Reopening schools during and after the Covid-19 pandemic offered cartoonists enough material to run their inkwells dry. Here are a few that brought a smile to my face. Hope they will do the same for you. Enjoy!
When, where, and why did the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow appear?
Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) began in 1985 with three classrooms in different states where every student had access to a desktop computer at school and at home. This 1:1 ratio in a classroom at this time when most schools had 125 students per computer was not only innovative but rare. As the head of the Apple-sponsored research said: “we set out to investigate how routine use of technology by teachers and students would affect teaching and learning.”
What did the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow look like in practice?
Researcher Jane David* described her visit in May 1986 to a fifth grade classroom in Blue Earth school (then a K-12 school housing all students in the rural Minnesota district). One of three initial classrooms chosen to participate in the experiment, David’s description of her two day visit to the classroom raises questions that in 2021 are just as relevant about routine use of devices in the nation’s classroom. Here is, in part, what she had to say:
The ACOT classroom is one of three fifth-grade classes in Blue Earth’s only school, a K-12 school with roughly 1000 students and 250 computers.** The number of computers reflects the fact that Blue Earth has been in the forefront of computer use in schools even prior to ACOT….
The ACOT fifth grade class consists of advanced students who averaged in the 99th percentile on previous standardized tests and began the year with keyboarding skills ranging from 30-80 words per minute. These students were introduced to keyboarding in the third grade and participated in the Project Beacon classroom in the fourth grade [part of large, three-year state grant called the Beacon project]. Moreover, ACOT is enhanced by school leadership and hence a climate that encourages innovative uses of computers. From the classroom to the library, cafeteria, nurse’s office andcentral office, computers are am integral part of the daily routine.
The ACOT [fifth grade] teacher began teaching in 1980 with no computer background. Seeing computers at the school, he purchased an Apple and taught himself Appleworks. With $100 from Apple, he took a course in Logo.
In the ACOT classroom, the computers are arranged in five rows going away from the teacher’s desk; four of the five rows are adjacent (with monitors back-to-back). All computers are on three-shelf work stations, with storage beneath and monitors on top. A printer is located at the end of the double rows and a large monitor above a chalkboard in the front of the room and a second large monitor on one side wall.
The computers in the ACOT classroom are used roughly 50% of the time. Word processing is the main use, with applications ranging from daily journal writing to dictation in which students enter answers to oral questions and then reorganize the information into a story or poem. Students have also created a class newspaper using Newsroom and have personal dictionaries (databases which sit on the desktop) consisting of the words they have difficulty spelling (which they quiz each other on). The most advanced students use a math CAI program with a spiral of math skills….
David asked questions and made observations then that are just as relevant in 2021:
#Do computers change the way teachers teach?
#How are computers used instructionally?
#Do computers simplify or complicate teaching?
A number of ingrained characteristics of the existing system seem to run counter to a vision of students using computers as vehicles for exploration, independent learning, and individual pursuits.
-curricular objectives required by the district or school;
-individual and school evaluations based on traditional standardized tests not sensitive to new kinds of learning;
-the need to ‘stay with’ the other classes in the school at the same grade level (pressure from teachers and parents);
-the need to prepare students in the way that the next grade’s teachers expect (and ultimately graduation requirements.
All of the above questions–there are more in her report–and the imperatives of the Blue Earth age-graded elementary school nested in a district and state in 1986 are, in my opinion, not only a glimpse into the past but also a pointed reminder that efforts to integrate computers into daily lessons must reckon with these questions and imperatives in 2021.
Did the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow Work?
Eva Baker and her UCLA colleagues completed a major evaluation of ACOT in 1993 (see “The Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow,” The UCLA Evaluation Studies, CSE Technical Report 353). Baker, et. al. looked at student outcomes, teacher classroom practices, and similar outcomes as they evolved over the years they examined ACOT classrooms.
No easy task, these “formative evaluations” at a handful of sites (using surveys, observations, questionnaires, and other methods) found that the 1:1 computers for students and teachers in ACOT classrooms did not erode or much enhance the status quo insofar as academic test results, student writing, and attitudes along with classroom teaching practices. Because of the difficulties of doing such an evaluation amid frequent school and teacher-made classroom changes, the UCLA researchers could not make firm statements about the impact on students and teachers. So the hope of Apple innovators in the mid-1980s–“we set out to investigate how routine use of technology by teachers and students would affect teaching and learning.”–remained an open question a decade later.
What Happened to the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow?
The Apple-funded innovation ended in 1995.
Two decades later, over half of U.S. classrooms had 1:1 computers (laptops and tablets) in use. And in 2020-2021, with Covid-19 closing all schools and a massive shift to remote instruction in those 18 pandemic months, nearly every student in the nation had access to a computer in school and home.
*Jane David is a long-time friend, co-author, and colleague. She provided me with a copy of her 1986 report to Apple from which I excerpted these sections.
**Blue Earth is now a district with three schools: an elementary, middle, and high school.
Once upon a time, there was much unemployment, poverty, and homelessness in this land. Leaders tried one thing after another to end these grim conditions. Nothing worked.
In the midst of these bad times, however, a small group of educators, upset over what our youth were learning in high schools decided to take action.
These schools were dull places. Students listened to teachers, read books, and took exams. Schools were supposed to prepare students for life but much of what they studied they forgot after graduating. Worse yet, what they had learned in school did not prepare them to face the problems of life, think clearly, be creative, or fulfill their civic duties. Complaints to school officials got the same answer repeatedly: little could be done because college entrance requirements determined what courses students took in high school.
So to give high schools the freedom to try new ways of schooling in a democracy, a small band of reformers convinced the best universities to waive their admission requirements and accept graduates from high schools that designed new programs.
Dozens of schools joined the experiment. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students created new courses and ways of teaching teenagers to become active members of the community and still attend college. For eight years, these schools educated students and universities admitted their graduates. And then a war came and the experiment ended. After years passed, few could recall what these schools and colleges did.
A fairy tale? Nope.
Between 1933-1941, thirty high schools in the country and over 300 universities and colleges joined the experiment sponsored by the Progressive Education Association.
Called ”The Eight Year Study,” each high school decided for itself what curricula, schedules, and class sizes would be. There were no college admission requirements or must-take tests. Old lesson plans were scrapped. One school sent classes into the West Virginia coal region to study unions. Science, history, art, and math were often combined in projects that students and teachers planned together.
Needless to say, there were stumbles also. A few principals blocked the experiment. Some school faculties divided into warring factions.
While there was much variation among the schools, there were also common elements. Many of the large public high schools (of the 30, fifteen were private) created small schools within the larger one. Principals increased the authority of teachers to design and steer the program; teachers crossed departmental boundaries and created a core curriculum (math/science and English/social studies), set aside three hours a day for teams to work with groups of students, and planned weekly units with students.
What happened to these students when they attended college? To find an answer, evaluators established 1,475 pairs of college students, each consisting of a graduate from an experimental school and one graduate of another high school matched as closely as possible as to age, sex, race, social class, and academic performance. They then compared their performance in college.
Evaluators found that graduates of the thirty schools earned a slightly higher grade average and more academic honors than those who attended regular high school. Furthermore, the “guinea pigs,” as they were called, were more precise in their thinking, displayed more ingenuity in meeting new situations, and demonstrated an active interest in national and world issues than their matched counterpart.
What these startling results showed over 70 years ago was that there was no one single best way of schooling teenagers. The fears that parents and taxpayers had about experimenting with high school courses, organization, and teaching proved hollow in “The Eight Year Study.”
The results of these studies appeared during World War II. The war effort swallowed up any further interest in experimenting with high school programs. Whatever the reasons, “The Eight Year Study” lapsed into the obscurity of scholarly footnotes. Later generations of reformers seldom inquired or cared about this large-scale, non-federally funded experiment that showed convincingly that schools, given the freedom to experiment, could produce graduates that not only did well academically in college but, far more important, displayed an active interest in civic affairs, were resourceful in handling new situations, and could think clearly.
So what does this eight-decade old experiment say to us in the early 21st century about school reform?
1. When engaged teachers, administrators, and students are given the freedom to experiment and the help to do it, they will come through.
2. There is no one best way of schooling youth.
3. Students can graduate high school who are academically engaged, involved in their communities, and thoughtful problem-solvers.
4. Standards of excellence that work in schools are those that are set and done locally by adults and students—not imposed from the top-down.
In 2021, federal and state decision-makers and policy elites drive school reform. They set standards, require tests, and reward/punish performance. What the “The Eight Year Study” demonstrated is that locals–-districts, schools, and practitioners—-have the expertise and can be trusted. When locals are trusted they get engaged and produce results that still stagger us looking back over three-quarters of a century.
Jack Schneider is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. This piece appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times, June 25, 2020.
In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, countless colleges and universities shifted from to A-F grades to a pass/fail system. As officials at Wellesley College explained, the general aim in doing so is to “support one another without being required to make judgments.”
Many K-12 school districts have done the same. From Palo Alto, Calif., to Wake County, N.C., local officials have concluded that now is not the time for grades. As teachers in Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District declared, “We cannot grade with equity when students’ experiences learning at home will be so varied.” And it’s not yet clear that most schools that have made this switch will fully return to letter grades in the fall.
But not everyone is happy with this outcome.
Some parents and activists are anxious that, without grades, students won’t receive adequate feedback on their work. Others worry that altering or eliminating the traditional grading scale will undermine student motivation and reward slacking off. As one Oregon parent pointedly asked in one of many online petitions pushing for the reinstatement of letter grades, “How do I explain to my child that has great grades that she should keep working hard when anything that is D- and above will still ‘pass’? This is ridiculous.” A similar but separate concern, expressed by ambitious students and their parents, is that without letter grades students will be at a disadvantage when competing for scholarships, college admission and merit aid.
The logistical calamities presented by the coronavirus have suddenly, and forcefully, surfaced an underlying problem frequently ignored before the crisis: A-F grades serve several different purposes, and those purposes are too often in conflict with one another. Americans may come to recognize by the end of this schooling crisis that we would all be better off without letter grades.
The original aim of grading, which can be traced back several centuries to English universities like Oxford and Cambridge, was to motivate students. As educators found, students tended to work harder if there was a brass ring for them to reach. This fact became more important in the latter half of the 19th century, as an increasing number of states made schooling compulsory.
With a new influx of reluctant pupils, many K-12 teachers were faced with a challenge even greater than keeping the average students focused: maintaining the attention of students who didn’t want to be there at all. Grades, then, also became a mechanism for coercion — rewards, but also punishments, with bad grades meant to serve as a socializing source of shame.
Grades as we know them now have yet another origin too, rooted in efforts to communicate with students and their families. Feedback, as any educator knows, is essential to learning. But as class sizes grew larger in the 19th century, American teachers were increasingly pressed for time. Looking for a shortcut, many schools developed new systems for providing feedback to students. The boldest of these physically rearranged students in the classroom — hence the phrase “head of the class.” What endured, however, was the “report card,” which used pre-identified codes — like numbers or letter grades — to streamline the process of evaluation.
Unlike student seating charts, report cards could be sent home to parents, strengthening communication with families. And eventually, policy leaders realized that if grades could relate something about student learning to parents and families, they could also communicate info more broadly — to other schools, to state offices of education and to employers.
Standardized report cards, in essence, could create a national market for student knowledge and skill, in the same way that letter grades for products like grain had created commodities markets. Just as the quality of Grade A beef could be understood without firsthand knowledge, so could the quality of an A student. With the evolution of the transcript — the permanent record for storing grades — student performance could be communicated across both time and space.
But there was still a lack of uniformity. Unlike many countries where a central ministry of education directs policy across the nation’s schools, the U.S. system has always been characterized by decentralization. Subject to local control, many schools and districts used 1-100 scoring systems; others used letters; some even relied on 0-4 systems. Eventually, however, the pressure for standardization from elites led to a grand merger: A 1-100 score that could be converted into an A-F grade, which, in turn, was convertible again into a grade-point average.
The merger was highly useful for these domestic policy elites, dealing with a rapidly growing nation, who then used the new regimen to connect America’s fragmented educational system. Schools, colleges and employers could nominally work together without actually changing their independent models.
By the early 20th century, grades as we generally see them now had become a core feature of American education. But as any programmer can tell you, tasking a single technology with multiple distinct roles is a bad idea. Letter grades do several different things, none of them well, and the result undermines student learning.
Consider the fact that the permanent nature of grades makes them an incredibly high-stakes affair for students. This has a serious impact on the degree to which teachers can use grades to effectively communicate student progress. Think of how a low grade, intended to convey that a young person doesn’t yet understand a concept, will instead read to the student as an act of cruelty — an attempt to ruin her future. And the student wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to see it that way; transcripts in a self-proclaimed meritocratic world mean that grades, like diamonds, are forever.
Similarly, using letter grades as a currency across agencies and institutions has, in reality, negatively distorted student motivation for generations. Regardless of their inclination to learn, many students strive first and foremost to get good grades. This was even the case in 1918, when American economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen observed that the pursuit of grades “progressively sterilizes all personal initiative and ambition that comes within its sweep.” And a century later, it remains true, as students scramble for prized, résumé building credentials at the expense of their own intellectual curiosity.
Americans have long been aware of the problems with the current model. Grade inflation is an epidemic, particularly at elite schools. And “grade-grubbing,” the pestering of teachers to change scores, is a scourge too. Parents complain about stressed out students haunted by the prospect of an imperfect “life-ruining” transcript. And teachers bemoan the endless grind of grading.
Yet despite these obvious problems, grades are deeply embedded into the culture and function of American education: They are used for state graduation requirements, military eligibility, community college transfers, and scholarship determinations; and they are one of the chief mechanisms for linking America’s 100,000 schools with over 5,000 colleges and universities.
In short, this grading conundrum won’t be easy to solve. But the inherent flaws of A-F grading have never been clearer. And, because of that, several sensible reform ideas — unreasonably ambitious in normal times — may offer a path forward.
One smart proposal involves the use of student portfolios. Rather than reducing everything a student has learned to a single score or letter symbol, schools and colleges might ask students to assemble evidence of what they know and can do. Models of this can be found in progressive networks of public and private schools, as well as in programs like International Baccalaureate and the Advanced Placement program. Portfolios are by no means a silver bullet, but they have a number of important strengths: emphasizing the substance of learning, encouraging revision and acknowledging the different paces at which students reach proficiency. Perhaps most importantly, they motivate students to improve their work and not merely their grades.This, of course, is only a brief sketch — a map of future prospects rather than a concrete plan. And it would require fairly unprecedented coordination across different organizations and government agencies. But the road to reform always begins with an awakening to possibility.
Our present use of grades is a matter of historical accident, not design. The result is that grades fail to advance the multiple purposes they ostensibly serve.
Pass/Fail grading — the stopgap that many have turned to in the wake of the pandemic — is not a long-term solution. The problem can only be addressed at its root. Shaken from our complacency by a crisis, perhaps we can begin the conversation about what comes next.
Jane David and I wrote a book called Cutting through the Hype: (Harvard Education Press, 2010). One chapter is on principals. I have updated some references and language.
Effective manager? Savvy politician? Heroic leader? School CEO? Reformers press for principals who can not only play these roles but also raise test scores and do so quickly. These days principals can earn thousands of dollars in bonuses for boosting student achievement.
Principals are expected to maintain order, to be shrewd managers who squeeze a dollar out of every dime spent on the school, and astute politicians who can steer parents, teachers, and students in the same direction year after year. They are also expected to ensure that district curriculum standards are being taught, as well as lead instructional improvement that will translate into test score gains.
Being a principal is a tall order. As one New York City small high school principal put it: “You’re a teacher, you’re Judge Judy, you’re a mother, you’re a father, you’re a pastor, you’re a therapist, you’re a nurse, you’re a social worker.” She took a breath and continued: “You’re a curriculum planner, you’re a data gatherer, you’re a budget scheduler, you’re a vision spreader.” Yet, at the end of the day, the pressures and rewards are for raising test scores and graduation rates, today’s measure of instructional leadership.
Where did the idea of instructional leadership originate?
Historically, the title principal comes from the phrase “principal teacher,” that is, a teacher who was designated by a mid-19th century school board to manage the non-classroom tasks of schooling a large number of students and turning in reports. Principals examined students personally to see what was learned, evaluated teachers, created curriculum, and took care of the business of schooling. So from the very beginning of the job over 150 years ago principals were expected to play both managerial and instructional roles.
Over the decades, however, district expectations for principals’ instructional role have grown without being either clarified, or without lessening managerial and political responsibilities. Over the past quarter-century, the literature on principals has shifted markedly from managing budgets, maintaining the building, hiring personnel, and staff decision-making to being primarily about instruction. And, within the past decade, directly being held accountable for student results on tests has been added to the instructional role. As instructional leaders, principals now must also pay far closer attention to activities they hope will help teachers produce higher student scores such as aligning the school curriculum to the state test.
Today’s reformers put forth different ideas of what instructional leaders should do to meet standards and increase achievement. Some argue that principals need to know what good instruction looks like, spend time in classrooms, analyze teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, and provide helpful feedback. Other reformers say principals need to motivate teachers and provide opportunities for teachers to learn from each other and from professional development. Still others say principals should focus on data, continually analyzing student test scores to pinpoint where teachers need help.
The list goes on. Some reformers argue that principals should exercise instructional leadership by hiring the right curriculum specialists or coaches to work with teachers on improving instruction. Finally, others suggest that the most efficient way to improve instruction and achievement is to get rid of the bad teachers and hire good ones, an option not always open to leaders of struggling schools. Most of these ideas are not mutually exclusively but together pose a Herculean task, landing on top of all the other responsibilities that refuse to simply disappear.
What problem is the principal as instructional leaders intended to solve?
The short answer is raise a school’s low academic performance. New Leaders for New Schools, a program that trains principals for urban schools [now renamed as New Leaders], captures the expectation that principals can end low academic performance through their instructional leadership:
Research shows – and our experience confirms – that strong school leaders have a powerful multiplier effect, dramatically improving the quality of teaching and raising student achievement in a school.
Such rhetoric and the sharp focus on the principal as an instructional leader in current policymaker talk have made principals into heroic figures who can turn around failing schools, reduce the persistent achievement gap single-handedly, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
If the immediate problem is low academic performance, then the practical problem principals must solve is how to influence what teachers do daily since it is their impact on student learning that will determine gains and losses in academic achievement.
Does principal instructional leadership work?
The research we reviewed on stable gains in test scores across many different approaches to school improvement all clearly points to the principal as the catalyst for instructional improvement. But being a catalyst does not identify which specific actions influence what teachers do or translate into improvements in teaching and student achievement.
Researchers find that what matters most is the context or climate in which the actions occurs. For example, classroom visits, often called “walk-throughs,” are a popular vehicle for principals to observe what teachers are doing. Principals might walk into classrooms with a required checklist designed by the district and check off items, an approach likely to misfire. Or the principal might have a short list of expected classroom practices created or adopted in collaboration with teachers in the context of specific school goals for achievement. The latter signals a context characterized by collaboration and trust within which an action by the principal is more likely to be influential than in a context of mistrust and fear.
So research does not point to specific sure-fire actions that instructional leaders can take to change teacher behavior and student learning. Instead, what’s clear from studies of schools that do improve is that a cluster of factors account for the change.
Over the past forty years, factors associated with raising a school’s academic profile include: teachers’ consistent focus on academic standards and frequent assessment of student learning, a serious school-wide climate toward learning, district support, and parental participation. Recent research also points to the importance of mobilizing teachers and the community to move in the same direction, building trust among all the players, and especially creating working conditions that support teacher collaboration and professional development.
In short, a principal’s instructional leadership combines both direct actions such as observing and evaluating teachers, and indirect actions, such as creating school conditions that foster improvements in teaching and learning. [i] How principals do this varies from school to school–particularly between elementary and secondary schools, given their considerable differences in size, teacher knowledge, daily schedule, and in students’ plans for their future. Yes, keeping their eye on instruction can contribute to stronger instruction; and, yes, even higher test scores. But close monitoring of instruction can only contribute to, not ensure such improvement.
Moreover, learning to carry out this role as well as all the other duties of the job takes time and experience. Both of these are in short supply, especially in urban districts where principal turnover rates are high.
The solution … in our view
By itself, instructional leadership is little more than a slogan, an empty bumper sticker. In some schools principals follow all the recipes for instructional leadership: They review lesson plans, make brief visits in classrooms, check test scores, circulate journal articles that give teachers tips, and dozens of other instructional activities that experts advise. Yet they do not manage to create school-wide conditions that encourage teacher collaboration, high standards for student work, and a climate where learning flourishes for students and teachers. Creating these conditions is the essence of instructional leadership.
Principals who are effective instructional leaders do not follow a recipe. Like teachers, they diagnose their school’s conditions and figure out what actions are needed to create a school environment where teachers feel supported and where students, parents, and teachers strive to achieve common goals and have a stake in helping one another do their best. When all pull together, the chances of test score gains and other measures of academic achievement rise also.
[i] Of the many studies and books Cuban has examined, one in particular offers both a conceptual design and practical techniques to increase the leadership of principals in supervising and evaluating teachers, major functions of every school-site leader. See, Kim Marshall, Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009). Also Marshall has coached individual and groups of principals since 2002 (see here).
Kate Rousmaniere is Professor and Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University (Ohio). She wrote The Principals’ Office: A Social History of the American School Principal, (Albany: SUNY Press,2013). The following article appeared in Atlantic Online, November 8, 2013.
A few years ago when I walked the hallways of a high school with my five-year-old niece Evie, she remarked, without prompting: “There’s the principal’s office: you only go there if you are in trouble.” As an educator and an aunt, I wondered how the office of an educational professional had come to be symbolized in such a decisive way in the mind of a child, particularly a child who had yet to enter formal schooling. As I scanned popular representations of the school principal, I found that Evie’s impression was hardly unusual. Across popular and professional cultures, the figure of the school principal is commonly reduced to a small, often disagreeable functionary of bad news, the wet blanket of progressive teacher practice, the prison guard of students’ freedom. As I asked friends and colleagues about their impressions of school principals, few actually knew what principals did, and many people confused the role of school building principal with school district superintendent. Most remarkably, those very people who did not understand what a principal did were often the first to argue for the abolition of the role.
In American public schools, the principal is the most complex and contradictory figure in the pantheon of educational leadership. The principal is both the administrative director of state educational policy and a building manager, both an advocate for school change and the protector of bureaucratic stability. Authorized to be employer, supervisor, professional figurehead, and inspirational leader, the principal’s core training and identity is as a classroom teacher. A single person, in a single professional role, acts on a daily basis as the connecting link between a large bureaucratic system and the individual daily experiences of a large number of children and adults. Most contradictory of all, the principal has always been responsible for student learning, even as the position has become increasingly disconnected from the classroom.
The history of the principal offers even more contradictions. Contemporary principals work in the midst of unique modern challenges of ever-changing fiscal supports, school law and policy, community values, and youth culture. At the same time, the job of the contemporary principal shares many of the characteristics of their predecessors two centuries ago. While social and economic contexts have changed, the main role of the principal has remained essentially the same over time: to implement state educational policy to the school and to maneuver, buffer, and maintain the stability of the school culture at the local level.
The reason for this paradoxical history of change and constancy is that even as the broader context of education has changed over the past two centuries, the core purpose of the school principal has remained embedded in the center of the school organizational structure. Located between the school and the district, and serving both, the principal has historically been a middle manager who translates educational policy from the central office to the classroom. Assigned both to promote large-scale initiatives and to solve immediate day-to-day problems, the principal has always carried multiple and often contradictory responsibilities, wearing many hats, and moving swiftly between multiple roles in the course of one day. This mobile, multitasking role has always described the work of the principal, even as the nature of those tasks has radically changed.
The complex role of the principal is not an accidental by-product of history; rather, the principal’s position at the nexus of educational policy and practice was an intentional component of the role when it was originally conceived. Indeed, of the many organizational changes that took place in public education in North America at the turn of the last century, few had greater impact on the school than the development of the principalship. The creation of the principal’s office revolutionized the internal organization of the school from a group of students supervised by one teacher to a collection of teachers managed by one administrator. In its very conception, the appointment of a school-based administrator who was authorized to supervise other teachers significantly restructured power relations in schools, reorienting the source of authority from the classroom to the principal’s office. Just as significant was the role that the principal played as a school-based representative of the central educational office. Created as a conduit between the district and the classroom, the principal became an educational middle manager in an increasingly complex school bureaucracy.
The introduction of the principal’s office radically changed the overall machinery of how public education was delivered from central authorities to the classroom. Located as the connecting hinge between the school and the district, the principal was critical to the success of newly designed school systems in the early 20th century, in much the same way that the creation of middle managerial structures in business in the same period helped to consolidate the control of independent enterprises under a corporate umbrella. Modern administrative practices, including scientific management, greased the wheels of this development in late 19th-century American business, providing managerial techniques, a hierarchical decision-making structure, and an occupational culture of rationality. In the business world, middle managers were the engine behind the expansion of corporate bureaucracy, providing the smooth transition of responsibilities from the central office to the shop floor.
Like the foreman in the factory and the mid-level executive in the office building, the position of school principal was designed to be an administrator who was responsible for day-to-day building operations rather than strategic policy decisions. Standing between the district and the classroom, principals were, as sociologist C. Wright Mills described such white-collar positions, “the assistants of authority” whose power was derived from others and who were responsible for implementing managerial decisions but had limited opportunities for influencing those decisions. Like other middle managers, the principal had a “dual personality,” standing “on the middle ground between management and employee,” as both a loyal sergeant to a distant supervisor and a local administrator who had to negotiate with workers in order to get the job done properly. The National Education Policy Center’s Larry Cuban aptly describes principals’ historic and contemporary role as “positioned between their superiors who want orders followed and the teachers who do the actual work in the classrooms.” Principals’ loyalties, Cuban argues, “are dual: to their school and to headquarters.”
The historical development of the principal reflects the growing pains of an emerging state school bureaucratic system. Through the mid-20th century, the principalship was an inconsistently defined position, as often a teacher with administrative responsibilities as an administrator who supervised teachers. These early principals were flexible teacher leaders who maintained a close connection with classroom work and the school community in ways that might delight contemporary educators who feel burdened by bureaucracy. But for all the freedom offered by such positions, early principals suffered from the absence of an administrative scaffold to support their work.
At the turn of the 19th century, as educational reformers built up the bureaucratic framework of the state and local public school system, they realigned the primary attention of the principal from the classroom to the central administrative structure. This professionalization process involved proscribing lines of authority and accountability, establishing entry requirements and academic training, and improving compensation for the work. While professionalization improved the stature of the principal’s office, it restricted the types of people who sat in that office, increasingly excluding women, people of color, and educators who prioritized community engagement over administrative tasks. Indeed, through the mid-20th century a majority of elementary principals were women, and the totality of principals of segregated African American schools were black. The professionalization process changed all that, as it also formalized the division between teachers and administrators, between doing education and supervising education, between classroom and office, body and mind, experience and intellect, and between women and men. The irony of professionalization is that it emphasized the identity of the principal as an administrator in the middle of an educational bureaucracy and not an educator in the middle of the school house.
As the principalship evolved away from the classroom to the administrative office, the principal became less connected with student learning, and yet more responsible for it. Isolated in the new principal’s office, the role of school head changed from instructing students to supervising teachers of students. Further complicating the principal’s role in the mid-20th century was that as public education became more responsive to and reflective of the public, principals were swept up in changes initiated by state and federal governments, legal requirements, and the increasing demands of local communities. Modern principals came to have less to do with student learning and more to do with upholding administrative structures and responding to public pressures.
Yet by the nature of their background and role as educators, principals have always been concerned with student learning, and principals across time have played a pivotal role in shaping the educational culture of schools. Middle management, after all, is a multifaceted role that can open up both possibilities and constraints, and some school principals in the past and present have been able to initiate progressive educational practices in their schools, often in spite of bureaucratic restraints. Indeed, across history, many principals’ own vision of student learning has adapted to community needs and student interests. For all those efforts, however, the history of the principalship is marked by an increasing discrepancy between the popular image and the actual work of the position. Ironic too, is the dominant image of the principalship with an office, given the great variety, mobility, human interactions, and community relations of principals’ work.
I have failed in teaching some students. Most experienced teachers at any level of public schooling, I believe, could count their successes (however defined) with students but also tick off those students who slipped through their fingers, who danced beyond their repertoire of teaching techniques and moves. Harold, William,and Victor I failed.
I have won awards from students and colleagues for “excellent” teaching. I have been glowingly evaluated more times than I could count both in public schools and university. In every school I have taught principals have judged me effective in “ability to communicate with students,” in “knowledge and skillful use of materials and techniques,” in blah, blah, blah.
Other districts and universities have invited me to teach demonstration lessons and speak to their faculties.
I have written instructional materials, articles in professional journals and books. And they have been well received. Thus, I ask myself: if I have been so effective, why are there Harolds, Williams, and Victors that I have failed to reach and teach?
I raise this question simply because I know both in my gut and in my head that there are many teachers like myself who try hard, are evaluated as highly effective, and believe deeply, very deeply, that they can make a difference in children’s and youth’s lives. But not every child, not every teenager. There are situations that simply are beyond their control and failing with certain students is one of those situations.
“Beyond their control?”
Yes. When teachers succeed with most of their students, it is clear that what the student brings to the classroom, what the teacher possesses in knowledge and skills, and the structures of schooling in which both live are aligned sufficiently for success to occur. Teaching and learning is a complex process and, at the minimum, these three factors (and there are many more) have to be in sync for any degree of success to happen. When success with children and youth does happen, and it does, the complexity is often hidden from sight.
However, when students fail, blame is distributed among students, teachers, and the school and, in prior years, the family. Blame, however, hides the many moving parts and interactions that happen in classrooms and schools, the sheer complexity of teaching and learning in age-graded schools.
So in the case of Harold, William, and Victor, I brought limited knowledge and expertise to the table in dealing with these three students. They, in turn, brought to the very same table, strengths and limitations that made it difficult to find success in a complex organization designed for mass production of teaching and learning.
What does that last sentence mean?
Teachers did not design the age-graded high school structure for 1500-plus students that puts teachers into self-contained classrooms, mandates 45-60 minute periods of instruction and report cards every nine weeks. These structures trap students into routines that seem to work for most but not all students. These structures also trap teachers into routines as well that work for most but not all teachers.
Time, for example, is crucial since all students do not learn at the same pace. Daily school schedules seldom reflect that fact. Time is also crucial for teachers to work together for lessons and students that they share.
These and many other interacting factors led, I believe, to the conflicted relationships I had with these three students, making their learning U.S. history both superficial and doubtful.
For many observers, schooling appears easy enough when stories of teachers and students turn out to be successes (however defined). It is those instances, however, when students like Harold, William, and Victor fail that these and many other interacting factors, come together to reveal, for those who can see, the sheer complexity of schooling and the intricacies of classroom teaching. It is that organizational complexity and the multiple, entangled interactions of teaching that foils, time and again, reformers’ claims that changing curriculum, improving tests to measure curricular changes, raising the stakes in teacher evaluation, converting systems into markets where parents can choose schools, and holding both teachers and students accountable will solve those thorny problems. These “solutions” somehow will magically disentangle complications, smooth over rough spots, and improve how teachers teach and students learn.
Hasn’t happened yet.
I saved Victor for last.
Neatly dressed, carrying a large notebook and a couple of bulky textbooks, Victor would smile at my “good morning,” walk to the rear of the room and sit down. After I said “good morning” to my students and began the U.S. history lesson, Victor would put aside a ruler, open a book, take out paper and begin writing. He often wrote steadily and intensely for 10 or 15 minutes. If we were in the midst of a discussion or group work, I would quietly ease over to him and ask what he was writing. He would smile, close the book and put away the paper. Victor, you see, could not read above the fourth grade level.
He could copy page after page of a textbook–and repeatedly did so– but did not understand what he was writing. Victor was a junior and nearly 20 years of age. His tested IQ was 63 and he had been in a special class in elementary school but had been mainstreamed since then.
High school was very different for Victor. He had learned to survive by keeping his mouth shut, acting studious, and turning in work that was incomprehensible. He would get As in citizenship and Ds and Fs in academic achievement. What he could decipher in textbooks in his various classes, he seldom comprehended.
While he was in my class, Victor spoke out three times. In each instance what he said made sense except that it had little to do with what the rest of the class was discussing. Most of the time he would write or stare at the blackboard. His face was a mask.
Whenever the class worked independently, he would laboriously copy word-for-word paragraphs from the U.S. History text. I would talk to him. These exchanges would make him very antsy and I would break them off. Occasionally, he would want to talk and he would tell me of his church activities and how much he enjoyed sketching pictures. A few times he would let me look through his sketchbook.
Other students in the class ignored Victor. I do not recall anyone ever initiating a conversation with him. When he would speak, snickers would flit around the room. Not once did I see him talking with another student when we would pass in the halls.
Being in five classes where he was unable to read, speak, or connect to other students must have taken its toll. How much he endured, I had no way of knowing. He never permitted me to enter his private world.
Because I wrote letters and called parents of students–both those doing well and not so well–I called Victor’s mother. I pointed out to her what I had observed about his behavior and inability to understand the text, assignments, and classwork. I also told her that I was a history teacher, not a reading teacher. She became angry with me and went into a heated description of Victor’s early years as one of several foster children in the family. She urged me to get him tutoring, to give him extra assignments–anything to get him to pass. She was determined to have Victor complete high school.
In an attempt to help Victor, I and two other of his teachers requested a conference with his foster mother. It was a disaster.
Along with the assistant principal, a counselor, teachers and mother, Victor’s social worker was present. The social worker had recommended to the mother on an earlier occasion that Victor be transferred to a vocational school or to a rehabilitation center where he could learn useful skills, where he would not have to sit for six hours a day writing out paragraphs from different texts. Victor’s mother had dismissed the suggestion and did so again. Victor, she said, could do the work if he tried harder and if his teachers tried harder.
Victor stayed in school. He received an F in my class.
Here again, I failed. I was unequipped to teach Victor how to read sufficiently to understand the text. Nor could I crack the defenses Victor had built to protect himself from people like me. Did he learn anything from me as a person as well as from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I do not know.
William was quiet in class. Kept back twice in elementary school, the school psychologist diagnosed him as “below-average” in tested intelligence but did not find any intellectual or emotional disabilities. Now, 18 years of age, he was in the 11th grade and earning As and Bs in his courses, including mine, and looking forward to graduating high school.
After school one day–he would also come in to my room to talk while I was eating lunch–we engaged in a long conversation about his future. I asked about college and he shook his head, saying “No.” He had once wanted to be a engineer but now he had given up that idea. His father had encouraged him to go to college also as I had, but now, according to William, it was out of the question.
Why? I asked.
Turns out that William was a member of a religious group that believed Armageddon would occur sooner rather than later and that God would only save those who accepted Jesus Christ as the Savior. He was a recent convert to the group and a true believer in the imminent end-of-the world.
Before school, during lunch, and after school, we would discuss both his and my beliefs in Judaism. He brought in pamphlets from his group. We would discuss them often returning to the question of his continuing his schooling. When our conversation would go that way, William would smile and, as if he were dealing with a very slow-learning teacher, politely explain to me that he believed life as we know it will end in a holocaust of earthquakes, fires, and hailstorms. The Bible foretold it and it could occur as soon as the end of the decade. Since there would be few survivors, he had to prepare himself for what would occur. To attend college would be foolish. Given his beliefs, he was right.
I admired William for his staunch beliefs even when, without a blink of his eye, he said that I and my family would die in the fire to come because we were unbelievers. I took him as seriously as he took himself.
In a high school of 1500, he identified one person as a friend. More than once, he told me, his beliefs had become the butt of jokes in classes and among other students. Much of his time outside of school was spent in studying, attending meetings at his church, and, on weekends, doing street ministry work.
In class, William would participate often in discussions, do his assignments and perform well on tests. Whenever the class worked independently on short research papers or contracts, he did especially well. He received a B+.
I guess by conventional criteria, I was effective with William (e.g., did assignments, got high scores on tests, participated in class discussions). He seemed to have learned content and skills from me as a history teacher. The question I have, however, is what did William learn from me as a person in the many hours of talking during the semester?
I can say that in one sense, I failed William. Why I failed, I am unsure. If—and this is a big “if”– one of the many tasks a teacher is charged with when teaching–at any grade level–is to get students to examine their values and clarify them while they are being examined, then I was unsuccessful.
My job, as I saw it, was not to dismantle his beliefs but to get him to reflect on them. He surely got me to do that with my beliefs by throwing my questions back at me to defend himself. I sensed this and chose not to continue that line of questioning. So I believe that I failed William.
Then there is Victor who I take up in Part 3
Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor. Truman Capote, writer
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan, NBA star in the 1990s
I want to tell you about three high school students I have taught. While the 2020s are surely different than the 1950s through mid-1970s when I taught high school, I believe that there is much in the core nature of children and youth and the public school experience that is stable over time. If readers do not share that belief, they may have a hard time with this series of posts.
First, Harold. Lanky, always stylishly dressed and so clever, he drove me up my four classroom walls. Harold was 19 and in the 11th grade. He had failed all of his subjects the year before he entered my U.S. history class. Yet he scored above national norms on college board exams.
Harold was never, and I mean, never on time to class, that is, when he chose to come to class. About five minutes after the bell, he would bang through the rear door of the room, clip-clop over to his seat. Passing a friend, he would lean over, hand cupped to his mouth, and whisper something. Anyone in earshot would laugh uproariously. Harold had arrived. Another lesson interrupted.
Whenever the class got into meaty discussions with students interacting over ideas raised in the lesson, Harold was superb in his insights and arguing skills. He used evidence to back up his statements without any encouragement from me. He revealed a sharp, inquiring mind.
But this did not happen often. What happened most of the time was that Harold would wisecrack, twist what people say, or simply beat a point to death. When that occurred, class discussion swirled around him. He loved that. He was frequently funny and delivered marvelous gag lines impromptu. In short, within the first few weeks of this class, he had settled into a comfortable role of wise buffoon. He knew precisely how to psyche teachers and how far he could go with each one.
I’m unsure how the class perceived him. When students worked in groups, no one chose to work with Harold. When I selected group members, the one he was in quickly fragmented and he would ask to work independently. On a number of occasions during class discussions, other students would tell him to shut up. I suspect that his fellow students liked him as a clown as much as he needed to act as one.
I grew to dislike Harold’s behavior intensely while trying hard not to dislike him. It was tough. I tried to deal with his wise buffoon role through after-class conferences and calls to his home with short conversations with his parent. If he would come to class after these conferences and phone calls, his intelligence would shine as he contributed to class discussions. Time after time, however, he would back-slide. He would keep up with assignments for a week or two then do nothing for a month. He would cut class and when we would see one another in the hallway the same day, we would wave and say hello to one another.
The necessary time and energy for Harold considering one hundred-plus other students, I just didn’t have. In the last three weeks of the semester, when his class-busting behavior crossed my last threshold, I told him that every time he was late, he would spend the period in the library working independently. It was a solution that satisfied him since he would make a dramatic tardy entrance, I would give him the thumb, he would turn, salute me, and exit. It quickly became a ritual that I had locked myself into. And that is how the semester ended.
Due to his sporadic attendance, missed tests and assignments–and I searched my conscience to separate pique from fairness–I gave Harold a failing grade.
But I failed also. I could not reach Harold. He continued to stereotype me as the Teacher and I slipped into stereotyping him as a Pain-in-the-Ass Student. Did he learn anything from me as a person or teacher from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I simply don’t know. Then there was William who I take up in Part 2.