Category Archives: school leaders

Remodeling the Age Graded School?

In July 2020, Eric Gordon head of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District released a report that would alter the 170 year-old institution called the age-graded school (see here and here). The 74 Million website summarized the report July 2, 2020. While there have been previous efforts to alter the age-graded school and such schools exist now (see here, here, and here), they have been largely confined to individual schools. Never a district especially a large urban one. For that reason I offer the proposal here. Because of the pandemic and mostly remote instruction, no implementation of the plan has yet occurred in CMSD.

A bold proposal in Cleveland could set the tone for how schools around the country could restart in the fall, one that takes into account students’ vastly different access to resources and remote learning during the pandemic and lets students learn at their own speed.

Cleveland schools would toss aside teaching many students in traditional grade levels this fall and dramatically expand the “mastery” learning plan it has tested for a few years.

Out would go the usual practice of students advancing a grade each year, an especially tricky issue to manage this year after schools shut down nationwide in March — to be replaced with a system of “grade bands” that combine students of a few ages and grade levels into the same classroom, school district CEO Eric Gordon told the school board Tuesday night.

“We’ve got opportunities here to really test, challenge and maybe abandon some of these time-bound structures of education that have never really conformed to what we know about good child development,” Gordon said.

Educators nationally are worried about the early school closures and how the chaotic shift to home learning will affect students, especially those from poor families. Most expect a “COVID slide” that magnifies the typical “summer slide” as student skills regress over summer vacation.

Many are debating extending the school year to have classes in person before break or returning early for “jump start” review sessions. Others look at intense online summer school.

In Cleveland, schools that use the system often keep K-8 students in the same grade band for a few years, instead of moving up a grade every year. Students then relearn and reinforce skills they need to succeed before advancing when individuals are ready to move on, sometimes mid-year.

At high schools, students in mastery schools can keep re-learning specific skills and receiving extra help until they know them well. As students learn, schools often avoid giving traditional A-F grades and rate students as “incomplete” or “developing” until they rate as proficient.

Gordon told the school board that by avoiding the normal grade levels, the district can help students catch up, learn what they need and not stigmatize students as failures by making some repeat grades.

He also said that his draft school reopening plan coming mid-June will offer the mastery system as an option for the community and individual families to consider, along with a few other choices described below.

As chair of the Council of the Great City Schools, the national association of big-city school districts, Gordon said other urban school superintendents around the country have told him they are using or are considering using mastery approaches. Some schools in New York City and some states are using the model, but more may take it up, he added.

For urban districts like Cleveland, which has the second-highest socioeconomic challenges of any big city in the country, according to Stanford researchers, students falling further behind is a real concern. The same researchers estimated that Cleveland students were two years’ worth of learning behind the national average, even before poor internet access put students at an even greater disadvantage when schools closed.

In his preview of the reopening plan to the board, Gordon suggested a few strategies for learning while keeping kids at safe distance. He said he will likely offer families a few choices for returning to school so they can pick what works for them.

“You’re going to see a menu that people can move through to adjust and meet their needs,” he said.

Among the possible strategies:

  • Having older students do much of their schoolwork online, while younger students come to class to work with teachers more often.
  • Having community groups that offer afterschool programs for students also work with some students during the day, while other students are in class with teachers. The different groups would then swap activities.
  • Having more year-round schools, on top of the nine district schools already using that calendar. Another 13 have extra days in their school year.
  • Schools could likely open later than their original Aug. 17 start date so that teachers have time to learn new learning systems and the pandemic has time to subside.

“Many of my peers tried to shut down early, in part because there’s a fatigue … and train teachers now,” he said. “My fear of trying to train teachers now is we haven’t built the plan.”

He also said he wants focus groups of students to review the draft plan and help craft the final version.

The district is polling parents and teachers about what has worked with the district’s emergency remote learning plan so far and what they want to see in the fall.

And the district’s plan is also subject to guidance from state health officials and the Ohio Department of Education, though Gordon has been part of discussions to set the state plan. Early drafts of the state plan also give districts wide flexibility to set their own approaches.

Gordon’s preview of Cleveland’s plan Tuesday centered on “mastery” or “competency” systems, coaxed by school board questions. It previously failed at two ninth-grade academies in Cleveland a few years ago, but it is an integral part of MC2 STEM High School, one of the district’s more popular choice high schools.

It is also at the core of the successful Intergenerational Schools charter chain in the city and the new private

The shift would take cooperation from the Cleveland Teachers Union, which is already familiar with the approach. It would take buy-in from parents, who won’t see their children promoted each year. That has sometimes been a source of conflict at the Intergenerational School when parents do not fully understand the model.

It also will need law changes from the state, which tests students annually based on their grade level and which gives districts lower grades on state report cards if students don’t graduate in four years. Gordon said the state focuses too much on days or hours of classes, not on whether students have learned material.

“We really see an opportunity that means an entirely new policy context at the state and national level that allows us the nimbleness to behave differently,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that CEO Gordon had proposed ending the practice of moving students up a grade every year, instead keeping them in the same band for a few years to relearn and reinforce skills before advancing. Gordon talked about using grade bands but did not specifically say how they would be carried out, though typically schools using mastery plans will keep students in grade bands for multiple years.

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Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 3)

With Part 3, readers have now seen most of the draft Introduction to my next book. Comments welcomed. For those readers wanting citations, please contact me.

Perverse outcomes of school reforms

Consider the massive effort by civil rights reformers to desegregate schools between the 1960s and 1980s following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision (1954).

Where students went to school in the U.S. depended upon where families lived.  In most cities and suburbs neighborhood were segregated producing schools that were nearly all-white, Black or Latino. Activists used both direct action such as boycotts and marches and legal strategies to get urban and suburban districts to desegregate through busing, building schools that straddled city and county attendance boundaries, and taking school boards to federal court for maintaining segregated schools—strategies that civil rights reformers believed would bring minority and white children together to learn.

Nonetheless, each generation of reformers believed in their hearts that they could solve thorny social, political, and economic problems. They knew what had to be done and had the answers. Public schools, they held, were the chief, if not the sole, determiner of individual and national success.  Schooling was the great equalizer shaping the life journey that individual children and youth traveled. Mirroring the deeply embedded and traditional belief that American institutions can, indeed make people better, the school, like the church and family, was an instrument for not only reforming individuals and institutions but also curing societal ills such as illiteracy, poverty, and economic slowdowns.

Migration of white, Black, and Latino families moving in and out of urban residential areas where racial covenants and banking practices kept neighborhoods segregated, leading to re-segregated schools where mostly minority children enrolled—often coming from families in poverty.  Suburban schools often became white enclaves. The unintended effect of direct actions and court-driven desegregation decisions, then, was to speed up re-segregation of poor and minority students by the 1990s.  Few policymakers after the Brown decision (1954) anticipated the return of racial and ethnic separation of whites from African American and Latino school children.

Or consider that one of the intended effects in the 1980s and 1990s of raising state high school graduation requirements, strengthening curriculum standards, using tests to determine how well students achieved those standards, and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts responsible for student academic outcomes—all policies aimed at tying schools closer to the nation’s economy–would have dire effects upon U.S. schools and students. Recall that state and local reform-minded policymakers and political leaders cheered the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (2002-2015) containing many of these features because reformers believed that such policies would help students and forge tighter links between schools and the economy.

The documented record, however, is mixed as to whether those reforms, including NCLB, aimed at producing skilled graduates who could enter an information-driven workplace achieved the intended goals. Yes, high school graduation rates have risen. And, yes, percentage of high school graduates attending college has increased. But test score gains sufficient to close the achievement gap between minorities and whites had not improved. Nor is there much evidence that graduates were better prepared to enter the workplace than an earlier generation.  Furthermore, the promise that higher standards and accountability would alter historic inequalities between minorities and whites remained unfulfilled. Unemployment and wages for African Americans remained largely unequal and stagnant during economic growth and recessions.

Few reformers, for example, thought that NCLB with its mandated state tests and its required reporting of Adequate Yearly Progress in test scores would push state and local policymakers to manipulate student results. State officials fiddled with numbers setting the threshold for a passing score on its tests to avoid many schools being tagged as “failing.” Additionally, many districts across the nation pressed teachers to taper their lessons to fit what was on these state tests. Schools set aside school time to prepare students for end-of-year exams. These unintended outcomes became obvious within a few years of NCLB’s passage.

Even worse in the wake of NCLB, many urban and suburban districts found that their schools had failed to meet the law’s criteria for improvement. States published districts’ test scores and districts announced school-by-school scores identifying those schools that were in danger of closing if results didn’t improve.  Each year, shame and blame exponentially spread across the U.S. as more schools flunked NCLB requirements.  Local and state officials complained annually about the unfairness of such measures applied without acknowledging demographic differences in districts and schools. They lobbied their legislators to alter the federal law. The deluge of complaints and meager student outcomes led the U.S. Congress to dump NCLB and pass the Every Student Succeeds Act delegating the power to determine school success and failure to each state. President Barak Obama signed ESSA into law in 2015.  In effect, the 2002 reform was re-formed in 2015.

None of this, of course, is new. Policy researchers and historians are well aware of how hard it is to show unvarnished success of reform-driven policies over time in districts and schools. They are equally aware of how commonly unexpected outcomes accompany these very same policies. Nor is it new that these unanticipated outcomes seldom loosened decision-makers’ embrace of reform-driven policies simply because of the pervasive faith that Americans had in the power of schooling to uplift those who historically have done poorly in public schools—immigrants, rural migrants, and low-income children of color.

Rock-hard Faith in Schooling

Recall that industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie endowed the Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching in 1905 and funded the construction and maintenance of nearly 1700 free libraries across the country between 1883-1929.

Also President Lyndon Johnson had as the centerpiece of his “War on Poverty,” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) that provided billions of dollars to poor and minority children then called “disadvantaged.”

And it is precisely on this point of faith about the curative powers of schooling that one pillar of that belief has wobbled and remains contested in 2021 even amid the Covid-19 pandemic.  For many decades there has been an enduring struggle among educators, parents, policymakers, and public officials over how much students’ backgrounds shape school effects.

For true believers, schooling improves everyone regardless of family circumstances. Yet, (and this is a very big “yet”) much evidence has piled up over the past century that social class matters on who sails through age-graded schools and who stumbles along the way. Consider, for example, that the majority of urban districts in the U.S. now house mostly minority and poor children. More than half of African American children and six out of ten Hispanic children and youth attended schools in 2017 that were at least 75 percent minority.  Most of these schools are located in urban districts and historically segregated southern rural districts. Note further than in 2013 researchers found that over half of U.S students are poor.

Moreover, the research literature on children’s academic performance has shown time and again that anywhere from over half to two-thirds of minority and white students’ test scores—lower, middle, and upper class–can be attributed to family’s socioeconomic background.

Yet many educators in public traditional and charter schools in poor neighborhoods either ignore or dispute those research findings. They continue to operate on the principle that engaged and committed staff unaccepting of  “excuses” (e.g., low-income family, all minority enrollment, neighborhood crime) could lift students out of poverty through helping them become academic achievers, entering college, and securing well-paid jobs. Evidence of such outcomes is both available and rich.

The issue, then, for those policymakers, practitioners, and parents, then, is determining to what degree family background and ethnic/racial school demography affect student achievement. For those willing to seek answers to that has to digest a large body of evidence of schools graduating low-income minority students who enter higher education. Hovering over all of this point-counterpoint argument is another discomforting and inescapable fact:  Formal  schooling  occupies only a small portion of a child’s day.

Consider that children and youth attend public schools about 1100 hours a year for 13 years (or just under 15,000 hours.  That time represents less than 20 percent of a child’s and teenagers waking time for all of those years in school.  Hence, most of student’s time is spent outside of school in the family, neighborhood, religious settings, and workplace. Important as time spent in school is economically and socially in accumulating content and hard- and soft-skills, diplomas and degrees for jobs and careers, it is often given far more weight—recall the basic faith that Americans have in the power of schooling–than life lived outside of school in assessing not only how a child becomes an adult but also what kind of adult.

So two fundamental questions past generations of reformers in these three movements neglected, sometimes considered, but seldom wrestled with publicly are about the complex intersecting of individuals, schools, and society. These questions remain unanswered for contemporary crusaders:

*How much of a child’s academic success or failure in school is due to family background?

* Can schools, reflecting the larger society’s faith in perfecting individuals and institutions, not only alter the effects of family background but also reform society?


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Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 2)

It would be a grave mistake to think that American reformers only looked at schools as targets for change.

Reforming individual Americans to be better persons has been in the American blood stream since the Mayflower arrived. Ditto for reforming community institutions to be better places within which to live and work.  Perfecting individuals and community institutions while solving problems of urban slums, corrupt city governments, poverty, racial segregation, corporate over-reach, and anemic economic growth has been steady work for reformers. Time and again these reform movements reached far beyond schools. [i]

As predictable as climbing up a ladder to clean leaves from roof gutters every season, reforms have regularly swept across the nation. Since the early 1900s, three overlapping social, political, and economic movements have churned across the U.S. and left marks on government, business, and community institutions, including public schools: The Progressive movement (1900s-1950s), the Civil Rights Struggle (1950s-1970s), and Binding Schools to the Economy (1980s-present). [ii]

 Reform movements 

Each of these political and social movements sought multiple goals one of which included school reform.  Early 20th century Progressives sought to remedy municipal corruption, corporate exploitation of workers and consumers, and inefficient institutions including traditional, lockstep schooling.

Both Black and white civil rights advocates sought equal treatment for Blacks in every institution. They pressured federal and state governments to eliminate segregated hospitals, pools, motels, playing fields, and toilets. They demanded unencumbered voting rights. And they wanted urban and rural schooling equal to what white suburban parents received for their children.

And in the closing decades of the 20th century, business leaders, alarmed by an economy falling behind Germany and Japan, restructured their industries, outsourced labor, and lobbied state and federal legislators to deregulate industries and lower taxes. Corporate leaders, seeking profits and returns to their investors also pushed equal opportunity for minorities to achieve the American Dream. These business-minded reformers saw U.S. public schools creating human capital necessary for the nation to compete economically in an increasingly interconnected global marketplace. Higher graduation requirements, common curriculum standards, and accountability for student test scores were reform-driven policies for producing that all-important human capital.

Binding together these seemingly different reform movements coursing through the American bloodstream over the past century were common features.

*Reformers had a serene faith in better schools ridding society of individual and societal injustices including crime, discrimination, and economic inequities. They believed schooling could create successful individuals and render American institutions havens of democracy, sources of economic growth, and social justice.

*Reformers insisted that state and federal governments remedy political, social, and economic ills and be held accountable for the actions they take (or do not take).

*In pursuit of these multiple goals, reformer sought deep policy and practice changes in public schools yet they left untouched the existing age-graded school structure and its “grammar of schooling.” Thus, each generation of school reformers unknowingly ended up preserving, not altering the basic structures of primary and secondary schooling.

Without skipping a beat, each generation of policy elites and activist leaders sought major reforms in government through federal and state legislation including reconfiguring schools. And they succeeded to a degree. The rhetoric of school reform in each generation included a to-do list of past failures that had to be corrected (e.g., hidebound traditional curriculum and practices, inefficient, unproductive schools churning out unskilled graduates). Each generation’s talk and political action did alter some official policies and increased access to public schools but inflated rhetoric followed by downsized policies left intact fundamental structures (e.g., the age-graded school and the grammar of schooling).  And as each movement wound down, another cohort of school reformers shouting rhetoric, redefined problems, and pushed policies that the previous one had chased while leaving largely unaffected existing school structures.

And so, the last century of reform in America has been the story of these three political and social movements featuring feverish policy talk, limited policy actions, and erratic implementation spilling over public schools decade after decade. Beyond these reformers achieving a few of their intended goals in each era, what often goes unnoticed are some of the unintended—even perverse– effects of reform talk, adopted policies, and their uneven execution.


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Vouchers and Market-Driven Schools in Sweden (Sara Hjelm)

Sara Hjelm is a reader of this blog. She wrote to me about the state of Swedish schools a few weeks ago and her deeply-felt concerns about the reforms now occurring in her country. As a retired teacher she sees the blending of school choice and vouchers as a reform strategy that, in her opinion, harms the nation’s schools.

Usually, I do not publish descriptions and critiques of schools in other countries but I was taken by Hjelm’s voice as a teacher, her critique of choice and vouchers, and an advocate for better schools.

As a preface for readers unfamiliar with the state system of schooling in Sweden, I begin with a description of earlier Parliamentary reforms aimed at improving Swedish schools. Then I offer portions of what Sara Hjelm has written about these reforms. Hjelm gave me permission to use portions of her email.

Background of Swedish System

“Sweden adopted a nationwide universal voucher program in 1992 as part of a series of reforms designed to give more control over education to towns and schools. Families can choose any school, public or private. Taxpayer money follows the student. This voucher system has led to a burgeoning industry of mostly for-profit, private schools, also called ‘free schools.'” Two of the companies that run schools in Sweden are listed on the country’s stock exchange.”*

“In contrast to American private schools, “free schools” don’t charge tuition — they draw on government funds to operate — and are required to follow Sweden’s national curriculum. They’re more comparable to American charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. About 18 percent of Swedish students are enrolled in “free schools;” in comparison, charter schools enroll 6 percent of American students.

In 2000, Swedish students performed well-above average on an international test called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). By 2012, they were below average in math, reading and science. Sweden had the steepest decline of any participating country over that time period. (There were 65 participating countries that year.) In 2015, the scores rose to meet international averages, but Sweden’s performance remains far below what it once was. The drop has prompted a flurry of debate in the country about what led to the decline and whether the growth of “free schools” is to blame.

Critics of Sweden’s ‘free schools’ which are private point to the fact that public school students outperformed students at private schools (after controlling for socioeconomic status) as proof that ‘free schools’ contributed disproportionately to the lagging results. Others say that the declines can’t be blamed on ‘free schools’ – it’s impossible to parse out the impact of choice compared to other reforms made at the same time, such as decentralizing the education system. Some studies have found that outcomes for all students are better in areas with a greater number of ‘free schools,’ while other research suggests that the presence of ‘free schools’ has no positive long-term effects for students….

In theory, the market was supposed to act as its own accountability measure; competition would mean that low-quality schools would close, said Jonas Vlachos, an economics professor at the University of Stockholm who has studied ‘free schools.’

“The tension that you see is that if you’re very … laissez-faire about who can run a school, you will end up in a situation that you need more regulation,” Vlachos said, adding that Sweden largely trusts its schools to hold themselves accountable. “It’s glaringly obvious that you can’t really do it like this.” **

Sara Hjelm wrote the following:

Being retired after working as a teacher, school leader and administrator in the Swedish school system some 43 yrs altogether and dealing with every possible level of students and teaching during that time, I should be able to look back and reflect on past reforms and changes, but the dire current situation leaves me no real option to do so. The present school system and school policies in Sweden have reached a point where it feels like time is running out. The other night I sat down and wrote a text in English in sheer frustration….

In Sweden all child and adolescent education is paid for by tax money distributed by municipalities:

  • Granted place in kindergarten/daycare when the time for parent leave runs out
  • Compulsory schooling with a general state curriculum consists of a) preschool for 6 year olds, b) primary 7-9 and 10-13 with one class teacher for each level, c) 14-16 with subject teachers. 
  • Gymnasium/upper secondary, 3 years for 16-18 year olds, voluntary but in a way not since almost all attend. You choose a school and one of several upper secondary “programs”, preparing for university or giving vocational training, and the municipality or free school decides on what grounds to accept applicants. Here the free schools usually offer what is cheap to arrange, academic programs that don’t crave special rooms or equipment or vocational training where most of it can be completed as an apprentice. The municipalities have to offer all programs according to demand, in collaboration regionally or by themselves in larger cities.

Hjelm criticizes private firms running schools.

The huge private for profit school companies exist on all these levels, competing for student vouchers. Largest part is in the upper secondary where more than 30% of students today attend such a free school. By cherry-picking “easy” students through aggressive marketing to parents (we offer good behavior, academic excellence, high grades, etc.) they attract students that are more or less self going and enable a profit for shareholders or owner consortiums by keeping wages low, having large groups, substituting some teaching for on-line learning, employing teachers from abroad on short term contracts and more hours of teaching, etc. 

As a result real student achievements and school climate are mediocre, about the same as in municipal schools and with a considerable grade inflation to that according to PISA and national tests. Students from municipal upper secondary schools have a slightly lower grade point average than students from free upper secondary schools, but still generally show higher performance and less dropouts during the first year of higher education.

There are also plenty of examples of parents told that their child does not really fit in, that the support needed is not available and they should seek a more suitable school. With a queue system for admission on compulsory level, where you can put your baby in line at birth, they keep all groups filled. And being private businesses they only have to share whatever follow up data they choose due to international business and stock market legislation of secrecy. If a school is not as profitable as expected it can simply close down with short notice or apply for bankruptcy when as much monetary resources as possible have been moved somewhere else in the organization. Stranded students are the municipality’s responsibility. The risk is minimal. At least for now.

The state level answers with rules and attempts to control, resulting in growing administration and accountability that in the end is up to individual schools, their heads and teachers, with endless data drops and documentation to keep their backs free when inspected and avoid fines from the inspectorate – which is also a backward way to handle people struggling and certainly does not help. But, this is all a monetary system, not so much about students’ learning…..

The municipalities and their school heads must cater for all and are left with empty desks here and there and a larger part of students in need of help and support, hence the growing segregation and diminishing equity – an impossible equation for those who have to deal with it. But if politicians choose to give their struggling schools more resources they have to pay the free schools the municipality’s higher average money per student retrospectively according to the present legislation that says equality of resources.

To avoid extra costs and higher taxes politicians usually don’t add resources. Instead they cut resources in every possible way, naming it introduction of more effective or efficient management and practice, giving smaller parts back for development activities to look good, but still in the end minus some percentages of resources every year. And now, after 25 years, there is simply not more to take….

I think it’s important that people abroad should know that these actors are now searching for investments abroad, buying schools in Spain, kindergartens in Germany and Netherlands, etc. Wherever loopholes in regulating legislation can be found. And they have all the strategies tried out. 

But profit is what venture capital funds are for … so no surprise.

_________

*Tino Sanandaji, Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm, “Sweden Has an Educational Crisis, But It Wasn’t Caused by School Choice” 2014.

**Sarah Butrymowicz, The Hechinger Report“Is Sweden Proof That School Choice Doesn’t Improve Education?,” Februrary 28, 2018.

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How Beliefs in School Reform Evolve Over Time

School reform is steady work. As a teacher, administrator, superintendent, and university researcher for over six decades in working to reform classrooms, schools, and districts, it should come as no surprise to readers that what I thought about reform in the mid-1950s as a teacher, what I believed school reform was when I ran a district in the 1970s and 1980s, and how I conceptualize reform today as a retired professor has changed. Looking back at my strongly held beliefs on reforming schools then and how, I can see how they have morphed into quite different views about school reform.

There may be wisdom in this “confession” about evolving beliefs about school reform. And even if some readers were to think so, I am well aware that wisdom cannot be told to others because reflecting on one’s direct experience more often than not trumps others’ advice. So I offer these reflections on how one educator’s beliefs about reform changed over time to get readers to ponder what their beliefs once were and are now about teaching, learning, and, yes, of course–reforming schools.

Changes in reform beliefs over time is surely common especially as educators accumulate different experiences. What may be uncommon is to document those changes and then reflect on those changes in beliefs.

And that is what I have done in the final chapter of my next book. What I present below is a draft–not a final version so I am open to comments–of a section of the chapter that describes how my beliefs about school reform have evolved over time.

I begin by returning to my first job teaching history at Cleveland’s Glenville High School between 1956-1963. What I discovered about reforming both teaching and the classroom curriculum convinced me then that engaged teachers creating lessons with multi-ethnic and racial content tailored to student interests could get Black students to participate and learn in de facto segregated city schools. That belief in sharp, committed teachers wielding relevant content and skills getting students to not only engage but also learn I carried to the District of Columbia’s Cardozo High School to train new and committed teachers to teach in similar ways. 

Turns out I was only partially correct. I came to see after being a teacher in Cleveland for seven years and then a teacher and administrator for another nine years in D.C. that my view of reform was blinkered, even myopic. I had not even imagined that classroom and school reform was a political process.

 In moving from the granular classroom at Glenville to the school at Cardozo and then the district office of the D.C. schools, my view of reform expanded to encompass the politics of getting something to happen at a school or in a district. Mobilizing resources and people to focus on a particular idea or program took bureaucratic moxie and forging relationships with like-minded people inside and outside schools. I began to see different units or sites for reform—classroom and school—nested within one another and that both had to be altered in order for reforms to have the most effect in classrooms.

And that view further enlarged when I administered a district-wide staff development program from my office in the Presidential Building in D.C. My experiences within a large bureaucracy with budgetary ties to the D.C. government and links to the U.S. Congress forced me to see how relationships, resources, and reform were intimately bound together. I came to a broader view that the Washington public schools were nested within the federal bureaucracy comprising an even larger political system in need of change for schools and classrooms to get better. The intersecting of various systems became clear to me in ways that I had not known as a teacher at Glenville High School.

The second confession comes from my years as Arlington County superintendent.

I entered that post saturated with experiences in Washington, D.C. classrooms and central office and filled with ideas learned at Stanford about organizations and how they worked.  Experiences with racial divides and political infighting at administrative headquarters in the D.C. system echoed in my mind.

In Arlington, I presented myself to the community and teachers as someone who prized the art and science of classroom teaching. These ideas, echoes, and presentation ran smack up against serious political problems over a largely white district shrinking in enrollment while becoming increasingly minority and fearing a loss in academic quality. The fact is that even after my experiences in the D.C. bureaucracy, taking courses at Stanford in politics of education, I was inexperienced, even naïve, about the political role I played as superintendent.

Chapter 6 described how the Arlington County School Board and I in our first few years amid constant political conflicts over closing schools reframed problems in ways that would restore community faith in its schools. A key part was tightening up organizational links between what happened in classrooms, schools, and the district to students’ academic outcomes. My staff and I developed a management mechanism that applied to all principals and district administrators called the Annual School Plan. And here is where I come to my next confession.

The Annual School Plans were successful in concentrating the entire staff’s attention on students’ performance so that within three years I began to see organizational, curricular, and instructional changes that I believed could lead to a mindless conformity, ultimately producing a system geared to cranking out high test scores and operating with less imagination and creativity.  And that worried me because I was very proud of the high level of teacher competence and creativity across Arlington classrooms.  While I did not dial back the push for higher test scores to meet local and state standards–the political climate looked for the numbers to rise–my concerns over growing uniformity grew.  I regret that I could not articulate the peril of mindless standardization.

And yet there was even a larger picture that I slowly became aware of as I reflected on the intersection between classroom, school, district systems and the larger society.  As a researcher at Stanford, I went into many California districts and came to grasp better how the politics of state and federally driven school reforms did and did not translate into district and school programs. I came to realize that a district system was itself nested within larger socioeconomic, political, and caste-like structures (e.g., market-driven society focused on individual action, economic inequalities, racist structures) all of which hemmed in what superintendents, principals, teachers and students could do in improving classroom, school, and district performance. I realized that social and political coalitions (i.e., civil rights movement) struggled to change those societal structures and in some instances made incremental improvements. This larger picture of public schools nested in America’s economic, political, and cultural milieu occasioned pessimism about school reform but in the end, tempered optimism over what needed to be changed and what can be done.

Writing in 2020, all of this seems self-evident.  But it wasn’t to me in 1956 when I began teaching. What I have described is the growing awareness of school reform as a political process and the complexity of schools as I moved from teacher and administrator to researcher—the journey of a toddler, so to speak, to an adult. I was not stupid, just innocent and unaware of how difficult it was to grasp the inter-connectedness of politics, relationships, resources, and systems. I had to pull together my experiences in schools and think about them time and again.

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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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