Category Archives: research

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Usually, I do not publish descriptions and critiques of schools in other countries but I was taken by Hjelm’s voice as a teacher, her critique of choice and vouchers, and an advocate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

A few years back, Mike Rose’s wrote a post about his high school English teacher. It was a beautiful piece that captures the ineffable moment 40 years earlier that Rose was ready–he did not know it, of course, at the time–to dig deeper into literature and the pushing and prodding he got from Jack McFarland, his young English teacher. McFarland’s teaching, Rose said,  changed “the direction of my life.”

Rose’s post reminded me of letters I had received from former high school students, those I had trained as teachers in Washington, D.C., and from doctoral advisees at Stanford. A glow of satisfaction would come over me whenever I read such  letters that asserted my influence in their lives. I suspect that Jack McFarland might have experienced such a glow when reading Mike Rose’s post. As I read the compliments and how much the student attributed to me in shaping his or her life’s work, however, a small doubt, surely no more than a speck, flashed over me. That doubt had to do with the tricks that our memories play on us in selectively remembering what we want to remember.

For example, I cannot forget many teenagers and young adults who I did not, perhaps could not, reach. That is, students who sat in class (or attended sporadically) and sailed through the course without ever connecting to the content I taught, the questions I asked, the projects I assigned. Seldom did any of those students write me a note years later. So I might have been a fine teacher for some students who wrote me years later but I had to remind myself that there were many others who saw me as, well, just another teacher whose assignments and class activities ranged from inane to boring and had to be tolerated to get the high school diploma or the doctorate. That is one reason for that speck of doubt.

Another reason for doubting my memory is a tendency to give credit to others you admire and respect as human beings for your accomplishments. We give credit to parents, siblings, dear friends, and yes, teachers. Much of it is deserved. And much of it is sheer gratitude for the shared experience. So doubt arises also from the gracious but nonetheless false attribution of results to someone else.

Having given two reasons why I enjoy those glowing letters written by former students but still entertain doubts about whether I made the difference in their lives that they attribute to me, I want to briefly mention a teacher I had who I believe did shape my thoughts and actions at a particular point in my life. Sounds like a contradiction but bear with me.

While I did have elementary and secondary teachers who, at different times, inspired and motivated me, I am thinking of the time when I went to graduate school. I was in my late-30s with a wife and family and wanted to get a Ph.D in order to become a district superintendent.

I have written about David Tyack and his influence upon me as a scholar, teacher, and human being while I was a graduate student and, later, as his colleague for two decades (see “Becoming A Superintendent: A Personal Odyssey, February 9, 2011).

Now I would like to remember Jim March. From Jim March, I took courses on leadership and organizations. Eventually,I asked Jim to serve on my doctoral committee.

At first, I found Jim intellectually intimidating. He was a theorist of organizations who drew from the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and political science. By the time I met him, he had authored books with Herbert Simon and Richard Cyert, giants in the fields of organizational sciences and statistics. Jim was also a poet and a wonderful conversationalist. Although March had never taught in public schools, he knew them as organizations and helped me make sense of nearly two decades of teaching and administering programs in school districts. From Jim, I  learned the importance of seeing organizations from multiple points of view, of learning to live with uncertainty, of the tenacious hold that rationalism has upon both policymakers and practitioners, and of understanding that ambiguity, conflict, and randomness is not only the natural order of organizations but of life itself. Those two years at Stanford, working closely with Tyack and March turned out to be first-rate preparation for the next seven years I served as a superintendent. And living a full life ever after.

Am I over-attributing what I have achieved to particular teachers? Perhaps. But so what.

The points I make are straightforward:  What we learn in and out of school that sticks with us comes from  an intellectual and emotional joining of minds and hearts with adults who we respect and admire when we are ready–ah, that is the key word–to take in who they are and what they teach. Although we live in a culture that worships the independent individual, we learn that each of us is  beholden to others–family, friends, and, yes, teachers from infancy to the day that the coffin is lowered into the ground. We learn that we stand on the shoulders of others. Giving credit to those people who have helped us along the way, even attributing to them powers that rest within ourselves, simply reminds us that living a full life requires leaning upon others.

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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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Another Look at “Tinkering Toward Utopia”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________

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

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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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Schools Closed for Five Years: The Prince Edward County Story (Part 1)

Natural disasters have closed schools over the past century. Earthquakes and hurricanes destroyed Christchurch, New Zealand (2011) and New Orleans (2005). The Influenza pandemic in 1918-1919, polio epidemics in the 1940s, and currently the coronavirus-19 have achieved the same result in country after country across the globe.

In a nation were supreme faith in the power of schooling to produce individual success, where getting an “education” is the first item on the to-do list of native-born and immigrant families, sudden and sustained school closures carry huge psychic and social costs for both students and their families.

Short-term effects on children and youth range from “summer loss” in academic achievement to distaste for online instruction to angst and depression from prolonged lockdowns and absence of contact with friends. Effects on students and families are unrecorded for previous epidemics and are just now becoming apparent, particularly for single Moms and families with two working parents.

Long-term effects of these natural disasters remain unknown. And this is why the five year loss of public schooling for black students in Prince Edward County as a result of a man-made disaster–while far longer than school closures flowing from the pandemic–becomes relevant as a historical instance of learning what happens later to children and youth when they have lost five years of their schooling.

Background

In 1951, in rural Prince Edward County, Virginia, Robert Moton high school student Barbara Johns led a walkout of black students protesting the conditions in the overcrowded building (housing 450 students rather than less than the 200 it was built for). This neglected, racially segregated high school in Farmville–the County seat of about 8500 residents–was not only at double its capacity but also lacked a library, science labs, and cafeteria.

“We held two or three classes in the auditorium most of the time, one on the stage and two in the back,” former Moton principal M. Boyd Jones told journalist Bob Smith in 1961. “We even held some classes in a bus.” Some classes met in tar-paper shacks, which the school board funded rather then build a new school. When it rained those shacks leaked, and when it got cold the potbelly stoves failed to keep children warm.

Teacher Vanessa Venable recalled students searching the woods before class for kindling to use in the shacks’ stoves to heat the buildings. In an interview Venable said, “I remember asking the Superintendent for toilet tissues for the outdoor john. He looked at me as if I was crazy and said, ‘Mrs. Venable, they don’t know how to use it anyway. Get a Sears catalogue.'”

The high school was indeed separate but hardly equal to the all-white high school also located in Farmville.

After the walkout, civil rights lawyers convinced the black parents who had sued the all-white County school board to join black litigants in Topeka, Kansas and other jurisdictions in a case that was moving toward the U.S. Supreme Court called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown that state laws establishing separate schools on the basis of race were unconstitutional. While the Court urged states to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed,” many Southern states (including Virginia) where de jure school segregation and Jim Crow laws had been in existence for over a half-century did little to nothing in the aftermath of the decision (see here and here).

Virginia’s response orchestrated by Democratic Senator Harry Byrd’s political machine, a long-time advocate of segregated schools, launched “massive resistance” to the court decision. The Virginia legislature, controlled by the Byrd machine, threatened to stop funding any county or city district in the state that desegregated its schools.

In 1959, federal and state courts declared “massive resistance” to the Brown decision unconstitutional. For the first time, a Democratic governor refused to support pro-segregation bills moving through the legislature. Then a federal district court judge ordered the Prince Edward County school board to move students from the all-black Robert Russa Moton high school to the nearby all-white high school. The all-white County school Board of Supervisors joining the state movement toward “massive resistance” refused to fund the public schools. The School Board then closed all of its schools and funded and built a private all-white academy. On the first day of the fall semester, yellow school buses took nearly 1500 white students to the private academy and left 1700 black students without a school to go to.

The public schools did not re-open until 1963.

Part 2 deals with the effects on black students of no public schooling for five years.

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Schools, the Coronavirus, and the Near Future (Part 2)

When the coronavirus has run its course and Americans return to work, and try to restore their daily routines to what they recognize as “normal”–some things will change in schools. What all of those changes will be, I cannot predict.

When I look back on my predictions about school reform and technology, it is clear that I am no seer. At best, my trying to look around the corner has been half-right and half-wrong. Not an enviable record. Especially because economic, political, and social policymaker decisions produce consequences that touch people’s lives. So being half-right ain’t too good. Nonetheless, I plunge ahead.

One change I do believe will occur is about how much time children and youth will spend in school after they return to their desks. One result of the pandemic has been the loss of the last quarter of the school year and decisions will be made about whether school should be held during the summer of 2020 to make up for lost time and whether students should be promoted to the next grade. This particularly will be difficult for students with disabilities since many have not been able to access online lessons adapted to their special needs. As for Spring testing of students, an annual rite for decades, canceled. Test scores for 2019-2020 to crow or despair about–won’t circulate in mainstream and social media this year.

Moreover, nearly all states require 180 days of school of six or so hours daily in classroom instruction. For 2019-2020, that’s gone. Remote learning may recover some of the time for most students–but not for most special needs students but states and districts will either waive their requirements or mandate a new calendar for the summer and autumn to recoup losses in time or do a mix of both. State-required seat-time in school to get credentials in a highly individualistic and competitive society is not something to be cavalierly waved aside. So the annual and daily calendar of attending school will change for the immediate future.

Readers should know that such alterations in calendars won’t be the first time that policymakers have tinkered with student time in schools. Changing the amount of time students sit in classrooms has been a perennial remedy to policy problems (e.g., raising academic achievement) with which state and local reformers have wrestled.

Previous changes in school calendars

Since the 1980s, fixing school time has been a popular solution reform-minded policymakers have promoted to improve U.S. schools yet one that is least connected to what happens in classrooms or what Americans want from tax-supported schools.

Since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, Prisoners of Time in 1994, blue-ribbon commission recommendations in Tough Choices, Tough Times in 2007, and in 2012 high profile leaders formed a new national coalition to add time to the school day and year, reformers have criticized how long and how well students spend time in school. Now that topic will gain renewed heft with the coronavirus pandemic.

In the past, criticism of school schedules came from business and civic leaders who saw the United States stuck in the middle ranks of of nations on international tests. These leaders saw a link between Asian and European governments requiring more days in school and their lead in global marketplaces. Foreign students outscoring U.S. test-takers was, to these U.S. critics of schooling, an important sign of American schools and the economy falling behind. Criticism of the amount of time students spent in school also came from employers who wondered whether the required days and hours students spent in classes were sufficient to produce the knowledge, skills, and behaviors their employees needed to work in a globally competitive economy

Disapproval of readitional school calendars and daily schedules also came from those working parents–increased numbers of families with both spouses working as well as single mothers occurring since the 1970s– who needed schools open early in the morning and to remain open after 3 PM until they picked up their children before dinner.

Censure also came from professors who scolded policymakers for allotting so little time for teachers to gain new knowledge and skills during the school day. Many wanted policymakers to distinguish between requiring more seat-time in school and academic learning time or time on task, jargon for those hours and minutes where teachers engage students in learning content and skills.

Finally, there has been a steady downpour of criticism of traditional seat time in school from online champions who saw hundreds of students sitting at school desks for 180 days as quaint in the midst of a revolution in communication devices. Children and youth now can learn the formal curriculum at home and other venues rather than sitting in classrooms. Online learning advocates, joined by those who saw cyber-schools as the future, wanted children and youth to spend less time in K-12 classrooms.

How successful have critics been in fixing school time?

Presidential commissions, parents, academics, and employers have proposed to policymakers the same solutions again and again: Add more days to the annual school calendar. Create year-round schools. Add instructional time to the daily schedule. Extend the school day. These familiar—almost traditional–recommendations are as close as one can come, metaphorically, to the missionary position in sex. What has happened to each proposal in the past quarter-century?

Longer school year. Recommendations for a longer school year (from 180 to 220 days) have come from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. Yet over a decade later, one foundation-funded report, A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk, found that the 180-day school year was intact across the nation and only Massachusetts had started a pilot program to help districts lengthen the school year. The same report graded states’ progress made on those quarter-century old recommendations: States extending their school year received an “F.” In 2018, 42 states mandated 180 days of instruction (the other 8 required 174-178 days).

Year-round schools. The homespun myth that the annual school calendar with three months off for both teachers and students is based on the rhythm of 19th century farm life still receives respectful attention. Thus, planting and harvesting chores accounted for long summer breaks, an artifact of agrarian America. Not so.

Actually summer vacations grew out of early 20th century urban middle-class parents (and later lobbyists for camps and the tourist industry) pressing school boards to release children to be with their families for six to eight weeks during the summer. By the 1960s, however, policymaker and parent concerns about students losing ground academically during the vacation months—in academic language, “summer loss”—gained support for year-round schooling. Cost savings also attracted those who saw facilities being used 12 months a year rather than being shuttered during the summer.

Nonetheless, although year-round schools were established as early as 1906 in Gary, Indiana, calendar innovations have had a hard time entering most schools. Districts with year round schools still work within the 180-day year but distribute the time more evenly (e.g., 45 days in session; 15 days off) rather than having a long break between June and September. Recent data find that only three million students attend year-round schools in 46 states (over 50 million go to K-12 schools). In many cases, what got school boards to adopt year-round schools was over-crowded facilities, most often in minority and poor communities—not concerns over “summer loss.”

Will, then, year-round schools spread in the wake of the coronavirus scourge? They may in the short term–say, the next few years, but I do not think so for the long-term–say, 2030. And the reason, I suspect, is both habit and cost.

Americans are used to summers off and even with the pandemic crowding out the summer of 2020 and perhaps the next few years when students will have to attend school through, say, July, chances are that there will be a regression to the mean in subsequent years of having 6-8 weeks off between June and August.

On the cost side, the price tag of year-round schools to cover additional teacher salaries and other expenses runs high. One researcher estimated that going from 175 to 200 days would cost the state of Minnesota, not the largest state in the nation, $750 million a year, a large but not insurmountable price to pay. But costs for other alternative ways of tinkering with the school calendar have been tried over the decades. Extending the school day for instruction and child-care has been one reform that has spread to most districts.

Adding instructional time to the school day. So many researchers and reformers have pointed out that the 6.5 hour school day has so many interruptions, so many distractions that teachers have less than five hours of genuine classroom instruction for student learning. Advocates of more instructional time have tried to stretch the actual amount of instructional time available to teachers to a seven-hour day (or 5.5 hours of time for time-on-task learning) or have tried to redistribute the existing secondary school schedule into 90-minute blocks rather than the traditional 50-minute periods. Very costly since teachers would have to paid for additional time . Much easier to do and far less costly has been to add time to the school day.

Extended school day. In the past half-century, as the economy has changed and families increasingly have both (or single) parents working, schools have been pressed to take on child-care responsibilities such as tutoring and homework supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 AM for parents to drop off their children and have after-school programs that close at 6 PM in many middle class neighborhoods but especially in neighborhoods serving low-income families. Opinion polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before- and after-school programs (KAPPAN poll). Moreover, all-day kindergartens (and pre-kindergartens for four year-olds), especially in low-income neighborhoods have spread swiftly in the past two decades. Innovative urban schools such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) run longer school days. The latter routinely opens at 7:30 AM and closes at 5 PM while scheduling biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.

If there is a success story in fixing school time that reformers can thump their chests over, it is extending the school day. How much of that success, however, came from reformers’ arguments and actions and how much came from economic and social changes in family structure, both parents working, I cannot say.

Online education. And what about those cheer-leading technological enthusiasts who see fixing time in school as a wasted effort when online schooling can increase students’ academic achievement or even replace formal schooling? Promoters argue that children and youth learning in schools should not be measured by how long they occupy seats in classrooms but by how they master the content and skills in the curriculum they study. Competency-based education looks to students learning specific skills and content and their being assessed to determine whether they have learned the prescribed work. Some of that rhetoric has already surfaced even before the pandemic has ended (see here and here).

There are obvious difficulties of teaching online all subjects such as reading and math in elementary schools vs. physical education, art, music. Being at home while daily routines of family or a solitary life sap the necessary will-power of listening to lectures, completing software lessons and taking tests online before moving onto the next unit or skill (see here). And, of course, there is the digital inequality that robs children in families where Internet access is either limited or non-existent and available devices are absent or obsolete. Finally, there is the limited research of comparing online schooling with traditional schooling that hardly shows online lessons to be better than being in physical classrooms with teachers, particularly for low-income children of color (see here and here).

Furthermore, even the most enthusiastic advocate of online schooling recognizes that substantively more online teaching and learning in and out of public schools is, at best, unlikely. Except at the margins.

Sure, online instruction and competency-based learning already do exist in schools (see here and here). Such efforts will expand slightly because of the pandemic experience. Many courses and lessons, especially at secondary schools and in higher education, will adopt online learning and various forms of competency-based teaching but I doubt seriously that such approaches will become the primary way for public school teachers to teach and students to learn.

Fixing time in the aftermath of the pandemic

Decade after decade, reformers fixated on time in school have trotted out the same recipes for changes in the annual calendar and extending the hours of schooling. Yet for all the hoopla and endorsement from highly influential business and political elites results of their mighty efforts have been minuscule. Time-fixing reformers who have seen the solution to achievement gaps and low test scores in adding days and hours to school schedules and increased online instruction. Nonetheless, in the immediate future following the disappearance of the coronavirus, 50 million children and youth will still enter the schoolhouse door each weekday morning and go through a familiar day, week, and month of lessons. Even with the hurried calendar changes in the next few years to make up for lost time in the 2020, I don’t see substantial changes in the traditional calendar. Why is that?

Cost is the usual suspect. The price tag of extending the school year to cover additional teacher salaries and other expenses runs high. One researcher estimated that going from 175 to 200 days would cost the state of Minnesota, not the largest state in the nation, $750 million a year, a large but not insurmountable price to pay. But costs for extending the school day for instruction and child-care are far less onerous. Which is why the longer school day will continue.

Neither does online learning save dollars over time since there has to be an infrastructure of hardware, software, and teacher staff development built to support expanded instruction and assessment. Advocates of online boast that it saves money because the unspoken belief is that, over time, fewer teachers will be needed in classrooms.

Habit and tradition matter as well. After the pandemic and school closures, Americans want stability and familiarity in schooling. A return to the traditional custodial function of compulsory schooling, teachers in their classrooms in age-graded schools, textbooks, homework, and, yes, even tests and summers off will reassure the nation’s parents that their sons and daughters are again going to “real” schools.

Overall, then, when it comes to tax-supported public schools, their political, economic and social goals plus their basic functions (e.g., taking care of children, teaching and learning prescribed content and skills, socializing the young) require in-school attendance, social interaction, and teachers doing what they do best.

In the wake of coronavirus shutdown of schools, I expect reform-minded time-fixers will continue to sell the above remedies for improving poor academic performance including much more online instruction. And while I expect a marginal growth in students going online, I also expect that current school reforms that can be dated back to the Nation at Risk report (1983), will remain in place as will age-graded elementary and secondary schools where instructional days and daily hours record seat-time.

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Schools, the Coronavirus, and the Near Future (Part 1)

I recently received a note from a colleague asking about what happens after the pandemic virus’s effects ebb, Americans return to work (if their workplace has not closed), schools re-open, and “social distancing” becomes an unwelcome memory. My colleague asked if at such a time would school reform sweep across the nation as it did for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In that city all public schools were closed, teachers were fired, and within a few years, state-driven reforms created a new district that contained mostly charter schools enrolling 93 percent of students, the highest number among the nation’s districts.

I told my colleague that such an outcome–spread of charters–for the U.S. after the coronavirus ebbs was highly unlikely.

My knowledge of school reform movements in the past century tilted me more toward what happened to schools after the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that killed millions across the globe and around 675,000 Americans (ten times more than died in World War I). While that pandemic occurred, U.S. schools and businesses were closed, crowd gatherings were banned, and other similar responses to the coronavirus pandemic occurred.

Schools eventually re-opened after the influenza pandemic (Olympia, Washington closed its schools October 11, 1918 and allowed students to return on November 14).

During these years, the educational Progressives had installed a series of governance, organizational, curricular, and instructional reforms in various urban, suburban, and rural districts across the country. These reforms (e.g., governing efficiently through bureaucratic hierarchies, new curricula focused on children and youth working on projects, schools as medical, social service, and community centers) had become incorporated into thousands of districts’ policies and practices. After the pandemic, these reforms largely continued (see here). No shift in direction or substantive changes occurred as a result of the pandemic.

So when public schools re-open their doors to children, unlike post-Katrina New Orleans, I do not expect substantive changes in school reforms for the near future that have been in place nearly forty years.

These reforms initiated since the mid-1980s to closely link tax-supported public schools to the workplace will persist. Those reforms such as raising graduation requirements, encouraging all high school students to attend college, continuing tests and accountability structures along with increased parental choice of schools, particularly with charters–I expect all of those to chug along pretty much as they have prior to the coronavirus’s appearance.

But I do expect some short-term effects on using new technologies and changes in the annual calendar of schools.

Online teaching and learning

Beginning in March 2020, both higher education and K-12 schools have closed across the country. These institutions responded to the threat of Covid-19 with an onslaught of remote learning (see here, here, and here). What became obvious within a few weeks was the digital inequality for those from affluent and middle-class families with access to Internet and multiple devices and working class and poor families that had fewer or no computers at home and spotty access to the web. Of course, digital inequality is just a symptom of the economic gaps that have grown between the rich, middle class, and poor.

The rush to provide schooling online so that students can continue learning uninterrupted now offers incentives to promote even more online learning once schools re-open. Remote teaching and learning–distance education as it once was called–over time tends toward lower costs in educating the young compared to staffing classrooms with teachers and professors. Moreover, even with the federal stimulus just passed by Congress containing billions for K-12 schools to expand e-learning and purchase compatible technologies, these incentives may not lead to clear growth in e-learning. The best that I can offer is a bland–Perhaps.

Why the uncertainty of a “perhaps?”

As I read newspaper, magazine, and television news and commentary from pundits and parents (including my immediate family, friends, and former students) what became obvious to me–in this instance I can only offer anecdotal evidence since I have no opinion polls or systematically collected data–was increased appreciation among single mothers, two working parents, and extended families for the custodial function of schools.

All American children ages 5 to16 have to go to school (ages vary by state). Compulsory enrollment legally requires schools to take care of students. These minors in the eyes of the law have to learn content and skills, interact with peers and adults, and receive community services including meals while within those brick-and-mortar buildings. These basic functions of tax-supported public schools are crucial to society and the economy; yet they have been taken for granted for a century. Only now after schools have closed and children and youth are at home does the full force of this requirement hit families square between the eyes.

Will parents across the country come to appreciate more than they do now the custodial, cognitive, and social functions tax-supported public schools perform daily? I want to say yes. But time will tell.

The pandemic has made clear how important current schools are as they are presently organized and operated. I do not foresee any popular support for initiatives to substantially alter current policies or the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling.

Will there be, however, accelerated support for online learning in K-12 schools and higher education? I do expect that many underfunded public schools–most states have cut back on funding schools in the past three decades (see here and here)–will increase remote learning as a cost-saving move. The economic tremors following the pandemic will reduce even more school funding as has happened after the Great Recession of 2008. Laying off 300,000 teachers, no salary increases, and larger class size (see here)

The Obama administration did pour additional funds into schools then (see here). The U.S. Congress passed and President Trump signed legislation that exceeded the 2009 infusion of money in the economy and schools. How much the Trump administration will allocate to schools beyond what I have read about e-learning, I do not yet know.

So I do expect an immediate uptick in online learning during and after the school day. Overall, however, such increases will remain peripheral to the core work of teachers meeting their students daily and teaching content and skills (both hard and soft) to children and youth.

In the immediate future, there will be changes in the annual school calendar and summers off for students. My next post will elaborate how I expect the issue of time in public schools to change.

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The Meaninglessness of the .Org Domain (Sam Wineburg and Nadav Ziv)

Many teachers, researchers, and policymakers advocate digital literacy being taught in public schools.  I was (and am) also a cheerleader. But I have to learn even more. For example, I had thought that a URL with .com meant that the link was profit-making. I am correct about that. But I had also thought that .org was non-profit and a legitimate source of information. This op-ed showed me my error.  Perhaps among those who follow this blog are others who have made the same mistake.  

Sam Wineburg (@samwineburg) is the author, most recently, of “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)” and the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University, where Nadav Ziv is an undergraduate majoring in international relations.”

Are today’s high school students, the ones we call “digital natives,” able to separate fact from fiction?

Not according to a survey we released last month in which 3,446 high school students across the country evaluated the trustworthiness of different websites. One such site was co2science.org, a climate-change skeptic group that claims to “disseminate factual reports and sound commentary.” Students could go anywhere on the web to investigate the site. A quick search uncovers the group’s past ties to the fossil fuel industry. But 96 percent of students never uncovered this industry connection.

Too often students’ evaluations stalled at three letters: “This page is a reliable source to obtain information from,” one wrote, “you see in the URL that it ends in .org as opposed to .com.”

The kids are wrong. Dot-org symbolizes neither quality nor trustworthiness. It’s a marketing tool that relies on a widespread but false association with credibility.

Kids aren’t the only ones misinformed. A 2012 international study found that nearly half of Americans, and larger percentages in France, Brazil and India, believed that an organization must meet “some criteria” before it could register under .org.

The dot-org domain is controlled by the Public Interest Registry, which was sold last month to Ethos Capital, a private equity firm. The three letters are marketed as “a powerful signal that your site serves a greater good — rather than just a bottom line.” It’s a claim that leads people to make errors about whom and what to trust.

Unlike dot-gov or dot-edu, which are closed to the general public, dot-org is an “open” domain. Anyone can register a dot-org without passing a character test. Even commercial sites can be dot-orgs. Craigslist — among the world’s largest ad sites — is craigslist.org. There are over 10 million dot-orgs, each of which pays roughly $10 per year to register. All you have to do to get one is fill out an online form and provide payment.

Registration fees generated $92 million in revenue for the Public Interest Registry in 2018 alone. In theory these revenues could grow much larger soon — in June, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the supervisory body that regulates the internet’s domain name system, agreed to lift price caps on dot-orgs. Still, Andy Shea, a spokesperson for the Public Interest Registry, says it plans to keep the pricing for dot-orgs low, with increases of no more than 10 percent on average a year.

In the Public Interest Registry’s latest marketing blitz, they unveiled a logo painted in “deep royal blue,” a shade they say evokes “feelings of trust, security and reliability.” They tell new customers to expect an increase in “donations, and trust for donors” when they become part of the “domain of trust.”

Noteworthy nonprofits, civic organizations and religious groups have embraced the domain — and so have a host of bad actors. All reaped the benefits of dot-org’s association with credibility.

Educational institutions unwittingly shape misperceptions around dot-orgs. Many colleges and universities, including Harvard and Northwestern, steer students in the wrong direction. They equate dot-orgs with nonprofit groups and issue no warning of the dangers lurking beneath the domain’s positive aura.

Dot-org is the favored designation of “astroturf” sites, groups that masquerade as grass roots efforts but are backed by corporate and political interests. One of these is the Employment Policies Institute, which claims to sponsor “nonpartisan research.” It was actually founded and run by the head of a public relations firm that represents the restaurant industry. Another dot-org, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, says it addresses major social problems through “broad-based grass roots outreach.” In reality, it was founded by the billionaire Koch brothers and many of its “grass roots” activists are paid.

There’s an even bigger risk to equating dot-org sites with do-gooders. Dozens of neo-Nazi, anti-L.G.B.T., anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant groups bear the dot-org seal. A random sample of a hundred organizations designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 49 percent carry the dot-org domain.

“Typically the domain name system is not an appropriate tool to address website content questions and speech issues,” said Shea, the Public Interest Registry spokesperson. “That said, if a site on a .org domain engages in specific threats of violence, we would not hesitate to take action on it under our Anti-Abuse Policy.”

A 2019 United Nations survey showed that citizens the world over have lost trust in the internet. Restoring it will take herculean efforts. The groups that control the internet’s domain system could lead the way by being honest about what these initials do and don’t represent.

The Public Interest Registry and Ethos Capital could channel some of the millions earned from the dot-org mirage to fund initiatives that educate the public on the domain’s shortcomings.

They can start by adding a bright red asterisk to their royal blue logo: “Dot-org implies nothing about an organization’s intent. Buyer Beware.”

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On Getting an Award

On October 25, 2019, I received an award from the Alumni of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education for Lifetime Achievement. Three other graduates of GSE received awards for Excellence in Education. Here is what I said upon receiving the award.

I thank my family and friends who have come out tonight.

Two people who I wish were here tonight are not. They helped me become the person I am today: Barbara Cuban and David Tyack. I miss them a great deal.

In these brief remarks I want to talk about my career as a teacher/scholar, what the award means to me, and the importance of knowing about the past particularly when it comes to school reform.

1. My career path since I began teaching in 1955 has been unplanned and uncommon.

I had been a high school history teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. for 14 years. While I have never been a school principal, I did work as an administrator in the D.C. district office. In that position I came in frequent contact with the superintendent. I learned a lot about leadership and bureaucratic decision-making and slowly came to realize that I could do the work of a superintendent, a job that I had once thought was well beyond my grasp as a teacher. But I needed an advanced degree.

So at the age of 37 my family and I came to Stanford. I came for only one reason: I wanted to be a superintendent and needed a doctorate. David Tyack made it possible for Barbara, my daughters, and me to come here. Living in Escondido Village were great years for my family. David Tyack was my adviser. Under him, I researched and completed a dissertation on three big city superintendents and in 1974 got that degree.

I then applied for superintendencies. After 50 rejections, I was finally appointed superintendent in Arlington (VA). I served seven years in one of the most exhilarating and exhausting jobs I have ever had. Then I returned to Stanford to teach, do research, and write. I did all of that for five years and then applied for big city superintendencies across the nation. I was a finalist time and again but was not chosen. Failing to become an urban superintendent, I remained at Stanford to teach, advise doctoral students, write, and publish.

What ties together my zigzag career path is the teaching I did in high schools, the teaching I did as superintendent, and, of course, the teaching I did as a professor.

I describe my unplanned and uncommon career path because of the award I receive this evening. My students in the decades that I taught here have honored me with awards as a teacher.   

This award for lifetime achievement, however, recognizes my scholarly work, advising students, and real-life school experiences. I see myself today as a teacher/scholar.  Teaching, researching, and publishing have been central to my journey. Particularly around the issue of school reform. A few words about that never-ending American effort to improve schooling.

2. David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform for a decade. History was central to our work because we believed that not knowing of past efforts to alter public schools is similar to individuals having amnesia. Forgetting your past and how you became the person you are is a tragedy. Not knowing how earlier generations of well-intentioned reformers tried again and again to improve public schools is a forgetfulness, an intellectual disaster that blinds and deafens those who think they know best how to make schools better. But teaching such a history to those who see themselves as future reformers has a downside.

Idealistic graduate students eager to improve schools often told us at the end of the course that studying decades of failed efforts to reform schools depressed them and battered their idealism.  

They would often ask David and me: Are you pessimistic about improving public schools? My answer was always no. I do have hope for the future of public schools. My optimism, however, is tempered and realistic.

I would ask our students to compare improving schools to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible climbers would want a guide who has climbed the mountain before and can point out the crevices and where to step carefully. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, candor, and humility are as crucial to reaching the summit as they are in making a school reform work.

Hope for success in both climbing a mountain and converting reform policies into classroom practices rests in expertise, problem solving, courage, and yes, a touch of luck. But–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain is still worth the effort even if success is not achieved. Being realistic about the task is crucial. Realism and hope, then, are married in my mind. 

Although the history of reform shows clearly that schools cannot transform society, competent and committed teachers can influence their students’ minds, hearts, and actions. They can and have helped the young grow into adults who can work to reduce societal ills. That is the tempered, realistic optimism that I continue to have after six decades as a teacher/scholar.

So thanks to all of you who have made possible this award.

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Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, research, school reform policies