Category Archives: leadership

Remodeling the Age Graded School?

In July 2020, Eric Gordon head of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District released a report that would alter the 170 year-old institution called the age-graded school (see here and here). The 74 Million website summarized the report July 2, 2020. While there have been previous efforts to alter the age-graded school and such schools exist now (see here, here, and here), they have been largely confined to individual schools. Never a district especially a large urban one. For that reason I offer the proposal here. Because of the pandemic and mostly remote instruction, no implementation of the plan has yet occurred in CMSD.

A bold proposal in Cleveland could set the tone for how schools around the country could restart in the fall, one that takes into account students’ vastly different access to resources and remote learning during the pandemic and lets students learn at their own speed.

Cleveland schools would toss aside teaching many students in traditional grade levels this fall and dramatically expand the “mastery” learning plan it has tested for a few years.

Out would go the usual practice of students advancing a grade each year, an especially tricky issue to manage this year after schools shut down nationwide in March — to be replaced with a system of “grade bands” that combine students of a few ages and grade levels into the same classroom, school district CEO Eric Gordon told the school board Tuesday night.

“We’ve got opportunities here to really test, challenge and maybe abandon some of these time-bound structures of education that have never really conformed to what we know about good child development,” Gordon said.

Educators nationally are worried about the early school closures and how the chaotic shift to home learning will affect students, especially those from poor families. Most expect a “COVID slide” that magnifies the typical “summer slide” as student skills regress over summer vacation.

Many are debating extending the school year to have classes in person before break or returning early for “jump start” review sessions. Others look at intense online summer school.

In Cleveland, schools that use the system often keep K-8 students in the same grade band for a few years, instead of moving up a grade every year. Students then relearn and reinforce skills they need to succeed before advancing when individuals are ready to move on, sometimes mid-year.

At high schools, students in mastery schools can keep re-learning specific skills and receiving extra help until they know them well. As students learn, schools often avoid giving traditional A-F grades and rate students as “incomplete” or “developing” until they rate as proficient.

Gordon told the school board that by avoiding the normal grade levels, the district can help students catch up, learn what they need and not stigmatize students as failures by making some repeat grades.

He also said that his draft school reopening plan coming mid-June will offer the mastery system as an option for the community and individual families to consider, along with a few other choices described below.

As chair of the Council of the Great City Schools, the national association of big-city school districts, Gordon said other urban school superintendents around the country have told him they are using or are considering using mastery approaches. Some schools in New York City and some states are using the model, but more may take it up, he added.

For urban districts like Cleveland, which has the second-highest socioeconomic challenges of any big city in the country, according to Stanford researchers, students falling further behind is a real concern. The same researchers estimated that Cleveland students were two years’ worth of learning behind the national average, even before poor internet access put students at an even greater disadvantage when schools closed.

In his preview of the reopening plan to the board, Gordon suggested a few strategies for learning while keeping kids at safe distance. He said he will likely offer families a few choices for returning to school so they can pick what works for them.

“You’re going to see a menu that people can move through to adjust and meet their needs,” he said.

Among the possible strategies:

  • Having older students do much of their schoolwork online, while younger students come to class to work with teachers more often.
  • Having community groups that offer afterschool programs for students also work with some students during the day, while other students are in class with teachers. The different groups would then swap activities.
  • Having more year-round schools, on top of the nine district schools already using that calendar. Another 13 have extra days in their school year.
  • Schools could likely open later than their original Aug. 17 start date so that teachers have time to learn new learning systems and the pandemic has time to subside.

“Many of my peers tried to shut down early, in part because there’s a fatigue … and train teachers now,” he said. “My fear of trying to train teachers now is we haven’t built the plan.”

He also said he wants focus groups of students to review the draft plan and help craft the final version.

The district is polling parents and teachers about what has worked with the district’s emergency remote learning plan so far and what they want to see in the fall.

And the district’s plan is also subject to guidance from state health officials and the Ohio Department of Education, though Gordon has been part of discussions to set the state plan. Early drafts of the state plan also give districts wide flexibility to set their own approaches.

Gordon’s preview of Cleveland’s plan Tuesday centered on “mastery” or “competency” systems, coaxed by school board questions. It previously failed at two ninth-grade academies in Cleveland a few years ago, but it is an integral part of MC2 STEM High School, one of the district’s more popular choice high schools.

It is also at the core of the successful Intergenerational Schools charter chain in the city and the new private

The shift would take cooperation from the Cleveland Teachers Union, which is already familiar with the approach. It would take buy-in from parents, who won’t see their children promoted each year. That has sometimes been a source of conflict at the Intergenerational School when parents do not fully understand the model.

It also will need law changes from the state, which tests students annually based on their grade level and which gives districts lower grades on state report cards if students don’t graduate in four years. Gordon said the state focuses too much on days or hours of classes, not on whether students have learned material.

“We really see an opportunity that means an entirely new policy context at the state and national level that allows us the nimbleness to behave differently,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that CEO Gordon had proposed ending the practice of moving students up a grade every year, instead keeping them in the same band for a few years to relearn and reinforce skills before advancing. Gordon talked about using grade bands but did not specifically say how they would be carried out, though typically schools using mastery plans will keep students in grade bands for multiple years.

6 Comments

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

Whatever Happened to the National Teacher Corps?

What was the NTC and when did it begin?

In the mid-1960s, I taught in and later directed a federally-funded teacher training program located in Grimke elementary school, Banneker and Garnet-Patterson Junior High Schools, and Cardozo High School in Washington, D. C. The Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, as it was then called, prepared returned Peace Corps Volunteers to teach in urban schools. The paid “interns,” as they were called, taught for half-days under the supervision of master teachers, took university seminars on-site after-school, and in evenings and late-afternoons developed curriculum materials and worked in the community. At the end of the year the “interns”  were certified to teach in the District of Columbia and were on their way to earning a master’s degree in their field through two local universities (see here and here). Three-quarters of the intern teachers we trained became full-time teachers in the District of Columbia schools and other districts.

Within a few years, this district-based model of training new teachers became the poster-child for a federal initiative to put teachers into high-poverty urban and rural schools. Amid President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” education figured large–Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) remains a mainstay of funding schools enrolling poor children in 2021. The belief that minority and low-income students needed committed, smart, and well-trained teachers led Senator Gaylord Nelson from Idaho (his administrative aide’s wife taught at Cardozo High School) and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy to seize the Cardozo Project’s way of training teachers and expand it into a national program within the Higher Education Act of 1966 (see j-1748-5959-2009-00212-x-3.pdf).

The National Teacher Corps legislation adopted the model used for training teachers on-site but rather than fund districts, federal officials would funnel monies to universities that collaborated with nearby school districts and took responsibility for awarding degrees (see here and here).

What problems did the NTC seek to solve?

How to get more and better teachers into low-income, largely minority, low-performing schools?

In the mid-1960s, the high turnover of experienced teachers and absence of well-trained teachers in largely minority and poor schools had become obvious. The belief driving policymakers and donors was that young, committed, and better trained teachers working in both schools and the community could raise students academic achievement levels, reduce high dropout rates, and increase the number of high school graduates going to college . Thus, the NTC would help solve the problem of insufficient numbers of “good” teachers by recruiting, training, and supporting teachers committed to better teaching and learning in largely low-performing urban schools (see j-1748-5959-2009-00212-x-3.pdf).

Another problem was that universities time and again were turning out unequipped novices to deal with urban teaching and getting minority children and youth. Alternative ways of attracting and educating a more racial and ethnically diverse crowd of newcomers to the profession by having school-based training linked to university seminars (also held on site) attracted both donors and federal funds in these years. Solving the problem of inadequate university-based teacher education was part of the agenda of NTC (see 0042085911400340.pdf)

What did NTC do in training teachers?

Between 1968-1970, the federal government awarded National Teacher Corps grants to many universities. One went to the University of Southern California collaborating with seven school districts in the metropolitan Los Angeles area with large enrollments of Black and Mexican-American students. According to the federal General Accounting Office report on the project, of the 88 intern teachers that completed the program, 72 (82 percent) were teaching or had contracts to teach in predominately minority schools.

The GAO report (1971), described the USC program in the following manner.

Corps members were organized in teams, each consisting of a team leader and four to seven interns. In most cases the entire team was assigned to a particular school. In some instances the team members were assigned to more than one school,

Team leaders were responsible for the supervision of interns constituting the team. Their duties included acting as liaisons between the interns and school and university officials; coordinating and planning with the interns their individual and team activities; demonstrating teaching techniques to interns; and evaluating the performance of interns.

Program coordinators in two of the participating school districts informed us that team leaders had worked diligently in performing these functions and generally had been effectively utilized. The program coordinator in another school district stated that the performance of three team leaders was inconsistent in that they had been effective in some areas of responsibility but not in others. He stated that the fourth team leader assigned to his district had utilized his time effectively in meeting all the responsibilities of a team leader and had initiated a program designed to identify Mexican-American students who appeared to have college potential and to encourage them to develop their academic capabilities.

Interns generally worked at the schools to which they had been assigned for 3 days a week during their first year of internship and for 4 days a week during their second year. The interns spent 2 days a week attending classes at USC during the first year and 1 day a week during the second year, Interns also devoted varying portions of their time after school and in the evenings to participating in education-related community activities.

They generally started by observing classroom instruction during the earlier phases of their assignments to schools and later served as assistants to regular teacher. During their 2 years of internship, they sometimes were assigned to work in cooperation with more than one regular teacher and taught one or more subjects to children in various grade levels.

While assigned to regular teachers, the interns worked with individual, or small groups of, children…. In many cases such instruction was given to children who had language difficulties or disciplinary problems or who were slow learners. In schools in five districts, the interns either introduced or expanded the teaching of English as a second language or the teaching of regular classwork in Spanish to children who spoke little English or who came from homes where English was not the predominant language.

No doubt that there much variation in these NYC programs across the nation creating difficulties in evaluating the entire NTC (see evaluations of NTC here and here).

What happened to the NTC?

With the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, one of his first bills sent to Congress consolidated federal grants for particular programs (including the National Teacher Corps) into bloc grants sent to states, letting each state determine which programs would be funded. With the move to bloc grants, NTC largely disappeared except for occasional states that continued the program.

Since then a few efforts to create a national cadre of well-trained teachers given close and sustained support in their internships and then being licensed and hired by urban districts have surfaced. But none have gained federal support for the past four decades.

For some researchers and policymakers, the appearance of Teach for America in the early 1990s, an organization that identifies liberal arts college and university graduates who want to teach, briefly trains them, and finds slots for them in big city school systems has been compared to the National Teacher Corps (see here and here).

While TFA does receive federal funds through Americorps, its training regime is only a eight week-summer program followed by minimal supervision of their first and second years (TFA-ers make a two-year commitment). Other criticisms of TFA insofar as producing “skilled” teachers and improving instruction as measured by student test scores are quite mixed, often coming from former TFAers (see here and here)

In my judgment, TFA is a weak facsimile of NTC. While occasional voices for creating another NTC have been heard, nothing substantial has materialized for 40 years.

2 Comments

Filed under higher education, how teachers teach, leadership

Top-Down Reform in Chinese Schools and Classroom Practices

While I do read a lot of articles and books on the history of Chinese education and once spent a month lecturing at Beijing universities in 1987, I am no expert on how children and youth are schooled in the People’s Republic of China. Nor is journalist Lenora Chu, who wrote about Chinese schooling from the perspective of a mother of a kindergartner, Rainey–see previous post— in grasping the complexities of the planet’s largest state system of schooling, an expert. But she surely collected more data than I ever had.

Chu’s family experienced seven years of Chinese primary school and she wrote engagingly of the intersection of state-driven curriculum, culture and classroom teaching. She reached for that elusive policy-to-practice continuum that marks every national system of schooling on the globe: from the PRC’s Ministry of Education policy mandates to Teachers Chen and Wang hovering over the 28 children in Rainey’s kindergarten. No easy task.

I had a glimpse of that policy-to-practice journey in my brief experience as a lecturer over three decades ago. I was there during Premier Deng Xiaoping years as leader of the nation (1978-1997) when he pressed forward in modernizing the country including education reform after Mao’s chaotic Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s (see here).

One of my graduate students, Min Weifang*, arranged an official government invitation to lecture for a month at Beijing Normal University. State-driven reform was in the air when I arrived in 1987. My hosts wanted me to talk about past and present U.S. school reform in both K-12 and higher education. I gave a half-dozen lectures, an equal number of seminars, and met with many professors and graduate students interested in U.S. schools. Beyond lecturing and seminar discussions, I traveled around the city on a bike that Min’s brother had lent to me. Luckily, I found some contacts in schools and had the chance to view primary and secondary classrooms accompanied by graduate students at Beijing Normal University who translated for me as we observed teachers teach.

In my journal I recorded descriptions of the Beijing secondary schools in which I watched English language, math, and Chinese history lessons. In every one of the lessons there were between 30-50 students sitting at desks arrayed in rows facing teachers and blackboards. They were taking notes and answering teacher questions often chorally and with gusto. While some variation in lessons occurred–more blackboard work in math than in history, for example– I guessed that both teachers and students, expecting a “foreign” visitor, were on their best behavior and wanted to show the guest stellar lessons. What I had seen meshed with my prior reading of Chinese teaching practices in the 1980s during the years Deng Xiaoping had engineered top-down reforms in both higher education and primary and secondary schools.

What struck me in reading Little Soldiers and Chu’s reports of classrooms she visited in urban and rural schools in the 2010s was the similarity in teaching practices, students’ obedience to teacher direction, and focus on individual conformity to group norms that I had seen three decades earlier. Keep in mind that the total number of classes observed were very small, mostly located in cities,and often housed in what the government called “model” schools.

The key word in the previous paragraph is “similarity.” I do not mean that there was no change in teaching practices. More informed observers of PRC classrooms could easily point out changes since the late-1980s in the state allotting resources, the growth of teacher expertise, introduction of new technologies, and expanded content in lessons. For example, the central government spent more per pupil in these years than in earlier decades, and there were major efforts to improve university teacher training (see here and here).

But those changes (e.g.,new textbooks, teaching aids, instructional materials, and technologies) are at the margins not at the core of teaching practice (e.g., whole group instruction, student adherence to group norms, much lecturing, lesson focus on better test performance).

While incremental changes had occurred over time, Chu’s experiences in a top-rated Shanghai kindergarten and later a primary school coupled to observations she made elsewhere in the country left me wondering about the impact of Ministry of Education reform-minded mandates in the 1990s to staunch criticism of traditional teaching practices within a system driven by high-stakes national tests. These directives sought to move teaching practices toward a child-centered schooling that prized creative work, critical thinking, student participation in lessons, and social-emotional skills.

Reforming Teaching Practices

The biggest problem for reform is that because so many teachers are so accustomed to their conventional thinking and models they have such strong gravitational pull toward habitual ways of behavior and thinking, therefore they have to negate themselves.…. Comment by a Shanghai municipal policymaker, 2000

Consider the student-centered directives from the Ministry of Education in 2011 for teaching the English Curriculum:

1) Orient teaching towards all students and pay attention to quality education

(2) Design the lesson’s goals integrally, with flexibility and openness

(3) Regard student learning as the main priority and respect individual differences

(4) Design activities that incorporate experiential and participatory learning

(5) Pay attention to the evaluation of the process, in order to boost students’ development

(6) Make full use of curricular resources and expand the channels for students to study and use the language.

To achieve such deep changes, the nation’s pool of teachers very uneven in acquiring education and credentials would have to be upgraded and trained in different approaches. Such efforts began under Deng Xiaoping and were carried forward in fits and starts under his successors. The location of such reforms in special teacher training institutions, universities, in provincial institutes or new organizations has led to fierce and continuing debates among state-led reformers and implementers of those desired changes. Those debates continue today.

Moreover, changing the curriculum, as American observers have noted time and again, is what top-down policymakers can do. But they cannot put directives into practice. Moving from policy directives altering state mandated curriculum to school principals urging teachers to put changes into practice and then for teachers to shift their habitual practices is a big leap that often falls flat in teachers’ lessons. For example to get students to participate more in classroom discussions (see 4 above), teachers received training to put these directives into practice. A follow-up survey of student responses in this province to these new practices led one student to write:

“…by the time we got to the fifth paragraph the teacher asked us about the scenery and objects that were described in the text. Because we said the wrong thing the teacher got very angry with us and we felt terrified. Ever since then when the teacher asks us questions none of us dare to answer. Even if we have thought of the right answer we will not dare to speak because we are afraid of saying something wrong and that we will once again be criticized…” Sixth grade student in Gansu, 2004

Admittedly, the data I and Chu present is fragmentary, unsystematic, and sharply limited. Few generalizations can be drawn with such tiny data sets. Yet–readers knew a “yet” was coming–such discrepancies between the official curriculum, what teachers teach, what students learn, and what is on tests is neither peculiar to Chinese or U.S. teachers. It is a global phenomenon. The policy-to-practice continuum, at the very least, is, like most other nation’s systems of schooling, a work-in-progress.

I am grateful to Lenora Chu’s book for raising this issue of the shortcomings of top-down reform in schools and the critical role that teachers play as policy gatekeepers in this constant, world-wide effort to alter how teachers teach.

____________

*Min Weifang earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and returned to China where he became a professor of higher education at Peking University (Beida), served as executive vice-president of the institution, and Communist Party Secretary. Known as a higher education reformer, He often served on state commissions seeking to reform Chinese schools. (see here and here)

2 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

Whatever Happened To the Edison Schools?

Beginning in the 1980s, researchers, policymakers, and business leaders identified what they called “good” or “effective” schools where mostly minority and poor children attended.. These “good” schools scored high on standardized tests, graduated high percentages of their students, with most getting admitted to college. These policymakers and school leaders wanted to replicate the “good” schools they identified so that more low-income minority children could attend across the country. The charter school movement that began in the mid-1990s continued to focus on poor and minority children and youth.Many ardent entrepreneurial reformers founded clusters of schools such as KIPP, Aspire, and dozens of other non-profit organizations.

One such leader was businessman Chris Whittle who started a bevy of for-profit schools across the country a quarter-century ago called the Edison schools (named after the inventor, Thomas Alva Edison).

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 2000: Christopher Whittle, president of Edison Schools, the company that wants to take over the running of five struggling city schools, talks about his organization’s program. (Photo by Robert Rosamilio/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

When and How Did Edison Schools Begin and Grow?

Serial entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of Channel 1–a for-profit venture in public schools created the Edison Project in 1992. He and his partners believed that they could get students to learn more and better than regular public school spending the same amount of money per-student and, at the same time, return a tidy profit to investors. At its largest in 2003, Edison Schools operated 133 schools enrolling 80,000 students across the U.S. In 2008, the company changed its name to Edison Learning. (see here and here)

What Problems Did the Edison Schools Seek To Solve?

First problem to be solved was the abysmal performance of largely minority and poor children in urban public schools. Whittle believed that he and others could redesign these low-performing schools to achieve higher academic achievement as measured by standardized tests. Whittle’s chain of Edison schools in big cities, he and his investors believed, would out-perform regular schools.

The second problem was upending mainstream businesses thinking that there were no profits to be made in taking over public schools and operating them as if these were private schools. Whittle believed that he could operate such schools for less money than spent by district school boards and thereby wring a profit for himself and investors out of receiving state funds per student.

How Were Edison Schools Organized and Operated?

Because most of the public schools were located in low-income and minority neighborhoods, there was great variation. Some became charter schools; others districts contracted out to Whittle to run low-performing ones. The typical Edison school had an hour-longer school day, a longer school year (200 rather than the typical 180 days), fewer teachers, and a rich curriculum with much use of technology (students received personal computers).

According to a RAND evaluation report:

Edison schools are organized by grouping 2 or 3 grade levels into academies. Within the academies, the students are organized into multigrade houses of 100-180 students. The students in each house are largely taught by the same team of teachers throughout the time they are in that academy.Edison Schools Inc. has a curriculum that includes reading, math, history/social studies, science, writing, and world language as the core subjects, with classes in character and ethics, physical fitness and health, music, dance, visual art, drama, and practical arts and skills offered at various levels. Four methodological approaches to instruction are reportedly used in the classrooms: project-based learning, direct instruction, cooperative learning, and differentiated learning.

Moreover, as a 1999 article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, in these schools:

Edison tracks student achievement and school performance to a degree unprecedented in public education. Every student’s progress in basic subjects is measured monthly, and the results are delivered to the company’s headquarters. Edison surveys parent, teacher and student satisfaction in every school annually. Edison principals are awarded performance-based bonuses of up to about 20% of their salaries. And the company swiftly fires principals and teachers who don’t perform.

