Category Archives: Reforming schools

The Hype of “Transforming” Teaching and Learning

Three years ago, I published this post. I didn’t expect anything much to happen with the over-use of the word “transform” and nothing did. The word continues to be used both seriously and casually without much scrutiny. So here is that post again. While I am modest about my reach and influence among educators, I remain an optimist at heart.


We have the opportunity to completely reform our nation’s schools. We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges here. We’re talking about a fundamental re-thinking of how our schools function—and placing a focus on teaching and learning like never before…. With the first decade of the 21st century now history, we’ve committed to securing the vitality of our nation by transforming the way we teach our students.  U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, 2010


Transform the way teachers teach and how children learn by replacing group-based, teacher-centered instruction with personalized, learner-centered instruction….

Transform the quality of work life for teachers, administrators, and support staff by transforming a school system’s organization culture, its reward system, job descriptions, and so on, to align with the requirements of the new teaching and learning processes….

Transform the way in which educators’ create change by replacing piecemeal change strategies with whole-system change strategies.... Francis Duffy, 2010


Computers, the Internet, online courses, smart phones, cameras, interactive whiteboards, and other digital tools play an important role in improving and, yes, transforming schools.  The role of technology in schools will increase, and as we use these new tools wisely, they help make schools more effective and engaging.    Andrew Zucker, 2012


Harness Technology to transform your School: With technology, anything is possible and today’s students experience and use technology every hour of every day. Shouldn’t your classrooms have the technology products and solutions to help your students move forward?    Advertisement for conference on technology held by HB Communications, 2016




If you enter “school reform” in a Google search you will get 12, 100,000 hits. But were you to type in “transformed schools,” you would get 111,000,000 hits (as of May 17, 2016). When it comes to school reform, as the quotes above indicate, the word “transform” hits the jackpot of overhyped words in reformers’ vocabulary. Another highly touted word that has become puffery is “disrupt” as in “disrupting schools through technological innovations” (which got a measly 1,430,000 Google “results” on May 19, 2016). But for today, one overrated word is enough.  I will concentrate on “transform”

The dictionary meaning of the verb and noun (see here and here) refers to dramatic changes in form, appearance, and conditions. Often used as an example is the metamorphosis of the butterfly.



But “transform” applied to institutions is less biological, less genetic and far more hand-made. Humans manufacture changes.  But not just any change. In the world of school reformers, “transform,” implies not only dramatic changes but ones that make better schools. Also implied is that “better” means fundamental or radical, not incremental or tinkering changes. Moreover, these fundamental changes are instituted speedily rather than slowly. Here are some images that capture the range of meanings for the verb and noun when applied to individuals and organizations:




This post, then, is about this over-used, pumped-up word and its implications especially how meaningless it has become in policy-talk. Keep in mind that historically there have been proof-positive “transformations.” One-room rural schoolhouses in the 19th century changed into brick-and-mortar age-graded schools with scores of classrooms by the end of that century. A few decades later, reformers launched the innovative comprehensive high school. Previously about 10 percent of students had graduated high school in 1890; a century later, about 75 percent graduated the comprehensive high school. Those are “transformations” in school organization that strongly influenced teachers and students in schedule, curriculum, and instruction (see here and here).

Think about the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) and the subsequent Civil Rights Act that enforced school desegregation. With court-ordered desegregation in district after district, by the mid-1980s, more black students in the South were going to schools with whites than elsewhere in the nation. That was a “transformation.” With subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that returned authority to local districts in assigning students to neighborhood schools (thus, reflecting residential segregation), re-segregation has reappeared (see here and here).

Yes, I have gotten allergic to the word “transform” when it is applied to schooling–fits of sneezing erupt when I hear it. That allergy has prompted me to ask any policymaker, researcher, practitioner, high-tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist, or parent using the word, certain questions about what he or she means.

  1. What does “transform” mean to you?

Sometimes I use images (e.g., like a before/after photo of an overweight man? A butterfly?) to prompt the picture of the change that resides in the head of the person .

  1. What are the problems to which “transformed” schools is the solution?

Is the problem academic achievement falling behind other nations? Or is it the long-term achievement gap between whites and minorities? Or is it the technological backwardness of schools compared to other industries?

  1. What exactly is to be transformed?  School structures? Cultures? Classroom teaching? Learners?

Public schools as an institution are complex organizations with many moving parts, some being tightly coupled to one another while some are often unconnected to one another. What, then is the target for the “transformation?”

  1. Transform to what? what are the outcomes that you want to achieve?

This is the key question that gets at what the believer in “transforming” schools wants to be better. It reveals the person’s value about the place of schooling in a democratic society and the kinds of teaching and learning that are “good.”  Of all the questions, this cannot be skipped.

  1. How fast should the “transformation” be?

Nearly always, believers in “transformed” schools believe in speedy action, grand moves while the window of opportunity is open. Not in making changes slowly or in small increments.

  1. How will you know that the “transformation” will be better than what you already have?

Ah, the evaluation question that captures in another way the desired outcomes, the better school.

So, if readers want to end the promiscuous use of a word leached of its meaning in policy-talk, I suggest asking these questions. To do so, may lose you an acquaintance or colleague but, in the end, both parties gain a larger and deeper sense of what the words “transform schools” mean. And maybe I will stop sneezing when the word comes up.



Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

We Need Many “Grammars of Schooling” (Part 4)

In a recent conversation with an educational entrepreneur* about the power inherent in the organization of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling,” I was asked if I wanted to disrupt the “grammar of schooling.” I said I did not. I wanted–and he put it in words I wished I had used–many “grammars of schooling.”

What did I mean? There is not just one way to organize a school. Age-graded is simply a choice that policymakers made many decades ago. It is the “one best system” that has characterized U.S. schools since the late-19th century. There are other ways to organize schools.

One room schoolhouses  where children of mixed ages learn content and skills under the tutelage of a teacher. Ungraded schools where groups of mixed-age students learn at different paces the prescribed content or a curriculum jointly constructed by teachers and students. Cyber schools where students learn at home or at different sites are another way of organizing a school. And there are combinations of all of these. Each of these ways of operating schools contains a “grammar of schooling,” that is, a theory of learning and teaching, implicit and explicit rules to follow, and a organizational framework that shapes the social and individual behavior of both children and teachers.

Historically, then, many ways of organizing schools have existed. Thus, multiple “grammars of schooling” were in play. Not now.

But my critique of age-graded schools is not a preface for a call to eliminate all such organizations. I do not wish to see age-graded schools replaced wholesale either by fiat or choice. For many students and their parents, that “grammar of schooling” is just fine. High-achieving age-graded schools in cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural communities where both children and parents are satisfied should continue. Or KIPP schools and similar ventures that attract children and youth to their classrooms have parents who want the familiar “grammar of schooling” to continue since it has worked with their daughters and sons. Until parents become dissatisfied with the schooling their children  receive, these age-graded organizations will remain the places that the majority of U.S. parents want.

What I seek is more experimentation in organizing schools, more choice for alternative arrangements, more “grammars of schooling.” Donors willing to invest in different ways of putting a school together and local districts that seek different ways for children to learn and teachers to teach. Parents and teachers joining hands to create schools that depart from the familiar model. Private schools that have public versions like Waldorf and Montessori add to the mix of different ways to run schools. That is what I support: far more alternatives to traditional age-graded organizations than exist now.

There were instances of such experimentation in organizing U.S. schools in earlier periods. In a post I wrote years ago, I described a part of that history. To make my point of having many “grammars of schooling,” I reprint it here.

I was stunned when I walked into the classroom of Carmen Wilkinson at Jamestown Elementary School in 1975 (all names are actual people and places). In my first year as Arlington (VA) school superintendent, I had already seen over 300 elementary classrooms. This was the only one I had seen that had mixed ages (grades 1 through 4) and learning stations in which 50 students spent most of the day working independently and moving freely about the room; they worked in small groups and individually while Wilkinson–a 27-year veteran of teaching–moved about the room asking and answering question, giving advice, and listening to students. Called “The Palace” by parents, children, and staff, the class used two adjacent rooms. Wilkinson teamed with another teacher and, at the time, two student teachers. She orchestrated scores of tasks in a quiet, low-key fashion.

In the rest of the school, there were 17 self-contained classrooms of which only one was similar to The Palace. Wilkinson’s informal classroom was unusual at Jamestown and rare in the 500 other elementary classrooms in the Arlington public schools.

Of course, the original ungraded school and classroom pre-dated Wilkinson by well over a century.  The one-room schoolhouse in mid-19th century rural America had a lone teacher instructing  children and youth ages 6 to 14 in all subjects in the district curriculum while at the same time insuring that there were enough books, writing supplies, heat, water, and outdoor toilets for everyone.

As efficiency-driven superintendents in the 20th century consolidated scattered one-room schoolhouses into centrally-located age-graded schools, they have nearly disappeared. But the ideas of multi-age groupings and children learning at different paces persisted in different attempts to break the lock-step age-graded schools where teachers in self-contained classrooms delivered chunks of content to be learned within a school year and students were either promoted or retained in grade.

Too often we forget, that there were late-19th critics of age-graded schools. They saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates and causing  dropouts from elementary schools as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because they flunked.

The development of twice yearly promotions and ability groups smoothed out some of the inherent problems of age-graded schools. But not the overall structure of the age-graded school that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class and that every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be retained for another year. These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and persisted decade after decade.

Beginning in the 1930s and stretching through the 1960s, progressive reformers launched non-graded schools and multi-age, team-taught classrooms time and again. Whole elementary and secondary schools used flexible scheduling where teams of teachers grouped and re-grouped students by performance in math, reading, and other subjects rather than what grade they in. Open classrooms flourished in the late-1960s and early 1970s–and this is when The Palace came into existence.

Over time, however, these experiments in non-graded schooling and classrooms withered and disappeared. Even though researchers found sufficient evidence that these innovations were just as successful as traditional age-graded schools, multi-grade classrooms and non-graded schools found little traction among superintendents, principals, and parents (see REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-1992).

There were (and are) exceptions, however. As part of a state reform, Kentucky ungraded all of its primary grades in the 1990s. But this reform and other ungrading plans in elementary schools across the nation soon gave way to test-driven accountability. Still amid standards based testing for the past three decades, ungraded public schools and classrooms soldier on. There is the Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., a school that has done multiage grouping ever since it opened in 1890. There is the open classroom in San Geronimo (CA) in operation since 1971 and many others scattered across the nation.

Why so few? Why is so hard to disrupt the age-graded structures that shape how children learn and teachers teach? In a previous post I mentioned the potent social beliefs among parents and educators about what a “real” school is. I also pointed out that state mandated standards, college entrance requirements, and federal and state laws that mandate testing in 3rd to 8th grade are all married to the age-graded structure.

Most of all, like the air we breathe, the age-graded school with its  “grammar of schooling” is taken for granted. It is everywhere and has been around for forever. But it is made by human hands. As Carmen Wilkinson knew and her like-minded innovators decades before her and since, the age-graded school structure was invented to solve a problem a century and a half ago. It can be re-invented to solve new problems.

No, I do not seek to disrupt the one “grammar of schooling” that dominates U.S. schools. I seek many “grammars of schooling.”


*I was speaking with Joel Rose, co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms, a nonprofit that offers a personalized learning platform for middle and high school math students called Teach to One. Over the past three years after writing about one of the math programs his team had brought to ASCEND Charter School in Oakland (see here), he and I would have free-ranging conversations about school reform and its contradictions, particularly with the spread of Teach-to-One programs.


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

Challenging the Grammar of Schooling (Part 3)

The “grammar of schooling” is stubborn. It is the DNA of U.S. public schools.

Because it is taken-for-granted, as common as the air we breathe and seemingly as essential to schooling Americans as sleeping is to decent health, few reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, donors, researchers, and parents challenge it. In Part 2, four researchers described and analyzed efforts to alter substantially this quiet institutional machinery that influences both students and teachers 36 weeks a year. For the most part, these researchers described in their case studies how the “grammar of schooling’ persisted after mighty efforts to reduce or remove it in public schools and districts.

In Part 1, I described private schools that had, indeed, dispensed with the “grammar of instruction.” I ended that post with this paragraph:

The tradition of challenging the dominant structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” continues to this day with micro-schools in Silicon Valley and elsewhere illustrating anew that such reforms to the traditional “machinery of instruction” have resided, for the most part, in private schools where tuition runs high and students bring many economic and social advantages school. In a profound way, the high cost of these private schools and the resources available to their founders in experienced teachers, aides, technologies, space, and materials show clearly the prior conditions necessary not only to operate such schools in public venues but also what is needed to contest the prevailing “grammar of schooling.”

Does that mean more money is the answer for public schools to challenge the “grammar of schooling?” No, it does not. More than additional financing of schools would be needed.

Consider the mid-19th century age-graded school imported from Prussia as an innovative reform to the then dominant public school organization: the one-room schoolhouse. Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and others were evangelists for age-graded Common Schools in New England and elsewhere. These reformers built political coalitions in various states that persuaded legislatures and town officials to fund these Common Schools. They succeeded in establishing such age-graded schools across New England, mid-Atlantic states and the Midwest prior to the Civil War.

Since the late 19th century, the age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) has become the mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers, voters, and readers of this book have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.

If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a “success” it is the age-graded school. In providing access to all children and youth, longevity as a reform, and global pervasiveness, the age-graded school is stellar.

Think about its longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Within a half-century, it had begun to replace one-room schoolhouses in urban and rural schools.

Or consider access. Between 1850-1913, over 30 million Europeans crossed the Atlantic and settled in the U.S. The age-graded school has enrolled millions of students over the past century and a half, assimilating immigrants into Americans, sorting out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduating over eighty percent of those entering high school.

Or ubiquity. The age-graded school exists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America covering rural, urban, and suburban districts. What other school reform has been this “successful”?

Why have most U.S. school reformers, donors, and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization that influences daily behavior of nearly 4 million adults and well over 50 million children or one-sixth of all Americans in the early 21st century? Surely, habit and tradition play a part in the longevity of the age-graded school. The lack of recognizable alternatives that have been around sufficiently long to compete with the prevailing model is another. Sure, occasional reformers created non-graded public  schools and similar singletons but they were outliers that disappeared after a few years. Or private schools funded by parents and donors that have remained progressive outposts such as the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, the City and Country School in New York City, and The School in Rose Valley (PA).

What is too often ignored in explaining the durability of the age-graded organization, however, are the widely shared social beliefs among parents, educators, and taxpayers about what a “real” school is. After all, nearly all U.S. adults—save for the tiny number who are home schooled—have attended both public and private age-graded schools. Adding, subtracting, and multiplication are learned in primary grades, the nation’s history in 4th and 5th grades, U.S. history in the 8th and 11th grade is what a school is and does. American as apple pie and the Thanksgiving holiday.

For example, when a charter school applicant proposes a brand-new innovative school the chances of receiving official approval and parental acceptance increase if it is a familiar age-graded one, not one where most teachers team teach and groups of multi-age children (ages 5-8, 9-11) learn together. Not only is the age-graded school a “real school” but also it juggles the multiple public and private goods that animate tax-supported public schools since the mid-19th century. That is, the public goods of preparing students to become literate, patriotic, and engaged citizens while getting jobs or continuing their education to enter careers while providing an individual escalator for families that want their sons and daughters to “succeed” financially and socially in a market-driven democracy–a private good.

External pressures also constrict reformers’ maneuverability in trying other organizational forms. State mandated grade-by-grade curriculum standards, college entrance requirements calling for which academic subjects have to be taken and passed are located in the 9th to 12th grades, and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act as to what grades elementary and secondary school will be tested–are all married to this taken-for-granted school organization.

The unintended (and ironic) consequence of frequent and earnest calls for radical change in instruction through non-traditional teachers and administrators, charter schools, nifty reading and math programs, and “personalization” of learning through digital software assume that such innovations will occur within the traditional school organization thus preserving the age-graded school and freezing classroom patterns, i.e., the “grammar of instruction,” that so many reformers and entrepreneurs want to alter. Calls for ending “schools-as-factories” are common in the 21st century but have led to, at best, incremental changes in the traditional age-graded school.

Beyond the age-graded elementary school, there have been other incremental changes that have, intentionally or not, sustained the structure and culture of this organization. Progressive educators and civic and business leaders led political coalitions that extended the age-graded grammar school of eight grades into junior high schools of grades 7-9 and comprehensive four year high schools offering a range of curricula and extra-curricular activities that appealed to families wanting their sons and daughters to have a high school diploma, a pathway to a well-paying job.

Cementing that high school structure in grades 9-12 has been the Carnegie unit—student contact of 120 hours in a class over a school year of at least 24 weeks—installed as another innovation in the early 20th century has been used as a basis for students graduating high school continues into the 21st century.

This scaffolding of tradition–nearly two centuries of age-graded schools–powerful social beliefs among policymakers and parents about what “real schools” should be, and multiple public and private goals for tax-supported schools combine to make the “grammar of schools” seemingly invulnerable to alternative ways of organizing schools.

The spread of charter schools in cities (e.g., New Orleans, 93 percent of schools; Detroit, 55 percent; Washington, D.C., 46 percent),  where charter advocates are free to organize the school, governance, curriculum, and instruction nearly all are age-graded (see here for one exception)

Yes, there are exceptions. There are non-graded, non-charter elementary schools–very few secondary schools–focusing on intellectual, social- emotional learning, and real world interactions in scattered private and public schools in the U.S.. They are, however, few and far between. They challenge the existing “grammar of schooling” with alternative “grammars.”

“Schools-as-factories” rhetoric aside, amid much experimentation* with charter schools, mastery learning, multi-age groupings, and “personalized learning,” age-graded schools with its historic “grammar of schooling” rule.


*What both surprises and annoys me is that major donors who have the freedom to fund different ways of organizing schools seemingly ignore such competing “grammars of schooling” thus unintentionally reinforcing what has existed for the past century.










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

Challenging the Grammar of Schooling (Part 2)

At the recent annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, I participated in a symposium entitled “Changing the Grammar of Schooling? An Examination of Reform.” The chair, Jal Mehta (Harvard University) invited Michael Fullan (University of Toronto) and me to comment on four researchers’ papers. The papers were:

Making the Periphery the Core: Possibilities and Challenges in Public Eduation

Jal David Mehta, (Harvard University); Sarah M. Fine, (University of California, San Diego)

Design Thinking, Leadership, and the Grammar of Schooling Implications for Educational Change Lea Hubbard, (University of San Diego); Amanda Datnow, (University of California, San Diego);

 College for All and the Grammar of Schooling Karen Quartz, (University of California, Los Angeles)

The Rise and the Fall of New Schools in New York City and Singapore Thomas Hatch, (Teachers College, Columbia University); Jordan Corson, ( Teachers College, Columbia University); Sara M. Gerth van den Berg, (Teachers College, Columbia University).

Here are my comments on these papers.

I want to thank Jal for inviting me to comment on the four papers presented here….

These four papers examine the concept of the “grammar of schooling”—I still put the phrase in quote marks—that David Tyack and I grounded our history of school reform nearly 25 years ago.

Oh, do I wish David were here today to have read these papers and commented upon them as gracefully and acutely as he usually did when colleagues wrestled with this basic concept in the history of school reform. Sadly, he is no longer with us  so you have me to parse these four thoughtful papers.

I use two frameworks to analyze these four papers:

First, The age-graded school organization an innovation from the mid-19th century contains within it the basic grammar of schooling that includes different curricula for different students, scheduling short blocks of time for instruction, testing, and the like. Historically, a century ago, progressives were split among themselves between a wing that sought to alter traditional curriculum and instruction in order to produce students who could become the vanguard of societal reform and a wing that sought increased efficiency in school operations to better fit the economic and social conditions of the time.

The key point I make is that the efficiency driven wing of the progressives used the age-graded organization to shape the how and what of teaching then and now.

Consider that teachers had to pace their instruction in order to cover the prescribed content they were expected to teach in brief chunks of time. Going deeply into content meant something had to be sacrificed. Thus, the telltale signs of a grammar of instruction—lectures, textbooks, quizzes, homework—flowed directly from the age-graded organization and its inherent grammar of schooling.

Second, I will use a framework to analyze these papers that is also drawn from Tinkering toward Utopia. It is the distinctions between policy talk—the rhetoric of reform—policy action, actual policies adopted and policy implementation—putting policies into practice.

So as I now turn to the four papers, I work within these historical and conceptual frameworks.

The short version of my analysis is only one of the papers (Amanda and Lea) claims that the grammar of schooling and instruction were transformed. The other three state clearly that efforts to alter seriously the regular curriculum and instruction failed in part or wholly.

Tom Hatch and his colleagues point out in their trans-national study that in both New York City and Singapore major efforts to create new schools and alter traditional instruction in age-graded schools occurred. Reform rhetoric about transforming schools and classroom teaching became concrete with the closing of schools and opening of new ones. Putting these reform-driven policies into practice long enough to transform teaching, however, became an issue in both settings.

Building the capacity of teachers to teach differently in these new schools—the single most important factor in achieving any significant change in the “grammar of instruction”—was pursued for a few years but over time the advent of different reform-driven policies shifted the original agenda of new schools cracking the traditional mold to having these new schools pursuing innovative practices rather than wholesale transformation.

For those in the audience looking for a resurgence of pedagogical progressivism beyond policy talk, Tom and his co-authors tell us a gloomy story lightened by occasional flashes of actual changes in practice.

Neither is the story that Karen tells us about a Los Angeles school enrolling mostly low-income children of color upbeat. An unusual collaboration between researchers and teachers at the school examined in detail what occurred to teachers and students, most of whom were the first generation in their family to go to college. Teachers and students engaged in a competency based online and blended instructional program, one based on mastery of content and skills rather than seat time. A real change in the “grammar of schooling.”

Yet the school still focused on getting all students to meet higher education requirements, graduate and go to college while at the same time having students become bilingual and bi-literate and develop self-respect, being valued for who they are. Student agency, collaboration with peers, and active participation in community were part of the aims for this school. Balancing the goal of this public good—students contributing to their community—and the private good of going to college is no easy task in any school much less this urban one.

What Karen and her colleagues found out was that getting students to pass all of the courses required to go to community colleges, state schools and universities became a major effort for so many students who got Ds and failed one or more of their classes. What started out as one track for students to gain access to higher education became three tracks with much remediation included. The “grammar of schooling” could not be bent or ignored when college access is the goal.

Yet in their interviews of students, they found much evidence of self-respect and agency. Becoming a “self-directed passionate learner” meant students were motivated and took ownership of their learning. And that happened among the students they interviewed, according to the paper.

For those in the audience who want more upbeat news about cracking the steel cage of the grammar of schooling and instruction, Amanda and Lea describe a turnaround middle school while Jal and Sarah’s paper offer some hope, not for the regular school curriculum or instruction but the extra-curriculum that occurs after the school day.

Going from a low-performance school with rapid turnover in principals to a high-performing one—a real turnaround according to Amanda and Lea—did occur and both grammars of schooling and instruction were overcome.

How it occurred was the leadership of a principal who shared power with a cadre of teachers and adopted a new curricula called Design Thinking.

While I was impressed with what the authors report occurred at this middle school and I am willing to grant that these two reform strategies partially cracked the historic cage of age-graded schooling and instruction, I was unpersuaded that such “success” would last.

Why? Because principal leadership and teacher-powered decision-making were linked together. Any turnover in school leadership risks a breaking of that bond. And principal turnover after a few years is a given in such districts.

Moreover, Design Thinking curriculum, according to the authors, did break the grammar of instruction across academic subjects. That may well be, but my prior experience and knowledge of how teachers stray from fidelity to a new curriculum by adapting daily lessons leaves me skeptical of what occurred in these classrooms. I could be inaccurate here but do await the longer version of this paper that will include more data on what occurred with students and teachers.

For Jal and Sarah, they write a convincing brief for extracurricular sports, drama, clubs, and other after-school activities as powerful platforms for learning. These are more “vital,” they say, than the core of schooling. Sure, there are gifted teachers who on occasion engage students through ambitious instruction to become serious and deep learners. But they are the exception not the rule.

But it is in extracurricular activities that students exercise choice, become part of a community, collaborate with other students and adults, and become connected to the real world. Not in AP Biology or studying Hamlet.

So Jal and Sarah ask: Could the core–i.e., the regular school day–be more like the best of the periphery–extracurricular activities? Their answer is: “This system would need to be remade.”

I found this a puzzling answer since the “system” they describe that produces the “grammar of schooling” is no other than the age-graded school which at the secondary level means the comprehensive high school. Yet at no point in the slides and the paper I read do the authors even suggest moving away from the age-graded, comprehensive, tracked high school. Perhaps they do so in their recently published book.

It strikes me that when the periphery is the site of deeper, serious, and vital learning far more than in the core, making the periphery the core and thus getting rid of or fundamentally changing the age-graded organization would be a plausible way of achieving what extracurricular activities, clubs, sports, and the like do for students.

The grammar of schooling was made by humans nearly two centuries ago. It can be altered and it has in some districts.

So I ask Jal and Sarah who paint a fine picture of powerful curriculum on the periphery of schooling: Why not consider the age-graded high school as what has to be changed?

To find an answer to that question they may have to consider seriously what there conferees Tom Hatch, and Karen Quartz discovered in their research on the grammar of schooling at the district and individual school.

I thank the authors of these papers for their careful and provocative analyses. I learned a great deal.  

Part 3 takes up the question of why it is so hard to alter substantially the age-graded school and its inherent “grammar.”




Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Challenging the “Grammar of Instruction” (Part 1)

The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs….It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active processing of information.

Salman Khan, The One World Classroom (2012)


From Francis Parker to John Dewey to Ella Flagg Young, to Vito Perrone to Deborah Meier to Theodore Sizer, complaints about the “old classroom model” have echoed through university lecture halls, academic monographs, oodles of conferences and, now, in education blogs. Criticism of existing public schools has spawned generation after generation of reformers looking for ways to alter the dominant “factory model,” “assembly line,” or “batch processing” way of schooling over the past 150 years.

Their target has been the historic structure of the age-graded public school with its  buildings divided into hallways lined with box-like classrooms where teachers distribute slices of curriculum grade-by-grade using whole and small-group instruction, homework, and tests. The regime of standardization ends in June with either students being promoted to the next grade or being retained in the grade for another year.

Imported from Prussia in the late 1840s, that generation of reformers touted it as an innovation that was superior to the one-room schoolhouse. And it was. Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, the age-graded public school took in millions of immigrants from western, eastern, and southern Europe. These immigrants became Americanized through schooling and the workplace.

But there were critics of the age-graded school then and now. In 1902, John Dewey warned educators that “the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child … really controls the whole system.” That “machinery of instruction” is what David Tyack and I called the “grammar of schooling” in Tinkering toward Utopia.

So Salman Khan joins a queue of reformers targeting the “old classroom model” or what others call “schools as factories” in starting a brand new school unlike traditional public schools. There is a direct line from John Dewey’s Lab School (1896-1904) to progressive public and private schools in the 1920s to small “free” schools popping up in the mid-1960s, the small schools movement in the 1990s and now currently micro-schools gussied up with new technologies . The lineage is anchored in the quest to create settings where students learn from one another regardless of age, pursue their intellectual curiosity and passions at their pace, and where knowledgeable and skilled teachers  guide students to reach their individual potential.

Consider micro-schools. The one-room schoolhouse of yesteryear is the model for micro-schools. Small—anywhere from 25 to 150 students of mixed ages–with a few teachers committed to integrated content and skills such as multi-subject projects on climate change, answering big questions on why countries go to war, producing a newspaper, and connecting daily to the world outside of the school. Learning is active occurring in small groups and independent (a.k.a. “personalized learning”).

Dispensing with grade levels, traditional pedagogy, tests geared to state curriculum standards, and using space and furniture differently than in regular schools. Micro-schools vary in their origin–public (charters, school-within-a-school to free standing ones) and private. Most, however, are largely private and charge tuition in the tens of thousands dollars (see here, here, and here).  They also vary in their challenge to the “grammar of schooling” ranging from individually paced mastery-based learning to wholly project-based and experiential programs–some schools even combining these features.

New York and San Francisco-based Alt/Schools, for example, are privately-funded micro-schools that charge tuition and create schools with different systems unlike those found in nearly all public schools. No “machinery of instruction” in Alt/Schools (see here, here, and here). The policy Nirvana of “going to scale,” that is, creating more Alt/Schools and lowering the cost of schooling per student, however, has stumbled (see here).

Is the Khan Lab School also a micro-school? Yes it is.

KLS is a Lab School in the tradition of challenging the dominant “grammar of instruction” in public schools going back to the first one operated by John Dewey (and later wife, Alice) at the University of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century.




The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets.  Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change. Highly touted at the time as the premier challenge to traditional public schooling, conflicts between the University’s leadership and the Deweys led to their departure in 1904 (see here and here)

While KLS is not affiliated with any university as was Dewey’s Laboratory School–it is an extension of private, non-profit Khan Academy–KLS remains committed to both “research-based instruction and furthering innovation in education” and, at the same time, putting into practice the ideas of its founder.

The tradition of challenging the dominant structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” continues to this day. The rhetorical riposte to  with micro-schools in Silicon Valley and elsewhere illustrating anew that such reforms to the traditional “machinery of instruction” have resided, for the most part, in private schools where tuition runs high and students bring many economic and social advantages school. In a profound way, the high cost of these private schools and the resources available to their founders in experienced teachers, aides, technologies, space, and materials show clearly the prior conditions necessary not only to operate such schools in public venues but also what is needed to contest the prevailing “grammar of schooling.”

Part 2 looks at recent scholarly papers tracking public school programs that challenge the “grammar of instruction.”




Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Making Schools Business-Like: Google in Classrooms (Part 2)

Listen to Joanna Petrone, Longfellow Middle School English teacher in Berkeley (CA), describe her use of Google.

On a typical day, students start class with a warm-up activity posted on Google Classroom. After we go over their answers and I teach a lesson, I might direct my students to open Google Docs and start writing. “Remember to check Google Calendar and start studying for your next quiz! Oh, and don’t forget to turn in your writing on Google Classroom before Thursday!” I holler into the void as they pack up their bags. I’ve learned from experience that I need to specify “Google Classroom” every time I give this direction; if I don’t, if I just say “Classroom,” some students will submit their work on Classroom, some will stick it in their lowercase-c classroom notebooks, and at least one person will wander around the actual classroom while I am in the middle of an explanation, assignment in hand, wondering aloud where he was supposed to turn it in…

Petrone then goes on to say:

From one vantage point, classrooms like mine look like education technology success stories, with students’ academic learning seamlessly interwoven with the workflow habits and productivity apps of all tomorrow’s office workers. Using Google products, students can work collaboratively on files, use the internet for research, and acquire competency with the basics of personal computing. Districts often save substantial amounts of money by using Google’s services in place of their own email servers and can provide more classroom access to computers using Chromebooks than they could using pricier alternatives. In a country where public education is cruelly underfunded, there’s no mystery as to why teachers and districts are drawn to Google’s cheap, often free, education technology and curriculum, but there needs to be an honest reckoning of its real price tag and robust public discussion about whether that is a cost worth paying.

Yes, Microsoft and Apple have classroom apps that teachers use but since Google Classroom became available free of charge in 2014, it has eaten competitors in huge gulps. One journalist wrote: “The top five digital tools accessed most often in school districts in 2017-18 were all Google products—including YouTube, according to research by Lea(r)n Inc. on more than 2,000 ed-tech tools used in K-12 schools.”


So Google’s Suite of free tools (Classroom, Gmail, Drive, Google Calendar, Vault, Google Docs, Sheets, Forms, Slides, Sites, Hangouts) are in selective use across U.S. classrooms. Teachers pick and choose among the tools but their use is pervasive.*

Journalists, practitioners, researchers, and entrepreneurs claim that Google is transforming teaching and learning (see here, here, and here). But is accurate?

No, it is not.

Observers confuse increases in teacher efficiency–saving precious classroom time is what Google tools do–for substantially altering teacher planning, organizing, implementing, and assessing daily lessons, that is, the daily professional work they do. Yes, Google tools have increased teacher efficiency in managing classrooms, but much less so in the actual format and content of lessons or connections between teachers and students. Let me explain.

In studying 41 Silicon Valley teachers in 2016 who had thoroughly integrated devices and software into their lessons, these teachers did see changes in their teaching. For the most part they identified important incremental (not fundamental) changes due to technology use in lessons. These changes occurred over time, adding to their productivity as teachers in completing classroom administrative tasks, providing a broad array of sources previously unavailable to their students, and being able to respond and help students in real time.

Technology-induced changes were incremental and useful to teachers but seldom altered the goals, fundamental classroom structures embedded in the age-graded school, teacher-student relationships, basic format of lessons, or the craft of teaching that has evolved in public schools for well over a century. All of these underlying features of teaching persisted amid the classroom changes these Silicon Valley teachers recognized in their lessons.

Hillsdale High School English teacher Sarah Press expressed it clearly:

In some ways, my teaching hasn’t changed much at all. My goals are the same—to give my students opportunities to do something with the ideas I suggest to them in class, to engage with each other around those ideas and to offer lots of ways to be smart. I still have a heavy focus on literacy—sustained engagement with text and inquiry around meaning making. I continue to try to find authentic ways for students to show what they’ve learned and what they think, not just regurgitate what they’ve heard.

I also struggle with many of the same issues I always have: what to do with the huge range of skill sets in my room, how to differentiate activities and assessments to meet the needs of all learners, how to give feedback in meaningful and timely ways, how to engage all learners despite varying interests and abilities, how to create a positive socioemotional atmosphere in my classroom so students feel comfortable taking and learning from risks.

So I think it’s important to remember that technology is just one of many tools I have available to me to try to meet those goals. That said, it’s an incredibly powerful tool, and I do see some potent ways in which technology helps me get closer to being the teacher I hope to, someday, become.

A huge one is the amount of choice I am able to offer students, about what they learn and how they learn it . . . Another is the increased sense of collaboration in my room. While I have always striven to have students use each other as resources, to value each other’s expertise . . . I have not always been successful. Because technology allows students to simultaneously have access to a group project in a shared digital space that is co-editable . . . everyone can see a developing project and no can “mess it up.” It’s also easier to track exactly what each student has contributed . . .

It’s a not insignificant note here that risk-taking becomes easier to encourage when erasing or changing work is as easy as “Control + Z” or “Delete . . . ”

Finally, technology is powerful because it makes it so much easier and faster to collect, distribute, and respond to data. I find myself experimenting more and more with forms of assessment when I can instantaneously collect responses from every student in my class . . . All this helps me adjust, clarify, and re-teach in much tighter, shorter cycles than before

Press did not mention Google products by name, so I wrote her a few days ago and here is her response (she gave me permission to use her words):

I did – and do – use Google tools regularly in my class. Our district is a GAFE (Google Apps for Education) district, so most of our systems integrate with Google. All students are given Google accounts as they enter HHS, and we regularly use all of the tools that go with those accounts. I use Google Classroom as an excellent way to distribute documents, although the bulk of our digital work submission and grading is now handled through Canvas, a new system for our district this year.

So, do Google tools “transform” teaching? Time saved by using Google tools is one thing and it is important to teachers. But lesson goals, activities, content, and format continue and that is wholly another thing. Such distinctions I make are important nuances that often go unnoticed by non-teachers who from their prior experience in schools do not see the complexity of the teaching act.

How technological changes can increase teacher efficiency yet not alter substantially the familiar and continuous flow in daily lessons of goal-setting, organizing activities, elaborating concepts and content, and assessing students’ understanding is another way of simply saying that both change and stability are hallmarks of classroom lessons.

True then and true now even with the ubiquity of Google tools in the nation’s classrooms.


*Why does Google give away these apps free? Ads are forbidden on these tools so no revenue accrues from this source.  Yes, information on students is collected and the company states that this information is owned by the school and is not sold to third parties. It took awhile for Google to comply with the federal Family Educational Value and Privacy Act, but they have (See here and here).

So what’s the advantage for Google. Short answer is that students and teachers are future customers for Google products that do charge fees and can be purchased (e.g., Chromebooks, android phones, etc.), and life-long viewers of company products where ads do show up. It is a marketing strategy that Apple used in 1984 when they gave away one Apple IIe computer (then costing nearly $2500) to every school in California (yes, also the California legislature gave a tax deduction for such a gift). Build trust in a product and you have a customer for life. As one analyst said about Google:

It’s pretty clear what motive Google has,” Williams at Gartner Research said. “This is not a product they’re selling; this is not a commercial product. It’s getting lots of people very used to working in a Google environment.


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

Making Schools Business-Like: The Longest School Reform in U.S. History? (Part 1)

If A Nation at Risk is one book-end of the longest school reform. the other book end has yet to be put in place. Business-influenced school reform continues into the second decade of the 21st century stretching nearly four decades. Rivaling this long run of school reform is the Progressive era beginning in the early 1900s and lasting until the mid-1950s.

For the past four decades a cascade of school reforms borrowing heavily from the corporate sector have spilled over public schools in an effort to turnaround a “failing” system unable to keep pace with European and Asian schools as measured by international tests and strengthen a slacking economy.

Restructuring schools to become more efficient, introducing competition through giving parents more choices for their sons and daughters to attend school, raising graduation standards, installing rigorous curriculum, establishing high stakes tests and holding students, teachers, and schools responsible for higher academic performance cover just a handful of the state and federal reforms launched by both Democrat and Republican regimes eager to copy the policies followed by successful businesses since the mid-1980s.

I wrote about this business-inspired reform movement in a book called The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t be Businesses (2004). At the recent American Educational Research Association annual meeting in Toronto (Canada), there was a symposium on business influence since B & BL was published. New York University Professor Gary Anderson organized the symposium and asked me to comment on four papers written by young and mid-career scholars (Janelle Scott and Tina Trujillo from the University of California, Berkeley; Patricia Burch, University of Southern California; and Michael Cohen, University of Northern Colorado).

Of course, I was flattered to have four researchers look at the influence of business in the last decade and a half and judge whether what I saw in the early aughts of this century persisted, changed, or disappeared. I read all of the papers and made comments on them at the symposium.

What follows here is what I learned from these four papers.

1. Business influence has continued in proposing, adopting, and implementing reform policies since the early 2000s.

2. State and federal school officials continue to use business-inflected vocabulary and policies. They have integrated a mind-set that sees schools as economic engines for society and individual escalators for students to succeed in life.

3. Technology companies have come to exert great influence on schools and classrooms.

And it is this third point that I want to expand in this post.

That the business sector has influenced schools and classrooms, of course, is hardly news. Beginning in the 1890s and stretching through the 1930s, corporate leaders joined civic officials and educational policymakers to introduce vocational education to insure that high school graduates would be prepared to enter an industrial economy (see here and here). Moreover, the penetration of commercial curriculum materials and free items sent by business representatives to schools and in recent years, advertising in and around schools has been an ongoing issue contested by parents, school board officials, and independent critics (see here and here).

When I was writing B & BL Google was a fledgling company founded in 1998 and spending more money than the revenue it received. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were mere ideas incubating in the minds of their founders. In nearly two decades, these companies and thousands of others have entered the marketplace peddling their wares to individual customers, businesses, and, yes, schools.

The growth of ties between technology companies, schools and classroom teachers in the past two decades, however, has been swift and by 2019 noteworthy. Much of this high-tech influence grew as hardware and software became increasingly accessible to teachers and students through 1:1 programs and mobile carts in nearly all public schools.

With the spread of the “personalization” movement fueled by the ubiquity of devices and software, technology companies have profited greatly. Tech-driven businesses promise that students will have a rigorous curriculum tailored to their individual strengths and weaknesses meeting state standards and enhancing academic achievement (see here and here).

Oracle, the for-profit purveyor of business software, has built the $43 million Design Tech High School, a public charter school, on its campus.  High-tech companies invite teachers to become Ambassadors for their products to use in lessons, mention on social media, and speak about at conferences.

So since I wrote B & BL, the high-tech sector has had enormous influence over schools and classrooms. That is what I learned from the symposium I participated in early April 2019.

In Part 2, I will examine how Google has taken over the classroom.








Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology