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

Cartoons on Mediocrity

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking about how Americans consider familiar concepts such as “average,” “middling,” and “mediocre.” I have written a few posts on the stigma attached to being “average” in American society and how closely the word tracks the negatively charged one, “mediocre.” Americans have decidedly mixed feelings of being in the middle and do not like their work to be either labeled mediocre or have the name attached to individuals. So for the cartoon feature this month, I have collected a dozen or so cartoons about how graphic artists see the word. Enjoy!
























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Our Staggering Class Divide Starts With Childrearing (Joan Williams)


This article appeared November 30, 2017.

“Joan Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law and Hastings Foundation Chair at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. William’s work includes What Works for Women at Work and Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. “

Children learn class at their mothers’ knee. Childrearing, like so many other aspects of daily life, is demarcated by class. Working-class and low-income families follow what Annette Lareau, in her important book Unequal Childhoods, called the “accomplishment of natural growth.” They view “children’s development as unfolding spontaneously, as long as they [are] provided with comfort, food, shelter” and other basics. Providing these represents a challenge and is held to be a considerable achievement.

Clear boundaries exist between parents and children, with prompt obedience expected: crucial training for working- class jobs. Class migrants often note with shock the disrespectful way professional elite children talk of and to their parents. Noted bell hooks, whose father worked for 30 years as a janitor, “we were taught to value our parents and their care, to understand that they were not obligated to give us care.”

The ideology of natural growth prevalent among the poor and the working class contrasts with the “concerted cultivation” of the professional elite. “[T]he older children’s schedules set the pace of life for all family members,” notes Lareau, and that pace was intense. Elite children do far more organized activities (4.6 for white children, 5.2 for black children) than do nonelite kids (2.3 and 2.8, respectively). Elite kids’ taylorized leisure time helps them develop the skills required for white-collar jobs: how to “set priorities, manage an itinerary, shake hands with strangers, and work on a team,” “work smoothly with acquaintances,” and handle both victory and defeat “in a gracious way.” Everything is scheduled by adults, and the schedule is intense: “Tomorrow is really nuts. We have a soccer game, then a baseball game, then another soccer game,” said one dad. Unlike in nonelite families, children of the elite are taught not to prioritize family: Lareau describes a child who decides to skip an important family gathering because soccer is “more of a priority.”

Concerted cultivation is the rehearsal for a life of work devotion: the time pressure, the intense competition, the exhaustion with it all, the ethic of putting work before family. The pressure-cooker environment in elite homes often strikes the working class as off. “I just kept thinking these kids don’t know how to play,” said a class migrant from a self-described “hillbilly” family. “I think he doesn’t enjoy doing what he’s doing half the time [light laughter],” one woman told sociologist Annette Lareau. Others acknowledged that the busy schedules might pay off “job-wise” but expressed serious reservations: “I think he is a sad kid;” “He must be dead-dog tired.”

Elite college admissions officers agree. A group convened at Harvard asked admissions officers to allow space on applications for no more than four extracurricular activities, and “Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities.” Pretty weak sauce, but evidence that performance pressure on elite kids has gotten out of hand.

The all-consuming nature of elite parenting—typically synonymous with “elite mothering”—comes back to bite women of the professional class, and not just in the form of exhaustion. A study of elite law firms found that elite men are vastly more preferred for jobs than nonelite men. The same study found that the reverse is true for women. While the female job applicants in their study didn’t get nearly as many callbacks as the elite men, the nonelite women got more callbacks than the elite women. Class privilege helps men at work; it seems to hold women back. Why? Because elite women are seen as a “flight risk,” people who will opt out of work to engage in the all-or-nothing elite battle to get their kids into a top college, to start the cycle of competition and achievement over again.

Concerted cultivation is a strikingly recent phenomenon. Both my mother (b. 1918) and my mother-in-law (b. 1923)—one affluent, one working class—thought my generation was truly crazy. My childhood is captured by the wonderful Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books published in the late 1940s and 1950s. These charming books tell the story of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, an expert at curing children’s misbehavior. Mothers focus their attention on adult things while kids engage in unstructured play. No mother is ever depicted playing with her children. Nor do children expect to be entertained; they do an endless stream of errands and chores for adults and are sent outside to entertain themselves. Only one, a spoiled rich kid, has any organized activities: a piano lesson.

