Whatever Happened to Programmed Learning?

As the above photos suggest, “programmed learning” (or “programmed instruction”) made a huge splash in media during the 1950s and 1960s.* It was an innovation that grabbed policymakers and tech-driven school reformers. Yet by the 1970s, it had largely disappeared from the rhetoric of school reformers. Then in the 1990s with the installation of computer labs and widespread student access to these devices, policymakers and tech-enthused school reformers resurrected “programmed learning.” With increased availability of desktop and laptop computers in schools, much drill-and-practice software used in schools leaned heavily on programmed learning techniques. Often called “computer-assisted instruction,” programmed learning became front-and-center. Although programmed learning goes by different names, the theories that drove it decades earlier remain alive and well in the software that many schools and individual teachers use for lessons. Here, then, is a curricular and instructional innovation that has zig-zagged through schools for over 70 years.

What was (and is) “programmed learning?”

Programmed learning materials are usually pieces of software aimed at instructing students to digest certain content and skills. In many instances, prior to using the software, students are given a pre-test to determine how much they already know about, say, the American Revolution; after completing the pre-test, students work their way through the programmed learning software on the same topic. Drawn from textbooks or other source adapted to computers, the learning program presents new content and skills in a logical, step-by-step sequence. The learning program is broken down into slivers of knowledge or steps. After users complete each step, they are given questions to test their comprehension. After entering answers, students are then immediately given the correct answer on the screen. This means that students know swiftly how they fared on questions and whether they have learned the prescribed material.

Here is an example of a page in a linear programmed instruction book aimed at teaching English grammar (Joseph Blumenthal (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1962).

Driven by psychological theories of positive reinforcement, that is, a focus on rewarding students for doing a classroom task well (e.g., gold star on homework; letting students who aced an exam skip a homework assignment) and following classroom rules for behavior (e.g., scheduling a classroom party for a month), programmed learning rewarded students immediately by revealing correct answers to questions. Teacher-made versions of programmed learning have become ubiquitous in elementary and secondary classroom worksheets that teachers use weekly in all academic subjects.

Teachers use worksheets for drill-and-practice in knowledge that students have covered. Students complete these worksheets during the lesson or as homework. Many teachers create their own worksheets while just as many buy commercially produced ones that fit the content and skills they are teaching. Most worksheets, however, lack the immediate feedback to students that programmed learning promised. If worksheets are done in class, teachers or small groups of students can determine whether answers were correct or not during the lesson. But more often than not, students’ worksheet answers have to wait until the teacher sees those answers or when teachers have students see the correct answers as part of the lesson. That separation in time between students answering questions and finding out which answers were incorrect undermines the immediate feedback promised in the theory and practice of programmed learning.

Here is an example of a math worksheet for a primary grade classroom;

Here is a worksheet for high school biology lesson on the brain:

By the 1970s and 1980s, programmed learning had become part of the kit bag of techniques that teachers could use in other highly hyped school reforms aimed at individualizing (or “personalizing”) instruction. For example, within the hype surrounding “competency based education” (CBE) and “computer-assisted instruction” (CAI) rested the guided drill and practice worksheets that earlier generations of teachers had students complete. Thus, with worksheets, teachers adapted a version of programmed learning that students filled in by hand or tapping away on computer keyboards.

And that is what happened to programmed learning.

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*In 1928, psychologist Sidney Pressey created the first teaching machine using programmed learning. The dream of “teaching machines” has morphed into computer-assisted instruction.

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Innovations in K-12 Schooling: Appearance and Disappearance

In 2006, hardly anyone had ever heard the phrase “flipped classrooms.” By 2019, the phrase was frequently used by policymakers, administrators, and teachers (see Ngram viewer).

Of course, thoughtful teachers past and present have done versions of “flipped classrooms” before it became the reform du jour. Many teachers have regularly assigned work for students to do at home thus allowing extended and in-depth discussions during precious classtime. Nothing new here. Rediscovering what was once an innovation occurs again and again.

Where “flipped classrooms” become more difficult to implement are in those schools where many teachers see this innovation as piling on more work for them in reading and grading student homework and preparing for deeper class discussions of a topic. Moreover, there are schools with large numbers of students who have never experienced “flipped classrooms,” come from homes where doing homework is a hill to climb, care little for academic subjects, and simply want school to go away. Teachers in such urban, suburban, and rural schools will have a harder time putting the technique into practice.

So for those experienced and newbie teachers, unfamiliar with the history of instructional innovations, “flipped classrooms” may be an idea that they applaud. But it still is a fad. Faddish innovations soar in rhetoric but like a shooting star disappear. Yes, it is accurate that some fads get quickly converted into policy recommendations (e.g., “whole language,” “time on task,” “sustained silent reading,””writing across the curriculum’) that most superintendents, some principals, and a scattering of teachers put into practice as pilot projects and then spread to the rest of the district (as long as funding is provided).

Of course, not only schools but other institutions such as corporations, hospitals, police and fire departments are vulnerable to fads that pop up for a few years and then quietly fade away. Americans prize change. Innovation after innovation feeds the hungers Americans have for the new, the different. New car models entice buyers every year. Women’s dresses get longer and then shorter. Atkins low-carb to paleo diets promise to keep Americans slim. In short, change is in the DNA of Americans. And schools mirror this appetite for faddish innovations that get adopted repeatedly and then, poof, disappear.

Time will tell whether “flipped classrooms” in individual schools or a district becomes another “sustained silent reading” shooting star that lights up the sky for a few seconds and fades away.

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A Puzzling Question about Teaching in U.S. Schools

I like puzzling questions. Answers to such questions often go beyond yes/no or true/false. Moreover, answers often contain the seeds of further queries that complicate previous answers. Such is the case with the following question that has trailed me through my years as a high school history teacher, district superintendent, and university researcher:

Why has the act of teaching in public schools (including charters) that serve wealthy, middle-class and poor children looked so familiar to past generations of journalists, researchers, parents and grandparents who observe classrooms?

Surely, things have changed in classrooms. Desktops and laptops are prevalent in schools; teachers use the Internet for videos in lessons; students give PowerPoint presentations; teachers take immediate polls of student answers to multiple choice questions with clickers; teachers use new textbooks, some of which are online.

Yet amid those classroom changes, there is a certain familiarity to past and present generations in how teachers unfold lessons, direct students to varied activities, ask query students that characterizes the common back-and-forth exchanges between teacher and students. How to explain that familiar continuity in teaching?

One way to explain this familiarity is the organizational concept of “dynamic conservatism.” This concept embraces both continuity and change in classrooms and schools. Institutions often change in order to remain the same. Families, hospitals, companies, courts, city and state bureaucracies, and the military frequently respond to major reforms by adopting those parts of changes that will sustain stability in their organizations. And so do teachers in their classrooms.[i]

Consider that more and more teachers provide carts with devices in their classrooms or urge students to bring their laptops to class to do Internet searches, take notes, and work in teams to make PowerPoint presentations to class. These teachers have made changes in how they teach while maintaining classroom discipline and managing the flow of activities in lessons. They “hugged the middle” between traditional and non-traditional ways of teaching.

Many academics joined with federal, state, and district policymakers who have seldom taught in K-12 schools remain dead-set on redesigning both school and classroom practices. Institutional stability is dysfunctional, they argue. They want transformation, not a few cosmetic changes. Such academics and policymakers see schools as complicated organizations that need a good dose of castor-oil rationality where both incentives and fear, not habits from a bygone era, drive employees to do the right thing in schools and classrooms. [ii]

When reform-minded policymakers intent on improving schools see classrooms as complicated rather than complex systems, hurdles multiply quickly to frustrate converting reforms into practice. Too many decision-makers lack understanding of “dynamic conservatism” in complex organizations such as classrooms; they choose to ignore it because they see these systems as ineffective and in need of re-engineering.

Recall previous efforts to jolt schools and classrooms sufficiently to substantially alter teaching and learning when academic cheerleaders and policymakers have mistakenly grafted practices borrowed from business organizations onto schools (e.g., zero-based budgeting in the 1970s; “management by objectives” and “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; pay-for-performance in the 1990s and loosening credential requirements for teachers since). They have ignored how teachers have habitually altered their classroom practices in order to maintain stability

Analyzing the idea of “dynamic conservatism” at work in complex systems leads to a deeper understanding of why teaching over the past century has been a mix of old and new, mirroring both constancy and change. Change occurs all the time in schools and classrooms but not at the scope, pace, and schedule reform-driven policymakers and academics embrace. Stability in how schools work and how teachers teach are imperatives also. In failing to understand “dynamic conservatism,” federal, state, and district decision-makers who distribute funds and make rules governing schools too often repeat mistakes that earlier well-intentioned reformers made in seeking to alter daily teaching practices. Conflicts inevitably arise in schools and classrooms when policymakers fail to understand “dynamic conservatism” as a mainstay of public schools.


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[i] Donald Schon, Beyond the Stable State: Public and Private Learning in a Changing Society (New York: Norton, 1973). See Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[ii] John Chubb and Terry Moe, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990). Frederick Hess, Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999).

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Films about the Craft of Investigative Reporting

“All the President’s Men” (1976),” and “She Said” (2022) are films I have seen that portray how investigative journalists develop and write their stories. While new technologies (iPhones, desktop computers, 24 hour news cycles) have surely altered how investigative journalists report stories today, the basics of getting a story, writing down the facts, having it edited, and then re-written, before it appears in the newspaper have remained pretty much the same for over a half-century. Published articles do not reveal the craft that reporters practice in doing investigative reporting.

Consider “All the President’s Men.” The film is about the Watergate burglary in 1972, the subsequent cover up by the White House and eventual resignation of President Nixon in 1974. Actors Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford play Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward. As the two-hour film unfolds, these young reporters got tips, ran down leads, established facts, verified sources, and pecked out their stories on typewriters– desktop computers didn’t enter newsrooms until the early 1980s. Constantly on landline phones in the newsroom checking out facts and sources, using street-corner telephone booths when they were checking out leads in the field, and jotting notes hurriedly as they interviewed and re-interviewed sources, the technology was clearly state-of-the-art for the early 1970s. The film is a textbook description of how investigative reporters went about their work on a daily basis a half-century ago.

If contemporary television programs like “Law and Order” and “Blue Bloods” are police procedurals detailing the steps that detectives follow in investigating a case, developing theories, establishing facts, and making arrests, then “All the President’s Men” is a journalist procedural much like the Oscar winning film “Spotlight” (2016).

“Spotlight” followed a Boston Globe team investigating Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children and youth.  Two generations later than the Watergate burglary, a “Spotlight” reporter commenting on the film’s depiction of how journalists work, said:  “We talk on the phone, we do data entry, we look at court records….” The Globe newspaper stories published in 2002 became an Oscar-winning film in 2016.

Fast forward 45 years from the Washington Post reporters working after Watergate and nearly two decades since the Boston Globe pieces on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of abusive priests to “She Said.” This is a film of how New York Times reporters Jodi Cantor and Megan Twohey wrote the story about Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax films, who serially molested and raped young women actors and staff assistants over many years.  

In “She Said,” for example, two women journalists track the slow-motion reveal of Harvey Weinstein sexually exploiting young women he had hired. Working from tips the reporters received, one woman after another, traumatized by the experiences they had had with Weinstein, eventually agreed to talk on the record to these reporters. These former employees described how the movie executive groped some and raped others.  

Yet with all of the new technologies has the daily work of Washington Post reporters Bernstein and Woodward in the early 1970s, the Boston Globe team in the late-1990s, and Times reporters Twohey and Kantor in 2017 changed?

Seeing all of the new devices that reporters have at their fingertips, it surely appears that it has. Seeing contemporary journalists portrayed in other films (e.g., “House of Cards,” the Australian series “The Code”), talking on their cell phones, clicking away at their Facebook and Twitter feeds, accessing various data bases, filling in spread sheets,and furiously tapping away at their laptops to meet a deadline might startle a Rip Van Winkle reporter alive in 1972 who dropped into today’s newsroom.

Yet, I argue that one has to look past these powerful technologies to see what reporters do daily to get the correct story and write it up for supervising editors and ultimately newspaper readers.  How journalists do their work as portrayed in “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight”, and “She Said” are basically the same even amid all of the devices and access to information.  

I am not a journalist. I do not know the work routines and cultures from the inside of a newspaper. So I researched the advice that investigative journalists now give to novices and, except for one or two points, none of the advice has to do with new technologies. The advice they give is about knocking on doors, analyzing documents, interviewing and re-interviewing sources, getting new leads, sniffing out weird clues, working closely with editors, and writing clearly for readers. These tasks form the core of investigative journalism (see here, here, and here). Bernstein and Woodward would probably nod their heads in agreement with the advice.

Eye-catching technologies, while enormously helpful in getting and organizing information efficiently, do not alter the basic steps of the craft that first-rate journalists have to pursue in getting and reporting the story. While technologies change over time, the legwork, tedious checking and re-checking of sources, figuring out what the essence of the story is, writing clearly and revising constantly remain at the center of journalists’ reporting.

Practicing a craft daily as these journalists do is also what teachers do once they close their classroom doors. The next post takes up the craft of teaching.

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The Persevering Age-Graded School

Anyone reading the literature published by contemporary, upbeat school reformers cannot avoid such phrases as “teacher leaders,” “change agents,” and “dynamic entrepreneurs.” One is bombarded with happy visions of peppy, smart, young teacher leaders replacing tired, ineffective, older staff. Eager change agents swapping places with uninspired principals; and charismatic CEOs succeeding hapless superintendents.

This upbeat rhetoric that idealistic and energetic young teachers and principals receive is that the system, its leaders and bureaucracy, is the enemy, the source of all problems. Individual teachers and principals have to be tough enough to fight in behalf of their students.

This macho message–underscored by a war-like vocabulary of trenches and guerrilla tactics with district bureaucrats—while engaging to read too often diverts reformers’ attention from analyzing commonplace school structures, such as the age-graded school and how it has shaped public attitudes towards education, school culture and classroom practice for nearly two centuries.

The age-graded school is the unquestioned mainstay of school organization in 2022. Nearly all taxpayers and voters have entered kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in 5th or 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma. If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a success it is the age-graded school.

In this Sept. 24, 2020, file photo, distance learners are seen on a laptop held by teacher Kristen Giuliano who assists student Jane Wood, 11, in a seventh-grade social studies class at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, Conn….”

What the age-graded school does is allocate children and youth by their ages to “grades.” It sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk so that all children will move uniformly through the year-long schedule to be annually promoted to the next grade. This way of organizing schools has been a gold star success.

Consider one standard of success: longevity. The first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. In various combinations of grades (e.g., K-5, 6-8, 9-12, 6-12) this way of organizing tax-supported public schools has been around ever since. 

Or consider another standard: effectiveness. The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students for nearly two centuries, sorted achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates over 80 percent of those entering high school.

Or consider the adaptability of the structure. The age-graded organization exists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America covering rural, urban, and suburban schools.

The age-graded school has had its critics (see here and here). In the late-19th century, some educators saw the age-graded organization as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates thereby causing dropouts from elementary and secondary schools as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because they failed to keep up with their peers. As John Dewey put it in 1902, “the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child … really controls the whole system.”

The development of twice yearly promotions and ability groups smoothed out some of the inherent problems of age-graded schools. But not the overall structure that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class and that every student had to learn by the end of the school year or be retained for another year. These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and persisted decade after decade.

For some critics, the organization isolates and insulates teachers from one another, perpetuates teacher-centered pedagogy,  and prevents a large fraction of students from achieving academically at their own individual pace. Moreover, over decades many students have dropped out. Yet this structure remains the sea in which teachers, students, principals, and parents swim. Few contemporary reformers, however, have questioned this one-size-fits-all organization.

Why have most school reformers and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization that influences daily behavior of over 3 million adults and well over 50 million children? One reason is dominant social beliefs of parents and educators about what a “real” school is.

A “real” school is one where children learn to read in 1st grade, receive periodic report cards, and get promoted to the next grade. These prevailing beliefs have politically narrowed reform options in transforming schools. For example, even when a charter school applicant proposes a new school the chances of receiving official approval and parental acceptance increase if it is a familiar age-graded one, not one where most teachers team teach and groups of multi-age children (ages 5-8, 9-11) learn together. Sure, occasional reformers created non-graded schools, the School of One, and particular community schools but they are outliers.

External pressures also constrict reformers’ maneuverability in trying other organizational forms. State mandated curriculum standards, college entrance requirements, and state and federal mandates rules such as testing 3rd to 8th grade students in reading and math are all married to this omnipresent, durable structure.

The unintended (and ironic) consequence of frequent and earnest calls for radical change in preparation of school leaders, school governance, curriculum, and instruction through non-traditional teachers and administrators, charter schools, nifty reading and math programs, iPads for kindergartners, and other reforms unintentionally preserve the enduring age-graded school thereby freezing classroom patterns that so many reformers sought to alter.

At the minimum, serious reformers must grasp the links between past reforms and current innovations or else their dreams of altering the age-graded school, an innovation that had persevered for nearly two centuries, will, in a word, fail.

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Timeless and Timebound: Schools and Teaching in the U.S.

The pandemic is over even though the virus continues to make Americans ill. During those pandemic months, most schools closed for varying periods of time. Covid-19 delivered a shock to the American school system of 13,000-plus districts, nearly 100,000 schools, over three million teachers, and more than 50 million students. Unlike localized earthquakes and other natural disasters, Covid-19 shut down most U. S. schools. But by early 2021, those shuttered schools had reopened.

Other than wearing masks, using disinfectants, practicing social distancing and other measures, schooling and teaching as we know it, returned to a new normal. Timebound by the pandemic, nonetheless, the practice of schooling and teaching was, and remains to this day, timeless.

Consider post-pandemic photos of classrooms in 2022.

“Aldine ISD teacher Danny Siegel or “Mr. Siegel” is one of the district’s newest middle school language arts teachers (June 2022)”. Credit: KHOU 11

“Kindergarten teacher Ana Zavala, at left, instructs students amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Washington Elementary School Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Lynwood, Calif…..” (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

“Students during Venecia Proctor’s 4th grade language arts class at SCAPA, the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, on Lafayette Parkway in Lexington, Ky., Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. Brian Simms bsimms@herald-leader.com”

Social Studies Classroom at Enterprise High School (Enterprise, Alabama)–photo taken by Nick Brooks

These photos surely reveal the practice of masking–a timebound fact–but beyond that, the teacher is at the front of the classroom talking to the entire class while elementary, middle, and high school students listen, take notes, and respond to teacher questions. This way of teaching is, in a word, timeless (see here here, and here).

What do I mean by “timeless?” Consider that teacher talk historically has exceeded student talk by percentages of 85 to 15 and 75 to 25. In fact, researchers who have studied English as Second Language teachers even recommend that the ratio of teacher-talk to student-talk should be 70% to 30%.

Of course, there are more classroom practices in teachers repertoires beyond talking about content and skills. Most teachers draw from a kit bag of methods such as arranging small group work, having students converse in pairs, assigning students to do independent research, putting students into situations where they role play different historical and fictional characters, setting up classroom debates on an issue, administering quizzes and tests, giving students books to read and report to the rest of the class, and, of course, checking overnight homework. Teachers do a lot more to get students to learn beyond lecturing.

Even with these varied activities that teachers have at their fingertips, the timeless pattern is that teachers talk far more than students. One should expect that, of course, since the teacher possesses content knowledge and skills that students lack. That is why she is hired to teach the young. So teacher talk dominating lessons is timeless.

For those boosters of student-centered teaching, however, this timeless fact is a challenge. Advocates for more student talk during lessons want teachers to talk less and students talk more (see here and here) They seek to alter this timeless fact; they want student talk to be at least equal to teacher talk.

But in 2022, while teachers may be more aware of the volume and distribution of talk in their classrooms during lessons, altering this timeless fact is a Gibraltar-like task.

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Cartoons about Grades and Tests in Schools

Here is this month’s cartoons about families, teachers, and students as they encounter the rituals of report cards, homework, scanning school grades, the aftermath of Covid-19, and enduring state tests. Enjoy!

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Whatever Happened to the New Math?

In the history of education, waves of curricular reform have swept across U.S. public schools. In nearly all instances, these waves occurred because of larger political, economic, and social issues facing the nation. One of those reform waves occurred between the late-1950s and early-1970s called “The New Math.” The trigger for the New Math (and companion tidal surges for a “New Biology” and “New Social Studies”) was the Soviet Union’s launching of the satellite called “Sputnik” in 1957.

In the then “Cold War” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, “Sputnik” announced to U.S. policymakers that somehow Russian scientists and mathematicians were far ahead of American ones and something had to be done with K-12 and higher education curriculum and instruction to catch up. As had happened often in American schools, every national problem has as part of its solution, changing what happens in classrooms. So a “space race” ensued. Schools became a second front in the “Cold War” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

And that is the background for the introduction of the New Math in U.S. public schools beginning in the late-1950s and extending into the mid-1970s. As these curricular changes settled into the schools, teachers, parents, and students became key actors in the implementation of the “New Math.”

What Was the New Math?

Instead of memorizing rules and constant number drills as traditionally was done in elementary and secondary school math instruction, one writer described the reform this way:

[M]athematicians and educators at universities in New York, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Maryland, t… took aim at the mindless rigidity of traditional mathematics. They argued that math could be exciting if it showed children the whys of problem solving rather than just the hows. Memorization and rote were wrong. Discovery, deduction, and limited drill were the best routes to arithmetical mastery.

In practice, this meant learning how different number systems worked, that the number 9 in the decimal, or base ten, system would be the number 100 in base three. It meant learning about the set, a grouping of things: a beach as a “set” of grains of sand, for example. It meant learning the difference between a number like 7 and its representation the numeral, which could be expressed many different ways—21 minus 14, 7 times 1, VII. It meant learning to draw rulerlike number lines and divide them into sections to discover fractional multiplication. It meant learning about frames—boxlike symbols used as substitutes for the x, y, z ’s of algebra. It meant learning a new language with terms like open sentence, complementation , and truth set . It meant, in essence, learning to discover the hidden patterns in mathematics before knowing what they were called and reasoning out solutions before knowing rules—all at an earlier age than had ever been attempted before.

Unfortunately, both teachers and parents were unfamiliar with these new concepts and details of the “new math” thus creating difficulties in how much of it was actually taught, much less, learned.

Consider Peanuts and Lucy cartoons:

How Many Teachers Taught the New Math?

It is hard to say. I examined many articles and books to answer the question. What I did discover is that there was no initial plan or program to train secondary and elementary school teachers to teach the “New Math.” Keep in mind, that nearly all teachers of math, especially in elementary schools, had minimal or no training in teaching math other than having taken a few courses in college. Teachers, then, were largely unprepared for the new texts and reform rhetoric surrounding the “New Math.”

One study done in the late-1970s of U.S. schools looked at schools that had embraced the “New Math.” The researchers concluded:

Despite the”new math” thrust, and although it is evident that the number and variety of mathematics courses offered in
secondary schools has increased since 1955, there appears to be little change in mathematics instruction in grades K-12.

Few efforts were made to educate elementary or secondary teachers concerning the new changes in content and methodology with the result that the single textbook is still the primary source of mathematics curricula with most teachers using no instructional materials except the texbook and chalkboard.

In 1974, a New York Times’s article reported that: “…an estimated 85 percent of elementary and secondary schools in the United States teach the “New Math.” But that estimate doesn’t answer my question about how many teachers taught the “New Math” since an elementary school of 25 teachers might have two dozen teachers conducting “New Math” lessons or a quarter of the staff or only one delivering such lessons. And in secondary schools where there were math departments, one, five, or none of the teachers may have embraced the innovation.

Because of the lack of classroom data, answering the question with any confidence is beyond my grasp.

What Did a “New Math” Lesson Look Like in Elementary and Secondary Schools?

A few photos and YouTube videos may help answer the question:

Consider that new texts became available:

There are two YouTube videos about changes in the math curricula in high school and elementary school. They include vignettes of what occurred in classroom lessons. The videos can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvEcFJANVQo

Overall, “New Math” instruction, given the limits of the data, remained teacher-centered and textbook-driven, often involving student work on a chalkboard. The “New Math”seldom triggered changes in the teacher’s familiar repertoire of techniques in delivering content and skills. Lecturing and using textbook problems to introduce new concepts and frequent drills and quizzes solidified what was learned.

The Aftermath of the New Math

Yes, like previous curricular reforms that rushed across America’s thousands of districts, the “New Math” had disappeared by the late-1960s. Subsequent curricular reform movements such as “Back to Basics”in the 1970s, the quest for rigorous standards following A Nation at Risk report in 1983, and the subsequent adoption of Common Core standards led to new curricula in both math and other academic subjects.

But a residue of the “New Math” remained in classrooms. Some teachers in some schools in some districts continued to use “new math” textbooks. As more and more of fervent “New Math” teachers retired, the curriculum reform, weakly imbedded in America’s classrooms to begin with, disappeared. In 1989 and later in 2000, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published curricular and instructional standards aligned with the movement to toughen academic standards and guide different levels of math instruction. Since 2010, the Common Core standards contain guidance for math curricula and instruction.

Nary a mention of the “New Math” appeared in these documents. Like many school reforms, it had become a footnote, an asterisk in the history of math curricula.

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Politics, School Boards, and Partisan Conflict: What Ain’t Supposed To Happen, Well, It Does

Tax-supported public schools have been havens of non-partisan activity. Whether one is a Democrat or Republican is immaterial when it comes to public schools. After all, the point of schooling is to make the young into good citizens who will do what’s best for the community, regardless of which political party they join.

But that’s not what occurred in Williamson County, Tennessee. Here is The New York Timesaccount of events from this past spring:

“What happens when a child sounds out the word ‘lesbian’ and turns to their teacher and asks, ‘What is a lesbian?’”

Trisha Lucente, the mom of a local kindergartner, has come before the Williamson County school board to voice her distress over the district’s continued use of Epic, a digital library app containing more than 40,000 children’s books and videos. Ms. Lucente and like-minded parents have complained about several titles that they consider inappropriate. Anything touching on race, gender or sexuality can set off alarms in conservative circles here. (A book on sea horses came under fire recently. The fact that male sea horses get pregnant was seen as promoting the idea of gender fluidity.)

In response, the school system temporarily shut down access to the library to conduct a review — prompting an outcry from supporters of the app — then reinstated it while allowing parents to opt out their kids.*

Williamson County School Board’s struggle over the library app underscores the point that public schools are political entities that can get sucked into divisive conflict. In this instance, a recent change in state law allowed candidates for the County school board to announce their political party affiliation. Given the recent history of curricular battles across the country, what occurred in Williamson was predictable. Board policy-making became a cradle of conflict.

But that’s not the way 151 school boards in Tennessee and 13,000-plus across the U.S. are supposed to do business. They are supposed to be non-partisan and apolitical.

Negativity toward Politics in Public Schools

I have worked with school board members, teachers, principals, district administrators, and superintendents for decades. I found that their responses to the idea that schools (and schooling) are fundamentally political largely negative. Although teachers and principals winced when I raised this point and gave highly specific examples of school boards acting politically (e.g., Kanawa County, West Virginia) they remained unpersuaded.

Superintendents, however, did see that a substantial portion of their work was political, that is, building coalitions to support policies recommended to the school board, negotiating with groups inside and outside the district to reach a satisfactory compromise to a dilemma, seeking out new resources for implementing policies, and figuring out how best to deal with obstreperous board members. Superintendents acknowledged that they are, indeed, political actors. Nonetheless, their words and body language revealed that many school chiefs disliked the inherent politics of the job.

Why is this? My guess is that the idea of politics quickly morphs into what most educators and most Americans associate with partisan politics (i.e., Republicans and Democrats). And, for the most part, that has been taboo. Consequently, most school board members across the 13,000-plus districts do not identify their party affiliation. Such party politics is rare.

Here is the punch line: What most educators ignore is that the non-partisan politics happen all the time within schools and districts. By non-partisan school politics, I mean the back-and-forth debates over school board policies and actions taken that govern what content and skills are taught in classrooms, schools, and districts.

A second guess for the negativity is that U.S. schools’ prior experience with partisan politics was disastrous. Between the 1870s and early 1900s, political parties saw schools as just another agency to reward loyal party members with jobs and contracts. The Progressive movement in the late-1890s through the 1920s introduced civil service reforms where applicants for jobs had to take tests, show credentials and experience to be hired as government employees. States and districts adopted these rules and over decades removed schools from partisan politics and patronage.

Those are my guesses as to why educators too often get sniffy over attaching the word “political” to what they do in schools.

It is foolish, however, to deny that schools are political institutions established to reach desired community goals including how to live and act in a democracy. Consider that taxing property owners and levying sales taxes on everyone regardless of whether they have children or not means that schools matter a great deal to the community. School boards, administrators and teachers are agents hired to achieve community-inspired goals. Moreover, compelling parents to send their children to school between the ages of 6-17 underscores how important schools are to the survival and growth of the community, state, and nation.

When one looks carefully at those goals public schools have for children and youth, however, it is easy to see not only what community values are embedded in each and every goal but also how potential partisan and parental conflicts over school curricula arise.

No surprise then that Trisha Lucente, the mother of a Williamson County kindergartner, complained at a meeting of the School Board about a digital library app available to students and their parents that included books dealing with race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality that she found both inappropriate and immoral.

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*A much longer and fuller account of the conflict that has occurred in Williamson County since May 2021 involved a school program called “Wit and Wisdom.” The description can be found in Paige Williams, “Class Warfare,” The New Yorker, November 7, 2022

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How Do Professors Teach: Observing University Classes

I came to Stanford University in 1981 to teach in the Graduate School of Education and do research into the history of school reform. After being at Stanford for five years, a new dean asked me to serve as his Associate Dean. Being superintendent for seven years prior to coming to Stanford and tasting the privileged life of a full professor I had no inclination to return to being a university administrator whose influence on tenured colleagues, was, at best sorely limited and at worst, non-existent. The Dean wanted me bad enough that he and I negotiated a higher salary–I would be working twelve months rather than nine (it is, after all, a private institution where everything is negotiated). I would only serve two years. I could teach at least one or two courses each year I served and I would get a sabbatical quarter after completing the second year. OK, I said.

What did I do?

I had to insure that all of my colleagues taught at least four courses over three quarters–some did not and I had to badger them to do so. I handled students’ dissatisfaction with particular professors’ poor teaching or their being habitually inattentive to students’ work. I followed up on doctoral students’ complaints about unavailability of their advisers, and I represented the Dean on occasions he could not attend campus meetings or social events. So with the help of an skillful administrative secretary, the first year went smoothly.

The second year I had an idea. University professors seldom get observed as they teach except by their students. As a superintendent I had observed over a thousand teachers in my district over seven years. Even prior to that I was a supervisor of intern history teachers. Observe and discuss observations with teachers, I could do.

I sent out a personal letter (this was before email became standard communication) to each of my 36 colleagues asking them if they wanted me to observe one of their classes and meet afterwards to discuss what I had seen. I made clear that I would make no judgment on their class but describe to them what I saw and have a conversation around what they had intended to happen in the lesson, what they thought had occurred, and what I had observed. Nothing would be written down (except for my notes which I shared with each faculty member). It would be a conversation. I did ask them to supply me with the readings that students were assigned for the session I observed and what the professor wanted to accomplish during the hour or 90-minute session.

Of the 36 who received the letter, 35 agreed (the 36th came to me in the middle of the year and asked me to observe his class). None of them–yes, that is correct–none had ever been observed before by anyone in the Graduate School of Education for purposes of having a conversation about their teaching. Two had been observed by me and a former Associate Dean because of student complaints; I had discussed those complaints with the professor and then observed lectures and discussions they had conducted. Both of them invited me to their classes when I wrote my subsequent letter. So for each quarter of the school year, I visited two to four professors a week. Each scheduled a follow-up conversation with me that we held in their office.

What happened?

I did observe 36 colleagues. For me, it was a fine learning experience. I got to read articles in subject matter I knew a smattering (e.g., economics of education, adolescent psychological development, standardized test development). I heard colleagues lecture, saw them discuss readings from their syllabi, and, for me, I picked up new knowledge and ways of teaching graduate students I had not tried in my courses.

As for my colleagues, a common response during the conversations we had following the observations was gratitude for an experience they had not had as a professor. Simply talking about the mechanics of a lecture or discussion, what they thought had worked and had not, the surprises that popped up during the lesson–all of that was a new experience for nearly all of the faculty. A few asked me to return again and we negotiated return visits. Overall, I felt–and seemingly most of my colleagues felt similarly–that the experience was worthwhile because I and they wanted to talk about the ins-and-outs of teaching and had lacked opportunities to do so in their career as professors.

Those conversations over the year got me thinking more deeply about why universities like Stanford preach the importance of teaching–the rhetoric is omnipresent–yet had not created and institutionalized ways for faculty to share with colleagues the how and what of their teaching. Many universities have established centers for the improvement of teaching where professors and graduate students receive help. These are, of course, voluntary. And, yes, most universities have annual teaching awards and programs to help professors improve their teaching, including Stanford University. .

As Associate Dean in 1986-1987, I sat in on faculty lectures and seminars for months. That experience led me on an intellectual journey plumbing a question that nagged at me as I observed and conversed with colleagues: how come universities say teaching is important yet all of the structures and actual (not symbolic) rewards of promotion, tenure, and salary go to professors who produce articles and books in peer-reviewed journals?

I tried answering that question in a historical study of teaching and research at Stanford in two departments–history and the School of Medicine. In researching and writing How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990 (1999), I figured out why and how universities like Stanford have structures and incentives that insure teaching will be subordinate to professors’ primary tasks of researching and publishing.

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