Building Community in a High School One Teacher at a Time (Jerry Brodkey)

A good friend for many years and guest blogger (see here and here), Jerry Brodkey has taught social studies and math for over 30 years at Menlo-Atherton High School  (MA) in Northern California. He currently teaches Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus and Integrated Algebra. Well-respected among his colleagues–he has been a member for many years of the union negotiating team that  bargains with the district when a contract expires–Brodkey sent out the following email to his colleagues last May just before the school year ended.

One of the best parts of the school year for me is after the AP test. In addition to some other activities, each student in my AP Calculus classes is asked to speak for approximately 15 minutes about themselves. They may talk about their families, travels, hobbies, sports, college decisions, etc., Some of these presentations are light-hearted, some very serious.  We all learn about each other in  a gentle, supportive environment.  Students seem to love this, and so do I.

I’d like to try this with staff members, too. Even though I have been here many years, I realize that there are many staff I simply don’t know, and even among the members of my own department,  I’d like to know them at a more personal level. So I’d like to try this.  Some of the best moments I have had at MA have been the results of feeling a sense of community, a deepening of relationships with all who work here.

Although my room is open for students almost every day at lunch, I’d like to dedicate  Thursday lunches to this small initiative.  I’ll simply tell my students that Thursday at lunch I won’t be available. Instead, I’d like to invite all staff to my room  (or some other place ….) for this experiment.  We might have a pretty good crowd, or I might be eating lunch by myself.  If my room is too small we’ll find another place. I’ll be happy to organize a schedule.  Since lunch is short, I think one or perhaps two speakers per week.  No obligation, no memberships, come when you can.  Bring papers to grade if you want. Come late, leave early if you need to.  Classified, certificated, administrative, everyone.

If we need a moderator I’ll be happy to do so.
I am thinking each presenter can begin (if they’d like) by addressing these  questions.

1. Who are you?
2. How did you come to be at MA?
3. Why are you here and what are you trying to achieve?
4. What are your biggest challenges and frustrations?

5. What do you like to do away from MA?
6. How would you hope to be remembered?

So that is my idea. Nothing complicated, nothing to do now. I’ll bring this back up  in August, I just thought I’d present the idea now.

Best wishes for a successful conclusion to this year.

Just a few days ago, Jerry wrote to me this follow-up email on the once weekly lunch-time meetings of teachers held over the past Fall semester:

At the beginning of this school year, we decided to try something new at the high school where I have taught for thirty years, Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California.  We have a very large staff, split into departments, and each of us know little about our colleagues.  We decided one day a week at lunch that one staff member — classified, certificated, administrative — could volunteer to tell about herself.  There were really no guidelines, no obligations, no requirements. I developed an optional series of questions that could be used as desired:  Who are you?  How did you come to be at this school?  What do you like to do when not working?  What are the rewards and frustrations you have teaching/working at Menlo-Atherton?  How would you like to be remembered?  We thought we’d give it a try for a semester, then re-evaluate. I wasn’t sure if on these Thursdays I would be having lunch by myself.

So far, I believe it has been wonderful.  Our attendance has varied from fourteen to almost thirty, with a surprising mix of veteran  and new teachers. There is a core  group of about ten of us who make every session, and another group of maybe twenty-five who come when they can.  At our school, there is a norm that many teachers  welcome students  in their rooms at lunch, so it is hard for many staff to close their classroom doors and slip away. Many teachers also sponsor clubs and are engaged with students,  Next semester, we are switching from Thursdays to Fridays with the hope that more staff can attend.

Every presentation has been  a gift. Some have been very serious, others humorous.  Some focus on teaching, others on travels and personal journeys.  One first year teacher and one second year teacher bravely volunteered.One week the principal came and presented, and our District Superintendent spoke one week after I let him know what we were attempting. Each week I learn something new about my colleagues.A new physics teacher was in a rickshaw race across India. A veteran  teacher talked about donating a kidney to help save her brother’s life. Who knew? The Economics teacher once worked at the Federal Reserve.  A science teacher worked across the street as a lab researcher, then one day came to our school to deliver some homework for his daughter and discovered there was an opening for a teacher.  He said he spent the entire summer preparing his first day’s lesson and then was faced with the reality of preparing for 179 more days. He said  he lost thirty pounds the first semester, pulled many all-nighters, but never looked back with regret over his decision.   A new teacher from Romania told us how in her homeland her math teacher routinely slapped students, and if the teacher was too far away to slap a student, the teacher would instruct another student to slap the offending student.  One teacher movingly told us how difficult it was for her to be separated from her children who are far away. Several veteran teachers spoke of the difficulties they faced the first few years, with stress, tears, and self doubts. Only by finding a mentor on the staff and building relationships with their peers were they able to survive.

It is , of course, impossible to measure the benefits of these lunches. For myself, whenever I see one of our presenters on campus I now feel a deeper connection, a broader understanding of who they are.  We are trying to build relationships, strengthen  community, one person at a time. I look forward to our special lunch every week, and find myself slowing down, listening intently. My only regret is that I wish I had started this years ago.


Filed under how teachers teach

Teacher Use of Academic Research

What follows is the Foreword that I wrote for a book about why many teachers are allergic to academic research yet seek it out and, in some cases, almost religiously, apply research findings in their classroom lessons. It is a puzzle. Jack Schneider, a historian of education, tries to unlock that puzzle in his book, From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse (2014).


Over half of U.S. public school teachers have master’s degrees. Many courses that these teachers took to earn their degrees in disciplines or in education included reading and analyzing research studies. And many of these teachers wrote a master’s thesis or research papers to complete the requirements for the degree. For those teachers without an advanced degree, most have been exposed to recent research in their discipline or educational specialty through professional development workshops, media articles, or may have even participated in classroom research projects. And many teachers search restlessly in academic journals and professional literature for studies that will point to ways that they can improve what they do daily in classrooms. So most teachers have been either consumers or creators (or both) of research.

But that familiarity with research seldom stills the frequent and intense rhetoric from policymakers, researchers, administrators, and lay reformers who ask teachers to use “evidence-based practice” and “best practices” identified in research studies. They want teachers to incorporate results of scientific studies into their lessons on fractions and decimals, phonics, photosynthesis, and the causes of the Civil War.

Moreover, since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001—the law mentioned variations of “scientifically-based research” over 100 times– calls upon teachers to use research in classroom practice have multiplied. The federally funded “What Works Clearing House” founded in 2002 to “provide educators, policymakers, and the public with a central and trusted source of scientific evidence of what works in education,” concentrates on empirical studies meeting rigorous standards of effectiveness as measured by standardized test scores. No surprise, then that frequent and intense interest in getting teachers to use knowledge harvested from research literature, especially from experimental and quasi-experimental studies, has increased dramatically in the past decade.

Yet in light of so many teachers exposed to research in their graduate programs, an expanding empirical base for effective programs, and a large population of teachers familiar with the ins-and-outs of research, so little of that knowledge has filtered into classroom practice. Decade after decade, critics have characterized teacher use of research as slim.

This marginal use of research by classroom teachers, however, has not occurred for lack of trying. For decades, university teacher educators have taught undergraduates and graduates how research studies are put together, identified studies that can improve practice, and assigned research projects. State, federal, and private efforts over decades have spread the results of research studies to teachers. Consider, for example, the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) that began in 1966. It contains over a million documents most of which are studies freely available to anyone. The National Diffusion Network (NDN) disseminated research on programs that worked in classrooms between 1974-1995. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) started its Educational Research and Dissemination program for classroom teachers in 1981.

Here, then, is a puzzle. Highly educated teachers familiar with research joined to mighty efforts to change that situation over decades, and yet the bulk of the nation’s teacher corps seemingly ignore scholarship easily accessible to them.

There are reasons galore for why this puzzle exists. For some critics of academic research, the primary reason is that most studies answer questions teachers seldom ask. So many studies are largely irrelevant to those issues that bite at teachers daily. Other critics see the reason located in teachers themselves who are so immersed in a culture of practice where experience and stories carry far more weight than findings from scientific studies. And then there are those who point to the age-graded school and the structural constraints (e.g., tight schedules that leave little time for teachers to meet and discuss instructional issues, number of students taught) that fix teachers’ attention on daily logistics rather than applying results of scientific studies. Whatever the reasons, most teachers, critics say, ignore the fruits of research studies that could be used to enhance both teaching and student learning. Instead most teachers rely on experience-based practice, that is, the authority that comes from their knowledge and skills gained through prior experience and the wisdom of respected colleagues.

The situation, however, is not as grim as critics would have it. Those familiar with the history of teaching know that certain ideas shaped and baked in academia, have, indeed, been adopted and adapted by teachers and put into practice in their classrooms. And that fact is an important clue to unraveling the conundrum.

Jack Schneider, a historian of education, takes that clue and turns it into an eye-opening book. He does what gifted songwriters do: create a new melody or rearrange a familiar one, add fresh lyrics and end up enthralling listeners. He does so by artfully building an original interpretation about teacher use of research. His “song” will surprise teacher educators, policymakers, researchers, and lay reformers baffled over the conundrum of teachers knowledgeable about research yet seldom adopting scientific findings to improve their classroom practice.

The central question that drives From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse is straightforward: what explains that some scholarly ideas, and not others, appeared in classrooms practices? He answers that question by examining Bloom’s Taxonomy, Multiple Intelligences, The Project Method, and Direct Instruction, concepts stamped made-in-academia. Schneider travels back and forth in time from a century ago to the recent past to identify the features of those ideas that made them accessible and useful to teachers in their daily work. In making the case for the essential features that he identifies, Schneider also recognizes that luck is an ingredient to the success story—being in the right place at the right time.

Not only does Schneider make the case for the key features of those four ideas that tie together their successful research-to-practice journey, he also takes four very similar research-driven concepts—The Affective Taxonomy, Triarchic Intelligence, Project-based Teaching, and Behavioral Analysis also baked in the ivory tower—that stumbled on their way into classrooms, seldom making it past the classroom transom. He shows that some features characterizing the successful transplanting of research findings were missing-in-action in these comparable ventures.

In clear, crisp prose enlivened by spot-on quotes, richly detailed examples, and flashes of humor, Schneider offers readers, particularly teacher educators, researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and lay reformers, a fresh historical explanation for the puzzle of teachers and their uneven use of research to improve classroom practice.

In this fine book, Schneider shows how historical research not only begins unlocking policy conundrums but also can inform policies that might well bring teachers and scholars together to deal with the complexities of classroom practice. Whether the suggestions he offers in the closing pages, based on those research ideas that have informed and changed classroom practice will, indeed, alter the historic breach between the Ivory Tower and the Schoolhouse, I cannot say. But those suggestions surely got me thinking that they are worth trying to mend the unfortunate gap that still exists between researchers and classroom teachers.



Filed under how teachers teach

In Plain Sight: Pervasive Inequalities

This post will not be filled with statistics about the worst gap ever–yes, ever–in income between rich and poor in the United States or how badly the U.S  fares  among developed nations in the world on inequality measures.

This post will not rail at the moral unfairness or growth of mistrust among Americans as a result of such economic, social, and political disparities.

Now will this post recommend ways for reducing the growth of a two-tiered society.

What this post will do is look at effects of inequality and how they are pervasive, taken-for-granted, and even encouraged in everyday transactions.

There are many obvious examples of inequalities such as the current protests across the nation’s cities over white police officers shooting black men and disproportionate percentages of minority and poor arrested and convicted for “broken window” crimes. Current protests against the police’s lethal mistreatment of African Americans capture the abiding anger and resentment over this historic inequality. In this post, however, I offer only three prosaic ones to make this point about inequalities in plain sight: airplane travel, hospital emergency rooms, and schools.

Airplane Travel

Yeah, I know that this may strike readers as either whining or a silly example but many Americans and international  visitors have flown somewhere on a U.S. airline.  Inequalities are taken for granted. Sure, they are temporary–disappearing when you leave the aircraft–and dependent upon how much money individuals are willing to spend on air travel but, most important, status differences–inequalities–are intentionally designed to incite envy. Let me be specific.

While not all airlines treat customers in the same way, I fly United Airlines and know first-hand about these temporary status differences. First, you have to line up according to whether you are a “frequent flier” and what status you have acquired from United Airlines: Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Global Services, etc.;  those allowed on the aircraft first have the most miles flown (or are business- and first-class passengers who have paid much more for their tickets); they get a crack at the bins for their roller suitcases, packages and coats. By the time the last passengers–economy cabin–are called to board, most of the overhead space has been taken and many annoyed people have to check their roller suitcases and pick them up at baggage claim at their destination.

Then there are the curtains and bathrooms that separate economy from business- and first-class seats. Shall I mention big differences in size of seats and legroom? Forget snacks–juice and soft drinks are free–for United passengers in economy but for those in the big-seat sections, they get multi-course meals. Or the amenities passed out to big-seat passengers on international flights and nothing given to those in economy. Enough. the point is made.



One passenger had this to say about the class distinctions and inequalities in flight dependent upon how much money you spend for a ticket;

This stark class division should come as no surprise: what’s happening in the clouds mirrors what’s happening on the ground. Statusization — to coin a useful term — is ubiquitous, no matter what your altitude. While you’re in your hospital bed spooning up red Jell-O, a patient in a private suite is enjoying strawberries and cream. On your way to a Chase A.T.M., you notice a silver plaque declaring the existence within of Private Client Services. This man has a box seat at a Yankees game; that man has a skybox. And the skybox isn’t the limit: high overhead, the 1 percent fly first class; the .1 percent fly Netjets; the .01 fly their own planes. Why should it be any different up above from down below?

No, I am not whining. I am describing how inequalities and grasping for status are so embedded into American experience that both appear in plain sight when anyone flies the “friendly skies.”

Hospital Emergency Rooms

Not so for hospital emergency rooms where the inequalities hit you directly in your face and cannot be ignored. These inequalities ares not temporary. They are consequential and reflect the two-tiered system of health care in the U.S.

In ERs the inequalities that appear before your eyes are deeply embedded in the social, political, and economic structures of a market-driven democracy. For anyone who has had to go to a hospital ER before or after the Affordable Care Act (2010)–about one out of five Americans have been to an ER at least once a year–some facts become obvious.

*Most of those in need of medical attention are poor and minority.

*Most of those who arrive in ERs do not have health insurance (61 percent) and have no access to medical attention except at the hospital ER.

*While middle- and upper-middle class families–young and old–with health insurance do go to ERs, most  have health insurance. Moreover, they have access to their primary care physician or other medical services while most poor young and old do not have access to alternative medical attention.









The inequalities in access to medical attention in the U.S., even after the Affordable Care Act became law, are apparent to anyone who has spent time in an ER.

Public Schools

I have worked as a teacher, administrator, and researcher in largely poor and minority high schools for the past half-century.  I returned this year to three high schools in two different cities  where I had taught between the 1950s and 1970s to see what changes, if any, had occurred in the past half-century. Sure, there were changes but all three continue after a half-century poor and minority and, for the most part, located in racially and ethnically segregated neighborhoods.

I walked the halls, listened to teachers and students, and watched many lessons in each school. What was apparent to any informed observer was that security to protect students and keep order was pervasive:  Each school had metal detectors and security aides sweeping students out of hallways during classtime. Motivational posters urging students to graduate hung from walls on every floor; while there were instances of superb teaching in each of these schools, in most classrooms I observed students clock-watching and half-heartedly following teacher directions; there was compliance in doing worksheets and answering questions but that was about it.  I did see clumps of highly motivated, achieving students (including English Language Learners) in each school but they were immersed in an academic culture of doing the least amount of academic work to pass the course. Student suspension rates ran high, large numbers of 9th and 10th graders dropped out, and low percentages of students graduated. Two of the three high schools had been “reconstituted” twice–yes, twice in the past five years–when the entire staff and principal were removed and had to reapply for posts in each school.

Each of the school districts had initiated projects to revitalize these low-performing schools and progress was in inches, not feet or yards. Each of the districts had portfolios of options available to parents from which to choose: charters, magnets, alternative schools. High-tech hardware and software had been purchased and deployed in the schools I visited. Teachers were being evaluated on the basis of student test scores. High-performing teachers received bonuses. Much district effort to turn around low-performing schools had been made.

Yet, overall, these high schools remained examples of sheer economic inequality in the dollars that districts generated in property taxes, how officials spent that money, and what families contributed to their children’s education. These inequalities became obvious when compared to conditions in other schools.

I say that because I have also been in elementary and secondary schools where mostly middle-class and upper-middle class students, both white and minority, attend. What these districts generate in education dollars may be similar to low-performing ones but the resources families bring to the schools and their children’s lives is far more than many poor families can contribute. Moreover, to sit in classes, walk the halls, listen to teachers and students in these urbanized suburbs reveal that the overall culture and the quality of work performed by both students and teachers differ dramatically. The idea that there is a two-tiered system of schools in the U.S., one for the poor and one for everyone else becomes inescapable. None of this, of course, is new to anyone who has spent time in urban, suburban, and exurban U.S. schools or watched media reports on high-achieving and low-achieving schools.

These three everyday examples that adults and children experience show the sheer persistence of inequalities wrapped into the daily fabric of American life.


Although economists are divided over the causes and consequences of the huge gap between poor and the wealthy, between the middle-class and the rich, a gap that has grown even larger in the past two decades, all Americans pay a price for this inequality. Distrust between police and minority communities is one cost of inequality that has made current newspaper headlines and television coverage. Loss of confidence in society being fair bites at many Americans when the chances of a black child going to prison are significantly higher than a white child or when corporate leaders pull down huge compensation packages as compared to their typical employee. Or feelings of disgust over political elites passing laws that create tax code loopholes and government-protected share of markets to both increase and protect the sheltered wealth of their supporters. Economic, political, and social disparities are (and have been) in plain sight and the entire nation pays high prices for becoming an increasingly divided society.

Figuring out what to do about this problem of an increasingly obvious two-tiered society has split social scientists. Mainstream economists argue that unjust differences are not the problem because inequalities naturally arise from the rapid globalization of the U.S. economy, increased uses of  technology, and spreading automation. They argue that government intervention can worsen the problem since these larger factors determine what occurs and little can be done to avert inequalities. Efforts to slow down globalization, use of technology, and spread of robotics and automation will only end in even deeper  inequalities. Watching and waiting until the system corrects itself, and it will–they say, is what needs to be done to decrease these differences.

Other social scientists say that the injustice of disparities is a moral hazard in a democracy, made by humans not machines. The problem is that wealth means access to political power. Access to political power means helping friendly legislators and executives at local, state, and national levels gain office. Friendly legislators and executives then jerry-rig the system to further the interests of the wealthy few rather than the majority of Americans. Such dissident social scientists point out that the U.S. political system has been hijacked by the rich and now serves their interests by passing laws that deregulate government oversight and shield their wealth-seeking efforts. They argue that this is a problem made by people with interests to protect. The problem can be solved by political action from the majority.

While I favor the latter point of view, it is clear to me that even framing the problem remains in dispute among economists and other social scientists, many of whom advise top policymakers in making choices about what to do about increasing gaps in wealth and the costs of such inequalities within a democratic society. Those costs of inequality have daily consequences when Americans travel, go to hospitals, and attend school.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

Another Educated Guess about Philanthropy and School Reform

Every reform movement leaves a residue in public schools. Consider the “best” elementary school in any U.S. city during the 1890s before the Progressive education reforms cascaded over public schools in the early 20th century.*

The “best” elementary school (often called “grammar” school) of the 1890s, situated in a middle-class part of the city, had at least eight large classrooms–one for each grade–where teachers taught all the subjects to groups of 40-50 children sitting in rows of bolted down desks.








The teacher’s task was to cover the entire prescribed curriculum during the school year, have students recite–often standing up–portions of the textbook, and repeat what has been learned on periodic tests. At the end of the semester, teachers would decide which students would get promoted and which ones would be held back. In immigrant neighborhoods of the same city, elementary school buildings, curriculum and pedagogy were the same but what differed was that not all immigrant children  attended school and those that did often dropped out by the end of the third grade and worked in sweatshops, peddled newspapers, picked up off jobs on the street, or worked in industrial jobs that needed quick and small hands and feet.






















Much of that “best” 1890 elementary school changed with the slow penetration of progressive education reforms over the next forty years. The reform movement looked to the “whole child” beyond absorbing what the teacher said and what was contained within textbooks. The physical, social, psychological, emotional, and general well being of the student was at the heart of the progressive ideology of reform in these decades. By 1940, the “best” elementary school building now had more than a dozen classrooms, a lunchroom, auditorium, outside playground, suites of rooms for a visiting doctor to examine students and a separate room for an on-site nurse, a social worker, and, if space permitted, a psychologist who would administer individual intelligence tests. The curriculum still contained reading, math, and science and a new subject called “social studies,” but the content itself and new textbooks were geared to real-world examples rather than traditional content taught in the late-19th century.

Trinity Lutheran School 03-14-2010








In progressive classrooms, movable chairs and desks replaced the rows of bolted down ones. Kindergartens where five year olds would work and play in large airy, furnished rooms with a reading area, sand box, artist corner, and blocks became part of the age- graded school. While textbooks still reigned supreme in the upper grades, additional books and materials appeared in classrooms. Many elementary school teachers began dividing up their entire class–still in the 30+ student range–into reading groups where a teacher would assign tasks to the rest of the class while she–by now teachers were mostly single women–would work with handful of students on a reading or math lesson. Instead of straight recitation from the text, often in unison, the “best” teachers in this “best” elementary school would guide a whole-group discussion of a topic calling on individual students who raised their hands to respond to teacher questions but no longer had to stand and recite memorized passages.








Since the early 1950s, when progressive schools came under political attack and a new wave of reforms swept across U.S. schools, deposits of these earlier reforms remained in elementary schools even after  the word “progressive” became a naughty word in the lexicon of school reformers. An informed observer walking into a “best” elementary school in 2014 would see vestiges of a much earlier progressive movement to improve schools.

Now fast forward to the first decade of the 21st century after thirty years of market-driven and donor-supported school reform. Vestiges of these decades of reform, like earlier progressive reforms, I am guessing, will be quietly incorporated into public schooling. Charter schools will survive, standardized testing will persist but be scaled back, a downsized version of a national curriculum standards will be in evidence, routine use of technologies will show up in classrooms, reduced  accountability regulations will be around but penalties will be fewer. While a high regard for student outcomes will persist, other outcomes of learning in the arts, humanities, and emotional growth will emerge.

Other current reforms such as evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, ending tenure and seniority, calling principals CEOs, and children learning to code will be like tissue-paper reforms of the past (e.g., zero-based budgeting, right- and left-brain teaching) that have been crumpled up and tossed away.

Also the idée fixe of schools concentrating on producing human capital first and civic engagement second or third will persist but lose its potency slowly as popular pushback against too much standardized testing and a national curriculum grow in momentum.

I have seen many waves of school reform in my adult life as a teacher, administrator, and researcher. As a researcher, I have studied both 19th and 20th century school reform movements. In each movement then, bits and pieces of prior school reforms stuck. For contemporary policymakers and philanthropists who have invested much time, energy, and monies into these market-driven reforms and are alive, say 20 years from now, I would guess, will not break out the champagne for these remnants.



*Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School (New York: Vintage Press, 1961); David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue (New York: Basic Books, 1982)); Someone Has To Fail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform (New York Simon & Schuster, 2000).



Filed under Uncategorized

An Educated Guess about Donor-Driven School Reform

Unintended outcomes haunt reform movements. Every school reform I have researched from improving curriculum, changing instruction, and redesigning organizations has had unanticipated results. Recall how the No Child Left Behind law (2002) has narrowed curriculum, led to extensive test preparation, and tagging some high-achieving suburban schools and most urban ones as failures. President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress didn’t expect those outcomes. Unexpected results,  I am guessing, will occur following the victories of venture philanthropists in the past two decades in establishing market-driven reforms in U.S. public schools.



Even the smartest policymakers and their close donor allies have discovered to their surprise and chagrin, unforeseen consequences. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation, for example, inadvertently helped shrink public involvement in school decisions while furthering distrust of professionals’ judgment through support for mayoral control, state laws expanding charter schools, and parental trigger laws. Keep in mind that some unintended outcomes, depending on where one stands, are considered positive, others negative, and a few, perverse.[i]

My educated guess is that donors may see that the crisis rhetoric they have used in past decades, the extensive media exposure, and their reform agenda will have had perverse outcomes in ending up not in privatization of public schools–as critics of venture philanthropists allege–but actually preserving the status quo they fought against. Such an outcome would, I imagine, startle this generation of donors. Let me unpack this educated guess.

The notion of institutions adopting reforms in order to maintain stability—sometimes called “dynamic conservatism”—captures how U.S. public schools, especially in big cities have embraced new policies (e.g., charter schools, Common Core standards, new technologies) signaling stakeholders that schools are, indeed, changing. Yet those districts and schools have left untouched essential structures that make U.S. schools the way they are (and have been for over a century) such as residential segregation, school revenue derived from property assessment, age-graded schools, self-contained classrooms, student promotion, and retention, textbooks, and state tests. [ii]

Without attending to these basic structures, entrepreneurial donors in their pursuit of particular reforms reinforce the stability of the very organizations they want to transform.  Not intended to be Machiavellian or even necessarily planned, school districts have learned to maintain overall stability in structures, cultures, and practices—the status quo–in the face of strong external pressures by selectively adopting reforms.

Consider the example of grant-giving strengthening the status quo that occurred in the early 20th century when Northern white donors gave money to improve what was then called “colored” or “Negro” education in the South. John D. Rockefeller, Julius Rosenwald, and others gave grants to improve black education by building schools, helping teachers gain more knowledge and learn pedagogy, and raising teacher salaries. In aiding black communities improve schooling for their children, however, these donors gave the money directly to white school boards who then dispersed funds sparingly to black principals, teachers, and communities. In effect, these grants maintained the Jim Crow system of separate schooling for blacks and whites. Positive, negative, and perverse outcomes were rolled into one. [iii]

Fast forward to the early 21st century. I see a similar phenomenon of high-profile reforms ending up keeping public schools stable unfolding in the next decade. For example, donor-supported reforms in urban districts such as opening new charter schools, closing “dropout factories,” distributing vouchers, deploying new technologies, and the like have proliferated. Yet these changes have offered a restricted number of motivated parents and students opportunities that were lacking in under-resourced, inequitably staffed, and highly bureaucratic urban districts. Those parents and students benefited. That was an intended and positive outcome.

However, for the vast majority of parents outside of a Harlem’s Children Zone or passed over in lotteries for charter schools, their children will continue to attend low-achieving schools, dropout in high school, and face dead-end jobs. Age-graded schools will persist. Segregated poor and minority schools will persist. Inequalities in who teaches in middle-class and poor schools will persist. The status quo in low-performing schools will remain.

And the primary reason for stability–an unexpected effect of all of the above changes–is that these donor-pushed reforms concentrated only on the school rather than outside economic and social structures that freeze institutional inequalities in place.

In making this educated guess about unanticipated effects, donors have erred in framing the problem of failed schools as a problem located solely in schools themselves. Yet the evidence is so strong that  academic failure of poor urban and rural children is located in multiple institutions and structures inside and outside schools. Battling low academic performance crosses institutional boundaries.

Because of their can-do and business-oriented ideology, venture philanthropists have largely restricted their grant making to funding changes aimed at the kind of schools that exist, what happens inside of them, and who staffs the schools. In doing so they have unwisely reinforced the myth that schooling alone, not in concert with other institutions, produces miracles ending economic and social inequalities.

And for that error, I believe, donors will receive a full measure of criticism now and in the next decade for preserving the status quo of schooling.


[i] Robert Merton, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”. American Sociological Review, 1936, 1(6), pp. 894-904; Albert Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, and Jeopardy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[ii] Donald Schon, Beyond the Stable State: Public and Private Learning in a Changing Society (New York: Norton, 1973). Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[iii] Historians writing about northern white philanthropy in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have largely agreed on what donors have done in these decades but deeply divide over donor motives and the consequences of their actions (both planned and unplanned) in making grants to get black schools built, help for black teachers, and supplying services that white school boards had failed to provide. See James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); Mary Hoffschwelle, The Rosenwald Schools of the American South (Gainsville FLA:University Press of Florida, 2006); Eric Anderson and Alfred Moss, Jr., Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and Southern Black Education, 1902-1930 (Columbia MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999).




Filed under school reform policies

“This Will Revolutionize Education” –A Story That Needs To Be Told Again and Again

I needed to write a post yesterday morning. I had on my desk a few ideas from articles I had cut out of newspapers, suggestions that friends and family had sent to me, and pieces  from a chapter on donors that I had drafted and wanted to try out on my blog.

Before I decided which of these items I would expand into a post, I checked my website to see how many views I had overnight, what comments had come in and whether they needed responses from me, and, of course, dumping the spam that had collected overnight. I also checked to see who had clicked onto the site for that is a way I find out who is reading posts and a chance for me to pick up different ideas. And that is how I found today’s post. One reader had downloaded my monthly cartoon feature on technology for kids and adults to her website and also gave a link to a video called “This Will Rev0lutionize Education.” That caught my eye. I watched it. And I was startled by its accuracy, brevity, and elan in taking apart that common phrase used time and again by wannabe school reformers eager to put the next new technology into classrooms.

As a historian of school reform, I have written more than I want to remember about those rose-colored, feverish, high-tech dreams that appear time and again promising to transform classroom practice and how students learn. This video is seven minutes long and it vividly captures the hollowness of each generation’s claim that “This Will Revolutionize Education.” But far more important the video zeroes in on the centrality of the teacher to student learning beyond conveying information which new technologies are superb in doing.

At a time when blended learning, flipped classrooms, MOOCs, and, “disruptive” innovations pop up incessantly in media and rhetoric of school reform, what Derek Muller presents is worth seeing. So I now present the YouTube video: “This Will Revolutionize Education:”

Click on:



Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

Classroom Alchemy (Michele Kerr)

Michele Kerr is a math and history teacher at Kennedy High School in Fremont, CA. She also wrote about teaching English and higher standards in previous guest posts. This post comes from her blog.


“Hey, how was Philadelphia?” asked Darius*, as I checked his work (“Sketch a parabola in which b=0″).

“Pittsburgh,” I said, pleased and taken aback. It was Wednesday, first day back after our 4-day Veterans

Day weekend. Sometime on the previous Thursday, I’d mentioned casually I was going back east for my uncle’s 70th birthday. Six days later, Darius remembered my plans.

“The family reunion, right?”

“Yeah. How nice of you to remember. I had a wonderful time.”

I moved back to the front, checking for universal understanding of the impact that b=0 had on the position of a parabola, and then told everyone to sketch a parabola in which c=0.

“Did a lot of people show up?” Darius asked across the room.

“They did! Over 90 people. All my uncles and aunts on my dad’s side, and several of their cousins. Eleven of my fourteen surviving cousins on that side. At least 9 of the next generation–my son’s. And even some tiny members of the generation after that—the great-great-grandchildren of my dad’s parents.”

“Wow. Did you know them all?”

“Some of them I’d never met before, because they hadn’t been born the last time I’d visited. Others I’ve known all my life, like some cousins, and my aunt and uncles. We even had someone from my grandfather’s generation. Aunt Ruth–my dad’s aunt–who is 94, looks fantastic, and just came back from a trip to Paris.”

“Was the food good?” from Harres.

“Outstanding. It was simple, nothing dramatic. They put the food on different tables throughout the room.”

“Oh, I don’t like that,” Darius again. “I always want everything, and can’t decide which table.”

“There was a table with two big haunches of meat. One roast beef, one ham, with really good bread rolls. I had no trouble deciding which table.”

After we finished up c=0 and they were figuring out the significance of a parabola with just one zero/solution, Darius waited again until I was checking on his work.

“Did you talk to people there?”

“Me? Oh, yes. Non-stop talking. There were so many people I hadn’t seen in years, and then others I wanted to get to know. I wish I’d had more time. I need to go back more often. If I wait as long again, I’ll be older than my uncle is now.”

“I went to a family reunion one time.”

“You did? How was it?”

“No one talked to me. I was like this.” and Darius humorously mimed standing all alone, silent, looking about for something to do.

So that’s why he remembered.

“Darius, I can tell you for certain that no one at my family reunion was sitting all by himself. I’m sorry. That probably wasn’t fun.”

“Yeah. It was weird. I didn’t know anyone there, and they were all talking to each other.”

“That would totally suck. I’m sorry. We’d have asked all about you.”

As they worked out the next task, I had a brief moment of introspection. Darius, who’s a cool cat in every sense, is far less likely to be the one sitting alone at a party than, say, me, a cranky introvert who has to brave up for crowds so she can exercise her natural garrulousness. I know that my uncles, or my dad, would have probably joked about a teenaged African American appearing at the party. Some or all of them, egged on by siblings and downstream kin, would one up each other with ribald wordplay and puns about where and who had done what when to add color to the family tree. But they’d have sought him out, gotten him some food, grilled him on his life story, likes and dislikes, found out his plans after high school. Looked for links and common interests, bring in others to get conversation going. But would I have done everything to reach out? Or would I have been too busy enjoying not being the one sitting alone?

As the bell rang, I was actually showing Darius and others some family pictures from the night, which sounds impossibly boring, but they seemed genuinely interested in seeing evidence of my stories.

“I’m really sorry you felt isolated at your own family reunion, Darius.”

“Yeah. It’s always the same. I’m like the whitest person when I’m with my black relatives, and the darkest person when I’m with my white relatives.”

“Well, you’d have been the darkest person at my family reunion, for sure. I don’t think our bloodline moves east of Aberdeen. Maybe London. We’re pretty thoroughly white folks. But even though you felt isolated because of your race, some of it could just be family dynamics. My family’s big, boisterous. Really loud.”

“Everyone here was loud. They just were loud to everyone else but me.”

Kameron* punched his arm lightly. “I hear ya.” At Darius’s look, he elaborated. “I’m half black. My mom’s white.”

“Oh, then you know.”

“Does your black family ask if you’re ‘all-black’?”

“You get that too? Isn’t that idiotic? Like they’re measuring?”

“Well, gee, I guess at least the white side of the family didn’t ask if you were ‘all-white’.” I pointed out, and they cracked up.

“There’s a lot of research and profiles on biracial kids, did you know?”

“Really?” Both Kameron and Darius looked interested.

“Yes, that feeling you both have of not being one nor the other, of being slightly separate, is not uncommon. It’s also not unique to kids with one black and one white parent. Biracial Asians have similar feelings, whether their other parent is black, white, or Hispanic.”

“Huh. Really.”

“Sure. There are some good books that you can read about other teens with the same background. You should check them out. In any case, I promise you, Darius, that you wouldn’t have been all by yourself at our family reunion.”

“So the next one you have, invite me!”

“It’s a deal. Have a good day, guys.”

Such exchanges are classroom alchemy, a magical transformation of mundane, random elements into golden moments. They spring from elixirs of personalities, events, spontaneous conversations, the incidental inspired nudge. They are occasionally unrelated to content knowledge and always irrelevant to test scores. They will never be found in MOOCs, nor in classrooms obsessed with tight transitions. They are criterion deficient; ed schools can, to a limited extent, prepare teachers for such moments only with open-ended assignments that are probably opinion-based.

I don’t confuse alchemy with the meat and potatoes of teaching. Darius and Kameron are both doing very well, improving their competency and fluency in quadratics, modeling real-life situations with algorithms and, importantly, taking on intellectual challenges that don’t immediately hold interest.

But teachers are responsible for more than content, whether we are aware of it or not. We are the first adults students interact with, the first engagement students have with the outside world. Independent of content, we can give students a feeling of competency, of capability, or of frustration and helplessness. We can communicate values both indirectly and directly. We can teach them that work is a serious business, or we can teach them that work can be fun and entertaining—or both. We teach them how to interact with a wide range of personalities, how to ask for help, how to give help. It doesn’t matter if a teacher is determined to convey nothing but content. Simply by the nature of our job, we create an environment that has its own entirely unmeasured learning outcomes.

I am a teacher who focuses primarily on conveying content, as all observers have noted over the years. Yet for a teacher who doesn’t see her job in terms of its emotional impact, I have my fair share of classroom alchemy, the moments of knowing my classroom has been a positive force in the universe, whether for one student, a group, or a class of thirty five.

I never plan these moments. As the great Terry Pratchett noted (with props to Neil Gaiman), you can’t second guess ineffability. It’s just going to come along on its own terms.


*Darius and Kameron both confirmed this exchange as written.






Filed under how teachers teach