Category Archives: Reforming schools

Insider vs. Outsider Superintendents

In Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board just appointed an outsider, Austin Beutner. Former investment banker, current philanthropist and one-time deputy mayor. Nearly three years ago, the school board appointed insider–Michelle King–superintendent year after a string of prior superintendents came from outside the district.

In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio appointed an insider–Carmen Farina– Chancellor in 2014 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg had appointed three outsiders since 2000; in 2018, the Mayor appointed Alberto Carvalho, a veteran educator but outsider from Florida as Chancellor.

These appointments of insiders to big city districts, people who spent their careers within the district as teachers, principals, and district office administrators, are the exception, not the rule. For large urban districts the rule has been appoint outsiders who promise major changes to solve serious problems.

Why is that?

Outsiders have been appointed time and again in these districts because the unspoken and strong belief was that the serious educational, social, and political problems besetting the schools needed an innovative, energetic outsider, unbeholden to those within the district. An outsider, policy elites assumed, would shake the system by the scruff of its neck in turning around a failing district–-disrupt is the fashionable word today.

Insiders who had risen through the ranks prize stability while looking for incremental improvements. Insiders have been immersed in a network of relationships with peers and subordinates would be reluctant to disturb bureaucratic rules in effect for decades, and bonds of affection and respect for long-time peers and subordinates. Insiders would be loath to importing new staff and  innovations from elsewhere. They would rather seek new ideas and programs from sharp, knowledgeable insiders.

These strongly held beliefs about insiders and outsiders have shaped the appointment of superintendents to big city posts for well over a half-century.

In brief, the folk wisdom surrounding superintendents or chancellors heading urban districts says to appoint insiders if you like what has been happening in the system under the exiting superintendent in order to extend and protect what is working well for students, teachers, and the community. Stability and tweaking what works is the order of the day when insiders are appointed school chiefs. However, if you dislike what has been happening in the system, the dysfunctions, mediocre performance, the proliferation of problems, and the accompanying disarray, for heaven’s sake, appoint an outsider.

Washington, D.C. Schools

This situation now faces the mayor of Washington, D.C. again. Mayor Muriel Bowser replaced exiting Chancellor Kaya Henderson who had served six years with Oakland (CA) superintendent Antwan Wilson. Henderson’s predecessor was outsider Michelle Rhee (2007-2010) who had brought in Henderson after Mayor Adrian Fenty had appointed Rhee. Then, a few months ago, Wilson resigned after serving just over one year.

The current Mayor knows well that the DC schools have had a long string of school-board appointed outsiders. To be specific, over sixty years, there have been 15 superintendents (excluding interim appointees) of whom 12 were outsiders (including Rhee, Henderson, and Wilson). The three insiders were Vince Reed, 1975-1980, Floretta McKenzie,  1981-1988, and Andrew Jenkins, 1988-1990. Reed and McKenzie served with distinction; Jenkins was fired.

Los Angeles Unifed School District

Since 1971, the District has had 14 superintendents since 1962 of whom seven were insiders (Ray Cortines came from outside the district and served twice as interim superintendent and once as regular superintendent). The longest serving insider was William Johnston who served a decade (1971-1981). The longest serving outsider was ex-governor of Colorado, Roy Romer (2000-2006). Of the outsiders, three had experience as superintendents elsewhere (Leonard Britton, Ray Cortines, and John Deasy) and one (David Brewer) was a retired U.S. Navy admiral. Austin Beutner will be the first business leader tapped to lead LAUSD.

What Does The Research Say on Insider and Outsider School Chiefs?

Scholars who have written about “superintendent succession”–the academic phrase for picking the next district leader–have looked school board appointees of insiders and outsiders have asked a series of questions:

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do insiders or outsiders stay longer?

*Does superintendent succession resemble succession in corporations and other organizations?

*What does matter when decision-makers (e.g., school boards, mayors)  in choosing an insider or outsider?

The answer to the first two questions is no. To the third question, the answer is yes. The last question I answer with more than one word.

On performance, thirty years of research have determined that neither outsider or insider school chiefs perform better because of where they come from. Sure, how one defines performance is important and will vary. But on various measures of the district’s  student outcomes,  teacher and parental satisfaction, relationships with community and unions, there is no substantial difference between districts appointing insiders or outsiders (see here, here, and here).

As to length of service for insiders or outsiders, studies of big cities show little difference also (see here and here)

Superintendent succession, researchers have found, is similar to  CEOs and other top leadership posts in non-school organizations (see here, here, here, and here).

I have no idea whether the LAUSD School Board considered such research. By picking a business leader, the Board is saying that the major problems of the district are managerial and political. Why else pick such a person?

Were the DC Mayor to become familiar with the research,  she should also consider the factors that come into play in influencing how either an insider or outsider appointee will perform. Such factors as the fit between school boards’ or mayors’ goals and the candidate’s experiences with, for example, the political decision-making that occurs in making educational policy and the features of the organizational setting and community and their match with the knowledge and skills of the applicant. These and other factors have to be considered in deciding whether to pick an insider or outsider to head a district. Simply picking one or the other because it is time to do so,  is a mindless way of making the most important decision for a major city’s schools.




Filed under leadership, school leaders

Whatever Happened to One-Laptop-Per-Child?







Where did the idea of One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) originate?

In the early aughts of the 21st century, the cost of a laptop ran close to $1000. The idea of producing one that would sell for $100 and be sent to children in Latin America, Africa, and Asia who may or may not have had a schoolhouse or teacher caused giggles among tech engineers, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists.  A contemporary of Seymour Papert and head of a center at Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Nicholas Negroponte believed that cheap, durable, and Internet-connected machines could revolutionize teaching and learning. He told conferees in 2010:

One the things people told me about technology, particularly about laptops in the beginning, “Nicholas, you can’t give a kid a laptop laptop that’s connected and walk away.” Well you know what, you can. You actually can. And we have found that kids in the remotest parts of thew world, when given that connected [laptop], like some of the kids in these pictures, not only teach themselves how to read and write, but most importantly, and this we found in Peru first, they teach their parents how to read and write.

OLPC launched in 2006-2007 and the price was around $150 per laptop but crept up to just over $200 over the next few years. Negroponte contracted with ministries of education in various countries to buy laptops.

What is OLPC?

The hardware and software of the initial laptops distributed in Nigeria, Uruguay, and later Peru, Rwanda and other developing nations was simple enough:


The rugged, low-power computers use flash memory instead of a hard drive, run a Fedora-based operating system and use the SugarLabs Sugar user interface…. Mobile ad hoc networking based on the 802.11s wireless mesh network protocol allows students to collaborate on activities and to share Internet access from one connection. The wireless networking has much greater range than typical consumer laptops [of those years]. The XO-1 has also been designed to be lower cost and much longer-lived than typical laptops.


Depending upon the country, ministry officials distributed the devices to children directly in villages and towns and in rural and urban schools between 2007-2014. OLPC came to the U.S. in 2008.



What problems did OLPC seek to solve?  Massive poverty in economically developing countries was the chief problem. Education was the solution. But building schools and providing teachers was costly. Children and youth were motivated to learn but lacked access to schools. And where schools were available, tuition and inadequately trained teachers often made education a rote-filled sequence of lessons resulting in high student attrition. OLPC connected to the Internet was seemingly a solution to problems of limited access to schooling and traditional teaching by permitting students to use software to acquire knowledge and cognitive skills in a variety of subjects beyond memorizing lessons.  The belief that increased access to schools, teachers, devices, and the like would break the shackles of poverty continues.

Or as the OLPC project said:

We aim to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

Negroponte believed that children could be “agents of change” to create their own learning with these laptops (see video of Negroponte talking about OLPC in Afghanistan here).

Did OLPC work?

Amid that optimism, the issue of putting the devices into hands of teachers and students–implementation–was given short shrift. Without careful thought and action on Internet-connected devices and software into hands of teachers and students (or children and youth not in school), any definition of “work” becomes suspect. There was a magical belief in OLPC, like a fairy Godmother turning a pumpkin into Cinderella’s carriage to take her to the ball.

How teachers were to use the laptop or how students were to magically learn led one skeptic to put it this way:


If “work” means that students used the devices until they wore out or had to be trashed because once broken they could not be fixed, then OLPC “worked.” But if “work” means that students learned more, faster, and better (as measured by existing national tests or other metrics of academic achievement) available evidence is close to nil (see here, here, and here). And if “work” means as the founders sought, that is, With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together, no evidence of such grand dreams for OLPC exists.

What happened to OLPC?

OLPC exists today. It is a small operation with projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (see here and here).

The details of the splitting apart of OLPC into two organizations since 2008, the departure of the founders including Negroponte, the constant searching for new contracts in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and the shell of the once expansive organization that continues to exist now is described here, here, and here.

Did OLPC fail? Succeed? Depends on how “success” and “failure” are defined,  who does the defining, and the criteria used to make the judgment.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

Thirty Fifth Anniversary: A Nation at Risk



In the late-1970s, at a time when Japanese and German products began outselling U.S. cars and electronics and an economic slump loomed, corporate leaders expressed deep concerns over weaknesses in the economy and the lack of skilled employees. The industrial workplace was moving toward an information-driven society where a workforce needed different knowledge and skills. These were also the years when U.S. students came up short on domestic and international test scores. Appointed by the then U.S. Secretary of Education, a national commission turned in a report (1983) to President Ronald Reagan about the poor quality of U.S. schools and recommended a new direction to achieve a competitive workforce. Responsibility for mediocre test scores and by inference responsibility for a weak economy and a non-competitive workforce, was laid upon schools. As A Nation at Risk stated:

We conclude that declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted.
Schools, therefore, must reform to produce both excellent graduates in an equitable way who are ready to work in an information-driven economy. No mention of societal and economic inequalities that spilled over the schools decade after decade. Schools, then, must change in order to defend the nation and lead to economic prosperity. Unless there was widespread school reform immediately, then inequalities will worsen.

A Nation at Risk answered the question of which fork U.S. public schools should take by recommending higher curriculum standards, standardized testing, and accountability for results. If implemented, these recommendations, they claimed, would produce better schools, knowledgeable and skilled graduates, and a stronger economy. The U.S. could then be again a globally competitive nation.

The report triggered federal, state, and district reforms that continue to this day. Between the 1980s through Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), U.S. schools have focused on getting more students to graduate high school fully equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to enter higher education and the work place. Schooling has become the handmaiden of the economy. This is the second time that such a marriage has been arranged–or to switch metaphors, the same fork in the road taken.

Hit the rewind button and return to the 1890s.

Listen to Theodore Search, President of the National Association of  Manufacturers in 1898:

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce.    (quoted here, p. 29)

Over a century ago,  business leaders and progressive educators, holding this vision of schools helping the economy prosper, reorganized school system governance of large, politically appointed superintendents and patronage-ridden school boards by creating small, non-partisan, corporate-like school boards that hired professional managers. These policy elites invented junior high schools and created large comprehensive high schools where they installed newly developed vocational curricula to prepare students for an industrial labor market. They compiled test scores that compared students from one district to another so taxpayers would know that their monies were being spent efficiently (see here and here).

In short, these early 20th century educational entrepreneurs copied successful business practices and used findings from the latest scientific studies to change public school goals, governance, organization, staffing and curricula to tie more closely public schools to the nation’s economy. Many of those changes still exist today.

Now, push the fast-forward button to the 1970s when U.S. products were losing to foreign competitors. Another generation of business leaders linked weak sales in the global marketplace to declining scores on international tests and poor schooling. The economy was changing and schools were failing to keep pace. So A Nation at Risk seeking a revived economy looked to schools, as did policy elites over a century ago.

It is now 35 years since the report appeared. And what is the verdict of this second round of business-inspired reforms aimed at making schools responsible for serving the larger economy.

From Milton Goldberg, former staff director of the Commission that produced A Nation at Riskcame the following judgment:

There have been positive changes in the education system since “A Nation at Risk” was published. There is now general acceptance of higher standards and expectations for student learning and achievement. We’ve seen new emphasis on the quality of teaching, as exemplified by the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The numbers of students taking the new basics curriculum defined in “A Nation at Risk” has increased exponentially. The growth of charter schools demonstrates the willingness of states and school districts to seek organizational changes for improved student performance.

A Harvard University professor sees the results differently,

The report, published years before many young teachers today were even born, was groundbreaking in emphasizing the importance of education to economic competitiveness and the failings of American schooling in comparison with international competitors. It presented a utilitarian and instrumental vision of education, and argued that schools, not society, should be held accountable for higher performance, and that performance should be measured by external testing—assumptions that underlay the state standards movement in the 1980s and 1990 and persist today in federal policy through No Child Left Behind.

On the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, journalist Richard Rothstein had this to say:

A Nation at Risk therefore changed the national conversation about education from the Coleman-Jencks focus on social and economic influences to an assumption that schools alone could raise and equalize student achievement. The distorted focus culminated in the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002, demanding that school accountability alone for raising test scores should raise achievement to never-before-attained levels, and equalize outcomes by race and social class as well.

A Nation at Risk was well-intentioned, but based on flawed analyses, at least some of which should have been known to the commission that authored it. The report burned into Americans’ consciousness a conviction that, evidence notwithstanding, our schools are failures, and warped our view of the relationship between schools and economic well-being. It distracted education policymakers from insisting that our political, economic, and social institutions also have a responsibility to prepare children to be ready to learn when they attend school.

There are many reasons to improve American schools, but declining achievement and international competition are not good arguments for doing so. Asking schools to improve dramatically without support from other social and economic institutions is bound to fail, as a quarter century of experience since A Nation at Risk has demonstrated.

From the political left to right, views of the report’s influence on existing school policies differ. Contemporary views of the report and the reforms it spurred mirror the three decade-plus arguments from liberals and conservatives over the best course to follow then and now.  All points of view do agree, however, that school reform rose on the political agenda for the following decades and remains close to the top even now 35 years later.

So for the second time in U.S. history, schools have been tapped to serve the larger economy while banishing educational inequalities. As before, schools become again another game of Whac-A-Mole.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Public Schools and Educational Inequality: Some Thoughts* (Part 1)

Do tax-supported public schools replicate or even worsen educational inequalities? Past and present critics of schools would answer “yes” (see here, here, here, and here).

But maybe they are wrong. Maybe public schools are either neutral or even ease inequalities over a student’s career in age-graded schools. Maybe public schools have been blamed unfairly for what is a societal problem and not a “school” problem. And even stranger in light of today’s full-bore indictment of schools, maybe they moderate societal effects and give the most disadvantaged children and youth a boost rather than a boot.

This argument over whether schools increase, have little impact, or even decrease educational inequalities has raged for decades among policymakers, pundits, and researchers (see here and here). Yet these arguments often skip over basic facts of U.S. schooling that few would dispute.These facts provide an essential context for those taking any position in this ongoing argument.

First, how much time does the average U.S. student spend in and out of school?



Because ways of calculating time in school vary, estimates range from 13 percent to the 20 percent in above pie chart (see here). Contending estimates still underscore that U.S. children and youth spend the vast majority of their time away from school at home and in the neighborhood. This fact, then, makes clear that most influence on what students do behaviorally and academically in school comes from home and community. Of course, 13-20 percent of a year’s time in school can make a difference in the lives of children and youth. But the fact remains: 80-87 percent of a year those kids are at home.

Another essential fact concerns the high correlation between parents’ education and income and their expectations for children’s achievement and test performance (also see here).






Out-of-school factors such as parental level of education and annual income influence students’ academic achievement. Multiple studies over the past century have established this steel-linked chain between parents’ socioeconomic status and their children’s school performance on standardized tests (see here, here, here, and here).

And when parents are asked which factors influence their children’s academic attainment, they clearly pointed to themselves.



And do not forget money. The huge variation in state and local funding of public schools establishes the base from which educator salaries (the bulk of a district’s expenditures), facilities, equipment, maintenance, and scores of other costs occur. Because most state and local money supporting schools come from property taxes, comparing Massachusetts and Mississippi, for example, spending per pupil gets at national variation. Recent teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma underscore not only the importance of money but the unequal allocation of resources across states.

Ditto for districts within states. Those districts fortunate to be located in high wealth areas   (e.g., Arlington, Virginia; Scarsdale, New York; River Forest, Illinois) get far more money to spend on schools than those in low wealth districts (Roanoke, Virginia, Rochester, New York, or Springfield, Illinois). Note  further that federal funds only account for a dime out of every dollar states and local districts spend on public schools.  So money matters particularly when it comes to providing equal spending. Another basic fact that often goes unnoticed.

These inescapable facts, however, have failed to clarify past or contemporary debates over the role of the school when it comes to reducing educational inequalities. Or get critics to modify their positions.

Having spent decades in urban and suburban schools as a history teacher, superintendent, and researcher I have placed myself along the continuum of this policy argument somewhere in the middle, tilting toward schools moderating educational inequalities but neither eliminating achievement gaps nor lifting families out of poverty. Some schools can reduce inequities by providing well-funded  compensatory actions (e.g., preschool, differentiated curriculum, effective teachers, individualized instruction, longer school days, etc.).

Where I stand is anchored in my experiences within schools, research I have done, and intuition. While I believe that some schools can (and do) moderate educational inequities–they make a difference in children’s lives–for many years, I lacked  a conceptual framework, language, and data to make a coherent case for the position I have taken.

Data came first. In 1966, the federal government published a school survey study it had commissioned sociologist James Coleman to conduct.  Coleman’s conclusion was succinct:

One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

This conclusion, underscoring the above essential facts of U.S. schooling, has been confirmed repeatedly in the past half-century (see here, here and here). None of these data, however, have stilled critics who have argued (and continue to do so) that public schools not only reproduce but worsen inequalities.

OK, home, neighborhood, and peers have outsized influence on what students achieve in school. But can schools with 13-20 percent of time that children and youth attend during the year moderate that huge effect? Or can inadequate funding of schools be overcome? Yes, to a limited extent.

How do I know?

The familiar framework for looking at what schools do is to view academic achievement narrowly as measured by test scores. Student scores capture the effects of schooling within this narrow framework. And historically, using these test scores, a yawning achievement gap between white and minority students has remained nearly the same for decades. Moreover, as some policymakers have pointed out, “dropout factories” in urban school districts exist. And low-income minority five year-olds entering school are already at a disadvantage compared to middle-class white kindergartners.

There are other frameworks, however. Schools account for how much is learned (e.g., acquiring cognitive skills, getting along in groups, etc.) that go beyond what standardized tests measure. There are also studies, for example, that capture what students learn (including those standardized tests) while in school as opposed to when they are out of school (e.g., summer breaks, going or not going to preschool). One measure of impact, then, is researchers examining how much students learn in school compared to when they are not in school, such as summers and three- and four year-olds who stay home (see here and here). And the evidence shows that students do pick up cognitive and other skills while in school thus having an impact and compensating for out-of-school factors.

Such a framework of comparing attending public school to not attending using in- and out-of-school data may influence the continuing debate over the role of schools in either worsening or improving educational inequalities but it will not end it. But it does give me the framework and data, a way of seeing how schools can influence students academically beyond what I have experienced in classrooms and schools, researched reforms, and intuition.

So what?

Part 2 takes up that question.


*I thank Professor Douglas Downey (Ohio State University) who gave a recent seminar at Stanford University for getting me to re-examine this contentious and on-going debate over the role of schools in influencing the large gaps in the distribution of wealth in the U.S. over the past century.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Assessing My Writing: A Look Backward

A month ago, a colleague wrote to me and asked me to write about my career as a practitioner/scholar over the past half-century. I accepted. Part of the request was to include what I have written about policy and practice as a historian of education that contributed to both research and practice.

Sure, there are metrics that suggest what a “contribution” may be. There are Google scholar and Edu-Scholar rankings. There are Web of Science citations. All well and good but influence or impact on practitioners and researchers? Maybe yes, a bit here and there. And maybe no, not a trace. Rankings and citations are, at best, no more than fragile, even shaky proxies of a “contribution.”

I thought about these metrics a lot and decided instead to describe those works that gave me the most satisfaction in writing. This is not false modesty. What I think may be a contribution, others may yawn at its banality. What I think is a mundane article,  I will receive notes from readers about how powerful the piece was in altering their thinking. Writing to me is a form of teaching: some lessons fly and others flop.

So what follows is my self-assessment of those writings that gave me the most satisfaction and feeling of pride in doing something worthwhile.  Others would have to judge whether what I have written over the past half-century has contributed to what practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and the general public—audiences I have written for—know and do. In all instances, what I offer are publications that were prompted by questions that grew out of my teaching and administrative experience and what I learned as a researcher. Both have played a huge part in what I chose to research, write, and teach.

How Teachers Taught (1984, 1993)

This study of three different generations of reformers trying to alter the dominant way of classroom teaching (1900s, 1960s, and 1980s) was my first historical analysis of teaching. The question that prompted the study came out of my visits to Arlington (VA) public school classrooms over the seven years I served as superintendent in the 1970s and early 1980s. I kept seeing classroom lessons that reminded me of how I was taught in elementary and secondary schools in Pittsburgh (PA) in the 1940s. And how I taught in Cleveland (OH) in the 1950s. How could that be, I asked myself? That question led to a three-year grant to study how teachers taught between 1880-1990.

I used district archives, photographs, and first-hand accounts to cover a century of policy efforts to shift teaching from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction. I documented the century-long growth of classroom hybrids of both kinds of classroom instruction. Few historians, sadly, have since pursued the question of how reform policies aimed at altering teachers’ classroom behavior actually get put into practice.

 The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership (1988)

Here again, a question that grew out of my being in classrooms as a teacher and a district administrator nudged me. What I saw and experienced in classrooms and administrative offices looked a great deal alike insofar as the core roles that both teachers and administrators had to perform. Was that accurate and if so, how did that come to be? So I investigated the history of teaching, principaling and superintending. I saw that three core roles dominated each position: instructional, managerial, and political. I compared and contrasted each with vivid examples and included chapters on my experiences as both a teacher and administrator.

Reform Again, Again, and Again (1990)

The article that appeared in Educational Researcher looked at various cycles of change that I had documented in How Teachers Taught and The Managerial Imperative. The central question that puzzled me was how come school reform in instruction, curriculum, governance and organization recurred time and again. I was now old enough and had experienced these reform cycles.

I presented a conceptual framework that explained the recurring reforms. My prior studies and direct school experiences gave me rich examples to illustrate the framework.

Tinkering toward Utopia (1995)

David Tyack and I collaborated in writing this volume. We drew heavily from the “History of School Reform” course we had been teaching to graduate students and each of our prior studies. In only 142 pages (endnotes and bibliography excluded), we summed up our thinking about the rhetoric and actuality of school reform policies in curriculum, school organization, governance, and instruction over the past two centuries in the U.S.

Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001)

In 1986, Teachers and Machines: The Classroom use of Technology since 1920 was published. In that study, I looked at teacher access and use of film and radio in classrooms during the 1920s and 1930s, educational television in the 1950s and 1960s and the first generation of desktop computers in the early 1980s. The central question driving that study was: what did teachers do in their lessons when they had access to film, radio, television, and later computers?

The question derives from the larger interest I have had in school reform policies and the journey they take as they wend their way into classroom practice. Like new curricula, governance changes, and shifts in how best to organize schools, grasping at new technologies that promise deep changes in how teachers teach is simply another instance of school reformers using policy mandates to alter classroom instruction. In short, adopting new technologies is simply another thread in the recurring pattern of school reformers seeking classroom changes during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Fifteen years after Teachers and Technology appeared, computers had become common in schools. So in Oversold and Underused, I asked: to what degree were teachers in Silicon Valley schools using computers in their classrooms, labs, and media centers for lessons they taught? Such questions about classroom use go beyond the rhetoric surrounding new devices and software. I wanted to see what actually occurred in classrooms when districts adopted policies pushing new technologies into pre-school, high school, and university classrooms.

Teaching History Then and Now (2016)

The question that prompted this study came out of writing for my blog on how I taught history in two urban high schools in the 1950s and 1960s. I wondered how history was taught in those very same high schools a half-century later. Those personal questions led to reconstructing my teaching a half-century ago from personal records and archives I found at each school and then traveling to those very same schools to do observations and interviews with current teachers of history.


These publications have given me great satisfaction in writing. Converting questions and ideas into words on a screen or jottings on a piece of paper is what I have done since I published my first article in 1960 in the Negro History Bulletin. Have I written things that have never left my home and remain in closets and bottom drawers? You bet. But writing, a different way of teaching, remains important to me and as I long as I can I will write about the past as it influences the present, especially policies that aim at at altering how teachers teach.

Yet the act of writing historically remains mysterious to me. Why do the words flow easily and excite me in their capturing illusive ideas and rendering them in a graceful way and other times what I see on paper or on the screen are clunky sentences, if not clumsy wording? I do not know. Immersed in writing about policy and practice historically (as it has been for me in teaching in high school and graduate seminars) has given me highs and lows over the years and much satisfaction. While I may not understand the mystery of writing, I remain most grateful to Clio, the muse of historians.


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Filed under Reforming schools, research

America’s Best Charter School Doesn’t Look Anything Like Other Top Charters. Is that Bad? (Richard Whitmire)

“Richard Whitmire is the author of several books, most recently “The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools.” Whitmire is a member of the Journalism Advisory Board of The 74.”

This article was in The 74; it appeared March 27, 2016.


This is my second visit to the East Boston campus of Edward Brooke Charter Schools. During a previous stop,  I sat down with co-director Kimberly Steadman. She was helpful, but I’ll have to admit I walked away wondering: Why is this (arguably) the nation’s top-performing charter? I still don’t get it.

A year later I returned, still looking to answer that question. I arrived a few days after the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to allow Brooke a high school so students from its current three schools can transition into a high school run with the same philosophy and results.

Said state Commissioner Mitchell Chester: “It would be hard to overstate the track record of educational performance (at Brooke).” Keep in mind, this green light to expand happened in Massachusetts, a state in the throes of the nation’s most bitter fight over charters.

This time I sat down with Steadman’s husband, and co-director, Jon Clark, who founded Brooke. Even an hour into the interview I was worried once again: Am I going to walk away and still not understand Brooke’s secret sauce (a horrible cliché, but it gets to the heart of it) that makes them the best charter school in Massachusetts, a state that boasts the nation’s top-performing charters?

Among charter founders, Clark is unique. Quiet, studious, not given to bragging, not out to conquer the world by sprinkling charters in every state or even outside Boston. He’s prone to crediting his wife more than himself and offers only general clues to watch for as I start my classroom observations. It’s all about the teaching, he advised me.

What school leader doesn’t say that?

At the moment, the advice didn’t seem particularly helpful. At the end of the day am I going to climb into a cab to head back to Boston’s Logan Airport still puzzling over how Brooke takes in a student population that’s almost entirely low income and entirely minority, and turns them into scholars with test scores that match students enjoying the privilege of growing up white in a wealthy Boston suburb?


1458920497_9289.jpgSome top charters talk about closing achievement gaps; Brooke actually does it.

Here’s the challenge about Brooke: It’s a group of K-8 schools, essentially a mom-and-pop charter, a creation of Clark and Steadman. Aren’t the nation’s best charters supposed to emerge from prestigious charter management organizations such as KIPP and Achievement First?

There’s more to the challenge. Unlike many top charters, especially Rocketship charters out of California, a blended learning pioneer (creating personalized learning by leaning on computer-based instruction) that I followed for more than a year while writing a book, “On the Rocketship,” Brooke mostly eschews computer learning. No blended learning to be seen anywhere.

Why? Clark has yet to find a software learning program that impresses him. Brooke’s entire emphasis is on teacher quality. Why would you subtract from teacher time by sending students off for laptop instruction?

The challenge goes on. Unlike many “no excuses” charter groups which adopt a highly scripted instructional style that could be set to a metronome, Brooke is pretty laid back. There’s no heavy “culture” pressure here.

“Our kids do well on tests because they love reading”

At Brooke, elementary students have carpeted squares they sit on for up-close-and-personal sessions with the teacher, but if a student happens to spill over into the next square there’s no command-and-control correction coming from the teacher, as I have seen in many “no excuses” charters. Yes, they file quietly through the hallways when changing classes, but nobody has to hold their hands behind their back or cupped in front of them.

In fact, if you suddenly forgot that every single student there comes from a non-privileged background, you could easily imagine you were in a private school where the students are somehow just naturally curious and well behaved, interested in every comment made by a fellow students.

Sounds intriguing, right? But how do they do it? I’m mid-way through my day-long stay here, and I still don’t have a real clue. Clark doesn’t make me feel any better when he advises me to watch classrooms for evidence of Brooke’s twin pillar philosophy in action: “challenged” and “known.” Challenged I get. But “known?”

The first insight into my unanswered question came as I tagged along with teacher Heidi Deck after she walked her fourth-graders across the street in very blustery conditions to physical education. One unique thing about being a Brooke teacher, she said, is that the instruction always starts with an unfamiliar problem, something the students haven’t seen before.

Deck went on to describe flipped instruction. In most math classrooms, teachers present a problem, demonstrate the solution and then have the students practice. It’s dubbed the “I do-we do-you do” method of instruction. Rinse and repeat.

Not at Brooke. Here, teachers start by presenting a new problem and then invite the students to solve it on their own, armed only with the tools from previous lessons. “We really push kids to be engaged with the struggle,” explained Deck.

Next, the teacher invites students to collaborate with one another in trying to solve the problem, which is followed by more individual attempts to solve it. Then there’s a classroom discussion about different ways students tried to solve it, with teachers doing their best to draw out solutions from the students. Ideally, they carry the weight of the instruction, learning from one another.

“The kids have to do the logical work of figuring something out rather than repeating what the teacher does,” said Steadman, who acts as the chief academic officer.

That posits math instruction more in the real world. Aren’t we always coming up against unfamiliar challenges, from calculating the wisest purchase to computing taxes?

And there’s another advantage: There’s no panic when Brooke students come across a math problem on the state exam they’ve never seen before. Instead they ask: What are the tools I already have to solve this?


Here’s another intriguing feature about Brooke: The reading scores here are as high as the math scores. That may not sound unusual, but it is. At almost any other top charter I visit that serves high-poverty students the math scores tend to soar while the reading scores are barely any better than neighborhood schools.

Why? The explanation always offered is that math gets taught in classrooms; literacy is more rooted in home life. Plus, in charters that rely on using computerized blended learning, the math software is great; the literacy software usually mediocre or worse.

The reason the math and reading scores align at Brooke comes down to a simple-but-radical approach to literacy: Reading is taught not as something mechanical (you will never see a reading worksheet at Brooke) but as something to be loved. In a traditional school, including charters, a child struggling with reading gets special help in breaking down the process into small pieces, with teachers searching for deficits that need correcting.

Brooke emphasizes phonics as much as any school, but on a broader level. A struggling reader at Brooke first gets asked: Why don’t you love reading? To the Brooke teachers, finding a way to unlock that love is as important, or more important, than isolating mechanical deficiencies.

“The goal is to get kids to love text so they become lifelong readers,” said Steadman. “Our kids do well on tests because they love reading.”


Yet another observation about Brooke. Visit any school in the country, charter or traditional, and the classroom walls will be full of colorful posters, student work and the daily academic goals. It wasn’t until about the third classroom I dropped in on that I noticed something different: At Brooke, the walls have that regular art but slathered over that are huge, jumbled tear sheets revealing classroom discussions about math, religion, history, a novel, pretty much anything.


These posters are chock-full of teacher scribbles of student comments, kind of like those Hollywood movies about math savants who fill blackboards with calculations. It all feels rich and creamy.


Take Deck’s fourth-grade classroom: The back wall is covered with tear sheets revealing elaborate graphs created with orange, blue, purple and green markers. There’s one labeled: Comparing decimals. Another: Divisibility rules. Another: What do I do with a remainder? On a side wall, two charts that break down a novel’s inner workings are partially covered by a tear sheet spelling out the players in the underground railway.


The complex wall arts points to one thing: Some serious and enthusiastic scholarship took place here. Here’s something else you notice about Brooke: There are a lot fewer students walking through the hallways. Actually, this is a pretty big difference (I may have saved the best for last.)


Brooke does something with its middle school grades that few others do. They structure them on an elementary school model, keeping students mostly in self-contained classrooms with the same teachers throughout the day. All those in-school shuffles between math, reading and science, prompted by soul-deafening buzzers. Not happening here.

Interesting story how that happened, and it’s all about Steadman. Or, to put it more precisely, it’s all about her husband, Clark,  listening closely to Steadman, who arrived at Brooke in 2004 as a seventh-grade math teacher. Her prior experience had been as a fifth- grade math teacher. But really, she asked herself, how different could it be teaching seventh grade? As it turned out, a lot.

At that time Brooke’s older grades operated like a traditional middle school, where students changed classes to see teachers who specialized in math, reading or science. So Steadman taught nothing but math, class after class — and didn’t like it.

Aside from not getting to know the students that well, she missed the teacher collaboration she enjoyed in elementary schools where all the teachers who taught, say fourth grade, got together to plan what all fourth-grade classes should be studying that week. Wondered Steadman: Why should middle school be different?

After Steadman launched the elementary program, Brooke undertook an internal teacher survey that revealed something interesting: Elementary grade teachers reported more satisfaction than the middle school grade teachers. Why? Because of the teacher-to-teacher collaboration.

“It’s one of my big beliefs about how people work,” she said. “They like having thought partners, people they can talk to about the work they do. Being verbal about your work makes it more purposeful.”

So why not shift the middle school grades to the elementary school schedule? After a one-year successful pilot with fifth grade, Brooke flipped all its older grades  to the self-contained model. Thus, teachers instruct all subjects, drawing on heavy collaboration with same-grade teachers. That guarantees a deeper relationship with the teacher, and also cuts down on the time students spend shuffling from class to class.

But the biggest benefit may be teacher satisfaction. Said Clark: “If you ask any teacher at Brooke to name the biggest thing that pushes you to get better, I think they would answer it’s having a smart colleague to co-plan with and look at data with.”

That self-contained model also helps explain the “known” part of the Brooke twin pillars philosophy: All students should feel well known by Brooke teachers, something more likely to happen in the nurturing self-contained classrooms.

All the above factors, woven together, account for the high performance at Brooke. Which raises this question: If the nation’s top charter school is headed in a direction different from other high-performing charters, is that a problem?

My answer: Only if you think all charter schools are supposed to look alike.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

When ‘Reform’ Means a Process of Elimination (Beverly Gage)

Because schools are political institutions deeply embedded in American society and as the cliche has it–when the nation has a cold, the schools sneeze–reform after reform has swept across the U.S time and again since the 18th century. Inevitably, after the establishment of tax-supported public schools, decentralized as they are==there are 13,000-plusschooldistricts in the U.S.–they too have been swept up in those national political,social,and economic reforms. Both school policy and practice have been affected by the cascade of changes. Beverly Gage nicely summarizes the various meanings of “reform” and describes the concept’s history in this piece.

“Beverly Gage is a professor of American political history at Yale. She is the author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror” and is currently writing a biography of the former F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.”

This article appeared in the New York Times Magazine February 18, 2018


When we elect politicians to office, it’s with the expectation (or at least the hope) that they will do something meant to improve our lives. Presumably this improvement will require change, the correction of past mistakes or persistent injustices — a process known, in its most benevolent guise, as “reform.” In personal life, reform means a brave step toward self-improvement and purification; nobody reforms himself into becoming an alcoholic. It’s much the same in the public sphere: a promise to fix what’s wrong with the body politic, usually through sober bipartisan policymaking. The process, in theory, goes only one way — onward into a brighter, better future.

This air of positivity helps explain why nearly every policy proposal in Washington ends up advertised as a reform. Slashing taxes on the wealthy is “tax reform.” Repealing Obamacare is “health care reform.” Building a wall along the Mexican border is “immigration reform” — but so is finding a path to citizenship for Dreamers. In his State of the Union address, President Trump mentioned reform nine times, describing solutions for problems ranging from border control to opioid addiction and hailing — to thunderous applause, if not high factual standards — the recent passage of “the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history.”

Reform lives and breathes good intentions. It declares the existence of a concrete problem that really does need to be solved. Political enemies are forced onto the defensive: Opposing reform means defending the status quo, no matter how bloated or feckless the current state of affairs may be. This tactic is particularly useful when so-called reformers hope to gut the very programs they’re claiming to improve. “Welfare reform” set that template in the 1990s, purporting to free Americans from dependency by giving them a whole lot less welfare. Attempts at “reforming” Obamacare, in 2017, meant getting rid of as many of its provisions as possible.

All this reflects the continued hollowing out of our political language, in which words often generate emotion without producing meaning. “Reform,” these days, may purport to fix things, but it tends to evade the hard work of defining either a problem or a solution. It posits a self-evident consensus — about a system’s failures, and about what might be preferable — where none exists.

The granddaddy of all reforms is still the Protestant Reformation, that long assault on the luxuries of the Catholic Church. In the early 19th century, though, a more secular meaning appeared, as elites considered whether judicious tweaks to the existing system might help contain social disorder or prevent uprisings. Reform emerged as the moderate alternative to revolution: still full of passion and ambition, but without so much chaos and lopping off of heads. It soon became the essential tool of progress — a way for society to evolve, slowly but surely, into an ever-more-ideal state. In Britain, “parliamentary reform” sought to root out corruption and lower the requirements for voting. On both sides of the Atlantic, early-19th-century reformers held on to strains of Protestant moralism, going after drinking and slaveholding as not only bad politics but also sins.

The shift toward reform as a matter of public policy came with the rise of industrial capitalism. By the early 20th century, middle-class Americans found themselves awash in social crises: overcrowded cities, political corruption, mass immigration, wild disparities of wealth. But they were also surrounded by new ideas about how to solve those problems, from a muckraking press to the budding expertise of social scientists, who promised that humans could understand and fix large-scale problems. From this mix came the idea of “reform” as a way to adjust society to cope with its new realities — and the image of “reformers” as a special breed of educated do-gooders. Crusading intellectuals like Jane Addams and John Dewey came to epitomize this type: privileged members of society who put their talents to work devising new ways to help the poor or to educate children, aiming to liberate the human spirit to reach its full potential.

Progressive reformers helped bring about tenement laws and income taxes, trustbusting and labor protections, women’s suffrage and the direct election of senators. Some of these measures tried to rein in the capitalist beast, returning the country to an age of yeoman farmers and small-scale producers; others embraced the modern dream of organizing human activity in ever more rational, efficient ways. In either case, some Americans wanted none of it, and saw “reform” as perilously close to an elite conspiracy. The era’s conservatives insisted that human nature — and therefore human society — was irredeemably imperfect, and that too much mucking around with social legislation bred an overreaching, tyrannical government. Left-wing radicals often disliked such projects, too, insisting that the dribs and drabs of reform were a bourgeois project that only delayed what really needed to be done, which was obviously revolution. In her famous 1899 essay “Reform or Revolution,” the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued that reform should never be an end in itself, but that agitating for it could be a means of preparing for the final confrontation with capitalism.

These tensions lasted well into the New Deal, the crowning years of America’s enthusiasm for reform. New Dealers held on to progressive ideas while sloughing off some of the moralizing. Over time, though, their economic policies ushered in what the historian Alan Brinkley has described, in the title of a 1995 book, as “The End of Reform.” The New Deal, he wrote, grew from a complex tradition of progressive reform, then “attached the word ‘liberalism’ to it, and set about transforming it.” The new liberals ultimately pinned their hopes on economic growth and Keynesian tinkering, not the trickier task of actively redistributing wealth and power. Over the decades that followed, they would orient themselves increasingly toward civil and social rights rather than sweeping economic reform, a subtle but important shift.

This may have spelled the “end” of a certain mode of reform, but it did little to change reform’s association with progressives and liberals — even when it was taken up by their opponents. In 1955, the historian Richard Hofstadter published a book whose title named the period from the 1890s through the 1940s “The Age of Reform.” He accepted as axiomatic that reformers came from “the side of the left in American history.” Still, he noted, there was now a tendency among conservative politicians to claim “reform” and “reformer” as gauzy, feel-good labels. “We usually reserve our highest acclaim for the politician who has in him a touch of the liberal reformer,” Hofstadter wrote. As a result, any talented conservative politician learned how to “exert his maximal influence by using the rhetoric of progressivism and winning the plaudits of the reformers” — while otherwise working against what most progressives would want.

Six decades later, a similar impulse seems to hold sway in Washington. While Democrats search for a muscular patriotic language to win back Trump voters (or galvanize their own), Republicans and conservatives seem happy enough to claim the gentler mantle of reform, especially when facing popular skepticism or outright hostility toward their policy proposals. Having accomplished “tax reform,” Speaker Paul Ryan now dreams of “entitlement reform,” through which he envisions reducing the deficit by cutting back on signature liberal programs like Medicare and Social Security. In a recent open letter sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, 12 conservative figures urged Ryan, along with Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, not to forget about “health reform,” by which they mean continuing the effort to undo Obamacare. Several signers of that letter have been described as “reform conservatives,” a loose term that signals inside-the-Beltway policy seriousness while creating distance from the more xenophobic elements of the Republican Party.

Not all aspects of reform carry quite the same partisan or ideological tinge. “Criminal-justice reform,” intended to reduce the harms of mass incarceration, seems to be one of the few genuinely bipartisan agenda items in Washington. (Trump himself, who rails against “savage” criminals, has spoken about “reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”) “Campaign-finance reform” occasionally rallies support across party lines, as do a few select aspects of “immigration reform.”

But even those issues — narrow, practical and still contentious — point to some of the limits of reform right now. A century ago, reform meant coming up with inspiring new ideas that would lead to greater justice, a confidence that human planning and ingenuity could accomplish grand and transformative things. Now it seems to mean, at best, restrained corrective measures — and far more often than that, actively undoing the policies of the past, an act of hardheaded resignation rather than of collective hope. Reform once promised a future of unparalleled opportunity. Today, it often marks the opposite, a loss of faith in the idea of progress itself.


Filed under Reforming schools