Category Archives: Reforming schools

Remoralization of the Market (David Brooks)

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. This op-ed appeared January 11, 2019.

In many of the posts over the past nine years I have pointed out how schools reflect the larger society especially when policy elites press upon the schools reforms that are solutions to larger political, economic, and social issues in the U.S. For nearly four decades the drumbeat of reform has been for schools to be harnessed to the larger economy by producing “human capital,” i.e., high school and college graduates ready for a post-industrial, information-based market economy. Other purposes for tax-supported public schools have been subordinated to this economic imperative. 

David Brooks’s piece which does not mention schools once describes accurately the extreme (and amoral) focus since the 1970s on economic gains with inequality seen as just desserts for those who are not the best and the brightest. This ascendancy of judging everything through an economic lens, he argues, is bad for democracy and, I would add, for the nation’s public schools.

For those policymakers, politicians, practitioners, and parents who applaud for or rail against schools becoming strictly vocational in cranking out graduates who enter the workplace prepared for the New Economy, the context Brooks describes for this profound shift in schooling explains the power of policy elites to use tax-supported education to solve larger national problems.


Suddenly economic populism is all the rage. In his now famous monologue on Fox News, Tucker Carlson argued that American elites are using ruthless market forces to enrich themselves and immiserate everyone else. On the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are telling left-wing versions of the same story.

In an era of tribal emotionalism, you’re always going to be able to make a splash reducing a complex problem to a simple narrative that separates the world into the virtuous us, and the evil them (the bankers). But I’d tell a third story about our current plight, which is neither economic populism nor free-market fundamentalism.

My story begins in the 1970s. The economy was sick. Corporations were bloated. Unions got greedy. Tax rates were too high and regulations were too tight. We needed to restore economic dynamism.

So in 1978, Jimmy Carter signed a tax bill that reduced individual and corporate tax rates. Senator Ted Kennedy led the effort to deregulate the airline and trucking industries. When he came into office, Ronald Reagan took it up another notch.

It basically worked. We’ve had four long economic booms since then. But there was an interesting cultural shift that happened along the way. In a healthy society, people try to balance a whole bunch of different priorities: economic, social, moral, familial. Somehow over the past 40 years economic priorities took the top spot and obliterated everything else. As a matter of policy, we privileged economics and then eventually no longer could even see that there could be other priorities.

For example, there’s been a striking shift in how corporations see themselves. In normal times, corporations serve a lot of stakeholders — customers, employees, the towns in which they are located. But these days corporations see themselves as serving one purpose and one stakeholder — maximizing shareholder value. Activist investors demand that every company ruthlessly cut the cost of its employees and ruthlessly screw its hometown if it will raise the short-term stock price.

We turned off the moral lens. You probably know the example of the Israeli day care centers. Parents kept showing up late to pick up their kids. To address the problem, the centers experimented with fining the late parents. But the number of late pickups doubled. Before, coming to pick up your kid on time was a moral obligation — to be fair to the day care workers. After, it was seen as an economic transaction. Parents were happy to pay to be late. We more or less did this as an entire society — we switched to a purely economic lens.

A deadly combination of right-wing free-market fundamentalism and left-wing moral relativism led to a withering away of moral norms and shared codes of decent conduct. We ripped the market out of its moral and social context and let it operate purely by its own rules. We made the market its own priest and confessor.

Society came to be seen as an atomized collection of individual economic units pursuing self-interest. Selfishness was normalized. As Steven Pearlstein puts it in his outstanding book, “Can American Capitalism Survive?” “Old-fashioned norms around loyalty, cooperation, honesty, equality, fairness and compassion no longer seem to apply in the economic sphere.”

Anything you could legally do to make money was deemed O.K. A billion-dollar salary for a hedge fund manager? Perfectly acceptable. The Apple corporation exists because of American institutions. But, as Pearlstein notes, Apple parked its intellectual property in an Irish subsidiary so it could avoid paying taxes in America and support those institutions. It saved $9 billion in 2012 alone. This is clearly sleazy behavior. Apple employees should be humiliated and ashamed.

But today the amoralism of the trading floor governs corporate decision-making. Pearlstein quotes Carl Icahn: “I don’t believe in the word ‘fair.’” So Apple paid no reputational price when it stiffed its own country.

Social trust arises from a covenant: I give to my company, my town and my government, and they give back to me. But that covenant was ripped. Now the general perception is: When I give, they take. As we disembedded individuals from traditional moral norms we disembedded companies from social ones. Human beings are moral animals, and suddenly American moral animals found themselves in an amoral economic system, which felt increasingly alienating and gross.

We wound up with the secession of the successful, and in many parts of the country we wound up decimating the social trust that is actually a prerequisite for economic prosperity.

Capitalism is a wonderful system. The populists are perpetually living in 2008, when the financial crisis vindicated all their prejudices. They ignore everything since — the 19 million jobs that have been created, the way wages are now rising at 3.2 percent.

But capitalism needs to be embedded in moral norms and it needs to serve a larger social good. Remoralizing and resocializing the market is the great project of the moment. The crucial question is not: How can we have a good economy? It’s: How can we have a good society? How can we have a society in which it’s easier to be a good person?



Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

The Grand Scam: The Economy’s Turned Around But Where Is the Praise for Schools?*

Why is it that now with a bustling economy, rising productivity, and shrinking unemployment American public schools are not receiving credit for the turnaround? In light of scathing criticism of poorly performing public schools, the question sounds foolish. It isn’t if you consider the Great School Scam of the 1980’s.

For the last decade, U.S. Presidents, corporate leaders, and critics blasted public schools for a globally less competitive economy, sinking productivity, and jobs lost to other nations. The United States, as one highly popular report put it in 1983, had educationally disarmed itself in a hostile economic war. “If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets,” the report said, “we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system.”

And school reforms have spilled over the country since the early 1980’s. States legislated higher graduation requirements, a longer school year, new curricula, and more tests for students. This year, national school reformers using this belief in better schools as an engine for a better economy crowned their efforts with strong bipartisan support for President Clinton’s education bill setting eight national goals while establishing standards and tests to prod 15,000 school districts to reach those goals.

Reforms have occurred. More students take academic subjects than in the 1970’s. Scores on tests of basic skills are higher now than in previous decades. More students go to college than ever before. That is why I ask: Now that America outstrips Japan and Germany in labor productivity, economic growth, and share of world merchandising exports, why haven’t public schools received the educational equivalent of the Oscars?

Not even a cheaply framed certificate of merit is in the offing for public schools. For the myth of better schools as the engine for a leaner, stronger economy was a scam from the very beginning. Even though few reputable economists ever equated declining test scores with declining global competitiveness–critics of public schools did. Even though most corporate leaders knew that falling productivity was connected to shifting technologies, restructured industries, and poor managerial judgments–they joined business round tables to lobby for school reforms. Even though Presidents Bush and Clinton knew that stimulating economic growth depended far more on fiscal and monetary policies than turning around schools–they pressed for national goals and standards. The bumper sticker was: Better schools, a better economy! Thus the lack of praise for the performance of public schools as the economy has brightened exposes the deceitful political logic of a decade of school reform.

When business leaders and national public officials blamed schools for an unhealthy economy, they avoided harsher public judgments about inept governmental and corporate policies and helplessness in the face of intransigent economic cycles. The political appeal of cunningly simplistic solutions for intractable problems is not, of course, confined to public schools. The current frenzy for three-strikes-you’re-out legislation to rid streets of dangerous criminals, for example, or anti-crime bills that fund more prisons are instances of public officials desperately seeking policies that masquerade as action but have little promise of eliminating the problems that initially triggered the bleak search for solutions. Gulling the public with ersatz solutions remains politically attractive.

What makes the educational swindle tricky to uncover is that no conspirators hatched the fraud. No covey of grifters dreamed up the scam over a few beers. Business leaders, national and state policymakers, and practitioners saw the obvious political appeal of harnessing schools to building a stronger economy and dreamed that such concerted efforts to improve schools would indeed improve the economy. The media amplified the delusion. What occurred was a widespread, self-inflicted, but politically useful deception anchored in deep confusion over the many purposes public schools serve in a democracy.

For almost two centuries the public has wanted its schools to do many things. Schools have been expected to take safe care of children while they are in school six to 12 or more hours a day. Schools have been expected to bend children’s minds toward the values that each community prizes and away from behaviors like drug abuse, careless sexual activity, and other destructive acts that adults have trouble controlling. Schools have been expected to create communities of children where learning and decency are valued. Furthermore, schools have been expected to create literate citizens who can make wise public judgments, contribute to their communities, and become useful workers and entrepreneurs in the economy. Note, then, that among the many purposes schools are expected to achieve, one is clearly economic. The scam begins here with a sleight of hand regarding these purposes.

No one seriously expects 15,000 school districts to set fiscal and monetary policy for the nation’s economy. No one seriously expects schools to generate millions of high-wage jobs. No one seriously expects schools to make pricing or factory-relocation decisions. What most Americans expect of their schools is to equip students adequately for future entry into the workplace. For there is a clear connection between schooling and the benefits accruing to individual students.

Few doubt the compelling statistics that the more formal schooling an individual completes, the higher the lifetime earnings. High school dropouts, on average, earn less than high school graduates, who earn less than those who complete college. While such figures vary by gender, class, and race the link between years of schooling and income has remained strong. Confusing the individual benefits of schooling with the alleged collective benefits that schools confer upon the larger economy is the shell game that has been played out over the last decade.

Thus, state and federal school policies that enhance the chances of teenagers to enter the job market, such as apprenticeships and business-school partnerships, especially in cities, are consistent with the school’s role in helping individual students. But other governmental policies setting national goals, curriculum, and tests stem from the illusory belief that such goals, standards, and tests in public schools will improve the economy. Such reforms have little to do with increased productivity, job growth, low annual rates of inflation, and other economic indicators. They have little to do with helping impoverished youths in cities get jobs.

The lack of praise for the work done by schools after a decade of energetic school reform reveals so clearly the skillfully concocted deception about the causal connection between better schools and a healthier economy. The scam may be politically appealing but, undebated or ignored, it remains a swindle that further diminishes public confidence in schools.


*I wrote this commentary for Education Week, June  15, 1994. Twenty-five years later, with updated references, I could ask the same question.



Filed under Reforming schools

Donors Reforming Schools in the U.S. (Part 4)

As a teacher, superintendent, and professor I have been fortunate in receiving grants from donors over the decades. Small, middle-sized, and large grants came to support and expand my efforts in classrooms (e.g., Teacher Innovation Fund in Washington, D.C.), district (e.g., helping non-English speaking immigrants in Arlington, VA) and research I and colleagues did in schools and districts near Stanford University (e.g., Spencer Foundation, Hewlett and Packard Foundations). I enjoyed the benefits that flowed from having funds that I could use for classroom, school, and district innovations and classroom research with no strings attached.

Over the past decade, I have also been involved in researching the awards that donors have made (and continue to do so) to improve schools in the U.S. I and others have written extensively and critically about philanthropy and occasional over-reaching in prodding schools to improve (see here, here, here, and here).

I have experienced mixed feelings about these small and large grants to schools to try out different approaches to helping both teachers and students improve their performance. When, for example, the Gates Foundation stopped funding small high schools in 2008, gave large amounts to propagate Common Core Standards in 2010, and underwrote IPET (see parts 1, 2, and 3), my initial reaction was, hey, these foundation officers had not thought through carefully the complexity of schooling or the familiar perverse consequences that accrue to “innovations” that do belly-flops. Sure, foundation officials consulted with smart people before giving away money to schools and districts but they seldom consulted with people who do the daily work or experienced practitioners who know the system from the inside (see for example the history of the Annenberg Challenge in the 1990s and Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar gift to Newark (NJ).

So I saw such public and private disappointments in foundations stumbling and donors admitting defeat as no more than chickens coming home to roost. Sharp-minded, well-intentioned donors spent lots of money to get improved test scores and schools and for that time and money getting no more than scratch marks in the ground that disappear after the first rain. Arrogant over-reaching in pressing upon schools a magical solution was common. Turning their backs on local expertise and getting little return, I felt, was well deserved.

The second reason I didn’t like donors dispensing large gobs of cash to schools was that the federal government encouraged and subsidized donor gifts. Rob Reich* in Just Giving has this to say in an interview about his book:

The public policies in the United States, and in many other countries, confer enormous privileges on philanthropists. Private foundations are largely unaccountable – no one can be unelected in a foundation, and there are no competitors to put them out of business. They are frequently nontransparent – more than 90 percent of the roughly 100,000 private foundations in the U.S. have no website. And they are donor-directed, and by default exist in perpetuity. Finally, it might seem that philanthropy is just the exercise of the liberty of people to give away their money. But philanthropy is generously tax subsidized, costing the U.S. Treasury more than $50 billion in forgone revenue last year.

Even though I have benefited from donor grants over the years, there is much I do not like in the ways private donors have pursued school improvement in hop-scotch ways, unaccountable to anyone but their self-selected boards and handsomely subsidized through federal tax deductions. Still there is an argument to be made in support of unaccountable private philanthropy seeking public good in a democracy.

Rob Reich makes those arguments and they are worth paying attention to.

First, donors can give grants to organizations and individuals who seek to increase social capital in cities, rural, and suburban areas. When hurricanes and earthquakes occur and government and non-government responses are either weak or delayed, strangers and neighbors band together to help. At other times, social capital is built through school PTAs, softball leagues, church congregations, neighborhood crime watch groups, collective efforts to build a corner playground, get traffic signals at dangerous intersections and similar activities across a city create networks of cooperation.

Building trust and cooperation within neighborhoods and across divisive groups, strengthening norms that bring people together to work toward a more diverse and healthier community is a job that governments and market capitalism often can’t or won’t do. There is, then, a role for philanthropy to help Americans engage in collective efforts to strengthen networks that glue groups and individuals to one another in building trust and trying to solve serious problems (see here, here, and here).

Second, donors can take risks in experimenting with their money that government and the market can’t or won’t. Keep in mind that democracies have a short-term horizon and are anchored in the present. Elected officials are held accountable at the ballot box every few years and therefore respond to immediate problems with solutions that are built in the here and now. They take care of the problem as quickly as possible. Thus, democracies seldom look to future generations. And here is where, Reich, argues philanthropy can play a part by giving money to individuals and organizations that have a long-term horizon and are concerned about the future. Wealthy entrepreneurs have set up cancer and heart research foundations to fast-track cures in recent years. Ditto for the arts and education. From funding climate change research and dissemination to trying out innovations in non-coal energy alternatives to underwriting experiments in health care and schooling–donors can take risks with their money to strengthen and enhance public goods that elected officials and entrepreneurial investors can’t or won’t do.

While I continue to have mixed feelings about private donors pursuing public good such as school improvement, the arguments that Reich makes have given me pause to think further about the value in a democracy of unaccountable and federally subsidized educational philanthropy.



*Full disclosure: I have known Rob Reich since he was a graduate student in a class on the history of school reform that David Tyack and I taught two decades ago. He and I have stayed in touch ever since.


Filed under Reforming schools

Donors Reform Schooling: Evaluating Teachers (Part 2)

In Part 1, I described a Gates Foundation initiative aimed at identifying effective teachers as measured in part by their students’ test scores, rewarding such stellar teachers with cash, and giving poor and minority children access to their classrooms. Called Institute Program for Effective Teaching, the Foundation had mobilized sufficient political support for the huge grant to find and fund three school districts and four charter school networks across the nation. IPET launched in 2009 and closed it doors (and funding) in 2016.

A brief look at the largest partner in the project, Florida’s Hillsborough County district, over the span of the grant gives a peek at how early exhilaration over the project morphed into opposition over rising program costs that had to be absorbed by the district’s regular budget, and then key district and school staff’s growing disillusion over the project’s direction and disappointing results for students. Consider what the Tampa Bay Times, a local paper, found in 2015 after a lengthy investigation into the grant. [i]

  • The Gates-funded program — which required Hillsborough to raise its own $100 million — ballooned beyond the district’s ability to afford it, creating a new bureaucracy of mentors and “peer evaluators” who no longer work with students.
  • Nearly 3,000 employees got one-year raises of more than $8,000. Some were as high as $15,000, or 25 percent.
  • Raises went to a wider group than envisioned, including close to 500 people who don’t work in the classroom full time, if at all.
  • The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teachers into high-needs schools.
  • More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants.
  • The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million when related projects are factored in, with some of the money coming from private foundations in addition to Gates. The district’s share now comes to $124 million.
  • Millions of dollars were pledged to parts of the program that educators now doubt. After investing in an elaborate system of peer evaluations to improve teaching, district leaders are considering a retreat from that model. And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses — a major change in philosophy.
  • The end product — results in the classroom — is a mixed bag.

Hillsborough’s graduation rate still lags behind other large school districts. Racial and economic achievement gaps remain pronounced, especially in middle school.

And poor schools still wind up with the newest, greenest teachers.

Not a pretty picture. RAND’s formal evaluation covering the life of the grant and across the three districts and four charter networks used less judgmental language but reached a similar conclusion on school outcomes that the Tampa Bay Times had for these county schools.

Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students,

particularly LIM [low-income minority]students. By the end of 2014–2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not

participate in the IP initiative. Furthermore, in the sites where these analyses

could be conducted, we did not find improvement in the effectiveness

of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few

instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall;

we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers in most sites. [ii]

As with the history of such innovative projects in public schools over the past century, RAND evaluators found that districts and charter school networks fell short in achieving IPET because of uneven and incomplete implementation of the program.

We also examined variation in implementation and outcomes across

sites. Although sites varied in context and in the ways in which they

approached the levers, these differences did not translate into differences

in ultimate outcomes. Although the sites implemented the same levers, they

gave different degrees of emphasis to different levers, and none of the sites achieved strong implementation or outcomes across the board. [iii]

But the absolutist judgment of “failure” in achieving aims of this donor-funded initiative hides the rippling effects of this effort to reform teaching and learning in these districts and charter networks. For example, during the Obama administration, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s initiative of Race to the Top invited states to compete for grants of millions of dollars if they committed themselves to the Common Core standards—another Gates-funded initiative–and included, as did IPET, different ways of evaluating teachers. [iv]

Now over 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted plans to evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores. How much student test scores should weigh in the overall determination of a teacher’s effectiveness varies by state and local districts as does the autonomy local districts have in putting their signature on state requirements in evaluating teachers. For example, from half of the total judgment of the teacher to one-third or one-fourth, test scores have become a significant variable in assessing a teacher’s effectiveness. Even as testing experts and academic evaluators have raised significant flags about the instability, inaccuracy, and unfairness of such district and state evaluation policies based upon student scores being put into practice, they remain on the books and have been implemented in various districts. Because the amount of time is such an important factor in putting these policies into practice, states will go through trial and error as they implement these policies possibly leading to more (or less) political acceptance from teachers and principals, key participants in the venture.[v]

While there has been a noticeable dulling of the reform glow for evaluating teachers on the basis of student performance—note the Gates Foundation pulling back on their use in evaluating teachers as part of the half-billion dollar Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching—the rise and fall in enthusiasm in using test scores, intentionally or unintentionally, has focused policy discussions on teachers as the source of school “failure” and inequalities among students.  In pressing for teachers to be held accountable, policy elites have largely ignored other factors that influence both teacher and student performance that are deeply connected to economic and social inequalities outside the school such as poverty, neighborhood crime, discriminatory labor and housing practices, and lack of access to health centers.

By donors helping to frame an agenda for turning around “failing” U.S. schools or, more generously, improving equal opportunity for children and youth, these philanthropists —unaccountable to anyone and receiving tax subsidies from the federal government–as members of policy elites spotlight teachers as both the problem and solution to school improvement. Surely, teachers are the most important in-school factor—perhaps 10 percent of the variation in student achievement. Yet over 60 percent of the variation in student academic performance is attributed to out-of-school factors such as the family. [vi]

This Gates-funded Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching is an example, then, of policy elites shaping a reform agenda for the nation’s schools using teacher effectiveness as a primary criterion and having enormous direct and indirect influence in advocating and enacting other pet reforms.

Did, then, Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching “fail?” Part 3 answers that question.


[i] (Marlene Sokol, “Sticker Shock: How Hillsborough County’s Gates Grant Became a Budget Buster,” October 23, 2015 )

[ii] RAND evaluation; implementation quote, p. 488.

[iii]  William Howell, “Results of President Obama’s Race to the Top,” Education Next, 2015, 15 (4), at:

[iv] ibid.

[v] Eduardo Porter, “Grading Teachers by the Test,” New York Times, March 24, 2015; Rachel Cohen, “Teachers Tests Test Teachers,” American Prospect, July 18, 2017; Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead, For Good Measure? Teacher Evaluation Policy in the ESSA Era, Bellwether Education Partners, December 2016; Edward Haertel, “Reliability and Validity of Inferences about Teachers Based on Student Test Scores,” William Angoff Memorial Lecture, Washington D.C., March 22, 2013; Matthew Di Carlo, “Why Teacher evaluation Reform Is Not a Failure,” August 23, 2018 at:

[vi] Edward Haertel, “Reliability and Validity of Inferences about Teachers Based on Student Test Scores,” William Angoff Memorial Lecture, Washington D.C., March 22, 2013



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

Reforming Public Schools–Small or Giant Steps?

Some weekends ago, I attended a celebration of a friend’s book being published. Both my friend and his wife are former students–I see each of them for lunch every few months and we catch up with one another’s families and what each of us has been doing.

At the gathering in their home I saw people I hadn’t seen in many years. Food and drink were plentiful out on the patio but I grew tired of standing with my cane and went into  their living room and sat.  Toddlers and teenagers and  adults flowed easily between rooms and the outside patio. Someone came and sat next to me and we engaged in a conversation that brought to mind many prior discussions I have had with fellow teachers, university colleagues, and graduate students as well as policymakers, parents, and researchers over the years. So here is my version of that conversation.

The young man was in his 40s (yeah, to me being a 40-something is young) and an administrator in a medium sized California district. I had known him when he was an undergraduate student and his family as well—years ago his mother was a student in one of my classes as she completed her doctorate. So the conversation flowed easily about his family, friendship with my former students, and work. And when it came to his job as an administrator is when the conversation turned to the title of this post.

He told me about the persistent conflict he has faced in working as a teacher, principal, and now district administrator about changing the school system. As I recall, he asked for my opinion on the question that has nagged at him for the past few years: why work within a broken public school system and make small changes that make that traditional system work a tad better for teachers and students than it did before when what is called for are major, fundamental changes that get rid of the existing system and create a far better, more equitable one? It is a question that I have wrestled with my entire career within public schools and one that I have answered for myself. Now here was this fine young man asking the same question that had bedeviled me for decades.

I did give my answer in a step-wise argument very familiar to me because I had worked out its pieces over decades. Since it was a back-and-forth conversation the steps  in the argument were more circular and less linear than as I present them below.

First, 90 percent of all children and youth attend public schools. If you want to influence the young, you work within the system.

Second, few, if any, public institution serving the young, old, the ill, and victims of crime have tossed the existing system and installed a fundamentally new one save for instances of political revolution such as had occurred in the America, France, Russia, French, and China, natural disasters such as Katrina in New Orleans or similar cataclysmic events. What has occurred most often in these public institutions has been incremental, not fundamental change.*

Third, each of the above public institutions that have significantly improved over time in reaching their stated goals have made incremental changes in reducing the gap in achievement between minorities and whites and increasing more fairness and equity than had existed before.  Accumulating small steps in building stairs that reach desired goals took many years, political savvy, thought out strategies, and patience on the part of school boards and superintendents. Far from perfect today such districts as Long Beach (CA) under Carl Cohen (1992-2002) and Christopher Steinhauser (2002 to present) who have led the district continuously for a quarter-century and Boston (MA) under Tom Payzant for 11 years) stand out as exemplars of incrementalism geared to achieving goals.

Fourth, those superintendents, principals, and teachers who ardently seek fundamental changes on a short time frame in their districts, schools, and classrooms often exit within a few years disappointed adding their voices to those who allege the intractability of public schools and their resulting failure.

The clinking of a glass announcing a few words from the newly published author ended our conversation.

Had I more time, I would have added the ultimate point that each educator has the deeply personal task of eventually deciding what to do.

The question as I see it is: Do I work within schools and seek incremental changes with like-minded colleagues focused on over-arching goals and willing to learn the necessary skills and make the commitment of time spent in schools and districts or, instead, do I work outside schools in mobilizing political changes to gain paid family leave, expanded unemployment insurance, better health benefits, inexpensive housing, unionizing workers, running for political office or aiding officials who seek changes in economic, political, social, and cultural structures that frame the democratic and market-driven society in which we live?

For tax-supported public schools mirror the larger society and that society has historically strong beliefs, assumptions, and structures that shape what occurs in public institutions such as schools. While changes can and do occur in schools and districts, they will be incremental and maybe significant if harnessed in a concerted way to achieve particular goals. There is a choice.

I had made my decision to work within public schools years ago. My young friend was wrestling with his decision now.



*The district administrator knew well what I meant in distinguishing incremental from fundamental changes. For those readers who do not. Here are the differences.

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

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

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

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

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

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, segregation, creating better people). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas.

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



Filed under Reforming schools

Why Change is Often Confused with Reform: The Multi-layered Curriculum

I published this post in 2012. I have updated both text and references.

After extensive deliberation and committee meetings, state and district officials publish curricular frameworks and courses of study in academic subjects from kindergarten through high school. This is called the intended curriculum (see here and here).

Consider science curriculum in California. The first science framework in 1990 laid out content standards, grade by grade, as to what teachers should teach and what students should learn. Since then, there have been revisions in the state framework (see scienceframework-1  for 2004 and 2016)

The purposes of the two science frameworks are stated clearly:


Educators have the opportunity to foster and inspire in students an interest in science; the goal is to have students gain the knowledge and skills necessary for California’s workforce to be competitive in the global, information-based economy of the twenty-first century….

This framework is intended to (1) organize the body of knowledge that students need to learn during their elementary and secondary school years; and (2) illuminate the methods of science that will be used to extend that knowledge during the students’ lifetimes.


The goal of the California Next Generation Science Standards (CA NGSS)
is to prepare California students to be future citizens and future
scientists, which leads to a specific vision about science education:
Learning science depends not only on the accumulation of facts and concepts but also on
the development of an identity as a competent learner of science with motivation and
interest to learn more . … Such identity formation is valuable not only for the small
number of students who, over the course of a lifetime, will come to view themselves as
scientists or engineers, but also for the great majority of students who do not follow
these professional paths . Science learning in school leads to citizens with the confidence,
ability, and inclination to continue learning about issues, scientific and otherwise, that
affect their lives and communities . (National Research Council
[NRC] 2012a, Chapter 11)


Note that these purposes for the two frameworks seek to have students leave school inspired and interested in science, equipped with knowledge and skills to enter the workforce, and conversant with how scientists think and act. Note the different wording in 2016 that de-emphasizes the economic thrust of the science standards and the workplace goal. Multiple and competing purposes drive these frameworks, a situation that has characterized science education for decades.

The California science standards are connected to approved textbooks that teachers use in their elementary and secondary school lessons and, further, the science standards are linked to the California Standards Test given at grades 5 and 8 and 10 and in the separate sciences (biology, earth science, chemistry, and physics) in grades 9-12. Thus, curriculum standards as a structure are connected to the age-graded school, instructional materials for teaching the subject matter, and assessment of whether the content has been taught and whether students have learned what was taught. This, then, is the intended curriculum.

I say “intended” because once states adopt curricular frameworks in science they will have only a passing similarity to the science content and skills that teachers will teach once they close their classroom doors. In the real world of age-graded schools, pedagogy, assessment, and professional development are thoroughly entangled while the official curriculum too often sails above the clouds loosely tethered to what happens in classrooms. How can that be? The answer is in the other layers of the curriculum structure.

Teachers, working alone in their rooms, make up the second layer. They decide what to teach and how to present it. Their choices derive from their knowledge of the subject they teach (elementary and secondary school teachers differ greatly in their knowledge of science), their knowledge of children and youth, their beliefs about how teachers should teach and children should learn, prior experiences as a student, their affection or dislike for topics in the framework and textbook, and their attitudes toward the students they face daily. In fact, researchers continually find that teachers in the same building will teach different versions of the same course while claiming that they are teaching to the state standards and to the prevailing desired pedagogy. Thus, the intended curriculum and what teachers teach may overlap in the title of the course, key topics, and the same textbook, but can differ substantially in actual subject matter and daily lessons.

The taught curriculum overlaps with but differs significantly from what students take away from class. This is the third layer. Students pick up information and concepts from lessons. They also learn to answer teacher questions, review material, locate sources, seek help, avoid teachers’ intrusiveness, and act attentive. Moreover, children pick up ideas from class-mates, copy their teachers’ habits and tics, imitate their humor or sarcasm, or strive to be as autocratic or democratic as the adults. So, the learned curriculum differs from the intended and taught curricula.

And what students learn does not exactly mirror what is in the tested curriculum. Here, then, is the fourth layer of curriculum. Classroom, school, district, state, and national tests, often using multiple-choice and other short-answer items, capture some–but hardly all–of the official and taught curricula. To the degree that teachers and students attend to such tests, portions of the intended and taught curricula merge. Furthermore,  many of these tests seek to sort high achieving students from their lower-achieving peers. The information, ideas, and skills contained in test items for such purposes represent an even narrower band of knowledge.

There are, then, four curricular layers, not one unvarnished curriculum. The official curriculum, often derived from state curricular frameworks, professional associations, or national standards, is the top layer of the formal structure of content and skills that teachers are expected to teach and students learn. It is the exterior layer that reformers continually change in their effort to alter what teachers teach and students learn. But the official curriculum rests atop three other layers that assemble and distribute knowledge and skills in the age-graded school through pedagogy, assessment, and professional development: the taught, learned, and tested curricula.

I have omitted one important fact about this multi-layered curriculum. Previous reforms create the historical context for the multi-layered curriculum and influence the direction of contemporary reforms. This historical context is like a coral, a mass of skeletons from millions of animals built up that, over time, accumulates into reefs above and below the sea line. Its presence cannot be ignored neither by ships nor by inhabitants. Yet many eager reformers in science education do ignore the coral reefs, pay little attention to the historical context for the new science teaching and learning that they champion.

Having a four-layered structure called curriculum that has been changed time and again is precisely how reform-driven policymakers end up again and again confusing change with reform. In changing the exterior layer of the multi-layered curriculum, decision-makers are confident that they have now improved, nay, reformed the curriculum. They believe that teachers will teach more and better science, students will learn, and test scores will mirror those improvements. When the anticipated results fail to materialize in classroom lessons and student outcomes, confusion, disappointment, and disillusion occur.

Much of that confusion and ultimate disappointment over new science curricula over the past century, then, has had to deal with the discrepancies within and between the multi-layered curriculum and the historical coral reefs upon which it rests.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Changing One’s Mind about School Reform

The following post is an encore published nearly seven years ago. I have updated and added sections to it.

A few years ago, Diane Ravitch told (The Death and Life of the Great American School System) of her recent switch from championing school reforms (testing, accountability, and choice) as a federal policymaker, educational historian, and pundit to rejecting these policies. Ravitch’s turnaround got me thinking about what I had believed earlier in my career and believe now sixty years later.

I began teaching high school in 1955 filled with the passion to teach history to youth and help them find their niche in the world while making a better society. At that time, I believed wholeheartedly in words taken from John Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed” (1897): “… education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”

And I tried to practice those utopian words in my teaching in Cleveland (OH) and Washington, D.C. between the early 1960s and mid-1970s. While in retrospect I could easily call this faith in the power of teaching and schooling to make a better life and society naïve, I do not. That passionate idealism about teaching and the role that schooling plays in a democratic, market-driven society gave meaning and drive to those long days working as a teacher, getting married, starting a family, and taking university classes at night.

That confident belief in the power of schools to reform society took me to Washington, D.C. in 1963 to teach Peace Corps returnees how to become teachers at Cardozo High School. I stayed nearly a decade in D.C. teaching and administering school-site and district programs aimed at turning around schools in a largely black city, a virtual billboard for severe inequalities.

I worked in programs that trained young teachers to teach in low-performing schools, programs that organized residents in impoverished neighborhoods to improve their community, programs that created alternative schools and district-wide professional development programs for teachers and administrators. While well intentioned federal and D.C. policymakers attacked the accumulated neglect that had piled up in schools over decades, they adopted these reform-driven programs haphazardly without much grasp of how to implement them in schools and classrooms.

I have few regrets for what I and many other like-minded individuals did during those years. I take pride in the many teachers and students who participated in these reforms who were rescued from deadly, mismanaged schools, and ill-taught classrooms. But the fact remains that by the mid-1970s, with a few notable exceptions, most of these urban school reforms others and I had worked in had become no more than graffiti written in snow. And the social inequalities that we had hoped to reduce, persisted.

After leaving D.C., my subsequent work as a superintendent, high school teacher, professor, and researcher into the history of school reform led me to see that the relationship between public schools, reform, and society was far more entangled than I had thought. Most important, I came to understand that the U.S. has a three-tiered system of schooling based upon performance and socioeconomic status.

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), Scarsdale (NY) 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 50 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet state standards and send most of their graduating classes 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 D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, and rural areas where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being closed. Occasionally, a stellar principal and staff will lift a school into the second tier—with regular and social media hyping the change as a new day for neglected Americans—such turnarounds do occur but they are both uncommon and transient.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S., I concluded, maintains social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “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.

The irony, of course, is that current policymakers from President Obama [this post appeared in 2012] through local school board presidents and superintendents still mime John Dewey’s words and act as if schools can, indeed, reform society. Knowledge gained from decades of experience as a teacher, administrator, and researcher have made me allergic to utopian rhetoric about the role of schools in society. I have become skeptical of anyone spouting words about schools being in the vanguard of social reform.

Yet, I must also say that those very same experiences have tempered but not dissolved my early idealism. I still believe that content-smart and classroom-wise teachers who know their students well can make significant differences in individual students’ lives even if collectively they cannot cure societal ills.


When this post was published almost seven years ago, a reader commented:

I agree with you wholeheartedly, but I have one question: how can the “content-smart and classroom-wise” teacher make a significant difference when his/her hands are tied by a mandated test-prep curriculum that allows for little or no innovation and that squelches teacher-student spontaneity?

I replied:

Thanks for the important question that you ask. Although what I say may not resonate with you, the experienced and committed teacher you describe does have ways of dealing with “mandated test-prep curriculum.” Those ways, however, put the burden squarely on the shoulders of those “classroom wise teachers.” One is to raise those issues with other like-minded teachers in the building or outside of the school and mobilize others to find ways of combining test prep with content and skills that students need; another is to use the test-prep for small portions of the week rather than every day; another is to find another place to teach where what you have to offer students goes well beyond test prep.

My reply was focused on the classroom and school. Not on the larger political arena where policies are formed, put on reformer agendas, and enacted in the nation’s schools.

Seven years after this post was published, there have been larger political changes. No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) and its coercive accountability rules have been replaced by Every Student Succeeds Act (2016) shifting authority for standards, tests, and accountability to states. Yet that shift has hardly dissolved the nearly four decade policy consensus that the prime purpose of public schools is to prepare children and youth for the workplace. The Trump administration’s support for charters and vouchers has far less clout with states now that ESSA is the law of the land and may well have drummed up more opposition to charters and other alternative forms of schooling.

While there is far more political stirring among teachers, parents, and segments of the educational policy elite to have less standardized testing and use multiple measures to judge districts, schools, and teachers, the mind-set of A Nation at Risk (1983) continues to dominate thinking about school reform. Sure, there has been pushback against goofy schemes such as evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores or the hyped claims that the Holy Grail of reform is every child having a computer and “personalized learning.”

As in the past century, school reformers today are split over the best ways of improving the nation’s schools but the prevailing purpose of tax-supported public schools still remains preparation of the next generation for the workplace. For that to shift to other historic purposes of schools (e.g., preparing active and engaged citizens, shaping humane, well-rounded adults) a range of actions by a political coalition of educators, civic and business leaders, researchers is essential. For schools follow society; political action from without influences what schools do. Tax-supported schools, past and present, have not led political or social reform.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies