Category Archives: Classroom Observations

Posts describing a day in one of the classrooms I’m observing

Charter Schools vs. District Schools: An Infographic

Is the public school system really broken, filled with incompetent teachers? Are charter schools really a front for a union-busting corporate takeover of the educational system? Amid the flaming rhetoric of the current educational debate, it’s hard to know which side to take.

Because I spent the last year visiting high schools in Los Angeles across the socioeconomic spectrum, I sat in on classes at every imaginable type of school, including charter schools and district schools in the same neighborhood. In my current job teaching after-school enrichment at a non-profit, I work with three groups of high-performing students of color from low-income families; two of the groups attend district schools, while the third group attends a charter school.

Because these groups are demographically identical, I’m getting a slow-motion portrait of different school models in action. Because I have the chance to develop close individual relationships with students, I hear their day to day stories about their teachers, which gives me a unique snapshot of how each system impacts the kids.

I’m struck by consistent differences between charter school and district school educational models in high-poverty communities. Every community is unique, of course, but systems prioritize certain values, and those values impact the experience of students. To lay out these values, and to show you the differences I’ve observed, I’ve created the infographic below. I am aware that the values on the infographic are in fact unquantifiable and that my evidence is anecdotal. But my experience at this point is on enough of a scale, over more than a year and across many schools, that I do think it is significant enough to share.

(I am also aware that the word “infographic” is a bit of hyperbole when I’m really talking about a chart.  Branding is everything, right?)

Please note that this infographic only applies to the effect of these schools on students from high-poverty communities, not middle-class or affluent communities, which have more resources. It does not reflect the stated goals of these systems, but what I’m observing right now on the ground. Also, I am talking about schools that are generally considered “good”—there are terrible charters and terrible district schools, but tragically, all terrible schools are alike: chaotic.

Class size Class sizes usually cap at 38 I’ve seen classes of 50 and heard of classes of 70 
System prioritizes giving students clear, consistent individual feedback Usually Varies depending on individual teacher
System asks teachers to present material in multiple ways for students with different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) Usually Varies depending on individual teacher
System prioritizes whole-class participation, using “guide on the side” style rather than “sage on the stage” lectures with Q and A Usually Varies depending on individual teacher
Instruction is driven by standardized state testing Yes Not as much as you’d think
School is open to very at-risk kids, including children from foster care No(except turnarounds) Yes
School offers arts classes beyond bare minimum No Yes
School offers sports beyond bare minimum No Yes
School offers many extracurricular activities and clubs No Yes
At least 10% of teachers are considered by students to be insane or incompetent No Yes
There are teachers with more than 5 years experience Rarely Yes
Kids consistently say “all our teachers are great” Surprisingly often. No 
Teachers have adequate resources to meet students’ needs No No


*this observation does not apply to any of the teachers I personally followed—it is based on what I’ve heard from students about their schools in general.   The teachers I followed were all excellent—but many times, they were outliers at their schools.

If I had to choose, after a year of observing schools and several months working with kids at these three communities, I’d say that I’m (cautiously) pro-charter. This opinion is practical, not philosophical, because I agree with the holistic, humanistic district-school proponents like Linda Darling-Hammond, who argue that meaningful education reform will only occur when teachers have working conditions that allow them to collaborate and create rich, meaningful curriculum, something that the test-driven state of most charter systems is currently precluding because these systems are currently in non-stop crisis mode as they struggle to survive. Educational leaders such as Diane Ravitch are right: the real issue is poverty, and until we acknowledge that and fund school communities to meet their needs, we will never be providing equal education to all students.

The problem is that right now, I don’t see any of these visions enacted successfully anywhere in high-poverty communities. I, too, believe in that dream—but in public schools, I really only see it enacted right now at magnet schools, which have significantly better funding and by virtue of their byzantine application process, filter out all but the most motivated and system-savvy families. There is a tragic disconnect right now, in my opinion, between this dream and the reality of district schools that are still chugging along doing what they’ve always done while an ever-changing array of demoralized or incompetent administrators cycles in and out, issuing mandates that will be replaced by new mandates next year.

If I were a parent in a high-poverty community, I’d send my kid to the best charter school I could find. Why? Because frankly, I think they’d be likelier to get a solid education and be prepared for college. If they were struggling academically, I’d know they’d get support. My 8th grade students who are going to a great charter school are flat-out getting a better education than my 8th grade students at a district school. The charter school kids love their teachers. They have better grammar, vocabulary, spelling and reading skills. When I ask them how they’re doing today, they tell me about something amazing that they’re learning. When I ask the kids at the district school, the amazing thing that happened is that the ceiling in the multipurpose room caved in, causing them to have class outdoors in 95-degree heat.

Yes, there are serious problems with charter schools. Their track record at “turnaround” schools with very at-risk kids is unimpressive, to say the least. By their own admission, they are only able to achieve results by creating a workload that is unsustainable by most teachers, causing a turnover problem that profoundly undermines communities. And their test-driven school culture, at its worst, privileges short-term measurable results over meaningful learning—as does the absence of sports, arts and libraries. None of this is trivial.

But I’d pick it over the hit-or-miss hodgepodge I’m currently seeing at many district schools, where it’s perilously easy for a kid to get lost. I’m still haunted by the memory of a super-bright, warm, wise funny kid I met at an Adult Ed GED school, who didn’t graduate from his district high school because the academic counselor quit and nobody at his school ever told him the required classes he needed to take. He was stunned and devastated at the end of his senior year to find out he was not graduating. And this was at a school with a good reputation. I don’t hear these stories of systemic failure at good charter schools.

The most serious critique of charter schools is that they don’t meet the needs of our most at-risk students. I agree. But right now most district schools aren’t meeting those needs, either. The core problem is not charter schools. It’s our collective societal unwillingness to acknowledge and address those needs—and fund adequate support for our most at-risk children. I agree that the flight to charter schools is draining resources from district schools. But the fact that large numbers of families are fleeing district schools is not exactly a compelling argument for that educational model.

Charter schools are not a solution. They are a work-around for our national collective state of denial about the near-apartheid conditions in which children in poverty are growing up. They are a way of managing the desperately inadequate funding and resources that schools are given so as to minimize collateral damage—a heartbreaking triage of efficiently meeting the direst need in the most scalable way. Until we pull ourselves out of this state of denial, we will not have meaningful change and we will not have equal opportunity. Let’s acknowledge the real issues of charters as they are and instead of tearing them down or stopping their existence, let’s build from there. Let’s say “what if…?” instead of “No.” Let’s stop taking sides and start working together.


A couple of weeks ago, I watched a really terrific teacher in a high-poverty community give a lesson that, if rated on a “College-Ready Promise” evaluation rubric, would have scored about a 1.5 out of 4. Faced with classroom of 35 students, most of them reading and writing below grade level, here’s what this energetic, enthusiastic teacher did not do:

1)   Write a measurable objective on the board and reiterate it frequently

2)   Check frequently among her students to give her a verbal or visual sign to let her know they understood what they were saying

3)   “Chunk” her lesson into short, digestible 10-minute intervals

4)   Have students “pair-share” (answer every question in partners before calling on the class in general) to make sure they all participated

5)   Call unpredictably on random students to keep everyone on their toes

6)   Insist on a response from reluctant students

7)   Demand that students who had gotten an answer wrong go back and give her the correct answer

8)   Use a powerpoint to visually reinforce what she was teaching

9)   Stop intermittently for group work practice of the day’s learning objective

10) Collect an “exit slip” at the end of class so that she could gather data about whether the students had mastered the objective.

That’s right. She did none of those things. Here’s what she did do: Continue reading Spellbound

The Learning Doesn’t Stop When You Leave the Classroom

This post is one of an occasional series profiling Los Angeles high school students across the socioeconomic spectrum.  For other student stories, click here, here, here and here.

“I chose this school because I love to read and write,” says Isabel, 16, a student in Jennifer Macon’s class at Cleveland Humanities Magnet. Self-described as “having an interesting race,” Isabel comes from a family that’s a blend of Korean, Cuban and white, with highly-educated professional parents who, she recalls, read to her throughout her childhood. “My mom is really, really into education,” she says. “My parents have very strong opinions. My dad tends to rant about politics. I feel like their unabashed interested in politics and in discussing things, that’s what definitely sparked my twin interests in politics and social justice.” Continue reading The Learning Doesn’t Stop When You Leave the Classroom

Good-bye, Tests! Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out!

Sayonara, test score mania!  Well, for two years, anyway.  The state of California has just suspended the calculation of API scores until 2016—an index of performance based on multiple choice state tests in every subject for every grade–in order to give schools time to gear up for the Common Core tests that are still under construction.  As far as I’m concerned, that suspension is cause for celebration.  I know, I know, all over the state, people are freaking out because they believe this suspension of scores will leave schools in low-income communities free to go down the toilet for two full years while corrupt administrators and bad teachers merrily cash paychecks, accountable to no one.  Here’s why I think that logic is wrong—and why I believe this temporary suspension is a great opportunity to create a better system.

First of all, over a decade of API scores doesn’t seem to have done much to stop corrupt administrators and bad teachers.  The schools that were terrible before we started testing are still terrible.  Where schools were declared failing and taken over by the Partnership for L.A. Schools or other charter management systems, results have been underwhelming no matter who is in charge.  I have heard not a single story of a miracle takeover, but have heard many stories of schools that are as bad as before.  In any case, test scores are not the best measure of whether these takeovers have been successful; the first measure is safety, followed by attendance and student attrition rates.  Very high teacher turnover rates or large numbers of long-term subs are also serious red flags.  We don’t need test scores to measure dysfunction.  I wish it were that hard.  Continue reading Good-bye, Tests! Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out!

Blended Learning from the Ground Up

Call me cautiously optimistic.  Emphasize “cautious.”  I hesitate to express all-out enthusiasm for what’s called “blended learning” because right now the term is so often conflated with the term “cost-effective,” a euphemism for “eliminating human jobs and leaving a single teacher in charge of 45-60 high-needs, at-risk students.”   As I mentioned in an earlier post, the original vision—still in circulation, as far as I can tell—was that technology would make enormous class sizes possible, in order to offset the initial outlay of money for computers, software and internet access.  All I can say about this notion is that it’s clearly a marketing move by tech companies, which they are fully entitled to try, but we are not fully entitled to buy into.  Continue reading Blended Learning from the Ground Up

About This Blog

This blog, Gatsby In L.A., is my record of my sabbatical from teaching during the 2013-14 school year, during which I visited high school English classrooms across the socioeconomic spectrum in order to answer two questions:

  1. What’s a great teacher?

2. What do we mean when we say “a good education?”

Before writing this blog, I taught English and electives at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.  I embarked on this journey at my own personal expense.  Along the way, I talked to dozens of teachers, administrators and parents, sat in many, many classrooms, and connected with readers in Los Angeles and beyond.  Several of my posts went viral, picked up by other, larger blogs and shared by teachers on social media.  My most popular post, “Why Do Teachers Obsess that They’re Not Good Enough?” was viewed millions of times.

Even now, two years after I stopped posting, teachers continue to seek out this site, sometimes very late in the night. I don’t have easy answers to anything, but I hope that these posts, and my search here, can provide comfort.

If you are one of those teachers, this blog is dedicated to you, out of respect for your choice to give so much every day when our educational system does not honor, respect or prepare you for the essential work that you do.  Though your work is hard and sometimes isolating, you are not alone.  I hope that this blog can introduce you to other teachers who have also given everything they have to the dream that every child has an equal right to an education, and every teacher deserves to work in professional conditions that honor the young lives in the room.

Thank you for all that you do every day for the next generation.

The Invisible Curriculum

 “So what defines good or bad?” one boy asks.  “Motives or actions?  Everyone’s saying ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but I don’t understand what you really mean.  Are they good because of their actions or because of their motives?”

“Motives,” says a kid across the room.  There are no raised hands; he just jumps in.  “It all comes down to your motives.  I can donate all my money to a charity but if I say I want some attention, some fame, it undermines my good intention.  Your motives define whether you’re a good person.”

“I think that’s where the science experiment failed,” says another boy, indicating a science study the class has just read called “Scientists Probe Human Nature and Find We Are Basically Good.”  They are reading it today while they discuss Candide, the text they’ve been studying for this unit.  “They’re reasoning that it’s a natural thing to do but they don’t really prove what’s motivating the actions.”

“But you never really know what a person’s intention is, you never truly know their motive,” objects a girl in the corner.   “I would base it on their actions.”

I’m in Catherine Stine’s class at Animo Leadership in Lennox and we’re in the first ten minutes of one of the most abstract, intelligently articulated arguments I’ve ever heard in a class discussion.  In a class of 26 students, every person is involved and contributes at least once.  Everyone listens intently.

There is no discussion leader.  Catherine sits at a desk in the back.

I am not making this up. Continue reading The Invisible Curriculum

What Makes a Great Discussion?

“I’m nervous,” Jennifer Macon tells me.  We’re sitting in the cafeteria before her English 11 class is going to have a discussion.  “This whole topic is controversial.  We’re dealing directly with race.  We’re not doing it through literature.  We’re going straight to the topic.”

The Race Unit has long been an integral part of the 11th grade program at Cleveland Humanities magnet.  As Jennifer points out, because the topic is such a hot-button issue, to have an open conversation can risk seriously hurt feelings, especially in a classroom as diverse as hers, where there is no ethnic majority and virtually every race in America appears to be represented.  The classes are always lively, but for deep, honest conversation, Jennifer works hard to establish communication standards early on.  Continue reading What Makes a Great Discussion?

Technology is Not A Magic Bullet

I’m sold on technology in the classroom.  I really am.  I mean, books, paper and pens are a form of technology–they’re just a comparatively inert and messy form.  I’m not sentimental about physical books.  I’m sure when they came around, some poor slob was sitting in a corner crying because reading would never be the same without handwritten scrolls, and a few centuries before that, when the scrolls came around, some sad schmuck was tearing his hair out and wailing that you’d have to pry his stone tablets out of his cold, dead hands.

But.  I’m not ready to hand the keys over to Apple and Pearson yet.  The fact that new technology is available does not mean we know how to use it.  The really cool thing about most of these netbooks, laptops, tablets and i-readers is that they are adaptive to your needs, and if the software is smart, it’s adaptive, too.

Technology is not static. Continue reading Technology is Not A Magic Bullet

Give Students A Chance by Getting to Know Them

This post is second in a series of one on one conversations with students in order to hear their stories.  Who are our students?  What does their education mean to them?  What effect do teachers have on them?

Today’s interview is with Genesis, a student in Cynthia Castillo’s class at RISE Pilot school at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles.

I’m the one in charge a lot of the time,” Genesis tells me early on in our interview.  We’ve pulled two chairs into the quiet, clean hallway at Augustus Hawkins outside her English class, and she’s telling me about her home life.   Latina, with blond-highlighted hair, an easy smile and a diamond piercing that glitters above her upper lip, Genesis is confident and charismatic.  She is president of her class, something that seems to come naturally to her because she runs her household at home as well.  Her mother is debilitated by migraines and, according to Genesis, has to stay in bed much of the time.  Her stepfather has two jobs, one as a baker and one as a chef at a supermarket, so is home only on Saturdays from 4 till 8. Continue reading Give Students A Chance by Getting to Know Them