Category Archives: how teachers teach

Being Skeptical of Technology

Over the years, readers and students have asked me about the work I have done on school reform and especially reform-laden technologies. I answer some of them in this post. But first some background.

I began doing research and writing on teacher and student uses of technology in the early 1980s when the first personal computers appeared in classrooms. That writing turned into Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920. I then began working on a larger study of teacher and student uses of new technologies in preschool and kindergarten, high schools, and universities. That became Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms (2001). In 2009, one chapter of Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability dealt with teacher and student uses of technologies across four school districts. The last book I wrote exploring classroom use of technology examined over 40 teachers in Silicon valley who used technology in daily lessons. In The Flight of the Butterfly and the Path of the Bullet (2018), I described those teachers who, in my opinion, had mastered the technology to the point where it was in the background, not foreground, of a lesson.

Those writings on teaching and technology put me squarely in the bin labeled Skeptic. And comments early on were testy. Promoters of new technologies, be they vendors, practitioners or policymakers, would curtly dismiss concerns I and others raised by calling skeptics “Luddites.”

No more. Public scorn for anyone who would probe prevailing beliefs in the magical efficacy of computers in schools has become unfashionable.  I have found educators and non-educators who deeply believed in classroom computers as engines of learning, now willing to listen to critics when concerns are raised about the many goals of schooling in a democracy, implementing new technologies, and insufficient research to support wholesale purchase of new devices and software. I find these changes encouraging but hardly a game-changer.

Why? Because in my experience, there are fewer skeptics than true believers in new technologies. Perhaps because I am in the minority, the questions that I have been asked are more of a personal character seeking elaboration of why I have explored technology and school reform and what technologies I use.

1. Why did you begin writing about technology in classroom lessons? In the late-1970s, I began doing research and writing about the history of classroom instruction. In 1984, I published How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1980. In that book, I tracked the repeated (and failed) efforts of progressive reformers over a century to change classroom practice in urban, suburban, and rural classrooms from teacher-centered to student-centered lessons. In doing the archival research, seeing photos of teachers teaching, and reading accounts of how teachers taught different lessons, I saw the classroom use of different technologies from blackboards, stereopticons, and textbooks to overhead projectors, films, radio, and instructional television. The idea that reforming teaching was linked to the introduction of new technologies intrigued me. Was introduction of new technologies another way that reformers had in moving teaching away from traditional lessons? I discovered that the answer was yes.

2. Do you personally use any electronic technologies?

At home I have desktop and laptop computers and an iPhone. The desktop I use at home; the laptop and phone when I have do research and travel. I use all of them for personal, business, and professional work such as this blog. Please do not ask me how many times I check my email.

3. When you taught high school history and social studies and graduate classes at Stanford, did you use technologies in your instruction?

Yes, I did. I used regularly (daily and weekly) both old and new technologies between the 1950s and 1980s in high school teaching. Films (16mm), film strips, overhead projectors, and videocassettes. As a professor I used my laptop in seminars often to make points on screens, do quick polls of students, show video clips, etc. I did not, however, do PowerPoint presentations.

4. If you are (and have been) a regular user of technologies, why are you skeptical of their use in classrooms?

Like past electronic technologies, vendors and enthusiasts have hyped them to solve problems from low academic performance to alienation among students to traditional teaching practices. Hype is over-promising; over-promising inexorably leads to disappointment; disappointment builds cynicism. I am allergic to hype.

Second, new technologies are often experimental–alpha and beta versions–and used to find out whether they are workable, even useful on students who are compelled to be in school.. Combine hype and experimentation and that is a potentially toxic combination. Thus, hard questions must be asked of those policymakers who buy and deploy electronic devices for classroom instruction.

Third, the enormous amount of money spent on new technologies without much evidence of their effectiveness on teaching and learning means that other options such as investing in more teachers and their professional development are lost. That is not only inefficient but it is also evidence of data-free policymaking.

Given these three reasons, I remain skeptical of new technologies applied to teaching and learning in public schools.

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Whatever Happened to the National Teacher Corps?

What was the NTC and when did it begin?

In the mid-1960s, I taught in and later directed a federally-funded teacher training program located in Grimke elementary school, Banneker and Garnet-Patterson Junior High Schools, and Cardozo High School in Washington, D. C. The Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, as it was then called, prepared returned Peace Corps Volunteers to teach in urban schools. The paid “interns,” as they were called, taught for half-days under the supervision of master teachers, took university seminars on-site after-school, and in evenings and late-afternoons developed curriculum materials and worked in the community. At the end of the year the “interns”  were certified to teach in the District of Columbia and were on their way to earning a master’s degree in their field through two local universities (see here and here). Three-quarters of the intern teachers we trained became full-time teachers in the District of Columbia schools and other districts.

Within a few years, this district-based model of training new teachers became the poster-child for a federal initiative to put teachers into high-poverty urban and rural schools. Amid President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” education figured large–Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) remains a mainstay of funding schools enrolling poor children in 2021. The belief that minority and low-income students needed committed, smart, and well-trained teachers led Senator Gaylord Nelson from Idaho (his administrative aide’s wife taught at Cardozo High School) and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy to seize the Cardozo Project’s way of training teachers and expand it into a national program within the Higher Education Act of 1966 (see j-1748-5959-2009-00212-x-3.pdf).

The National Teacher Corps legislation adopted the model used for training teachers on-site but rather than fund districts, federal officials would funnel monies to universities that collaborated with nearby school districts and took responsibility for awarding degrees (see here and here).

What problems did the NTC seek to solve?

How to get more and better teachers into low-income, largely minority, low-performing schools?

In the mid-1960s, the high turnover of experienced teachers and absence of well-trained teachers in largely minority and poor schools had become obvious. The belief driving policymakers and donors was that young, committed, and better trained teachers working in both schools and the community could raise students academic achievement levels, reduce high dropout rates, and increase the number of high school graduates going to college . Thus, the NTC would help solve the problem of insufficient numbers of “good” teachers by recruiting, training, and supporting teachers committed to better teaching and learning in largely low-performing urban schools (see j-1748-5959-2009-00212-x-3.pdf).

Another problem was that universities time and again were turning out unequipped novices to deal with urban teaching and getting minority children and youth. Alternative ways of attracting and educating a more racial and ethnically diverse crowd of newcomers to the profession by having school-based training linked to university seminars (also held on site) attracted both donors and federal funds in these years. Solving the problem of inadequate university-based teacher education was part of the agenda of NTC (see 0042085911400340.pdf)

What did NTC do in training teachers?

Between 1968-1970, the federal government awarded National Teacher Corps grants to many universities. One went to the University of Southern California collaborating with seven school districts in the metropolitan Los Angeles area with large enrollments of Black and Mexican-American students. According to the federal General Accounting Office report on the project, of the 88 intern teachers that completed the program, 72 (82 percent) were teaching or had contracts to teach in predominately minority schools.

The GAO report (1971), described the USC program in the following manner.

Corps members were organized in teams, each consisting of a team leader and four to seven interns. In most cases the entire team was assigned to a particular school. In some instances the team members were assigned to more than one school,

Team leaders were responsible for the supervision of interns constituting the team. Their duties included acting as liaisons between the interns and school and university officials; coordinating and planning with the interns their individual and team activities; demonstrating teaching techniques to interns; and evaluating the performance of interns.

Program coordinators in two of the participating school districts informed us that team leaders had worked diligently in performing these functions and generally had been effectively utilized. The program coordinator in another school district stated that the performance of three team leaders was inconsistent in that they had been effective in some areas of responsibility but not in others. He stated that the fourth team leader assigned to his district had utilized his time effectively in meeting all the responsibilities of a team leader and had initiated a program designed to identify Mexican-American students who appeared to have college potential and to encourage them to develop their academic capabilities.

Interns generally worked at the schools to which they had been assigned for 3 days a week during their first year of internship and for 4 days a week during their second year. The interns spent 2 days a week attending classes at USC during the first year and 1 day a week during the second year, Interns also devoted varying portions of their time after school and in the evenings to participating in education-related community activities.

They generally started by observing classroom instruction during the earlier phases of their assignments to schools and later served as assistants to regular teacher. During their 2 years of internship, they sometimes were assigned to work in cooperation with more than one regular teacher and taught one or more subjects to children in various grade levels.

While assigned to regular teachers, the interns worked with individual, or small groups of, children…. In many cases such instruction was given to children who had language difficulties or disciplinary problems or who were slow learners. In schools in five districts, the interns either introduced or expanded the teaching of English as a second language or the teaching of regular classwork in Spanish to children who spoke little English or who came from homes where English was not the predominant language.

No doubt that there much variation in these NYC programs across the nation creating difficulties in evaluating the entire NTC (see evaluations of NTC here and here).

What happened to the NTC?

With the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, one of his first bills sent to Congress consolidated federal grants for particular programs (including the National Teacher Corps) into bloc grants sent to states, letting each state determine which programs would be funded. With the move to bloc grants, NTC largely disappeared except for occasional states that continued the program.

Since then a few efforts to create a national cadre of well-trained teachers given close and sustained support in their internships and then being licensed and hired by urban districts have surfaced. But none have gained federal support for the past four decades.

For some researchers and policymakers, the appearance of Teach for America in the early 1990s, an organization that identifies liberal arts college and university graduates who want to teach, briefly trains them, and finds slots for them in big city school systems has been compared to the National Teacher Corps (see here and here).

While TFA does receive federal funds through Americorps, its training regime is only a eight week-summer program followed by minimal supervision of their first and second years (TFA-ers make a two-year commitment). Other criticisms of TFA insofar as producing “skilled” teachers and improving instruction as measured by student test scores are quite mixed, often coming from former TFAers (see here and here)

In my judgment, TFA is a weak facsimile of NTC. While occasional voices for creating another NTC have been heard, nothing substantial has materialized for 40 years.

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How to Teach American History in a Divided Country (Kristina Rizga)

Kristina Rizga is a writer based in San Francisco, co-creator of The Atlantic’s On Teaching project, and author of Mission High. This article appeared November 8, 2020.

For the past 26 years, Chuck Yarborough, the U.S. and African American history teacher at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science in Columbus, has been surveying his students on how American history is taught. Students come from all over the state to spend their last two years of high school at this diverse public boarding school, and he wants to know what they’ve learned by the time they get there. The feedback from more than 1,400 students over the years has been consistent. In each class of about 18 students, an average of five come in with some basic knowledge of the Civil War, but very few have studied the role that slavery played in it—or the connections between the war, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, and how this legacy continues to uphold racial segregation and inequities in Mississippi.

Yarborough has spent his career trying to fill these omissions in how U.S. history is taught—and thinking about his own role as a white educator in the Deep South, teaching about the roots of racial injustice. During my visit in the fall of 2018, I asked Yarborough to describe his approach. Our conversations have been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Kristina Rizga: How are the Civil War and Reconstruction taught at Mississippi schools?

Chuck Yarborough: They are not taught for the most part, unfortunately. In theory, students are supposed to have been taught the Civil War and Reconstruction before arriving here, but the vast majority of them have not been taught Reconstruction. A few more learned something about the Civil War, but not a lot. They have been taught pretty well the horrors of slavery, but they have not been taught the complexities of those systems: how it developed and its continued effects to this day. So when they arrive in my classroom, I start with the end of the Civil War—1865—and then I teach Reconstruction for the first several weeks of the class.

I teach with the simple assessment of my professors in college, which I think is spot on: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. And we begin this discussion by reading the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession, which makes it clear that the Civil War happened because white southerners desired to defend slavery as an institution for their own benefit.

I suspect that my generation—people in their 40s or 50s—were taught something different. They were taught that there were all these other constitutional issues and it was really about states’ rights. That’s a kinder and gentler reason for people to have fought each other. And if you believe that, then you believe that southern Confederates were just like the Founding Fathers of the United States who were fighting a political struggle.

You can’t understand American history without understanding the steps forward, racially and socioeconomically, that Reconstruction presented initially, and then the steps backward that were taken with the violent reestablishment of white supremacy. You can’t understand the present without seeing the connections between this history and the socioeconomic and racial imbalances it created. But Reconstruction is not on the state test. Therefore, the schools that are teaching the state tests are not teaching Reconstruction at all, and in today’s society, that’s particularly problematic.

Rizga: What kind of learning experiences have helped you bring out the best work in your students?

Yarborough: I think classroom work has to empower students academically and socially. School is so much more than academic content. Education is also about a sense of community, collaboration, empathy, and confidence. At some point, I’m a life coach—and this means that I have to show students that they matter and that their work matters. All of this helps them develop a sense of place and belonging. When that happens, they produce their best work.

With the research in the local archives and performance projects that we do in the community, we try to make history come alive. The reason this approach works for so many students, I believe, is that they see how the work they do matters to a bigger community: how it resonates, challenges the community to reach a new level of understanding, and sets a model for leading in a community.

Classroom work has to show students how to lead and succeed locally. Before the rise of social media, success meant stepping out of school to the next, broader community. Today, students are comparing themselves to global norms, like celebrities or people with loud voices on social media. That’s generated more stress for students. And it also creates anxiety in parents, who take it out on teachers sometimes. I try to remind my students that the world you can really change is the world that’s within your reach. I help students find excellence from within and realize that success is really about empowering yourself to shape your life, your family’s life, and your community’s life.

Rizga: In what ways has your teaching changed since your first five years in the classroom?

Yarborough: The first five years were about teaching content and going fast and making sure students learned a lot. I emphasized quantity over quality. Later in my career, I’ve really come to understand that while learning content is important, it is really only empowering for the students who are good at making the connections between the content and the process on their own. That process includes all of the procedures of being a critical thinker: doing the research, collecting data, finding and articulating connections. For many students, even some of the highest achievers, you have to teach them these skills. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve seen students who are more and more tied to the idea that they just need to learn content. That has led me to step up my game with the teaching of process.

Rizga: How do you do that?

Yarborough: First, students have to engage with primary documents. My students go to the archives, and while that’s not logistically possible for most teachers today, there are so many digital resources out there. You can engage documents through the Library of Congress or Ancestry classroom resources, like newspapers or census materials. And by the way, the students love it. They do not want to read a textbook—they want to create something themselves.

The second principle is that students must be able to articulate themselves in writing, because the discipline of writing is essentially the discipline of thinking. That has to be in your classes every day.

Daily discussion has to be a practice in a decent classroom. If students are not engaged in a discourse, then they’re really not learning. Students can’t just memorize information and then spit it back. If that’s most of what you do, then you’re not doing what you need to create critical thinkers. But you also can’t create the critical thinkers without having them practice the discipline of learning, and that includes memorization. I do exercises where I require memorization, because that knowledge base is how we discern truth in the moment. It is our fact-checking filter. In the 21st century, young people in particular are losing this discipline, because they have so much information available at their fingertips—but you need to have a base of knowledge and facts to understand whatever you are engaging with.

Rizga: In your classes, you often talk about the importance of collaboration and sharing what you’ve learned. Why is this important?

Yarborough: Living in and shaping a community is really about being in relationships with other people in constructive, collaborative ways. So in my classroom, I try to develop projects that emphasize those skills. We all have our talents to bring to the table. We all have stories to tell, and we can learn from each other’s stories. Historically, if you look at successful communities—and that includes successful schools—that’s the defining characteristic. People buy into a common good that they can collaborate to reach.

These two key skills—sharing and collaboration—have been disappearing in many classrooms in the past 10 years, with the growing emphasis on passing standardized tests. If students are not passing those tests, there is a cost for the school and for the teachers. And the end result of that has been a regimentation: Worksheets and everything else are targeted at passing those tests. I think we all have to remember that this is not helpful in preparing students for a constructive life in a community.

Rizga: What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve seen in education in the past two decades?

Yarborough: The devaluation of teachers and public education generally. Political leaders seeking to cut funding are incentivized to convince you that public education is not valuable.

The other challenge is the lack of mentorship by veteran teachers. When I started at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, most teachers had at least 15 years of experience. Today, very few do. I became good at what I do under the tutelage of older teachers. The lack of experienced teachers will have huge consequences for the current generation of teachers.

I also see one big, positive change: the empowerment of students of color; young women, particularly in sciences; LGBTQ students; and religious minorities. These students have voices, and those voices are being heard. This is really different today from when I was starting out.

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The Riot at the Capitol: Classroom Lessons?*

In an earlier post, I pointed out the obvious fact that tax-supported public schools were political institutions. Not in the partisan sense of Republican and Democrat but in serving the community in socializing community values in the next generation including respect for and pride in the nation. When taxpayers want their schools to instill core values in students (e.g., respect for individual, being part of a community, equal treatment) those are political decisions.

In light of January 6, 2020 attack on the Capitol instigated by President Donald Trump and the subsequent riot and destruction that occurred including the loss of five lives, the issue of teaching about this signal event in U.S. history in elementary and secondary classrooms again comes to the attention of teachers and non-teachers.

So should teachers and students deal with the attack upon the Capitol in classroom lessons? Yes, it is controversial and yes, it is highly political in that a Republican President egged on a rally of supporters to march down Pennsylvania Ave. to the Capitol where Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and attained equal seats in the Senate with Republicans in the November 3, 2020 election. The resulting riot captured not only Americans’ attention but also of the entire world.

But should the attention of students be captured as well by this shocking event?

Two scholars have written about the teaching of controversial issues in classrooms and here Steve Drummond interviewed Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy on their new book, Politics in the Classroom (2015). The following interview occurred before the attack upon the Capitol.

The Confederate flag. The Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Policing minority communities. Nuclear weapons and Iran. Summer often brings a lull in the news, but not this year. And, come September, students are going to want to talk about these headlines.

But how should teachers navigate our nation’s thorny politics?

Do politics belong in the classroom at all, or should schools be safe havens from never-ending partisan battles? Can teachers use controversial issues as learning opportunities, and, if so, to teach what? And then, the really sticky question: Should teachers share with students their own political viewpoints and opinions?

In their book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy offer guidelines to these and other questions, using a study they conducted from 2005 to 2009. It involved 21 teachers in 35 schools and their 1,001 students. Hess is the dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and McAvoy is the program director at UW-Madison’s Center for Ethics and Education.

Schools, they conclude, are and ought to be political places — but not partisan ones. I talked with them recently about how, in today’s highly polarized society, teachers can walk that very fine line.

Sometimes it seems there’s a belief that schools should be political … sort of. With students taking on issues – like smoking – that are political but not too political. Did you find that in your study?

Hess: You’re absolutely right, there are a number of schools that encourage students to get involved in political campaigns, but they tend to be political campaigns that really aren’t very controversial. They’ll encourage kids to form a campaign about something that everyone agrees should be done. For example, that we should clean up the litter that’s around our school, or that it’s important for people to eat healthy food…

We have evidence that kids learn a lot from doing that. It’s not necessarily a terrible thing. My view is that if you’re going to have students involved in authentic politics, then it’s really important to make sure you have issues for which there are multiple and competing views, and you don’t give students the impression that there’s a political view that they should be working toward.

McAvoy: How political do we want students to be? That’s really a question that a lot of communities struggle with and a lot of teachers struggle with. And the point of the book is to say that, in general, to be able to talk about politics is a skill that people need to learn. And it would be great if it were learned in school because these are great moments in which you bring a group of young people together who are forming their political views. They can really learn to engage across their differences and to start to see that political conflict is a normal part of democratic life.

A key point in your book is that, while teachers are teaching about the issues – immigration or same-sex marriage — they’re also teaching students how to have these discussions. They’re teaching the process of democracy.

McAvoy: Right. The “political classroom” is a classroom in which young people are learning to deliberate about political questions. It really is the process of deliberation that is the major skill being taught. And then, through deliberation, students are learning about the issues. They’re learning how to form arguments, how to weigh evidence. So there’s social studies content that is being learned in a process that is, at its heart, democratic.

Are there issues that are, or should be, completely off the table?

Hess: One of the things we talk about in the book is the distinction between issues that we called “settled issues” and issues that are “open”…

It’s a little complicated, but, in a nutshell, we suggest that there are some issues that are settled and should be taught as settled and to not do that is being dishonest with young people. For example, the question about whether climate change is occurring — that’s a settled issue. The question is, What to do about climate change? That’s an open issue.

We wouldn’t suggest that teachers engage kids in talking about whether climate change is occurring, but we strongly encourage teachers to engage in discussion about what should be done about climate change.

You mention in your book policies that might allow students to opt out [of a controversial topic or discussion]. Which raises questions about whether that’s a good thing, to just allow students to sit out.

McAvoy: The philosopher in me thinks there’s not a really good way to defend the view that students should always be able to opt out. We don’t allow students to opt out of writing essays because they don’t like writing essays.

At the same time, democracies allow us, when we’re in the public sphere, to walk out of a discussion if we don’t like what’s happening or if we’re being offended. Classrooms are unusual in that we’re compelling students to be there. Teachers do need to weigh [whether] there might be times when a particular student has a good reason for wanting to pass on a comment…

Opting out because I feel uncomfortable sharing my views or talking out loud in class is a skill that can be taught and overcome. Opting out because this discussion is really hard for me given my religious background — that might be a reason that you let a student pass on a discussion.

You note the challenges and dangers of teaching both in mixed classrooms – with students of varied racial and economic backgrounds — and homogenous classrooms. How should teachers adapt to these different scenarios?

Hess: In many ways the more difference you have within a classroom the better. We want to make sure that we have as many multiple competing views as we possibly can … So difference is a good thing, something that can be used and primed as opposed to something to be feared and quelled.

One of the challenges of lots of difference is, difference often causes high emotions and often can cause breaches of civility. So teachers who are in classrooms that have lots of naturally occurring difference often have to go to great lengths to make sure that

students understand what it looks like to participate in a civil manner…

In classes where there’s a lot of sameness, the first thing we learned is that, though it might appear that there’s a lot of sameness, there’s always some difference. So when teachers say, “Well all these kids think alike,” we’re almost sure — all the time — that the teachers are wrong, that in fact not all the kids do think alike.

That being said, there are classes that are more similar than they are different, and teachers have to use a lot of strategies to bring differences into the discussion. Those strategies might include bringing in guest speakers or making sure the materials the kids are using to prepare for discussion are full of multiple and competing ideas.

Students really seem to like this stuff – to engage in issues that are current and relevant to their own lives.

Hess: Absolutely. There are two things going on here: In many schools, students still spend most of the day listening to teachers talk. One reason we think kids like [these issues] is they finally get a chance to talk themselves. More than that, we did find that the content of these political issues was really interesting to kids. Especially when they were hearing multiple and competing views. Students would report that in discussions where there was a lot of shared opinion, those were not as interesting as in discussions where there were differing views … They were really responding to the fact that it’s quite interesting to hear what your peers think about things. And not just that they have different points of view but what they’re supporting those points of view with.

What advice do you have or does your study have for teachers considering how to talk about [breaking events such as] Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri?

Hess: One of the problems with discussing events that just happened is that often we don’t know enough about what happened. There’s a distinction between current events … and discussions about controversial political issues where kids are preparing in advance and being deliberative. In the best-case scenario, teachers are able to take advantage of current events and use them as opportunities to get kids to talk about controversial political issues. There’s a big difference in talking about, “What do you think happened?” and talking about a policy issue like “Should police officers be required to wear video cameras?”

McAvoy: Young people need to see these as moments within their historical context – need to understand some of the history. It’s difficult to have those materials at the ready when things sort of erupt as they have in the last year or so with Baltimore and Ferguson. Good teachers start building curriculum about the history of redlining in cities or how cities become segregated. [To] put these moments within the context is much better than having young people just reacting to “What do you think about what you’re seeing on television today?” Young people really need to study these issues in depth.

OK, the big elephant in the room: the question of whether teachers should talk about their own personal beliefs to their students. Should they?

Hess: What we found is that there were teachers who were doing an excellent job who shared their own views with students, and there were teachers doing an excellent job who didn’t share their views. So we don’t believe that there is one right answer to this. And we think empirically we can show that there’s not.

That being said, we think that there are times when it’s probably better for teachers to share than other times when it’s better for them not to share. That depends in large part on the context — on who’s in their class and what their goals are.

One thing we were really intrigued by was that a lot of the teachers we interviewed talked about changing their minds on that question over time. Some of them would say, “Well, it used to be that I would never share, but now I do only in these circumstances.” Other teachers would say, “I used to be really prone to share a lot, and now I don’t and here’s why.” We think it’s all a matter of professional judgment. Teachers need to think about this very carefully…

I sometimes worry that, even though there can be really good ethical reasons for teachers to share, in a very polarized time that sharing can be misinterpreted. And if it’s misinterpreted by the public or by parents as teachers trying to get kids to adopt their beliefs, then I think we could have a big problem.

That being said, we have no evidence from the study of teachers who were actively and purposely trying to indoctrinate kids to a particular point of view…

We think that this feeling that the public seems to have that teachers by definition are trying to push their political views on students is just false.

You were critical of the notion – that teachers would do that.

Hess: What we learned from students when we interviewed and surveyed them is that they make a really clear distinction between a teacher sharing his or her own view and a teacher trying to push his or her own view. Students not surprisingly report that they don’t like being pushed.

You seem to draw a pretty firm line that teachers should not be advocating for their own beliefs.

McAvoy: What we argue in the book is that what’s most important is that teachers create a culture of fairness in the classroom. That means being fair and reasonable to all the competing views that are in the classroom and that are being represented in the public. The practice that we found most troubling, from the study, is what we referred to in the book as political seepage: teachers who make sarcastic comments, who use partisan humor. It’s these offhanded comments that are sort of biting and mean-spirited about the political climate that I think is problematic. Because it creates a climate not of fairness, but it creates a kind of insider/outsider feeling. If you get the humor that I just said or, “Do you agree with me that that politician’s a big idiot?” That invites the most divisive parts of the partisan climate into the classroom.

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*For those readers who are teachers and want to tap resources for lessons about the attack upon the Capitol, an article in Education Week provides resources. See: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/how-to-teach-the-u-s-capitol-attack-dozens-of-resources-to-get-you-started/2021/01

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Top-Down Reform in Chinese Schools and Classroom Practices

While I do read a lot of articles and books on the history of Chinese education and once spent a month lecturing at Beijing universities in 1987, I am no expert on how children and youth are schooled in the People’s Republic of China. Nor is journalist Lenora Chu, who wrote about Chinese schooling from the perspective of a mother of a kindergartner, Rainey–see previous post— in grasping the complexities of the planet’s largest state system of schooling, an expert. But she surely collected more data than I ever had.

Chu’s family experienced seven years of Chinese primary school and she wrote engagingly of the intersection of state-driven curriculum, culture and classroom teaching. She reached for that elusive policy-to-practice continuum that marks every national system of schooling on the globe: from the PRC’s Ministry of Education policy mandates to Teachers Chen and Wang hovering over the 28 children in Rainey’s kindergarten. No easy task.

I had a glimpse of that policy-to-practice journey in my brief experience as a lecturer over three decades ago. I was there during Premier Deng Xiaoping years as leader of the nation (1978-1997) when he pressed forward in modernizing the country including education reform after Mao’s chaotic Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s (see here).

One of my graduate students, Min Weifang*, arranged an official government invitation to lecture for a month at Beijing Normal University. State-driven reform was in the air when I arrived in 1987. My hosts wanted me to talk about past and present U.S. school reform in both K-12 and higher education. I gave a half-dozen lectures, an equal number of seminars, and met with many professors and graduate students interested in U.S. schools. Beyond lecturing and seminar discussions, I traveled around the city on a bike that Min’s brother had lent to me. Luckily, I found some contacts in schools and had the chance to view primary and secondary classrooms accompanied by graduate students at Beijing Normal University who translated for me as we observed teachers teach.

In my journal I recorded descriptions of the Beijing secondary schools in which I watched English language, math, and Chinese history lessons. In every one of the lessons there were between 30-50 students sitting at desks arrayed in rows facing teachers and blackboards. They were taking notes and answering teacher questions often chorally and with gusto. While some variation in lessons occurred–more blackboard work in math than in history, for example– I guessed that both teachers and students, expecting a “foreign” visitor, were on their best behavior and wanted to show the guest stellar lessons. What I had seen meshed with my prior reading of Chinese teaching practices in the 1980s during the years Deng Xiaoping had engineered top-down reforms in both higher education and primary and secondary schools.

What struck me in reading Little Soldiers and Chu’s reports of classrooms she visited in urban and rural schools in the 2010s was the similarity in teaching practices, students’ obedience to teacher direction, and focus on individual conformity to group norms that I had seen three decades earlier. Keep in mind that the total number of classes observed were very small, mostly located in cities,and often housed in what the government called “model” schools.

The key word in the previous paragraph is “similarity.” I do not mean that there was no change in teaching practices. More informed observers of PRC classrooms could easily point out changes since the late-1980s in the state allotting resources, the growth of teacher expertise, introduction of new technologies, and expanded content in lessons. For example, the central government spent more per pupil in these years than in earlier decades, and there were major efforts to improve university teacher training (see here and here).

But those changes (e.g.,new textbooks, teaching aids, instructional materials, and technologies) are at the margins not at the core of teaching practice (e.g., whole group instruction, student adherence to group norms, much lecturing, lesson focus on better test performance).

While incremental changes had occurred over time, Chu’s experiences in a top-rated Shanghai kindergarten and later a primary school coupled to observations she made elsewhere in the country left me wondering about the impact of Ministry of Education reform-minded mandates in the 1990s to staunch criticism of traditional teaching practices within a system driven by high-stakes national tests. These directives sought to move teaching practices toward a child-centered schooling that prized creative work, critical thinking, student participation in lessons, and social-emotional skills.

Reforming Teaching Practices

The biggest problem for reform is that because so many teachers are so accustomed to their conventional thinking and models they have such strong gravitational pull toward habitual ways of behavior and thinking, therefore they have to negate themselves.…. Comment by a Shanghai municipal policymaker, 2000

Consider the student-centered directives from the Ministry of Education in 2011 for teaching the English Curriculum:

1) Orient teaching towards all students and pay attention to quality education

(2) Design the lesson’s goals integrally, with flexibility and openness

(3) Regard student learning as the main priority and respect individual differences

(4) Design activities that incorporate experiential and participatory learning

(5) Pay attention to the evaluation of the process, in order to boost students’ development

(6) Make full use of curricular resources and expand the channels for students to study and use the language.

To achieve such deep changes, the nation’s pool of teachers very uneven in acquiring education and credentials would have to be upgraded and trained in different approaches. Such efforts began under Deng Xiaoping and were carried forward in fits and starts under his successors. The location of such reforms in special teacher training institutions, universities, in provincial institutes or new organizations has led to fierce and continuing debates among state-led reformers and implementers of those desired changes. Those debates continue today.

Moreover, changing the curriculum, as American observers have noted time and again, is what top-down policymakers can do. But they cannot put directives into practice. Moving from policy directives altering state mandated curriculum to school principals urging teachers to put changes into practice and then for teachers to shift their habitual practices is a big leap that often falls flat in teachers’ lessons. For example to get students to participate more in classroom discussions (see 4 above), teachers received training to put these directives into practice. A follow-up survey of student responses in this province to these new practices led one student to write:

“…by the time we got to the fifth paragraph the teacher asked us about the scenery and objects that were described in the text. Because we said the wrong thing the teacher got very angry with us and we felt terrified. Ever since then when the teacher asks us questions none of us dare to answer. Even if we have thought of the right answer we will not dare to speak because we are afraid of saying something wrong and that we will once again be criticized…” Sixth grade student in Gansu, 2004

Admittedly, the data I and Chu present is fragmentary, unsystematic, and sharply limited. Few generalizations can be drawn with such tiny data sets. Yet–readers knew a “yet” was coming–such discrepancies between the official curriculum, what teachers teach, what students learn, and what is on tests is neither peculiar to Chinese or U.S. teachers. It is a global phenomenon. The policy-to-practice continuum, at the very least, is, like most other nation’s systems of schooling, a work-in-progress.

I am grateful to Lenora Chu’s book for raising this issue of the shortcomings of top-down reform in schools and the critical role that teachers play as policy gatekeepers in this constant, world-wide effort to alter how teachers teach.

____________

*Min Weifang earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and returned to China where he became a professor of higher education at Peking University (Beida), served as executive vice-president of the institution, and Communist Party Secretary. Known as a higher education reformer, He often served on state commissions seeking to reform Chinese schools. (see here and here)

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The “Little Soldiers” of Chinese Education

The second day of school, Rainey came home with a story. Four times he found egg in his mouth. He hadn’t placed it there himself; instead, his most hated food made its way past his teeth by the hand of the fearsome Teacher Chen.

She put it there,’ Rainey told me, mouth wide, finger pointing inside. Then what happened,? I asked.

“I cried and spit it out.”

Then what. She did it again,” Rainey said….”I cried and spit it out again.”

Rainey is three years old and enrolled in one of the best Shanghai kindergartens in the city. Lenora Chu, Mom, journalist and author of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve,(2017) from which this incident is taken, decides to meet with Teacher Chen to discuss force-feeding egg to her son. Chu describes the conference with Teacher Chen:

“We don’t use such methods of force in America,” I blurted in Mandarin, my son clutching my hand. (I was born and raised in America but grew up speaking Chinese at home.)

“Oh? How do you do it?” Teacher Chen challenged.

“We explain that egg eating is good for them, that the nutrients help build strong bones and teeth and helps with eyesight,” I said, trying to sound authoritative. “We motivate them to choose…we trust them with the decision.”

“Does it work?” Teacher Chen said….

“Well, not always,” I admitted.

Chen nodded. “Rainey needs to eat eggs. We think eggs are good nutrition, and all young children must eat them….”

Later, Teacher Chen pulled me aside for a lecture. “In front of the children, you should say, ‘Teacher is right, and Mom will do things the same way,’ OK?’ ” (pp.22-24, 27.)

Through the seven years that Rainey was in public Chinese schools, Chu uses his experiences in kindergarten and public primary school grades as a template for describing and analyzing Chinese education in Shanghai and the rest of the nation over the past decade. And it is a fascinating, eye-opening journey that she captures in an easily read, clear, description of children, schooling, and a top-down, state-directed system deeply anchored in the Confucian tradition of teaching and learning while exerting strong political control of what and how teachers teach.

Every country’s system of schooling mirrors the basic values in the culture that both the state and parents want to see in the behavior of, and school outcomes for their sons and daughters. Where in the U.S., a core value is the individual’s growth and development and belonging to a community comes second, in China, the collective comes first. And so does obeying the teacher.

The 28 kindergartners in Rainey’s class learned this song the second day of school:

I am a good baby

Little hands always in place

Little feet refined

Little ears listening well

Little eyes looking at the teacher

Before I speak, always raising my hand (p.64)

The principal granted permission to Chu to observe her son’s class. With three year-olds, incidents invariably occur. She describes what she saw occur during a lesson. Teacher Wang had difficulties with a little boy a head taller than the other children and filled with inexhaustible energy. For observer Chu, it was easy for her to remember Wang Wu Ze because the two teachers had yelled his name repeatedly over the first week of school:

Wang Wu Ze, sit down! Wang Wu Ze put your two feet side by side! Wang Wu Ze, what is wrong with you? Do you want your mommy to come and get you today?

One day, while Teacher … was talking, three-year old Wang Wu Ze left his seat and wandered over to a few toys in a corner . Chu writes that the teacher “lost her temper.” Teacher Wang said: “Wang Wu Ze, you don’t get a chair. YOU WILL STAND!” Chu describes the teacher moving quickly to where the boy was standing and “swatting his chair away. It fell over, clattered against the floor a few times, then lay still….” The boy looked at the “toppled chair and tears came to his eyes….” He went to the teacher and threw his arms around her waist and she said: “Bu bao–I won’t hold you…. Do you want a chair now?”

“Yes, yes, I want a chair.

“Then you sit in it,” Wang said. “If you don’t sit in it, I won’t give it to you. And your mom won’t come get you after school.” (pp. 66-67)

Conformity to the group, obedience to the teacher, and constant attention to mastering content, skills, and behavior begin early in both how and what teachers teach, according to Chu.

Consider the curriculum standards, the Ministry of Education sets for learning to read Mandarin.

Chu reports that:

“First- and second-graders should recognize 1,600 characters and write 800 of them from memory. By fourth grade, the level is 2,500 characters, and by the sixth grade it’s 3,000 characters and writing almost as many….Full literacy requires an astonishing 3,500 frequently used characters to be committed to memory, according to the Chinese curriculum standards for full-time compulsory education.” (p. 86)

And competition within and across classes is both fierce and public. Testing is constant and student-by-student scores on tests and performance of tasks are publicly displayed. Chu describes the large bulletin board outside Rainey’s kindergarten classroom.

Big Board might post teachers’ assessment of each child, a report card displayed for all to see. Who clocked in timely arrivals at school? Which child greeted the teacher with a smile? Who finished every lunchtime grain of rice? Star stickers and happy faces were pasted next to the name of each child who’d made the grade….As the months passed into the first year of school, Big Board began to display information that directly compared performance and ability…. With each presentation, parents gathered eagerly. and I could always tell when Big Board posted new information by the number of bodies gathered around, heads bobbing with anticipation.

The following year, the Big Board would display prowess at recorder play [a small woodwind musical instrument] for all to see:

The ring finger of Student No. 20 is not stable

Student No. 30 doesn;t cover the old hole while changing to a new one.

Student No. 16 doesn’t blow out enough air.

Student No. 3 doesn’t cover the holes properly.

Chu says that Besides Rainey’s number, No. 27, the teacher had scrawled the same punishing diagnosis as that for No. 8

Doesn’t follow rhythm. (pp. 98-99)

Chu visited schools elsewhere in China including rural schools, and describes their classrooms. She speaks with education experts at universities and Ministry of Education officials. Yet China has over a quarter-billion students (yes, over 260 million) taught by over 15 million teachers housed in more than a half-million schools (2014). The numbers stagger the minds of non-Chinese educators. *

Obviously, Chu can only include so much in a book that focuses upon her son, two Shanghai teenagers in secondary schools, visits to a handful of schools, and interviews with various teachers and educators. Fortunately, Chu provides the necessary context for the Shanghai and rural schools that she visits by describing the state-directed system of schooling

As a centralized state where policy is controlled by a Ministry of Education imbued with Communist doctrine, top down curricular and instructional mandates provide a constant flow of regulations to each province’s schools. Ministry officials are well aware of the internal criticisms of rote memorization, disciplinary norms, and inequalities between rural and urban schools insofar as available resources, teacher experiences, and difficulties in getting teachers to alter their daily lessons. Top officialas have looked to other countries, including the U.S. for reforms to improve Chinese education.

Part 2 will take up some of these reforms as Chu identified them and difficulties of implementation.

____________________

*OECD, “Education in China: A Snapshot, 2016”, p. 9

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Whatever Happened To the Edison Schools?

Beginning in the 1980s, researchers, policymakers, and business leaders identified what they called “good” or “effective” schools where mostly minority and poor children attended.. These “good” schools scored high on standardized tests, graduated high percentages of their students, with most getting admitted to college. These policymakers and school leaders wanted to replicate the “good” schools they identified so that more low-income minority children could attend across the country. The charter school movement that began in the mid-1990s continued to focus on poor and minority children and youth.Many ardent entrepreneurial reformers founded clusters of schools such as KIPP, Aspire, and dozens of other non-profit organizations.

One such leader was businessman Chris Whittle who started a bevy of for-profit schools across the country a quarter-century ago called the Edison schools (named after the inventor, Thomas Alva Edison).

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 2000: Christopher Whittle, president of Edison Schools, the company that wants to take over the running of five struggling city schools, talks about his organization’s program. (Photo by Robert Rosamilio/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

When and How Did Edison Schools Begin and Grow?

Serial entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of Channel 1–a for-profit venture in public schools created the Edison Project in 1992. He and his partners believed that they could get students to learn more and better than regular public school spending the same amount of money per-student and, at the same time, return a tidy profit to investors. At its largest in 2003, Edison Schools operated 133 schools enrolling 80,000 students across the U.S. In 2008, the company changed its name to Edison Learning. (see here and here)

What Problems Did the Edison Schools Seek To Solve?

First problem to be solved was the abysmal performance of largely minority and poor children in urban public schools. Whittle believed that he and others could redesign these low-performing schools to achieve higher academic achievement as measured by standardized tests. Whittle’s chain of Edison schools in big cities, he and his investors believed, would out-perform regular schools.

The second problem was upending mainstream businesses thinking that there were no profits to be made in taking over public schools and operating them as if these were private schools. Whittle believed that he could operate such schools for less money than spent by district school boards and thereby wring a profit for himself and investors out of receiving state funds per student.

How Were Edison Schools Organized and Operated?

Because most of the public schools were located in low-income and minority neighborhoods, there was great variation. Some became charter schools; others districts contracted out to Whittle to run low-performing ones. The typical Edison school had an hour-longer school day, a longer school year (200 rather than the typical 180 days), fewer teachers, and a rich curriculum with much use of technology (students received personal computers).

According to a RAND evaluation report:

Edison schools are organized by grouping 2 or 3 grade levels into academies. Within the academies, the students are organized into multigrade houses of 100-180 students. The students in each house are largely taught by the same team of teachers throughout the time they are in that academy.Edison Schools Inc. has a curriculum that includes reading, math, history/social studies, science, writing, and world language as the core subjects, with classes in character and ethics, physical fitness and health, music, dance, visual art, drama, and practical arts and skills offered at various levels. Four methodological approaches to instruction are reportedly used in the classrooms: project-based learning, direct instruction, cooperative learning, and differentiated learning.

