Category Archives: school reform policies

With Pass-Fail, What’s the Point of Grades? (Jack Schneider)

This opinion column appeared in New York Times, June 25, 2020

Jack Schneider (@Edu_Historian), an assistant professor of leadership in education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.

In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, countless colleges and universities shifted from to A-F grades to a pass/fail system. As officials at Wellesley College explained, the general aim in doing so is to “support one another without being required to make judgments.”

Many K-12 school districts have done the same. From Palo Alto, Calif., to Wake County, N.C., local officials have concluded that now is not the time for grades. As teachers in Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District declared, “We cannot grade with equity when students’ experiences learning at home will be so varied.” And it’s not yet clear that most schools that have made this switch will fully return to letter grades in the fall.

But not everyone is happy with this outcome.

Some parents and activists are anxious that, without grades, students won’t receive adequate feedback on their work. Others worry that altering or eliminating the traditional grading scale will undermine student motivation and reward slacking off. As one Oregon parent pointedly asked in one of many online petitions pushing for the reinstatement of letter grades, “How do I explain to my child that has great grades that she should keep working hard when anything that is D- and above will still ‘pass’? This is ridiculous.” A similar but separate concern, expressed by ambitious students and their parents, is that without letter grades students will be at a disadvantage when competing for scholarships, college admission and merit aid.

The logistical calamities presented by the coronavirus have suddenly, and forcefully, surfaced an underlying problem frequently ignored before the crisis: A-F grades serve several different purposes, and those purposes are too often in conflict with one another. Americans may come to recognize by the end of this schooling crisis that we would all be better off without letter grades.

The original aim of grading, which can be traced back several centuries to English universities like Oxford and Cambridge, was to motivate students. As educators found, students tended to work harder if there was a brass ring for them to reach. This fact became more important in the latter half of the 19th century, as an increasing number of states made schooling compulsory.

With a new influx of reluctant pupils, many K-12 teachers were faced with a challenge even greater than keeping the average students focused: maintaining the attention of students who didn’t want to be there at all. Grades, then, also became a mechanism for coercion — rewards, but also punishments, with bad grades meant to serve as a socializing source of shame.

Grades as we know them now have yet another origin too, rooted in efforts to communicate with students and their families. Feedback, as any educator knows, is essential to learning. But as class sizes grew larger in the 19th century, American teachers were increasingly pressed for time. Looking for a shortcut, many schools developed new systems for providing feedback to students. The boldest of these physically rearranged students in the classroom — hence the phrase “head of the class.” What endured, however, was the “report card,” which used pre-identified codes — like numbers or letter grades — to streamline the process of evaluation.

Unlike student seating charts, report cards could be sent home to parents, strengthening communication with families. And eventually, policy leaders realized that if grades could relate something about student learning to parents and families, they could also communicate info more broadly — to other schools, to state offices of education and to employers.

Standardized report cards, in essence, could create a national market for student knowledge and skill, in the same way that letter grades for products like grain had created commodities markets. Just as the quality of Grade A beef could be understood without firsthand knowledge, so could the quality of an A student. With the evolution of the transcript — the permanent record for storing grades — student performance could be communicated across both time and space.

But there was still a lack of uniformity. Unlike many countries where a central ministry of education directs policy across the nation’s schools, the U.S. system has always been characterized by decentralization. Subject to local control, many schools and districts used 1-100 scoring systems; others used letters; some even relied on 0-4 systems. Eventually, however, the pressure for standardization from elites led to a grand merger: A 1-100 score that could be converted into an A-F grade, which, in turn, was convertible again into a grade-point average.

The merger was highly useful for these domestic policy elites, dealing with a rapidly growing nation, who then used the new regimen to connect America’s fragmented educational system. Schools, colleges and employers could nominally work together without actually changing their independent models.

By the early 20th century, grades as we generally see them now had become a core feature of American education. But as any programmer can tell you, tasking a single technology with multiple distinct roles is a bad idea. Letter grades do several different things, none of them well, and the result undermines student learning.

Consider the fact that the permanent nature of grades makes them an incredibly high-stakes affair for students. This has a serious impact on the degree to which teachers can use grades to effectively communicate student progress. Think of how a low grade, intended to convey that a young person doesn’t yet understand a concept, will instead read to the student as an act of cruelty — an attempt to ruin her future. And the student wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to see it that way; transcripts in a self-proclaimed meritocratic world mean that grades, like diamonds, are forever.

Similarly, using letter grades as a currency across agencies and institutions has, in reality, negatively distorted student motivation for generations. Regardless of their inclination to learn, many students strive first and foremost to get good grades. This was even the case in 1918, when American economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen observed that the pursuit of grades “progressively sterilizes all personal initiative and ambition that comes within its sweep.” And a century later, it remains true, as students scramble for prized, résumé building credentials at the expense of their own intellectual curiosity.

Americans have long been aware of the problems with the current model. Grade inflation is an epidemic, particularly at elite schools. And “grade-grubbing,” the pestering of teachers to change scores, is a scourge too. Parents complain about stressed out students haunted by the prospect of an imperfect “life-ruining” transcript. And teachers bemoan the endless grind of grading.

Yet despite these obvious problems, grades are deeply embedded into the culture and function of American education: They are used for state graduation requirements, military eligibility, community college transfers, and scholarship determinations; and they are one of the chief mechanisms for linking America’s 100,000 schools with over 5,000 colleges and universities.

In short, this grading conundrum won’t be easy to solve. But the inherent flaws of A-F grading have never been clearer. And, because of that, several sensible reform ideas — unreasonably ambitious in normal times — may offer a path forward.

One smart proposal involves the use of student portfolios. Rather than reducing everything a student has learned to a single score or letter symbol, schools and colleges might ask students to assemble evidence of what they know and can do. Models of this can be found in progressive networks of public and private schools, as well as in programs like International Baccalaureate and the Advanced Placement program. Portfolios are by no means a silver bullet, but they have a number of important strengths: emphasizing the substance of learning, encouraging revision and acknowledging the different paces at which students reach proficiency. Perhaps most importantly, they motivate students to improve their work and not merely their grades.This, of course, is only a brief sketch — a map of future prospects rather than a concrete plan. And it would require fairly unprecedented coordination across different organizations and government agencies. But the road to reform always begins with an awakening to possibility.

Our present use of grades is a matter of historical accident, not design. The result is that grades fail to advance the multiple purposes they ostensibly serve.

Pass/Fail grading — the stopgap that many have turned to in the wake of the pandemic — is not a long-term solution. The problem can only be addressed at its root. Shaken from our complacency by a crisis, perhaps we can begin the conversation about what comes next.

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Whatever Happened to the Platoon School?

Huh? The Platoon School?

My hunch is that very few readers have ever heard of this widespread Progressive reform that began in Gary (IN) in 1907. Praised by John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey in 1915, the innovative way of schooling native, migrant, and immigrant children (and their parents) established by Superintendent William Wirt (who served as superintendent between 1906 and 1938) gained traction in school districts across the country. Platoon schools appeared in big cities like New York, Detroit, and Pittsburgh as well as small towns throughout the second and third decades of the 20th century. By the 1940s, however, many districts had dumped the innovation although it lasted until 1960 in Gary.*

What Problems Did the Platoon School Organization Intend To Solve?

In cities where immigrant families settled to find work, schools soon became overcrowded. Many districts had to have double-sessions, that is shorter school hours, so that all students could be accommodated during the day. In some districts, superintendents turned away children because there were no more seats for them. Progressive educator William Wirt, a former student of John Dewey at the University of Chicago wanted to solve two problems: how to use a school building to its capacity and how to give children access to a full education with the arts, special subjects like music, woodworking, and physical exercise. Wirt added auditoriums, gymnasiums, music and drawing rooms to existing buildings and constructed new ones with expanded facilities beyond classrooms. Unheard of at the time.

By dividing the enrollment into two “platoons,” one group of children would take the traditional academic subjects in the morning while the other platoon would take special subjects, use the auditorium for large-group meetings of students, and exercise in the gyms. Then in the afternoons the two platoons would switch. During evenings, adults in the community would take English classes and other offering. Thus, the school was in use day and night.

What Does a Platoon School Look Like in Practice?

An enthusiast for the reform, a professor at the University of Akron (OH), wrote the following description of a “model platoon school” in 1923:

This school has an enrollment of about one thousand pupils besides the kindergarten and open-air schools which are not included in the platoon organization. The building is equipped with an excellent auditorium, a divided gymnasium, domestic science and shop rooms, and classrooms sufficient to care for the special room and home room activities. The day begins for the pupil at 8.30 and closes at 3.20 with one hour and a half for lunch time. The forenoon has six half- hour periods and the afternoon four thirty-five minute periods. The school is organized into thirty groups, making it necessary to have fifteen home rooms. Each home room takes care of two groups in the formal subjects. One group is doing special platoon work while the other group is in the home room. Ail the pupils change at the middle of half-day sessions. The rooms are so assigned that the primary pupils do not come in contact with the large pupils. Besides the fifteen home rooms there are three science rooms, three literature rooms, one music room, one art room, one music and art for primary platoon, one play room for ‘primary platoon, one auditorium, a divided gymnasium, a library, a manual training shop, and domestic science rooms for cooking and sewing….

In the home rooms the formal subjects are taught, viz., reading, writing, arithmetic, formal language, hygiene and history. Half the pupil’s day is devoted to these subjects. The seventh and eighth grades are departmentalized further by dividing the work so that four teachers by interchange of pupils among four rooms teach the various home room subjects under the following groups: (1) Arithmetic, (2) Language, (3) History, (4) Hygiene, Spelling and Writing. The science rooms are devoted to nature study in the first three grades, geography and community history in the next four grades, and everyday science in the eighth grade. In the literature rooms the supplementary reading as a basis for literary interpretation, study of poems, and appreciation of the finest literary productions and authors suitable to the grades are taught. Regular periods are assigned for library work. All special rooms are arranged to give the proper setting. The art room is arranged as an art room and the music room as a music room. In the gymnasium, girls and boys work together in formal exercises the first ten minutes of the period. Then they are separated for the rest of the period for free play and games. The auditorium is in constant us with two teachers, a man and a woman, in charge. The auditorium serves as a clearing house for the whole school in that it coordinates with all other work. The following outline of work is done in the auditorium:

Dramatization. – Stories learned in the literature and reading classes are used. Pupils are permitted to dramatize without having stories memorized. Not finished work, but opportunity for individual expression is the principal aim.

Literary Societies. – The auditorium takes charge of literary society work. All upper grade pupils take part in parliamentary practice, entertainment, debating, etc.

Visual Education. – One day per week is given to motion pictures and stereopticon views. These are correlated with geography, history, science, art and citizenship.

Music Appreciation. – This work is done with Victrola and occasional musical performances by adults who are invited in to render some of the great musical productions. There is no music teaching. Appreciation of music is the aim.

Vocational Guidance. – Upper grade boys and girls discuss various vocational activities. Talks by business and professional men introduce dif-ferent phases of professions and vocations….

This description of a “model platoon school” existed in Gary (IN) at the Froebel and Emerson Elementary Schools, places that educators from across the country came to visit. As anyone familiar the history of school reform knows, as innovations spread, conflicts and variation in the design and practice pile up. And that is what occurred with the design of the platoon school when adopted by other districts.

In New York City, for example, Alice Barrows, admirer of Superintendent William Wirt, advocated for the Platoon Plan. She convinced newly elected and reform-minded Mayor John Mitchell in 1913 who was worried about the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and overcrowded schools, to adopt the Gary Plan and transform traditional schools into work-study-play school organization. Mitchell brought Superintendent William Wirt to NYC as a consultant to help shepherd city schools implement platoon schools.

Much rancor occurred, however, as city teachers, administrators, and parents wanted more, not less traditional schooling. In 1917, parents and students who opposed the reform rioted in the streets, stopping the Gary Plan from spreading throughout the district. New York City was an exception, however.

As one historian pointed out by the 1920s, platoon schools had spread to Detroit with 110 such schools, Pittsburgh with 75 and by the end of that decade over 200 cities in 41 states had versions of the platoon school in operation. Much variation in design of platoons occurred. Many of the features of platoon schools, particularly the number of and kind of rooms in a building, became part of the what a later generation called the “modern elementary school” (see below).

Did the Platoon School Work?

Yes, this Progressive invention did insofar as becoming an efficient model for how elementary and secondary schools should be organized and built to accommodate the interests of the “whole child.” Beginning during the Great Depression and extending into the decades following World War II, the “modern” elementary and secondary school combined a full array of academic course with in-school experiences in the arts with vocational classes where students learned to work with both their heads and hands and with opportunities for physical exercise in outdoor playgrounds and spacious indoor gyms. Today’s school buildings and curricula (including extracurricular offerings) are silent monuments to the work-study-play ideas embedded in the Platoon Plan of the early 20th century.

But some readers may be asking themselves: what about teachers, the curriculum, and test scores? Abraham Flexner and Frank Bachman conducted a study of the Gary Plan in 1917. Funded by the Rockefeller’s General Education Board, the study critiqued severely the district administration and supervision of the platoon system, the tremendous variation in what teachers did daily in their lessons, and achievement test scores in spelling, handwriting, and arithmetic. Their conclusion was that platoon schools in many instances under-performed “traditional” schools elsewhere.

Superintendent Wirt, reeling from the defeat of the Gary Plan in New York City, found the General Education Board study (1918) both inaccurate and bothersome. He need not have worried too much since the Flexner and Bachman study failed to slow down the national spread of the platoon school in the 1920s and 1930s.

What Happened to the Platoon Schools?

In Gary (IN) as Ronald Cohen documented, platoon schools grew under William Wirt and became the way that Gary schooled it children and youth. Enthusiasm for it peaked in the 1920s and 1930s with a slow demise after Wirt left office in 1938. Throughout the 1940s the once Progressive innovation faltered and by the 1950s was being dismantled in favor of what had become the modern elementary and secondary school that most readers of this post have experienced. Born in the Progressive era, the phrase, “platoon school,” may be anachronistic but it lives on in the nation’s school buildings and curriculum.

________________

*As an elementary school child in the 1940s, I attended a Pittsburgh elementary school organized into platoons.

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Police Reform and School Reform (Part 3)

Just as a half-century ago when the Kerner Commission Report laid out a series of police reforms, cities were also in turmoil over low academic performance of minority students, traditional curricula, mostly white staffs and insensitive superintendents. Urban disturbances in 1967-1970, for example, caused school closures and rapid turnover of school chiefs then and since.

Consider New York City since 1960. Between that year and 2020, there have been 23 superintendents (later called chancellors) for an average tenure of 2.6 years. NYC might be an outlier, however. Using other major cities the Broad Foundation reported in 2018 that tenure was longer, around five years in districts with over three-quarters of student enrollment poor and minority (2018). Somewhere between three to five years has been the average term appointed superintendents have served in big cities (see here and here).

Such turnstile superintendencies, like urban police chiefs have experienced then and now, disrupt continuity in implementing reforms begun by a predecessor and depress morale of district office administrators, principals, and teachers who do the daily work of schooling.

Not only moving school chiefs in and out of the superintendent’s suite but local school boards, states, and the federal government have also legislated changes during crises that reformers believed would improve schooling for all children but particularly those of color.

Since the 1970s, for example, states have raised graduation requirements, altered curricular frameworks, introduced more standardized tests, and ratcheted up accountability regulations for students, teachers, schools, and districts. All of these state laws sought to reduce the achievement test score gap between whites and minorities, increase graduation rates, and send more low-income and minority students to colleges. The poster child for such laws is the federally-funded No Child Left Behind (2001-2016).

A bipartisan law that was endorsed and enforced by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, NCLB called for all public school students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The law established a federally-driven testing and accountability system managed by the states to insure that all students scored well on standardized tests. Schools meeting their numerical targets set by the law would be rewarded and those falling short would be penalized.

By 2011, the weaknesses of this federally-driven system of incentives and sanctions had become obvious to legislators–48 percent of U.S. schools had been labeled “failing.” While high school graduation rates had increased and more graduates enrolled in colleges, the achievement test score gap had hardly budged. In 2016, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act and President Obama signed off on a law loosening federal regulations on accountability (but not testing or publishing disaggregated racial and ethnic statistics) and giving states far more latitude in designing reforms (see here).

Yet at the same time that federal and state governments have legislated changes to reduce the achievement test score gap, both have reduced funding local school districts over past decades which have led to reductions in school counselors, social workers, nurses, librarians, and community aides. Moreover, worried about in-school crime, especially, violence, urban districts either contracted with local police departments or have created their own police forces (e.g., Los Angeles Unified, New York City).

Both losses of counselors and similar staff plus increased presence of police officers in urban schools have affected students and teachers in reducing the number of adults not in uniform who had previously developed relationships with teenagers.

Finally, policy initiatives to alter racist thinking and actions in police departments have been also duplicated in district, school, and classroom cultures. Preferential treatment in dealing with whites over minorities have been identified and policy changes in some districts have been made in addressing such documented issues as:

*Tracking of minorities into certain courses,

*Minority students being suspended and disciplined at higher rates than white students,

*Large numbers of minorities identified with disabilities,

*Low percentages of minority teachers in schools with mostly children of color.

And for decades there has been efforts to identify teacher biases and behaviors who exhibit low academic expectations of those students who differ from the teacher in ethnicity, race, and social class. Such biases surface in how students are grouped within the classroom, the choice of content and skills and their level of difficulty taught to minority students, who gets called upon during class discussions, and the grades students receive (see here, here, here, and here).

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Summing Up

At two times in the past half-century, popular protests swept across the nation to erase racist biases and actions from both individuals and systems of policing and schooling. That the current moment has arisen reveals anew that the efforts of earlier protests in the 1960s to fight poverty insure that each person could vote and discrimination in public facilities was illegal made limited progress.

Those political protests a half-century ago gave voice to the voiceless opening up de facto segregated systems to minorities in police rank-and-file officers and in top posts. Similarly in school systems, protests over unequal treatment of minorities in schools and classrooms and huge gaps in academic outcomes between white and minorities led to the hiring of more teachers who resembled their students in race and ethnicity, additions to the curriculum that encompassed the history and culture of minorities, and efforts to get minority students into gifted programs and Advanced Placement courses.

While forward progress occurred, it was insufficient as the current moment reveals that another generation of police officers and teachers still behave in ways that an earlier generation would have winced at.

Contending explanations for such behavior appeared, then and now. One explanation argues that systems of policing and schooling work fine; troubles come from an unenlightened and ignorant few who display racist actions. They need to be re-educated and re-formed and all will be well.

The other explanation is that it is the larger system, economic, political, and social structures that shape behavior; racism is deeply embedded and pervasive–it is in the bloodstream of these systems. Those structural biases have to be exposed to the light of day and removed.

Currently, the U.S. President and Senate embrace the first explanation, while black and white protesters, many corporate and civic leaders, and non-governmental organizations hold fast to the second explanation.

I cannot (and will not not) predict which explanation will turn into policy as this fractured nation stumbles toward a crucial election 125 days from the recent Juneteenth celebration. The outcome, as any in a democracy, is one still being debated and in the making.

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Police Reform and School Reform (Part 2)

Public schools and police departments are core community institutions. Locally controlled, there are 18,000 police departments and over 13,000 school districts in the U.S. State legislatures and city councils levy taxes to fund these institutions. One is charged to protect and serve; the other to make responsible citizens, prepare the young for the workplace, and gain success in life. Both are crucial to the political, economic and social life of their communities.

Yet well-intentioned reformers ignore obvious similarities and differences between the two. There are, for example, historical similarities. While both tax-supported police departments and public schools began in the early decades of the 19th century and became mired in the political patronage of post-Civil War decades, the early 20th century saw Progressive reformers ending political appointments and pushing for professionalized policing and teaching.

The commonalities end there, however. The model to which police chiefs in those decades aspired to was a command-and-control organization similar to the military. Hierarchical and bureaucratic, orders flowed from the top down to the ranks of patrolmen. While police officers had street-level discretion to, say, give a warning or arrest an errant driver of a car, they had sergeants and captains who supervised their conforming to regulations.

Not so for public schools and teachers. With the move to professionalize teaching an individual medical model of helping and caring, of turning children into healthy adults became the lodestar. A well-trained and autonomous doctor working to keep patients healthy and heal the sick was the role-model. Pursuing this model as enrollments and administration grew proved unwieldy.

In cities, school districts became bifurcated: there was the central office with a board of education and superintendent in charge of a hierarchical bureaucracy, mimicking a command-and-control organization, but outside of that central office were neighborhood schools led by principals who had to give teachers a degree of autonomy once they closed their classroom doors. Teachers exercised discretion in teaching content and skills as they thought best.

Also consider race and gender for both institutions. Policing throughout most of the 20th century was dominated by white males–(while there have been black police officers, actual recruitment of minorities occurred during and after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s). Minorities now make up about 25 percent of police forces in the U.S. Ditto for women. They entered the ranks in larger numbers beginning in the 1960s but now are only 12 percent of all department personnel. Both minorities and women in policing fall below the proportions of the populations they serve.

Public school staffing differs in some respects. Historically, women came to dominate the profession by 1900. In Northern and Southern segregated schools prior to the 1960s, nearly 90 percent of teachers were women. Higher percentages in elementary schools than secondary classroom but nonetheless, that pattern extends to the present day although percentages of female teachers have fallen to 76 percent (2018) in elementary and secondary public schools.

As for minorities in teaching, prior to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, segregated Southern schools had all-black staffs. Between the 1960s and the present, as those all-black schools closed, many minority teachers were reassigned but many were let go as well. Since then, districts have hired minorities but seldom enough to match the minority student enrollment of schools, particularly in urban districts. Nationally, about 20 percent (2016) of all elementary and secondary teachers are minority.

But these organizational and historical differences are often overlooked by avid reformers who, generation after generation, unhappy with unsolved problems in each institution, have put their thumbprints on what and how police and schools conduct their work.

In the current moment of national protest over police killings of unarmed black men and women, police departments are targets for reformers. Part 1 laid out the pattern of big city police commissioners exiting and reform-minded chiefs entering the post. Present reform agendas call for fundamental changes in police behavior toward people of color.

Reallocating portions of police budgets to other social agencies are being considered to shrink the long list of current expectations for the police such as dealing with the homeless, mentally ill, and school discipline. Reformers seek legislated changes to reduce excessive use of force in minority communities, and transform the biases embedded in police culture. Expanded training of officers inevitably become part of the reform package. All of these in different forms are currently being considered and acted upon by the U.S. President, Congress, some state legislatures, and many big city mayors and councils.

If the history of police reform is a guide to the future–yes, that is a big “if”–there will be changes but no transformation (see here and here). What will survive this political process of adopting new policies aimed at reforming police procedures and practices, as an informed outsider who has only scanned the literature on police reform, I cannot say. What I do know is that calls for fundamental changes in community institutions such as the police and public schools, usually end up as incremental changes, significant as they may be, but falling far short of the reform rhetoric demanding a transformed institution.

How can I say this? My involvement in and study of school reform gives me some confidence in laying out what I have learned from the history of reform in another important community institution: public schools.

Part 3 updates past school reforms that have, like police chiefs and their command-and-control organizations, led to superintendent turnover, reform-driven laws, and efforts to alter district, school and classroom cultures.

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Police Reform and School Reform (Part 1)

Amid widespread protests against police violence against African Americans, calls for reform from ending neck restraints to “defunding” police departments have monopolized TV newscasts and newspaper headlines. Social media traffic prompted by smartphone videos of incidents between police officers and blacks have gone viral. State and city officials across the nation are generating to-do lists of reforms aimed at solving the problem of police officers using lethal force to arrest minority suspects (see here and here).

White people over the age of 18 might be surprised that such cries for police reform have occurred before. But their grandparents wouldn’t.

The decade between 1965-1975 when urban “riots” (or “rebellions,” depending upon your political stance) occurred in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Newark, and other cities killing both blacks and whites including police officers. President Lyndon Johnson appointed the governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner, to chair a commission to investigate the racial violence. The Kerner Commission’s report (1968) condemned white racism in housing, employment, and criminal justice while offering many recommendations for police reform (see here and here).

Subsequent calls for reforming police departments to reduce excessive force against people of color have occurred after killings of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson (MO) in 2014. Then consider Minneapolis police officers have shot dead Jamar Clark (2015) and Philando Castile (2016), and choked to death George Floyd (2020). Inexorably, the uproar over such killings produces a list of must-do reforms including the resignation or dismissal of police chiefs, new laws curbing police methods being passed, and transforming the Us vs. Them organizational culture .

Consider turnover of police chiefs over the past half-century. Depending how one counts years served as police chief, tenure in big city police departments is short. For example, take New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Between 1970 and 2020, a half-century marked by rising and falling tensions between minority communities and mainly white police forces, NYPD had 16 commissioners since 1970 (mean: 3.1 years). Chicago, 13 (mean 3.8), and Los Angeles, 11 (mean 4.5). Other cities had even higher turnover such as Oakland (nine over the past decade) and Baltimore (five in the past four years as of 2019). Only in mid-size cities and rural jurisdictions does tenure of police chiefs last longer. No reader needs a Ph.D. to figure out that such turnover creates low morale among those who do the daily work on streets and in the community. Moreover, turnstile police chiefs lead to organizational instability and major difficulties of continuing reforms launched by a predecessor that seem to be working.

Mayors and city councils are currently under the triple threat of high-profile incidents of racist policing triggering marches, a pandemic that began in mid-March and continues for the foreseeable future, and impending cuts to city budgets as a result of economic recession following the plague. This convergence of events puts even more pressure on police leaders. Not only do new police chiefs have to reduce crime rates, build trust with the community, and gain respect of sworn police officers, they also have to erase racial and ethnic biases among supervisors and rank-and-file and insure adequate funding from city officials. Given this agenda for change brimming with conflicts, dumping current chiefs and hiring new ones to transform departments occur frequently.

But hiring or firing the police commissioner is only the beginning. State and city legislatures adopt laws seeking to fundamentally alter the mission of police departments and their daily practices. Some small cities such as Camden (NJ) to root out corruption in the force disbanded its police department and started a new one; cities such as Eugene (OR) have reduced the mission of police organizations through allocating budget funds to other agencies to work with, for example, the homeless, family disturbances, school discipline. Such efforts aim at making clear that the single most important goal is to insure community safety and, where possible, reduce crime. Such reform talk is rampant now.

What happened in the past is that as police chief turnover increased, fundamental reforms initially legislated by legislatures and city councils were down-sized into incremental changes (e.g., banning choke-holds, required re-training sessions on how to de-escalate conflicts in detaining citizens and arresting suspects). The culture of Us vs. Them, however, remained intact.

Whether that will occur again, I cannot say for sure but my informed guess, based upon a half-century of experience with school reform, is that it will. Shoving community institutions hard to make deep changes in their goals and practices is unenviable work and much political action, savvy, and patience are required.

Political? Yes. There are many stakeholders involved in funding police departments, shaping policies, and insuring that middle managers–captains and sergeants–put those policies into practice after precinct roll calls. After all, police chiefs secure sufficient funds from elected bodies, buffer the organization from external threats, keep bureaucrats in line, and monitor police union moves. If that isn’t enough, chiefs are responsible for building trust with the patrolmen walking beats and cruising neighborhoods. Talk about organizational conflict and politics. It is in the DNA of of being a police chief.

And this is where school reform and superintendents come into play as a comparison to the causes and solutions for problems in schooling. I take that up in Part 2.

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Moving from Teacher to Superintendent: A Political Odyssey

After teaching for fourteen years, I wanted to be an urban superintendent. To do that, I had to get a doctorate.  Accepted at Stanford as a middle-aged graduate student, I arrived in 1972 with family in tow. The two years I spent at Stanford was a powerful intellectual experience. I had told David Tyack, my adviser then, (years later my teaching colleague, co-author, and dear friend) that I wanted to get a degree swiftly and find a superintendency.

With an abiding interest in history, I pursued courses that Tyack taught in history of education but also studied political science, organizational sociology, and the economics of education. If motivation and readiness are prerequisites for learning, I had them in excess.

Moving from being a veteran teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. to becoming a researcher, I had to embrace analytical thinking over personal involvement, generalizations over particular facts. Through graduate work I discovered connections with the past, seeing theories at work in what I had done and, most important to me, coming to see the world of schooling, past and present, through political, sociological, economic, and organizational lenses. These analytic tools drove me to re-examine my teaching and administrative experiences. Informative lectures, long discussions with other students, close contact with a handful of professors, and working on a dissertation about three big city superintendents  made the two years an intensely satisfying experience.

David Tyack’s patient and insightful prodding through well-aimed questions turned archival research and writing the dissertation into an intellectual high. I learned from Tyack to frame historical questions into puzzles to be solved, even if they ran counter to mainstream interpretations.

From theorist Jim March I learned the importance of seeing organizations in multiple ways, of learning to live with uncertainty, of the tenacious hold that rationalism has upon both policymakers and practitioners, and of understanding that ambiguity, conflict, and randomness is the natural order of organizations. So whenever I hear from superintendents and principals who found their graduate preparation insufferable, I recall how different my experiences were. Those two years at Stanford turned out to be first-rate preparation for the next seven years I served as a superintendent.

After being turned down by 50 (not a typo) school boards, I lucked out when a reform-minded (and risk-taking) school board appointed me school chief in Arlington in 1974, a city of around 160,000 population at that time, just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.

For seven years I worked within a district experiencing shrinking enrollment, test scores declines, and becoming culturally diverse. The school board and I framed the central problem as the public’s loss of confidence in the district. The tasks were to reverse the downward spiral in academic achievement as numbers of minority children increased. 

With Board approval, I embarked on closely overseeing each school’s performance with specific measures assessing progress toward school board goals (e.g., increased academic achievement, critical thinking skills, growth in the arts and humanities, and community involvement).  The board and I  believed that steady pressure on school staffs wedded to ample support of teachers and principals, would lift achievement, reach the goals we set, and renew community confidence in its schools. State test results marched steadily upward, local metrics on other goals showed improvement, and parent surveys documented growing support for Arlington schools. Does sound a bit too rosy.

Here comes the “but.” Within that big picture of success, school board and superintendent policy initiatives to close small schools in the district and launch innovations aimed at changing  both school practices and the culture of the system stirred up fierce political conflicts, particularly during two economic recessions. Heading a complex organization with multiple stakeholders inside and outside the system stretched my skills and knowledge to a breaking point. During crises I learned the hard way about managing dilemmas and negotiating political and organizational trade-offs between prized district goals.

In 1981, a newly appointed school board with a majority of conservative voices had taken office. They wanted a school chief more in sync with their values than I was. I completed my contract and departed for Stanford University to teach graduate students, do research, and write.

In those seven years as superintendent, I learned the difference between solving problems and managing dilemmas that won’t go away. I found out that reforms needed jump-starting in a system but once initiated had to be prodded, elaborated, massaged and adapted as they entered schools and were put into classroom practice. In short, I learned that any successful district reform was as much political analysis, building coalitions, and mobilizing public support as it was having resources to do the job.

I also learned that problems of low achievement were intricately connected to what families and students brought with them to schools, what teachers did in their classrooms, how principals worked in their schools, and how boards and superintendents finessed (or fouled up) the intersecting political, social, and economic interests of various stakeholders. Schooling was far more complex  than I had ever envisioned when I was a teacher.

Most of all, my years as superintendent made me allergic to those who offered me then (and even now) fairy tale solutions—kissing a frog to get a prince–to improving schools and districts. I returned to academia fully aware of the complex world in which districts, schools, and classrooms operated.

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Revisiting Predictions On Technology in Classrooms

My record on predictions is abysmal. If I get half of the forecasts I make correct, I puff out my chest. Yet humans are wired to speculate about the future, particularly when times are uncertain. Considering the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, nearly everything has become uncertain about the next year and for sure, the next five years. So like most Americans I take a deep breath and try to look around the corner before I exhale.

But I am not going to make any predictions about the effects of Covid-19 (tune in later because I am, well, hard-wired to predict). for this post, I look back on predictions I made a decade ago amid the surge of technology spilling over U.S. classrooms. Here is what I wrote in 2010 looking ahead to 2020.

I just read a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them (of course, in an ecologically correct manner). Still the number of high-tech machines and applications that hit their expiration date so quickly stunned me.

Then I read another list of high-tech predictions for 2020 that was equally entertaining about the future of schools, well, not schools as we know them in December 2010. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such lists (here and here) for years with high-tech devices having different names but a glorious future just around the corner. Last year, I posted my predictions for high-tech in schools in 2020. Here is, in part, what I said in 2009.

“Clear trend lines for U.S. classrooms in the next decade are hand-held mobile devices (iPhone, Blackberry, e-book variations) and online learning (distance education).

HANDHELDS

Handhelds will permit the digitizing of texts loaded on to the devices. Student backpacks will lighten considerably as $100 hardbound books become as obsolete as the rotary dial phone. Homework, text reviews for tests, and all of the teacher-assigned tasks associated with hardbound books will be formatted for small screens. Instead of students’ excuses about leaving texts in lockers, teachers will hear requests to recharge their Blackberries, iPhones, etc.

Based on current Twitter and other future social networking traffic, shorter and shorter messaging will also become a mainstay of teacher-student communication. Some sample Twitter messages:

*In a college course on consumer sciences, the professor asked his 250 students to post questions on Twitter. On the topic of car insurance for those under 25 years of age, a student asked: ‘What happens if you get married and then get divorced at 24? Would your insurance go up?’ ”

*In the same course, during an exam, a student tweeted a fellow student and asked for the answer to a question. Teacher caught the student because although the software said “anonymous” on the handheld, the name of the student showed up on the teacher’s screen.

ONLINE COURSES

Proponents talk about how this form of teaching and learning as a powerful innovation that will liberate learning from the confines of brick-and-mortar buildings. Estimates (and predictions) of online learning becoming the dominant form of teaching turn up repeatedly and, somehow, fade. Surely, there will always be students and adults drawn from rural, home schooled, and adult populations that will provide a steady stream of clients for online courses. Nonetheless, by 2020, well over 90 percent of public school students will be in places called schools going at least 180 days a year to self-contained classrooms where a teacher will be in charge.

The error that online champions make decade after decade (recall that distance learning goes back to the 1960s) is that they forget that schools have multiple responsibilities beyond literacy. Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career. Online courses from for-profit companies and non-profit agencies cannot hack those duties and responsibilities.

So by 2020, uses of technologies will change some aspects of teaching and learning but schools and classrooms will be clearly recognizable to students’ parents and grandparents. Online instruction will continue to expand incrementally but will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling. End of prediction.” [Ah, if I could only have forecasted Covid-19 and the subsequent swooning embrace of remote learning, I would be named a seer.]

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Of course, I could be just another one of those benighted folks who predicted that automobiles, planes, and television were mere hype and would never replace horse-drawn carriages, trains, and radio. Here is a list of those failed predictions to chuckle over as you ring in the new year.

Whatever your guesses are for next year or for 2020, the questions that need answers are not about the rapid expiration dates of the next newest device –including the “revolutionary” iPad–nor to what degree technology will be ubiquitous in home and school nor even how new technologies will be used by the next generation of teachers and students. No, those are not the questions that need to be asked.

Instead, fundamental questions have to deal with matters of educational philosophy–what knowledge is most worth? Why? What are the best ways of teaching and learning? These questions, in turn depend on broader moral and political questions about what is the “good” life and how does one live a useful and worthy life. When these questions are asked and answered then, and only then, can new technologies play their role in schools and classrooms.

As I write this in early June, we are in the midst of Covid-19 with schools and libraries closed. Current reports are that re-opening will be slow and gradual until most Americans are vaccinated. Predictions of a second wave of infections are rampant as gradual re-openings occur. Uncertainty reigns. Predictions proliferate.

The future as it looked to me in 2010 is now. Handhelds and online learning have become as common as dandelions. Yet predictions that schooling will be transformed as a result of Covid-19 abound.

Perhaps such reforms will occur. But I do not think so.

Surely, the digital inequality that became apparent at the beginning of the pandemic when schools enrolling low-income minority students were shut down will be reduced. Just as surely, there will be incrementally more online lessons in the immediate future. But some things won’t change.

The age-graded school and the regularities of teaching and learning that goes by the nickname “grammar of schooling” will continue as is.

Oops! Sorry, I have again slipped into predicting. No more for now.

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A Significant Error in Policy Thinking

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the imminent re-opening of schools in the next few months, I re-visit a post I published nearly a decade ago about a significant error that policymakers have committed repeatedly in actions taken about teachers, teaching, students, and learning. The current crisis offers officials and practitioners an opportunity to reconsider past thinking about schooling. 

As a result of inhabiting a different world than teachers, policymakers make a consequential error. They and a cadre of influentials confuse teacher quality with teaching quality, that is, the personal traits of teachers—dedicated, caring, gregarious, intellectually curious—produce student learning rather than the classroom and school settings.

Both are important, of course, but policymakers and their influential camp followers have accentuated personal traits far more than the organizational and social context in which teachers teach daily. So if students score low on tests, then who the teachers are, their personal traits, credentials, and attitudes come under close scrutiny, rather than the age-graded school, the regularities in daily practices that accompany this organization, neighborhood demography, workplace conditions, and resources that support teaching. The person overshadows the place.[i]

In attributing far more weight to individual teacher traits rather than seriously considering the situation in which teachers teach, policymakers (I include civic and business leaders) end up having a cramped view of teaching quality. Quality teaching is complex because an essential distinction is masked: the difference between “good” teaching and “successful” teaching. Both “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of quality instruction and student learning. To lead us through the thicket of complexity, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson’s analysis of quality teaching.[ii]

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching. “Successful” teaching, however, is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the

Fenstermacher and Richardson point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning. “Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching.

In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning. In making this mistake, policymakers unintentionally snooker the public by squishing together ”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, support of family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. “No excuses” reformers (see above) glide over these other factors critical to learning. Current hoopla over paying teachers for their performance based on student test scores is an expression of this conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning and the ultimate deceiving of parents, voters, and students that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.

Not only does this policymaker error about quality classroom instruction confuse the personal traits of the teacher with teaching, it also nurtures a heroic view of school improvement where superstars (e.g., Geoffrey Canada in “Waiting for Superman,” Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver”, Erin Gruwell of “Freedom Writers”) labor day in and day out to get their students to ace AP Calculus tests, become accomplished writers, and achieve academically in Harlem schools.

Neither doctors, lawyers, soldiers, nor nuclear physicists can depend upon superstars among them to get their important work done every day. Nor should all teachers have to be heroic. Policymakers attributing quality far more to individual traits in teachers than to the context in which they teach leads to squishing together “good” teaching with “successful” learning doing even further collateral damage to the profession by setting up the expectation that only heroes need apply.

By stripping away from “good” learning essential factors of students’ motivation, the contexts in which they live, and the opportunities they have to learn in school–federal, state, and district policymakers inadvertently twist the links between teaching and learning into a simpleminded formula thereby mis-educating the public they serve while encouraging a generation of idealistic newcomers to become classroom heroes who end up deserting schools in wholesale numbers within a few years because they come to understand that “good” teaching does not lead automatically to “successful” learning. Fenstermacher and Richardson help us parse “quality teaching” into distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning while revealing clearly the error that policymakers have made and continue to do so.

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[i] Mary Kennedy,”Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality,” Educational Researcher, 2010, 39(8), pp. 591-598.

[ii] Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson, “On Making Determinations of Quality in Teaching,” Teachers College Record, 2005, 107, pp. 186-213.

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How Dutch schools reopened with no pupil distancing (Linda van Druijten)

Linda van Druijten leads De Boomhut and OBS De Klaproos, a primary school and special educational needs school in Arnhem, Netherlands. This article appeared May 22, 2020 in TES, a British digital education company serving teachers and schools

On the first day, we had bubbles. Delicate, transparent bubbles floating across the playground.

Before we had opened, our 432 primary school pupils, our 152 pupils with special educational needs, our parents and all our staff had fears. But we spoke openly about these fears. We spoke as a community about how we would tackle these fears. And as a staff, we came up with creative ideas. Like bubbles.

School would be a very different place when the children returned – for a start, all pupils had to be dropped at the school gate. So, on day one, we brought out a bubble machine. Rather than being upset, or concentrating on the unusual nature of the school, the children looked up, were captivated, and wandered into school without an issue.

If I have one tip from the opening of Dutch schools for my English colleagues, it is: get yourself a bubble machine!

Dutch school reopening

Schools have been “open” here in the Netherlands since 11 May. We are allowed half groups – our classes have between 28 and 32 pupils, so on a given day we can have groups of 15 children in each class.

Unlike in the UK, the Dutch government told us that the children do not have to socially distance from each other, as we can see the rates of infections for under-12s are so low – there is such a small risk in them being in contact with each other.

So the children can play and touch each other; they can have normal friendships. We have a Group A and a Group B – half our pupils are in school and the other half continue remote learning, and they rotate across the week, one day on, one day off.

But the children do have to be 1.5 metres from the adults when in school, and the adults have to be 1.5 metres from each other. This is not always easy.

Social distancing

Those over 7 years old understand it all, and are pretty good at it. And we have very little reason to break that distance. But with the younger children? It’s not always possible.

At the beginning, my teachers said to me, if a child fell down and cut their knee, we would have to call an ambulance so people in proper protective equipment could assist that child. But we thought about it very long and hard, and we agreed we would pick up the child, and break the social distance.

And if a child cries, you can’t explain why you cannot comfort them – we decided we would comfort that child.

Low-risk strategy

The risks in both instances are so very low that we felt as a staff group that this was something we were willing to do.

It was the same with masks. At first, many staff members wanted to wear masks. But we discussed it over three or four weeks and we decided that we actually didn’t want to do that. If we wear masks, the children cannot see our expressions and none of us wanted to teach like that.

For all these things, we have a word for it in Dutch that means “safe but not safe”. Yes, the precautions are advisable, but they do not really keep us fully safe.

We have had no substantial absence problems. Less than 1 per cent of the children did not come in, so almost all our parents brought their children back into school.

Teacher anxiety

We did have some teachers who were anxious. They were worried about their vulnerable relatives, for example. For some of our anxious staff who had vulnerable family members, we reduced their pupil groups – we explained to parents that this was better than no teacher at all. We did this in our special education school.

As for the life of the school, learning is happening and the children are adapting. We started with very thorough routines. Handwashing, disinfectant, constant cleaning of door handles and toilets. After the first week, though, we relaxed. It is important that we are aware, but not to get too paralysed by the anxiety. We take it seriously, we remain watchful of symptoms, but we get on with our job; we are teachers and we want to teach!

Back to full classes

The Dutch government has now said that all children will be able to come back on 8 June. There is some anxiety again about this, but we will get through that the way we did before, by talking it through and agreeing on how to manage it as a staff.

What is clear is that all the teachers are happy to be back. They say that they don’t feel like teachers unless they are in the classroom with their pupils. That we can now do that is the most important thing – like the bubbles, it helps us to focus and gets our mind away from the fact that things are still not quite normal.

PHOTOS FROM OTHER DUTCH SCHOOLS:

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About a Teacher (Robert Pondiscio)

Robert Pondiscio, author of How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, And The Battle Over School Choice, is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.This appeared in Education Next May 7, 2020

Few vocations have suffered more in the hands of Hollywood mythmakers than teaching. This is curious. Schools offer a familiar and fertile setting, and teaching is inspiring, aspirational work. There is rich potential for drama in student backstories or in a good teacher’s ability to change a child’s life trajectory. And say all you want about how teachers should be the guide on the side not the sage on the stage, there is a performative aspect to teaching that ought to lend itself to character-driven, compelling storytelling.

All of the elements are there. So why is it so hard to make a good teacher movie?

Mostly, it’s because, when the subject is school, filmmakers have never been able to resist swinging for three-run homers with one man on base. The clichés are legion: the inspiring maverick (Dead Poet’s Society) who unlocks the hidden brilliance of rowdy students (Stand and Deliver) while pushing back doggedly against the system’s low expectations (Lean on Me). Even worse is the subgenre of white savior teacher movies (Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds) set in inner-city schools. We’re so conditioned by these tropes that when struggling musician Hanan Harchol tells his father over breakfast in a New York City diner in the opening scene of About a Teacher that he’s taking a job as a high school film teacher “to support myself while I’m making my art,” we smirk.  Oh Lord, it’s Mr. Holland’s Opus. Here we go again.

To be sure, About a Teacher, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, follows the same story arc as other formulaic plucky teacher movies: a teacher of inner-city kids uses art to inspire students to tell their stories. But it makes a virtue of its small budget and human scale. The vast majority of the film is set inside the classroom, in the tiny apartment Harchol shares with his wife, or in diner conversations with his father. There are no big stars, no soaring soundtrack, no gritty mean street tableaus or tear-jerking grand finale. The movie it most closely resembles is The Class, a 2008 French film that was praised for its documentary style and verisimilitude.

The intimacy of the film enhances its credibility. It’s mostly about Harchol’s effort to master his craft and his struggles with student indifference and energy directed at anything other than what he’s trying to teach.  It’s nearly painful to watch him try and fail to get students to comply with even the smallest requests. The movie should carry a trigger warning for teachers who will be reminded of how draining it is to be a new and poorly prepared teacher.

Harchol’s interactions with his fellow faculty members will likewise bring knowing smiles (or grim nods) from teachers. You know these people: the overconfident colleague who tells the novice not to smile until Thanksgiving to show students he means business. The veteran who won’t even acknowledge the new guy since he won’t last (the opening credits note that 41 percent of New York City teachers leave within five years).  The humorless scold who has mastered behavior management but not her subject. The edgy and cynical banter in the faculty lounge. Harchol himself is the guy whose out-of-control class you walk past and feel sorry for. An officious supervisor is played to such icy perfection by Leslie Hendrix that when we learn she has been protecting and defending Harchol behind the scenes, it strains credulity. When she shows up in his classroom it is only to demand lesson plans and paperwork. Her professional development sessions are redolent with acronyms, bureaucratese, and demands for “higher order questioning” and pedagogical techniques that she seems not even to understand.

The only useful tips he gets come from a younger teacher, Ms. Martinez (Aurora Leonard). “Do you like your students? Do you talk to them?” she asks. It is only when Harchol starts to relate to his students as people (the movie is not 100 percent free from teacher movie clichés) that his and their performance begins to improve.

As Harchol, Canadian actor Dov Tiefenbach succeeds a little too well at being overwhelmed and frustrated. He is so lacking authority, presence, and the ability to project confidence, so physically overmatched by the job, that when he finally gets his feet under himself—in his third year in the classroom, not the third day—it seems implausible that he could have lasted so long without quitting or getting fired. The cognitive dissonance is only resolved at the end of the film with a montage of the real Harchol, who wrote, directed, and produced the semi-autobiographical film, with his students, many of whom won scholarships and cash prizes for their films and worked on About a Teacher. He looks the part.

Hollywood hasn’t nailed the teacher movie and perhaps never will. Classroom life is full of compelling characters and drama, but the scale is intimate, the pace deliberate and contemplative, not epic or explosive. The narrative arc of a teacher’s year unfolds slowly through hundreds of small actions and interactions. This puts filmmakers in a bind. Show too little, you reduce everyone to a tintype and character development feels forced and formulaic. Show too much and things slow to a crawl. There’s a rhythm to actual classroom life that is difficult to capture in two hours.

About a Teacher is not a perfect teacher movie, but it improves on the genre with its small scale, intimate focus, and attention to detail. It turns out that it takes a teacher to make a decent movie about a teacher.

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