Category Archives: Reforming schools

A Week in the Life of a Baltimore School Returning to In-Person Classes (Erica Green)

New York Times Journalist Erica Green spent a week in a Baltimore school where in-person instruction resumed. It is rare to get such a peek inside a big city district school during the pandemic–nearly all large urban districts are shuttered and rely upon remote instruction. This article appeared November 28, 2020

Zia Hellman prepared to welcome her kindergarten students back to Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School this month the way any teacher would on the first day of school: She fussed over her classroom.

Ms. Hellman, 26, dodged around the triangular desks, spaced six feet apart and taped off in blue boxes. She fretted about the blandness of the walls, fumbled with the plastic dividers covering name tags and arranged the individual yoga mats that replaced colorful carpets. Every window was open for extra ventilation, chilling the air.

“I wonder how they’re going to react to all of this,” she said, hands on her hips, scanning the room for the last time. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel, but it feels right.”

Ms. Hellman was among about two dozen teachers and staff members required to return to work on Nov. 16 for the first in-person instruction in Baltimore City Public Schools since March. The city was the first large school district in Maryland and the latest among urban districts in the country to tiptoe into one of the highest-stakes experiments in the history of the nation’s public education system: teaching face-to-face in a pandemic.

Returning to the classroom has not been easy; neither has remote learning.

Educators looking to get back in front of students have had to navigate conflicting guidance from politicians and public health officials. Some teachers’ unions have refused to return to buildings until the virus abates, ostracizing colleagues who dare break with them. On the other hand, the country’s most vulnerable children have sustained severe academic and social harm from the remote-learning experiment. Parents, navigating their own economic and work struggles, are increasingly desperate.

Ms. Hellman has yearned to be back in her school building in northeast Baltimore since September. She also understands the risks.

 “I feel like I’m a bit in ‘The Hunger Games,’” Ms. Hellman said. “I didn’t volunteer as tribute, I was chosen as tribute. But I want to be here for my students.”

Superintendents, meantime, have had to navigate a firestorm of political pressure, parental preference and the weight of a once-in-a lifetime public health crisis.

“Superintendents have always had to deal with conflicting interests, but it’s never been this kind of life-and-death balance,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large, urban public school systems across the country. “To have interests and decisions changing week to week, day to day, makes this situation unlike anything public education has ever faced.”

For Sonja Santelises, the chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, the decision to reopen 27 schools on Nov. 16 to about 1,200 academically at-risk students — such as kindergartners, special education students and English-language learners — last week was not a choice but an obligation. She made the call on the advice of the city’s public health commissioner.

“If I were to cling to one-liners or seek to score political points like some people want, I would choose not to see those families who need options, who need translators, those refugee families who walked miles to get their children an education,” Ms. Santelises said. “I will not do that.”

Baltimore reduced the number of planned building reopenings to 27 from 44 as the virus surged in certain parts of the city. But the local teachers’ union is calling for buildings in Ms. Santelises’ district to stay closed until they are deemed absolutely safe or a vaccine is widely available. It has pressured individual teachers against volunteering to go back and encouraged parents to boycott.

Those tensions reverberate across the country, where schools are grappling with the pandemic in widely varying ways, with some closing this month after opening earlier this fall even as others like in Baltimore just now are trying to reopen.

“We’re not just being obstructionist; we’re obstructing the district from putting people’s lives at risk,” said Diamonté Brown, the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

More than 70,000 schoolchildren left Baltimore classrooms in March, when the coronavirus outbreak in the United States was declared a pandemic. Since then, school leaders have focused on temporary measures. They bought computers and internet-access devices, sent worksheets to students’ homes, staffed their cafeterias and buses to serve meals to their communities, and waited for direction from local and federal health officials that never really came.

But now, with the pandemic threatening to derail the education and prospects of a generation of children, district leaders are feeling pressure to move on their own.

In Washington, D.C., internal testing data shows steep declines in the number of kindergartners through second grade students meeting literacy benchmarks, The Washington Post reported. In Houston, huge numbers of middle and high school students are failing their first semester, according to The Houston Chronicle. Even affluent, high-performing districts like Fairfax County, Va., a Washington suburb, are reporting alarming rates of middle and high school students failing classes, particularly English-language learners and students with disabilities — two populations that a recent Government Accountability Office report found were poorly served by remote learning.

Among the most alarming statistics are the significant enrollment declines that districts across the country are experiencing, particularly among kindergartners. Public education is out of reach for some families without internet access or with home lives that are unconducive to remote leaning. Some families have simply given up.

Ms. Hellman, in her fourth year of teaching kindergarten, understood what returning to the classroom would mean. She would not be able to see her 92-year-old grandmother. She might be subject to “corona-shaming” by colleagues, family and friends who have stayed away from work. She was putting herself personally at risk.

But, she reasoned, “I’m young, I’m healthy.”

At 9:15 a.m., each of the six students whose families had opted for in-person learning in her classroom received temperature checks. Two minutes later, one student was excitedly holding his mask up to show her its design.

“I love your mask,” Ms. Hellman told him, “but I think it would be cuter on.”

At 9:30, all the students were allowed to remove their masks to snack on Cinnamon Toast Crunch and applesauce. “It’s only 10 minutes,” she told them and herself, “and the windows are open.”

By 10:30, things had settled down, and she was just a teacher. Students were practicing writing their letters. By 11, they were preparing for recess by singing to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”:

My mask is on my face.

My mask is on my face.

Masks keep you and me safe.

My mask is on my face.

“The purpose of the first day is to feed them, have fun and send them home,” Ms. Hellman said. “We need them to come back the next day.”

Not only did her six in-class students return that next day, but so did 19 of her students learning virtually. So did Brandon Pinkney, the school’s principal, who was showing her classroom to a parent who was considering sending her son back.

In the 24 hours since in-person classes resumed, Mr. Pinkney was fielding inquiries from parents intrigued by what they were seeing in the classroom through their children’s computer screens at home.

He canvassed the building, popping his head into different classrooms and mentally reconfiguring the spaces, just in case. He was hoping to reserve an extra desk for a student who told him bluntly that he was done with “that virtual stuff” but would return if the school reopened.

“I know he’s in the streets,” Mr. Pinkney said. “If I don’t see him this week, I’m going to get him.”

Many staff members in the school said they had only returned to the building because it was Mr. Pinkney’s voice on the line, telling them that they had been chosen.

He promised transparency and support, and that was enough for Rachael Charles. A special-education teacher with two teenagers at home, she wasn’t as easy to persuade as Ms. Hellman, who acknowledged that as a young, childless teacher, she did not face the same choice between her life and livelihood.

With the Black community disproportionately affected by the virus, Ms. Charles, who is African-American, had been working out over the summer, taking vitamins and alkaline water, just in case. But she still explored taking a leave of absence.

“I love my students dearly, but I’m coming back into the classroom to take care of children when no one is taking care of mine,” she said.

Safety risks aside, Ms. Charles wondered if she would be able to be the teacher that her students remembered. “I’m very hands-on, and it’s hard to have them right in my reach and not support them the way they need,” she said.

When a student with a slight physical disability struggled to pull his mask down to eat lunch, she initially stood outside his blue box, encouraging him. “Under your chin, you can do it.”

But before long, her hand was on his mouth, and she pulled it down herself.

Downstairs, Mr. Pinkney was in a hallway with a group of clinicians debating whether to do virtual or in-person special education assessments.

“It doesn’t make sense to do them virtually when we have assessment rooms here,” he said. “They’re cleaned every hour on the hour.”

“Every hour?” a skeptical voice could be heard asking over a speakerphone.

“On the hour,” a voice chimed in from nearby.

That voice belonged to Donice Willis, the school custodian. A 66-year-old grandmother of 11, she had never stopped working during the pandemic, and she could not wait for children to return to the building.

She said she knew that she was among the highest risk groups for the coronavirus. She hopes to retire at 70, but she said she had relinquished control of that goal to the same higher power she hopes is protecting her from Covid-19.

“You’re going to go one day from something,” Ms. Willis said. “If God gives me 70, I’ll take it.”

When a maskless student walked out of a classroom she was preparing to clean, she barely flinched: “Put your mask on, pookie,” she said.

‘Hold the Line’: A Superintendent Stands Firm

Around dismissal time on Nov. 18, a Wednesday afternoon, news broke that New York City had reached a coronavirus positivity threshold of 3 percent, which would result in another shutdown of in-person instruction. The city’s schools had been open for less than two months. Within the hour, Washington city officials announced that talks between district and union officials had fallen apart.

Teachers in Baltimore wondered how their city leaders would react. Maryland’s positivity rate was above 6 percent.

Ms. Santelises stood her ground. The science was strong that transmission rates in schools remained low, she said. A teacher had emailed, “hold the line.”Ms. Hellman focused on how well her new normal was going. She was wearing two masks now, and she did not have to remind her students to keep theirs on as much. She gushed over how her in-person students waved at her remote pupils. Her only concern was that her remote learners were missing the banter and nonverbal cues her students were getting in the classroom.

“Today was better,” she said. “It just feels like this is how it is, and it’s only been three days.”

Then came the reality check. Shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Mr. Pinkney emailed the staff to say someone had reported Covid-like symptoms, and two classes had been sent home to quarantine.

“Oh my God,” Ms. Hellman said. “It’s here.”

Mr. Pinkney followed protocols, alerted classmates and staff members, and submitted the case to the district.

Ms. Hellman felt defeated.

“Covid doesn’t care what day it is,” she said. “It doesn’t care that you have a shield in front of your face, it doesn’t care if you have a mask on most of the day, but not 10 minutes while you’re eating.”

Baltimore announced that same day that schools that had begun offering in-person instruction would not resume it after Thanksgiving until Dec. 7, amid warnings about holiday gatherings and travel. Some of the private schools in the area had done the same.

The actions of Baltimore’s private schools during the pandemic have weighed heavily on Ms. Santelises. Those students have clearly had an educational advantage, and one of them is her daughter. Two of her other children attend public charter schools that are closed.

“As a mom, I’m living the difference, and the inequity is astounding” Ms. Santelises said. “I’m saying goodbye to one every morning at the bus stop, and I’m watching the difference it makes. I see my daughters’ faces looking at me at home, like: ‘You all aren’t even going to try?’”

The announcement of the new delay spurred members of the teachers’ union to protest, and members marched to different buildings calling for the district to shut down the buildings for the rest of the semester. By the end of the week, at least 15 staff members had tested positive for the virus, the union said.

Ms. Brown, the union leader, said the district was insulting teachers who had been working around the clock to deliver quality instruction to their students at home.

“There’s more to education than teachers standing in front of students teaching a lesson,” she said.

On Friday, Ms. Hellman was still standing in front of students. As the day drew to a close, she helped a student draw what he was thankful for. A week in, she was crossing into her students’ blue boxes without much thought.

Outside, as the students played together while awaiting their parents, the directions were even more relaxed: “You can take your mask off, but don’t get too close,” Ms. Hellman said.

Sharrea Brown embraced her 5-year-old daughter, Paige Myers. Over the course of the week, Ms. Brown had watched Paige’s mood improve. At home, the frustrated child would yell “You’re not my teacher!” when she tried to help.

Paige said she was nervous about the “bad germ,” so she has a message for other children who want to go back to school: “Keep your mask on.”

Ms. Brown was hopeful that with school open, she could also resume some normalcy. She took a leave of absence from her job in March, and her unemployment was stretching only so far.

“Christmas ain’t looking too good,” Ms. Brown said. “But she’s good,” she said of her daughter. “She’s almost back to feeling like herself again.”

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The Personal Side of Being a Superintendent

In The Managerial Imperative: The Practice of Leadership in Schools (1988), I wrote of my experiences as a superintendent, husband, and father and how the job intersected with my life during and after the workday.  Because the family side of being a superintendent is often unwritten much less talked about–especially during the Covid pandemic, I have updated this earlier version of my experiences for the current book I am writing. All of what follows occurred between 1974-1981 in Arlington County (VA).

The superintendency was both exhilarating and exhausting. As a line from a song put it “Some days were diamonds; some days were stones.” What values I prized about serving the public and educating others were enacted daily; what skills I had were tapped frequently, but even more important, the job jolted me into learning new skills and dipping into hidden reserves of energy. In short, being superintendent stretched me in ways I keenly felt were worthwhile albeit demanding. I enjoyed the job immensely. [i]

But (there invariably is a “but”) there were a number of job-related issues that arose over the years, softening my rosy assessment, forcing me to face the inevitable trade-offs that accompany the top executive post in a school district. Especially with my family.

What initially turned our lives topsy-turvy was the time I had to spend on the job after two years as a graduate student and, before that as a teacher. Prior to the superintendency I simply had more time at home.

In Arlington, my family and I usually began the day at 6:30 when I would get up with Barbara joining me in the kitchen around 7. Sondra and Janice would come down for breakfast shortly after that. If I had an early morning meeting, I would leave and Barbara would get the girls off to elementary and intermediate schools. I would get into the office most of time around 8:00 A.M. with the day often ending after 6PM except for evening meetings with community groups and Board budget meetings and then I would get home after 10PM two to three nights a week.

On those long days, I would race home for dinner at 5:00 P.M. and leave two hours later for a board meeting, work session, or some other community event. During the week, I saw my family for a few minutes in the morning and at dinner. Fatigue tracked me relentlessly the first few years; I’d fall asleep watching the evening news and take long afternoon naps on weekends.  

While we had not given too much thought to the issue of privacy, Barbara and I had made a few decisions about our family’s time together. We had agreed that Friday evening dinners to celebrate the Sabbath were high priority. I had asked the School Board to be excused from obligations on Friday evenings, and they honored my request for seven years.

A listed telephone number proved to be less of an issue than we had anticipated. I rarely received more than a half-dozen calls a week at home from parents, students, or citizens, except during snowstorms or when I made a controversial recommendation to the Board. Surprisingly, we received few crank or obscene phone calls.

Buffering the family from the demanding job was tough enough. Deciding what to do about those social invitations, where much business was transacted informally, without reducing time spent with my family troubled me.

The first week on the job, for example, a principal who headed the administrators union invited me to join a Friday night poker game with a number of principals and district office administrators that met twice a month. My predecessor, he said, had been a regular player for the three years. Moreover, it would offer me a splendid chance to meet some of the veteran staff away from the office in relaxed surroundings. Aware of the advantage in playing poker twice monthly and the costs to my family in missing Sabbath dinners, I thanked the principal for the generous invitation but said no.

Another piece of the “no” decision was the simple fact that I would be making personnel changes and a certain amount of social distance from people I supervised might be best. Over the seven years I moved or replaced at least two-thirds of the principals.

Dinner invitations also proved troublesome for Barbara and me. Invariably at these affairs, conversations would center on school matters and juicy political gossip. These evenings became work for me and difficult for Barbara who was then immersed in completing her undergraduate degree. The last thing both of us wanted to hear on a Saturday night out was more about the Arlington schools. Except for socializing with the few long-time in D.C. and new ones in the county whom we could relax with, we turned down many invitations after our second year in town.

We remained, however, part of the ceremonial life in Arlington. I ate chicken at Boy Scout dinners, sampled appetizers at chamber of commerce affairs (until I dropped out from the organization because of its persistent attacks upon our school budgets), spoke at church suppers; and represented the school board at civic meetings.

I could see now, in ways that I could not have then that entering the community as an outsider and remaining separate from existing social networks, that we paid a price in preventing the superintendency from completely swallowing our lives. But, of course, the shadow of my job, with all of its pluses and minuses, still fell over the family.

For example, our daughters (ages ten and thirteen in 1974) were not only singled out, both positively and negatively by teachers, they also had to deal with all of the complications of being teenagers, losing old friends, gaining new ones, and coping with schoolwork and family issues. The desire to be accepted as newcomers to their schools put a constant strain on both girls; from early on they were seen as being different because of their father’s position and their religion.

Active and smart, Sondra and Janice both enjoyed and hated the attention. While some teachers were especially sensitive to the awkward position the girls were in, others were callous. Principals of the schools they attended were very understanding and tried to help, but little could be done with the occasionally insensitive teacher in a classroom lesson.

When salary negotiations with the teachers union heated up, for example, two of their teachers made caustic, remarks to each girl about her father’s lack of concern for teachers’ economic welfare. The pressures were such that our eldest daughter wanted to try another school. It proved to be the hardest decision that Barbara and I made while I was superintendent. For us, her welfare was more important than concerns over what others might think of a superintendent pulling his daughter out of the public schools. We transferred her to a private school in Washington, D.C., where she began to thrive academically and socially. Of course, the local newspaper carried an article about it. Our other daughter went to a private school for one year but wanted very much to return to the Arlington schools and did so for her high school years.

Barbara was clear on what she wanted. She did not wish to be “the superintendent’s wife,” She wanted to complete her undergraduate degree and enter a profession. In seven years, she finished her degree at George Washington University, earned a masters in social work from Catholic University, and completed internships for a career in clinical social work. Between caring for a family, doing coursework, research papers, tests, and coping with a tired husband, Barbara had little time or concern for meeting others expectations of how a superintendent’s wife should act.

Yet, try as we might, it was difficult to insulate ourselves from the fact that I was the district superintendent. My efforts, for example, to keep my family and my job separate when serious decisions had to be made often did not work. Firing a teacher, determining the size of a pay raise, recommending which schools to close, and dozens of other decisions had to be made. After listening to many individuals and groups, receiving advice from my staff, and hearing all the pros and cons from my closest advisers, I still had to make the decision.

At these times, I might discuss the situation with Barbara. Often, however, there were family concerns that required our attention instead. Nonetheless, I would still come home with the arguments ricocheting in my mind about a recommendation I had to make to the Board or a personnel decision; I would carry on an internal dialogue while I was eating dinner, raking leaves, playing with the girls, or on a weekend trip with the family. I was home, but not there. Over the years, with Barbara’s help, I became more skilled at telling my family that something from the job was bothering me and that if I seemed distracted it had nothing to do with them. But I never fully acquired the knack of leaving serious Issues on the doorstep when I came home.

Sometimes, escaping the job was impossible. Newspaper articles or the television news on the schools entered our home whether we liked it or not. What did stun me, however, were the lengths that some people would go for political advantage, including destroying someone’s reputation. Elected officials, accustomed to political infighting might find such rumor-mongering trivial; however. It jolted my family and me. I’ll give one example.

Shortly before the school board reappointed me for another four years, a board member called to ask if I had ever been arrested in Washington, D.C. on a drug charge. No, I hadn’t, I told her. She said that there was a story that would appear in the next day’s newspaper stating that I had been arrested and put in jail for possession of heroin. Within the next hour, I received a dozen calls from county officials, parents, friends of school board members, and the head of the teachers’ union asking me if the newspaper story was true and if she could help. Finally a newspaper reporter called to say that they were printing the story and did I have any comments to make. I told the reporter that there was no basis for the allegation and that before printing such a lie they would do well to get a record of the alleged arrest and other documentation. The newspaper did not print the story. What shocked me most was the fragility of a professional reputation, the willingness of people to believe the worst (this occurred a few years after Watergate and well before Donald Trump served as President), and the lengths some people would go to destroy a political enemy.

The seven years as superintendent taught me a great deal about the mixing of public and private lives for officials like myself. More prosaic than senators who party or congressmen who resign or presidents who tweet daily, our experiences still map an unfamiliar terrain for a superintendent and family who tried to maintain privacy.


[i] A John Denver song the lyrics of which can be found at: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johndenver/somedaysarediamonds.html

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Labeling Students Then and Now (Part 2)

Two decades ago, Sarah Deschenes, David Tyack and I wrote an article published in the Teachers College Record called: “Mismatch: Historical Perspectives on Schools and Students Who Don’t Fit Them.”

Part 1 described the labels educators used in the 19th and 20th century for children who didn’t keep pace with the majority of other students in the age-graded school. This post includes the arguments we used to explain why these labels were used then and, perhaps, even now.

We first look at four ways educators and reformers have assigned blame for failure. We then propose a different historical explanation that locates this problem in a mismatch between students and the structure of schools and in schools’ resistance to adapting to the changing needs of their student populations. We also consider how the current standards movement might reinforce existing age-graded institutional structures.

A. Students who do poorly in school have character defects or are responsible for their own performance. [L]ocating responsibility in the individual—a response with deep roots in American ways of thinking—has been the dominant way of framing the problem. In the educational system of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this manifested itself in a focus first on character deficiencies, which reformers believed children could overcome, and later on students’ low IQs, which students were thought to have no control over. Labels like ne’er-do-well, sleepy-minded, and limited exemplify this way of thinking about students….

In the twentieth century, when the “science” of education informed professional decision making, educators leaned heavily on psychological interpretations for school failure, primarily low I.Q. and inadequate motivation. This science of individual differences led to new responses: using intelligence tests to segregate pupils into different tracks or curricula presumably adapted to their talents; altering expectations for performance and seeking to find different motivations and incentives for different kinds of pupils; and, when all else failed,eliminating misfits from the mainstream by assigning them to special classes or letting them drop out at the earliest opportunity. The belief that the school system was basically sound and the individual was defective in character, genes, or motivation has persisted….

B. Families from certain cultural backgrounds prepare children poorly for school and give them little support for achievement as they pass through the elementary and secondary grades. Some of the moral complaints against children in the nineteenth century spilled over to their parents: Parents were intemperate, ignorant, undisciplined, and unfamiliar with American values and customs. In the twentieth century, with the rise of social science, finger pointing became less moralistic. But still families were the culprit in theories that stressed the culture of poverty or the supposed cultural deficits in parents who produced seemingly unteachable children.

Some of the labels used for students in these periods have some implications for families as well; if a child was wayward or was a laggard, why didn’t the parents do anything to address these problems?

If families were to blame for the academic inadequacies of their children—and this was a popular theory—it was not entirely clear how schools could improve parents. One solution was to create in the school a counterculture that would overcome the defective socialization children received at home….

C. The structure of the school system is insufficiently differentiated to fit the range of intellectual abilities and different destinies in life of its heterogeneous student body. In the Progressive era, many reformers argued that high rates of failure stemmed from the rigidity of the standardized curriculum and rigidity of age grading and promotion in schools. They did not frontally attack the graded school per se, for it had served their purposes well for the majority of students. Rather, they argued that a single, lockstep course of studies produced failures because not all students were capable of studying the same subjects at the same rate of progress. Schools would have to adjust to accommodate the low-division pupils, sub-z group, and occupational students.

This interpretation of failure obviously was closely related to the first—the explanation of failure in terms of individual deficits. It focused, however, on institutional changes that would leave intact the basic system of age-graded schools while finding places where the“laggards” could proceed at a slower pace and often in a different direction from the “normal” students. The remedy, then, was a differentiation of curriculum, grouping, and methods of teaching. This search for organizational causes and solutions led to ability grouping in elementary schools and to specialized curricular tracks in high schools, coupled with an apparatus of testing and counseling….

D.Children often fail academically because the culture of the school is sodifferent from the cultural backgrounds of the communities they serve. This interpretation places the responsibility for school failure not on culturally different families and individuals but rather on the schools themselves, arguing that it is the schools, not the clients, that should adapt to social diversity and the forgotten children, culturally different, and pushouts….

The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s heightened aware-ness of the multicultural character of American society and the culturally monochromatic environment of most schools. In this view, the standardized age-graded school was insensitive to low-income ethnic and racial minorities and largely unconsciously embodied the dominant ethos of middle-class, White, Anglo-Saxon values, attitudes, and behavior. Intent on imposing~through teachers, curriculum, and daily routines–mainstream culture on the children, such schools displayed little respect for differences in language, beliefs, and customs. In this view, teachers were often unconscious of the ways in which they served as agents of a rigid cultural system geared to standardizing their pupils. Constantly correcting non-mainstream children’s speech, as if to say that there was only one acceptable way to speak in any situation, is one example of this rigidity. The teachers unwittingly became active agents in creating student failure. As a result classrooms became cultural battlegrounds in which teachers communicated lower expectations, failed to connect with their culturally different students, and thus contributed to low academic performance and high dropout rates. The analysis of cultural bias and rigidity led to solutions that focused largely on making the curriculum more multicultural, increasing the cultural sensitivity and knowledge of teachers, and building school programs around values that reflected those o fsurrounding ethnic communities….

The standards movement departs from these previous explanations in the way it frames students and performance, but not in the solutions it offers students who do not fit its structures. Note that almost all of these previous problem definitions and the solutions they generated left the core structure and assumptions of the institution—in particular the age-graded school as the chief building block—basically untouched…

The pedagogical assumptions and practices embedded in the urban age-graded school—the scheduling of time, the segmentation of the curriculum, grouping according to notions of “ability,” annual promotions, elaborate bureaucratic structures of control, and views of learning, teaching, and knowledge—remained largely unquestioned throughout the century. There were consequently not many options for solutions outside this structure. We see a continuation of this today with standards-based reforms focused on requiring low-performing students to do more during the school year and during the summer or repeat a year of school rather than questioning why these students are failing and what structures in their schooling lead to failure. The standards movement, admirable in its goal of raising the bar for the entire educational system, must ask how it can ensure that this mismatch does not continue to let success elude large groups of students, many of whom live in impoverished urban and rural districts. The focus must be on what happens to the students who do not fit the mainstream academic mold and how school structures can change to meet their needs.

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Labeling Students Then and Now (Part 1)

Twenty years ago, Sarah Deschenes, David Tyack and I wrote an article published in the Teachers College Record called: “Mismatch: Historical Perspectives on Schools and Students Who Don’t Fit Them.” 

Because of the pervasiveness of the age-graded school since the middle of the 19th century, “normal” students were those who satisfactorily acquired the slice of curriculum 1st, 5th, or 8th grade teachers distributed through lessons in their self-contained classrooms Those students who met their teachers expectations for grade-level academic achievement, behavior during lessons, and the school’s requirements for attendance and performance were “normal.” And “normal” students were the majority.

But a sizable fraction of students, for many reasons deviated from the “normal.” They didn’t fit. Since the mid-19th century until the present, these students have been given labels. They were (and are) “educational misfits.”

Examining the changes in the language of labels attached to students who strayed from the definition of “normal” required in age-graded schools offers reformers pause in considering the power of these labels over time. Especially now as the U.S. schools enter the fourth decade of the standards, testing, and accountability reform movement, surely an added template for judging “normal” performance.

Between the “normality” structured within the age-graded school and the state and federally driven standards movement since the mid-1980s, spotlighting the vocabulary educators used in the past to describe “misfits” may get all of us thinking about labels often used now.

I have chosen excerpts from the article to give readers a flavor of the both the labels used and the argument we put forth in the article. Part 2 will be the analysis of these labels over time and what they mean for the current standards-based reform movement.

In his illuminating study of “educational misfits,” Stanley J. Zehm has compiled a list of the varied names given to children who failed to do well in school….In the first half of the nineteenth century, when the common school was in its formative stage, writers spoke of the poor performer as dunce, shirker, loafer, idle, vicious, reprobate, depraved, wayward, wrong-doer, sluggish, scapegrace, stupid, and incorrigible. Although terms like dunce and stupid suggest that educators sometimes saw low achievement as the result of lack of brains, far more common was the belief that the child who did not do well in school was deficient in character….

How did educators of the latter half of the nineteenth century describe those students who did not keep up with the factory-like pace of the elementary grades and the meritocratic competition of secondary schooling? 

Zehm finds these epithets emerging in this period: born-late, sleepy-minded, wandering, overgrown, stubborn, immature, slow, dull. The religious language of condemnation used in the early nineteenth century was diminishing, but the notion that academic failure came from defects of character or disposition continued. If pupils did not learn, it was largely their own fault….

The labels educators used during the period from 1900 to 1950 indicate this shift in the way they conceptualized the “misfits” in the educational system: pupils of low I.Q., low division pupils, ne’er-do-wells, sub-z group, limited, slow learner, laggards, overage, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, and bluntly inferior. The message of the labels was clear: There were students who simply did not have smarts, and the pedagogical answer was to teach them different things in a different way in a different place. Older views about poor performers persisted, however, even in an era when the language of science provided a rationale for discriminating on supposedly objective grounds….

Some of the new names reformers gave to children who were not per-forming well in school began to reflect new ways of seeing. Such terms as these, emerging in the period from 1950–1980, suggested that the blame lay more with the school than with the students: the rejected, educationally handicapped, forgotten children, educationally deprived, culturally different, and pushouts. But the older habits of thought remained embedded in labels like these: socially maladjusted, terminal students, marginal children, immature learners, educationally difficult, unwilling learners, and dullards. Such language still located the cause of the trouble largely with the student, though protest groups made educators generally more euphemistic, as in names like bluebirds and less fortunate….

In each era, educators have used these labels in part to explain away failure. There has always been a reason for failure that, for the most part, has been rooted in individual or cultural deficit. The institution of schooling has won out in each of these eras. Labels have created categories of individual failure and have left school structures largely intact. These labels create a powerful argument for what might happen to the standards movement: Which students will be labeled and how?

With the standards, testing, and accountability reform movement in its fourth decade, what labels do educators use in 2020 to describe children and youth who do not meet the state and district standards set for each grade and do poorly on state and district tests?

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We Got the School Reopening Story Wrong (Nat Malkus)

Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and deputy director for Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The article appeared in The Hill October 20, 2020.

“It’s the politics, stupid” may be the aphorism for our times. In the age of Trump, the seductive narrative that uber-polarized identity politics can explain everything, including reopening plans for schools, appears obvious. After all, the president repeatedly proclaimed that schools must reopen, and for monthspolls have shown pronounced partisan divides on whether students should return in-person or not. While we still don’t have a full accounting, early analyses indicate that schools in Trump country are more likely to be back in-person this fall, often despite high COVID rates.

Partisan politics is a familiar and intuitive, but ultimately inadequate explanation for school reopening patterns.

close examination of emergency remote learning in spring 2020 reveals large differences between Red, Blue, and Purple states, with Red states often coming up short. Those gaps are due in part to challenges which still exist this fall. National political theater undoubtedly affects local reopening decisions, but it is a poor explanation for why more Red states’ schools are returning in-person — not only because it ignores the differences in remote learning Red states provided last spring, but also because it cannot explain them.

After spring closures, about a third of schools in Red states offered students synchronous learning platforms, like Zoom, compared to about half in Purple and Blue states. Assistance with devices and internet access were also much lower in Red states. Thus our common mental picture of remote schooling — students connecting to teachers through online video instruction — was less common in Red states, and their students undoubtedly suffered. Gaps extended beyond technology, because fewer schools in Red states expected one-on-one contact between students and teachers, posted explicit expectations for student participation, or took attendance after buildings were closed (which turned out to be a quarter of the school year).

There are plausible explanations for these differences. Broadband access — the vital infrastructure for online learning — was far lower in Red states. The digital divide is even more pronounced in rural areas, which are more common in Red states. Of course, many districts laid out substantial sums to bridge that divide, but building that bridge was not only more expensive and time consuming in Red states, the payoff would be lower because their school years end earlier. These are not just excuses: They are structural reasons why well-intentioned district leaders, not partisan ideologues, made rational decisions that lead to different outcomes.

Remote learning was rough everywhere last spring, but it was rougher in Red state districts. Against that backdrop, their tendency towards in-person reopening this fall looks more pragmatic than political. Summer polling showing that Republican-leaning respondents were more concerned about students falling behind pushed in the same direction, but school leaders did not need polls or survey evidence to see the damage done to their students last spring. With no quick fix for broadband access this fall, it is understandable that they disproportionately saw providing the option to return to in-person learning as the best way forward.

You may find this logic wholly unconvincing when politics is a simpler, more familiar alternative. It is possible to look at this evidence and still believe politics influenced Red states inhabitants’ expectations about the length or threat of the virus, which caused remote learning differences last spring and still drive reopening decisions this fall. However, if political polarization explains schools’ pandemic responses in the fall, it should also explain the actual differences evident in Red states in the spring.

Politics alone is a weak explanation for those differences. All school districts in Red, Blue, and Purple states shut down in the spring, and all districts retooled their schools to provide remote learning platforms. Red, Blue, and Purple states diverged in the kinds of platforms schools offered, and there is nothing inherently political about providing lessons on Zoom or using alternatives like Google Classroom or instructional packets.

Structural factors, like broadband access, shorter school years, and more rural students, are more directly connected to the forms of learning offered in the spring. Those non-political factors combined to produce less effective remote learning in Red states in the spring, created yet another compelling reason for pragmatic school leaders to prioritize in-person reopening so that students could make up lost ground.

If “It’s the politics, stupid” cannot explain the differences seen in remote learning last spring, we should doubt its power to explain reopening this fall.

In this age of polarization, nearly every aspect of our lives is colored by politics, and questions about reopening schools are no exception. But rank politics is better for selling papers and enflaming indignity than adequately explaining professional decisions.

The future may show that returning in-person this fall proved foolish, or that returning remote was excessive caution that cost students dearly. Until then, we should remember that most school leaders are making difficult decisions in good faith while considering a host of factors ahead of politics, like they did last spring.

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Reimagining the Public High School, 2015-2020 (Part 2)

The system of public high schools in America really hasn’t undergone any kind of serious transformation in 100 years,” [ Super School Project CEO, Russlyn H.] Ali said. “It was built for an economy and a system that is no more.”

What if you’re the one who helps America rethink high school?”

“This is a challenge to empower all of America to change high school. Together, we can transform communities and build schools that inspire new possibilities.”

From these quotes taken from the website for Super School Project, philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and chief executive Russlyn Ali are interested in transforming the existing high school.

After the initial announcement in 2015, the Super School Project accepted proposals from 700 teams across the nation in a competition to design and execute a new kind of high school that would make this hardy–seemingly unchanged–institution relevant to their daily lives . A year later, XQ announced that $10 million would be awarded to 10 teams to put their ideas into practice within five years. Since 2016, nearly $140 million has gone to 19 teams to re-imagine the American high school.

Matt Barnum wrote about the project a year ago and said:

Most of the XQ winners are now up and running. There’s a Washington, D.C. school that prioritizes computer science and getting real-world internships for all of its students. Another is a racially integrated school in Memphis focused on project-based learning, whose founder applied after driving by an XQ billboard; a third is a school-within-a-school meant to mirror a high-tech office in Florida. A school in Los Angeles focuses on helping homeless students, while another in Grand Rapids is based in an old museum.

None of these grants went to schools that proposed tinkering with the century-old comprehensive high school. They proposed many changes. Yet change is an ambiguous word that needs to be parsed. The Super School Project is not in the market for “incremental changes” to the high school of 2015. They want “transformational,” “revolutionary,” or fundamental change. What’s the difference?

Incremental changes aim to end the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of existing structures and cultures of schooling including classroom teaching. By structures, I mean the goals, funding, facilities, and the age-graded school that are (and have been) basic building blocks of the system of tax-supported schooling in the U.S. By cultures, I mean the norms, expectations, and beliefs in the classroom, school, and district that color daily activities.

Promoters of incremental change view the basic structures and cultures of schooling as largely sound but in need of improvements. There are inefficiencies and ineffective practices that undermine the productivity of the system. The old car, to use a familiar metaphor, is sputtering and rusting but solid. It needs a paint job, tires, brakes, a new battery, and a tune-up—incremental changes. Once improved, the system will work as intended.

Examples of incremental changes in schools would include adding new courses to high school curriculum; introducing new tests; adopting pay-for-performance for teachers and principals; decreasing class size from 30 to 25; Each of these changes, of course, seeks increased efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

In the classroom, incremental changes would include the teacher introducing a new unit in her math course that she had never taught before. Perhaps a teacher who designs a behavioral modification plan with rewards and penalties for good and bad classroom behavior. Or a teacher who decides to use the mobile cart with 30 laptops for one of her classes.

None of this for the Super School Project. The founder and CEO reject any change smelling of incrementalism. The project seeks “fundamental changes,” designs that will go far beyond tinkering.

Fundamental changes aim to transform—alter permanently—those very same structures and cultures. The idea behind fundamental change is that the basic school structures and cultures are irretrievably flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul or replacement, not incremental improvements. That old car is a jalopy far beyond repair. We need to get a new car or consider other forms of transportation.

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then the late-19th century innovation of the kindergarten is an instance of fundamental change. Other examples would be broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, desegregation). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas. That is what the Super School Project seeks for tax-supported public schools now anchored in an information-driven economy.

Applied to the classroom, advocates of fundamental change would transform the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to one who guides students to their own decisions, who helps children find meaning in their experiences, and urges them to learn from one another. These reformers seek to upend traditional teaching where the teacher talks, students mostly listen, use a textbook for the main source of knowledge, and pass tests that determine how much has been remembered. They want classrooms where teachers organize activities that help students learn from subject matter, one another, and the community. Assessment is less taking multiple-choice tests and more working on real world tasks.

Efforts to transform high schools have a long, tortured history (see here and here). Even when fundamental changes do occur at a moment in time such as the creation of tax-supported academic high schools in the late 19th century, the innovative comprehensive high school of the 1920s or the “open classroom,” those deep and powerful changes seldom last as past efforts have shown for the following reasons:

Many changes intended to be fundamental become incrementalized. Often the rhetoric of a planned change clearly intend to make profound shifts in the current school. Recall the words surrounding charter schools, 1:1 laptops, and small high schools in past decades. Promoted by corporate leaders and public officials these innovations sought fundamental changes. Yet once they left the designers’ hands and entered schools and classrooms theses changes were either piecemeal ones where certain portions of the design were implemented and other parts were not.

Because so much work is involved in mobilizing support and resources for fundamental changes there is far more success in talking about major reforms than in adopting the planned changes. And there is even more of a gap between officials’ actions and what principals and teachers actually put into practice. Because of these gaps between talk, action, and implementation, intended fundamental changes get incrementalized and become just another spoke in the organizational wheel.

Far more incremental than fundamental changes get institutionalized in schools. It is simply easier organizationally and psychologically to add to a system than go in a different direction. Increasing requirements for high school graduation is easier than dropping the Carnegie unit which is the very basis for counting credits toward graduation and school accreditation. Shipping computers to schools and buying software is far easier than altering dominant teaching practices. Creating charter schools is actually easier than charters seeking non-graded organizations and introducing project-based learning.

Given these reform-driven efforts over the past century to re-think the American high school, one inescapable question is: why the comprehensive high school has been a tough nut to crack for fundamental reforms? The answer to the question will draw attention to the age-graded and departmental organization, the prior training of specialized teachers and college admission requirements. All of these features for decades have constituted the “grammar of schooling” in secondary education. Few of the innovations that I have seen or read about question any of these rock-hard features in rethinking high school. Why is that?

Perhaps one answer (but surely not the only one) is that there are strengths of the comprehensive high school that parents, taxpayers, policymakers, and practitioners think is worthwhile and want to keep.

The Super School Project should mind seriously the strong popular support for the existing organization and practice of high schools as their staff and consultants watch these 19 schools become high schools of the future.

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Reimagining the Public High School in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Part 1)

Since 2016, the XQ Institute has awarded almost $140 million to 19 schools across the country to “reimagine” the American high school. They have had five years to do so. Backed by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, these high schools are in the midst of putting into practice the major changes they proposed for their schools.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S. Except for essential services, businesses, schools, and public services closed in March 2020. Of the 24,000 secondary schools in the U.S. (2018), nearly all shifted from in-person classroom interactions to remote instruction. Such an immediate and fundamental shift in the medium of instruction had never occurred before in the history of American public schools.

In effect, schooling, under the shadow of Covid-19, was forcibly reimagined by school boards and superintendents. Historically, reformers have talked about fundamental change for decades and have sought such planned changes in previous incarnations of high school reform. Now, massive, sudden, and I must add–unplanned basic changes in classroom teaching and learning happened over night.

While the pandemic caused the emergency closures, such fundamental change in instruction has been sought many times in the past.

Join me in touring the past century of high school reform.  

Knowing that public high schools have changed in small and big ways over the past century is essential in making wise decisions after the pandemic recedes and high schools re-open.

In the late-19th century, the high school was a strictly academic institution catering to less than 10 percent of eligible youth. Largely enrolling nearly all-white middle-and upper-middle class sons and daughters (there were also segregated Black academic high schools such as Dunbar in Washington, D.C.), the academic course of study prepared students to attend college or go immediately into white-collar jobs in newly emerging companies and corporations. Most boys and girls at the end of the 19th century and opening decades of the 20th, however, left for industrial jobs after completing 8th grade, if they got that far.

Progressive high school reformers reimagined high school as encompassing all students from all social classes and preparing them for both the economy and living in a democracy. Thus, Progressives created a new kind of high school. The original comprehensive high school in the 1920s with its diversified curriculum catered to the broad range of student interests and aptitudes. It was an innovation that “transformed” the previous academically narrow high school of the 1890s. Since then, repeated efforts to reform the reform have occurred.

In the late 1930s, a group of Progressive educators designed an experiment for 30 high schools across the country. Called the “Eight Year Study” (1934-1942), students in these schools would not be subject to college admission requirements. Teachers and administrators, then, would have free reign to re-design–yes, re-imagine– high school in the midst of the Great Depression. No foundation stepped forward to give these schools that entered the experiment funds to carry off their re-designed schools. They did it on their own dime. Published evaluations of these re-imagined schools and outcomes for students who went to college were favorable (see here and here)

Then in the late- 1950s, former Harvard University president, James Bryce Conant, called for an overhaul of the high school; a decade later, attacks on the sterile comprehensive high school produced a flurry of alternative and “free” high schools. Ted Sizer launched the Coalition of Essential Schools in the late 1980s with its nine “common principles” and hundreds of those high schools sprang up across the nation. In the early 1990s, a privately funded venture called the New American Schools Development Corporation, later shortened to New American Schools, spread “whole school reform” models to elementary and secondary schools throughout the U.S. As one advocate put it: those seeking grants from NASDC will have to “cast aside their old notions about schooling–to start with a clean sheet of paper, and be bold and creative in their thinking, and to give us ideas that address comprehensive, systemic change for all students for whole schools.” And in the early 2000s, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured over $2 billion into creating small high schools. That effort shut down in 2009.

My point is that the XQ effort to “transform” high school is in a long line of very smart, well-intentioned reformers some of whom were well endowed with thick wallets. Again and again, they have tried to alter the comprehensive high school. And that model has changed but only incrementally. It has never been frozen in amber.

In all of those previous reforms, answers to basic questions divided those seeking major changes in the comprehensive high school then and now.

*What should students learn?

*Should all students learn the same thing?

*how should students best learn?

*Who should decide answers to these questions?

Every attempt to “transform” the comprehensive high school since the 1920s wrestled with these questions. Each generation of reformers came up with answers only to see that a subsequent generation of reformers supplied different answers to the same questions. Knowing that history and the particulars of past efforts to “transform” the high school is essential to the current cohort of XQ reformers.

Historians have gained a bad reputation by pointing out previous failures in trying to reform government, medical practice, the criminal justice system, and yes, public schools. What historians do know is that economic, political, and social contexts change and when past reformers bent their minds and hearts to “transforming” the public high school in the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, and since the 1990s those times differed greatly one from the other. History as a wise observer once said, surely doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.

For those seeking to rethink the high school, ignoring earlier reformers’ efforts is worse than burying one’s head in the sand.

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Another Look at “Tinkering Toward Utopia”

2020 marks a quarter-century since Tinkering was published. Still in print, the short book on the history of school reform that David Tyack* and I wrote has been praised and panned. Over the years, David and I have spoken and written about the ideas we expressed in the book about history of U.S. school reform and subsequent shifts that we have seen in reform-minded policies pushed by federal and state authorities. And, of course, the hyperbole that accompanied each reform’s rhetoric, action, and implementation.

We have been asked many questions over the years about the logic of the central argument we made and evidence we had to support it. We have been asked about why schooling (both private and public) seem so familiar to each generation of parents even with new buildings, furnishings, and technologies.

Not long ago, however, I was asked one question that I don’t remember ever being asked: Whose utopia are you tinkering toward?

That question returns to me during the current pandemic as U.S. public schools  shut down for a half-year erratically open for in-person schooling but, more often than not, with remote instruction. The question got me thinking anew about the ever-shifting aims of reformers who champion how schools should be. “Should be” is the key phrase in reform because buried within each major reform that has swept across U.S. schools with either gale-force winds or stiff breezes is a vision of a utopian schooling and a “good” place for children to be.

As schools re-open still in the midst of Covid-19, online instruction for the immediate future will be the preferred way of conducting teacher lessons. I cannot detect even a puff of air for reforming schools. Not even a gentle breeze of reform from policy elites, practitioners, and parents advocating that after Covid-19, all schooling should be remote–surely a fundamental change in the conduct of tax-supported schooling.

This absence of even a soft breeze of reform tells me that parents and employers want schools to be the way they were before we could even spell coronavirus. If I am correct, then, the same tensions that existed prior to the pandemic will eventually surface anew, perhaps next year after most Americans receive a vaccine or the year afterwards. These tensions  over what public schools should do in a capitalist democracy where racism and inequalities continue to exist are familiar to some policymakers, practitioners, and historians of education but much less so to most Americans. So I return to Tinkering again.

Remember the overall purpose of tax-supported public schools is to prepare the young to become adults. Stating the purpose, however, neither points to which aspects of adulthood schools should be primary (e.g., getting a job, participating in the community, pushing for social and political reform in the larger culture, etc.). Of equal importance is that stating one or more purposes for schools is only a first step in figuring out the mechanics of schooling. One or a mix of purposes has to be translated into crucial details: how best to organize schools to achieve stated purposes; what will a curriculum look like; what kind of teachers need to be hired, and what daily schedules, and classroom lesson make the most sense to achieve the desired goals of schooling.

Examples:

–Some reformers want schools to prepare the young for occupations in which there are currently too few skilled workers and managers (see here).

–Some reformers re-create teacher-centered schools that inculcate students with basic content, skills, and civic virtues including patriotism (see here).

–Some reformers seek schools where students interests, passions, and intellect are central to both the curriculum and instruction and their well-being is nurtured (see here)

–Some reformers desire schools where students become adults prepared to work for reducing social and economic inequalities and increasing social justice (see here).

–Some reformers are eager to dismantle the two century-old age-graded school and in its stead replace it with technologically rich settings where individual students have completely personalized playlists tailored to who they are (see here).

Of course, the last utopian vision of pervasive technologies geared to “personalized learning, ” unless it is an end unto itself, has to be hitched to one or the other of the three educational utopias.

No doubt there are other utopian visions and variations of the above ones. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t say that all of these utopian visions have been dreamt by earlier generations of reformers.

A century ago, another generation of reformers fought for schools to prepare the young for an industrial economy where both skilled and unskilled hands were needed (see here).

Another generation of reformers wanted schools to prepare the young to be knowledgeable, straight-thinking, and proud Americans of high moral character who would advance their community and nation (see here).

Periodically, past reformers wanted schools to be student-centered in what was learned and how it was learned (see here).

And past reformers saw schools as social laboratories where children and youth can practice creating a better, more just society reducing injustice and inequality (see here).

My point is simple: Tax-supported public schools have had multiple purposes for at least two centuries. Each purpose has a vision of utopia–of what “good” schooling looks like– embedded in it. And over the last century, reformers again and again have contested these competing visions.

So when asked: Whose utopia are you tinkering toward? I reply that there is no one utopian school, it depends on which purpose of schooling you value the most. If pressed, I will say what I believe. Then I ask the questioner: what is your utopian vision?

Nearly always, the person answers with either one of the above past and present version noted above or a combination of them. I then follow up with the point that there are (and have been) many visions of “good” schools that reformers have tried and that currently during the Covid-19 crisis in which over 200,000 Americans have died we remain in the midst of a three-decade long vision which prizes as the primary purpose of schooling, preparing students to get jobs in an ever-changing economy.

Maybe that vision will persist after the pandemic ends. And maybe not.

_______________________________

*David Tyack died in October 2016. He was 85 years old.

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Whatever Happened to Authentic Assessment?

No Child Left Behind drove a stake into its heart. OK, that is a bit dramatic but the standards, tests, and accountability movement that began in the early 1980s, picking up speed in the 1990s, then accelerating to warp drive with the passage of NCLB brushed aside this Progressive instructional reform called “authentic assessment.”* Pick your metaphor but, save for scattered teachers across America who began teaching during the height of “authentic assessment,” few new superintendents, novice principals, and rookie teachers, much less reform-minded parents have ever heard of this Progressive way of assessing student learning.

Where and When Did Authentic Assessment Originate?

In the 1980s following A Nation at Risk report state policymakers rushed to raise curriculum standards and increase school and district accountability. One outcome of these cascading reforms across the country was a sharp increase in students taking required standardized tests. By the late-1980s and early 1990s, Progressives* of the day such as Deborah Meier, Grant Wiggins, Fred Newmann, Linda Darling Hammond, and Ted Sizer sought to make schooling more demanding of students intellectually in tasks, activities, and assessments. Meier, Sizer, and others, for example, created and organized schools with teachers who pushed students to not only think about the content and skills they learned in ways that went well beyond what multiple-choice items on a standardized test would capture but also to demonstrate to others through portfolios and performance tasks–what they learned and apply that learning to the world in which they lived. “Authentic assessments” became an often-mentioned instructional reform. The phrase “performance assessment” was also used interchangeably with “authentic assessment.”

What Problems Did Authentic Assessment Intend To Solve?

Coming in the wake of the increased standardized testing and the narrowing of the curriculum to those tested subjects–reading and math–learning ,especially in poor and minority schools, was reduced to covering what would be on the tests and repetitive tasks. Standardized tests are limited severely in what they measure of student learning, much less performance. Yet policymakers looked to these tests as accurate measures of student outcomes. Finally, students were disengaged and often reduced to passivity. Seeing such a backwash of problems from mandated testing, instructionally-driven reformers saw authentic assessment (no more quote marks for rest of post) as a way to return teaching and learning to its Progressive roots of engaging students through connecting content and skills to real world tasks thereby increasing student participation in learning (see here and here).

What Does Authentic Assessment Look Like in Classrooms?

I could not find a teacher’s lesson or student description of authentic assessment in print. There may be such descriptions but I found none. What I did find after many searches were video clips of schools committed to authentic assessment and a third grade teacher describing what she did with English Language Learners (see here, here, and here).

I was surprised by this dearth of sources describing what actually occurs in classrooms. Designing and applying authentic assessment tasks in a classroom lesson and unit of instruction takes a lot of work by teachers. True, all of the work is front-loaded the first few times but the assessment can be used often afterwards. There are shortcuts, of course, in designing such assessments and locating tasks for students to perform. Nonetheless, much time is involved in finding the right real-world task that captures the student learning outcome that the teacher seeks to assess. I apologize to readers for not having such examples.**

Perhaps I looked in the wrong places or was not persistent enough. If readers know of descriptions of actual classroom lessons that eluded me, please send me the links.

Did Authentic assessment Work?

Here is the bind that champions of authentic assessment find themselves in. If “work” means effectiveness in determining whether students have learned the required content and skills and performed satisfactorily on mandated state tests, to what degree has authentic assessment aided in the outcome.Simply put, here is the bind. Does a classroom teacher or the principal of school committed to authentic assessment through student portfolios look to scores on state standardized tests as evidence of learning? Or does the teacher, school, or district design different measures that would determine the extent that students learned? Or do both matter?

Answers to the questions pose a contradiction since state tests are limited measures of student learning of content and skills that fail to grasp the critical skills gained from assessing discrete tasks authentically. The answer to the other question is “yes” which means an enormous investment in time from teachers and others, a calculation that both teachers and administrators have to make, given the other demands upon teachers during the school day.

When the state of Vermont, for example, adopted portfolios as an authentic assessment rather than standardized tests, RAND researchers evaluated whether portfolios supplied sufficient and accurate data on student performance. They concluded that the data they collected was less in quality than traditional standardized test scores.

What Happened to Authentic Assessment?

Like many Progressive additions to teachers’ repertoires over the decades, the excitement surrounding its introduction in the late-1980s and early 1990s waned. The idea of teachers and schools designing assessment tasks that capture whether students can apply what they have learned, of course, continues to appear in many teachers’ lessons within the nation’s 100,000 schools. Teachers have constantly blended traditional and Progressive ways of teaching and learning over the decades. But the boosterism and hoopla surrounding authentic assessment have disappeared. Standardized tests remain the gold standard in 2020 for assessing student learning.

_______________________

*I use the word Progressive to describe authentic assessment since it is aimed at the principle of children learning by doing and engaging student’s attention and participation in real world tasks. These were the aims of the early 20th century Pedagogical Progressive and current educators committed to constructivist teaching and learning.

**Please see comments from readers who recommended sources that I have not included. Especially Bob Lenz’s comments and the links he provides to current performance assessments. Thank you, Bob.

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A Pivotal Moment for U.S. and Public Schools? (Part 2)

Do individuals like you and me know for sure at the time something occurred that it was momentous, a historic turning point in the flow of events and individual lives. Probably not.

After all, it is only in retrospect–after the future becomes the present–that people look back at prior events and then can pinpoint something that occurred as pivotal. Surely, in 1859 when John Brown attacked the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry (VA) to get weapons to lead a slave rebellion, neither he nor most Americans knew that his actions (for which he was put to death) became instrumental in launching the Civil War over a year later.

Some other examples of not knowing when an event is a turning point:

When silversmith Paul Revere set out on his midnight ride on April 18, 1775 to alert militias in Lexington and Concord that British regulars were marching toward them to destroy stockpiled munitions, he surely did not know that the next morning’s events would be the beginning of the end of the 13 British colonies with a Declaration of Independence the following year and a war that lasted until 1783 leading to the formation of the United States of America.

The initial people infected with the coronavirus in Wuhan, China in late-2019 did not know that authorities would lockdown the city of 11 million as Covid-19 swept across neighborhoods. And then listening to the President of the United States in January and February 2020 when he publicly said that the virus would go away when it got warmer gave no hint or even act as if it was a major event until mid-March. Since then it has surely become a serious moment in his presidency.

And so I would make the same point about turning points for climate change, U.S. democracy, and tax-supported public schooling. Observers a decade or more from now would be in a far better position to determine what was or was not a pivotal moment.

Are we now, then, in a pivotal moment for serious federal, state, and local action on climate change? Yes, I believe so.

Climate Change

The frequency and intensity of fires, hurricanes, and floods in the U.S. in 2019 and 2020 added up to more than a dozen billion-dollar weather calamities.

Moreover, 2020 public opinion polls register a majority to nearly two-thirds of Americans who believe that “global warming is caused mostly by human activity” (57%) and “is affecting the weather” (64%). And 63% of Americans said they were “worried about global warming.” Furthermore, both awareness and concern over climate change have increased over time

Climate change deniers (see here and here) say these wildfires, hurricanes, and rising waters are instances of an unusual year, not the result of human activity that has caused rises in the planet’s temperature leading to increased numbers of extreme weather events.

In 2030 or beyond, observers may look back on 2020 as a pivot point in the U.S.’s current posture of official denial of scientific studies that have established strong evidence of climate change. Since 2020, federal, state, and local political leaders did move ahead with a Green New Deal, cap-and trade laws, and sharp expansion of renewable energy measures–all to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. By 2030, the terminology may well have changes and extreme weather events will now have an adjective: Climate fires, climate, hurricanes, and climate floods.

Decline of democracy

Today democracies don’t die at the hands of generals, but at the hands of elected leaders–presidents, prime ministers…. Many citizens are not fully aware of what’s happening until it is too late.”

The argument many frightened citizens, political scientists, business leaders, and lawmakers put forth is that forces at work in the U.S. for decades–the colossal economic divide in income and wealth between rich, middle class, and poor; political divide of citizenry into “red” and “blue” states; whether to wear a mask of not during the pandemic; questions about the legitimacy of elected leaders–are undermining U.S. democratic norms and practices. The current White House occupant’s attacks on the legitimacy of mail-in and absentee ballots for the November election, media (“fake news”), and slow-footed response to the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans are illustrations of these long-simmering issues in democratic governance. These current conditions make the 2020 election a pivot point in the life of this 231 year-old democracy.

Reform of public schooling

Standardized tests will not disappear. The entrenched mindset of both Democrat and Republican state and federal legislators, most parents, and taxpayers is that some kind of standardized test is essential to determine how well students show they have grasped required content and skills. What kind of test and its uses for policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students remain contested but will persist nonetheless.

That mindset goes back to the mid-1980s when state governments established curriculum standards and tests to measure achievement of those standards. With No Child Left Behind (2002-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) standardized tests remain crucial even with all of the drawbacks described above. Yes, public support for standardized tests has slipped–especially in the gasping final years of NCLB–still overall, opinion polls document that the public wants some form of tests for students to demonstrate academic achievement (see here and here). And an infrastructure for those laws continues to exist. What is clear from the available evidence is that this infrastructure remains unchallenged in 2020 by those seeking to reform public schools.

Here’s a brief look at that unchallenged infrastructure:

Organization of U.S. schooling

The age-graded school remains the “real” school that nearly all Americans take for granted. The age-graded school contains within it what David Tyack and I have called “the grammar of schooling.” And that “grammar” shapes both student and teacher behaviors while meeting the expectations of parents and taxpayers.

I have neither seen nor heard of attempts to upend or alter this form of school organization.

Curriculum and its assessment

The embrace of the Common Core curriculum across the nation since 2010 has been nearly complete. Apart from suggested course additions such as courses on ethnic studies, social justice, both of which have been on some reformers’ agendas prior to the pandemic), I have yet to see plans to alter that embrace.

If anything, the re-opening of schools dependent upon remote instruction means that teachers and students will surely follow each state’s and district’s version of the Common Core.

As for assessment, district-wide and teacher-made assessments, both to determine what has been learned, will continue geared to the Common Core content and skills. And so will standardized tests persist after the pandemic ends.

Classroom instruction

The on-the-dime turn of U.S. schools from in-person lessons to online instruction surely seems like a precursor to extensive classroom reform once the pandemic ends. Because of dominant beliefs in standardized testing and grades harnessed to the organizational “grammar of schooling” embedded in the age-graded school described above, however, I do not foresee any dramatic shift in how teachers teach.

Yes, I believe that there will be more online instruction because now nearly all students will have access to devices both at school and at home. And the year-long forced experiment in distance instruction will have given both teachers and students experience in use of the medium. As most teachers have created hybrids of Progressive and traditional instructional activities, many teachers can (and will) incorporate online instruction into their existing teaching repertoire such as students doing independent and small group work. But it will not become the mainstream way of schooling American children simply because of the pandemic experience with online teaching has shaped at least one generation’s view of the limits of such instruction and the importance of face-to-face instruction and social interaction. More important is the role of public schools to do so much more (e.g., socialization, custodial) than cover required content and skills.

Contrary to climate change and democracy being at pivotal points in the history of the U.S., I do not see public schooling sharing that moment.

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