Category Archives: research

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

Why Can’t All of Education Look Like This? (Greg Toppo)

From time to time, readers say “Enough, Larry,  about the ubiquity and longevity of age-graded schools and their rules and rhythms or the ‘grammar of schooling.’ ” A few say it is too pessimistic about school reform and plays down efforts to alter the dominant age-graded organization.

Sure, I get defensive and reply that I am a realistic, no, I am a tempered optimist about what thoughtful, passionate educators create in making an age-graded school a “good” one even within a severely flawed, larger political and socioeconomic system that maintains under-funded, re-segregated schools across the nation.  

Then I may go on to point out pieces I have written about the need to have many “grammars of schooling,” not just one. I also write about those uncommon instances of districts and schools, past and present–public and private–that have not only instituted major efforts to alter the prevailing model of schooling but also sustained them over time. I write about such efforts because I  know what has occurred before in school reform.

None of this criticism of age-graded schools or efforts to incrementally improve or even overturn the abiding model is new. A century ago, a wing of the educational progressive movement produced schools that challenged the then dominant model. John and Evelyn Dewey wrote about such innovative schools in Schools of To-Morrow (1915).  There has been this back-and-forth volleying between ardent supporters of the age-graded school and its critics ever since. The following article is within that tradition.  I believe that such efforts will continue long after this blog disappears.

And from that constant creation of different ways to teach and learn within age-graded schools, I sustain my hope. A hope tempered by my experience and research, to be sure, that students in such schools will learn and grow into adults who appreciate that tax-supported public schools are not only politically vulnerable institutions shaped by the larger socioeconomic structures and culture but also a precious public good. Is that the best you can do, Larry? Yes, it is.

This article appeared in The 74 on September 17, 2019

 

In 2013, attorneys at the California Innocence Project, weighed down by a backlog of casework, turned for help to an unusual group: humanities students at High Tech High Chula Vista, a nearby charter school.

The students, all juniors, trained on a past case handled by the San Diego nonprofit, which reviews pleas from prisoners who maintain they’re innocent. Then, in teams of three or four, the students reviewed prisoners’ files and ultimately presented them to Innocence Project attorneys, with a recommendation to either champion a prisoner’s case or take a pass.

The project lives on with a new group of students each year, buoyed by a strain of progressive education philosophy that says students learn best with real work that resembles what they will likely encounter outside of school. It has been kicking around K-12 education for decades but has yet to be widely adopted. In recent years, however, the idea has quietly gained ground as more schools try project-based learning and subscribe to a philosophy known as “deeper learning.”

But does it work?

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor emeritus David Perkins calls it “playing the whole game.” He sees it as an alternative to schools’ traditional approach, which often presents students with atomized, decontextualized pieces of a subject. He conceived of the idea after thinking about the most meaningful experiences he had in high school, which were mostly “outside of the conventional curriculum”: drama, music, science fairs and the like. These and other large scale endeavors, he said, “seemed more meaningful and I reached out for opportunities.”

Laid out most fully in his 2010 book Making Learning Whole, the idea goes something like this: Let students do something big and useful, from start to finish — perhaps a simplified version, but keep it intact. Give them extra help and lower stakes and they’ll work harder, learn more and come up with creative applications and solutions that adults couldn’t imagine.

Though it has yet to be widely adopted outside of project-based schools, “playing the whole game” has quietly thrived for generations in another context: afterschool activities, from team sports to debate club, drama productions and marching band.

“We know intuitively that when we get really serious about a domain of education, it looks more like this,” said Jal Mehta, also a professor at Harvard’s education school.

When students go out for the baseball team, they get an attenuated version of baseball, but they go out each time and play the entire game. “It’s not ‘baseball appreciation,’” Mehta said. Likewise with just about anything that takes place after school.

Afterschool activities also offer a system that supports teachers. Imagine, for instance, a classroom art teacher who wants to mount an exhibition of student artwork. She’d need to figure out how to give students longer blocks of time to complete the pieces; find an exhibition space, and arrange it for exhibition night. Finally, she’d need to get people to attend.

“Now imagine you’re that same teacher and you’re directing a play after school,” Mehta said. “Basically, you need the same things.” But in most schools, these pieces are already in place: long rehearsal blocks, a dedicated performance space, and the expectation that students will annually mount a version of a big Broadway musical and the community will show up to see it. All of that support, he said, is already built in.

“The question we should ask ourselves is: If that’s the kind of method we use when we really want someone to learn something, why don’t we use those methods the rest of the time, for the rest of the students?” Mehta said.

Chris Lehmann, principal and co-founder of Science Leadership Academy, a small public high school at the edge of Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood, said afterschool experiences have another plus: They have student choice “baked-in.”

“You’re getting the kids somewhere they want to be,” he said, “so you already have an advantage there.” These experiences are also usually built around a performance of some sort, with a natural structure, deadline and audience.

Mehta said the best examples he has seen during the school day are in science classes. In one school, instead of “imbibing scientific knowledge that was discovered long ago by famous scientists,” sophomores learned about the scientific method and designed rudimentary experiments — he remembers one that asked whether studying while listening to music through earbuds produced better or worse results.

“That’s not an earth-shattering question, but it’s a real question,” he said. In the process, students learned how to develop a hypothesis, gather data, review the literature and write up their results. By 11th or 12th grade, they were doing more advanced work, including partnering with nearby labs, he said. But students credited the sophomore-year course for getting them excited about — and familiar with — experimentation. “It was the place where they really learned how to do science,” he said.

Sarah Fine, who directs High Tech High’s graduate teaching apprenticeship and who last spring co-authored a book about deeper learning with Mehta, said the larger goal of “playing the whole game” is a kind of authenticity that often eludes students, especially in high school. “Ultimately, school is a contrived situation. There’s no way around that,” she said.

Fine recalled a student once saying to her, “‘Ms. Fine – school is just fake.’ He’s right – school is fake. We are designing experiences for the sake of kids’ learning.”

Yet the goal of the Innocence Project work isn’t necessarily to make students into lawyers. It’s to give them the sense that there’s “some professional domain that has rules and rhythms to it,” as well as a base of knowledge, she said. “It just has to feel real enough to kids — it has to be resonant enough with the real world that it compels them to feel like it’s worth engaging with.”

The students who reviewed prisoners’ cases “talked about feeling like they sort of had people’s lives in their hands,” Fine said. “And that is not a feeling they’d ever had in school before, that something they were doing had real consequences for people beyond themselves.”

Rebecca Jimenez, 18, who graduated last fall from High Tech High Chula Vista, said the Innocence Project gave her sense of working on “an important cause.”

The more research she did on each prisoner’s plea, the more engrossed she became. “I wanted to keep reading and understand the person’s story,” she said. Eventually, she and her classmates would research a case that resulted in a judge throwing out a 20-year-old murder conviction and handing down new charges against the suspect’s nephew.

Novices vs. experts

One important aspect of “playing the whole game,” Mehta said, is interacting with professionals in the real world. “If you do an architecture project and you have real architects examining your work, that’s project-based learning. But it’s really powerful project-based learning because you’re not only showing students something about architecture. It gives them a conception: ‘I could be an architect.”

But Tom Loveless, a California-based education researcher and former director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, advises caution. “Generally speaking, I think we should be skeptical of the whole idea,” he said.

For one thing, playing the whole game confuses novices with experts. “A novice can’t ‘play the whole game’ because a novice doesn’t know the whole game. In order to learn most games, you have to learn the bits and pieces that go into knowing the whole game. And with project-based learning in general, the idea is that you’re giving kids projects to do in order to learn about a particular topic.”

That’s a mistake, Loveless said, since students typically require “a tremendous amount of background knowledge” before they can execute a respectable project on, say, World War I. Without deep background knowledge, he said, “you have a lot of novice learners kind of sharing their ignorance and having a shared experience out of their ignorance — and there’s no guarantee … that they’re necessarily going to gain knowledge, because you’ve left all that in the hands of the students themselves.”

Harvard’s Mehta said “playing the whole game” actually demands more of teachers, implicitly asking them to be not just familiar with a subject but to remain, in a sense, practitioners. Just as we’d expect a good drama director to direct community theater on weekends, so do these schools expect the same of subject-matter teachers: English teachers who publish poetry or novels, or art teachers who sell their paintings, and so on.

Loveless said he hasn’t seen good evidence that students will necessarily enjoy school more if it’s inquiry-based. “It could be that exactly the opposite is true. It could be that actually what kids like is a lot of structure to the presentation of learning. They like the teacher taking responsibility for that.”

A bigger problem, he said, may be that because project-based learning tends to minimize the importance of prior knowledge, “playing the whole game” might work better in wealthy areas or in private schools, where students arrive with a measure of background knowledge about, for instance, World War I or how defense attorneys work. Elsewhere, it’s a riskier strategy.

SLA’s Lehmann would disagree. His school boasts that it draws students from every ZIP Code in Philadelphia, and he can easily bring to mind the challenges that his students — past and present — bring the day they set foot on campus as freshmen.

A 2016 metareview was cautiously optimistic about project-based learning, saying the evidence for its effectiveness is “promising but not proven.”

Ron Berger of EL Education, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group for project-based learning, pointed to a 2016 study by the American Institutes for Research that found students in high schools that subscribed to “deeper learning” were slightly more likely to attend college — about 53 percent vs. 50 percent in other high schools. AIR also found that 22 percent of students at “deeper learning” schools enrolled in four-year colleges compared to 18 percent for their peers elsewhere.

But the schools had little to show in terms of college retention — in both “deeper learning” schools and others, only 62 percent of alumni remained enrolled in college for at least three consecutive terms; about half enrolled for at least four consecutive terms.

Berger said the modest college-going results shouldn’t be the final word on these schools’ success. For one thing, he said, many of them are works in progress: his non-profit, originally a partnership between Harvard’s education school and Outward Bound USA, has spent years pushing project-based schools to improve the quality of their projects, requiring field research, participation of outside experts and “an authentic audience,” among other factors. That’s not always a given, he said.

Where these conditions persist, Berger said, “the schools feel different,” with students able to articulate what they’re learning and why they’re there.

“It’s visceral,” he said. “When you walk into a building and kids are more polite, more mature, engage with you right away and want to tell you about their learning, [they] have a sense of social responsibility – it’s hard to collect quantitative data on this.”

‘Why do I need to know this?’

Lehmann, the Philadelphia principal, embodies this attitude perhaps as well as any secondary educator in America. In conversation with his students, he reminds them endlessly about how much they’ve grown and matured since he met them as freshmen. He has become well-known among educators for his head-on challenge to the notion that the job of high school is to get students ready for what comes next.

“School shouldn’t be preparation for real life — school should be real life,” he said. “We should ask kids to do real things that matter.”

Most significantly, Lehmann asks teachers to rethink the idea that high school is a “moratorium” for young people, a kind of holding pen where they wait out adolescence.

“‘Why do I need to know this?’ should be a real question,” he said. “And the answers we should search out for kids should not be ‘someday’ answers: ‘If you want to major in this you might seek out this information,’ but rather, ‘Why do I need this information now to be a better human being? To affect change in the world?’”

For Jimenez, the High Tech High graduate, playing the whole game changed everything. Early in her high school career, she thought she might major in business. “It sounded really cool and had money attached to the name,” she joked.

But Jimenez liked the work at the Innocence Project so much she spent the entire month of May 2018 interning there — High Tech High juniors undertake month-long internships each spring. “During school, if I want to do something, I might as well be doing something that might actually make a change,” she said.

Now a freshman at the University of California, Riverside, Jimenez is studying political science and plans to attend law school. A first-generation college-goer, she wants to work someday for the Innocence Project.

“It would be great to be back in that environment,” she said.

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Whatever Happened to Driver Education?

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Corporate managers outsourced manufacturing jobs such as in steel and services such as call centers. School districts did the same with  driver education. Higher graduation requirements and reforms that called for everyone to go to college combined to inexorable demands for reducing costs led states to cut their subsidies for  driver education teachers and programs. Far more private companies now provide driver training to teenagers than schools do.

What Problems Did the Driver Education Intend To Solve?

Traffic accidents and fatalities is the  short answer. From the very beginning of the 20th century, cars killed pedestrians and passengers. By the 1920s, over 15,000 Americans died in auto accidents. Like most economic, political, and social problems in the nation, Americans believed that education–like water, alcohol, and acetone–is an all-purpose solvent. So with more cars on the road, more accidents, policymakers turned to schools. With states funding parts of these programs, district after district offered driver education to prepare the young to be better drivers and thereby reduce road carnage. In teaching teenagers about how the car works, rules of the road, and giving them actual practice on streets and highways, teenagers getting state-issued driver licenses would be better drivers and accidents and fatalities would decrease. Especially as 20th century statistics on car accidents and deaths showed increasing  percentages of teenagers involved in fatal accidents. That was the theory.

Driver education, then, is another instance of turning to schools to solve social problems by educating the next generation (rather than attack the actual problem directly, i.e., building safer cars and road design). Or, in the word that historian of education David Labaree coined, Americans have a habit of “educationalizing” national problems.

The first high school driver education course was taught by Amos Neyhart, a professor of engineering, at Penn State in 1934. amos-neyhart-gives-instruction-in-1929-graham-paige-829-480x350.jpg

 

Usually, a car held the teacher on the passenger side, student driver, and 2-3 student observers in back seat. As driver education courses multiplied across the nation, cars with dual controls became common.

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As did other ways of simulating driving.

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By 1965, over 13,000 schools offered driver education for over 1.7 million students. After  A Nation at Risk report came out in 1983, states ratcheted up their curriculum standards, graduation requirements and tests. College prep courses crowded the curriculum leaving little space for electives such as driver education. The number of driver education teachers and courses plummeted and the number of private companies offering courses and preparation for getting the actual driver’s license soared. Because parents had to pay extra to get their teenage sons and daughters taught how to drive, the number of teenagers getting licenses also dropped, many getting the valuable piece of paper  after they turned 18.

What Did School-Sponsored Driver Education Look Like in Practice?

In most instances, students had to be 16 years old. They had classroom lessons about how cars work, road safety, and the rules that govern state licensing including the written and road tests. Behind-the-wheel experience ofdriving a car on streets and highways usually occurred during and after the school day under the supervision of a certified teacher in driver education.

Many teenagers now pay for online courses to prepare for the written test and then get actual road practice through a company. Costs vary from $250 to $500. Because of the outsourcing of driver education, there is much variation in what private vendors offer.

Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said that cutbacks [in driver education] had spawned “faster, cheaper, but not necessarily better programs.” Online programs, which are available in 15 states, he said, “are virtually unregulated.”

Occasionally, districts will ante up the money to offer such a course. But that is rare. Consider the Bellingham (WA) district.

After the state of Washington ended subsidies for driver education in 2002, parents bore the cost of their teenagers wanting a state-issued driver’s license. Bellingham Superintendent Greg Baker,  however, found the money in the district budget to restore the elective. He wrote parents:

This new semester-long class will allow students to take the Driver’s Safety Education course during the school day and experience the driver training portion after school and weekends. Part of the class will focus on personal finance and cover topics directly related to the details of purchasing and owning an automobile. Topics will include financial decision making, money management, spending and saving, investing, risk management and insurance.

When districts do offer the course, parents pay extra. In the Granite School District in Utah, parents pay a fee of $140 ($215 for out-of-district students) for a driver’s ed course. For that fee, the district:

… will provide the 6 hours of behind the wheel training as follows:

  • Driving Range – 3 hours
  • Skid Car- 20 minutes
  • On the Road Driving-2 hours, 40 minutes

Driving range and skid car training will take place during the school day. Instruction will be provided by certified retirees and hourly employees. Some on-the-road driving will take place during school, but the majority of driving will be after school. The department chairperson at each school will schedule driving times for students.

Tests

Each student must pass the driver education class.  Each student must pass at 80% or better on the following tests:

State written test

State driving test

Fees and Permits:

Did School-Sponsored Driver Education Work?

The outcome sought for driver education and the rationale for introducing it in schools is that those taught to drive through driver education courses would have fewer traffic accidents and deaths. At best there would be a positive correlation between those students trained in schools and the number of accidents and fatalities. Some research studies say it did and, you guessed it, some say it did not. Whether such training will reduce accidents and deaths remains unclear. See here, here, here, and here.

What state-subsidized courses have done since they were introduced before and after World War II is increase the numbers of teenagers who qualified for state driver licenses. Whether such training “worked” in reducing accidents and deaths remains uncertain.

What Has Happened to Driver Education Programs in Schools?

They’re mostly gone. Collateral damage from the curricular embrace of college for all, over the past three decades, schools dropped driver education and private companies have stepped into the burgeoning market for teenagers seeking to take and pass paper and road tests to get the state-issued license to drive.

 

 

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Whatever Happened to the Core Knowledge Program?

No, I do not refer to the Common Core standards.

I mean the Core Knowledge program that unfolded in U.S. schools in the decade following the 1987 publication of University of Virginia Professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

The book, the creation of the Core Knowledge Foundation and subsequent publication of curricular sequences across academic subjects taught in elementary schools produced a reform that again brought to the surface the historical struggle over what kind of knowledge and skills are worth teaching and learning in tax-supported public schools.

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Hot embers of previous traditional vs. progressive wars in the early 20th century and then in the 1950s over the importance of phonics vs. whole language in reading, exposure to disciplinary knowledge rather than students creating their own meaning  re-ignited in the last decade of the century after Hirsch’s book and the spread of Core Knowledge programs in schools.

 

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What Problems Did the Core Knowledge Program Intend To Solve?

According to Hirsch and advocates for Core Knowledge, the current concentration on building skills–“student will be able to do…”–has handicapped children and youth by ignoring the importance of teaching systematically sequential knowledge as a way of developing reading comprehension, problem-solving, inquiry, and most important understanding the world. Core Knowledge tries to solve this endemic problem in U.S. schooling. As one description put it:

The Core Knowledge Sequence identifies that knowledge base in the core subjects. For example, the American history portion of the Core Knowledge Sequence includes specific events and aspects of history such as the Boston Tea Party, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Underground Railroad; it does not include an objective such as “identify a sequence of events in history.” The Core Knowledge Sequence does indicate study of significant people, stories, and issues, including William Penn and the Quakers, Susan B. Anthony and the right to vote, Jackie Robinson and the integration of major league baseball, Cesar Chavez and the rights of migrant workers, Dorthea Dix and the treatment of the insane, Sojourner Truth and women’s rights, and Chief Joseph and the ordeal of the Nez Perce Indians. The American history sequence does not include an objective such as “explain how various cultural groups have participated in the development of the United States.” As the students learn about specific people and events, teachers can guide them to deeper understanding and teach them to apply problem-solving and other analytical skills to what they have learned.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues that educational Progressives such as Dewey wanted children to construct their knowledge, learn by doing and come to understand the world. Such Progressive ideas have ruined American schools, according to Hirsch, by ignoring the importance of children having intellectual capital, that is, a broad and deep base of knowledge to understand core ideas and the present moment.

Diane Ravitch, a member of the Core Knowledge Foundation board, reviewed  another of Hirsch’s books in 2006 and located his place in the historic struggle between Progressives and traditionalists:

In his assault on the precepts of progressive education, Hirsch enters a battle that has been waged for over a century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, almost every high-school student studied Latin. Teachers and parents believed that the study of Latin taught certain skills that could be transferred to any other pursuit or activity, such as precision, judgment, logical thinking, clarity, and so on. It was, in the words of its defenders, a valuable form of mental gymnastics, intended to improve one’s faculties. The same argument was made for algebra and other areas of advanced mathematics. The first generation of education psychologists (such as Edward L. Thorndike of Teachers College) took aim at this belief and sought to demonstrate through their studies that “transfer of training” was a myth, and that there was no reason at all to study Latin or any subject that was not immediately useful.

Progressive educators were heartened by Thorndike’s work and concluded that “you study what you study, and you learn what you learn.” In other words, what was the point of learning Latin or algebra or even history since they had no demonstrable utility? ….

In this century-old debate, the great error of traditionalist educators was their failure to defend cultural values in education, that is, the importance of knowledge. By making the case for Latin or history dependent on “transfer of training,” they lost the debate. The culturally important studies such as literature, history, and foreign language never should have been defended for their value in “training the mind,” but for their importance in shaping an educated, civilized human being.

Hirsch now makes that case, and it is a very important contribution to American education. He shows that research is now firmly on the side of those who advocate knowledge as the goal of learning….

What Does a Core Knowledge Program Look Like in Practice?

In elementary schools, Core Knowledge is used for part of the day. Scheduled times are allocated to lessons in language arts, science, social studies, and math. For the rest of the school day familiar activities including art, drama, and physical education occur.

Deanna Zarichansky, Assistant Principal at Trousdale County Elementary School in Hartsville, TN, describes   the program.

Our district adopted Core Knowledge [Language Arts] at the beginning of this school year [2017]. This has been the single most powerful curriculum implementation I have seen in my 16 years of education. We are a small district with a high rate of poverty, with many students who enter school with little to no experiences with literacy. Our school is charged with the difficult task of educating students who come to us with little vocabulary and limited knowledge of the world around them.

At first glance, many teachers were rather skeptical that their students could be successful with themes such as The War of 1812 and Astronomy. These same teachers soon became strong supporters of the program. The students began to use vocabulary and content knowledge they were being exposed to by Core Knowledge in conversations and in writing. Walking down the hallways of our school, you can hear chatter about the Earth’s atmosphere, Rosa Parks, Machu Picchu, and paleontologists. Many second grade students wanted to dress as gods and goddesses for Halloween. They collect rocks on the playground and discuss how they were formed. Parents often tell stories of their children combing through the cabinets and discussing what is healthy and what they shouldn’t be eating, catching their children peeking out of the window looking for the North Star, and rousing dinner conversations about the Civil War. Our librarian shared that students are choosing to check out more nonfiction than ever before.

The walls of our school used to be decorated with holiday items and have now been replaced with diagrams of constellations and descriptive paragraphs about Human Body Systems. This curriculum has changed the culture of our school. It has allowed equalization for students who are now exposed to deep knowledge building about the world around them.

Bridgit McCarthy, a third grade teacher at New Dimensions, a public charter school in Morganton, North Carolina, describes her unit on Rome.

Today in social studies, we assassinated Julius Caesar!

My students’ faces registered shock, sadness, and a sprinkling of outrage, all nicely mixed with understanding.

How mean!  Why would anyone kill their ally? I bet his wife feels sad.

JC helped get France for them—except it was, you know, Gaul back then. Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.

These comments show comprehension and recall—a good start. Here’s one of the most telling comments from our class discussion; notice how it combines historical knowledge and understanding with a bit of empathy.

Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings waaaay back—like in last week’s … lesson.

These quotes demonstrate comprehension of rigorous content and use of sophisticated vocabulary. They came from third graders.

Yes, the words “stuff” to describe political change, and “sad” to describe a distraught wife may smack of 8 and 9 year olds and, but “plebeians” and “ally”? I would have expected such vocabulary from the middle school students I used to teach. This is my first year teaching third grade; I’ve been delighted to see how eager younger students are to dig into history and science content….

The assassination and subsequent discussion came about two-thirds of the way through our Core Knowledge Language Arts unit on ancient Rome. That unit takes about three weeks, starting with the basic question “What Is Rome?” and then introducing students to legends and mythology, daily life in Rome, and major wars and leaders. It ends with Rome’s lasting contributions.

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I am thrilled with what students are saying and writing as we progress. While I always have high expectations in my classroom, I was a bit nervous when we started the ancient Rome unit. The objectives are complex, the vocabulary is challenging. The content itself includes a great deal of geography and culture, plenty of politics, and an assumption that Core Knowledge kids already knew quite a bit about ancient Greece.

The opportunity to check and refresh some of that knowledge of Greece was an early order of business. In CKLA, second graders spend several weeks on ancient Greece with two back-to-back units: The Ancient Greek Civilization and Greek Myths. In the third-grade unit on Rome, a review of the Greek gods and goddesses was the introduction to a lesson on their Roman counterparts. Seventeen of my twenty students attended second grade at New Dimensions, and sixteen attended first (which has a unit on Early World Civilizations), so I was curious to see how much they would remember.

In theory, recall of these facts of Greece ought to come fairly easily. According to one student, they spent “forever” on ancient Greece—and they loved it. In our school, teachers combined the CKLA materials and additional teacher-created materials to really immerse students.

As a result, my third graders had no problems here. Building on their existing knowledge of other cultures’ gods and goddesses made the new material easier to access. I also didn’t have to “teach” polytheism because the very idea that people had separate deities for different aspects of their lives was old hat to them, having explored it in first grade with Mesopotamia and Egypt and again in second with ancient Greece. The three students who didn’t attend New Dimensions in second grade did need a little more support. I helped them do some additional reading and partnered each one with a student who has been at New Dimensions since kindergarten. Because the unit lasted a few weeks, these new students had time to catch up by learning about Greece and Rome together.

Do Core Knowledge Programs Work?

As for many school reforms over the past century, answering the “effectiveness” question–does it work?–is no easy task. The first major issue is answering the question of whether Core Knowledge was fully implemented in classrooms. If not completely implemented, then judging outcomes become suspect. Many of the early studies of Core Knowledge in schools were mixed, some showing higher test scores and some showing no positive effects (see here, here, here, and here). The Core Knowledge Foundation has a list of studies that they assert show positive outcomes. What is so often missing from research on reforms such as Core Knowledge are descriptions of the contextual conditions in which the reform is located and researchers saying clearly: under what conditions does this program prove effective? That is too often missing including the research on Core Knowledge schools.

What Has Happened to Core Knowledge Programs in Schools?

There is now a network of 770 schools using the Core Knowledge Program (there are about 90,000 public elementary schools in the U.S.).

When the Common Core standards initially were published in 2010, Hirsch criticized the standards as having insufficient content. After reviewing the next set of standards and grade-by-grade sequence, Hirsch decided that there was sufficient content and the Core Knowledge Foundation aligned its sequence to the Common Core Standards.

Hirsch commented on this alignment of the program to Common Core Standards:

“This could be bigger than any other reform I can think of. We’ve had a hell of an incoherent system. It’s been based on a how-to theory, and not enough attention has been paid to the build-up of knowledge. This is a moment when we really could change the direction.”

 

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Principals As Instructional Leaders: Hype and Reality

Six years ago, I published a post on the highly popular slogan of principal as instructional leader. Following up on this blog’s post of Chicago Mayor’s Rahm Emmanuel’s publicized reversal of his initial school reform beliefs and what he ultimately learned about the importance of Chicago’s principals in turning around schools’ low academic performance, I re-visited this earlier post.  I was surprised that few, if any, observational studies of principal behavior linked to student achievement have been published since 2013. The one I did find is included below.

The strong belief held by practitioners and researchers that of the three essential roles principals perform (instructional, managerial, and political), they “must” be first and foremost, instructional leaders continues its dominance in the literature in spite of weak evidence.

 

 

Past and current research on principals reveal that school-site leaders perform managerial, instructional, and political roles in and out of their schools. Of these multiple (and often conflicting) roles, however, the instructional leader role has been spotlighted as a “must” for these men and women because, as the theory (and rhetoric) goes, it is crucial to improving teacher performance and student academic achievement.

Yet recent studies (https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/grissom%20loeb%20%26%20master%20instructional%20time%20use_0.pdf

of principal behavior in schools makes clear that spending time in classrooms to observe, monitor, and evaluate classroom lessons do not necessarily lead to better teaching or higher student achievement on standardized tests. Where there is a correlation between principals’ influence on teachers and student performance, it occurs when principals create and sustain an academic ethos in the school, organize instruction across the school, and align school lessons to district standards and standardized test items. There is hardly any positive association between principals walking in and out of classrooms a half-dozen times a day and conferring briefly with teaches about those five-minute visits.The reality of daily principal actions conflicts with the theory.

Much of the rhetoric of instructional leadership flowing from true believers in the theory rings hollow when researchers actually go into schools and shadow principals, observing what they do day-after-day in a school a week or more at a time. Such time-and-motion studies have been done ever since the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor and “scientific management” in the early 20th century. When such studies were done, they showed that the bulk of the a principal’s time was spent on managing the building, teachers, students, and parents. That was then.

Now, a few published studies make the same point: what principals do is largely manage people and buildings spending most of their time outside of the classroom, not inside watching teachers teach.

A recent report ( Shadow Study Miami-Dade Principals) of what 65 principals did each day during one week in 2008 in Miami-Dade county (FLA) shows that even under NCLB pressures for academic achievement and the widely accepted (and constantly spouted) ideology of instructional leadership, Miami-Dade principals spend most of their day in managerial tasks that influence the climate of the school but may or may not affect daily instruction. What’s more, those principals who spend the most time on organizing and managing the instructional program have test scores and teacher and parental satisfaction

 

results  that are higher than those principals who spend time coaching teachers and popping into classroom lessons.

The researchers shadowed elementary and secondary principals and categorized their activities minute-by-minute through self-reports, interviews, and daily logs kept by the principals.

In the academic language of the study:

The authors find that time spent on Organization Management activities is associated with positive school outcomes, such as student test score gains and positive teacher and parent assessments of the instructional climate, whereas Day-to-Day Instruction activities are marginally or not at all related to improvements in student performance and often have a negative relationship with teacher and parent assessments. This paper suggests that a single-minded focus on principals as instructional leaders operationalized through direct contact with teachers may be detrimental if it forsakes the important role of principals as organizational leaders (p. iv)

Two things jump out of this study for me. First, the results of shadowing principals in 2008 mirror patterns in principal work that researchers have found since the 1920s although the methodologies of time-and-motion studies have changed.

Second, there is an association–a correlation, by no means a cause-effect relationship–between principals who spend more time managing the organization and climate of the school than those principals who spend time in direct contact with teachers in classrooms.

Another study of first- year urban principals prepared by New Leaders,  a program imbued with beliefs in instructional leadership, revealed that new principals, a large fraction of whom left the post after two years, had little impact on student achievement even while observing and monitoring teacher lessons (see RAND_TR1191)

A few studies, of course, will not banish a theory lacking convincing evidence, temper the rhetoric of principal-as-instructional-leader,  or alter principal preparation programs.  Current rhetoric and ideology highlighting instructional leadership trump research studies, past and present, again and again.

Some donor-funded efforts try combining the results of the above studies and earlier research about principals managing the instructional program with their direct involvement in teachers’ classroom practices. See, for example, the Wallace Foundation’s recent publication The-School-Principal-as-Leader-Guiding-Schools-to-Better-Teaching-and-Learning.    In their well-intentioned effort, however, they give life to a failed theory and pump oxygen into the prevailing rhetoric.

The rose-colored view that principals of schools, big and small, urban and suburban, elementary and secondary, can throw fairy dust over teacher lessons and improve student academic performance continues to dominate professional associations of principals and university preparation programs.

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How Much Do Educators Care About Edtech Efficacy? Less Than You Might Think (Jenny Abamu)

Jenny Abamu is a reporter at WAMU. She was previously an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covered technology’s role in K-12 education.

She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Master’s degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College.”

 

This article appeared in EdSurge, July 17, 2017

Dr. Michael Kennedy, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, was relatively sure he knew the answer to this research question: “When making, purchasing and/or adoption decisions regarding a new technology-based product for your district or school, how important is the existence of peer-reviewed research to back the product?” Nevertheless, as part of the Edtech Research Efficacy Symposium held earlier this year, Kennedy created a research team and gathered the data. But, to his surprise, the results challenged conventional wisdom.

I hypothesized that the school leaders we talked to and surveyed would say, ‘Oh yeah, we privilege products that have been sponsored by high-quality research.’ Of course, we found that that wasn’t exactly correct

Michael Kennedy

“I hypothesized that the school leaders we talked to and surveyed would say, ‘Oh yeah we privilege products that have been sponsored by high-quality research,’” says Kennedy. “Of course we found that that wasn’t exactly correct.”

With a team of 13 other academics and experts, Kennedy surveyed 515 people from 17 states. Out of those they surveyed, 24 percent were district technology supervisors, 22 percent were assistant superintendents, 7 percent were superintendents, 27 percent were teachers, and 10 percent were principals. Within this diverse group, 76 percent directly made edtech purchases for their school or were consulted on purchase decisions. This was the group Kennedy expected would put its trust in efficacy research. To his team’s surprise, however, about 90 percent of the respondents said they didn’t insist on research to be in place before adopting or buying a product.

In contrast, respondents prioritized factors such as ‘fit’ for their school, price, functionality and alignment with district initiatives; these were all rated by those surveyed as “extremely important” or “very important.” In the report, one of the administrators interviewed is quoted saying, “If the product was developed using federal grant dollars, great, but the more important factor is the extent to which it suits our needs.” Kennedy also noted other statements made him pause.

“Research, according to one of the quotes I received was the icing on the cake,” says Kennedy “Having a lot of research evidence, like the type demanded by the feds, was cool but not essential. I found that to be pretty surprising and a little bit troubling.”

The consumer is the one who is going to have to demand the market changes. If school districts say, ‘I am not buying with without any research evidence,’ that would be the only thing, I think, the business community will listen to.

Kennedy defines randomized control trials, a research methodology that tries to remove bias and external effects as much as possible from the experiment, as the gold standard of research. Though this type of extensive and carefully planned research is expensive, the federal government does offer funds to support groups willing to go through the process. However, without schools demanding such research, Kennedy says while the government has made a way, but there is no will—and that could dry up funds.

“The consumer is the one who is going to have to demand the market changes. If school districts say, ‘I am not buying with without any research evidence,’ that would be the only thing, I think, the business community will listen to,” says Kennedy.

So what explains theme educators who did put research at the top of their list? Kennedy speculates it’s a question of exposure to quality research and district funding.

“Some people who responded to our survey had doctorates, other had advanced degrees, and they understand the value of research,” says Kennedy. “Some respondents are from districts that are very well-funded, and they have the luxury of being picky. Other districts have very limited budgets, very limited time and they are going to what is cheapest and easiest.”

Whether rich or poor, all school districts do have to answer to their tax bases, who often foot the bill for edtech purchases. Schools that cannot show academic gains are often under more scrutiny from outside forces, including parents and local officials. However, Kennedy notes that the complicated nature of education and all the variables that can affect student achievement water down any accountability that can be placed on edtech product purchase decisions made by the school districts.

“I suspect they will look at how are we teaching reading and math because technology is often used as a supplementary tool,” says Kennedy. “I hear parents say they want more technology, but they don’t know what they want. They think any tech is good tech, and I think that myth has pervaded as well. It’s a wicked problem, a layered contextual kind of issue, that will take more than the field can do to fix.”

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No, Educators and Policymakers Shouldn’t Just ‘Do What the Research Shows’ (Rick Hess)

…. I routinely advise policymakers and practitioners to be real nervous when an academic or expert encourages them to do “what the research shows.” As I observed in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, 20th-century researchers reported that head size was a good measure of intelligence, girls were incapable of doing advanced math, and retardation was rampant among certain ethnic groups. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “That wasn’t real research!” Well, it was conducted by university professors, published in scholarly journals, and discussed in textbooks. Other than the fact that the findings now seem wacky, that sure sounds like real research to me.

Medical researchers, for instance, change their minds on important findings with distressing regularity. Even with their deep pockets and fancy lab equipment, they’ve gone back and forth on things like the dangers of cholesterol, the virtues of flossing, whether babies should sleep on their backs, how much exercise we should get, and the effects of alcohol. Things would be messy if lawmakers or insurers were expected to change policies in response to every new medical study.

In truth, science is frequently a lot less absolute than we imagine. In 2015, an attempt to replicate 97 studies with statistically significant results found that more than one-third couldn’t be duplicated. More than 90 percent of psychology researchers admit to at least one behavior that might compromise their research, such as stopping data collection early because they liked the results as they were, or not disclosing all of a study’s conditions. And more than 40 percent admit to having sometimes decided whether to exclude data based on what it did to the results.

Rigorous research eventually influences policy and practice, but it’s typically after a long and gradual accumulation of evidence. Perhaps the most famous example is with the health effects of tobacco, where a cumulative body of research ultimately swayed the public and shaped policy on smoking—in spite of tobacco companies’ frenzied, richly funded efforts. The consensus that emerged involved dozens of studies by hundreds of researchers, with consistent findings piling up over decades.

When experts assert that something “works,” that kind of accumulated evidence is hardly ever what they have in mind. Rather, their claims are usually based on a handful of recent studies—or even a single analysis—conducted by a small coterie of researchers. (In education, those researchers are not infrequently also advocates for the programs or policies they’re evaluating.) When someone claims they can prove that extended learning time, school turnarounds, pre-K, or teacher residencies “work,” what they usually mean is that they can point to a couple studies that show some benefits from carefully executed pilot programs.

The upshot: When pilots suggest that policies or programs “work,” it can mean a lot less than reformers might like. Why might that be?

Think about it this way. The “gold standard” for research in medicine and social science is a randomized control trial (RCT). In an RCT, half the participants are randomly selected to receive the treatment—let’s say a drug for high blood pressure. Both the treatment and control groups follow the same diet and health-care plan. The one wrinkle is that the treatment group also receives the new drug. Because the drug is the only difference in care between the two groups, it can be safely credited with any significant difference in outcomes.

RCTs specify the precise treatment, who gets it, and how it is administered. This makes it relatively easy to replicate results. If patients in a successful RCT got a 100-milligram dosage of our blood pressure drug every twelve hours, that’s how doctors should administer it in order obtain the same results. If doctors gave out twice the recommended dosage, or if patients got it half as often as recommended, you wouldn’t expect the same results. When we say that the drug “works,” we mean that it has specific, predictable effects when used precisely.

At times, that kind of research can translate pretty cleanly to educational practice. If precise, step-by-step interventions are found to build phonemic awareness or accelerate second-language mastery, replication can be straightforward. For such interventions, research really can demonstrate “what works.” And we should pay close attention.

But this also helps illuminate the limits of research when it comes to policy, given all the complexities and moving parts involved in system change. New policies governing things like class size, pre-K, or teacher pay get adopted and implemented by states and systems in lots of different ways. New initiatives are rarely precise imitations of promising pilots, even on those occasions when it’s clear precisely what the initial intervention, dosage, design, and conditions were.

If imitators are imprecise and inconsistent, there’s no reason to expect that results will be consistent. Consider class-size reduction. For decades, advocates of smaller class sizes have pointed to findings from the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project, an experiment conducted in Tennessee in the late 1980s. Researchers found significant achievement gains for students in very small kindergarten and first-grade classes. Swayed by the results, California legislators adopted a massive class-size reduction program that cost billions in its first decade. But the evaluation ultimately found no impact on student achievement.

What happened? Well, what “worked” on a limited scale in Tennessee played out very differently when adopted statewide in California. The “replication” didn’t actually replicate much beyond the notion of “smaller classes.” Where STAR’s small classes were 13 to 17 students, California’s small classes were substantially larger. STAR was a pilot program in a few hundred classrooms, minimizing the need for new teachers, while California’s statewide adoption required a tidal wave of new hires. In California, districts were forced to hire thousands of teachers who previously wouldn’t have made the cut, while schools cannibalized art rooms and libraries in order to find enough classrooms to house them. Children who would have had better teachers in slightly larger classrooms were now in slightly smaller classrooms with worse teachers. It’s no great shock that the results disappointed.

Research should inform education policy and practice, but it shouldn’t dictate it. Common sense, practical experience, personal relationships, and old-fashioned wisdom have a crucial role to play in determining when and how research can be usefully applied. The researchers who play the most constructive roles are those who understand and embrace that messy truth.

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