Cursive Writing Redux

One of the most popular posts I have published on my blog has been: “Whatever Happened To Cursive Writing,” November 14, 2020. Another take on the shaky niche that cursive writing has in U.S. public schools comes from Drew Gilpin Faust in the October 2022 issue of The Atlantic. Faust is a professor of history at Harvard University.

It was a good book, the student told the 14 others in the undergraduate seminar I was teaching, and it included a number of excellent illustrations, such as photographs of relevant Civil War manuscripts. But, he continued, those weren’t very helpful to him, because of course he couldn’t read cursive.

Had I heard him correctly? Who else can’t read cursive? I asked the class. The answer: about two-thirds. And who can’t write it? Even more. What did they do about signatures? They had invented them by combining vestiges of whatever cursive instruction they may have had with creative squiggles and flourishes. Amused by my astonishment, the students offered reflections about the place—or absence—of handwriting in their lives. Instead of the Civil War past, we found ourselves exploring a different set of historical changes. In my ignorance, I became their pupil as well as a kind of historical artifact, a Rip van Winkle confronting a transformed world.

In 2010, cursive was omitted from the new national Common Core standards for K–12 education. The students in my class, and their peers, were then somewhere in elementary school. Handwriting instruction had already been declining as laptops and tablets and lessons in “keyboarding” assumed an ever more prominent place in the classroom. Most of my students remembered getting no more than a year or so of somewhat desultory cursive training, which was often pushed aside by a growing emphasis on “teaching to the test.” Now in college, they represent the vanguard of a cursiveless world.

Although I was unaware of it at the time, the 2010 Common Core policy on cursive had generated an uproar. Jeremiads about the impending decline of civilization appeared in The AtlanticThe New YorkerThe New York Times, and elsewhere. Defenders of script argued variously that knowledge of cursive was “a basic right,” a key connection between hand and brain, an essential form of self-discipline, and a fundamental expression of identity. Its disappearance would represent a craven submission to “the tyranny of ‘relevance.’ ”

Within a decade, cursive’s embattled advocates had succeeded in passing measures requiring some sort of cursive instruction in more than 20 states. At the same time, the struggle for cursive became part of a growing, politicized nostalgia for a lost past. In 2016, Louisiana’s state senators reminded their constituents that the Declaration of Independence had been written in cursive and cried out “America!” as they unanimously voted to restore handwriting instruction across the state.

Yet the decline in cursive seems inevitable. Writing is, after all, a technology, and most technologies are sooner or later surpassed and replaced. As Tamara Plakins Thornton demonstrates in her book Handwriting in America, it has always been affected by changing social and cultural forces. In 18th-century America, writing was the domain of the privileged. By law or custom, the enslaved were prohibited from literacy almost everywhere. In New England, nearly all men and women could read; in the South, which had not developed an equivalent system of common schools, a far lower percentage of even the white population could do so. Writing, though, was much less widespread—taught separately and sparingly in colonial America, most often to men of status and responsibility and to women of the upper classes. Men and women even learned different scripts—an ornamental hand for ladies, and an unadorned, more functional form for the male world of power and commerce.

The first half of the 19th century saw a dramatic increase in the number of women able to write. By 1860, more than 90 percent of the white population in America could both read and write. At the same time, romantic and Victorian notions of subjectivity steadily enhanced the perceived connection between handwriting and identity. Penmanship came to be seen as a marker and expression of the self—of gender and class, to be sure, but also of deeper elements of character and soul. The notion of a signature as a unique representation of a particular individual gradually came to be enshrined in the law and accepted as legitimate legal evidence.

By the turn of the 20th century, the typewriter had become sufficiently established to prompt the first widespread declarations of the obsolescence of handwriting. But it would be a long demise. In 1956, Look magazine pronounced handwriting “out-of-date,” yet cursive still claimed a secure place in the curriculum for decades.

Given a current generation of students in which so few can read or write cursive, one cannot assume it will ever again serve as an effective form of communication. I asked my students about the implications of what they had told me, focusing first on their experience as students. No, most of these history students admitted, they could not read manuscripts. If they were assigned a research paper, they sought subjects that relied only on published sources. One student reshaped his senior honors thesis for this purpose; another reported that she did not pursue her interest in Virginia Woolf for an assignment that would have involved reading Woolf’s handwritten letters. In the future, cursive will have to be taught to scholars the way Elizabethan secretary hand or paleography is today.


