The Palimpsest of Progressive Schooling (Part 4)*

Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).


Personalized learning, i.e.,tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student, has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and in the second decade of the 21st century.

Recent posts on the AltSchool (Parts 2 and 3) and different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–-a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–-have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago. Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective (and deeper understanding) to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized learning–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of a science of education.

School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured buildings, teacher performance, and student achievement. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives” and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neo-progressive reformers, borrowing from their earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.”   Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.

As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and more interaction with the “real” world, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”).

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to other stations in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade as a new generation of reformers promised “back to basics” (see here).

Personalized Learning Today

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” today resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging  cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” (and the many definitions of each) is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.

But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

Except for  AltSchool and other private schools, tensions arise in public schools over end-of-year testing, meeting annual proficiency standards, and judging academic performance on the basis of student scores. Few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized learning” in their schools have yet faced these conflicts in the DNA of this popular reform.

So current innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered learning,   and “blended learning”  are written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education.  Efficiency in teaching students (faster, better, and at less cost) while teachers individualize instruction through use of digital tools combine anew the two wings of the century-old Progressive education movement.


*This post is an updated version of the one that originally appeared June 9, 2015.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school leaders, technology use, Uncategorized

The AltSchool: Progressivism Redux (Part 3)

Located in the South-of-Market district (SOMA) of San Francisco this micro-school of 33 middle schoolers is a few blocks away from Yerba Buena (see Part 2). I spent a morning there speaking with the Head of School, Emily Dahm (who also is in charge of Yerba Buena), observing two lessons taught by “core educators” James Earle (social studies/English) and Eman Haggag (science), and interviewing Katie Berk, a product manager, from the technical side of the “micro-school.”

Facing busy Folsom Street, AltSchool space is divided into four large carpeted rooms two of which were used that morning for lessons (no class I observed was larger than 15). The other two spaces include a room with desktop computers and commons area for the entire school to meet. Software engineers and staff (coders, designers, and product managers) were located in a large space in the back of the building adjacent to the classrooms and commons area.

Each classroom space has wall-mounted cameras and microphones hanging from the ceiling–called Altvideo–that produce data for teachers to view later privately about the lesson they taught.  The technical staff has produced an app that teachers can use to find the precise part of the lesson they want to see. This self-evaluation occurs during the school day and other times.

On November 7, 2016 I arrived at 8:00 AM and interviewed the Head of School and both core educators. School began at 9:00 with a “morning meeting.” There were 21 twelve to fourteen year-olds sitting in a circle with Eman Haggag counting down from 10 to 0 to secure quiet for the “morning meeting” to begin. On a whiteboard are listed announcements:

Good Morning,

How are you? I am quite marvelous. Cupa’ tea?

Few things:

–Feynman bring phones to class powered off (students are in different groups–(the internationally known physicist Richard Feynman)–is name of one group of students)

Field trip Wednesday–Altschool shirts + pencil + paper

–Ceramics class 11/17, 11/18/,11/22

Students ask logistics questions about upcoming field trip, teachers answer their questions.These morning meetings are to inform students of daily activities and build bonds of community among both students and adults.

At 9:10, students go to the Earle’s and Haggag’s spaces. I go to observe a 90-minute lesson in James Earle’s room.

SOMA space.jpgSOMA plaque.jpg


*The camera is a red dot in a small square below “Join or Die” poster; the mics are in the ring suspended from the ceiling.


There are 14 students in Earle’s class, one with desks and chairs along the windows and walls facing the center. The students sit on the desks with their backs to windows and walls and their feet on the chairs.They appear used to the informality of the seating arrangements and easily shift to sitting at their desks later in the lesson.

SOMA Earle.jpg

In his third year at SOMA, Earle taught global cultures using art, literature, history, and science for eight years at a private school in East Hampton (NY). There he used digital tools extensively. He was attracted to AltSchool for its “public mission, inclusivity, and freedom to work on an integrated curriculum.” *

Earle, wearing a checked long-sleeved shirt with a loosened gray tie over jeans, stands in the center of the room ready to launch the lesson on students writing their position papers on the struggle between colonists and Britain over trade, taxes, and loyalty to the Crown.

To pairs of students, he has assigned actual characters who lived in the years before the American Revolution when colonials were divided among themselves as patriots who sought representation in Parliament and loyalists  to the Crown (e.g. British commander Jeffrey Amherst, Admiral Samuel Hood, colonist William Franklin).  King George III and British Parliament were also divided over how to best treat the uppity colonists who didn’t want to pay taxes that would recoup British costs in defending the colonies in an earlier French and Indian War that had lasted seven years.

Students have researched the person about whom they are expected to write a position paper.  Earle had created playlists of sources, video clips, and readings located on students’ Chromebooks covering these years and different individuals he had assigned to pairs of students.  Some members of the class are just beginning to get a sense of their character’s personality; others are at sea and today’s lesson is aimed at answering students questions and get them to dig into the writing.

Earle stresses the importance of students knowing their character’s personality and what positions the person would take on trade with Britain and colonists’ representation in Parliament. He goes over the slide listing instructions on writing a position paper, paragraph by paragraph, and the importance of the students writing an internally consistent paper that reflects who their character is, their personality, and what stands that the person would take in this on-going struggle with the mother country.

After going over the parts of the position paper, Earle then says “Let’s go around and ask questions.” There are many.

One student asks about William Franklin, a colonial Loyalist (and son of Ben) and his personality that she gleaned from sources she used. Earle responds about how to develop a plan consistent with the character each team is going to write about. Knowing their character’s views on trade, for example, become part of the position paper. Another student asks about her character who is a British soldier and how he would address his commander.

Earle interrupts the class for a moment as he sees six students who have opened their Chromebooks and have begun tapping away. He asks them to close their lids for now since the questions others ask can apply to their work. They do.

Students resume their questions. One asks whether they will work on the Island simulation (lessons that Earle created to show students the different factions in the colonies; the simulation has six islands with different resources where competition and cooperation do exist but change over time.  An upcoming debate among the Islands will occur). Earle says they will have the debate. He turns to another student question.

After another few minutes of questions, Earle asks students to now sit at the desks so he can see what they are working on as they begin writing. All of the students either open their Chromebooks to read and re-read sources in their playlists or begin writing. Some students have their partners in the room and some are in the other class with Eman Haggag and even others are at Yerba Buena.

I speak to three students near me and ask what they are doing. One shows me the playlist she has and the video she is watching; another explains to me about the British soldier she is going to write about. One student has William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne, and wonders how to address and write a letter as a member of the House of Lords.

Earle goes to each student, listens to what the student is concerned about in the position paper or character he or she has been assigned, and has a mini-conversation before moving on to another student. To one student, he says, “get your fingers moving on the keyboard.” The student does. For the remaining time in the lesson, students are figuring out their character’s positions on different issues roiling colonist-British relations and at various stages of writing their position paper.

I leave the room and  walk a few steps to the open space where Eman Haggag’s science lesson on “Speed Machines”is underway. Part of the lesson is a lab measuring the speed of a marble going down a ramp. The open space is furnished with a series of black-topped lab tables (resistant to stains and flaking) holding three to four students facing the front of the space where there is an interactive white board that shows slides for the lesson.

Haggag came to SOMA this school year. She has taught eight years in charter and private schools in the Washington, D.C. area. In those different schools she had one laptop per students, interactive white boards and a host of digital tools available to her. What attracted her to AltSchool was the concept of experimenting in a “lab school” where different ideas about schools and classroom lessons can be tested. “Here,” she says is the “autonomy I have sought in teaching.”  Moreover, she says: “I feel ownership of what I do. In this lab setting, I can practice what I preach.”

By the time I enter the room, Haggag–wearing an ankle-length black skirt with a flowered blouse over a long-sleeved shirt and a blue scarf—has organized the 13 students into groups of three and four students collecting data on how fast a marble rolls down a ramp. Like Galileo rolling balls down an incline and measuring their speed, this lab sought to  apply the formula:


Students had already constructed an inclined plane out of 2′ X 3′ pieces of hard cardboard and scotch-taped a yard stick, marked off in 3″ segments. The task for each group is to time how long the marble takes to go from the first segment to the second and then from the second until the next all the way to the 10th and last segment.  Each student in the group has a task. One uses her smart phone as a stop-watch; another catches the marble at each segment and another records time and length of drop.

As I walk around the room, these 12 to 14 year-olds are engaged in the doing each step of the experiment and recording the data. Haggag walks to each group, inquires if there are any problems, and answers questions. At one point she says to the class: “You’re getting into the groove. That’s awesome.”

I overhear one student–the marble catcher in a nearby group say to her group -mates: “This is really stressful.”

Haggag asks students to begin looking at the data they have collected and enter it into a Data Table with columns for distance in centimeters (each segment of the yardstick), time, and speed. They are to calculate the speed of the marble for each segment by dividing the distance by the time it took to traverse the distance. Students enter data and have many questions. Some are answered by group members and friends in other groups; others by the teacher who goes to each group and checks on the data they entered. A few students say out loud the mistakes they made in setting up the experiment and executing it.

With about 20 minutes left to the lesson, Haggag stands on a chair with a four foot high “rain stick” that has small pebbles in it. She turns “the rain stick” upside down and the  sound of the pebbles falling inside the stick is a sign that the teacher wants students’ attention. The class quiets down. She then gives students instructions to disassemble cardboards, yardstick, and scotch tape, clean up any debris on floor and reassemble at their lab tables.

The students scurry about, clean up, and sit in their groups at each table.

Haggag then asks the whole group to think about what they learned from the experiment. Some students said that they did too many trials using the marble; others said they didn’t do enough trials. One student said how hard it was to release the marble and get an exact time. In each instance the teacher asked what the student had learned from their mistakes. Carrying off an experiment, one student said, depends on how well a procedure is done. Done poorly, he said, then the data are wrong. Haggag compliments students for their candor in enumerating their mistakes.

The teacher now asks students to calculate the data they collected. Students talk among themselves as they enter the numbers in the Data Table.

After about five minutes, Haggag asks the class to review the data and think about the hypothesis they had from previous lessons and how certain many members of the class were then that “numbers never lie.” She then goes over the estimates of speed that groups had calculated and how much variation existed among the groups using similar ramps, yardsticks, and marbles.

Even with these varying estimates, Haggag wants each group of students to graph the curve of the marble’s speed that they recorded.  She demonstrates on a slide how to put the various points on the grid–one axis is time and the other axis is distance–by counting the little blocks and where to insert a dot that with other dots will eventually produce a curve. She tells students that graph will show the “Speed of a Marble.”


Students work on this in groups as I leave the lesson to have an interview with Katie Berk, a product manager on the technical side of the AltSchool. The technical staff are lodged on the same floor in a large space at the back of the building.

Of nearly 160 employees in the network of “micro-schools” in San Francisco, there are more than 70 educators and about 30 are on the technical staff (they are not teachers) working on products, as coders, designers, and product managers. I interviewed Berk. In her third year at AltSchool, she was previously a Lead Product Manager at Zynga where she led a team that produced games.

At AltSchool, the technology side of the school receives a gigantic flow of data from “network” schools, digests the information, and designs software that solve problems that teachers and students have with current platform and programs while coming up with different ways to help teachers make their work both easier and efficient to reach the goals teachers have set for their students.

Berk tells me that the main job of the technology side is to help teachers teach and students learn more efficiently. They accomplish this, she says, by having close contact with what both teachers and students are doing by having engineers and designers spend time every week watching teachers teach and talking with them..

Teachers, Berk told me, run into problems with certain aspects of the platform used across AltSchool and they want simple ways to do an “end-around” the problem. Also teachers have ideas on what can make lessons, say, in science or math, easier for students to grasp and have an idea that can turn into an item on a playlist or the designer can wrestle with what the teacher wants and figure out a solution that she and her colleagues can create for the teacher. This collaboration between teachers and technical staff at AltSchool was one of the reasons that Berk came to the “network” of “micro-schools.” I thanked her for the time she spent with me and left.


As I drive home after my interview with Berk, I think how unusual this partnership between educators and the technologist side of a school really is. On-site, skilled technical staff that confer frequently with their “users” to come up with solutions to teaching and learning problems while, at the same time, smart, experienced teachers can turn to designers and engineers to try out software ideas that teachers believe might help them teach and students learn is uniquely innovative. That partnership is uncommon in schooling today, both public and private.

Yes, I thought, there are issues of privacy for both teachers and students amid constant surveillance during school hours that still need to be negotiated.  Firewalls to prevent hacking or sharing information have to be strong enough not to be breached. That issue will not disappear.

Another thought occurred to me as I drove south on the freeway. AltSchool was practicing a form of progressive pedagogy that would have had John Dewey nodding in agreement.  Yet, at the same time, AltSchool had married their progressive ways of teaching and learning to the sought-after classroom and organizational efficiencies that new technologies provide in the “micro-school” network. Maybe Edward Thorndike, that early 20th century “educational engineer” who thought everything could be measured and analyzing data would point the way to better managed and efficient schools would, along with John Dewey, be nodding in agreement for the first time (see here).  Bringing together these two wings of the progressive movement a century ago finally  into one network of schools can be done, reformers might conclude, albeit at $26K per student a year.


* In an interview prior to the lesson, Earle succinctly told me how digital tools at the Ross School where he taught previously and here at the AltSchool have helped him negotiate the inherently impossible task of “managing the complexity of teaching.” He appreciates how many decisions, how many activities, how many student psyches come into play with his expertise and personality in a lesson. He seeks to have students acquire the skills and concepts he wants to communicate and have students not only grasp both but also come to understand and use in their school career. Negotiating this daily complexity of teaching is, according to Earle, aided, in part, by the digital tools he has available and uses with his students. Those tools are helpful to “manage the complexity of teaching,” he says, but it is still a high mountain to climb every day.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

The AltSchool: Progressivism Redux (Part 2)

[Progressive schools] as compared with traditional schools [display] a common emphasis upon respect for individuality and for increased freedom; a common disposition to build upon the nature and experience of the boys and girls common to them, instead of imposing from without external subject-matter and standards. They all display a certain atmosphere of informality, because experience has proved that formalization is hostile to genuine mental activity and to sincere emotional expression and growth. Emphasis upon activity as distinct from passivity is one of the common factors….[There is] unusual attention to …normal human relations, to communication …which is like in kind to that which is found in the great world beyond the school doors.

John Dewey, 1928

Were John Dewey alive in 2016 and had he joined me in a brief visit to the AltSchool on October 20, 2016, he would, I believe, nodded in agreement with what he saw on that fall day and affirmed  what he said when he became honorary president of the Progressive Education Association in 1928.

The AltSchool embodies many of the principles of progressive education from nearly a century ago–as do other schools in the U.S.  Just as Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago (1896-1904) became a hothouse experiment as a private school, so has the AltSchool and its network of “micro-schools” in the Bay area and New York City over the past five years (see here, here, here, and here). Progressive schools, then and now, varied greatly yet champions of such schools from Dewey to Francis Parker to Jesse Newlon to Alt/School’s Max Ventilla believed they were already or about to become “good” schools.

One major difference, however, between progressives then and now were the current technologies. Unknown to Dewey and his followers in the early 20th century, new technologies have become married to these progressive principles in ways that reflect both wings of the earlier reform movement (see here).

In this post, I want to describe what I saw that morning in classrooms–sadly without the company of Dewey–and what I heard from the founder of the AltSchool network, Max Ventilla.


There are five “micro-schools” in San Francisco. I visited Yerba Buena, a K-8 school  of over 30 students whose daily schedule gives a hint of what it is about. I went unescorted into three classes –upper-elementary and middle school social studies and math lessons (primary classes were on a field trip to a museum)–which gave me a taste of the teaching, the content, student participation, and the level of technology integration. I spoke briefly with two of the three teachers whose lessons I observed and got a flavor of their enthusiasm for their students and the school.

For readers who want a larger slice of what this private school seeks to do (tuition runs around $26,000 for 2015-2016) can see video clips and read text about the philosophy, program, teaching staff, and the close linkages between technology in this and sister “micro-schools” (see Alt/school materials here)

Since I parachuted in for a few hours–I plan to see another “micro-school” soon–I cannot describe full lessons, the entire program, teaching staff or even offer an informed opinion of Yerba Buena. For those readers who want such descriptions (and judgments), there are journalistic accounts (see above) and the AltSchool’s own descriptions for parents (see above).

Yet what was clear to me even in the morning’s glimpse of a “micro-school” was that theoretical principles of Deweyan thought and practice in his Lab School over a century ago and the evolving network of both private and public progressive schools in subsequent decades across the nation was apparent in what I saw in a few classrooms at Yerba Buena. One doesn’t need a weather vane to see which way the wind is blowing.

But there was a modern twist and a new element in the progressive portfolio of practices: the ubiquitous use of technology by teachers and students as teaching and learning tools. Unlike most places that have adopted laptops and tablets wholesale, what I saw for a few hours was that the use of new technologies was in the background, not the foreground, of a lesson. Much like pencil and paper have been taken-for-granted tools in both teaching and learning over the past century, so now digital ones.

What I also found useful in looking at a progressive vision of private schooling in practice was my 45-minute talk with the founder of these experimental “micro schools.”

Max Ventilla

The founder of AltSchool has been profiled many times and has given extensive interviews (see here  and here). In many of these, the “creation story” of how he and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.

In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He sees beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wants to do well by doing good.

His conceptual framework for the network and its eventual growth is a mix of what he learned personally from starting and selling software companies and working at Google in personalizing users’ search results to increase consumer purchases (see here). Ventilla sees the half-dozen or more “micro-schools” in different cities as part of a long-term research-and-development strategy that would build networks of small schools as AltSchool designers, software engineers, and teachers learn from their mistakes. As they slowly get larger, key features of AltSchool–building personalized learning platforms, for example–will be licensed to private (see here) and eventually public schools.

Ventilla mixes the language of whole child development, individual differences, the importance of collaboration among children and between children and adults with business ideas and  vocabulary of “soft vs. hard technology,”  “crossing the threshold of efficacy,” “effects per costs,” and scaling up networks to eventually become profitable.

Progressivism–both wings (see Part 1) are present in AltSchool’s collecting huge amounts of data about students and  engineers (on site) with teachers using that data to create customized playlists for each of their K-8 students across all subject areas . Efficiency and effectiveness are married to progressive principles in practice.

That is the dream that I heard from Max Ventilla one October morning.

Part 2 will describe my visit to a nearby micro-school, South-of-Market (SOMA) where 33 middle school students (6th through 8th graders) attend.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, Uncategorized

Revisiting Progressivism: Then and Now (Part 1)

Since January, I have visited classrooms, schools, and districts in Silicon Valley to see exemplars of technology integration. Posts appeared regularly over the past months describing individual elementary and secondary school teachers teaching lessons that put technology in the background, that is, laptops and tablets were as mundane as paper and pencil, in order to reach the content and skill goals they have set.

I intend to complete all of my observations and interviews by early December. Then I will re-read everything I wrote, reflect on what I have seen, read about “best cases” elsewhere in the U.S., and talk to people across the country whose work intersects with mine, place all of this in a historical context, and finally begin tapping away on my keyboard.

Oh, do I wish that the process in the above paragraph were so linear. But it ain’t. I have thoughts and intuitions now that have accumulated with every visit to schools and classrooms. This blog is a place where I can try out these thoughts before getting hip-deep in my analysis of what I have observed over a year and tackle the writing of a book. So here goes.

Recently visiting the private San Francisco AltSchool and two public elementary schools in Milpitas (CA) have triggered my pausing to write down emerging thoughts. Those three schools pushed me to mentally scroll through all of the classroom lessons I have observed since  January. Those visits occasioned much thinking about John Dewey and Edward Thorndike intellectual leaders in the progressive movement that was the dominant reform between 1900-1950. I saw many parallels then and now between deepened interest and practice of student-centered learning and the persistent quest, again then and now, for efficient operations in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

What I am thinking about is the periodic blossoming of yet another progressive reform surge anchored in the principles of student-centered learning and increasingly efficient schools of the earlier movement but this time fueled by new technologies and much money that make possible what has been considered impossible during recent market-oriented reforms concentrating on standards, testing, and accountability.

Since I have a blog where I can try out these intuitions and thoughts publicly, I will be writing a multi-post series  showing links that I see between past efforts of progressives to reform schools that were then thought to be “too traditional and teacher-directed” and increasing numbers of contemporary reformers operating again on progressive principles that the current “factory-model”used in public schools—need I point out these schools were a product of an earlier reform movement?–have to be replaced with child-driven, experience-laden, highly efficient schools connected to the real and ever-changing world.

So I begin with that earlier progressive school reform movement.

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

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

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” –adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency. These reformers were kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives.” The latter wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant child-centered learning in schools. Their version of a “good” school was one where the “whole child” was at the center of curriculum and instruction and learning through experience was primary. These progressives made a small dent in U.S. schools but the efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early 20th century.

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

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

Even now at the current height of efficiency-driven, top-down standards and testing, schools committed to educating the whole child have persisted (see here and here) within regular public schools as well as charter schools that label themselves as progressive (see here and here). The progressive impulse with its two wings lives on in 2016.

Which brings me to the private AltSchool and two public elementary ones in Milpitas (CA) that I visited recently. In subsequent posts I will take up those schools.


Filed under Reforming schools, research, Uncategorized

Why Students Can’t Google Their Way to the Truth (Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew)

Sam Wineburg is a professor in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Sarah McGrew is pursuing her doctorate in curriculum and teacher education at Stanford.

This commentary  appeared in Education Week, November 1, 2016.

Did Donald Trump support the Iraq War? Hillary Clinton says yes. He says no. Who’s right?

In search of answers, many of us ask our kids to “Google” something. These so-called digital natives, who’ve never known a world without screens, are the household’s resident fact-checkers. If anyone can find the truth, we assume, they can.

Don’t be so sure.

True, many of our kids can flit between Facebook and Twitter while uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to using the Internet to get to the bottom of things, Junior’s no better than the rest of us. Often he’s worse.

In a study conducted by Eszter Hargittai and her colleagues at Northwestern University, 102 college students went online to answer questions about things that matter to them—like how to advise a female friend who’s desperate to prevent pregnancy after her boyfriend’s condom broke. How did students decide what to believe? One factor loomed largest: a site’s placement in the search results. Students ignored the sponsoring organization and the article’s author, blindly trusting the search engine to put the most reliable results first.

Research we’ve conducted at Stanford University supports these findings. Over the past 18 months, we administered assessments that tap young people’s ability to judge online information. We analyzed over 7,804 responses from students in middle school through college. At every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation: middle school students unable to tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story; high school students taking at face value a cooked-up chart from the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee; college students credulously accepting a .org top-level domain name as if it were a Good Housekeeping seal.

One task asked students to determine the trustworthiness of material on the websites of two organizations: the 66,000 member American Academy of Pediatrics, established in 1930 and publisher of the journal Pediatrics, vs. the American College of Pediatricians, a fringe group that broke with the main organization in 2002 over its stance on adoption by same-sex couples. We asked 25 undergraduates at Stanford—the most selective college in the country, which rejected 95 percent of its applicants last year—to spend up to 10 minutes examining content on both sites. Students could stay on the initial web page, click on links, Google something else—anything they would normally do to reach a judgment.

More than half concluded that the article from the American College of Pediatricians, an organization that ties homosexuality to pedophilia and which the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled a hate group, was “more reliable.” Even students who preferred the entry from the American Academy of Pediatrics never uncovered the differences between the two groups. Instead, they saw the two organizations as equivalent and focused their evaluations on surface features of the websites. As one student put it: “They seemed equally reliable to me. … They are both from academies or institutions that deal with this stuff every day.”

Ironically, many students learned so little because they spent most of their time reading the articles on each organization’s site. But masking true intentions and ownership on the web has grown so sophisticated that to rely on the same set of skills one uses for print reading is naive. Parsing digital information before one knows if a site can be trusted is a colossal waste of time and energy.

This became clear to us when we gave our tasks to professional fact-checkers. Three strategies separate checkers from the rest of us:

  • Landing on an unfamiliar site, the first thing checkers did was to leave it. If undergraduates read vertically, evaluating online articles as if they were printed news stories, fact-checkers read laterally, jumping off the original page, opening up a new tab, Googling the name of the organization or its president. Dropped in the middle of a forest, hikers know they can’t divine their way out by looking at the ground. They use a compass. Similarly, fact-checkers use the vast resources of the Internet to determine where information is coming from before they read it.
  • Second, fact-checkers know it’s not about “About.” They don’t evaluate a site based solely on the description it provides about itself. If a site can masquerade as a nonpartisan think tank when funded by corporate interests and created by a Washington public relations firm, it can surely pull the wool over our eyes with a concocted “About” page.
  • Third, fact-checkers look past the order of search results. Instead of trusting Google to sort pages by reliability (which reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how Google works), the checkers mined URLs and abstracts for clues. They regularly scrolled down to the bottom of the search results page in their quest to make an informed decision about where to click first.

None of this is rocket science. But it’s often not taught in school. In fact, some schools have special filters that direct students to already vetted sites, effectively creating a generation of bubble children who never develop the immunities needed to ward off the toxins that float across their Facebook feeds, where students most often get their news. This approach protects young people from the real world rather than preparing them to deal with it.

After the vice presidential debate, Hillary Clinton’s campaign tweeted, “Unfortunately for Mike Pence and Donald Trump, Google exists (and we aren’t stupid).” Yes, Google puts vast quantities of information at our fingertips. But it also puts the onus for fact-checking on us. For every political question swirling in this election, there are countless websites vying for our attention—front groups and fake news sites right next to legitimate and reliable sources.

We agree with the tweet from the Clinton campaign. We’re not stupid. But when we turn to our screens for information and answers, we need to get a lot smarter about how we decide what’s true and what’s not.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Cartoons on Teachers and Kids in School

For this month, I am returning to an old theme for cartoons–school interactions between students, teachers, and parents. Enjoy!














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Doing Well By Doing Good: For-Profit Schools

For all of the three-decade hype about how business practices applied to K-12 schools will make them more efficient and high performing, a short hop and skip through the past half-century of for-profit companies failing in the education market might illustrate how applying market-driven practices to improve schools and make money  at the same time is tough for even shrewd entrepreneurs.

The argument that for-profit schools cannot succeed because they seek to make money out of the public coffer is not one I make here. There are such “good” schools and they  do thrive (see here and here). Keep in mind that other institutions entwine for-profits with public operations such as the space program, hospitals, prisons, and transportation. Government and profit-driven companies have  worked together for decades.

And that is why the historical record of businesses contracting with public school authorities is one that should be known well by the current generation of school reformers.

In 1969, Behavioral Research Laboratory, contracted with the largely black Gary (IN) district to raise test scores in reading and math in the Banneker elementary school. They failed. BRL is no more.

Dorsett Educational Systems in 1970-1971 took over a school in Texarkana (AR) contracting to raise 350 children one grade level in reading and math after 80 hours of instruction. They failed. DES is no more.

In 1970, Westinghouse Learning Systems contracted with Gilroy (CA) to take over the Eliot elementary school to raise test scores in reading and math. They failed. WLS is no more.

I could give many more examples of for-profit corporations seeking to make money from operating schools  through performance contracting when districts were flush with federal funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act  in the late-1960s and early 1970s–but I won’t. Failure in doing what seemed to be a fairly straightforward job–raise student test scores–proved unattainable by some of the best and brightest business leaders of the day.

These corporations tripped badly and eventually  disappeared or were swallowed by larger corporations.  In the late-1960s and early 1970s, the education market was ripe for money-making ventures to raise students’ low test scores but even then the school market proved unforgiving for those who believed that there were easy profits to be made by simply applying business efficiency and effectiveness principles to teaching and learning.

CEOs and investors learned the hard way that what worked in companies to make  silicon chips, crank out case after case of soda, and create brand-new cereals flopped when managers tried to turn low-performing students around and get higher test scores.

That was then. What about the recent past when start-ups, media conglomerates, and high-tech companies compete for the education dollar? The education market has gotten larger since the 1990s with charter schools, vouchers, and portfolios of alternative school in urban districts. Moreover, with the last decade’s Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind monies available, there were profits to be made. Nonetheless, corporate failures have  piled up.

Consider Minnesota-based Education Alternatives Inc. a fast rising star in the for-profit sector in the early 1990s. They managed schools in Hartford (CT) and nine Baltimore (MD) schools under a $133 million contract. EAI filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

How about Edison Inc.? Entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of Channel 1–a for-profit venture in public schools that eventually nose-dived–founded the Edison project in 1992. He and his partners believed that they could get students to learn more and better than regular public school could and, at the same time, return a tidy profit to investors. Edison Inc. was the first for-profit school-management company to be traded on a stock exchange. They got contracts from urban school districts (e.g., Wichita, KN; Philadelphia, PA, Ravenswood, CA) to manage scores of schools but stumbled into one political difficulty after another  with unions, parents, and administrators (see here and here). Their stock had reached a high of $40 a share in 2001 and then, as problems piled up, dipped to 14 cents later in the same year. Dissatisfied with Edison, districts began canceling contracts for financial, political, and managerial reasons. By 2005,  they were still 153 schools for over 65,000 students but the company was already dumping their school management business and had turned to  securing contracts to  provide tutorial services and other products districts wanted. By then, Whittle had found private lenders who aided him in converting the publicly traded company again into a private one.

And then there is K-12 Inc., a for-profit company, that pulled in over $800 million in 2013 through selling online courses and curriculum, software, and blended programs to private and public schools. K-12 Inc also own cyber charter schools.

Recently, investigations have shown how K-12 Inc. squeezed money out of each of their operations to give investors a high rate of return on their shares.  Whether K-12 Inc. will weather the current storm and dip in stock price, I do not know. But such a major player in the school reform business sliding into bad times reminds me of what occurred nearly a half-century ago with performance contracting.

Amplify (billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s addition to his media empire) dove into the educational market with sky-high promises of new curricula loaded on their tablets given free to schools. In 2015, Murdoch dumped Amplify.

Or consider Leapfrog , an education-entertainment company that soared when it opened for business in 2002 but over a decade later, its stock had fallen to a dollar a share and the New York Stock Exchange threatened to de-list the company.

How about another billionaire, Ronald Perelman, who shut down his K–12 educational-technology company, GlobalScholar, after spending $135 million. He saw that the software was faulty and a “mirage.”

And what about those for-profit cyber charter schools? Such virtual schools in Pennsylvania and Michigan have made much money and drawn considerable criticism for their low student outcomes (see here and here).

So what’s the point here? Sure, there is money to be made in the education market. After all, for decades big and small companies have sold textbooks, classroom furniture, transportation, low- and high-tech equipment from interactive white board to  professional development. They have profited from providing basic products and services to this stable market. And there are for-profit corporations that run schools, charter and non-charter, that have long waiting lists. But the numbers are quite small. It is very hard–I repeat, very hard– to turnaround a failing school or create a new school that parents clamor to send their children. Failures outnumber successes time and again.

Today profit-driven companies, and others like them (e.g., Apple’s iPads, Google’s Chromebooks and educational software start-ups) do not take over or create schools or districts. They provide services and products for already existing agencies running schools, not the tough business of turning failing ones around or starting brand new ones. That is a sinkhole that many companies eager to turn a profit have slipped into in the past and are primed to do so now.

Schools are complex institutions, entrepreneurs have discovered time and again. Just as they have discovered that doing good by doing well with schools is easier said than done.


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