That’s how I was raised, and how nonelite kids are raised today. In contrast, Lareau found that in the elite families she interviewed, kids expected adults to schedule their time and spent “a significant amount of time simply waiting for the next event.” Lareau concludes that Tyrec, a nonelite child she featured in her study “needs no adult assistance to pursue the great majority of his plans.” Because his group of neighborhood friends “functions without adult monitoring, he learns how to construct and sustain friendships on his own,” something elite kids rarely do. The informal play allowed nonelite kids “to develop skills in peer mediation, conflict management, personal responsibility, and strategizing.”

As a result of his greater independence, “Tyrec learned important life skills not available to [elite] Garrett. He and his friends found numerous ways of entertaining themselves, showing creativity and independence.” Even sibling relationships differed. The intense focus on competition in elite families fueled intense sibling rivalry of a type rarely found in nonelite ones.

Too often, in comparisons of elites to nonelites, the assumption is that nonelites should get with it and emulate their betters. That’s not always true, and parenting is a case in point. Concerted cultivation and work devotion, perhaps the two central institutions of life in the professional elite, each deserves a closer look. What’s the unspoken message of helicopter parenting—that if you don’t knock everyone’s socks off, you’re a failure? What’s the better message: that the key is to be a good kid, or that every child needs to be above average?


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Success, Failure, and “Mediocrity” in U.S. Schools (Part 2)

*Dictionary definition of “mediocrity.”

mediocrity (n.)

early 15c., “moderation; intermediate state or amount,” from Middle French médiocrité and directly from Latin mediocritatem (nominative mediocritas) “a middle state, middling condition, medium,” from mediocris (see mediocre). Neutral at first; disparaging sense began to predominate from late 16c. The meaning “person of mediocre abilities or attainments” is from 1690s. Before the tinge of disparagement crept in, another name for the Golden Mean was golden mediocrity.

*A parent in a suburban school district nervous about pressuring children to be the best, says:

Why are we pushing our kids to excel at just about everything? It’s no longer enough just to play town soccer; elementary schoolers also have to be on a year-round club team and receive private coaching. Your daughter’s getting As in math class? Time for an afterschool enrichment program to learn more-complex concepts—and might as well throw in tutors for reading, science, foreign languages, and dance for good measure. Every time I decide to let my 11-year-old twin boys and eight-year-old daughter find their own way, like my parents did when I was a kid, I get sucked back into thinking that I need to help them get ahead. No one wants her kid to be average anymore—at anything.

But to what end? Not every child is going to get into an honors class, or make the select team, or earn a spot in the ensemble—no matter how much money a parent throws at the situation. Is this endless quest for success contributing to our kids’ growing anxiety in ways that will affect them for years to come? Looking around at the children in Wayland, where I live, and the surrounding towns, I’m worried we’re headed in that direction—and I’m not alone.

*Then there is a cartoon about the concept:


Ah, the bell-shaped curve that puts most of us in the middle with outliers to the left (talented and gifted?) and outliers to the right (dropouts and losers?). Being “middling” carries the odor of mediocrity in American thinking and practice. High quality is sacrificed to good enough. No one wants to be “middling.” The above parent asks ” why are we pushing our kids to excel at just about everything?”

Part of the answer to her question is that striving for success is as American as, well, apple pie. It is part of the core ideology of being American. Some individuals will rise to the top, be successful, by dint of hard work and talent; others, equally as hard working, settling in to the middle of the distribution, will not taste the sweet tang of success. It is a meritocratic system, many say. Sure, Americans want equal opportunity to succeed–another core value in the nation’s ideology–but it is stellar performance that wins the gold medal, gets the Fulbright scholarship, and receives the Most Valuable Player award.

Every individual can’t be excellent in a culture where intellectual, artistic, athletic, and creative talents are distributed unequally across the population.  Especially when economic inequality, social discrimination, and who one knows continue to play a large part in divvying up success and failure. Yet calls for pursuing academic excellence in schools while maintaining equitable opportunity across the board in order for individuals to succeed rather than fail have spurred reformers time and again.

And it is that constant tension between the pursuit of excellence in individual performance and valuing equal opportunity that has given being in the middle–where most of us are–a bad name. Many call it mediocrity.

Not everyone can win but settling for less than excellence–being in the middle–is seemingly worse than losing. No one wants to be mediocre–say be picked last in a sandlot game or expected to do minimum work.

I do not find being in the middle shameful in a seemingly meritocratic society of winners and losers.  Being “average” is not an epithet. Nor is it a compliment to anyone. Yet “mediocre” and “mediocrity” have become particularly useful words in the rhetoric school reformers use. Note the third sentence of the influential report, A Nation at Risk (1983).

We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.

Authors of the report declare that U.S. students’ low scores on international tests compared to students in countries that economically compete with America is evidence of that “rising tide of mediocrity.” Or as the Report says:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge.

At that time and for the next 35 years, U.S. student test scores have ended up in the middle of all nations’s students taking tests (see here, here and here). Being in middle of the international distribution of scores was and has been the basis of why reformers have said American schools are failing–see the age-old pattern described in Part 1 of policy elites creating a crisis in schooling and urging their particular solutions–and the need for higher graduation requirements, more parental choice, tougher academic standards, school accountability for student outcomes and better preparation for the workplace. Such reforms, these policy elites promised, will not only lead to better scores on international tests but knowledgeable and skilled graduates who can enter and succeed at entry-level jobs  and strengthen the nation’s economy. Has not happened yet.

Here is the twist that hurts policy elites who have religiously pursued the above “solutions” for the past three decades. With Common Core standards, higher high school graduation rates, more testing, and accountability still producing all of this “mediocrity” in international test scores, the current economy continues to expand, growth rates have risen, unemployment is low. The effects of the Great Recession of 2008 have dissipated (see here).

Yet, I have not heard a single word of praise from policy elite leaders for what part schools have played in this economic resurgence. Instead, criticism of public school “mediocrity” continues unabated.








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Success, Failure, and “Mediocrity” in U.S. Schools (Part 1)

For the past month or so I have been wrestling with questions that have bugged me for a long time.

I have learned over the years that school reform have life cycles that follow a singular pattern. Join me in a fast-forward trip through school reform in the U.S.

Late-19th century Progressives, for example, saw overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers, immigrants speaking dozens of languages and unfamiliar with being American, rote recitation, massive inefficiencies in administering schools, and students wholly unprepared for an industrial workplace. Schools were failing to educate children and youth. It was a crisis that had to be ended. New curricula, medical and social services, different forms of instruction, innovative school organization and democratic governance became the established ideology for “good” public schools between the 1890s and 1940s.

After World War II, a rising movement of anti-communism rejected Progressivism in schools and spurred by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union sought to inject academic steel into a Swiss cheese curriculum to produce more engineers, mathematicians and scientists. Again what constituted a “good” school shifted.

By the mid-1960s, the Civil Rights movement spilled over both segregated and desegregated schools altering again Americans’ sense of what a “good” school is.

And in subsequent decades, economic fears of Japanese and German exports out-performing U.S. cars, electronics, and other products  led to business and civic leaders looking to schools to bolster an inefficient and sagging economy.  A Nation at Risk (1983) coalesced those fears into a war plan to revive the economy through making schools stronger academically and turning out graduates who could enter the workplace prepared with requisite knowledge and skills. Again, the definition of a “good” school shifted. The U.S. continues to this day to be in the thrall of this education-cum-economy ideology.

In this hop-skip-and-jump through the history of U.S. school reform a pattern emerged.

First, policy elites in each generation, exaggerating existing conditions, condemned schools for their low quality. Schools had failed. They graduated students unfit to enter the existing political, economic, and social world.  Then these ardent school reformers proposed governance, curricular, organizational, and instructional reforms that would turn failing schools into successful ones often underestimating the complexity of schools as institutions and the resources needed to make the proposed changes actually alter how schools operated and teachers taught. Finally, after time had passed, as schools didn’t conform to the expectations of these fervent reformers, they walked away in disappointment and disgust saying that the schools were not much better than when they had started. Their reforms had foundered. They blamed, among others, resistant teachers, unthinking administrators, a clogged bureaucracy, and hostile parents.

As one generation of reformers passed through, another arose and the pattern reasserted itself anew. Historians and social scientists have documented these cycles of reform over the past 150 years (see here, here, here, and here).

The chronic defeat of major school reforms authored by Progressives, Civil Rights leaders, CEOs and U.S. Presidents to achieve their lofty goals of fundamentally altering the system of schooling over the past century to school the “whole child,” raise all students to high proficiency levels in reading and math, and “personalize learning”  reflects the often-used language within schooling of “success” and “failure.”

Commonly used to describe reform initiatives and innovations, these labels are also part of the DNA of schooling in the U.S. Some students are “winners” in the race to get a gold star for classroom work, a high grade-point-average, become valedictorian. Other students throw up their hands and drop out of school. And there are those–most students–in the middle doing the best they can do but nonetheless settling for seldom becoming a winner while avoiding being seen as a loser.

Over the decades, I have come to see both success and failure in reform linked to definitions of success and failure in classrooms, schools, districts, state, and national systems of education. Reflecting on all of the research I have done, a puzzle slowly emerged yielding questions that I wanted to answer:

*Exactly what do “success” and “failure” mean in schooling the young in classrooms, schools, and districts?

*Where do these concepts of success and failure come from?

*What is the middle ground between success and failure in schools and society? Is it being average, middling, or mediocre?


In a series of earlier posts, I have taken a stab at answering the first two of these questions, drafting answers that made sense to me. I have received very helpful responses from readers as I re-think what I have written and begin writing the next draft.

For now, I want to explore in a few posts the unanswered question about what’s between success and failure. After all, daily life teaches us by age 7 that winners and losers do not capture the totality of experience; in most situations  we do not flat out win or lose, we often end up in the middle. Life is not a zero-sum game. Most children and youth realize that.

But the “middle,” “average,” and “mediocre,” in American culture, are negatively charged words. No one I know wants to be “mediocre.” Since most of us end up in the middle ranges in work, play, and life–how come such words carry the sting of  being a loser?

In part 2, I take up the concept of being in the middle of most distributions of talent, achievement, and life. And how in a society prizing meritocracy being in the middle has gained the stigma of being mediocre both in schooling and life.


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Success Academy’s Radical Educational Experiment (Rebecca Mead)

“Rebecca Mead joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1997. She has profiled many subjects, among them Lena Dunham, Christine Quinn, Santiago Calatrava, Nico Muhly, Slavoj Zizek, and Shaquille O’Neal….”

Reformers trying to merge traditional and progressive teaching approaches is a tough road to negotiate. In How Teachers Taught (1984) I laid out many examples of progressive efforts to do, for example, project-based teaching in the midst of bolted down desks during the 1930s. That effort to marry the two has continued to produce many hybrids. In this New Yorker article, I extracted an excerpt where Mead describes a second grade teacher in a Success Academy trying to wed the two ideologies of teaching.

Success Academy began in 2006, with a single elementary school in Harlem, and now has forty-six schools, in every borough except Staten Island. The overwhelming majority of the students are black or Latino, and in most of the schools at least two-thirds of them come from poor families. More than fifteen thousand children are enrolled, from kindergarten to twelfth grade…. [T]he schools do well by the favored metric of twenty-first-century public education: they get consistently high scores on standardized tests administered by the State of New York. In the most recent available results, ninety-five per cent of Success Academy students achieved proficiency in math, and eighty-four per cent in English Language Arts; citywide, the respective rates were thirty-six and thirty-eight per cent. This spring, Success Academy was awarded the Broad Prize, a quarter-million-dollar grant given to charter-school organizations, particularly those serving low-income student populations, that have delivered consistently high performances on standardized tests. [Eva]Moskowitz has said that, within a decade, she hopes to be running a hundred schools. This year, a Success high school, on Thirty-third Street, will produce the network’s first graduating class: seventeen students. This pioneering class originated with a cohort of seventy-three first graders.

Success Academy Springfield Gardens, in Queens, opened in the fall of 2014. The neighborhood, close to J.F.K. Airport, has many Caribbean immigrants, as well as a large African-American population. The school is on an upper floor of a building that it shares with a zoned middle school, I.S. 59; both schools principally serve students of color whose families qualify for public assistance. The floor tiles of Springfield Gardens’ freshly painted hallways are labelled with spelling words, so that children can absorb information even as they file, in silence, from one room to another. The classrooms are carpeted, muffling the baseline din that usually accompanies students at work—the scraping of chairs, the dropping of pencils—and imbuing even a space occupied by more than two dozen second graders with the hush of a corporate conference room.

One morning earlier this year, the second graders were engaged in a group reading lesson. (Over several weeks, I was permitted to observe classes at eight Success Academies around the city, from the elementary to the high-school level.) The teacher sat on a chair at the front of the classroom. Her students—or “scholars,” as they are known at Success—sat at her feet on a deep-blue rug patterned with a grid. They wore uniforms: plaid dresses or navy pants for the girls, pants and polo shirts for the boys. Everyone wore black slip-on shoes, as prescribed in the Success Academy parents’ manual; Moskowitz does not want teachers to waste instructional time tying errant laces.

For decades, a rug has been a desired amenity for early-childhood classrooms. Children are more comfortable sitting on the floor than squirming on a chair, and during “circle time” they can interact with one another and with the teacher more easily. Mary Hammett Lewis, an educator who founded a school in Buffalo ninety years ago, observed the transformative effect of placing a “big, friendly rug” in her classroom. In “Loving Learning,” a 2015 book by the educator Tom Little and the journalist Kathryn Ellison, Lewis is quoted saying, “It became a sort of magic carpet in my adventure. The attitude of the children changed completely the moment they set foot on the rug. Language lessons became confidential chats about all sorts of experience. One day the rug became early Manhattan Island; another day it was the boat of Hendrick Hudson.”

In the second-grade classroom in Queens, the gridded rug seemed less like a magic carpet than like a chessboard at the start of a game. Within each square was a large colored spot the size of a chair cushion. The children sat in rows, facing forward, each within his or her assigned square, with their legs crossed and their hands clasped or folded in their laps. Success students can expect to be called to answer a teacher’s question at any moment, not just when they raise their hand, and must keep their eyes trained on the speaker at all times, a practice known as “tracking.” Staring off into space, or avoiding eye contact, is not acceptable. “Sometimes when kids look like they’re daydreaming, it’s because they are, and we can’t allow that possibility,” Moskowitz wrote a few years ago, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal. Students who stop tracking are prodded both by their teachers and by their peers, who are expected to point out classmates who aren’t looking at them when they are speaking.

On a Smart Board at the front of the classroom, a digital clock marked the seconds. Every moment in a Success classroom is timed, often with Cape Canaveral-style countdowns, as students transition from one activity to another: “Three, two, one, and done.” Some teachers use kitchen timers with beeping alarms that notify students when the ten seconds allotted for finding a space on the rug, or retrieving a book from a backpack, are up.

That morning, the students were engaged in a “shared text” exercise. They read and analyzed together a short story, “The Family Tree,” that had been projected onto a screen. It was about a grandmother who was moving, unhappily, to a smaller house. Her two grandchildren, a brother and a sister, were helping her with the move, and cheered her up by making a collage of intergenerational family photographs for her. The text had been adapted from a picture book; in its condensed form, it consisted of a single page containing two dozen short paragraphs, and just two illustrations. Each paragraph was numbered, as it would be if the story were encountered during a standardized test, rather than pulled from a library shelf.

The teacher, after establishing that the story’s genre was realistic fiction, reminded the class of the necessary “thinking job” required in approaching such a text: to identify the character, the problem, the solution, and the “lesson learned.” A girl with pierced ears and a sober expression made a stab at an answer: “The problem here is that the sister thinks that her grandmother is mad, because they already broke lots of stuff.”

Several children looked skeptical. “You have a couple of friends disagreeing with you,” the teacher said. She called on one of the dissenters, another girl, who said, “I disagree with you, because the grandmother is already upset, because her new house does not feel like a home.” Success Academy students are required to speak in complete sentences, often adhering to a script: “I disagree with X”; “I agree with X, and I want to add on.”

The teacher addressed the girl with pierced ears: “I’m a little confused. Prove to me that something broke.” The girl replied, warily, “It says so on the second line.” The teacher asked her to look again at the line—in which the sister warned her brother not to break anything, because their grandmother was already upset—and said, “Did anything break? No. She’s warning him.”

It was an impressive demonstration of close reading by seven-year-olds, as far as it went. Moskowitz recently told me that she saw no reason the principles that govern a graduate seminar in English literature—“You read a book, and you discuss it, and you look for the big ideas”—couldn’t be applied to a class with young children. The text being studied by the second graders wasn’t particularly easy; even in its original picture-book form, it was intended for third graders. The teacher spoke to the children in a firm, unsmiling tone, as she might have done to a class of students fifteen years their senior. Moskowitz abhors the singsong voice that some adults often adopt with young children, characterizing it as “an insult to the scholars’ intelligence,” and her teachers are trained to avoid it.

The teacher led a brief discussion of the difference between a house and a home—a material distinction possibly familiar to some of the children in the room. One in twenty students at Springfield Gardens had experienced homelessness at some point during that academic year. “A home is where you feel comfortable, and you make your memories,” the teacher said, before a student gave an admirably succinct summation: “A house is where you are just moving in, and a home is where you have lived for a long time.” The students were quiet and attentive, as neatly aligned on the rug as the blinds at the windows, all of which had been lowered to precisely the same height.

But the lesson seemed to be as much about mastering a formula as about appreciating the nuances of narrative. When the students were called to “turn and talk,” they swivelled, inside their grids, to face a partner, and discussed the section of the text that had been examined collectively. The exchanges I heard consisted of repeating the conclusions that had just been reached, rather than independently extending them. Some students seemed to be going through the motions of analysis and comprehension—performing thought. “The grandmother’s house is too small—she doesn’t have the space to put her memories,” one child informed her partner, garbling the story’s sense in her effort to comply with expectations.

Nor was there time for more imaginative or personally inflected interpretations of the text—the interrogation of “big ideas” that happens in the kinds of graduate seminars Moskowitz held up as a model. When one child proposed that the grandmother was feeling uncomfortable in her new home because she was lonely—a reasonable inference, given the absence of her husband, who was pictured in the family photographs—the teacher asked for textual evidence, and the student was unable to provide it. With the clock ticking, the discussion moved on, and the question of the grandmother’s loneliness—of what else the story might be saying to a reader, beyond the surface meaning of the words in the numbered paragraphs—was left unexplored….


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Silicon Valley Takes Over Classrooms: Yes and No (Part 2)

Natasha Singer’s series of New York Times articles in the past six months showed persuasively that top Silicon Valley companies have increased student and teacher access to digital devices and software across the nation. But Singer also claims that expanded access has led to these high-tech tools dominating classroom lessons. Google, et. al. tools shape what teachers do daily. She says:

Through their philanthropy, they are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental  approaches to learning.

Yes, I have observed in Silicon Valley and elsewhere how these high-tech Goliaths have helped increase student access to digital tools across the nation. But I have not observed their influence on “the subjects that schools teach” and, most important, on “fundamental approaches to learning.” To that I say “no.”

Conflating access with use is a common error that journalists, researchers, and promoters of digital tools make. In this post I argue that access can surely lead to more use in lessons but anyone who knows classrooms understands that daily use covers a range of teacher-directed activities combining high- and low-tech tools.

I observed 41 Silicon Valley classrooms in 12 different schools during 2016 where teacher identified as exemplary in integrating digital tools have neither abandoned teacher-directed lessons in favor of student-centered instruction nor surrendered to the allure of these devices and software. While they use these digital and non-digital tools often, these devices have moved from the foreground of their lessons to the background.  These electronic tools have become like paper and pencil and prompt no longer “Gee Whiz” or “look at that” responses. What these devices and software have not done, however, is alter these teachers’ “fundamental approaches to learning.”

After observing these teachers’ lessons, I asked them if using these digital tools had altered how they they teach. Although nearly two of three teachers said they had definitely changed how they taught as a result of integrating digital tools into their daily lessons, a large minority of teachers said that using new technologies in lessons had not changed their practice. How to reconcile these conflicting views?

First, I distinguish between fundamental and incremental changes, types of common changes that have occurred in the two-century history of the U.S. age-graded school.

By fundamental change, I mean altering the basic building blocks of US schooling, such as requiring taxpayers to fund public schools and give access to all students, establishing goals for schooling (e.g., all students will be literate, discharge their civic duties, and be vocationally prepared for the labor market), and organizing curricula and instructional practices in age-graded elementary and secondary schools. These building blocks are structures that have defined public schools and influenced what occurs in classrooms for the past two centuries.

Changing them fundamentally means altering funding (e.g., vouchers, charter schools), governance (e.g., site-based management, mayoral control), organization (e.g., moving from an age-graded school to non-graded teams and entire schools), curriculum (e.g., New Math, “hands-on” science), and instruction (e.g., moving from teacher-centered to student-centered pedagogy).

Often those who champion changes in public schools talk about “real reform” or “transformation of schooling.” What they refer to are fundamental changes in one or more structures of schooling, not incremental changes.

Incremental changes refer to amending current structures and practices, not making deep changes to or removing core components of schooling. Examples include creating new academic courses, extending the school day or year, reducing class size, raising teacher salaries, and introducing new reading or math programs. Such changes do not alter the basic structures of public schools. They correct deficiencies and improve existing structures. They do not replace the goals, funding, organization, and governance of schools—they are add-ons. Many promoters of deep change in schools call such changes “tinkering,” usually in a dismissive way, because they want “real reform” or fundamental reordering of existing structures.

In most instances, reform-minded teachers, administrators, policy makers, and non-educators push for change without distinguishing between one kind or the other. Often, as a result, what was urged as a reform that would substantially alter what occurs in classrooms turns out to be a minor modification of existing practice—a butterfly alighting on a rose—disappointing many advocates who seek a change that follows the trajectory of a bullet.

The same can be said for those who sought to shake–“disrupt” was the favored verb—the foundations of age-graded schools with reforms such as vouchers, online schools, or their version of “personalized learning” that then fall far short of their aspirations.

Of the 65 percent of teachers who said they had changed their practice because of using digital tools, nearly all have implemented incremental changes in how they teach using devices and software. They believe that these changes made a difference in how they teach and helped their students learn. They became far more productive and efficient in teaching lessons. After observing lessons and interviewing the teachers, I see no reason to doubt what they say.

Then there were a handful of teachers who said that digital tools had been helpful but had not basically changed how they teach. The basic planning, the activity sequence during lessons, and how they interacted with students in and out of class had not shifted because of the technologies they used. These teachers distinguished between the productivity high-tech tools brought to their work and their craft and content knowledge in formatting and enacting a lesson.

Second I see both change and stability as central to the conduct of teaching over the past two centuries. Neither one nor the other—both.

Some researchers and teachers have come to recognize that change and stability are (and have been) the conjoined twins of tax-supported schooling in the United States. They cannot be separated, since organizations including the classroom adapt to change and end up preserving stability in lesson format and content. Dynamic conservatism is another way of saying that change is crucial to organizational stability—that the pedagogical hybrids that teachers have developed over decades prove how teaching changes to retain the familiar. Stability and change in teaching is more than a passing fad; it is a permanent condition.


Based on my experience as a teacher and the knowledge gleaned from historical detective work on how teachers have taught over the past century, I conclude—and the distinctions these teachers drew demonstrate—there is both change and stability in teaching. Yes, there have been changes in practice. At the same time, there has been constancy in how teachers set goals, organize, and execute lessons; these have not been replaced by digital tools.

These concepts of the inseparability of constancy and change in teaching and the dichotomy of changes has not only helped me make sense of the language and action of school and classroom reform but also given me a way of explaining teacher responses to my questions.

And because of these distinctions I make from my observations of these 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers,  high-tech Goliaths have not influenced, as Natasha Singer claims, “fundamental  approaches to learning.”





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Reflections on 2017

EdSurge asked me to offer reflections and predictions for 2017. The following  appeared in EdSurge, December 27, 2017.

As someone who has taught high school history, led a school district, and researched the history of school reform including the use of new technologies in classrooms over the past half-century, except for one event noted below, I found little that startled me in 2017. For digital tools in classrooms, it was the same o’ same o’.

Sure, I am an oldster and have seen a lot of school reform both successes and failures but I am neither a pessimist nor a nay-sayer about public schools. I am a tempered idealist who is cautiously optimistic about what U.S. public schools have done and still can do for children, the community, and the nation. Both the idealism and optimism—keep in mind the adjectives I used to modify the nouns—have a lot to do with what I have learned over the decades about school reform especially when it comes to technology. So for 2017, I offer no lessons that will shock but ones distilled from my experience.


When it comes to student use of classroom technologies, talk and action are both important. Differentiating between the two is crucial.

Anyone interested in improving schooling through digital tools has to distinguish between media surges of hyped news about, say, personalized learning transforming schools and virtual reality devices in classrooms from actual policies that are adopted (e.g., standards, testing, and accountability, buying 1:1).

Then one has to further distinguish between the hyperbole and adopted policies and programs before determining what teachers actually do in their classroom lessons. The process is the same as parsing hyped ads from the unwrapped product in your hand.

These distinctions are crucial in making sense of what teachers do once the classroom door closes.


Access to digital tools is not the same as what happens in daily classroom activities.

District purchases of hardware and software continue to go up. In 1984, there were 125 students for each computer; now the ratio is around 3:1 and in many places 1:1. Nothing startling here—the trend line in buying stuff began to go up in the early years of this century and that trend continues. Because this nearly ubiquitous access to new technologies has spread across urban, suburban, exurban, and rural school districts, too many pundits and promoters leap to the conclusion that all teachers integrate these digital tools into daily practice seamlessly. While surely the use of devices and software has gained full entry into classrooms, anyone who regularly visits classrooms sees the wild variation in lessons among teachers using digital technologies.

Yes, teachers have surely incorporated digital tools into daily practice but—there is always a “but”—even those who have thoroughly integrated new technologies into their lessons reveal both change and stability in their teaching.

In 2016, I visited 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons.

They were hard working, sharp teachers who used digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were in the background, not foreground. The lessons they taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in creating playlists for students, pursuing problem-based units, and organizing the administrative tasks of teaching.

But I saw no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of lessons—setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, assessing student understanding— that differed from earlier generations of experienced teachers. The lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Again, stability and change in teaching with digital tools.

Oh yes, there was one event that did startle me. That was the election of Donald Trump as President. I do not believe that his tenure in the White House or that of his Secretary of Education will alter the nation’s direction in schooling–my first prediction. Every Student Succeeds Act (2016) shifts policymaking from federal to state offices. Sure, there is much talk in D.C. about more choice, charters, and vouchers but much of it remains talk. Little change in what schools do or what happens in classrooms will occur.

What is disturbing is the President’s disregard for being informed, making judgments based on whim, tweeting racist statements, and telling lies (Politifact has documented 325 Trump statements that it judges mostly or entirely false) . These Presidential actions in less than a year have already shaped a popular culture where “fake news,” “truthful hyperbole,” and “post-truth” are often used phrases.

Indirectly, the election of Donald Trump—and here is my second prediction—will spark a renaissance in districts and schools working on critical thinking skills and teachers and students parsing mainstream and social media for accuracy. Maybe the next generation will respect facts, think more logically, be clearer thinkers, and more intellectually curious than our current President.


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