Category Archives: how teachers teach

Arc of Progressivism and “Grammar of Schooling” (Part 3)

quote-if-you-try-to-fail-and-succeed-which-have-you-done-george-carlin-36-66-42.jpg

 

images.jpg

 

Take your pick of above quotes (or choose both) and you have the kernel of the story of progressive reformers actively trying to alter traditional teaching and school practices over the past century.

Well, at least part of the story since binary choices, the either/or dichotomy of success or failure omit the creation of hybrids, mixes of progressive and traditional classroom practices that have occurred over the past century in the U.S. and internationally.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series describe many attempts of progressive reformers to get rid of the “grammar of schooling” or reduce its effects on teaching and learning. These efforts, at best, have created hybrids (see here and here) and,at worst, have signally failed (see here and here).

Part 3 looks beyond the U.S. experience to see what has occurred internationally since the ideas of John Dewey and his acolytes about teaching and learning have entered many nations outside of North America.

In Classroom Change in Developing Countries: From Progressive Cage to Formalistic Frame (Springer, 2011), Australian academic and consultant Gerard Guthrie has synthesized many research studies and evaluations on the influence of progressivism in developing nations and largely found few traces of these reforms altering traditional ways of teaching and learning. That is, “formalism” in teaching and learning–Guthrie’s phrase for teacher-centered instruction–remained intact after determined efforts were made in African, Asian, and Oceania nations to introduce progressive education. Guthrie focuses on the risks connected to the error-filled assumption–what he calls the “progressive education fallacy”–that inquiry-based classroom practices are necessary to promote academic learning among non-western school children. He also lays out the strengths of traditional and didactic teaching. He concludes that the primary reason for continuity in traditional ways of teaching and learning in these nations spanning continents is the abiding cultural context of these nations favorable to teacher-centered instruction.

In his study, Guthrie has chapters on the Confucian tradition in education in China and efforts to introduce progressive classroom practices in African nations such as Botswana, South Africa, Namibia,and Tanzania. The bulk of the evidence he provides (research studies and evaluations) to support his case of traditional teacher-centered instruction overcoming top-down mandates to shift classroom practices to student-centered ones is found in Papua New Guinea, where he has had extensive first-hand experience.

One excerpt illustrates Guthrie’s summary of studies on teachers in Papua New Guinea responding to progressive-driven reforms amply funded and mandated by ministry of education officials.

The teachers were not necessarily averse to change as such. Although they
ignored many of the precepts, some had developed their own contextually
appropriate approaches for promoting student learning. Often these reflected
cultural tradition in assuming that teachers should centrally control teaching and
learning, and were contrary to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new curriculum
….
Teachers expertly used a variety of strategies to transmit skills and
knowledge, including showing respect towards their students, an essential approach
in a shame-based society. Strategies also included speaking in short simple sentences,
providing examples relevant to students’ own experiences, providing concise
definitions, using visual aids, and scrutinising facial expressions for understanding.
[Researchers]found that non-implementation could be partly attributed to
the gap between the technical demands of the progressive curriculum and the
capacity of the teachers to meet those demands. Significantly, [one researcher] added, non-implementation could also be attributed to culturally embedded teacher resistance
to the facilitative roles expected in the classroom and to teachers’ scepticism about
constructivist learning theories.
In essence, these independent findings showed that the progressive ideas inherent in the new curriculum were little used, with improvements in teaching being predominantly within a formalistic rather than a progressive approach. The implication was that ‘policymakers should work with rather than against educational realities’….

One caveat about the evidence Guthrie provides. Classroom studies where researchers observe, interview, and document both stability and change in teaching practices are few and far between. The above excerpt, however, includes such direct classroom research.

Now what does any of this have to do with the “progressive arc’ of reform in U.S. schools that I laid out in Parts 1 and 2?

I see similarities and omissions.

Similarities

First, the pattern that Guthrie found in developing nations of top-down curricular and instructional mandates to shift classroom practice from teacher-centered to student-centered has occurred in the U.S. on at least two occasions. Between the 1920s-1940s, and the 1960s-1970s, determined efforts to introduce new progressive curricula and teaching practices happened across the U.S. in big city, suburban, and rural schools. A few researchers using historical sources such as photos, teacher and student diaries, lesson plans, and journalist descriptions have documented the minimal changes that occurred across classrooms (see here and here).

Second, Guthrie documents the failure of progressive methods to transform  traditional teaching practices and recommends that existing traditional practices be improved rather than dismantled.

Among U.S. reformer ranks this suggestion has been made many times, particularly since the 1960s when nearly 90 percent of all students attended public schools. Divisions do exist among reformers some of whom wish to dump the existing system and erect new ones. Most reformers, however, seek improvements in the present system including building the capacities of teachers and supporting their  professional growth to carry out incremental changes in schools and classrooms.

Omissions

Researcher Guthrie omits other possible explanations for “failure” of “progressive” reforms. His argument is clear: cultural context determines the fate of “progressive” reforms especially for those instructional policies out of sync with historical and cultural setting in which the reforms appear.

The first omission is flawed implementation of these top-down reforms. Researchers have pointed out (see here and here) the complexity of putting policies aimed at classroom instruction into practice. Moreover, that complexity often leads to some policies being inadequately and partially implemented. When that occurs the validity of the innovation or new program can not be assessed as worthwhile or worthless. Yes, in summarizing the studies and evaluations of other researchers, the idea of errors made in implementing the policy is mentioned, but the center of gravity in Guthrie’s argument rests on his claim that failed “progressive” reforms occurred because they were incompatible with the culture of the developing nation.

The second omission is instances of teachers creating mixes of old and new ideas and practices. Hybrids of traditional and “progressive” practices have happened among U.S. teachers over the past century (e.g., spread of small group activities in teacher-centered classrooms). At various places, Guthrie notes such occurrences but largely ignores the common practice of teachers throughout the world maintaining their dominant ways of teaching yet incrementally changing daily practices by incorporating ideas they believe will work with their students.

Guthrie’s study of the “arc of progressivism” and the strong influence of a “grammar of schooling” in developing nations gives the often parochial study of U.S reform-driven policies aimed at classroom practices a global perspective. And for Guthrie’s focus on the importance of context in shaping teachers’ responses to top-down mandates, classroom researchers owe him a thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

The Arc of Progressivism (Part 2)

 

Is there ever a day that mattresses are not on sale?

Is there ever a conference on school reform that the word “progressive” is not uttered?

Answer is no to both questions.

At different times in the history of public schooling, progressive-inclined reformers sought to change curricular and instructional practices from traditional (or teacher-centered) to progressive (or student-centered). At these times–the 1890s-1940s, the 1960s, the 1990s, and currently–the language used, the articles and books written, and arrays of conferences held for policymakers and practitioners contained selected items chosen from a menu of progressivism’s tenets and practices (see Part 1).

After the hullabaloo of the these reforms quieted and researchers looked at the results of progressive reforms, they found that curricula had changed becoming far more connected to the lives of children and youth (e.g., social studies replaced history in many schools)–see here and here. Moreover, large-scale experiments and evaluations had been launched (e.g., the Eight Year Study and Follow Through Project), and staff development for practitioners to use progressive practices in their classrooms (e.g. Denver Curriculum experiment, Activity Program in New York City elementary schools).

But when it came to changes in classroom practice, that is, actual shifting instruction and learning from teacher- to student-centered, only marginal modifications had occurred (see here and here). Yes, separate progressive schools, mostly private, had come into existence (e.g., Little Red School House, University of Chicago Lab School, Montessori schools) but within public schools, the arc of progressivism was peripheral to most classrooms. What did occur  often was a mixing of progressive and traditional practices in lesson activities, grouping practices, and managing of students, overall there was no significant shift in practitioner behavior (see here and here).

How come?

The short answer is the age-graded school. The long answer is the “grammar of instruction,” the organizational structures and processes within schools that influence how teachers teach and have taught.

As David Tyack and William Tobin described it:

The basic “grammar” of schooling, like the shape of classrooms, has remained remarkably stable over the decades. By the “grammar” of schooling we mean the regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction. Here we have in mind, for example, standardized organizational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students and allocating themto classrooms, and splintering knowledge into “subjects.”

In 1902 John Dewey argued that it was easy to dismiss the way schools are organized “as something comparatively external and indifferent to educational purposes and ideals,” but in fact “the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child. . .really controls the whole system….

Practices like graded classrooms structure schools in a manner analogous to the way grammar organizes meaning in language. Neither the grammar of schooling nor the grammar of speech needs to be consciously understood to operate smoothly. Indeed, much of the grammar of schooling has become so well established that it is typically taken for granted as just the way schools are. It is the departure from customary practice in schooling or speaking that attracts attention.

People are accustomed, for example, to elementary schools that are divided into grades in whose self-contained and coeducational classrooms pupils are taught several basic subjects by a single teacher.

