Category Archives: Reforming schools

Why Principals Differ: Joe, Ralph, and Edna

The film Lean on Me portrays high school principal Joe Clark in Paterson, New Jersey in the early 1980s rescuing a school mired in violence and poor academic performance. In one dramatic scene, over two hundred troublemakers are on the auditorium stage. The rest of the student body sitting in the auditorium watch as Clark at the microphone–played by a young Morgan Freeman– quiets everyone including those students standing behind him. Clark tells the students that those on stage have caused all the trouble and to turn around this school, they must be removed.

Facing the two-hundred mischief-makers milling around on stage, Clark points his finger at them and says: “You are expurgated! You are no longer welcome in this school.” The school security staff in blue blazers shoves them out of the doors.

Joe Clark’s kicking out troublesome students pleased movie crowds 30 years ago as it did the country when they learned about this baseball bat-toting principal. In real life, Joe Clark got in trouble with the school board over expelling the students yet he had his 15 minutes of fame and continued as an educator until he retired.

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But he was a sprinter principal, not a marathoner.

Lean on Me lays out the fantasy Americans have about their principals. We want fearless school leaders but get managers with keys dangling on their belts. This expectation of principal-as-Superman (or Wonder Woman) is fairly common but few principals are Clark Kents in mufti. Most principals want to be leaders but cannot because they are caught in the middle between their district bosses wanting them to follow policy, parents wanting their requests fulfilled, teachers wanting to be left alone, and students wanting teachers who teach. Principals learn to navigate among potential conflicts by being managers and politicians juggling competing expectations and constituencies. The DNA of the job is managing and taking few risks.

Take Ralph, a veteran administrator who presides over a suburban elementary school. He is a friendly, forty-ish fellow who is fond of playing the guitar for sing-alongs with kindergartners. He trusts his teachers to do the right thing so he seldom visits classrooms. Neither children nor teachers, however, give him headaches. Parents do.

As he sees it, parents press their children to achieve, achieve, and achieve. He sees that pressure in the third-grade girl bursting in tears at a “B” on a report card or the fifth-grade boy throwing a tantrum at being asked to re-do homework. Parents constantly ask him to assign their children to particular teachers whose students perform well on state tests. If Ralph hesitates in responding to their requests, they are on the phone to the superintendent asking why Ralph is always dragging his feet.

Yet Ralph also knows that these are the same parents who raised $30,000 for the school to meet teacher requests for laptops and class trips. Ralph is trapped by the conflicting expectations of teachers, parents, and his bosses. His primary task is to keep parents satisfied, teachers protected, and children working. He manages as best as he can but he is caught in the middle.

A few principals, however, are like Edna who was appointed to a working-class black and Latino middle school. A Ralph-like principal had been there ten years letting teachers do what they pleased even as the school’s academic performance plummeted. The superintendent told her to raise those test scores. Edna knew that her largely white staff needed prodding and support if they were ever to share her belief that all students can learn.

In the first year she observed classrooms constantly, determining which teachers would stay and which would go. She made teachers responsible for what happened in hallways. She recruited parents and teachers to become part of a new school council to help her make school-wide decisions. She got students to volunteer to paint murals on hallway walls and pick up litter on school grounds.

Then she turned to academics. She asked teachers for a plan to improve academic instruction. The teachers’ plan was reviewed by parents, amended, and put into practice in year two. She scrounged funds to support teacher summer training.

Not until year four, was there a flutter in test scores. But what made the superintendent, parents, teachers, and students ardent supporters of Edna was that the school was becoming a community where children and adults had come together to work for the school rather than for themselves.

In year five, the superintendent appointed Edna to be his assistant superintendent and assigned another Ralph to the school.

Why are there more Ralphs than Ednas? The answer is: A job that forces risk-averse principals to manage bosses, parents, teachers, and students creates Ralphs. Risk-seeking Ednas relish managing conflicts and escape the trap of being caught in the middle. But too often end up leaving the principalship.

 

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What Makes a Great School? (Jack Schneider)

Jack Schneider is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is  “a historian and policy analyst who studies the influence of politics, rhetoric, culture, and information in shaping attitudes and behaviors. His research examines how educators, policymakers, and the public develop particular views about what is true, what is effective, and what is important. Drawing on a diverse mix of methodological approaches, he has written about measurement and accountability, segregation and school choice, teacher preparation and pedagogy, and the relationship between research and practice. His current work, on how school quality is conceptualized and quantified, has been supported by the Spencer Foundation and the Massachusetts State Legislature.

The author of three books, Schneider is a regular contributor to “The Washington Post” and “The Atlantic” and co-hosts the education policy podcast “Have You Heard.” He also serves as the Director of Research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.”

This piece appeared October 23, 2017.

 

What are the signs that a school is succeeding?

Try asking someone. Chances are, they’ll say something about the impact a school makes on the young people who attend it. Do students feel safe and cared for? Are they being challenged? Do they have opportunities to play and create? Are they happy?

If you’re a parent, getting this kind of information entails a great deal of effort — walking the hallways, looking in on classrooms, talking with teachers and students, chatting with parents, and watching kids interact on the playground.

Since most of us don’t have the time or the wherewithal to run our own school-quality reconnaissance missions, we rely on rumor and anecdote, hunches and heuristics, and, increasingly, the Internet.

So what’s out there on the web? Are our pressing questions about schools being answered by crowdsourced knowledge and big data sets?

As it turns out, no.

There’s information, certainly. But mostly it doesn’t align with what we really want to know about how schools are doing. Instead, most of what we learn about schools online — on the websites of magazines, on school rating sites, and even on real estate listings — comes from student standardized test scores. Some may include demographic information or class size ratios. But the ratings are derived primarily from state-mandated high stakes tests.

The first problem with this state of affairs is that test scores don’t tell us a tremendous amount about what students are learning in school. As research has demonstrated, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores — about one-third of what student and family background characteristics explain. Consequently, test scores often indicate much more about demography than about schools.

Even if scores did reflect what students were learning in school, they’d still fail to address the full range of what schools actually do. Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking. School quality is multidimensional. And just because a school is strong in one area does not mean that it is equally strong in another. In fact, my research team has found that high standardized test score growth can be correlated with low levels of student engagement. Standardized tests, in short, tell us very little about what we actually value in schools.

One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality. We talk about schools as if they are uniformly good or bad, as if we have complete knowledge of them, and as if there is agreement about the practices and outcomes of most value.

Another consequence is that we can make unenlightened decisions about where to live and send our children to school. Schools with more affluent student bodies tend to produce high test scores. Perceived

as “good,” they become the objects of desire for well-resourced and quality-conscious parents. Conversely, schools with more diverse student bodies are dismissed as bad.

GreatSchools.org gives my daughter’s school — a highly diverse K–8 school — a 6 on its 10-point scale. The state of Massachusetts labels it a “Level 2” school in its five-tier test score-based accountability system. SchoolDigger.com rates it 456th out of 927 Massachusetts elementary schools.

How does that align with reality? My daughter is excited to go to school each day and is strongly attached to her current and former teachers. A second-grader, she reads a book a week, loves math, and increasingly self-identifies as an artist and a scientist. She trusts her classmates and hugs her principal when she sees him. She is often breathlessly excited about gym. None of this is currently measured by those purporting to gauge school quality.

Of course, I’m a professor of education and my wife is a teacher. Our daughter is predisposed to like school. So what might be said objectively about the school as a whole? Over the past two years, suspensions have declined to one-fifth of the previous figure, thanks in part to a restorative justice program and an emphasis on positive school culture. The school has adopted a mindfulness program that helps students cope with stress and develop the skill of self-reflection. A new maker space is being used to bring hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math into classrooms. The school’s drama club, offered free after school twice a week, now has almost 100 students involved.

The inventory of achievements that don’t count is almost too long to list.

So if the information we want about schools is too hard to get, and the information we have is often misleading, what’s a parent to do?

Four years ago, my research team set out to build a more holistic measure of school quality. Beginning first in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, and then expanding to become a statewide initiative — the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment — we asked stakeholders what they actually care about in K–12 education. The result is a clear, organized, and comprehensive framework for school quality that establishes common ground for richer discussions and recognizes the multi-dimensionality of schools.

Only after establishing shared values did we seek out measurement tools. Our aim, after all, was to begin measuring what we value, rather than to place new values on what is already measured.

For some components of the framework, we turned to districts, which often gather much more information than ends up being reported. For many other components, we employed carefully designed surveys of students and teachers — the people who know schools best. And though we currently include test score growth, we are moving away from multiple-choice tests and toward curriculum-embedded performance assessments designed and rated by educators rather than by machines.

Better measures aren’t a panacea. Segregation by race and income continues to menace our public schools, as does inequitable allocation of resources. More accurate and comprehensive data systems won’t wash those afflictions away. But so much might be accomplished if we had a shared understanding of what we want our schools to do, clear and common language for articulating our aims, and more honest metrics for tracking our progress.

 

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How Much Do Educators Care About Edtech Efficacy? Less Than You Might Think (Jenny Abamu)

Jenny Abamu is a reporter at WAMU. She was previously an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covered technology’s role in K-12 education.

She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Master’s degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College.”

 

This article appeared in EdSurge, July 17, 2017

Dr. Michael Kennedy, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, was relatively sure he knew the answer to this research question: “When making, purchasing and/or adoption decisions regarding a new technology-based product for your district or school, how important is the existence of peer-reviewed research to back the product?” Nevertheless, as part of the Edtech Research Efficacy Symposium held earlier this year, Kennedy created a research team and gathered the data. But, to his surprise, the results challenged conventional wisdom.

I hypothesized that the school leaders we talked to and surveyed would say, ‘Oh yeah, we privilege products that have been sponsored by high-quality research.’ Of course, we found that that wasn’t exactly correct

Michael Kennedy

“I hypothesized that the school leaders we talked to and surveyed would say, ‘Oh yeah we privilege products that have been sponsored by high-quality research,’” says Kennedy. “Of course we found that that wasn’t exactly correct.”

With a team of 13 other academics and experts, Kennedy surveyed 515 people from 17 states. Out of those they surveyed, 24 percent were district technology supervisors, 22 percent were assistant superintendents, 7 percent were superintendents, 27 percent were teachers, and 10 percent were principals. Within this diverse group, 76 percent directly made edtech purchases for their school or were consulted on purchase decisions. This was the group Kennedy expected would put its trust in efficacy research. To his team’s surprise, however, about 90 percent of the respondents said they didn’t insist on research to be in place before adopting or buying a product.

In contrast, respondents prioritized factors such as ‘fit’ for their school, price, functionality and alignment with district initiatives; these were all rated by those surveyed as “extremely important” or “very important.” In the report, one of the administrators interviewed is quoted saying, “If the product was developed using federal grant dollars, great, but the more important factor is the extent to which it suits our needs.” Kennedy also noted other statements made him pause.

“Research, according to one of the quotes I received was the icing on the cake,” says Kennedy “Having a lot of research evidence, like the type demanded by the feds, was cool but not essential. I found that to be pretty surprising and a little bit troubling.”

The consumer is the one who is going to have to demand the market changes. If school districts say, ‘I am not buying with without any research evidence,’ that would be the only thing, I think, the business community will listen to.

Kennedy defines randomized control trials, a research methodology that tries to remove bias and external effects as much as possible from the experiment, as the gold standard of research. Though this type of extensive and carefully planned research is expensive, the federal government does offer funds to support groups willing to go through the process. However, without schools demanding such research, Kennedy says while the government has made a way, but there is no will—and that could dry up funds.

“The consumer is the one who is going to have to demand the market changes. If school districts say, ‘I am not buying with without any research evidence,’ that would be the only thing, I think, the business community will listen to,” says Kennedy.

So what explains theme educators who did put research at the top of their list? Kennedy speculates it’s a question of exposure to quality research and district funding.

“Some people who responded to our survey had doctorates, other had advanced degrees, and they understand the value of research,” says Kennedy. “Some respondents are from districts that are very well-funded, and they have the luxury of being picky. Other districts have very limited budgets, very limited time and they are going to what is cheapest and easiest.”

Whether rich or poor, all school districts do have to answer to their tax bases, who often foot the bill for edtech purchases. Schools that cannot show academic gains are often under more scrutiny from outside forces, including parents and local officials. However, Kennedy notes that the complicated nature of education and all the variables that can affect student achievement water down any accountability that can be placed on edtech product purchase decisions made by the school districts.

“I suspect they will look at how are we teaching reading and math because technology is often used as a supplementary tool,” says Kennedy. “I hear parents say they want more technology, but they don’t know what they want. They think any tech is good tech, and I think that myth has pervaded as well. It’s a wicked problem, a layered contextual kind of issue, that will take more than the field can do to fix.”

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The Standardized Classroom (Part 1)

Once upon a time in a nearby land there were one-room schoolhouses.

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These one-room schools worked well enough for farm families but in towns and cities, they did not. Too many children to school and too few schoolhouses. Also it was too hard for the teacher to get four year olds and 13 year-olds in one room to learn the entire curriculum.

What made the situation worse was that many people from other lands came to this country who wanted to send their children to school–after all it was free for the youngest ones. Also many rural families migrated to towns because there were jobs that paid far more than they earned on the farm. So more and bigger schools were needed because the leaders of the land believed that public schools were essential to build a patriotic populace, a strong nation and a job-rich economy.

Then a band of reformers found a new kind of school that had worked well in another country and brought it to this nearby land. This kind of school had eight rooms in one building,  When children came to the school they were sent to different rooms in the eight-room building according to their ages. Six year-olds in one classroom and nine-year olds in another. For the few older students who wanted more schooling, there were high schools.  And that is the beginning of the age-graded school in this nearby land.

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No fairy tale this origin story of the age-graded school (see here and here).

The structure of the age-graded school contained separate classrooms with one teacher for those of a certain age who was responsible for covering one portion of the curriculum tailored to that age group. And this change–a structural reform that has lasted until now–from one-room schools to that graded school is the beginning of the standardized classroom.

What do I mean by a standardized classroom in the late-19th century?

In creating the structure of the age-graded school, reform-minded policymakers sought consistency in how schools should be built, operated, and–within classrooms–what teachers should teach and how. To policymakers, creating uniformity in schooling meant both efficiency (saving taxpayer dollars) and effectiveness (achieving goals). Thus, the structure of the age-graded school made it possible to create uniform furniture, curriculum standards,  norms for children behavior, and similar ways of teaching young children and youth in every classroom.

So between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, standardization in schooling spread across the nation (see here and here). Architectural designs of school buildings standardized the size of classrooms, the number of windows in them, the arrangement of student and teacher desks, the circulation of air, and heating. All became uniform as school reformers sought consistency across an entire school (except for those children of color who went to segregated, dilapidated, under-funded schools in these decades)–see here and here.

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Regularity in buildings sought homogeneity for both children and adults. Qualifications for who became teachers were raised and before a person could teach they had to meet minimum standards of knowledge and skills to teach. Such standards for the physical dimensions of the school, the curriculum, and for those who instructed children promised equality to those who attended tax-supported public schools

And standardization within the classroom occurred as well. Early to mid-20th century visitors to American classrooms would see a U.S. flag, paintings of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a wall clock and rows of bolted-down desks.

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So what has the physical design of standardized classrooms including the arrangement of furniture and artifacts meant for both students and teachers over the past century?

*Rows of bolted down desks facing a blackboard and teacher desk and common textbooks for each academic subject communicate to those who inhabit that room who does most of the talking and who does most of the listening.

*Wall clocks mean keeping to a schedule of classes (e.g. 45 minute to hour long lessons) signaling changes in subject and moving to another room. Schedules are important because school is seen as a preparation for the adult work world where white-collar and blue-collar employees either punch time cards or are punctual. Clocks also mean that learning is measured by how long students attend classes during the school year.

*The American flag and the daily reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance are clear signs that loyalty to country is a primary obligation.

All of these artifacts become part of the “hidden curriculum” in age-graded schools and classrooms for transmitting to the next generation cultural values of obeying authority, adhering to institutional rules, independence, cooperation, the importance of time in the workplace, patriotism and pride in country (see here and here). Academics called this political, economic, and cultural socialization of the young.

Even so, there were  architects who railed at such school designs. Here is William Greeley’s view of such schools in 1922:

Probably the object is to produce a standardized American by the use of new,
standardized desks, in a standardized room with standard air at a standard temperature,
under standardized teachers…. Until a perfect form has been evolved, to standardize is to stifle further development.

Not all policymakers or architects agreed with this critic but Greeley recognized that a building housing age-graded classrooms has plans for those adults and children who inhabit it. This is the case with schoolhouse design.

What about classrooms in the 1950s? 1970s? Now? Have classroom physical dimensions and furniture changed over the past century?
Yes, they have. Another piece of evidence to rebut those who say schools have never changed. But those aspects of the school’s “hidden curriculum” that instill cultural values,  workplace compliance, and civic competence convey have remained stable.

*Movable chairs, desks, and tables introduced in the 1930s in many urban and suburban districts.

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*Introduction of specialized rooms and space for school curriculum and after-school activities (e.g., art, music, science and computer labs, athletics, community services)

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Amid changes, stability in classroom design, arrangement of furniture, and political and workplace symbols continue (e.g., clock, American flag)

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Thus, the origin, spread, and frequent changes in the standardized classroom.

What about teaching? Has that become standardized also? Part 2 answers that question.

 

 

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XQ Is Taking Over TV To Make the Case That High School Hasn’t Changed in 100 Years. But Is That True? (Matt Barnum)

“Matt Barnum is Chalkbeat’s national reporter covering education policy and research. Previously he was a staff writer at The 74, the policy director for Educators for Excellence – New York, and a middle school language arts teacher in Colorado.” This article appeared September 6, 2017

Here is a classic example of how the debate over reforming schools confuses policymakers, donors, practitioners, and parents. What does the word “change” mean? The concept of “change” is the fuel that drives school reform policies past and present. But policymakers and donors seldom ask: what kind of “change” do we want? Incremental? Fundamental? Nor do these well-intentioned but ill-informed decision-makers ask the essential question:   change toward what ends? 

 

Education policy rarely makes national television. But on Friday night, a special focused on redesigning America’s high schools — and featuring Tom Hanks, Jennifer Hudson, and Common — will be taking over the airwaves of ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX.

The broadcast, “XQ Super School Live,” is an extension of XQ, a project of the Emerson Collective, the organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs…. In the last year, XQ has awarded $100 million to innovative schools across the country, including some with a heavy emphasis on technology.

The goal: to call attention to how high school “has remained frozen in time” and to support promising alternatives.

“For the past 100 years America’s high schools have remained virtually unchanged, yet the world around us has transformed dramatically,” intones the familiar voice of Samuel L. Jackson in a video promoting the TV event.

It’s a view U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shares. “Far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago, and the world today is much different,” DeVos recently said while visiting a Florida charter school.

But is it true? Is it really the case that high schools haven’t seen major change over the last century?

Chalkbeat asked several education historians for their take. They said no, schools have changed — in some respects significantly — over the last several decades.

However, XQ has a point in saying that the basic setup of schooling has remained largely intact, they said.

“The ‘grammar’ of high schooling has stayed fairly static,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “Kids take seven or eight subjects, the major subjects have stayed fairly static, [students] move from room to room, school begins around 7 or 8 and ends around 3.”

“I can understand why in a lot of ways, in terms of structure, it feels like high schools haven’t changed,” said Ansley Erickson, an assistant professor of history and education at Columbia University Teachers College. But, she said, there has been a massive transformation of high school from an institution for a chosen few into a mass institution for virtually all teenagers in the country.

“To say that high school hasn’t changed might potentially miss that major transformation,” Erickson said.

Zimmerman largely agreed.

“If by this claim [XQ] is asserting that high schools today share some fundamental elements with high schools 100 years ago, I’m with them,” he said. “But that’s very different from saying nothing has changed.”

Like Erickson, he pointed to the “birth of mass high school” as a major change. “It’s not until the 1930 that the majority of adolescents attended high schools, and it’s not until the 1950s that the majority graduate from one,” Zimmerman said.

He also pointed to several ways the content and structure of American high school has changed, and sometimes changed back: the development and decline of vocational tracks; an increased emphasis on “life skills” followed by a greater focus on academics post-Sputnik; the diversification of high school offerings (into what some have called the ”shopping mall” high school) followed by the rise of small high schools.

Jack Schneider, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, was more scathing in his assessment of XQ’s assertion.

“Ahistorical claims about outmoded schools are designed to persuade us that public education is run by incompetents,” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “If that’s the case, maybe disruption is the cost we need to bear in pursuit of progress. But the truth is that the schools have been constantly evolving over time, in ways large and small.”

In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, Schneider elaborated on what has changed:

“A century ago, teachers were largely untrained and oversaw very large classes in which rote memorization was the rule. Students brought their own books from home and the curriculum varied from school to school. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common and classical languages still maintained a strong foothold. Students of color, when educated, were largely denied equal access, and special education did not exist. It was a different world.”

In recent years, America’s graduation rates have been rising and dropout rates have been falling. National test scores have generally been flat, overall, for high schoolers. (There remains significant debate about the causes of those trends, including the impact of changing student demographics and graduation standards.)

History aside, the key policy question today is whether high schools would benefit from the kind of dramatic rethinking XQ is encouraging.

The underlying assumption of XQ is that the relatively static nature of some aspects of high school suggests the answer is yes. But the fact that these methods have been persistent could also mean just the opposite.

“There are other moments when people have said we need to reconceptualize high school,” said Erickson. “This is not the first one of these.”

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Whatever Happened to Detracking?

About one-third of 8th graders now take algebra. Thirty years ago, about 16 percent took algebra in the 8th grade. Why the jump in enrollment?

Promoters of algebra for everyone give such reasons as: U.S. student math scores on international tests were well below Japan, Korea, and other countries. Fewer U.S. students were taking advanced math courses in high school and were unprepared for college.

Policymakers, educators and parents saw algebra as the gatekeeper course to higher math. You take algebra in the 8th grade and you then could take calculus in your high school senior year. And you were then ready for university courses in math. This is the classic example of detracking. Regardless of ability and performance, making hard courses open to all students is a curriculum change driven by a strong belief in equal opportunity–everyone goes to college–and producing higher student scores on international tests.

Detracking basically means that secondary schools move away from the traditional system of separating students by ability and performance in various subjects that began in the early 20th century. A century ago, elementary and secondary schools enrolled hundreds, even thousands of students. Some students were very able and high performers in academic subjects and others were middling performers and some needed more time to grasp the required content and skills. At that time, students were grouped by age and everyone studied the same content and skills. In classrooms, teachers faced “heterogenous” groups of students with a huge range of abilities, knowledge, skills, and experiences. Many students failed. Dissatisfied parents complained.

By the 1920s, policymakers came up with a system for organizing secondary school students by grouping them “homogenously,” that is by their ability–group IQ tests were used to measure individual intelligence–and previous performance in similar subjects, that is, test scores and teacher grades. Supported by teachers and parents, district policymakers across the nation in these years constructed high school curricula dividing all students into at least three “tracks” leading to different future paths: College preparatory, general, and vocational. Occasionally a student would move from “general” to “college prep” or the other way around but such mobility was limited. Once placed in a track, students took all academic subjects geared for that course of study and remained there for their high school career (see here, here, and here).

That system has largely disappeared. Instead, most high schools track by academic subject to achieve greater homogeneity in classes. High achieving 10th or 11th graders, for example, take Advanced Placement biology or physics while middling or low performers take General Science. In social studies, there is “regular” U.S. history for many students while some take “honors” or Advanced Placement U.S. history. In such tracked academic subjects, teachers still face a range of student abilities and performance but the band of such differences is narrower.

 When did detracking begin?

Beginning in the 1960s activists filed federal suits again school systems that tracked minority students. Such cases as (Hobsen v. Hansen, 1967) that banned tracking in the Washington, D.C. schools and growing concerns over poor academic performance of minority students slowly gained support among policymakers and educators. Reformers, leaning on studies done by researchers, worried about school groupings reinforcing inequalities in society by excluding low income students from advanced courses and thereby entry into college. These policymakers (and parents) pressed states and districts to open up Advanced Placement courses, gifted and talented programs, and the like–including Algebra in the 8th grade–to all students.

By the 1980s with U,S, students posting low scores on international tests, another generation of reformers, prodded by corporate leaders worried about workforce demographics, that is, future employees who would be mostly minority and uneducated to handle the demands of an information-driven workplace. Business and civic  coalitions of reformers pushed for higher graduation standards and broad access of all students to a tough academic curriculum. Since the Nation at Risk report (1983), enrollments in academic subjects taken for four years such as math and science (rather than two or three years) increased.

In the late-1980s and early 1990s, policymakers and reformers, relying on a new generation of research that showed major academic  disadvantages for poor and minority children and youth–as measured by test scores, graduating high school, and admission to college–began pushing for detracking and equal access to all advanced academic subjects (e.g., Algebra for all). Major organizations such as the National Education Association, National Governors Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and others came out in favor of detracking. The states of Massachusetts and California mandated detracking in middle schools. this curriculum reform became a favored strategy since the 1990s (see Ngrams here and here).

What problems did detracking aim to solve?

Reformers seeking detracking have sought to solve problems of low achievement among minority and poor students and persistent unequal access to tough academic courses. Detracking reformers assert that schools that track students perpetuate societal inequalities and sustain the achievement gap between white and minority students. They promise that permitting all students to take courses together regardless of ability and performance will solve inequitable access and at the same time increase the academic achievement of heretofore under-achieving students (see here and here)

Does detracking work?

Yes and no. Studies have shown that detracking has not harmed achievement of high performing students and at the same time has raised performance of previously low-achieving minority and poor students (see here and here, p.90). Moreover, detracking has increased equal access to high school knowledge (see here and here , p.90).

Yet efforts to detrack have had repercussions on teachers and students as these classes have been reorganized (see here, here and here). The evidence at best is mixed which to me means that making organizational decisions on detracking–a complex decision affecting students, teachers, and parents–are more value- than research-driven.

What has happened to detracking?

While the reform of detracking occurred in the late-20th and early 21st century, 60 percent of elementary and 80 percent of secondary schools continue to organize students into homeogenous groups or “tracks.” This is especially so in math courses while mixed grouping of students in high school English, science, and social studies still remain. So while detracking has become a popular reform slogan and has made inroads to how schools organize students for the “what” and”how” of teaching and learning, modified tracking by academic subject remains a mainstream strategy for U.S. schools.

 

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‘It’s Like Amazon, But for Preschool’ (Audrey Watters)

 

This guest post in written by Audrey Watters. She describes herself as “ … an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.”

 

A year ago, the richest man in the world asked Twitter for suggestions on how he should most efficiently and charitably spend his wealth. And today, Jeff Bezos unveiled a few details about his plans – other than funding space travel, that is. His new philanthropic effort, The Day 1 Fund, will finance two initiatives: the Families Fund will work with existing organizations to address homelessness and hunger; and the Academies fund “will launch an operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.”

“We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” Bezos wrote in a note posted to Twitter. “Most important among these will be genuine intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

The child will be the customer.

Bezos then went on to cite a phrase that is so often misquoted and misattributed in those shiny, happy motivational PowerPoint slides – you know the ones – that people like to post to social media: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” W. B. Yeats never said this, for the record, but words get so easily twisted, history so easily co-opted.

The assurance that “the child will be the customer” underscores the belief – shared by many in and out of education reform and education technology – that education is simply a transaction: an individual’s decision-making in a “marketplace of ideas.” (There is no community, no public responsibility, no larger civic impulse for early childhood education here. It’s all about private schools offering private, individual benefits.)

This idea that “the child will be the customer” is, of course, also a nod to “personalized learning” as well, as is the invocation of a “Montessori-inspired” model. As the customer, the child will be tracked and analyzed, her preferences noted so as to make better recommendations to up-sell her on the most suitable products. And if nothing else, Montessori education in the United States is full of product recommendations.

There’s another piece to all this, not mentioned in Bezos’s note about building a chain of preschools that “use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon”: Amazon’s own labor practices. The online retail giant is a notoriously terrible place to work – the pay, particularly in the warehouses, is so low that many employees receive government assistance. The working conditions are dangerous and dehumanizing. “Amazon has patented a system that would put workers in a cage, on top of a robot,” read the headline in last week’s Seattle Times. And it’s not so great for the white collar workers either. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” one employee in books marketing told The New York Times back in 2015.

The majority of the early childhood educators in the US are already very poorly paid; many preschools have incredibly high turnover rates. As research has demonstrated that preschool has a lasting positive effect on children’s educational attainment, there have been efforts to “raise the standards,” demanding for example that preschools be staffed by more qualified teachers. But that demand for more training and certification hasn’t brought with it better pay or benefits. The median pay for preschool teachers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is less than $30,000 a year. Even those with Bachelor’s degrees earn only about $14.70 an hour, about half of the average wages for all those with the same level of education.

This is a field in which a third of employees already qualify for government assistance. And now Jeff Bezos, a man whose own workers also rely on these same anti-poverty programs, wants to step in – not as a taxpayer, oh no, but as a philanthropist. Honestly, he could have a more positive impact here by just giving those workers a raise. (Or, you know, by paying taxes.)

Bezos is not alone in eyeing the early education “market,” which has received quite a bit of attention from ed-tech investors in recent years. So far this year, three companies have raised venture capital to help people run preschools and childcare facilities in their homes: Wonderschool, WeeCare, and Procare Software. Last year, VCs poured millions into similar sorts of companies, including Tinkergarten, Sawyer, and Kinedu. Investors in these startups include some of the “big money” names in Silicon Valley: Omidyar Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Andreessen Horowitz, among others. (One of these companies, WeeCare, says it’s also planning to train and license childcare providers, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the micro-certificate, online education, nanodegree folks also jump on this bandwagon. “Uber for Education” or something.)

Ostensibly, there’s no shortage of potential “customers” for these private preschool software startups – the demand for childcare is high, and many families live in what the Center for American Progress has called “child care deserts,” that is places where there are no options for affordable, high-quality early childhood education.

But are private preschool chains really the path we want to pursue, particularly if we believe that access to excellent early childhood education is so incredibly crucial? Can the gig economy and the algorithm ever provide high quality preschool? For all the flaws in the public school system, it’s important to remember: there is no accountability in billionaires’ educational philanthropy.

And, as W. B. Yeats famously never said, charity is no substitute for justice.

 

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