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Anthony Alvarado

Anthony Alvarado, former superintendent of New York City’s District 2.

 
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NEW YORK CITY:::ANTHONY ALVARADO INTERVIEW

INTERVIEW WITH ANTHONY ALVARADO, SUPERINTENDENT (1987-1998)
District 2, New York City

Hedrick Smith: Tony, you began your first principals meeting as District 2 superintendent with a read aloud. What was it and would you share it with us?

Anthony Alvarado: Well the book was Hard Times by Charles Dickens and it was one of my favorite books that I thought was particularly appropriate for what we were trying to accomplish, what it talked about and what our problems were. It is chapter one, “The One Thing Needful.”

“Now what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are warranted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts. Nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children. And this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to facts, sir. The scene was a plain bare monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's square wall of a forehead which had his eyebrows for a space, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark arcades, overshadowed by the wall.”

“The emphasis was helped by the speaker's mouth which was wide, thin and hard set. The dry and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's hair which bristled on the skirts of his bald head. A plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker's obstinate carriage square coat, square legs, square shoulders, nay his very neck cloth trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact as it was, all helped the emphasis. In this life, we want nothing but facts, sir, nothing but facts.”

“The speaker and the schoolmaster and the third grown person present all backed a little and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

Smith: So now why did you begin with a read aloud, and that particular read aloud?

Alvarado: It's a very interesting thing that what you try to do is to have a clear purpose but that the purpose has a complex set of goals attached to them and they are intertwined together to form kind of a strategy that makes some sense. This may be a little overgild, the lily in description, but let me tell you what I mean.

We were starting to move students into an approach to teaching literacy that was more broadly interested in good literature, in real reading and writing and an approach to it that was different from the various fact approached basal reading series that were in effect at that time.

So in effect reading aloud is one of the components of the elements of a larger literacy program. So one, we were actually sharing a component. Two is that we tried to model what it is that we always try to do because for us modeling is an important if not a crucial strategy to learning. Three, the subject matter was particularly important because it dealt with the issues that we were struggling with at the time and indeed in another form American education is struggling with now.

Smith: So you were out to change the very system of fact based education that Dickens is describing.

Alvarado: That's one thing that we were trying to do. And we were trying to actually also model it through a strategy that we would try to employ in the way that we were going to go about teaching literacy. So that, in fact, when we would talk about read aloud people would understand the read aloud process from being read to rather than from just having experienced it, rather than from just reading that. This is a strategy utilized.

Smith: So sitting there that day did you just read aloud or did you then stimulate the principals to do a discussion of the passage?

Alvarado: Well we talked about that passage.

Smith: Did you try to stimulate them to talk about it or did you just read the passage?

Alvarado: We read the passage with a purpose of trying to unpack what its meaning was. And it is interesting that often at the beginning of analyzing works what happens is you get a superficial reading of what it is. It is something that is foreign to us. This is Dickens talking about Victorian England education. That has nothing to do with us. We certainly graduated from that time, so they see it as a work of literature that's descriptive but unrelated to their lives and the problems of their profession that they are engaged in. The purpose then is to go a little deeper than that and to try to make the connection between the work of literature and the work. And then leading that connection to the problems of practice, of what principals actually do and what teachers have to do to deal with the issues that Dickens is raising here.

Is it narrow? Is it fact based? Is it driven by someone talking to kids? Is it all about the square description of characters that actually suggests the very structured box of unimaginative and non-intellectual work? So that's what you do.

Smith: What was the reaction? You're sitting there with a bunch of principals who have been in school as principals, probably many of them for a lot of years before you came along.

Alvarado: Well, the first reaction of the principals is “What is this thing that's just happened to us? It is foreign. It has never happened. Reading literature is not something that goes on when leaders and administrators get together. And who is this guy who is doing this? Why would this guy do it? It doesn't make any sense given our history.” So in some ways, which is also part of the purpose, it is to shake in a very subtle way business is done and to try to get people to think about what it is that their work is.

So their reaction is all across the paper. “What is this? It's going to go away soon, so let's give one or two responses and then we can get on to the normal discussion of administration.” Perhaps one or two of the comments were not in the spirit of literary give and take.

Smith: Like what?

Alvarado: Well there may have been a comment like “Okay, let's move on.” At the first meeting people are still kind of trying to find out who you are. And you are the superintendent, so they give you a little bit of space the first time. I think it's always important to think about what you do the first time that you meet people both in organizational life and regular life, not only because of a first impression, but I think it's a statement about who you are and what you mean to do. So that ideally part of this is that this is about ambitious work. This is not about reading a tabloid description. This is also about trying to analyze, so it's about using your mind. It is also about leading to problem-solving because essentially as educators that's our job – to find important problems that get in the way of kids learning, and to solve them so that kids can learn more effectively and efficiently. It is about starting this process of learning.

And in some ways, it is also about stating a core belief without having to put it up on a commandment wall. Our core belief for kids and for adults is that the essence of being human is learning. Every human being becomes all they can be through learning and this is fundamental everywhere. The lack of learning is always a function of the lack of quality teaching.

Smith: Are adults responsible for the failure of kids?

Alvarado: Yes, adults are responsible for the failure of kids. This is a felt belief. When we would talk often about voice in the principalship, we would always talk about how the leaders voices are about deeply held beliefs. And because sometimes when you come across problems, you don't have the answers, you can't figure them out – you come across a brick wall that you seem to be pounding your head against or when things come at you that centrifugally move you away from purpose – the thing that holds you together is your core beliefs about something. And I think what happened in District 2, is that there was this core belief that kids could learn if adults provided them with the kind of teaching that insured that was going to happen.

Smith: This includes [children] who come from foreign language families, poverty homes, tough circumstances. Everybody can learn – that's your expectation?

Alvarado: You know the answer is absolutely yes. Unfortunately right now, we have this little anecdote that goes out that says all children can learn. And everybody really ascribes belief in that. But the problem with that is that that's only half of the equation. The other half of the equation is all children can learn if adults provide high quality instruction. The reason why you have to add that other half is because often teachers who work very hard, who care deeply and put lots of time in, and who do everything that they know how to do to help a child learn, can't get the child to learn. Instinctively the culture says I taught it, the child didn't learn it.

Later on in our professional life people try to describe our work, and gave us adjectives and principles that we didn't even know we were using at the time. Now it's obviously the performance-based principle. Performance-based means that the performance, the result of the performance is a function of what I do.

Schools are not yet in performance-based environments. So what has tended to happen in American public schooling with poor kids, and particularly with poor kids of color, is that when they haven't learned the answer, we have all these intervening variables, and we're not one of them. The variables are poverty, the lack of parenting, difficult community circumstances, socio-economic status and on and on and on. And interestingly enough, it never circled back to the teacher or the school. And therefore it let us off the hook.

But what it also did was then to create this insidious belief in people who would espouse that all children would learn, but they really didn't believe it. They really didn't believe it because they did everything they could do and the kids couldn't learn. So when you try everything that you know, and the student doesn't learn, you have to have this core belief in you that it's not even a blink in terms of what's the problem here. The immediate reaction is “What did I do that was responsible for the kid not learning?” Turning that base value into practice so that then you can start getting better at what you do is what a good organization does, and what I think became a core value in District 2.

Smith: How do you turn around an attitude that says, “I did my job but the kid didn't learn it,” and get them to say, “It must be something wrong with what I'm doing.” How do you turn adults into wanting to be learners when they're used to saying “It's the kids who are the learners and they are the problem?”

Alvarado: We believe that the way to turn adults who have not experienced learning into learners is actually to model it, to have them be part of the learning experience that is effective for them. This translates into a result and success, no matter how small, that they can link to what they did. So the reason adults keep on doing the same things that they've never had success with is essentially because they don't know what else to do.

You know Hedrick, teaching is a strange profession. It is learned primarily in two ways. It is learned because you have been in school for twenty-some odd years. Your models of teaching are the teachers who you've been exposed to. After twenty-some odd years, the jug and mug learning that Dickens described, the pouring of facts into an empty vessel of a mind, that is a narrow view of learning. That's actually what people do. They don't know anything else. So the question is how do people get experiences? How do they try something that works? The research actually says that the best motivator for teachers is their being able to observe the success on the part of their children, and that that success is tied to the work of the teacher. Teachers don't experience that. And therefore the practice, the result, prevents belief.

Smith: You've got to turn outside, you look at the district and you say what? Literacy is our biggest problem. Our kids can't read, and that's why you begin with a read-aloud, and that's a signal we're going into reading as well. There are a bunch of signals in that passage, I understand.

Alvarado: We picked literacy for the same reasons that right now in America everybody focuses on literacy – because it is a gatekeeper skill. You can't learn history, you can't engage in text, if you don't have the skills to deal with the text. So it's not only for literature, it's not only for the sake of reading, it's for the sake of communicating, it's for the sake of learning. So we started with that.

Smith: How can you summarize the essence of balanced literacy?

Alvarado: Balanced literacy provides the technical tools of phonics, phonemic awareness. It's learning how to sound out words with making meaning of text. And providing rich literature and non-fiction that actually raises the level of thinking of kids, so they could engage in the text, make meaning, communicate about it and to learn how to solve problems through language.

Smith: It's not a scripted reading program. It puts a lot of responsibility on the teacher to be inventive about the teaching practice.

Alvarado: Yeah, but inventive is not the word. Teachers need to have a broad range of strategies to engage students. They need to know when and what to teach them as a total class, how to divide them into groups and how to work individually with them around the skills that they need to learn. So they need to learn how to assess. They need to learn how to group. They need to have a broad range of strategies. They need to know literature and they need to know how each child is progressing so that no one here falls behind.

Smith: You've got a system that's failing. How do you find out how to make it succeed?

Alvarado: By trying to establish a problem-solving mentality and develop a culture that actually eagerly looks forward to finding problems. A terrific researcher once said that problems are friendly. That's a very interesting concept. We normally see problems as something to be avoided. The presence of a problem actually says to you, “I don't know what I'm doing,” and organizations normally try to say, “We have no problems, we know what we're doing.” So you've got to get people to understand how to try to solve a problem. And how do you learn things? You learn things by seeing something done that you didn't know how to do. By engaging in conversation about the thing that's giving you problems, by having someone give you feedback about the work that you're doing – that feedback provides you with ways of improving the practice. And so there are a lot of ways of learning that you have to imbed first of all into your belief structure.

ALVARDO: Dick Elmore actually told us when he described the district that for us professional development is not one of the things that management does, it is management. And essentially for us, learning was not something that occurred once a month when you went to a public relations session and you trained. Learning had to become what you actually did, so you had to analyze and reflect what you are doing all the time. The interesting thing about learning is that it is always social. You really don't learn application – how to apply things well – alone. You need to be with other people and therefore you build community through a socializing process which supports learning and then the learning becomes distributed. So it is this thing about getting people together to solve problems through visitation, through observation, through analysis by having seen you model it, by having them try it, by having people critique the work.

Smith: What was the point of the wedge that you were using to attack the problem? Literacy is your issue. What was your top priority?

Alvarado: The ultimate result was that the students couldn't read powerfully enough. The ultimate problem was that the adults were not knowledgeable enough and skilled enough to make that happen.

Smith: So your number one priority is to improve teaching.

Alvarado: Absolutely. It is about creating adult learning both on the leadership level and on the teaching level that improves practice that is tied to student learning. Kids learn from teachers. If the kids need to learn more, and more powerfully, then the teachers need to know more, and their teaching has to be more powerful. And the principal needs to know how to lead that school to have that improvement in teaching practice occur.

Smith: But when you say teachers need to know more, what I'm afraid of is that a lot of people are going to hear Dickens – “Teachers need to know more facts.” And that's not what you're talking about.

Alvarado: Once I visited a classroom and a principal was proud that all the children were reading during the independent reading period. I sat down next to a child and she was reading a book. She finished the line on the page and then she kept on reading along the line on the second page. And she kept on reading like this so there was absolutely no meaning. When we talked about it with the principal, the principal said, “Oh my goodness, what I just saw was wonderful that this child was reading because she had a book and was sounding out all the words.” This is a problem. The child does not know the strategy. That means that the teacher has to know that, and teach the child that strategy. If the teacher doesn't know that, then nothing happens.

I would walk into a classroom and I would see a teacher teaching a child a sound, and the sound was let's say an “F,” and the sound is “fff”. So there were four children who didn't know the letter, the sound of the letter “F,” and the teacher went, “fff” and two children went “fff” and another one said nothing, and another one went “sss.” The teacher said it again and again. Three children said, “fff,” and the last child still went “sss.” The teacher did not know what else to do. What she had started to do was to say “F” louder, “fff,” as if the child didn't hear, and the child went, “sss” louder. What is the problem there? The problem is that giving the sound of the letter was not a sufficient strategy for that child to learn it, so the teacher needed another strategy that she didn't have. She wanted the child to learn the sound. She was working hard at it, but she had a narrow pedagogic repertoire.

What you want to do is to have teachers have a whole broad repertoire of ways to teach children things that they cannot know. Maybe by the third strategy the kid learns it. And it's an example of learning what works. It is what happens in every form of human endeavor. If you're playing golf and you're always slicing a shot, you can look at tape. But you got to try it and then you have to have someone, usually a coach who's next to you, giving you guidance about what you are doing and what you are not doing. Then you have to practice it a lot because usually the bad swing is already ingrained in you. And you have to unfreeze that behavior and habituate a new behavior, and the habituation process takes time, and it takes support. Schools provide none of this for teachers.

Smith: What kind of strategies did you use? I mean you're talking about coaches, you're talking about consultants. What did you start to do to stimulate this learning process among the teaching community?

Alvarado: At the simplest level, you ask someone who's in your school building. When a principal would say, “So, what do I do?” the first thing that you would say is, “If you're trying to have someone learn something, is there someone in the building who knows how to do that thing better than that person?” And if there is, figure out a way to get that person to help this person learn what they know. That's reasonably easy but if the knowledge and skill base isn't high, you can only get small amounts of learning. So then, we asked the question of where were there the best rates of literacy. At that time, it was in Australia and New Zealand. There were some changes going on in the Australian government and in New Zealand. The New Zealand government was actually loosening up personnel who were available and certainly willing to come to the U.S. to help.

So we started to get people who knew more about the problem to come in and help us learn more about the problem. It's a simple way of learning. Who knows more about what I need to learn, and who can help me do that. Now it's interesting, this was happening at a time before globalization became a big issue.

By the way, we didn't care what we had to do to do this. Trying, in narrow bureaucracies, to create consultant strategies that had international complications like visas, like contracts with other governments, I mean those were lots of problems that we had to solve, but we were committed to solving these problems because the end was the learning of teachers in the system. We would do anything to accomplish that end. We were driven to do that.

Smith: Generally, what were some of the strategies you used?

Alvarado: Well, at the beginning what we did was we identified a group of low performing schools. I believe there were eight at that time. We created a relationship with the university that had some expertise in it around leadership and created a project around literacy that was focused in these schools. And there were a group of staff developers who were identified to go in those schools – people who had greater expertise and knew something about coaching, meaning getting the information across to them. That was the first level of work.

That work then moved to a larger number of schools. We did not have enough capacity. We didn't have enough people who knew enough and were skilled enough. Then we reached out internationally, and we created this flow of expertise from those countries.

Smith: Who is leading this Aussie group?

Alvarado: At the very beginning, Diane Snowball is an individual consultant who subsequently becomes someone who coordinates a group of consultants, identifies them, brings them in, and we assign them to schools to help.

Smith: And the Aussies have this expertise not only in the language but in the teaching of literacy and reading to little kids. Is that what it is?

Alvarado: There were two concurrent things. One is their university work in the preparation of teachers was concentrated on practice where teachers worked before they became teachers. While they were still in the university they were working in schools and learning how literacy was to occur. There was a very strong government that spent lots of time working on literacy instruction so there was expertise there – in the practitioners and in people who then from the practitioners went on to the government level. When there was a dismantling through budget and other changes of those systems, these people all of a sudden became available in much larger numbers than would normally have occurred. And so we took advantage of that. Now we could hire ten, 15, 20 people to come into the district to help us do that work.

We would then identify teachers in our own district who were good at doing some of that work. We then created the professional development lab. That was an internal creation in which essentially we would release a teacher who needed to learn a particular skill set and strategy set, and put her in a master teacher's classroom for three weeks. In that period of time they co-planned together. She observed what the teacher did. There was constant conversation. At the end of three weeks that teacher went back to her classroom and this master teacher would go back to help her in the classroom and implement what she had learned in her classroom.

But every year we improved this process. It can always be better. And every time we finish doing something, we were planning on making the something better or figuring out whether there was another strategy that was more effective.

Smith: The Japanese call this continuous improvement.

Alvarado: Exactly. We didn't know it at that time, but we were doing it.

Smith: It sounds like trial and error. This sounds like building a program as you're going. Is that right or did you come in with a blue print? Did you know you were going to do this?

Alvarado: I mean it is planning, trying, analyzing, re-planning and retrying to consistently improve the performance. The parents of the children in the class of the teacher who had to leave were not particularly happy that they had a long-term sub in the classroom. So then we had to spend time training that substitute teacher so there would be a seamless continuation of instruction. Then after that we said, you know what, maybe we could actually use this as a teacher recruitment mechanism, so we would hire new teachers and put them in those classrooms. Then what happened from the laboratory experience was that some teachers said, “I want to learn this thing, this set of skills and it only takes three days to learn it.” So we created three day venues for learning how to do skills.

So this strategy becomes home. It's the DNA, and then it kind of explodes and you get little things happening here and here that are offshoots of it, but it is all about creating a comprehensive, coherent way of learning skills that are necessary to get kids to learn.

Smith: Learning for adults.

Alvarado: Learning for adults tied to practice that showed results. You've got to have that chain. If you leave one thing out of the chain, then it doesn't work. Nowadays in accountability, Hedrick, what we have is this talk about results. Results, results, results. But part of the problem in education is everybody wants to achieve results but it is what you have to do to achieve it that people don't know how to do. If you don't focus the organization on learning what to do and you're just hacking peoples' heads off because the results don't show, you don't improve the quality of learning and the improvement of performance in the system.

Smith: Talk to me about why you put so much emphasis and focus on principals. What is it you understood about principals and what was it you were trying to change in the function of principals?

Alvarado: First of all, principals are the most important actors on the stage of a school system. The quality of a school, the quality of the adult learning in the school and the quality of the student achievement is a function of the quality of leadership of that person, so one of the things that we needed to do, is spend time and effort finding the people who had the talent, the knowledge, the skill to lead this. And let me tell you what that meant.

For us, the primary purpose of a principal in a school is to lead the improvement of instruction in a school. Their primary purpose is not to manage a school, not to make sure that the buses are coming on time and the books are delivered, and the parents are happy, and the dissent problems are solved – although all those things have to happen and the efficiency with which those things happen actually relieves the principal to spend the time improving instruction. But that idea means that principals have to know instruction. They have to know what good teaching is, and they have to know what to do to improve instruction. If they can't do that, then they can't ultimately get better student achievement results. So the original idea of a principal was that of a principal teacher. That's where the word principal comes from. It then moved in the American historical term to being the person in charge, the manager of the building, and it lost its foundation in knowing what teaching is, and being able to lead its improvement.

Smith: When you looked out at your 40 odd principals in 1987 or 1998, what did you see in terms of what you needed? What kind of principals did you have?

Alvarado: We had principals who were good managers, who believed that was their work, who thought that they were doing a good job because the buses came on time, the kids were happy and the books were being delivered. The teacher was in front of the classroom. The door was closed. Whether there was any adult learning going on was irrelevant, did not even cross the minds of folks. And the purpose of schooling was you teach the kids – they get it, or they don't get it. Some do, some don't, and that's the way the system moves.

Smith: So you're talking about principals that came right out of this book of Dickens.

Alvarado: Yes, they were like the Dickens book. They may not have actually been as severe characters as Dickens portrayed, but they believed their mission was equivalent to managing a school. They were managers not leaders, and they were not leaders of instructional improvement.

Smith: So what did you do?

Alvarado: Well, immediately you worked on engaging them, in teaching them about instruction and how to improve it. That was the first strategy. Just work on assuming that they can all learn how to do it, and go about doing it, and to stuff the culture around them so that people couldn't get away with not doing it. What they had to do was learn about it, and try, and become good at this. The letters that they got, the visitations that occurred, the nature of the meetings, the nature of the communications was about this sense of instructional improvement and their role in it.

What happens immediately with that is that some people say this is not for me. Some people move on. Not even because you have to make evaluations and decisions, but because you have created a set of demands that people do not believe and don't want to engage in. So they want to leave, and they did.

With some people it was more direct. It was the kind of conversation that sometimes was uncomfortable, that was face to face and that dealt with the facts, so they could not be avoided.

Smith: What kind of thing would you say to a principal who didn't get it?

Alvarado: Well we'd go into a room. We'd ask the principal when we came out of the room what he saw. Often, the principal couldn't even describe the teaching that was going on. When he was asked what he's going to do to improve it, he couldn't answer the question and we'd say, that's what you got to do, that's your job, so what are you going to do. We would help the principal initially because the purpose of the visitation was not hard accountability at the beginning, it was to help the principal learn so at the end of that visit, the principal had learned a few steps that would help improve the instruction.

But if they didn't believe it, if they had no skills to engage it, if they chose not to do it then, in fact, there ultimately was a mutual agreement – “I got to get out.” And they did.

Smith: But were you telling people very often this isn't going to work, in this system you're not going to be able to deliver what we want? There were cases like PS 1, for example, where either the message wasn't gotten on the first round, or the community dug in their heels or there was loyalty. I mean take the case of Mr. Wong.

Alvarado: Okay, I'm getting there. I just want to tell you that one of two things happen to most of the people in strong cultures. They actually learn or they chose to get out. Then you get a group of people for a whole host of reasons who are going to dig in their heels. Okay. “I need the money, I want to retire, I'm staying.” It's a problem. And to those people you then do what you have to do as an administrator and you say I'm moving you out of here.

And there are attendant consequences to that that can be a community uproar. Then what happens is people go to engage their supporters and you go out in community processes. At that time we had a board. It was the question of making clear with the board what our standards were for performance so that they could live up to the pressures that were going to be put on them. We would have a public meeting. There would be 800 people at the meeting, all calling for our heads because we were making the wrong decision, from their perspective. For us it was about the data. It was about the product, it was about the progress. It was about whether the school was learning how to do it. It was not about whether the person was a nice guy. It was not about whether the person was ethnically compatible. It was not about whether the person was there for a long time. It was not about any of these factors. It was about whether the principal could perform the core work of improving instruction.

Smith: There was a huge meeting that the board had with the parents of PS 1. What was the situation and what did you do?

Alvarado: There's yelling and screaming and you explain what it is that you're doing, and you say why it is that you're doing it and one thing happens. They either believe you or they don't. Believing you doesn't mean that they agree with you, but if they understand that the value that you hold means something, that's the basis upon which you're going to make your decision and come hell or high water that's what's going to happen. They can understand the decision even though they disagree with the decision. And they disagreed with the decision for a whole host of reasons.

Smith: And you had people on your board like Pauline, she disagreed.

Alvarado: She disagreed with the decision. It never ultimately in the long run, in that particular case, fractured the relationships about what had to happen. She understood what I believed in. This was a particular moment that for her was impossible to deal with, and after it was over we continued to move on to do the work that we needed to do.

Hedrick there was another time, and I want to give this example because it's a time also when you learn things. I don't want ever to give the impression in this conversation that there are people who know things that are telling people who don't know things. There's another version, a good version of the square jawed grad. We believe that when we engage one another through the hierarchy or as colleagues all the time, that I am always learning something from you and I'm trying to teach you something. Sometimes at the end of an exchange I may have learned more than you taught me but what happens is, every exchange produces greater knowledge in the organization.

We were once closing another school. It was a poor school filled with Hispanic students that was at the bottom of the performance in the district and rattling around the bottom performance of the city. We had the same thing. And parents got up, and what they were talking about was, “I went to this school. My daughter is going to this school. My mother went to this school.” It was an old school and at the end of it, after we explained why, and we did it, the people were upset. I would always stay and have conversations with any of the parents who were still unhappy or whom needed more conversation. And a woman came up to me and she said to me, “Mr. Alvarado, I know that our school is not a good school but it is my school.” And what I learned is that some of this fight to hold on to the school is for a whole batch of other reasons. It is place. It is home. It has continuity in tradition. It is a part of the fabric of my living. I bring my child here. I pick up my child. My child is safe at the end of the day. And that when you are trying to wrench changes in situations you are confronting this deeply held set of cultural values. And you can only get through them with a constant dialogue with the people.

And by the way, years after we built in the new structures in all these schools, often the parents who were most loudly protesting became our friends and supporters as the school began anew in its different form.

Smith: We didn't quite finish the story about the meeting about Mr. Wong. My understanding is you made a speech in which you essentially gave people a choice, or you saw a choice for them. Either they could stick with the old principal and the old way of doing things and the performance would be low, or they could go in a new direction and you were committed to it and you would deliver different results. What was the essence of what you said to them?

Alvarado: I knew that every parent who was there was there because they thought that what was going to happen was ultimately not good for their students. And what they needed to know is that what we were doing was absolutely a commitment to improving their students' educational lives and so telling them “look, this is not about the principal, this is about your students lives'. We will guarantee you that we will make the kind of effort here in this leadership change that will result in your students improvement. We're going to work to that. I will be here to make sure that happens. This is not about cutting loose and getting out of here. This is about sticking with you through this process of improvement. And they understood even if they disagreed that that was our intent. And we tried to live according to the commitment that we had made.

Alvarado: If you look at the history of District 2, you would probably find that even with the people who left because we mutually agreed that the performance was problematic, there would be very little hostility over the judgment. That doesn't mean that there isn't either agreement or happiness over the judgment, but it was dealt with professionally, privately when at all possible, and never in any way that disrespected the process.

One of the things that I did not say about District 2, which was very important, was that all our work was deeply based in relationships. We felt that it was important to respect people, to develop trust, because it was the trust that allowed us to make demands about issues that were beyond the known capabilities that people knew that they were capable of. So what they did was they trusted that we would go together over the unknown cliff of practice, so that we could actually do the next level of work.

Smith: Talk to me a moment about PS 126 and Daria Rigney. I think it was Elaine who actually made Daria the principal at PS 126. What was it about Daria Rigney that made you believe that she was going to be the kind of educational leader that you needed in District 2?

Alvarado: The first thing about Daria was she knew teaching, particularly the teaching of literacy at a level of granular detail that was extraordinary. She knew how to coach teachers; she had been a staff developer in our district. She had come through the ranks as someone who improved instruction. She was not someone who had to be taught how to improve instruction. She knew how to do that deeply. Second, she had an extraordinarily human quality that would engage people. Daria's letters to her teachers, the book that she's in the process of writing or has published as we speak is a book where she would communicate to teachers on a weekly basis, often on a daily basis about what was happening in the school, about what she saw, about what they were doing, about what was working, about what she would do. This was a person who cared deeply, knew much about the instructional process and knew the content. Now when you become a principal there's only one other thing that you have to learn that Daria didn't have at that moment, which was the responsibility for being in charge of an organization. Okay. She worked through that.

Smith: Wasn't easy?

Alvarado: It wasn't easy and Daria herself will tell you that she struggled through that process. The good ones have such a high sense of expectation about the results that they question whether they can actually achieve it because their expectations are so high. And if they try something and at the beginning the relationship doesn't work and the accomplishments aren't there, after an intense effort they waver, they question, they wonder if the job is do-able and more importantly they wonder if they are capable of doing it.

Smith: So did you have to buttress her? Did Elaine have to buttress?

Alvarado: The same thing that we expect principals to do with teachers is what leaders at the district are to do with principals. Our job is to support. Our job is to help them. Our job is to help their job become more effective. Our job is to hold accountable, but this much more robust sense of what accountability is – you are accountable to me for a result; I am accountable to you for the tools and the support that you need to achieve that result. Just the way that we expect a teacher to say if the child didn't learn I got to go back to me. When we did something and the principal couldn't pull it off we went back to ourselves about what did we do with the principals that didn't provide the support to make them successful. So it comes back to us, first, to help make that person whole, to make that person stronger and ultimately more effective.

That was that process of Daria becoming a leader and being comfortable enough with the leadership position where she knew that the difficult decisions that she had to make had to be made, and that the consequences were just a step in the improvement of the school.

Smith: You've shaken a lot of things up here. You may not be deliberately firing people, but people are losing their jobs. How did you do the give-and-take with the union that enabled you to make the kind of changes you wanted to make in this culture and in the personnel?

Alvarado: The first thing to say about unions are that they aren't monolithic. There are people at every level of the union. And we had different challenges at different levels of the union. So the luck that we had was at the highest levels of the citywide union. We had leadership that believed in the work that we were doing. And there was a partnership with that leadership in the work that we were doing.

Smith: Chapter leaders in schools are where the rubber meets the road.

Alvarado: They had had 20 years of being told that they were a blue collar labor union, that their job was not about educational improvement, their job was to look at the contract and make sure that the details of the contract were honored and that any extension of that was a problematic issue.

So I will give you a couple of examples. One of the schools that was a challenge when the principal took over, had in it a chapter leader who was the kind of person that I described. And she had lots of teachers in that chapter that felt like her. Over time as the principal led the reform new people were coming in and some of the people in the school started to change, and they changed because their lives were better. They were becoming more effective and they thrived on the professional development. This chapter leader actually said, “this is what I believe and this is what I'm going to do”.

In a six-year period, for example, there would be a monthly meeting that by contract was supposed to be an hour. At an hour, she'd get up in the middle of a meeting if it was still going on and walk out because the meeting was only supposed to be a hour. At the beginning, half of the faculty would get up and walk out. At the end of the six years, she was the only one that got up and walked out. The rest of the faculty stayed in the room.

So I'm giving you one example that changed how the work was done. We won over the membership of the union because what we were doing actually fulfilled their deepest instincts as teachers and as learners. There were times where there were groups of chapter leaders that felt that our initiatives were too bold or crossed the line and in fact we would go to the higher leadership and we would try to put together a way of addressing the problem so that it could be further explained and we could work with it. There are times we got to loggerheads. And we agreed to disagree and then we did what we had to do, and they did what they had to do.

Often, we could make momentous decisions on the spot because we absolutely had to have a trust for one another. So the perfect example of this is when we had our one sure school, our school under review, the school selected by the state as not meeting state standards. We decided to create a strategy in June after that to move into that school a distinguished teacher, a title that did not exist anywhere in the board of education. And we were going to pay that distinguished teacher $10,000 more. This is something that sometimes takes years of negotiation. We called the union, we talked about it, and we figured out a way to make it legal and do-able in a way that we could implement in 20 days for the opening of the school year. That would never happen in another kind of context. For the union, District 2 became a model site to bring other unions from the nation to take a look at what high quality teaching looked like.

So we served a number of purposes. We figured out how to get the vast majority of their membership full satisfaction because they were getting what they needed. We could agree on a way to handle the difficult parts of the membership. We would agree on certain strategies. Sometimes, the way that happens in all relationships, we needed to go a separate way but we always built trust. We always understood what we wanted to do and we established a shared belief that what we were doing was the right thing. We had a joint theory of action about what we wanted to accomplish.

Smith: People have said to us that you expanded professional development spending on professional development from 1% to 11% of the district's budget. I just wonder in terms of your relationship with the union and your relationship with the teachers, how important was that?

Alvarado: The numbers are correct except that I would say that the 1% was a generous indication. When we came in we could not find $1 that was put in the budget in a category that was for training. There wasn't any money in the budget set aside for training of teachers. The training that occurred only occurred peripherally in the time that existed in the contract that was available to be used for training. In addition to that available time, what we did was to extract money from the system. Firstly by cutting the center. There was a massive cut at the center of the organization, at the district office. We went from 90 some odd positions to 30 some odd positions – took that money and then put it back into the schools to provide professional development.

Then what we did was to look at all the programs that would come in from state, federal and private sources and in the long run rewrite those proposals for professional development. We would look at our regular tax levee budget with Scrooge-like intensity to find out that every single dollar that could be put toward investment in people was put there instead of something else.

And sometimes we would even cut a direct service to students and invest it in the adults because that was the belief in how important adult learning is. If I give more time to students and provide them the instruction, and it generates the same low performance, it is not useful to give more of the same to student. Better that I change the quality of instruction so that in the next iteration of teaching it becomes more powerful and generates a better result.

Smith: So that was a tremendous, tremendous change. You went from less than 1% to what, of your budget in professional development?

Alvarado: Well it was over 11%. I think it ultimately got over 12%. The reason that it is particularly impressive from a budgetary perspective is because essentially about 85% of the budget is given. In other words it can't be tampered with. It pays for a teacher in front of a classroom, a principal in front of the teachers, a principal in the principal's office. What you are looking at is only maybe 10 to 15% of the budget that is quote, “discretionary”, meaning that it had the capacity to be directed. We took almost all of that money and turned it into professional development.

Smith: Was it a good investment?

Alvarado: It was. It accounted for what we did. It is the best investment that people can make. I'm always struck by this sense of why in other sectors of the economy organizations spend 10, 15, 20% of budgets on training for people. Because the only way to get better performance out of people is to get them to be more productive on their jobs. But in education the commitment to training and I might add, to quality training, what you heard in District 2, what was part of the basis for the respect that was mutually shared between the union and us, was that the teachers would consistently talk about the quality of the professional development that I had; that it made a difference in how they could teach and that difference was seen in what the kids could learn.

Often in school systems that try professional development you will hear it, teachers moan about, “Oh my, look at what they are doing. I don't need this. Why am I here? This is painful.” And partly it's because professional development is not high quality. It doesn't meet the need that the teacher needs to solve a problem of teaching.

Smith: You were at District 2 from 1987 to 1998. When you are done, what did you feel you had achieved in terms of student achievement? What were the yardsticks?

Alvarado: The data results on student achievement were clear. We started out as 11th in the district and ended up 2nd in the system out of 32 districts. Performance, significant performance growth against peers. One. Two, in the beginning, if you divided student achievement in quartile distribution we had almost 28% of the students in the bottom quartile – essentially meaning students who do not have access to a successful academic career. When we left there was 5% of the students in the bottom quartile. The top quartile, meaning the students that were producing at the highest level, was slightly under 25% when we got there. When we left there was over 45% of the students in the top quartile. What happened was that we were pushing students through levels of gains that moved them to being high achievers.

We never had a year in which we did not increase performance. There may have been years when we increased more than other years, but normally the curve of growth even in good organizations is sometimes like this. Sometimes you may be getting better, but sometimes you get better and then kind of you lose it a little bit or you plateau. Year by year we always improved performance.

I think, though, the thing essentially that I'm proudest of and most honored about was to have been a part of a culture that was created that essentially could say and perform in a way that could insure that continuous improvement would occur in the district, that year by year the adults were getting continuously smarter and we could predict that the kids would get better year in and year out. And that an organization could be like that was a joy.

And the other part of it was that the nature of this professional culture – the people who we interacted with, people of different personalities and persuasions, but all committed to the same values – were intellectually involved in a way where they would let you know what they thought. This was no kind of namby-pamby organization. When there were conversations about improvement each of us called it the way we saw it. We brought to bear what we thought we saw. We would argue about it. We were always evidence driven. We were never ideologues. It was the evidence that we had that would actually convince us of what we were doing.

That kind of cultural change was the most important accomplishment of the district. People always talk about institutionalizing something so that a culture, a set of values, a way of doing work becomes part of the fabric of an institution. I think there were two parts to that. One is the minds and hearts and beliefs of people. And that is deeply imbedded so that whatever rocks the boat doesn't rock that belief structure because it's deeply imbedded. Two is to create the kind of organization umbrella in structures, in conversation, in communications, in evaluations in the way that the organization does business that generates coherence around those values. So that how the organization does something supports what the people in the organization believe and is driven by what the people in the organization believe. And then you've got an organization that can't help but to make progress day in, day out, year in and year out.

Smith: People talk about you as an aggressive headhunter. When it came to principals people say you were aggressive, you reached all over the place.

Alvarado: I would do anything to try to get a good principal into the district. I would spend time with them; we would talk about what it would be. We tried to explain how they could benefit from being in the district. We asked what it would take to have you come here. I would try never to go away from it. If I got a no, and the person was outstanding you would see me back on that trail. I would make the phone call. I would be back again. I would be the person that people didn't want to get another phone call from.

I had no shame in begging people to come to the district, that we needed their talent and they would benefit from the talent. The principals themselves had an unwritten standard for the quality of colleague that they demanded. If we ever would make a mistake you could see them kind of you know… And everyone knows that working with people you do the best that you can, and sometimes people disappoint you and then you have to correct the mistake. We were not afraid to correct the mistake. In fact, it was important to model what you do when you make a bad personnel decision.

And we made a few of them but the ones that we made we corrected. We would ask people about who they knew, who was the best person. This was not about putting an advertisement in the newspaper, getting 30 names, going through an interview process and picking the best of the people who happened to show up that day. Often we would close processes one, two and three times because we didn't get someone that was good enough. We refused to settle when our recruitment could not produce the quality of leader that we wanted.

Smith: When you started to get under way in District 2, why did you bring in Elaine Fink?

Alvarado: Well it was interesting. I had been the superintendent in District 4 for many years. Elaine had been a teacher in District 4. The principal had called me up and said, “Come see the school,” and I had seen her classroom and the principal happened to remind me at that moment that Elaine was a teacher who had gotten every single one of the 32 odd students in her first grade class in East Harlem, to perform above grade level. So I had asked her to be a staff developer around reading. We had identified Elaine, and one or two others, to come in and help in staff development. So she had been a staff developer working with teachers.

I didn't see Elaine for a while after the District 4 days. But I came to District 2, I then called her and she was still in District 4 and I asked her would she come to District 2 to be a staff developer. Ultimately she became the principal of PS 6. And after becoming the principal of PS 6, I asked her to become the deputy superintendent of District 2. And the reason for all that was a simple thing. One, she knew instruction from A to Z. Two, she knew how to improve instruction. Three, she knew how to build community. And four, she was tough enough to be able to make hard decisions. Some principals would say we finished each other's sentences.

Smith: You had your problems in District 4. When you were chancellor, you had to resign because of what had happened in District 4.

Alvarado: I had to resign when I was chancellor because of what happened.

Smith: Improprieties, loans?

Alvarado: Correct, yes.

Smith: When you are coming into District 2, do you have a sense that you are getting as second chance?

Alvarado: It's absolutely true that I felt that I was getting another chance when I went into District 2. And it is this sense that's “a”, very American and, “b”, very consistent with my belief structure about the opportunity for redemption and the opportunity to grow and continue to make a contribution. And so you ultimately never strike out of any ball game. There's always another at bat in the following game or a following season, and that I think this ultimately stems from the generosity of people who understand what the human condition is.

I think the other thing that assisted me was that the educational reputation that I had built was something that could still commend me in terms of giving me another opportunity.

Smith: Either when you embarked on your reform in District 2, or as you got it under way, did you have the feeling that even though you were dealing with a district of 23,000 kids in a nation of millions of kids, that you might be doing something of national significance?

Alvarado: There was absolutely no sense of that certainly for the first eight years until, in fact, we began to get involved with national researchers. And I began to get involved in groups that had national significance and through my participation in that, it became clear to me that they needed a voice of a practitioner who could implement the kinds of things that they were talking about.

Smith: At that point in District 2 did you have the feeling either that you had done something of national significance or you needed to take it to higher scale. For national as well as direct local reasons.

Alvarado: I don't think I had these visions of grandiosity. I actually think that I went [to San Diego ] because this was another challenge that was at a larger level. There were ideas to test and strategies to construct and it was worth doing.

Smith: Has the essence of the District 2 reforms been embraced here in the larger effort in New York City? Do you sense that the philosophical core beliefs are now animating reform in New York City?

Alvarado: I can't answer that one.

Smith: Do you feel encouraged by what you see picked up from District 2 in the educational reform that's now being applied citywide?

Alvarado: Well, let me make a judgment about two things that have happened in the reform strategy that I think is useful in the city. The first thing that the mayor did, unmooring the city from its traditional patronage relationship and organizing it around a major theme that deals with leadership and instruction improvement, was absolutely necessary to be applauded.

The first thing the mayor did was to take control of this system unmoored it from the community relationships and political relationships that had mired this city in patronage and fractionalized it, particularly in poor communities, in ways that was not paying attention to instruction. That was a laudable and courageous effort that produced now great opportunity.

Where this city is right now is it has to look at how it has organized itself. The elements that have been put into place – particularly thinking about this massive new money that's about to come into the city – it has to rethink the next level of organization for reform. The ultimate judgment that's to be made about the city's efforts is about the next design structure in a path to improvement.

Smith: How do you describe the challenge ahead for a city as big as New York?

Alvarado: Well the strategies are these. How do you know that the big strategies that have been adopted from District 2 are working or not? We now have a couple of thousand cultures in the city. Do we know that the professional development that they are providing is qualitative? Do we have any data about it? Do we know where it works and under what conditions? Do we know if the weakest schools are receiving the highest quality coaching? There is no information about that. The system has to organize itself to get that kind of data to then redesign and make the changes that result in continuous improvement.

Has the leadership academy connected itself to the regional superintendents? Has it figured out a strategy to work with the larger higher education communities? Is there a logical sequence of career development to teachers through the leadership perspective so that these ideas take form in a coherent career development in the city? Has the system focused on the schools that produce the greatest amount of under-performance? We now know that 30% of the schools produce 70% of the students who under-perform. What is the particular strategy around those particular schools that are always the core of under-performance? How does the teacher quality issue get dealt with, because essentially our strategies were around teacher quality? It dealt with who the teachers and leaders are that went into the system. It went to providing high quality professional development to them. It meant creating conditions of teaching and learning that really supported the growth of teachers. At this scale, can the system create the kinds of strategies that can change that first and foremost in those schools that are mightily struggling to get to student performance, where in fact you have teacher turnover of 40, 50, 60 percent over a five-year period.

Can that issue be addressed in a meaningful way? Those are questions that the system now has to struggle with in its next design and in its next iteration of reform.

Smith: When you came in District 2, and you looked at what you had to do, literacy, improving professional development, where did you see you had to put the emphasis first? You were going to do it district-wide. I know you did, but where did you have to put it first and why?

Alvarado: We started in the lowest performing schools. The challenge of teaching students who come in at an academic disadvantage and the standard for teaching in those schools is more challenging than the standard for teaching in a regular school. It's a systems responsibility to get that high quality level of teaching in those particular schools so that's where you have to go immediately.

Smith: Your best teachers and your best principals tend to gravitate toward the upper east side, it's more comfortable and it seems to me you're turning around…?

Alvarado: Let's look at PS 126. When you look at the faculty that was developed and recruited by Daria Rigney who was able to produce the student achievement gains in one of the lowest performing schools in the city, it was, first of all, the quality of leadership at the school level. So the attention you have to pay to the knowledge and skill base and leadership level of people who teach in those schools is paramount to solving the problem.

Daria was able to recruit people who would normally go to the Upper East Side. They would go to 126 because of the supports that Daria could give them, the supports that were facilitated by the district, and the results that those teachers and therefore the satisfaction that those teachers could receive because they were successful at teaching.

Smith: And you had to create the ferment and the excitement that drew talented people to the toughest spots?

Alvarado: That's correct.

Smith: In order to get the best people in the toughest places what do you have to do?

Alvarado: The values that we hold dear are that public education is most important for the weakest students in our society. It means that our responsibility and what we did in District 2 was to pay lots of attention to the leaders and the teachers that had to serve in those schools. The supports that were placed in those schools were among the best that we had available to them. The resources that we placed in the schools were disproportionately targeted at those schools because the need required it. The time that Elaine and I spent visiting schools was disproportionately given to those schools because they needed the kind of coaching and support in order to produce the results that they did. In fact we believed that those schools should be the places where reform counts most, because social justice in America requires it.

Smith: And you're saying that the city now has to do the same thing citywide. It has to organize itself to give the maximum effort to the lowest performing schools.

Alvarado: That's right. There are 1300 schools in New York City. And roughly 350 of those schools generate two thirds of the under-performance. Those schools have to be known. The attention to a human resource strategy about who goes there, how we make sure they're retained, how we make sure that the conditions are good enough so that they don't flee, how we make sure that the supports create success so that they can stay is the key to whether we succeed in low performing school.

Smith: Eric Smith, in Charlotte, essentially says that the kind of training and the kind of responsibility that you are expecting from teachers and the amount of investment that you have to do in their professional development is impossible to sustain at scale and that you have to go to a more scripted system.

Alvarado: I actually believe that we have never dared to put in place the kinds of incentives to get the best people in those schools. If I paid the best teacher in the world a million dollars to teach in that school would that person go there? Let me just ask the question. They might, they actually might. If I paid them $100,000 would they go there? I don't know, but maybe. If the class sizes were 15 in the schools, rather than 30? If the best staff developers were there as opposed to the worst staff developers? If the best principals were there instead of the weakest principals? Just go down the line of every single condition that now exists in low-performing schools. They get the least talent. They get the weakest teachers who teach in the worst conditions that result in the highest turnover and that results in essentially the results that we get.

I'll tell you, the only thing I know from what Eric says is, he's right that what we've done up until now has not been sufficient across the nation as a function of public policy to produce the results that need to be produced in high-need low performing schools. That's a fact. The growth in those schools is frankly minute-flat or minuscule and does not lend itself for optimism right now.

If we had asked this question when doctors were bleeding their patients and putting leeches on them to help them, what would we have said? We would have said that the potential life span of people is 35 years of age. That's what we would have said 60 years ago given the data that we had. We found out a lot of things that changed that: don't have the cadavers underneath the hospitals; and don't have the doctors stick their hands in the cadavers and then go up and perform an operation cause you kill your patients when you do that. We did that. Bam. We massively improved mortality rates in operations. We stopped putting leeches on patients. We started developing drugs. We learned how to perform surgery. I mean the profession made progress. It made progress over time.

American public education is still in its infancy as a profession compared to where other professions are. Dick Elmore has said that American public education is the last sector of the American economy yet to be re-engineered. So for those people who say it can't be done under present conditions, and for those people who then say “It's because it's the kind of kids who are in the schools and that can't be dealt with”, I reject that as a value, as a personal belief and as an American social value.


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