Tag Archives: policy to practice,

Asking the Right Questions for Getting School-Driven Policies into Classroom Practice

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.

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From widespread adoption of Common Core standards, to the feds funding “Race to the Top” to get states to adopt charters and pay-for-performance schemes to a local school board and superintendent deciding to give tablets to each teacher and student, these policies contain crucial assumptions–not facts–about outcomes that supposedly will occur once those new policies enter classrooms.

And one of those key assumptions is that new policies aimed at the classroom will get teachers to change how they teach for the better. Or else why go through the elaborate process of shaping, adopting, and funding a policy? Unfortunately, serious questions are seldom asked about these assumptions before or after super-hyped policies were adopted, money allocated, expectations raised, and materials (or machines) entered classrooms.

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Consider a few simple questions that, too often, go unasked of policies heralded as  cure-alls for the ills of low-performing U.S. schools and urban dropout factories:

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., Common Core standards. turning around failing schools, pay-for performance plans, and expanded parental choice of schools) 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 meet 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 policies. These questions distinguish policy talk (e.g. “charter schools outstrip regular schools,” “online instruction will disrupt bricks-and-mortar schools”) from policy action (e.g., actual adoption of policies aimed at changing teaching and learning) to classroom practice (e.g. how do teachers actually teach everyday as a result of new policies),and student learning (e.g., what have students actually learned from teachers who teach differently as a result of adopted policies).

Let’s apply these simple (but not simple-minded) questions to a current favorite policy of local, state, and federal policymakers: buy and deploy tablets for every teacher and student in the schools.

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement get fully implemented?

For schools in Auburn (ME) to Chicago to Los Angeles Unified School District, the answer is “yes’ and “no.” The “yes” refers to the actual deployment of devices to children and teachers but, as anyone who has spent a day in a school observing classrooms, access to machines does not mean daily or even weekly use. In Auburn (ME), iPads for kindergartners were fully implemented. Not so in either Chicago or LAUSD.

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

For Auburn (Me), LAUSD, and all districts in-between those east and west coast locations, the answer is (and has been so for decades): we do not know. Informed guesses abound but hard evidence taken from actual classrooms is scarce. Classroom research of actual teaching practices before and after a policy aimed at teachers and students is adopted and implemented remains one of the least researched areas. To what degree have teachers altered how they teach daily as a result of new devices and software remains unanswered in most districts.

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

The short answer is no one knows. Consider distributing tablets to teachers and students. Sure, there are success stories that pro-technology advocates beat the drums for and, sure, there are disasters, ones that anti-tech educators love to recount in gruesome detail. But beyond feel-good and feel-bad stories yawns an enormous gap in classroom evidence of “changed classroom practice,” “what students learned,” and why.

What makes knowing whether teachers using devices and software actually changed their lessons or that test score gains can be attributed to the tablets is the fact that where such results occur, those schools have engaged in long-term efforts to improve, say, literacy and math (see here and here). Well before tablets, laptops, and desktops were deployed, serious curricular and instructional reforms with heavy teacher involvement had occurred.

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

Determining what students learned, of course, is easier said than done. With the three-decade long concentration on standardized tests, “learning” has been squished into students answering selected multiple choice questions with occasional writing of short essays. And when test scores rise, exactly what caused the rise causes great debate over which factor accounts for the gains (e.g., teachers, curricula, high-tech devices and software, family background–add your favorite factor here). Here, again, policymaker assumptions about what exactly improves teaching and what gets students to learn more, faster, and better come into play.

Public Education Today

Take-away for readers: Ask the right (and hard) questions about unspoken assumptions built into a policy aimed at changing how teachers teach and how students learn.

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Teachers Putting Reforms into Practice: “The Implementation Problem”

Guess who wrote these paragraphs.

I’ve been struck of late by how would-be reformers have been reacting when things go awry. After all, even some of those bullish on Race to the Top have privately conceded that maybe it didn’t turn out quite like they’d hoped. Champions of teacher evaluation are busy explaining, “Well, that’s not what we meant!” when hit with complaints, lawsuits, and concerns about the reliability and validity of some ill-conceived systems. Common Core advocates are busy explaining that the goofy homework questions and worksheets don’t accurately reflect their handiwork.

In each case, we’re assured, the underlying ideas are sound–it’s just a matter of confusion or inevitable “implementation problems.” Now, it’s true that change is always hard…. But the fact that implementation problems are inevitable doesn’t mean they’re okay. More importantly, the severity of these problems is not a given: it varies depending on how complex and technocratic the measure is, whether it’s being pushed from Washington, on the breadth and depth of political support, on whether the plan is fully baked, and on the incentives for effective execution. I’ve seen precious little evidence that advocates have done much to minimize the problems.

Those championing teacher evaluation, School Improvement Grants, or Common Core frequently sound as if they think no one could have anticipated or planned for the challenges that have emerged. To my ear, the disgruntlement tends to sound like that of a kid who leaves his new bike out unlocked, and then gets furious when it’s stolen. Of course, it’s unfair. But, you know what? He really should’ve known better. Advocates tend to blame their frustrations on other folks (bike thieves, Tea Party members, textbook publishers, principals, data analysts, et al.) getting in the way or screwing up. They rarely, if ever, acknowledge that their vision of how this would go down was perhaps colored by rose-tinted glasses or that their miscalculations may have aggravated the problems.

Sounds like these paragraphs about myopic reformers failing to anticipate implementation problems might have come from reform critic Diane Ravitch  or teacher union chief, Randy Weingarten. No, neither wrote those words.

Prolific writer and blogger Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute wrote the above paragraphs. Note the above ellipsis. I left out one sentence where Hess said: And I’m sympathetic to most of the reforms we’re talking about.

Nor did I include a subsequent paragraph:

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m picking on today’s reformers. The same criticisms [about implementation] have been appropriately leveled at plenty of earlier efforts, including site-based management, block scheduling, equity lawsuits, busing, de-tracking, and much else. When pursued at scale, these efforts received well-deserved critiques for both frequently disappointing and for sometimes leaving lasting problems in their wake. 

Yeah, I was trying to fool the reader. Hess has been both mostly an advocate and occasional critic of these reform policies. And here in discussing the short-sightedness of reformers he hit the nail on the head except for one crucial point.

Hess says repeatedly that policymakers should have anticipated “implementation” problems with better crafted policies and careful forethought about what to expect in putting these ideas into practice. I agree. Yet I was startled by the absence of the word “teacher” in the entire piece. Teachers had to be involved in School Improvement Grants, teacher evaluation, and Common Core but in the post they are invisible. The closest that Hess comes to mentioning teachers is in the following paragraph:

What matters in education is what actually happens in 100,000 schools educating 50 million kids. That’s all implementation, and that means it matters a lot that some reforms are much more likely to suffer bumps, distortions, and problems than are others. The more complex they are, the further away they are from schools and families, the more dependent on intensive retraining–the more likely big ideas will suffer from “implementation problems.” Yet, I rarely find would-be reformers very interested in any of this, or what it portends. I find them much more intent on driving change from wherever they happen to be, using whatever levers they happen to control.

The first sentence tiptoes up to mentioning teachers but stops. To the rest of the paragraph, I say, amen.

He is certainly correct that policy implementation is the single most important aspect of the three reforms mentioned above (and all policies directed at changing what and how something is supposed to be taught). And he is correct that policymakers pay the least attention to it. Where he swings and strikes out is failing to say explicitly that knowledgeable and skilled teachers are critically important to putting any policy into practice.

Hess advises current reformers: Pay attention to implementation. Don’t whine. Do better next time. I would re-write that first piece of advice to say: pay attention to teachers and keep the rest.

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Kyle, and What I Learned about College Admissions (Michele Kerr)

Michele Kerr is a math 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.

In the fall of his senior year, Kyle Evans1, one of my top pre-calculus students last spring, came to me for advice on his Questbridge scholarship application essay. I was scribbling edits, making comments, emphasizing a strong narrative, when I suddenly realized that the point of his essay was the struggles he’d faced freshman year as a homeless student. And now his family had just abruptly been left homeless again and was living in a single motel room.

Yeah, it was kind of a drag, he told me. Embarrassing. No privacy. Don’t tell anyone. He’d told the school counselor, but didn’t want the news getting about.

He maintained a 4.0 GPA that homeless freshman year, doing homework every night in the library. He ran cross country, although he would occasionally be benched for epileptic seizures. He transferred to our school his sophomore year, missing the first three weeks, which affected his grades and his progress on the math track.

His junior year, Kyle scored a 4 on the AP US History test; he couldn’t afford to take the AP English test and our school ran out of waivers. At this time, Kyle’s overall unweighted GPA is 3.7, weighted 4.2, putting him in the top 9% of the senior class. He took the AP Calculus test, but not the course, and I expect him to pass. He also took AP English Literature (the course and the test).

While his SAT scores were just above average, his ACT score composite was a 25 (super score 26), easily scaling the ACT Benchmarks for college readiness, even though he had no access to test prep courses. He achieved
a “Proficient” ranking in the rigorous California Early Assessment Program tests in both math and English. He received a 630 and 620 on the Chemistry and Math 2c Subject tests; while selection bias makes percentiles useless, any score over 600 denotes strong knowledge—and Kyle didn’t have a calculator for the Math 2c.

To put this in a broader perspective, only 26% of students met all four ACT benchmarks, and Kyle’s ACT scores are in the 85th percentile. Just 14% and 23% of all California juniors who took the EAP met the proficiency standard in math and English, respectively.

What percentage of those students had homes their entire high school careers, I wonder?

For much of his adolescence, Kyle has dreamed of attending an Ivy League university. Given his compelling story, his metrics, and the rhetoric on undermatching, I thought this a reasonable goal. His counselor, who has been incredibly supportive, anticipated that Kyle would have a strong run, with a good number of top 30 schools to choose from.

His results: All the Ivy League schools said no, except Brown. Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Diego rejected him. In addition to Brown, he was accepted at UCLA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Santa Barbara.

In no way do I think Kyle is being forced to “settle”; the four schools that accepted him are excellent.

I am, nonetheless, shocked and more than a little angry that so many top-ranked schools rejected him.

You’re thinking I’m overly optimistic, aren’t you? How to put this delicately: a kid can’t just be homeless and poor with high scores and good grades. He needs to be a great athlete in a desired sport, or a fantastic musician. On pure academics, “poor” doesn’t cut it unless the kid is black or Hispanic.

But Kyle is black.

So now consider his numbers again through the prism of race. On the Early Admissions test, 1080 disadvantaged African Americans met California’s EAP Proficiency standard in English; just 162 qualified in math. Five percent of African Americans, regardless of economic status, met the ACT benchmarks for college readiness; in California, just 600 blacks met that standard. Kyle’s composite super-score of 26 puts him in the top 3% of African Americans nationwide–again, of any income. In 2013, 2800 African Americans got a 4 on the AP US History test, while another 800 or so received a 5.

Academically and intellectually, Kyle has perhaps three thousand African American peers his age in the entire country. Culling that number down to economically disadvantaged blacks, he’s one of a few hundred.

I’m not convinced anymore that banning racial preferences solves anything, but the pretense gets tiresome. States can argue about whether to roll back bans, or Justice Scalia can convince his colleagues to declare such racial preferences unconstitutional. It won’t matter. Universities are going to continue to have different standards for blacks and Hispanics than they have for whites and Asians. They have to. There aren’t enough academically exceptional black and Hispanic students to use the same criteria by which Asians and whites are judged.

This year has seen several uplifting stories about exceptional African Americans gaining access to multiple elite colleges. But hundreds of whites and Asians with similar scores and achievements have no chance of getting into even one Ivy league school, or much of a shot at a top public university.

Besides, affirmative action bans only affect elite public universities. Private universities can use whatever standards they like, and they are clearly using different standards for blacks and Hispanics—as they are for legacies, athletes, and anyone who writes them a check for a pile of money.

But the unstated reality always included, I thought, a passionate commitment to helping underprivileged blacks and Hispanics. And it turns out I’m wrong on that point.

Every year, each of the top twenty universities admit between 100 and 200 black students. This year, ten of those twenty schools couldn’t find any room for Kyle.

Some agree with Justice Clarence Thomas about “mismatched” students, that by accepting black or Hispanic students with lower qualifications, elite universities are actually causing academic harm to young men and women who would be better off in a college filled with lower ability students. While other research has called the mismatch theory into question, I think that all colleges are doing harm to many low-skilled students of all races, to say nothing of the value of a college degree, by refusing to demand that all their students demonstrate a baseline ability level.

But Kyle is, as I said, comfortably among the top 15-25% of all US students, regardless of race, and his academic profile demonstrates success in multiple subjects and metrics. I’ve spent a decade or more working with elite high school students who have been accepted to Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the top UC schools, and the occasional Ivy. I’m confident Kyle can perform.

Besides, Kyle’s abilities clearly weren’t a concern. Using the rejecting universities’ Common Data Sets2 , I’ve compiled the percentages of admitted students with section scores from the 60th to 90th percentiles, below 700 on the SAT or 30 on the ACT. Kyle would be in the middle or higher of a population that ranged from 20-60% of the admitted classes of schools that rejected him.

Achievement gap realities being what they are, most of the admitted black and Hispanic students would be in the lower half of that same population. So unless admissions change dramatically, every school that rejected Kyle accepted many black or Hispanic students (and, probably, a number of white athletes and legacies) with scores equivalent or much lower than his.

You could not have convinced me before this discovery that universities weren’t rigorously ensuring that they were accepting blacks and Hispanics by merit. Sure, they might start at a lower metric, but from that point, they took all the kids with the highest scores, right?

Well. Except for athletes.

Harvard has started to take basketball seriously. Stanford has three sports that disproportionately recruit African Americans (men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football). Elite schools would prefer that all their athletes be Richard Shermans and Dave Robinsons, but to field a competitive team, compromises must be made. Asian Americans believe, with a great deal of justification, that their candidates compete against Chinese nationals for a fixed percentage of “Asian” slots. I can’t help but wonder if elite schools recruiting athletes are conscious of how many “low scoring” slots they use up for black athletes and perhaps cut down the number of high-achieving non-athlete blacks they admit.

Moving from athletes to alumni, certainly wealthy black graduates should be allowed to buy their kids in just as white alumni have for generations. Then there’s the network connections. For KIPP, there’s scholarship and admissions pledges. Many media-savvy charter networks have extensive communication and development staffs, determined to reach out and forge networks with top schools to ensure their students receive due consideration. Benjamin Banneker High, where Avery Coffey attends, is a highly selective school with a predominantly black population. It’s not paranoid to wonder if a candidate from a school that routinely provides highly motivated, low income African American students receives more consideration than an equally or even more qualified kid from an East Bay Area suburb, is it?

Not that these universities would ever admit to this sort of favoritism. They’d probably bring up Kyle’s extracurricular record. He only participates in one sport, which is probably more than he should, given his epilepsy. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, which meant he gave selflessly to volunteer his time to the community—Kyle’s efforts on his own behalf don’t count, which strikes me as unfair. Or perhaps they’d bring up his GPA or transcripts—our diverse high school has a much more competitive environment for grades and access to AP classes than a primarily black or Hispanic school. Maybe my recommendation letter was off in some way. Or maybe Kyle’s application essay wasn’t perfect—if I have one huge regret, it’s that I didn’t insist on reviewing his final draft.

None of that should have mattered. Four things about Kyle should have stood out in stark relief: he’s black, he has high test scores, he has excellent grades, and he’s not just economically disadvantaged, but sporadically homeless. In college admissions as outsiders understand it, these facts should have trumped all other considerations.

Universities turned to more subjective metrics as a means of creating an alternative access method for those blacks and Hispanics with lower test scores. They looked for “potential”. Did the candidate get good grades? Was he a good person who participated in the community? Did she take every challenging course she could, whether or not she succeeded, proving her desire to achieve? Now they are using these same “soft metrics” against blacks and Hispanics who actually have high test scores, actual ability.

College admissions is becoming ever more of a game, and universities seem more obsessed with a student’s impact on their endowments, their budgets, their reputations. We are assured that universities just use affirmative action to “level the playing field” but apparently leveling doesn’t entail merit-based admissions process with a different, if lower, objective standard. Instead, universities are using the same process they have for whites: placate the well-connected, find the students that will make the school look good—and then pick whatever smart ones fit in around the edges.

They can get away with this because the media supports their facade of access, acting as little more than cheerleaders. Rarely do I see a reporter acknowledge reality, as David Leonhardt comes close to doing here by describing access as a “patchwork of diversity”. Usually, they don’t look at the quilting too closely.

Instead, they push the narrative with inspirational stories. Any focus on hard-core metrics like test scores is considered….impolite. Acknowledging remedial abilities just interrupts the narrative, raises the politically strained issue of fairness and equal treatment. On that rare occasion when a black or Hispanic actually has competitive numbers, as is the case with Kwasi Enin or ‘Tunde Ahmad, we see several billion versions of the same story as the media leaps gratefully for the opportunity to provide hard metrics that are within range of those a white or Asian would need.

But more common are happy profiles like this LA Times piece on four African American girls from Alliance William & Carol Ouchi High School who are choosing between UCLA and UC San Diego, focusing on their concerns that these elite campuses might be racist. A more rigorously reported story would have revealed that the school’s EAP scores suggest that none of the girls are ready for college-level work, that readiness might be a bigger problem than racism. I’ve been trying to figure out why the Gates Millennium Scholars Program rejected Kyle, but the media is no help, providing only puff pieces short on specifics, often little more than press releases.

Also typical are the sad stories, portrayals of unprepared or struggling students of color who came to an elite university with high hopes only to struggle or completely fail, or stories sounding the alarm about the low rate of black and Hispanic college readiness. This kicks off the usual reproach cycle: Arne Duncan comes in with bromides about higher expectations, conservatives complain about affirmative action and mismatch theory, liberals push public school integration.

Yet no one wants to draw the obvious line from the vague praise of hardworking high-schoolers with no objective metrics to the sad profiles of the unprepared college students, much less the general concerns about readiness. So all of these stories exist in their own separate universes.

Rarely seen are profiles of economically disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics who meet the ACT benchmarks or score over 2000 on the SAT, or who score a 4 or a 5 on an AP test other than Spanish Language. In a much-discussed profile of an unprepared, almost illiterate, black student at Berkeley, just a paragraph was given over to his friend Spencer Simpson, who was clearly thriving. As I mentioned, I can find no rigorous reporting on the Gates Millennium Scholarship program, providing hard data on the winners, asking for SAT averages and perhaps a query or two about their demographic and geographic distribution, so that kids like Kyle can know if it’s worth their time to apply.

When Harvard brags that they’ve admitted more blacks than ever, reporters should be there asking what the average black SAT score was, or if their focus on basketball players has reduced opportunities for higher-achieving low income black students. When schools discuss their efforts to enroll more under-represented minorities, reporters should be there asking if high-scoring members of this population are being overlooked in favor of black or Hispanic legacies or athletes, or if their KIPP pledges led them to reject equally or higher qualified minority students lacking the charter’s promotion machine. When Kwasi Enin held a press conference to announce his selection of Yale, at least one reporter should ask Kwasi what schools accepted the 10 kids who were ranked ahead of him in high school.

I understand the reluctance to reveal just how few high academic achievers are found among students of color. But the media’s determination to focus on race first, objective metrics never, is allowing universities to do the same.

If there were more focus on high achieving students of color throughout their high school years, the ones with high test scores instead of just high GPAs, these achievers would not only receive well-deserved publicity, but universities would be served notice. The harsh truth is this: Kyle was rejected from all those schools because all those schools knew no one was watching.

Yes, I’m cynical. More than ever, I now know that the rhetoric we get from colleges, from the media, even from well-meaning high schools offering encouragement, is not much more than propaganda, unrelated to the gritty reality of building a media-approved freshman class that still keeps all the necessary connections well-oiled and satisfied.

But as the title says, this essay’s also about Kyle.

He’s a great kid–funny, quirky, chatty, upbeat. He was surprised and chagrined at his results, but not bitter. He committed to Brown, which had always been one of his top choices, and got a great financial package. His parents, who found an affordable apartment by the new year, have now sent all of their five sons to college, despite their financial struggles, and are relocating to Atlanta after driving Kyle to his future.

Kyle triumphed over economic insecurity to achieve academic success and acceptance to an Ivy League school, with the help of his loving family and a high school that gave him a good education and a supportive environment. But his success is due most of all to his development of great natural abilities and his determination in the face of considerable adversity—and no doubt, his positively chirpy good-spirited view of life.

So while I struggle with my own disillusionment about the college admissions process that seems not only opportunistic but very nearly corrupt, I still smile every time I remember that Kyle achieved his goal.

1 This is his real name.

2CDS Links: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Stanford, UC San Diego, Johns Hopkins

 

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Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals (Part 1)

Schools as “museums of virtue”* and schools as engines of change have been dominant and conflicting metaphors in the history of school reform. In the mid-19th century, tax-supported public schools pursued Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic–the three Rs. Basic literacy–being able to read the Bible, write one’s name, know elementary ciphering, and absorb family and community values–were the primary reasons for creating public schools. In a predominantly rural society, one-room schools sought to preserve the virtues of Protestantism, instill basic literacy, strengthen patriotism, and social custom through the three Rs.

One hundred and fifty years later, public schools are not only expected to instill the traditional three Rs and socialize children into dominant societal values but also expected to be responsible for the “whole child” and change society for the better. There has been an unrelenting expansion of traditional  three Rs to now include a suite of literacies:  scientific , numeracy, technological, and civic. The notion of schools as “museums of virtue” still exists but now competes with the idea that schools were (and are) engines of political, social, and economic changes that could (and should) transform the nation. That conflict can best be seen in the demise of cursive writing and the recent spread of K-12 students learning to code.

Goodbye Cursive

Recent articles (see here and here) have documented the slow death of a traditional subject in the elementary school curriculum for well over a century. Since the 1970s, teaching penmanship, usually in the second or third grades, declined. With 45 states adopting Common Core Standards in which there is no mention of cursive writing has hammered the last nail into the penmanship tradition. Well, not quite.

Efforts to prevent the extinction of an endangered school subject in North Carolina, Indiana and a few other states have led to legislative mandates that penmanship be taught in elementary school. That delaying action, however, will not alter the eventual disappearance of handwriting from the curriculum.

Arguments for dropping cursive handwriting include irrelevance–block printing is now acceptable in replacing cursive, typing is far more efficient than handwriting, standardized tests do not require handwriting–and its difficulty for many students to learn who will not use it much in the rest of their lives. Finally, teaching handwriting takes up valuable time in the second and third grades that could be better spent on acquiring Common Core content and skills and preparing for high-stakes standardized tests.

Arguments for keeping handwriting, while clearly in the minority, stress tradition and heritage for students writing by hand–reading key documents in the history of the nation, notes students themselves take, and an older generation’s continued use of cursive writing.  Moreover, cursive handwriting helps students develop reading, communication , and hand-eye coordination, experts say.

Even with a few states mandating the teaching of handwriting in school, mournful taps will eventually be blown for penmanship skills. Like the teaching of traditiona lgrammar and diagramming sentences or having students take wood and metal shop courses in junior high school some teaching practices and course-taking have disappeared from the crowded classroom and curriculum as times change. Modern substitutes for these extinct subjects and skills, however, eagerly step into the empty slots.

Enter Coding

Even before the current craze for teaching young children how to write code for computer software (see here, here, and here), the appearance of desktop computers in the early 1980s led quickly to teaching students how to use the keyboard and even write code (remember Basic?).

Keyboarding, like typing, was simple to learn. Computer scientists at that time, however, thought that teaching young children how to write code–I am still referring to the 1980s– would unleash children’s creativity and expression while teaching them to think sequentially and critically.  Using constructivist ways of teaching, children would be able to transfer knowledge and skills from learning to program to  other subjects in the curriculum. This innovation would transform traditional teaching and learning. Beliefs in transfer-of-learning through teaching coding and transformation of the traditional school led to the introduction of Logo in U.S. and British public schools.

The brainchild of Seymour Papert (who had worked with Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget) and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Logo had children using programming language to command a robotic “turtle” on a computer screen. The MIT team sought to teach young children how to face and solve problems, learn geometric concepts, and bring creativity back into the classroom. The designers saw Logo as a student-centered, progressive innovation that would transform teaching, learning, and the institution of schooling. As one former Logo teacher recalled:

[Logo] was a departure in terms of the pedagogical style… we have a term that is now fairly widely used in this country, “constructivism”. Logo was exactly that, the notion of people constructing
knowledge based on their experience of the world and playing with what they already know and working with other people, and the notion that the teacher should be a helper rather than a dictator
or instructor in the old-fashioned sense..

Logo and its “turtle” swept across many schools here and abroad.

Yet within a decade, the glamor of young children commanding turtles to move across screens evaporated. Although Logo continues to exist, few schools now use the programming language or sustain the culture of learning that Logo promised.

The underlying assumption driving Logo was that students learning skills of programming and being creative would transfer when those students would tackle other cognitive skills and knowledge across the school curriculum. This is a variation, as one reviewer of Seymour Papert’s books put it, of Logo as Latin.

Briefly, those who staunchly argue for the cognitive benefits of learning Latin (e.g., increases English vocabulary, sharpens thinking, and increases SAT scores) assume that studying the language will transfer to English grammar, literature, public speaking, and produce collateral benefits. The research literature on these supposed benefits stretches back to the early 1920s and has disappointed champions of the language time and again (see Timothy Koschmann, Logo as Latin)

Failure of transfer-of-learning and school after school changing Logo to meets its institutional imperatives led to the demise of Logo in public schools.

I believe that those current advocates for teaching children to code have ignored this history, the power of schools as institutions to adopt and transform innovations and, most important, the limits of transfer-of-learning.

_______________________

*”Museums of virtue” come from Willard Waller’s essay on “The School and the Community” in William Goode, et. al., Willard Waller on the Family, Education, and War (University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 257. David Tyack introduced me to the writings of Willard Waller and referred to schools as museums of virtue in many essays and books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Open Space Offices and Open Space Schools–Borrowing Across Organizations?

Some viewers and friends ask me from time to time where do I get my ideas for writing twice-weekly posts about school reform and classroom practice. I tell them that I read lots of blogs, magazine articles, and curated websites written by teachers, administrators, school board members, historians of education, and state and federal policymakers. I listen to current and former graduate students who stay in touch with me. And then there are films I watch, magazines and books I read, and friends and family I talk with every week where schooling, policy, and classroom teaching are completely absent.

From all of these writings, conversations, and experiences I get ideas and jot them down on post-its or make copies of the blog, article, or video and put them on my desktop screen as reminders for possible posts. I think about each one, scratching out some entries on post-its and deleting PDFs but keeping a few. More often than not, I consider how “new” ideas, innovations, popular policies, and classroom practices have a history that often goes unnoted.

And that is how I came to write about open space offices and schools.

Connecting Office Cubicles and Open Space Schools

A week ago, I saw an article criticizing open space in offices, the open areas filled with cubicles for employees that began in the U.S. and Europe in the 1950s , accelerating in the 1960s and since have become so widespread, 70 percent of all office space is open, as to be satirized in Dilbert and “The Office.”

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After reading the article (and similar ones–(see here and here), I noted the dates for introducing open space offices and thought about the architectural innovations in schools–called “open space”–that swept across U.S. schools in the late-1960s through the late-1970s. I asked myself: with all of the influence that business practices have had on schooling historically, are open space schools another instance of that influence? I was curious and began–you guessed it–researching it on the Internet. I did find one writer who made the explicit connection between open space  offices and schools. No others could I find.

Keep in mind, however, that open space schools are not identical with “open classrooms,” a pedagogical innovation aimed at classrooms in both traditional age-graded school buildings as well as in those newly-built open space schools.

Still, open space schools, like “open classrooms,” did have (and still does) a progressive pedagogical philosophy in creating pods, large spaces for groups to assemble, cubicles for small group and individual activities and few, if any, classrooms with four walls. No hallways either.

Progressive-minded educators wanted to liberate teachers from traditional instruction in self-contained classroom buildings that architecturally looked like egg-crates. They wanted open space for small group activities, team-teaching,  multiple learning centers for young children, student-driven projects for youth, and  frequent collaboration among both teachers and students. Open space schools, these advocates said, would make “frontal teaching“disappear.

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Criticism of open space schools, however, arose in the 1970s from teachers, parents, and administrators about the noise and distractions that accompanied lessons taught cheek-by-jowl in open spaces. Many students and teachers found it hard to manage activities that required team-work, collaboration, and independence. Within a few years, teachers and administrators had erected bookcases and sliding partitions to re-create self-contained classrooms. Over time, open space buildings were demolished to be replaced with new ones containing, yes, you know what I will put next:  “egg-crate” classrooms and corridors.

And what about open space offices? One writer who summarized research on the psychological ill effects of open space upon office worker performance, said: “they [open space and cubicles] were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.” Such effects were very close to what teachers, embedded in open space schools, said decades ago.

Back to my original query: with all of the influence that business practices have had on schooling historically, are open space schools another instance of that influence? My answer is “yes.” That influence, however, is not new; it has been around for well over a century.

The early progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th century contained two competing wings  –administrative and pedagogical: Pedagogical progressives sought student-centered curriculum and instruction with sensitivity to child and youth development while administrative progressives sought efficiency through Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” and Edward Thorndike‘s focus on measurement.  Empowered by “scientific management,” academics and superintendents imbued with heart-felt beliefs in more efficient schools, according to historian David Tyack, handily beat followers of John Dewey in influencing school and classroom practices.

The point I make is that business influence on school organization, structure and use of space has a long history and did not begin or end with open space schools.

 

 

 

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Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools

In the heart of Silicon Valley where start-ups are a way of life, open space offices and teams rule the landscape. Even at the biggest of the big companies such as Google and Facebook, power struggles among and between bureaucrats are a thing of the past. “Move fast and break things” is a Facebook’s slogan. Flat organizations, no elaborate hierarchies, and constant change dominate. Or so, everyone seems to say. See here, here, and here.

Then along comes a Stanford professor who says: “Sorry Kids, Corporate Power Hasn’t Changed.” Jeffrey Pfeffer at the Graduate School of Business since 1979 has studied organizations for decades. According to Pfeffer, Silicon Valley firms–big and small–recruit engineers and programmers to become managers by saying:

We’re not political here. We’re young, cool, socially networked, hip, high-technology people focused on building and selling great products. We’re family-friendly, have fewer management levels and less hierarchy, and make decisions collegially.

It just ain’t so, according to Pfeffer. He points out that hierarchies exists in all organizations and power, acquiring status, and control over ideas and practices are in play unceasingly. He points to the power struggles that occurred at the birth of Twitter and the frequent turnover of CEOs as Hewlett-Packard. And hierarchy is alive and well at Facebook and Google where dual classes of stock “allow the founders to retain the lion’s share of control.” An infographic on hierarchy at both firms would have strengthened his argument even further.

Pfeffer concludes his article with the flat-out statement:

Competition for status and advancement exists not only over time and across countries but also in virtually all species. In short, whether we like it or not, the rules of power abide largely unchanged. People who ignore these principles do so at their peril.

I was struck by Pfeffer’s points that amid all of the talk about change, flat organizations, and team-work, the constancy of competition within companies for power and status remains. Even in Silicon Valley.

Power, Status, and Hierarchy in Public Schools

A similar rhetoric pervades the quest for effective schooling. Reformers, both on the political left and right, say teachers need to collaborate, network, and build strong school cultures where instruction and learning are primary goals. See here, here, and here. But talk is cheap. Beyond the words, what are the organizational realities (i.e., tall or flat, hierarchical or teams) in public schools?

Most U.S. elementary schools are already “flat” organizationally. There is a principal, a few administrative and instructional aides, building staff, and the largest group of all, the  teachers who report to the principal. That’s it. In larger secondary schools there are more administrators, staff, and rules but few hierarchical strata separate teachers from their principals. The largest number of staff in middle and high schools are teachers. But rules also come from district and state offices.

Regulations abound in schools because districts are creatures of the state which, in turn, makes educational policy for everyone. So district administrators try to make sure that local and state policies are followed in schools. School-site principals do the same with teachers. In short, even with a flat school-site organization, bureaucratic levels exist in school districts and the state which means that elbowing for higher status and getting more clout occur in schools, districts, and state departments of education. Here’s the catch, however.

With all of the rules and hierarchical levels from classroom through the state superintendent of education, teachers have one things in their power to do: close the classroom door. They are (and have been) gatekeepers for student content, skills, and attitudes.

What about charter schools that have autonomy and are free from most district and state regulations? KIPP, Aspire, and other groups of charter schools have state and national organizations that make rules for individual schools to follow. As in public schools, however, charter school teachers can close their doors.

Teachers as gatekeepers exist because the organizational reality of both regular and charter schools is that they are age-graded and each teacher has a self-contained classroom with a door to close. Teachers have power within their classroom but little outside of it unless they develop a support network, a culture within the school. And, from time to time, that has occurred in both charter and regular schools.

Consider all the talk of moving to project-based learning and shifting the teacher’s role from the sage-on-stage to guide-on-the-side. Periodically, school reformers for more than a century have coerced, urged, and pleaded with teachers to change their dominant teacher-centered forms of instruction into more student-centered ones along the lines mentioned above.

On occasion, some of the reforms have stuck in some schools where teachers  weathered criticism and supported one another through cascades of hype and criticism. In these scattered instances, teachers kept their doors open and built a stable school culture supporting such instructional reforms as teaching in small groups regularly, sustaining open classrooms, using project-based learning, and creating rich student-centered activities (see here and here). But not most teachers who returned time and again to practices that worked better for them than the “new” reform simply because they could close their classroom doors.

These are (and have been) abiding features of public schools and companies that no amount of talk and hype about doing business differently has changed. Even in Silicon Valley.

 

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Moving Forward without a Backward Glance: MOOCs and Technological Innovations

In a recent commentary on the rock star Sting’s dipping back into his childhood to revitalize his song writing, David Brooks said: “how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness.” I agree with Brooks when it comes to the half-life  of technological innovations. The experience of Massive  Open Online Courses (MOOCs) over the past few years is an unexpected example of what Brooks meant.

Much has been written about MOOCs  since they went viral in the past three years (see here, here, here, and here). This vision of creating platforms for college-level courses that would give anyone with an Internet connection access to college courses while reducing ever-escalating costs of higher education has turned some professors into academic entrepreneurs. Here is a two-for-one innovation (increased efficiency and equity) that has married new technologies with global access to higher education. MOOCs spread rapidly among elite institutions (e.g., Harvard, MIT, Stanford) and some second- and third-tier universities. For those familiar with the Gartner hype cycle–which many acolytes of MOOCs somehow either missed or ignored–the first two phases of the cycle were textbook examples:

“Technology Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.

Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories—often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.”

Recent articles (see here and here) express disappointment mixed with hope over how MOOCs have fared since the first blush of the academic love affair with the innovation. The evidence thus far is ample: high dropout rates, little knowledge of what students who completed a MOOC actually learned, lack of faculty enthusiasm, and the real sticking point for universities–how to make money from offering MOOCs? No surprise, then, that the birth rate of new MOOCs has plummeted. We are now in the “Trough of Disillusionment” phase of the cycle.

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The high hopes and inspired rhetoric pushing MOOCs have collapsed. Looking back, the creators were pained–one of them, Sebastian Thrun, has departed from the MOOC scene–and I must add, terribly innocent about earlier technological innovations in education.

Of course, I do not know how (or whether) the next phase (“Slope of Enlightenment”) will unfold. No one does. It is a work in progress. But how does all of this current disappointment with MOOCs connect to the point I raised in the first paragraph: “how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness?”

Would knowing the checkered history of technological innovations in K-12 schools and higher education–including the Hype Cycle–help high-tech innovators “ground their future vision?” Yes, it would but I doubt if lessons drawn from earlier innovations would help them alter what they will do anyway. While innovators are creative and hopeful about the future they may be, in David Brooks’ words, “necessarily naive.”

And it is that phrase “necessarily naive” that creates the paradox previous high-tech innovators and school reformers have faced and do so now.

The paradox works like this: If I know well what has occurred with past technological innovations seeking to reshape K-12 and higher education, that is, most fail in the first few years, I would not even try. However, if I don’t care about those past efforts  but still forge ahead because I have faith that what I propose will work regardless of the odds, then I can succeed.

The paradox of forging ahead without a backward glance is 100 percent  American.  Consider often described characteristics of being American: highly individualistic, competitive, optimistic, believes in change, especially technological, as an unvarnished good and that anyone with grit who works hard can overcome any obstacle. There are other characteristics associated with being American including beliefs in equality, a strong work ethic, and fairness.

Running like a red thread in the white fabric of being American, however, is the pervasive belief that if you know the past well, it can be a drag–a disincentive, economists would say–for action, invention, and making progress. To avoid looking backward in order to innovate, one has to be “necessarily naive” in the face of past failures in new technologies. Hence, with “naive” entrepreneurs ignoring the past, there has been a swift rise in and decline of MOOCs.

A skeptic might say: Really, Larry, what would you have to know about past technological innovations that might have helped the founders of MOOCs avoid the “trough of disillusionment?”

My answer is:

1. Technological innovations aimed primarily at increasing productivity and efficiency in schooling have largely ignored teacher knowledge and expertise.

2. High-tech innovators seldom ask the questions teachers ask about a new classroom technology.

3. Innovators have cared little about whether their new technology can be integrated into teachers’ routines because their priorities are to transform teaching and learning, increase student productivity, and keep costs low.

A backward glance to lessons drawn from previous technological innovations, then, might help start-up entrepreneurs from being “necessarily naive” about MOOCs or the next new thing for K-12 classrooms. Will that happen? I doubt it.

 

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Politics, Research, and School Reform: Letting Teens Sleep in

Teaching high school students, first period of the school day, say, 7:30 or 8 AM is tough. Why? Students from both affluent and working class families shuffle into the room, sometimes carrying wake-up food and drink, and sit down at their desks giving the teacher the 1000-yard stare or closing their glazed eyes. They are sleepy.

Recent research (see here, here and here) has established that adolescent bodies and minds are still developing and getting five or less hours of sleep a night when doctors recommend nine means sluggish lessons in the mornings and sleepy afternoons in class.

Citing such research, some school boards (e.g., Long Beach, California; Glen Falls, New York, and Stillwater, Oklahoma), after many open meetings with parents and experts on sleep and teenagers initiated later start times for middle and high school students. Research tied to solving a problem–sleepy and non-involved teenagers in academic classes– supporting a tidy solution such as a later school starting time in morning–seemed, thus far, to work in these communities. However, in other communities, raw politics, and coalitions built by sleep-deprived teenagers allied with parents and teachers made the changes.

Consider 17 year-old Jilly Dos Santos who tries again and again to get to her 7:50 AM class on time at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia (MO). And failed. She is an academically strong student, works at a fast food restaurant after school and interned in a get-out-the-voter campaign earlier in the year. She heard that the school board was meeting in a few weeks to approve a half-hour earlier starting time. Yes, 7:20 AM. Santos, a sleep-deprived teenagers morphed into a political “sleep activist.”

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Santos created a Facebook page and Twitter account telling hundreds of fellow  students that the school board was going to start school at 7:20 AM. She contacted a non-profit group about sleep that gave her the scientific studies about how teenagers needed more, not less, sleep. She emailed all teachers in the district and started an online petition. She brought other students together and they made posters. She tweeted everyone that “If you are going to be attending the board meeting tomorrow we recommend you dress up.”

You guessed it. The school board turned down the earlier start time. A few months later, the coalition that Santos had pulled together worked successfully to get the school board to start high school at 9 AM. The superintendent said after the board voted 6-1 in favor of the later time: “Jilly kicked it over the edge for us.”

Who said that schools are apolitical institutions?

I use the example of Santos to underscore how an issue as school start times, so often driven by efficiency–scheduling a limited number of buses for both elementary and secondary schools, when teachers have to be in their classrooms in the morning, parents’ demands for child care, and other factors–gets turned around when a group of teenagers, teachers, and parents coalesce into a political group pressing the school board to alter its policy. Rowdy democracy in action.

So here is an incontrovertible fact: schools are political institutions. This fact means that teachers, principals, superintendents, students, and parents are political actors also. Not in the partisan sense of Democrats and Republicans but in the fundamental sense that politics are about relationships over power, resources, and to achieve goals.

Of course, reformers in every generation have known that schools are political institutions subject to popular pressures to adopt or reject policies. With the state and federal centralization of authority for school policies over the past half-century–think No Child Left Behind, state charter school laws, and Common Core Standards–the political nature of schooling becomes self-evident. Although the word “politics” continues to have a sour smell about it to many parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents, for Jilly Dos Santos, the fragrance of politicking the school board to adopt a later start time drove her on. She and like-minded citizens practiced democratic action.

Here is the second fact about the role research studies played into the political success of the coalition that Santos’s mobilized in favor of a later start time. As much as each of us believes that data compiled into evidence, especially from scientific studies, are essential to get a policy adopted–after all we see ourselves as rational and mindful creatures–in this instance of having teenagers come to school later in the morning–research studies became useful but clearly subordinate tools. Without the political muscle of  the coalition Santos and others mobilized, ho-hum responses from the school board would have occurred.

Political muscle at the federal, state, and local levels, using research as a shield and lance, continues to dominate the current reform debate over what teachers should teach, how they should teach, choice in schools, and, yes, what time Jilly Dos Santos has to wake up and go to Rock Bridge High School tomorrow morning.

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Avoid The Hype: Online Learning’s Transformational Potential (Michael Horn)

From time to time, posts that I write prompt responses. Especially when writing about K-12 access and use of new high-tech devices, software, and their supposed revolutionary impact. Here is such a response to one I wrote about online learning and its hype. I would like readers to look at my original post and then Michael Horn’s response.
Michael Horn is a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and serves as the executive director of its education program. He leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research. His team aims to transform monolithic, factory-model education systems into student-centric designs that educate every student successfully and enable each to realize his or her fullest potential.”  See more at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/michael-b-horn/#sthash.k7t3TBqv.dpuf

This article appeared in Forbes on June 6, 2013 at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhorn/2013/06/06/avoid-the-hype-online-learnings-transformational-potential/print/

 In Larry Cuban’s recent piece in the Washington Post, “Why K-12 online learning isn’t really revolutionizing teaching,” he in essence says that our research showing that online learning is a disruptive innovation that has the potential to transform K–12 education into a student-centric learning design that can allow each student to realize his or her fullest potential is unfortunate hype from academic gurus.

What’s unfortunate is Cuban’s misrepresentation of our research to hype his argument.

Cuban refers to our prediction that by 2019 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online in some form or fashion. He says that the prediction is erroneous because of the different forms in which online learning will arrive and argues that online learning will not disrupt schools.

What might shock him is that we agree with those two statements.

For the first, that’s why our prediction states that online learning will occur in different forms and fashions, and the bulk of it—at least 90 percent—will be in blended-learning environments. It is interesting that Cuban doesn’t dispute that these different forms might add up to 50 percent of high school courses by 2019.

Indeed, our research at the Clayton Christensen Institute has explored in sharp detail the different forms of online learning in K–12 education, as we have provided a definition of blended learning that is used widely in the field and have classified the different models we see emerging in schools themselves to give educators a language to talk about the different innovations they are pioneering. Perhaps Cuban should draw on some of this research before discussing blended learning.

As to the second point, we have never stated that online learning will disrupt schools; instead, our research shows that online learning will disrupt the traditional classroom environment in secondary schools over the long term. Our latest research adds another subtlety, which is that online learning is unlikely to be disruptive to the traditional classroom in elementary schools, but instead will, for the most part, take place within those traditional classrooms.

Cuban’s other main point in the piece is more complex. He says that some online learning programs are teacher-centric, whereas others are quite student-centric and high quality. He is right. Not all online learning—in blended-learning or distance-learning environments—is good. Some of it is great, and some of it is bad. This is why we’ve said that online learning has the potential—but is not guaranteed—to transform schools into student-centric learning environments.

Cuban has long done some of the best work in explaining why so many hyped learning fads and technologies have failed to transform schooling. His past work is in fact consistent with the theories of disruptive innovation, which show that the model in which a technology is implemented is often more important than the technology itself. This is in part why we relied heavily on his research in Chapter 3 of Disrupting Class. Central to his argument has been that despite all the reforms and fads, once the classroom door shuts, teachers have the domain to ignore all of the reform efforts and fall back on what they know and believe is best.

Once again, we agree. This is why, however, disruptive innovation is so powerful. In education, it can allow us to replace that classroom model with a new one that is far more conducive to personalizing learning for each student. What the theory of disruptive innovation says is that online learning—in its many forms—will disrupt the traditional classroom over the long haul in secondary schools. What disruptive innovation does not say is whether the result will be a student-centric learning design. The theory is largely silent on this normative question.

That’s where the potential enters the equation. Because online learning scales naturally, the good programs about which Cuban writes can theoretically serve millions of students and aid millions of teachers. The question at hand is how do we create the conditions for the good programs, not the mediocre or bad ones, to thrive.

Because we have the chance to reinvent the learning model as we know it—with far fewer constituencies standing in the way of protecting the “status quo” in online learning—there is currently a window in which to put in place policies that create the proper incentives. Paying providers for student outcomes; not regulating and paying for inputs so as to free up educators on the ground to make smart decisions for their students; moving to a competency-based learning system, in which students progress once they have mastered a concept, not when the calendar says it is time to move on; and having appropriate on-demand systems of assessments that allow for a bottoms-up accountability that rewards growth instead of today’s top-down accountability system together appear to be critical pieces.

If online learning continues to grow within the current regulatory environment, however, which focuses on inputs instead of outcomes and has at its core a set of assumptions that takes the factory-model classroom system that has been in place for over 100 years as a given, then we may lose that window.

We education transformers—those who do not want to just reform education but to transform it into a student-centric design—don’t have all the answers for how to do this well. We should admit that. But Cuban and others could help. Rather than simply act as naysayers who say why everything is doomed to fail, they could be part of “the solution.” Asking how we might make this unique opportunity different—or pointing out where we are erring in shaping it in a constructive fashion—would go a long way. The past is instructive, but it should help guide us forward, not hold us back.

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Learning from the Past: The Economy and School Reform Then and Now*

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce.   

Theodore Search, President of the National Association of  Manufacturers, 1898 (quoted here, p. 29)

No issue will have a bigger impact on the future performance of our economy than education.  In the long run it’s going to … determine whether businesses stay here.  It will determine whether businesses are created here, whether businesses are hiring here.  And it will determine whether there’s going to be an abundance of good middle-class jobs in America….The countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  That’s a simple fact.  And if we want America to continue to be number one and stay number one, we’ve got some work to do. 

President Barack Obama, speech to National Governors Association, 2012

I begin with these quotes covering more than a century to make a simple point: Past and present, policy elites have connected the economy to education and pursued school reforms to tie the two together.

Between the 1890s and 1920s when the U.S. was competing with Great Britain and Germany in selling products in a global marketplace, progressive reformers created a vocational curriculum in addition to the dominant college preparatory program in secondary schools making career preparation a goal of U.S. public schools. (see here and here)

For the past three decades, business and civic leaders have talked extensively about how more efficient and effective schools will lead to economic growth and improve global competitiveness. Resulting actions have stripped away most vocational programs in exchange for an academic program geared to prepare students for higher education–just like the high school in the 1890s.

The goal of career preparation remains from both periods of school reform but has shifted from job preparation for an industrial economy—a high school diploma–to job preparation for an information-driven economy—a bachelor’s degree.

In 2014, we persist with economically-driven school reform, one that has evolved into a market-tinged policy agenda embraced by both national and state political and business leaders: more parental choice in selecting schools, more teacher use of high-tech in classrooms, focus on academic standards, testing, and accountability including the new Common Core national roll-out, and using student outcomes to evaluate student, teacher, and school effectiveness.

But newspaper ads, policy elite rhetoric, and a common vocabulary among leaders, as past reforms have shown, do not make much difference in classrooms (see here, here, and here)..

And this lesson about classroom implementation is one that generations of reformers have too often missed. There are crucial differences between policy talk, policy decisions, and classroom practice that can help supporters and opponents of current reforms, anchored as they are in the past, to crack the mystery of reform occurring again and again.  These policy distinctions have existed for over a century foiling the best laid designs to closely link U.S. schools and classrooms to the economy.

POLICY TALK, ACTION, AND IMPLEMENTATION

Policy talk refers to past and present reformers whose words of gloom and doom about schools are often followed by over-confident and untested solutions to schools in crisis. For example, those over 50 years of age can recall talk about the Apple IIe desktop computer decades ago, or now, classroom Smart Boards, iPads, and online instruction revolutionizing classroom instruction. Perhaps they can also recall the dire predictions since the 1980s about declining U.S. global competitiveness as graduates enter the job market unprepared for the new economy. Such policy talk is important in framing problems, mobilizing political coalitions, and getting educators to roll up their sleeves to solve school problems. Seldom, however, do doom-tinged words or ambitious talk about transformations make a reform happen. Words have to be converted into policies.

Policy adoption refers to actual decisions governors, mayors, superintendents, and legislators make to solve problems framed in the purple rhetoric of policy talk. Examples of policy action include legislatures authorizing mayors to take control of schools; boards of education buying tablets for kindergartners. And New York State’s Board of Regents approving the Common Core standards.

Policy implementation in districts, schools, and classrooms, however, differs from both talk and action.

Implementation means putting an adopted policy into practice. Consider what so often occurs after a state or district adopts new technologies to increase student engagement and test scores. When observers go into classrooms to see how teachers use new devices in lessons, they find great variation across districts and even ones within the same school. Some teachers pick and choose what to use in their classrooms; others just ponder when to begin implementing, and even others ignore the policy. Because of school cultures and organizational structures, change is gradual, scattered, and sporadic. What happens in schools and classrooms, then, is a world apart from the lofty promises policymakers make and when they adopt new policies.

POLICY DISTINCTIONS MATTER

These distinctions become very clear when it comes to Common Core standards in New York. Ambitious, even fiery, talk from advocates about how the new standards will lead to high school graduates having the wherewithal to enter college and then graduate with a bachelor’s degree. With degree in hand, graduates would get decently paid middle-class jobs that would strengthen the economy while increasing the U.S.’s global competitiveness.

The New York State Board of Regents adopted the new standards in 2010. The state department of education piloted reading and math standards across the state even having students take versions of the new tests that will accompany the Common Core standards. Lots of glitches showed up when the standards and tests entered classrooms, especially the steep drop in student test scores. With sharp conflict emerging over districts’  unreadiness to implement and the impending Common Core tests being used to evaluate teacher performance, the Regents have delayed full implementation for five years (see here and here). Amid all of this furor, however, is a welcome sign from the past: the New York State Commissioner of Education and the Department of Education have allocated funds for professional development of teachers and other tools to help make Common Core standards much easier to put into practice.

Time will tell whether policy elites distinguishing between policy talk, adoption, and implementation, distinctions that have made a difference in understanding prior reforms aimed at importing market-driven ideas and practices into classrooms, will come to matter in New York state where in nearly 4,800 schools over 211,00 teachers teach 2,700,000 students after they close their classroom doors.


*A version of this post appeared February 28, 2014 in the blog of the City University of New York Education Policy at Hunter College.

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