Category Archives: how teachers teach

Teachers and Policymakers: Different Pictures, Different Actions

This is a post I wrote over nine years ago and re-post now because I still believe it is relevant in describing the different worlds teachers and policymakers inhabit.  When a new policy (e.g., Common Core standards, “personalized learning”) travels from a school board through the superintendent’s suite, to the principal’s office that journey reveals anew stark differences between policymakers and teachers, differences that have been around for decades but, too often go steer clear of open discussion.


There is a story that has made the rounds about radio messages sent to and from a U.S. navy ship a number of years ago.*

U.S. Navy Ship: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the
North to avoid a collision.

Reply: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to avoid a collision.

Ship: This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Reply: No, I say again you divert YOUR course.


Reply: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

I am reminded of this story whenever I consider the
disorderly, even messy way that policies enter classrooms.

In previous posts (September 9 and 12, 2009), I had pointed out competing images of
teachers as implementers. One picture in the heads of most state and federal
policymakers has teachers as one link in a long policy chain implementing new standards and following procedures. That image is a constricted view of teachers as technicians dutifully carrying out orders from the top—even when those orders—see the above exchange with the U.S.S. Enterprise captain—are mistaken.

Another image used to describe implementing classroom policies is pushing pasta. In this image, policymakers are helpless in determining what teachers do in their classrooms once the door is closed. Teachers are policy brokers who decide what they let in their classrooms.

I want to offer a third image nestled between the technician/policy broker ones that may be closer to the realities teachers face in implementing well-intended, even evidence-based policy decisions. That image is one of different worlds that policymakers and teachers inhabit—overlapping in some respects like Venn diagrams—but for the most part driven by different values and incentives. This picture may explain policymaker difficulties with teachers and why teaching practices seem so stable over decades. The world of classroom teachers has its own set of values and incentives that, like the above lighthouse that the U.S.S. Enterprise nearly ignored, few policymakers even notice, much less invoke.

Consider when a new instructionally-driven policy, say, hand-held electronic devices or a new reading program appears. Teachers ask: Can I learn it quickly or do I have to spend a lot of time figuring out what to do? Will it motivate my students? Does the program contain skills that are connected to what I am expected to teach and what students need? What happens if I need immediate help? Seldom do policymakers either anticipate or pay attention to such practical questions.

These questions reveal that teachers prize ideas and actions that payoff in learning and meaningful relationships with students. They seek concrete and specific solutions to practical classroom problems. The incentives that drive teachers to teach better in their classrooms come more from internal values than external rewards: the joys of seeing students learn and achieve goals, the service they render to society, and similar psychic rewards.

The world policymakers inhabit differs greatly. Their world is largely political where election cycles, budgets, media attention, and measurable outcomes determine job longevity and personal satisfaction. Incentives such as re-election, influencing others, and positive media dominate daily routines. The values of efficiency, effectiveness, and popularity rule.

Obviously, the worlds of teachers and policymakers overlap when it comes to the values of effectiveness although each would define differently which effects are most important and the measures used. Efficiency at the school and district levels—squeezing more test scores out of every dollar spent– is far more a policymaker value than one held by teachers.

In these different worlds, teachers bring moral and service values that differ from the technical, scientific, and reputational values that policy makers hold. Of course teachers seek improvement in students’ test scores but they prize far more changes in students’ attitudes, values, and actual behavior on academic and nonacademic tasks.

So which of these three pictures of classroom teachers implementing policy decisions realistically describes what happens in classrooms?

My guess is that on school health/safety issues the image of the policy chain with teachers dutifully following orders for fire drills, emergency exits, and protecting students does describes a slice of school reality. On policies that ask teachers to alter their daily habits of organizing the classroom and teaching differently, however, the “pushing pasta” metaphor is operative.

Why? Because the incentives and values of the policymaker world puts blinders on most federal and state decision-makers; they are either unaware of or choose to ignore the incentives and values that drive teachers thereby neglecting essential resources needed to help those who wish to alter their daily routines.

Most policymakers fail to inspect the pictures in their heads about school systems as organizations. Too often, they assume that teachers are like other employees in business, military, and other governmental organizations. As the fable goes, the captain of the U.S.S Enterprise used the command-and-control view until he learned that he was communicating with a lighthouse. Then he shifted course. Albeit only a story, still an excellent point to keep in mind when considering the different worlds of teachers and policymakers.


I thank Paul Kirschner at the Open University in the Netherlands for pointing out that this story has no factual basis (see here)



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Are You a Visual or an Auditory Learner? It Doesn’t Matter (Daniel Willingham)


“Daniel T. Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.”

This appeared October 4, 2018 in the New York Times.

You must read this article to understand it, but many people feel reading is not how they learn best. They would rather listen to an explanation or view a diagram. Researchers have formalized those intuitions into theories of learning styles. These theories are influential enough that many states (including New York) require future teachers to know them and to know how they might be used in the classroom.

But there’s no good scientific evidence that learning styles actually exist.

Over the last several decades, researchers have proposed dozens of theories, each suggesting a scheme to categorize learners. The best known proposes that some of us like words and others like pictures, but other theories make different distinctions: whether you like to solve problems intuitively or by analyzing them, for example, or whether you prefer to tackle a complex idea with an overview or by diving into details.

If one of these theories were right, it would bring important benefits. In the classroom, a brief test would categorize children as this type of learner or that, and then a teacher could include more of this or that in their schooling. In the workplace, a manager might send one employee a memo but communicate the same information to another in a conversation.

Does such matching work? To find out, researchers must determine individuals’ supposed learning style and then ask them to learn something in a way that matches or conflicts with it. For example, in an experiment testing the visual-auditory theory, researchers determined subjects’ styles by asking about their usual mental strategies: Do you spell an unfamiliar word by sounding it out or visualizing the letters? Do you give directions in words or by drawing a map?

Next, researchers read statements, and participants rated either how easily the statement prompted a mental image (a visual learning experience) or how easy it was to pronounce (an auditory learning experience). The auditory learners should have remembered statements better if they focused on the sound rather than if they created visual images, and visual learners should have shown the opposite pattern. But they didn’t.

The theory is wrong, but, curiously, people act as though it’s right — they try to learn in accordance with what they think is their style. When experimenters asked research participants to learn a new task and gave them access to written instructions and to diagrams, the people who thought of themselves as verbalizers went for words, and the self-described visualizers looked at pictures. But tests showed they didn’t learn the task any faster because they adhered to their purported style.

In another experiment, researchers eavesdropped on brain activity to show that people will mentally change a task to align with what they think is their learning style. Researchers used stimuli that were either pictures (a blue-striped triangle) or verbal descriptions (“green,” “dotted,” “square”). While in a brain scanner, participants had to match successive stimuli, but they never knew whether a picture or words would pop up next.

When self-described visual learners saw words, the visual part of their brain was active; they were transforming the verbal stimulus into a picture. Likewise, verbal areas of the brain were active when verbal learners saw a picture; they were describing it to themselves. But again, these efforts were in vain. People performed the task no better when the stimuli matched what they thought of as their learning style.

The problem is not just that trying to learn in your style doesn’t help — it can cost you. Learning style theories ignore the fact that one mental strategy may be much better suited than another to a particular task. For example, consider the theory that differentiates intuitive and reflective thinking. The former is quick and relies on associations in memory; the latter is slower and analytic.

Whatever your purported style, intuitive thinking is better for problems demanding creativity, and reflective thinking is better for formal problems like calculations of probability. An intuitive thinker who mulishly sticks to his supposed learning style during a statistics test will fail.

Although conforming to learning styles doesn’t help, we can learn a few lessons from this research.

First, instead of trying to transform a task to match your style, transform your thinking to match the task. The best strategy for a task is the best strategy, irrespective of what you believe your learning style is.

Second, don’t let your purported style be a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure or an excuse for resignation. “Sorry I mixed up the dates — I’m just not a linear thinker” is bunk. Likewise, don’t tell your child’s teacher that she is struggling in class because the teacher is not adjusting to her learning style.

