Category Archives: how teachers teach

Whatever Happened to Authentic assessment?

No Child Left Behind drove a stake into its heart. OK, that is a bit dramatic but the standards, tests, and accountability movement that began in the early 1980s, picking up speed in the 1990s, then accelerating to warp drive with the passage of NCLB brushed aside this Progressive instructional reform called “authentic assessment.”* Pick your metaphor but, save for scattered teachers across America who began teaching during the height of “authentic assessment,” few new superintendents, novice principals, and rookie teachers, much less reform-minded parents have ever heard of this Progressive way of assessing student learning.

Where and When Did Authentic Assessment Originate?

In the 1980s following A Nation at Risk report state policymakers rushed to raise curriculum standards and increase school and district accountability. One outcome of these cascading reforms across the country was a sharp increase in students taking required standardized tests. By the late-1980s and early 1990s, Progressives* of the day such as Deborah Meier, Grant Wiggins, Fred Newmann, Linda Darling Hammond, and Ted Sizer sought to make schooling more demanding of students intellectually in tasks, activities, and assessments. Meier, Sizer, and others, for example, created and organized schools with teachers who pushed students to not only think about the content and skills they learned in ways that went well beyond what multiple-choice items on a standardized test would capture but also to demonstrate to others through portfolios and performance tasks–what they learned and apply that learning to the world in which they lived. “Authentic assessments” became an often-mentioned instructional reform. The phrase “performance assessment” was also used interchangeably with “authentic assessment.”

What Problems Did Authentic Assessment Intend To Solve?

Coming in the wake of the increased standardized testing and the narrowing of the curriculum to those tested subjects–reading and math–learning ,especially in poor and minority schools, was reduced to covering what would be on the tests and repetitive tasks. Standardized tests are limited severely in what they measure of student learning, much less performance. Yet policymakers looked to these tests as accurate measures of student outcomes. Finally, students were disengaged and often reduced to passivity. Seeing such a backwash of problems from mandated testing, instructionally-driven reformers saw authentic assessment (no more quote marks for rest of post) as a way to return teaching and learning to its Progressive roots of engaging students through connecting content and skills to real world tasks thereby increasing student participation in learning (see here and here).

What Does Authentic Assessment Look Like in Classrooms?

I could not find a teacher’s lesson or student description of authentic assessment in print. There may be such descriptions but I found none. What I did find after many searches were video clips of schools committed to authentic assessment and a third grade teacher describing what she did with English Language Learners (see here, here, and here).

I was surprised by this dearth of sources describing what actually occurs in classrooms. Designing and applying authentic assessment tasks in a classroom lesson and unit of instruction takes a lot of work by teachers. True, all of the work is front-loaded the first few times but the assessment can be used often afterwards. There are shortcuts, of course, in designing such assessments and locating tasks for students to perform. Nonetheless, much time is involved in finding the right real-world task that captures the student learning outcome that the teacher seeks to assess. I apologize to readers for not having such examples.**

Perhaps I looked in the wrong places or was not persistent enough. If readers know of descriptions of actual classroom lessons that eluded me, please send me the links.

Did Authentic assessment Work?

Here is the bind that champions of authentic assessment find themselves in. If “work” means effectiveness in determining whether students have learned the required content and skills and performed satisfactorily on mandated state tests, to what degree has authentic assessment aided in the outcome.Simply put, here is the bind. Does a classroom teacher or the principal of school committed to authentic assessment through student portfolios look to scores on state standardized tests as evidence of learning? Or does the teacher, school, or district design different measures that would determine the extent that students learned? Or do both matter?

Answers to the questions pose a contradiction since state tests are limited measures of student learning of content and skills that fail to grasp the critical skills gained from assessing discrete tasks authentically. The answer to the other question is “yes” which means an enormous investment in time from teachers and others, a calculation that both teachers and administrators have to make, given the other demands upon teachers during the school day.

When the state of Vermont, for example, adopted portfolios as an authentic assessment rather than standardized tests, RAND researchers evaluated whether portfolios supplied sufficient and accurate data on student performance. They concluded that the data they collected was less in quality than traditional standardized test scores.

What Happened to Authentic Assessment?

Like many Progressive additions to teachers’ repertoires over the decades, the excitement surrounding its introduction in the late-1980s and early 1990s waned. The idea of teachers and schools designing assessment tasks that capture whether students can apply what they have learned, of course, continues to appear in many teachers’ lessons within the nation’s 100,000 schools. Teachers have constantly blended traditional and Progressive ways of teaching and learning over the decades. But the boosterism and hoopla surrounding authentic assessment have disappeared. Standardized tests remain the gold standard in 2020 for assessing student learning.


*I use the word Progressive to describe authentic assessment since it is aimed at the principle of children learning by doing and engaging student’s attention and participation in real world tasks. These were the aims of the early 20th century Pedagogical Progressive and current educators committed to constructivist teaching and learning.

**Please see comments from readers who recommended sources that I have not included. Especially Bob Lenz’s comments and the links he provides to current performance assessments. Thank you, Bob.


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Children Are Born Scientists. What If School Encouraged That? (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 in The Atlantic Online September 11, 2020.

Growing up, Gary Koppelman, now an award-winning science teacher, didn’t think he’d make it to college. In elementary school in the late 1950s, he struggled with math and reading and got mostly Cs and Ds. Speaking in front of his classmates made him stutter. He was teased relentlessly, and he had very few friends. By the time he began high school in 1966, his counselor told him to forget about college.

And then, as has happened to many students, one teacher changed everything. Koppelman’s high-school Spanish teacher, Doug Cline, made a point of frequently praising Koppelman’s strengths, like his work ethic and resilience, and helped him navigate incidents of teasing and bullying. When Cline and Koppelman discovered that they shared a passion for horses, the teacher taught his student how to compete in horse shows, and Koppelman went on to win many of them.

“Mr. Cline helped me feel successful, and convinced me that my challenges will make me stronger to help others in need,” Koppelman told me late last year. We were sitting in the science lab that he designed at Blissfield Elementary, a small rural school in southeast Michigan, where he worked for 32 years until retiring in 2019.

Cline also encouraged Koppelman to try college for at least a year. In 1970, Koppelman enrolled in Eastern Michigan University to pursue a degree in teaching. There, in a class on reading methods, another teacher changed his life. His professor noticed his difficulties with reading, gave him a few assessments, and diagnosed him with dyslexia and challenges with hearing. Following his professor’s advice, Koppelman started using books on tape and seeing his teachers after lectures to receive extra help. He also realized that designing his own lab experiments and projects helped him understand how theories worked in the real world. In 1976, Koppelman graduated with a master’s degree in elementary education, near the top of his class.

Koppelman’s discoveries about his own learning challenged him to design an alternative method to teach science to all young children, including those who struggle with the lectures, textbooks, and occasional lab experiments of the traditional academic setting, like he did. What started as an empty room with a few plants when Koppelman began teaching at Blissfield in 1976 has since transformed into an acclaimed STEM lab that today gets visitors from all over the country to see its nearly 80 species of animals and more than 125 species of plants.

A few hours before our conversation, Koppelman had set up the Environmental Life Lab with a few crates filled with stuffed animals amid cages of live lizards, snakes, and insects. After our conversation, we watched two dozen cheerful kindergartners circle the room with clipboards, collecting data for their “Living or Nonliving?” project. “Is he breathing?” a girl in round pink glasses asked her classmates, who had their faces pressed against the glass cage housing a large tarantula. “Living!” a tall girl called out, when the spider suddenly moved. “What other data can we add?” a boy chimed in. “Is there water? Is there food?” All of the kids marked their clipboards. Next week, Koppelman said, this group will ask the same questions about plants: “Are trees living or nonliving? Do they move? Do they drink water? How do we know?”

As children gathered around a stuffed turtle toy to record evidence on their clipboards, Buddy, an ash-gray, 32-year-old parrot, squawked with delight. “Dustin, sit down please!” the parrot said, mimicking a teacher in the classroom next door, according to Koppelman. Like most parrots, Buddy is extremely social, and she prefers to sit in her aviary near the entrance of the lab, since children love to talk to her.

“All lessons should start with the interests of young children” is how Koppelman sums up the philosophy behind what he calls his “hands-on, minds-on” teaching approach. He tries to provide daily opportunities for students to engage with the natural world, ask questions, collect and analyze data, and work with their peers to come up with answers. “At a young age, children are so intrigued by animals and insects. I think life sciences is a powerful springboard to get them interested in earth and physical science, and then extend that into math, geography, and social studies.”

When Koppelman was growing up, he shared this curiosity about the animal world, but he rarely had opportunities to ask questions in class. After school, however, he felt free to investigate his own questions in the crop fields and forests near his family’s farmhouse: following the tracks of a fox while riding his pony, Prince; digging in creeks; and observing various insects, and then researching their names and behavioral patterns in books at home.

A 2003 review of 110 studies on children’s attitudes toward science in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia found that their interest in the subject begins to wane after age 11, suggesting that the elementary years are a key time to build and sustain engagement with science.

Studies that have looked at time dedicated to science in elementary grades since the mid-’90s, have found variation between states, but generally show an overall decline, especially in schools serving high numbers of low-income children. Meanwhile, jobs in the STEM-related fields are now projected to be among the fastest growing in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Koppelman dreamed of creating a science lab as soon as he began working at Blissfield Elementary, but for more than 20 years there weren’t any funds for it. Then, in 1999, the school received grants from a few local foundations and built a lab for the elementary grades. Today, the Environmental Life Lab is open to the more than 1,200 students in the district’s elementary, middle, and high schools. Over the years, teachers in all grades, working in subjects ranging from math to English to social studies, have developed lesson plans that incorporate the lab. Michigan’s long, harsh winters make it difficult for students to engage with the natural world throughout the school year, but thanks to the lab, students are able to learn about rain forests, deserts, and various other ecosystems in all seasons.

Dozens of fish, frogs, toads, and turtles live in a freshwater pond in a room that mimics a tropical rain forest. As students study freshwater systems by investigating the plants and animals living in the pond, they can contrast them with the other life forms in a nearby 1,500-gallon saltwater pool. Buddy lives in a bird aviary, next to a section with various species of hamsters, lizards, spiders, and snakes in an area that is set up as a desert ecosystem filled with cacti and succulents. “I specialize in hamsters,” a fifth grader who works as one of the lab’s “zoo keepers” told me.

In Koppelman’s view, children are born with all the traits of a good scientist: They are curious, eager to investigate their surroundings, and happy to experiment. But too many students enter elementary-school classrooms that extinguish that passion with lessons that are disconnected from their lives and the natural world around them. As Koppelman told me this, he was holding one of the most popular inhabitants of the lab, a bearded dragon named Harold. “Does he bite?” a second grader asked Koppelman. “Will he run away? What does he like to eat? How come he doesn’t have teeth?” Koppelman eagerly answered every question.

Inquiry-driven science classrooms in elementary grades are rare, says John L. Rudolph, the author of How We Teach Science: What’s Changed, and Why It Matters and a professor of science education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Most schools focus on factual content, he told me. You might see elementary students asked to memorize the parts of the eye, for example, and draw diagrams and write reports to supplement their learning. It’s less common, Rudolph said, for students to get the chance to engage in intellectual dialogue around questions such as “Why do humans have eyes?” or “How are the eyes of various animals different and why?”

The latter approach requires more teacher training, funding, and complex assessments, but the payoff is worth it, Rudolph said. Not only do students learn critical thinking and communication skills, they also develop an intimate understanding of and appreciation for how scientists come up with evidence and develop conclusions, which Rudolph views as a largely neglected part of science education. A lack of such understanding, he thinks, contributes to scientific illiteracy—from skepticism about climate change to growing opposition to vaccination.

The impact of Blissfield’s Environmental Life Lab has been huge: The rural district consistently outperformed state averages on standardized science tests between 2002 and 2015, and some years Blissfield Elementary scored near the top of the state, according to Linda Mueller, the school’s principal. More of the district’s students are going on to major in STEM fields in college, including alums like Jim Raines, a climate and space scientist at the University of Michigan, whose research helped send a solar orbiter into space this year, and Jodi Sterle, a swine geneticist at Iowa State University. According to several Blissfield teachers, more parents are choosing the district’s schools for their children, including the current supervisor of the lab, Kim Gray, a seventh-grade teacher who moved there with her family in 2003.

For dozens of current and former students I interviewed, work in the lab was the highlight of their time in Blissfield’s schools. “I learned that even though hamsters are the same species, they all need and like different things,” the fifth-grade zoo keeper said. “Every day feels like a field trip day,” a seventh grader told me. “The lab is so awe-inspiring in our little town,” said one high school senior, who applied to several colleges to study computer science. He credits the lab with making science and math his favorite subjects.

Even in retirement, Koppelman still came to the lab every day until the pandemic hit, but he was spending more of his time speaking at science conferences and in front of policy makers to advocate for what he views as a more meaningful way to teach science. If reading, worksheets, and standardized tests were the best way for kids to learn and show their knowledge, he told former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and state board members at a gathering in 2017, he’d never have even had a chance to go to college, much less create a STEM lab that has been used by thousands of rural students over the past two decades.

“It’s hard to explain to people who are not teachers what it looks and feels like when something in nature or science touches a child’s sense of awe and wonderment,” Koppelman said. “But my colleagues and I see it every day. That’s the payoff. There is nothing else like it.”

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Confessions of a Reformer (Part 5)

This series of posts is called “Confessions of a School Reformer,” a book I am now writing. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 describe my entry into classroom teaching beginning in 1955 and ending in 1972. So this post continues Part 4.

The King assassination

On April 4th, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis (TN) where he was supporting sanitation workers’ demands for higher wages and better working conditions triggered explosive anger across the country. Civil unrest broke out in over 100 cities across the U.S. Protests, looting, fires swept the nation.

In Washington, D.C., the 14th St. business corridor, a few blocks from Roosevelt High School where I taught, was picked clean and burnt.  A news article described the scene.

As night fell, angry people began to pour from their houses into the streets. Headed by the black activist Stokely Carmichael, crowds surged along 14th Street, ordering businesses to close. Carmichael tried to keep control, but things quickly got out of hand. A rock was thrown through a store window. Then a trash can was hurled. Someone used lighter fluid to start a small fire in a tree. As firefighters doused it, someone in the crowd yelled, “We’ll just light it again!”[i]

Over four days of violent disturbances, 13 people died and damages or destruction occurred to nearly 1200 residential and commercial buildings. The President called in the National Guard. Just barely a 100 yards from our house, Barbara, Sondra, Janice, and I stood at the corner of 16th and Holly Sts. to watch troop-filled trucks and tanks move down the broad avenue toward heavily damaged areas in the city.  [ii]

Like so many other families in D.C., we were distraught. Schools closed. Businesses shuttered their windows. Everything shut down, TV reports of shootings shook all of us. Since grocery stores in the damaged areas were either wiped out or picked clean, many families in those areas needed food. St. Stephen’s Church organized food drives and volunteers to take bags of groceries to families near 14th St. For two days these volunteers, including me, drove to apartment buildings and residences to drop off groceries.

King’s assassination altered dramatically what happened in my morning Roosevelt classes and what occurred in the afternoons at CCR. At school, there was much absenteeism and when even smaller classes convened, feelings were raw and silence was common during lessons. The school held a memorial service for Dr. King. Ever so slowly, my students re-entered discussions. In the Negro History class, where there had been many free-wheeling discussions of racism in American society, three students displayed their anger at whites including their teacher over the next few weeks.  Sullen aggressiveness was the order of the day from many (but not all) students.

At CCR, divisions among the multiracial staff became even worse than it had been. Hateful looks and whispered comments about whites were frequent and often went unanswered. The sadness and anger over the loss of an exceptional leader whose views of making Blacks full citizens had broadened to include fighting poverty, connecting capitalism to inequalities, and the blood-letting Vietnam  War were evident in the weeks to come. My own inexperience within a bureaucracy and working half-days increased my uncertainty over what exactly should be the Unit’s agenda for school desegregation. What could the U.S. ever do to rid itself of racist structures and behaviors ricocheted in my mind. My questions and stumbling, uncertain efforts to ease the racial antagonisms shaped the following months of work at CCR. My inability to come up with a viable agenda of research and, more important heal the open racial divide that had been simmering before I became Director and now erupted within our Unit led, after many discussions with Barbara, to my quitting a few months later.  No other job awaited me.

[i]  Wikipedia, “1968  Washington, D.C. Riots,” at:,_D.C.,_riots

Denise Wills, “People Were Out of Control,”: Remembering the 1968 Riots, Washingtonian, April 1, 2008 at:

[ii] Wikipedia, “1968  Washington, D.C. Riots,” at:,_D.C.,_riots


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“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 4)

This series of posts is called “Confessions of a School Reformer,” a book I am now writing. Parts 1, 2, and 3 describe my entry into classroom teaching beginning in 1955.

The Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching (1963-1967)

The pilot project, initially funded for one year, was a teacher-driven, school-based, neighborhood-oriented solution to the problem of low-performing students. It was an attempted reform of schools by creating a different model of preparing sharp, skilled teachers on-site and involved in the local community to turn around low-performing segregated schools. This school-based reform model rejected the traditional university-based teacher education programs wholly separated from impoverished neighborhoods that had failed for decades.[i]

Master teachers in academic subjects trained returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach while drawing from neighborhood resources. Once trained, the reform theory went, these ex-Peace Corps volunteers would become crackerjack teachers who could hook listless students through creative lessons drawing from their knowledge of ghetto neighborhoods and personal relationships with students and their families. As a result, more Cardozo students would go on to college, fewer would drop out. That was the reform model.

As luck would have it, the Project got funded each year in last-minute negotiations between federal and district agencies. I continued to teach at Cardozo High School, eventually directing the program until 1967. I recruited Cardozo teachers to be master teachers—we called them “affiliates”–to train interns.

By 1965-1966, applicants included Peace Corps returnees, civil rights activists who had worked in the South, and veterans of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) who had worked on community projects in fighting poverty.  It was a feisty mix of teachers and community activists who were active in D.C. civil rights protests and the growing anti-Vietnam War.

In early 1965, the project sponsored a conference for D.C. teachers on improving instruction and connections between schooling and civil rights. The first of its kind, the conference was held on Howard University’s campus and attracted nearly 100 D.C. teachers and activists. For the keynote address, I got Staughton Lynd, a Spelman College professor who had directed the Freedom Summer (1964) where more than 40 schools were set up in Black communities. Workshops on teaching Basic Track students (the lowest academic track in the D.C. schools at the time), links between poverty and schooling, teaching social studies during civil rights protests, and developing curriculum materials to use in lessons.

That was a high for me to bring together District teachers (including current and former Project teachers) for a conference on curriculum and instruction tailored to D.C. students at a time when civil right activists pressed for multi-ethnic materials and murmurings of Black Power began to emerge.  My civil rights involvement had moved from a focus on classroom teaching to the conditions of D.C. schools and how to improve them.

If the conference was a high, the low I experienced was the continual coping with uncertain funding each year. Tortuous conversations with federal and D.C. agencies opened my eyes to how politically and bureaucratically thorny it is to engage students and involve parents and residents while negotiating with top-level local and federal administrators. The complex network of relationships inside and outside of the district and the intersection between school, students, community, and organizational bureaucracies became hurdles to leap in order to get teachers to spend afternoons and evenings working with families in federally funded neighborhood centers near Cardozo.

It took four long years for me and other advocates to convince the D.C. superintendent and school board that recruiting and training Peace Corps returnees benefited the district for not only for contributions to teaching and student learning but also because the program lessened the annual scramble to staff all of its classrooms. The superintendent finally agreed to take over the program in 1967 re-naming it the Urban Teacher Corps and expanding it from recruiting and training 50 new teachers a year to over a hundred annually.[ii]

After this exhilarating but exhausting experience at Cardozo, I saw my job of getting the teacher education program incorporated into the regular D.C. school budget as being done. I returned to teaching U.S. history at Roosevelt High School, another D.C. high school, further north on 13th St.

[i]In 1966, the U.S. Congress had authorized the National Teachers Corps, based on the model we created at Cardozo High School. I served on the Advisory Board for the National Teacher Corps.  In 1971, after four years of recruiting and training teachers in the Urban Teacher Corps, a new Washington, D.C. superintendent abolished the program. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan ended federal funding for the Teacher Corps.

[ii] Maxine Daly,”The Teacher as Innovator: A Report on Urban Teacher Corps,” Journal of Negro Education, 1975, 44(3), pp. 385-390.


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“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 3)

Continuing story of my teaching history at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH), 1956-1963

Then I got married in 1958.  Evenings which I had used for grading homework and preparing lessons and weekends for completing graduate papers were no longer as available as when I was single. Fatigue and the growing awareness that I could have a life outside of Glenville brought me face-to-face with choosing how to combine the demands of work and being with Barbara and eventually my two daughters, Sondra and Janice. Threading that needle was never easy for me as a teacher and later, as an administrator.

In seven years of teaching, I had created in fits and starts, with many stumbles, a home-grown history course than I had neither expected when I arrived at Glenville in 1956.  I was an unheralded, unknown classroom reformer creating a different American history course in a de facto segregated school.

I came to believe that any teacher could adopt and adapt lessons tailored to their students, especially economically disadvantaged students in segregated schools. My belief in engaging classroom materials turning around such students and schools grew out of those lessons I had created. If more teachers and schools did what I did, I believed, then urban schools would improve. Although my reform-driven belief turned out to be too narrow and too demanding of teachers given the working conditions they faced, the ideas I offered and practiced in my classrooms of getting students to connect the racial-inflected past to the present, I hoped would help my students understand what was happening in the South with Freedom Riders and student sit-ins in segregated restaurants and bus boycotts. Without fully knowing it myself, my belief in the power of education to reform society, as Dewey put it, lay behind the materials I developed and classroom activities I managed.  That is my small part in the civil rights movement.

In the next decade working in Washington, D.C. my work as a classroom reformer developing curriculum materials and lessons to engage minority students continued. Events, however, spilled over public schools. A generational and organizational split over Black Power reshaped the Civil Rights movement. Urban riots in Los Angeles, Newark, Detroit and other cities over police brutality, inadequate housing, few jobs, and segregated schools broke out year after year in the mid-1960s. Anti-Vietnam War protests spread. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead by a white sniper. Civil unrest—looting and fires–in over 100 cities leap-frogged across the nation. Governors and mayors called in the National Guard to quell disturbances and bring order to cities.

All of these events inexorably seeped into school lessons and activities. In these years, I began to see a much larger picture of the nexus between the worlds outside and inside schools and how the complexities of school reform stretched far beyond my students in one classroom.

Cardozo High School 1963-1967

After seven years at Glenville and going part-time for a doctorate in American history at Western Reserve–I had already written chapters for a dissertation on black leadership in Cleveland–two job offers came to me in 1963. One was to teach U.S. History at a Connecticut college with the understanding that I would complete my dissertation and another was to move to Washington, D.C. and work in a federally funded teacher-training project located in an all-Black high school.

The job was to be a “master teacher.” That is I would teach two classes of history and train four former Peace Corps Volunteers who had just returned from two years abroad in the craft of teaching social studies. Yes, I was ambitious, I wanted recognition and approval but I had a family now and was uncertain what to do with these competing offers.  I was at a fork in my career and had to choose.

I took the one-year job in 1963 at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C.. My previous work in developing racial content in instructional materials at Glenville, I would guess, helped the director hire me.   It was a big risk to move Barbara and toddler Sondra for only a year to D.C. but I was eager (and pushy) to join like-minded educators drawn to Washington in the Kennedy years. Career ambition drove my decision-making.

Federal policymakers in those Kennedy-Johnson years (John F. Kennedy was assassinated a few months after the project began and Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson became President) had framed the problem of low-performing urban students dropping out of school as having too few skilled and knowledgeable teachers who could create engaging lessons to motivate teenagers to go to college and prevent them from dropping out of school. The solution to the problem was neither added funding nor more jobs for unemployed nor better and inexpensive housing. The solution was: prepare better teachers.[i]


So easy to forget that the District of Columbia, the seat of government for the United States, was a segregated city until the late-1950s.  Schools had been divided into two administrative divisions, White and Colored since the early 20th century.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Bolling vs. Sharpe decision in 1955 desegregated the D.C. schools consolidating the two administrative divisions into one school system. The slow movement of white families out of Washington to the emerging suburbs in Maryland and Virginia accelerated as desegregation slowly proceeded. By 1960, Black students were 70 percent of D.C.’s enrollment. And at Cardozo High School, the “castle on the hill” over 95 percent were Black.

On that 13th St. hilltop, Cardozo students looked out large windows and saw both the nation’s Capitol and the Washington Monument. The neighborhood at that time had a mix of middle- and working-class and poor Black families. [ii]

By the early 1960s, however, the neighborhood was changing. Percentages of families on public assistance, unemployment, and students not living with both parents had grown. Crime escalated. While mostly white- and blue-collar families sent their sons and daughters to Cardozo, the neighborhood had acquired a reputation of being poor and neglected. Local media labeled the Cardozo neighborhood as a Black ghetto and “slum”, terms that students, teachers, and parents bitterly resented.[iii]

In the early 1960s, the school had over 2,000 students of whom less than 10 were white. Nearly all faculty were Black and ranged from a core of dedicated, well- qualified teachers to the usual time-servers who counted the weeks until retirement. Like all D.C. high schools at the time, the track system sorted students on the basis of IQ test scores and performance into the Honors, College Preparatory, General and Basic tracks.  At Cardozo there were very few Honors and College Preparatory tracks when the Cardozo Project arrived and settled into room 111 in fall 1963.[iv]

[i]A more detailed description of Cardozo High School and the Project can be found in Larry Cuban, Teaching History Then and Now (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2016), pp. 43-70.

[ii]“Central High School (Cardozo Senior High School” D.C. Historic Sites at:

[iii] Eve Edstrom, “Slum Children a New Challenge to Peace Corps Group,” Washington Post, September 8, 1963, E2; Maxine Daly, “Urban Teacher Corps, 1963-1968, (Washington, D.C. Public Schools of District of Columbia, Office of Staff Development), May 1968, p. 4.

[iv] That organizational approach to schooling lasted until the track system was abolished by a U.S. court decision in 1967. See Alexander Bickel, “Skelly Wright’s Sweeping Decision,” New Republic, July 7, 1967 at:

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“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 2)

Glenville High School, 1956-1963

My memory of teaching over a half-century ago is filled with holes. In thinking back to the time when I began teaching at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH), I can remember some events, some students, some teachers, and my first principal but there is much I cannot recall. Slivers of memory remind me of what I did daily in my five U.S. and world history classes over the seven years that I taught there. And even those fragments are disconnected.  What helps me from sentimentalizing my memories are yellowed copies of actual lessons I taught, student papers with my comments on them, old spiral-ringed gradebooks listing students and their marks, occasional articles about one or more classes of mine in the student newspaper, and photos of me teaching in the annual yearbook. That’s it.

I do recall my shock when I had lunch with Glenville principal Oliver Deex just before I had to report for teaching in September 1956. I was startled to find out that Glenville’s student body was over 90 percent Black—the word then was Negro. He gave me a once-over-lightly account of segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the increasingly Black East Side and the all-white West Side, separated by the Cuyahoga River. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the growth of ethnic and racial ghettos.[i]

Segregated Cleveland

Patterns of ethnic and racial segregation in Cleveland had developed early in the twentieth century, when neighborhoods became easily identifiable as Italian, German, Polish, Jewish, and Black. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, upwardly striving immigrant Jewish families clustered in the Central, Scovill, and Woodland Avenue neighborhoods close to downtown. By the 1920s, many of these families began to move eastward into the Glenville area in response to an influx of Southern Black migrant families seeking better housing. The result was the gradual transformation of these areas into a Black ghetto. By the 1930s, Jewish businesses, synagogues, hospitals, and charitable institutions services dotted 105th Street, one of Glenville’s main thoroughfares, and Glenville High School became nearly 90 percent Jewish in that decade.[ii]

Residential segregation (homes on sale often had racial covenants in their deeds) and in-migration of Blacks after World War II again created overcrowded housing in already racially segregated neighborhoods. Upwardly mobile Black families entered the Glenville area in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As that occurred, more and more Jewish families moved into the eastern suburbs of Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid, and Beachwood. Middle-class Black families increased their presence in the Glenville area, so that by the time I arrived, Glenville High School and the adjacent junior highs and elementary schools were already over 90 percent Black.[iii]

Classroom teaching

Although my teacher preparation at the University of Pittsburgh was steeped in the Progressive tradition of student-centered instruction, if an observer had entered my high school history classes in those initial years they would have easily categorized my instruction as wholly teacher-centered. Students sat in rows of movable chairs with tablet arms facing the front blackboard and my desk.

I planned detailed lessons at home for the five classes. In my written lessons, which I would follow religiously in the early years, I would carefully list the questions I would ask for whole-group discussions, lecture on the text and additional readings Iassigned to the class, all the while orchestrating a sequence of activities aligned to the questions. Over 90 percent of instructional time was spent teaching the whole group.

Toward the end of my first year at Glenville, I realized, albeit slowly, that teaching five classes a day with multiple lessons (I taught world history and U.S. history), grading homework from over 150 students, and learning the ropes of managing groups of students a few years younger than me not only wore me out–I was also taking late-afternoon and evening graduate history courses at Western Reserve University– but drove me to rely on lectures and the textbook far more than I anticipated.

Slowly, however, I became dissatisfied about how I was teaching. I routinely lectured, watched maybe half of the students take notes and the other half stare into the distance or try to look attentive. Some fell asleep. I asked students questions about the textbook pages I assigned and got one-word answers back. Occasionally, a student would ask a question and I would improvise an answer that would trigger a few more students to enter in what would become a full blown back-and-forth discussion. It was unplanned and brief but mysteriously disappeared in the snap of a finger. Periodic quizzes and current events topics one day a week altered my routines but student disengagement persisted.

After six months, I realized that I did not want to teach history mechanically drowning students in forgettable facts that left me drained and dissatisfied at the end of a long day. I wanted to break out of that pattern. But did not know how to do that yet.

These were the years before the civil rights movement had traveled northward. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the midst of his Montgomery ministry; Rosa Parks had just triggered the boycott of Jim Crow buses in that city. After nearly a year teaching, I became more aware of how Cleveland’s racially segregated neighborhoods had blanketed schools like Glenville with malignant neglect. But it was slow going for a white teacher who gradually learned from his students and Black colleagues what was happening outside of school. Slow as it was, I began to see my work inside the classroom where students took notes and participated in discussions connected to students’ lives outside school.[iv]

That insight occurred as I grew Intellectually. Oliver Deex, my principal was midwife to expanding my mind. A voracious reader and charming conversationalist, Deex introduced me to books and magazines I had never read: Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others.

He often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. In his office after school, we would talk about what I read. I have no idea why he took an interest in the intellectual development of a gangly, fresh-faced, ambitious novice, but his insistent questioning of my beliefs and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching.

The next year, I decided to experiment with different content to break out of those instructional routines that numbed me by the end of the day. For two of my five classes, I began to design lessons that differed from the assigned U.S. history text (David S. Muzzey’s History of Our Country published in 1955 had no entry for “Negro” in the index). Drawing from my University graduate history courses, I began to type up excerpts from primary sources, duplicate them on the department’s one ditto machine, add questions and assign them to those two classes–the thought of doing this for all five classes overwhelmed me; two seemed do-able. [v]

For example, in a textbook chapter on the 13 colonies in which Muzzey’s History of Our Country dismissed the origins of slavery as unimportant, I would copy readings that included descriptions of slave auction and bills of sale and historians’ accounts that spelled out the issues surrounding the introduction of Africans into the colonies. I would add questions to these readings that called for students to analyze both primary and secondary sources. In addition, the librarian gathered the few books on Negro history that we had in our school and nearby libraries and put them aside in a special section for my two classes.

By my third year at Glenville, I had found that gaining students’ interest in U.S. history was only half the struggle. I was now using these materials in all five classes. Student response to non-textbook ethnic materials, however, was mixed. The novelty of studying Black figures and broader issues of race triggered deep interest in maybe half of the students in the classes. But many students felt that such content was sub-standard because their texts didn’t mention the information contained in their readings and, moreover, they complained openly that other history teachers didn’t have readings and used the textbook more than I did. Some students even asked me to return to the text. I was surprised at first that some students wanted me to return to the deadening routine that left me and most students anesthetized. Then I realized that using textbooks in high school was all that they knew.

Overall, however, I judged student response as sufficiently positive for me to continue and, truth be told, I was excited about the readings and ways of getting students to think about the past that I had developed. I saw that students studying a  past in which racial content and practices were important enabled both students and me to make connections between then and now that had been missing when I began teaching.  Sure, I was weary at 3:30 PM, but now I looked forward to the next day of teaching.[vi]

Within four years, I had expanded my repertoire beyond weekly use of ethnic and racial subject matter. I slowly introduced new content and direct instruction in skills into my U.S. history classes. As I learned the methodology of the historian in my graduate courses, I designed more lessons on analyzing evidence, determining which sources of information were more or less reliable and assessing what makes one opinion more informed than another. A later generation of scholars and practitioners might have labeled my uncertain baby-steps in changing the content of lessons,  “teaching historical thinking.” [vii]


[i] Leonard Moore, “The School Desegregation Crisis of Cleveland, Ohio, 1963–1964,” Journal of Urban History 28, no. 2 (2002): 135–147. Within the school, I quickly learned from experienced colleagues that the district personnel department customarily assigned young, white, inexperienced teachers to mostly minority schools to see if they would survive. 

 [ii] Kenneth Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870–1930 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 157–173; David Van Tassel (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 595–599.

[iii] Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape, 170–171.

[iv] A reader knowledgeable about Progressive thought in the early 20the century could easily point out that such a connection I had come to realize was within Progressive educators’ thinking decades earlier.

[v] For the reference to David Muzzey’s U.S. History textbook, see Larry Cuban “Jim Crow History,” Negro History Bulletin, 1962, 25(4), pp. 84-86.

The ditto machine (or “spirit duplicator”) came into schools in the 1940s. It did not need electricity to run and was cheap compared to a mimeograph machine. The machine was basically a crank-turned drum to which I attached a stencil that I had typed up. I inserted paper in the tray, and turned the handle until I had enough copies for my lesson. The finished copies were purplish with the distinct fragrance of alcohol (which was in the drum). The purple type ran occasionally and after producing many copies my hands were often bluish. With the invention of the electronic copy machine in the 1970s, ditto machines became another footnote in classroom teaching.

[vi] In 1962, I was asked to present at a national conference of social studies teachers on the ethnic and racial content lessons I had created. A member of the audience, Ted Fenton, came up to me afterwards and asked me if I would write a volume for his Scott,Foresman series on problems in American history. I said I would and in 1964, The Negro in America appeared in the series (it came out in a second edition in 1971 re-titled The Black Man in America.. It was the first book that I had published.

[vii] Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” Phi Delta Kappan, 1999, 80(7), pp. 488-499; Roy Rosenzeig, “What Is Historical Thinking Matters,” at:


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

Online Instruction for All

Even the most fervent advocate for online instruction would be surprised. For those who predicted 20 years ago that remote instruction will take over public schooling, the future has arrived. And for the true believers in online instruction as the best, efficient (read: less expensive) way of teaching and learning, Nirvana has arrived.

Covid-19 has upended naysayers who opposed expanded use of online instruction, seeing it as a pale substitute for in-person instruction. For the fall semester in schools across the nation, complete or partial online instruction (I avoid the word “learning”) is nearly universal.

Since March 2020 when nearly all public and private schools were closed to halt the spread of the coronavirus, face-to-face classroom instruction has largely disappeared from large urban districts. With the continued spread of the virus into rural, suburban, and urban communities, virtual instruction has become the only way of re-opening schools—except for those districts in states that have paid only lip service to guidelines for protection from the virus or where the incidence of infections are low, according to health authorities. In those places, hybrids of remote and in-person or full in-person schooling have been announced for the fall semester.

But for most students , they will sit and face screens daily. As a result, many district administrators have been scrambling to insure that every student has the hardware and software necessary to enable a K-12 program to be brought into every kitchen and living room. And teachers unused to teaching from their apartments and homes have hurried double-time to get versed in the techniques of teaching from a distance. Few policymakers, practitioners, or parents wanted online instruction as the sole provider of schooling but that is what it looks like for most of 2020.

In such a dire situation—Heaven for cheerleaders of remote instruction and for critics, a glimpse of an educational Hell–perhaps it is reasonable to ask the unasked question: Does online instruction work? 

That is the fundamental question that public policymakers (e.g., federal and state officials, local school board members and superintendents) have avoided in the rush to mandate cyber schooling when that is the only available option. Of course, there will be a small fraction of parents who will continue home schooling their sons and daughters using a mix of screen time with face-to-face instruction.

Nonetheless, such a question about the effectiveness of online instruction in raising student’s academic achievement and producing other desirable outcomes such as increased attendance, higher graduation and lower dropout rates, and college admissions—that is what I mean by “work”– gives educational leaders heartburn.

Why heartburn? Because of the tortuous role that research has historically played in policymaker decisions about adopting and implementing technologies in schools, especially amid a pandemic, for online instruction.

Necessity not research results, of course, demands a switch from in-person instruction to electronic schooling. The fear of losing a full year of schooling, continued unknowns of the virus threatening safety of children and the cratering of the economy press policymakers including the President of the U.S. very hard to re-open using distance instruction.

A brief look at the thousands of K-12 studies that have sought an answer to the question of the effectiveness of online instruction may be helpful to those policymakers, practitioners, and parents who have to enter that world.

Answers to the question are muddled. Scores of studies have been contested because most have had serious design and methodological flaws. Moreover, many of these studies lumped together full-time virtual schools, hybrids, and online courses, And the results have been underwhelming.  That is where heartburn enters the picture.[i]

Even when researchers over the past few decades have performed meta-analyses of a smaller number of studies that have met higher standards of quality they found that virtual instruction in its various modes, at best, is equivalent to regular face-to-face classroom instruction. At worst, some studies showed less achievement gains than traditional teaching. And keep in mind that these meta-analyses were of studies where online instruction occurred in mostly math, reading, and science courses—not other academic subjects. Nor in areas of great concern such as kindergarten and primary grades, the arts, and social and emotional learning. The overall picture is considerably dimmer than promoters of full- and part-time virtual schooling have promised or leaders had expected.[ii]

What complicates matters in 2020 is that findings drawn from research studies on the effectiveness of online instruction are only one of many interlocking tiles in a mosaic that policymakers assemble in adopting virtual instruction for children and youth. The usual back-and-forth that policymakers experience in the push-and-pull of conflicting demands such as what kinds of evidence of effectiveness matter and how much evidence is necessary to inform, shape, and justify a policy decision. Such doubts fly out the window when remote instruction is the only viable public policy during Covid-19.      [iii]

Thus, answers to the question of whether online instruction “works” matter little during emergencies.  The truth is that no one knows with certainty which students benefit from virtual schooling works, in what subjects, and under what conditions. No doubt that much data will be gathered in the upcoming school year by researchers and policymakers on what happens with students who have to rely on remote instruction, assessing its worth and overall  effectiveness. The health crisis has produced a massive experiment in schooling. Tens of millions of students will have to be instructed, assessed, and judged on performance by watching screens.

Few boosters of remote instruction in 2019 ever fantasized that nearly all American school children and youth would get their schooling remotely the next year. Covid-19 is surely the mother of reform—desired or not.  


[i] Gene Glass, “The Realities of K-12 Virtual Education,” p. 5.

[ii] Cathy Cavanaugh, et. al. “The Effects of Distance Education on K–12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis.” 2004 Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates ; Rosina Smith, et. al.  “A Synthesis of New Research on K-12 Online Learning”. 2005, Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates; Barbara Means, et. al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010).

[iii] See, for example, Charles Lindblom and David Cohen, Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979); Carol Weiss, et. al., “The Fairy Godmother and Her Warts: Making the Dream of Evidence-Based Policy Come True,” American Journal of Evaluation, 2008, 29(1) at:


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

I’m a Nurse in New York. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs, Just Like I Did (Kristin McConnell)

Kristin McConnell is a nurse and writer living in New York City. This appeared in The Atlantic online August 4, 2020.

The other day my husband, a public-school teacher in New York City, got a string of texts from a work friend. After checking in on our family and picking up their ongoing conversation about books and TV shows, she wrote, “So, are we going on a teacher strike in the fall?”

“What!? No!” My husband is adamantly against a strike, because he understands on a deep, personal level his duty to serve his country in the classroom.

We have two young children, one of whom is developmentally disabled, and I’m an intensive-care nurse. Through the spring, I took care of COVID-19 patients at the hospital while he toggled between teaching on Zoom and helping our daughters through their own lessons. He knows that I did my part for society, and that now he should, too.

We wouldn’t be in this mess of uncertainty about the coming school year if the federal government had managed to control the virus; any glimmer of leadership from the president would have gone a long way. Grievances and fear are understandable. I support teacher-led campaigns to make sure that safety measures are in place. And any city or state experiencing a spike in cases should keep schools shut, along with indoor businesses.

What I don’t support is preemptively threatening “safety strikes,” as the American Federation of Teachers did in late July. These threats run counter to the fact that, by and large, school districts are already fine-tuning social-distancing measures and mandating mask-wearing. Teachers are not being asked to work without precautions, but some overlook this: the politics of mask-wearing have gotten so ridiculous that many seem to believe masks only protect other people, or are largely symbolic. They’re not. Nurses and doctors know that masks do a lot to keep us safe, and that other basics such as hand-washing and social distancing are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

nstead of taking the summer to hone arguments against returning to the classroom, administrators and teachers should be thinking about how they can best support children and their families through a turbulent time. Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers. They should rise to the occasion even if it makes them nervous, just like health-care workers have.

My husband, playing devil’s advocate while we discussed this (we both know how eager he is to go back), said, “Arguably health-care workers sort of signed up for this kind of risk, but teachers did not.”

I replied, “Absolutely not!” Doctors and nurses sign up for work that is sometimes high-stress for us and sometimes life-or-death for our patients, not for us. Aside from those who choose to work in biocontainment or offer their services in war zones, we are not expected to do crucial medical work under potentially lethal circumstances.

I was terrified when I started taking care of COVID-19 ICU patients. Before my first COVID-19 shift, I had panic attacks that made me wheeze, and I walked onto the unit my first day in tears (so in addition to being terrified, I was also really embarrassed). My co-workers felt similarly. I heard an attending physician say, of her daughter, “What if she loses her mother?” and I read through a young nurse’s freshly written will, no joke.

In those early days, I confessed my anxieties to an acquaintance, and he asked whether I could take a medical leave of absence. I could have taken a leave, and teachers in need can too. (And parents who want their children to stay home have that option, whether through homeschooling or continued remote learning.) But I said, “No, I can’t just chump out!” Chump wasn’t the right word—at the moment, I was almost hysterical, and it was hard for me to even articulate how I felt, called upon to do something frightening and hard that I viscerally did not want to do.

The military language people used when discussing COVID-19 in the spring seemed totally appropriate, and in a way that mentality got me through the peak: This was a war, and I was a soldier. It wasn’t my choice to serve, but it was my duty; I had skills and knowledge that were needed

So I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school. But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job. Even people who think there’s a fundamental difference between a nurse and a teacher in a pandemic must realize that there isn’t one between a grocery-store worker and a teacher, in terms of obligation. People who work at grocery stores in no way signed up to expose themselves to disease, but we expected them to go to work, and they did. If they had not, society would have collapsed. What do teachers think will happen if working parents cannot send their children to school? Life as we know it simply will not go on.

When some of my husband’s students told him that they had continued working as cashiers throughout the spring and summer, he said, “Wow, that’s so courageous of you.” He feels that he doesn’t really have anything to show for himself, and he looks forward to the time when he will. Now, contemplating the possibility of teachers striking, he says, “Bowing out wouldn’t be a good example to set for our students.”

Teachers signed up to be a positive adult presence in children’s lives, and to help them grow up with their peers, at school, away from home. We need them to follow through, even though it’s a challenge. It’s going to be hard; it’s going to be stressful; it’s not going to be perfect. “I can’t think of one time that there was actually hand soap in the men’s bathroom,” my husband told me. That’ll have to change, hopefully for good. The point is that everyone is going to have to go above and beyond. But teachers are smart and adaptable. They can do this.

In the days before I first took care of COVID-19 patients, I discovered a deeper fear. Beneath my panic over exposing myself to the disease, I was also afraid that the work would be too difficult, too fast-paced, too chaotic: I was afraid I would fail. When I came to the hospital, I discovered that solidarity, flexibility, kindness, and a willingness to learn would be integral elements of nursing through a pandemic, and I knew I wouldn’t fail—the skills I had were the very reason I had been called upon to do this work. The same is true of teaching through a pandemic.


Filed under compare education and medicine, dilemmas of teaching

Remote Delivery of Instruction–Covid-19 and Re-opening Schools

Regardless of what President Trump wants, the vast majority of American students will begin their school year with remote delivery of instruction. As the surging of infections in many southern and western states has occurred, health risks for both children and adults have again risen. (see here and here). And many parents unwilling to take risks with their children will opt for staying home and their children doing the best they can with electronic devices

Note that I avoid the phrase “remote learning.” I do so because “learning” implies that through a medium–a computer screen–students have acquired knowledge and skills, been assessed for mastery, and can apply either or both in a different situation. Sitting at home in front of an Internet-connected device and listening to a teacher conduct a ZOOM session or completing and submitting an assigned worksheet, or partnering on-screen with a small group, or have small groups of students collaborate on-screen separately from the teacher can be (and are) worthwhile tasks leading to learning. But the medium has severe limitations as anyone knows who has taken online courses and experienced it since lockdowns and sheltering in began in March. And veteran and novice online teachers, are familiar with both strengths and shortcomings of distance education.

Nor am I romanticizing in-person classroom teaching. Rest assured as someone who has taught for 14 years, headed a school district for seven years, and have studied how teachers have taught over the past century I know full well the limitations, nay weaknesses, of face-to-face instruction. I have studied school reforms aimed at transforming curriculum and instruction and found how some were fully implemented by teachers and ended up both stretching and entrancing students intellectually. But most did not.

Organization may be transformed such as the age-graded, eight-room grammar school replacing the rural one-room schoolhouse over a century ago. But that has been rare. for all of the rhetoric about multi-age groups in schools, project based teaching, and unleashed innovations of charter schools, the age-graded organization remains the mainstay of U.S. schooling nearly two centuries after the first one appeared in the 1940s in Quincy, Massachusetts. I have yet to hear anyone question this organization

Curriculum may be transformed as has occurred when the college preparatory curriculum that all high school students in the 1890s had to take and subsequently the differentiated curriculum (e.g., college prep, vocational/commercial. and general) that Progressives created in the comprehensive high school between the 1920s and 1940s. And a generation later only to have many of the courses mostly replaced by the New Math, New Biology and New Social Studies of the 1960s and 1970s. Then within a few decades, to have those courses once again re-engineered by reformers in the 1980s and 1990s with curriculum standards aimed at getting all students prepared for college. Not unlike the aim of those 1890s reformers who taught a bare fraction of 17 year-olds. Yes, curriculum has indeed changed again, again, and yet again.

And instruction has also changed. Transformed, no. But incremental changes, yes. And in that tradition of gradual change, the notion of “great” teachers continues to seize the imagination of students, parents, administrators, and, yes, teachers as well. That idea of “great teachers” persists. Yet the idea hides the conflicting traditions buried with the common belief that there are “great” teachers.

Consider that the majority of adults in the nation believe schools should test students to see that they prepare children with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to succeed in an increasingly competitive labor market and diverse community. In short, they embrace the dominant ideology of standards, testing, and accountability to prepare graduates for college and career. In the historical tradition of teachers transmitting knowledge and skills to students, Maurice Butler, William Taylor , Michele Forman, and other teachers push, prod, and inspire students to get high test scores, go to college, and succeed in life.

But for many other parents, practitioners, and researchers, a “great” teacher goes beyond high achievement. They want their children’s teachers—reflecting another age-old tradition of teaching—to work daily for the wellbeing of the child, see students as whole human beings, believe in active learning, create structures for students to collaborate and explore. In short, these folks embrace a progressive ideology of teaching believing with supreme confidence that students exposed to this tradition of teaching will do well on tests, graduate and go to college. They would point to Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith, kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley, and Foxfire teachers in rural Georgia nurturing, inspiring, and connecting to students.

Because parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers vary in their beliefs about “great” teachers and different historical traditions of teaching, I put the word in quote marks. Especially now when remote instruction will be the dominant way of teaching in the coming months.

Even more troublesome is that the current concept of a “great” teacher squashes together two distinct aspects of teaching that need to be separated: the difference between “good” and “successful” teaching. They are not the same. And here is where the concept of “great” teachers gets even more complicated. Please stick with me here.

“Good” teaching is teaching that pursues morally and rationally sound instructional practices. “Successful” teaching, on the other hand, is teaching that produces the desired learning. As Gary Fenstemacher and Virginia Richardson put it:

“[T]eaching a child to kill another with a single blow may be successful teaching, but it is not good teaching. Teaching a child to read with understanding, in a manner that is considerate and age appropriate, may fail to yield success (a child who reads with understanding), but the teaching may accurately be described as good teaching. Good teaching is grounded in the task sense of teaching, while successful teaching is grounded in the achievement sense of the term.”

Another way to distinguish between “good” and “successful” is when a 8th grade teacher teaches the theory of evolution consistent with the age of the child and best practices of science teaching (the “good” part) and then has her students complete three written paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate their understanding of the theory of evolution (the “successful” part). These teaching acts are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other. For the next few months, one has to imagine this occurring on screen with rapt students watching. It is hard for me to imagine.

For the past quarter-century, however, policymakers and politicians have chopped, grated, and mixed together the goals of schooling into a concoction seeking to make education an arm of the economy. They scan international test scores, focus on achievement gaps, and boost teacher pay-for-performance plans. This policy direction has shoved the notion of “great” teaching into one corner of the ideological debate and thoroughly erased the distinction between the “good” and “successful” in teaching. Now “great” teaching means test scores go up and students go to college. A big mistake.

Why a mistake? Erasing the distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching muddles policy prescriptions seeking to improve how teachers teach and what students learn. Most important is that policymakers have, again, ignored the history of diverse teaching traditions and different ways of teaching that parents, practitioners, and researchers prize resulting in an unfortunate monopoly on only one way of teaching while students—in their glorious diversity–learn in many different ways.

And during a pandemic when the main choice is on-screen delivery of content and skills, these distinctions matter but will be lost in the predictable hullabaloo over remote instruction (not remote “learning.”

Just as being “schooled” is very different from being “educated,” so too is face-to-face learning from “remote delivery of instruction.”


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

The Poetry of Teaching

Why a poem? Because in writing posts for this blog and for books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation. It is aimed at the brain, not emotions.

Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry–even cartoons–can capture features of teaching and learning, particularly what teachers and students feel when in classrooms in ways that exposition cannot.

I am neither a poet nor an aspiring one. I offer these as ones that stirred me, that captured in vivid language what teachers and students feel and do.

The Hand

Mary Ruefle, 1996

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority, but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch, a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

Reprinted from Cold Pluto: by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press © by Mary Ruefle 1996.

Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in High School

Christopher Bursk

Because one day I grew so bored

with Lucretius, I fell in love

with the one object that seemed to be stationary,

the sleeping kid two rows up,

the appealing squalor of his drooping socks.

While the author of De Rerum Natura was making fun

of those who fear the steep way and lose the truth,

I was studying the unruly hairs on Peter Diamond’s right leg.

Titus Lucretius Caro labored, dactyl by dactyl

to convince our Latin IV class of the atomic

composition of smoke and dew,

and I tried to make sense of a boy’s ankles,

the calves’ intriguing

resiliency, the integrity to the shank,

the solid geometry of my classmate’s body.

Light falling through blinds,

a bee flinging itself into a flower,

a seemingly infinite set of texts

to translate and now this particular configuration of atoms

who was given a name at birth,

Peter Diamond, and sat two rows in front of me,

his long arms, his legs that like Lucretius’s hexameters

seemed to go on forever, all this hurly-burly

of matter that had the goodness to settle

long enough to make a body

so fascinating it got me

through fifty-five minutes

of the nature of things.

From The Improbably Swervings of Atoms by Christopher Bursk © 2006. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Poem for Christian, My Student

Gail Mazur

He reminds me of someone I used to know,

but who? Before class,

he comes to my office to shmooze,

a thousand thousand pointless interesting

speculations. Irrepressible boy,

his assignments are rarely completed,

or actually started. This week, instead

of research in the stacks, he’s performing

with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.

Kids danced to his music

and stripped, he tells me gleefully,

high spirit of the street festival.

He’s the singer, of course—

why ask if he studied an instrument?

On the brink of graduating with

an engineering degree (not, it turned out,

his forte), he switched to English,

his second language. It’s hard to swallow

the bravura of his academic escapes

or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face.

Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon

he’d picked on campus; once, a poem

about an elderly friend in New Delhi

who left him volumes of Tagore

and memories of avuncular conversation.

My encouragement makes him skittish—

it doesn’t suit his jubilant histrionics

of despair. And I remember myself

shrinking from enthusiasm or praise,

the prospect of effort-drudgery.

Success—a threat. A future, we figure,

of revision—yet what can the future be

but revision and repair? Now, on the brink

again, graduation’s postponed, the brilliant

thesis on Walker Percy unwritten.

“I’ll drive to New Orleans and soak

it up and write my paper in a weekend,”

he announces in the Honors office.

And, “I want to be a bum in daytime

and a reggae star at night!”

What could I give him from my life

or art that matters, how share

the desperate slumber of my early years,

the flashes of inspiration and passion

in a life on hold? If I didn’t fool

myself or anyone, no one could touch

me, or tell me much . . . This gloomy

Houston Monday, he appears at my door,

so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him

now, or say it matters if he wakes at all.

“Write a poem about me!” he commands,

and so I do.

Gail Mazur, “Poem for Christian, My Student” from Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 1995 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: The Common (The University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Mrs. Kitchen

Ann Staley

Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day. Wise teacher comment

Mrs. Kitchen

…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,

both working for the American Red Cross.

They returned to suburban Harrisburg

and began the next chapter of their lives.

Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.

Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,

which opened so you could hear recess voices,

and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.

We were seated, not in usual rows,

but in a square “u” of desks.

We were allowed to sit with whomever

we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted

by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).

Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.

She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.

She loved all of her students, but had,

I realized even then, a soft spot for me.

I didn’t understand why and still don’t.

Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,

she read aloud to us–from books

on the New York Times Bestseller list.

 Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.

Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,

believing that eight-year-olds could understand more

than the 1950s psychology books expected.

This was her great gift to her fortunate students.

We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,

then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.

One day when I’d finished my work early,

she sent me to the library, alone, saying,

 Get whatever book you want, Ann.

That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,

about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,

where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.

I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,

tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.

Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,

no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.


One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office

without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,

a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.

She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.

After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to

sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.

She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening

to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.

My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.

I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement

and began, in earnest, my professional life.

In Instructions for the Wishing Light, with Permission from author

Teaching English from an Old Composition Book

By Gary Soto

My chalk is no longer than a chip of fingernail,

Chip by which I must explain this Monday

Night the verbs “to get;” “to wear,” “to cut.”

I’m not given much, these tired students,

Knuckle-wrapped from work as roofers,

Sour from scrubbing toilets and pedestal sinks.

I’m given this room with five windows,

A coffee machine, a piano with busted strings,

The music of how we feel as the sun falls,

Exhausted from keeping up.

                                       I stand at

The blackboard. The chalk is worn to a hangnail,

Nearly gone, the dust of some educational bone.

By and by I’m Cantiflas, the comic

Busybody in front. I say, “I get the coffee.”

I pick up a coffee cup and sip.

I click my heels and say, “I wear my shoes.”

I bring an invisible fork to my mouth

And say, “I eat the chicken.”

Suddenly the class is alive—

Each one putting on hats and shoes,

Drinking sodas and beers, cutting flowers

And steaks—a pantomime of sumptuous living.

At break I pass out cookies.

Augustine, the Guatemalan, asks in Spanish,

“Teacher, what is ‘tally-ho’?”

I look at the word in the composition book.

I raise my face to the bare bulb for a blind answer.

I stutter, then say, “Es como adelante.

Augustine smiles, then nudges a friend

In the next desk, now smarter by one word.

After the cookies are eaten,

We move ahead to prepositions—

“Under,” “over,” and “between,”

Useful words when la migra opens the doors

Of their idling vans.

At ten to nine, I’m tired of acting,

And they’re tired of their roles.

When class ends, I clap my hands of chalk dust,

And two students applaud, thinking it’s a new verb.

I tell them adelante,

And they pick up their old books.

They smile and, in return, cry, “Tally-ho.”

As they head for the door.

Gary Soto, “Teaching English from an Old Composition Book” from Gary Soto: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Gary Soto


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