Tag Archives: reform policies

Technologies and School Reform: Kissing Cousins*

Over the years, I often get asked how I got interested in the uses of technology in schools and classrooms. I answer the same way each time. When I taught high school history and as a district administrator in two urban school system I was the target for a quarter-century of high-tech innovations and classroom reforms. Again and again.

I then add that I have been trained as an historian and studied many efforts of reformers to improve schooling over the past century in U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts. I looked at how teachers have taught since the 1890s. I analyzed policymakers’ frequent curricular changes since the 1880s. I even investigated the origins of the age-graded school and the spread of this innovation through the 19th century. I also parsed the utopian dreams of reformers who believed that new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) would alter how teachers teach and students learn. Almost out of words, I end my answer by pointing out that these electronic devices are in the DNA of all classroom-driven reforms aimed at altering how teachers teach and how students learn. That long answer usually squashes follow-up questions.

What surprises me is that these questioners had not viewed high-tech innovations as having either a history in schools or as blood relations to constant efforts to improve schools. Instead, they saw (and, sadly enough, still see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

And that is a big conceptual error. Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are part of the same genetic code.

Creating “blended learning” schools, introducing online learning, or deploying tablets to each and every student is an organizational and instructional reform. Teachers using Class Dojo, Chemix School and Lab, Algebrator, and other software programs are implementing classroom organizational and curricular reforms and shaping instruction.

Technological innovations, then, are kissing cousins to curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms. Consequently, they share similar components.

All reforms come bathed in rhetoric. Take the “21st Century Skills” effort, organized by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition whose members include Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Dell. Their mission is to prepare the current generation of children and youth to compete in a globalized economy. Their words, like the rhetoric of so many other reformers—past and present—portray a economic, social, and political crisis for U.S. competition in world markets unless today’s youth leave school fully equipped with the skills of creating, innovating, problem-solving, collaborating, and critically thinking. And don’t forget: a repertoire of technological skills. The rhetoric must not only create a sense of crisis, it must portray existing institutions as woefully deficient.

Going from policy talk to classroom practice. Patterns can be observed in the journey from policy talk to an adopted program to ending up in classrooms. Designing the policy and program means frequent revisions as they go through the political vetting process to get adopted and funded (think of Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad purchase and roll-out, and any brand-new math program for a district). Ditto for finding patterns in the degree to which those adopted policies get implemented and changed as the design wends its way into the school and eventually into the classroom (Common Core standards in reading, online instruction).

 Criteria to judge success of reform. If reform rhetoric, policy adoption, and putting innovations into practice can be examined for regularities so can the criteria used to assess the reform (e.g., test scores, satisfaction of teachers and students with innovation, rates of graduation, etc.). Once assessed, determining whether or not the reform should be incorporated—should the innovation be sustained–in school and classroom practices is a judgment call that authorities make on a mix of political interests, ideological fervor, available resources, and research evidence.

By now, you get my point. In viewing technological innovations as a sub-set of curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms, teachers, principals, and parents can identify patterns, determine consequences for the adoption of the innovation, track the journey as it goes from policy to classroom practice, and expect certain outcomes while being open to unanticipated ones as well.

Too many policymakers, practitioners, and parents see technological innovations as unique initiatives unrelated to the historic patterns in school reforms. They err. My experiences as a practitioner and historian have taught me to see technological devices as part of the river of reform that has flowed constantly through U.S. schools for nearly two centuries.

____________________

*This is an updated version of an earlier post.

 

10 Comments

Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools

“Please to God, if you are going to send … [new teachers] into urban schools, prepare them a bit better than I was prepared.” (quoted in Bethany Rogers, pp. 353-354)

If I asked you to guess when this novice teacher said the above words, a good guess might be last week, last month, or last year. Actually, it came from a new teacher who had graduated from a university-based teacher education program in 1967.

I am reminded of this nearly half-century ago quote after reading Dana Goldstein’s book, Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession . In one chapter, Goldstein does a balanced job of reporting on Teach for America, a quarter-century effort that has brought liberal arts graduates from top colleges and universities into teaching. She points out the negatives (five weeks of summer training before assuming a full-time post in an urban school; only a two-year commitment to teach; high attrition rates after two years are completed) and positives (TFA secondary school math teachers outperformed a matched group of regular teachers as measured by standardized test scores; the funneling of TFA graduates into policy posts since the early 1990s). She sums up her experiences as an education reporter by saying:

Teach for America recruits are neither the saviors nor the banes of public education. Rather, like novice educators I’ve observed and interviewed, they run the gamut from talented and passionate to lackluster and burned out. What corps members share is the experience of being introduced to teaching through a truncated training process that stresses strict discipline and quantifiable results (p.197).

I had reached a similar conclusion.

Goldstein then goes on to recommend residency programs where newcomers to the profession are supervised by experienced teachers equipped with the expertise to model effective teaching and skills and be both sandpaper and a pillow to novices. Immersion into full-time classrooms is measured and monitored each step of the way over one to two years. These residencies—Goldstein notes that there are now 18 such programs from Memphis to Boston—make a great deal of sense to her, given her rich reporting on teachers and teaching over the past two centuries. And I agree.*

I would like to add another to her list of sensible ways of preparing teachers for urban schools. Look at the largest charter organization in California, Aspire Public Schools. The first 18 highly selective Aspire Teacher Residents in 2012 completed their first year of a four year stint–sounds like medical residents– of a closely supervised internship that includes a stipend of $13,500 and health insurance.

Fifteen have been hired to work full-time in the schools in which they were trained. Aspire has a network of 34 schools. They now step into the classroom as the teacher-of-record with a preliminary credential from the University of the Pacific and a Masters degree while continuing to work closely with a mentor who is paid a stipend to coach. And this support continues in subsequent years with Aspire teacher-coaches working with them until the residency is completed. Here is a district-based teacher training program–as opposed to a university-based program–that is smart.

Why smart?

Because they ask for a four-year commitment from novices rather than two in Teach for America. No novice has a prayer of mastering the complexities of teaching in two years–four years is closer to the norm of becoming a competent teacher.

Because support from mentors and peers–they are part of a cohort that meets periodically –during those years they are sailing solo in their classroom– strengthens the chance that such teachers will master the intricacies of the craft and become mentors themselves. After completing the four year residency, they can consider other posts in Aspire network such as Lead Teachers, Model Teachers, or administrators.

Because Aspire trains and inducts teachers into their expectations (e.g. all poor and minority students will go to college) and standards of teaching and student learning (e.g. how to teach, motivate, and evaluate students) in 34 charter schools. They do not depend wholly on university-based teacher education programs that provide generic course work with a brief time in actual classrooms.

Because the residency program is geared to pay for itself once foundation funding ends unlike similar programs elsewhere in the nation.

There is another reason I resonate to district–based (with affiliation to local university) internships and residencies is my experience in Washington, D.C. a half-century ago.

Surely history does not repeat itself since contexts then and now differ, but it comes close sometimes. In the early 1960s, I was a Master Teacher of History in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching that took returned Peace Corps Volunteers and trained them in one year to become urban teachers. Federally funded by the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, the model of a district-based program of teacher education located in a high school (and later in junior high schools and elementary schools) with second-year residencies created during the program attracted national attention for taking young, determined novices and helping them learn to teach in urban classrooms.

In 1966, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson sponsored the National Teacher Corps bill and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. The NTC went through many changes in its life span of 15 years in 700 sites across the nation recruiting and inducting thousands of new teachers to work in low-income minority schools (see National Teacher Corps 1966-1981 ) Many of those NTC teachers went on to become master teachers, principals, superintendents, and academics. Many stayed in the classroom. The experience left them changed people.

And in Washington, D.C., the Cardozo Project morphed into the Urban Teacher Corps that between 1967-1971 recruited and inducted hundreds of college graduates into D.C. classrooms before it was shut down by a new superintendent (see “Personal Odyssey: Becoming a Teacher and Reformer in the 1950s and 1960s,” February 27, 2011).

The D.C. schools scarf up Teach for America novices–recall that Chancellor Michelle Rhee was a TFA-er before serving as head of the district between 2007-2010. To my knowledge, there is no residency program in the district now.

So even with a score of teacher residency programs available now across the country, they are but a drop in the bucket of novices entering urban schools in 2014. Most newcomers come from conventional teacher education programs. The plea of that new teacher in 1967 was not hollow then nor is it now.

____________________

*To be clear with readers, Goldstein interviewed me about my experiences with the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching and I provided a back-cover blurb for the book.

19 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Persistence in Math Teaching Patterns: Deja Vu All Over Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Personalized learning (see previous post)

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

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

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

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

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

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

tn_sb1060918

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

Philanthropic Advocacy for School Reforms

I … challenge the wisdom of giving public sanction and approval to the spending of a huge fortune ….My object here is to state as clearly and as briefly as possible why the huge philanthropic trusts, known as foundations, appear to be a menace to the welfare of society.

Frank Walsh, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, 1915

 

Yes, a century ago, Walsh pilloried the richest man in the world who had established a foundation in his name, John D.Rockefeller, in advancing his corporate interests–then in oil, coal, and scores of other enterprises. His namesake foundation was a “moulder of public thought.”

A century later, critics are making similar charges that donors to school reform (see here and here) shape the policy agenda of districts, states, and the federal government when it comes to improving the nation’s schools.

If you think I am suggesting that donors and criticism of their charity comes around again and again, you are on the money (see here and here). The cyclical nature of philanthropic grant-making by both progressive-leaning and conservative-leaning foundations to advance different versions of urban reform–do any readers remember the Ford Foundation in the late-1960s funding decentralization in school reform and the harsh criticism the Foundation encountered including federal legislation in 1969?– is evident to me. As William Faulkner said: The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.

How come?

There is a theory that when new organizations are born, they imprint the organizational goals, norms, and rules that last for decades as they mature and thrive even when the environment changes on them. Just like when naturalist Konrad Lorenz showed how new-born goslings saw him first and attached to him–following him everywhere for as long as they lived.

images

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those years in the early 20th century, then, of wealthy businessmen forming foundations to give away their fortunes to help others and getting criticized for pursuing their corporate interests of the day is where the Walsh committee’s censure of John D. Rockefeller enter the picture. Imprinted on these foundations was that wealthy donors will do what they seek to do even if goes against the public interest. Since then, legislators and critics have lambasted donors during difficult economic times, social disruption, and political divisions for not being true to their stated goals. And the first decade of the 21st century is one of those times.

Why now?

The largest donors today (Gates, Walton, Dell, Broad, Fisher, etc.) began as entrepreneurs who created wealth and have decided to focus on causes dear to them including school reform. They have shifted their attention and dollars away from individual grants scattered among state and local districts to push their version of school reform (e.g., charter schools, alternative pools of educators such as Teach for America, teacher evaluation, Common Core State Standards) by making joint grants to the same entities (e.g., charter management organizations, big districts led by superintendents and school boards partial to their agenda) and national policy advocacy, that is, creating new organizations and funding existing ones such as “think tanks” that will influence legislators, educational policymakers, and the general public (e.g., New America Foundation, Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute) to do the right thing.

Researchers Sarah Reckhow and Jeffrey Snyder have documented the extent of what they call “convergent” funding of particular organizations between 2000 and 2010 that advance national policy agendas big donors want. In 2000, for example, 23 percent of donor money went to organizations that received funds from two or more major foundations. A decade later, 64 percent of donor money was given to organizations that received grant dollars from two or more foundations. One startling fact of “convergence” is that 13 of the 15 largest K-12 foundations gave grants to Teach for America. They concluded:

By targeting resources to a more focused set of organizations and allowing those organizations to grow stronger and more influential, foundations have likely increased their influence on education policy   (p. 193).

Recent articles on “A Walmart Fortune, Spreading Charter Schools” and “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution” add heft to the above increased … influence on education policy.

Surely current foundations are politically engaged now at a national level far beyond earlier foundations were in advocating for a particular policy agenda. In doing so, this “convergence” of money and policy advocacy have unintentionally strengthened efforts to centralize national authority in advancing a particular agenda for school reform.  The previous voices of unions, parent groups, professional associations, university-based researchers, and civil rights organizations have become mere echoes of what influence they once had.

Frank Walsh, where are you?

 

 

12 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

24 Comments

Filed under school reform policies, technology use