Blog Anniversary

Dear Readers,

This post marks my 12th anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and, finally, those who have taken the time to write thoughtful comments. Also to the growing number of international readers, I am grateful for your attention to one American’s viewpoint on school reform and classroom practice in the U.S.

As with all things, there is a history to writing this blog. My daughter Janice who is a writer in marketing communication urged me to begin a blog in 2009. She guided me through the fits-and-starts of working on this platform. I thank her for getting me started on this writing adventure.

For the nearly 1500 posts I have written since 2009, I have followed three rules:

1. Write about 800 words.

2. Write clearly on school reform and classroom practice.

3. Take a position and back it up with evidence.

Sticking to these rules has been no easy task. Yet after twelve years, I have found the writing very satisfying. I remain highly motivated to write about policymakers, administrators, teachers, and students–all who inhabit the policy-to-practice continuum–and all who in different ways, with varied ideas, seek to improve schooling. Even amid the past 18 months of the Covid pandemic and school closures.

To me, writing is a form of teaching and learning. The learning part comes from figuring out what I want to say on a topic, researching it, drafting a post, and then revising it more times than I would ever admit so that the post says what I want it to say. Learning also has come from the surprises I have found in the suggestions and comments readers post—“Did I really say that?” “Wow! That is an unexpected view on what I said,” or “I had never considered that point.” Finally, I have learned a lot from simply researching the series of posts about previous school reforms that I published over the past few years called: “Whatever Happened To….”

The teaching part comes from putting my ideas out there in a clearly expressed, logical argument, buttressed by evidence, for readers who may agree or disagree about an issue I am deeply interested in. As in all teaching, planning enters the picture in how I frame the central question I want readers to consider and how I put the argument and evidence together in a clear, coherent, and crisp blog of about 800 words.

Because of my background as a high school teacher, administrator, policymaker, and historian of education I often give a question or issue its context, both past and present. I do so, and here I put my teacher hat on, since I believe that current school reform and practice are deeply rooted in the past. Learning from earlier generations of reformers’ experiences in coping with the complexities of improving how teachers taught, and how they tried to change schools and districts, I believe, can inform current reformers about the tasks they face. Contemporary reformers, equally well-intentioned as their predecessors, in too many instances ignore what has occurred previously and end up bashing teachers and principals for not executing properly their reform-driven policies.

Expressing my sincere gratitude toward readers for the blogging I have done over the past 12 years is a preface to what I will begin writing in this 13th year of posts. Obviously, I will describe and analyze the effects of the pandemic on a key societal institution and its impact on efforts to improve schools. And how teachers, administrators, and students have been coping with this crisis. Again, thanks to those readers who have taken the time to click onto my blog. I deeply appreciate it.

Larry Cuban

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Classrooms Around the World: What Do You See?

This post is a series of photographs of classrooms taken in 17 countries to mark UNESCO-sponsored World Teachers’ Day (October 5, 2015). Instead of my offering commentary on these diverse photos, I ask viewers to offer their impressions of these classrooms around the world.  I look forward to reading your comments. Thank you.

enhanced-buzz-wide-30661-1444017181-7                                                               Class 11 girl students attend a class at Zarghona high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Omar Sobhani / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-26855-1444017702-8Art teacher Hanna Snitko poses for a picture with final year students of the Ukrainian Humanities Lyceum in their classroom in Kiev, Ukraine. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters)enhanced-buzz-wide-2998-1444017966-7Master Mohammad Ayoub poses with his fifth-grade students at a local park in Islamabad, Pakistan. ( Caren Firouz / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-21478-1444018071-7Tahfiz or Koranic students in Madrasah Nurul Iman boarding school outside Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. (Olivia Harris / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-29919-1444018208-7Teacher Marcos Paulo Geronimo with first-grade high school students from the Dante Alighieri school in São Paulo, Brazil. (Paulo Whitaker / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-25251-1444018350-7Students of the Don Bosco Technical Collegue in Quito, Ecuador. (Guillermo Granja / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-15540-1444018411-7Teacher Moulay Ismael Lamrani with his class in the Oudaya primary school in Rabat, Morocco. (Youssef Boudlal / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-20158-1444018562-11Year 9 Biology boys class with teacher Suzanne Veitch at Forest School in London, England. (Russell Boyce / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-17503-1444018650-7First-grade students with their teacher Teruko Takakusaki during their homeroom period at Takinogawa Elementary School in Tokyo, Japan. (Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-692-1444018731-7Teacher Hanan Anzi with Syrian refugee students at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-4644-1444018953-9

Teachers Carla Smith and Laura Johnson pose for a picture with their third grade class at Jesse Sherwood Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, United States. (Jim Young / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-27620-1444018880-8Teacher Ana Dorrego with students of the rural school Agustin Ferreira on the outskirts of Minas city, Uruguay. (Andres Stapff / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-2998-1444018815-15A teacher leads a class session at the ecole primaire Ave Marie in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. (Thomas Mukoya / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-1941-1444019527-7Teacher Kahon Rochel with students at the the EPV Sinai primary school in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Luc Gnago / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-19365-1444019475-8Nguyen Thi Phuong teaches a third-grade class in the primary school of Van Chai in Dong Van district north of Hanoi, Vietnam. (Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-920-1444019195-7Mohammed Zurob marks an exercise for his first-grade students during an English lesson inside a classroom at Taha Huseen elementary school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-10544-1444019039-8Students of the 10th form of the Gymnasium 1567 with their teacher of history, Tamara Eidelman, in Moscow, Russia. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)

 

 

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The Gift That Keeps Giving (Bill Plitt)

I have known Bill Plitt since the late-1960s when I hired him to teach social studies as part of a federally-funded teacher training program located at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. We have been close friends ever since. Plitt has directed teacher education programs, taught history for many years in Northern Virginia high schools and has traveled to Israel many times to work with Arab and Israeli citizens seeking peaceful solutions on the West Bank. I asked him to write this post after he told me about the “timeless story.”

Upon reflection of a career in teaching that spanned nearly 50 years, I realize the many ways in which one can teach (and learn). Classroom teaching in Belize as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 60s led to an internship through Howard University at Cardozo High School in DC in that same decade. After that, many years were spent working with teachers in their pre-service preparation and with classroom teachers in their in-service courses, and after a return to the classroom for 12 years until my official retirement, I felt most days were gifts to me.

More specifically, as I look back to the hundreds of students of all shapes and sizes who came into my life, and I hear from them about those moments that meant the most to them, it was not the content of what I had been teaching (somewhat to my chagrin) that they remembered. It was, instead, those experiences found in the deeper realm of caring. To this point, I would say of my own experience as a student through the years that it was those teachers who cared about me that I remember the most.

For many years, I used a now popular book called “I’ll Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. I’ve used it with hundreds of groups, from gatherings of three (father, mother, baby) to several hundred in church and school settings. I shared it with nearly every class of high school students I taught as well as every teacher group I led since 1987. It is a timeless story – the story that always draws listeners into it, for it speaks to us all, regardless of age or position. Some hear it more personally than others. No doubt many of you have read and shared this story with students and children of your own. The refrain repeated through the life of a child by the parent is a simple one:

“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always.

As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

Early on I put the verse to music and taught the simple lyrics to the audiences, small and large, so that they could participate in the telling through their own mantras and music.

Over the years, I heard from many of my former students about their memory of hearing that story. One in particular stands out. In 2000, I was leading a “school-within-a-school program” in a high school in Northern Virginia. It was a special program that offered support for incoming 9th grade students who were labeled (mostly incorrectly) as “At Risk.” (Actually, I believe that most 9th graders may fit that burdensome name for numerous reasons.)

On the first day of a new school year, and after taking care of the many house-keeping chores teachers were required to do at that time, I would end my class by reading this story and teaching them the verse. As I did then, and would do every year from 1987 on, I would read those last words of the story, often bringing a powerful moment of silence and, for some, tears. After reading the story, we often felt connected in new and wonderful ways without using words. You might have felt similar moments in your own classroom experiences as you began to see your students, and they to see you as their teacher, in new and wonderful ways. Our time together, no doubt, took a positive route from the very beginning because of that effect I sensed then; I can still feel it today.

At the end of that class in 1987, a student waited rather impatiently, but cautiously, until all of other students had left, before saying to me, “Mr. Plitt. That was the most beautiful story I have ever heard. I am going to share it with my parents.” Now, this student had been labeled as difficult in the 8th grade, labeling which I generally dismissed at the beginning of the school year and continued to withhold judgment on throughout the rest of the year. In retrospect, that exchange at the end of the class changed us both in wonderful ways. We had nothing to prove to each other for the rest of that year. WE had connected as caring people.

Later, that student kept in touch with me. He was awarded a scholarship upon graduation from high school, and throughout his continuing studies that led to a degree in business, we stayed in contact. After working with neighborhood teenage boys for some time, who probably reflected his own school experiences, he decided to return to graduate school and completed a degree in counseling. A year later, he was hired as a counselor to work with students with special needs in a local high school.

He connected with me on Facebook, as many others have over the years through some form of social media. Underneath a picture of him, in which he held a copy of “I’ll Love You Forever,” he wrote, “I have my own copy now!” He let me know that he had shared the story and song with his “special needs” students who had the same reaction to it as he had experienced.

It was truly a gift that keeps on giving. I wonder how many others who crossed the threshold of my classrooms have done the same thing with this little book that shows the simple power of love and caring.

Postlogue:

Some years ago, when I thanked Bob for producing this book, he said, “I never planned on it being a book that would sell. My publisher said I’d be lucky to sell 1,000 copies.” The first year, it would sell 100,000 copies. In subsequent years, he sold a million copies and has done so ever since then. It has also been translated into a wide variety of languages. Personally, I’ve used the Spanish version with mothers in small villages in Mexico as well as with Arab women in Palestine. They all get it! Bob also said in a return letter to me that he and his wife were never able to have children of their own, and they even lost two still-born babies. I believe that their story reaches many of us even more deeply because of that personal sense of loss. They passed on their own love and sense of caring as a gift to others.

Final thought

I must note in light of this classroom discovery of the gift that never stops giving and stressing the “habits of the heart”, I also gave my students the opportunity to apply the skills of a historian and a geographer to the content of the curriculum.  I owed this approach to instruction from the early days as an intern teacher in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, and practiced and refined this approach in my role as a teacher over the next four decades.

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How a Teacher Became a Reformer: A Personal Odyssey

I was the third son of Russian immigrants. I saw that my brothers who had to work during the Great Depression to provide family income and then serve the country in World War II lacked the chances that I had simply because I was born in the 1930s and they were born in the 1920s. Because sheer chance made me the youngest, I did not serve in World War II and because I had polio as a child, I could not serve in the Korean War. So I finished college in Pittsburgh and became a teacher in the mid-1950s, landing a job on Cleveland’s Eastside where as a young white teacher I taught history to mostly black students.

I was a politically and intellectually naïve 21 year-old teacher pushing my unvarnished passion for teaching history onto urban students bored with traditional lectures. At Glenville High School, I invented new lessons and materials in what was then called Negro history. My success in engaging many (but not all) students in studying the past emboldened me to think that sharp, energetic teachers (yes, like me) creating and using can’t-miss history lessons could solve the problem of disengaged black youth.

It was also at Glenville that I encountered someone who engaged me intellectually. Oliver Deex, Glenville’s principal, a voracious reader and charming conversationalist, introduced me to books and magazines I had never seen: Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others.

Deex often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. In his office after school, we would talk about what I read. I have no idea why he took an interest in the intellectual development of a gangly, fresh-faced, ambitious novice, but his insistent questioning of my beliefs and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching.

After seven years at Glenville and going part-time for a doctorate in American history at Case-Western Reserve–I had already written chapters for a dissertation on black leadership in Cleveland–I had two offers, one to teach at a Connecticut college and another to stay in public schools. I was at a fork in my career and had to choose.

I took a one-year job in 1963 as a master teacher in history in a federally funded project located at Cardozo high school in Washington, D.C. to train returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in all-black schools.  It was a big risk to move my family for only a year to D.C. but I was eager (and ambitious) to join like-minded educators drawn to Washington in the Kennedy years.

Federal policymakers in those Kennedy-Johnson years had framed the problem of low-performing urban students dropping out of school as having too few skilled and knowledgeable teachers who could create engaging lessons. The pilot Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching was a teacher-driven, school-based, neighborhood-oriented solution to the problem of low-performing students.

Master teachers in academic subjects trained returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach while drawing from neighborhood resources. Once trained, the reform theory went, these ex-Peace Corps volunteers would become crackerjack teachers who could hook listless students through creative lessons drawing from their knowledge of ghetto neighborhoods and personal relationships with students and their families.

As luck would have it, the Project got funded each year and I continued to teach at Cardozo High School, eventually directing the program. Coping with uncertain funding opened my eyes about how politically and bureaucratically complicated it is to engage students, involve parents and residents in improving their schools, and negotiating the district office. The complicated intersection between school, students, community, and organizational bureaucracies became concrete as we spent time with families and in neighborhood centers near Cardozo.

It took four long years for me and other advocates to convince the D.C. superintendent and school board that recruiting and training Peace Corps returnees benefited a district that had to scramble every year to staff all of its classrooms. The superintendent finally agreed to take over the program in 1967 re-naming it the Urban Teacher Corps and expanding it from recruiting and training 50 new teachers a year to over a hundred annually.[i]

After this exhilarating but exhausting experience at Cardozo. I returned to teaching in another D.C. high school. I wrote a book about the Cardozo experiences (To Make a Difference: Teaching in the Inner City, 1970), and created with co-author Phil Roden a series of U.S. History paperbacks for urban students (The Promise of America, 1971). After two years of teaching, the D.C. deputy superintendent invited me to head a new department aimed at revitalizing the entire District’s teaching corps. I was now a certified reformer.


[i] In 1966, the U.S. Congress had authorized the National Teachers Corps, based on the model we created at Cardozo High School. I served on the Advisory Board for the National Teacher Corps.  In 1971, after four years of recruiting and training teachers in this school-based program, a new superintendent abolished the program. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan ended federal funding for the Teacher Corps.

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Cartoons on Ending Pandemic

I promise readers that this is the last monthly feature of cartoons that will deal with the pandemic. Enjoy!

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How to Improve Teaching After the Pandemic (Frederick Hess)

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next. This originally appeared in Education Week, June 30, 2021

As best I can tell, plans for post-pandemic schooling are mostly proving to be a stew of ambitious promises and jacked-up business-as-usual outlays. From new counselors and class-size reduction to facilities and curriculum projects, systems are busy adding staff, enhancing facilities, and improving curricula. While these are all good things, largely missing is what has long seemed to me the biggest opportunity to improve teaching and learning: fundamentally rethinking how schools make use of instructional talent.

When it comes to instructional talent, efforts have focused more on adding, allocating, professionally developing, or evaluating staff than on rethinking how we can better use the talent we have. Yet the pandemic is a good reminder that not all teachers are equally skilled at all the tasks they’re asked to do. We’d be better served, I suspect, by reimagining the teacher’s role so that schools can provide more high-quality instruction, without asking each teacher to excel at so many different things. A half-century ago, when teaching talent was plentiful and the demands on teachers were more uniform, the notion of the do-everything teacher might’ve made more sense. Changes in the larger economy, the profession, and the resources at our disposal mean this is no longer the case.

After all, teachers perform many tasks in the course of a day—from lecturing and facilitating discussion to grading quizzes and filling out forms to counseling distraught kids and monitoring the cafeteria. No one believes all these instructional activities are equally valuable. Yet when I work with teachers, they almost unanimously report that they have never been part of a disciplined effort to unpack what they do each day in an effort to increase the energy devoted to the things that matter most. Having an exquisitely trained early-literacy teacher watch students eat lunch, fill out forms, or teach addition—simply because she’s a “2nd grade teacher”—is a bizarre way to leverage scarce talent. Figuring out how to let individual teachers do more of what they’re already good at is a powerful place to start the improvement process.

Elsewhere in schooling, there are telling examples of what it looks like to use staff time and energy well. At a well-run football practice, players may do film study with an assistant coach, lift weights with a conditioning coach, and practice techniques with a position coach. There are a lot of similarities in the work routines of an accomplished high school orchestra or debate team. In short, it’s wholly possible for schools to figure out how to leverage staff more effectively; it’s just not the way teachers’ work has traditionally been organized.

The pandemic has also shown us that it’s time to reimagine the geography of how teachers teach. Remote learning makes online instruction or tutoring in any subject available whenever and wherever it’s needed (of course, the value rests on the teacher’s knowledge and competence at remote instruction). This means that education premised on full-time, in-classroom teachers need no longer be the universal default—and, as we learned this past year, some students and teachers fare better when they’re online. Abandoning the presumption that teacher-and-student-in-classroom is the right model for all students or all learning makes much else possible, including models that provide curated online offerings alongside in-person options, offer relationships with far-off mentors, create cohesive civics classes of geographically disparate students, or simply use remote delivery to provide quality calculus instruction to students in schools or communities where local instructors aren’t available.

And it’s time to rethink who can teach. Today, early-career transience, professionals routinely working into their late 60s, and the prevalence of midcareer transitions make it increasingly bizarre to see education systems intent on recruiting 22-year-olds and hoping they’ll teach full time into the 2050s. It’s not that this model was “bad,” just that it’s not an especially good match for the realities of the professional labor market in the 2020s. Meanwhile, balky licensure systems, seniority-based pay, and factory-style pensions create big practical burdens and financial penalties for engineers, auto mechanics, or journalists seeking to enter teaching midcareer. Even aside from those seeking full-time roles, one can imagine a raft of opportunities in 21st-century America for senior citizens, grad students, or stay-at-home-parents who may be eager to take on part-time work as tutors or coaches—providing a pool of skilled, flexible labor at affordable rates.

Practically speaking, of course, any of this requires retooling job descriptions, hiring protocols, licensure, collective bargaining agreements, teacher-of-record requirements, salary schedules, and more. That’s one reason why we tend to focus on the things that are easier and simpler to do (like simply adding staff). But if there were ever a moment when changed dynamics, enormous needs, and a torrent of cash made something bigger both timely and feasible, this may be it.

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Memories of Teaching

Ask teachers for their definition of success and invariably they will say that if their students do well in a job or career, start and raise a family, and live a full and satisfying life, they would be proud of what they accomplished. But how do teachers come to know about students once they left school. While some students do stay in touch with teachers after leaving their elementary or secondary school classroom, most do not. Those that do often bring sunshine to their teachers’ day. While students are the centerpiece of classroom teaching, once they leave, memories are all that teachers have. Flashes from past interactions with particular students inside and outside classrooms, fragments of memories and smells stay with teachers.

Decades ago, Ann Staley, an English teacher and poet, was in one of my Stanford University classes. Off and on for the past 35-plus years we have stayed in touch with letters, then email, and occasional visits to her Oregon home. It is a friendship I treasure. She has published at least five volumes of poetry and writes from time to time about a teacher’s life, students, and teaching English.

Staley penned this poem about what she remembers about her years of teaching. It is about her memories of teaching and what matters to her. She has given me permission to publish it.

ONE TEACHER’S TAKE-AWAY  

The file of Thank-You notes,

real time letters, phone calls & visits

with former students,

photos from their weddings,

photos of the children’s graduation,

first day of college.

A series of incredible principals,

all men, who somehow “got me,”

appreciated my dedication to the

profession and my students.

How to use the rest room in 3 minutes,

how to supervise a locker clean-out.

Writing with my students every day,in every class (six of them/day)

(180 students per day).

Still friends with my favorite counselor

and her husband, the Superintendent.

Sharing the concepts of “freewriting”

and “focused freewriting” with students

who, first hated, and then learned to love     

w-r-i-t-i-n-g.

Reading student journals,

responding to first drafts.

Challenging the Honors Students.

Lunch Time—thirty minutes—

and Fire Drills,

being invited back to teach

“the poetry unit.”

Just last week, in the hospital, the nurse who was assisting me

turned out to be a former student

who remembered me as her “favorite”

Language Arts teacher.

I live in a small town, so it’s relatively easy

to be in touch, to stay in touch, to be reminded

of the years I spent with adolescents who

seemed to be my children. Three thousand of them!

The gifted surprises of former students,

all grown up now.

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Writing History that Focuses on Race

On the wall of my home office hangs a letter that I have framed. The letter, dated August 15th, 1964, is from Langston Hughes, a multi-talented writer and activist during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the civil rights movement during the 1960s. He authored novels, created poems, wrote plays, and contributed pieces for decades to the Chicago Defender, a top Black newspaper of the mid-20th century. Hughes was one of the first Black writers to earn his living entirely from writing (see video here).

The letter is brief.

Dear Mr. Cuban:

Your NEGRO IN AMERICA seems to me an excellent book, and I am delighted to be included therein. Thank you!

Sincerely yours,

Langston Hughes

In the first book I had written, The Negro in America (Scott, Foresman 1964), I had included three excerpts from Hughes’ work (“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” a short section from his novel, Not Without Laughter, and a prose poem “Song to a Negro Wash-Woman.”

While teaching history at Glenville High School (Cleveland, Ohio) and Cardozo High School (Washington, D.C.) in the 1950s and 1960s I had used Hughes work often in my lessons so when I had an opportunity to write this book in 1962, I included those selections. But to do so, I had to write Hughes’ publishers for permission to use the material. I paid the publishers hundreds of dollars and a portion of those payments went to him. He generously wrote me the above letter. Hughes died in 1967.

I write about this prized letter in 2021 during a spate of media accounts and state legislation seeking bans on teaching “critical race theory” and historical content about slavery and racism injected in the nation’s classrooms (see here). Because I began teaching at the age of 20 in 1956 as the civil rights movement unfolded, I am reminded again that what happens in a person’s life occurs often by chance, not planning. Sure, talent is important. And, yes, hard work is a factor. But events, the times, both of which I had no control over, accounts, in part, for Langston Hughes writing a letter to a young history teacher.

The civil rights movement fueled by an idealism anchored in the American Creed (and a strong economy) brought Blacks and whites together–a quarter of a million marchers in August 1963 at the Lincoln Monument–to press the U.S. Congress and President to ensure that Blacks got jobs and became first-class citizens. The movement lasting into the early-1970s restored hope and helped enact legislation that altered American life and expanded democracy: The Civil Rights Act (1964) and The Voting Rights Act (1965).

As in all school reform periods, larger social movements (e.g., Progressivism in the early 20th century), the civil rights movement spurred, in part, by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) swept slowly across Southern schools and spread into northern, midwestern, and western states through the 1960s and 1970s. The nation’s school districts were caught up in desegregating their schools, adding racial content to curricula, and hiring Blacks and other minorities as teachers, principals, and district administrators. Publishers also jumped on that train as it left the station.

Those were the years in which The Negro in America and the five paperback series Promise of America (1971) filled with multi-ethnic and racial content that I and Phil Roden authored, entered public schools. With no civil rights movement, few of these and myriad other history books containing racial content would have seen the light of day.

But events occurred that moved the nation away from civil rights. The Vietnam War, an over-heated economy, and business-driven fears of about a future workforce unequipped to cope with the changes in industry and businesses switching over to computerized workplaces (recall A Nation at Risk report issued in 1983). Another wave of school reform led by civic and corporate leaders steered state and district public schools toward tougher curriculum standards, increased testing, and coercive accountability measures for both white and Black segregated schools (see here)

Now decades later, another incarnation of civil rights protests sparked by deaths of Black men and women when police used lethal force in Ferguson (MO), Minneapolis (MN), and Louisvile (KY), has yet again, even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic brought Blacks and whites together to push for full voting rights, better health care, well-paying jobs, and wrongs that were not righted a half-century ago. But the nation is far more politically divided than it was over a half-century ago.

The pandemic, with former President Trump calling the virus “the China flu” or “kung flu” weaponized Covid-19 and loosed anti-Asian American acts across the nation. After Donald Trump’s loss in 2020–in the middle of the pandemic–the GOP has become the party where wearing masks during the pandemic and then getting vaccinated against the virus became political acts–Republican controlled “red” states opened up earlier in the pandemic, went mask-less and resisted getting vaccinated as Covid-19 and its variants surged anew in those very states (see here)

Thus, the renewed civil rights struggle over making holding police accountable for their actions in the Black community, resisting voting restrictions, and expanding employment and housing for the poor and homeless, comes during a severely polarized moment in the history of the nation.

As in the earlier civil rights movement, better schools, teachers, and curriculum were on activists’ agenda but within a bitter moment of American history. So no surprise that in many Republican controlled states after former President Trump had called out the teaching of U.S. history as unpatriotic when focusing on events in the past that showed racism and white supremacist actions such as the New York Times 1619 Project and the 1921 Tulsa massacre and destruction of the Black community, school curriculum and classroom lessons were scrutinized closely. And the phantom of “critical race theory” was discovered in American classrooms and turned into another cultural war but now located in teacher lessons. No such phantom ever existed in the nation’s classrooms but facts hardly mattered (see here and here).

So at two different times in the past six decades, a civil rights movement has swept across the nation and, as expected, touched public school curriculum and classroom practice.

As a teacher and writer, what I and many others wrote in the 1960s and 1970s was published, read, and used in classrooms as waves of idealism swept across the nation. Not today. In the current moment, attacks from the political right about “critical race theory” being taught in the nation’s classrooms is bandied about as a bogeyman used to frighten both parents and teachers.

Moral of the story: what one writes and gets published depends greatly on when one writes. Nonetheless, every time I look at the framed letter on my wall that Langston Hughes wrote to me in 1964, I am grateful that I taught during the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

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Downsizing School Reform after the Pandemic

The silence is deafening. Perhaps other observers have noted calls for major school reforms, I have not. The pandemic’s closure of public schools in March 2020 and the partial re-opening of schools in fall 2020 and full return to face-to-face instruction in winter 2021 have grabbed mainstream and social media attention. Especially for the rapid expansion of remote instruction and the Zoom marathon that all of us are running.

No reform agenda, however, have I seen for bettering the nation’s public schools. I have yet to detect any groundswell for altering the familiar school organization, Common Core Curriculum, and existing accountability measures already in place. There is much reform talk, of course:

Consider the words from a recent report of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights of the disparate effects of the pandemic on white and minority students:

[W]e have a rare moment as a country to take stock and to begin the hard work of building our schools back better and stronger—with the resolve necessary to ensure that our nation’s schools are defined not by disparities but by equity and opportunity for all students.

Or the head of a major administrators’ professional organization:

“There are a lot of positives that will happen because we’ve been forced into this uncomfortable situation,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents association. “The reality is that this is going to change education forever.”

Talk is one thing, however, action another. Reform-driven policies have notably been absent from most of the 13,000 school districts spread across 50 states and territories during and after the pandemic, particularly when it comes to repairing inequities prior to and during the Covid-19 crisis.

Consider state and national testing. During the pandemic, the then U.S. Secretary of Education postponed the federally-required National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) until 2022. The current administration has called for standardized tests to be administered in the fall of 2021.

Apart from temporary suspension of nation and state tests, I have yet to hear of or read about any coalition of reformers offering concrete policies that can reduce the stark differences in funding and staffing schools in urban and suburban districts that have become, in a word, re-segregated. Progressive educators and their allies have surely called for such changes before, during, and after the pandemic’s closing of schools, but beyond exhortations, I have not noted an emerging coalition of school reformers at either the state and federal levels not only endorsing but also funding such efforts.

In fact, as Republicans have taken over most state legislatures–they now control 62 percent of them–, the appetite for funding schools and igniting school reform have shrunk considerably. Although conservative state legislators have called for more teaching of patriotism and less teaching about race, keeping schools as they are remains strong.

Progressive rhetoric for reducing inequalities in funding districts, ending disproportionate assignment of inexperienced teachers to high poverty, largely minority schools, and increasing “ambitious” teaching remains high in mainstream and social media but has yet to lead to substantial adoption of such policies, and most important their implementation in schools and classrooms.

Of course, lack of concrete reform-driven policies and their implementation does not mean that reforms begun prior to the pandemic and then put on hold have disappeared. Those reforms seeking the expansion of remote instruction have gained ground with the sudden switch from face-to-face to screens in March 2020. While surely distance learning now has a secure niche in a school district’s kit-bag of “solutions” to emergency closures, becoming more than an option for parents to choose is, well, doubtful (see here and here).

Remote instruction, then, is, by default, the coercive reform du jour. Yet frequent reports of test score decline and loss of academic skills especially among minority and poor students during the pandemic have yet to push the “pause” button on distance instruction as a choice for parents to have should they reject face-to-face instruction in school classrooms (see here and here).

With the spread of remote instruction as a school reform, what has thus far emerged from the pandemic emergency are not big-ticket, comprehensive overhaul of public schools aimed at reducing inequities among American children and youth but a shrunken version of what the past 18 months have offered.

And that is why I titled this post: Downsizing School Reform after the Pandemic.

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Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology use

Revisiting Predictions about Technology Use in Classrooms

In 2009, I tried to peek around the corner and predict what classrooms and technologies use might look like in 2020. That post forecasted a few changes that I then saw emerging. So there is nothing magical about that or what I predicted. The questions I asked at the end of the post, however, I still believe are most relevant in 2021.

I offer this twelve year-old post simply because re-visiting what I predicted can keep one humble. I have been way off on many earlier forecasts and laughed at how narrowly I looked ahead to the spread of classroom technologies, especially during the 2020-2021 pandemic–a traumatic event that appared in no one’s crystal ball.

However, on a few occasions, I was accurate. At least in part.

I just read a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them (of course, in an ecologically correct manner). Still the number of high-tech machines and applications that hit their expiration date so quickly stunned me.

Then I read another list of high-tech predictions for 2020 that was equally entertaining about the future of schools, well, not schools as we know them in December 2010. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such lists (here) for years with high-tech devices having different names but a glorious future just around the corner. Last year, I posted my predictions for high-tech in schools in 2020. Here is, in part, what I said in 2009.

“Clear trend lines for U.S. classrooms in the next decade are hand-held mobile devices (iPhone, Blackberry, e-book variations) and online learning (distance education).”

HANDHELDS

Handhelds will permit the digitizing of texts loaded on to the devices. Student backpacks will lighten considerably as $100 hardbound books become as obsolete as the rotary dial phone. Homework, text reviews for tests, and all of the teacher-assigned tasks associated with hardbound books will be formatted for small screens. Instead of students’ excuses about leaving texts in lockers, teachers will hear requests to recharge their Blackberries, iPhones, etc.

Based on current Twitter and other future social networking traffic, shorter and shorter messaging will also become a mainstay of teacher-student communication. Some sample Twitter messages:

*In a college course on consumer sciences, the professor asked his 250 students to post questions on Twitter. On the topic of car insurance for those under 25 years of age, a student asked: ‘What happens if you get married and then get divorced at 24? Would your insurance go up?’ ”

*In the same course, during an exam, a student tweeted a fellow student and asked for the answer to a question. Teacher caught the student because although the software said “anonymous” on the handheld, the name of the student showed up on the teacher’s screen.

ONLINE COURSES

Proponents talk about how this form of teaching and learning as a powerful innovation that will liberate learning from the confines of brick-and-mortar buildings. Estimates (and predictions) of online learning becoming the dominant form of teaching turn up repeatedly and, somehow, fade. Surely, there will always be students and adults drawn from rural, home schooled, and adult populations that will provide a steady stream of clients for online courses. Nonetheless, by 2020, well over 90 percent of public school students will be in places called schools going at least 180 days a year to self-contained classrooms where a teacher will be in charge.

The error that online champions make decade after decade (recall that distance learning goes back to the 1960s) is that they forget that schools have multiple responsibilities beyond literacy. Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career. Online courses from for-profit companies and non-profit agencies cannot hack those duties and responsibilities.

So by 2020, uses of technologies will change some aspects of teaching and learning but schools and classrooms will be clearly recognizable to students’ parents and grandparents. Online instruction will continue to expand incrementally but will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling. End of prediction.”

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Of course, I could be just another one of those benighted folks who predicted that automobiles, planes, and television were mere hype and would never replace horse-drawn carriages, trains, and radio. Here is a list of those failed predictions to chuckle over as you ring in the new year.

Whatever your guesses are for next year or for 2020, the questions that need answers are not about the rapid expiration dates of the next newest device –including the “revolutionary” iPad–nor to what degree technology will be ubiquitous in home and school nor even how new technologies will be used by the next generation of teachers and students. No, those are not the questions that need to be asked.

Instead, fundamental questions have to deal with matters of educational philosophy–what knowledge is most worth? Why? What are the best ways of teaching and learning? These questions, in turn depend on broader moral and political questions about what is the “good” life and how does one live a useful and worthy life. When these questions are asked and answered then, and only then, can new technologies play their proper role in schools and classrooms.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, technology use