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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 12/ 3/2010

Surprising truths from superstar principal

By Jay Mathews

Henry Gradillas was the principal of Garfield High School in the 1980s when the chairman of its math department, a Bolivian immigrant named Jaime Escalante, became the most famous teacher in the United States. Escalante, about whom I wrote a book, was an amazing educator, but he would never have gained such renown and become the subject of the film "Stand and Deliver" if it had not been for Gradillas.

I have never seen in action an urban high school principal as good as Gradillas [pronounced gra-DEE-us] was. His example influences everything I (and a lot of other people) think about how to make schools better.

So when Gradillas told me he was going to write his own book of advice for school leaders, I encouraged him, although I feared that 25 years after the peak of his career many of his views would be out of date. He is still a vigorous man, with a handsome crop of white hair. He still works as a tutor and substitute teacher in Wisconsin. But much of the jargon and many of the issues have changed since his time in Los Angeles. I feared that at age 76 he would sound like an old coot rather than the vibrant and clever administrator I remembered.

Boy, was I wrong. His book just came out. It is "Standing and Delivering: What the Movie Didn't Tell," co-authored with teacher and writer Jerry Jesness. The publisher is Rowman & Littlefield. I read it on the plane coming back from Thanksgiving in California. I disturbed my wife and son with my frantic underlining and frequent exclamations of wonder and surprise.

It is a terrific book filled with great stories. More importantly, it is painfully relevant to what we are arguing about in city schools these days. I say painful because Gradillas in some cases persuasively contradicts policies that many education leaders I admire have been pursuing.

A popular approach to improving schools is to weed out the weak teachers right away. Gradillas says that is a bad idea. Many good-hearted reformers assume that the best teachers in their schools are going to support their efforts most strongly. Gradillas found that was not so, for very important reasons.

Keep in mind that Gradillas became principal at Garfield not long after the school had narrowly escaped losing its accreditation because it was a sinkhole of low expectations and gang tension. The student body was about 85 percent low-income and 95 percent Hispanic.

In Gradillas' first year, the Advanced Placement calculus program that would make Garfield famous almost collapsed when the College Board accused several students of cheating. That crisis was resolved when they retook the exam, at Escalante's urging, and did well again. But that did not cure Garfield's many ills. Reading levels were still low. The dropout rate was 51 percent. Garfield seniors scored at the 19th percentile on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. Suspensions and campus violence were common.

Yet the book reveals that in 1986, after four years of Gradillas, the Los Angeles Unified School District recognized Garfield as the school with the lowest number of expulsions, suspensions and incidences of police intervention in the district. The dropout rate declined. The CTBS scores soared. And in 1987 the school produced 26 percent of all the Mexican-Americans in the United States who passed an Advanced Placement Calculus exam.

In this relatively short 121-page book, Gradillas describes how he began the Garfield turnabout in an unconventional way:

"Teachers take a lot of the blame for problems in schools. A number of parents and fellow administrators suggested that I start by eliminating the poorer teachers. Again, trying to first correct instruction before establishing a positive school climate kills any chance of creating an effective school. An otherwise competent administrator I know failed to survive at his high school because his approach was to hit the teachers first.

"No administrator can raise test scores by first attacking the delivery of instruction. In the first place, this approach gives the kids the impression that they are off the hook, that they are not responsible for anything that goes on in their school. In the second place, this tactic will cause the teachers to buck the administration from day one. Everybody loses when that happens."

What he did instead was take seriously, in a way few principals do, the powers given to principals under state, county and district guidelines. As he put it, he had "the authority to insure that instruction goes on uninterrupted and mandate that all efforts be made to insure graduation." He removed distractions of every sort---former students gathering across the street, current students wandering the halls during class (a common situation in some D.C. high schools today), and poor classroom discipline inspired, Gradillas says, by the widespread belief that Hispanic students' "hot Latin blood is going to keep them from sitting quietly through their classes."

When he asked police to remove local youth parking their cars and playing their radios at top volume across the street, the officers said "they could not order cars to leave as long as they were legally parked in a public place," Gradillas says. "I had to show a police lieutenant in writing that any deliberate act that interfered with the educational process is a violation of the law. The police then told the offenders that they must leave or be arrested. That was the end of the problem."

He instilled in all of his staff their responsibility for calling out students misbehaving. This extended to janitors, who were told to intervene when students littered, and to cooks, who stopped students trying to take an extra taco. Any student who resorted to violence "was suspended, transferred and gone the same day," he says. He did not think this was so harsh because it gave them a chance "to make a fresh start at another LAUSD campus if they so chose."

Students who missed two weeks of class or more had to sit in special rooms doing makeup work before they could return to class with their friends. Gradillas ordered his clerks to stop rubber-stamping the welfare department forms asking if students were in school. If they had been absent, the welfare people were told that. That meant their families would not get their benefits, and take school attendance more seriously.

Teachers were instructed to lock their doors so that tardy students could not get in. The latecomers were herded into the auditorium and lectured on punctuality. A second violation meant a visit to a counselor. A third meant after-school or Saturday detention. Tardiness declined significantly. Gradillas organized regular sweeps of the halls so that stragglers would learn roaming around was no longer allowed.

Gradillas, as he said, first focused on fixing procedures, not teachers, but some of his teachers did not like the new procedures. Some refused to lock out tardy students. Some even hid hallway wanderers in their classrooms so they could avoid the roundup. "These Latino kids have had enough doors slammed in their faces," one teacher told him. "I don't want to slam my door on them."

The principal's response was that he was opening doors for their future. As he says in the book, "19-year-old high school graduates should not lose jobs because they have not figured out that they have to show up for work on time."

Some of his best teachers, well-acquainted with urban school inertia, told Gradillas they loved his intentions and his values, but thought it all would quickly fall apart. They said if they followed his lead they too would be punished when he offended too many people and got fired. They said if he did well, he would be promoted in a couple of years and they would get the usual replacement who squashed everyone loyal to the old principal. "Everyone who did things your way will be on the s--- list," one said.

Eventually many came around, as Gradillas raised the level of the curriculum, with AP expanding to departments other than math. He and his staff worked with weak teachers to make them better. "About half of the teachers we targeted for improvement came through for us," he said.

There is much more to the story by an educator who never lost his sense of humor. That was the case even when he took a leave to get his doctorate, returned to Los Angeles and found his reward was a job as the district's liaison for asbestos inspections. In a way, his teachers had been right. Good deeds in urban education often do not go unpunished.

But Gradillas bounced back. The asbestos assignment for Jaime Escalante's principal put him on the front page of the Post, as well as other newspapers. The state superintendent of public instruction made him a statewide trouble shooter. He became principal of another big school, Birmingham High in the San Fernando Valley, and a frequent speaker around the country.

Age has not slowed him down. He is as up to date with the factions and arguments about fixing inner city schools as anyone I know. And he actually fixed one school, at least for awhile, in a big way. That is worth reading about. It is a short book. I am discovering that reading it three or four times is even better, so I make sure the lessons sink in.

By Jay Mathews  | December 3, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Henry Gradillas, Standing and Delivering,, don't start by firing weak teachers, fix the school climate first, superstar principal of Garfield High School  
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Any student who resorted to violence "was suspended, transferred and gone the same day,"
A lot of the issues that public schools have can be examined through the lens of this statement. We can't do this in DCPS. We have students getting into fights and resorting to violence fairly often, and we can't just "get rid of them".

I absolutely, 100% agree with the notion that you have to make the school environment one for learning, but it is EXTREMELY difficult when teachers, administrators, and other school staff are hamstrung by rules that make it clear that no matter what a student does, they will be back, probably sooner rather than later.

I'm not saying a kid should be kicked out of school after one mistake, but most schools spend 80% of their energy on the 10% most disruptive kids. If any school could just "get rid" of those kids, they would see a tremendous improvement in school climate. The issue then becomes where do those kids go?

Posted by: Wyrm1 | December 3, 2010 6:59 AM | Report abuse

Agreed. This analysis basically lists a bunch of interventions that are no longer available to administrators.

Posted by: someguy100 | December 3, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

The G in Gradillas must stand for "Gold Standard" for establishing and maintaining the necessary learning environment in schools whether public or private.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | December 3, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

I hope folks don't dismiss the author's point just because some of the interventions he used may not be available in some areas. His main point, that can be applied anywhere, is to work out weaknesses in procedures that disrupt the teaching-learning dynamic first, then focus on the individual teachers. Some of these so-called "dead wood" teachers have just given up trying to fight the institutionalized chaos. Find your best teachers. Listen to them. They'll tell you how to make their jobs even more effective. Get rid of obstacles. The other teachers will respond too!

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 3, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I don't think anyone is dismissing his point, in fact I embrace it wholeheartedly. I was merely pointing out that many of the things that we KNOW would improve schools are impossible because of the inability to deal with a small number of extremely troublesome and disengaged students.

Teachers and schools try very hard to engage all students, but that doesn't happen. If a school gets above a critical mass of actively disruptive students, it becomes almost impossible to improve the school culture in a meaningful way.

To a certain degree that is the strength of the charter school program. They have the ability to remove the 5-10% of kids who impede learning for the rest. However, those kids need to go somewhere, and right now that is the public schools.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | December 3, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

There are plenty of things admins could to today that are similar in spirit to what this principal did. Most won't try them - the self-esteem movement run amok.

Posted by: peonteacher | December 3, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Well, lets see. The other day we were discussing a book by Mary Poppins about how to improve education in our poor urban schools so today we're going to move on to a book by a slightly Psychotic Pollyanna. I don't even know where to start, but I think the phrase “Any student who resorted to violence was suspended, transferred and gone the same day"  is as good as any since some of the other commenters have already brought it up. (Jay, I think you should give him a call and ask him if that's what he really means.) Take for example a 16 year old kid who had just experienced some sort of trauma the day before. Maybe he got chased off school grounds and beaten unconscious. Maybe he found out his mother who had been clean for several years had just relapsed on crack. Maybe both. He goes to school anyway, despite the fact that he's old enough to drop out, because he wants to do the right thing and get an education. I'm going to make him the hero of a couple of little scenarios here since in fact he had saved the lives of his 2 younger siblings and his passed out mother from one of mom's drunken boy friends when he was 7 by dragging them into a “secret” crawl space. He's walking down the hall to his class, where the teacher won't give them textbooks and just reads the paper all day long. The kid gets surrounded by members of a gang and one of them tries to run his pockets while the other ones block the views of the hall monitors. The kid snaps and starts wailing away on the kid trying to run his pockets. The other gang members scatter and the only thing the hall monitors see is this kid wailing away on the other kid. He gets sent to the principal who is somebody just like your Psycho Pollyanna and Psycho tells him he's suspended for 3 days, and that when he gets back he's getting transferred to the “dog pound” annex in a different building where all the “trouble makers” get sent. Our hero knows that almost all the kids who actually go to the “dog pound” are are on probation and are mandated to attend school. Our hero knows that no education goes on there, so he leaves school that day and never goes back. Let's take anther one of our Psycho Pollyanna's suggestions. How about the way he wants to handle tardy students. Let's take a scenario involving our hero again. He only got 3 hours sleep the night before because his now relapsed mother was partying all night and he wakes up late. He gets to school late, for the third time in a couple of months so he is instructed to attend detention on Saturday. On Saturdays our hero has a dream job that he loves at a local internet cafe, and he knows that his income may be needed to pay for food for himself and his younger siblings, so he leaves school that day and never goes back. I guess Psycho thinks kids like this are best off thrown away. To be fair most of his other suggestions look pretty good, but they also look like they're mainly just common sense. Only a Pollyanna would think that common sense will win.

Posted by: david_r_fry | December 3, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse


Just curious, after you were done underlining all the junk in this former Principal's book, did you bother to look at modern day levels of achievement at Garfield?

Student Performance - California Standards Tests
2008-09 Percent Proficient and Above
English - Language Arts
History - Social Science

Oh yeah, and Garfield failed to make API and has a score of 594.

The school is the pits. Why do you keep promoting failure?

Posted by: lisamc31 | December 3, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

There is an important lesson in this story and it is this:

In all states, the laws protect the safety of students and teachers in schools, as well as the right of the teacher to conduct class without serious disruption.

In many urban schools, teachers and administrators become accustomed to violence and classroom interruptions to the point where it is just accepted as part of the job. And yet when someone has the courage to confront it, significant changes often follow.

Here's an example from my own career:

There was a parent who had a child in kindergarten. This parent screamed and threatened the mild-mannered kindergarten teacher all year, as well as the office staff, including the principal, who was afraid of his own shadow. No one did anything about it.

Then the child was placed in my first-grade class and so I inherited the parent. I admit that I put up with his abuse several times but then came the day when he threatened me in front of my class. The principal just wanted me not to make waves but I did some investigation and found that "disturbing school" was a misdemeanor. I insisted that the prinicpal call the police (He was legally obliged to do so) and pressed charges. When I went to court I discovered that the man was a felon!

Once all this became public the Board of Education took swift action against the parent, who was barred from my campus. There were other consequences as well. The principal got in big trouble for not reporting the man's other transgressions and I became a hero to the other teachers.

So, teachers of DC and other places, you are not required to put up with a violent student or parent. You don't need to put up with a student who disrupts your class. THE LAW IS ON YOUR SIDE. If the administration refuses to help you, go to outside agencies, such as the union lawyer,the police, social services, and city, state and federal agencies. Speaking out will benefit the majority of children who want to learn and will prevent teachers from burning out and/or transferring out of the district.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 3, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse


I want to reiterate:

A school CAN get rid of the persistently disruptive students, but outside agencies (e.g. the police) must be contacted and involved.

I do realize that many of these students are dealing with unimaginable circumstances and aren't necessarily culpable, but they must not be allowed to disrupt education for other students.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 3, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't a lot of what Gradillas says and did what teachers have been saying all along? When will the "reformers" finally begin to listen to the very people who are on the front lines, i.e., in the classrooms actually teaching? Better yet, when will the reformers finally offer a place at the table for teachers so we can have a voice in the reform efforts?

Posted by: UrbanDweller | December 3, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Yes, Urbandweller, you are correct. It's amusing to see Matthew's headline with the word "surprising" in it. Discipline and a standard work - so few public educatcrats believe in them, though.

Posted by: peonteacher | December 3, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Excellent comments. I wonder how much of the failure to deal with disruptive students is due to actual restrictive laws and not just to habit and standard operating procedures and what makes the district lawyers most comfortable. I will have to look into that.

For lisamc31--As I noted in the last paragraph, he fixed the school "at least for awhile." Garfield still has a strong AP program, but it has not been as lucky in its selection of principals as it was when Gradillas was there. Low income schools will usually have numbers like the ones you describe, but a few of those schools do a much better job with students ready and able to learn than most do.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 3, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

While it's true that many (most?) administrators just want problems swept under the rug while placing an enormous amount of pressure on teachers to "just deal with it," I found that teachers were usually afraid to go beyond the principal with their complaints. While it's also true that a non-tenured teacher wouldn't dare buck the system, a tenured teacher is well-protected against job loss (but not necessarily other retaliations) for reporting serious student and parent transgressions to the police and/or other agencies including the press. Yes, it requires courage.

Hopefully, the new DC union leaders will encourage senior teachers, especially those close to retirement, to report seriously disruptive students to outside agencies when administrators fail to act. This will be of huge help to the mostly well-behaved children who have a LEGAL RIGHT to a safe and orderly environment as well as uninterrupted instruction time. Parents should act too.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 3, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Jay, please do check on the legal limitations in dealing with students. My hunch as a 30+-year public school retiree is that many laws prohibiting disruptive student behaviors exist but are not enforced due to the uninterest of school board attorneys who, after all, represent local school boards and not local teachers and their students. A quote from our 36-year-incumbent school board attorney to a group of local special education teachers was illustrative: "You're on your own."

Posted by: craigspinks | December 3, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse


Please devote some time to investigate and highlight principals, schools, and school systems failure in dealing with disruptive students. From what you have written, you may be surprised by how many schools are adversely affected by this incompetency. As Gradillas explained, this is one of the issues that need to be addressed before dealing with instructional problems and teachers. I sure hope the “reformers” figure this one out soon.

Posted by: daverussell | December 3, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

One thing to bear in mind: just because it is legal doesn't mean that districts are willing to do it. Litigation is expensive, even if you're on the winning side, and cash-strapped urban districts may not want to spend all their money fighting off some hotshot ambulance chaser type. You also have to remember that we're probably more litigous now than we were when he was a principal.

It's too bad, too, because this man makes some eminently valid points. I'm just not sure school districts have the will or the money to take on such tactics.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | December 3, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

It also serves as an explanation for the supposed number of "weak" teachers in urban schools. Teachers who have become accustomed to having no back-up will resort to simplistic classes of repetition and test prep as a survival method.

Posted by: HistTeach1 | December 3, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Why, yes, Urbandweller. A lot of us have been saying these very things for years, only to be accused of being lazy and not wanting to be held accountable. You must remember that if a teacher says it, it doesn't count.

Posted by: aed3 | December 3, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

I'm not certain that I got across my point that teachers do not have to depend on the school district to deal with seriously disruptive and/or violent students and parents. There are laws that deal with this and a teacher is within her rights to call the police (union attorney, state, feds, etc.) without the cooperation of the school district. Also, in my state, the principal is required to call the police if a teacher requests it after a threat, theft or assault. Many teachers do not realize this. Teachers who DO seek redress outside of the school administration often discover that the law is on their side.

A teacher does not give up her civil rights at the schoolhouse door. The teacher's union might want to present a course called "The Teacher and the Law." While teachers have many legal responsibilities, they also have many protections. Teachers need to know what they are because they have a responsibility to themselves and to their students. No one (teachers or students) should have to work or study in an unsafe or chaotic classroom. That's the law and it needs to be enforced.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 3, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Wonderful article and I will probably buy this book.

Mr. Gradillas points out the very key notion that blaming teachers only lets the kids off the hook. This is crucial. Students have to be responsible for themselves. Teaching them that it is the teacher's fault that I can't learn develops a cynical, helpless person who cannot learn because he or she isn't willing to put forth the interest and effort required.

I have worked for some Mr. Gradillas style administrators and they are wonderful for the students and teachers. Nobody is off the hook and everybody, students and teachers, is happy to be responsible.

Also, quite interesting about the politics in LA. I guess every school district has that. Maybe that is what teacher education programs should offer a course on. Of all the problems in education, a major one has got to be the case of good teachers getting on the bad list of a new principal simply because they were successful with a previous boss. Amazing. So true in many places, yet never mentioned in teacher ed. courses.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | December 3, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse


I could never in a million years call a school with only 5% of its students attaining MINIMUM State proficiency levels in Math of having a "strong" ANYTHING, let alone AP.

Posted by: lisamc31 | December 3, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Here are a number of observation and comments relating to Jay's article and the other comments:
1)The primary problem the "school reformers" are trying to fix, at least as it relates to this article, is the large number of kids entering adulthood who aren't intellectually prepared to participate in our society. Most of the kids who aren't minimally prepared are dropouts and the rest graduate but still aren't prepared. Just kicking problem kids out of school or isolating them in a way that results in their not getting an education is not an acceptable part of the solution to this problem. Dealing with the problems kids is a difficult challenge, but as Mr. Gradillas has shown it can be done.
2) There are many many examples of schools and even whole districts that have been able to turn themselves around, at least for awhile. A big part of the way "school reformers" have been trying to address the problem of poorly performing schools and districts is to examine schools and districts that are performing better than others then propagating their practices into other districts and schools. Whether teachers like it or not what has been found is that the lowest of the low hanging fruit in terms of things that can be done to improve our education problem is to identify and retrain or remove the most incompetent teachers. Whether principals like it or not the second lowest of the low hanging fruit is to identify and remove(no retraining here) the most incompetent principals. What I and others keep telling the principals and teachers in the traditional public schools in the poor urban districts near where I live is that the more they fight this fact the more likely it is that their school is going to be shut down. Many of these schools will be replaced indirectly with charter schools. If they don't like charter schools and they want to keep their jobs they'd better focus on getting rid of the bad teachers and principals.
3) In the high school I'm the most familiar with there were numerous examples of teachers who had behavior problems in almost all their classes whereas other teachers had almost no problems with almost the same group of kids. From what I'm told this was pointed out to the principal at that time at a staff meeting and his response was "So?". Well, they got rid of that principal. The new principal stands at the entrance to the high school each day keeping an eye out front where a lot of problems start, then he roams the halls a lot of the day randomly visiting the classes of the teachers who've been having the most problems. He seems mild mannered to me but apparently even the gang bangers don't mess with him. Well, just these 2 simple practices have gotten rid of most of the run of the mill behavior problems. I'd really like to see him in action to see how he does it. As much as I can glean from the stories I've heard is that he shows respect to all the kids, even the problems, but doesn't take any crap.

Posted by: david_r_fry | December 4, 2010 1:13 AM | Report abuse

Jay, your awakening in this column, is very similar the the ones you have experienced lately. I have been making comments to your columns as long as the online editions have appeared, mostly pointing out the shoot from the hip education philosophies you widely endorse...KIPP, Rhee, Klein folies, etc. It should be no surprise to you, that the numbers were cooked, the reforms were simply soundbites for TV. You need to spend more time reading Valerie Strauss, you would learn more. There is real reform taking place in DC. You just have to look a little deeper and schools taking on the real problems and making progress slowly.

Posted by: topryder1 | December 4, 2010 6:34 AM | Report abuse

There are some kids who basically hijack the education of the rest of the class. I have 2 or 3 like this among my 21 classes in Montgomery County. MCPS has said that we are not to suspend students unless their infraction affects the entire school. This is frustrating. One kid can ruin a class. There has to be something we can do with these kids. With only 2 administrators in the building (elementary school), there is no place to send the problem students. Overall, our PBIS system has been very effective in managing student behavior--there are just a few that don't respond to anything. The system fails a great many more by not dealing with these problem students.

Posted by: musiclady | December 4, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse


Are these students defiant? If so, find out what the Ed Code in your state says about this. What can the teacher do legally if the administration does not support her?

Once you find out, ask your union for help if no one in your building wants to take action, for fear of retaliation. If teachers, parents and administrators supported the laws that are in place to deal with these seriously disruptive students, I think we'd see an immediate improvement in education and we wouldn't have to spend a dime. But is does take courage.

The biggest difference between "good" schools and "bad" schools is often the behavior of the children. In the "good" schools parents place enormous pressure on administration to "do something" about a seriously disruptive child. In the "bad" schools teachers are pressured to put up with it. I believe it is within the power of school employees (teachers and administrators) to do something about this, but many feel helpless, possibly because they don't know the law or maybe they're just afraid of repercussions.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 4, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Up until about 10 years ago or so the schools and districts that I am most familiar with claimed to have problems similar to the ones you've described, particularly at the grade school and middle school levels. Then, low and behold, with the introduction of the first charter schools in these districts, first in k-2, then k-4, then k-8 not only didn't the charter school have these types of problems but the problems started to disappear in the traditional public schools as well. There have been well documented ways of dealing with these types problems around for years. The problem was with teachers and administrators who didn't know what these methods were or just didn't want to put them into effect. Now in these districts the problems are mainly at the HS level, where there isn't any competition from charter schools, and with when and where to mainstream problem kids back into the traditional classrooms. Of course the idea of scapegoating the problems of entire classes, schools, and school districts on the backs of what were probably a handful of emotionally disturbed or brain damaged kids should have disgusted everybody involved, but apparently it didn't. Those teachers and administrators make me sick to my stomach.

Posted by: david_r_fry | December 4, 2010 7:58 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for acknowledging that the approach of "reformers" like Klein, Rhee, and Duncan is the polar opposite of Gradillas's strategy. The sad truth is that these reformers have allowed many ineffective teachers to remain in the system, yet attack teachers as a whole indiscriminately, making those who did their jobs well feel under siege.

In New York City, Joel Klein bumped up graduation rates by lowering attendance and performance requirements. He forced schools, even those in high-performing districts, to adopt a dumbed-down scripted curricula. Unlike Escalante, who challenged and believed in his students' ability to work at the highest level, Klein demanded that teachers adopt teaching methods that simply don't work with children who have poor impulse control. The problems in some of the worst performing schools are a function of the crumbling infrastructure, the filth,the overcrowding, the misbehavior that is not consistently corrected by all adults in charge, the inappropriate attitudes and interactions of the security guards and other "support" staff.

All children, but especially those living in dense, urban areas, need time for concentration and reflection. Yet the reformers have insisted that teachers use teaching methods that do not reinforce what we all know is required to learn: calm, quiet, concentration, practice. Klein derides someone like Diane Ravitch, but she is the strongest voice out there demanding that we look at what we are teaching our children and that we raise the bar, not in the form of more standardized tests, but in actual content taught. We are, year after year, lowering it.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | December 4, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

And Diane Ravitch is smart enough to know that the biggest advocates, and often the only advocates, of the "emotionally disturbed and brain damaged students" are classroom teachers.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 5, 2010 12:46 AM | Report abuse

Jay, there is a dark underside to this discussion. There may be many or only a few seriously disturbed students like the bogeykids described in comments, sympathetically or not. But there are many more whose general adjustment is problematic, and frankly many middle-schoolers are hard to control at best. If those children can be pushed out, test scores will rise immediately, and instruction will be easier for the remaining children and their teachers.

This discussion has come to the consensus that administrators are failing to push the disruptors out, for lack of courage or failure of vision. Teachers come onboard for that view, if they have ever faced a class with even one seriously damaged child, let alone a significant number. I have, and I sympathize, but the question isn't that easy.

The reality is that business-model administrators are pushing every kind of "score supressor" out of schools, and into an underground black-market of profiteering providers who capture the public money for these children without serving them at all. It is a growth industry, with a breathtaking profit margin, and no oversight because it is protected from public scrutiny.

In October I heard separate presentations from two extremely distinguished men whose integrity and commitment have been demonstrated by decades of courage and service. They spoke about the acceleration of the school-to-prison pipeline in low income communities across the state of Massachusetts.

Judge Leslie Harris, Boston Municipal Court, Juvenile Division, said the schools have criminalized classroom management problems in minority boys, by declaring "class disruption" a criminal offense. Middle school children come before him, with a criminal record for behavior which is not criminal. He told about both 12 year old boys involved in a scuffle being brought in by the same mother, because they are best friends, and had slept over so only one mother would have to miss work. He is trying to protect these children from criminalization.

Willian Robinson Jr, Political Action Committee Chair, New England Area Conference of the NAACP also led a workshop on the school-to-prison issue. Both men tended to blame teachers, for criminalizing children who would never have been sent into the overloaded court system in the past.

In fact, business interests are leading this drive. One such business is the Washington Post Corporation. Jay, how can I trust you, and how can you trust yourself, if you still refuse to publish this link?

I quote:
"Districts can also open an intact virtual school that has the look and feel of the district and not that of Kaplan."

I quote again:
"Districts can accommodate students who cannot be served by a traditional brick and mortar school, thus keeping them in-district and capturing per-pupil funding. Plus, a dedicated Account Manager will work as a district partner to deliver results."

Posted by: mport84 | December 5, 2010 2:41 AM | Report abuse

A very worthwhile article, Jay. I've shared it with school board members and teachers.

Posted by: lacy41 | December 5, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

mport84, what you describe is happening in other states too. However, it's happening out of desperation, and sometimes it's happening because other low-income parents have reached their limits and want to protect their children from the behavior of troubled children/teens. What would you suggest as an alternative? We can't leave chronically disruptive students in regular classrooms; that is what drives teachers away from low-income schools. Should we set up special classrooms in the regular schools? should we provide intense therapy for students? should we screen teacher candidates for ability to cope with defiant/disruptive behavior instead of for ability to deliver curriculum? what do you think would work? And what is fair to the students whose behavior is not an issue?

Posted by: jane100000 | December 5, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

@ Jennifer88,
Almost everything you state in your post is demonstrably incorrect. You start by stating "Thank you for acknowledging that the approach of "reformers" like Klein, Rhee, and Duncan is the polar opposite of Gradillas's strategy." Jay doesn't state that at all and the fact is that those reformers "love" people like Gradillas and want schools districts around the country to look at what he did and where appropriate try to adapt his methods to their districts. As far as I can tell the only disagreement between the reformers and Gradillas is about the level of priority placed on getting rid of bad teachers and administrators. Personally I think that the reformers aren't as harsh as Gradillas seems to think they are and that his approach is Pollyannish and the reformers' is realistic. For the most part your post is utter nonsense.
Diane Ravitch woke up and saw her bread was more likely to get buttered by the teachers unions than by the reformers so she sold out. I doubt if she gives two hoots about emotionally disturbed or brain damaged students. In any case until recently in most of the school districts I'm aware of most of the teachers did their best to get emotionally disturbed and brain damaged children thrown out of their classes. They didn't give two hoots about those kids any more than Dianne Ravitch.
You can't be serious. Your post is even more deranged than Jennifer88's. You state, 'The reality is that business-model administrators are pushing every kind of "score supressor" out of schools, and into an underground black-market of profiteering providers'. What exactly is the "underground black-market of profiteering providers"? I'd like you to please provide some links to support your claims about classroom behaviours being criminalized, particularly for middle schoolers. The term "criminal" has a specific legal meaning, and behaviour by juveniles is almost never considered criminal except for certain high level violent felonies, particularly in Ma. In Massachusetts "The Juvenile Court Department has general jurisdiction over delinquency, children in need of services (CHINS), care and protection petitions, adult contributing to a delinquency of a minor cases, adoption, guardianship, termination of parental rights proceedings, and youthful offender cases." It doesn't handle criminal cases.
Many districts have found ways to successfully handle the situation your describing. A prerequisite for implementing a successful solution is a resolute commitment to the welfare of the CHILDREN, ALL THE CHILDREN, above all else rather than the putting the comfort of the teachers unions and administrators first. As I indicated in one of my previous posts unfortunately many districts have to have competition from charter schools before they manage to acquire the apporpriate level of commitment to all their children.

Posted by: david_r_fry | December 5, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

"They [teachers] don't give two hoots about those [disabled] kids."

There it is, the number one reason for educational disfunction in our country:

a profound disrespect for education and for the people who provide it.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 5, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Jane, I appreciate your clean and concise statement of the public face of the problem. I actually have dedicated my career (my life, in fact) to its solution, because classroom bahavior is linked to the goals, hopes, and buy-in of our students and their families.

Our mission is to make the promise of education real in childrens' lives, and then keep the promise. That is necessary, and usually sufficient, to calm the children I actually teach. Think about how much easier it is in a high-wealth community, even though the path forward isn't clear even for these privileged children.

I do have suggestions, of course.

All of them rely on the good faith of both administrators and teachers, and the honest discharge of their responsibilities to the people they serve. That's the hidden face of the problem.

Whatever we suggest, the dominance of the "public private partnership", with superintendents and chancellors answering to the corporate interests who placed them in their jobs, can corrupt and poison the effort.

There are social support resources, during and after school hours, that can be (and have been) built with the community itself, even in low-wealth districts. For-profit managers who shut schools cut these ties, but my many years of experience tell me they should be expanded.

Within the building, we need alternative settings and additional support for some students, but most behavior can be improved by realigning student motivations. Some for-profit managers are even trying to institute "advisories" or goal-development activities, in fact.

All students need help to connect their classroom experience with their own hopes and dreams for their lives. This is essential, daily work for everybody in the building. Escalante and Gradzillas took it for granted, bless their hearts, so you don't see it explicitly set out. It is possible to willfully misread their experiences as "crack down on these animals", when in fact they had no such attitude.

In my own subject, I feel I am in a position to make promises, and I do make them. "You will be the one to walk across the stage. You will be the one people turn to when they don't know what to do. You can be the nurse, the welder, the officer. Carry yourself well, to earn the trust and respect of the people who will depend on you."

And then, it is our responsibility (as a people) to make sure there really is a life ahead for them, and not the wall of despair they might think they see.

Posted by: mport84 | December 5, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

'"They [teachers] don't give two hoots about those [disabled] kids."

There it is, the number one reason for educational disfunction in our country:

a profound disrespect for education and for the people who provide it.'

This statement by Linda/RetiredTeacher epitomizes what the real problem is with k-12 education in our traditional public schools, particularly poor urban school: a faculty and staff that is more concerned about their own welfare, including what the general public thinks and says about them, than they are in the children they're suppose to be helping. If corporate interests were really running thing there would be more charter schools in wealthy suburbs rather than in the poor urban districts - after all that's where the money is. Obviously these charter school bashers don't know how the typical charter school gets started or who actually runs them. It's usually started by a group of concerned citizens, including parents of students being poorly served, community organizers, and non-profits who haven't been bought off by the teachers unions. Most small cities don't even have one charter school that is run or has any affiliation at all with any for profit corporation. Actually many for profit education corporations won't go near a charter schools since they do so much business with traditional public schools they're afraid they might lose that business in retaliation.

Posted by: david_r_fry | December 5, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

"No administrator can raise test scores by first attacking the delivery of instruction. In the first place, this approach gives the kids the impression that they are off the hook, that they are not responsible for anything that goes on in their school..."

This hits the nail on the head. Gradilla has really put into words what needs to be done. I'll have to read this book. No more Hollywood half truths. Hopefully, this will help put an end to the 100% teacher blame game.

Posted by: Playitagainsam | December 5, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

David R Fry:
"Obviously these charter school bashers don't know how the typical charter school gets started or who actually runs them. It's usually started by a group of concerned citizens, including parents of students being poorly served, community organizers, and non-profits who haven't been bought off by the teachers unions. "

" And some say they are simply fed up with the management of 100 Academy by Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc.

The agenda for tonight’s board meeting includes an evaluation of the school’s contract with Imagine.

The case is important because Imagine 100 Academy was seen as a beacon of hope in an area beset by high rates of poverty and crime and because Imagine also operates Imagine School in the Valle near Summerlin.

Imagine has stirred similar controversy in some of its other schools nationwide, where there have been allegations of heavy-handed, profit-centered management."

"On Feb. 8, 2008, a curious thing happened.

According to Texas Secretary of State records, Imagine Schools of Central Texas Non-Profit LLC of Georgetown, Texas, was established. That in itself was no surprise, because Imagine charter schools have been popping up all over the country.

What was curious was who owns the corporation and its twin, Imagine Schools of North Texas Non-Profit LLC of McKinney, Texas. The sole member of both limited-liability companies is Imagine-Fort Wayne Charter Schools Inc.

And the Texas entities get their tax-exempt status because each is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Fort Wayne company.

Imagine-Fort Wayne Charter Schools Inc. is the non-profit corporation that runs Imagine MASTer Academy, a charter school at 2000 N. Wells St. in Fort Wayne. Imagine MASTer Academy is a public school whose $2.9 million cost to operate last year was paid for with state taxes.

So why does a Fort Wayne charter school own two charter school corporations in Texas? It’s a question most board members here could not or would not answer, even though in January 2008 they secretly signed documents creating and governing the schools there and, as recently as August, made drastic changes to one of their entities in Texas.

All of these actions were done in secret: According to board meeting minutes provided by the Imagine-Fort Wayne Charter School board, Fort Wayne members never publicly discussed or voted to create the Texas schools, amend the agreements that govern the relationship between the schools or appoint board members to their Southern franchise…

Asked about the Texas entities, most board members refused to speak about it. Some referred questions to Imagine Schools Inc., the for-profit management company based in Arlington, Va., hired by the charter schools to handle day-to-day operations. Others didn’t seem to know what they had signed."

Posted by: edlharris | December 5, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

After substituting in a handful of different high schools in the past two years, I've noticed that some students are tardy because the school sets up a no-win situation. (I assume we are talking about students coming late to any class, not just to the building in the morning.) In one three-story high school I sub at, the schedule allows 2 MINUTES for all students to change classes. Almost every period I can count on at least one girl rushing in late and murmuring, "Sorry, I had to stop at the restroom and change my tampon." The alternative is to have them interrupt the class be asking for a restroom pass--which as a sub I'm not supposed to give them--or embarrassing themselves and the boys in the class by leaking. Similarly, one elementary school provides exactly 1/2 hour for lunch: lining up, circling through the restroom to wash their hands, standing in line, carrying their trays, eating, returning their trays, washing any debris off their hands, and returning to their seats. (And as a teacher I am supposed to supervise them as far as the lunchroom, go eat my lunch, and return to collect them. The joke at that school is that the mark of an experienced teacher is the ability to eat a full meal in five minutes.)

These are human beings, but sometimes the schools, and the people commenting in this column, seem to have forgotten that.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | December 5, 2010 7:49 PM | Report abuse

I can't tell exactly what's going on in your examples. Technically all the institutions you're talking about are "not for profits", and in most states the teachers unions would have spys and secret survaillance cameras all over the charter schools making sure that every little descrepancy gets caught and magnified into a supreme court case. Of course this is texas you're talking about. Tom Delay is probably part owner and squashed any questions.

Posted by: david_r_fry | December 5, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

Gradillas makes the point to not start with condemning teachers based on instructional techniques.

Certain comments suggest that firing teachers and opening charter schools is preferable to Gradillas' methods.

I know there are building level remedies for most students. Schools can have in school suspension rooms and so forth, so that students who are disruptive in many classes can be removed and keep learning and the students who are not disrupting can continue to work. These in school suspension rooms only work if they are staffed by caring staff who will provide structure and academic help. Teachers look at factors that affect a students' behavior and try to mitigate those factors. It is not ethical to just throw behavior problems out, but students do have a right to a calm environment.

If a student brings a weapon to school, then the administrator has to take action. Standing at the door, showing respect to students and firing teachers will not help if students are allowed to bring in weapons. Nor should teachers be fired if students who bring weapons into the classrooms are allowed to do so by administrators.

In any situation with crowds, except possibly religous services, there is a need for security. Schools need securtiy as well and teachers should not be singled out as unable to control the classroom, when even at the mall there are security forces.

By the way David R Fry, just because someone respects teachers it doesn't mean they are brainwashed by a union.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | December 6, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

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