Category Archives: Reforming schools

Remodeling the Age Graded School?

In July 2020, Eric Gordon head of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District released a report that would alter the 170 year-old institution called the age-graded school (see here and here). The 74 Million website summarized the report July 2, 2020. While there have been previous efforts to alter the age-graded school and such schools exist now (see here, here, and here), they have been largely confined to individual schools. Never a district especially a large urban one. For that reason I offer the proposal here. Because of the pandemic and mostly remote instruction, no implementation of the plan has yet occurred in CMSD.

A bold proposal in Cleveland could set the tone for how schools around the country could restart in the fall, one that takes into account students’ vastly different access to resources and remote learning during the pandemic and lets students learn at their own speed.

Cleveland schools would toss aside teaching many students in traditional grade levels this fall and dramatically expand the “mastery” learning plan it has tested for a few years.

Out would go the usual practice of students advancing a grade each year, an especially tricky issue to manage this year after schools shut down nationwide in March — to be replaced with a system of “grade bands” that combine students of a few ages and grade levels into the same classroom, school district CEO Eric Gordon told the school board Tuesday night.

“We’ve got opportunities here to really test, challenge and maybe abandon some of these time-bound structures of education that have never really conformed to what we know about good child development,” Gordon said.

Educators nationally are worried about the early school closures and how the chaotic shift to home learning will affect students, especially those from poor families. Most expect a “COVID slide” that magnifies the typical “summer slide” as student skills regress over summer vacation.

Many are debating extending the school year to have classes in person before break or returning early for “jump start” review sessions. Others look at intense online summer school.

In Cleveland, schools that use the system often keep K-8 students in the same grade band for a few years, instead of moving up a grade every year. Students then relearn and reinforce skills they need to succeed before advancing when individuals are ready to move on, sometimes mid-year.

At high schools, students in mastery schools can keep re-learning specific skills and receiving extra help until they know them well. As students learn, schools often avoid giving traditional A-F grades and rate students as “incomplete” or “developing” until they rate as proficient.

Gordon told the school board that by avoiding the normal grade levels, the district can help students catch up, learn what they need and not stigmatize students as failures by making some repeat grades.

He also said that his draft school reopening plan coming mid-June will offer the mastery system as an option for the community and individual families to consider, along with a few other choices described below.

As chair of the Council of the Great City Schools, the national association of big-city school districts, Gordon said other urban school superintendents around the country have told him they are using or are considering using mastery approaches. Some schools in New York City and some states are using the model, but more may take it up, he added.

For urban districts like Cleveland, which has the second-highest socioeconomic challenges of any big city in the country, according to Stanford researchers, students falling further behind is a real concern. The same researchers estimated that Cleveland students were two years’ worth of learning behind the national average, even before poor internet access put students at an even greater disadvantage when schools closed.

In his preview of the reopening plan to the board, Gordon suggested a few strategies for learning while keeping kids at safe distance. He said he will likely offer families a few choices for returning to school so they can pick what works for them.

“You’re going to see a menu that people can move through to adjust and meet their needs,” he said.

Among the possible strategies:

  • Having older students do much of their schoolwork online, while younger students come to class to work with teachers more often.
  • Having community groups that offer afterschool programs for students also work with some students during the day, while other students are in class with teachers. The different groups would then swap activities.
  • Having more year-round schools, on top of the nine district schools already using that calendar. Another 13 have extra days in their school year.
  • Schools could likely open later than their original Aug. 17 start date so that teachers have time to learn new learning systems and the pandemic has time to subside.

“Many of my peers tried to shut down early, in part because there’s a fatigue … and train teachers now,” he said. “My fear of trying to train teachers now is we haven’t built the plan.”

He also said he wants focus groups of students to review the draft plan and help craft the final version.

The district is polling parents and teachers about what has worked with the district’s emergency remote learning plan so far and what they want to see in the fall.

And the district’s plan is also subject to guidance from state health officials and the Ohio Department of Education, though Gordon has been part of discussions to set the state plan. Early drafts of the state plan also give districts wide flexibility to set their own approaches.

Gordon’s preview of Cleveland’s plan Tuesday centered on “mastery” or “competency” systems, coaxed by school board questions. It previously failed at two ninth-grade academies in Cleveland a few years ago, but it is an integral part of MC2 STEM High School, one of the district’s more popular choice high schools.

It is also at the core of the successful Intergenerational Schools charter chain in the city and the new private

The shift would take cooperation from the Cleveland Teachers Union, which is already familiar with the approach. It would take buy-in from parents, who won’t see their children promoted each year. That has sometimes been a source of conflict at the Intergenerational School when parents do not fully understand the model.

It also will need law changes from the state, which tests students annually based on their grade level and which gives districts lower grades on state report cards if students don’t graduate in four years. Gordon said the state focuses too much on days or hours of classes, not on whether students have learned material.

“We really see an opportunity that means an entirely new policy context at the state and national level that allows us the nimbleness to behave differently,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that CEO Gordon had proposed ending the practice of moving students up a grade every year, instead keeping them in the same band for a few years to relearn and reinforce skills before advancing. Gordon talked about using grade bands but did not specifically say how they would be carried out, though typically schools using mastery plans will keep students in grade bands for multiple years.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies, technology use

Top-Down Reform in Chinese Schools and Classroom Practices

While I do read a lot of articles and books on the history of Chinese education and once spent a month lecturing at Beijing universities in 1987, I am no expert on how children and youth are schooled in the People’s Republic of China. Nor is journalist Lenora Chu, who wrote about Chinese schooling from the perspective of a mother of a kindergartner, Rainey–see previous post— in grasping the complexities of the planet’s largest state system of schooling, an expert. But she surely collected more data than I ever had.

Chu’s family experienced seven years of Chinese primary school and she wrote engagingly of the intersection of state-driven curriculum, culture and classroom teaching. She reached for that elusive policy-to-practice continuum that marks every national system of schooling on the globe: from the PRC’s Ministry of Education policy mandates to Teachers Chen and Wang hovering over the 28 children in Rainey’s kindergarten. No easy task.

I had a glimpse of that policy-to-practice journey in my brief experience as a lecturer over three decades ago. I was there during Premier Deng Xiaoping years as leader of the nation (1978-1997) when he pressed forward in modernizing the country including education reform after Mao’s chaotic Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s (see here).

One of my graduate students, Min Weifang*, arranged an official government invitation to lecture for a month at Beijing Normal University. State-driven reform was in the air when I arrived in 1987. My hosts wanted me to talk about past and present U.S. school reform in both K-12 and higher education. I gave a half-dozen lectures, an equal number of seminars, and met with many professors and graduate students interested in U.S. schools. Beyond lecturing and seminar discussions, I traveled around the city on a bike that Min’s brother had lent to me. Luckily, I found some contacts in schools and had the chance to view primary and secondary classrooms accompanied by graduate students at Beijing Normal University who translated for me as we observed teachers teach.

In my journal I recorded descriptions of the Beijing secondary schools in which I watched English language, math, and Chinese history lessons. In every one of the lessons there were between 30-50 students sitting at desks arrayed in rows facing teachers and blackboards. They were taking notes and answering teacher questions often chorally and with gusto. While some variation in lessons occurred–more blackboard work in math than in history, for example– I guessed that both teachers and students, expecting a “foreign” visitor, were on their best behavior and wanted to show the guest stellar lessons. What I had seen meshed with my prior reading of Chinese teaching practices in the 1980s during the years Deng Xiaoping had engineered top-down reforms in both higher education and primary and secondary schools.

What struck me in reading Little Soldiers and Chu’s reports of classrooms she visited in urban and rural schools in the 2010s was the similarity in teaching practices, students’ obedience to teacher direction, and focus on individual conformity to group norms that I had seen three decades earlier. Keep in mind that the total number of classes observed were very small, mostly located in cities,and often housed in what the government called “model” schools.

The key word in the previous paragraph is “similarity.” I do not mean that there was no change in teaching practices. More informed observers of PRC classrooms could easily point out changes since the late-1980s in the state allotting resources, the growth of teacher expertise, introduction of new technologies, and expanded content in lessons. For example, the central government spent more per pupil in these years than in earlier decades, and there were major efforts to improve university teacher training (see here and here).

But those changes (e.g.,new textbooks, teaching aids, instructional materials, and technologies) are at the margins not at the core of teaching practice (e.g., whole group instruction, student adherence to group norms, much lecturing, lesson focus on better test performance).

While incremental changes had occurred over time, Chu’s experiences in a top-rated Shanghai kindergarten and later a primary school coupled to observations she made elsewhere in the country left me wondering about the impact of Ministry of Education reform-minded mandates in the 1990s to staunch criticism of traditional teaching practices within a system driven by high-stakes national tests. These directives sought to move teaching practices toward a child-centered schooling that prized creative work, critical thinking, student participation in lessons, and social-emotional skills.

Reforming Teaching Practices

The biggest problem for reform is that because so many teachers are so accustomed to their conventional thinking and models they have such strong gravitational pull toward habitual ways of behavior and thinking, therefore they have to negate themselves.…. Comment by a Shanghai municipal policymaker, 2000

Consider the student-centered directives from the Ministry of Education in 2011 for teaching the English Curriculum:

1) Orient teaching towards all students and pay attention to quality education

(2) Design the lesson’s goals integrally, with flexibility and openness

(3) Regard student learning as the main priority and respect individual differences

(4) Design activities that incorporate experiential and participatory learning

(5) Pay attention to the evaluation of the process, in order to boost students’ development

(6) Make full use of curricular resources and expand the channels for students to study and use the language.

To achieve such deep changes, the nation’s pool of teachers very uneven in acquiring education and credentials would have to be upgraded and trained in different approaches. Such efforts began under Deng Xiaoping and were carried forward in fits and starts under his successors. The location of such reforms in special teacher training institutions, universities, in provincial institutes or new organizations has led to fierce and continuing debates among state-led reformers and implementers of those desired changes. Those debates continue today.

Moreover, changing the curriculum, as American observers have noted time and again, is what top-down policymakers can do. But they cannot put directives into practice. Moving from policy directives altering state mandated curriculum to school principals urging teachers to put changes into practice and then for teachers to shift their habitual practices is a big leap that often falls flat in teachers’ lessons. For example to get students to participate more in classroom discussions (see 4 above), teachers received training to put these directives into practice. A follow-up survey of student responses in this province to these new practices led one student to write:

“…by the time we got to the fifth paragraph the teacher asked us about the scenery and objects that were described in the text. Because we said the wrong thing the teacher got very angry with us and we felt terrified. Ever since then when the teacher asks us questions none of us dare to answer. Even if we have thought of the right answer we will not dare to speak because we are afraid of saying something wrong and that we will once again be criticized…” Sixth grade student in Gansu, 2004

Admittedly, the data I and Chu present is fragmentary, unsystematic, and sharply limited. Few generalizations can be drawn with such tiny data sets. Yet–readers knew a “yet” was coming–such discrepancies between the official curriculum, what teachers teach, what students learn, and what is on tests is neither peculiar to Chinese or U.S. teachers. It is a global phenomenon. The policy-to-practice continuum, at the very least, is, like most other nation’s systems of schooling, a work-in-progress.

I am grateful to Lenora Chu’s book for raising this issue of the shortcomings of top-down reform in schools and the critical role that teachers play as policy gatekeepers in this constant, world-wide effort to alter how teachers teach.


*Min Weifang earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and returned to China where he became a professor of higher education at Peking University (Beida), served as executive vice-president of the institution, and Communist Party Secretary. Known as a higher education reformer, He often served on state commissions seeking to reform Chinese schools. (see here and here)


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

Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 3)

With Part 3, readers have now seen most of the draft Introduction to my next book. Comments welcomed. For those readers wanting citations, please contact me.

Perverse outcomes of school reforms

Consider the massive effort by civil rights reformers to desegregate schools between the 1960s and 1980s following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision (1954).

Where students went to school in the U.S. depended upon where families lived.  In most cities and suburbs neighborhood were segregated producing schools that were nearly all-white, Black or Latino. Activists used both direct action such as boycotts and marches and legal strategies to get urban and suburban districts to desegregate through busing, building schools that straddled city and county attendance boundaries, and taking school boards to federal court for maintaining segregated schools—strategies that civil rights reformers believed would bring minority and white children together to learn.

Nonetheless, each generation of reformers believed in their hearts that they could solve thorny social, political, and economic problems. They knew what had to be done and had the answers. Public schools, they held, were the chief, if not the sole, determiner of individual and national success.  Schooling was the great equalizer shaping the life journey that individual children and youth traveled. Mirroring the deeply embedded and traditional belief that American institutions can, indeed make people better, the school, like the church and family, was an instrument for not only reforming individuals and institutions but also curing societal ills such as illiteracy, poverty, and economic slowdowns.

Migration of white, Black, and Latino families moving in and out of urban residential areas where racial covenants and banking practices kept neighborhoods segregated, leading to re-segregated schools where mostly minority children enrolled—often coming from families in poverty.  Suburban schools often became white enclaves. The unintended effect of direct actions and court-driven desegregation decisions, then, was to speed up re-segregation of poor and minority students by the 1990s.  Few policymakers after the Brown decision (1954) anticipated the return of racial and ethnic separation of whites from African American and Latino school children.

Or consider that one of the intended effects in the 1980s and 1990s of raising state high school graduation requirements, strengthening curriculum standards, using tests to determine how well students achieved those standards, and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts responsible for student academic outcomes—all policies aimed at tying schools closer to the nation’s economy–would have dire effects upon U.S. schools and students. Recall that state and local reform-minded policymakers and political leaders cheered the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (2002-2015) containing many of these features because reformers believed that such policies would help students and forge tighter links between schools and the economy.

The documented record, however, is mixed as to whether those reforms, including NCLB, aimed at producing skilled graduates who could enter an information-driven workplace achieved the intended goals. Yes, high school graduation rates have risen. And, yes, percentage of high school graduates attending college has increased. But test score gains sufficient to close the achievement gap between minorities and whites had not improved. Nor is there much evidence that graduates were better prepared to enter the workplace than an earlier generation.  Furthermore, the promise that higher standards and accountability would alter historic inequalities between minorities and whites remained unfulfilled. Unemployment and wages for African Americans remained largely unequal and stagnant during economic growth and recessions.

Few reformers, for example, thought that NCLB with its mandated state tests and its required reporting of Adequate Yearly Progress in test scores would push state and local policymakers to manipulate student results. State officials fiddled with numbers setting the threshold for a passing score on its tests to avoid many schools being tagged as “failing.” Additionally, many districts across the nation pressed teachers to taper their lessons to fit what was on these state tests. Schools set aside school time to prepare students for end-of-year exams. These unintended outcomes became obvious within a few years of NCLB’s passage.

Even worse in the wake of NCLB, many urban and suburban districts found that their schools had failed to meet the law’s criteria for improvement. States published districts’ test scores and districts announced school-by-school scores identifying those schools that were in danger of closing if results didn’t improve.  Each year, shame and blame exponentially spread across the U.S. as more schools flunked NCLB requirements.  Local and state officials complained annually about the unfairness of such measures applied without acknowledging demographic differences in districts and schools. They lobbied their legislators to alter the federal law. The deluge of complaints and meager student outcomes led the U.S. Congress to dump NCLB and pass the Every Student Succeeds Act delegating the power to determine school success and failure to each state. President Barak Obama signed ESSA into law in 2015.  In effect, the 2002 reform was re-formed in 2015.

None of this, of course, is new. Policy researchers and historians are well aware of how hard it is to show unvarnished success of reform-driven policies over time in districts and schools. They are equally aware of how commonly unexpected outcomes accompany these very same policies. Nor is it new that these unanticipated outcomes seldom loosened decision-makers’ embrace of reform-driven policies simply because of the pervasive faith that Americans had in the power of schooling to uplift those who historically have done poorly in public schools—immigrants, rural migrants, and low-income children of color.

Rock-hard Faith in Schooling

Recall that industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie endowed the Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching in 1905 and funded the construction and maintenance of nearly 1700 free libraries across the country between 1883-1929.

Also President Lyndon Johnson had as the centerpiece of his “War on Poverty,” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) that provided billions of dollars to poor and minority children then called “disadvantaged.”

And it is precisely on this point of faith about the curative powers of schooling that one pillar of that belief has wobbled and remains contested in 2021 even amid the Covid-19 pandemic.  For many decades there has been an enduring struggle among educators, parents, policymakers, and public officials over how much students’ backgrounds shape school effects.

For true believers, schooling improves everyone regardless of family circumstances. Yet, (and this is a very big “yet”) much evidence has piled up over the past century that social class matters on who sails through age-graded schools and who stumbles along the way. Consider, for example, that the majority of urban districts in the U.S. now house mostly minority and poor children. More than half of African American children and six out of ten Hispanic children and youth attended schools in 2017 that were at least 75 percent minority.  Most of these schools are located in urban districts and historically segregated southern rural districts. Note further than in 2013 researchers found that over half of U.S students are poor.

Moreover, the research literature on children’s academic performance has shown time and again that anywhere from over half to two-thirds of minority and white students’ test scores—lower, middle, and upper class–can be attributed to family’s socioeconomic background.

Yet many educators in public traditional and charter schools in poor neighborhoods either ignore or dispute those research findings. They continue to operate on the principle that engaged and committed staff unaccepting of  “excuses” (e.g., low-income family, all minority enrollment, neighborhood crime) could lift students out of poverty through helping them become academic achievers, entering college, and securing well-paid jobs. Evidence of such outcomes is both available and rich.

The issue, then, for those policymakers, practitioners, and parents, then, is determining to what degree family background and ethnic/racial school demography affect student achievement. For those willing to seek answers to that has to digest a large body of evidence of schools graduating low-income minority students who enter higher education. Hovering over all of this point-counterpoint argument is another discomforting and inescapable fact:  Formal  schooling  occupies only a small portion of a child’s day.

Consider that children and youth attend public schools about 1100 hours a year for 13 years (or just under 15,000 hours.  That time represents less than 20 percent of a child’s and teenagers waking time for all of those years in school.  Hence, most of student’s time is spent outside of school in the family, neighborhood, religious settings, and workplace. Important as time spent in school is economically and socially in accumulating content and hard- and soft-skills, diplomas and degrees for jobs and careers, it is often given far more weight—recall the basic faith that Americans have in the power of schooling–than life lived outside of school in assessing not only how a child becomes an adult but also what kind of adult.

So two fundamental questions past generations of reformers in these three movements neglected, sometimes considered, but seldom wrestled with publicly are about the complex intersecting of individuals, schools, and society. These questions remain unanswered for contemporary crusaders:

*How much of a child’s academic success or failure in school is due to family background?

* Can schools, reflecting the larger society’s faith in perfecting individuals and institutions, not only alter the effects of family background but also reform society?

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Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 2)

It would be a grave mistake to think that American reformers only looked at schools as targets for change.

Reforming individual Americans to be better persons has been in the American blood stream since the Mayflower arrived. Ditto for reforming community institutions to be better places within which to live and work.  Perfecting individuals and community institutions while solving problems of urban slums, corrupt city governments, poverty, racial segregation, corporate over-reach, and anemic economic growth has been steady work for reformers. Time and again these reform movements reached far beyond schools. [i]

As predictable as climbing up a ladder to clean leaves from roof gutters every season, reforms have regularly swept across the nation. Since the early 1900s, three overlapping social, political, and economic movements have churned across the U.S. and left marks on government, business, and community institutions, including public schools: The Progressive movement (1900s-1950s), the Civil Rights Struggle (1950s-1970s), and Binding Schools to the Economy (1980s-present). [ii]

 Reform movements 

Each of these political and social movements sought multiple goals one of which included school reform.  Early 20th century Progressives sought to remedy municipal corruption, corporate exploitation of workers and consumers, and inefficient institutions including traditional, lockstep schooling.

Both Black and white civil rights advocates sought equal treatment for Blacks in every institution. They pressured federal and state governments to eliminate segregated hospitals, pools, motels, playing fields, and toilets. They demanded unencumbered voting rights. And they wanted urban and rural schooling equal to what white suburban parents received for their children.

And in the closing decades of the 20th century, business leaders, alarmed by an economy falling behind Germany and Japan, restructured their industries, outsourced labor, and lobbied state and federal legislators to deregulate industries and lower taxes. Corporate leaders, seeking profits and returns to their investors also pushed equal opportunity for minorities to achieve the American Dream. These business-minded reformers saw U.S. public schools creating human capital necessary for the nation to compete economically in an increasingly interconnected global marketplace. Higher graduation requirements, common curriculum standards, and accountability for student test scores were reform-driven policies for producing that all-important human capital.

Binding together these seemingly different reform movements coursing through the American bloodstream over the past century were common features.

*Reformers had a serene faith in better schools ridding society of individual and societal injustices including crime, discrimination, and economic inequities. They believed schooling could create successful individuals and render American institutions havens of democracy, sources of economic growth, and social justice.

*Reformers insisted that state and federal governments remedy political, social, and economic ills and be held accountable for the actions they take (or do not take).

*In pursuit of these multiple goals, reformer sought deep policy and practice changes in public schools yet they left untouched the existing age-graded school structure and its “grammar of schooling.” Thus, each generation of school reformers unknowingly ended up preserving, not altering the basic structures of primary and secondary schooling.

Without skipping a beat, each generation of policy elites and activist leaders sought major reforms in government through federal and state legislation including reconfiguring schools. And they succeeded to a degree. The rhetoric of school reform in each generation included a to-do list of past failures that had to be corrected (e.g., hidebound traditional curriculum and practices, inefficient, unproductive schools churning out unskilled graduates). Each generation’s talk and political action did alter some official policies and increased access to public schools but inflated rhetoric followed by downsized policies left intact fundamental structures (e.g., the age-graded school and the grammar of schooling).  And as each movement wound down, another cohort of school reformers shouting rhetoric, redefined problems, and pushed policies that the previous one had chased while leaving largely unaffected existing school structures.

And so, the last century of reform in America has been the story of these three political and social movements featuring feverish policy talk, limited policy actions, and erratic implementation spilling over public schools decade after decade. Beyond these reformers achieving a few of their intended goals in each era, what often goes unnoticed are some of the unintended—even perverse– effects of reform talk, adopted policies, and their uneven execution.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies

Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 1)

I have completed a draft of my next book called “Confessions of a School Reformer.” The first part of the Introduction to the book follows.

Just see wherever we peer into the first tiny springs of the national life, how this true panacea for all of the ills of the body politic bubbles forth—education, education, education.

                        Andrew Carnegie, 1886[i]

School houses do not teach themselves – piles of brick and mortar and machinery do not send out men. It is the trained, living human soul, cultivated and strengthened by long study and thought, that breathes the real breath of life into boys and girls and makes them human, whether they be black or white, Greek, Russian or American.

W.E.B. DuBois, 1903[ii]

At the desk where I sit in Washington, I have learned one great truth: The answer for all our national problems comes down to one single word: education

                        President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964[iii]

[E]ducation is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

                                    Sam Seaborn, West Wing, 2000, season 1, episode 18[iv]

According to industrialist Andrew Carnegie, scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois, President Lyndon Johnson, and a character in the award-winning television drama, West Wing, education ends poverty, leads to wealth, makes a person a full human being, and should be cherished.  

They were not the only ones to urge fellow citizens to grab the brass ring of education that circled on the American carousel. Mexican immigrant Celia who lives in a central Texas city tells an interviewer what she does for Daniel her 10 year-old son:

Up to now, that Daniel is in fourth grade, I’ll say all his teachers have been excellent teachers and I get along with them very well, I communicate. The first day of classes, and even before sometimes, I introduce myself, I ask them for their home phone number in case of an emergency, or in case the boy wants to lie and I have [to] doubt him, I ask them, I tell them, but it is not that I am bothering them. And teachers like to communicate, they ask for parents to go. For me, up to now, I don’t know if I will have a problem later, but up to now not, they ask for parents to go. When I can I am there for an hour, and I am there to read in Spanish. Or if they have something to do I help them, but . . . I like to work with them, but if I see that they are not good I tell them….[v]

My mother, Fanny Janofsky, immigrated from Kiev, then Czarist Russia, to America in 1910. My father, Morris Cuban, also from Kiev, arrived in New York in 1912. They met through family connections and married in 1919. They had three sons of whom I am the youngest.

Neither my father nor mother completed school in Russia. My father was a waiter, worked in delicatessens, and he and my mother had a small grocery store before he ended up as a jobber in Pittsburgh selling deli products from a paneled truck. He earned enough to house, feed, and clothe us for decades. Because my brothers were born in the 1920s, the Great Depression and World War II limited their schooling to getting high school diplomas. They eventually went into business together after 1945.

I was born in 1934 and since being a toddler, my mother drummed into me that since my brothers did not go beyond high school, I had to go to college to be a doctor or lawyer. I became neither. I did go to college working at different part-time jobs to pay tuition and have spending money while living at home. I  graduated and became a teacher. My mother’s message about getting an education was clear and constant.

As important as getting an education is to Presidents, corporate leaders, scholars, Celia, and my mother, the screen writer who put these words into Sam Seaborn’s  mouth: “I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet” captured the complexity of sussing out what direction schools should move and getting schools to go in that path. Generation after generation of American reformers over the past century believed in the power of tax-supported schools to enrich individuals and remedy national problems.  Some writers have characterized this faith in education as a secular religion that Americans worship. Because of this devotion to schooling as all-purpose solvent for parents, communities, and the nation, reformers again and again have tried to figure out, in Seaborn’s words:  “how to do it….” [vi]

[i] Andrew Carnegie, Triumphant Democracy (New York, Scribner’s Sons, 1886), p. 79.

[ii] W.E.B. Dubois, “The Talented Tenth” in Booker T.Washington, (Ed.)The Negro Problem, 1903 at:

[iii] Lyndon Johnson, “Remarks in Providence at the 200th Anniversary Convocation of Brown University, September 28, 1964,“ Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon Johnson, 1965, p. 1140.

[iv] Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter for Season 1, episode 18, has Presidential speechwriter Seaborn make this statement to an aide. See:

[v] Gustavo Carreon, et. al., “The Importance of Presence: Immigrant Parents’ School Engagement Experiences,” American Educational Research Journal, 2005, 42(3), pp. 465-493. Quote is on p. 476.

[vi] Henry Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 1865-1990 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991); Carl Bankston and Stephen Caldas, Public Education—America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Vouchers and Market-Driven Schools in Sweden (Sara Hjelm)

Sara Hjelm is a reader of this blog. She wrote to me about the state of Swedish schools a few weeks ago and her deeply-felt concerns about the reforms now occurring in her country. As a retired teacher she sees the blending of school choice and vouchers as a reform strategy that, in her opinion, harms the nation’s schools.

Usually, I do not publish descriptions and critiques of schools in other countries but I was taken by Hjelm’s voice as a teacher, her critique of choice and vouchers, and an advocate for better schools.

As a preface for readers unfamiliar with the state system of schooling in Sweden, I begin with a description of earlier Parliamentary reforms aimed at improving Swedish schools. Then I offer portions of what Sara Hjelm has written about these reforms. Hjelm gave me permission to use portions of her email.

Background of Swedish System

“Sweden adopted a nationwide universal voucher program in 1992 as part of a series of reforms designed to give more control over education to towns and schools. Families can choose any school, public or private. Taxpayer money follows the student. This voucher system has led to a burgeoning industry of mostly for-profit, private schools, also called ‘free schools.'” Two of the companies that run schools in Sweden are listed on the country’s stock exchange.”*

“In contrast to American private schools, “free schools” don’t charge tuition — they draw on government funds to operate — and are required to follow Sweden’s national curriculum. They’re more comparable to American charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. About 18 percent of Swedish students are enrolled in “free schools;” in comparison, charter schools enroll 6 percent of American students.

In 2000, Swedish students performed well-above average on an international test called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). By 2012, they were below average in math, reading and science. Sweden had the steepest decline of any participating country over that time period. (There were 65 participating countries that year.) In 2015, the scores rose to meet international averages, but Sweden’s performance remains far below what it once was. The drop has prompted a flurry of debate in the country about what led to the decline and whether the growth of “free schools” is to blame.

Critics of Sweden’s ‘free schools’ which are private point to the fact that public school students outperformed students at private schools (after controlling for socioeconomic status) as proof that ‘free schools’ contributed disproportionately to the lagging results. Others say that the declines can’t be blamed on ‘free schools’ – it’s impossible to parse out the impact of choice compared to other reforms made at the same time, such as decentralizing the education system. Some studies have found that outcomes for all students are better in areas with a greater number of ‘free schools,’ while other research suggests that the presence of ‘free schools’ has no positive long-term effects for students….

In theory, the market was supposed to act as its own accountability measure; competition would mean that low-quality schools would close, said Jonas Vlachos, an economics professor at the University of Stockholm who has studied ‘free schools.’

“The tension that you see is that if you’re very … laissez-faire about who can run a school, you will end up in a situation that you need more regulation,” Vlachos said, adding that Sweden largely trusts its schools to hold themselves accountable. “It’s glaringly obvious that you can’t really do it like this.” **

Sara Hjelm wrote the following:

Being retired after working as a teacher, school leader and administrator in the Swedish school system some 43 yrs altogether and dealing with every possible level of students and teaching during that time, I should be able to look back and reflect on past reforms and changes, but the dire current situation leaves me no real option to do so. The present school system and school policies in Sweden have reached a point where it feels like time is running out. The other night I sat down and wrote a text in English in sheer frustration….

In Sweden all child and adolescent education is paid for by tax money distributed by municipalities:

  • Granted place in kindergarten/daycare when the time for parent leave runs out
  • Compulsory schooling with a general state curriculum consists of a) preschool for 6 year olds, b) primary 7-9 and 10-13 with one class teacher for each level, c) 14-16 with subject teachers. 
  • Gymnasium/upper secondary, 3 years for 16-18 year olds, voluntary but in a way not since almost all attend. You choose a school and one of several upper secondary “programs”, preparing for university or giving vocational training, and the municipality or free school decides on what grounds to accept applicants. Here the free schools usually offer what is cheap to arrange, academic programs that don’t crave special rooms or equipment or vocational training where most of it can be completed as an apprentice. The municipalities have to offer all programs according to demand, in collaboration regionally or by themselves in larger cities.

Hjelm criticizes private firms running schools.

The huge private for profit school companies exist on all these levels, competing for student vouchers. Largest part is in the upper secondary where more than 30% of students today attend such a free school. By cherry-picking “easy” students through aggressive marketing to parents (we offer good behavior, academic excellence, high grades, etc.) they attract students that are more or less self going and enable a profit for shareholders or owner consortiums by keeping wages low, having large groups, substituting some teaching for on-line learning, employing teachers from abroad on short term contracts and more hours of teaching, etc. 

As a result real student achievements and school climate are mediocre, about the same as in municipal schools and with a considerable grade inflation to that according to PISA and national tests. Students from municipal upper secondary schools have a slightly lower grade point average than students from free upper secondary schools, but still generally show higher performance and less dropouts during the first year of higher education.

There are also plenty of examples of parents told that their child does not really fit in, that the support needed is not available and they should seek a more suitable school. With a queue system for admission on compulsory level, where you can put your baby in line at birth, they keep all groups filled. And being private businesses they only have to share whatever follow up data they choose due to international business and stock market legislation of secrecy. If a school is not as profitable as expected it can simply close down with short notice or apply for bankruptcy when as much monetary resources as possible have been moved somewhere else in the organization. Stranded students are the municipality’s responsibility. The risk is minimal. At least for now.

The state level answers with rules and attempts to control, resulting in growing administration and accountability that in the end is up to individual schools, their heads and teachers, with endless data drops and documentation to keep their backs free when inspected and avoid fines from the inspectorate – which is also a backward way to handle people struggling and certainly does not help. But, this is all a monetary system, not so much about students’ learning…..

The municipalities and their school heads must cater for all and are left with empty desks here and there and a larger part of students in need of help and support, hence the growing segregation and diminishing equity – an impossible equation for those who have to deal with it. But if politicians choose to give their struggling schools more resources they have to pay the free schools the municipality’s higher average money per student retrospectively according to the present legislation that says equality of resources.

To avoid extra costs and higher taxes politicians usually don’t add resources. Instead they cut resources in every possible way, naming it introduction of more effective or efficient management and practice, giving smaller parts back for development activities to look good, but still in the end minus some percentages of resources every year. And now, after 25 years, there is simply not more to take….

I think it’s important that people abroad should know that these actors are now searching for investments abroad, buying schools in Spain, kindergartens in Germany and Netherlands, etc. Wherever loopholes in regulating legislation can be found. And they have all the strategies tried out. 

But profit is what venture capital funds are for … so no surprise.


*Tino Sanandaji, Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm, “Sweden Has an Educational Crisis, But It Wasn’t Caused by School Choice” 2014.

**Sarah Butrymowicz, The Hechinger Report“Is Sweden Proof That School Choice Doesn’t Improve Education?,” Februrary 28, 2018.


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Whatever Happened To the Edison Schools?

Beginning in the 1980s, researchers, policymakers, and business leaders identified what they called “good” or “effective” schools where mostly minority and poor children attended.. These “good” schools scored high on standardized tests, graduated high percentages of their students, with most getting admitted to college. These policymakers and school leaders wanted to replicate the “good” schools they identified so that more low-income minority children could attend across the country. The charter school movement that began in the mid-1990s continued to focus on poor and minority children and youth.Many ardent entrepreneurial reformers founded clusters of schools such as KIPP, Aspire, and dozens of other non-profit organizations.

One such leader was businessman Chris Whittle who started a bevy of for-profit schools across the country a quarter-century ago called the Edison schools (named after the inventor, Thomas Alva Edison).

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 2000: Christopher Whittle, president of Edison Schools, the company that wants to take over the running of five struggling city schools, talks about his organization’s program. (Photo by Robert Rosamilio/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

When and How Did Edison Schools Begin and Grow?

Serial entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of Channel 1–a for-profit venture in public schools created the Edison Project in 1992. He and his partners believed that they could get students to learn more and better than regular public school spending the same amount of money per-student and, at the same time, return a tidy profit to investors. At its largest in 2003, Edison Schools operated 133 schools enrolling 80,000 students across the U.S. In 2008, the company changed its name to Edison Learning. (see here and here)

What Problems Did the Edison Schools Seek To Solve?

First problem to be solved was the abysmal performance of largely minority and poor children in urban public schools. Whittle believed that he and others could redesign these low-performing schools to achieve higher academic achievement as measured by standardized tests. Whittle’s chain of Edison schools in big cities, he and his investors believed, would out-perform regular schools.

The second problem was upending mainstream businesses thinking that there were no profits to be made in taking over public schools and operating them as if these were private schools. Whittle believed that he could operate such schools for less money than spent by district school boards and thereby wring a profit for himself and investors out of receiving state funds per student.

How Were Edison Schools Organized and Operated?

Because most of the public schools were located in low-income and minority neighborhoods, there was great variation. Some became charter schools; others districts contracted out to Whittle to run low-performing ones. The typical Edison school had an hour-longer school day, a longer school year (200 rather than the typical 180 days), fewer teachers, and a rich curriculum with much use of technology (students received personal computers).

According to a RAND evaluation report:

Edison schools are organized by grouping 2 or 3 grade levels into academies. Within the academies, the students are organized into multigrade houses of 100-180 students. The students in each house are largely taught by the same team of teachers throughout the time they are in that academy.Edison Schools Inc. has a curriculum that includes reading, math, history/social studies, science, writing, and world language as the core subjects, with classes in character and ethics, physical fitness and health, music, dance, visual art, drama, and practical arts and skills offered at various levels. Four methodological approaches to instruction are reportedly used in the classrooms: project-based learning, direct instruction, cooperative learning, and differentiated learning.

Moreover, as a 1999 article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, in these schools:

Edison tracks student achievement and school performance to a degree unprecedented in public education. Every student’s progress in basic subjects is measured monthly, and the results are delivered to the company’s headquarters. Edison surveys parent, teacher and student satisfaction in every school annually. Edison principals are awarded performance-based bonuses of up to about 20% of their salaries. And the company swiftly fires principals and teachers who don’t perform.

Did Edison Schools Work?

As one comes to expect in answering this question on effectiveness as judged by the dominant outcome for schools since the 1980s, i.e., test scores, the answer depends upon when it is asked and how and what kind of evaluations were done. One observer noted in 1999:

In a handful of scientific studies comparing Edison students’ classroom performance over several years against that of students with similar backgrounds, Edison students have registered greater gains. And on the 300 or so state and national tests students have taken in different Edison schools, their passing rates have risen or their scores have ratcheted up faster than expected about 75% of the time. Student attendance is generally high in Edison’s schools, and dropout rates are low.

What Happened to Edison Schools?

The answer, in part, has to do with Whittle’s aspiration to create hundreds of redesigned schools for which he needed investors. As the chain of schools expanded and reports were glowing, Whittle sought and received more venture capital. Edison Inc. was the first for-profit school-management company to be traded on a stock exchange. They got contracts from urban school districts (e.g., Wichita, KN; Philadelphia, PA, Ravenswood, CA) to  use their model of a “good” school to convert failing schools into “good” ones in other districts  but stumbled into one political difficulty after another  with unions, parents, and administrators (see here and here). Their stock had reached a high of $40 a share in 2001 and then, as problems piled up, dipped to 14 cents later in the same year.

Dissatisfied with Edison, some districts began canceling contracts for financial, political, and managerial reasons. By 2005,  there were still 153 schools for over 65,000 students but the company was already dumping their school management business and had turned to  securing contracts to  provide tutorial services financed by No Child Left Behind and other services districts wanted such as recovering dropouts. By then, Whittle had found private lenders who aided him in converting the publicly traded company back into a private one.

Where Are The Edison Schools Today?

From their heyday in the early years of the century, when there nearly 150 schools, the private for-profit schools–renamed Edison Learning– no longer exist except for two credit recovery schools in Ohio and six alternative schools in Florida.

And Chris Whittle? The entrepreneurial salesman opened a new private school in Washington, D.C. in 2019.

It’s opening day at the Whittle School and Studios, a brand-new pre-K-through-12 private school in Northwest Washington founded by Chris Whittle… Four years in the making, the school and its 185 enrollees represent the first phase of a global institution that Whittle plans to expand over the next decade into more than 30 campuses worldwide, serving more than 2,000 students each, with 150 to 180 in each grade….



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How Beliefs in School Reform Evolve Over Time

School reform is steady work. As a teacher, administrator, superintendent, and university researcher for over six decades in working to reform classrooms, schools, and districts, it should come as no surprise to readers that what I thought about reform in the mid-1950s as a teacher, what I believed school reform was when I ran a district in the 1970s and 1980s, and how I conceptualize reform today as a retired professor has changed. Looking back at my strongly held beliefs on reforming schools then and how, I can see how they have morphed into quite different views about school reform.

There may be wisdom in this “confession” about evolving beliefs about school reform. And even if some readers were to think so, I am well aware that wisdom cannot be told to others because reflecting on one’s direct experience more often than not trumps others’ advice. So I offer these reflections on how one educator’s beliefs about reform changed over time to get readers to ponder what their beliefs once were and are now about teaching, learning, and, yes, of course–reforming schools.

Changes in reform beliefs over time is surely common especially as educators accumulate different experiences. What may be uncommon is to document those changes and then reflect on those changes in beliefs.

And that is what I have done in the final chapter of my next book. What I present below is a draft–not a final version so I am open to comments–of a section of the chapter that describes how my beliefs about school reform have evolved over time.

I begin by returning to my first job teaching history at Cleveland’s Glenville High School between 1956-1963. What I discovered about reforming both teaching and the classroom curriculum convinced me then that engaged teachers creating lessons with multi-ethnic and racial content tailored to student interests could get Black students to participate and learn in de facto segregated city schools. That belief in sharp, committed teachers wielding relevant content and skills getting students to not only engage but also learn I carried to the District of Columbia’s Cardozo High School to train new and committed teachers to teach in similar ways. 

Turns out I was only partially correct. I came to see after being a teacher in Cleveland for seven years and then a teacher and administrator for another nine years in D.C. that my view of reform was blinkered, even myopic. I had not even imagined that classroom and school reform was a political process.

 In moving from the granular classroom at Glenville to the school at Cardozo and then the district office of the D.C. schools, my view of reform expanded to encompass the politics of getting something to happen at a school or in a district. Mobilizing resources and people to focus on a particular idea or program took bureaucratic moxie and forging relationships with like-minded people inside and outside schools. I began to see different units or sites for reform—classroom and school—nested within one another and that both had to be altered in order for reforms to have the most effect in classrooms.

And that view further enlarged when I administered a district-wide staff development program from my office in the Presidential Building in D.C. My experiences within a large bureaucracy with budgetary ties to the D.C. government and links to the U.S. Congress forced me to see how relationships, resources, and reform were intimately bound together. I came to a broader view that the Washington public schools were nested within the federal bureaucracy comprising an even larger political system in need of change for schools and classrooms to get better. The intersecting of various systems became clear to me in ways that I had not known as a teacher at Glenville High School.

The second confession comes from my years as Arlington County superintendent.

I entered that post saturated with experiences in Washington, D.C. classrooms and central office and filled with ideas learned at Stanford about organizations and how they worked.  Experiences with racial divides and political infighting at administrative headquarters in the D.C. system echoed in my mind.

In Arlington, I presented myself to the community and teachers as someone who prized the art and science of classroom teaching. These ideas, echoes, and presentation ran smack up against serious political problems over a largely white district shrinking in enrollment while becoming increasingly minority and fearing a loss in academic quality. The fact is that even after my experiences in the D.C. bureaucracy, taking courses at Stanford in politics of education, I was inexperienced, even naïve, about the political role I played as superintendent.

Chapter 6 described how the Arlington County School Board and I in our first few years amid constant political conflicts over closing schools reframed problems in ways that would restore community faith in its schools. A key part was tightening up organizational links between what happened in classrooms, schools, and the district to students’ academic outcomes. My staff and I developed a management mechanism that applied to all principals and district administrators called the Annual School Plan. And here is where I come to my next confession.

The Annual School Plans were successful in concentrating the entire staff’s attention on students’ performance so that within three years I began to see organizational, curricular, and instructional changes that I believed could lead to a mindless conformity, ultimately producing a system geared to cranking out high test scores and operating with less imagination and creativity.  And that worried me because I was very proud of the high level of teacher competence and creativity across Arlington classrooms.  While I did not dial back the push for higher test scores to meet local and state standards–the political climate looked for the numbers to rise–my concerns over growing uniformity grew.  I regret that I could not articulate the peril of mindless standardization.

And yet there was even a larger picture that I slowly became aware of as I reflected on the intersection between classroom, school, district systems and the larger society.  As a researcher at Stanford, I went into many California districts and came to grasp better how the politics of state and federally driven school reforms did and did not translate into district and school programs. I came to realize that a district system was itself nested within larger socioeconomic, political, and caste-like structures (e.g., market-driven society focused on individual action, economic inequalities, racist structures) all of which hemmed in what superintendents, principals, teachers and students could do in improving classroom, school, and district performance. I realized that social and political coalitions (i.e., civil rights movement) struggled to change those societal structures and in some instances made incremental improvements. This larger picture of public schools nested in America’s economic, political, and cultural milieu occasioned pessimism about school reform but in the end, tempered optimism over what needed to be changed and what can be done.

Writing in 2020, all of this seems self-evident.  But it wasn’t to me in 1956 when I began teaching. What I have described is the growing awareness of school reform as a political process and the complexity of schools as I moved from teacher and administrator to researcher—the journey of a toddler, so to speak, to an adult. I was not stupid, just innocent and unaware of how difficult it was to grasp the inter-connectedness of politics, relationships, resources, and systems. I had to pull together my experiences in schools and think about them time and again.

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Will Pandemic Changes in Schooling Be Temporary or Permanent?

“As Customers Move on Line, Shopping Is Forever Changed,” a New York Times article announced. For the holiday season, Macy’s department stores in a few states have closed their doors to in-person shopping and become fulfillment centers for online shoppers.

Jeff Gennette, Macy’s chief executive, said the dark stores are part of an experiment as the company responds to customers buying more online and demanding ever-faster shipping for free. But the conversion of a department store into a fulfillment center, even temporarily, reflects how retailers are succumbing to the dominance of e-commerce and scrambling to salvage increasingly irrelevant physical shopping space.

The U.S. continues in the throes of a three-decade school reform movement in which business and civic leaders have pressed schools to be more efficient in operations and more effective in raising test scores, high school graduation rates, and college admissions–the “bottom line” for tax-supported public schooling in the U.S. Will brick-and-mortar schools succumb to online instruction as the major form of schooling as Macy’s and other department stores shift to online shopping?

I don’t think so.

Let’s count the changes that have occurred in organization, curriculum, instruction, and calendar since Covid-19 struck public schools in March 2020.

Apart from changing calendar dates for starting and ending public schools and daily schedules of school hours, the nearly 100,000 age-graded elementary and secondary school across the country in 13,000-plus districts have not altered their graduation requirements, district or departmental organizations, or assigning one teacher to each class. The age-graded school remains intact.

Nor have I noted any changes in curriculum other than minor adaptations to remote instruction. A jiggle here or there, perhaps, but not much else.

But surely instruction has changed as a consequence of the pandemic. About two-thirds of school districts in the U.S. use hybrid models of combining in-person and online instruction. The remaining districts, especially in big cities, rely on remote instruction. In August, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 93 percent of students are on some form of distance learning.

Moreover, recent surge in infections have closed down districts which have re-opened schools for face-to-face instruction, including New York City the largest in the nation. While the situation remains fluid, there is no question that online instruction has moved front-and-center in interactions between the nation’s 56 million students and their 3.5 million teachers. The shutdown of schools threw educators for a loop in shifting from in-person to distance instruction. No one I know–even the most ardent cheerleader for online instruction–wanted nearly all U.S. students to work at home staring at screens during spring time through the Xmas holidays.

So until a vaccine becomes available sometime in 2021 and schools fully reopen, is online instruction a temporary or permanent change in instruction?

My record in predicting future events or patterns is so-so. But for the near-term future, i.e., next five years, better than average. So I venture a guess: online instruction will become another option for schools and individual teachers to use now that it has been the prime deliverer of content and skills during the pandemic. “Option” is the key word because tax-supported public schools are expected to do a whole lot more that transmit information and develop skills in the next generation.

Public schools permit parents to work. Public schools socialize the young to accept prevailing community norms and values. Public schools provide food and child-care before, during, and after regular hours. Public schools issue credentials for further education and careers. In short, public schools are a vital institution within a capitalist democratic system.

Apart from that, I have yet to detect any groundswell of reform talk about altering the familiar school organization, Common Core Curriculum, and existing accountability measures already in place. While the U.S. Secretary of Education postponed the federally-required state standardized tests for spring of 2020 and has called on Congress to delay these tests until 2022, I have to hear of or read about any coalition of reformers offering concrete policies that can reduce the stark differences in funding and staffing schools in urban and suburban districts that have become, in a word, re-segregated.

So my guess is that remote instruction in sharply reduced fashion will remain in public schools as the default option for administrators and teachers to use when students cannot attend school.


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Does the Pandemic Help Us Make Education More Equitable? (Pasi Sahlberg)

“Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator who has worked as a schoolteacher, teacher-educator, researcher, and policy advisor in Finland and has studied education systems and advised education leaders around the world..”

I have excerpted Sahlberg’s description of how Finland’s and Australia’s schools responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. For readers who wish to see the entire article, it appeared in Educational Research for Policy and Practice online October 31, 2020.

Australia and Finland, the two homes of mine at the moment, are not just geographically as

distant from each other than possible, but they are also very different societies with distinct

histories, traditions, values and cultures. Australia is sunny and hot. Finland is,many believe,

snowy and cool. The Australians prefer things big and fast. The Finns think small is beautiful.

In other words, Australia is fire, Finland is ice. These cultural distinctions make education

in these two countries and how each react to external shocks such as the current pandemic,

very different from each other. Here is how.

Most school facilities were closed for majority of primary and secondary school students in

Finland starting March 18 until May 14 this year due to the government’s measures to prevent

the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early childhood and care centres (kindergartens)

remained open and children of essential workers and those with severe special educational

needs in first three grades of primary schools had an opportunity to attend school if parents so

preferred. During the remote learning phase, one-third of children were in kindergartens and

less than 10 per cent of all basic school (grades 1 to 9) students went to school as usual. Since

education governance in Finland is decentralised and 310 local authorities run and, to a large

extent, also fund the schools, these authorities were responsible for the practical execution of

the transition from face-to-face teaching in schools to remote distance learning mode from

homes. After the remote learning period in mid-May was over almost 90 per cent of school

children returned to school and more than half of children in early childhood education and

care were back for the last two weeks of May before their summer holidays.

The speed and scale of disruption came as a surprise to Finnish schools as it did to

others around the world. Before March some schools had prepared emergency strategies for

minor situations, but no one was prepared to such a massive external crisis as the COVID-19

pandemic. However, Finnish schools had two particular positive features on their side in

shifting literally overnight from contact teaching at school to remote learning from home.

First, according to the Finnish National Agency for Education (2020), three quarters of

Finnish schoolteachers at the time of the (partial) school closures had digital teaching and

learning facilities available in their schools. Vast majority of teachers were also familiar with

using these facilities in teaching, although the confidence to do that well varied from school

to school.

Second, the National Core Curricula that is the foundation for schools’ own curriculum

planning have emphasised self-directed learning through projects and real-life problemsolving

that have made many students familiar with independent study and self-assessing

their own learning (Sahlberg 2021). Again, there are differences from school to school in

how successful this practice has been. Teachers have been mostly concerned about those

children who require more direct support in their learning that has been not so easy to

arrange through virtual arrangements.

Early research findings shed light on how children, teachers and parents or guardians

have experienced interrupted schooling in Finland. A large national study that is currently

underway by the Universities of Helsinki and Tampere is exploring how remote teaching

and learning in Finnish schools went from principals’, teachers’, parents’ and children’s

perspectives (Ahtiainen et al. 2020). The first findings in this study confirm the anecdotal

evidence gained during April and May, as well as trends found in other surveys. According

to about half of 860 principals and little less than half of over 5000 teachers who took

part in this study, students with special educational needs were not receiving appropriate

support from teachers and schools during the remote learning period, compared with normal

times previously. Approximately a quarter of students (N _ 56,000) and over 40 per cent of

parents (N _ 36,000) believed that they received less support from their school while they

were learning from home, than what they would have received in school previously. About

one in five lower secondary school students said that they had difficulties with technology or

internet connectivity, and the same proportion of students confessed they stayed up too late

every night with digital gadgets or social media.

A closer look at how students have experienced the school closures reveals an important

finding. Whereas authorities and other adults are afraid that children will stop learning or

that there will be losses in their lifetime earnings, not all children seem to think like this. In

Finland, for example, over 60 per cent of 10- to 16-year-old students said that they enjoyed

learning remotely most of the time and that most of them learned at least the same “amount”

or even more compared to what they thought they had learned at school (Ahtiainen et al.

2020). If these tens of thousands of students are right, then perhaps we need to rethink what

we mean by learning and how it should be measured and recognised at school.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Australian education systems in different ways.

School buildings were closed for varying periods of time after the first school term break

in April. Remote learning arrangements lasted from one week in Northern Territory and

South Australia, to nine weeks in Victoria (that has the second interruption of schooling

at the moment of writing). School education in Australia is, in general, more centralised

and governed by common standards compared to Finnish education system. Teaching and

learning are influenced by frequent standardised tests (such as NAPLAN) and school-leaving

examinations that often narrow the role of teachers and students, when it comes to the

assessment of student learning. Not surprisingly, one prominent discourse in the media and

among many parents has been the question of how the negative impact of remote learning

on students’ test score and examination results could be mitigated. Various “catching up”

measures have been suggested to do that, especially for disadvantaged students who are

thought to lose the most in these measurements.

Compared to Finland, Australia’s education system as a whole has two interrelated features

that makes it more fragile to sudden external shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic. First,

one-third of students in Australia attend non-government schools that are independently

governed and often better resourced than many government schools. Vast majority of at-risk

students attend government schools. Second, inequality is more prevalent inAustralian school

system compared to Finland and many other OECD countries. For example, performance

gap between the highest and lowest deciles in OECD’s PISA 2018 survey was significantly

wider in Australia (OECD 2019). Furthermore, disadvantaged students are often concentrated

into disadvantaged public schools that is harmful for equitable outcomes at the level of the

education system.

Early results of a large national survey of 10,000 teachers in Australia reveal similar but

also different reactions in schools to disrupted teaching and learning, compared with what

has been reported in Finland (Wilson et al. 2020). Similar to Finland, four of five teachers

were worried about their students with special educational needs. Just about a quarter of

teachers thought they were confident that students were learning well under remote learning

arrangements and just over 40 per cent were confident that themajority of their students were

positively engaged with online learning. Only one-third of Australian teachers felt satisfied

with assessment during remote learning compared to 95 per cent of teachers in Finland who

said they were able to assess students’ learning when they were learning from home.

The Grattan Institute in Australia concluded that the most disadvantaged students suffered

themost during school closures (Sonnemann and Goss 2020). “Disadvantaged students often

have a home environment that is not conducive to learning and get less help from parents

compared to their advantaged peers” (p. 9), according to their report on the impacts of

COVID-19 on school education. Poorer internet access, fewer digital devices and lack of

quiet place to study at home were often the common factors in disadvantaged homes.

The culture of schools in Australia is much more about conformity where schools often

are compliant rather than creative in responding to sudden changes in their environments.

National assessment programme for literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) in primary and sec-

ondary schools serves as a yardstick to compare schools’ performance with one another. But

it also amplifies the existing educational inequities when parents who can afford to pay for

education can choose the school with higher NAPLAN scores (and often more affluent student

socio-economic make-up) for their children. Interestingly, when NAPLAN tests were

cancelled this year due to school closures, some parents were concerned about how they would know what

their children have learned at school. Most teachers, however, according to Wilson et al. (2020), were more

worried about students’ health and well-being. Uncertainty of the future of national assessments in Australia

raises questions of whether schools should focus on “catching up” to be prepared for the next year’s tests, or

care more about children’s well-being and health during the pandemic, even though their learning progress

may be affected….


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