Democracies Need More Than One Kind of “Good” School

This post is a revised and updated version of one I wrote June 2, 2010

[A good education] “teaches you how to ask a question… it is knowing what you don’t know….”

“Ideally, one should know who Shakespeare was and why Shakespeare was important to us…. At the same time, one should know who Toni Morrison is and why her voice and take on America is important to us.”

“An educated high school grad must read, compute, persevere, organize, and problem-solve well enough not just to attend college, but to graduate from college.”

[A good education should instill] “a love of lifelong learning.”*

No surprise that views of what makes a good education differ. Such opinions about what makes an education “good” have differed for millennia among religious leaders, Greek philosophers, and those rebels in the 13 colonies who shaped a democratic experiment in America. Not now, however, in a democracy increasingly and wholly shaped by market capitalism.

In the past quarter-century, one narrow version of a “good” education has become groupthink  among policymakers, civic and business leaders, parents, and voters. That version says a “good” education is one where a school—note that schooling and education merge as expressed by the above  educators—meets state curriculum standards, has satisfactory test scores, and moves all students successfully into college.

Paradoxically, this constricted but familiar definition has occurred amid an explosion of options available to U.S. parents seeking “good” schools. In fact, differentiation among public schools now through magnets, charters, homeschooling, cyber-schools, and online learning have become available. But when one looks at the thousands of small high schools, charters, and magnets created in the past 15 years particularly in urban districts nearly all these diverse options concentrate on college preparation, meeting state standards, insuring that students pass required tests, and getting graduates into higher education. But many other schools depart from the dominant model; they work with a different definition of a “good” school that develops students’ cognitive, physical, artistic, and emotional talents. They see schools as incubators of democratic citizenship. They see children as whole beings, not just brains-on-sticks.

Why is it a constricted definition of “goodness” to send everyone to college?

First, everyone does not go to college (62 percent do). Second, the majority of high school graduates who enter college, don’t finish (56 percent do). Third, less than 30 percent of jobs require a higher education degree which helps to explain why so many degree-holding graduates are over-qualified and under-employed.

There are other reasons to go beyond group-think and see many kinds of “good” schools.

Historically, many versions of “good” schools have existed in the U.S. Among consolidated rural schools and even one-room schoolhouses, for example, some were (and are) outstanding examples of multi-age children and youth led by savvy, committed teachers and principals where students learned from one another, were fully engaged in the worlds of farming, village commerce, and their local communities.

Or consider those schools established to become miniature democracies such as John Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago in the mid-1890s or the Sudbury Valley School in the late-1960s.

Or consider those schools dedicated to serve and improve their immigrant communities such as New York City principal Leonard Covello who ran Benjamin Franklin High School in the 1930s and 1940s.

Or take those small urban schools such as Boston’s Mission Hill School founded by Deborah Meier and a small group of teachers in 1997 or El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, New York, founded in 1982, that focuses on youth and community development.

Both historically and currently, there have been diverse versions of “good” schools that educate children and youth toward different ends than the present orthodox view. I raise this issue again because unrelenting pressures from the business community, civic leaders, and state and federal policymakers on public schools to conform (through financial incentives mixed with strong penalties) to a one-size-fits-all “good” school has been on the reform agenda for past three decades. This group-think amplified frequently in the media with facts about life-time earnings of college graduates, reinforces the argument that public schools serve the economy. And that economy has to grow through skilled and knowledgeable graduates entering the labor market. This rigid mind-set excludes alternatives legions of college prep schools.

Such group-think among very smart people forget that democratic governments  for a nation of immigrants require many different types of “good” schools.When all students, including those who have no interest–much less desire–to sit in classrooms for four more years, prepare for college to better serve an economy and gain a higher rung on the ladder of financial success–diversity in “good” schools loses out. Schools are, and have been, vital institutions that sustain democratic ideas, thinking, and action. They need more than one version of a good school.


*Randal C. Archbold, “What Makes a Good Education?” New York Times, January 14, 2001, p.27




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Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

Some Thoughts about Change, Innovation, and Watching Paint Dry

Let’s face it, in the U.S. change is far sexier than stability. Words like “innovation,” “revolution,””disruption,”and, of course, “reform” have replaced the 19th century common word of “progress.” With so much evidence about war, civil war, torture, poverty, in the world, the concept of “progress” is a hard sell. But not the idea of change. Especially, technological change. From iPhones to Chromebooks to driverless cars to controlling all home appliances with clicks on smart phones, Americans will line up outside stores days in advance to buy the next new thing.

Stability, continuity, day-after-day routines hardly excites Americans or makes films (except perhaps Andy Warhol creations). Stability is, you guessed it, ho-hum, prompting open-mouth yawns. No pizzaz, no cheerleaders, no drum rolls accompany calls for more stability in daily routines or in life. Political leaders from U.S. presidents to local school board members promise to turnaround the status quo. Particularly, when the topic is tax-supported, compulsory public education for children and youth ages 6-16 across the U.S. For the past thirty years, civic, business, and philanthropic leaders have targeted U.S. public schools for their mediocrity, as compared to international economic competitors. Calls for “transformation” of school governance, curriculum, organization, and instruction have rolled off the tongues of politicians, CEOs, and superintendents. What policymakers,  practitioners, parents, and researchers too often overlook or ignore is the dual purposes (and paradox) of compulsory public education in a democracy. Tax-supported public schools are expected to conserve and change.

Consider public opinion polls on what schools should do for U.S. children and youth. One illustrates the rich array of collective and individual purposes that parents and taxpayers expect schools to achieve. In order of importance, the top five purposes were as follows:

*Prepare youth to become responsible citizens;

*Help young people become economically sufficient;

*Ensure a basic level of quality among schools;

*Promote cultural unity among all Americans;

*Improve social conditions for people.[i]

The numerous and competing goals would not have surprised education scholars who have documented these public expectations for children attending schools. In the late 1970s, John Goodlad and associates conducted a major study involving 38 urban, suburban, and rural schools in seven states across the country. Their “Study of Schooling” examined the historic goals of U.S. schools and those they found stated in district, state, and school documents. There were 62.[ii]

Of course, I do not need to lean on public opinion polls to assert that public schooling’s socializing role remains a powerful expectation among parents and taxpayers since schools historically have been agents of preserving civic and moral values. Go into any preschool or kindergarten classroom and see how the teachers train young children to take turns, wash their hands before eating, to talk things through rather than hit one another–you get the picture. For older students, what they should learn in class has prompted battles over school prayer and ugly spats over whether “creationism” or “intelligent design” should be taught in high school science courses.

Historically, public schools have been expected to both conserve community values and traditions while simultaneously giving children and youth the knowledge and skills to make changes in their lives, communities, and yes, in those very values and traditions they absorbed. Some commentators see this as the ongoing conflict between the school’s traditional purpose of transmitting the dominant culture and the purpose of becoming a modern institution in step with the ever-changing society. That dual purpose of public schools has been often lost in current and past reformers’ enthusiastic embrace of schools becoming modern change-agents solving grave national problems.

This conflict in values prizing both continuity and change help explain the laundry list zealous reformers and ardent supporters of the traditional purposes have compiled about change and stability in public schools.
*Schools are resistant to change;
*Schools adopt one fad after another
*Schools change at a glacial pace;
*Schools move at warp speed in embracing innovations.

The contradictory complaints go to the paradox of what parents, voters, policymakers, and practitioners expect of schools and what seems to happen after reform-driven policies are adopted. Even after many changes are introduced into districts and schools, abiding routines and practices persist. Some social scientists call this phenomenon “institutional stasis” and “dynamic conservatism” where the Siamese twins of change and stability keep the organization in balance. In public schools it is not change or stability; it is both at the same time. Coping with this paradox of reform requires policymakers and practitioners to recognize the conflict embedded in the two-fold function of tax-supported public schools and then to—I use a metaphor here–master the art of jiu-jitsu in bringing opposites into harmony in a gentle, supple, and gradual way, a task that few policymakers achieve.

Educators often get flummoxed when they are expected to preserve community and national values while simultaneously being asked to make changes in school organization, curriculum, and instruction in order to solve larger economic and social problems harming the nation. Repeated criticisms of public schools over decades arise from this misunderstanding among fervent reformers of the public school’s basic role to both conserve and change.

Transmitting the dominant values and beliefs in the culture is far less sexy a proposition–more like watching paint dry–than “disrupting,” transforming,” and “revolutionizing,” public schools.


[i] Lowell Rose and Alec Gallup, ” The 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools”Phi Delta Kappan, September 2000, p. 47.


[ii] John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984), pp.50-56.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, Reforming schools

Cartoons on Reading and Writing

For this monthly’s cartoon feature, I have collected ones that get at the overarching purpose of schools to produce children and youth who can read and write well. Some of the cartoons may get you to smile, some may get you to scratch your head, and, maybe, just maybe, some will get you to laugh. Enjoy!

















































































































Filed under Uncategorized

Kids as Tour Guides: Integrating Student-Created Media into History Class (Kerry Gallagher)

Kerry Gallagher , a veteran middle school and high school history teacher posted this project she did with her ninth graders. It appeared Feb 20, 2015 on EdSurge.

Why do we travel? How do we choose a place to put down roots? What draws us there? Today, when we plan to travel or relocate, we do research. We find out about the climate, people, culture, and economy that we are about to dive into.

I wanted my students to experience that kind of research process, and to arrive at an answer relating the question of why people are drawn to places. After all, project-based learning should allow students to experience authentic processes while learning content. But I also wanted them to show their learning through a product that professionals typically publish: tourism commercials.

And so, that is what we did.

Step 1: Frame the Task

In our early North American colonies unit, students learned about the cultures and economies of the 17th century colonies. What was the draw? Why did Europeans take the risky trek across the volatile Atlantic Ocean to put down roots in a place so far away? It was time for my students to start investigating.

First, I showed the ninth graders real tourism advertisements I found on YouTube; they watched clever ads from across the continent in California and from their home turf in Massachusetts. Then we talked, in small groups and as a class, about what made each place attractive. Some of the items on the list had to do with the places themselves: lots to do, beautiful scenery, welcoming people, while other students mentioned aspects of the video production: bright colors, upbeat music, cheerful narrative script.

Step 2: Start the Research

Small groups of 2-3 students chose an early North American colony from New York in the North to Georgia in the South, and started digging for information about founding leadership, religion, economy, climate, and culture. Students used articles from our school subscription databases and books from the classroom and school libraries.

When students gathered their information in Evernote or Google Drive, they shared it with me for extra input and approval. Once I reviewed their work and pushed them deeper with some guiding questions, a real vision of their colonies became clearer.

Step 3: Pulling it Together

This next step is a great opportunity for interdisciplinary learning, for those teachers who are interested in it.

As students began writing their scripts, they were instructed to use what they learned about persuasive techniques from their English classes. My colleague Kate Crosby even pointed me toward a handy guide to the Aristotelian Appeals ethos, pathos, and logos they’d used in her freshman English class, making this a truly interdisciplinary endeavor. They also had to consider who their commercial might target: families? young men just starting out? the wealthy? the religious?

Once the script was crafted, students looked for images to represent their colony and used iMovie to put together their commercial and Airdrop to share it with me. Finally, I uploaded the videos to my YouTube channel, specifically created for student projects.

Step 4: Hosting a Viewing Party

Students showed their final commercials to one another in the classroom. No information was given to the audience prior to the screening, but while watching, other students were given varying information to look for: economy, culture, religion, leaders, and method of persuasion utilized. The audience told the creators what they learned from the video, and the creators confirmed or clarified the details.

Step 5: Reflect, Report, Publish

Any great project can’t be complete without reflection, so my students share their learning on blogs. The benefit of this medium is that the final work can be a mix of written expression illustrated with images and video clips.

  • Kirsten’s post about her New Jersey ad is a great example. She wrote about the process we went through in class, what she learned about New Jersey, embedded her video, and concluded with an analysis of persuasive techniques employed.
  • Olivia’s post on Georgia was also well put together and her group’s video production quality was perhaps the best of the class. See the video below. At:

This journey brought my students through required curriculum, but also gave them experience with the real process people must go through before traveling to a destination or developing marketing material. When real world skills are combined with rich content, the best of project-based learning happens.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

You Cannot Tell Wisdom: What You Don’t Learn in Teacher Education Programs and Teach for America

By the fifth year of my teaching in Cleveland’s Glenville High School in the early 1960s, I had learned one of the most important lessons a teacher can learn in an urban high school. I carried the precept with me to Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in Washington, D.C., and any teaching I have done ever since, including Los Altos and Menlo-Atherton high schools in northern California and, yes, Stanford University.  That lesson was not in the curriculum of the undergraduate teacher education program I had taken. Nor can that lesson be easily learned in  the two-year stint  that Teach for America novices serve.

OK, what is that lesson? Never ask permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.

With mindful experience in classrooms, teachers learn that they are gatekeepers to what enters and exits their rooms. While there is so much that teachers have no control over in teaching such as the students they have, the room within they teach, the schedule they follow through the school day, events occurring inside and outside the school, and school organization–they do have a  margin of precious autonomy once they shut the classroom door. As gatekeepers to the classroom, teachers learn in fits and starts, by trial and error, that they determine what and how content gets taught. They learn to convey attitudes and values about life and learning within the confines of that 900 square feet classroom. Yes, that freedom is constrained. Nonetheless, that autonomy can make teaching influential in the lives of children and youth, jump-start learning for both teacher and students, and fashion the art of performance in classrooms.

And in learning how to teach and work with colleagues in my schools over the years and extract a small measure of freedom outside of my classroom, my hard-earned organizational lesson came into play.

As I taught history to five classes a day in the initial years at Glenville High School, it became clear to me that I needed more than what the school and district could supply me with–reams of paper, machines that would make copies of readings for my students, and access to people who could help me reach my students in ways that I could not. I began to locate paper, machines, and people, sweet-talked my way into gathering them by bending school and district rules. A case in point, I found reams of paper unused in another department’s store room at the end of the school year and appropriated them for my Fall classes. After school began, the principal called me into his office and showed me telephone messages and memos he had received from district officials demanding an explanation for my “unprofessional behavior.”

My relationship with the principal was a warm, supportive one in which he judged me as a hard-working teacher who was part of a cadre in the urban school that helped students graduate and enter college. So he faced a dilemma in having to do something stern without alienating an entrepreneurial teacher, given all of the district complaints about my “unprofessional behavior.” I, too, faced a dilemma. In a scarcity economy which is what urban schools are insofar as supplies and resources, teachers had to be enterprising beyond dipping into their wallets to buy things for their classes. I scrounged, begged, and borrowed to the hilt with colleagues but it wasn’t enough. And yet I didn’t want to stop because what I was doing with my classes seemed to be paying off in increased attendance and motivation. Yet my boss was upset.  I had to mollify him and the district officials pestering him to do something to stop my apparent “unprofessional behavior.” So after much thinking about how schools worked and what I had learned about authority structures in schools and districts, I asked the principal to forgive my indiscretion.

I apologized after the fact for not asking permission. He reported to his superiors that I had apologized for my actions and that ended the incident.  And that lesson I learned from my experiences over five years as a teacher I continued to practice when working in urban schools, as a superintendent, and professor. I consider that lesson wisdom I had gained from teaching at Glenville.

Sure you can tell such wisdom to novices but they lack the organizational savvy to make sense of it. They lack the mindfulness drawn from pondering one’s experiences in a school and classroom. And I would guess that TFA-ers don’t learn that lesson in their summer training or in the two years they spend as classroom teachers. What a powerful lesson I learned as a young teacher: do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.




Filed under how teachers teach

Different Worlds of Policymakers and Teachers

Here’s a story about the different worlds that U.S policy makers and teachers live in and how that affects the use of new technologies in schools.

A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He came lower and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.” The woman below replied, “You’re in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You’re between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude.”

“You must be a teacher,” said the balloonist. “I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?” “Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I’ve no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I’m still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help at all. If anything, you’ve delayed my trip.”

The woman below responded, “You must be a policymaker.” “I am,” said the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have no map, and no compass. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise, which you’ve no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”[i]

Here is the takeway from the story.

U.S. school reforms, especially those directed toward improving how teachers teach and how students learn have been made historically by top policymakers and then delivered to principals and teachers to put into classroom practice. In many instances, this journey from policy to practice has disappointed policymakers. Often they complain about partial or distorted implementation of decisions. They see that their ideas of what a “good” school is, what effective teaching and learning are, and the importance of using new technologies for classroom lessons have been ignored by practitioners. These policymakers, however, wear blinders and fail to see that teachers are gatekeepers who decide what ideas and practices get past the classroom door.

This issue of teachers and policymakers living in different worlds is reflected in the questions that each asks when a new policy is proposed and adopted.

When adopting policies aimed at reforming what teachers do in schools, policymakers will often ask the following questions:

* Will the new policy cost more, less, or the same as the existing policy?

* Will the new policy be more, less, or the same in achieving instructional and curricular objectives than the current policy?

* What incentives and sanctions are there to reward and penalize principals and teachers charged to implement new policies?

* How can what works in some schools scale upward to encompass more schools across states and the nation? [ii]

Teachers, however, ask very different questions especially after policymakers have decided that teachers should use more, faster, and better technologies in their lessons.[iii]

* How much time and energy will we have to invest in learning the new devices and accompanying software?

* Will the time spent learning to use the new technology yield a comparable return in student learning?

* What evidence is there that the new technology will help students meet district standards and score better on tests than without these devices and software?

* When glitches in integrating hardware and software occur—and they will occur—will on-site professional and technical help be immediately available?[ii]

Note how different these questions are from ones policymakers ask. Because policymakers largely ignore teacher questions, the policy-to-practice journey often stops at the classroom door where teachers, as gatekeepers, ultimately decide what gets put into lessons and what gets put into the closet.

As researchers have established, the teacher is the most important in-school factor influencing learning. Policymakers agree with researchers on importance of teachers to classroom reforms. If so, should not teachers’ ideas, beliefs, values, and questions get respectful attention and action from decision-makers? The answer is obviously yes, but in most instances, other than consulting a few teachers, token representation on advisory groups, or occasional visits to schools, policymakers pay little attention to what teachers think or even more importantly, to the gate-keeping function they perform.

No dark motive rests behind policymakers largely ignoring that teachers determine what policies enter their classrooms. I believe that policymakers wear blinders (or perhaps suffer myopia) by living in their insulated world. Inhabiting this separate world becomes a major hazard on the road from policy to practice.[iv]



[i] Louise Locock and Annette Boaz, “Research, Policy and Practice – Worlds Apart?” Social Policy and Society, 2004, 3(4), pp. 375 – 384.

[ii] Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin, Steady Work (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1988), pp. 5-14.

[iii] Larry Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 168.

[iv] The primacy of the teacher as the significant in-school factor in getting students to learn is embedded in the experiential wisdom of parents who seek out particular teachers, move to different districts, get in lotteries for charter schools, and seek out vouchers. Researchers have said as much over the decades. From the work of William Sanders in Tennessee to John Hattie’s meta-analyses to the recent findings of the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, all—and others—reaffirm what students, parents, and principals have said for years. See: William Sanders and Sandra Horn, “Research Findings from the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) Database: Implications for Educational Evaluation and Research,” Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, 1998, 12(3) pp. 247-256, 1998; John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (London: Routledge, 2011); Thomas Kane, Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project (Seattle: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013).



Filed under school reform policies

Technology Enthusiasts, Pragmatists, and Skeptics among Practitioners and Policymakers: Where Are You?

I wrote this post five years ago this month. In it, I mentioned two recently published books that divided advocates of and opponents to technologies in schools into two camps: enthusiasts and skeptics. For the past few months I have been thinking anew about those policymakers, pundits, and practitioners (including blogging students and parents) who write about technology. I want to broaden the familiar continuum of positions on technology in schools beyond those at either pole. I want to include a rich array of those who inhabit the middle. So here is a revised and expanded post.

In reading Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America (2009) by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, they, like many other writers on technology, create a continuum of advocates and critics of technology in schools. At one end of their continuum are the “Technology Enthusiasts” and at the other end are the “Technology Skeptics.

Collins and Halverson do not bash either the cheerleaders or doubters at either end of the continuum although many of those gleeful about school technologies do dump on those who express doubt with the position they take. The authors cite points for each side but clearly believe that the world has become digital and schools as they are currently operated will be undercut and overwhelmed by home schooling, cyberschools, charters, private learning centers, workplace learning, and distance education. “These new alternatives,” they say, “will make us rethink the dominant role of K-12 public schools in education as children and adults spend more time learning in new venues” (p.4). Thus, the “digital revolution” will alter the nature of schooling completely by making learning life-long and, in their words, mere “schooling” will finally become “educational.” Maybe.

The problem I have with such scenarios—and, God knows, there have been such claims for decades from Nicholas Negroponte, Seymour Papert and many others (see here and here)—is that these peeks into the future carry the assumption of inevitability—it’s gonna happen and no one can stop it—and no middle ground for folks who may say: “wait a minute, let’s look at this again.”

Seldom do these futurists acknowledge in either their celebratory or dismal predictions that while many parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers inhabit either the Enthusiast or Skeptic pole, many others cluster in the middle of the continuum. Many of those–more often than not, teachers and principals rather than policymakers–who hug the middle know that present and past school uses of technologies show great promise for student learning but contain serious flaws; sometimes they even wince at especially foolish claims made by one or the other side. Overall, however, most writers and actual players in the school technology game, especially policymakers, believe technologies in or out of school will ultimately benefit students and teachers.

Those middle-of-the-roaders, however—let’s call them Pragmatists— may tilt toward the Enthusiasts in their heart-of-hearts, but in practice, shy away from the unrealistically rosy future digital millennials imagine. Pragmatists see merit in the arguments and evidence laid out by the Skeptics and have doubts about the too bright and too dark futures that advocates at both end of this continuum forecast. These Pragmatists see the institutional limits of schooling, the varied purposes that schools serve in a democratic society, and the inevitable glitches that arise. They do not worship at the shrine of technology.  If push comes to shove, those in the middle might tilt toward the Enthusiasts’ side but would not pooh-pooh Skeptics or call them names.

These Pragmatists are neither unvarnished fans of the newest software application—some Enthusiasts have yet to meet one they didn’t like–nor doom-saying Skeptics who claim that any new device shoves teachers further down that road of dumbing down the art and science of teaching, isolating individuals from one another and confusing students by equating information with knowledge.

I believe that most teachers are Pragmatists and most policymakers are Enthusiasts. As schools have been the pushed into  trying out the most recent technological innovations, teachers have learned over time that some devices and software can be very helpful in reaching their objectives and some applications cannot (or will not) be helpful. More and more teachers have incorporated new technologies into their daily lessons  since the early 1980s. Using mixes of traditional teaching with new technologies (e.g., smart boards, tablets, laptops) have led to increasing instances of “blended learning.” Such teachers using mixes of old and new classroom approaches illustrate Pragmatists in action.

Where do you fit on the continuum?


Filed under school reform policies, technology use