The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban SchoolLast week I somewhat impulsively picked up and read cover-to-cover the new book of an important mentor of mine.

The Hardest Questions Aren’t On the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School, by Linda Nathan

Linda is the principal of the Boston Arts Academy, where I did my student teaching a decade ago, in what I believe was the school’s 3rd year of existence. The book is largely a collection of vignettes from the BAA’s 12-year history. The vignettes have a theme:

Education involves facing difficult dilemmas. The thing that needs to be done is to bring together the people involved, open up the lines of communication, and try to figure out jointly what to do.

Some of these dilemmas are pedagogical, some pragmatic, some political, and some interpersonal. Some are a combination. The community of people involved may be administration, teachers, students, parents, or a combination. But however configured, Nathan is saying this process is at the heart of education: put the hard choice to the community, and keep everyone engaged with each other as you undertake to work it out.

This book was a very refreshing read for me. We are deep in the days of Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Race to the Top, the Common Core Standards, and the tendency among journalists1 to regard the KIPP schools as the greatest thing that have ever happened anywhere in the universe because they have high test scores. Now I have some nice things to say about some of these things. The Common Core Standards in 6th to 8th grade math are an order of magnitude better (i.e. shorter and less concerned with trivia) than the New York State standards have been, and while I have no firsthand knowledge of KIPP schools, I’ve been curious about them in a good way since my student teaching year at BAA, when a fellow student teacher came back from a visit to a KIPP school very excited about SLANT. But what this list is meant to capture is that I can’t escape the feeling that the highest-profile conversations about education in this country, in their frenzy regarding accountability and competition, have totally lost sight of the following facts:

a) Students are people and they have cares and values.
b) Teachers are people and they have cares and values.
c) Everybody involved has cares and values.
d) Education takes place in a community. (Corollary: improving education involves improving community.)

Reading The Hardest Questions… felt like walking into a room full of people who had never lost touch with any of this. Nathan is talking about thinking through educational dilemmas with her staff and students and being guided by what all the people involved value. Stating and working for what matters to her, and asking her teachers and her students what matters to them. It’s absurd that this should feel like a refreshing notion, but to me right now, it does. The Race to the Top funding criteria include a lot about assessments and data that will be used to measure teacher and principal effectiveness, and no encouragement whatsoever for students, teachers, principals or even state superintendents to reflect on what they value.

Another refreshing aspect of The Hardest Questions… is that it doesn’t uniformly make Linda or the BAA look good. (Often – and from firsthand experience they are good – but not uniformly.) The book narrates some play-by-play encounters with some difficult conundrums that don’t have clear resolutions, so it airs some missteps. (Different readers will probably count different moves as missteps.) One of the most pernicious elements of the accountability-and-results orientation in the national conversation about education is that it gives everybody (states, schools, teachers and students) a great reason to hide every mistake. You can’t learn math while you’re trying to hide your mistakes and you can’t learn to teach that way and you can’t learn to run a school that way. You can’t learn that way, period.2

Some specific themes and highlights:

* Schools need to develop a “unifying framework” – what the school stands for educationally. This is not a mission statement that collects dust in an administrative folder but a vision articulated frequently to students of the most important themes in their education. The faculty needs to be involved in developing it. The administration needs to be willing to commit to it in a long-term way. The school community needs to periodically revisit whether and how the school is implementing this shared educational vision. At the BAA, the unifying framework the faculty eventually came to, after 2 years of discussion and debate, is a list of four “habits of the graduate” – refine, invent, connect, own. The idea is that these words are the faculty’s answer to the question, “what we are committed to cultivating in every student?” and that this goal defines the school. Nathan makes a point that she initially tried to have faculty sign on to other lists of words (that to an outsider now don’t look so different), but it turned out to be necessary for the faculty to go through the intense and time-expensive process of answering this question for themselves.

I am suspicious of statements that begin with “All schools should…” But this is one I truly stand behind: all schools should develop and use a unifying framework. The “new initiative every year” model doesn’t work. Teachers need to be involved in articulating the framework, and a school must be willing to commit to the implementation of the framework over the long haul. Finally, I would argue that schools without a unifying framework still have an unspoken one – a de facto assumption of what this school is about. If it were expressed in posters on the wall, these frameworks might be “We Are Failing: Who Should We Blame?” or “High Scores and College Admissions – Everything Else Be Damned!” To honestly answer the question “What does your school stand for?” takes a willingness to ask again and again how your practices are improving, what students know and can do, and how day-to-day realities in the classroom match the ideals you have articulated. pp. 30-1

* Developing a school’s commitment to social and moral values also takes a community-wide process, and this one has to go beyond the faculty to the students. And it needs to be continually recreated, because new kids come every year. Chapter 2 of Nathan’s book describes how the BAA faculty first articulated a group of “Shared Values” in response to a community crisis (a “white power” graffito in the bathroom), and then slowly learned more and more, over the course of a series of other community crises (involving theft, homophobia, alcohol…), about what it would take to make these shared values a part of student culture. Some highlights:

As Shared Values became a way to talk about what was important in our community, and even the way to address some of our rules, a few students suggested that we change our quarterly honor-roll assemblies to be called Honor Roll/Shared Values assemblies. They wanted the school to recognize students when they were “Caught in the Act of Shared Values,” a phrase they coined. Students or faculty could nominate students who had done something to exemplify a shared value. The action wouldn’t have to be a big deal, but it had to be something that everyone could applaud. We have, for instance, acknowledged students “caught in the act” of putting up posters that someone had ripped down, staying behind to help clean up a classroom, bringing in doughnuts for everyone in the class after a strenuous day of testing… pp. 38-9

In the spring of 2005, some BAA music students performed at a local music club… It was a wonderful concert; the house was packed… However, the next day the owner of the club called to report that alcohol had been stolen from her establishment.

Ms. Torres [the assistant principal] gathered all the musicians together, and initially had an awful time getting any of the students to say they had seen anything. Finally, one of the young musicians, Martin, a leader in the band, said to the whole group, “Hey, listen, someone saw something. It will be terrible for our school and our reputation if we don’t figure out who did it and make sure it doesn’t happen again….” Martin spoke fervently, but still nobody talked, not for another few days. During these days, the entire school was buzzing with talk about expulsions and rumors that the music department would never be able to perform outside of the school again. In the meantime, Ms. Torres and security personnel managed to uncover the truth: which students had actually stolen the alcohol, which had looked away but knew what was going on… They were all suspended and the ringleader… was expelled…

Even though this incident only directly involved one group of students, so many students were talking about it that Ms. Torres decided to hold another whole school assembly. She also decided to have students talk to students rather than… expect administrators to chastise everyone. Ms. Torres asked Martin if he would address the student body and explain why this was such a big deal… Ms. Torres explained, “I need you to talk about the larger issues, Martin…” He agreed.

At the assembly, Martin got out of his seat, twirling his drumsticks in one hand. “We all know this school is pretty amazing,” he began. “Sure, we’ve got beefs and there are things that we all think are stupid and try to change. Sometimes we do. I know all you freshmen want to have lunch off campus, for example. Well, maybe you can change that. But, you know, one thing that keeps us together is that we have these Shared Values. Sure, some of us might laugh when Ms. Torres gets on the intercom every morning and tells us to live one of the Shared Values, but it’s cool. We do believe in diversity with respect. Just look around at how many different kinds of people are in here. And passion with – ” And then he held his mic out to the audience like a DJ as they responded, “Balance!”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Martin continued. “And we believe in community with – ” And again the audience responded, “Responsibility.”

“So, like you’ve heard from Ms. Torres, they’re dealing with the students who did this, but I just think we all have got to think about what this means for our whole community and our reputation out there. We live by our reputation as artists, and if it gets tight out there for us, we won’t be performing…”

We didn’t want students to dismiss the incident as “just something that happened to the music majors.” Dumb, destructive behavior like this is common among adolescents… As sad as I was that BAA students had stolen alcohol, and as disappointed as I was that other students hadn’t turned them in, I was proud of our school’s overall response to the incident. Martin’s leadership meant so much to me. It established a norm that respected student leaders could support school values publicly… pp. 48-51

* Great teachers are empowered to be great by the community they’re a part of. The principal needs to work for the creation and maintenance of this community in order to empower teachers to be great. Building a great school involves “transforming a faculty into a professional learning community.”

Success truly begets success… This plays out in Ms. Chan’s [dance] class, but we see it even more clearly in Mr. Ali’s [humanities class], where students are not all here by choice. Mr. Ali can build on Aleysha’s engaged identity as an artist to encourage in her an engaged identity as a scholar. He has listened to her concerts over the years, and he knows she has a gift and love for music. It is his challenge to create the same set of expectations and joys in his own humanities classroom. p. 78

Teaching at BAA is decidedly not a solitary activity. While I have very little influence on what goes on moment-to-moment in Ms. Chan’s or Mr. Ali’s classroom, I can, and do, work on the schedule (the skeletal system of a school) to ensure that teachers help each other, that worries and questions are shared among team members and the entire faculty. Mr. Ali meets weekly with academic and arts colleagues to discuss students and to develop curriculum. At the end of the year, he will spend two days with his team reviewing and critiquing each other’s units and lessons, and creating notebooks on the year’s courses so that they continue to build a collective archive of work.

Mr. Ali and Ms. Chan are not “one-offs” or “the exceptions” at BAA. I tell their stories here as representative of the ways in which our teachers can be successful. As a leader, it is my job to build a school in which all teachers work in teams, and have the time built into their schedules to talk, to visit each other’s classrooms, and to create curricula as carefully and self-critically as artists create their pieces. pp. 80-1

* A school that wants to make progress on the achievement gap needs to have frank and potentially uncomfortable conversations with faculty and students about race.

There are a lot of really compelling passages to quote on this one but it’s already several hours past the time I told myself I would have finished this post. Read the book.

More info:

Here is a video of a half-hour talk that Linda and some BAA students gave. (At Google I guess??) I found it much harder than the book to follow thematically, but it’s cool because the students do a performance based on the unifying framework (refine, invent, connect, own) and talk about it afterward.

Here is a review of the book written by a former BAA student for

[1] I’m thinking of Malcolm Gladwell (in Outliers) and Daniel Coyle (in The Talent Code), for example.

[2] As an aside, one of the reasons I think The Wire is such a significant show is its persistent exploration across different urban institutions (school, law enforcement, city politics) of the way that numerical “accountability” incentivizes maintaining the status quo and hiding the dirt rather than digging into the problems and seeking real improvement.