Category Archives: school leaders

It’s Ridiculous to Treat Schools Like Covid Hot Zones (David Zweig)*

This article appeared in Wired Magazine June 24, 2020.

David Zweig writes about technology and culture for a number of publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic. He is also the author of the book Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace.”

On May 18, education ministers from the EU gathered on a conference call to discuss the reopening of schools. Children had been back to class for several weeks in 22 European countries, and there were no signs yet of a significant increase in Covid-19 infections. It was early still, but this was good news. More than a month later, the overall mortality rate in Europe has continued to decline. Now, as we look to the fall, the US belatedly appears keen to follow Europe’s lead.

The question of how US schools should be reopened—on what sort of schedule, with what degree of caution—has yet to be determined. But recent guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released May 16, conjures up a grim tableau of safety measures: children wearing masks throughout the day; students kept apart in class, their desks surrounded by 6-foot moats of empty space; shuttered cafeterias and decommissioned jungle gyms; canceled field trips; and attendance scattered into every other day or every other week. Reports suggest that certain US schools may even tag their kids with homing beacons, to help keep track of anyone who breaks the rules and gets too close to someone else. It seems that every measure, no matter how extreme, will be taken in an effort to keep the students and the staffers safe.

This could be a grave mistake. As children return to school this fall, we must take a careful, balanced view of all the safety measures that have been proposed and consider which are really prudent—and which might instead be punitive.

It’s certainly true that reopening our schools, however carefully, could increase transmission of the virus. Some countries that have done so—Israel and France, for instance—did see clusters of infections among students and staff. But these outbreaks were both small and expected, officials in both countries told the press; and the evidence suggests that the risks, overall, are very low.

Let’s review some facts: Children are, by and large, spared the effects of the virus. According to the latest data from the CDC, infants, little kids, and teenagers together have accounted for roughly 5 percent of all confirmed cases, and 0.06 percent of all reported deaths. The Covid-linked child inflammatory syndrome that received fervent media attention last month, while scary, has even more infinitesimal numbers. “Many serious childhood diseases are worse, both in possible outcomes and prevalence,” said Charles Schleien, chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health in New York. Russell Viner, president of the UK’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, noted that the syndrome was not “relevant” to any discussion related to schools.

There is also a wealth of evidence that children do not transmit the virus at the same rate as adults. While experts note that the precise transmission dynamics between children, or between children and adults, are “not well understood”—and indeed, some argue that the best evidence on this question is that “we do not have enough evidence”—many tend to think that the risk of contagion is diminished. Jonas F. Ludvigsson, a pediatrician and a professor of clinical epidemiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, reviewed the relevant research literature as of May 11 and concluded that, while it’s “highly likely” children can transmit the virus causing Covid-19, they “seldom cause outbreaks.” The World Health Organization’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, suggested last month that “it does seem from what we know now that children are less capable of spreading” the disease, and Kristine Macartney, director of Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, noted a lack of evidence that school-aged children are superspreaders in her country. A study in Ireland found “no evidence of secondary transmission of Covid-19 from children attending school.” And Kári Stefánsson, a leading researcher in Iceland, told The New Yorker that out of some 56,000 residents who have been tested, “there are only two examples where a child infected a parent. But there are lots of examples where parents infected children.” Similar conclusions were drawn in a study of families in the Netherlands.

None of this implies that Covid-19 couldn’t still spread efficiently among a school’s adults—the teachers and staff. Under any reopening plan, those who are most vulnerable to the disease should be allowed to opt out of working onsite until there is a vaccine or effective treatment. And adults who are present, when around each other, should wear masks and maintain proper social distancing. Distancing among adults may be easier to implement in schools, where teachers tend to spend their days divvied up in different rooms, than it would be in some work environments that have already reopened, such as offices, factories, and stores.

A month ago, as schools were reopening in Europe, I made the case in WIRED that the US should consider doing the same. Asking when we should reopen, though, was somewhat easier than asking how. Lots of other countries are already in agreement on the first question, but it turns out there’s no consensus whatsoever on the second. Schools’ specific safety measures vary not only from one nation to another, but also, commonly, within each nation. In Taiwan and South Korea, among other countries, plastic barriers have been placed on students’ desks, creating Lilliputian cubicles. In France, some districts have children wearing both masks and plastic face shields; while others just use masks. In Germany, masks are suggested for common areas only. In Denmark and Sweden, masks for students are not required at all. Some countries are encouraging classes to be held outdoors. (Outdoor classwork is not mentioned in the CDC guidelines, though preliminary plans for some states and counties do list this as an option.)

Which of these measures are effective and appropriate? No one knows for sure. Still, it’s possible to flag the ones that seem least necessary. For instance, the French schools that employ the belt-and-suspenders approach of having students wear both face shields and masks, are doing so in direct contrast to a letter signed by the heads of 20 of the country’s pediatric associations, which states that wearing even just a mask—never mind the face shield—“is neither necessary, nor desirable, nor reasonable” in schools for children. Meanwhile, lower schools have been open in Sweden, without masks, for the entirety of the pandemic, and there has been little evidence of major outbreaks coming out of them.

Ludvigsson told me that the widespread use of masks in schools “cannot be motivated by a need to protect children, because there is really no such need.” He’s similarly unimpressed by efforts to implement plastic barriers, playground closures, or any other measure beyond common-sense distancing and hygiene. Such precautions to prevent the spread of the infection from children to adults make no sense, he said, “since children are very unlikely to drive the pandemic.” Another Karolinska Institute epidemiologist, Carina King, said there is currently “weak evidence on children transmitting to each other or adults within school settings,” and suggested the most appropriate safety measures for schools might include testing and contact tracing, improved ventilation, and keeping students with a single group of peers throughout each day.

A report released last week by a panel of experts affiliated with the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Education, recommends against masks in class, noting that it is “not practical for a child to wear a mask properly for the duration of the school day.” The report also advises that “strict physical distancing is not practical and could cause significant psychological harm,” since playing and socializing are “central to child development.” Instead, the report recommends the adoption of smaller class sizes, so long as this does not disrupt a school’s daily schedule.

Strangely, American policy officials have not said much about the potential infeasibility and associated costs of the most extreme measures on the table. It’s not a big deal for an adult to wear a mask in a store for 15 minutes. But it’s entirely different to ask a child to wear a cloth face covering, as the CDC recommends for US schools, over many hours every day. The guidelines helpfully suggest that children “should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering.” Have these people ever been around a bunch of 7-year-olds?

One of the more ostensibly benign, but actually most consequential, measures is the spacing of desks 6 feet apart. As a practical matter, few US schools have the room to accommodate all their students being so spread out. This means many institutions will be all but required to operate at reduced capacity, with students spending up to half their time at home.

The alternating-days approach is euphemistically referred to as “blended learning.” Considering the dismal failure that “distance learning” has proven to be in much of the country this spring, it implies that students will be educated for only half the year. Kids affected by the spring’s school closures are already showing knowledge deficits—what’s being termed “the Covid-19 slide”—and the learning gaps are disproportionately wider for lower-income students. Worse, perhaps, than being off for a block of time, is the intermittence that blended learning will oblige. Students need continuity in attendance to prosper, socio-emotionally and educationally. (This problem will only be exacerbated by inevitable closures as new cases are found. None of the experts I spoke with could give clear benchmarks for what prevalence of infection should trigger a closure.)

There also has been little acknowledgement or plan for how working parents are supposed to earn a living when their children are home for half of every school day, or every other school day, or every other week. “No credible scientist, learning expert, teacher, or parent believes that children aged 5 to 10 years can meaningfully engage in online learning without considerable parental involvement,” stated an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics. Nevertheless, the prospect of having children sit alone and stare at a computer screen instead of engaging with their teachers and peers is not only a certainty for many students in the US, it’s one that some officials—such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo—have characterized as educational progress. Last month, Cuomo wondered aloud at a press briefing why, with the power of technology, the “old model” of physical classrooms still persists at all.

Blended learning appears to have become accepted as a foregone conclusion for US schools, with little acknowledgement of how radical it is.

When students are actually in the schools, the overarching theme will be one of isolation: desks spaced apart and turned to face the same direction; closure of communal areas such as dining halls; staggered arrival and departure times to avoid any socializing before and after school; limited extracurricular activities; low-occupancy buses with one child per bench, seated in every other row. This deprivation of touch and physical proximity to others is unhealthy in the short term. Over a span of many months (and perhaps more than a year), one must imagine an existential toll on children when their physical experience with each other is that of repelling magnets.

In theory, many US schools could choose to avoid the most oppressive measures. The CDC itself presents a graded set of safety rules—some for “distancing,” others for “enhanced distancing”—that are meant to correspond to different levels of disease risk in the community. The phrases if possible and if feasible are peppered throughout the document, which also notes that “all decisions about following these recommendations should be made in collaboration with local health officials and other state and local authorities.”

But veering from the CDC’s or states’ advice would require a renegade spirit not likely to be found among those who’ve risen in such bureaucracies. While hedged language empowers localities to make choices on their own, an official guideline that suggests doing something “if possible” is like a mafioso asking a shopkeeper to do him “a favor.” I live in New York state, where guidelines for reopening have not yet been issued by the governor’s office. Yet the superintendent of my district’s schools has already sent an email to parents suggesting that we procure face shields for our children for the fall.

When much of the world reopened their schools this past spring, America neglected to follow. Now, the US seems eager to copy the most excessive measures implemented elsewhere, despite the evidence of minimal pediatric risk and infectiousness, and against the advice of many epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, and pediatricians, and with a seeming obliviousness to their costs.

For years, many schools have had their drama and arts departments budgets reduced. It would be a sour irony if mandatory masks, half-vacant school buses, and shuttered jungle gyms ended up as our schools’ most grand theatrical production.

_____________________

*Thanks to Sondra Cuban for sending me this article.

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Whatever Happened to the Platoon School?

Huh? The Platoon School?

My hunch is that very few readers have ever heard of this widespread Progressive reform that began in Gary (IN) in 1907. Praised by John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey in 1915, the innovative way of schooling native, migrant, and immigrant children (and their parents) established by Superintendent William Wirt (who served as superintendent between 1906 and 1938) gained traction in school districts across the country. Platoon schools appeared in big cities like New York, Detroit, and Pittsburgh as well as small towns throughout the second and third decades of the 20th century. By the 1940s, however, many districts had dumped the innovation although it lasted until 1960 in Gary.*

What Problems Did the Platoon School Organization Intend To Solve?

In cities where immigrant families settled to find work, schools soon became overcrowded. Many districts had to have double-sessions, that is shorter school hours, so that all students could be accommodated during the day. In some districts, superintendents turned away children because there were no more seats for them. Progressive educator William Wirt, a former student of John Dewey at the University of Chicago wanted to solve two problems: how to use a school building to its capacity and how to give children access to a full education with the arts, special subjects like music, woodworking, and physical exercise. Wirt added auditoriums, gymnasiums, music and drawing rooms to existing buildings and constructed new ones with expanded facilities beyond classrooms. Unheard of at the time.

By dividing the enrollment into two “platoons,” one group of children would take the traditional academic subjects in the morning while the other platoon would take special subjects, use the auditorium for large-group meetings of students, and exercise in the gyms. Then in the afternoons the two platoons would switch. During evenings, adults in the community would take English classes and other offering. Thus, the school was in use day and night.

What Does a Platoon School Look Like in Practice?

An enthusiast for the reform, a professor at the University of Akron (OH), wrote the following description of a “model platoon school” in 1923:

This school has an enrollment of about one thousand pupils besides the kindergarten and open-air schools which are not included in the platoon organization. The building is equipped with an excellent auditorium, a divided gymnasium, domestic science and shop rooms, and classrooms sufficient to care for the special room and home room activities. The day begins for the pupil at 8.30 and closes at 3.20 with one hour and a half for lunch time. The forenoon has six half- hour periods and the afternoon four thirty-five minute periods. The school is organized into thirty groups, making it necessary to have fifteen home rooms. Each home room takes care of two groups in the formal subjects. One group is doing special platoon work while the other group is in the home room. Ail the pupils change at the middle of half-day sessions. The rooms are so assigned that the primary pupils do not come in contact with the large pupils. Besides the fifteen home rooms there are three science rooms, three literature rooms, one music room, one art room, one music and art for primary platoon, one play room for ‘primary platoon, one auditorium, a divided gymnasium, a library, a manual training shop, and domestic science rooms for cooking and sewing….

In the home rooms the formal subjects are taught, viz., reading, writing, arithmetic, formal language, hygiene and history. Half the pupil’s day is devoted to these subjects. The seventh and eighth grades are departmentalized further by dividing the work so that four teachers by interchange of pupils among four rooms teach the various home room subjects under the following groups: (1) Arithmetic, (2) Language, (3) History, (4) Hygiene, Spelling and Writing. The science rooms are devoted to nature study in the first three grades, geography and community history in the next four grades, and everyday science in the eighth grade. In the literature rooms the supplementary reading as a basis for literary interpretation, study of poems, and appreciation of the finest literary productions and authors suitable to the grades are taught. Regular periods are assigned for library work. All special rooms are arranged to give the proper setting. The art room is arranged as an art room and the music room as a music room. In the gymnasium, girls and boys work together in formal exercises the first ten minutes of the period. Then they are separated for the rest of the period for free play and games. The auditorium is in constant us with two teachers, a man and a woman, in charge. The auditorium serves as a clearing house for the whole school in that it coordinates with all other work. The following outline of work is done in the auditorium:

Dramatization. – Stories learned in the literature and reading classes are used. Pupils are permitted to dramatize without having stories memorized. Not finished work, but opportunity for individual expression is the principal aim.

Literary Societies. – The auditorium takes charge of literary society work. All upper grade pupils take part in parliamentary practice, entertainment, debating, etc.

Visual Education. – One day per week is given to motion pictures and stereopticon views. These are correlated with geography, history, science, art and citizenship.

Music Appreciation. – This work is done with Victrola and occasional musical performances by adults who are invited in to render some of the great musical productions. There is no music teaching. Appreciation of music is the aim.

Vocational Guidance. – Upper grade boys and girls discuss various vocational activities. Talks by business and professional men introduce dif-ferent phases of professions and vocations….

This description of a “model platoon school” existed in Gary (IN) at the Froebel and Emerson Elementary Schools, places that educators from across the country came to visit. As anyone familiar the history of school reform knows, as innovations spread, conflicts and variation in the design and practice pile up. And that is what occurred with the design of the platoon school when adopted by other districts.

In New York City, for example, Alice Barrows, admirer of Superintendent William Wirt, advocated for the Platoon Plan. She convinced newly elected and reform-minded Mayor John Mitchell in 1913 who was worried about the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and overcrowded schools, to adopt the Gary Plan and transform traditional schools into work-study-play school organization. Mitchell brought Superintendent William Wirt to NYC as a consultant to help shepherd city schools implement platoon schools.

Much rancor occurred, however, as city teachers, administrators, and parents wanted more, not less traditional schooling. In 1917, parents and students who opposed the reform rioted in the streets, stopping the Gary Plan from spreading throughout the district. New York City was an exception, however.

As one historian pointed out by the 1920s, platoon schools had spread to Detroit with 110 such schools, Pittsburgh with 75 and by the end of that decade over 200 cities in 41 states had versions of the platoon school in operation. Much variation in design of platoons occurred. Many of the features of platoon schools, particularly the number of and kind of rooms in a building, became part of the what a later generation called the “modern elementary school” (see below).

Did the Platoon School Work?

Yes, this Progressive invention did insofar as becoming an efficient model for how elementary and secondary schools should be organized and built to accommodate the interests of the “whole child.” Beginning during the Great Depression and extending into the decades following World War II, the “modern” elementary and secondary school combined a full array of academic course with in-school experiences in the arts with vocational classes where students learned to work with both their heads and hands and with opportunities for physical exercise in outdoor playgrounds and spacious indoor gyms. Today’s school buildings and curricula (including extracurricular offerings) are silent monuments to the work-study-play ideas embedded in the Platoon Plan of the early 20th century.

But some readers may be asking themselves: what about teachers, the curriculum, and test scores? Abraham Flexner and Frank Bachman conducted a study of the Gary Plan in 1917. Funded by the Rockefeller’s General Education Board, the study critiqued severely the district administration and supervision of the platoon system, the tremendous variation in what teachers did daily in their lessons, and achievement test scores in spelling, handwriting, and arithmetic. Their conclusion was that platoon schools in many instances under-performed “traditional” schools elsewhere.

Superintendent Wirt, reeling from the defeat of the Gary Plan in New York City, found the General Education Board study (1918) both inaccurate and bothersome. He need not have worried too much since the Flexner and Bachman study failed to slow down the national spread of the platoon school in the 1920s and 1930s.

What Happened to the Platoon Schools?

In Gary (IN) as Ronald Cohen documented, platoon schools grew under William Wirt and became the way that Gary schooled it children and youth. Enthusiasm for it peaked in the 1920s and 1930s with a slow demise after Wirt left office in 1938. Throughout the 1940s the once Progressive innovation faltered and by the 1950s was being dismantled in favor of what had become the modern elementary and secondary school that most readers of this post have experienced. Born in the Progressive era, the phrase, “platoon school,” may be anachronistic but it lives on in the nation’s school buildings and curriculum.

________________

*As an elementary school child in the 1940s, I attended a Pittsburgh elementary school organized into platoons.

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Police Reform and School Reform (Part 1)

Amid widespread protests against police violence against African Americans, calls for reform from ending neck restraints to “defunding” police departments have monopolized TV newscasts and newspaper headlines. Social media traffic prompted by smartphone videos of incidents between police officers and blacks have gone viral. State and city officials across the nation are generating to-do lists of reforms aimed at solving the problem of police officers using lethal force to arrest minority suspects (see here and here).

White people over the age of 18 might be surprised that such cries for police reform have occurred before. But their grandparents wouldn’t.

The decade between 1965-1975 when urban “riots” (or “rebellions,” depending upon your political stance) occurred in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Newark, and other cities killing both blacks and whites including police officers. President Lyndon Johnson appointed the governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner, to chair a commission to investigate the racial violence. The Kerner Commission’s report (1968) condemned white racism in housing, employment, and criminal justice while offering many recommendations for police reform (see here and here).

Subsequent calls for reforming police departments to reduce excessive force against people of color have occurred after killings of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson (MO) in 2014. Then consider Minneapolis police officers have shot dead Jamar Clark (2015) and Philando Castile (2016), and choked to death George Floyd (2020). Inexorably, the uproar over such killings produces a list of must-do reforms including the resignation or dismissal of police chiefs, new laws curbing police methods being passed, and transforming the Us vs. Them organizational culture .

Consider turnover of police chiefs over the past half-century. Depending how one counts years served as police chief, tenure in big city police departments is short. For example, take New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Between 1970 and 2020, a half-century marked by rising and falling tensions between minority communities and mainly white police forces, NYPD had 16 commissioners since 1970 (mean: 3.1 years). Chicago, 13 (mean 3.8), and Los Angeles, 11 (mean 4.5). Other cities had even higher turnover such as Oakland (nine over the past decade) and Baltimore (five in the past four years as of 2019). Only in mid-size cities and rural jurisdictions does tenure of police chiefs last longer. No reader needs a Ph.D. to figure out that such turnover creates low morale among those who do the daily work on streets and in the community. Moreover, turnstile police chiefs lead to organizational instability and major difficulties of continuing reforms launched by a predecessor that seem to be working.

Mayors and city councils are currently under the triple threat of high-profile incidents of racist policing triggering marches, a pandemic that began in mid-March and continues for the foreseeable future, and impending cuts to city budgets as a result of economic recession following the plague. This convergence of events puts even more pressure on police leaders. Not only do new police chiefs have to reduce crime rates, build trust with the community, and gain respect of sworn police officers, they also have to erase racial and ethnic biases among supervisors and rank-and-file and insure adequate funding from city officials. Given this agenda for change brimming with conflicts, dumping current chiefs and hiring new ones to transform departments occur frequently.

But hiring or firing the police commissioner is only the beginning. State and city legislatures adopt laws seeking to fundamentally alter the mission of police departments and their daily practices. Some small cities such as Camden (NJ) to root out corruption in the force disbanded its police department and started a new one; cities such as Eugene (OR) have reduced the mission of police organizations through allocating budget funds to other agencies to work with, for example, the homeless, family disturbances, school discipline. Such efforts aim at making clear that the single most important goal is to insure community safety and, where possible, reduce crime. Such reform talk is rampant now.

What happened in the past is that as police chief turnover increased, fundamental reforms initially legislated by legislatures and city councils were down-sized into incremental changes (e.g., banning choke-holds, required re-training sessions on how to de-escalate conflicts in detaining citizens and arresting suspects). The culture of Us vs. Them, however, remained intact.

Whether that will occur again, I cannot say for sure but my informed guess, based upon a half-century of experience with school reform, is that it will. Shoving community institutions hard to make deep changes in their goals and practices is unenviable work and much political action, savvy, and patience are required.

Political? Yes. There are many stakeholders involved in funding police departments, shaping policies, and insuring that middle managers–captains and sergeants–put those policies into practice after precinct roll calls. After all, police chiefs secure sufficient funds from elected bodies, buffer the organization from external threats, keep bureaucrats in line, and monitor police union moves. If that isn’t enough, chiefs are responsible for building trust with the patrolmen walking beats and cruising neighborhoods. Talk about organizational conflict and politics. It is in the DNA of of being a police chief.

And this is where school reform and superintendents come into play as a comparison to the causes and solutions for problems in schooling. I take that up in Part 2.

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Schools Closed for Five Years: The Prince Edward County Story (Part 2)

That the 2020 pandemic closed public venues including schools for three to six months across 13,000 districts in the country startled American families upending familiar daily routines. Most Moms and Dads had never experienced such a turnabout in their daily lives. Then many Americans learned of earlier influenza and polio epidemics when public officials closed schools during the first half of the 20th century.

But the vast majority of Americans know next to nothing about a Virginia county in 1959 that shut down its public schools until 1963.

That is what happened in Prince Edward County when an all-white school board, refusing a court order to desegregate, shuttered its schools and using public funds for vouchers and tax credits created a private white-only academy for students. That decision left black children and youth with no access to public elementary and secondary schooling for five years.

What did black families do when the doors to their schools were locked?

Black leaders, parents, students, and a few whites protested. The white-controlled Board of Supervisors and the County Board of Education, nonetheless, kept the schools closed.

Some families sent their sons and daughters to relatives elsewhere in Virginia where at least segregated schools were open, to families in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and on the East coast. Other parents, including some whites, dug deep in their pockets and funded small, part-time schools taught by volunteers meeting in churches and homes. Most black students, however, did not attend any school until the 1964 school year. They stayed home. Many worked in the tobacco fields with their parents.

The federal government finally got involved after the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Attorney General Robert Kennedy took immediate interest in the situation. He said:

We may observe with much sadness and irony that, outside of Africa, south of the Sahara, where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.” 

Robert Kennedy assigned Department of Justice officials to find ways to open County schools to black children and youth. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court found the vouchers that the Prince Edward County Board of Education issued to only white families to pay tuition to the private Academy were unconstitutional.

Federal officials then founded the Prince Edward Country Free Association of Schools. They needed one million dollars to provide schooling for black children and youth for one year. Because of missing years of schooling, students had reading and math levels scattered across the grades. The new schools would have to be ungraded so that students could move from one level to another after mastering content and skills.

Funded by donations from black and white families in other parts of the U.S., and foundation grants led to the creation of a high school and elementary/middle school housed in the previously all-black Robert Moton High School. A newly installed superintendent, Neil Sullivan who had led an affluent suburb near New York City and knew about non-graded schools, called for teachers around the country to staff these federally-run schools; dozens from all parts of the country volunteered. He assembled a biracial board of trustees and a similarly integrated faculty. As one account put it:

On Monday, September 16, 1963,the Free Schools opened and greeted 1,578 students,including four white students. The new student body took their education very seriously and in one instance refused to go home when the water supply from their school broke leaving them with no bathrooms. The students volunteered to just go in the woods rather than miss more school. The students faced an immense challenge catching up. Many of them had little instruction or opportunities to practice skills while the schools were closed for four long years. Many students and teachers got to school early, stayed late and even met on the weekends to try to catch up. Meanwhile, both students and staff were harassed on a regular basis by white supremacists but nothing would stop them from getting their education.

And many black students never returned to school. They found jobs in the fields, joined the military, got married and had families. Others were so far behind when schools re-opened that they came for a short time and dropped out. One journalist interviewed middle-aged janitors and tenant farmers in 2004 who had missed school decades earlier and found some whose futures were crippled by illiteracy.

Academic studies tracked former students into middle-age to determine the socioeconomic and political costs these men and women paid as a result of the school closure. Researchers looked at income levels, job histories, voting practices, and other indicators and compared those who could not attend school at all with those who received some schooling during the shutdown . Outcomes for the unschooled over decades showed dramatic differences with those Prince Edward students who had attended schools elsewhere (see here, here, and here).

School closures, then, is an instance of a man-made disaster quite different from natural disasters like the current Covid-19 pandemic. No hurricane or viral spread caused the Prince Edward County to shutter its schools. Racial rancor did.

Major differences between natural and man-made disasters are earmarks of the Prince Edward County story. The length of time out of school in the Virginia county differs with current estimates of months lost to American children rather than years. The power of schooling to affect adult earnings, behaviors, and civic actions becomes highlighted by this exceptional example. Looking to the past dredges up important instances when man-made disasters took a grave toll on one group of Americans.

In 2020, there are three schools in the still rural Prince Edward County–an elementary, a middle school, and a high school. Ranked in the bottom half of the state in academic performance, the district has just over 2,000 students. Black enrollment is 64 percent (2017).

Elementary School
Middle School
High School

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School Principals As Reformers

Sometime ago, I taught a one-day session for 30-plus secondary school principals in the San Francisco Bay area. The subject was “Principals as Change Leaders.”

Seems like a contradiction in terms at first since these principals from affluent suburbs and inner cities are often caught in the middle between bosses who tell them to implement district policies in their schools and teachers who want to be buffered from intrusive parents and unpredictable youth. Keeping the ship afloat and passengers happy seems to be the major task, not leading change. But it isn’t a contradiction because these principals—ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-50s and running small high schools, large comprehensive high schools, and middle schools–were mid-career, savvy about organizational politics, and wanted to improve their schools.

So if you are caught in the middle where you look upward to your bosses for direction, sideways to your teachers who do the daily work with students, and outward to parents many of whom believe they know more than you do about schooling–how exactly do you make changes, much less lead others?

They knew well the instructional, managerial, and political roles that they had to perform (see here and here). What they wanted to discuss was not these roles but how do you lead change amid contradictory demands from parents who want particular changes, bosses who expect policies to be put into classroom practice when you are utterly dependent upon teachers to get the daily work done, and, of course, teachers who seek support and resources, not reforms designed by others.

So before we turned to case studies of principals in action, I spoke briefly on principals as reformers. Here is what I said without the pauses, uhhhhs, and hmmmms:

Leading change begins in your head. Knowing which questions you have to ask about the change you want to make in the school and sharing your answers to those questions with staff, parents, and students is the single most important leadership act you can perform.

Exactly what are those questions?

1. What theory of action is driving the change you want to make?

Every change has an implicit theory guiding it. Behind placing carts of 30 tablets in each classroom, for example, is the theory that using these devices will produce more, faster, and better learning in students. Laying out the theory explicitly to those who are expected to make the changes is a minimum obligation of a leader who aspires to be trustworthy, honest and transparent with those he or she serves.

2. What are the problems you seek to solve? What are your goals? What assumptions are built into the change? What strategies do you intend to use in solving those problems?

Every change is a solution to a particular problem. For example, the problem of low test scores in reading, math, and science on the state test converts easily into the goal of raising the percentages of students being proficient in reading, math, and science.

Every change has implicit assumptions built into it that need to be made explicit. Consider the popular change of creating professional learning communities (PLCs) among teachers. One assumption is that PLCs where teachers observe one another, receive coaching, read and discuss books, will get teachers to alter routine teaching practices.

And then there are the strategies to put the change into practice. Take, for example, the common strategies used in creating small urban high schools of shifting to block schedules to gain instructional time and establishing advisories of 15-plus students for discussion of non-academic issues. Assumptions underlying those two structures are that more instructional time will lead to more learning and advisories will make school more personal, more motivating hereby leading to engaged students who will want to learn and achieve. These assumptions are seldom examined publicly.

3. What capacities (knowledge and skills) are needed to carry out the change? Who has them? Where to get them?

No elaboration needed for this question since if it goes unasked then the chances of most teachers implementing the change go down drastically.

4. What school and classroom changes have to occur for the policy to be completely implemented?

If changes aimed at improving student performance are NOT spelled out explicitly for classrooms (e.g., changes in how teachers teach, the content of lessons, student behavior), then kiss your change goodbye. Without changes in classroom practices, not much worthwhile will happen.

5. How will you know that changes worked in the short-, mid-, and long-term?

This question asks you have to figure out and state for teachers, parensts, and students in specific terms the results consistent with the changes that can be reasonably expected over the next months and years.

Before moving to the case studies of principals who sought changes in their schools, I did a Q & A where the principals challenged these five questions, asked for evidence to support the claims that I made. They asked me whether hard-working principals caught in the middle of performing three roles for their bosses, teachers, and parents could, indeed, ask and answer those questions I posed. I answered their questions the best that I could but to their last question, I said quickly and emphatically “yes.”

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Schools and the Coronavirus

Close the schools, an anxious neighbor says on Nextdoor (a local online bulletin board), when a parent of two school children in the community in which I live came in contact with someone who was infected with the coronavirus (see comment below: a careful reader noted that the source I used said the parent was not infected). Public schools so far have remained open but nearby private schools have closed. Stanford University suspended face-to-face classes for next week telling faculty to teach online remaining classes in the quarter. No local district has yet closed its public schools. But whether to keep public schools open or shut remains in the air. Parents scramble to hire people just in case the schools do close but their workplaces remain open It is a day-by-day anxiety-fest. But not only in this affluent community.

In New York City, there are 1.1 million students of whom three-quarters are designated as poor. A recent article makes clear that schools do more than teach content and skills.

… {S]chool may be the only place they can get three hot meals a day and medical care, and even wash their dirty laundry.

That is why the city’s public schools will probably stay open even if the new coronavirus becomes more widespread in New York. Richard A. Carranza, the schools chancellor, said earlier this week that he considered long-term closings an “extreme” measure and a “last resort.”

Responses from Palo Alto and New York City public schools strip away the cloak of hidden inequalities that are endemic to American life in 2020. Should Palo Alto schools close, nearly all of the parents–many of whom have both spouses working–will have money to hire adults to help care for their children at home.

Not so for East Palo Alto families –across an expressway from Palo Alto–where many moms and dads cobble together multiple part-time jobs in low-paying industries (e.g., Home Depot, IKEA, fast food franchises, home gardening) with no paid sick leave available.

An impending crisis disrupts the taken-for-granted in our lives. Especially when it comes to public schools. They are crucial in keeping the economy strong because, in addition to learning content and skills, and issuing credentials to enter college and eventually the workplace, in times such as now, their legal custody of children becomes starkly obvious. Schools, past and present, then, are expected to take good care of their charges and also be social service centers and community hubs.

The importance of schools to daily life and the larger society during a pandemic becomes obvious. But does closing schools reduce spread of the virus and thus deaths or do schools have little to no effect on the spread of the respiratory ailment?

History offers some clues to answering the question. A historian of medicine investigated the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that killed nearly 750,000 Americans (not a typo). He and his colleagues studied 43 cities that used school closings as one of the ways to abort or slow the spread of the virus and thereby reduce mortalities. Here is what he found:

We looked at 43 large cities that carried out some combination of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs): isolating the ill or those suspected of being ill in hospitals or at home; banning public gatherings; in some cases, shutting down roads and railways; and closing schools.

School closing turned out to be one of the most effective firewalls against the spread of the pandemic; cities that acted fast, for lengthy periods, and included school closing and at least one other NPI in their responses saw the lowest death rates.

Of course, all NPIs are socially disruptive and should be used only as a last resort, to control infections that are highly transmissible and dangerous, and have high fatality rates. The primary problem with the new coronavirus is that we have never before experienced an outbreak with it, so we do not yet have good, stable numbers to tell us how serious it is.

The uncertainty over the effects of the virus, how many that contract the disease recover or die, the lack of a vaccine–takes up to a year to develop and test one–and absence of anti-viral medications complicates greatly making decisions about closing schools. That in the U.S. there are 13,000-plus school districts–each with their own school board and superintendent–with over 100,000 public schools surely doesn’t help in corralling the contagious virus.

The historian closes his article with the following advice:

To be sure, more than 80 percent of the Covid-19 cases reported so far have been mild, and few children have been among the people suffering from serious or deadly cases. But most parents would tolerate the inconvenience of school closings if it meant they were avoiding even a relatively small risk to their child’s health. Just as important, children of all ages are especially good at spreading respiratory viruses, which puts adults who work in schools as well as health workers in emergency rooms and hospitals at risk if schools remain open. Keeping kids at home could be an important part of saving lives.

In the history of medicine, we have never been more prepared to confront this virus than we are today. But this history also teaches us that when it comes to school closings, we must always be ready to act today — not tomorrow.

What the historian ignores, however, is the economic insecurity and inequalities that pervade the U.S. and the social effects of school closings on lower-middle and working class Americans and those poor families without any resources. Serious disruption rather than the euphemism of “inconvenience” is the operative phrase for this substantial portion of Americans.

Future policies that would lessen the disruption would be state and federal legislation mandating paid sick leave for minimum wage jobs. That would be a start and a positive outcome of this pandemic.

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The Last Time Democracy Almost Died (Jill Lepore)

With the rise of dictatorships across Europe and Asia in the past quarter-century, the current impeachment and then acquittal of President Donald Trump, fear, anger, and despair about the present state of America and its future as a democracy has become a topic of discussion. Recent books entitled How Democracies Die and The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is In Danger & How To Save It point to the angst that is in the air about the present and future of democracy in the U.S.

Historian Jill Lepore looks to the 1930s when the U.S. was mired in the Great Depression and totalitarianism was on the march in Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Adolph Hitler’s Germany. In the U.S., anti-immigration sentiment, lynchings of blacks, and antisemitism rose dramatically in these years as authoritarian governments toppled democracies internationally.

As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal took hold of the country, Lepore argues that Americans engaged in sustained discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of democratic government and daily democratic practices. And many public schools were involved in those civic discussions. I have excerpted part of the article dealing with one Midwestern school district’s efforts.

Jill Lepore contributes to The New Yorker. She is a professor of history at Harvard University. Her latest book is “These Truths: A History of the United States.” The entire article appeared in The New Yorker.

It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent. American democracy in the nineteen-thirties had plenty of critics, left and right, from Mexican-Americans who objected to a brutal regime of forced deportations to businessmen who believed the New Deal to be unconstitutional. W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that, unless the United States met its obligations to the dignity and equality of all its citizens and ended its enthrallment to corporations, American democracy would fail: “If it is going to use this power to force the world into color prejudice and race antagonism; if it is going to use it to manufacture millionaires, increase the rule of wealth, and break down democratic government everywhere; if it is going increasingly to stand for reaction, fascism, white supremacy and imperialism; if it is going to promote war and not peace; then America will go the way of the Roman Empire….”

The most ambitious plan to get Americans to show up in the same room and argue with one another in the nineteen-thirties came out of Des Moines, Iowa, from a one-eyed former bricklayer named John W. Studebaker, who had become the superintendent of the city’s schools. Studebaker, who after the Second World War helped create the G.I. Bill, had the idea of opening those schools up at night, so that citizens could hold debates. In 1933, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation and support from the American Association for Adult Education, he started a five-year experiment in civic education.

The meetings began at a quarter to eight, with a fifteen-minute news update, followed by a forty-five-minute lecture, and thirty minutes of debate. The idea was that “the people of the community of every political affiliation, creed, and economic view have an opportunity to participate freely.” When Senator Guy Gillette, a Democrat from Iowa, talked about “Why I Support the New Deal,” Senator Lester Dickinson, a Republican from Iowa, talked about “Why I Oppose the New Deal.” Speakers defended Fascism. They attacked capitalism. They attacked Fascism. They defended capitalism. Within the first nine months of the program, thirteen thousand of Des Moines’s seventy-six thousand adults had attended a forum. The program got so popular that in 1934 F.D.R. appointed Studebaker the U.S. Commissioner of Education and, with the eventual help of Eleanor Roosevelt, the program became a part of the New Deal, and received federal funding. The federal forum program started out in ten test sites—from Orange County, California, to Sedgwick County, Kansas, and Pulaski County, Arkansas. It came to include almost five hundred forums in forty-three states and involved two and a half million Americans. Even people who had steadfastly predicted the demise of democracy participated. “It seems to me the only method by which we are going to achieve democracy in the United States,” Du Bois wrote, in 1937.

The federal government paid for it, but everything else fell under local control, and ordinary people made it work, by showing up and participating. Usually, school districts found the speakers and decided on the topics after collecting ballots from the community. In some parts of the country, even in rural areas, meetings were held four and five times a week. They started in schools and spread to Y.M.C.A.s and Y.W.C.A.s, labor halls, libraries, settlement houses, and businesses, during lunch hours. Many of the meetings were broadcast by radio. People who went to those meetings debated all sorts of things:

Should the Power of the Supreme Court Be Altered?

Do Company Unions Help Labor?

Do Machines Oust Men?

Must the West Get Out of the East?

Can We Conquer Poverty?

Should Capital Punishment Be Abolished?

Is Propaganda a Menace?

Do We Need a New Constitution?

Should Women Work?

Is America a Good Neighbor?

Can It Happen Here?

These efforts don’t always work. Still, trying them is better than talking about the weather, and waiting for someone to hand you an umbrella.

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“We Are All Reformers” (Part 3)

So what do I remember of those years in the three Pittsburgh Public Schools I attended? Two non-spoiler alerts to readers about what I experienced in elementary and secondary schools.

The first alert is my fallible memory. Bits and pieces of being in school come back to me albeit in blurred, inexact ways. But those memories persist. Nonetheless, it is not a spoiler to alert readers to the inherent flaws of trying to remember what occurred decades ago. As the Italian writer Primo Levi put it:

Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features.

The second alert is that going to school is only one part of a child’s life—albeit an important one. Multiply 180 days (average number of days the 50 states require school to be in session over past few decades) by the hours that most U.S. students spend in school  (6.5 hours), the total is nearly 1200 hours a year in school.

Consider further that in such a year the child and youth is awake nearly 6,000 hours (subtracting 8 hours of nightly sleep). In other words, in each year, about 80 percent of a student’s life is spent outside of school. This is a round-about way of saying that while tax-supported schooling in a market-driven democracy is essential if for no other reason than granting credentials that are required to complete high school, finish college and enter the workplace with proper pieces of parchment, it takes up about one-fifth of a five year old’s life or a senior’s last year prior to donning robes for graduation.

For readers, then, I note my flawed memory of the stint I spent in elementary and secondary schools and the huge chunk of time I spent in family, neighborhood, and religious institutions outside of school. With these two cautions in mind, I return to what I remember of those experiences between the ages of 5 to 16.

At age five, I was put into first grade. All of the other children who were a year older than me had been in kindergarten–a reform adopted and expanded by Progressive reformers–but I had not attended kindergarten. Somehow either my mother convinced the Minersville principal that I was ready for school or the principal unilaterally decided to assign me there. I was put into a first-grade classroom

I entered the first grade uninitiated in the school and classroom routines that most of my classmates had already absorbed a year earlier. They had been taught to listen to the teacher, obey directions, know when they could talk and when to be quiet. They knew when and how to ask permission of the teacher to go to the bathroom and sharpen their pencil. They had already picked up what schooling teaches the young—what academics call “socialization” or the “hidden curriculum”–that is not in teachers’ lesson plans. Moreover, my classmates already knew the colors of the spectrum, could count to ten, and some were actually reading. I was way behind my peers socially and academically.

While I graduated high school at the age of 16, many classmates and teachers thought I was really smart and had skipped grades. As my elementary and secondary school transcripts document, at best I was average, receiving a lot of  “satisfactory” and “C” grades on my report cards. I was a year or two younger than other students simply because my mother has gotten me into first grade at age five.

Some background on my family might make this precipitous entry into school understandable. My family of five moved from Passaic, N.J. in 1936 (of three sons, I was the youngest at 2, my middle brother was 11, and my eldest brother was 17). Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia, my parents who spoke Russian, Yiddish, and English had a mom-and-pop grocery store that was boycotted by the German-American Bund—a group that had grown quickly in the wake of Adolph Hitler’s becoming Germany’s Chancellor in 1933.

Closed by the boycott, my mother and father moved to Pittsburgh where they had family. We arrived there in the midst of the Great Depression. We found housing in what then was called the Hill District largely inhabited by a mix of some Jewish immigrant and mostly black working and middle-class families. My father, like so many other unemployed, could not find any work until he landed a job with the federal Works Progress Administration. Eventually he found work with a food distributor selling meats, pickles, and diary products off of a rented truck to immigrant-run mom-and-pop stores in Pittsburgh and nearby towns. By this time, my two older brothers were teenagers attending junior and senior high schools in the Hill District and working at odd jobs after school contributing to the family finances.

Across the street from our rented apartment was Minersville Elementary School. Largely black in enrollment—I remember one other white girl in the school—racial encounters occurred outside of school, not inside, as I recall. The first-grade teacher’s major task was to get students to read through phonics. I finally learned to read with understanding by the second or third grade and grasped it like a life preserver growing up. As an elementary and secondary school student, the Carnegie Library in Oakland became my second home.

My memory fails me in recovering experiences from those early years in elementary school. This is not to say that I didn’t absorb parts of the Progressive curriculum. I slowly grasped reading and arithmetic basics.

What I can recall most vividly is my fear and anxiety over not knowing all of the informal rules that my peers practiced without thinking. How to walk single-file in hallways, Lining up at the classroom door to go to the bathroom. Sitting with hands folded at the desk until the teacher told us what to do. Carefully scrawling the shape of individual letters pictured above the black slate boards as an introduction to cursive writing and then more sitting at a desk until the teacher directed us to the next activity. It was a world apart from living with my parents and brothers and roaming the neighborhood. I was scared by all of it.

So I do remember looking around constantly to make sure that I was doing what other six year-olds were doing. Was I anxious? Must have been since even writing down these fragments of memory dredge up feelings of unease, of worrying over being out of sync with others. I quickly picked up the alphabet and putting words together and adding numbers—never learned, however, to tie my shoe laces into bows–but the informal social rules of the classroom and fear of the teacher got to me from time to time. Once I was sent home for soiling my pants. Other times, classmates broke into laughter when I misunderstood the teacher’s request. This is what I remember.  

Outside of school, on upper Center Avenue where black middle-class families had moved out of the lower Hill District, I recall vividly being bitten on the thigh by the German Shepherd of our neighbor—a minister in a nearby black church. I also recall being hit by a Kaufman’s department store truck making a delivery while playing next to the curb and my mother taking me to the nearby hospital. 

At age 7, after the U.S. entered World War II—I remember that Sunday in December and the hushed conversations in our second floor apartment—when the President announced on the radio that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. The next year, we moved to Greenfield, a largely Italian and Irish Catholic neighborhood. There were few Jewish families in the neighborhood. The U.S. Army and Navy had drafted my brothers; they served until the end of the war. I entered the second grade at Roosevelt Elementary School and was there for four years. Whether it was because I was new to the school, Jewish, or some other reason, I heard lots of nasty epithets going to school, during recess, and while sprinting home two blocks once the last bell had rung. When there were fights, I was usually on the losing end.

Whether Roosevelt teachers taught in Progressive ways–encouraging play, curiosity, exploring science, math, and other academic and non-academic subjects–I neither remember nor could put into words those few vague wisps of memory. I do remember an art teacher who encouraged my drawing sufficiently for me to enter radio-sponsored art contests for young children. Didn’t win. I also recall that I knew all of the informal rules of how to behave in the classroom, during recess, and on the playground.While there are adults who look back fondly at their early years in school calling up the very names of their teachers, as much as I ransacked my mind, I cannot call up any names or classroom instances that are memorable.

What I do recall are events that occurred outside of Roosevelt. Since I went to school during World War II, rationing coupons, neighborhood fights and frequent anti-Semitic taunts and epithets come back to me. What eventually saved me was getting polio.

I remember well war-time rationing. Sacrificing for the war effort were lessons I learned in and out of school. Priority goods went to soldiers and sailors—like my brothers–serving in Europe and the Pacific. My parents received monthly ration coupons for meat, sugar, canned items, gasoline, tires, and other items. When our monthly coupons ran out, that was it. I do remember my parents speaking in Russian and Yiddish worrying about what they could and could not get in the remaining days of each month.

Patriotism in supporting the war effort became part of the school curriculum. Students, teachers and parents collected tinfoil from discarded gum and cigarette wrappers and rolled them into balls that we turned in to collection centers. I collected chicken fat from my mother’s kitchen and neighbors as well. My parents gave me a dime weekly to buy saving stamps and later defense bonds at school.

Then in the summer of 1944, a polio epidemic swept the nation and  I got it. But I was lucky. While other children were put into “iron lungs” to stay alive or youngsters had to wear leg braces—as President Roosevelt did–all that I contracted was a damaged left leg where my calf muscle atrophied. I have walked with a limp ever since.

Because polio was a scourge that devastated the young and no one knew how children contracted it, fear of getting it–like a latter-day fear of AIDs in the early 1980s–was omnipresent on Loretta St. When I returned from the hospital. No one came near me. I was in sixth grade preparing to enter a nearby junior-senior high school. I had missed a month of school–and I could barely stand when I returned home in early June. That is what I remember from those years at Roosevelt Elementary School.

During the War, my father had bought his own paneled truck to sell delicatessen products to family owned grocery stores in the city and elsewhere earned enough to fulfill my mother’s dream of moving into a Jewish neighborhood called Squirrel Hill. I was hardly ready to enter the seventh grade at Taylor Allderdice.

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Teacher Platforms (Ben Williamson)

Ben Williamson is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute at the University of Edinburgh. His research traces the connections between educational policy, digital technologies, and practices in schools and universities. He is the author of Big Data in Education: The digital future of learning, policy and practice (Sage, 2017) and over 30 research articles and chapters.

Amazon has launched a new service allowing teachers to sell and buy education resources through its platform.

The massive multinational platform company Amazon has announced a new service allowing teachers to sell lesson plans and classroom resources to other teachers. The service, Amazon Ignite, is moving into a space where Teachers Pay Teachers and TES Teaching Resources have already established markets for the selling and buying of teaching materials. These services have reimagined the teacher as an online content producer, and Amazon has previously dabbled in this area with its Amazon Inspire ‘open educational resources’ service for free resource-sharing. But Amazon Ignite much more fully captures the teaching profession as a commercial opportunity.

The operating model of Amazon Ignite is very simple. Teachers can produce content, such as lesson plans, worksheets, study guides, games, and classroom resources, and upload them as Word, Powerpoint or PDF files using the dedicated Amazon Ignite platform. Amazon then checks the resources to ensure they don’t infringe any copyrights before they appear in the marketplace. In these ways, Amazon is now in the business of ‘shipping’ educational content across the education sector in ways that mirror its wider online commerce model.

Amazon claims the Ignite platform offers a way for teachers to ‘earn money for work you’re already doing’ by paying users 70% royalties on the resources they sell. The company itself will take 30% of the sales, plus a transaction fee of 30 cents for items under $2.99, though it also has discretion to change the price of resources including by discounting the cost to customers. This makes Amazon Ignite potentially lucrative for Amazon as well as for successful vendors on the platform.

Although Ignite is available only in the US in the first instance, the platform exemplifies the current expansion of major multinational tech companies and their platforms into the education sector. The extension of the commercial technology industry into education at all levels and across the globe is set to influence the role of the teacher and the practices of the classroom considerably over coming years.

Teacher brand ambassadors
The edtech industry, and the wider technology sector, are strongly involved in defining the characteristics and qualities of a ‘good teacher’ for the 2020s. While commercial businesses have long sought access to schools, the National Educational Policy Center (NEPC) in the US recently launched a report on teachers as ‘brand ambassadors’:

Corporate firms, particularly those with education technology products, have contracted with teachers to become so-called brand ambassadors. A brand ambassador is an individual who receives some form of compensation or perk in exchange for the endorsement of a product. Unlike celebrity endorsers, teachers can be thought of as ‘micro-influencers’ who give firms access to their network of social influence.

Teacher brand ambassadors, as well as ‘product mentors’, ‘champions’ and ‘evangelists’, have become significant edtech marketing figures. They often use social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, to promote and model the use of specific educational technologies. They might even be involved in the development and testing of new software features and upgrades, as well expenses-paid trips to conferences, summits and trade events where they are expected to attend as representatives of the brand.

The NEPC reported that teacher brand ambassador programs raise significant ethical issues and conflicts of interest, while delivering return on investment to producers when their product is introduced into classrooms and students are exposed to their brand.

As the big tech firms have closed in on education, they have begun to merge the marketing role of the brand ambassador into a professional development role–such as Google’s Certified Educator program. Amazon’s AWS Educate program enables whole institutions to become AWS Educate members, in effect bringing whole institutions into its branded environment. The ‘perks’ include providing educators access to AWS technology, open source content for their courses, training resources, and a community of cloud evangelists, while also providing students credits for hands-on experience with AWS technology, training, and content.

Platform gig teachers
Amazon Ignite, however, represents the next-stage instantiation of the brand ambassador and the teacher as micro-influencer. On Amazon Ignite, teachers are not contracted as platform ambassadors, but invited to become self-branded sellers in a competitive marketplace, setting up shop as micro-edubusinesses within Amazon’s global platform business. Without becoming official brand ambassadors, teachers become gig workers engaging in market exchanges mediated by Amazon’s platform. This in turn requires them to become micro-influencers of their own brands.

So who are the teachers who participate in the Amazon Ignite educational gig economy? Amazon Ignite is ‘invitation-only’ and as such makes highly consequential decisions over the kinds of content and resources that can be purchased and used. This might be understood as high-tech ‘hidden curriculum’ work, with Amazon employees working behind the scenes to make selections about what counts as worthwhile resources and knowledge to make available to the market.

It is not really clear that Amazon Ignite will even empower existing classroom teachers to become content producers and sellers. A brief review of the current ‘featured educators’ on Amazon’s Digital Education Resources page gives an indication of the kind of invited participants who might thrive on Ignite. Most of these appear as established micro-edubusinesses with well-developed brands and product ranges to sell. Amazon offers extensive advice to potential vendors about how to package and present their resources to customers.

[The list of ‘featured educators’ on Amazon Digital Education Resources is at:  https://www.amazon.com/b/ref=dervurl?node=17987895011]

The featured educator Blue Brain Teacher, for example, is the branded identity of a former private education curriculum adviser and Montessori-certified educator, who focuses strongly on ‘brain-based’ approaches including ‘Right-Brain training’. An established vendor on Teachers Pay Teachers, the Blue Brain Teacher also has a presence on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, is a Google Certified Educator, and officially certified to offer training on Adobe products.

Another featured educator, Brainwaves Instruction, also has a glossy website and existing web store of printable resources, a blog featuring thoughts and lesson ideas on mindfulness, growth mindset, and the adolescent brain, and all the social media accounts to amplify the brand.

These and many of the other featured educators on the Amazon Digital Education Resources store give some indication of how the Amazon Ignite market will appear. Many are existing TpT users, active and prolific on social media, have their own well-designed and maintained websites, write blogs, and are highly attentive to their brand identity. Some, such as Education with an Apron, are not limited to the selling of educational resources, but have their own teacher-themed fashion lines such as T-shirts and tote bags (‘I’m the Beyonce of the classroom’). These are teacher gig workers in an increasingly platformized education sector.

Amazon Ignite, at least at this early stage, also seems to be overwhelmingly feminized. Most of its featured educators present themselves through the aesthetics of lifestyle media and family values, as examples such as The Classroom Nook indicate. It suggests the reproduction of a specifically gendered construction of the teacher.

This is balanced, in many cases, with sophisticated social media-style iconography, and significant investment in various technology industry programs. Erintegration, for example, shares resources, lesson plans, reviews, and tips for using iPads, Google Apps, and other devices ‘to engage digital learners in all curriculum areas’, and is already involved in other Amazon programs:

Erintegration is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Erintegration is sometimes provided free services, goods, affiliate links and/or compensations in exchange for an honest review.  All thoughts and options are my own and are not influenced by the company or its affiliates.

Not all the featured educators are single individuals either. Clark Creative Education is a team of educators, authors, designers and editors, whose founder is a ‘top-milestone author on Teachers Pay Teachers’. Amazon Ignite is, then, not simply empowering practising teachers to ‘earn money for work you’re already doing’ but is actively incentivizing the expansion of a market of educational startup content producers.

Children can even be content providers. According to the Terms and Conditions, ‘A parent or guardian of a minor can open a Program account and submit the minor’s Resource-Related Content as the Content Provider’. Given the role of young celebrity micro-influencers on social media, it is possible to speculate here that school children could also establish positions as ‘edu-preneurial’ content producers.

Platform classrooms
All in all, Amazon Ignite is encouraging teachers to see themselves as empowered and branded-up personal edubusinesses operating inside Amazon’s commerce platform. It is easy to see the attraction in the context of underfunded schools and low teacher pay. But it also brings teachers into the precarious conditions of the gig economy. These educators are gig workers and small-scale edu-startup businesses who will need to compete to turn a profit. Rather than making select teachers into brand ambassadors for its platform, Amazon is bringing teacher-producers and education startups on to its platform as content producers doing the labour of making, uploading and marketing resources for royalty payments. It expands platform capitalism to the production, circulation and provision of classroom resources, and positions Amazon as an intermediary between the producers and consumers in a new educational market.

By making selections about which educators or businesses can contribute to Ignite, Amazon is also making highly significant and opaque decisions about the kind of educational content made available to the teacher market. The criteria for inclusion on Amazon Ignite are unclear. What kind of educational standards, values, or assumptions underpin these choices? Curriculum scholars have long talked about the ways aspects of culture and knowledge are selected for inclusion in school syllabi, textbooks and resources. Amazon is now performing this function at a distance through its selection of educational content creators and market vendors.

Over time, Amazon Ignite is likely to produce hierarchies of vendors, since Amazon claims the Ignite resources will show up in search results. This raises the prospect of algorithmic recommendations based on a combination of vendor popularity and users’ existing purchases—a ‘recommended for you’ list tailored to teachers’ search and purchase histories. The Terms and Conditions specify that Amazon ‘will have sole discretion in determining all marketing and promotions related to the sale of your Resources through the Program and may, without limitation, market and promote your Resources by permitting prospective customers to see excerpts of your Resources in response to search queries’.

Moreover, Amazon claims ‘sole ownership and control of all data obtained from customers and prospective customers in connection with the Program’, thereby gaining the advantage of using buyer and seller data to potentially further maximize its platform profitability.

Amazon Ignite anticipates an increasingly close alignment of classrooms and platforms in coming years. ‘As with social media platforms in the 2000s, educational platform providers will be working to expand the scope of their “walled gardens” to encompass as many user practices as possible’, argue the authors of a recent article outlining likely trends in education technology in the 2020s. Along with Amazon’s ongoing attempts to embed its Alexa voice assistant in schools and universities, Amazon Ignite has now further expanded the walls of Amazon’s huge commerce platform to enclose the education sector. Amazon is inciting educators to become platform teachers whose labour in platform classrooms is a source of profit under platform capitalism.

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How the Other Half Learns: A Review (Part 3)

Robert Pondiscio’s book is about Success Academies, a highly praised and critiqued charter school network in New York City. Once connected to those urban schools called “No Excuses’–a term that founder Eva Moskowitz hates (p.52)–How the Other Half Learns enters the highly-charged arena of fiery reform rhetoric over publicly-funded urban charter schools that has raged for the past two decades. *

Boosters and opponents of charter schools have argued incessantly over their effectiveness compared to regular public schools (e.g., test scores, degree of innovativeness) and broadening parental choice (e.g., give poor and minority families a choice in schools beyond the one in the neighborhood). Using public funds for charters, critics have said, drained scarce monies away from regular public schools and encouraged the privatization of a public good (see here , here, and here).

Pondiscio’s book becomes fuel for one side or the other in this continuing rancorous struggle over charter schools.**

What this book is clear on is that Success Academies screen parents. Only those parents who can adhere to strict school requirements can have their children enter the lottery for kindergarten and higher grades. Success Academies do not “cream”students from public schools; they select parents who want their sons and daughters to be safe, challenged academically, follow the rules, and achieve academically. There are many parents who want exactly what Success Academies offer. And parents have to work hard in getting their children to accept Bronx 1’s routines and demands.

In many cases, parents cannot abide by the dress code, “color-coded behavioral charts, codes of conduct, data walls with children’s reading levels…” Such a demanding school culture “leave no room for doubt about what is expected, praised, or frowned upon (p. 329).” As a result, only about half of those parents who win the lottery eventually enroll their children in the school (p. 332).

Students of parents willing to accept this kind of school are enthusiastic, engaged and, clearly competent to meet the high bar of many requirements. To have such highly motivated parents send their sons and daughters to Success Academies surely boost students’–they are called “scholars”– motivation to do well in school. “It would be dishonest,” Pondiscio writes, “to pretend that Success Academy is not a self-selection engine….” (p. 333). If this is “creaming” as charter school critics allege, Pondiscio says, so be it. He asks further whether minority and low-income parents who want such schools should not have access to them. Do they not have the right to go to schools of their choice as suburban and wealthier parents seek out? Pondiscio says they do. And I agree.

What is troubling about the story that Pondiscio tells are the facts of student dropouts from kindergarten through 12th grade (Success Academy High School graduated it first class in 2018). Of the 73 elementary school students, “only sixteen remained” to accept the diploma (p. 160). Also see here.

Critics claim that Success Academies’ sloughing off of “scholars” explains large test score gains and high student performance. Pondiscio counters by offering one study of New York City school transfer rates arguing that mobility rates are high among low-income families. He cites figure that Success Academies retained more students than city schools do. I was unconvinced by that one study. There are many reasons for students leaving these schools and surely other factors deserve respectful attention.

Finally, there is the matter of whether such a demanding culture of behavioral management, direct instruction, and one common curriculum prepare 8th graders for high school and, later, for college. Pondiscio writes that it will take “decades” to determine such outcomes. Perhaps. Success Academy leaders, however, can do more more than wait.

The author cites the KIPP experience and notes that student data after high school and college enrollment has been tracked and the low percentages of college completion have spurred KIPP to build an infrastructure of ongoing support after high school with college counselors, mentors, and tutoring. Success Academy, Pondiscio writes, “has no plans to create a similar program” (p.163).

Overall, this ex-teacher’s in-depth study of one Success Academy in New York City written in clear, richly detailed prose paints a complex school with high expectations for student achievement and behavior flowing from teachers, administrators, and parents. Such schools have high attrition among students and teachers and faces dilemmas that can only be managed rather than solved. This is not a school for all low-income, minority parents but it is one that attracts mothers and fathers who want structures, norms, safety, and solid academic achievement from their sons and daughters. So far, Bronx 1 provides that to its “scholar’s” and parents.

Moreover, Pondiscio believes that Bronx 1 is a “great” school. The author meets a couple who have applied to kindergartens in 47 charter schools in NYC. Bronx 1 is at the top of their list. They attended an orientation meeting and Langston, their five year-old son, was accepted. He arrived on the first day of school with parents in tow. On the steps of the school the parents and Pondiscio and begin talking to one another. One parent is a NYC special education teacher and the other drives tourist buses in Manhattan. They discover that Pondiscio is writing a book about his year at the school. The father asks Pondiscio if the school is “good.” The author replies: “It’s a great school… You’re really lucky” (p. 337).

Surely, the author is correct that the parents lucked out in getting their son into the Success Academy kindergarten. Whether Langston will survive and thrive through high school, given the previous high attrition rates is another story for another time. Yes, the school is “great” in Pondiscio’s judgment. But “great” for all parents? All children? Probably not.

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*Readers who wish to read other reviews of How the Other Half Learns, see here, here, here, and here.

**My position is that publicly-funded charter schools are here to stay and overall they offer choices to parents who previously lacked alternatives to neighborhood schools.

As for for-profit charters, they should be excluded from receiving public funds. State and local regulation of charters to deter academically and financially bankrupt schools and networks from continued operation using public funds is also a must. Nonetheless, poor and working class parents should have access to different kinds of schools than the one down the block much as economically well-off parents have choices.

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