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

The Don’t Do It Depository (Morgan Polikoff)

“Morgan Polikoff is an Associate Professor of Education at the USC Rossier School of Education. He researches the design, implementation, and effects of standards, assessment, and accountability policies. His current research is focused on teachers’, schools’, and districts’ implementation of new college and career-readiness standards, including the Common Core. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, Institute of Education Sciences, and WT Grant Foundation, among other sources.”

This post appeared on the FutureEd blog July 24, 2017


We have known for quite a while that schools engage in all manner of tricks to improve their performance under accountability systems. These behaviors range from the innocuous—teaching the content in state standards—to the likely harmful—outright cheating.

A new study last week provided more evidence of the unintended consequences of another gaming behavior—reassigning teachers based on perceived effectiveness. Researchers Jason A. Grissom, Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb analyzed data from a large urban district and found that administrators moved the most effective teachers to the tested grades (3-6) and the least effective to the untested grades (K-2).

On the surface, this might seem like a strategy that would boost accountability ratings without affecting students’ overall performance. After all, if you lose 10 points in kindergarten but gain 10 in third grade, isn’t the net change zero?

In fact, the authors found that moving the least effective teachers to the earlier grades harmed students’ overall achievement, because those early grades simply matter more to students’ long-term trajectories. The schools’ gaming behaviors were having real, negative consequences for children.

This strategy should go down in the annals of what doesn’t work, a category that we simply don’t pay enough attention to. Over the past 15 years, there has been a concerted effort in education research to find out “what works” and to share these policies and practices with schools.

The best example of this is the push for rigorous evidence in education research through the Institute of Education Sciences and the What Works Clearinghouse. This may well be a productive strategy, but the WWC is chock full of programs that don’t seem to “work,” at least according to its own evidence standards, and I don’t think anyone believes the WWC has had its desired impact. (The former director of IES himself has joked that it might more properly be called the What Doesn’t Work Clearinghouse).

These two facts together led me to half-joke on Twitter that maybe states or the feds should change their approach toward evidence. Rather than (or in addition to) encouraging schools and districts to do good things, they should start discouraging them from doing things we know or believe to be harmful.

This could be called something like the “Don’t Do It Depository” or the “Bad Idea Warehouse” (marketing experts, help me out). Humor aside, I think there is some merit to this idea. Here, then, are a couple of the policies or practices that might be included in the first round of the Don’t Do It Depository.

The counterproductive practice of assigning top teachers to tested grades is certainly a good candidate. While we’re at it, we might also discourage schools from shuffling teachers across grades for other reasons, as recent research finds this common practice is quite harmful to student learning.

Another common school practice, particularly in response to accountability, is to explicitly prepare students for state tests. Of course, test preparation can range from teaching the content likely to be tested all the way to teaching explicit test-taking strategies (e.g., write longer essays because those get you more points). Obviously the latter is not going to improve students’ actual learning, but the former might. In any case, test preparation seems to be quite common, but there’s less evidence that you might think that it actually helps. For instance:

  • A study of the ACT (which is administered statewide) in Illinois found test strategies and item practice did not improve student performance, but coursework did.
  • An earlier study in Illinois found that students exposed to more authentic intellectual work saw greater gains on the standardized tests than those not exposed to this content.
  • In the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, students were surveyed about many dimensions of the instruction they received and these were correlated with their teachers’ value-added estimates. Survey items focusing on test preparation activities were much more weakly related to student achievement gains than items focusing on instructional quality.
  • Research doesn’t even indicate that direct test preparation strategies such as those for the ACT or SAT are particularly effective, with actual student gains far lower than advertised by the test preparation companies.

In short, there’s really not great evidence that test preparation works. In light of this evidence, perhaps states or the feds could offer guidance on what kind of and how much test preparation is appropriate and discourage the rest.

Other activities or beliefs that should be discouraged include “learning styles,” the belief that individuals have preferred ways of learning such as visual vs. auditory. The American Psychological Association has put out a brief explainer debunking the existence of learning styles. Similarly, students are not digital natives, nor can they multitask, nor should they guide their own learning.

There are many great lists of bad practices that already exist; states or the feds should simply repackage them to make them shorter, clearer, and more actionable. They should also work with experts in conceptual change, given that these briefs will be directly refuting many strongly held beliefs.

Do I think this strategy would convince every school leader to stop doing counterproductive things? Certainly I do not. But this strategy, if well executed, could probably effect meaningful change in some schools, and that would be a real win for children at very little cost.


Filed under Uncategorized

Tinkering Toward Whose Utopia?

It is coming up to a quarter-century since Tinkering was published. Still in print, the short book that David Tyack* and I wrote has been praised and panned. Over the years, David and I have spoken and written about the ideas we expressed in the book about history of U.S. school reform and subsequent shifts that we have seen in reform-minded policies pushed by federal and state authorities. And, of course, the hyperbole that accompanied each reform’s rhetoric, action, and implementation.

We have been asked many questions over the years about the logic of the central argument we made and evidence we had to support it. We have been asked about why schooling (both private and public) seem so familiar to each generation of parents even with new buildings, furnishings, and technologies.

Recently, however, I was asked one question that I don’t remember ever being asked: Whose utopia are you tinkering toward?

That question got me thinking anew about the ever-shifting aims of reformers who champion how schools should be. “Should be” is the key phrase in reform because buried within each major reform that has swept across U.S. schools with either gale-force winds or stiff breezes is a vision of a utopian schooling and a “good” place for children to be.

Remember the overall purpose of tax-supported public schools is to prepare the young to become adults. Stating the purpose, however, neither points to what aspects of adulthood schools should be primary (e.g., getting a job, participating in the community, pushing for social and political reform in the larger culture, etc.) nor how that schooling seeking such a purpose is to be translated into daily activities.


–Some reformers want schools to prepare the young for occupations in which there are currently too few skilled workers and managers (see here).

–Some reformers re-create teacher-centered schools that inculcate students with basic content, skills, and civic virtues including patriotism (see here).

–Some reformers seek schools where students interests, passions, and intellect are central to both the curriculum and instruction and their well-being is nurtured (see here)

–Some reformers desire schools where students become adults prepared to work for social justice (see here).

–Some reformers are eager to dismantle the two century-old age-graded school and in its stead replace it with technologically rich settings where individual students have completely personalized playlists tailored to who they are (see here).

Of course, the last utopian vision of pervasive technologies geared to “personalized learning, ” unless it is an end unto itself, has to be hitched to one or the other of the three educational utopias.

No doubt there are other utopian visions and variations of the above ones. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t say that all of these utopian visions have been dreamt of by earlier generations of reformers.

A century ago, another generation of reformers fought for schools to prepare the young for an industrial economy where both skilled and unskilled hands were needed (see here).

Another generation of reformers wanted schools to prepare the young to be knowledgeable, straight-thinking, and proud Americans of high moral character who would advance their community and nation (see here).

Periodically, past reformers wanted schools to be student-centered in what was learned and how it was learned (see here).

And past reformers saw schools as social laboratories where children and youth can practice creating a better, more just society reducing injustice and inequality (see here).

My point is simple: Tax-supported public schools have had multiple purposes for at least two centuries. Each purpose has a vision of utopia–of what “good” schooling looks like– embedded in it. And over the last century, reformers again and again have contested these competing visions.

So when asked: Whose utopia are you tinkering toward? I reply that there is no one utopian school, it depends on which purpose of schooling you value the most. If pressed, I will say what I believe. Then I ask the questioner: what is your utopian vision?

Nearly always, the person answers with either one of the above past and present version noted above or a combination of them. I then follow up with the point that there are (and have been) many visions of “good” schools that reformers have tried and that currently we are in the midst of a three-decade long vision which prizes as the primary purpose of schooling, preparing students to be adults who can get jobs in an ever-changing economy.








*David Tyack died in October 2016. He was 85 years old.


Filed under school reform policies

Seymour Papert on How Computers Fundamentally Change the Way Kids Learn

Seymour Papert died at the age of 88 in 2016 (see obituary in New York Times). Many of his lectures, newspaper op-eds, books, and videoed talks are archived. The following description of  Papert was written to introduce the interview he gave to Dan Schwartz in 1999.

[Seymour] Papert is the co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence and Media Labs, professor of Media Technology at MIT, and one of the world’s foremost experts on the impact of computers on learning. He is the current elder statesman in a lineage of educational reformers that include John Dewey and Jean Piaget. His constructionist theories are manifested in Logo, a programming language he developed for children. His 1980 book Mindstorms sent shockwaves throughout the education and psychology communities, both of which accused him of pushing an educational pill that would induce psychosis in our children.

Almost twenty years later no one is exactly clamoring for surgeon general warning labels on PCs. Indeed, anyone who has witnessed a toddler using a computer has probably experienced a sense of awe at that child’s facility with what for adults can be an infinitely frustrating gadget. It’s one thing for a child to play a computer game; it’s another thing altogether for a child to build his or her own game. And this, according to Papert, is where the computer’s true power as an educational medium lies — in the ability to facilitate and extend children’s awesome natural ability and drive to construct, hypothesize, explore, experiment, evaluate, draw conclusions — in short to learn — all by themselves. It is this very drive, Papert contends, that is squelched by our current educational system.

Papert knows the bureaucracy he is crusading against is firmly entrenched. But he takes comfort in a secret weapon unavailable to a long line of education reformers up until now. He calls it “kid power.” Papert’s is a trickle-up vision of change demanded by a generation that learned to use a mouse about the same time it learned to use a spoon. And for the parents of this digitally-weaned generation, Papert offers some ideas about how to bridge a gap that, for many, starts not during adolescence, but in preschool.

 This interview was posted on in 1999. Archived at:

ZZ: Let’s begin with an overview of your ideas about child as a learner.

SP: Children, of course, come into the world as very powerful, highly competent learners, and the learning they do in the first few years of life is actually awesome. A child exploring the immediate world does that pretty thoroughly in an experiential, self-directed way. But when you see something in your immediate world that really represents something very far away — a picture of an elephant, for example — you wonder how elephants eat. You can’t answer that by direct exploration. So you have to gradually shift over from experiential learning to verbal learning — from independent learning to dependence on other people, culminating in school, where you’re totally dependent, and somebody is deciding what you learn.

So that shift is an unfortunate reflection of the technological level that society has been at up to now. And I see the major role of technology in the learning of young children as making that shift less abrupt, because it is a very traumatic shift. It’s not a good way of preserving the kid’s natural strengths as a learner.

With new technologies the kid is able to explore much more knowledge by direct exploration, whether it’s information or exploration by getting into his sources, or finding other people to talk about it. I think we’re just beginning to see, and we’ll see a lot more non-textual information available through something like the Web or whatever it develops into. So there will be much more opportunity to learn before running into this barrier of the limitations of the immediate.

ZZ: So context is key?

SP: It’s purpose. I think context is a concept that’s been overused here, and it’s misleading because people try to give context by relating it to other things and preaching to kids about how this is relevant to X and Y and Z. Or even providing a story of somebody who invented it, and that provides a–that’s not the same thing as being in a situation where you are struggling to solve a real problem that comes from your own activity that you really care about, and you struggle around and find this mathematical method by remembering it, or asking somebody or reinventing it or gets bits and pieces of it from other people and putting them together….

ZZ: Does technology by its very nature lead to this kind of experiential learning? Is it the tail that wags the educational dog?

SP: In fact what’s happening now is almost the opposite. I like to distinguish between that first phase of exploratory learning (home-style learning or Piagetian learning), and school-style learning. What we’ve seen with most so-called educational software is pushing school-style learning backward to earlier ages in the home, which is almost the reverse of the way that I think the technology could be used. And I think it’s a very dangerous trend that people will buy this software because it looks schoolish, and they think that makes it good, but maybe it makes it bad. I mean even apart from what you think about school as such. Pushing school back into the region of a powerful spontaneous learning is not something we should be doing lightly.

ZZ: I have a friend who has two kids. He is well-educated and keeps up with current events. He told me he’s worried that there is something about raising kids in the digital age that he should know, but that he doesn’t. What doesn’t he know that he needs to know?

SP: Well, of course, there are a lot of things that people don’t know and none of us know about the digital world. We don’t know what it’s going to turn into. There are things that people know are wrong, and maybe that’s something that one could focus on.

So I think one thing that people know is wrong is the emphasis that has been accentuated by the success of the Internet as a way of getting information. And then you begin to wonder, “What do we do with it? Why do we want all that information? How do we distinguish good information from bad information, and how do we protect people from evil information?”

In education also we’ve got the same thing. There’s education as putting out information; teacher lecturing, reading the book. There’s learning by doing, which is the constructional side versus the informational side. And, unfortunately, in our schools the informational side is the one that gets the emphasis, and so there’s this line-up between one-sided emphasis in the thinking about school, and the one-sided emphasis in thinking about the technology. Both of them emphasizing the informational side, and they reinforce one another. So in many ways, through this, the wrong image we have of what digital technology is about reinforces instead of undermining some of the weaknesses and narrowness of traditional education.

ZZ: In your book The Connected Family, you suggest that to further their understanding of these issues, parents need to learn more about learning than they do about computers.

SP: I use that term “connected family” as the name of a book, playing on two meanings of connected, of course. Talking about the fact that we connect through the Internet, but also about whether we connect or don’t connect inside the family. And there’s a widespread fear, often justified, about the possibility that computers inside the home are going to disconnect the family, that it creates a deeper generational gap than there was before. People get involved in their own isolated kinds of activities and already the television was a conversation killer in the home. This can be more so.

So what I’m interested in is, how can we think about the computer presence in ways that will strengthen rather than weaken the other kind of connection inside the family? I think if parents are going to connect with children, or if people in the family are going to connect together around the computer in intellectually interesting and bonding kinds of activities, what they need is not more knowledge about computers only, although they might need that too. But that’s the easy part. The more interesting and important part — and harder part — to get is more knowledge about learning, about shared intellectual activities. I think that parents are very inhibited by the fact that they are being solicited by vendors of software which promise to prepare the kid for school or result in better grades and all the rest of that, but which allow very little opportunity for parent and kid to do anything together.

How can they be joint projects between members of the family? How can parents participate in the learning experiences of the kids? And even if they don’t want to go through the actual learning experience of that complex game or simulation, whatever it might be, how can they converse about it, and be sympathetic and understanding, and learn from the kids about the kids’ learning experience? I think there are very strong possibilities of that, and that many parents do it, but many more parents are not aware of that possibility, or are too nervous about the technology, or too angry at it, because they don’t like what’s happening. So I was trying in that book to take a baby step towards encouraging people to think about the technology in a way that would strengthen what I call the “learning culture of the family.”

ZZ: How do you envision technology impacting teaching and learning in the classroom?

SP: I don’t think I want to predict. I think people haven’t done very well by predicting exactly what will happen. But I think we can predict that some things will go away. Age segregation will go away. This fragmentation of the day into periods devoted to different subjects will go away. Curriculum-driven structure of learning, by which I mean you learn something because it is the day in which you are supposed to learn that. As opposed to project- or application-driven learning; you learn it when you’ve got a need for it.

Now these are all transformations of existing school. “What grade are you in?” is a natural question you ask a kid, or “What subject are you doing in third period?” These are not intrinsic to the nature of creating a good learning environment. They are caused by a previous level of knowledge technology, where the only way we could give out knowledge was by a production-line method. And all this is a production-line model, an assembly-line model of school. So I’m sure that that will go away. What will come in its place has to be a social invention.

ZZ: Of course, educational reform initiatives come and go, and yet many schools don’t look a whole lot different then they did decades ago. Do you see technology as a Trojan Horse for systematic and lasting change?

SP: I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only going to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.

Unfortunately, the easier way to get the technology to the school, if you’re a vendor, for example, is to open it up and say, “Look, there’s no army inside here. It’s fine. It suits your purpose. It’s not going to be subversive, and so it’s a Trojan horse without any soldiers, and that’s not a very effective way of doing it.”

Of course, the presence of computers in the home changes the whole political context. One way that I think is very important is that it turns kids into a political force. I’ve been using the phrase “kid power” for a very optimistic trend in what’s happening in education. We’re beginning to see a significant number of kids who grew up with computers in their homes in the classrooms now.

In fact, the generation of kids where a large proportion had computers in their homes from birth is just hitting the schools now. I think that that wave is going to have a dramatic effect on the schools. It just takes a sprinkling of kids in every class who know there is a better way of learning, have experienced it, and so can make a bigger demand in the classroom. Moreover, apart from the demand, they’ve got an offer also, because they can offer their own expertise. They can help. And so the kids are becoming a political force. They are also becoming an educational force, because they are in quite a lot of projects around the country, kids are explicitly being mobilized. Those kids who really know about computers, and love them, are being mobilized by the system to teach teachers and parents and implement changes in the school.

So that’s a huge change in the player forces, and maybe the thing that makes it most optimistic. I think that in The Connected Family I used this analogy — I thought of John Dewev. Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn’t get very far. And the reason why he couldn’t get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn’t have an army. You must have an army, and it’s an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.

ZZ: You also write in The Connected Family that great change is never free and seldom comes without risk. What’s at risk for children and families in the digital age?

SP: I think the biggest risk is what the term “connected family” is trying to counteract. There is a problem, because parents are likely to see that there is less control. That they’ve got less influence on the way their kids develop, and what the kids know, and what they learn. What they do. Many parents really don’t understand what the kids are doing, or what language the kids are using.

So there’s no doubt it has this disruptive effect–and I think that’s bad. In some ways breaking the kids free from the grip of the previous generation, the previous culture, is good, and I think the kid power that will change schooling is a tremendously good thing.

On the other hand, the preservation of an orderly progress of society depends on an a balance between forces for change and forces for stability. I think we do have a need and responsibility for conveying to kids a heritage from the past, and giving them guidance that comes from our greater experiences. It’s a delicate matter, this balance between growing independence of the kids, that has its good side, and its dangerous side.

ZZ: Has there been any risk for you in advocating something that is inherently risky?

SP: Well, I came into this business of what computers might mean for kids in the 1960s, and two significant things about the 1960s were that computers were very expensive, rare, big things, and the chance of a lot of these getting into the hands of a lot of kids seemed to a lot of people pretty remote. The 1960s was also a time of egalitarian anti-elitism — so I very acutely felt attacks for being “elitist.” I got reviews of a proposal to a federal agency, which was a scathing attack on this elitist proposal that will bring better learning to the children of a handful of millionaire families. It couldn’t possibly have any effect on the majority of people, except to increase the gap. That was hard. And it was very very hard, practically impossible to persuade most people in those days.

Now was there risk? I was pretty sure already that it was going to change. You could see it looming ahead. You could see that computers one day would be mass-produced things, and would be inexpensive enough for every kid to have one. But it was way off, and most people weren’t aware of that. So that was a risk, and I got into trouble in getting funding.

ZZ: You’ve been working with children, education and technology for over thirty years. What keeps you going? What drives you?

SP: I think what drives me –the deepest question about education is, what drives learning? What drives kids? What drives everybody? And when I look at young kids who haven’t yet been to school, they are all driven. They are passionate about what they want to do. They get into it, and they really want to do it. I think that in a lot of people that’s strangled as we go through this very traumatic, dangerous experience of school. Those who get through it can open out and find a new opportunity to be creative and free and self-directed like we had before school.

So I think the question isn’t what drives me, but how is it that you and I and all the people in the world who remain creative and passionate about what they’re doing survived the system, that in so many other cases — in the majority of cases — strangles that enormous energy?

ZZ: Looking back, did you get anything wrong that you would have done differently?

SP: There are two kinds of looking back about what I would have done differently. There’s the looking back where you say, “Given what was known at that time, was that the wrong decision to make?” And that’s a sensible kind of question, it’s re-examining how you made decisions; versus looking back: “If I’d known more. If I’d known what I know now. If I’d know what I didn’t know, would I have done…” Of course, there’s an infinite amount of that, and that’s not interesting. That’s fantasy.

Just on this education/computers thing, I think that a key balance where I got it right, but I think that when it really got out to the schools, in the 80s, I could have recognized earlier and didn’t; that there was going to be a dynamic of schools adopting and neutralizing this new thing. I think that in the 80s, if we had kept more focused on a goal of “one day,” we could have been more effective and brought it somewhat nearer. But only somewhat. I think that if we say, “Where are we now? Where are we going to be?” As much as I analyze what could have been done and what we could have done in the past, I think that what happened in the last 20 years maybe could have happened in 10 years instead of 20 years. And maybe what’s going to happen in the next five years could have happened five years earlier, but it’s not huge changes.

I think one of the themes of Mindstorms is bugs that we learn by getting it wrong, and you never get it right, and the important thing is to be able to look in a kind of constructive way at what you got wrong, and that’s a cause to do it. It’s not always easy, and sometimes I have to fight back a little bit against bad thoughts. Well, what can I learn from how I decided to do what I did? I guess that is what human life is about, and what learning ought to be about.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

All Doctors Should Teach (Paula Cohen)

I have written often about the cluster of occupations that make up the “helping” professions: teaching, clinical medicine, nursing, therapy, and social work. These professionals help students, patients, and clients learn and become healthy. They are all teachers albeit in different settings.

Most important, these “teachers” in helping professions are totally dependent upon their students, patients, and clients to learn and get healthy. Regardless of the degree earned, annual income, and social status, these professionals cannot reach their goals without the cooperation, compliance, and involvement of those being helped.

Those who recognize this inherent dependency of professionals upon whom they serve have occasionally recommended that all physicians, nurses, therapists, and social workers become teachers before they enter the other helping professions. Here is one such recommendation for those seeking to become physicians.

Paula Marantz Cohen is dean of the Pennoni Honors College and distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs. This post appeared in The American Scholar, September 18, 2012


My daughter, Katherine Penziner, wrote the essay that follows in response to my last column. She is spending a few years teaching in Southwest Arkansas as part of the Teach for America program. She plans eventually to go to medical school.

Every aspiring doctor should be required to teach a year of high school science. First, there is nothing more grueling than standing up, day after day, in front of hormonal and angsty teenagers who are having trouble controlling their attitudes. The emotional toll teaching takes can be exhausting–a perfect training ground for the taxing years of medical school we premeds are always hearing about. Still, a good day of teaching makes you feel good about yourself, and your students.

But what makes teaching most valuable for an aspiring doctor are the communication skills that must be developed in order to convey information to people who don’t yet have the vocabulary to engage fully with a concept. I firmly believe that the principles of chemistry and physics I teach to 15- and 16-year-olds are inherently exciting when the delivery is right.

That delivery is the crucial element missing when people complain of doctors’ bedside manner. Doctors who do not put their patients at ease are generally not bad people. It’s hard for me to believe that my friends who are in medical school now could alienate their patients–they are great communicators. However, there is a difference between the communication of facts and the explication of them. The gap between communication and explication is precisely the point at which the doctor-patient relationship can disintegrate fastest.

On tests in college and, I’m guessing, in medical school, you answer questions for professors, people who already know the answers. Why tell them what they already know? The truest test is if a doctor can give the answer to those who have no idea what hemoglobin is, could not guess the function of the gallbladder, and have never heard of the nephron.

In a recent article about health care in rural areas, a woman commented that poor black Americans might not trust doctors that don’t look like them. I can imagine that in the Mississippi Delta a black patient might be skeptical that white doctors could truly understand their situation, socially and economically. But though skin color can’t change, the vocabulary doctors use can.

I often use words in the classroom that my students don’t know. But I also make sure to either provide plenty of context for them to figure out the meaning, or clearly define them. I’ve seen students shut down when they don’t understand what I’m saying.  But with the right explanation, I’ve seen my weakest students grasp a concept.

Similarly, doctors must explain what they are doing to patients without alienating them with the vocabulary they use. I’ll never forget going to the dentist when I was very young and being frightened when he didn’t explain what he was doing. For years, that experience made going to the dentist into an ordeal.

Patients can develop a basic understanding of their illness and their treatment with the guidance of their doctors.  Good teachers can make a difference between success and failure in students’ lives. Doctors, if taught to be good teachers, can be the difference between health and sickness, and even life and death.





Filed under compare education and medicine

Cartoons: The Politics of Schooling

For this month, I have selected cartoons that get at the vulnerability of public schools to social, economic, and political demands. The cartoonist’s pen captures how fads and fashions easily spill over schools since they are wholly dependent upon the beliefs and whims of taxpayers and voters for their annual budget. Enjoy.


























Filed under Uncategorized

Coding: The New Vocationalism (Part 3)

What are public schools for?

That is the larger question raised by the “new vocationalism” in the past decade, as vendors, donors, and technology-enthused policymakers have pushed coding and computer science courses into public schools. Through advocacy groups that lobby districts and states to legislate both as requirements and social media campaigns touting high-paying jobs at the end of schooling, the hyperbolic rhetoric of reform with its statistics of how many computer programmer and software engineer jobs will need to be filled in 2020 has pushed the “new vocationalism” as the primary purpose for tax-supported public schools.

Americans have always wanted their schools to pursue more than one purpose. Opinion polls (see here and here)  have regularly shown that both parents and non-parents wanted public schools to do many things:

*insure that students become literate,

*prepare citizens to be engaged citizens,

*developing students moral and ethical character,

*getting children and youth ready  for careers,

*teaching students how to think,

*appreciating cultural diversity.

Those polls (above ones from 1981 and 1996 ) also showed that opinions shifted over time from one goal to another. The key point, however, is that Americans have wanted more than one purpose for tax-supported public schools.

Narrowing schooling’s purposes to preparation for work–as opposed to, say, a civic one or social justice or community uplift–has occurred before in the history of U.S. public schools (see Part 1). Such constricting of purpose confirms anew that schools mirror potent economic and political forces within the larger society.

For nearly four decades, federal and state reform-driven policies of higher curriculum standards, more testing, and rigorous school accountability have dominated U.S. schools. Such policies aimed to make U.S. schools an engine of economic growth essential for the nation to compete in global markets. And with the parallel growth of schools’ access to and use of new technological devices and software, the notion of more, faster, and better teaching and learning directed toward that narrowed purpose of preparing children and youth for college and future work seemed in the grasp of policymakers. Thus, coding and computer science are not curricular fads but logical outgrowths of recent reforms aimed at making the U.S. economically competitive.

But “in the grasp of policymakers” does not easily translate into classroom lessons especially when it comes to top-down policies adding computer science courses to the curriculum and expecting teachers to teach coding. In Part 2, I offered examples of teachers invariably adapting policies aimed at altering their practice. The examples showed the untoward consequences of top-down policies entering (or not entering) classrooms, often leaving a sour taste in the mouths of reformers (for other such instances, see here, here, and here).

For those reform-minded policymakers seeking to replicate a “successful” pilot program (e.g., reading, “new” math, coding) across a broad swath of schools, fidelity to the model, that is, teachers copy faithfully what the “successful” pilot achieved, irritation and disappointment await them.

Why so? The tension between the dynamic process of teachers actively adapting top-down changes to fit their students and fidelity to the model has been (and will continue to be) unresolved resulting in both policymakers and teachers becoming annoyed with one another. You cannot have both fidelity to the model and accept that teachers will tailor the design to fit their classrooms.

Consider the example in the late-1990s of Comprehensive School Reform, a federally funded initiative to get individual schools across the U.S. to adopt “successful” models such as Success for All, America’s Choice, Accelerated Schools, Core Knowledge, and the Coalition of Essential Schools. By 2006, spurred by both the variety of models and federal grants over 8,000 elementary and secondary schools had adopted innovative whole-school reform models from a menu provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Follow-up studies showed extensive modification of the models as they entered schools and classrooms (except for the reading program Success for All which demanded close adherence to the model–see here).

Here is where the concept of mutual adaptation enters the picture making policy adherence to faithfully replicating the model not only ahistorical but very laughable.

Historically, in the journey from policy to classrooms, teacher palm-prints appear time and again  as practitioners figure out how best to put top-down mandates into practice. As teachers grasp the meaning of a policy and see some virtues for their students, daily lessons do change. The back-and-forth between policy and practice is active, even energetic, as teachers embed parts of the policy into their classroom activities. Forget fidelity to the model.

Thus far, I have cited negative examples of models entering schools and classrooms becoming unrecognizable to their designers, there are a few positive examples, however, of the dynamic process when policies journey into schools and teachers–call them street-level bureaucrats–refashion those policies and in doing so, change how they teach. This has occurred with both top-down and bottom-up policies such as cooperative learning, project-based teaching, and International Baccalaureate schools (see herehere and here).

I end this series of posts with an example that impressed me with its serious involvement of teachers in promoting science projects through technology in Chicago middle schools. Seeing mutual adaptation as both inevitable and worthwhile, a group of Northwestern University researchers created “work circles” of teachers to figure out how to make a newly-adopted unit on ecology and evolution be both meaningful to middle school students and expand the repertoire of teachers using technology. They studied one of these “work circles” made up of four teachers from two schools.

Meeting every other week for five months, the teachers expressed concerns with students using the technology, the science content, and pedagogy. With the researchers they worked on solutions to the concerns they raised. And then taught the unit to their students.

The researchers concluded:
While teachers had initial concerns, some of them serious, they engaged in a concerted effort to create a curriculum to address concerns. Their involvement in the design process led to their deep engagement with both the science content and the pedagogical issues in the software investigation. This is the type of deep engagement with subject matter and pedagogy that can serve as a vehicle for teacher learning and change


I agree. Mutual adaptation can benefit teachers and students. But this is only one
small study of four teachers wrestling with teaching a science unit. It is
nonetheless suggestive of what can occur.


Will similar efforts as these “work circles” involve teachers early on and make the process of mutual adaptation work to benefit both teachers and their students?  I have yet to read of such initiatives as districts and states mandate computer science courses and require young children to learn to code. Repeating the errors of the past and letting mutual adaptation roll out thoughtlessly has been the pattern thus far. The “New Vocationalism,” displaying a narrowed purpose for tax-supported public schools, marches on unimpeded.







Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Coding: The New Vocationalism (Part 2)


As more states and districts require courses in computer science for high school graduation and the teaching of coding in elementary school, they will rediscover what previous generations of school reformers have learned. Moving from adopted policy to alter what and how teachers teach is no cinch. Neither is it–pick your cliche–“a piece of cake,” “a walk in the park,” “shooting fish in a barrel,”” nor “taking candy away from a baby.”

Contrary to the above cliches, policies aimed at changing classroom practice, such as curricular reforms have persistently run into problems that  have plagued ardent reformers. The lessons that have to be learned time and again from earlier generations of school reformers are straightforward.

*Build teacher capabilities in content and skills since both determine to what degree, if any, a policy gets past the classroom door.

*With or without enhanced capabilities and expertise, teachers will adapt policies aimed at altering how and what they teach to the contours of the classrooms in which they teach. If policymakers hate teacher fingerprints over innovations, if they seek fidelity in putting desired reforms into practice, they wish for the impossible.

*Ignoring both of the above lessons ends up with incomplete implementation of desired policies and sorely disappointed school reformers.

Curricular reform of the 1950s and 1960s

Examples of these lessons are legion. Consider the new curricula that reform-inspired academic specialists, funded by the federal government, sought for all U.S. teachers a half-century ago. Aimed at revolutionizing teaching and learning in math, science, and social studies (spurred in part by a popular perception that Soviet education was superior to American schools), millions of dollars went into producing textbooks, developing classroom materials, and training teachers to use inquiry and discovery lessons to engage students in asking questions, solve problems, and use thinking skills. Using the best instructional materials that scholars could produce, teachers taught students how scientists experimented, mathematicians solved math problems and historians used primary sources to understand the past. Published materials ended up in the hands of teachers who, for the most part, had had little time to understand what was demanded by the novel materials or, for that matter, how to use them in lessons.

By the end of the 1970s, education researchers were reporting that instead of student involvement in critical thinking, problem solving, or experiencing how scientists worked, they had found the familiar teacher-centered instruction aimed at imparting knowledge from a text. There was, however, a distinct curricular residue of these federally funded efforts left in the textbooks published in the 1970s. The attempt to revolutionize teaching and learning evolved, in time, into new textbook content (see here and here). Reformers were deeply disappointed in the small returns from major efforts.

The experience of Logo

Another example of reformers ignoring the above lessons was introducing a voluntary program of coding into schools in the 1970s.  Logo illustrates the core dynamic at work in schools and classrooms when policies aimed at changing what and how teachers teach get put into practice.

The brainchild of Seymour Papert (who had worked with Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget) and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Logo had children using programming language to command a robotic “turtle” on a computer screen. Beginning in the early 1970s, the MIT team sought to teach young children how to construct and solve problems, learn geometric concepts, and bring creativity back into the classroom. The designers saw Logo as a student-centered, progressive innovation that would transform teaching, learning, and the institution of schooling.

Launched in a Brookline (MA) elementary school and with the subsequent publication of Papert’s Mindstorms (1980), Logo and its “turtle” swept across many schools (and homes) here and abroad.


*Photo is of Audrey Watters and brother doing Logo in 1984 (see here)


From Mindstorms, Papert made clear the intent and dream of Logo in schools.



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

In the wake of the Nation at Risk report (1983) warning leaders that unless schools became more effective the U.S. would languish economically, teaching young children to program a turtle scuttling across a screen was out of sync with another generation of reform-driven policies.

By the late-1980s, states had raised their graduation standards, created more demanding curriculum frameworks, and began testing regimes. In a few years, traditional age-graded schools adapted to the changing national context in both curriculum and instruction. In the midst of these changes, Papert had come to see schools as places where the “grammar of schooling” was inherently hostile to the ways that students should learn concepts and skills (see here, here, and here).

Times change. Now the climate of rabid acceptance for anything smelling of high-tech, computer science, and new devices has so permeated the culture, learning to code in schools is one whose time has come.  Given the history of new curricula and  Logo and how they were implemented suggest to me that the those backing the current vendor and donor-driven passion for coding and computer science courses in schools need to consider those often ignored lessons I described above and the  concept of “mutual adaptation,” the historical process by which policies get put into practice in U.S. schools. Part 3 of these posts take up mutual adaptation of classroom reforms.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies