Category Archives: leadership

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.


Filed under leadership

Reimagining the Public High School, 2015-2020 (Part 2)

The system of public high schools in America really hasn’t undergone any kind of serious transformation in 100 years,” [ Super School Project CEO, Russlyn H.] Ali said. “It was built for an economy and a system that is no more.”

What if you’re the one who helps America rethink high school?”

“This is a challenge to empower all of America to change high school. Together, we can transform communities and build schools that inspire new possibilities.”

From these quotes taken from the website for Super School Project, philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and chief executive Russlyn Ali are interested in transforming the existing high school.

After the initial announcement in 2015, the Super School Project accepted proposals from 700 teams across the nation in a competition to design and execute a new kind of high school that would make this hardy–seemingly unchanged–institution relevant to their daily lives . A year later, XQ announced that $10 million would be awarded to 10 teams to put their ideas into practice within five years. Since 2016, nearly $140 million has gone to 19 teams to re-imagine the American high school.

Matt Barnum wrote about the project a year ago and said:

Most of the XQ winners are now up and running. There’s a Washington, D.C. school that prioritizes computer science and getting real-world internships for all of its students. Another is a racially integrated school in Memphis focused on project-based learning, whose founder applied after driving by an XQ billboard; a third is a school-within-a-school meant to mirror a high-tech office in Florida. A school in Los Angeles focuses on helping homeless students, while another in Grand Rapids is based in an old museum.

None of these grants went to schools that proposed tinkering with the century-old comprehensive high school. They proposed many changes. Yet change is an ambiguous word that needs to be parsed. The Super School Project is not in the market for “incremental changes” to the high school of 2015. They want “transformational,” “revolutionary,” or fundamental change. What’s the difference?

Incremental changes aim to end the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of existing structures and cultures of schooling including classroom teaching. By structures, I mean the goals, funding, facilities, and the age-graded school that are (and have been) basic building blocks of the system of tax-supported schooling in the U.S. By cultures, I mean the norms, expectations, and beliefs in the classroom, school, and district that color daily activities.

Promoters of incremental change view the basic structures and cultures of schooling as largely sound but in need of improvements. There are inefficiencies and ineffective practices that undermine the productivity of the system. The old car, to use a familiar metaphor, is sputtering and rusting but solid. It needs a paint job, tires, brakes, a new battery, and a tune-up—incremental changes. Once improved, the system will work as intended.

Examples of incremental changes in schools would include adding new courses to high school curriculum; introducing new tests; adopting pay-for-performance for teachers and principals; decreasing class size from 30 to 25; Each of these changes, of course, seeks increased efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

In the classroom, incremental changes would include the teacher introducing a new unit in her math course that she had never taught before. Perhaps a teacher who designs a behavioral modification plan with rewards and penalties for good and bad classroom behavior. Or a teacher who decides to use the mobile cart with 30 laptops for one of her classes.

None of this for the Super School Project. The founder and CEO reject any change smelling of incrementalism. The project seeks “fundamental changes,” designs that will go far beyond tinkering.

Fundamental changes aim to transform—alter permanently—those very same structures and cultures. The idea behind fundamental change is that the basic school structures and cultures are irretrievably flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul or replacement, not incremental improvements. That old car is a jalopy far beyond repair. We need to get a new car or consider other forms of transportation.

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then the late-19th century innovation of the kindergarten is an instance of fundamental change. Other examples would be broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, desegregation). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas. That is what the Super School Project seeks for tax-supported public schools now anchored in an information-driven economy.

Applied to the classroom, advocates of fundamental change would transform the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to one who guides students to their own decisions, who helps children find meaning in their experiences, and urges them to learn from one another. These reformers seek to upend traditional teaching where the teacher talks, students mostly listen, use a textbook for the main source of knowledge, and pass tests that determine how much has been remembered. They want classrooms where teachers organize activities that help students learn from subject matter, one another, and the community. Assessment is less taking multiple-choice tests and more working on real world tasks.

Efforts to transform high schools have a long, tortured history (see here and here). Even when fundamental changes do occur at a moment in time such as the creation of tax-supported academic high schools in the late 19th century, the innovative comprehensive high school of the 1920s or the “open classroom,” those deep and powerful changes seldom last as past efforts have shown for the following reasons:

Many changes intended to be fundamental become incrementalized. Often the rhetoric of a planned change clearly intend to make profound shifts in the current school. Recall the words surrounding charter schools, 1:1 laptops, and small high schools in past decades. Promoted by corporate leaders and public officials these innovations sought fundamental changes. Yet once they left the designers’ hands and entered schools and classrooms theses changes were either piecemeal ones where certain portions of the design were implemented and other parts were not.

Because so much work is involved in mobilizing support and resources for fundamental changes there is far more success in talking about major reforms than in adopting the planned changes. And there is even more of a gap between officials’ actions and what principals and teachers actually put into practice. Because of these gaps between talk, action, and implementation, intended fundamental changes get incrementalized and become just another spoke in the organizational wheel.

Far more incremental than fundamental changes get institutionalized in schools. It is simply easier organizationally and psychologically to add to a system than go in a different direction. Increasing requirements for high school graduation is easier than dropping the Carnegie unit which is the very basis for counting credits toward graduation and school accreditation. Shipping computers to schools and buying software is far easier than altering dominant teaching practices. Creating charter schools is actually easier than charters seeking non-graded organizations and introducing project-based learning.

Given these reform-driven efforts over the past century to re-think the American high school, one inescapable question is: why the comprehensive high school has been a tough nut to crack for fundamental reforms? The answer to the question will draw attention to the age-graded and departmental organization, the prior training of specialized teachers and college admission requirements. All of these features for decades have constituted the “grammar of schooling” in secondary education. Few of the innovations that I have seen or read about question any of these rock-hard features in rethinking high school. Why is that?

Perhaps one answer (but surely not the only one) is that there are strengths of the comprehensive high school that parents, taxpayers, policymakers, and practitioners think is worthwhile and want to keep.

The Super School Project should mind seriously the strong popular support for the existing organization and practice of high schools as their staff and consultants watch these 19 schools become high schools of the future.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

Reimagining the Public High School in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Part 1)

Since 2016, the XQ Institute has awarded almost $140 million to 19 schools across the country to “reimagine” the American high school. They have had five years to do so. Backed by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, these high schools are in the midst of putting into practice the major changes they proposed for their schools.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S. Except for essential services, businesses, schools, and public services closed in March 2020. Of the 24,000 secondary schools in the U.S. (2018), nearly all shifted from in-person classroom interactions to remote instruction. Such an immediate and fundamental shift in the medium of instruction had never occurred before in the history of American public schools.

In effect, schooling, under the shadow of Covid-19, was forcibly reimagined by school boards and superintendents. Historically, reformers have talked about fundamental change for decades and have sought such planned changes in previous incarnations of high school reform. Now, massive, sudden, and I must add–unplanned basic changes in classroom teaching and learning happened over night.

While the pandemic caused the emergency closures, such fundamental change in instruction has been sought many times in the past.

Join me in touring the past century of high school reform.  

Knowing that public high schools have changed in small and big ways over the past century is essential in making wise decisions after the pandemic recedes and high schools re-open.

In the late-19th century, the high school was a strictly academic institution catering to less than 10 percent of eligible youth. Largely enrolling nearly all-white middle-and upper-middle class sons and daughters (there were also segregated Black academic high schools such as Dunbar in Washington, D.C.), the academic course of study prepared students to attend college or go immediately into white-collar jobs in newly emerging companies and corporations. Most boys and girls at the end of the 19th century and opening decades of the 20th, however, left for industrial jobs after completing 8th grade, if they got that far.

Progressive high school reformers reimagined high school as encompassing all students from all social classes and preparing them for both the economy and living in a democracy. Thus, Progressives created a new kind of high school. The original comprehensive high school in the 1920s with its diversified curriculum catered to the broad range of student interests and aptitudes. It was an innovation that “transformed” the previous academically narrow high school of the 1890s. Since then, repeated efforts to reform the reform have occurred.

In the late 1930s, a group of Progressive educators designed an experiment for 30 high schools across the country. Called the “Eight Year Study” (1934-1942), students in these schools would not be subject to college admission requirements. Teachers and administrators, then, would have free reign to re-design–yes, re-imagine– high school in the midst of the Great Depression. No foundation stepped forward to give these schools that entered the experiment funds to carry off their re-designed schools. They did it on their own dime. Published evaluations of these re-imagined schools and outcomes for students who went to college were favorable (see here and here)

Then in the late- 1950s, former Harvard University president, James Bryce Conant, called for an overhaul of the high school; a decade later, attacks on the sterile comprehensive high school produced a flurry of alternative and “free” high schools. Ted Sizer launched the Coalition of Essential Schools in the late 1980s with its nine “common principles” and hundreds of those high schools sprang up across the nation. In the early 1990s, a privately funded venture called the New American Schools Development Corporation, later shortened to New American Schools, spread “whole school reform” models to elementary and secondary schools throughout the U.S. As one advocate put it: those seeking grants from NASDC will have to “cast aside their old notions about schooling–to start with a clean sheet of paper, and be bold and creative in their thinking, and to give us ideas that address comprehensive, systemic change for all students for whole schools.” And in the early 2000s, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured over $2 billion into creating small high schools. That effort shut down in 2009.

My point is that the XQ effort to “transform” high school is in a long line of very smart, well-intentioned reformers some of whom were well endowed with thick wallets. Again and again, they have tried to alter the comprehensive high school. And that model has changed but only incrementally. It has never been frozen in amber.

In all of those previous reforms, answers to basic questions divided those seeking major changes in the comprehensive high school then and now.

*What should students learn?

*Should all students learn the same thing?

*how should students best learn?

*Who should decide answers to these questions?

Every attempt to “transform” the comprehensive high school since the 1920s wrestled with these questions. Each generation of reformers came up with answers only to see that a subsequent generation of reformers supplied different answers to the same questions. Knowing that history and the particulars of past efforts to “transform” the high school is essential to the current cohort of XQ reformers.

Historians have gained a bad reputation by pointing out previous failures in trying to reform government, medical practice, the criminal justice system, and yes, public schools. What historians do know is that economic, political, and social contexts change and when past reformers bent their minds and hearts to “transforming” the public high school in the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, and since the 1990s those times differed greatly one from the other. History as a wise observer once said, surely doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.

For those seeking to rethink the high school, ignoring earlier reformers’ efforts is worse than burying one’s head in the sand.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

A Pivotal Moment for U.S. and Public Schools? (Part 1)

As a historian I often wonder whether individuals knew at the time something occurred that it was momentous, a historic turning point in the flow of events and their lives.

*Did President Herbert Hoover know in late-October 1929 following the crash of the stock market that the Great Depression would begin shortly afterwards and last over a decade. And he would be blamed for it?

*Did Rosa Parks know when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on that Montgomery (AL) bus that she would become the icon for the bus boycott in that city and for spurring a civil rights movement?

*Did Milo Cutter, one of the St. Paul (MN) veteran teachers who founded the first charter school in the nation, know in 1992 that City Academy would be in the vanguard of a movement that nearly three decades later would have over 7,000 schools enrolling over three million students?

*Does a college-educated, unemployed Millennial saddled with debt in the midst of the 2020 pandemic know that her odds of getting a decent-paying job, accumulating as much wealth as her parents and grandparents did are against her and that she may end up poorer than both?

The answer to the four questions is no. In the middle of an event that is in retrospect momentous, few, if any, realize it. “Retrospect” is the key word in the last sentence. Only in looking back can one realize that an event was pivotal.

There are exceptions, of course. Consider how the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln in 1865, John F. Kennedy in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 led to swift political, social, and economic changes. As these murders shook Americans, so did September 11, 2001 that launched a “war on terror.” These events were immediately recognized by most Americans as pivotal moments in the history of the nation.

In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, protests for social justice, a shattered economy, intense fires raging along the entire West coast, frequent and slow-moving hurricanes that exceed previous years, and a President for whom a majority of the country disapproves–are Americans in the midst of a pivotal moment?

I believe so but, truth be told, as a historian, school practitioner, and retired professor I have no special expertise or insight that would convince me as well as readers that I may be correct about this turning point. The fact is: I cannot look around the corner and see what is coming. But I do have some informed guesses.

*The bounce-back economy

The Great Recession of 2008 as President Barack Obama began his first term stunned the nation with a housing market that collapsed, a stock market that dropped like a lead weight in water, double-digit unemployment, and sky-is-falling pronouncements from economists and public officials. Recovery from the Great Recession in large part due to the intervention of the federal government, depending upon which metrics are used (e.g., size of Gross Domestic Product, unemployment rate, consumer spending, return of stock market to pre-2008 highs), occurred as early as 2010 and as late as 2016. Obama’s successor in the White House benefited from that strong economic bounce-back until the pandemic busted it.

The pandemic-induced recession closed businesses. laid off employees, and sharply reduced consumer spending similar to what occurred over a decade ago. What shapes the depth and length of the recovery is the degree to which the federal government intervenes (the CARES ACT of 2020 and subsequent infusions of money into the economy). Without knowing when the pandemic will end, economists do predict recovery from the recession but are uncertain whether it will be a fast or slow one (see here, here, and here)

*Third Reconstruction and Race in America

The First Reconstruction (1865-1877) freed slaves, made Blacks citizens, and gave them the right to vote in three amendments to the Constitution. The federal government instituted military rule and established the Freedmen’s Bureau to help ex-slaves own land, get schooled, and insure that they voted free of violence. Black farm ownership expanded. Illiteracy plunged. And black officials were elected mayors, to state offices, and the U.S. Congress.

A violent white backlash–the time when the Ku Klux Klan began–to these revolutionary changes were initially put down by federal troops stationed in the South but when they removed in 1877, control of state governments fell into the hands of ex-Confederate officials. That was the first Reconstruction (see here and here).

The Second Reconstruction (1954-1969) was called the civil rights movement that included the U.S. Supreme Court’s banning of racial segregation in schools and passage of the 1964 Civil rights Act with the Voting Rights Act in the following year. Both ended much of the existing de jure segregation in public facilities and led to increasing numbers of elected Black officials in local, state, and federal posts. De facto racial discrimination in employment, housing, policing, and schooling, however, remained (see here and here)

Third Reconstruction? (2013-

In 2013, after the man who had shot and killed 17 year-old Travon Martin was acquitted, three women of color formed Black Lives Matter, a nonviolent organization practicing civil disobedience. Later incidents of Michael Brown being shot in Ferguson (MO) and Eric Garner dying from a policeman’s neck hold expanded the decentralized organization across the country.

And then police killings of Black men and a woman in the first five months of 2020 triggered massive protests of both whites and Blacks across the nation. About 25 million people, according to one poll, took part in anti-police-brutality protests, that, if accurate, would make this the largest protest movement in American history.

And for the first time, two of three Americans–according to a recent Gallup poll–support racial protests. This quest for racial justice and non-discriminatory policing, many believe is the beginning of the Third Reconstruction, another effort to rid the nation of the virus of racism.

Part 2 will take up whether 2020 is a pivotal moment for doing something serious to reduce climate change, stop the erosion of democracy in the U.S.and, of course, reform tax-supported public schooling.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

Children Are Born Scientists. What If School Encouraged That? (Kristina Rizga)

Kristina Rizga is a writer based in San Francisco, co-creator of The Atlantic’s “On Teaching” project, and author of Mission High. This article appeared in The Atlantic Online September 11, 2020.

Growing up, Gary Koppelman, now an award-winning science teacher, didn’t think he’d make it to college. In elementary school in the late 1950s, he struggled with math and reading and got mostly Cs and Ds. Speaking in front of his classmates made him stutter. He was teased relentlessly, and he had very few friends. By the time he began high school in 1966, his counselor told him to forget about college.

And then, as has happened to many students, one teacher changed everything. Koppelman’s high-school Spanish teacher, Doug Cline, made a point of frequently praising Koppelman’s strengths, like his work ethic and resilience, and helped him navigate incidents of teasing and bullying. When Cline and Koppelman discovered that they shared a passion for horses, the teacher taught his student how to compete in horse shows, and Koppelman went on to win many of them.

“Mr. Cline helped me feel successful, and convinced me that my challenges will make me stronger to help others in need,” Koppelman told me late last year. We were sitting in the science lab that he designed at Blissfield Elementary, a small rural school in southeast Michigan, where he worked for 32 years until retiring in 2019.

Cline also encouraged Koppelman to try college for at least a year. In 1970, Koppelman enrolled in Eastern Michigan University to pursue a degree in teaching. There, in a class on reading methods, another teacher changed his life. His professor noticed his difficulties with reading, gave him a few assessments, and diagnosed him with dyslexia and challenges with hearing. Following his professor’s advice, Koppelman started using books on tape and seeing his teachers after lectures to receive extra help. He also realized that designing his own lab experiments and projects helped him understand how theories worked in the real world. In 1976, Koppelman graduated with a master’s degree in elementary education, near the top of his class.

Koppelman’s discoveries about his own learning challenged him to design an alternative method to teach science to all young children, including those who struggle with the lectures, textbooks, and occasional lab experiments of the traditional academic setting, like he did. What started as an empty room with a few plants when Koppelman began teaching at Blissfield in 1976 has since transformed into an acclaimed STEM lab that today gets visitors from all over the country to see its nearly 80 species of animals and more than 125 species of plants.

A few hours before our conversation, Koppelman had set up the Environmental Life Lab with a few crates filled with stuffed animals amid cages of live lizards, snakes, and insects. After our conversation, we watched two dozen cheerful kindergartners circle the room with clipboards, collecting data for their “Living or Nonliving?” project. “Is he breathing?” a girl in round pink glasses asked her classmates, who had their faces pressed against the glass cage housing a large tarantula. “Living!” a tall girl called out, when the spider suddenly moved. “What other data can we add?” a boy chimed in. “Is there water? Is there food?” All of the kids marked their clipboards. Next week, Koppelman said, this group will ask the same questions about plants: “Are trees living or nonliving? Do they move? Do they drink water? How do we know?”

As children gathered around a stuffed turtle toy to record evidence on their clipboards, Buddy, an ash-gray, 32-year-old parrot, squawked with delight. “Dustin, sit down please!” the parrot said, mimicking a teacher in the classroom next door, according to Koppelman. Like most parrots, Buddy is extremely social, and she prefers to sit in her aviary near the entrance of the lab, since children love to talk to her.

“All lessons should start with the interests of young children” is how Koppelman sums up the philosophy behind what he calls his “hands-on, minds-on” teaching approach. He tries to provide daily opportunities for students to engage with the natural world, ask questions, collect and analyze data, and work with their peers to come up with answers. “At a young age, children are so intrigued by animals and insects. I think life sciences is a powerful springboard to get them interested in earth and physical science, and then extend that into math, geography, and social studies.”

When Koppelman was growing up, he shared this curiosity about the animal world, but he rarely had opportunities to ask questions in class. After school, however, he felt free to investigate his own questions in the crop fields and forests near his family’s farmhouse: following the tracks of a fox while riding his pony, Prince; digging in creeks; and observing various insects, and then researching their names and behavioral patterns in books at home.

A 2003 review of 110 studies on children’s attitudes toward science in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia found that their interest in the subject begins to wane after age 11, suggesting that the elementary years are a key time to build and sustain engagement with science.

Studies that have looked at time dedicated to science in elementary grades since the mid-’90s, have found variation between states, but generally show an overall decline, especially in schools serving high numbers of low-income children. Meanwhile, jobs in the STEM-related fields are now projected to be among the fastest growing in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Koppelman dreamed of creating a science lab as soon as he began working at Blissfield Elementary, but for more than 20 years there weren’t any funds for it. Then, in 1999, the school received grants from a few local foundations and built a lab for the elementary grades. Today, the Environmental Life Lab is open to the more than 1,200 students in the district’s elementary, middle, and high schools. Over the years, teachers in all grades, working in subjects ranging from math to English to social studies, have developed lesson plans that incorporate the lab. Michigan’s long, harsh winters make it difficult for students to engage with the natural world throughout the school year, but thanks to the lab, students are able to learn about rain forests, deserts, and various other ecosystems in all seasons.

Dozens of fish, frogs, toads, and turtles live in a freshwater pond in a room that mimics a tropical rain forest. As students study freshwater systems by investigating the plants and animals living in the pond, they can contrast them with the other life forms in a nearby 1,500-gallon saltwater pool. Buddy lives in a bird aviary, next to a section with various species of hamsters, lizards, spiders, and snakes in an area that is set up as a desert ecosystem filled with cacti and succulents. “I specialize in hamsters,” a fifth grader who works as one of the lab’s “zoo keepers” told me.

In Koppelman’s view, children are born with all the traits of a good scientist: They are curious, eager to investigate their surroundings, and happy to experiment. But too many students enter elementary-school classrooms that extinguish that passion with lessons that are disconnected from their lives and the natural world around them. As Koppelman told me this, he was holding one of the most popular inhabitants of the lab, a bearded dragon named Harold. “Does he bite?” a second grader asked Koppelman. “Will he run away? What does he like to eat? How come he doesn’t have teeth?” Koppelman eagerly answered every question.

Inquiry-driven science classrooms in elementary grades are rare, says John L. Rudolph, the author of How We Teach Science: What’s Changed, and Why It Matters and a professor of science education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Most schools focus on factual content, he told me. You might see elementary students asked to memorize the parts of the eye, for example, and draw diagrams and write reports to supplement their learning. It’s less common, Rudolph said, for students to get the chance to engage in intellectual dialogue around questions such as “Why do humans have eyes?” or “How are the eyes of various animals different and why?”

The latter approach requires more teacher training, funding, and complex assessments, but the payoff is worth it, Rudolph said. Not only do students learn critical thinking and communication skills, they also develop an intimate understanding of and appreciation for how scientists come up with evidence and develop conclusions, which Rudolph views as a largely neglected part of science education. A lack of such understanding, he thinks, contributes to scientific illiteracy—from skepticism about climate change to growing opposition to vaccination.

The impact of Blissfield’s Environmental Life Lab has been huge: The rural district consistently outperformed state averages on standardized science tests between 2002 and 2015, and some years Blissfield Elementary scored near the top of the state, according to Linda Mueller, the school’s principal. More of the district’s students are going on to major in STEM fields in college, including alums like Jim Raines, a climate and space scientist at the University of Michigan, whose research helped send a solar orbiter into space this year, and Jodi Sterle, a swine geneticist at Iowa State University. According to several Blissfield teachers, more parents are choosing the district’s schools for their children, including the current supervisor of the lab, Kim Gray, a seventh-grade teacher who moved there with her family in 2003.

For dozens of current and former students I interviewed, work in the lab was the highlight of their time in Blissfield’s schools. “I learned that even though hamsters are the same species, they all need and like different things,” the fifth-grade zoo keeper said. “Every day feels like a field trip day,” a seventh grader told me. “The lab is so awe-inspiring in our little town,” said one high school senior, who applied to several colleges to study computer science. He credits the lab with making science and math his favorite subjects.

Even in retirement, Koppelman still came to the lab every day until the pandemic hit, but he was spending more of his time speaking at science conferences and in front of policy makers to advocate for what he views as a more meaningful way to teach science. If reading, worksheets, and standardized tests were the best way for kids to learn and show their knowledge, he told former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and state board members at a gathering in 2017, he’d never have even had a chance to go to college, much less create a STEM lab that has been used by thousands of rural students over the past two decades.

“It’s hard to explain to people who are not teachers what it looks and feels like when something in nature or science touches a child’s sense of awe and wonderment,” Koppelman said. “But my colleagues and I see it every day. That’s the payoff. There is nothing else like it.”

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Wanting Approval from Those Who You Must Judge: A Dilemma of Leadership:

In the second week of my superintendency in the mid-1970s–I came from outside the district, had no entourage, and knew no one in Arlington (VA) save the school board members who had unanimously appointed me–the head of the principals group (there were 35 schools in the district), met me in the stairwell of the Administration building and we chatted a few moments about the weather and the beginning of the school year. He leaned toward me and in a near whisper asked if I would like to join a Friday night poker game with a small group of veteran principals. He added that my predecessor and key district office administrators had played weekly for years. I paused and said: “let me think about it.”

After dinner when the kids had gone upstairs to do their homework, I told Barbara about the invitation and we discussed it thoroughly. My wife pointed out that the invitation was a very important gesture on the part of veteran administrators who had been clearly unenthusiastic when the School Board appointed me. I was an outsider and first-time superintendent who had worked across the river in the largely Black D.C. schools for nearly a decade as a high school teacher and district administrator. She pointed out that it was a splendid opportunity for me to satisfy a strong personal need that we had discussed prior to taking the post. That is, I wanted to secure the respect and approval–and eventually trust–of those who report to me. We had talked about the tension between seeking approval of subordinates who I depended upon while at the same time being in a position where I would have to judge their performance annually. She and I chewed on that dilemma for a long time.

Then Barbara reminded me that Friday nights were supposed to be set aside for the family’s Sabbath meal. In offering me the job, I had asked the Board to keep Fridays clear of any meetings or assignments. They had agreed. So after further discussion, my wife and I decided that I would the forego Friday night poker games. I called the head of the principals’ group, thanked him for the invitation and told him I would not be able to join the group.

In the seven years that I served the district, 30 of those 35 principals retired, transferred to other posts, left the district, or I fired. I never regretted that decision about the Friday night poker group.

The tension I felt, however, between wanting the approval (affection and respect as well) of those I supervised while, at the same time, being responsible for judging their performance is not peculiar to the superintendency. New principals and teachers also feel those tensions with teachers and students.

Consider the principal of an elementary school overseeing 30 teachers. That principal is the instructional leader, manager, and politician for not only those teachers but also 20 other staff members, 500 students, and 800 parents. District administrators expect the principal to raise test scores, insure that students are ready for middle school, etc. Our principal knows that she is utterly dependent upon the teachers to achieve those numbers and other goals that she and the staff have set for themselves beyond test scores.

At a time when social media are ubiquitous, if the new principal does not know herself very well and seeks the staff’s personal approval, even affection, then the principal may lean over backwards to satisfy teacher requests even when those requests challenge her judgments about what should be done for students. Teacher accounts at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram light up. In such situations, the principal evaluating teacher classroom and school performance becomes doubly hard. Were she to succumb to that need for approval from particular teachers social media will rev up. Ultimately neither affection nor respect for her work would emerge.

Similarly, new teachers who yearn for the approval and trust of their students, especially those who are super-active in using social media, wrestle with this dilemma. Teachers, like principals, and superintendents are totally dependent upon those they supervise–that is, their students–for their effectiveness as professionals. For novice teachers, particularly recent college graduates, age differences appear small in high schools and friendships beckon.

And that is where it gets sticky even for teachers of young children when it comes to getting to know each student’s personal strengths and limitations, their family backgrounds, and dreams for the future. Forging classroom relationship as a basis for learning does not erase boundaries nor distinctions between adults and students. Smudging the fundamental distinction between being the teacher and being a student insofar as authority, knowledge, skills, and professional responsibilities has earned many young teachers hard knocks when grades had to be assigned.

Knowing one’s self well enough to sort out personal needs for approval and friendship from professional responsibilities as a teacher, principal, and superintendent–especially in these Covid-19 times–is an essential lesson that novices have to learn but too often goes unmentioned and untaught. Yet leadership in classrooms, schools, and districts depend upon learning that lesson well.

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3 Lessons From How Schools Responded to the 1918 Pandemic Worth Heeding Today (Mary Battenfeld)

Mary Battenfeld is a Clinical Professor of American and New England Studies at Boston University. This appeared in Pocket. Thanks to Hank Levin for sending it to me.

Much like what has happened in 2020, most U.S. schools closed during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Their doors were shut for up to four months, with some exceptions, to curb the spread of the disease.

As a professor who teaches and writes about children’s history, I have studied how schools responded to the 1918 influenza pandemic. Though wary of painting the past with the present’s favorite colors, I see three main lessons today’s educators and policymakers can draw from how schools and communities responded to the last century’s pandemic.

1. Invest in School Nurses

School nurses were transformative when they were first introduced in 1902.

Rather than simply send sick students home, where they would miss school while receiving no treatment, nurses cared for children’s illnesses and provided health information to their families.

After a study showed that nurses cut student absences in half, more and more cities funded them. Within 11 years of the first nurse being hired, nearly 500 U.S. cities employed school-based medical professionals.

In 1919, nurse S.M. Connor, while apologizing for not doing more “owing to the handicap of the influenza epidemic,” submitted a report to the Neenah, Wisconsin school board of her work. Connor made 1,216 home visits, took children to doctors and delivered community health talks, in addition to conducting school-based examinations and follow-up.

In November 1918, New York City Health Commissioner Royal Copeland underscored the role of school nurses. Being under “the constant observation of qualified persons” gave students “a degree of safety that would not have been possible otherwise” and “gave us the opportunity to educate both the children and their parents to the demands of health,” he said in a report titled “Epidemic Lessons Against Next Time.”

2. Partner With Other Authorities

In a version of the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” a study of schools in 43 cities during the 1918 pandemic identified “planning that brings public health, education officials, and political leaders together” as key to successful responses.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Rochester, New York, school and health officials combined forces with organizations representing immigrant communities. In Los Angeles, the mayor, health commissioner, police chief and school superintendent collaborated to monitor infection rates, provide teachers additional training, and create and deliver homework for 90,000 schoolchildren.

Such cooperation also helped schools as they reopened.

In St. Louis, while schools were closed, police cars became ambulances, and teachers worked in health agencies. Students returned to school November 14, but by the month’s end the city saw a new influenza surge, leading to another school closure.

Political, health and education leaders designed a gradual reopening that saw high schools open first, followed a month later, once cases in younger children had dropped, by elementary schools. Thanks to these collaborative efforts, St. Louis had 358 deaths per 100,000 people, among the best outcomes in the country.

3. Tie Education to Other Priorities

In 1916 the U.S. Bureau of Education proclaimed that the “education of the schools is important, but life and health are more important.”

Reformers of the period, known as the Progressive Era, took that notion to heart. In addition to school nurses, they established school lunch programs, built playgrounds and promoted outdoor education.

They attacked societal barriers to child health and welfare by enacting child labor laws, making school attendance compulsory and improving the tenement housing where millions of children lived.

By the time the pandemic hit, President Woodrow Wilson had declared 1918 the “Children’s Year.” Schools stood ready to deliver not only lessons but food and health care.

When schools reopened, children could learn in what Copeland described as “large, clean, airy school buildings” with outdoor spaces.

Children playing on a Boston rooftop in 1909. Credit: Lewis Wickes Hine / Library of Congress.

Heeding Those Lessons in 2020

A century after Americans learned the importance of investing in school nurses, fewer and fewer schools employ them. Only 60% of schools have a full-time nurse, and about 25% have no nurse at all. A recent analysis concluded that reopening safely will cost an additional US$400,000 per district, on average, to hire more school nurses.

These figures are higher for urban schools that educate more students of color, poor students and immigrants, and come as the pandemic’s economic fallout is already causing districts to cut budgets.

Even so and despite the federal government’s sometimes divisive response, local communities, as in 1918, are fighting this devastating pandemic with teamwork. In Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Sacramento and elsewhere, city councils, school districts, nonprofits, and labor and business groups are working together to meet their communities’ needs.

And a movement, spurred by anger over the death of George Floyd, police brutality and widespread concerns about systemic racism, is demanding that all jurisdictions spend less on the police especially now, when the challenges brought about by the pandemic make funding for public schools more essential than ever.


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The President Has Weaponized the Opening of Schools

On Tuesday, July 7th, President Donald Trump said:

We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open,” Mr. Trump said at a forum at the White House. “It’s very important. It’s very important for our country. It’s very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall.

For all those single Moms and working parents who have been home schooling their children, managing summer activities, and wanting their sons and daughters to attend school in person in August, Donald J. Trump is behind them 100 percent. In pressing governors and local school boards for face-to-face instruction every school day, however, President Trump has weaponized tax-supported public schooling like no other President before him.

The President demanding schools across the country to re-open with children attending five days a week to get parents back to work and re-starting the economy, has, I apologize dear readers for the next word, trumped children’s and parents’ safety during a time when there is no treatment, no vaccine for the continuously and mysteriously mutating virus causing the disease of Covid-19.

Worse yet, with cuts in state and local budgets, schools will receive less money to hire more teachers, reduce class size, do health screenings, provide personal protection equipment to both teachers and students, and disinfect classrooms constantly. The President offers barely a drop in the bucket in federal funds to help schools provide the safety measures that parents (and grand-parents) must have before sending their children to school full-time.

Donald Trump’s call for schools to re-open again brings into clear view how his predecessors going back to Ronald Reagan and A Nation at Risk report in 1983 have hitched schools to strengthening the economy. Then and now, the primary reason for schooling is not to develop thinking, problem-solving, humane adults who prize their community and serve it–or even a safe place to be–but an institution that provides child care, releases parents to work at their paid jobs, provide human capital in the form of graduates entering the workplace, and thereby bolstering the economy.

As the President’s Secretary of Labor bluntly put it:

One study has suggested that if we closed all of our schools and day care for just a month–the impact on U.S. productivity would be in the order of $50 billion.

Harnessing schools to the economy, of course, is a tradition in American schooling. A century ago corporate and political leaders wanted schools to be more than academic institutions solely geared to college preparation. What these Progressive reformers wanted in the decades between 1890-1930 were schools that prepared children and youth for jobs.

Beginning in the early 1900s, academic high schools began offering elective vocational courses for industrial jobs in manufacturing and transportation, commercial occupations such as clerks, typists, and stenographers in business offices, and other posts opening up in an expanding economy. In 1917, the federal government provided funds for certain high school vocational courses through the Smith-Hughes Act. Local school boards built separate vocational high schools solely devoted to preparing students for a worker-hungry economy in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and scores of other cities (see here and here).

By the 1930s, the newly established and innovative Comprehensive High Schools gave students a choice of at least three curricula in high school. Newly hired guidance counselors helped students chose the college preparatory track, a vocational course of study or another curriculum, often called “general” that combined the two (see here).

After the end of World War II and into the 1960s, critics began attacking these multi-track high schools and separate vocational schools for being less intellectual and turning into dumping grounds for students who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do well academically. Critics in these decades pointed out that public schools had lost their way, ignoring civic and moral goals of tax-supported schools such as being engaged in the community and, after the Brown decision (1954), breaking apart the caste system that whites and minorities had been following since the Civil War ended slavery.

In these years, separate vocational schools closed. Elective courses in high schools multiplied. Students choosing curricula tracks became unpopular. Alternative and magnet schools flourished (see here and here).

Between the late-1950s and late-1970s, public schools had moved away from the dominant vocational goal that had seized Progressives nearly a century earlier. By the early 1980s, however, global competition with Germany and Japan revealed anew structural weaknesses in the U.S. economy.

Manufacturing companies closed in face of foreign competitors. Corporate CEOS cut costs by locating their work in countries where wages were lower than what they paid American workers. Economic recessions (older readers will recall the oil boycott and long lines at gas stations) with high unemployment and rising prices -called then “stagflation“) further eroded the U.S. economy. As had occurred before, business and political leaders saw education as a way of dealing with global competitors, “stagflation,” and a slowed down economy.

Public clamor over falling SAT test scores and the poor performance of U.S. students on international tests triggered a renewal of schools embracing the nearly forgotten vocational goal of public schools. Taking office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed the bipartisan National Commission on Excellence in Education. The Commission report, A Nation at Risk, stated:

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 as a people…. 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.’

Any reader over the age 40 knows what happened next. Frantic calls for schools to improve. Condemnation of U.S. students scoring low on international tests. Business and civic leaders demanded that graduates have the content and skills to enter the workplace and help companies compete globally. States stepped up and raised graduation requirements, produced higher curriculum standards, and added more tests. By the 1990s, the pattern of Presidents from both political parties favoring the economic purpose of schooling (Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton) gathered strength culminating in the election of Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and his sending to Congress the first bill enacted in his administration, No Child Left Behind. Democrat Barack Obama endorsed NCLB and its embedded standards, tests, and accountability measures for his eight years in office.

Full circle. Within less than a century the primary purpose of tax-supported schooling had gone from vocational–preparing children and youth for the workplace–to where the nation is now in the aftermath of NCLB. Schooling remains a pillar of support of the economy.

And now President Donald J. Trump, facing a pandemic that has caused unemployment rates equaling those in the Great Depression of the 1930s and, of equal importance, a re-election campaign, calls for schools to fully re-open in the fall even though the level of risk to children and their teachers continues to be debated. Many parents across race, ethnicity, and social class remain unsure of whether to send their children to school for full-time face-to-face instruction.

There are two reasons why the President has turned to the issue of re-opening schools. The first is fear. The President relied–at least until March of this year–on a strong economy carrying him to another four-term term. That reliance has disappeared with the pandemic. Re-opening schools is a way, he believes, to get back to the pre-pandemic economy. Or as one White House adviser put it: “Parents can’t work if they are forced to stay home,”

So here again in 2020, public schools have been weaponized to serve the economy.


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Moving from Teacher to Superintendent: A Political Odyssey

After teaching for fourteen years, I wanted to be an urban superintendent. To do that, I had to get a doctorate.  Accepted at Stanford as a middle-aged graduate student, I arrived in 1972 with family in tow. The two years I spent at Stanford was a powerful intellectual experience. I had told David Tyack, my adviser then, (years later my teaching colleague, co-author, and dear friend) that I wanted to get a degree swiftly and find a superintendency.

With an abiding interest in history, I pursued courses that Tyack taught in history of education but also studied political science, organizational sociology, and the economics of education. If motivation and readiness are prerequisites for learning, I had them in excess.

Moving from being a veteran teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. to becoming a researcher, I had to embrace analytical thinking over personal involvement, generalizations over particular facts. Through graduate work I discovered connections with the past, seeing theories at work in what I had done and, most important to me, coming to see the world of schooling, past and present, through political, sociological, economic, and organizational lenses. These analytic tools drove me to re-examine my teaching and administrative experiences. Informative lectures, long discussions with other students, close contact with a handful of professors, and working on a dissertation about three big city superintendents  made the two years an intensely satisfying experience.

David Tyack’s patient and insightful prodding through well-aimed questions turned archival research and writing the dissertation into an intellectual high. I learned from Tyack to frame historical questions into puzzles to be solved, even if they ran counter to mainstream interpretations.

From theorist Jim March I learned the importance of seeing organizations in multiple ways, of learning to live with uncertainty, of the tenacious hold that rationalism has upon both policymakers and practitioners, and of understanding that ambiguity, conflict, and randomness is the natural order of organizations. So whenever I hear from superintendents and principals who found their graduate preparation insufferable, I recall how different my experiences were. Those two years at Stanford turned out to be first-rate preparation for the next seven years I served as a superintendent.

After being turned down by 50 (not a typo) school boards, I lucked out when a reform-minded (and risk-taking) school board appointed me school chief in Arlington in 1974, a city of around 160,000 population at that time, just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.

For seven years I worked within a district experiencing shrinking enrollment, test scores declines, and becoming culturally diverse. The school board and I framed the central problem as the public’s loss of confidence in the district. The tasks were to reverse the downward spiral in academic achievement as numbers of minority children increased. 

With Board approval, I embarked on closely overseeing each school’s performance with specific measures assessing progress toward school board goals (e.g., increased academic achievement, critical thinking skills, growth in the arts and humanities, and community involvement).  The board and I  believed that steady pressure on school staffs wedded to ample support of teachers and principals, would lift achievement, reach the goals we set, and renew community confidence in its schools. State test results marched steadily upward, local metrics on other goals showed improvement, and parent surveys documented growing support for Arlington schools. Does sound a bit too rosy.

Here comes the “but.” Within that big picture of success, school board and superintendent policy initiatives to close small schools in the district and launch innovations aimed at changing  both school practices and the culture of the system stirred up fierce political conflicts, particularly during two economic recessions. Heading a complex organization with multiple stakeholders inside and outside the system stretched my skills and knowledge to a breaking point. During crises I learned the hard way about managing dilemmas and negotiating political and organizational trade-offs between prized district goals.

In 1981, a newly appointed school board with a majority of conservative voices had taken office. They wanted a school chief more in sync with their values than I was. I completed my contract and departed for Stanford University to teach graduate students, do research, and write.

In those seven years as superintendent, I learned the difference between solving problems and managing dilemmas that won’t go away. I found out that reforms needed jump-starting in a system but once initiated had to be prodded, elaborated, massaged and adapted as they entered schools and were put into classroom practice. In short, I learned that any successful district reform was as much political analysis, building coalitions, and mobilizing public support as it was having resources to do the job.

I also learned that problems of low achievement were intricately connected to what families and students brought with them to schools, what teachers did in their classrooms, how principals worked in their schools, and how boards and superintendents finessed (or fouled up) the intersecting political, social, and economic interests of various stakeholders. Schooling was far more complex  than I had ever envisioned when I was a teacher.

Most of all, my years as superintendent made me allergic to those who offered me then (and even now) fairy tale solutions—kissing a frog to get a prince–to improving schools and districts. I returned to academia fully aware of the complex world in which districts, schools, and classrooms operated.


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A Significant Error in Policy Thinking

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the imminent re-opening of schools in the next few months, I re-visit a post I published nearly a decade ago about a significant error that policymakers have committed repeatedly in actions taken about teachers, teaching, students, and learning. The current crisis offers officials and practitioners an opportunity to reconsider past thinking about schooling. 

As a result of inhabiting a different world than teachers, policymakers make a consequential error. They and a cadre of influentials confuse teacher quality with teaching quality, that is, the personal traits of teachers—dedicated, caring, gregarious, intellectually curious—produce student learning rather than the classroom and school settings.

Both are important, of course, but policymakers and their influential camp followers have accentuated personal traits far more than the organizational and social context in which teachers teach daily. So if students score low on tests, then who the teachers are, their personal traits, credentials, and attitudes come under close scrutiny, rather than the age-graded school, the regularities in daily practices that accompany this organization, neighborhood demography, workplace conditions, and resources that support teaching. The person overshadows the place.[i]

In attributing far more weight to individual teacher traits rather than seriously considering the situation in which teachers teach, policymakers (I include civic and business leaders) end up having a cramped view of teaching quality. Quality teaching is complex because an essential distinction is masked: the difference between “good” teaching and “successful” teaching. Both “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of quality instruction and student learning. To lead us through the thicket of complexity, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson’s analysis of quality teaching.[ii]

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching. “Successful” teaching, however, is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the

Fenstermacher and Richardson point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning. “Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching.

In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning. In making this mistake, policymakers unintentionally snooker the public by squishing together ”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, support of family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. “No excuses” reformers (see above) glide over these other factors critical to learning. Current hoopla over paying teachers for their performance based on student test scores is an expression of this conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning and the ultimate deceiving of parents, voters, and students that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.

Not only does this policymaker error about quality classroom instruction confuse the personal traits of the teacher with teaching, it also nurtures a heroic view of school improvement where superstars (e.g., Geoffrey Canada in “Waiting for Superman,” Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver”, Erin Gruwell of “Freedom Writers”) labor day in and day out to get their students to ace AP Calculus tests, become accomplished writers, and achieve academically in Harlem schools.

Neither doctors, lawyers, soldiers, nor nuclear physicists can depend upon superstars among them to get their important work done every day. Nor should all teachers have to be heroic. Policymakers attributing quality far more to individual traits in teachers than to the context in which they teach leads to squishing together “good” teaching with “successful” learning doing even further collateral damage to the profession by setting up the expectation that only heroes need apply.

By stripping away from “good” learning essential factors of students’ motivation, the contexts in which they live, and the opportunities they have to learn in school–federal, state, and district policymakers inadvertently twist the links between teaching and learning into a simpleminded formula thereby mis-educating the public they serve while encouraging a generation of idealistic newcomers to become classroom heroes who end up deserting schools in wholesale numbers within a few years because they come to understand that “good” teaching does not lead automatically to “successful” learning. Fenstermacher and Richardson help us parse “quality teaching” into distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning while revealing clearly the error that policymakers have made and continue to do so.


[i] Mary Kennedy,”Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality,” Educational Researcher, 2010, 39(8), pp. 591-598.

[ii] Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson, “On Making Determinations of Quality in Teaching,” Teachers College Record, 2005, 107, pp. 186-213.


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