Category Archives: leadership

Once upon a Time…Fairy Tale Reforms

Once upon a time, there was much unemployment, poverty, and homelessness in this land. Leaders tried one thing after another to end these grim conditions. Nothing worked.

In the midst of these bad times, however, a small group of educators, upset over what our youth were learning in high schools decided to take action.

These schools were dull places. Students listened to teachers, read books, and took exams. Schools were supposed to prepare students for life but much of what they studied they forgot after graduating. Worse yet, what they had learned in school did not prepare them to face the problems of life, think clearly, be creative, or fulfill their civic duties. Complaints to school officials got the same answer repeatedly: little could be done because college entrance requirements determined what courses students took in high school.

So to give high schools the freedom to try new ways of schooling in a democracy, a small band of reformers convinced the best universities to waive their admission requirements and accept graduates from high schools that designed new programs.

Dozens of schools joined the experiment. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students created new courses and ways of teaching teenagers to become active members of the community and still attend college. For eight years, these schools educated students and universities admitted their graduates. And then a war came and the experiment ended. After years passed, few could recall what these schools and colleges did.

A fairy tale? Nope.

Between 1933-1941, thirty high schools in the country and over 300 universities and colleges joined the experiment sponsored by the Progressive Education Association.

Called ”The Eight Year Study,” each high school decided for itself what curricula, schedules, and class sizes would be. There were no college admission requirements or must-take tests. Old lesson plans were scrapped. One school sent classes into the West Virginia coal region to study unions. Science, history, art, and math were often combined in projects that students and teachers planned together.

Needless to say, there were stumbles also. A few principals blocked the experiment. Some school faculties divided into warring factions.

While there was much variation among the schools, there were also common elements. Many of the large public high schools (of the 30, fifteen were private) created small schools within the larger one. Principals increased the authority of teachers to design and steer the program; teachers crossed departmental boundaries and created a core curriculum (math/science and English/social studies), set aside three hours a day for teams to work with groups of students, and planned weekly units with students.

What happened to these students when they attended college? To find an answer, evaluators established 1,475 pairs of college students, each consisting of a graduate from an experimental school and one graduate of another high school matched as closely as possible as to age, sex, race, social class, and academic performance. They then compared their performance in college.

Evaluators found that graduates of the thirty schools earned a slightly higher grade average and more academic honors than those who attended regular high school. Furthermore, the “guinea pigs,” as they were called, were more precise in their thinking, displayed more ingenuity in meeting new situations, and demonstrated an active interest in national and world issues than their matched counterpart.

What these startling results showed over 70 years ago was that there was no one single best way of schooling teenagers. The fears that parents and taxpayers had about experimenting with high school courses, organization, and teaching proved hollow in “The Eight Year Study.”

The results of these studies appeared during World War II. The war effort swallowed up any further interest in experimenting with high school programs. Whatever the reasons, “The Eight Year Study” lapsed into the obscurity of scholarly footnotes. Later generations of reformers seldom inquired or cared about this large-scale, non-federally funded experiment that showed convincingly that schools, given the freedom to experiment, could produce graduates that not only did well academically in college but, far more important, displayed an active interest in civic affairs, were resourceful in handling new situations, and could think clearly.

So what does this eight-decade old experiment say to us in the early 21st century about school reform?

1. When engaged teachers, administrators, and students are given the freedom to experiment and the help to do it, they will come through.
2. There is no one best way of schooling youth.
3. Students can graduate high school who are academically engaged, involved in their communities, and thoughtful problem-solvers.
4. Standards of excellence that work in schools are those that are set and done locally by adults and students—not imposed from the top-down.

In 2021, federal and state decision-makers and policy elites drive school reform. They set standards, require tests, and reward/punish performance. What the “The Eight Year Study” demonstrated is that locals–-districts, schools, and practitioners—-have the expertise and can be trusted. When locals are trusted they get engaged and produce results that still stagger us looking back over three-quarters of a century.

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The Complexity of Daily Principal Decision-making

Just as the classroom teacher is in charge of the students but wholly dependent upon them to respond, interact, and learn, so too are principals dependent upon their teachers to adhere to district policies, create classrooms where students absorb lessons, and collaborate with peers and school staff. After all there is only one principal (maybe an assistant if enrollment is large enough) and there are, depending on school size anywhere from 10 to 30 teachers in elementary schools and up to 100 in larger secondary ones.The principal is a manager, the staff’s instructional leader, and politician in dealing with student rancor, parental disaffection, teacher squabbles, and district office directives.

An earlier post dealt with teacher decision-to make the simple–actually not so simple–point that teachers engage in daily decision-making before, during, and after a lesson. That engagement is a complex process that spans monitoring the classroom teaching of content and skills, managing behaviors of individual and group of students, and frequent improvising as the unexpected pops up–inevitably, I might add–during lessons.

Although the content of lessons in science or math, or English, or French or U.S. history differ, they have in common a massive inventory of decisions that effortlessly get made as each lesson is taught. Teachers, then, make hundreds, if not more, instructional and managerial decisions each day they teach. And that’s not counting what decisions teachers make when they interact with students before and after school, make contacts with parents on email, phones, or social media in and out of school. Of course, teachers interact with their principals as well. And many of those interactions involve decisions about students, parents, and other teachers.

Now, consider the complexity of a principal’s daily decision-making. Researchers shadowing principals is rare but it has occurred (see here and here). Principals keeping logs of their daily work and sharing those logs with researchers occasionally appear in the literature (see here and here). But studies that actually count decisions that an elementary or secondary principal makes daily, I have yet to find. So I have had to settle for descriptions of a principal’s typical day or examples of daily logs principals have kept to give the flavor of the rapid-fire decision-making that does occur.

Here is one example of a day-in-the-life of one principal. Jessica Johnson is Principal of Dodgeland Elementary School in Wisconsin. This day-in-the-life appeared on her blog April 26, 2009.

I am guilty of having thought as a teacher and even as an assistant principal, “What is the principal doing all day? Why hasn’t he/she done x, y or z yet?” Well, now that I’m the principal, I take back all of the thoughts I had back then, because you can just never understand what the principal does all day until you live it!

There are so many things that could happen in a day that couldn’t even be shared with staff, because: A) I don’t want to set the tone of the school by complaining B) Some information has to be filtered by me or it would just give teachers more to stress over C) There’s a lot of confidential information contained within a principal’s day. So, I want to write a list of all the crazy things that could happen on any given day.

Monday morning arrive to work at 6:30 am. Turn on the computer and start looking at my list of things to accomplish today (includes 7:35/3:05  Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, teacher observation, teacher meeting, parent conference, call McDonald’s for additional donations of ice cream coupons for student of the month awards, write monthly principal newsletter, finalize summer school course packets, sort through the junk mail still piled up from last week-because I didn’t get to it over the weekend, complete purchase requisitions, file pink copies of all purchases for budgeting, get into classrooms).

7:00 receive call from sub-caller, write down list of teachers out today—we ran out of subs so I have to figure out coverage for one of the first grade teachers. Write a note for the secretary regarding this, tell her I’ll be to the class at 8:00, but for her to keep looking for coverage.
7:05 Try to start on paperwork, but a teacher comes in to tell about a phone call she received from a parent after school on Friday regarding a bus incident—record the information to investigate.
7:10 Try to start on paperwork, but get a call from a teacher that our online student information system (for attendance and grades) is down again. Put in a call to tech director to get it fixed…send out an email to all staff that the problem should be fixed soon *hopefully*.

7:20 Parents are here for the IEP meeting…show them to the conference room to wait….no chance of getting paperwork done now. Go to get IEP information for the meeting and see the voicemail light flashing again…check it and hear that a teacher got stuck in traffic and won’t make it in time…go tell the secretary and then run back to the IEP meeting.

7:35-8:00 IEP meeting…this one went well. Now I have to run to cover that class.

8:00-8:30 Teaching a lower grade level, no lesson plans (note to self-remind teachers to get emergency sub plans/folders ready) making it up as I go.

8:30 Call from the office that one of our Emotional/Behavioral Disability (EBD) students needs to be removed from the room—an aide is coming to cover the class instead.

8:35-9:15 Remove EBD student—severe physical aggression, I’m sure I’ll have some bruises from this one—not to mention the mess the conference room is in now (we don’t have a time-out room). I’ve had my glasses broken before, so glad that didn’t happen this time. He/she finally is calm/compliant and I escort the child back to class…
Fortunately another substitute was able to come in and cover that other class now. Thank goodness, I can get to my list…
Check my voicemail—1 teacher call with a question about the new report card, 1 teacher call requesting me to come speak with her about a student, 1 parent call angry about a bus incident, another angry parent upset with a teacher.

9:20 put the sign on my door that says “I’m out in classrooms to see what students are learning” and get to each of the teachers that left me voice messages. Make a move to classrooms for walk throughs—first one has guided reading groups and centers with 1st grade kids reading amazingly well! Start to enter the 2nd classroom of the day when I’m called for on the school loud speaker (I don’t carry my walkie-talkie when I’m going into classrooms and my secretaries know only to call for me in an emergency). Hurry back to the office to find that one of our special needs children ran off from the aide (he/she has never done this before!) I make a special all-call to the staff to let them know we’re looking for ______ and then several of us split up to search….10 minutes later we find her/him in an unattended office in the dark pretending to type on a computer. Whew!

10:00-10:30 Morning Recess-I don’t end up making it out there for all 30 minutes, because I get stopped by 3 different teachers on my way out. (Question about grades deadline, information shared about a student and another technology question)

10:30-11:15 Back out to classrooms. Get into 4 of them (with a note to myself on needing to meet with a teacher for classroom management concerns)

11:15-11:45 Meet with the 4 students that had bus conduct reports. 1 has had enough to be suspended from the bus…make the phone call home and get yelled at by the parent that they can’t pick them up. I’ll spare the rest of the details. Meet with 2 other students that have “earned” after school detention for continuously disruptive classroom behavior.

11:45 Head for the fridge to grab my sandwich for lunch, but get called to a classroom for another EBD student. Fortunately, this child is calmed down much easier than the one this morning.

12:00-1:00 Lunch room duty—grab a slim fast to drink on the way. No, I’m not dieting, but I keep them in the fridge for days like today when there is no time to eat. I sometimes refer to my hour-long lunch duty as migraine hour (because it’s always loud), but I secretly enjoy this hour. Our kids sit at round tables and actually get the chance to talk with their peers. I’ve seen schools where the kids have to eat silently, but I think that’s just mean. I enjoy the chance to walk around to each table and chat with the kids. If I’m not walking around (using proximity) they do try to get away with things (however, they know that if I catch them throw any food they then have lunch room clean up duty!)

1:00 Talk to a couple teachers about student behaviors in the lunch room as they pick up classes (friend issues)

1:05 Get back to the office and secretary tells me that a parent has tried calling several times and is very angry. Go back to my office and check my voice messages—there are 6 of them (not all from the one parent)! I have a classroom observation at 1:30, so I write them all down and just call back the angry one–this parent calls daily, so I’m used to it…I’d like to tell this parent to get a job so he/she has something to do each day, but I refrain from expressing that opinion! The parent again tells me they’re going to call the school board to complain…I’m not worried, because I know that what we’re doing on the school end is the right thing and I’ve already talked to a couple school board members about this parent. Note to any potential administrators reading this—be prepared for threats such as, “I’ve got a lawyer on retainer,” “I’m going to call your superintendent,” “I’m going to report this to the school board” and “I’m going to report you to the state department of education.” If you’re doing your job right, you have nothing to worry about. I now just give them the phone number and am usually able to add, “I’ve already spoken with the superintendent regarding this issue.” I don’t like surprises or hiding things from my superintendent or the school board, so I keep those lines of communication open.

1:30-2:15 Classroom Observation: I love doing formal classroom observations, because you get to see so much more than just in walk-throughs (of the teacher,

instruction and the students). I do think I’m getting carpal tunnel, because I’m so insistent on scripting everything—gives me good information when I’m writing up the evaluation and when I meet with the teacher.

2:15 bathroom break—I seriously think this was my first one today—I’m dying!

2:20 Check with my secretary-2 more phone calls passed through to my phone—nothing major though, so I’ll check them later. Try to tidy up my desk before parent meeting at 2:30. Since I am on the run so much and hardly in my office, I have several piles on my desk. I don’t have a great system yet for organizing yet, but I know where everything is. I once had a principal that said “If you’re desk is a mess, it’s because you’re doing your job well—you’re out in classrooms and not sitting at your desk.” I’ve worked for a principal that was adamant about keeping the desk clean, but I still agree with the previous one!

2:30 Meeting with parent: she wants to request a specific teacher for next year. This is something on my list that I haven’t gotten to yet—working on the class list procedures and a letter to parents explaining why we can’t honor specific teacher requests. I explain it to her and tell her about the letter that will be coming home in a month and ask her to think about her child’s learning styles/needs and not just the teacher that the older sibling had. This isn’t how the previous principal did things, so she’s a little annoyed, but agreed to it. (Note to self—get moving on writing that letter and meeting with staff about class lists)

2:50 Pop into grade level meeting (teachers have grade-level collaboration time

2:40-3:30 on 2 week rotation. Aides cover the class 2:40-3:00 to give them someadditional time). I’d like to sit in on these meetings for the full time to help facilitate discussions on student learning, but it hasn’t happened all year.

3:00 Walk the halls quickly as students are being dismissed. I have a particular student that I walk to the bus each day and remind him/her about how to be safe on the bus.

3:05 IEP meeting…this one goes on forever. Parents are not on the same page as everyone at school. Gets quite heated and I have to do quite a bit of mediation. At 5:00 I finally say that we will have to come back at a later date to finish (No, IEP meetings do not normally last this long!!)

5:05 Back to my office…finish checking voice messages and start calling a few back (had to prioritize which ones can wait until tomorrow). Now to my list from this morning—hadn’t touched any of them! Write my principal newsletter because it was due last Friday. Check my mailbox and add it to the stack of mail from last week (never knew how much mail the principal gets—good grief!) Pull out time sheets, absence sheets, and purchase requisitions because those are time sensitive, but leave the rest. It’s 5:45 now and my husband has called three times asking when I’ll be home. I grab some files to shove in my bag, along with my flash drive so I can type up the teacher evaluation at home).


6:00 Finally home—didn’t have a bad day, but still feel like I got run over by a semi. I’d love to just lay on the couch and crash, but have to make supper, clean, play with my son. After he’s in bed I type up that teacher eval (most of it) until I’m too exhausted and go to bed at 11:45.

I must say that the kids are the easiest part of this position. I can’t even get into detail on some of the difficult conversations with parents and teachers each day that get my stomach churning (and I mean that literally…but now I am on meds for the ulcer, so I’m doing better with that!)

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

Johnson spends a great deal of her time managing tasks that are both on-going and unexpected. She is in and out of classrooms also and in short bursts of time sees parents, children, and teachers again and again over the course of one day. How typical is her day-in-the-life of a principal compared to one in a middle school or high school? I cannot say.

What I can state clearly is that Johnson blends three core roles any principal, be they elementary or secondary school site leaders, must perform: instructional, managerial, and political. Most principals focus on the managerial but they must also act as the instructional leader and deal with parents and district administrators to buffer the school from external conflict. As one would expect, principals vary in their choices of which of these roles they perform in their schools.

Thus, Johnson represents one type of principal who mixes these roles in her particular fashion. Other principals mix and match to create different blends. However principals perform their roles, it is clear that they, like teachers, make numerous, frequent, and are decision-makers every day of the school year.

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Photos on Schooling during the Pandemic

Meghan Gallagher at The 74 Million gathered photos that capture some of the effects of the pandemic year when schools were shuttered and then slowly reopened. I have selected a few of them for this post. All 52 can be seen here.

Children play in front of a school in Orlando, Florida on March 20, 2020 that was closed due to the coronavirus but will begin distance learning on March 30. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A teacher from P.S. 124 in New York City conducts remote classes on her laptop from her roof. (Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – APRIL 1: High School language arts teacher Emily Olin held her three-year-old daughter Genevieve on her lap as she distance taught her classes from her home in Minneapolis, Minn., on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Olin never imagined life like this “u2013 teaching her students virtually while tending to her own kids at the same time. There is joy, but also great anxiety in making sure everybody gets what they need daily. (Photo by Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – MARCH 29: A child dribbles a basketball at Waterfront Park in downtown on March 29, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Out of the concern of COVID-19 all of the city’s playgrounds are closed until May. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 22 : A young girl sits inside a painted circle for social distancing on May 22, 2020 In Madison Square Park in New York City. New York City is currently in its ninth week of lockdown and governmental guidelines on wearing a mask in public and social distancing are in effect. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA, UNITED STATES – 2020/07/28: A protester holds a placard that says Keep Educators Off Of Ventilators before the Monroe County Community School Corporation school board meeting in Bloomington,Indiana is experiencing a 73-percent increase in new Coronavirus infections, but local schools were due to resume in-person classes next week on August 5th. However, while some want their kids back in school, others fear schools will be a daily super spreader event, and asked the local school board to delay classes until more data is available on the spread of the virus in the community. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Seventh graders (from L) Mia Friedlander, Ella Kingsrud, Taylor Credle, Hannah Cooper and Bella Rocco follow instructions online by tutor Robin Lorch from an iPad placed on a ladder in a home garage on August 27, 2020 in Calabasas, California. – As parents across the United States come to terms with remote learning this fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, many are opting for so-called “learning-pods” to help their kids, and themselves, get through the school year. Also known as “pandemic pods”, they are popping up all over the country and consist of small groupings of children typically living in the same neighborhood who gather at each other’s homes to learn together with a tutor or teacher. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Students wearing protective masks have their temperatures checked before entering Logan Jr. High School in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. The Illinois State Board of Education has “strongly encouraged” a return to full, in-person instruction in the fall, as long as the regions are in Phase 4 of reopening. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MILFORD, MA – SEPTEMBER 11: School children are spaced apart in one of the rooms used for lunch at Woodland Elementary School in Milford, MA on Sept. 11, 2020. Milford is one of the first school districts to re-open in the state, with a hybrid model, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – OCT. 13: Students wear masks while participating in an activity with their dance pod organized by Dance Mission Theater in the Mission District of San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday, October 13, 2020. Several arts pods have popped up in San Francisco, funded by foundations for low-income kids since COVID-19 pandemic has shut down regular in-person schooling. (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
CALABASAS, CA – NOVEMBER 09: Guadalupe Duran at Lupin Hill Elementary School sprays a electrostatic disinfecting solution in the school library between the morning and afternoon “cohorts” at Lupine Hill Elementary School in Calabasas as one of the first elementary schools to open up under in L.A. County. This in the Las Virgenes Unified School District, which was the first public school system in Los Angeles county to win waiver approvals. Lupine Hill Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020 in Calabasas, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times
PASADENA, CA – NOVEMBER 12: Karen Carter teaches 4&5 year olds at Bushnell Way elementary school in Highland Park. Carter has turned her dinning room into a classroom. Carter holds an online class from home on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020 in Pasadena, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Reiffton, PA – December 11: Exeter High School basketball cheerleaders in the stands wearing masks. High School Boys Basketball, the Berks Catholic Saints vs. the Exeter Eagles at Exeter High School in Reiffton Friday night December 11, 2020. Exeter won 60-49. Everyone, including the players coaches and officials, wore masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 / Coronavirus. At midnight on Friday Pennsylvania will impose statewide restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, including the suspension of high school sports until January 4th. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 17: Parents and students protest at the Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020 in Santa Monica, CA to demand that the children be let back to school as soon as its safe. They are protesting the decision by the district to not reopen the schools this year even if the COVID-19 case rate drops later this year. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – FEB. 6: Hundreds of people rally outside City Hall after marching to SFUSD, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif. People protested against remote education and demanded schools to reopen in-person education. (Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

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Teachers I Respect and Admire–William Appling

William Appling taught choral music at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH) in the 1950s and 1960s. I met him when I arrived as a novice teacher in 1956. While nearly all students were Black coming from working class and middle-class families in the Glenville neighborhood, only half of the faculty were Black when I began teaching history. A few years older than me, Appling had been at the school directing the choir and building a reputation as a demanding teacher who loved music, performance, and his students.

William Appling teaching choral music in 1965

Decades later, one former student who became a music teacher, Dr. Marsha Kindall-Smith, remembered him in this way:

Appling also composed music, conducted ensembles and orchestras, and performed on piano and other instruments. He became an expert on the music of Scott Joplin.After years of teaching at Glenville and Western Reserve Academy, he moved to Vassar College and later New York City where he continue to compose music and perform. He died in 2008.

While I knew Appling as a colleague, I was not close to him. I knew him best through those students of his who also were students in my U.S. history classes. As in most schools, you learn the strengths and weaknesses of fellow faculty members from their students. What I learned was that Appling worked hard at his craft and was passionate about music. He demanded a great deal of attention and work from his students. He received both and for that I had great respect and admiration for William Appling.

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 4)

Why have U.S. public schools rebounded from natural disasters like Covid-19?

Answer: Americans’ social beliefs both in the importance of schooling, what a “real” school looks like, and the long-term efficiency of the age-graded school organization with its “grammar of schooling” explain why public schools gradually reopened its doors.

American confidence in tax-supported schools giving all children an equal shot at getting educated (albeit marred by continuing inequalities), receiving a diploma, and entering the labor market has been sustained through economic booms and busts, through war and peace, through closures from disasters and reopenings. [1]

While public support for tax-supported schools has wavered over the decades, it remains a trusted institution that a majority of parents support. In answer to the question: How satisfied are you with the quality of education your oldest child is receiving? Since 1999, the percentage ranged from a low of 68 percent to a high of 82 percent in 2019 saying they were “completely” or “Somewhat Satisfied.” Parents registered a drop from 2019 to 2020—the poll was done during the pandemic—of 10 points, from 82 to 72 percent satisfied.[2]

Public confidence in schools is embedded in the common picture held by most Americans of what a “real” school is like. A “real” elementary school, for example, has a teacher for each grade who manages and teaches the group for up to six hours a day. In a “real” school, students listen to teacher directions, and become literate in language and arithmetic.  A “real” elementary school has a playground, lunchroom, and allows a morning and afternoon recess for the children. Between kindergarten and the sixth grade, children follow school rules, learn to negotiate the system of explicit and implicit norms, do homework, pass tests, and graduate to the next level of schooling.

A “real” high school has daily schedules for students to attend 50-60 minute periods of instruction. In a “real” high school, subject-matter teachers stand at their doors in long hallways as students pass from one class to another; teachers sit behind a desk as students enter to study algebra, English, biology, Spanish, or history. Teachers lecture, guide large group discussions, and have small groups work on academic tasks. Textbooks, homework, and tests are ubiquitous. After school clubs and sports engage students once the final period of the day ends. That is what a “real” high school is. These features of elementary and secondary “real” schools is what historians of education have called the “grammar of schooling.”[3]

Of course, in the U.S.’s decentralized system of schooling, there is much variation in how much money is spent per student, age and architecture of buildings, the racial and ethnic makeup of the student body, and other differences. Amid those variations, nonetheless, tax-supported schools historically have grown into a standardized “real” elementary and secondary school across the nation.

Initially, in urban schools by 1900 and then across consolidated rural schools by the 1960s, age-graded school organization with its basic rules and norms guiding both teachers and students through the school year became dominant. In that half-century, the eight-year grammar school has morphed into over 100,000 age-graded public schools that now enroll 4 year olds to 18 year-old graduating seniors.  Student careers that once were limited to a few months a year attending one-room schoolhouses now spend 13-15 years in age-graded organizations. [4]

Reformers have attacked this age-graded structure and its “grammar of schooling” repeatedly for the ways it isolates and insulates teachers and students from one another, establishes standardized behavioral and academic norms, encourages competition for letter grades, and moves students in lockstep through elementary and secondary schools. Yet continued American confidence in “real” schools continues thereby explaining, in part, the resiliency of this institution since the mid-19th century.

While former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden called for schools across the country to reopen (their White House pronouncements were no more than exhortations since U.S. Presidents cannot order public schools to either shut or open their doors). The process was slow, bumpy, and marked by two steps forward, one step backward.

Neither the White House nor any national agency offered scientifically sound guidance for in-person classrooms in 2020.  The lack of reliable knowledge on the virus and course of disease combined to political and economic pressure from parents, state officials, and employers within a thoroughly dispersed system of national schooling surely account in part for the sporadic and helter-skelter reopenings that did occur.[5]

No one can ignore the fact that U.S. public schools are decentralized.   In nearly all 50 states (except Hawaii) responsible for schooling the young delegate each state delegates its operational authority to school districts. Thus, there are now 13,000-plus districts in the U.S. (there were 200,000 in 1910) that use federal, state, and local funds to operate schools as they see fit. Given this official system of decentralization, some states and districts reopened completely, others stuck to remote instruction for the entire school year, and even others shifted to a hybrid approach.Yet schools did reopen to both applause and criticism. [6]

So within a society where public confidence in a decentralized system of tax-supported schools continues to run high, where high expectations reign for what “real” schools can do for both the nation and individual students, a national pandemic shuttered the economy and closed community institutions. Schools—with all of their strengths and inequalities–slowly and steadily rebounded in 2021 from this once-in-a century crisis. They are resilient institutions.

Such signs of resiliency as the capacity for absorbing unplanned and planned changes, regaining stability after natural disasters, continued innovations under uncertainty, and withstanding hardships–clearly emerged as this institution slowly returned to its familiar organization, Common Core curriculum, and customary instruction.

The dark side of resiliency

Up to now I have implicitly suggested that institutional resiliency is positive. Businesses, universities, health care systems that adapt to adversity, bounce back from disasters, and retain their flexibility are seen as stalwart institutions that serve patrons well. That many schools have recovered and now have in-person instruction across the nation surely is a plus for the economy and parents who sought relief from being at-home teachers.

But there are negatives to resiliency as well.

Constant and unrealistic talk of what public schools can do to improve society undermines confidence in what public schools can do. Since the end of the 19th century, for example, fervent reformers have repeatedly called for public schools to be agents of societal change. By educating children the “right” way—the word is in quote marks because visions and versions of “right” differed then and now—schools can banish community ills, solve national problems, and create a better society. Such dogged visions for schooling to alter the community and larger society have been ultimately disappointing in results. Worse yet, such rhetoric has bred cynicism about what schools can actually do.

When John Dewey said In his “Pedagogic Creed” (1897), “I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform,” he called for schooling to be an instrument for large change in society. That call has remained a bedrock belief among Progressive reformers since the 1920s. [7]

When President Lyndon Johnson drafted the nation’s schools in ending poverty in the mid-1960s—think The Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the belief among White House and top policymakers was that better schools can move poor boys and girls into the middle class and make a “Great Society.” [8]

Certainly schools educate individual children but they can also turn those children into adult reformers who lead the march to a better, more equal society. Today, calls for schools to press for social justice continue the Deweyan rhetoric.[9]

In addition to decades of unfulfilled rhetoric and empty words eroding confidence in what tax-supported schools can do, the “dark side of resiliency” also points to excessive patience with, even neglect of, severe institutional problems that have needed attention but in the name of maintaining political and social stability have gone untreated much less unsolved.

Consider that the history of educational and economic inequalities in American society that pervade U.S. public schools has been documented since the Civil War. The civil rights movement during the 1950s to 1970s, for example, resulted in federal court decisions and legislation ending legal segregation and many Jim Crow practices. Yet residential segregation continues in the 21st century reproducing segregated neighborhoods and schools in both cities and suburbs. So when data show that Black children are five times as likely than white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity or that Black children are more than twice as likely than white children to enroll in high-poverty schools, few expresse surprise over this fact, a truth that has been around for over a century? [10]

Persistent patience with racial, ethnic, and social class differences in America becomes all too tangible when one confronts the three tiered school system that had become apparent for decades. Even after federal and state legislation, philanthropic infusions of dollars, and much wringing of hands, this durable segregated system of schooling remains painfully obvious to current policymakers, parents, and practitioners. So another negative to resiliency is apologetic forbearance with inequalities that are plain to see, such as the nation’s three-tier system of public schooling..

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Fairfax County (VA) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 60 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet and occasionally exceed state standards and send most of their graduating seniors to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of closure. Occasionally, stellar principals and staffs will lift such schools into the second tier but that is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S, rife with inequalities, maintains social stability yet, and this is a mighty big “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth.

Because the three-tiered system of schooling has existed for well over a century, it has had a persevering resiliency that has withstood federal, state, and philanthropic interventions. An abiding example of stable inequality that continues into the 21st century.

Even during calls for transforming academically low-performing schools into citadels of high performance—such as occurred during the Obama years (2009-2017), the three-tiered system plodded on. Because of residential segregation and inadequate state and federal funding, inequalities are preserved in amber within the three-tier system of U.S. schooling, an arrangement that has soldiered on revealing the  dark side of resiliency.[11]

Unflagging rhetoric promising that schools can reform society has endured for decades as had the three-tier system of schooling that marks American society. These tenacious, futile fantasies of schools overhauling society and abiding patience with unequal schooling structures make up the dark side of resiliency.

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

Yes, public schools have survived major disruptions ranging from hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and pandemics. Yes, they are resilient institutions that have contributed socially, economically, and politically to a stable American society for nearly two centuries. Both in the past and present, school districts drafted the technologies of the day to provide schooling during and after natural disasters. 

In the most recent disruption, public schools have bounced back from Covid-19 as students, parents, and employers welcome reopened schools in 2021. Tax-supported public schools are surely resilient institutions in both positive and negative ways.

With all of their imperfections, public schools remain high in public regard as they once again adapted to emergencies and adopted new ways of teaching and learning including remote instruction. While schools rapidly reorganized teaching by pivoting to distance instruction, no district has seriously considered reorganizing the century and a half old model of schooling, the age-graded school. And that structure remains steadfast and central to the conduct of schooling in 2021. A final sign of enduring resiliency.


[1] Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[2]Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[3] Mary Metz, “Real School: A Universal Drama amid Disparate Experience, Journal of Education Policy, 4(5), pp. 75-91; David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[4] William Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century,” University of Chicago Law Review . 2010, 77 (1), p177-199.

[5] Derek Thompson, “The Whole Truth about Kids, School, and Covid-19,” The Atlantic, January 28, 2021; Susan Dominus, “Where the Schools Stayed Open,” New York Times Magazine, February 14, 2021, pp. 32-40.

[6] David Cohen and James Spillane, “Policy and Practice: The Relations between Governance and Instruction,” Review if Research in Education, 1992, 18, pp. 3-49; John Meyer, et. al., “Centralization, Fragmentation, and School District Complexity,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 1987, 32(2), pp. 186-201; the 200,000 school districts in 1910 come from Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century.

[7] John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” School Journal, 1897, pp. 77-80 at: http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm

CITE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE SCHOOLS

[8] Wikipedia, “The Great Society,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Society

[9] Brenda Alvarez,, “Why Social Justice in Schools Matter,” neaToday , January 22, 2019 at: https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/why-social-justice-school-matters

Jeanine Harmon, “Social Justice: A Whole-School Approach,” Edutopia, February 18, 2015;Crystal Belle, “What Is Social Justice Education Anyway?” Education Week, January 23, 2019.

[10] Horace Mann Bond, Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1994); James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC:: University of North Carolina Press,  1988). Emma Garcia, “Schools Are Still Segregated, and Black Children Are Paying the Price, “ Economic Policy Institute, February 12, 2020.

[11] Grace Chen,  “What Is the Race To the Top and How Will It Benefit Public Schools?” Public School Review, November 11, 2019 at: https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/what-is-race-to-the-top-and-how-will-it-benefit-public-schools

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 3)

In part 3 of this series, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades as incremental, not fundamental changes in classroom instruction.

*In 1981, 18 percent of schools had computers; in 1991, 98 percent had them.

*In 1981, 16 percent of schools used computers for instructional purposes. By 1991, 98 percent did so.

*In 1981, there were, on average, 125 students per computer; in 1991, there were 18. [i]

In these years, using classroom computers was a glistening novelty that policymakers, parents and vendors urged schools to buy and use. The beliefs then were that increased use of these seemingly magical machines would improve teaching by getting students to learn more, faster, and better. Moreover, using these devices would provide job entrée into companies that were quickly moving from analog to digital and the rapidly growing occupations of programmers, engineers, and technical support.

There was an initial Golly, Gee Whiz moment when computers appeared in school libraries and special rooms called “labs” in the 1980s.  Then, as prices for the devices fell, teachers and boosters of the technology crowed about better lessons. New software promised gains on test scores (keep in mind that the 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of high stakes standardized tests and accountability machinery).

Fast-forward two decades and the picture of access to technology in school and at home had leaped to near universal. In 2015, 94 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had a computer at home and 61 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had home Internet access. The percentages of children with computer and Internet access at home  were higher for children who were older, those whose parents had gone to college and those whose families had higher incomes. Also, higher percentages of children who were white (66 percent), Asian (63 percent), and of two or more races (64 percent) had home Internet access than did Black (53 percent), Hispanic (52 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native children (49 percent).[ii]

By 2020, as tablets and laptops sold for a few hundred dollars each, student and teacher access to a full range of electronic devices in classrooms unfolded although connecting to the Internet was spotty, lagging in rural and urban schools.  Near universal access is one thing, however, classroom use is another.  

A buying boom had brought laptops and tablets into nearly all schools, save for many urban schools serving low-income, minority students. Federal pressures to hike test scores through No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) multiplied.

By 2020, most districts had either placed mobile carts of laptops in classrooms or distributed devices to each student. By this time, most elementary and secondary teachers had learned to quietly integrate these devices into daily lessons. [iii]

In short, the once innovative device decades earlier had been widely embraced as a tool tailored now to the curves and straight lines of age-graded classrooms. The adopt-and-adapt phenomenon described with earlier reforms has turned up again with computers.

Keep in mind, however, that none of the reforms, including the absorption of technology devices, have altered substantially the school organization, curriculum, and instruction offered to children and youth. Some readers may express surprise at this statement. If so, they will need to distinguish between incremental and fundamental changes in schooling. [iv]

Types of Change

Surely, there have been incremental changes in schools over the past century. Inserting kindergarten into the age-graded 1-12 structure. New curriculum added (e.g., computer science and coding) and subtracted (e.g., cursive writing).  Teachers’ instructional repertoires expanded to include frequent small group activities, independent work, and using new technologies.[v]

 The major alterations in schools that did occur in the past directly resulted from social and political movements aimed at reforming public and private institutions to better serve people while righting wrongs that harmed many Americans. Such movements spilled over schools again showing interconnectedness with other societal institutions.

Consider the creating of tax-supported public schools—the Common School– was an outgrowth of mid-19th century social reforms. Taxing citizens with or without children to create public schools in villages, towns, and cities, engineered by Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and other reformers, was a fundamental change in what had largely been multi-aged one-room school houses and individuals securing one-to-one private instruction. These Common School reformers latched on to a more efficient structure for schooling the growing numbers of students flocking to tax-supported schools: the eight grade grammar school. [vi]

Similarly the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, and the standards, testing, accountability movement of recent decades have produced federal and state laws that protected Americans, extended first class citizenship to those who suffered second-class treatment, and sought to tie together more closely the economy and education. Each of these politically driven reform movements saw schools as places that needed improvement. [vii]

In most cases, however, calls from movement-driven reformers for transforming “traditional” age-graded schools in the 20th century that would create entirely different ways of educating the young have fallen as flat as punctured balloons. Incomplete, partial, or non-existent implementation of fundamental alterations in governance, funding, structure of and processes in age-graded schools have marked most district systems. In fact, efforts to install fundamental changes often became a series of adopted incremental ones.

Think of such past calls for reforms to turn around failing urban schools or to establish personalized instruction in every classroom. Rhetoric about transforming schools has far outpaced concrete policy action. Incremental changes have surely occurred but few academically failing schools have turned from low-performing to high-performing and most students continue to be taught with familiar classroom pedagogies in a mix of large and small groups across the nation.

Of courses, there were proposed fundamental changes that occasioned media reports. Magazines and newspapers carried pieces on non-graded schools, open-space and open classroom schools, cyber schools that had customized instruction to the needs of individual students. Pilot projects and demonstration schools appeared but then in a few years vanished.

Districts absorbed and tailored changes to fit their schools. Schools adapted changes as principals entered and exited and older teachers retired and younger teachers came aboard. The age-graded school with its persistent malleability, however, remained intact.

Testing the resilience of public schools, 2020-2021

Face-to-face instruction slowly resumed in U.S. schools for the simple reason that voters and taxpayers (including parents, of course) have historically expected both change and stability from their schools.  The turn-on-the-dime move to remote instruction was an astonishing swing yet continued teaching of Common Core academic content and skills remained a constant. But that dramatic shift in teaching and learning and a return to familiar schooling was only one of the many expectations Americans have of this public institution.

Schools, after all, are custodial institutions intimately tied to the economy insofar as permitting Moms and Dads to work either at home, the shop, or the office. Beyond feeding and housing the young, these familiar community institutions socialize children into the dominant cultural values ranging from social and civic norms–taking one’s turn, cooperating with others, pride in American democracy–to earning necessary credentials to succeed in an stratified society. In doing so, schools replicate, even reinforce norms of excellence, competition, and socioeconomic and racial inequalities that pervade America in 2021.[viii]

Reopened schools, then, again reveal those norms and still untouched inequalities but also worry parents (and teachers) about risks to the health of children and school staffs. Nonetheless, fulltime remote instruction—except for those cyber schools expressly established for those who seek credentials using that medium–will shut down, albeit in slow-motion.[ix]

Why slow-motion?

Depending upon how far vaccinations extend into the population– not clear by the start of March 2021—schools will slowly move beyond complete closures and reliance upon remote instruction (19 percent) to partially open (35 percent) or hybrid arrangements of children attending a few days a week with combined online instruction at home to full restoration of in-person schooling (35 percent). [x]

Predictions of when all U.S. schools will reopen fully range from summer to fall 2021. No one knows for sure because too much remains either unknown or uncertain about the paths that variants of the initial coronavirus will follow, whether existing vaccines will cover mutations, and, of equal importance, how long vaccine-conferred immunity lasts.

Even with these uncertainties and unknowns, public schools closed for months and slowly resuming in-person instruction have shown their resilience once again in both organization and measured use of technologies to continue instruction under unusual conditions:  All students and teachers masked; fewer students in classrooms; those students present have plexiglass separators and partitions to keep them six feet apart; many teachers concurrently teaching students sitting in their classes with students facing screens at home; no large groupings such as in lunchrooms and auditoriums. Under these conditions, face-to-face schooling resumed under uncommon restraints. Again, tax-supported public schools bounced back.


[i] Larry Cuban, “Computers Meet Classroom; Classroom Wins,” Education Week, November 11, 1992.

[ii] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom (NCES 2017-098), Executive Summary.

[iii]Cuban, Flight of a Butterfly.

[iv] Larry Cuban, “Why So Many Structural Changes in Schools and So Little Reform in Teaching Practice?”, Journal of Educational Administration, 2013, 51(2), pp. 109-125. Also see Cuban, “Parsing the meaning of School Reforms (Part 1) at: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/parsing-the-meaning-of-school-reforms/ For a critique of my distinctions between incremental and fundamental changes, see Leonard Waks, “The Concept of Fundamental Educational Change,” Educational Theory, 2007, 57(3), pp. 277-295.

[v] David K. Cohen and Jal Mehta, “Why Reform Sometimes Succeeds: Understanding the Conditions That Produce Reforms That Last,” American Educational Research Journal 54(4), pp. 644-690.

[vi] Lawrence Cremin,, American Education: The National Experience. (New York: Harper Collins, 1980); Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); Michael Katz, Reconstructing American Education. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987); David Angus, et. al., “Historical Development of Age Stratification in Schooling,” Teachers College Record, 1988, 90(2) pp 211-36

[vii] Larry Cuban, Confessions of a School Reformer (forthcoming).

[viii]Jean Anyon, “Education, Ideology, and the Hidden Curriculum,” The Journal of Education, 1980, 162(1), pp. 67-92; David Labaree, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[ix] Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, et. al..” Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019,” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, May 2019.

In 2017-18, 501 full-time virtual schools enrolled 297,712 students, and 300 blended schools enrolled 132,960. Enrollments in virtual schools increased by more than 2,000 students between 2016-17 and 2017-18 and enrollments in blended learning schools increased by over 16,000 during this same time period.

Thirty-nine states had either virtual or blended schools. There were four states that allowed blended schools to operate but still have not allowed the opening of full-time virtual schools. A total of six states have full-time virtual schools but do not currently have full-time blended learning schools.

Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs were more than four times as large as other virtual schools. Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs enrolled an average of 1,345 students. In contrast, those operated by nonprofit EMOs enrolled an average of 344 students, and independent virtual schools (not affiliated with an EMO) enrolled an average of 320 students.

Although private (profit and nonprofit) EMOs operated only 34% of full-time virtual schools, those schools enrolled 64.4% of all virtual school students.

Just under half of all virtual schools (46.5%) were charter schools, but together they accounted for 79.1% of enrollment. While districts have been increasingly creating their own virtual schools, those tended to enroll far fewer students

 (p.8)

[x] Christensen Institute, “Fall 2020 National Online and Blended Learning Survey,” at: https://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/OnlineBlendedLearning_data_2021.pdf

Survey was completed October 2021.

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series of posts, I described the times that public schools have closed because of the influenza pandemic a century ago, polio epidemics during the middle decades of the 20th century, and the disruption of schooling in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Of note, then, is that on all of these occasions the age-graded school withstood disasters and adapted, essentially remaining the primary way of organizing school for instruction. Also of note is that districts mobilized technologies of the day for emergencies (except for New Orleans) and downsized classroom usage of technology when crises had passed. Part 2 looks more closely at the uses of technology in classroom lessons.

Technology in age-graded schools before, during, and after disruptions

Only three times in the past century has technology been the primary medium of instruction. One was planned and two were unplanned occurring after natural disasters.

The planned use of technology as the primary medium of instruction occurred in the mid-1960s. Research studies comparing lessons taught via television and those by teachers in classrooms concluded at the time that learning—as measured by standardized tests—was equivalent.  So the idea that this brand-new technology might upend traditional instruction captured U.S. educational decision-makers.

 In one ambitious innovation, the federal government established television  as the primary means of instruction in American Samoa. Daily lessons aimed at each elementary and secondary age-graded classroom would appear on a monitor placed at the front of the classroom. A teacher would then follow up the televised lesson. This centralized, top-down imposition of technology lasted in Samoa and many districts until the mid-1970s when it was largely abandoned.[i]

Unplanned reliance of technology occurred twice. The first happened during the polio epidemic of 1937 in Chicago described above. Once schooling resumed, radio lessons lost its central, albeit temporary, place in teaching Chicago students.

The second unplanned dependence upon technology occurred in 2020 when Covid-19 swept across.13,000-plus districts, closing over 100,000 public and private schools and keeping home over 50 million students. Within a few weeks the dominant medium of instruction became home computers and smart phones. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, after three months of shuttered schools, 93 percent of people living in households with school-age children reported some form of distance instruction going on in their homes. Access to devices and the Internet depended upon income levels, however, another sign of historic economic inequalities plaguing public schooling. [ii]

Within a few months, as more and more scientific data became available about children and youth being less infectious than adults, more and more schools reopened under strict protocols of improved ventilation, mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing. By winter 2020-2021, hybrid forms of schooling combining in-person with remote instruction appeared in many public schools. Apart from big cities, suburban and rural districts, following health and safety guidelines, reopened. Vaccinations of teachers across the country occurred through winter 2021—as I write– reducing flare-ups of friction between teacher unions, parents, and district school boards over health and safety issues. [iii]

As most students returned to face-to-face instruction, have home laptops and desktops gone dark as remote instruction vanished, repeating what occurred with radio after the polio epidemic in Chicago?

Schools change yet remain stable during Covid-19

Remote instruction is here to stay.  Flickering screens in bedrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms will continue but in a much reduced fashion. In schools, technological infrastructure and student use will be, as before, an important but partial piece of daily lessons. And this is yet another marker of the resilience of schools to adopt changes and then adapt those alterations to the existing situation. In short, schools fight to remain the same as they absorb big and small, planned and unplanned changes. Those who study institutional change call this historical pattern “dynamic conservatism.” [iv]

And this pattern has occurred many times.

Consider kindergartens. Following the Civil War, industrialization and urban growth exploded. Family life, particularly among poor immigrants seeking jobs in cities, turned grim. To escape poverty, both parents had to work often leaving young children to fend for themselves. Left alone in crowded tenements, many children took to the streets.

At this time, some middle and upper-income mothers had introduced private kindergartens in the Midwest and New England for their own children. Borrowing the principles of play from German school reformer Frederich Froebel, these private kindergartens used blocks, sand boxes, art corners, and other ways of captivating four and five year-olds to spend a day learning rather than in the street.

Slowly, a movement led by these mothers and other Progressives of the day to get city districts to add kindergartens to their age-graded schools in order to remove very young children from the street gained political support. Especially since another purpose for these early public kindergartens was to teach immigrant parents how to best raise healthy children in densely populated, often unclean, neighborhoods. These reformers succeeded in gaining urban superintendents’ endorsements of tax-supported public kindergartens so that by the 1960s, kindergarten had become a mainstay of public schools, now relabeled K-12. 

Early childhood educators were trained within the Progressive tradition to see kindergartens as places where children could learn through play. Focus on learning to read and basic arithmetic operations were tasks for first grade, not kindergarten. Noteworthy is that when public schools adopted this reform in the early decades of the 20th century one purpose for kindergarten disappeared: teachers making home visits to help low-income parents better rear their five year-olds.

Gradual growth in school districts adding kindergartens came not only from the formation of constituencies politically tied to this reform but also from a shift in public attitudes that kindergartens were more than play. Five year-olds can learn academics. The emerging belief among policymakers and many but not all parents was that the earlier a child learns basic skills, the better chance that child will have for academic success as they move through the grades and, as economists pointed out– greater earnings as adults. [v]

Most parents view public schools as an up-escalator for social mobility that give their children an edge. Kindergartners who learned to read as five year-olds became stars in many parents’ and teachers’ eyes as they aced first grade. Even with this tension between play and academics, no contemporary reformer or parent would gain supporters for a campaign to ban kindergartens. Not for the first (nor last) time, public schools had embraced a reform modifying it to the contours of the existing age-graded school. The same practices occurred with the introduction of innovative technologies into public schools since the 1980s.

In Part 3, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades. [vi]


[i] Audrey Watters, “Teaching by Television in American Samoa: A History,” at: http://hackeducation.com/2015/06/06/american-samoa-educational-tv

Researcher Wilbur Schramm reviewed about 400 studies and concluded: “A striking fact has been presented here-the fact that about as much learning seems to take place in a TV class as in an ordinary class.” Schramm, “Learning from Instructional Television,” Review of Educational Research, Apr., 1962, Vol. 32, No. 2), pp. 156-167. Quote is on p. 164. Schramm also published Bold Experiment: The Story of Educational Television In American Samoa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1981).

[ii]Kevin McElrath, “Schooling during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” U.S. Census Bureau, August 26, 2020.

[iii] Education Next surveyed a representative sample of parents with children in late-2020 and found 53 percent of all students using distance learning and 19 percent in some form of hybrid situation between home and school. Twenty-eight percent were attending in-person. Michael Henderson, et. al., “Pandemic Suvey Finds Perverse Pattern” Students are More Likely To Be Attending School in Person Where Covid Is Spreading More Rapidly, “ Education Next Poll 2020 at: https://www.educationnext.org/pandemic-parent-survey-finds-perverse-pattern-students-more-likely-to-be-attending-school-in-person-where-covid-is-spreading-more-rapidly/

Teacher unions in big cities resisted an early return of their members to classrooms. A strike was averted in Chicago, for example. Kate Taylor, “Chicago Teachers Tentatively Agree to Return to Classrooms,” New York Times, February 7, 2021

[iv]Donald Schön, Beyond the Stable State. Public and private learning in a changing society (New YorK: W.W. Norton, 1973).

[v] National Science Foundation. “Learn more in kindergarten, earn more as an adult.” Science Daily. August 12, 2010.

[vi] For a history of kindergartens, see Nina Vandewalker, The Kindergarten in American Education (New York: Macmillan, 1908); Barbara Beatty, Preschool Education in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

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Back To School Covid Myths (Doug Green)

I have had a hard time locating actual classroom observations of hybrid teaching and learning. I did find that The New York Times sent journalists to visit seven different urban and rural districts that provided some evidence of what occurs in schools during the pandemic.

Doug Green emailed me that he had visited a small district near where he lives. I asked him to send me the results of his observations. Dr. Doug Green is a former teacher and principal in upstate New York. He blogs at https://DrDougGreen.Com

Since March of 2020, I have read countless articles about remote schooling. I have yet to see a convincing study on the relative quality of remote and in-person schooling, but I have seen many authors make unequivocal statements in favor of the in-person model. Whenever I see people stating hypotheses as facts I try to come up with reasons why they might be wrong, so here are the problems I find with the general consensus.

As part of my post-retirement professional life, I am the independent observer for a local school district. There I get to observe 120 teachers from K to12 thanks to the fact that our government doesn’t trust our principals to fairly evaluate their teachers. This allows me to base my oppositional views on empirical observations rather than “common sense.”

Myth #1. Zoom classes are clearly inferior.

From what I’ve read and seen, many if not most schools are using the “hybrid” model where kids spend every other day in school and at home attending the same class via Zoom or some other software option. This means that as a teacher, you have some students in your room widely spaced and some in boxes on your computer screen listening to what you say and seeing what you share on your screen.

All students hear and see the same instructional content regardless of where they are. All students get to ask questions and answer questions the teacher poses. The students in the room face a somewhat dystopian version of what classes use to look like while the “Zoomers” have “all the comforts of home.” Keep in mind that all homes are not created equal. Some students have their own “home office” while others have crowded conditions, responsibilities for caring for siblings, and poor or no reliable Internet access.

The hybrid model may be a downgrade for some, but it is likely an upgrade for others. It depends on each student’s learning style and home environment. To the extent higher-performing students can work at their own pace it could be better. This depends to a large extent on the ability of their parents to set up an environment conducive to learning and arranging age-appropriate supervision, and the teacher’s ability to differentiate.

Myth #2. It’s important that students go to school for social reasons.

From what I’ve seen, in-person schooling isn’t very social. Since some students have opted for full-time remote learning, in-school classes have less than half a class at a time. In my experience, eight students is a big class. The in-school students are distanced from each other and wearing masks. I have yet to see student to student interaction in classrooms. Between classes, they walk in the right lane down hallways at least six feet apart. For lunch, they eat at a distance from each other.

If this sounds like social life to you, you have my sympathy. Students go to the trouble and risk of getting to school somehow, getting up earlier, and slogging around a school environment that isn’t chuck full of fun social interactions. Students at home are free to use apps like FaceTime to have real social interaction with their peers. They can also get up later and walk about their home rather than being stuck in their sanitized seats.

Myth #3. There are no other advantages to hybrid schooling.

As a former elementary principal who had 535 students (90% poverty, 25% refugee) and no assistant, I spent more than half of my time on many days dealing with discipline. My school featured crowded classrooms and students who escaped from New York City where their parents could no longer afford to live. Most of my students were from one-parent families and suffered a lot of stress at home.

Fast forward to classrooms with less than half as many students sitting as far apart as possible and wearing facemasks. If you don’t think that this environment takes the discipline load on the principal down to near zero, you probably haven’t walked in my shoes. One of the biggest impediments to learning is caused by students disrupting classes. If you could make this go away learning overall would become more effective.

It’s popular to say that hybrid learning is negatively impacting poor students who generally attend schools with lots of discipline issues. Is it possible that some of these same poor kids who make a serious effort to learn under current circumstances aren’t the big winners? Also, while there may be stresses at home there probably aren’t many bullies.

I’m sure there are people in the trenches with different views. I look forward to hearing from you.

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Anxiety over Pandemic Learning Loss (Alfie Kohn)

Alfie Kohn has been writing and speaking about education, human behavior and parenting for more than two decades. His most recent book was “Schooling Beyond Measure and Other Unorthodox Essays About Education,” This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe on September 6, 2020.  It, along with much of Kohn’s other work, is also available on his website, www.alfiekohn.org.”

Anguish and even anger are entirely appropriate reactions to the fact that coronavirus infection rates are still too high in most areas to permit the safe reopening of schools. Not only do many of our kids miss their friends and the chance to make new ones, but school attendance also is a prerequisite for millions of parents to go to work. Also, schools provide healthy meals, which matters in a country with appalling levels of poverty and hunger.

The shutdown is bad enough. Must we also deal with the fear that children who are spending less, or even no, time in classrooms are destined to fall behind academically?

Not necessarily. The research that fuels dire warnings, which largely extrapolates from claims about “summer learning loss” (SLL), is much less persuasive than most people realize. For example, Paul T. von Hippel at the University of Texas at Austin looked carefully last year at a foundational study on SLL in low-income students and discovered he was unable to replicate its findings, partly because of problems with its methodology, such as a failure to adjust for the difficulty level of the questions.

More important, none of the research on this topic actually shows a diminution in learning — just a drop in standardized test scores (in some subjects, in some situations, for some kids).

By now we shouldn’t be surprised that older studies on SLL, along with attempts to apply it to our current situation, uncritically conflate the results of standardized tests with broader concepts such as learning, achievement, educational excellence or academic success. After all, many politicians, journalists, parents and even educators make the same mistake.

But as numerous analyses have shown, standardized tests are not just imperfect indicators; they measure what matters least about teaching and learning. And their flaws aren’t limited to specific tests or to how often they’re administered or to the way their results are used. Standardized testing itself, particularly when exams are timed or consist primarily of multiple-choice questions, mostly tell us about two things: the socioeconomic status of the population being tested and the amount of time that’s been spent training students to master standardized tests.

It is entirely possible to raise scores without improving the quality of teaching and learning at all, which means that a bump in those scores isn’t particularly meaningful. Worse, concerted efforts to raise scores often have the effect of lowering the quality of teaching and learning, which means that improved test results may actually be bad news. Indeed, several studies have found that higher scores can signify shallower thinking.

Standardized testing simultaneously overestimates students who are just skilled test-takers and underestimates talented thinkers who aren’t. Sadly, these flawed scores are still widely used to evaluate students, teachers and schools, which makes them hard to ignore, at least for the time being. But we should view skeptically any claims about education based on these scores — including the supposedly negative effects of missing school.

So, too, for those who are rightly concerned about race- or class-based “achievement gaps”: If these gaps are defined mostly by test results, the goal will be to narrow the test-score gap, which may widen the gap in high-quality instruction and deep learning. Anyone who warns that poor children will suffer disproportionately from closed schools may be romanticizing what was really going on in their schools. The pressure to raise test scores exacerbates an already disturbing dynamic by which the rich get richer and the poor get worksheets.

But is there a real academic “slide” from being out of school, as judged by high-quality, nonstandardized assessments? The honest answer is: We just don’t know.

To its credit, the meta-analysis that’s still the most widely cited source on the topic, conducted by Harris Cooper and his colleagues, was accurately titled “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores,” not “… on Learning.” But even given that narrow focus, it’s noteworthy that the declines were mostly confined to “factual and procedural knowledge” such as “math computation and spelling skills.”

In fact, some studies have shown that the capacity for thinking not only isn’t lost over the summer but also may show greater gains than during the school year. As Peter Gray at Boston College, who reviewed some of that research, puckishly proposed, “Maybe instead of expanding the school year to reduce a summer slide in calculation, we should expand summer vacation to reduce the school-year-slide in reasoning.”

What, after all, does it mean to say that children can “lose what they’ve learned?” True, time away from school may entail less exposure to academic content, but that shouldn’t be equated with — nor does it imply the absence of — intellectual development. (Similarly, let’s not forget that time away from school doesn’t mean kids can’t flourish in all sorts of other ways: emotionally, physically, artistically, socially and morally.)

Too often, schooling consists of cramming bits of knowledge into students’ short-term memories — by means of lectures, textbooks, worksheets, quizzes and homework — all enforced with grades. Many of these facts and skills are indeed forgotten, but that doesn’t mean that being out of school is calamitous. Rather, it suggests that we should reexamine what too often takes place in school.

Suppose our kids end up missing a full year of school. When they finally return, they may be unable to recall some of what they were told: the six stages of cell division, or the definition of a simile, or the approved steps for doing long division. Heck, they’ll forget even more facts once they’ve graduated. (Haven’t you?)

But over the course of a summer or a year spent at home, they are much less likely to forget how to set up an experiment to test their own hypothesis (if, when they were last at school, they had the chance to do science), or how to write a story that elicits a strong reaction from a reader (if they had been invited to play with prose with that goal in mind), or what it means to divide one number by another (if they were helped to understand mathematical principles from the inside out).

Warnings about academic loss are not just dubious; they’re dangerous. They create pressure on already-stressed-out parents to do more teaching at home — and, worse, to do more of the most traditional, least meaningful kind of teaching that’s geared toward memorizing facts and practicing lists of skills rather than exploring ideas. Parents may just assume this is what instruction is supposed to look like, partly because that’s how they were taught (and no one ever invited them to rethink this model). And if standardized tests rather than authentic kinds of assessment will eventually be used to evaluate their children, parents, like teachers, will be inclined to do what is really just test prep.

We’ve been here before. Claims of slippage in reading proficiency over the summer have led to an awful lot of kids, disproportionately Black and Latino, being sentenced to highly structured remedial summer programs. Richard Allington, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who specializes in this issue, points out that such programs, or summer homework assignments, aren’t necessary or even sensible. Rather, he and his colleagues recommend “easy and continuing access to self-selected books for summer reading” — a solution that’s also much less likely to cause kids’ interest in reading — a key predictor of proficiency — to evaporate.

When schools are finally able to open their doors again safely, let’s not return to the status quo ante covid, with its emphasis on the kind of test-focused instruction that can be lost. The good news — at a time when we’re all desperate for some — is that when the learning was meaningful to begin with, it doesn’t slip away.

Copyright © 2020 by Alfie Kohn.

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The Whole Truth about Kids, Schools, and Covid-19 (Derek Thompson)

The following article comes from The Atlantic, January 2021. “Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, technology, and the media. He is the author of Hit Makers and the host of the podcast Crazy/Genius.”

Those school boards and superintendents who continue to keep schools closed in light of this evidence have the duty of explaining to their patrons why district schools have not re-opened. Perhaps the rates of infection among adults in the geographical area are very high and they are waiting for rates to come down. Or maybe there are insufficient funds to prepare buildings to meet Center for Disease Control guidelines. Or there are too many teachers refusing to enter schools because of underlying medical condition. Or there is a lack of phase-in plans for younger children and then older ones attending.

Whatever the reasons are, district policymakers need to explain clearly and coherently why their schools have not re-opened in light of the preponderance of evidence for opening classrooms to in-person instruction. That is task number one.

Federal health officials at the CDC this week called for children to return to American classrooms as soon as possible. In an essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they wrote that the “preponderance of available evidence” from the fall semester had reassured the agency that with adequate masking, distancing, and ventilation, the benefits of opening schools outweigh the risks of keeping kids at home for months.

The CDC’s judgment comes at a particularly fraught moment in the debate about kids, schools, and COVID-19. Parents are exhausted. Student suicides are surging. Teachers’ unions are facing national opprobrium for their reluctance to return to in-person instruction. And schools are already making noise about staying closed until 2022.

Into this maelstrom, the CDC seems to be shouting: Enough! To which, I would add: What took you so long?

Research from around the world has, since the beginning of the pandemic, indicated that people under 18, and especially younger kids, are less susceptible to infection, less likely to experience severe symptoms, and far less likely to be hospitalized or die. But the million-dollar question for school openings was always about transmission. The reasonable fear was that schools might open and let a bunch of bright-eyed, asymptomatic, virus-shedding kids roam the hallways and unleash a pathogenic terror that would infect teachers and their families.

“Back in August and September, we did not have a lot of data” to make a recommendation on schools, Margaret Honein, a member of the CDC’s COVID-19 team, told The New York Times. Okay, but September was 100 days, 15 weeks, and several dozen remote-learning school days ago! Meanwhile, anybody paying attention has long figured out that children are probably less likely to transmit the disease to teachers and peers. This is no longer a statistical secret lurking in the appendix of one esoteric paper. It has been the repeatedly replicated conclusion of a waterfall of research, from around the world, over the past six months.

In May 2020, a small Irish study of young students and education workers with COVID-19 interviewed more than 1,000 contacts and found “no case of onward transmission” to any children or adults. In June 2020, a Singapore study of three COVID-19 clusters found that “children are not the primary drivers” of outbreaks and that “the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission among children in schools, especially preschools, is likely to be low.”

By September, many U.S. scientists were going on record to say that transmission in schools seemed considerably rarer than in surrounding communities. “Everyone had a fear there would be explosive outbreaks of transmission in the schools,” Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told The Washington Post. “We have to say that, to date, we have not seen those in the younger kids, and that is a really important observation.” Throughout the fall, the evidence accumulated. “Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19,” Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, wrote last October in The Atlantic, summarizing the conclusions of her national dashboard of school cases.

In a January 2021 paper, a team of Norwegian researchers traced more than 200 primary-school children ages 5 to 13 with COVID-19. They found no cases of secondary spread. The findings “demonstrate the limited role of children in transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in school settings,” they wrote. Another study by researchers at Duke University of 35 North Carolina school districts with in-person teaching found no cases of child-to-adult spread in schools. They concluded that typical mitigation policies, such as masking and physical distancing, are sufficient to prevent school outbreaks. “Our data indicate that schools can reopen safely,” they concluded, as long as such policies remain in place.

If you have been intermittently following the news about COVID-19 transmission and children and remember only the scariest reports, you likely have two questions. What about that scary South Korean study? and What about that horrible summer-school outbreak in Israel?

Let’s start with South Korea. In July, a large Korean survey found that children ages 10 to 19 spread the coronavirus about as efficiently as, or even more aggressively than, older adults. (It found that kids under 10 did not transmit the virus as much.) This frightening conclusion was widely interpreted to rule out the possibility of in-person school for any children in fifth grade or above. But in August, the same Korean research team caveated those conclusions, saying it couldn’t prove whether the children in the study were infecting their parents, or whether those parents were infecting their kids, or whether entire households were being exposed by a third party.

More infamous was the reported outbreak at a Jerusalem high school over the summer, which made headlines around the world. The New York Times’ summary was representative: “When Covid Subsided, Israel Reopened Its Schools. It Didn’t Go Well.” Here’s how the Times described the outbreak:

The Israeli government invited the entire student body back in late May. Within days, infections were reported at a Jerusalem high school, which quickly mushroomed into the largest outbreak in a single school in Israel, possibly the world. The virus rippled out to the students’ homes and then to other schools and neighborhoods, ultimately infecting hundreds of students, teachers and relatives.

The Israeli lesson seemed simple: If you open your schools, cases will explode, the outbreak will reverberate throughout the country, and people will die.

Except it wasn’t that simple. Last week, a follow-up study of the Israel cluster found that what had been universally described as a school outbreak was really nothing of the sort. At the same time that Israel reopened schools, it eased restrictions on large group gatherings. “Easing restrictions on large scale gatherings was the major influence on this resurgence,” the authors concluded. “No increase was observed in COVID-19 … following school reopening.” The causal chain described by The New York Times was backwards. The real story went like this: Relax social-distancing measures in your community without vaccines, see cases explode, and then watch the outbreak ripple into schools.

As the evidence of children’s COVID-19 risk has diminished in the past six months, the evidence that families are struggling with school closures has mounted.

“If you ask me whether we are doing our duty as a society to look after children, my answer would be ‘No, I don’t think so,’” Matthew Snape, a pediatric researcher at the University of Oxford, told me. “There is clear evidence that shutting schools harms students directly, in terms of both their education and their mental and social health.”

Although the long-term scholastic and social effects of a year of remote learning on this generation of children are not yet clear, what we know already is damning enough: Remote learning has gutted public schools as high-income parents pull their kids into private schools and bespoke learning pods. Calls to mental-health hotlines have increased. In Las Vegas, home to the nation’s fifth-largest school district, a cluster of student suicides has pushed local officials to phase in elementary schools. More indirectly, school closures also result in the delay of immunization programs, interrupt free-lunch programs, and make impossible the edifying effects of play.

Nobody should claim that children cannot transmit this virus, or that schools are “safe” during the pandemic the same way that, say, talking on the telephone with a sibling who lives 2,000 miles away is safe.

But people under 18, and young children especially, are less susceptible to infection, less likely to experience severe symptoms, less likely to be hospitalized or die, and less likely to transmit the disease than older teenagers and young adults. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why, but one theory is that it has something to do with the way the virus docks with our cells. Coronaviruses are covered by a halo of spike-shaped proteins (that’s where the name comes from: corona, as in crown). These spikes are thought to attach to another protein on the surface of our cells called ACE2. Children have lower levels of ACE2 in their nasal tissue than adults do. That suggests that, under this theory, kids would provide fewer open ports for the virus to dock, invade, and ransack the rest of the body.

Overall, school cases are a reflection of their environment. If COVID-19 is running rampant through your town and you throw a bunch of kids and adults into a building without any safety protocols, the odds are pretty high that you’re going to exacerbate an outbreak. But as cases fall across the country we have to adjust the risk calculus. The choice before us is not between “Keep the schools closed until COVID-19 is eliminated, smallpox-style, from the face of the Earth” and “Open every school immediately.”

Instead, the United States needs a focused framework, guided by science and common sense, for how to open schools as safely and as soon as possible, considering the risk to students and parents from closed classrooms, while keeping teacher fears front of mind. That plan would look something like this.

  • Reopen the lower schools. Start with day cares and elementary schools, given their reduced transmission risk.
  • Enforce COVID-19 protocols both within schools and throughout the community. That means mandatory mask wearing in public and social distancing. It also means public officials should encourage “library rules” in public space—keeping quiet, or talking in whispers.
  • Accelerate vaccination procurement and distribution. The U.S. could be well below 100,000 daily COVID-19 cases by the middle of February, at the current rate of decline. The faster we vaccinate, the faster we can get back to normal.
  • Distribute high-quality scientific information. Most important, educate teachers about the lower transmission risk of young students—and the ongoing necessity of COVID-19 protocols—to get their enthusiastic buy-in, which will naturally be contingent on our success at reducing community spread and accelerating vaccination.
  • I don’t blame teachers for keeping schools closed—yet. I blame the government and the media. Public communication about this disease has been horrendous, and the Trump White House was a fount of nonsense. Meanwhile, some journalists and professionals, in an attempt to fight back against Trump’s disinformation, leaned too heavily into COVID pessimism and clung to outdated fears about secondary spread among young kids. That’s made a lot of people unnecessarily concerned that kids are silent vectors for this disease, and made teachers feel like they were being thrown to the wolves in a country that has failed in just about every pandemic test. If I were a teacher relying on information from the mainstream press—especially a teacher in a pandemic pod that included immunocompromised relatives—I might be pretty scared of going back to school.
  • Under the banner of safety, too many people have passed along alarmist information that has contributed to a lot of misery. Americans have to learn, and accept, that the preponderance of evidence simply doesn’t support the fears that govern school policy today.

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