Category Archives: school reform policies

Whatever Happened to Total Quality Management?

Heralded as an innovation that improved private sector companies, TQM swept across the educational landscape beginning in the late 1980s as a way of improving school performance.

Where Did the Idea Originate? In post-World War II Japan then occupied by the U.S until 1952, Japanese business leaders eager to reconstruct their economy turned to an American thought leader to think through and help the nation’s companies attain quality in production and distribution. They invited W. Edwards Deming and colleagues to rebuild their consumer and export economy to gain a niche in global markets that they lost at the end of World War II.

Using Demings’ ideas to achieve quality products in reconstructing the economy, company executives and employees began seeing the corporate system within which they worked as interlocking components that have to change as a whole rather than one-at-a-time or piecemeal to make products that could be sold worldwide. In time, the Japanese economy morphed into an electronic and automobile juggernaut by the 1980s.

By then, U.S. business leaders feeling the economic loss to Japan’s growing role in the global economy examined closely how Japanese firms had moved from a producer of shoddy goods to high quality products that sold internationally far better than U.S. goods. In no time at all, the name Deming became associated with the turnaround of the Japanese economy and “quality” became the watchword in both Asia (think South Korea and Japan) and the U.S.

Total Quality Management became the mantra that corporate leaders repeated endlessly. New programs anchored in the principles that Deming had articulated for the Japanese spread through U.S. companies as the guiding wisdom for corporate leaders.  (see here, here, and here)

What is TQM?

Basically, TQM is a company-wide process initiated and sustained by top managers for everyone in the company working together to make a better product. Continuous assessment and self-evaluation on the part of all employees working collaboratively is essential to the process.

Sometimes called “pillars” of TQM, four basic principles guide the innovation. In a series of slides, the author listed these principles:





What Problem Did TQM Intend to Solve?

With the release of A Nation at Risk report (1983),  ever-rising criticism of U.S. students falling seriously behind students in economic competitors as evidenced by international test scores, local, state, and federal reforms spilled over the nation’s schools in the 1980s and early 1990s. Top leaders sought to apply TQM to the entire school system to engage all staff, both certified and non-certified to improve student learning and increase parent satisfaction, i.e., the customers.

Popular in the business community as a way of re-taking markets that foreign competitors had seized, educational policymakers saw this business innovation as a process applicable to solving the national problem of low student test scores on international tests and big city schools filled with poor and minority children and youth. Improved academic achievement would produce graduates who could enter the workplace with skills and knowledge that would lead to stronger economic productivity. Better schools, stronger economy. Problem solved.

Does TQM Work?

If by work, one means that TQM caused student test scores and parent satisfaction to rise, the answer is no. Although there are a few research studies that do show improvements in school districts and schools that researchers attributed to TQM (see here and here), in most instances, TQM was seldom implemented fully throughout school systems that adopted the process. Partial implementation of an innovation nearly guarantees that the outcomes of such efforts will be blurry if not inconsequential (see  here).

What Happened To TQM?

Basically, the phrase has disappeared in the swamp where educational innovations go to die and get buried. I did an Ngram of Total Quality Management to get a sense of how many mentions of the phrase appear in the literature. There a steep rise in the 1980s and a sharp drop beginning in the late-1990s. What kept that sharp drop from going even further down was the initiation of the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award in 1987 given to initially businesses and then schools. There is overlap between TQM and the Baldridge Award–see Ngram for Award–in that they are both aimed at increasing quality of product and use a systemic process to achieve that process. Because the Award is a federal law with Congressional appropriations and is administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce, it survives to this day. Not so for TQM.

Partial and selected implementation of aspects of TQM not only made evaluation of results hard but often led to confusion over what had to be done. Thus, there was varied implementation of a poorly defined innovation.

Because TQM was a systemic initiative involving many parts of the organization, be it a school or district and because the concept and its design meant different things to different people, TQM had many moving parts, some of which were considered crucial and others less so. District and school leaders determined to put TQM into practice often selected certain pieces of the design and not others. Such random and partial implementation of the concept, as in many other instances of putting innovations into practice, preceded demise.






Filed under school reform policies

Parsing “Failed” School Reforms

The non-graded school, heralded as a game-changing innovation in the 1960s is unheard of today. In the 1970s, districts adopted Mastery Teaching and materials. A decade later, the innovative curriculum was gone. Like mushrooms popping up on a lawn after a rain, these innovations appear and then in a day or two are gone. Are they “failed” innovations?

Understanding “failure” in education is unlike the multi-billion industry of “failure analysis” when engineering and psychology experts figure out why bridges collapse, airplanes crash, and a nuclear plant has a melt down. In those cases failure is clear cut: cars topple off bridges; people die in crashes, reactors emit radioactivity into the air harming both workers and nearby residents. The product has failed and the consequences in lives, money, and public confidence are evident. Analyzing and then determining why the bridge, airplane and nuclear plant failed is essential.

In these clear-cut instances of “failure,” state and federal agencies launch investigations to figure out what caused the accident. Was it mistakes made by pilots, metal fatigue in the aircraft, design flaws in the bridges, or combinations of these and many other factors?

In short, “failure analysis” invokes the protocols of scientific inquiry to find exact causes of the accident to prevent future disasters.

When it comes to school reform, however, determining whether new policies are “failures” and why they happened is much more ambiguous. In the case of education there is no clear product being sold to the public which can be assessed for whether it “worked.” Surely there are innovations designed to improve teaching, learning, and the quality of schooling that require teacher resources and organizational infrastructure to implement the reform. But when, for example, a serious, well-funded school innovation appears, receives strong reviews from teachers, parents, and policymaker and then, in a few years, becomes a blip on the edge of the radar screen or even disappears,  no official agencies investigate. If anything, yawns occur. Occasionally, someone will ask: “Whatever happened to….? It is a puzzle.

Consider Professor Madeline Hunter’s model of effective teaching.

A former teacher and elementary school principal, and professor of educational administration and teacher education at University of California, Los Angeles, Madeline Hunter developed a model of teaching that combined effective instructional techniques applied to all academic subjects across elementary and secondary school classrooms. Called Instructional Theory into Practice (ITIP), the teacher-centered, direct instructional model was anchored in, according to Hunter, psychological learning theory and educational research. Academic content was important as were specific student objectives on what they were to learn and the sequence of techniques teachers were to use to reach those content and skill objectives (see here and here).

Hunter’s genius was to convert this model into seven key features that every teacher had to cover within a lesson.  A common template for a “Hunter Lesson” looked like this:


In the late-1970s and 1980s, professors taught this research-based model of “effective teaching” to their students; some school superintendents and principals mandated teachers to use the lesson template even including it in annual evaluations, and districts mounted extensive professional development programs. Checklists of lesson features appeared and were applied in tens of thousands of classrooms. Schools and classrooms became “Hunterized” (see here and here).

As one would expect with school innovations, the teaching reforms Hunter favored in planning and executing lessons ran into much criticism over its emphasis on direct instruction, relative neglect of student agency in making choices, and the behaviorist cast to teaching that she advocated (see here, here, and here).

But–you knew a “but” was coming–by the mid-1990s a few years after Hunter died, the lesson plan template, professional development workshops, and teacher education professors advocating the approach diminished and by the early 2000s, ITIP and lesson plan templates seemingly fell of the edge of the table.

Yet in the past decade, evidence of Hunter’s influence can still be seen in the continuing support for direct instruction and teachers–both new and veteran–using versions of the lesson template that Hunter had created (see here, here, here, here, and here).

Another innovation “failure?”

Not at all. While the adjectives (“Madeline Hunter”} are mostly gone, the noun (lesson) continues to be the core of what a teacher plans and does in her classroom. The lesson is the meat-and-potatoes of teaching. And for over a century, teachers used these lessons to conduct teacher-directed classroom work (see here and here).

A lesson before Madeline Hunter appeared on the educational landscape and after she left still contained goals and objectives for the 50-90-minute lesson, the key questions that were to be asked, what instructional materials (texts and software) were to be used, activities (whole group, small group, and independent) students engaged in, and assessments to determine what students learned. The lesson was the map for the teacher-directed class.

And it was Madeline Hunter’s lesson plans and approach in the 1970s and 1980s that enhanced the dominant teacher-centered instruction that characterized U.S. schooling for nearly a century. Sure, the lyrics and melody may have changed here and there but it was still the same song.

No, the Madeline Hunter approach to teaching and her lesson templates added to and strengthened familiar ways that teachers taught before, during, and after the the life span of the innovation  even after the name-brand disappeared.

Maybe the definition of “failed” innovations has to be re-examined.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Classroom Teachers are Policymakers

Note that no question mark follows the title. Teachers make policy.

Historically, the object of policies descending from the U.S. Congress, state capitals, and district school boards to the classroom, teachers are the ones who put policies into practice. As object of policy, however, school observers either forget or choose not to acknowledge that teachers also craft policy for their students in taking those policies that appear at their threshold and adapt them to their students. The title, then, is a fact.

Those classroom rules often listed on bulletin boards and walls are policies that the teacher makes for her students.

Related image


Beyond the classroom walls,  however, those very same teachers take what federal, state, and local policies officials send to their classroom (e.g., teachers have to use high-tech devices to teach, they are required to “personalize” their teaching) and bend, squeeze, and adapt those policies to the contours of their classrooms. In doing so, they not only guard the gates of their classrooms but become policymakers in what they accept, amend, and reject. From demanding that teachers use cooperative group work to differentiating instruction to integrating digital devices into their daily lessons, teachers, constrained as they are by the “grammar of schooling,” nonetheless determine what and how they will teach.

Metaphors for policy implementation in schools and districts

Watching a policy travel from the White House, a state capitol, or a big city school board to a kindergarten or Algebra teacher has been compared to metal links in a chain, the children’s game of Telephone, pushing spaghetti, and street-level bureaucrats.

Classroom teachers at the end of the iron-forged links in a chain convey military images of privates saluting captains and duties getting snappily discharged. The telephone game suggests miscommunications that ends up in hilarious misinterpretations of what was intended by the original policy. Pushing strands of wet spaghetti suggests futility in getting a policy ever to be put into practice as intended in classrooms. Street-level bureaucrats suggests that teachers working in rule-driven organizations have discretion and choices in making decisions. I need to elaborate this last comparison because I think it best captures the fact that teachers are, indeed, policymakers.

Street-level bureaucrats are police officers who decide whether or not to give a traffic citation, social workers who determine what kind of help a client needs and where to find that help, emergency room nurses who decide which sick and injured need immediate attention and which ones can wait. Include also teachers who determine whether to stick with the lesson plan or diverge when an unexpected event occurs.

All of these professionals work within large, rule-driven organizations but interact with the public daily as they make on-the-spot decisions. Each of these professionals are obligated to follow organizational rules yet have discretion to make decisions.  They reconcile this dilemma of choosing daily between obligation to the organization and professional autonomy by  interpreting, amending, or ignoring decisions handed down by superiors.

In short, teachers are policy gatekeepers determining what enters the classroom and what gets into the daily lesson.

How about an example that illustrates these metaphors?

Consider kindergarten teachers. Most primary teachers have been trained to see young children holistically as growing human beings needing work, play, and nurturing as necessary ingredients to develop into educated and healthy youth. Teaching the whole child has been a guiding principle central to early childhood programs for nearly a century. Since the early-1980s, however, the standards-based curriculum, increased testing, and accountability policies have flowed downward pressing early childhood educators to make kindergartens into boot camps for 1st grade and preschool programs into learning the alphabet and counting numbers.

In the policy-to-practice metaphor of the linked chain, one would expect that most kindergarten teachers, feeling strong obligations to school superiors, would have altered their child-centered pedagogy and embraced the new policy by relying on direct instruction while abandoning learning centers, comfy reading corners, and free choice time.

For the metaphor of the telephone game, one would expect most kindergarten teachers to have received instructions on implementing standards-based and testing policies from top officials, district supervisors, and school principals. Those instructions and guidance on their journey to kindergarten teachers would have gotten increasingly distorted. These distortions would result in huge variation among kindergarten teachers in implementing these policies ranging from major shifts in pedagogy to minimal alterations in daily lessons to outright mistakes.

The metaphor of pushing wet spaghetti raises different expectations. Because of the futility of the task, adopted policies meander in and out of schools occasionally entering classrooms. Here, kindergarten teachers are fully autonomous and once they close their doors, they do as they please.

None of these metaphors from complete military-like attention to rules to complete freedom to implement a policy capture most kindergarten teachers’ practice at a time when they must cope with dilemma-filled tensions arising from reconciling their obligations to implement state standards-based policies and their beliefs in child-centered practices. And here is where Lisa Goldstein’s study of street-level policy enters the discussion.

Goldstein’s research on four kindergarten teachers in two high performing urban schools within a Texas district details their different actions in coping with state curriculum standards stressing academic preparation for first grade, annual tests that specifies what kindergarteners were to have learned, and their professional and personal beliefs about what five year-olds should be doing and learning.

What did she find out after observing and interviewing the teachers for two years?

“From Ann’s refusal to use the language artsworkbooks to Liz’s holiday celebrations
unit and from Jenny’s either/or literacy block to Frieda’s commitment to her
students’ self-esteem, all of these teachers’ curricular and instructional decisions
were actively shaped by personal understandings of the state standards and DAP
((Developmentally Appropriate Practices derived from the National Association of Early Childhood Education), informed by strategic knowledge and careful thought, and considered in relation to the needs of the particular children in the class and other contextual
factors. Every policy decision was unique and deliberate and reflected attention
to obligations, desire for autonomy, and the use of professional discretion.”

These kindergarten teachers blended developmental practices they had done for years while attending to what their district and state standards required five year-olds to learn by the end of the year. They translated their beliefs in the whole child and many experiences with primary children into hybrid practices that mixed “developmentally appropriate” activities with direct instruction. In short, these four teachers in two schools made policy by creating mixes–they were street-level bureaucrats that hugged the middle.

Goldstein’s study is only one qualitative study of four teachers. There are others that make a similar case that teachers exert autonomy in deciding what and how they teach and thereby make policy (see here, here, here, and here).





Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Whatever Happened to Open Classrooms?


I am beginning a new feature in this blog called: “Whatever Happened To ….”

From time to time I will publish posts that take a look at innovations that policymakers and practitioners hailed as “transforming”  or “revolutionary” insofar as altering how districts conduct business, schools work, teachers teach and students learn. Not only hyped in the media and by word-of-mouth, these innovations spread across thousands of schools in the U.S. as their brand became known. Each was the reform du jour.

Such stories are a reminder of the ever-changing topography of U.S. schooling. Historians are like geologists who inspect strata of rock formations for what flora and fauna existed in earlier times and what accounts for their appearance and seeming disappearance.

The first of these I examine is “The Open Classroom” that mushroomed in schools and districts in the late-1960s through most the 1970s. To describe the innovation, I ask some of the questions that Jane David and I used when we wrote Cutting through the Hype (2010) and added a few that answer: “Whatever happened to ….”

If some readers are curious about particular reforms they experienced and now seem to have disappeared, please send me your thoughts.


The “open classroom,” an innovation that swept over U.S. schools between the late 1960s and early 1970s (see here and here), caused a few waves only to disappear from schools by the end of the decade with nary a ripple since. But appearances can be deceiving.

Where Did the Idea Originate?

U.S. Educators who visited British schools in the late-1960s spread the gospel of “open classrooms” in the Plowden Report (also called “open education” and “informal education”). Policymakers, academics, practitioners, and student-centered reformers watched teachers teach and listened to headmasters about the child-centeredclassroom that echoed in the ears of U.S.visitors as Deweyan progressivism clothed in 1960s apparel. Americans returned to their classrooms, schools, and districts filled with the optimism that accompanies true believers and began instituting open classrooms in big city and suburban districts (see here).

What is it?

Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs, cushions, and chairs moved from one attractive “learning center” for math to others in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools (see here).

In both Britain and the United States, open classrooms contained no whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum. The best of the open classrooms had planned settings where children came in contact with things, books, and one another at “interest centers” and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher. Teachers structured the classroom and activities for individual students and small work groups. They helped students negotiate each of the reading, math, science, art, and other interest centers on the principle that children learn best when they are interested and see the importance of what they are doing.

Consider the scene from a 3rd-grade open classroom in a New York City elementary school described by two proponents, Walter and Miriam Schneir, in a 1971 New York Times Magazine article:

What is most striking is that there are no desks for pupils or teachers. Instead, the room is arranged as a workshop.

Carelessly draped over the seat, arm, and back of a big old easy chair are three children, each reading to himself. Several other children nearby sprawl comfortably on a covered mattress on the floor, rehearsing a song they have written and copied into a song folio.

One grouping of tables is a science area with . . . magnets, mirrors, a prism, magnifying glasses, a microscope. . . . Several other tables placed together and surrounded by chairs hold a great variety of math materials such as “geo blocks,” combination locks, and Cuisenaire rods, rulers, and graph paper. . . . The teacher sits down at a small round table for a few minutes with two boys, and they work together on vocabulary with word cards. . . . Children move in and out of the classroom constantly.

What Problem Did Open Classrooms Intend to Solve?

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of traditional teaching through lectures, textbooks, and tests. Such teaching turned off students to authentic learning and could be transformed through “open classrooms” where student passions, interests, and curiosity could unfold through projects, learning centers, integration of different subjects, and multi-age groupings.

Richly amplified by the media, “open education” in its focus on students learning by doing resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms as just the right kind of solution to what ailed traditional public school teaching and learning.

Did Open Classrooms Work?

Depends on how one defines “work.” If the common measure of “work” is increased test scores on standardized tests, then the answer is somewhere between “maybe” and “no.” After all, the progressive/constructivist approach to teaching and learning, classroom organization, and student participation sought to increase student outcomes such as independent thinking, problem-solving, increased creativity, and others that few available tests then (and now) measured. Researchers and teachers who believed in the principles of informal education and adopted the innovation, adapting its organization and techniques to the students in their classrooms, more often than not, concluded that Open Classrooms worked (see here and here)

What Happened To Open Classrooms?

“Open classrooms” peaked in the mid-1970s and within a few years the innovation moved from the center of the public radar screen to a mere blip on the edge. There were both external and internal reasons for the shrinking of “open classrooms.”

Public concerns over a lagging economy, rising unemployment, and the Vietnam War grew into a perception, again amplified by the media, that academic standards had slipped, desegregating schools had failed, and urban schools had become violent places. School critics’ loud voices and rising public concern over these messy problems melded into “back-to-basics” policies that toughened the curriculum, increased the teacher’s authority, and required more work of students.

Turning to the schools that implemented “open classrooms,” because there were different definitions of what exactly an “open classroom” was and how it worked, teachers varied in which parts of the innovation (e.g., learning centers, schedule, student choices) they would adopt and adapt. Thus, putting the innovation into practice differed from classroom to classroom in a school, from school to school, and from district to district.

Then there was the increased workload of teachers to find materials, integrate different academic subjects into units, reorganize their classrooms, and shift in their beliefs about how best students learn. Much was expected of the teacher.

Consider also the students. Increased student choice depended a great deal upon their motivation, interests, and aptitudes. Most students relished the increased role that they played in their learning but there were (and are) many students who needed prodding and would avoid choices that gave them more work to do.

Both internal and external reasons combined to remove the “open classroom” innovation from public attention and practitioner interest.*

So were “open classrooms” just another fad? Yes and no. The yes part of the answer is that “open classrooms” as the educational version of long tail fins on cars and short skirts had, indeed, soared and faded from the public scene. But to call it a fad would miss the deeper meaning of “open classrooms” as another skirmish in the ideological wars that have split educational progressives from conservatives since the first tax-supported schools opened their doors in the early 1800s.

Now, amid standards-based curriculum and test-based accountability where test scores, and dominates talk about schools, many teachers, particularly in the primary grades, continue learning centers and similar activities. “Open education” is still present in schools founded over 30 years ago such as the Los Angeles Open Charter SchoolRoots Elementary School in Denver, and many others. Teachers and principals still work quietly but keep their heads low to avoid in-coming shells of criticism. Most high school teachers continue to use teacher-centered practices leavened slightly by informal practices that have crept into their repertoires. The “open classroom,” then, was not a hula-hoop fad but another skirmish in the nearly two-century long ideological war in the U.S. over how best to make children into good adults and a better society.

So the “open classroom” has clearly disappeared from the vocabulary of educators but readers should expect another variation of “open education” to re-appear in the years ahead. As I read and listen to the rhetoric of “personalized learning” initiatives, the high-tech approach to student engagement and participation suggests a re-appearance. So deep-rooted traditional and progressive ideas about classroom teaching and learning and the best knowledge to instill in the next generation still (and will continue to) abide among taxpayers, voters, teachers, and parents.


*I thank Mike and Garth for their comments about the many and strong demands of “open classrooms” on both teachers and students.




Filed under how teachers teach

Distractions That Interrupt Learning (Tony Riehl)

Part of the core of teaching a lesson beyond sequencing whole group, small group, and independent activities, figuring out use of instructional materials, and timing each segment of the lesson is to reduce distractions. With hand-held devices ubiquitous among students, distractions multiply. What do teachers do to manage digital distractions?

Veteran math teacher Tony Riehl wrote a post on this subject. It appeared May 22, 2017 . He has taught high school math courses in Montana for 35 years. I added blogger Dan Meyer’s comments on Riehl’s post.

I learned early on with cell phones, that when you ask a student to hand you their phone, it very often becomes confrontational. A cell phone is a very personal item for some people.

To avoid the confrontation I created a “distraction box” and lumped cell phones in with the many other distraction that students bring to class. These items have changed over time, but include “fast food” toys, bouncy balls, Rubics cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot item now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.


A distraction could be a distraction to the individual student, the other students or even a distraction to me. On the first day of the year I explain to my students that if I make eye contact with them and point to the distraction box, they have a choice to make. If they smile and put the item in the box, they can take the item out of the box on the way out of the room. If they throw a fit and put the distraction in the box, they can have it back at the end of the day. If they refuse to put the distraction in the box, they go to the office with the distraction.

On the first day of the year we even practice smiling while we put an item in the box. The interaction is always kept very light and the students really are cooperative. It has been a few years since an interaction actually became confrontational, because I am not asking them to put the item in my hand. I even have students sometimes put their cell phone in the box on the way in the door because they know they are going to have trouble staying focused.

This distraction box concept really has changed the atmosphere of my room. Students understand what a distraction is and why we need to limit distractions. We even joke sometimes because the box isn’t big enough to put “Billie” in the box.


This Is My Favorite Cell Phone Policy

By Dan Meyer • May 24, 2017 • 26 Comments

Schools around the world are struggling to integrate modern technology like cell phones into existing instructional routines. Their stances towards that technology range from total proscription – no cell phones allowed from first bell to last – to unlimited usage. Both of those policies seem misguided to me for the same reason: they don’t offer students help, coaching, or feedback in the complex skills of focus and self-regulation.

Enter Tony Riehl’s cell phone policy, which I love for many reasons, not least of which because it isn’t exclusively a cell phone policy. It’s a distractions policy.

What Tony’s “distraction box” does very well:

  • It makes the positive statement that “we’re in class to work with as few distractions as possible.” It isn’t a negative statement about any particular distraction. Great mission statement.
  • Specifically, it doesn’t single out cell phones. The reality is that cell phones are only one kind of technology students will bring to school, and digital technology is only one distractor out of many. Tony notes that “these items have changed over time, but include fast food toys, bouncy balls, Rubik’s cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot items now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.”
  • It acknowledges differences between students. What distracts you might not distract me. My cell phone distracts my learning so it goes in the box. Your cell phone helps you learn so it stays on your desk.
  • It builds rather than erodes the relationship between teachers and students. Cell phone policies often encourage teachers to become detectives and students to learn to evade them. None of this does any good for the working relationship between teachers and students. Meanwhile, Tony describes a policy that has “changed the atmosphere of my room,” a policy in which students and teachers are mutually respected and mutually invested.

This is a different approach. The cell phones are in jail. But I admire the incentive for parking your phone.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

The Dilemma of Entrepreneurial Teachers with Brand Names

Read the page one story in New York Times on North Dakota elementary school third grade teacher, Kayla Delzer, who according to the reporter is one of the “tech-savviest teachers in the United States.”


Reporter Natasha Singer says:

Her third graders adore her. She teaches them to post daily on the class Twitter and Instagram accounts she set up. She remodeled her classroom based on Starbucks. And she uses apps like Seesaw, a student portfolio platform where teachers and parents may view and comment on a child’s schoolwork.

Ms. Delzer also has a second calling. She is a schoolteacher with her own brand, Top Dog Teaching. Education start-ups like Seesaw give her their premium classroom technology as well as swag like T-shirts or freebies for the teachers who attend her workshops. She agrees to use their products in her classroom and give the companies feedback. And she recommends their wares to thousands of teachers who follow her on social media.

“I will embed it in my brand every day,” Ms. Delzer said of Seesaw. “I get to make it better.”

The journalist goes on to point out conflicts of interests and ethical confusion when entrepreneurial teachers such as Delzer working in resource-poor community institutions–where many teachers across the nation have to get supplies and classroom staples by opening their wallets or begging from donors (or both)–have ties to high-tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (GAFAM).

After reading the article, I asked myself: what larger issues does the story of Kayla Delzer illustrate?

To reporter Singer, Delzer is an instance of the blurred boundaries tech gurus like this teacher faces in helping students, other teachers, and districts to integrate software and hardware in creative ways and at the same time, earn extra money.

Private gain (e.g., GAFAM seeking  future customer base; teachers earning dollars beyond their salary) vs. public good (e.g., teachers as civil servants paid from the community purse to prepare students for citizenship, college, and career). That is the value conflict that the Times reporter hits.

The story of Kayla Delzer surely shows a gifted teacher entering the swamp of conflicts-of-interest as private corporations generously give of their largess to schools while ensnaring hungry, resource-poor teachers with freebies and name-brand products. Important and accurate as these ethical quandaries are, however, there are larger issues that the story of Kayla Delzer typifies.

First, there is the growth of a tiny subset of teachers– recall that there are over three million teachers across 13,000-plus districts in the U.S.–who are entrepreneurial and achieve brand-name status sufficient to be labeled “rock stars” among educators.

Second, GAFAM is just a recent incarnation of a historic tension between private gain and public good in U.S. public schools.

Entrepreneurial teachers

If I define an entrepreneur as someone initiating activities and taking risks to improve what they do (organizing, managing, and teaching a class), there have always been entrepreneurial teachers in U.S. classrooms.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, enterprising teachers found resources, scrounged materials, and took risks in using new techniques and products on their own time and on their own dime so that their students could learn in innovative ways.

From Jesse Stuart in rural Kentucky in the 1920s and 1930s to fifth grade New York City teacher, Gloria Channon, who started an open classroom in the 1960s in a heavily bureaucratized system to Kayla Delzer in 2017, these teachers took initiatives and risks as they tried out new ways of organizing their classroom and teaching in different ways. Every school faculty then and now could point to at least one teacher in the school who was a master at gathering instructional and non-teaching items for the classroom, trying out new ideas with students, and risking both money and reputation to do things better.

Now with the Internet and social media, there is far more evidence of entrepreneurial teachers documented in blogs, Facebook postings, and start-up businesses. From Teachers Pay Teachers to Google Certified Innovators , the notion of teachers being entrepreneurial in a market-driven economy where Silicon Valleys across the U.S. (Northern California, Austin, New York City, Boston) spread a culture of  hustle, workaholism, and money should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, the Kayla Delzers among millions of teachers are the one percenters who wrestle with the dilemma of serving children and becoming a money-making brand name.

Public Good vs. Private Gain: The Dilemma

Business dealings with public school work have been entwined for well over a century. After all, without businesses voting for tax levies, local chambers of commerce endorsing district budgets, and schools outsourcing key functions to the private sector,  tax-supported public schools would be in serious trouble. Both business and schools are joined at the hip.

Yet commercialization of instructional materials, seeing students as future customers, ads on buses and in sports stadia have been around for decades (anyone remember Channel One?). And criticism of too much commercialization (see here and here) has appeared often. Tensions have ebbed and flowed over the years at too much business involvement in steering the curriculum to satisfy employers, district board favoritism toward particular companies, and similar complaints (see here and here).

The history of U.S. public schools documents, then, the close relationship between for-profit enterprise seeking private gain and the public goods that  tax-supported schools and their trustees seek for children and youth compelled to attend school.

The story of Kayla Delzer displays these larger issues and the choices that she and other entrepreneurial teachers face in deciding whether public interest trumps private gain.






Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Teachers Designing Reforms That Stick: The Interactive Student Notebook (Part 2)

Some school reforms are like shooting stars–a flash, a fiery tail, and they are gone. Some school reforms are like a slow-setting glue, once in place they are hard to dislodge. Interactive student notebooks typify the unglamorous glue, not the glittering but fleeting star.

Part 1 defined an interactive student notebook and described its origins in high school social studies classrooms. Part 2 describes the spread of ISNs across grade levels and academic subjects, explores the influence of ISNs on student achievement, and elaborates why teacher-designed classroom innovations often spread and stick in teacher repertoires than top-down mandates directing how teachers should teach.

Remarkable spread of ISNs across academic subjects and grade levels

Fifteen years after History Alive had been published, ISNs had spread to English, science, math, and foreign language teachers. And they tailored  ISNs to their discipline. Some of these teachers wrote articles, others did blog posts about how they used the approach in their lessons (see here, here, here, and here). Teachers also bought commercial versions of ISNs through the Internet.


The convergence of scholarly ideas (e.g. multiple intelligences, right/left brain) with many existing teacher beliefs on cultivating students’ creativity and thinking skills combined to give teachers at all levels the sense that ISNs are imminently practical and can be added to their teaching repertoire. Moreover,the technique was easily adapted to both subject and student’s age. Finally, ISNs were low-tech and portable to other subjects. The ease of fit for all academic subjects accounts for these notebooks migrating to middle and elementary school teachers where, again, teachers modified the technique to fit young children and pre-teens (see here and here).

The portability of ISNs being used across academic subjects and for different aged students is evident. Much less evident, however, is its iffy influence on student’s measured achievement.

Do ISNs improve academic achievement?

No one knows if they do. Like digital technologies, researchers have separated out one technique–laptops or ISNs–from a bundle of  approaches that a teacher uses over the course of a lesson. But then researchers attributing gains or losses in students’ academic achievement to that specific technique be it use of tablets or interactive notebooks is a fool’s errand. Why is that so?

The causal linkages between teaching and student learning include a host of factors including teacher attributes, relationships between and among students and the teacher, students’ motivations, abilities, and interests, the instructional materials used, the structure of lessons, school organization–I could go on but these will do for now–make it nearly impossible to disentangle one of these factors and suggest that it causes achievement to rise or fall. Student outcomes derive from multiple interacting factors, not just one or two. The whole of teaching is far more than its individual parts.

Yes, researchers can show correlations between, say, use of tablets and test scores, but, of course, an association is merely an association. After all, roosters crow at sunrise; they do not cause the sun to rise. So while a few studies have been done (e.g., masters and doctoral theses) to make a causal linkage between ISNs and student outcomes, they suffer from the weaknesses noted above (see here, here, here, and here)

Even with little to no evidence that ISNs improve students’ academic achievement, why have ISNs not only spread to a remarkable degree in less than two decades but also appear to have become a permanent part of the repertoires of tens of thousands of teachers?

Over time, teacher-designed classroom reforms stick

In Part 1, I made three statements and answered the initial two.

  • The history of U.S. teaching documents that teachers have altered their daily practices often (see Part 1 for evidence and sources for the history of teachers making changes in how they have taught over the past century)
  • Most teachers have added to their repertoire of classroom approaches a little at a time based upon their daily experiences in teaching and what they learn from trusted colleagues (see Part 1 for how teacher Lee Swenson’s version of an ISN became embedded in a history textbook in the late-1990s that sold well in many districts and schools across the nation and migrated into other academic subjects and grade levels as teacher networks and writings spread the word to other teachers)
  • Reforms aimed at teachers’ lessons that have the most sticking power are neither top-down policy mandates nor research studies but ideas that teachers design, borrow, adapt, and put into practice.


ISNs are not the only teacher-designed techniques that have had a long life. In the 1920s and 1930s in Denver (CO), between 30-40 percent of all Denver teachers were involved in revising the curriculum for all levels of schooling. Under three long-tenured superintendents who believed in the tenets of progressive pedagogy they set up an infrastructure for teachers to actually create units and courses for Denver teachers to use in their classrooms. These committees of teachers, curriculum supervisors, and academics created a district wide- curriculum that became the Denver elementary and secondary curriculum for over two decades (see here, chapter 3).

Consider that teachers have not only embraced selected research studies that have practical effects on their students (e.g., Bloom’s taxonomy, multiple intelligences, direct instruction, and use of projects in classroom instruction) but also adapted such ideas to the content and skills they teach regularly (see here ). Borrowing and adapting are second nature to teachers.

Finally, ISNs are practical for those teachers whose dominant instructional approach is teacher-centered. Organizing information in thoughtful and creative ways is what students have to do when teachers teach lessons aligned to the Common Core standards (or any curriculum standards), use digital or print textbooks assign homework, give tests, and record grades. Low-tech ISNs permit students to use imagination to grasp the deeper meaning of the information and concepts they are learning within teacher-centered lessons.*

For all of these reasons, I believe that teacher-designed materials and those borrowed by teachers to used in their lessons stick and become part of teachers’ repertoires.


*Mike Goldstein in commenting on Part 1 suggested that Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (2010) is another instance of a bottom up reform. Lemov, a charter school founder, teacher, and principal, studied exemplars of “effective” teaching and wrote his book. Surely, the popularity of the practical book among tens of thousands of new and veteran teachers (including teacher educators) both in the U.S. and internationally has soared. Documenting widespread use of some or all of those 49 techniques (or 62 in Teach Like a Champion, 2.0) in actual classrooms, however, has yet to occur. Keep in mind also that Lemov’s books reinforce teacher-directed instruction, one factor that attracts many teachers who read the book.








Filed under how teachers teach