Did Edison Schools Work?

As one comes to expect in answering this question on effectiveness as judged by the dominant outcome for schools since the 1980s, i.e., test scores, the answer depends upon when it is asked and how and what kind of evaluations were done. One observer noted in 1999:

In a handful of scientific studies comparing Edison students’ classroom performance over several years against that of students with similar backgrounds, Edison students have registered greater gains. And on the 300 or so state and national tests students have taken in different Edison schools, their passing rates have risen or their scores have ratcheted up faster than expected about 75% of the time. Student attendance is generally high in Edison’s schools, and dropout rates are low.

What Happened to Edison Schools?

The answer, in part, has to do with Whittle’s aspiration to create hundreds of redesigned schools for which he needed investors. As the chain of schools expanded and reports were glowing, Whittle sought and received more venture capital. Edison Inc. was the first for-profit school-management company to be traded on a stock exchange. They got contracts from urban school districts (e.g., Wichita, KN; Philadelphia, PA, Ravenswood, CA) to  use their model of a “good” school to convert failing schools into “good” ones in other districts  but stumbled into one political difficulty after another  with unions, parents, and administrators (see here and here). Their stock had reached a high of $40 a share in 2001 and then, as problems piled up, dipped to 14 cents later in the same year.

Dissatisfied with Edison, some districts began canceling contracts for financial, political, and managerial reasons. By 2005,  there were still 153 schools for over 65,000 students but the company was already dumping their school management business and had turned to  securing contracts to  provide tutorial services financed by No Child Left Behind and other services districts wanted such as recovering dropouts. By then, Whittle had found private lenders who aided him in converting the publicly traded company back into a private one.

Where Are The Edison Schools Today?

From their heyday in the early years of the century, when there nearly 150 schools, the private for-profit schools–renamed Edison Learning– no longer exist except for two credit recovery schools in Ohio and six alternative schools in Florida.

And Chris Whittle? The entrepreneurial salesman opened a new private school in Washington, D.C. in 2019.

It’s opening day at the Whittle School and Studios, a brand-new pre-K-through-12 private school in Northwest Washington founded by Chris Whittle… Four years in the making, the school and its 185 enrollees represent the first phase of a global institution that Whittle plans to expand over the next decade into more than 30 campuses worldwide, serving more than 2,000 students each, with 150 to 180 in each grade….

.

3 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology use

Whatever Happened to the Winnetka Plan?

When and how did the Winnetka Plan begin and grow to become a nationally known lighthouse for Progressivism?

A small wealthy suburb of Chicago in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Winnteka leaders embraced the ideas of John Dewey and the “New Education,” an off-shoot of the then spreading Progressive movement. As the authors of a history of the Winnetka schools put it:.

In May, 1919, they hired Carleton W. Washburne as the superintendent of schools. It was this 29-year old educator who would bring their ambitious dreams for their schools to a reality. As the architect of “The Winnetka Plan,” Washburne’s innovations – individualized instruction, hands-on learning, attention to the development of the whole child, a focus on research and development of curriculum materials, and a thoughtful and comprehensive program of staff development – were the pillars of his philosophy of progressive education and continue to be cornerstones of today’s Winnetka Public Schools.

Variations of the Winnetka plan spread to other districts in the state and the nation eager to be viewed as Progressive. Washburne wrote in journals and authored books on the Plan. He spoke often about Winnetka schools at conferences in the U.S. and Europe.

This photo and those of classrooms below come from Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Education: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930-1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

What was the Winnetka Plan?

The “common core” (Superintendent Washburne’s phrase) in reading, math, and other subjects usually occurred in the morning as students worked in whole group, small groups, and individually in mastering the “essentials” in reading, math, science, etc. at each student’s grade level. Using diagnostic tests to assess where each student was in subject/skill levels, teachers created customized “workbooks” and individually tailored materials fitted to different levels of achievement for individual students. Assessment tools determined when each student attained mastery and could move ahead to next skill/subject matter within the grade level.

Afternoons were set aside for “creative group activities.” Here is where students participated in art, literature, music appreciation, crafts, drama, and physical activities. With no fixed achievement standards in these activities, each student could perform as they desired since no specific goals or mastery tests existed.

What problems did Washburne and the Winnetka Plan seek to solve?

Simply put, Washburne and other Progressives including Frederic Burk at San Francisco State Normal School where Washburne studied knew that all children did not learn at the same rate nor did they learn in the same way and thus teaching had to recognize that variation among students. In short, the age-graded school where the expectation was that all students would learn at the same pace and in the same way was the problem. The solution to this structural straitjacket confining teaching and learning was the design and implementation of the Winnetk Plan.

What were Winnetka Plan classrooms like?

The following photos of Winnetka classrooms between the 1920s and 1950s offer a glimpse of the district’s approach. Some of the photos were taken in the Crow Island Elementary School (1940) designed by internationally known architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Washburne and others committed to Progressive teaching and learning insured that building space and furniture provided the environment in which Progressive teachers could work with students.

What Happened to the Plan?

The Progressive spirit animating the district continues to this day. In 2019, the district celebrated the 100th anniversary of Carleton Washburne’s coming to Winnetka.

Over 12,000 residents live in Winnetka in 2020. As it was a century ago, it remains affluent and white (95 percent) serving just over 1,500 kindergarten to eighth grade children in five schools, all of which are (and have been) ranked highly in Illinois every year.

Carleton Washburne served the district from 1919 to 1943 before leaving Winnetka to work with setting up schools in Italy during World War II and afterwards. His successors, working under Progressive-minded school board members basically continued the Plan as Washburne had conceived it adding and trimming aspects of the program as the context for schooling changed in the following decades.

12 Comments

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

Respect for Teaching: One Person’s Tale

Most of my adult life I have been a teacher. And on this day of Thanksgiving, I give thanks for the six decades I have been with students.

As a teacher, however, I winced whenever someone disrespected what I and others did not only for a living but a calling. Sometimes I did more than wince by responding in words at the moment or wrote about it later. 

One incident occurred to me over 40 years ago when I worked in the Washington, D.C. schools that was an act of disrespect for teaching. Sure, four decades ago is ancient history so readers will have to judge whether the disrespect displayed in the incident continues today or is merely a historical curiosity.

I wrote the following piece for a Washington alternative journal in 1971.

********************************************************************

I have taught off and on for nearly fifteen years. When not teaching, I have been an administrator…. I directed an experimental teaching project called the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching 1963-1967. [Afterwards] I taught half-time while writing a book. The following year, in the hope of working with others who shared my interest in [reform], I returned to administration as the Director of Staff Development in the D.C. schools. That lasted two years since the budget and program [were] gutted … by the D.C. Council….  At that point [1970] I decided to return to the classroom rather than occupy a desk [downtown].

It was an uncommon decision I discovered. To understand why, you have to appreciate the nagging guilt that haunts administrators about leaving the classroom. Talk to most central office administrators … and you will inevitably hear how important it is ‘to stay in touch with kids. That’s where the action is. How I miss it.’  When I would ask why not return to the classroom, I would hear: ‘I would like to, but, you know, the money, and well, I like to make decisions, and well, I needed a change.’

Shortly after I was appointed director of staff development, I suggested at an [administrative] meeting that [their] perceptions … and sense of urgency might be considerably sharpened if [they] would teach one or two weeks and then return to [their] desks. The idea was beaten down. I began to see that administration was as much an escape from the … classroom as it was a search for status, authority, and dollars….

[Yet]  administrators deeply believe that the classroom is the backbone of education. Thus, when an administrator decides to teach, one would expect some encouragement from colleagues, perhaps a bit of support, and an easy transition. How naive I was. Disbelief, punishment, and shame dogged each step of my return to teaching….

When my colleagues found out [that I would be returning to the classroom], a wall of silence appeared. Except for some close associates, the response–when people chose to talk to me–was disbelief. They seemed to suggest by smile, smirk, or wink that I must be waiting for a good offer….For the most part, I was ignored.

In hallways when passing someone, eyes turned away…. Within two months, a series of actions, unmalicious in intent, initiated and executed in a most efficient bureaucratic manner occurred that created within me a sense of shame and failure.

The first shock came [over] salary. To teach meant taking a one-third wage cut… The Board of Examiners* informed me that my four years of administrative experience meant nothing in dollars and cents. Of my ten years of teaching, only seven met the standards set by D.C….

Next … I received a notice that said I was “demoted without prejudice.” The phrase is semantically correct. I am now on a lower rung of the school ladder and being there was my choice. [But} demoted sounded like grade school, like being pushed back to a lower group because you are dumb and misbehaving. The phrase is from the language of failure.

Then the Board of Examiners informed me a week before [I returned to the classroom] that I could not receive a regular … contract because I had never taken a college course in teaching at the secondary school level. With almost 15 years of classroom experience in three different cities, with five years experience in preparing teachers to work in [D.C.] schools, with a book and numerous articles on teacher education–I am told that unless I take a course on Teaching in the Secondary School within two years I will not be able to teach in D.C. After a pay cut, a demotion, and then a threat, I felt like I had committed a crime. What had I done wrong?

The unintentional but very destructive way a school system punishes administrators and teachers from moving freely back and forth between classroom and central office reveals [that] the stated value is: teaching is cherished; the real value is that teaching is [tough work] and unimportant; anyone with sense will get the hell out of it and the quicker, the better….”

********************************************************************

Pundits, know-nothings, and politicians on the make may praise and bash teachers in the same paragraph yet often overlooked is the disrespect for teaching that too remains hidden in organizational rules.

___________________________________

*The Board of Examiners no longer exists. Those functions have been assumed by the Office of Educator Licensure in the Office of the State Superintendent, District of Columbia

4 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, leadership

The Personal Side of Being a Superintendent

In The Managerial Imperative: The Practice of Leadership in Schools (1988), I wrote of my experiences as a superintendent, husband, and father and how the job intersected with my life during and after the workday.  Because the family side of being a superintendent is often unwritten much less talked about–especially during the Covid pandemic, I have updated this earlier version of my experiences for the current book I am writing. All of what follows occurred between 1974-1981 in Arlington County (VA).

The superintendency was both exhilarating and exhausting. As a line from a song put it “Some days were diamonds; some days were stones.” What values I prized about serving the public and educating others were enacted daily; what skills I had were tapped frequently, but even more important, the job jolted me into learning new skills and dipping into hidden reserves of energy. In short, being superintendent stretched me in ways I keenly felt were worthwhile albeit demanding. I enjoyed the job immensely. [i]

But (there invariably is a “but”) there were a number of job-related issues that arose over the years, softening my rosy assessment, forcing me to face the inevitable trade-offs that accompany the top executive post in a school district. Especially with my family.

What initially turned our lives topsy-turvy was the time I had to spend on the job after two years as a graduate student and, before that as a teacher. Prior to the superintendency I simply had more time at home.

In Arlington, my family and I usually began the day at 6:30 when I would get up with Barbara joining me in the kitchen around 7. Sondra and Janice would come down for breakfast shortly after that. If I had an early morning meeting, I would leave and Barbara would get the girls off to elementary and intermediate schools. I would get into the office most of time around 8:00 A.M. with the day often ending after 6PM except for evening meetings with community groups and Board budget meetings and then I would get home after 10PM two to three nights a week.

On those long days, I would race home for dinner at 5:00 P.M. and leave two hours later for a board meeting, work session, or some other community event. During the week, I saw my family for a few minutes in the morning and at dinner. Fatigue tracked me relentlessly the first few years; I’d fall asleep watching the evening news and take long afternoon naps on weekends.  

While we had not given too much thought to the issue of privacy, Barbara and I had made a few decisions about our family’s time together. We had agreed that Friday evening dinners to celebrate the Sabbath were high priority. I had asked the School Board to be excused from obligations on Friday evenings, and they honored my request for seven years.

A listed telephone number proved to be less of an issue than we had anticipated. I rarely received more than a half-dozen calls a week at home from parents, students, or citizens, except during snowstorms or when I made a controversial recommendation to the Board. Surprisingly, we received few crank or obscene phone calls.

Buffering the family from the demanding job was tough enough. Deciding what to do about those social invitations, where much business was transacted informally, without reducing time spent with my family troubled me.

The first week on the job, for example, a principal who headed the administrators union invited me to join a Friday night poker game with a number of principals and district office administrators that met twice a month. My predecessor, he said, had been a regular player for the three years. Moreover, it would offer me a splendid chance to meet some of the veteran staff away from the office in relaxed surroundings. Aware of the advantage in playing poker twice monthly and the costs to my family in missing Sabbath dinners, I thanked the principal for the generous invitation but said no.

Another piece of the “no” decision was the simple fact that I would be making personnel changes and a certain amount of social distance from people I supervised might be best. Over the seven years I moved or replaced at least two-thirds of the principals.

Dinner invitations also proved troublesome for Barbara and me. Invariably at these affairs, conversations would center on school matters and juicy political gossip. These evenings became work for me and difficult for Barbara who was then immersed in completing her undergraduate degree. The last thing both of us wanted to hear on a Saturday night out was more about the Arlington schools. Except for socializing with the few long-time in D.C. and new ones in the county whom we could relax with, we turned down many invitations after our second year in town.

We remained, however, part of the ceremonial life in Arlington. I ate chicken at Boy Scout dinners, sampled appetizers at chamber of commerce affairs (until I dropped out from the organization because of its persistent attacks upon our school budgets), spoke at church suppers; and represented the school board at civic meetings.

I could see now, in ways that I could not have then that entering the community as an outsider and remaining separate from existing social networks, that we paid a price in preventing the superintendency from completely swallowing our lives. But, of course, the shadow of my job, with all of its pluses and minuses, still fell over the family.

For example, our daughters (ages ten and thirteen in 1974) were not only singled out, both positively and negatively by teachers, they also had to deal with all of the complications of being teenagers, losing old friends, gaining new ones, and coping with schoolwork and family issues. The desire to be accepted as newcomers to their schools put a constant strain on both girls; from early on they were seen as being different because of their father’s position and their religion.

Active and smart, Sondra and Janice both enjoyed and hated the attention. While some teachers were especially sensitive to the awkward position the girls were in, others were callous. Principals of the schools they attended were very understanding and tried to help, but little could be done with the occasionally insensitive teacher in a classroom lesson.

When salary negotiations with the teachers union heated up, for example, two of their teachers made caustic, remarks to each girl about her father’s lack of concern for teachers’ economic welfare. The pressures were such that our eldest daughter wanted to try another school. It proved to be the hardest decision that Barbara and I made while I was superintendent. For us, her welfare was more important than concerns over what others might think of a superintendent pulling his daughter out of the public schools. We transferred her to a private school in Washington, D.C., where she began to thrive academically and socially. Of course, the local newspaper carried an article about it. Our other daughter went to a private school for one year but wanted very much to return to the Arlington schools and did so for her high school years.

Barbara was clear on what she wanted. She did not wish to be “the superintendent’s wife,” She wanted to complete her undergraduate degree and enter a profession. In seven years, she finished her degree at George Washington University, earned a masters in social work from Catholic University, and completed internships for a career in clinical social work. Between caring for a family, doing coursework, research papers, tests, and coping with a tired husband, Barbara had little time or concern for meeting others expectations of how a superintendent’s wife should act.

Yet, try as we might, it was difficult to insulate ourselves from the fact that I was the district superintendent. My efforts, for example, to keep my family and my job separate when serious decisions had to be made often did not work. Firing a teacher, determining the size of a pay raise, recommending which schools to close, and dozens of other decisions had to be made. After listening to many individuals and groups, receiving advice from my staff, and hearing all the pros and cons from my closest advisers, I still had to make the decision.

At these times, I might discuss the situation with Barbara. Often, however, there were family concerns that required our attention instead. Nonetheless, I would still come home with the arguments ricocheting in my mind about a recommendation I had to make to the Board or a personnel decision; I would carry on an internal dialogue while I was eating dinner, raking leaves, playing with the girls, or on a weekend trip with the family. I was home, but not there. Over the years, with Barbara’s help, I became more skilled at telling my family that something from the job was bothering me and that if I seemed distracted it had nothing to do with them. But I never fully acquired the knack of leaving serious Issues on the doorstep when I came home.

Sometimes, escaping the job was impossible. Newspaper articles or the television news on the schools entered our home whether we liked it or not. What did stun me, however, were the lengths that some people would go for political advantage, including destroying someone’s reputation. Elected officials, accustomed to political infighting might find such rumor-mongering trivial; however. It jolted my family and me. I’ll give one example.

Shortly before the school board reappointed me for another four years, a board member called to ask if I had ever been arrested in Washington, D.C. on a drug charge. No, I hadn’t, I told her. She said that there was a story that would appear in the next day’s newspaper stating that I had been arrested and put in jail for possession of heroin. Within the next hour, I received a dozen calls from county officials, parents, friends of school board members, and the head of the teachers’ union asking me if the newspaper story was true and if she could help. Finally a newspaper reporter called to say that they were printing the story and did I have any comments to make. I told the reporter that there was no basis for the allegation and that before printing such a lie they would do well to get a record of the alleged arrest and other documentation. The newspaper did not print the story. What shocked me most was the fragility of a professional reputation, the willingness of people to believe the worst (this occurred a few years after Watergate and well before Donald Trump served as President), and the lengths some people would go to destroy a political enemy.

The seven years as superintendent taught me a great deal about the mixing of public and private lives for officials like myself. More prosaic than senators who party or congressmen who resign or presidents who tweet daily, our experiences still map an unfamiliar terrain for a superintendent and family who tried to maintain privacy.


[i] A John Denver song the lyrics of which can be found at: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johndenver/somedaysarediamonds.html

1 Comment

Filed under leadership, school leaders

Whatever Happened To Vocational Education?

Where and When Did Vocational Education Begin?

In the mid-19th century, school reformers made the distinction between the head and hand learning in children and youth–both had to be schooled. After the Civil War, reformers introduced “manual education” into schools. Working with tools to fashion wood, iron, and other metals into useful objects, balanced the nearly total focus on academic subjects (see here and here). While adding such courses to the high school curriculum was common in the closing decades of the 19th century, separate manual training high schools in cities were also built such as the duPont Manual High School in Louisville (KY), Manual High School in Denver (CO), and Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington, D.C.

But the economy that welcomed artisans in carpentry, brick masonry, and farriers was shifting to industrial workplaces where different skills and different gatekeepers to jobs were needed.

In the early decades of the 20th century, business and civic leaders called for a different kind of “hand” schooling to prepare youth for newly created industrial and manufacturing jobs as machinists, iron and steel workers, etc. Many of these leaders had visited Germany, a global competitor now outstripping the U.S. in selling its products. They saw how Germany had established vocational education and apprenticeships in secondary schools and how these schools provided a ready supply of workers fitted to a rapidly changing industrial economy. By World War I, U.S. high schools had added “vocational” subjects to the academic curriculum and districts opened newly established, separate vocational schools.

What Problems Did Vocational Education Intend To Solve?

incorporating vocational education into the high school curriculum sought to solve two problems. First, the wholly academic curriculum of the 19th and early 20th century high school drove most students to dropping out of school while in grammar school (grades 1-8) or immediately after graduating. Adding work-related courses that could equip students with workplace skills and lead to actual jobs enticed students to continue going to school. In a democracy, Progressive reformers wanted the high school to educate all students, not just to those who prepared for college.

Second, public high schools with their concentration on academic subjects were largely divorced from the economy. As the nation became an industrial democracy, Progressive reformers pressed for a better fit between schools and the economy. In 1917, the Smith-Hughes Act had the federal government for the first time funding local schools that introduced vocational subjects into the curriculum for both boys and girls. Since then the federal government and states have repeatedly legislated vocational education as a key part of work training in U.S. high schools. Thus, Progressive educators were victorious in adding the goal of vocational preparation by the 1920s (see here and here).

Third, racial discrimination dominated the ways of bringing Blacks into industrial and skilled jobs within a highly segregated society that dictated what Blacks and whites could do for a living (e.g., trade unions banned Blacks from entering apprenticeships and journeyman postions through mid-20th century).

In the decades following the Civil War, vocational education in the Black community had a model to follow in the work of Samuel Armstrong at the Hampton Institute in Virginia and Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The vast majority of Blacks lived in the South and were tenant farmers renting acres from white landowners within a rigid racial caste system. The Hampton and Tuskegee models prepared craftsmen and women for a largely agricultural economy that was slowly shifting to an industrial one–the emphasis is on “slowly” between 1870-1930.

Subsequent reformers kept channeling minorities into vocational courses even after the Brown decision thereby continuing that school-based segregation (see here).

What Does Vocational Education Look Like in Classrooms?

Here are some classroom photos from early 20th century:

With policy criticism of vocational education as a dumping ground for minority students accelerating since the 1960s, especially after A Nation at RIsk report appeared in 1983, federal and state efforts to merge academic and vocational skills together in acquiring not just jobs but pursuing careers led to a re-casting of vocational education classes into Career and Technical Academies (see here and here)

Did Vocational Education Work?

The effectiveness of vocational education since the mid-20th century has been contested by both policymakers and researchers.

One measure of effectiveness has been getting actual jobs in the specific fields that students prepared for (e.g., trade and industry such as auto repair, electrician, brick mason, . Another measure has been preparation for a suite of jobs in the vocation or career (e.g., business, health care, sales, information technology, human service occupations). A third has been to increase participation in vocational education and career and technical education. Researchers have reached negative, positive, and mixes of both conclusions (see here, here, and here).

At best, then, the research on effectiveness of vocational education remains contested.

What Happened to Vocational Education?

Since the early 1980s, it has had major surgery. Today it is called Career and Technical Education (see here). Major infusions of donor and federal funds has re-made CTE in a darling of policymakers, especially after the merger of academic and vocational experiences that opened up routes to higher education than had ever existed under the aegis of 20th century vocational education. With the policymaker mantra that everyone goes to college, CTE leaders march in cadence to that slogan.

7 Comments

Filed under leadership, school reform policies, technology use

As More Students Head Back, Here’s What We Now Know (And Still Don’t) about Schools and COVID Spread (Matt Barnum)

This article appeared in Chalkbeat, October 22, 2020. Matt Barnum is an education journalist.

Two months ago, Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, was something of a school reopening skeptic. In places with relatively high COVID rates, like Florida and Texas, K-12 school buildings should stay shuttered to protect the health of teachers, students, and their communities, he argued.

Now, his view is changing.

“The evidence so far suggests that we can likely open schools — especially K-5 — pretty safely in most parts of the country,” he said, as long as those schools take precautions like requiring masks. “I’m getting slowly but surely persuaded that I may have been too cautious.”

That’s because where schools have reopened, things have gone relatively well, as least as far as scientists and public health officials can tell right now. Many European countries have reopened schools with apparent success, too. That consensus is pushing more schools to reopen buildings, even as case counts rise across the country, and is driving increasingly confident claims that there is little or no relationship between schools and COVID spread.

It’s also true, though, that the existing evidence is still limited, and some epidemiologists say it’s simply too soon to reach firm conclusions.

There has been no effort from the federal government to systematically track school openings and COVID outbreaks. That means we are often relying on data from those who volunteer it, and lack good information about how schools that have reopened might differ from those that have not.

Then there is the inherent difficulty of the project: It’s tough to isolate the effect of a single factor like school reopening on community COVID spread, particularly when testing data is also limited.

That tension — more data, but all of it limited — is at the heart of the school reopening debate right now, several epidemiological and education researchers suggest. Jha, for one, is optimistic.

But, he cautions, “The strength of the evidence here is shaky.”

The case for school reopening

As more and more schools across the country have reopened their buildings, many local officials say they haven’t seen a strong connection to COVID spread in their communities and that outbreaks have been relatively rare, unlike what’s happened at many universities.

In New York City, random tests of over 16,000 staff members and students turned up only 28 positive results.

In Colorado, 43 schools — out of more than 1,900 in the state — have experienced outbreaks in which public health officials documented transmission within the school building since schools began reopening in late August.

Nationally, among over 1,000 schools voluntarily reporting data, test positivity rates are very low: 0.14% among children and 0.36% among staff.

“A lot of people expected, oh, we would have 100 cases of COVID day one — and places aren’t seeing that,” said Preeti Malani, the University of Michigan’s chief health officer, referring to K-12 schools. “They’re not closing down. They’re able to find a way to continue on.” That’s pushed her to believe that schools generally can and should reopen.

A national study of childcare providers showed that those who continued working were just as likely to say they had contracted COVID as those who stayed home.

Reopenings seem to have gone well in many European countries, too. In Germany, one of the most rigorous studies on the question found reopening schools was actually linked to lower, not higher, rates of COVID spread.

It’s also clear that children are less likely to suffer severe symptoms from COVID, and deaths among children are very rare (although Black and Hispanic children have been disproportionately affected).

A recent overview of research from around the world concluded that “widespread transmission can occur among school-age children, but that there is very little evidence, at least in the context of relatively low community transmission, that schools have been a driver of transmission.”

Jha says the growing collection of data points has swayed his opinion. “I’ve got eight or 10 pieces of data, every one of which is super weak — but they’re all pointing in the same direction,” he said.

There is also largely undisputed evidence that school closures do major harm to students, academically and otherwise.

“Not only are there benefits to being in school, there are also risks of not being in school,” said Sarah Cohodes, an education researcher at Teachers College at Columbia University.

Instances of child neglect have likely gone unreported. Children are more socially isolated.And they have missed months of in-person instruction, with uneven remote learning. One recent study out of Belgium, using actual student test scores, showed sharp declines in learning.

“The evidence in terms of learning is clear — that learning is better in person, especially for younger children,” said Cohodes, who has compiled research on a number of aspects of COVID and education.

Alicia Riley, a postdoctoral scholar in epidemiology at UC San Francisco, goes further, noting that some prior research has even found that more education helps people lead longer lives. In other words, keeping schools closed may have its own long-term deleterious effects on health.

“Our concepts of safety — we’re only calculating in the COVID risk,” she said. “But if we’re thinking about the real long-term health harms, schooling is protective for health.”

The case for reopening caution, and better data

Some epidemiologists view the same data with more wariness.

“I think it’s premature to say that school reopening has been successful. For a start, it’s an ongoing process linked to what’s happening in the community generally,” said Zoë Hyde, a senior research officer at the University of Western Australia. “If community trans mission rises, then you will see outbreaks in schools. This has become very apparent in Europe as they battle their second wave.”

A number of experts are concerned that we’re not getting a full picture because of incomplete testing. “While we know we are only seeing part of ‘the iceberg’ of all infections, we don’t know exactly how much of that iceberg we are seeing,” said Kim Powers, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina.

That may be particularly concerning with children, who are often asymptomatic and thus less likely to be tested. “It’s quite likely that we’re not spotting a lot of the infections which are occurring in children,” said Hyde.

“If we’re just doing symptomatic testing and we’re only counting cases in which kids are symptomatic, it’s kind of impossible to trace this adequately and to really understand what’s going on,” agreed Riley.

Meanwhile, there’s general agreement that existing data is insufficient, and that it can be difficult to generalize the conclusions.

The tracker of COVID test results from schools being compiled by Brown researcher Emily Oster and others, for instance — the most comprehensive national database available — is only able to include the fraction of public schools that voluntarily provide information, with results that may not be representative. The study of childcare workers was also based on an online survey that the researchers described as “not fully representative.”

Other international research acknowledges that it simply cannot disentangle the effect of school reopenings from many other factors. Pinning down how outside factors — low rates of community spread, many students staying home, mild temperatures allowing for open windows and good ventilation — might have contributed to success stories could guide school officials elsewhere.

There is also some evidence on the other side of the ledger, though it comes with its own caveats. Data compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics show that the number of children with new COVID cases has been rising slightly in recent weeks, though that doesn’t mean cases are necessarily linked to schools.

Idaho has seen upticks in cases among children and adults, with the governor saying reopened schools has been one factor. In suburban Salt Lake City, a school district saw cases rapidly emerge at some of its schools, forcing a shutdown of three high schools and a middle school. In different parts of the country, reported COVID cases in schools or among school staff have continued to tick up, though the numbers appear relatively low overall.

A recent Swedish study found evidence that COVID infection rates were higher among teachers (and their partners) whose schools didn’t close this spring, compared to teachers whose schools did close. (Notably, mask use in schools did not appear to be widespread at the time.)

“The overarching message is that the evidence is still evolving and pretty scant,” said Rebecca Haffajee, a health policy researcher at RAND.

Meanwhile, reopening buildings right now comes with its own often unacknowledged trade-offs. Since many districts are still allowing students to learn from home, and some only allow students in a few days a week, teachers have had to divide their attention between students who still learn virtually and those who are in person. It also means time and energy is being spent on building safety rather than improving the online instruction that many students will still rely on.

Ultimately, there is widespread agreement among experts that more and better data is needed to help school leaders make decisions.

Cohodes described it as “absolutely ridiculous” that researchers have been left trying to collect data on their own. “The federal government should have set out guidelines for collecting this and worked with state departments of education,” she said.

“All of this is frustrating to me because we’re in such a weak data zone and we should have much better data,” said Jha.

Just this week, though, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos described this as not her job. “I’m not sure there’s a role at the department to collect and compile that research,” she said.

4 Comments

Filed under leadership, raising children, technology use

Schools and the Pandemic Recession

As a tempered optimist about the power of schools to shape the lives of both adults and children, this post, I confess, will depress readers. Stop reading if you already feel blue during the pandemic.

I have no upbeat news. For schools, as for the rest of the economy, the news is downbeat. Uncertainty continues to surround any prevention and treatment of Covid-19. The lack of any coherent guidelines for opening schools and proper ways of dealing with the stubborn virus from the President and U.S. Secretary of Education is shocking in its negligence of an institution critical to the nation’s future.

Of even greater importance is that the President and Congress have yet to agree on a stimulus package to reduce unemployment and rescue small and medium-sized businesses from permanent closure. And with the election weeks away, chances of another federally funded trillion dollar-plus infusion into the economy, including schools is, well, dim. Already states–the primary funder of public schools across the nation’s 13,000-plus districts–have begun to either maintain (rather than raise) funding or include cuts in school funding for K-12 schools (see here and here).

Recovery from the pandemic recession may take longer than the previous Great Recession in 2008. The bounce back in state funding after the Great Recession has yet to occur (see here ). As the federal government continues to delay action until January when either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is inaugurated President, the situation worsens.

So schools for 2020-2021 and the following year will have to retrench. “Retrench” is a euphemism for laying off school employees, half of whom are teachers.

And laying off employees occurs at a time when taxpayers and parents continue their beliefs in schools graduating young men and women ready to enter the workforce, not unemployment lines, and thereby strengthen the economy. Even when remote instruction and limited in-person interaction are happening across 13,000-plus districts and nearly 100,000 schools in the U.S. these beliefs persist.

The existing standards-based testing and accountability regime in place across the 50 states and territories date back to the reform movement triggered by the 1983 report A Nation at Risk connecting the quality of schooling to the strength of the nation’s economy. Although such beliefs have been in the educational bloodstream since the early 20th century when vocational education was introduced into U.S. schools, these current beliefs in how schools can bolster the economy at the same time as decreasing youth unemployment are also part of the ideology that civic officials and policy entrepreneurs continue during the pandemic.

Parsing that ideology may help clear the air about the past and current direction of public schools insofar as being linked to the economy. Politicians and policymakers shuttle back and forth between two theories about how schools can grow the economy and, simultaneously, reduce unemployment among young people.

These theories continue during the pandemic although asking corporate and civic leaders about these underlying beliefs may yield blank stares since few political and business leaders, educational policymakers and practitioners realize how ideologies are at the heart of the standards, testing, and accountability movement in place for nearly four decades.

The first theory goes by the short-hand phrase “math-and-ATMs.” The heart of the theory is that high school graduates lack the right skills for today’s companies who want highly skilled employees. Teachers didn’t teach and students didn’t absorb–think math and science courses–or learn how to use the new generation of hardware and software technologies. Yes, the metaphor of those Automated Teller Machines replacing bank tellers speak to the millions of low- and semi-skilled jobs that have disappeared in the past two decades.

This theory is favored by business leaders, politicians and policymakers because this problem can be fixed: more math and science in elementary and secondary curricula and more technology use in schools. In this way, students get the knowledge and skills to enter the labor market in an ever-changing economy.

But there is another theory that has much less to do with schools that also explains high unemployment and defects in the economy. This is, as Ezra Klein puts it, “nobody-is-buying-anything” theory. Slow economic growth and high unemployment, the theory goes, is due to the huge debt load that U.S. consumers carry from mortgages, foreclosures, student loans, and credit cards. Consumers are not buying, employers are not hiring which then means that Americans have less money to spend–and you can fill in the rest of the cycle. Multiple outcomes of this argument for what is occurring during the pandemic.

Here the policy solution is for the government to step in and cut taxes, create new jobs and fund existing ones (e.g., construction, teachers, police and fire) and help both businesses and consumers get out of debt–what was called the “stimulus” legislation during 2008 and now the first CARES Act in March 2020 (but no subsequent relief since then). Once that happens, government spending eases and federal officials turn to paying down the national debt.

Of the two theories, “math-and-ATMs” wins out every time. Why? Because politicians and policymakers know in their gut and from polls that talking about improving schools, better test scores, and college-and-career ready graduates is much easier to do. Easier than doing what?

Easier than passing a new “stimulus” bill in a polarized political climate where new jobs are created and aid to businesses occur. That no relief bill has passed since March and none appear ready to occur before November 3rd, the nation waits. As nothing occurs at the federal level, more children and families slip into poverty and Covid-19 continues its rampage. And the standards, testing accountability reforms put into place over past decades remains the reform du jour.

Of course, policymakers can pursue both theories–government stimulating the economy and upgrading what students learn but, for now during a crippling pandemic that has cratered the economy, one theory of schools and its linkage to the economy continues to dominate policy talk and action. And that dominant theory distracts Americans’ attention from the oncoming train wreck of laid off teachers and support staff, and reductions in school services . And most important, little attention paid to what needs to be done politically outside schools.

2 Comments

Filed under leadership