Category Archives: school reform policies

Being Skeptical of Technology

Over the years, readers and students have asked me about the work I have done on school reform and especially reform-laden technologies. I answer some of them in this post. But first some background.

I began doing research and writing on teacher and student uses of technology in the early 1980s when the first personal computers appeared in classrooms. That writing turned into Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920. I then began working on a larger study of teacher and student uses of new technologies in preschool and kindergarten, high schools, and universities. That became Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms (2001). In 2009, one chapter of Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability dealt with teacher and student uses of technologies across four school districts. The last book I wrote exploring classroom use of technology examined over 40 teachers in Silicon valley who used technology in daily lessons. In The Flight of the Butterfly and the Path of the Bullet (2018), I described those teachers who, in my opinion, had mastered the technology to the point where it was in the background, not foreground, of a lesson.

Those writings on teaching and technology put me squarely in the bin labeled Skeptic. And comments early on were testy. Promoters of new technologies, be they vendors, practitioners or policymakers, would curtly dismiss concerns I and others raised by calling skeptics “Luddites.”

No more. Public scorn for anyone who would probe prevailing beliefs in the magical efficacy of computers in schools has become unfashionable.  I have found educators and non-educators who deeply believed in classroom computers as engines of learning, now willing to listen to critics when concerns are raised about the many goals of schooling in a democracy, implementing new technologies, and insufficient research to support wholesale purchase of new devices and software. I find these changes encouraging but hardly a game-changer.

Why? Because in my experience, there are fewer skeptics than true believers in new technologies. Perhaps because I am in the minority, the questions that I have been asked are more of a personal character seeking elaboration of why I have explored technology and school reform and what technologies I use.

1. Why did you begin writing about technology in classroom lessons? In the late-1970s, I began doing research and writing about the history of classroom instruction. In 1984, I published How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1980. In that book, I tracked the repeated (and failed) efforts of progressive reformers over a century to change classroom practice in urban, suburban, and rural classrooms from teacher-centered to student-centered lessons. In doing the archival research, seeing photos of teachers teaching, and reading accounts of how teachers taught different lessons, I saw the classroom use of different technologies from blackboards, stereopticons, and textbooks to overhead projectors, films, radio, and instructional television. The idea that reforming teaching was linked to the introduction of new technologies intrigued me. Was introduction of new technologies another way that reformers had in moving teaching away from traditional lessons? I discovered that the answer was yes.

2. Do you personally use any electronic technologies?

At home I have desktop and laptop computers and an iPhone. The desktop I use at home; the laptop and phone when I have do research and travel. I use all of them for personal, business, and professional work such as this blog. Please do not ask me how many times I check my email.

3. When you taught high school history and social studies and graduate classes at Stanford, did you use technologies in your instruction?

Yes, I did. I used regularly (daily and weekly) both old and new technologies between the 1950s and 1980s in high school teaching. Films (16mm), film strips, overhead projectors, and videocassettes. As a professor I used my laptop in seminars often to make points on screens, do quick polls of students, show video clips, etc. I did not, however, do PowerPoint presentations.

4. If you are (and have been) a regular user of technologies, why are you skeptical of their use in classrooms?

Like past electronic technologies, vendors and enthusiasts have hyped them to solve problems from low academic performance to alienation among students to traditional teaching practices. Hype is over-promising; over-promising inexorably leads to disappointment; disappointment builds cynicism. I am allergic to hype.

Second, new technologies are often experimental–alpha and beta versions–and used to find out whether they are workable, even useful on students who are compelled to be in school.. Combine hype and experimentation and that is a potentially toxic combination. Thus, hard questions must be asked of those policymakers who buy and deploy electronic devices for classroom instruction.

Third, the enormous amount of money spent on new technologies without much evidence of their effectiveness on teaching and learning means that other options such as investing in more teachers and their professional development are lost. That is not only inefficient but it is also evidence of data-free policymaking.

Given these three reasons, I remain skeptical of new technologies applied to teaching and learning in public schools.

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Remodeling the Age Graded School?

In July 2020, Eric Gordon head of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District released a report that would alter the 170 year-old institution called the age-graded school (see here and here). The 74 Million website summarized the report July 2, 2020. While there have been previous efforts to alter the age-graded school and such schools exist now (see here, here, and here), they have been largely confined to individual schools. Never a district especially a large urban one. For that reason I offer the proposal here. Because of the pandemic and mostly remote instruction, no implementation of the plan has yet occurred in CMSD.

A bold proposal in Cleveland could set the tone for how schools around the country could restart in the fall, one that takes into account students’ vastly different access to resources and remote learning during the pandemic and lets students learn at their own speed.

Cleveland schools would toss aside teaching many students in traditional grade levels this fall and dramatically expand the “mastery” learning plan it has tested for a few years.

Out would go the usual practice of students advancing a grade each year, an especially tricky issue to manage this year after schools shut down nationwide in March — to be replaced with a system of “grade bands” that combine students of a few ages and grade levels into the same classroom, school district CEO Eric Gordon told the school board Tuesday night.

“We’ve got opportunities here to really test, challenge and maybe abandon some of these time-bound structures of education that have never really conformed to what we know about good child development,” Gordon said.

Educators nationally are worried about the early school closures and how the chaotic shift to home learning will affect students, especially those from poor families. Most expect a “COVID slide” that magnifies the typical “summer slide” as student skills regress over summer vacation.

Many are debating extending the school year to have classes in person before break or returning early for “jump start” review sessions. Others look at intense online summer school.

In Cleveland, schools that use the system often keep K-8 students in the same grade band for a few years, instead of moving up a grade every year. Students then relearn and reinforce skills they need to succeed before advancing when individuals are ready to move on, sometimes mid-year.

At high schools, students in mastery schools can keep re-learning specific skills and receiving extra help until they know them well. As students learn, schools often avoid giving traditional A-F grades and rate students as “incomplete” or “developing” until they rate as proficient.

Gordon told the school board that by avoiding the normal grade levels, the district can help students catch up, learn what they need and not stigmatize students as failures by making some repeat grades.

He also said that his draft school reopening plan coming mid-June will offer the mastery system as an option for the community and individual families to consider, along with a few other choices described below.

As chair of the Council of the Great City Schools, the national association of big-city school districts, Gordon said other urban school superintendents around the country have told him they are using or are considering using mastery approaches. Some schools in New York City and some states are using the model, but more may take it up, he added.

For urban districts like Cleveland, which has the second-highest socioeconomic challenges of any big city in the country, according to Stanford researchers, students falling further behind is a real concern. The same researchers estimated that Cleveland students were two years’ worth of learning behind the national average, even before poor internet access put students at an even greater disadvantage when schools closed.

In his preview of the reopening plan to the board, Gordon suggested a few strategies for learning while keeping kids at safe distance. He said he will likely offer families a few choices for returning to school so they can pick what works for them.

“You’re going to see a menu that people can move through to adjust and meet their needs,” he said.

Among the possible strategies:

  • Having older students do much of their schoolwork online, while younger students come to class to work with teachers more often.
  • Having community groups that offer afterschool programs for students also work with some students during the day, while other students are in class with teachers. The different groups would then swap activities.
  • Having more year-round schools, on top of the nine district schools already using that calendar. Another 13 have extra days in their school year.
  • Schools could likely open later than their original Aug. 17 start date so that teachers have time to learn new learning systems and the pandemic has time to subside.

“Many of my peers tried to shut down early, in part because there’s a fatigue … and train teachers now,” he said. “My fear of trying to train teachers now is we haven’t built the plan.”

He also said he wants focus groups of students to review the draft plan and help craft the final version.

The district is polling parents and teachers about what has worked with the district’s emergency remote learning plan so far and what they want to see in the fall.

And the district’s plan is also subject to guidance from state health officials and the Ohio Department of Education, though Gordon has been part of discussions to set the state plan. Early drafts of the state plan also give districts wide flexibility to set their own approaches.

Gordon’s preview of Cleveland’s plan Tuesday centered on “mastery” or “competency” systems, coaxed by school board questions. It previously failed at two ninth-grade academies in Cleveland a few years ago, but it is an integral part of MC2 STEM High School, one of the district’s more popular choice high schools.

It is also at the core of the successful Intergenerational Schools charter chain in the city and the new private

The shift would take cooperation from the Cleveland Teachers Union, which is already familiar with the approach. It would take buy-in from parents, who won’t see their children promoted each year. That has sometimes been a source of conflict at the Intergenerational School when parents do not fully understand the model.

It also will need law changes from the state, which tests students annually based on their grade level and which gives districts lower grades on state report cards if students don’t graduate in four years. Gordon said the state focuses too much on days or hours of classes, not on whether students have learned material.

“We really see an opportunity that means an entirely new policy context at the state and national level that allows us the nimbleness to behave differently,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that CEO Gordon had proposed ending the practice of moving students up a grade every year, instead keeping them in the same band for a few years to relearn and reinforce skills before advancing. Gordon talked about using grade bands but did not specifically say how they would be carried out, though typically schools using mastery plans will keep students in grade bands for multiple years.

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Whatever Happened to the National Teacher Corps?

What was the NTC and when did it begin?

In the mid-1960s, I taught in and later directed a federally-funded teacher training program located in Grimke elementary school, Banneker and Garnet-Patterson Junior High Schools, and Cardozo High School in Washington, D. C. The Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, as it was then called, prepared returned Peace Corps Volunteers to teach in urban schools. The paid “interns,” as they were called, taught for half-days under the supervision of master teachers, took university seminars on-site after-school, and in evenings and late-afternoons developed curriculum materials and worked in the community. At the end of the year the “interns”  were certified to teach in the District of Columbia and were on their way to earning a master’s degree in their field through two local universities (see here and here). Three-quarters of the intern teachers we trained became full-time teachers in the District of Columbia schools and other districts.

Within a few years, this district-based model of training new teachers became the poster-child for a federal initiative to put teachers into high-poverty urban and rural schools. Amid President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” education figured large–Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) remains a mainstay of funding schools enrolling poor children in 2021. The belief that minority and low-income students needed committed, smart, and well-trained teachers led Senator Gaylord Nelson from Idaho (his administrative aide’s wife taught at Cardozo High School) and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy to seize the Cardozo Project’s way of training teachers and expand it into a national program within the Higher Education Act of 1966 (see j-1748-5959-2009-00212-x-3.pdf).

The National Teacher Corps legislation adopted the model used for training teachers on-site but rather than fund districts, federal officials would funnel monies to universities that collaborated with nearby school districts and took responsibility for awarding degrees (see here and here).

What problems did the NTC seek to solve?

How to get more and better teachers into low-income, largely minority, low-performing schools?

In the mid-1960s, the high turnover of experienced teachers and absence of well-trained teachers in largely minority and poor schools had become obvious. The belief driving policymakers and donors was that young, committed, and better trained teachers working in both schools and the community could raise students academic achievement levels, reduce high dropout rates, and increase the number of high school graduates going to college . Thus, the NTC would help solve the problem of insufficient numbers of “good” teachers by recruiting, training, and supporting teachers committed to better teaching and learning in largely low-performing urban schools (see j-1748-5959-2009-00212-x-3.pdf).

Another problem was that universities time and again were turning out unequipped novices to deal with urban teaching and getting minority children and youth. Alternative ways of attracting and educating a more racial and ethnically diverse crowd of newcomers to the profession by having school-based training linked to university seminars (also held on site) attracted both donors and federal funds in these years. Solving the problem of inadequate university-based teacher education was part of the agenda of NTC (see 0042085911400340.pdf)

What did NTC do in training teachers?

Between 1968-1970, the federal government awarded National Teacher Corps grants to many universities. One went to the University of Southern California collaborating with seven school districts in the metropolitan Los Angeles area with large enrollments of Black and Mexican-American students. According to the federal General Accounting Office report on the project, of the 88 intern teachers that completed the program, 72 (82 percent) were teaching or had contracts to teach in predominately minority schools.

The GAO report (1971), described the USC program in the following manner.

Corps members were organized in teams, each consisting of a team leader and four to seven interns. In most cases the entire team was assigned to a particular school. In some instances the team members were assigned to more than one school,

Team leaders were responsible for the supervision of interns constituting the team. Their duties included acting as liaisons between the interns and school and university officials; coordinating and planning with the interns their individual and team activities; demonstrating teaching techniques to interns; and evaluating the performance of interns.

Program coordinators in two of the participating school districts informed us that team leaders had worked diligently in performing these functions and generally had been effectively utilized. The program coordinator in another school district stated that the performance of three team leaders was inconsistent in that they had been effective in some areas of responsibility but not in others. He stated that the fourth team leader assigned to his district had utilized his time effectively in meeting all the responsibilities of a team leader and had initiated a program designed to identify Mexican-American students who appeared to have college potential and to encourage them to develop their academic capabilities.

Interns generally worked at the schools to which they had been assigned for 3 days a week during their first year of internship and for 4 days a week during their second year. The interns spent 2 days a week attending classes at USC during the first year and 1 day a week during the second year, Interns also devoted varying portions of their time after school and in the evenings to participating in education-related community activities.

They generally started by observing classroom instruction during the earlier phases of their assignments to schools and later served as assistants to regular teacher. During their 2 years of internship, they sometimes were assigned to work in cooperation with more than one regular teacher and taught one or more subjects to children in various grade levels.

While assigned to regular teachers, the interns worked with individual, or small groups of, children…. In many cases such instruction was given to children who had language difficulties or disciplinary problems or who were slow learners. In schools in five districts, the interns either introduced or expanded the teaching of English as a second language or the teaching of regular classwork in Spanish to children who spoke little English or who came from homes where English was not the predominant language.

No doubt that there much variation in these NYC programs across the nation creating difficulties in evaluating the entire NTC (see evaluations of NTC here and here).

What happened to the NTC?

With the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, one of his first bills sent to Congress consolidated federal grants for particular programs (including the National Teacher Corps) into bloc grants sent to states, letting each state determine which programs would be funded. With the move to bloc grants, NTC largely disappeared except for occasional states that continued the program.

Since then a few efforts to create a national cadre of well-trained teachers given close and sustained support in their internships and then being licensed and hired by urban districts have surfaced. But none have gained federal support for the past four decades.

For some researchers and policymakers, the appearance of Teach for America in the early 1990s, an organization that identifies liberal arts college and university graduates who want to teach, briefly trains them, and finds slots for them in big city school systems has been compared to the National Teacher Corps (see here and here).

While TFA does receive federal funds through Americorps, its training regime is only a eight week-summer program followed by minimal supervision of their first and second years (TFA-ers make a two-year commitment). Other criticisms of TFA insofar as producing “skilled” teachers and improving instruction as measured by student test scores are quite mixed, often coming from former TFAers (see here and here)

In my judgment, TFA is a weak facsimile of NTC. While occasional voices for creating another NTC have been heard, nothing substantial has materialized for 40 years.

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How to Teach American History in a Divided Country (Kristina Rizga)

Kristina Rizga is a writer based in San Francisco, co-creator of The Atlantic’s On Teaching project, and author of Mission High. This article appeared November 8, 2020.

For the past 26 years, Chuck Yarborough, the U.S. and African American history teacher at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science in Columbus, has been surveying his students on how American history is taught. Students come from all over the state to spend their last two years of high school at this diverse public boarding school, and he wants to know what they’ve learned by the time they get there. The feedback from more than 1,400 students over the years has been consistent. In each class of about 18 students, an average of five come in with some basic knowledge of the Civil War, but very few have studied the role that slavery played in it—or the connections between the war, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, and how this legacy continues to uphold racial segregation and inequities in Mississippi.

Yarborough has spent his career trying to fill these omissions in how U.S. history is taught—and thinking about his own role as a white educator in the Deep South, teaching about the roots of racial injustice. During my visit in the fall of 2018, I asked Yarborough to describe his approach. Our conversations have been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Kristina Rizga: How are the Civil War and Reconstruction taught at Mississippi schools?

Chuck Yarborough: They are not taught for the most part, unfortunately. In theory, students are supposed to have been taught the Civil War and Reconstruction before arriving here, but the vast majority of them have not been taught Reconstruction. A few more learned something about the Civil War, but not a lot. They have been taught pretty well the horrors of slavery, but they have not been taught the complexities of those systems: how it developed and its continued effects to this day. So when they arrive in my classroom, I start with the end of the Civil War—1865—and then I teach Reconstruction for the first several weeks of the class.

I teach with the simple assessment of my professors in college, which I think is spot on: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. And we begin this discussion by reading the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession, which makes it clear that the Civil War happened because white southerners desired to defend slavery as an institution for their own benefit.

I suspect that my generation—people in their 40s or 50s—were taught something different. They were taught that there were all these other constitutional issues and it was really about states’ rights. That’s a kinder and gentler reason for people to have fought each other. And if you believe that, then you believe that southern Confederates were just like the Founding Fathers of the United States who were fighting a political struggle.

You can’t understand American history without understanding the steps forward, racially and socioeconomically, that Reconstruction presented initially, and then the steps backward that were taken with the violent reestablishment of white supremacy. You can’t understand the present without seeing the connections between this history and the socioeconomic and racial imbalances it created. But Reconstruction is not on the state test. Therefore, the schools that are teaching the state tests are not teaching Reconstruction at all, and in today’s society, that’s particularly problematic.

Rizga: What kind of learning experiences have helped you bring out the best work in your students?

Yarborough: I think classroom work has to empower students academically and socially. School is so much more than academic content. Education is also about a sense of community, collaboration, empathy, and confidence. At some point, I’m a life coach—and this means that I have to show students that they matter and that their work matters. All of this helps them develop a sense of place and belonging. When that happens, they produce their best work.

With the research in the local archives and performance projects that we do in the community, we try to make history come alive. The reason this approach works for so many students, I believe, is that they see how the work they do matters to a bigger community: how it resonates, challenges the community to reach a new level of understanding, and sets a model for leading in a community.

Classroom work has to show students how to lead and succeed locally. Before the rise of social media, success meant stepping out of school to the next, broader community. Today, students are comparing themselves to global norms, like celebrities or people with loud voices on social media. That’s generated more stress for students. And it also creates anxiety in parents, who take it out on teachers sometimes. I try to remind my students that the world you can really change is the world that’s within your reach. I help students find excellence from within and realize that success is really about empowering yourself to shape your life, your family’s life, and your community’s life.

Rizga: In what ways has your teaching changed since your first five years in the classroom?

Yarborough: The first five years were about teaching content and going fast and making sure students learned a lot. I emphasized quantity over quality. Later in my career, I’ve really come to understand that while learning content is important, it is really only empowering for the students who are good at making the connections between the content and the process on their own. That process includes all of the procedures of being a critical thinker: doing the research, collecting data, finding and articulating connections. For many students, even some of the highest achievers, you have to teach them these skills. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve seen students who are more and more tied to the idea that they just need to learn content. That has led me to step up my game with the teaching of process.

Rizga: How do you do that?

Yarborough: First, students have to engage with primary documents. My students go to the archives, and while that’s not logistically possible for most teachers today, there are so many digital resources out there. You can engage documents through the Library of Congress or Ancestry classroom resources, like newspapers or census materials. And by the way, the students love it. They do not want to read a textbook—they want to create something themselves.

The second principle is that students must be able to articulate themselves in writing, because the discipline of writing is essentially the discipline of thinking. That has to be in your classes every day.

Daily discussion has to be a practice in a decent classroom. If students are not engaged in a discourse, then they’re really not learning. Students can’t just memorize information and then spit it back. If that’s most of what you do, then you’re not doing what you need to create critical thinkers. But you also can’t create the critical thinkers without having them practice the discipline of learning, and that includes memorization. I do exercises where I require memorization, because that knowledge base is how we discern truth in the moment. It is our fact-checking filter. In the 21st century, young people in particular are losing this discipline, because they have so much information available at their fingertips—but you need to have a base of knowledge and facts to understand whatever you are engaging with.

Rizga: In your classes, you often talk about the importance of collaboration and sharing what you’ve learned. Why is this important?

Yarborough: Living in and shaping a community is really about being in relationships with other people in constructive, collaborative ways. So in my classroom, I try to develop projects that emphasize those skills. We all have our talents to bring to the table. We all have stories to tell, and we can learn from each other’s stories. Historically, if you look at successful communities—and that includes successful schools—that’s the defining characteristic. People buy into a common good that they can collaborate to reach.

These two key skills—sharing and collaboration—have been disappearing in many classrooms in the past 10 years, with the growing emphasis on passing standardized tests. If students are not passing those tests, there is a cost for the school and for the teachers. And the end result of that has been a regimentation: Worksheets and everything else are targeted at passing those tests. I think we all have to remember that this is not helpful in preparing students for a constructive life in a community.

Rizga: What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve seen in education in the past two decades?

Yarborough: The devaluation of teachers and public education generally. Political leaders seeking to cut funding are incentivized to convince you that public education is not valuable.

The other challenge is the lack of mentorship by veteran teachers. When I started at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, most teachers had at least 15 years of experience. Today, very few do. I became good at what I do under the tutelage of older teachers. The lack of experienced teachers will have huge consequences for the current generation of teachers.

I also see one big, positive change: the empowerment of students of color; young women, particularly in sciences; LGBTQ students; and religious minorities. These students have voices, and those voices are being heard. This is really different today from when I was starting out.

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The Riot at the Capitol: Classroom Lessons?*

In an earlier post, I pointed out the obvious fact that tax-supported public schools were political institutions. Not in the partisan sense of Republican and Democrat but in serving the community in socializing community values in the next generation including respect for and pride in the nation. When taxpayers want their schools to instill core values in students (e.g., respect for individual, being part of a community, equal treatment) those are political decisions.

In light of January 6, 2020 attack on the Capitol instigated by President Donald Trump and the subsequent riot and destruction that occurred including the loss of five lives, the issue of teaching about this signal event in U.S. history in elementary and secondary classrooms again comes to the attention of teachers and non-teachers.

So should teachers and students deal with the attack upon the Capitol in classroom lessons? Yes, it is controversial and yes, it is highly political in that a Republican President egged on a rally of supporters to march down Pennsylvania Ave. to the Capitol where Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and attained equal seats in the Senate with Republicans in the November 3, 2020 election. The resulting riot captured not only Americans’ attention but also of the entire world.

But should the attention of students be captured as well by this shocking event?

Two scholars have written about the teaching of controversial issues in classrooms and here Steve Drummond interviewed Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy on their new book, Politics in the Classroom (2015). The following interview occurred before the attack upon the Capitol.

The Confederate flag. The Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Policing minority communities. Nuclear weapons and Iran. Summer often brings a lull in the news, but not this year. And, come September, students are going to want to talk about these headlines.

But how should teachers navigate our nation’s thorny politics?

Do politics belong in the classroom at all, or should schools be safe havens from never-ending partisan battles? Can teachers use controversial issues as learning opportunities, and, if so, to teach what? And then, the really sticky question: Should teachers share with students their own political viewpoints and opinions?

In their book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy offer guidelines to these and other questions, using a study they conducted from 2005 to 2009. It involved 21 teachers in 35 schools and their 1,001 students. Hess is the dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and McAvoy is the program director at UW-Madison’s Center for Ethics and Education.

Schools, they conclude, are and ought to be political places — but not partisan ones. I talked with them recently about how, in today’s highly polarized society, teachers can walk that very fine line.

Sometimes it seems there’s a belief that schools should be political … sort of. With students taking on issues – like smoking – that are political but not too political. Did you find that in your study?

Hess: You’re absolutely right, there are a number of schools that encourage students to get involved in political campaigns, but they tend to be political campaigns that really aren’t very controversial. They’ll encourage kids to form a campaign about something that everyone agrees should be done. For example, that we should clean up the litter that’s around our school, or that it’s important for people to eat healthy food…

We have evidence that kids learn a lot from doing that. It’s not necessarily a terrible thing. My view is that if you’re going to have students involved in authentic politics, then it’s really important to make sure you have issues for which there are multiple and competing views, and you don’t give students the impression that there’s a political view that they should be working toward.

McAvoy: How political do we want students to be? That’s really a question that a lot of communities struggle with and a lot of teachers struggle with. And the point of the book is to say that, in general, to be able to talk about politics is a skill that people need to learn. And it would be great if it were learned in school because these are great moments in which you bring a group of young people together who are forming their political views. They can really learn to engage across their differences and to start to see that political conflict is a normal part of democratic life.

A key point in your book is that, while teachers are teaching about the issues – immigration or same-sex marriage — they’re also teaching students how to have these discussions. They’re teaching the process of democracy.

McAvoy: Right. The “political classroom” is a classroom in which young people are learning to deliberate about political questions. It really is the process of deliberation that is the major skill being taught. And then, through deliberation, students are learning about the issues. They’re learning how to form arguments, how to weigh evidence. So there’s social studies content that is being learned in a process that is, at its heart, democratic.

Are there issues that are, or should be, completely off the table?

Hess: One of the things we talk about in the book is the distinction between issues that we called “settled issues” and issues that are “open”…

It’s a little complicated, but, in a nutshell, we suggest that there are some issues that are settled and should be taught as settled and to not do that is being dishonest with young people. For example, the question about whether climate change is occurring — that’s a settled issue. The question is, What to do about climate change? That’s an open issue.

We wouldn’t suggest that teachers engage kids in talking about whether climate change is occurring, but we strongly encourage teachers to engage in discussion about what should be done about climate change.

You mention in your book policies that might allow students to opt out [of a controversial topic or discussion]. Which raises questions about whether that’s a good thing, to just allow students to sit out.

McAvoy: The philosopher in me thinks there’s not a really good way to defend the view that students should always be able to opt out. We don’t allow students to opt out of writing essays because they don’t like writing essays.

At the same time, democracies allow us, when we’re in the public sphere, to walk out of a discussion if we don’t like what’s happening or if we’re being offended. Classrooms are unusual in that we’re compelling students to be there. Teachers do need to weigh [whether] there might be times when a particular student has a good reason for wanting to pass on a comment…

Opting out because I feel uncomfortable sharing my views or talking out loud in class is a skill that can be taught and overcome. Opting out because this discussion is really hard for me given my religious background — that might be a reason that you let a student pass on a discussion.

You note the challenges and dangers of teaching both in mixed classrooms – with students of varied racial and economic backgrounds — and homogenous classrooms. How should teachers adapt to these different scenarios?

Hess: In many ways the more difference you have within a classroom the better. We want to make sure that we have as many multiple competing views as we possibly can … So difference is a good thing, something that can be used and primed as opposed to something to be feared and quelled.

One of the challenges of lots of difference is, difference often causes high emotions and often can cause breaches of civility. So teachers who are in classrooms that have lots of naturally occurring difference often have to go to great lengths to make sure that

students understand what it looks like to participate in a civil manner…

In classes where there’s a lot of sameness, the first thing we learned is that, though it might appear that there’s a lot of sameness, there’s always some difference. So when teachers say, “Well all these kids think alike,” we’re almost sure — all the time — that the teachers are wrong, that in fact not all the kids do think alike.

That being said, there are classes that are more similar than they are different, and teachers have to use a lot of strategies to bring differences into the discussion. Those strategies might include bringing in guest speakers or making sure the materials the kids are using to prepare for discussion are full of multiple and competing ideas.

Students really seem to like this stuff – to engage in issues that are current and relevant to their own lives.

Hess: Absolutely. There are two things going on here: In many schools, students still spend most of the day listening to teachers talk. One reason we think kids like [these issues] is they finally get a chance to talk themselves. More than that, we did find that the content of these political issues was really interesting to kids. Especially when they were hearing multiple and competing views. Students would report that in discussions where there was a lot of shared opinion, those were not as interesting as in discussions where there were differing views … They were really responding to the fact that it’s quite interesting to hear what your peers think about things. And not just that they have different points of view but what they’re supporting those points of view with.

What advice do you have or does your study have for teachers considering how to talk about [breaking events such as] Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri?

Hess: One of the problems with discussing events that just happened is that often we don’t know enough about what happened. There’s a distinction between current events … and discussions about controversial political issues where kids are preparing in advance and being deliberative. In the best-case scenario, teachers are able to take advantage of current events and use them as opportunities to get kids to talk about controversial political issues. There’s a big difference in talking about, “What do you think happened?” and talking about a policy issue like “Should police officers be required to wear video cameras?”

McAvoy: Young people need to see these as moments within their historical context – need to understand some of the history. It’s difficult to have those materials at the ready when things sort of erupt as they have in the last year or so with Baltimore and Ferguson. Good teachers start building curriculum about the history of redlining in cities or how cities become segregated. [To] put these moments within the context is much better than having young people just reacting to “What do you think about what you’re seeing on television today?” Young people really need to study these issues in depth.

OK, the big elephant in the room: the question of whether teachers should talk about their own personal beliefs to their students. Should they?

Hess: What we found is that there were teachers who were doing an excellent job who shared their own views with students, and there were teachers doing an excellent job who didn’t share their views. So we don’t believe that there is one right answer to this. And we think empirically we can show that there’s not.

That being said, we think that there are times when it’s probably better for teachers to share than other times when it’s better for them not to share. That depends in large part on the context — on who’s in their class and what their goals are.

One thing we were really intrigued by was that a lot of the teachers we interviewed talked about changing their minds on that question over time. Some of them would say, “Well, it used to be that I would never share, but now I do only in these circumstances.” Other teachers would say, “I used to be really prone to share a lot, and now I don’t and here’s why.” We think it’s all a matter of professional judgment. Teachers need to think about this very carefully…

I sometimes worry that, even though there can be really good ethical reasons for teachers to share, in a very polarized time that sharing can be misinterpreted. And if it’s misinterpreted by the public or by parents as teachers trying to get kids to adopt their beliefs, then I think we could have a big problem.

That being said, we have no evidence from the study of teachers who were actively and purposely trying to indoctrinate kids to a particular point of view…

We think that this feeling that the public seems to have that teachers by definition are trying to push their political views on students is just false.

You were critical of the notion – that teachers would do that.

Hess: What we learned from students when we interviewed and surveyed them is that they make a really clear distinction between a teacher sharing his or her own view and a teacher trying to push his or her own view. Students not surprisingly report that they don’t like being pushed.

You seem to draw a pretty firm line that teachers should not be advocating for their own beliefs.

McAvoy: What we argue in the book is that what’s most important is that teachers create a culture of fairness in the classroom. That means being fair and reasonable to all the competing views that are in the classroom and that are being represented in the public. The practice that we found most troubling, from the study, is what we referred to in the book as political seepage: teachers who make sarcastic comments, who use partisan humor. It’s these offhanded comments that are sort of biting and mean-spirited about the political climate that I think is problematic. Because it creates a climate not of fairness, but it creates a kind of insider/outsider feeling. If you get the humor that I just said or, “Do you agree with me that that politician’s a big idiot?” That invites the most divisive parts of the partisan climate into the classroom.

_______________________________________

*For those readers who are teachers and want to tap resources for lessons about the attack upon the Capitol, an article in Education Week provides resources. See: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/how-to-teach-the-u-s-capitol-attack-dozens-of-resources-to-get-you-started/2021/01

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Top-Down Reform in Chinese Schools and Classroom Practices

While I do read a lot of articles and books on the history of Chinese education and once spent a month lecturing at Beijing universities in 1987, I am no expert on how children and youth are schooled in the People’s Republic of China. Nor is journalist Lenora Chu, who wrote about Chinese schooling from the perspective of a mother of a kindergartner, Rainey–see previous post— in grasping the complexities of the planet’s largest state system of schooling, an expert. But she surely collected more data than I ever had.

Chu’s family experienced seven years of Chinese primary school and she wrote engagingly of the intersection of state-driven curriculum, culture and classroom teaching. She reached for that elusive policy-to-practice continuum that marks every national system of schooling on the globe: from the PRC’s Ministry of Education policy mandates to Teachers Chen and Wang hovering over the 28 children in Rainey’s kindergarten. No easy task.

I had a glimpse of that policy-to-practice journey in my brief experience as a lecturer over three decades ago. I was there during Premier Deng Xiaoping years as leader of the nation (1978-1997) when he pressed forward in modernizing the country including education reform after Mao’s chaotic Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s (see here).

One of my graduate students, Min Weifang*, arranged an official government invitation to lecture for a month at Beijing Normal University. State-driven reform was in the air when I arrived in 1987. My hosts wanted me to talk about past and present U.S. school reform in both K-12 and higher education. I gave a half-dozen lectures, an equal number of seminars, and met with many professors and graduate students interested in U.S. schools. Beyond lecturing and seminar discussions, I traveled around the city on a bike that Min’s brother had lent to me. Luckily, I found some contacts in schools and had the chance to view primary and secondary classrooms accompanied by graduate students at Beijing Normal University who translated for me as we observed teachers teach.

In my journal I recorded descriptions of the Beijing secondary schools in which I watched English language, math, and Chinese history lessons. In every one of the lessons there were between 30-50 students sitting at desks arrayed in rows facing teachers and blackboards. They were taking notes and answering teacher questions often chorally and with gusto. While some variation in lessons occurred–more blackboard work in math than in history, for example– I guessed that both teachers and students, expecting a “foreign” visitor, were on their best behavior and wanted to show the guest stellar lessons. What I had seen meshed with my prior reading of Chinese teaching practices in the 1980s during the years Deng Xiaoping had engineered top-down reforms in both higher education and primary and secondary schools.

What struck me in reading Little Soldiers and Chu’s reports of classrooms she visited in urban and rural schools in the 2010s was the similarity in teaching practices, students’ obedience to teacher direction, and focus on individual conformity to group norms that I had seen three decades earlier. Keep in mind that the total number of classes observed were very small, mostly located in cities,and often housed in what the government called “model” schools.

The key word in the previous paragraph is “similarity.” I do not mean that there was no change in teaching practices. More informed observers of PRC classrooms could easily point out changes since the late-1980s in the state allotting resources, the growth of teacher expertise, introduction of new technologies, and expanded content in lessons. For example, the central government spent more per pupil in these years than in earlier decades, and there were major efforts to improve university teacher training (see here and here).

But those changes (e.g.,new textbooks, teaching aids, instructional materials, and technologies) are at the margins not at the core of teaching practice (e.g., whole group instruction, student adherence to group norms, much lecturing, lesson focus on better test performance).

While incremental changes had occurred over time, Chu’s experiences in a top-rated Shanghai kindergarten and later a primary school coupled to observations she made elsewhere in the country left me wondering about the impact of Ministry of Education reform-minded mandates in the 1990s to staunch criticism of traditional teaching practices within a system driven by high-stakes national tests. These directives sought to move teaching practices toward a child-centered schooling that prized creative work, critical thinking, student participation in lessons, and social-emotional skills.

Reforming Teaching Practices

The biggest problem for reform is that because so many teachers are so accustomed to their conventional thinking and models they have such strong gravitational pull toward habitual ways of behavior and thinking, therefore they have to negate themselves.…. Comment by a Shanghai municipal policymaker, 2000

Consider the student-centered directives from the Ministry of Education in 2011 for teaching the English Curriculum:

1) Orient teaching towards all students and pay attention to quality education

(2) Design the lesson’s goals integrally, with flexibility and openness

(3) Regard student learning as the main priority and respect individual differences

(4) Design activities that incorporate experiential and participatory learning

(5) Pay attention to the evaluation of the process, in order to boost students’ development

(6) Make full use of curricular resources and expand the channels for students to study and use the language.

To achieve such deep changes, the nation’s pool of teachers very uneven in acquiring education and credentials would have to be upgraded and trained in different approaches. Such efforts began under Deng Xiaoping and were carried forward in fits and starts under his successors. The location of such reforms in special teacher training institutions, universities, in provincial institutes or new organizations has led to fierce and continuing debates among state-led reformers and implementers of those desired changes. Those debates continue today.

Moreover, changing the curriculum, as American observers have noted time and again, is what top-down policymakers can do. But they cannot put directives into practice. Moving from policy directives altering state mandated curriculum to school principals urging teachers to put changes into practice and then for teachers to shift their habitual practices is a big leap that often falls flat in teachers’ lessons. For example to get students to participate more in classroom discussions (see 4 above), teachers received training to put these directives into practice. A follow-up survey of student responses in this province to these new practices led one student to write:

“…by the time we got to the fifth paragraph the teacher asked us about the scenery and objects that were described in the text. Because we said the wrong thing the teacher got very angry with us and we felt terrified. Ever since then when the teacher asks us questions none of us dare to answer. Even if we have thought of the right answer we will not dare to speak because we are afraid of saying something wrong and that we will once again be criticized…” Sixth grade student in Gansu, 2004

Admittedly, the data I and Chu present is fragmentary, unsystematic, and sharply limited. Few generalizations can be drawn with such tiny data sets. Yet–readers knew a “yet” was coming–such discrepancies between the official curriculum, what teachers teach, what students learn, and what is on tests is neither peculiar to Chinese or U.S. teachers. It is a global phenomenon. The policy-to-practice continuum, at the very least, is, like most other nation’s systems of schooling, a work-in-progress.

I am grateful to Lenora Chu’s book for raising this issue of the shortcomings of top-down reform in schools and the critical role that teachers play as policy gatekeepers in this constant, world-wide effort to alter how teachers teach.

____________

*Min Weifang earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and returned to China where he became a professor of higher education at Peking University (Beida), served as executive vice-president of the institution, and Communist Party Secretary. Known as a higher education reformer, He often served on state commissions seeking to reform Chinese schools. (see here and here)

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The “Little Soldiers” of Chinese Education

The second day of school, Rainey came home with a story. Four times he found egg in his mouth. He hadn’t placed it there himself; instead, his most hated food made its way past his teeth by the hand of the fearsome Teacher Chen.

She put it there,’ Rainey told me, mouth wide, finger pointing inside. Then what happened,? I asked.

“I cried and spit it out.”

Then what. She did it again,” Rainey said….”I cried and spit it out again.”

Rainey is three years old and enrolled in one of the best Shanghai kindergartens in the city. Lenora Chu, Mom, journalist and author of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve,(2017) from which this incident is taken, decides to meet with Teacher Chen to discuss force-feeding egg to her son. Chu describes the conference with Teacher Chen:

“We don’t use such methods of force in America,” I blurted in Mandarin, my son clutching my hand. (I was born and raised in America but grew up speaking Chinese at home.)

“Oh? How do you do it?” Teacher Chen challenged.

“We explain that egg eating is good for them, that the nutrients help build strong bones and teeth and helps with eyesight,” I said, trying to sound authoritative. “We motivate them to choose…we trust them with the decision.”

“Does it work?” Teacher Chen said….

“Well, not always,” I admitted.

Chen nodded. “Rainey needs to eat eggs. We think eggs are good nutrition, and all young children must eat them….”

Later, Teacher Chen pulled me aside for a lecture. “In front of the children, you should say, ‘Teacher is right, and Mom will do things the same way,’ OK?’ ” (pp.22-24, 27.)

Through the seven years that Rainey was in public Chinese schools, Chu uses his experiences in kindergarten and public primary school grades as a template for describing and analyzing Chinese education in Shanghai and the rest of the nation over the past decade. And it is a fascinating, eye-opening journey that she captures in an easily read, clear, description of children, schooling, and a top-down, state-directed system deeply anchored in the Confucian tradition of teaching and learning while exerting strong political control of what and how teachers teach.

Every country’s system of schooling mirrors the basic values in the culture that both the state and parents want to see in the behavior of, and school outcomes for their sons and daughters. Where in the U.S., a core value is the individual’s growth and development and belonging to a community comes second, in China, the collective comes first. And so does obeying the teacher.

The 28 kindergartners in Rainey’s class learned this song the second day of school:

I am a good baby

Little hands always in place

Little feet refined

Little ears listening well

Little eyes looking at the teacher

Before I speak, always raising my hand (p.64)

The principal granted permission to Chu to observe her son’s class. With three year-olds, incidents invariably occur. She describes what she saw occur during a lesson. Teacher Wang had difficulties with a little boy a head taller than the other children and filled with inexhaustible energy. For observer Chu, it was easy for her to remember Wang Wu Ze because the two teachers had yelled his name repeatedly over the first week of school:

Wang Wu Ze, sit down! Wang Wu Ze put your two feet side by side! Wang Wu Ze, what is wrong with you? Do you want your mommy to come and get you today?

One day, while Teacher … was talking, three-year old Wang Wu Ze left his seat and wandered over to a few toys in a corner . Chu writes that the teacher “lost her temper.” Teacher Wang said: “Wang Wu Ze, you don’t get a chair. YOU WILL STAND!” Chu describes the teacher moving quickly to where the boy was standing and “swatting his chair away. It fell over, clattered against the floor a few times, then lay still….” The boy looked at the “toppled chair and tears came to his eyes….” He went to the teacher and threw his arms around her waist and she said: “Bu bao–I won’t hold you…. Do you want a chair now?”

“Yes, yes, I want a chair.

“Then you sit in it,” Wang said. “If you don’t sit in it, I won’t give it to you. And your mom won’t come get you after school.” (pp. 66-67)

Conformity to the group, obedience to the teacher, and constant attention to mastering content, skills, and behavior begin early in both how and what teachers teach, according to Chu.

Consider the curriculum standards, the Ministry of Education sets for learning to read Mandarin.

Chu reports that:

“First- and second-graders should recognize 1,600 characters and write 800 of them from memory. By fourth grade, the level is 2,500 characters, and by the sixth grade it’s 3,000 characters and writing almost as many….Full literacy requires an astonishing 3,500 frequently used characters to be committed to memory, according to the Chinese curriculum standards for full-time compulsory education.” (p. 86)

And competition within and across classes is both fierce and public. Testing is constant and student-by-student scores on tests and performance of tasks are publicly displayed. Chu describes the large bulletin board outside Rainey’s kindergarten classroom.

Big Board might post teachers’ assessment of each child, a report card displayed for all to see. Who clocked in timely arrivals at school? Which child greeted the teacher with a smile? Who finished every lunchtime grain of rice? Star stickers and happy faces were pasted next to the name of each child who’d made the grade….As the months passed into the first year of school, Big Board began to display information that directly compared performance and ability…. With each presentation, parents gathered eagerly. and I could always tell when Big Board posted new information by the number of bodies gathered around, heads bobbing with anticipation.

The following year, the Big Board would display prowess at recorder play [a small woodwind musical instrument] for all to see:

The ring finger of Student No. 20 is not stable

Student No. 30 doesn;t cover the old hole while changing to a new one.

Student No. 16 doesn’t blow out enough air.

Student No. 3 doesn’t cover the holes properly.

Chu says that Besides Rainey’s number, No. 27, the teacher had scrawled the same punishing diagnosis as that for No. 8

Doesn’t follow rhythm. (pp. 98-99)

Chu visited schools elsewhere in China including rural schools, and describes their classrooms. She speaks with education experts at universities and Ministry of Education officials. Yet China has over a quarter-billion students (yes, over 260 million) taught by over 15 million teachers housed in more than a half-million schools (2014). The numbers stagger the minds of non-Chinese educators. *

Obviously, Chu can only include so much in a book that focuses upon her son, two Shanghai teenagers in secondary schools, visits to a handful of schools, and interviews with various teachers and educators. Fortunately, Chu provides the necessary context for the Shanghai and rural schools that she visits by describing the state-directed system of schooling

As a centralized state where policy is controlled by a Ministry of Education imbued with Communist doctrine, top down curricular and instructional mandates provide a constant flow of regulations to each province’s schools. Ministry officials are well aware of the internal criticisms of rote memorization, disciplinary norms, and inequalities between rural and urban schools insofar as available resources, teacher experiences, and difficulties in getting teachers to alter their daily lessons. Top officialas have looked to other countries, including the U.S. for reforms to improve Chinese education.

Part 2 will take up some of these reforms as Chu identified them and difficulties of implementation.

____________________

*OECD, “Education in China: A Snapshot, 2016”, p. 9

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Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 3)

With Part 3, readers have now seen most of the draft Introduction to my next book. Comments welcomed. For those readers wanting citations, please contact me.

Perverse outcomes of school reforms

Consider the massive effort by civil rights reformers to desegregate schools between the 1960s and 1980s following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision (1954).

Where students went to school in the U.S. depended upon where families lived.  In most cities and suburbs neighborhood were segregated producing schools that were nearly all-white, Black or Latino. Activists used both direct action such as boycotts and marches and legal strategies to get urban and suburban districts to desegregate through busing, building schools that straddled city and county attendance boundaries, and taking school boards to federal court for maintaining segregated schools—strategies that civil rights reformers believed would bring minority and white children together to learn.

Nonetheless, each generation of reformers believed in their hearts that they could solve thorny social, political, and economic problems. They knew what had to be done and had the answers. Public schools, they held, were the chief, if not the sole, determiner of individual and national success.  Schooling was the great equalizer shaping the life journey that individual children and youth traveled. Mirroring the deeply embedded and traditional belief that American institutions can, indeed make people better, the school, like the church and family, was an instrument for not only reforming individuals and institutions but also curing societal ills such as illiteracy, poverty, and economic slowdowns.

Migration of white, Black, and Latino families moving in and out of urban residential areas where racial covenants and banking practices kept neighborhoods segregated, leading to re-segregated schools where mostly minority children enrolled—often coming from families in poverty.  Suburban schools often became white enclaves. The unintended effect of direct actions and court-driven desegregation decisions, then, was to speed up re-segregation of poor and minority students by the 1990s.  Few policymakers after the Brown decision (1954) anticipated the return of racial and ethnic separation of whites from African American and Latino school children.

Or consider that one of the intended effects in the 1980s and 1990s of raising state high school graduation requirements, strengthening curriculum standards, using tests to determine how well students achieved those standards, and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts responsible for student academic outcomes—all policies aimed at tying schools closer to the nation’s economy–would have dire effects upon U.S. schools and students. Recall that state and local reform-minded policymakers and political leaders cheered the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (2002-2015) containing many of these features because reformers believed that such policies would help students and forge tighter links between schools and the economy.

The documented record, however, is mixed as to whether those reforms, including NCLB, aimed at producing skilled graduates who could enter an information-driven workplace achieved the intended goals. Yes, high school graduation rates have risen. And, yes, percentage of high school graduates attending college has increased. But test score gains sufficient to close the achievement gap between minorities and whites had not improved. Nor is there much evidence that graduates were better prepared to enter the workplace than an earlier generation.  Furthermore, the promise that higher standards and accountability would alter historic inequalities between minorities and whites remained unfulfilled. Unemployment and wages for African Americans remained largely unequal and stagnant during economic growth and recessions.

Few reformers, for example, thought that NCLB with its mandated state tests and its required reporting of Adequate Yearly Progress in test scores would push state and local policymakers to manipulate student results. State officials fiddled with numbers setting the threshold for a passing score on its tests to avoid many schools being tagged as “failing.” Additionally, many districts across the nation pressed teachers to taper their lessons to fit what was on these state tests. Schools set aside school time to prepare students for end-of-year exams. These unintended outcomes became obvious within a few years of NCLB’s passage.

Even worse in the wake of NCLB, many urban and suburban districts found that their schools had failed to meet the law’s criteria for improvement. States published districts’ test scores and districts announced school-by-school scores identifying those schools that were in danger of closing if results didn’t improve.  Each year, shame and blame exponentially spread across the U.S. as more schools flunked NCLB requirements.  Local and state officials complained annually about the unfairness of such measures applied without acknowledging demographic differences in districts and schools. They lobbied their legislators to alter the federal law. The deluge of complaints and meager student outcomes led the U.S. Congress to dump NCLB and pass the Every Student Succeeds Act delegating the power to determine school success and failure to each state. President Barak Obama signed ESSA into law in 2015.  In effect, the 2002 reform was re-formed in 2015.

None of this, of course, is new. Policy researchers and historians are well aware of how hard it is to show unvarnished success of reform-driven policies over time in districts and schools. They are equally aware of how commonly unexpected outcomes accompany these very same policies. Nor is it new that these unanticipated outcomes seldom loosened decision-makers’ embrace of reform-driven policies simply because of the pervasive faith that Americans had in the power of schooling to uplift those who historically have done poorly in public schools—immigrants, rural migrants, and low-income children of color.

Rock-hard Faith in Schooling

Recall that industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie endowed the Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching in 1905 and funded the construction and maintenance of nearly 1700 free libraries across the country between 1883-1929.

Also President Lyndon Johnson had as the centerpiece of his “War on Poverty,” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) that provided billions of dollars to poor and minority children then called “disadvantaged.”

And it is precisely on this point of faith about the curative powers of schooling that one pillar of that belief has wobbled and remains contested in 2021 even amid the Covid-19 pandemic.  For many decades there has been an enduring struggle among educators, parents, policymakers, and public officials over how much students’ backgrounds shape school effects.

For true believers, schooling improves everyone regardless of family circumstances. Yet, (and this is a very big “yet”) much evidence has piled up over the past century that social class matters on who sails through age-graded schools and who stumbles along the way. Consider, for example, that the majority of urban districts in the U.S. now house mostly minority and poor children. More than half of African American children and six out of ten Hispanic children and youth attended schools in 2017 that were at least 75 percent minority.  Most of these schools are located in urban districts and historically segregated southern rural districts. Note further than in 2013 researchers found that over half of U.S students are poor.

Moreover, the research literature on children’s academic performance has shown time and again that anywhere from over half to two-thirds of minority and white students’ test scores—lower, middle, and upper class–can be attributed to family’s socioeconomic background.

Yet many educators in public traditional and charter schools in poor neighborhoods either ignore or dispute those research findings. They continue to operate on the principle that engaged and committed staff unaccepting of  “excuses” (e.g., low-income family, all minority enrollment, neighborhood crime) could lift students out of poverty through helping them become academic achievers, entering college, and securing well-paid jobs. Evidence of such outcomes is both available and rich.

The issue, then, for those policymakers, practitioners, and parents, then, is determining to what degree family background and ethnic/racial school demography affect student achievement. For those willing to seek answers to that has to digest a large body of evidence of schools graduating low-income minority students who enter higher education. Hovering over all of this point-counterpoint argument is another discomforting and inescapable fact:  Formal  schooling  occupies only a small portion of a child’s day.

Consider that children and youth attend public schools about 1100 hours a year for 13 years (or just under 15,000 hours.  That time represents less than 20 percent of a child’s and teenagers waking time for all of those years in school.  Hence, most of student’s time is spent outside of school in the family, neighborhood, religious settings, and workplace. Important as time spent in school is economically and socially in accumulating content and hard- and soft-skills, diplomas and degrees for jobs and careers, it is often given far more weight—recall the basic faith that Americans have in the power of schooling–than life lived outside of school in assessing not only how a child becomes an adult but also what kind of adult.

So two fundamental questions past generations of reformers in these three movements neglected, sometimes considered, but seldom wrestled with publicly are about the complex intersecting of individuals, schools, and society. These questions remain unanswered for contemporary crusaders:

*How much of a child’s academic success or failure in school is due to family background?

* Can schools, reflecting the larger society’s faith in perfecting individuals and institutions, not only alter the effects of family background but also reform society?


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Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 2)

It would be a grave mistake to think that American reformers only looked at schools as targets for change.

Reforming individual Americans to be better persons has been in the American blood stream since the Mayflower arrived. Ditto for reforming community institutions to be better places within which to live and work.  Perfecting individuals and community institutions while solving problems of urban slums, corrupt city governments, poverty, racial segregation, corporate over-reach, and anemic economic growth has been steady work for reformers. Time and again these reform movements reached far beyond schools. [i]

As predictable as climbing up a ladder to clean leaves from roof gutters every season, reforms have regularly swept across the nation. Since the early 1900s, three overlapping social, political, and economic movements have churned across the U.S. and left marks on government, business, and community institutions, including public schools: The Progressive movement (1900s-1950s), the Civil Rights Struggle (1950s-1970s), and Binding Schools to the Economy (1980s-present). [ii]

 Reform movements 

Each of these political and social movements sought multiple goals one of which included school reform.  Early 20th century Progressives sought to remedy municipal corruption, corporate exploitation of workers and consumers, and inefficient institutions including traditional, lockstep schooling.

Both Black and white civil rights advocates sought equal treatment for Blacks in every institution. They pressured federal and state governments to eliminate segregated hospitals, pools, motels, playing fields, and toilets. They demanded unencumbered voting rights. And they wanted urban and rural schooling equal to what white suburban parents received for their children.

And in the closing decades of the 20th century, business leaders, alarmed by an economy falling behind Germany and Japan, restructured their industries, outsourced labor, and lobbied state and federal legislators to deregulate industries and lower taxes. Corporate leaders, seeking profits and returns to their investors also pushed equal opportunity for minorities to achieve the American Dream. These business-minded reformers saw U.S. public schools creating human capital necessary for the nation to compete economically in an increasingly interconnected global marketplace. Higher graduation requirements, common curriculum standards, and accountability for student test scores were reform-driven policies for producing that all-important human capital.

Binding together these seemingly different reform movements coursing through the American bloodstream over the past century were common features.

*Reformers had a serene faith in better schools ridding society of individual and societal injustices including crime, discrimination, and economic inequities. They believed schooling could create successful individuals and render American institutions havens of democracy, sources of economic growth, and social justice.

*Reformers insisted that state and federal governments remedy political, social, and economic ills and be held accountable for the actions they take (or do not take).

*In pursuit of these multiple goals, reformer sought deep policy and practice changes in public schools yet they left untouched the existing age-graded school structure and its “grammar of schooling.” Thus, each generation of school reformers unknowingly ended up preserving, not altering the basic structures of primary and secondary schooling.

Without skipping a beat, each generation of policy elites and activist leaders sought major reforms in government through federal and state legislation including reconfiguring schools. And they succeeded to a degree. The rhetoric of school reform in each generation included a to-do list of past failures that had to be corrected (e.g., hidebound traditional curriculum and practices, inefficient, unproductive schools churning out unskilled graduates). Each generation’s talk and political action did alter some official policies and increased access to public schools but inflated rhetoric followed by downsized policies left intact fundamental structures (e.g., the age-graded school and the grammar of schooling).  And as each movement wound down, another cohort of school reformers shouting rhetoric, redefined problems, and pushed policies that the previous one had chased while leaving largely unaffected existing school structures.

And so, the last century of reform in America has been the story of these three political and social movements featuring feverish policy talk, limited policy actions, and erratic implementation spilling over public schools decade after decade. Beyond these reformers achieving a few of their intended goals in each era, what often goes unnoticed are some of the unintended—even perverse– effects of reform talk, adopted policies, and their uneven execution.


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Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 1)

I have completed a draft of my next book called “Confessions of a School Reformer.” The first part of the Introduction to the book follows.

Just see wherever we peer into the first tiny springs of the national life, how this true panacea for all of the ills of the body politic bubbles forth—education, education, education.

                        Andrew Carnegie, 1886[i]

School houses do not teach themselves – piles of brick and mortar and machinery do not send out men. It is the trained, living human soul, cultivated and strengthened by long study and thought, that breathes the real breath of life into boys and girls and makes them human, whether they be black or white, Greek, Russian or American.

W.E.B. DuBois, 1903[ii]

At the desk where I sit in Washington, I have learned one great truth: The answer for all our national problems comes down to one single word: education

                        President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964[iii]

[E]ducation is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

                                    Sam Seaborn, West Wing, 2000, season 1, episode 18[iv]

According to industrialist Andrew Carnegie, scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois, President Lyndon Johnson, and a character in the award-winning television drama, West Wing, education ends poverty, leads to wealth, makes a person a full human being, and should be cherished.  

They were not the only ones to urge fellow citizens to grab the brass ring of education that circled on the American carousel. Mexican immigrant Celia who lives in a central Texas city tells an interviewer what she does for Daniel her 10 year-old son:

Up to now, that Daniel is in fourth grade, I’ll say all his teachers have been excellent teachers and I get along with them very well, I communicate. The first day of classes, and even before sometimes, I introduce myself, I ask them for their home phone number in case of an emergency, or in case the boy wants to lie and I have [to] doubt him, I ask them, I tell them, but it is not that I am bothering them. And teachers like to communicate, they ask for parents to go. For me, up to now, I don’t know if I will have a problem later, but up to now not, they ask for parents to go. When I can I am there for an hour, and I am there to read in Spanish. Or if they have something to do I help them, but . . . I like to work with them, but if I see that they are not good I tell them….[v]

My mother, Fanny Janofsky, immigrated from Kiev, then Czarist Russia, to America in 1910. My father, Morris Cuban, also from Kiev, arrived in New York in 1912. They met through family connections and married in 1919. They had three sons of whom I am the youngest.

Neither my father nor mother completed school in Russia. My father was a waiter, worked in delicatessens, and he and my mother had a small grocery store before he ended up as a jobber in Pittsburgh selling deli products from a paneled truck. He earned enough to house, feed, and clothe us for decades. Because my brothers were born in the 1920s, the Great Depression and World War II limited their schooling to getting high school diplomas. They eventually went into business together after 1945.

I was born in 1934 and since being a toddler, my mother drummed into me that since my brothers did not go beyond high school, I had to go to college to be a doctor or lawyer. I became neither. I did go to college working at different part-time jobs to pay tuition and have spending money while living at home. I  graduated and became a teacher. My mother’s message about getting an education was clear and constant.

As important as getting an education is to Presidents, corporate leaders, scholars, Celia, and my mother, the screen writer who put these words into Sam Seaborn’s  mouth: “I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet” captured the complexity of sussing out what direction schools should move and getting schools to go in that path. Generation after generation of American reformers over the past century believed in the power of tax-supported schools to enrich individuals and remedy national problems.  Some writers have characterized this faith in education as a secular religion that Americans worship. Because of this devotion to schooling as all-purpose solvent for parents, communities, and the nation, reformers again and again have tried to figure out, in Seaborn’s words:  “how to do it….” [vi]


[i] Andrew Carnegie, Triumphant Democracy (New York, Scribner’s Sons, 1886), p. 79.

[ii] W.E.B. Dubois, “The Talented Tenth” in Booker T.Washington, (Ed.)The Negro Problem, 1903 at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15041/15041-h/15041-h.htm#The_Talented_Tenth

[iii] Lyndon Johnson, “Remarks in Providence at the 200th Anniversary Convocation of Brown University, September 28, 1964,“ Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon Johnson, 1965, p. 1140.

[iv] Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter for Season 1, episode 18, has Presidential speechwriter Seaborn make this statement to an aide. See: https://westwing.fandom.com/wiki/Sam_Seaborn

[v] Gustavo Carreon, et. al., “The Importance of Presence: Immigrant Parents’ School Engagement Experiences,” American Educational Research Journal, 2005, 42(3), pp. 465-493. Quote is on p. 476.

[vi] Henry Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 1865-1990 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991); Carl Bankston and Stephen Caldas, Public Education—America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

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