Author Archives: larrycuban

About larrycuban

I am a former high school teacher and district superintendent who has researched school reform policies, the history of teaching, and classroom technologies for many years

Stability and Change in a Four-Decade Career in Teaching (Part 3)

After leaving the superintendency, I spent the next twenty years as  a professor at Stanford University. I taught four courses during the academic year and did research. Most of the courses I taught were about the history of school reform, leadership in schools, instruction and curriculum (for those preparing to teach history in public schools), and organizational theory. I team-taught “The History of School Reform” with historian of education David Tyack for a decade. I also team-taught with high school history teacher Lee Swenson a course on Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction for ten years. The seminar I taught annually was “Good Schools: Research, Policy, and Practice.” After I retired in 2001, I continued to teach the “Good Schools” course every other year until 2013. So for over a quarter-century, I have taught courses at the graduate level. I noted often to myself that what I had learned in teaching 16 year-olds, especially the need for a broad-ranging repertoire of teaching methods applied in many ways to 26 year-olds.

A specific example of how I taught courses might help readers get a clearer sense of my teaching graduate students in their 20s and 30s. Here is an actual lesson plan I prepared for the “Good Schools” seminar I taught in February 2006. The seminar met for an hour and fifty minutes twice a week.

The planning for the lesson generally went like this: the night before I taught, I would re-read the selections I had assigned to students from a reader that I had compiled and they bought. I would type out the lesson plan on my laptop. Next morning, I would review the readings, revise questions and items that I had in the lesson, then go to the campus classroom, arrange the tables in a horseshoe design, open my laptop and make any last-minute changes. I would use chalk to write on the greenboard an outline of the lesson and the central question I wanted the seminar to answer for that day. To keep the lesson moving and avoid spending too much time on any part of the content or activity, I would have on a nearby table a small digital clock.

The lesson plan below has the typos, bold-faced typing and sentences in capital letters as I had originally prepared it for a class mid-way through a quarter-long seminar. For elaboration on each part of the lesson, see description at end of post.*

February 12, 2006

Assignment for Tuesday. Questions on project? Announcements? I will pass back your analyses of articles at end of class today.


  2. Summary on growing “good” elementary schools:

Based on these examples and earlier ones we have read about (Comer schools, Core Knowledge, KIPP Schools, Alliance Schools in Texas, Success for All, Child Development Project, Accelerated Schools, etc.—WHAT GENERALIZATIONS, IF ANY, CAN YOU DRAW FROM THE EVIDENCE ABOUT HOW TO MAKE A “GOOD” ELEMENTARY SCHOOL?

  1. Divide class into 6-7 groups—count off to get mix of people.

TASKS: Come up with at least 2 generalizations that the group can support with evidence from readings, direct experience, and other sources. Take a sheet of paper and divide into 2 columns. Label one column GENERALIZATION; the other column, label EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT GENERALIZATION. If group cannot come up with generalization, say why.

  1. Whole-group discussion of generalizations.

QUESTIONS: Which of your generalizations, if any, apply to high-acieving affluent suburban elementary schools? DISCUSS

Which of your generalizations, if any, apply to growing “good” high schools?

  1. Let’s now turn to growing “good” high schools. What is different between elementary and high schools?


           *school organization

             *time schedule

           *training of teachers (generalist vs. subject specialist)

           *contact time

           *external expectations

  1. Let’s now look at different kinds of “good” high schools: Recall—Edward R. Murrow High School, HB-Woodlawn, The Wade High School (Central Park East Secondary School). ASK CLASS ABOUT HIGH SCHOOLS THEY WENT TO. HOW MANY WENT TO WHAT THEY WOULD CALL A “GOOD” HIGH SCHOOL? SIZE? WHAT MADE IT “GOOD?”

            *Science Skills Center (650 kids)


  1. Let’s turn to Small High School movement. What makes small high schools “good” schools?

Mike Copland/Elizabeth Boatright piece on leadership in small high schools—WHAT RESPONSE DO YOU HAVE TO THEIR LESSONS?

Does the recent evaluation of the Gates venture into creating and sustaining “good” high schools influence your opinion of small high schools? Why yes or no?

In what ways, if at all, does Michelle Fine influence your opinion of the small high school movement?

Do “good” high schools have to be small?

SUMMARY: How, then, do you grow “good” high schools?

The above lesson was not a blueprint that I followed step-by-step. Student questions and flashes of insight I got from student comments during our discussion would lead to departures in the plan. Sometimes, parts of the lesson would unfold in unanticipated ways going far deeper than I had planned. I would glance at the small clock on my table and make a decision to continue or segue to the next question or activity. More often than not, I would be unable to complete what I planned, carrying it over until the next session.

Was the way I taught graduate courses similar or different from the path I had taken in teaching high school history for 14 years that I described in Parts 1 and 2?

The short answer is that in teaching high school in the 1970s and in teaching a graduate student seminar I hugged the middle of the spectrum between teacher- and student-centered instruction, using a mix of both methods and activities in the content and format of each lesson. The reforms that swept across the K-12 and higher education landscapes seldom bent my lessons in these years.

The long answer is that in those initial 14 years as a high school history teacher, I had traveled from the teacher-centered end of the spectrum to the middle of the continuum by blending traditional content and format with student-centered activities. Teaching at Stanford I continued to hug the middle of that spectrum. The graduate students I taught in those years, over time, would have seen their professor trying out new ideas in teaching and cautiously using new technologies provoking occasional laugh-inducing stumbles while continuing to mix old and new techniques such as video clips, frequent small group discussions, student presentations of their research projects, and using content from the Internet during a lesson.

Had a few Stanford students who had taken my “Effective Schools” course first offered in 1982 returned a quarter-century later and sat in my “Good Schools” seminar they would quickly note the differences in readings I required students to do, the sparsity of lectures save for occasional mini ones, and that I had abandoned the overhead projector for new technologies available to both students and the professor. They would have marked these as changes from the earlier course they had taken.

The more observant of those alumni, however, would have noticed that the lesson was still teacher-directed. They would have noted an underlying similarity in the format of the twice-weekly 110-minute lesson in whole-group discussions, small group work, a central question guiding the day’s lesson and much student participation. And, yes, even that their professor still glanced at a digital clock to keep moving the lesson along.

In short, my career as a public high school teacher and private university professor spanning 39 years reveals both continuity and change in how I taught.



*I would begin the nearly two-hour seminar by making the next session’s assignment. Every student had a syllabus with the goals, course requirements, week-by-week readings accompanying each time we meet. The “project” refers to pairs of students researching a particular organization (e.g., school, business, non-profit) that they believed was “good.” After they completed the research, they would present their project to the rest of the seminar. Thus, the reference to a schedule for presentations. Students and I constructed the criteria evaluating each presentation.

Either students or I would make announcements by university events, upcoming talks on schools that were relevant to the course. I use the numbers in the lesson plan to elaborate and explain what I did.

1.The central question for each lesson I would have written on the whiteboard before the seminar began.

2. The students and I had gone over the literature on growing “good” elementary schools in the previous session with many examples of schools seen as exemplary. This was a review and opportunity for some students to raise questions and work through any confusion they had over what was discussed. After review and questions, I would ask the question of group about what generalizations they could make about growing “good” elementary schools.

3.Small group work requiring discussion and decisions about generalizations that could be made with supporting evidence drawn from readings they had done.

4.Small groups (I would have students count off to form groups with ever-changing participants) would report their generalizations to rest of seminar and after I would segue into a whole group discussion of what small groups had concluded. The listed questions guided the seminar discussion. In questioning, I would call on students who raised their hands and, from time to time, cold-call on students who had not volunteered.

5. Segue to growing “good” high schools. Here I gave a 10-minute explanation of the differences between elementary and secondary schools. Students know that they could interrupt these mini-lectures with questions. And they often did.

6. In this part of the lesson, I turn to the readings students had done on different kinds of high schools perceived as “good” by various researchers.

7. The Gates Foundation sponsored the growth of small high schools in the U.S. and we discuss readings about the strengths and limitations of these schools.

I end the lesson by returning to the central question and asking the group: how do you grow “good” high schools? The ensuing discussion tells me what students take away (or miss) from 110 minutes we were together that morning.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Stability and Change in a Four Decade Career in Teaching (Part 2)

In 1963, I and my family moved to Washington, D.C. where I taught history at Cardozo High School and also trained returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban settings. Called a “master teacher,” I taught two history classes while supervising interns who also taught two classes on their own. They would see me teach and I would observe their classes. While I still planned history lessons around materials I and others had created and designed the questions I would ask, I had also begun to incorporate into my repertoire techniques I had found successful at Glenville and expanded at Cardozo during the mid-1960s.  Student-led discussions, dividing the class into groups for varied tasks, creating instructional materials out of primary and secondary historical sources initially to supplement and later to replace the textbook became routine parts of my lessons. These approaches at the time could be loosely called the “new social studies,” a reform aimed at encouraging teachers to use inquiry, analysis of primary and secondary sources, and students doing research. The ex-Peace Corps interns used filmstrips, 16mm films, and the overhead projector for transparencies they had prepared for their classes. I began expanding my repertoire, learning from them, showing occasional films, making transparencies, and using the overhead projector.[i]

After directing the teacher-training project, I returned to teaching history five classes a day of history at Roosevelt High School also in the District of Columbia. In one of those five courses I organized the class so that students would spend at least one 50-minute period a week going from one teaching station to another that I had established for the lesson. Each of these stations, say a lesson on causes of the Civil War, would have a pair or trio of students answer questions as they moved from activity to activity (e.g., filmstrip to watch, photos to analyze, primary sources to parse, and cartoons to interpret) before moving on to another station.

The rest of the day and week, however, was spent on teacher-led discussions, mini-lectures, frequent use of overhead projector with hand-made transparencies, supervised study periods where students would work on assignments (often dittos of materials I created), small group meetings of students working on projects selected from a list I made, say, on World War I, and student presentations. By this time, I had a clear idea of using classroom furniture to advance what I wanted in student participation in whole group activities. They sat in a horseshoe arrangement of desks with the open end of the horseshoe facing my desk and the chalkboard.

Student movement in the class and easy exchanges between students and I during small-group work and whole-class discussions spoke of a more relaxed social organization in the classroom than what I had when I began to teach history in 1956.

Yet I was the one who still decided what was to be studied, planned lessons, determined what methods, materials, and activities were to be used during the period and when. I determined how time and classroom space was allocated. What had changed slowly over the many years of teaching was the gradual shift in giving students a small but growing role in choosing topics within the larger framework of content I was teaching, in deciding how to use their time within the classroom when they had tasks to perform, and in making some instructional decisions.

Where along the continuum between teacher- and student-centered instruction did I now fit? My dominant pattern in content and format of lessons remained teacher-centered but I had begun a fourteen- year journey in the mid-1950s moving steadily toward the middle of the continuum by the early 1970s. By that time, my beliefs about teaching, learning, and history had evolved over the years into a conviction that a mix of student- and teacher-centered activities would be the best way for me to teach students to think historically. I had learned that no single way of teaching worked best for all high school students; I needed a varied repertoire of techniques to reach the largest number of students. Also using the “new” technologies of those years had grown to the degree that I saw them helpful in attaining my content objectives yet these remained peripheral to the lessons I planned, the lesson activities I orchestrated, and my overall teaching. [ii]

In 1972, I decided to get a Ph.D. and journeyed with my family to graduate school of education at Stanford University. After completing the doctorate in 1974, the Arlington, Virginia School Board hired me as superintendent. I served for seven years.

In 1981, I left the superintendency and to teach and write for the next 20 years at Stanford University.


[i]Barbara Stern (ed.) The New Social Studies: People, Projects, and Perspectives (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2009).

[ii] Parts of this description of my teaching history in high schools come from journals I have kept for those years and a revised account that I wrote in How Teachers Taught, pp. 10-11. Also see The Managerial Imperative, pp. 85-110. For my views on the tensions between the kinds of history taught in K-12 schools, see:

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Change and Stability in A Four Decade Career in Teaching (Part 1)

I began teaching history in 1956 in an urban high school and ended my career of full-time teaching at Stanford University in 2001 when I retired (I did teach a graduate seminar every other year as an emeritus professor until 2013). Overall, I taught 14 years as a high school history teacher in two cities at all-black and low-income schools and 25 years as a professor of education working with highly motivated, high-achieving graduate students in a private university. I have taught for 39 years seeing reform after reform sweep by my eyes.[i]

Examining my career as a teacher offers possible insights into how, over time, a teacher working at different levels of schooling continuously changes lessons while maintaining the fundamentals of classroom practice. Sounds like a contradiction at first—change amid stability–but looking closely at one’s life as a teacher may resolve what appears to be a paradox

I make no claim that my reflection on how I managed both change and continuity in over decades of teaching in six public high schools and one university is typical. My experience may well be an outlier. Race, gender, class, the generation within which I was born, and passing through the seasons of a life cycle all have effects on one’s experience that may well differ from others. It is, after all, as my academic colleagues would point out an N=1.

Were there many biographies (or autobiographies) of teachers with sections on how they taught over their careers and the impact of the organization, reform cycles moving through their schools, and life events from marriage, raising children, illness, and death on their teaching, I would be able to position my story within these sources. But such personal descriptions and analyses of teaching over time in different institutions and what occurred in classrooms are sparse. [ii]

For those who prize research-produced knowledge married to experienced-produced knowledge as I do, the limning of one’s career may prove helpful in making sense of this uneasy equilibrium of stability and change in classroom practices over decades.[iii]

Teaching High School and University Graduate Students (1956-2013)

I began teaching at Cleveland’s Glenville High School in 1956 at age 21 and taught there seven years. Student were predominately black and, over time, largely poor. My teacher preparation at the University of Pittsburgh was in the Progressive tradition of student-centered instruction. Yet if an observer had entered my high school history classes in those initial years they would have easily categorized my instruction as wholly teacher-centered. On a spectrum running from a teacher-centered pole at one end and a student-centered pole at the other, I would have been hip-deep in the teacher-centered end.

Students sat in rows of movable chairs with tablet arms facing the front blackboard and my desk. I planned detailed lessons every afternoon and evening for the following day of five classes. In the written lesson, which I would follow religiously in the initial years of teaching, I would carefully list the questions I would ask, summarize the readings I had assigned to the class, orchestrating the sequence of activities aligned to the questions.

The content in my U.S. history classes was strictly chronological. I prepared unit study guides (I gave up on the textbook by the second year of teaching) on the colonies, the American Revolution proceeding decade by decade through the Civil War for the first semester and in the second semester I began with Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and Industrialization through the Great Depression and occasionally reaching World War II. Each unit study guide was sub-divided into daily lessons. They included key questions students had to answer what I had assigned in the dittoed readings I distributed daily to students and in books I had put on reserve in the school library and had in my classroom. I had begun creating readings for students on what was then called Negro History and gradually inserted those readings into the chronological sequence I followed religiously for the first few years I taught at Glenville. [iv]

More often than not, the primary activities in each lesson were teacher led-discussions interspersed by mini-lectures, occasional student reports, a class debate, quiz games to review for tests, and a filmstrip to break the routines. Over 90 percent of instructional time was spent teaching the whole group.

Part 2 describes high school teaching in Washington D.C. and eventual arrival at Stanford University.


[i] I do not count workshops I taught to Arlington (VA) teachers when I served as superintendent of the district for seven years. Nor do I count the three times I taught semester-long high school social studies classes when I was a professor at Stanford (Los Altos High School, 1990 and Menlo-Atherton High School, 1993, 1997).

[ii] European researchers initiated a line of scholarship describing and collecting accounts of teacher “life histories” and career trajectories that have spread globally. See, for example, Ivor Goodson, Studying Teacher Lives (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992); Michael Huberman, The Lives of Teachers (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993); Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin, “Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry,” Educational Researcher, 1990, 19(5), pp. 2-14; Andy Hargreaves, “Educational Change Takes Ages: Life, Career, and Generational Factors in Teachers’ Emotional Responses to Educational Change,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 2005, 21, pp. 967-983.

[iii]In other writings I have described my family, my early years growing up in Pittsburgh (PA), and entry into teaching and the years I taught at two high schools in Cleveland (OH) and the District of Columbia. See Derek Burleson (Ed.) Reflections: Personal Essays by 33 Distinguished Educators (Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1991), ”Reflections on a Career in Teaching,” pp. 97-111; Larry Cuban, The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership in Schools (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), chapters 2 and 4; Wayne Urban (Ed.), Leaders in the Historical Study of American Education (Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2011),”Teacher, Superintendent, Scholar: The Gift of Multiple Careers,” pp. 45-54; Larry Cuban, Teaching History Then and Now (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2016).

[iv] As an example of a unit study guide I used in 1958, here is the a sample from “The Growth of American Business and Its Effects upon America.”

  1. Industrial Revolution hits America as a result of Civil War.
  2. How were farming, railroads, mining, and communication revolutionized and expanded? List specific examples from 1860-1920.
  3. Rise of Big Business
  4. What is a corporation?
  5. Describe the rise of Standard Oil Company as a typical example of the growth of a large corporation.
  6. What are the benefits and detriments of a monopoly?
  7. If you were the owner of a large factory, as a representative of Big Business, what things would you need to continue earning a profit?

III. Opposition to Big Business

  1. Labor unions
  2. What things are unions always striving for?
  3. What various methods could a union use to obtain its goals?
  4. .Why did many labor people join the American Socialist Party? Anarchists?
  5. On the whole, what progress did unions make by 1914?….

In 1956, I had begun a Masters in history at Western Reserve University taking evening classes and began focusing on “Negro History” writing research papers for Professor Harvey Wish, a scholar who then worked in the emerging field. From my readings and research, I accumulated an array of primary sources on colonial slavery, the institution of slavery, Reconstruction, etc. I used many of these primary sources for lessons in my high school history classes until I left Glenville High School in 1963.


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Reinventing High School (Stacy Teicher Khadaroo)

“Stacy is an education reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. She writes primarily for the Monitor’s EqualEd section and also covers youth issues, civil rights, justice, and gender. Based in Nashua, N.H., she currently reserves two days a week to focus on her young son and daughter.”

This post originally appeared in the CSM

May 21, 2017 MANCHESTER, N.H.—Two-dozen high school students are gathered around a large work table as manufacturing teacher Dan Cassidy holds out boxes of metal bars and gears. The students choose among the parts to build model bicycles. “What else are we going to use today? Let me hear some vocab here,” he says. When a student shouts out “chains,” he nudges them until they recall another term for it: “linkage.”

This isn’t a manufacturing class. It’s actually a combined geometry and physical science class. While clusters of students work at stations assembling miniature two-wheelers, others rotate through a lesson on the computer and reason through a problem about parallel triangles the old-fashioned way – with paper and pencil. Mr. Cassidy and co-teacher Athanasia Robinson, whose specialty is math, circulate and check on everyone’s progress.

“I have a really hard time just sitting in a class and focusing on a teacher and writing notes,” says sophomore Hope Nichols as she and a purple-haired classmate bolt together a bike. “But here, everything is hands-on … or I can kind of teach myself, which I really prefer.”

Students rarely see textbooks here at the Manchester School of Technology High School (MST-HS), a low-slung utilitarian building a few miles from the river where high-tech businesses occupy former textile mills. In most classes, they don’t get standard letter grades. They don’t automatically move on to the next level at the end of the school year, but instead advance once they have mastered the material. Students buttress their classroom learning with real-world experiences – such as building a house or working as a chef – to help prepare for future careers.

Welcome to what, in some ways, may be a prototype of the high school of tomorrow. Here, vocational education meets cutting-edge academic innovation.

At the core of the school’s curriculum is a wide variety of career pathways students can choose from – ranging from nursing to policing. The four-year public institution itself is embedded within a career and technical education center that has long served juniors and seniors from other high schools who come to take work-related courses.

While the focus on career development here is stronger than at most high schools, MST-HS is symbolic of efforts across the United States to make education more relevant and engage students with new approaches.

In an age of struggling public schools and rising global competition, education officials are searching for ways to break out of the pervasive industrial-age school structures – think 45-minute class periods, rote lecture-style teaching, and age-based grade levels. Some schools now wrap learning around community projects. Others have students create portfolios and do internships. Still others incorporate students into decisionmaking for how the school or classroom will operate.

Some of the boldest experimentation is going on in New Hampshire. The state has become a leader in the “competency-based” education movement – in which success is less about “seat time” in a classroom or passing traditional tests and more about students showing they can apply skills and knowledge to complex challenges.

Nationally, “there is a lot of interest in delivering education in new, more-flexible ways that address students’ differing needs, differing learning styles, and the differing paces at which they acquire knowledge,” says Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington. “New Hampshire’s commitment to the competency model is … seen as a thoughtful and cutting-edge effort, though not one without its challenges.”

Initiatives are popping up across the state. One district, in Rochester, N.H., has become a pioneer in allowing even the youngest students to make choices about how they are learning. Rochester and eight other districts are also part of a first-in-the-nation pilot project in which achievement is measured by performance on tasks created by teams of teachers, rather than on standardized tests. MST-HS has become its own showcase of innovation, created with students like Hope in mind, students who might not flourish in a traditional high school but enjoy learning math and other skills with the help of sprockets and spokes.

New Hampshire’s quiet education revolution, if it proves successful, could inspire a dramatically different future for American schools.

Tessa Arrigo sits at a drafting board, her pink polished nails gently turning a compass to bisect an angle. She swivels on her stool to consult a computer for a self-paced series of 26 exercises in instrument drafting.

The sophomore is part of Design Communication, the “cool” career pathway that enticed her to try this school. She’s considering a future in biomedical engineering. The classroom – a sleek studio with state-of-the-art equipment and a creativity-inducing vibe – was designed by teacher and architect Stephen Koziatek. It has a lounge area for brainstorming and critiques, and shelves suspended from the ceiling to display models made with 3-D printers.

“It doesn’t feel like school,” Tessa says. “I hated coming to school in middle school…. But I actually enjoy coming to this school because it’s self-paced. I don’t feel stressed out too much because I have time to get things done.”

She opens her portfolio to a drawing of her mermaid chair. She has a beach-themed bedroom and recently dreamed up the scallop-backed seat for her industrial design project. First she had to research all the components that go into building a chair. Then she had to draw it from various angles and create an advertisement to sell it.

Mr. Koziatek (“Mr. K,” to the students) keeps up with what’s new in design so they’ll be well prepared, whether they go to work as a drafter, head to community college for a CAD (computer-aided design) certificate, or opt for a six-year master’s in architecture.

Each career program at MST-HS has an advisory board that includes professionals and partners from local businesses and colleges. They ensure the curriculum keeps up with changes in the field, and they set up internships for students and allow them to shadow professionals. Koziatek hears from students who have gone on to college that “they’re the ones that are, in some cases, showing the other kids how to do things.”

The high-tech and academically demanding nature of some of the career programs at MST-HS often surprises people in the community, who remember its roots as a vocational school in the 1980s. “They really have that stereotype … that it’s for kids that can’t make it academically, so here all they do is work with their hands,” Koziatek says.

Education policy makers understand that the world of work has changed, and that for long-term success, some college-level education is going to be required for most people to earn a living wage. Career-tech schools with strong academics show that “there are multiple pathways to it,” says Shaun Dougherty, a professor at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education.

Many students are attracted to MST-HS’s motto: “As fast as you want, as slow as you need.”

The academic grading system at the school is 1 through 4, with students progressing along the scale from fall to summer, or until they reach Level 3, which means they’ve demonstrated competency in all the key elements of a course. Reaching Level 4 means they’ve gone above and beyond.

“At a normal school, you could skate by and get a C,” says junior Tyler Burke. “But here … instead of doing a paper just ’cause I had to do it, I have to be able to know it and give the teacher an example of it. Now I know stuff really well,” he says during manufacturing class, above the din of a student grinding metal.

During open houses, teachers tell prospective students they have to be self-motivated. “That’s part of the model: There’s a lot of freedom,” says English and humanities teacher Jillian Corey. But students also have to take ownership of their learning. “With first-year students, we spend a lot of time initiating them, breaking down old ways of thinking,” she says. Barely passing “does not exist here…. That blows their mind.”

Another challenge: Too many of the students take the mantra “as long as you need” too literally in completing their work. So school principal Karen Hannigan Machado says the staff has been working to build into courses more self-direction, perseverance, and planning – traits often included in lists of “21st-century skills” that employers seek.

Like many high schools in New Hampshire, this one is working toward having students move on to new classes or alternative learning opportunities as soon as they’ve mastered the coursework. It’s not an easy transformation, but it’s already happening in the side-by-side, self-paced math classrooms run by Amanda Egan and Callan Cardin. In the middle of a 100-minute block, a girl walks up to Ms. Cardin and hands in her final test for a geometry unit. The teacher immediately pulls out the materials to get the student started on the next section.

In Ms. Egan’s room, freshman Matthew Peterson works on his final unit for Algebra I, erasing mistakes as he talks through a graphing problem with a student teacher. “I’m just about done,” Matthew says, wearing a T-shirt plastered with images of cash, of the math course.

He expects to be ready to move to Geometry the following week, with two months still to go in the school year. “I’m already ahead, rather than having to slow down and wait,” he says. Matthew has some incentive: Finishing Geometry is a prerequisite for starting the popular Game Design program.

The day before, freshman John Thornton had fulfilled his promise to finish Algebra I before April vacation. “I walked right into the Geometry classroom and asked for a full unit and started doing it as soon as I got home,” he says. He finished six out of eight papers for the new unit that very night.

Not everyone is so self-motivated. To help students not fall too far behind, teachers often work with them to set goals, and Egan even offers small prizes for meeting them. The students say they don’t need rewards, but, Egan says, “it helps. They’re still kids.”

Out of 30 students in Egan’s Algebra I class, 29 are on track to either complete it this year or take “summer recovery” courses rather than having to come back in the fall. That’s a big improvement over last year, when she and Cardin first started the self-paced approach.

She also 10th-graders perform in line with the national norm for math, she says, but 11th-graders surpass it. She thinks that’s because they are able to apply the skills they built up in the first two years.

The self-paced approach addresses a problem many teachers around the nation face. Advanced students often feel stunted because they have to sit through the basic instruction that many of the others in class need. “But with the self-paced program, we cater to every type of student,” says Cardin. “I just love it.”

Teens gravitate to MST-HS for a variety of reasons. Some like the small setting. Some are self-proclaimed geeks or students who have been bullied in other schools and feel more comfortable here, Ms. Machado says.

Of the 325 full-time students, about 25 percent require accommodations because of disabilities or medical issues. The school, which started in 2012, hopes to expand, because it usually has a wait list of at least 50 students after all the seats are filled through a lottery. Another 437 students come part time from “feeder”

While competency-based education offers the potential for improving educational equity by tailoring learning to students’ individual needs, it also comes with risks. One is what happens if slower students never catch up. “If we’re not able to give [struggling students] effective support, and the others take off, then we are exacerbating achievement gaps, hurting the kids that this model is designed to help,” says Mr. Toch of FutureEd.

But Cardin says she has witnessed students who would be trapped in low-level classes in a traditional high school come here and surpass expectations. She points to one boy who took a year and a half to finish Algebra I, so he came into her Geometry class well into the school year. “Now he’s ahead of almost everyone else in the class,” she says, because he took advantage of custom-fit resources and instruction.

Not everyone is excelling academically, though. On the SAT exam, 21 percent of MST-HS 11th-graders scored proficient or above in math in 2015-16, compared with 28 percent in Manchester and 40 percent statewide. Scores for reading showed similar gaps, but such disparities often reflect demographic differences – and at this school, in particular, many students struggle with traditional testing. Yet the dropout rate here is very low – less than 3 percent.

Perhaps most unusual about the school is the inventive nature of the instruction. It requires flexibility and adventurousness on the part of both students and teachers.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, when we have a successful lesson, it’s because we didn’t pull it out of a textbook,” says Ms. Robinson of the geometry and physical science class.

The mingling of academics with real-world problems can lead to unexpected moments of discovery. Kevin McDonnell, who teaches Green Technology, recalls when his students were concerned about too much algae in the big blue tubs where they keep fish for a project that combines hydroponics and aquaculture. In science, they had just learned about freshwater plankton and realized the organisms could eat the algae. Problem solved.

“That was amazing,” Mr. McDonnell says. “That’s what we’re hoping to go for, building-wide – their ability to make that connection….”

Sitting on couches in the Game Design classroom, four teenage boys rank the traits of characters they are creating, such as charisma and stamina, when Jonathan Richard declares: “This class taught me English!”

His friends agree, saying they recently watched an anime film that helped them understand story arc and other concepts their English teacher has offered up in different contexts. “It was deep,” Jonathan says.

In Game Design, “if they don’t know how to break down a story and write good concepts, then they’re in trouble,” says teacher Ryan Frasca.

Over in the Algebra I class, Egan sends two students, Nayshalee Rodriguez and Conor Flanagan, on a mission to check three ramps in the school to see if they are in compliance with the ADA (which they’ll learn later is the Americans with Disabilities Act). She suggests they borrow a tape measure from the manufacturing teacher, and then they’re on their own.

They struggle at first, not sure exactly how to measure the height and length of the ramp and translate that into the “rise over run” formula for slope. It’s the kind of exploration that Egan says will motivate real learning. When they come back with their first round of “crazy measurements,” she gives them just enough guidance that they feel confident to try again, and eventually they can show that the ramps do indeed comply.

When the four-year high school first opened, both teachers and students found the adjustment to competency-based grading awkward. Machado, as principal, was given a shoestring budget and only three months of planning time to open the school. But some of the early graduates now see the benefits of having to be self-starters, even if they didn’t then.

Trevor Harrington says he didn’t care about learning until his time at MST-HS. “Now, two semesters into college, I’m almost an entirely A student,” says the 2016 graduate who attends Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “And it’s because the teachers, although they were not always perfect … taught in a way that made us appreciate the education.”

Several of his fellow graduates agree. One of them used college credits earned senior year to jump-start her university education. Another says he can work in great restaurants to help pay for college, because of the culinary program he took – but exploring that in high school also saved him from investing more time and money in a career he decided he didn’t want after all.

Teachers, too, have thrived with the experimentation. “I’ve grown far more as a professional than I honestly feel that I would have in a traditional kind of school setting,” says Ms. Corey.

Despite all the innovation going on in schools across the country, most classrooms remain fairly traditional in their approach to learning. Perhaps as a result, only 38 percent of public school students in one national survey said most or all of their classes challenged them to their full potential. To bring deeper learning into classrooms on a large scale would require a “seismic shift” that could take generations, says Jal Mehta, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, in a report published by Jobs for the Future.

New Hampshire has a head start. High schools here have been shifting into competency-based education since 2005, and some districts have voluntarily transformed all their grade levels to the new approach.

Challenges remain. One is explaining the new way of grading to parents – and college admissions counselors. For those who go straight to a college program aligned with what they studied at MST-HS, that’s not usually a problem.

But generally there will be a transition period, Toch says, in which some colleges may be skeptical of competency-based transcripts. The traditional high school credit represents a standardized measure of time spent in the classroom, even though it may not equate to actual learning. It’s a currency colleges understand, he says. Mr. Harrington had to explain his grades to an admissions officer at SNHU.

“Thank God they had individualized comments” by teachers on the transcript, he says. But having seen his teachers learn as they go, he’s better able to adapt to new situations. “College is a lot like this school,” Harrington says. “Every year is different.”


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Change and Stability in Classrooms, Schools, and Districts (Part 2)

Organizations are dynamically conservative, that is to say, they fight like mad to remain the same.

Donald Schon, 1970[i]

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change

Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard [ii]

Based upon my research into exemplars of technology integration in 41 classrooms, 12 schools, and six districts in Silicon Valley in 2016, I concluded that the teachers and administrators I have seen and interviewed have, indeed, implemented software and hardware fully into their daily routines. In these settings, technology use shifted from the foreground to the background. Using devices has become as ordinary as once using pencils and paper. And in many instances, the integration was seamless, no stitches showed. So what?

Putting a reform into classroom practice is no stroll in the park.  Policymakers and researchers must answer four basic questions about any policy aimed at improving how teachers teach and how students learn.

  1. Did policies aimed at improving student performance get fully, moderately, or partially implemented?
  2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?
  3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?
  4. Did what students learn meet the intended policy goals?

Too often those who make consequential school decisions and those who research such efforts ignore these questions. And that is a mistake.

In answer to the first question, my data show clearly that in the 41 Silicon Valley classrooms I observed–spread across nine schools and five districts—the local policy of making software and devices available to every teacher and student had been implemented fully. For these teachers identified as exemplary in integrating technology into their daily lessons, access to software-loaded tablets and laptops, a district infrastructure of technical assistance, and professional development gave them many opportunities for daily use. All of these teachers had the discretion in deciding to use the technologies and they chose to do so. And I saw that use in all of the classrooms I visited.

That these “best cases” portray complete implementation toward altering routine teaching practices—a necessary prior condition for any instructional reform to reach students–does not yet answer the next crucial question of whether uses of these technologies altered the lesson format and content in these exemplary classrooms.

The assumption reformers carry in their heads is that fully implemented policies aimed at improved teaching will payoff in student learning. For that payoff to occur, however, there is a far less appreciated interim step: usual classroom practices would have to change in the direction reform-minded policymakers sought such as abandoning traditional instructional practices and adopting student-centered ones. Such changes in content and practice, reformers believe, will lead to improved student outcomes and eventually achieving district goals.

So the second question of whether the content and format of teaching in these “best cases” classrooms have actually changed and in what direction is imperative to answer. For little to no change in how and what teachers taught mean that chances of students learning more, faster, and better—as reformers sought–would diminish. Just as important, were there to be no substantial change in how teachers teach then the third and fourth policy questions become moot.

Turn now to these teachers’ views on change as a result of using technology. Most said that their classroom practices had changed, even improved. About a third said that while there were some shifts in how they taught, ones they appreciated a lot, but the basics of teaching their lessons had not changed.

As a researcher who sat in the 41 classrooms I agreed with the two-thirds of the teachers who claimed that their lessons had changed but I reached a different conclusion about basic changes in format and content of their lessons. Determining the truth about changes in content and practice can be dicey insofar as how much weight to give to teachers’ opinions and a researcher’s view of both the direction and substance of classroom change. [iii]

Without denying that 65 percent of the teachers believed their classroom practices had changed, in the previous chapter I offered two points to make sense of their opinions. First, teachers who saw changes in their teaching, for the most part, identified important incremental (not fundamental) changes due to technology use in planning and implementing lessons. These changes added to their productivity as teachers in completing classroom administrative tasks efficiently, providing a broad array of information sources previously unavailable to their students, and being able to help students in real time. Only one of the 37 teachers who responded to my questions on changes in their practices as a result of using technologies in lessons claimed that his practices had departed substantially from how he usually taught. [iv]

Second, I, as an outside researcher, offered a historical view of public schooling evolving as a institution committed to both instilling community values into the next generation and preparing the young to become independent thinkers, fully engaged citizens and workers. This split mission for tax-supported public schools existed for centuries and remains the order of the day in 2017. Based upon this dilemma-ridden goal, I also drew from scholarship about century-old teaching patterns within age-graded school organizations that suggested strongly that both change and stability were systemic and embedded in daily lessons. This historical view of both the institution and classroom was also anchored in thinking about my experiences of nearly four decades teaching high school and graduate students.

In answering the question of whether technology use had shifted teaching practices, given these differing views, it is clear to me that what teachers said, what I observed, and what I know–those perceived changes had occurred. Such technology-induced changes were incremental and useful to teachers but seldom altered the goals, fundamental classroom structures embedded in the age-graded school, teacher/student relationships, basic format of lessons, or the craft of teaching that has evolved in public schools for well over a century. All of these underlying features of teaching persisted among the classroom changes Silicon Valley teachers recognized in their lessons. Change and continuity in teaching practice have been and continue to be entwined.

None of this should surprise readers. As the epigraphs suggest, stability and change are the yin and yang that these exemplary teachers, schools, and districts illustrate and part of a far larger way of seeing how the world works. The explanation for this persistent interaction between stability and change that I offer here is consistent with similar patterns in the larger environment within which we live, the organizations in which we work and play, and our individual lives.


[i] Donald Schon,”Dynamic Conservatism,” Reit Lectures, 1970 at:

[ii]Giuseppe Lampedusa, The Leopard (London: Fontana, 1963), p. 29.

[iii] As described in the previous chapter, of the 41 teachers I observed, 37 responded to my questions about change in their classrooms. The ratios and percentages detailed in these paragraphs refer to the 37 teachers.

[iv] I attach no greater importance to either incremental or fundamental changes. Both are necessary in any institution serving the community. Each can (or cannot) be significant depending on the direction, say from teacher- to student-centered—and upon available resources and the context. To make either kind of change requires enormous cooperation and heroic action on the part of participants.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Stability and Change in Our Environment, Organizations, and Individual Lives (Part 1)

Over the past few months I have posted drafts of different sections of the book on technology integration in Silicon Valley schools that I have been working on since the beginning of this year. These two posts comes from my final chapter on stability and change in our lives and schools.

Over the past millions of years (not a typo, millions) Earth’s polar ice caps extended into equatorial South America, Africa, and Asia. Over time, these ice-bound regions receded and moderate to tropical climate in non-polar regions returned. Using the time scale of millions of years, there has been much continuity and change in climate on Earth.

Human organizations do not have that enormous time span but one in particular, the Roman Catholic Church, has existed for almost two thousand years. Within the Church, sects have arisen and broken away (e.g., the Protestant Reformation). Other groups protesting Church rules have formed and, over time, have become incorporated into the Church. Over the last millennium, Popes banished heretics, sponsored Crusades, survived the break away of German and English Catholics to form Lutheran and Anglican churches in the 16th century, and continue to oversee the lives of over a billion Catholics across the globe. In almost two thousand years, the Church has had long periods of stability punctuated by both swift and slow-motion years of change.

And in a single lifetime of 70-plus years for individual human beings, constancy and change mark one’s personality and character as a person moves from infancy to childhood, adolescence, becoming an adult, and then into old age.

Using different time scales, continuity and change characterize the environment we live in, the organizations that influence our lives, and what individuals experience in their life span of eight to nine decades. From millions of years to millennia to decades, stability and change are abiding partners.

Climate change. While there are nay-sayers that global climate has not changed significantly beyond the usual cyclical trends that have characterized weather patterns for millennia, physical and natural scientists have concluded that human actions such as industrialization, particularly burning fossil fuels, across the globe have increased the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, ocean warming, and melting polar caps. Increased floods tornados and hurricanes, expanding arid land across continents, and rising water levels have only added fuel to what has turned into a political debate across the globe. No question that climate change itself has become an economic and social issue engaging both the political right and left. [i]

International climate accords to restrict fossil fuel use and increase alternative power sources in both industrialized and developing nations have been signed over the past few decades. But those international agreements (e.g., Rio Earth Summit in 1992; Kyoto Protocol in 1997; Paris Agreement, 2015) are voluntary and enforcement shifts as government leaders come and go in the major countries (e.g., President Donald Trump ending regulations in 2017 that President Barack Obama had made). [ii]

Going beyond the politicization of climate change are the cycles of change and continuity in climate patterns in the past millions of years. Evidence drawn from drilled ice core samples in Greenland and Antarctica along with samples from Devil’s Hole (Nevada) reveals alternating periods of warming and cooling. At least eight glacial and interglacial ages lasting from 80,000 to 120,000 years affirm both change and constancy in global climate. Warming and cooling eras have marked Earth’s history over millions of years. Currently in an interglacial period that has lasted thousands of years, human actions since the 1750s—when industrialization anchored in fossil fuels accelerated–have independent of the tilt of the planet, the sun’s influence, shifts in ocean currents, and other factors, caused accelerated melting of the polar ice caps, shrinking of glaciers, warming of the atmosphere and rising ocean levels to create changes in weather patterns across the globe.[iii]

When looking at the Earth’s climate on a time scale of millions of years, eras of stability and change emerge clearly. Moving from millions of years to millennia, from interactions between planet’s geology, sun, oceans, and climate to human-created organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, a similar pattern of continuity and change appear.
Roman Catholic Church. Nearly two thousand years old, this man-made organization has also experienced periods of swift and slow change interspersed with decades, even centuries, of equilibrium. Like all organizations, the Church was (and is) located in a larger society in which political, social, cultural, and demographic changes spill over its organization influencing what happens within its confines. [iv]

The early Church’s fight against Roman worship of many gods proved successful over a few centuries when Emperor Constantine’s adopted Christianity in the fourth century. From that point through the Middle Ages, the Church exerted a holistic and sustained hold on the lives of kings, nobles, and common people in the Holy Roman Empire. With the Protestant Reformation and growth of nationalism throughout Europe especially after the French Revolution and the onset of industrialization the Church’s influence shrank as nations shied away from too close a connection with the principal religion in Europe and eventually the rest of the world. Separation of church and state within nations spread in the 19th and 20th centuries across the globe.

Even after corrupt Popes, explosive heresies, the Protestant Reformation, mishaps covering centuries, and two World Wars the Roman Catholic Church, an absolute monarchy overseeing a centrally controlled, hierarchal institution, has persisted through adapting to unforeseen shifts in the world they inhabited. Through these centuries, Church authorities experienced stability and unpredictable changes, century after century, that threatened their very existence as they negotiated how to maintain basic principles and practices during both tranquil and turbulent times. If longevity is a marker for organizational success, then the survival of the Church for nearly two millennia is a gold medal winner.

How do organizations constructed by human hands maintain continuity amid explosive and unpredictable changes? Many do not survive major changes. Governments, businesses, and universities appear and disappear. Failure to live more than a decade is the norm. Change overwhelms many organizations. Some, however, survive and thrive.

One common pattern among institutions like the Church that have lasted for centuries is to domesticate those internal and external groups that challenge its authority—as did once the Franciscans and Dominicans and groups labeled as heretics. After negotiations between Popes and their opponents, former heretics would swear allegiance to the Church and become part of it.

In effect, as resisters would adapt to the Church, the leaders would create an enclave within its institution where former opponents could operate and become advocates of papal authority. This pattern of enclaving tamed reformers seeking to alter Church principles and teaching while accommodating ideas and practices of former opponents; such co-optation occurs in many other institutions as a strategy to both adapt to change while maintaining continuity in goals and direction of the institution.[v]

Climate change on Earth and the Roman Catholic Church exhibit long-term patterns of change and stability in their histories. Time scales vary dramatically but the constancy of change interrupted by periods of stability occurs both in nature and human-contrived institutions. So, too, for the individual life span. The time scale in years shrinks from millions on Earth to millennia in the Roman Catholic Church to decades in a human life but the same twosome of continuity and change holds.

Continuity and Change in Human Behavior. While researchers quarrel over what causes individuals to be who they are and behave as they do in infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age there is general agreement, based on scores of longitudinal studies, that both change and continuity occur within a human life span.

By five years of age, for example, physical and cognitive growth spurts have changed toddlers and young children physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Such swift growth of infants into early childhood, researchers have established, shapes personality, behaviors, and attitudes sufficiently that predictions—with different levels of probability–can be made, for example, about a child’s height, intelligence, personality traits, and achievement as an adult. Thus, early development changes become stable features of youth and adulthood. While continuity becomes a pattern as an individual gets older, changes fueled by genes, peer influence, and life events, still occur but with far less impact on traits formed in the first five years of development. These studies confirm also that growing children’s interactions between these features and the environment (family, neighborhood, school) play an important role in their development with peers and workplace as they move into adolescence and adulthood.[vi]

Hence, developmental changes and stability in a range of human characteristics between infancy and adulthood, influenced by the settings in which children and adults experience, typify the seven to nine decade life span of individuals.

Since the mid-1960s, such studies of child development have had concrete implications for schooling. Policy emphasis on early childhood education, especially for poor children of color, beginning with three- and four year-olds, federally funded Head Start, and kindergarten through third grade have occupied researchers, civic and business leaders for decades.[vii]

Continuity and change and the inevitable tensions they embody, I argue, occurs on a global scale through climate change, within longstanding organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, and individuals. But none of this is self-evident.

Were one to take a step back and ponder the changes that have occurred in one’s lifetime—I was born in 1934—the political, social, economic, and technological changes over the past eight decades seem staggering. In a culture, where change is highly prized and techno-optimism about the future is baked into the national DNA, everything appears in flux. The key words in the last two sentences are “ seem” and “appears.” Except if one were to take a historical perspective and apply a time frame that stretches out over a century or more. Then the “seem” and “appear” dissolve.

Consider walking into a frame house owned by a middle-class family in New York City in 1870. It would have a kitchen with a fireplace serving as both furnace and oven, bedrooms with fireplaces, a parlor to entertain guests, windows, doors, furniture that would be faintly familiar to our 21st century eyes except for the outdoor latrine that serves the entire family and a stable for horses to transport the family.

Fast-forward three generations and walk into a middle-class family’s home in 1940. Flush toilets replaced outhouses, washing machines replaced hand-wringers, gas-fired stoves replaced hearths, electric lights replaced candles. On a table would be a rotary dial telephone and outside the house parked by the curb would be the family car.[viii]

Now skip ahead another three generations to the early 21st century. Surely, there have been many changes since the 1940s in how we live, work, travel, communicate, and get medical treatment but the obvious changes in communication, transportation, home appliances, and opportunities to work in 2018 have been incremental ones to the existing technologies in each of these areas. Smart phones, faster planes, safer cars, and interlocked home computer networks appear so dramatically different from the 1940s so it is understandable but nonetheless inaccurate to ignore the basic continuity in new technologies enhancing older ones, not replacing them. [ix]

After all, a smart phone combines in one device fast and frequent communication, quick access to information, taking photos, and recording conversations. Yet all of these were available in separate devices half-century ago. Faster and more fuel-efficient jets carry passengers to their destinations than previous lumbering four engine prop planes but aircraft transported passengers then also. Or consider health care. Technological advances in medical diagnosis and treatments through echo cardiograms, MRIs, and an array of pills that would stun an earlier generation still depend upon a doctor listening to a patient, taking a history, and figuring out what tests the patient should take and what therapies to recommend based on the test results.

Think a moment about driver-less cars and trucks as the most recent manifestation of new technologies altering transportation. Current state laws governing car accidents have yet to adapt to automated transportation. There are product liability laws that will have to adapt to robotic transportation. Who, for example, is responsible for parking and traffic tickets? Whose fault is it when injuries and deaths occur involving driverless cars? But the laws carry within them continuity—manufacturers continue to be responsible for the safety of their products—and adaptations to technological changes will occur as they have when autos replaced horse-drawn transportation. [x]

These changes in communication, transportation, and medical practice are incremental bolstering underlying patterns that already had existed for decades. Mistaking a smart phone or a fast jet for a “revolutionary” change in our lives is common hyperbole in a culture where techno-optimism reigns. The inflated language misses the constant updating of practices that have existed for many decades.

Consider further that continuity persists in the social and economic sectors. While legal segregation of races and ethnicities has been banned since the 1950s, these separations in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods continue. As do racial disparities in distribution of income.

Sharp inequalities in wealth and income that existed in the early 20th century shrank during the Great Depression and World War II but have returned to those earlier levels in the past three decades. Yes, striking shifts in manufacturing and factory jobs have occurred while service and technological occupations have mushroomed.

Similarly, the state and federal regulations that have reigned in corporate influence on public policy such as government regulation, the U.S. tax code, and health care since the 1990s has decreased measurably in the early 21st century. Stability and change are constant. [xi]

Finally, consider the laws that govern our lives. The law, then and now, serves a dual function—social stability and adaptation to social change. The essence of a democracy is where rule of law, not rule by officials’ arbitrary decisions dominate daily life in the U.S. Governmental actions often end up adapting to changes while insuring continuity. [xii]

All of these examples of stability and change in laws governing our lives, climate change, organizations, and our individual lives can be applied to teaching and schooling in the U.S. The 41 Silicon Valley teachers across nine schools in five districts that I observed and interviewed in 2016 combined both continuity and change.


[i] Naomi Oreskes, “Beyond the Ivory Tower: Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science, 2004, 306 (5702), p. 1686; NASA, “Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming,” April 2017 at:

On political polarization, see Pew Research Center, “The Politics of Climate,” October 4, 2016 at:

[ii] European Council, “International Agreements on Climate Actions,” June 2016 at:

Coral Davenport and Alissa Rubin, “Trump Signs Executive Order Unwinding Obama Climate Policies,” New York Times, March 28, 2017.

[iii] Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[iv]Sources I used for this section are: Michael Knowles, et. al, “Roman Catholicism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016 at:;

Roger Finke and Patricia Wittberg, “Organizational Revival from Within: Explaining Revivalism and Reform in the Roman Catholic Church,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2000, 39(2), pp. 154-170.

[v]Henry Mintzberg and Frances Westley, “Cycles of Organizational Change,” Strategic Management Journal, 1992, 13 (special issue), pp. 39-59.

[vi]Benjamin Bloom, Stability and Change in Human Characteristics (New York:John Wiley and Son, 1964); Avshalom Caspi, et. al., “Personality Development: Stability and Change,” Annual Review of Psychology, 2005, 56, pp. 453-484.

[vii] Benjamin Bloom, “The New Direction in Educational Research: Alterable Variables” The Journal of Negro Education, 1980, 49(3), pp. 337-349; James Heckman, “Early Childhood Investments Substantially Boost Adult Health,” Science, March 28, 2014, 343(6178), pp. 1478-1485.

[viii]Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[ix] Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015

[x] Claire Miller, “When Driverless Cars Break the Law,” New York Times, May 13, 2014.

[xi]Sean Reardon, et. al., “ Brown Fades: The End of Court-Ordered School   Desegregation and the Resegregation of American Public Schools,”

Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 2012, 31(4), pp. 876-904; Rodney Hero and Morris Levy, “The Racial Structure of Economic Inequality in the United States: Understanding Change and Continuity in an Era of ‘Great Divergence,’ “ Social Science Quarterly, 2016, 97(3), pp. 491-505.

[xii] Newton Edwards, “Stability and Change in Basic Concepts of Law Governing American Education,” The School Review, 1957, 65(2), pp. 161-175.


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Research Counts for Little When It Comes to Adopting “Personalized Learning”

The K-12 sector is investing heavily in technology as a means of providing students with a more customized educational experience. So far, though, the research evidence behind “personalized learning” remains thin.

Ben Herold, Education Week, October 18, 2016

The pushers of computer-based instruction want districts to buy products and then see if the product works. Students and teachers are being used for marketing research, unreimbursed research. Districts are spending money based on hype and tests of the educational efficacy of an extremely narrow range of products as if this is a reasonable way to proceed in this era of extreme cuts in budgets.

Laura Chapman, comment on above guest post, May 21, 2017

Both Ben Herold and Laura Chapman are correct in their statements about the thinness of research on “personalized learning” and that districts spend “money based on hype and tests of the educational efficacy of an extremely narrow range of products….”

In short, independent studies of “personalized learning,” however, defined, are rare birds but of even greater importance, are subordinate to decisions on buying and deploying software and programs promising to tailor learning to each and every student from kindergarten through high school. To provide a fig leaf of cover for spending on new technologies, policymakers often use vendor-endorsed studies and quick-and-dirty product evaluations. They are the stand-ins for “what the research says” when it comes to purchasing new products advertising a platform for “personalized learning.”

Why is research nearly irrelevant to such decisions? Because other major criteria come into play that push aside educational research either independent or vendor-sponsored, on technology. Policymakers lean far more heavily upon criteria of effectiveness, popularity, and longevity in spending scarce dollars on new technologies championing “personalized learning.”

Criteria policymakers use 

The dominant standard used by most policymakers, media editors, and administrators to judge success is effectiveness: What is the evidence that the policy of using new technologies for classroom instruction has produced desired outcomes? Have you done what you said you were going to do and can you prove it? In a society where “bottom lines,” Dow Jones averages, Super Bowl victories, and vote-counts matter, quantifiable results determine effectiveness.

Since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), federal and state policymakers have relied on the effectiveness standard to examine what students have learned by using proxy measures such as test scores, high school graduation rates, college attendance, and other indicators. For example, in the late-1970s policymakers concluded that public schools had declined because scholastic aptitudes test (SAT) scores had plunged downward. Even though test-makers and researchers repeatedly stated that such claims were false—falling SAT scores fueled public support for states raising academic requirements in the 1980s and adding standardized tests to determine success. With the No Child Left Behind Act (2001-2016) test scores brought rewards and penalties. [i]

Yet test results in some instances proved unhelpful in measuring a reform’s success. For example, studies on computer use in classroom instruction show no substantial gains in students’ test scores. Yet buying more and more tablets and laptops with software programs has leaped forward in the past decade.

Or Consider the mid-1960s’ evaluations of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). They revealed little improvement in low-income children’s academic performance thereby jeopardizing Congressional renewal of the program. Such evidence gave critics hostile to federal initiatives reasons to brand President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs as failures. [ii]

Nonetheless, the program’s political attractiveness to constituents and legislators overcame weak test scores. Each successive U.S. president and Congress, Republican or Democrat, have used that popularity as a basis for allocating funds to needy students in schools across the nation including No Child Left Behind (2001) and its successor, Every Student Succeeds Act (2016). Thus, a reform’s political popularity often leads to its longevity (e.g., kindergarten, new technologies in classrooms).

Popularity, then, is a second standard that public officials use in evaluating success. The spread of an innovation and its hold on voters’ imagination and wallets has meant that attractiveness to parents, communities, and legislators easily translates into political support for reform. Without the political support of parents and teachers, few technological innovations such as “personalized learning” could fly long distances.

The rapid diffusion of kindergarten and preschool, special education, bilingual education, testing for accountability, charter schools, and electronic technologies in schools are instances of innovations that captured the attention of practitioners, parents, communities, and taxpayers. Few educators or public officials questioned large and sustained outlays of public funds for these popular reforms because they were perceived as resounding successes regardless of the research. And they have lasted for decades. Popularity-induced longevity becomes a proxy for effectiveness. [iii]

A third standard used to judge success is assessing how well innovations mirrored what designers of reforms intended. This fidelity standard assesses the fit between the initial design, the formal policy, the subsequent program, and its implementation.

Champions of the fidelity standard ask: How can anyone determine effectiveness if the reform departs from the design? If federal, state, or district policymakers, for example, adopt and fund a new reading program because it has proved to be effective elsewhere, teachers and principals must follow the blueprint as they put it into practice or else the desired outcomes will go unfulfilled (e.g., Success for All). When practitioners add, adapt, or even omit features of the original design, then those in favor of fidelity say that the policy and program cannot be determined effective because of these changes. Policy adaptability is the enemy of fidelity. [iv]

Seldom are these criteria debated publicly, much less questioned. Unexamined acceptance of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity avoids asking the questions of whose standards will be used, how they are applied and alternative standards that can be used to judge reform success and failure.

Although policymakers, researchers, practitioners have vied for attention in judging the success of school reforms such as using new technologies in classroom instruction, policy elites, including civic and business leaders and their accompanying foundation- and corporate-supported donors have dominated the game of judging reform success.

Sometimes  called a “growth coalition,” these civic, business, and philanthropic leaders see districts and schools as goal-driven organizations with top officials exerting top-down authority through structures. They juggle highly prized values of equity, efficiency, excellence, and getting reelected or appointed. They are also especially sensitive to public expectations for school accountability and test scores; they also reflect societal optimism that technologies can solve individual and community problems. Hence, these policy making elites favor standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity—even when they conflict with one another. Because the world they inhabit is one of running organizations, their authority and access to the media give them the leverage to spread their views about what constitutes “success.” [v]

The world that policy elites inhabit, however, is one driven by values and incentives that differ from the worlds that researchers and practitioners inhabit. Policymakers respond to signals and events that anticipate reelection and media coverage. They consider the standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity rock-hard fixtures of their policy world. [vi]

Most practitioners, however, look to different standards. Although many teachers and principals have expressed initial support for high-performing public schools serving the poor and children of color, most practitioners have expressed strong skepticism about test scores as an accurate measure of either their effects on children or the importance of their work.

Such practitioners are just as interested in student outcomes as are policymakers, but the outcomes differ. They ask: What skills, content, and attitudes have students learned beyond what is tested? To what extent is the life lived in our classrooms and schools healthy, democratic, and caring? Can reform-driven programs, curricula, technologies be bent to our purposes? Such questions, however, are seldom heard. Broader student outcomes and being able to adapt policies to fit the geography of their classroom matter to practitioners.

Another set of standards comes from policy and practice-oriented researchers. Such researchers judge success by the quality of the theory, research design, methodologies, and usefulness of their findings to policy and student outcomes. These researchers’ standards have been selectively used by both policy elites and practitioners in making judgments about high- and low-performing schools. [vii]

So multiple standards for judging school “success” are available. Practitioner-and researcher- derived standards have occasionally surfaced and received erratic attention from policy elites. But it is this strong alliance of policymakers, civic and business elites, and friends in the corporate, foundation, and media worlds that relies on standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity. This coalition and their standards continue to dominate public debate, school reform agendas, and determinations of “success” and “failure.”

And so for “personalized learning,” the effectiveness criterion lacking solid evidence of student success, gives way to the political popularity criterion that currently dominates policy debates over districts buying tablets and laptops to get teachers to put the new technological fad into classroom practice.


[i] Patrick McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006)

[ii]Harvey Kantor, “Education, Reform, and the State: ESEA and Federal Education Policy in the 1960s,” American Journal of Education, 1991, 100(1), pp. 47-83; Lorraine McDonnell, “No Child Left Behind and the Federal Role in Education: Evolution or Revolution?” Peabody Journal of Education, 2005 80(2), pp. 19-38.

[iii] Michael Kirst and Gail Meister, “Turbulence in American Secondary Schools: What Reforms Last,” Curriculum Inquiry, 1985, 15(2), pp. 169-186; Larry Cuban, “Reforming Again, Again, and Again,” Educational Researcher, 1991, 19(1), pp. 3-13.

[iv]Janet Quinn, et. al., Scaling Up the Success For All Model of School Reform, final report, (Santa Monica (CA): Rand Corportation, 2015).

[v] Sarah Reckhow, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Frederick Hess and Jeff Henig (eds.) The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy, and Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvrd Education Press,, 2015).

[vi] Linda Darling Hammond,”Instructional Policy into Practice: The Power of the Bottom over the Top,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990, 12(3), pp. 339-347. Charles Payne, So Much Reform, So Little Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008). Joyce Epstein, “Perspectives and Previews on Research and Policy for School, Family, and Community Partnerships,” in(New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 209-246.

[vii] Anita Zerigon-Hakes, “Translating Research Findings into Large-Scale Public Programs and Policy,” The Future of Children, Long-Term Outcomes of early Childhood Programs, 1995, 5(3), pp. 175-191; Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin, Steady Work (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1988);


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