Whatever Happened to Monitorial Schools?

When, where, and why did these schools appear?

Deep concern for the untended and mostly poor English children of factory workers and others flocking to cities for jobs led Joseph Lancaster to found schools that would gather and help the unschooled. Lancaster opened his Royal Free School in London during the 1790s. The dearth of teachers for these students pushed Lancaster to design schools that accommodated large numbers of children in huge rooms under the guidance of one paid teacher who would then supervise older students–“monitors” as they were called–who actually taught younger children. Often called “charity schools,” these early Lancastrian schools, as they became known, spread throughout England and crossed the Atlantic to the U.S, often sponsored by the Society of Friends or Quakers–social reformers of the day both in England and America.

When Lancaster visited the U.S. in 1818, there were many “monitorial schools.” Historian Dell Upton found that “Lancasterianism was adopted up and down the Atlantic seaboard as the official pedagogy of emerging public schools in New York City (1805), Albany (1810), Georgetown (1811), Washington, D.C. (1812), Philadelphia (1817), Boston (1824), and Baltimore (1829)….”

These “monitorial schools,” then, were reform-driven public schools aimed at educating poor children in Bible reading, work and citizenship to lower threats of crime and civil disorder from unschooled children who would soon become adults. Middle- and upper-class families including the Quakers had the funds to educate their own children, however, through tutors and privately-funded academies.

What were monitorial schools like?

There are written accounts of what Joseph Lancaster did in England when he started such schools for poor children in the early decades of the 19th century. When monitorial schools crossed the Atlantic Ocean and opened in U.S., historians have plumbed archives to locate accounts of students, teachers, and visitors to these schools (see here, here, and here). Apart from these historical accounts there are pen-and-ink drawings and paintings of what the school looked like.

By having one teacher supervise a huge room of children through older students (called “monitors”) who themselves had gone through such a school primarily memorizing texts and rote recitation and pursuing the same methods with their younger students, the cost of schooling was inexpensive compared to private instruction at that time.

In the second and third above drawings of monitorial classrooms, note that students have their hands clasped behind their backs. Historian Carl Kaestle quotes a boy in such a New York City school in the 1820s. “The monitors then unanimously gave the order, ‘Hands behind!! One the instant every boy has his left palm enclosed in the right behind his back, in aa sort of hand-cuffed state, and woe be to him who is not paying attention when the order is given, or is tardy in obeying it” (Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, p.43).

Did monitorial schools work?

They surely “worked” in gathering many urban poor children into buildings giving them a taste of literacy for little cost to the community. Philanthropic and religiously-inspired reformers underwrote these “monitorial” schools in the hope that there would lead to social stability in communities avoiding the record of over 100 food riots over the price of flour and essential food that erupted in English cities between the 1750s and early 1800s and occasionally took place in American cities.

What happened to monitorial schools?

Criticism from parents and educators of the day about how little children and youth learned within the monitorial system got harnessed to a growing reform movement in the 1830s and 1840s that looked to schools as an economic and social instrument to make America stronger. A reform-driven awareness grew that all children, not just poor ones, had to master basic skills and literacy in order to enter the workplace and carry out civic duties from serving on juries to voting led to a large-scale and widespread reform movement . School reform was part of larger efforts to improve American society such as crusader-inspired reforms aimed at abolishing slavery, improving prisons (newly created “reform schools” for younger law breakers), extending rights of women, and levying taxes on all families to support a “common school” for all children within a community. By the 1840s, the eight-grade “grammar school,” an organizational innovation imported from Prussia, appeared across New England and slowly spread through pre-Civil War America. Monitorial schools disappeared.

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 4)

Why have U.S. public schools rebounded from natural disasters like Covid-19?

Answer: Americans’ social beliefs both in the importance of schooling, what a “real” school looks like, and the long-term efficiency of the age-graded school organization with its “grammar of schooling” explain why public schools gradually reopened its doors.

American confidence in tax-supported schools giving all children an equal shot at getting educated (albeit marred by continuing inequalities), receiving a diploma, and entering the labor market has been sustained through economic booms and busts, through war and peace, through closures from disasters and reopenings. [1]

While public support for tax-supported schools has wavered over the decades, it remains a trusted institution that a majority of parents support. In answer to the question: How satisfied are you with the quality of education your oldest child is receiving? Since 1999, the percentage ranged from a low of 68 percent to a high of 82 percent in 2019 saying they were “completely” or “Somewhat Satisfied.” Parents registered a drop from 2019 to 2020—the poll was done during the pandemic—of 10 points, from 82 to 72 percent satisfied.[2]

Public confidence in schools is embedded in the common picture held by most Americans of what a “real” school is like. A “real” elementary school, for example, has a teacher for each grade who manages and teaches the group for up to six hours a day. In a “real” school, students listen to teacher directions, and become literate in language and arithmetic.  A “real” elementary school has a playground, lunchroom, and allows a morning and afternoon recess for the children. Between kindergarten and the sixth grade, children follow school rules, learn to negotiate the system of explicit and implicit norms, do homework, pass tests, and graduate to the next level of schooling.

A “real” high school has daily schedules for students to attend 50-60 minute periods of instruction. In a “real” high school, subject-matter teachers stand at their doors in long hallways as students pass from one class to another; teachers sit behind a desk as students enter to study algebra, English, biology, Spanish, or history. Teachers lecture, guide large group discussions, and have small groups work on academic tasks. Textbooks, homework, and tests are ubiquitous. After school clubs and sports engage students once the final period of the day ends. That is what a “real” high school is. These features of elementary and secondary “real” schools is what historians of education have called the “grammar of schooling.”[3]

Of course, in the U.S.’s decentralized system of schooling, there is much variation in how much money is spent per student, age and architecture of buildings, the racial and ethnic makeup of the student body, and other differences. Amid those variations, nonetheless, tax-supported schools historically have grown into a standardized “real” elementary and secondary school across the nation.

Initially, in urban schools by 1900 and then across consolidated rural schools by the 1960s, age-graded school organization with its basic rules and norms guiding both teachers and students through the school year became dominant. In that half-century, the eight-year grammar school has morphed into over 100,000 age-graded public schools that now enroll 4 year olds to 18 year-old graduating seniors.  Student careers that once were limited to a few months a year attending one-room schoolhouses now spend 13-15 years in age-graded organizations. [4]

Reformers have attacked this age-graded structure and its “grammar of schooling” repeatedly for the ways it isolates and insulates teachers and students from one another, establishes standardized behavioral and academic norms, encourages competition for letter grades, and moves students in lockstep through elementary and secondary schools. Yet continued American confidence in “real” schools continues thereby explaining, in part, the resiliency of this institution since the mid-19th century.

While former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden called for schools across the country to reopen (their White House pronouncements were no more than exhortations since U.S. Presidents cannot order public schools to either shut or open their doors). The process was slow, bumpy, and marked by two steps forward, one step backward.

Neither the White House nor any national agency offered scientifically sound guidance for in-person classrooms in 2020.  The lack of reliable knowledge on the virus and course of disease combined to political and economic pressure from parents, state officials, and employers within a thoroughly dispersed system of national schooling surely account in part for the sporadic and helter-skelter reopenings that did occur.[5]

No one can ignore the fact that U.S. public schools are decentralized.   In nearly all 50 states (except Hawaii) responsible for schooling the young delegate each state delegates its operational authority to school districts. Thus, there are now 13,000-plus districts in the U.S. (there were 200,000 in 1910) that use federal, state, and local funds to operate schools as they see fit. Given this official system of decentralization, some states and districts reopened completely, others stuck to remote instruction for the entire school year, and even others shifted to a hybrid approach.Yet schools did reopen to both applause and criticism. [6]

So within a society where public confidence in a decentralized system of tax-supported schools continues to run high, where high expectations reign for what “real” schools can do for both the nation and individual students, a national pandemic shuttered the economy and closed community institutions. Schools—with all of their strengths and inequalities–slowly and steadily rebounded in 2021 from this once-in-a century crisis. They are resilient institutions.

Such signs of resiliency as the capacity for absorbing unplanned and planned changes, regaining stability after natural disasters, continued innovations under uncertainty, and withstanding hardships–clearly emerged as this institution slowly returned to its familiar organization, Common Core curriculum, and customary instruction.

The dark side of resiliency

Up to now I have implicitly suggested that institutional resiliency is positive. Businesses, universities, health care systems that adapt to adversity, bounce back from disasters, and retain their flexibility are seen as stalwart institutions that serve patrons well. That many schools have recovered and now have in-person instruction across the nation surely is a plus for the economy and parents who sought relief from being at-home teachers.

But there are negatives to resiliency as well.

Constant and unrealistic talk of what public schools can do to improve society undermines confidence in what public schools can do. Since the end of the 19th century, for example, fervent reformers have repeatedly called for public schools to be agents of societal change. By educating children the “right” way—the word is in quote marks because visions and versions of “right” differed then and now—schools can banish community ills, solve national problems, and create a better society. Such dogged visions for schooling to alter the community and larger society have been ultimately disappointing in results. Worse yet, such rhetoric has bred cynicism about what schools can actually do.

When John Dewey said In his “Pedagogic Creed” (1897), “I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform,” he called for schooling to be an instrument for large change in society. That call has remained a bedrock belief among Progressive reformers since the 1920s. [7]

When President Lyndon Johnson drafted the nation’s schools in ending poverty in the mid-1960s—think The Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the belief among White House and top policymakers was that better schools can move poor boys and girls into the middle class and make a “Great Society.” [8]

Certainly schools educate individual children but they can also turn those children into adult reformers who lead the march to a better, more equal society. Today, calls for schools to press for social justice continue the Deweyan rhetoric.[9]

In addition to decades of unfulfilled rhetoric and empty words eroding confidence in what tax-supported schools can do, the “dark side of resiliency” also points to excessive patience with, even neglect of, severe institutional problems that have needed attention but in the name of maintaining political and social stability have gone untreated much less unsolved.

Consider that the history of educational and economic inequalities in American society that pervade U.S. public schools has been documented since the Civil War. The civil rights movement during the 1950s to 1970s, for example, resulted in federal court decisions and legislation ending legal segregation and many Jim Crow practices. Yet residential segregation continues in the 21st century reproducing segregated neighborhoods and schools in both cities and suburbs. So when data show that Black children are five times as likely than white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity or that Black children are more than twice as likely than white children to enroll in high-poverty schools, few expresse surprise over this fact, a truth that has been around for over a century? [10]

Persistent patience with racial, ethnic, and social class differences in America becomes all too tangible when one confronts the three tiered school system that had become apparent for decades. Even after federal and state legislation, philanthropic infusions of dollars, and much wringing of hands, this durable segregated system of schooling remains painfully obvious to current policymakers, parents, and practitioners. So another negative to resiliency is apologetic forbearance with inequalities that are plain to see, such as the nation’s three-tier system of public schooling..

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Fairfax County (VA) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 60 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet and occasionally exceed state standards and send most of their graduating seniors to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of closure. Occasionally, stellar principals and staffs will lift such schools into the second tier but that is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S, rife with inequalities, maintains social stability yet, and this is a mighty big “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth.

Because the three-tiered system of schooling has existed for well over a century, it has had a persevering resiliency that has withstood federal, state, and philanthropic interventions. An abiding example of stable inequality that continues into the 21st century.

Even during calls for transforming academically low-performing schools into citadels of high performance—such as occurred during the Obama years (2009-2017), the three-tiered system plodded on. Because of residential segregation and inadequate state and federal funding, inequalities are preserved in amber within the three-tier system of U.S. schooling, an arrangement that has soldiered on revealing the  dark side of resiliency.[11]

Unflagging rhetoric promising that schools can reform society has endured for decades as had the three-tier system of schooling that marks American society. These tenacious, futile fantasies of schools overhauling society and abiding patience with unequal schooling structures make up the dark side of resiliency.


Yes, public schools have survived major disruptions ranging from hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and pandemics. Yes, they are resilient institutions that have contributed socially, economically, and politically to a stable American society for nearly two centuries. Both in the past and present, school districts drafted the technologies of the day to provide schooling during and after natural disasters. 

In the most recent disruption, public schools have bounced back from Covid-19 as students, parents, and employers welcome reopened schools in 2021. Tax-supported public schools are surely resilient institutions in both positive and negative ways.

With all of their imperfections, public schools remain high in public regard as they once again adapted to emergencies and adopted new ways of teaching and learning including remote instruction. While schools rapidly reorganized teaching by pivoting to distance instruction, no district has seriously considered reorganizing the century and a half old model of schooling, the age-graded school. And that structure remains steadfast and central to the conduct of schooling in 2021. A final sign of enduring resiliency.

[1] Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[2]Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[3] Mary Metz, “Real School: A Universal Drama amid Disparate Experience, Journal of Education Policy, 4(5), pp. 75-91; David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[4] William Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century,” University of Chicago Law Review . 2010, 77 (1), p177-199.

[5] Derek Thompson, “The Whole Truth about Kids, School, and Covid-19,” The Atlantic, January 28, 2021; Susan Dominus, “Where the Schools Stayed Open,” New York Times Magazine, February 14, 2021, pp. 32-40.

[6] David Cohen and James Spillane, “Policy and Practice: The Relations between Governance and Instruction,” Review if Research in Education, 1992, 18, pp. 3-49; John Meyer, et. al., “Centralization, Fragmentation, and School District Complexity,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 1987, 32(2), pp. 186-201; the 200,000 school districts in 1910 come from Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century.

[7] John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” School Journal, 1897, pp. 77-80 at: http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm


[8] Wikipedia, “The Great Society,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Society

[9] Brenda Alvarez,, “Why Social Justice in Schools Matter,” neaToday , January 22, 2019 at: https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/why-social-justice-school-matters

Jeanine Harmon, “Social Justice: A Whole-School Approach,” Edutopia, February 18, 2015;Crystal Belle, “What Is Social Justice Education Anyway?” Education Week, January 23, 2019.

[10] Horace Mann Bond, Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1994); James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC:: University of North Carolina Press,  1988). Emma Garcia, “Schools Are Still Segregated, and Black Children Are Paying the Price, “ Economic Policy Institute, February 12, 2020.

[11] Grace Chen,  “What Is the Race To the Top and How Will It Benefit Public Schools?” Public School Review, November 11, 2019 at: https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/what-is-race-to-the-top-and-how-will-it-benefit-public-schools

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 3)

In part 3 of this series, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades as incremental, not fundamental changes in classroom instruction.

*In 1981, 18 percent of schools had computers; in 1991, 98 percent had them.

*In 1981, 16 percent of schools used computers for instructional purposes. By 1991, 98 percent did so.

*In 1981, there were, on average, 125 students per computer; in 1991, there were 18. [i]

In these years, using classroom computers was a glistening novelty that policymakers, parents and vendors urged schools to buy and use. The beliefs then were that increased use of these seemingly magical machines would improve teaching by getting students to learn more, faster, and better. Moreover, using these devices would provide job entrée into companies that were quickly moving from analog to digital and the rapidly growing occupations of programmers, engineers, and technical support.

There was an initial Golly, Gee Whiz moment when computers appeared in school libraries and special rooms called “labs” in the 1980s.  Then, as prices for the devices fell, teachers and boosters of the technology crowed about better lessons. New software promised gains on test scores (keep in mind that the 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of high stakes standardized tests and accountability machinery).

Fast-forward two decades and the picture of access to technology in school and at home had leaped to near universal. In 2015, 94 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had a computer at home and 61 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had home Internet access. The percentages of children with computer and Internet access at home  were higher for children who were older, those whose parents had gone to college and those whose families had higher incomes. Also, higher percentages of children who were white (66 percent), Asian (63 percent), and of two or more races (64 percent) had home Internet access than did Black (53 percent), Hispanic (52 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native children (49 percent).[ii]

By 2020, as tablets and laptops sold for a few hundred dollars each, student and teacher access to a full range of electronic devices in classrooms unfolded although connecting to the Internet was spotty, lagging in rural and urban schools.  Near universal access is one thing, however, classroom use is another.  

A buying boom had brought laptops and tablets into nearly all schools, save for many urban schools serving low-income, minority students. Federal pressures to hike test scores through No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) multiplied.

By 2020, most districts had either placed mobile carts of laptops in classrooms or distributed devices to each student. By this time, most elementary and secondary teachers had learned to quietly integrate these devices into daily lessons. [iii]

In short, the once innovative device decades earlier had been widely embraced as a tool tailored now to the curves and straight lines of age-graded classrooms. The adopt-and-adapt phenomenon described with earlier reforms has turned up again with computers.

Keep in mind, however, that none of the reforms, including the absorption of technology devices, have altered substantially the school organization, curriculum, and instruction offered to children and youth. Some readers may express surprise at this statement. If so, they will need to distinguish between incremental and fundamental changes in schooling. [iv]

Types of Change

Surely, there have been incremental changes in schools over the past century. Inserting kindergarten into the age-graded 1-12 structure. New curriculum added (e.g., computer science and coding) and subtracted (e.g., cursive writing).  Teachers’ instructional repertoires expanded to include frequent small group activities, independent work, and using new technologies.[v]

 The major alterations in schools that did occur in the past directly resulted from social and political movements aimed at reforming public and private institutions to better serve people while righting wrongs that harmed many Americans. Such movements spilled over schools again showing interconnectedness with other societal institutions.

Consider the creating of tax-supported public schools—the Common School– was an outgrowth of mid-19th century social reforms. Taxing citizens with or without children to create public schools in villages, towns, and cities, engineered by Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and other reformers, was a fundamental change in what had largely been multi-aged one-room school houses and individuals securing one-to-one private instruction. These Common School reformers latched on to a more efficient structure for schooling the growing numbers of students flocking to tax-supported schools: the eight grade grammar school. [vi]

Similarly the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, and the standards, testing, accountability movement of recent decades have produced federal and state laws that protected Americans, extended first class citizenship to those who suffered second-class treatment, and sought to tie together more closely the economy and education. Each of these politically driven reform movements saw schools as places that needed improvement. [vii]

In most cases, however, calls from movement-driven reformers for transforming “traditional” age-graded schools in the 20th century that would create entirely different ways of educating the young have fallen as flat as punctured balloons. Incomplete, partial, or non-existent implementation of fundamental alterations in governance, funding, structure of and processes in age-graded schools have marked most district systems. In fact, efforts to install fundamental changes often became a series of adopted incremental ones.

Think of such past calls for reforms to turn around failing urban schools or to establish personalized instruction in every classroom. Rhetoric about transforming schools has far outpaced concrete policy action. Incremental changes have surely occurred but few academically failing schools have turned from low-performing to high-performing and most students continue to be taught with familiar classroom pedagogies in a mix of large and small groups across the nation.

Of courses, there were proposed fundamental changes that occasioned media reports. Magazines and newspapers carried pieces on non-graded schools, open-space and open classroom schools, cyber schools that had customized instruction to the needs of individual students. Pilot projects and demonstration schools appeared but then in a few years vanished.

Districts absorbed and tailored changes to fit their schools. Schools adapted changes as principals entered and exited and older teachers retired and younger teachers came aboard. The age-graded school with its persistent malleability, however, remained intact.

Testing the resilience of public schools, 2020-2021

Face-to-face instruction slowly resumed in U.S. schools for the simple reason that voters and taxpayers (including parents, of course) have historically expected both change and stability from their schools.  The turn-on-the-dime move to remote instruction was an astonishing swing yet continued teaching of Common Core academic content and skills remained a constant. But that dramatic shift in teaching and learning and a return to familiar schooling was only one of the many expectations Americans have of this public institution.

Schools, after all, are custodial institutions intimately tied to the economy insofar as permitting Moms and Dads to work either at home, the shop, or the office. Beyond feeding and housing the young, these familiar community institutions socialize children into the dominant cultural values ranging from social and civic norms–taking one’s turn, cooperating with others, pride in American democracy–to earning necessary credentials to succeed in an stratified society. In doing so, schools replicate, even reinforce norms of excellence, competition, and socioeconomic and racial inequalities that pervade America in 2021.[viii]

Reopened schools, then, again reveal those norms and still untouched inequalities but also worry parents (and teachers) about risks to the health of children and school staffs. Nonetheless, fulltime remote instruction—except for those cyber schools expressly established for those who seek credentials using that medium–will shut down, albeit in slow-motion.[ix]

Why slow-motion?

Depending upon how far vaccinations extend into the population– not clear by the start of March 2021—schools will slowly move beyond complete closures and reliance upon remote instruction (19 percent) to partially open (35 percent) or hybrid arrangements of children attending a few days a week with combined online instruction at home to full restoration of in-person schooling (35 percent). [x]

Predictions of when all U.S. schools will reopen fully range from summer to fall 2021. No one knows for sure because too much remains either unknown or uncertain about the paths that variants of the initial coronavirus will follow, whether existing vaccines will cover mutations, and, of equal importance, how long vaccine-conferred immunity lasts.

Even with these uncertainties and unknowns, public schools closed for months and slowly resuming in-person instruction have shown their resilience once again in both organization and measured use of technologies to continue instruction under unusual conditions:  All students and teachers masked; fewer students in classrooms; those students present have plexiglass separators and partitions to keep them six feet apart; many teachers concurrently teaching students sitting in their classes with students facing screens at home; no large groupings such as in lunchrooms and auditoriums. Under these conditions, face-to-face schooling resumed under uncommon restraints. Again, tax-supported public schools bounced back.

[i] Larry Cuban, “Computers Meet Classroom; Classroom Wins,” Education Week, November 11, 1992.

[ii] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom (NCES 2017-098), Executive Summary.

[iii]Cuban, Flight of a Butterfly.

[iv] Larry Cuban, “Why So Many Structural Changes in Schools and So Little Reform in Teaching Practice?”, Journal of Educational Administration, 2013, 51(2), pp. 109-125. Also see Cuban, “Parsing the meaning of School Reforms (Part 1) at: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/parsing-the-meaning-of-school-reforms/ For a critique of my distinctions between incremental and fundamental changes, see Leonard Waks, “The Concept of Fundamental Educational Change,” Educational Theory, 2007, 57(3), pp. 277-295.

[v] David K. Cohen and Jal Mehta, “Why Reform Sometimes Succeeds: Understanding the Conditions That Produce Reforms That Last,” American Educational Research Journal 54(4), pp. 644-690.

[vi] Lawrence Cremin,, American Education: The National Experience. (New York: Harper Collins, 1980); Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); Michael Katz, Reconstructing American Education. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987); David Angus, et. al., “Historical Development of Age Stratification in Schooling,” Teachers College Record, 1988, 90(2) pp 211-36

[vii] Larry Cuban, Confessions of a School Reformer (forthcoming).

[viii]Jean Anyon, “Education, Ideology, and the Hidden Curriculum,” The Journal of Education, 1980, 162(1), pp. 67-92; David Labaree, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[ix] Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, et. al..” Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019,” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, May 2019.

In 2017-18, 501 full-time virtual schools enrolled 297,712 students, and 300 blended schools enrolled 132,960. Enrollments in virtual schools increased by more than 2,000 students between 2016-17 and 2017-18 and enrollments in blended learning schools increased by over 16,000 during this same time period.

Thirty-nine states had either virtual or blended schools. There were four states that allowed blended schools to operate but still have not allowed the opening of full-time virtual schools. A total of six states have full-time virtual schools but do not currently have full-time blended learning schools.

Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs were more than four times as large as other virtual schools. Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs enrolled an average of 1,345 students. In contrast, those operated by nonprofit EMOs enrolled an average of 344 students, and independent virtual schools (not affiliated with an EMO) enrolled an average of 320 students.

Although private (profit and nonprofit) EMOs operated only 34% of full-time virtual schools, those schools enrolled 64.4% of all virtual school students.

Just under half of all virtual schools (46.5%) were charter schools, but together they accounted for 79.1% of enrollment. While districts have been increasingly creating their own virtual schools, those tended to enroll far fewer students


[x] Christensen Institute, “Fall 2020 National Online and Blended Learning Survey,” at: https://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/OnlineBlendedLearning_data_2021.pdf

Survey was completed October 2021.


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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series of posts, I described the times that public schools have closed because of the influenza pandemic a century ago, polio epidemics during the middle decades of the 20th century, and the disruption of schooling in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Of note, then, is that on all of these occasions the age-graded school withstood disasters and adapted, essentially remaining the primary way of organizing school for instruction. Also of note is that districts mobilized technologies of the day for emergencies (except for New Orleans) and downsized classroom usage of technology when crises had passed. Part 2 looks more closely at the uses of technology in classroom lessons.

Technology in age-graded schools before, during, and after disruptions

Only three times in the past century has technology been the primary medium of instruction. One was planned and two were unplanned occurring after natural disasters.

The planned use of technology as the primary medium of instruction occurred in the mid-1960s. Research studies comparing lessons taught via television and those by teachers in classrooms concluded at the time that learning—as measured by standardized tests—was equivalent.  So the idea that this brand-new technology might upend traditional instruction captured U.S. educational decision-makers.

 In one ambitious innovation, the federal government established television  as the primary means of instruction in American Samoa. Daily lessons aimed at each elementary and secondary age-graded classroom would appear on a monitor placed at the front of the classroom. A teacher would then follow up the televised lesson. This centralized, top-down imposition of technology lasted in Samoa and many districts until the mid-1970s when it was largely abandoned.[i]

Unplanned reliance of technology occurred twice. The first happened during the polio epidemic of 1937 in Chicago described above. Once schooling resumed, radio lessons lost its central, albeit temporary, place in teaching Chicago students.

The second unplanned dependence upon technology occurred in 2020 when Covid-19 swept across.13,000-plus districts, closing over 100,000 public and private schools and keeping home over 50 million students. Within a few weeks the dominant medium of instruction became home computers and smart phones. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, after three months of shuttered schools, 93 percent of people living in households with school-age children reported some form of distance instruction going on in their homes. Access to devices and the Internet depended upon income levels, however, another sign of historic economic inequalities plaguing public schooling. [ii]

Within a few months, as more and more scientific data became available about children and youth being less infectious than adults, more and more schools reopened under strict protocols of improved ventilation, mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing. By winter 2020-2021, hybrid forms of schooling combining in-person with remote instruction appeared in many public schools. Apart from big cities, suburban and rural districts, following health and safety guidelines, reopened. Vaccinations of teachers across the country occurred through winter 2021—as I write– reducing flare-ups of friction between teacher unions, parents, and district school boards over health and safety issues. [iii]

As most students returned to face-to-face instruction, have home laptops and desktops gone dark as remote instruction vanished, repeating what occurred with radio after the polio epidemic in Chicago?

Schools change yet remain stable during Covid-19

Remote instruction is here to stay.  Flickering screens in bedrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms will continue but in a much reduced fashion. In schools, technological infrastructure and student use will be, as before, an important but partial piece of daily lessons. And this is yet another marker of the resilience of schools to adopt changes and then adapt those alterations to the existing situation. In short, schools fight to remain the same as they absorb big and small, planned and unplanned changes. Those who study institutional change call this historical pattern “dynamic conservatism.” [iv]

And this pattern has occurred many times.

Consider kindergartens. Following the Civil War, industrialization and urban growth exploded. Family life, particularly among poor immigrants seeking jobs in cities, turned grim. To escape poverty, both parents had to work often leaving young children to fend for themselves. Left alone in crowded tenements, many children took to the streets.

At this time, some middle and upper-income mothers had introduced private kindergartens in the Midwest and New England for their own children. Borrowing the principles of play from German school reformer Frederich Froebel, these private kindergartens used blocks, sand boxes, art corners, and other ways of captivating four and five year-olds to spend a day learning rather than in the street.

Slowly, a movement led by these mothers and other Progressives of the day to get city districts to add kindergartens to their age-graded schools in order to remove very young children from the street gained political support. Especially since another purpose for these early public kindergartens was to teach immigrant parents how to best raise healthy children in densely populated, often unclean, neighborhoods. These reformers succeeded in gaining urban superintendents’ endorsements of tax-supported public kindergartens so that by the 1960s, kindergarten had become a mainstay of public schools, now relabeled K-12. 

Early childhood educators were trained within the Progressive tradition to see kindergartens as places where children could learn through play. Focus on learning to read and basic arithmetic operations were tasks for first grade, not kindergarten. Noteworthy is that when public schools adopted this reform in the early decades of the 20th century one purpose for kindergarten disappeared: teachers making home visits to help low-income parents better rear their five year-olds.

Gradual growth in school districts adding kindergartens came not only from the formation of constituencies politically tied to this reform but also from a shift in public attitudes that kindergartens were more than play. Five year-olds can learn academics. The emerging belief among policymakers and many but not all parents was that the earlier a child learns basic skills, the better chance that child will have for academic success as they move through the grades and, as economists pointed out– greater earnings as adults. [v]

Most parents view public schools as an up-escalator for social mobility that give their children an edge. Kindergartners who learned to read as five year-olds became stars in many parents’ and teachers’ eyes as they aced first grade. Even with this tension between play and academics, no contemporary reformer or parent would gain supporters for a campaign to ban kindergartens. Not for the first (nor last) time, public schools had embraced a reform modifying it to the contours of the existing age-graded school. The same practices occurred with the introduction of innovative technologies into public schools since the 1980s.

In Part 3, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades. [vi]

[i] Audrey Watters, “Teaching by Television in American Samoa: A History,” at: http://hackeducation.com/2015/06/06/american-samoa-educational-tv

Researcher Wilbur Schramm reviewed about 400 studies and concluded: “A striking fact has been presented here-the fact that about as much learning seems to take place in a TV class as in an ordinary class.” Schramm, “Learning from Instructional Television,” Review of Educational Research, Apr., 1962, Vol. 32, No. 2), pp. 156-167. Quote is on p. 164. Schramm also published Bold Experiment: The Story of Educational Television In American Samoa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1981).

[ii]Kevin McElrath, “Schooling during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” U.S. Census Bureau, August 26, 2020.

[iii] Education Next surveyed a representative sample of parents with children in late-2020 and found 53 percent of all students using distance learning and 19 percent in some form of hybrid situation between home and school. Twenty-eight percent were attending in-person. Michael Henderson, et. al., “Pandemic Suvey Finds Perverse Pattern” Students are More Likely To Be Attending School in Person Where Covid Is Spreading More Rapidly, “ Education Next Poll 2020 at: https://www.educationnext.org/pandemic-parent-survey-finds-perverse-pattern-students-more-likely-to-be-attending-school-in-person-where-covid-is-spreading-more-rapidly/

Teacher unions in big cities resisted an early return of their members to classrooms. A strike was averted in Chicago, for example. Kate Taylor, “Chicago Teachers Tentatively Agree to Return to Classrooms,” New York Times, February 7, 2021

[iv]Donald Schön, Beyond the Stable State. Public and private learning in a changing society (New YorK: W.W. Norton, 1973).

[v] National Science Foundation. “Learn more in kindergarten, earn more as an adult.” Science Daily. August 12, 2010.

[vi] For a history of kindergartens, see Nina Vandewalker, The Kindergarten in American Education (New York: Macmillan, 1908); Barbara Beatty, Preschool Education in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 1)

For the past few months I have been thinking a lot about the upending of public schools by the Covid-19 pandemic. As someone who has studied the history of school reform in the U.S., I have been trying to make connections with the past that might inform present-day debates over district policies and classroom practices. So I am beginning a multi-part series of posts on the central point I have found that connects the past with the present: the resiliency of public schools over the past century and a half.

When educators speak of resiliency, they more often than not speak of it as a personal trait that individuals have such as perseverance, grit, the capacity to bounce back from adversity, and similar points. In these posts, I use the concept to capture one critical institutional feature of a well-known community institution that too often goes unnoticed.

In doing the research on the institutional resiliency of public schools over the past 150 years, I have also discovered that there is a bright and dark side to this important concept as applied to public schools. I welcome comments on these draft posts.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, and viral pandemics have closed schools in the past. These temporary disruptions forced parents, government officials, and school leaders to find alternative ways to organize schooling and teach the young. Each emergency revealed anew the interconnectedness of our lives. Parents realized the complexities of home teaching of content and skills, the need for enormous patience, and, yes, the importance of schools to the rest of society. Each upheaval also revealed dependence upon new technologies of the day such as newspapers in the 1910s and 1920s, radio in the 1930s and instructional television in the 1950s; school officials drafted the technologies of the day to use in coping with short-term school closures.

When disasters struck later in the century, classroom lessons had already become mixes of face-to-face instruction layered with teacher-directed activities where students used classroom and personal devices (e.g., 1:1 laptops, tablets, smart boards, and phones). Then Covid-19 arrived.

As a result of the 2020 pandemic, school boards shuttered schools and quickly shifted to home-based remote instruction. Moving from age-graded, bricks-and-mortar buildings to home schooling, out-of-work parents including single moms, were suddenly sitting with their children in kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms at laptops and tablets following teacher-directed lessons.

Many districts, however, after altering ventilation systems, disinfecting surfaces, providing soap and water, put in place protocols of masking, spacing students in classrooms, and washing hands before offering in-person instruction for limited days a week. Hybrids of remote and face-to-face instruction sprang up across the nation’s schools.[i]

The rush to technology over two pandemic years, however, should not obscure other ways that schools have adapted to crises of massive school closures. While surely technologies can and should play a role at such times—and did so in the past–it is not the only way that schools have dealt with crises by altering operations; schools have absorbed rapid, unplanned changes also by re-organizing instruction.

Much can be learned, then, from prior experiences with massive school closures when different ways of organizing and dispensing instruction have arisen out of necessity. Examining such varied ways of organizing schooling and using technologies of the day can make clear to parents, policymakers, and practitioners that public schools and the age-graded school structure are (and have been) resilient institutions when disasters strike.

Prior disruptions

1. Influenza pandemic in U.S. 1918-1919

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic killed millions across the globe and around 675,000 Americans (ten times more than died in World War I). While that pandemic occurred, U.S. schools and businesses closed, crowds were banned, and other similar responses to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic occurred.

Schools eventually reopened after the influenza pandemic (Philadelphia had closed its schools October 3, 1918 and welcomed students back October 28; Seattle, Washington closed its schools October 6, 1918 and allowed students to return on November 12).[ii]

And what happened when schools reopened?

They returned to their original state—another marker of resiliency. In examining those districts following the influenza pandemic, knowing what the reform-driven Progressive movement had done across the country in the 1910s is helpful. These reforms included governing districts through bureaucratic hierarchies, creating new curricula focused on children and youth learning by doing such as with projects, using new technologies such as film, and schools becoming medical, social service, and community centers. After the influenza pandemic ended, schools returned to the familiar age-graded school organization and those Progressive reforms. [iii]

2. Polio epidemics

In 1916, 1937, and 1944, polio epidemics struck down children across the nation. Poliomyletis or “infantile paralysis,” as it was called, had broken out in other years but in the three years cited here, newspaper accounts and reports document the onset and spread of the disease. Usually occurring during summers, these epidemics lasted into the fall resulting in school closures.

For example, in 1937, Chicago, a district serving over 325,000 students, delayed opening their schools for three weeks due to the spreading virus. Recall that the earlier decades of Progressive innovations had been incorporated into schooling, particularly affection for modern technology (e.g., stereopticon viewers, films, radio). Elementary and secondary school teachers developed brief 15-minute radio lessons that were beamed into students’ homes.

Aided by six radio stations and public libraries, schedules for lessons with assignments, questions, and directions—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for social studies and science with math and English slotted for Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday–appeared in daily newspapers so students could locate the time and radio frequency to dial up the particular teacher-directed lesson.  To help parents negotiate radio lessons, over 20 teachers staffed a special telephone number—a “hot line”—to answer questions.

Of course, there were complaints from parents and teachers. The lessons moved too quickly; there was poor signal reception; a sizable fraction of families lacked radios.  After polio cases subsided, school reopened later in the fall. Radio lessons disappeared. [iv]

3. Katrina hurricane

In 2005, hurricane Katrina flattened the city of New Orleans. Nearly all public schools (110 out of 126) were destroyed or extensively damaged. Many students went to school elsewhere in Louisiana, Texas, and other states. Some did not attend any school for months. In place of parish public schools, a system of public charter schools under private management appeared under the jurisdiction of a state-authorized Recovery School District. Political muscle from state officials and private donors supported the venture. Except for three non-charter schools, 95 percent are now charter schools operating under the Orleans Parish School Board.

What occurred in New Orleans after Katrina was a revolution in public school governance. Instead of local citizens elected to district boards (parishes in Louisiana) to direct schools, the state created independent charter schools and companies that managed chains of such schools in the city. As for technology use in classrooms, it played a non-consequential role in these changes then and since.

In effect, then, the historic shift in funding and governance that occurred after Katrina did not disturb the fundamental age-graded structure of New Orleans schools. District governance changed but school structures endured. Keep in mind that adaptability is another sign of institutional resiliency. [v]

These prior disruptions of schools, except for New Orleans where destruction and closure of schools resulted in major governance changes, produced no substantial shifts in school organization, curriculum, or instruction a century ago, before World War II, and in the early 2000s.  Districts mobilized technologies of the day for emergencies and downsized classroom usage of technology when crises had passed.

Of note, then, is that the age-graded school withstood disasters and adapted, essentially remaining the primary way of organizing school for instruction.

[i] I use the noun “instruction,” as in “remote instruction,” “online instruction,” and “distance instruction” rather than the noun “learning” simply because there is no body of evidence that “online learning,” or similar descriptors does, indeed, benefit students.

I do not include school closures that resulted from policy decisions such as the closing of Prince Edward County schools in Virginia to avoid desegregating their schools. See: https://www.virginiahistory.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/closing-prince

In the winter of 2021, the Centers for Disease Control issued a step-by-step plan for reopening schools. Guidelines for a safe return to in-school instruction gave authoritative permission for many previously closed schools to reopen. Apoorva Mandevilli, et. al., “C.D.C. Offers Path to Reopening Nation’s Schools,” New York Times, February 13, 2021.

[ii]For Seattle schools, see “American Influenza Epidemic: Seattle Washington,” in University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine at: https://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-seattle.html#;

for Philadelphia, see Alfred Crosby, Americas Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 74, 85

[iii] Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957 (New York: Vintage Books, 1964); Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986); and Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000); Tracy Steffes, School, Society, and State: A New Education To Govern Modern America, 1890-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); David Gamson, The Importance of Being Urban: Designing the Progressive School District, 1890-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

[iv] Michael Hines, “In Chicago, Schools Closed during a 1937 Polio Epidemic and Kids Learned from Home–over the Radio,” Washington Post, April 3, 2020.

[v] Rebecca Klein, “These Are the Schools That Hurricane Katrina Destroyed,” HuffPost, August 26, 2015; Kate Babineau, et. al,  “The State of Public Education in New Orleans, 2019-2020,” The Cowen Institute at Tulane University at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED607281.pdf

Douglas Harris, Charter School City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

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Back To School Covid Myths (Doug Green)

I have had a hard time locating actual classroom observations of hybrid teaching and learning. I did find that The New York Times sent journalists to visit seven different urban and rural districts that provided some evidence of what occurs in schools during the pandemic.

Doug Green emailed me that he had visited a small district near where he lives. I asked him to send me the results of his observations. Dr. Doug Green is a former teacher and principal in upstate New York. He blogs at https://DrDougGreen.Com

Since March of 2020, I have read countless articles about remote schooling. I have yet to see a convincing study on the relative quality of remote and in-person schooling, but I have seen many authors make unequivocal statements in favor of the in-person model. Whenever I see people stating hypotheses as facts I try to come up with reasons why they might be wrong, so here are the problems I find with the general consensus.

As part of my post-retirement professional life, I am the independent observer for a local school district. There I get to observe 120 teachers from K to12 thanks to the fact that our government doesn’t trust our principals to fairly evaluate their teachers. This allows me to base my oppositional views on empirical observations rather than “common sense.”

Myth #1. Zoom classes are clearly inferior.

From what I’ve read and seen, many if not most schools are using the “hybrid” model where kids spend every other day in school and at home attending the same class via Zoom or some other software option. This means that as a teacher, you have some students in your room widely spaced and some in boxes on your computer screen listening to what you say and seeing what you share on your screen.

All students hear and see the same instructional content regardless of where they are. All students get to ask questions and answer questions the teacher poses. The students in the room face a somewhat dystopian version of what classes use to look like while the “Zoomers” have “all the comforts of home.” Keep in mind that all homes are not created equal. Some students have their own “home office” while others have crowded conditions, responsibilities for caring for siblings, and poor or no reliable Internet access.

The hybrid model may be a downgrade for some, but it is likely an upgrade for others. It depends on each student’s learning style and home environment. To the extent higher-performing students can work at their own pace it could be better. This depends to a large extent on the ability of their parents to set up an environment conducive to learning and arranging age-appropriate supervision, and the teacher’s ability to differentiate.

Myth #2. It’s important that students go to school for social reasons.

From what I’ve seen, in-person schooling isn’t very social. Since some students have opted for full-time remote learning, in-school classes have less than half a class at a time. In my experience, eight students is a big class. The in-school students are distanced from each other and wearing masks. I have yet to see student to student interaction in classrooms. Between classes, they walk in the right lane down hallways at least six feet apart. For lunch, they eat at a distance from each other.

If this sounds like social life to you, you have my sympathy. Students go to the trouble and risk of getting to school somehow, getting up earlier, and slogging around a school environment that isn’t chuck full of fun social interactions. Students at home are free to use apps like FaceTime to have real social interaction with their peers. They can also get up later and walk about their home rather than being stuck in their sanitized seats.

Myth #3. There are no other advantages to hybrid schooling.

As a former elementary principal who had 535 students (90% poverty, 25% refugee) and no assistant, I spent more than half of my time on many days dealing with discipline. My school featured crowded classrooms and students who escaped from New York City where their parents could no longer afford to live. Most of my students were from one-parent families and suffered a lot of stress at home.

Fast forward to classrooms with less than half as many students sitting as far apart as possible and wearing facemasks. If you don’t think that this environment takes the discipline load on the principal down to near zero, you probably haven’t walked in my shoes. One of the biggest impediments to learning is caused by students disrupting classes. If you could make this go away learning overall would become more effective.

It’s popular to say that hybrid learning is negatively impacting poor students who generally attend schools with lots of discipline issues. Is it possible that some of these same poor kids who make a serious effort to learn under current circumstances aren’t the big winners? Also, while there may be stresses at home there probably aren’t many bullies.

I’m sure there are people in the trenches with different views. I look forward to hearing from you.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, leadership, research, technology use

Cartoons about Teaching during Covid-19

Cartoonists, no doubt working from home during the pandemic, have continued to dip their pens in ink (and clicked through their software) to capture life in and out of schools during Covid-19. I bring to you ones that got me to grimace, smile, grin, and even laugh. Enjoy!

Signe cartoon TOON19 Summer Slide Schools


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Thoughts on Teaching

In 2001, I retired from fulltime teaching and research at Stanford. The Dean invited me to give a talk to the graduates and their families that June. Here is an abridged version of what I said.

“I have thought a lot about the past 46 years I have spent in education. I have taught in urban high schools and Stanford for many years [in addition to being an administrator]. It is teaching–not administration or scholarship [however]–that has defined me as an adult….

Teaching has permitted me to be a lover of ideas, a performer, a lifelong learner, a historian, a writer, and a friend to former students and colleagues. For these reasons and because at this moment in our nation’s history teachers have moved to the top of the nation’s school reform agenda, I want to comment today on both the exhilarating and troubling aspects of teaching….

Two basic reasons are behind this strong push for higher quality in teachers: Policy makers and teacher educators believe that when teachers understand deeply their subjects and possess a full repertoire of teaching skills students will learn more, do better on tests, and eventually get good jobs. And, second, higher teacher standards will move the occupation much closer to professional status.

And, of course, who could argue against teachers acquiring more expertise in the subject and displaying polished skills to help children learn more? Who would argue against teaching becoming a full-fledged profession? Certainly, I don’t. Yet, in all honesty, what troubles me is the cramped image of teaching that has emerged from these reforms. The constricted picture is one where the teacher is a technically competent supplier of information and skills. It is an incomplete image of teaching.

Missing in all of the talk and mandates aimed at improving teacher quality are the traditional moral obligations of teaching the young be they preschoolers or graduate students….

I need to be clear on this point. Not for one second do I minimize the importance of raising the low status of teachers and getting students to do better on tests, go to college, acquire credentials, and secure good jobs. Nonetheless, I must point out that these reasons for improving the quality of teaching are far different than the moral purposes that have guided the practice of teaching for centuries.

Let me be more specific about what I mean by traditions of teaching imposing moral obligations upon the teacher. Teaching obliges those who teach kindergartners, sixth graders, molecular biology, auto mechanics, or art to give sustained intellectual and moral attention to students’ learning and growth. Intellectual attentiveness means concentrating on what students know, feel, and think about the content and skills to be learned–the technical side of teaching–but then go on to deepen their understanding of the world and their capacity to continue learning.

Moral attentiveness means to concentrate on helping students grow as persons in grace and sensitivity, becoming more rather than less thoughtful about ideas, becoming more rather than less respectful of others’ views, and becoming more rather than less responsible for reducing social injustice. Questions of what is fair, right, and just arise constantly in classrooms; students learn moral sensibilities from how their teachers answer those questions….

Teacher and author, Frank McCourt realized the moral implications of teaching. As a first-time New York City teacher in the mid-1950s, he was uncertain about what kind of teacher he should be. He recalled his thoughts after his first day of teaching.

‘Should I be Robert Donat in Good-bye, Mr. Chips or Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle? Should I swagger into the classroom like James Cagney or march in like an Irish schoolmaster with a stick, a strap, and a roar? If a student sends a paper airplane zooming at me should I shove my face into his and tell him try that one more time, kid, and you’re in trouble? What am I to do with the ones looking out the window calling to friends across the yard? If they’re like some of the students in The Blackboard Jungle they’ll be tough and they’ll ignore me and the rest of the class will despise me.’

Teaching is a way of defining yourself as a person, a moral actor, and McCourt’s struggle goes well beyond how much of his subject and what skills he displayed. He knew, as we do today, that important as technical expertise is, our character as human beings and how we teach become what we teach.

Just like Frank McCourt, professors also display their character and moral virtues when they teach. In universities, as in public schools, the act of teaching, too often defined as knowing one’s discipline, has been divorced from who one is as a human being. To teach is to convey unveiled enthusiasm for ideas as it is about the details of a lecture. Too often, teaching has been stripped of its moral dimensions and made into a series of technical moves that can be swiftly learned and put into practice. If a professor, for example, only calls on the brightest, most verbal students in the class, snipes at students’ answers that call into question the professor’s statements, and provides few comments on students’ written work, students learn about fairness, independent inquiry, and the moral character of their professor.

Teaching, then, whether in graduate schools or kindergartens–in elite universities or slum schools–binds all of us together. In teaching we display our views of knowledge and learning, we advertise our ideas, how we reason, and how we struggle with moral choices whether we intend to or not. To teach is to enlist in a technical, morally based vocation, not an occupation and certainly not just a job. Technical competence, as important as it is in teaching, is insufficient to make a whole teacher or a complete student. It fails to capture the fundamental moral obligations of teaching the young. Teaching young and old in all of its splendid moral and technical triumphs and disappointments has taught me and many other teachers to approach life and the classroom with humility….”

After that brief talk to graduates in 2001, I feel the same way in 2021.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Whatever Happened To 1:1 Laptops?

When the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the nation in 2020, schools closed swiftly. Districts pivoted to remote instruction. Then inequalities showed up just as quickly, especially in big city schools and rural areas where the “digital divide” persisted. Stories surged in social and mainstream media of administrators distributing laptops and tablets to children and youth who had no devices at home and also setting up locations where the Internet could be accessed. Everyone had to have a device and use of the Internet to do remote instruction.

Quick distribution of devices to individual students reminded me of an innovation that began a few decades ago called 1:1 laptops. At that time policy entrepreneurs, vendors, and iconic technology companies claimed that if every single student had a personal laptop, then there would be more teaching and it would be faster and better. So whatever happened to this innovation?

When and why did 1:1 computer programs spread?

The rush to buy device that were inexpensive and lightweight occurred throughout the 1990s and early 2000s for three reasons. The strong belief among policymakers buyng laptops (and later tablets) was that new portable technology in the hands of students and experienced teachers would revolutionize teaching, boost students’ academic achievement, and lead to jobs in the rapidly expanding technology sector. In Maine, for example, former Gov. Angus King launched the Maine initiative in 2002. It began by leasing and distributing Apple laptop computers to every 7th and 8th grader in the state. During the next eight years, the effort expanded to include other grades, vendors, and devices.

Spurred by Maine and other districts, a buying spree brought these machines into classrooms across the nation to achieve these desirable ends for teachers and students–although there was little evidence that such usage would reach the outcomes promised by the promoters and boosters of the new technology (see below).

What did a 1:1 program look like in classrooms?

Some photos capture what elementary and secondary classrooms with 1:1 devices looked liked.

Did 1:1 programs work?

One definition of “work” is to ask whether all students having personal devices altered their classroom behavior in doing academic work. One survey of over 300,000 students in 2017 asked if students with laptops do classroom work differently. Researchers found that:

High schoolers assigned a laptop or a Chromebook were more likely to take notes in class, do internet research, create documents to share, collaborate with their peers on projects, check their grades and get reminders about tests or homework due dates. Among high school students assigned these devices, 60 percent said they had emailed their teachers with questions. That’s compared to 42 percent among students without an assigned device.

But the survey could not establish that such behavioral changes in students using laptops led to higher academic achievement. Which then leads to another definition of “work.” For all of the dollars spent did schools achieve higher test scores on state tests, did teachers teach more content and skills even faster and better than before, and did graduates of high schools using the new technologies enter jobs using what they learned in using the devices? The answers to the three-part question is, based upon the available evidence, decidedly mixed. No surprise when it comes to educational research, especially when it deals with uses of technologies.

No consensus exists, for example, on laptops being the cause of any rises or dips in academic achievement, as measured by tests. Pause for a moment and consider the idea that technology even could make such a difference since it is the teacher and her pedagogy that decides to what extent and in what ways laptops would be used to cover content and skills in the district curriculum for that grade and subject. Separating the teacher from the technology, then, is illogical and, in a word, goofy. And that is probably why there are conflicting studies showing academic gains and even losses or no differences in test scores in many studies (see here, here, here, and here)

What happened to 1:1 programs?

Nothing. They are still around but the hype surrounding the first generation of the devices being bought, distributed, and used has melted away. No longer in the foreground, each student having a device to use for a classroom lesson (and also at home) is so common in 2021 that the Gee Whiz label of 1:1 strikes today’s students and parentss as anachronistic. After all, an earlier generation of boosters for 1:1 had plowed the ground thoroughly for a later generation to see laptops and tablets as common as paper and pencil.

A veteran educator at the World Bank captured well what happened in many nations when the frenzy for new technologies struck governments in the developing world. Mike Trucano at the World Bank who has observed and participated in rollouts of new technologies in many nations offered a list “worst” practices (opposite of “best practices”) with two being especially apt for many schools that rushed to 1:1 laptops.

1. “Dump hardware in schools, hope for magic to happen.” Trucano goes on to say that such practices are kissing cousins to: “If we supply it, they will learn.”

2. “Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware.” He continues: “…it is a fact that, in many places, once computers are in place and a certain level of basic ICT literacy is imparted to teachers and students is the rather basic question asked: What are we going to do with all of this stuff?”

So that final question remains largely unanswered as these once-new devices become obsolete and another generation of inexpensive devices (e.g., tablets, smart phones) have to be, yes, bought again.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Anxiety over Pandemic Learning Loss (Alfie Kohn)

Alfie Kohn has been writing and speaking about education, human behavior and parenting for more than two decades. His most recent book was “Schooling Beyond Measure and Other Unorthodox Essays About Education,” This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe on September 6, 2020.  It, along with much of Kohn’s other work, is also available on his website, www.alfiekohn.org.”

Anguish and even anger are entirely appropriate reactions to the fact that coronavirus infection rates are still too high in most areas to permit the safe reopening of schools. Not only do many of our kids miss their friends and the chance to make new ones, but school attendance also is a prerequisite for millions of parents to go to work. Also, schools provide healthy meals, which matters in a country with appalling levels of poverty and hunger.

The shutdown is bad enough. Must we also deal with the fear that children who are spending less, or even no, time in classrooms are destined to fall behind academically?

Not necessarily. The research that fuels dire warnings, which largely extrapolates from claims about “summer learning loss” (SLL), is much less persuasive than most people realize. For example, Paul T. von Hippel at the University of Texas at Austin looked carefully last year at a foundational study on SLL in low-income students and discovered he was unable to replicate its findings, partly because of problems with its methodology, such as a failure to adjust for the difficulty level of the questions.

More important, none of the research on this topic actually shows a diminution in learning — just a drop in standardized test scores (in some subjects, in some situations, for some kids).

By now we shouldn’t be surprised that older studies on SLL, along with attempts to apply it to our current situation, uncritically conflate the results of standardized tests with broader concepts such as learning, achievement, educational excellence or academic success. After all, many politicians, journalists, parents and even educators make the same mistake.

But as numerous analyses have shown, standardized tests are not just imperfect indicators; they measure what matters least about teaching and learning. And their flaws aren’t limited to specific tests or to how often they’re administered or to the way their results are used. Standardized testing itself, particularly when exams are timed or consist primarily of multiple-choice questions, mostly tell us about two things: the socioeconomic status of the population being tested and the amount of time that’s been spent training students to master standardized tests.

It is entirely possible to raise scores without improving the quality of teaching and learning at all, which means that a bump in those scores isn’t particularly meaningful. Worse, concerted efforts to raise scores often have the effect of lowering the quality of teaching and learning, which means that improved test results may actually be bad news. Indeed, several studies have found that higher scores can signify shallower thinking.

Standardized testing simultaneously overestimates students who are just skilled test-takers and underestimates talented thinkers who aren’t. Sadly, these flawed scores are still widely used to evaluate students, teachers and schools, which makes them hard to ignore, at least for the time being. But we should view skeptically any claims about education based on these scores — including the supposedly negative effects of missing school.

So, too, for those who are rightly concerned about race- or class-based “achievement gaps”: If these gaps are defined mostly by test results, the goal will be to narrow the test-score gap, which may widen the gap in high-quality instruction and deep learning. Anyone who warns that poor children will suffer disproportionately from closed schools may be romanticizing what was really going on in their schools. The pressure to raise test scores exacerbates an already disturbing dynamic by which the rich get richer and the poor get worksheets.

But is there a real academic “slide” from being out of school, as judged by high-quality, nonstandardized assessments? The honest answer is: We just don’t know.

To its credit, the meta-analysis that’s still the most widely cited source on the topic, conducted by Harris Cooper and his colleagues, was accurately titled “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores,” not “… on Learning.” But even given that narrow focus, it’s noteworthy that the declines were mostly confined to “factual and procedural knowledge” such as “math computation and spelling skills.”

In fact, some studies have shown that the capacity for thinking not only isn’t lost over the summer but also may show greater gains than during the school year. As Peter Gray at Boston College, who reviewed some of that research, puckishly proposed, “Maybe instead of expanding the school year to reduce a summer slide in calculation, we should expand summer vacation to reduce the school-year-slide in reasoning.”

What, after all, does it mean to say that children can “lose what they’ve learned?” True, time away from school may entail less exposure to academic content, but that shouldn’t be equated with — nor does it imply the absence of — intellectual development. (Similarly, let’s not forget that time away from school doesn’t mean kids can’t flourish in all sorts of other ways: emotionally, physically, artistically, socially and morally.)

Too often, schooling consists of cramming bits of knowledge into students’ short-term memories — by means of lectures, textbooks, worksheets, quizzes and homework — all enforced with grades. Many of these facts and skills are indeed forgotten, but that doesn’t mean that being out of school is calamitous. Rather, it suggests that we should reexamine what too often takes place in school.

Suppose our kids end up missing a full year of school. When they finally return, they may be unable to recall some of what they were told: the six stages of cell division, or the definition of a simile, or the approved steps for doing long division. Heck, they’ll forget even more facts once they’ve graduated. (Haven’t you?)

But over the course of a summer or a year spent at home, they are much less likely to forget how to set up an experiment to test their own hypothesis (if, when they were last at school, they had the chance to do science), or how to write a story that elicits a strong reaction from a reader (if they had been invited to play with prose with that goal in mind), or what it means to divide one number by another (if they were helped to understand mathematical principles from the inside out).

Warnings about academic loss are not just dubious; they’re dangerous. They create pressure on already-stressed-out parents to do more teaching at home — and, worse, to do more of the most traditional, least meaningful kind of teaching that’s geared toward memorizing facts and practicing lists of skills rather than exploring ideas. Parents may just assume this is what instruction is supposed to look like, partly because that’s how they were taught (and no one ever invited them to rethink this model). And if standardized tests rather than authentic kinds of assessment will eventually be used to evaluate their children, parents, like teachers, will be inclined to do what is really just test prep.

We’ve been here before. Claims of slippage in reading proficiency over the summer have led to an awful lot of kids, disproportionately Black and Latino, being sentenced to highly structured remedial summer programs. Richard Allington, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who specializes in this issue, points out that such programs, or summer homework assignments, aren’t necessary or even sensible. Rather, he and his colleagues recommend “easy and continuing access to self-selected books for summer reading” — a solution that’s also much less likely to cause kids’ interest in reading — a key predictor of proficiency — to evaporate.

When schools are finally able to open their doors again safely, let’s not return to the status quo ante covid, with its emphasis on the kind of test-focused instruction that can be lost. The good news — at a time when we’re all desperate for some — is that when the learning was meaningful to begin with, it doesn’t slip away.

Copyright © 2020 by Alfie Kohn.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, leadership, school leaders