Category Archives: school reform policies

"We Are All Reformers" (Part 3)

So what do I remember of those years in the three Pittsburgh Public Schools I attended? Two non-spoiler alerts to readers about what I experienced in elementary and secondary schools.

The first alert is my fallible memory. Bits and pieces of being in school come back to me albeit in blurred, inexact ways. But those memories persist. Nonetheless, it is not a spoiler to alert readers to the inherent flaws of trying to remember what occurred decades ago. As the Italian writer Primo Levi put it:

Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features.

The second alert is that going to school is only one part of a child’s life—albeit an important one. Multiply 180 days (average number of days the 50 states require school to be in session over past few decades) by the hours that most U.S. students spend in school  (6.5 hours), the total is nearly 1200 hours a year in school.

Consider further that in such a year the child and youth is awake nearly 6,000 hours (subtracting 8 hours of nightly sleep). In other words, in each year, about 80 percent of a student’s life is spent outside of school. This is a round-about way of saying that while tax-supported schooling in a market-driven democracy is essential if for no other reason than granting credentials that are required to complete high school, finish college and enter the workplace with proper pieces of parchment, it takes up about one-fifth of a five year old’s life or a senior’s last year prior to donning robes for graduation.

For readers, then, I note my flawed memory of the stint I spent in elementary and secondary schools and the huge chunk of time I spent in family, neighborhood, and religious institutions outside of school. With these two cautions in mind, I return to what I remember of those experiences between the ages of 5 to 16.

At age five, I was put into first grade. All of the other children who were a year older than me had been in kindergarten–a reform adopted and expanded by Progressive reformers–but I had not attended kindergarten. Somehow either my mother convinced the Minersville principal that I was ready for school or the principal unilaterally decided to assign me there. I was put into a first-grade classroom

I entered the first grade uninitiated in the school and classroom routines that most of my classmates had already absorbed a year earlier. They had been taught to listen to the teacher, obey directions, know when they could talk and when to be quiet. They knew when and how to ask permission of the teacher to go to the bathroom and sharpen their pencil. They had already picked up what schooling teaches the young—what academics call “socialization” or the “hidden curriculum”–that is not in teachers’ lesson plans. Moreover, my classmates already knew the colors of the spectrum, could count to ten, and some were actually reading. I was way behind my peers socially and academically.

While I graduated high school at the age of 16, many classmates and teachers thought I was really smart and had skipped grades. As my elementary and secondary school transcripts document, at best I was average, receiving a lot of  “satisfactory” and “C” grades on my report cards. I was a year or two younger than other students simply because my mother has gotten me into first grade at age five.

Some background on my family might make this precipitous entry into school understandable. My family of five moved from Passaic, N.J. in 1936 (of three sons, I was the youngest at 2, my middle brother was 11, and my eldest brother was 17). Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia, my parents who spoke Russian, Yiddish, and English had a mom-and-pop grocery store that was boycotted by the German-American Bund—a group that had grown quickly in the wake of Adolph Hitler’s becoming Germany’s Chancellor in 1933.

Closed by the boycott, my mother and father moved to Pittsburgh where they had family. We arrived there in the midst of the Great Depression. We found housing in what then was called the Hill District largely inhabited by a mix of some Jewish immigrant and mostly black working and middle-class families. My father, like so many other unemployed, could not find any work until he landed a job with the federal Works Progress Administration. Eventually he found work with a food distributor selling meats, pickles, and diary products off of a rented truck to immigrant-run mom-and-pop stores in Pittsburgh and nearby towns. By this time, my two older brothers were teenagers attending junior and senior high schools in the Hill District and working at odd jobs after school contributing to the family finances.

Across the street from our rented apartment was Minersville Elementary School. Largely black in enrollment—I remember one other white girl in the school—racial encounters occurred outside of school, not inside, as I recall. The first-grade teacher’s major task was to get students to read through phonics. I finally learned to read with understanding by the second or third grade and grasped it like a life preserver growing up. As an elementary and secondary school student, the Carnegie Library in Oakland became my second home.

My memory fails me in recovering experiences from those early years in elementary school. This is not to say that I didn’t absorb parts of the Progressive curriculum. I slowly grasped reading and arithmetic basics.

What I can recall most vividly is my fear and anxiety over not knowing all of the informal rules that my peers practiced without thinking. How to walk single-file in hallways, Lining up at the classroom door to go to the bathroom. Sitting with hands folded at the desk until the teacher told us what to do. Carefully scrawling the shape of individual letters pictured above the black slate boards as an introduction to cursive writing and then more sitting at a desk until the teacher directed us to the next activity. It was a world apart from living with my parents and brothers and roaming the neighborhood. I was scared by all of it.

So I do remember looking around constantly to make sure that I was doing what other six year-olds were doing. Was I anxious? Must have been since even writing down these fragments of memory dredge up feelings of unease, of worrying over being out of sync with others. I quickly picked up the alphabet and putting words together and adding numbers—never learned, however, to tie my shoe laces into bows–but the informal social rules of the classroom and fear of the teacher got to me from time to time. Once I was sent home for soiling my pants. Other times, classmates broke into laughter when I misunderstood the teacher’s request. This is what I remember.  

Outside of school, on upper Center Avenue where black middle-class families had moved out of the lower Hill District, I recall vividly being bitten on the thigh by the German Shepherd of our neighbor—a minister in a nearby black church. I also recall being hit by a Kaufman’s department store truck making a delivery while playing next to the curb and my mother taking me to the nearby hospital. 

At age 7, after the U.S. entered World War II—I remember that Sunday in December and the hushed conversations in our second floor apartment—when the President announced on the radio that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. The next year, we moved to Greenfield, a largely Italian and Irish Catholic neighborhood. There were few Jewish families in the neighborhood. The U.S. Army and Navy had drafted my brothers; they served until the end of the war. I entered the second grade at Roosevelt Elementary School and was there for four years. Whether it was because I was new to the school, Jewish, or some other reason, I heard lots of nasty epithets going to school, during recess, and while sprinting home two blocks once the last bell had rung. When there were fights, I was usually on the losing end.

Whether Roosevelt teachers taught in Progressive ways–encouraging play, curiosity, exploring science, math, and other academic and non-academic subjects–I neither remember nor could put into words those few vague wisps of memory. I do remember an art teacher who encouraged my drawing sufficiently for me to enter radio-sponsored art contests for young children. Didn’t win. I also recall that I knew all of the informal rules of how to behave in the classroom, during recess, and on the playground.While there are adults who look back fondly at their early years in school calling up the very names of their teachers, as much as I ransacked my mind, I cannot call up any names or classroom instances that are memorable.

What I do recall are events that occurred outside of Roosevelt. Since I went to school during World War II, rationing coupons, neighborhood fights and frequent anti-Semitic taunts and epithets come back to me. What eventually saved me was getting polio.

I remember well war-time rationing. Sacrificing for the war effort were lessons I learned in and out of school. Priority goods went to soldiers and sailors—like my brothers–serving in Europe and the Pacific. My parents received monthly ration coupons for meat, sugar, canned items, gasoline, tires, and other items. When our monthly coupons ran out, that was it. I do remember my parents speaking in Russian and Yiddish worrying about what they could and could not get in the remaining days of each month.

Patriotism in supporting the war effort became part of the school curriculum. Students, teachers and parents collected tinfoil from discarded gum and cigarette wrappers and rolled them into balls that we turned in to collection centers. I collected chicken fat from my mother’s kitchen and neighbors as well. My parents gave me a dime weekly to buy saving stamps and later defense bonds at school.

Then in the summer of 1944, a polio epidemic swept the nation and  I got it. But I was lucky. While other children were put into “iron lungs” to stay alive or youngsters had to wear leg braces—as President Roosevelt did–all that I contracted was a damaged left leg where my calf muscle atrophied. I have walked with a limp ever since.

Because polio was a scourge that devastated the young and no one knew how children contracted it, fear of getting it–like a latter-day fear of AIDs in the early 1980s–was omnipresent on Loretta St. When I returned from the hospital. No one came near me. I was in sixth grade preparing to enter a nearby junior-senior high school. I had missed a month of school–and I could barely stand when I returned home in early June. That is what I remember from those years at Roosevelt Elementary School.

During the War, my father had bought his own paneled truck to sell delicatessen products to family owned grocery stores in the city and elsewhere earned enough to fulfill my mother’s dream of moving into a Jewish neighborhood called Squirrel Hill. I was hardly ready to enter the seventh grade at Taylor Allderdice.

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"We Are All Reformers" (Part 2)

An education timeline of laws, events, and key people would show that in the 20th and 21st centuries multiple school reforms occurred again and again touching students, practitioners, parents, and researchers. The problem with such chronologies, however, is that they overwhelm viewers with lists of factual details. It is hard to sort out the important from the trivial. So I present no such chronology. For those readers, however, who want to see a few examples, look here and here.

Instead, as a historian of school reform (with a point of view), I will consolidate all of the events, innovations, people, and legislation into three major reform movements since 1900–in each case originating outside of the public schools—that sought to improve the nation and its tax-supported public schools. These three movements were the basis of a course that David Tyack and I taught for over a decade (1987-1999) resulting in our book, Tinkering toward Utopia.

Sure, in merging together decades of reform, I run the risk of dropping innovations and people that other historians and contemporary reformers may find regrettable, even mistaken. So be it. In writing about the past, historians focus on change and continuity. They take the long view and try to make sense of the buzzing confusion that daily life was then and is now. And, yes, this is my interpretation of 20th century reform movements that not only touched me and millions of others as students, professionals, and parents but also shaped and reshaped public schools. I invite others to craft their chronologies, categories, and interpretations of the past century of school reform.

*Progressive education (1890s-1950s)

*Civil Rights movement (1950s-1970s)

*Standards, testing accountability (1970s— )

In this and subsequent posts, I will write about my years as a student in two Pittsburgh elementary schools beginning in 1939 and then one six-year secondary school from which I graduated in 1951.  I was a student during the tail end of the Progressive movement thus an object of this reform that began in the early 20th century.

I need to remind readers that my memory is fallible, and in some instances even unreliable. I write this as an 85 year-old which means that my memory bank is crowded. I have to scrub and polish it while scouring loads of information gathered over decades far more slowly and carefully than a younger person would. What I have, however, because of my age and a brain stuffed with memories, experiences, and information is the ability to see patterns and regularities over time. I can assess the impact of in-school and out-of-school experiences through eyes that have seen decades of changes amid much stability. So while my memory may be fallible on details and even unreliable on names dredged from the past, there are advantages to being older and making sense of the memories I do have.

Since I have no documentation–other than a transcript of my grades and IQ scores from ages 6 to 16–I depend upon what events I can remember many of which occurred outside of the scores of classrooms I sat in year after year. Some of those events and incidents have been repeated in family folklore and, truth be told, I believe they occurred but cannot be certain. While I have checked other sources available to me, what follows is what I can recall of what occurred in and out of school. Nonetheless, keep in mind what novelist Cormac McCarthy said: “You forget what you want to remember and remember what you want to forget.”[1]

At the age of five, I entered first grade in Minersville Elementary school in 1939 and, after my family moved from the Hill District to Greenfield, transferred to Roosevelt Elementary in 1941 from which I left in the sixth grade for Taylor Allderdice, a 7-12 secondary school. I graduated high school in 1951.

In these years, Progressive educators dominated school reform nationally in their language, policy ideas, and desired practices. A political and educational movement originating in the 1890s and surging across cities and school districts during the early decades of the century, Progessive educators left a lasting imprint on school governance, organization, curriculum, and preferred instruction.

There was also a political side of the movement that sought to end corrupt and inefficient city, state, and federal officials. Progressives elected mayors and school board members who swept out bribe-taking officials and party bosses who handed out school jobs to their loyalists. At the federal level, they enacted anti-trust legislation, introduced the income tax, and expanded popular participation in the electoral process under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. When the Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted until the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal expanded government intervention to reduce sky-high unemployment and stimulate business recovery building on earlier Progressive reforms. [2]

Educational Progressives, inspired by both John Dewey’s “learning by doing” and Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management”, promoted both an ideology of educating the “whole child” and operating schools efficiently. Progressives fought for schools providing services to children unheard of in late-19th century public schools from kindergartens to playgrounds to lunchrooms to psychological and medical exams. Progressives educators urged teachers to use the Project Method and develop lessons responsive to students’ interests.[3]

Efficiency-driven district educators, influenced by Frederick Taylor’s success in bringing scientific measurements to help corporations earn more money while reducing labor costs, expanded intelligence and achievement testing that would sort students by their interests and future plans into newly created curricula so that students could better enter the workplace after leaving public school.

Intelligence tests permitted school counselors (a Progressive invention) to place students into appropriate curricula thus making schools more efficient in teaching and learning. Teachers using test scores could assign students to different ability groupings. Both the “whole child” and efficiency-driven Progressive impulses were critical components of the dominant Progressive ideology of reform prior to World War II.

In Pittsburgh, this ideology was pervasive during the long tenure of Dr. William Davidson (1914-1930) and Dr. Benjamin G. Graham (1930-1942), both of whom styled themselves as Progressive educators. Nearly 30 years of back-to-back superintendencies made possible the spread of Progressive ideology, policies, and practices throughout the district.

Like cities across the country proud of being Progressive, Pittsburgh public schools built playgrounds, served meals to students, housed doctors and nurses in health suites to check vision, teeth, and give physical exams. Professionals gave psychological tests to determine intelligence and diagnose individual learning problems. Teachers had to have college degrees to teach and be prepared in schools of education–except for certain vocational teachers who were hired based upon their experiences in the workplace. Senior high schools were comprehensive—a Progressive invention in the 1920s–with multiple curricula for students to find a fit between their interests and future careers and extracurricular programs of sports and clubs for after-school activities.

Demographically, Pittsburgh schools were ethnically and racially mixed both in neighborhoods and schools. The district had 88,000  students in 1930 many of whom came from families that had immigrated to America from Eastern and Southern Europe and ended up in Pittsburgh where jobs in the steel industry and manufacturing were magnets drawing unemployed newcomers. District schools sponsored classes for families to learn English and organized Americanization centers for adults who wanted to become citizens. [4]

Black families had been in the city since the early 1800s and their community grew as migrants from the South also looking for jobs found them in domestic service, unskilled labor, manufacturing and professions within the community.  Because of segregated housing policies and attitudes, the black population clustered in the Hill District making it a hub of social, religious, and community life through the Great Depression.

Pittsburgh school board members, administrators, and teachers used both the rhetoric and policies of national Progressive leaders in a commitment to educating children and youth in citizenship and preparation for work, college, home and family life. Also expected was, as the 1940 Survey of Pittsburgh Schools put it, “Education for Self Realization Through the Arts, English, and Music.” [5]

Inside Pittsburgh’s Progressive elementary schools, the curriculum focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic in grades 1-3 with dollops of geography, social studies, science, art, and music lessons scattered across all grades. Social studies lessons were critical in teaching children and youth about neighborhood, the city, and being a good citizen. Principals and teachers grouped students by ability and assigned them to different classrooms. Classes were created for the “exceptional” student (i.e., children labeled as gifted or determined to have disabilities).

In some classes, variations of the Project method were used. Activities also took students out of school to a rich array of art and science museums, theaters, and parks across the city. Students were semi-annually promoted (e.g. I went from 1B to 1A in January 1940 and 12B to 12A in 1950-1951, my last year of public school). Such twice-a-year promotion was popular among Progressives since such a policy was thought to increase efficiency in teaching and administering and at the same time fair to teachers, students and parents. [6]

In junior high schools, Progressive ideas of student exploration prior to making curricular choices in high school, led to mixed grouping of students. Academic courses contained both students who thought of college and getting a job once a diploma was in hand.  Also exploration meant in these years that girls took “home economics” courses such as cooking and sewing while boys took metal, wood, and print shops.  [7]

In high school, the district in 1939 converted from students being slotted into four different curricula (General, College Preparatory, Commercial, and Vocational) to a single Core Curriculum plus electives for all students. Counselors met with students to help them make choices. Fourteen of the 26 credits for graduation in the Core Curriculum were distributed between English (6), Social Studies (4), Science (2), and Physical Education (2). Twelve credits in electives could be taken in math, foreign languages. Students could also take vocational subjects (e.g., auto mechanics, print shop, electrical work) at separate schools such as Connelly Vocational School.[8]

The 1940 Survey of Pittsburgh Public Schools reported that this adoption of a Core Curriculum was “to assure certain basic learnings” yet the Survey Committee found “little evidence … that the content and procedures comprising the learning experiences of these required subjects are different from the content and procedures which were characteristic of the same subjects under the abandoned multi-curricula plan.” [9]

These consultants called attention to a persistent gap then (and even now), between implementing a new curriculum and what happens in the classroom–a gap that many observers and researchers often ignore in examining districts.

In the next post, I turn to what I recall from my experiences in three Pittsburgh schools.

[1] Cormac McCarthy, The Road (New York: Vintage, 2007), p. 10.

[2] Joseph Cronin, The Control of Urban Schools (New York: The Free Press, 1973); David Tyack, The One Best System (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).

[3] Raymond Callahan, The Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[4] Columbia University. Teachers College. Institute of Educational Research. Division of Field Studies, N. L. (Nickolaus Louis) Engelhardt, and George D. (George Drayton) Strayer. The Report of a Survey of the Public Schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1940). p. 524; Richard Kristufek, “The Immigrant and the Pittsburgh Public Schools, 1870-1940,” unpublished dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1975.

[5] The Report of a Survey of the Public Schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Preface, p. ix.

[6] National Association of Secondary School Principals, “Annual or Semi-Annual Promotion,” NASSP Bulletin, December 1957, pp. 17-29.

[7] The Report of a Survey of the Public Schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania pp. 61-65.

[8] The Report of a Survey of the Public Schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, pp. 62-63.

[9] The Report of a Survey of the Public Schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, pp. 66-67.

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"We Are All School Reformers" (Part 1)

On the first day of a graduate seminar at Stanford University that I taught a few years ago, I asked each of the 20 students to give a two-minute self-introduction detailing their name, what they did prior to graduate school, and why they enrolled in “Good Schools”: Research, Policy, and Practice.” After they introduced themselves, I, too, took the time to say that I had been a former high school teacher and superintendent for over two decades.

In listening to the students I reckoned that about one-third of the students had been teachers (many alums of Teach for America), about a third worked as consultants and policy analysts for education non-profits and had no direct experience in schools (save for their years as students). The remaining students came from backgrounds in business, science, and the arts.

I listened to each student as they told of their classroom experiences as student or teacher or their strong impulse to give the next generation of children and youth a better schooling than they had received. Many expressed a fervent wish to turn failing schools, particularly in urban districts, into successful ones. They wanted to reduce the inequities they saw (or experienced) in schools. This seminar, they felt, would provide answers to the questions they had about how to do such turnarounds.

After hearing their self-introductions and why they had enrolled in this seminar, I said “We are all school reformers.”

Nervous laughter danced around the large table at which we sat. These idealistic, bright 25-to-35 year-olds, fingers poised on the keyboards of their laptops, displayed the very-American optimism about schooling–especially “good” schools– to better the lives of individuals, families, companies, and society. At a time when most Americans want their children to graduate high school and enter college is at its height, faith in schooling–an almost civil religion–reigns. Getting a diploma and college degree is the pathway to success (however defined). Optimism strengthens the already deep faith in the importance of schooling (see here and here).

For readers who may doubt the previous sentence, consider responses to a Gallup opinion poll question: “How important is a college education today–very important, fairly important, or not too important.”

Between 1978 and 2019, “very” or “fairly” important captured 82 to 93 percent of a representative sample of Americans. In 2019, the percentage was 88. The belief that schooling leads to better and wholesome lives is one that most Americans hold now.

Also in the past even before there were tax-supported public schools. Beginning with the Puritans in the 17th century, wave after wave of immigrants from different continents and internal migrants from farm to city sought to make better lives for themselves and families. The reform impulse came on the Mayflower. Fleeing from imperfect institutions in Europe and elsewhere, newcomers sought to build morally unflawed institutions including schools.

Escaping from monarchies where nearly all people in the realm were voiceless, immigrants built a government without king and royalty. All adult white males who owned property could vote (excluded were slaves, Native Americans, and women until the 19th and 20th centuries) . Escaping from rigidly controlled economies, immigrants built one that allowed individual ownership of property and businesses. The abundance of land gave immigrants way of re-inventing themselves. And re-invention included establishing schools. Mid-19th century Common schools would turn the unschooled into citizens and reliable workers. Reform was in the air that Americans breathed (see here)

The reform spirit and its moral rectitude has not flagged over the past four centuries. Unrelenting efforts to improve government, economy, and society came and went through individual and group actions and movements (e.g., 19th century abolitionists, suffragettes, worker unions). And schools as well. Reformers grasped schooling tightly in the hope that their children would become morally strong and move from poverty into middle and upper classes. Schooling was viewed as an elevator. Not only poor and working class Americans prized schooling past and present. Affluent families saw schooling as a necessity–next in importance to the essentials of water, food, and roof over one’s head–to retain their status and wealth for the next generation.

For both the inherent optimism embedded in the American character and its strong linkage to prizing tax-supported schools, for both poor and non-poor, insuring that schools were “good” or improving was a “must.” What happened in the larger society from economic depressions to wars to political movements such as taming monopolies in the late 19th century and the Civil Rights movement in mid-20th century inexorably spilled over schools. There was no wall separating schools from national tremors.

As political, social, and economic changes swept across the nation, students, parents, and practitioners were perennial targets of well-intentioned school reformers, policymakers, and public officials. Many practitioners put reforms into practice or generated their own classroom and school changes. Parents lobbied for reforms in their nearby schools. Either as a target or an actor, stakeholders in public schools experienced externally-imposed reforms time and again. When the nation had a cold, the truthful and age-old cliche pronounced, public schools sneezed. And they have sneezed repeatedly decade after decade. So no reader should be surprised that the history of reform in the U.S. derived from an age-old national faith and optimism in the perfectability of humans and their institutions brought by the earliest immigrants. The passion for individual and social change in both the nation and its schools reveals a stark continuity over centuries and its unrelenting constancy in the lives of Americans even now.


For U.S. readers of this post (about one-third of this blog’s viewers are international), think for a moment about your time as students for 13-plus years in elementary and secondary schools, as teachers and administrators in and out of schools, and as parents of sons and daughters now attending school. Such a look backward and forward I suspect would establish clearly that at different times you were either the object of reforms (e.g., students) , as participants in putting a school reform into practice (e.g., a teacher or administrator) or now as observers of current school reforms (e.g., parents and taxpayers).

If readers are in their 20s to 40s, they have experienced as students curricula, graduation requirements, tests, and being held responsible for improved school outcomes. These readers went to school at a time when state and federal efforts (e.g., new math and science standards, No Child Left Behind) to prepare graduates to enter the workplace equipped to enter jobs in an information-driven economy. If those readers are now teachers or administrators, they are active in implementing such standards, tests, and accountability in their schools. If they are parents, then they can see contemporary schools preparing their sons and daughters for college and career.

For those readers in their 50s and 60s, as students they have experienced the aftermath of Sputnik and rivalry with the Soviet Union, desegregation and the Civil Rights movement, and Back-to-Basics as they spilled over schools in the 1960s and 1970s. New science and math curricula gave way to reforms aimed at reducing segregated schools. Increased federal funding (e.g., Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) to improve low-income children’s academic performance occurred.

As middle-age teachers and administrators, however, they are in the fourth decade of another series of reforms triggered by A Nation at Risk report and poor economic performance of American companies. Public school improvement would strengthen the economy, reformers believed. In most schools and districts, changes stemming from the above reforms continue to be implemented. Parents in their 50s and 60s now observe the shift from school reforms in the wake of Sputnik, the Civil Rights movement, Back-to-Basics to the current ones targeted on college and career.

I am older than most readers of this blog. Those in my generation have experienced the above reforms and even earlier ones. In the next few posts, I will do exactly what I asked readers to do. I attended Pittsburgh (PA) elementary and secondary schools between 1939-1951. I taught high school history in Cleveland (OH) and Washington (D.C.) public schools between 1956-1972. I was a superintendent in Arlington (VA) between 1974-1981. Since then I moved from a participant to an observer (and parent of two daughters) and then researcher in schools across the nation. I have been in schools and written about them for the past two decades.

So when I said to my graduate students on the first day of class that “We are all reformers,” I meant that reform is etched into the American character. The impulse came with the earliest immigrants and has continued to this day. As students, professionals, and parents we have experienced, implemented, and observed reforms in the 20th century. It is not something distant and far removed from our lives. It is part of who we are.

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The Greatest Ed Tech Goof Of All Time (Adam Laats)

Adam Laats is an educational historian at Binghamton University, State University of New York. A former teacher, he is currently at work on the Lancasterian system of schooling in early 19th century America. Laats had read a post by Audrey Watters, “The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade.” He then wrote this post for his blog.

What have been the top ed-tech goofs of all time? The top choice from my current research is pretty clear, c. 1804. [My readers] are probably sick of hearing about Joseph Lancaster. And I’m sorry. But his plan was such a perfect mix of tech-naïveté and Zuckerberg-level hubris that I can’t stop marveling over the 21st-century feel of Lancaster’s tech-obsessed school system.

If you’re just joining us, Lancaster was a young man who opened a school for poor kids in London in 1798. He tried some new tricks, including banishing corporal punishment and using students as teachers. He really believed technology could solve all the problems of education and therefore of society.

For example, he dreamed of new systems of “reading telegraphs,” “alphabet wheels,” and benches with holes for hats. His assumption—like that of so many of his peers—was that the right machine could eliminate traditional problems with school organization.

None of those failed ed machines, however, gets my pick as the top ed-tech goof of 1804. No, by a landslide, that (dis)honor goes to Lancaster’s “basket.”

The basket was a device that Lancaster used to discipline unruly boys (it was only used for boys) without resorting to lashes. If demerits failed, and other efforts didn’t work, boys would be suspended above the schoolroom in a basket. The other kids were encouraged to mock the “birds in a cage.”

A truly “terrible” way to humiliate a child, to be sure. But did it work? According to one enthusiastic Lancasterian, the “cradle” worked like a charm. As he wrote to Lancaster in 1812,

When [the students] first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children.

There was a cost, however. For understandable reasons, students did not like the cradle/basket/birdcage. They eventually stopped coming to Lancaster’s schools and their parents didn’t force them. Why? As one outraged African-American parent from New York wrote in 1827, their children should not be subjected to cruel teachers who only harped on the students’ “dulness and stupidity” all day.

Perhaps as a result of such gripes, Lancaster got rid of the basket. Though it plays a prominent role in early editions of his manual, by 1817 he had excised it. Like so many of the other ed-tech goofs we see in our decade, this technology came in with a blast of trumpets, only to exit with a whimper.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

How Have Teachers Taught: A Look Backwards

So much policy making aimed to improve classroom lessons is anchored deeply in myth and memory. Both morph into one another as policymakers (aka “reformers) filter their children’s tales of what occurs in classrooms festooned with iPads and Chromebooks through their recollection of what went on in their elementary and secondary classes. Oh yeah, policy makers consult with researchers and look at classroom studies, and ponder the changes that new technologies have made in how teachers teach but these results, again, are sorted through memories of writing an essay for that English teacher or the 5th grade quizzes that constricted one’s intestines. So I do not discount the power of myth and memory to shape policies aimed at getting teachers to teach better even after a decade of new technologies being tamed by teachers to become part of their instructional repertoire.

What is too often missing from the mix of data, Golly Gees over new software and remembrances are accounts by historians of education who have documented–albeit in fragmentary ways–what actually went on in classrooms over the past century. Some historians, including myself, have tried to recapture yesteryear’s classrooms (see here, here, and here). This post initially published in 2009 has been updated.

In How Teachers Taught (1984) and Hugging the Middle (2009), I collected 9,000 urban and rural classroom reports between 1890-2005 on common features of teaching. I examined how teachers organized classroom space, grouped students, and structured tasks for students. I found the following classroom patterns:

Between the 1890s and 2005, the social organization of the classroom became informal. In the early 20th century, dress-clad women and tie-wearing men facing rows of 50-plus bolted down desks controlled every move of students. They gave permission for students to leave their seat. They required students to stand when reciting from the textbook or answering a question. Teachers often scowled, reprimanded, and paddled students for misbehaving.

Over the decades, however, classroom organization and teacher behavior slowly changed. By 2005, few classrooms had rows of immovable desks. Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades, so students faced one another. Jean-wearing teachers drinking coffee smiled often at their classes. Students went to a pencil sharpener or elsewhere in the room without asking for the teacher’s permission. The dread and repression of the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s sneer slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms where teachers were more informal in language and dress, and had a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.

By 2005, most elementary and a lesser number of secondary teachers had blended student-centered and teacher-centered classroom practices into hybrids. As the social organization of the classroom becoming increasingly informal, most teachers mixed practices drawn from both traditions.

Grouping. Over time as class size fell from 60 to 30 or less, the student-centered practice of dividing the whole group into smaller ones so that the teacher could work with a few students at a time on reading while the rest worked by themselves slowly took hold among most elementary school teachers. Although variations in grouping occurred among high school teachers in academic subjects, small group work occurred much less frequently.

Classroom activities. A similar pattern occurred with assigning different tasks. “Learning centers,” where individual children would spend a half-hour or more reading a book, playing math games, or drawing and painting, slowly took hold in kindergarten and the primary grades spreading to the upper elementary grades. Learning centers, however, seldom appeared in secondary schools.

The use of student-projects that tie together reading, math, science, and art—think of a 4th grade class divided into groups or working individually on Native American life—became a standard part of elementary school teachers’ repertoire. In secondary schools, projects appeared in vocational subjects and periodically in science, English, and social studies classes.

Between the 1890s and early 2000s, then, teachers created hybrids. In elementary schools, particularly in primary classrooms, richer and diverse melds of the two traditions appeared with far fewer instances surfacing in high schools—allowing for some variation among academic subjects–teacher-centered pedagogy.

Even as classroom organization moved from formal to informal and hybrids of the two teaching traditions multiplied, teacher-centered pedagogy still dominated classroom life. As Philip Jackson noted in his study of suburban teachers, while teacher smiles replaced “scowls and frowns” and current “teachers may exercise their authority more casually than their predecessors,” still “the desire for informality was never sufficiently strong to interfere with institutional definitions of responsibility, authority, and tradition (p. 129).”

One only has to sit in the back of a kindergarten or Advanced Placement calculus class for ten minutes to see amid teacher smiles and many kindnesses to students which teaching tradition dominates. Teachers change students’ seats at will. They ask questions, interrupt students to make a point, tell the class to move from reading to math, and praise or admonish students. Controlling student behavior had shifted over the decades from scowls and slaps to indirect approaches that exploit the teacher’s personality and budding relationships with students but still underscored the fundamental fact of classroom life: teachers use their authority to secure obedience from students for teaching to occur.

In light of my findings for classroom instruction between 1890-2005, the two teaching traditions, at opposite ends of a pedagogical continuum, seldom appeared in pure form in classrooms. In schools across the nation where great diversity in children, academic subjects, and teachers were common—even amid “wars” fought in newspapers over phonics and math—teachers created hybrids of subject matter lessons albeit more so among elementary than secondary school teachers. In short, teachers hugged the middle between student-centered and teacher-centered lessons.


Amid a formidable array of new devices and software used by teachers across the nation in hundreds of thousands of classrooms, the two teaching traditions and their hybrids persist. Were policymakers, wannabe reformers, and anxious parents informed of this history of teaching–and the work of other historians of education who looked at classroom lessons–would their knowledge be useful in designing policies–in concert with classroom teachers–aimed at instruction? I believe so.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals

I published this post originally on May 18, 2014. Since then the regular media run pieces on the disappearance and revival of cursive writing. I am re-printing this post (and adding to it) since new proposals to resuscitate cursive writing have appeared. As reported in the New York Times, 24 states now require different forms of cursive writing with seven that have adopted policies since 2013.

Schools as “museums of virtue”* and schools as engines of change have been dominant and conflicting metaphors in the history of school reform. In the mid-19th century, tax-supported public schools pursued Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic–the three Rs. Basic literacy–being able to read the Bible, write one’s name, know elementary ciphering, and absorb family and community values–were the primary reasons for creating public schools. In a predominantly rural society, one-room schools sought to preserve the virtues of Protestantism, instill basic literacy, strengthen patriotism, and social custom through the three Rs.

One hundred and fifty years later, public schools are not only expected to instill the traditional three Rs and socialize children into dominant societal values but also expected to be responsible for the “whole child” and change society for the better. There has been an unrelenting expansion of traditional  three Rs to now include a suite of literacies:  scientific , numeracy, technological, and civic. The notion of schools as “museums of virtue” still exists but now competes with the idea that schools were (and are) engines of political, social, and economic changes that could (and should) transform the nation. That conflict can best be seen in the demise of cursive writing and the recent spread of K-12 students learning to code.

Goodbye Cursive

Recent articles (see here and here) have documented the slow death of a traditional subject in the elementary school curriculum for well over a century. Since the 1970s, teaching penmanship, usually in the second or third grades, declined. With 45 states adopting Common Core Standards in which there is no mention of cursive writing has hammered the last nail into the penmanship tradition. Well, not quite.

Efforts to prevent the extinction of an endangered school subject in North Carolina, Indiana and a few other states have led to legislative mandates that penmanship be taught in elementary school. That delaying action, however, will not alter the eventual disappearance of handwriting from the curriculum.

Arguments for dropping cursive handwriting include irrelevance–block printing is now acceptable in replacing cursive, typing is far more efficient than handwriting, standardized tests do not require handwriting–and its difficulty for many students to learn who will not use it much in the rest of their lives. Finally, teaching handwriting takes up valuable time in the second and third grades that could be better spent on acquiring Common Core content and skills and preparing for high-stakes standardized tests.

Arguments for keeping handwriting, while clearly in the minority, stress tradition and heritage for students writing by hand–reading key documents in the history of the nation, notes students themselves take, and an older generation’s continued use of cursive writing.  Moreover, cursive handwriting helps students develop reading, communication , and hand-eye coordination, experts say. There is a transfer-of-learning, what curriculum subjects, then and now, promise will occur.

Even with a few states mandating the teaching of handwriting in school, mournful taps will eventually be blown for penmanship skills. Like the teaching of traditional grammar and diagramming sentences or having students take wood and metal shop courses in junior high school some teaching practices and course-taking have disappeared from the crowded classroom and curriculum as times change. Modern substitutes for these extinct subjects and skills, however, eagerly step into the empty slots. And have to deal with the issue of transfer-of-learning also.

Enter Coding

Even before the current craze for teaching young children how to write code for computer software (see here, here, and here), the appearance of desktop computers in the early 1980s led quickly to teaching students how to use the keyboard and even write code (remember Basic?).

Keyboarding, like typing, was simple to learn. Computer scientists at that time, however, thought that teaching young children how to write code–I am still referring to the 1980s– would unleash children’s creativity and expression while teaching them to think sequentially and critically.  Using constructivist ways of teaching, children would be able to transfer knowledge and skills from learning to program to  other subjects in the curriculum. This innovation would transform traditional teaching and learning. Beliefs in transfer-of-learning through teaching coding and transformation of the traditional school led to the introduction of Logo in U.S. and British public schools.

The brainchild of Seymour Papert (who had worked with Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget) and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Logo had children using programming language to command a robotic “turtle” on a computer screen. The MIT team sought to teach young children how to face and solve problems, learn geometric concepts, and bring creativity back into the classroom. The designers saw Logo as a student-centered, progressive innovation that would transform teaching, learning, and the institution of schooling. As one former Logo teacher recalled:

[Logo] was a departure in terms of the pedagogical style… we have a term that is now fairly widely used in this country, “constructivism”. Logo was exactly that, the notion of people constructing

knowledge based on their experience of the world and playing with what they already know and working with other people, and the notion that the teacher should be a helper rather than a dictator

or instructor in the old-fashioned sense..

Logo and its “turtle” swept across many schools here and abroad.

Yet within a decade, the glamor of young children commanding turtles to move across screens evaporated. Although Logo continues to exist, few schools now use the programming language or sustain the culture of learning that Logo promised.

The underlying assumption driving Logo was that students learning skills of programming and being creative would transfer when those students would tackle other cognitive skills and knowledge across the school curriculum. This is a variation, as one reviewer of Seymour Papert’s books put it, of Logo as Latin.

Briefly, those who staunchly argue for the cognitive benefits of learning Latin (e.g., increases English vocabulary, sharpens thinking, and increases SAT scores) assume that studying the language will transfer to English grammar, literature, public speaking, and produce collateral benefits. The research literature on these supposed benefits stretches back to the early 1920s and has disappointed champions of the language time and again (see Timothy Koschmann, Logo as Latin)

Failure of transfer-of-learning and school after school changing Logo to meets its institutional imperatives led to the demise of Logo in public schools.

I believe that those current advocates for teaching children to code have ignored this history, the power of schools as institutions to adopt and transform innovations and, most important, the limits of transfer-of-learning.


*”Museums of virtue” come from Willard Waller’s essay on “The School and the Community” in William Goode, et. al., Willard Waller on the Family, Education, and War (University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 257. David Tyack introduced me to the writings of Willard Waller and referred to schools as museums of virtue in many essays and books.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

The Paper Rocket: Thoughts on Improving ‘Hands-On’ Learning (Doug Lemov)

This piece comes from “Doug Lemov’s Field Notes,” a blog that he writes about current issues and practices in schools. Author of Teach Like a Champion, he is a managing director of Uncommon Schools, a network of over 50 charter schools serving 20,000 students in various cities on the East coast. This post appeared November 13, 2019.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my littlest what was going on in Science. It’s her favorite class so it doesn’t take much to get some chatter going. She announced with no small amount of excitement that they were going to be building and flying rockets later that week. “Oh, cool,” I said, “Are you studying air resistance? Or aerodynamics?” That sounded super-geeky, so I re-phrased: “You know, what sorts of things might make a rocket fly better.”

“I’m not really sure,” she said, “We haven’t yet,” which was interesting because the rocket flying was just three or fours days away. If it was to demonstrate some ideas they had learned it was getting late to learn them.

If there’s one thing that most parents seem to want for their kids in school it’s hands-on learning. If there’s one thing many teachers believe will make them be the right sort of teacher it’s hands-on learning. At meet-the-teachers night, if a teacher says, “We’ll be doing lots of hands-on projects in my class this year,” everyone is happy. Parents imagine their kids up to their elbows in learning. Teachers imagine them building rockets and suspension bridges in the future, based on the inspiration of that November morning in 6th grade.

It’s about the time that a term becomes an article of faith like that, that I start to worry, however. Hands-on learning is a term with little correlation to value. Can be good; can be not-good. It’s as good as its design. And the key to the design, as with so many things in education, is knowledge. Which is unfortunate because teachers often overlook knowledge.

I was thinking about that because this morning I asked Little how the rocketry went. “GREAT,” she said. They had made them out of paper and gone out to the soccer field to fly them. “Our team won!”, meaning that her group’s rocket had stayed aloft the longest. “Double-cool,” I said, “What made your rocket work so well?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure,” she said. “I think maybe our wings. They looked different from other people’s.”

“Oh,” I said. What had they tried to do with them? How were they different? Silence.

If their wings had been better, in other words, it had been a lucky guess, which was fun and memorable but not all that instructive. They hadn’t been testing an idea–“Hey, since we know X, let’s see if…” It wasn’t an application of knowledge in other words. (Or at least if they were supposed to be testing specific things they’d learned, Little wasn’t aware of it. Full disclosure: There’s some precedent for that. :))

I should be clear: I am not knocking the rocket experiment. It was lovely and fun and inspiring and real. Those are some of the reasons my daughter loves science. I’m glad her teacher did it.

But it also reminded me of a thousand hands-on activities I’ve seen in schools that are designed to introduce a topic, to fascinate and awaken curiosity but that kids engage in relatively superficially because they don’t really know what’s going on.

They watch the bottle explode or the water turn suddenly to ice but they don’t know why. They’re intrigued but they’re not learning because their perception is uninformed. They don’t know what they are looking for so they don’t see it. It’s not a demonstration of something they know. It fascinates more than it teaches. Fascination is great but an activity can do both.

If my daughter had had more knowledge to use apply and test, she would have had a framework to think about and describe or speculate on why some rockets flew better than others: we had larger wings with more surface area. Or maybe it was the size of the nose cone that created less air resistance. That’s informed observation. The hands-on is an application of or testing of knowledge. When there is no background knowledge its closer to play. My daughter had loved the rockets and had ostensibly succeeded, but in the end she had essentially no thoughts on why her rocket worked. Sure you can unpack it and explain it later but it’s still an opportunity missed to have students “perceive” knowledge at work.

The value of hands-on in other words correlates to how much students know when they engage in it. To use hands-on activities before we’ve taught overlooks the differences between how experts and novices learn. An expert learns more from an experience than a novice because she understands and can process what’s happening. Students are almost always novices but the closer they are to knowledgeable the better.


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