The Standardized Classroom (Part 1)

Once upon a time in a nearby land there were one-room schoolhouses.



These one-room schools worked well enough for farm families but in towns and cities, they did not. Too many children to school and too few schoolhouses. Also it was too hard for the teacher to get four year olds and 13 year-olds in one room to learn the entire curriculum.

What made the situation worse was that many people from other lands came to this country who wanted to send their children to school–after all it was free for the youngest ones. Also many rural families migrated to towns because there were jobs that paid far more than they earned on the farm. So more and bigger schools were needed because the leaders of the land believed that public schools were essential to build a patriotic populace, a strong nation and a job-rich economy.

Then a band of reformers found a new kind of school that had worked well in another country and brought it to this nearby land. This kind of school had eight rooms in one building,  When children came to the school they were sent to different rooms in the eight-room building according to their ages. Six year-olds in one classroom and nine-year olds in another. For the few older students who wanted more schooling, there were high schools.  And that is the beginning of the age-graded school in this nearby land.



No fairy tale this origin story of the age-graded school (see here and here).

The structure of the age-graded school contained separate classrooms with one teacher for those of a certain age who was responsible for covering one portion of the curriculum tailored to that age group. And this change–a structural reform that has lasted until now–from one-room schools to that graded school is the beginning of the standardized classroom.

What do I mean by a standardized classroom in the late-19th century?

In creating the structure of the age-graded school, reform-minded policymakers sought consistency in how schools should be built, operated, and–within classrooms–what teachers should teach and how. To policymakers, creating uniformity in schooling meant both efficiency (saving taxpayer dollars) and effectiveness (achieving goals). Thus, the structure of the age-graded school made it possible to create uniform furniture, curriculum standards,  norms for children behavior, and similar ways of teaching young children and youth in every classroom.

So between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, standardization in schooling spread across the nation (see here and here). Architectural designs of school buildings standardized the size of classrooms, the number of windows in them, the arrangement of student and teacher desks, the circulation of air, and heating. All became uniform as school reformers sought consistency across an entire school (except for those children of color who went to segregated, dilapidated, under-funded schools in these decades)–see here and here.


Regularity in buildings sought homogeneity for both children and adults. Qualifications for who became teachers were raised and before a person could teach they had to meet minimum standards of knowledge and skills to teach. Such standards for the physical dimensions of the school, the curriculum, and for those who instructed children promised equality to those who attended tax-supported public schools

And standardization within the classroom occurred as well. Early to mid-20th century visitors to American classrooms would see a U.S. flag, paintings of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a wall clock and rows of bolted-down desks.





So what has the physical design of standardized classrooms including the arrangement of furniture and artifacts meant for both students and teachers over the past century?

*Rows of bolted down desks facing a blackboard and teacher desk and common textbooks for each academic subject communicate to those who inhabit that room who does most of the talking and who does most of the listening.

*Wall clocks mean keeping to a schedule of classes (e.g. 45 minute to hour long lessons) signaling changes in subject and moving to another room. Schedules are important because school is seen as a preparation for the adult work world where white-collar and blue-collar employees either punch time cards or are punctual. Clocks also mean that learning is measured by how long students attend classes during the school year.

*The American flag and the daily reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance are clear signs that loyalty to country is a primary obligation.

All of these artifacts become part of the “hidden curriculum” in age-graded schools and classrooms for transmitting to the next generation cultural values of obeying authority, adhering to institutional rules, independence, cooperation, the importance of time in the workplace, patriotism and pride in country (see here and here). Academics called this political, economic, and cultural socialization of the young.

Even so, there were  architects who railed at such school designs. Here is William Greeley’s view of such schools in 1922:

Probably the object is to produce a standardized American by the use of new,
standardized desks, in a standardized room with standard air at a standard temperature,
under standardized teachers…. Until a perfect form has been evolved, to standardize is to stifle further development.

Not all policymakers or architects agreed with this critic but Greeley recognized that a building housing age-graded classrooms has plans for those adults and children who inhabit it. This is the case with schoolhouse design.

What about classrooms in the 1950s? 1970s? Now? Have classroom physical dimensions and furniture changed over the past century?
Yes, they have. Another piece of evidence to rebut those who say schools have never changed. But those aspects of the school’s “hidden curriculum” that instill cultural values,  workplace compliance, and civic competence convey have remained stable.

*Movable chairs, desks, and tables introduced in the 1930s in many urban and suburban districts.


*Introduction of specialized rooms and space for school curriculum and after-school activities (e.g., art, music, science and computer labs, athletics, community services)


Amid changes, stability in classroom design, arrangement of furniture, and political and workplace symbols continue (e.g., clock, American flag)


Thus, the origin, spread, and frequent changes in the standardized classroom.

What about teaching? Has that become standardized also? Part 2 answers that question.





Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Whatever Happened To Service Learning?

Fads come and go in education as any teacher or administrator over the age of 30 knows. Service learning, however, was not (and is not) a fad. Defined broadly as K-12 students providing “community service” it has been in public and private schools for over a century. But it did have its faddish moments in the 1980s and 1990s–see Ngram. And it remains popular among policymakers and practitioners who see schools’ primary duty as developing “good” citizens. But issues of what exactly is service learning, who benefits most–students? community?–and toward what ends–individual giving back? solving community problems?–persist.

What is service learning and when did it begin?

Like most school innovations, service learning has had multiple meanings since it was introduced into schools in the 1970s. Policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have various definitions. Distinguishing between students doing community service and school-based service learning has made definitions hard to pin down for decades.

Community service (e.g. students visiting  the elderly,  cleaning up parks, feeding the homeless, volunteering in hospitals and early childhood day care centers) has been an feature of schooling for over a century. And it remains so. In a 2008 survey of principals, 60 percent of elementary schools had students engaged in both voluntary or required community service activities while 74 percent of middle schools and 86 percent of high schools did also.

For all the diverse definitions, service learning in K-12 schools comes down to a planned experience integrated into the regular curriculum that contains goals and opportunities for students to reflect on what they do (e.g., internships, field studies, science projects in community) and what they are learning (see here, here, and here).

Some examples:

*Angie started her senior year behind on the service hours her high school required for graduation. She scrambled to find something she could fit in between volleyball, applying to colleges, and hanging out with friends. She signed up to help out with a shelter for homeless families run by the local Catholic Charities office. She thought it would be something easy, like serving meals or playing with the kids…. Angie was eventually assigned some of the hands-on tasks she had expected, such as sorting through donated children’s clothing for usable items and helping school-age homeless children with homework. But each week the program staff also engaged her and fellow youth volunteers in an activity aimed at raising their awareness of the needs of the families they were serving and the reasons for their homelessness. At first it was just discussing several of the readings they were assigned. Later on they were given a chance to interview current and former shelter clients about their lives and take field trips to affiliated agencies working to help homeless families find jobs, housing, and treatment for drug and alcohol addictions. At several points, volunteers were asked to write a reflection about how their volunteer work was going and what they were learning about themselves, their clients, or their society. Angie was genuinely disappointed when her service project ended in December. She had found new friends among her fellow volunteers, and became e-mail pals with several of the children she worked with. She wrote an article for her school paper on the effects of the economy on vulnerable families and organized a showing of artwork created by the homeless children she worked with at a local gallery.

*Middle school students wanted to honor the local heroes who had a positive impact on their community. To prepare, the youths took a bus tour of their ethnically diverse neighborhood, heard folk stories retold by local residents, and wrote their own stories. The students then interviewed local heroes and compiled those interviews into a book. They honored the local heroes at an awards banquet and gave readings of the book at their school. The book was then donated to a local resource center. To reflect on their work, each student wrote both an essay on why we need heroes and also an evaluation of the project. The class celebrated their success with a gathering that included community-building activities and food from their cultural heritages.

What problems does service learning aim to solve?

Embedding service learning in the curriculum and having students engaged in the community seeks to reduce the gap between the classroom and the world outside the school. Sometimes called “experiential education”, doing field studies, pursuing community projects, and having internships as part of school-based service learning contrasts sharply with students’ common experience in academic subjects. Service  learning, then, offers an antidote to the familiar transmission of content and skills from teacher and text in most classrooms.

Then there is the historic mission of tax-supported public schools to prepare the young to act as engaged citizens once they graduate. With the turn toward academic excellence as measured by test scores beginning in the late-1970s, concerns grew that schools were declining in their mission to develop civic competence in students who graduate. Falling turnout of young voters each time local, state, and federal officials ran for office (except for 2008) and drops among 18-25 young adults in community involvement were often cited as bellwethers of schooling failing in its mission to produce involved citizens.

Service learning programs have sought to remedy that problem. What exactly is a “good”citizen,however, remains contested by advocates for service learning.

Does service learning work?

When definitions of an innovation vary, expect the answer to this question to be, well, ambiguous. Often one hears: “depends upon what you mean by ‘work’….” And so it is for service learning. Much of the initial research focused on results from service learning experiences in K-12 schools such as improved attendance to test scores. A few such studies showed correlations, especially for low-income, minority students (see here). Other studies claim that service learning has had a positive effect on the personal development of youth and ability to connect to culturally diverse groups (see here and here).  The most recent analysis of past studies of service learning (2011) concluded that there were:

significant gains in five outcome areas: attitudes toward self, attitudes toward school and learning, civic engagement, social skills, and academic performance.

Nearly all of these studies yield positive correlations but they remain associations and fall well below the threshold of showing that service learning caused these outcomes. As readers of this blog know, few innovations have been launched and sustained because of what “research says.” Political factors weigh far more heavily than research studies in determining the introduction or continuation of a program. And so it has been for service learning.

What has happened to service learning?

Since the 1970s when service learning in schools, distinguished from volunteering for community service, there was a spike in attention and action in the 1990s but over the past decade there has been a drop in actual school-based service learning programs. The most recent statistics I could find showed a drop in the percentage of schools offering service learning from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2008. What the percentage is in 2018, I do not know. It remains a clear presence in many schools across the nation.

No fad, then, is service learning. While it has ebbed and flowed over nearly a half-century, it is here to stay.




Filed under school reform policies

XQ Is Taking Over TV To Make the Case That High School Hasn’t Changed in 100 Years. But Is That True? (Matt Barnum)

“Matt Barnum is Chalkbeat’s national reporter covering education policy and research. Previously he was a staff writer at The 74, the policy director for Educators for Excellence – New York, and a middle school language arts teacher in Colorado.” This article appeared September 6, 2017

Here is a classic example of how the debate over reforming schools confuses policymakers, donors, practitioners, and parents. What does the word “change” mean? The concept of “change” is the fuel that drives school reform policies past and present. But policymakers and donors seldom ask: what kind of “change” do we want? Incremental? Fundamental? Nor do these well-intentioned but ill-informed decision-makers ask the essential question:   change toward what ends? 


Education policy rarely makes national television. But on Friday night, a special focused on redesigning America’s high schools — and featuring Tom Hanks, Jennifer Hudson, and Common — will be taking over the airwaves of ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX.

The broadcast, “XQ Super School Live,” is an extension of XQ, a project of the Emerson Collective, the organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs…. In the last year, XQ has awarded $100 million to innovative schools across the country, including some with a heavy emphasis on technology.

The goal: to call attention to how high school “has remained frozen in time” and to support promising alternatives.

“For the past 100 years America’s high schools have remained virtually unchanged, yet the world around us has transformed dramatically,” intones the familiar voice of Samuel L. Jackson in a video promoting the TV event.

It’s a view U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shares. “Far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago, and the world today is much different,” DeVos recently said while visiting a Florida charter school.

But is it true? Is it really the case that high schools haven’t seen major change over the last century?

Chalkbeat asked several education historians for their take. They said no, schools have changed — in some respects significantly — over the last several decades.

However, XQ has a point in saying that the basic setup of schooling has remained largely intact, they said.

“The ‘grammar’ of high schooling has stayed fairly static,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “Kids take seven or eight subjects, the major subjects have stayed fairly static, [students] move from room to room, school begins around 7 or 8 and ends around 3.”

“I can understand why in a lot of ways, in terms of structure, it feels like high schools haven’t changed,” said Ansley Erickson, an assistant professor of history and education at Columbia University Teachers College. But, she said, there has been a massive transformation of high school from an institution for a chosen few into a mass institution for virtually all teenagers in the country.

“To say that high school hasn’t changed might potentially miss that major transformation,” Erickson said.

Zimmerman largely agreed.

“If by this claim [XQ] is asserting that high schools today share some fundamental elements with high schools 100 years ago, I’m with them,” he said. “But that’s very different from saying nothing has changed.”

Like Erickson, he pointed to the “birth of mass high school” as a major change. “It’s not until the 1930 that the majority of adolescents attended high schools, and it’s not until the 1950s that the majority graduate from one,” Zimmerman said.

He also pointed to several ways the content and structure of American high school has changed, and sometimes changed back: the development and decline of vocational tracks; an increased emphasis on “life skills” followed by a greater focus on academics post-Sputnik; the diversification of high school offerings (into what some have called the ”shopping mall” high school) followed by the rise of small high schools.

Jack Schneider, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, was more scathing in his assessment of XQ’s assertion.

“Ahistorical claims about outmoded schools are designed to persuade us that public education is run by incompetents,” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “If that’s the case, maybe disruption is the cost we need to bear in pursuit of progress. But the truth is that the schools have been constantly evolving over time, in ways large and small.”

In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, Schneider elaborated on what has changed:

“A century ago, teachers were largely untrained and oversaw very large classes in which rote memorization was the rule. Students brought their own books from home and the curriculum varied from school to school. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common and classical languages still maintained a strong foothold. Students of color, when educated, were largely denied equal access, and special education did not exist. It was a different world.”

In recent years, America’s graduation rates have been rising and dropout rates have been falling. National test scores have generally been flat, overall, for high schoolers. (There remains significant debate about the causes of those trends, including the impact of changing student demographics and graduation standards.)

History aside, the key policy question today is whether high schools would benefit from the kind of dramatic rethinking XQ is encouraging.

The underlying assumption of XQ is that the relatively static nature of some aspects of high school suggests the answer is yes. But the fact that these methods have been persistent could also mean just the opposite.

“There are other moments when people have said we need to reconceptualize high school,” said Erickson. “This is not the first one of these.”


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

Facing the Trilemma of Classroom “Data Walls”

Over the past few years I have visited many classrooms. In elementary schools, I have seen pasted on a wall or cork board, “data walls” that look like these:





Usually, students have numbers or aliases assigned to mask their identity. Of course, most students find out who is who.

Whether to use these “data walls” to spur individual students to improve their academic performance or have data displays for the entire class without individuals being noted or not have them at all in a classroom but use individual and class data only among teachers or school leadership teams has been debated in blogs, media, and journals for the past decade (see here, here, here, and here).

With the onset of the mantra “data driven instruction” largely stemming from the accountability features of the federal law, No Child Left Behind (2002), school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers have heard time and again the importance of gathering, analyzing, and using test data school-wide to improve instruction and in classrooms for students to plan individual strategies. Let’s call that “retail” data.

“Wholesale” data are school-by-school and district numbers that are aggregated  and sent to administrators, teachers, and parents. Those data may (or may not) become a basis for policy changes.

The focus on test scores since the early 1980s–remember A Nation at Risk report–has given critics the argument that NCLB further narrowed both curriculum and instruction by holding teachers and schools accountable for results. Concerned about the shame attending students’ low performance on district and state tests, teachers glommed onto “retail” data as a tool for improving student test scores with one outcome being the building of “data walls.”

And here is the trilemma that teachers face. On the one hand, most teachers prize a holistic view of student performance (e.g., intellectual, social, psychological growth) and find that tests students are required to take seldom capture the content, skills, and behaviors that teachers seek for their students. They want their students to grow in more ways than answering accurately multiple choice questions.

Teachers also embrace their professional obligations so they must give those tests.

Teachers also desire professional autonomy but  are held accountable by school, district, and state officials for their students reaching proficiency and higher on the reading and math portions of tests they must give. Consequences of low student scores fall upon teachers and students (e.g., scores are used to evaluate school, teacher, and student performance; rewards and penalties accompany scores on tests). Teacher autonomy to go beyond the test, such as to teach cooperation, respecting others, and making judgments, is seriously diminished given the available time.

Thus, the clash of values that teachers hold dear: holistic development of children and youth, obligation to mind what school and district officials require to be done in classrooms, and professional autonomy to do what is best for student learning.

When faced with such trilemmas, there is no one best solution to such a common but sticky situation. Teachers do what other professionals in medicine, law, criminal justice system, social work, and therapy do: because three highly prized values come into conflict and there is no way to fulfill one without harming the others, teachers figure out good enough compromises that partially fulfill what they seek. They know that accepting trade-offs among these cherished values is inevitable–they construct compromises. Then they manage these jerry-built compromises. In short, they satisfice to satisfy.

For schools and teachers, “data walls” are satisfices. It is a compromise that satisfies the value of professional autonomy–teachers create and tailor the displays of data in their classrooms. “Data walls” meet the professional obligation of doing what the district and principal wants, i.e., focusing on improving students’ grasp of content and skills on the state test. Finally, “data walls” touch at least the intellectual growth of students. Surely, these trade-offs do not fully satisfy all teachers–many do not have “data walls”–but it is a compromise that helps explains the spread of these classroom practices.

There are, of course, other uses of “data walls” that side-step the personal trilemma that classroom teachers face. Such “data walls” could be used at the school level by principals and leadership teams that use test data to pinpoint what skills need to be re-taught at particular grades or seek changes in instructional strategies that teams of teachers within or across grades could manage (see here and here).

Which way to use”data walls” at a time when public officials and educational policymakers prize student and school test scores is hardly a cut-and-dried problem with an easy solution. If teachers and administrators probe at the underlying values embedded in using “data walls” they will see the conflicting values and search for a compromise with trade-offs that satisfice and satisfy tailored to their particular district and school. Not an easy task but essential for improvement at a highly-charged moment in time when far too much is not only expected but laid upon public schools.











Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Have the Common Core Standards Changed What Teachers Think and Do?

Changing what teachers think and do has been the target of many reformers in the past century. Every generation of reformers, regardless of political ideology, have aimed their reform-smeared arrows at the classroom because they wanted students to remember important facts, think rigorously, heighten creativity and classroom collaboration, and, yes, increase academic achievement.

What reformers discovered then and now is that for any of these reforms to alter students’ behavior, attitudes and achievement, teachers had to first change their practices either incrementally or totally. If teachers’ classroom lessons hardly moved the needle of change, might as well forget influencing the “what” and “how’ of student learning.

So, have Common Core standards changed what teachers think and do?

Since 2010, nearly all states have adopted the Common Core standards or a modified version. Surely, those state policymakers and federal officials who championed these standards believed that adopting these reform-driven standards would lead eventually to improved academic performance for all students (see here, here, and here).

In the back-and-forth over the politics of these standards, it was easy for these policymakers to lose the critical, no, essential, connection between adopting a policy and implementing it. Any adopted policy aimed at changing students is put into practice by teachers. And the Common Core standards asked teachers to make major shifts in how they teach. So civic and business leaders and academic experts who pushed such reforms  forgot a simple fact:  teachers are the gatekeepers to the “what” and “how” of learning.  Mandating big changes in how teachers teach ain’t going to happen. Why?


Because virtually ignoring the very people who must put a policy into practice nearly guarantees partial implementation. Without involving teachers in the process, without spending time and money on insuring that teachers are in sync with the policy and have the knowledge and skills necessary to put it–and there’s never only one “it”–into practice, the hullabaloo and promises curdle into policymaker and practitioner complaints and disappointment.

common core & tchrs.jpg

Yet for the most part, even after initial struggles over getting the right materials and learning the ins-and-outs of the standards, most teachers across the country  have taken on the responsibility of putting these standards into their daily lessons. So how has the implementation gone?

A recent RAND study sought out responses over the past three years from a randomly selected panel of math and English language arts (ELA) teachers about the text and online materials they use and their daily classroom practices.*

Here is what the RAND report concluded:

Given that the Common Core and similar standards are being implemented in most states
across the United States, one might expect to see changes in teachers’ knowledge. However, we saw no clear changes in teachers’ knowledge about their mathematics standards when comparing teachers’ survey responses in 2016 and 2017….

For ELA, we found a decrease in teachers’ perceptions that “assigning complex texts that all students in a class are required to read” was aligned with their state standards, despite the fact that the use of complex texts is emphasized in most state standards.

Teachers’ use of published textbook materials changed very little over the period examined in this study. Thus, despite the fact that most published textbooks we asked about in our survey were not clearly aligned with the Common Core, teachers did not appear to be shifting toward more use of standards-aligned textbooks.

However, teachers’ use of online materials did change over the period of our surveys. Specifically, mathematics and ELA teachers reported using more standards-aligned,
content-specific online sources and less use of Google in 2017 than in 2015.

On one hand, these findings suggest that teachers are seeking online materials to help them address state standards within their content area. On the other hand,—a lesson repository that is not vetted for quality or standards-alignment—saw a large uptick in use, and more than one-half of the ELA and mathematics teachers in our sample reported using the site “regularly” (once a week or more) for their instruction. In addition, increases in use of standards-aligned and content-specific
materials were not even; such increases were not as clearly present among teachers of the most vulnerable students (i.e., ELLs, students with IEPs and low-income students).

These findings suggest that teachers who serve our neediest students may not always be aware of or using online materials that support standards-aligned instruction….
We saw no changes in standards-aligned practices among all mathematics teachers, and we saw few changes when comparing responses among all ELA teachers. However, the changes we found suggest that some teachers may be engaging students in fewer standards-aligned practices now than in previous years. For mathematics, in particular,
teachers serving less-vulnerable students reported using significantly fewer standards-aligned practices in 2017 than in 2016, whereas we did not see these
significant decreases among those serving more vulnerable students.

That said, teachers’ self-reports about students’ engagement in various practices should be interpreted with caution, given what we know about the accuracy of teacher self-reports….

The answer, then, to the question of whether Common Core standards have changed what teachers think and do is mixed. From these surveys math and ELA teachers do report a few changes but stability in classroom practices persist. While teacher surveys are surely helpful in suggesting what occurs when policies get implemented, they do not substitute for researchers directly observing classroom lessons, interviewing teachers before and after lessons, and analyzing student responses to teaching practices.


*RAND writers are clear in stating that the findings from their surveys are “reported” by teachers. No classroom observations were done. Teachers answered survey questions and indicated what they knew and did in putting the Common Core standards into practice. Are there gaps between what teachers report and what they actually do in their lessons? Yes–see here  and here. But keep in mind, that these gaps in reporting perceptions compared to on-site observations of practice are common. They also apply to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals reporting what they think and do


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, school reform policies

‘It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature.’ Trite—or Just Right? (Nicholas Carr)

Nicholas Carr is an author who has written extensively on information technology (IT) for the past 15 years. His 2010 book The Shallows was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I include this recent essay of his because nearly all readers of this blog and I have experienced “bugs” in the software we use daily. He tells the story of an IT phrase that has entered our idiom and become a cliche.

This appeared in Wired, August 19, 2018

We’ll never know who said it first, nor whether the coiner spoke sheepishly or proudly, angrily or slyly. As is often the case with offhand remarks that turn into maxims, the origin of It’s not a bug, it’s a feature is murky. What we do know is that the expression has been popular among programmers for a long time, at least since the days when Wang and DEC were hot names in computing. The Jargon File, a celebrated lexicon of hacker-speak compiled at Stanford in 1975 and later expanded at MIT, glossed the adage this way:

A standard joke is that a bug can be turned into a feature simply by documenting it (then theoretically no one can complain about it because it’s in the manual), or even by simply declaring it to be good. “That’s not a bug, that’s a feature!” is a common catchphrase.

When 19th-century inventors and engineers started using bug as a synonym for defect, they were talking about mechanical ­malfunctions, and mechanical malfunctions were always bad. The idea that a bug might actually be something desirable would never have crossed the mind of an Edison or a Tesla. It was only after the word entered the vocabulary of coders that it got slippery. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature is an acknowledgment, half comic, half tragic, of the ambiguity that has always haunted computer programming.

In the popular imagination, apps and other programs are “algorithms,” sequences of clear-cut instructions that march forward with the precision of a drill sergeant. But while software may be logical, it’s rarely pristine. A program is a social artifact. It emerges through negotiation and compromise, a product of subjective judgments and shifting assumptions. As soon as it gets into the hands of users, a whole new set of expectations comes into play. What seems an irritating defect to a particular user—a hair-trigger ­toggle between landscape and portrait mode, say—may, in the eyes of the programmer, be a specification expertly executed.

Who can really say? In a 2013 study, a group of scholars at a German university sifted through the records of five software projects and evaluated thousands of reported coding errors. They discovered that the bug reports were themselves thoroughly buggy. “Every third bug is not a bug,” they concluded. The title of their paper will surprise no one: “It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature.”

INABIAF—the initialism has earned a place in the venerable Acronym Finder—is for programmers as much a cri de coeur as an excuse. For the rest of us, the saying has taken on a sinister tone. It wasn’t long ago that we found software ­dazzling, all magic and light. But our perception of the programmer’s art has darkened. The friendly-seeming apps and chatbots on our phones can, we’ve learned, harbor ill intentions. They can manipulate us or violate our trust or make us act like jerks. It’s the features now that turn out to be bugs.

The flexibility of the term bug pretty much guaranteed that INABIAF would burrow its way into everyday speech. As the public flocked online during the 1990s, the phrase began popping up in mainstream media—The New York Times in 1992, The New Yorker in 1997, Time in 1998—but it wasn’t until this century that it really began to proliferate.

A quick scan of Google News reveals that, over the course of a single month earlier this year, It’s not a bug, it’s a feature appeared 146 times. Among the bugs said to be features were the decline of trade unions, the wilting of cut flowers, economic meltdowns, the gratuitousness of Deadpool 2’s post-credits scenes, monomania, the sloppiness of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, marijuana-induced memory loss, and the apocalypse. Given the right cliché, nothing is unredeemable.

The programmer’s “common catchphrase” has itself become a bug, so trite that it cheapens everything it touches. But scrub away the tarnish of overuse and you’ll discover a truth that’s been there the whole time. What is evolution but a process by which glitches in genetic code come to be revealed as prized biological functions? Each of us is an accumulation of bugs that turned out to be features, a walking embodiment of INABIAF.



Filed under technology

Whatever Happened to Detracking?

About one-third of 8th graders now take algebra. Thirty years ago, about 16 percent took algebra in the 8th grade. Why the jump in enrollment?

Promoters of algebra for everyone give such reasons as: U.S. student math scores on international tests were well below Japan, Korea, and other countries. Fewer U.S. students were taking advanced math courses in high school and were unprepared for college.

Policymakers, educators and parents saw algebra as the gatekeeper course to higher math. You take algebra in the 8th grade and you then could take calculus in your high school senior year. And you were then ready for university courses in math. This is the classic example of detracking. Regardless of ability and performance, making hard courses open to all students is a curriculum change driven by a strong belief in equal opportunity–everyone goes to college–and producing higher student scores on international tests.

Detracking basically means that secondary schools move away from the traditional system of separating students by ability and performance in various subjects that began in the early 20th century. A century ago, elementary and secondary schools enrolled hundreds, even thousands of students. Some students were very able and high performers in academic subjects and others were middling performers and some needed more time to grasp the required content and skills. At that time, students were grouped by age and everyone studied the same content and skills. In classrooms, teachers faced “heterogenous” groups of students with a huge range of abilities, knowledge, skills, and experiences. Many students failed. Dissatisfied parents complained.

By the 1920s, policymakers came up with a system for organizing secondary school students by grouping them “homogenously,” that is by their ability–group IQ tests were used to measure individual intelligence–and previous performance in similar subjects, that is, test scores and teacher grades. Supported by teachers and parents, district policymakers across the nation in these years constructed high school curricula dividing all students into at least three “tracks” leading to different future paths: College preparatory, general, and vocational. Occasionally a student would move from “general” to “college prep” or the other way around but such mobility was limited. Once placed in a track, students took all academic subjects geared for that course of study and remained there for their high school career (see here, here, and here).

That system has largely disappeared. Instead, most high schools track by academic subject to achieve greater homogeneity in classes. High achieving 10th or 11th graders, for example, take Advanced Placement biology or physics while middling or low performers take General Science. In social studies, there is “regular” U.S. history for many students while some take “honors” or Advanced Placement U.S. history. In such tracked academic subjects, teachers still face a range of student abilities and performance but the band of such differences is narrower.

 When did detracking begin?

Beginning in the 1960s activists filed federal suits again school systems that tracked minority students. Such cases as (Hobsen v. Hansen, 1967) that banned tracking in the Washington, D.C. schools and growing concerns over poor academic performance of minority students slowly gained support among policymakers and educators. Reformers, leaning on studies done by researchers, worried about school groupings reinforcing inequalities in society by excluding low income students from advanced courses and thereby entry into college. These policymakers (and parents) pressed states and districts to open up Advanced Placement courses, gifted and talented programs, and the like–including Algebra in the 8th grade–to all students.

By the 1980s with U,S, students posting low scores on international tests, another generation of reformers, prodded by corporate leaders worried about workforce demographics, that is, future employees who would be mostly minority and uneducated to handle the demands of an information-driven workplace. Business and civic  coalitions of reformers pushed for higher graduation standards and broad access of all students to a tough academic curriculum. Since the Nation at Risk report (1983), enrollments in academic subjects taken for four years such as math and science (rather than two or three years) increased.

In the late-1980s and early 1990s, policymakers and reformers, relying on a new generation of research that showed major academic  disadvantages for poor and minority children and youth–as measured by test scores, graduating high school, and admission to college–began pushing for detracking and equal access to all advanced academic subjects (e.g., Algebra for all). Major organizations such as the National Education Association, National Governors Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and others came out in favor of detracking. The states of Massachusetts and California mandated detracking in middle schools. this curriculum reform became a favored strategy since the 1990s (see Ngrams here and here).

What problems did detracking aim to solve?

Reformers seeking detracking have sought to solve problems of low achievement among minority and poor students and persistent unequal access to tough academic courses. Detracking reformers assert that schools that track students perpetuate societal inequalities and sustain the achievement gap between white and minority students. They promise that permitting all students to take courses together regardless of ability and performance will solve inequitable access and at the same time increase the academic achievement of heretofore under-achieving students (see here and here)

Does detracking work?

Yes and no. Studies have shown that detracking has not harmed achievement of high performing students and at the same time has raised performance of previously low-achieving minority and poor students (see here and here, p.90). Moreover, detracking has increased equal access to high school knowledge (see here and here , p.90).

Yet efforts to detrack have had repercussions on teachers and students as these classes have been reorganized (see here, here and here). The evidence at best is mixed which to me means that making organizational decisions on detracking–a complex decision affecting students, teachers, and parents–are more value- than research-driven.

What has happened to detracking?

While the reform of detracking occurred in the late-20th and early 21st century, 60 percent of elementary and 80 percent of secondary schools continue to organize students into homeogenous groups or “tracks.” This is especially so in math courses while mixed grouping of students in high school English, science, and social studies still remain. So while detracking has become a popular reform slogan and has made inroads to how schools organize students for the “what” and”how” of teaching and learning, modified tracking by academic subject remains a mainstream strategy for U.S. schools.



Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies