Category Archives: school reform policies

Judging Success and Failure of Reforms in Classroom Practice

The dominant standard used by most policymakers, media editors, and administrators to judge success is effectiveness: What is the evidence that the policy has produced the desired outcomes? Have you done what you said you were going to do and can you prove it? In a society where “bottom lines,” Dow Jones averages, Super Bowl victories, and vote-counts matter, quantifiable results determine effectiveness.

Since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), federal and state policymakers have relied on the effectiveness standard to examine what students have learned by using proxy measures such as test scores, high school graduation rates, college attendance, and other indicators. For example, in the late-1970s policymakers concluded that public schools had declined because scholastic aptitudes test (SAT) scores had plunged downward. Even though test-makers and researchers repeatedly stated that such claims were false—falling SAT scores fueled public support for states raising academic requirements in the 1980s and adding standardized tests to determine success. With the No Child Left Behind Act (2001-2016) test scores brought rewards and penalties. [i]

Yet test results in some instances proved unhelpful in measuring a reform’s success. Consider the mid-1960s’ evaluations of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). They revealed little improvement in low-income children’s academic performance thereby jeopardizing Congressional renewal of the program. Such evidence gave critics hostile to federal initiatives reasons to brand President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs as failures. [ii]

Nonetheless, the program’s political attractiveness to constituents and legislators overcame weak test scores. Each successive U.S. president and Congress, Republican or Democrat, have used that popularity as a basis for allocating funds to needy students in schools across the nation including No Child Left Behind (2001) and its successor, Every Student Succeeds Act (2016). Thus, a reform’s political popularity often leads to its longevity (e.g., kindergarten, comprehensive high school, Platoon School).

Popularity, then, is a second standard that public officials use in evaluating success. The spread of an innovation and its hold on voters’ imagination and wallets has meant that attractiveness to parents, communities, and legislators easily translates into long-term political support for reform. Without the political support of parents and teachers, few innovations and reforms would fly long distances.

The rapid diffusion of kindergarten and preschool, special education, bilingual education, testing for accountability, charter schools, and electronic technologies in schools are instances of innovations that captured the attention of practitioners, parents, communities, and taxpayers. Few educators or public officials questioned large and sustained outlays of public funds for these popular reforms because they were perceived as resounding successes. And they have lasted for decades. Popularity-induced longevity becomes a proxy for effectiveness. [iii]

A third standard used to judge success is assessing how well innovations mirrored what designers of reforms intended. This fidelity standard assesses the fit between the initial design, the formal policy, the subsequent program, and its implementation.

Champions of the fidelity standard ask: How can anyone determine effectiveness if the reform departs from the design? If federal, state, or district policymakers, for example, adopt and fund a new reading program because it has proved to be effective elsewhere, teachers and principals must follow the blueprint as they put it into practice or else the desired outcomes will go unfulfilled (e.g., Success for All). When practitioners add, adapt, or even omit features of the original design, then those in favor of fidelity say that the policy and program cannot be determined effective because of these changes. Policy adaptability is the enemy of fidelity. [iv]

Where do these dominant standards of effectiveness, popularity, and fidelity come from? Policymakers derive the criteria of effectiveness and fidelity from viewing organizations as rational tools for achieving desired goals. Through top-down decisions, formal structures, clearly specified roles, and technical expertise, administrators and practitioners can get the job done.

Within organizations where rational decision-making and control are prized, policymakers ask: Have the prescribed procedures been followed (fidelity) and have the goals been achieved (effectiveness)? Hence, in judging reforms, those who carry out the changes must be faithful to the design before the standard of effectiveness in achieving goals is invoked.

But where do these beliefs embedded in these criteria come from? The growth of professional expertise in the private and public sectors, or what Donald Schön calls “technical rationality,” is grounded in the natural, physical, and social sciences and located in corporate training and professional education programs at universities. Rather than favoring practitioner expertise derived from schools and classrooms, public officials and researchers use this scientifically grounded knowledge to evaluate the degree to which reforms are effective. [v]

Contrary to the effectiveness and fidelity standards, popularity derives from the political nature of public institutions and the astute use of symbols (e.g., tests, pay-for-performance, computers) to convey values. Schools, for example, are totally dependent on the financial and political support of local communities and the state. Taxpayer support for, or opposition to, bond referenda or school board initiatives is often converted into political capital at election time. Whether an innovation spreads (e.g., charters) and captures public and practitioner attention becomes a strong basis for evaluating its success.[vi]

Seldom are these criteria debated publicly, much less questioned. Unexamined acceptance of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity avoids asking the questions of whose standards will be used, how they are applied and alternative standards can be used to judge reform success and failure.

Although policymakers, researchers, practitioners have vied for attention in judging the success of school reforms, policy elites, including civic and business leaders and their accompanying foundation- and corporate-supported donors have dominated the game of judging reform success.

Sometimes  called a “growth coalition,” these civic, business, and philanthropic leaders see districts and schools as goal-driven organizations with top officials exerting top-down authority through structures. They juggle highly prized values of equity, efficiency, excellence, and getting reelected or appointed. They are also especially sensitive to public expectations for school accountability and test scores. Hence, these policy making elites favor standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity—even when they conflict with one another. Because the world they inhabit is one of running organizations, their authority and access to the media give them the leverage to spread their views about what constitutes “success.” [vii]

So it is no surprise whose criteria are applied become harnessed to the how they are applied within K-12 organizations. For the most part, decisions flow downward. Elected leaders in coalition with top civic figures often take innovations directed at school improvement, package and deliver the reform (e.g., curriculum, instruction, school re-organization) to classrooms through official policies and procedures. While there are other ways for reforms to enter schools such as from the local school community and teachers and principals—from the bottom up—the top-down political decision to impose a reform on the organization from federal, state, and district leaders has been the dominant pattern in the history of school reform. [viii]

The world that policy elites inhabit, however, is one driven by values and incentives that differ from the worlds that researchers and practitioners inhabit. Policymakers respond to signals and events that anticipate reelection and media coverage. They consider the standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity rock-hard fixtures of their policy world. [ix]

Most practitioners, however, look to different standards. Although many teachers and principals have expressed initial support for high-performing public schools serving the poor and children of color, most practitioners have expressed strong skepticism about test scores as an accurate measure of either their effects on children or the importance of their work.

Such practitioners are just as interested in student outcomes as are policymakers, but the outcomes differ. They ask: What skills, content, and attitudes have students learned beyond what is tested? To what extent is the life lived in our classrooms and schools healthy, democratic, and caring? Can reform-driven programs, curricula, technologies be bent to our purposes? Such questions, however, are seldom heard. Broader student outcomes and being able to adapt policies to fit the geography of their classroom matter to practitioners.

Another set of standards comes from policy and practice-oriented researchers. Such researchers judge success by the quality of the theory, research design, methodologies, and usefulness of their findings to policy and student outcomes. These researchers’ standards have been selectively used by both policy elites and practitioners in making judgments about high- and low-performing schools. [x]

So multiple standards for judging school “success” are available. Practitioner-and researcher- derived standards have occasionally surfaced and received erratic attention from policy elites. But it is this strong alliance of policymakers, civic and business elites, and friends in the corporate, foundation, and media worlds that relies on standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity. This coalition and their standards continue to dominate public debate, school reform agendas, and determinations of “success” and “failure.”


[i] Patrick McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006)

[ii]Harvey Kantor, “Education, Reform, and the State: ESEA and Federal Education Policy in the 1960s,” American Journal of Education, 1991, 100(1), pp. 47-83; Lorraine McDonnell, “No Child Left Behind and the Federal Role in Education: Evolution or Revolution?” Peabody Journal of Education, 2005 80(2), pp. 19-38.

[iii] Michael Kirst and Gail Meister, “Turbulence in American Secondary Schools: What Reforms Last,” Curriculum Inquiry, 1985, 15(2), pp. 169-186; Larry Cuban, “Reforming Again, Again, and Again,” Educational Researcher, 1991, 19(1), pp. 3-13.

[iv]Janet Quinn, et. al., Scaling Up the Success For All Model of School Reform, final report, (Santa Monica (CA): Rand Corportation, 2015).

[v]Donald Schon, “From Technical Rationality to Reflection in Action,” in Roger Harrison, et. al. (editors), Supporting Lifelong Learning: Perspectives on Learning, vol. 1, pp. 40-61.

[vi] David Labaree, “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals,” American Educational Research Journal, 1997, 34(1), pp. 39-81; Amanda Datnow, “Power and Politics in the Adoption of School Reform Models,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 2000, 22(4), pp.357-374.

[vii] Sarah Reckhow, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Frederick Hess and Jeff Henig (eds.) The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy, and Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvrd Education Press,, 2015).

[viii] Linda Darling Hammond,”Instructional Policy into Practice: The Power of the Bottom over the Top,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990, 12(3), pp. 339-347. Charles Payne, So Much Reform, So Little Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008). Joyce Epstein, “Perspectives and Previews on Research and Policy for School, Family, and Community Partnerships,” in(New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 209-246.

[ix] Anita Zerigon-Hakes, “Translating Research Findings into Large-Scale Public Programs and Policy,” The Future of Children, Long-Term Outcomes of early Childhood Programs, 1995, 5(3), pp. 175-191; Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin, Steady Work (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1988);

[x] Thomas Reeve, “Can Educational Research Be Both Rigorous and Relevant,” Educational Designer, 2008, 1(4), at:

Burke Johnson and Anthony Omwuegbuzie, “Mixed Methods Research,” 2004, Educational Researcher, 2004, 33(7), pp. 14-26.


Filed under school reform policies

The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, (Part 1)

Were the “Open Space” schools of the 1960s and 1970s a reform failure?.

Instead of self-contained, four-walled classrooms of about 900 square feet holding one teacher and 25 students that opened up into long hallways, school boards hired architects to design schools without walls with large open spaces—sometimes called pods– where teams of teachers would teach multi-age children, collaborate with one another nearby and come up with innovative lessons that would engage students and sustain academic achievement. The newly designed physical structure would alter traditional age-graded schools in organizing students (e.g., multi-age groups rather than separating children and youth by age) how teachers worked together (e.g., team teaching rather than teachers assigned to separate classrooms) and how they taught the required curriculum by tailoring instruction and learning to the differences among students in abilities and their needs (e.g., small groups, individual work, and crossing subject boundaries with thematic units rather than whole-group instruction, textbooks, homework, and tests). Student-centered teaching, not the familiar teacher-centered lesson–would become the norm, open space reformers assumed.[i]

e3 Civic High 4.jpg

Open space architecture and enthusiasm for innovative grouping of children, teaching, and learning customized to individual students spread rapidly across the U.S. In the Washington, D.C. area, for example,

The District of Columbia schools spent $163 million in the 1970s to build 17 open space schools. In the same decade, Arlington County (VA) spent $25 million to convert 13 traditional schools into open space facilities. Montgomery County (MD) spent $32 million to build t 21 open space schools and Fairfax County (VA) spent $48 million on 13 buildings that combined both open and closed space. [ii]


Yet within a decade, these open space schools had put up partitions, built walls and went back to self-contained classrooms where again traditional lessons reigned. By the end of the 1980s, open space schools were a prime example of a seemingly “failed” reform. [iii]

Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century. Open space architecture in brand new building and refurbished older buildings has reappeared. Fueled by the ubiquity of computer devices and rhetoric about new technologies in practice such as “blended learning” and “personalized instruction” new schools have been erected that have flexible space—common areas for clusters of classrooms, small conference rooms, and space for individual students to read alone, work on devices to see exercises and do exercises and write. Multiple-sized spaces have returned in many buildings for both students and teachers to use new technologies in daily lessons. These new spaces again promised that teachers would shift from traditional lessons to student-centered ways of teaching that differentiated instruction and involved children and youth in daily activities. [iv]


Does this historical recounting of the once innovative open space architecture in schools in the late-1960s mean that it was a “success” for a brief moment in time—a shooting star—but eventually “failed” because walls and self-contained classrooms returned by the 1980s? Or have open space schools “succeeded” in that they returned and have been adapted to the technological context of the 21st century?

This example of a once highly touted school reform disappearing and returning–and I can name many others including “new” technologies–raise serious questions about the time scale policymakers, researchers, and practitioners use to judge reform “success” and “failure.”

Subsequent posts take up how the concept of time itself prompts premature judgments of “failure.”


[i] Open space schools refers to the interior architecture of the school where large , medium, and small spaces can be used to accommodate large-group, small-group, and independent work by students and teachers. Often confused with open space schools are “open education” and “open classrooms.” Although these pedagogical reforms are linked, they are independent of one another.

Open education surged in popularity in the late-1960s as a British import of progressive way of teaching primary and upper-grade children through small-group and independent work, much student decision-making in choosing the “learning centers” they would move through during the school day in traditional age-graded classrooms. The role of the teacher was closer to a coach and guide rather than engaging in teacher-directed lessons, using textbooks, administering quizzes and exams, and assigning nightly homework. Many advocates of “open education” also promoted open space schools to get rid of the age-graded school thus linking the two reforms. See Larry Cuban, “The Open Classroom,” Education Next, 2(4), 2004, pp. 69-71.

[ii] Judith Valente, “Open Space Classes: Results Doubtful?,” Washington Post, December 11, 1979 at:

Howard Libit, “ ‘Innovation’ Still Besets Some Schools: 1960s Trend to Open Space Failed Quickly,” Baltimore Sun, October 8, 1995 at:

[iii] I served as superintendent in the Arlington (VA) Public Schools between 1974-1981. I visited schools and classrooms a few days each week and by the end of my first year, I noticed that in at least a half-dozen open space elementary schools built in the late-1960s and early 1970s, partitions made of book cases, newly installed accordion separators, and plastered walls had been erected to re-create separate classrooms for K-6 teachers.

[iv]Michael Horn, “Tear Down This Wall! A New Architecture for Blended Learning Success,” EdSurge, June 29, 2015 at:


Filed under school reform policies

Technology Trade-offs in a Physics Classroom (Alice Flarend)

“Alice Flarend is a National Board Certified Teacher and is the physics teacher at Bellwood-Antis High School in Pennsylvania.  She holds a B.S and M.S in Nuclear Engineering from University of Illinois and University of Michigan respectively. Alice caught the teaching bug while doing engineering doctoral work at the University of Michigan and has been teaching for over twenty years.  She is currently working part time on a Science Education Ph.D at Penn State.  She plans on remaining in her classroom to be a bridge between the worlds of higher education  and public K-12 schools.”

One of the first uses of computers in many physics classes decades ago was to graph data using Excel. This innovation prompted lengthy discussions among physics teachers at meetings and conferences about the trade-offs of having students use this aid rather than graphing by hand. Excel could make graphing so easy, but the students could lose the skill of creating axes, legends, and interacting with their data.

I have found these types of discussions distinctly lacking as we move more classroom activities onto the digital world. I want to call attention to the often overlooked trade offs between efficiency and quality of information that occur when classroom tasks are handled electronically. While the examples I present  are from my world of physics teaching, I have seen similar ones in my high school as we have moved through a 1-to-1 iPad initiative.

Physics classes are inherently hands on. We drop marbles and roll balls down inclines, usually with stop watches in our hands. Computer simulations and digital data collection for laboratory experiments are replacing those stop watches. Computers allow students to collect more and cleaner data than ever before. Calculations are done internally and instantly displayed graphically. Patterns are easier to discern. Multiple trials are accomplished with a click.

However, that simple click masks information about the data collection and processing. It hides the messy experimental and mathematical work that is the basis for the patterns. My students believe that any graph on the screen must be an accurate representation of a ball in motion, even the wildly inaccurate ones caused by ball being nowhere near the digital sensor. It is so easy for students to lose sight of the actual physical world as they analyze those pretty digital graphs.

My early experiences with an internet-based homework service were more positive than turning in paper homework. Particularly with difficult problems,  paper homework tends to be more of a “I didn’t understand this but at least I got something to turn in” type of experience. Internet-based homework gives students a particular number of attempts so they keep trying a problem until they get it right. I could give my students challenging work and their grades would not suffer terribly because they could keep working until they got it right. Because my homework service does not have a sophisticated “help” function, students would come to me for aid. They gained a deeper understanding as we talked and I gained valuable formative assessment feedback.

In the last few years, however, there has been a disturbing trend of students searching online for solutions. The problem is these online solutions are not educative solutions. They just give a bare-bones derivation and students then plug in their numbers into the final equation. Students get the problem marked correct but they do not actually understand the solution. With increased use of these online tools, I have more students who take only a single try to get each homework problem correct, but then fail the test.

This automatic grading, a feature of many digital products, saves me time and the students get immediate feedback. They can be used in real time in the classroom. For the most part, these grading programs are limited to multiple choice questions or numerical solutions. As an experienced teacher, I can create these types of questions to probe my students’ knowledge, but they are limited to more simple ideas and preprogrammed choices. I prefer open-ended types of questions where the students write a long enough answer so their misconceptions and uncommon ideas can emerge and be explained in unique ways. I can look at their work with mathematical problems. That is where I find the most useful formative assessment. With digital grading programs, I lose a lot of that valuable information.

Tools like Google Classroom are supposed to ease communication between teachers and students. They allow efficient dissemination of classroom materials to students and collecting their work. The perennial excuses of “I lost the handout” or “My printer ran out of ink” are no longer applicable when students can just download another copy or email me their documents. I can easily add comments to those documents submitted to me, helping students to improve their work. All of this can be done at any moment that the student or teacher wishes, at school or at home.

In my experience, I have seen little evidence that this ease of communication has increased the quantity or quality of my students’ work. Students who neglected to turn in paper homework also neglect electronic versions. Students who lose handouts do not download new copies. I can write many helpful comments on students’ work and they will receive a notification that a comment has been posted. Nothing in the program, however, makes the students read these comments and improve their work. Now the same can be said for comments written on paper, but in judging the large numbers of requests I receive for translation of my third-grade handwriting, my students do tend at least to read my handwritten comments.

Overall, this apparent ease of accomplishing classroom work has created a larger gap between the students. Students who work to understand the material and see a purpose in school, do take advantage of the affordances of the technology as they do all other supports.   Many other students disconnected from learning in school are not lured into learning because of screens, despite the promises of the tech literature. They do not take advantage of internet tutorials to increase their understanding. They do not look at my comments and do a rewrite of their rough draft. They do not open up lines of communication outside of classroom time, despite having a device and programs that will do this with only a few clicks. This gap has always existed, but the digital aspect has increased it, or at least made it more visible.

What I have learned from these experiences is to be vigilant in the use of technology. It offers many advantages in making tasks easier and more efficient. It does not, however, easily transform any classroom activity into one where deep learning occurs. In fact, it can easily do the opposite and mask difficulties in a flurry of correct answers and perfect graphs.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Personalized Learning at Pomeroy Elementary School (Milpitas, CA)

The recently built Learning Lab at Pomeroy Elementary School is a large room with multi-colored chairs, cubbies for students to sit in, and tables where students work together. Part of the previous Superintendent’s plan for staff to redesign their schools for blended learning (see here), Pomeroy’s Learning Lab the morning of October 21, 2016 was filled with 28 sixth graders working on different tasks. “We are,” their teacher Deanna Sainten said,”doing blended learning to the max.”


Pomeroy LL.jpgLL at Pomeroy.jpg

After listening to the veteran teacher who has spent ten years at Pomeroy, I walked around and spoke to students sitting in pairs, trios, and alone. Three students told me that they were looking at a Scholastic News article called “Vote for Me,” about the Clinton/Trump campaign for president. They were reading the article and moving back-and-forth from the text to the worksheet with questions to answer. Another boy was writing in his notebook as he paged through his math text.

Two other 6th graders were working on their Personal Learning Plan checking which items they had “mastered,” (these show up in green on their screens) and ones that they have yet to complete (they show up in red). I asked them whether they had set goals for themselves–the PLP helps students acquire skills of self-assessment–and one showed me a screen shot of his goal labeled “Going to College.” The other boy still was at sea in figuring out how to use that part of the PLP.*

Elsewhere in the Learning Lab, I saw a line of about five students waiting to see Sainten sitting at a small desk. The students wanted the teacher to check their work  or were asking questions about the task they were working on.

I walked over to other students to see what they were doing. One boy was writing out answers on a worksheet about Ron Jones’ Acorn People and then transferring his answers to his Chromebook.  I asked him why he was doing that. He said: “It’s neater.” Two girls were working on the Scholastic News article on the presidential campaign and Googling on their tablets for information to answer questions. A boy and girl at a table were working on the Paleothic unit on their Chromebooks. Both were taking notes on their tablets from the readings they had done on screen. They said that after they were finished with the notes they would submit them to Ms. Sainten for her approval before they could move to assessing on screen how much they learned on this part of the Paleolithic era.

As I scanned the room every trio, pair, and individual were at work on different tasks.

At the 12′ X 12′ whiteboard under the banner: The Mind Is Not a Vessel To Be Filled But a Fire To Be Ignited–see above photo–a boy and girl were working out math problem called “opposites of numbers.” They were talking to one another and jotting down notes to be sent to the teacher after they were finished.

The teacher tells class that they have five minutes left to complete their work before returning to their room. Four students wait in line to see Sainten. She looks around the Learning Lab and says aloud to the group, “Make sure conversations are on task.”

With a minute before the buzzer sounds, teacher tells class: “You have to leave Learning Lab cleaner than you found it.” Students straighten out tables and chairs, pick up scraps of paper on the floor. Buzzer sounds. Students return to their classroom.

In those classrooms when upper-grade teachers are not in the Learning Lab,  Sainten and colleagues organize their daily lessons around switching students between small groups, individual work, and large group instruction. The teachers rotate their students through various activities (reading, math, independent work using Chromebooks whenever appropriate) within a 45-minute lesson. For the primary teachers who do not have access to the Learning Lab, they do rotation of activities within the classroom (see below).

Pomeroy Elementary School has 761 students of whom 72% Asian, 12% Hispanic, 5% white, 1% African American and 10% mixed race or other. In addition, the school has 36% English Language Learners and 25% Free or Reduced Lunch (2015). Sheila Murphy Brewer is principal. She and an assistant principal, 29 teachers and 19 staff members run the school. Teachers and students live for six or more hours a day in a remodeled main building and a host of portables, many of which have been made permanent.

Built in 1967 as an “open space” school, within a few years walls went up and teachers reclaimed their own classrooms while still retaining common space in the primary grades. As the school grew in enrollment, portables were added and renovations occurred as did the addition of even more portables. The Learning Lab space is, in effect, a resurrection of “open space” in the original part of the school.

Pomeroy school.jpg

After leaving the Learning Lab, I walked over to visit Akshat Das’s 5th grade class. With 29 students, each wall laden with posters, students’ work, and photos, the room felt crowded. Students leave their back packs outside the room.

Pom--5th grade.jpgPomeroy.jpg

Das was seated at a table in the front of the room working with individual students who she called up one at a time to meet with her. The rest of the class were at work on different activities, some reading from their Chromebook screens, others in pairs taking notes and talking to one another, and even others helping classmates with a question. Das looks across the room and says: “eyes and ears up here,” meaning that students stop and look at her. “You have been working in pairs and if you need more help you can turn to others at your table, she says.”

A former parent at the school and volunteer, Das eventually acquired her credentials and began teaching at Pomeroy five years ago. Like her upper grade colleagues, she participated in Summit’s Base Camp and created lessons that could be used (and shared) among 5th grade teachers.

After class, Das told me that she works closely with one other 5th grade teacher, particularly on how best to manage time and do all that is required to help kids especially those who need help. She has shifted, she says, from “direct instruction” in content (she teaches science, language arts, math, social studies) to using the Personal Learning Plan after her summer work with Base Camp. Now, she says, content is available to students on their Chromebooks as they learn subject matter in different “modalities.”

Das also pointed out to me that 5th graders now learn far more and explicitly from each other. They work on their individual PLPs and know what they have finished and what they have to work on. They know how many items they have “mastered” and how many items in lessons need further work. She now parlays small groups working together, pairs, whole group instruction, and individual attention from her–as she was doing when I entered the room–into a complex lesson that unfolded as I was there.

According to Das, she has decentralized her instruction by using PLPs. Moreover, she has trained members of the class to be “mentors” to other students who need help on a particular skill. On one wall is a list of  student names and the skills they have mastered. After being approved by Das, students write in their names and what content and skills they can help  other 5th graders. When these  “mentors” complete their tasks during a lesson they are then allowed to help other students who have asked them for aid.

Upper grade teachers had access to Learning Lab and had learned to use the PLP. What about the primary grades?

On another day, after interviewing the principal, I visited Pomeroy to see how primary grade teachers put “blended learning” into practice. As part of the school plan, these teachers did not have access to the Learning Lab. I saw two second grade classes (with a large common space between the two rooms) teach lessons by rotating students through three activities within the classroom.

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For example, in Vicky Ramirez’s second grade room there are 23 boys and girls. She has been teaching at Pomeroy for over 20 years. Sitting in the back of the room I see 11 students using the iReady application with   earphones/ear buds sitting at tables working on math in their Chromebooks (there is a cart of devices in the room). Ramirez, sitting in a rocker, works on reading with eight students sitting on rug. Elsewhere in the room, four boys are lying on rug working on clipboards that they have with tasks to complete.

Ramirez has divided the lesson into three activities: teacher-led reading group, independent work–boys with clipboards–and others using iReady. After about 15-20 minutes, the teacher announces that the students will rotate to another activity. Students respond quickly and some go up to Ramirez for reading, another group dons earphones and buds, and the rest work independently on worksheets.

Over the two morning visits to Pomeroy Elementary school, “blended learning” and “personalization” operated differently in the primary and upper grades of the school. The Learning Lab catered to the upper grades and in-class rotation of activities in the  primary ones. In both instances, the use of the devices were in the background, not the foreground of each teacher’s lessons.


*The Personal Learning Plan and individual playlists for 5th and 6th graders in language arts, social studies, science, and math come from Pomeroy teachers’ involvement with Summit charter network creation of a Base Camp (see here). Fifth and 6th grade teachers at Pomeroy and Weller elementary schools had joined the Summit Base Camp during the summer of 2015 and that school year and the following summer had learned how to have students use the PLP and, in addition, had customized playlists for their upper-grade elementary school students. Sixth grade teacher Deanna Sainten, described above, had attended the Summit Base Camp.She and her colleagues had created lessons and units adapted to upper elementary grades since the Base Camp was tilted toward secondary schools.

The above description of Pomeroy students in the Learning Lab draws from this partnership with the Summit network of schools reaching out to other public schools (Interview with Principal Sheila Murphy-Brewer, October 21, 2016).


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Personalized Learning in Milpitas (CA): District Reforms

A former high school science teacher in a small Northern California district, Cary Matsuoka eventually moved into administration and became superintendent in 2006 in Los Gatos-Saratoga Union school district with two high schools, one of which he had taught in for 13 years. After five years as superintendent, he applied for and was chosen superintendent of the larger Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) in 2011. Milpitas then had 13 schools (nine elementary, two middle, and one high school) serving about 10,000 students, far more diverse than the smaller mostly white Los Gatos-Saratoga Union district. Matsuoka left MUSD in 2016 to serve the larger Santa Barbara district of 22 schools and over 15,000 students (see here and here).

But, oh what a five year run in technology integration it was for Milpitas.

A year after Matsuoka arrived, district voters approved a $95 million bond proposition for new buildings and technology infrastructure. In that year, the superintendent posed a question to district staff.

*”If you could design a school what would it look like?”

Taken with how contemporary designers pose problems and involve those who have to execute decisions in classrooms (see here), Matsuoka involved staff, the school board, and teacher union in answering this critical question. No top-down answers or direction from the board or superintendent. No command-and-control decisions. Answers would come from those who had to execute the designs. An unusual process in most districts.

He and Chin Song, director of technology, took groups of teachers, administrators, and board of education members to see about 50 schools throughout California. Also as Song explained, “We wanted to bring people to campus because it was easier timing-wise.Maybe it’ll be teachers from Rocketship, maybe Summit, maybe Santa Barbara… we like variety.”


[Matsuoka on left; Song, right]

The answers came slowly but clearly over the next school year driven by the widely shared truth of teaching in public schools: classrooms with 30-plus students in age-graded schools, tailoring instruction to meet differences among students and individualizing learning is very hard to do.

With construction and technology funding, district administrators asked schools to come up with designs, new models, for their schools. Matsuoka said that the models schools came up would be judged and a few selected to become pilots for the district. The designs had to meet these criteria:

“The models had to 1) integrate technology, 2) use data to inform instruction 3) be student-centered and 4) be flexible in how they used space, time, and student grouping.” (see here)

District committees chose two elementary schools  to be pilots. By the end of 2013, the direction was clear. The pilots and work at one middle school showed that a newly designed school could integrate technology into daily lessons.  All district schools would have blended learning with special spaces set aside for newly constructed Learning Labs.

By 2013, with money from the approved bond proposition, nearly 5,000 Chromebooks had been purchased and distributed across the district. By 2015, six elementary schools, one middle school and the one district high school had been remodeled to include Learning Labs (Matsuoka letter to Milpitas Post, September 2014).

In the primary grades of elementary schools teachers would rotate learning stations during a lesson: students would move from small groups in reading, to math, and then tablet computers to work individually).  In the upper elementary grades, rotation of classes through the Learning Lab would occur. In middle and high schools, the newly built Learning Labs became centers for technology integration. Individual teachers and departments scheduled their classes to use the new spaces. This became the blended learning model that MUSD gradually–not in one fell swoop–spread through the district (see here and here).

This also became the district version of “personalized learning.” As the Superintendent put it in a letter to the Milpitas Post in September 2014:

What does personalized learning look like?  It begins by looking at education as both acquisition of information and application of information.  Then we must create learning environments that nurture a strong relationship between the teacher and the student, and a strong sense of community within each classroom.  Students should have opportunities for collaboration and learning with and from their peers.  Students should have more choice about what they learn, more control over time and pacing, and use technology to create a personalized learning pathway

In the Fall of 2016, I visited two of the elementary schools that have been involved in the redesign of their schools, one of which had been selected as a pilot for blended learning, and spent two mornings each observing primary and upper-grade lessons and interviewing  teachers. The following posts will describe what I saw and heard.


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

Beyond the Classroom and School: District Technology Integration

Over the years, I have written about differences between complicated and complex (see here). I pointed out the differences in those top-down, command-and-control organizations that launch rockets into space and keep cities safe and those open, loosely-coupled organizations that provide health care, administer criminal justice, and offer public schooling that are vulnerable to their political and social environments,  heavily dependent upon relationships, and individual discretion.

For the past year, I have described best cases of classrooms that I have visited where technology integration was in the background, not the foreground (see here, here, and here). I have also posted descriptions of schools identified as exemplary in integrating technology across all of their classrooms such as the Summit network of charter schools.

But I have not yet profiled districts that have integrated technology on a systematic basis. In Silicon Valley, including most of the Bay area, there are 77 school districts. All have technology plans for their schools. These districts buy lots of hard- and software, wire and WiFi schools, provide classroom carts of laptops and tablets, offer teacher workshops and then cross their fingers that teachers will step up and use what the district has provided for daily lessons.Voluntary participation is the rule which means that great variation exists not only in every single school but across these districts heralded as embracing high-tech.

Only a few districts, however, have gone beyond a plan, buying devices, and crossing their fingers that teachers will use all of the available hardware and software. Only a few districts adopted policies that nudged all teachers in every school to use new technologies, blended learning, and personalized lessons.  Only a few districts have built a systematic infrastructure of broadband and WiFi, incorporated newly-developed software, sponsored professional development, and provided technical assistance to support (and push) teachers to integrate technology into their daily lessons. In Silicon Valley I found two such districts: Mountain View-Los Altos and Milpitas.

In the Mountain View-Los Altos district I profiled two of its schools and described 10 classroom lessons I observed in these schools (see, for example, here and here) . In Milpitas, a dozen miles away, two principals invited me to observe their primary and upper-elementary classrooms and interview teachers. I did observe classes and interview teachers at each school as well as interviewing a district administrator.

Knowing that each level of schooling–classroom, school, and district–contains its unique complexities and knowing that districts are not command-and-control organizations, using a tri-focal lens one can come to appreciate, if not understand, that changing what classroom teachers do, altering how schools operate daily, and improving  district performance  is no easy walk in the park.

Each of these three systems are nested in one another. Each level affects the other as teachers go about doing what is expected in classrooms, school staff wrestle with instruction and curriculum, and both individual teachers and school staffs connect to the district school board, superintendent, and administrators from which policies and resources flow downward. These three levels of schooling are Siamese triplets that are separate and interactive but cannot be severed.

There are so many moving parts in these loosely-coupled system called a district.  So much interaction and overlap in these nested communities nonetheless depend on continuity in student/teacher relationships, principal/staff cooperation, and school board/district administrators working closely together. Sure, there are top-down directives that flow into schools and bottom-up actions that trickle upward in the organization.

Furthermore, there are constant search for resources and support from groups inside and outside the system. Include, then, among the moving parts, the ever-changing political interests that have their own ideas of what is a “good” teacher, what is a “good” school, and a “good” district. Enacting public schooling is political drama with conflict, tears, hurrahs, and disappointment. And that is what makes school reform a complex endeavor. District work is not for the faint-of-heart or those who fail to grasp that complexity across and between three organizational levels.

The fact is that classrooms, schools, and districts are open systems with permeable boundaries that can be easily crossed by outside groups such as single issue advocates, state officials, national lobbies, etc. It is one fact that policymakers, researchers, and parents have to not only grasp but also know it in their actions.  If  educational decision-makers cannot give up their vision of command-and-control organizations and wrap their minds around open, loosely-coupled places established to help students (not customers), these top decision-makers will continue to stumble their way through school reform.

Consider, for example, all the factors and constraints teachers face putting a planned lesson into practice.  In a 50- or 60-minute lesson, teachers make hundreds of decisions, some planned, many unplanned, anchored in the content and skills to be learned, the technologies used, relationships among students and between the teacher and students, and the norms and rituals  within the class (e.g., teacher counting from 10 to 0 to get quiet, rhythmic clapping of teacher and students to get attention, students listening to one another and taking turns).

The deep knowledge teachers have of subject matter, cognitive and social skills, details about their students all come to the surface in the questions teachers ask, how they determine who will be with whom in small group activities, and when–clock watching is an occupational tic with most teachers–to segue from one part of the lesson to another. The inexorable unpredictability of student response to a lesson often calls for instant decision-making, for example, when a student unexpectedly rants or cries; when snow starts falling outside the windows and students get restless. Or an assistant principal enters the room to observe the lesson. Or an incident of bullying during recess that spills into the class, and on and on. Teacher’s tacit knowledge of all of the above forms the bedrock of the relationship with students which is the core of their learning both in and out of classrooms.


As one teacher told me “just managing the complexity of teaching a lesson can be overwhelming.” Looking at all of the above factors that come into play when a teacher improvises or goes ahead with a planned decision is often what staggers newcomer to teaching and researcher.

So too the complexity deepens when one moves from the classroom as the unit of analysis to the school. Grasping the sheer number of factors that influence a school’s  organization, culture and relationships among adults and with students is tough enough. Schools with 10 to 100 classrooms, credentialed and non-credentialed staff, diversity of students, parental involvement, and dozens of other factors come into play. Then consider that one school is multiplied by 1o to 50 to 100 to form a district and how the complexity of each level multiplies when one considers the cross-cutting factors that come into play when the district is the unit of analysis. Each level embedded in the other has a structure, culture, and entwined relationships. Look at the figure below that tries to capture just a fraction of myriad moving parts.


All of this discussion of complexity brings me to the Milpitas Unified School District a system of just over 10,000 students (45 % Asian, 21% Filipino, 21 % Hispanic, 7% white, 3% black) distributed among 14 schools from pre-K to senior high school. Thirty three percent of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunches.  Nearly 800 staff strive to reach the goals that the school board and superintendent seek to achieve (see here, here, and here).

Thus, Milpitas is a system of embedded organizations (e.g., classrooms, schools, and district office) interacting daily with one another often in loosely coupled arrangements. Then consider how the city of Milpitas (over 100,000 residents), Santa Clara County in which the city is located, the state of California, and the federal government also interact in small and large ways with the district. Yes, this is complexity with a capital C.

In the next post, I will describe how one superintendent, Cary Matusoka, spent five years  (2011-2016) trying to move an entire district to redesign the way its teachers taught and students learned through integrating new technologies.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

The Palimpsest of Progressive Schooling (Part 4)*

Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).


Personalized learning, i.e.,tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student, has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and in the second decade of the 21st century.

Recent posts on the AltSchool (Parts 2 and 3) and different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–-a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–-have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago. Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective (and deeper understanding) to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized learning–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of a science of education.

School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured buildings, teacher performance, and student achievement. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives” and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neo-progressive reformers, borrowing from their earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.”   Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.

As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and more interaction with the “real” world, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”).

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to other stations in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade as a new generation of reformers promised “back to basics” (see here).

Personalized Learning Today

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” today resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging  cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” (and the many definitions of each) is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.

But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

Except for  AltSchool and other private schools, tensions arise in public schools over end-of-year testing, meeting annual proficiency standards, and judging academic performance on the basis of student scores. Few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized learning” in their schools have yet faced these conflicts in the DNA of this popular reform.

So current innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered learning,   and “blended learning”  are written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education.  Efficiency in teaching students (faster, better, and at less cost) while teachers individualize instruction through use of digital tools combine anew the two wings of the century-old Progressive education movement.


*This post is an updated version of the one that originally appeared June 9, 2015.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school leaders, technology use, Uncategorized