Moreover, as a 1999 article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, in these schools:

Edison tracks student achievement and school performance to a degree unprecedented in public education. Every student’s progress in basic subjects is measured monthly, and the results are delivered to the company’s headquarters. Edison surveys parent, teacher and student satisfaction in every school annually. Edison principals are awarded performance-based bonuses of up to about 20% of their salaries. And the company swiftly fires principals and teachers who don’t perform.

Did Edison Schools Work?

As one comes to expect in answering this question on effectiveness as judged by the dominant outcome for schools since the 1980s, i.e., test scores, the answer depends upon when it is asked and how and what kind of evaluations were done. One observer noted in 1999:

In a handful of scientific studies comparing Edison students’ classroom performance over several years against that of students with similar backgrounds, Edison students have registered greater gains. And on the 300 or so state and national tests students have taken in different Edison schools, their passing rates have risen or their scores have ratcheted up faster than expected about 75% of the time. Student attendance is generally high in Edison’s schools, and dropout rates are low.

What Happened to Edison Schools?

The answer, in part, has to do with Whittle’s aspiration to create hundreds of redesigned schools for which he needed investors. As the chain of schools expanded and reports were glowing, Whittle sought and received more venture capital. Edison Inc. was the first for-profit school-management company to be traded on a stock exchange. They got contracts from urban school districts (e.g., Wichita, KN; Philadelphia, PA, Ravenswood, CA) to  use their model of a “good” school to convert failing schools into “good” ones in other districts  but stumbled into one political difficulty after another  with unions, parents, and administrators (see here and here). Their stock had reached a high of $40 a share in 2001 and then, as problems piled up, dipped to 14 cents later in the same year.

Dissatisfied with Edison, some districts began canceling contracts for financial, political, and managerial reasons. By 2005,  there were still 153 schools for over 65,000 students but the company was already dumping their school management business and had turned to  securing contracts to  provide tutorial services financed by No Child Left Behind and other services districts wanted such as recovering dropouts. By then, Whittle had found private lenders who aided him in converting the publicly traded company back into a private one.

Where Are The Edison Schools Today?

From their heyday in the early years of the century, when there nearly 150 schools, the private for-profit schools–renamed Edison Learning– no longer exist except for two credit recovery schools in Ohio and six alternative schools in Florida.

And Chris Whittle? The entrepreneurial salesman opened a new private school in Washington, D.C. in 2019.

It’s opening day at the Whittle School and Studios, a brand-new pre-K-through-12 private school in Northwest Washington founded by Chris Whittle… Four years in the making, the school and its 185 enrollees represent the first phase of a global institution that Whittle plans to expand over the next decade into more than 30 campuses worldwide, serving more than 2,000 students each, with 150 to 180 in each grade….

.

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Another “School” of the Future

Steve Davis, a reader of the blog, told me of this Isaac Asimov story published in 1951 about teaching and learning in 2155. I thought readers who saw the previous post on “Schools of the Future” would enjoy this as much as I did.

Margie even wrote about it that night in her diary. On the page headed May 17, 2155, she wrote, Today Tommy found a real book!

It was a very old book. Margie’s grandfather once said that when he was a little boy his grandfather told him that there was a time when all stories were printed on paper.

They turned the pages, which were yellow and crankily, and it was awfully funny to read words that stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to – on a screen, you know. And then, when they turned back to the page before, it had the same words on it that it had had when they read it the first time.

Gee, said Tommy, what a waste. When you’re though with the book, you just throw it away, I guess. Our television screen must have had a million books on it and it’s good for plenty more. I wouldn’t throw it away.

Same with mine, said Margie. She was eleven and hadn’t seen as many telebooks as Tommy had. He was thirteen.

She said, Where did you find it?

In my house. He pointed without looking, because he was busy reading. In the attic.

What’s it about?

School.

Margie was scornful. School? What’s there to write about school? I hate school. Margie had always hated school, but now she hated it more than ever. The mechanical teacher had been giving her test after test in geography and she had been doing worse and worse until her mother had shaken her head sorrowfully and sent for the County Inspector.

He was a round little man with a red face and a whole box of tools with dials and wires. He smiled at her and gave her an apple, then took the teacher apart. Margie had hoped he wouldn’t know how to put it together again, but he knew how all right and, after an hour or so, there it was again, large and black and ugly with a big screen on which all the lessons were shown and the questions were asked. That wasn’t so bad. The part she hated the most was the slot where she had to put homework and test papers. She always had to write them out in a punch code they made her learn when she was six years old, and the mechanical teacher calculated the mark in no time.

The inspector had smiled after he was finished and patted her head. He said to her mother, It’s not the little girl’s fault, Mrs. Jones. I think the geography sector was geared a little too quick. Those things happen sometimes. I’ve slowed it up to an average ten-year level. Actually, the over-all pattern of her progress is quite satisfactory. And he patted Margie’s head again.

Margie was disappointed. She had been hoping they would take the teacher away altogether. They had once taken Tommy’s teacher away for nearly a month because the history sector had blanked out completely.

So she said to Tommy, Why would anyone write about school?

Tommy looked at her with very superior eyes. Because it’s not our kind of school, stupid. This is the old kind of school that they had hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

Margie was hurt. Well, I don’t know what kind of school they had all that time ago. She read the book over his shoulder for a while, then said, Anyway, they had a teacher.

Sure they had a teacher, but it wasn’t a regular teacher. It was a man.

A man. How could a man be a teacher?

Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.

A man isn’t smart enough.

Sure he is. My father knows as much as my teacher.

He can’t. A man can’t know as much as a teacher.

He knows almost as much I betcha.

Margie wasn’t prepared to dispute that. She said, I wouldn’t want a strange man in my house to teach me.

Tommy screamed with laughter. You don’t know much, Margie. The teachers didn’t live in the house. They had a special building and all the kids went there.

And all the kids learned the same thing?

Sure, if they were the same age.

But my mother says a teacher has to be adjusted to fit the mind of each boy and girl it teaches and that each kid has to be taught differently.

Just the same, they didn’t do it that way then. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read the book.

I didn’t say I didn’t like it, Margie said quickly. She wanted to read about those funny schools.

They weren’t nearly half finished when Margie’s mother called, Margie! School!

Margie looked up. Not yet, mamma.

Now, said Mrs. Jones. And it’s probably time for Tommy, too.

Margie said to Tommy, Can I read the book some more with you after school?

Maybe, he said, nonchalantly. He walked away whistling, the dusty old book tucked beneath his arm.

Margie went to the schoolroom. It was right next to her bedroom, and the mechanical teacher was on and waiting for her. It was always on at the same time every day except for Saturday and Sunday, because her mother said little girls learned better if they learned at regular hours.

The screen was lit up, and it said: Today’s arithmetical lesson is on the addition of proper fractions. Please insert yesterday’s homework in the proper slot.

Margie did so with a sigh. She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the school yard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.

And the teachers were people…

The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen. When we add the fractions ½ and ¼ …

Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.

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Classrooms of the Future?

Technological fantasies of the future school have been around for decades. Here’s one from 1910. Note all of the information going into students’ heads comes from textbooks fed into a wood chipper.

  Or another from 1963 cartoon called “The Jetsons.”

 Or this one in 1982 predicting that the future school will be monopolized by the then dominant company Atari.

And then “Meet The Classroom of the Future” in 2015 at David Boody Intermediate School (IS 228) in New York City.

 Modeled after the School of One, an  innovative program that began in New York City a few years ago, sixth-to-eighth grade students work at their individual skill levels based on data collected from state and  school tests, diagnostic assessments, and past performance. From this data bank, software installed on laptops presents individual lessons tailored for each student to work through on the screen daily. These individual lessons become the day-to-day “playlist” for each student in various subjects. Teachers monitor, adapt, and enrich  lessons for each student.  The blended learning program at IS 228 touts “personalized instruction” for  over 800 students (2012) who apply to its varied magnet programs.

The journalist who described his visit to IS 228 began the article by saying: “The classroom of the future probably won’t be led by a robot with arms and legs, but it may be guided by a digital brain.” Describing a sixth grade math class at David Boody Intermediate School,  the classroom of the future  “may look like this: one room, about the size of a basketball court; more than 100 students, all plugged into a laptop; and 15 teachers and teaching assistants.”

Who’s in charge of the teachers, students, and laptops? “Beneath all of the human buzz,” the journalist said, “something other than humans is running the show: algorithms.”

Whoa! Algorithms? Yes, algorithms, those coded step-step procedures that drive Google searches, determine what is displayed on Facebook pages, and generate pop-up ads on each of our screens.

Back to the description of IS 228:

Algorithms choose which students sit together. Algorithms measure what the children know and how well they know it. They choose what problems the children should work on and provide teachers with the next lessons to teach.

Step-by-step instructions written in code, of course, is nothing new. Over a century ago, machines to generate electricity and make cars were programmed to run on instructions. Robotic machines began manufacturing scores of products in the 1960s.  A half-century later, software contains coded instructions to read X-rays, transfer millions of dollars in stock and bonds, prepare tax returns, guide driver-less cars and pilot jumbo jets across oceans. It is called automation and has added new jobs unheard of before while slicing away old familiar jobs.

In schooling, automation entered classrooms with  teaching machines in the 1950s, Scantron grading of tests in the 1970s, and software in the 1980s and 90s to help teachers take attendance, manage point systems to grade students in their classes, and communicate with students and their parents. In the last decade and a half, new software helps teachers do an incredible range of tasks from behavioral management (ClassDojo) to grading essays (Pearson WriteToLearn) (see  EdSurge for new products that they claim help teachers across K-12 grades).

The work that teachers do daily and what students experience in bricks-and-mortar buildings, however, is far from becoming thoroughly automated. Even with the hyped talk of classroom robots and predictions of schools of the future that go well beyond what occurs at David Boody Intermediate School in New York City, from kindergartens to physical education classes to Advanced Placement course remain far from automated.

And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Schools closed. Turning on a dime, public schools switched immediately to remote instruction. Since March 2020, most districts in the U.S. rely on online instruction. And “classrooms” look like this from the teacher’s home.

Golden Valley High School teacher Beth Flynn works from her dining room table at her home in Valencia on Thursday, August 27, 20. Dan Watson/The Signal

And students, sometimes with parents, will sit in different rooms of the house staring at screens or working on assignments delivered on-screen.

Will kitchens, livingrooms and bedrooms be classrooms of the future?

I doubt it very much. Once vaccines become available to all and herd immunity kicks in, the age-graded school, the grammar of schooling, and in-person classroom lessons will return in full.

Perhaps as students sit in 2021 classrooms, they will daydream about the fun they had during remote instruction at home. I doubt that also.

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Will Pandemic Changes in Schooling Be Temporary or Permanent?

“As Customers Move on Line, Shopping Is Forever Changed,” a New York Times article announced. For the holiday season, Macy’s department stores in a few states have closed their doors to in-person shopping and become fulfillment centers for online shoppers.

Jeff Gennette, Macy’s chief executive, said the dark stores are part of an experiment as the company responds to customers buying more online and demanding ever-faster shipping for free. But the conversion of a department store into a fulfillment center, even temporarily, reflects how retailers are succumbing to the dominance of e-commerce and scrambling to salvage increasingly irrelevant physical shopping space.

The U.S. continues in the throes of a three-decade school reform movement in which business and civic leaders have pressed schools to be more efficient in operations and more effective in raising test scores, high school graduation rates, and college admissions–the “bottom line” for tax-supported public schooling in the U.S. Will brick-and-mortar schools succumb to online instruction as the major form of schooling as Macy’s and other department stores shift to online shopping?

I don’t think so.

Let’s count the changes that have occurred in organization, curriculum, instruction, and calendar since Covid-19 struck public schools in March 2020.

Apart from changing calendar dates for starting and ending public schools and daily schedules of school hours, the nearly 100,000 age-graded elementary and secondary school across the country in 13,000-plus districts have not altered their graduation requirements, district or departmental organizations, or assigning one teacher to each class. The age-graded school remains intact.

Nor have I noted any changes in curriculum other than minor adaptations to remote instruction. A jiggle here or there, perhaps, but not much else.

But surely instruction has changed as a consequence of the pandemic. About two-thirds of school districts in the U.S. use hybrid models of combining in-person and online instruction. The remaining districts, especially in big cities, rely on remote instruction. In August, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 93 percent of students are on some form of distance learning.

Moreover, recent surge in infections have closed down districts which have re-opened schools for face-to-face instruction, including New York City the largest in the nation. While the situation remains fluid, there is no question that online instruction has moved front-and-center in interactions between the nation’s 56 million students and their 3.5 million teachers. The shutdown of schools threw educators for a loop in shifting from in-person to distance instruction. No one I know–even the most ardent cheerleader for online instruction–wanted nearly all U.S. students to work at home staring at screens during spring time through the Xmas holidays.

So until a vaccine becomes available sometime in 2021 and schools fully reopen, is online instruction a temporary or permanent change in instruction?

My record in predicting future events or patterns is so-so. But for the near-term future, i.e., next five years, better than average. So I venture a guess: online instruction will become another option for schools and individual teachers to use now that it has been the prime deliverer of content and skills during the pandemic. “Option” is the key word because tax-supported public schools are expected to do a whole lot more that transmit information and develop skills in the next generation.

Public schools permit parents to work. Public schools socialize the young to accept prevailing community norms and values. Public schools provide food and child-care before, during, and after regular hours. Public schools issue credentials for further education and careers. In short, public schools are a vital institution within a capitalist democratic system.

Apart from that, I have yet to detect any groundswell of reform talk about altering the familiar school organization, Common Core Curriculum, and existing accountability measures already in place. While the U.S. Secretary of Education postponed the federally-required state standardized tests for spring of 2020 and has called on Congress to delay these tests until 2022, I have to hear of or read about any coalition of reformers offering concrete policies that can reduce the stark differences in funding and staffing schools in urban and suburban districts that have become, in a word, re-segregated.

So my guess is that remote instruction in sharply reduced fashion will remain in public schools as the default option for administrators and teachers to use when students cannot attend school.

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