Category Archives: school reform policies

One Way or Two-Way Traffic? The Policy to Practice Street

The past half-century has seen record-breaking attempts by policymakers to influence how teachers teach. Record-breaking in the sense that again and again (add one more “again” if you wish) federal and state policymakers and aggressive philanthropists have pushed higher curriculum standards in math, science, social studies, and reading decade after decade. With federal legislation of No Child Left Behind (2002-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2015-) teaching has been influenced, even homogenized (following scripts, test prep, etc.) in those schools threatened by closure or restructuring.  Now with Common Core standards, the push to standardize math and language arts instruction in K-12 (e.g., close reading for first graders) repeats earlier efforts to reshape classroom lessons. If past efforts are any indicator, then these efforts to homogenize teaching lead paradoxically, to more, not less, variability in lessons. But this increased variation in teaching seldom alerts policymakers and donors in their offices and suites to reassess the policies  they adopt.

The take-aways from this post are first, policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons, and, second, teachers are policymakers.

Policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons

Consider math standards. An unusual research project in the early 1990s examined California’s major policy effort–a new math curriculum framework– to lift the low floor in both math content and instruction in 1,000 school districts. Policymakers wanted to rid the state of teaching math mechanically and instead have students grasp a deeper understanding of math concepts.  The ambitious policy gave detailed instructional guidance to teachers and new  textbooks and materials aligned to the framework to hundreds of thousands of California teachers. The policy aim was to improve the teaching of math in the state by standardizing new content and ways of teaching students concepts and algorithms through use of manipulatives and other materials.

David K. Cohen and Deborah Ball  led a team of researchers who observed math lessons and interviewed teachers. The research uncovered enormous variation among teachers in putting the math framework into everyday classroom practice.

Extensive variation after a policy demanding standardization? Cohen and Ball explain why his teams observed such different lessons within a policy that tried to homogenize math teaching.

Any teacher, in any system of schooling, interprets and enacts new instructional policies in light of his or her own experience, beliefs, and knowledge. Hence to argue that government policy is the only operating force is to portray teachers as utterly passive agents without agency. That is unsupported by our investigations. Even the most obedient and traditional teachers whom we observed not only saw and enacted higher level policies in their own way, but were aware and proud of their independent contributions.

Cohen described a fourth grade teacher’s lessons over an extended period of time. Entitled “A Revolution in One Teacher’s Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” the word, the case study limns a veteran teacher incorporating selected elements of the new policy into her traditional ways of teaching from the math content to the use of small groups and manipulatives. “Revolution” in the title is tinged with irony.

Thus, what Cohen and Ball underscore is the discretion, the autonomy that teachers have to adapt whatever new policy comes from the state or district office to the constraints within which they teach students.

The same pattern of policy aimed at standardizing practice in special education classrooms in the 1980s had teachers adapting lessons to the students they had, the contexts in which they were teaching thus producing much variation in lessons. Called “street-level bureaucrats,” teachers, social workers, police officers have an inherent discretion in dealing with clients, students, and citizens which they use daily leading to constant adapting of policy mandates. Professionals using discretion means they end up fitting the policy to the setting and the people.

Teachers are not passive recipients of policy but active participants in the policy-to-practice journey.

Teachers are policymakers

As gatekeepers to their classrooms, teachers are de facto policymakers. They decide what content to teach and what practices to use in teaching daily lessons. Yet top federal, state, and local decision-makers prize the policy formation and adoption stages as the be-all and end-all of getting teachers to change their classroom practices. The final stage of implementation is rhetorically important but top decision-makers too often move to the wings and do little to build teachers’ knowledge and skills to put new policies into practice. That is a serious mistake because teacher expertise and judgment are crucial ingredients to student learning. Building and cultivating both among teachers charged to put policies into practice is essential yet are either overlooked,  purposely ignored, or under-funded.

As policy gatekeepers, however, teachers are seldom included in the loop when new policies are formed and then adopted. Only when policymakers see the critical importance of the implementation stage do they bring teachers in—often too late because teacher ideas and perspectives have been excluded from the first stage of policy formation. It is the same error that high-tech entrepreneurs eager to improve schooling and teaching make when they create devices and software for teachers and students to use, get administrators’ approval to pilot the hardware and software without a nod to teachers ideas and the realities they face. After all, the real customers, the users, are teachers, not administrators. Like CEOs of tech companies, policymakers engage in beta testing with reforms in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. And teachers then get blamed when policies flop.

The policy-to-practice path continues to be a one-way street. Yet evidence of variation in teacher lessons has been constant in the past and continues now showing again and again that teachers act as policymakers. That path should be a two-way thoroughfare.

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Bread Crumbs and School Reform

In  the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, the Grimm brothers’ version had the children taken into the forest by their step-mother during a famine to rid the starving family of two mouths to feed. Attracted to a sweet-smelling gingerbread cottage, Hansel and Gretel find a hungry evil Witch who puts the two in cages to fatten them up for a meal. But the quick-witted boy and girl get out of the cages and toss the witch into a boiling pot of water, take the gold that she had collected from other travelers and escape. They follow a trail of bread crumbs they had strewn in the forest earlier to find their way home. They discover that their step-mother had died and the family, now wealthy, is re-united and live happily ever after.

OK, Larry, I get the fairy tale but what’s the connection to school reform? The bread crumbs. Yes, it is a stretch but stick with me.

The bread crumbs were markers guiding the lost boy and girl out of the forest. There are large historical markers along the often trod trail of school improvement that the current generation of wannabe reformers, should they be as wise as Hansel and Gretel, might heed and avoid repeating the errors of earlier generations. Except this time instead of minute bread crumbs, let’s talk about large croutons that even myopic reformers could see on the zig-zag path to improving teaching, learning, and student performance in tax-supported public schools.

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Crouton markers for changing how teachers teach daily lessons

Time and again, policymakers, civic and business leaders have glommed onto a better way for teachers to teach reading, math, history, science, and foreign language. From phonics to integrated math to new science standards, instructionally-driven reformers have mandated teachers (if not ordered to teach new curricula then strongly urged) to alter traditional ways of teaching these subjects and adopt the innovative (and better) way.  In most cases, teachers adapted the innovation to fit the familiar ways they had taught to the students they had in front of them.

The repeated mistake these reformers made was to conceptualize, adopt, and require changes without involving teachers in the decision. Rather than directly involving teachers in the decisions to adopt curricular and instructional innovations (beyond a token representation)—think the New Math, interactive whiteboards, “personalized learning”– they made top-down decisions. In the name of speed and efficiency, they said.

Slower and more efficient over time would have been directly involving teachers in the decision process and increasing their expertise and building capacities to teach in different ways. State and local school decision-makers think (and thought) that public schools are (and were) command-and-control organizations. Adopt policies that tell teachers what to do and they will do it. Didn’t happen. The more top-down decision-making for teacher lessons, the more variation.

Crouton markers for changing  school organization

The historic lure of altering how schools are organized in order to improve how teachers teach and what students learn has driven policymakers, administrators, and political leaders to adopt such reforms as the elementary school comprised of eight grades in the mid-19th century to the junior high school and comprehensive high school in the 1920s and 1930s to the middle school in the 1960s and small high schools in the 1990s.  Looking across the nation’s 13,000-plus school districts, periodic efforts to reorganize schools from K-5 to K-8 elementary school from grades 7-9 junior high schools to 6th to 8th grade middle schools and four year high schools to six year secondary schools occurred time and again. The idea that reorganizing the grades of the age-graded high school would lead to better teacher and student performance has been a fool’s errand that reformers have pursued over and over (see here and here)

Crouton markers for governing tax-supported public schools

Past and present reformers among educators, civic, and business leaders have argued again and again if only schools were governed differently, teachers would teach well and students would learn more, faster, and better. So there have been continual struggles over whether local school boards–those 13,000-plus districts–should be elected or appointed (or done away with completely). Super-heated rhetoric about improved school board governance (or abolition thereof) leading to leaner, more efficient ways of schooling children and youth has no basis in factual evidence yet persists in 2019 (see here and here).

Getting rid of school boards, mostly in cities, and replacing them with mayoral control has grabbed policymakers’ attention since the 1990s. Big cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Chicago  made their public schools another department of the mayor’s cabinet.  Since adoption, increased efficiencies in teaching, learning, and improved student performance has continued to dance just beyond reformers’ outstretched hands (see here; one study , however, does show positive effects but a review of the study questions its findings).

For Hansel and Gretel, there was a happy ending to the fairy tale. The children were reunited with their father–the stepmother had departed. But school reform is not a fairy tale. There are real consequences for children, teachers, parents and communities when reformers chase the next new curriculum, instructional innovation, reorganization, and nifty governance scheme. There are large historical markers, not bread crumbs, but croutons, that can guide reformers along a path that is slower but truer should they be wise enough to heed.

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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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A Gift That Never Stops Giving–Being a Teacher*

I wrote this post five years ago and re-post it now as both children and youth get prepared for the next school year. And teachers –both rookies and veterans–gear up for 2019-2020.

A dear friend and I exchanged emails recently and she mentioned that she had heard from a student she had in 1960. She had taught in the New York area for a number of years before returning to graduate school but recalled with much warmth how fine a group of sixth graders she had that particular year. The then 11 year-old, now a grandma, had stayed in touch with my friend over the years. She had become a teacher and had just retired and was now writing about the adult lives of classmates.

I began thinking of the often unspoken psychic rewards that accrue (in business terms, I would call it: the return on investment) to experienced teachers who have had many groups of students pass through their classroom over the years and how some of those students (such as Steven Strogatz) make a point of visiting, writing, and staying in touch with their former teachers. Fortunately, that has happened to me when a few former students at Glenville High School in Cleveland and from Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. have stayed in touch. Ditto from some former Stanford graduates. When letters or pop- in visits occur, I get such a rush of memories of the particular student and the class and the mixed emotions that accompany the memories. Teaching is, indeed, the gift that never stops giving.

Those former students who stay in touch over the years, I have found, attribute far too much to my teaching and semester- or year-long relationship with them. Often I am stunned by their recollections of what I said and did. In most cases, I cannot remember the incidents that remain so fresh in their memories. Nor had I tried to predict which of the few thousand high school students I have taught would have reached out to contact me, I would have been wrong 75 percent of the time. My flawed memories and pitiful predictive power, however, cannot diminish the strong satisfaction I feel from seeing and hearing classroom tales from former students.

However policymakers and researchers define success in teaching or produce pay-for-performance plans the hard-to-measure influence of teachers upon students turns up time and again in those graduates who reach out to their former teachers. Those graduates seek out their former teachers because of how they were pushed and prodded, how intellectual doors were opened, how a ready ear and kind words made possible a crucial next step for that young man or woman. Student test scores fail to capture the bonds that grow between experienced teachers and children and youth who look for adults to admire, adults who live full, honest, and engaged lives. Am I waxing romantic about the currently unmeasurable results of teaching and the critical importance of retaining experienced teachers? No, I am not. I have a point to make.

My friend’s story of her former 11 year-old student still staying in touch because the relationship forged in 1960 between a group of sixth graders and a young teacher has resonated in a handful of graduates’ lives for many years. Something beautiful and long-lasting occurred when those bonds were forged in that Long Island elementary school, something that eludes current reformers eager for getting new teachers into classrooms and not worrying too much if they leave after two years since a new crop of fresh newcomers will replace them.

Turnstile teachers cannot forge those lasting bonds with students. Staying at least five-plus years give teachers the experience and competence to connect with classes and individual students. For those students lucky to have experienced teachers who had their older brothers and sisters, whose classrooms they want to eat their lunches in, whose reputations for being tough, demanding, caring, and a dozen other admirable traits draw children like magnets to their classrooms, the impressions and memories of these teachers will serve as guideposts for the rest of their lives. These are the teachers, district, state, and federal policymakers need to retain through mindful policies that encourage, not discourage teachers–policies that spur teacher growth in what and how they teach, foster collaboration among teachers, and motivate teachers to stay at least five-plus years in classrooms.

Were such thoughtful policies to be adopted, the chances of alumni students returning to tell their teachers how much they appreciated their help would increase and not become just a fleeting memory of some former teachers like me and my friend.

________________________________________________

*I thank Selma Wassermann for converting the commercial one-liner for a credit card company into an ad for teaching

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How Do Teachers Teach–Then and Now

Most policymakers, researchers, and parents believe that good teachers and teaching are the keys to school improvement yet these very same folks know little about how teachers teach daily. And that is the rub. Good teachers and teaching are the agreed-upon policy solutions to both high- and low-performing students yet reliable knowledge of how most teachers teach and what are the best ways of teaching in either affluent or low-income, minority schools are absent among policymakers, researchers, and parents.

How do most teachers teach?

The short answer is that teachers draw from two traditions of teaching.

From the early 19th century, teacher-centered and student-centered traditions have dominated classroom instruction. The teacher-centered tradition refers to teachers controlling what is taught, when, and under what conditions. Were you to sit for a few minutes in such a classroom you would note that the furniture is usually arranged in rows of desks or chairs facing the front whiteboard, teachers talk far more than students, the entire class is most often taught as one group with occasional small groups and independent work, and students regularly use texts to guide their daily work. Scholars have traced the origins of this pedagogical tradition to the ancient Greeks and religious schools centuries ago and have called it by various names: “subject-centered,” “teaching as transmission,” and “direct instruction.”

The student-centered tradition of instruction refers to classrooms where students exercise a substantial degree of responsibility for what is taught and how it is learned. Teachers see children as more than brains; they bring to school an array of physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual needs plus experiences that require both nurturing and prodding. Were you to sit for a while in such a classroom you would see that the furniture is arranged and rearranged frequently to permit students to work independently or together in large and small groups. Student talk is at least equal to, if not greater than, teacher talk. Varied materials (e.g., science and art centers, math manipulatives) are spread around the room. Guided by teachers, students learn content and skills through different tasks such as going to activity centers in the room, joining a team to produce a project, and working independently. Scholars have tracked this tradition to its historical roots in ancient Greece and labeled it over the centuries as “child-centered,” “progressive,” and “constructivist.”

Champions of each tradition believe that all students, regardless of background, grasp subject matter, acquire skills, cultivate attitudes, and develop behaviors best through its practices. Yet the accumulated evidence of actual classroom practices producing desired student outcomes for each tradition has been both mixed and unconvincing. And for good reason. Most observers confuse “good” teaching with “successful” teaching. Moreover, researchers have yet to link ways of teaching to student test performance because so many variables influence achievement such as family background, teacher experience, peers, school safety, and dozens of other factors including, yes, pedagogy.

Lacking evidence to support one form of teaching over another, faith–not facts–has driven proponents of each tradition. Fierce rhetorical struggles over which ways of teaching and learning are best for all or some students—often mirroring larger conservative vs. liberal ideological battles over religion in schools, ending poverty, child-rearing practices, and song lyrics–have ebbed and flowed.

Since the early 20th century, these so-called “culture wars” spilled over newspapers, books, educational conferences, and scholarly journals. More recently, outbreaks of these media-amplified fistfights—again reflecting the ideological divide between political conservatives and liberals have engaged federal, state, and local officials in arguments on over how best to teach reading, math, science, and history. In 2003, for example, New York City Chancellor of schools Joel Klein mandated “Balanced Literacy”—a progressive whole language approach–as the preferred way of teaching children to read in nearly 750 elementary schools rather than a phonics-based approach.

And in the “math wars” between progressives and conservatives, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) issued a report in 2006 urging that math teaching in elementary and middle school concentrate on knowing multiplication tables, how to do division and manage decimals. Yet their 1989 report called for engaging students in learning concepts and applying them to real world situations rather than memorizing rules for adding, subtracting, and dividing and other familiar ways of grasping mathematics. And that struggle continues into 2020.

These historic traditions of teaching practices, then, are alive and well now. Yet these media-hyped “wars” between progressive and traditional ways of teaching have obscured the mixing of traditions. For instance, in the past quarter-century, state standards in math in California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Georgia include both traditional and progressive language to describe teaching. Current math textbooks (e.g., University of Chicago School Mathematics Project) blend traditional practices (e.g., whole class drill on math facts) with progressive ones (e.g., connections between math and science, students working in small groups, writing in journals). Ditto for reading and, yes, the use of technology in classroom lessons. Note well the progressive language surrounding “personalized learning.”

My research into teaching over the past century and particularly in classrooms over the past decade that I have directly observed, most teachers have, indeed, blended both traditions of teaching.

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World Studies: Technology Integration at Mountain View High School

Three years ago on the recommendation of district coordinators of technology, I observed classrooms of teachers in Silicon Valley districts. I described what I saw without making any evaluative comments on the teachers or lessons they taught. Here is one example of a social studies teacher who had integrated the classroom use of technology so that it was in the background, not the foreground.

Carson Rietveld has been teaching for four years at Mountain View High School.*  The class is furnished with four rows of desks facing the front whiteboard; the teacher’s desk is in the far corner. Music is playing as students enter the room.  Student work, historical posters, and sayings dot the walls above the white boards (e.g., “I want to live in a society where people are judged by what they do for others).

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Rietveld, wearing a long flowered dress that reaches her ankles, welcomes the 14- and 15 year old students by name as they come in. Students put their backpacks on the floor near a side whiteboard and bring their tablet or laptop to their desk. The high school policy is Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD).**  I ask a student why do all backpacks go on the floor and he tells me that students rooting through their backpacks during a lesson distracts both the student and teacher from what is being taught. Thus, the rule.

The 27 students sit at their desks, take out their devices, surf the Internet, and talk to one another. Bell rings to begin class. Music stops. School announcements come on the public address box in the room. Many students listen and some whisper to one another or continue looking at their device. After announcements end, Rietveld directs students’ attention to front whiteboard with a slide showing the agenda for “Happy Friday Fresh Friends.”

*Mindfulness exercise
*Partner presentation practice
*Roman Republic presentation
*Whole class discussion
EQ: what makes a good presentation?
EQ: how much influence did the average citizen

(EQ refers to Essential Question. See here)

Teacher goes over the agenda and asks students to close lids of  their computers.  They do. The first agenda item is a mindfulness exercise. A video comes on with a soft, soothing voice asking everyone to “ground themselves in the now.”  The voice asks viewers to close their eyes—I look around the room and all students’ eyes are closed—and the soothing voice asks viewers to concentrate on relaxing their toes, ankles, legs then “shifting awareness” up through the entire torso to their head. Teacher participates with students.  Rietveld tells me that she now has her students doing up to three minutes of the daily exercise.

Rietveld segues to next activity, listed as “Partner Presentation Practice” which will give students a chance to practice getting at the substance of the lesson, the relationship between the Roman Republic and democracy. Students will be making presentations and the teacher wants students to practice getting at the essential point they wish to make in their presentation and the argument (including evidence) that will support that essential point.

To get students to practice this task, Rietveld asks them to take two minutes to find a photo of the cutest cat or dog they can find on the Internet. Then write a paragraph why their photo is the cutest and afterwards turn to their partner and explain why—what features of the pet make it the cutest, etc.

After a few moments, she says ,“20 seconds left to finish.” Teacher has a stopwatch in her hand and uses it to announce time. Then she says press “submit” wherever you are in the paragraph so I can see what you have written (Rietveld uses Pear Deck and has access to each student’s work).

“Now present the animal to your partner, “ Rietveld says. “Wha t kind of animal did you pick? Why did you pick this animal? Explain why you think it is the cutest.”

After two minutes, teacher asks the listening partner to present their “cutest” pet photo.

I look across the classroom and all pairs and trios appear involved in task.

After time is up, teacher asks each partner to write down “ a thoughtful idea they did well.”

“OK,” Rietveld says, “let’s go over your awesome thoughts—I see partners making eye contact and directing the other person back to photo. Give multiple reasons and focus on different features. Talk slowly.”
She then asks students to open up their computers and write down they could have done better. What mistake did partner make. I see nearly all students clicking away on their devices. But some are talking and seemingly off-task. Teacher says: “OK, guys, self-regulate, self-regulate. Don’t have photo of pet on screen; it will be distracting. Get rid of it,” she says.

After waiting a few minutes, Rietveld segues to next activity of small group work to give practice to students in presenting their answers to the “essential question”: Based on what you have read, “How democratic do you think was the Roman Republic.”

Students have been thinking about this question and have made posters with illustrations and text to state their answer to the question when they present to the entire class.

Rietveld directs students to get into small groups after designating the different roles that students will perform in the group they are in. Teacher points to one side of room and says that these students are “time-keepers”; another side are “facilitators”, in the middle are “resource managers”, and in the rear are “harmonizers”—specific roles that apparently students are familiar with. Then she directs that each member of a group will present their answer to the “essential question: “How democratic do you think was the Roman Republic.”

After presenting in their small group, each student will resume their role as the next student presents answer to question. Students rearrange themselves, move desks and chairs as they settle into their groups to present to one another their answer to the question:

Using the stopwatch, Rietveld announces how much time is left.  After ending  the task, she then asks students to critique presenter, that is, what one thing the presenter did well; what one thing that can be improved. Then she announces that the next student is to present. Students circulate their posters and present for another two minutes.

Looking around the class, I see all small groups engaged in listening to presenter and showing their posters. Teacher walks around listening to each group. One group looked off-task to her so Rietveld goes over and asks presenter—“What is one piece of evidence in your poster about Roman Republic being democratic?”

For the next six minutes presenters in the small groups shift from one student to another with the teacher announcing when the two minutes are up. In each instance, Rietveld asks group to go around their circle and tell the presenter one thing they did well and one thing they can improve upon.

After stop-watch alarm rings, the teacher brings the activity to a close. She asks students to close their computers and segues to the final task of the period, The Four Corners Discussion of a slide flashed onto the whiteboard: “The Roman Republic a True Democracy.”

She tells class that each student should consider whether they strongly agree, somewhat agree, strongly disagree or somewhat disagree with the statement and then “vote with your feet.” After waiting a few moments, Rietveld directs students to go to a corner of the room for strongly agree, another corner for those who strongly disagree, etc.

Teacher looks where students are. Most are either in one of two corners expressing  disagreement or agreement with statement. Rietveld asks entire class, “why there is disagreement among you about statement. Some students in one corner call out and say that not everyone could vote—women and slaves; teacher pushes back and asks for evidence; student give example and teacher probes again. Then another student in an opposite corner gives evidence of democratic practices. Students around her nod their heads.

“Why don’t we totally agree,” teacher asks? A few students say there is evidence on both sides. Another student says that there is a lot of “subjectivity on what is a true democracy,” a peer adds that the conflict is over differing values that students have about democracy and which ones are most important.

Then the bell rings ending the period. Rietveld asks students to return desks to their original position.  They do. She wishes them “a safe weekend.” Students go to pick up their backpacks lying on the floor near the wall and leave the room. World Studies is over for this class.

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* Part of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Mountain View High School has  just over 1800 students (2015) and its demography is mostly students of color (in percentages, Asian 26, Latino 21,  African American 2, multiracial 2, and 47 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 18 percent. Eleven percent of students are learning disabled and just over 10 percent of students are English language learners.

Academically, 94 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 35 Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses across the curriculum. Of those students taking AP courses, 84 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. The school earned the distinction of California Distinguished High School in 1994 and 2003. In 200 and 2013, MVHS received a full 6-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Newsweek ranks MVHS among the top 1% of high schools nationwide. The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). Statistics come from here and mvhs_sarc_15_16

**BYOD began two years ago in the District.

 

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Technology in the Classroom Is Great — When It Works (Benjamin Keep)

 

Keep is a “researcher, learning scientist, and writes about science, learning, and technology at www.benjaminkeep.com”

This appeared July 10, 2019 on T74

 

When it comes to learning technologies, educators and administrators often focus on what technology to use instead of how the technology facilitates learning. This leads to serious costs.

U.S. fourth-graders who report using tablets in all or nearly all of their classes are a full year behind in reading ability compared with peers who report never using tablets in their classes. Internationally, students who report greater use of technology in their classrooms score worse on the PISA exam, the major international student assessment, even when accounting for differences in wealth and prior performance. This is all according to a recent report by the Reboot Foundation.

These findings align with prior research that found essentially the same thing three years ago: High levels of technology use in the classroom tend to correlate with lower student performance.

The question in both of these reports is not whether technology can improve learning outcomes; lots of well-designed experimental research establishes that it can. The question, rather, is whether it is improving learning outcomes. And the answer seems to be: Not really.

Every year, administrators and teachers make major decisions about which new technologies, software platforms and assessment systems should be added to their ed tech arsenal. Companies pitch their products to school representatives at huge conferences. But technology often is misused, underused or even completely unused. One recent study found that over a third of all technology purchases made by middle schools simply weren’t used. And only 5 percent of purchases met their purchaser’s usage goals.

These findings have a common cause. Teachers and administrators don’t use learning technologies (or even think about using learning technologies) in the right way. A lot of conversations focus on what the technology can do or how students could use it, rather than how students typically use the technology or the contexts in which it would be most and least effective. Consider a typical pitch: “With this new virtual reality system, students can inhabit a fully immersive 3D haptic environment.” Nifty. But how does an immersive environment improve learning outcomes?

The answer to this question is telling. If the company’s answer is something like, “Well, students put on the headset like this, and then the teacher pulls up a scenario — we have lots of different ones, then the student has these options…” it’s a bad sign. This kind of answer just describes what the student does with the technology. It doesn’t tell a thing about how a student’s interaction with the technology will improve learning.

So, how should we be evaluating learning technologies? I suggest answering three questions first:

  • Is the technology linked to a specific learning goal?
  • Does the technology follow research-supported understandings of how we learn?
  • When might the technology fail to facilitate learning?

Consider the humble flashcard. Used wisely, decks of flashcards can take advantage of spaced retrieval practice, a remarkably effective way to study. But used poorly — as a way to cram information before a test or to “learn” a set of vocabulary words over the course of a week and never return to them again — flashcards will make students feel as if they’ve learned far more than they have. The result? Little learning and damaged student perceptions about what they know.

Flashcards also have limits: It’s hard to convey complex information with them, for example. In this way, flashcards are like any other technology — there are good ways to use them, bad ways to use them and limits to how they can be used.

Let’s apply these questions to more modern technologies — take, for example, automated essay feedback tools like Revision Assistant. The learning goal seems clear: to help students learn to write better essays. How does it improve learning outcomes? Revision Assistant’s marketing copy says, “Motivate students to improve their writing with instant, differentiated feedback aligned to genre-specific rubrics.” This seems plausible, given the research on skill development: rounds of practice, feedback and self-evaluation are the cornerstone of deliberate practice, a well-established effective way to improve skills. When might it fail? The feedback itself might be bad. Students may over-rely on it. Or teachers might use it as a replacement for, instead of a complement to, their own feedback.

Or take the virtual reality example. Several companies are working on physics simulations in virtual reality. How might this technology help students learn fundamental physics concepts? One reasonable idea would be to let them experience the behavior of objects in different physical environments. Research suggests that contrasting examples can help make later instruction more effective. When might it fail? Lots of scenarios, but here are two: when the VR experience merely replicates an experience the students could have had otherwise, or when the experience comes after a lecture on the material.

Both of these examples reference well-established learning mechanisms and link them to specific learning goals. Of course, it’s still possible that the technology won’t work — bugs in the system, bad user interfaces, lack of integration with existing teaching systems or just plain bad implementation of the underlying idea. But at least there is an underlying idea that makes sense based on what we know about how students learn.

When we prioritize the how over the what, we think about technology more critically. Given that schools under-use their technology purchases and that buying new technology can be costly, why not delay new purchases for a year or two and explore whether existing technology can be put to good use?

Use technology to pursue specific learning goals. Use only technology that is supported by existing learning research. And stop using technology in contexts where it’s not particularly effective. If we do all that, the next report will show high correlations between technology use and student achievement, instead of the opposite.

 

 

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