Persistence in Math Teaching Patterns: Deja Vu All Over Again

Math instruction took another big hit recently. “Big” because the New York Times,  one of the top U.S. newspapers ran it as a cover story of its magazine section. So here again, amid the Common Core standards in math that ask teachers to go beyond the “right” answer and periodic efforts over the past century (yes, I mean “century”) to move math teaching away from learning the rules of arithmetic, algebraic equations, and geometry proofs, comes another blast at how teachers teach math.

Elizabeth Green’s well-written article (drawn from a forthcoming book) on persistent patterns (mostly ineffective) in teachers implementing the New Math of the 1960s, the New NEW math of the 1980s, and now the math Common Core standards shines yet another light on the puzzle of why teachers teach as they do. And why policy after policy adopted to change math instruction has failed time and again in practice leaving each generation innumerate. Green has her own answers which to my experience as a teacher, historian, and researcher make a great deal of sense.

Moreover, as Green braids many threads together to explain persistence in poor math teaching, she also identifies others that begin to capture the complexity of  teaching. Her answers as to what to do are, however, largely unsatisfying because she excludes pieces necessary to complete the puzzle. Without the full puzzle picture on the jigsaw box, glomming onto a few pieces risks even yet another failure to remedy the puzzling persistence of poor math instruction.

Green does not blame teachers. She points to state and federal policies, teacher education institutions, and the taken-for-granted way that new teachers have learned about teaching from watching a few feet away how teachers have taught them for 16-plus years. All of this captures important threads in unraveling the puzzle of persistent failure in routine, teacher-centered math instruction focused less on understanding deeply and practically math concepts and more on knowing the rules to get the right answer. But not all of the threads.

Nowhere does Green mention the power of the age-graded school to influence how teachers teach.

The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, has become an unquestioned mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers and voters have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.

If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a success it is the age-graded school. Consider longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Or consider  effectiveness. The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students over the past century and a half, sorted out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates nearly three-quarters of those entering high school Or adaptability. The age-graded school exists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America covering rural, urban, and suburban districts.

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by their ages to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks to be annually promoted.

The age-graded school is also an institution that has plans for those who work within its confines. The organization isolates and insulates teachers from one another, perpetuates teacher-centered pedagogy,  and prevents a large fraction of students from achieving academically. It is the sea in which teachers, students, principals, and parents swim yet few contemporary reformers have asked about the water in which they share daily. To switch metaphors, the age-graded school is a one-size-fits-all structure.

Why have most school reformers and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization that influences daily behavior of nearly 4 million adults and well over 50 million children? Dominant social beliefs of parents and educators about a “real” school, that is, one where children learn to read in 1st grade, receive report cards, and get promoted have politically narrowed reform options in transforming schools. For example, when a charter school applicant proposes a new school the chances of receiving official approval and parental acceptance increase if it is a familiar age-graded one, not one where most teachers team teach and groups of multi-age children (ages 5-8, 9-11) learn together. Sure, occasional reformers create non-graded schools, the School of One, and particular community schools but they are outliers.

These familiar age-graded schools–don’t ask fish to consider the water they swim in–are missing in unraveling the puzzle of persistent ways of teaching math that Elizabeth Green has so nicely laid before us.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

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



Filed under Uncategorized

Breaking Down the Natural Isolation and Insulation of High School Teachers

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 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.

Jerry Brodkey

Brodkey’s invitation to get to know colleagues, I believe, comes from at least two impulses. First, it is what he said it is–an effort to get to know his co-workers, many of whom he exchanges pleasantries with as they pass one another on their way to and from class or in monthly faculty meetings. Second, it is the beginning of an effort to build a community among those with whom he works daily. High schools are hard places to develop any sense of community teaching five or more classes a day, meeting with students individually, grading homework and tests, and dealing with unpredictable crises that arise. Brodkey and others have, at best, one non-teaching period a day to prepare for the next class and rush through homework that has to be returned to students that day. Sure, there are and have been “professional learning communities” of teachers teaching the same subject or across disciplines, but the fact is that such PLCs are the exception rather than the rule. Why is it so hard to build community in a high school?

The setting itself provides one explanation. Housed in an age-graded school (grades 9-12), organized by departments, with a daily schedule that leaves little time for teachers to plan, congregate, or get to know one another beyond the chance meeting in the same corridor–that is the modern U.S. high school. I do not mention faculty meetings since they are often set up and run in ways that discourage camaraderie.

If you wanted to isolate teachers from one another, no better way is to organize the school by grades, have departments, and a daily schedule that leaves little time for teachers before, during, and after classes to work together in a community focused on better teaching and student learning. These structures left unattended insulate and isolate teachers from one another. The dilemma is plain: How to create a community of teachers working toward common goals within a structure and culture dedicated to keeping teachers apart from one another?

Here is a veteran teacher in the sunset of his career  with “school smarts” and wisdom gained from decades of experience in a high school who knows that building community begins with knowing who sits next to you. He wants to do the same thing among MA’s teachers. I wish him and his colleagues well.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching

Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped (Ellie Herman)

Taken from “About” in her blog:

My name is Ellie Herman.  If you want to find out what I’m doing here and why, click here on why I’m writing this blog.  I’ve been working on this project since the beginning of September….

As for my bio, I’m a writer and English teacher.  From 2007 to 2013, I taught Drama, Advanced Drama, Creative Writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.

Before that, I was a writer/producer for many TV shows, including The Riches, Desperate Housewives, Chicago Hope and Newhart.  My fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection.

I attended public schools in Winnetka, Illinois from kindergarten through high school and graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in English.  I have a teaching credential from Cal State Northridge.  My three children attended Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley.  My husband, David Levinson, is a writer who runs the non-profit Big Sunday.  Our basset hound, Lou, appears ineducable, having channeled all of his energy into his good looks.  We live in Los Angeles.

Posted on July 11, 2014

Boxes crowd the hallways, moving in and moving out. I’m in an empty office at Animo Phillis Wheatley Middle School in South L.A. talking to Principal Nat Pickering, who has resigned after three years so that he can go back to being a teacher. Back when I was teaching, I worked with him; he was a history teacher for years before he became Assistant Principal of our school. I will forever be indebted to Nat, who despite being insanely busy, voluntarily met with me two or three times a month to coach me on the plethora of problems I was having in my various classes; he helped me shape my curriculum, talked me through issues with students and, more times than I can count, simply listened to me venting.

In 2011, the LA School Board took over Henry Clay Middle School on 122nd and Western Avenue in South L.A., one of the most historically troubled schools in the city, with chronically low test scores and continual issues on campus of absenteeism, fighting and chaos. The board turned the school over to the Green Dot charter system. Green Dot divided the school into two separate, smaller schools, renamed them and gave each its own principal. Nat was asked to be principal of one of them.

Now, after three years as Principal of Animo Phillis Wheatley, he’s leaving the job to go back to being a classroom teacher. By all accounts, his stint at the school has been successful. Why would such a talented principal choose to leave the job?

Amidst the boxes, in the empty office, he reflects on his three years at the school. “The first year was a shock,” he says frankly. “In retrospect, we were a little naïve about what we were getting into.” Unlike many schools in South Los Angeles, Animo Phillis Wheatley has a large percentage of parents who themselves attended the school back when it was Henry Clay. “Henry Clay used to be synonymous with getting your ass kicked. ‘I survived Henry Clay’ is a saying around here among some of the parents. Older members of the community remember it from the sixties, they were fond of the programs and things that were happening, but it was never an amazing place. My vision was that this neighborhood deserves a great school as much as any neighborhood.”

Despite his vision and optimism, change was not easy, especially the first year. “The education crisis is a mental health crisis, is a medical crisis, is a political crisis. All of that is layered into the school zone.” Nat was taken aback to find that 18% of the students were in Special Ed. “We thought they were overidentified. Turns out they were underidentified.” When I ask why there were so many kids with special needs, he’s not sure. Part of it, he thinks, is that the number of kids in foster care may be a factor, because foster kids are often moved from school to school, not staying long enough for their issues to be identified. “It’s just conjecture, but kids in foster care, they’re often in foster care because their parents were on drugs or couldn’t take care of them, well, are you more likely to be unable to take care of a kid with special needs and behavior problems?”

Whatever the cause, he says, “this is a neighborhood that’s been neglected in all capacities.”   The community was in continual flux. “We average losing a kid or gaining a kid every single day. In October, 25% of our kids weren’t there at the beginning of the year, and the later they come in, the higher the odds that they have problems” due to having been dumped by another school or transferred by frantic parents.

Nat quickly learned that the original game plan of providing order and excellent instruction would make a good start, but was not going to address the deeper issues. The school started adding wraparound services to address socioemotional needs, adding more assistant principals, a dean and other support staff. “What’s evolved for us over the years is that we try to offer a cocktail of a therapeutic environment, individualized supports for kids who need it and rigorous academic expectations.”

The school’s scores have slowly improved. After the first year, the staff at the high school next door came over to thank Nat and his team. “They said, just the safety, you don’t understand the impact you’ve had. We used to have kids jumping the fence, there used to be ‘fight Friday.’” A girl took him aside to tell him the school was much better. “We haven’t had a trash can fire all year,” she told him.

But the deeper issues of the community remained, and fighting them was an ongoing, exhausting battle. “What’s so hard is keeping yourself open to 600-plus students, over 100 adults on campus, the parents, the community…there’s no rest, there’s no stop. How many things can happen in a day? At the end of every day I’ve heard six things that I’m not okay with, a kid who stabbed another kid with a pencil, a parent who called a kid out of class and hit him with an extension cord, I hated sending kids out on a 5150 [mental illness designation].”

On top of that were the non-emergency stresses of everyday staff management. “In the night when you’re sleeping, a teacher’s kid gets sick, other people have gotten sick and you get a call at five in the morning saying they’re not coming in that day. You have to preserve a part of your brain for wondering what bad things are gonna happen.” Still, no matter how much he planned, “a lot of the job is showing up and being punched in the stomach.”

For all the successes, after three years, he couldn’t face another year of non-stop work and stress, with no time for family, hobbies or any outside interests including basic home maintenance. “It was like trying to turn around the Titanic. The cynical side of me says you either burn out or you close yourself off. Sure, you can take time for yourself, but if you do, here’s a list of 17 things that are not happening at your school.” A stint as an instructor for a Saturday remedial class reminded him of how much he enjoyed simply working with kids.  At the end of the year, he left his job and applied for teaching positions within Green Dot, ending up back at his original school (and mine), where he will be an English teacher.

He’s proud of what he’s accomplished in three years but has no regrets about leaving. “I will never, I will never do this again,” he says. “I don’t know whether I didn’t take care of myself right or there wasn’t enough of a system to keep me mentored. There’s no playbook for this.” But if he could name one thing that would make the job more sustainable, he instantly says “money”–not for himself, but for the school. “If we weren’t held back by trying to squeeze as much out of every dollar as possible, then maybe that would have been a little more manageable.”

I’m happy for Nat and for his students, who will be lucky to have him as a teacher. Not every talented educator needs to be an administrator. But his observations cut deep into one of the most serious issues in education, which is attracting and retaining strong principals. As I said in an earlier post, one of my biggest takeaways this year is that what we call “effective instruction” is meaningless in the absence of effective leadership. But if great leaders are essential and the job of leading a school in an historically underserved high-poverty community is so draining and underfunded that it’s barely sustainable if done well, isn’t that actually our core problem?  When are we going to stop demanding accountability without also demanding sustainable working conditions?

If attracting and retaining effective principals is our core problem, how are we trying to solve it?





Filed under school leaders

Is Progressive Schooling Just Around the Corner? (Part 2)

Predicting the future, well, is iffy. Except for an occasional Nate Silver who became famous in calling the 2012 election of Barack Obama, more often than not, predictions of what is around the corner range from goofy to funny. I do laugh at the big bloopers made by smart people about the future (see here). And I have gotten off a few clumsy ones of my own. So, at best, I am somewhere between occasionally right and, more often than not, wrong.

But my lack of success has yet to stop me from looking around the corner. The previous post asked whether a progressive coalition was forming to challenge frontally the current efficiency-driven, standards-based, testing and accountability movement that has dominated public schooling for the past three decades. I would like to think so but my experience, research, and ability to read portents of the future do not add up to an enviable record. So, readers beware.

Here are some fragments of a potential coalition that I do see emerging:

*Parents, educators, and students drawn from the political left and right (e.g. progressives, home schoolers, and Tea Party advocates) opposed to the amount and spread of standardized testing–the op-out movement–including mounting anxiety over new tests for assessing student learning of Common Core Standards;

*Traditional progressive groups (often splintered and small) that have low profiles for a long time yet continue to support educating the whole child, holistic education, democratic and social justice education, alternative schools including career academies, project-based learning, etc.

*The Maker movement (Do It Yourself–DIY) to invent, innovate, and work with everything by hand and through technology from rockets to crafts applied to schools.

*Personalized learning (see previous post)

*Donor, corporate, and parental supporters of urban school hybrids including charter schools and blended learning.

The last item needs some elaboration since it is hardly a self-evident emerging interest group.

The charter school movement has roots in a progressive agenda that, as educator Joe Nathan wrote in Rethinking Schools in 1996, viewed charters as “an important opportunity for educators to fulfill their dreams, to empower the powerless, and to help encourage a bureaucratic system to be more responsive and more effective.”

In the previous post, I mentioned some progressive charter schools. Beyond those self-defined progressive charters are emerging hybrids of schools that stress both teacher- and student-centered instruction and learning. Sure, it is still hard for many to combine traditional (think KIPP) and progressive teaching and learning in the same sentence (see here). But combinations of progressive and traditional approaches, including social-emotional learning do exist now and have existed (see here and here).

Some urban schools have embraced blended learning models that mix individualized  instruction with traditional approaches (see here for range of examples).

Whether these different fragments can coalesce into a political movement, I do not know. Pulling together Democrat and Republican partisans, educational progressives and conservatives, KIPP champions and whole-child enthusiasts is not only risky but a Herculean feat. Can it be done? Yes. Will it occur?  I do not know. What I do know is that a shift from the current center of gravity of seeing schools as a powerful tool for economic growth to one where historic goals of tax-supported public schools such as graduating thoughtful, literate, and well-rounded young men and women engaged in supporting and helping their communities is imperative. It will, however, require a coalition of different groups to act politically in making the changes occur. Whether my timid prediction will turn out to be a blooper or not, time will tell.


















Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Is Progressive Schooling Just Around the Corner? (Part 1)

My record in predictions is, at best, half-wrong and half-right. I have no special powers in looking around the corner. My record in figuring out what is cresting, what will take hold and spread and what will disappear is unenviable.

Not an encouraging way to entice readers to continue, I admit. Nonetheless,  let me tell you what signs I see of a possible progressive coalition emerging. This is impressionistic, to be sure, filled with guesses, occasional fumbles, and error. But there might just be something brewing politically across the country that is emerging as a  counter to the three-decade long concentration on top-down federal, state, and foundation-funded curriculum standards, testing, and accountability.

What do I mean by “progressive?’ In the decades between the 1890s and 1940s, “progressive education” in the U.S. was the reigning political ideology of schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives in those years. First, student-centered instruction and learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives” who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement cited John Dewey and his embrace of science as their source.

Educators, including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers”  during these years, these progressives created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, designed protocols to follow to make a school building efficient, and measured anything that was nailed down.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” –adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency. These reformers were kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives.” The latter wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant child-centered learning in schools. They made a small dent in U.S. schools but the efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early 20th century.

That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful information to inform policy decisions about district and school efficiency and effectiveness has continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” the application of scientific management to schooling, appears in the current romance with Big Data, evidence-based instruction, and the onslaught of models that use assumption-loaded algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.

Even though the efficiency wing of early 20th century progressives has politically trumped the wing of the movement focused on the whole child and student-centered pedagogy, it is well to keep in mind that cycles of rhetoric–wars of words–and policy action on efficiency-driven and student-centered progressivism have spun back-and-forth for decades regardless of which wing won in which decade. The point is that while most policymakers are efficiency driven and have succeeded in dominating public schooling for decades, that political domination has hardly eliminated educators and parents committed to holistic schooling.

Even now at the current height of efficiency-driven, top-down standards and testing, schools committed to educating the whole child have persisted (see here and here). Also consider those charter schools that label themselves as progressive (see herehere, and here)

And on occasion, both wings of the progressive movement, contemporary “educational engineers” committed to scientific management-cum-accountability and those interested in student-centered instruction, have surprisingly merged. One example is the differentiation of high school curriculum offerings (vocational, academic, commercial) in the 1920s and the frequent efforts to differentiate (or individualize) instruction since the early 20th century (see here  and  differentiated curriculum).  That marriage of efficiency-minded reformers and  student-centered advocates occurred then and occurs now.

I see that convergence of the two historically progressive wings in online instruction touted highly today as “personalized learning” in places like The School of One, Rocketship schools, and K-12 corporate schools.  See, for example, the current glossary of personalized learning.

This convergence of efficiency driven instruction and passion for student-centeredness has had it critics, but does represent one instance of a bottom-up push to combine student productivity and individual instruction. Is it a vanguard of a new cycle of Progressivism? Perhaps.

Part 2 will look at the political interest groups (e.g., left-of-center progressives, tea party advocates, home schooling champions, corporate leaders, teacher unions, parents, and students) that have grown in their opposition to current top-down standardization of curriculum (e.g., Common Core and national testing). I also look at the do-it-yourself or maker movement, boosters of career academies, and long-time pedagogical progressives who have continued their support of student-centered instruction and curriculum. Whether these vastly different groups can form and sustain a political coalition to alter the current standards, testing, and accountability movement, I consider in Part 2.

















Filed under school reform policies

Cartoons of Kids in School

Yep, here’s another edition of monthly cartoons. The following cartoons of kids in school (and at home) have tickled me and I wanted to share them with readers. Enjoy!













































































































Filed under how teachers teach