Category Archives: school reform policies

“Teachers Know Best” Survey of Technology in Classrooms

The rollout of the Gates Foundation 2015 survey of teacher opinion about technology sought to gain attention from entrepreneurs, policymakers, administrators, and teachers. I do not know if it did attract such attention but a brief analysis of what teachers told pollsters is in order because the report reveal strong biases that need attention.


1. Teachers still do not “personalize” instruction. On p. 2 of the report, under the heading “What Today’s Classrooms Look Like” the first finding of the survey is in the following  paragraphs:
Despite the proliferation of technology that enables student
learning experiences to be tailored to meet individual skills, needs,
and interests, … More than two-thirds (69 percent) of participating teachers
report teaching in classrooms where students generally
learn the same content, working at the same pace together
as a class.

The implied meaning is that over two-thirds of teachers teaching where students generally learn the same content, working at the same pace together as a class  is bad especially because there is a  proliferation of technology that enables student learning experiences to be tailored to meet individual skills, needs, and interests.

And if the reader did not get the message, the text on the same page continues:
Despite the availability of digital tools to assist with independent practice, assessment, and tutoring, most classroom time in these areas is still spent without using digital content. Teachers spend 16 percent of class time, on average, on independent practice without digital content, compared to 11 percent using it; another 16 percent of class time on paper-and-pencil assessment, compared to 9 percent on computer-based assessments; and 10 percent of class time on individual in-person tutoring, compared to 4 percent on online tutoring.
So most teachers, the text implies because no other explanations are offered, willfully ignore the technologies that would embrace a student-centered version of “personalized” instruction.As others have pointed out, this bias toward student-centered–call it individualized, “personalized,” or blended–instruction continues to drive techno-advocates (see here).
In the very next paragraph, the report says:

However, the majority of teachers (65 percent) report grouping students of similar abilities together for differentiated instruction or other supports. These groupings are also increasingly responsive to ongoing changes in student learning, with 73 percent of teachers changing the composition of student groups at least monthly.

The report suggests that teachers using multiple groupings to differentiate instruction is a “good” thing. Here nearly two-thirds of teachers are doing the right thing. Again there the history and organizational context for teachers using small groups are missing.

The fact of the matter is that Progressive reformers started grouping of students in the 1920s (following the use of IQ tests) and it has taken decades for the practice to become a mainstay in the nation’s schools. Why? Because organizational factors that teachers have faced (and do so now) account for the slow but steady adoption of an innovation a century old.

As I and many others have pointed out (see here and here) there are historical, political, and organizational reasons why teachers teach as they do that have little to do with whether new technologies are available. State standards, tests, accountability, class size, demographics, teacher turnover, historical patterns of instruction, and many other factors account for this stability in instruction, not the availability of new devices and software.


The Gates Foundation-funded study depends upon online responses from teachers. Researchers know the dangers of unreliable estimates that plague such survey responses. For example, when investigators examined classrooms of teachers and students who reported high frequency of usage, these researchers subsequently found large discrepancies between what was reported and what was observed. None of the gap between what is said on a survey and what is practiced in a classroom is intentional. The discrepancy often arises from what sociologists call the bias of “social desirability,” that is, respondents to a survey put down what they think the desirable answer should be rather than what they actually do.

Online surveys are also plagued with selection bias. While the Boston Consulting Group that the Gates Foundation hired to survey over 3000 teachers claims that the respondents mirror the nation’s pool of teachers (p. 3), those who take the time to respond to an online survey may well differ from those teachers who cannot be bothered to answer the questions. That is called selection bias and flaws many online surveys (see here, here, and here). I could not find in the report whether the BCG corrected for selection bias or simply used the excuse of  teachers who responded as being representative of the nation’s teachers.


