Cartoons on the School Reform to Boost Student Self-Esteem*

Beginning in the 1980s, a concerted effort by policymakers concerned about U.S. students performing low on international tests involved the idea of how students saw themselves. The thinking was that low self-esteem caused low test scores.

Solution? Raise students’ regard for themselves. The movement spread rapidly especially after a California legislator got his bill through both houses of the legislature and the governor signed the new law that assigned the state’s schools raise students’ self-esteem. Critics, of course, pointed out that the causal arrows that policymakers believed in, that is, if you raise students’ self-esteem, then achievement will rise as well–those arrows could just as well point the other way. That is, higher achievement using direct ways of helping students academically  could result in their higher self-regard.

Without knowing for sure which way the causation goes, cartoonists have had a field day with this school reform as it permeated through the rest of society.  So enjoy the cartoons on what started out as a school reform called the “self-esteem movement” and became a running joke for all aspects of human behavior.
























*Reader from Sweden reminded me that comedian George Carlin had a stand up bit on “child worship” that included the self-esteem movement. It is on YouTube. Readers should know that its 8 minute run is filled with expletives. For those sensitive to such language, you have been warned.





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Whatever Happened To the Self-Esteem Movement?

For those true believers and wanna-be school reformers enamored with the social-emotional skills that 21st century students must learn if they are to be “successful” in an information-driven economy and social-media-ridden daily life, take a brief look at the self-esteem movement launched in the 1980s.  In subsequent decades reformers stressed that students (as well as teachers) needed confident self-regard and a psychological repertoire of personal and social skills. Not only were they to have high self-esteem but they were also expected to display such attitudes and skills.



Soon enough the phrase “self-esteem” became attached to school and classroom practices of frequent praise for children and emphasis on participation in activities rather than individual academic performance. Ridicule of this reform movement in particular and the self-help industry in general came from cultural conservatives within a few years.


And cartoonists who took jabs at whether working on self-esteem would undermine academics.




This tension between boosting the student’s self-image and attaining high academic performance can be traced back to early 20th century progressives who touted the “whole child,” particularly the psychological and emotional parts. Curriculum guides and daily lessons  focused upon the psychological “needs” of individual students and their knowing how to get along with others while at the same time understanding quadratic equations and Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” While John Dewey made clear that subject matter was important in the children learning through experience–he often referred to the intellectual development of children through activities that crossed disciplinary boundaries–that clarity got blurred for that generation of educational progressives as they pursued the “whole child” and ignored Dewey’s Child and the Curriculum (1902). Rather than Dewey’s seeking both in educating children, progressives saw it as either/or, that is, teach the subject to the child or teach the child the subject–a dichotomy that he found unhelpful.

Unresolved then, this continuing tension between the academic purpose of schooling (learning disciplinary content, thinking skills, problem solving)  and cultivating students’ skills in negotiating relationships and knowing one’s self has persisted until today.

A quick look at the self-esteem movement and its influence on schools then and now may give current advocates and critics a perspective that is missing from the current hype over the necessity that all children and youth have to learn an array of social-emotional skills to be competent in the 21st century (see here and here).

Where and When Did the Self-esteem Movement Originate?

Most observers locate the origin of the idea in the 1980s at the same time that high anxiety in the business community and among national policymakers over the failure of U.S. students to outpace international peers on tests. The high-pitched call for U.S. schools to stem the rising “tide of mediocrity” in the Nation at Risk report (1983) got many educational policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and parents to worry about the academic performance of America’s children and youth. A primary factor for poor performance on international tests, some frenetic reformers believed was the low self-regard that U.S. students had for themselves (see here and here).

The belief among some reformers, then, was that in raising children’s esteem, academic improvement social kindness, and personal success in life would occur.

The pivotal event (or laughable occurrence, according to critics) was a California legislator John Vasconcellos (Democrat) steering a bill through the legislature and securing the Republican governor’s signature to establish a California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility or the “Self-esteem Commission” in 1986.

According to Vasconcellos, he convinced the Governor to sign the bill–he had vetoed it previously–with the following argument:

The governor and I had three very intense one-on-one conversations about this bill. The turning point came during our third meeting, when he said, “I know that self-esteem is important, but why should the government get involved in this? Why not the university or somebody else?”

I responded, “First, Governor, there’s so much at stake here that we can’t afford to have it hidden away in a university. We need to involve the entire California public. Only the government can accomplish that. Second, think of it this way: By spending a few tax dollars, we can collect the information and get it out. If that helps even a few persons appreciate and understand self-esteem and how they can live their lives and raise their kids better, we may have less welfare, crime, violence, and drugs—and that’s a very conservative use of taxpayers’ money.”

Even Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury mocked the Commission but the concept, research supporting it, and its penetration into schools spread in the following decade.

What Problems Did Higher Self-esteem Intend To Solve?

The thinking then was that low self-esteem caused social problems including low student performance (see here and here). Solution? Raise students’ regard for themselves.

Critics, of course, pointed out that the causal arrows that policymakers believed in: raise students’ self-esteem, then academic achievement will rise as well––those arrows could just as well point the other way. That is, using direct instruction and other strategies  of helping students academically and higher test scores could result in higher self-regard. Without knowing for sure what causes what, it is futile to build programs that proclaim the virtues of students having a high regard for themselves and expect rising academic achievement.

What Does Learning Self-esteem Look Like in Practice?

For the 1980s and 1990s, I could not find lesson plans, descriptions of actual classes teaching self-esteem, teacher self-reports on their lessons that build student self-confidence, or journalist accounts of classes engaging in self-esteem exercises during the 1990s. If any readers know of such primary sources, please let me know.

James Beane, an advocate of raising individual and community self-esteem through relationships in schools, however, did sketch out in 1991 three strategies that he saw classroom teachers pursuing in these years.

  1. Personal development through sensitivity training used in the 1970s. Picture a teacher and her class sitting in a circle one afternoon a week talking for about a half-hour about how much they like themselves and their classmates. Beane found this approach minimally useful. ,
  2. Teacher goes through a prepared set of lessons (home-made or commercially produced) on what is self-esteem, how it practice in a classroom, and its worth to individual students and the entire class. In 1970, Beane points out, about 350 such programs available with about 3000 “affective exercises and techniques.” Such purchased programs suffer defects according to Beane. First, teachers using    direct instruction to students about emotions has little chance of altering students’ behavior. Second, vendors’s c;aims for such programs have little to no evidence.
  3. School practices set the climate for what teachers do in their classrooms to get students to raise their self-regard. Beane points to collaborative student-teacher planning of curriculum, thematic units that stress personal and community-wide actions, student self-evaluations, community service projects, and the like.

Obviously, these approaches are not mutually exclusive and were combined.

Does Self-esteem Teaching and Learning Work?

Do school activities and daily lessons on raising self-esteem end up building higher self-regard and confidence in children and youth while improving academic achievement? No, according to the available research done then and since (see here and here).

Surely, the difficulty of defining precisely what self-esteem is and how best to boost it have given researchers gray hair. Such blurred definitions and multiple strategies to improve children’s view of themselves and academic performance have made for suspicious research studies and great skepticism when positive results are announced.

What Has Happened to the Self-esteem Movement in Schools?

The short answer is that the phrase became so ridiculed that it dropped from sight for years until social-emotional learning (SEL) became the reform du jour in the past decade (see Ngram for SEL).

The heart of SEL is, as The Collaborative for Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) put it:

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Also see CASEL videos defining it and its effects here and here

Moreover, the prestigious Aspen Institute recently gathered scientists, practitioners, parents,and youth to create a  report   called From A Nation At Risk To A Nation of Hope (2019).

Part of our project was to convene a Council of Distinguished Scientists—leaders in the fields of education, neuroscience, and psychology—to identify areas of agreement. The consensus they define is broad and strong: Social, emotional, and academic skills are all essential to success in school, careers, and in life, and they can be effectively learned in the context of trusted ties to caring and competent adults.

Although the Aspen report includes cognitive skills as part of the mix, note that SEL still promises student outcomes similar to the earlier self-esteem reform, particularly in higher academic achievement and whole human beings. The report includes a series of videos of classroom activities that enact SEL.

Like the self-esteem movement, efforts to install social-emotional learning in daily classroom lessons has faced glitches in the covey of competing definitions of what SEL is, various strategies of how to embody it into classroom activities, and measuring its effects.

As with the earlier reform, critics have launched arrows at SEL. Conservative pundits Chester Finn and Frederick Hess made the direct comparison to the self-esteem movement and urge SEL advocates to keep that earlier reform in mind as they implement SEL in classrooms. Of their seven suggestions, I chose one they offer that echoes what happened with the self-esteem reform decades earlier:

Be Clear About What SEL Is and Is Not. One peril inherent in novelty and widespread ardor is how temptingly easy it can be to build momentum and win allies by offering an inclusive or generic definition of the cause being advanced, which allows others to piggyback their own pet projects, sometimes settling for a couple of spindly trees instead of a healthy forest. Given the raft of malarkey being peddled by consultants, vendors, education school faculty, and plenty of others in the name of SEL (and much else), it’s important to develop markers to help serious educators and curious parents know what clears the bar and what does not. Proponents need to make clear that SEL is not just feeling good about oneself and, instead, that it’s an essential complement to—not a substitute for—academic achievement, that it rests on legitimate research, and that it’s part of preparing competent adults and citizens.

Saying this once, or even repeating it every so often, is not enough. The desire to focus on rapid implementation while genially embracing a big tent approach is natural enough. Sadly, that approach won’t safeguard either the perception or the practice of SEL from those with their own agendas. The question is what bona fide advocates are prepared to do when it comes to flagging the frauds, identifying the charlatans, calling out practices that lack evidence, and otherwise helping communities separate the wheat from the chaff. Put another way, good communication is not only explaining what advocates think good SEL is but also taking pains to point out what it isn’t. Doing so entails taking the uncomfortable next step of calling out those who are pitching dubious wares under the SEL banner or deploying problematic programs in their schools.

This means that a few days of “professional development” for educators or the simple embrace of some favored “best practice” is inadequate. It will be useful, for example, for SEL proponents to envision how they might certify principals as school-level SEL leaders and teachers as bona fide SEL providers. Maybe schools themselves could get gold stars for doing it right, much as buildings get LEED certified if they’re environmentally sound. We’re absolutely not suggesting an elaborate system of new governmental regulations or education-school credentials. It would be far better for a competent private organization, backstopped by like-minded philanthropy, to create and confer these additional credentials—and do their best to make them worth earning.

Whether SEL boosters among policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and parents will heed this advice, I do not know. Given my knowledge and direct experience with the self-esteem movement in the 1980s, I hope that SEL supporters will at least be aware that academic concerns that have arisen persistently during the apex of progressive influence before World War II and during the self-esteem movement of the 1980s and 1990s, will again arise even though SEL advocates have linked such learning to academic performance. Like their predecessors, SEL boosters see the causal arrows going from SEL to high test scores, graduation rates, and college admissions. Similar claims were made a quarter-century ago that researchers have shown to be empty.




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MetWest Internships (Part 7)

The last post described student and teacher participation in twice-weekly internships in Oakland businesses, government agencies including schools, health facilities, and social services.



Advisor/Teachers work closely with students in their sites and are responsible for connecting what they learn with the academics they teach–English, history, math, science, foreign language.



Mike Cellemme is Learning Through Internship (LTI) coordinator. He finds a site and locates a mentor willing to take and supervise a MetWest student. He talks to students about what they are interested in and want to learn more about and then finds a match between site, mentor, and student. He supervises the overall program. The process looks like this:


*ImBlaze is a website that Big Picture schools use to identify possible internships for students


A former teacher at The Met in Providence (RI), he is experienced, savvy,and committed to making the program work for students, teachers, and work site mentors. What follows describes an afternoon I spent with Mike working with students and then going to an internship work site.

Like any high school program with many moving parts involving 160 students, a dozen or so teachers, and over a hundred mentors in their workplace, some things go smoothly, some less so.

On March 21, 2019, I went to room 136 in MetWest to see Mike and Mayra Acosta (a graduate of program and now Resource Program Specialist) work with various students searching for and working in varied internships. Students came in, asked questions about their mentors and sites and left; others stayed and sat with Mike and Mayra to talk about issues that came up in their classes, Senior Thesis Project, and internships.

Here is what I observed over the next hour. Alonzo who had worked as an intern on an Oakland political campaign during the fall semester is now searching for a new internship. On her laptop screen, Mayra pulls up some possibilities for him to consider. She asks questions about what he learned during the last internship, his current interests, and what he has heard from other students about their internships.

Another student Anthony is talking to Mike about his Senior Thesis Project. On his laptop, Anthony goes through the slides he prepared for his upcoming presentation, based upon his interning at a Oakland Unified school. They go over the STP rubric criteria of rigor, relevance, timeline, and evaluation. The senior gives examples and asks Mike what he thinks. Jose, sitting on a couch, waits his turn to speak with Mayra.

Another student, 9th grader Maria who had attended the STP described in an earlier post, sat on a couch in the back of the room reading a novel. She came up to me to say hello–I had seen her at a presentation by two students of their Senior Thesis Project. I asked her where she is interning. She tells me she is working two days a week at the Talent Division (an employee department) of the Oakland Unified District. I asked her what she does and she explains that she goes over teacher applications to see that each one is completely filled out (e.g., social security number, phone number, years of experience in teaching). She also tells me that she wants to intern next in a school to work with children.

In the midst of the one-on-one with Anthony, Mike takes a call from a graduate who is calling for help on looking for a job. Mike quickly gives the alum the Juma website to look at and track down a job and a phone number to call someone Mike knows.  He then returns to Anthony and his STP.

Fifteen minutes later, Mike signals me that we are ready to go to an intern site called Hidden Genius where he will meet with Tre and his mentor. We go to Mike’s car and drive to another part of Oakland. He and I talk about the internship program. He tells me that about one-third of the 160 students in the school thrive in the internships, finding the experience worthwhile enough to use it as a springboard for their Senior Thesis Project and final Exhibition before graduating. Another third, Mike estimates, struggle but with help from their Teacher/Advisor, Mike, and the site mentor they grow intellectually and expand their skills in dealing with non-school adults and the demands of a workplace. Then there is the final third of students who need intensive, sustained help in getting a placement and then on-going coaching to stay in the internship. Frequent follow-up by the Teacher/Advisor and Mike for this bottom third of students is essential for these students to profit from the experience.

On our way to see Tre, we stopped at a traffic signal and Mike calls out to a teenager waiting to cross the street, “Hey, Danielle, how ya doin?” She acknowledges Mike and he says to her through the open window, “how come you are not at your internship?” No answer from Danielle. Just a smile. In the car, Mike says that she is interning at a funeral home on the other side of town. He says he will contact her later in the afternoon. He explains that some students have to be fired because of poor attendance and Danielle, a bright student, has already had to exit a previous placement.

We arrive at Hidden Genius Project. Tre is a senior and came to MetWesst just last year from a Oakland high school that he was stumbling through. At MetWest, he has caught fire in two different internship a previous one at Kaiser Permanente (a health organization) and here at Hidden Genius. His mentors at Hidden Genius assigned him projects that required him to learn the game Minecraft and adapt Python programming language for children (Tre has used the latter for other intern projects). Tre does programming to create software for use by students and adults some of which will be displayed at a May conference in Cleveland.

With Tre, his mentor, and me standing outside the workspace that Tre uses, Mike asks a series of questions of both Tre and the mentor. Mike takes notes rapidly on his cell phone. A few hours later, the mentor, Tre, and Teacher/Advisor receive these notes. Mike sent me a copy of what he sent out to the above people (and gave me permission to use it in this post).


LTI Performance
  • Harold is Mentor (pseudonym)
  • Tre has been here, on time, doing excellent work consistently
  • Missed one day with a doctor’s note
  • Tre has brought in some of his innovations from his Kaiser internship; we may use his code for an attendance / tracking system for our program
  • Tre is exceeding expectations in his project work and with additional actions / visits / youth engagement events
  • Tre is developing the skills needed to prepare a high quality presentation for the PYCON



Developing Curriculum for PYTHON CONFERENCE

Tre will create and facilitate a curriculum for a Python Conference (PYCON) in Cleveland in early May.




  • Due April 5: Tre will research best practices for teaching and facilitating.


  • Due April 5: Tre will analyze core texts (existing curriculum) to find best practices or innovate practices for the best educational impact


  • Due April 17: Tre will conduct interviews with teachers to learn best practices in facilitating and teaching (Jake Seltzer, Derek Boyd)


  • Due April 19: Tre will facilitate a demo lesson at MetWest with interested students
    • Tre will develop a PRE and POST Diagnostic to measure what students actually learned in the workshop.
    • Tre will arrange technology and lesson plan
    • Mike can help arrange students and classroom space
    • Tre will reflect on experience and revise lesson as needed.


  • Due April 23: Tre will present final curriculum to Hidden Genius Mentors for final approval


  • Due May 2(?): Presentation in Cleveland


  • Due May 16: Final Reflection and Q4 Exhibition
  • What was the key learning?
GOALS FOR GROWTH I can develop new content knowledge in teaching computer languages:

Core texts

  • Learn to Program with Minecraft
  • Python for kids
    • I can make innovations from these core texts


I can develop stronger teaching / facilitation skills:

  • Consult with Jake and Derek about teaching skills


I can develop mastery in public speaking skills

NEXT MEETING Jake or Mike will schedule a meeting to review goals for Mid-April

After the conference with Tre and his mentor, we returned to MetWest where Mike had more students to meet and to call Danielle. I thanked Mike and left.



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MetWest Internships (Part 6)

As in all Big Picture schools, MetWest has structured the academic year to have students search for and enter into two-day a week unpaid internships during school hours. Called Learning Through Internship (LTI), there is a coordinator that oversees the entire program. Michael Cellemme heads this part of MetWest’s program. He is the only staff member that also worked as a Teacher/Advisor at the first Big Picture school (The Met) in Providence (RI). He is responsible for finding sites for internships, interviewing potential mentors, making matches between individual students and mentors, and monitoring what goes on in the internship.

Local mentors take on the responsibility of helping a student acquire the work and social skills necessary to succeed in a business, government agency, educational and health organization, and similar Oakland groups. Since 2002 when MetWest opened, the school has placed students with more than 500 organizations, including local hospitals, radio stations and restaurants to provide learning opportunities. Here are media descriptions of students and their internships.

MetWest’s individualized approach has made a huge difference for Kris McCoy. McCoy had struggled in school and was involved in an armed robbery part-way through his eighth grade year. He served time in juvenile hall for that offense. He also got into several fights his first year at MetWest.

“He came with an ankle bracelet, and with visits from his parole officer,” said McCoy’s teacher, Shannon Carey. “And needing to be the alpha male and needing to show MetWest who he was and that he shouldn’t be messed with. He was way more concerned with that than he was with his academics or his future career.”

If the internships are a big draw to this high school, the close-knit relationships are what make the program work. Advisors like Carey each have a cohort of 20 students that they follow throughout four years of high school. Carey gets to know each student and their families well along the way. She also teaches English and social studies to that group, often weaving students’ personal interests into the assignments and offering a lot of choice within the whole group instruction.

She kept a plant in the middle of the room because she and her students were circling up so often…. In those circles they would talk about how to repair the many instances of harm that were happening. “He would have been kicked out of another high school if he had been fighting the way he had been when he first arrived here,” Carey said.

 Instead, McCoy began to trust Carey, something she says is very important for him to learn. He found himself an internship at an auto repair shop. His boss, Edward Lam, gave him a chance when no one else would, and treated him like an employee, while teaching him ever more complicated mechanical skills. In consultation with McCoy’s family, Carey decided to allow him to stay at that internship for several years, a fairly uncommon practice at MetWest.


“For students, like Kris, who really struggle with positive adult relationships, I see no reason to interrupt that relationship,” Carey said. “He can go deep in the content and he can go really deep in the really caring, trusting, loving relationship with adult men in his life.”

Or consider the story of Jose Gomez who interned at Urban Promise Academy in Oakland (CA) schools.


Or see the YouTube video on Karen Perez interning at Hopalong Animal Rescue.

The theory of action behind Big Picture schools such as MetWest using two-day a week internships is straightforward. By interning with mentors at a work site, teenagers enter the world of adults beyond family and school. Working with adults and picking up  different technical and social skills broadens and deepens learning by engaging their hands, hearts, and minds. That engagement is deepened when MetWest teacher/advisers and LTI coordinator meet with mentors and students on-site. Such personal connections bridge the workplace and academic classes as teachers make curricular choices during  the rest of the week.  Connected learning occur also with Senior Thesis Projects (see post) that invariably grow out of internships. Or as MetWest staff puts it: “College Prep through Real-World Learning.”

Internships, then, lead to learning about how adults work in organizations and the repertoire of skills needed to succeed at a job while applying that learning to academics (and the reverse as well). Thus, through personal engagement between teachers, mentors and students the two worlds of work and classroom come together to create deeper, more meaningful, and connected learning. That’s the theory.

Internships, however, do not always work out for students.  A few are fired for not showing up or being late. Some have to be re-trained. Most students and mentors do fit together.

MetWest internships occur on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Each Teacher/Advisor works with the students in their internships as well as classrooms (see teacher Shannon Carey in above article). The next post describes what I observed recently during an afternoon with LTI Mike Cellemme working with students at MetWest on finding internships and then visiting an intern at a site in Oakland.






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Intrinsic Motivation is Key to Student Achievement – But Schools Can Crush It (Tara Garcia Mathewson)

Tara Mathewson wrote this for The Hechinger Report. “The Hechinger Report is a non-profit, indepenent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.” It appeared March 27,2019.


Mathewson describes how “traditional” schools “crush” motivation. The age-graded organization–a mid-19th century innovation in organizing public schools (recall the “traditional” one-room school that it replaced)–is the quarry she targets. She describes students who do poorly in such schools.

Mathewson then compares another kind of organization that has arisen in some high schools across the country where teachers and administrators alter significantly the key structures of age-graded schooling. She profiles a Big Picture school called The Met (Providence, RI).  I have been describing another Big Picture school in Oakland Unified School District (CA) called MetWest in a series of posts over the past month.

When Destiny Reyes started elementary school, she felt highly motivated. Like most young children, she liked learning new things, and she excelled at school. She got good grades and reveled in her success, thriving in an environment that, at least implicitly, set her up in competition with her peers. She was at the top of her class, and she proved herself further by testing into a competitive, private middle school. But there, among Providence’s brightest, it wasn’t as easy to be at the top of the class, and her excitement about school – and learning – subsided. Eventually, she says, nothing motivated her. She went to school because she had to.

Destiny, 18, is like most students in the United States. Surveys reveal a steady decline in student engagement throughout middle and high school, a trend that Gallup deemed the “school engagement cliff.” The latest data from the company’s Student Poll found that 74 percent of fifth graders felt engaged, while the same was true of just 32 percent of high school juniors.

One of the key components of engagement is students’ excitement about what they learn. Yet most schools extinguish that excitement.

It all comes down to motivation. In many schools, students do their work because their teachers tell them to. Or because they need to do it to get a certain grade. For students like Destiny, getting a good grade and outshining their peers – not learning itself – becomes the goal of school. For other students, they need minimum grades to be on sports teams or participate in extracurricular activities or please their parents, and that becomes their motivation. Students who do their work because they’re genuinely interested in learning the material are few and far between.

But that’s exactly backwards.

The teacher demands, the grades, the promise of additional opportunities – they’re all external rewards. Decades of research, both about educational best practice and the way the human brain works, say these types of motivators are dangerous. Offering students rewards for learning creates reliance on the reward. If they becomes less interesting to the student or disappear entirely, the motivation does, too. That’s what happened to Destiny in middle school when she no longer got the reward of being celebrated as the top of her class.

Inspiring students’ intrinsic motivation to learn is a more effective strategy to get and keep students interested. And it’s more than that. Students actually learn better when motivated this way. They put forth more effort, tackle more challenging tasks, and end up gaining a more profound understanding of the concepts they study.

Still, Deborah Stipek, a Stanford University professor of education and author of the book “Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice,” is pragmatic about the role of extrinsic motivation.

“I think most realistic people in the field say that you’ve got to have both,” Stipek said. “You can rely entirely on intrinsic motivation if you don’t care what children learn, but if you’ve got a curriculum and a set of standards, then you can’t just go with what they’re interested in.”

The problem is that the balance, in most schools, is way off. While some schools around the country are trying to personalize learning and, in doing so, to tap into students’ interests, Stipek estimates that most teaching minimizes students’ internal desire to learn.

Destiny Reyes, 18, spends one school day each week at the New England Aquarium and much of her schoolwork is built around research opportunities there.


In traditional schools, it’s easier to offer a steady stream of rewards and punishments to keep students in line. And preparing students to succeed on state tests tends to discourage the lessons that let them explore their own interests. Teachers who want to inspire intrinsic motivation have to swim against the current.

That’s not the case everywhere, though. Destiny’s trajectory of diminishing engagement took a turn in high school. Instead of getting increasingly uninterested and disconnected from school, she became more engaged. That’s because she enrolled in the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a public high school district in Rhode Island that goes by ‘The Met.’ She is now a senior.


The Met is at the extreme when it comes to tapping into intrinsic motivation. Students don’t take traditional classes. They spend virtually all of their time learning independently, with support from advisors or at internships. Students all have individual learning plans and accumulate credits toward traditional subject areas through projects, self-directed study, internship experience and dual enrollment with local colleges. Almost everything they do, all day, connects to a personal goal or something they’re interested in.

That’s what inspired Destiny to enroll at The Met. “I thought, oh my God, I have all this power to choose what I want,” she remembers.

Education researchers have been studying student motivation for decades, identifying the best classroom strategies to promote an intrinsic drive to learn. The Met puts many of them to use. Students learn through real-world, hands-on problem-solving; they tackle open-ended assignments that require sustained effort; they get the power to choose what and how they learn; they finish projects with something to show for their learning in portfolios and concrete products; they set their own academic goals; they need never focus more on a grade than the process of learning because they don’t get traditional grades. All of these things come straight out of playbooks for inspiring intrinsic motivation, including Stipek’s. And the impact on students can be profound.

Destiny started high school with the academic zeal she left middle school with – meaning very little. Her freshman-year report card reflected that. While The Met doesn’t give out traditional grades, students do get assessed on their mastery of the goals they set for each subject. The dominant note on Destiny’s report card from ninth grade is “meeting expectations.” She had very few instances of “exceeding expectations” and in some subjects, her mastery was only “in progress.” In her sophomore year, things started to shift, and “exceeding expectations” started to become a more common assessment. By junior year, Destiny exceeded expectations in almost every subject and “in progress” was nowhere to be found on her report card. Gone was the middle schooler who didn’t want to be in class. In her place was a driven young woman who again liked school.

Destiny’s experience is common for Met students. On state surveys, these students report being more interested in their coursework, more convinced that what they’re learning will matter to their futures, and more supported at school than their peers in almost every other district in Rhode Island. She and other students at The Met continually bring the conversation back to how much difference it makes to be in control of their learning.

The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, R.I., known as The Met, is among a relatively small number of schools in the U.S. designed to intrinsically motivate students by tapping into their interests.

Sarah McCaffrey, a 10th grader, appreciates the stark difference between The Met and her experience in middle school, “where it was just ‘Do this, this, this,’” she said. “I like more hands-on, where I’m in control, rather than you’re just going to tell me how to do it and then I do it. It’s more like I’m in charge.”

Marissa Souza, a 2017 graduate of The Met and now a sophomore at Rhode Island College, said she had similar motivations in high school. At The Met, she said, students set their own goals, based on their own assessments of their strengths and weaknesses, tied to the dreams they identify for themselves. “You’re more proud of your work because you know this was your goal,” she said. “You met your goal, you didn’t meet a goal that a teacher or principal made for you.”


“It really pushes you to be your best self,” Marissa said.

It tends to take a little while for students to rise to the challenge, though.

Beccy Siddons, Destiny’s advisor, considers watching that trajectory to be one of the most exciting parts of her job. As the main contact for an “advisory” of about 16 students who stay with her for their entire time at The Met, Siddons guides students through their internships, all of their academic work and, eventually, their college applications.

“Ninth graders who have spent their whole life being told what to learn, some of them don’t even know what they’re interested in because they haven’t been given the opportunity,” Siddons said.

That was Destiny as a freshman. Her first internship was at an elementary school in a bilingual classroom – a safe, familiar choice for the native Spanish- and English-speaker. In the end, she didn’t like it. As a sophomore, Destiny saw another student present about an internship at the New England Aquarium, and it piqued her interest. Last year, she worked there, too, and quickly discovered a deep love of sea life. She now has a favorite creature she didn’t even know existed before: the puffer fish. And she has a career interest she otherwise might not have found until college, if ever: environmental science.

The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, R.I., known as The Met, gives students uncommonly broad control over what they learn in an effort to engage them in school. (Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report)

Siddons routinely oversees such meandering paths, and a key part of her job is helping students discover passions they didn’t know they might have. The freshmen she welcomes to The Met are a far cry from the seniors she sends out into the world.

The early part of that transformation does take work, though. And while it isn’t typical for schools to orient themselves around intrinsic motivation, hundreds do attempt it. Next Generation Learning Challenges has grown into a network of about 150 schools, all of which focus on tapping into students’ intrinsic motivation in one way or another. The Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools represents 102 school districts doing similar work; EdLeader21 has another 300 districts, many of whom aim to inspire students’ intrinsic desire to learn. And the Big Picture Learning network, built around the success of The Met, now counts more than 60 schools in the U.S. (and another 100 abroad).

In Chicago, a charter school made its commitment to this goal very clear, choosing the name Intrinsic Schools when it launched in 2013 to serve students in grades seven through 12. Learning there happens in “pods,” large, flexible classroom spaces that let students rotate from independent work to group instruction to collaborative, project-based learning. Ami Gandhi, director of innovation and collaboration and a co-founder of the charter, said that in the first year, administrators blocked out “independent learning time” for students, expecting they would thrive with the period of freedom. Looking back, Gandhi calls that naïve.

“I would go into the pod during that time and kids were just sitting there,” Gandhi said. “I was like, ‘What are you interested in?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘What do you want to explore?’ ‘Nothing.’”

“If someone’s been telling you what to do for nine to 10 years of your life in school, you really don’t know what to do with that independent time,” Gandhi said.

Teachers had to help equip students to take advantage of academic independence. At first, they didn’t give students open-ended choices. They told them what they should work on in the independent time. Then they gave them a menu of options, slowly working up to the point where students could choose for themselves, entirely. After the first-year’s naiveté, Intrinsic Schools teachers systematically prepare students to take control of their learning.

Another major challenge for schools trying to spark intrinsic motivation is to make sure that fun, engaging lessons also bring academic rigor. Several studies have found that projects and hands-on activities can be effective at intrinsically motivating students, but don’t actually result in substantive learning.

Stipek, the Stanford researcher, said this comes down to teacher preparation and school design. Teachers aren’t trained to design academically rigorous lessons that motivate students in the right way. And schools aren’t set up to give teachers the time to do so. It is possible, though. Stipek directed the UCLA Lab School for 10 years, and she said her teachers – experienced and highly trained – consistently planned projects that engaged students’ natural desire to learn while also forcing them to master concrete concepts and skills.

“It’s not that it can’t be done,” Stipek said. “It’s just really, really hard.”

And because it’s hard, it’s necessarily risky. Many teachers – and their bosses – are afraid to experiment with this work. Stipek said the accountability movement, where states hold schools to strict standards for student performance on standardized tests, put a damper on teaching methods that prioritize intrinsic motivation. She believes accountability is important, but, in its latest form, has prompted teachers to focus on test prep. That prioritizes the testing outcome – the grade – rather than the learning process, a surefire way to kill students’ sense of intrinsic motivation.

Researchers have found that one consequence of using grades to motivate students is that they stop challenging themselves for fear of trying something hard and failing at it. The hesitance of teachers and administrators to take a leap with new learning opportunities is an extension of the same thing.

Destiny’s school, though, breaks the mold.

Students don’t do particularly well on standardized tests at The Met. Rhode Island gives every school a star rating based on test scores, graduation rates and other metrics. The Met graduates more students than the state average (90 percent vs. 84 percent), but its rating, just two out of five stars, is dragged down by student achievement on state tests.

School leaders, though, don’t pay much attention to test scores. Nancy Diaz Bain, a co-director, said she and her colleagues prefer to keep track of state survey data about student engagement, parent feedback about their children’s progress, student behavior, graduation rates and student performance in college courses. When students from The Met take and pass college courses in high school – which all of them do – they not only prove they can handle advanced coursework, they save money on an eventual degree, Diaz Bain said. And the other metrics about student engagement and success persuade school leaders that the model works. They also persuaded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to pour $20 million into helping Big Picture Learning expand The Met’s model to other schools and President Barack Obama to highlight The Met up as an example in a 2010 speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (The Gates Foundation is also one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

For her part, Destiny feels prepared for what comes next. She’ll finish high school this spring and then pursue a bachelor’s degree. She plans to major in environmental science. While she knows her peers from traditional schools may have gotten a broader education, she expects the depth of knowledge she gained doing internships and related research projects will actually give her a leg up in college. And she’ll enroll armed with a sense of intrinsic motivation to learn new things that many of her peers lost a long time ago.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies

MetWest: Senior Thesis Project (Part 5)

MetWest is a small California high school (about 160 students in 9-12 grades) located in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). It is part of a network of Big Picture schools in the nation. In a recently built facility housing an elementary school, social service agencies, and a television studio, MetWest’s atrium is spacious with walls covered in photos, posters, each teacher’s advisory students, and upcoming events. Classrooms are on the ground and first floors of this part of the complex.

Demographically, nearly 60 percent of the students are Hispanic, nearly 30 percent African American with the remainder split among  Asian, white, and multiracial students. English Learners comprise just over 20 percent of the students. Nearly 80 percent of the school is eligible for free and reduced lunches.

As one of about 65 Big Picture schools in the nation (the original Met is located in Providence, Rhode Island), MetWest replicates the model with a schedule of three days of academic/advisory classes and two days when students are out of the building working as interns in businesses, public agencies, and places where adults agree to mentor the intern for the quarter. There is an all-school meeting chaired by students that gathers on Fridays. The overall aim of the program is to engage students by putting them “at the center of their own learning.” Or as the literature says:

[Students] would spend considerable time in the community under the tutelage of mentors and they would not be evaluated solely on the basis of standardized tests. Instead, students would be assessed on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hand, and heart  – reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that all of us face in our everyday lives.

As in other Big Picture schools, all MetWest 12th graders must do a Senior Thesis Project (STP). * Seniors present their projects to a group of teacher/advisors, administrators, and staff  who judge the worth of the presentation and determine whether student has passed or not. Each STP has to include an action project linked to their research and anchored in social justice. Each student gets three chances to pass. Most often the STP is anchored in the student’s Learning Through Internship (LTI). Passing the STP prepares seniors for their final Exhibition before an audience of students, teachers, family, and invited guests.

Each STP has a format in which the student prepares his or her slides to the jury of teachers. Each project has to have a question, a way of answering the question, the theory behind an answer, gathering of evidence, analysis of data presented, and a conclusion. It is a format familiar in college and graduate work. MetWest teachers have created and revised the criteria to judge each student’s presentation. On March 11, 2019, I observed Brenda and Hugo make their first presentation to a panel of three teachers and the principal. Two ninth graders were there also to become familiar with the process.

Here are the criteria or rubric that both students and staff use to judge presentations.





Brenda was first. Interning at Oakland’s Heritage Psychiatric Clinic, the question she asked was: “Mass Shootings: Why White Males?” In a series of slides she describes the history and context of various shootings by white males such as Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower shooter (1966), Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer (2012), and Dylan Roof who murdered nine people in a Charleston, S.C. church ( 2015).

In a quiet voice, Brenda links the question to the psychiatric clinic in which she was interning. She reads through a series of slides about the question such as the “Big Idea, ” her “Theory of Change” driving her action project (that professional development of certain staff would reduce patients’ emotional volatility and improve their behavior) and her proposal. She elaborates her action project including the impact of the ideas she has on her design of the professional development workshop. She goes over rubric categories such as relevance, feasibility, and rigor of her proposal. She swiftly goes through the slides. They were in small font and hard for observers to read. Brenda ends up  with a timeline of activities to execute the project. Group applauds at the end of her presentation. Staff exits to discuss her presentation.

After teachers returned, senior Hugo presents his slides. Hugo interns at a nearby elementary school’s 4th grade class. His action project drew from the work of Robert Moses Young People’s Project and sought to improve these children’s math skills and their mindset. His research question is: Why are low-income students of color not succeeding at  math?

In a series of slides, the senior lays out his theory of change:

If I target elementary students at La Escuelita in East Oakland with educational workshops and inspirational quotes, then I can help them improve their math skills and help them increase their confidence.

His tactics were to use workshops on math skills that included a multiplication game and 4th graders  parsing inspirational quotes. He wants to change the “mindset” of these 10 year-olds about math. He then describes No Child Left Behind and the Young People’s Project to get at the history and context of low performance of minority and poor children in math.

To illustrate relevance of the action project, Hugo shows a photo of himself at age 10 and tells of his own struggle with math in elementary school. Other slides get at rigor through a pre- and post-survey of these 4th graders’ responses to workshops. He ends with interview of mentor teacher with whom he worked.

Group applauds. Teachers and principal leave the room. I stay and listen to Brenda and Hugo express their nervousness over whether they passed or will have to present again later in the term. And they are anxious. The two other students there cheer them up and compliment their presentations. Staff returns.

One advisor/teacher gives the group’s evaluation of Brenda. He says that the staff judged her project presentation to be below expectations and she will have to do better next time. He lists some strong points in Brenda’s presentation but overall there were a number of specifics such as little evidence that was collected and linking her question to the professional development workshop she designed. These need attention, he says, including the timeline. Brenda responds to the points and clarifies others. She is obviously disappointed. Another teacher says that what the judges reported on her presentation would be included in an email to Brenda.

For Hugo, another teacher presents the group’s conclusion. Hugo approached expectations and had much that the staff felt was worthwhile but improvements had to be made in providing evidence that 4th graders’ did improve in math skills and showing how exactly inspirational quotes would alter the mindset of these 10 year-olds. Again, teacher says that all of what the judges reported would be emailed. Hugo asks a few questions and staff members respond.

Group applauds Brenda and Hugo just as chimes sound ending the period.


*In 2005,  Oakland Unified School District required a capstone project for all seniors. Some schools implemented it; others did not. Not until 2014, according to Young Whan Choi, did a teacher-designed rubric to assess quality of senior projects become generally used across the district (see here).





Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

How Come Schools and Teachers Change Yet Both Remain So Familiar?*


Why has the act of teaching in public schools (including charters) that serve wealthy, middle-class and poor children looked so familiar to past generations of journalists, researchers, parents and grandparents who enter classrooms? In short, why has there been so much continuity in schools and classroom teaching over the 20th and early 21st centuries?


Surely, teaching has changed. Many classrooms now dispense with rows of desks and have students at tables and pods of desks facing one another. Laptops and tablets are prevalent in schools; teachers use the Internet for videos in lessons; students give PowerPoint presentations; teachers take immediate polls of student answers to multiple choice questions with clickers; new textbooks, some of which are online.These changes have occurred in classrooms across the nation.


Yet amid those changes, there is a commonness in the classroom furniture, the unfolding of a lesson, the activities that teachers direct students to do, and Q & A that characterizes the back-and-forth between teacher and students. How to explain that familiar continuity in schooling and teaching?

I offer two explanations:

First is the organizational concept of “dynamic conservatism.” The idea involves both continuity and change by maintaining a tenuous balance in classrooms and schools. Institutions often embrace change in order to remain the same. Families, hospitals, companies, courts, city and state bureaucracies, and the military frequently respond to major reforms by adopting those changes that will sustain stability.

Consider, for example, school districts where administrators adopt the Common Core or add new courses on critical thinking to meet business-friendly reformers’ demand for 21st century skills . Or teachers with carts of tablets in their room ask students to do Internet searches, take notes, take Kahoot quizzes, and use Google docs to work in teams or make PowerPoint presentations. Also teachers who create daily or weekly circles in line with popular social-emotional learning strategies so students can express what is on their minds without fear of peer laughter or adult sneers. These teachers have made changes in how they teach while maintaining their usual order of tasks and activities in lessons. They “hugged the middle” between traditional and non-traditional ways of teaching. [i]

However, reform-driven policymakers looking at market-driven practices (e.g., using test scores to judge teaching success) are dead-set on redesigning classrooms and schools in more fundamental ways. They scorn such incremental changes and creation of hybrid teaching practices. They reject cosmetic changes. They want deeper changes that make teaching and learning effective.

Since the mid-1980s, such state and federal policymakers see schools as complicated organizations that need a good dose of castor-oil rationality where incentives and fear, not habits from a bygone era, drive employees to do the right thing in schools and classrooms. They want schools to become productive and turn out graduates who can solve problems, think critically, and score well on standardized tests. Thus, over nearly four decades of tough curriculum standards, high stakes tests, and school accountability for student outcomes, these market-friendly reforms believe that they have made changes in teaching that matter. [ii]

Yet these business-oriented policy changes schools have pushed schools to become even more traditional in teaching practices; teachers adapt to such top-down pressures (e.g., teach more phonics; prepare students for high-stakes tests, introduce pre-calculus courses) to the contours of their classrooms. What they ignore is that their re-engineering of policies and teachers adapting practices end up reinforcing age-graded procedures and classroom activities.

In adopting reforms that policymakers and donors push to substantially alter teaching and learning, they have mistakenly grafted practices borrowed from business organizations onto schools (e.g., zero-based budgeting in the 1970s; “management by objectives” and “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; pay-for-performance and loosening credential requirements in the 1990s and since).

No surprise, then, that policymakers and foundations treating complicated systems as complex ones in adopting and implementing school reforms–have triggered both fear and resistance among parents, students, teachers and administrators. Schooling and teaching after these mandated policies have been put into place, then, look even more familiar than ever.

Analyzing the idea of “dynamic conservatism” in complex systems leads to a deeper understanding of why teaching over the past century has been a mix of old and new, a blending of continuity and change. Change occurs all the time in schools and classrooms but not at the scope, pace, and schedule reform-driven policymakers and donors lay out in their engineered and top-down designs for reform.

Which brings me to a second explanation.

The business-oriented changes that have accompanied “dynamic conservatism” are, as other critics constantly point out, incremental–although they often mean superficial–and require little substantive change in what teachers and students do daily. The reasons that changes do occur, then, is that they are easily folded into the existing “grammar of schooling.”  because of the constancy of metrics measuring success and failure in schooling. These measures such as rising test scores, higher graduation rates, lower numbers of dropouts, increased numbers of graduates admitted to higher education have been in place for nearly four decades.

The point of this post, then, is that the fundamental “grammar of schooling” remains largely untouched by the kinds of incremental changes that occur often in schools. “Dynamic conservatism” does explain many incremental changes that end up sustaining the structures of the age-graded school and keeping schools and classrooms similar in how they look and what they do.

There are school reformers, however, who have tried to alter fundamentally the “grammar of schooling” in face of the current metrics that dominate reformer vocabulary and actions. They re-define what teacher and student success mean beyond test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance. They seek a deeper learning, more ambitious teaching in classrooms.  In some schools across the nation, these reformers have altered age-graded school structures such as class schedules, the role of teachers, what students do daily, and linkages with the world outside of schoolhouse doors.

They do not ignore the dominant metrics at work in U.S. policy but they have created hybrid organizations that combine deep, even fundamental changes in student learning (and the “grammar of schooling”) while not ignoring measures that policymakers and parents want to see in black and white at the end of the school year.  Subsequent posts take up some of these schools and their efforts at re-doing the “grammar of schooling.”



*This post originally appeared August 9, 2012. I have updated the post and added and deleted portions.

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

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

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Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies