Category Archives: school reform policies

When Teaching and Parenting Collide: As Schools Shift Online, Many Educators Manage Two Roles (Matt Barnum)

Matt Barnum is a journalist. This article appeared on Chalkbeat, March 31,2020

School buildings are closed, but it’s still been a busy couple of weeks for Noriko Nakada, a Los Angeles middle school teacher.

She’s been attending virtual faculty meetings, receiving district training for remote instruction, and grading student essays online. On Monday, she held a class via Zoom for about 45 minutes, in which she checked in on her students’ mental health and introduced National Poetry Month. About 100 of her 170 students logged in.

Nearby through it all are her own two children, who are out of school as well. Figuring out how to teach online while making sure they’re occupied has been its own challenge.

“At first we tried to make it clear if mom or dad have headphones and are staring at the computer, it means you can’t bug them,” Nakada said. “The 8-year-old can get that, but the 5-year-old has a hard time.”

“Everyone is doing their best, and none of it’s going to be pretty,” she said.

As many schools across the country transition to remote instruction — in the wake of widespread building closures caused by the new coronavirus — Nakada’s experience is the new normal.

A sizable share of America’s teachers have young children. Most teachers are women, who often bear disproportionate caregiving responsibilities for children and other family members. And although many of the country’s large districts say they’re attempting to be flexible with teachers as they move to remote instruction, few if any have policies that explicitly accommodate those juggling work and full-time caregiving.

That’s making for some complicated daily decisions about whose kids are getting attention at a given moment. It’s a challenge that schools will have to continue helping teachers navigate in order to make remote instruction work, especially as it extends for weeks and months.

“The history of teaching, since we’ve feminized the profession, there’s been this emphasis on teachers [as] ultimately altruistic — they love children,” said Judith Kafka, a professor of education policy at Baruch College. “For the vast majority of teachers, that’s true about them. But they’re not usually asked to sacrifice attention to their own children in the process.”

“If you are home alone with your kids, and you’re also trying to meet your students’ needs, something’s got to give,” she said.

About half — 48% — of all public school teachers have children living at home, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero. This includes young children, who need constant supervision, as well as teenagers, who might not.

Among those teachers is Brian Grimes who is now setting up his kids — ages 7, 9, and 13 — to work at the dining room table every morning instead of sending them off to school.

“It’s like the summer, but there’s no fun,” said Grimes, who lives in New Jersey.

Once they’re settled, he starts his own job as a high school history teacher — videotaping lessons, grading assignments, talking to students and their families — a few feet away.

It’s been a dizzying transition. “I put my shirt and tie on and I go to work, it’s ‘teacher Brian,’ and then when I come home, it’s ‘parent Brian,’” he said. “Now everything is merged together.”

Many children, after all, haven’t yet adjusted to the sudden shift. “It’s very difficult,” said Alexis Mann, a Minneapolis teacher. “They don’t understand when mom’s home, that I’m actually working.”

In one respect, though, the fact that teachers are still facing these challenges reflects good news. As millions of workers face layoffs, teachers still have jobs and a steady paycheck.

But the change presents unique challenges for teachers, and few districts appear to have offered specific accommodations for teachers who are also caregivers. “We haven’t seen a lot of policy or explicit guidance on that,” said Sean Gill, a research analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has been compiling large districts’ coronavirus response policies. (Many districts are still developing, or have not fully instituted, a remote instruction plan.)

Gill said that most districts don’t seem to be requiring teachers to conduct live instruction at specific times. Miami-Dade County schools, for instance, says it expects teachers to be available for at least three hours every day to students, but gives teachers the freedom to decide on those hours themselves.

Philadelphia’s guidance to educators says that “daily work schedules should remain largely unchanged” but that “reasonable flexibility shall also be used to accommodate employees’ individual needs.”

Gill suggested that teachers collaborate to ease each other’s burdens — for instance, a teacher available during the day could focus on connecting with students, while another teacher videotapes lessons at night that students could watch on their own.

Grimes said his school district has told teachers to monitor their emails during the day and to grade student work promptly, but generally been flexible. “They understand that we’re dealing with a lot on our own,” he said.

Nakada said her school district, LAUSD, hasn’t communicated explicit policies for caregivers. A spokesperson for the district said that teachers are expected to work during the day and hold office hours at least three times a week at flexible times.

That sort of flexibility is essential, teachers say. Mercedes Liriano, who teaches fifth grade in the Bronx, says her principal expects teachers to attend two staff meetings a week but otherwise has been accommodating.

“He knows that we have family, he knows that we have other requirements that demand our time,” she said.

A spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Education reiterated this. “We understand that teachers and staff may be caring for others,” said Danielle Filson. “There are no expectations for specific time periods for teachers to be logged in and schools are not expected to replicate a regular school day schedule in a virtual environment.”

But there are challenges. Liriano has two computers at home, meaning she and her two children are one device short at all times. And then she is also trying to help her son, who sometimes struggles in school, get through his lessons.

“I’m having to navigate helping my parents and my students, who are constantly calling, while I’m trying to help my son at the same time,” she said. “But I can’t be on my computer while he’s trying to do his work.”

In any case, trying to get work done while children are at home is complicated — the new reality for millions of parents, teachers among them. For some, the fear and uncertainty associated with the global pandemic that precipitated all the disruption has made it even tougher.

“There’s so much time and mental space that’s being occupied by the coronavirus,” Alex Driver, a New York City teacher who is also the parent of twin six-year-olds. “So much head space is being taken up by that, and then we also have the back and forth of parenting and teaching. And then what’s left?”

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

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

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

One change I do believe will occur is about how much time children and youth will spend in school after they return to their desks. One result of the pandemic has been the loss of the last quarter of the school year and decisions will be made about whether school should be held during the summer of 2020 to make up for lost time and whether students should be promoted to the next grade. Spring testing of students, an annual rite for decades, has vanished. Test scores for 2019-2020 to crow or despair about–won’t circulate in mainstream and social media this year.

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

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

Previous changes in school calendars

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

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

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

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

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

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

How successful have critics been in fixing school time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing time in the aftermath of the pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online teaching and learning

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

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

Why the uncertainty of a “perhaps?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hope and the History of School Reform

Nine years ago I wrote this post after meeting with a group of graduate students working on their Masters in Business Administration. Many had taught for a few years through Teach for America and were eager to apply their knowledge and skills learned in the MBA program to low-performing schools where most students were of color.

So why re-post this piece? As a historian of school reform I hear often from readers, former students, and teachers that my recounting of failed reforms and disappointing results after efforts to transform schooling lead to despair if not cynicism about the entire landscape of school improvement. And that is what I have been hearing recently from some readers. So I decided to re-publish this piece.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of Stanford University graduate students who were completing a joint Masters’ degree in education and business administration.

Many of the 18 students sitting around a seminar table had taught a few years in urban schools through Teach for America. Those who had no direct experience in schools had worked for consulting firms with contracts in major urban districts. Smart, savvy about organizations and passionate about reforming schools, the students wanted to hear my thoughts about reform that I had extracted from nearly a half-century of experience as teacher, superintendent, and researcher. I offered four lessons. Since I have written about each of these lessons in earlier posts I will compress the lessons and cite the earlier posts for those readers who want more information.

I learned that:

*it is essential to distinguish between reform talk, adoption of reform-driven policies, and putting reforms into practice ( see https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/the-inexorable-cycles-of-school-reform/)

* I learned that reform talk and policy action in the purposes, curriculum, instruction and organization of schools often occur in cycles but putting reforms into practice is slow, incremental, and erratic. (See https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/the-inexorable-cycles-of-school-reform/)

* I learned that turning to public schools as a solution for larger economic, social, and political problems has become a national tic, a peculiar habit, that U.S. reformers have (Seehttps://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/does- reforming-u-s-schools-soften-or-harden-inequalities-in-wealth-and-health/

* I learned that both continuity and change mark the path of public schools over the past two centuries (See https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2009/08/16/how-do-teachers-teach-2/ )

I spent about 30 minutes going over these lessons and then I opened the floor to questions.

After a few clarification questions, a visibly agitated young woman recounted her experience as a TFAer in an urban district and her journey to Stanford for conceptual and organizational skills (and credentials). She wants to return to a similar system to make organizational and instructional changes. Then she asked her question: “Larry, look around this room. It is filled with people who want to reform failing schools. We will have the knowledge and skills and we will work hard. But your message to us is that reform talk occurs in cycles, reforms come back again and again, reformers stumble a lot and when changes do occur they are small ones. Well, how can I put it: you don’t give me and my colleagues here too much hope. I am depressed from the lessons you have learned over so many decades. What advice would you give to all of us?”

I was neither surprised nor put off by the question. Over the years as a professor–David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform from which came the book, Tinkering toward Utopia–as a conference keynoter and in many discussions, students, colleagues, and conferees have raised similar questions.

The upside of the student’s comment is recognizing that emotions and passions buried in heart-felt values of equity and helping urban low-income and minority students drive much school reform. That is a plus often overlooked by policymakers who prize values of effectiveness and efficiency and cite cost-benefit trade-offs and return on investment (ROI). Rationality on steroids. Emotions, however,  are what get practitioners, not policymakers, over the inevitable potholes on the road to reform success, not whether it is scientifically proven, logical, or even efficient.

The downside is that I questioned her premise. Wanting to do good for urban youth, hard work, some experience, and a Stanford degree were somehow enough to turn around schools. I claimed that my knowledge of previous well-intentioned designs and reformers who also worked hard but experienced small victories and tasted the salt of many failures was instructive to contemporary reformers. That I may have triggered  the blues in some of these wannabe reformers seemed unfair and unrealistic to my questioner.

So what advice did I give this room filled with Reformers-R-Us?

Even though nearly all these students accepted the accuracy of what I said–many had read similar accounts of previous reforms– I sensed that the questioner wanted reassurance that her time, energy, and commitment will pay off later in successful reforms. I could not (and did not) reassure her. Nor could I  give her unvarnished hope.

What I did do was talk about the importance of knowing realistically what faces anyone undertaking an adventure that contains the possibility, nay, probability of failure. I compared the launching of a school reform to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible people want a guide. Someone who can tell the adventurers where the crevices are, what false turns to avoid, where the icy spots are and to be honest about the possibility that they may have to turn back before reaching the summit. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, honesty, and humility are crucial to reaching the summit and implementing a school reform. Hope for success rests in expertise, problem solving, and courage but–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain (implementing that reform) is still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved. That is what I told the students.

______________________________

A reader in 2011 asked me what I meant by that next-to-last sentence: ”Hope for success rests in expertise, problem solving, and courage but–and this is an especially important ‘but’–climbing that mountain (implementing that reform) is still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved.”

Here is what I replied then and still agree with nine years later:

Many things in life we do because we believe that they are worthwhile ventures. We hope we will succeed (and the measures and meaning of success vary by the person, cultural norms, etc.) but we do not know whether we will or not. We take a risk. Getting married. Having children. Biking across the country.

I believe teaching is like that. We invest ourselves in the act of teaching every day in the hope that we will succeed with all of our students but, after years of experience, we come to know two things: first, that success is measured in as many different ways as the students we have and, second, that in more cases than we would like to remember, success–however defined and measured–eludes us with some students. Knowing both “truths” in our head and heart does not mean that we stop teaching. The act of teaching someone else, of helping another person learn something of importance, is so worthwhile in of itself that even when success is doubtful or perhaps impossible, the act remains worth doing. That is what I meant.

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The Classroom: The Basic Dilemma That Teachers Face and Manage

Pick the photos that you think best capture activities that you most like to see when you–as a teacher, parent, supervisor, administrator, community activist–enter a classroom.

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Which ones did you pick? How many did you choose?

Here is my hunch: viewers will choose those photos that best line up with their beliefs about how teachers should teach and students should learn.

Of course, many viewers will pick multiple activities revealed in the photos since in 2020 the mainstream “wisdom” of teaching and learning is that there should be varied activities going on in a classroom over the course of a school day: whole group, small group, independent work. And most teachers organize their lessons to include such activities.

Experienced teachers have learned that–depending upon the age of their students, the subject/skills they are teaching, and their own preferences for what is important for students to learn—multiple ways of organizing classroom space and student work is essential. The photos show the range that often appears in classrooms.

There is “but,” however. What about “personalized learning?” For the past five years, with the ubiquity of classroom devices (e.g., tablets, laptops, smart phones, interactive whiteboards), calls for teachers to individualize student learning have accelerated. Those calls, however, confuse both professional educators, parents, and administrators since varied definitions of “personalized learning” compete with one another.

Consider photo 6.

A colleague sent this picture of students in a school founded and operated by teachers as an example of how learning can be “personalized.” The students are in their cubicles working independently and collaboratively under a teacher’s supervision

Yet were I to have asked teachers in the other photos conducting whole group and small group activities: do you engage in “personalized learning” with your class? My guess is that they would say that a snapshot of one activity in their classroom does not capture the totality of their teaching. They do, indeed, “personalize learning” over the course of a school day.

And that is the rub. The rampant rhetoric of “personalized learning” obscures the complexity of the fundamental work that all teachers must do: teaching content/skills to students. That is their professional obligation–for which they get paid–to enact the basic triangle that captures all classroom teaching.

I don’t think that putting into practice every day lessons that enact the above triangle is hard to grasp even when the standardized organization of schools is age-graded and the imperatives of such an organization–often called the “grammar of schooling”— influence what teachers and students do.

What too often remains missing in definitions of “personalized learning” and most of the photos–including the above figure of the triangle–is the basic dilemma that teachers face daily in putting the triangle into practice: not only do teachers have to perform their academic role as content/skill mavens–a value they prize–but also teachers want to–and are expected to–. build individual relationships with students.

The basic dilemma teachers face is figuring out how to finesse two conflicting values they face daily: teach content/skills and develop bonds with individual students. There is seldom enough time in the school day to do both–teach academics and build relationships with individual students. Because of time pressures, teachers craft compromises and try to do both.

At the end of the day, many teachers reflect not only whether the lesson got students to understand the denominator in fractions but also the unsaid word to comfort Janice when she put her head on the desk or the abrupt way she handled Sondra and Jeff when they had questions.

Because there is so much to do while a lesson unfolds, many teachers –especially secondary school teachers trained in disciplines–end up focusing on one of the two values they prize: the academic role. As the adage goes: they teach biology to students. And most elementary school teachers work on building close connections with individual students as they teach content and skills. They teach children, as the saying goes, reading, math, and science.

Yet regardless of what grade teachers teach, they juggle both values daily in their lessons, interactions with students before, during, and after school, and at home when they grade homework and tests. The quest to “personalize” learning requires teachers to manage both values. And most do learn how to manage both even as that struggle to do so lies hidden to non-teachers.

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Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools

2020 is the 11th year I have been writing posts for this blog. In those 11 years, I have also written a few books. Every time I have had a new book come out, publishers and friends urge me to advertise the book on my blog.

I am torn, however. One part of me thinks that it is too pushy, too braggish, to tout my book in the blog. It is not that I am inherently a modest man but the thought of blowing my trumpet about what I do or did, well, makes me wince in embarrassment.

Yet another part of me says: “Hey, at a time when screens and the air are filled with constant grabbing for attention,” (eyeballs, as flacks put it), “I need to do the same.” After all, I am not on Facebook and only tweet titles of my posts when I publish them. Social media is largely foreign to me although readers of the blog, tweet about posts I have published–so I do benefit from that. Consider further that over a million self-published books come out a year (2017). Book readers have to be especially selective.

Moreover, with this abundance of reading material at a time when sustained attention to read a 200-page book competes with reading one’s Facebook pages and twitter feed, getting reviewed in a national newspaper, magazine, or media publication is rare–the New York Times reviews less than three percent of new books it receives. Yes, you can cadge reviews for your book on Amazon, but the cachet is limited. So why not blow my trumpet–that other part of me says.

This back-and-forth interior conversation is what occurred when I received a note from Harvard Education Press that my new book, Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools will be available next month. I decided that I will post a few paragraphs taken from the “acknowledgements” page to describe why I wrote a book about success and failure in American schools.

Every book has its creation story. For this one, there is nothing exotic or path breaking. In my career as a teacher, administrator, and professor since 1955 (I retired in 2001 but continued to teach and write) I have spent my professional time in researching and writing on questions about educational policy and practice that tugged at me for answers.  For that I am most grateful. But now as the sun is setting on my career I wanted to pull disparate threads together from my earlier writings that touched larger issues in the journey that educational policy takes toward the classroom.

In Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools, I wanted to answer a question that has bothered me for a long time.  Given my knowledge of the history of efforts to alter what occurs in schools and classrooms, why has the constant refrain of school reform failing again and again and schools never changing sounded off kilter? A few years ago, I had a chance to explore the question of the supposed failure of school reform and lack of change in U.S. schools when Jay Greene and Michael McShane asked me to do a chapter in their edited collection called Failure Up Close: What Happens, Why It Happens, and What We Can Learn from It.

Writing that chapter got me thinking about the dominance of current policy definitions of “success” and “failure” in public schools. So I began asking myself a bunch of questions: Had those policy definitions been around for just the past few years? Decades? Centuries? Had these notions of “success” and “failure” changed over time? Where did they come from? How and why did tax-supported public schools adopt these definitions of “success” and “failure?” What do these definitions look like when applied to actual schools and classrooms? And, finally, can contemporary definitions of “success” be stretched to encompass other goals for teachers and students in public schools?

Like much of my previous writings, these questions started on the busy four-lane highway of reform-driven policymaking and then hopped on two-way roads and eventually one-way streets of educational practice to see what happened to those adopted policies when they finally appeared in schools and classrooms. Some reforms stuck, some morphed in familiar ways of running schools and teaching. And some disappeared. The above questions bugged me enough to travel anew this familiar path of policy-to-practice.

Those questions spurred me to send Harvard Education Press yet another proposal to write the book you have in hand. I have answered these and related questions in this book partially scratching the itch that got me this far. I say “partially” because I am uncertain whether what I have written here misses questions about stability and change in U.S. schools that I should have asked or errs in what I have concluded.  As I said above, the creation story for this book is neither exotic nor path breaking. It is what it is.

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Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology use

I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Grade Your Final Papers (Robin Lee Mozer)

All teachers  have to read and evaluate student work. It is part of the territory that teachers inhabit. To classroom comrades we voice our occasional distaste for the inexorable round of homework and papers that pile up on our desks and at home waiting for comments and grades. Robin Lee Mozer, Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville wrote the following piece that surely picked up on a lot of negative feelings I had over the years about grading and commenting on student papers as a history high school teacher and university professor. Be prepared to laugh out loud.

Thanks to David Labaree for his blog where he posted the piece.

Dear Students Who Have Just Completed My Class,

I would rather do anything else than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather base jump off of the parking garage next to the student activity center or eat that entire sketchy tray of taco meat leftover from last week’s student achievement luncheon that’s sitting in the department refrigerator or walk all the way from my house to the airport on my hands than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather have a sustained conversation with my grandfather about politics and government-supported healthcare and what’s wrong with the system today and why he doesn’t believe in homeowner’s insurance because it’s all a scam than grade your Final Papers. Rather than grade your Final Papers, I would stand in the aisle at Lowe’s and listen patiently to All the Men mansplain the process of buying lumber and how essential it is to sight down the board before you buy it to ensure that it’s not bowed or cupped or crook because if you buy lumber with defects like that you’re just wasting your money even as I am standing there, sighting down a 2×4 the way my father taught me 15 years ago.

I would rather go to Costco on the Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. With my preschooler. After preschool.

I would rather go through natural childbirth with twins. With triplets. I would rather take your chemistry final for you. I would rather eat beef stroganoff. I would rather go back to the beginning of the semester like Sisyphus and recreate my syllabus from scratch while simultaneously building an elaborate class website via our university’s shitty web-based course content manager and then teach the entire semester over again than grade your goddamn Final Papers.

I would rather stay up past midnight pecking out an essay about not wanting to grade your Final Papers with one finger on my tiny outdated smart phone touchpad than grade your Final Papers because I do not want to read them.

I do not want to read your 3AM-energy-drink-fueled excuse for a thesis statement. I do not want to sift through your mixed metaphors, your abundantly employed logical fallacies, your incessant editorializing of your writing process wherein you tell me As I was reading through articles for this paper I noticed that — or In the article that I have chosen to analyze, I believe the author is trying to or worse yet, I sat down to write this paper and ideas kept flowing into my mind as I considered what I should write about because honestly, we both know that the only thing flowing into your mind were thoughts of late night pizza or late night sex or late night pizza and sex, or maybe thoughts of that chemistry final you’re probably going to fail later this week and anyway, you should know by now that any sentence about anything flowing into or out of or around your blessed mind won’t stand in this college writing classroom or Honors seminar or lit survey because we are Professors and dear god, we have Standards.

I do not want to read the one good point you make using the one source that isn’t Wikipedia. I do not want to take the time to notice that it is cited properly. I do not want to read around your 1.25-inch margins or your gauche use of size 13 sans serif fonts when everyone knows that 12-point Times New Roman is just. Fucking. Standard. I do not want to note your missing page numbers. Again. For the sixth time this semester. I do not want to attempt to read your essay printed in lighter ink to save toner, as you say, with the river of faded text from a failing printer cartridge splitting your paper like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, only there, it was a sea and an entire people and here it is your vague stand-in for an argument.

I do not want to be disappointed.

I do not want to think less of you as a human being because I know that you have other classes and that you really should study for that chemistry final because it is organic chemistry and everyone who has ever had a pre-med major for a roommate knows that organic chemistry is the weed out course and even though you do not know this yet because you have never even had any sort of roommate until now, you are going to be weeded out. You are going to be weeded out and then you will be disappointed and I do not want that for you. I do not want that for you because you will have enough disappointments in your life, like when you don’t become a doctor and instead become a philosophy major and realize that you will never make as much money as your brother who went into some soul-sucking STEM field and landed some cushy government contract and made Mom and Dad so proud and who now gives you expensive home appliances like espresso machines and Dyson vacuums for birthday gifts and all you ever send him are socks and that subscription to that shave club for the $6 middle-grade blades.

I do not want you to be disappointed. I would rather do anything else than disappoint you and crush all your hopes and dreams —

Except grade your Final Papers.

The offer to take your chemistry final instead still stands.

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Filed under higher education, how teachers teach