Category Archives: Reforming schools

It’s Ridiculous to Treat Schools Like Covid Hot Zones (David Zweig)*

This article appeared in Wired Magazine June 24, 2020.

David Zweig writes about technology and culture for a number of publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic. He is also the author of the book Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace.”

On May 18, education ministers from the EU gathered on a conference call to discuss the reopening of schools. Children had been back to class for several weeks in 22 European countries, and there were no signs yet of a significant increase in Covid-19 infections. It was early still, but this was good news. More than a month later, the overall mortality rate in Europe has continued to decline. Now, as we look to the fall, the US belatedly appears keen to follow Europe’s lead.

The question of how US schools should be reopened—on what sort of schedule, with what degree of caution—has yet to be determined. But recent guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released May 16, conjures up a grim tableau of safety measures: children wearing masks throughout the day; students kept apart in class, their desks surrounded by 6-foot moats of empty space; shuttered cafeterias and decommissioned jungle gyms; canceled field trips; and attendance scattered into every other day or every other week. Reports suggest that certain US schools may even tag their kids with homing beacons, to help keep track of anyone who breaks the rules and gets too close to someone else. It seems that every measure, no matter how extreme, will be taken in an effort to keep the students and the staffers safe.

This could be a grave mistake. As children return to school this fall, we must take a careful, balanced view of all the safety measures that have been proposed and consider which are really prudent—and which might instead be punitive.

It’s certainly true that reopening our schools, however carefully, could increase transmission of the virus. Some countries that have done so—Israel and France, for instance—did see clusters of infections among students and staff. But these outbreaks were both small and expected, officials in both countries told the press; and the evidence suggests that the risks, overall, are very low.

Let’s review some facts: Children are, by and large, spared the effects of the virus. According to the latest data from the CDC, infants, little kids, and teenagers together have accounted for roughly 5 percent of all confirmed cases, and 0.06 percent of all reported deaths. The Covid-linked child inflammatory syndrome that received fervent media attention last month, while scary, has even more infinitesimal numbers. “Many serious childhood diseases are worse, both in possible outcomes and prevalence,” said Charles Schleien, chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health in New York. Russell Viner, president of the UK’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, noted that the syndrome was not “relevant” to any discussion related to schools.

There is also a wealth of evidence that children do not transmit the virus at the same rate as adults. While experts note that the precise transmission dynamics between children, or between children and adults, are “not well understood”—and indeed, some argue that the best evidence on this question is that “we do not have enough evidence”—many tend to think that the risk of contagion is diminished. Jonas F. Ludvigsson, a pediatrician and a professor of clinical epidemiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, reviewed the relevant research literature as of May 11 and concluded that, while it’s “highly likely” children can transmit the virus causing Covid-19, they “seldom cause outbreaks.” The World Health Organization’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, suggested last month that “it does seem from what we know now that children are less capable of spreading” the disease, and Kristine Macartney, director of Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, noted a lack of evidence that school-aged children are superspreaders in her country. A study in Ireland found “no evidence of secondary transmission of Covid-19 from children attending school.” And Kári Stefánsson, a leading researcher in Iceland, told The New Yorker that out of some 56,000 residents who have been tested, “there are only two examples where a child infected a parent. But there are lots of examples where parents infected children.” Similar conclusions were drawn in a study of families in the Netherlands.

None of this implies that Covid-19 couldn’t still spread efficiently among a school’s adults—the teachers and staff. Under any reopening plan, those who are most vulnerable to the disease should be allowed to opt out of working onsite until there is a vaccine or effective treatment. And adults who are present, when around each other, should wear masks and maintain proper social distancing. Distancing among adults may be easier to implement in schools, where teachers tend to spend their days divvied up in different rooms, than it would be in some work environments that have already reopened, such as offices, factories, and stores.

A month ago, as schools were reopening in Europe, I made the case in WIRED that the US should consider doing the same. Asking when we should reopen, though, was somewhat easier than asking how. Lots of other countries are already in agreement on the first question, but it turns out there’s no consensus whatsoever on the second. Schools’ specific safety measures vary not only from one nation to another, but also, commonly, within each nation. In Taiwan and South Korea, among other countries, plastic barriers have been placed on students’ desks, creating Lilliputian cubicles. In France, some districts have children wearing both masks and plastic face shields; while others just use masks. In Germany, masks are suggested for common areas only. In Denmark and Sweden, masks for students are not required at all. Some countries are encouraging classes to be held outdoors. (Outdoor classwork is not mentioned in the CDC guidelines, though preliminary plans for some states and counties do list this as an option.)

Which of these measures are effective and appropriate? No one knows for sure. Still, it’s possible to flag the ones that seem least necessary. For instance, the French schools that employ the belt-and-suspenders approach of having students wear both face shields and masks, are doing so in direct contrast to a letter signed by the heads of 20 of the country’s pediatric associations, which states that wearing even just a mask—never mind the face shield—“is neither necessary, nor desirable, nor reasonable” in schools for children. Meanwhile, lower schools have been open in Sweden, without masks, for the entirety of the pandemic, and there has been little evidence of major outbreaks coming out of them.

Ludvigsson told me that the widespread use of masks in schools “cannot be motivated by a need to protect children, because there is really no such need.” He’s similarly unimpressed by efforts to implement plastic barriers, playground closures, or any other measure beyond common-sense distancing and hygiene. Such precautions to prevent the spread of the infection from children to adults make no sense, he said, “since children are very unlikely to drive the pandemic.” Another Karolinska Institute epidemiologist, Carina King, said there is currently “weak evidence on children transmitting to each other or adults within school settings,” and suggested the most appropriate safety measures for schools might include testing and contact tracing, improved ventilation, and keeping students with a single group of peers throughout each day.

A report released last week by a panel of experts affiliated with the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Education, recommends against masks in class, noting that it is “not practical for a child to wear a mask properly for the duration of the school day.” The report also advises that “strict physical distancing is not practical and could cause significant psychological harm,” since playing and socializing are “central to child development.” Instead, the report recommends the adoption of smaller class sizes, so long as this does not disrupt a school’s daily schedule.

Strangely, American policy officials have not said much about the potential infeasibility and associated costs of the most extreme measures on the table. It’s not a big deal for an adult to wear a mask in a store for 15 minutes. But it’s entirely different to ask a child to wear a cloth face covering, as the CDC recommends for US schools, over many hours every day. The guidelines helpfully suggest that children “should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering.” Have these people ever been around a bunch of 7-year-olds?

One of the more ostensibly benign, but actually most consequential, measures is the spacing of desks 6 feet apart. As a practical matter, few US schools have the room to accommodate all their students being so spread out. This means many institutions will be all but required to operate at reduced capacity, with students spending up to half their time at home.

The alternating-days approach is euphemistically referred to as “blended learning.” Considering the dismal failure that “distance learning” has proven to be in much of the country this spring, it implies that students will be educated for only half the year. Kids affected by the spring’s school closures are already showing knowledge deficits—what’s being termed “the Covid-19 slide”—and the learning gaps are disproportionately wider for lower-income students. Worse, perhaps, than being off for a block of time, is the intermittence that blended learning will oblige. Students need continuity in attendance to prosper, socio-emotionally and educationally. (This problem will only be exacerbated by inevitable closures as new cases are found. None of the experts I spoke with could give clear benchmarks for what prevalence of infection should trigger a closure.)

There also has been little acknowledgement or plan for how working parents are supposed to earn a living when their children are home for half of every school day, or every other school day, or every other week. “No credible scientist, learning expert, teacher, or parent believes that children aged 5 to 10 years can meaningfully engage in online learning without considerable parental involvement,” stated an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics. Nevertheless, the prospect of having children sit alone and stare at a computer screen instead of engaging with their teachers and peers is not only a certainty for many students in the US, it’s one that some officials—such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo—have characterized as educational progress. Last month, Cuomo wondered aloud at a press briefing why, with the power of technology, the “old model” of physical classrooms still persists at all.

Blended learning appears to have become accepted as a foregone conclusion for US schools, with little acknowledgement of how radical it is.

When students are actually in the schools, the overarching theme will be one of isolation: desks spaced apart and turned to face the same direction; closure of communal areas such as dining halls; staggered arrival and departure times to avoid any socializing before and after school; limited extracurricular activities; low-occupancy buses with one child per bench, seated in every other row. This deprivation of touch and physical proximity to others is unhealthy in the short term. Over a span of many months (and perhaps more than a year), one must imagine an existential toll on children when their physical experience with each other is that of repelling magnets.

In theory, many US schools could choose to avoid the most oppressive measures. The CDC itself presents a graded set of safety rules—some for “distancing,” others for “enhanced distancing”—that are meant to correspond to different levels of disease risk in the community. The phrases if possible and if feasible are peppered throughout the document, which also notes that “all decisions about following these recommendations should be made in collaboration with local health officials and other state and local authorities.”

But veering from the CDC’s or states’ advice would require a renegade spirit not likely to be found among those who’ve risen in such bureaucracies. While hedged language empowers localities to make choices on their own, an official guideline that suggests doing something “if possible” is like a mafioso asking a shopkeeper to do him “a favor.” I live in New York state, where guidelines for reopening have not yet been issued by the governor’s office. Yet the superintendent of my district’s schools has already sent an email to parents suggesting that we procure face shields for our children for the fall.

When much of the world reopened their schools this past spring, America neglected to follow. Now, the US seems eager to copy the most excessive measures implemented elsewhere, despite the evidence of minimal pediatric risk and infectiousness, and against the advice of many epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, and pediatricians, and with a seeming obliviousness to their costs.

For years, many schools have had their drama and arts departments budgets reduced. It would be a sour irony if mandatory masks, half-vacant school buses, and shuttered jungle gyms ended up as our schools’ most grand theatrical production.


*Thanks to Sondra Cuban for sending me this article.


Filed under compare education and medicine, research, school leaders

Whatever Happened to the Platoon School?

Huh? The Platoon School?

My hunch is that very few readers have ever heard of this widespread Progressive reform that began in Gary (IN) in 1907. Praised by John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey in 1915, the innovative way of schooling native, migrant, and immigrant children (and their parents) established by Superintendent William Wirt (who served as superintendent between 1906 and 1938) gained traction in school districts across the country. Platoon schools appeared in big cities like New York, Detroit, and Pittsburgh as well as small towns throughout the second and third decades of the 20th century. By the 1940s, however, many districts had dumped the innovation although it lasted until 1960 in Gary.*

What Problems Did the Platoon School Organization Intend To Solve?

In cities where immigrant families settled to find work, schools soon became overcrowded. Many districts had to have double-sessions, that is shorter school hours, so that all students could be accommodated during the day. In some districts, superintendents turned away children because there were no more seats for them. Progressive educator William Wirt, a former student of John Dewey at the University of Chicago wanted to solve two problems: how to use a school building to its capacity and how to give children access to a full education with the arts, special subjects like music, woodworking, and physical exercise. Wirt added auditoriums, gymnasiums, music and drawing rooms to existing buildings and constructed new ones with expanded facilities beyond classrooms. Unheard of at the time.

By dividing the enrollment into two “platoons,” one group of children would take the traditional academic subjects in the morning while the other platoon would take special subjects, use the auditorium for large-group meetings of students, and exercise in the gyms. Then in the afternoons the two platoons would switch. During evenings, adults in the community would take English classes and other offering. Thus, the school was in use day and night.

What Does a Platoon School Look Like in Practice?

An enthusiast for the reform, a professor at the University of Akron (OH), wrote the following description of a “model platoon school” in 1923:

This school has an enrollment of about one thousand pupils besides the kindergarten and open-air schools which are not included in the platoon organization. The building is equipped with an excellent auditorium, a divided gymnasium, domestic science and shop rooms, and classrooms sufficient to care for the special room and home room activities. The day begins for the pupil at 8.30 and closes at 3.20 with one hour and a half for lunch time. The forenoon has six half- hour periods and the afternoon four thirty-five minute periods. The school is organized into thirty groups, making it necessary to have fifteen home rooms. Each home room takes care of two groups in the formal subjects. One group is doing special platoon work while the other group is in the home room. Ail the pupils change at the middle of half-day sessions. The rooms are so assigned that the primary pupils do not come in contact with the large pupils. Besides the fifteen home rooms there are three science rooms, three literature rooms, one music room, one art room, one music and art for primary platoon, one play room for ‘primary platoon, one auditorium, a divided gymnasium, a library, a manual training shop, and domestic science rooms for cooking and sewing….

In the home rooms the formal subjects are taught, viz., reading, writing, arithmetic, formal language, hygiene and history. Half the pupil’s day is devoted to these subjects. The seventh and eighth grades are departmentalized further by dividing the work so that four teachers by interchange of pupils among four rooms teach the various home room subjects under the following groups: (1) Arithmetic, (2) Language, (3) History, (4) Hygiene, Spelling and Writing. The science rooms are devoted to nature study in the first three grades, geography and community history in the next four grades, and everyday science in the eighth grade. In the literature rooms the supplementary reading as a basis for literary interpretation, study of poems, and appreciation of the finest literary productions and authors suitable to the grades are taught. Regular periods are assigned for library work. All special rooms are arranged to give the proper setting. The art room is arranged as an art room and the music room as a music room. In the gymnasium, girls and boys work together in formal exercises the first ten minutes of the period. Then they are separated for the rest of the period for free play and games. The auditorium is in constant us with two teachers, a man and a woman, in charge. The auditorium serves as a clearing house for the whole school in that it coordinates with all other work. The following outline of work is done in the auditorium:

Dramatization. – Stories learned in the literature and reading classes are used. Pupils are permitted to dramatize without having stories memorized. Not finished work, but opportunity for individual expression is the principal aim.

Literary Societies. – The auditorium takes charge of literary society work. All upper grade pupils take part in parliamentary practice, entertainment, debating, etc.

Visual Education. – One day per week is given to motion pictures and stereopticon views. These are correlated with geography, history, science, art and citizenship.

Music Appreciation. – This work is done with Victrola and occasional musical performances by adults who are invited in to render some of the great musical productions. There is no music teaching. Appreciation of music is the aim.

Vocational Guidance. – Upper grade boys and girls discuss various vocational activities. Talks by business and professional men introduce dif-ferent phases of professions and vocations….

This description of a “model platoon school” existed in Gary (IN) at the Froebel and Emerson Elementary Schools, places that educators from across the country came to visit. As anyone familiar the history of school reform knows, as innovations spread, conflicts and variation in the design and practice pile up. And that is what occurred with the design of the platoon school when adopted by other districts.

In New York City, for example, Alice Barrows, admirer of Superintendent William Wirt, advocated for the Platoon Plan. She convinced newly elected and reform-minded Mayor John Mitchell in 1913 who was worried about the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and overcrowded schools, to adopt the Gary Plan and transform traditional schools into work-study-play school organization. Mitchell brought Superintendent William Wirt to NYC as a consultant to help shepherd city schools implement platoon schools.

Much rancor occurred, however, as city teachers, administrators, and parents wanted more, not less traditional schooling. In 1917, parents and students who opposed the reform rioted in the streets, stopping the Gary Plan from spreading throughout the district. New York City was an exception, however.

As one historian pointed out by the 1920s, platoon schools had spread to Detroit with 110 such schools, Pittsburgh with 75 and by the end of that decade over 200 cities in 41 states had versions of the platoon school in operation. Much variation in design of platoons occurred. Many of the features of platoon schools, particularly the number of and kind of rooms in a building, became part of the what a later generation called the “modern elementary school” (see below).

Did the Platoon School Work?

Yes, this Progressive invention did insofar as becoming an efficient model for how elementary and secondary schools should be organized and built to accommodate the interests of the “whole child.” Beginning during the Great Depression and extending into the decades following World War II, the “modern” elementary and secondary school combined a full array of academic course with in-school experiences in the arts with vocational classes where students learned to work with both their heads and hands and with opportunities for physical exercise in outdoor playgrounds and spacious indoor gyms. Today’s school buildings and curricula (including extracurricular offerings) are silent monuments to the work-study-play ideas embedded in the Platoon Plan of the early 20th century.

But some readers may be asking themselves: what about teachers, the curriculum, and test scores? Abraham Flexner and Frank Bachman conducted a study of the Gary Plan in 1917. Funded by the Rockefeller’s General Education Board, the study critiqued severely the district administration and supervision of the platoon system, the tremendous variation in what teachers did daily in their lessons, and achievement test scores in spelling, handwriting, and arithmetic. Their conclusion was that platoon schools in many instances under-performed “traditional” schools elsewhere.

Superintendent Wirt, reeling from the defeat of the Gary Plan in New York City, found the General Education Board study (1918) both inaccurate and bothersome. He need not have worried too much since the Flexner and Bachman study failed to slow down the national spread of the platoon school in the 1920s and 1930s.

What Happened to the Platoon Schools?

In Gary (IN) as Ronald Cohen documented, platoon schools grew under William Wirt and became the way that Gary schooled it children and youth. Enthusiasm for it peaked in the 1920s and 1930s with a slow demise after Wirt left office in 1938. Throughout the 1940s the once Progressive innovation faltered and by the 1950s was being dismantled in favor of what had become the modern elementary and secondary school that most readers of this post have experienced. Born in the Progressive era, the phrase, “platoon school,” may be anachronistic but it lives on in the nation’s school buildings and curriculum.


*As an elementary school child in the 1940s, I attended a Pittsburgh elementary school organized into platoons.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies

Police Reform and School Reform (Part 3)

Just as a half-century ago when the Kerner Commission Report laid out a series of police reforms, cities were also in turmoil over low academic performance of minority students, traditional curricula, mostly white staffs and insensitive superintendents. Urban disturbances in 1967-1970, for example, caused school closures and rapid turnover of school chiefs then and since.

Consider New York City since 1960. Between that year and 2020, there have been 23 superintendents (later called chancellors) for an average tenure of 2.6 years. NYC might be an outlier, however. Using other major cities the Broad Foundation reported in 2018 that tenure was longer, around five years in districts with over three-quarters of student enrollment poor and minority (2018). Somewhere between three to five years has been the average term appointed superintendents have served in big cities (see here and here).

Such turnstile superintendencies, like urban police chiefs have experienced then and now, disrupt continuity in implementing reforms begun by a predecessor and depress morale of district office administrators, principals, and teachers who do the daily work of schooling.

Not only moving school chiefs in and out of the superintendent’s suite but local school boards, states, and the federal government have also legislated changes during crises that reformers believed would improve schooling for all children but particularly those of color.

Since the 1970s, for example, states have raised graduation requirements, altered curricular frameworks, introduced more standardized tests, and ratcheted up accountability regulations for students, teachers, schools, and districts. All of these state laws sought to reduce the achievement test score gap between whites and minorities, increase graduation rates, and send more low-income and minority students to colleges. The poster child for such laws is the federally-funded No Child Left Behind (2001-2016).

A bipartisan law that was endorsed and enforced by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, NCLB called for all public school students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The law established a federally-driven testing and accountability system managed by the states to insure that all students scored well on standardized tests. Schools meeting their numerical targets set by the law would be rewarded and those falling short would be penalized.

By 2011, the weaknesses of this federally-driven system of incentives and sanctions had become obvious to legislators–48 percent of U.S. schools had been labeled “failing.” While high school graduation rates had increased and more graduates enrolled in colleges, the achievement test score gap had hardly budged. In 2016, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act and President Obama signed off on a law loosening federal regulations on accountability (but not testing or publishing disaggregated racial and ethnic statistics) and giving states far more latitude in designing reforms (see here).

Yet at the same time that federal and state governments have legislated changes to reduce the achievement test score gap, both have reduced funding local school districts over past decades which have led to reductions in school counselors, social workers, nurses, librarians, and community aides. Moreover, worried about in-school crime, especially, violence, urban districts either contracted with local police departments or have created their own police forces (e.g., Los Angeles Unified, New York City).

Both losses of counselors and similar staff plus increased presence of police officers in urban schools have affected students and teachers in reducing the number of adults not in uniform who had previously developed relationships with teenagers.

Finally, policy initiatives to alter racist thinking and actions in police departments have been also duplicated in district, school, and classroom cultures. Preferential treatment in dealing with whites over minorities have been identified and policy changes in some districts have been made in addressing such documented issues as:

*Tracking of minorities into certain courses,

*Minority students being suspended and disciplined at higher rates than white students,

*Large numbers of minorities identified with disabilities,

*Low percentages of minority teachers in schools with mostly children of color.

And for decades there has been efforts to identify teacher biases and behaviors who exhibit low academic expectations of those students who differ from the teacher in ethnicity, race, and social class. Such biases surface in how students are grouped within the classroom, the choice of content and skills and their level of difficulty taught to minority students, who gets called upon during class discussions, and the grades students receive (see here, here, here, and here).


Summing Up

At two times in the past half-century, popular protests swept across the nation to erase racist biases and actions from both individuals and systems of policing and schooling. That the current moment has arisen reveals anew that the efforts of earlier protests in the 1960s to fight poverty insure that each person could vote and discrimination in public facilities was illegal made limited progress.

Those political protests a half-century ago gave voice to the voiceless opening up de facto segregated systems to minorities in police rank-and-file officers and in top posts. Similarly in school systems, protests over unequal treatment of minorities in schools and classrooms and huge gaps in academic outcomes between white and minorities led to the hiring of more teachers who resembled their students in race and ethnicity, additions to the curriculum that encompassed the history and culture of minorities, and efforts to get minority students into gifted programs and Advanced Placement courses.

While forward progress occurred, it was insufficient as the current moment reveals that another generation of police officers and teachers still behave in ways that an earlier generation would have winced at.

Contending explanations for such behavior appeared, then and now. One explanation argues that systems of policing and schooling work fine; troubles come from an unenlightened and ignorant few who display racist actions. They need to be re-educated and re-formed and all will be well.

The other explanation is that it is the larger system, economic, political, and social structures that shape behavior; racism is deeply embedded and pervasive–it is in the bloodstream of these systems. Those structural biases have to be exposed to the light of day and removed.

Currently, the U.S. President and Senate embrace the first explanation, while black and white protesters, many corporate and civic leaders, and non-governmental organizations hold fast to the second explanation.

I cannot (and will not not) predict which explanation will turn into policy as this fractured nation stumbles toward a crucial election 125 days from the recent Juneteenth celebration. The outcome, as any in a democracy, is one still being debated and in the making.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Police Reform and School Reform (Part 2)

Public schools and police departments are core community institutions. Locally controlled, there are 18,000 police departments and over 13,000 school districts in the U.S. State legislatures and city councils levy taxes to fund these institutions. One is charged to protect and serve; the other to make responsible citizens, prepare the young for the workplace, and gain success in life. Both are crucial to the political, economic and social life of their communities.

Yet well-intentioned reformers ignore obvious similarities and differences between the two. There are, for example, historical similarities. While both tax-supported police departments and public schools began in the early decades of the 19th century and became mired in the political patronage of post-Civil War decades, the early 20th century saw Progressive reformers ending political appointments and pushing for professionalized policing and teaching.

The commonalities end there, however. The model to which police chiefs in those decades aspired to was a command-and-control organization similar to the military. Hierarchical and bureaucratic, orders flowed from the top down to the ranks of patrolmen. While police officers had street-level discretion to, say, give a warning or arrest an errant driver of a car, they had sergeants and captains who supervised their conforming to regulations.

Not so for public schools and teachers. With the move to professionalize teaching an individual medical model of helping and caring, of turning children into healthy adults became the lodestar. A well-trained and autonomous doctor working to keep patients healthy and heal the sick was the role-model. Pursuing this model as enrollments and administration grew proved unwieldy.

In cities, school districts became bifurcated: there was the central office with a board of education and superintendent in charge of a hierarchical bureaucracy, mimicking a command-and-control organization, but outside of that central office were neighborhood schools led by principals who had to give teachers a degree of autonomy once they closed their classroom doors. Teachers exercised discretion in teaching content and skills as they thought best.

Also consider race and gender for both institutions. Policing throughout most of the 20th century was dominated by white males–(while there have been black police officers, actual recruitment of minorities occurred during and after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s). Minorities now make up about 25 percent of police forces in the U.S. Ditto for women. They entered the ranks in larger numbers beginning in the 1960s but now are only 12 percent of all department personnel. Both minorities and women in policing fall below the proportions of the populations they serve.

Public school staffing differs in some respects. Historically, women came to dominate the profession by 1900. In Northern and Southern segregated schools prior to the 1960s, nearly 90 percent of teachers were women. Higher percentages in elementary schools than secondary classroom but nonetheless, that pattern extends to the present day although percentages of female teachers have fallen to 76 percent (2018) in elementary and secondary public schools.

As for minorities in teaching, prior to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, segregated Southern schools had all-black staffs. Between the 1960s and the present, as those all-black schools closed, many minority teachers were reassigned but many were let go as well. Since then, districts have hired minorities but seldom enough to match the minority student enrollment of schools, particularly in urban districts. Nationally, about 20 percent (2016) of all elementary and secondary teachers are minority.

But these organizational and historical differences are often overlooked by avid reformers who, generation after generation, unhappy with unsolved problems in each institution, have put their thumbprints on what and how police and schools conduct their work.

In the current moment of national protest over police killings of unarmed black men and women, police departments are targets for reformers. Part 1 laid out the pattern of big city police commissioners exiting and reform-minded chiefs entering the post. Present reform agendas call for fundamental changes in police behavior toward people of color.

Reallocating portions of police budgets to other social agencies are being considered to shrink the long list of current expectations for the police such as dealing with the homeless, mentally ill, and school discipline. Reformers seek legislated changes to reduce excessive use of force in minority communities, and transform the biases embedded in police culture. Expanded training of officers inevitably become part of the reform package. All of these in different forms are currently being considered and acted upon by the U.S. President, Congress, some state legislatures, and many big city mayors and councils.

If the history of police reform is a guide to the future–yes, that is a big “if”–there will be changes but no transformation (see here and here). What will survive this political process of adopting new policies aimed at reforming police procedures and practices, as an informed outsider who has only scanned the literature on police reform, I cannot say. What I do know is that calls for fundamental changes in community institutions such as the police and public schools, usually end up as incremental changes, significant as they may be, but falling far short of the reform rhetoric demanding a transformed institution.

How can I say this? My involvement in and study of school reform gives me some confidence in laying out what I have learned from the history of reform in another important community institution: public schools.

Part 3 updates past school reforms that have, like police chiefs and their command-and-control organizations, led to superintendent turnover, reform-driven laws, and efforts to alter district, school and classroom cultures.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Police Reform and School Reform (Part 1)

Amid widespread protests against police violence against African Americans, calls for reform from ending neck restraints to “defunding” police departments have monopolized TV newscasts and newspaper headlines. Social media traffic prompted by smartphone videos of incidents between police officers and blacks have gone viral. State and city officials across the nation are generating to-do lists of reforms aimed at solving the problem of police officers using lethal force to arrest minority suspects (see here and here).

White people over the age of 18 might be surprised that such cries for police reform have occurred before. But their grandparents wouldn’t.

The decade between 1965-1975 when urban “riots” (or “rebellions,” depending upon your political stance) occurred in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Newark, and other cities killing both blacks and whites including police officers. President Lyndon Johnson appointed the governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner, to chair a commission to investigate the racial violence. The Kerner Commission’s report (1968) condemned white racism in housing, employment, and criminal justice while offering many recommendations for police reform (see here and here).

Subsequent calls for reforming police departments to reduce excessive force against people of color have occurred after killings of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson (MO) in 2014. Then consider Minneapolis police officers have shot dead Jamar Clark (2015) and Philando Castile (2016), and choked to death George Floyd (2020). Inexorably, the uproar over such killings produces a list of must-do reforms including the resignation or dismissal of police chiefs, new laws curbing police methods being passed, and transforming the Us vs. Them organizational culture .

Consider turnover of police chiefs over the past half-century. Depending how one counts years served as police chief, tenure in big city police departments is short. For example, take New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Between 1970 and 2020, a half-century marked by rising and falling tensions between minority communities and mainly white police forces, NYPD had 16 commissioners since 1970 (mean: 3.1 years). Chicago, 13 (mean 3.8), and Los Angeles, 11 (mean 4.5). Other cities had even higher turnover such as Oakland (nine over the past decade) and Baltimore (five in the past four years as of 2019). Only in mid-size cities and rural jurisdictions does tenure of police chiefs last longer. No reader needs a Ph.D. to figure out that such turnover creates low morale among those who do the daily work on streets and in the community. Moreover, turnstile police chiefs lead to organizational instability and major difficulties of continuing reforms launched by a predecessor that seem to be working.

Mayors and city councils are currently under the triple threat of high-profile incidents of racist policing triggering marches, a pandemic that began in mid-March and continues for the foreseeable future, and impending cuts to city budgets as a result of economic recession following the plague. This convergence of events puts even more pressure on police leaders. Not only do new police chiefs have to reduce crime rates, build trust with the community, and gain respect of sworn police officers, they also have to erase racial and ethnic biases among supervisors and rank-and-file and insure adequate funding from city officials. Given this agenda for change brimming with conflicts, dumping current chiefs and hiring new ones to transform departments occur frequently.

But hiring or firing the police commissioner is only the beginning. State and city legislatures adopt laws seeking to fundamentally alter the mission of police departments and their daily practices. Some small cities such as Camden (NJ) to root out corruption in the force disbanded its police department and started a new one; cities such as Eugene (OR) have reduced the mission of police organizations through allocating budget funds to other agencies to work with, for example, the homeless, family disturbances, school discipline. Such efforts aim at making clear that the single most important goal is to insure community safety and, where possible, reduce crime. Such reform talk is rampant now.

What happened in the past is that as police chief turnover increased, fundamental reforms initially legislated by legislatures and city councils were down-sized into incremental changes (e.g., banning choke-holds, required re-training sessions on how to de-escalate conflicts in detaining citizens and arresting suspects). The culture of Us vs. Them, however, remained intact.

Whether that will occur again, I cannot say for sure but my informed guess, based upon a half-century of experience with school reform, is that it will. Shoving community institutions hard to make deep changes in their goals and practices is unenviable work and much political action, savvy, and patience are required.

Political? Yes. There are many stakeholders involved in funding police departments, shaping policies, and insuring that middle managers–captains and sergeants–put those policies into practice after precinct roll calls. After all, police chiefs secure sufficient funds from elected bodies, buffer the organization from external threats, keep bureaucrats in line, and monitor police union moves. If that isn’t enough, chiefs are responsible for building trust with the patrolmen walking beats and cruising neighborhoods. Talk about organizational conflict and politics. It is in the DNA of of being a police chief.

And this is where school reform and superintendents come into play as a comparison to the causes and solutions for problems in schooling. I take that up in Part 2.

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Schools Closed for Five Years: The Prince Edward County Story (Part 2)

That the 2020 pandemic closed public venues including schools for three to six months across 13,000 districts in the country startled American families upending familiar daily routines. Most Moms and Dads had never experienced such a turnabout in their daily lives. Then many Americans learned of earlier influenza and polio epidemics when public officials closed schools during the first half of the 20th century.

But the vast majority of Americans know next to nothing about a Virginia county in 1959 that shut down its public schools until 1963.

That is what happened in Prince Edward County when an all-white school board, refusing a court order to desegregate, shuttered its schools and using public funds for vouchers and tax credits created a private white-only academy for students. That decision left black children and youth with no access to public elementary and secondary schooling for five years.

What did black families do when the doors to their schools were locked?

Black leaders, parents, students, and a few whites protested. The white-controlled Board of Supervisors and the County Board of Education, nonetheless, kept the schools closed.

Some families sent their sons and daughters to relatives elsewhere in Virginia where at least segregated schools were open, to families in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and on the East coast. Other parents, including some whites, dug deep in their pockets and funded small, part-time schools taught by volunteers meeting in churches and homes. Most black students, however, did not attend any school until the 1964 school year. They stayed home. Many worked in the tobacco fields with their parents.

The federal government finally got involved after the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Attorney General Robert Kennedy took immediate interest in the situation. He said:

We may observe with much sadness and irony that, outside of Africa, south of the Sahara, where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.” 

Robert Kennedy assigned Department of Justice officials to find ways to open County schools to black children and youth. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court found the vouchers that the Prince Edward County Board of Education issued to only white families to pay tuition to the private Academy were unconstitutional.

Federal officials then founded the Prince Edward Country Free Association of Schools. They needed one million dollars to provide schooling for black children and youth for one year. Because of missing years of schooling, students had reading and math levels scattered across the grades. The new schools would have to be ungraded so that students could move from one level to another after mastering content and skills.

Funded by donations from black and white families in other parts of the U.S., and foundation grants led to the creation of a high school and elementary/middle school housed in the previously all-black Robert Moton High School. A newly installed superintendent, Neil Sullivan who had led an affluent suburb near New York City and knew about non-graded schools, called for teachers around the country to staff these federally-run schools; dozens from all parts of the country volunteered. He assembled a biracial board of trustees and a similarly integrated faculty. As one account put it:

On Monday, September 16, 1963,the Free Schools opened and greeted 1,578 students,including four white students. The new student body took their education very seriously and in one instance refused to go home when the water supply from their school broke leaving them with no bathrooms. The students volunteered to just go in the woods rather than miss more school. The students faced an immense challenge catching up. Many of them had little instruction or opportunities to practice skills while the schools were closed for four long years. Many students and teachers got to school early, stayed late and even met on the weekends to try to catch up. Meanwhile, both students and staff were harassed on a regular basis by white supremacists but nothing would stop them from getting their education.

And many black students never returned to school. They found jobs in the fields, joined the military, got married and had families. Others were so far behind when schools re-opened that they came for a short time and dropped out. One journalist interviewed middle-aged janitors and tenant farmers in 2004 who had missed school decades earlier and found some whose futures were crippled by illiteracy.

Academic studies tracked former students into middle-age to determine the socioeconomic and political costs these men and women paid as a result of the school closure. Researchers looked at income levels, job histories, voting practices, and other indicators and compared those who could not attend school at all with those who received some schooling during the shutdown . Outcomes for the unschooled over decades showed dramatic differences with those Prince Edward students who had attended schools elsewhere (see here, here, and here).

School closures, then, is an instance of a man-made disaster quite different from natural disasters like the current Covid-19 pandemic. No hurricane or viral spread caused the Prince Edward County to shutter its schools. Racial rancor did.

Major differences between natural and man-made disasters are earmarks of the Prince Edward County story. The length of time out of school in the Virginia county differs with current estimates of months lost to American children rather than years. The power of schooling to affect adult earnings, behaviors, and civic actions becomes highlighted by this exceptional example. Looking to the past dredges up important instances when man-made disasters took a grave toll on one group of Americans.

In 2020, there are three schools in the still rural Prince Edward County–an elementary, a middle school, and a high school. Ranked in the bottom half of the state in academic performance, the district has just over 2,000 students. Black enrollment is 64 percent (2017).

Elementary School
Middle School
High School

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Schools Closed for Five Years: The Prince Edward County Story (Part 1)

Natural disasters have closed schools over the past century. Earthquakes and hurricanes destroyed Christchurch, New Zealand (2011) and New Orleans (2005). The Influenza pandemic in 1918-1919, polio epidemics in the 1940s, and currently the coronavirus-19 have achieved the same result in country after country across the globe.

In a nation were supreme faith in the power of schooling to produce individual success, where getting an “education” is the first item on the to-do list of native-born and immigrant families, sudden and sustained school closures carry huge psychic and social costs for both students and their families.

Short-term effects on children and youth range from “summer loss” in academic achievement to distaste for online instruction to angst and depression from prolonged lockdowns and absence of contact with friends. Effects on students and families are unrecorded for previous epidemics and are just now becoming apparent, particularly for single Moms and families with two working parents.

Long-term effects of these natural disasters remain unknown. And this is why the five year loss of public schooling for black students in Prince Edward County as a result of a man-made disaster–while far longer than school closures flowing from the pandemic–becomes relevant as a historical instance of learning what happens later to children and youth when they have lost five years of their schooling.


In 1951, in rural Prince Edward County, Virginia, Robert Moton high school student Barbara Johns led a walkout of black students protesting the conditions in the overcrowded building (housing 450 students rather than less than the 200 it was built for). This neglected, racially segregated high school in Farmville–the County seat of about 8500 residents–was not only at double its capacity but also lacked a library, science labs, and cafeteria.

“We held two or three classes in the auditorium most of the time, one on the stage and two in the back,” former Moton principal M. Boyd Jones told journalist Bob Smith in 1961. “We even held some classes in a bus.” Some classes met in tar-paper shacks, which the school board funded rather then build a new school. When it rained those shacks leaked, and when it got cold the potbelly stoves failed to keep children warm.

Teacher Vanessa Venable recalled students searching the woods before class for kindling to use in the shacks’ stoves to heat the buildings. In an interview Venable said, “I remember asking the Superintendent for toilet tissues for the outdoor john. He looked at me as if I was crazy and said, ‘Mrs. Venable, they don’t know how to use it anyway. Get a Sears catalogue.'”

The high school was indeed separate but hardly equal to the all-white high school also located in Farmville.

After the walkout, civil rights lawyers convinced the black parents who had sued the all-white County school board to join black litigants in Topeka, Kansas and other jurisdictions in a case that was moving toward the U.S. Supreme Court called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown that state laws establishing separate schools on the basis of race were unconstitutional. While the Court urged states to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed,” many Southern states (including Virginia) where de jure school segregation and Jim Crow laws had been in existence for over a half-century did little to nothing in the aftermath of the decision (see here and here).

Virginia’s response orchestrated by Democratic Senator Harry Byrd’s political machine, a long-time advocate of segregated schools, launched “massive resistance” to the court decision. The Virginia legislature, controlled by the Byrd machine, threatened to stop funding any county or city district in the state that desegregated its schools.

In 1959, federal and state courts declared “massive resistance” to the Brown decision unconstitutional. For the first time, a Democratic governor refused to support pro-segregation bills moving through the legislature. Then a federal district court judge ordered the Prince Edward County school board to move students from the all-black Robert Russa Moton high school to the nearby all-white high school. The all-white County school Board of Supervisors joining the state movement toward “massive resistance” refused to fund the public schools. The School Board then closed all of its schools and funded and built a private all-white academy. On the first day of the fall semester, yellow school buses took nearly 1500 white students to the private academy and left 1700 black students without a school to go to.

The public schools did not re-open until 1963.

Part 2 deals with the effects on black students of no public schooling for five years.


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Reform as Conserving What Is Good in Schooling (David Tyack)

David Tyack was professor of education and history in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University between 1969-2000. He died in 2016. Author of scores of books and articles, his One Best System (1974) has become a classic history of urban schooling. He and Larry Cuban wrote Tinkering toward Utopia (1995). This commentary appeared in Education Week June 23, 1999.

David Tyack, 06/1995

At a time when a pandemic has upended daily life including the closing of nearly all schools since mid-March 2020, school reform talk has accelerated to hyper-drive for altering existing practices and upending traditional ways of schooling well beyond health and safety measures. I thought that Tyack’s points in this commentary made over two decades ago, might be useful to consider during this momentous crisis.

The word “conservationist” has an honorable ring when citizens struggle to preserve wild nature or fine old buildings. When people work to preserve what is good in education, however, they are often dismissed as traditionalists or stand-patters. When real estate developers propose paving over wetlands, environmental activists protest. But when educational innovators want to transform educational practice, few ask what might be lost in the process. Government requires environmental-impact statements for construction projects, but not student- and teacher-impact reports for educational reforms. Who will be there to defend endangered species of good schools, or good educational programs, from the relentless, if zig-zag, march of educational progress?

Believers in progress through educational reform often want to reinvent schooling. The dead hand of the past has created problems for rational planners to solve in the future. Inspired by the progress syndrome, innovators often exaggerate defects to motivate by alarm, try to wipe the educational slate clean, and then propose a short time frame for their favorite projects, hoping to see results before the next election or job opportunity or grant proposal.

The word progress pops up everywhere, even in the rhetoric of conservatives who want to blame schools for economic problems. During the Reagan administration, the official American report on education for UNESCO was called “Progress of Education in the United States,” while the major tool for measuring achievement bears the name of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The ideology of progress through change obscures what a “conservationist” strategy illuminates: It is at least as important to conserve the good as to invent the new. It is easy to become so obsessed with what is not working–the cacophony of bad schools–that one forgets what makes many schools sing. Good schools are hard to create and nurture, for they require healthy relationships of trust, challenge, and respect, qualities that take time to grow. When teachers, students, parents, and administrators create such learning communities, a conservationist strategy seeks to preserve what makes them work, to sabotage ignorant efforts to fix what ain’t broke, and to share knowledge about how to grow more such places.

As I’ve talked with diverse people across the country, I’ve asked them what was their most positive experience in school. They may have forgotten whatever fad was sweeping education or the teenage culture, but they remembered key relationships, especially with teachers. They spoke, often with great warmth, about teachers who challenged them to use their minds to the full, who kindled enthusiasm for a subject, who honed their skills on the playing field with relentless goodwill, who were there to support them in times of stress or sadness, and who knew and cared for them as individuals.

When teachers were asked what were their greatest satisfactions in their own work, almost nine in 10 said helping students to learn and grow as social beings. It’s a sign of a school worth conserving when the best memories of its former students and the best rewards of its teachers are well-aligned. Such schools have grown not just in favored and prosperous places, but also in economically deprived but culturally strong communities, as Vanessa Siddle-Walker has shown in her studies of Southern black schools.

Conservationist does not simply mean conservative (though it can mean that). Conservationists in education would probably span as wide a political spectrum as those in the ecology movement, who range from radical members of Greenpeace to genteel Republicans active in the Audubon Society. Conservationism is an attitude, a habit of mind, not a political orthodoxy. It analyzes as well as advocates. It seeks to moderate the pendulum swings of policy that decree that schools should be larger (or smaller), that more (or fewer) courses should be elective, or that governance should be more (or less) centralized.

Many different sorts of people could take part in preserving what they find valuable in education. Intrinsic in the work of school board members, for example, is the duty to be trustees of the past as well as planners of the future. Teachers, parents, students, and administrators know first-hand what works in their schools and what they believe should be preserved, though endangered from time to time by fiscal retrenchment or a change in policy climate.

The conservationist cannot look only backwards, for preservation involves planning for the future as well. The work of the educational conservationist, like that of the defender of wild animals, is a challenging one. It takes resources and smarts and political savvy to preserve Mongolian Gazelles or good schools.

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School Principals As Reformers

Sometime ago, I taught a one-day session for 30-plus secondary school principals in the San Francisco Bay area. The subject was “Principals as Change Leaders.”

Seems like a contradiction in terms at first since these principals from affluent suburbs and inner cities are often caught in the middle between bosses who tell them to implement district policies in their schools and teachers who want to be buffered from intrusive parents and unpredictable youth. Keeping the ship afloat and passengers happy seems to be the major task, not leading change. But it isn’t a contradiction because these principals—ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-50s and running small high schools, large comprehensive high schools, and middle schools–were mid-career, savvy about organizational politics, and wanted to improve their schools.

So if you are caught in the middle where you look upward to your bosses for direction, sideways to your teachers who do the daily work with students, and outward to parents many of whom believe they know more than you do about schooling–how exactly do you make changes, much less lead others?

They knew well the instructional, managerial, and political roles that they had to perform (see here and here). What they wanted to discuss was not these roles but how do you lead change amid contradictory demands from parents who want particular changes, bosses who expect policies to be put into classroom practice when you are utterly dependent upon teachers to get the daily work done, and, of course, teachers who seek support and resources, not reforms designed by others.

So before we turned to case studies of principals in action, I spoke briefly on principals as reformers. Here is what I said without the pauses, uhhhhs, and hmmmms:

Leading change begins in your head. Knowing which questions you have to ask about the change you want to make in the school and sharing your answers to those questions with staff, parents, and students is the single most important leadership act you can perform.

Exactly what are those questions?

1. What theory of action is driving the change you want to make?

Every change has an implicit theory guiding it. Behind placing carts of 30 tablets in each classroom, for example, is the theory that using these devices will produce more, faster, and better learning in students. Laying out the theory explicitly to those who are expected to make the changes is a minimum obligation of a leader who aspires to be trustworthy, honest and transparent with those he or she serves.

2. What are the problems you seek to solve? What are your goals? What assumptions are built into the change? What strategies do you intend to use in solving those problems?

Every change is a solution to a particular problem. For example, the problem of low test scores in reading, math, and science on the state test converts easily into the goal of raising the percentages of students being proficient in reading, math, and science.

Every change has implicit assumptions built into it that need to be made explicit. Consider the popular change of creating professional learning communities (PLCs) among teachers. One assumption is that PLCs where teachers observe one another, receive coaching, read and discuss books, will get teachers to alter routine teaching practices.

And then there are the strategies to put the change into practice. Take, for example, the common strategies used in creating small urban high schools of shifting to block schedules to gain instructional time and establishing advisories of 15-plus students for discussion of non-academic issues. Assumptions underlying those two structures are that more instructional time will lead to more learning and advisories will make school more personal, more motivating hereby leading to engaged students who will want to learn and achieve. These assumptions are seldom examined publicly.

3. What capacities (knowledge and skills) are needed to carry out the change? Who has them? Where to get them?

No elaboration needed for this question since if it goes unasked then the chances of most teachers implementing the change go down drastically.

4. What school and classroom changes have to occur for the policy to be completely implemented?

If changes aimed at improving student performance are NOT spelled out explicitly for classrooms (e.g., changes in how teachers teach, the content of lessons, student behavior), then kiss your change goodbye. Without changes in classroom practices, not much worthwhile will happen.

5. How will you know that changes worked in the short-, mid-, and long-term?

This question asks you have to figure out and state for teachers, parensts, and students in specific terms the results consistent with the changes that can be reasonably expected over the next months and years.

Before moving to the case studies of principals who sought changes in their schools, I did a Q & A where the principals challenged these five questions, asked for evidence to support the claims that I made. They asked me whether hard-working principals caught in the middle of performing three roles for their bosses, teachers, and parents could, indeed, ask and answer those questions I posed. I answered their questions the best that I could but to their last question, I said quickly and emphatically “yes.”

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A School Experiment to Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

What these startling results showed over 80 years ago was that there was no one single best way of schooling teenagers. The fears that parents and taxpayers had about experimenting with high school courses, organization, and teaching proved hollow in “The Eight Year Study.”

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

So what does this half-century old experiment say to us in the in the 21st century about Progressive school reform?

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

In 2020, federal and state decision-makers and policy elites drive school reform. They set standards, test students, and hold schools and students accountable for their performance. What “The Eight Year Study” (recall that it was sponsored by the Progressive Education Association) demonstrated nearly a century ago is that there are locals–districts, schools, and practitioners—who have the expertise and can be trusted to design and implement different ways to organize schools.

Am I suggesting that this is what all U.S. high schools should do? No, I am not. There are, for example, schools in largely poor urban and rural areas—both minority and white—that can use far more state and federal aid in supplying experienced teachers and coaches, reducing class size and expanding community services. And, yes, even the freedom to try different ways of organizing schools for better teaching and learning.  

If only those who govern and fund schools could learn the essential lesson that every parent with more than one child and every experienced teacher and principal has learned over the years:

*There is no one best way to learn.

*There is no one best way to teach.

*There is no one best way to organize schools.



*Additional sources for the Eight Year Study are:

William Wraga, Democracy’s High School: The Comprehensive High School and Educational Reform in the United States. University Press of America. pp. 61–65.

Craig Kridel and Robert Bullough Jr. (2012). Stories of the Eight-Year Study: Reexamining Secondary Education in America. SUNY Press.



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