Category Archives: school reform policies

The Standardized Classroom (Part 1)

Once upon a time in a nearby land there were one-room schoolhouses.



These one-room schools worked well enough for farm families but in towns and cities, they did not. Too many children to school and too few schoolhouses. Also it was too hard for the teacher to get four year olds and 13 year-olds in one room to learn the entire curriculum.

What made the situation worse was that many people from other lands came to this country who wanted to send their children to school–after all it was free for the youngest ones. Also many rural families migrated to towns because there were jobs that paid far more than they earned on the farm. So more and bigger schools were needed because the leaders of the land believed that public schools were essential to build a patriotic populace, a strong nation and a job-rich economy.

Then a band of reformers found a new kind of school that had worked well in another country and brought it to this nearby land. This kind of school had eight rooms in one building,  When children came to the school they were sent to different rooms in the eight-room building according to their ages. Six year-olds in one classroom and nine-year olds in another. For the few older students who wanted more schooling, there were high schools.  And that is the beginning of the age-graded school in this nearby land.



No fairy tale this origin story of the age-graded school (see here and here).

The structure of the age-graded school contained separate classrooms with one teacher for those of a certain age who was responsible for covering one portion of the curriculum tailored to that age group. And this change–a structural reform that has lasted until now–from one-room schools to that graded school is the beginning of the standardized classroom.

What do I mean by a standardized classroom in the late-19th century?

In creating the structure of the age-graded school, reform-minded policymakers sought consistency in how schools should be built, operated, and–within classrooms–what teachers should teach and how. To policymakers, creating uniformity in schooling meant both efficiency (saving taxpayer dollars) and effectiveness (achieving goals). Thus, the structure of the age-graded school made it possible to create uniform furniture, curriculum standards,  norms for children behavior, and similar ways of teaching young children and youth in every classroom.

So between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, standardization in schooling spread across the nation (see here and here). Architectural designs of school buildings standardized the size of classrooms, the number of windows in them, the arrangement of student and teacher desks, the circulation of air, and heating. All became uniform as school reformers sought consistency across an entire school (except for those children of color who went to segregated, dilapidated, under-funded schools in these decades)–see here and here.


Regularity in buildings sought homogeneity for both children and adults. Qualifications for who became teachers were raised and before a person could teach they had to meet minimum standards of knowledge and skills to teach. Such standards for the physical dimensions of the school, the curriculum, and for those who instructed children promised equality to those who attended tax-supported public schools

And standardization within the classroom occurred as well. Early to mid-20th century visitors to American classrooms would see a U.S. flag, paintings of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a wall clock and rows of bolted-down desks.





So what has the physical design of standardized classrooms including the arrangement of furniture and artifacts meant for both students and teachers over the past century?

*Rows of bolted down desks facing a blackboard and teacher desk and common textbooks for each academic subject communicate to those who inhabit that room who does most of the talking and who does most of the listening.

*Wall clocks mean keeping to a schedule of classes (e.g. 45 minute to hour long lessons) signaling changes in subject and moving to another room. Schedules are important because school is seen as a preparation for the adult work world where white-collar and blue-collar employees either punch time cards or are punctual. Clocks also mean that learning is measured by how long students attend classes during the school year.

*The American flag and the daily reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance are clear signs that loyalty to country is a primary obligation.

All of these artifacts become part of the “hidden curriculum” in age-graded schools and classrooms for transmitting to the next generation cultural values of obeying authority, adhering to institutional rules, independence, cooperation, the importance of time in the workplace, patriotism and pride in country (see here and here). Academics called this political, economic, and cultural socialization of the young.

Even so, there were  architects who railed at such school designs. Here is William Greeley’s view of such schools in 1922:

Probably the object is to produce a standardized American by the use of new,
standardized desks, in a standardized room with standard air at a standard temperature,
under standardized teachers…. Until a perfect form has been evolved, to standardize is to stifle further development.

Not all policymakers or architects agreed with this critic but Greeley recognized that a building housing age-graded classrooms has plans for those adults and children who inhabit it. This is the case with schoolhouse design.

What about classrooms in the 1950s? 1970s? Now? Have classroom physical dimensions and furniture changed over the past century?
Yes, they have. Another piece of evidence to rebut those who say schools have never changed. But those aspects of the school’s “hidden curriculum” that instill cultural values,  workplace compliance, and civic competence convey have remained stable.

*Movable chairs, desks, and tables introduced in the 1930s in many urban and suburban districts.


*Introduction of specialized rooms and space for school curriculum and after-school activities (e.g., art, music, science and computer labs, athletics, community services)


Amid changes, stability in classroom design, arrangement of furniture, and political and workplace symbols continue (e.g., clock, American flag)


Thus, the origin, spread, and frequent changes in the standardized classroom.

What about teaching? Has that become standardized also? Part 2 answers that question.





Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Whatever Happened To Service Learning?

Fads come and go in education as any teacher or administrator over the age of 30 knows. Service learning, however, was not (and is not) a fad. Defined broadly as K-12 students providing “community service” it has been in public and private schools for over a century. But it did have its faddish moments in the 1980s and 1990s–see Ngram. And it remains popular among policymakers and practitioners who see schools’ primary duty as developing “good” citizens. But issues of what exactly is service learning, who benefits most–students? community?–and toward what ends–individual giving back? solving community problems?–persist.

What is service learning and when did it begin?

Like most school innovations, service learning has had multiple meanings since it was introduced into schools in the 1970s. Policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have various definitions. Distinguishing between students doing community service and school-based service learning has made definitions hard to pin down for decades.

Community service (e.g. students visiting  the elderly,  cleaning up parks, feeding the homeless, volunteering in hospitals and early childhood day care centers) has been an feature of schooling for over a century. And it remains so. In a 2008 survey of principals, 60 percent of elementary schools had students engaged in both voluntary or required community service activities while 74 percent of middle schools and 86 percent of high schools did also.

For all the diverse definitions, service learning in K-12 schools comes down to a planned experience integrated into the regular curriculum that contains goals and opportunities for students to reflect on what they do (e.g., internships, field studies, science projects in community) and what they are learning (see here, here, and here).

Some examples:

*Angie started her senior year behind on the service hours her high school required for graduation. She scrambled to find something she could fit in between volleyball, applying to colleges, and hanging out with friends. She signed up to help out with a shelter for homeless families run by the local Catholic Charities office. She thought it would be something easy, like serving meals or playing with the kids…. Angie was eventually assigned some of the hands-on tasks she had expected, such as sorting through donated children’s clothing for usable items and helping school-age homeless children with homework. But each week the program staff also engaged her and fellow youth volunteers in an activity aimed at raising their awareness of the needs of the families they were serving and the reasons for their homelessness. At first it was just discussing several of the readings they were assigned. Later on they were given a chance to interview current and former shelter clients about their lives and take field trips to affiliated agencies working to help homeless families find jobs, housing, and treatment for drug and alcohol addictions. At several points, volunteers were asked to write a reflection about how their volunteer work was going and what they were learning about themselves, their clients, or their society. Angie was genuinely disappointed when her service project ended in December. She had found new friends among her fellow volunteers, and became e-mail pals with several of the children she worked with. She wrote an article for her school paper on the effects of the economy on vulnerable families and organized a showing of artwork created by the homeless children she worked with at a local gallery.

*Middle school students wanted to honor the local heroes who had a positive impact on their community. To prepare, the youths took a bus tour of their ethnically diverse neighborhood, heard folk stories retold by local residents, and wrote their own stories. The students then interviewed local heroes and compiled those interviews into a book. They honored the local heroes at an awards banquet and gave readings of the book at their school. The book was then donated to a local resource center. To reflect on their work, each student wrote both an essay on why we need heroes and also an evaluation of the project. The class celebrated their success with a gathering that included community-building activities and food from their cultural heritages.

What problems does service learning aim to solve?

Embedding service learning in the curriculum and having students engaged in the community seeks to reduce the gap between the classroom and the world outside the school. Sometimes called “experiential education”, doing field studies, pursuing community projects, and having internships as part of school-based service learning contrasts sharply with students’ common experience in academic subjects. Service  learning, then, offers an antidote to the familiar transmission of content and skills from teacher and text in most classrooms.

Then there is the historic mission of tax-supported public schools to prepare the young to act as engaged citizens once they graduate. With the turn toward academic excellence as measured by test scores beginning in the late-1970s, concerns grew that schools were declining in their mission to develop civic competence in students who graduate. Falling turnout of young voters each time local, state, and federal officials ran for office (except for 2008) and drops among 18-25 young adults in community involvement were often cited as bellwethers of schooling failing in its mission to produce involved citizens.

Service learning programs have sought to remedy that problem. What exactly is a “good”citizen,however, remains contested by advocates for service learning.

Does service learning work?

When definitions of an innovation vary, expect the answer to this question to be, well, ambiguous. Often one hears: “depends upon what you mean by ‘work’….” And so it is for service learning. Much of the initial research focused on results from service learning experiences in K-12 schools such as improved attendance to test scores. A few such studies showed correlations, especially for low-income, minority students (see here). Other studies claim that service learning has had a positive effect on the personal development of youth and ability to connect to culturally diverse groups (see here and here).  The most recent analysis of past studies of service learning (2011) concluded that there were:

significant gains in five outcome areas: attitudes toward self, attitudes toward school and learning, civic engagement, social skills, and academic performance.

Nearly all of these studies yield positive correlations but they remain associations and fall well below the threshold of showing that service learning caused these outcomes. As readers of this blog know, few innovations have been launched and sustained because of what “research says.” Political factors weigh far more heavily than research studies in determining the introduction or continuation of a program. And so it has been for service learning.

What has happened to service learning?

Since the 1970s when service learning in schools, distinguished from volunteering for community service, there was a spike in attention and action in the 1990s but over the past decade there has been a drop in actual school-based service learning programs. The most recent statistics I could find showed a drop in the percentage of schools offering service learning from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2008. What the percentage is in 2018, I do not know. It remains a clear presence in many schools across the nation.

No fad, then, is service learning. While it has ebbed and flowed over nearly a half-century, it is here to stay.




Filed under school reform policies

Facing the Trilemma of Classroom “Data Walls”

Over the past few years I have visited many classrooms. In elementary schools, I have seen pasted on a wall or cork board, “data walls” that look like these:





Usually, students have numbers or aliases assigned to mask their identity. Of course, most students find out who is who.

Whether to use these “data walls” to spur individual students to improve their academic performance or have data displays for the entire class without individuals being noted or not have them at all in a classroom but use individual and class data only among teachers or school leadership teams has been debated in blogs, media, and journals for the past decade (see here, here, here, and here).

With the onset of the mantra “data driven instruction” largely stemming from the accountability features of the federal law, No Child Left Behind (2002), school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers have heard time and again the importance of gathering, analyzing, and using test data school-wide to improve instruction and in classrooms for students to plan individual strategies. Let’s call that “retail” data.

“Wholesale” data are school-by-school and district numbers that are aggregated  and sent to administrators, teachers, and parents. Those data may (or may not) become a basis for policy changes.

The focus on test scores since the early 1980s–remember A Nation at Risk report–has given critics the argument that NCLB further narrowed both curriculum and instruction by holding teachers and schools accountable for results. Concerned about the shame attending students’ low performance on district and state tests, teachers glommed onto “retail” data as a tool for improving student test scores with one outcome being the building of “data walls.”

And here is the trilemma that teachers face. On the one hand, most teachers prize a holistic view of student performance (e.g., intellectual, social, psychological growth) and find that tests students are required to take seldom capture the content, skills, and behaviors that teachers seek for their students. They want their students to grow in more ways than answering accurately multiple choice questions.

Teachers also embrace their professional obligations so they must give those tests.

Teachers also desire professional autonomy but  are held accountable by school, district, and state officials for their students reaching proficiency and higher on the reading and math portions of tests they must give. Consequences of low student scores fall upon teachers and students (e.g., scores are used to evaluate school, teacher, and student performance; rewards and penalties accompany scores on tests). Teacher autonomy to go beyond the test, such as to teach cooperation, respecting others, and making judgments, is seriously diminished given the available time.

Thus, the clash of values that teachers hold dear: holistic development of children and youth, obligation to mind what school and district officials require to be done in classrooms, and professional autonomy to do what is best for student learning.

When faced with such trilemmas, there is no one best solution to such a common but sticky situation. Teachers do what other professionals in medicine, law, criminal justice system, social work, and therapy do: because three highly prized values come into conflict and there is no way to fulfill one without harming the others, teachers figure out good enough compromises that partially fulfill what they seek. They know that accepting trade-offs among these cherished values is inevitable–they construct compromises. Then they manage these jerry-built compromises. In short, they satisfice to satisfy.

For schools and teachers, “data walls” are satisfices. It is a compromise that satisfies the value of professional autonomy–teachers create and tailor the displays of data in their classrooms. “Data walls” meet the professional obligation of doing what the district and principal wants, i.e., focusing on improving students’ grasp of content and skills on the state test. Finally, “data walls” touch at least the intellectual growth of students. Surely, these trade-offs do not fully satisfy all teachers–many do not have “data walls”–but it is a compromise that helps explains the spread of these classroom practices.

There are, of course, other uses of “data walls” that side-step the personal trilemma that classroom teachers face. Such “data walls” could be used at the school level by principals and leadership teams that use test data to pinpoint what skills need to be re-taught at particular grades or seek changes in instructional strategies that teams of teachers within or across grades could manage (see here and here).

Which way to use”data walls” at a time when public officials and educational policymakers prize student and school test scores is hardly a cut-and-dried problem with an easy solution. If teachers and administrators probe at the underlying values embedded in using “data walls” they will see the conflicting values and search for a compromise with trade-offs that satisfice and satisfy tailored to their particular district and school. Not an easy task but essential for improvement at a highly-charged moment in time when far too much is not only expected but laid upon public schools.











Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Have the Common Core Standards Changed What Teachers Think and Do?

Changing what teachers think and do has been the target of many reformers in the past century. Every generation of reformers, regardless of political ideology, have aimed their reform-smeared arrows at the classroom because they wanted students to remember important facts, think rigorously, heighten creativity and classroom collaboration, and, yes, increase academic achievement.

What reformers discovered then and now is that for any of these reforms to alter students’ behavior, attitudes and achievement, teachers had to first change their practices either incrementally or totally. If teachers’ classroom lessons hardly moved the needle of change, might as well forget influencing the “what” and “how’ of student learning.

So, have Common Core standards changed what teachers think and do?

Since 2010, nearly all states have adopted the Common Core standards or a modified version. Surely, those state policymakers and federal officials who championed these standards believed that adopting these reform-driven standards would lead eventually to improved academic performance for all students (see here, here, and here).

In the back-and-forth over the politics of these standards, it was easy for these policymakers to lose the critical, no, essential, connection between adopting a policy and implementing it. Any adopted policy aimed at changing students is put into practice by teachers. And the Common Core standards asked teachers to make major shifts in how they teach. So civic and business leaders and academic experts who pushed such reforms  forgot a simple fact:  teachers are the gatekeepers to the “what” and “how” of learning.  Mandating big changes in how teachers teach ain’t going to happen. Why?


Because virtually ignoring the very people who must put a policy into practice nearly guarantees partial implementation. Without involving teachers in the process, without spending time and money on insuring that teachers are in sync with the policy and have the knowledge and skills necessary to put it–and there’s never only one “it”–into practice, the hullabaloo and promises curdle into policymaker and practitioner complaints and disappointment.

common core & tchrs.jpg

Yet for the most part, even after initial struggles over getting the right materials and learning the ins-and-outs of the standards, most teachers across the country  have taken on the responsibility of putting these standards into their daily lessons. So how has the implementation gone?

A recent RAND study sought out responses over the past three years from a randomly selected panel of math and English language arts (ELA) teachers about the text and online materials they use and their daily classroom practices.*

Here is what the RAND report concluded:

Given that the Common Core and similar standards are being implemented in most states
across the United States, one might expect to see changes in teachers’ knowledge. However, we saw no clear changes in teachers’ knowledge about their mathematics standards when comparing teachers’ survey responses in 2016 and 2017….

For ELA, we found a decrease in teachers’ perceptions that “assigning complex texts that all students in a class are required to read” was aligned with their state standards, despite the fact that the use of complex texts is emphasized in most state standards.

Teachers’ use of published textbook materials changed very little over the period examined in this study. Thus, despite the fact that most published textbooks we asked about in our survey were not clearly aligned with the Common Core, teachers did not appear to be shifting toward more use of standards-aligned textbooks.

However, teachers’ use of online materials did change over the period of our surveys. Specifically, mathematics and ELA teachers reported using more standards-aligned,
content-specific online sources and less use of Google in 2017 than in 2015.

On one hand, these findings suggest that teachers are seeking online materials to help them address state standards within their content area. On the other hand,—a lesson repository that is not vetted for quality or standards-alignment—saw a large uptick in use, and more than one-half of the ELA and mathematics teachers in our sample reported using the site “regularly” (once a week or more) for their instruction. In addition, increases in use of standards-aligned and content-specific
materials were not even; such increases were not as clearly present among teachers of the most vulnerable students (i.e., ELLs, students with IEPs and low-income students).

These findings suggest that teachers who serve our neediest students may not always be aware of or using online materials that support standards-aligned instruction….
We saw no changes in standards-aligned practices among all mathematics teachers, and we saw few changes when comparing responses among all ELA teachers. However, the changes we found suggest that some teachers may be engaging students in fewer standards-aligned practices now than in previous years. For mathematics, in particular,
teachers serving less-vulnerable students reported using significantly fewer standards-aligned practices in 2017 than in 2016, whereas we did not see these
significant decreases among those serving more vulnerable students.

That said, teachers’ self-reports about students’ engagement in various practices should be interpreted with caution, given what we know about the accuracy of teacher self-reports….

The answer, then, to the question of whether Common Core standards have changed what teachers think and do is mixed. From these surveys math and ELA teachers do report a few changes but stability in classroom practices persist. While teacher surveys are surely helpful in suggesting what occurs when policies get implemented, they do not substitute for researchers directly observing classroom lessons, interviewing teachers before and after lessons, and analyzing student responses to teaching practices.


*RAND writers are clear in stating that the findings from their surveys are “reported” by teachers. No classroom observations were done. Teachers answered survey questions and indicated what they knew and did in putting the Common Core standards into practice. Are there gaps between what teachers report and what they actually do in their lessons? Yes–see here  and here. But keep in mind, that these gaps in reporting perceptions compared to on-site observations of practice are common. They also apply to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals reporting what they think and do


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, school reform policies

Whatever Happened to Detracking?

About one-third of 8th graders now take algebra. Thirty years ago, about 16 percent took algebra in the 8th grade. Why the jump in enrollment?

Promoters of algebra for everyone give such reasons as: U.S. student math scores on international tests were well below Japan, Korea, and other countries. Fewer U.S. students were taking advanced math courses in high school and were unprepared for college.

Policymakers, educators and parents saw algebra as the gatekeeper course to higher math. You take algebra in the 8th grade and you then could take calculus in your high school senior year. And you were then ready for university courses in math. This is the classic example of detracking. Regardless of ability and performance, making hard courses open to all students is a curriculum change driven by a strong belief in equal opportunity–everyone goes to college–and producing higher student scores on international tests.

Detracking basically means that secondary schools move away from the traditional system of separating students by ability and performance in various subjects that began in the early 20th century. A century ago, elementary and secondary schools enrolled hundreds, even thousands of students. Some students were very able and high performers in academic subjects and others were middling performers and some needed more time to grasp the required content and skills. At that time, students were grouped by age and everyone studied the same content and skills. In classrooms, teachers faced “heterogenous” groups of students with a huge range of abilities, knowledge, skills, and experiences. Many students failed. Dissatisfied parents complained.

By the 1920s, policymakers came up with a system for organizing secondary school students by grouping them “homogenously,” that is by their ability–group IQ tests were used to measure individual intelligence–and previous performance in similar subjects, that is, test scores and teacher grades. Supported by teachers and parents, district policymakers across the nation in these years constructed high school curricula dividing all students into at least three “tracks” leading to different future paths: College preparatory, general, and vocational. Occasionally a student would move from “general” to “college prep” or the other way around but such mobility was limited. Once placed in a track, students took all academic subjects geared for that course of study and remained there for their high school career (see here, here, and here).

That system has largely disappeared. Instead, most high schools track by academic subject to achieve greater homogeneity in classes. High achieving 10th or 11th graders, for example, take Advanced Placement biology or physics while middling or low performers take General Science. In social studies, there is “regular” U.S. history for many students while some take “honors” or Advanced Placement U.S. history. In such tracked academic subjects, teachers still face a range of student abilities and performance but the band of such differences is narrower.

 When did detracking begin?

Beginning in the 1960s activists filed federal suits again school systems that tracked minority students. Such cases as (Hobsen v. Hansen, 1967) that banned tracking in the Washington, D.C. schools and growing concerns over poor academic performance of minority students slowly gained support among policymakers and educators. Reformers, leaning on studies done by researchers, worried about school groupings reinforcing inequalities in society by excluding low income students from advanced courses and thereby entry into college. These policymakers (and parents) pressed states and districts to open up Advanced Placement courses, gifted and talented programs, and the like–including Algebra in the 8th grade–to all students.

By the 1980s with U,S, students posting low scores on international tests, another generation of reformers, prodded by corporate leaders worried about workforce demographics, that is, future employees who would be mostly minority and uneducated to handle the demands of an information-driven workplace. Business and civic  coalitions of reformers pushed for higher graduation standards and broad access of all students to a tough academic curriculum. Since the Nation at Risk report (1983), enrollments in academic subjects taken for four years such as math and science (rather than two or three years) increased.

In the late-1980s and early 1990s, policymakers and reformers, relying on a new generation of research that showed major academic  disadvantages for poor and minority children and youth–as measured by test scores, graduating high school, and admission to college–began pushing for detracking and equal access to all advanced academic subjects (e.g., Algebra for all). Major organizations such as the National Education Association, National Governors Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and others came out in favor of detracking. The states of Massachusetts and California mandated detracking in middle schools. this curriculum reform became a favored strategy since the 1990s (see Ngrams here and here).

What problems did detracking aim to solve?

Reformers seeking detracking have sought to solve problems of low achievement among minority and poor students and persistent unequal access to tough academic courses. Detracking reformers assert that schools that track students perpetuate societal inequalities and sustain the achievement gap between white and minority students. They promise that permitting all students to take courses together regardless of ability and performance will solve inequitable access and at the same time increase the academic achievement of heretofore under-achieving students (see here and here)

Does detracking work?

Yes and no. Studies have shown that detracking has not harmed achievement of high performing students and at the same time has raised performance of previously low-achieving minority and poor students (see here and here, p.90). Moreover, detracking has increased equal access to high school knowledge (see here and here , p.90).

Yet efforts to detrack have had repercussions on teachers and students as these classes have been reorganized (see here, here and here). The evidence at best is mixed which to me means that making organizational decisions on detracking–a complex decision affecting students, teachers, and parents–are more value- than research-driven.

What has happened to detracking?

While the reform of detracking occurred in the late-20th and early 21st century, 60 percent of elementary and 80 percent of secondary schools continue to organize students into homeogenous groups or “tracks.” This is especially so in math courses while mixed grouping of students in high school English, science, and social studies still remain. So while detracking has become a popular reform slogan and has made inroads to how schools organize students for the “what” and”how” of teaching and learning, modified tracking by academic subject remains a mainstream strategy for U.S. schools.



Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Second Draft: A Continuum of Personalized Learning

A year and a half ago, I published a post that tried to make sense of the spread of “personalized learning” as the “next big thing” in U.S. schooling. To make sense of the heralded innovation in teaching and learning,  I created a continuum of programs self-styled as “personalized learning” based upon my research in Silicon valley districts, schools, and classrooms. I received many comments on the post and continued reading reports from schools and districts after which I revised the continuum. Here is my second draft.


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 (see here).

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.  I heard that PL was an actual program, an instructional application,an academic strategy. Not a surprise since the history of school reform is dotted with the debris of earlier instructional reforms that varied greatly in definition and practice (e.g., New Math, Socratic seminars, mastery learning, individualized instruction). While scores of crisp definitions dot educational journals, social media, and professional organizations, no one definition of “personalized learning” monopolizes the reform terrain.


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, of course, is new since “technology integration” and other high-tech 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. Teachers adapting policies to fit their classroom is as natural as a yawn and just as prevalent. Variation in PL, then, 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.

The “Personalized Learning” Continuum

To make sense of what I observed in Silicon Valley schools and what I know historically about instructionally-guided policies over the past century, I have constructed a revised continuum of classrooms, programs, and schools that encompass distinct ways that “personalized learning” appear in customized lessons as a strategy to achieve 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.

The “what” that is being taught and learned and the “how” that content and skills are taught and learned encompass both teacher and student at each end of the continuum. Both of these concepts–the “what” and the “how”–are present, of course, in every classroom regardless of the strategy being used.

At one end of the continuum are teacher-centered lessons within the traditional age-graded school. These classrooms and programs switch back and forth in using phrases such as “competency-based education” and “personalization.” They use new technologies online and in class daily that convey specific content and skills, aligned to Common Core standards–the “what” of teaching and learning–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–the “how” of teaching and learning. At this end of the continuum, these lessons have a decided tilt toward teacher direction and whole-group work.

For examples, consider the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New HampshireUSC 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  Virtual Learning Academy Charter.

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. The “what” of teaching and learning is specified beforehand and ultimately tested daily or weekly.

At the other end of the continuum are student-centered classrooms, programs, and schools. These settings often depart from the traditional age-graded school model in using multi-age groupings, asking big questions that cross academic disciplines to combine reading, math, science, and social studies while integrating new technologies regularly in lessons–the “how” of teaching and learning. Such places seek to cultivate student agency wanting children and youth to reach beyond academic and intellectual development to social, physical, and psychological growth.

Moreover, these programs seek learning that comes out of student interests and passions including community-based activities. The “what” of teaching and learning is partially shaped by students. 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, engage with their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults.

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) that fit here as well.

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–the “how”–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.

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. In short, the “what” and the “how” of teaching and learning are complex amalgams.

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” and choices were, indeed, given to students within these projects for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, major decisions on projects–the “what”–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, do 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.

Implementation today, as before, of the popular policy innovation called “personalized learning” in all of its ambiguous incarnations in schools and classrooms depends upon teachers adapting lessons to the contexts in which they find themselves and modifying what designers have created. Classroom adaptations mean that the “what” and the “how” of teaching and learning will vary adding further diversity to both definition and practice of PL. 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. And that fact is crucial to any “next big thing” for innovations aimed at altering the “what” and “how” of teaching and learning.




















Filed under school reform policies, technology use

“Personalized Learning”: The Difference between a Policy and a Strategy

“Personalized learning”–and whatever it means–has been the mantra for policymakers. technology entrepreneurs, and engaged practitioners for the past few years. Mention the phrase and those whose bent is to alter schooling nod in assent as to its apparent value in teaching and learning.  Mentions of it cascade through media and research reports as if it is the epitome of the finest policy to install in classrooms.

But it is not a policy, “personalized learning” is a strategy.

What’s the difference?

Read what Yale University historian Beverly Gage writes about the crucial distinction between the two concepts:

A strategy, in politics, can be confused with a policy or a vision, but they’re not quite the same thing. Policies address the “what”; they’re prescriptions for the way things might operate in an ideal world. Strategy is about the “how.” How do you move toward a desired end, despite limited means and huge obstacles? We tend to associate strategy with high-level decision makers — generals, presidents, corporate titans — but the basic challenge of, in [Saul] Alinsky’s words, “doing what you can with what you have” applies just as much when working from the bottom up.

While the two are connected, making the distinction between policy and strategy is essential to not only political leaders but military ones as well. Strategies are instruments to achieve policy goals so, for example, in the 17 year-old war in Afghanistan, ambiguous and changing U.S. goals—get rid of Taliban, make Afghanistan democratic, establish an effective Afghan military and police force–influenced greatly what strategies U.S. presidents–three since 2001–have used such as sending special forces, army, and marines into the country—frontal assaults on Taliban strongholds, counter-insurgency, etc. (see here and here).

Without recognizing this distinction between policy and strategy military and political leaders behave as blind-folded leaders  taking one action while devising another plan to implement to achieve ever-changing goals.


Photo illustration by Derek Brahney. Source image of painting: Bridgeman Images.


But the key distinction that Gage draws between policy and strategy does not only apply to politics or the military, it just as well covers continual reform efforts to improve public schools. A successful reform often gets converted into policies–the vision–and those policies get implemented–the how– as strategies to achieve those policy goals in districts and schools

Also keep in mind that public schools are political institutions. Taxpayers fund them. Voters elect boards of education to make policies consistent with the wishes of those who put them into office. And those policies are value-driven, that is, the policy goals school boards and superintendents pursue in districts, principals in schools, and lessons teachers teach contains community and national values or, as Gage put it above: prescriptions for the way things might operate in an ideal world. Of course, these value-laden goals, e.g., build citizens, strengthen students’ moral character, insure children’s well being, prepare graduates for jobs, can be contested and, again become political as tax levies and referenda on bilingual or English only instruction get voted up or down. So policies do differ from strategies in schooling. The distinction becomes important particularly when it comes to media-enhanced school reforms.

In light of this distinction, consider “personalized learning.” When I ask the question of teachers, principals, superintendents and members of school boards about”personalized learning”: toward what ends? I get stares and then answers that are all over the landscape–higher test scores, reducing achievement gap between minorities and whites, getting better jobs and motivating students to lifelong learning (see here).

The question is essential because entrepreneurs, advocates, and promoters  pushing “personalized learning” expect practitioners to reorganize time and space in schools, secure new talent, buy extensive hardware and software, shift from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction, and provide scads of professional development to those putting what has now become a policy into practice.

The fact is that “personalized learning” is not a policy; it is a strategy. What has happened here as it has in politics and the military is that a “strategy” has become the desired end replacing the initial policy goal.  Leaders forget that a policy is a “what,” a prescription for the way things might operate better than they do, a solution to a problem, not a “how”  do you move toward a desired end, despite limited means and huge obstacles? While this switch from policy-to-strategy is common it is self-defeating (and consequential) in an organization aiming to help children and youth live in the here and now while getting ready for an uncertain future.

The fundamental question that must be asked of “personalized learning” is: toward what ends? It seldom gets asked much less answered without flabby phrases or impenetrable jargon. The conflicts that arise when the goals of PL are unclear or ambiguous (or worse, unexplored) occur because PL as a strategy–the “how” –has morphed into the “what” of a policy. Here is what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says:

We want to make sure that [PL], which seems like a good hypothesis and approach, gets a good shot at getting tested and implemented.

One example taken from a recent report on PL:

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

Noting these conflicts between PL and standards-based accountability–both of which are strategies to achieve higher test scores, change school organization, raise students’ self-confidence in mastering content, and demonstrate responsibility to voters. Nothing, however, is ever said how raising test scores, altering how schools are organized, lifting students’ self-esteem, or holding schools accountable to voters is connected to graduating engaged citizens, shaping humane adults, getting jobs in an ever-changing workplace, or reducing economic inequalities.  These are the policy ends that Americans say they want for their public schools. Instead, distinctions between policy and strategy go unnoticed and the “how” becomes far more important than the “what.”





Filed under school reform policies, technology

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