Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series of posts, I described the times that public schools have closed because of the influenza pandemic a century ago, polio epidemics during the middle decades of the 20th century, and the disruption of schooling in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Of note, then, is that on all of these occasions the age-graded school withstood disasters and adapted, essentially remaining the primary way of organizing school for instruction. Also of note is that districts mobilized technologies of the day for emergencies (except for New Orleans) and downsized classroom usage of technology when crises had passed. Part 2 looks more closely at the uses of technology in classroom lessons.

Technology in age-graded schools before, during, and after disruptions

Only three times in the past century has technology been the primary medium of instruction. One was planned and two were unplanned occurring after natural disasters.

The planned use of technology as the primary medium of instruction occurred in the mid-1960s. Research studies comparing lessons taught via television and those by teachers in classrooms concluded at the time that learning—as measured by standardized tests—was equivalent.  So the idea that this brand-new technology might upend traditional instruction captured U.S. educational decision-makers.

 In one ambitious innovation, the federal government established television  as the primary means of instruction in American Samoa. Daily lessons aimed at each elementary and secondary age-graded classroom would appear on a monitor placed at the front of the classroom. A teacher would then follow up the televised lesson. This centralized, top-down imposition of technology lasted in Samoa and many districts until the mid-1970s when it was largely abandoned.[i]

Unplanned reliance of technology occurred twice. The first happened during the polio epidemic of 1937 in Chicago described above. Once schooling resumed, radio lessons lost its central, albeit temporary, place in teaching Chicago students.

The second unplanned dependence upon technology occurred in 2020 when Covid-19 swept across.13,000-plus districts, closing over 100,000 public and private schools and keeping home over 50 million students. Within a few weeks the dominant medium of instruction became home computers and smart phones. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, after three months of shuttered schools, 93 percent of people living in households with school-age children reported some form of distance instruction going on in their homes. Access to devices and the Internet depended upon income levels, however, another sign of historic economic inequalities plaguing public schooling. [ii]

Within a few months, as more and more scientific data became available about children and youth being less infectious than adults, more and more schools reopened under strict protocols of improved ventilation, mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing. By winter 2020-2021, hybrid forms of schooling combining in-person with remote instruction appeared in many public schools. Apart from big cities, suburban and rural districts, following health and safety guidelines, reopened. Vaccinations of teachers across the country occurred through winter 2021—as I write– reducing flare-ups of friction between teacher unions, parents, and district school boards over health and safety issues. [iii]

As most students returned to face-to-face instruction, have home laptops and desktops gone dark as remote instruction vanished, repeating what occurred with radio after the polio epidemic in Chicago?

Schools change yet remain stable during Covid-19

Remote instruction is here to stay.  Flickering screens in bedrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms will continue but in a much reduced fashion. In schools, technological infrastructure and student use will be, as before, an important but partial piece of daily lessons. And this is yet another marker of the resilience of schools to adopt changes and then adapt those alterations to the existing situation. In short, schools fight to remain the same as they absorb big and small, planned and unplanned changes. Those who study institutional change call this historical pattern “dynamic conservatism.” [iv]

And this pattern has occurred many times.

Consider kindergartens. Following the Civil War, industrialization and urban growth exploded. Family life, particularly among poor immigrants seeking jobs in cities, turned grim. To escape poverty, both parents had to work often leaving young children to fend for themselves. Left alone in crowded tenements, many children took to the streets.

At this time, some middle and upper-income mothers had introduced private kindergartens in the Midwest and New England for their own children. Borrowing the principles of play from German school reformer Frederich Froebel, these private kindergartens used blocks, sand boxes, art corners, and other ways of captivating four and five year-olds to spend a day learning rather than in the street.

Slowly, a movement led by these mothers and other Progressives of the day to get city districts to add kindergartens to their age-graded schools in order to remove very young children from the street gained political support. Especially since another purpose for these early public kindergartens was to teach immigrant parents how to best raise healthy children in densely populated, often unclean, neighborhoods. These reformers succeeded in gaining urban superintendents’ endorsements of tax-supported public kindergartens so that by the 1960s, kindergarten had become a mainstay of public schools, now relabeled K-12. 

Early childhood educators were trained within the Progressive tradition to see kindergartens as places where children could learn through play. Focus on learning to read and basic arithmetic operations were tasks for first grade, not kindergarten. Noteworthy is that when public schools adopted this reform in the early decades of the 20th century one purpose for kindergarten disappeared: teachers making home visits to help low-income parents better rear their five year-olds.

Gradual growth in school districts adding kindergartens came not only from the formation of constituencies politically tied to this reform but also from a shift in public attitudes that kindergartens were more than play. Five year-olds can learn academics. The emerging belief among policymakers and many but not all parents was that the earlier a child learns basic skills, the better chance that child will have for academic success as they move through the grades and, as economists pointed out– greater earnings as adults. [v]

Most parents view public schools as an up-escalator for social mobility that give their children an edge. Kindergartners who learned to read as five year-olds became stars in many parents’ and teachers’ eyes as they aced first grade. Even with this tension between play and academics, no contemporary reformer or parent would gain supporters for a campaign to ban kindergartens. Not for the first (nor last) time, public schools had embraced a reform modifying it to the contours of the existing age-graded school. The same practices occurred with the introduction of innovative technologies into public schools since the 1980s.

In Part 3, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades. [vi]


[i] Audrey Watters, “Teaching by Television in American Samoa: A History,” at: http://hackeducation.com/2015/06/06/american-samoa-educational-tv

Researcher Wilbur Schramm reviewed about 400 studies and concluded: “A striking fact has been presented here-the fact that about as much learning seems to take place in a TV class as in an ordinary class.” Schramm, “Learning from Instructional Television,” Review of Educational Research, Apr., 1962, Vol. 32, No. 2), pp. 156-167. Quote is on p. 164. Schramm also published Bold Experiment: The Story of Educational Television In American Samoa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1981).

[ii]Kevin McElrath, “Schooling during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” U.S. Census Bureau, August 26, 2020.

[iii] Education Next surveyed a representative sample of parents with children in late-2020 and found 53 percent of all students using distance learning and 19 percent in some form of hybrid situation between home and school. Twenty-eight percent were attending in-person. Michael Henderson, et. al., “Pandemic Suvey Finds Perverse Pattern” Students are More Likely To Be Attending School in Person Where Covid Is Spreading More Rapidly, “ Education Next Poll 2020 at: https://www.educationnext.org/pandemic-parent-survey-finds-perverse-pattern-students-more-likely-to-be-attending-school-in-person-where-covid-is-spreading-more-rapidly/

Teacher unions in big cities resisted an early return of their members to classrooms. A strike was averted in Chicago, for example. Kate Taylor, “Chicago Teachers Tentatively Agree to Return to Classrooms,” New York Times, February 7, 2021

[iv]Donald Schön, Beyond the Stable State. Public and private learning in a changing society (New YorK: W.W. Norton, 1973).

[v] National Science Foundation. “Learn more in kindergarten, earn more as an adult.” Science Daily. August 12, 2010.

[vi] For a history of kindergartens, see Nina Vandewalker, The Kindergarten in American Education (New York: Macmillan, 1908); Barbara Beatty, Preschool Education in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

Leave a comment

Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies, technology use

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s