Confessing Mistakes Is Very Hard To Do: I Tried To Link Changing School Structures to Improve Classroom Practice

Economist Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve (1987-2006), presided over decades of economic prosperity and recession believing that a market-based economy needed little government regulation. When “irrational exuberance” occurred, the structure of market forces would correct economic bubbles, he and gazillions of fellow economists believed. Not so for the Great Recession of 2008. Triggered by the sub-prime mortgage debacle, the international banking, credit, and financial institutions froze thereby losing trillions of dollars of wealth in the blink of an eye.

Greenspan testified before a U.S. Congressional committee and admitted that he had erred in believing that self-correcting market structures and federal regulations were enough to avert a major recession. That kind of after-the-fact admission of error is rare among economists and, I might add, educational reformers.

I have a far less dramatic and consequential mistake to confess. As an ardent public school reformer in classrooms, schools, and districts, I believed that structural reforms (e.g., creating non-graded schools; new ways to govern district and school sites; restructuring high schools into academies) would lead to better classroom instruction. After teaching for nearly 15 years, I had concluded that such new structures would alter common teaching practices which, in turn, would get students to learn more, faster, and better. That was my theory of action for many years. I was wrong.

I slowly began to revise that belief as I looked around at how my fellow teachers taught and began to examine my own classroom practices during and after flurries of school reform in the districts in which I taught. Then after I left the classroom and began researching how teachers have taught in the early 20th century and, later, during the standards-based, accountability-driven reforms in the early 21st century, I, like others, grew skeptical of the power of structures to change teaching practices.

Still, the job of policymakers is to traffic in structures. Why? Because reform-driven policymakers concern themselves with scale. Changing one child at a time, changing one teacher at a time, changing one school at a time is incredibly inefficient when there are limited resources. While it is steady work, it is slow and has to adapt to differences across and within thousands of school districts.

So changing many students, teachers, and schools introduces economies of scale and efficiencies. Thus, policymakers marry the creation of structures to scaled-up reforms that, they believe, will alter traditional classroom practices. In the DNA of policymakers, this belief in structures causing classroom changes is especially salient since over the past few decades showers of research studies from value-added assessments to twins in different classrooms reaffirm the importance of teacher knowledge, skills, and experience in shaping students’ academic achievement and behavior. The prevalent belief even after the Covid-19 pandemic and nearly total shutdown of schools persistes that correct structures will steer changes in classroom practice.

So when policymakers advocate portfolios of schools in urban districts, Common Core standards, small high schools, and deploying 1:1 laptops in every classroom, they believe in their heart of hearts that these major changes will work. Best of all, such scaled-up changes are visible to both parents and voters, evoking images of muscular reform with potential payoff in longer tenure in office.

Because many policymakers today believe that visible structures will eventually revamp classroom practice, they tout changing urban districts’ governance from elected school boards to mayors running schools (e.g., New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago,and Boston). Federal and state policymakers have championed new structures to evaluate and pay teachers for raising students’ test scores. Denver, Washington, D.C. and other cities have negotiated contracts with unions to install these new salary schedules. And, of course, policymakers beat the drums loudly for new structures to expand the supply of schools (e.g., charters and magnets) from which parents can choose. They point to New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles as stellar examples of districts with portfolios of choice among schools.

Entrepreneurial policymakers believe that these new structures will lead to teachers altering their practice and, thereby, improving student achievement. Yet my research and that of others deny the linkages between popular reform-driven structures and teaching practice.

Like others, who have seen structural reforms come and go, I have concluded from my experience and research that working directly on individual and collective teacher norms, knowledge, and skills within classrooms and schools—not big-ticket structural changes in districts—have a far better chance of improving teaching practices. Of course, this is slow-motion Mom-and-Pop-store-one-school-at-a-time work that policymakers, eager for efficient supermarket models and swift implementation, find this too costly and inefficient; such granular changes are too hard to swallow when across-the-board reform–getting more bang (e.g., higher test scores) out of the buck–is their gold standard.

Getting policymakers to shift their emphasis from creating new structures to focusing on school and classroom practices one school at a time, however, will be most difficult, even when policies fail and when studies contradict policymakers’ beliefs. Besides, there there has been a long history of such results being ignored. Yes, it is very hard to admit error.

Alan Greenspan’s public confession of error—he admitted that he rejected fellow economists’ warnings of the dangerous housing bubble–remains uncommon. Few national and state educational policymakers have neither questioned their underlying beliefs nor unvarnished enthusiasm for current or past structures altering classroom practices. Finally, few have ever admitted that they were mistaken.

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Inside the Black Box of the Classroom

Insider books and films about financial finagling (e.g., “Wall Street,”) baseball (e.g.,Michael Lewis’s Moneyball), the drug trade and police (e.g. HBO’s, “The Wire”) portray in vivid and compelling ways what it is like to be Gordon Gecko or Billy Beane or detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon. These “insider” accounts, both fiction and non-fiction, draw the reader and viewer into the details of buying and selling bonds, building a baseball team, and daily police work. Revealing (and sometimes simplifying) complex processes is what insider accounts do.

Where, however, are the insider accounts  of classroom teaching? Not in the wonderful heroic accounts of teachers in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Up the Down Staircase” (1967), “Stand and Deliver“(1988), “Freedom Writers” (2007). The narrative arc of these films go from the trials of teaching in tough situations to teary endings. Readers can insert their own favorites but the genre is filled with tales of teachers nearly succumbing to student resistance only to overcome one barrier after another to reach a soaring ending that brings out handkerchiefs. No sarcasm intended since I felt goosebumps and teared up at many of these films.

My candidates for descriptions of classroom teaching that approach “insider” accounts would be the French film “The Class” (based upon a book written by a teacher who is also in the film),  “Prez”  the former cop who becomes a Baltimore (MD) middle school teacher in HBO’s “The Wire,” and Philip Jackson’s study of elementary school teaching, Life in Classrooms. Readers will have their own favorites that go beyond the heroic teacher genre and capture the ups-and-downs of daily classroom teaching  (I would appreciate knowing which accounts readers prize).

Because there are so few classroom accounts that on-the-job teachers can point to and say, “yes, that is what teaching is all about,” and so many inaccurate, over-the-top, and even sloppy representations of teaching, the classroom has become a “black box.”*

I use “black box” as a metaphor for what happens daily in classrooms that remains unknown to outsiders–except for occasional films, television, and media reports–yet seems so familiar since policymakers, researchers, parents, and taxpayers have attended school. The fact is that what occurs in classrooms is largely unknown or tinged with nostalgia because memories fade and children reports of school activities are, at best, laconic, hiding more than revealing what occurs. Like that popular ad for Las Vegas tourists: What happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.

Teacher memories also fade. While many retain records of daily interactions, lessons, and materials for awhile, most do not. Sure lessons are traded on the Internet, but the traffic is a fraction of what transpires in classrooms.Moreover, those written lessons fail to capture what actually occurs. As a colleague once said, teaching is like dry ice evaporating at room temperature. So some researchers collect classroom artifacts, document interactions, and observe dynamics to restore what has evaporated and capture what happens in the “black box.”

The lack of documentation and transparency about the complex mechanics and inter-relationships that occur daily in schools and classrooms—the black box–make it tough to unpack and understand. But there have been efforts to get inside elementary and secondary classrooms through, for example, videotaped lessons. Videos of lessons  in Germany, Japan, and the United States appeared in the 1990s. In the “Measures of Teacher Effectiveness” project and similar efforts, researchers capture in real time what teachers and students do. Such real-time descriptions of classroom lessons help. But far more data converted into knowledge about what happens in classrooms during 50 minute lessons needs to be captured and analyzed by teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers, and researchers in order to open the “black box” and see  the complex realities of teaching and learning. Inside teaching should be as familiar as inside baseball.

Why? Because school reformers and policymakers generally recognize–as parents have always noted–that teachers are the single most important in-school factor to students’ well-being and achievement.  So what happens in classrooms matters greatly yet so little is known publicly about the process of teaching and learning.

Another reason is that advocates for particular policies from pay-for-performance plans to most recently NCLB (2002-2016) and its extension, Every Child Succeeds (2016-), rely upon correlations to see into classrooms. Consider a Fordham Foundation report on declining test scores among high achievers. The report uses trends in test score data to conclude  that two of five “high flying” students fall in performance. They point to the effects of NCLB on teachers and teaching. Such associations, as one researcher pointed out, use a  “black-box approach that assumes a link between its findings and NCLB-related policies.” But none of these correlations reveal neither jot nor tittle of how teachers teach.

For these reasons, getting reliable and valid insider knowledge of classroom lessons are essential.


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Whatever Happened to J. Lloyd Trump?

School reformers’ names are often forgotten. Except for John Dewey who died in 1952. His name continues to resonate among supporters and opponents of his ideas about school, society, curriculum, and teaching. But Dewey is an exception, not the rule.

Save for historians of education, few educators could recall the reforms Superintendent William Wirt engineered in Gary (IN) in 1906 that made him a nationally known reformer. His Platoon Schools became the basis of the modern elementary school. Or former teacher, superintendent, and professor David Snedden whose writings helped establish the modern vocational high school during the early decades of the 20th century. Seldom do their names pop up a century later.

And even recent school reformers’ names disappear from media and conversations. For those high school principals and teachers, for example, who cut their teeth on reform as novice educators in the 1970s and 1980s, the name Ted Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools would be remembered. But in 2022, few 30-something high school teachers or principals could say anything about Sizer’s ideas and accomplishments as teacher, principal, college professor or reformer.

And that is what happened to J. Lloyd Trump (1908-1985). Trump was a nationally known secondary school reformer in the 1960s and 1970s. A prolific writer, professor at the University of Illinois, and active in national educational organizations for decades, Trump was the go-to person for high school reform. Today, he would be known only to the few scholars who track the history of high schools in the U.S.

While Trump’s favored reforms to redesign the secondary school (e.g., team teaching, large group instruction mixed with small groups and independent student work, and flexible scheduling) would still ring bells with many current national and state educational policymakers, principals, and high school teachers, dropping his name today would cause puzzled expressions and shrugs. Trump is forgotten–except that he shares a similar name with a former U.S. president (no relation, however).

So in the multi-layered history of school reform, individual policymakers, practitioners, and researchers have lent their names to sustained efforts to improve tax-supported public schools. Yet within a few decades, their names slipped from sight although the ideas and the reforms they pressed for have often remained alive and well. Names come and go, memories soften, but reforms these men and women fought for remain on the radar screens of a current generation of high school reformers.

That includes reforms J. Lloyd Trump championed in the 1960s and 1970s. Here is one summary of his influence:

During the 1960s and 1970s, Trump’s contemporaries
saw him as the leading authority on change in secondary
education. His early work to redesign secondary schools
became known as the Trump Plan. Thousands of schools in
the U.S. and Canada implemented its basic elements: team
teaching, use of teacher assistants, large-group instruction,
small-group instruction, independent study, flexible scheduling, and attention to the individual differences of students and teachers. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Trump
served as project director of the [National Association of Secondary School Principals] Model Schools Project (MSP), a national effort in some 36 American and Canadian schools to bring comprehensive, research-based change to middle-level and high school education.

For the many high schools that adopted the Trump Plan, daily schedules changed. No more a succession of 50-minute periods. Scheduling under the Trump Plan meant that blocks of time were set aside for whole group instruction, small group work, and periods when students would work independently. Trump also created “flexible modular scheduling” as a way of redesigning the high school experience for both students and teachers.

According to critics of the Trump Plan, however, deep concerns developed among those high school leaders who had adopted the innovation. Administrators worried that too many students had scheduled stretches of time where they were supposed to work alone or in pairs but could not manage that independence.

Today, were one to mention the “Trump Plan” in high schools, an association with former President Donald Trump would probably occur, not the efforts of this nationally known but forgotten school reformer over a half-century ago.


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How Will Covid-19 Influence School Reform in the U.S.?

Jeffrey Young produces and hosts Ed Surge podcasts and is managing editor of EdSurge. He interviewed me in January 2022. Here is an edited version of that interview.

It turns out emergency remote instruction is far from new. Back in 1937, when a polio outbreak plagued the U.S., Chicago Public Schools produced lessons that were broadcast on local radio stations.

The system helped keep students learning during a three-week shut-down. But it didn’t lead to a revolution in radio teaching. Will things be different now in a health crisis that is longer, and the technology of the internet and iPads and smartphones are more robust?

Questions about what we can learn from the history of education are familiar to Larry Cuban, a longtime education historian and school reformer. He looks back over nearly a century of change in his new book, “Confessions of a School Reformer.”

The book is part history, part memoir, as Cuban looks back over his career and the various reform movements he was part of, and offers some reflections and thoughts on where things might go after this current period of disruption.

Cuban is an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University. He started his career teaching high school social studies for 14 years. At one point he directed a teacher-education program that prepared returning Peace Corp volunteers to teach in inner-city schools. And for 7 years he served as a district superintendent of schools for Arlington County Public Schools outside of Washington, D.C. Over the years he’s weighed in on big issues in school reform in books and on his blog, which has the straightforward title: “Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice.

EdSurge connected with Cuban last week to ask about whether he thinks online education is here to stay in schools.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

EdSurge: I’m curious about your book’s title, “Confessions of a School Reformer.” What are you confessing?

Larry Cuban: It comes from a turn-of-the-20th-century reformer who was a progressive, and he wrote a book, “Confessions of a Reformer” [by Frederic C. Howe]. … I was very taken with that book because as a progressive reformer, [Howe] was very active and made substantial contributions in the early 20th century to progressive thought and actions—particularly across different states. And what he confessed to was that, ’Hey, this is a much bigger, more complex thing than I ever thought it was.’ That’s one of the confessions I make in my book. Schooling is intricate, and very complex. And when I say schooling, I mean the governance, the organization and the curriculum and the actual teaching, all of that together is far more complex than most people think.

I spend a lot of time trying to unravel that complexity because everyone has been a student once, and they think schooling is not that complex.

You note at one point in the book that you’re a “scarred” school reformer, and I’m curious what that, what those scars are. What does that mean?

As I moved through the different phases of my career—as a teacher, a school site administrator, as a district administrator and then as a professor—I had to give up certain ideas that I thought were terrific, but I saw that they didn’t materialize, or they had what I would call unanticipated consequences that were perverse.

[For instance,] while I continue to believe it’s important that teachers develop their own curriculum, I don’t think that that’s a panacea, as I used to. And I used to think that you change the school and then that will make the difference in a district and a state and a nation. And while I still think that’s very important—whole school reform—it’s not the answer I once thought it was. I’ve gone through these phases, and that’s where the scars accumulate.

What is your advice to a reformer just starting out today?

The first thing I would say is teach. You have to be able to have had the experience of being the teacher if what you are seeking is to alter teaching.

There are many policy makers who have not taught a day in their lives. The closest they came to classrooms were when they sat behind desks and faced teachers. I add a shaker full of salt to anything such a policymaker recommends about teaching because they have never experienced it.

What do you see as the legacy of COVID 19 in various school reform efforts, and where do you think things go from here?

I don’t see COVID producing a lot of reforms. If anything, it produces this huge public and professional need to resume schooling as it was. I think basically schooling has much more stability than change in it. And that’s the historian’s point of view.

There have been changes in schooling over the last century, but stability has been dominant from my point of view. And I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of stability. I think COVID has reminded us that all parents want is a return to face-to-face teaching and to let the teachers teach the lessons that they had before school closures. Let them do what they do best.

As for those that say that online instruction will be the next big reform, I don’t accept that. I think [emergency] remote instruction is now part of the toolkit for administrators and teachers, when things shut down—there are going be other shutdowns–[recent district experiences with remote instruction will come in handy].


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Is Teaching in Charter Schools Better or the Same as Regular Schools?

What has become obvious in the 30-year history of charter schools is that elementary and secondary charter schools have far greater flexibility than regular district schools in altering what happens in classrooms and buildings.

Yet even with that mandate of separate governance and the charge to innovate in both organization and instruction, most charter schools have replicated the traditional age-graded arrangement. Nearly all charter schools are K-6 or K-8 elementary or 9-12 high schools. Ditto for curriculum since accreditation–a must for any newly organized school–requires abiding with state curriculum standards and skills that must be taught.

Does that replication of regular school organization and curriculum extend to teaching practices? Does teaching in a charter school with its separate governance and organizational flexibility harnessed to a mission to innovate, differ at all from teaching in a non-charter school?

I have observed dozens of charter school classrooms over the past decade. I have seen extraordinary, ordinary, and yes, a few disastrous lessons. I have looked at the few studies of classroom teaching in charter schools. This and subsequent posts take a stab at answering the question in the title.

Consider Katie Goddard who in 2016 taught world history at one of the Summit Charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. I took notes on the lesson I observed her teach.

The young, slim teacher stands on the chair in the middle of the classroom to be heard above ninth grade students clustered in the four corners of the portable classroom. The students are chattering about the reasons they agree or disagree with the statement Katie Goddard, the teacher, put on the “smart board.” The statement students considered–“There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery”– drove them to different corners labeled “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree.” The teacher asks students in each corner why they agree or disagree with statement. After a few students give their reasons, some classmates change their minds and migrate to different corners making the classroom a swirl of movement.  This activity occurred in the middle of a 95 minute block in World Studies where Goddard was introducing a new unit on Imperialism.

Goddard had begun the 95-minute class with a Warm Up question: “Should the U.S. pay reparations to black Americans whose families have been slaves?” and, after telling them to put away their cells and Chromebooks, gave them two short op-ed pieces on opposite sides of the question. One op-ed argued that who should pay and who should receive reparations for enslaving Africans were contested and confused. The other op ed argued that the British should pay reparations to Kenyans for what they did in colonizing that African nation.

She asks the 24 ninth graders to “read and chunk the text” for each opinion piece. She reminded the class to read each paragraph and write a one-line summary of each paragraph and indicate whether they agree or disagree with the op-ed. As students write in their notebooks, Goddard, holding a clipboard, walks around the classroom of 13 tables, each seating two students facing the “smart board,” answering questions and checking to see what students are writing. Goddard asks students to hold up fingers indicating how much more time they want to finish task. Some hold up one, others two and three. For those who had finished she offers two options for them to do.

She then asks students to share with partner their summaries and opinions. As students start talking to one another, Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember in working together you need to turn to your partner, move your body to face one another and listen carefully to what your partner says.” Students resume talking.

When she sees that nearly all students have completed the task, she asks students for their summaries of the two articles and which one they agree/disagree with most. Students are initially reluctant to commit to a position but as a few offer their opinions, Goddard teases out the reasons embedded in arguments for and against reparations. And this is the moment when the teacher asked all the students to take a position on the statement and go to a corner of the room: “There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for slavery.”

This Warm Up and debate about reparations were initial activities in the lesson introducing Imperialism. By starting with the contentious contemporary question of reparations for slavery, Goddard would move to instances of European countries colonizing the Congo in Africa and India in Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and consider the human costs of taking over these countries.

The agenda for the day, written on the white board, listed the sequence of topics for the hour-and-a-half session:

  1. Reparations
  2. Slavery op-eds
  3. Criteria
  4. Imperialism op-eds
  5. Exit ticket

After the Warm Up and during the four-corner debate, Goddard gets deeper into the reparations question by introducing statements such as: “slavery ended a hundred years ago so the U.S. government should not pay any money to African Americans now.” One student points out that the U.S. government has already paid reparations when they gave sums of money to Japanese Americans for being in internment camps during World War II. Another points out that the money went to those who were still alive. Voices are raised and tone becomes adversarial among students agreeing and disagreeing. Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember our norms. The second your tone becomes combative, you don’t listen. Our goal is to listen to one another.” After more restrained back-and-forth in which the teacher specifically calls on students who have heretofore not entered the discussion, Goddard asks class if they want to shift corners.

About one-third of the students move to another corner.

Teacher now asks students to return to their tables and turn to the next question: When are reparations necessary? She asks class to open Chromebooks and come up with criteria to answer the question. She reminds class that there is no correct answer, that you have different opinions but you need examples and facts to support your opinion. Goddard moves around the room asking and answering questions at each table.

After about 10 minutes, Goddard asks students to put lids of laptops down and says that “we are going to study Imperialism and you are going to write an op-ed by the end of the unit. “The question you will answer,” she says, is “do former imperializing countries have a responsibility to give foreign aid to the countries they imperialized?”  She links the earlier discussion of reparations to Imperialism and then previews the next 12 lessons on the “smart board,” going over each one briefly. She then puts up a slide that defines Imperialism as “the process of taking over another country through diplomacy or military force.” Goddard asks students to come up with their definition of imperialism by using Playlist of sources (documents and videos)–she gives the class the link–that she assembled for them on the Congo, India, and other colonized countries. In coming up with their definitions, she urges students to talk to their partner. After pairs have come up with their definitions from Playlist, she then asks them to brainstorm what they would need to know about imperialism to determine if reparations are necessary.

With clipboard in hand, teacher moves through the classroom checking to see which students are unclear about the task or having difficulties in answering questions.

As time winds down to end the class, Goddard summarizes what they have done, connecting discussions on reparations to new unit of Imperialism.

The criteria I use in judging the quality of a lesson are: clear and coherent organization, presence of mixed activities, frequent verbal interaction between teacher and students and among students, and finally, a summary of the lesson.[i]

In my opinion, Goddard’s lesson met these criteria fully. As I left this charter school World History lesson, I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw and experienced.


[i] In the half-century that I have observed teachers teach in public elementary and secondary schools, I have developed these criteria for judging a lesson.  I know that other teacher supervisors and academic specialists would have different standards and benchmarks but in the interest of transparency, these are the criteria I used. Note that one criterion is absent: what did students learn? As an observer, more often than not, I could not determine what and how much students learned during the lesson. Had I observed a sequence of lessons and seen students’ written and oral work, I might have been able to judge student learning. That was not the case for the observations I describe here.


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Cartoons on Schooling during Covid-19

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What Really Matters in My Math Classroom (Jerry Brodkey)

Jerry Brodkey has been a public secondary school teacher since 1975, and has taught most of the subjects in Social Studies and Mathematics. He has also taught for years in private schools. He now teaches remedial algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus.  His undergraduate degree was from Rice University (BA 1974), and has graduate degrees from Stanford (MA 1976, Ph.D. 1987).

 He has written guest posts for this blog on “smart” boards and stress on high school students.

A few days ago I was sitting watching my 8th grade math students graduate from middle school. I like to sit off to the side at each graduation, listening as each student’s name is called, thinking of each as an individual, seeing each for perhaps the last time. 

These students, and all students, have been through too much these last three years  –  three years of disrupted life and education.  The pandemic, covid tests, masks, fear, social isolation, anxiety, over a full year of zoom learning, social media, hurtful texts, economic disruption for their families, inflation, college admission worries (yes, even for middle school students), George Floyd, January 6th, the Ukraine, Buffalo, now Uvalde.

It is amazing they are graduating and moving forward. 

I’ve been teaching for a long time. I started in 1975 and taught in public high schools until 2015. I retired for one year, missed teaching, and then found a wonderful nearby middle school where I’ve now been for six years. Even after almost fifty years, teaching continues to be challenging, exciting, and intense.

There is so much discussion and debate over math education.  What really matters, what makes a difference? After all of my years teaching it continues to get clearer and clearer to me.

Achievement matters. Each student needs a basic understanding of mathematical ideas.  Each student needs a strong foundation, not only for artificial reasons like college applications and success in schools, but more importantly for understanding an important part of the world. How can complex problems be broken down and solved? What does information and statistics tell us? What does it mean to prove a theory or hypothesis?  What ideas and insights from the past help us solve today’s challenges?

Parents and students worry about math grades and acceleration. I repeatedly tell them learning math is not a race.  The key is to build a strong foundation and create a desire to keep learning.

I tell students and parents there is no magic in learning math. I’m pretty traditional. I tell parents and students:  To achieve real success –  Have excellent attendance. Do all your homework. Ask questions. Get help fast.

What doesn’t matter? The choice of textbooks doesn’t matter much to me. Most are good enough, none perfect.  If I don’t like a problem set or how a topic is presented, I’ll choose another approach. I’ll ask colleagues what they do.  I’ll create my own problem sets. Debates over textbooks are noise.

Common Core? Back to Basics? Group learning? Individualized instruction? Programmed Learning? More  or less technology in the classroom? Standardized tests?  Block schedules or daily classes? Take calculus in 11th grade or 12th grade? Accelerate in 4th or 5th grade? Heterogeneous classrooms or group by ability? Inservice programs? District speeches? . All these debates? Most of these don’t matter much. Perhaps they are useful but  mostly they are noise, noise, noise.  A balanced approach probably works best.

So what matters most? –  Each individual is a unique individual, and the classroom is  a unique group experience. A baseball team has 162 games, a teaching year about 180 days of instruction.  I taught many of my graduating 8th graders for two consecutive years  – approximately 350 hours. There will be ups and downs for each individual, and for each class as a group.

As a teacher, I can help create a classroom tone that fosters achievement and learning.  As a teacher I can form a relationship with each student, creating a sense of trust.  I can help create a safe classroom where learning can happen.  I can do my very best every day, helping students understand new and complex ideas.  I can be patient and flexible.I can draw upon   my past experiences to find different approaches that work for different students. I can listen. I can model learning.

I have no illusions about what I can and can not do.  I know students will, as years pass, forget me and forget much of what they learned.  Who remembers their middle or high school math teacher?  Perhaps I can gently shape their path through school and beyond. Perhaps I can slightly alter the trajectory of their future experiences. Perhaps I can help them through the difficult times they are now experiencing.

I’m thinking about my students as individuals. Some are constrained by negative attitudes and behaviors.  I listed these below.  Each period each day I try to move my students’ attitudes and behavior  to the left column from the destructive right side.   It is a long process, never-ending.  


POSITIVE                                                             NEGATIVE

I can                                                                      I can’t

I don’t understand, so I will ask for help                I am afraid to ask for help

I believe I can be a good math student                 I will never be a good math student

It’s hard, but I can do it                                          It’s hard, I’ll never be able to do it

I’m engaged in learning                                         I’m  withdrawn,hiding, I want to be invisible

The math classroom is a safe place                     The math classroom is a scary place

I did poorly on this test, but I will figure it out         I did poorly on this test and I want to forget it                 

There is joy in learning, a sense of wonder            I fear what will come next

I never have understood this but will now               I never understood this and never will

get some help                                                         

If  the teacher calls on me, I’ll try, and it is OK         I am terrified the teacher might call on me

if I make a mistake

I have a sense of real accomplishment                    I’m  frustrated and confused

What’s Important? It’s important  my students deeply believe :

I want to learn more –  I can learn more  – more math, more everything

I’ll carefully listen to each graduate’s name. I have my own sense of wonder. Each student has enriched my life and the lives of their classmates. Each is a miracle. Each matters.

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Practical Wisdom Garnered from Living a Full Life

I wish I could put down in clever, clear, and concise words the practical wisdom, lessons learned from life, that have come to me over many decades. I cannot. Fortunately, others have that capacity and skill. Here is a collection of such wisdom. Savor, nod your head in agreement if that be the case, and, if you are inclined to do so, write your own. Most of all, enjoy!*

David Brooks is a New York Times columnist. This appeared June 2, 2022

We’re inspired by the legendary tech journalist Kevin Kelly, who, for his 68th, 69th and 70th birthdays, shared his life learnings on his Technium blog. Here are some of Kelly’s life hack gems (I’ve reworded several for concision):

When you have 90 percent of a large project completed, finishing up the final details will take another 90 percent.

Anything you say before the word “but” does not count.

Denying or deflecting a compliment is rude. Accept it with thanks.

Getting cheated occasionally is a small price to pay for trusting the best in everyone, because when you trust the best in others, they will treat you the best.

When you get invited to something in the future, ask yourself, Would I do this tomorrow?

Purchase a tourist guidebook to your hometown. You’ll learn a lot playing tourist once a year.

The thing that made you weird as a kid could make you great as an adult.

It’s not an apology if it comes with an excuse.

Just because it’s not your fault doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility.

Ignore what they are thinking of you because they are not thinking of you.

If you think you saw a mouse, you did, and if there is one, there are others.

Something does not need to be perfect to be wonderful, especially weddings.

The biggest lie we tell ourselves is, “I don’t need to write this down because I will remember it.”

Bravo to Kevin Kelly. Everybody learns life lessons. Not everyone clarifies them with such precision and shares them with such generosity. But even Kelly does not have a monopoly on practical wisdom.

For example, over the last few years I have embraced, almost as a religious mantra, the idea that if you’re not sure you can carry it all, take two trips.

A friend shares the advice: “Always make the call. If you’re disturbed or confused by something somebody did, always pick up the phone….”

Job interviews are not really about you. They are about the employer’s needs and how you can fill them.

If you can’t make up your mind between two options, flip a coin. Don’t decide based on which side of the coin came up. Decide based on your emotional reaction to which side came up.

Take photos of things your parents do every day. That’s how you’ll want to remember them.

Build identity capital. In your 20s do three fascinating things that job interviewers and dinner companions will want to ask you about for the rest of your life.

Marriage is a 50-year conversation. Marry someone you want to talk with for the rest of your life.

If you’re giving a speech, be vulnerable. Fall on the audience members and let them catch you. They will.

Never be furtive. If you’re doing something you don’t want others to find out about, it’s probably wrong.

If you’re traveling in a place you’ve never been before, listen to an album you’ve never heard before. Forever after that music will remind you of that place.

If you’re cutting cake at a birthday party with a bunch of kids howling around you, it’s quicker and easier to cut the cake with dental floss, not a knife. Lay the floss across the cake and firmly press down.

When you’re beginning a writing project, give yourself permission to write badly. You can’t fix it until it’s down on paper.

One-off events usually don’t amount to much. Organize gatherings that meet once a month or once a year.

Make the day; don’t let the day make you. Make sure you are setting your schedule, not just responding to invitations from others.

If you meet a jerk once a month, you’ve met a jerk. If you meet jerks every day, you’re a jerk.

Never pass up an opportunity to hang out with musicians.

Don’t try to figure out what your life is about. It’s too big a question. Just figure out what the next three years are about.

If you’ve lost your husband (or wife), sleep on his (or her) side of the bed and it won’t feel so empty.

Don’t ever look up a recent photo of your first great love.

If you’re trying to figure out what supermarket line is fastest, get behind a single shopper with a full cart over two shoppers each with a half-full cart.

Low on kitchen counter space? Pull out a drawer and put your cutting board on top of it.

You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow.


*I thank Kim Marshall for including this piece in his blog and sending it along to me.


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Schooling Around the World (Part 7)

India has 1.4 billion people. Of that total 250 million attend rural and urban schools about the same enrollment as China (2021). Consider that the U.S. schooled around 50 million students in the same year.

India’s system of public and private schooling is governed at the central, state, and local levels. About four out of five Indian students attend government schools, as they are called. The rest attend private and alternative kinds of schooling. Since two-thirds of India’s population live in rural areas, 70 percent of all Indian children attend school in those areas. Among adults, nearly 80 percent are literate as determined by the 2011 census (three decades earlier, literacy rate was 41 percent). See here.

Here are a few facts about the Indian system of schooling including how public schooling is organized:

What do rural and urban Indian classrooms look like? A sampling of photos in both settings comes from the Internet:

Rural primary school
Village school of children Uttar Pradesh

Physical classes resume in a Ghaziabad school after one student tested positive for Covid-19.

700 Primary Schools In Gujurat Have Only One Teacher (Image : Social Media)

Schools in Maharashtra (Mumbai) were closed down in March 2020 after the outbreak of the pandemic; they reopened mid-December 2021

Karnataka Primary School

Kerala: Classroom use of technology used in pilot project in Alappuzha, Puthukad, Kozhikode North and Taliparamba, 2016.

Teaching activities taking place in a classroom in Gujarat, India.
Photo: Luke Strathmann | J-PAL

A village school in Kovalam, Kerala India

Apart from textbook lessons, Sandhya Shanmugam TV said she applies lessons from her own life in her classes. (Express)

New Delhi High School Class


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Schooling around the World (Part 6)

After determining how each nation has organized its system of schooling (U.S., France, Germany, Russia, Japan) and seeing photos of different nations’ classrooms, similarities are obvious:

*Every nation compels parents to send their sons and daughters to school up to a decade or more.

*Every one pays the costs for schooling either directly or indirectly.

*Every one is age-graded.

*Every one publishes national (or state) curriculum standards for each elementary and secondary school subject.

*Every one tests student performance in elementary and secondary school subjects.

*Every one has at least one teacher for each classroom.

Some are national (or federal) systems and some are state-operated with the federal government and states splitting funding and supervisory responsibilities. All of these nations and their states set curriculum standards for each subject and administer tests to determine if schools and students are meeting those standards.

Some nations have centralized systems (e.g., France, Russia, Italy, Japan) where ministry officials make decisions for schools and some are decentralized (e.g., Canada, U.S. Norway) with states and local districts having a moderate degree of discretion to alter what national authorities require. Whether centralized or decentralized, individual schools in every nation have some autonomy in adapting national or state curriculum when organizing for instruction. Need I add that once they close their classroom doors, teachers also exercise discretion in teaching the lesson they planned for the students in front of them that day.

What needs to be stressed that these commonalities among nations in establishing and operating systems of schooling over the past century exist side-by-side with inevitable within-nation variations between rural and urban and wealthy and poor schools that exist. Both commonalities and variations influence the schooling and teaching that occurs daily.

For this post, I turn to Sweden. Again, I begin with a chart showing how the nation’s schools are organized followed by a series of photos of classrooms in the country drawn from the Internet. For longer descriptions of the Swedish system and its move from a highly centralized one to reforms in the 1990s that now allow parents to make choices among government schools and publicly funded independent ones (about five percent of students attend these schools), see here and here.

The Swedish system:

Here is a sampling of Swedish classroom photos:

Upper Secondary Classroom

Schoolchildren in Sweden, where free schools (ones run by parents) have teacher union support. Photograph: Chad Ehlers/Stock Connection/Rex Features
The Al-Azhar Primary School in a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden. (YouTube screenshot)
Swedish students in a classroom, Halmstad, Sweden, February 8, 2016. David Ramos/Getty

Primary school classroom
Upper Grade Primary Classroom

Sweden – Stockholm. Malaren district. Children in kindergarten playing with the teachers sit in a circle.

A high school class in Stockholm on Sept. 7, 2020, with no distancing and no masks.
Elisabeth Ubbe—The New York Times/Redux

Primary Classroom during the Pandemic–Credit: Alexander Olivera/TT

Kindergarten Class


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