Why Has Schooling and Classroom Practices Been Stable over Time? (Part 4)

Documenting that some features of both schooling and classroom practices slowly changed—as Parts 1,2,and 3 have done—is easy to do once buried teacher surveys, practitioner journals, and actual observations of both schools and lessons are recovered and examined across decades.

Changes in every school? Every teacher? At the same time? Of course not.  While the overall pattern is stability, there is evidence for intermittent, evolving shifts in schooling and classroom practice over the years. Establishing vocational education, for example, to connect the workplace to classrooms, creating special education for children with disabilities, adding kindergartens to the age-graded school, and starting Advanced Placement courses altered the geography of schooling over the past century.

Evidence of evolving changes in teaching practice is also available (e.g., from wholly large group instruction to periodic small group activities during lessons, rearranging classroom furniture, use of new technologies). I have documented these changes in classroom practices in previous blog posts.

Amid the overall pattern of stability in schooling, these few shifts in how urban, suburban, and rural teachers taught students have been recorded but seldom publicly recognized. Yes, newspapers and TV stations will do occasional pieces on new programs in schools and particular teachers who have gotten underachieving students to go on to college. The key word in the last sentence is “occasional.”

Except for national Teacher Appreciation Week and individual states and districts honoring excellent teachers, or that remarkable teacher who retires after 40 years of teaching and gets celebrated by former students—all of this remains limited and, sad to say, perfunctory. [i]

Most experienced teachers fade into anonymity after leaving the profession. The vast classroom and organizational memory they have is lost forever. Consider, for example, lesson plans stacked in classroom file drawers that get tossed when a teacher retires (when I exited teaching in the mid-1970s, I kept my lesson plans for a few years until our family moved and then I chucked them).  There are occasional memoirs of teachers who reach wide audiences but they are, again, the exception. [ii].

While there is an abundance of writing on how teachers should teach and how schools should operate, few scholars, policymakers, and practitioners have authored articles and books about what teachers do daily and how their practices show both stability and change over time.

Reasons for inattention to constancy and change in practice include the unmentioned fact that teachers in their separate classrooms are both isolated and insulated from one another within age-graded schools. This traditional way of organizing schools reduces chances for team-teaching and intra-grade or cross-grade collaboration among teachers. Subject specialization in secondary schools and departmental organization also bolster separation of teachers from one another. All of these reasons make it difficult for scholars but especially practitioners to write about their work for parents and voters.

Beyond structural reasons, there are societal ones that help explain limited public knowledge of stability and change in teaching. For the most part, each generation of parents and voters take teaching for granted because of their limited slice of experience (12-plus years as children and youth) and the sheer steadiness of the century-old age-graded structure of schooling in which classroom lessons are taught.

Then there is–let me be blunt here—the low-to-modest respect that teachers get in the U.S. (compared to other professions). Except for increases in public admiration during and after the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic, historically teachers have scored low on societal appreciation (and in salaries) for their daily work. [iii]

Part of this matter of respect is linked to the lack of pizazz that slow changes in schooling attract from its patrons.  In a society driven by constant innovation, 24/7 news channels, endless entertainment, televised sports, and the incandescent lure of financial success, schooling and teaching are yawn producers. All of this comes to mind in explaining why so little public and scholarly attention is paid to changes that occur amid overall stability in schooling and teaching practices.

Sure, when district services are reduced and budgets are cut schools policymakers and administrators pitch schools to the public as crucial to maintaining democracy. But the fact remains that schools are part of the background, not the foreground of American institutional interest except for those occasions when controversies seize schools (e.g., teaching the theory of evolution in the 1920s, religious prayer in schools in the 1950s, and more recently the uproar stirred up over teacher lessons on slavery and racism).

Given these multiple factors for inattention to both change and constancy in schooling and classroom practice, I offer in the following posts some answers to the unasked question: why have basic patterns of classroom teaching been durable over time?[v]


[i] Wikipedia, “List of Teachers’ Day,” last edited October 5, 2021 at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Teachers%27_Days

[ii] Jesse Stuart, The Thread That Runs So True (New York: Touchstone, 1950); Frank McCourt, Teacher Man: A Memoir (New York: Scribner, 2005); Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons from a Small School in Harlem (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2002).

[iii]John Anderer, “Unsung Heroes: 80% Of Parents Have New Respect For Teachers Thanks To Coronavirus Quarantine,” May 1, 2020, Study Finds at: https://www.studyfinds.org/unsung-heroes-80-of-parents-have-new-respect-for-teachers-thanks-to-coronavirus-quarantine/

PDK Poll of Public Attitudes Toward Public Schools, “Frustration in the Schools,” September 2019.

[iv]Adam Laats, Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010); Wikipedia, “School Prayer in the United States,” last edited September 19,2021 at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_prayer_in_the_United_States

Steven Sawchuk, “What is Critical Race Theory and Why Is It under Attack?” Education Week, May 18, 2021.

[v] I am indebted to the work of sociologist Dan Lortie in his classic work Schoolteacher (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975). Nearly a half-century ago, Lortie, using 94 interviews with secondary and elementary school teachers in the Boston metropolitan area and a survey of 6500 teachers in Dade County (FLA), captured the nature of teaching, the sentiments of teachers, and the overall structures and processes that shaped the daily work of classroom teachers. For anyone investigating the influence of structures on teaching and the sentiments teachers have about children and learning, reading Schoolteacher is a beginning point.

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Whatever Happened to Open Education?

From time to time I have published posts that take a look at innovations that policymakers and practitioners hailed as “transforming”  or “revolutionary” insofar as altering how districts conduct business, schools work, teachers teach and students learn. Not only hyped in the media and by word-of-mouth, these innovations spread across thousands of schools in the U.S. as their brand became known. Each was the reform du jour.

Such stories are a reminder of the ever-changing topography of U.S. schooling. Historians of education are like geologists who inspect strata of rock formations for what flora and fauna existed in earlier times and what accounts for their appearance and seeming disappearance. But most important of all, is how the birth and disappearance of an innovation affects the present.

for this post,  I examine the “Open Education,” often called the “open classroom” when districts caught up in the fervor of the a neo-Progressive moment adopted the innovation in the 1960s and 1970s. The “open classroom” swept over U.S. schools in these decades (see here and here), causing a few waves only to disappear from schools by the end of the 1970s with nary a ripple since. But appearances can be deceiving.

Where Did the Idea Originate?

U.S. educators who visited British schools in the late-1960s spread the gospel of “open classrooms” in the Plowden Report (also called “open education” and “informal education”). Policymakers, academics, practitioners, and student-centered reformers watched teachers teach and listened to headmasters about the child-centeredclassroom that echoed in the ears of U.S.visitors as Deweyan progressivism clothed in 1960s apparel. Americans returned to their classrooms, schools, and districts filled with the optimism that accompanies true believers and began instituting open classrooms in big city and suburban districts (see here).

What is it?

Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs, cushions, and chairs moved from one attractive “learning center” for math to others in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools (see here).

In both Britain and the United States, open classrooms contained no whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum. The best of the open classrooms had planned settings where children came in contact with things, books, and one another at “interest centers” and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher. Teachers structured the classroom and activities for individual students and small work groups. They helped students negotiate each of the reading, math, science, art, and other interest centers on the principle that children learn best when they are interested and see the importance of what they are doing.

The above photo captures one of many “open education” classrooms.

Now consider a verbal description follows of a 3rd-grade open classroom in a New York City elementary school described by two proponents, Walter and Miriam Schneir, in a 1971 New York Times Magazine article:

What is most striking is that there are no desks for pupils or teachers. Instead, the room is arranged as a workshop.

Carelessly draped over the seat, arm, and back of a big old easy chair are three children, each reading to himself. Several other children nearby sprawl comfortably on a covered mattress on the floor, rehearsing a song they have written and copied into a song folio.

One grouping of tables is a science area with . . . magnets, mirrors, a prism, magnifying glasses, a microscope. . . . Several other tables placed together and surrounded by chairs hold a great variety of math materials such as “geo blocks,” combination locks, and Cuisenaire rods, rulers, and graph paper. . . . The teacher sits down at a small round table for a few minutes with two boys, and they work together on vocabulary with word cards. . . . Children move in and out of the classroom constantly.

What Problem Did Open Education Intend to Solve?

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of traditional teaching through lectures, textbooks, and tests. Such teaching turned off students to authentic learning and could be transformed through “open classrooms” where student passions, interests, and curiosity could unfold through projects, learning centers, integration of different subjects, and multi-age groupings.

Richly amplified by the media, “open education” in its focus on students learning by doing resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms as just the right kind of solution to what ailed traditional public school teaching and learning.

Did Open Education Work?

Depends on how one defines “work.” If the common measure of “work” is increased test scores on standardized tests, then the answer is somewhere between “yes,” “maybe,” and “no.” After all, the progressive/constructivist approach to teaching and learning, classroom organization, and student participation sought to increase student outcomes such as independent thinking, problem-solving, increased creativity, and others that few available standardized tests then (and now) measured. Researchers and teachers who believed in the principles of “open education” and adopted the innovation, adapting its organization and techniques to the students in their classrooms, more often than not, concluded that this kind of classroom organization and practice worked (see here and here)

What Happened To Open Education?

It peaked in the mid-1970s and within a few years the innovation moved from the center of the public radar screen to a mere blip on the edge. There were both external and internal reasons for the shrinking of “open classrooms.”

Public concerns over a lagging economy, rising unemployment, and the Vietnam War grew into a perception, again amplified by the media, that academic standards had slipped, desegregating schools had failed, and urban schools had become violent places. School critics’ loud voices and rising public concern over these messy problems melded into “back-to-basics” policies that toughened the curriculum, increased the teacher’s authority, and required more work of students. Public perceptions of “open classrooms” tilted toward low academic standards and high emphasis on what today would be called “social emotional learning.”

Because there were different definitions of what exactly “open education” was and how it worked in classrooms, teachers varied in which parts of the innovation (e.g., multiple learning centers, flexible time schedule, student choices) they would adopt and adapt. Thus, putting the innovation into practice differed from classroom to classroom in a school, from school to school, and from district to district.

Then there was the increased workload of teachers to find materials, integrate different academic subjects into units, reorganize space and furniture in their classrooms, and shift in their beliefs about how best students learn. Much was expected of the teacher.

Consider also the students. Increased student choice depended a great deal upon their motivation, interests, and aptitudes. Most students relished the increased role that they played in their learning but there were (and are) many students who needed prodding and would avoid choices that gave them more work to do.

Both internal and external reasons combined to remove the “open classroom” innovation from public attention and practitioner interest.

So was “open education” just another fad? Yes and no. The yes part of the answer is that “open classrooms” as the educational version of fashionable long tail fins on cars and short skirts had, indeed, soared and faded from the public scene. But to call it a fad would miss the deeper meaning of “open education” as another skirmish in the ideological wars that have split educational progressives from conservatives since the tax-supported schools opened their doors in the mid-1800s.

Times have changed. Standards-based curriculum and test-based accountability where test scores, and dominates talk about schools, there are many teachers, particularly in the primary grades, who continue learning centers and similar activities. “Open education” is still present in schools founded over 30 years ago such as the Los Angeles Open Charter SchoolRoots Elementary School in Denver, and many others. There are elementary school teachers and principals who still work quietly but keep their heads low to avoid in-coming shells of criticism. They blend learning centers with whole class instruction and worksheets.

Most high school teachers, however, continue to use teacher-centered practices leavened slightly by informal practices that have crept into their repertoires. “Open education,” then, was not a hula-hoop fad but another skirmish in the nearly two-century long ideological war in the U.S. over how best to make children into good adults and a better society.

So “open education” has clearly disappeared from the vocabulary of educators but readers should expect another variation of “open education” to re-appear in the years ahead. As I read and listen to the rhetoric of “personalized learning” initiatives, a high-tech approach to student engagement and participation suggests a reappearance. So deep-rooted traditional and progressive ideas about classroom teaching and learning and the best knowledge to instill in the next generation still (and will continue to) abide among taxpayers, voters, teachers, and parents.

_____________________

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Remembrances: Decade of Assassinations

Between 1963 and 1968, Americans experienced three murders of national political figures: President John F. Kennedy (1963), civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and Robert Kennedy (1968), former U.S. Attorney General and brother of JFK. I remember vividly the day, the place I was, and my feelings each time.

Friday, November 22, 1963 was the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. On that anniversary, I recalled much detail of where I was, what I was doing, and the shock of the event. I also forgot a lot. This is what I recall.

Barbara, Sondra–then 18 months old–and I moved from Cleveland (OH) to Washington, D.C. three months earlier to take on a new job as a history specialist in a federally funded pilot (the money came from a fund established by Attorney General Kennedy to combat juvenile delinquency) called the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching. Located in a District of Columbia high school that media called a “slum” school, the principal of the all-Black school (both students and faculty) was director of the project. She hired me and two other staff members to work with returned Peace Corps Volunteers who wanted to earn a masters degree and become licensed teachers. There were 10 PCVs.

It was an exciting time. Kennedy’s words in his inaugural speech–“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” resonated with most Americans, including me. Within months of becoming President in 1961, he established the Peace Corps with the first cadre of volunteers going to the Philippines later that year. In 1963, that Philippine group was returning to the U.S. and many who had taught English to Filipino children and adults wanted to become licensed teachers. Establishing the CPUT was one of many responses to these returning PCVs.

The ten former PCVs taught two classes a day, as I did. I had been a history teacher for seven years in an all-Black school in Cleveland (OH) so I supervised four history “interns,” as the returned PCVs were called. We saw each other teach, created lessons together, and rejoiced when they worked and got frustrated and angry when they flopped. The five of us became close in those early months. Barbara and I hosted gatherings at our home on weekends further cementing the close ties in the group.

Then Kennedy was murdered. Word came to the entire faculty during a late-afternoon meeting in the library. Someone burst through the doors agitated and speaking loudly that the President had been shot and was at Parkland hospital. The meeting broke up and within a few minutes word came that Kennedy had died.

Shock hits people in different ways. Some of the teachers and nearby students burst into tears. Some were dazed and sat down to gather their wits. And some hurriedly picked up their books and papers and left school. I was one of the dazed ones. I wanted to talk to Barbara but the few phones in the main office were tied up (there were no cell phones at the time).

The interns and I went back to 101, our room on the first floor where we all had desks and quietly talked or sat by ourselves in stunned silence. No one knew what to do because there was nothing that any of us could do but mourn the death of a President who had meant a great deal to each of us in different ways. Slowly, some interns said goodbye and left. Others stayed. Duncan Yaggy, one of my history interns, asked me if we could go over to a nearby bar and have a beer together. I agreed and we left Cardozo.

Without smart phones, twitter, Instagram, the news of the President’s death had spread swiftly in the neighborhood. As we walked on Clifton St. passed a large apartment building we heard crying, shouts back and forth, and small groups of people talking. On 14th St., we went to a tavern and had beers and continued to talk about what had happened. Duncan was, like myself, a history major and we talked about the Lincoln assassination a century earlier.

I do not remember much else about who was in the bar, other conversations we had with patrons there, or other details. The only other memory I have of that Friday 58 years ago was that when I returned home, Barbara suggested that everyone in the project get together–as in the Jewish tradition–to mourn. I called a few of the interns who got in touch with others and the whole group including staff came to our home the following evening.

The funeral for the slain President was a few days later. Barbara, Sondra, and I joined the crowds along Pennsylvania Ave. to watch the cortege pass by.

That is what I remember of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

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Cartoons on Living Digitally

Over the years, I have run cartoons that get at how families, individuals, schools, teachers, and students have adopted and adapted to ever-changing technologies. Here is another sampling that I hope will get readers to chuckle, maybe grin, or even laugh out loud. Enjoy!

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Failure Is as Important as Success in a Career

Looking back from my ninth decade, my career as an educator has been marked by many successes. But I cannot (and will not) forget my failures.

I began teaching high school in 1955, a goal I had pursued as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. I taught 14 years on and off in various school districts until the early-1970s. During those years I participated in an innovative, district-based teacher training program that prepared returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban schools. I also created culturally diverse curriculum materials and co-authored a series of U.S. history textbooks both of which were published in those years.

Left teaching in 1972 to get a doctorate at Stanford in history of education and in 1974 achieved my dream of becoming a district superintendent. I served seven years. I returned to Stanford as a professor in 1981 and for 20 years taught seminars, advised doctoral students, returned to high school teaching three times, and did research and writing until I retired. Since then, I began a blog in 2009, taught university seminars until 2013, and have written extensively about the history of school reform while continuing to do research in public schools. I have published many articles and books about U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts always with a historical perspective whether it be teaching, using technology, or current reforms.

OK, this is beginning to sound like a draft for an obituary. It is not.

What I want to write about are not my successes but my failures. While on the surface my long career as an educator appears as an unvarnished success albeit a modest one, it was a zig-zag path with cul-de-sacs and, truth be told, pockmarked with failure.

Why note failures?

Because successes in life, however defined, are built on failures that often go unnoted. The common pattern in talking or writing about a career is to deny or cover up failures. Carefully prepared resumes are silent on mishaps. The point is that everyone’s career is marked by failures but in our competitive, highly individualistic culture, talking about failure is like talking about body odor. Not done. Failure means you are a loser in a society that praises winners.

So here I want to recount my career failures to make clear that chasing success in one’s life is anchored in confronting repeated failures. I am not the first to reveal such a list. Others have as well (see here).

Failures as a teacher:

*In 1955, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh as a history teacher. I applied for a post in the Pittsburgh school system where I had lived and gone to elementary and secondary schools. I was rejected because I had no experience and was told to teach in the suburbs for a few years and then re-apply. I did teach elsewhere but never re-applied to the Pittsburgh schools.

*Even though I was considered a high-performing teacher by my superiors at Glenville High School (Cleveland, OH), Cardozo High School and Roosevelt High School (Washington, D.C), between 1956-1972 I had a small number of students in various classes that I could not reach or teach well. It was obvious to me and to those students that I failed in connecting with them.

Failures as administrator:

*In 1968 while teaching at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., I was offered a post in the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights to be in charge of a research group on race and education. It was a time in the city and nation when racial antagonisms ran high in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. After six months, I realized that I could not reduce the racial friction evident in my department. I had failed to make a dent in lowering tensions and achieving the stated goals of the unit. I resigned.

*In 1972, I applied for an elementary school principalship in Washington, D.C. where I had taught and administered programs for nearly a decade. I was turned down for that post.

*After receiving my doctorate in history of education and getting certified as an administrator, I applied for 51 (not a typo) superintendencies across the country. My wife and I and our two daughters were willing to go anywhere a district offered me the school chief position. I was turned down by 50 districts—the one that hurt the most was a district to which I had not even applied. Arlington (VA)—the 51st application– offered me the superintendency in 1974.

*In 1985-1990, as a professor, I applied for six urban and state superintendencies and while making the short list, each board of education chose someone else.

*In the mid-1990s, I was a finalist for deanship at Stanford’s School of Education. Didn’t get post.

Failures in getting published:

While occasional articles I wrote and a book were published in the 1960s,  over subsequent decades, publishers and editors regularly turned down many submissions I had made. At one point for a manuscript I had written on Southern migrants moving northward before and after World War I, the rejections letters overwhelmed me and I shoved the manuscript into a bottom drawer.

When I began writing op-ed pieces on school reform in the 1990s, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times regularly turned down my work. The New York Times has never accepted an op-ed I wrote while the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times accepted one of every ten I submitted.

When I get requests for my resume or curriculum vitae, none of the above failures are listed.

Why is it important to talk about career failures?

This is the point where such accounts as mine throw in a few inspirational quotes about the importance of failing. Such as:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. Basketball star Michael Jordan

Success consists of going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.
Winston Churchill

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” Maya Angelou

But there is far more that is important to confronting career failures than citing maxims. Defeats were doors that closed in my face. Yet other doors opened.

There are many ways to respond to failure. For me, however, closed doors did two things. In some instances, I doubled down and persisted—50 rejections in applying for superintendent posts—in other instances, it nudged me to open doors that I had not considered–going from the failed attempt to manage a governmental research group riven by racial animosities to administering the Office of Staff Development in the Washington, D.C. schools or getting rejected for a principalship and deciding to pursue a doctorate.

Persistence and ambition are, of course, married to one another. Yes, I have been a go-getter in the early decades of my work as an educator. The cliché of “a fire in the belly” captures in large part what drove me through open doors. But it was doggedness in the face of errors and defeats, harnessed to that ambition, that help explain, at least to myself, the corkscrew path I have taken these past nine decades.

Now, that fire has been banked. Looking back at my career and the mix of successes and failures make clear to me how complex the interaction between wins and losses is. In remembering how failures tinged with success and successes tinted with failures have resulted in unplanned twists and turns, I remember, and smile, at an old saying:

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Whatever Happened to the Overhead Projector?

New technologies come and go but some hang around decades after introduction. For example, the late-19th century chalk blackboard in classrooms morphed into current white (or green) boards.

Consider the overhead projector (OP). While many teachers’ rooms have projectors mounted on ceilings that project Internet images onto whiteboards, just as many teachers have a cart with an overhead projector handy. And even in a desk drawer stacks of transparencies (older readers will nod their heads in agreement but rookie teachers may scratch their heads in puzzlement over just what are transparencies).

So here’s what has happened to a once innovative technology for one generation of teachers to become a ho-hum old technology to a later generation and a head-scratcher to brand-new teachers in 2021.

When were overhead projectors introduced into classrooms?

A 3M employee invented the machine in the early 1960s and within a few years, it had become a tool that more and more teachers relied upon to project new information and concepts onto classroom screens or green- and white-boards.

What advantages and disadvantages did this “new” technology have over chalk boards?

The advantages are clear. Using transparencies, teachers could outline a lecture beforehand with bullet-points and simply show it on the OP or as she moved through the presentation, project new information, write out questions and still monitor the class. Watching students and seeing which ones are inattentive or off-task is a crucial part of classroom management essential to teaching the content and skills embedded in the teacher’s lesson. When a teacher writes on a black- or green-board, she has her back turned to class as she puts items on the board. Also missing from teaching a lesson to 25-30 students using blackboards is chalkdust or smeared hands from markers on whiteboards.

The disadvantages of using the OP is that the teacher remains in a fixed position in front of the room and cannot move around the room to check on students’ note-taking or inattentiveness. She has to conduct a whole group discussion while going over the transparency although small group activities can occur during the presentation or when the OP is turned off.

More often than not, a mix of using OP and chalkboards in lessons still occurs.

Classroom example of OPs being used in lessons

Over the last year or so I’ve been (unofficially) mentoring a third grade teacher at my school. One day she called me to her room and asked if I would take a student out of her class because his behavior was causing such a disruption. She had enough of his nonsense. So I went up to her room, asked him to come with me and I gave both the student and the teacher a break from each other. 

I brought the student into the computer lab and I asked him what he thought the problem was. After listening to his story, I was wondering if there wasn’t enough blame for both parties to share. Sure enough, after he had calmed down and told me that he was ready to return to the class, I walked him back upstairs. When I walked in the room I noticed that the class seemed to be up for grabs. Some students were talking to each other, some students were just sitting at their desk drawing. Others were vying for the teacher’s attention through a variety of methods. In short, the teacher was having one of those days. 

We all have them. I certainly do. 

She looked at me with a look of exasperation and said, “What can I do?”

It was clear to both of us that she needed to work on her classroom management skills. So I asked her if I could try something with her class. “Anything,” she replied.

I asked her where her overhead projector was. Apparently it was gathering dust in a corner. I dragged it out, plugged it in and quickly got the kids to shuffle their desks so they could all see the wall where I was going to project the screen. I grabbed a blank transparency to write on and put a quick heading down for them to copy. Shockingly, the kids looked at me like I had just put an Algebra equation up for them to solve. So I explained what a heading was. The great thing was that as I was talking, I could face the entire class while demonstrating the heading on the wall. Not only that, but the projection was large enough that no matter where you sat in the room, you could see what I was doing. 

As I taught, I could see the light bulb go off over the teacher’s head. She learned what some of us already know: the overhead projector is a great teaching tool as well as a powerful technique for maintaining order in your classroom.

Why are OPs much less used today

Newer electronic technologies have usurped OPs just as videocassettes and TV monitors replaced movie projectors and films. For OPs specifically, the document camera and, later, laptop computer with an ceiling fixture could project video clips, Internet information, and whatever else the teacher had planned for a lesson.

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Have Public Schooling and Teaching Changed Over Time? (Part 3)

If noticeable classroom changes in teachers’ and students’ dress and having access to computer devices in daily lessons have occurred in recent decades, far less notice has been taken of the disappearance of one practice common in schools and classrooms for nearly a century: corporal punishment.

Regularly used in classrooms and schools for decades to exact acceptable behavior before, during, and after lessons, striking students physically in 2021 garners newspaper articles and protests. But not decades ago.

Corporal punishment is a euphemism. In Latin, corporal means “of the body” hiding that it is basically physical punishment. Rather than speak of “corporal punishment,” administrators and teachers commonly call it “discipline” or “classroom management.” Its purpose is to correct and deter what teachers and administrators define as student misbehavior. Misbehavior can be anything from chewing gum, one student hitting another student, disobeying teacher directives, writing on bathroom walls or destroying school property (and many other examples too numerous to include here). All of these fall into the broad definition of “misbehavior.”

Even as childrearing practices, especially in middle-class homes, had lowered the frequency of spanking and hitting children in post-World War II decades ala Benjamin Spock’s influence and media attention to child rearing practices, keep in mind that corporal punishment om schools has been legal by state law and viewed as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 1977 decision, Ingraham v. Wright, the Court ruled that corporal punishment the eighth Amendment banning “cruel and unusual punishment” does not apply to schools hitting students for breaking rules.[i]

Much variation in spanking, paddling, and other physical punishments marked practices across schools over the past century. In many districts, then and now, teachers were allowed to administer the punishment. In other places, teachers sent students to the principal’s office and if the principal believed that, say, paddling was appropriate for the offense, he or she would give the swats. Much evidence exists that hitting students in schools has occurred in southern states and that minority, poor children and youth got punished in school in the 20th century more than white, middle-class students. [ii]

Physical punishment covered the age range from kindergarten to high school seniors, although the size of secondary school boys and girls often reduced the frequency of such punishments. Alternative in-school penalties became more acceptable than physical punishment such as staying after school, losing recess in elementary schools, and, yes, writing on blackboards what you will not ever do again.

Like increases in the use of new classroom technologies and reductions in physical punishment, other teaching practices changed. Formal student recitations declined in favor of oral book reports, short summaries of projects completed in school, and occasionally students serially reading paragraphs from their textbooks. Many teachers sought whole-group and small-group discussions from “show-and-tell” circles in kindergartens to analyzing voter returns from the previous presidential election in senior government classes.

Why all of these changes in teachers and teaching over time? The most obvious answer is that public schools, heavily dependent upon local financing, are (and have been) vulnerable to political, social, cultural, technological, and demographic changes in the larger society. Schools mirror society. Cultural changes toward authority, for example, say in the 1960s and 1970s filtered into school and classroom practices as each generation of parents raised their children—remembering how their parents reared them—and each generation of new teachers walked into their classrooms for the first time also recalling their student days.

Amid all of these documented changes, however–there is usually a “however” when it comes to the history of schooling–stability persisted in the age-graded school structure, political and social beliefs in the importance of tax-supported public schools, and patterns of teaching practices. Among many incremental changes, constancy in schooling and classroom practices continued. A lovely, if often ignored, paradox.


[i] U.S. Supreme Court decision can be found at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc5766273/

[ii] Wikipedia, “School Corporal Punishment in the United States,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_corporal_punishment_in_the_United_States

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Have Public Schooling and Teaching Changed Over Time (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, I laid out an argument that both schooling and teaching have changed over time while retaining a remarkable stability in organization, governance, and, yes, classroom practice. Part 2 continues the “yes” answer to the question. The “no” answer comes later in the series.

Demographic changes in teachers and students

Consider the major shifts in 19th and 20th century state and local standards to become a licensed teacher. Initially, local district trustees would hire anyone who finished the 8th grade of grammar school since completion meant that a graduate could get a state license to teach if he or she passed an examination. Then states raised their standard to having a high school diploma.  By the mid-20th century, in addition to having a college degree and preparation in education courses, many states required teachers to have a master’s degree and to pass a state test on knowledge of their subject and methods of teaching. [i]

Second, note how teaching, initially male dominated in the early 19th century became a woman’s occupation by the end of that century. In the 1880s, women constituted nearly two-thirds of all elementary school teachers and remained dominant since then; in secondary schools, men were in the majority until the 1970s.[ii]

But pay was low compared to other occupations. With short academic terms during the late-19th and early 20th century, women were initially paid for working part-time but as public school enrollments grew and the school day lengthened, wages still remained low.

Throughout these decades, males exited teaching for higher-paying jobs. Women, however, found that society’s dominant mind-set of their gender being nurturing and mindful of the young flocked into one of the few occupations available outside of the home. And as states lengthened the school year, passed regulations governing which schools were eligible for state aid and as county supervision became more standardized and evident in classrooms, the job gained increased respect even as it continued as a gender-based occupation.  [iii]

Accompanying these demographic and societal changes were structural shifts, including states licensing of teachers and establishing uniform courses of study. As wages and salaries increased for other jobs in the economy, teacher compensation lagged behind.  Men continued to exit the schoolhouse. Moreover, more women became teachers because it was one of the few respected occupations outside of the home that single women and, later, married women could enter albeit one that paid poorly compared to other jobs in an expanding economy. [iv]

The feminization of teaching in lockstep with the growth of state regulation of schooling including licensing of teachers and development of state curriculum guides were significant structural and demographic changes in who and how teachers became teachers and what they were expected to do in classrooms.

Feminization of teaching tracked another demographic trend that became cemented into American schools: segregation of students by race and ethnicity.

Where students went to school in the U.S. depended upon where families lived.  In the American South since the Civil War and Reconstruction, most cities and suburban neighborhoods were racially segregated producing schools that were nearly all white, Black or Latino. Beginning in the 1950s, activists used both direct action such as boycotts and marches and legal strategies to get urban and suburban districts across the nation to desegregate through busing, building schools that straddled city and county attendance boundaries, and taking school boards to federal court for maintaining segregated schools—strategies that civil rights reformers believed would bring minority and white children together to learn.

What occurred since the 1970s from these efforts, however, were unintended effects, most obviously the acceleration of re-segregation of poor and minority students. Few policymakers after the Brown decision (1954) anticipated the return of racial and ethnic separation of whites from African American and Latino school children. [v]

While these larger changes occurred and garnered media attention, these shifts should not mask the incremental changes in teaching and classroom practices that escaped media attention.

Incremental changes in teaching and classroom practices

I begin with the obvious. Consider the clothes teachers wore in school. Just as in the larger society customs about what to wear when and in what places shifted over the decades, what teachers wore to school mirrored larger shifts in fashion.

From formal wear to informal wear was the pattern in teacher apparel over the 20th century.  Note the clothes that teachers wore in above photos of classrooms between the 1890s and 1940s as compared to what teachers now wear in 2021.


[i] PBS, “Only a Teacher,” at: https://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/timeline.html

Lisa Borten,  “What American Education Was Like 100 Years Ago,” at: https://stacker.com/stories/3315/what-american-education-was-100-years-ago

[ii] Alia Wong, “The U.S. Teaching Population Is Getting Bigger, and More Female,” The Atlantic, February 20, 2019 at: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/02/the-explosion-of-women-teachers/582622/

[iii] Myra Strober and David Tyack, “Why Do Women Teach and Men Manage?” A Report on Schools,” Signs, 1980, 5 (3), pp. 494-503.

 

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Erica Frankenberg, et. al.,  Center for Education and Civil Rights,  “Harming Our Common Future: Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown, “ May 10, 2019.

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Have Public Schools and Teaching Changed Over Time? (Part 1)

The answer to the question is both yes and no.   Yes, that changes in schooling have occurred is clearly evident in data collected over the century on the consolidation of thousands of school districts, the growth in student enrollment, increased number of days states require students to attend school, shrinking class sizes, rising high school graduation rates, and similar outcomes. Moreover, standards for becoming and staying a teacher have changed substantially, albeit incrementally, over time. [i]

 While many critics of U.S. public schools repeat the inaccurate statement that teaching then and now is basically the same, the facts are clear that classroom practices have also changed.

Photos of classrooms between the 1890s and 1960s, for example, show both change and stability. Because snapshots are but a moment in time, showing many photos of teacher and student work in classrooms over decades can only hint at both constancy and change.

Photos taken in the late-19th century of classrooms through the 1960s surely give the impression of stability in teaching and learning. Rows of desks face blackboards and a teacher’s desk. Students sit with hands clasped listening to the teacher or taking notes and doing assignments. Yet there are other photos that show children working on activities at their desks, others at the blackboard doing math problems or diagramming sentences, and a group reciting to the rest of the class or even clusters of students around the teacher desk.

The apparent stability in classroom arrangements over a half-century, including both segregated classrooms and rows of desks, however, ignores the demographic, organizational, and governance changes that have occurred in public schools. While the photos do reveal much teacher and student activity during lessons, snapshots at one moment in time cannot capture changes in actual classroom practices that occurred during these years.

Educational historian Jack Schneider, acknowledging both constancy and change in public schools, described both over the past century:

If we could transport ourselves to a typical school of the early 20th century, the basic structural elements — desks, chalkboards, textbooks, etc. — would be recognizable. And we might see some similar kinds of power dynamics between adults and children. But almost everything else would be different. The subjects that students studied, the way the day was organized, the size of classes, the kinds of supports young people received — these essential aspects of education were all different. Teachers were largely untrained. Access to education was entirely shaped by demographic factors like race and income; special education didn’t exist. Latin was still king. It was just a completely different world. To say that schools haven’t changed is just an extraordinarily uninformed position.[ii]

What Schneider points out clearly in his op-ed piece are the organizational similarities in schooling and classrooms dynamics over time amid incremental changes that have indeed occurred in who could go to school, teacher licensing, curricular content and skills, class size, and staff supports for children.  In effect, Schneider points to important demographic and organizational changes but omits shifts in governing (and funding) schools, i.e., charter schools.

As important as it is for Schneider and other scholars to establish unmistakably that both stability and change mark the history of U.S. public schools, what remains missing is the too often unasked question: did these demographic, organizational, and governance changes alter how teachers taught? 

To answer that question, in the next post I will elaborate the map that Schneider laid out of changes in schooling and then connect those demographic, organizational, and governance changes to how teachers taught during these decades.



[i] Thomas Snyder (Ed.) “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait,” at: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf

[ii] Jack Schneider quoted in Valerie Strauss, “Betsy DeVos Insists Public Schools Have Not Changed in More Than a Hundred Years. Why She’s Is Oh So Wrong,” Washington Post, October 25, 2019.

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Poems on Teaching and Learning

Why poems? Because in writing posts for this blog and for books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation. I aim at the brain, not the heart.

Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry–even cartoons–can capture features of teaching and learning, particularly what teachers and students feel in ways that exposition cannot.

I am neither a poet nor an aspiring one. I offer these as ones that stirred me, that captured in vivid language what teachers and students feel and do.

A Teacher’s Lament

By Kalli Dakos

Don’t tell me the cat ate your math sheet,
And your spelling words went down the drain,
And you couldn’t decipher your homework,
Because it was soaked in the rain.

Don’t tell me you slaved for hours
On the project that’s due today,
And you would have had it finished
If your snake hadn’t run away.

Don’t tell me you lost your eraser,
And your worksheets and pencils, too,
And your papers are stuck together
With a great big glob of glue.

I’m tired of all your excuses;
They are really a terrible bore.
Besides, I forgot my own work,
At home in my study drawer.

The Hand

Mary Ruefle, 1996

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority, but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch, a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

Poem for Christian, My Student

Gail Mazur

He reminds me of someone I used to know,

but who? Before class,

he comes to my office to shmooze,

a thousand thousand pointless interesting

speculations. Irrepressible boy,

his assignments are rarely completed,

or actually started. This week, instead

of research in the stacks, he’s performing

with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.

Kids danced to his music

and stripped, he tells me gleefully,

high spirit of the street festival.

He’s the singer, of course—

why ask if he studied an instrument?

On the brink of graduating with

an engineering degree (not, it turned out,

his forte), he switched to English,

his second language. It’s hard to swallow

the bravura of his academic escapes

or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face.

Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon

he’d picked on campus; once, a poem

about an elderly friend in New Delhi

who left him volumes of Tagore

and memories of avuncular conversation.

My encouragement makes him skittish—

it doesn’t suit his jubilant histrionics

of despair. And I remember myself

shrinking from enthusiasm or praise,

the prospect of effort-drudgery.

Success—a threat. A future, we figure,

of revision—yet what can the future be

but revision and repair? Now, on the brink

again, graduation’s postponed, the brilliant

thesis on Walker Percy unwritten.

“I’ll drive to New Orleans and soak

it up and write my paper in a weekend,”

he announces in the Honors office.

And, “I want to be a bum in daytime

and a reggae star at night!”

What could I give him from my life

or art that matters, how share

the desperate slumber of my early years,

the flashes of inspiration and passion

in a life on hold? If I didn’t fool

myself or anyone, no one could touch

me, or tell me much . . . This gloomy

Houston Monday, he appears at my door,

so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him

now, or say it matters if he wakes at all.

“Write a poem about me!” he commands,

and so I do.

Mrs. Kitchen

Ann Staley

Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day. Wise teacher comment

Mrs. Kitchen

…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,

both working for the American Red Cross.

They returned to suburban Harrisburg

and began the next chapter of their lives.

Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.

Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,

which opened so you could hear recess voices,

and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.

We were seated, not in usual rows,

but in a square “u” of desks.

We were allowed to sit with whomever

we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted

by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).

Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.

She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.

She loved all of her students, but had,

I realized even then, a soft spot for me.

I didn’t understand why and still don’t.

Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,

she read aloud to us–from books

on the New York Times Bestseller list.

 Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.

Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,

believing that eight-year-olds could understand more

than the 1950s psychology books expected.

This was her great gift to her fortunate students.

We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,

then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.

One day when I’d finished my work early,

she sent me to the library, alone, saying,

 Get whatever book you want, Ann.

That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,

about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,

where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.

I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,

tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.

Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,

no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.

Jeans–never!

One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office

without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,

a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.

She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.

After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to

sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.

She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening

to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.

My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.

I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement

and began, in earnest, my professional life.

In Instructions for the Wishing Light, with Permission from author

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