Creating New Schools: Regression To the Mean (Part 1)

Historians have a unfortunate reputation for being wet blankets. Reformers propose a new idea or a program aimed at transforming what children or youth do in schools and some historian will say: “Hey, that ain’t new. It was tried in the 1890s and lasted less than a decade.”

The historian is nearly always accurate in the facts that similar or even identical innovations did occur before but those very same historians too often forget to add that the contexts then are not the same contexts now. Times change. Teaching machines in the 1950s, for example, are surely similar to widespread “personalized learning” in the present decade in seeking individualized learning but the 1950s and 2010s were politically, economically, technologically, and socially very different.

Historians, then, can see the similarities in innovations but must note the differences in how the innovation began and played out over time in two different contexts. In doing so, such historians can inform current school reformers on the policy strengths, defects, and outcomes–both anticipated and unanticipated–in previous efforts suggesting where there are potholes and bends in the road that have to be noted and avoided by contemporary policymakers. While there are no “lessons” or an easy “usable past” that historians can tell policymakers, historians can point out similarities and differences that can help decision-makers, practitioners, and parents in current policy debates and actions.

There is also another reason for historians to draw upon the past to inform decision-makers about consequential policies; those innovators who come up with an idea and put it into practice already have a view of the past and they act on it. They already have views and identities shaped by history. Those views and “facts” may be uniformed, naked of accurate information of what happened in earlier years but it is, nonetheless, a view of the past that entrepreneurs and policymakers–who are eager to create schools that will best prepare the young for an uncertain future–hold.

Essayist and novelist James Baldwin said it all in 1965.

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

As always, historian David Tyack put it crisply: Policymakers do not have a choice about whether to use history. They do it willy-nilly. The question is: How accurate is their historical map?

And the historical maps used by entrepreneurial innovators inspired to transform traditional schooling into futuristic venues–“learning spaces”–that better prepare students for an information-saturated world where yesterday’s careers are obsolete and today’s jobs disappear each year bear little resemblance to what happened before.  These techno-utopians believe that, while the task will be difficult and complicated, they can succeed where previous efforts failed because, well, they are smarter, know exactly what to do and how to do it, have more technological tools, and pocketfuls of cash. In short, they are arrogant–they know better than those who do the work daily in schools and ignorant of past similar efforts where just as smart, well-intentioned reformers put into practice innovations a generation ago.

All of this occurred to me as I finished reading Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism an ethnography about a New York City public middle school that opened in 2009. Amply funded by exceedingly idealistic and optimistic technology entrepreneurs, students would create gaming software, work on high-tech projects in teams, and learn in spaces similar to start-up companies. This would be a school where coding and digital media production practices  across the curriculum became routine, where pedagogy was redesigned to be game-like, and where the school would “cultivate student agency, creativity [and] improvisational problem-solving capacities” (p.98). In short, a media technology, student-centered school of the future.

Christo Sims who was there as a researcher when the public school opened with a sixth grade class spent three years at Downtown School–a pseudonym–and described the thinking that produced the school, its policies, and practices.

Things didn’t work out the way the designers intended, however.

Consider how school-made rules for controlling student movement and reducing noise appeared. Sims asks reader to consider how school leaders and teachers broke down  classroom lessons into step-by-step procedures and set activities. Sims notes that in some classrooms rows of desks facing the front of the room replaced tables and chairs arranged in circles with students facing one another. He documents that as lessons ended, teachers organized students into “quiet, forward-facing, single-file lines before they left the classroom” and then “teachers  marched students down the hallway to their next class” (p.97). Furthermore, teachers and students became time-minded, both having a sharp awareness of completing an activity in a given amount of time. This, according to Sims, this student-centered ideal school turned into practices eerily similar to a traditional school.

One part of the school year did come close to the aspirations of the school designers. Called “Level Up,” a week-long period, three times a year, when the school completely altered their daily schedules, classroom lessons, and interactions. School leaders issued a challenge to teams of students to work on. The first “Level Up” week students were challenged to build a Rube Goldberg machine out of common materials (popsicle sticks, paper clips, rubber bands, plastic bags,etc.) that parents and teachers had provided. Another week-long session had students writing and producing short plays based on fairy tales that they had “remixed” from music, videos, photos, and art.

These interludes during the school year were moments when the school designers’ rhetoric of student agency, participation, and involvement matched what occurred in the school. Students chose which kind of machine or “remixed” fairy tale to create, worked on it together and turned in a product that they exhibited to the rest of the school. But these interludes were three weeks out of a 36-week school year.

After close observation and participation in the school for three years, Sims concludes that: “While the reformers championed student agency and creativity, students had very little say about what they could do, and most of what they were supposed to do was quite similar to the very schooling practices that reformers criticized and aimed to replace” (p.94).

The Downtown School continues to operate in 2018. And so does the historical paradox of creating schools for the future that end up resembling present-day schools. A well-funded redesigned school where well-intentioned, optimistic reformers reject the traditional model of teaching and learning only to slide inexorably into the kind of schooling similar to what they found lacking is not rare but common in the history of public schooling.

Smart, well-funded idealists thought (and continue to think) that creating a brand-new school with a novel curriculum and state-of-the-art technologies would be free and clear of traditional space, schedule, parents’ social beliefs about what a “real” school is, and the inherent asymetrical power relationships between teachers and students that have marked tax-supported public schools for at least two centuries. The Downtown School that Christo Sims describes may well be an instance of “regression to the mean,” a statistical phrase all to common in the performance of organizations and individuals. That movement to the middle of a continuum is what Part 2 explores.




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No, Educators and Policymakers Shouldn’t Just ‘Do What the Research Shows’ (Rick Hess)

…. I routinely advise policymakers and practitioners to be real nervous when an academic or expert encourages them to do “what the research shows.” As I observed in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, 20th-century researchers reported that head size was a good measure of intelligence, girls were incapable of doing advanced math, and retardation was rampant among certain ethnic groups. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “That wasn’t real research!” Well, it was conducted by university professors, published in scholarly journals, and discussed in textbooks. Other than the fact that the findings now seem wacky, that sure sounds like real research to me.

Medical researchers, for instance, change their minds on important findings with distressing regularity. Even with their deep pockets and fancy lab equipment, they’ve gone back and forth on things like the dangers of cholesterol, the virtues of flossing, whether babies should sleep on their backs, how much exercise we should get, and the effects of alcohol. Things would be messy if lawmakers or insurers were expected to change policies in response to every new medical study.

In truth, science is frequently a lot less absolute than we imagine. In 2015, an attempt to replicate 97 studies with statistically significant results found that more than one-third couldn’t be duplicated. More than 90 percent of psychology researchers admit to at least one behavior that might compromise their research, such as stopping data collection early because they liked the results as they were, or not disclosing all of a study’s conditions. And more than 40 percent admit to having sometimes decided whether to exclude data based on what it did to the results.

Rigorous research eventually influences policy and practice, but it’s typically after a long and gradual accumulation of evidence. Perhaps the most famous example is with the health effects of tobacco, where a cumulative body of research ultimately swayed the public and shaped policy on smoking—in spite of tobacco companies’ frenzied, richly funded efforts. The consensus that emerged involved dozens of studies by hundreds of researchers, with consistent findings piling up over decades.

When experts assert that something “works,” that kind of accumulated evidence is hardly ever what they have in mind. Rather, their claims are usually based on a handful of recent studies—or even a single analysis—conducted by a small coterie of researchers. (In education, those researchers are not infrequently also advocates for the programs or policies they’re evaluating.) When someone claims they can prove that extended learning time, school turnarounds, pre-K, or teacher residencies “work,” what they usually mean is that they can point to a couple studies that show some benefits from carefully executed pilot programs.

The upshot: When pilots suggest that policies or programs “work,” it can mean a lot less than reformers might like. Why might that be?

Think about it this way. The “gold standard” for research in medicine and social science is a randomized control trial (RCT). In an RCT, half the participants are randomly selected to receive the treatment—let’s say a drug for high blood pressure. Both the treatment and control groups follow the same diet and health-care plan. The one wrinkle is that the treatment group also receives the new drug. Because the drug is the only difference in care between the two groups, it can be safely credited with any significant difference in outcomes.

RCTs specify the precise treatment, who gets it, and how it is administered. This makes it relatively easy to replicate results. If patients in a successful RCT got a 100-milligram dosage of our blood pressure drug every twelve hours, that’s how doctors should administer it in order obtain the same results. If doctors gave out twice the recommended dosage, or if patients got it half as often as recommended, you wouldn’t expect the same results. When we say that the drug “works,” we mean that it has specific, predictable effects when used precisely.

At times, that kind of research can translate pretty cleanly to educational practice. If precise, step-by-step interventions are found to build phonemic awareness or accelerate second-language mastery, replication can be straightforward. For such interventions, research really can demonstrate “what works.” And we should pay close attention.

But this also helps illuminate the limits of research when it comes to policy, given all the complexities and moving parts involved in system change. New policies governing things like class size, pre-K, or teacher pay get adopted and implemented by states and systems in lots of different ways. New initiatives are rarely precise imitations of promising pilots, even on those occasions when it’s clear precisely what the initial intervention, dosage, design, and conditions were.

If imitators are imprecise and inconsistent, there’s no reason to expect that results will be consistent. Consider class-size reduction. For decades, advocates of smaller class sizes have pointed to findings from the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project, an experiment conducted in Tennessee in the late 1980s. Researchers found significant achievement gains for students in very small kindergarten and first-grade classes. Swayed by the results, California legislators adopted a massive class-size reduction program that cost billions in its first decade. But the evaluation ultimately found no impact on student achievement.

What happened? Well, what “worked” on a limited scale in Tennessee played out very differently when adopted statewide in California. The “replication” didn’t actually replicate much beyond the notion of “smaller classes.” Where STAR’s small classes were 13 to 17 students, California’s small classes were substantially larger. STAR was a pilot program in a few hundred classrooms, minimizing the need for new teachers, while California’s statewide adoption required a tidal wave of new hires. In California, districts were forced to hire thousands of teachers who previously wouldn’t have made the cut, while schools cannibalized art rooms and libraries in order to find enough classrooms to house them. Children who would have had better teachers in slightly larger classrooms were now in slightly smaller classrooms with worse teachers. It’s no great shock that the results disappointed.

Research should inform education policy and practice, but it shouldn’t dictate it. Common sense, practical experience, personal relationships, and old-fashioned wisdom have a crucial role to play in determining when and how research can be usefully applied. The researchers who play the most constructive roles are those who understand and embrace that messy truth.


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Bottom-up Reforms: Teachers (Part 3)

School is no longer an educational experience, but a constant struggle to survive.

Dr. Virginia Uribe, speaking at Phillips Andover Academy, 1991

People don’t want to sit next to you in class; they don’t want to work with you on group projects because [they think],’oh, you’re funky’.

A Massachusetts high school student who identifies as transgender


These quotes come from a forthcoming history written by high school teacher Stephen Lane about a teacher-led, bottom-up reform that incrementally over the past half-century yielded in one state a massive change in school awareness, programs, and culture involving harassed and bullied minority groups: gay teachers and students.

Lane documents the national scorn and abuse that gay adults and youth endured since the 1950s, the protests against gay-bashing in the 1970s inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, and the emergence of a teacher-led, school-site movement in the 1990s that gradually in small actions reduced the isolation and abuse that afflicted both gay teachers and students in the Boston area and the state of Massachusetts.

The slow, uneven tide of gay victories in gaining rights that other Americans had through state legislatures and courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) in the 1980s and through the early aughts of the 21st century gradually seeped into schools with the formation of gay-straight alliances in colleges and high schools and a growing acceptance of what became known as the LGBT  (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movement (see here, here, and here).

Not only were these political actions occurring as more and more Americans saw clearly the inequities that their fellow citizens (and members of families) endured, but the fear and bullying of  gay teachers and student occurring in schools stirred both to organize to support one another and educate non-gays that they were human beings endowed with the rights and privileges that their peers enjoyed.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Massachusetts, private and public school teachers working with a coalition of reformers, Lane writes, organized gay-straight alliances that eventually spread across the state and helped pass the Massachusetts Safe School Act that included LGBT students and teachers. Republican William Weld, established in 1992 the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian youth, a group that published a year later its report Breaking the Silence: Making Schools Safe for Gay and Lesbian Youth. The report recommended policies to protect students from bullying,  training for teachers to recognize and stop harassment, and establishing support groups. Most important the Governor provided funding to create these school-based support groups–called Gay-Straight Alliances–with trained teachers to lead them across the state.

As Lane puts it:

The existence of openly gay teachers and students and of Gay-Straight Alliances, has helped generations of students and parents get used to the idea that homosexuality is a normal part of mainstream society. Schools have helped condition individuals and communities to a new reality.

With the support of the Governor and funding, the state department of education geared up to work with districts to make schools safer places for both students and teachers.

Lane concludes:

...[T]he chain of events is quite clear: the state department of education implemented reforms that were based entirely on models developed by teachers working at their individual schools. It is a process that began with teachers seeking to address the problem directly in front of them,and ended with a statewide program to support LGBT youth, key elements of which have been copied by many other states.

Lane points out that much remains to be done insofar as LGBT youth are concerned in secondary schools in Massachusetts and across the country. But a beginning, he argues, was crafted and led by teachers.

Lane’s story of what happened in Massachusetts in the 1990s shows again that larger social, economic, and political forces in society impinge on schools triggering inexorable changes but not until a teacher-led coalition of students, parents, and legislators acted politically did conditions that gay teachers and youth faced gradually change in the state’s schools.  Surely, in 2018 all is not a Panglossian Eden for LGBT youth and teachers in Massachusetts or across the nation. But it is definitely better for this generation than it was in the 1970s and subsequent decades.

Here, as in the previous posts in this series, is a teacher-led bottom-up, incremental, and political movement that slowly moved across the Bay State’s districts and schools changing policies and behavior to create more accepting, respectful, and safer conditions for gay teachers to teach and students to learn.

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Bottom-up Reform: Teachers (Part 2)



First, West Virginia teachers in February 2018 went on strike and lobbied state legislators for higher salaries and more money for public schools. These protests were then followed by teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado. In full view of the nation, low-salaried teachers struck to get higher pay and lobby legislatures to allocate more money to public schools.






These states (except for Colorado) barred unions from collectively bargaining with district school boards; they were right-to-work states–there are 28 that ban unions. Still these teachers organized walk-outs from schools and bus trips to state capitols to persuade legislators to increase funding for public schools. Enough was enough, these teachers said to those who make educational policy for state systems.

These state-wide protests bubbled up from classrooms, schools, and districts and spread like a flash fire. Most of these legislatures increased spending for salaries and allocations for districts–see article about Oklahoma. Teacher-led flash fires, yes. Unions involved? Not directly, because collective bargaining was banned in these states. But indirectly through  the American Federation of Teachers (under one million members) and the National Education Association (nearly three million members) which had organizations in these states.

If there is one clear example of teacher-led changes that was bottom-up, incremental, and political–no political actions occurred in the spread of student interactive notebooks in Part 1 of this series–then these state-wide protests resurface the late-19th century’s efforts of teacher Margaret Haley’s campaign to organize Chicago teachers.

The decades surrounding the beginning of the 20th century were when Haley and a cadre of fellow teachers organized the Chicago Teachers Union to stop administrators’ arbitrary dismissals of teachers, raise salaries, and make pay equitable between male and female teachers (see here and here).

Teacher unions spread across the country with states in the Northeast and West eventually becoming the most organized regions. The NEA, however, had admitted administrators to their ranks since its founding and initially frowned on teachers copying private sector industrial unions of the day; in the late-1960s, however, NEA barred administrators from the organization moving gradually to become the largest U.S. union representing teachers.

A bottom-up reform? Yes, here are mostly women teachers who dominated the profession listening to “Maggie” Haley in the early 20th century and Al Shanker later in the century to organize into unions that would fight for equitable salaries, better working conditions and the right to bargain with school boards over policies affecting teachers and their classrooms. While NEA and AFT were private organizations supported by dues-paying teachers, union lobbying–and state and federal legislation–got many states to recognize the right of teachers to collectively bargain with boards of education–Wisconsin being the first to do so in 1959. Over time, unions became an actor in formulating and adopting state and district policies that raised pay, improved schools as both workplaces and places to learn, and established due process in district decisions about firing teachers.

Incremental? Yes, throughout the 20th century, unions gained collective bargaining in bite-sized chunks, made advances in securing protections from capricious dismissals, gained a single salary schedule for teachers–elementary school teachers earned less than secondary school teachers–and equal pay for male and female teachers. Slow but steady progress occurred over the decades amid threatened and actual strikes (in many states teachers strikes were prohibited). In some instances, unions retreated and in other cases, lost out to state decisions that banned collective bargaining but teacher unionism became a mainstay in state and local school policymaking (see here, here, and here).

Political? Yes. With extensive lobbying of school boards, city councils, and state legislatures—unions mandate that new members must pay dues that permit political activity–states and districts modified policies involving teacher pay, educational funding, school improvements, and due process in evaluating teachers’ performance. And state legislatures and district school boards have changed policies over time. Unions also acted politically through running slates of local and state candidates who endorsed union agendas, protests and strikes–even in states that banned work stoppages–to secure their rights and particular changes.

So bottom-up, teacher-led reforms that seek incremental policy changes toward desired goals combined with political action capture the origin and growth of teacher unions  over the past century.

In part 3, I turn to another teacher-led, bottom-up reform that involved political action and ended up providing safer schools for both teachers and students.






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Bottom-Up School Reform: Teachers (Part 1)

So easy to forget that teachers have changed incrementally how they have taught in their classrooms.

So easy to forget that in the age-graded school, teachers have discretion to decide what they will do in organizing the classroom, teaching the curriculum, and encouraging student participation.

So easy to forget that once teachers close their classroom doors, they put their thumbprints upon any top-down policy they are expected to put into practice.

In the constant drumroll of criticism that teachers and schools are stuck in the Ice Age and have hardly changed, the facts of teacher autonomy and incremental change are often forgotten in a state’s or district’s pell-mell rush to embrace the reform du jour. Historically there is much evidence that teachers –essentially conservative in their disposition– have changed (and do alter) classroom routines bit-by-bit including both the format and content of lessons even within the straitjacket of the age-graded school (see here, here, and here).

Over time, in response to personal, community, and social concerns, most teachers add to or delete from the content and skills they are expected to teach. Additionally, they try out ideas that colleagues have suggested, a principal recommended, or ones that have come from their reading or that they saw in someone else’s classroom or heard at a conference. The classroom has been a venue for teachers’ steady change over the past century.

And so too has the school been an arena for incremental change often mirroring changes in the local community and larger society. Groups of teachers anxious about deteriorating discipline in their building approach the principal with a draft plan for the entire faculty to put into practice. Collaboration among teachers and with the principal emerge as a few teachers decide to pilot a piece of free software in behavioral management of their students. Some teachers form a reading group to explore a particular teaching innovation they have heard about. Of course, politically astute principals identify teacher leaders in their school and persuade them to investigate a school-wide change that she believes will help the school improve (see here, here, and here).

Both the classroom and school as venues for steady change can be the beginning of  what I and others have called bottom-up reform, that is, changes bubbling to the surface with district leaders embracing the initiatives crafted in classrooms and schools and adopting  changes in practice as new policies.Bottom-up is the opposite of top-down policies authorized by those federal, state, and local officials who make decisions.

Every U.S. and international reader of this blog knows what top-down change is. Even in a decentralized system of schooling in the U.S. with 50 states, 13,000-plus districts, over 100,000 schools, three and a half million teachers, and over 50 million students, most policies aimed at classrooms–new curriculum standards, taking standardized tests, buying brand-new laptops and tablets–come from federal, state, and district policies. Top-down not bottom-up policymaking has been the rule.

In acknowledging the rule, however, it is wise for policymakers and practitioners to recognize and remember that classrooms and schools are also crucibles for smart changes tailored to students in the here and now. Putting policies into practice is the teacher’s job. Teachers are the gatekeepers who determine which policies or parts of policies get implemented, a fact that too many decision-makers fail to get.

Historically, then, there have occasional bottom-up changes originating in classrooms and schools–often affected by external events–that have trickled upward to inform district and state policymakers. But most classroom changes stay localized in a particular school or network of schools rather than spreading across the educational landscape.

Three examples of teacher-led changes, however, come to mind in this three-part series of posts.

First, is an unnoticed classroom tool called the “interactive student notebook” developed by a few San Francisco Bay area teachers in the 1970s and 1980s that has spread into many U.S. classrooms.  When I entered “interactive student notebook” in a Google search I got over 40,000,000 hits (June 1, 2018).

The over-riding purpose of ISNs is to have students organize information and concepts coming from the teacher, text, and software and creatively record all of it within a spiral notebook in order to analyze and understand at a deeper level what the information means and its applications to life.

In an ISN, students write on the right-hand page of a notebook with different colored pens and pencils information gotten from teacher lectures, textbooks, videos, readings, photos, and software. What is written could be the familiar notes taken from a teacher lecture or the requirements of doing a book report or the steps taken when scientists inquire into questions. These facts and concepts can be illustrated or simply jotted down.

The left-hand page is for the student to draw a picture, compose a song, make a cartoon, write a poem, or simply record emotions about the content they recorded on the right-hand page.

The ISN combines familiar information processing with opportunities for students to be creative in not only grasping facts and concepts but also by inventing and imagining other representations of the ideas. Both pages come into play (the following illustrations come from teachers and their students’ ISNs that have been posted on the web.


A student studying pre-Civil War politics over slavery put this on the right-hand page.


A student taking science put this on the right-hand page.fee9361f6eb82cbbb167a0e270032cd4--interactive-science-notebooks-science-journals.jpg

And for the left-hand side, a student studying North American explorers did this one:



And another student drawing and diagram for the road to colonial independence in

America on the left-hand side looked like this:



Origins of ISNs

While there may be other teachers who came up with the idea and developed it for their classes, one teacher in particular I do know embarked on such a journey and produced an interactive student notebook for his classes. Meet Lee Swenson.

A rural Minnesotan who graduated from Philips Exeter Academy and then Stanford University (with a major in history), Swenson went on to get his masters and teaching credential in a one-year program at Stanford. He applied for a social studies position in 1967 at Aragon High School in San Mateo (CA). Swenson retired from Aragon in 2005.

Beginning in the mid-1970s and extending through the 1980s, Swenson, an avid reader of both research and practice, tried out different ways of getting students to take notes on lectures and discussion, and write coherent, crisp essays for his World Study and U.S. history classes. He worked closely with his department chair Don Hill in coming up with ways that students could better organize and remember information that they got from lectures, textbooks, other readings, and films and portray that information in thoughtful, creative ways in their notebooks. They wanted to combine the verbal with the visual in ways that students would find helpful while encouraging students to be creative.  Better student writing was part of their motivation in helping students organize and display what they have learned. Swenson and Hill took Bay Area Writing Project seminars. Swenson made presentations on helping students write through pre-writing exercises, using metaphors, and other techniques. It was a slow, zig-zag course in developing the ISN with many cul-de-sacs and stumbles.*

Both he and Don Hill began trying out in their history classes early renditions of what would eventually become ISNs by the late-1980s. In each version of ISN’s Swenson learned from errors he made, student suggestions, and comments from other teachers in the social studies and English departments in the school. Swenson made presentations at Aragon to science, English, and other departments, schools in the district, and social studies conferences in California and elsewhere.

By the mid-1990s, Swenson had developed a simplified model ISN that he and a small group of teachers inside and outside the district were using. The model continued to be a work in progress as teachers tweaked and adapted the ISN to their settings. By the end of that decade, a teacher at Aragon that Swenson knew joined a group of teachers at the Teacher Curriculum Institute who were creating a new history textbook.

Teachers Bert Bower and Jim Lobdell, founders of TCI, were heavily influenced by the work of Stanford University sociologist Elizabeth Cohen on small group collaboration and Harvard University’s cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. They wanted a new history text that would have powerful teaching strategies that called for student-teacher interactions. They hired that Aragon teacher who had worked with Swenson to join them; the teacher introduced them to the ISN that was in full bloom within Aragon’s social studies department. They saw the technique fitting closely to the framework they wanted in their new history textbook. TCI contacted Swenson and he became a co-author with Bower and Lobdell  for the first and second editions of History Alive (1994 and 1998).

By 2017, TCI had online and print social studies (and science) textbooks for elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. One of the many features of the social studies books was “[T]he Interactive Student Notebook [that] challenges students with writing and drawing activities.” On their website, TCI asserts that their materials are in 5,000 school districts (there are 13,000-plus in the nation), 50, 000 schools (there are over 100,000 schools in the U.S.), 200,000 teachers (over 3.5 million in the country), and 4.5 million students (U.S. schools have over 50 million students).

From teacher Lee Swenson and colleagues’ slow unfolding of the idea of an interactive student notebook in the 1970s in one high school, the idea and practice of ISNs has spread and has taken hold as a technique that tens of thousands of teachers across the country include in their repertoire. Classroom change from the bottom up, not the top-down.

That is the first example. However, what’s missing from ISN is the political component where districts and states ask all teachers to implement ISN. This political piece added to the habit of incremental classroom changes makes bottom-up approach a powerful force for widespread change.

Part 2 describes a second teacher-led, bottom-up change that was both incremental and political becoming a national teacher union movement that trickled upward to reshape relations between teachers and district officials across the U.S.

Part 3 is a post describing a third teacher-led change, beginning in the 1970s, that was both incremental and political reshaping district and state policies about the treatment of particular groups of students and teachers in U.S. private and public schools.



*Lee Swenson and I have known each other since the mid-1980s. As an Aragon teacher, he attended workshops sponsored by the Stanford/Schools Collaborative. In 1990, Swenson and I began team-teaching a social studies curriculum and instruction course in Stanford University’s Secondary Teacher Education Program. We taught that course for a decade. Since then we have stayed in touch through lunches, dinners, long conversations on bike rides, and occasional glasses of wine. He has shared with me his experiences and written materials in how he and Don Hill developed  ISNs for their courses.







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How Design Thinking Became a Buzzword at School (Jessica Lahey)

Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English teacher. She writes “The Parent-Teacher Conference” column at The New York Times, is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, and is the author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”

This article appeared on The Atlantic Online January 4, 2017.


At a recent teaching conference in Richmond, Virginia, a session on “design thinking” in education drew a capacity crowd. Two middle-school teachers demonstrated how they had used the concept to plan and execute an urban-design project in which students were asked to develop a hypothetical city or town given factors such as population, geography, the environment, and financial resources.

The teachers in the audience were enchanted by the details of the project; and if the photographs in the presentation were any indication, the students who participated in the lesson enjoyed it, too. The presenting teachers were bubbling over with enthusiasm for what they saw as the potential inherent in teaching design thinking.

Many of the teachers in attendance were flummoxed, however. As we filed out of the room and headed toward our next sessions, I overheard one woman remark to another that while the urban-design project looked like something she’d like to try in her own classroom, “I think I missed something. I still don’t understand what design thinking is. Do you?” The other teacher shook her head and said, “I think it’s a curriculum, but I’m not really sure.”

Confusion around the precise definition of design thinking is understandable, said Neil Stevenson, the executive portfolio director at IDEO Chicago, one of the best-known purveyors of design thinking. “Design thinking isn’t one thing,” he told me in a phone interview, “but a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term, which obviously has the potential to lead to ambiguity and misunderstanding.”

While Stevenson spent plenty of time talking around a definition—explaining mindsets, the nature of creativity, and the evolution of design—even convincing him to offer a brief definition proved difficult. Finally, Stevenson outlined what he sees as the foundational aspects of design thinking as it relates to educators:

First, he emphasized, design thinking starts with empathy. When designing anything meant to be used by another person—whether that’s a lesson, curriculum, classroom layout, or an imaginary city—the designer must understand what that person (an “end-user,” in design lingo) needs. In the case of the urban-design project, for example, the students can’t just design a pretty building; they must think about the needs of the people who will live there, as well as the available resources, the budget, and the impact that building will have on the surrounding landscape. “The design-thinking philosophy requires the designer to put his or her ego to the side and seek to meet the unmet needs, both rational and emotional, of the user,” Stevenson explained.

Once the student designers have gathered all their research together, they must organize and make sense of it all. Again, in the case of the urban-planning project, after the students have gathered interviews and research about the needs of their city’s future residents, students must figure out what to do with all that information. If, for example, the future residents’ top priorities include affordability and opulence, the student designer is going to have to find a way to integrate the residents’ conflicting needs.

Finally, design thinking requires designers to generate ideas—lots of ideas—and prototype them. In order for this part of the process to work, students and teachers must be comfortable with failure. For many students, particularly those who want to look smart, this phase can be frustrating. “People tend to come up with an idea early on, and know that this idea is it, the perfect idea, and get emotionally invested in that one thing. Then, when their perfect idea fails, they fall apart,” Stevenson said. Design thinking forces students to keep their minds open, to try out lots of ideas early in the process before they let their egos or emotions get too invested in just one.

There will be a time to put spitballing aside, of course. Once ideas have been prototyped and tested, students begin to work toward one effective, final solution—an end product that can be assessed, presented, displayed, or put to work in their classroom or community. The beauty of the design process, proponents say, is that the value of the experience does not lie solely in the end product. Learning happens throughout the process, from the early research phase to the final presentation. This allows students and teachers to focus on what’s most important in learning: the process, rather than the product.

One scene from the film Apollo 13 provides a great illustration of the design-thinking process. After Apollo 13 is crippled by an explosion, the astronauts are stranded in the lunar module. The air filters in the lunar module are failing, so the engineers at NASA must find a way to make a square filter fit into a round hole using only the materials available to the astronauts. The engineers find a solution through design thinking: by understanding the needs and resources of the astronauts, organizing the resources available on the lunar module, then working together to develop and prototype many ideas. The ultimate solution may not have been pretty, but it was creative and it was effective. Their design saved the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts.

This sort of step-by-step, formulaic approach to creative problem-solving was revolutionary and counterintuitive when it was first developed in reaction to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. When Russia leapfrogged ahead of the rest of the world in the space race, the U.S. needed to respond with a rapid and radical acceleration in technological innovation. The process of design thinking emerged as an effort to encourage all scientists—even the least creative, most inflexible thinkers—to be novel, brave, and innovative in their problem-solving.

Historically, creativity has been portrayed as a mysterious, elusive force—a gift from the gods or the muses. Creativity can’t be summoned, the thinking goes, let alone taught to the mentally inflexible, unimaginative, muse-less masses. Design thinking upends that perception and assumes that anyone can be a creative problem-solver.

At its best, design thinking incorporates proven-effective teaching techniques such as self-directed inquiry and collaborative problem-solving, and dovetails nicely with social-emotional learning curricula that emphasize interpersonal skills such as collaboration and empathy. And the end result of a design-thinking project is often a tangible product, such as a model city, a robot, or a better mousetrap.  It’s no surprise, then, that many educators are eager to adopt design thinking as a way to plan their own teaching and as a strategy for helping their students learn through solving real-world problems.

The popularity of design thinking, however, might be precisely what’s contributing to the confusion I witnessed in Virginia, says Stevenson:

It’s been extremely gratifying for all of us practicing design to see the ideas taken on by so many people. There’s a downside, though, which is that when something becomes popular, now suddenly everyone wants to learn it and lots and lots of people will spring up and teach it. For the sake of communication, we tend to define design thinking as A followed by B followed by C, but in doing this, we are guilty of oversimplifying.

As teachers seek to learn more about design thinking and its application in their classrooms, conference sessions and certificate programs have emerged to accommodate demand. Stanford’s D-School and IDEO offer two popular courses, but there are many flavors, colors, and brands of design thinking for educators to choose from.

In other words, the lack of a clear definition makes explaining, evaluating, and studying design thinking a challenge. And some teachers at that conference in Virginia—myself included—were skeptical, and attended the design-thinking session to better understand whether the concept is actually an effective learning strategy or simply another education trend gone viral despite scant objective data regarding its effectiveness for learning.

When executed with a clear understanding of its purpose as a method for fostering empathy, creativity, and innovation, design thinking can be a powerful tool for learning and change. If it is hastily and inexpertly implemented by educators with a weak or incomplete understanding of its principles, however, it is likely to be a waste of energy and precious classroom time.

Design thinking, like Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets and Angela Duckworth’s research on grit, are best understood in context, as a complex and nuanced approach to learning rather than a checklist of executable tasks. Dweck was so alarmed by the rampant oversimplification of fixed and growth mindsets that she wrote an article for Edutopia to clear up common misconceptions about her work. Just as Dweck’s work can’t be conveyed adequately in a Life Hack infographic, and Duckworth’s research is apt to be misunderstood when reduced to a listicle, design thinking seems likely to fail as an educational tool when communicated in terms of “Five Simple Steps.”

Mindsets, grit, and design thinking are all victims of their own massive popularity, and in the rush to incorporate these concepts into existing lesson plans, have sometimes been reduced to checklist items on teachers’ overcrowded to-do lists. When treated as a classroom culture, however, rather than an action, design thinking (as well as mindset and grit) may revolutionize the way teachers and students think about failure, creative problem-solving, and teamwork.

Ultimately, design thinking is not a curriculum, advocates like Stevenson say, but a process for problem-solving, a strategy to elicit creativity rooted in empathy and comfort with failure. Teachers can use design thinking to create a classroom layout that conforms to the needs of their students, they say, or to plan lessons that will work best for the students in a given school or classroom. Entire school districts are embracing design thinking to create spaces and curricula around the intellectual and emotional needs of their students. Teachers are also helping students use design thinking to apply what they’ve learned to real-world problems, such as the urban-design project described by those middle-school teachers in Virginia.

While there is not a lot of data to support any particular brand of design thinking as an effective teaching or learning strategy, the key elements of design thinking will be familiar to any teacher well-versed in the basics of effective teaching: start with empathy, move ego to the side, and support students in the process of failing often and early on their way to learning.


Filed under Reforming schools

Whatever Happened to Effective Schools?

Nothing. They are still around but with many aliases. As a label for a movement that began in the late-1970s to demonstrate that urban schools can overcome the ill effects of poverty, a coalition of researchers, practitioners and policymakers distilled the features of a small number of schools with largely low-income and minority students that exceeded predicted levels of academic achievement into a recipe for “success” for all schools. That was then. Effective Schools  exist today but has switched labels.

When did the idea of Effective Schools originate?

In the mid-1970s, a small number of researchers began working to disprove the then mainstream policy wisdom that what largely determines students’ academic performance—as measured by standardized achievement tests—is family background. Research studies on the inability of public schools to overcome the effects of poverty and race had led national policymakers to call for reduced federal funding of programs (see here, here, and here)

Within this social milieu of pessimism about the failure of public schools to make a difference in the lives of poor minority children, the Effective Schools Movement was born. Believing deeply in the value of equity and expecting that urban schoolchildren would be especially harmed were such a prevailing consensus of opinion among policymakers to persist, this small band of activist researchers led by Ron Edmonds identified a handful of big-city schools enrolling large numbers of low-income minority children who scored higher on standardized achievement tests than would have been predicted by their socioeconomic status (see here, here, and here)

These researchers-cum-reformers extracted from these schools certain factors (e.g., clearly stated academic goals, principal’s instructional leadership, concentration on basic academic skills, strong emphasis on maintaining order in school, frequent monitoring of academic achievement, connecting what is taught to what is tested, etc.) that they believed were linked to the students’ higher-than-expected academic performance on standardized tests.

In creating the Effective Schools’ ideology and model programs, Ron Edmonds and others prized four values: All children, regardless of background, can learn and achieve results that mirror ability, not socioeconomic status; top-down decisions wedded to scientifically derived data can improve individual schools; measurable results count; and the school is the basic unit of reform.

What problems did Effective Schools aim to solve?

Primarily, the problem was that in the late-1960s most policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and taxpayers believed that largely minority and poor children because of where they lived could not learn or achieve what their white peers learned and achieved. Even though President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” included the path-breaking law–the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)–that sent money into districts across the country enrolling poor and minority children and youth, this social belief held by most national, state, and local policymakers, reinforced by research studies in the late-1960s, permeated educational decisions. Ron Edmonds and colleagues across the country and in Europe identified high-achieving elementary and secondary schools enrolling mostly poor and minority students to undermine that belief.

What is an Effective School?

The common definition of an Effective School in the 1970s through the 1990s was one that possessed certain features extracted from those schools that exceeded predicted levels of achievement on state standardized tests. These common features, of course, are correlates–they are associated with test score success not what causes a largely minority and poor school to become a “success.”

These correlates expanded and changed over time. For example, Larry Lezotte, a staunch advocate of Effective Schools and colleague of Ron Edmonds, added one feature to Edmonds’s list:

  1. Instructional leadership.
  2. Clear and focused mission.
  3. Safe and orderly environment.
  4. Climate of high expectations.
  5. Frequent monitoring of student progress.
  6. Positive home-school relations.
  7. Opportunity to learn and student time on task

The amending and deleting of these common elements to Effective Schools occurred time and again as the movement spread from elementary to secondary schools, became targeted on middle-class white venues, and traveled to Europe.

Did Effective Schools work?

According to advocates who focused on rising test scores in inadequately resourced minority and poor schools that year after year posted higher-than-expected results, the answer was “yes.” Such results led to a rapid spread of the nomenclature and common features throughout U.S. urban and rural low-performing schools in the 1980s and 1990s. The federal government began using the vocabulary and by the end of the 1990s the U.S. Congress had passed the Comprehensive School Reform Act  that embraced fully the rhetoric and features of the Effective School movement.

Researchers, however, began to raise serious questions beginning in the 1970s and since about the constantly shifting features of supposedly “effective” schools, the definitions used, the demographics of schools labeled, and the stability of those schools initially labeled as “effective” but in a few years lapsed back into low test scores (see here, here, and here)

What has happened to Effective Schools?

If Edmonds’s work in the late 1970s spawned a cottage industry of Effective Schools aimed at ensuring equity for low-income, minority students, the linkage of public schools to the economy with the report, A Nation at Risk (1983), in effect, nationalized the Effective Schools movement while dropping the brand name. Federal and state policymakers, believing in education as the engine for the economy and using the same Effective Schools research, sought a broader and speedier impact on the nation’s schools than the slower school-by-school approach. They called for national goals, curriculum, and tests.

Throughout the 1980s, U.S. Secretaries of Education William Lamar Alexander and William Bennett talked about “good schools” and “effective schools” in the same breath. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn spearheaded the production of a popular pamphlet called “What Works” that drew directly from the effective schools research.

President Bush and his policy advisers organized the nation’s governors to endorse six national goals in 1989. A movement toward national goals, curriculum, and tests received the stamp of approval from a Republican president who styled himself the “Education President.”

When administrations changed, top policy advisers to Democrats also drew from the same well of Effective Schools ideology and research. Within an article that became a script for national and state policy elites, for example, Marshall Smith and Jennifer O’Day (1990) made clear that the ancestry of “systemic reform” was in the Effective Schools movement. “The most effective schools,” they said, “maintain a schoolwide vision or mission, and common instructional goals which tie the content, structure, and resources of the school together into an effective unified whole” (p.235). Moreover, the school mission provides the criteria and rationale for the selection of curriculum materials; the purposes and the nature of school-based professional development, and the interpretation and use of student assessment.

Smith later served in the Bill Clinton administration as Deputy Secretary under U.S. Secretary Richard Riley. Smith drafted many of the Clinton administration’s bills on national goals and testing and accelerated the shift toward nationalization of the Effective Schools movement without once using the phrase “effective schools.”

The Comprehensive School Reform Act (1998) leaned heavily on the ideology of Effective Schools and the strategy of whole-school reform, that is, changing one school (rather than district or state) at a time.

The bipartisan reliance of policy elites on Effective Schools research continued into President George W. Bush’s administration with the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) that laid out clearly that all schools, regardless of neighborhood, could become “good” schools without once mentioning Ron Edmonds or the Effective Schools movement three decades earlier.

Under President Obama, NCLB was enforced and efforts to turnaround “dropout factories” into “successful” schools continued, often invoking features trumpeted by the Effective Schools’ literature.

With parental choice expanding since the 1990s and the spread of charter schools, the label Effective School seldom appears. What does show up are “No Excuses” schools and networks of charter schools that embrace many of the features listed by an earlier generation of Effective Schools champions such as KIPP, Aspire, Success Academy, etc. These are the present day aliases for the half-century old Effective Schools movement.





Filed under Reforming schools

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