Category Archives: research

Whatever Happened to “Ambitious” Teaching?

Over the past decade, thoughtful observers seeking improvement in public school teaching and student learning have advanced concepts of “ambitious teaching” and “deeper learning” (see here, here and here). Both raise the low bar that earlier reformers had set to initiate and adopt reforms aimed at classrooms such as adopting new reading programs, using innovative textbooks, or loading on student computers dazzling pieces of software. It was a low bar to these advocates because they sought a more thoughtful form of teaching that gets students of all ages to inquire, question, and poke at contradictions across all academic subjects. These champions of ambitious teaching and deeper learning believed that lessons, be they teacher- or student-directed, can go beyond the superficial and stimulate students’ curiosity and achieve learning goals heretofore thought impossible.

What is ambitious teaching?

A phrase that cropped up often over the past decade, ambitious teaching comes out of earlier reform traditions when teachers aspired to elicit and develop student ideas out of the content and skills regularly taught in lessons. Getting students to think aloud, take on difficult academic tasks, and investigate the world outside of school walls were aims. In such lessons, teachers not only elaborated student ideas but also applied them to practical situations in which they were familiar. All of this is packed into the phrase, “ambitious teaching.”

A more formal (and obtuse) definition comes from three scholars:

Ambitious teaching requires that teachers teach in response to what students do as they engage in problem solving performances, all while holding students accountable to learning goals that include procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive dispositions.”

What problems does ambitious teaching solve?

Reform-minded teacher educators and scholars of critical thinking believe that expecting teachers to teach ambitiously would result in fewer textbook-driven lessons which leave many students bored and compliant, leading, many observers believe, to underlying schoolwide problems. What adherents of ambitious teaching seek are more lessons that question textbook statements and explore and explain contradictions between what students know, what they experience and what they are expected to learn. Too many lessons, reformers claim, are dull, mechanical, and result in fake student responses that teachers label as “learning.”

What does ambitious teaching look like?

Researchers offered this example of ambitious teaching:

Imagine walking into a middle school classroom where students are working on a statistics unit in which they are investigating patterns of association between two quantities. While students enter the classroom, the teacher gives each student a sheet of paper that contains [a detailed photo of a] shoeprint….

The teacher explains that when investigators find shoeprints at the scene of a crime, forensic scientists can use the prints to identify suspects. She asks students to consider how a footprint could help someone solve a crime. After a brief discussion, students conclude that a shoeprint can indicate the type of shoe that a suspect wore, as well as the size of the suspect. The teacher explains that the students are going to investigate the relationship between shoe size and height so that they can determine the height of the suspect. While students work in pairs, measuring each other’s height and shoe length, the teacher monitors the activity and asks and answers questions as needed to support students’ efforts. When pairs finish measuring, they add their data (red dots for girls and green dots for boys) to a large graph—with the x-axis labeled as shoe length and the y-axis labeled as height—posted in the front of the room. When all the students have added their data points to the graph, the teacher asks students to talk with their partners about the patterns that they notice. After a few minutes, the students share their observations, which the teacher records: for example, no two people have the same shoe size and height, most girls have smaller feet and are shorter than the boys, tall people have bigger feet than short people, the data go up from left to right, and the data are kind of linear. The teacher tells students that their next step is to find a line that models these data—a line of best fit. She directs students to a Web-based applet, where they plot the class data in two-pair teams, guess at a line of best fit, and check their guesses. (An applet that supports this investigation is at http://illuminations.nctm.org/Activity.aspx?id54186.) The class concludes with a lively whole-group discussion, during which teams share their findings regarding the line of best fit, discuss the meaning of the slope and y-intercept in context, and consider how confident they are that the equation will be a good predictor of a person’s height based on a shoeprint. In the final five minutes of class, students complete an exit ticket in which they indicate how tall they think the suspect is and present their reasons.

Does ambitious teaching work?

While some evidence appears to support the correlation between ambitious teaching and higher achievement test scores, there is very little evidentiary support for such labeled practices primarily because the phrase has varied definitions and researchers often pick and choose among the diverse definitions for this form of teaching. At best, the answer to the question is: “perhaps.” See here and here.

What happened to ambitious teaching?

While less cited in the general literature on teaching, it remains strong within the math and science academic community and occasional groups of practitioners. In surveying the landscape of ambitious teaching, it appears to me that it is far more apparent among university and college teacher educators than rank-and-file district administrators and teachers. So the dream of ambitious teaching lives on but has yet to be widely shared or practiced within U.S. public schools.

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Nested Organizations: Public Schooling Is Complex

In the previous post on the complexity of teacher decision-making, I mentioned that not every teacher or parent knows that classrooms are embedded in complex organizations that affect what teachers do daily. This post tries to get at that organizational and political (yes, political) complexity that colors both how and what teachers teach and their relationships with students.

Many readers are familiar with wooden dolls made in Russia that fit one atop another. As one loosens the largest doll, the next one that appear get smaller and ditto for each one taken out. These dolls are nested in another.

The system of schooling in the U.S. is also nested. The largest organization–“doll” to stretch the analogy– that runs the nation’s schools,however, is not the federal government as it is in those nations that have centralized education as a national responsibility such as Japan, France, China, and Russia.In the U.S., it is each of the 50 states.

Because the U.S. has a decentralized system where the federal responsibility for schooling the nation’s 55 million students is restricted largely to funding states (e.g.,the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) and enacting education laws giving all children access to schooling (e.g., Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975). the federal government is not responsible for schooling the young in the nation. States are.

Each of the 50 states, operating under the jurisdiction of the governor and state legislature enact educational policies and distribute federal and state funds to the districts they have established to operate local schools. California, for example, has chartered over a thousand local districts to make policy, receive funds, hire staff, and operate schools. Connecticut has 172 districts and Hawaii is only one state-run district. That is the largest doll in the nested collection.

So every one of the 50 states represents the next “doll.” Each state establishes districts–another smaller “doll– to carry out its educational policies. Besides funding, each state sets curriculum standards, certifies teachers and administrators, administers tests, and enacts policies that guide each district’s board of education and its superintendent, including whether independent charter schools are allowed to operate in the state or district. In the U.S., There are over 13,000 school districts.

For example, When the Arlington (VA) Board of Education appointed me as their superintendent in the mid-1970s, I swore an oath to obey the state constitution and, with the Arlington County Board of Education, ensure that state policies including curriculum standards were put into practice in nearly 40 elementary and secondary schools then enrolling just under 15,000 students. I directly supervised almost 40 principals who were charged by me to implement state and district policies in each of their schools. They, in turn, supervised nearly 1,000 teachers in those buildings.

Moreover, I had to meet Virginia’s credential requirements to be a superintendent. Turned out I lacked one course in managing school facilities and had to take that course before the state certified me as Arlington’s superintendent. In effect, states are responsible for tax-supported public education within its boundaries.

Responding to their political constituencies, the governor, state legislators and board of education direct policies to these elected district school boards whose members respond to a variety of state and community stakeholders. These elected boards approve all policies from how much to spend in next year’s budget per pupil to setting attendance boundaries to salaries for employees to what curriculum teachers will teach to the kinds of soap in students’ bathrooms. In short, tax-supported public education is a state-dominated, locally operated political instrument for producing literate, engaged civically adults prepared for the workplace.

Which brings me the next smaller nested “doll” in the collection: the school and its principal. As noted above, districts vary in size of enrollment so the number of schools within a district will vary. School districts vary in size from New York City with over one million students in 1800 buildings to Indian Springs Elementary School District in California with 17 students. As noted above, when I served as superintendent between the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Arlington had nearly 15,000 students distributed among nearly 40 schools, each with one principal.

As the state mandates policies for all of its districts, each district board and superintendent does the same in directing its principals to pursue those state policies and the ones that the locally elected school board authorized. Each school is led by a principal appointed by the superintendent and approved by the school board. Individual principals do have leeway in adapting to its neighborhood and diversity of enrollments and responding to superintendent directives. As the superintendent leads the district, so, too, the principal is expected to lead the school. And the classroom teacher–the smallest “doll” in the nested collection–is charged to lead her students to learn.

The nested dolls analogy gets at the different, constantly interacting tiers of U.S. school organization and how political relationships between stakeholders at every level come into play to fund, operate, and assess student outcomes. In sum, the decentralized system of public schooling in the U. S. is a complex, open, multi-tiered organization driven by multiple goals (e.g., engaged citizenship, workplace preparation, enter adulthood with moral principles intact, etc.) and, no surprise, filled with tensions, conflicting values, and contradictions.

But there are surprises nonetheless. Do I need to mention Covid-19 and the immediate switch to remote instruction?

Therefore, elaborate blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply are inadequate to control complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. There is no “mission control” for the federal role in schooling the young. Nor are there “command-and-control bureaucracies” running state or district operations–although formal organizational charts hanging in superintendents’ offices give the illusion of such power. What does happen in these web-like complex systems of interdependent units is that they adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings.

And few parents, much less wannabe school reformers, understand the complexity of schooling children and youth beyond the classroom their children are in and the meaning of these many nested “dolls” of U.S. education. So what? What is the big deal about complexity of an open system like U.S. schooling?

At the minimum, knowing that working at any level in a complex system means adapting to changes, dealing with conflicts, and constant learning. These are natural, not aberrations. Know further that reform designs borrowed from engineering or technical occupations and imposed from the top (e.g., federal, state, or district) in complex systems will hardly make a dent in the daily work of those whose job is convert policy into action, i.e., superintendent, principal, and, especially the small and powerful “dolls called teachers.

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Can Educators Teach Students To Spot Fake News (Frederick Hess)

Following up on my recent post, Whatever Happened to Current Events, this op-ed by Frederick Hess who interviewed Stanford University Professor, Sam Wineburg, goes to the crucial intersection of children and youth learning how to sort accurate from inaccurate information. Digital literacy in dealing with mainstream and social media, according to Wineburg, spans all academic subjects that children and youth take during their student careers of 13-plus years in schools.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies and writes about K-12 and higher education. This article appeared in Forbes magazine April 13, 2021.

One of the great educational conundrums of the moment is how to help Americans navigate a digital landscape filled with fake news, dubious claims, and rank disinformation. Educators, like the rest of us, are searching for practical strategies. That’s what makes Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg so interesting.

Wineburg, Stanford’s Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, studies how people judge the credibility of digital content. A former history teacher with a PhD in education psychology, he’s perhaps the nation’s leading scholar when it comes to helping people figure out what’s actually true on the Internet. I recently had the chance to talk with him about his work and the practical lessons it holds.

Wineburg approaches his work with a simple guiding principle: “If you want to know what people do on the Internet, don’t ask them what they would do. Put them in front of a computer and watch them do it.”

He recounts a 2019 experiment studying how high school students evaluate digital sources, in which 3,000 students performed a series of web tasks. One task asked students to evaluate a website about climate change. Wineburg notes, “When you Google the group behind it, you learn that they’re funded by Exxon—a clear conflict of interest. Yet, 92 percent of students never made the link. Why? Because their eyes remained glued to the original site.” In other words, looking into the source of information is essential to judging its veracity—and yet, students didn’t make that leap. 

In another study, Wineburg compared how a group of PhD students and Stanford undergraduates stacked up against fact-checkers at leading news outlets in New York and Washington when it came to assessing the credibility of unfamiliar websites. He says that fact-checkers speedily “saw through common digital ruses” while trained scholars “often spun around in circles.”

Why? Wineburg concludes, “The intelligent people we’ve studied are invested in their intelligence. That investment often gets them in trouble. Because they’re smart, they think they can outsmart the Web.” The result is that when they see a professional-looking website with scholarly references, they conclude it’s legitimate. “Basically,” he says, “they’re reading the web like a piece of static print—thinking that they can determine what something is by looking at it . . . On the Internet, hubris is your Achilles heel.”

Fact-checkers employ a different approach, one that Wineburg terms “lateral reading.” This involves only briefly looking at a website, then leaving it to search for background information on the organization or group behind the original site to determine if it is worth returning to. “In other words,” he says, “they learn about a site by leaving it to consult the broader Web.”

The problem for educators, according to Wineburg, is that this goes against the grain of how teachers usually teach students to evaluate a text. Usually, students are taught to read carefully and fully, and only then render judgment. “Yet, on the Web, where attention is scarce, expending precious minutes reading a text, before you know who produced it and why, is a colossal waste of time,” Wineburg says.

In fact, the usual methods teachers use for addressing online credibility are mostly unhelpful. Wineburg laments that we often approach the subject like a game of twenty questions. We ask, “‘Is the site a .org?’ If so, ‘It’s good.’ ‘Is it a .com?’ If so, ‘It’s bad.’ ‘Does it have contact information?’ That makes it ‘good.’ But if it has banner ads? ‘It’s bad.’” The problem, he says, “is that bad actors read these lists, too, and each of these features is ludicrously easy to game.”

To help teachers wrestling with all this, Wineburg and his collaborators have created a “digital literacy curriculum” with 65 classroom-ready lessons and assessments, a complementary set of videos, and an online course on “Online Civic Reasoning” done with MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab. Wineburg notes that all of these materials are free and can be downloaded by registering at sheg.stanford.edu.

Wineburg thinks we should be teaching these skills from “the moment we give [kids] a smartphone” and that “we’re deluding ourselves” if we imagine that schools adding “an elective” will be enough to “drag us out of this mess.” Rather, he wants educators to ask: “How, in the face of our current digital assault, do we rethink the teaching of history, science, civics, and language arts—the basics?”

Ultimately, Wineburg says, “On every question we face as citizens—to raise the minimum wage, to legalize marijuana, to tax sugary drinks, to abolish private prisons, you name it—sham sources jostle for our attention right next to trustworthy ones. Failing to teach kids the difference is educational negligence.”

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My Next Book

I will have a new book published by the end of this year called Confessions of a School Reformer. How an idea becomes a book even after all I have written, remains mysterious to me. In reconstructing the process which often means demystifying what occurs and making it appear linear and logical, I remain uncertain of exactly how I got the idea and how that idea morphed into a book proposal and then a contract with a publisher and voila!, the book appearing on my doorstep.

Here is what I believe occurred.

I had finished Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools (2020) and was thinking of my next project (yes, I need to have projects to look forward to). The theme of Chasing Success was how ideas of success and failure in public schools have a long history in American life and showed up repeatedly during three major reform movements that blanketed the 20th and 21st centuries. I wrote the book but I could not get these surges of reform that roiled the nation and schools, and to my surprise, my entire life, out of my head.

A century ago, the Progressive movement swept across the nation’s schools and faded away by the 1950s only to be followed by the widespread quest for equality central to the civil rights movement that then gave way in the late-1970s to business-inspired reforms tying school improvement to the nation’s changing economy. The latter efforts resulted in the standards, testing, and accountability reforms that have marked the closing years of the 20th century and have continued into the opening decades of the 21st century. 

But I was stuck intellectually. I didn’t know what to do next. Slowly, I became unstuck as I began thinking of my life as a child, as a teacher, superintendent, and professor. I am in my late-80s and realized—not in any epiphany or dream—that I had actually experienced all three of these 20th century reform movements: I had attended elementary and secondary schools in the latter-years of the Progressive movement. I had been a history teacher during the civil rights era, and, finally, I served as a district superintendent during the early years of standards, testing, and accountability reforms, and then as a professor doing research on this reform movement that remains intact in 2021.  Could I tie my personal experiences to these larger movements? Were my life experiences affected by these national reforms? The answers to these questions have become Confessions of a School Reformer.

How that sequence of events happened, however, remains mysterious to me.

And now I am trying to figure out what to do next. No dreams or epiphanies have yet occurred. But I do know that I want to write about the act of teaching because it has been central to my life as professional and as a person. I wanted to take a deep dive into teaching, its successes and failures, its uncertainties about outcomes for both teacher and students, and how it actually occurs daily in the nation’s classrooms.

I usually start with a big question that has no easy answer to it. I think a lot about that question and hope that the outline of a possible answer appears. It seldom does in any organized fashion. I have a few insights drawn from my direct experiences of teaching in high schools, leading university seminars, and teaching one-on-one with family members and friends. Also, over the past decades as a researcher in classrooms and schools, I have learned a great deal through observations and interviews. But how exactly to pull together all of that experiential and research-produced knowledge and say something that might illuminate the complex act of teaching for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and wannabe reformers, well, that continues to puzzle me.



So I sit at the dining room table surrounded by the best books in my home library about teaching to see if dipping into them and deciphering my notes on page margins, something will magically form in my mind and become my next project. So which books do I have on my table as I prepare to click away on my laptop?



*Williard Waller, The Sociology of Teaching (1932)

*Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (1968)

*Seymour Sarason, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (1971)

*Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher (1975)

*Rebeccas Barr and Robert Dreeben, How Schools Work (1983)

*Richard Elmore, Penelope Peterson, Sarah McCarthey, Restructuring in the Classroom (1996)

*David Cohen and Heather Hill, Learning Policy (2001)

*Mary Kennedy, Inside Teaching (2005)

*Jack Schneider, From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse (2014)



Also staring back at me are histories of teachers and teaching in my home library that document both change and stability in classroom teaching over the past two centuries

Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (1984)

Barbara Finkelstein, Governing the Young (1989)

Richard Altenbaugh, The Teacher’s Voice (1992)

Kate Rousmaniere, City Teachers (1997)



I am sure that scholars and practitioners reading this post have in their home libraries different books or would point to some in public libraries about teachers and teaching that do not appear here. No surprise since there is much scholarship and personal accounts missing from my list that others would swear by. So be it. Yet this is how I start.

Perhaps there are shortcuts in shaping my next project to pose a serious, worthwhile question that sinks its hooks in me–as other projects have done–but I don’t have such time-savers or single click alternatives to outflank the mysterious and circuitous journey I have traveled in writing book then and now.

So faithful readers of this blog, you now have a sense of how I go about shaping a project that, I hope, will become my next book. Should you have suggestions for books and articles to read, please send them along.

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The History of the Future of Education (Audrey Watters)

From Audrey Watters’s self-description:

I am an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.

“It’s a long story,” I often say. You can catch snippets of it, if you pay attention. I’ve got a CV if you care about such formalities. And I wrote an FAQ if that helps.

I love science fiction, tattoos, and, some days, computer technologies. I loathe mushy foods and romantic comedies. I’m not ashamed to admit I like ABBA and dislike Tolkien. I am somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve not finished Ulysses, and I’ve never even started Infinite Jest. I prefer cake to pie, unless we’re talking pastry projectiles. I pick fights on the Internet. I’m a high school dropout and a PhD dropout. I have a Master’s degree in Folklore and was once considered the academic expert on political pie-throwing. I was (I am?) a widow. I’m a mom. I have a hard stare that I like to imagine is much like Paddington Bear’s and a smirk much like the Cheshire Cat’s. I am not afraid.

I travel as much as I possibly can. “Home,” at least according to my driver’s license, is Seattle, Washington.

My essays have appeared in multiple places, but mostly I write on my blog Hack Education. I’ve published four collections of my public talks, The Monsters of Education Technology (2014), The Revenge of the Monsters of Education Technology (2015), The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology (2016), and The Monsters of Education Technology 4, as well as a book arguing that students should control their digital identities and digital work, Claim Your Domain. I’m in the middle of writing my next book, Teaching Machines, which will be published by MIT Press.

I was a recipient of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University School of Journalism for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Watters’ post on the future of education was a talk delivered at Ryerson University. The post appeared February 19, 2015

It’s a refrain throughout my work: we are suffering from an amnesia of sorts, whereby we seem to have forgotten much of the history of technology. As such, we now tell these stories about the past, present, and future whereby all innovations emerge from Silicon Valley, all innovations are recent innovations, and there is no force for change other than entrepreneurial genius and/or the inevitability of “disruptive innovation.”

This amnesia seeps from technology into education and education technology. The rich and fascinating past of education is forgotten and erased in an attempt to tell a story about the future of education that emphasizes products not processes, the private not the public, “skills” not inquiry. The future of education technology therefore is the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities because the history of education technology has always been the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities. Or so the story goes.

I’ve been working on a book for a while now called Teaching Machines that explores the history of education technology in the twentieth century. And this year I’ve started a series on my blog, Hack Education, that also documents some of this lost or forgotten history. (I’ve looked at the origins of multiple choice tests and multiple choice testing machines, the parallels between the “Draw Me” ads and for-profit correspondence schools of the 1920s and today’s MOOCs, and the development of one of my personal favorite pieces of ed-tech, the Speak & Spell.) See, I’m exhausted by the claims by the latest batch of Silicon Valley ed-tech entrepreneurs and their investors that ed-tech is “new” and that education — I’m quoting from the New York Times here — “is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology.” Again, this is a powerful and purposeful re-telling and revising of history designed to shape the direction of the future.

Of course, these revisionist narratives shouldn’t really surprise us. We always tell stories of our past in order to situate ourselves in the present and guide ourselves into the future. But that means these stories about education and education technology — past, present, future — really matter.

I’m particularly interested in “the history of the future of education,” or as what Matt Novak calls his blog, the “paleofuture.” How have we imagined the future of teaching and learning in the past? What can we learn by looking at the history of predictions about the future, in our case about the future of education? Whose imagination, what ideologies do these futures reflect? How do these fantasies shape the facts, the future?

This is perhaps one of the most cited examples of the “paleofuture” of education technology.

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This 1910 print is by the French artist Villemard and was part of a series “En l’an 2000” (“In the Year 2000”) from around the World’s Fair and the new century that was packaged in cigar and cigarette boxes. Here we see the teacher stuffing textbooks — L’Histoire de France — into a machine, where the knowledge is ostensibly ground up and delivered electronically into the heads of students. Arguably this image is so frequently cited because it confirms some of our beliefs and suspicions (our worst suspicions) about the future of education: that it’s destined to become mechanized, automated and that it’s designed based on a belief that knowledge — educational content — is something to be delivered. Students’ heads are something to be filled.

The other prints in this series are pretty revealing as well.

I’m fond of the flying firefighters.

In these images, we see the future imagined as humans conquering the sky and the sea, as more and more labor is done by machine.

It’s worth noting that quite often (but not always) the labor we imagine being replaced by machine is the labor that society does not value highly. It’s menial labor. It’s emotional labor. The barber. The housekeeper. The farm girl. So it’s interesting, don’t you think, when we see these pictures and predictions that suggest that more and more teaching will be done by machine. Do we value the labor of teaching? And also: do we value the labor of learning?

Thomas Edison famously predicted in 1913 that “Books will soon be obsolete in schools” – but not because books were to be ground up by a knowledge mill. Rather, Edison believed that one of the technological inventions he was involved with and invested in – the motion picture – would displace both textbooks and teachers alike.

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks,” Edison asserted in 1922. “I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.”

100% efficiency. Efficiency. What does that even mean? Because unexamined, this prediction, this goal for education has become an undercurrent of so many predictions about the future of teaching and learning as enhanced by technology. Efficiency.

It gets to the heart of that Villemard print too: this question of how we get the knowledge of the book or the instructor into all students’ brains as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The future: cheaper and faster. More mechanized. More technological.

This is the history of education technology throughout the twentieth century. It is the history of the future of education.

Radio. Radio Books. Lectures via television (This image is from 1935). Professor as transmitter. Students as receivers.

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“The Push-Button School of Tomorrow”(from 1958):

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From Popular Science in 1961, a prediction that by 1965, half of all students will use teaching machines.

The Autotutor or “Automated Schoolmarm” (from the 1964 World’s Fair):

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Also from 1964, the Answer Machine:

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From a 1981 book School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow):

“If we look further into the future, there could be no schools and no teachers. Schoolwork may not exist. Instead you will have to do homework, for you will learn everything at home using your home video computer. You’ll learn a wide range of subjects quickly and at a time of day to suit you. … The computer won’t seem like a machine. It will talk to you just like a human teacher, and also show you pictures to help you learn. You’ll talk back, and you’ll be able to draw your own pictures on the computer screen with a light pen. This kind of homework of the future will be more like playing an electronic game than studying with books. …Eventually, studying a particular subject will be like having the finest experts in the world teaching you. Far in the future, if computers develop beyond humans in intelligence, then the experts could in fact be computers, and not human beings at all!”

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1981. 2015. A very similar fantasy of the future.

I didn’t have this book growing up, but my brother had something similar: The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog, published in 1982. We spent hours pouring over its pages, imagining what our “whole future” would entail. Flying cars and moon colonies.

Education is, quite arguably, caught in a difficult position when it comes to these sorts of predictions about the future – and it’s a position that makes education seem intransigent. See, education is – almost necessarily as we have the system constructed today – trapped by being both backwards-facing and forwards-facing. That is, education institutions are tasks with introducing students to domains of knowledge – all of which have history, a past – all the while are tasked too with preparing students for the future – a future in which, according to some stories at least, knowledge is still unknown and undiscovered. As such, there is this inevitable panic and an inevitable tension about education, knowledge, conservation, and innovation.

Image credits

This image from 1982 was part of a series about the future of computers commissioned by Alan Kay when he went to work for Atari. Here we see some of the earliest visions from Silicon Valley of the personal computer in the classroom. The future of education here is technological. It is branded. It is game-based. There are still desks in rows and clusters. And students still rebel.

When we look back at all these predictions from the past about the future of education – the history of the future of ed-tech– the point (my point) isn’t that our education systems are reluctant to change. My point is not that schools have failed to fulfill the sci fi imagination. Indeed, I’d argue that schools have changed a lot over the last hundred years thanks to the law, not to technology: mandates for desegregation for example that would not have come from “code.” My point is that the imagination about the future is so very intertwined in our notions of the past and the present. And if we let Silicon Valley, for example, erase the history of education technology, if we allow Silicon Valley to dictate the present terms for education technology, then we are stuck with its future, its corporate, libertarian vision. The same could be said, of course, of the imaginations of other powerful institutions: Hollywood’s vision of the future, Hanna Barbera’s, Harvard’s.

All the visions of the future of education, the future of teaching, the future of work, the future of learning are ideological. They are also political. As we hear the visions of politicians and entrepreneurs, as we listen to the visions of the rest of today’s speakers, we need to remember that. Predictions about the future are not neutral. They are not objective. They are invested. Invested in a past and a present and a future. Invested in a certain view of what learning looks like now, what it has looked like before and what – thanks to whatever happens in the future – what it might look like going forward.

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Opening Up the Textbook (Sam Wineburg)

Sam Wineburg is a professor of education and history at Stanford University, He along with Susan Ramiraz and Peter Stearns authored Human Legacy, a high school world history textbook.This appeared in Education Week, June 5, 2007

History textbooks have long merited special scorn. Thicker than a Duraflame log (and weighing more), today’s books feature pages that rival news Web sites (think CNN) for busyness and clutter. Artwork with multiple call-out boxes, tricolored pictures with captions of “How to Read Me,” and pointers to end-of-chapter test questions cued to state standards (with special editions produced for your state) dominate the text like the bun that smothered the patty in that famous burger ad.

Years ago, when I first started teaching future history teachers, I urged them to do what I had done as a young teacher: Ditch the book in favor of primary sources. Now, with Google, the job of finding sources is infinitely easier than in my day.

I soon found, however, that of my yearly crop of 30 future teachers, maybe one was practicing anything remotely like what I preached. The vast majority were just trying to survive. Enough desks for each student, a working computer (Apple IIs do not count), a blackboard: This was a high bar. But in 2004, things got better in California. That’s when Eliezer Williams et al. v. State of California, a class action filed on behalf of the state’s poor children, was settled, requiring Sacramento to spend $138 million to buy every child basic learning materials—including textbooks.

I quickly realized that by exhorting my novice history teachers to renounce textbooks, I was failing to teach them to use the one classroom tool—flawed, problematic, overly flashy, and did I mention how heavy they are?—they could expect to find once they got there.

So, I revamped my Methods of Teaching History course. I now begin with a lecture called “Textbooks Are Your Friends.” True, I admit, textbooks are often written in that third-person voice that makes Muzak sound scintillating. But this is not the main problem. Even lively textbooks pose a threat. The main problem of history textbooks is not how they’re written.

The main problem is their very existence.

History’s complexity requires us to encounter multiple voices. A single voice can spellbind us with gripping narrative. But “history” has at its root the Greek istor: to inquire. True inquiry admits no easy answers. The textbook achieves its synthetic harmony only by squelching discordant notes. That’s Muzak, not history.

Which is exactly what I told the two executives from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston who asked me to write a feature called “Reading Like a Historian” for their new high school series. “Well,” I said, munching gnocchi over dinner, “to read like a historian means challenging your book’s narrative. It means uncovering places where interpretations are treated as facts and facts as timeless truths.” Pouring more chianti, I told my hosts that no attempt to teach students “how historians read” can coexist with a textbook’s voice-from-on-high narrator (even higher than mine was at that moment).

My hosts nodded. “That’s why we want you to write it.” I nearly choked on my ciabatta.

Two months later and contracts signed, I got to work. To write these “Reading Like a Historian” essays, one each for every chapter of a U.S. and world history textbook, I drew on 20 years’ experience as a researcher of historical cognition, in which I have spent approximately 1.2 gazillion hours interviewing, probing, taping, transcribing, coding, analyzing, writing about, and generally hanging out with people who call themselves historians. All of this in an attempt to identify something common and generative to how historians—rather than, say, literary critics, electrical engineers, or horse whisperers—read.

Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny.

Together, my 70 essays span 5,000 years of human history. Some directly challenge the main text’s interpretation of key events and offer alternative accounts of, say, the 1929 stock market crash or al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers.

In other essays, I alight on conclusions that the main text announces en passant and ask, how does the book “know” what it claims to know? For example, we are told that skilled Egyptian workers, not Hebrew slaves, built the pyramids. What gives historians the chutzpah to demolish in one sentence 40 chapters of Exodus and three hours and 39 minutes of Cecil B. DeMille?

Still other essays take up the issue of historical argument. (It’s a secret to many students that historians argue. To them history sprouts from the ground. Historians merely transcribe.) For example, the book alludes to views about why the Industrial Revolution occurred in 18th-century England. My essay throws these explanations into bold relief, pitting the now-fashionable “contingency theory” (available coal plus that unique Western ability to colonize, enslave, and reap profit from cheap cotton) against the more traditional “brilliance of the West” theory (Remember? Scientific inquiry, stable legal and economic institutions, a culture that prized initiative, thrift, and powdered wigs). These arguments are never resolved, but become thicker and more nuanced with each pass. This thickening—not consensus—constitutes progress.

What each of my essays tries to do is help students see their textbook itself as a historical source. In order to do this, students have to yank those iPods from their ears long enough to hear how language works, how it massages our understanding even before we’ve reached the first “fact.”

In a chapter on the Crusades, the text describes the contest between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted: “Although Richard won several battles against the Muslims, he was not able to drive them out of the Holy Land or take Jerusalem. In the end, he had to admit a draw and return to England.” Pausing on this sentence, I raise the issue of positionality—not by quoting Derrida to 10th graders, but by taking the concept literally. What direction does the text point you in? With whom are you marching? Positioned at Saladin’s back, how would you change the narrative?

Similarly, I try to get students to think about how narratives begin, for historians know that beginnings shape interpretive structure, and that any story of consequence yields multiple openings. The textbook introduces American involvement in Southeast Asia with the 1954 Geneva Peace Conference. Until then, the narrative suggests, the conflict in Vietnam was largely a French affair.

In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.

My essay provides readers with alternative starting points: January 1944, when, writing to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that “Indochina should not go back to France,” a colonizer that had “milked it for one hundred years”; the foggy days after the Allied victory, when Ho Chi Minh appealed to Harry Truman (by writing eight letters—some not declassified until 1972) expressing a desire for “full cooperation with the United States”; or August 1945, when Truman met Charles de Gaulle and laid the groundwork for $15 million in military aid to an American-advised and American-equipped French force at Dien Bien Phu. Each of these options fundamentally changes the texture of the ensuing story.

The goal of “Reading Like a Historian” is not vocational, but liberal, as in the trivium of the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. I am most interested in those qualities of mind that history is able to cultivate long after the details of the Tang dynasty or the Treaty of Ghent have faded.

Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny. Stories create entire worlds. But these worlds become oppressive and all-encompassing if we view them as God-given, rather than the products of our own hands and, thus, open to question and scrutiny.

Listen, I have no illusions about the little feature I have written. But I took on this assignment because I believed in its basic idea. Including at least one other voice in the same book—a printed court jester who pokes at readers, reminding them to slow down, to listen to words, to notice how the text spins them, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-like, in a given direction—is more than another frill in today’s frilly world of textbook publishing. When students hear a second voice questioning the first, they learn that maybe their job is not to memorize after all. Maybe their job is to find their own voice.

We live in an information age. But it is also an age of boundless credulity. In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.

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Back To School Covid Myths (Doug Green)

I have had a hard time locating actual classroom observations of hybrid teaching and learning. I did find that The New York Times sent journalists to visit seven different urban and rural districts that provided some evidence of what occurs in schools during the pandemic.

Doug Green emailed me that he had visited a small district near where he lives. I asked him to send me the results of his observations. Dr. Doug Green is a former teacher and principal in upstate New York. He blogs at https://DrDougGreen.Com

Since March of 2020, I have read countless articles about remote schooling. I have yet to see a convincing study on the relative quality of remote and in-person schooling, but I have seen many authors make unequivocal statements in favor of the in-person model. Whenever I see people stating hypotheses as facts I try to come up with reasons why they might be wrong, so here are the problems I find with the general consensus.

As part of my post-retirement professional life, I am the independent observer for a local school district. There I get to observe 120 teachers from K to12 thanks to the fact that our government doesn’t trust our principals to fairly evaluate their teachers. This allows me to base my oppositional views on empirical observations rather than “common sense.”

Myth #1. Zoom classes are clearly inferior.

From what I’ve read and seen, many if not most schools are using the “hybrid” model where kids spend every other day in school and at home attending the same class via Zoom or some other software option. This means that as a teacher, you have some students in your room widely spaced and some in boxes on your computer screen listening to what you say and seeing what you share on your screen.

All students hear and see the same instructional content regardless of where they are. All students get to ask questions and answer questions the teacher poses. The students in the room face a somewhat dystopian version of what classes use to look like while the “Zoomers” have “all the comforts of home.” Keep in mind that all homes are not created equal. Some students have their own “home office” while others have crowded conditions, responsibilities for caring for siblings, and poor or no reliable Internet access.

The hybrid model may be a downgrade for some, but it is likely an upgrade for others. It depends on each student’s learning style and home environment. To the extent higher-performing students can work at their own pace it could be better. This depends to a large extent on the ability of their parents to set up an environment conducive to learning and arranging age-appropriate supervision, and the teacher’s ability to differentiate.

Myth #2. It’s important that students go to school for social reasons.

From what I’ve seen, in-person schooling isn’t very social. Since some students have opted for full-time remote learning, in-school classes have less than half a class at a time. In my experience, eight students is a big class. The in-school students are distanced from each other and wearing masks. I have yet to see student to student interaction in classrooms. Between classes, they walk in the right lane down hallways at least six feet apart. For lunch, they eat at a distance from each other.

If this sounds like social life to you, you have my sympathy. Students go to the trouble and risk of getting to school somehow, getting up earlier, and slogging around a school environment that isn’t chuck full of fun social interactions. Students at home are free to use apps like FaceTime to have real social interaction with their peers. They can also get up later and walk about their home rather than being stuck in their sanitized seats.

Myth #3. There are no other advantages to hybrid schooling.

As a former elementary principal who had 535 students (90% poverty, 25% refugee) and no assistant, I spent more than half of my time on many days dealing with discipline. My school featured crowded classrooms and students who escaped from New York City where their parents could no longer afford to live. Most of my students were from one-parent families and suffered a lot of stress at home.

Fast forward to classrooms with less than half as many students sitting as far apart as possible and wearing facemasks. If you don’t think that this environment takes the discipline load on the principal down to near zero, you probably haven’t walked in my shoes. One of the biggest impediments to learning is caused by students disrupting classes. If you could make this go away learning overall would become more effective.

It’s popular to say that hybrid learning is negatively impacting poor students who generally attend schools with lots of discipline issues. Is it possible that some of these same poor kids who make a serious effort to learn under current circumstances aren’t the big winners? Also, while there may be stresses at home there probably aren’t many bullies.

I’m sure there are people in the trenches with different views. I look forward to hearing from you.

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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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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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