The foundation’s report Teachers Know Best offers a biased view (both substantively and methodologically) of what should happen in the nation’s classrooms. Handle with care.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

How I Studied the Teaching of History Then and Now

From time to time, a few readers ask me how I, as a historian of education, go about collecting and analyzing data about teachers at work in classrooms especially those who have taught many decades ago and those who teach now. In my next book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change in Schools, I reconstructed how I taught history at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH) and Cardozo High School (Washington, D.C.) in the 1950s and 1960s and then returned to those same schools in 2013-2014 to determine how history is taught there now (see here).

This post is for those viewers and curious readers who have asked me the direct question of how I dig into the past and recapture the present in answering the central question I asked in the forthcoming book: What has changed and what has remained the same in the content and pedagogy of high school history?

In carrying out this study to answer that central question, I had to deal with the following methodological issues. 

How did I reconstruct my teaching of history at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools between 1956-1967?

The design of the book is basically two case studies that answer the question: to what degree did the larger context of national and local reform-driven policies influence the teaching of history then and now? I used the common historical methodology of seeking out multiple primary and secondary sources to describe and analyze the macro- and micro-contexts, that is, national movements (e.g., civil rights, the New Social Studies), city and school district settings, and what happened during the decade I taught in Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Primary sources included district school board minutes, local newspaper articles, available school archives, and district and school reports and studies published in the late-1950s through the late-1960s for both Glenville and Cardozo High Schools.

I used secondary sources to establish national socioeconomic and political forces at work that influenced each city (e.g., Civil Rights movement, demographic changes, shifts in economic base). Other secondary sources included descriptions of how teachers taught elsewhere in the nation during these years. For each of the cities I tapped histories of the District of Columbia’s and Cleveland’s black communities, the political and socioeconomic forces at work in both cities in the 1950s and 1960s, and their linkages to changes in both school districts in these decades.

These primary and secondary sources permitted me to recapture the macro-contexts within which my classroom teaching unfolded. I used a similar mix of sources to portray the micro-setting of my classrooms in each district and how history teachers in other locations taught.

For my teaching at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools between 1956-1967, I used the following primary sources:

  1. Student “study guides” I used in my U.S. history and world history classes at Glenville (two former students kept copies and sent them to me). Lesson plans and readings (in my possession) I used in classes at Cardozo High School.
  2. Student assignments at Glenville that I had graded and commented on (one of the above students sent a packet of her work to me from 1960).
  3. Personal journal I kept for 1961-1967.
  4. Annual yearbooks at Glenville called “The Olympiad” and at Cardozo, “Purple Wave,” for the years I taught.
  5. Glenville student newspaper articles for the time period.
  6. Cleveland Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper articles on Glenville for those years. The Washington Post and Washington Evening Star for articles on Cardozo High School.
  7. Cleveland School District documents including Board of Education minutes, special reports, and memos.
  8. District of Columbia documents including Board of Education minutes, memos, and official reports.

In returning to the two high schools I taught in a half-century ago, what methods did I use to describe what I saw and heard?

I spent two weeks at each high school. I visited Glenville High School for a week in November 2013. The media center specialist set me up in a room adjacent to the library filled with yearbooks and uncatalogued issues of the student newspaper for the years just before, during, and after I taught there. For recent years, I found scattered issues of the yearbook for the years 1990-2010.

At Cardozo, I spent a week in December 2013 navigating the school library and closets within the school for past and current school reports, evaluations, yearbooks and student newspapers. The high school had just reopened after a two-year long renovation of its facilities. Many materials had been tossed and destroyed in the move to prepare for the renovation and some had been stored at other sites but I could not locate any staff members who knew where.

After some digging, I located a room in the basement that did contain issues of yearbooks only from the period of 1990-2010. Issues of the yearbook for 2011-2013 had not been published. I also visited the District of Columbia school collections at the Charles Sumner Museum and located newspaper clippings about Cardozo High School covering the years 1975-2007.

In the next round of visits to each high school, I observed lessons and interviewed teachers. I went to Glenville for the week in April 2014. I interviewed the principal and three of the four social studies teachers at the school. I observed a total of nine classes (scheduled for 45-minute periods) of these four teachers. Overall, I spent an entire period in least one class of each of the four teachers. For one world history teacher, however, I observed three back-to-back classes and the other world history teacher I visited three different classes over two days. One of these teachers had invited me into his classes on my first visit to the school in November 2013 (but did not agree to be interviewed). None of the teachers had syllabi available for me or had posted any on the school website.

My final visit to Cardozo High School occurred during the week of May 2014. I interviewed two history teachers and observed three classes (each scheduled for 80-minutes). Another teacher permitted me to observe two of his classes but did not agree to an interview. In total, then, I observed eight lessons of three history teachers. In preparation for the observations, I reviewed the syllabi that all three teachers had placed on the school website (

What did I do when I observed classes? In four of the 14 classes I observed in both schools, I was introduced as a professor who had taught at the school a half-century ago. In three of these classes, at the end of the lesson, the teacher invited students to question me about what teaching at Glenville and Cardozo was like then. A handful of students asked questions and I answered them.

During each lesson I observed, I sat in classrooms and writing out in longhand or typing on my laptop what teachers and students did during the 45-minute period at Glenville or 80-minute period at Cardozo. Each sheet of paper or laptop screen was divided into a wide column and a narrow column. In the wide column I recorded the seating organization of the classroom, what was on chalkboards, what was on the walls and bulletin boards, and what electronic equipment was present in the room. Then after the lesson began, I would note every few minutes what the teacher was talking about or doing and student responses and actions they were engaged in. I also noted when the teacher segued from one activity to another and directed students to the next task.

In the narrow column, I commented on what I saw. That included connections (or lack of connections) I saw between what teacher said and what students did. I scanned the classroom every few minutes and commented on whether some, most, or all students were on- or off-task and my sense of how attentive students and teacher were to what was happening in the lesson.

The major advantage of this approach is being in the room and picking up non-verbal and verbal asides of what is going on every few minutes as well as noting classroom climate or ethos that often goes unnoticed.  As an experienced teacher familiar with schooling historically and the common moves that occur in teacher-directed lessons, I can also assess the relationship between the teacher and students, subjectively to be sure, that other observers using different protocols or videos may miss or exclude.

The major disadvantage of this way of observing history lessons is the subjectivity and inevitable biases that any observer including myself brings to documenting lessons. To minimize my biases, I worked hard at separating what I saw from what I interpreted. Thus, the wide and narrow columns I used to record what happens during a lesson and my comments. I described objectively classroom conditions in diagrams of student and teacher desk arrangements, listing the content of bulletin boards and chalkboards. I noted the electronic devices available in the room and their location on the diagram of the room and whether the lesson included students using the devices. I described and did not judge teacher and student behaviors. But eliminating biases completely is hard to do. As in other approaches researching classroom lessons, some biases remain.

After observing classes, I sat down and had half-hour to 45-minute interviews with teachers at times convenient to them. After jotting down their history in the district, the school, and other experiences, I turned to the lessons and asked a series of questions about what happened during the period I observed. I asked what the teachers’ goals were and whether they believe those goals were reached. Then, I asked about the different activities I observed during the lesson and whether they thought the lesson I observed was typical or not.

In answering these questions, teachers gave me reasons they did (or did not do) something in lessons.  In most instances, individual teachers were eager to provide a rationale for doing what they did, thus, communicating to me a cognitive map of their beliefs and assumptions about teaching, learning, and the content they typically teach. In all of the give-and-take of these discussions with teachers I made no judgment about the success or failure of different activities or of the lesson itself.

Like any methodology to describe what happens in a lesson, there are inevitable trade-offs between using protocols with trained observers who seldom depart from the instrument, videotaping the lesson with or without commentary, the approach I used, and other methods of classroom observation. Each approach and in combination may increase objectivity and subjectivity but trade-offs remain.

In what ways did my skills as an historian and writing about my classroom experiences in the past help and hinder the account I constructed?

History is what historians say about the past and can document what they claim; memory is what individuals believe occurred in the past. So when a historian writes personally about what he or she has experienced, analytic skills, remembrances, and perceptions get entangled in one another and sorting out one from the other becomes essential.

I have tried to disentangle documented facts, memories, perceptions, and analysis particularly in identifying sources for the reader that may be unreliable but nonetheless usable because they add a dimension to the account that would be missing if this were another of my academic studies.

To be clear, then, this book describing two urban high schools in which history was taught then and is taught now is neither a memoir nor an autobiography; it is a combination of facts that can be documented by reliable sources (therefore I use endnotes to establish a factual basis for statements or raise doubts about what I and others have said and done) and personal experiences of teaching history. It is not an academic study of teaching history nor is it a personal recollection of then and now but a hybrid, or an “unconventional history” of teaching a high school subject laced with full documentation and personal experiences.

Moreover, I take my memories and that of former students and others as to what happened in order to construct a story of how I taught history a half-century ago. I drew from my previous studies such as How Teachers Taught to give a context for how and what I taught from the mid-1950s to the late-1960s. As for how history is taught now in these two high schools, I draw from the current movement among social studies educators of teaching students the skills and concepts that working historians use in describing, analyzing, and interpreting the past.

This hybrid of memoir and history tries to combine two disparate impulses that have characterized my career as a high school teacher and historian: As Patrick Hutton put it: “what is at issue here is not how history can recover memory but, rather, what memory will bequeath to history.”  Both history and memory, then, are necessary to recover what has occurred as policy decisions travel their zig-zag path into classrooms. Those policies and practices got filtered through the remembrance of one participant who was deeply involved in both teaching high school history and researching the history of education.

Combining history and memory in this hybrid study of teaching history then and now also reinforces my longstanding commitment to teachers and teaching as the core, the very essence, of public and private schooling in the U.S. Understanding that centrality of teachers and teaching to the enterprise of formal schooling has been the mainstay of my academic work for the past forty years.

So being a historian who also traffics in personal stories, I have had to be careful in how I documented my remembrances and those of my former students. Here is one example of decisions I made on personal accounts.

I have cited student comments in the Glenville High School chapter covering my seven-year stint there. As an historian, I have to be clear that such decades-old recollections are neither representative of all of my students nor constitute a majority or even substantial fraction of those who were in my classes. For the truth is that no more than 20 of my former students in the years I taught at Glenville have contacted me. They have written about their experiences to me in emails and in published venues. Even though the vast majority of my former students have not contacted me in the decades since I left Glenville, those that have are less than one percent. Moreover, for even that less than one percent of students, memories decades old are selective and often subject to bias. Yet I also know that perceptions and memories provide a shaft of light on past events and experiences. As a result of believing, in the name of memory, that what they have to say, given these caveats, may be worthwhile, I placed them in endnotes rather than the text to give readers the opportunity to judge the worth of their remembrances as a source of information about my teaching. In each instance, I contacted the writer of the email and asked for their permission to quote from it

All in all, then, creating this hybrid of the history of classroom teaching mixed with personal recollections has been a boon, I believe, to a deeper and fuller description of what teaching history over a half-century ago was like in two different high schools. It has been also a barrier since personal recollections are selective and can give undue weight to stories rather than documented facts.

The foregoing description of the methods I used in describing and analyzing the teaching of history then and now hardly removes the difficulties and dilemmas built into any reconstruction of the past. I wanted to be explicit in detailing the ways that I captured the past and compared it to the present.



Filed under how teachers teach

Physics Teacher Speaks Out on Technology (Alice Flarend)

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


Technology will revolutionize the classroom! I have been hearing these promises for most of my 20 year physics teaching career and yet there is scant high quality evidence for it. Cyber schools show little learning ( The OECD found “no appreciable improvement in student achievement” with large scale investments in computer technology. ( Computer technology seems like such a natural fit in the classroom. Why has it not been the game changer that it should be?

I claim that most educational applications of technology ignore what we know about basic learning theory. Technology is viewed as the whole toolbox, table, chairs and school rather than a tool itself.

We know that humans individually construct their knowledge and this construction is heavily influenced by a person’s prior knowledge and experiences. We also know language is the primary vehicle by which knowledge is constructed ( Contrast this with most uses of technology where the learner passively watches multimedia presentations, clicks through an online textbook or manipulates a meaningless simulation. The learner appears to be active, but we commonly mistake clicking with thinking.

A useful analogy for learning is the construction of a building. Tools and materials are needed but are useless unless there is an architectural design that is structurally sound and suited to the owner. Technology can provide the materials and can be tools, but the teacher is needed to design instruction for their students. The teacher is the architect and the contractor. The idea that people are pondering whether we will even need teachers in the future illustrates the misapplication of technology.

To illustrate this disconnect, a personal story helps. Early in my career I participated in a summer-long institute on teaching physics using inquiry. That experience really changed my teaching.

Back in my classroom, student learning did improve, but not to the degree that I expected. They were highly engaged in hands-on experiments and problem solving. I appeared to be doing everything right. However, my students were still not achieving deep conceptual understanding. They still needed me to tell them the physics even though they had just correctly answered questions during the lab. What was I doing wrong? I found the missing piece at the beginning of my doctoral program in science education when I completed classes on learning theory. I was using lots of tools but without a sufficient plan. I was not explicitly using their prior knowledge so my students looked at this new information wearing the lenses of their old ideas. I was not giving my students opportunities to talk and to write deeply about the science. My students were doing without thinking.

This brings me back to technology. Technology can provide efficient access to content but it teacher must manipulate the technology to fit the student, the curriculum. Google can provide factual information on almost any topic, but without design, those facts remain a pile of useless lumber. A simulation could be effective at addressing a common scientific misconception. The students could use it to test their prior knowledge, gather data to find a pattern or model a complex scenario. Without a design, however, the students will “play” but fail to develop a robust understanding. Too often the lesson is built around the technology rather than the technology helping to build the lesson.

Large-scale technology products with their all encompassing content, assessment and monitoring give the illusion of building knowledge. The program, however, cannot deviate from its code. A student must choose everything from a pre-generated list. There is no chance for spontaneous conversation about a meaningful detail that addresses a student’s unique prior knowledge. There is no sharing of examples from a student’s life that can then be discussed to expand beyond the textbook example. Without even trying, meaningful conversations occur in face-to-face classrooms. They must be “allowed” in digital settings.

Online discussion boards may seem a substitute for these conversations, but there is not the give and take needed for successful construction. Missing is the intonation, the emotions, the smiles and frowns, which are all a part of effective human communication. Google Docs can help kids co-construct knowledge but there must be a rich, teacher-constructed prompt requiring the knowledge of the entire group. If it can be answered or created by a single person, there is no need of a sharing tool.

I do hope that technology will help students learn. But, there will be no game-changing tech revolution. Let’s instead use it as a tool in rich lessons that help our students construct deep understandings rather than choose a lettered answer.




Filed under school reform policies, technology use

How Small a Part Research Plays in Making and Implementing Educational Policy

Beliefs, opinions, and politics matter more in making policy decisions than applying research findings to schools and classrooms. A recent Canadian study (1905-8719-1-PB ) confirmed what amounts to a fact in U.S. policymaking. Candadian researchers looked at provincial policy elites (in U.S., they would be state-level decision-makers) and district officials (school board members and superintendents) and found across Canada what is very evident in U.S. districts as well: politics and beliefs trump use of research in adopting policies aimed at improving practice (see here and here).

As one would expect in academic circles, the language of applying research findings to educational policies has expanded. Canadian researchers Gerald Galway and Bruce Sheppard note that new phrases have entered the vocabulary: “knowledge transfer, evidence-informed policy, data-driven decision-making and knowledge brokering, to name a few. Knowledge mobilization (KM) has been touted as a useful all-encompassing term because it conveys the notion of direction instead of random interaction and it ’embodies the idea that the use of knowledge is a social process, not just an intellectual task’ ” (p. 9). Whatever phrase is used in Canada or the U.S., the pattern of applying research findings to forming, adopting, and implementing policies remains similar on both sides of the border.

Galway and Sheppard studied “senior bureaucrats” in provincial ministries and local board trustees and administrators at two points in time, 2006 and 2012. They used surveys, interviews,and focus groups to generate the data they analyzed.

A typical response from  “senior bureaucrats” in provincial ministries about research and policymaking was (M refers to “ministry” official):

M1: I guess that what I find with university research is that those who are doing it
appear to be somewhat removed from the immediacy of it all; it’s not engaged, as it
were, and [university researchers are] somewhat reluctant to engage those who are
involved in a particular issue on a daily basis. That’s being pretty general; that’s not
the case with all university research.

M7: Well, I haven’t had a chance to look at anything [university researchers] are
doing so I really don’t know, but I do find that sometimes, just from past
experiences, that the research coming out of (names university) is not always; well
not the research, but some of the conclusions they draw from their research is not
always applicable….

M2: Well, I don’t really know about it, to be truthful. As I was saying earlier that’s
one of the things that is most surprising to me; that with the amount of research that
is done at the university, how little discussion or impact it’s had on my work as the Minister in this portfolio.

When the researchers turned to trustees–district school board members–survey results and focus group interviews in the 2012 study produced a list of factors that influenced their making of policy.

[W]e presented trustees with 20 potential factors/influences and asked them to
indicate on a seven- point scale, the extent to which each has had an effect on specific decisions or
recommendations that they have made as trustees…. The principal six factors are as follows:
(1) personal or professional beliefs and values,

(2) potential to directly influence student
outcomes/student learning,

(3) advice of district staff and/or colleagues,

(4) the school board’s strategic plan 

(5) past experience.

Trustees and superintendents rated the following six factors as having the least influence on decision-making (my emphasis):

(1) representations of business/private sector,

(2) pressure from special interest or lobby groups,

(3) a situation or event someone told you about,

(4) pressure from government (ministry/department of education),

(5) public opinion/avoidance of negative media attention

(6) university-based research.

Analysis of the data by province showed very little variance in the factors and evidence that influence school board decision-making across jurisdictions.

The Canadian researchers conclude:

We conceptualize use of low research impact partly in terms of trust vs. risk avoidance. In
both policy contexts – provincial departments of education and school boards – we conclude that
decision-making is ambiguous and risky…. [I]n uncertain times, decision-makers value knowledge that is familiar and emerges from their
own community…. This information – now repackaged in the form of staff advice – becomes privileged
and trusted by ministers and senior bureaucrats as authentic knowledge….

Very little found north of the border, then, differs greatly from what U.S. researchers have found in the 50 states (see here, here, and here).

So what?

Keep in mind that none of the above critiques of limited influence of research on policy is restricted to public schooling. Making policy in systems of criminal justice, environmental improvement–think climate change–and health improvement and clinical medicine–think of TV ads for drugs–are subject to similar political factors and personal beliefs rather than what research has found. Calls for more collaboration between university researchers and policymakers have also been heard and ignored for decades. Critics have pointed out many times that the academic culture and its rewards overlap little with the world that decision-makers face every week.

I wish I had a neat answer to the “so what” question and offer a package of do’s and don’ts for those who want evidence-based policymaking.  I am on the lookout for such advice but thus far I have come up empty. The fact is that beliefs, opinions, and politics matter more in making policy decisions than applying research findings to schools and classrooms.



Filed under school reform policies

Cartoons: Charles Schulz and Peanuts on Schooling

The 65th anniversary of Peanuts is upon us. Cartoonist Charles Schulz has had an extraordinary hold on U.S. popular culture with his characters of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy, et. al.  I have gathered here a few of the Peanuts panels that Schulz drew about his characters either in school or talking about school. For those who wish to read more about Schulz and the gang, see here and here. Enjoy!



























Filed under how teachers teach

Poverty, Obesity, and Schools (Part 2)

The stubborn figures on child and adult obesity in the U.S. over the past few decades added to the individual and social costs associated with higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer make being fat a major health problem. I noted in Part 1 that White House programs, federal legislation on school lunches, and city-wide health initiatives in scattered locations have recognized the sheer complexity of trying to reduce obesity in young children and adults. No one policy, no single institution solves this multi-faceted problem. Moreover, smart policymakers see that while schools (and larger educational programs) are essential  in any strategy to reduce numbers of overweight Americans, broader policy measures and other institutions play an equally large role.

The entangled roots of obesity go deeper than what an individual, family, or the neighborhood school does. It is an issue that involves a mix of political, economic, and social actions. For those who see obesity as a complex issue, their reform agenda includes proposed policies that, for example,  increase taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, disclose number of calories and color-coding of labels to help children and adults make choices, new zoning regulations that would restrict fast food outlets near schools while providing incentives for healthy food stores in under-served neighborhoods. Such proposed policies recognize the inter-connectedness of obesity to daily eating habits, socioeconomic patterns in food choices, corporate profit-making, and governmental initiatives. The example I gave of Louisville’s city-wide initiative to improve health and thereby reduce illnesses and death attributed to obesity made clear that political, social, economic, and educational institutions had to be involved in a cooperative venture. Other cities from Boston (MA) to Columbus (OH) bring together public and private agencies (including schools) to reduce obesity in adults and toddlers even before they arrive at school.

The point here is that a health problem such as obesity requires, at the least, collaboration among a city’s institutions to even begin addressing it. It takes a city to help its citizens, young and old, lose weight. Putting the task on one institution–say the health department or the schools or soda pop companies is myopic and self-defeating. Yet that short-sighted focus on a few institutions is precisely what has occurred when it come to reducing poverty in the nation.

In the mid-1960s, the federally launched War on Poverty’s major weapon was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (re-authorized as No Child Left Behind in 2002). Federal funds went to districts and schools with high percentages of low-income students to raise their academic achievement, graduate high school, get jobs, and, in time, be better off economically than their parents. The hope was vested in schools as the primary agency to lift the poor into the middle class. Not new of course, this “educationalizing” of social and political problems–think desegregation since the 1950s, national defense during the Cold War between the 1950s-1980s. and since the 1980s  schooling tied to a stronger economy. As for poverty as a problem, reformers see public schools playing a central role in reducing its effects.

Consider the “no excuses” school reformers of the past decade (see here) who believed in their heart of hearts that teachers and principals in public schools can not (and should not) use a family’s low-income as an excuse for poor student performance. Schools are, these reformers—hedge fund managers to superintendents to political leaders– have said repeatedly, can and must rescue low-income students from their poverty-stricken zip code. While these bumper-sticker sayings sound like an either/or choice, even at the height of the media storm there were some  smart “no excuses” reformers who saw that re-segregated neighborhoods, multi-problem families, the disappearance of jobs, and crime had negative effects on young children entering school and staying there through high school graduation. These savvy reformers called for more community institutions to be involved in socializing and educating those who were caught in the cycle of poverty. New ideas that embraced an ecumenical view of countering and overcoming poverty have been in play for decades but seldom rose to first choice among the current generation of “no excuses” reformers. But these community-wide alternatives for reducing ill effects of poverty on individuals, families, and neighborhoods are larger than fingering schools.

For example, in the 1990s, private and public monies created the Harlem Children’s Zone (see here and here) a multi-service array of school, medical, and social services located in that part of New York City. While President Barack Obama launched a federal grant program to replicate HCZ in other cities in 2010, it has not happened. Each city is different and getting public agencies, private foundations, neighborhood activists, parents, and school officials to come together is hard to do and sustain.

Similarly, community schools where public and private agencies come together in low-income and working class neighborhoods to provide an array of services to families–sometimes called wraparound schools–has been around since the 1930s, revived in the 1960s, and continues in the 21st century (see here, here, and here). These community schools, like the HCZ, pursue an all-inclusive strategy of reducing poverty akin to the obesity-reduction approach. Such programs recognize the problem as complex, one demanding a comprehensive approach rather than holding one community institution–public schools–accountable for solving the socioeconomic problem.



Filed under school reform policies

Schools and Obesity (Part 1)

Recent articles trumpet that rates of children and adult obesity are not getting better (see here and here). In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched an anti-obesity campaign “Let’s Move” to reduce rates of childhood obesity. While the campaign has gained traction results have been disappointing. As she said recently: “Right now, one in three kids in the U.S. is overweight or obese – for African American and Hispanic kids, the rate is nearly 40 percent. And obesity is now one of the leading causes for preventable death and disease in the United States.”

The “Let’s Move” campaign has cultivated close ties with large corporations (e.g., Wal-Mart) to persuade large companies to sell healthy product, directed media attention to overweight children and perils to their health as adults, and gained bipartisan support for a federal law in 2010 that mandated free-and-reduced price meals for 21 million children containing more healthy ingredients like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy products . The First Lady has gone to schools highlighting healthier lunches, bans on sugary sodas and fast food, and increased physical activity during the school day. She exercised with children and ate the nutritious meals served at lunch-time. While schools have been an important of the campaign, they have not been a wholly exclusive part of “Let’s Move” for the past five years. Note the words: “important” and “wholly exclusive” in referring to the role of schools in this and similar anti-obesity campaigns. As has national socioeconomic problems in the early 20th century such as Americanizing waves of eastern and southern European immigrants, seeking racial equity in desegregation since 1954 and, since the early 1980s, a stronger economy through tougher standards, accountability, and testing, the U.S.’s obesity problem has not become “educationalized.” Schools are part of any solution to obesity, campaigners assert, but the epidemic of obesity reaches into homes, stores, and the structures of a market-driven capitalism.

Why is that?

As rates of obesity in both children and adults trend upward–the U.S. has the highest per-capita rate among developed nations–and its effects on health have shown up in higher rates of diabetes,cancer, and heart diseases, obesity, especially among minority and low-income families, is seen as a multi-layered, complex phenomenon rooted in family habits, social class, cultural patterns, and corporate profits gained from marketing and selling fast foods and sodas. (Some of these long-term effects and complexity of obesity is captured in the sci-fi film WALL-E about morbidly fat earthlings circling the planet on ships waiting for it to be habitable). Focusing on public schools, then, would be short-sighted, incomplete, and diversionary from disentangling the many threads that have created a society that over-eats and under-exercises.

The entangled roots of obesity reach far beyond being an individual or even a school problem. It is a community and national issue that involves a mix of political, economic, and social actions (e.g., large food purveyors lobbying Kentucky’s legislators to permit use of food stamps for buying fast food restaurants like Taco Bell) is captured in recent proposed policies to reduce numbers of overweight children and adults. For example,  increased taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, more calorie disclosures and color-coding of labels, new zoning regulations that would restrict fast food outlets near schools while providing incentives for healthy food stores in underserved neighborhoods.

That obesity is a multi-faceted problems anchored in cross-cutting factors that go well beyond schools is picked up by some cities that have launched comprehensive programs to improve the inhabitants’ health. Consider Louisville (KY). With foundation help and public funds, the metropolitan area has taken on the task of improving the health of its residents. The Project lists socioeconomic factors that affect a community’s health (e.g., social support for family, jobs, education, income, community safety); health behaviors (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, obesity); clinical care (e.g., access to physicians, dentists, and health screenings); and the physical environment (e.g., parks, roads, air and water quality). Like other cities engaged in such an effort, policymakers see the complexity of obesity as a health problem rooted in many factors that have to be addressed, one of which is schools.

That wisdom about the problem of obesity has yet to emerge among those reformers who see schools as the prime mover in decreasing poverty and economic inequalities. I take up how obesity and poverty as major problems facing the nation have contrary strategies in Part 2.


Filed under leadership, school reform policies