Category Archives: Reforming schools

What Roles School Practitioners Have to Perform Daily

I just read a report that argued for superintendents to exert their political skills to build coalitions of support in order to achieve the goals they have set for their years as school chief. I wondered to myself after reading the report how much the authors grasped the core activities that  teachers, principals, and superintendents, working in their classrooms, offices, and suites do every day, in their own ways. Teachers, principals, and superintendents have to–yes, “have to”–perform three different roles in their different venues: instructional, managerial, and political.

For superintendents who have been teachers and principals, and four out of five have, These roles and actions are baked into the DNA of teaching, principaling, and, yes, superintending. So those former teachers and principals who become district office staff before getting picked to be a school chief already have acted politically in their earlier roles. They may not have called what they did “political,” but they know how to build coalitions and forge relationships to get things done. It is in their bones.

Here are the roles that teachers, principals, and superintendents must perform to initially survive and then thrive.

Instructional role. For teachers, that is obvious. For principals and superintendents, the pressure on these administrators to assume responsibility for instructionally guiding teachers has grown dramatically in the past three decades.

Since the 1980s, mainstream thinking about principals has shifted markedly from managing school-site decisions to re-asserting the importance of  being instructional leaders. Now, principals and superintendents are expected to help teachers in meeting state academic standards, aligning curriculum, textbooks, and tests to those state standards, evaluating teachers, and producing higher student test scores.

Managerial role. Principals and superintendents have always been hired to administer schools. Superintendents expect their principals to set priorities consistent with district goals, use data for decision making, plan and schedule work of the school, oversee the budget, hire staff, and many other managerial tasks—including punctual submission of reports to the central office. School boards also expect their superintendents to discharge the managerial role. Currently, efforts by reformers to call superintendents and principals  CEOs elevates the managerial role. And teachers, well, controlling a crowd of students to pay attention to a lesson, complete classroom tasks, and parcel out help to individual students requires sharply acute administrative skills.

Political role. A century ago, progressive reformers divorced partisan politics from schooling. The norm of political neutrality held that superintendents, principals, and teachers hide their political party preferences.

So most principals, superintendents, and teachers have avoided partisan politics in the workplace but they do act politically within the school community and classrooms. For example, to advance their school agenda, principals and superintendents negotiate with parents, individual teachers, student groups, central office administrators, and even city officials. They figure out ways to build political coalitions for their schools at budget time or to put a positive spin on bad news during crises. Such politics aim to improve a school’s image, implement an innovation, or secure new resources. Most principals and superintendents see this as going about their daily business, not politics. But it is acting politically.

And, yes, teachers also act politically when they figure out which students in their classes are the leaders, which students need to be cajoled into compliance or  helpfulness, which students can help advance the teacher’s goals. Astute teachers build a coalition of support among their students for reaching the goals the teacher has set for the class. Experienced teachers often carry out that political analysis the first few weeks of the school year. Teachers are also political in dealing with their principal and district office in helping or hindering their school site leader achieve school goals.

Dilemmas inevitably arise when educators come to see that they are stronger at some roles than others, prefer some roles over the other but realize that often times they have to perform roles that they are less strong at and hardly prefer doing. This is the persistent dilemma of multiple core roles.

So the report  surprised me for its lack of basic understanding of the three roles baked into the DNA of being practitioners in classrooms, school offices, and district suites. Anyone becoming a superintendent knows from prior experience as a teacher and principal–although he or she may not use the word “political”–the importance of forging coalitions inside and outside the school to gain support to achieve desired goals.



Filed under school leaders

What’s the Difference Between Engineering at a Tech Company Versus a School? (Sam Strasser)

This is an interview that Ranjani Sundaresan, a junior at Seattle University and intern at EdSurge over the summer, conducted with Strasser. This post appeared on EdSurge, September 16, 2017.

What’s it like for an engineer to dive into education?

Sam Strasser is Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Summit Public Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. But he also has had a long career working as an engineer at companies including Microsoft and Facebook. At Facebook, he helped develop Summit’s personalized learning platform, which is now used in more than 100 schools throughout the U.S. Strasser spoke with the EdSurge Jobs team about how school looks from an engineer’s point of view.

EdSurge Jobs: So, give us a 60-second description of your career trajectory up until this point in your life.

Strasser: I started my career as a software engineer at Microsoft for a couple of years. I worked for a few edtech companies as a engineer and engineering manager and then as a contracted engineer. The contracting phase really helped me find the next thing that would be a good fit for me. Summit Public Schools was one of the organizations I worked for as a contract engineer.

As you may know, Facebook partnered with Summit to provide the engineering support for Summit’s personalized learning platform. I eventually moved over to Facebook, working as an engineer and then as a product manager. My most recent move has been back to Summit as the CIO.

What was that ’something’ that made you jump into education and edtech?

When I was working in the tech world, I didn’t feel my work was connected to the things I wanted to contribute to the world. It wasn’t fulfilling for me. Education is something that has interested me for a long time. In college, I wrote my senior essay on the intersection of technology and education. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do in education, but I knew it mattered to me so I decided to pursue that path.

So, why did you join the particular edtech startups and companies that you did? What was the draw towards those particular ones?

I believed in the educators who were leading them. They have all been led by an educator or very deeply co-led by one. One of my fears when moving into education was that we, engineers, would see only engineering problems and lose sight of our users. Because of that, I always try to make sure that the loudest decision-making voice has had some real education experience.

That’s very interesting. As an engineer, which of your skills have been the most important in your career?

I would say the most important skills haven’t been related to any algorithms or coding or architecture, but learning how to apply an engineering-style thinking and problem-solution thinking, particularly to complex problems like education.

What skills have you had to develop on the job?

Working for and with a school is very different than working for a tech company. I’ve had to adjust and learn new skills working in this environment. Some of the differences are surface-level, like benefits and paid time off, but others are pretty deep, like collaboration and feedback style.

Here’s one example of these differences: A big part of teaching is reinforcing positive behaviors. By contrast, part of my [engineering] job is soliciting critical product feedback to make improvements. When I first started at Summit, I noticed that teachers were very good at finding positive things to give feedback on. This quality is great in the teaching context, but can be challenging when trying to get at a product’s flaws. I’ve learned on the job how to create safe places for educators to give more critical feedback and how to better glean insights from feedback that might not be as overtly critical as I was used to.

Having been in education and edtech for so long, what is the toughest part of having a career in this particular sector?

I think there is a funny disconnect in the industry. A lot my engineering friends say, “I really would love to find a way to contribute and use my engineering skills to help out schools.” And a lot of my teacher friends say, “If only I had some technological solution for X problem so that I could focus on the part of my job that I want to be doing.” There seems to be some kind of mismatch between edtech companies and end users.

Learning how to work with a school, understand its needs, build a product and build a business around it is not a clear path by any means. There are some really positive examples out there of companies that have done it. However, the hardest part of this industry is learning how to understand the needs of a school or an educator and then turning those insights into an actual solution to their problems.

Well, you’ve already answered this question a bit, which was: What advice do you have for folks who are interested in engineering in the education field? Is there anything you would like to build on?

I think by far my biggest advice is this: If you don’t have classroom experience and are building a product, it’s tempting to think you know exactly what you’re doing because we all went to school, and we think that we know what school is.

But, we don’t know what school is. And we definitely don’t know what teaching is, especially as engineers. So my advice is to over-correct for this and build empathy for actual teachers in actual classrooms—not the theoretical idea you have about what teaching should or could be or was for you. Because that almost certainly is not going to land with educators today.


Filed under school leaders

Coaching a Math Teacher (Education Realist)

This post comes from the blog Education Realist. While I usually avoid postings from anonymous authors, this full time teacher who writes under the pseudonym of Education Realist is someone I have come to know and respect as a teacher and person. I have observed this teacher in math and social studies lessons; we have also met and had lunch discussing many issues in public schools. It appeared October 22, 2017

In 2011’s Personal Best, Atul Gawande recounts his desire to “up his game”, by hiring a retired surgeon who had once trained him, Robert Osteen, to act as a coach.  I often reread the article just for the best passage in an already great piece: when  Osteen gives Gawande feedback for the first time.

Prior to his own coaching experience, Gawande explores the difference between “coaching” and “teaching” in the teaching career itself. He sits in on a lesson and coaching session with  an 8th grade math teacher. One of the coaches was a history teacher, the other a math teacher who’d given up teaching to work at the district. While Gawande implies coaching is unusual, many school districts have coaching staffs, usually made up of history teachers and middle school math teachers, just like this one.

Everything that crackles and glows when Gawande describes Osteen’s observations falls with a thud in the teaching section. The lesson on simplifying radicals sounded fairly traditional, but seemed dull in the telling. The coaching feedback was similar to what I’ve experienced–banal platitudes. Socratic questioning. “What do you think you could do to make it better?” (Translated: I personally have no idea.) Not the same assertive advice Osteen gave Gawande, but carefully scripted prompts. Critzer seemed to like the “feedback”, such as it was, but I found the whole exchange extremely antiseptic. In no way were the two coaches “operating” (heh) on the same level as Osteen’s expert.

In 2011 I was a newbie. Now I’m edging towards a full decade of teaching and have now mentored  three teachers through induction and one student teacher. I’m better prepared to think about coaching, both as provider and recipient, and the stark differences in those two passages keep coming back to me.

My ed school supervisor , a full-metal discovery proponent, gave me one of the great learning experiences of my entire life. She never tried to convert me or push particular lesson approaches.  I can still remember the excitement I felt as she pushed me to think of new methods to achieve my goals, while I realized that regardless of teaching philosophy, teaching objectives remain resolutely the same: are the kids engaged? Are they learning, or parroting back what they think I want to hear? Am I using time effectively?  Osteen’s feedback reminded me of those conversations, and as I moved into a mentor role, she became my model.

A couple weeks ago, a district curriculum meeting ended early and I went back to school just in time for fourth block to observe my newest induction mentee.  This was an unscheduled observation, but she welcomed me into her pre-algebra class for a lesson on simplifying fractions prior to multiplication. Through the lesson, the students worked on this worksheet. The concepts involved are not dissimilar from the ones in Jennie Critzer’s lesson.

Here’s my feedback, delivered immediately after the bell rang.

“Okay, I’m going to split my feedback into three categories. First up are issues involving safety and management that you should take action on immediately. Everything subsequent is my opinion and advice  based on my teaching preferences as well as what I saw of your teaching style. I will try to separate objective from method. If you agree with the objective but not the method, then we’ll brainstorm other ideas. If you disagree with the objective, fine! Argue back. OK?” She agreed.

“For immediate action, make students put their skateboards under that back table, or in a corner completely away from foot traffic. The administration will support you in this in the unlikely event a student refuses to obey you, I’d also suggest making all the students put their backpacks completely under the desk. It’s like ski week around here, you nearly tripped twice. Now for the suggestions…”

“Wait. That’s the only mandatory change? My classroom management is good?”

“Yes. Kids were attentive and on task. But I want you to move about the room more, as you’ll see, and the way your kids strew their stuff around the floor, you’ll kill yourself.”

“I was worried about management because the students often seem…slow to respond.”

“We can talk more about your concerns before our formal observation so I can watch that closely. I’d like more enthusiasm, more interest, but that’s a subjective thing we’ll get into next. They listen to you and follow your requests. They’re trying to learn. You’ve got buy-in. You’re waiting for quiet. All good.”

“Phew. I’m relieved.”

“Now, some opinions. I’d like you to work more on your delivery and pacing.  You are anchored to the front of the class during your explanation time. Move about! Walk around the room. Own it. It’s your space.”

“I am never sure how to do that.”

“Practice. When you have a few sentences nailed down, just walk to the back by the door,  stand there for a minute or so, then move to another point, all while talking. Then go back up front. Do that until it feels comfortable. Then ask a question while away from the front. Then practice introducing a new topic while away, and so on.”

“I didn’t think of practicing. I thought it would come naturally.”

“I’m as big a  movie star teacher as they get, and what I just described is how I escaped the front-left cellblock.”


“Next up: you’re killing the flow of the lesson.  Here’s what you did today: give a brief description of method, work an example, assign two problems, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Then assign two more, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Lather, rinse, repeat. This precludes any concentrated work periods and it’s hurting your ability to help your top students. It’s also really boring.”

“Yes, many of my students have worked all the way through the handout. But I have to help the students who don’t get it right away and that takes time, right?”

“Sure.  So give a brief lecture with your own examples that illustrate two or three key concepts–NOT the ones on the worksheet. And while that lesson is going on, my advice is to insist that all students watch you. Right now, the strong students are completely ignoring your lesson to work the handout–and from what I can tell, occasionally getting things wrong.”

“Yes, they don’t know as much as they think they do in every case. But it’s good that they’re working, right? They’re interested?”

“Not if they aren’t paying attention to you. You are the diva. Attention must be paid.”

“But if they know it all…”

“Then they can finish it quickly after your lesson–as you say, they sometimes make mistakes you covered. So do an up front lesson of 15-20 minutes or less, depending on the topic. Then release them to work on the entire page or assignment. Let them work at their own pace. You walk around the room, giving them feedback. Don’t let the stronger kids move ahead in your packet. Have another handout ready that challenges them further You might have an answer sheet ready so kids can check their own work.”

She was taking notes. “How do I get these more challenging handouts?”

“Ask other teachers. Or I’ll show you how to build some. I know you’re using  someone else’s curriculum, but you can have additional challenges ready to keep your top kids humble. Math gets much harder. They need to be pushed.”

“So then I teach upfront and give them 30-45 minutes to do all the work, giving the kids who finish more work. Maybe a brief review at the end.”


“Got it. I’m going to try this.”

“Last thing on delivery: you’ve got a Promethean. Use it. It will free you from the document camera.”

“I don’t know how. I asked the tech guy for guidance and he said you were one of the most knowledgeable people on this brand.”

“Well, let’s do that next. Now, onto the much more difficult third topic: your curriculum. I could see you often backtracking from your own, authentic instruction method to return to the worksheet which forcefeeds one method: find the Greatest Common Factor or bust.  I could tell you didn’t like this approach, because you kept on saying ‘they want you to use GCF’, meaning the folks who developed the worksheet.”

“Yes, I kept forgetting to avoid my own method and  support the worksheet’s method.”


“Well, I have to use that worksheet.”

“Toots, you don’t have to use a thing. You’re the teacher. They can’t require you to teach it. I don’t dislike the curriculum, but that particular worksheet is flawed. As I walked round your room, I saw kids who just cancelled the first factor they saw, and then had an incomplete simplification. So 9/27 became 3/9 because the kid turned 9 into 3×3 and 27 into 9×3.”

“Yes, that’s what I saw, too. They didn’t realize it wasn’t fully simplified, because they weren’t realizing the need to find the GCF.”

“That’s because the method isn’t as important as the end result.  Who cares if they use that method? That’s what the one student said who challenged you, right? You were trying to push her to find the GCF, and she pushed back, saying ‘what difference does it make?’ and you were stuck because you agreed with her, but felt forced into this method.”

“God, that’s so right,” she groaned.

“But you weren’t giving them any plan B, any way to see if they’d achieved the goal. How much advanced math have you taught? Algebra 2, Trig, Precalc? None? You should observe some classes to see how essential factoring is. I talked to many of your students, and none have any real idea what the lesson’s purpose was. Why do we simplify at all? What was the difference between simplifying fractions and multiplying them?  What are factors? Why do we use factors?  I suggest returning to this tomorrow and confess that the student was correct, that in the case of simplifying fractions by eliminating common factors, there are many ways to get to the end result. Acknowledge you were trying to be a good sport and use the method in the handout, but it’s not the method you use.”

She wrote all this down. “And then I need to tell them how to know that they have fully simplified.”

“Exactly. Here’s what I saw as the two failures of the worksheet and your lesson: first, you didn’t tell them how they could test their results for completeness. Then, you didn’t tell them the reason for this activity. Namely, SIMPLIFY FIRST. When using numbers, it’s just an annoying few extra steps. But when you start working with binomials, failing to factor is disastrous for novices.”

“OK, but how can I circle back on this? Just tell them that I’m going to revisit this because of what I saw yesterday?”

“Yes! I recommend a simple explanation of  relatively prime. That’s the goal, right? The method doesn’t matter if that’s the end result.  And then, here’s a fun question that will startle your top kids. Given “two fourths”, why can we simplify by changing it to 2×1 over 2×2 and ‘canceling out’ the twos, but we can’t simplify by changing it to 1+1 over 1+3 and ‘cancel out’ the ones? Why don’t we tell them to simplify across fractiosn when adding? ”

“Wow. That’s a great question.”

“Yes. Then come up with a good, complicated fraction multiplication example and show them why all these things are true. Make them experience the truth by multiplying, say, 13/42 and 14/65. They might not retain all the information. But here’s what’s important, in my view: they’ll remember that the explanation made sense at the time. They’ll have faith. Furthermore, they’ll see you as an expert, not just someone who’s going through a packet that someone else built for her.”

“Ouch. But that’s how I feel.”

“Even when you’re going through someone else’s curriculum, you have to spend time thinking about the explanation you give, the examples you use. This isn’t a terrible curriculum, I like a lot of it. But fill in gaps as needed. Maybe try a graphic organizer to reinforce key issues.  Also, try mixing it up. Build your own activities that take them through the problems in a different way. Vary it up. You’ve got a good start. The kids trust you. You can push off in new directions.”

I then gave her a brief Promethean tutorial and told her I’d like to  see a lesson with some hands on activities or “cold starts” (activities or problems with no lecture first), if she’s interested in trying.


Mid-career teachers, like those in any other profession, are going to vary in their desire and interest in improving their game. Twitter and the blogosphere are filled with teachers who write about their practice.  Perusing social media is a much better form of  development than a district coach that isn’t experienced in working with the same population and subject. Conversations with motivated colleagues interested in exploring their practice, but hared to find the time or interested participants.

But  unlike other professions, we teachers are given ample, and often paid, opportunity to be coaches, and not the weak-tea district sorts. Induction and other new teacher programs give us a chance to push others to find their best.  I find these activities also lead me to review and improve my own practice.

If you’re tasked with helping beginning teachers, then really dig in. Challenge them. Encourage them to push back, but do more than ask a few questions. They’ll thank you later. Often, they’ll thank you right away.


Filed under how teachers teach, school leaders

“The Dance of Ideology” (Charles Payne)

A sociologist from the University of Chicago, Charles Payne has taught and worked in urban schools for decades. Based upon his work in Chicago schools and many experiences in urban districts, Payne authored So Much Reform, So Little Change (2008). In the following excerpt from that book, Payne distills the basic assumptions that drive school reformers (including educators) from both the political left and right. He believes that the history of urban school reform and the current context calls for rethinking both sets of ideas in trying to improve big city schools.

…For progressives, [their] ideas include the following Holy Postulates:

  1. Thou Shalt Never Criticize the Poor. It is okay to imply that the poor have agency but agency only to do good. If the poor do anything that’s counterproductive, it is only because of the inexorable weight of oppression, which leaves them no choice. We do not talk about poor children or parents as part of their own problem.
  2. The Only Pedagogy is Progressive Pedagogy and Thou Shalt Have NO Other Pedagogy Before it. Drill and practice is everywhere and always bad … [and] the devil’s handiwork…. [A]nything that suggests centralization or standardization of instruction has the taint of evil. Context is irrelevant–teachers in a given building may have questionable content knowledge, there may be no support structure for teaching, teachers may not believe in their own efficacy or in their students. Doesn’t matter. Real teaching is always inquiry-based, student-centered, constructivist.
  3. Leadership in a Community of Professionals Is Always Facilitative, Inclusive, and Democratic. Again, we advocate this without regard to the context, without regard to the degree of social capital in a school or the degree of organizational coherence. This is part of the larger set of ideas which holds that real change must be voluntary; you must have buy-in from the bottom before you can do anything.
  4. Test Scores Don’t Mean a Thing. They don’t reflect the most important types of growth, it’s easy to cheat, easy to teach to the test. Tests take us away from the real business of education. On the other hand, if test scores rise in the context of progressive instruction, then they are further proof of the superiority of that method of teaching.

The errors of the right are presumably more dangerous at the moment because the right has institutional power. Conservatives proceed from a reductionist set of sensibilities: a reductionist sense of child development, a reductionist sense of teaching, of research, and of human motivation. (Sign on a Chicago  principal’s desk, “The flogging will continue until morale improves around here.”) These sensibilities translate into a contrasting set of postulates.

  1. Money Doesn’t Matter. The mother of all conservative sins is refusing to think about resource allocation. The popularity of vouchers and charters is due partly to the fact that they present themselves as revenue neutral. Look at Washington, D.C., they will say. Lavish spending and terrible results….
  2. It Only Counts If It Can Be Counted; Only the Quantifiable Is Real. This applies to everything from children’s growth to teachers’ credentials….
  3. The Path of Business Is the True Path. Leadership, decisionmaking, and organizational functioning should all mirror what is found in the American business community, renowned for its efficiency and hardheadedness. One result is the fetishizing of privatization, often without any regard to context or attention to the instructional core.
  4. Educators are Impractical. Another corollary of the romanticizing of the business model. In contrast to the practical, get-it-done business people, educators are seen as losers, dreamy, if not out-of-touch whiners.
  5. Change is Simple If You Do It Right. “Doing it right” often comes to mean equating change with the change of structures. There is very little sense of social process. If we organize schools as charters, that’s assumed to mean something fundamental has changed. Big Magic.

These are only ideal types, and both camps have moved some, over the last decade especially. Still, this does capture some of the central tendencies of the two camps….




Filed under Reforming schools

Zombie Reforms and Personalized Learning (Part 2)

In Part 1, I described an instructional innovation Professor Fred Keller designed in the mid-1960s aimed at transforming the traditional college undergraduate lecture course in psychology. Called Personalized System of Instruction, PSI was a course using behaviorist techniques that permitted students to move at their own pace in finishing assignments, taking tests, and completing the course. Similar courses in the social and natural sciences spread rapidly across university campuses throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

Initially popular as they were in converting traditional courses into individually guided lessons, these university courses faded.  By the mid-1990s, few faculty used PSI for introductory courses.

Evidence of higher student scores for those completing the PSI course as compared to traditional lecture course, however, clearly supported the innovation. Dropping PSI, then, had little to do with its demonstrated success with students. Other factors played a part in the disappearance of PSI on college campuses. Many professors who had adopted PSI came to realize the huge amount of work they had to put in with few tangible rewards from their department. Moreover, the lack of university incentives for improved teaching–research was believed to be far more important than teaching–drained enthusiasm from those who saw positive results of PSI courses. These and other factors led to the demise of an innovation that seemingly worked.

It is puzzling, however, that research studies demonstrated the superiority of PSI over traditional lecture courses yet still universities dropped such courses. With the growth of online learning–or distance learning–advocates in the past decades have talked about resurrecting versions of PSI especially because of the current ubiquity of devices and software that could be easily applied to undergraduate science and math courses. So it is possible that some incarnation of PSI may stage a comeback not in its original behaviorist design reliant upon text but as online course software conveying science concepts in undergraduate courses. A once-heralded innovation may arise from the pile of dead reform. Alas, another zombie reform.

Zombie reforms, according to economist Paul Krugman, contains “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.” Think of “learning styles,” “left brain/right brain” teaching, and year-round schooling (see here, here, and here).

That is not the case for PSI. Strong evidence supported it continuation. But that second life for PSI hasn’t happened yet in higher education. Something similar to what occurred with PSI in higher education, however is occurring in K-12 schools.

With the onslaught of high-decibel policy talk on “personalized learning” and an array of programs popping up across the country funded by donors and corporate icons in technology in the past decade, self-paced and individualized software, most of which have few if any studies about their effectiveness, have appeared in many schools. In the history of school efforts to individualize teaching and learning, such reforms have appeared again and again (see here and here). And here is another “again.”

Why do zombie reforms pushing individualization in K-12 schools and often lacking solid evidence keep getting resurrected?

Answer: The abiding impact of age-graded school structures and cultures.

The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, solved the  problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to masses of children entering urban schools in the 20th century.  Today, the age-graded school is everywhere. Most Americans have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by age to school “grades”; it houses teachers in separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into weekly chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through a school year of 36-weeks, and, after passing tests would be promoted.

These structures and the culture that have grown within age-graded schools over the past century, however, say nothing about which of the multiple purposes tax-supported public schools should pursue (e.g., civic engagement, preparation for the workplace, strengthening individual character, cultivating problem-solving and critical thinking, and making society more just). Taxpayers, voters, policy elites, and donors decide.

Late-19th and early 20th century critics of age-graded schools saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates hence causing school dropouts as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because teachers flunked them repeatedly.*

The development of twice yearly promotions and ability groups smoothed out some of the inherent problems of age-graded schools. But left untouched the overall structure of the age-graded school that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class where every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be held back. These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and have persisted decade after decade. The notion that children differ in how fast they learn knowledge and skills was out-of-sync with the age-graded school.

Nonetheless, reformers launched repeated efforts to “individualize” instruction.  The Winnetka Plan and the Dalton Plan appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, teaching machines in the 1950s, computer-assisted instruction in the 1970s and 1980s, and now “personalized learning”.**

In each instance, a flurry of hyperbole accompanied the innovation, programs spread proclaiming the end of the graded school, but as time went by, these efforts to individualize teaching and learning lost their mojo. The age-graded school won again and again.

The hullabaloo of new technologies again has promised that 1:1 devices and extraordinarily powerful interactive software will turn the dream of individualization into a daily workable reality in U.S. schools.


No reliable and valid body of evidence yet supports such claims for any version of “personalized learning” that is marketed now. Thus, another zombie school reform climbs from the grave to do battle with the historic age-graded school.



*William T. Harris, “The Early Withdrawal of Pupils from School: Its Causes and Its Penalties,” National Educational Association, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses, Boston,1873; E.E. White, “Several Problems in Graded-School Management,” National Educational Association, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses, Detroit, 1874 (Worcester, Mass.: Charles Hamilton, 1874).

**With the Education for All Handicapped children legislation becoming law in 1975 and the subsequent creation of Individualized Education Plans (IEPS), a version of “personalized learning” became a mainstay in special education but has had limited influence in regular schooling.




Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

A Fairy Tale Reform

Once upon a time, there was much unemployment, poverty, and homelessness across our land. Leaders tried one thing after another to end these grim conditions. Nothing worked.

In the midst of these bad times, however, a small group of educators, upset over what our youth were learning in high schools decided to take action.

Schools were dull places. Students listened to teachers, read books, and took exams. Schools were supposed to prepare students for life but much of what they studied they forgot after graduating. Worse yet, what they had learned in school did not prepare them to face the problems of life, think clearly, be creative, or fulfill their civic duties. Complaints to school officials got the same answer repeatedly: little could be done because college entrance requirements determined what courses students took in high school.

So to give high schools the freedom to try new ways of schooling in a democracy, a small band of reformers convinced the best universities to waive their admission requirements and accept graduates from high schools that designed new programs.

Dozens of schools joined the experiment. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students created new courses and ways of teaching teenagers to become active members of the community and still attend college. For eight years, these schools educated students and universities admitted their graduates. And then a war came and the experiment ended. After years passed, few could recall what these schools and colleges did.

A fairy tale? Nope.

Between 1933-1941, thirty high schools in the country and over 300 universities and colleges joined the experiment sponsored by the Progressive Education Association.

Called “The Eight Year Study,” each high school decided for itself what curricula, schedules, and class sizes would be. There were no college admission requirements or must-take tests. Old lesson plans were scrapped. One school sent classes into the West Virginia coal region to study unions. Science, history, art, and math were often combined in projects that students and teachers planned together.

Needless to say, there were stumbles also. A few principals blocked the experiment. Some school faculties divided into warring factions.

While there was much variation among the schools, there were also common elements. Many of the large public high schools (of the 30, fifteen were private) created small schools within the larger one. Principals increased the authority of teachers to design and steer the program; teachers crossed departmental boundaries and created a core curriculum (math/science and English/social studies), set aside three hours a day for teams to work with groups of students, and planned weekly units with students.

What happened to these students when they attended college? To find an answer, evaluators established 1,475 pairs of college students, each consisting of a graduate from an experimental school and one graduate of another high school matched as closely as possible as to age, sex, race, social class, and academic performance. They then compared their performance in college.

Evaluators found that graduates of the thirty schools earned a slightly higher grade average and more academic honors than those who attended regular high school. Furthermore, the “guinea pigs,” as they were called, were more precise in their thinking, displayed more ingenuity in meeting new situations, and demonstrated an active interest in national and world issues than their matched counterpart.

What these startling results showed over 70 years ago was that there was no one single best way of schooling teenagers. The fears that parents and taxpayers had about experimenting with high school courses, organization, and teaching proved hollow in “The Eight Year Study.”

The results of these studies appeared during World War II. The war effort swallowed up any further interest in experimenting with high school programs. Whatever the reasons, “The Eight Year Study” lapsed into the obscurity of scholarly footnotes. Later generations of reformers seldom inquired or cared about this large-scale, non-federally funded experiment that showed convincingly that schools, given the freedom to experiment, could produce graduates that not only did well academically in college but, far more important, displayed an active interest in civic affairs, were resourceful in handling new situations, and could think clearly.

So what does this half-century old experiment say to us in the in the 21st century about school reform?

1. When engaged teachers, administrators, and students are given the freedom to experiment and the help to do it, they will come through.
2. There is no one best way of schooling youth.
3. Students can graduate high school who are academically engaged, involved in their communities, and thoughtful problem-solvers.
4. Standards of excellence that work in schools are those that are set and done locally by adults and students—not imposed from the top-down.

In 2017, federal and state decision-makers and policy elites drive school reform. They set standards, test students, and punish low performance. What “The Eight Year Study” demonstrated is that there are locals–districts, schools, and practitioners—who have the expertise and can be trusted. When locals are trusted they get engaged and produce results that still stagger us looking back nearly three-quarters of a century.


Filed under Reforming schools

Stability and Change in a Four-Decade Career in Teaching (Part 3)

After leaving the superintendency, I spent the next twenty years as  a professor at Stanford University. I taught four courses during the academic year and did research. Most of the courses I taught were about the history of school reform, leadership in schools, instruction and curriculum (for those preparing to teach history in public schools), and organizational theory. I team-taught “The History of School Reform” with historian of education David Tyack for a decade. I also team-taught with high school history teacher Lee Swenson a course on Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction for ten years. The seminar I taught annually was “Good Schools: Research, Policy, and Practice.” After I retired in 2001, I continued to teach the “Good Schools” course every other year until 2013. So for over a quarter-century, I have taught courses at the graduate level. I noted often to myself that what I had learned in teaching 16 year-olds, especially the need for a broad-ranging repertoire of teaching methods applied in many ways to 26 year-olds.

A specific example of how I taught courses might help readers get a clearer sense of my teaching graduate students in their 20s and 30s. Here is an actual lesson plan I prepared for the “Good Schools” seminar I taught in February 2006. The seminar met for an hour and fifty minutes twice a week.

The planning for the lesson generally went like this: the night before I taught, I would re-read the selections I had assigned to students from a reader that I had compiled and they bought. I would type out the lesson plan on my laptop. Next morning, I would review the readings, revise questions and items that I had in the lesson, then go to the campus classroom, arrange the tables in a horseshoe design, open my laptop and make any last-minute changes. I would use chalk to write on the greenboard an outline of the lesson and the central question I wanted the seminar to answer for that day. To keep the lesson moving and avoid spending too much time on any part of the content or activity, I would have on a nearby table a small digital clock.

The lesson plan below has the typos, bold-faced typing and sentences in capital letters as I had originally prepared it for a class mid-way through a quarter-long seminar. For elaboration on each part of the lesson, see description at end of post.*

February 12, 2006

Assignment for Tuesday. Questions on project? Announcements? I will pass back your analyses of articles at end of class today.


  2. Summary on growing “good” elementary schools:

Based on these examples and earlier ones we have read about (Comer schools, Core Knowledge, KIPP Schools, Alliance Schools in Texas, Success for All, Child Development Project, Accelerated Schools, etc.—WHAT GENERALIZATIONS, IF ANY, CAN YOU DRAW FROM THE EVIDENCE ABOUT HOW TO MAKE A “GOOD” ELEMENTARY SCHOOL?

  1. Divide class into 6-7 groups—count off to get mix of people.

TASKS: Come up with at least 2 generalizations that the group can support with evidence from readings, direct experience, and other sources. Take a sheet of paper and divide into 2 columns. Label one column GENERALIZATION; the other column, label EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT GENERALIZATION. If group cannot come up with generalization, say why.

  1. Whole-group discussion of generalizations.

QUESTIONS: Which of your generalizations, if any, apply to high-acieving affluent suburban elementary schools? DISCUSS

Which of your generalizations, if any, apply to growing “good” high schools?

  1. Let’s now turn to growing “good” high schools. What is different between elementary and high schools?


           *school organization

             *time schedule

           *training of teachers (generalist vs. subject specialist)

           *contact time

           *external expectations

  1. Let’s now look at different kinds of “good” high schools: Recall—Edward R. Murrow High School, HB-Woodlawn, The Wade High School (Central Park East Secondary School). ASK CLASS ABOUT HIGH SCHOOLS THEY WENT TO. HOW MANY WENT TO WHAT THEY WOULD CALL A “GOOD” HIGH SCHOOL? SIZE? WHAT MADE IT “GOOD?”

            *Science Skills Center (650 kids)


  1. Let’s turn to Small High School movement. What makes small high schools “good” schools?

Mike Copland/Elizabeth Boatright piece on leadership in small high schools—WHAT RESPONSE DO YOU HAVE TO THEIR LESSONS?

Does the recent evaluation of the Gates venture into creating and sustaining “good” high schools influence your opinion of small high schools? Why yes or no?

In what ways, if at all, does Michelle Fine influence your opinion of the small high school movement?

Do “good” high schools have to be small?

SUMMARY: How, then, do you grow “good” high schools?

The above lesson was not a blueprint that I followed step-by-step. Student questions and flashes of insight I got from student comments during our discussion would lead to departures in the plan. Sometimes, parts of the lesson would unfold in unanticipated ways going far deeper than I had planned. I would glance at the small clock on my table and make a decision to continue or segue to the next question or activity. More often than not, I would be unable to complete what I planned, carrying it over until the next session.

Was the way I taught graduate courses similar or different from the path I had taken in teaching high school history for 14 years that I described in Parts 1 and 2?

The short answer is that in teaching high school in the 1970s and in teaching a graduate student seminar I hugged the middle of the spectrum between teacher- and student-centered instruction, using a mix of both methods and activities in the content and format of each lesson. The reforms that swept across the K-12 and higher education landscapes seldom bent my lessons in these years.

The long answer is that in those initial 14 years as a high school history teacher, I had traveled from the teacher-centered end of the spectrum to the middle of the continuum by blending traditional content and format with student-centered activities. Teaching at Stanford I continued to hug the middle of that spectrum. The graduate students I taught in those years, over time, would have seen their professor trying out new ideas in teaching and cautiously using new technologies provoking occasional laugh-inducing stumbles while continuing to mix old and new techniques such as video clips, frequent small group discussions, student presentations of their research projects, and using content from the Internet during a lesson.

Had a few Stanford students who had taken my “Effective Schools” course first offered in 1982 returned a quarter-century later and sat in my “Good Schools” seminar they would quickly note the differences in readings I required students to do, the sparsity of lectures save for occasional mini ones, and that I had abandoned the overhead projector for new technologies available to both students and the professor. They would have marked these as changes from the earlier course they had taken.

The more observant of those alumni, however, would have noticed that the lesson was still teacher-directed. They would have noted an underlying similarity in the format of the twice-weekly 110-minute lesson in whole-group discussions, small group work, a central question guiding the day’s lesson and much student participation. And, yes, even that their professor still glanced at a digital clock to keep moving the lesson along.

In short, my career as a public high school teacher and private university professor spanning 39 years reveals both continuity and change in how I taught.



*I would begin the nearly two-hour seminar by making the next session’s assignment. Every student had a syllabus with the goals, course requirements, week-by-week readings accompanying each time we meet. The “project” refers to pairs of students researching a particular organization (e.g., school, business, non-profit) that they believed was “good.” After they completed the research, they would present their project to the rest of the seminar. Thus, the reference to a schedule for presentations. Students and I constructed the criteria evaluating each presentation.

Either students or I would make announcements by university events, upcoming talks on schools that were relevant to the course. I use the numbers in the lesson plan to elaborate and explain what I did.

1.The central question for each lesson I would have written on the whiteboard before the seminar began.

2. The students and I had gone over the literature on growing “good” elementary schools in the previous session with many examples of schools seen as exemplary. This was a review and opportunity for some students to raise questions and work through any confusion they had over what was discussed. After review and questions, I would ask the question of group about what generalizations they could make about growing “good” elementary schools.

3.Small group work requiring discussion and decisions about generalizations that could be made with supporting evidence drawn from readings they had done.

4.Small groups (I would have students count off to form groups with ever-changing participants) would report their generalizations to rest of seminar and after I would segue into a whole group discussion of what small groups had concluded. The listed questions guided the seminar discussion. In questioning, I would call on students who raised their hands and, from time to time, cold-call on students who had not volunteered.

5. Segue to growing “good” high schools. Here I gave a 10-minute explanation of the differences between elementary and secondary schools. Students know that they could interrupt these mini-lectures with questions. And they often did.

6. In this part of the lesson, I turn to the readings students had done on different kinds of high schools perceived as “good” by various researchers.

7. The Gates Foundation sponsored the growth of small high schools in the U.S. and we discuss readings about the strengths and limitations of these schools.

I end the lesson by returning to the central question and asking the group: how do you grow “good” high schools? The ensuing discussion tells me what students take away (or miss) from 110 minutes we were together that morning.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools