A Math Teacher Remembers Her Students (Education Realist)

 

This abridged post comes from the blog Education Realist. The teacher who writes this blog prefers to remain anonymous. I have observed this teacher teach math and social studies lessons; we have also met and had lunch discussing many issues in public schools.

In the fall of 2012, I began my first year at this school. I met a group of 29 freshmen in their first high school math class: geometry.  From the beginning, we all clicked. A new school didn’t seem quite so intimidating because every day of that first semester started with camaraderie and good times–and some learning, too.

Of the 26 who stayed the whole year, all but one passed. Nearly half Asians (from every part of the continent), over half the rest Hispanic, and seven whites, and one African American. Ten athletes, including two who turned their ability into scholarships. The eventual senior prom queen. All those who passed made it through trigonometry, at least. Most made it to pre-calculus. Only a few made it to Calculus or Advancement Placement Statistics.  They reflected the school’s population writ large: diverse, athletic, not overly focused on academics, but smart enough to get it done.

A few others were never in one of my classes again, but I saw them frequently; they’d always shout a greeting across the quad, identifying themselves because they know I never wear my glasses.

The remaining saw me in at least one subsequent math class. None seemed to mind.

When we talked, as we did often, we’d regularly refer to “that first geometry class”.  Our touchstone memory, kept alive through four years of their education.

One of my “three-timers”, a sweet, tentative young man who never had another math teacher until pre-calc, stopped by with his yearbook. As we thumbed through the senior pages, calling out familiar faces, he suddenly said, “Man, I bet you’ve taught most of the seniors at least once.”

We counted it together—of the 93 rows of four students each, I’d taught 288 of them, or roughly 75%. Many more than once.

In the face of that percentage, I decided it was time to work around my dislike of crowds, speeches, and heat in order to represent on their big night. So at 4:30, I showed up at the stadium to help assemble them for the procession.

At first, the seniors were gathered in informal groups outside the staging area, taking pictures, talking, dancing about impatiently. Many called me over or waved, shouting out their names.

As they moved into the cafeteria for the staging, I wandered around, touching base, asking about plans, saying goodbye. As I’d expected, they needed teachers to organize the alphabetized lines for the procession, so I took a list of twenty. Rounded them up, hollered them into line, while the fourteen students I’d taught before joked that in less than three hours they’d never have to listen to me again. “And that’s why you became a teacher!” a bunch of them chorused.

Finally, the graduation manager gave the sign for zero hour. Suddenly well-behaved and serious, they streamed out in order, paused for a few minutes at some inevitable delay, and then the music started. I stood about 15 feet away from them, put on my prescription glasses, even in the sun, the better not to miss any face.

Waved and cheered at brand new adults who waved and cheered back, glad I was there, happy to see me, happy that I was wearing my glasses and could see them.  And when the last student–one of mine–turned for one final smile, I decided that the graduation itself, the heat, the speeches, the names, would dull the joy I felt in this moment. Time to go.

As I walked back to where I’d parked my car, latecomers were hustling to the stadium, many holding signs and pictures. I saw pictures I knew, stopped to congratulate the parents and send them on their way.

And suddenly:

“Hey, it’s my geometry teacher!”

I smiled at the pretty, lively young woman holding a…toddler? infant? gurgling happily walking towards me, waving.  But I’ve only taught three geometry classes in those four years, and was coming up blank.

“You don’t remember me? I’m Annie!” and I gasped.

“Oh, my God. Annie! I thought…I haven’t run into you for so long…you didn’t go back to live with your mom? I don’t think I’ve seen you in..three years? I didn’t recognize you. You’re all grown up! ”

Annie was the only one in the geometry class that didn’t pass.

“How’s your dad? You look fantastic. And how’s this little guy? How old is he, fifteen months?”

“Nope, just nine months.”

“He’s gorgeous. How are you? Come to see the grad…well, duh, yes.”

She laughed, and hitched the baby to her other hip. “It’s great you came! I still think about that geometry class. It was so fun!”

“I wish I’d run into you more. Go, get going, you don’t want to be late. Take care of this adorable one. I’m happy to see you.”

“Me, too. Take care. Bye!” and off she went, striding confidently into her future.

I watched her, thinking of all the questions I wanted to ask: did she graduate? Go to our excellent alternative high school? Is the baby’s dad in the picture? What are your plans? and being so very glad I didn’t ask.

I resist presenting Annie as a tragedy. I didn’t feel guilt.  But I did feel…awareness, maybe? I’m good with unmotivated underachieving boys. Am I as good with girls?

Could I reach out more? Give them reasons to try, to play along?

I then remembered a saying from my ed school professor

“You should never be satisfied. You can always do better.”

I told him that the two sentiments don’t follow. I am satisfied. I can try to do better.

Goodbye, class of 2016.

Goodbye, geometry class. I’ll miss you.

 

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Summer is Over, School Begins in August

At this time of year, journalists and bloggers write about the new fact of schools starting before the first weekend of September, the traditional start time for U.S. schools for nearly a century.  A few writers (and parents also)  ask why the date for the end of summer vacation keeps creeping backward into August (see here, here, and here). Answers include increased teacher efficiency  (more time to prepare students for standardized tests), catering to students and families (smoother closing of first semester before Xmas and getting out of school in late May which reduces graduating seniors’ shenanigans in last few weeks of school), while preserving other vacations during school year such as in February and April.

Current talk about shorter summers, however, is empty of the highly-charged, crisis-ridden vocabulary of 30 years ago about U.S. students spending far less time in schools than international peers who were beating the pants off Americans on tests.  In the 1980s, the short school year of 180 days was believed to be the cause of U.S. students’ mediocre showing on international tests. Recommendations for a longer school year (up to 220 days) came from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. In 2008, a foundation-funded report, A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk, found that the 180-day school year was intact across the nation. The length of the school year even with current earlier starts in August today remains around 180 days of school.

What about year-round schools?  There is a homespun myth, treated as fact, that the annual school calendar, with three months off for both teachers and students, is based on the rhythm of 19th-century farm life, which dictated when school was in session. Thus, planting and harvesting chores accounted for long summer breaks, an artifact of agrarian America. Not so.

Actually, summer vacations grew out of early 20th- century urban middle-class parents (and later lobbyists for camps and the tourist industry) pressing school boards to release children to be with their families for four to eight weeks or more. By the 1960s, however, policy maker and parent concerns about students losing ground academically during the vacation months— in academic language, “summer loss” — gained support for year-round schooling. Cost savings also attracted those who saw facilities being used 12 months a year rather than being shuttered during the summer.Nonetheless, although year-round schools were established as early as 1906 in Gary, Indiana, calendar innovations have had a hard time entering most schools. Districts with year-round schools still work within the 180-day year but distribute the time more evenly (e.g., 45 days in session, 15 days off) rather than having a long break between June and September. As of 2011, over 3,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public schools had a year-round calendar enrolling about four percent of all students. Almost half of the year-round schools are in California. In most cases, school boards adopted year-round schools because increased enrollments led to crowded facilities, most often in minority and poor communities —not concerns over “summer loss” in academic achievement.

What about lengthened school day? Since the 1990s, especially in urban districts, children and youth coming to school earlier and leaving later with the addition of after-school programs has extended the school day in districts across the nation.

In the past half century, as the economy has changed and families increasingly have both (or single) parents working, schools have been pressed to take on childcare responsibilities, such as tutoring and home work supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 a.m. for parents to drop off children and have after-school programs that close at 6 p.m. PDK/Gallup polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before-and after-school programs. Instead of the familiar half-day program for 5-year-olds, all-day kindergartens (and prekindergartens for 4-year-olds) have spread swiftly in the past two decades, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Innovative urban schools, such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), run longer school days. They routinely open at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. and also schedules biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.
If reformers want a success story in fixing school time, they can look to extending the school day, although it’s arguable how many of those changes occurred because of reformers’ arguments and actions and how much from economic and social changes in family structure and the desire to chase a higher standard of living. According to recent studies, high-quality after school programs improve children and youth attitudes, behaviors, and achievement (see OSTissuebrief10-1    ) .But those schools still run on 180-day schedules.
After thirty years of reform furor over long summers and insufficient time in school, reformers of that generation can look today at increasing numbers of  districts opening in mid-August yet many others still hanging on to an early September opening.  Extended day with child care and after-school programs have spread across the nation’s schools. For those school reformers then and now who still believe that more time in school leads to higher performance on tests, the results are, at best, mixed.
Even with reformers intense pressure to get U.S. students schooled for longer periods of time, pushback from parents, voters and taxpayers have kept the number of school days in session and vacations pretty close to what they have been for decades.

 

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The Perils of PBL’s Popularity (John Larmer)

Recently, I have published posts on Project-based Learning. A student and foundation official  have raised questions with and about PBL as an appropriate instructional approach. As this instructional reform, once the darling of early and mid-20th century Progressives, has surged again in practitioner and researcher circles, criticism of its implementation and use needs to be aired. For this post, I turn to John Larmer, a champion of PBL, who believes deeply in the instructional approach but shows concern over its potential faddishness and too easy acceptance. Former high school teacher of social studies and English, Larmer is Editor in Chief of publications at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). He writes often about Project-Based Learning. This post originally appeared March 21, 2016

As readers of this blog well know, Project Based Learning is a hot topic in education these days. The progressive teaching method is being touted as one of the best ways to engage 21st-century students and develop a deeper understanding of content as well as build success skills such as critical thinking/problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and self-management.

At the Buck Institute for Education, we think PBL is even more than that; it can be absolutely transformative for students who experience enough high-quality PBL in their K-12 years. They gain not only understanding and success skills but also confidence in their ability as independent learners and a greater sense of their own efficacy and power.

PBL is transformative for teachers and schools, too, as they create real-world connections to learning, change school culture, and guide students to successfully complete high-quality projects. And teachers who use PBL regularly can experience  “the joy of teaching,” which they may not – make that likely will not – in a test-prep, drill-and-kill environment.

You’ll notice I use the term “high-quality” twice in the above, which points to a real concern we have at BIE. We don’t want PBL to become yesterday’s news, another education fad for which much is promised and little delivered. This is why BIE developed and promotes the Gold Standard PBL model: to help ensure PBL’s place as a permanent, regular feature of 21st century education for all students.

If it’s not done well, I see PBL facing three dangers:

1. Unprepared Teachers & Lack of Support
Teachers who are not prepared to design and implement projects effectively will see lackluster student performance and face daunting classroom management challenges. Shifting from traditional practice to PBL is not a simple matter of adding another tool to a teacher’s toolbox. PBL is not just another way to “cover standards” that’s a little more engaging for students. PBL represents a different philosophy about what and how students should learn in school, and many teachers and school leaders do not yet realize its implications. It was born in the progressive education movement associated with John Dewey, with more recent ties to constructivism and the work of Jean Piaget. Adding to this situation is the fact that most teachers teach the way they were taught, and did not experience PBL when they were students – so they don’t have a vision for what it can be.

Schools and districts need to provide teachers with opportunites for extensive and ongoing professional development, from workshops provided by experts (like BIE’s) to follow-up coaching, to work in their professional learning communities. Policies around grading, pacing guides, benchmark assessments, and more will need to be re-examined. It also means having longer class periods or blocks of time for project work, and rearranging how students are assigned to classrooms to allow for shared students for secondary-level multi-subject projects. And – I can’t stress this enough – teachers will need LOTS of time to plan projects and reflect on their practice. This means changing school schedules to create collaborative planning time, re-purposing staff meetings, perhaps providing (paid) time in the summer, and finding other creative solutions. All of this is a tall order, I realize, but these are the kinds of changes it will take for PBL to stick.

2. PBL-Lite
Many teachers and schools will create (or purchase from commercial vendors) lessons or activities that are called “project-based” and think they’re checking the box that says “we do PBL” – but find little change in student engagement or achievement, and certainly not a transformation. I’ve been seeing curriculum materials offered online and in catalogs that tout “inquiry” and “hands-on learning” that, while better than many traditional materials, are not really authentic and do not go very deep; they do not have the power of Gold Standard PBL. (For example, I’ve seen social studies “projects” from publishers that have kids writing pretend letters to government officials – instead of actually taking action to address a real-world issue – and math “projects” where students go through a set of worksheets to imagine themselves running a small business, instead of actually creating a business or at least an authentic proposal for one.)

With materials that are PBL-lite, we might see some gains in student engagement, and perhaps to some extent deeper learning; many of these materials are in fact better than the traditional alternatives for teaching the content. But the effects will be limited.

3. PBL Only for Special Occasions or Some Students
PBL might be relegated to special niches, instead of being used as a primary vehicle for teaching the curriculum – or being provided equitably for all students. I’ve heard about really cool projects that were done in “genius hours” or “maker spaces” or Gifted and Talented programs, or by A.P. students in May after the exams are over… but most students in the “regular program” did not experience PBL. Or schools might do powerful school-wide projects that do involve all students once a year or so, but the teaching of traditional academic subject matter remains unchanged. If this happens, the promise of PBL to build deeper understanding, build 21st century success skills, and transform the lives of all students, especially those furthest from educational opportunity, will remain unfulfilled.

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Project-based Learning Needs More Learning (Gisèle Huff)

Gisèle Huff is the executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation. This post appeared on Flypaper, August 3, 2016

After almost eighteen years in the field of education, I have become convinced of the need to transform the way our children learn so that they can confront the unknowable challenges of the twenty-first century. I applaud any effort aimed at changing the mindset of those involved in the education system so that they can leave behind the traditional twentieth-century paradigm, which was (and in most places still is) an industrial model. Today’s enthusiasm for project-based learning (PBL) fits into the paradigm-shifting category, helpfully emphasizing that we learn best by doing. As a complete educational philosophy or strategy, however, it falls short on many fronts.

At some level, doing must be based on knowing. Yet in almost every PBL model that I’ve observed—Summit Public Schools being the main exception—little or nothing is said about the acquisition of knowledge. Instead, these models emphasize the completion of the project, and whatever knowledge students may actually acquire seems incidental and not clearly assessed. Of course, it’s true that knowledge alone is insufficient for today’s economy. Skills and dispositions must be developed in the learner for content to be relevant and engaging. But it is that “content” (a.k.a. knowledge) that students must master in order to apply it to hands-on projects. There is no need to sacrifice the rigor of content. Only its delivery and assessment must be changed to move from Carnegie units and seat time to competency-based learning.

The second problem with PBL as the main vehicle for students’ learning experience is that it is not nearly as personalized as its adherents would have us believe. One of the big problems that personalized learning seeks to solve is the “Swiss cheese” problem.  Because we all learn differently, moving along at a one-size-fits-all pace means that slower students are left with big gaps of knowledge and skills—gaps that will come back to haunt them later on. That is of particular concern when PBL occurs at the elementary level, when youngsters are building their knowledge base.

When PBL is deployed, knowledge acquisition is driven by the demands of a given project. The object may be “deeper learning,” but the outcome is definitely narrower, potentially excluding other critical knowledge and skills. This should be solvable, yet the PBL instructional models make no specific reference to mastery. In other words, students can complete a project without mastering the skills in that project or the knowledge underlying its successful completion.

PBL also suffers from a significant “free rider” problem. Because most PBL schools have students work in groups and do little tracking of individual performance, some students naturally coast on the work of others. In his five-minute “commencement speech” on the Getting Smart website, Tom Vander Ark encourages listeners to develop skills in team leadership and project management in order to succeed in the new economy. But each team has only one leader and one manager. Where does that leave the other members? In Most Likely to Succeed, a film focused on the largely PBL-based High Tech High, one of the two main students takes over a project that he has obsessed over and then fails to complete it in time. Somewhere along the line, the classmates who were once part of his group disappear. They seemingly abdicated their roles, and it is not clear how they benefited from the experience or how they were able to demonstrate their achievements in order to be assessed. The featured student himself doesn’t even master the knowledge and skills critical to the project! While embracing failure is an important part of a robust learning system, such setbacks should be used to help students revisit and master the requisite competencies. Kids should be provided with more insights into why they failed and what to do about it, so as to increase their likelihood of future success. Failure of core knowledge and skills is not an option in any effective learning environment.

Finally, PBL relies heavily on highly qualified teachers, so much so that High Tech High now trains its own. That’s well and good for High Tech High, but it isn’t a satisfactory formula for mass adoption of PBL. American public education faces an immense human capital problem that we have not been able to resolve since “A Nation at Risk” sounded the alarm in 1983. We cannot rely on extraordinary people to deliver a twenty-first-century education to all our children; not enough such people exist. We have to deploy strategies that empower the learners and teachers as they are, where they are. In its current form, PBL may work well for kids in boutique school settings. But it offers scant hope of solving education problems on the scale that America needs.

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Charter Schools’ 25th Anniversary: Why This Reform Has Lasted (Part 2)

In investigating school reforms that have taken place over the last century and a half, I have divided them into incremental and fundamental changes (see here and here). Incremental reforms are those that aim to improve the existing structures of schooling; the premise behind incremental reforms is that the basic structures are sound but need improving to remove defects. The car is old but if it gets fixed it will become dependable transportation. It needs tires, brakes, a new battery, and a water pump–incremental changes. Fundamental reforms are those that aim to transform, to alter permanently, those very same structures; the premise behind fundamental reforms is that basic structures are flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul, not renovations. The old jalopy is beyond repair. We need to get a completely new car or consider different forms of transportation–fundamental changes.

If new courses, new staff, summer schools, higher standards for teachers, and increased salaries are clear examples of enhancements to the structures of public schooling, then the introduction of the age-graded school (which gradually eliminated the one-room school) Progressive educators’ broadening the school’s role to intervene in the lives of children and their families (e.g., to provide medical and social services) in the early 20th century, and more recently the introduction of charter schools in the 1990s are examples of fundamental reforms that stuck.

The platoon school, classroom technologies from film and radio to laptops and tablets, project-based learning, and charter schools, however, are instances of attempted fundamental change in the school and classroom since the early 20th century that were adopted, incorporated into many schools, and, over time, either downsized into incremental ones or slipped away, leaving few traces of their presence. Why did some incremental reforms get institutionalized and most of the fundamental ones either became just another part of the “system” or simply disappeared?

Some scholars have analyzed those hardy reforms that survived and concluded that a number of factors account for their institutionalization (see here and here).

They enhance, not disrupt existing structures. Many prior reforms added staffing, particularly specialists, to deal with the variety of children that attended schools. Separate teachers for children with disabilities, math and reading teachers, counselors to help children pick courses to take and to prepare for college and the job market. Similarly, additional space for playgrounds, lunchrooms, and health clinics enhanced the school program. charters remain age-graded schools just like traditional neighbors. Moreover, after 25 years some charter school heads are working out cooperative arrangements with district school boards that help one another (see here and district_charter_collaboration_rpt).

They are easy to monitor. These reforms were visible. They could be counted (e.g., hot lunches, health clinics, year-round schools, and charters. Such easy monitoring gave taxpayers evidence that the services were being rendered and changes had occurred.

They create constituencies that lobby for continuing support. New staff positions such as special education teachers and counselors created demands for administrators and supervisors to monitor their work. Newly certified educators, imbued with a fervent belief in their mission, argued for more money. Consider that the spread of charter school and competition for state funds flowing to school districts created interest groups (e.g., charter advocates) that lobbied donors and state officials for more funds. Commercial interests serving new programs (e.g., for-profit cyber schools, vendors of computer products) championed charters. Finally, parents persuaded by the influence of the services and programs on their children joined educators to create informal coalitions advocating the continuation of these reforms.

This answer to the question of why some reforms stick has a superficial neatness that omits some reforms that fail to fit nicely into the above categories (e.g., desegregation of schools since 1954). Moreover, there is a static quality implied in the notion of reforms that attained  longevity, that is, such reforms were incorporated into public schools and remained as they were as if frozen in time. Those fundamental reforms that became incrementalized and stuck, however, continued to change as they adapted to ever-shifting demands and resources.

Studies of non-school organizations offer richer clues that go beyond the crisp, static answers suggested here. For example, the theories of Robert Merton, Philip Selznick, Alvin Gouldner, and their students produced numerous studies of organizations founded in the heat of reform movements whose original goals have been transformed over decades although their names remain the same. The imperative for organizational survival vibrates strongly in Selznick’s (1949) analysis of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Mayer Zald and Patricia Denton’s (1963) investigation of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

Other studies, closer to public schools, also document adaptability in organizations founded to end social ills. These institutions maintained their professed goals yet shifted in what they did operationally in order to survive. David Rothman’s (1980) analysis of 19th century reformers’ inventions of rehabilitative prisons, juvenile courts, and reformed mental asylums records the painful journey of institutions established in a gush of zeal for improvement of criminals, delinquents, and the mentally ill; within decades, the reformers ended up pursuing scaled-down goals that maintained the interests of those who administered the institution. Barbara Brenzel (1983) analyzed a half-century’s history of the first reform school for girls in the nation (State Industrial School for Girls in Lancaster, Massachusetts). Here, again, the initial goals of reforming poor, neglected, and potentially wayward girls through creating family-like cottages and separating younger from older girls gave way to goals that stressed order and control.

The point is that there are institutional reasons why some reforms are like shooting stars that flare and disappear and some reforms stick. Organizational and political reasons (e.g., vague and multiple goals, innovations that fit existing structures, are easy to monitor, and have active constituencies) explain how schools and districts adapt their goals, structures, and processes to an uncertain, ever changing environment to incorporate new ideas and practices.

And that is why charter schools will be around for the next quarter century.

 

 

 

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Charter Schools: 25th Anniversary and More to Come (Part 1)

Charter schools are here to stay. Since 1991 when Minnesota became the first state to charter new schools free of most state education regulations, 43 states and the District of Columbia have now authorized 6400 charter schools run by non-profit and for-profit organizations. As of 2014 charters house nearly three million students or about six percent of the U.S. public school enrollment. These charters are public schools governed by separate boards of parents, teachers, entrepreneurs, etc. Charters receive state funds for each student enrolled equivalent to state funds for a regular public school next door. These new and largely autonomous organizations are accountable to their boards (not the  elected school board of the district in which they are located) to fulfill the aims stipulated in the charter they received.

From zero to six percent of total U.S. students in charter schools in 25 years doesn’t sound like a cat video going viral but in institutional terms it is a solid sign that charter schools have become part of daily scene in U.S. public schools and are here to stay. Released from most state regulations and  unionized teachers, charter schools have been expected to create innovative curriculum, instruction, and organization and compete with traditional public schools for students. From that innovation and competition, state legislators expected across-the-board improvement in all public schools.

Publicly-funded charter schools have found a special niche among urban districts. Two-thirds of charter school students are minority (across the country the percentage is half); 56 percent of all charters are located in cities; the rest are in rural and small town districts–many of which are poor with only a tiny percentage found in affluent suburbs (see here and here).

Currently, in New Orleans, Detroit, and the District of Columbia charter schools are a majority (or near majority) of their public schools from which parents choose (14 districts have at least 30 percent of their enrollment in charter schools).  As long as there are urban and suburban schools that fail their students (as measured by test scores, graduation rates, well-being of students, etc.), expanded parental choice that now includes magnet schools, alternative schools, districts with portfolios of options, and yes, charter schools will become as familiar as the morning Pledge of Allegiance in the nation’s classrooms.

Expanded parental choice through vouchers and charters (the former has existed since the 1970s but is largely absent from most school districts while the latter has slowly and steadily grown over the past quarter-century) has become one of the planks in a reform platform to bring innovation and improvement to what critics call a moribund and failed traditional system of schooling. Major foundations such as Walton, Gates, Broad, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund have contributed hundreds of millions to promote charter schools and organizations that manage clusters of schools–Charter Management Organizations or CMOs which are not-for-profit and Educational Management Organizations or EMOs that are for-profit (see here). Donors see charters as a way of ridding the nation but especially big city schools of an obsolete model of schooling that fails to prepare U.S. children and youth for either college or an ever-changing workplace. Foundation officials, many urban parent groups, and civic and business leaders support the expansion of charters. Opponents have been teacher unions, groups of parents railing at loss of funds for regular public schools, and other groups who see a lack of accountability to dump those charters who are fiscally and academically failing (here and here).

Warring research studies from camps promoting and opposing charters have unceasingly argued for the past quarter-century whether charters are academically outperforming traditional public schools. It has become a trivial question because there is so such diversity among charter schools.  Some charters (e.g., KIPP and Summit Schools) send nearly all graduates to college ; others are close to closing their doors or have been shut down ; some charters are for-profit such as cyber schools, and dozens of other models. Lumping them altogether  to answer a generic question: which form of public schools is better academically?—is not only goofy but unanswerable. What is clear, however, after 25 years is a lack of  systemic oversight and accountability of charters for poor fiscal and academic performance in various states (see here).

What is also clear is that the promised autonomy to become innovative and competitive with other public schools, the promise of the original mandate for charters, has yet to appear in charter schools and classrooms (see here and here).

These charter school wars will ease over time.  More CMOs will regulate their schools. More state charter laws will increase oversight of school performance. More state caps on the number of charters that can be authorized will disappear. Charters will become a familiar dot in the U.S. educational landscape. Part 2 explains why charters will stick as a reform.

 

 

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America’s Not-So-Broken Education System (Jack Schneider)

Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross. He is the author of From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse and Excellence For All. This appeared in The Atlantic Online June 22, 2016.

 

Everything in American education is broken. Or so say the policy elites, from the online learning pioneer Sal Khan to the journalist-turned-reformer Campbell Brown. As leaders of the XQ project succinctly put it, we need to “scrap the blueprint and revolutionize this dangerously broken system.”

This, they explain, is the sad truth. The educational system simply stopped working. It aged, declined, and broke. And now the nation has a mess on its hands. But there’s good news, too. As Michelle Rhee’s group, StudentsFirst, declares: Americans can “work together to fix this broken system.” All it takes is the courage to rip it apart.

This is how the argument goes, again and again. The system used to work, but now it doesn’t. And though nobody inside schools seems to care, innovators outside the establishment have developed some simple solutions. The system can be rebuilt, reformers argue. But first it must be torn down.

American education has some obvious shortcomings. Even defenders of the schools can make long lists of things they’d like to change. But the root of the problem is not incompetent design, as is so frequently alleged. Nor is it stasis. Rather, it is the twofold challenge of complexity and scale. American schools are charged with the task of creating better human beings. And they are expected to do so in a relatively consistent way for all of young people. It is perhaps the nation’s most ambitious collective project; as such, it advances slowly.

For evidence of this, one need look only to the past. If the educational system had broken at some point, a look backward would reveal an end to progress—a point at which the system stopped working. Yet that isn’t at all the picture that emerges. Instead, one can see that across many generations, the schools have slowly and steadily improved.

Consider the teachers in classrooms. For most of American history, teachers received no training at all, and hiring was a chaotic process in which the only constant was patronage. To quote Ted Sizer on the subject, the typical result was one “in which some mayor’s half-drunk illiterate uncle was hired to teach twelfth-grade English.” There were other problems, too. As late as the 20th century, for instance, would-be educators generally had little if any student-teaching experience prior to entering classrooms, and they received no preparation for teaching particular content areas. Even as recently as mid-century, prospective teachers had no background in adolescent cognition and received no training in how to work with students from diverse backgrounds. All of that has changed. Does that mean that today’s system of teacher education is without flaw? Hardly. There’s lots of work yet to be done. But there is also no question that the average teacher in the U.S. today is better prepared than the average teacher from any past period.

The same is true of the school curriculum. Sure, it’s somewhat arbitrary and, at least for some students, insufficiently challenging. But Americans are regularly told that the modern curriculum is a relic of the past and that it has grown increasingly out of date. That simply isn’t true. Prior to the 20th century, high schools focused heavily on Latin and Greek, required coursework in subjects like zoology and mechanical drawing, and rarely offered any math beyond algebra. In 1900, the average school year was 100 days long—40 percent shorter than the current school year—and classes were commonly twice as large as contemporary ones. And well into the 20th century, girls and students of color were regularly offered a separate curriculum, emphasizing domestic or industrial training. Do students still read books? Yes. Do they sit in desks? Typically. Do teachers still stand at the front of the class? For the most part. But beyond that, there are more differences than similarities. Again, this doesn’t mean that present practices are ideal—but it does mean that Americans should think twice before dissolving into panic over what is being taught in modern classrooms.

Finally, consider the outcomes produced by the educational system. Critics are right that achievement scores aren’t overwhelmingly impressive and that troubling gaps persist across racial, ethnic, and income groups. Yet scores are up over the past 40 years, and the greatest gains over that period have been made by black and Hispanic students. They’re right that the U.S. finishes well behind exam-oriented countries like Taiwan and Korea on international tests. But scores are roughly on par with countries like Norway, which was named by the United Nations the best place in the world to live; and students from low-poverty states like Massachusetts outscore most of their global peers. Critics are right that 40 percent of college students still don’t graduate. But almost half of all American high-school students now head off to college each year—an all-time high. And whatever the doom-and-gloom about schools failing to address workforce needs, it’s worth remembering that the U.S has the strongest economy in the world—by an enormous margin.

Are the schools perfect? No. But they are slowly improving. And they are certainly better today than at any point in the past. So why the invented story about an unchanging and obsolete system? Why the hysterical claims that everything has broken?

Perhaps some policy elites really believe the fake history—about a dramatic rise and tragic fall. The claim that the high school “was designed for early 20th-century workforce needs,” for instance, has been repeated so frequently that it has a kind of truth status. Never the fact that the American high school was created in 1635 to provide classical training to the sons of ministers and merchants; and never mind the fact that today’s high schools operate quite differently than those of the past. Facts, it seems, aren’t as durable as myth.

Yet there is also another possible explanation worth considering: that policy elites are working to generate political will for their pet projects. Money and influence may go a long way in setting policy agendas. But in a decentralized and relatively democratic system, it still takes significant momentum to initiate any significant change—particularly the kinds of change that certain reformers are after when they suggest starting “from scratch.” To generate that kind of energy—the energy to rip something down and rebuild it—the public needs to be convinced that it has a looming catastrophe on its hands.

This is not to suggest that educational reform is crafted by conspirators working to manufacture crisis. Policy elites are not knowingly falsifying evidence or collectively coming to secret agreement about how to terrify the public. Instead, as research has shown, self-identified school reformers inhabit a small and relatively closed network. As the policy analyst Rick Hess recently put it, “orthodoxy reigns” in reform circles, with shared values and concerns emerging “through partnerships, projects, consulting arrangements, and foundation initiatives.” The ostensible brokenness of public education, it seems, is not merely a talking point; it is also an article of faith.

Whatever the intentions of policy leaders, this “broken system” narrative has had some serious unintended consequences. And perhaps the most obvious of those has been an increased tolerance for half-baked plans. Generally speaking, the public has a relatively high bar for replacing something that works, particularly if there is a risk of failure, and especially when their children are concerned. Historically, this has been the case in education. A half century ago, for instance, the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll asked public-school parents what the schools were doing right. The response: Almost everything. The standard curriculum, the quality of teachers, and school facilities came in first, second, and third on the list. Not surprisingly, when parents were asked in another PDK/Gallup poll if the schools were “interested enough in trying new ways and methods,” 42 percent responded that the schools were striking the right balance. Twenty-one percent felt that the schools were “too ready to try new ideas,” and 20 percent felt that the schools were “not interested enough.”

When it comes to replacing something broken, however, the bar for intervention is much lower. Doing something, even if it fails to live up to expectations, is invariably better than doing nothing. Only by doing nothing, Americans are told, can they fail. Thus, despite the fact that there is often little evidence in support of utopian schemes like “personalized online learning,” which would use software to create a custom curriculum for each student, or “value-added measures” of teachers, which would determine educator effectiveness by running student test scores through an algorithm, many people are willing to suspend disbelief. Why? Because they have been convinced that the alternative—a status quo in precipitous decline—is worse. But what if the schools aren’t in a downward spiral? What if, instead, things are slowly but steadily improving? In that light, disruption—a buzzword if ever there was one—doesn’t sound like such a great idea.

A second consequence of the “broken system” narrative is that it denigrates schools and communities. Teachers, for instance, have seemingly never been more disillusioned. Roughly half of teachers report feeling under great stress several days a week, job satisfaction is at a 25-year low, and almost a third of teachers say they are likely to leave the profession within the next five years. Parents, too, have never had less confidence in the system. According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, roughly 80 percent of Americans give grades of “C,” “D,” or “F” to the nation’s schools—a far larger total than the 56 percent who issued those grades three decades ago. This, despite the fact that 70 percent of public school parents give their children’s current schools an “A” or a “B” rating. In other words, despite people’s positive direct experiences, the barrage of negative messaging has done serious damage to the public school brand. Consequently, many anxious parents are now competing with alarming ferocity for what they believe to be a shrinking number of “good” schools. As research indicates, they have exacerbated residential segregation in the process, intensifying racial and economic inequality.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of the “broken system” narrative is that it draws attention away from real problems that the nation has never fully addressed. The public-education system is undeniably flawed. Yet many of the deepest flaws have been deliberately cultivated. Funding inequity and racial segregation, for instance, aren’t byproducts of a system that broke. They are direct consequences of an intentional concentration of privilege. Placing the blame solely on teacher training, or the curriculum, or on the design of the high school—alleging “brokenness”—perpetuates the fiction that all schools can be made great without addressing issues of race, class, and power. This is wishful thinking at its most pernicious.

This is not to suggest that there is no space for criticism, or for outrage. Students, families, and activists have both the right and the responsibility to advocate for themselves and their communities. They know what they need, and their needs have merit. Policymakers have a great deal to learn from them.

Still, it is important not to confuse inequity with ineptitude. History may reveal broken promises around racial and economic justice. But it does not support the story of a broken education system. Instead, the long view reveals a far less dramatic truth—that most aspects of public education have gotten better, generation by generation.

The evolution of America’s school system has been slow. But providing a first-rate public education to every child in the country is a monumental task. Today, 50 million U.S. students attend roughly 100,000 schools, and are educated by over 3 million teachers. The scale alone is overwhelming. And the aim of schooling is equally ambitious. Educators are not just designing gadgets or building websites. At this phenomenal scale, they are trying to make people—a fantastically difficult task for which there is no quick fix, no simple solution, no “hack.”

Can policy leaders and stakeholders accelerate the pace of development? Probably. Can the schools do more to realize national ideals around equity and inclusion? Without question. But none of these aims will be achieved by ripping the system apart. That’s a ruinous fiction. The struggle to create great schools for all young people demands swift justice and steady effort, not melodrama and magical thinking.

 

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