Category Archives: Reforming schools

Downsizing School Reform after the Pandemic

The silence is deafening. Perhaps other observers have noted calls for major school reforms, I have not. The pandemic’s closure of public schools in March 2020 and the partial re-opening of schools in fall 2020 and full return to face-to-face instruction in winter 2021 have grabbed mainstream and social media attention. Especially for the rapid expansion of remote instruction and the Zoom marathon that all of us are running.

No reform agenda, however, have I seen for bettering the nation’s public schools. I have yet to detect any groundswell for altering the familiar school organization, Common Core Curriculum, and existing accountability measures already in place. There is much reform talk, of course:

Consider the words from a recent report of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights of the disparate effects of the pandemic on white and minority students:

[W]e have a rare moment as a country to take stock and to begin the hard work of building our schools back better and stronger—with the resolve necessary to ensure that our nation’s schools are defined not by disparities but by equity and opportunity for all students.

Or the head of a major administrators’ professional organization:

“There are a lot of positives that will happen because we’ve been forced into this uncomfortable situation,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents association. “The reality is that this is going to change education forever.”

Talk is one thing, however, action another. Reform-driven policies have notably been absent from most of the 13,000 school districts spread across 50 states and territories during and after the pandemic, particularly when it comes to repairing inequities prior to and during the Covid-19 crisis.

Consider state and national testing. During the pandemic, the then U.S. Secretary of Education postponed the federally-required National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) until 2022. The current administration has called for standardized tests to be administered in the fall of 2021.

Apart from temporary suspension of nation and state tests, I have yet 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. Progressive educators and their allies have surely called for such changes before, during, and after the pandemic’s closing of schools, but beyond exhortations, I have not noted an emerging coalition of school reformers at either the state and federal levels not only endorsing but also funding such efforts.

In fact, as Republicans have taken over most state legislatures–they now control 62 percent of them–, the appetite for funding schools and igniting school reform have shrunk considerably. Although conservative state legislators have called for more teaching of patriotism and less teaching about race, keeping schools as they are remains strong.

Progressive rhetoric for reducing inequalities in funding districts, ending disproportionate assignment of inexperienced teachers to high poverty, largely minority schools, and increasing “ambitious” teaching remains high in mainstream and social media but has yet to lead to substantial adoption of such policies, and most important their implementation in schools and classrooms.

Of course, lack of concrete reform-driven policies and their implementation does not mean that reforms begun prior to the pandemic and then put on hold have disappeared. Those reforms seeking the expansion of remote instruction have gained ground with the sudden switch from face-to-face to screens in March 2020. While surely distance learning now has a secure niche in a school district’s kit-bag of “solutions” to emergency closures, becoming more than an option for parents to choose is, well, doubtful (see here and here).

Remote instruction, then, is, by default, the coercive reform du jour. Yet frequent reports of test score decline and loss of academic skills especially among minority and poor students during the pandemic have yet to push the “pause” button on distance instruction as a choice for parents to have should they reject face-to-face instruction in school classrooms (see here and here).

With the spread of remote instruction as a school reform, what has thus far emerged from the pandemic emergency are not big-ticket, comprehensive overhaul of public schools aimed at reducing inequities among American children and youth but a shrunken version of what the past 18 months have offered.

And that is why I titled this post: Downsizing School Reform after the Pandemic.

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Rubik’s Cube and School Reform

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

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

Like the Rubik’s Cube, there are many moving parts to altering what teachers do in their classrooms such as school structures, culture, and interactions (many of which can not be predicted) between and among adults and children, and life outside of school. These moving parts have to work in sync in order for students to benefit. When it occurs, it is a beauty to behold. But most of the time the moving parts do not mesh.

Why?

Because reformers believe that reforming a school is a matter of providing the right incentives to motivate children and adults, laying out clear and measurable objectives, planning the tasks to be done step-by-step, executing those tasks efficiently, measuring results, evaluating the outcomes, and correcting errors. Then repeat the cycle. But reforming a school goes beyond clever design, putting the right people in the right slots, efficient execution of tasks, and measuring results. There are no algorithms for “good” high schools. Which is why reformers get stumped by the complexity of altering a school and what teachers do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Do all of the above efficiently within available resources.

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

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

Is high school school reform easy as a Rubik’s Cube? Hardly. Wannabe reformers  believe there are algorithms that lead to success. There are none.

___________

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

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Why Our Many Big Plans to Raise Educational Standards Will Never Work (Jay Mathews)

Jay Mathews is a veteran journalist for The Washington Post who has covered education for more than three decades. He has written books on Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles high school math teacher and KIPP charter schools. This article appeared in the Post April 17, 2021.

As one of our most celebrated education reforms — the Common Core State Standards — sinks into oblivion, will we finally give up on big-time top-down plans to save our schools?

I bet we won’t. We can’t help ourselves, even with convincing proof from an intriguing new book that any further outsized attempts to raise achievement with better standards will fail, as all the others have.You can feel the exasperation in every word as Tom Loveless, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, sums up his main conclusion in “Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding the Failure of Common Core.”

“The idea of standards-based reform should be abandoned. It doesn’t work,” he wrote.

Those of us who put our faith in bottom-up reforms, with individual teachers raising standards for each child, can find some hope here. “It could be that standards that take place organically — essentially, that evolve between parent and child in the home or between teacher and student in the classroom — produce good outcomes, but standards that occur through exogenous force or pressure — in this case policy-induced expectations — have no effect,” Loveless wrote.

Loveless taught elementary school for nine years near Sacramento before getting a doctorate and exploring the education system’s upper reaches. He has become one of our deepest and clearest scholars, a fine writer happy to buck trends. This book offers not only the truth about standards reform but is also one of the best short histories of American education I have ever read.

Loveless’s early uncertainty about Common Core led to interesting late Friday conversations over beers with friends who were passionate supporters, he wrote. He noted many smart people shared the belief of then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan that Common Core was “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education.”

A decade later, Loveless wrote, “scant evidence exists that Common Core produced any significant benefit.” Tens of billions of dollars were spent. Yet studies describe only “small effects, ranging from about plus or minus one-tenth of a standard deviation — or three or four points” on one of the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

Conservatives fought the plan in 40 states and the District because it replaced local initiatives. Progressives opposed it because it put so much emphasis on tests.

At the beginning, Common Core won widespread support in polls of teachers and parents. But it gradually became clear they did not realize how much it would complicate classroom routines and homework.

Of course, it would have to be implemented correctly, its many supporters said. However, few appreciated how vital and difficult that would be. “Saying that standards depend on implementation is a bit like saying skydivers’ enjoyment of the day depends on their parachutes opening,” Loveless wrote.

Common Core requirements such as “close reading of texts” sounded good until they were explained. A New York state teaching guide cited by Loveless said close reading meant students should first read the Gettysburg Address cold, with no background to prepare them. That approach forced them “to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students.” That was at odds with much research showing that the more background students had, the more they understood. It also implied that school was a track meet and not a learning experience.

The selling of Common Core included two little white lies. Supporters insisted that it “was not a curriculum — a choice that would be left to state and local officials — and that it did not dictate instructional strategies, a decision left to teachers,” Loveless wrote. But if learning standards “are truly a change from the status quo,” he wrote, “they cannot be achieved without fundamentally changing K-12 curriculum and instruction.”

Studies show that teachers often wrongly interpret new instructions or standards as close to what they are already doing. “The system has too many layers — state, district, schools, classrooms — to guarantee smooth organizational transmission,” Loveless wrote.

He said if we shelve standards-based reform forever, educators may instead experiment with reforms that can be adjusted for different teachers and different students. We can develop different and better testing systems.

Loveless takes a speculative journey at the end. What if, he asked, all that money spent on Common Core had been devoted to “discovering new, more powerful ways of teaching and creating new, more effective curricula?”

“Fractions are like a gigantic wall that kids hit in fourth, fifth and sixth grades; some crawl over, but many do not,” he wrote. What if that Common Core money had instead funded “dozens of experiments to discover new curricular materials and new ways of teaching fractions, field tested new programs in randomized trials, and then disseminated the findings broadly?”

Makes sense to me. Too much sense. Will we ever support a plan as modest as getting our kids safely through fractions? That doesn’t sound like us, particularly with our schools in such a mess because of the pandemic.

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The Complexity of Daily Principal Decision-making

Just as the classroom teacher is in charge of the students but wholly dependent upon them to respond, interact, and learn, so too are principals dependent upon their teachers to adhere to district policies, create classrooms where students absorb lessons, and collaborate with peers and school staff. After all there is only one principal (maybe an assistant if enrollment is large enough) and there are, depending on school size anywhere from 10 to 30 teachers in elementary schools and up to 100 in larger secondary ones.The principal is a manager, the staff’s instructional leader, and politician in dealing with student rancor, parental disaffection, teacher squabbles, and district office directives.

An earlier post dealt with teacher decision-to make the simple–actually not so simple–point that teachers engage in daily decision-making before, during, and after a lesson. That engagement is a complex process that spans monitoring the classroom teaching of content and skills, managing behaviors of individual and group of students, and frequent improvising as the unexpected pops up–inevitably, I might add–during lessons.

Although the content of lessons in science or math, or English, or French or U.S. history differ, they have in common a massive inventory of decisions that effortlessly get made as each lesson is taught. Teachers, then, make hundreds, if not more, instructional and managerial decisions each day they teach. And that’s not counting what decisions teachers make when they interact with students before and after school, make contacts with parents on email, phones, or social media in and out of school. Of course, teachers interact with their principals as well. And many of those interactions involve decisions about students, parents, and other teachers.

Now, consider the complexity of a principal’s daily decision-making. Researchers shadowing principals is rare but it has occurred (see here and here). Principals keeping logs of their daily work and sharing those logs with researchers occasionally appear in the literature (see here and here). But studies that actually count decisions that an elementary or secondary principal makes daily, I have yet to find. So I have had to settle for descriptions of a principal’s typical day or examples of daily logs principals have kept to give the flavor of the rapid-fire decision-making that does occur.

Here is one example of a day-in-the-life of one principal. Jessica Johnson is Principal of Dodgeland Elementary School in Wisconsin. This day-in-the-life appeared on her blog April 26, 2009.

I am guilty of having thought as a teacher and even as an assistant principal, “What is the principal doing all day? Why hasn’t he/she done x, y or z yet?” Well, now that I’m the principal, I take back all of the thoughts I had back then, because you can just never understand what the principal does all day until you live it!

There are so many things that could happen in a day that couldn’t even be shared with staff, because: A) I don’t want to set the tone of the school by complaining B) Some information has to be filtered by me or it would just give teachers more to stress over C) There’s a lot of confidential information contained within a principal’s day. So, I want to write a list of all the crazy things that could happen on any given day.

Monday morning arrive to work at 6:30 am. Turn on the computer and start looking at my list of things to accomplish today (includes 7:35/3:05  Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, teacher observation, teacher meeting, parent conference, call McDonald’s for additional donations of ice cream coupons for student of the month awards, write monthly principal newsletter, finalize summer school course packets, sort through the junk mail still piled up from last week-because I didn’t get to it over the weekend, complete purchase requisitions, file pink copies of all purchases for budgeting, get into classrooms).

7:00 receive call from sub-caller, write down list of teachers out today—we ran out of subs so I have to figure out coverage for one of the first grade teachers. Write a note for the secretary regarding this, tell her I’ll be to the class at 8:00, but for her to keep looking for coverage.
7:05 Try to start on paperwork, but a teacher comes in to tell about a phone call she received from a parent after school on Friday regarding a bus incident—record the information to investigate.
7:10 Try to start on paperwork, but get a call from a teacher that our online student information system (for attendance and grades) is down again. Put in a call to tech director to get it fixed…send out an email to all staff that the problem should be fixed soon *hopefully*.

7:20 Parents are here for the IEP meeting…show them to the conference room to wait….no chance of getting paperwork done now. Go to get IEP information for the meeting and see the voicemail light flashing again…check it and hear that a teacher got stuck in traffic and won’t make it in time…go tell the secretary and then run back to the IEP meeting.

7:35-8:00 IEP meeting…this one went well. Now I have to run to cover that class.

8:00-8:30 Teaching a lower grade level, no lesson plans (note to self-remind teachers to get emergency sub plans/folders ready) making it up as I go.

8:30 Call from the office that one of our Emotional/Behavioral Disability (EBD) students needs to be removed from the room—an aide is coming to cover the class instead.

8:35-9:15 Remove EBD student—severe physical aggression, I’m sure I’ll have some bruises from this one—not to mention the mess the conference room is in now (we don’t have a time-out room). I’ve had my glasses broken before, so glad that didn’t happen this time. He/she finally is calm/compliant and I escort the child back to class…
Fortunately another substitute was able to come in and cover that other class now. Thank goodness, I can get to my list…
Check my voicemail—1 teacher call with a question about the new report card, 1 teacher call requesting me to come speak with her about a student, 1 parent call angry about a bus incident, another angry parent upset with a teacher.

9:20 put the sign on my door that says “I’m out in classrooms to see what students are learning” and get to each of the teachers that left me voice messages. Make a move to classrooms for walk throughs—first one has guided reading groups and centers with 1st grade kids reading amazingly well! Start to enter the 2nd classroom of the day when I’m called for on the school loud speaker (I don’t carry my walkie-talkie when I’m going into classrooms and my secretaries know only to call for me in an emergency). Hurry back to the office to find that one of our special needs children ran off from the aide (he/she has never done this before!) I make a special all-call to the staff to let them know we’re looking for ______ and then several of us split up to search….10 minutes later we find her/him in an unattended office in the dark pretending to type on a computer. Whew!

10:00-10:30 Morning Recess-I don’t end up making it out there for all 30 minutes, because I get stopped by 3 different teachers on my way out. (Question about grades deadline, information shared about a student and another technology question)

10:30-11:15 Back out to classrooms. Get into 4 of them (with a note to myself on needing to meet with a teacher for classroom management concerns)

11:15-11:45 Meet with the 4 students that had bus conduct reports. 1 has had enough to be suspended from the bus…make the phone call home and get yelled at by the parent that they can’t pick them up. I’ll spare the rest of the details. Meet with 2 other students that have “earned” after school detention for continuously disruptive classroom behavior.

11:45 Head for the fridge to grab my sandwich for lunch, but get called to a classroom for another EBD student. Fortunately, this child is calmed down much easier than the one this morning.

12:00-1:00 Lunch room duty—grab a slim fast to drink on the way. No, I’m not dieting, but I keep them in the fridge for days like today when there is no time to eat. I sometimes refer to my hour-long lunch duty as migraine hour (because it’s always loud), but I secretly enjoy this hour. Our kids sit at round tables and actually get the chance to talk with their peers. I’ve seen schools where the kids have to eat silently, but I think that’s just mean. I enjoy the chance to walk around to each table and chat with the kids. If I’m not walking around (using proximity) they do try to get away with things (however, they know that if I catch them throw any food they then have lunch room clean up duty!)

1:00 Talk to a couple teachers about student behaviors in the lunch room as they pick up classes (friend issues)

1:05 Get back to the office and secretary tells me that a parent has tried calling several times and is very angry. Go back to my office and check my voice messages—there are 6 of them (not all from the one parent)! I have a classroom observation at 1:30, so I write them all down and just call back the angry one–this parent calls daily, so I’m used to it…I’d like to tell this parent to get a job so he/she has something to do each day, but I refrain from expressing that opinion! The parent again tells me they’re going to call the school board to complain…I’m not worried, because I know that what we’re doing on the school end is the right thing and I’ve already talked to a couple school board members about this parent. Note to any potential administrators reading this—be prepared for threats such as, “I’ve got a lawyer on retainer,” “I’m going to call your superintendent,” “I’m going to report this to the school board” and “I’m going to report you to the state department of education.” If you’re doing your job right, you have nothing to worry about. I now just give them the phone number and am usually able to add, “I’ve already spoken with the superintendent regarding this issue.” I don’t like surprises or hiding things from my superintendent or the school board, so I keep those lines of communication open.

1:30-2:15 Classroom Observation: I love doing formal classroom observations, because you get to see so much more than just in walk-throughs (of the teacher,

instruction and the students). I do think I’m getting carpal tunnel, because I’m so insistent on scripting everything—gives me good information when I’m writing up the evaluation and when I meet with the teacher.

2:15 bathroom break—I seriously think this was my first one today—I’m dying!

2:20 Check with my secretary-2 more phone calls passed through to my phone—nothing major though, so I’ll check them later. Try to tidy up my desk before parent meeting at 2:30. Since I am on the run so much and hardly in my office, I have several piles on my desk. I don’t have a great system yet for organizing yet, but I know where everything is. I once had a principal that said “If you’re desk is a mess, it’s because you’re doing your job well—you’re out in classrooms and not sitting at your desk.” I’ve worked for a principal that was adamant about keeping the desk clean, but I still agree with the previous one!

2:30 Meeting with parent: she wants to request a specific teacher for next year. This is something on my list that I haven’t gotten to yet—working on the class list procedures and a letter to parents explaining why we can’t honor specific teacher requests. I explain it to her and tell her about the letter that will be coming home in a month and ask her to think about her child’s learning styles/needs and not just the teacher that the older sibling had. This isn’t how the previous principal did things, so she’s a little annoyed, but agreed to it. (Note to self—get moving on writing that letter and meeting with staff about class lists)

2:50 Pop into grade level meeting (teachers have grade-level collaboration time

2:40-3:30 on 2 week rotation. Aides cover the class 2:40-3:00 to give them someadditional time). I’d like to sit in on these meetings for the full time to help facilitate discussions on student learning, but it hasn’t happened all year.

3:00 Walk the halls quickly as students are being dismissed. I have a particular student that I walk to the bus each day and remind him/her about how to be safe on the bus.

3:05 IEP meeting…this one goes on forever. Parents are not on the same page as everyone at school. Gets quite heated and I have to do quite a bit of mediation. At 5:00 I finally say that we will have to come back at a later date to finish (No, IEP meetings do not normally last this long!!)

5:05 Back to my office…finish checking voice messages and start calling a few back (had to prioritize which ones can wait until tomorrow). Now to my list from this morning—hadn’t touched any of them! Write my principal newsletter because it was due last Friday. Check my mailbox and add it to the stack of mail from last week (never knew how much mail the principal gets—good grief!) Pull out time sheets, absence sheets, and purchase requisitions because those are time sensitive, but leave the rest. It’s 5:45 now and my husband has called three times asking when I’ll be home. I grab some files to shove in my bag, along with my flash drive so I can type up the teacher evaluation at home).


6:00 Finally home—didn’t have a bad day, but still feel like I got run over by a semi. I’d love to just lay on the couch and crash, but have to make supper, clean, play with my son. After he’s in bed I type up that teacher eval (most of it) until I’m too exhausted and go to bed at 11:45.

I must say that the kids are the easiest part of this position. I can’t even get into detail on some of the difficult conversations with parents and teachers each day that get my stomach churning (and I mean that literally…but now I am on meds for the ulcer, so I’m doing better with that!)

******************************************************************************

Johnson spends a great deal of her time managing tasks that are both on-going and unexpected. She is in and out of classrooms also and in short bursts of time sees parents, children, and teachers again and again over the course of one day. How typical is her day-in-the-life of a principal compared to one in a middle school or high school? I cannot say.

What I can state clearly is that Johnson blends three core roles any principal, be they elementary or secondary school site leaders, must perform: instructional, managerial, and political. Most principals focus on the managerial but they must also act as the instructional leader and deal with parents and district administrators to buffer the school from external conflict. As one would expect, principals vary in their choices of which of these roles they perform in their schools.

Thus, Johnson represents one type of principal who mixes these roles in her particular fashion. Other principals mix and match to create different blends. However principals perform their roles, it is clear that they, like teachers, make numerous, frequent, and are decision-makers every day of the school year.

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The History of the Future of Education (Audrey Watters)

From Audrey Watters’s self-description:

I am an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.

“It’s a long story,” I often say. You can catch snippets of it, if you pay attention. I’ve got a CV if you care about such formalities. And I wrote an FAQ if that helps.

I love science fiction, tattoos, and, some days, computer technologies. I loathe mushy foods and romantic comedies. I’m not ashamed to admit I like ABBA and dislike Tolkien. I am somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve not finished Ulysses, and I’ve never even started Infinite Jest. I prefer cake to pie, unless we’re talking pastry projectiles. I pick fights on the Internet. I’m a high school dropout and a PhD dropout. I have a Master’s degree in Folklore and was once considered the academic expert on political pie-throwing. I was (I am?) a widow. I’m a mom. I have a hard stare that I like to imagine is much like Paddington Bear’s and a smirk much like the Cheshire Cat’s. I am not afraid.

I travel as much as I possibly can. “Home,” at least according to my driver’s license, is Seattle, Washington.

My essays have appeared in multiple places, but mostly I write on my blog Hack Education. I’ve published four collections of my public talks, The Monsters of Education Technology (2014), The Revenge of the Monsters of Education Technology (2015), The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology (2016), and The Monsters of Education Technology 4, as well as a book arguing that students should control their digital identities and digital work, Claim Your Domain. I’m in the middle of writing my next book, Teaching Machines, which will be published by MIT Press.

I was a recipient of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University School of Journalism for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Watters’ post on the future of education was a talk delivered at Ryerson University. The post appeared February 19, 2015

It’s a refrain throughout my work: we are suffering from an amnesia of sorts, whereby we seem to have forgotten much of the history of technology. As such, we now tell these stories about the past, present, and future whereby all innovations emerge from Silicon Valley, all innovations are recent innovations, and there is no force for change other than entrepreneurial genius and/or the inevitability of “disruptive innovation.”

This amnesia seeps from technology into education and education technology. The rich and fascinating past of education is forgotten and erased in an attempt to tell a story about the future of education that emphasizes products not processes, the private not the public, “skills” not inquiry. The future of education technology therefore is the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities because the history of education technology has always been the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities. Or so the story goes.

I’ve been working on a book for a while now called Teaching Machines that explores the history of education technology in the twentieth century. And this year I’ve started a series on my blog, Hack Education, that also documents some of this lost or forgotten history. (I’ve looked at the origins of multiple choice tests and multiple choice testing machines, the parallels between the “Draw Me” ads and for-profit correspondence schools of the 1920s and today’s MOOCs, and the development of one of my personal favorite pieces of ed-tech, the Speak & Spell.) See, I’m exhausted by the claims by the latest batch of Silicon Valley ed-tech entrepreneurs and their investors that ed-tech is “new” and that education — I’m quoting from the New York Times here — “is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology.” Again, this is a powerful and purposeful re-telling and revising of history designed to shape the direction of the future.

Of course, these revisionist narratives shouldn’t really surprise us. We always tell stories of our past in order to situate ourselves in the present and guide ourselves into the future. But that means these stories about education and education technology — past, present, future — really matter.

I’m particularly interested in “the history of the future of education,” or as what Matt Novak calls his blog, the “paleofuture.” How have we imagined the future of teaching and learning in the past? What can we learn by looking at the history of predictions about the future, in our case about the future of education? Whose imagination, what ideologies do these futures reflect? How do these fantasies shape the facts, the future?

This is perhaps one of the most cited examples of the “paleofuture” of education technology.

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This 1910 print is by the French artist Villemard and was part of a series “En l’an 2000” (“In the Year 2000”) from around the World’s Fair and the new century that was packaged in cigar and cigarette boxes. Here we see the teacher stuffing textbooks — L’Histoire de France — into a machine, where the knowledge is ostensibly ground up and delivered electronically into the heads of students. Arguably this image is so frequently cited because it confirms some of our beliefs and suspicions (our worst suspicions) about the future of education: that it’s destined to become mechanized, automated and that it’s designed based on a belief that knowledge — educational content — is something to be delivered. Students’ heads are something to be filled.

The other prints in this series are pretty revealing as well.

I’m fond of the flying firefighters.

In these images, we see the future imagined as humans conquering the sky and the sea, as more and more labor is done by machine.

It’s worth noting that quite often (but not always) the labor we imagine being replaced by machine is the labor that society does not value highly. It’s menial labor. It’s emotional labor. The barber. The housekeeper. The farm girl. So it’s interesting, don’t you think, when we see these pictures and predictions that suggest that more and more teaching will be done by machine. Do we value the labor of teaching? And also: do we value the labor of learning?

Thomas Edison famously predicted in 1913 that “Books will soon be obsolete in schools” – but not because books were to be ground up by a knowledge mill. Rather, Edison believed that one of the technological inventions he was involved with and invested in – the motion picture – would displace both textbooks and teachers alike.

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks,” Edison asserted in 1922. “I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.”

100% efficiency. Efficiency. What does that even mean? Because unexamined, this prediction, this goal for education has become an undercurrent of so many predictions about the future of teaching and learning as enhanced by technology. Efficiency.

It gets to the heart of that Villemard print too: this question of how we get the knowledge of the book or the instructor into all students’ brains as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The future: cheaper and faster. More mechanized. More technological.

This is the history of education technology throughout the twentieth century. It is the history of the future of education.

Radio. Radio Books. Lectures via television (This image is from 1935). Professor as transmitter. Students as receivers.

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“The Push-Button School of Tomorrow”(from 1958):

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From Popular Science in 1961, a prediction that by 1965, half of all students will use teaching machines.

The Autotutor or “Automated Schoolmarm” (from the 1964 World’s Fair):

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Also from 1964, the Answer Machine:

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From a 1981 book School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow):

“If we look further into the future, there could be no schools and no teachers. Schoolwork may not exist. Instead you will have to do homework, for you will learn everything at home using your home video computer. You’ll learn a wide range of subjects quickly and at a time of day to suit you. … The computer won’t seem like a machine. It will talk to you just like a human teacher, and also show you pictures to help you learn. You’ll talk back, and you’ll be able to draw your own pictures on the computer screen with a light pen. This kind of homework of the future will be more like playing an electronic game than studying with books. …Eventually, studying a particular subject will be like having the finest experts in the world teaching you. Far in the future, if computers develop beyond humans in intelligence, then the experts could in fact be computers, and not human beings at all!”

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1981. 2015. A very similar fantasy of the future.

I didn’t have this book growing up, but my brother had something similar: The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog, published in 1982. We spent hours pouring over its pages, imagining what our “whole future” would entail. Flying cars and moon colonies.

Education is, quite arguably, caught in a difficult position when it comes to these sorts of predictions about the future – and it’s a position that makes education seem intransigent. See, education is – almost necessarily as we have the system constructed today – trapped by being both backwards-facing and forwards-facing. That is, education institutions are tasks with introducing students to domains of knowledge – all of which have history, a past – all the while are tasked too with preparing students for the future – a future in which, according to some stories at least, knowledge is still unknown and undiscovered. As such, there is this inevitable panic and an inevitable tension about education, knowledge, conservation, and innovation.

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This image from 1982 was part of a series about the future of computers commissioned by Alan Kay when he went to work for Atari. Here we see some of the earliest visions from Silicon Valley of the personal computer in the classroom. The future of education here is technological. It is branded. It is game-based. There are still desks in rows and clusters. And students still rebel.

When we look back at all these predictions from the past about the future of education – the history of the future of ed-tech– the point (my point) isn’t that our education systems are reluctant to change. My point is not that schools have failed to fulfill the sci fi imagination. Indeed, I’d argue that schools have changed a lot over the last hundred years thanks to the law, not to technology: mandates for desegregation for example that would not have come from “code.” My point is that the imagination about the future is so very intertwined in our notions of the past and the present. And if we let Silicon Valley, for example, erase the history of education technology, if we allow Silicon Valley to dictate the present terms for education technology, then we are stuck with its future, its corporate, libertarian vision. The same could be said, of course, of the imaginations of other powerful institutions: Hollywood’s vision of the future, Hanna Barbera’s, Harvard’s.

All the visions of the future of education, the future of teaching, the future of work, the future of learning are ideological. They are also political. As we hear the visions of politicians and entrepreneurs, as we listen to the visions of the rest of today’s speakers, we need to remember that. Predictions about the future are not neutral. They are not objective. They are invested. Invested in a past and a present and a future. Invested in a certain view of what learning looks like now, what it has looked like before and what – thanks to whatever happens in the future – what it might look like going forward.

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Teachers I Respect and Admire–Roberta Rabinoff Kaplan

I met Roberta Rabinoff in 1964 after she returned from serving in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English in a rural school. She entered the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, a federally funded program located in a nearly all-Black high school taught by a largely Black staff in Washngton, D.C..

The program sought to attract smart, committed college graduates–Rabinoff was valedictorian of her graduating class at Denver University–to train them to develop curriculum materials, new ways of teaching, and to work in the community after school. She and other interns taught two classes of English a day, met afterwards with a master teacher of English and also took Howard University seminars after school to earn a Master’s degree by the end of the school year. After a year, they met all the certification requirements to teach in the Washington, D.C. Schools.

My job in the program was to supervise four history interns, also Returned Peace corps Volunteers, who taught two classes a day, as I did. Rabinoff and I often discussed how the 11th grade American Literature course she taught and the U.S. History course I taught overlapped so we decided to teach jointly an American Studies course for one semester. We taught about the American Revolution incorporating fiction, poetry, oratory of the day with the events typically studied on the run-up to the split from Great Britain, the eight year war with the mother country, and establishing a new government.

Up to that point in my career–I had taught seven years in a Cleveland high school–I had never teamed with another teacher. I found the experience a lot of hard work, learned how to collaborate, and found that our tandem teaching engaged the class in ways that I had not anticipated or seen before. Team teaching was an experience that whetted my appetite for more of it and did so both later in both high school and university classes.

Journalist Dana Goldstein interviewed Rabinoff–now married to Jack Kaplan–about her experiences in the program. According to Goldstein:

The Cardozo Project received federal funding, which meant the interns had their own mimeograph machine and other school supplies veterans often lacked. Interns were young, inexperienced, and mostly white, while Cardozo’s veterans were generally middle-aged and black. Some of the biggest clashes were over the curriculum. In the Peace Corps, Roberta Kaplan had taught African American literature at a private school in Sierra Leone. But when she tried to bring some of the same material to Cardozo, including Black Boy, Invisible Man, and the poems of Langston Hughes, she heard pushback from long-standing members of the English department, who saw a young white teacher assigning black students a second-rate reading list-these works were not yet highly regarded. “They wanted to make sure the kids were exposed to the same classic literature white kids were,” Kaplan told me, works like My Antonia, Willa Cather’s novel about white pioneers in Nebraska. “Even To Kill a Mockingbird was not considered a classic then!”

Rabinoff decided to stay on as a fulltime English teacher at Cardozo and did so for nine years also sponsoring the annual yearbook called the Purple Wave.

Background and Career

Roberta grew up in Denver. She was valedictorian of her South High School graduating class in 1954. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver, graduating valedictorian and also voted Outstanding Woman of her class. She volunteered for the Peace Corps’s first group of volunteers serving two years in Sierra Leone 1962-1964. After working as a reporter for a Honolulu newspaper, she entered the Cardozo Project, became a certified teacher, and stayed at the high school for nearly a decade where she also served as yearbook advisor.

After Cardozo, she freelanced writing and editing for various organizations in the D.C.

Kaplan remained active in Returned Peace Corps activities. One of her former secondary school students in Sierra Leone, Ibrahim Conteh, had become Deputy Chief of Mission for the Sierra Leone Embassy and when he came to D.C., for a Peace Corps event, he asked the staff to locate his English teacher, Roberta Rabinoff. Their reunion marked the first time they had seen each other since Rabinoff’s tour of duty 47 years ago. “I bow to you. I am very grateful. God bless you,” said Conteh as he introduced his former teacher to the audience.”

As the formal ceremonies gave way to informal conversation, Conteh and Rabinoff-Kaplan returned to their days together at the Magburaka Government Secondary School for Boys in theTonkolili District of Sierra Leone. She received updates on the lives of many school officials and students. Conteh recalled when his teacher read out loud one of his particularly good essays and how “the class went wild!” Rabinoff-Kaplan said “it was a most amazing coincidence that he would remember my name and that I would be in DC.”

Teacher and writer

Rabinoff-Kaplan was a teacher I respected and admired. She loved literature and communicated that passion to her students over the years. She listened to what students said and developed close relationships with those students who saw writing fiction or non-fiction as a way of expressing deep emotions. She drew out students rather than poured in content. Her work as yearbook adviser drew her closer to seniors who she had two or three times in English classes. And they responded with both affection and continued contact after they completed college and entered careers. Her love of literature continued as our life paths diverged. Whenever I came to D.C., I had dinner with her and her husband often regaling each other with Cardozo stories. The fact is I miss her since she died over a year ago.

__________

Sources:

My journal for years 1963-1967

Washington post obituary at:

Western Montana RPCV News, June 2010, p. 4 at: http://wmrpcv.com/uploads/3/4/2/0/34200782/610news.pdf

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Teachers I Respect and Admire–Carmen Wilkinson

I was stunned when I walked into the classroom of Carmen Wilkinson at Jamestown Elementary School in 1975 (all names are actual people and places). In my first year as Arlington (VA) school superintendent, I had already seen hundreds of elementary classrooms. This was the only one I had seen that had mixed ages (grades 1 through 4) and learning stations in which 50 students spent most of the day working independently and moving freely about the room; they worked in small groups and individually while Wilkinson–a 27-year veteran of teaching–moved about the room asking and answering question, giving advice, and listening to students. Called “The Palace” by parents, children, and staff, the class used two adjacent rooms. Wilkinson teamed with another teacher and, at the time, two student teachers. She orchestrated scores of tasks in a quiet, low-key fashion. Wilkinson’s informal classroom was unusual at Jamestown–I did discover a few more in other schools–in the 500 other elementary classrooms in the Arlington public schools.

Wilkinson began teaching in Arlington in 1950 and came to Jamestown in 1957. She taught first through third grades. She was one of the first teachers in the County schools to try and then embrace “open classrooms” in the late-1960s. Parents vied to get their children into “The Palace.” Local colleges sent their student teachers to Wilkinson where she trained them in the different ways to construct and run an “open classroom.” Her know-how and commitment to this type of teaching and learning garnered her many requests to lead workshops and seminars both in out of the district. In 1987, Wilkinson was named Teacher of the Year in Arlington.

While I wish I had my smart phone in 1975 to take photos, sadly I have no snapshots of “The Palace.” So here are a few photos of “open classrooms” that exist today that remind me of what I saw decades ago in Wilkinson’s room.

As a superintendent, I was delighted to see Wilkinson’s “open classroom” not only because it was uncommon in the district’s elementary schools but also for making three points which I believed strongly in before I served as superintendent and continue to believe now.

First, in listening to Wilkinson after the lesson and subsequent visits, it was clear that she deeply believed in building and strengthening students’ decision-making skills and giving them choices in what and when to learn, all within a framework of the district’s curriculum standards for content and skills in the primary grades.

Some readers may ask: “I wonder if her students did well on state tests?” In the mid-1970s, state tests were mandated and, yes, her students and those in the entire school did well on such tests. Keep in mind that Jamestown was also a neighborhood school that received students from many white middle- and upper-middle class families.

Second, creating and sustaining an “open classroom” requires a great deal of planning, reorganizing classroom furniture, coordinating a variety of simultaneous activities and constant scrutiny of individual children as lessons unfolded. She teamed with another Jamestown primary teacher of similar beliefs and recruited annually student teachers from nearby colleges who wanted to learn this way of teaching.

Third, gusto for teaching in this veteran teacher–she had been in Arlington classrooms for 25 years when I saw her the first time–was both evident and deeply rooted in convictions of how best to teach young children. After a quarter-century in classrooms, Wilkinson’s enthusiasm for teaching, as I observed over numerous times over the seven years I was superintendent, remained high-pitched. Jamestown parents and former students who visited her often appreciated what she had accomplished in “The Palace.”

Wilkinson believed that reading and writing went together even for the youngest of students. She consistently taught writing to her second graders. A Washington Post reporter watched her teach in 1991 and wrote:

“The children are responsive. They feel they are more successful. They’re enthusiastic; they have more confidence,” said Carmen Wilkinson, 70, Ashley’s teacher, who has been helping children learn to read for 42 years.

An end-of-year project she has assigned her most advanced readers will be a research paper using books from the school library, on the sport of the child’s choice.

At a biweekly writing workshop that Wilkinson runs with second-grade teacher Susan Swift, students write and revise three stories, then “publish” their collected pieces, illustrating and displaying them in the classroom for other students to read.

Wilkinson retired in 1995 and continued to work with student teachers in local colleges while volunteering to teach writing to elementary school students. She died in 2006.

I offer these vignettes of Wilkinson’s teaching in the mid-1970s and early 1990s to underscore her commitment to the “open classroom,” as she defined it. I make the simple point that there are many ways to teach and many ways to learn even within the seemingly inflexible structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

For all of these reasons, I admired Carmen Wilkinson and had the utmost respect for her as a teacher.

_____________________________________

SOURCES:

*My personal journal of the years I served as superintendent.

*Obituary of Wilkinson in Washington Post at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2006/06/03/obituaries/bb69a701-9f6d-44be-bf8a-4cf283cedd7d/

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Whatever Happened to Monitorial Schools?

When, where, and why did these schools appear?

Deep concern for the untended and mostly poor English children of factory workers and others flocking to cities for jobs led Joseph Lancaster to found schools that would gather and help the unschooled. Lancaster opened his Royal Free School in London during the 1790s. The dearth of teachers for these students pushed Lancaster to design schools that accommodated large numbers of children in huge rooms under the guidance of one paid teacher who would then supervise older students–“monitors” as they were called–who actually taught younger children. Often called “charity schools,” these early Lancastrian schools, as they became known, spread throughout England and crossed the Atlantic to the U.S, often sponsored by the Society of Friends or Quakers–social reformers of the day both in England and America.

When Lancaster visited the U.S. in 1818, there were many “monitorial schools.” Historian Dell Upton found that “Lancasterianism was adopted up and down the Atlantic seaboard as the official pedagogy of emerging public schools in New York City (1805), Albany (1810), Georgetown (1811), Washington, D.C. (1812), Philadelphia (1817), Boston (1824), and Baltimore (1829)….”

These “monitorial schools,” then, were reform-driven schools aimed at educating poor children in Bible reading, work, and citizenship to lower threats of crime and civil disorder from unschooled children who would soon become adults. Middle- and upper-class families including the Quakers had the funds to educate their own children, however, through tutors and privately-funded academies.

What were monitorial schools like?

There are written accounts of what Joseph Lancaster did in England when he started such schools for poor children in the early decades of the 19th century. When monitorial schools crossed the Atlantic Ocean and opened in U.S., historians have plumbed archives to locate accounts of students, teachers, and visitors to these schools (see here, here, and here). Apart from these historical accounts there are pen-and-ink drawings and paintings of what the school looked like.

By having one teacher supervise a huge room of children through older students (called “monitors”) who themselves had gone through such a school primarily memorizing texts and rote recitation and pursuing the same methods with their younger students, the cost of schooling was inexpensive compared to private instruction at that time.

In the second and third above drawings of monitorial classrooms, note that students have their hands clasped behind their backs. Historian Carl Kaestle quotes a boy in such a New York City school in the 1820s. “The monitors then unanimously gave the order, ‘Hands behind!! One the instant every boy has his left palm enclosed in the right behind his back, in aa sort of hand-cuffed state, and woe be to him who is not paying attention when the order is given, or is tardy in obeying it” (Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, p.43).

Did monitorial schools work?

They surely “worked” in gathering many urban poor children into buildings giving them a taste of literacy for little cost to the community. Philanthropic and religiously-inspired reformers underwrote these “monitorial” schools in the hope that there would lead to social stability in communities avoiding the record of over 100 food riots over the price of flour and essential food that erupted in English cities between the 1750s and early 1800s and occasionally took place in American cities.

What happened to monitorial schools?

Criticism from parents and educators of the day about how little children and youth learned within the monitorial system got harnessed to a growing reform movement in the 1830s and 1840s that looked to schools as an economic and social instrument to make America stronger. A reform-driven awareness grew that all children, not just poor ones, had to master basic skills and literacy in order to enter the workplace and carry out civic duties from serving on juries to voting led to a large-scale and widespread reform movement . School reform was part of larger efforts to improve American society such as crusader-inspired reforms aimed at abolishing slavery, improving prisons (newly created “reform schools” for younger law breakers), extending rights of women, and levying taxes on all families to support a “common school” for all children within a community. By the 1840s, the eight-grade “grammar school,” an organizational innovation imported from Prussia, appeared across New England and slowly spread through pre-Civil War America. Monitorial schools disappeared.

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 4)

Why have U.S. public schools rebounded from natural disasters like Covid-19?

Answer: Americans’ social beliefs both in the importance of schooling, what a “real” school looks like, and the long-term efficiency of the age-graded school organization with its “grammar of schooling” explain why public schools gradually reopened its doors.

American confidence in tax-supported schools giving all children an equal shot at getting educated (albeit marred by continuing inequalities), receiving a diploma, and entering the labor market has been sustained through economic booms and busts, through war and peace, through closures from disasters and reopenings. [1]

While public support for tax-supported schools has wavered over the decades, it remains a trusted institution that a majority of parents support. In answer to the question: How satisfied are you with the quality of education your oldest child is receiving? Since 1999, the percentage ranged from a low of 68 percent to a high of 82 percent in 2019 saying they were “completely” or “Somewhat Satisfied.” Parents registered a drop from 2019 to 2020—the poll was done during the pandemic—of 10 points, from 82 to 72 percent satisfied.[2]

Public confidence in schools is embedded in the common picture held by most Americans of what a “real” school is like. A “real” elementary school, for example, has a teacher for each grade who manages and teaches the group for up to six hours a day. In a “real” school, students listen to teacher directions, and become literate in language and arithmetic.  A “real” elementary school has a playground, lunchroom, and allows a morning and afternoon recess for the children. Between kindergarten and the sixth grade, children follow school rules, learn to negotiate the system of explicit and implicit norms, do homework, pass tests, and graduate to the next level of schooling.

A “real” high school has daily schedules for students to attend 50-60 minute periods of instruction. In a “real” high school, subject-matter teachers stand at their doors in long hallways as students pass from one class to another; teachers sit behind a desk as students enter to study algebra, English, biology, Spanish, or history. Teachers lecture, guide large group discussions, and have small groups work on academic tasks. Textbooks, homework, and tests are ubiquitous. After school clubs and sports engage students once the final period of the day ends. That is what a “real” high school is. These features of elementary and secondary “real” schools is what historians of education have called the “grammar of schooling.”[3]

Of course, in the U.S.’s decentralized system of schooling, there is much variation in how much money is spent per student, age and architecture of buildings, the racial and ethnic makeup of the student body, and other differences. Amid those variations, nonetheless, tax-supported schools historically have grown into a standardized “real” elementary and secondary school across the nation.

Initially, in urban schools by 1900 and then across consolidated rural schools by the 1960s, age-graded school organization with its basic rules and norms guiding both teachers and students through the school year became dominant. In that half-century, the eight-year grammar school has morphed into over 100,000 age-graded public schools that now enroll 4 year olds to 18 year-old graduating seniors.  Student careers that once were limited to a few months a year attending one-room schoolhouses now spend 13-15 years in age-graded organizations. [4]

Reformers have attacked this age-graded structure and its “grammar of schooling” repeatedly for the ways it isolates and insulates teachers and students from one another, establishes standardized behavioral and academic norms, encourages competition for letter grades, and moves students in lockstep through elementary and secondary schools. Yet continued American confidence in “real” schools continues thereby explaining, in part, the resiliency of this institution since the mid-19th century.

While former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden called for schools across the country to reopen (their White House pronouncements were no more than exhortations since U.S. Presidents cannot order public schools to either shut or open their doors). The process was slow, bumpy, and marked by two steps forward, one step backward.

Neither the White House nor any national agency offered scientifically sound guidance for in-person classrooms in 2020.  The lack of reliable knowledge on the virus and course of disease combined to political and economic pressure from parents, state officials, and employers within a thoroughly dispersed system of national schooling surely account in part for the sporadic and helter-skelter reopenings that did occur.[5]

No one can ignore the fact that U.S. public schools are decentralized.   In nearly all 50 states (except Hawaii) responsible for schooling the young delegate each state delegates its operational authority to school districts. Thus, there are now 13,000-plus districts in the U.S. (there were 200,000 in 1910) that use federal, state, and local funds to operate schools as they see fit. Given this official system of decentralization, some states and districts reopened completely, others stuck to remote instruction for the entire school year, and even others shifted to a hybrid approach.Yet schools did reopen to both applause and criticism. [6]

So within a society where public confidence in a decentralized system of tax-supported schools continues to run high, where high expectations reign for what “real” schools can do for both the nation and individual students, a national pandemic shuttered the economy and closed community institutions. Schools—with all of their strengths and inequalities–slowly and steadily rebounded in 2021 from this once-in-a century crisis. They are resilient institutions.

Such signs of resiliency as the capacity for absorbing unplanned and planned changes, regaining stability after natural disasters, continued innovations under uncertainty, and withstanding hardships–clearly emerged as this institution slowly returned to its familiar organization, Common Core curriculum, and customary instruction.

The dark side of resiliency

Up to now I have implicitly suggested that institutional resiliency is positive. Businesses, universities, health care systems that adapt to adversity, bounce back from disasters, and retain their flexibility are seen as stalwart institutions that serve patrons well. That many schools have recovered and now have in-person instruction across the nation surely is a plus for the economy and parents who sought relief from being at-home teachers.

But there are negatives to resiliency as well.

Constant and unrealistic talk of what public schools can do to improve society undermines confidence in what public schools can do. Since the end of the 19th century, for example, fervent reformers have repeatedly called for public schools to be agents of societal change. By educating children the “right” way—the word is in quote marks because visions and versions of “right” differed then and now—schools can banish community ills, solve national problems, and create a better society. Such dogged visions for schooling to alter the community and larger society have been ultimately disappointing in results. Worse yet, such rhetoric has bred cynicism about what schools can actually do.

When John Dewey said In his “Pedagogic Creed” (1897), “I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform,” he called for schooling to be an instrument for large change in society. That call has remained a bedrock belief among Progressive reformers since the 1920s. [7]

When President Lyndon Johnson drafted the nation’s schools in ending poverty in the mid-1960s—think The Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the belief among White House and top policymakers was that better schools can move poor boys and girls into the middle class and make a “Great Society.” [8]

Certainly schools educate individual children but they can also turn those children into adult reformers who lead the march to a better, more equal society. Today, calls for schools to press for social justice continue the Deweyan rhetoric.[9]

In addition to decades of unfulfilled rhetoric and empty words eroding confidence in what tax-supported schools can do, the “dark side of resiliency” also points to excessive patience with, even neglect of, severe institutional problems that have needed attention but in the name of maintaining political and social stability have gone untreated much less unsolved.

Consider that the history of educational and economic inequalities in American society that pervade U.S. public schools has been documented since the Civil War. The civil rights movement during the 1950s to 1970s, for example, resulted in federal court decisions and legislation ending legal segregation and many Jim Crow practices. Yet residential segregation continues in the 21st century reproducing segregated neighborhoods and schools in both cities and suburbs. So when data show that Black children are five times as likely than white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity or that Black children are more than twice as likely than white children to enroll in high-poverty schools, few expresse surprise over this fact, a truth that has been around for over a century? [10]

Persistent patience with racial, ethnic, and social class differences in America becomes all too tangible when one confronts the three tiered school system that had become apparent for decades. Even after federal and state legislation, philanthropic infusions of dollars, and much wringing of hands, this durable segregated system of schooling remains painfully obvious to current policymakers, parents, and practitioners. So another negative to resiliency is apologetic forbearance with inequalities that are plain to see, such as the nation’s three-tier system of public schooling..

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Fairfax County (VA) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 60 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet and occasionally exceed state standards and send most of their graduating seniors to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of closure. Occasionally, stellar principals and staffs will lift such schools into the second tier but that is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S, rife with inequalities, maintains social stability yet, and this is a mighty big “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth.

Because the three-tiered system of schooling has existed for well over a century, it has had a persevering resiliency that has withstood federal, state, and philanthropic interventions. An abiding example of stable inequality that continues into the 21st century.

Even during calls for transforming academically low-performing schools into citadels of high performance—such as occurred during the Obama years (2009-2017), the three-tiered system plodded on. Because of residential segregation and inadequate state and federal funding, inequalities are preserved in amber within the three-tier system of U.S. schooling, an arrangement that has soldiered on revealing the  dark side of resiliency.[11]

Unflagging rhetoric promising that schools can reform society has endured for decades as had the three-tier system of schooling that marks American society. These tenacious, futile fantasies of schools overhauling society and abiding patience with unequal schooling structures make up the dark side of resiliency.

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Yes, public schools have survived major disruptions ranging from hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and pandemics. Yes, they are resilient institutions that have contributed socially, economically, and politically to a stable American society for nearly two centuries. Both in the past and present, school districts drafted the technologies of the day to provide schooling during and after natural disasters. 

In the most recent disruption, public schools have bounced back from Covid-19 as students, parents, and employers welcome reopened schools in 2021. Tax-supported public schools are surely resilient institutions in both positive and negative ways.

With all of their imperfections, public schools remain high in public regard as they once again adapted to emergencies and adopted new ways of teaching and learning including remote instruction. While schools rapidly reorganized teaching by pivoting to distance instruction, no district has seriously considered reorganizing the century and a half old model of schooling, the age-graded school. And that structure remains steadfast and central to the conduct of schooling in 2021. A final sign of enduring resiliency.


[1] Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[2]Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[3] Mary Metz, “Real School: A Universal Drama amid Disparate Experience, Journal of Education Policy, 4(5), pp. 75-91; David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[4] William Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century,” University of Chicago Law Review . 2010, 77 (1), p177-199.

[5] Derek Thompson, “The Whole Truth about Kids, School, and Covid-19,” The Atlantic, January 28, 2021; Susan Dominus, “Where the Schools Stayed Open,” New York Times Magazine, February 14, 2021, pp. 32-40.

[6] David Cohen and James Spillane, “Policy and Practice: The Relations between Governance and Instruction,” Review if Research in Education, 1992, 18, pp. 3-49; John Meyer, et. al., “Centralization, Fragmentation, and School District Complexity,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 1987, 32(2), pp. 186-201; the 200,000 school districts in 1910 come from Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century.

[7] John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” School Journal, 1897, pp. 77-80 at: http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm

CITE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE SCHOOLS

[8] Wikipedia, “The Great Society,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Society

[9] Brenda Alvarez,, “Why Social Justice in Schools Matter,” neaToday , January 22, 2019 at: https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/why-social-justice-school-matters

Jeanine Harmon, “Social Justice: A Whole-School Approach,” Edutopia, February 18, 2015;Crystal Belle, “What Is Social Justice Education Anyway?” Education Week, January 23, 2019.

[10] Horace Mann Bond, Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1994); James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC:: University of North Carolina Press,  1988). Emma Garcia, “Schools Are Still Segregated, and Black Children Are Paying the Price, “ Economic Policy Institute, February 12, 2020.

[11] Grace Chen,  “What Is the Race To the Top and How Will It Benefit Public Schools?” Public School Review, November 11, 2019 at: https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/what-is-race-to-the-top-and-how-will-it-benefit-public-schools

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 3)

In part 3 of this series, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades as incremental, not fundamental changes in classroom instruction.

*In 1981, 18 percent of schools had computers; in 1991, 98 percent had them.

*In 1981, 16 percent of schools used computers for instructional purposes. By 1991, 98 percent did so.

*In 1981, there were, on average, 125 students per computer; in 1991, there were 18. [i]

In these years, using classroom computers was a glistening novelty that policymakers, parents and vendors urged schools to buy and use. The beliefs then were that increased use of these seemingly magical machines would improve teaching by getting students to learn more, faster, and better. Moreover, using these devices would provide job entrée into companies that were quickly moving from analog to digital and the rapidly growing occupations of programmers, engineers, and technical support.

There was an initial Golly, Gee Whiz moment when computers appeared in school libraries and special rooms called “labs” in the 1980s.  Then, as prices for the devices fell, teachers and boosters of the technology crowed about better lessons. New software promised gains on test scores (keep in mind that the 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of high stakes standardized tests and accountability machinery).

Fast-forward two decades and the picture of access to technology in school and at home had leaped to near universal. In 2015, 94 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had a computer at home and 61 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had home Internet access. The percentages of children with computer and Internet access at home  were higher for children who were older, those whose parents had gone to college and those whose families had higher incomes. Also, higher percentages of children who were white (66 percent), Asian (63 percent), and of two or more races (64 percent) had home Internet access than did Black (53 percent), Hispanic (52 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native children (49 percent).[ii]

By 2020, as tablets and laptops sold for a few hundred dollars each, student and teacher access to a full range of electronic devices in classrooms unfolded although connecting to the Internet was spotty, lagging in rural and urban schools.  Near universal access is one thing, however, classroom use is another.  

A buying boom had brought laptops and tablets into nearly all schools, save for many urban schools serving low-income, minority students. Federal pressures to hike test scores through No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) multiplied.

By 2020, most districts had either placed mobile carts of laptops in classrooms or distributed devices to each student. By this time, most elementary and secondary teachers had learned to quietly integrate these devices into daily lessons. [iii]

In short, the once innovative device decades earlier had been widely embraced as a tool tailored now to the curves and straight lines of age-graded classrooms. The adopt-and-adapt phenomenon described with earlier reforms has turned up again with computers.

Keep in mind, however, that none of the reforms, including the absorption of technology devices, have altered substantially the school organization, curriculum, and instruction offered to children and youth. Some readers may express surprise at this statement. If so, they will need to distinguish between incremental and fundamental changes in schooling. [iv]

Types of Change

Surely, there have been incremental changes in schools over the past century. Inserting kindergarten into the age-graded 1-12 structure. New curriculum added (e.g., computer science and coding) and subtracted (e.g., cursive writing).  Teachers’ instructional repertoires expanded to include frequent small group activities, independent work, and using new technologies.[v]

 The major alterations in schools that did occur in the past directly resulted from social and political movements aimed at reforming public and private institutions to better serve people while righting wrongs that harmed many Americans. Such movements spilled over schools again showing interconnectedness with other societal institutions.

Consider the creating of tax-supported public schools—the Common School– was an outgrowth of mid-19th century social reforms. Taxing citizens with or without children to create public schools in villages, towns, and cities, engineered by Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and other reformers, was a fundamental change in what had largely been multi-aged one-room school houses and individuals securing one-to-one private instruction. These Common School reformers latched on to a more efficient structure for schooling the growing numbers of students flocking to tax-supported schools: the eight grade grammar school. [vi]

Similarly the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, and the standards, testing, accountability movement of recent decades have produced federal and state laws that protected Americans, extended first class citizenship to those who suffered second-class treatment, and sought to tie together more closely the economy and education. Each of these politically driven reform movements saw schools as places that needed improvement. [vii]

In most cases, however, calls from movement-driven reformers for transforming “traditional” age-graded schools in the 20th century that would create entirely different ways of educating the young have fallen as flat as punctured balloons. Incomplete, partial, or non-existent implementation of fundamental alterations in governance, funding, structure of and processes in age-graded schools have marked most district systems. In fact, efforts to install fundamental changes often became a series of adopted incremental ones.

Think of such past calls for reforms to turn around failing urban schools or to establish personalized instruction in every classroom. Rhetoric about transforming schools has far outpaced concrete policy action. Incremental changes have surely occurred but few academically failing schools have turned from low-performing to high-performing and most students continue to be taught with familiar classroom pedagogies in a mix of large and small groups across the nation.

Of courses, there were proposed fundamental changes that occasioned media reports. Magazines and newspapers carried pieces on non-graded schools, open-space and open classroom schools, cyber schools that had customized instruction to the needs of individual students. Pilot projects and demonstration schools appeared but then in a few years vanished.

Districts absorbed and tailored changes to fit their schools. Schools adapted changes as principals entered and exited and older teachers retired and younger teachers came aboard. The age-graded school with its persistent malleability, however, remained intact.

Testing the resilience of public schools, 2020-2021

Face-to-face instruction slowly resumed in U.S. schools for the simple reason that voters and taxpayers (including parents, of course) have historically expected both change and stability from their schools.  The turn-on-the-dime move to remote instruction was an astonishing swing yet continued teaching of Common Core academic content and skills remained a constant. But that dramatic shift in teaching and learning and a return to familiar schooling was only one of the many expectations Americans have of this public institution.

Schools, after all, are custodial institutions intimately tied to the economy insofar as permitting Moms and Dads to work either at home, the shop, or the office. Beyond feeding and housing the young, these familiar community institutions socialize children into the dominant cultural values ranging from social and civic norms–taking one’s turn, cooperating with others, pride in American democracy–to earning necessary credentials to succeed in an stratified society. In doing so, schools replicate, even reinforce norms of excellence, competition, and socioeconomic and racial inequalities that pervade America in 2021.[viii]

Reopened schools, then, again reveal those norms and still untouched inequalities but also worry parents (and teachers) about risks to the health of children and school staffs. Nonetheless, fulltime remote instruction—except for those cyber schools expressly established for those who seek credentials using that medium–will shut down, albeit in slow-motion.[ix]

Why slow-motion?

Depending upon how far vaccinations extend into the population– not clear by the start of March 2021—schools will slowly move beyond complete closures and reliance upon remote instruction (19 percent) to partially open (35 percent) or hybrid arrangements of children attending a few days a week with combined online instruction at home to full restoration of in-person schooling (35 percent). [x]

Predictions of when all U.S. schools will reopen fully range from summer to fall 2021. No one knows for sure because too much remains either unknown or uncertain about the paths that variants of the initial coronavirus will follow, whether existing vaccines will cover mutations, and, of equal importance, how long vaccine-conferred immunity lasts.

Even with these uncertainties and unknowns, public schools closed for months and slowly resuming in-person instruction have shown their resilience once again in both organization and measured use of technologies to continue instruction under unusual conditions:  All students and teachers masked; fewer students in classrooms; those students present have plexiglass separators and partitions to keep them six feet apart; many teachers concurrently teaching students sitting in their classes with students facing screens at home; no large groupings such as in lunchrooms and auditoriums. Under these conditions, face-to-face schooling resumed under uncommon restraints. Again, tax-supported public schools bounced back.


[i] Larry Cuban, “Computers Meet Classroom; Classroom Wins,” Education Week, November 11, 1992.

[ii] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom (NCES 2017-098), Executive Summary.

[iii]Cuban, Flight of a Butterfly.

[iv] Larry Cuban, “Why So Many Structural Changes in Schools and So Little Reform in Teaching Practice?”, Journal of Educational Administration, 2013, 51(2), pp. 109-125. Also see Cuban, “Parsing the meaning of School Reforms (Part 1) at: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/parsing-the-meaning-of-school-reforms/ For a critique of my distinctions between incremental and fundamental changes, see Leonard Waks, “The Concept of Fundamental Educational Change,” Educational Theory, 2007, 57(3), pp. 277-295.

[v] David K. Cohen and Jal Mehta, “Why Reform Sometimes Succeeds: Understanding the Conditions That Produce Reforms That Last,” American Educational Research Journal 54(4), pp. 644-690.

[vi] Lawrence Cremin,, American Education: The National Experience. (New York: Harper Collins, 1980); Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); Michael Katz, Reconstructing American Education. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987); David Angus, et. al., “Historical Development of Age Stratification in Schooling,” Teachers College Record, 1988, 90(2) pp 211-36

[vii] Larry Cuban, Confessions of a School Reformer (forthcoming).

[viii]Jean Anyon, “Education, Ideology, and the Hidden Curriculum,” The Journal of Education, 1980, 162(1), pp. 67-92; David Labaree, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[ix] Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, et. al..” Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019,” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, May 2019.

In 2017-18, 501 full-time virtual schools enrolled 297,712 students, and 300 blended schools enrolled 132,960. Enrollments in virtual schools increased by more than 2,000 students between 2016-17 and 2017-18 and enrollments in blended learning schools increased by over 16,000 during this same time period.

Thirty-nine states had either virtual or blended schools. There were four states that allowed blended schools to operate but still have not allowed the opening of full-time virtual schools. A total of six states have full-time virtual schools but do not currently have full-time blended learning schools.

Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs were more than four times as large as other virtual schools. Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs enrolled an average of 1,345 students. In contrast, those operated by nonprofit EMOs enrolled an average of 344 students, and independent virtual schools (not affiliated with an EMO) enrolled an average of 320 students.

Although private (profit and nonprofit) EMOs operated only 34% of full-time virtual schools, those schools enrolled 64.4% of all virtual school students.

Just under half of all virtual schools (46.5%) were charter schools, but together they accounted for 79.1% of enrollment. While districts have been increasingly creating their own virtual schools, those tended to enroll far fewer students

 (p.8)

[x] Christensen Institute, “Fall 2020 National Online and Blended Learning Survey,” at: https://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/OnlineBlendedLearning_data_2021.pdf

Survey was completed October 2021.

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