Toying with School Calendars (Part 2)

There are three reasons why it has been hard for reform-driven policymakers to fix school time.

*Research showing achievement gains due to more time in school are sparse; those few studies most often cited are contested.

*In narrowing the multiple goals Americans expect of their public schools to preparing workers for a globally competitive economy, current policymakers, have seriously underestimated the powerful tug that other non-economic goals (e.g. civic action, socializing children ) have on taxpayers and voters.

*Decision-makers advance proposals to fix time in school to show voters that they are solving economic problems of declining global competitiveness by lengthening the school calendar and hours of instruction in U.S. schools.


The few changes in lengthening the school year, day, and schedule that did occur in the past quarter-century did so seldom because research showed strong academic gains or cost savings resulting from more time in school. Cultural changes, political decisions, or strong parental concerns trumped research every time in tinkering with the school calendar. Moreover, the available research was (and is) skimpy. What studies exist are challenged repeatedly for being weakly designed. For example analysts examining the research on year-round schools reported that most of the studies have serious design flaws and, at best, show slight positive gains in student achievement—except for students from low-income families where the gains were sturdier.

Not only does the lack of rigorous studies make it hard to prove that time in school is the critical variable in raising academic achievement. There are so many other variables that need to be considered. Mentioning only a few critical ones gives even the most ardent researchers pause: the local context itself, available resources, teacher quality, administrative leadership, socioeconomic and cultural background of students, the taught curriculum are just the beginning for any list of factors that come into play when linking changes in time allocation to students’ academic achievement. The lack of careful research, however, has seldom stopped reform-driven decision-makers from pursuing their agendas.


Contemporary civic and business elites have reduced the multiple goals Americans expect of their public schools to a single one: prepare youth to work in a globally competitive economy.  This is the second reason why more-time-in-school proposals have failed; such a narrow goal ignores what Americans historically have expected from their public schools.

For three decades, influential groups have succeeded in calling for and getting higher academic standards, accountability for student outcomes, and more testing. By 2012, U.S. schools have put into place a federally-driven system of state-designed standards anchored in increased testing, results-driven accountability, and demands for students to spend more time in school. Reform-driven policy elites have spun the U.S.’s declining global economic competitiveness into a time-in-school problem.

But these policymakers have underestimated the clout other goals have had—and continue to have–with parents and taxpayers who expect public schools to accomplish traditional school aims. Opinion polls, for example, display again and again goals parents, voters, and taxpayers want schools to achieve. On poll listed the top five:

*To prepare people to become responsible citizens;

*To help people become economically sufficient;

*To ensure a basic level of quality among schools;

*To promote cultural unity among all Americans;

*To improve social conditions for people.(pdkpoll32_2000)

To reach those goals, a democratic society expects schools to produce adults who are active in their communities, enlightened employers, and hard-working employees who have acquired and practiced particular values that sustain its way of life. Those social, political, and economic values are dominant American norms pervading family, school, workplace, and community: Act independently; accept personal responsibility for actions; work hard and complete a job well; and be fair. Within every age-graded school in the U.S., every kindergarten, middle school algebra class, and Advanced Placement U.S. history course–these norms show up in school rules and classroom practices (brint PDF). Voters want their schools to practice these norms daily and not simply add time to the day and year.


The third reason for the persistent failure to fix time in schools in the past quarter-century is symbolic. Policy elites advance proposals to fix time in school to show voters and taxpayers how hard they are working to solve the economic problems of declining global competitiveness by lengthening the school calendar and hours of instruction in U.S. schools. Symbolic politics, that is, making serious pronouncements and adopting policies, amplified by media, that play on voters’ and taxpayers’ emotions but sidetrack public attention from deeper issues and more consequential actions also sum up the fix-school-time proposals since the early 1980s.

Examples of using political symbols to stir emotions range from media debates over whether candidates for President should wear a flag lapel pin to a non-binding Congressional resolution on a proposed U.S. history curriculum being insufficiently patriotic to city councils banning certain epithets yet attaching no penalties for people who use the forbidden words. Provoking deep emotions around a policy issue—a state referendum that English is the official language—diverts consideration of the impact of immigration on schools, available labor market, and social services. Such symbolic politics require media amplification and once amplified moves closer to theater than politics, that is, the act of talking and performing elicits emotions and trumps analysis and rational discussion.


These three reasons (lackluster research, the importance of non-economic goals to U.S. taxpayers and voters, and symbolic politics), I argue, explain why all of the time-fixing proposals to improve U.S. schools have failed to change much of what occurs in schools and the time that teachers spend teaching and students learning.

Policy elites know that research studies proving the worth of year-round schools or lengthened school days are in short supply and even were an occasional study to surface that would support the policy, it would not be a deal-breaker in extending the school year much beyond 180 days. Policy elites know that school goals go far beyond simply preparing graduates for college and to be employable in a knowledge-based economy. And policy elites know that they must show courage in their pursuit of improving failing U.S. schools by forcing students to go to school just as long as their peers do in India, China, Japan, and Korea. That courage shows up symbolically, playing well in the media, in proposals to fix time in schools but seldom alter calendars.

I wish I had an upbeat message or policy prescription for fixing school time. I do not. The stability of schooling structures and the importance of socializing the young into the values of the immediate community and larger society have defeated policy-driven efforts to alter time in school over the past quarter-century. Except for extended school days for low-income minority students and a widespread acceptance that going to school means now you go from pre-kindergarten through college, I, like the larger public, am unconvinced that requiring students and teachers to spend more time in school each day and every year will be better for them and the U.S. Without serious, sustained—and not symbolic–attention to the quality of the time that teachers and students already spend with one another in and out of classrooms, more proposals to lengthen time in school will come from state and federal blue-ribbon commissions. Like their predecessors, they will make headlines, TV news snippets, and circulate on the web as bloggers go to work on the most recent effort to improve U.S. schools. They will, however, amount to little.

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Toying with School Calendars (Part 1)

 Pandemic-related school closures, which caused an alarming rate of learning loss among the country’s most vulnerable students, have prompted some administrators to reconsider the school calendar.

An earlier start date, a later end date and numerous, elongated breaks throughout the year could allow more timely remediation for children in need — and enrichment for those who are not.

Altering schools and classroom practices is tough to do. Americans criticize their schools a lot and although schooling and teaching lessons has changed considerably over the past century, criticism continues. With three school years affected by Covid-19, reformers’ eyes have turned to the school calendar.

With the loss of school days (most states require students to attend school at least 180 days a year) and fears of students piling up learning deficits while out of school, the pandemic has brought back policy discussions on altering the annual school calendar.

Fixing school time has been a popular solution reform-minded policymakers have promoted to improve U.S. schools. Since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, Prisoners of Time in 1994, blue-ribbon commission recommendations in Tough Choices, Tough Times in 2007, and in 2012 high profile leaders formed a new national coalition to add time to the school day and year, reformers have criticized no end how long and how well students spend time in school.

Criticism of school schedules comes from business and civic leaders who see the United States stuck in the middle ranks of nations based on student scores on international tests. These leaders see a link between Asian and European governments requiring more days in school than the U.S. and those foreign students scoring far higher than U.S. test-takers.

Criticism of the amount of time students spend in school comes from employers who wonder whether limited days and hours spent in classes are sufficient to produce the knowledge, skills, and behaviors employees need to work in a globally competitive economy

Criticism of school schedules also come from those working parents who need schools open early in the morning and remain open until they pick up their children before dinner.

Criticism also comes from professors who scold policymakers for allotting so little time for teachers to gain new knowledge and skills during the school day. Many want policymakers to distinguish between requiring more time in school and academic learning time or time on task, jargon for those hours and minutes where teachers engage students in learning content and skills ( Berliner, What’s all the fuss about instructional time).

Finally, criticism of time in school comes from online champions who see hundreds of students sitting at school desks for 180 days as quaint when a revolution in communication devices has allowed children to learn the formal curriculum at home and other venues rather than in school buildings. Online learning advocates, joined by those who see cyber-schools as the future, want children and youth to spend less time in K-12 school buildings.

How Successful Have Critics Been in Fixing School Time?

Presidential commissions, parents, academics, and employers have proposed to policymakers the same solutions again and again: Add more days to the annual school calendar. Create year-round schools. Add instructional time to the daily schedule. Extend the school day. These familiar—almost traditional–recommendations are as close as one can come, metaphorically, to the missionary position in sex. What has happened to each proposal in the past quarter-century?

Longer school year. Recommendations for a longer school year (from 180 to 220 days) have come from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. Yet over a decade later, one foundation-funded report, A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk, found that the 180-day school year was intact across the nation and only Massachusetts had started a pilot program to help districts lengthen the school year. The same report graded states’ progress made on those quarter-century old recommendations: States extending their school year received an “F.”

Year-round schools. The homespun myth that the annual school calendar with three months off for both teachers and students is based on the rhythm of 19th century farm life still receives respectful attention. Thus, planting and harvesting chores accounted for long summer breaks, an artifact of agrarian America. Not so.

Actually summer vacations grew out of early 20th century urban middle-class parents (and later lobbyists for camps and the tourist industry) pressing school boards to release children to be with their families for four to eight weeks or more. By the 1960s, however, policymaker and parent concerns about students losing ground academically during the vacation months—in academic language, “summer loss”—gained support for year-round schooling. Cost savings also attracted those who saw facilities being used 12 months a year rather than being shuttered during the summer.

Nonetheless, although year-round schools were established as early as 1906 in Gary, Indiana, calendar innovations have had a hard time entering most schools. Districts with year round schools still work within the 180-day year but distribute the time more evenly (e.g., 45 days in session; 15 days off) rather than having a long break between June and September. As of 2020, nearly over 95 percent of public schools operate on a traditional annual calendar. In most cases, what got school boards to adopt year-round schools was increased enrollments crowding facilities, most often in minority and poor communities—not concerns over “summer loss.”

Adding instructional time to the school day. So many researchers and reformers have pointed out that the 6.5 hour school day has so many interruptions, so many distractions that teachers have less than five hours of genuine classroom instruction for student learning. Advocates of more instructional time have tried to stretch the actual amount of instructional time available to teachers to a seven-hour day (or 5.5 hours of time for time-on-task learning) or have tried to redistribute the existing secondary school schedule into 90-minute blocks rather than the traditional 50-minute periods. Very hard to do. Much easier has been to add time to the school day.

Extended school day. In the past half-century, as the economy has changed and families increasingly have both (or single) parents working, schools have been pressed to take on child-care responsibilities such as tutoring and homework supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 AM for parents to drop off their children and have after-school programs that close at 6 PM in many middle class neighborhoods but especially in neighborhoods serving low-income families. Opinion polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before- and after-school programs (KAPPAN poll). Moreover, all-day kindergartens (and pre-kindergartens for four year-olds), especially in low-income neighborhoods have spread swiftly in the past two decades. Innovative urban schools such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) run longer school days. The latter routinely opens at 7:30 AM and closes at 5 PM while scheduling biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.

If there is a success story in fixing school time that reformers can thump their chests over, it is in extending the school day. How much of that success, however, came from reformers’ arguments and actions and how much came from economic and social changes in American family structure and chasing a higher standard of living, I cannot say.

Cybereducation. And what about those cheer-leading technological enthusiasts who see fixing time in school as a wasted effort when online schooling can replace formal schooling? Especially after schools closed initially in early 2020 and immediately converted to online instruction. After nearly three school years of pandemic closures and re-openings, remote instruction continues to be promoted.

Yet even the most enthusiastic advocate of cyber schools and online schooling recognizes that replacing face-to-face instruction is, at best, unlikely. For time-fixing reformers who see the solution to low academic performance in adding days and hours to school schedules, however, the foreseeable future will still have 50-plus million children and youth crossing the schoolhouse door each weekday morning. And decade after decade, these reformers have trotted out the same recipes for changes in the annual calendar and extending time in school. Yet for all the hoopla and endorsement from highly influential business and political elites results of their mighty efforts have been minuscule. Why is that?

Cost is the usual suspect. The price tag of extending the school year to cover additional teacher salaries and other expenses runs high. One researcher estimated that going from 175 to 200 days would cost the state of Minnesota, not the largest state in the nation, $750 million a year, a large but not insurmountable price to pay. But costs for extending the school day for instruction and child-care are far less onerous. Even more attractive than adding more days to the calendar is the claim that a year-round school saves dollars. Except, then, for lengthening the school calendar, which is, at heart, a political decision about the allocation of scarce education dollars, cost is not the tipping point factor in explaining why it is so hard to fix school time. There are other reasons: I offer three in Part 2.

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From the Bottom Up: Teachers as Reformers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few examples of teacher-led changes, however, come to mind.

Consider the “interactive student notebook” developed by a few San Francisco Bay area teachers in the 1970s and 1980s that has spread into many U.S. classrooms.  When I entered “interactive student notebook” in a Google search I got over 35,500,000 hits (January 15, 2022).

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

America on the left-hand side looked like this:


Origins of ISNs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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Signs in Teachers’ Classrooms

If you have ever taught, your classroom is like a second home and you decorate it to express yourself, make it livable for students for an hour or all day, and inject a bit of humor. I surely did when I taught high school history for many years.

Here is a collection of signs on classroom doors, walls, and whiteboards that both students and teachers sent in to a website. For those readers who want the full collection, see:

Thanks to Janice for sending me the link. Enjoy!

“The Sign in My Co-Worker’s 2nd Grade Classroom”
“A Sign in My School Today”

“Found in My Physics Teacher’s Room”

“One of the English Teachers at My High School Put This in the Hall Outside Her Door”

“Found in a High School Science Classroom”

Chemistry classroom ceiling

English Literature Teacher’s Classroom Door

Music teacher

“The Poster in My Teacher’s Classroom”

“My Teacher Had This on the First Day Back from School”

“Anti-Smoking Campaign Poster I Found in My History Teacher’s Classroom”
“Walked into My Classroom And Saw This.”

“This Sign at My School”

“These Posters in My Math Teacher’s Classroom”

“A Picture I Found in a Classroom at Work”


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Whatever Happened to School Bells?

In many of the political efforts over the past half-century to reform public secondary schools, ease the “grammar of schooling,” and make schooling appealing to America’s teenagers, block scheduling altered the daily flow of lesson after lesson with different teachers by extending class time from, say 45 minutes to an hour or hour and a half with a bell sounding to end the longer class period. Block scheduling has been integrated into many (but not most) American secondary schools (see earlier post on this incremental reform). Block scheduling was one way to crack the the structural walls of the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling. That hasn’t happened.

It is not that block scheduling has fizzled; it is that the overall structure of the age-graded school organization and interlocking factors (e.g., teacher beliefs and practices, daily teaching load, administrative leadership, student and parental involvement) that make a school a school. The sheer complexity of schooling and classroom practice–and where electric bells fit in–is too often underestimated by policymakers and wannabe reformers.

So it comes as no surprise that the omnipresent sound of school bells accompany even the shift to the innovation called block schedules. The answer to this post’s question: is that school bells are still around. For whom do those electric bells toll? Teachers and students.

Bells, buzzers, chimes, and other timed noises mark the beginning of the school day, each of the five or eight class periods in a secondary school, lunch time, and the end of the day. And do not forget fire drills, and lockdowns if (or when) dangerous individuals enter the school, and other times the principal decides that the electric bell system has to buzz, clang or chime.

For those who have forgotten how school bells sound, listen here. Perhaps a few cartoons can dredge up memories of school bells, clock-watching, and students packing up a few minutes before the bell rings.

When did electric bells begin in schools?

In one-room schoolhouses, the dominant way of organizing schools for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, teachers rang the school bell by pulling a rope that announced school was open and a hand-held bell on a desk to begin and end lessons for the multi-age children and teenagers. Some teachers still use a bell on the desk to announce a new activity or lesson.

By the 1920s, electric bell systems had entered elementary and secondary schools, especially high schools. They have been, as most readers of this blog know well, been part of going to U.S. public schools ever since. (note to readers: I have looked exhaustively for when electric bells replaced hand-rung bells in schools and the best I can do is place the adoption of automatic electric bells occurring in the early 1900s. If any readers know of sources that date it earlier or later, please let me know).

Have some schools dropped electric bell-driven schedules?

Hoping to create calmer, more peaceful atmospheres on campus, schools around the state are turning off their bell systems and letting students figure out when class starts the old-fashioned way: by looking at a clock.

“The only places that have bells any more are prisons and schools,” said Chris Calderwood, assistant principal at Rancho Mirage High School near Palm Springs. “The bottom line is, every kid has a cell phone in their pocket. They know what time it is. Why not trust the kids to manage their own time?”

Rancho Mirage High, which opened in 2013, has never used bells. In creating protocols for the new school when it opened, Calderwood and other administrators looked at a range of policies designed to teach life skills and improve campus culture. Dumping the bells was one of them.

Instead, the school uses rattles — literally an audio recording of a rattlesnake, the school mascot. The rattle is broadcast just three times: when school starts, after lunch, and at the end of the last period. The rest of the day, students look at the clock and switch classes on their own.

The purpose is to teach students how to manage their own time, and create a more relaxed campus. Students say it works.

Saul Mejia, a 12th grader, said he’s rarely late to class since he started at Rancho Mirage.

“I’m used to it. I just check the time on my phone,” he said. “It’s good having no bells. People can keep track of their own time. I think it works pretty well.”

The school also requires students to wear lanyards showing their ID cards, and cell phones are OK in class. Students are encouraged to do research and other class-related tasks on their phones, although games and texting are still prohibited.

Overall, these changes have greatly improved the campus climate, Calderwood said. Discipline issues and tardiness are minimal, and students have learned to keep track of time on their own — a valuable skill for almost any job, he said. Indeed, students who show up late for class can get penalized.

The only hitch is that sometimes the classroom wall clock, the teacher’s watch and the students’ cell phones have different times. The cell phone time is usually the correct time. And students are good about not setting alarms on their phones, so the class doesn’t erupt in a cacophony of beeps and jingles every 50 minutes.

California schools aren’t alone in experimenting with “no bell” policies. Schools around the country are also trying the quiet approach. Most of the “no bell” schools are high schools, where students are deemed responsible enough to get to class without high-decibel reminders.

And those reminders can be highly distracting. At a typical high school with seven periods and lunch, as many as 16 bells ring daily. If there’s an early morning period, throw in an extra two bells.

“We’re all used to no-bells by now. When I go to schools that do have bells, I want to stick a fork in my eye. It’s so obnoxious,” Calderwood said. “Education can be like a monolith, big and slow to change, but when you have a chance to try something new, and it works, that’s really rewarding.”

Yes, there are some high schools in the nation that have dispensed with electric bell systems. Teachers and students take responsibility for beginning and ending classes. But keep in mind that the vast majority of elementary and secondary public schools continue to use bells, chimes, or buzzers to begin the day, tell students when to leave one classroom and enter another, announce mid-morning breaks, lunch, and the end of school.

So for those earnest policymakers and practitioners who rail at the dominance of the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling, even getting rid of bell-driven schedules is a task that gives reformers heartburn.


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My New Book

In the twelve years that I have had this blog, I have not promoted any of the books that I have written. Temperamentally, I am shy about blowing my horn. Family and friends have seen this reluctance to advertise my writings as a false modesty that secretly yearns for praise. Perhaps. But the fact is I have refrained from mentioning by name any of my books on this blog when they were published. Until now.

Consistent readers of this blog know that I have devoted various posts to drafts of ideas and passages that eventually appeared in various books I have written. Comments from readers on these posts have been most helpful in correcting errors and examining issues from a different angle than the one I was using. I have done the same for this new book.

I have been lucky to have many books published over the years. Each one has picked up a part of my six decades as a teacher, superintendent, and researcher. But with the publication of Confessions of a School Reformer (Harvard Education Press, 2021) this week, I am posting this description because this book is special to me in how it entwines my life story from ages 5 to 87 with the larger school reform movements that have swirled about me and others for many decades.

From the publisher’s description of the book:

Cuban begins his own story in the 1930s, when he entered first grade at a Pittsburgh public school, the youngest son of Russian immigrants who placed great stock in the promises of education. With a keen historian’s eye, Cuban expands his personal narrative to analyze the overlapping social, political, and economic movements that have attempted to influence public schooling in the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century. He documents how education both has and has not been altered by the efforts of the Progressive Era of the first half of the twentieth century, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s through the 1970s, and the standards-based school reform movement of the 1980s through today.

Cuban points out how these dissimilar movements nevertheless shared a belief that school change could promote student success and also forge a path toward a stronger economy and a more equitable society. He relates the triumphs of these school reform efforts as well as more modest successes and unintended outcomes.

Interwoven with Cuban’s evaluations and remembrances are his “confessions,” in which he accounts for the beliefs he held and later rejected, as well as mistakes and areas of weakness that he has found in his own ideology. Ultimately, Cuban remarks with a tempered optimism on what schools can and cannot do in American democracy.

Yes, this is both a personal and analytical book that draws together different strands of my life. I found it most satisfying to write. For which I am most grateful.


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How Do Teachers Teach Now (Part 3)

As I pointed out in earlier posts, I am trying to tie down how American teachers taught between 2005-2020 prior to the pandemic. Subsequent posts will take up the fragmentary evidence of how teachers have taught during the pandemic. In Part 2, I began looking at the small number of surveys and meta-analyses of studies of teacher instruction published since 2005. In this final part, I summarize another of those studies.

2. Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)

In the wake of No Child Left Behind legislation (2001) that called for U.S. schools and teachers to embrace state and subject matter curriculum standards in math and science in order to get U.S. students to reach higher levels of academic achievement, McREL did a meta-analysis of 113 studies that met their research criteria on the impact of curriculum standards upon teacher instruction and student achievement in math and science.[i]

For example, McREL wanted to find out whether teachers adopted the recommended teaching practices of the inquiry-driven and student-friendly curriculum of the National Council of Teachers of Math after the passage of the federally funded and state implemented No Child Left Behind law. NCTM standards aimed to shift the direction of math teaching in the nation from traditional teacher-directed math instruction that focused on memorizing rules and applying them to a curriculum that encouraged students to question and analyze math operations, explain their answers, and understand basic math concepts

MCREL researchers concluded that:

Standards-based curricula can change teacher instruction, although eight of the 15 studies presented mixed results on this outcome. Positive findings indicated that standards-based curricula can motivate and help teachers to change their pedagogy so it more closely reflects the recommendations of the NCTM. Teachers using these curricula were more likely to have students explain their answers, allow for multiple solutions to problems, incorporate more problem solving activities into their classrooms, use more pair work and spend less class time on presentation and whole group work than teachers using traditional curricula.

On the other hand, a notable finding is that many teachers expressed knowledge about NCTM-oriented practices but struggled with using them in their classroom. Some teachers also said that they experienced more stress and increased preparation time when implementing standards and standards-based curricula, compared with traditional curricula. Finally, implementation of a standards-based curriculum alone did not influence changes in teachers’ instruction unless student assessments and textbooks were aligned with that curriculum — indicating that systemic support is important for changing pedagogical practice. [ii]

As with previous curriculum standards since the 1980s, NCTM standards of the early aughts, working within the federally-driven framework of No Child Left Behind, depended wholly on how districts and schools built structures that would guide and help teachers to implement the standards partially, moderately, or completely.

Again and again as established before in many other studies of teaching, McREL’s review of districts putting into practice new math standards re-states the truism that top-down policies as to what teachers should teach, be it content or skills, produces great variation in classrooms when teachers put such policies into practice. Under certain conditions, top-down policies can reshape instruction but in most instances is (and has been) ragged, too often falling short of getting into classroom lessons as the designers intended. [iii]

Why does this pattern keep reappearing?

Again and again, such studies repeat the refrain that insufficient thought and resources (e.g., time, money, and teacher participation) were committed to helping teachers understand the new standards and build structures that would help teachers think through and devise practices to put the new knowledge and skills into classroom lessons.

Again and again, policymakers too often view teachers as technicians using a manual who put into practice what others have designed. The historical evidence is overwhelming in this regard.

Again and again….


[i] Patricia Lauer, et. al., “The Influence of Standards on K-12 Teaching and Student Learning: A Research Synthesis,” August 2005, Mid-Continent Regional Laboratory. For this summary, I will only focus on the math curriculum standards.


[ii] Ibid., pp. 39-40.

[iii] See David Cohen and Heather Hill,”Instructional Policy and Classroom Performance: The Mathematics Reform in California,” (Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 1998).


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How Do Teachers Teach Now (Part 2)

While the dominant teaching tradition since the closing decades of the 19th century has been teacher-centered, each generation of teachers since the 1920s has adopted the vocabulary and selected activities embedded in the student-centered tradition (e.g., child-centered learning, the whole child, learning by doing; small group activities). Thus, hybrids of these traditions have appeared again and again across schools in different settings. Teacher-crafted blends of the two traditions, of course, account for the variation in practice that researchers have noted repeatedly in studies of teacher lessons.  Previous posts, then, have described each tradition and teacher shaped amalgams across urban, suburban, rural, and exurban classrooms (see Part 1).[i]

When I focus on the years since 2005 but prior to the pandemic, surveys and case studies completed in these years, few and limited as they are, largely bolster previous research on the past century of classroom practice. Patterns in teaching seldom turn on a dime.

Surveys and studies, 2005-2020

I have found three studies of teaching practices that depended upon teacher/student surveys (interviews occasionally accompanied some of these questionnaires) covering the primary grades in language arts and high school science courses and in-depth case studies of specific teachers. 

  1. Published in 2008, the researchers randomly sampled 178 primary grade teachers who taught writing. The researchers did the study because:

[R]esearchers currently have little data on what writing instruction looks like in schools. They do not have a good sense of how much students write or what they write. They also do not know how much time is devoted to writing instruction; what writing skills, processes, or knowledge are taught to students; what methods are used to teach writing; how or even if technology is part of the writing program; or whether teachers assess students’ writing progress. Without such information, it is difficult to determine what needs to be done. [ii]

What they found in this national sample of primary grade teachers who taught writing was great variability in the amount of time they taught writing and the balance between teaching discrete writing skills (basically a teacher-centered approach) and letting students write freely on topics they or the teacher chose (process writing).

Researchers concluded that:

The typical teacher placed considerable emphasis on teaching basic writing skills, as spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation skills were reportedly taught daily, with handwriting and sentence construction skills taught several times a week. The typical teacher also reported using a variety of practices common to the process writing approach. This included having students plan (at least weekly) and revise their compositions (at least several times a month), conference with and help other students with their writing (at least several times a month), share their writing with classmates (at least weekly), monitor their writing progress (at least weekly), choose their own writing topics (at least half the time), work at their own pace (at least half of the time),and use invented spellings (most of the time). (p.915)

As to the writing activities, teachers reported that primary students wrote stories (96 percent), drawing a picture and writing something to go with it (95 percent), writing letters to another person (89 percent) journal writing (86 percent), and worksheets (86 percent). [iii]

Teachers reported that most of their instruction was done in whole groups (56 percent) with 23 percent done through small group activities).[iv]

The researchers concluded that:

[W]e found that most primary grade teachers take an eclectic approach to writing instruction, combining elements from the two most common methods for teaching writing: process writing and skills instruction (although they generally place less emphasis on process writing). In addition, almost all teachers reported using most of the practices surveyed, but there was considerable variability between teachers in how often they applied each practice. [v]

[i] See, for example, Brian Rowan and Richard Correnti, “Studying Reading Instruction with Teacher Logs: Lessons  from the Study of Instructional Improvement,” Educational Researcher, 2009, 38(2), pp. 120-131


[ii] Laura Cutler and Steve Graham, “Primary Grade Writing Instruction: A National Survey,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 2008, 100 (4), p. 908.


[iii]Ibid., p. 912.




[v]Ibid., 918.


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How Do Teachers Teach Now? (Part 1)

I have mentioned a few times that I have begun work on my next book which tries to bring together over 50 years of research on teaching in public schools. The book is organized around a series of questions of which one is the title of this post. For next few posts I will share a draft of how I will answer this question about teaching prior to and during the Covid-19 ongoing pandemic.

Answering the question is not easy in 2022. The Covid-19 pandemic has spiked repeatedly over the past two years as mutations of the virus have swept across the nation infecting millions. The World Health Organization began naming variants of the coronavirus with letters from the Greek alphabet. Now at the 15th letter, the recent Omicron mutation has spread across the globe.

Americans have become familiar with Greek letters. [i]

As each variant pops up, schools affected by temporary closures relied upon students receiving homebound lessons on computers. Inequalities in funding and operating urban and rural schools located in districts where poor parents lived prior to the pandemic became all to glaringly exposed once schools closed and then re-opened across the nation.

Many districts that had fed low-income minority students breakfast and lunch prior to Covid-19 either stopped doing so or had families come to school to pick up food. Many of these student also lacked home computers and districts distributed devices to them. [ii]

Some districts and schools stayed open during a spike in the particular mutation while taking precautions with masks, physical distancing and improved ventilation. By January 2022, nearly 90 percent of public schools were open for face-to-face instruction. So getting a clear, even crisp, answer to how teachers across 13,000-plus school districts in the U.S managed their lessons is difficult given these repeated surges of the virus and existing school inequalities.

Moreover, the lack of data on teaching practices before and during the pandemic leaves any answer wobbly. Given these limitations, I set boundaries on the years I would focus on. I decided to define current teaching as what teachers did in their classrooms in the past decade. This time span includes the years prior to and during Covid-19 through the winter of 2021-2022.

Even in this past decade, reliable and abundant descriptions of classroom lessons and surveys of teaching practices in recent years are tough to find.  Sure, there are journalists who have gone into classrooms and recorded what they saw.  And there are teachers who describe their lessons in blogs, social media, and articles. And, yes, there have been scattered and episodic surveys of teachers who reported their classroom practices. Many of these surveys, however, are suspect because they depend upon teachers volunteering self-reports that more often than not are unrepresentative of state or nation’s teacher corps. For all of these reasons, answering the question of how teachers teach, since 2010 including the pandemic remains a challenge. 

But I do not approach answering the question empty handed. Previous chapters in this book offer strong clues to an answer.

Over the past century, for example, I have documented how schools consistently depended upon the age-graded organization and how its grammar of instruction shaped to a degree how teachers taught decades ago. And then and now teachers, as other professionals, create and rely upon routines. From arranging classroom furniture, taking attendance, administering tests, assigning homework, calling on students to answer questions, organizing small group activities, and grading homework– teachers have routines. Assuredly, routines vary among teachers in the same school, but they depend upon them to traverse lessons and get through the school day.

Often these teacher-crafted routines reflect teacher beliefs about how students learn, what are the best ways of teaching different students and how much time to devote to the overwhelming amount of content and skills required by the district and state. Even though teachers within the same school vary in, say, how much time they devote to teaching reading and language arts and that variation also occurs district-wide as well, these core structures, school and classroom routines set the boundaries for teacher lessons. Thus, the history of the past century of teaching within the age-graded school and patterned routines, differ as they do among teachers, point to what was in place when Covid-19 struck in 2020.

[i] Layal Liverpool,  “Coronavirus: WHO Announces Greek Alphabet Naming Scheme for Variants,” New Scientist, June 1, 2021 at:

[ii] Eliza Kinsey, et. al., “School Closures during Covid-19: Opportunities for Innovation in Meal Service,” American Journal of Public Health,  October 7, 2020 at:

Benjamin Herold, “Schools Handed Out Millions of Digital Devices under Covid-19: Now, Thousands are Missing,” Education Week, July 23, 2020.


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Cartoons on New Year Resolutions

As we come to the end of 2021, I offer cartoons poking fun at the perennial practice of resolving to do better next year–whatever “better” means. Enjoy!












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