefully thinking about what is best for our students' character in the long term and never about just compliance.  

  • We've been using this TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on "The Single Story" to talk about how our kids, families, and each other are made up of many stories, characteristics, and identities. In her talk, Adichie says, "the problem with stereotypes is not that they are wrong, but that they are incomplete." The term "single story" has been a really good phrase to help us balance the realities that we know broad truths about everyone we do this work with but we must dig deeper to know each person as an individual. Totally worth the 18 minutes to listen to her talk.

  • One of our areas of focus this year at KPEA is represented by the phrase "We work and teach in such a way that students achieving is the constant; how we get them there is the only variable." This does not mean that achievement is a fixed, inflexible target - notice that the phrasing is "students achieving" not "student achievement" - because we are a school that values student progress and are just as excited for our students who make a ton of growth but are not on grade level yet as we are for our highest readers. But what is not ok is us being ok with kids not learning - for any reason. A teacher was out on maternity leave for a while? Shuffle staffing around to make sure great teachers are covering in that room. There is a new 2nd grader who comes in reading on a kinder level? Make sure she gets double or triples doses of reading each day. A student's behavior is spiraling because mom is working the overnight shift and can't come in for a problem solving meeting at school? Go to her house for a home visit. Our language around this comes from a blog post by Dan Meyer about a speech by Uri Treisman on the concept of "fault tolerance". The powerful idea is used to describe systems where we know problems will happen and engineers must design systems that are robust enough to withstand these challenges. Planes get hit by lightening and keep flying. Google servers crash but email keeps sending. Not all kids in school come in on grade level with perfect behavior and our schools, especially in under-resourced settings must be ready to ensure that kids learn no matter what.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Essential School Leader Reading

This article by Atul "Better" Gawande is pretty essential reading for most anyone in school leadership or education policy. The article is about how ideas spread and follows the story of how doctors are working to increase the percentage of hospitals using very basic protocols for newborns. Read this long-ish excerpt to get the idea:

"As with most difficulties in global health care, lack of adequate technology is not the biggest problem. We already have a great warming technology: a mother’s skin. But even in high-income countries we do not consistently use it. In the United States, according to Ringer, more than half of newborns needing intensive care arrive hypothermic. Preventing hypothermia is a perfect example of an unsexy task: it demands painstaking effort without immediate reward. Getting hospitals and birth attendants to carry out even a few of the tasks required for safer childbirth would save hundreds of thousands of lives. But how do we do that?

The most common approach to changing behavior is to say to people, “Please do X.” Please warm the newborn. Please wash your hands. Please follow through on the twenty-seven other childbirth practices that you’re not doing. This is what we say in the classroom, in instructional videos, and in public-service campaigns, and it works, but only up to a point.

Then, there’s the law-and-order approach: “You must do X.” We establish standards and regulations, and threaten to punish failures with fines, suspensions, the revocation of licenses. Punishment can work. Behavioral economists have even quantified how averse people are to penalties. In experimental games, they will often quit playing rather than risk facing negative consequences. And that is the problem with threatening to discipline birth attendants who are taking difficult-to-fill jobs under intensely trying conditions. They’ll quit.

The kinder version of “You must do X” is to offer incentives rather than penalties. Maybe we could pay birth attendants a bonus for every healthy child who makes it past a week of life. But then you think about how hard it would be to make a scheme like that work, especially in poor settings. You’d need a sophisticated tracking procedure, to make sure that people aren’t gaming the system, and complex statistical calculations, to take prior risks into account. There’s also the impossible question of how you split the reward among all the people involved. How much should the community health worker who provided the prenatal care get? The birth attendant who handled the first twelve hours of labor? The one who came on duty and handled the delivery? The doctor who was called in when things got complicated? The pharmacist who stocked the antibiotic that the child required?

Besides, neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching. “You must” rewards mere compliance. Getting to “X is what we do” means establishing X as the norm. And that’s what we want: for skin-to-skin warming, hand washing, and all the other lifesaving practices of childbirth to be, quite simply, the norm.
To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way. So what about just working with health-care workers, one by one, to do just that?"
Besides the obvious parallel to a school leader building or changing staff and/or student culture, I love this excerpt and the whole article because it really hits on one of my pet peeves about many education folks (especially on my side of the "ed reform" debate)- namely, that there is a technocratic solution to every challenge. What I mean when I say technocratic is that the solution lies in some new system, process, or technology. Anyone involved in education for more than a few years could create a long list of local, state-wide, or national education initiatives that sounded good on paper but failed when implemented at scale. Great ideas are necessary but so far from being sufficient and that applies equally to something as small as student culture systems at one school to something as large as implementation of Common Core assessments nationwide. What matters most in Gawande's eyes is the slow, deep, individualized work of really knowing people, relationships, and communities. In other words, culture matters more than ideas and building culture is way harder than coming up with a great system.

Monday, June 17, 2013


Our school is pretty lucky that we had the honor of moving into a brand new, renovated facility in our 2nd year. Then this fall we partnered with Kaboom! to build a new playground for our students. The final part of our building was complete this past month when we worked with the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia to paint a giant mural on the wall by our playground.

Working with a team of teachers from all four KIPP Philadelphia schools, artist Jared Bader created an amazing design that depicts our students' path to college. Then students from all our schools worked to paint panels that were then applied to the wall to complete the finished mural.

At KPEA, not only did our students get to help paint, but because we did our painting during a Saturday School, our students' families were able to participate too, making this a real team and family effort.

Besides looking really cool, this mural is going to be a daily reminder to our kids, families, and staff about what our hard work is all about.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Assessment Stories

Like many schools, we give our kids internal assessments a few times a year to track their growth, inform our teaching, and communicate progress with families. In reading, we use the STEP assessment which is similar to a DRA or F&P test, while in math, we use our own internally created assessments based off our standards. Since these assessments are given 1-1 or in small groups, we give them slowly over two weeks while continuing with our regular teaching. As we finish with each student, we enter these results in fancy spreadsheets. The documents do relatively snazzy things like change the cell color based on how much kids are learning and spit out stats about the average reading level or the amount of growth a class is making.

These stats are really useful and crunching these numbers makes us better able to teach our kids. But we really, really believe that kids are more than numbers and we shouldn't only be talking about student progress by using Microsoft Excel. To make sure that this sentiment stays squarely in front of us, we send out all staff emails throughout our testing window celebrating students who have made awesome progress. What is great about our staff and these emails is that we know we work in the real world with real kids and that means not all of our kids will be above grade level. That's ok and our teachers are equally excited about students who made great progress, but for one reason or another are below grade level as they are about students scoring way above their grade.

Below the fold are some of these teacher emails from this last round of testing, lightly edited for clarity and with student names removed for privacy. I've also added some background on STEP levels where relevant.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

3 Things At Once

It’s hiring season so I’ve been doing a lot of talking to prospective teachers recently about what we do and how we do it. A lot of what I say I’ve been saying for the last 4 years – I talk about our mission of sending kids to and through college, about our focus on developing student character, about the teamwork our staff shows each day, as just a few examples. But I’ve found myself coming back to an idea that’s always been implied in my conversations about KPEA, but that I’ve been making more forcefully this year.
My teachers and I are trying to make a school that does three things:
  • We take in all kids (enrollment process held up as a model in Philly. 88% F/R lunch, 21% SPED rate)
  • We keep our kids (2% student attrition or less each year, no expulsions) 
  • We are creating a great school (strong academic growth and achievement on multiple assessments, high family satisfaction) 
Why do I keep coming back to this set of ideas this year? Like I’ve written about before, not all charter schools and ed reform leaders think doing these things are important and as a result, it’s more and more important that leaders in the charter movement who believe in serving all kids are vocal about what we do. With more and more school choice options, it’s our obligation to make sure teachers, parents, and policy leaders understand who we are and what we stand for. If folks outside of our organization are confused about what we do, it’s on us to do a better job explaining what we care about.

Awesome 1st grade artwork
I’m also talking about these ideas because I want our new teachers to know that doing all three is really, really hard! I want them to know that part of working at KPEA means embracing the challenge of having crazy high expectations for kids while working with students who have special needs, behavior challenges, or tragically sad home lives. If you’re not at least a little crazily idealistic this might not be where you want to work. Our teachers celebrate when we get 92% of our kindergarten students reading on/above grade level. But we celebrate even more when one of the students who came to us not knowing any letters finishes the year almost on grade level and starting to read.

As every single person who works at KPEA would tell you, doing all three of these at the same time is really hard and we don’t always get it totally right. There are many, many things we’re working on doing better, like student behavior on buses, building student vocabulary in a more coherent way, and making this work more sustainable for teachers, to name just a few. But we have no interest in making a school that gets great results by only taking in the “best” kids. Or getting great results by getting rid of the “bad” kids. Or a school that tolerates not great results because our kids are “hard”.

We can take all kids, keep our kids, and have a great school. We can and must do all three.