Category Archives: school reform policies

A Continuum on Personalized Learning: First Draft

After visiting over three dozen teachers in 11 schools in Silicon Valley and hearing an earful about “personalized learning,” I drafted a continuum where I could locate all of the different versions of “personalized learning” I observed and have read about.

If readers have comments about what’s missing, what needs to be added or how I organized the continuum conceptually, I would surely appreciate hearing from you.

In 2016, when I visited Silicon Valley classrooms, schools and districts, many school administrators and teachers told me that they were personalizing learning. From the Summit network of charter schools to individual teachers at Los Altos and Mountain View High School where Bring Your Own Devices reigned to two Milpitas elementary schools that had upper-grade Learning Labs and rotated students through different stations in all grades, I heard the phrase often.

But I was puzzled by what I saw and heard. When asked what a teacher, principal or district administrator meant by “personalized learning I heard different definitions of the policy. Not a surprise since the history of school reform is dotted with the debris of earlier instructional reforms that varied greatly in definitions (e.g., New Math, Socratic seminars, mastery learning, individualized instruction). No one definition of personalized learning monopolizes the reform terrain. [i]

When I went into classrooms to see what “personalized learning” meant in action, I observed much variation in the lessons and units that bore the label. None of this should be surprising since “technology integration” and other reform-minded policies draw from the hyped-up world of new technologies where vendors, promoters, critics, and skeptics compete openly  for the minds (and wallets) of those who make decisions about what gets into classrooms.

Not only have definitions of “personalized learning” among policymakers and entrepreneurs varied,  but also diverse incarnations have taken form as the policy   percolated downward from school board decisions, superintendent directions to principals, and principals’ asking teachers to put into practice a new board policy. Teacher adaptations of policy is as natural as a yawn and just as prevalent. Variation in district schools and classrooms is the norm, not the exception.

Translated into practice in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, the concept of “personalized instruction” is like a chameleon; it appears in different forms. Rocketship schools, the AltSchool, and the Agora Cyber School blazon their personalized learning  (or competency-based learning) placard for all to see yet it differs in each location.[ii]

The Personalized Learning Continuum

To make sense of what I observed in Silicon Valley schools and what I know historically about instructionally-guided reforms over the past century, I have constructed a continuum of classrooms, programs, and schools that encompass distinct ways that “personalized learning” appear in customized lessons seeking short- and long-term goals for schooling the young.

Let me be clear, I place no value for either end (or the middle) of the personalized learning continuum. I have stripped away value-loaded words in my writing that suggest some kinds of personalized learning are better than others. Moreover, the continuum does not suggest the effectiveness of “personalized learning” or achievement of specific student outcomes.

At one end of the continuum are teacher-centered lessons within the traditional age-graded school. These classrooms and programs, switching back and forth between phrases on “competency-based education” and “personalization,” use new technologies online and in class daily that convey specific content and skills, aligned to Common Core standards, to make children into knowledgeable, skilled, and independent adults who can successfully enter the labor market and become adults who help their communities.

The format of these lessons including the instructional moves the teacher makes in seguing from one activity to another, handling student behavior, time management, and student participation in activities to reach the lesson’s objectives typically call for a mix of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently. At this end of the continuum, these lessons contain a mix of whole group, small group, and independent activities but with a decided tilt to teacher direction and whole-group work.

For examples, consider the New Hampshire Virtual Learning Center, USC Hybrid High School CA), and Lindsay Unified School District (CA). While these examples inhabit the teacher-centered end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another–USC Hybrid High School differs in organization and content from New Hampshire Virtual Learning Charter. [iii]

Yet I cluster these schools and districts at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using online and offline lessons anchored in discrete skills and knowledge and tailored to the abilities and performance of individual students. Specific behavioral outcomes guide what is expected of each and every student. The knowledge and skills are packaged by software designers and teachers and delivered to students daily and weekly. Students use applications that permit them to self-assess their mastery of the specific knowledge and skills embedded in discrete lessons. Some students move well ahead of their peers, others maintain steady progress, and some need help from teachers.

Even though these schools and programs often use the language of student-centeredness (e.g., students decide what to learn, students participate in their own learning), and encourage teachers to coach individuals and not lecture to groups, even scheduling student collaboration during lessons, the teacher-crafted playlists and online lessons keyed to particular concepts and skills determine what is to be learned. Finally, these programs and schools, operating within traditional K-12 age-graded schools, are descendants of the efficiency-minded wing of the Progressive reforms a century earlier.

At the other end of the continuum are student-centered classrooms, programs, and schools often departing from the traditional age-graded school model in using multi-age groupings, asking big questions that combine reading, math, science, and social studies while integrating new technologies regularly in lessons. These places seek to cultivate student agency and want children and youth to reach beyond academic and intellectual development. They want to shape how individual students grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

Moreover, these programs seek learning that comes out of student interests and passions including community-based activities. The overall goals of schooling at this end of the continuum are similar to ones at the teacher-directed end: help children grow into adults who are creative thinkers, help their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults. Like the other end of the spectrum, these approaches draw from the pedagogical wing of the Progressives a century ago.[iv]

For example, there are over 60 Big Picture Learning schools across the nation where students create their own “personalized learning plans” and work weekly as interns on projects that capture their passions. Or High Tech High in San Diego that centers its instruction around project-based learning. The Mission Hill School in Boston (MA), The Open Classroom at Lagunitas Elementary in San Geronimo (CA), the Continuous Progress Program at Highlands Elementary in Edina (MN)–all have multi-age groupings, project-based instruction, and focus on the “whole child.” And there are private schools such as San Francisco-based AltSchool, a covey of micro-schools located in big cities and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) fit here as well. [v]

Lesson formats in schools at this end of the continuum commonly call for a blend of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently–with alignment to Common Core standards. At this end of the continuum, these lessons bend noticeably toward small group and individual activities with occasional whole group instruction.

Many of these schools claim that they “personalize learning” in their daily work to create graduates who are independent thinkers, can work in any environment, and help to make their communities better places to live. There are many such schools scattered across the nation (but I found no public school in Silicon Valley that would fit here). Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum, much variation exists among these schools harbored at this end of the continuum.[vi]

And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrid programs and schools mixing teacher-directed and student-directed lessons. In this diverse middle are teachers, schools and programs that provide blends of whole group, small group, and independent activities in lessons. Some teachers and schools, in their quest to personalize learning tilt toward the teacher-directed end while others lean toward the student-centered pole. But they occupy slots in the middle of the continuum.

These classrooms, schools, and programs combine online and offline lessons for individual students and teacher-directed whole group discussions, and small group work such as ones taught by Mountain View High School English teacher, Kristen Krauss, Aragon High School Spanish teacher, Nicole Elenz-Martin, and second-grade teacher Jennifer Auten at Montclaire Elementary School in Cupertino (CA) into blends of teacher- and student-centered lessons.

The middle school math program I observed called Teach To One located in an Oakland (CA) K-8 charter school has different “modalities” that place it also in the center of the spectrum as well, tilting toward the teacher-directed end with its numbered math skills that have to be mastered before a student moves on.

I would also include the nine teachers in the two Summit Charter schools I observed  who combined project-based teaching, online readings and self-assessments, individual coaching and collaborative work within 90-minute lessons. While the two Summit schools in which I observed teachers had explicitly committed itself to “project-based learning,” the projects were largely chosen by the teachers who collaborated with one another in making these decisions for all Summit schools; the projects were aligned to the Common Core state standards.

While choices were given to students within these projects for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, major decisions on projects were in teachers’ hands. That is why I placed these teachers, programs, and schools in the center of the continuum, rather than the student-centered end.

Such schools and teachers mix competency-based, individual lessons for children with lessons that are teacher-directed and pursuing project-based activities. The format of lessons continue the inevitable mix of whole, group, small group, and independent learning with inclinations to more of one than the other, depending on lesson objectives and teacher expertise. In no instance, however, does whole-group activities dominate lesson after lesson.

Like those at the teacher- and student-centered ends, these programs lodged in the middle of the spectrum contain obvious differences among them. In hugging the middle, however, these programs also embody distinct traces of both the efficiency- and pedagogical wings of the century old Progressive reformers.

The popular policy innovation of “personalized learning” has a history of Progressive reformers a century ago embedded in it. Implementation today, as before, depends upon teachers adapting lessons to the contexts in which they find themselves and modifying what designers have created. Classroom adaptations mean that rigorous–however it is defined–lessons will vary adding further diversity to both definition and practice of the policy. And putting “personalized learning” into classroom practice means that there will continue to be hand-to-hand wrestling with issues of testing and accountability.

Yet, and this is a basic point, wherever  these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts  fall on the continuum of personalized learning with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization.


[i] In the glossary of educational terms, the entry describes a full array of meanings for the phrase. One of the longer entries in the glossary, personalized learning includes programs, instructional applications, and academic strategies. See:

[ii] Each of the programs named claim that they have personalized learning. See their websites for descriptions of what each does. Rocketship can be found at:

Alt/School can be found at:

Agora Cyber School can be found at:

[iii] The New Hampshire Virtual School’s website describes its format and content at:

An article on the virtual school’s creation and operation is: Julia Fisher, “New Hampshire’s Journey toward Competency-Based Education,” Education Next, February 1, 2015; USC Hybrid High School’s website is at:

Also see Mike Syzmanski, “USC Hybrid High School Graduates Its First Class, with All 84 Heading to College,” LA School Report, June 13, 2016.

For Lindsay Unified School District, see Christina Qattrocchi, “How Lindsay Unified Redesigned Itself from the Ground Up,” EdSurge, June 17, 2014.

[iv] See Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993) in chapters on New York City and Denver for student-centered reforms in the 1920s and 1930s.

[v] Descriptions of Big Picture Learning schools can be found at: Katrina Schwartz, “Can Truly Student-Centered Education Be Available To All?” KQED News, December 8, 2015 at:

Stephen Ceasar, “For Students at L.A.’s Big Picture Charter School, Downtown Is Their Classroom,” Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2014; for a YouTube description that includes interview with one of the co-founders of Big Picture Learning, see:

For Mission Hill School, see:

Open Classroom at Lagunitas can be found aat:

Edina’s Continuous Progress elementary school option is at:

Private micro-schools called AltSchool can be found at:

The Khan Lab School, a private school, is at:

[vi] Mission Hill School’s website is:

Lagunitas Open Classroom’s history and offerings are at:

Continuous Progress School in Edina (MN) has a description of its program at:

On the AltSchool, see Rebecca Mead, “Learn Different,” New Yorker, March 7, 2016; for the Khan Lab School, see Jason Tanz, “The Tech Elite’s Quest to Reinvent School in Its Own Image,” Wired, October 26, 2015 at:


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

Teachers and Researchers: Searching for the Truth of Classroom Change

I am preparing to write a section in my forthcoming book on technology integration about  the different perspectives that teachers and researchers have on changes in classroom lessons. To do that, I have looked back at the handful of posts I have written since 2009 on this point so I can figure out what to say in this forthcoming book.

Here is one from November 2009 along with a reader’s thoughtful comment (and criticism) of the position I take in the post.

Over the years, I have interviewed many teachers across the country who have described their district’s buying computers, deploying them in classrooms while providing professional development. These teachers have told me that using computers, interactive white boards, and other high-tech devices with accompanying software have altered their teaching significantly. They listed changes they have made such as their Powerpoint presentations and students doing Internet searches in class. They told me about using email with students.Teachers using interactive white boards said they can check immediately if students understand a math or science problem through their voting on the correct answer.

I then watched many of these teachers teach. Most teachers used the high-tech devices as they described in their interviews. Yet I was puzzled by their claim that using these devices had substantially altered how they taught. Policymaker decisions to buy and deploy high-tech devices was supposed to shift dominant ways of traditional teaching to student-centered, or progressive approaches. All of this in years when No Child Left Behind, extensive testing, and coercive accountability reigned. What I encountered in classrooms, however, departed from teachers’ certainty that they have changed how they teach.

I am not the first researcher to have met teachers who claimed substantial changes in their teaching in response to district or state policies. Consider “A Revolution in One Classroom; The Case of Mrs. Oublier.”

In the mid-1980s, California policymakers adopted a new elementary math curriculum intended to have students acquire a deep understanding of math concepts rather than memorizing rules and seeking the “right” answer. The state provided staff development to help elementary teachers implement the new curriculum. Then, researchers started observing teachers using the new math curriculum.

One researcher observed third grade teacher Mrs. Oublier (a pseudonym but hereafter Mrs. O) to see to what degree Mrs. O had embraced the innovative math teaching the state sought. Widely respected in her school as a first-rate math teacher, Mrs. O told the researcher that she had “revolutionized” her teaching. She was delighted with the new math text, used manipulatives to teach concepts, organized students desks into clusters of four and five, and had student participate in discussions. Yet the researcher saw her use paper straws, beans, and paper clips for traditional classroom tasks. She used small groups, not for students to collaborate in solving math problems, but to call on individuals to give answers to text questions. She used hand clapping and choral chants—as the text and others suggested—in traditional ways to get correct answers. To the researcher, she had grafted innovative practices onto traditional ways of math teaching and, in doing so, had missed the heart and soul of the state curriculum.

How can Mrs. O and teachers I have interviewed tell researchers that they had changed their teaching yet classroom observations of these very same teachers revealed familiar patterns of teaching? The answer depends on what each person means by “change” and who judges the worth of the change.

Change clearly meant one thing to teachers and another to researchers. Teachers had, indeed, made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons. Researchers, however, keeping in mind what policymakers intended, looked for fundamental changes in teaching. In the case of Mrs. O—from memorizing math rules and getting the correct answer to focusing on conceptual understanding. Or in my case, getting teachers to shift from traditional to non-traditional instruction in seating arrangements, lesson activities, teacher-talk, use of projects, etc. In one instance, teachers saw substantial incremental “changes,” while researchers saw little fundamental “change.”

Whether those teachers’ incremental changes or the fundamental changes state policymakers sought led to test score gains, given the available evidence, no one yet knows.

So whose judgment about change matters most? “ Should researchers “consider changes in teachers’ work from the perspective of new policies….[or intentions of policymakers]? Or should they be considered from the teachers’ vantage point? (p.312).

Researchers, however, publish their studies and teachers like Mrs. O seldom tell their side of the story. Yet teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they have indeed altered their practices incrementally and as any practitioners (lawyers, doctors, accountants) will tell you, that is very hard to do. How to honor teachers’ incremental changes while pointing out few shifts in fundamental patterns of teaching is the dilemma with which I have wrestled in researching high-tech use in schools.


I now include a long comment to the above post from Brian Rude, a community college teacher. It was written on November 18, 2009

Larry, you sound frustrated. You are frustrated because teachers don’t do things quite the way you believe they should? So who’s right, you or the teachers?

I am no fan of B. F. Skinner, but he did say one thing that I think is very important. (At least I think it was Skinner. It was decades ago when I read this.) He said “The mouse is always right.” The context here is a psychologist doing an experiment with a mouse, and being frustrated because the results don’t come out as the psychologist would like and expect. It is quite understandable that the psychologist would blame the mouse, but it doesn’t take much reflection to realize how wrong that is. Of course the mouse doesn’t get it! It’s a mouse!

You say, “Policymaker decisions to buy and deploy high-tech devices was supposed to shift dominant ways of traditional teaching to student-centered, or progressive approaches.” Why on earth should it? Who’s right, the policy makers or the teachers? High tech is going to change the essential nature of teaching? Why should it?

I think my view is evident by now. If we want to learn about teaching and learning, we’d better look closely at what teachers and learners actually do, not what we think they should do. We need to ask why they do what they do, not why they don’t do what someone else thinks they should.

I teach lower level math courses in a community college. Every day I struggle with how to make students understand. I use high tech, everyday. I’m using high tech right now to write this. I’m not writing with a pencil or a fountain pen as I did in my youth. But that is pretty much irrelevant to the essential task of stringing words together in a way that will effectively communicate thoughts. Similarly the essential tasks of teaching have never changed. You need some way to present information. Students must attend to that information. They must build structures of knowledge in their minds. A lot of feedback is necessary for this to happen. My job is to provide them with the raw materials to build those structures of knowledge, and to guide them, as best I can, in how to build those structures of knowledge. Thus everyday I go to class and very carefully explain mathematical ideas and how to put them together. Everyday I do my best to put together well chosen problems for well designed homework assignments. Everyday I complain, at least to myself, about the bad textbooks we are stuck with. Every day, both in class and helping students individually in my office, I get questions that reveal misconceptions and errors of one sort or another in the thinking of students. I struggle to understand those misconceptions and errors of thinking, and to set the students on the right path again.

Almost everyday I make out handouts (usually pull them up from previous semesters and revise as needed) because that’s often the best way to make an assignment that meets my idea of what a good, effective, productive assignment should be. Well designed homework assignments are crucial, in my opinion. That’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Math is a subject of ideas, but almost all math is learned by almost all students by doing problems. And they have to be the right problems, problems that provide the framework for students to put together mathematical ideas in ways that construct real knowledge. I am quite aware that many would dismiss me as a “worksheet teacher”. Who cares? I use high tech to make these handouts. But that is irrelevant to the essential nature of what I am doing. I am essentially doing the very same thing I did as a young teacher in the 60’s when I would make handouts on a spirit duplicating machine (and the kids would sniff them when they got them). All that high tech is no more central to the essence of teaching than is having a nice car to get me to work, rather than the 55 Chevy that took me to work in the early sixties.

I’m not claiming Mrs. O and the other teachers you describe are doing the best possible job in every situation. And I’m certainly not claiming that I do a perfect job in every situation. I am just saying that to be frustrated because they don’t do things the way you think they should, is to be like the psychologist who blames the mouse. The mouse just doesn’t get it. Of course. It’s a mouse. The teachers just don’t get it? Of course, they are teachers. They have reasons for what they do, though they may be no good at all in explaining those reasons, or even recognizing them. When there is a difference in what researchers and policy makers think is desirable, and what teachers actually do in the real world, I’ll go with the teachers every time.


Filed under how teachers teach, medicine and schooling, research

The School District and Technology Integration: The Path of the Butterfly or Bullet?

For the past year I have observed the integration of new technologies in classroom lessons, school programs, and districts. I have begun writing chapters for a book that will appear in 2018. From time to time I will publish posts here taken from the manuscript that I am writing. 

In Silicon Valley there are 77 school districts arrayed across five counties in the San Francisco Bay area. All have technology plans for their schools. These districts buy lots of hard- and software, wire schools with WiFi, provide classroom carts of laptops and tablets, offer teacher workshops on technology integration and then cross their fingers that teachers will use what the district has provided for daily lessons. Voluntary participation is the rule. Teacher choice of using devices and software means that great variation exists not only in every single school within a district but across each district heralded as embracing high-tech.[i]

Only two districts, however, have gone beyond having a plan, buying devices, building infrastructures and then crossing their fingers that teachers will use all of the available hardware and software in daily lessons. Only two districts have adopted policies that nudged all teachers in every school to use new technologies, blend learning, and create personalized lessons.  Only two districts have built a systematic infrastructure of broadband and WiFi, incorporated newly developed software, sponsored professional development, and provided technical assistance with the explicit expectation that all district teachers would go beyond considering use the new technologies in their daily lessons and actually incorporate the hardware and software into their 45 to 90-minute customary sequence of activities.

These two districts are Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District and Milpitas Unified District.

In the Mountain View-Los Altos district I profiled two of its schools and described 10 classroom lessons I observed in both schools. In Milpitas, a dozen miles away, two elementary school principals invited me to observe their primary and upper-grade classrooms. I did visit classrooms and interviewed principals and teachers at each school as well as district administrators.

Knowing that each level of schooling–classroom, school, and district–contains its unique complexities and knowing that districts are not command-and-control organizations, I used a tri-focal lens—classroom, school, and district. I sought to understand how implementing policies aimed at changing what classroom teachers do, altering how schools operate daily, and improving district performance is no easy walk in the park.

Describing the move from policy to practice illustrates the complexity of all the interacting factors that come into play when policymakers seek to see their decisions unfold in classrooms, schools, and districts.

Each of these three systems is 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 this loosely-coupled system called a district.  Because there is so much interaction and overlap in these nested communities, any hope of effective implementation depends not only on having money and staff but also continuity in student/teacher relationships, principal/staff cooperation, and school board/district administrators building and sustaining a culture of working together. Not an easy set of tasks to keep settings smoothly operating, especially since districts and schools are vulnerable to outside influences ranging state policies impinging on district actions, angry parents condemning a new curriculum, vendors lobbying administrators, civic and business leaders wanting quick improvements in student performance, and controversies over teaching evolution, language in textbooks, and other similar issues.

Furthermore, district and site administrators unendingly search for resources and support from groups inside and outside the system. Include also among the many moving parts, the ever-changing political interests that have their own ideas of what is a “good” teacher and what is a “good” school district.

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 show it in their decisions about access and use of new technologies in classroom lessons.

If educational decision-makers cannot let go 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 flit here and there seeking school reform in brand new technologies yet be ever disappointed in the results.

District work is not for the faint-of-heart or those who fail to grasp that complexity across and within each of the three organizational levels. The path toward classroom, school, and district improvement is closer to zig-zags of a butterfly than a bullet fired at a target.


[i] I have an expanded view of “Silicon Valley” which historically referred to the stretch of land between San Jose and San Francisco. But the label for the terrain in 2017 encompasses Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties in the Bay area. Other researchers could include other counties. I chose these five. From these counties, I identified 77 school districts.


Filed under school reform policies, technology

Decision Making among Jazz Musicians, Basketball Players, and Teachers

From time to time, I will re-visit earlier posts that have resonance to recent debates about classroom teaching. Teacher decision-making, particularly how frequent and improvisational during the lesson (as opposed to all the decisions made in planning the lesson) is often misunderstood by policymakers, educational pundits, and researchers whose last visit to a classroom was when they were students. I wrote this post about decision-making across professions in 2011.

I have revised and updated it because state and local policymakers who make consequential decisions about school budgets, professional development, and evaluating teachers need a deeper understanding of teaching and student learning in classrooms. Part of that deeper understanding requires a look at teacher decisions including questions they ask), their frequency, scope, and ad-libbing during a lesson. I also offer this revision for those teachers who practice expert decision-making during lessons and simply consider it part of the job not fully realizing they are kissing cousins of  jazz musicians and professional basketball rebounders.

When top jazz musicians select notes from a chord to improvise a melody,  stellar basketball players drive toward the basket on a pick-and-roll, and effective teachers ask questions of students, the cascade of  instantaneous micro-decisions that occurs in the heads of trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzky, and kindergarten teacher/author Vivian Paley would stun most non-musicians, non-basketball players, and non-teachers.

Consider jazz and the swift decisions a Wynton Marsalis makes as he improvises. Jonah Lehrer describes a neuroscientist who used MRIs to study brain activity of jazz musicians improvising. One center that showed much activity was during improvisation had been identified for its function in language and speech. The neuroscientist argued that creating new melodies depends on that part of the brain where sentences are invented where every musical note is like a word. In short, decisions are made.

Turn now to the act of basketball players rebounding as an instance of super-quick decision-making “that reflects an astonishing amount of cognitive labor.” Here Jonah Lehrer points out the subtle and swift decisions rebounders make.

“The reason we don’t notice this labor is because it happens so fast, in the fraction of a fraction of a second before the ball is released. And so we assume that rebounding is an uninteresting task, a physical act in a physical game. But it’s not, which is why the best rebounders aren’t just taller or more physical or better at boxing out – they’re also faster thinkers. This is what separates the [Lebron James] and Kevin Loves … from everyone else on the court: They know where the ball will end up first.”

Here is where I turn from improvising jazz and basketball rebounding to classroom decision-making. Non-teachers would be amazed at the total number of decisions teachers make during a 45-minute lesson, the frequency of on-the-fly, unplanned decisions, and the seemingly effortless segues teachers make from one task to another. Decisions tumble out one after another in questioning students, starting and stopping activities, and minding the behavior of the class as if teachers had eyes in the back of their heads.

What decisions do teachers make during lessons?

I know of no MRIs that neuroscientists have used with teachers in experiments on classroom decisions. Nonetheless, the number and frequency of decisions teachers make during a lesson have been examined sporadically (mostly in the 1970s and 1980s) through simulations and video analysis but seldom since then. (Readers who know of recent studies, please let me know).

In distinguishing between planning lessons and actual classroom teaching–what academics call “interactive” teaching– researchers found that teacher-made routines governed the total number and frequency of decisions. However, these routines for managing groups of 25-35 while teaching content and skills—taking attendance, going over homework, doing seat-work, asking questions–were unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected (e.g., upset students, PA announcements, student questions, equipment breakdown). thus, spontaneous, unplanned decisions had to be made. Both the expected and unexpected piled up teacher decisions in each lesson. Few observers sitting in the back of the classroom notice the quick processing of information teachers make because in happens in nano-seconds. Even fewer policymakers and pundits can acknowledge that such instantaneous decisions even occur in a lesson.

*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.

*Researcher Philip Jackson (p. 149) said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.

In short, teaching because it is a “opportunistic”–neither teacher nor students can say with confidence what exactly will happen next–requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

Effective teachers, then, like top jazz musicians and basketball rebounders improvise–decide in the moment–as they deal with both the routine and unexpected in the art of teaching.


Filed under how teachers teach

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.


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The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, Part 2

In 1990, Seymour Sarason published The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. A decade later, Diane Ravitch’s Left Back:A Century of Failed School Reforms hit booksellers. Now, not a week goes by that failures of public school reform are dissected, tallied, and trotted out as exhibits for wannabe reformers. The next two posts re-frame school reform as looking at different clocks to show that the concept of reform  “failure”  has to include who makes the judgment and when.


In some upscale hotels over the registration desk, clocks show times across the globe.  Different time zones alert travelers to what time it is in the city they wish to call.

There are such clocks for school reform also. Different reform clocks record the different speeds of reform talk, policy adoption, what happens in classrooms, and what students learn. Were these clocks in public view, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers would see that changes in policy talk and action have occurred but at different speeds, some far too slow for impatient reformers to notice. Framing reform as being recorded by different clocks gives a glimpse into the myth of reforms constantly “failing.”

The myth, of course, has a history. It is anchored in commission reports (e.g., Nation at Risk), books (e.g., Left Back), and studies (e.g., Spinning Wheels) over the last century that document flurries of curricular, organizational, and instructional reforms. The myth also comes from the feverish rhetoric of entrepreneurial reformers who see failure everywhere in order to sell their particular product (e.g., “personalizing learning,”charter schools).

Yet the hyped policy talk, books, and documents seldom distinguish between major reforms that have stuck such as kindergartens, comprehensive high schools, coed and desegregated schools and those that have disappeared (e.g., educational radio and television, The Platoon School). Historians and thoughtful observers, however, have learned that school reform has a series of clocks that move at different speeds.

Media time. This is the fastest reform clock of all, ticking every day and week. What is  eye-grabbing and controversial registers on the media clock. Tweets, blogs, social media–and don’t forget newspaper and TV headlines–document immediate events and opinion, shaping and legitimizing what policymakers put on school reform agendas. Condom distribution in high schools, for example, received strong media exposure as a school policy aimed at solving teenage pregnancies. Policymakers talk about online technologies that will revolutionize teaching and learning.  In watching only the media clock, however, policymakers may wrongly conclude that what happens in one school happens everywhere and that what is reported actually occurred. And what didn’t happen in media time was evidence of “failure.”

Policymaker time. This clock chimes every year campaigns for national, state, and local offices crank up to re-elect incumbents or bring fresh faces to public posts. In some places, policymaker clocks tick faster when annual budgets or referendums come up for voter approval.

To offer a recent example, federal policymakers have defined schools as an arm for the economy. Since the 1990s, higher academic standards, copying corporate business practices, and advocating charters have been converted by top officials into campaign slogans. Presidents George H.W. Bush and son, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have pushed for world-class standards, charters,  and business-inspired reforms to raise students’ performance.

Policymaker time, then, runs on election cycles. “Failure” takes time. No Child Left Behind lasted nearly 15 years before it was replaced by Every Student Succeeds Act (2016).

Other clocks measure whether the overblown reform hype and adopted policies have turned into action, have been implemented. Enter the bureaucratic time zone.

Bureaucratic time. This clock records administrative actions aimed at putting policy decisions into practice. Often the hands of the faster media and slower policymaker clocks make a complete turn just as the bureaucratic clock passes the first hour. The lag between policymaker time and bureaucratic time occurs because of the complexity in converting policy into feasible, clear procedures for principals and teachers who do the actual work of schooling. The bureaucratic clock chimes when new rules are announced, revised budgets presented, and increased departmental coordination occurs. An example of how the hands on the bureaucratic clock are reduced to a crawl can be seen in desegregation.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) banned legally segregated schools. Studies recorded the tortured progress of judicial policymaking as state governors and local school boards across the South wrestled both peacefully and violently with implementing the decision—a school reform–between the 1950s and 1980s.  States and districts, prodded by federal court orders, slowly embraced open enrollment, busing, and other remedies for desegregating schools. Over time, district attendance boundaries were redrawn; schools were closed; magnet schools were opened. By the mid-1990s, a full four decades after the Brown decision, Southern and Southwestern schools had largely desegregated (except in big cities where re-segregation has occurred).Since then, de facto, not de jure re-segregation in many urban, suburban, and rural districts has returned.

The media, policymaking, and bureaucratic clocks, then, are seldom in sync. Important details that can spell the difference between “successful” and “failed implementation” take considerable time to craft and put into practice. Often political, demographic, and other non-school factors create greater lag time between the clocks making judgments of “failure” premature.

There are other clocks as well. The next post takes up practitioner and student learning clocks.


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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:


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