Creating Effective Schools in Failed Urban Districts

Martin Haberman
Distinguished Professor
University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

In my city 36% of African American students and 42% of Hispanic students graduate from high school. These graduation rates are not the lowest for students in these ethnic groups in the 120 major urban districts. Compare this with the graduation rates of students having handicapping conditions in the United States as a whole: learning disabilities 62%, language impaired 66%, mentally retarded 40%, emotionally disturbed 40%, multiple disabilities 48%, hearing impairments 68%, orthopedic impairments 68%, visual impairments 73%, autism 47%, blindness, 48%, traumatic brain injury 65%. Stated simply, an American student who has been officially labeled handicapped in some way which prevents him/her from learning has a better chance of graduating from high school than a student of color in one of America’s major urban school systems.(U.S. Dept. of Education, 2000)

In Who Benefits From Failed Urban Districts I explained why the 120 major urban school districts cannot be changed let alone transformed and listed 22 constituent groups who derive great benefits and unearned privileges from miseducating 7 million diverse children in urban poverty who attend school in these districts. (Haberman, 2003) At the same time, there are successful schools within each of these failing districts and it is possible to create more of them even though they must function as part of dysfunctional bureaucracies. The creation of such schools is of the highest priority since the children who attend them can be saved from becoming drop outs, push outs, or worst of all, “successful” graduates who lack the skills to enter the work force or to pursue higher education.
The attributes of effective urban schools have been well researched, clearly documented and frequently published in professional journals and even in the mass media.

The reason they are not implemented immediately throughout the failing districts of the nation is that to do so would threaten the constituent groups who currently benefit from the present failed systems. In effect, the process of trying to scale up these successful school models, triggers blocking strategies used by functionaries in these dysfunctional bureaucracies to control those who seek to circumvent or mitigate their failed policies and procedures. The functionaries in these failed districts are not, as the naïve believe, happy about having successful individual schools in their districts. An effective school within a failed district makes the total district look bad because the question is immediately raised, “Why can’t all the schools do this?” This pressures those benefiting from failure to become more accountable and this is the last thing they want to be. Every new report explaining how some local heroes have created a successful school in the midst of a failing district, gives the bureaucracy a heads up. It immediately responds to the threat of being required to replicate and scale up by springing into action with blocking strategies. Individually successful schools pressure the school board and the school superintendent, and threaten the central office functionaries whose primary goal is to protect the present distribution of financial rewards, power, status and unearned privileges for themselves and their constituents who benefit from maintaining the present failed systems.

My purpose here is to not simply list the conditions and factors which explain the success of effective schools in failed districts but to comment on the blocking strategies used by these districts to keep the benefits of failure flowing. The components of effective urban schools and the blocking strategies they elicit from their dysfunctional bureaucracies are, in order of importance:

1. An educational leader as principal. 

An effective urban school is not lead by a principal functioning as a building manager but by an individual functioning as the leader of a non-profit community organization. The effective leader of an urban poverty school accomplishes three basic goals: s/he creates a common vision; builds effective teams to implement that vision; and engenders commitment to task, i.e. the persistent hard work needed to engender learning. This means that the effective principal does not conceive of him/herself as the representative of the central office down to those in the school but as the advocate for all the constituent groups in the school community upward. The threat to the system of such leadership is that the effective principal’s highest priority is helping the teachers, staff, parents and community demand what is in the best interests of stimulating, enhancing and protecting the learning of children. A leader who advocates upward will inevitably question central office’s budget and policy decisions and this is the exact opposite of what the failed system wants. In order to maintain itself the system needs a top-down messenger who will simply inform the school community of the budget that has been allocated, the decisions that have already been made and then deliver the compliance of all the constituencies in the school community back up to his/her superiors in central office. The dysfunctional bureaucracy recruits and rewards principals who will keep a lid on failing schools, not individuals who would seek to transform them. Transformation would change the way power, benefits and unearned privileges are now distributed and the dysfunctional system reacts to such serious threat with strong blocking strategies.

The effective educational leader of a successful urban school, in effect, becomes a strong, persistent advocate of his constituents against the system. Because there are never enough resources for the school and always too many policies and regulations which interfere with learning, the school leader inevitably leads in the creation of ways to circumvent district policies. Even more disturbing to the system, the effective principal does not take “no” for an answer. If there are no resources within the system, s/he seeks ways of reworking the budget to generate the needed funds, or s/he generates resources from outside the system and becomes even less dependent on the central office. The effective leader figures out ways to circumvent or mitigate the debilitating impact of the system’s policies. Effective principals never ask for permission before implementing policies and practices which support children’s learning. They are experts at knowing how their system operates, who are the particular people in the central or district offices who can help them, and the specific ways in which they can make things that are not typically done become acceptable or go unnoticed. Such principals are not aspiring to move into the central office someday and therefore are not toadies to their superiors; neither do they seek to cultivate a reputation as one of those who can be trusted to maintain the bureaucracy. Principals of effective schools are only put up with and tolerated by the system because they become too visible to be easily reassigned. They are treated with suspicion and not regarded as loyal soldiers. The threat to the failed urban school system of having even a few effective school principals is enormous. They network with other principals who might catch their affliction for putting children first.

The failing urban districts have developed various blocking strategies for coping with effective principals. First, they seek to never appoint such a principal in the first place. Future principals are carefully vetted by superintendents and school boards to make certain they are like those currently appointed. Commitment to children’s learning, creativity and courage are selection criteria those who appoint urban principals would not dare use. Second, by using state certification laws the schools boards can be certain that the pool of new principals will be limited to former teachers and assistant principals who have come up through the ranks and have been thoroughly socialized by the system. These will be individuals who are safe to the system because they will apply and extend their own experiences gained in failed schools to their new duties. Third, the school boards require masters degree training for administrators offered by the local universities which have traditionally trained their administrators. This preparation cannot in any way be adversarial or critical of the dysfunctional bureaucracies or the local university would put itself out of business as a “cooperating” partner. Fourth, many of those who seek to become principals in this limited and limiting pool, are people whose motivation is to escape the classroom, gain more status and higher salary. They are neither star teachers nor individuals with the goal, the drive or the ability to transform failing schools. Fifth, urban school boards claim to use race and ethnicity as an important criterion for selecting new principals. This would be an excellent criterion if it went beyond the rhetoric. By limiting the pool of future principals to former teachers and assistant principals from their own systems they, in effect, narrow the pool to even fewer minorities. Several states, e.g. Michigan and Texas, have alternative certification laws for hiring principals from outside the traditional pool but do not do use them. The political power of the failed urban districts within their states prevents the states from implementing their own laws. The only way to get more diversity into the principals’ ranks is to appoint proven leaders from community agencies, government and the private sector. The failed urban bureaucracies fight to the death to block such an expansion of the pool. Sixth, the dysfunctional bureaucrats (school boards members, superintendents, central office functionaries) try to enhance their own individual power by being instrumental in making principal appointments. They desire loyalty to themselves above any attributes or training. Those who appoint principals seek control over particular schools in future and nothing is as effective as having the new principal be beholden to them for his/her appointment. Finally, if all the preceding blocking strategies fail and the system is stuck with an effective principal whose achievements are becoming well known, they simply transfer the effective principal out of the school s/he may have spent a decade transforming. They disguise this blocking strategy with the claim, “This principal is so effective we want him/her to now do the same thing for another school.” when the real goal is to separate the effective principal from his/her power base of constituents.

2. Star Teachers

No school or innovation can succeed without effective teachers. In Spring Branch, Texas and in Buffalo, New York were I was able to help failing schools hire a whole new faculty, schools that were among the lowest in achievement became some of the highest achieving schools in their district in one year. The bureaucratic functionaries are well aware of this road to success and use various blocking strategies to prevent creating the critical mass of star teachers who are needed to turn a failing school around. First, they assign teachers to schools singly and never in groups or teams. Second, if they allow individual schools to select their teachers they limit their choices to only teachers who have first been screened by the central office. Third, they support transfer policies which limit the ways in which the school can advertise for and select teachers outside of the seniority system and claim this is the fault of the teacher’s union. My experience has been that the teacher unions are quite open to how failing schools are restaffed. Teachers with seniority do not rush to transfer to failing schools and the unions are not the blockers; it is the dysfunctional bureaucracy seeking to protect itself from success models which limits how failing schools are reconstituted. Fourth, more and more major urban districts are screening and hiring teachers without ever speaking to them in person. Under the guise of becoming more efficient they rely on only the examination of paper credentials and telephone interviews to hire teachers. Except for urban teachers no one in America can get a job without ever speaking to another human being. Even part time employees in a car wash are hired only after they speak with someone in person. Such “efficient” hiring is guaranteed to produce teachers who are quitter/failures. Fifth, urban school districts block the hiring of more mature adults who can become star teachers in their districts by pretending that a license predicts a “highly qualified” teacher. Urban districts find it more convenient to continue the churn of unqualified youngsters with licenses who simply pass through their schools for short periods than to do the hard work of recruiting a diverse teaching staff who will be effective and stay. Even when the federal government defines mature, college graduates who have passed state exams and are being mentored on-the-job as “fully qualified”, many districts continue to hire traditional graduates who they know very well will be unable to relate to diverse students in poverty and who will soon be leaving. Once it is understood that the system’s goal is to control teacher behavior and not to hire a lot of troublemakers who will put the needs of the children over the self-serving maintenance of the bureaucracy, does it become clear why districts prefer 22 year olds with no work experience who won’t be around long enough to figure out how the system is organized against teaching and learning. Sixth, the system’s stated goal of hiring more minority teachers is disingenuous piffle. By blocking the hiring of mature adults who use alternative routes, the system has in effect protected itself against creating a culturally representative teaching force.

3. A System of Accountability

There is no urban district in America which makes those who hire the teachers accountable for the performance of those they hire. With no accountability in place those who hire the teachers are only responsible for having a certified teacher in every classroom on the first day of school. How well the teacher does after that is something for which no one in the failing school districts is held accountable.

Currently, urban districts do hold principals accountable for student achievement in their school, but only as one part of their annual evaluations. It is typical in these failed urban districts for principals whose schools seldom if ever show increased achievement to be retained and even rated as “satisfactory” year after year. The way these failed systems ensure retaining a cadre of ineffective but loyal principals is by using evaluation schemes in which the failure principal can do well enough in other areas of “leadership” to compensate for low or no student achievement gains.

The mass of functionaries in the central offices and their superiors are not held accountable in any way or to any degree for anything that even relates to student learning. The directors of reading, science, math or social studies in the central offices are never dismissed because the district’s achievement scores continue to drop in those areas. The directors of staff development are not held accountable because the teaching staff is not “developing”. Aside from the test scores which they eschew, none of the 120 districts provide data that can tell how well the teachers are doing, let alone whether or not they are improving. No one in the central office is held directly responsible for the districts’ dismal rates of graduation, attendance, suspension or expulsion. If a new reading or math program is adopted, those who recommended it are not held accountable for its failure. If a program is started to cut down on violence, tobacco use, or teenage pregnancy, no one is held accountable for negative results, or for even assessing results. If a federal, state, or private grant is secured no one is ever held accountable for producing the results which were promised in order to get the grant in the first place. Even the business and financial officers are not held accountable when they mismanage and even misappropriate funds. Many big city superintendents have bonuses written into their contracts if achievement scores rise. None have pay decreases written in if achievement stays the same or decreases.

Any effort to hold any functionaries in the system accountable for anything will be forcefully and effectively resisted by all levels of the bureaucracy. The blocking strategies currently being used in the 120 largest districts with the greatest percentage of failing schools to resist and undermine Leave No Child Behind is the ultimate example of how failed systems resist accountability. The extremely powerful and passionate resistance of failed bureaucracies to do something about their failed schools is compelling evidence of their motivation to block rather than comply—as if more evidence is needed. The district’s reasons for why they cannot be held accountable for their failing schools includes but is not limited to the “facts” that the tests aren’t good enough measures of important learning; that the schools are underfunded; that achievement scores should not be used because there is too much student mobility, too many special education students, too many homeless children; and that four years is not enough time to demonstrate improvement.

There is no successful business in America in which individuals in leadership and budget management positions are not held accountable. There is an encyclopedic amount of evidence that no organization, private or public, can function effectively by putting into place a system of automatic, continuous rewards with no accountability…and this is precisely the system that is in place in the dysfunctional bureaucracies of the 120 largest failing districts.

The hope that bureaucratic functionaries would embrace rather than do whatever they can to block a results oriented management system is a victory of naïve expectation over a century of experience.

4. A focused, unswerving, total commitment to high standards of learning.

In effective urban schools the building culture delivers a constant message: “Children’s learning is the ultimate value to be preserved. Whatever supports learning is something we need to do. Whatever interferes with learning is something we must stop.” Once learning rather than custodial care becomes the mission of the school all of the priorities are reordered and the school culture is under threat of change. In effective schools this message is actualized. In failing schools it is merely verbalized. The conditions under which teachers work and children learn reflects whether the culture of the school makes learning the highest priority. In urban schools, a typical class has 125 interruptions a week because anyone in the school can walk into any classroom at any time with a message or to pull out a student. If learning were the highest priority this would not be typical behavior in schools. The squawk box or the class telephone can break in on the teacher and the class at the will of office staff. If learning rather than administrative convenience were the highest priority this would not be typical behavior in schools. In effect, the convenience of the adults, from the principal, through the clerical staff, to the safety aides and janitors takes precedence over teaching and learning.

The principal who has the greatest input into reshaping the school culture. The task the effective principal faces in battling a school culture that makes adult convenience a higher school priority than learning is enormous. The demands of the system for paper work, reports and compliance to ritualistic procedures are the bureaucratic strategies the principal must fight all day, everyday if s/he tries to make learning the ultimate value to be preserved.

5. Sufficient resources.

The most obvious way the dysfunctional system protects itself against effective schools is by limiting their resources. This is accomplished by allocating significantly more resources to central office functions and to functions which occur outside of schools and classrooms than to teachers and students. The second strategy for limiting resources to individual schools is to make certain that when there are cuts in the total district budget they are made by cutting the teaching force significantly more than by cutting those who work outside of classrooms. Of the total budget in the N.Y.C. schools only 6% reaches the classroom level. In Seattle over 70% of the system’s budget is passed through to the schools. Guess which system has higher student achievement? In the typical urban school district between 40% and 50% of the budget passes through to the schools. This compares with over 80% in small towns and suburbs. Of all the blocking strategies this one is the most direct, the most powerful, the easiest to use and the most common. The central offices simply starve the schools for their own benefit and expansion.

In effective schools, the principal and staff use their know-how within the bureaucracy to gain as many resources for their school as possible. They also do whatever is necessary to prevent cuts to the direct instructional services for children. In addition, they seek resources from partnership arrangements as well as funded grants from local sources. The effective principal Is in a constant battle of the budget against his/her own system.

6. Parents as partners and resources.

In effective schools the parents are genuine partners in every phase of the life of the school. In failing schools the parents are viewed as uncooperative “no shows” and homework helpers. In an effective school the principal and teachers create adult, respectful relationships which put parents in the role of genuine partners. Parents in these schools are treated as if they were wealthy, highly educated parents of advantaged students in a private academy. The primary purpose of interactions between the school staff and the parents in an effective school is to learn more about the students so that this information can be used in turning them on to learning and making the curriculum relevant. In failing schools the primary purpose for dealing with parents is twofold: 1) to report negative behavior and request that the parents make their children more compliant and 2) that parents oversee homework and actually teach their children the specific skills and content the school is failing to teach.

The policies and procedures of the system punish schools that treat parents as equal, cooperating partners and reward schools that treat them as part of the problem. Just one example. By federal law parents must be informed when their children attend failing schools and that they have the right of transfer. In the urban districts there may be 50% or more of the children whose parents have been so informed. The problem is that there are insufficient openings in schools that are not deemed to be failing and no transportation to get to them. The system creates elaborate, lengthy written procedures for making these transfer requests. Schools that have openings are likely to be other failing schools. In my city last year, 45,000 parents were notified they had the right to transfer but only 500 actually were able to work through the cumbersome regulations to transfer their children. And even then, parents had no way of knowing the quality of the new schools they had chosen. Principals and teachers in effective schools do not support policies which obfuscate and mislead parents and are therefore regarded as dangerous and not “team players” by the functionaries who benefit from maintaining the dysfunctional systems.

7. A network of human service providers.

Effective schools function within a network of health and social service providers. They regard their clients as the children and their families. They seek to connect their clients with all the available medical, dental, mental health, job training, religious, nutritional, recreational, housing, and other services. In effective schools it is understood that the child is not only a “learner” but a member of a family and community. To improve the conditions of life of the children is to improve their potential for learning. Acting on this philosophy is not only annoying but dangerous to the system. The schools cannot control all these other entities and must make adjustments in time, scheduling and organization in order to cooperate with them. Worst of all, as other parents learn of the services available to children, parents and families in effective schools they immediately want to know, “Why don’t we have these resources and services available in our school community?” Another telling example of how urban systems try to block making the full range of services available to their students is how they respond to after school programs such as the reading tutoring offered in YMCA’s and other community agencies. These programs frequently do a better job at teaching reading then the failing urban school district. Yet, the district either ignores these programs or starts competing ones which cost five times as much and are significantly less effective. If the failing districts are not able to establish links with after school tutoring programs which compensate for their lack of instructional effectiveness, what is the likelihood they will develop the mechanisms to cooperate with health and human service agencies? The effective school functions as a health and human services referral agency.

For the last half century urban school districts have demonstrated consistent growth in their central offices and total budgets and decreases in their achievement levels and graduation rates. My city has become the national center of the voucher and charter school movement. Enrolment in the public schools is down to 91,000 with over 29,000 now in 106 private, charter, suburban and open enrollment schools. Yet, as enrollment declines the total annual budget of the system increases each year and the ratio of total employees to classroom teachers continues to increase. When Albert Shanker first warned against the burgeoning central offices in the 1970’s he predicted that more and more urban districts would have a ratio of 1:1; that is, one employee for every teacher working directly with children. We now have urban districts where the ratio is more than 2:1. The culture of the 120 failing districts remains constant and clear. The further away an individual works from children the higher the status and financial rewards. In such a culture the system and its bureaucratic functionaries will inevitably expand at the expense of teachers and children.

Private sources as well as federal and state governments have spent billions for the ostensible purpose of equalizing educational opportunity, yet the achievement gap between rich and poor and between the races continues to widen. Meaningful change is effectively blocked because those with the power to transform these self serving bureaucracies are those who benefit most from their survival and expansion. If stopping the miseducation of seven million diverse children and youth in urban poverty is the goal, the focus of change efforts must shift from the system to the school level. Knowing the system’s blocking strategies when they find that one of their schools has become effective enables us to push ahead with making other individual schools successful. For those committed to saving the educational lives of seven million diverse children in urban poverty, the school not the district is the unit of analysis and effort.

M.Haberman (2003) Who Benefits from Failed Urban School Districts? The Institute for Minority Affairs. University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. 59p.

United States Department of Education (2003) 
How Special Education Students Fared?

Office of Special Education Programs. Washington, D.C.