High schools are organized somewhat differently. Students move every period of about 55 minutes, collecting Carnegie units of academic credit along the way. In each separate class they encounter a different teacher who is a member of a specialized department and who instructs about 150 pupils a day—in five classes of perhaps thirty each—in a particular subject. In secondary schools, but generally not in elementary, students have some degree of choice of what to study….

Why the remarkable stability of a “grammar of schooling” in U.S. schools?

Americans believe (and have believed for over a century) that the organization of the age-graded school with its daily schedule, self-contained classrooms, textbooks, homework, and tests is what a “real school” is. Departures from this organizational form such as non-graded schools, open space schools anchored in team teaching, students spending a significant portion of the doing online lessons, or alternatives that substantially alter or depart from this model are often rejected. If the “real school” is not working well, even failing as determined by test scores, then improve it, not dump it. In short, the age-graded school and the “grammar of schooling” that is embodies is sustained by most Americans’ social beliefs in its efficacy. This durable model of schooling is now embedded in the culture of the nation.

And that is a major reason why the “grammar of schooling” persists making it very difficult for progressive-oriented reforms aimed at altering teaching practices have had a tough time shifting teacher-centered to student-centered instruction.*

But mattresses continue to be on sale every day and the word “progressive”spills forth at conferences convened to push school reforms.

______________________________________________

*Note, however, that the explanation I offer holds not only for the U.S. but also for international efforts to shift traditional teaching practices to progressive ones. Part 3 elaborates on what has occurred globally in reforming the “grammar of schooling.”

 

 

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Teaching As a Way of Seeing (Mike Rose)

Mike Rose (born 1944) is an American education scholar. He has studied literacy and the struggles of working-class America. Rose is currently a Research Professor of Social Research Methodology in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

He is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University (B.A.), the University of Southern California (M.S.), and the University of California, Los Angeles (M.A. and Ph.D. “

“The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,” says Hazel of her automotive technology instructor, “is that when she looks at you, she sees the finished product.” What a remarkable kind of seeing Hazel describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible.

Over the past several years, I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professionals in their fifties and sixties, about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives. A number of the people I talked to used some variation of Hazel’s statement about seeing, some visual metaphor of validation.

A student in a Licensed Practical Nursing Program praises an instructor she would go to when she felt overwhelmed. The instructor told her that “she could see it in me that I was meant to do this,” and encouraged her to not only complete the LPN program but to continue toward a Registered Nurse’s degree, which she did.

“I was a strange kid,” a high school English teacher says reflecting back on his time in twelfth grade, “but not to [his English teacher] Mrs. Howard. She saw me the way I wanted to be seen. It changed my life. Every day I work to see kids the way they want to be seen.”

A middle school teacher starts talking to a boy serving detention and senses a “hunger” that leads her to invite him onto the school’s fledgling debate team. When I ask how she senses that hunger, she says, “by talking to someone and answering their questions. You can see it in their eyes.”

A high school Spanish teacher raises the issue of college to a junior whose energies are more invested in soccer than academics, but who has a way with people and exhibits a certain savvy as he navigates eleventh grade. The teacher follows his instincts and connects the young man to a college bridge program. Looking back on it, our soccer player, now a graduate student, says of that teacher, “He saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

These teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior—or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend. Through the way they teach, through mentoring, or through some other intervention, these teachers help develop the abilities they perceive. We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks. These are important issues to be sure, but they have crowded out so much else that makes teaching a richly humanistic intellectual pursuit….

8 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

A Witness to the Desegregation—and Resegregation—of America’s Schools (Kristina Rizga)

Kristina Rizga is a writer based in San Francisco. She is the author of Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph.

This article appeared May 1, 2018 in The Atlantic Online

 

 

lead_720_405.png

 

On Rebecca Palacios’s first day in front of a classroom, one of her white students picked up his chair and threw it toward her, declaring that he refused to be taught by a “Mexican teacher.” It was 1976, Palacios was 22 years old, and many of her first-grade students were at the school because of a recently launched busing program in Corpus Christi, Texas, that the courts had mandated in an effort to racially integrate campuses. Large numbers of white students were now traveling across town to her school—Lamar Elementary—which for generations had served mostly working-class Mexican American children.

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Palacios learned about American discrimination against Latinos first-hand. Her father, a World War II veteran who worked for the public-park service in Texas, spoke frequently about the daily humiliations of being a Latino in America—of not being able to eat in certain restaurants or use certain water fountains. He would recount stories of teachers prohibiting him from speaking Spanish in school, sometimes hitting him when he spoke it with his friends.

The use of Spanish was still discouraged in Corpus Christi school buildings when Palacios became a student in the 1950s. Designed to funnel Latinos into vocational tracks such as factory jobs or secretarial work, these segregated schools didn’t offer academically ambitious students like Palacios the advanced classes they needed to attend college. But thanks to her high-school teachers—both white and Latino—who created the necessary coursework using their own resources, Palacios became the first person in her family to go to college.

Those teachers had a profound impact on Palacios’s life, and, in turn, on the thousands of students she taught in Corpus Christi. Over the three decades that followed that September day in 1976, Palacios would go on to became one of the most distinguished early-childhood educators in the country, renowned for promoting her students’ sense of agency, intellectual curiosity, and love of learning. The arc of her career captures some of the major shifts—desegregation, resegregation, and declines in public funding—that have shaped America’s schools over the past several decades.

Palacios’s first two years of teaching at Lamar Elementary were some of the toughest in her life, she recalled earlier this year, sitting in her office in downtown Corpus Christi. Palacios retired in 2010 and now works as a consultant for the district as a coach of teachers. Behind her, pictures of Palacios’s five children, her husband, and their grandchildren dotted a bookshelf.

The Corpus Christi busing program that began around the time Palacios started teaching was the byproduct of a ruling by a federal judge in 1970 that made the city the first in the United States to extend the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to Mexican American students. Prior to the 1970 ruling, Corpus Christi officials argued that Brown only applied to black-white segregation. It wasn’t until Jose Cisneros and 23 other fathers—all members of the United Steelworkers union—sued the district for isolating Latino students in inferior, underfunded schools that the courts recognized Mexican American students as a minority group with their own history of discrimination in education. In establishing that Latino children deserve the same protections as their black peers, the Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District ruling had far-reaching consequences for every school in the nation: It prompted additional rulings that eventually extended Brown’s protections to all historically marginalized students of color.

Around the same time that the Corpus Christi district started providing funding for its busing program, the federal government began sending money to schools serving children who’d grown up in poverty. Project Follow Through, which was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, funded intensive coaching of teachers, medical care for children, engagement of families in school governance, and parenting classes. These investments, which at their peak had a budget of $60 million, contributed the most to Palacios’s teaching successes as a bilingual early-childhood educator early on.

About half of Palacios’s first-graders at the time were white, and many of their parents weren’t happy about the new busing arrangement. But many supported the idea of integration and lobbied district officials to bring in new resources to the school, like art and science supplies, and advanced classes. Palacios recalled those years as an intense period of growth that pushed her to go beyond traditional teaching methods focused primarily on content delivery and memorization. She yearned to create engaging learning environments that challenged her students to ask questions, deliberate answers with their peers, and learn how to integrate diverse ways of thinking about the world.

In 1982, Palacios enrolled in the graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin to work toward her doctorate in education, which would, she reasoned, help her ground her innovations in the latest research, and give her more authority to bring those changes beyond the confines of her classroom. The following year, Eduardo Torres, who had left Lamar to become the principal at Zavala Elementary, asked Palacios to join his team as an early-childhood educator, where Palacios ended up working for 24 years, focusing her methods entirely on preschool-age children.

While at Zavala, Palacios developed an innovative curriculum—in collaboration with her colleagues—that the district adopted for all preschools from 2001 to 2010. Palacios’s two-week units were based around the theme of families: human, animal, plant, and insect “families.” With that change, for instance, rather than reading a book on farm animals, and then developing vocabulary by answering simple questions about the book, and memorizing key words and concepts, Palacios’s lessons now integrated multiple disciplines in every hour of instruction, including literacy, math, science, and social studies. As students investigated farm animals—often guided by their own questions about the topics—they could leverage and build on previous knowledge they learned while exploring other families.

Because integration of different disciplines helps children engage with new concepts through familiar themes and patterns, such approaches can make classrooms more inclusive and engaging for diverse children with varying skills and interests. A child who finds certain math tasks, like memorization and repetition, boring or too abstract, for example, forgets that she is engaging in those tasks by counting the wheels of the farm trucks or comparing the shapes of the buildings on a farm.

For Palacios, such approaches—which fall under the rubric of teaching “the whole child,” in education jargon—require well-trained educators, sustained funding for learning materials, such as building blocks or paint, and supportive administrators like Torres. “When my teaching partner and I would come to the office of Mr. Torres, asking for something to implement our latest innovation, he’d always say, ‘If it’s for the kids, we’re going to make it happen.’ Having that stance was a critical base for my ability to succeed and stay in teaching as long as I did.”

Just as Palacios reached a degree of success in her sixth year of teaching at Lamar, the Corpus Christi school district, the courts, and the Cisneros plaintiffs were sparring over the mechanics of busing. District officials were constantly changing bus routes and school assignments, which exacerbated the growing resistance to integration among many parents. By 1982, the plaintiffs agreed to end the court-mandated busing, settling for a district program that would allow students to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods but wouldn’t cover the cost of transportation. The court also mandated increased funding to high-poverty schools like Zavala and Lamar as the means of fulfilling the 1970 ruling.

This marked the end of one of the 20th century’s most significant civil-rights battles. Corpus Christi schools soon resegregated. Today, 93 percent of students at Zavala Elementary are Latino, and 95 percent are poor. Roughly two-thirds of its students, meanwhile, are labeled as “at risk of dropping out” based on their achievement levels and disciplinary issues. Most of the extra local funding that came as a result of the Cisneros lawsuit also disappeared over time, compounded by the deep state cuts, which have reduced the overall pool of funding for all of Texas public schools.

Meanwhile, Palacios continued to refine her methods, developing “journals” to detect what her 4-year-olds—who typically can’t yet read or write fluently—learned every day. Students would respond to Palacios’s questions by drawing pictures and telling stories about them, using new concepts and words they’d learned. She also started coaching parents every six weeks, including by modeling lessons on how to teach reading at home, which she said became one of the most effective strategies she’d implemented in her career.

“The hardest part about teaching before I retired was seeing the disintegration of support for public schools,” Palacios said over lunch at a local restaurant, during an all-day training session for preschool teachers she organized in collaboration with the district. “What I’ve seen over time, especially in the last 10 years, [is that] there are so many new, unfunded demands and programs. STEAM [science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics] initiatives, for example, require resources. You can’t talk about granite if the kids haven’t seen granite. You can’t talk about water pressure, water displacement, or buoyancy without water droppers, PVC pipes, or water tables that make up these experiences.”

When touring classrooms in the Corpus Christi district a few years ago as part of a teacher-training initiative, she observed that worksheets had replaced the paint, glitter, and building blocks that once dominated preschool learning spaces.

Despite the retreat from integration efforts and anti-poverty programs by the courts and the government, Palacios still views the legacy of the Cisneros case as crucial progress. “Schools resegregated, but the eyes were open: Separate is not equal.”

These days, as Palacios coaches dozens of teachers in Corpus Christi, she talks to them about the importance of leadership and advocacy, just as much as she talks about teaching practices. Palacios tells them how she created a pre-kindergarten professional association, which, at one point, convinced the school board not to cut the district’s paraprofessional positions. She also hosted a yearly open house in preschools for school-board members and administrators across the district to show them the promise of effective and engaging teaching through sustained funding.

“I know it takes a lot of energy to do all that, but if you’re going to complain about it, it’s never going to make a difference,” Palacios said at the end of a long day of coaching teachers. “You’ve got to be in there, be the advocate, and make the changes for the children.”

8 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Fiddling with Time in Classrooms: Whatever Happened to Block Scheduling?

Time in school is a precious resource. State policymakers determine how many days a year schools will be open; district boards of education decide when school will open in the morning and adjourn in the afternoon. And classroom teachers constantly check the clock on the wall, their wrist watches, or other time pieces to insure that current pace of lesson will end tidily when the bell rings. Policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers assume that how much time students spend with teachers in class makes a difference in what is learned, the classroom climate, while growing the all-important relationship between teacher and student. Thus, time in school is both scarce and precious (see here, here, and here).

No surprise, then, that given these assumptions about the importance of time state and district policymakers–the U.S. has a decentralized system of schooling rooted in 50 states and more than 13,000 districts–have fiddled with the school’s daily schedule. Most schools in the U.S. meet for at least six hours a day–since it is the primary instrument for distributing time to classroom learning and other activities.

Consider the unrelenting efforts to reform the nation’s secondary schools since the 1890s–yes, over a century and a quarter of efforts to improve what were once called junior and senior high schools, capstones of U.S. public education (see here, here, and here). In nearly all instances, reformers have included changes in secondary school daily schedules especially since the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.

Enter block scheduling as a reform of the traditional daily schedule.

What is block scheduling and when did it begin?

Block scheduling takes the traditional daily schedule of 6-8 classes a day of between 45-50 minutes–a schedule that dates back to the 1920s–and reorganizes the day into blocks of 60-90 minutes for various subjects on different days of the week. There are variations of block scheduling.

A traditional daily schedule:

CHS-Bell-Schedule.jpg

A 4X4 schedule with 90-120 minutes for subject daily; students complete a course within one semester:

 

Sample+4x4+9th+Grade+Schedule.jpg

 

The most popular version of block scheduling is the A/B:

 

BLOCKsched-1024x406.jpg

And there are hybrids that mix block and traditional scheduling for a student’s and teacher’s day:

 

WHS-Schedule-2015-2016.jpg

 

What problems did block scheduling aim to solve?

Students took too many subjects a day (five to seven daily) with teachers seeing 125-150 students daily. That was a constant in the age-graded secondary school since the early 20th century. Within the traditional schedule, there has been insufficient time to develop concepts, build relationships between students and teacher, and cover subject matter and skills. Block scheduling offers students fewer subjects with enough time to handle a subject and lower the daily number of students each teacher faces than does the traditional high school bell schedule. Champions of block scheduling claim that the problems of low achievement, lack of interest in school subjects, chaos of constant movement of students through the school day and academic stress would decline.

Has block scheduling worked?

The answer depends upon who and what you read. Some researchers have become advocates of the reform and their research focuses on what they call “successful” instances (see here and here). Other researchers who have looked at all the studies–called meta-analyses–done on block scheduling and its various forms–reach different conclusions ranging from slight positive differences in one or more factors to no differences between traditional and block scheduling in its various incarnations (see here, here and here). The varied returns promised by block scheduling have yet to appear sufficiently to say that altering the time students spend with teachers in a block schedule has “worked.”

What has happened to block scheduling?

I found it difficult to locate any recent reliable estimate of the number of U.S. secondary schools that use versions of block schedules. I did find state estimates. In Washington state, about one-third of all high schools used one or another version of the schedule (see here). In some states, the percentage runs much higher. North Carolina had in 2009 nearly 90 percent of its high school using some form of block scheduling.  In some places such as the metro Washington, D.C., school districts have tried block scheduling but decided to return to traditional ones. But at no point in the lifespan of this reform have I found evidence that a majority of U.S. secondary schools use block scheduling. The traditional schedule of six to eight periods of around 45-50 minutes continues to dominate the daily life of public secondary schools in the U.S.

19 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Donor Fails Policy 101 (Valerie Strauss)

Education reporter and editor for the “Answer Sheet” at the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss published this piece June 29, 2018. For other views on donors’ initiatives and mishaps, see here and here.

A major new report concludes that a $575 million project partly underwritten by the Gates Foundation that used student test scores to evaluate teachers failed to achieve its goals of improving student achievement — as in, it didn’t work.

Put this in the “they-were-warned-but-didn’t-listen” category.

The six-year project began in 2009 when the foundation gave millions of dollars to three public school districts — Hillsborough County in Florida (the first to start the work), Memphis and Pittsburgh. The districts supplied matching funds. Four charter management organizations also were involved: Alliance College-Ready Public Schools; Aspire Public Schools; Green Dot Public Schools; and Partnerships to Uplift Communities Schools.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pumped nearly $215 million into the project while the partnering school organizations supplied their own money, for a total cost of $575 million. The aim was to create teacher evaluation systems that depended on student standardized test scores and observations by “peer evaluators.” These systems, it was conjectured, could identify the teachers who were most effective in improving student academic performance.

This, in turn, would help school leaders staff classrooms with the most effective teachers and would lead more low-income minority students to have the best teachers — or so the thinking went. Schools also agreed to boost professional development for teachers, give bonuses to educators evaluated as effective and change their recruitment process.

The 526-page report titled “Improving Teacher Effectiveness: Final Report,” conducted by the Rand Corp. says:

Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly LIM [low-income minority] students. By the end of 2014-2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the IP [Intensive Partnerships] initiative. Furthermore, in the sites where these analyses could be conducted, we did not find improvement in the effectiveness of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall; we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers in most sites.

Why didn’t it work? The report’s authors couldn’t say:

Unfortunately, the evaluation cannot identify the reasons the IP initiative did not achieve its student outcome goals by 2014-2015. It is possible that the reforms are working but we failed to detect their effects because insufficient time has passed for effects to appear. It is also possible that the other schools in the same states we use for comparison purposes adopted similar reforms, limiting our ability to detect effects. However, if the findings of no effect are valid, the results might reflect a lack of successful models on which sites could draw in implementing the levers, problems in making use of teacher-evaluation measures to inform key HR decisions, the influence of state and local context, or insufficient attention to factors other than teacher quality.

The project began at a time when the newly elected Obama administration was supporting school reforms that used student test scores to evaluate teachers, despite warnings from assessment experts of big problems with doing so. Gates and Arne Duncan, who was education secretary at the time, were on the same page, believing that test scores were valid measures for high-stakes decisions.

The Obama administration, through its Race to the Top initiative, dangled federal funds in front of states that agreed to establish teacher evaluation systems using test scores to varying extents. And Gates funded his “Empowering Effective Teachers” project with the aim of finding proof that such systems could improve student achievement.

Some assessment experts were concerned from the start that the methods used to link student test scores to teacher evaluations were largely unfair and lacked statistical validity. Some educators noted that there were already effective evaluation systems for teachers that did not give weight to student test scores, including in Maryland’s Montgomery County and Virginia’s Fairfax County.

But the Gates project and Race to the Top continued, and most states adopted test-based teacher evaluation systems. In a desperate attempt to evaluate all teachers on tested subjects — reading and math — some of the systems wound up evaluating teachers on subjects they didn’t teach or on students they didn’t have. Some major organizations publicly questioned them, including the American Statistical Association, the largest organization in the United States representing statisticians and related professionals. And so did the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council.

But the Gates project continued. What happened in Hillsborough County is illustrative of problems that many warned about early on. Teachers who initially supported it came to realize its weaknesses. The project required district and union leaders to work together, which happened — but not for long. In 2015, Hillsborough County gave up on it, after more than $180 million was spent there. This is what I wrote in a 2015 post:

Under the system, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student standardized test scores and the rest by observation from “peer evaluators.” It turned out that costs to maintain the program unexpectedly rose, forcing the district to spend millions of dollars more than it expected to spend. Furthermore, initial support among teachers waned, with teachers saying that they don’t think it accurately evaluated their effectiveness and that they could be too easily fired.

Now the new superintendent of schools in Hillsborough, Jeff Eakins, said in a missive sent to the evaluators and mentors that he is moving to a different evaluation system, according to this article in the Tampa Bay Times. It says:

Unlike the complex system of evaluations and teacher encouragement that cost more than $100 million to develop and would have cost an estimated $52 million a year to sustain, Hillsborough will likely move to a structure that has the strongest teachers helping others at their schools.

Eakins said he envisions a new program featuring less judgmental “non-evaluative feedback” from colleagues and more “job-embedded professional development,” which is training undertaken in the classroom during the teacher work day rather than in special sessions requiring time away from school. He said in his letter that these elements were supported by “the latest research.”

From the start, critics had warned about using a standardized test designed for one purpose to evaluate something else — a practice frowned upon in the assessment world. The Rand report affirmed those concerns and said problems with using test scores as a metric were significant:

Teacher evaluation was at the core of the initiative, and the sites were committed to using the measures to inform key HR decisions. But, as we described in Chapters Three through Eight, the sites encountered two problems related to these intended uses of the TE measures. First, it was difficult for the sites to navigate the underlying tension between using evaluation information for professional improvement and using it for high-stakes decisions. Second, some sites encountered unexpected resistance when they tried to use effectiveness scores for high-stakes personnel decisions; this occurred despite the fact that the main stakeholder groups had given their support to the initiative in general terms at the outset.

The findings revive questions about whether the country is well-served when America’s wealthiest citizens choose pet projects and fund them so generously that public institutions, policy and money follow — even if those projects are not grounded in sound research. Such concerns have been raised most often about Gates, because he is the largest education philanthropist by far, and because he was a key player in Obama administration education reforms.

Gates, though, was pushing his own ideas for school reform before Obama became president, and he has since acknowledged that none of them turned out as well as he had hoped. In 2014, he gave a nearly hour-long interview at Harvard University, saying, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”

In 2000, his foundation began investing in education reform with an expensive effort to turn big dropout high schools into smaller schools, which he abandoned, writing in hisfoundation’s 2009 annual letter that the results had been unimpressive. Instead, he said he would focus on teacher effectiveness and the dissemination of best teaching practices. He spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help create and implement the Common Core State Standards, which became highly controversial.

Now, Rand has declared his massive teacher effectiveness project to have fallen short of his goals. The Rand report does say that “the initiative did produce benefits, and the findings suggest some valuable lessons for districts and policymakers.” What lessons? Well, the report’s authors say some teachers reported learning how to improve from the observations. They also said the project had succeeded in helping schools “measure effectiveness” but not how to “increase it.” Of course, that is a loaded finding, given that there are many definitions of “effectiveness.”

Some school reformers are reluctant to say the project was a waste of time and money. They say the project taught us what doesn’t work. That ignores the fact that some education experts warned from the start that some of the premises on which it rested were not sound.

The bottom line: School reformers, led by Gates and supported by Duncan, felt the need to spend $575 million to prove their critics right.

6 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Asking Different Questions about Personalized Learning (Leigh McGuigan)

Leigh McGuigan worked in district leadership roles in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland, He is now CEO and co-founder of Vertus High School. Addressed to Rick Hess, head of educational policy at the American Enterprise Institute, this letter appeared May, 30, 2018.

Dear Rick,

I appreciated the recent blog posts from Larry Berger, Joel Rose, and Jonathan Skolnick on getting real about personalized learning. I loved their straight talk about the challenges of “engineering,” the need to rethink classrooms, and how to get students to “eat their vegetables.” But I wanted to raise a different issue based on our experience at Vertus High School, a blended high school for at-risk boys in upstate New York. Our students arrive at our door very far behind. Most do not know basic math, cannot recognize an adverb, and have never met an engineer. But when they graduate, most will go to college, some to the military or technical training, and a few to living-wage jobs.

We have four years to prepare our students for the world they will encounter. For our boys—like for most people—success after high school will mostly require that they do things someone else’s way, on someone else’s schedule. Much of this will be boring, and very little will be “personalized.” In most colleges, they will be expected to learn what their professor teaches, in the way he or she teaches it. In their jobs, their boss will likely dictate what they should do, and how and by when they should do it. Maybe a lucky few will go to colleges that nurture their individual interests and cater to their learning preferences, and to first jobs with lots of agency to pursue interesting questions as they see fit. But not many. We have a moral obligation to prepare them to succeed in the world they’re going to actually encounter.

Of late, it seems that talk of personalization focuses on the question, “What kind of personalization will make school engaging for students?” My experience leads me to think that’s the wrong question. And I worry that much of the thinking that results when it comes to personalization approaches fantasy—or educational malpractice.

I think the more useful question about personalized learning is, “How do we personalize learning for students while preparing them for what life will actually be like after high school—which, in truth, will be largely impersonal?” Some might wave this off as a misguided concern, but I think that’s a profound mistake and a disservice to our charges. As Vertus has grown over our first few years, this tension has been central to our work.

An undue focus on “engagement” personalization risks students not building the broad body of secure, automatic knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in college, and that they may not develop the self-control and grit to independently weather challenges, setbacks, and annoyances. Our students need a great deal of practice in that stuff which we might call “the basics.” We’ve found that we can’t let them just rely on their strengths or follow their preferences if we’re going to help them master those.

At Vertus, we do personalize, of course. Our students spend about half their time in learning labs completing online courses. We meet each student at their starting point, and each moves through courses at his own pace. In a self-paced environment, we learned early on that we had to provide strong incentives for making progress, as students who have not had success in school don’t have a compelling vision of the future to motivate them. We have learned the importance of giving our students explicit instruction and patient practice in how to concentrate and motivate themselves.

We also make it a point to incorporate plenty of traditional instruction. Students spend the other half of their time in typical small classrooms. The so-called “tired old model” of teaching a group of students the same thing in the same way is easy to dismiss, but it is still mainly what students will encounter after high school. In classrooms, students can learn to be part of respectful discussions and how to wait patiently while someone else’s needs are attended to. Since many of our students come to us with bad classroom habits, we’ve doubled down on fostering strong classroom cultures and student engagement. Our students use their classroom time to deepen skills in reading, writing, and math and to learn and practice the specific knowledge and skills that the New York State Regents tests require. Learning to succeed in a classroom and learning material that may not feel relevant or seem interesting are core skills in college.

Personalization done right can help cultivate self-control and self-motivation, the characteristics that students will need in the real world. But personalization done wrong risks graduating students who are ill-equipped to succeed in the real world, lack important knowledge and skills—and of doing all this because it’s trying to answer the wrong question. I hope we’re not experimenting on our students to satisfy our theologies, as they won’t get many second chances.

 

6 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use