Finally, the idea of tuning tasks to an individual’s style offered hope — a simple change might improve performance in school and at work. We’ve seen that that doesn’t work, but this research highlights hope of another kind. We are not constrained by our learning style. Any type of learning is open to any of us.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Arranging Classroom Furniture: A Glimpse into How Teachers Teach

How teachers arrange the furniture in classrooms gives a peek into how teachers teach. Look at these photos taken last year of elementary and secondary classrooms that have different furniture arrangements.








Note the different arrangements of  desks. In the first photo, rows of movable desks face the front of the classroom where the teacher’s desk is located. The second photo has a horseshoe pattern of tablet armchairs across from one another. The third photo is of an elementary classroom that is chock-full of materials and children working on different activities with adults sitting on the rug and chair working with  individual pupils. And the final photo is one of a secondary classroom arranged in rows where each student has a tablet and a smart phone.

Now, take a look at photos of classrooms over the past century.





Five decades later when movable desks and chairs replaced the traditional bolted down ones, a photo shows a typical classroom.


Note the regimented order of these classrooms a century ago and even five decades later. True, those desks were bolted down a century ago–did you notice the small inkwell hole in each desk for students to dip their pens when doing cursive writing?  Were even a teacher then so inclined to arrange small groups of students to work together–and such teachers were around–they could do it but had to overcome the furniture arrangement. But a half-century later, with movable desks, rows were still there in many classrooms but not others.

Are the changes in how classrooms are furnished and arranged dramatically different? Yes and no.

The “yes” part is in the many different ways teachers have arranged desks and chairs in their classrooms over the decades. The “no” part is that while different ways of organizing furniture in elementary classrooms is evident and apparent for anyone who ventures into a kindergarten and first grade classroom, that is much less differentiation in secondary classrooms.

Do such photos of classroom furniture give observers a glimpse of how teachers teach? Yes, they do but only a hint. Here is my reasoning.

#Furniture arrangement is seldom mandated by a school board, superintendent, or principal (science classrooms with permanent lab tables facing the front of the room would be one exception). The teacher decides how to use classroom space. Furniture placement, consciously or not, expresses the teacher’s views of how best to teach, maintain order, and how students learn. Thus, an observer gets a clue to whether teacher-centered and student-centered instruction* (including mixes of both) will prevail.

#When all students face the teacher’s desk or teacher at the blackboard (now whiteboard or “smart board”) where directions, daily homework, textbook readings and quizzes are registered, whole group instruction is encouraged including class discussions (recitation was the word used in the early 20th century). Teacher-talk  gains higher priority and legitimacy than exchanges between and among students.

#Surveillance is easier for a teacher when rows or tables are in rows. Threats to classroom order can be seen quickly and dealt with expeditiously.

Such a configuration of classroom space limits students’ movement within a classroom to that which the teacher permits.

#If desks are arranged into a hollow square, horseshoe, or tables are scattered around the room permitting students to face one another and talk, student-centered instruction where student talk and decision-making are prized becomes a much stronger possibility.

Note, however, that furniture arrangements do not determine how teachers teach. Classroom rows, tables, or horseshoe configurations are no more than clues to what teachers believe and practice in their lessons. Keep in mind  that for the early decades of this century when desks were fixed to the floor, there were still teachers who ingeniously and with much energy overcame that obstacle and introduced student-centered practices into the classroom.Such furniture may have discouraged many teachers but it did not prevent some from altering their teaching practices.

So a glimpse of classroom furniture is useful as a starting point in describing how teachers teach but it is only a small part of how teachers structure lessons and carry out activities. Far more information about what happens in the classroom would be needed since teacher-centered instruction can, and often does, occur even when seating arrangements look student-centered.

Furniture arrangements and the placement of students, then, are not random affairs. They are the result of teacher decisions stemming from beliefs in keeping order and how students learn best in the age-graded school within which teachers work. So when I enter a classroom, the first thing I note and record is how desks and chairs are arranged in any classroom.


*In using the language of  “teacher-centered-” and “student-centered” instruction, I need to be clear that I do not favor one over the other. Both forms of instruction and hybrids can be effective with different students at different times in different contexts. Classroom arrangements offer only a hint of what teachers believe and how they teach. That visible sign is only that, not the full picture of daily lessons.


