Tag Archives: policy to practice,

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.



Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

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.






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.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

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.”


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.


Filed under school reform policies

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.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

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 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.


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.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Is the Use of Untested Technologies in Classrooms Unethical?*

In a recent Teachers College Record commentary, M.O. Thirunarayanan, Associate Professor of Learning Technologies in the College of Education at Florida International University, argues the following:

When it comes to technology integration, no testing or research is done upfront to determine if they help students learn. Such products are typically purchased by schools and used in classrooms before educators start conducting research to determine if they are effective. This is akin to providing treatment using drugs whose effects have not yet been studied. Both are unethical. Not to mention the millions of dollars that are spent every year by schools to acquire these technologies, just so the leaders of these schools can claim that their schools are on the “cutting edge.”

Every time a new technological tool is developed, manufactured, and sold, its potential to improve learning is hyped up to a great extent. A tool that has a new or unique feature is sold as the tool that will help solve all problems in education. Such a product is overbought and underused in schools for a few years until the next best technological tool becomes the hottest product that has to be purchased and used in all schools….

He then concludes:

Those who develop technological products should be asked to spend their own funds to conduct research to find out the benefits of using their products in schools. They should be allowed to sell only those products that have been extensively researched and found to be helpful to learners and teachers. Any side effects should be noted on warning labels that are affixed to the products. 

One part of me is sympathetic to the argument that Professor Thirunarayanan makes. The hype associated with hardware and software raising academic achievement, engaging students like nothing else, and transforming instruction is well-known and seldom passes the sniff test nowadays. Moreover, many software products are (and have been) sold as beta versions to districts, meaning that they have not been fully tested. Teachers and students point out all of the glitches giving vendors very valuable data to improve the product. So I am sympathetic to points that he makes.

But, then, I think of the many instructional practices that have been used for centuries such as textbooks, worksheets, blackboards, and homework that underwent no tests then or now. Also I think about the flawed assumption that the author makes about technology, in of itself, determining academic achievement when that outcome results from many in-school and out-of-school factors. Finally, comparing clinical trials on medical treatments with the kinds of research that ought to be done on new hardware and software overlooks the very narrow questions that drive experimental/control testing and the recent questioning of the worth of the knowledge gained.

Decisions made by school boards and superintendents over buying and deploying new technologies may be unwise. But not unethical. Or even researching the worth of new technologies without capturing the complexity of the many factors determining academic achievement may be myopic.  But using untested technologies in classrooms “unethical,” I do not think so.


The best way for me to answer the question is to give a clear example of what I believe is (and has been) an unethical practic in the use of technology.

Readers over the age of 45 will remember Channel 1, a technological innovation where entrepreneur Chris Whittle gave hardware (TV monitors, VCRs, and satellite dishes) to schools that lacked the funds to buy equipment (mostly enrolling children from poor families) in exchange for secondary school students watching news programs that contained commercials for products that teenagers consume. Beginning in 1990, Channel 1 continues its 10-minute news broadcasts (of which two minutes are ads) in 10,000 schools across the country.

What makes this unethical (but not illegal) is that school boards and superintendents made the decision to contract with the for-profit firm of Channel 1 knowing that for two minutes a day, commercials would be shown to a captive audience. Under state law, parents are compelled to send their children to school until they are teenagers. Students must stay in their classrooms while commercials are shown. For Channel 1, public officials have abandoned their moral responsibility for children and youth’s  safety, health, and academic achievement by forcing them to watch ads.

For those who like to cite research studies, there is one field study with randomly assigned seventh and eighth graders to control and experimental groups that found those watching Channel 1 remembered the commercials more than news items and in the previous three months had bought over two items advertised on Channel 1.

For these reasons, I find requiring teenagers who are compelled to attend school to watch this program is an unethical act.


I want to thank Jane David for a conversation about the ethics of  using untested technologies in classrooms. She raised points that I had not considered. I am, of course, responsible for what is written here.


Filed under technology use

How To Lift Schools and Colleges Out of Academic Failure

A recent Atlantic article “How To Escape the Community-College Trap” got me thinking again about how hard it is to create, establish, and sustain efforts to improve low-performing K-12 schools and colleges. As Ryan Fuller pointed out in an earlier post, good teaching is harder than rocket science. Ditto for improving low-performing schools. One glance at the evaluations of the U.S. Department of School Improvement Grants would verify that. But there is solid evidence of turnarounds and new schools that do the heavy lifting of improving low-performing schools.

Look at community colleges for example. Forty-five percent of all college undergraduates go to community colleges. Yes, that is an astounding number when one considers media attention on Ivy League schools and large state universities and how little is reported about local colleges. These colleges offer access to young adults at relatively low cost combined to enormous flexibility in programs. Options for adult students abound.

Yet in urban community colleges, just over 15 percent get an Associate Degree within three years. Moreover, just over one-third earn that two-year degree within six years. “Non-traditional students”– a euphemism for minority students from low-income families or who attend college, mostly part-time–as the above numbers show, must have great determination and grit to complete the Associate Degree in technical, scientific, medical, and other pursuits that qualify them for immediate jobs.

One New York City program, however, ASAP located in nearly all of the City’s community colleges, has graduated 50 percent in three years since 2007. That percent is not a typo.

How? They have demanding academic and behavioral expectations–students sign a contract that they will graduate in three years; they have daily, weekly and monthly targets to hit. ASAP provides incentives (transportation passes and tuition/textbook assistance), and an infrastructure that provides support through tutors and mandatory biweekly advising sessions. It is a combination of pressure on and support of students who have usually dropped out. And it costs nearly $4,000 more than the nearly $10,000 the New York Community College system spends on each full-time student.

As the journalist in the Atlantic article writes: “Good information, well-structured expectations. timely counsel, confidence-instilling directives–these are the essential ingredients of education and they are all the more important for marginal students and for those blazing a trail to college for the first time in their family’s history.”

No MOOCs, no huge computer labs. In fact, ASAP stops at the classroom door in designing and executing their structural pressures and supports.

Not rocket science in conception but, oh my, so very hard to put into practice and sustain over time.


ASAP is an example of a New York City college program within a large system. Like those K-12 districts that have, under different leadership and strong faculties, turned failing schools into higher-performing ones (e.g.,Cincinnati, Ohio; Sanger, California), ASAP worked within a city-wide bureaucracy and made substantial changes for over 4,000 college students. Unrelenting pressure from leaders, constant support for teachers and students, individual grit, and careful implementation over time can, indeed, make a difference for students.

There are those, however, who argue that within institutions failing schools are too often caught in the tangle of bureaucratic rules and defeated again and again by myopic district and school leadership. Reform from within the system, they say, is a fool’s errand. The path to go is to close failing schools and create new ones. Perhaps.


Elementary and secondary school charters since the 1990s have been popular, especially in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, New York City, and other urban districts.  KIPP charter schools, for example, capture the ethos and program of ASAP in their demanding behavioral and academic expectations,  pressure to succeed, and infrastructure of teacher support for individual students. Of course, there are other charter and non-charter schools created by districts that have these features also see (here, here,and here).

Starting from scratch, however, does not guarantee anything. From the business world to beginning a relationship to creating a new school, more often than not, start-ups fail. The best of dreams, the best of intentions, and even the architecture of these features described above, hardly prevent a new venture from going belly up. Over forty years ago, Seymour Sarason pointed out how creating something new was not as easy as it looked; it is incredibly complex, borrows extensively from the traditional, and often fails. Few reformers then and now heeded his insights into creating a new setting.


1. These fundamental features of programs work both inside and outside the system to lift low performance of elementary, secondary, and community college programs for “non-traditional” students. Not either-or inside/outside the system but both are necessary for reducing low-performing schools and colleges.

2. These features combine steady pressure on students with a pervasive array of supports to help individual students succeed academically in gaining diplomas and degrees.

3. These features require organizational and faculty commitments and much work that extend over time.  They are not one-offs that appear and disappear as founding teachers and leaders exit. Continuity is crucial.

4. State and federal policymakers take note. These programs inside and outside systems are malleable to fit different contexts but not easily scalable because of particularities of leadership and teachers working together in different settings. So they must be adapted again and again to different contexts.



Filed under school reform policies

Science, Math, and History: The Historic Struggle to Marry Content and Pedagogy


Entangled, impossible to separate, that is what content and pedagogy have been and are in U.S. schooling. But not to reformers.

For decades, in science, math, and history policymakers, researchers, teacher educators, practitioners, and parents have argued over what kind of content should be taught in classrooms, playing down the inevitable presence of pedagogy or how the subject should be taught. Amnesiac reformers, pumped full of certitude, have pushed forward with “new science,” “new math” and “new history” curricula many times over  the past century believing that the content in of itself–particularly delivered by academic experts–will magically direct teachers how to put innovative units and lessons into practice in their classrooms.

Well-intentioned but uninformed, these reformers have ignored how knotted and twisted together they are. Knowing content is one strand and how to teach it is the other. Entwined forever.


Recently, educational researchers have acknowledged this age-old marriage by calling it “pedagogical content knowledge.” They have expanded it to include knowledge of how students learn, the context in which teaching occurs, and other areas. Alas, this idea has yet to crack the mindset of reform-minded policymakers.


Struggles over academic content among policymakers, parents, practitioners–I  use the popular word “wars”– have occurred time and again avoiding answers to fundamental questions of the very purpose of the subject. Consider science.

Determined reformers have battled for well over a century over the purposes for teaching science in elementary and secondary public schools. Is the purpose scientific literacy for all students because in a democratic and technological society, it is essential? Or is the purpose to prepare students for entering college and getting good jobs? Or is it to produce engineers and scientists that will keep U.S. militarily secure and economically competitive in a global economy?

From those competing, value-laden purposes have flowed, generation after generation, questions of content and pedagogy. Should teachers concentrate on teaching essential subject-matter (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics) to unknowing students or have students act as biologists, chemists, and physicists, posing hunches, inquiring, and solving problems? Should teachers concentrate on students becoming scientifically literate to deal with complex real-world issues that cut across disciplinary boundaries or stick to traditionally separate subjects?

These either-or questions of purpose became curricular battles over what content should be taught but seldom how it should be taught. In 1910, John Dewey foreshadowed these struggles when he said that:  “science has been taught too much as an accumulation of ready-made material with which students are to be made familiar, not enough as a method of thinking, an attitude of mind….”  Dewey saw the split that continues to divide policymakers and academics eager to reform science teaching over a century ago. [i]

The history of science curricula and pedagogy in both elementary and secondary schools reveals time and again a preoccupation with students learning scientific disciplines in traditional teacher-directed, textbook-driven ways alternating with science content focused on engaging students in the practice of scientific investigation and applying science to daily life—between learning  “about”  science and “doingscience. Note how pedagogy–how the subject should be taught–inevitably creeps into  what content should be taught.

Consider this quote from a national prestigious commission on science education:

Science for the high-school students has been too largely organized for the purpose of giving information and training in each of the sciences, the material being arranged in accordance with the logical sequence recognized by special students of that science…. The common method of science teaching too often has been of presenting the so-called essential with their definitions and classifications and of subordinating or omitting the common-place manifestations of science in home, community, civic, and industrial situations which make it easily possible for the learner to practice science.[i]

 Year written? 1920.

In subsequent years, “common-place manifestations of science in home” and elsewhere popped up in chemistry, physics, and biology courses. Specialists urged teachers to get students to work on projects such as building electric motors, eradicating mosquitoes in a community, and delving into the chemistry of food. Content and method were married.

In biology, for instance, curriculum experts recommended that teachers have their students see how colonies of bacteria were present in humans and animals and how they grow and spread in science labs. They recommended that colonies of bacteria be linked in classroom discussions and assignments to such direct questions to students as: Why wash your hands before meals? Why brush your teeth? Why cover garbage cans? [ii]

Supporters of traditional science courses and ways of teaching dismissed such efforts to engage students as “kitchen chemistry” and “toothbrush biology.”  How much of “kitchen chemistry” and “toothbrush biology” entered classrooms, however, is not known. Teacher responses to these policy swings in what purpose should drive science content varied greatly then (and now). How much of the new content and pedagogy entered lessons is unknown. Yet during these decades, when science literacy and relevance to students’ lives were strong, “doing” science where the content and pedagogy were one and the same seemingly triumphed over learning “about” science. But not for long.

After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, public officials and education policymakers screamed for schools to produce more scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. The purpose for science content and instruction again shifted. Schools were drafted to defend the nation in the Cold War. The National Science Foundation funded academic experts in science to guide a total revision of the science curriculum to marry the learning ” about” to the “doing” of science.

The 1960s saw the “New Biology,” the “New Chemistry,” and the “New Physics” where university professors wrote texts, created materials, and ran summer institutes where they provided the content of the sciences to eager teachers. Scientists urged teachers to have their students solve real problems that required hypothesizing, experimenting, and reaching conclusions based on evidence. Content came first and pedagogy second again (see el_school science).

Since then, revisions of K-12 science content, in response to changes in social, political, and cultural life, have occurred again and again, led by both teachers and academic experts.  Today, it is the new science standards.

Again, how much of these changes in science content approved by commissions and state policymakers drifted down into classroom practice is, at best, hard to say. That teachers adapted lessons from new textbooks, ardent professional development during summers and science institutes led by academics, and cheerleading from superintendents and principals goes without saying. Also, it goes without saying that how much of the “new” curriculum settled into classrooms varied tremendously.

Even amid shifting purposes for science in public schools, reformers, including university scientists, too often subordinated pedagogy to content in the mistaken belief that changing the content of what students study will magically alter what occurs in classrooms. Not only in science has this occurred but also in math, and history.

I take up math and history in subsequent posts.


[i] John Dewey, “Science as Subject-Matter and as Method,” Science (31), 1910, p.122.

[ii] Cited in DeBoer, A History of Ideas in Science Education, p. 97 of  Elliot Downing, “The Course of Study in Biology” in the National Society for the Study of Education, A Program for Teaching Science, 1932.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Classroom and School Cultures: Contradictions (Part 1)

One of my former colleagues in anthropology once told me that he gags every time he hears the word “culture.” Why? Because “culture,” he said, has come to mean  everything under the sun and has thus become meaningless.

With my colleague’s gagging in mind, I will try to be careful in using the c-word in this post.

So let’s imagine going into a school.

What do you see? What do you hear the teachers and other staff members saying? What do the bulletin boards look like? How easy was it to enter the school? What are the children saying and doing? How noisy is it? Do you feel welcome or afraid? What is the general “feel” of the environment? All these questions and more pertain to the underlying stream of values and rituals that pervade schools. This underlying stream is the culture of that particular school.

The question I think about a lot is: Does a school culture influence strongly what values and rituals turn up in academic classrooms?  Can, for example, a school’s athletic success stir pride in students studying history to show up before the tardy bell rings? Sit down at their seat and start answering questions on the whiteboard that the teacher puts up daily? Can winning the state championship in football spill over into math and science classrooms so that students become engaged in studying the content, work quietly with partners in doing an assigned problem, and turn in homework regularly?

I do not know the answers to these questions. I will explore them in this two-part post.

Let me sketch out an example I saw up close recently.*

I sat in four social studies classes in a California urban high school that is largely minority and poor. With nearly a thousand students in 9th through 12th grades, the school, one of a half-dozen in the city, ranked the lowest of the city’s schools on annual state tests and graduated less than 60 percent of its students. Metal detectors and pat-downs by uniformed security personnel were daily rituals. Its football team had won state championships and provided an annual pipeline of scholarships for athletes to universities.

Since I saw only one teacher teaching classes in U.S. history and world geography, I will not generalize about classroom cultures elsewhere in the school.

While 20-plus students were enrolled in each class, only one had more than 20 students appear. The other classes had 10-15 students. Most were in their seats at the tardy bell but late arrivals entered throughout the period. The 16-year veteran social studies teacher was prepared for each class, amiable with students, and firm in following school and classroom rules.

One of the four classes (the largest with 24 students but 30 enrolled) was U.S. history but this day they were preparing for the state graduation test by going over items from a booklet prepared for this test. The teacher had an overhead projector with transparencies of test questions and topics from previous years. She marched through the items slowly by asking various students what the correct answers were and explaining why they were correct. Of the two dozen students about 8 were engaged with the lesson, the rest chatted until admonished by the teacher, applied cosmetics, had their heads down on the desks, or were engaged in other tasks. Late-comers gave slips to the teacher. The period lasted 43 minutes. The students packed up their belongings a few minutes before the bell rang.

The three ninth grade world geography classes were studying 19th century European imperialism in Africa. The teacher had the state standard for the lesson and assignment listed on the chalkboard with three questions for students to answer as they filed into the class.

There were 10-15 students in each of these classes. The teacher walked around the room making sure that cell phones were put away (a school-wide rule). She passed out  a worksheet drawn from the textbook chapter on imperialism. After 15 minutes, the teacher orally went over each question (she told them that for these questions they had copied down, the answers could be found on pp. 345-350 in the textbook and that they were going to be on Friday’s test).

Most of the students completed the worksheet and gave it to the teacher when the period ended. At least a third or more of the students in each class, however, chatted most of the time, slept, and did not complete the worksheet.

I do not know if these four classes were representative of classroom cultures in the rest of the school. Nothing much was expected of the students beyond textbook and worksheet answers. Most complied. The teacher worked hard at completing the lessons, collecting worksheets, and grading and returning them the next day. That was it.

From my perch in the back of the room in these four classes, I saw that students were largely disengaged from each lesson’s content. While school rules were enforced, the values, rituals, and habits favored the least amount of academic work possible. There were no disciplinary incidents that occurred in any of the four periods; the teacher maintained an orderly, safe classroom.

At the end of the fourth period class, I walked down the hall and stopped in and watched a joyous assembly of 11th and 12th grade students honoring athletes who had been chosen as all-stars to play in a U.S. Army-sponsored  football game.

And here is where the contradiction I noted above about school and classroom cultures occurred. I take it up in the next post.


*I have disguised where the school is located and certain details to protect the privacy of participants.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Anatomy of an English class: How the Common Core Is Shaping Instruction for One Miami Teacher (Sarah Carr)

Sarah Carr wrote this article for The Hechinger Report, October 15, 2013

MIAMI—English instructor Lois Seaman often speaks bluntly to her middle-school students about the increased expectations they will face under the new Common Core curriculum standards. “It’s like you are looking at this under a microscope; glean all you can from this text,” she told a class of eighth graders as they studied a passage from “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. “Common Core says, ‘Read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.’”

 Seaman’s students at Richmond Heights Middle School will still be tested on the old state standards this school year. But like many of her colleagues, Seaman has already started adjusting her teaching approach to meet the new standards. Here are a few of her strategies, culled from her own research and materials and guidance provided to teachers by the Miami-Dade school district and the state.

Asking students to read multiple texts on the same theme:

This year, Seaman will assign the short story “The School Play” by Gary Soto, which includes a reference to the Donner Party, a group of American pioneers trapped in the Sierra Nevada snow during their mid 19th-century migration to California. Students will also read excerpts from diaries written by members of the Donner party in an effort to give them added insight into the short story. In addition, “Raymond’s Run,” a story about a girl who cares for her mentally disabled brother, will be accompanied by the poem “Brother and Sister” by Lewis Carroll. The pairings are part of Seaman’s effort to ensure students can analyze and write on multiple readings that explore similar themes—a key requirement of the Common Core.

Seaman … has started adjusting her teaching style to meet the demands of the Common Core. 

Introducing more challenging readings:

Since the new standards call for teachers to introduce more challenging readings at younger grades, Seaman looked for texts that would force her middle school students out of their comfort zone in some way. Lewis Carroll’s “Brother and Sister,” for instance, engages them through humor (and is also focused on a theme many students can relate to: sibling rivalry). But it contains a mixture of antiquated and advanced words—such as mutton, wherefore, prudent, and indignantly—that Seaman knew many of her students would find difficult.

Requiring students to analyze readings independently:

When Seaman’s eighth graders started reading “Flowers for Algernon” this fall, she asked them to dive in on their own. The class did not read the opening passage together or review biographical information about the author, as they might have done in the past. Instead, the students read the first paragraph silently and then discussed it with a partner (in a new twist, Seaman told them to have an “intellectual” conversation rather than simply saying, “discuss”). At the end of those conversations, the students turned in bulleted lists with their observations about genre, setting, main characters, and story conflict. If Florida uses the PARCC exam (which appears increasingly unlikely) or something like it, the test will likely require students to write analytical essays on clusters of readings. Partly as a result, Seaman is trying to ensure students feel comfortable undertaking literary analysis without much prior background information, context, or large group discussion.

Assigning more analytical writing exercises:

Over the course of her classes, Seaman repeatedly reminds students to support almost anything they write with evidence. “It can never just be about yourself,” she tells them. “We can’t just throw things out. We have to back them up.” She hammers this point home deliberately. The PARCC exam will require students to write essays citing evidence from multiple readings. By contrast, Florida’s current standardized test focuses just on expository and persuasive writings; citing facts and evidence from the texts isn’t weighted nearly as heavily as it will be under PARCC. Seaman is trying to encourage even one of her sixth grade classes comprised largely of English language learners to focus more on evidence in their writing, advising them to start sentences with, “I know this because… .”

For another look at an English teacher at work on the Common Core, see John Merrow’s piece shown on PBS August 13, 2013.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies