Success Academy’s Radical Educational Experiment (Rebecca Mead)

“Rebecca Mead joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1997. She has profiled many subjects, among them Lena Dunham, Christine Quinn, Santiago Calatrava, Nico Muhly, Slavoj Zizek, and Shaquille O’Neal….”

Reformers trying to merge traditional and progressive teaching approaches is a tough road to negotiate. In How Teachers Taught (1984) I laid out many examples of progressive efforts to do, for example, project-based teaching in the midst of bolted down desks during the 1930s. That effort to marry the two has continued to produce many hybrids. In this New Yorker article, I extracted an excerpt where Mead describes a second grade teacher in a Success Academy trying to wed the two ideologies of teaching.

Success Academy began in 2006, with a single elementary school in Harlem, and now has forty-six schools, in every borough except Staten Island. The overwhelming majority of the students are black or Latino, and in most of the schools at least two-thirds of them come from poor families. More than fifteen thousand children are enrolled, from kindergarten to twelfth grade…. [T]he schools do well by the favored metric of twenty-first-century public education: they get consistently high scores on standardized tests administered by the State of New York. In the most recent available results, ninety-five per cent of Success Academy students achieved proficiency in math, and eighty-four per cent in English Language Arts; citywide, the respective rates were thirty-six and thirty-eight per cent. This spring, Success Academy was awarded the Broad Prize, a quarter-million-dollar grant given to charter-school organizations, particularly those serving low-income student populations, that have delivered consistently high performances on standardized tests. [Eva]Moskowitz has said that, within a decade, she hopes to be running a hundred schools. This year, a Success high school, on Thirty-third Street, will produce the network’s first graduating class: seventeen students. This pioneering class originated with a cohort of seventy-three first graders.

Success Academy Springfield Gardens, in Queens, opened in the fall of 2014. The neighborhood, close to J.F.K. Airport, has many Caribbean immigrants, as well as a large African-American population. The school is on an upper floor of a building that it shares with a zoned middle school, I.S. 59; both schools principally serve students of color whose families qualify for public assistance. The floor tiles of Springfield Gardens’ freshly painted hallways are labelled with spelling words, so that children can absorb information even as they file, in silence, from one room to another. The classrooms are carpeted, muffling the baseline din that usually accompanies students at work—the scraping of chairs, the dropping of pencils—and imbuing even a space occupied by more than two dozen second graders with the hush of a corporate conference room.

One morning earlier this year, the second graders were engaged in a group reading lesson. (Over several weeks, I was permitted to observe classes at eight Success Academies around the city, from the elementary to the high-school level.) The teacher sat on a chair at the front of the classroom. Her students—or “scholars,” as they are known at Success—sat at her feet on a deep-blue rug patterned with a grid. They wore uniforms: plaid dresses or navy pants for the girls, pants and polo shirts for the boys. Everyone wore black slip-on shoes, as prescribed in the Success Academy parents’ manual; Moskowitz does not want teachers to waste instructional time tying errant laces.

For decades, a rug has been a desired amenity for early-childhood classrooms. Children are more comfortable sitting on the floor than squirming on a chair, and during “circle time” they can interact with one another and with the teacher more easily. Mary Hammett Lewis, an educator who founded a school in Buffalo ninety years ago, observed the transformative effect of placing a “big, friendly rug” in her classroom. In “Loving Learning,” a 2015 book by the educator Tom Little and the journalist Kathryn Ellison, Lewis is quoted saying, “It became a sort of magic carpet in my adventure. The attitude of the children changed completely the moment they set foot on the rug. Language lessons became confidential chats about all sorts of experience. One day the rug became early Manhattan Island; another day it was the boat of Hendrick Hudson.”

In the second-grade classroom in Queens, the gridded rug seemed less like a magic carpet than like a chessboard at the start of a game. Within each square was a large colored spot the size of a chair cushion. The children sat in rows, facing forward, each within his or her assigned square, with their legs crossed and their hands clasped or folded in their laps. Success students can expect to be called to answer a teacher’s question at any moment, not just when they raise their hand, and must keep their eyes trained on the speaker at all times, a practice known as “tracking.” Staring off into space, or avoiding eye contact, is not acceptable. “Sometimes when kids look like they’re daydreaming, it’s because they are, and we can’t allow that possibility,” Moskowitz wrote a few years ago, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal. Students who stop tracking are prodded both by their teachers and by their peers, who are expected to point out classmates who aren’t looking at them when they are speaking.

On a Smart Board at the front of the classroom, a digital clock marked the seconds. Every moment in a Success classroom is timed, often with Cape Canaveral-style countdowns, as students transition from one activity to another: “Three, two, one, and done.” Some teachers use kitchen timers with beeping alarms that notify students when the ten seconds allotted for finding a space on the rug, or retrieving a book from a backpack, are up.

That morning, the students were engaged in a “shared text” exercise. They read and analyzed together a short story, “The Family Tree,” that had been projected onto a screen. It was about a grandmother who was moving, unhappily, to a smaller house. Her two grandchildren, a brother and a sister, were helping her with the move, and cheered her up by making a collage of intergenerational family photographs for her. The text had been adapted from a picture book; in its condensed form, it consisted of a single page containing two dozen short paragraphs, and just two illustrations. Each paragraph was numbered, as it would be if the story were encountered during a standardized test, rather than pulled from a library shelf.

The teacher, after establishing that the story’s genre was realistic fiction, reminded the class of the necessary “thinking job” required in approaching such a text: to identify the character, the problem, the solution, and the “lesson learned.” A girl with pierced ears and a sober expression made a stab at an answer: “The problem here is that the sister thinks that her grandmother is mad, because they already broke lots of stuff.”

Several children looked skeptical. “You have a couple of friends disagreeing with you,” the teacher said. She called on one of the dissenters, another girl, who said, “I disagree with you, because the grandmother is already upset, because her new house does not feel like a home.” Success Academy students are required to speak in complete sentences, often adhering to a script: “I disagree with X”; “I agree with X, and I want to add on.”

The teacher addressed the girl with pierced ears: “I’m a little confused. Prove to me that something broke.” The girl replied, warily, “It says so on the second line.” The teacher asked her to look again at the line—in which the sister warned her brother not to break anything, because their grandmother was already upset—and said, “Did anything break? No. She’s warning him.”

It was an impressive demonstration of close reading by seven-year-olds, as far as it went. Moskowitz recently told me that she saw no reason the principles that govern a graduate seminar in English literature—“You read a book, and you discuss it, and you look for the big ideas”—couldn’t be applied to a class with young children. The text being studied by the second graders wasn’t particularly easy; even in its original picture-book form, it was intended for third graders. The teacher spoke to the children in a firm, unsmiling tone, as she might have done to a class of students fifteen years their senior. Moskowitz abhors the singsong voice that some adults often adopt with young children, characterizing it as “an insult to the scholars’ intelligence,” and her teachers are trained to avoid it.

The teacher led a brief discussion of the difference between a house and a home—a material distinction possibly familiar to some of the children in the room. One in twenty students at Springfield Gardens had experienced homelessness at some point during that academic year. “A home is where you feel comfortable, and you make your memories,” the teacher said, before a student gave an admirably succinct summation: “A house is where you are just moving in, and a home is where you have lived for a long time.” The students were quiet and attentive, as neatly aligned on the rug as the blinds at the windows, all of which had been lowered to precisely the same height.

But the lesson seemed to be as much about mastering a formula as about appreciating the nuances of narrative. When the students were called to “turn and talk,” they swivelled, inside their grids, to face a partner, and discussed the section of the text that had been examined collectively. The exchanges I heard consisted of repeating the conclusions that had just been reached, rather than independently extending them. Some students seemed to be going through the motions of analysis and comprehension—performing thought. “The grandmother’s house is too small—she doesn’t have the space to put her memories,” one child informed her partner, garbling the story’s sense in her effort to comply with expectations.

Nor was there time for more imaginative or personally inflected interpretations of the text—the interrogation of “big ideas” that happens in the kinds of graduate seminars Moskowitz held up as a model. When one child proposed that the grandmother was feeling uncomfortable in her new home because she was lonely—a reasonable inference, given the absence of her husband, who was pictured in the family photographs—the teacher asked for textual evidence, and the student was unable to provide it. With the clock ticking, the discussion moved on, and the question of the grandmother’s loneliness—of what else the story might be saying to a reader, beyond the surface meaning of the words in the numbered paragraphs—was left unexplored….



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Silicon Valley Takes Over Classrooms: Yes and No (Part 2)

Natasha Singer’s series of New York Times articles in the past six months showed persuasively that top Silicon Valley companies have increased student and teacher access to digital devices and software across the nation. But Singer also claims that expanded access has led to these high-tech tools dominating classroom lessons. Google, et. al. tools shape what teachers do daily. She says:

Through their philanthropy, they are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental  approaches to learning.

Yes, I have observed in Silicon Valley and elsewhere how these high-tech Goliaths have helped increase student access to digital tools across the nation. But I have not observed their influence on “the subjects that schools teach” and, most important, on “fundamental approaches to learning.” To that I say “no.”

Conflating access with use is a common error that journalists, researchers, and promoters of digital tools make. In this post I argue that access can surely lead to more use in lessons but anyone who knows classrooms understands that daily use covers a range of teacher-directed activities combining high- and low-tech tools.

I observed 41 Silicon Valley classrooms in 12 different schools during 2016 where teacher identified as exemplary in integrating digital tools have neither abandoned teacher-directed lessons in favor of student-centered instruction nor surrendered to the allure of these devices and software. While they use these digital and non-digital tools often, these devices have moved from the foreground of their lessons to the background.  These electronic tools have become like paper and pencil and prompt no longer “Gee Whiz” or “look at that” responses. What these devices and software have not done, however, is alter these teachers’ “fundamental approaches to learning.”

After observing these teachers’ lessons, I asked them if using these digital tools had altered how they they teach. Although nearly two of three teachers said they had definitely changed how they taught as a result of integrating digital tools into their daily lessons, a large minority of teachers said that using new technologies in lessons had not changed their practice. How to reconcile these conflicting views?

First, I distinguish between fundamental and incremental changes, types of common changes that have occurred in the two-century history of the U.S. age-graded school.

By fundamental change, I mean altering the basic building blocks of US schooling, such as requiring taxpayers to fund public schools and give access to all students, establishing goals for schooling (e.g., all students will be literate, discharge their civic duties, and be vocationally prepared for the labor market), and organizing curricula and instructional practices in age-graded elementary and secondary schools. These building blocks are structures that have defined public schools and influenced what occurs in classrooms for the past two centuries.

Changing them fundamentally means altering funding (e.g., vouchers, charter schools), governance (e.g., site-based management, mayoral control), organization (e.g., moving from an age-graded school to non-graded teams and entire schools), curriculum (e.g., New Math, “hands-on” science), and instruction (e.g., moving from teacher-centered to student-centered pedagogy).

Often those who champion changes in public schools talk about “real reform” or “transformation of schooling.” What they refer to are fundamental changes in one or more structures of schooling, not incremental changes.

Incremental changes refer to amending current structures and practices, not making deep changes to or removing core components of schooling. Examples include creating new academic courses, extending the school day or year, reducing class size, raising teacher salaries, and introducing new reading or math programs. Such changes do not alter the basic structures of public schools. They correct deficiencies and improve existing structures. They do not replace the goals, funding, organization, and governance of schools—they are add-ons. Many promoters of deep change in schools call such changes “tinkering,” usually in a dismissive way, because they want “real reform” or fundamental reordering of existing structures.

In most instances, reform-minded teachers, administrators, policy makers, and non-educators push for change without distinguishing between one kind or the other. Often, as a result, what was urged as a reform that would substantially alter what occurs in classrooms turns out to be a minor modification of existing practice—a butterfly alighting on a rose—disappointing many advocates who seek a change that follows the trajectory of a bullet.

The same can be said for those who sought to shake–“disrupt” was the favored verb—the foundations of age-graded schools with reforms such as vouchers, online schools, or their version of “personalized learning” that then fall far short of their aspirations.

Of the 65 percent of teachers who said they had changed their practice because of using digital tools, nearly all have implemented incremental changes in how they teach using devices and software. They believe that these changes made a difference in how they teach and helped their students learn. They became far more productive and efficient in teaching lessons. After observing lessons and interviewing the teachers, I see no reason to doubt what they say.

Then there were a handful of teachers who said that digital tools had been helpful but had not basically changed how they teach. The basic planning, the activity sequence during lessons, and how they interacted with students in and out of class had not shifted because of the technologies they used. These teachers distinguished between the productivity high-tech tools brought to their work and their craft and content knowledge in formatting and enacting a lesson.

Second I see both change and stability as central to the conduct of teaching over the past two centuries. Neither one nor the other—both.

Some researchers and teachers have come to recognize that change and stability are (and have been) the conjoined twins of tax-supported schooling in the United States. They cannot be separated, since organizations including the classroom adapt to change and end up preserving stability in lesson format and content. Dynamic conservatism is another way of saying that change is crucial to organizational stability—that the pedagogical hybrids that teachers have developed over decades prove how teaching changes to retain the familiar. Stability and change in teaching is more than a passing fad; it is a permanent condition.


Based on my experience as a teacher and the knowledge gleaned from historical detective work on how teachers have taught over the past century, I conclude—and the distinctions these teachers drew demonstrate—there is both change and stability in teaching. Yes, there have been changes in practice. At the same time, there has been constancy in how teachers set goals, organize, and execute lessons; these have not been replaced by digital tools.

These concepts of the inseparability of constancy and change in teaching and the dichotomy of changes has not only helped me make sense of the language and action of school and classroom reform but also given me a way of explaining teacher responses to my questions.

And because of these distinctions I make from my observations of these 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers,  high-tech Goliaths have not influenced, as Natasha Singer claims, “fundamental  approaches to learning.”





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Silicon Valley Takes Over Classrooms: Yes and No (Part 1)

In a series of articles (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) New York Times reporter Natasha Singer reveals how Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle have provided devices, services, and incentives to the nation’s school districts and in doing so, as one headline put it, “Took Over the Classroom.”

I found her articles richly detailed in their interviews and profiling of teachers and administrators. I learned a great deal about how these companies influenced teachers and school officials to use their products and pressed for district policies that required students to learn coding and take computer science courses and even build a public school on a business site. Using techniques refined by pharmaceutical companies in getting doctors to use their medications, these high-tech firms succeeded in placing digital products into schools and classrooms.

Singer gives plenty of examples of how school officials and teachers tip-toe around conflicts of interest. She recounts instances of entrepreneurial teachers having contracts with software companies for whom they are “ambassadors” treading a line where perceptions of conflict of interest cast long shadow over these teachers.

Journalist Singer makes a credible and persuasive case in exposing how Silicon Valley companies  get their hardware and software into the nation’s schools. My research over the past thirty years supports what she writes. For whatever reasons, the spread of digital devices in schools has nearly ended the perennial problem of students lacking access to new electronic hard- and software.

Recall that in the early 1980s when desktop computers became available–there were 125 students per computer in 1984–teacher and student access to devices were severely limited. School computer labs served an entire school giving students occasional time on machines. Just over three decades later, that ratio of students to devices is about 3:1  and in many instances across the country it is 1:1 now (see here). District officials with the help of donors and corporate giants have moved ever closer to ubiquitous access to digital tools for U.S. students. That is the “yes” part of the post’s title.

But  access is not classroom use. Singer’s well researched and written pieces blurs access and classroom use. She not only implies that companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook putting their digital products in classrooms have had a decided effect on how teachers teach their daily lessons but also explicitly says:

Through their philanthropy, they are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental  approaches to learning.

I disagree. And that is why I say “no” in the title of this post.

Before classroom use can be discussed, however, it is worthwhile to consider changes over time in the stated goals for students using digital devices.

Goals: Bait-and-Switch

In the early 1980s, promoters of desktop computers including the above companies gave three reasons why students should have  classroom machines. Computer use, they claimed, will:

*improve students’ academic achievement;

*lead to more, faster, and better teaching;

*prepare students for jobs in an information-based society.

Over the ensuing decades, it has become clear that the first two goals for using computer  have not panned out. In Singer’s reports, she does say “there is little rigorous evidence so far to indicate that using computers in class improves educational results.”

No evidence that I have seen establishes that students who use computers once a week or daily have higher test scores (see here, here, and here). Nor have I seen any evidence (lots of inflated claims and self-reports by teachers but not rigorous before-and-after observations of teacher lessons) that teachers teach more, faster, and better as a result of  regular use in lessons (for example of claims, see here).

So that leaves the the goal of preparing students for jobs in an ever-changing labor market.

School boards and the general public take it for granted–it seems so obvious–that using computers often in school will simply lead to higher paying jobs since every business now depends upon technology to conduct their daily work. Yet even learning to code and taking computer science courses in high school hardly guarantees any job in the field–save for examples cited below–unless one majors in the subject in college.

I have yet to see studies that show students who took keyboarding classes, used laptops regularly, and learned to code or took computer science get hiring preference over other applicants once they graduated high school. Sure, there have been high-tech companies who have worked closely with school districts to certify students for entry-level jobs  such as Cisco and Microsoft but these programs are minuscule given the number of students graduating high school. So the evidence of students using regularly such devices in school leading to jobs is painfully lacking.

What I have noticed in the past few years is a shift in goals for computer use. Although students using computers in order to get jobs still remains as a goal, no longer are academic achievement and better teaching cited as reasons for buying devices and software.

Replacing the computer-sparks-achievement goal is that digital tools “engage” students as if iPads and Chromebooks will hook students into learning and then accelerate academic achievement. While student engagement may–that is the operative word–lead to achievement in many instances, it does not. Worries over student technology use in and out of school shortening students’ attention span and encouraging distractions weakens the “engagement” argument.

What has replaced the other goals is the old standby of testing. That is, since all standardized tests will be online shortly, every student has to have access to an Internet connected device (see here and here).

Two previous goals, then, for using digital devices and software in school have disappeared, one has remained and another has been added. The lack of evidence supporting this mix of old and new goals for buying digital tools is stark.

Part 2 takes up my “no” response to reading the New York Times series of articles on Silicon Valley companies taking over U.S. classrooms and altering how teachers teach.






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How To Get Your Mind To Read (Daniel Willingham)


“Daniel T. Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of ‘The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.'”

This post appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times November 25, 2017.


Americans are not good readers. Many blame the ubiquity of digital media. We’re too busy on Snapchat to read, or perhaps internet skimming has made us incapable of reading serious prose. But Americans’ trouble with reading predates digital technologies. The problem is not bad reading habits engendered by smartphones, but bad education habits engendered by a misunderstanding of how the mind reads.

Just how bad is our reading problem? The last National Assessment of Adult Literacy from 2003 is a bit dated, but it offers a picture of Americans’ ability to read in everyday situations: using an almanac to find a particular fact, for example, or explaining the meaning of a metaphor used in a story. Of those who finished high school but did not continue their education, 13 percent could not perform simple tasks like these. When things got more complex — in comparing two newspaper editorials with different interpretations of scientific evidence or examining a table to evaluate credit card offers — 95 percent failed.

There’s no reason to think things have gotten better. Scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading test haven’t improved in 30 years.

Many of these poor readers can sound out words from print, so in that sense, they can read. Yet they are functionally illiterate — they comprehend very little of what they can sound out. So what does comprehension require? Broad vocabulary, obviously. Equally important, but more subtle, is the role played by factual knowledge.

All prose has factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. Consider “I promised not to play with it, but Mom still wouldn’t let me bring my Rubik’s Cube to the library.” The author has omitted three facts vital to comprehension: you must be quiet in a library; Rubik’s Cubes make noise; kids don’t resist tempting toys very well. If you don’t know these facts, you might understand the literal meaning of the sentence, but you’ll miss why Mom forbade the toy in the library.

Knowledge also provides context. For example, the literal meaning of last year’s celebrated fake-news headline, “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” is unambiguous — no gap-filling is needed. But the sentence carries a different implication if you know anything about the public (and private) positions of the men involved, or you’re aware that no pope has ever endorsed a presidential candidate.

You might think, then, that authors should include all the information needed to understand what they write. Just tell us that libraries are quiet. But those details would make prose long and tedious for readers who already know the information. “Write for your audience” means, in part, gambling on what they know.

These examples help us understand why readers might decode well but score poorly on a test; they lack the knowledge the writer assumed in the audience. But if a text concerned a familiar topic, habitually poor readers ought to read like good readers.

In one experiment, third graders — some identified by a reading test as good readers, some as poor — were asked to read a passage about soccer. The poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game.

That implies that students who score well on reading tests are those with broad knowledge; they usually know at least a little about the topics of the passages on the test. One experiment tested 11th graders’ general knowledge with questions from science (“pneumonia affects which part of the body?”), history (“which American president resigned because of the Watergate scandal?”), as well as the arts, civics, geography, athletics and literature. Scores on this general knowledge test were highly associated with reading test scores.

Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge. That suggests three significant changes in schooling.

First, it points to decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early grades. Third-graders spend 56 percent of their time on literacy activities but 6 percent each on science and social studies. This disproportionate emphasis on literacy backfires in later grades, when children’s lack of subject matter knowledge impedes comprehension. Another positive step would be to use high-information texts in early elementary grades. Historically, they have been light in content.

Second, understanding the importance of knowledge to reading ought to make us think differently about year-end standardized tests. If a child has studied New Zealand, she ought to be good at reading and thinking about passages on New Zealand. Why test her reading with a

passage about spiders, or the Titanic? If topics are random, the test weights knowledge learned outside the classroom — knowledge that wealthy children have greater opportunity to pick up.

Third, the systematic building of knowledge must be a priority in curriculum design. The Common Core Standards for reading specify nearly nothing by way of content that children are supposed to know — the document valorizes reading skills. State officials should go beyond the Common Core Standards by writing content-rich grade-level standards and supporting district personnel in writing curriculums to help students meet the standards. That’s what Massachusetts did in the 1990s to become the nation’s education leader. Louisiana has recently taken this approach, and early results are encouraging.

Don’t blame the internet, or smartphones, or fake news for Americans’ poor reading. Blame ignorance. Turning the tide will require profound changes in how reading is taught, in standardized testing and in school curriculums. Underlying all these changes must be a better understanding of how the mind comprehends what it reads.



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Where Do the Ideas of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Come From? (Part 4)

In the first three parts of this series, I answered the question of where “success” and “failure” as ideas came from. I identified and described three core values–individualism, equal opportunity, and community–that are inherent to the American character as far back as colonial times. Part 3 and this final section describe how those values are spread through distinctive American institution such as advertising and sports. This part deal with schools as a public vehicle for communicating and inculcating these values.


Establishing public schools to instill highly prized values in the young is a political decision. For centuries, newly formed nations concerned about replicating themselves have decided again and again to build patriotic, literate citizens who could protect the country against internal and external enemies (e.g., France, Britain, and the U.S in the 19th century, Soviet Union, China, Cuba in the 20thcentury).

Over two centuries ago, first in New England then in the Midwest and eventually the South and West, communities established tax-supported schools—called Common Schools–to nurture those core values in each generation. Recall the quote from historian James Truslow Adams in Part 1 about how the American Dream unfolded “imperfectly” meaning that ethnic and racial groups were initially segregated from white children into poorly resourced schools. Nonetheless, creating public schools is a political act done to insure that children and youth not only absorb but also display those values in what they say and do as adults.

Historically, then, public schools seek to mold the character of the young— being individualistic, expressing concern for community and prizing equal opportunity. Such political decisions then and now declare that these institutions are critical to forming literate, patriotic, self-sustaining, and community-minded citizens who in their daily actions within families and community display the core values essential to sustain the U.S.

And since the mid-19th century, school structures, curriculum, and pedagogy have not only mirrored those values but also worked to instill them in the next generation. For example, the age-graded organization promoted individualism, competitiveness, and winners and losers. Success and failure in age-graded schools was there for every single teacher and student to see.

Age-graded school

In the age-graded school’s definition of normal progress—children of an age complete the content and skills for that grade in so many months or will be held back for another school year—right-and-wrong rules for behavior, moral lessons taught explicitly to build character, and passing end-of-year achievement tests socialize the young into accepting individual performance and competing against others as essential as obeying rules.

The school curriculum required certain content and skills to be learned weekly. Language arts, math, science, social studies, foreign language, art, physical education were what students studied in elementary schools. In age-graded secondary schools the content of these subjects was more complex and harder to learn.

Late-19th and 20th century schools ran on daily schedules with 45-60 minute periods. For students to graduate they had to take so many years of each subject. Again, success and failure were tied to grade-point-averages, test scores, and the hardest subjects students took. Academic and behavioral performance was everything. Every year, a certain percentage of students dropped out of school—the failures. And a certain percentage of students became valedictorians—the successes. And other students who didn’t fit in or with disabilities or not yet attaining fluency in English were in the gray area between success and failure–call it mediocrity.

In each self-contained classroom and across the school with its age-graded curriculum, time schedule, and periodic tests, individual students succeeded, partially absorbed, failed to imbibe these values. Every year, winners and losers in competition for grades and teachers’ attention became clear.

How Teachers Teach

How teachers teach and have taught also reflect the larger American culture and character. As the authority in the classroom, the teacher evaluates and judges how and what individual students learn and how they behave. They can praise academic success and penalize failure; they are arbiters of fairness in dispensing rewards and sanctions; they can eject a student from a classroom and appoint hallway monitors. They also have the power to determine which students can move to the next grade.

Over the past century classroom pedagogy has shifted from total reliance on teacher-directed lessons heavy on recitation and lecture to ones where students participate far more in lessons and teachers orchestrate student learning in small groups and individually. Hybrids of both traditional and progressive ways of teaching have evolved in classrooms over the past century.

Teachers from the early 19th century also taught character through McGuffey readers  and didactic lessons on honesty, respect for authority, helping others, etc. Academic content contained pointers for students on how to behave as Americans.

By mid-20th century and in ensuing decades, progressive teachers saw the connection between  developing in students cooperative behavior and good will, creating a small community within the classroom, and encouraging students to learn from each other and the teacher.  Many teachers, then and now, prized creating collaboration and community in classrooms.

Schools were society’s vehicles for making the next generation into adults who practiced the core values prized by Americans.

Schools as Societal Problem Solvers

But tax-supported public schools, basically political institutions geared to socializing the young, were expected to do more than instill values in children and youth through age-graded schools, curricula, and teacher-directed pedagogy. Again and again, political, business, and civic leaders faced social, political, and economic issues they found too hard to directly solve by working on and altering those national and state structures actually creating the problems. Instead, these leaders often turned to schools to indirectly solve those pressing issues by putting it on the next generation.

Adults using too much alcohol, tobacco, and drug use became part of early 20th century school courses. Students had to learn to drink and smoke less and avoid addictive drugs. Too many deaths from car accidents on highways turned into schools establishing driver education classes throughout most of the 20th century. Too few mathematicians and scientists during the Cold War with the Soviet Union produced pumped up graduation requirements in these subjects.

And since the late-1970s, a floundering economy with too few skilled workers and automated technologies reducing manufacturing and other industrial jobs led to increased vocationalism in the nation’s schools. Everyone goes to college or enters a career, the slogans ran. Again and again, policy elites handed the baton to schools to solve the nation’s problems. U.S. problems became “educationalized.”

So schools in mirroring the contents and discontents of the larger society ever since the 1800s have also the primary task of socializing the core values of American society into the young. While they receive much help from other social institutions such as media, corporate advertising, sports, religion, and the workplace in reinforcing individualism, community, and equal opportunity–school goals, structures and ways of working with children and youth that yield school-based definitions of “success” and “failure” mirror societal ways of seeing these oh-so American values.

In short, “success” and “failure” are hard-wired into the democratic, market-driven society called America. Of course, the strength and vigor of these values play out differently among Americans depending on geography, social class, ethnicity, race, religion, and personal preferences. But they are in the DNA of the American character.

Notions of “success” and “failure” in schools, then, are deeply enmeshed in the core values that have characterized Americans as Americans since the founding of the nation.


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Where Do Ideas of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Come From? (Part 3)

In parts 1 and 2, I answered the question of where these ideas came from. In this post, I describe how these core values, the DNA of American character, spread.


How core values spread in society

The values of individualism, equal opportunity, and community have shaped American views of achieving success and avoiding failure for the past two centuries. They are transmitted through various democratic institutions such as businesses, political parties, sports, religious groups, media, families, and schooling. All have had influence in defining individual and group success and in shaping the flow and exercise of these values in daily affairs.


Consider that in a market-based economy where citizens are expected to buy many products, competition reigns and the consumer is king. And each individual king has to know what is out there. America is (and has been) a land of abundance where hundreds of television channels, scores of cereals, dozens of car models, and seasonally fashionable clothes compete for consumers’ attention. Ads aim to capture consumer eyeballs and open wallets.

Individuals buy products to bolster their health (e.g., prescriptions for everything from constipation to multiple sclerosis), enhance physical appearance (e.g., skin creams that get rid of wrinkles and treatments that grow hair on bald pates), satisfy different tastes in entertainment (e.g., vampire and horror flicks to Bambi to family sit-coms) and increase social status (e.g., moving from a studio apartment to a two-bedroom house). Ads, then, pervade television channels, print and social media seeking a nanosecond of consumers’ attention in a cut-throat economy.

Sure, the value of individual choice reigns in the ad world but equal opportunity has become more present as well. Anyone over the age of 40 has noted that ads asking consumers to buy particular products have become racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse in recent decades. Black, Latino, Asian, and gay adults announce the most recent drug for diabetes, hair shampoo, and automobile. Corporate ads displaying inter-racial couples and families  using their products announce that they are equal opportunity vendors who reinforce the diversity that America has always been but now is recognized and fought over by companies.

If most ads cater to individual health, looks, entertainment preferences, and social status, there are also occasional ads that ring consumer bells to engage with their community. The restaurant chain, Chilis, for example ran a clutch of ads a few years ago showing fathers and daughters talking over burgers, a party welcoming a returning soldier, people helping others after a natural disaster.

Ads, then, transmit core American values to the reading and viewing public.


Consider Little League to professional baseball where individuals shine as individual all-stars and, at the same time, as team-mates fighting to win games. Both individual and community matter in achieving success or experiencing failure.

Since the integration of professional sports after World War II, individual merit has come to count more than skin color,  ethnicity, religion, geography or who one knows. Teams compete to win football games, lead the league, and get into the Super Bowl. Team work glows when two basketball players do a pick-and-roll to make a three pointer or a short stop scoops up a grounder and throws to the second baseman who rifles it to first for a double play to end the inning and the game. Individuals cooperate to win a game.

And when a team from Cleveland, Boston, New York, or Houston wins the national championship be it in baseball, basketball, or football, the city celebrates as a community proud and joyous in the victory.

Yet parents and sports fans do worry about  athletes using dope to enhance their performance in, for example, football, baseball and competitive bicycling. Concerns over professional and non-professional individuals and teams cheating and too much emphasis on winning at all costs leading to compromised individual athletes who are expected to be moral examples.

Even with these deep concerns on the part of the public, in football, soccer, and basketball working together as a team, representing a city or region and performing as an individual are sides of the same coin in sports as well as America. All are important.

Sports at all levels from sandlot to professional, then, have embedded within them the core American values of individualism, equal opportunity, and community.

And here is where schools enter the picture as another social institution not only reflecting the larger culture but also as a tax-supported organization expected to transmit and instill those all-important core values.

The final post of this series describes how schooling reflects those deeply American values and reinforces national definitions of success and failure.





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Where Do Ideas of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Come From? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series of posts to answer the above question, I began with individualism as one of three core values that are embedded in the American character. The others are equal opportunity and community. These values originated before and after the colonies became the United States of America. Buried within these values are notions of “success” and “failure”  that have evolved over the past two centuries. They are with us today. And, most important, they are in conflict with one another. In this post, I describe the latter two values.

The value of equal opportunity

To Americans each individual deserves an equal shot at success. Running a race to win  prizes has to place everyone at the same starting line ready to run. Sure, the world is competitive and there will be winners and losers but the abiding belief is that each individual can make it, i.e., succeed, if he or she sticks to their goals, put in the hours, have the freedom to choose and are treated fairly.

In 1940, Ralph Bunche, a political scientist and subsequently the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote:

Every man in the street, white, black, red, or yellow, knows that this ‘the land of the free,’ the ‘land of opportunity,’ the ‘cradle of liberty,’ the ‘home of democracy,’ that the American flag symbolizes the ‘equality of all men’ and guarantees to us all ‘the protection of life, liberty and prosperity,’ freedom of speech, freedom of religion and racial tolerance.

For much of the nation’s history, however, this value was meant for white men. Ethnic and racial groups and women were considered unfit to run in that equal opportunity race and were banned until the Civil War and social and political movements in the late-19th and 20th centuries slowly allowed the excluded to join the starting line.

Disregarded individuals and groups believed in the American Creed to the point of protesting again and again when they could not fully participate in political and economic opportunities extended to white men. The women’s suffrage movement in the 19th century culminated in the passage of the 19th amendment (1920) to the U.S. Constitution allowing women to vote. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s  led to U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning segregated schools, federal laws extending civil rights to blacks in public accommodations, and the end of restrictions on who can and cannot vote. Expanded civil rights spread to Latinos and other ethnic groups, people with disabilities, and within the past decade to gay individuals.

Although much less than in earlier decades, protests continue into the 21st century (e.g., Black Lives Matter; discrimination and violence against transgender individuals). Yet the belief that individual choice and freedom entails the right to discriminate against (and do violence to) those with different skin color, ethnicity, gender, disability, and sexual orientation underscores that tension that straddles American values of equal opportunity and individualism.


Yet individuals who value equal opportunity belong to communities. No amount of self-reliance can add up to a full life. Americans look out for family, compete in a market-based economy, and need others to look out for them when they stumble and need help. Solidarity with others gives meaning to how individuals live and what they live for.

Family, religious, workplace, neighborhood and freely chosen communities create networks of interdependence that give individual lives social and emotional meaning beyond the paycheck and 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom, two garage house. That meaning derived from belonging to a community requires some degree of conformity to group wishes and that, of course, means rubbing against individual choice and self-interest.

From family clubs and religious congregations to Rotary clubs to parent/teacher associations, to sandlot sports and quilt-knitting groups, Americans have created networks of associations in their communities. Without interdependence and involvement in one or more communities, individuals fail to gain a sense of belonging to something greater than me-me-me or paychecks or vacation cottages. Communities mean a “we-ness.” The tradeoff is, of course, conforming to the values of the groups one joins and making compromises with the individualism each American relishes.

Reducing the constant tension in the culture between the value of individual action and the value of conforming in ideas and behavior to what the group or community desires.  has often meant that Americans, past and present, shuttle back-and-forth between pride in acting individually and complying with desires of community in which they live.

Over the past two centuries, each of these values have risen to the surface and been enshrined as a public good. Before the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was “rugged individualism.” During the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement and the birth of collectives, it was joining a movement seeking social justice, belonging to groups protesting war and racism, and, yes, forming communes. And now libertarians who seek deregulation and cherishing individual rights have become a political force. Keeping both individualism and community in sight, while attending to the fairness of equal opportunity continues to challenge a nation split between all stripes of political conservatives and liberals.

Core values of individualism, community, and equal opportunity form the DNA of the American character spreading its genes throughout the culture since the colonial era. But exactly how do these values spread across a society and become the glue that holds the American character together?

Part 3 answers that question.



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