Filed under how teachers teach

Standardized Teaching? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I made the point that the structure of the age-graded school, introduced in the U.S. in mid-19th century, has become the taken-for-granted way for organizing schools ever since. One-room schoolhouses, the heretofore dominant way of structuring schools, went the way of the dodo bird. A century ago there were nearly 200,000 one-room schoolhouses, now less than 200 exist in the U.S. today.

Originally, the age-graded school building contained classrooms for grades 1 through 8. Over the decades, 1-8 expanded to pre-K through grade 12. To accommodate larger number of schools and students, architects designed one- and two-story elementary school buildings spread out over nearly an acre and secondary school buildings with multiple floors and corridors on each floor off which classrooms and offices were located. This model became standard. And within the building resided the standardized classroom.



Each classroom contained an American flag, a wall clock, paintings or photos of U.S. Presidents, desks and seats–initially bolted to the floor but now movable–arranged in rows facing the teacher’s desk or, in elementary schools, round tables sitting pairs and trios of students. Going into current elementary and secondary school classrooms in Bangor (ME) Butte (MT) or Bakersfield (CA) becomes a deja vu experience for many who do not know of the many changes that have occurred in the design, furniture, and arrangements that teachers have made in their classrooms in every generation.

These standardized classrooms within the age-graded schools became sites where children and youth previously unknown to one another gathered and were housed for six hours a day with one or more adults. Children learned directly and indirectly how to behave in organizations, obey authority, feel pride toward the country, and live under rules. Students learned how to negotiate bureaucracies, work with others different from themselves, become members of a community, and compete to be number one (see here here, and here).


Image result for photos of bolted down desks in 19th century classrooms




Image result for photos of bolted down desks in 19th century classrooms



Over decades, classroom organization and teacher behavior also slowly changed. By 2018, Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades, so students faced one another. Jean-wearing teachers drinking coffee smiled often at their classes. Students went to a pencil sharpener or elsewhere in the room without asking for the teacher’s permission. The dread and repression of the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s sneer slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms where teachers were more informal in language and dress, and had a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.

Image result for teachers working with small groups photos



The constancy of the age-graded school too often masks these incremental changes as classrooms became standardized. Has a similar process occurred in the standardization of teaching?

Yes, it has.

Within age-graded structures (separate classrooms with groups of children that have to be controlled, curricular chunks covered in each grade with texts, periodic tests, a daily schedule) certain kinds of teaching fit better than others. David Tyack and I called those “structures” and the constraints for both teachers and students, the “grammar of schooling.”

And within this “grammar of schooling,” there is a “machinery of instruction,” as John Dewey put it. It is a “grammar of instruction” that fits tidily within age-graded school structures.  Like the standardized age-graded school, the “grammar of instruction” has had continuity and change over decades for both teachers and students. And central to that “grammar of instruction” have been two traditions of teaching that extend back centuries.

Each tradition has had a grab-bag of names: conservative vs. liberal, hard vs. soft pedagogy, subject-centered vs. child-centered, traditional vs. progressive, mimetic vs. transformational, and teacher-centered vs. student-centered.

Each tradition has its own goals (transmit knowledge to next generation vs. helping children grow into full human beings);  practices (teacher-centered vs. student-centered); and desired outcomes (knowledgeable and skilled adults ready to enter the labor market and society versus an outcome of morally and civically engaged adults who use their knowledge and skills to help themselves and their communities). No evidence, then or now, has confirmed advocates’ claims for either tradition. These are pedagogical choices anchored in beliefs. While posing these traditions as opposites, I, Philip Jackson,  and others have pointed out that most teachers, including the very best, combine both ways of teaching in their lessons.

Educational battles have been fought time and again over these traditions in how teachers should teach reading (phonics vs. whole language), math (“new” vs. traditional), science  (learning subject matter vs. doing science) and history (heritage vs. doing history). Yet even at the height of these public wars fought in words and competing policies, teachers taught lessons that combined both traditions.

Since the late-1980s, however, states have embraced standards-based reforms, accountability measures, and mandated testing (e.g., with No Child Left Behind 2002-2015, Common Core standards and tests since 2010, and Every Student Succeeds in 2016).

How, then, in the past quarter-century of standards and accountability-driven schooling have teachers organized instruction, grouped students, and taught lessons?

For those who listen to teachers, the answer is self-evident. Classroom stories and teacher surveys have reported again and again that more lesson time is spent preparing students for high-stakes tests.  And what is taught has narrowed to what appears on tests.

Such stories and research studies describe classroom instruction, particularly in largely poor and minority schools, as more teacher-centered, focused on meeting prescribed state standards and raising test scores. Teachers have felt pressured to drop student-centered activities such as small group work, discussions, learning centers, and writing portfolios because such activities take away precious classroom time from standards-based curriculum and test preparation.

To confirm or challenge these stories and surveys, I  and others have gone into scores of classrooms across the nation. I can sum up the evidence during these years of strong state and federal backing for standards-based reform and accountability into the following statements:

*Teacher-centered instruction has increased in those districts and schools that performed poorly on state tests.

Where state and federal authorities threatened districts and schools with restructuring or closure for low student performance, shame and fear drove many administrators and teachers to prepare students to pass these high-stakes tests. Teachers spent time in directing students to get ready for the skills and knowledge that would be on the state tests. Yes, a shift in classroom practices occurred with more whole group instruction, more seatwork, and more teacher-directed tasks such as lectures and worksheets in secondary school classrooms

All were aimed at improving student performance on state tests. The record of that improvement, however, is, at best, mixed.

*Even with that shift to more teacher-centered instruction, hybrids of the two teaching traditions still prevailed.

As an historian of teaching practices, I have written about how teachers decade after decade have combined both teacher- and student-centered instruction in both elementary and secondary school classrooms.

Even with the current concentration on standards and testing, blends of teacher-centered and student-centered practices still prevail. In short, teachers have had a degree of autonomy—some more, some less–to arrange their classrooms, group for instruction, and choose among different activities for the lessons they taught even in the midst of being labeled failures and threats of closing down schools.

On the whole, then, since the late-1980s when standards, accountability, and testing came to dominate U.S. classrooms, there is a tad more teacher-centered instruction but mixes of the two traditions remained very much present.

Yet, the struggle over how teachers should teach continues. Policymakers, researchers, practitioners, parents, and, yes, students need to know that both constancy and change have occurred in teaching over many decades. Knowing that these competing traditions of teaching–whatever label is given to each one–turn up in classrooms in 2018 call up anew the persistent fact that larger societal issues (e.g., strengthen the economy through better schooling) penetrate tax-supported public schools time and again mobilizing advocates of teacher- and student-centered practices, beliefs that have divided policymakers, practitioners, and parents for decades.

So there is no standardized teaching model forged in the past that exists in U.S. classrooms today. Blends of the two teaching traditions of teacher- and student-centered instruction within the “grammar of schooling” have become over time the closest to “standardized teaching” that exists now.










* For either of these two traditions within the “grammar of instruction” (I will use the phrases teacher-centered instruction or student-centered instruction) I hold no brief. Depending on the age and background of students, the content and skills to be taught, and other factors either form of instruction can be used (as well as mixes of the two). Neither form of teaching in its pure form is demonstrably better than the other in producing desired outcomes.



Filed under how teachers teach

The Standardized Classroom (Part 1)

Once upon a time in a nearby land there were one-room schoolhouses.



These one-room schools worked well enough for farm families but in towns and cities, they did not. Too many children to school and too few schoolhouses. Also it was too hard for the teacher to get four year olds and 13 year-olds in one room to learn the entire curriculum.

What made the situation worse was that many people from other lands came to this country who wanted to send their children to school–after all it was free for the youngest ones. Also many rural families migrated to towns because there were jobs that paid far more than they earned on the farm. So more and bigger schools were needed because the leaders of the land believed that public schools were essential to build a patriotic populace, a strong nation and a job-rich economy.

Then a band of reformers found a new kind of school that had worked well in another country and brought it to this nearby land. This kind of school had eight rooms in one building,  When children came to the school they were sent to different rooms in the eight-room building according to their ages. Six year-olds in one classroom and nine-year olds in another. For the few older students who wanted more schooling, there were high schools.  And that is the beginning of the age-graded school in this nearby land.



No fairy tale this origin story of the age-graded school (see here and here).

The structure of the age-graded school contained separate classrooms with one teacher for those of a certain age who was responsible for covering one portion of the curriculum tailored to that age group. And this change–a structural reform that has lasted until now–from one-room schools to that graded school is the beginning of the standardized classroom.

What do I mean by a standardized classroom in the late-19th century?

In creating the structure of the age-graded school, reform-minded policymakers sought consistency in how schools should be built, operated, and–within classrooms–what teachers should teach and how. To policymakers, creating uniformity in schooling meant both efficiency (saving taxpayer dollars) and effectiveness (achieving goals). Thus, the structure of the age-graded school made it possible to create uniform furniture, curriculum standards,  norms for children behavior, and similar ways of teaching young children and youth in every classroom.

So between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, standardization in schooling spread across the nation (see here and here). Architectural designs of school buildings standardized the size of classrooms, the number of windows in them, the arrangement of student and teacher desks, the circulation of air, and heating. All became uniform as school reformers sought consistency across an entire school (except for those children of color who went to segregated, dilapidated, under-funded schools in these decades)–see here and here.


Regularity in buildings sought homogeneity for both children and adults. Qualifications for who became teachers were raised and before a person could teach they had to meet minimum standards of knowledge and skills to teach. Such standards for the physical dimensions of the school, the curriculum, and for those who instructed children promised equality to those who attended tax-supported public schools

And standardization within the classroom occurred as well. Early to mid-20th century visitors to American classrooms would see a U.S. flag, paintings of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a wall clock and rows of bolted-down desks.





So what has the physical design of standardized classrooms including the arrangement of furniture and artifacts meant for both students and teachers over the past century?

*Rows of bolted down desks facing a blackboard and teacher desk and common textbooks for each academic subject communicate to those who inhabit that room who does most of the talking and who does most of the listening.

*Wall clocks mean keeping to a schedule of classes (e.g. 45 minute to hour long lessons) signaling changes in subject and moving to another room. Schedules are important because school is seen as a preparation for the adult work world where white-collar and blue-collar employees either punch time cards or are punctual. Clocks also mean that learning is measured by how long students attend classes during the school year.

*The American flag and the daily reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance are clear signs that loyalty to country is a primary obligation.

All of these artifacts become part of the “hidden curriculum” in age-graded schools and classrooms for transmitting to the next generation cultural values of obeying authority, adhering to institutional rules, independence, cooperation, the importance of time in the workplace, patriotism and pride in country (see here and here). Academics called this political, economic, and cultural socialization of the young.

Even so, there were  architects who railed at such school designs. Here is William Greeley’s view of such schools in 1922:

Probably the object is to produce a standardized American by the use of new,
standardized desks, in a standardized room with standard air at a standard temperature,
under standardized teachers…. Until a perfect form has been evolved, to standardize is to stifle further development.

Not all policymakers or architects agreed with this critic but Greeley recognized that a building housing age-graded classrooms has plans for those adults and children who inhabit it. This is the case with schoolhouse design.

What about classrooms in the 1950s? 1970s? Now? Have classroom physical dimensions and furniture changed over the past century?
Yes, they have. Another piece of evidence to rebut those who say schools have never changed. But those aspects of the school’s “hidden curriculum” that instill cultural values,  workplace compliance, and civic competence convey have remained stable.

*Movable chairs, desks, and tables introduced in the 1930s in many urban and suburban districts.


*Introduction of specialized rooms and space for school curriculum and after-school activities (e.g., art, music, science and computer labs, athletics, community services)


Amid changes, stability in classroom design, arrangement of furniture, and political and workplace symbols continue (e.g., clock, American flag)


Thus, the origin, spread, and frequent changes in the standardized classroom.

What about teaching? Has that become standardized also? Part 2 answers that question.




Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Facing the Trilemma of Classroom “Data Walls”

Over the past few years I have visited many classrooms. In elementary schools, I have seen pasted on a wall or cork board, “data walls” that look like these:





Usually, students have numbers or aliases assigned to mask their identity. Of course, most students find out who is who.

Whether to use these “data walls” to spur individual students to improve their academic performance or have data displays for the entire class without individuals being noted or not have them at all in a classroom but use individual and class data only among teachers or school leadership teams has been debated in blogs, media, and journals for the past decade (see here, here, here, and here).

With the onset of the mantra “data driven instruction” largely stemming from the accountability features of the federal law, No Child Left Behind (2002), school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers have heard time and again the importance of gathering, analyzing, and using test data school-wide to improve instruction and in classrooms for students to plan individual strategies. Let’s call that “retail” data.

“Wholesale” data are school-by-school and district numbers that are aggregated  and sent to administrators, teachers, and parents. Those data may (or may not) become a basis for policy changes.

The focus on test scores since the early 1980s–remember A Nation at Risk report–has given critics the argument that NCLB further narrowed both curriculum and instruction by holding teachers and schools accountable for results. Concerned about the shame attending students’ low performance on district and state tests, teachers glommed onto “retail” data as a tool for improving student test scores with one outcome being the building of “data walls.”

And here is the trilemma that teachers face. On the one hand, most teachers prize a holistic view of student performance (e.g., intellectual, social, psychological growth) and find that tests students are required to take seldom capture the content, skills, and behaviors that teachers seek for their students. They want their students to grow in more ways than answering accurately multiple choice questions.

Teachers also embrace their professional obligations so they must give those tests.

Teachers also desire professional autonomy but  are held accountable by school, district, and state officials for their students reaching proficiency and higher on the reading and math portions of tests they must give. Consequences of low student scores fall upon teachers and students (e.g., scores are used to evaluate school, teacher, and student performance; rewards and penalties accompany scores on tests). Teacher autonomy to go beyond the test, such as to teach cooperation, respecting others, and making judgments, is seriously diminished given the available time.

Thus, the clash of values that teachers hold dear: holistic development of children and youth, obligation to mind what school and district officials require to be done in classrooms, and professional autonomy to do what is best for student learning.

When faced with such trilemmas, there is no one best solution to such a common but sticky situation. Teachers do what other professionals in medicine, law, criminal justice system, social work, and therapy do: because three highly prized values come into conflict and there is no way to fulfill one without harming the others, teachers figure out good enough compromises that partially fulfill what they seek. They know that accepting trade-offs among these cherished values is inevitable–they construct compromises. Then they manage these jerry-built compromises. In short, they satisfice to satisfy.

For schools and teachers, “data walls” are satisfices. It is a compromise that satisfies the value of professional autonomy–teachers create and tailor the displays of data in their classrooms. “Data walls” meet the professional obligation of doing what the district and principal wants, i.e., focusing on improving students’ grasp of content and skills on the state test. Finally, “data walls” touch at least the intellectual growth of students. Surely, these trade-offs do not fully satisfy all teachers–many do not have “data walls”–but it is a compromise that helps explains the spread of these classroom practices.

There are, of course, other uses of “data walls” that side-step the personal trilemma that classroom teachers face. Such “data walls” could be used at the school level by principals and leadership teams that use test data to pinpoint what skills need to be re-taught at particular grades or seek changes in instructional strategies that teams of teachers within or across grades could manage (see here and here).

Which way to use”data walls” at a time when public officials and educational policymakers prize student and school test scores is hardly a cut-and-dried problem with an easy solution. If teachers and administrators probe at the underlying values embedded in using “data walls” they will see the conflicting values and search for a compromise with trade-offs that satisfice and satisfy tailored to their particular district and school. Not an easy task but essential for improvement at a highly-charged moment in time when far too much is not only expected but laid upon public schools.











Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Have the Common Core Standards Changed What Teachers Think and Do?

Changing what teachers think and do has been the target of many reformers in the past century. Every generation of reformers, regardless of political ideology, have aimed their reform-smeared arrows at the classroom because they wanted students to remember important facts, think rigorously, heighten creativity and classroom collaboration, and, yes, increase academic achievement.

What reformers discovered then and now is that for any of these reforms to alter students’ behavior, attitudes and achievement, teachers had to first change their practices either incrementally or totally. If teachers’ classroom lessons hardly moved the needle of change, might as well forget influencing the “what” and “how’ of student learning.

So, have Common Core standards changed what teachers think and do?

Since 2010, nearly all states have adopted the Common Core standards or a modified version. Surely, those state policymakers and federal officials who championed these standards believed that adopting these reform-driven standards would lead eventually to improved academic performance for all students (see here, here, and here).

In the back-and-forth over the politics of these standards, it was easy for these policymakers to lose the critical, no, essential, connection between adopting a policy and implementing it. Any adopted policy aimed at changing students is put into practice by teachers. And the Common Core standards asked teachers to make major shifts in how they teach. So civic and business leaders and academic experts who pushed such reforms  forgot a simple fact:  teachers are the gatekeepers to the “what” and “how” of learning.  Mandating big changes in how teachers teach ain’t going to happen. Why?


Because virtually ignoring the very people who must put a policy into practice nearly guarantees partial implementation. Without involving teachers in the process, without spending time and money on insuring that teachers are in sync with the policy and have the knowledge and skills necessary to put it–and there’s never only one “it”–into practice, the hullabaloo and promises curdle into policymaker and practitioner complaints and disappointment.

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Yet for the most part, even after initial struggles over getting the right materials and learning the ins-and-outs of the standards, most teachers across the country  have taken on the responsibility of putting these standards into their daily lessons. So how has the implementation gone?

A recent RAND study sought out responses over the past three years from a randomly selected panel of math and English language arts (ELA) teachers about the text and online materials they use and their daily classroom practices.*

Here is what the RAND report concluded:

Given that the Common Core and similar standards are being implemented in most states
across the United States, one might expect to see changes in teachers’ knowledge. However, we saw no clear changes in teachers’ knowledge about their mathematics standards when comparing teachers’ survey responses in 2016 and 2017….

For ELA, we found a decrease in teachers’ perceptions that “assigning complex texts that all students in a class are required to read” was aligned with their state standards, despite the fact that the use of complex texts is emphasized in most state standards.

Teachers’ use of published textbook materials changed very little over the period examined in this study. Thus, despite the fact that most published textbooks we asked about in our survey were not clearly aligned with the Common Core, teachers did not appear to be shifting toward more use of standards-aligned textbooks.

However, teachers’ use of online materials did change over the period of our surveys. Specifically, mathematics and ELA teachers reported using more standards-aligned,
content-specific online sources and less use of Google in 2017 than in 2015.

On one hand, these findings suggest that teachers are seeking online materials to help them address state standards within their content area. On the other hand,—a lesson repository that is not vetted for quality or standards-alignment—saw a large uptick in use, and more than one-half of the ELA and mathematics teachers in our sample reported using the site “regularly” (once a week or more) for their instruction. In addition, increases in use of standards-aligned and content-specific
materials were not even; such increases were not as clearly present among teachers of the most vulnerable students (i.e., ELLs, students with IEPs and low-income students).

These findings suggest that teachers who serve our neediest students may not always be aware of or using online materials that support standards-aligned instruction….
We saw no changes in standards-aligned practices among all mathematics teachers, and we saw few changes when comparing responses among all ELA teachers. However, the changes we found suggest that some teachers may be engaging students in fewer standards-aligned practices now than in previous years. For mathematics, in particular,
teachers serving less-vulnerable students reported using significantly fewer standards-aligned practices in 2017 than in 2016, whereas we did not see these
significant decreases among those serving more vulnerable students.

That said, teachers’ self-reports about students’ engagement in various practices should be interpreted with caution, given what we know about the accuracy of teacher self-reports….

The answer, then, to the question of whether Common Core standards have changed what teachers think and do is mixed. From these surveys math and ELA teachers do report a few changes but stability in classroom practices persist. While teacher surveys are surely helpful in suggesting what occurs when policies get implemented, they do not substitute for researchers directly observing classroom lessons, interviewing teachers before and after lessons, and analyzing student responses to teaching practices.


*RAND writers are clear in stating that the findings from their surveys are “reported” by teachers. No classroom observations were done. Teachers answered survey questions and indicated what they knew and did in putting the Common Core standards into practice. Are there gaps between what teachers report and what they actually do in their lessons? Yes–see here  and here. But keep in mind, that these gaps in reporting perceptions compared to on-site observations of practice are common. They also apply to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals reporting what they think and do


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

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