Category Archives: school reform policies

School Reform in the U.S.: Naivete and Fatalism

If naivete is a danger, so is fatalism.”*

The history of school reform has been a back-and-forth journey between hyperactive innocence and passive resignation. I will explain this and give examples shortly but I want to ask one question and then make one fact clear before I do.

Why has school reform occurred again and again? One would think that reformers who have defined the educational and social problems to be solved, planned solutions to those problems, and adopted remedies would be satisfied and walked away confident that the problems would disappear. Not so. Turns out that the social and educational problems reformers, generation after generation, aim to solve hang around after well-intentioned problem-solvers exit. Then another generation of wannabe reformers enter stage right or stage left, do their thing and float off the stage (see here, here, and here).

The fact is that for tax-supported public schools in the U.S. there has been a perennial school “crisis” since the late-19th century (see here, here, and here). Naive reformers have attacked (and continue to) with gusto and money again and again, “crises”, leaving disappointed practitioners, parents, and researchers slinking away, resigned to failure in the wake of perverse changes they had not anticipated. The above quote says it well.

Some examples of dangerous naivete and fatalism will help.


1. Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant to the Newark public schools in 2010. With an additional $100 million raised in private funds, reformers closed Newark schools, created more charters, and vowed to improve abysmal student test scores in math and reading. Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and others hailed the grants. However, much pushback from a subsequent mayor, community activists, and parents, largely ignored by the donors in giving the money to school officials, complicated the reforms (see here, here, and here). And the results, at best, have been mixed. At worst, many consultants reaped a bonanza.

Chalkbeat journalist Matt Barnum concluded:

*The overall effect of the reforms on student learning was mixed.

*Students seemed to benefit from school closures.

* Charter schools continued to outperform the district, but have grown less effective.

*The results don’t show whether the reforms “worked” — because that’s a complicated question.


2. Technology transforms teaching and learning. The heady optimism of donors, Silicon Valley companies, and venture capitalists that teachers and students using devices and software will revolutionize teaching and learning have long been the hyperbole peddled by enthusiasts since the earliest desktops entered schools in the early 1980s.

Even with accessibility broadened to where nearly 1:1 devices are available to students in many schools, they are partially used in lessons–save for those schools and businesses that offer online courses or have established cyber schools.

The fact is that many teachers continue to struggle in integrating devices and software into their lessons.

Nonetheless, digital tools have been incorporated into most teachers’ repertoire of classroom activities during the school day. But transformed teaching? Hardly.

Classroom furniture has surely been rearranged compared to the 1950s. Whiteboards have replaced blackboards. And “smart” boards have been installed. But the usual format of a lesson–beginning, middle, and end; dividing class into small groups, allowing for independent work, whole group discussions, etc. etc. etc.–all of these continue (see here, here, and here). Incremental changes have occurred in teaching over the decades but transformation, not so. And, I for one, find that kind of classroom change historically consistent with other top-down reforms and useful to learners and the public.


1. School reforms fail. Wrong.

The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, has become an unquestioned mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers and voters have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by their ages to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks to be annually promoted.

If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a success it is the age-graded school. Consider longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Or consider  effectiveness. The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students over the past century and a half, sorted out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates nearly three-quarters of those entering high school Or adaptability. The age-graded school exists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America covering rural, urban, and suburban districts. What other school reform has been this successful?

Or consider the kindergarten. An innovation initiated by late-19th century middle-class women in various cities who wanted young, poor children to get experiences that would help them and their families do better in life. Beginning in private schools, by the early 1900s, city school systems slowly incorporated these private kindergartens into public schools making them K-8 schools (see here and here). By the end of the 20th century, pre-kindergarten classes for three- and four-year olds had become part of many urban districts (see here).

2. Largely minority and poor urban schools fail again and again.   Not so. Instances of schools and districts enrolling poor children of color succeeding by the dominant metrics (e.g., test scores, graduation rates, college admissions) have appeared since the late-1970s when the Effective Schools movement emerged. Such schools and districts are surely the exception but they do exist especially when superintendent, principal and teacher leadership at these sites remain stable over time. Examples of such schools and districts that have lasted are:

*Harlem Children’s Zone

*Summit Charter Schools

*Prize winning urban districts

Keep in mind, however, that these districts and schools are not the rule. The dismal fact is that most schools and districts with predominately poor and minority children and youth are under-resourced, have inexperienced or beaten-down teaching staffs, and a record of entering and exiting principals and superintendents who cannot get a grip on the schools they lead. The record of continuing failure–using metrics of the day–tell the same story over and over again.

Reformers, then, have blended naivete and fatalism over generations, ignoring the past and seldom listening to those who work daily in classrooms. That ignorance has been dangerous for schools then as it is now.


*Yascha Mounk, “Figures of Division,” The New Yorker, January 28, 2019, p. 33



Filed under school reform policies

Teaching at MetWest: A Big Picture School (Part 1)

It is a Monday and the schedule at Oakland’s MetWest calls for an 8:30-10AM session with an Advisor/Teacher. I enter a spacious, well-lit room where 18 ninth graders are sitting in a circle with Nick Palmquist. He is wearing black jeans, a button-down grey shirt over the jeans and dark tennis shoes. The assignment for these students had been to write down their goals for high school. I noted that more than half had a sheet of paper in hand.

Nick–students call him by his first name–began by holding a multi-colored cloth volleyball and stating what his goals have been for life and teaching. He then passed the ball to his left. Student didn’t say anything and passed the ball to another student who read off his goals. As the ball went from student to student, their goals fell into a familiar pattern of ninth graders: get good grades, graduate, and go to college. Two students said they wanted to get “good” jobs. After the ball traveled around the circle and returned to Nick, he summarizes what most students had said were their goals and says: “we are about to close the circle. Does anyone have “any appreciation to share.” He waits at least five seconds, no response. Nick then say” please return to you tables.”

Students pick up their chairs and put them at tables where two students sit. The tables and chairs are arranged in a horseshoe facing a front whiteboard with the open center space holding a small table upon which Nick’s laptop and erasable markers rest. Students sitting at tables see classmates across the open space. On one side of the whiteboard is marked “Homework.” Listed are the following:

*Semester goals + vision board/road map–due Tuesday AM

*Observation notes on my learning this week–due Monday AM

*Binder check Tuesday

Nick passes out a two-page worksheet from which the rest of the lesson unfolds. The worksheet lists “Lesson Targets”: “I can explain and creatively portray my reflections on my first semester and how they connect to my goals for myself.” Students answer the questions on the handout from information Nick gives them in a series of slides about the percent of students in the nation who finish high school, go to college, and complete their degree; how much money high school and college graduates earn annually and over a lifetime and similar information about educational outcomes. Included is a section on calculating grade point average (GPA). The handout ends with a long section on “Reflection and Goal Visioning,” asking students to connect the goals they discussed in the circle to their current progress as MetWest ninth graders.

Over the next 45 minutes, Nick and students go through a series of slides projected on the front whiteboard. One slide, for example, is marked “Show Me the $.” It lists annual earnings of a high school dropout ($24,492), high school graduate ($33.904), and college graduate ($55,432). As he goes through the slides, Nick asks questions, usually choral ones with no name attached. Some students respond. During whole group discussion of each slide, Nick also calls on particular students by name for a response. Student responses pick up considerably as the money one earns annually and over a lifetime depending on the school credentials students acquire get absorbed. At one point, there is a great deal of student cross-talk, Nick pauses and waits for students to quiet. They do. Nick continues with slides.

The slide on grade point average and Nick’s calculation of it on a transcript of an anonymous student  segues to getting these ninth graders to calculate their GPA. Nick passes out their actual transcripts and asks students to figure out their GPA. He then makes clear what students are to do for remainder of session. Complete the blanks on the handout with headings such as “Semester 1 Reflection and Goal Visioning.”  Under that heading are questions with space for students to fill in:

*What are your big, life goals? Write them, in one or 2 sentences, here.

*Look at your report card grades.Do they reflect where you want to go? Be very specific.

*What are your goals for your grades for the coming quarter and semester?

*How will you actually achieve this? Do NOT write, “Imma do my homework.” Be more specific, and think about the reasons that will propel you to do this.

There is a section on the handout labeled “Advisor and Teacher Support.” Nick asks:

*How might I, as your advisor, support your learning more? Be as specific as possible! This is my job!

*What types of learning activities will help you become more engaged and learn more next quarter. This is an opportunity to help shape how we learn! Really think about this!

*We will be writing goals at our next internship visit. Think about at least 2 goals that you think are important for your continued growth in your internship.

I look around the room and see all 20 (two more students had entered room) writing their answers to the questions in the handout. At that point, I have been there an hour and leave Nick’s advisory group to see another one elsewhere in the building.


MetWest is a small California high school (about 160 students in 9-12 grades) located in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). It is part of a network of Big Picture schools in the nation. In a recently built facility housing an elementary school, social service agencies, and a television studio, MetWest’s atrium is spacious with walls covered in photos, posters, each teacher’s advisory students, and upcoming events. Classrooms are on the ground and first floors of this part of the complex.







Demographically, nearly 60 percent of the students are Hispanic, nearly 30 percent African American with the remainder split among  Asian, white, and multiracial students. English Learners comprise just over 20 percent of the students. Nearly 80 percent of the school is eligible for free and reduced lunches.

As one of about 65 Big Picture schools in the nation (the original Met is located in Providence, Rhode Island), MetWest replicates the model with a schedule of three days of academic/advisory classes and two days when students are out of the building working as interns in businesses, public agencies, and places where adults agree to mentor the intern for the quarter. There is an all-school meeting chaired by students that gathers on Fridays. The overall aim of the program is to engage students by putting them “at the center of their own learning.” Or as the literature says:

[Students] would spend considerable time in the community under the tutelage of mentors and they would not be evaluated solely on the basis of standardized tests. Instead, students would be assessed on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hand, and heart  – reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that all of us face in our everyday lives.

The weekly schedule:



Displayed in the school’s atrium are listings of advisor/teachers and their students with internships.




For media articles on MetWest, see here, here, and here.

In subsequent posts, I will describe other MetWest teachers in their classes, internships, student exhibitions, and the different ways that this school defines “success” and “failure.”



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

“Hard” and “Soft” Effectiveness in Schools

The idea of students learning “hard” and “soft” skills in school has gone viral among educators and policymakers in the past decade (see here and here). “Soft” skills refers to people skills of communication, sensitivity, and social awareness that permits students to collaborate with others and work smoothly inside and outside organizations. Here is one listing of such skills:

  • Integrity
  • Dependability
  • Effective communication
  • Open-mindedness
  • Teamwork
  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Adaptability
  • Organization
  • Willingness to learn
  • Empathy

Measuring such skills in schoolchildren and youth is tough to do but work proceeds in developing instruments and metrics to do so (see here and here).

“Hard” skills refers to the technical proficiency children and youth acquire and use in different situations such as reading, writing, math, and operating electronic devices learned in and out of school. Measuring such skills has a long history of paper-and-pencil tests and real-life demonstration of skills and are readily available.

Now here is the segue I want to make from “hard” and “soft” skills to a conceptual level of determining school effectiveness by proposing “hard” and “soft” forms. I aim to expand the constricted definition of a “good” school that is judged effective now to one that has more to it than the familiar numbers used today.

“Hard” Effectiveness

This is the easy one to define. What measures policymakers, practitioners, donors, and parents use to judge a school today as “good,” “excellent,” “high performer,” “effective” or similar terms are easy to list:

*Standardized achievement test scores

*High school graduation rate

*Percentage of high school graduates who attend college

*Percentage of those going to college who receive a degree

Of course, there are other such quantifiable measures but the above are most often used to determine school (and district) effectiveness.

Whenever possible, these measures are used to compare with other schools in a district, state, and where applicable, the nation. Thus, rankings often appear in district and state reports to identify highest, mediocre, and lowest performers.

While there has been a raft of critiques of the reliance on test scores as the primary metric for determining school quality (see here and here), scores remain central to determining a particular school’s worth.

“Soft” Effectiveness

Now this is the tough sell to anyone convinced that the above measures are the best and only ones that should be used. For those who see the current crush of interest in social-emotional learning (SEL) as a sign of a cresting wave of change that will stretch “hard” effectiveness into a broader, more humane, and realistic purpose of schooling, pay attention (see here and here).

What I have noted in the excitement for SEL to become part of every teacher’s lesson is that the rationale–the selling of it–for its classroom presence is that SEL helps schools increase its reading and math scores and high school graduation rates while decreasing its suspensions of students. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) partners with many school districts to measure the results of social-emotional learning curricula on students, schools, and education. Recent studies were encouraging for a slew of reasons. The advocacy organization published the following outcomes to spread their message:

In the 19 school districts (serving 1.6 million students) that were measured—including Austin, Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Minneapolis, Nashville, Oakland, Sacramento, and Tulsa—these were the high-level research findings from implementing SEL programs:

  • Several districts saw improved reading and math scores in students.
  • Several districts saw improved GPAs and higher test scores among students.
  • Many districts had improved student behavior—higher graduation rates, better school attendance, fewer suspensions, and improved social-emotional competencies.
  • Some school districts saw marked improvements in school climate.

Such findings remind me of an earlier, similar instance. Just as when the standards, testing, and accountability movement for math and reading moved into high gear in the decades before and after the turn of the 21st century, champions of art, music, and the humanities, fearful for a loss of students and funding for these subjects, rationalized their worth by connecting the study of these subjects as being associated with gains in test scores, high school graduation rates, etc. etc., etc. (see here and here).

This similarity is not a stale example of the false truism that history repeats itself. Implementing SEL because it helps traditional measures of quality reveals anew that “hard” effectiveness continues its dominance in judging school quality.

But, of course, it doesn’t have to stay that way. Consider the work of the MA Consortium for Innovative Educational Assessment (MCIEA) which importantly includes what are essential resources in blending both “hard” and “soft” effectiveness to determine a “good” school.

MCIEA’s School Quality Measures framework aims to describe the full measure of what makes a good school, using five major categories – the first three being essential inputs and the last two being key outcomes:



  1. Teachers And Leadership

    This category measures the relevant abilities of a school’s teachers and leaders, and the degree to which they are receiving the support they need to grow as professionals. It considers factors like teacher professional qualifications, effective classroom practices, and school-wide support for teaching development and growth.

  2. School Culture 

    This category measures the degree to which the school environment is safe, caring, and academically-oriented. It considers factors like bullying, student/teacher relationships, and regular attendance.

  3. Resources

    This category measures the adequacy of a school’s facility, personnel, and curriculum, as well as the degree to which it is supported by the community. It considers factors like physical spaces and materials, curriculm variety, and family/school relationships.

  1. Academic Learning

    This category measures how much students are learning core academic content, developing their own academic identities, and progressing along positive trajectories. It considers factors like test score growth, performance assessments, engagement in school, problem solving, and college-going rates.

  2. Community And Wellbeing

    This category measures the development of traits relevant for students leading full and rewarding lives—in society, the workplace, and their private lives. It considers factors like perseverance and determination, participation in arts and literature, and social and emotional health.


A team of researchers and practitioners have been working on expanding measures of school quality for some time and such efforts do take place in schools and districts (See here and here).

Whether such a plan that blends both “hard” and “soft” effectiveness metrics will spread beyond districts in Massachusetts, I cannot predict. But its existence now is, at the least, proof that such broader, more inclusive, measures of quality can be adopted and put into practice. And for that I am grateful.








Filed under school reform policies

Tuning out: What happens when you drop Facebook? (Krysten Crawford)

Krysten Crawford is a freelance writer.

The early promise and excitement of social media — its ability to connect people around the world and inspire grass-roots activism — has given way to fears that it is making us depressed and more politically polarized than ever.

But is that really happening?

In one of the largest-ever randomized evaluations of Facebook’s broader social impacts, Stanford economists look at common assumptions about the platform and its effects on individuals and society.

Among other things, they uncover evidence that Facebook causes users to feel less happy and more anxious. But they find that the overall emotional impact, while meaningful, is less than other studies suggesting that users feel worse about themselves.

Their analysis also sheds important new light on Facebook’s impact on democracy by suggesting that the platform amplifies political divisions while also educating users about current events.

The research is laid out in a new working paper co-authored by Matthew Gentzkow, an economics professor and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). Previous studies looking at these outcomes have either been conducted on a smaller scale or focused on correlational analysis rather than randomized evaluation of causal effects.

“What you see from this study is that the rise of social media — and Facebook, in particular — has been a double-edged sword,” Gentzkow says.

It’s a reminder that a technology as revolutionary as social media can’t be either good or bad. It’s often a mix of both.

“There were a number of years where Facebook could do no wrong,” Gentzkow says. “Now we’ve had a couple of years where Facebook could do no right. Facebook is either the greatest thing that’s ever happened or it’s destroying humanity. This is just like the discussion we had when television came along. We need to start understanding the nuances of what this technology is actually doing to the world.”

Small, but significant, impact on well-being

Gentzkow and his co-authors — Stanford doctoral candidates Luca Braghieri and Sarah Eichmeyer, and New York University economist Hunt Allcott — recruited approximately 2,850 Facebook users in the United States. To participate, subjects had to use Facebook for more than 15 minutes per day. Some of the subjects were randomly assigned to a treatment group that was offered payments to deactivate their accounts in the runup to the November 2018 midterm elections.

The scholars then used a variety of measures, including daily text messages, surveys and public information on voting and Twitter use, to track the behaviors of both the treatment and a control group.

The team was able to study a wide range of Facebook’s impacts on users. Their findings show that, on average, users who turned off Facebook:

  • Spent less time online overall and more time engaged in a broad range of offline activities, including being with friends and family. They didn’t replace Facebook with another social media platform like Twitter.
  • Reported small but significant improvements in their levels of happiness, life satisfaction, depression, and anxiety.
  • Were just as likely to experience changes in well-being regardless of whether they were active or passive users. Facebook announced more than a year ago that scrolling through a news feed — as opposed to actively contributing to the site through comments and other activity — makes users feel worse about themselves.
  • Knew less about current events and political news.
  • Became significantly less politically polarized in their views on issues.
  • Used Facebook less after the experiment was over. Four weeks after the end of the experiment, treatment users spent 23 percent less time on their mobile Facebook apps than control users.

The findings, says Gentzkow, raise a number of questions about social media’s impact on democracy. For example, is it better when people know less about current events and are less likely to have extreme political views? Or is it better for people to be more informed yet more partisan and angry in their views?

“It sets up a tough question that doesn’t have an obvious answer,” says Gentzkow, whose research focuses on the interplay between politics and media.

First, averages. Next, nuances

Particularly striking, the researchers say, were signs that users didn’t appear eager to get back onto Facebook once the experiment ended. They were more likely, for example, to uninstall the Facebook app from their phone and to be more judicious about engaging with the service.

This outcome suggests that Facebook may, as many observers have speculated, be habit forming. The fact that users who quit Facebook, even temporarily, indicated they wanted to use it less in the future is consistent with theories of addiction, says Allcott, an associate professor of economics at NYU.

The researchers also evaluated how much money users would accept to deactivate their Facebook accounts before and after they took a break from the service. They found that the median user wanted $100 to stop using Facebook for four weeks. After the month-long hiatus, the average user said he or she would accept slightly less than that to take another break.

“It turns out a four-week break does cause people to re-evaluate how they use Facebook, but they’re still willing to pay a lot of money to stay on the platform,” Allcott says. “Measured in economic terms, Facebook seems to provide a whole lot of value for its users.”

The study highlights the subtleties of social media’s effects, Braghieri says. For instance, the finding that users who deactivated Facebook knew less about current events suggests that the platform is a valuable source of information for people who might not otherwise read the news.

“We often hear that Facebook’s impact on politics is fundamentally bad because of the spread of misinformation and increased polarization,” he says. “But this paper provides a more nuanced understanding of what is really happening and is something to think about.”

To that end, the researchers have been conducting follow-up interviews with study participants to gain a better understanding of this and other nuances. They are also parsing the data for differences among users by age, education level, political ideology and other characteristics.

“Our study talks about average effects, but there might be vast differences across people,” Eichmeyer says. “Now that we have the data, we can start exploring potential distinctions.”

This research was generally funded by the Sloan Foundation. Facebook provided no funding and the authors have no financial ties to Facebook. Gentzkow is on an advisory council for the SocialScienceOne initiative which works with Facebook and other technology companies to facilitate data sharing.


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Basic Dilemma Teachers, Principals, Superintendents Face: Supervising Others While Seeking Approval



In the second week of my superintendency in the mid-1970s–I came from outside the district and had no entourage–the head of the principals group (there were 35 schools in the district), met me in the stairwell of the Administration building and we chatted a few moments about the weather and the beginning of the school year. He leaned toward me and whispered whether I would like to join a Friday night poker game with a small group of veteran principals. He added that my predecessor and key district office administrators had played weekly for years. I paused and said: “Let me think about it.”

After dinner when the kids had gone upstairs to do their homework, I told my wife about the invitation and we discussed it thoroughly. My wife pointed out that the invitation was a very important gesture on the part of veteran administrators who had been clearly unenthusiastic when the School Board appointed me. I was an outsider and first-time superintendent who had worked across the river in the largely black D.C. schools for nearly a decade as a high school teacher and district administrator. She pointed out that it was a splendid opportunity for me to satisfy a strong personal need that we had discussed prior to taking the post. That is, I wanted to secure the respect and approval–and eventually trust–of those I am expected to lead and who report to me. We had talked about the tension between seeking approval of subordinates who I depended upon while at the same time being in a position where I would have to judge their performance annually. She and I chewed on that dilemma for a long time.

Then she reminded me that Friday nights were supposed to be set aside for the family’s Sabbath meal. In offering me the job, I had asked the Board to keep Fridays clear of any meetings or assignments. They had agreed. So after further discussion, my wife and I decided that I would the forego Friday night poker games. I called the head of the principals’ group, thanked him for the invitation and told him I would not be able to join the group.

In the seven years that I served the district, 30 of those 35 principals retired, transferred to other posts, left the district, or I fired. I never regretted that decision about the Friday night poker group.

The tension I felt, however, between wanting the approval (affection and respect as well) of those I supervised while, at the same time, being responsible for judging their performance is not peculiar to the superintendency. New principals and teachers also feel those tensions.

Consider the principal of an elementary school overseeing 30 teachers. That principal is the instructional leader, manager, and politician for not only those teachers but also 20 other staff members, 500 students, and 800 parents. District administrators expect the principal to raise test scores, insure that students are ready for middle school, etc. Our principal knows that she is utterly dependent upon the teachers to achieve those numbers and other goals that she and the staff have set for themselves beyond test scores.

At a time when Facebook and “friending” are ubiquitous, if the new principal does not know herself very well and seeks the staff’s personal approval, even affection, then the principal may lean over backwards to satisfy teacher requests even when those requests challenge her judgments about what should be done for students. In such situations, evaluating teacher classroom and school performance becomes doubly hard. Were she to succumb to that need for teacher approval, ultimately neither affection or respect for her work would emerge.

Similarly, new teachers who yearn for the approval and trust of their students, especially with the availability of Facebook for older students, wrestle with this dilemma. Teachers, like principals, and superintendents are totally dependent upon those they supervise–that is, their students–for their effectiveness as professionals. For novice teachers, particularly recent college graduates, age differences appear small in high schools and friendships beckon.

And that is where it gets sticky even for teachers of young children when it comes to getting to know each student’s personal strengths and limitations, their family backgrounds, and dreams for the future. Forging classroom relationship as a basis for learning neither erases boundaries nor distinctions between adults and students. Smudging the fundamental distinction between being the teacher and being a student insofar as authority, knowledge, skills, and professional responsibilities has earned many young teachers hard knocks when grades had to be assigned and went into permanent records.

Knowing one’s self well enough to sort out personal needs for approval and friendship from professional responsibilities as a teacher, principal, and superintendent is an essential lesson that novices and veterans have to learn (and re-learn) but goes unmentioned and untaught. Yet leadership in classrooms, schools, and districts depend upon learning that lesson well.

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A Lawsuit Aimed at Civic Education (Beth Rubin)

The National Education Policy Center publishes briefs about policy issues in U.S. schools in need of attention. Beth Rubin of Rutgers University who has written extensively about civic education did a Q & A with NEPC after a group of Rhode Island parents sued the state for providing inadequate preparation for being an citizen who can vote, serve on juries and engage in civic life fully. This brief was published January 8, 2019.


On November, 14 public school parents and students filed a unique federal lawsuit against the state of Rhode Island: They accused the state’s schools of “failing to carry out their responsibilities under the United States Constitution to provide all students a meaningful opportunity to obtain an education adequate to prepare them to be capable citizens.”




In its 1973 decision San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Supreme Court ruled that children in our country do not have a right to education under the U.S. Constitution. As a result of this decision and because the constitutions of many states do guarantee the right to an education, the battle over student education rights has largely moved to the states. What makes Cook vs. Raimondo, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Rhode Island, unique is that the plaintiffs do not argue that that children have a (U.S.) Constitutional right to education. Instead, the suit contends that the state’s schools fail to provide students with the education they need to vote, serve on a jury, make informed choices, and otherwise participate effectively in civic activities. The complaint argues that San Antonio v. Rodriguez did leave the door open to this argument by raising (but not responding to) the question of whether students have a right, under the 14th amendment, to the level of opportunity provided by an education that gives them the “basic minimal skills necessary for the enjoyment of the rights of speech and of full participation in the political process.”

In other words, the plaintiffs contend that the Rhode Island schools have violated students’ rights by failing to provide an adequate civics education.

What does research have to say about the outcomes of civics education and its role in our society? What does a high-quality civics education look like?

In the Q&A below, National Education Policy Center Fellow Beth Rubin addresses such questions. Rubin is a professor of education at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. In her work, she uses a critical, sociocultural approach to investigate how young people develop, both as learners and as citizens, within the interwoven contexts of classroom, school, and community. Rubin is particularly interested in the ways that these settings are shaped by historical and structural inequalities.

Q: What role does effective civics education play in our democratic society?

A: Effective civics education is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Young people need opportunities to develop understandings of the complex forces that shape both our daily lives in this society and the choices being made at the national level, and to develop the skills and proclivity toward participation in the national conversation around these pressing issues. For young people from non-dominant communities, civics education that connects with young peoples’ experiences, draws on their cultural capital and unrecognized forms of civic participation, and helps them to develop critical understandings of society, can be a conduit to greater civic engagement.

Q: To what extent can K-12 education share the blame for the resurgence of tribalism, low public trust in government, and tendency to believe political lies?

A: K-12 education can play a key role in developing young peoples’ civic skills, knowledge and understanding. A relevant, meaningful civics education that connects to the concerns of youth and their communities and expands students’ understandings of the issues we face can counter the disempowerment and lack of contextual understanding that fosters tribalism, low public trust in government, and tendency to believe political lies.

Q: What skills/knowledge do students need in order to be able to effectively exercise their rights as citizens of our democracy?

A: To be able to effectively exercise their rights as citizens in a democracy, young people need to develop analytical, communication and collaboration skills and, over time, build deep understandings of the historical, social and political dimensions of U.S. history.

Q: How common/prevalent is civics instruction in schools? What form does such instruction usually take?

A: Civics instruction is variable in U.S. schools. While every state requires students to complete some coursework in civics to graduate, less than half the states include civics in their state accountability frameworks. One indication of the level and quality of civics instruction is that less than a quarter of U.S. eighth graders tested as proficient on the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics assessment. Civics instruction is often dominated by the transmission of facts rather than meaningful learning that focuses on developing the skills and understandings necessary for active citizenship.

Q: How, if at all, has civics education changed in recent years?

A: There has been a shift toward inclusion of a more active conception of citizenship in mainstream civics education in recent years. The revised curricular framework for social studies (, from the National Council for the Social Studies, includes a focus on “informed action.” Organizations such as CIRCLE and the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network are helping to build new understandings of youth civic participation and learning. There are many new resources promoting more active forms of civic learning, such as the Mikva Challenge, Generation Citizen, Deep Dive: Educating for Democracy, and the YPAR Hub. Youth activism appears to be on the rise, and civics education can build on this desire for participation and change.

Q: What does high-quality civics education look like?

A: High-quality civics education looks like young people engaging with each other to explore issues of local, national and global significance. High-quality civics education focuses on deepening students’ understandings of the pressing issues of today, including how these concerns are connected to the larger political, economic, and historical context, and on invigorating their desires and abilities to engage civically. Student-centered activities, discussion, consideration of current events, and civic inquiry are some of the instructional practices we know work.

Q: What can research tell us about the outcomes of civics education?

A: Research indicates that more active forms of civic learning, such as discussion, debate, role-playing, and engagement with current issues, lead to more engaged youth citizenship. Research also indicates that young people from non-dominant communities – low-income, students of color – do not have the same opportunities to engage in this type of civics education as their more affluent, white peers. There is a growing body of research connecting youth civic experiences – experiences with the criminal justice system in particular – with civic attitudes and engagement.

Q: How do left-leaning and right-leaning conceptions of “good” civics education differ, if at all?

A: Left-leaning conceptions of “good” civics education focus more on the development of an informed citizen who can critically analyze the world and has the skills to participate actively, including in change-oriented activities; right-leaning conceptions of “good” civics education focus more on the transmission of knowledge about the state, its history and governance, and the development of patriotic sentiments.

Q: How might we improve the civics education provided by our K-12 schools?

A: Civics education needs to improve in five respects: it needs to be relevant to students, to develop critical understandings of history and politics, to be engaging and student-centered, to be oriented toward active civic participation, and to be available equitably to students from all communities and backgrounds.



Filed under school reform policies

Whatever Happened To the Non-Graded School?

Ask a teacher, principal, superintendent, or school board member about the non-graded school and you will get a “huh” or perhaps a blank stare. The educator might whip out a smart phone and tap away at the tiny keyboard, wait a few seconds and then get a raft of websites and definitions. The non-graded school does exist. Few know about it, however.

This post is part of a continuing series about what happened to educational innovations that spread virally at first (before there was Twitter) but within a few years nearly disappeared from the U.S. landscape of schooling.

Where and When Did the Idea Originate?

Throughout the 19th century, non-graded schools were everywhere. At that time, such places were called the one-room school. Children and youth from age 6 to 14 or so gathered in the schoolhouse every morning and over the course of the day, the teacher taught different subjects to individuals and small groups that kept changing as the content changed. By the late-19th century, however, the innovation of the age-graded school of eight classrooms with a teacher in each one room transmitting a portion of the curriculum to children grouped by age–six year olds in the first grade, eight year olds in the third grade took hold initially in urban districts and then in the emerging suburbs. By the middle of the 20th century, urban, suburban, and rural schools were age-graded and the one-room schoolhouse had nearly disappeared.

Beginning in the 1950s, scholars and practitioners seeing the shortcomings of the age-graded school (e.g., students failing and repeating a year, all students do not learn at the same speed) and wanting individual children to master content of different subject at their own pace and in mixed-age groups started a small number of elementary non-graded schools (see here and here). Throughout the next decade and a half, such schools flourished in both talk and action (see here and here).  Few secondary schools became non-graded. One that was highlighted in the 1960s was Melbourne High School in Brevard County (FLA)–see here and here.

What Problems Did the non-Graded School Intend To Solve?

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by their ages to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks to be annually promoted (or retained). Obviously, students do not learn at the same pace. If some fail to learn fractions in the allotted time, then algebra becomes a serious problem later in their school career. And just as obviously, all teachers do not cover the assigned content and skills within the time allowed. So students then become unprepared for the next grade or sequence of academic subjects. These students became “misfits.”

Educators called them: pupils of low, I.Q., ne’er-do-wells, laggards, slow learners, occupational learners, slow learners, mental deviates.

The message of the labels was clear: There were students who simply did not have
smarts, and the pedagogical answer was to teach them different things in a different way
in a different place (see here).

The non-graded organization tries to solve these problems inherent to the age-graded organization.

What Does a Non-Graded School Look Like?

Three features capture non-graded schools. Multi-age grouping, team teaching, and small group and individual work on academic content and skills until each student masters both. Students are not assigned to classrooms or centers strictly on the basis of age. The galvanizing idea is that students will make “continuous progress” as they proceed through language arts, math, science, and social studies. That said, there are many variations of non-graded schools now as there have been in the past. In fact, even parts of age-graded schools can have primary non-graded (e.g., ages 6-9 being taught by a group of teachers). See here

At Madrona School in the Edmunds district (WA), school staff inform parents about non-graded schooling:

Facts about Madrona: Q & A

Q:  What does “nongraded” mean?

A: Madrona is called a “nongraded” school not because no grades are issued, but because children are not put into traditional Grades as in most other schools.  Instead, children are put into “Centers”, which are multiage classrooms that hold 3 grade levels.

Q:  What is a Center?

A:  A Center is a classroom consisting of 2 teachers who team-teach around 50 kids, covering 3 grade levels.  A Primary Center consists of grades 1 – 3; an Intermediate Center covers grades 4 – 6; Middle School comprises 7th and 8th grades….

Q:  What’s the difference between nongraded and combined classrooms?

A: Combined classrooms consist of 2 or more groups that are each being taught their grade-level curriculum.  Nongraded classrooms contain children who are learning at one or more grade level.  For example, a child may excel at math, but be not very strong in reading.  In a Primary classroom, a first year student might therefore be learning math with second year kids, but read with other first year students.  Social studies, science, and art are taught on a 3-year rotation, so each child experiences that portion of his/her education only once.

Q:  Are 7th and 8th Grades handled the same way as Primary and Intermediate centers?

A:  At Madrona’s Middle School, with the exception of math, all classes are taught on a 2-year rotation.  Placement in math classes is dependent on standardized test performance and classroom performance in the lower grades….”

Did Non-Graded Schools Work?

The research and evaluation of non-graded school achievement, as one has come to expect in assessing the worth of educational innovations–is mixed. Studies that show academic gains as measured by achievement test scores in math and reading have been published as have studies that show no difference between non-graded and age-graded students. See here, here, here, here, and here.

As frequent readers of this blog know, adoption of an innovation in schooling has less to do with what the research says and far more about what school leaders and practitioners believe about students, teaching, learning, and knowledge. In the case of non-graded schools, even were the research and evaluation evidence to be overwhelmingly in favor of such an organization, getting teachers, parents, and district officials on board the train to introduce multi-age grouping of students, team teaching, and “continuous progress” is an instance of switching train tracks of one gauge to another in a railroad yard. Politically and organizationally, regardless of what the research says, that is one tough task to complete.

What Happened to Non-Graded Schools?

The age-graded school continues to reign across U.S. schools. The brief spurt of non-graded schools–nearly always elementary–in the 1960s and 1970s died a slow death in following decade but has not totally disappeared.

For example, as part of a state reform, Kentucky ungraded all of its primary grades in the 1990s. But this reform and other ungrading plans in elementary schools across the nation soon gave way to test-driven accountability. Still amid standards based testing for the past three decades, ungraded public schools and classrooms soldier on. There is the Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., a school that has done multiage grouping ever since it opened in 1890, the above Madrona school, The Northern Cass school district (ND) that embarked on competency based learning,  Hodgkins elementary in Westminister (CO),  and many others scattered across the nation.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools