Category Archives: how teachers teach

Did the IPET Initiative Fail? (Part 3)

Did the Gates-funded initiative to alter how teachers get evaluated in three school districts and four charter networks between 2009-2016, fail?

A local newspaper and the RAND corporation’s independent evaluation reached similar conclusions when it came to achieving the goals of improving low-income minority students’ test scores. Both concluded that the project did not meet that goal. New policies of identifying effective teachers and having those teachers work with low-income minority students also failed to yield the promised outcomes of the donor initiative. The dominant criterion used to judge “success” and “failure in U.S. public schools for the past generation has been effectiveness, that is, were the goals of the project achieved? Yes or no. Up or down. A binary answer. Using this criterion, the initiative failed.

Yet–frequent readers of this blog know that a “yet” or “but” soon arrives–there is evidence of a mixed verdict on the “success” and “failure” of IPET. Consider the following points:

*With Gates prior funding of research on measures of teaching effectiveness, support of the Obama administration, and school districts and charter networks eager to take the money and put these ideas into practice, the process part of IPET policymaking was clearly a political “success.” IPET mobilized federal, state, and local officials to consider the project and then adopt it with accompanying funding. A donor’s huge grant to school districts and charter networks converged with federal policies. That’s no easy task and it happened.

*And the IPET program was a political success. It is clear that the federally-funded Race to the Top’s inclusion of teachers being evaluated through test scores and the Gates grant for IPET persuaded many states to pass legislation, prod local districts, and provide resources for school systems to alter their traditional ways of evaluating teachers. Over 40 states, varying as they do in their evaluation requirements, still put these programs on the radar screens of local districts and these districts, over time, have worked out varied ways of enacting different forms of teacher evaluation. A fair person could conclude that such fallout from the initiative makes IPET a precarious “success” teetering on the edge of “failure. Since data continue to come in from states and districts on what is occurring in schools, what may be down the road insofar as teacher evaluation remains unclear.

*Another political success occurred during and after the IPET initiative. Grasping multiple threads that make up policy making, influential and richly funded political coalitions came together to support government intervention to get teacher accountability for student outcomes. States and districts chose to adopt and implement particular policies. And repercussions vibrated within school districts where teachers and principals were expected to implement these policies while outside schools parents and community organizations sought and acquired private resources to press teachers to be held responsible for student performance. All of these are political actions occurring in the wake of adopting teacher evaluation policies relying on student test scores. These political facts cannot be avoided or side-stepped because they do not neatly fit into the binary conclusion policy analysts and elites would prefer to use of “success” or “failure”.

Yes, at the end of the project, student outcomes fell short of what donors and districts wanted. Yes, few low-income minority students got to be taught by those teachers rated effective. These results do matter when they appeared. However, were another independent evaluator to enter the schools participating in IPET in 2021, five years after the project ended, would the results be the same. Probably yes, but possibly no.

Some reforms require more time as policies permeate organizations. Think of the Gates funded Small Schools Project (2000-2009) that the donors stopped  because academic achievement and graduation rates failed to improve yet after the money went away, later evaluators found that high school graduation rates had actually increased over time in those schools that were part of the small schools initiative.

So it may be for IPET. The strong push to hold teachers accountable for student outcomes persisted in state laws. Moreover, many districts scrambled to gain teacher support of using test scores by having multiple measures including principal observation and peer evaluation (see here and here)

In considering the political repercussions of IPET and state-driven teacher-accountability reforms, the picture is not one of unvarnished “failure” but a mixed one. depending on which criteria are used to make judgments, partial “successes” salted with visible “failures” doesn’t fit neatly into an absolute judgment of “success” or “failure.”

What is far better, as Allan McConnell suggests, is a spectrum that runs from: “program success, resilient success, conflicted success, precarious success.” Program “failure,” insofar as degree of implementation of program objectives, how much of desired outcomes were achieved, distribution of benefits to target group, and presence or absence of opposition to program becomes again a mixed picture. In short, policy and program outcomes are cluttered. Making judgments is untidy rather than neat when it comes to policy being put into practice and the rippling political consequences of implementing programs. IPET is an example of that untidiness in making judgments about “success” and “failure.”

The final post of this series looks at the role of donors in a democracy when they plow huge amounts of cash into such  initiatives and shape national reforms. For the U.S. system provides tax subsidies to philanthropists through allowing them tax-exempt status and there are no ways now to hold foundations accountable for their actions.





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

Donors Reform Schooling: Evaluating Teachers (Part 2)

In Part 1, I described a Gates Foundation initiative aimed at identifying effective teachers as measured in part by their students’ test scores, rewarding such stellar teachers with cash, and giving poor and minority children access to their classrooms. Called Institute Program for Effective Teaching, the Foundation had mobilized sufficient political support for the huge grant to find and fund three school districts and four charter school networks across the nation. IPET launched in 2009 and closed it doors (and funding) in 2016.

A brief look at the largest partner in the project, Florida’s Hillsborough County district, over the span of the grant gives a peek at how early exhilaration over the project morphed into opposition over rising program costs that had to be absorbed by the district’s regular budget, and then key district and school staff’s growing disillusion over the project’s direction and disappointing results for students. Consider what the Tampa Bay Times, a local paper, found in 2015 after a lengthy investigation into the grant. [i]

  • The Gates-funded program — which required Hillsborough to raise its own $100 million — ballooned beyond the district’s ability to afford it, creating a new bureaucracy of mentors and “peer evaluators” who no longer work with students.
  • Nearly 3,000 employees got one-year raises of more than $8,000. Some were as high as $15,000, or 25 percent.
  • Raises went to a wider group than envisioned, including close to 500 people who don’t work in the classroom full time, if at all.
  • The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teachers into high-needs schools.
  • More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants.
  • The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million when related projects are factored in, with some of the money coming from private foundations in addition to Gates. The district’s share now comes to $124 million.
  • Millions of dollars were pledged to parts of the program that educators now doubt. After investing in an elaborate system of peer evaluations to improve teaching, district leaders are considering a retreat from that model. And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses — a major change in philosophy.
  • The end product — results in the classroom — is a mixed bag.

Hillsborough’s graduation rate still lags behind other large school districts. Racial and economic achievement gaps remain pronounced, especially in middle school.

And poor schools still wind up with the newest, greenest teachers.

Not a pretty picture. RAND’s formal evaluation covering the life of the grant and across the three districts and four charter networks used less judgmental language but reached a similar conclusion on school outcomes that the Tampa Bay Times had for these county schools.

Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students,

particularly LIM [low-income minority]students. By the end of 2014–2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not

participate in the IP initiative. Furthermore, in the sites where these analyses

could be conducted, we did not find improvement in the effectiveness

of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few

instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall;

we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers in most sites. [ii]

As with the history of such innovative projects in public schools over the past century, RAND evaluators found that districts and charter school networks fell short in achieving IPET because of uneven and incomplete implementation of the program.

We also examined variation in implementation and outcomes across

sites. Although sites varied in context and in the ways in which they

approached the levers, these differences did not translate into differences

in ultimate outcomes. Although the sites implemented the same levers, they

gave different degrees of emphasis to different levers, and none of the sites achieved strong implementation or outcomes across the board. [iii]

But the absolutist judgment of “failure” in achieving aims of this donor-funded initiative hides the rippling effects of this effort to reform teaching and learning in these districts and charter networks. For example, during the Obama administration, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s initiative of Race to the Top invited states to compete for grants of millions of dollars if they committed themselves to the Common Core standards—another Gates-funded initiative–and included, as did IPET, different ways of evaluating teachers. [iv]

Now over 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted plans to evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores. How much student test scores should weigh in the overall determination of a teacher’s effectiveness varies by state and local districts as does the autonomy local districts have in putting their signature on state requirements in evaluating teachers. For example, from half of the total judgment of the teacher to one-third or one-fourth, test scores have become a significant variable in assessing a teacher’s effectiveness. Even as testing experts and academic evaluators have raised significant flags about the instability, inaccuracy, and unfairness of such district and state evaluation policies based upon student scores being put into practice, they remain on the books and have been implemented in various districts. Because the amount of time is such an important factor in putting these policies into practice, states will go through trial and error as they implement these policies possibly leading to more (or less) political acceptance from teachers and principals, key participants in the venture.[v]

While there has been a noticeable dulling of the reform glow for evaluating teachers on the basis of student performance—note the Gates Foundation pulling back on their use in evaluating teachers as part of the half-billion dollar Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching—the rise and fall in enthusiasm in using test scores, intentionally or unintentionally, has focused policy discussions on teachers as the source of school “failure” and inequalities among students.  In pressing for teachers to be held accountable, policy elites have largely ignored other factors that influence both teacher and student performance that are deeply connected to economic and social inequalities outside the school such as poverty, neighborhood crime, discriminatory labor and housing practices, and lack of access to health centers.

By donors helping to frame an agenda for turning around “failing” U.S. schools or, more generously, improving equal opportunity for children and youth, these philanthropists —unaccountable to anyone and receiving tax subsidies from the federal government–as members of policy elites spotlight teachers as both the problem and solution to school improvement. Surely, teachers are the most important in-school factor—perhaps 10 percent of the variation in student achievement. Yet over 60 percent of the variation in student academic performance is attributed to out-of-school factors such as the family. [vi]

This Gates-funded Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching is an example, then, of policy elites shaping a reform agenda for the nation’s schools using teacher effectiveness as a primary criterion and having enormous direct and indirect influence in advocating and enacting other pet reforms.

Did, then, Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching “fail?” Part 3 answers that question.


[i] (Marlene Sokol, “Sticker Shock: How Hillsborough County’s Gates Grant Became a Budget Buster,” October 23, 2015 )

[ii] RAND evaluation; implementation quote, p. 488.

[iii]  William Howell, “Results of President Obama’s Race to the Top,” Education Next, 2015, 15 (4), at:

[iv] ibid.

[v] Eduardo Porter, “Grading Teachers by the Test,” New York Times, March 24, 2015; Rachel Cohen, “Teachers Tests Test Teachers,” American Prospect, July 18, 2017; Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead, For Good Measure? Teacher Evaluation Policy in the ESSA Era, Bellwether Education Partners, December 2016; Edward Haertel, “Reliability and Validity of Inferences about Teachers Based on Student Test Scores,” William Angoff Memorial Lecture, Washington D.C., March 22, 2013; Matthew Di Carlo, “Why Teacher evaluation Reform Is Not a Failure,” August 23, 2018 at:

[vi] Edward Haertel, “Reliability and Validity of Inferences about Teachers Based on Student Test Scores,” William Angoff Memorial Lecture, Washington D.C., March 22, 2013



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

Donors Reform Schooling: Evaluating Teachers (Part 1)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching  aimed at identifying effective teachers whose practices raised students’ test scores, giving minority and poor students access to such teachers, and creating new ways of evaluating teachers than currently exist. I offer this example to illustrate how policy elites (top public education officials, civic and business leaders including donors) influence every step of the policy process: framing the problems to be solved, proposing top-down solutions, relying (or not relying) on research, and making requisite policy changes that ripple through the entire decentralized system of U.S. schooling.

Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching

Between 2009 and 2016, three school districts (Hillsborough County, Florida; Memphis City Schools, Tennessee; Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania) and four California-based charter networks (Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Aspire, Green Dot, and Partnerships to Uplift Communities) spent over a half-billion dollars of which Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed $213 million in creating IPET policies that would identify, recruit, train, and evaluate effective teachers while giving low-income minority children and youth access to those effective teachers. Giving children heretofore excluded from having the best teachers would offer equal opportunity to children and youth, one goal of the project. [i]

Teachers would learn how to do peer evaluations, collaborate with other teachers, receive professional development and dollar bonuses if their students scored well on tests. Finally, the project would determine whether student test scores, graduation rates, and attendance in college improved as a result of these policies.

Money would go to those teachers who meet the criteria (i.e., student test score gains, highest ratings from peer and supervisor observations). Such money-loaded programs spur many individual teachers to secure the highest ratings from evaluators. That such programs also encourage collaboration through peer evaluation, that is, teachers learning together how to judge fellow teachers while giving every teacher the chance to participate in such efforts reveals the values embedded in the process of determining “successful” teachers. [ii]

These years then brought together national policymakers and donors to push ahead on programs that policy elites determined were the best levers to improve the performance of U.S. public schools. Even prior to this, the Gates Foundation had funded research to identify valid measures of effective teaching that were then incorporated into proposed policies that participating districts and charter networks could put into practice.

In the first decade of the 21st century, then, there was a convergence of the largest U.S. foundation investing in both research on effective teaching and the Common Core curriculum standards intersecting with President Obama’s educational initiative –designed and shepherded by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan–for a competitive Race to the Top, and the policy elite’s passion for holding teachers accountable by evaluating teachers using test scores. The dollar-infused IPET partnership of districts and charter networks fueled by sponsored research into effective teaching was a top-down initiative that national and state policymakers enthusiastically endorsed. To keep tabs on this massive effort, the Gates Foundation funded the RAND corporation to independently evaluate the reform.

In short, then, reigning educational policy elites embraced and enacted targeted teacher accountability as the lever for lifting public schools out of the morass of mediocrity. Part 2 looks at what happened to this initiative when it got implemented in schools.


[i] Brian Stecher, et. al., “Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Enhanced How Teachers Are Evaluated But Had Little Effect on Student Outcomes,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018, p. 3; Matt Barnum, Chalkbeat

[ii] Brian Stecher, et. al., “Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Enhanced How Teachers Are Evaluated But Had Little Effect on Student Outcomes,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018





Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Oversold and Underused: Software in Schools (Thomas Arnett)

Thomas Arnett is a Research Fellow of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This appeared in Education Next November 30, 2018.

Earlier this month, education news outlets buzzed with a frustrating, yet unsurprising, headline: Most educational software licenses go unused in K-12 districts. The source of the headline is a recent report by Ryan Baker, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Learning Analytics. Baker analyzed data from BrightBytes, a K-12 data management company, on students’ technology usage across 48 districts. That data revealed that a median of 70% of districts’ software licenses never get used, and a median of 97.6% of licenses are never used intensively.

The findings unveil a clear disconnect between district software procurement and classroom practice. To be clear, not all software is high quality, which means teachers may have good reason to not adopt some software products that fail to deliver positive student learning outcomes. But for quality software tools that can yield breakthrough student outcomes, underutilization is a huge missed opportunity.

So when districts license high-quality educational software, why might teachers still choose not to use the software at their disposal? Some of our latest research at the Christensen Institute offers answers to this question.

Understanding teachers’ ‘Jobs’

In September, my colleagues and I released a research paper that explains what motivates teachers to change how they teach. Drawing on the Jobs to be Done Theory, we interviewed teachers to discover the ‘Jobs’ that motivate them to adopt blended learning or other new approaches to instruction.

According to the theory, all people—teachers included—are internally motivated to make changes in their lives that move them toward success or satisfaction within their particular life circumstances. The theory labels these circumstance-based desires as ‘Jobs.’ Just as people ‘hire’ contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build a case, people search for something they can ‘hire’ to help them when ‘Jobs’ arise in their lives.

Through our interviews we found four Jobs that often motivate teachers to adopt new practices. Three of these Jobs seem relevant for explaining why licensed software often goes unused.

Job #1: Help me lead the way in improving my school. Teachers with this Job are eager to demonstrate their value as contributors to broader school improvement. These teachers will be interested in using district-licensed software when it 1) seems like a viable and worthwhile way to improve the school as a whole, 2) seems simple and straightforward to share with their colleagues, and 3) offers them an opportunity to help shape the direction of school improvement efforts.

Job #2: Help me find manageable ways to engage and challenge more of my students. Teachers with this Job are generally confident with how teaching and learning happen in their classrooms. But they have a few students each year who they struggle to reach. They are often open to software as a way to engage those students. But that software must not only be worthwhile for their students, but also practical to incorporate into their current practices and routines.

Job #3: Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student. Whether from perpetually low test scores, low graduation rates, ongoing student behavior issues, or a general sense that learning lacks joy and passion, teachers with this Job struggle constantly with a sense that they aren’t living up to their responsibilities to their students. For these teachers, software can be a powerful resource for helping them transform their instructional models. But that software needs to offer new approaches to teaching and learning, not just new takes on traditional textbooks and worksheets.

Accounting for the 70% of unused software licenses

We suspect that in many cases, quality software goes unused because it either fails to align with teachers’ Jobs or fumbles at delivering a good solution for meeting their Jobs.

For example, teachers who are looking to lead the way in helping their schools improve (Job 1) likely don’t look first to software as a way to fulfill their Job. Their school improvement instincts typically orient them to look for new instructional programs, not silver bullet software. To meet their Job to be Done, software providers need to start by offering an evidence-based set of practices that will help schools improve on key metrics. Then, once they’ve made the case for new instructional methods, they can discuss how software tools help to facilitate those methods.

As another example, teachers in search of manageable ways to engage and challenge more of their students (Job 2) could find a lot of benefit in the multimedia-rich and game-like aspects of many edtech products. But software platforms that are great for engaging students may yet fail to get used because teachers find them hard to incorporate into daily lessons. Software developers, hardware suppliers, and district technology teams all need to consider things they can do to make it easy for teachers to incorporate software into their lesson plans and then manage devices during class.

As a third example, consider a teacher who is frustrated by a sense that he is failing to meet the needs of most of his students because he feels stuck teaching to the nonexistent middle of his class (Job 3). The right software could be a powerful platform for helping him create individual learning pathways and mastery-based progressions that meet each of his students where they are. But if the software available from his district just supplements whole-class, direct instruction, that software won’t fulfill his Job.

Explaining why 97.6% of software licenses are never used intensively

One significant finding from our research illustrates another potential pitfall for software utilization. When new software licenses come down from the district office without clearly communicated benefits for teachers or pedagogical support, many teachers likely take a quick look and conclude that the software doesn’t fulfill any of the first three Jobs for them. Nevertheless, they feel compelled to use the software, at least occasionally, so as to not set a bad tone with their administrators. They do what they need to do to check the appropriate boxes on their teacher evaluation rubrics, but they don’t actually use the software enough for it to make a difference for them and their students. The new Job that the software creates for them amounts to, “Help me not fall behind on my school’s new initiative.” This insight likely explains why even though 30% of software licenses that get used, only 2.4% are used intensively.

In education, money isn’t easy to come by, which makes it especially frustrating to learn that many districts spend money on software that doesn’t get used. The district staff members who make software licensing decisions surely don’t intend for their purchases to go to waste. But yet, as Baker’s report illustrates, there is a disconnect between software purchases and classroom adoption. A good sales pitch may get a product through the district office’s front door. But only by helping teachers fulfill their Jobs can high-quality educational software make it through the classroom door and into the hands of students. In short, software only gets used in classrooms when it meets a Job to be Done for teachers.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Teachers in the Same School Teaching the Same Subject Teach Differently: No Kidding!

From time to time, I dip back into my blog archives to resurrect and update an earlier post because the issue raised in the post remains current. This updated post was originally published January 15, 2010,


As a teacher and later as superintendent, I used to snicker when I read research studies that stated findings confidently, brandishing strong numbers showing statistical significance about school phenomena that I and colleagues had known were true based on our experience. Subsequently, I became a researcher and I published studies on how teachers taught, technologies in schools, and how superintendents ran districts. In those studies, truth be told, I offered conclusions drawn from my data that must have sent other teachers and superintendents into hilarious guffaws.

These memories preface a few comments–and, I confess, a few chuckles–on a study completed in 2009 by top-of-the-line researcher Brian Rowan and colleagues called the Study of Instructional Improvement ( sii final report_web file). Education Week and The Harvard Education Newsletter featured this study.

The five year quasi-experimental study of three Comprehensive School Reform models (Accelerated Schools Program, America’s Choice, and Success for All)  included analysis of 75,000 teacher logs from nearly 2000 teachers teaching literacy (reading and language arts) in grades one to five in schools across the  nation . What did they find?

They found that teachers in the three models varied in how often they taught reading and language arts in the same grade and school.

…large variations in teaching practice were found
to exist in all content areas, with teachers in the same school at
the same grade often varying by as much as 3 to 4 days a week in
the percentage of days devoted to teaching reading and writing.


With many more examples, the researchers pointed out that these variations in instructional practices was NOT due (yes, that is a NOT) to the students’ achievement levels, “their previous instructional histories … or to variations in ethnic and socioeconomic composition.”

They also found that the startling variation in teaching practices within the same grade and school came, again, NOT from “teachers’ professional preparation, … years of experience, or pedagogical knowledge.” If anything these factors “have only tiny effects on teaching practices.”

These findings are not intuitive or common sense; neither are they laughing matters. They confound and confuse all those fervent reformers who believed in their heart of hearts that these factors—student achievement and professional preparation–had large, not “tiny effects on teaching practices.”

Such conclusions would not surprise principals, instructional coaches, and supervisors who regularly visit classrooms and observe teachers. Nor did these conclusions surprise me–this is where the chuckles enter the picture–since I have spent many years visiting classrooms as a teacher, administrator, and researcher. The conclusions might, however, surprise teachers, school board members, state and federal policymakers, donors with deep pockets, and parents since few ever have the chance or taken the opportunity to step into classrooms and stay for awhile.

The researchers concluded that “schools remain ‘loosely coupled’ organizations where teachers have considerable autonomy and function largely as curriculum brokers.” They call this conclusion a “dismal observation.”

The word “dismal” (how about the word “realistic?”) signals readers that these disappointed reformers/researchers would have welcomed data showing that teachers implementing these whole school reform models narrowed the band of variation in teaching reading and language arts so that students’ learning opportunities were not subject to the luck of the draw in getting one teacher or another. But they did find an exception buried in their data.

Two of the three reform models–America’s Choice* and Success for All**–well-defined, specified programs with on-site coaches, principals pressing and supporting teachers to be faithful to the program design, led to classrooms where teachers hewed more closely to prescribed instructional practices. Whether or not, such faithful implementation of teaching practices–what researchers call “fidelity to design”–translated into higher test scores, they cannot say, however (See PDF AERJ on instruction). What they can say is that variation in teaching practices shrunk considerably in these two models and students experienced more consistent teaching practices as they went through the grades. And that is news that even an ex-high school teacher and superintendent with plenty of miles on the odometer found encouraging.



• The National Center for Education and the Economy, home to America’s Choice for years, sold program to Pearson and it is part of their offerings in professional development. I would pronounce it dead.

**Success for All is alive and well. See here.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Whatever Happened to Team Teaching?

In teaching high school history and graduate university courses for many years, I have team taught with other history and English teachers and university colleagues many times. For example, Roberta Rabinoff Kaplan and I taught English and social studies at Cardozo High School in the mid-1960s. And in Stanford University’s teacher education program, I team taught a social studies curriculum and instruction course for a decade with Lee Swenson, then an Aragon High School history teacher. Historian David Tyack and I teamed up to teach “History of School Reform” between 1987 and 1998. Tinkering toward Utopia came out of our collaboration.

I enjoyed very much the planning together and actual teaching that I and my team-mates did. Sure there were conflicts over choice of content, which materials to use, who would do what and when during the lesson, and similar decisions. More often than not, we negotiated in order to collaborate and conflicts eased. In every instance of team teaching at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. and at Stanford University, arrangements were made informally rather than part of an organizational initiative to spread the collaboration.

Yet at one time team teaching was a “best practice” promoted by national associations, districts, and individual schools. It is hard to recapture just with words the national excitement over the innovation of team teaching introduced in the late-1950s after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite. Team teaching then was seen as the solution to the organizational problem of stodgy, individualistic teaching in the age-graded school’s self-contained classrooms when collaboration was rare and isolation was the rule. It was considered a “best practice” of the day. Yet as a buzzword, team teaching in K-12 classrooms flew like a shooting star across the educational sky in the 1960s and disappeared by the mid-1970s leaving little cosmic dust in its wake. Of course, team teaching exists in U.S. classrooms now but what it was and its history is a tale in of itself.

What is team teaching? In brief, team teaching is collaborative planning and enactment of lessons among two or more teachers in a building; sometimes called co-teaching it can happen in elementary schools at grade level while in secondary schools team teaching occurs within and across academic subject departments (e.g., history and English, science and math, art and English). In some instances, teachers are responsible for large groups of students as in open space elementary schools once popular in the 1970s. These teachers decide when to have all students together for lectures, small discussion groups, and independent work. So there are many variations in the form and content of teach teaching (see here, and here).

What problems did team teaching aim to solve? Promoters of the innovation in the 1960s and since saw team teaching as a way of breaking down the organizational barriers embedded in the age-graded school organization such as each teacher with her own classrooms isolated from peers in the same grade or department. Isolation of teachers from one another in comparing and contrasting approaches to lessons prevented collaboration that, in turn, limited students’ exposure to different ideas and ways of teaching and, at the same time limited teacher growth in subject matter, pedagogy, and managing students. Both critics of and advocates for public schools noted how little collaboration occurred between professionals in schools.

Did team teaching work? Anecdotal evidence from teachers more often than not underscored increases in job satisfaction that team teaching brought to participants. As to whether team teaching produced gains or losses in student academic performance, well, research findings are mixed (see here, here, and here). The literature, as scarce as it is, comprises dissertations, studies of particular teams in a school, and similar case studies (see here, here, here, and here)

As to solving the problems of teacher isolation and insulation within the age-graded school, I have not yet found any such evidence. To look for evidence, researchers have had to document  the situation in schools prior to introduction of team teaching then whether schools modified their schedules sufficiently to give teams of teachers adequate time to plan and coordinate teacher schedules, especially in secondary schools, as well as insert into weekly schedules back-to-back classes so the team teaching could be enacted. Again, such studies I have yet to find.

What has happened to team teaching?

Both formal and informal team teaching continues in U.S.schools. No longer an attractive slogan , elementary and secondary school teachers of like mind and with a cooperative principal work out arrangements to team teach for a few years and then return to their usual routines. With the ubiquity of classroom technologies and the buzz around “personalized learning,” team teaching has become a way of teachers( special education and regular classroom teachers working together as coaches of teachers, teams working at grade level responsible for large groups of students, and the like (see here). And there are schools that rediscover team teaching and crow about it (see here).

Finally, other variations of teaming have emerged over time such as teacher residencies where a beginning teacher (akin to medical residencies in hospitals) is paired with an experienced teacher and both work to teach students cooperatively and the neophyte over a two-year period gains important content and skill knowledge as well as techniques to manage classrooms when they become full fledged teachers (see here, here, and here).




Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

The Case for Contentious Curricula (Jon Zimmerman and Emily Robertson)


Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-author of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools. Emily Robertson is a professor emerita at Syracuse University and the co-author of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.

This article appeared in The Atlantic Online on April 26, 2017


On August 9, 2014, the police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson is white; Brown was black. He was also unarmed. Within a few days, Ferguson was engulfed in riots. In dozens of other American cities, thousands of protesters took to the streets to condemn racism and police brutality.

Some schools in the Ferguson area delayed their scheduled opening to allow work crews to clean up the post-riot debris and to make sure that students could be transported safely. When they finally opened their doors, the schools had to decide how—and whether—to address the Brown shooting and its aftermath. Across America, demonstrators chanted that “Black Lives Matter.” How would Ferguson-area teachers make the controversy matter, and to what end?

Not surprisingly, their approaches varied. In University City, a suburb bordering St. Louis, one teacher led students in a “free-ranging discussion” of race, criminal justice, and inequality. “They were able to deconstruct the issues in terms of looking at things like poverty, education, the militarization of the police department, and the perception around the country and the world that St. Louis was in turmoil,” the teacher proudly recalled. But across the Mississippi River in Edwardsville, Illinois, school officials instructed teachers to “change the subject” whenever Ferguson arose in class. And in Riverview Gardens, the district where Michael Brown was killed, officials told teachers to talk about the issue only when students raised it. If students became “emotional about the situation,” teachers were advised to refer them to school counselors and social workers.

Edwardsville is a majority-white district, and Riverview Gardens is majority-black. But in both places, the reason for restricting discussion was the same: a fear that teachers were inserting their own biases—and inflaming an already-volatile situation. The major focus of concern remained the psychological well-being of the students, not their intellectual or political growth. Indeed, for many educators in the region, “politics” was exactly what schools needed to avoid. It conjured visions of emotionally fragile students, rising up in anger and possibly violence over the Ferguson situation. But perhaps this is the wrong approach, and public schools ought to address controversial issues that they too often avoid. The Ferguson episode merited the attention of schools: The issue was the focus of disagreement among experts and of broad public interest and concern.

On the airwaves and op-ed pages, scholars debated the origins of the Ferguson unrest and its larger implications for American race relations and criminal justice. And across the country, in person and in social media, millions of citizens engaged in lengthy and often impassioned conversations about the situation. Alas, it was precisely the volume and the vehemence of public discussion that led many educators to eschew it in public schools. And that, too, has been a recurring theme in the history of American education. As the Ferguson examples illustrate, people simply do not trust teachers to engage students on controversial issues in a knowledgeable and sensitive manner. Nor are teachers given the space to conduct these discussions in the school timetable, which is increasingly dominated by preparation for high-stakes standardized tests. As one report from Riverside Gardens confirmed, “there are too few educational hours available” to address events like Ferguson and to ready students for tests in reading and math, especially in underserved schools where many pupils lack proficiency in these areas. Indeed, as research has repeatedly confirmed, poorer students are even less likely than other youth to examine controversial issues in their schools.

Schools teach many things. For the most part, though, they have not taught students how to engage in reasoned, informed debates across society’s myriad differences. Simply put, the rhetorical commitment to “teaching controversial issues” in American schools has not been reflected in day-to-day classroom practices. Thanks to poor preparation, some teachers have not acquired the background knowledge or the pedagogical skills—or both—to lead in-depth discussions of hot-button political questions. Most of all, though, teachers have often lacked the professional autonomy and freedom to do so. That is particularly the case during wartime, when schools have sharply curtailed discussions of America’s military conduct. But throughout America’s history—and into the present—teachers have faced formal and informal restrictions on political discussions of every kind. Rising education levels have probably increased this pressure, emboldening citizen challengers who formerly might have deferred to teachers’ superior knowledge and credentials. “The high-school teacher has in fact lost relative status in recent years as more and more parents are themselves high-school graduates,” the eminent sociologist David Riesman observed in 1958. “And while the kindergarten teacher gains admiration because she can control several dozen preliterates whose mothers cannot always manage even one, the high-school social-studies teacher has a harder time being one-up on American-born parents who can claim to know as much as she does.”

That is even truer today, as more and more parents have obtained college and graduate degrees. But secondary-school teachers—and, in particular, those who instruct social studies—still face uniquely sharp constraints, for reasons that Riesman spelled out over half a century ago: “High-school teachers can become labeled by their students as ‘controversial’ as soon as any discussion … gets all heated or comes close to home,” Riesman wrote. And the threat was greatest in social studies, which “both draws on what is in the papers and risks getting into them.” In many communities, that was simply too big a risk for social-studies teachers to take. So most of them taught what Riesman called “social slops”—a litany of clichés and pieties—and avoided anything controversial that could only get them in trouble with one part of the public or another. “They fear that to utilize ‘controversial issues’ in education exposes them to criticism,” wrote future Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a few years earlier. “This has produced a nagging insecurity which in turn has forced many teachers to abandon valid educational techniques.”

To be sure, many other school subjects—not just social studies—involve potentially controversial issues. Teachers across the curriculum have struggled to balance their duty to address these issues with the inevitable pressures to eschew them. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, American high-school science teachers emphasized physics and chemistry but down-played biology. The reason was obvious: Unlike the other major sciences, one observer wrote, biology threatened to “acquaint high-school boys and girls with the theory of evolution.”

Citizen complaints have also restricted the forays of English teachers into controversial questions. Sometimes, teachers have been barred from assigning The Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the other so-called “banned books” that raise hackles at school-board meetings across the country. Even when such works have been allowed, however, teachers often experienced sharp limits on discussing delicate themes in the texts—especially those surrounding sex. Finally, school-mandated sex education has also been a constant target of community objections. It has typically devolved to health- or physical-education teachers, who have often stripped their lessons of anything too explicit—or too controversial—for fear of alienating one parental constituency or another.

Laws, school officials, and community opinion have all conspired to prevent or discourage American teachers from discussing controversial issues in their classrooms. This is not to say teachers have always avoided such issues: In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, a survey of social-studies teachers in Ohio revealed they were leading classroom discussions about whether President Harry Truman should have seized steel mills, whether Truman should have fired General Douglas MacArthur, and whether—as MacArthur wished—the United States should have used an atomic bomb in the Korean War. That same year, in another survey, New York City teachers reported holding debates on whether “Red” China should have a seat in the United Nations, whether Communists should be allowed to teach in public schools, whether Julius and Ethel Rosenberg should have received the death penalty for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and whether Senator Joseph McCarthy was “a menace to or savior of American democracy.”

After several teachers were dismissed for their own Communist affiliations, some admitted they were afraid to discuss anything controversial in their classes. But the survey seemed to show their concerns were misplaced, or at least exaggerated. “Let the teachers who do have these fears take heart,” the survey’s author wrote. “The very subjects which they say they are afraid to teach are being taught by many of their colleagues in adjoining classrooms and neighboring schools. Such teachers are imposing an unnecessary censorship on themselves.”

Into the present, some evidence indeed suggests teachers overestimate the constraints on addressing controversial issues in their classrooms. Novice teachers, especially, express surprise when they hear about veteran instructors who openly discuss divisive public questions with their students. “You let them talk about what?!” teachers in a recent study asked a colleague when they heard about her lessons. “You let them express what opinion?” In many ways, these remarks speak to the new teachers’ weak preparation for one of their central civic roles: to explore controversial issues with future citizens. It’s also a reminder that this kind of instruction continues to occur, despite the paucity of professional training for the task and—particularly in recent years—the shrinking legal protections for it.

When the United States attacked Iraq in 1991, students at a Pittsburgh high school walked out to protest their school’s refusal to address the issue. But 12 years later, when America invaded Iraq again, a high school in suburban New York sponsored a full-day discussion of it. At an all-student assembly in the gymnasium, five students and two social-studies teachers presented arguments for and against the war; then the students dispersed to their respective classrooms to continue the conversation. America’s classrooms are rife with opportunities for growth through controversial topics. The question is whether teachers will be empowered to address them.


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