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Cartoons about Returning To Schools

Here is a collection of cartoons about the end of the pandemic (but not Covid-19) and the return to face-to-face classrooms after months of remote instruction. This is the fourth year of the virus’s impact on schools. Yet so much remains familiar to both parents and children about the return to schools.

Some of the cartoons got me to laugh out loud, others to grin and some to wince at the jab of the cartoonist’s pen. Enjoy!

Signe cartoon TOON29 Distance Learning

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Tesla and School Innovation

The Tesla electric car has been a startling newcomer to the automotive industry shocking established U.S. companies such as General Motors and Ford as well as European and Japanese carmakers. Pricey as it is, the car has been a hit with American consumers. It has altered car-buying choices for those who can afford an all-electric vehicle. And it has made a lot of money for those who own Tesla stock.

While electric automobiles have been around in the U.S. since the late-19th century, Tesla Inc. has mass produced different models to capture those consumers who have the discretionary money in their bank (or willing to take out loans) to buy a car that never uses gas. With growing evidence that climate change has created extreme weather events, buying an upscale electric-powered car appeals to those Americans who want to reduce their fossil fuel footprint. And it is classy-looking as well.

Here is Wikipedia‘s description of Tesla, Inc. history since the early 2000s:

Tesla was incorporated in July 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning as Tesla Motors. The company’s name is a tribute to inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla. In February 2004, via a $6.5 million investment, Elon Musk became the largest shareholder of the company. He has served as CEO since 2008. According to Musk, the purpose of Tesla is to help expedite the move to sustainable transport and energy, obtained through electric vehicles and solar power. Tesla began production of its first car model, the Roadster sports car, in 2009. This was followed by the Model S sedan in 2012, the Model X SUV in 2015, the Model 3 sedan in 2017, and the Model Y crossover in 2020. The Model 3 is the all-time best-selling plug-in electric car worldwide, and, in June 2021, became the first electric car to sell 1 million units globally.[9] Tesla’s global sales were 936,222 cars in 2021, a 87% increase over the previous year,[10] and cumulative sales totaled 3 million cars as of August 2022.[11] In October 2021, Tesla’s market capitalization reached $1 trillion, the sixth company to do so in U.S. history.

There is little dispute, then, that Tesla has mass-produced an innovative form of transportation that has captured a slice of the automotive market. And made a ton of money for Elon Musk and investors.

That’s transportation. What about schooling? Have there been Tesla-like innovations in U.S. tax-supported public schools?

I argue that there have been such innovations over nearly two centuries in tax-supported public schooling but with far less glamor and pizazz than the smashing hit that Tesla cars have made in the past two decades.

Sure, time spans and institutional measures differ dramatically between producing cars and generating positive school outcomes. The market measures successful innovations, for example, by annual net profits and return on investment; schools, however, measure curricular and instructional innovations by their impact on students over a longer period of time rather than a few years.

Yet even this “bottom line” approach to measuring business innovations such as Tesla cars has an educational analogue over the past forty years with the public’s intense focus on students’ test results and holding schools accountable for those scores. The past four decades have seen a tightening of bonds between schooling and the economy, that is, schools’ primary function is to prepare workers for an ever-changing information-driven workplace.

OK, Larry, a reader might say, I’ll accept for the sake of argument your comparison of innovative Tesla cars in a profit-driven sector of the economy with innovations in public schools, a nearly two century-old, non-profit community institution.

So the question I ask is: what Tesla-like innovations have occurred in public schools?

In subsequent posts, I will offer three instances of innovations that have altered both the topography and substance of American schools: the Common School of the mid-19th century; the impact of educational Progressives between the 1890s-1940s; and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Not as flashy nor as quickly as Tesla cars have reshaped choices in personal transportation, to be sure, but innovations in schools have, indeed, occurred altering to a degree the substance and form of schooling.

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Axioms I Use To Parse School Reforms

For thirteen years, I have written this blog. Believing that many, if not most, educational policies made in school board meetings, superintendent suites, and principals’ offices have consequences for what happens daily in schools and classrooms, I have analyzed district policies, especially those aimed at changing what and how teachers teach. For example, district policies (e.g.,requiring students to gain financial literacy in high school economics courses,  understand that race and ethnicity have been central to the American experience in U.S. history classes) are examples of value-driven policies that school boards adopt to get teachers to teach new content and skills.

After all of this writing on school reform, what tenets, what guidelines do I follow in sorting through a river of reforms that enter American schools? In short, how do I make sense of the constant flow of policy-driven reforms that come from federal, state, and local authorities? What criteria do I use to distinguish among a never-ending flow of school reform policies aimed at improving teaching and learning?

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century and a half, I cannot offer specific rules for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to follow. 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 a fool’s errand. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet, I repeat my caution about context, need to be adapted to different settings.

These guidelines come out of over five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. Most readers of this blog will be familiar with what I say. These axioms steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

  1. 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, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as boosters of Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.
  2. Small changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in ways of teaching seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change 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 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 that they think will help students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities 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.*
  3. 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., does influence what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. 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.
  4. 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. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been 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 such as Ann Brown‘s in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise. 

These axioms drawn from experience in schools and research offer me a way of sorting through reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.


*The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2021 is a dramatic example of schools closing and a sudden shift to remote instruction. While vestiges of remote instruction will persist in many districts (most districts will say goodbye to “snow days”), the return of face-to-face instruction and familiar ways of teaching underscore the points I make here.

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THEN AND NOW: … Classes U.S. public schools rarely offer anymore — and what they’ve been replaced with (Talia Lakritz)

For those critics who have said schools (never) or hardly ever change, here are instances of old courses that were innovations in the 20th century being deleted from the curriculum and new courses that have been added in the 21st century. Anchored in the early 20th century progressive education ideology of “learning by doing,” these courses became tagged as “vocational” and over time carried a negative connotation.

Vocational courses in carpentry, metal, and printing shops were often required of all junior- and senior high school boys while girls took “home economics” classes where they learned about cooking, sewing, etc. between the 1920s and early 2000s.

Now, these “shops” and “home economics’ (re-branded as Family and Consumer Services) taken by both boys and girls have given way to other vocational subjects often captured in today’s acronym of CTE (Career and Technical Education).

This article appeared in Insider August 11, 2018. Talia Lakritz is a journalist.

Just as back-to-school fashions go in and out of style, different classes offered in schools rise and decline in popularity over the years. The basics like math, science, and language arts aren’t going anywhere, but other parts of school curricula continue to adapt to changing technologies and student needs.

Here are [some] once-popular classes and school activities that aren’t usually offered anymore in the US ….

Shop class used to be a chance for kids to be creative and learn vocational skills.

Students learn woodworking in 1974. Chadwick/Express/Getty Images

Ken Robinson, Ph.D, wrote in “Creative Schools, The Element, Finding Your Element and Out of Our Minds” that vocational programs like shop class have been on the decline in the last decade because of emphasis on improving standardized test scores, not skills.

“The work of electricians, builders, plumbers, chefs, paramedics, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, security staff, and all the rest is absolutely vital to the quality of each of our lives,” he wrote. “Yet the demands of academic testing mean that schools often aren’t able to focus on these other capabilities at all.”

Some schools want to reintroduce shop class to complement their academic classes.

Using power tools in a shop class.

Some schools, such as Dalton High School in Georgia, are moving towards a more blended approach where academic and technical skills are both emphasized in the curiculum. Innovations such as 3D printers have also helped regenerate interest.

Basic computer skills no longer need to be taught in schools.

Today, kids grow up surrounded by technology. Many learn how to use iPads before they can talk. Gone are the days of computer lab classes teaching students the basic tenets of how to operate a computer…. Now, there are programs designed to teach elementary school students how to code.


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The Durability of Teacher Lecturing and Questioning: Historical Inertia or Creative Adaptation?

The lecture is 800 years old (Lecture). Teachers questioning students is millenia-old.

Yet these staples of instructional practice in K-12 and higher education, while criticized–often severely by pedagogical reformers–are alive and well in charter schools, regular public schools, and elite universities. Are these ways of teaching simply instances of traditional practices that stick like flypaper because they have  been around for a long time–inertia–or have these practices changed with the times because they are useful ways of communicating knowledge and learning?


Lecturing has been panned by pedagogical reformers for decades.  Over and over again, critics have said that lectures are inappropriate because students forget the facts and learn better when they interact with teachers. Furthermore, with so many high-tech ways of presenting information, prepared talks are obsolete. Yet lecturing remains the primary way professors teach undergraduate courses, high school teachers present information, gurus and officials across business and government communicate with followers (e.g., TED talks, podcasts, U.S. Presidents speaking from Oval Office).

If lecturing is so bad for learning and seen as obsolete, how come it is still around? Surely, it is more than inertia or hewing to a sacrosanct tradition of  transmitting knowledge. With new technologies and media (e.g., the printing press, television, computers) no longer is the familiar (and medieval) dictation of text to students necessary. Yet the lecture persists.

As Norm Friesen argues (see The Lecture ) , the persistence of the lecture as a teaching tool for 800 years is due “to its flexibility and adaptability in response to changes in media and technology ….” Lecturing is performing, a way of conveying knowledge in a fresh way, a way of bridging oral tradition and visual culture that teachers, professors, and so many others have continually adapted to new media. Savvy lecturers use YouTube, Prezi, and other elaborate technical aids to turn talks into live performances. But not all professors and teachers are savvy; lecturers span the spectrum running from thought-provoking talks to eye-glazing tedium. So continuity and change have marked the path the lecture has taken over the centuries.


Socrates, according to Plato, was one sharp questioner. The persistence of teachers questioning students, seldom in the Socratic tradition, is familiar to both kindergartners and graduate students.

In U.S. classrooms, patterns of teachers questioning students based on what is in the text appeared in mid-19th century age-graded schools and self-contained classrooms; teachers were expected to complete chunks of the curriculum by a certain time. Students reciting passages from the text easily morphed into teachers asking students specific question after question. And there were periodic and end-of-year tests to insure that students absorbed what teachers taught.

*A researcher (p.153) cited an 1860 book on teaching methods: “Young teachers are very apt to confound rapid questioning and answers with sure and effective teaching”

*A classroom observer in 1893 described a teacher questioning her students’ knowledge of the text: “In several instances, when a pupil stopped for a moment’s reflection, the teacher remarked abruptly, ‘Don’t stop to think, but tell me what you know.’ ” Persistence of Recitation, p. 149)

*Between 1907-1911, a researcher using a stopwatch and stenographer observed 100 high school English, history, math, science, and foreign language lessons of teachers who principals had identified as superior. She found that teachers asked two to three questions per minute (pp. 41-42).

Many other studies document the historical use of questioning as the basis of classroom lessons.

What is not recorded in many of these studies is the teacher’s ever-present follow-up to a student’s answer:”correct,” “very good,” “incorrect,” “well done.” When a student’s answer is not what the teacher expected or wanted, the teacher will prompt the student with another question or give a clue to the right answer. In effect, teachers judge the quality of the answer and then move on to the next question. Using sociolinguistic theory researchers have analyzed these persistent forms of questioning as a cycle of Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE).

IRE is pervasive in classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school seminars. Not the only form of questioning, but it is inextricably tied to the transmittal of information–a task that remains central to teaching, past and present.

And that is why lecturing and questioning have persisted as pedagogical tools. They are flexible and adaptable teaching techniques. With all of the concern for student-centered inquiry and using tougher questions based upon Bloom’s taxonomy, one enduring function of schooling is to transfer academic knowledge and skills (both technical and social) to the next generation. Social beliefs in transmitting knowledge as a primary purpose of schooling remain strong and abiding. So lecturing and questioning will be around for many more centuries.


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A New Teacher’s Dilemma*

In her first year of teaching English in a middle school where 90 percent of the students were minority, Elsie had planned a lesson that had students rotating through five stations answering different reading comprehension questions at each one. She floated around from station to station answering questions, clearing up any confusions, and making sure that the students were on task.

At one of the stations, Elsie had written the question: “If and when is it appropriate to lie.” The students at that station were talking about the question when Elsie arrived. Damion, one of the African American students in the group, asked Elsie–who is also African American–if she smoked weed.

“It was obvious that he and several other students expected the answer to be yes,” Elsie had written in describing her dilemma. She said honestly: “no.” She felt, however, that the students thought she was lying. She tried to convince them that she was telling the truth.

The young teacher now saw that she was in a struggle over conflicting values in her new role as a teacher. She had wanted to be a role model–a black woman who had achieved success in school and had not compromised her identity as an African American in doing so. But she had to earn her students’ trust, most of whom were from low-income families yet she was very frustrated by their disbelief of her answer to Damion’s question.

She thought her students held a view of blackness as a culture associated with drugs. Being African American to them meant “doing drugs.” Not “doing drugs” called into question how black one can be.

She was caught in a two-fold dilemma. How much should teachers tell students about their personal lives? In answering Damion’s question honestly had she unintentionally invited him to ask more personal questions? How much personal information is too much? Should she have ignored his question and kept students focused on the station task? This is the first part of Elsie’s dilemma.

The second part concerned her role in challenging her students’ view of race and what “being black” could mean. She was aware of the social class differences between her and students.  In her writing up her dilemma, Elsie said: “How do I push back on students’ narrow-minded/stereotypical definition of blackness, not tell them how to think, but encourage them to think and question, without damaging their self-concept?”

She wrestled with wanting to support them in developing healthy racial identities yet she also grappled with understanding how her racial identity fit into who she was and wanted to be as a teacher. She wrote:

“Because I am black, my black students have ideas about how I should be. When  my words and actions do not match their ideas they reject me as ‘real.’ This creates a problem with students believing that I understand what they are going through inside and outside of school. This disconnect hinders my ability to reach students, to create meaningful relationships and experiences that lead to increased knowledge of self and the world at large, and a drive to take action against oppressive forces.”

What should Elsie do to manage this dilemma? “What I have to do is construct lessons that allow students to see the dangers in binaries, to understand that blackness lives on an ever expanding spectrum.” Elsie recognized that this work “is deeply personal and political … [but] authentic teaching and learning [would] not take place until students and myself take it on.”

The dilemma of identity–Who am I as a teacher?–pinches novice teachers regardless of whether they are raw Teach for America recruits or credentialed through university  teacher education programs. Teachers of color seeking out posts in low-income, largely minority schools often run into situations as Elsie did. Curious teenagers often question the authenticity of their African American or Latino teachers as members of their group. Being a novice and being a teacher of color collide as issues of authority and authenticity become grist for the interactions in  and out of class, coloring how teachers teach and what students learn.

Researcher Betty Achinstein found these tensions and dilemmas when she interviewed novice teachers of color. As one Latina teacher told Achinstein:

“Be prepared to have your race be called in question. Be prepared to have your identity be called into question. . . .. I think that’s the hardest part about being a teacher of color at [my school] because I went in, and I know who I am, and I formed my identity. But just because you know who you are doesn’t mean the students are going to accept it. They’re going to play with it. They’re going to tweak it.”

Helping new teachers of color prepare for dilemmas may ease the angst of the inevitable tensions they will face but those tools will neither prevent nor erase the dilemmas.


*The dilemma that Elsie described, I adapted from Anna Richert, What Should I do? Confronting Dilemmas of Teaching in Urban Schools (Teachers College Press, 2012).

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Teachers Learning from Students

Individuals writing about what they learned from former teachers is common. It is uncommon, however, for teachers to write about what they learned from former students. I do not mean those many instances when tech-savvy students helped teachers solve hardware and software problems. I mean the kinds of learning that doesn’t come from only books but from the questions students ask and the thoughts they express in and out of class.

I learned from Carol Schneider, a 16 year-old junior in my U.S. history class at Glenville High School in Cleveland. The year was 1958. I was a 23 year old teacher beginning my third year of teaching at Glenville. I relished teaching six classes of U.S. history a day in this largely black high school. By the end of the day, I was bone-tired (yeah, I shudder to think what teaching four straight classes, a break for lunch, then two more in the afternoon would do to my body and mind now). I went to Western Reserve University (soon to become Case Western Reserve) two evenings a week to get my Masters degree in history and had begun to prepare classroom lessons in what was then called Negro history. I  created readings to supplement the history textbook that said little about slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crowism. Of my six classes, three responded very well to the readings. Do any readers remember the purple-stained hands that came from using the school’s “spirit master” or ditto machine? The other three classes, well, they were much less enthused. Carol was in one of those responsive classes.

Carol who came from a working class family steeped in left-wing political ideology was keen about history and had read widely. Within a few weeks, Carol and a cadre of friends were the stars of that class. They would come in during my 35-minute lunch period and after school to continue talking about ideas raised in class and school issues. For a novice teacher, this was heady stuff.

One afternoon, Carol brought in a book that John Wexley had written (1955) about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case. She asked me to read it and wanted to know what I thought of it. The Rosenbergs had been indicted and convicted of treason in 1951 for passing atom bomb secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II. They were executed in 1953.

I had known of the case through newspapers and magazines. The Wexley book clearly argued that the Rosenbergs had been innocent of the charges; they were not spies and were wrongly convicted and executed. I read the book within a week and was stunned by the amount of evidence that Wexley had compiled from court records and independent sources. Moreover, he had arrayed the evidence into a persuasive argument that the Rosenbergs had been framed. I totally accepted Wexley’s portrayal of the case, remembering the outrage I felt at the miscarriage of justice. I also recall some discussions Carol and I had during lunch and after school about the case itself and the material that Wexley had compiled. Whenever I would raise concerns about Wexley’s sources or portions of his argument–some parts sounded too pat for me–Carol would rebut my points and counter the concerns. She would then ask me questions about Wexley’s statements that she doubted. We had an intellectual give-and-take that, up to that time, I had never experienced with a student. I remember speaking to my wife and friends about the Rosenberg case and the Wexley book. For the first time as a teacher, discussions, even debates with a student rippled through my life.*

There is another encounter I had with Carol after she graduated from Glenville. I and my family had moved to Washington, D.C.  I taught in a program training returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban schools. After teaching in and directing the program for four years, I returned to classroom teaching at Roosevelt High School. By that time, Carol, in her early 30s, had become a social studies teacher, gotten married,  and moved with her husband and family to D.C where he worked for the U.S. Department of Justice. She was assigned to Roosevelt also. In 1971, Carol and I team-taught a U.S. history class–at least that is what my memory registers. I remember the semester we worked together as intellectually exciting. After school and on the phone, we would plan together, deciding who would take the lead in each part of the lesson. Our paths parted after 1971 when I went to graduate school and she and her family eventually moved to Madison, Wisconsin. We would exchange annual holiday cards. In the 1990s, when my oldest daughter went to the University of Wisconsin I re-established contact with Carol. By that time she was a member of the Madison school board–a post she served in for 18 years, retiring in 2008.**

What did I learn from Carol? I admired Carol’s intellectual and political engagement, her feistiness as a high school junior who not only questioned mainstream beliefs in class discussions but also her history teacher. We had rousing discussions about ideas in a controversial book. What I came to see in retrospect was that at age 23, I was ready to challenge conventional wisdom. Carol helped me do so.


*In 2008, a convicted spy who had served 17 years in prison admitted that Julius Rosenberg  had been a courier for the Soviet Union but that Ethel was not involved. By then, a consensus among historians, using decoded cables from the Soviets, emerged that Rosenberg had been a Soviet spy.

**Carstensen continues to be an advocate for funding and improving schools. Last year, a Milwaukee paper included this item:

Carol Carstensen, a former member of the MMSD school board and current member of Grandparents United for Madison Public Schools, said lawmakers can still provide a tax cut. “There is enough money available to fund an increase in public school funding and, if they must, give some property tax relief,” she said. “Let me repeat — we have enough state revenue to do both, so as citizens of this state, we have to let the legislators know that we demand more and better.”


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Whatever Happened to Learning Centers?

Beginning in the late 1960s and extending through most of the next decade, an innovation swept across American elementary schools called “learning centers.”

The idea was for teachers to give students far more choice than they would ordinarily have in classrooms where teachers made all decisions about what students should learn and how. Borrowed from Great Britain’s enthusiasm for “open classrooms” in the late-1960s, many U.S. educators critical of traditional ways of teaching and seeking ways of increasing student participation in their own learning imported the idea and adapted it to urban and suburban schools across the nation. These were years when the ideas of John Dewey and other educational progressives over a half-century earlier gained center-stage in educational rhetoric, media attention, and district policies.

Then the media hype for “learning centers” waned and eventually disappeared–a common occurrence for educational changes–as most (but not all) elementary school teachers adopted and adapted their version of learning centers. After the initial rapture for learning centers, decline in interest occurred in the late 1970s (see Google Ngram viewer for arc of mentions of “learning centers” between 1960s and 2019).

What are learning centers?

The most concise definition I’ve seen is: “A learning center is a self-contained section of the classroom in which students engage in independent and self-directed learning activities.” Of course, many teachers who create and institutionalize centers into their daily routines may define them a tad differently but the above definition should cover the essentials of what centers are.

How do elementary school teachers set up and schedule centers?

There is no one way to establish and schedule learning centers during the school day. Much depends upon the teacher’s experience, grade level, and strengths in reading, math, writing, science, and social studies. Here are some examples of how one teacher arranged time for her students to work in classroom centers:

What do centers look like in the 2020s?

Some photos taken from the Internet of classroom centers in preschool and primary grades:

From the evidence I have seen in articles and photos, learning centers are common in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. Many primary grade teachers (first to third grades) continue to have one or more centers devoted to such subjects as reading, art, drama, math, science, and technology use.

But how common are learning centers in U.S. elementary schools? Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that centers are widespread. Beyond scattered surveys and stories, however, I do not know the answer to the question since data on how teachers actually teach once the classroom door closes are, in a word, scant.


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Schools as Factories: Metaphors That Stick

The following post is one of a small group I have written over the past 13 years that have attracted the most readers. This one originally appeared in 2014. I have revised and updated it.

Over the next month or so, I will revise other posts that have drawn the most viewers.

You have seen images like these time and again:

The idea of the school as an efficient factory assembly line has a surprising history. A century ago, the notion of schools delivering finished products to a democratic society was both new and–here is the surprise–admired. Here is what Professor Ellwood P. Cubberley, of Stanford University said in the early 20th century:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.

In the midst of the progressive-inspired school efficiency movement, sparked by “scientific management,” Cubberley captured the prevailing beliefs of most school reformers then. Critics of the day, such as John Dewey, did question this efficiency-driven mindset that dominated schools then arguing that the purpose of public schooling in a democracy goes far beyond preparation for the workplace. But their voices were drowned out by champions of uniformity, productivity, and more bang for each dollar spent  in every aspect of schooling.

Over a half-century later, however, affection for the metaphor of school-as-factory shifted 180 degrees. Reformers of a later generation turned the image into an indictment. Standardization, efficiency, and up-close connections to the economy–the values earlier reformers applauded–became epithets hurled by self-styled progressive school reformers of a subsequent generation. So  recent images represent students and teachers as cogs in a constantly whirring machine:


Of course, schools-as-factories is only one of the many metaphors for schooling used since the onset of tax-supported public schools. Philip Schlechty and Ann Joslin, for example, wrote three decades ago about different images that have been used by both advocates and critics of what schools should be doing:

the school as a factory
the school as a hospital
the school as a log in a pastoral setting with Mark Hopkins on one end and a
             motivated or able student on the other end
the school as a family
the school as a war zone

All of these have a history and were used by both reformers and their opponents. Embraced by different sides of the school reform spectrum at different moments in time, these competing metaphors lagged behind or seldom appeared in policy proposals advanced by reformers. The one metaphor that has persisted over the 20th century outstripping the others, however, has been the image of the school-as-a-factory even with in its shifting from positive to negative connotations.

Why has school-as-factory stuck?

The metaphor serves the interests of both contemporary advocates and critics of standardized curriculum and instruction. Of course, current advocates avoid the vocabulary of assembly line and factory-made products. Yes, there are some advocates who even use the phrase “factory model of schooling” or “schools-as-factories” (see here). Moreover, many school reformers talk about the need for school districts to be efficiently run with superintendents behaving as CEOs.

Such reformers want schools to produce higher test scores on international tests than their European and Asian competitors. They want schools and teachers to be held accountable for what students achieve. And, most important, these reformers want schools to crank out fully prepared graduates ready to enter the labor market. These advocates want schools to build human capital, especially in urban districts, and link those schools to a growing economy.

Critics of the metaphor, however, look at curricular and instructional standardization, ubiquitous testing, and coercive accountability as harming both students and teachers.

Forty-six states initially adopted versions of Common Core standards since 2010. Of those states, five have withdrawn from these standards.

The sharp increase in snarky cartoons and irritable comments on state standards derived from Common Core ones plus support for standardized testing from both the political left and right, I believe, stem from century-old disputes over the multiple purposes that schools serve in a capitalist democracy (e.g., make citizens, prepare workers, build character). This age-old question of purposes for tax-supported public schools is seldom openly debated and too often has been lost in the rhetoric used by reformers over the past century.

And that, I believe, is the reason why schools-as-factories has stuck as an image as well as a metaphor tossed back and forth by generations of school reformers.


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