Tag Archives: school reform

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

Slogans in Businesses and Schools

Located in Menlo Park (CA) near the tidal marshes at the southern edge of San Francisco Bay, Facebook has 11 open-space buildings holding 6,000 employees. Open space architecture means no one has an office with doors.  You want privacy, wear earphones.

None of the open-space arrangements surprised me. What did, however, surprise me in the description of Facebook’s workplace was that there were posters everywhere that “exhort changing, hacking, and fearlessness.” Corporate slogans like “Hack,” “Taking risks gives me energy,” and “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” adorned walls, partitions, and employee entrances as constant reminders of what the company values (see slide show of Facebook, Google, and Twitter buildings).

My surprise may well be because of my limited exposure to these companies other than what I have read in articles and books plus what I heard from friends and their sons and daughters who work in these organizations. Apparently, company leaders believe that posting slogans everywhere strengthens the workplace culture and keeps the corporate vision and values driving Facebook at eye-level. Do such displayed slogans actually increase the sense of community and shared values and lead to higher job performance? I do not know.

There is another reason I was surprised by the ubiquity of placards in the Facebook workplace. In my experience as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I had seen in the past three decades many similar posters in low-income, largely minority schools exhorting students and teachers to learn and achieve. In these schools strenuous efforts to create a culture of achievement, success, and right behavior for every student is everywhere. For example in KIPP elementary and secondary schools, such posters abound:




And here are some photos of wall posters in other urban schools that are 90 percent minority and poor:IB poster

Every kid specialimages-4

My memory fails me, however, about the days that I taught in three urban, largely minority high schools between the mid-1950s and early 1970s, I do not recall such posters urging academic success and responsible behavior. Yet when I returned to those very same schools in 2013, such posters as shown above, are everywhere in the school.


So I asked myself: when did such posters appear in urban schools? What influenced schools to post these slogans–similar to Facebook’s placards–to get students and teachers to work harder and produce higher student achievement?

When Did Posters Exhorting Students and Teachers Begin To Appear?

No doubt there is no one single moment or even year. But my guess is that such posters began appearing in the late-1960s to early-1970s in alternative schools formed to uplift ethnic and racial pride. The belief was that pride in race and ethnicity is a precondition for academic improvement.



Beyond guessing, I am more sure of the movement to spread Effective Schools, beginning in the early 1980s, on the appearance of posters urging urban students to respect themselves, work hard in school, do well on tests, and succeed. Correlates of “effective schools” included “Climate of High Expectations,” “Clear and Focused Mission,” for example.  As attention and resources shifted to student outcomes in these years, efforts to make schools “effective” by following five, six, or more factors associated with high-achieving schools in low-income neighborhoods prompted many school leaders and teachers to display posters in school hallways and classrooms.



Furthermore,  the effective schools movement in  the 1980s converged with numerous initiatives within the corporate sector to restructure and re-culture firms to improve an organization’s performance. Those were the years (e.g., Nation at Risk) where harnessing school improvement to a stronger economy became the central task of policy elites and national leaders. Swapping ideas and practices between for-profit businesses and schools have occurred periodically in the past and were strongly encouraged by both corporate and national leaders then and since.

Do these slogans work? I really do not know for either the Facebook company or schools. Such school slogans certainly reassure students, teachers, parents, and school visitors that key values are displayed and important. Surely, the climate of a school, its norms, ceremonies, and traditions matter to how children, youth, and adults carry out their daily work. But far more critical is that school leaders, faculty, students, and community not only share the vision and values embedded in those slogans but also have the skills, wherewithal, and will to make them happen daily in hallways, cafeterias, and classrooms.


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

Big Educational Laptop and Tablet Projects: Looking at Ten Countries

Michael Trucano is the World Bank’s Senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist, serving as the organization’s focal point on issues at the intersection of technology use and education in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world.
At a practical working level, Mike provides policy advice, research and technical assistance to governments seeking to utilize new information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their education systems.

 This post appeared at: http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/big-educational-laptop-and-tablet-projects-ten-countries on July 31, 2013

 Big educational laptop and tablet projects: Ten countries to learn from

1. USA
Reflexively, many countries look to, and hope to compare themselves against, the United States when considering educational technology initiatives. (Whether or not this is a good or useful practice, especially for many less affluent countries, or for countries with decidedly different educational contexts and socio-economic circumstances, is perhaps fodder for another discussion.) The United States is of course a very big and diverse place, with a very decentralized education system (some might say it is actually a collection of education systems). Technology purchasing decisions are not made at the national level, but at the state or, more often, the district level (the country has over 14,000 school districts in total), which tends to complicate other countries’ attempts to ‘benchmark’ their level of use of educational laptops and tablets against ‘the U.S. experience’. Focusing one’s gaze at the state or local level can be more useful. While some elements of its program may change going forward, the U.S. state of Maine has been, and continues to be, a global pioneer in the use of laptops in schools, and lessons from the Maine experience have influenced policymakers in scores of other places. The recent decisions of the Los Angeles Unified School District to purchase iPads for its students (here are some thoughts from Larry Cuban on this announcement) and that of education officials in Miami Dade (Florida) to ensure access to digital devices to all students are worth noting, as these are two places likely to receive a great deal of media and research attention in the coming years. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that many school districts the U.S. are increasingly promoting ‘bring your own technology‘ (or ‘BYOT‘) initiatives (also known as BYOD, or ‘bring your own device’) as a way to increase the access to laptops and tablets within schools, which raises sets of additional questions worth considering related to things like (among others) equity, costs, maintenance and digital safety.

2. Uruguay
The first country in the world to provide all primary school students with free laptops (in public schools), Uruguay’s pioneering Plan Ceibal now finds itself at a crossroads. While the project continues to enjoy wide support from citizens, the sight of young children toting and using their small green and white One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptops is no longer novel, but rather part of the educational and cultural landscape. How can the level of excitement and momentum engendered by Plan Ceibal be maintained and sustained, especially as the really tough work begins: helping to catalyze and enable change as part of larger efforts at  ‘whole system reform’?

3. Thailand
While most large scale efforts to introduce ’1-to-1 computing’ in education have featured laptops, Thailand is notable in that it has instead chosen to use tablets. Heralded as the largest educational tablet initiative of its kind when it was first announced (although this title is now claimed by another country, see below), Thailand’s efforts are just beginning, but, as with similar initiatives in many other countries, have already serve as lightning rods for criticism and optimism.

4. Peru
Close to one million OLPC XO laptops have been distributed to students in Peru, a process which began in 2008, focusing initially on small schools in poor (and often rather remote) communities. Examining the Peruvian experience, colleagues at the Inter-american Development Bank (IDB) has been engaged in the first large-scale randomized evaluation of the impact of the OLPC program. The results so far should provide much food for thought for educational reformers and technology proponents in other countries who feel that large scale introductions of new technologies will, in and of themselves (and perhaps magically), bring about a variety of promised positive changes in educational systems. Reality can be a little more complicated — and messy.

5. Kenya (and Rwanda)
While it has not yet even begun, the bold three-phase plan in Kenya to begin rolling out laptops in its education system in January 2014 has already attracted much international attention. Starting with 400,000 free laptops delivered to new first graders, this project, if it proceeds as announced, would quickly become the largest effort of its kind on the continent. While Kenya has been home to a number of encouraging small pilot projects, the logistical challenges of doing something this large, this quickly, will be, as they like to say in Silicon Valley, ‘non trivial’. Lessons from its East African neighbor, Rwanda, which has distributed over 200,000 OLPC XO laptops so far, are no doubt being eagerly consumed and digested by policymakers and experts in Nairobi. While difficult, success in logistics is only a means to an end. Impacting the teaching and learning process inside and outside of schools in positive ways, fueling the aspirations of a new generation of Kenyan students (and their families), sustaining positive momentum and results over time — these are much more difficult goals to achieve. And then there is the question of how to pay for all of this, especially in ways that do not impede or constrain efforts to address other pressing educational and developmental priorities. In these and in other regards, the Kenyan experience with educational technologies will definitely one to watch in the coming months and years.

6. Turkey
While Thailand’s plans to introduce tablet computers into the hands (and onto the laptops) of its students immediately marked it as a potentially pioneering middle income country in the scope of its use of educational technologies, the scale of what is being rolled out in that Southeast Asian country has since been dwarfed plans and efforts at the other end of the continent, where Turkey’s FATIH (“Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology”) project is introducing over ten million tablets (and tens of thousands of interactive whiteboards, printers and other peripherals) into Turkish schools. Large scale pilots are already underway, as is a huge tender process to award contracts to roll out and support the project. In contrast to how the tablet project was conceived in Thailand, local manufacturing is meant to play a very important role in the project in Turkey.

7. India
Before Turkey, and before Thailand, it was the Aakash project in India which excited the imagination of many proponents of putting huge numbers of tablet computers into the hands of students in a developing country. That project has moved forward in fits and starts, but is only one of numerous efforts to introduce tablets at laptops across the continent-sized South Asia country. Large efforts in Rajasthan have recently been announced, following on efforts which began earlier in states like Uttar Pradesh. Initiatives across India will be particularly interesting to monitor, given the scale at which they will be occurring, and the fact that there is already a great deal of local knowledge about various approaches that have worked, and that haven’t, based on earlier educational technology programs in the country.

8. Argentina
Building in part on lessons from early efforts in San Luis province, Argentine projects like Conectar Igualdad and Plan S@armiento BA (in the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires) will eventually be, in aggregate, larger than the one laptop per child initiatives in Peru and Uruguay combined. Given the size and variation of these projects in these three countries, policymakers in other parts of the world seriously interested in learning from the hard won lessons of others before embarking on their own 1-to-1 education computing programs could do worse than to learn some Spanish (not a terrible amount of related information is available in English, let alone other international languages) and reach out to (and perhaps visit with) their colleagues in South America.

9. Portugal
The most ambitious European effort to date to provide students with laptops has been in Portugal. Given its recent history (a member of the European Union, Portugal was itself a developing country not that long ago), lessons from the eEscola project and Magellan initiative may be particular relevant and useful for middle income countries about to embark on large scale 1-to-1 educational computing programs — especially those that wish to utilize ‘public-private partnerships’ along the way.

10. ____

 As is the practice with lists of ten presented on the EduTech blog, #10 here has been left deliberately blank, as both an invitation for people to tell me what I have missed (or ignored), and as an acknowledgement that my own knowledge of such things is decidedly incomplete.

There are certainly lots of other places to look for inspiration, for best (and worst) practices, for hard-won implementation expertise and (hopefully) for hard data on costs and impacts. While Mexico recently cancelled a 240,000 unit procurement of laptops for students, this may perhaps be viewed more as a short-term hiccup in longer-term plans. A recent survey of technology use in education across Europe (One laptop per child in Europe: how near are we? [pdf]) highlights the extent to which students in countries like Denmark and Norway, as well as Latvia and Spain, already learn in environments where one laptop/tablet per learner is the norm. Netbooks on the rise [pdf] attempts to survey and distill lessons from across the Europe. Australia, the country that is often touted as having the first 1-to-1 computing initiative (at Methodist Ladies’ College way back in 1989 is nearing the end of a program that has seen almost a million laptops distributed to schools while at the same time tablets seem to be quickly gaining ground. (Side note: The Australia-based Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation (AALF) is a great resource for information on 1-to-1 computing efforts.) The EduTech blog has previously looked at educational laptop efforts in Georgia (the country in the Caucasus, not the state in the American South). A post on lessons from Quebec’s Eastern Townships has long been in the queue for publication; those who don’t want to wait are directed to related research published late last year.

Some closing remarks
Most of the large proposals for educational technology programs that come across my desk these days highlight the use of tablets (almost always Android devices, for what that’s worth, presumably for reasons of cost, and because the iPad, the market leading tablet device in OECD countries, does not currently have wide distribution in most middle and low income countries). Rarely (or more accurately: almost never) do I find a compelling reason why tablets are being chosen over laptops (or desktops … or … anything else, really). This is not to say that there aren’t potentially compelling reasons why purchasing tablets for use in schools and/or by teachers or students might make sense (although seeing hybrid devices, laptops with touchscreens, and tablets with dockable keyboards does leave me confused at times about where to draw the line between various product categories), rather that this technology choice often seems driven by assumption rather than as a result of careful deliberation. Worldwide, the general trend is clear: PCs and laptops are slowly being eclipsed by tablets in the consumer space.

I do suspect that what I am seeing in many of the education project proposals I read is in part just the latest manifestation of a long-observed trend that refuses to die: that of simply wanting to buy the latest popular gadget for use in schools. All too often, the related question being asked is not ‘what challenges are we trying to solve, and what approaches and tools might best help us solve them?’, but rather, ‘we know what our technology ‘solution’ is, can you please help us direct it at the right problems?

As in other parts of life, in education the answer you get is usually a function of the question you ask. In the process of attempting to formulate their questions related to the purchases and implementations of huge numbers of new laptops or tablets (or whatever tomorrow’s device of choice may be) to help support teaching and learning, hopefully more education policymakers and politicians will take the time and effort to try to learn from the experiences of their counterparts in other countries who have already been down similar paths. While studying lessons, both positive and negative, from some of the countries listed here may not provide them with all of the answers they seek, doing so just might help some of them re-think and re-frame some of the questions they are asking.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

How to Use Technology in Education (Frederick Hess and Bror Saxberg)

 Frederick M. Hess is director of educational-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Bror Saxberg is chief learning officer at Kaplan, Inc. They are the authors of  Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: Using Learning Science to Reboot Schooling. This appeared in National Review Online, December 16, 2013

The book provides an invaluable template for how to best think about digital learning. Promising education technologies won’t “fix” schools or replace terrific teachers. Instead, they make it possible to reshape the teacher’s job, so that teachers and students have more opportunity for personalized, dynamic learning.

How can we expand on the book’s transformation of education? Well, the book has real limitations. Students learn best when eye and ear work in tandem — but books are a silent medium. Books are fixed, providing the same experience to every reader, every time. The material and language will inevitably be too difficult for some readers and too easy for others. Books can’t offer a live demonstration or a new explanation to a confused reader.

Online materials can be rapidly updated, are customizable to a student’s interests and reading level, and feature embedded exercises that let students apply new concepts and get immediate feedback. Virtual instruction makes it possible for students to access real, live teachers unavailable at their school; this can be a haven for some students, especially those reluctant to ask questions in class. Researchers have found that intelligent, computer-assisted tutoring systems are about 90 percent as effective as in-person tutors.

None of this will happen just by giving out iPads or mouthing platitudes about “flipped classrooms.” Rather, it requires getting three crucial things right. First, new tools should inspire a rethinking of what teachers, students, and schools do, and how they do it. If teaching remains static, sprinkling hardware into schools won’t much matter. Second, technology can’t be something that’s done to educators. Educators need to be helping to identify the problems to be solved and the ways technology can help, and up to their elbows in making it work. Third, the crucial lesson from those getting digital learning right is that it’s not the tools, but what’s done with them. When they discuss what’s working, the leaders of high-tech charter school systems like Carpe Diem and Rocketship Education, or heralded school districts like that of Mooresville, N.C., brush past the technology in order to focus relentlessly on learning, people, and problem-solving.

All of this is too often missed when tech enthusiasts promise miracles and tech skeptics lament that technology is an “attack on teachers.” What to make of such claims? The book didn’t work miracles or hurt teachers. It did allow us to reimagine teaching and learning, even if we’re still struggling to capitalize on that opportunity five centuries later. Here’s hoping we do better this time.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Contradiction of School and Classroom Cultures (Part 2)

In the last post, I described a visit to a Southern California urban high school’s four social studies classes where the dominant culture expressed values of doing the least amount of work to pass the academic course. For most of the students, classroom habits revealed far more tedium than enthusiasm for, or even interest in, learning. Most of the disengaged students treated the classes like buzzing mosquitoes that had to be endured for 43 minutes before freedom came when bells ended the period.

Then after the class observations, I walked down the hallway and watched an assembly of a few hundred juniors and seniors sitting quietly and respectfully  honoring three school athletes who, through hard work, self-discipline, and display of skills had become national all-stars. They also had football scholarships to universities in hand. These players were on a team that had consistently beat rivals and was on the cusp of becoming state champions.

The disconnect between what values and habits I saw in these classrooms and the values and habits displayed by members of the football team who practice daily, play in interscholastic competition, and have to pass academic classes got me thinking about whether a school’s athletic  achievements and the spirit that flows from such hard work and grit spill over to the rest of the school influencing how non-athletes behave in classrooms and achieve academically.

Of course, I only saw these four social studies classes. How many of those 9th and 10th graders were on athletic teams, I do not know. Nor did I visit honor classes in math, science or Advanced Placement (the school had AP chemistry and calculus) that prized academic achievement, hard work, and self-discipline. Let’s grant that  such courses and classroom cultures existed in the school.

Keep in mind, however, the high school’s high dropout rate–less than 60 percent of students graduated high school–and persistent low performance on annual state tests. My hunch is that while such classes and academically engaged students were present,  in the face of such statistics, these classes hardly put a dent in the overall academic culture pervading most classrooms.

So I return to this disconnect, this apparent contradiction, between a school’s success in sports seemingly stopping at the classroom door by asking a few questions.

What does the research say about the connection between academic achievement and participation in high school sports?

No surprise here: The findings are mixed. One study of Ohio high schools concluded “that high schools that devote more energy to sports also produce higher test scores and higher graduation rates.” One writer summed up research on links between student athletes and academic achievement;

“One 2010 study by Betsey Stevenson, then at the University of Pennsylvania, found that, in a given state, increases in the number of girls playing high-school sports have historically generated higher college-attendance and employment rates among women. Another study, conducted by Columbia’s Margo Gardner, found that teenagers who participated in extracurriculars had higher college-graduation and voting rates, even after controlling for ethnicity, parental education, and other factors.”

But most students do not participate in interscholastic sports–40 percent is cited as the national average but if one were to look closely at some low-income, largely minority schools participation in competitive sports would be no more than 20 percent. For the 60 to 80 percent who do not compete, there is no research that I can find that shows a spillover affect from winning seasons in high school sports to academic culture in classrooms. What researchers and critics of high school sports programs have pointed out, however, is that so often academic programs are starved while dollars flow for hiring coaches (many of whom are not teachers), new locker rooms, and better turf for the playing field.  Some critics urge high schools to abandon interscholastic sports and spend more money on academics. See here and here.

But research findings are seldom invoked in providing resources for such value-laden policies as financing sports programs and cultivating academic success. Beliefs trump research time and again.

What  beliefs dominate current thinking about competitive athletics in high school?

For the high school I visited in Southern California and similar high schools elsewhere in the country (e.g., Dallas’s Carter High School, Cleveland’s Glenville High School), many adults believe that competitive sports are pipelines to university scholarships and an education that leads directly to middle and upper-middle class status. They also believe that winning teams build pride-in-school and community, promoting a spirit of achievement that flows across the entire school. See here and here.

So I return to the contradiction that I noticed when visiting social studies classes and then stepped into a sports assembly. Does a school’s athletic  achievements spill over to the rest of the school influencing how non-student athletes behave in classrooms and achieve academically?

From only watching four social studies classes in the California high school, I did not see it. But the sample is too small and may be unrepresentative of the larger school.  From what I have heard from athletic boosters clubs at every school I have taught at and observed, I want to say “yes.” When I turn to the research on high school sports and academics, one has to scratch to find such studies. Moreover, I have yet to see the spillover effect in a high school. So without seeing it or have studies that confirm such a connection, I can only say: I do not know.


Filed under school reform policies

A Second Look at iPads in Los Angeles

The rollout of iPads in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is becoming a classic case study of what not-to-do when implementing any innovation whether it is high-tech or low-tech.  I wrote about the adoption of the innovation six months ago.

What is clear now is that teachers and principals were excluded from the decision-making process. The Total Cost of Operation (TCO) was a mystery to the Board of Education who made the decision. And the initial deployment of the devices was so botched that the pilot project was put on hold.  Phase 2 and the eventual distribution of devices to all LAUSD students remains to be decided once errors have been sorted out.

Called The Common Core Technology Project, each iPad costs the district $678,  higher than the price of an iPad bought in an Apple store, but it comes with a case (no keyboard, however) and an array of pre-loaded software aimed at preparing students for the impending Common Core standards and the state online testing system. The Board of Education and Superintendent John Deasy want each student to have access to an iPad. With  mostly Latino and poor students in LAUSD, the eventual cost of this contract with Apple Inc. could run over $400 million.

Were the Board and Superintendent to have paused and examined the history of using technology in public schools, they might have thought twice before major bollixes occurred.

1. There is no body of evidence that iPads will increase math and reading scores on state standardized tests. There is no evidence that students using iPads (or laptops or desktop computers) will get decent paying jobs after graduation.

These are the most common reasons boards of education and school administrators across the nation give for buying tablets for K-12 students. But not in LAUSD.

Acquiring 1:1 iPads for students, according to the LAUSD press release is to: “provide an individualized, interactive and informative-rich learning environment” for every student. One would have to assume that such an “environment” would lead to gains in test scores. But it is an assumption. Since many low-income families do not have computers at home or Internet connections, providing iPads is a worthy reason–what used to be called “closing the digital divide“–for the large expenditure.

On what basis, however, will the district determine whether to move to phase 2 of the plan? Again, according to the official press release, the assessment of this first phase “will include feedback … from teachers, students, parents and other key stakeholders.” That’s it. No hard data on how often the devices were used, in what situations, and under what conditions. Nor mention of data on student outcomes.

Now, informal surveys of teachers and school administrators show mixed reactions, even disaffection for iPads in classrooms.

2. Apart from “closing the digital divide,” the main reason for the Apple Inc. contract is that Common Core standards and accompanying online tests are on the horizon and due to arrive in 2014-2015. LAUSD wants teachers and students to be ready.

3. The true cost of this experiment runs far higher than the projected $400 million to give iPads to 655,000 students. That is what Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) means. The cost for the iPad is given as $678 per unit (remember, there is no keyboard usually listed at $100 which will have to be bought eventually for secondary school students).Now, budget-watchers discovered that the devices will cost even more. An Oops! that surprised the Board of Education.

Funds to hire school technical assistants, providing the wireless infrastructure, loss of tablets, and repair of broken tablets, insurance, professional development for teachers, costs for replacement devices when three-year warranties expire—I could go on but these numbers double and triple the published hardware and software costs. Consider that the reports of the $30 million contract with Apple Inc. omitted that the Board of Education approved $50 million for this first phase to accommodate some of these other costs detailed above.

And just a few days ago, a major Oops! was announced when the Board of Education, in questioning a top administrator, discovered that the software license to use the math and English curriculum expires after three years—the clock began ticking last July when the Board approved the contract. Renewal of the license in just over two years will cost another $60 million. Add that to the TCO.

Intel, a company with a vested interest in Microsoft tablets and a losing competitor in the LAUSD bid for a contract, produced a white paper that pointed out that TCO runs from two to three times higher than the announced price of the device. No one said a word about that.

The point is that administrators and school boards eager to buy devices hide TCO in separate documents or glossy verbiage. In other instances, they simply do not know or care to find out in their enthusiasm for the innovation.  LAUSD experienced a perfect storm of mistakes in plunging into iPads without much forethought and a glance in the rear-view mirror for earlier reform debacles in putting into practice a high-tech innovation.


Filed under leadership, school reform policies, technology use

Kindergarten Teachers’ Effects on Five Year-Olds’ Futures

I never went to preschool. I also missed being in kindergarten when I went to a Pittsburgh (PA) elementary school in the early 1940s. It was my loss.

Why a loss? Because there is much evidence–both quantitative and qualitative–that what five year-olds learn in kindergarten when strong ties exist between them and their  teachers produce short- and long-term effects (e.g., cognitive gains, social behaviors, and psychological benefits) that last into adulthood.  In the past few decades, educational researchers and social scientists have fastened upon metrics that seemingly prove that  such outcomes have occurred (see here and here).

More recently, economists have gotten on board with their algorithms and cost-benefit analyses and found that preschool and early childhood school experiences did, indeed, have long-term effects on adult earnings, getting married, raising families, and daily behavior in the community. See here, here, and here. Because economists have accrued outsized influence on U.S. policies in health care, education, government operations, and other sectors, their cost-benefit analyses have helped in building political coalitions supporting investments in early childhood education, especially for low-income families.

But you do not need social scientists to tell parents or early childhood educators that kindergarten helps all children build mind, body, emotional strengths, and lifetime habits. For decades, preschool and kindergarten teachers have believed that such effects lasted beyond preschool into elementary and secondary grades. Middle class parents also.

Remember Robert Fulgrum’s best seller, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten?  Although critics have called the collection of short essays trite and sugary, the book  has sold over seven million books since 1988 and continues to sell well a quarter-century later. The part about kindergarten sums up what so many Americans still believe are core values and behaviors learned in families and school.

Share everything.
Play Fair.
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Sure, these behaviors are learned in families first and then in preschool and kindergarten. Academics call these learned behaviors socialization . Five year-olds learn how to behave in groups in the next dozen years as students and as adults later.  Ah, but trying to get metrics to capture these all-important learned behaviors  still remain beyond the reach of current social scientists including economists.

If Fulgrum’s platitudes annoy social scientists and educational researchers, few ever  ask adults about their memories of those early years in school. Even fewer researchers listen to those parents who remember well their kindergarten teachers–experiences at least three to four decades earlier. But all of that has now changed with the foot-to-the-pedal, standards-based school reform since the early 1980s. Those reforms have altered the character of kindergartens.

Kindergartens today have become academic boot camps for first grade. Much time is spent on getting children to read, learn arithmetic and getting tested.There are now pre- and post-tests for reading and math, most often timed to get supposedly accurate measurements. And Common Core standards for kindergarten are yet to be implemented with more of the same academic concentration.


Many teachers and parents have complained about the loss of play-time and children choosing activities. As standards-based testing and accountability have seized three-to-five year-olds, parents and teachers have noted increases in thumb-sucking and bed-wetting. In short, top-down pressures to teach academics to young children has reshaped the relationship between early childhood teachers and young children in negative ways (see here and here).

So test-driven policies using easily quantifiable measures have indeed influenced how kindergarten teachers practice by squeezing students to achieve academically and, in doing so, has eroded the all-important teacher-child relationship, one that remains central to what five year-olds learn and practice for years to come.

And here is the rub. Policymakers have largely ignored the teacher-child relationship–arguing that they are more concerned with tangible outcomes not how teachers teach or children learn. As for researchers, they have been of little help since they have a hard time identifying metrics that capture the quality of that child-teacher relationship and its links to socializing children and subsequent academic and non-academic effects  on adult behavior. Without quantitative measures to capture the impact of the   teacher-child  relationship, policymakers skip over it and grab at what can be reduced to numbers; that all-important relationship is missing-in-action when policymakers make decisions. And that is unfortunate.

In the current climate of test-driven standards and coercive accountability, policymakers and researchers depend far too much upon test scores and not whether what is measured captures the cognitive and social-psychological habits young children acquire and the all-important relationship they have with their teachers. If there are no measures, then these important outcomes do not exist.


Thanks to Susan Ohanian for finding the above cartoon


Filed under how teachers teach, preschool, Reforming schools

The Tomato Harvester, the Smart Gun, and The Age-Graded School: Reframing the Problem

Machines picking thick-rind tomatoes, a gun that won’t fire in the hands of someone who doesn’t own it, and schools where six year-olds work with eight year-olds, where 14 and 16 year-olds, regardless of grade, engage in academic lessons–all are instances where historic problems have been reframed in creative ways.

Take the tomato harvester. Mechanizing agricultural work reduces labor costs and produces larger profit margins. But there was a problem with machines picking tomatoes. Early versions of the harvester would crush too many of the tomatoes as they scooped up the entire plant, shook the tomatoes free of the stalk, and then piled them high in trucks.

Then a few scientists in California looked at the problem differently. Rather than a better machine, create a different tomato, one  with thick rinds that could withstand the jostling and the weight of piled up fruit in a truck. Trial after trial finally produced the “vf-415″ or “square tomato.” In 1961, about 1 percent of all tomatoes in California were picked by machines; seven years later, 95 percent was.


Then there is the “smart gun.”  Because so many Americans own guns, accidents occur when children and youth unintentionally kill siblings and friends, commit suicide or use stolen weapons. For decades, blame for these lethal accidents has been on those who have improperly secured weapons in their homes. So attention has focused on home security devices that keep guns out of children’s and teenagers’ hands.

Now here is where reframing the problem occurs. Rather than focus entirely on gun owners using weapons safely and security devices as the National Rifle Association has done, some inventors using the latest technologies have looked at the gun itself. Using sensors, magnets, fingerprint recognition, and other bio-metric devices, “smart guns” have been developed where only the person owning the weapon can use it. If stolen, the gun will not shoot. If discovered in the back of closet by a five year-old, it cannot be discharged. Flipping the perspective from the gun owner to the gun itself can eventually–only a few have reached the market yet– curb avoidable mayhem.


And then there is the age-graded school.


The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, solved the  problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to masses of children entering urban schools.  Today, the age-graded school is everywhere. Most Americans 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.

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by age 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, and, after an annual test would be promoted. The age-graded school worked well but, nonetheless, has caused serious problems past and present.

Late-19th and early 20th century critics of age-graded schools saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates and causing  dropouts from schools as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because they flunked.

The development of twice yearly promotions and ability groups smoothed out some of the inherent problems of age-graded schools. But left untouched the overall structure of the age-graded school that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class where every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be held back. The notion that children differ in how fast they learn knowledge and skills was foreign to the age-graded school.  These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and has persisted decade after decade.


Instead of endorsing drop-out programs, pulling students out of classes and remedial teaching, reformers reframed the problem as the age-graded school itself. They created  ungraded schools.

Beginning in the 1930s and through the 1970s, reformers launched non-graded schools and multi-age classrooms time and again. Whole elementary and secondary schools used flexible scheduling where teams of teachers grouped and re-grouped students by performance in math, reading, and other subjects rather than what grade they in. Open classrooms flourished in the late-1960s and early 1970s.

Over time, however, these experiments in non-graded schooling and classrooms withered and disappeared. Even though researchers found sufficient evidence that these innovations were just as successful as traditional age-graded schools, non-graded schools found little traction among superintendents, principals, and parents (see REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-1992).

There were (and are) exceptions, however. Still amid standards-based testing for the past three decades, ungraded public schools and classrooms soldier on. There is the Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., a school that has done multiage grouping ever since it opened in 1890. There is the open classroom in San Geronimo (CA) in operation since 1971 and many, many others across the nation.

Why so few?

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 ( see metz-real-schools).

Just as paying attention to the tomato rather than the machine and seeing the gun rather than the gun owner as the problem to be solved, the age-graded school has to be seen anew as the problem to be solved, not teacher unions, insufficient iPads, or policies that instill fear into teachers or tighten standards-based testing.  Ungrading schools create different structures for students to learn at their different paces reducing dropouts while giving teachers time and flexibility to teach what has to be taught.


Filed under Reforming schools

Common Core Redux: Cartoons, Images, and Satire

For the monthly cartoon feature, I return to the Common Core State Standards. The first one I did just over a year ago was popular with readers–over 10,000 views. For this month, I gathered a medley of pro and con images, cartoons, and descriptions of the Common Core State Standards.

The first one is a three minute video explaining the reasons for the CCSS and what they are expected to do. The Council of Great City Schools, an endorser of the Standards, produced the video. While critics will rail at the assumptions and values embedded in the video, it is clear, crisp, and to the point.

What follows are additional images and cartoons, again, mostly done to criticize CCSS. The final offering I have is a satire of the critics.




Common Core and thinking

common core & tchrs

no standards before Core

against standards



And here is the satirical blast against critics of CCSS, particularly from those on the political right who envision a cabal pushing the Common Core, a reform that will destroy U.S. public education. It comes from Ben Riley of the New Schools Venture Fund. He is, as his bio reads, “the Director of Policy and Advocacy at NewSchools Venture Fund, and is responsible for leading NewSchools’ work in developing and advocating for a policy agenda that creates opportunities for education entrepreneurs.” He posted this blog on April 19, 2013.

Common Core-spiracy

TO:           All members of the Illuminati Common Core-spiracy
FROM:   Benjamin Riley, NewSchools Venture Front
CC:           Governors of 45 US states; NEA & AFT leadership; Scholastic, Pearson and McGraw Hill; US Chamber of Commerce; Gates Foundation; Aspen Institute; ExxonMobil; Trilateral Commission; Council on Foreign Relations; All European Heads of State;  Professor Bill Ayers; the Rothschilds; the Rockefellers; Parallax Corporation; Fair Play for Cuba Committee; [REDACTED BY CHENEY]; Dennis Rodman

RE:           Discovery of our plot to destroy the American way of life through the raising of academic standards
Gentlemen (and Condi), I write with great urgency. Despite our best efforts to conceal our true aims behind the development and adoption of the Common Core State Standards, our plot is on the verge of unraveling.  (Reminder: our plan is to “dumb down schoolchildren so they will be obedient servants of the government and probably to indoctrinate them to accept the leftwing view of America and its history,” even though most of us are wealthy capitalists.) We did not anticipate that a small, select band of truth seeking American patriots would see through our ruse and reveal our true intentions.

As you know, we intend to shred this country’s fabric of freedom through a complex, multi-pronged assault on everything this nation holds sacred – starting with cursive handwriting. We intentionally removed cursive from the Common Core because we broadly agreed that the ability to write in round letters that flow together is a key skill for all freethinking persons to possess in 2013. The Declaration of Independence, after all, was written in cursive – coincidence?  Unfortunately for us, however, state legislators in North Carolina have already passed legislation to again mandate that cursive writing be taught in school, and other states seem poised to follow North Carolina’s lead. So much for our hope that principles of “small government conservatism” would mitigate against this meddling into what schools teach.

But other problems loom larger for us than our war on penmanship. Although the Common Core was created by state-based groups, and adopted by 45 state legislatures with broad bipartisan support, we all know that eventually we were going to build one giant federal database, housed within the National Security Agency (or News Corp), to track the thoughts of every student in the country. What we did not anticipate is Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – usually our reliable puppet – would discover our plan and rally forces against our “Big Brother privacy invasion.” Although there is little we can do to stop her directly, I’ve instructed the Gifts Department to cancel the Daytona 500 tickets we promised Clarence for the Citizens United decision.

We also, as you know, plan to brainwash the American citizenry into believing fringe scientific theories outside the mainstream of scientific thought. I refer of course to “evolution” and “climate change.” According to an education “expert” at Cato Institute (another usually reliable puppet), “there’s nothing wrong with talking about climate change in science classrooms, but this opens up the huge possibility that interpretations of climate change or analysis that a lot of people disagree with will still be taught.” Of course, some people might equate teaching “interpretations” and “analysis” of “what’s happening to the planet” as what we commonly refer to as “science,” but apparently the road to serfdom is paved with Darwin’s monkey theories.

Likewise, we are in real trouble with our plan to create a single, national curriculum that will turn America’s freedom-loving children into France-admiring cheese-eating surrender monkeys. To be sure, on their face the Common Core State Standards are academic standards that define what students are expected to know and learn, and do not mandate any particular material (or “curriculum”) that educators must use. Nonetheless, for reasons that remain opaque we have made it a priority to teach “seventh-graders about J. Edgar Hoover’s sexuality.” (Similarly, David H. and Charles G. feel VERY strongly that Atlas Shrugged should be required reading in the third grade – let’s take this up at our next meeting in Davos.)

You will also recall our hope that, once the Common Core was firmly entrenched in the American education system and our youth fully indoctrinated, we would provide “unfettered access of our educational system by the United Nations.” Unfortunately, a rogue outfit in Arizona has gotten wind of our plan and published our org chart for all to see. As I’ve asked you before, PLEASE stop circulating our internal documents to Fox News – Sean H. has an unfortunate tendency to leave documents lying around in the men’s room.

But our most daunting challenge stems from an adversary as intelligent as he is fearless. I refer of course to Glenn Beck. Using the keen insight for which he is well admired, Beck rightly perceives that the Common Core effort is not about our education system per se. Rather, Beck understands the Common Core is merely prelude to our much bigger ambition to eliminate all parental rights. Beck knows that soon, using “Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging [and a] pressure-sensitive computer mouse,” we will be able to directly manipulate the minds of American citizens. This plan will only work, however, if we’ve successfully eliminated any rights parents have to make any decisions for their children, including (importantly) whether they wear tinfoil hats.

Gentlemen, we must act quickly. I hereby propose an emergency action plan to revive the Common Core before these truth-tellers capture the hearts and minds of the worker-bee drones we are so intent on manufacturing:

  1. Massive advertising buy in support of Common Core in all major golf tournaments
  2. Federal legislation to require purchase of all Common Core curriculum materials in bitcoins
  3. Kidnap Senator Rand Paul, demand his fealty to Common Core through appeal to the Aqua Buddha
  4. Develop series of colorful children’s books in support of the Common Core loosely tied to known defenders of freedom, including Adam Smith (“The Invisible Hand…of Your Education!”), Ayn Rand (“Goin’ Galt with the Common Core”), and Charles Murray (“Bending the Bell Curve”)
  5. Triple production of black helicopters.

Please deposit 5% of your net wealth forthwith into our Cayman Islands account so that we may maintain our control over the American education system, Wall Street, Hollywood, the International Baccalaureate program, and other global systems of power.

 Novus ordo seclorum.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies