Category Archives: Reforming schools

What Guides My Thinking on School Reform: Pulling the Curtain Aside *

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

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. But I do embrace certain principles that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. And also this blog for the past six years. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

Context matters. Suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible because the setting in of itself influences what happens in the school and classrooms. There is no  reform I know of aimed at improving classroom teaching and student performance that should be applied across the board (e.g., school uniforms, teaching children to code, project-based learning). Policies and programs delivered to teachers need to be adapted to different settings.

No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in teachers’  tool kits. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., online “personalized” lessons, project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.

Small changes in classroom practice occur often and slowly; fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.

Age-graded school structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms. Teachers adapt to this dominant structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare lesson to get students ready for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.

Yet adding new structures to shift the center of gravity from prevailing teacher-centered lessons to student-centered ones (e.g., “personalized” learning, project-based instruction) while retaining the larger organizational structure of the age-graded organization fails to alter daily classroom practices.

Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions ala Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise.

These principles guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning.

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*This is a revised version of a post that appeared September 15, 2015.

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Rubik’s Cube and School Reform (Part 1)

When the Rubik Cube appeared in the early 1980s, I tried twisting and turning the colors to get them all aligned. I failed. Finding out that there are 3 billion possible ways to turn the cube’s corners, edges, and center to get the solution comforted me not a bit. Nor did knowing that one out of seven people on the planet (yes, the planet) have tried to solve the puzzle. Especially after I read that the speed record–established in November 2015–for solving the puzzle is now under five seconds (not minutes nor hours, but seconds). A blindfolded participant (yes, blindfolded) in the China Championship (2015) solved the Rubik Cube in 21 seconds. I gave up. And I have not tried since. This is the end of my confession of failure to solve the Rubik’s Cube.

Now what does the Rubik Cube have to do with school reform then and now? The Rubik Cube is complicated; school reform is complex. I and many others have pointed out the distinction between complicated and complex. This post offers another distinction, one that is crucial for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers to consider before adopting and implementing policies in school curriculum, organization, governance, and pedagogy that touch children and youth. That distinction is: changing school structures and culture to reshape classroom pedagogy is far harder to do than solving Rubik’s Cube.

Like the Rubik’s Cube, there are many moving parts to altering what teachers do in their classrooms such as school structures, culture, and interactions (many of which can not be predicted) between and among adults and children, and life outside of school. These moving parts have to work in sync in order for students to benefit. When they do it is a beauty to behold. But most of the time they do not. Why? Because reformers believe that reforming a school is a matter of providing the right incentives to motivate children and adults, laying out clear and measurable objectives, planning the tasks to be done step-by-step, executing those tasks efficiently, measuring results, evaluating the outcomes, and correcting errors. Then repeat the cycle. But reforming a school goes beyond clever design, putting the right people in the right slots,  efficient execution of tasks, and measuring results. Which is why reformers get stumped by the complexity of altering a school and what teachers do.

What makes it hard (i.e., complex) to create and sustain a “successful” school–however measured–is that there are no algorithms–as there are for the Cube–to get from here to there. Space flight to the moon, shuttles to a space-station orbiting the earth, and preparations for an eventual mission to the planet Mars are enormously complicated efforts that have been planned and executed (albeit with a few disasters) flawlessly. But complicated does not equal complex. There is no Mission Control for school reform in a decentralized national system of schooling. One example of the complexity of school reform will illustrate what I mean.

Take the U.S. high school. Begun in the mid-19th century, subsequent reforms created the comprehensive high school with college prep, commercial, and vocational curricula housing 1500 or more teenagers in the 1920s. Since then the institution has been praised and attacked every single decade for nearly a century. Policymakers have adopted reform-after-reform: from many curricula in the high school to everyone-goes-to-college; from conventionally organized schools with 50-minute periods and academic departments to ones that are re-organized (e.g., hour-and-a-half block for periods, subject matter departments disbanded, team teaching); from 1500 to 2000 or more students to small high schools (e.g., 500 students or less); from dominant teacher-centered pedagogy to more personalized and individualized ways of teaching (e.g., project based learning, student-centered teaching, online instruction)–see here, here, and here.

Some reforms stuck, many did not. No surprise then that the high school that U.S. viewers’ parents and grandparents attended would be familiar to them even now. Altering school structures and cultures is tough to do because high schools are complex organizations situated in a mercurial, ever-shifting political, social, economic, and technological environment. Surely, there have been changes in size, curriculum offerings, use of technologies, and instruction but these changes–actually political responses to clamor among those who make policy, pay taxes, vote, and demand changes–preserved the essential organizational and governance arrangements (e.g., age-graded school, subject matter departments, hour-long periods of instruction, etc.) and, truth be told, how most teachers teach.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine some of the moving parts and myriad interactions that have to occur in designing a very different kind of high school aimed at those students who want to go to college and succeed economically in the U.S. Here are the elements that I would imagine have to be in place and occur for such an imagined (and complex) high school.**

*Recruit and train teachers who have the subject matter knowledge and skills to work with youth before, during, and after the school day.

*Recruit and train school site leaders who have the expertise and skills to lead a school and be a pillow and sandpaper simultaneously with teachers, students, and parents.

*Every student takes a college prep curriculum, aligned with district standards, that enables them to enter any higher education institution in the state.

*Every student has access to non-academic subjects that cultivate the mind, heart, and sensibilities.

*Equip all students with the knowledge and skills not only to enter college but have the wherewithal to persist through four years and get a bachelor’s degree.

*Organize the school day, week, and month that provides students with sufficient time in and out of class to learn the prescribed material and core cognitive skills to master a subject, acquire the essential skills of planning and assessing their progress in each course they take, receive tutorial help when student skill levels are below par, and time for students to receive mentoring from teachers they trust.

*Build a culture of respect, safety, and focus on collaboration and learning for both youth and adults.

*Create a decision-making process that is inclusive, self-critical, and strong enough to make further changes in all of the above.

*Do all of the above efficiently within available resources.

Note that the design takes-for-granted the age-graded high school structures of administrators, academic departments, and teachers in self-contained classrooms. Note further that none of the elements of the design favor any particular pedagogy–neither teacher- or student-centered lessons or hybrids of both.

Easy as it is to list the components of such an imagined design, there is much that goes unmentioned. Nowhere, for example, do I note the required interactions (both routine and unexpected) between and among students, teachers, administrators, and parents that occur daily. Nor have I listed the unanticipated changes that occur regularly within political institutions such as schools (e.g., fund cuts, parental crises, student suicide, illness of a highly-respected administrator; spike in teacher turnover). All of the design pieces and these elements are moving parts that have to come together at a moment in time to work. Friction, mishaps, and stumbles occur all the time as people and events interact. Longevity of such designs are rare. A short, happy life of such high school reforms is the norm.

Is high school school reform easy as a Rubik’s Cube? Hardly. Part 2 will describe a network of schools that has put into practice most of the above design.

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**Some readers may ask: where do these features come from? The answer is that decades of research and experience with high school reform from the effective schools research of the 1980s and 1990s, the federally-subsidized research on Whole School Reform, and both research and experience gained from the small high schools movement form the basis for generating these features. Also there is the evidence drawn from small high school models launched and sustained within urban charter schools across the nation such as by Aspire, Kipp, Green Dot, Leadership Public Schools, and Summit Charter Schools. Finally, my experience as a high school teacher for 14 years, a superintendent of a district for seven years,  a trustee for a charter school organization for three years, and a researcher studying successful and failing high schools have given me a framework for analyzing and imagining high school  improvement.

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Forget technology–Let’s Talk about Tools for Teaching (Karin Forssell)

Karin Forssell, directs the Learning, Design, & Technology master’s program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Her students design innovative solutions to learning problems. She studies the conditions under which teachers choose to use digital tools, and the features that make them useful.

For some teachers, the idea of incorporating technology into teaching is intimidating, to say the least. It’s complicated. It’s distracting. It breaks. It is not necessary for good teaching.

In common parlance, “technology” is a word we use to describe things that are new.  To quote Alan Kay, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”  Hence Marc Prensky’s distinction between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.”  If you were born before the advent of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, or SnapChat, you might well have a sense that they are different, uncharted, and not critical to good teaching.  By talking about technology, we invoke a sense of exciting novelty, but also untamed wilderness.  Untamed wilderness is not necessarily what a K-12 teacher or a university professor is looking for in a course.

And yet.

“Technology” is useful. The National Academy of Engineers defines it as “any modification of the natural world made to fulfill human needs and desires.”  By this definition, technology for teaching includes not only student response systems and MOOC platforms, but also lecture halls, blue books, and chalk.  All of these can help us address the challenges we face when teaching.  If the word “technology” distracts us from talking about improving instructional practices, would it perhaps be better to use a different word?

First, we can focus on the different “needs and desires” that instructors might want to address in teaching. For example, we might want to provide students with a sense of how ideas are connected through interactive representations.  Or allow them to quickly receive feedback on whether their understanding is correct.  They might need to engage with some ideas in ways that protect them emotionally, or interact with something that would be too dangerous in real life.  We might want to find out who among the students does not understand the concepts, and to explore why. Once we have identified the needs and desires, we may need new “tools.”

Unlike “technology,” the word “tool” evokes a sense of stability. Humans have used tools for thousands of years.  We use tools to provide us with leverage, or power, or the insight needed to act on a given situation.  They make us smart.  In courses, they help our students engage with the content we teach.

Tools are used by people to allow them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. They amplify human capabilities. So different tools are appropriate for different skill levels, or for individuals with different strengths.  An instructor in history would reasonably be interested in a different set than an instructor in physics, given the nature of the content being taught.

Tools are designed to solve problems. Tools make it possible for us to do things more easily, more quickly, or better.  They have handles.  Whereas “technology” often feels inscrutable, a “black box” that operates as if by magic, a tool was designed to be operated by someone.  On a well-designed tool, that handle is obvious.  Of course, not all tools are well designed.  But thinking of tools as designed allows us to get inside the head of the designer.  It suggests ways that we might create a theory of mind.  (If all else fails, it allows us to blame the designer with our own dignity intact.)  For our teaching purposes, a tool that does not do what we want and expect is perhaps not the right tool for the job.

An interesting effect of talking about tools instead of technology is that it frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that “technology” can bring. Instead, we focus on the problems we want to solve in our teaching, or the challenges we choose to take on for our own continuous improvement. The beauty of focusing on the challenges instead of the solutions is that we might uncover a variety of ways of approaching the problem.

In having conversations about the nature of teaching, learning, and our students, we grow far more than in debating the merits of “technology.”

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Kludge: A Metaphor for Technology Use in Schools

Kludge

  1. (electronics engineering) An improvised device, usually crudely constructed. Typically used to test the validity of a principle before doing a finished design.
  2. (general) Any construction or practice, typically inelegant, designed to solve a problem temporarily or expediently.
  3. (computing) An amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.

Any definition of “kludge” that you pick among the three above–I lean toward the second one but I do like the third as well–fits what has occurred over the past three decades with the introduction of desktop computers into schools followed by laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with scads of accompanying software. Computing devices and accompanying software have been (and are) adds-on to education; all were initially introduced into U.S. manufacturing and commerce as productivity tools and then applied to schooling (e.g., spreadsheets, management information systems). Software slowly changed to adapt to school and classroom use but the impetus and early years applied business hardware and software to schooling. That birth three decades ago of being an add-on tinged with business application has made it a “kludge.”

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to speed along more efficiently the improvement of U.S. schools to strengthen the economy. The push for more business-flavored high-tech in schools has become the “kludge,” that is, “an improvised device, usually crudely constructed” and “typically inelegant” that has become “an amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.”

I say that because the evidence thus far that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, solved any of the problems is distressingly missing. Student academic achievement surely has not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream of high-tech advocates that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) has yet to materialize in the nation’s classrooms. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school do not necessarily step into better-paying jobs. Thus, high-tech infusion in schools designed to solve problems “temporarily” or “expediently” has become a “kludge.”

Nowadays, the rationale for using tablets and hand-held devices in classrooms has shifted to their potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to achievement), the necessity for all students to take tests online, and the mirage of exiting students marching into high-tech jobs. From flipped classrooms to blended learning, to personalized lessons, the hype continues even in the face of sparse evidence. This approach, then, remains a “kludge” that policymakers, entrepreneurs, and vendors continue to push for solving teaching and learning problems.

Fortunately, there are district officials, school principals, and classroom teachers who avoid the “kludge” effect by reframing the problems of teaching and learning as educational not technical (e.g., getting devices and software into the hands of students and teachers) or grounded in economic reasons. The problems are educational (e.g., how will these machines and software be used to help students understand essential concepts and apply necessary skills)—see here, here, and here. They know in their heart-of-hearts that learning is not about the presence of technology, it is about teachers and students interacting with subject-matter and skills and using paper, pencil, tablets, and Google docs to achieve learning goals. Learning is about teachers using these technological aids to get students to say “aha” about what they have learned, to acquire confidence through practice of skills.

But the “kludge” effect–add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools–continues to dominate policy action. Escaping the origin of technologies imported into schools is very hard to avoid. Technologies in schools remain a band-aid promising solutions to ill-framed problems. Too often it functions as another Rube Goldberg invention to solve the wrong problem.

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Flawed Assumptions about School Reform Strengthening the U.S. Economy

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
John Maynard Keynes

For years I have seen Keynes’s quote and thought little of it. In the past week, however, this economist’s reflection of nearly a century ago pinched me and got me thinking about school reform in the U.S. for the past three decades. Taken for granted is the rationale that U.S. students don’t measure up to international students; low test scores are signs that U.S. students are unable to enter successfully the new information-driven workplace. Moreover, jobs have disappeared. The new economy requires different and far more complex skills than the industrial-based one since the late-19th century. Students need to learn more, faster, and better. And graduates equipped with those skills–schools growing “human capital” is the jargon –will get high-paying jobs benefiting themselves and the economy will be stronger in the global marketplace benefiting society. That has been the rationale for over thirty years of school reform.

And here is where the influential ideas of “defunct economist[s]” enter the picture. Turn back the clock to A Nation at Risk (1983). The idea of the U.S. losing its global technological, scientific, and economic position was due, the report claimed, to the mediocrity of U.S. schools. Data showed that U.S. schools were failing. Evidence cited in the report pointed to low test scores of U.S. students compared to international students, high numbers of high school dropouts, low curriculum standards, and low salaries for teachers. The call for strengthened curriculum standards and tougher graduation requirements would lead, the report said, to a stronger economy.

Harnessed to the then dominant economic concept of  “human capital,” the public school’s job is to increase students’ knowledge and skills geared to a fast-changing world where information and services drives the economy. Those students equipped with high-tech and thinking skills will be more productive workers thus contributing to economic growth. Few policymakers challenged economists’ confidence in public school investments building a stronger economy.

Since then, beliefs in the growth of new technologies powering economic growth and productivity have led to state and federal laws–influenced strongly by economic thinking of “human capital,” economists–that called for far more intervention into local schools. No Child Left Behind (2002) crowned that intervention with the U.S. Department of Education monitoring state test results for students grades 3-8 and then naming, shaming, and blaming schools and districts that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress. A culture of testing, enhanced by students’ increased access to computers, produced an industry of test prep, narrowed the curriculum, and strengthened traditional teaching. All of this increased policy activity turned the assumption that a stronger schooling would lead to a stronger economy into a fact.

These ideas continue to motivate research by current economists who produce studies (see here and w21770)  that show state investments in schooling produce not only economic gains for individuals but also strong gains in the Gross Domestic Product. Suppose, however, that these policy assumptions that have driven school reform for over three decades are wrong.

Consider the following. The assumption that economists made about the importance of U.S. students acquiring more knowledge, skills, and expertise in computers has severe holes in it, given the depressed salaries of college graduates since 2000 and growing income inequality in the U.S.

As Paul Krugman put it:

Something else began happening after 2000 …. After decades of stability, the share of national income going to employee compensation began dropping fairly fast. One could try to explain this, too, with technology—maybe robots were displacing all workers, not just the less educated. But this story ran into multiple problems. For one thing, if we were experiencing a robot-driven technological revolution, why did productivity growth seem to be slowing, not accelerating? For another, if it was getting easier to replace workers with machines, we should have seen a rise in business investment as corporations raced to take advantage of the new opportunities; we didn’t, and in fact corporations have increasingly been parking their profits in banks or using them to buy back stocks.

Big corporations (including hedge funds) have failed to invest in commerce but they have used their market power politically to change the rules of the games. Krugman again:

Rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence, via campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door. Political influence in turn is used to rewrite the rules of the game—antitrust laws, deregulation, changes in contract law, union-busting—in a way that reinforces income concentration. The result is a sort of spiral, a vicious circle of oligarchy.

Economists Krugman, Robert Reich, and others see the prevailing ideas of new technologies powering economic growth and productivity–the theories that have fueled the “human capital” thrust to school reform for over thirty years–as flawed. The concentration of U.S. economic power into fewer and fewer corporations (e.g., banking, transportation, agriculture, media) generating profits that have been used to increase their political leverage leaves the current agenda of school reform, based on previous ideas of investing in “human capital” stranded on a deserted island. Lost and failed.

If only current school reformers can give serious thought to the questioning of the socioeconomic assumptions that ground current U.S. policies and practices, then, perhaps the reform palette can shift from painting with Common Core standards, extensive state and local testing, and coercive accountability to project-based teaching, socio-emotional learning, arts and the humanities, wraparound community services, and concerns for the whole child.

I end with another John Maynard Keynes quote: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

 

 

 

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Some Kids Have To Fail: A History of Labels (Part 1)

As long as there have been tax-supported public schools in the U.S., some children and youth have failed.  “Experts,” educators, and policymakers have given names for those students who left school in the late 19th century, early 20th century, and now. And those names for failing students and their early departures from schools have changed over time mirroring reform movements and policy shifts in perceptions of who was (and is) responsible for the failure.

A history of labels for these “misfits” can be summed up quickly: blame the kids for lacking intelligence, blame the kids and their families for not adjusting to schools, and blame the schools for failing students. I describe in a later post where U.S. educators are now in describing those students who fail to fit into the age-graded school.

Students who failed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries

Terms used over a century ago to describe those urban elementary school students who failed academically in their age-graded school focus entirely on an individual’s genetics, character and attitudes. Here were some of the common phrases educators and policymakers used: born-late, sleepy-minded, wandering, stubborn, immature, slow, dull   (PDF DeschenesCubanTyack-1).

Children who left urban elementary schools were mostly children of immigrants and young ( 10 to 12 years old); they went to work immediately in a rapidly industrializing economy. When reformers of the day saw that children were in the streets cadging coins, selling newspapers, and working in factories,they lobbied state legislatures for child labor laws to prevent the young from entering the workforce. Helen Todd, for example, inspected factories in Chicago looking for underage children. She found boys and girls making paper boxes,stripping tobacco leaves, running errands, and shellacking canes in what even then were unsafe and unhealthy workplaces.

Todd asked the young boys and girls would they rather work or go to school if their father had a good job and they did not have to work to bring money into the family. Eighty percent of the child-workers said they would rather work than go to school.Why, she asked? Some answers they gave:

“School ain’t no good. When you works a whole month at
school, the teacher she gives you a card to take home that says how you
ain’t any good. And yer folks hollers on yer an’ hits yer.”

Another told Todd: “You never- understands what they tells you in school, and you can
learn right off to do things in a factory.”

Repeatedly, child-workers told Todd that teachers beat them for not learning, or not listening to teacher or forgetting the correct page (PDF DeschenesCubanTyack-1).

In these decades, the age-graded elementary school (less than 10 percent went to high school then) required students to move through the required curriculum during the school year and learn the skills and content demanded for the next grade. Those children who could not keep up the pace because of language, cultural differences, family issues, or other reasons, performed poorly and soon left school. In effect, the age-graded school produced “misfits,” a retrospective term seldom used then or now.

Early to mid-20th century

With the discovery and development of intelligence testing, a spinoff of mass testing of draftees in World War I, a generation of Progressive reformers applied the lessons learned from sorting adults for the U.S. Army to public schools. And a legion of new terms entered policy-driven reformers’ and educators’ vocabularies (DeschenesCubanTyack-1) to describe children who did poorly in school. Common phrases were:

[P]upils of low I. Q., low division pupils, ne’er-do-wells. sub-z group, limited, slow learner, laggards, overage, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, backward, occupational student. mental deviates, and inferior.

To these Progressive reformers and policymakers, failing students simply did not have smarts. The I.Q. tests confirmed that “fact.” The instructional solution to these students was to teach them different content in a different way in a different place. The language of science provided an objective rationale for sorting students into different curricula (or tracks). And these reform-minded Progressives made the age-graded school even more efficient.

Late-20th to early 21st centuries 

Beginning in the 1960s, especially after poverty was rediscovered by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, “culturally deprived” entered the language of reformers, policymakers, and educators. With many cities now de facto segregated even after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and obvious inequities existing between social classes  the phrase became code for black, brown, and other children living in urban ghettos. As federal funding of programs sharply increased in the mid-1960s, civil rights reformers fought against applying the label to minority and poor children because of the racism embedded in the phrase: low-income, mostly minority families and children have no culture. By the early 1970s, the label exited reformers’ vocabulary to be replaced by “the disadvantaged.”

With the introduction of “disadvantaged,” the adverb in front of it became contested. Socially disadvantaged? Educationally disadvantaged? The former pointed the finger at families  sending unprepared children to school, thus becoming the prime cause for low academic performance. But the use of “educationally disadvantaged” by reformers brought the school, its rules, culture, and staff under the microscope. This occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the growth of the reform-driven “effective schools” movement. And has lasted since with “No Excuses” reformers in the past decade. Nonetheless, labeling children failing school continued.

By the late-1980s, another term, “at risk,” became popular in describing children and youth that earlier generations had called “misfits.” For some analysts it is a borrowed phrase from A Nation at Risk (1983) and applied to low-income children and youth of color who receive an inequitable schooling. Others see the phrase coming from epidemiology where individuals and groups heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, and other ills display “at risk” factors. Whatever the source, the phrase is now commonly used among policymakers, reformers, and educators.

So here is a continuing story of different generations of reformers using catch-phrases to salvage the rejects produced by the rigidly organized age-graded schools. Over time, the phrases have morphed from indictments of individual failings to searching examination of the deficit-ridden school in meeting the needs of those who have received (and continues to receive) an inequitable schooling.

The next post looks at the use of “at risk” to describe children today.

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Technology Evangelists, Skeptics, and Those in the Middle

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

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The text in EdSurge accompanying the graphic said:

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

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

330px-Diffusion_of_ideas.svg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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