Apple Classroom of Tomorrow: A Glimpse into the Past

Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) began in 1985 with three classrooms in which every student had access to a desktop computer at school and at home. This 1:1 ratio in a classroom at this time when most schools had 125 students per computer was not only innovative but rare.  As the head of the Apple-sponsored research said: “we set out to investigate how routine use of technology by teachers and students would affect teaching and learning.”

While much has been written about the pluses and minuses of ACOT after it shut down a decade later (see here, here, and here), a glimpse inside one of those classrooms in its first year is like seeing a fossil preserved in amber.

Researcher Jane David described her visit in May 1986 to a fifth grade classroom in Blue Earth school (then a K-12 school housing all students in the rural Minnesota district). One of three initial classrooms chosen to participate in the experiment, David’s description of  her two day visit to the classroom raises questions that in 2017 are just as relevant about routine use of devices in the nation’s classroom. Here is, in part, what she had to say.*

The ACOT classroom is one of three fifth-grade classes in Blue Earth’s only school, a K-12 school with roughly 1000 students and 250 computers.** The number of computers reflects the fact that Blue Earth has been in the forefront of computer use in schools even prior to ACOT….

The ACOT fifth grade class consists of advanced students who averaged in the 99th percentile on previous standardized tests and began the year with keyboarding skills ranging from 30-80 words per minute. These students were introduced to keyboarding in the third grade and participated in the Project Beacon classroom in the fourth grade [part of large, three-year state grant called the Beacon project]. Moreover, ACOT is enhanced by school leadership and hence a climate that encourages innovative uses of computers. From the classroom to the library, cafeteria, nurse’s office andcentral office, computers are am integral part of the daily routine.

The ACOT [fifth grade] teacher began teaching in 1980 with no computer background. Seeing computers at the school, he purchased an Apple and taught himself Appleworks. With $100 from Apple, he took a course in Logo.

In the ACOT classroom, the computers are arranged in five rows going away from the teacher’s desk; four of the five rows are adjacent (with monitors back-to-back). All computers are on three-shelf work stations, with storage beneath and monitors on top. A printer is located at the end of the double rows and a large monitor above a chalkboard in the front of the room and a second large monitor on one side wall.

The computers in the ACOT classroom are used roughly 50% of the time. Word processing is the main use, with applications ranging from daily journal writing to dictation in which students enter answers to oral questions and then reorganize the information into a story or poem. Students have also created a class newspaper using Newsroom and have personal dictionaries (databases which sit on the desktop)consisting of the words they have difficulty spelling (which they quiz each other on). The most advanced students use a math CAI program with a spiral of math skills….

David also looked at a classroom in Eugene (OR) and described that as well in her report to Apple. After summarizing the information she gathered from the two visits to these classrooms, she offered research questions that she felt needed to be answered when a full study of the half-dozen or more ACOT classrooms were done. The research questions covered the influence of computers on how teachers taught, how students reacted to computers, and how organizational and physical arrangements affect the use of computers.

These questions, I believe, are just as relevant for researchers to investigate as for practitioners to consider now as they were then. For example,

#Do computers change the way teachers teach?

#How are computers used instructionally?

#Do computers simplify or complicate teaching?

David also was sensitive to the organizational constraints teachers faced in using 1:1 devices within the confines of the age-graded school within a district and state that had its own requirements. For example, she says:

A number of ingrained characteristics of the existing system seem to run counter to a vision of students using computers as vehicles for exploration, independent learning, and individual pursuits.

-teacher-centered classrooms;

-curricular objectives required by the district or school;

-individual and school evaluations based on traditional standardized tests not sensitive to new kinds of learning;

-the need to ‘stay with’ the other classes in the school at the same grade level (pressure from teachers and parents);

-the need to prepare students in the way that the next grade’s teachers expect (and ultimately graduation requirements.

All of the above questions–there are more in her report–and the imperatives of the Blue Earth age-graded elementary school nested in a district and state in 1986 are, in my opinion, not only a glimpse into the past but also a pointed reminder that efforts to integrate computers into daily lessons must reckon with these questions and imperatives in 2017.



*Jane David is a long-time friend, co-author, and colleague. She provided me with a copy of her 1986 report to Apple from which I excerpted these sections.

**Blue Earth is now a district with three schools: an elementary, middle, and high school.





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Learning from the Past? An Analogy between Compulsory Public Schools and Health Insurance*

The U.S. Senate’s failure to either repeal or repair the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) means that the existing law, its strengths and flaws, will be around for the immediate future. A half-century ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed amendments to the Social Security law that the then Democrat-controlled House of  Representatives and Senate passed with large majorities. Thus, Medicare became the law of the land in 1965 for Americans 65 and older and Medicaid for the very poor. It was a single payer system of what was then called “socialized medicine.”

The first enrollee for Medicare was former President Harry Truman. Truman had initially promoted health insurance for all in 1945 and 1949 as had President Franklin Delano Roosevelt before him and President John F. Kennedy after him. So it took decades to get health insurance for the elderly.




For those under the age of 65, however, health insurance was largely managed by private companies with prices set by the market. Even though most democracies in the world already had national insurance for all, the plans were funded differently (e.g., Britain, Netherlands, and Australia). Not until 2010–nearly a half-century later–when President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act did the U.S. provide ways for millions of uninsured Americans under 65 to get health insurance.

The Affordable Care Act aimed at the 48 million Americans without health insurance in 2010. That number of uninsured Americans fell to 28 million in 2016, a drop (the highest ever) from 18 percent to 10 percent uninsured. Uninsured poor Americans in 31 states got Medicaid. Still there were defects in Obamacare that both Democrats and Republican legislators saw needed correcting.

Neither the bill passed by the House in 2016 and the bills that failed in the Senate in 2017 corrected the major flaws and even threatened to double the numbers of uninsured. With the recent Congressional debacle over health care bills, Obamacare remains intact but still millions of Americans under the age of 65 cannot afford market-driven prices for insurance.

To recap then: between the mid-1930s to 2017, nearly nine decades, old and young, economically comfortable and poor Americans have slowly gained health insurance in increments but Medicare for all or universal health care–is still in the distance. Although a majority of Americans polled (53 percent) say they want a single-payer plan, that would take a unified U.S. Congress and a determined President who could shove that ball yard-by-yard over the goal line. When that will happen, I surely do not know.

Affordable health care covering all Americans is, I believe, similar to the slow but steady incremental progress of tax-supported public schools that moved from private tutors, tuition-paying academies, and “Dame schools” in the 17th and 18th centuries to property owners being taxed, voters authorizing the “common” public school before the Civil War, and states later passing compulsory attendance laws in the late-19th and early 20th centuries (see here here, and here). Today, free public schools in the U.S. enroll over 50 million children and youth between the ages of 4 through 17 (depending on the state) in over 13,000  districts housing over 100,000 schools. The process of insuring that all boys and girls will go to school took many decades just as health care has in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

This is the analogy I use in this post. But historical analogies are dicey.

Uses of the Past

When policymakers, practitioners, and public school students ask about the usefulness of history they want guidance from the past to avoid making mistakes now; some even want predictions. Invariably, historians disappoint them.

Most historians believe that the past can surely inform current policy but extracting direct “lessons” and making confident predictions, while playing well on cable news, last little longer than the 24-hour news cycle and are often, there is no other word, wrong (see here and here).

So historians of education, for example, (and I include myself in that group) argue that even if “lessons” cannot be extracted from the past, policymakers and practitioners can surely profit from looking backward when, say, earlier generations of well-intentioned reformers worked hard to improve schooling. These scholars say that they can aid contemporary policymakers by pointing out similarities and differences between previous and current situations (i.e., analogies). Finally, historians can alert policymakers to what did not work, what might be preferable and what to avoid under certain conditions.

In historians offering their knowledge of how previous generations approached the problems of the day and crafted solutions, they can inform contemporary, serious reformers as they wrestle with a different context from their cousins a half-century to century ago.

The Spread of Tax-supported Public Schools

Beginning in colonial years, proceeding through the Revolutionary decades and responding to the social and political reform of the early 19th century, funding public schools in a mostly rural nation was seen as crucial to the political, social, and cultural health of the new nation. Reformers such as Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and Noah Webster in these years spoke often of creating Americans who knew and performed their civic duties, understood the Bible, could read and write to get jobs, improve their moral character, and create a republican society that Americans prized. Yes, more than two centuries ago, there were multiple (and conflicting) purposes for schooling the young (see here, here, and here).

Slowly, the idea of tax-supported public schools took hold in New England spread to the Midwest but barely penetrated the pre-Civil War South. In rural and urban areas, primary and grammar schools grew. After the Civil War, more and more parents voluntarily sent their sons and daughters–racially segregated, however, by law until the 1950s–to school (see here and here).

Not until the early decades of the 20th centuries had all states passed  Compulsory attendance laws mandating parents to send their children to school. The ever-shifting but crucial purposes for schooling the next generation in a democracy required everyone to pay taxes and send their children to school.

By the middle of the 20th century, kindergartens, junior high and senior high school had been added to the age-graded elementary school. Increased graduation rates meant that the high school diploma became common. While the purposes for public schooling shifted from time to time (e.g., dropping Bible study, increased attention to job preparation) and while a private school K-12 sector grew slowly–about 10 percent of public school enrollment now–going to school became the dominant experience for children and youth.

By the end of the century, reformers called for all students to go to college (although most of higher education both public and private required families to pay tuition) bringing into daily conversation the question of whether youth would go 16-plus years to tax-supported institutions.

The point of this brief sprint through history of tax-supported schools and their purposes in a democratic society is that much time was taken and incremental steps occurred to make tax-supported public schools a virtual right for every

I believe a similar process is at work in providing universal health care as well.


*I thank Beverly Carter for suggesting this analogy.





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Zombie Reforms and Personalized Learning (Part 2)

In Part 1, I described an instructional innovation Professor Fred Keller designed in the mid-1960s aimed at transforming the traditional college undergraduate lecture course in psychology. Called Personalized System of Instruction, PSI was a course using behaviorist techniques that permitted students to move at their own pace in finishing assignments, taking tests, and completing the course. Similar courses in the social and natural sciences spread rapidly across university campuses throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

Initially popular as they were in converting traditional courses into individually guided lessons, these university courses faded.  By the mid-1990s, few faculty used PSI for introductory courses.

Evidence of higher student scores for those completing the PSI course as compared to traditional lecture course, however, clearly supported the innovation. Dropping PSI, then, had little to do with its demonstrated success with students. Other factors played a part in the disappearance of PSI on college campuses. Many professors who had adopted PSI came to realize the huge amount of work they had to put in with few tangible rewards from their department. Moreover, the lack of university incentives for improved teaching–research was believed to be far more important than teaching–drained enthusiasm from those who saw positive results of PSI courses. These and other factors led to the demise of an innovation that seemingly worked.

It is puzzling, however, that research studies demonstrated the superiority of PSI over traditional lecture courses yet still universities dropped such courses. With the growth of online learning–or distance learning–advocates in the past decades have talked about resurrecting versions of PSI especially because of the current ubiquity of devices and software that could be easily applied to undergraduate science and math courses. So it is possible that some incarnation of PSI may stage a comeback not in its original behaviorist design reliant upon text but as online course software conveying science concepts in undergraduate courses. A once-heralded innovation may arise from the pile of dead reform. Alas, another zombie reform.

Zombie reforms, according to economist Paul Krugman, contains “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.” Think of “learning styles,” “left brain/right brain” teaching, and year-round schooling (see here, here, and here).

That is not the case for PSI. Strong evidence supported it continuation. But that second life for PSI hasn’t happened yet in higher education. Something similar to what occurred with PSI in higher education, however is occurring in K-12 schools.

With the onslaught of high-decibel policy talk on “personalized learning” and an array of programs popping up across the country funded by donors and corporate icons in technology in the past decade, self-paced and individualized software, most of which have few if any studies about their effectiveness, have appeared in many schools. In the history of school efforts to individualize teaching and learning, such reforms have appeared again and again (see here and here). And here is another “again.”

Why do zombie reforms pushing individualization in K-12 schools and often lacking solid evidence keep getting resurrected?

Answer: The abiding impact of age-graded school structures and cultures.

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 in the 20th century.  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 houses teachers in separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into weekly chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through a school year of 36-weeks, and, after passing tests would be promoted.

These structures and the culture that have grown within age-graded schools over the past century, however, say nothing about which of the multiple purposes tax-supported public schools should pursue (e.g., civic engagement, preparation for the workplace, strengthening individual character, cultivating problem-solving and critical thinking, and making society more just). Taxpayers, voters, policy elites, and donors decide.

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 hence causing school dropouts as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because teachers flunked them repeatedly.*

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. These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and have persisted decade after decade. The notion that children differ in how fast they learn knowledge and skills was out-of-sync with the age-graded school.

Nonetheless, reformers launched repeated efforts to “individualize” instruction.  The Winnetka Plan and the Dalton Plan appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, teaching machines in the 1950s, computer-assisted instruction in the 1970s and 1980s, and now “personalized learning”.**

In each instance, a flurry of hyperbole accompanied the innovation, programs spread proclaiming the end of the graded school, but as time went by, these efforts to individualize teaching and learning lost their mojo. The age-graded school won again and again.

The hullabaloo of new technologies again has promised that 1:1 devices and extraordinarily powerful interactive software will turn the dream of individualization into a daily workable reality in U.S. schools.


No reliable and valid body of evidence yet supports such claims for any version of “personalized learning” that is marketed now. Thus, another zombie school reform climbs from the grave to do battle with the historic age-graded school.



*William T. Harris, “The Early Withdrawal of Pupils from School: Its Causes and Its Penalties,” National Educational Association, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses, Boston,1873; E.E. White, “Several Problems in Graded-School Management,” National Educational Association, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses, Detroit, 1874 (Worcester, Mass.: Charles Hamilton, 1874).

**With the Education for All Handicapped children legislation becoming law in 1975 and the subsequent creation of Individualized Education Plans (IEPS), a version of “personalized learning” became a mainstay in special education but has had limited influence in regular schooling.




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“Goodbye Teacher”: The Keller Plan of Personalized Learning (Part 1)


This is a course through which you may move from start to finish, at your own pace. You will not be held back by other students or forced to go ahead until you are ready. At best, you may meet all the course requirements in less than one semester; at worst, you may not complete the job within that time. How fast you go is up to you.
The work of this course will be divided into 30 units of content, which correspond roughly to a series of home-work assignments and laboratory exercises. These units will come in a definite numerical order, and you must show your mastery of each unit (by passing a “readiness” test or carrying out an experiment) before moving on to the next.
The above paragraphs come from a description of an Arizona State University introductory course in Psychology offered in the mid-1960s by Fred Keller, a behavioral psychologist trained in contingency reinforcement.



Keller laid out five essential features that a PSI course (see here and here) must have:

1. Mastery of course material,
2. The use of proctors,
3. Self-pacing,
4. Stress upon the written word,
5. Use of lectures and demonstrations primarily for motivational purposes, not for    transferring information.
Keller wanted very much to end the traditional ways of teaching courses in the university that depended on professors giving thrice-weekly lectures, asking students to absorb information from a textbook, and periodic blue-book tests. He felt that students would learn more content and skills if each student would move at his or her pace, master the content, demonstrate mastery through completing successfully an assessment and then moving on to the next topic in the semester course. Self-pacing, positive reinforcement through passing assessments (which if failed could be taken until passed), and individual help from course assistants was a far better way of teaching and learning in the university.
Within a decade, college and university professors across the nation had adopted Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) as research studies showed time and again that students using PSI for college courses in psychology, physics, chemistry, and other courses outscored students taking the traditional course with lectures, discussion sections, and periodic tests on end-of-semester tests (see here and here).
The high-water mark for this instructional innovation hit in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, few college instructors had heard of PSI, much less used it. Then some interest in PSI emerged.
With access to increasingly affordable high-tech devices and software, advocates of “distance learning” or “e-learning” have looked closely at the components of PSI and seen much to admire and adapt to online courses (see here). Beyond that, however, familiar ways of teaching undergraduate introductory courses where students sit tapping away on their laptops in lecture amphitheaters two or three times a week, discussion sections meeting once a week, teacher assistants to answer student questions and guide discussions of the content and blue books remain the order of the day. Even amid the ubiquity of electronic devices on campuses, the regularities in teaching stemming from university structures insofar as scheduling lecture courses for undergraduates, offering few incentives for instructors to innovate, and spending seat time–three hours a week for course credit–persist.
Postmortems of the long-gone innovation called the Keller Plan or PSI have focused on the many incarnations of PSI that differed from what Keller had done at ASU  in the mid-1960s in how they adapted the plan and put it into practice, the amount of work that went into creating the study guides, questions, and assessments, and the lack of institutional incentives to use instructional innovations (see here and here). Innovations that appeared as shooting stars and eventually fell to earth is a familiar tale among not only in higher education but also in K-12.
Personalized learning in K-12 today



The behaviorist slant embedded in PSI as an individualized, self-pacing learning plan for students to master content and skills is part of the spectrum of various forms of personalization programs running from competency-based programs to ones where students make decisions on what and how they learn (see here). All of these various incarnations of personalized learning have been dubbed innovations and heralded near and far as they have popped up in K-12 schools in urban, suburban, and exurban districts across the nation over the past decade.


For those policymakers and practitioners who want at least reasonably strong evidence of success, however measured, to put “personalized learning” programs into classrooms, well, such evidence is as scarce as taxis on a rainy night. Which is why “personalized learning” is an instance of a zombie school reform, a topic I take up in Part 2 of this post.


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Eighth Anniversary of Blog

Dear Readers,

This post marks my eighth anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank those readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and finally those who have taken the time to write thoughtful comments.

For past anniversary posts, I have listed statistics for the years I have published the blog and why I continue to write year after year. For this year, however, I offer the principles that have guided my thinking and actions as a practitioner, scholar, and blogger about teaching, learning, and school reform.

My Guiding Principles

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters.

So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. I prize both experience- and research-produced knowledge. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

Although public schools are essentially conservative institutions committed to reinforce and pass on sanctioned knowledge and community values, they do change and have done so for decades. Schools are not fossils preserved in amber. Both change and stability mark the history of tax-supported public schools. They are “dynamically conservative” institutions that embrace change to maintain stability.

Change comes from both outside and inside schooling. Basically, public schools are political institutions totally dependent upon taxpayers and voters and therefore vulnerable to social and economic gusts of reform that blow across the nation. Those winds of reform, however, lose force as they settle into these conservative institutions. Administrators and teachers adapt organizational, governance, curricular, and instructional reforms and alter them as they move across classrooms.

No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reform-driven policymakers, donors, and researchers who try to alter the how and what of teaching. Common Core State Standards, adding Computer Science and coding to the curriculum, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar  inventions spill forth from local, state, and federal policymakers. When the reforms ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction, “personalized learning”) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.

Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to dramatically alter how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and what they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities and the discretion that teachers exercise are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.

School structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., influences what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this “grammar of schooling” in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons in separate classrooms covering chunks of the required curriculum for that grade or subject. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare  students for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.

Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended by designers. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers regularly do daily. I include new content and ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been deep changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering dramatically classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes using their existing expertise and expanding their knowledge and skills. 

These are the main principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. Using these principles permit me to sort through and make sense of reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.



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The Don’t Do It Depository (Morgan Polikoff)

“Morgan Polikoff is an Associate Professor of Education at the USC Rossier School of Education. He researches the design, implementation, and effects of standards, assessment, and accountability policies. His current research is focused on teachers’, schools’, and districts’ implementation of new college and career-readiness standards, including the Common Core. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, Institute of Education Sciences, and WT Grant Foundation, among other sources.”

This post appeared on the FutureEd blog July 24, 2017


We have known for quite a while that schools engage in all manner of tricks to improve their performance under accountability systems. These behaviors range from the innocuous—teaching the content in state standards—to the likely harmful—outright cheating.

A new study last week provided more evidence of the unintended consequences of another gaming behavior—reassigning teachers based on perceived effectiveness. Researchers Jason A. Grissom, Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb analyzed data from a large urban district and found that administrators moved the most effective teachers to the tested grades (3-6) and the least effective to the untested grades (K-2).

On the surface, this might seem like a strategy that would boost accountability ratings without affecting students’ overall performance. After all, if you lose 10 points in kindergarten but gain 10 in third grade, isn’t the net change zero?

In fact, the authors found that moving the least effective teachers to the earlier grades harmed students’ overall achievement, because those early grades simply matter more to students’ long-term trajectories. The schools’ gaming behaviors were having real, negative consequences for children.

This strategy should go down in the annals of what doesn’t work, a category that we simply don’t pay enough attention to. Over the past 15 years, there has been a concerted effort in education research to find out “what works” and to share these policies and practices with schools.

The best example of this is the push for rigorous evidence in education research through the Institute of Education Sciences and the What Works Clearinghouse. This may well be a productive strategy, but the WWC is chock full of programs that don’t seem to “work,” at least according to its own evidence standards, and I don’t think anyone believes the WWC has had its desired impact. (The former director of IES himself has joked that it might more properly be called the What Doesn’t Work Clearinghouse).

These two facts together led me to half-joke on Twitter that maybe states or the feds should change their approach toward evidence. Rather than (or in addition to) encouraging schools and districts to do good things, they should start discouraging them from doing things we know or believe to be harmful.

This could be called something like the “Don’t Do It Depository” or the “Bad Idea Warehouse” (marketing experts, help me out). Humor aside, I think there is some merit to this idea. Here, then, are a couple of the policies or practices that might be included in the first round of the Don’t Do It Depository.

The counterproductive practice of assigning top teachers to tested grades is certainly a good candidate. While we’re at it, we might also discourage schools from shuffling teachers across grades for other reasons, as recent research finds this common practice is quite harmful to student learning.

Another common school practice, particularly in response to accountability, is to explicitly prepare students for state tests. Of course, test preparation can range from teaching the content likely to be tested all the way to teaching explicit test-taking strategies (e.g., write longer essays because those get you more points). Obviously the latter is not going to improve students’ actual learning, but the former might. In any case, test preparation seems to be quite common, but there’s less evidence that you might think that it actually helps. For instance:

  • A study of the ACT (which is administered statewide) in Illinois found test strategies and item practice did not improve student performance, but coursework did.
  • An earlier study in Illinois found that students exposed to more authentic intellectual work saw greater gains on the standardized tests than those not exposed to this content.
  • In the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, students were surveyed about many dimensions of the instruction they received and these were correlated with their teachers’ value-added estimates. Survey items focusing on test preparation activities were much more weakly related to student achievement gains than items focusing on instructional quality.
  • Research doesn’t even indicate that direct test preparation strategies such as those for the ACT or SAT are particularly effective, with actual student gains far lower than advertised by the test preparation companies.

In short, there’s really not great evidence that test preparation works. In light of this evidence, perhaps states or the feds could offer guidance on what kind of and how much test preparation is appropriate and discourage the rest.

Other activities or beliefs that should be discouraged include “learning styles,” the belief that individuals have preferred ways of learning such as visual vs. auditory. The American Psychological Association has put out a brief explainer debunking the existence of learning styles. Similarly, students are not digital natives, nor can they multitask, nor should they guide their own learning.

There are many great lists of bad practices that already exist; states or the feds should simply repackage them to make them shorter, clearer, and more actionable. They should also work with experts in conceptual change, given that these briefs will be directly refuting many strongly held beliefs.

Do I think this strategy would convince every school leader to stop doing counterproductive things? Certainly I do not. But this strategy, if well executed, could probably effect meaningful change in some schools, and that would be a real win for children at very little cost.


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Tinkering Toward Whose Utopia?

It is coming up to a quarter-century since Tinkering was published. Still in print, the short book that David Tyack* and I wrote has been praised and panned. Over the years, David and I have spoken and written about the ideas we expressed in the book about history of U.S. school reform and subsequent shifts that we have seen in reform-minded policies pushed by federal and state authorities. And, of course, the hyperbole that accompanied each reform’s rhetoric, action, and implementation.

We have been asked many questions over the years about the logic of the central argument we made and evidence we had to support it. We have been asked about why schooling (both private and public) seem so familiar to each generation of parents even with new buildings, furnishings, and technologies.

Recently, however, I was asked one question that I don’t remember ever being asked: Whose utopia are you tinkering toward?

That question got me thinking anew about the ever-shifting aims of reformers who champion how schools should be. “Should be” is the key phrase in reform because buried within each major reform that has swept across U.S. schools with either gale-force winds or stiff breezes is a vision of a utopian schooling and a “good” place for children to be.

Remember the overall purpose of tax-supported public schools is to prepare the young to become adults. Stating the purpose, however, neither points to what aspects of adulthood schools should be primary (e.g., getting a job, participating in the community, pushing for social and political reform in the larger culture, etc.) nor how that schooling seeking such a purpose is to be translated into daily activities.


–Some reformers want schools to prepare the young for occupations in which there are currently too few skilled workers and managers (see here).

–Some reformers re-create teacher-centered schools that inculcate students with basic content, skills, and civic virtues including patriotism (see here).

–Some reformers seek schools where students interests, passions, and intellect are central to both the curriculum and instruction and their well-being is nurtured (see here)

–Some reformers desire schools where students become adults prepared to work for social justice (see here).

–Some reformers are eager to dismantle the two century-old age-graded school and in its stead replace it with technologically rich settings where individual students have completely personalized playlists tailored to who they are (see here).

Of course, the last utopian vision of pervasive technologies geared to “personalized learning, ” unless it is an end unto itself, has to be hitched to one or the other of the three educational utopias.

No doubt there are other utopian visions and variations of the above ones. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t say that all of these utopian visions have been dreamt of by earlier generations of reformers.

A century ago, another generation of reformers fought for schools to prepare the young for an industrial economy where both skilled and unskilled hands were needed (see here).

Another generation of reformers wanted schools to prepare the young to be knowledgeable, straight-thinking, and proud Americans of high moral character who would advance their community and nation (see here).

Periodically, past reformers wanted schools to be student-centered in what was learned and how it was learned (see here).

And past reformers saw schools as social laboratories where children and youth can practice creating a better, more just society reducing injustice and inequality (see here).

My point is simple: Tax-supported public schools have had multiple purposes for at least two centuries. Each purpose has a vision of utopia–of what “good” schooling looks like– embedded in it. And over the last century, reformers again and again have contested these competing visions.

So when asked: Whose utopia are you tinkering toward? I reply that there is no one utopian school, it depends on which purpose of schooling you value the most. If pressed, I will say what I believe. Then I ask the questioner: what is your utopian vision?

Nearly always, the person answers with either one of the above past and present version noted above or a combination of them. I then follow up with the point that there are (and have been) many visions of “good” schools that reformers have tried and that currently we are in the midst of a three-decade long vision which prizes as the primary purpose of schooling, preparing students to be adults who can get jobs in an ever-changing economy.








*David Tyack died in October 2016. He was 85 years old.


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