Monthly Archives: May 2014

Stellar Teaching in Failing Schools (Part 1)

How can “stellar teaching” and “failing schools” be in the same sentence?

Failing schools have been defined as ones with low test scores, attendance, and high school graduation rates. They also include high numbers of dropouts and disciplinary referrals with frequent turnover in principals and teachers and presence of far more inexperienced than experienced teachers. Over decades of being in such schools I observed many traditional and non-traditional lessons. Some were forgettable not only by students but also by me–although I kept notes to remind me how the low-level content and skills were taught and how classroom management was, at best, uneven and, on occasion, chaotic.

But I do not want to describe forgettable lessons in low-performing schools. Such examples have been noted often by reformers usually omitting, however, that such teaching also occurs in schools serving upper-middle income neighborhoods. Readers can recall such teaching that echo the caricatured history teacher who droned on and on about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The frequency of poor teaching, however, occurs much less often in these predominately white, middle-class schools than in the urban ones labeled failing.

What I do want to describe are the handful of urban teachers in schools labeled as failures who teach superb lessons often, are respected by their students, and have stayed in these failing schools year in and year out. There are scores of low-key Jaime Escalantes, Rafe Esquiths, and others who have gone unrecognized and unfilmed. Such teachers do not write books or articles about their teaching. Nor do songwriters, film producers, or journalists feature them in their songs, movies, and stories. Yet, they have earned the respect and admiration of their students, peers, and principals who enter and exit these schools.

The truth is that these teachers seldom form a critical mass in a failing school. Nor does their influence spill over to the rest of the school. Nonetheless, non-super star but highly competent teachers are often overlooked when state and district policymakers restructure schools by firing all teachers and the principal. These teachers are lost in the rush to transform failure into success–an outcome that requires collaboration between the principal, a majority of teachers, and most students while building a vital connection with the community. Such a process takes years and only occasionally happens because of the continuing turbulence that rattles reconstituted schools like tremors following an earthquake.

OK, a reader may say, I get the part of islands of excellent teaching in schools that are failing by current metrics. So what do you mean by stellar teaching?

Keep in mind that there are competing definitions of “good” teaching ranging from the Teaching and Learning Framework that the Washington, D.C. public schools use for evaluating teachers to lists of behaviors that top-notch teachers exhibit (see here, here, and here). And, for me, there is the crucial but often ignored distinction between “good” and “successful” teaching, a difference that I and others have written about often.

To be clear, then, when I say a teacher is teaching a “good” lesson I refer to both traditional (teacher-centered) and non-traditional (student-centered) approaches. Of course, there are hybrids of both (mini-lecture, worksheet, small group work, individual work at learning stations)–all in one lesson. There is, then, no single definition of first-rate teaching that cuts across different students, different subject matter, and in different situations. I do not refer to student outcomes of the lesson, i.e., “successful” teaching either since there is no single definition of “successful” (or “effective”) that cuts across all students, academic content, and settings. Sure, the current constricted definition is standardized test scores constructed by top policymakers  but, over the years, other definitions of student “success” have been constructed by administrators and teachers in different fields such as improved student writing, math problem-solving, acquisition of particular critical thinking skills, etc.

Still, even with the distinctions I have drawn there are common elements to “good” teaching across the many differences noted above: stellar teaching requires teachers to plan, manage their students to keep them involved in lessons, and assess what students have learned. Keeping in mind the variety of differences that teachers must finesse along with common features that generically define superb teaching makes describing high-performing teachers in low-performing schools a slippery task especially when”good”teaching get continually overlooked in failing schools.  Why does that happen again and again?

The neglect of first-rate teaching occurs in low-performing schools because of the myopic approach to school improvement (and teacher evaluation) currently in vogue among policy elites.

The near-sightedness begins in figuring out why schools fail. Different explanations for the problem of failure arise. Political muscle determines which explanation gets converted into solutions and then receive attention and resources. Three explanations have historically appealed to policymakers:

1. The problem is that adults in the school are to blame for failure. The solution: change people (e.g., draw recruits from new and different pools of teachers and administrators, get rid of those who have been around a long time without schools improving) and school success will follow. For decades, this has been the dominant explanation for failure in not only schools but also, sports teams, businesses, higher education, and federal and state governments.

2. The problem is that existing structures (e.g., age-graded schools, departmental organization in secondary schools, size of school, how time is spent daily) are to blame for failure. Change the structures (e.g., install testing and accountability, create charter schools and small schools, reorganize K-5 into K-8) and low-performance will metabolize into high-performance.

3. The problem is the process of schooling (e.g., how teachers teach and how they are evaluated, the lack of a learning culture in the school, how adults connect to students in and out of classrooms) Change the process (e.g.,  concentrate on better ways of teaching and evaluation, develop new school-wide norms and rituals, experiment with different forms of grouping in and out of classrooms) and better schools will emerge.

While every reform movement in the past century has defined the problem and solutions differently thus creating their own mix of (i.e., changing people, structures, and process) the current business-oriented reforms over the past three decades have had sufficient political clout and near-sightedness to focus mostly on changing people, occasional dabbling with structures, with hardly any attention to process except for using new forms of teacher evaluation as a way of getting rid of teachers.

For example, restructuring, reconstitution, or any “re-” has come to mean in current reform lingo that teachers and principals must be replaced and new ones chosen to turnaround the failing school.This blame-driven, myopic “solution,” largely funded by federal (Race to the Top) and state initiatives prevail among top policymakers.

That dominant logic is deeply flawed. First, there are many factors that go into a school failing beyond the adults licensed to teach and administer schools. Of course, teachers and principal are part of any failure but not entirely since other highly important factors are involved: principal and teacher turnover every few years, more inexperienced teachers assigned to schools designated failing than to schools deemed “effective,” lack of district-level support, high student mobility–students entering and exiting– and, yes, the help (or lack of it) that students receive at home from parents and extended family.

Second, policymakers crunch “good” and “successful” together into one concept–especially when it comes to teacher evaluation. This is a mistake that teachers pay for, not policymakers.

Third, even in those failing schools there are some teachers  who are tough, demanding, and superb in their teaching. And they get disappointed, some even cynical, as they go ignored in the sweeping removal of all teachers and their re-applying for jobs within which they have been perceived and evaluated as “effective.”

Part 2 describes a “good” lesson in a school that has been reconstituted not once but twice. And the teacher was re-hired twice for the job. But now, sad to say, that teacher, has decided to leave the profession.




Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Kyle, and What I Learned about College Admissions (Michele Kerr)

Michele Kerr is a math teacher at Kennedy High School in Fremont, CA. She also wrote about teaching English and higher standards in previous guest posts. This post comes from her blog.

In the fall of his senior year, Kyle Evans1, one of my top pre-calculus students last spring, came to me for advice on his Questbridge scholarship application essay. I was scribbling edits, making comments, emphasizing a strong narrative, when I suddenly realized that the point of his essay was the struggles he’d faced freshman year as a homeless student. And now his family had just abruptly been left homeless again and was living in a single motel room.

Yeah, it was kind of a drag, he told me. Embarrassing. No privacy. Don’t tell anyone. He’d told the school counselor, but didn’t want the news getting about.

He maintained a 4.0 GPA that homeless freshman year, doing homework every night in the library. He ran cross country, although he would occasionally be benched for epileptic seizures. He transferred to our school his sophomore year, missing the first three weeks, which affected his grades and his progress on the math track.

His junior year, Kyle scored a 4 on the AP US History test; he couldn’t afford to take the AP English test and our school ran out of waivers. At this time, Kyle’s overall unweighted GPA is 3.7, weighted 4.2, putting him in the top 9% of the senior class. He took the AP Calculus test, but not the course, and I expect him to pass. He also took AP English Literature (the course and the test).

While his SAT scores were just above average, his ACT score composite was a 25 (super score 26), easily scaling the ACT Benchmarks for college readiness, even though he had no access to test prep courses. He achieved
a “Proficient” ranking in the rigorous California Early Assessment Program tests in both math and English. He received a 630 and 620 on the Chemistry and Math 2c Subject tests; while selection bias makes percentiles useless, any score over 600 denotes strong knowledge—and Kyle didn’t have a calculator for the Math 2c.

To put this in a broader perspective, only 26% of students met all four ACT benchmarks, and Kyle’s ACT scores are in the 85th percentile. Just 14% and 23% of all California juniors who took the EAP met the proficiency standard in math and English, respectively.

What percentage of those students had homes their entire high school careers, I wonder?

For much of his adolescence, Kyle has dreamed of attending an Ivy League university. Given his compelling story, his metrics, and the rhetoric on undermatching, I thought this a reasonable goal. His counselor, who has been incredibly supportive, anticipated that Kyle would have a strong run, with a good number of top 30 schools to choose from.

His results: All the Ivy League schools said no, except Brown. Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Diego rejected him. In addition to Brown, he was accepted at UCLA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Santa Barbara.

In no way do I think Kyle is being forced to “settle”; the four schools that accepted him are excellent.

I am, nonetheless, shocked and more than a little angry that so many top-ranked schools rejected him.

You’re thinking I’m overly optimistic, aren’t you? How to put this delicately: a kid can’t just be homeless and poor with high scores and good grades. He needs to be a great athlete in a desired sport, or a fantastic musician. On pure academics, “poor” doesn’t cut it unless the kid is black or Hispanic.

But Kyle is black.

So now consider his numbers again through the prism of race. On the Early Admissions test, 1080 disadvantaged African Americans met California’s EAP Proficiency standard in English; just 162 qualified in math. Five percent of African Americans, regardless of economic status, met the ACT benchmarks for college readiness; in California, just 600 blacks met that standard. Kyle’s composite super-score of 26 puts him in the top 3% of African Americans nationwide–again, of any income. In 2013, 2800 African Americans got a 4 on the AP US History test, while another 800 or so received a 5.

Academically and intellectually, Kyle has perhaps three thousand African American peers his age in the entire country. Culling that number down to economically disadvantaged blacks, he’s one of a few hundred.

I’m not convinced anymore that banning racial preferences solves anything, but the pretense gets tiresome. States can argue about whether to roll back bans, or Justice Scalia can convince his colleagues to declare such racial preferences unconstitutional. It won’t matter. Universities are going to continue to have different standards for blacks and Hispanics than they have for whites and Asians. They have to. There aren’t enough academically exceptional black and Hispanic students to use the same criteria by which Asians and whites are judged.

This year has seen several uplifting stories about exceptional African Americans gaining access to multiple elite colleges. But hundreds of whites and Asians with similar scores and achievements have no chance of getting into even one Ivy league school, or much of a shot at a top public university.

Besides, affirmative action bans only affect elite public universities. Private universities can use whatever standards they like, and they are clearly using different standards for blacks and Hispanics—as they are for legacies, athletes, and anyone who writes them a check for a pile of money.

But the unstated reality always included, I thought, a passionate commitment to helping underprivileged blacks and Hispanics. And it turns out I’m wrong on that point.

Every year, each of the top twenty universities admit between 100 and 200 black students. This year, ten of those twenty schools couldn’t find any room for Kyle.

Some agree with Justice Clarence Thomas about “mismatched” students, that by accepting black or Hispanic students with lower qualifications, elite universities are actually causing academic harm to young men and women who would be better off in a college filled with lower ability students. While other research has called the mismatch theory into question, I think that all colleges are doing harm to many low-skilled students of all races, to say nothing of the value of a college degree, by refusing to demand that all their students demonstrate a baseline ability level.

But Kyle is, as I said, comfortably among the top 15-25% of all US students, regardless of race, and his academic profile demonstrates success in multiple subjects and metrics. I’ve spent a decade or more working with elite high school students who have been accepted to Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the top UC schools, and the occasional Ivy. I’m confident Kyle can perform.

Besides, Kyle’s abilities clearly weren’t a concern. Using the rejecting universities’ Common Data Sets2 , I’ve compiled the percentages of admitted students with section scores from the 60th to 90th percentiles, below 700 on the SAT or 30 on the ACT. Kyle would be in the middle or higher of a population that ranged from 20-60% of the admitted classes of schools that rejected him.

Achievement gap realities being what they are, most of the admitted black and Hispanic students would be in the lower half of that same population. So unless admissions change dramatically, every school that rejected Kyle accepted many black or Hispanic students (and, probably, a number of white athletes and legacies) with scores equivalent or much lower than his.

You could not have convinced me before this discovery that universities weren’t rigorously ensuring that they were accepting blacks and Hispanics by merit. Sure, they might start at a lower metric, but from that point, they took all the kids with the highest scores, right?

Well. Except for athletes.

Harvard has started to take basketball seriously. Stanford has three sports that disproportionately recruit African Americans (men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football). Elite schools would prefer that all their athletes be Richard Shermans and Dave Robinsons, but to field a competitive team, compromises must be made. Asian Americans believe, with a great deal of justification, that their candidates compete against Chinese nationals for a fixed percentage of “Asian” slots. I can’t help but wonder if elite schools recruiting athletes are conscious of how many “low scoring” slots they use up for black athletes and perhaps cut down the number of high-achieving non-athlete blacks they admit.

Moving from athletes to alumni, certainly wealthy black graduates should be allowed to buy their kids in just as white alumni have for generations. Then there’s the network connections. For KIPP, there’s scholarship and admissions pledges. Many media-savvy charter networks have extensive communication and development staffs, determined to reach out and forge networks with top schools to ensure their students receive due consideration. Benjamin Banneker High, where Avery Coffey attends, is a highly selective school with a predominantly black population. It’s not paranoid to wonder if a candidate from a school that routinely provides highly motivated, low income African American students receives more consideration than an equally or even more qualified kid from an East Bay Area suburb, is it?

Not that these universities would ever admit to this sort of favoritism. They’d probably bring up Kyle’s extracurricular record. He only participates in one sport, which is probably more than he should, given his epilepsy. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, which meant he gave selflessly to volunteer his time to the community—Kyle’s efforts on his own behalf don’t count, which strikes me as unfair. Or perhaps they’d bring up his GPA or transcripts—our diverse high school has a much more competitive environment for grades and access to AP classes than a primarily black or Hispanic school. Maybe my recommendation letter was off in some way. Or maybe Kyle’s application essay wasn’t perfect—if I have one huge regret, it’s that I didn’t insist on reviewing his final draft.

None of that should have mattered. Four things about Kyle should have stood out in stark relief: he’s black, he has high test scores, he has excellent grades, and he’s not just economically disadvantaged, but sporadically homeless. In college admissions as outsiders understand it, these facts should have trumped all other considerations.

Universities turned to more subjective metrics as a means of creating an alternative access method for those blacks and Hispanics with lower test scores. They looked for “potential”. Did the candidate get good grades? Was he a good person who participated in the community? Did she take every challenging course she could, whether or not she succeeded, proving her desire to achieve? Now they are using these same “soft metrics” against blacks and Hispanics who actually have high test scores, actual ability.

College admissions is becoming ever more of a game, and universities seem more obsessed with a student’s impact on their endowments, their budgets, their reputations. We are assured that universities just use affirmative action to “level the playing field” but apparently leveling doesn’t entail merit-based admissions process with a different, if lower, objective standard. Instead, universities are using the same process they have for whites: placate the well-connected, find the students that will make the school look good—and then pick whatever smart ones fit in around the edges.

They can get away with this because the media supports their facade of access, acting as little more than cheerleaders. Rarely do I see a reporter acknowledge reality, as David Leonhardt comes close to doing here by describing access as a “patchwork of diversity”. Usually, they don’t look at the quilting too closely.

Instead, they push the narrative with inspirational stories. Any focus on hard-core metrics like test scores is considered….impolite. Acknowledging remedial abilities just interrupts the narrative, raises the politically strained issue of fairness and equal treatment. On that rare occasion when a black or Hispanic actually has competitive numbers, as is the case with Kwasi Enin or ‘Tunde Ahmad, we see several billion versions of the same story as the media leaps gratefully for the opportunity to provide hard metrics that are within range of those a white or Asian would need.

But more common are happy profiles like this LA Times piece on four African American girls from Alliance William & Carol Ouchi High School who are choosing between UCLA and UC San Diego, focusing on their concerns that these elite campuses might be racist. A more rigorously reported story would have revealed that the school’s EAP scores suggest that none of the girls are ready for college-level work, that readiness might be a bigger problem than racism. I’ve been trying to figure out why the Gates Millennium Scholars Program rejected Kyle, but the media is no help, providing only puff pieces short on specifics, often little more than press releases.

Also typical are the sad stories, portrayals of unprepared or struggling students of color who came to an elite university with high hopes only to struggle or completely fail, or stories sounding the alarm about the low rate of black and Hispanic college readiness. This kicks off the usual reproach cycle: Arne Duncan comes in with bromides about higher expectations, conservatives complain about affirmative action and mismatch theory, liberals push public school integration.

Yet no one wants to draw the obvious line from the vague praise of hardworking high-schoolers with no objective metrics to the sad profiles of the unprepared college students, much less the general concerns about readiness. So all of these stories exist in their own separate universes.

Rarely seen are profiles of economically disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics who meet the ACT benchmarks or score over 2000 on the SAT, or who score a 4 or a 5 on an AP test other than Spanish Language. In a much-discussed profile of an unprepared, almost illiterate, black student at Berkeley, just a paragraph was given over to his friend Spencer Simpson, who was clearly thriving. As I mentioned, I can find no rigorous reporting on the Gates Millennium Scholarship program, providing hard data on the winners, asking for SAT averages and perhaps a query or two about their demographic and geographic distribution, so that kids like Kyle can know if it’s worth their time to apply.

When Harvard brags that they’ve admitted more blacks than ever, reporters should be there asking what the average black SAT score was, or if their focus on basketball players has reduced opportunities for higher-achieving low income black students. When schools discuss their efforts to enroll more under-represented minorities, reporters should be there asking if high-scoring members of this population are being overlooked in favor of black or Hispanic legacies or athletes, or if their KIPP pledges led them to reject equally or higher qualified minority students lacking the charter’s promotion machine. When Kwasi Enin held a press conference to announce his selection of Yale, at least one reporter should ask Kwasi what schools accepted the 10 kids who were ranked ahead of him in high school.

I understand the reluctance to reveal just how few high academic achievers are found among students of color. But the media’s determination to focus on race first, objective metrics never, is allowing universities to do the same.

If there were more focus on high achieving students of color throughout their high school years, the ones with high test scores instead of just high GPAs, these achievers would not only receive well-deserved publicity, but universities would be served notice. The harsh truth is this: Kyle was rejected from all those schools because all those schools knew no one was watching.

Yes, I’m cynical. More than ever, I now know that the rhetoric we get from colleges, from the media, even from well-meaning high schools offering encouragement, is not much more than propaganda, unrelated to the gritty reality of building a media-approved freshman class that still keeps all the necessary connections well-oiled and satisfied.

But as the title says, this essay’s also about Kyle.

He’s a great kid–funny, quirky, chatty, upbeat. He was surprised and chagrined at his results, but not bitter. He committed to Brown, which had always been one of his top choices, and got a great financial package. His parents, who found an affordable apartment by the new year, have now sent all of their five sons to college, despite their financial struggles, and are relocating to Atlanta after driving Kyle to his future.

Kyle triumphed over economic insecurity to achieve academic success and acceptance to an Ivy League school, with the help of his loving family and a high school that gave him a good education and a supportive environment. But his success is due most of all to his development of great natural abilities and his determination in the face of considerable adversity—and no doubt, his positively chirpy good-spirited view of life.

So while I struggle with my own disillusionment about the college admissions process that seems not only opportunistic but very nearly corrupt, I still smile every time I remember that Kyle achieved his goal.

1 This is his real name.

2CDS Links: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Stanford, UC San Diego, Johns Hopkins



Filed under school reform policies

Cartoons on Digital Natives and Immigrants

The interactions between technology-wise children and their parents or other adults is raw material for cartoonists. I am not sure whether “digital natives” is a category that I would use but it is popular. After the cartoons, take a look at the at the article from The Chronicle of Higher Education that strips away the notion of “digital natives.” Enjoy!

kind wiFi















Dad and kid barter tech










































data on blackboard































Finally, an article about current college students, “Confronting the Myth of the ‘Digital Native,’ ” gets at the holes in the knowledge bank of older, supposedly more technologically sophisticated, students.



Filed under technology use

Cursive Writing and Coding (Part 2)

Here is a recent “Letter to the Editor” in the New York Times.

In the 21st century, every student should learn to program, for three reasons. Computational thinking is an essential capability for just about everyone. Programming is an incredibly useful skill: fields from anthropology to zoology are becoming information fields, and those who can bend the power of the computer to their will have an advantage over those who can’t. Finally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 71 percent of all new jobs in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) during the next decade will be in computer science.

Computer science is the future. Is your child going to be ready for it?

Written by Ed Lazowska, a University of Washington professor holding the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering, was responding to an article about teaching coding in schools. Clearly, a champion of coding, the writer typifies the unharnessed enthusiasm for teaching children to acquire computational thinking through programming. He is a “true believer.”

In Part 1, I pointed out the gradual disappearance of cursive writing from the elementary school curriculum as an instance of reformers abandoning a traditional subject because they see schools as engines of economic, societal, and political change in the nation. They do not see schools as “museums of virtue” where cursive writing would be taught to every second and third grader. Instead, these reformers advocate  that young children and youth be taught programming languages as tools for computational thinking, a 21st century skill is there ever was one. I used the example of Logo, an innovation introduced into schools in the early 1980s as an earlier instance of school reformers as “true believers” in teaching coding to children. They wanted to alter traditional teaching and learning. That innovation flashed across the sky like a shooting star and within a decade, had nearly vanished.

Now, the “true believers” are back. Even though the context and rationale for having K-12 students learn to program differs from then and now, the outcomes will be the same.

Contexts differ

Forty years ago, Seymour Papert and his MIT team wanted to restore progressive ways of teaching and learning so that students could construct their own meaning of ideas and their experiences. Learning to move “turtles” around on a screen was a way for students to think logically and computationally. These MIT scientists wanted to dismantle institutional barriers that schools had erected over time–the rules, traditions, and culture– because they retarded student learning. Logo, then, would be a vehicle for transforming teacher-centered schools into student-centered ones.

For Logo activists, however, their timing was bad. The idealistic and experimental years in public schools during the mid-1960s to early 1970s had ebbed just as  reformers began piloting programming in a few elementary schools. In just a few years, Logo became a boutique offering because a “back to basics” reform had seized civic and political leaders and the window for new ventures, anchored in the work of Jean Piaget and John Dewey, had closed. Traditional forms of schooling and teaching were back in vogue.

Shortly afterwards, the Nation at Risk report (1983) warned leaders that unless schools became more effective–the U.S. would languish economically and other nations would leapfrog over America to capture global markets.  By the late-1980s, states had raised their graduation standards, created more rigorous curriculum frameworks,. and began testing regimes. Not a welcoming climate for Logo-driven reformers like Papert and his colleagues.

Ever since Nation at Risk, reformers-0n-steroids have successfully pushed higher standards, testing, and accountability. Different reforms fitting that mold arrived in the federally-funded Race To The Top, state adopted Common Core Standards, and the spread of new technologies. Here is where coding as a way to equip young children and youth with the computational skills that will prepare them for the labor market in the 21st century is the reform du jour. Monied activists pushing the teaching of programming in elementary and secondary schools are the new “true believers,” ones who get snarky when past similar reforms like Logo get mentioned.

Coding as a Boutique Reform

“True believers” are seldom reflective so do not expect a glance backward at why Logo became virtually extinct failing to last beyond a few schools where  children continue to program using Logo-derived languages.  Why?

The reasons are instructive to current enthusiasts for coding:

1. While the overall national context clearly favors technological expertise, Big Data, and 21st century skills like programming, the history of Logo showed clearly, that schools as institutions have lot to say about how any reform is put into practice. Traditional schools adapt reforms to meet institutional needs.

2. Then and now, schools eager to teach coding, for the most part, catered to mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class students. They were (and are) boutique offerings.

3. Then and now, most teachers were uninvolved in teaching Logo and had little incentive or interest in doing so. Ditto for coding.

4. Then and now, Logo and coding depend upon the principle of transfer and the research supporting such confidence is lacking.

Surely, those interested in spreading programming in schools now–including “true believers”–should take a look at Logo and draw both inspiration and lessons from this earlier reform.





Filed under school reform policies, technology

Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals (Part 1)

Schools as “museums of virtue”* and schools as engines of change have been dominant and conflicting metaphors in the history of school reform. In the mid-19th century, tax-supported public schools pursued Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic–the three Rs. Basic literacy–being able to read the Bible, write one’s name, know elementary ciphering, and absorb family and community values–were the primary reasons for creating public schools. In a predominantly rural society, one-room schools sought to preserve the virtues of Protestantism, instill basic literacy, strengthen patriotism, and social custom through the three Rs.

One hundred and fifty years later, public schools are not only expected to instill the traditional three Rs and socialize children into dominant societal values but also expected to be responsible for the “whole child” and change society for the better. There has been an unrelenting expansion of traditional  three Rs to now include a suite of literacies:  scientific , numeracy, technological, and civic. The notion of schools as “museums of virtue” still exists but now competes with the idea that schools were (and are) engines of political, social, and economic changes that could (and should) transform the nation. That conflict can best be seen in the demise of cursive writing and the recent spread of K-12 students learning to code.

Goodbye Cursive

Recent articles (see here and here) have documented the slow death of a traditional subject in the elementary school curriculum for well over a century. Since the 1970s, teaching penmanship, usually in the second or third grades, declined. With 45 states adopting Common Core Standards in which there is no mention of cursive writing has hammered the last nail into the penmanship tradition. Well, not quite.

Efforts to prevent the extinction of an endangered school subject in North Carolina, Indiana and a few other states have led to legislative mandates that penmanship be taught in elementary school. That delaying action, however, will not alter the eventual disappearance of handwriting from the curriculum.

Arguments for dropping cursive handwriting include irrelevance–block printing is now acceptable in replacing cursive, typing is far more efficient than handwriting, standardized tests do not require handwriting–and its difficulty for many students to learn who will not use it much in the rest of their lives. Finally, teaching handwriting takes up valuable time in the second and third grades that could be better spent on acquiring Common Core content and skills and preparing for high-stakes standardized tests.

Arguments for keeping handwriting, while clearly in the minority, stress tradition and heritage for students writing by hand–reading key documents in the history of the nation, notes students themselves take, and an older generation’s continued use of cursive writing.  Moreover, cursive handwriting helps students develop reading, communication , and hand-eye coordination, experts say.

Even with a few states mandating the teaching of handwriting in school, mournful taps will eventually be blown for penmanship skills. Like the teaching of traditiona lgrammar and diagramming sentences or having students take wood and metal shop courses in junior high school some teaching practices and course-taking have disappeared from the crowded classroom and curriculum as times change. Modern substitutes for these extinct subjects and skills, however, eagerly step into the empty slots.

Enter Coding

Even before the current craze for teaching young children how to write code for computer software (see here, here, and here), the appearance of desktop computers in the early 1980s led quickly to teaching students how to use the keyboard and even write code (remember Basic?).

Keyboarding, like typing, was simple to learn. Computer scientists at that time, however, thought that teaching young children how to write code–I am still referring to the 1980s– would unleash children’s creativity and expression while teaching them to think sequentially and critically.  Using constructivist ways of teaching, children would be able to transfer knowledge and skills from learning to program to  other subjects in the curriculum. This innovation would transform traditional teaching and learning. Beliefs in transfer-of-learning through teaching coding and transformation of the traditional school led to the introduction of Logo in U.S. and British public schools.

The brainchild of Seymour Papert (who had worked with Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget) and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Logo had children using programming language to command a robotic “turtle” on a computer screen. The MIT team sought to teach young children how to face and solve problems, learn geometric concepts, and bring creativity back into the classroom. The designers saw Logo as a student-centered, progressive innovation that would transform teaching, learning, and the institution of schooling. As one former Logo teacher recalled:

[Logo] was a departure in terms of the pedagogical style… we have a term that is now fairly widely used in this country, “constructivism”. Logo was exactly that, the notion of people constructing
knowledge based on their experience of the world and playing with what they already know and working with other people, and the notion that the teacher should be a helper rather than a dictator
or instructor in the old-fashioned sense..

Logo and its “turtle” swept across many schools here and abroad.

Yet within a decade, the glamor of young children commanding turtles to move across screens evaporated. Although Logo continues to exist, few schools now use the programming language or sustain the culture of learning that Logo promised.

The underlying assumption driving Logo was that students learning skills of programming and being creative would transfer when those students would tackle other cognitive skills and knowledge across the school curriculum. This is a variation, as one reviewer of Seymour Papert’s books put it, of Logo as Latin.

Briefly, those who staunchly argue for the cognitive benefits of learning Latin (e.g., increases English vocabulary, sharpens thinking, and increases SAT scores) assume that studying the language will transfer to English grammar, literature, public speaking, and produce collateral benefits. The research literature on these supposed benefits stretches back to the early 1920s and has disappointed champions of the language time and again (see Timothy Koschmann, Logo as Latin)

Failure of transfer-of-learning and school after school changing Logo to meets its institutional imperatives led to the demise of Logo in public schools.

I believe that those current advocates for teaching children to code have ignored this history, the power of schools as institutions to adopt and transform innovations and, most important, the limits of transfer-of-learning.


*”Museums of virtue” come from Willard Waller’s essay on “The School and the Community” in William Goode, et. al., Willard Waller on the Family, Education, and War (University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 257. David Tyack introduced me to the writings of Willard Waller and referred to schools as museums of virtue in many essays and books.













Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Doing Classroom Research

At a time when Big Data rules, I look for small answers to big questions about how policies get translated into classroom practices. Big Data can be seen in massive surveys when thousands of teachers respond to questions that pollsters ask. And yes, there are huge data sets derived from major projects that video teacher lessons as well as from students who answer questions about their teachers when taking national and international tests.

But if you really want to know and understand teachers, teaching, learning, and students, one must spend time in classrooms listening and watching the key actors who create good-to-poor lessons. Big Data go for the generalization overlooking the particular that often matters to policymakers, researchers, and practitioners.

Classroom research is crucial to understanding how policymaker decisions aimed at improving instruction and curriculum (think Common Core Standards, 1:1 tablets for kindergartners, judging teachers on the basis of student test scores, and new courses teaching children to have “grit”) get put into practice. Unfortunately, as I scan the current research terrain, such labor-intensive  research–such Small Data–is done less and less. In this post, I want to describe how I do (and have done) classroom research and why, I believe, it is important to do so.

I have been a social studies teacher for 14 years and a district superintendent for seven. While superintending, I visited classrooms two or more days a week. As a professor for 20 years, I went into schools and classrooms to complete research projects time and again. I have come to know a great deal about how teachers teach and students learn within age-graded schools from kindergarten through high school. Yet even with all of those experiences, I still have unanswered questions about teaching and teachers.

For example, for the past few months, I have sat in teachers’ classrooms observing how they teach history. Why history classrooms?

I taught history in three high schools located in two cities a half-century ago.  I am reconstructing how I and many other history teachers taught in the late-1950s until the early 1970s through documents, surveys, artifacts, and dozens of other primary and secondary sources. No Big Data–just a steady and persistent accumulation of fragments to create a blurry snapshot of history teaching, one with insufficient pixels to give crisp resolution to what occurred in classrooms when students studied U.S. history, world history, and similar courses decades ago. Such a snapshot may not be worth a thousand words but it is more than policymakers, researchers, and practitioners know about history teaching in those years.

That snapshot would be of what happened in classrooms then. What about now?   To capture how teachers teach history in 2014 has meant that I return to those high schools, interview teachers and sit in their classrooms to get a current picture that can be compared and contrasted to the reconstructed snapshot that I took a half-century ago. Here is what I do and why.

Consider how many ways there are to document how teachers teach history: videoing lessons;  trained observers completing protocols of teacher and student  behaviors as classroom activities unfold;  experienced observers writing a running report of teacher and student behaviors and activities during the lesson;  interviewing teachers how they teach; asking students how their teachers teach; and other ways as well. Each approach combines objectivity with subjectivity in capturing what happens in a classroom and making sense of what has been recorded (see here, here, and here–e0b4951dee530973a3).

I have used all of the above over the years, but have relied most on being in the classrooms and writing out in longhand or typing on my laptop what teachers and students do during the lesson. Each sheet of paper or laptop screen is divided into a wide column and a narrow column. In the wide column I record every few minutes what the teacher is doing, what students are doing, and teacher-directed segues from one activity to another. In the narrow column, I comment on what I am seeing. They include connections (or lack of connections) I see between what teacher says and what students do. I comment on whether students are on- or off-task and my sense of how attentive students are to what is happening in the lesson.

The major advantage of this approach is being in the room and picking up non-verbal and verbal asides of what is going on every few minutes as well as noting classroom conditions that often go unnoticed.  I, as an experienced teacher familiar with schooling historically and the common moves that occur in lessons, can also assess the relationship between the teacher and students that other observers using different protocols or videos may miss or exclude.

The major disadvantage of this way of observing history lessons is the subjectivity and many biases that I or any observer brings to documenting lessons. So I work hard at separating what I see from what I interpret. I describe objectively classroom conditions from student and teacher desk arrangements through what is on bulletin boards and chalkboards and which, if any, electronic devices are available in the room. I describe, without judging teacher and student behaviors. And I observe more than one lesson. But biases, as in other approaches researching classroom life, remain.

After observing classes, I sit down and have half-hour to 45-minute interviews at times convenient to the teachers. After jotting down their history in the district, the school, and other experiences, I turn to the lessons and ask a series of questions about what happened during the period. I ask what teachers’ goals were and whether they believe those goals were reached. Then, I ask about the different activities I observed during the lesson.

In answering these questions, teachers give me the reasons they did (or did not do) something in lessons.  In most instances, individual teachers tell me reasons for doing what they do, thus, communicating a map of their beliefs and assumptions about teaching, learning, and the content they teach. In all of the give-and-take of these discussions with teachers I make no judgment about the success or failure of different activities or the lesson itself.

No Big Data will come out of my research about the then and now of teaching history. But the Small Data will generate new and different questions about teaching and learning while offering glimpses of how teachers put into practice policymaker decisions.


Filed under how teachers teach

Don’t Blame the Internet: We Can Still Think and Read Critically, We Just Don’t Want to (Daniel Willingham)

Daniel Willingham is a columnist for RealClearEducation and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. He also writes the Daniel Willingham science and education blog. This post appeared April 16, 2014        

A recent article in the Washington Post sounds a warning klaxon for our ability to read deeply. You’ve probably heard this argument elsewhere, made most forcefully by Nick Carr in the The Shallows: frequent users of the Web (i.e., most of us) are so in the habit of skittering from page to page, scanning for juicy bits of information but not really reading, that they have lost the ability to sit down and read prose from start to finish. I think the suggestion is probably wrong.

The first thing to make clear is that anyone who comments on this issue (including me) is guessing. There are simply not any data that address it directly. We might predict, for example, that scores on standardized reading tests would have dropped in the last 15 years or so (they haven’t) but such data are hardly definitive, as reading comprehension test scores are a product of many factors.

The Post article cites studies comparing reading on paper versus reading on screens, but that won’t address the issue, which concerns the long-term consequences of a particular type of reading. The Post also incorrectly says that paper is superior. Most studies indicate no difference between screens and paper for pleasure reading. For textbook reading, students take longer to read on screens, although comprehension is about the same. (Daniel & Willingham, 2012).

The article, like all the pieces I’ve seen on this topic, is short on data and long on individuals’

impressions. For example, teachers aver that students can no longer read long novels. Well, if we’re swapping stories, I — and most of my classmates — had a hard time with Faulkner and Joyce back in the early ‘80s, when I was an English major.

The truth is, probably, that the brain is simply not adaptable enough for such a radical change. Yes, the brain changes as a consequence of experience, but there are likely limits to this change, a point made by both Steve Pinker and Roger Schank when commenting on this issue. If our ability to deploy attention or to comprehend language processes were to undergo substantial change, the consequences would cascade through the entire cognitive system, and so the brain is probably too conservative for large-scale change.

For example, there’s a lot of overlap in the processes of reading and the processes used for understanding speech – processes that assign syntactic roles to words. Do we see any evidence that people are having a harder time understanding spoken language? Or does the problem lie in the mental processes that build understanding of larger blocks of language, as when we’re comprehending a story? If so, habitual Web users should have a hard time understanding complex narratives not just when they read, but in television and movies. No one should have watched The Sopranos, with its complicated, interweaving plotlines.

A more plausible possibility is that we’re not less capable of reading complex prose, but less willing to put in the work. Our criterion for concluding, “this is boring, this is not paying off,” has been lowered because the Web makes it so easy to find something else to read, watch, or listen to. (I explore the possibility in some detail in my upcoming book, Raising Kids Who Read.) If I’m right, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that our brains are not being deep-fried by the Web; we can still read deeply and think carefully. The bad news is that we don’t want to.

Daniel, D. B. & Willingham, D. T. (2012). Electronic textbooks: Why the rush? Science, 335, 1569-1571.





Filed under technology use