Category Archives: Reforming schools

Technology Evangelists, Skeptics, and Those in the Middle

In a recent post from EdSurge (November 5, 2015), the following graphic was shown:



The text in EdSurge accompanying the graphic said:

Everyone loves a good metaphor–and this week, New Jersey principal Jon Cohen made us think with this “pencil metaphor” graphic posted via Twitter, describing the educator spectrum of edtech lovers and resistors [sic]. Where does your school fall? Do you have a lot of leaders, or or are you struggling to convert the “erasers”? We bet this newsletter can help you “sharpen” your skills, even though we all … suffer a few breaks now and then!

EdSurge evangelizes for more and better high-tech use in schools. They ask entrepreneurs and hard-core advocates of more devices in schools to listen to both students and teachers before marketing their particular mousetrap to the world. But this post is not about EdSurge. It is about two graphics, the one above and one below.


I begin with the pencil graphic. While titled “Integrating Technology in Schools” it slams all those teachers and principals who do not leap on the latest high-tech bandwagon careening through school boards and superintendent offices. The graphic assumes that all high-tech innovations are positive for both teachers and students. Those who wait and ask questions are labeled “resisters.”

The “leaders” and “sharp ones” at the pointy end of the pencil are the early adopters, implying that they are both smart and astute about teaching and learning while those further down the pencil’s shaft–the “wood” and “hangers on”–are way behind the curve as adopters. Then those at the “ferrule” and “eraser” end of the pencil are active resisters, even enemies, of using tech in the classroom. This is, of course, nonsense but it does mirror many an evangelist’s view of teachers and students using (and not using) devices and software in schools and classrooms. The title is a misnomer since nothing here is about “integrating” high-tech into school routines or classroom lessons.

The pencil graphic, at best, is a warped version of Everett Rogers‘ “diffusion of innovation” graph that he had published in his 1962 book (it is in its 5th edition now). Diffusion of Innovations has been a staple of those interested in institutional and sector innovation across agriculture, medicine, health care, business, and, naturally, education for over a half-century. But, at worst, the pencil graphic is an unfunny indictment of those teachers, students, and parents who raise questions, express skepticism, and lay out reservations about the wisdom of mindlessly adopting the next new thing produced for schools and classrooms.

Now, look at Roger’s graph of adopters. Rogers avoided the loaded words used to describe adopters except for “laggards.” in the U.S., few teachers would puff out their chest after being called a “laggard.” Rogers was aware that the graph he constructed prized innovation–that it is “good” to adopt a new idea, practice, or technology– and possibly from that core assumption, the word “laggard” snuck into the categories. The five categories Rogers created roughly map onto the “pencil” but note the far more negative and positive language in the pencil graphic.

For each category, there are many examples among teachers. The sixth grade teacher who bought and brought into her school the first Mac machine was an innovator. The first teacher in a building who designed a piece of software just for her class is another innovator. Early Adopters are those teachers who first tried out email, spread sheets, iPods, iMacs, laptops, and tablets in their classrooms shortly after they heard about them or the district technology director invited teachers to demonstrations of the hardware and software. As the number of teachers seeing colleagues using devices and software spread, more teachers asked those early users how it worked, for what kinds of lessons they were used, and even watched the tools being used in lessons. In many schools, two-thirds of the teachers (Early and Late Majority) became occasional (weekly or monthly) to daily users. In short, these teacher-users became the middle of Rogers’ graph. In every school, however, there were non-users and reluctant participants–“laggards,” in Rogers’ phrase.

Seldom did the categories and percentages of “innovators” to “laggards” map perfectly onto specific schools or districts. What Rogers built was a map for researchers and practitioners to use in understanding how innovations–again, a positively charged concept in U.S. culture–spread across sectors and in institutions. It is a heuristic, not GPS directions for innovators.

Evangelists would find the “pencil” to their liking because of the shared assumptions under-girding the clever graphic. Those assumptions are dominant in the U.S. where if you do not have the latest device or software, eyes roll or snide comments get said. Evangelists for technology seldom engage in reflection because they are true believers. True believers seldom entertain questions or skepticism because they are often taken as an attack upon bedrock principles.

And for teachers, principals, parents who ask questions or raise issues about the new technologies, they risk being called resisters, an epithet that in U.S. culture, enamored with innovation and technology, is akin to the Scarlet Letter.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

Not Every Success is Scalable: Uncommon Principal, Great School:

Stories of uncommon principals who labor for decades to create structures, cultures, and political success are popular in national media. The story-line is that a principal arrives at a low-performing, minority and poor school and through much work turns it around into a successful school, as measured by test scores, low teacher turnover, and parental support. No, I am not referring to charter schools or magnets. I am referring to neighborhood schools. When such schools emerge policymakers and champions of school success call it a model and urge replication of the school. Make more of them, they cry. Scaling up such successes is rare as any observer (or participant) can tell you. It is devilishly hard to reproduce such victories over mediocrity in another neighborhood much less across a district, state, and nation. Think of KIPP for a moment. In 21 years, KIPP has created 183 schools enrolling 70,000 and done so by preparing principals and teachers, monitoring closely the quality of each school–its five pillars and school culture–and raising large sums of money.

Why is it so hard? In most cases, success comes from complex, interacting factors: the principal who has been there a long time; he or she plays three competing roles well (instructional, managerial, and political); the principal has selected a staff that works closely together learning from its mistakes; the principal has built structures that engage in constant improvement; the community supports the school and acts to keep it flourishing. This mix of ingredients is hard to replicate–no algorithm, no online tutorials, no university program–can do it. The fit between principal, staff, children, parents and community is tight.  Yet it is fragile and can easily unravel. Were the principal, a few of the key teachers, and parent advocates to leave within a short time such a school can easily slide back into the mediocrity existing before that principal and teachers appeared on the scene.

Consider Jack Spatola and P.S. 172 in Brooklyn as described in a recent New York Times article. Appointed principal in 1984, Spatola who came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1970, took over a school that was predominately Puerto Rican. Thirty-one years later, Spatola leads a school that has mostly Mexican and Latin American students with more than 85 percent eligible for free lunch. One in four students are designated Special Education. The reporter described the school’s academic success:

Demographic realities have not hindered achievement. Last year, 98 percent of third, fourth and fifth graders, those required to take state exams toward the end of the year, passed the math test. Seventy-six percent passed the language test. Those figures far exceed citywide averages, which sit in the 30s for both disciplines, and they match or surpass scores at many affluent schools. On the tests administered this past spring, students at P.S. 172 did better than students at P.S. 234, a celebrated school in TriBeCa, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

Steady increases in city test scores has brought crowds of out-of-state educators and business gurus like Jim Collins–of Good to Great fame–to the school. Spatola labored long and hard to build a strong, stable staff inhabiting a culture that prizes both student and adult learning.

Teachers, students and administrators are engaged in a constant process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t; why, for example, one student might be quickly gaining an understanding of symbolism in reading while another isn’t. Professional development is an experience that is not relegated to occasional seminars but is lived daily. Strikingly, members of the school’s senior staff have an extended shared history of knowing what is effective and what isn’t — Mr. Spatola’s assistant principal, Erika Gundersen, has been with him for more than 20 years; the math and literacy coaches on hand to work with teachers to enhance practices have been with him on average more than 12 years.

And he is an ace at finding money in and out of his school budget for all of the professional and academic activities that have become routine at the school.

Mr. Spatola doesn’t use textbooks, which are notoriously expensive…. In the past fiscal year, the city and state spent $100 million on textbooks in New York City schools. At P.S. 172, the allocated money is used to buy primary texts, works of fiction and nonfiction selected by teachers and administrators. Students will, for instance, use the Internet to research how the branches of government work. The many dollars left over are spent on other services…

Spatola believes that textbooks “cheapen the experience of learning.” Instead, the school creates its own lessons and units for each grade and maintains notebooks on each child’s performance. Nearly $50,000 of budgeted funds are supposed to go to buy expensive curriculum packages recommended by the district to meet Common Core standards.

It is absolutely crazy to me that a company out west would really have any idea what my children need,” Mr. Spatola said. “If you are a professional, you take ownership of the curriculum.”

Spatola uses the money for materials teachers choose and develop.

Are the structures and culture that Spatola and teachers have created at P.S. 172 scalable? Not impossible but hard to do given a principal who manages well, guides instruction, and provides political leadership to a staff and community. He and his staff have built by hand a successful school over many years that fits its students and community in Brooklyn.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

Cartoons on School Boards, Superintendents, and Principals

This monthly cartoon feature looks at those in authority in the 14,000-plus school districts in the U.S.  Cartoonists’ pens caricature those in positions of authority–a favorite among those who draw for a living–and reveal both the strengths and shortcomings of citizens and educators who serve the community’s children and adults. Enjoy!

'The superintendent is saving money by training driver's ed students in school buses.'






'The recurring poor enrollment prognostications plays havoc with our school district's budget. What will next year's enrolment be.'




'There's a meeting at school tonight, Dad. The superintendent, the principal, the school board, and you.'


'Making all of our district schools more adept at teaching math and science sounds like a good idea. Run it by legal first.'


'I chose 'Superintendent' for Career Day and fired all the math teachers.'







Filed under school leaders

On Changing Fortunes and Administrative Attentions (Michele Kerr)

Principals perform three competing, overlapping roles (managing, leading instruction, and politicking). In doing so, they are forever caught in the middle between competing interests. In serving bosses in the district office, teachers who they lead, and parents who want the best for their sons and daughters they inevitably make decisions that become fodder for critics among those groups. It goes with the territory. Medical clinic directors, FBI agents in charge of field offices, and appointed project leaders in software firms experience similar tensions in trying to manage, lead, and politick to reach  personal and organizational goals. Nothing new here. For those principals who have succeeded well in parlaying the conflict that inevitably arises from performing these competing roles, even those principals may need to inspect a far more subtle factor–personal taste in people and their “fit” within the school–when it comes to staffing classrooms. Here is one such concern raised by an experienced teacher.


At my first school, I was looking for jobs long before they gave me my layoff notice, knowing full well I wouldn’t be called back. I had no reason to think so; my classes were well-run, my reviews were good, administrators made no requests or complaints, and in fact the ostensible reason for my departure was staffing restrictions. It made no difference; I’d told friends as early as September that I would need to find a new job the next year, no matter what my evaluation said.

At school #2, administrators looked right through me. They’d send out notes asking for volunteers to teach after school classes in math or test prep. I would often indicate interest, get no response, and then see a new note asking again for volunteers. Meanwhile, the administrators approached other teachers, who often hadn’t volunteered, giving the extra hours to them whether they wanted the job or not. I got the hint, quit volunteering.

You’re thinking hey, duh, they thought you were a bad teacher. But that wasn’t it. I taught tough kids for all three years in question. I passed most kids with realistic grades, often convincing students with a long history of failure to try just one more time. Test scores were solid. At both schools, other new teachers were eviscerated by their students, unable to run a classroom without a supervisor on standby. Several classes were “collapsed” (ended) because the teachers couldn’t maintain control. My induction advisers thought very highly of me. I got along well with my colleagues. I wasn’t obnoxious, wasn’t a rabble-rouser. Like all new teachers, I tried to keep my head down. And yet, I knew those other teachers who struggled with discipline, who were trying to figure out how to teach, who had high failure rates and low scores, were well-liked by the administration while I was at best tolerated.

Besides, ineffective new teachers get lots of attention, as administrators coach, advise, warn, watch constantly. As I said, I was completely ignored. Administrators never said directly or indirectly that my teaching was a problem. They never once reprimanded me or in any way told me I had to change. I’m leaving things out to avoid criticizing anyone directly or indirectly, but nothing I’m leaving out would change this fundamental reality: I was a good teacher, the principals thought I was a good teacher, and yet no one on the administrative teams at either school particularly liked me or wanted to keep me.

I didn’t get a formal evaluation the first year at my second school, just a brief observation and a paper to sign near year-end, but “meets expectations” was checked. My second year had no preconditions, no warning of the need for dramatic improvement. Being no fool, I nonetheless looked desperately for jobs over the summer between the first and second year at that school. I did get a job offer, but unfortunately late in August, after the new year had begun, and I regretfully declined. In May of that second year of my second school, I resigned despite not having any job offers (I am eligible for rehire, if you’re wondering). A few months later, I accepted a job at my current school, where I’m in the middle of my second year.

Things couldn’t be more different. I floated away from both my yearly evaluations ten feet off the ground. If there’d been water, I’d have walked on it. They like me here. Last year, when I had a mild concern about an issue, I emailed the principal to ask if I could speak to him, something I would never have done in my last two schools, because I would have been ignored for anything short of a catastrophe. He responded with a meeting time. I stop and chat with all the administrators, who look at me and smile and even wave at me across the quad. I was moved to a bigger room with a Promethean projector, I’m teaching a lot more advanced math, and in a bunch of little ways, I get treated as a teacher considered to be of some value to the school.

I’m the same teacher, using the same methods. My kids still sit grouped by ability, I don’t lecture much, I don’t use textbooks often, I build my own curriculum, I have the same commitment to student success, I still weight tests heavily and don’t care much about homework. Jeans, teeshirts, and neon-colored sneakers, then and now, are my daily attire. For those people wondering if my certainty, my er, confident attitude is somehow the problem (and of course, it could be), I am—on the surface anyway—unhumbled by the low regard with which I was held. I’m the same. The bosses have changed.

My conversations with other teachers suggests that tenure doesn’t end the tale of changing fortunes. One teacher was a step away from dismissal procedure when the principal left; her replacement gave that same teacher a glowing review and extra duty. Another English teacher was so despised by his administrator that she refused to assign him any subject classes, giving him a full day of “responsibility center” duty–the place kids go when kicked out of class. He, too, weathered the storm until her departure and is now happily back teaching English. More than one teacher at my last school consoled me when I confided in them, wondering why I was ignored and so apparently unwanted, and they all had similar stories: non-re-elected twice, fired mid-year once, now I’m permanent, everything’s fine. The advice is the same: if you have tenure, hunker down. If you don’t, go back to Edjoin and start all over again.

This isn’t a sad tale of bad principals. Rather, perfectly competent administrators occasionally act on their biases by replacing or discouraging good teachers. Nor are these good teachers reliably replaced with other good teachers; every staff has seen an excellent teacher rejected or chased off, to be replaced with a well-meaning newbie with little talent—who is let go in a year or two as well.

Think of it as a luxury, a job perk. Most of the time, principal preferences are perfectly aligned with good practice; they evaluate new teachers fairly, give struggling teachers a chance to improve, thank the gods gratefully for good new ones. They secretly hope that their weaker permanent teachers will behave badly, since it’s much easier to get rid of teachers for misconduct than bad teaching.

But every so often, they can just shrug and turn up their noses and say “yeah, just not a good fit.”

I came from the real world before I taught; I understand that the entire job market is fraught with difficulties, that everyone everywhere is bound to capricious employers. But teaching careers can be utterly derailed, permanently, by administrator whim.

A second year teacher who’s been let go not for being a terrible teacher, but just a “bad fit” will face suspicions while interviewing. All principals understand emotionally that their counterparts act on bias, but when they hire, they often operate on the received wisdom is that principals only reject or discourage objectively “bad” teachers.

Tenured teachers are suddenly, often randomly—at least it seems that way—targeted by an administrator. They will do their best to hunker down, but if the administrator wants to go through the hassle of firing them, will often just leave. They might be terrible teachers. They might not. They’ll leave if they can, because otherwise they’ll find it nearly impossible to work again. Of course, if they’re older, it’s worse. Age discrimination is rampant throughout the working world; older teachers have all these problems plus they can’t set their own salary and are far more expensive. A teacher forced out because of one administrator’s dislike is going to have a brutal time finding a new job. Better to leave first, where at least the story will be “currently employed, looking for better”.

For this reason, the recent study showing that DC’s IMPACT evaluation system resulted in voluntary attrition or higher performance does not, as its proponents say, show that tough evaluation systems lead to improved teaching. What it shows is that teachers who could give principals what they wanted did. Teachers who couldn’t, left. The mistake lies in assuming that principals wanted good teaching. They might have. They usually do. But not always.

Some advocates of education reform, such as Whitney Tilson, hold that administrators should have absolute control over staff—that a “bad teacher” is any teacher the administrator doesn’t want, regardless of the reason. If the teacher doesn’t fit the new vision, it’s time to move on. However, this argument doesn’t have many takers, precisely because everyone understands that a terminated teacher will have a difficult time finding a new job, and that outcome is only desirable if the teacher in question is terrible. But experience and anecdote tells me that this isn’t always true.

I don’t have any policy changes to advise. I do think, however, that should the Vergara lawsuit succeed, we will see principals getting rid of teachers not because they are objectively poor teachers, but because those principals don’t see them as valuable. I don’t think that random administrative preference will provide us with the teaching force our country needs



Filed under school leaders

Reimagining the U.S. High School: An Open Letter to Laurene Powell Jobs (Part 1)

Dear Mrs. Laurene Powell Jobs:

I commend you for initiating a national challenge to transform the comprehensive high school into a Super School and putting $50 million on the stump for experts, parents, practitioners, and academics to compete for in creating better high schools than exist now. Reinventing the high school should generate an enormous range of suggestions for your expert panel to consider after the national round of open meetings end in November. What you are launching is worthwhile especially if it were to spark a national conversation about the goals of tax-supported public schools in a democracy where the economy has shifted from industrial-based to an information-driven one. Whether that conversation (and debate, I hope) will occur depends greatly, I believe, on you and your associates knowing about how high schools have, indeed, changed over the past century and, of equal importance, the checkered history of efforts to “transform” the U.S. high school. That historical knowledge should be one ingredient in considering different groups’ proposals inspired by your challenge.

The most recent serious effort to alter the comprehensive high school was when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured over $2 billion into creating small high schools 15 years ago, an effort that the Gates Foundation shut down in 2009. Yet “small high schools” persist–it is one of the changes in high schools that I refer to above–because they personalize instruction for many students heretofore ignored in conventional comprehensive high schools.

Knowing that public high schools have changed in small and big ways over the past century is essential in making wise funding decisions. The original comprehensive high school in the 1920s with its diversified curriculum catered to the broad range of student interests and aptitudes. It was an innovation that “transformed” the previous academically narrow high school of the 1890s. Since then, repeated efforts to reform the reform have occurred. In the 1950s, for example, former Harvard University president, James Bryce Conant, called for an overhaul of the high school; a decade later, attacks on the sterile comprehensive high school produced a flurry of alternative and “free” high schools. Ted Sizer launched the Coalition of Essential Schools in the late 1980s with its nine “common principles” and hundreds of those high schools exist across the nation. In the early 1990s, a privately funded venture called the New American Schools Development Corporation, later shortened to New American Schools, spread “whole school reform” models to elementary and secondary schools throughout the U.S. As one advocate put it: those seeking grants from NASDC will have to “cast aside their old notions about schooling–to start with a clean sheet of paper, and be bold and creative in their thinking, and to give us ideas that address comprehensive, systemic change for all students for whole schools.” And in the early 2000s, the Gates Foundation underwrote the move to downsize large comprehensive high schools into small ones. My point is that the high school you want to “transform” has changed many times in past decades. It has never been frozen in amber.

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

*What should students learn?

*Should all students learn the same thing?

*how should students best learn?

*Who should decide answers to these questions?

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

I write this open letter to you not to depress you or your staff about earlier efforts to “revolutionize” high schools.  Historians have gained a bad reputation by pointing out previous failures in trying to reform government, medical practice,  the criminal justice system, and yes, public schools. What historians do know is that economic, political, and social contexts change and when past reformers bent their minds and hearts to “transforming” the public high school in the 1920s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, and since the 1990s those times differed greatly one from the other. History as a wise observer once said, surely doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. Which brings me to my one suggestion.

Among your retinue of experts to advise you on funding proposals, I ask that you include a historian of education who knows the past and its rich collection of previous attempts to bring the high school into alignment with a society undergoing profound economic, political,and social changes as is occurring here and now. There are many fine historians of education. A short list might include Jonathan Zimmerman, William Reese, Geraldine Clifford, John Rury, Diane Ravitch, Carl Kaestle, Ellen Lagemann, and David Labaree. I hope you will tap their knowledge and insights.

Knowing about past high school reforms, I believe, will inform your decisions about which grants to approve amid current controversies over Common Core standards and increased state testing. If you want to increase the probability of success in this venture, such historical knowledge can arm you and your staff sufficiently to make wise decisions when it comes to “transforming” U.S. high schools.


Larry Cuban




Filed under Reforming schools

Guiding Principles on Teaching, Learning, and Reform

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters. So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

  1. No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.
  2. Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.
  3. School structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare  students for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.
  4. Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise. 

These are some of the principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. They offer criteria by which I can sort through reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.


Filed under Reforming schools

Burned Out Teachers (Part 2)

There are three ways to reduce the kind of burnout that so many K-12 teachers, particularly in low-income minority schools such as Spanish teacher Alli Baugher at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. experienced. Change the work conditions or change yourself (or both).

Change working conditions. The age-graded school was a mid-19th century innovation imported from Prussia and planted in the U.S. Within a half-century, the innovation slowly and irrevocably replaced the one-room schoolhouse throughout the nation. Erecting a “grammar school” housing eight grades with separate classrooms where teachers teach six year-olds in one room and ten year-olds in another reorganized the very nature of schooling in the U.S. The principal and teacher would determine whether each student had learned that portion of the curriculum allotted to that grade in one year’s time most often through tests. If the student passed the various tests he or she advanced to the next grade; if not, the student was held back for another year or assigned to a different room.

The age-graded school has defined “normal” academic progress within elementary school, junior high school (now middle school) and high school ever since. The age-graded school also  has shaped how teachers taught. By the 1930s, for example, in the high school the daily workload of teachers was to teach five or six 45-60 minute classes of 25-30 students. Thus, this organizational innovation embedded within ever larger brick-and-mortar buildings has had enormous influence on how students learn and how teachers teach.

Since the 1980s, school reform has focused on raising curriculum standards and graduation requirements, increasing standardized testing, and imposing accountability rules that contain both rewards and penalties. All of these reforms have intensified teachers’ intellectual, emotional and physical workload leading to high attrition rates among teachers, especially in urban districts threatened with school closure or state takeover.

Altering the age-graded organization and teachers’ working conditions conditions is one way of reducing large numbers of teachers exiting schools, especially in low-income, largely minority schools. Abolishing age-gradedness—having K-3 units for children ages 5-9—grouping and re-grouping children by performance in math, reading, and academic subjects rather than age–means that students’ mastery of knowledge and skills determines progress in school, not sitting at a desk for 36 weeks. While it may appear obvious, few efforts, if any, have occurred over the past century to alter the age-graded school. In the 1960s, non-graded elementary schools sprouted across the country with “open” classrooms and “open-space” schools. The sprouts shriveled, however, within a few years and migration back to the traditional organization occurred. Today, enthusiasts for online courses tout the benefits of students learning at their individual speed and not bend to the demands of a “normal” school year. Yet even these cheerleaders for online instruction accept the age-graded structure.

The fact is that moving away from the age-graded school would have an enormous influence on teacher working conditions and how students learn. Few such efforts, however, are on reformers’ agendas. Which means that avoiding burnout and exiting the profession is up to the individual teacher.

 Individual teacher renewal. Effectiveness in every people-serving occupation (e.g., teaching, therapy, nursing, clinical medicine) requires developing relationships with those served be they clients, patients, or students. In teaching, the building and sustaining of relationships with children and youth are essential for student learning. Such work, over time, while satisfying and rewarding drains one’s  energies and commitment. Renewal—repotting—is essential.

Teaching is energizing but also exhausting work. Each day teachers spend the rich intellectual, physical, and emotional capital that they have accumulated over the years on their students. Because of that loss in capital, teachers need to re-invest in themselves by doing what expert gardeners do with favorite potted plants.

Because plants can become pot bound, that is, the roots of the plant become cramped and form a tightly packed mass that inhibits growth they need to be re-potted in different soil and larger pots so they can flourish. Yes, re-potting entails risks and often causes stress but staying potted in the same place means little intellectual growth, diminished enthusiasm for students, even a slow slide into habits that get teachers through the day.

For teachers, re-potting may mean shifting to another grade, tossing out old lessons, introducing new ones, taking a short or long break from the classroom and doing something else that engages one’s passions.

Changing the organization of the age-graded school is not on the agenda of the current generation of efficiency-driven school reformers. Current reforms from Common Core standards to charter schools to accountability, if anything, reinforce with steel rebar the age-graded school. Thus, sad to say, it is up to individual teachers to take charge of their personal renewal.



Filed under Reforming schools