Category Archives: Uncategorized

Teaching World and U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 4)

In earlier posts, I have described and interpreted how a high school history teacher taught history in a failing school (see here and here). In Part 3, I described a veteran history teacher in the same school and the four lessons he taught when I observed him in November 2013. Gary Hart (a pseudonym) taught world and U.S. history. In all of the lessons I watched, the sequence of activities unfolded in the same order: students signing in when they entered, sitting and talking until Hart caught their attention directing them to answer questions on the white board, the teacher supervising their  answering questions with scattered students chatting and having to be admonished repeatedly before settling into the task. In each class, Hart used worksheets drawn from the textbook covering particular pages and then supervised students by walking around as most (but not all) students completed the task. At the end of the period, Hart collected  both students’ answers to questions on the whiteboard and the worksheet. Occasional interruptions for dealing with cell phones and PA announcements jiggled the routines during the four lessons. Nonetheless, the activities occurred in this sequence.

Overall, what I saw in the four lessons I can sum up briefly.  Most students were disengaged from the content of the world history unit on late-19th century imperialism in Africa. A climate for learning content and skills of thinking was absent in each and every class I observed. A few students would answer questions asked by the teacher but the Q & A was, at best, dispirited. Surely, except for occasional disruptions, there was compliance; most of the students did as he directed. There is no question in my mind that the teacher had prepared lessons drawn from the textbook and knew that content thoroughly. His skills in managing the class were evident although there were moments, especially over cell phone use and persistent chatting, that became dicey.

If Mark Allison, his veteran colleague, (see here) went beyond the textbook and engaged his classes in African American history and they responded to questions on the photos he presented even asking questions from time to time, I saw no such engagement in these four world history and U.S. history lessons.  Clearly, these two teachers got compliance from their students, at least the ones that attended, and one of them went beyond compliance by creating a reasonable facsimile of a learning climate and interest in the Civil Rights movement.

So what sense do I make of what I observed? As in an earlier post, I return to contextual factors that I believe influenced Hart’s teaching.

First, the contextual factors. In Part 2 of these four posts,, I laid out how student backgrounds come to influence in positive and negative ways how students respond to history lessons. Nearly all students in the school, for example, are eligible for free and reduced price meals–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement. Ill health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences take their toll. Poverty is not an excuse for either behavior or achievement; it is, however,  an abiding factor that cannot be ignored.

Also the organization of Greenwich as an age-graded high school with departments and its place in the district affected what happened in classrooms.

For example, classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance, Hart did reasonably well given the organizational factors within which he labored. School and district policies made low attendance and high tardiness a school norm. Moreover, Greenwich has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal had been notified that the school would be restructured which meant teachers that teachers  would have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” often erodes teacher motivation to teach at the top of his or her game.

There is another contextual factor that matters for Hart and his colleagues. The state has adopted the federally funded Race To The Top program of teacher evaluations in order to secure additional monies. And that means 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation depends on the student standardized test scores.

That bothered Hart a great deal. He complained about the unfairness of a system that based half of his evaluation on student test scores. Because Greenwich students did poorly on these tests year after year there was no way that he could reach the highest category (“Accomplished”) when the principal evaluated him  even if he taught stellar lessons. For Hart, the evaluation system was skewed against him and his fellow teachers.

While these contextual factors surely played a part in what and how Hart taught, there were individual factors that mattered also. Hart claimed that he rewarded students with pizza parties and displayed work of successful students. That he did all of that, I have little doubt. However,  in the four lessons I observed, he lacked passion for the lesson content and the activities that he designed. In every lesson, he marched the group mechanically through routines in which students were clearly disengaged. The 40 minute lesson was something both students and teacher endured.

For 2014-2015, the “reconstitution” year, the principal chose Mark Allison and not Gary Hart to teach at Greenwich.


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Poems By and For Teachers: What Teachers Make (Taylor Mali)

The following brief resume is taken from Taylor Mali’s website:

Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, having himself spent nine years in the classroom teaching everything from English and history to math and S.A.T. test preparation. He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world, and his 12-year long Quest for One Thousand Teachers, completed in April of 2012, helped create 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion, and perseverance,” an achievement Mali commemorated by donating 12″ of his hair to the American Cancer Society.

Mali is the author most recently of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” (Putnam 2012)….


What Teachers Make

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­‐kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­‐ feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.

Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

You can watch Taylor Mali recite his poem on YouTube.


Kevin Hodgson, an elementary school teacher in Southampton (MA) had this to say about the poem:

A few times a year, I play poker with a group of lawyers, businss owners, federal government employees and software developers. No long ago, one of them turned to me and asked: “So, what’s it like to be a public school teacher?”

The question was asked innocently enough, but the emphasis on “public” and the unspoken meaning–“Why would anyone be a public school teacher?” –thre me off balance. I would have loved to have had the wit of poet Taylor Mali and launched into a ferocious comeback worthy of his poem “What Teachers Make.”

I didn’t.

Instead, I gave a passionate defense of the impact I have on the lives of young people every single day and then proceeded to win a few rounds of cards. Still, I could hear Mali’s poem ringing in my ear.

I’ve shared Mali’s poem with other educators in many professional development sessions, and I’ve given the poem as a gift to colleagues. With it defiant tone, the poem becomes a token of solidarity, and I am reminded of a quote from Charlie Parker that I use as a tagline for my blog: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” The poem resonates with a similar message: as educators, we need to be proud of what we do and boldly confront misconceptions that surround us.

It’s almost as important as the work we do each and every day in the classroom.*


*Both the poem and Hodgson’s remarks come from Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner (Eds.) Teaching with Heart: Poetry That Speaks To The Courage To Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), pp. 18-20


September 9, 2014 · 6:46 am

Fifth Anniversary of Blog

Dear Readers,

This post marks my fifth anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank those readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and finally those—over 6500–who have taken the time to write comments.  The blog has had nearly 850,000 views from around the world (40 percent outside of the U.S) since August 2009. Not exactly viral but, for me, most gratifying.

For the 597 posts I have written in the past five years, I have followed three rules:

1. Write less than 800 words.

2. Write clearly on school reform and classroom practice.

3. Take a position and back it up with evidence.

Anyone who blogs or writes often knows that sticking to these rules is no easy task. Occasionally, I have slipped and alert readers have reminded me of these rules.  Yet after four years, writing two posts a week–with help from guests (teachers, administrators, non-educators, family, and academics)–has been very satisfying. I remain highly motivated to write about what happens to policy as it gets translated into practice and those unrelenting efforts of reformers with varied ideas inside and outside the schools who have sought improved schooling.

Five posts have caught the most clicks since beginning the blog:

“Data-Driven Instruction and the Practice of Teaching (over 24,000)

“The Difference between ‘Complicated’ and ‘Complex’ Matters (18,000)

High-Tech Gadgets: Addiction, Dependency, or Hype?” (16,000)

Cartoons on Common Core” (13,000)

Chains or Spaghetti? Metaphors of Implementation (nearly 11,000)

For the first time, a cartoon feature has entered the top five posts. Three years ago, I started a once-monthly series of cartoons on selected topics of teaching, administering, policymaking, and school reform. This year I started monthly series on poetry about teachers and students written for, about, and by students, teachers, administrators, and non-educators.

As I begin my sixth year, I am not sure where I fit into Roz Chast’s breakdown of bloggers, but poking fun at those who blog is, well, part of being a blogger. Thank you again, dear readers, for making the past five years a satisfying experience.

Larry Cuban



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Cartoons of Teachers and Kids Again

Here is another collection of cartoons that show different sides of the teacher and student relationship. Enjoy!

teacher's first week of school



female tchr in classroom






teach and student semester


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How Do Teachers Teach in Turnaround Schools?

I posted this piece in August of 2009. I offer it again because the points I raise in it remain relevant today. Turning around a school means that federal, state, and local officials identify a low-performing school, remove staff, and new administrators and staff put certain policies in place that will get teachers to alter their lessons, develop strong relationships with their students, and raise test scores. I questioned the wisdom of that policy direction years ago when I wrote this post and continue to do so now.

Lots of stories from principals, parents, and students reveal practices that range from marvelous to malign. Individual teachers give us a sense of what happens in their classrooms. Rafe Esquith in LA writes about his lessons and his kids’ experiences in an elementary school; Sarah Fine, an English teacher in a D.C. charter school, tells of her successes and failures. But beyond stories and first-hand accounts, helpful as they are in giving us a peek into different classrooms, we know very little about the kinds of daily lessons that unfold across the grades and in academic subjects. We know especially little about classroom teaching in those turnaround schools that get extra resources, new (and young) staff, and the charge to go from a chronically failing school to a high-flier.

So what? What’s wrong with being largely ignorant of how teachers teach in turnaround schools or even high-performing ones? Knowing how teachers teach is critical because school boards and superintendents assume that their decisions to turnaround schools (and adopting other policies targeting better student performance) will alter classroom teaching and lead to improved test scores.

In short, every single federal, state, and district policy decision aimed at improving student academic performance has a set of taken-for-granted assumptions that link the adopted policy to classroom lessons. From the feds putting money on the stump to entice educators in “Race to the Top” to getting states to adopt charters and pay-for-performance schemes to a local school board and superintendent deciding to give laptops to each teacher and student, contain crucial assumptions–not facts–about classroom outcomes that the new policy promises. And one of those crucial assumptions is that teachers will change how they teach for the better. Rarely are serious questions asked about these assumptions before or after hyped-up policies were adopted, money allocated, expectations raised, and materials (or machines) deployed to classrooms.

Consider a few simple questions that, too often, go unasked of policies heralded as a cure-all for the ills of urban schools, including turnaround schools.

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g.,reconstituting staff in low-performing schools, mayoral control, small high schools, pay-for performance plans, and parental choice) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn achieve the goals set by policy makers?

These straightforward questions about reform-driven policies inspect the chain of policy-to-practice assumptions that federal, state, and local decision-makers take for granted when adopting their pet policy. These questions distinguish policy talk (e.g. “Race to the Top”) and policy action (e.g., adopting and implementing policies) from classroom practice (e.g. how do teachers teach as a result of new policies),and student learning (e.g., what have students learned as a result of different lessons).

Subsequent blogs will take up the critical importance of the second and third questions and go beyond the stories we hear from parents, principals, and students and the individual accounts of savvy classroom teachers such as Esquith and Fine.


Since writing this post over four years ago, I went searching for evidence that might support the practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Education in turning around schools. I found little evidence that would support such a major policy direction embedded in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. See here, here, and Mintrop, et. al PDF


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Cartoons about Perfection (Professionals and Others)

This month, I saw some stories about the “perfect” teacher and once ran a cartoon on the “perfect” online teacher.


Then I saw another cartoon by Robert Rendo that offered a scathing profile of what New York expects of its “perfect” teacher.

C5+copyHow about the “perfect” student?


Then I began to think of how cartoonists poked fun at other professions. Take physicians, for example.


Or this one of a “perfect” doctor reframing bad news:

perfect doctor

How about a “perfect” Information Technology (IT) engineer?

Perfect IT Engineer INFOGRAPHIC

Or a “perfect” lawyer.

perfect lawyer

How about the perfectionist historian?

historically inaccurate

Since I am on a roll, let’s look at perfection in other arenas.


Or the “perfect” blogger:

perfect blogger


For those who wish to see over a dozen other posts featuring cartoons, see here and here.

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Curricular Wars Fought Again and Again: How Come?

Phonics vs. Whole Language. Old Math vs. New Math. Knowing Science Subjects vs. Doing ScienceHeritage Study vs. Doing History. Wars of words have been fought among politicians, parents, and educators over reading, math, science, and social studies in the past century. And those rhetorical battles reappear again and again over which way is best for teaching content and skills in a subject . Sure, these simplistic either-or choices (maybe simple-minded also) pump adrenalin into the veins of advocates and opponents in each “war.” Rest assured, however, few teachers get involved in these “wars” or design lessons clearly on one side or the other when they close their classroom doors. Nonetheless, for the media and bloggers, the vocabulary of war makes fine slogans, bumper stickers, and even cartoons.




These “wars” reveal the fact that educators since World War II have lost their influence in making curricular policy. Since the early 1950s policy elites including federal and state officials have slowly and steadily “educationalized”  national social, economic, and political problems. In short, policy elites have expected schools to “solve” alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse, teen age pregnancy, and defend the nation against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Now policy elites and the general public expect schools to increase economic growth. reverse the decline in global market competitiveness, and get every graduate into college and a career that will pay well.

The process of drafting schools to “solve” national problems began slowly in the U.S. but proceeded quickly by mid-twentieth century. As early as World War I, the Smith-Hughes Act (1917) had the federal government, for the first time, pumping dollars into vocational education  to turn out skilled graduates for industrial and commercial jobs thereby making U.S. economically competitive with European nations. Consider the National Defense Education Act (1958) which pushed public schools to produce more engineers, scientists, and mathematicians to fight the Cold War in space and weaponry. Then in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson and Congress enlisted schools in the fight against poverty with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a law that was reauthorized by presidents and congresses every five or more years thereafter including the current incarnation called No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind is the poster child for “educationalizing” national problems. Test-driven accountability is expected to insure that students leaving school will be skilled and prepared to enter an economy where employers hunger for graduates who can make their companies more competitive in the global marketplace while helping the economy grow.  Since the 1960s, then, these coalitions of elected policymakers in concert with business and civic leaders have slowly wrested authority from educators  for answering two basic questions that  get at the heart of public schooling. What content and skills should be taught to U.S. children and youth? How should both be taught?

Answers to those questions account for the periodic curriculum struggles that have occurred time and again in reading, math, science, and social studies throughout the 20th century. With the Common Core Standards adopted by 45 states and endorsed by President Obama, the “wars” have been re-ignited (see here and here) as politicians, parents, researchers, and practitioners struggle anew in answering those two questions.

In subsequent posts, I will look more closely at the “social studies wars” and place the years in which I taught history in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. (1956-1972) into the larger context of these rhetorical wars and how, if at all, those back-and-forth volleys of words influenced how I answered both of the above questions when I taught history to my students.


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