Category Archives: Reforming schools

Schools, the Coronavirus, and the Near Future (Part 2)

When the coronavirus has run its course and Americans return to work, and try to restore their daily routines to what they recognize as “normal”–some things will change in schools. What all of those changes will be, I cannot predict.

When I look back on my predictions about school reform and technology, it is clear that I am no seer. At best, my trying to look around the corner has been half-right and half-wrong. Not an enviable record. Especially because economic, political, and social policymaker decisions produce consequences that touch people’s lives. So being half-right ain’t too good. Nonetheless, I plunge ahead.

One change I do believe will occur is about how much time children and youth will spend in school after they return to their desks. One result of the pandemic has been the loss of the last quarter of the school year and decisions will be made about whether school should be held during the summer of 2020 to make up for lost time and whether students should be promoted to the next grade. Spring testing of students, an annual rite for decades, has vanished. Test scores for 2019-2020 to crow or despair about–won’t circulate in mainstream and social media this year.

Moreover, nearly all states require 180 days of school of six or so hours daily in classroom instruction. For 2019-2020, that’s gone. Remote learning may recover some of the time but states and districts will either waive their requirements or mandate a new calendar for the summer and autumn to recoup losses in time or do a mix of both. State-required seat-time in school to get credentials in a highly individualistic and competitive society is not something to be cavalierly waved aside. So the annual and daily calendar of attending school will change for the immediate future.

Readers should know that such alterations in calendars won’t be the first time that policymakers have tinkered with student time in schools. Changing the amount of time students sit in classrooms has been a perennial remedy to policy problems (e.g., raising academic achievement) with which state and local reformers have wrestled.

Previous changes in school calendars

Since the 1980s, fixing school time has been a popular solution reform-minded policymakers have promoted to improve U.S. schools yet one that is least connected to what happens in classrooms or what Americans want from tax-supported schools.

Since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, Prisoners of Time in 1994, blue-ribbon commission recommendations in Tough Choices, Tough Times in 2007, and in 2012 high profile leaders formed a new national coalition to add time to the school day and year, reformers have criticized how long and how well students spend time in school. Now that topic will gain renewed heft with the coronavirus pandemic.

In the past, criticism of school schedules came from business and civic leaders who saw the United States stuck in the middle ranks of of nations on international tests. These leaders saw a link between Asian and European governments requiring more days in school and their lead in global marketplaces. Foreign students outscoring U.S. test-takers was, to these U.S. critics of schooling, an important sign of American schools and the economy falling behind. Criticism of the amount of time students spent in school also came from employers who wondered whether the required days and hours students spent in classes were sufficient to produce the knowledge, skills, and behaviors their employees needed to work in a globally competitive economy

Disapproval of readitional school calendars and daily schedules also came from those working parents–increased numbers of families with both spouses working as well as single mothers occurring since the 1970s– who needed schools open early in the morning and to remain open after 3 PM until they picked up their children before dinner.

Censure also came from professors who scolded policymakers for allotting so little time for teachers to gain new knowledge and skills during the school day. Many wanted policymakers to distinguish between requiring more seat-time in school and academic learning time or time on task, jargon for those hours and minutes where teachers engage students in learning content and skills.

Finally, there has been a steady downpour of criticism of traditional seat time in school from online champions who saw hundreds of students sitting at school desks for 180 days as quaint in the midst of a revolution in communication devices. Children and youth now can learn the formal curriculum at home and other venues rather than sitting in classrooms. Online learning advocates, joined by those who saw cyber-schools as the future, wanted children and youth to spend less time in K-12 classrooms.

How successful have critics been in fixing school time?

Presidential commissions, parents, academics, and employers have proposed to policymakers the same solutions again and again: Add more days to the annual school calendar. Create year-round schools. Add instructional time to the daily schedule. Extend the school day. These familiar—almost traditional–recommendations are as close as one can come, metaphorically, to the missionary position in sex. What has happened to each proposal in the past quarter-century?

Longer school year. Recommendations for a longer school year (from 180 to 220 days) have come from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. Yet over a decade later, one foundation-funded report, A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk, found that the 180-day school year was intact across the nation and only Massachusetts had started a pilot program to help districts lengthen the school year. The same report graded states’ progress made on those quarter-century old recommendations: States extending their school year received an “F.” In 2018, 42 states mandated 180 days of instruction (the other 8 required 174-178 days).

Year-round schools. The homespun myth that the annual school calendar with three months off for both teachers and students is based on the rhythm of 19th century farm life still receives respectful attention. Thus, planting and harvesting chores accounted for long summer breaks, an artifact of agrarian America. Not so.

Actually summer vacations grew out of early 20th century urban middle-class parents (and later lobbyists for camps and the tourist industry) pressing school boards to release children to be with their families for six to eight weeks during the summer. By the 1960s, however, policymaker and parent concerns about students losing ground academically during the vacation months—in academic language, “summer loss”—gained support for year-round schooling. Cost savings also attracted those who saw facilities being used 12 months a year rather than being shuttered during the summer.

Nonetheless, although year-round schools were established as early as 1906 in Gary, Indiana, calendar innovations have had a hard time entering most schools. Districts with year round schools still work within the 180-day year but distribute the time more evenly (e.g., 45 days in session; 15 days off) rather than having a long break between June and September. Recent data find that only three million students attend year-round schools in 46 states (over 50 million go to K-12 schools). In many cases, what got school boards to adopt year-round schools was over-crowded facilities, most often in minority and poor communities—not concerns over “summer loss.”

Will, then, year-round schools spread in the wake of the coronavirus scourge? They may in the short term–say, the next few years, but I do not think so for the long-term–say, 2030. And the reason, I suspect, is both habit and cost.

Americans are used to summers off and even with the pandemic crowding out the summer of 2020 and perhaps the next few years when students will have to attend school through, say, July, chances are that there will be a regression to the mean in subsequent years of having 6-8 weeks off between June and August.

On the cost side, the price tag of year-round schools to cover additional teacher salaries and other expenses runs high. One researcher estimated that going from 175 to 200 days would cost the state of Minnesota, not the largest state in the nation, $750 million a year, a large but not insurmountable price to pay. But costs for other alternative ways of tinkering with the school calendar have been tried over the decades. Extending the school day for instruction and child-care has been one reform that has spread to most districts.

Adding instructional time to the school day. So many researchers and reformers have pointed out that the 6.5 hour school day has so many interruptions, so many distractions that teachers have less than five hours of genuine classroom instruction for student learning. Advocates of more instructional time have tried to stretch the actual amount of instructional time available to teachers to a seven-hour day (or 5.5 hours of time for time-on-task learning) or have tried to redistribute the existing secondary school schedule into 90-minute blocks rather than the traditional 50-minute periods. Very costly since teachers would have to paid for additional time . Much easier to do and far less costly has been to add time to the school day.

Extended school day. In the past half-century, as the economy has changed and families increasingly have both (or single) parents working, schools have been pressed to take on child-care responsibilities such as tutoring and homework supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 AM for parents to drop off their children and have after-school programs that close at 6 PM in many middle class neighborhoods but especially in neighborhoods serving low-income families. Opinion polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before- and after-school programs (KAPPAN poll). Moreover, all-day kindergartens (and pre-kindergartens for four year-olds), especially in low-income neighborhoods have spread swiftly in the past two decades. Innovative urban schools such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) run longer school days. The latter routinely opens at 7:30 AM and closes at 5 PM while scheduling biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.

If there is a success story in fixing school time that reformers can thump their chests over, it is extending the school day. How much of that success, however, came from reformers’ arguments and actions and how much came from economic and social changes in family structure, both parents working, I cannot say.

Online education. And what about those cheer-leading technological enthusiasts who see fixing time in school as a wasted effort when online schooling can increase students’ academic achievement or even replace formal schooling? Promoters argue that children and youth learning in schools should not be measured by how long they occupy seats in classrooms but by how they master the content and skills in the curriculum they study. Competency-based education looks to students learning specific skills and content and their being assessed to determine whether they have learned the prescribed work. Some of that rhetoric has already surfaced even before the pandemic has ended (see here and here).

There are obvious difficulties of teaching online all subjects such as reading and math in elementary schools vs. physical education, art, music. Being at home while daily routines of family or a solitary life sap the necessary will-power of listening to lectures, completing software lessons and taking tests online before moving onto the next unit or skill (see here). And, of course, there is the digital inequality that robs children in families where Internet access is either limited or non-existent and available devices are absent or obsolete. Finally, there is the limited research of comparing online schooling with traditional schooling that hardly shows online lessons to be better than being in physical classrooms with teachers, particularly for low-income children of color (see here and here).

Furthermore, even the most enthusiastic advocate of online schooling recognizes that substantively more online teaching and learning in and out of public schools is, at best, unlikely. Except at the margins.

Sure, online instruction and competency-based learning already do exist in schools (see here and here). Such efforts will expand slightly because of the pandemic experience. Many courses and lessons, especially at secondary schools and in higher education, will adopt online learning and various forms of competency-based teaching but I doubt seriously that such approaches will become the primary way for public school teachers to teach and students to learn.

Fixing time in the aftermath of the pandemic

Decade after decade, reformers fixated on time in school have trotted out the same recipes for changes in the annual calendar and extending the hours of schooling. Yet for all the hoopla and endorsement from highly influential business and political elites results of their mighty efforts have been minuscule. Time-fixing reformers who have seen the solution to achievement gaps and low test scores in adding days and hours to school schedules and increased online instruction. Nonetheless, in the immediate future following the disappearance of the coronavirus, 50 million children and youth will still enter the schoolhouse door each weekday morning and go through a familiar day, week, and month of lessons. Even with the hurried calendar changes in the next few years to make up for lost time in the 2020, I don’t see substantial changes in the traditional calendar. Why is that?

Cost is the usual suspect. The price tag of extending the school year to cover additional teacher salaries and other expenses runs high. One researcher estimated that going from 175 to 200 days would cost the state of Minnesota, not the largest state in the nation, $750 million a year, a large but not insurmountable price to pay. But costs for extending the school day for instruction and child-care are far less onerous. Which is why the longer school day will continue.

Neither does online learning save dollars over time since there has to be an infrastructure of hardware, software, and teacher staff development built to support expanded instruction and assessment. Advocates of online boast that it saves money because the unspoken belief is that, over time, fewer teachers will be needed in classrooms.

Habit and tradition matter as well. After the pandemic and school closures, Americans want stability and familiarity in schooling. A return to the traditional custodial function of compulsory schooling, teachers in their classrooms in age-graded schools, textbooks, homework, and, yes, even tests and summers off will reassure the nation’s parents that their sons and daughters are again going to “real” schools.

Overall, then, when it comes to tax-supported public schools, their political, economic and social goals plus their basic functions (e.g., taking care of children, teaching and learning prescribed content and skills, socializing the young) require in-school attendance, social interaction, and teachers doing what they do best.

In the wake of coronavirus shutdown of schools, I expect reform-minded time-fixers will continue to sell the above remedies for improving poor academic performance including much more online instruction. And while I expect a marginal growth in students going online, I also expect that current school reforms that can be dated back to the Nation at Risk report (1983), will remain in place as will age-graded elementary and secondary schools where instructional days and daily hours record seat-time.


Filed under Reforming schools, research, school reform policies

Schools, the Coronavirus, and the Near Future (Part 1)

I recently received a note from a colleague asking about what happens after the pandemic virus’s effects ebb, Americans return to work (if their workplace has not closed), schools re-open, and “social distancing” becomes an unwelcome memory. My colleague asked if at such a time would school reform sweep across the nation as it did for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In that city all public schools were closed, teachers were fired, and within a few years, state-driven reforms created a new district that contained mostly charter schools enrolling 93 percent of students, the highest number among the nation’s districts.

I told my colleague that such an outcome–spread of charters–for the U.S. after the coronavirus ebbs was highly unlikely.

My knowledge of school reform movements in the past century tilted me more toward what happened to schools after the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that killed millions across the globe and around 675,000 Americans (ten times more than died in World War I). While that pandemic occurred, U.S. schools and businesses were closed, crowd gatherings were banned, and other similar responses to the coronavirus pandemic occurred.

Schools eventually re-opened after the influenza pandemic (Olympia, Washington closed its schools October 11, 1918 and allowed students to return on November 14).

During these years, the educational Progressives had installed a series of governance, organizational, curricular, and instructional reforms in various urban, suburban, and rural districts across the country. These reforms (e.g., governing efficiently through bureaucratic hierarchies, new curricula focused on children and youth working on projects, schools as medical, social service, and community centers) had become incorporated into thousands of districts’ policies and practices. After the pandemic, these reforms largely continued (see here). No shift in direction or substantive changes occurred as a result of the pandemic.

So when public schools re-open their doors to children, unlike post-Katrina New Orleans, I do not expect substantive changes in school reforms for the near future that have been in place nearly forty years.

These reforms initiated since the mid-1980s to closely link tax-supported public schools to the workplace will persist. Those reforms such as raising graduation requirements, encouraging all high school students to attend college, continuing tests and accountability structures along with increased parental choice of schools, particularly with charters–I expect all of those to chug along pretty much as they have prior to the coronavirus’s appearance.

But I do expect some short-term effects on using new technologies and changes in the annual calendar of schools.

Online teaching and learning

Beginning in March 2020, both higher education and K-12 schools have closed across the country. These institutions responded to the threat of Covid-19 with an onslaught of remote learning (see here, here, and here). What became obvious within a few weeks was the digital inequality for those from affluent and middle-class families with access to Internet and multiple devices and working class and poor families that had fewer or no computers at home and spotty access to the web. Of course, digital inequality is just a symptom of the economic gaps that have grown between the rich, middle class, and poor.

The rush to provide schooling online so that students can continue learning uninterrupted now offers incentives to promote even more online learning once schools re-open. Remote teaching and learning–distance education as it once was called–over time tends toward lower costs in educating the young compared to staffing classrooms with teachers and professors. Moreover, even with the federal stimulus just passed by Congress containing billions for K-12 schools to expand e-learning and purchase compatible technologies, these incentives may not lead to clear growth in e-learning. The best that I can offer is a bland–Perhaps.

Why the uncertainty of a “perhaps?”

As I read newspaper, magazine, and television news and commentary from pundits and parents (including my immediate family, friends, and former students) what became obvious to me–in this instance I can only offer anecdotal evidence since I have no opinion polls or systematically collected data–was increased appreciation among single mothers, two working parents, and extended families for the custodial function of schools.

All American children ages 5 to16 have to go to school (ages vary by state). Compulsory enrollment legally requires schools to take care of students. These minors in the eyes of the law have to learn content and skills, interact with peers and adults, and receive community services including meals while within those brick-and-mortar buildings. These basic functions of tax-supported public schools are crucial to society and the economy; yet they have been taken for granted for a century. Only now after schools have closed and children and youth are at home does the full force of this requirement hit families square between the eyes.

Will parents across the country come to appreciate more than they do now the custodial, cognitive, and social functions tax-supported public schools perform daily? I want to say yes. But time will tell.

The pandemic has made clear how important current schools are as they are presently organized and operated. I do not foresee any popular support for initiatives to substantially alter current policies or the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling.

Will there be, however, accelerated support for online learning in K-12 schools and higher education? I do expect that many underfunded public schools–most states have cut back on funding schools in the past three decades (see here and here)–will increase remote learning as a cost-saving move. The economic tremors following the pandemic will reduce even more school funding as has happened after the Great Recession of 2008. Laying off 300,000 teachers, no salary increases, and larger class size (see here)

The Obama administration did pour additional funds into schools then (see here). The U.S. Congress passed and President Trump signed legislation that exceeded the 2009 infusion of money in the economy and schools. How much the Trump administration will allocate to schools beyond what I have read about e-learning, I do not yet know.

So I do expect an immediate uptick in online learning during and after the school day. Overall, however, such increases will remain peripheral to the core work of teachers meeting their students daily and teaching content and skills (both hard and soft) to children and youth.

In the immediate future, there will be changes in the annual school calendar and summers off for students. My next post will elaborate how I expect the issue of time in public schools to change.


Filed under Reforming schools, research, school reform policies, technology

Hope and the History of School Reform

Nine years ago I wrote this post after meeting with a group of graduate students working on their Masters in Business Administration. Many had taught for a few years through Teach for America and were eager to apply their knowledge and skills learned in the MBA program to low-performing schools where most students were of color.

So why re-post this piece? As a historian of school reform I hear often from readers, former students, and teachers that my recounting of failed reforms and disappointing results after efforts to transform schooling lead to despair if not cynicism about the entire landscape of school improvement. And that is what I have been hearing recently from some readers. So I decided to re-publish this piece.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of Stanford University graduate students who were completing a joint Masters’ degree in education and business administration.

Many of the 18 students sitting around a seminar table had taught a few years in urban schools through Teach for America. Those who had no direct experience in schools had worked for consulting firms with contracts in major urban districts. Smart, savvy about organizations and passionate about reforming schools, the students wanted to hear my thoughts about reform that I had extracted from nearly a half-century of experience as teacher, superintendent, and researcher. I offered four lessons. Since I have written about each of these lessons in earlier posts I will compress the lessons and cite the earlier posts for those readers who want more information.

I learned that:

*it is essential to distinguish between reform talk, adoption of reform-driven policies, and putting reforms into practice ( see

* I learned that reform talk and policy action in the purposes, curriculum, instruction and organization of schools often occur in cycles but putting reforms into practice is slow, incremental, and erratic. (See

* I learned that turning to public schools as a solution for larger economic, social, and political problems has become a national tic, a peculiar habit, that U.S. reformers have (See reforming-u-s-schools-soften-or-harden-inequalities-in-wealth-and-health/

* I learned that both continuity and change mark the path of public schools over the past two centuries (See )

I spent about 30 minutes going over these lessons and then I opened the floor to questions.

After a few clarification questions, a visibly agitated young woman recounted her experience as a TFAer in an urban district and her journey to Stanford for conceptual and organizational skills (and credentials). She wants to return to a similar system to make organizational and instructional changes. Then she asked her question: “Larry, look around this room. It is filled with people who want to reform failing schools. We will have the knowledge and skills and we will work hard. But your message to us is that reform talk occurs in cycles, reforms come back again and again, reformers stumble a lot and when changes do occur they are small ones. Well, how can I put it: you don’t give me and my colleagues here too much hope. I am depressed from the lessons you have learned over so many decades. What advice would you give to all of us?”

I was neither surprised nor put off by the question. Over the years as a professor–David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform from which came the book, Tinkering toward Utopia–as a conference keynoter and in many discussions, students, colleagues, and conferees have raised similar questions.

The upside of the student’s comment is recognizing that emotions and passions buried in heart-felt values of equity and helping urban low-income and minority students drive much school reform. That is a plus often overlooked by policymakers who prize values of effectiveness and efficiency and cite cost-benefit trade-offs and return on investment (ROI). Rationality on steroids. Emotions, however,  are what get practitioners, not policymakers, over the inevitable potholes on the road to reform success, not whether it is scientifically proven, logical, or even efficient.

The downside is that I questioned her premise. Wanting to do good for urban youth, hard work, some experience, and a Stanford degree were somehow enough to turn around schools. I claimed that my knowledge of previous well-intentioned designs and reformers who also worked hard but experienced small victories and tasted the salt of many failures was instructive to contemporary reformers. That I may have triggered  the blues in some of these wannabe reformers seemed unfair and unrealistic to my questioner.

So what advice did I give this room filled with Reformers-R-Us?

Even though nearly all these students accepted the accuracy of what I said–many had read similar accounts of previous reforms– I sensed that the questioner wanted reassurance that her time, energy, and commitment will pay off later in successful reforms. I could not (and did not) reassure her. Nor could I  give her unvarnished hope.

What I did do was talk about the importance of knowing realistically what faces anyone undertaking an adventure that contains the possibility, nay, probability of failure. I compared the launching of a school reform to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible people want a guide. Someone who can tell the adventurers where the crevices are, what false turns to avoid, where the icy spots are and to be honest about the possibility that they may have to turn back before reaching the summit. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, honesty, and humility are crucial to reaching the summit and implementing a school reform. Hope for success rests in expertise, problem solving, and courage but–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain (implementing that reform) is still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved. That is what I told the students.


A reader in 2011 asked me what I meant by that next-to-last sentence: ”Hope for success rests in expertise, problem solving, and courage but–and this is an especially important ‘but’–climbing that mountain (implementing that reform) is still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved.”

Here is what I replied then and still agree with nine years later:

Many things in life we do because we believe that they are worthwhile ventures. We hope we will succeed (and the measures and meaning of success vary by the person, cultural norms, etc.) but we do not know whether we will or not. We take a risk. Getting married. Having children. Biking across the country.

I believe teaching is like that. We invest ourselves in the act of teaching every day in the hope that we will succeed with all of our students but, after years of experience, we come to know two things: first, that success is measured in as many different ways as the students we have and, second, that in more cases than we would like to remember, success–however defined and measured–eludes us with some students. Knowing both “truths” in our head and heart does not mean that we stop teaching. The act of teaching someone else, of helping another person learn something of importance, is so worthwhile in of itself that even when success is doubtful or perhaps impossible, the act remains worth doing. That is what I meant.

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Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools

2020 is the 11th year I have been writing posts for this blog. In those 11 years, I have also written a few books. Every time I have had a new book come out, publishers and friends urge me to advertise the book on my blog.

I am torn, however. One part of me thinks that it is too pushy, too braggish, to tout my book in the blog. It is not that I am inherently a modest man but the thought of blowing my trumpet about what I do or did, well, makes me wince in embarrassment.

Yet another part of me says: “Hey, at a time when screens and the air are filled with constant grabbing for attention,” (eyeballs, as flacks put it), “I need to do the same.” After all, I am not on Facebook and only tweet titles of my posts when I publish them. Social media is largely foreign to me although readers of the blog, tweet about posts I have published–so I do benefit from that. Consider further that over a million self-published books come out a year (2017). Book readers have to be especially selective.

Moreover, with this abundance of reading material at a time when sustained attention to read a 200-page book competes with reading one’s Facebook pages and twitter feed, getting reviewed in a national newspaper, magazine, or media publication is rare–the New York Times reviews less than three percent of new books it receives. Yes, you can cadge reviews for your book on Amazon, but the cachet is limited. So why not blow my trumpet–that other part of me says.

This back-and-forth interior conversation is what occurred when I received a note from Harvard Education Press that my new book, Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools will be available next month. I decided that I will post a few paragraphs taken from the “acknowledgements” page to describe why I wrote a book about success and failure in American schools.

Every book has its creation story. For this one, there is nothing exotic or path breaking. In my career as a teacher, administrator, and professor since 1955 (I retired in 2001 but continued to teach and write) I have spent my professional time in researching and writing on questions about educational policy and practice that tugged at me for answers.  For that I am most grateful. But now as the sun is setting on my career I wanted to pull disparate threads together from my earlier writings that touched larger issues in the journey that educational policy takes toward the classroom.

In Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools, I wanted to answer a question that has bothered me for a long time.  Given my knowledge of the history of efforts to alter what occurs in schools and classrooms, why has the constant refrain of school reform failing again and again and schools never changing sounded off kilter? A few years ago, I had a chance to explore the question of the supposed failure of school reform and lack of change in U.S. schools when Jay Greene and Michael McShane asked me to do a chapter in their edited collection called Failure Up Close: What Happens, Why It Happens, and What We Can Learn from It.

Writing that chapter got me thinking about the dominance of current policy definitions of “success” and “failure” in public schools. So I began asking myself a bunch of questions: Had those policy definitions been around for just the past few years? Decades? Centuries? Had these notions of “success” and “failure” changed over time? Where did they come from? How and why did tax-supported public schools adopt these definitions of “success” and “failure?” What do these definitions look like when applied to actual schools and classrooms? And, finally, can contemporary definitions of “success” be stretched to encompass other goals for teachers and students in public schools?

Like much of my previous writings, these questions started on the busy four-lane highway of reform-driven policymaking and then hopped on two-way roads and eventually one-way streets of educational practice to see what happened to those adopted policies when they finally appeared in schools and classrooms. Some reforms stuck, some morphed in familiar ways of running schools and teaching. And some disappeared. The above questions bugged me enough to travel anew this familiar path of policy-to-practice.

Those questions spurred me to send Harvard Education Press yet another proposal to write the book you have in hand. I have answered these and related questions in this book partially scratching the itch that got me this far. I say “partially” because I am uncertain whether what I have written here misses questions about stability and change in U.S. schools that I should have asked or errs in what I have concluded.  As I said above, the creation story for this book is neither exotic nor path breaking. It is what it is.


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

Schools and the Coronavirus

Close the schools, an anxious neighbor says on Nextdoor (a local online bulletin board), when a parent of two school children in the community in which I live came in contact with someone who was infected with the coronavirus (see comment below: a careful reader noted that the source I used said the parent was not infected). Public schools so far have remained open but nearby private schools have closed. Stanford University suspended face-to-face classes for next week telling faculty to teach online remaining classes in the quarter. No local district has yet closed its public schools. But whether to keep public schools open or shut remains in the air. Parents scramble to hire people just in case the schools do close but their workplaces remain open It is a day-by-day anxiety-fest. But not only in this affluent community.

In New York City, there are 1.1 million students of whom three-quarters are designated as poor. A recent article makes clear that schools do more than teach content and skills.

… {S]chool may be the only place they can get three hot meals a day and medical care, and even wash their dirty laundry.

That is why the city’s public schools will probably stay open even if the new coronavirus becomes more widespread in New York. Richard A. Carranza, the schools chancellor, said earlier this week that he considered long-term closings an “extreme” measure and a “last resort.”

Responses from Palo Alto and New York City public schools strip away the cloak of hidden inequalities that are endemic to American life in 2020. Should Palo Alto schools close, nearly all of the parents–many of whom have both spouses working–will have money to hire adults to help care for their children at home.

Not so for East Palo Alto families –across an expressway from Palo Alto–where many moms and dads cobble together multiple part-time jobs in low-paying industries (e.g., Home Depot, IKEA, fast food franchises, home gardening) with no paid sick leave available.

An impending crisis disrupts the taken-for-granted in our lives. Especially when it comes to public schools. They are crucial in keeping the economy strong because, in addition to learning content and skills, and issuing credentials to enter college and eventually the workplace, in times such as now, their legal custody of children becomes starkly obvious. Schools, past and present, then, are expected to take good care of their charges and also be social service centers and community hubs.

The importance of schools to daily life and the larger society during a pandemic becomes obvious. But does closing schools reduce spread of the virus and thus deaths or do schools have little to no effect on the spread of the respiratory ailment?

History offers some clues to answering the question. A historian of medicine investigated the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that killed nearly 750,000 Americans (not a typo). He and his colleagues studied 43 cities that used school closings as one of the ways to abort or slow the spread of the virus and thereby reduce mortalities. Here is what he found:

We looked at 43 large cities that carried out some combination of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs): isolating the ill or those suspected of being ill in hospitals or at home; banning public gatherings; in some cases, shutting down roads and railways; and closing schools.

School closing turned out to be one of the most effective firewalls against the spread of the pandemic; cities that acted fast, for lengthy periods, and included school closing and at least one other NPI in their responses saw the lowest death rates.

Of course, all NPIs are socially disruptive and should be used only as a last resort, to control infections that are highly transmissible and dangerous, and have high fatality rates. The primary problem with the new coronavirus is that we have never before experienced an outbreak with it, so we do not yet have good, stable numbers to tell us how serious it is.

The uncertainty over the effects of the virus, how many that contract the disease recover or die, the lack of a vaccine–takes up to a year to develop and test one–and absence of anti-viral medications complicates greatly making decisions about closing schools. That in the U.S. there are 13,000-plus school districts–each with their own school board and superintendent–with over 100,000 public schools surely doesn’t help in corralling the contagious virus.

The historian closes his article with the following advice:

To be sure, more than 80 percent of the Covid-19 cases reported so far have been mild, and few children have been among the people suffering from serious or deadly cases. But most parents would tolerate the inconvenience of school closings if it meant they were avoiding even a relatively small risk to their child’s health. Just as important, children of all ages are especially good at spreading respiratory viruses, which puts adults who work in schools as well as health workers in emergency rooms and hospitals at risk if schools remain open. Keeping kids at home could be an important part of saving lives.

In the history of medicine, we have never been more prepared to confront this virus than we are today. But this history also teaches us that when it comes to school closings, we must always be ready to act today — not tomorrow.

What the historian ignores, however, is the economic insecurity and inequalities that pervade the U.S. and the social effects of school closings on lower-middle and working class Americans and those poor families without any resources. Serious disruption rather than the euphemism of “inconvenience” is the operative phrase for this substantial portion of Americans.

Future policies that would lessen the disruption would be state and federal legislation mandating paid sick leave for minimum wage jobs. That would be a start and a positive outcome of this pandemic.


Filed under school leaders

School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired But Marginal (Part 4)

Every school reform is a solution to a problem. How a problem is identified (e.g., unilaterally, multilaterally) and who does the framing of it (e.g., policymakers, practitioners, parents), of course, matters. The cartoonish superintendent (or elected official) sees the problem in test scores declining the longer students are in school. His solution: allow 3 year-old toddlers to start school.

Poking fun at the screwy logic of this solution to an identifiable and well-known problem is easy to do. What’s harder is to figure out amid the never-ending flood of school reforms past and present, why some are adopted by districts but stayed mired in a protected corner of the system. And other adopted reforms spread to all schools in a district.

District officials are on the look out constantly for reforms that solve problems they face in school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. But these niche-based adopted programs (e.g., charters, Montessori schools, problem-based learning, competency-based learning, International Baccalaureate) persist over time, are admired in what they do–which is why districts embrace them–yet remain marginal to what other schools in the district do daily. It is puzzling.

Before offering my explanation for why this situation is common nationally, past and present, I want to take a crack at the common myth (neither my first nor last time) that schools never change or its companion fairy tale that schools mightily resist change.

Since the middle of 19th century, school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction have changed in response to external pressures to alter what is done daily. Here are a few examples:

*Shift from the rural one-room schoolhouses to urban age-graded grammar schools in the 19th and 20th centuries..

*Increased state and federal funding of schools beginning in the 20th century.

*From “old” to “new” curricula every decade or so.

*Dumping bolted-down desks and replacing them with movable ones by mid-20th century

*Less whole-group teaching and more small-group classwork and individualized instruction in elementary school classrooms beginning in early decades of 20th century.

*Moving from privately sponsored late-19th century kindergartens to publicly subsidized ones throughout 20th century.

*Establishing comprehensive junior and senior high schools in rural, urban and suburban districts by mid-20th century.

*Creating vocational schools and courses of studies by mid-20th century.

*Since the mid-20th century, adding new personnel to schools such as counselors, special education staff, teacher aides.

*From old technologies of showing films, running videos on classroom monitors, film strip projectors, slate blackboards to interactive white boards and personal computers. Since the early 1990s, nearly all students and teachers now have access to, and use of, laptops, tablets, and desktop computer in classrooms.

I could list many more but these examples should clearly establish that districts, schools, and classrooms have slowly and steadily adopted reforms aimed at improving governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction since tax-supported public schools came into existence. In each instance, external reformers in league with educators defined a problem that had to be solved in governing, funding, organizing, and determining content and pedagogy in schools. Their solutions were a particular set of reforms.

Myth that it is, for anyone in authority to claim today that schools seldom change or actively resist change in the current climate of frontal attacks on facts and truth can be called out for spreading disinformation. Whether these changes improved desired student outcomes is an entirely different (and important) question.

Although the generic accusation that schools do not change remains a convenient fairy tale for disgruntled reformers, I still have to explain why school systems past and present have adopted certain admired reforms that inhabit nooks and crannies of the district organization yet fail to spread to the rest of the system. The rest of the post offers a multi-part explanation for this puzzling phenomenon.


  1. School districts are complex, open, and adaptive systems that are politically vulnerable to external forces. Such systems adopt new ideas and practices to defuse criticism, maintain funding, and keep the organization politically stable with its stakeholders (e.g. parents, school staffs, district office administrators, school board, taxpayers and voters). See here, here, and here for more about complex, open systems .

Simply listing the stakeholders in a school district suggests the intertwined human relationships, the many moving parts in a school district, the necessity of system leaders to be politically astute, and the loose connections between what parents and school boards want and what teachers and students actually do in classrooms. The word “complexity” often hides the unpredictability inherent in the larger environment (e.g., natural disasters, changes in political and organizational leadership, economic recessions) and periodic external pressures for change as conditions change (e.g., World War II, competition with Soviet Union during Cold War) and one generation of educators and parents ages while another prepares to replace it.

Niche reforms do not spread easily in a complex system where leaders cope with frequent unpredictability, massage varied constituencies, and are uncertain about consequences of disturbing existing relationships among participants.

2. At least three conditions have to exist or be put into place for a district to adopt an innovation and then spread throughout the system. First, policymakers, administrators, or teachers define a problem they believe they have and adopt a solution that is consistent with prevailing norms. Second, there exists an active political coalition of those outside the system in support of the reform. Third, a system infrastructure to help both administrators and teachers implement the reform (e.g., district staff development, access to experts, released time, instructional materials available, district office support) is built and put into place.

Look at the above list of reforms that were once niche reforms and, in time, spread through districts. Educating five year-olds, for example, was a late-19th century solution to the problem of educating very young children in poor, immigrant neighborhoods who went unsupervised. As the economy grew and employers needed more workers during and after World War II, more women, including mothers, were hired. Child care then (and now) became a national imperative and kindergartens were added to the existing organization of the age-graded elementary school.

The kindergarten spread throughout public schools as a solution to societal problems. It was consistent with the norms of taking children from an early age and having students traverse the grades until they graduated. Moreover, kindergarten summoned enormous political support from policymakers, employers, many working fathers and mothers, and educators. And gradually, an infrastructure of college certification for early childhood practitioners, district staff development, and curriculum materials were put into place (see here and here).

3. Niche reforms reduce conflict over competing ideologies. The history of school reform has been an ongoing political struggle between rival views of how best to teach and how children best learn. A short-hand and distilled version of each ideological camp would be child-centered and subject-centered. The former have been labeled “progressives” for decades and the latter have been called “traditionalist” or “conservative.” Hybrids of both have also emerged over the years.

Today, instances of each ideology are on display in school systems. A subject-centered reform such as Advanced Placement courses went from a niche reform in middle- and upper-middle income high schools from the 1960s to the 1990s until it spread to largely low-income high schools over the past two decades. Advanced Placement courses coincided not only with teacher norms of sorting students by achievement but also merged with the majority beliefs of parents that schools must prepare students for college and career.

Now consider the progressive reform of problem-based learning pushed by many parents in elementary schools where students collaboratively work on projects that they defined and put together. To avoid system-wide conflict over limited resources going to a district-wide reform and side-stepping divisive splits among parents and teachers over whether this progressive approach is better than the traditional subject-centered one in general use across a district, school boards and superintendent adopt this child-centered reform and place it in particular schools where both teachers and parents supported this approach to teaching and learning. Conflict avoided.

Politically, then, school systems have the discretion to place a reform in a protected niche or kick-start its spread throughout the district. Although the struggle between these competing ways of seeing teaching and learning have been part of the history of schooling for over a century, the center of gravity in nearly all districts for these decades has been subject-centered or “traditional” schooling. Social beliefs of most Americans–but hardly all–has been the concept of a “real school.” A “real school” is an organization that vests authority in the teacher and principal, establishes policies for academic and student behavior, offers an age-graded curriculum, assigns work to students weekly, administers tests, and grades individual students’ work. Some historians describe such organizations as containing a “grammar of schooling.” Historians and policymakers recognize such age-graded schools with their “grammar of schooling” as the mainstream way of schooling children and youth for the past century.

So when parents and teachers approach district officials for a new program that has all the earmarks of a child-centered approach, the response of those officials is often to park it on the periphery of the district in a number of classrooms or a school or two.


So this tripartite explanation offers an answer to the puzzle of why some reforms do not get adopted and how some persistent and admired ones move into protected niches within the system but remain peripheral to the mainstream form of schooling. The explanation also shows how a few reforms eventually spread from their nooks to the entire system.

Comments appreciated.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired But Marginal (Part 1)

A head-scratching puzzle of school reform over the past century is the innovation that arrives in tinsel and enters tax-supported public schools. Often districts adopt such glittering new programs and they settle into protected niches. But, and here is the puzzle, praised and admired as they are, they cannot break out of that nook. They stick around at the edges of the system remaining isolated, failing to spread throughout the district.

Early 20th century Progressives had their Project Method and the Dalton Plan. Both were adopted in many public schools because they seemingly solved organizational, curricular, and instructional problems. And they had internal constituencies of teachers and administrators yet they remained on the periphery of school systems. They did not become standard practices across classrooms.

Mid-century curricular reformers had their New Math. Late-20th century insurgents rallied around Coalition of Essential Schools and Core Knowledge programs. And early 21st century reformers have their problem-based learning and International Baccalaureate programs still awaiting that magic moment when the “system” adopts the innovation district wide completely altering how teachers teach and students learn. All had supporters either inside or outside districts (or both) but failed to move from the margins to become regular programs across districts.

To many reformers, the difficulty of getting adopted into public schools appears to be the highest hurdle. It is not. School boards and superintendents adopt many new ideas and direct administrators to implement them as pilots or in particular classrooms.

The far larger hurdle is breaking out of the niche that the innovation occupies in the district. Out of 35 schools in a district, for example, a handful of teachers or one or two schools regularly use the innovation. Going district-wide remains a near impossible task.

Yet some organizational, instructional, and curricular innovations do break out of their niches and get adopted locally, state-wide, and even nationally. Consider the sponsoring of private kindergartens for poor children by middle-class women in the late-19th century and their steady growth in public schools to become established in nearly all elementary schools. Ditto for tax-supported pre-schools in the late-20th and early 21st centuries.

Or note the common classroom practice of grouping by performance and ability. Most early 20th century teachers taught the whole class as one whether there were 30 or 60 students. Beginning before World War I, however, Progressive teachers began to group students for reading. More and more elementary school teacher (far fewer secondary ones, however)) began dividing their students into groups for different activities. Such grouping practices spread to math and other elementary school subjects and has in time become established procedure.

Also early 20th century teachers had students memorize science passages in their textbooks and recite them to the teacher. The idea of students going outdoors to collect insects and life in streams slowly became part of the science curriculum during the 1920s and 1930s and such field trips are now embedded in the elementary and secondary school science curricula.

And since the mid-1990s, expanding access to computers–once relegated to a room with 30 devices in each school–now makes Internet-connected devices available to every single student.

So there have been successful scaling up of entry-level innovations to system-wide use. But these are the exceptions.

How, then, do I explain what appears to be a historical pattern of many adopted innovations occupying a niche in existing school systems yet they fail to spread throughout the larger system while other innovations slowly and steadily roll out to become incorporated across all public schools?

Disappointed promoters of their new programs blame teacher resistance or lack of expertise as the answer. Teachers are unprepared or inexpert in adopting new techniques and activities so they stick to ways that have worked for them day-in and day-out, ignoring the innovation.

Others point their fingers at principals and district office administrators who oppose the innovation on either ideological or financial grounds (or both). Sometimes, these administrators go further and point out the lack of research to justify system-wide adoption.

Then there are frustrated reformers who blame existing ways of governing and organizing public schools for the rejection of what appears to them as overwhelmingly successful programs. Rigid, bureaucratic rules block adopting innovations, they say. The century-old age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” that great-grandparents, grandparents, and existing moms and dads have experienced stand in the way of progress, that is, their innovation. To boosters of the new program, these established ways of governing and organizing schools are taken for granted. They have become accepted by both professionals and parents as how schools were. And, more important, should remain.

While such explanations are often bandied about, I believe they only scratch the surface of a complicated puzzle. I speak not of those simple cut-out 15 interlocking pieces that kindergarteners play with but I mean one of those 1000-piece jigsaws. So how do I unravel this continuing conundrum of persistent and admired innovations –many producing prized student outcomes–occupying protected spaces in the organization yet still remaining isolated from the rest of the system?

The following posts on particular innovations—charter schools and Montessori programs–offer different ways of viewing this puzzle that is so thoroughly embedded in the history of U.S. tax-supported public schools yet too often unnoticed–save for a few researchers. Those researchers also suggest ways that such programs can move from the periphery to the center of schooling.


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