Category Archives: school reform policies

Teaching To The Middle: Teaching as Mediocrity?

This time of year, when classes are over, but I haven’t yet graded, I start thinking about what I could have done differently. Inevitably, I think about the students I didn’t quite seem to reach, the ones I could have helped more. Inevitably, those are students at either end of the spectrum, the top and the bottom. Without intending to, I often teach to the middle.

Sure, the students could have done more themselves. They could have come to class more or pushed themselves more, but often, they don’t even know what to do. And that’s where I think I could step in more and offer more guidance….

The top students, I think, are less harmed by my inability to teach to them. They will push themselves anyway, if not in my class, in another class along the way. It’s the students at the bottom that I feel like I’ve let down. And some of them, frankly, are not motivated and would likely balk at my strategies for helping them, or they would do the tasks in a half-hearted way. I could insist and insist, but ultimately, it’s up to them to do the work. And, of course, that’s how I justify not putting forth the extra effort, thinking to myself, well, they wouldn’t do it anyway.

A middle school math teacher wrote this in 2005. It applies, I believe, to most public school teachers who face 25-30 students (or more) in an elementary school classroom and use ability grouping for about six hours or 150-plus students daily in 50-minute segments who are tracked into math, science, or history classes for a secondary school teacher.

It surely applied to me in the 14 years that I taught high school history and social studies between the mid-1950s and early-1970s and then in the mid-1990s. That I was doing so in schools where students were tracked by subject area was unclear to me in the early years of making lesson plans for my classes. But it became clear to me by the third or fourth year that I was doing exactly that. I had mentally divided up each class into top-of-the-ladder, middle rungs, and bottom of the ladder students. Sure, I varied my questions, activities, and assignments to get across-the-board student participation but my choice of content and skills aimed at the high-middle of my imagined distribution in performance across classes.

And this was true for me, as I suspect for others, who teach (or taught) classes tracked for similar abilities and performance. In Washington, D.C. in the 1960s where I served for a decade, the “track system” used group intelligence test scores to sort students into the “Honor,” “College Preparatory,” “General,” and “Basic” tracks.  For example, I would  teach College Preparatory and Basic Track classes and even in these classes, students ranged in performance and, yes, I would teach to the middle.

Like the above blogging teacher, she and I did a lot of things to mitigate the thrust of our lessons to the middle. We used small groups, set aside time to work individually with low- and high-performing students, offered extra credit for additional reading and projects, etc. ,etc. All well and good but within the confines of our limited time with the students and having a life outside of school and few additional resources, there was not much more that could be done.

What the blogging teacher and I faced was a dilemma anchored in the DNA of public schools. We prize the historic and pervasive American values of treating all students equitably, encouraging individual excellence, and building classroom communities. But all three values can not be achieved within age-graded schools where teachers teach mixed and same-ability groups of children and youth for four to six hours daily, are required to give letter grades to students, and have limited resources.

Recognizing this dilemma, then, I ask: Is teaching to the middle of class another way of saying teaching for mediocrity? No, it is not.

Mediocrity, as used in describing U.S. schooling means inferior quality of a product and performance. It is a slur slung at those who are “average” or in the middle of a distribution–the C student or the girl who finishes 15th out of 40 in the 100 meter dash. Both tried hard but came up short in earning that C or finishing in the middle of the pack in the race. And it is unfair.

Why unfair? Two reasons.

First, few policymakers, administrators, and practitioners acknowledge, much less recognize, the inherent dilemma of crafting compromises–you sacrifice to satisfy–to achieve some version of these prized values embedded in the American ethos. A prime example is the value of excellence–creating a meritocratic ranking of excellence (e.g., A-F letter grades, honor roll societies, class valedictorians)–yet parents, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners believe in their heart-of-hearts that only a few grab the high letter grades and achieve excellence as defined by the school while most others fall in the middle.

Such teacher decisions (including mine for many years) are an open secret that often goes unmentioned by current practitioners. As a result, ignoring the dilemma faced by all teachers, decision-makers see the situation as simply teachers not delivering high-quality lessons, not fulfilling what they should be doing. Teachers then are mediocre.

The second reason are social beliefs in the bell-shaped curve. Teachers see the distribution of students in classrooms as “natural” and a fact of life anchored in the socially-constructed bell-shaped curve. Most policymakers and practitioners accept the distribution of intelligence and performance as true and use it as basis for ability grouping within a class and tracking in a school. Surely, varied talents (e.g., artistic, athletic, cognitive) are distributed unequally across individuals. In a competitive society where individual performance and equal opportunity are prized everyone can not get As or win races.  The middle is shunned because “average” and “middling” have become synonyms for mediocrity in American society.

The larger issue of fairness is whether the purpose of the school is to continue reproducing the societal inequalities embedded in the grading system and through ability and tracking policies or embrace a belief that the primary purpose of the school is to reduce–not reproduce– racial, ethnic, and class inequalities through restructuring the age-graded school and its schedule, grouping policies, letter grades, and other initiatives aimed at breaking the iron cage constructed by social beliefs in the bell-shaped curve and the existing age-graded school.

But a teacher now faced with the practical issue of a class of students with varied talents, motivations, interests, and performance–whether it is a class sunk in the bottom quintile or Advanced Placement students–wants to be fair and equitable to each student. She wants excellence and a classroom community. She wants all students to achieve. But she cannot because of insufficient personal and organizational resources and the existing structural trap within which administrators require the teacher to grade students and assign groups of varied individual students to her classroom who must follow a rigid daily schedule, do homework, take tests, and receive report cards. The steel-lined beliefs held by so many educators about the “natural” distribution of talent and achievement plus the inherent dilemma facing all public school teachers working within the structures of age-graded schools, in effect, may help to explain why so many teachers teach to the middle.







Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Lessons Learned in School Reform(Frederick Hess)

This article appeared December 13, 2017 in the American Federation of Teachers’ magazine, The American Educator

“Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on K–12 and higher education issues. He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog “Rick Hess Straight Up.” Since 2001, he has served as executive editor of Education Next.

Before joining AEI, Dr. Hess was a high school social studies teacher. He teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard University.”


It’s been three decades since I started substitute teaching for beer money in Waltham, Massachusetts, back in the 1980s. It’s been a quarter century since I stopped teaching high school social studies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s been two decades since I first started teaching education policy at the University of Virginia. And it’s been 15 years since I became a scholar of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

In other words, I’ve been in and around schooling for a long time. And, while I’m not the quickest study, like anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in education, I’ve got a gut reaction to the term “school reformer.” For some, it summons images of heroic charter school leaders. For others, it brings to mind “deformers” bent on destroying public education.

For me? It’s something a bit different: I find myself wondering why the handiwork of passionate, well-meaning people so often disappoints. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I say all this as someone who, for many long years, has been labeled a school reformer.

Now, a few reformers will deny that reform has disappointed. They’ll argue that dozens of new teacher-evaluation systems have delivered, never mind the growing piles of paperwork, dubious scoring systems, or lack of evidence that they’ve led to any changes in how many teachers are deemed effective or in need of improvement. They’ll insist that the conception and rollout of the Common Core State Standards went swimmingly, never mind the politicized mess, half-baked implementation, or fractured testing regime. They’ll tell you it doesn’t matter that the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants didn’t move test scores or that Education Next reports that charter schools are less popular today than they’ve been in 15 years.

I’m going to set such claims aside. Having spent a lot of time with reformers over the past 25 years, I can confidently report that most will privately concede that much didn’t work out as hoped or as they’d anticipated. If you think I’m wrong, that things are working out splendidly and just as advertised, then feel free to skip this article and my recent book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer.

Now, at this point, there are those who will sigh, “Of course those reforms didn’t work! They were never supposed to!! They’ve all been part of an ideological crusade to undermine democratic schooling and privatize public education.” They’ll argue that two decades of school reform, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top, was never really intended to be about improving schools. If this is how you see things, you too will probably want to skip this article. Because, after long experience, I’ve found that the lion’s share of reformers—whatever they get right or wrong—are passionate and sincere about wanting to make schools better.

But, if we can agree to set aside hyperbolic claims that reform has “worked” and avoid suggesting that missteps are just part of an evil scheme, we can get to the question I want to discuss: Why have good intentions and energetic efforts so often disappointed? What exactly have we learned from all of this?

What I’ve Learned

On this count, I think I have something useful to share. I want to talk about three lessons I’ve learned along the way.

The Role of Policy

Policy turns out to be a pretty lousy tool for improving education because policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well. And, when it comes to improving schools, doing things well is pretty much the whole ball game. As a policy wonk with a PhD in political science, this realization pained me to no end. Now, don’t get me wrong. I still think policy has an important role to play. Our schools and systems were never designed for what we’re asking them to do today—to rigorously educate every child in a diverse nation. Making that possible will indeed require big changes to policies governing staffing, spending, and much else. That’s why I’m a school reformer. But policy is better at facilitating that kind of rethinking than at forcing it.

Reformers, for instance, have attempted time and again to devise policies that would “turn around” low-performing schools. There was the 1990s-era Comprehensive School Reform Program, the interventions mandated by No Child Left Behind, and the Obama administration’s $7 billion School Improvement Grants program. Unfortunately, the research has found no evidence that any of this worked consistently. Indeed, a recent federal evaluation of the School Improvement Grants program couldn’t unearth any significant effects on learning, no matter how the data were diced. Schools can turn around—we just don’t have a clue about how to make this happen via policy.

Policy is a blunt tool, one that works best when simply making people do things is enough. In schooling, it’s most likely to work as intended when it comes to straightforward directives—like mandating testing or the length of a school year. Policy tends to stumble when it comes to more complex questions—when how things are done matters more than whether they’re done.

Here’s what I mean: Say a governor wants to mandate that all schools offer teacher induction based on a terrific program she’s seen. Her concern is that if the directive is too flexible, some schools will do it enthusiastically and well, but those she’s most concerned about will not. So, she wants to require schools to assign a mentor to each new teacher. But then she worries that the “problem schools” will treat the mentoring as busywork. So, she also wants to require that mentors meet weekly with their charges and document that they’ve addressed 11 key topics in each session. But this still can’t ensure that mentors will treat their duties as more than box-checking, so she wants to require…

You see the problem. Then it gets worse. Far too often, in fact, policy unfolds like a children’s game of telephone. In Washington, D.C., federal officials have a clear vision of what they think a change in guidance on Title I spending should mean. But when officials in 50 states read that new guidance, they don’t all understand it the same way. Those officials have to explain it to thousands of district Title I coordinators, who then provide direction to school leaders and teachers. By that point, bureaucracy, confusion, and nervous compliance can start to become the law of the land. Now, multiply that a hundredfold for the deluge of state and federal rules that rain down. When all this doesn’t work out as hoped, there’s a tendency for those responsible to insist that the policy is sound and any issues are just “implementation problems.” I’ll put this bluntly: there’s no such thing as an implementation problem. It took a while, but I eventually learned that what matters in schooling is what actually happens to 50 million kids in 100,000 schools. That’s all implementation. Calling something an implementation problem is a fancy way to avoid saying that we didn’t realize how a new policy would really work.

We Can’t Patronize Parents…or Give Them a Free Pass

We’ve mucked up the relationship between parents and educators. We’ve lost the confidence to insist that parents have to do their part. Now, it’s important here to remember that the conviction that every child can learn—and that schools should be expected to teach every child—was not always the norm. It represents a tectonic shift and a hard-won victory. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, American education paid a lot of attention to the quality of parenting and far too little to the quality of teaching and schooling. Complaints that parents weren’t doing their part too often seemed to be an excuse for leaving kids behind. I taught and mentored student teachers in that era, in a number of schools across several states, and can testify that it wasn’t unusual to hear educators declare that certain students were unteachable and that it was their parents’ fault.

Today, that mindset is regarded as unacceptable. Teachers are expected to teach every child. That’s a wonderful thing. I fear, though, that the insistence that parents do their part has been lost along the way. Talk of parental responsibility has come to be seen as little more than a case of blaming the victim. The result is that we just don’t talk very much anymore, at least in public, about whether parents insist that their kids do their homework or respect their teachers. When students are truant, we hesitate to say anything that would imply parents are at fault. When only a handful of parents show up at parent-teacher meetings, reformers are conspicuously mum. If they do take note, it’s usually only to lament that parents are overworked and overburdened.

Obviously, these are thorny questions. Parents frequently are overburdened. But there’s a necessary balance here, and we’ve managed to tip from one extreme to the other. Education is always a handshake between families and schools. It can help to think about this in terms of healthcare. When we say people are good doctors, we mean that they’re competent and responsible; we don’t mean that they perform miracles. If a doctor tells you to reduce your cholesterol and you keep eating steak, we don’t label the physician a “bad doctor.” We hold the doctor responsible for doing her job, but expect patients to do their part, too. When the patient is a child, the relationship is the same—but the parents assume a crucial role. If a diabetic child ignores the doctor’s instructions on monitoring blood sugar, we don’t blame the doctor. And we don’t blame the kid. We expect parents to take responsibility and make sure it gets done.

When it comes to the handshake between parents and educators, though, that same understanding has broken down. Talk of parental responsibility is greeted with resistance and even accusations of bias. Yet parents have an outsized impact on their children’s academic future. Children whose parents read to them, talk to them, and teach them self-discipline are more likely to succeed academically.

The point is decidedly not to scapegoat parents or to judge them. I know all too well how tough and exhausting parenthood can be. The point is to clarify for parents what they should be doing and help them do those things well. Today, we ask educators to accept responsibility for the success of all their students. Good. How students fare, though, is also a product of whether they do their work and take their studies seriously. Some of that truly is beyond the reach of educators. So, by all means, let’s call teachers to account—let’s just be sure to do it for parents, too.

The Crucial Partnership between Talkers and Doers

School reform isn’t about having good ideas—it’s about how those ideas actually work for students and educators. This can be hard for those gripped by a burning desire to make the world a better place in a hurry. Reformers need to sweat things like perverse incentives and paperwork burdens—even when they’d rather focus on larger issues like equity or injustice. They must consider how reforms will affect the day-to-day lives of students, families, and educators. It can seem like good ideas and good intentions should count for more than they do. They don’t.

Most educators innately know all this, of course. After all, they spend their days working in schools. They tend to think granularly, in terms of individual students, curricular units, and instructional strategies. Educators are deeply versed in the fabric of schooling and experience the unintended consequences of reforms. This is why it’s easy for them to get so frustrated with self-styled reformers.

Educators are right to be skeptical. Reformers and practitioners will inevitably see things differently. But what frustrated teachers can miss is that this is OK, even healthy. Educators are looking from the inside out, and reformers from the outside in. In all walks of life, there are doers and there are talkers. Doers are the people who teach students, attend to patients, and fix plumbing. Talkers are free to survey the sweep of what’s being done and explore ways to do it better.

Ultimately, serious and sustainable school reform needs to be profoundly pro-doer. When talkers wax eloquent about students trapped in dysfunctional systems, they often forget that many teachers feel equally stymied. The bureaucracy that reformers decry can also infuriate and demoralize the teachers who live with it every day. Educators see when policies misfire and where existing practices come up short. Talkers have the time to examine the big picture, learn from lots of locales, and forge relationships with policymakers. Talkers have the distance to raise hard truths that can be tough for educators to address simply because they strike so close to home. But it’s ultimately the doers—the educators—who have to do the work, which means talkers need to pay close attention to what educators have to say. There’s a crucial symbiosis here: teachers and talkers need each other.

How I Hope to Do Better

Look, I’ll offer a confession: I’m not an especially nice guy. When I suggest that talkers and doers need to listen to those who see things differently, that policymakers are well-served by humility, or that reform needs to work for teachers as well as students, it’s not because I want everyone to get along. It’s because education improvement is hard work. Doing it well is at least as much about discipline and precision as it is about passion. What I’m counseling is not niceness but professionalism. This means listening more deliberately and speaking more selectively. It’s tough to listen, though, when we’re constantly shouting at one another.

It may not fit the tenor of the times. But I’ve learned that, if we’re to do better going forward, we all need to respect the limits of policy, ask more of parents, and appreciate the symbiosis of talkers and doers—while also always remembering that in schooling, it’s the doing that counts.



Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Success, Failure, and “Mediocrity” in U.S. Schools (Part 1)

For the past month or so I have been wrestling with questions that have bugged me for a long time.

I have learned over the years that school reform have life cycles that follow a singular pattern. Join me in a fast-forward trip through school reform in the U.S.

Late-19th century Progressives, for example, saw overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers, immigrants speaking dozens of languages and unfamiliar with being American, rote recitation, massive inefficiencies in administering schools, and students wholly unprepared for an industrial workplace. Schools were failing to educate children and youth. It was a crisis that had to be ended. New curricula, medical and social services, different forms of instruction, innovative school organization and democratic governance became the established ideology for “good” public schools between the 1890s and 1940s.

After World War II, a rising movement of anti-communism rejected Progressivism in schools and spurred by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union sought to inject academic steel into a Swiss cheese curriculum to produce more engineers, mathematicians and scientists. Again what constituted a “good” school shifted.

By the mid-1960s, the Civil Rights movement spilled over both segregated and desegregated schools altering again Americans’ sense of what a “good” school is.

And in subsequent decades, economic fears of Japanese and German exports out-performing U.S. cars, electronics, and other products  led to business and civic leaders looking to schools to bolster an inefficient and sagging economy.  A Nation at Risk (1983) coalesced those fears into a war plan to revive the economy through making schools stronger academically and turning out graduates who could enter the workplace prepared with requisite knowledge and skills. Again, the definition of a “good” school shifted. The U.S. continues to this day to be in the thrall of this education-cum-economy ideology.

In this hop-skip-and-jump through the history of U.S. school reform a pattern emerged.

First, policy elites in each generation, exaggerating existing conditions, condemned schools for their low quality. Schools had failed. They graduated students unfit to enter the existing political, economic, and social world.  Then these ardent school reformers proposed governance, curricular, organizational, and instructional reforms that would turn failing schools into successful ones often underestimating the complexity of schools as institutions and the resources needed to make the proposed changes actually alter how schools operated and teachers taught. Finally, after time had passed, as schools didn’t conform to the expectations of these fervent reformers, they walked away in disappointment and disgust saying that the schools were not much better than when they had started. Their reforms had foundered. They blamed, among others, resistant teachers, unthinking administrators, a clogged bureaucracy, and hostile parents.

As one generation of reformers passed through, another arose and the pattern reasserted itself anew. Historians and social scientists have documented these cycles of reform over the past 150 years (see here, here, here, and here).

The chronic defeat of major school reforms authored by Progressives, Civil Rights leaders, CEOs and U.S. Presidents to achieve their lofty goals of fundamentally altering the system of schooling over the past century to school the “whole child,” raise all students to high proficiency levels in reading and math, and “personalize learning”  reflects the often-used language within schooling of “success” and “failure.”

Commonly used to describe reform initiatives and innovations, these labels are also part of the DNA of schooling in the U.S. Some students are “winners” in the race to get a gold star for classroom work, a high grade-point-average, become valedictorian. Other students throw up their hands and drop out of school. And there are those–most students–in the middle doing the best they can do but nonetheless settling for seldom becoming a winner while avoiding being seen as a loser.

Over the decades, I have come to see both success and failure in reform linked to definitions of success and failure in classrooms, schools, districts, state, and national systems of education. Reflecting on all of the research I have done, a puzzle slowly emerged yielding questions that I wanted to answer:

*Exactly what do “success” and “failure” mean in schooling the young in classrooms, schools, and districts?

*Where do these concepts of success and failure come from?

*What is the middle ground between success and failure in schools and society? Is it being average, middling, or mediocre?


In a series of earlier posts, I have taken a stab at answering the first two of these questions, drafting answers that made sense to me. I have received very helpful responses from readers as I re-think what I have written and begin writing the next draft.

For now, I want to explore in a few posts the unanswered question about what’s between success and failure. After all, daily life teaches us by age 7 that winners and losers do not capture the totality of experience; in most situations  we do not flat out win or lose, we often end up in the middle. Life is not a zero-sum game. Most children and youth realize that.

But the “middle,” “average,” and “mediocre,” in American culture, are negatively charged words. No one I know wants to be “mediocre.” Since most of us end up in the middle ranges in work, play, and life–how come such words carry the sting of  being a loser?

In part 2, I take up the concept of being in the middle of most distributions of talent, achievement, and life. And how in a society prizing meritocracy being in the middle has gained the stigma of being mediocre both in schooling and life.


Filed under school reform policies

Silicon Valley Takes Over Classrooms: Yes and No (Part 1)

In a series of articles (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) New York Times reporter Natasha Singer reveals how Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle have provided devices, services, and incentives to the nation’s school districts and in doing so, as one headline put it, “Took Over the Classroom.”

I found her articles richly detailed in their interviews and profiling of teachers and administrators. I learned a great deal about how these companies influenced teachers and school officials to use their products and pressed for district policies that required students to learn coding and take computer science courses and even build a public school on a business site. Using techniques refined by pharmaceutical companies in getting doctors to use their medications, these high-tech firms succeeded in placing digital products into schools and classrooms.

Singer gives plenty of examples of how school officials and teachers tip-toe around conflicts of interest. She recounts instances of entrepreneurial teachers having contracts with software companies for whom they are “ambassadors” treading a line where perceptions of conflict of interest cast long shadow over these teachers.

Journalist Singer makes a credible and persuasive case in exposing how Silicon Valley companies  get their hardware and software into the nation’s schools. My research over the past thirty years supports what she writes. For whatever reasons, the spread of digital devices in schools has nearly ended the perennial problem of students lacking access to new electronic hard- and software.

Recall that in the early 1980s when desktop computers became available–there were 125 students per computer in 1984–teacher and student access to devices were severely limited. School computer labs served an entire school giving students occasional time on machines. Just over three decades later, that ratio of students to devices is about 3:1  and in many instances across the country it is 1:1 now (see here). District officials with the help of donors and corporate giants have moved ever closer to ubiquitous access to digital tools for U.S. students. That is the “yes” part of the post’s title.

But  access is not classroom use. Singer’s well researched and written pieces blurs access and classroom use. She not only implies that companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook putting their digital products in classrooms have had a decided effect on how teachers teach their daily lessons but also explicitly says:

Through their philanthropy, they are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental  approaches to learning.

I disagree. And that is why I say “no” in the title of this post.

Before classroom use can be discussed, however, it is worthwhile to consider changes over time in the stated goals for students using digital devices.

Goals: Bait-and-Switch

In the early 1980s, promoters of desktop computers including the above companies gave three reasons why students should have  classroom machines. Computer use, they claimed, will:

*improve students’ academic achievement;

*lead to more, faster, and better teaching;

*prepare students for jobs in an information-based society.

Over the ensuing decades, it has become clear that the first two goals for using computer  have not panned out. In Singer’s reports, she does say “there is little rigorous evidence so far to indicate that using computers in class improves educational results.”

No evidence that I have seen establishes that students who use computers once a week or daily have higher test scores (see here, here, and here). Nor have I seen any evidence (lots of inflated claims and self-reports by teachers but not rigorous before-and-after observations of teacher lessons) that teachers teach more, faster, and better as a result of  regular use in lessons (for example of claims, see here).

So that leaves the the goal of preparing students for jobs in an ever-changing labor market.

School boards and the general public take it for granted–it seems so obvious–that using computers often in school will simply lead to higher paying jobs since every business now depends upon technology to conduct their daily work. Yet even learning to code and taking computer science courses in high school hardly guarantees any job in the field–save for examples cited below–unless one majors in the subject in college.

I have yet to see studies that show students who took keyboarding classes, used laptops regularly, and learned to code or took computer science get hiring preference over other applicants once they graduated high school. Sure, there have been high-tech companies who have worked closely with school districts to certify students for entry-level jobs  such as Cisco and Microsoft but these programs are minuscule given the number of students graduating high school. So the evidence of students using regularly such devices in school leading to jobs is painfully lacking.

What I have noticed in the past few years is a shift in goals for computer use. Although students using computers in order to get jobs still remains as a goal, no longer are academic achievement and better teaching cited as reasons for buying devices and software.

Replacing the computer-sparks-achievement goal is that digital tools “engage” students as if iPads and Chromebooks will hook students into learning and then accelerate academic achievement. While student engagement may–that is the operative word–lead to achievement in many instances, it does not. Worries over student technology use in and out of school shortening students’ attention span and encouraging distractions weakens the “engagement” argument.

What has replaced the other goals is the old standby of testing. That is, since all standardized tests will be online shortly, every student has to have access to an Internet connected device (see here and here).

Two previous goals, then, for using digital devices and software in school have disappeared, one has remained and another has been added. The lack of evidence supporting this mix of old and new goals for buying digital tools is stark.

Part 2 takes up my “no” response to reading the New York Times series of articles on Silicon Valley companies taking over U.S. classrooms and altering how teachers teach.






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

How To Get Your Mind To Read (Daniel Willingham)


“Daniel T. Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of ‘The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.'”

This post appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times November 25, 2017.


Americans are not good readers. Many blame the ubiquity of digital media. We’re too busy on Snapchat to read, or perhaps internet skimming has made us incapable of reading serious prose. But Americans’ trouble with reading predates digital technologies. The problem is not bad reading habits engendered by smartphones, but bad education habits engendered by a misunderstanding of how the mind reads.

Just how bad is our reading problem? The last National Assessment of Adult Literacy from 2003 is a bit dated, but it offers a picture of Americans’ ability to read in everyday situations: using an almanac to find a particular fact, for example, or explaining the meaning of a metaphor used in a story. Of those who finished high school but did not continue their education, 13 percent could not perform simple tasks like these. When things got more complex — in comparing two newspaper editorials with different interpretations of scientific evidence or examining a table to evaluate credit card offers — 95 percent failed.

There’s no reason to think things have gotten better. Scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading test haven’t improved in 30 years.

Many of these poor readers can sound out words from print, so in that sense, they can read. Yet they are functionally illiterate — they comprehend very little of what they can sound out. So what does comprehension require? Broad vocabulary, obviously. Equally important, but more subtle, is the role played by factual knowledge.

All prose has factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. Consider “I promised not to play with it, but Mom still wouldn’t let me bring my Rubik’s Cube to the library.” The author has omitted three facts vital to comprehension: you must be quiet in a library; Rubik’s Cubes make noise; kids don’t resist tempting toys very well. If you don’t know these facts, you might understand the literal meaning of the sentence, but you’ll miss why Mom forbade the toy in the library.

Knowledge also provides context. For example, the literal meaning of last year’s celebrated fake-news headline, “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” is unambiguous — no gap-filling is needed. But the sentence carries a different implication if you know anything about the public (and private) positions of the men involved, or you’re aware that no pope has ever endorsed a presidential candidate.

You might think, then, that authors should include all the information needed to understand what they write. Just tell us that libraries are quiet. But those details would make prose long and tedious for readers who already know the information. “Write for your audience” means, in part, gambling on what they know.

These examples help us understand why readers might decode well but score poorly on a test; they lack the knowledge the writer assumed in the audience. But if a text concerned a familiar topic, habitually poor readers ought to read like good readers.

In one experiment, third graders — some identified by a reading test as good readers, some as poor — were asked to read a passage about soccer. The poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game.

That implies that students who score well on reading tests are those with broad knowledge; they usually know at least a little about the topics of the passages on the test. One experiment tested 11th graders’ general knowledge with questions from science (“pneumonia affects which part of the body?”), history (“which American president resigned because of the Watergate scandal?”), as well as the arts, civics, geography, athletics and literature. Scores on this general knowledge test were highly associated with reading test scores.

Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge. That suggests three significant changes in schooling.

First, it points to decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early grades. Third-graders spend 56 percent of their time on literacy activities but 6 percent each on science and social studies. This disproportionate emphasis on literacy backfires in later grades, when children’s lack of subject matter knowledge impedes comprehension. Another positive step would be to use high-information texts in early elementary grades. Historically, they have been light in content.

Second, understanding the importance of knowledge to reading ought to make us think differently about year-end standardized tests. If a child has studied New Zealand, she ought to be good at reading and thinking about passages on New Zealand. Why test her reading with a

passage about spiders, or the Titanic? If topics are random, the test weights knowledge learned outside the classroom — knowledge that wealthy children have greater opportunity to pick up.

Third, the systematic building of knowledge must be a priority in curriculum design. The Common Core Standards for reading specify nearly nothing by way of content that children are supposed to know — the document valorizes reading skills. State officials should go beyond the Common Core Standards by writing content-rich grade-level standards and supporting district personnel in writing curriculums to help students meet the standards. That’s what Massachusetts did in the 1990s to become the nation’s education leader. Louisiana has recently taken this approach, and early results are encouraging.

Don’t blame the internet, or smartphones, or fake news for Americans’ poor reading. Blame ignorance. Turning the tide will require profound changes in how reading is taught, in standardized testing and in school curriculums. Underlying all these changes must be a better understanding of how the mind comprehends what it reads.



Filed under research, school reform policies

East Side Prep Not “Going to Scale” and Why (Part 2 1/2)

In the last post, I wrote about a private non-profit school located in East Palo Alto (CA), a predominatly Latino and African American city across the expressway from affluent Palo Alto. East Side Prep is a high school that by all conventional measures is a success. Such successful schools, dependent on private donors to underwrite student tuition and the overall cost of running a day and residential program, often get pressured to clone themselves elsewhere.

Yet for the 22 years since it was founded it has remained–and grown–where it is. No satellite schools. No franchisees. It did not scale up in the familiar manner that a Christo Rey–a chain of private Jesuit schools have. Nor has East Side Prep gone the way of charter school networks as KIPP, Aspire, Green Dot, and YES Prep.*

So I wondered why.

In the original post, I said:

I am not suggesting that ESP copy such franchising in going to scale. I have not discussed it with Chris and Helen at all. For all I know, they and their Board may well be following a non-scaling up approach. That is, a successful school hangs in—continues to improve it self and avoids cloning. ESP fills the need for better schooling in an area that lacks such successful schools, and leaves it at that. Opposite to scaling up is hanging in and not looking to replicate what one is already doing well.

My hunch is that Chris and Helen have been approached many times by donors and others to spread what they have done in East Palo Alto. Generous givers may want more ESPs. So why no clones of ESP? Why haven’t Chris and Helen journeyed forth and spread ESP seeds elsewhere?

I can only speculate but to create another ESP with its history in the neighborhood, its many moving parts in a complex program, a stable and experienced faculty, continuous neighborhood support, and enduring leadership is neither easy to duplicate nor worth doing since these leaders would not be able to continue their work at ESP as they have for over two decades. Hanging in as a strategy and continuing good work with teachers and students in an under-resourced neighborhood is surely seen as inefficient by those who tout scaling up. f it works here, let’s do it everywhere. There is, however, no one best way to school those who want to be the first in their families to go to college. East Side Prep is only one and very hard to reproduce in a different setting with different leaders.

Before I had written the post, I had contacted Chris Bischof, one of the school’s founders to ask why. He responded November 10, 2017 so I am updating the previous post with what he said about scaling up.

We have had several donors in the past ask us to “scale up” by either increasing our enrollment and/or starting similar schools in other communities. Our general response is that we still have so much work to do at our current site. As we always say, it’s definitely a work in progress and we’ve chosen to focus all of our efforts on continuing to improve the quality and rigor of our program each year. We have also “scaled up” over the years by expanding the scope of our program. I guess you can say that rather than adding more students per grade, we chose to take a more longitudinal approach by supporting students all the way through college and onto successful careers. We are committed to making sure that our students’ hard work at Eastside will pay off for them long-term. I’d be happy to talk with you more about this if you have any further questions.


*Readers have pointed out to me that in the San Francisco Bay area are highly touted charter schools serving a similar population that East Side Prep serves. Envision Schools and Leadership Public Schools both founded in 2002 have three schools in each of their networks. It seems that these two charter networks are equally as sensitive to the perils of “scaling up” after 15 years as is East Side Prep.


Filed under school reform policies

Scaling Up: The Story of East Side Prep (Part 2)

East Side Prep is a private, non-profit school located in East Palo Alto (CA). Founded in 1996 by Chris Bischof and Helen Kim, Stanford University graduates, the school has aimed at serving low-income minority students who will be the first in their family to attend college. East Side Prep has grown from a class of eight ninth graders to a secondary school serving over 300 students including a residential component. Demographics capture the intent and reach of the school.*






The cost is $19,000 for a day student or $29,000 for a residential student. No student or family pays that amount. Donors–individual (85%) and corporate (15%)–pay the full tuition for each student with each family contributing at least $250 a year. Also each family is expected to volunteer at least 20 hours a year at the school.**

The multi-faceted program includes a heavy academic load, arts and humanities offerings, after-school competitive sports, and much tutorial and remedial help including a full summer term (see here, here, here, and here)


With over 30 full- and part-time faculty, most of whom are veteran teachers who have taught at ESP for up to a decade or more, there is much stability in the staff. At one Open House I attended on October 19, 2017, six of these veteran teachers spoke of how they came to ESP and why they have stayed as long as they have and the closeness of the faculty in working together to solve problems.


The curricular focus in all disciplines is on academic preparation for the rigors of college, and
emphasizes critical reading, expository writing, research methodology, and mathematical
problem solving. The academic course plan all students take meets the University of California
and California State University a-g admissions requirements, and all students complete
coursework that exceeds the requirements for UC/CSU freshman admissions.
Students are untracked with the exception of math and Spanish, for which tracking is based on
entering algebra preparation and native language designation. All students are required to take
four years of the following: English, including AP English Language in their junior year; laboratory
science, with either AP Physics, Advanced Chemistry, or Advanced Biology in their senior year;
mathematics, ending in AP Calculus (AB or BC), AP Statistics, or Pre-calculus/Statistics; and
Spanish with the exception of native speakers who finish their 3rd year in AP Spanish Literature
as juniors. Students take a year of World History, U.S. History, and a semester each of AP U.S.
Government and AP Microeconomics.
Students enroll in College Readiness courses in their 10th, 11th and 12th grade years for skill
development, test preparation, and senior college prep, a course in which seniors complete their
college applications and prepare to transition to college.
In the senior year, students also take Senior Research Institute (SRI), a research and writing based
course that culminates in a 25-page research paper and a 30-minute presentation of research….
In addition to computer science, Eastside offers a variety of electives including fitness,yearbook,
art and photography, drama, piano, band, and choral ensemble. Sports options include basketball,
soccer, volleyball, track and field, cross-country, weightlifting, and strength and conditioning.
A variety of student clubs, such as robotics, Student Council, and the community service club,
Interact, foster community building as they give students a chance to assume leadership roles on
campus. There is an emphasis and a connection in all of these activities to the mission of the
school and the importance of high standards


In addition, there is a Resource Program for students who need extra support–the school estimates 10-20 percent of students need such help. A faculty Advisory system began in 2001 that brings each teacher with a group of students together to meet regularly in each of the four years students will be at ESP including scheduled Advisory lunches between a student and his or her Advisor. (For video reports of teachers, students, and program, see here, here, and here)

There is much more that I can describe about the school’s residence program, the athletics, the ups-and-downs, yes even an outstanding school has problems that the administration, staff, and parents work on continuously and together. But I won’t. Readers can refer to above links for more information about the school from local sources and the school’s website.

Going to Scale

The fact of the matter is that this is an extraordinarily “successful” school by conventional measures. Donors have supported the school year in and out. Working class parents in East Palo Alto and nearby neighborhoods seek entry for their sons and daughters. ESP has graduated seniors who go on to college and earn a degree in numbers that most high school principals and faculties can only admire and respect.

This school has existed for 22 years. There is no other ESP in adjoining neighborhoods and other cities. It is one of a kind.

Yet other private non-profit schools aimed at a similar population have spread their work to other cities such as the Jesuit created Christo Rey that began in 1996 on the South Side of Chicago and since then a secondary school network network of 32 schools across 21 states and the District of Columbia. Combining a rigorous academic curriculum with students paid to work through a Corporate Work Study Program, donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have given large sums of money to spread the network. Each of these schools is locally owned and operated with a national office helping individual schools stay true to the model.

I am not suggesting that ESP copy such franchising in going to scale. I have not discussed it with Chris and Helen at all. For all I know, they and their Board may well be following a non-scaling up approach. That is, a successful school hangs in—continues to improve it self and avoids cloning. ESP fills the need for better schooling in an area that lacks such successful schools, and leaves it at that. Opposite to scaling up is hanging in and not looking to replicate what one is already doing well.

My hunch is that Chris and Helen have been approached many times by donors and others to spread what they have done in East Palo Alto. Generous givers may want more ESPs. So why no clones of ESP? Why haven’t Chris and Helen journeyed forth and spread ESP seeds elsewhere?

I can only speculate but to create another ESP with its history in the neighborhood, its many moving parts in a complex program, a stable and experienced faculty, continuous neighborhood support, and enduring leadership is neither easy to duplicate nor worth doing since these leaders would not be able to continue their work at ESP as they have for over two decades. Hanging in as a strategy and continuing good work with teachers and students in an under-resourced neighborhood is surely seen as inefficient by those who tout scaling up. f it works here, let’s do it everywhere. There is, however, no one best way to school those who want to be the first in their families to go to college. East Side Prep is only one and very hard to reproduce in a different setting with different leaders.




*I have known both founders of ESP as students in a social studies curriculum and instruction course they took with Lee Swenson and me in the graduate Secondary Teacher Education Program at Stanford University in the early 1990s. I have visited the school multiple times, most recently in mid-October 2017.

**This data comes from East Side College Preparatory School, “Programs and Best Practices,” 2016-2017.





Filed under school reform policies