Category Archives: school reform policies

In Classrooms: Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 4)

Social Justice Humanitas Academy is located in the city of San Fernando within the Los Angeles Unified School District. According to the website,

Our mission is to achieve social justice through the development of the complete individual. In doing so, we increase our students’ social capital and their humanity while creating a school worthy of our own children.

These mission statements act as a guide to all decision making” for a school that opened in 2011 on a new campus. Consider the school’s demographics and academic profile.

Since SJHA opened in 2011 its demographics have stayed consistent. SJHA has 513 students (2019) enrolled in 9th through 12th grades. On race and ethnicity (2015), 95 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent African American and one percent each for Caucasian and Native American. Of that number 12 percent were English Learners. Special education students were 10 percent of enrollment. And 88 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Since March I have published on this blog a series of classroom observations about a school that seeks social justice, advocates student activism, and self-actualization (see here, here, and here). In this post and the next I describe two additional lessons I observed.

Shaved pate, wearing a white shirt, blue tie and grey slacks, English teacher Robert Martinez immediately turns to the white board as the period begins—right after lunch, mind you–and directs the 24 ninth graders’ attention to what he has written on it: “Community Cultural Wealth: A Review.”

The students, sitting 2-4 at a table facing one another, look at the whiteboard as Martinez launches a whole group discussion through a series of slides on Community Cultural Wealth. From time to time, he calls on students to read a slide by addressing the student as Ms. Rodriguez or Mr. Montero.

Earlier classes have dealt with fixed and growth mindsets, grit, and three forms of capital: “Aspirational Capital, Familial Capital and Navigational Capital.” Martinez says, “I use these Capitals to resist and overcome oppression.” Then he asks the class what is “oppression.” A few students offer answers. He then defines the word and refers to the book they are currently reading, Always Running (full title is La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA by Luis Rodriguez).

Whole group discussion continues as teacher moves through slides and students read about Aspirational Capital (hopes and dreams) and Navigational Capital (the different communities beyond family that each student interacts with). On the slide for Aspirational Capital, Martinez points out the upcoming trip to California colleges as a experience they will have that looks to the dreams they have for themselves—many are the first in their family to consider college.

Martinez intersperses reading of slides and occasional questions from students with comments such as: “Ultimately this (different forms of capital) is for you to see yourself, what mindset you have. Make the jump and get out of your comfort zone,” he says. To one student who reads a slide correctly, the teacher compliments her: “College level, girl.”

As I look around the room, I see that about half of the class has notebooks out and are taking notes.

Phone on desk rings and teacher answers. Hangs up and directs a student to go to office. Teacher returns to definitions of different forms of Capital. On Familial Capital, Martinez states: “You know the people who hold you back. You may be in a toxic relationship and have to ask yourself, ‘Do these people have my back?’ “

Some students yell out questions and statements after teacher makes comments about a slide. When he asks for students to calm down, class responds immediately and gets quiet.

After completing the slides on different forms of Capital, Martinez shifts to next part of lesson when he will divide class into groups of 4-6 students to read Chapters 7 and 8 of Always Running. He chooses which students will be in one group and directs them to read Chapter 7 and does the same the other groups asking them to read Chapter 8.

He directs both groups to fill out worksheet on each form of Capital. He passes out the worksheets and asks students to jot down what transpired in each chapter and link examples to different kinds of Capital. Then he says he will reassemble both groups so that each group will present information on their chapter to the other group. Each specific example drawn from the chapter and written on worksheet will get one point, he says. He then announces: “Read for 20 minutes and complete chapter.”

Groups turn to task of reading and completing worksheets. I scan classroom and see that individual students in each group are reading. Martinez walks around monitoring students reading. At this point, I exit the classroom to see another teacher.

 

 

 

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Respect for Teaching: One Teacher’s Story

To be a teacher is honored in name, with awards, and fond memories of former students. Sometimes, however, those honors and memories are betrayed, albeit inadvertently, by bureaucratic rules that reveal disrespect for teaching. 

I describe here an incident that occurred to me nearly 50 years ago when I worked in the Washington, D.C. schools. I was a teacher who became an administrator and then chose to return to the classroom, Sure, five decades ago is ancient history so readers will have to judge whether the attitudes embedded in organizational procedures that I experienced are contemporary or merely a historical curiosity.

I wrote the following piece for a Washington, D.C. alternative newspaper in 1971.

 

I have taught off and on for nearly fifteen years. When not teaching, I have been an administrator…. I directed an experimental teaching project called the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching 1963-1967. [Afterwards] I taught half-time while writing a book. The following year, in the hope of working with others who shared my interest in [reform], I returned to administration as the Director of Staff Development in the Washington,  D.C. schools. That lasted two years since the budget and program [were] gutted … by the D.C. Council….  At that point [1970] I decided to return to the classroom rather than occupy a desk [downtown].

It was an uncommon decision I discovered. To understand why, you have to appreciate the nagging guilt that haunts administrators about leaving the classroom. Talk to most central office administrators … and you will inevitably hear how important it is ‘to stay in touch with kids. That’s where the action is. How I miss it.’  When I would ask why not return to the classroom, I would hear: ‘I would like to, but, you know, the money, and well, I like to make decisions, and well, I needed a change.’

Shortly after I was appointed director of staff development, I suggested at an [administrative] meeting that [their] perceptions … and sense of urgency might be considerably sharpened if [they] would teach one or two weeks and then return to [their] desks. The idea was beaten down. I began to see that administration was as much an escape from the … classroom as it was a search for status, authority, and dollars….

[Yet]  administrators deeply believe that the classroom is the backbone of education. Thus, when an administrator decides to teach, one would expect some encouragement from colleagues, perhaps a bit of support, and an easy transition. How naive I was. Disbelief, punishment, and shame dogged each step of my return to teaching….

When my colleagues found out [that I would be returning to the classroom], a wall of silence appeared. Except for some close associates, the response–-when people chose to talk to me–was disbelief. They seemed to suggest by smile, smirk, or wink that I must be waiting for a good offer….For the most part, I was ignored.

In hallways when passing someone, eyes turned away…. Within two months, a series of actions, unmalicious in intent, initiated and executed in a most efficient bureaucratic manner occurred that created within me a sense of shame and failure.

The first shock came [over] salary. To teach meant taking a one-third wage cut… The Board of Examiners* informed me that my four years of administrative experience meant nothing in dollars and cents. Of my ten years of prior teaching, only seven met the standards set by D.C….

Next … I received a notice that said I was “demoted without prejudice.” The phrase is semantically correct. I am now on a lower rung of the school ladder and being there was my choice. [But} demoted sounded like grade school, like being pushed back to a lower group because you are dumb and misbehaving. The phrase is from the language of failure.

Then the Board of Examiners informed me a week before [I returned to the classroom] that I could not receive a regular … contract because I had never taken a college course in teaching at the secondary school level. With well over a decade of classroom experience in three different cities, with five years experience in preparing teachers to work in [D.C.] schools, with a book and numerous articles on teacher education–I am told that unless I take a course on Teaching in the Secondary School within two years I will not be able to teach in D.C.

After a pay cut, a demotion, and then a threat, I felt like I had committed a crime. What had I done wrong?

The unintentional but very destructive way a school system punishes administrators and teachers from moving freely back and forth between classroom and central office reveals [that] the stated value is: teaching is cherished; the real value is that teaching is [tough work] and unimportant; anyone with sense will get the hell out of it and the quicker, the better….

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Civic and business leaders and politicians often praise teachers. Awards for excellence in teaching abound. Yet often overlooked is the disrespect for teaching that too often hides in organizational rules.

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*The Board of Examiners no longer exists. Those functions have been assumed by the Office of Educator Licensure in the Office of the State Superintendent, District of Columbia.

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Whatever Happened to the Core Knowledge Program?

No, I do not refer to the Common Core standards.

I mean the Core Knowledge program that unfolded in U.S. schools in the decade following the 1987 publication of University of Virginia Professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

The book, the creation of the Core Knowledge Foundation and subsequent publication of curricular sequences across academic subjects taught in elementary schools produced a reform that again brought to the surface the historical struggle over what kind of knowledge and skills are worth teaching and learning in tax-supported public schools.

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Hot embers of previous traditional vs. progressive wars in the early 20th century and then in the 1950s over the importance of phonics vs. whole language in reading, exposure to disciplinary knowledge rather than students creating their own meaning  re-ignited in the last decade of the century after Hirsch’s book and the spread of Core Knowledge programs in schools.

 

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What Problems Did the Core Knowledge Program Intend To Solve?

According to Hirsch and advocates for Core Knowledge, the current concentration on building skills–“student will be able to do…”–has handicapped children and youth by ignoring the importance of teaching systematically sequential knowledge as a way of developing reading comprehension, problem-solving, inquiry, and most important understanding the world. Core Knowledge tries to solve this endemic problem in U.S. schooling. As one description put it:

The Core Knowledge Sequence identifies that knowledge base in the core subjects. For example, the American history portion of the Core Knowledge Sequence includes specific events and aspects of history such as the Boston Tea Party, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Underground Railroad; it does not include an objective such as “identify a sequence of events in history.” The Core Knowledge Sequence does indicate study of significant people, stories, and issues, including William Penn and the Quakers, Susan B. Anthony and the right to vote, Jackie Robinson and the integration of major league baseball, Cesar Chavez and the rights of migrant workers, Dorthea Dix and the treatment of the insane, Sojourner Truth and women’s rights, and Chief Joseph and the ordeal of the Nez Perce Indians. The American history sequence does not include an objective such as “explain how various cultural groups have participated in the development of the United States.” As the students learn about specific people and events, teachers can guide them to deeper understanding and teach them to apply problem-solving and other analytical skills to what they have learned.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues that educational Progressives such as Dewey wanted children to construct their knowledge, learn by doing and come to understand the world. Such Progressive ideas have ruined American schools, according to Hirsch, by ignoring the importance of children having intellectual capital, that is, a broad and deep base of knowledge to understand core ideas and the present moment.

Diane Ravitch, a member of the Core Knowledge Foundation board, reviewed  another of Hirsch’s books in 2006 and located his place in the historic struggle between Progressives and traditionalists:

In his assault on the precepts of progressive education, Hirsch enters a battle that has been waged for over a century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, almost every high-school student studied Latin. Teachers and parents believed that the study of Latin taught certain skills that could be transferred to any other pursuit or activity, such as precision, judgment, logical thinking, clarity, and so on. It was, in the words of its defenders, a valuable form of mental gymnastics, intended to improve one’s faculties. The same argument was made for algebra and other areas of advanced mathematics. The first generation of education psychologists (such as Edward L. Thorndike of Teachers College) took aim at this belief and sought to demonstrate through their studies that “transfer of training” was a myth, and that there was no reason at all to study Latin or any subject that was not immediately useful.

Progressive educators were heartened by Thorndike’s work and concluded that “you study what you study, and you learn what you learn.” In other words, what was the point of learning Latin or algebra or even history since they had no demonstrable utility? ….

In this century-old debate, the great error of traditionalist educators was their failure to defend cultural values in education, that is, the importance of knowledge. By making the case for Latin or history dependent on “transfer of training,” they lost the debate. The culturally important studies such as literature, history, and foreign language never should have been defended for their value in “training the mind,” but for their importance in shaping an educated, civilized human being.

Hirsch now makes that case, and it is a very important contribution to American education. He shows that research is now firmly on the side of those who advocate knowledge as the goal of learning….

What Does a Core Knowledge Program Look Like in Practice?

In elementary schools, Core Knowledge is used for part of the day. Scheduled times are allocated to lessons in language arts, science, social studies, and math. For the rest of the school day familiar activities including art, drama, and physical education occur.

Deanna Zarichansky, Assistant Principal at Trousdale County Elementary School in Hartsville, TN, describes   the program.

Our district adopted Core Knowledge [Language Arts] at the beginning of this school year [2017]. This has been the single most powerful curriculum implementation I have seen in my 16 years of education. We are a small district with a high rate of poverty, with many students who enter school with little to no experiences with literacy. Our school is charged with the difficult task of educating students who come to us with little vocabulary and limited knowledge of the world around them.

At first glance, many teachers were rather skeptical that their students could be successful with themes such as The War of 1812 and Astronomy. These same teachers soon became strong supporters of the program. The students began to use vocabulary and content knowledge they were being exposed to by Core Knowledge in conversations and in writing. Walking down the hallways of our school, you can hear chatter about the Earth’s atmosphere, Rosa Parks, Machu Picchu, and paleontologists. Many second grade students wanted to dress as gods and goddesses for Halloween. They collect rocks on the playground and discuss how they were formed. Parents often tell stories of their children combing through the cabinets and discussing what is healthy and what they shouldn’t be eating, catching their children peeking out of the window looking for the North Star, and rousing dinner conversations about the Civil War. Our librarian shared that students are choosing to check out more nonfiction than ever before.

The walls of our school used to be decorated with holiday items and have now been replaced with diagrams of constellations and descriptive paragraphs about Human Body Systems. This curriculum has changed the culture of our school. It has allowed equalization for students who are now exposed to deep knowledge building about the world around them.

Bridgit McCarthy, a third grade teacher at New Dimensions, a public charter school in Morganton, North Carolina, describes her unit on Rome.

Today in social studies, we assassinated Julius Caesar!

My students’ faces registered shock, sadness, and a sprinkling of outrage, all nicely mixed with understanding.

How mean!  Why would anyone kill their ally? I bet his wife feels sad.

JC helped get France for them—except it was, you know, Gaul back then. Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.

These comments show comprehension and recall—a good start. Here’s one of the most telling comments from our class discussion; notice how it combines historical knowledge and understanding with a bit of empathy.

Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings waaaay back—like in last week’s … lesson.

These quotes demonstrate comprehension of rigorous content and use of sophisticated vocabulary. They came from third graders.

Yes, the words “stuff” to describe political change, and “sad” to describe a distraught wife may smack of 8 and 9 year olds and, but “plebeians” and “ally”? I would have expected such vocabulary from the middle school students I used to teach. This is my first year teaching third grade; I’ve been delighted to see how eager younger students are to dig into history and science content….

The assassination and subsequent discussion came about two-thirds of the way through our Core Knowledge Language Arts unit on ancient Rome. That unit takes about three weeks, starting with the basic question “What Is Rome?” and then introducing students to legends and mythology, daily life in Rome, and major wars and leaders. It ends with Rome’s lasting contributions.

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I am thrilled with what students are saying and writing as we progress. While I always have high expectations in my classroom, I was a bit nervous when we started the ancient Rome unit. The objectives are complex, the vocabulary is challenging. The content itself includes a great deal of geography and culture, plenty of politics, and an assumption that Core Knowledge kids already knew quite a bit about ancient Greece.

The opportunity to check and refresh some of that knowledge of Greece was an early order of business. In CKLA, second graders spend several weeks on ancient Greece with two back-to-back units: The Ancient Greek Civilization and Greek Myths. In the third-grade unit on Rome, a review of the Greek gods and goddesses was the introduction to a lesson on their Roman counterparts. Seventeen of my twenty students attended second grade at New Dimensions, and sixteen attended first (which has a unit on Early World Civilizations), so I was curious to see how much they would remember.

In theory, recall of these facts of Greece ought to come fairly easily. According to one student, they spent “forever” on ancient Greece—and they loved it. In our school, teachers combined the CKLA materials and additional teacher-created materials to really immerse students.

As a result, my third graders had no problems here. Building on their existing knowledge of other cultures’ gods and goddesses made the new material easier to access. I also didn’t have to “teach” polytheism because the very idea that people had separate deities for different aspects of their lives was old hat to them, having explored it in first grade with Mesopotamia and Egypt and again in second with ancient Greece. The three students who didn’t attend New Dimensions in second grade did need a little more support. I helped them do some additional reading and partnered each one with a student who has been at New Dimensions since kindergarten. Because the unit lasted a few weeks, these new students had time to catch up by learning about Greece and Rome together.

Do Core Knowledge Programs Work?

As for many school reforms over the past century, answering the “effectiveness” question–does it work?–is no easy task. The first major issue is answering the question of whether Core Knowledge was fully implemented in classrooms. If not completely implemented, then judging outcomes become suspect. Many of the early studies of Core Knowledge in schools were mixed, some showing higher test scores and some showing no positive effects (see here, here, here, and here). The Core Knowledge Foundation has a list of studies that they assert show positive outcomes. What is so often missing from research on reforms such as Core Knowledge are descriptions of the contextual conditions in which the reform is located and researchers saying clearly: under what conditions does this program prove effective? That is too often missing including the research on Core Knowledge schools.

What Has Happened to Core Knowledge Programs in Schools?

There is now a network of 770 schools using the Core Knowledge Program (there are about 90,000 public elementary schools in the U.S.).

When the Common Core standards initially were published in 2010, Hirsch criticized the standards as having insufficient content. After reviewing the next set of standards and grade-by-grade sequence, Hirsch decided that there was sufficient content and the Core Knowledge Foundation aligned its sequence to the Common Core Standards.

Hirsch commented on this alignment of the program to Common Core Standards:

“This could be bigger than any other reform I can think of. We’ve had a hell of an incoherent system. It’s been based on a how-to theory, and not enough attention has been paid to the build-up of knowledge. This is a moment when we really could change the direction.”

 

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Why Teachers Need Their Freedom (Ashley Lamb-Sinclair)

This article appeared in The Atlantic September 10, 2017.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair “is a high-school instructional coach. She is the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and the founder and CEO of Curio Learning.”

 

My co-teacher and I met in the parking lot before school and stared into my car trunk at the costumes and props we had gathered over the weekend. We were giddy with excitement and nervous because neither of us had tried anything like this before. We also taught in the kind of school where one wrong move in the classroom could lead to disastrous results because of our students’ intense behavioral and learning needs.

The co-teacher, Alice Gnau, had found a book called Teaching Content Outrageously by Stanley Pogrow, which explained how secondary classrooms can incorporate drama into any content to engage students in learning—incorporating the element of surprise, for example, or developing role-play or simulation experiences to teach content and standards. The book inspired us to change how we taught our seventh-grade language-arts students in a high-poverty school that struggled with test scores, especially reading and math.

The sense of urgency in the building was palpable, and the pressure on teachers to increase student achievement was often overwhelming. The district required us to teach a curriculum rigidly aligned with a 15-year-old reading textbook containing outdated articles about Ricky Martin, ice fishing, and cartography in an attempt to provide relevant, entry-level reading for students. I refused to teach from this text on the grounds that it was both condescending and uninteresting. But district personnel insisted that teachers use the textbook, citing evidence that it brought up test scores.

Alice and I decided to take the risk and apply Pogrow’s advice. The mandated curriculum, we decided, would never be enough to encourage our students to love reading and writing.

Which brings me back to the parking lot. Alice and I came up with a plan to integrate some of the ideas and strategies we had read about in Teaching Content Outrageously into a unit on Lord of the Flies. She would be the pilot and I was the flight attendant. We changed in the faculty restroom before school and hid around the corner by the lockers in the hallway as we watched students enter the teacher-less classroom.After a few minutes, we burst into the room with a library rolling cart full of pretend snacks and drinks. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen,” Alice shouted, “welcome aboard flight 2101 headed to sunny Paraguay. The weather looks great, so we should have you safe and sound to your final destination soon. Now buckle up for important safety information.” She sat down in the front of the room, pretending to pilot, while I instructed the students to sit up straight, to buckle up, and to please enjoy their flights.

Even our toughest kids lit up with excitement; when we prepared for “takeoff,” they went right along until the inevitable happened and we crashed onto a deserted island. As Alice and I popped out of our seats, we morphed from pilot and flight attendant back into teachers.

The remainder of class was a problem-solving simulation in which students worked together to determine how food would be attained and distributed, how medical attention would be administered, how they would find or build shelter, and who would lead—questions the kids debated among themselves as they left for their next class. By the time we finished the novel a few weeks later, our students were either crying or enraged (or both) at the death of (spoiler alert) Piggy. They had engaged intellectually and emotionally with the text and ensuing discussions from the moment we “boarded” that pretend flight to the book’s very last punctuation mark.

So began a year of teaching outrageously, a year that forever changed my practice as an educator. It also changed my students’ learning experience and, arguably, helped improve their test scores. The state accountability system changed in 2011, and although schools had prepared for a drop in scores (both the district and state reading scores did indeed take a hit), the seventh-grade class at our school saw a bump of nearly 5 percentage points in reading.

Teaching outrageously wasn’t just fun, it also gave Alice and I the power to create meaningful and exciting experiences for ourselves and our students—at least for that school year. The school was on the cusp of state takeover the following year, which was my last one there. Three of our four principals resigned or transferred, prompting a series of not-so-great interim principals; teachers felt unsupported, leading to many absent days and some resignations. General student chaos ensued due to a lack of consistency and support—for two weeks straight, someone pulled the fire alarm at least once a day, sometimes more. The best I could muster as a teacher most days—for my own sanity—was to slap on an audio recording of The Hunger Games, hand out a generic graphic organizer, and guide the students step by step through filling it out. I did not have the energy or support to teach outrageously, or even effectively. It may have been controlled, but I was not engaged, the students were not engaged, we were all stunted in our growth. Unsurprisingly, test scores plummeted, and the school closed its doors a year later, only two years after the best year of my career.

After dozens of my peers and I left the school, the state audit team conducted a diagnostic assessment of the school through surveys, observations, data collection and analysis, and stakeholder interviews. Among the final report’s conclusions: Staff struggled to build a cohesive school team due to high teacher turnover, and most teachers “delivered traditional lessons with limited opportunities for students to think critically, participate in group discussions, or collaborate with their peers.” These shortcomings joined the myriad factors that led to such a drastic change in teacher motivation and student achievement.

A body of research illustrates the self-evident reality that students’ interest in what they’re learning is critical to their achievement. And student engagement, according to various studies, is often a direct result of teacher engagement. When Alice and I decided to teach outrageously, our attitudes about our work improved, which data suggests improved our students’ attitudes.

Teaching outrageously, it seems, also put us at a decreased risk for burnout because it allowed us to take control of our craft. One of the biggest reasons teachers quit, contributing to the increasing teacher shortage in the U.S., is a lack of autonomy in the classroom; indeed, overall teacher perception of autonomy in instruction has decreased since 2003. The upshot? As a lack of autonomy helps push more and more teachers out of the profession, children are often left with a steady stream of young, inexperienced educators who lack strong ties to the school.

Teacher engagement and autonomy aren’t a cure-all, of course—some teachers are simply ineffective in their jobs and need additional support to improve their craft. Some ought to leave the profession altogether. Given that teacher effectiveness—the degree to which they hold high expectations for students, successfully manage their classrooms, design lessons that lead to mastery, and so on—is the single best indicator of student success, it makes sense that schools would exercise caution when determining how much control teachers have over the classroom; letting an ill-equipped teacher do what she pleases isn’t smart policy. But does a top-down trickle of scripts and mandates detached from students’ day-to-day lives really improve a teacher’s effectiveness? It could have the reverse effect, forcing educators who might otherwise gain a real knack for teaching over time to rely on others to make decisions for them and become stunted in their ability to improve.

Teacher autonomy is not necessarily incompatible with administrative support. When I was a student teacher, I’d often go to my mentor, Renee Boss, with off-the-wall ideas for the classroom. I wanted to have an “I Love the ‘80s” theme day when I was supposed to be teaching students about the Baroque period. I wanted to show the introduction of the film Desperado because it was a good example of storytelling even though it was violent and riddled with the F-word. And at one point, I wanted to teach debate by organizing a game of kickball outside. Renee listened to these ideas with patience and curiosity. She asked me pointed questions about my reasons, my plans for implementation, and my backup plans for when these ideas inevitably flopped. Each time, I found myself sitting across a table from Renee, breaking down and discussing what worked, what didn’t, and how to get better. She let me take risks. Occasionally, she would talk me out of something (Desperado was a no-no), but usually she found a way to help me turn my crazy ideas into effective lessons that improved my students’ learning and outcomes. My career might have been very different had Renee handed me a binder or a dusty textbook and told me to follow it from beginning to end.

Recently, I guided some educators in a brainstorming session on creating more exciting, student-centered lessons. I asked them to consider the possibility that the full lecture they planned to give, the chapter they hoped to cover, or the worksheet they printed from a cookie-cutter curriculum is as precarious a teaching tool as is, say, a kickball game. If kickball fails at teaching kids about debate, they lose a day in the same way they would have lost a day if they went through the motions of a lesson that bored them and their students. The lecture might feel safer, but safety doesn’t achieve anything if kids leave without learning anything new. Maybe the kids don’t leave kickball learning anything new either, but the approach has an advantage over any hackneyed teaching tool: As an outrageous teaching idea, it gave the teacher an opportunity to create something new, to develop as a professional who thinks about and experiments with pedagogy, and to reflect thoughtfully upon her work. It also allowed her to build trust with students, who desperately want to feel hopeful and engaged at school.

I finally did teach debate kickball effectively after six years of trying to get it right. And I dare anyone to face off with my former students in an argument now.

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Why Has the “School as Factory” Metaphor Persisted?

Why has the image of tax-supported public schools looking like and operating as factories stuck?

 

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In an earlier post, I traced the history of the metaphor since the early 1900s and its 180-degree switch from a positive to negative meaning. Over the past century, the metaphor of school-as-factory has served the interests of two sets of perennial reformers (yes there is a third group that borrows from each side–see below– but I will stick with the two major groupings).

The Incrementalists

There are reformers (e.g., policy elites, practitioners, parents, researchers, and donors) who see the age-graded school and its standardization of curriculum, instruction, and student behavior in need of improvement to make it work as it was intended, particularly for poor and minority students.The purpose of schooling is to prepare the young for a demanding and ever-changing workplace and future civic duties.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan made that point initially in 2010 and again in 2018:

About 100 years ago, America made secondary education in high school compulsory. That was almost unprecedented, a massive leap forward, and it drove a lot of our economic boom over the past 100 years. The problem is we haven’t moved past that and we haven’t adjusted the model. Obviously, the world is radically different from that time, but unfortunately education isn’t much different. And you see other nations out-educating, out-investing, out-innovating us. Not only have the skills needs changed dramatically, but we now have a globally competitive economy, a flat world. It’s no longer Iowa versus Indiana versus Montana for jobs, we’re competing with India and China and Singapore and everywhere else. That’s the world where our kids – my kids – are going to grow up into, and we’re never going to go back the opposite direction. It’s only going to accelerate….

[W]e were able to get high school graduation rates to an all-time high of 84 percent, which we were very proud of but obviously that’s nowhere near high enough. The current administration’s goal should be up to get that 84 up to 90 percent. Third, we should make sure that 100 percent of those high school graduates are college ready, with higher standards. And then fourth, we should try and lead the world again in college completion. That’s four-year universities, that’s two-year community colleges, it’s trade, technical and vocational training.

 

Those are goals that keep high-wage, high-skill jobs in our country. Those are jobs that grow the middle class, those are jobs that keep our civic democracy healthy. We should unite behind goals and have lots of vigorous debate around the strategies to achieve those goals. What works well in Montana may work differently in California. Something in Detroit may be radically different. So we should have lots of flexibility and local innovation around the best means and we should see what works best in rural communities and in urban communities and on Native American reservations, but we should unite around those goals. No one has a monopoly of good ideas.

 

“[W]e haven’t adjusted the model,” Duncan says. That has been the basic belief driving this set of reformers for decades. From smaller class size to Common Core Curriculum standards to better trained teachers, the incrementalists call for the age-graded school to be a more productive machine of instruction—higher test scores, graduation rates, and college admissions–to do what it is supposed to do in the 21st century.

 

 

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Of course, incrementalist reformers avoid the vocabulary of assembly line and factory made products. They talk about the need for schools to be efficiently run (principals and superintendents as managers and CEOs), producing better test scores on domestic and international tests, being held accountable for what students achieve and what classroom teachers do, and, most important, cranking out graduates ready to enter the labor market fully equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to enter the workplace. These reformers want schools to build human capital, especially in urban districts, and link those schools to a growing economy.

The Fundamentalists

Critics of the metaphor, however, look at curricular and instructional standardization, ubiquitous testing, and coercive accountability that are central features of the age-graded school as harming both students and teachers. This cartoon says it all.

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These critics who often use of the metaphor of school-as-factory dismissively want to overhaul, even abolish the age-graded school. They want schools to be places where children are treated as whole human beings. Schools are places where children of different ages work together on projects that draw from many subject areas and are connected to the world outside of the schoolhouse. Such schools are places where teachers work in teams using devices and software that focus on content and skills that can be mastered by individual students working at different paces. Schools where creativity and problem solving are central to a curriculum designed by teachers and students and not the state.

Do such schools exist? Some do.

Scattered around the country, many of these schools are private (see here and here) and some are public (see here, here, here, and here).

Clearly, then, Incrementalists dominate school reform in the the early decades of the 21st century. Fundamentalist reformers are strong on rhetoric and plans for change but, for the most part, instances of these schools are confined to the margins of public schools in  districts across the nation (see here).

The Borrowers

While there are many practical schools leaders and staffs across the U.S. who borrow ideas and practices from both Incrementalists and Fundamentalists to create hybrids, such borrowing of this-and-that program and procedure, it turns out, only reinforces existing age-graded structures. Well-intentioned and honest reformers make changes that end up preserving its stability. That is not intended as a criticism but an observation of what occurs time and again.

 

 

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Why Streaming Kids According to Ability Is a Terrible Idea (Oscar Hedstrom)

 

Oscar Hedstrom is a secondary school teacher in Melbourne, [Australia]. He is interested in creative and critical thinking in education. This appeared in Aeon , May 3, 2019.

 

Mixed-ability classes bore students, frustrate parents, and burn out teachers. The brightest will never summit Everest, and the laggers won’t enjoy the lovely stroll in the park they are perhaps more suited to. Individuals suffer at the demands of the collective, mediocrity prevails. In 2014, the UK Education Secretary called for streaming to be made compulsory. And as the former British prime minister David Cameron said in 2006: ‘I want to see it in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works.’ According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 98 per cent of Australian schools use some form of streaming.

Despite all this, there is limited empirical evidence to suggest that streaming results in better outcomes for students. Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, notes that ‘tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative equity effects’. Streaming significantly – and negatively – affects those students placed in the bottom sets. These students tend to have much higher representation of low socioeconomic backgrounds. Less significant is the small benefit for those lucky clever students in the higher sets. The overall result is relative inequality. The smart stay smart, and the dumb get dumber, further entrenching social disadvantage.

In the latest update of Hattie’s influential meta-analysis of factors influencing student achievement, one of the most significant factors – far more than reducing class size (effect: 0.21) or even providing feedback on student work (0.7) – is the teachers’ estimate of achievement (1.57). Streaming students by diagnosed achievement automatically restricts teacher expectations. Meanwhile, in a mixed environment, teacher expectations have to be more diverse and flexible.

While streaming might seem to help teachers to effectively target a student’s ZPD, it can underestimate the importance of peer-to-peer learning. A crucial aspect of constructivist theory is the role of the MKO – ‘more-knowledgeable other’ – in knowledge construction. While teachers are traditionally the MKOs in classrooms, the value of knowledgeable student peers must not go unrecognised either.

It is amazing to watch a student explain an idea or skill to her peers in ways that their teacher would never think of. They operate with different language tools, different social tools and, having just learnt it themselves, possess similar cognitive structures. There is also something exciting about passing on skills and knowledge that you yourself have just mastered – a certain pride and zeal, a certain freshness to the interaction between teacher and learner that is often lost by the expert for whom the steps are obvious and the joy of discovery forgotten. As a teacher, I often find I do a better job teaching material that I am not overly familiar with. In these circumstances, we hit authentic learning snags where I am not an expert-knower, but become an expert-learner, and we all have to negotiate the learning together.

Having a variety of students of different abilities in a collaborative learning environment provides valuable resources of relative-experts who are able to help each other meet their learning needs, never mind the benefits to communication and social skills. Look to the old adage: the best way to learn something is to teach it. If so, streamed classrooms reduce authentic opportunities for peer-to-peer teaching and learning, with both less and more capable students disadvantaged. And today, more than ever, we need the many to flourish – not suffer at the expense of a few bright stars. I go on a hike with a motley array of student once a year. It is challenging. The fittest students realise they need to encourage the reluctant. There are lookouts who report back, and extra items to carry for others. The laggers – who have never walked more than a kilometre their entire life – struggle, blistered, chafed and out of breath. But they also inevitably surprise themselves. We make it – together.

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ClassDojo App Takes Mindfulness To Scale in Public Education (Ben Williamson)

Ben Williamson: “I am a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute [at the University of Edinburgh], examining the intersections of digital technologies, science, and data with education policy and governance. My current research focuses on two key themes. One is the expansion of educational data infrastructures to enable information to be collected from schools and universities, then analysed and circulated to various audiences. The second is the emergence of ‘intimate data’ relating to students’ psychological states, neural activity, and genetic profiles, and the implications for increasingly scientific ways of approaching educational policy and practice.” 

This appeared on the blog: Code Acts in Education May 10, 2017

A globally popular educational app used by millions of teachers and schoolchildren worldwide has begun to deliver mindfulness meditation training into classrooms. Based on a mobile app that teachers can carry in their pockets, ClassDojo is embedding positive psychology concepts in schools worldwide. In the process, it may be prototypical of new ways of enacting education policy through pocketable devices and social media platforms, while activating in children the psychological qualities that policymakers are seeking to measure.

The Beast

ClassDojo, launched just 6 years ago, is already used by over 3 million teachers and 35 million children in 180 countries—with penetration into the US K-8 sector at a staggering 90%. Originally designed as a behaviour monitoring app to allow teachers to reward ‘positive behaviour’ using a points system, more recently ClassDojo has extended into an educational content delivery platform to promote the latest ‘big ideas’ from positive psychology in the classroom.

Starting in early 2016 with a series of video animations on ‘growth mindsets,’ the ClassDojo company has since developed classroom content about ‘perseverance,’ ‘empathy’ and, in May 2017, ‘mindfulness.’ All its big ideas videos feature the cute Mojo character, a little green alien schoolchild, learning about these psychological ideas from his friend Katie while experiencing challenges, personal worries, setbacks and doubts about his learning abilities. In the mindfulness series, Mojo has to confront what Katie calls ‘The Beast’—‘your most powerful emotions, anger, fear and anxiety’—which, she tells Mojo, ‘can get out of control.’

The big ideas videos have been wildly popular with schools. ClassDojo has claimed that the growth mindset series alone has been viewed over 15 million times. The announcement of new big ideas series is accompanied by online content which is shared to its vast worldwide community of teachers via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. To promote its new mindfulness series, ClassDojo has announced a ‘month of mindfulness’ across its social media accounts and communities.

ClassDojo’s expansion hasn’t just included video content delivery. It is also now used as a communication platform between schools and parents, to compile student portfolios, and to allow students to share their ‘stories.’ Its stated aim is to ‘connect teachers with students and parents to build amazing classroom communities’ and ‘happier classrooms.’ As a result ClassDojo is now one of the hottest educational technology companies in the world. It has raked in huge venture capital investment from Silicon Valley VC firms (about $31million in total, including $21m in 2016 alone), and is the regular subject of coverage in the educational, technology and business media.

It would not be overstating things much to suggest that ClassDojo has in fact become the default educational social media platform for a very large number of schools, functioning ‘like a social-media community where … the app creates a shared classroom experience between parents, teachers, and students. Teachers upload photos, videos, and classwork to their private classroom groups, which parents can view and “like.” They can also privately message teachers and monitor how their children are doing in their classrooms through the behavior-tracking aspect of the app.’

Many of ClassDojo’s features would be familiar to users of commercial social media such as Facebook, Snapchat and Slack. ‘If you’re an adult in the United States, you’ve got LinkedIn for work, Facebook for friends and family. This ends up being the third set of relationships, around your kids,’ one of ClassDojo’s major investors has claimed. As well as being geographically based in Silicon Valley, ClassDojo is strongly influenced by a Silicon Valley mindset of technical optimism in social media for relationships, sharing, and community-building. Like many recent education startups in Silicon Valley, ClassDojo’s founders are seeking to do good while turning a profit—specifically in their case by building a globally successful and scalable business brand on the back of building happier classroom communities through social media apps and platforms.

While social media organizations like Facebook and Twitter are now dealing with adverse issues such as fake news, political disinformation and computational propaganda on their platforms, however, ClassDojo has defined itself as a platform for diffusing positive psychology into schools. It’s aiming to achieve its ambitions directly through the mobile apps carried by millions of teachers in their pockets.

Emotions that count

The success of ClassDojo is due at least in part to the recent growth of interest in ‘social-emotional learning.’ A term that encompasses a range of concepts and ideas about the ‘non-cognitive’ aspects of learning—such as personal qualities of character, resilience, ‘grit,’ perseverance, mindfulness, and growth mindset—social-emotional learning has lately become the focus of attention among educational policymakers, international influencers and technology companies.

The OECD and the World Economic Forum have both begun promoting social-emotional learning and are seeking ways to foster it through technology and quantify it through measurement instruments. A US Department of Education report published in 2013 promoted a strong shift in policy priorities towards such qualities, and listed a then-young ClassDojo as a key resource. New accountability mechanisms have even been devised to judge schools’ performance in developing students’ non-academic personal qualities. The US Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has now made it mandatory for states to assess at least one non-cognitive aspect of learning as part of updated performance measurement and accountability programs.

Notably, too, ClassDojo’s big ideas resources have been produced through partnerships with powerful US university departments. The original growth mindset series was devised with the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS) at Stanford University, as was its follow-up perseverance series. The empathy series late in 2016 was co-produced with the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, while the mindfulness series released in May 2017 is the result of collaboration with the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University.

A concern for social-emotional learning is not just confined to dedicated educational organizations. The ed-tech researcher Audrey Watters has described social-emotional learning as a ‘trend to watch’ in 2017, and detailed some of the technology companies and investors involved in promoting it. ‘Ed-tech entrepreneurs and investors are getting in on the action, as have researchers like Angela Duckworth who’s created software to measure and track how well students perform on these “social emotional” measurements,’ she has argued. Meanwhile, ‘startups like ClassDojo,’ Watters adds, ‘promise to help teachers monitor these sorts of behaviors.’ She concludes by asking, ‘Can social emotional learning be taught? Can it be tested? Can it be profited from?’

Pocket policy platforms

ClassDojo needs to be understood as the product of a complex network of actors and activities including business interests, policy priorities, and expert psychological knowledges concerned with social-emotional learning (as I argued in earlier research published recently). With education policy increasingly influenced by the social-emotional learning agenda, ClassDojo and its academic partners and venture capital investors are increasingly part of distributed ‘policy networks.’ Although much education policy is still performed by government authorities, it is increasingly influenced by diverse sources, channels and sites of policy advice and ‘best practice’ models–of which ClassDojo is a good example

In this sense, ClassDojo is acting as an indirect best practice policy model and a diffuser of the social-emotional learning agenda into the practices of schools. In reality, it may even be prefiguring official policy. With venture capital funding from its investors driving its development and growth, ClassDojo has already distributed the vocabulary of social-emotional learning worldwide, and influenced the uptake of practices related to growth mindsets, perseverance and mindfulness among millions of teachers. It has done so through producing highly attractive content and then distributing it through its vast social media networks and communities on the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram platforms too.

‘If we can shift what happens inside and around classrooms then you can change education at a huge scale,’ ClassDojo’s CEO Sam Chaudhury has publicly stated. ‘We are looking for broad concepts really applicable to every classroom,’ its product designer has added. ‘We look for an idea that can be powerful and high-impact and is working in pockets, and work to bring it to scale more quickly … incorporated into the habits of classrooms.’

Although ‘working in pockets’ here clearly refers to potentially high-impact but small-scale startup activities, it is notable too that as a mobile app ClassDojo is already working in the pockets and palms of teachers. ClassDojo, in other words, represents a new way of doing large-scale policy through classroom apps that are already working in teachers’ pockets and hands rather than through political deliberation and direct interference. This would be an impossible task to coordinate at global scale through traditional government organs of education—although the interests of the global policy influencers OECD and WEF suggest ClassDojo could be prototypical of attempts to roll-out social-emotional learning into the habits of teachers through pocket-based policy platforms. Its method of enacting policy-by-app is being achieved by mobilizing practical classroom applications that can be carried in teachers’ pockets and enacted through their fingertips, generously funded by Silicon Valley venture capital, without the encumbrances of bureaucratic policymaking processes.

Psycho-policy

Beyond being a pocket-policy technology that prefigures official policy priorities, ClassDojo also represents another policy innovation—that of using an app to translate psychological expertise into practical techniques for teachers, and of acting as a technical relay between disciplinary knowledge and practitioner uptake.

The kind of policy that ClassDojo anticipates is already developing in other sectors. Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn have identified the emergence of ‘psycho-policy’ as a new approach to policymaking in the area of ‘well-being.’ Techniques of psycho-policy, they argue, are characterized by being heavily influenced by psychological concepts and methods, and by the ‘coercive use of psychology’ to achieve desired governmental objectives. As such, psycho-policy initiatives emphasize the ‘surveillance of psychological characteristics’ and techniques of ‘psycho-compulsion,’ which Friedli and Stearn define as ‘interventions intended to modify attitudes, beliefs and personality, notably through the imposition of positive affect.’

Psycho-policy, then, is the use of psychology to impose well-being and activate positive feeling in individuals, and thereby to enrich social well-being at large. In this context, as the sociologist William Davies has argued, the use of mobile ‘real-time mood-monitoring’ apps is increasingly of interest to companies and governments as technologies for measuring human emotions, and then of intervening to make ‘that emotion preferable in some way.’ As a pocket policy diffuser of such positive psychological concepts as mindfulness and growth mindset into schools, the ClassDojo app and platform can therefore be seen as part of a loosely-coordinated, multi-sector psycho-policy network that is driven by aspirations to modify children’s emotions to become more preferable through imposing positive feelings in the classroom.

Viewing ClassDojo as a pocket precursor of potential educational psycho-policies and practices of social-emotional learning in schools raises some significant issues. Mindfulness itself, the subject of ClassDojo’s latest campaign, certainly has growing popular support in education. Its emphasis on focusing meditatively on the immediate present rather than the powerful emotional ‘Beast’ of ‘anger, fear and anxiety,’ however, does need to be approached with critical social scientific caution.

‘Much of the interest in “character,” “resilience” and mindfulness at school stems from the troubling evidence that depression and anxiety have risen rapidly amongst young people over the past decade,’ William Davies argues. ‘It seems obvious that teachers and health policy-makers would look around for therapies and training that might offset some of this damage,’ he continues. ‘In the age of social media, ubiquitous advertising and a turbulent global economy, children cannot be protected from the sources of depression and anxiety. The only solution is to help them build more durable psychological defences.’

According to this analysis, school-based mindfulness initiatives are based on the assumption that young people are stressed, fragile and vulnerable, and can benefit from meditative practices that focus their energies on present tasks rather than longer-term anxieties caused by uncontrollable external social processes. James Reveley has further argued that school-based mindfulness represents a ‘human enhancement strategy’ to insulate children from pathologies that stem from ‘digital capitalism.’ Mindfulness in schools, he adds, is ‘an exercise in pathology-proofing them in their capacity as the next generation of unpaid digital labourers.’ It trains young people to become responsible for augmenting their own emotional wellbeing and in doing so to secure the well-being of digital capitalism itself.

According to Davies, however, much of the stress experienced by children is actually caused more mundanely by the kinds of testing and performance measurement pressures forced on schools by current policy priorities. ‘The irony of turning schools into therapeutic institutions when they generate so much stress and anxiety seems lost on policy-makers who express concern about children’s mental health,’ he argues.

It is probably a step too far to suggest that ClassDojo may be the ideal educational technology for digital capitalism. However, it is clear that ClassDojo is acting as a psycho-policy platform and a channel for mindfulness and growth mindsets practices that is aimed at pathology-proofing children against anxious times through the imposition of positive feelings in the classroom. While taming ‘the Beast’ of his uncontrollable emotions of ‘anger, fear and anxiety’ through mindfulness meditation, ClassDojo’s Mojo mascot is both learning the lessons of positive psychology and acting as a relay of those lessons into the lives of millions of schoolchildren. Its model of pocket-based psycho-policy bypasses the kind of slow-paced bureaucracy so loathed in the fast-paced accelerationist culture of Silicon Valley, and imposes its preferred psychological techniques directly on the classroom at global scale.

Detoxing education policy

To its credit, the ClassDojo organization is seeking to expand the focus of schools to the non-cognitive aspects of learning rather than concentrate narrowly on teaching to the tests demanded by existing policy. Paradoxically, however, it is advancing the kinds of social and emotional qualities in children for which schools may in the near future be held accountable, and that may be measured, tested and quantified. Its accelerated Silicon Valley business model depends on increasing the scale and penetration of the app into schools, and by doing so is actively enabling schools to future-proof themselves in the event they are held responsible for children’s measurable social-emotional learning and development.

ClassDojo has also hit on the contemporary perception of child fragility and vulnerability among educational practitioners and policymakers as a market opportunity, one its investors have generously funded with millions of dollars in the hope of profitable future returns. It is designed to activate, reward and condition particular preferred emotions that have been defined by the experts of mindfulness, character and growth mindset, and that are increasingly coming to define educational policy discourse. The psycho-policy ideas ClassDojo has embedded in teachers’ pockets and habits across public education, through Silicon Valley venture capital support, are already prefiguring the imperatives of policymakers who are anxious about resolving the toxic effect of children’s negative emotions on school performance.

ClassDojo is simultaneously intoxicating teachers worldwide while seeking to detoxify the worst effects of education policy on children. In the process it—and the accelerated Silicon Valley mindset it represents—may be redefining what counts as a valuable measure of a good student or teacher in a ‘happier classroom community,’ and building a business plan to profit from their feelings.

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