Category Archives: how teachers teach

How My Thinking about School Reform Has Changed Over Decades (Part 1)

Six years ago, I posted this two-part series about changes in my thinking about school reform. It generated many comments from readers. I return to these posts because I want to see if there have been further changes in my thinking about the never-ending deluge of school reform particularly after the spread of “personalized learning” initiatives have become ubiquitous.  I offer it again since I have many new followers that may not have seen these earlier posts.

Reflections on my thinking about school reform came with a request from colleague Richard Elmore who asked me to write a piece about how my ideas have changed over the years. Daily experience in schools as a teacher, administrator, and researcher (and the writing that I did about those experiences)  altered key ideas I had about the nature of reform and how reform worked its way into districts, schools, and classrooms. He included my piece in a book called I Used to Think… And Now I Think (Harvard Education Press, 2011). I have divided the piece into two parts. Part 1 follows. 


I used to think that public schools were vehicles for reforming society. And now I think that while good teachers and schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in individual children and youth, schools are (and have been) ineffectual in altering social inequalities.

I began teaching high school in 1955 filled with the passion to teach history to youth and help them find their niche in the world while working toward making a better society. At that time, I believed wholeheartedly in words taken from John Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed” (1897): “… education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”

And I tried to practice those utopian words in my teaching in Cleveland (OH) through the early 1960s. While in retrospect I could easily call this faith in the power of teaching and schooling to make a better life and society naïve or unrealistic, I refuse to do so because that passionate idealism, that innocence, about the complex and conflicted roles that schooling plays in a democratic, market-driven society gave meaning and drive to the long days I worked as a teacher, getting married, starting a family, and taking university classes at night toward a masters degree in history.

That confident belief in the power of schools to reform society took me to Washington, D.C. in 1963 (I arrived on the day of the civil rights March on Washington) to teach returned Peace Corps volunteers how to become teachers at Cardozo High School. I stayed nearly a decade in D.C. teaching and administering school-site and district programs aimed at turning around schools in a largely black city, a virtual billboard for severe inequalities. I taught history to students in two high schools. I worked in programs that trained energetic young teachers to work in low-performing schools, programs that organized residents in impoverished neighborhoods to improve their community, programs that created alternative schools and district-wide professional development programs for teachers and administrators. While well intentioned federal and D.C. policymakers attacked the accumulated neglect that had piled up in schools over decades, they adopted these reform-driven programs haphazardly without much grasp of how to implement them in schools and classrooms.

I have few regrets for what I and many other like-minded individuals did during the 1960s. I take pride in the many teachers and students who participated in these reforms who were rescued from deadly, mismanaged schools, and ill-taught classrooms. But the fact remains that by the early 1970s, with a few notable exceptions, most of these urban school reforms I and others had worked in had become no more than graffiti written in snow. And the social inequalities that we had hoped to reduce, persisted.

Since the early 1970s, a succession of superintendents and elected school boards have descended upon the D.C. public schools determined to fundamentally change that benighted district. Even after reforms aimed at the governance, curriculum, instruction, and organization of schools were adopted, even after the glories of parental choice, charter schools, and market competition have been championed as cure-alls for urban district ills—after decades of unrelenting geysers of reforms, schooling in D.C.—now under mayoral control–and most other urban districts remain educational disaster zones and a blight on a democratic society.

After leaving D.C., my work as a superintendent, professor, and researcher into the history of school reform and teaching led me to see that the relationship between public schools, reform, and society was far more entangled than I had thought. I came to understand that the U.S. has a three-tiered system of schooling based upon performance and socioeconomic status.

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent white suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), San Ramon Valley (CA), Montgomery County (MD) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 50 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA; Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, CA) often meet state standards and send most of their graduating classes to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get reprimanded, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, and rural areas where large numbers of poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being shut down because they are on federal and state lists of failing schools. Occasionally, a stellar principal and staff will lift a school into the second tier but staying there is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S., schools cannot remedy national economic, social, and political problems or dissolve persistent inequities. Schools in these tiers cannot be the vanguard for social reform—ever. Public schools, I concluded, are (and have been) institutions for maintaining social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “yet,” good teachers and schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth even in the lowest tier of schools.

The irony, of course, is that many current policymakers from President Obama through local school board presidents and superintendents still mime John Dewey’s words and act as if schools can, indeed, reform society. In President Obama’s 2010 State of the union speech, for example, he said, “in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”

So nearly a half-century of experience in schools and the sustained research I have done have made me allergic to utopian rhetoric. Both my experience and research have changed my mind about the role of schools in society. I have become skeptical of anyone spouting words about schools being in the vanguard of social reform—even from a President I admire. Yet, I must confess that in my heart, I still believe that content-smart and classroom-smart teachers who know their students well can make significant differences in their students’ lives even if they cannot cure societal ills.



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So What? The Importance of Knowing about “Success” and “Failure” in American Schools (Part 2)

No one interested in school reform from either the political right, center, or left can come to grips with changing tax-supported public schools without fully understanding the centrality of the age-graded school organization and its “grammar of schooling.” For within that organization and the rules, norms, and social beliefs that govern daily life are definitions of “success” and “failure” that dominate both teacher and student actions six or more hours a day, five days a week, and 36 weeks a year.And have done so for nearly two centuries.

This excerpt comes from the final chapter of my forthcoming book: Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in America Schools.”

David Tyack and I defined the phrase “grammar of schooling” in this way.

By the ‘grammar’ of schooling we mean the regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction. Here we have in mind, for example, standardized organizational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students and allocating them to classrooms, and splintering knowledge into “subjects”. Continuity in the grammar of instruction has frustrated generations of reformers who have sought to change these standardized organizational forms. [i]

What is the connection between a “grammar of schooling” and linguistic grammar? Both have structures and rules that are seldom made explicit. Both operate in regular patterns. Neither has to be consciously specified to run smoothly.

Regularities, the essence of a “grammar of schooling,” govern age-graded schools. Students are divided by ages from pre-kindergarten through senior high school. In elementary schools, a single teacher in a classroom teaches the content and skills in five or more subjects prescribed for that grade. Students stay with that teacher most of the school day. The teacher judges the performance and behavior of each student deciding which will be promoted or retained for the next grade. [ii]

The comprehensive high school is also age-graded—ninth graders are mostly 14 years old and seniors are 18 or so. Organized into departments, subject-matter teachers take attendance, assign homework, enter grades in report cards and determine whether a student passes or fails.

Then there is the Carnegie Unit, a defining feature of the high school. The Carnegie Unit is a single credit awarded for each academic subject based upon time spent sitting in classrooms for a school year. Beginning in the ninth grade, the number of academic credits a student collects is counted toward graduation.[iii]

What has kept the “grammar of schooling” in place for so long?

The answer to the question is straightforward. Popular social beliefs that the age-graded school, free to all, is a “real school.” It rewards merit and provides a ladder to achieve personal “success” for generation after generation of children and youth.

This trust in the school as a meritocracy where the smartest and hardest working students will garner kudos is pervasive. Of equal importance is the widespread belief among parents that schools are escalators to financial and social “success.” Social mobility is an aspiration of both native-born and immigrant parents for their sons and daughters. Getting diplomas and degrees from public schools and colleges is the way for each individual to “succeed” in society. Taxpayers and voters expect schools toinstill and display these values. This web of social beliefs has sustained the age-graded school even when concerted reform efforts sought to alter the “grammar of schooling.”[iv]

A second reason for the durability of the “grammar of schooling” is that state and district curriculum standards, tests, and accountability mechanisms are fastened to the age-graded school. State standards are grade and subject specific spelling out what content and skills should be learned in first grade and tenth grade, for example. No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) tested students in math and reading in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. These policies continue in the Every Student Succeeds Act (2016- ) but leave decisions to state not federal officials. These state and federal policies act as an iron cage reinforcing popular beliefs that the age-graded school and its pervasive “grammar” are a ”real school” and the only way to educate the next generation.

Efforts to change the “grammar of schooling.” These powerful social beliefs have persisted before, during, and after major challenges to the age-graded school occurred. In the early 20th century, for example, reformers attempted to break the tight grip of the elementary age-graded school and the “grammar of schooling.” The Dalton Plan in a small Massachusetts town and the Winnetka Plan in an affluent Chicago suburb (see Chapter 1) sought to individualize instruction to fit the strengths and limitations of each student. In individual contracts between teachers and students (the Dalton Plan) and in the Winnetka Plan that dispensed with age-grading teachers taught differently. And in doing so, the Plan tried to reduce the untoward classroom effects of the “grammar of schooling.” Each of these reforms did gain a foothold in U.S. schools, spread, but ultimately disappeared. [v]

For high schools, a similar pattern occurred. Initially, selective public high schools appeared in the 17th century in New England (the Boston Latin Grammar School was founded in 1635). By the early 19th century, the handful of these elite schools attended by students from affluent families, grew larger as tax-supported public high schools opened on the eastern seaboard. The innovation spread through New England and the Midwest before and after the Civil War. Few families sent their sons and daughters to these schools since the workplace and farm provided jobs for those leaving school at ages 12 and up. In the 1890s, for example, only one out of ten 17 year-olds was enrolled in a tax-supported public high school. [vi]

But with child labor laws being enforced and the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, youth stayed in school. Administrative and pedagogical Progressives created the comprehensive high school with multiple curricula and services for all students, not just those academically inclined (about 30 of 100 seventeen year-olds graduated in 1930). This innovative organization—still age-graded– made it possible for most American teenagers to enter the ninth grade and get a diploma by the end of the 12th grade. By 1950, nearly 60 of 100 seventeen year olds graduated.[vii]

With the spike in enrollments and rising graduation rates in districts with comprehensive high schools, concerns over too much catering to students’ varied interests and sinking academic performance surfaced in the 1950s leading critics to question the thoroughness of the high school curriculum and softening of standards. Few students, for example, took advanced math courses, physics, and Latin compared to selective high schools in the early decades of the 20th century. Criticism of U.S. high schools mounted particularly after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision triggered protests over segregated schools across the country. The Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 also sparked a U.S. curricular reaction in the New Math, and an array of innovative science courses. Top policymakers and power elites began asking whether U.S. high schools could be both excellent and equal—a question that is still being asked and sidestepped in 2019.

That question fueled the next half-century of reform. During the 1960s and 1970s educational policymakers responding to political and social tremors in the culture shuttled back-and-forth trying to equally conserve values and alter society while accommodating both excellence and equity. Civic and business leaders pressed policymakers to increase equal opportunity through busing to desegregate schools, opening up advanced classes to all students, and relaxing graduation requirements. But a slow growing economy and rising discontent over Germany and Japan outselling U.S. companies in the 1970s led a later generation of business, civic, and educational reformers to press schools to turn out skilled graduates who could enter the workplace able to compete with workers in other nations.

The A Nation at Risk report (1983) in scorching language pointed to low graduation requirements, soft academic subjects, and U.S. students’ poor scores on international tests.[viii]

That report and subsequent policy actions in the 1980s and 1990s ended up with nearly all states increasing their graduation requirements and tightening academics in the comprehensive high school. This pattern of seeking academic excellence for everyone without limiting opportunity for heretofore neglected groups has remained a tenet of school reformers for the past half-century.

No Child Left Behind (2001-2015), a bipartisan federal law, and its successor Every Student Succeeds (2016- ) continue the mantra that both excellence and equity can be achieved in U.S. public schools. Of course, both excellence and equity have drawn (and continue to do so) deeply from core American values of individualism and equal opportunity. No surprise to readers, then, that these state and federal education laws made regulations and provided money to districts across the nation that were spent in, yes, age-graded schools. These curricular and regulatory reforms including more student tests ended up reinforcing the age-graded high school and instead of loosening the “grammar of schooling,” it added steel bars. [ix]


[i]David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 85.

 [ii] Decades ago, Seymour Sarason called my attention to the taken-for-granted “regularities” that dominate public schools in The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971).

 [iii] The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “What is the Carnegie Unit? “ at:

[iv] Megan Brennan, “Seven in 10 Parents Satisfied with Their Child’s Education,” Gallup News Alerts, August 27, 2018 at:

David Cohen and Barbara Neufeld, “The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education,” Daedalus, 1981, 110(3), pp. 69-89.

 [v] Frank Grittner, “Individualized Instruction: An Historical Perspective,” The Modern Language Journal, 1975, 59(7), pp. 323-333; Wikipedia, “Dalton Plan” at:

[vi] William Reese, The Origins of the American High School (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

 [vii] Cohen and Neufeld, p. 75.

 [viii] National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, 1983 at:

[ix] Jack Schneider, Excellence for All (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011). Historians of education David Tyack and Diane Ravitch, from contrasting perspectives, have documented reforms of the late-20th century in their books. See: David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) and Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

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So What? The Importance of Knowing about “Success” and “Failure” in American Schools (Part 1)

The next few posts are drawn from the final chapter of “Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools.” The book is scheduled to come out in March 2020.

So What?

Why should readers care about defining individual and institutional “success” and “failure” in U.S. schools? Why should readers care about the past and present existence of American core values stuffed with notions of “success” and “failure” and how schools transmit these values? Finally, why should readers care about two uncommon public schools (MetWest High School in Oakland, California and Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified District) that display these shared values and yet expand familiar definitions of organizational “success” in ways that most U.S. schools do not?

My answer to these “So What” questions is that definitions of institutional and individual “success” and “failure” applied to U.S. schools show up daily in the taken-for-granted institution called the age-graded school. Within the age-graded school, judgments of “success” and “failure” are inherent in student, teacher, principal, school board, and superintendent actions, memos, and social media. In age-graded schools numbers and subjective decisions identify winners and losers through student report cards, teacher evaluations, and district accountability ratings.

But even of greater importance is that amid this organization’s extraordinary stability in American life, over a century of school reform has tried to overhaul it, even replacing the institution to make it better at what it does and end damaging judgments rendered upon children, teachers, and schools.

For nearly two centuries, this school organization has been both the disseminator of societal definitions of “success” and “failure” and displays of individualism, community, and equal opportunity. The age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” has had a vise-like grip on how and what teachers teach and students learn. Determining individual winners and losers from kindergarten through twelfth grade, distinguishing between those who are normal from those who deviate from the standard, those who gets promoted and those who goes to summer school are inherent to this organizational structure and the rules that govern it. Persistent efforts aimed at substantially altering what happens in schools and classrooms, especially those with mostly children of color, have crashed on the shoals of the age-graded organization and its abiding “grammar of schooling.” Intermittent reform efforts to transform this organization through alternative forms of school organization, individualizing instruction through new technologies, and nifty management techniques again and again have lost their way or faded into the background seldom diminishing popular support for this age-old structure.

So my answer to “So What?” is that if (and yes, this is a big “if”) one wants to understand individual and organizational “success” and “failure” in American daily life, if one wants to alter common patterns of schooling, teaching, and learning that sort student winners from losers, then what has to be done is substantially alter the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

In the Introduction and Chapter 3 I have briefly described and analyzed the age-graded school and repeated reform attempts to rework that organization and its underlying “grammar of schooling.” Yet the fact remains that the age-graded school’s capacity to school hundreds of millions of children and youth for nearly two centuries, its longevity and its global ubiquity–I would be stingy to avoid the word—has been a clear institutional “success.”

This school organization has stayed the course for decades because of its universal access and strong popular support generation after generation. It is anchored in the American imagination and culture as a “real school” where young children attend at age 5 (now ages 3 and 4 in many districts) and leave at ages 17 or 18. It is the place where American values are displayed and taught.[i]

Nearly all Americans have gone through public or private age-graded schools. Strangers on airplanes and buses can connect when they talk about their schools. They remember how a school smells and looks. They still complain about school lunches. They can recount their best and worst teachers. Report cards, honor rolls, tests, and homework are as common as eating scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast. Yet the age-graded school is neither an iconic nor admired organization such as Ford and IBM were and Apple, Amazon, and Google have become.

No song or poem has immortalized the age-graded school. Still, it remains the most influential institutional mechanism that shapes for good or ill children’s knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behavior over a dozen or more years. Ditto for those adults who work within these organizations.

As pointed out earlier, reforms aimed at improving how it works have poured over the age-graded school and it has changed over time. Adding kindergarten and pre-kindergarten to the elementary school and increasingly community colleges to the secondary level has led to near-universal access into this institution. Accommodating children with disabilities, giftedness, and educational disadvantages who deviated from the norm, the age-graded school has demonstrated flexibility by responding to political coalitions of parents and activists who fought for the above changes.

But abandoning the organization or moving to non-graded schools are fundamental changes, not incremental ones, and have been rare over the past century. Thus, the stunning continuity and popular acceptance of the age-graded school means that the “grammar of schooling,” has remained in intact.


[i] The phrase “real school” comes from Mary Metz, “Real School: A Universal Drama Amid Disparate Experiences,” Journal of Education Policy, 1989, 4(5), pp. 75-91.

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How To Build Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust (Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis)

For those K-12 educators and higher education professors who bite their nails over whether automation will replace teachers with robots who make out seating charts, answer student questions, explain the causes of the Civil War, do shortcuts on solving quadratic equations, wipe kindergartners’ noses, and hug crying 3rd graders bullied during recess—stop biting your nails. AI will not replace you.

This op-ed appeared in the New York Times September 7, 2019.

“Gary Marcus, the founder and chief executive of Robust AI, and Ernest Davis, a professor of computer science at New York University, are the authors of the forthcoming book “Rebooting AI: Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust,” from which this essay is adapted.”

Artificial intelligence has a trust problem. We are relying on A.I. more and more, but it hasn’t yet earned our confidence.

Tesla cars driving in Autopilot mode, for example, have a troubling history of crashing into stopped vehicles. Amazon’s facial recognition system works great much of the time, but when asked to compare the faces of all 535 members of Congress with 25,000 public arrest photos, it found 28 matches, when in reality there were none. A computer program designed to vet job applicants for Amazon was discovered to systematically discriminate against women. Every month new weaknesses in A.I. are uncovered.

The problem is not that today’s A.I. needs to get better at what it does. The problem is that today’s A.I. needs to try to do something completely different.

In particular, we need to stop building computer systems that merely get better and better at detecting statistical patterns in data sets — often using an approach known as deep learning — and start building computer systems that from the moment of their assembly innately grasp three basic concepts: time, space and causality.

Today’s A.I. systems know surprisingly little about any of these concepts. Take the idea of time. We recently searched on Google for “Did George Washington own a computer?” — a query whose answer requires relating two basic facts (when Washington lived, when the computer was invented) in a single temporal framework. None of Google’s first 10 search results gave the correct answer. The results didn’t even really address the question. The highest-ranked link was to a news story in The Guardian about a computerized portrait of Martha Washington as she might have looked as a young woman.

Google’s Talk to Books, an A.I. venture that aims to answer your questions by providing relevant passages from a huge database of texts, did no better. It served up 20 passages with a wide array of facts, some about George Washington, others about the invention of computers, but with no meaningful connection between the two.

The situation is even worse when it comes to A.I. and the concepts of space and causality. Even a young child, encountering a cheese grater for the first time, can figure out why it has holes with sharp edges, which parts allow cheese to drop through, which parts you grasp with your fingers and so on. But no existing A.I. can properly understand how the shape of an object is related to its function. Machines can identify what things are, but not how something’s physical features correspond to its potential causal effects.

For certain A.I. tasks, the dominant data-correlation approach works fine. You can easily train a deep-learning machine to, say, identify pictures of Siamese cats and pictures of Derek Jeter, and to discriminate between the two. This is why such programs are good for automatic photo tagging. But they don’t have the conceptual depth to realize, for instance, that there are lots of different Siamese cats but only one Derek Jeter and that therefore a picture that shows two Siamese cats is unremarkable, whereas a picture that shows two Derek Jeters has been doctored.

In no small part, this failure of comprehension is why general-purpose robots like the housekeeper Rosie in “The Jetsons” remain a fantasy. If Rosie can’t understand the basics of how the world works, we can’t trust her in our home.


Without the concepts of time, space and causality, much of common sense is impossible. We all know, for example, that any given animal’s life begins with its birth and ends with its death; that at every moment during its life it occupies some particular region in space; that two animals can’t ordinarily be in the same space at the same time; that two animals can be in the same space at different times; and so on.

We don’t have to be taught this kind of knowledge explicitly. It is the set of background assumptions, the conceptual framework, that makes possible all our other thinking about the world.

Yet few people working in A.I. are even trying to build such background assumptions into their machines. We’re not saying that doing so is easy — on the contrary, it’s a significant theoretical and practical challenge — but we’re not going to get sophisticated computer intelligence without it.

f we build machines equipped with rich conceptual understanding, some other worries will go away. The philosopher Nick Bostrom, for example, has imagined a scenario in which a powerful A.I. machine instructed to make paper clips doesn’t know when to stop and eventually turns the whole world — people included — into paper clips.

In our view, this kind of dystopian speculation arises in large part from thinking about today’s mindless A.I. systems and extrapolating from them. If all you can calculate is statistical correlation, you can’t conceptualize harm. But A.I. systems that know about time, space and causality are the kinds of things that can be programmed to follow more general instructions, such as “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” (the first of Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics).

We face a choice. We can stick with today’s approach to A.I. and greatly restrict what the machines are allowed to do (lest we end up with autonomous-vehicle crashes and machines that perpetuate bias rather than reduce it). Or we can shift our approach to A.I. in the hope of developing machines that have a rich enough conceptual understanding of the world that we need not fear their operation. Anything else would be too risky.






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Seating Charts and the Grammar of Schooling

In EdSurge, Kevin Behan, a product manager at GoGuardian (a for-profit software company creating programs for classroom management and other educational tasks)  wrote an opinion piece (August 17, 2019) about the importance of seating charts. He (or EdSurge) titled the op-ed: “Create a Culture, Not a Classtoom: Why Seating Charts Matter.”

After all it is the beginning of another school year and one of the early tasks every teacher in the age-graded school is to determine where students will sit. Those decisions have to do with a mix of questions circulating in a teacher’s head: Where do I seat kids who I think need close supervision? Should I separate close friends? Or should I let students choose where to sit in the spirit of giving students agency?

The fact remains that it is the teacher who decides. Just as the teacher determined the arrangement of furniture in the room from rows of desks to horseshoe half-circles with tables facing one another across an empty space in the center–I could go on since there are many variations of these desk patterns but I won’t.  Arranging furniture and seating students are important early decisions in establishing the teacher’s authority and ground rules for appropriate student behavior.

Thus, the classroom seating chart is one of the plethora of rules that govern the grammar of schooling embedded within the age-graded school. This larger framework of  seeing teaching in public schools as part of a complex system of norms for both teachers and students does not appear in this op-ed.

Using the seating chart to fashion a classroom culture is surely useful advice. Yet not seeing how the age-graded school as an organization imposes boundaries and rules within which both teachers and students work misses the teacher’s limited autonomy–after all, no teacher is allowed to pick the students she has in her fourth grade classroom–that teachers do have. Teachers have constrained discretion in deciding how desks are arranged and where students sit, what content and skills go into lessons, and when to compliment or sanction students. That limited autonomy occurs within the age-graded school. Overall, however, this historic school organization remains an agent of the state.

 Students, for example, are compelled to attend school between the ages of five or six until they are 16 or 17 in nearly all states. Compulsory attendance means that schools have legal responsibility for their health and safety while in school. Students have to be supervised and teachers have to know who is in school or absent. One of the functions of the seating chart is to take daily attendance. And that attendance converts into dollars since state funding of schools is dependent upon how many students come to school each day.

Thus the mundane seating chart that millions of students and teachers are familiar with is part of the interconnected and complex governance, organization, and grammar of schooling that touches both teachers and students over the course of the school day and year.


Kevin Behan, August 17, 2019 wrote the following.

The start of a school year means a new seating chart for each classroom—full of students that the teacher likely hasn’t met. Without knowing the students, how does a teacher know where to assign their seats?

This question comes up each summer as teachers strive to create the best learning environment possible. From my experience in the classroom, I’ve found that seating chart choices can be critical to how students engage with one another and the teacher.

Today, the influx of digital tools and new instructional models means that the traditional classroom settings of “quiet students, talking teacher” may no longer apply. Already, some teachers are letting go of tradition and allowing flexible seating in classrooms to give students freedom to choose where they want to sit. For others, placing students into assigned groups for cooperative learning can produce the optimal learning environment.

As each teacher develops their own style of seating students, their process involves weighing several factors to create their ideal classroom arrangement. But how does a teacher know what’s best for their classroom and which student dependencies should factor into these decisions?

Prep and Plan

The seating chart is an underrated tool that can help turn a good learning environment into a great one.

The lead times for seating chart planning range from the moment the teacher receives the class roll to the first day of class. Some teachers wait until getting to know the students before assigning seats, with open seating in earlier weeks and a solid chart after seeing how students interact, focus, and learn. This reactive approach can work better for teachers who enjoy flexibility and adaptability.

Others take a proactive approach, often by asking previous teachers of those students for their feedback. While this warrants extra legwork at the beginning, polling fellow teachers about their previous students can sometimes help identify when seat placements are beneficial to how an individual student engages in class.

Consider Preferences

Options for seating arrangement type vary, from row-and-column grids to two-person tables to stadium seating. Some draw inspiration from their favorite popular hangout spots, like Starbucks. (But others warn against turning flexible furniture design into a fad.)

For more traditional layouts—whether in rows or in the form of a semi-circle arrangement—past research suggests that students who sit toward the center tend to participate more in classroom discussions.

Although a fixed seating chart does make it easier to remember students’ names, a teacher might decide to change up the layout regularly for a variable learning experience, some as often as every day and others about once a month. That’s not to say that change is necessary for everyone. As long as a classroom is functioning harmoniously, a fixed seating chart can remain unchanged throughout the year. If something doesn’t work, then the teacher can adjust until an arrangement sticks.

Other Factors and Dependencies

There’s more to a seating chart than telling a student where to sit, as many other considerations must be taken into account. Learning disabilities, academic performance, and vision problems could necessitate students being placed in the front of the classroom to ensure better learning and higher engagement.

Social considerations and partner compatibility are important to consider because some students work well with others, even if their socialization can be distracting. It’s common for friends to ask to sit together and not unusual for a teacher to separate them to avoid over-socialization. What they might later learn is that the friends complement and challenge each other in a positive way. Being open and malleable as a teacher creates opportunities for students to learn from each other collaboratively.

Clustering students into groups can also lead to learning environments that foster student collaboration. Previous studies conducted by psychologist and John Hopkins research director, Robert Slavin, points to positive outcomes from cooperative learning, in the form of students learning more, enjoying school and the subject, and feeling more successful.

Create a Culture, not a Classroom

It is integral for teachers to find a layout that suits their preference and instructional style, in ways that make them most engaging and effective. But it is also important to create an environment where students can support each other.

Grouping high level and low level learners together is useful in facilitating peer coaching, and heterogeneous groups can help each other in the learning process. In my experience, this method has been the most effective way to encourage a positive exchange for collective learning in a classroom community.

The seating chart is an underrated tool that can help turn a good learning environment into a great one. While there is no clear model for where to place students, if done correctly, a well-thought-out seating chart fosters an effective classroom environment that allows students to maximize their learning potential.




Filed under how teachers teach

Why Is Incremental Change in Schooling Typical?

The short answer is that conservatism is built into the purpose of schools and both teachers and students share that innate conservatism–at first.

Tax-supported public schools have two purposes. The first is to change students, imbue them with knowledge, skills, and values that they would use to gain personal success and make America a better place to live in. The duty of public schooling as an agent of individual and societal reform took off in the early 20th century as Progressivism and has been in the educational bloodstream ever since.

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

Often conserving such values can be seen in rules posted in nearly every classroom across the nation at the beginning of the school year. For example:


Teachers are agents of that conservatism insofar as they have been students for 16-20-plus years and know first-hand what happens in classrooms and schools. When faced with reforms that expect major changes in classroom practices, they adapt such policies to fit the students they face daily, their content and skills expertise, and what they believe they should teach and students should learn. They do this, of course, piece=by-piece. Incrementally. You want 180 degree changes in what happens in classrooms, it won’t happen. You want 10 degrees or 20 degrees of change, with teacher understanding, capacity, and willingness, such changes will occur.

And then there are the students and what they expect of their teachers.

Beginning in kindergarten (or preschool), over the years students develop views of what a “good” teacher (and teaching) are. By the time, students are in high school, they have implicit models in their heads of who “good” teachers are and what they do in organizing and teaching a class.

By “good” high school teacher, for example, most students mean one who mostly leads a teacher-centered, subject-driven academic class. The opposite of “good” is “bad.” For students meeting teachers for the first time, “bad” means the teacher tries to be friends with students, uses techniques (e.g., abandoning the textbook, peer grading of quizzes) that are seldom used by other “good” teachers. They tolerate student misbehavior and students ignoring what they say. In short, “bad” teachers cannot maintain minimum order in the classroom.

None of this is to mean that students’ pictures of “good” teachers are correct. Only that students already have images of what they believe is institutionally “good” for them.

So if a novice teacher (or veteran who transfer to a different school) believes that students have blank slates when they meet each other for the first time, they are whistling the wrong tune. Let me give examples of student expectations of teachers that I have encountered over the years.

*”Good” teachers know more facts and concepts than students do about the subject.

*”Good” teachers answer student questions clearly and correctly.

*”Good” teachers take time to explain complicated content.

*”Good” teachers do not publicly humiliate students.

*”Good” teachers assign homework from the text.

*”Good” teachers clamp down on late-comers to class

*”Good” teachers break up fights between students and protect weak students from being bullied.

*”Good” teachers do not permit students to copy from one another when expecting each student to do his or her work.

*”Good” teachers do not let students sleep in class.

For novices and veterans new to a school to ignore what students have learned about teachers for many years sitting in classrooms is ultimately condescending since teachers are dismissing important student beliefs and knowledge. It also makes much harder the long-term task of developing strong relationships with the class as a whole and individual students–both essential for learning to occur.

There is a catch, however, when new and veteran teachers meet student expectations.

To do only what students expect is to be trapped by their traditional expectations of what a “good” teacher is. The tightrope act teachers have to negotiate is to initially meet what students expect–“good” teaching–then move beyond those beliefs to begin reshaping their expectations of “good” teaching to appreciate and learn from a far larger repertoire of classroom approaches and develop the personal relationships essential for learning to occur.

So here it is. One of the school’s purposes is to conserve what’s deemed best in a community. Teachers (and principals), socialized as students for nearly two decades and now working in schools adopts a conservative stance toward top-down policies aimed at altering what they do daily in classrooms. They have learned to adapt such policies to fit their beliefs and students they have. And students? Like their teachers, they have learned to expect certain things in what they perceive as “good” teachers. The astute and mindful teacher will know what those expectations are and, in time, transcend them slowly in small bite-sized chunks, i.e., incrementalism..

Knowing the inherent conservatism of schools, its teachers and students helps to explain how new technologies over time get harnessed to familiar practices in schools. How new curricula promoted to alter how teachers teach end up getting assigned as homework, appear on multiple-choice tests, and get discussed in whole-group discussions.

None of this is a criticism of schools. It is one of several observations based on decades of experience in schools and much research in classrooms. Yet this observation means that schools do, indeed, change. I have seen that over years, in a few schools and districts, incremental changes pile up and, on occasion, result in an entirely different school and district if reform-minded principals and staffs have been there for a decade or more. Absent that sense of direction, disappointment and dissatisfaction reign among well-intentioned policymakers, donors, excited reformers, and parents who point fingers at the narrow scope, slow pace, and infrequency of school changes. For me, these observations explain why incremental change is typical and often criticized as being too little and insufficient.*


*Of course, incrementalism is just as typical in other institutions. For example, arguments over small or large changes in funding health care insurance dominate Presidential debates and media now. Medicare for all without private insurance is what a few Democrat candidates for President seek. Other candidates want smaller changes such as including a public option and not the abandonment of private health insurance.


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

From Policy To Practice: Reforming American Schools and Classroom Lessons

I have just sent in my manuscript to the publisher entitled “Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools.” Every book I have written in the past decade since I started this blog, I have posted the argument, drafts of chapters, and vignettes of schools and teacher lessons.

Now I am considering my next project. I would like to draw together certain themes that I have lived, taught about, and researched since I began teaching over a half-century ago. The title of this post captures those themes. For this post, I am offering the condensed argument I have thought of making in my next book. I attach no endnotes or citation of sources at this point. Just the distilled argument.

I am concerned that the logic of the argument is clear, crisply stated, and coherent. So I ask readers of this post to look for holes, errors, and missing parts that should be included. I would appreciate reader comments.

What teachers teach and students learn in American classrooms are (and have been) shaped (but not determined) by political, organizational, and social forces:

First, there is the decentralized system of governance and funding of schools over the past two centuries.

Second, the age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the reliable vehicle for moving state and local policies into classroom lessons.

Third, the constant flow of social, political, and economic problems in the larger society often get converted into reform efforts to improve schooling, classroom practice, and the larger society.

These three forces have created both stability and change in tax-supported public schooling indelibly marking  the journey that policies take from federal, state, and district suites into teachers’ classrooms.


  1. For the past two centuries, the U.S. has had a decentralized system of governing public school. That is, there are 50 states, 13,000-plus school districts, nearly 100,000 schools with 3.2 million teachers in charge of 51 million-plus students.

There is no national ministry of education or federal authority as there is in France, Sweden, and, China determining what schools can teach, which teachers to hire and fire, and when school begins and ends each year.

This decentralized system also unequally funds districts within a state (e.g., poor Buchanan and wealthy Arlington Counties in Virginia) and occasions lopsided differences between states—think Mississippi and New York–across the nation. Racially discriminatory practices from banks redlining areas (e..g., avoiding investment in largely black or Latino areas) to white families leaving recently integrated neighborhoods in cities for nearly all-white suburbs causing even more residential segregation in both cities and inner-ring suburbs.  These funding disparities and discriminatory policies affect the quality of brick-and-mortar school buildings, selection and retention of teachers, and student access to instructional materials including new technologies.

Funding public schools comes from three sources: state, local district, and the federal government. The latter provides less than 10 percent of all funds for schools. Because property taxes are the largest source of local and state funding inherent inequities occur simply because there are high wealth districts such as Arlington County (VA) and Beverly Hills (CA) for example–that out-spend dramatically low-wealth districts –Buchanan largely white County (VA) and mostly black Compton (CA)–in per-student spending.

That system of state and local governance in which states provide unequal amounts of money to districts even when adjusted for high- and low-wealth, however, does not slow down the flow of state policymaking where districts are expected to put those policies into practice. Federal policies, especially between 2002-2015 with No Child Left Behind  (the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2016 shifted NCLB mandates to state authorities) also enter the mix of what states, districts, and schools are expected to do. Moreover, district boards of education affected by local issues that parents and elected officials bring to them such as school lunches,  segregated schools, busing schedules, inappropriate history textbooks, and student dress codes.  School boards enact policies that parent lobbies, business leaders, and superintendents recommend. For these federal, state and local policies to get implemented in schools and classrooms, one organizational structure in existence for nearly two centuries–—the age-graded school—is (and has been) the primary vehicle for principals and teachers to turn policy into practice across the U.S.

  1. The age-graded organization is (and has been) the primary vehicle for converting goals and policies into classroom lessons.

Those goals and policies are aimed at both changing and conserving what happens in thousands of schools presided over by principals and hundreds of thousands of individual teachers located in separate classrooms in those schools responsible for groups of 25-35 students. Classroom teachers ultimately decide which of the overall district goals, policies, and curricular content and skills assigned to be taught in fourth grade or high school physics turn up in actual lessons.

Thus, the role of the individual teacher located in these age-graded classrooms gives  teachers a constrained autonomy in determining what of a curriculum guide or textbook will be taught. After shutting their classroom doors, they can and do decide what and how to teach a lesson. Teachers, then, are both gatekeepers and classroom policymakers.

State and local decision-makers can promote innovations and predict splendid outcomes in their policy talk. They can adopt policies that offer shrunken versions of the hyperbolic policy talk, and they can even mandate that teachers put these adopted policies into classroom lessons. Beyond mandates, incentives, or even threats, however, they can do no more. Age-graded school structures with separate classrooms assigned to individual teachers in of themselves both isolate and insulate teachers—remember those doors that can be closed—from their bosses. Teachers retain limited autonomy.

No state superintendent of education or official in the state department, no district superintendent or central office administrator, even the school principal can predict, be certain of, or verify that teachers are teaching (and students are learning) what they are supposed to. Thus, teachers are “street-level bureaucrats” who decide what’s best for their students every day.

In short, what happens in classrooms is loosely tied to what goals and policies the state  determines, school districts desire, and principals expect to happen. Teachers decide what occurs in their lessons once the tardy bell rings. These age-graded structures and the rules that govern them—daily schedules, taking attendance, periodic tests, nightly homework, report cards, waiting one’s turn, permission to go to bathroom, honor rolls–are called the “grammar of schooling.”

That “grammar of schooling” shapes how and what teachers teach and students learn. Its direction is conservationist in keeping the school looking like a “real” school that parents and grandparents attended. Yet over time as policy-driven reforms have spilled over public schools that “grammar” has incrementally changed.


  1. Most major reforms come from outside the schools. These externally-driven reforms stem from larger political, social, and economic problems that policy elites believe schools can ameliorate if not solve. Existing goals, policies, and practiuces change incrementally as the abiding “grammar of schooling” tames reforms aimed at overhauling schools.

Policy elites, for example, drafted public schools in the late-1950s to make America stronger during the Cold War with the Soviet Union by churning out more scientists and mathematicians. When weak economic growth and stiff economic competition with Japan and Germany occurred during the 1970s, civic and business leaders urged schools to create more “human capital”— academically prepared students who could score higher on international tests and enter the job market prepared for a post-industrial America. In the early decades of the 21st century, having schools become vehicles for reducing societal inequities (e.g., re-segregation of schools in most cities, expanding numbers of minority teachers in schools with mostly white faculties; end tracking in secondary schools) and increasing social justice (e.g., curricula that stress defects in capitalism and how racial and economic oppression operates in the U.S) has been on reformers’ agendas. The history of school reform in 20th century America, then, is a history of policy elites “educationalizing” societal problems and claiming fundamental changes when only incremental ones occurred.

The rhetoric of “fundamental” reform and selective policy adoption did happen but seldom to the degree that reformers in each generation sought for alterations in what teachers taught. None of the advertised “fundamental” reforms, however, altered the existing “grammar of schooling.”

4. In most instances, what happens to externally-driven policies is that schools and teachers adapt the often over-hyped instructional innovation, curricular addition, or organizational change to the contours of the local age-graded school.

More, faster, and better teaching and learning through technology, for example, began with placing one computer on a teacher’s desk in the early 1980s, then locating desktop computers in libraries then setting up separate computer labs and eventually buying laptops for each student. Now in 2020, classroom carts with 25-30 tablet computers are stacked and ready for student use in most classrooms. Yet dominant ways of teachers  organizing classes, arranging activities, and teaching lessons continue as before but now they use devices and software to achieve the same ends. In short, schools adopt reforms and adapt them to fit the prevailing “grammar of schooling” embedded in age-graded schools.

5. There are also internally-driven reforms initiated by administrators and teachers. Without fanfare and below media radar, bottom-up governmental, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes have altered many aspects of schooling.

From teacher-run schools to block scheduling of the school day, to teacher-initiated courses, to teachers adapting lessons–changes have happened unnoticed by mainstream media because they are done over time with no drum rolls or press releases. None of these bottom-up changes, however, significantly modified the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

6. Most external and internal reforms occur in schooling largely through incrementalism.

That has been the prevailing pattern of change in public schools, not fundamental change (e.g., shifting from property taxes to fund public schools; replacing age-graded structures with ones that end the current “grammar of schooling”; replacing teacher-centered with student-centered instruction; ending segregated schools). Such overhauls have been attempted but seldom have stuck in schools to the continual disappointment of fervent reformers. Policymakers and entrepreneurs often use the rhetoric of fundamental change, but end up with downsized policy versions of the changes they seek.When put into practice, they become incremental replacements (e.g., the new math, new biology, and new physics curricula in the 1960s turn into different textbooks for students).

When fundamental changes in schools do actually occur, more often than not, they come from beyond the schoolhouse door such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ended de jure racial segregation in U.S. schools yet for decades political coalitions blocked desegregation plans until the U.S. Supreme Court decided upon the constitutionality of each plan incrementalizing the court decision. And since the 1990s, state and local inaction has led to de facto segregation in most cities and suburbs. Or Katrina, a hurricane that fundamentally altered New Orleans schools drastically has triggered a reconfigured public school system of nearly all charter schools. Yet these charter schools remain age-graded and practice the familiar “grammar of schooling.”

Incrementalism differs. In small steps over years, instruction, curriculum, school organization, and governance changes. Over the past century, classroom lessons that relied wholly on whole-group instruction have shifted slowly to a mix of whole-group, small-group activities, and independent student work. Curricular additions from Advanced Placement courses to ethnic studies to sex education have been added to high school courses. Expanded school organization now includes pre-schoolers. Since the 1990s many urban high schools are around 500 students rather than the usual 1500 or more students. Standardized testing of students has increased. Even in funding and governing public schools, charter schools and mayoral control of big city school systems have gradually spread since the 1990s across the educational terrain. And do not forget the cultural changes in dress, attitudes toward drugs and sex that slowly unfolded during and after the 1960s showing up in schools as female teachers wearing jeans instead of dresses, male teachers no longer wearing ties and sports coats, teachers drinking coffee in class, and displaying far more informality in classrooms than in the 1950s.

Many of these incremental changes have no noticeable direction toward a long-term goal. They pop up when societal and governmental pressures from business and civic leaders, taxpayers, parents, and practitioners call for certain changes (e.g., more state tests, altering attendance boundaries,  adding ethnic studies courses to curriculum, increasing 45-minute classes to hour-long ones).

Such small steps, more often than not, do not add up to a fundamental change. A long-term vision of making small changes that will move classrooms, schools, or districts in a clear direction to overhaul the existing structures and activities is rare. It is uncommon because cultural changes in the larger society seldom occur in one fell swoop. Few tectonic plates shift dramatically; movement is in inches and feet.

There are, of course, occasional teachers who moved from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction over a decade. Just as there are schools where once students moved in lockstep progression from one teacher-directed activity to another to schools where students make independent choices, work closely with peers, and see their teachers as coaches. And there are districts that, over time, in bite-sized increments move from rigid top-down policymaking to more decentralized decisions that include principals and teachers in formulating, adopting, and implementing new ideas (e.g., Long Beach Unified School District, California). Incrementalism can be patchy, fragmentary and direction-less or it can be, over time, a collaborative movement inching toward a desired goal.


In moving from goals to policy to classroom practice, stability and change have marked tax-supported public schools in the U.S. for two centuries. American schools and classroom teaching have been fashioned by social, political and organizational factors. Local dependence upon property taxes and the decentralized system of school governance and funding in the past two centuries have accounted for economic and racial inequities in schooling. The perennial age-graded district school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the unswerving vehicle for adopting, adapting, and implementing state and local goals and policies into classroom lessons. Finally, the constant flow of problems in the larger society–including huge gaps in the distribution of wealth and grossly unequal funding of schools–has created patterns in school reform that often get converted into ad hoc incremental changes to improve both schools and society. Reform-minded policymakers, parents, practitioners, and researchers have to understand these three forces before undertaking what they would characterize as meaningful and substantive changes in goals, policies, and classroom practices.



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