School Reforms That Are Persistent And Admired But Marginal (Part 3)

Who am I quoting here? Hint: Quotes come from person born in the 19th century.

If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?

The ancient superficial idea of the uniform and progressive growth of the human personality has remained unaltered, and the erroneous belief has persisted that it is the duty of the adult to fashion the child according to the pattern required by society.

If you guessed John Dewey, you were wrong. The quotes come from Maria Montessori (1870-1952).

Born in Italy, Montessori became a physician –one of few women to do so at the time. In 1906, she was appointed as head of the Casa Dei Bambini where she developed ideas, materials, and teaching practices for poor children in Rome that have since become known as the Montessori Method.

Montessori schools spread throughout Europe before and after World I, the Great Depression, and after World War II. Dr. Montessori came to the U.S. in 1913 and 1915 and schools –all private–sprung up throughout the U.S.

Beginning in the 1970s, the private sector of Montessori schools slowly accommodated to the introduction of public Montessori schools. The first public Montessori opened in 1975 in Cincinnati (OH)–the city now has two Montessori high schools (see Laura Chapman’s comment below). The state of South Carolina has established nearly 50 public Montessori schools scattered across 20 districts. The Milwaukee school district has eight public Montessori schools enrolling nearly 3500 students, the most of any one district in the nation. Overall, there are 549 public and 2134 Montessori elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. Making Montessori schools public is another instance of a reform aimed at school organization, curriculum, and instruction succeeding in entering American schools. Those who say often and loudly that school reforms fail again and again have not only kindergartens, the age-graded schools,and small group teaching to consider but also charters and Montessori schools. All of these were reforms adopted by public schools that spread or resided in protected niches.

The Montessori Method:

When a child is given a little leeway, he will at once shout, ’I want to do it!’ But in our schools, which have an environment adapted to children’s needs, they say, ‘Help me to do it alone.’ Maria Montessori

The American Montessori Society sponsors teacher training, provides materials, and certifies schools and teachers as fully prepared in the Montessori Method. They describe their approach:

Montessori education is student-led and self-paced but guided, assessed, and enriched by knowledgeable and caring teachers, the leadership of their peers, and a nurturing environment.

Within the community of a multi-age classroom—designed to create natural opportunities for independence, citizenship, and accountability—children embrace multi-sensory learning and passionate inquiry. Individual students follow their own curiosity at their own pace, taking the time they need to fully understand each concept and meet individualized learning goals.

Given the freedom and support to question, probe deeply, and make connections, Montessori students grow up to be confident, enthusiastic, and self-directed learners and citizens, accountable to both themselves and their community. They think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly and with integrity. What better outcome could you wish for your children?

Montessori trained teachers, loads of specially designed materials and multi-aged groups of children characterize this approach to schooling.

In the past four decades of reform, then, public Montessori schools have appeared in more and more districts.

And what does research say about the Montessori Method and its outcomes for children? Two findings stand out. First, the Montessori Method is consistent with the bulk of human development literature on children’s growth and learning. Second, Montessori children, regardless of family finances, do well academically. Angeline Lillard, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, summarizes her research and findings in this YouTube video.

Yet in 2020, even with rave reviews for this approach to schooling and a sharp uptick in growth of public Montessori schools, Milwaukee (WI) has only eight public Montessori out of 154 schools. In New York City with 1700 public schools, there are three Montessori schools.

So an innovative approach to schooling founded by a woman doctor over a century ago has experienced erratic but constant growth both world-wide and in the U.S. initially in the private sector and since the 1970s, among U.S. public schools. Advocates among parents and teachers accompanied by a national infrastructure of support for training and certifying of teachers and materials help explain the growth of these public Montessori schools. Many districts, often accused to being hostile to school reform, adopted this innovative approach to school organization, curriculum, and instruction.

Here again, then, is a persistent, admired brand of schooling that occupies a safe place in many districts across the nation yet remains marginal to whichever system it is in. Like International Baccalaureate, Core Knowledge, problem-based learning, and charter schools, Montessori remains an innovative approach to teaching and learning that has yet to break out of its shielded nook and spread to other schools in the system.

How come? The final part of this series tries to answer that puzzling question.

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School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired But Marginal (Part 2)

After Minnesota authorized charter schools in 1991, a group of veteran teachers founded City Academy in St. Paul. It became the first publicly funded charter school in 1992. A quarter-century later 43 states and Washington, D.C. permit charter schools to operate. Charters are innovative ways to govern, fund, and organize public schools.

Using public monies and free of many state and district regulations, these schools have grown in a quarter-century from a handful to nearly 7000 across the U.S (there are about 100,000 public schools in the nation); they serve about 3 million students (over 50 million attend public schools). Largely found in urban districts (57 percent of all charter schools), these schools enroll mostly Hispanic and black students (total of 59 percent) charters. To those nay-sayers that often point to U.S. public schools as tossing aside reform after reform, Charter schools are a success story.

Charters have separate boards of directors who have to design a new school, find space for it, recruit parents to send their sons and daughters to it, hire a director and teachers, decide on the curriculum and manner of instruction, and make scores of other decisions in getting the school up and running. In many cases, charters have to raise additional monies over and above the state’s allocation for public school students attending district schools.

Most charter (over 75 percent ) are stand-alone schools. One-quarter of charters belong to Charter Management Organizations (CMO) such as Kipp, Success Academies, Aspire, and Summit Schools. With stable funding (often from private donors), an ideology, and an existing infrastructure of support, CMOs provide constant help to new charters in their organization. Stand-alones, well, – have to do all of the above tasks have themselves.

There are districts that have substantial percentages of charters in their boundaries that enroll anywhere from 10-90 percent of students. After the Katrina hurricane hit New Orleans, for example, nearly all public schools disappeared. All public school teachers and administrators were fired. In place of parish public schools, a system of charters appeared under the jurisdiction of a state-authorized Recovery School District. Political muscle from the state and donors supported the venture. Except for a few schools operated by the Orleans Parish School Board, 93 percent are charter schools operating under the RSD.

According to a recent Bellwether report, Detroit has 53 percent of its public schools chartered followed by Washington, D.C., (46), Philadelphia (32), and Cleveland (30). In each instance a political coalition of parents, elected officials, and donors advocate for charters. Keep in mind that charter schools are mostly in cities–seven states have no charter schools at all–and that 6 percent of all U.S. students attend charters.

So in the past quarter-century, charters have emerged as a growing sector of schooling–although its growth has slowed considerably in past few years as political pushback from parents, teachers, and others have put caps on growth in such states as California and Massachusetts.

While charters have spread swiftly since 1991, nearly all (94 percent) of U.S. students are in regular public schools. Nonetheless, that narrow slice of the educational market has given parents in urban districts more choice than they have traditionally had. Moreover, some states and districts, influenced by the charter movement, have increased the autonomy of regular public schools–releasing such schools from many district requirements–while expecting more accountability for results. Boston’s and Los Angeles’ Pilot Schools, Shelby County (TN)’s Innovation Zone Schools, and other jurisdictions have copied the charter school model.

The evidence that charter schools are more innovative–a basic reason for establishing such publicly-funded schools–in organization, curriculum and instruction than regular public schools is, at best, mixed. For the most part, charter schools are smaller in enrollment than their counterparts. And governance of charter schools does differ, But apart from size and governance, I have yet to see whether differences with public schools extend into the organization, curriculum, and instruction.

Organizationally, regular and charter schools are similar. Like 99 percent of U.S. schools, nearly all charter schools are age-graded. Charter high schools have block schedules for classes, advisory systems, and principals just like many public schools. Because charters must adhere to state curriculum, testing, and accountability regulations, there is little difference between regular and charter school curricula except perhaps in charters offering more and innovative electives in secondary schools. Finally, insofar as instruction, I have observed few differences between charter school and regular school teaching. Nor have I seen studies that reveal clear differences in instruction between charters and regular schools. Insofar as academic outcomes, studies are mixed when it comes to charters outperforming regular schools (see here here, and here).

Overall, then, charter schools have expanded the menu of choices available to parents. What gives charters heft in the decentralized system of U.S. schooling is an active infrastructure of stable political support. Not only from parents, and segments of both political parties–Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have all endorsed charters–but also state and local coalitions, including donors, have helped make the innovation a permanent part of U.S. tax-supported public schools across many school districts. New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and a few other cities, for example, have nearly half to all public schools designated as charters in their systems. Yet this handful of cities are a drop in the bucket of urban districts in the nation. And when one examines states such as Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Florida and Michigan where enrollments in charter schools are highest, the range is between 10-17 percent of all students. With 13,000-plus districts in 50 states and D.C., charters have surely found a niche in the U.S. decentralized system of tax-supported public schools. But in 2020, they still occupy a niche. That’s it.

In short, after a quarter-century charter schools–an innovative way to govern, fund, and organize public schools–are persistent, admired by many (but by no means, all), yet marginal to the ongoing daily work of schooling America’s children and youth. A success story but limited in its reach.

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School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired But Marginal (Part 1)

A head-scratching puzzle of school reform over the past century is the innovation that arrives in tinsel and enters tax-supported public schools. Often districts adopt such glittering new programs and they settle into protected niches. But, and here is the puzzle, praised and admired as they are, they cannot break out of that nook. They stick around at the edges of the system remaining isolated, failing to spread throughout the district.

Early 20th century Progressives had their Project Method and the Dalton Plan. Both were adopted in many public schools because they seemingly solved organizational, curricular, and instructional problems. And they had internal constituencies of teachers and administrators yet they remained on the periphery of school systems. They did not become standard practices across classrooms.

Mid-century curricular reformers had their New Math. Late-20th century insurgents rallied around Coalition of Essential Schools and Core Knowledge programs. And early 21st century reformers have their problem-based learning and International Baccalaureate programs still awaiting that magic moment when the “system” adopts the innovation district wide completely altering how teachers teach and students learn. All had supporters either inside or outside districts (or both) but failed to move from the margins to become regular programs across districts.

To many reformers, the difficulty of getting adopted into public schools appears to be the highest hurdle. It is not. School boards and superintendents adopt many new ideas and direct administrators to implement them as pilots or in particular classrooms.

The far larger hurdle is breaking out of the niche that the innovation occupies in the district. Out of 35 schools in a district, for example, a handful of teachers or one or two schools regularly use the innovation. Going district-wide remains a near impossible task.

Yet some organizational, instructional, and curricular innovations do break out of their niches and get adopted locally, state-wide, and even nationally. Consider the sponsoring of private kindergartens for poor children by middle-class women in the late-19th century and their steady growth in public schools to become established in nearly all elementary schools. Ditto for tax-supported pre-schools in the late-20th and early 21st centuries.

Or note the common classroom practice of grouping by performance and ability. Most early 20th century teachers taught the whole class as one whether there were 30 or 60 students. Beginning before World War I, however, Progressive teachers began to group students for reading. More and more elementary school teacher (far fewer secondary ones, however)) began dividing their students into groups for different activities. Such grouping practices spread to math and other elementary school subjects and has in time become established procedure.

Also early 20th century teachers had students memorize science passages in their textbooks and recite them to the teacher. The idea of students going outdoors to collect insects and life in streams slowly became part of the science curriculum during the 1920s and 1930s and such field trips are now embedded in the elementary and secondary school science curricula.

And since the mid-1990s, expanding access to computers–once relegated to a room with 30 devices in each school–now makes Internet-connected devices available to every single student.

So there have been successful scaling up of entry-level innovations to system-wide use. But these are the exceptions.

How, then, do I explain what appears to be a historical pattern of many adopted innovations occupying a niche in existing school systems yet they fail to spread throughout the larger system while other innovations slowly and steadily roll out to become incorporated across all public schools?

Disappointed promoters of their new programs blame teacher resistance or lack of expertise as the answer. Teachers are unprepared or inexpert in adopting new techniques and activities so they stick to ways that have worked for them day-in and day-out, ignoring the innovation.

Others point their fingers at principals and district office administrators who oppose the innovation on either ideological or financial grounds (or both). Sometimes, these administrators go further and point out the lack of research to justify system-wide adoption.

Then there are frustrated reformers who blame existing ways of governing and organizing public schools for the rejection of what appears to them as overwhelmingly successful programs. Rigid, bureaucratic rules block adopting innovations, they say. The century-old age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” that great-grandparents, grandparents, and existing moms and dads have experienced stand in the way of progress, that is, their innovation. To boosters of the new program, these established ways of governing and organizing schools are taken for granted. They have become accepted by both professionals and parents as how schools were. And, more important, should remain.

While such explanations are often bandied about, I believe they only scratch the surface of a complicated puzzle. I speak not of those simple cut-out 15 interlocking pieces that kindergarteners play with but I mean one of those 1000-piece jigsaws. So how do I unravel this continuing conundrum of persistent and admired innovations –many producing prized student outcomes–occupying protected spaces in the organization yet still remaining isolated from the rest of the system?

The following posts on particular innovations—charter schools and Montessori programs–offer different ways of viewing this puzzle that is so thoroughly embedded in the history of U.S. tax-supported public schools yet too often unnoticed–save for a few researchers. Those researchers also suggest ways that such programs can move from the periphery to the center of schooling.

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The Last Time Democracy Almost Died (Jill Lepore)

With the rise of dictatorships across Europe and Asia in the past quarter-century, the current impeachment and then acquittal of President Donald Trump, fear, anger, and despair about the present state of America and its future as a democracy has become a topic of discussion. Recent books entitled How Democracies Die and The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is In Danger & How To Save It point to the angst that is in the air about the present and future of democracy in the U.S.

Historian Jill Lepore looks to the 1930s when the U.S. was mired in the Great Depression and totalitarianism was on the march in Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Adolph Hitler’s Germany. In the U.S., anti-immigration sentiment, lynchings of blacks, and antisemitism rose dramatically in these years as authoritarian governments toppled democracies internationally.

As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal took hold of the country, Lepore argues that Americans engaged in sustained discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of democratic government and daily democratic practices. And many public schools were involved in those civic discussions. I have excerpted part of the article dealing with one Midwestern school district’s efforts.

Jill Lepore contributes to The New Yorker. She is a professor of history at Harvard University. Her latest book is “These Truths: A History of the United States.” The entire article appeared in The New Yorker.

It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent. American democracy in the nineteen-thirties had plenty of critics, left and right, from Mexican-Americans who objected to a brutal regime of forced deportations to businessmen who believed the New Deal to be unconstitutional. W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that, unless the United States met its obligations to the dignity and equality of all its citizens and ended its enthrallment to corporations, American democracy would fail: “If it is going to use this power to force the world into color prejudice and race antagonism; if it is going to use it to manufacture millionaires, increase the rule of wealth, and break down democratic government everywhere; if it is going increasingly to stand for reaction, fascism, white supremacy and imperialism; if it is going to promote war and not peace; then America will go the way of the Roman Empire….”

The most ambitious plan to get Americans to show up in the same room and argue with one another in the nineteen-thirties came out of Des Moines, Iowa, from a one-eyed former bricklayer named John W. Studebaker, who had become the superintendent of the city’s schools. Studebaker, who after the Second World War helped create the G.I. Bill, had the idea of opening those schools up at night, so that citizens could hold debates. In 1933, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation and support from the American Association for Adult Education, he started a five-year experiment in civic education.

The meetings began at a quarter to eight, with a fifteen-minute news update, followed by a forty-five-minute lecture, and thirty minutes of debate. The idea was that “the people of the community of every political affiliation, creed, and economic view have an opportunity to participate freely.” When Senator Guy Gillette, a Democrat from Iowa, talked about “Why I Support the New Deal,” Senator Lester Dickinson, a Republican from Iowa, talked about “Why I Oppose the New Deal.” Speakers defended Fascism. They attacked capitalism. They attacked Fascism. They defended capitalism. Within the first nine months of the program, thirteen thousand of Des Moines’s seventy-six thousand adults had attended a forum. The program got so popular that in 1934 F.D.R. appointed Studebaker the U.S. Commissioner of Education and, with the eventual help of Eleanor Roosevelt, the program became a part of the New Deal, and received federal funding. The federal forum program started out in ten test sites—from Orange County, California, to Sedgwick County, Kansas, and Pulaski County, Arkansas. It came to include almost five hundred forums in forty-three states and involved two and a half million Americans. Even people who had steadfastly predicted the demise of democracy participated. “It seems to me the only method by which we are going to achieve democracy in the United States,” Du Bois wrote, in 1937.

The federal government paid for it, but everything else fell under local control, and ordinary people made it work, by showing up and participating. Usually, school districts found the speakers and decided on the topics after collecting ballots from the community. In some parts of the country, even in rural areas, meetings were held four and five times a week. They started in schools and spread to Y.M.C.A.s and Y.W.C.A.s, labor halls, libraries, settlement houses, and businesses, during lunch hours. Many of the meetings were broadcast by radio. People who went to those meetings debated all sorts of things:

Should the Power of the Supreme Court Be Altered?

Do Company Unions Help Labor?

Do Machines Oust Men?

Must the West Get Out of the East?

Can We Conquer Poverty?

Should Capital Punishment Be Abolished?

Is Propaganda a Menace?

Do We Need a New Constitution?

Should Women Work?

Is America a Good Neighbor?

Can It Happen Here?

These efforts don’t always work. Still, trying them is better than talking about the weather, and waiting for someone to hand you an umbrella.

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Schools and Classrooms a Century Ago

Here are photos of schools and classrooms from the 1920s in cities and rural districts. While there are now 13,000-plus districts in the U.S. now, a century ago, there were over 100,000. Rural consolidation of schools and migration to cities during the Great Depression and especially after World War II reduced dramatically the number of one-room school houses as age-graded schools became the “new” normal across the nation.

The 1920s were also the years that the Progressive movement expanded school functions such as serving lunch, providing doctor suites to examine children’s eyes, ears, and body, taking field trips, and other innovations–small group teaching– showed up in various–but hardly all–schools.

Looking at these photos reminds me anew about how stability and change mark tax-supported public schools over the past century.

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Dogged Dilemmas in U.S. Classrooms

Over the past ten years I have blogged, I have written often about dilemmas facing teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members. These dilemmas (as distinguished from “problems”) have to be managed since they cannot be “solved.” That distinction goes against the cultural belief that Americans are “problem-solvers” who can–often through technology– figure out ways to end hunger, cure any disease, and iron out inequalities. But dilemmas differ from problems. This post explains the differences and gives a classroom instance familiar to many teachers.

I have used the word “dilemma” in earlier posts since superintendents, principals, teachers, and, yes, students face situations that call for difficult choices among conflicting values. So for this post, I offer a thorny dilemma with which readers can wrestle.

By dilemmas, I mean situations where you have to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing you end up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value–what academics call “satisficing.”

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us face is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job. You have to make a choice–you “satisfice.”

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the “satisficing” compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices between prized values.

With that brief definition of a dilemma, consider the following situation that faced this first-year teacher.

In a culturally diverse high school of 1300 students in northern California, Dorothy Ramirez teaches 10th grade biology. In one of her 5 classes she has 32 students of whom one-third are Latino, one-third are African-American, and one-third are white, Alberto, a 17-year old Latino who has turned in his assignments on time and hovers between a C and D, has begun disrupting the class.

Recently, Alberto began to talk with those around him while the teacher is lecturing or leading a whole-group discussion. Even after Ramirez quietly asked Alberto to stop, he continues these side conversations. On two occasions, she kept Alberto after class for a few minutes to ask if there was something going on to account for his behavior. He said nothing. The next day, he repeated the same behavior during a student presentation and was rude to Ramirez when she asked him to stop. Two other students began smirking and talking to one another while the teacher listened to students give their opinions during a whole-group discussion. Ramirez asked Alberto to leave class for 10 minutes to cool off outside the door and he did. The same thing happened the following day.

Ramirez decided to call home because she feared that she was losing control of Alberto. If this occurred, then it might spread like an infection to the rest of the class. She called his parents and discovered that they speak only Spanish. Since she speaks only English, Ramirez enlisted the help of a Spanish-speaking counselor at school who called home and spoke with the mother. The mother told the counselor that she, too, is having trouble with Alberto, the oldest of her three children and she promised to speak to him.

The next day in biology class, Alberto had another run-in with Ramirez over the same conduct. The teacher called the counselor and mother and they met the following day where it came out that the mother couldn’t control Alberto at home. Ramirez suggested speaking with the father. The mother got very upset because the father works two jobs to support the family and if he finds out about Alberto’s behavior at school and home, the father will beat him as he has done before. The meeting adjourned with no action taken but deep concern over what to do if Alberto causes more trouble in class.

1. Which prized values are in conflict for Ramirez?

2. What are Ramirez’s options in managing this dilemma?

3. Which one should she choose? Why?

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Feedback for Teacher Learning (David Brazer)

David Brazer is a practitioner/scholar. Teacher and high school principal, Brazer has also been a professor at George Mason and Stanford Universities. He is now Director of Professional Learning at TeachFX.

A few years ago, I met with Jamie Poskin the founder of TeachFX and former graduate student of Brazer’s at Stanford. After showing me graphic displays of teacher talk, he asked what I thought of the tool for teacher learning. I was impressed with its possibilities but at the time pointed out a series of shortcomings, especially around analyzing the kinds of talk both teachers and students engage in.

In this guest post, Brazer describes how he got involved and where the device is now. Like Brazer, I find this tool most useful for those teachers who seek self-improvement through analyzing how they teach. *

Teachers talk a lot. Hattie (2012) claims they talk 70 – 80% of class time across grade levels. In contrast, students talk very little, even when they’re talking in groups. But secondary teachers frequently tell me that students love to talk, just not about class content. The result is often an emphasis on classroom control that keeps students quiet, causing many to disengage. Students’ love of talking presents an opportunity to engage them in learning instead of controlling their behavior. What if teachers could harness students’ talk energy and see how that influences their engagement? Would teachers modify their teaching and talk less? The bet from a new reflective instructional tool called TeachFX is that they would.

            Writing a post for the ultimate tech skeptic’s blog about a tech tool for teachers feels like walking into the lion’s den. Larry has shown that efforts to change what teachers do often fail and that technology thus far has been more effective making teachers efficient than changing how they teach. A tech skeptic myself, my work with TeachFX is changing my mind. We see that frequent, objective feedback teachers can analyze quickly shows promise for altering teacher talk/student talk ratios and student engagement. Why? Because TeachFX feedback provides a rare opportunity to facilitate teacher learning.

            Research that colleagues and I published seven years ago focused on teacher learning in collaborative teams. We found that teachers rarely implemented new instructional practices proposed by colleagues. On the occasions they did, teachers had little or no evidence of these practices’ effects. Lack of classroom evidence inhibited what teachers learned from minor changes.

            Fast forward to the 2016-2017 academic year. Jamie Poskin was my intern in Stanford University’s joint degree in business and education. During his internship at a venture capital fund we frequently spoke about Jamie’s idea for a tool that would use a smart phone to audio record a teacher’s class, then separate teacher talk from student talk in a graphic display on the phone or laptop. I was intrigued, and skeptical. Then Jamie said, “Want to try the prototype in your class? What do you predict will be your percentage of student talk?” Committed to lively and informative discourse in my graduate classrooms, I wanted something like 80%, but I aimed low—40% seemed an achievable target.

            Paying this much attention to student talk might seem excessive to some, but student talk is evidence of deeper engagement and learning. Despite clear demonstration that students who are engaged more learn more (Lotan, 2014), fostering student talk remains a challenging approach for large numbers of K – 12 teachers. Consider some stark numbers: If 75% of class time is taken up with teacher talk, the other 25% consists of activities that compete with individual student talk, such as worksheets, quizzes, thinking time, transitions, and group work. Thirty students will share substantially less than 15 minutes to speak in a 90-minute class period. Given that student on-target talk is one of the surest ways to know they are engaged, students would benefit from less teacher talk and more opportunities to speak.

            TeachFX delivers vivid, objective evidence for how much teachers and their students are talking, providing impetus for teacher learning about the effects of their instruction. Recording classes regularly allows teachers to track changes in practices and their effects on student talk and engagement.

            Does the tool have the desired effects? Knowing I would see a report of my teaching, I was immediately focused on student talk in my classroom. When my recording was analyzed, Jamie returned to my office and asked, “Do you think you met your 40% student talk goal?” I hesitantly said I thought so and was much relieved when I learned that I had actually achieved 45 % student talk. Here is a snapshot of the class report I received on my laptop with explanations in call-outs:

The features of our classroom discourse were obvious and fascinated me.

            The evidence was vivid for me, but how would this work with K – 12 teachers? Would they use it? Would it change what they do in classrooms? I joined TeachFX full time last summer as Director of Professional Learning in a quest to find out. We are observing some promising trends as teachers make recordings and analyze class reports.

Although individual student talk tends to hover around 5% of class time nationally, TeachFX users typically see 15 – 20% individual student talk on their first class report. Teachers tell us their attention to student talk is heightened when they use the tool and they modify their instructional choices to encourage more student talk and engagement. Below is data from a single school with several teachers using the tool September – November. Collectively, these teachers demonstrated remarkable growth in their average amount of individual student talk over six recordings.

To date, most growth in student talk has been more modest. The district below, for example, piloted TeachFX last fall with about 20 science teachers and coaches, showing the following pattern:

Trends in these examples are encouraging, but not universal among TeachFX users. As an early start-up, we are learning the following:

  1. Turning teachers’ attention to student engagement competes with numerous other initiatives and imperatives. Maintaining their attention on student engagement is a complicated effort.
  2. Attention should be focused on transforming what teachers know about student engagement into how teachers might foster content-focused student talk in classrooms, then tracking progress
  3. Administration-level champions of student engagement powerfully focus teacher learning on generating meaningful student discourse.

Teachers are beginning to moderate their own talking to allow for more student talk and deeper engagement moment-by-moment in classrooms. TeachFX does not presume to change education overnight, but we do seem to be making progress toward helping teachers re-shape student discourse to engage their students in deeper learning.


*For full disclosure, readers need to know that I have not invested in this company (nor have plans to). Neither have I ever received any money or in-kind contributions from TeachFX, its founder, or employees.

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