Category Archives: how teachers teach

The Classroom: The Basic Dilemma That Teachers Face and Manage

Pick the photos that you think best capture activities that you most like to see when you–as a teacher, parent, supervisor, administrator, community activist–enter a classroom.










Which ones did you pick? How many did you choose?

Here is my hunch: viewers will choose those photos that best line up with their beliefs about how teachers should teach and students should learn.

Of course, many viewers will pick multiple activities revealed in the photos since in 2020 the mainstream “wisdom” of teaching and learning is that there should be varied activities going on in a classroom over the course of a school day: whole group, small group, independent work. And most teachers organize their lessons to include such activities.

Experienced teachers have learned that–depending upon the age of their students, the subject/skills they are teaching, and their own preferences for what is important for students to learn—multiple ways of organizing classroom space and student work is essential. The photos show the range that often appears in classrooms.

There is “but,” however. What about “personalized learning?” For the past five years, with the ubiquity of classroom devices (e.g., tablets, laptops, smart phones, interactive whiteboards), calls for teachers to individualize student learning have accelerated. Those calls, however, confuse both professional educators, parents, and administrators since varied definitions of “personalized learning” compete with one another.

Consider photo 6.

A colleague sent this picture of students in a school founded and operated by teachers as an example of how learning can be “personalized.” The students are in their cubicles working independently and collaboratively under a teacher’s supervision

Yet were I to have asked teachers in the other photos conducting whole group and small group activities: do you engage in “personalized learning” with your class? My guess is that they would say that a snapshot of one activity in their classroom does not capture the totality of their teaching. They do, indeed, “personalize learning” over the course of a school day.

And that is the rub. The rampant rhetoric of “personalized learning” obscures the complexity of the fundamental work that all teachers must do: teaching content/skills to students. That is their professional obligation–for which they get paid–to enact the basic triangle that captures all classroom teaching.

I don’t think that putting into practice every day lessons that enact the above triangle is hard to grasp even when the standardized organization of schools is age-graded and the imperatives of such an organization–often called the “grammar of schooling”— influence what teachers and students do.

What too often remains missing in definitions of “personalized learning” and most of the photos–including the above figure of the triangle–is the basic dilemma that teachers face daily in putting the triangle into practice: not only do teachers have to perform their academic role as content/skill mavens–a value they prize–but also teachers want to–and are expected to–. build individual relationships with students.

The basic dilemma teachers face is figuring out how to finesse two conflicting values they face daily: teach content/skills and develop bonds with individual students. There is seldom enough time in the school day to do both–teach academics and build relationships with individual students. Because of time pressures, teachers craft compromises and try to do both.

At the end of the day, many teachers reflect not only whether the lesson got students to understand the denominator in fractions but also the unsaid word to comfort Janice when she put her head on the desk or the abrupt way she handled Sondra and Jeff when they had questions.

Because there is so much to do while a lesson unfolds, many teachers –especially secondary school teachers trained in disciplines–end up focusing on one of the two values they prize: the academic role. As the adage goes: they teach biology to students. And most elementary school teachers work on building close connections with individual students as they teach content and skills. They teach children, as the saying goes, reading, math, and science.

Yet regardless of what grade teachers teach, they juggle both values daily in their lessons, interactions with students before, during, and after school, and at home when they grade homework and tests. The quest to “personalize” learning requires teachers to manage both values. And most do learn how to manage both even as that struggle to do so lies hidden to non-teachers.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools

2020 is the 11th year I have been writing posts for this blog. In those 11 years, I have also written a few books. Every time I have had a new book come out, publishers and friends urge me to advertise the book on my blog.

I am torn, however. One part of me thinks that it is too pushy, too braggish, to tout my book in the blog. It is not that I am inherently a modest man but the thought of blowing my trumpet about what I do or did, well, makes me wince in embarrassment.

Yet another part of me says: “Hey, at a time when screens and the air are filled with constant grabbing for attention,” (eyeballs, as flacks put it), “I need to do the same.” After all, I am not on Facebook and only tweet titles of my posts when I publish them. Social media is largely foreign to me although readers of the blog, tweet about posts I have published–so I do benefit from that. Consider further that over a million self-published books come out a year (2017). Book readers have to be especially selective.

Moreover, with this abundance of reading material at a time when sustained attention to read a 200-page book competes with reading one’s Facebook pages and twitter feed, getting reviewed in a national newspaper, magazine, or media publication is rare–the New York Times reviews less than three percent of new books it receives. Yes, you can cadge reviews for your book on Amazon, but the cachet is limited. So why not blow my trumpet–that other part of me says.

This back-and-forth interior conversation is what occurred when I received a note from Harvard Education Press that my new book, Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools will be available next month. I decided that I will post a few paragraphs taken from the “acknowledgements” page to describe why I wrote a book about success and failure in American schools.

Every book has its creation story. For this one, there is nothing exotic or path breaking. In my career as a teacher, administrator, and professor since 1955 (I retired in 2001 but continued to teach and write) I have spent my professional time in researching and writing on questions about educational policy and practice that tugged at me for answers.  For that I am most grateful. But now as the sun is setting on my career I wanted to pull disparate threads together from my earlier writings that touched larger issues in the journey that educational policy takes toward the classroom.

In Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools, I wanted to answer a question that has bothered me for a long time.  Given my knowledge of the history of efforts to alter what occurs in schools and classrooms, why has the constant refrain of school reform failing again and again and schools never changing sounded off kilter? A few years ago, I had a chance to explore the question of the supposed failure of school reform and lack of change in U.S. schools when Jay Greene and Michael McShane asked me to do a chapter in their edited collection called Failure Up Close: What Happens, Why It Happens, and What We Can Learn from It.

Writing that chapter got me thinking about the dominance of current policy definitions of “success” and “failure” in public schools. So I began asking myself a bunch of questions: Had those policy definitions been around for just the past few years? Decades? Centuries? Had these notions of “success” and “failure” changed over time? Where did they come from? How and why did tax-supported public schools adopt these definitions of “success” and “failure?” What do these definitions look like when applied to actual schools and classrooms? And, finally, can contemporary definitions of “success” be stretched to encompass other goals for teachers and students in public schools?

Like much of my previous writings, these questions started on the busy four-lane highway of reform-driven policymaking and then hopped on two-way roads and eventually one-way streets of educational practice to see what happened to those adopted policies when they finally appeared in schools and classrooms. Some reforms stuck, some morphed in familiar ways of running schools and teaching. And some disappeared. The above questions bugged me enough to travel anew this familiar path of policy-to-practice.

Those questions spurred me to send Harvard Education Press yet another proposal to write the book you have in hand. I have answered these and related questions in this book partially scratching the itch that got me this far. I say “partially” because I am uncertain whether what I have written here misses questions about stability and change in U.S. schools that I should have asked or errs in what I have concluded.  As I said above, the creation story for this book is neither exotic nor path breaking. It is what it is.


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

I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Grade Your Final Papers (Robin Lee Mozer)

All teachers  have to read and evaluate student work. It is part of the territory that teachers inhabit. To classroom comrades we voice our occasional distaste for the inexorable round of homework and papers that pile up on our desks and at home waiting for comments and grades. Robin Lee Mozer, Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville wrote the following piece that surely picked up on a lot of negative feelings I had over the years about grading and commenting on student papers as a history high school teacher and university professor. Be prepared to laugh out loud.

Thanks to David Labaree for his blog where he posted the piece.

Dear Students Who Have Just Completed My Class,

I would rather do anything else than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather base jump off of the parking garage next to the student activity center or eat that entire sketchy tray of taco meat leftover from last week’s student achievement luncheon that’s sitting in the department refrigerator or walk all the way from my house to the airport on my hands than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather have a sustained conversation with my grandfather about politics and government-supported healthcare and what’s wrong with the system today and why he doesn’t believe in homeowner’s insurance because it’s all a scam than grade your Final Papers. Rather than grade your Final Papers, I would stand in the aisle at Lowe’s and listen patiently to All the Men mansplain the process of buying lumber and how essential it is to sight down the board before you buy it to ensure that it’s not bowed or cupped or crook because if you buy lumber with defects like that you’re just wasting your money even as I am standing there, sighting down a 2×4 the way my father taught me 15 years ago.

I would rather go to Costco on the Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. With my preschooler. After preschool.

I would rather go through natural childbirth with twins. With triplets. I would rather take your chemistry final for you. I would rather eat beef stroganoff. I would rather go back to the beginning of the semester like Sisyphus and recreate my syllabus from scratch while simultaneously building an elaborate class website via our university’s shitty web-based course content manager and then teach the entire semester over again than grade your goddamn Final Papers.

I would rather stay up past midnight pecking out an essay about not wanting to grade your Final Papers with one finger on my tiny outdated smart phone touchpad than grade your Final Papers because I do not want to read them.

I do not want to read your 3AM-energy-drink-fueled excuse for a thesis statement. I do not want to sift through your mixed metaphors, your abundantly employed logical fallacies, your incessant editorializing of your writing process wherein you tell me As I was reading through articles for this paper I noticed that — or In the article that I have chosen to analyze, I believe the author is trying to or worse yet, I sat down to write this paper and ideas kept flowing into my mind as I considered what I should write about because honestly, we both know that the only thing flowing into your mind were thoughts of late night pizza or late night sex or late night pizza and sex, or maybe thoughts of that chemistry final you’re probably going to fail later this week and anyway, you should know by now that any sentence about anything flowing into or out of or around your blessed mind won’t stand in this college writing classroom or Honors seminar or lit survey because we are Professors and dear god, we have Standards.

I do not want to read the one good point you make using the one source that isn’t Wikipedia. I do not want to take the time to notice that it is cited properly. I do not want to read around your 1.25-inch margins or your gauche use of size 13 sans serif fonts when everyone knows that 12-point Times New Roman is just. Fucking. Standard. I do not want to note your missing page numbers. Again. For the sixth time this semester. I do not want to attempt to read your essay printed in lighter ink to save toner, as you say, with the river of faded text from a failing printer cartridge splitting your paper like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, only there, it was a sea and an entire people and here it is your vague stand-in for an argument.

I do not want to be disappointed.

I do not want to think less of you as a human being because I know that you have other classes and that you really should study for that chemistry final because it is organic chemistry and everyone who has ever had a pre-med major for a roommate knows that organic chemistry is the weed out course and even though you do not know this yet because you have never even had any sort of roommate until now, you are going to be weeded out. You are going to be weeded out and then you will be disappointed and I do not want that for you. I do not want that for you because you will have enough disappointments in your life, like when you don’t become a doctor and instead become a philosophy major and realize that you will never make as much money as your brother who went into some soul-sucking STEM field and landed some cushy government contract and made Mom and Dad so proud and who now gives you expensive home appliances like espresso machines and Dyson vacuums for birthday gifts and all you ever send him are socks and that subscription to that shave club for the $6 middle-grade blades.

I do not want you to be disappointed. I would rather do anything else than disappoint you and crush all your hopes and dreams —

Except grade your Final Papers.

The offer to take your chemistry final instead still stands.


Filed under higher education, how teachers teach

Whatever Happened to Interactive Whiteboards?

You cannot eat one potato chip. You have to have more. Technological innovations hyped to transform teaching and learning are like potato chips. No district, no school just buys one. Laptops, tablets, and Interactive whiteboards (IWB) are typical examples. Consider the history of this high-tech classroom device.

Beginning in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, schools purchased interactive whiteboards by the truckload. British educators jumped on board this technological innovation with great enthusiasm especially after the government underwrote the buying of the technological innovation. In a glowing, enthusiastic article (2010), a writer described the results of the government largesse.

At St. Matthew Academy, a school for 3- to 16-year-olds serving a group of depressed London neighborhoods and similar to “turnaround schools” in American cities, IWBs have become fixtures in every classroom, with an eye to keeping students engaged. Assistant Principal David Cregan says that the boards are used for everything from mapping concepts—where students fill in an onscreen matrix with their ideas—to reviewing past lessons, where students unscramble letters to discover key words or ideas to launch a classroom discussion.

In the U.S. IWBs enjoyed a surge of enthusiasm beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s.While there are different kinds of IWBs with accompanying software and pens to use, many districts outfitted entire schools with IWBs costing somewhere between $3K-5K for one in each classroom. In Silicon Valley, where I visited many classrooms, I saw some teachers use these devices imaginatively with much student participation and others to basically illustrate a lecture with video clips and Internet links.

Overall, then, IWBs beginning in England and arriving in the U.S. two decades ago have come and stayed. They are still around. While sales of IWBs expand in other nations, particularly in Asia, sales have annually decreased in the U.S. Declining sales track the hype cycle so familiar to American educators in love with new technologies.

What Problems Do Interactive Whiteboards Intend To Solve?

Apart from the glitter of a new technology aimed at teaching and learning, district and school administrators saw IWBs as solving the ever-constant problems of student motivation, engagement, and academic achievement.

IWBs gave teacher total access to information on the Internet and new tools to expand their repertoire of lecture, whole group discussion, small group teaching, and students’ independent work, thereby enhancing existing teaching approaches. The theory was that IWBs, then, by engaging students would remedy partially or wholly those ever-constant problems faced in classrooms.

What Does Use of Interactive Whiteboards Look Like in Practice?*

A Philadelphia high school English teacher describes her use of the IWB:

I have been using an interactive whiteboard for several years, and honestly, I like having the board available. The software that comes with the board offers me a nice way to organize and save the work we do each day. If we mark up a document during a lesson, I can save it and refer back to it the next day. Often, I use the board to share information for mini-lectures, to demonstrate activities, or to show video clips or images to enhance my lessons.

Does that mean that none of my teaching is student-centered? No way. I am often at the board for a total of five or ten minutes and then my students are working together in small groups, or we are engaged in class discussions about the literature we are reading. I sometimes return to the board to troubleshoot when a majority of my students are stuck, and that makes life easier for all of us.

Over the course of the past few years, my students have used the interactive whiteboard to showcase their learning through presentations. And when we are editing and writing as a class, we can share documents in real time. In other words, the students get to direct the learning.

The interactive whiteboard is a tool that lends itself to direct instruction, but it does not dictate that all the instruction needs to be teacher-directed.

From an article on a 4th grade classroom using an IWB.

Teaching artist Lisa Rentz worked with a classroom teacher on the group story-writing experience. Students read the book Circle Unbroken and then used it as inspiration for an original group story. “[The teacher] and I used the Smartboard to take notes, viewable by all, of the students’ ideas, words and decisions, as we went through the story-writing process– brainstorming, developing characters, commencing the plot, dialogue and word choice,” said Rentz.

Because the notes were on the interactive whiteboard, they were able to save them, print them and use them for outlines and handouts. “The Smartboard pages were printed out every day as the story grew.  Each night I typed up everything for handouts the next day, and then resumed with the board until the conclusion of the story, which the students wrote individually,” said Rentz.

Do Interactive Whiteboards Work?

Sold as a way of increasing student motivation, engagement, collaboration, and academic achievement while altering how teachers teach to the whole class and small groups, research results, as one has come to expect in education, are decidedly mixed. Early enthusiasm that such devices–like laptops and desktop computers–increase students’ test scores shrunk as studies showed, at best, mixed results–including meta-analyses of the research. See here, here, here, here, and here.

Similarly, on results for increased student engagement and more collaboration, studies initially showed some gains but, again, the results are, at best, ambivalent. See here.

Why Do We Now Hear So Little Today about Interactive Whiteboards?

One answer is simply the hype cycle and what happens to many technological innovations.

Where to put IWBs in the cycle might be in the “Trough of Disillusionment,” “Slope of Enlightenment,” or “Plateau of Productivity” I cannot say since the evidence is sparse. Readers will have to decide, given their knowledge and experience with this once highly touted innovation.

Another reason often given by observers is that implementation of the device was hampered greatly by complicated software accompanying IWBs and the lack of one-to-one staff development for the innovation.

I would suggest another possible reason. It lacks much evidence, however, other than what I have observed, heard from teachers, and know about the history of classroom teaching. IWBs inherently reinforce teacher-centered instruction (e.g., lecture, demonstrations, frontal teaching) at a time when the rhetoric among educators and school practitioners is student-centered instruction (e.g., much student participation, collaboration, and student choice). The clash between rhetoric and practice often goes unspoken and seldom noticed. After all, teachers adapt innovations to their lessons once the tinsel wears thin on an innovation and for those teachers who swear by their IWB, it is another tool in their kit of ways of getting students to learn.

And then there is occasional teacher reaction that may or may not mirror what many teachers felt and thought about IWBs purchased by administrators for use in their classrooms. Here is Bill Ferriter, a North Carolina public school sixth grade teacher’s response to IWBs.

I’ll admit that there aren’t many topics I’m more passionate about than interactive whiteboards in the classroom.

Seen as the first step towards “21st century teaching and learning,” schools and districts run out and spend thousands of dollars on these gizmos, hanging them on walls and showing them off like proud hens that just laid the golden instructional egg.

I gave mine away last summer. After about a year’s worth of experimenting, I determined that it was basically useless.

My hunch is that IWBs, like sister technological devices over the past century, enjoyed its moment in the pedagogical sun and faded into a quiet niche within teachers’ repertoires as much as the slate blackboard was in the mid-19th century and the whiteboard in late-20th century classrooms.


*I looked at various YouTube presentations by teachers and consultants on using IWBs in lessons. Nearly all that I watched were sponsored by companies that sold the product. For readers who want such examples, see here and here. A few came from non-company sources. See here


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

A Teacher on Classroom Praise (Steven Singer)

“Steven Singer is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher in western Pennsylvania. He is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher and has an MAT from the University of Pittsburgh. He is Director of the Research and Blogging Committee for the Badass Teachers Association…. He ran a successful campaign through against the since repealed Voter ID law in the Keystone State…. His writing on education and civil rights issues has appeared in the Washington Post, Education Week, the LA Progressive,, Portside Navigator and has been featured on Diane Ravitch’s Site. He blogs at”

Should teachers praise their students?

It’s a simple question with a multiplicity of answers.

A 2020 study published in the journal Educational Psychology concludes that teachers who use praise see a 30% increase in good behavior from their classes.

Meanwhile, reprimands actually increase misbehavior and unwillingness to comply with instruction.

Researchers suggest a 3:1 or 4:1 praise-to-reprimand ratio. So for every one reprimand, a teacher should provide three or four positive reinforcements.

Unfortunately, this study flies in the face of previous research.

According to a 2014 study by the Sutton Trust, teachers who give struggling pupils “lavish praise” can make them even less likely to succeed.

Too much praise can “convey a message of low expectations.”

Researchers warned that if failure brings students too much sympathy, they are more likely to associate that approval with underachievement.

Yet it’s fine for educators to express anger at underachievement because it doesn’t create positive associations with performing badly. In fact, it motivates them to try harder.

But another study from 1998 turns this on its head.

This examination found that it wasn’t a matter of praise or reprimand. What was important was the kind of praise being given to children.

In short, researchers concluded that the wrong kind of praise can have disastrous consequences.

If teachers praised the hard work students did on an assignment – even if that work was not completed successfully – it resulted in willingness to work out new approaches in the future.

However, if instead the teacher praised the students ability or achievement, that could result in a tendency to give up when confronted with future failures.

So what are teachers to do?

Frankly, researchers don’t know.

They look at discrete data sets and try to make broad conclusions.

However, when you’re dealing with something as complex as the minds of children, this approach is destined for failure.

There are simply too many variables at play.

And that’s something every classroom teacher with any experience knows in her bones.

Teaching is not like baking a cake. There is no one recipe that will work every time on every student.

Being an educator is an art as much as it is a science.

In my own classroom, I praise my students a lot.

I reprimand, too.

And though I try to focus on effort, I admit to commending students on the results at times.

This year I was tasked with creating a new writing course for 8th graders called “Writing is Fundamental.”

Each day, I give students a writing task – usually focusing on the more creative side – and then I wander from desk to desk observing, answering questions and ultimately reading and commenting on their finished work in real time.

It’s exhausting.

At first, I try to be positive even when the writing isn’t that great. But then as I get to know the students and their abilities, I begin to be more critical and offer ways in which they can – and sometimes must – try to improve.

The results are mixed.

Some students – especially the lowest achievers – tend to respond to praise like a flower does to light. They soak it up and blossom.

I had one student who entered the class so embarrassed about his writing he was literally hiding under the desk and making jokes about how terrible a writer he was.

After just a week, he was working longer than any other student in the class to craft his responses and made sure to share his work with me and sometimes the entire class.

By the end of the semester, he wasn’t going to win any awards, but his writing had improved by leaps and bounds. And his attitude was almost that of a different person.

However, in the same class, there were students who didn’t respond as positively.

One child who was used to taking honors courses was put off by the creative nature of the writing. He preferred to write expository essays and hated the focus on details, figurative language and creativity.

Students were not required to share their work with the class but doing so earned them participation points. So he felt obliged to do so and was extremely upset that – in his own mind – his work didn’t compare favorably with some of his classmates.

Other students more used to having their work evaluated on standardized tests were indignant at my continual pushing them to improve. They knew that what they had written would be good enough on the standardized test, so there was no point working any further to refine their craft.

When it comes to praise, teachers are put in a very difficult position.

We want to help encourage our students but we don’t want that encouragement to ring false.

If all I ever did was tell students what a good job they were doing, they would soon catch on that it was meaningless. Every child can’t win a self esteem prize every day for whatever they do.

However, an amazing piece of work from a student who always does amazing work isn’t as impressive as moderately improved work from a student who has struggled constantly up to this point.

More than writing, I try to teach my students that learning is not about a destination – it’s a journey. And only they can truly decide whether the work they’ve done has value.

I offer advice on how they might revise their work, but it’s often up to them whether they want to keep refining a piece of writing or whether they have done enough for the day.

I’d be lying if I said the relationships I had with students has no baring on this. Many of them want to make me proud of them, but hopefully they get beyond this point.

In a semester course, the relationships are more transient and not as powerful. But in my year-long classes, they’re deeper and more far-reaching.

And that’s really the point that I think this body of research misunderstands.

It’s not praise or reprimands that matter as much as it is relationships.

Students learn from educators they trust. And part of gaining that trust is giving the proper kind of feedback – encouraging but honest, critical but helpful, opinionated but respectful.

Maybe if we trusted classroom teachers more to talk authoritatively about their experiences, we’d know more about the realities of education.

Coming into the classroom occasionally to observe student behavior is extremely shallow when compared to the everyday empiricism of lifelong educators.

Perhaps before we decide whether to praise students or not, we should agree to give classroom teachers their due.


Filed under how teachers teach

School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired But Marginal (Part 2)

After Minnesota authorized charter schools in 1991, a group of veteran teachers founded City Academy in St. Paul. It became the first publicly funded charter school in 1992. A quarter-century later 43 states and Washington, D.C. permit charter schools to operate. Charters are innovative ways to govern, fund, and organize public schools.

Using public monies and free of many state and district regulations, these schools have grown in a quarter-century from a handful to nearly 7000 across the U.S (there are about 100,000 public schools in the nation); they serve about 3 million students (over 50 million attend public schools). Largely found in urban districts (57 percent of all charter schools), these schools enroll mostly Hispanic and black students (total of 59 percent) charters. To those nay-sayers that often point to U.S. public schools as tossing aside reform after reform, Charter schools are a success story.

Charters have separate boards of directors who have to design a new school, find space for it, recruit parents to send their sons and daughters to it, hire a director and teachers, decide on the curriculum and manner of instruction, and make scores of other decisions in getting the school up and running. In many cases, charters have to raise additional monies over and above the state’s allocation for public school students attending district schools.

Most charter (over 75 percent ) are stand-alone schools. One-quarter of charters belong to Charter Management Organizations (CMO) such as Kipp, Success Academies, Aspire, and Summit Schools. With stable funding (often from private donors), an ideology, and an existing infrastructure of support, CMOs provide constant help to new charters in their organization. Stand-alones, well, – have to do all of the above tasks have themselves.

There are districts that have substantial percentages of charters in their boundaries that enroll anywhere from 10-90 percent of students. After the Katrina hurricane hit New Orleans, for example, nearly all public schools disappeared. All public school teachers and administrators were fired. In place of parish public schools, a system of charters appeared under the jurisdiction of a state-authorized Recovery School District. Political muscle from the state and donors supported the venture. Except for a few schools operated by the Orleans Parish School Board, 93 percent are charter schools operating under the RSD.

According to a recent Bellwether report, Detroit has 53 percent of its public schools chartered followed by Washington, D.C., (46), Philadelphia (32), and Cleveland (30). In each instance a political coalition of parents, elected officials, and donors advocate for charters. Keep in mind that charter schools are mostly in cities–seven states have no charter schools at all–and that 6 percent of all U.S. students attend charters.

So in the past quarter-century, charters have emerged as a growing sector of schooling–although its growth has slowed considerably in past few years as political pushback from parents, teachers, and others have put caps on growth in such states as California and Massachusetts.

While charters have spread swiftly since 1991, nearly all (94 percent) of U.S. students are in regular public schools. Nonetheless, that narrow slice of the educational market has given parents in urban districts more choice than they have traditionally had. Moreover, some states and districts, influenced by the charter movement, have increased the autonomy of regular public schools–releasing such schools from many district requirements–while expecting more accountability for results. Boston’s and Los Angeles’ Pilot Schools, Shelby County (TN)’s Innovation Zone Schools, and other jurisdictions have copied the charter school model.

The evidence that charter schools are more innovative–a basic reason for establishing such publicly-funded schools–in organization, curriculum and instruction than regular public schools is, at best, mixed. For the most part, charter schools are smaller in enrollment than their counterparts. And governance of charter schools does differ, But apart from size and governance, I have yet to see whether differences with public schools extend into the organization, curriculum, and instruction.

Organizationally, regular and charter schools are similar. Like 99 percent of U.S. schools, nearly all charter schools are age-graded. Charter high schools have block schedules for classes, advisory systems, and principals just like many public schools. Because charters must adhere to state curriculum, testing, and accountability regulations, there is little difference between regular and charter school curricula except perhaps in charters offering more and innovative electives in secondary schools. Finally, insofar as instruction, I have observed few differences between charter school and regular school teaching. Nor have I seen studies that reveal clear differences in instruction between charters and regular schools. Insofar as academic outcomes, studies are mixed when it comes to charters outperforming regular schools (see here here, and here).

Overall, then, charter schools have expanded the menu of choices available to parents. What gives charters heft in the decentralized system of U.S. schooling is an active infrastructure of stable political support. Not only from parents, and segments of both political parties–Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have all endorsed charters–but also state and local coalitions, including donors, have helped make the innovation a permanent part of U.S. tax-supported public schools across many school districts. New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and a few other cities, for example, have nearly half to all public schools designated as charters in their systems. Yet this handful of cities are a drop in the bucket of urban districts in the nation. And when one examines states such as Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Florida and Michigan where enrollments in charter schools are highest, the range is between 10-17 percent of all students. With 13,000-plus districts in 50 states and D.C., charters have surely found a niche in the U.S. decentralized system of tax-supported public schools. But in 2020, they still occupy a niche. That’s it.

In short, after a quarter-century charter schools–an innovative way to govern, fund, and organize public schools–are persistent, admired by many (but by no means, all), yet marginal to the ongoing daily work of schooling America’s children and youth. A success story but limited in its reach.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired But Marginal (Part 1)

A head-scratching puzzle of school reform over the past century is the innovation that arrives in tinsel and enters tax-supported public schools. Often districts adopt such glittering new programs and they settle into protected niches. But, and here is the puzzle, praised and admired as they are, they cannot break out of that nook. They stick around at the edges of the system remaining isolated, failing to spread throughout the district.

Early 20th century Progressives had their Project Method and the Dalton Plan. Both were adopted in many public schools because they seemingly solved organizational, curricular, and instructional problems. And they had internal constituencies of teachers and administrators yet they remained on the periphery of school systems. They did not become standard practices across classrooms.

Mid-century curricular reformers had their New Math. Late-20th century insurgents rallied around Coalition of Essential Schools and Core Knowledge programs. And early 21st century reformers have their problem-based learning and International Baccalaureate programs still awaiting that magic moment when the “system” adopts the innovation district wide completely altering how teachers teach and students learn. All had supporters either inside or outside districts (or both) but failed to move from the margins to become regular programs across districts.

To many reformers, the difficulty of getting adopted into public schools appears to be the highest hurdle. It is not. School boards and superintendents adopt many new ideas and direct administrators to implement them as pilots or in particular classrooms.

The far larger hurdle is breaking out of the niche that the innovation occupies in the district. Out of 35 schools in a district, for example, a handful of teachers or one or two schools regularly use the innovation. Going district-wide remains a near impossible task.

Yet some organizational, instructional, and curricular innovations do break out of their niches and get adopted locally, state-wide, and even nationally. Consider the sponsoring of private kindergartens for poor children by middle-class women in the late-19th century and their steady growth in public schools to become established in nearly all elementary schools. Ditto for tax-supported pre-schools in the late-20th and early 21st centuries.

Or note the common classroom practice of grouping by performance and ability. Most early 20th century teachers taught the whole class as one whether there were 30 or 60 students. Beginning before World War I, however, Progressive teachers began to group students for reading. More and more elementary school teacher (far fewer secondary ones, however)) began dividing their students into groups for different activities. Such grouping practices spread to math and other elementary school subjects and has in time become established procedure.

Also early 20th century teachers had students memorize science passages in their textbooks and recite them to the teacher. The idea of students going outdoors to collect insects and life in streams slowly became part of the science curriculum during the 1920s and 1930s and such field trips are now embedded in the elementary and secondary school science curricula.

And since the mid-1990s, expanding access to computers–once relegated to a room with 30 devices in each school–now makes Internet-connected devices available to every single student.

So there have been successful scaling up of entry-level innovations to system-wide use. But these are the exceptions.

How, then, do I explain what appears to be a historical pattern of many adopted innovations occupying a niche in existing school systems yet they fail to spread throughout the larger system while other innovations slowly and steadily roll out to become incorporated across all public schools?

Disappointed promoters of their new programs blame teacher resistance or lack of expertise as the answer. Teachers are unprepared or inexpert in adopting new techniques and activities so they stick to ways that have worked for them day-in and day-out, ignoring the innovation.

Others point their fingers at principals and district office administrators who oppose the innovation on either ideological or financial grounds (or both). Sometimes, these administrators go further and point out the lack of research to justify system-wide adoption.

Then there are frustrated reformers who blame existing ways of governing and organizing public schools for the rejection of what appears to them as overwhelmingly successful programs. Rigid, bureaucratic rules block adopting innovations, they say. The century-old age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” that great-grandparents, grandparents, and existing moms and dads have experienced stand in the way of progress, that is, their innovation. To boosters of the new program, these established ways of governing and organizing schools are taken for granted. They have become accepted by both professionals and parents as how schools were. And, more important, should remain.

While such explanations are often bandied about, I believe they only scratch the surface of a complicated puzzle. I speak not of those simple cut-out 15 interlocking pieces that kindergarteners play with but I mean one of those 1000-piece jigsaws. So how do I unravel this continuing conundrum of persistent and admired innovations –many producing prized student outcomes–occupying protected spaces in the organization yet still remaining isolated from the rest of the system?

The following posts on particular innovations—charter schools and Montessori programs–offer different ways of viewing this puzzle that is so thoroughly embedded in the history of U.S. tax-supported public schools yet too often unnoticed–save for a few researchers. Those researchers also suggest ways that such programs can move from the periphery to the center of schooling.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies