Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

Whatever Happened to Corporal Punishment?

Few policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and parents talk openly about corporal punishment in the 21st century. The phrase seems more appropriate to the 19th and 20th centuries rather than the present day when it was then liberally administered to children and youth in classrooms and principals’ offices. Paddling and spanking students (and other ways of physically punishing students) were common, legally permitted practices. In many states it was the law and in those states that banned the practice, legislators allowed district school boards to decide whether they wished to continue corporal punishment in their particular schools.

Today, many European nations have banned it in schools. Most states in the U.S. do so as well. Yet it persists in pre-K-12 public schools.

In this post, I will lay out both the past and present of this common school practice.

What is corporal punishment?

Corporal punishment is a euphemism. In Latin, corporal means “of the body” hiding that it is basically physical punishment. Rather than speak of “corporal punishment, administrators commonly call it “discipline.” Its purpose is to correct and deter what teachers and administrators define as student misbehavior. Misbehavior can be anything from chewing gum, one student hitting another student, disobeying teacher directives, writing on bathroom walls or destroying school property (and many other examples too numerous to include here) fall into the broad definition of “misbehavior.”

According to one researcher: A typical state definition of school corporal punishment is the one offered in the Texas Education Code, which specifies permissible corporal punishment as, “…the deliberate infliction of physical pain by hitting, paddling, spanking, slapping, or any other physical force used as a means of discipline.” (Texas Education Code, 2013)

In a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Ingraham v. Wright, the Court ruled that corporal punishment in schools is constitutional and the eighth Amendment banning “cruel and unusual punishment” does not apply to schools hitting students for breaking rules. Public schools could legally administer physical punishment to students when school officials decided it was appropriate to do so.

What problems does corporal punishment aim to solve?

Two problems generate corporal punishment in schools. First, student inattention to teacher’s lesson or her management of the classroom. Second, disregarding of school rules sufficiently to cause disruption outside of the classroom but within school grounds.

How is corporal punishment administered in schools?]

Much variation in spanking, paddling, and other physical punishments marked practices across school districts over the past century. In many districts, then and now teachers were allowed to administer the punishment. In other places, teachers sent students to the principal’s office and if the principal believed that, say, paddling was appropriate for the offense, he or she would give the swats. Physical punishment covered the age range from kindergarten to high school seniors, although the size of secondary school boys and girls often reduced the frequency of such punishments and alternative penalties such as suspensions from school and in instances where repetitive misbehavior occurred, expulsion.

Much evidence exists that much of the hitting of students occurs in southern states and that minority, poor children and youth got beaten in school in the 20th century more than white, middle-class students (see here and here)

Does it work?

Spanking and paddling in schools (or in families, for that matter) usually gain immediate compliance, the end of the misbehavior. In that sense, physical punishment works in the moment. But long-term adverse effects such as more aggressive behavior on the the part of the paddled student toward other students and family members have been found in many research studies.

What has happened to corporal punishment?

Overall, parents have shifted in their views of how best to raise children. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was mainstream wisdom shared by most parents in rearing children in the 19th century. By the early decades of the 20th century, physically punishing children at home for errant behavior began to give way to middle- and upper-middle class parents who used non-physical ways of gaining children’s compliance and “good” behavior (see here). Nonetheless, most parents (70 percent) continue to believe in hitting children for misbehavior, as an opinion poll in 2012 confirmed.

Nonetheless, changes in societal norms in raising children have led to changes in school norms. Paddling and spanking has given way in most districts to non-physical punishments such as verbal shaming, exclusion from certain student activities, and suspension from school. Hitting students in school occurred to four percent of all students (1978) and has declined to less than one percent in 2014.

As the map below indicates 19 states (2019) still allow corporal punishment.

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Life in Classrooms and Philip Jackson

In searching for my next project, I surrounded myself with books on teaching, teachers, and classroom life. Many of these books I had read more than once and each time in the re-reading, I learned something new. I re-learned not because I was dense the first time I read the book but simply because I had accumulated experiences since the first time I picked up the book. And that is what happened in re-reading Philip Jackson’s Life in Classrooms (1968). Rethinking my experiences over decades in classrooms pushed me again to learn anew as I read those gracefully written chapters into further reflection–beginning with the “Daily Grind.”

Like myself, Stanford University professor, Elliot Eisner, former student and colleague of Jackson at the University of Chicago said about that initial chapter: “Who can forget ‘the daily grind’? Who can forget the importance of students learning how to delay gratification? Who can forget the aroma, or should I say odor, of a place that smells of stale milk and that leaves chalk dust on your sleeves?”* I certainly have not.

In just 177 pages of text, Jackson took what he had seen in a handful of elementary schools and blazed a trail for subsequent generations of school and classroom researchers who sat alongside students and wrote up their observations. While John Dewey and others had sat in classrooms and described what they saw, by the early 1960s, many educational researchers enamored with quantitative studies and counting teacher and student behaviors to reveal narrow slices of what teachers did (e.g., how many questions teachers asked in a lesson) and what students learned (e.g., scores on a geography quiz) saw schooling as a technical process that educational engineers could improve.

Jackson’s Life in Classrooms launched a generation of qualitative studies of schools and teacher work that captured the sensibilities of teacher/student interactions within schools and what was consciously and unconsciously being taught and learned. And it was Jackson who coined the phrase “hidden curriculum,” the informal lessons taught in school (and by schooling) that often went undetected by all participants but had to be learned nonetheless (e.g. taking turns, obeying teachers, being patient). And that was nearly six decades ago.

What I took away from Jackson’s Life in Classrooms was not just one idea (“teaching is an opportunistic process. That is to say, neither the teacher nor his students can predict with any certainty exactly what will happen next.” p.166) or one approach to studying teaching and learning (anthropological approach to studying schools and classrooms). I took away the clear idea that the totality of classroom teaching and learning are complex processes where plans go awry and opportunities arise that teachers must grab to attain their goals.

Teachers make hundreds of decisions effortlessly during a lesson; they improvise as they watch the clock. Decision-making is both complex and opportunistic. A half century after Life in Classrooms appeared, only a precious few researchers have continued the observational work of Philip Jackson and written in that conversational, questioning, clear prose that Jackson patented.

Ah, I wish more researchers would re-read Life in Classrooms and update and revise the work of this gifted observer of schools.

Jackson died in 2015 (see here and here)


*Cheryl Craig and Maria Flores, “Fifty years of life in classrooms: an inquiry into the scholarly contributions of Philip Jackson,” Journal of Curriculum Studies, September 2019 at:

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The Classroom as a “Gritty” Place for Engineers and Plumbers (Matthew Evans)

Matthews Evans is headteacher of a Gloucestershire secondary school in southwest England and author of Leaders with Substance: An Antidote to Leadership. The issue of researchers–engineers who study and design projects to solve schooling problems–having a difficult time in getting practitioners–plumbers who get in and around pipes and drains–to put their findings into daily practice has been a perennial issue in the U.S. Many U.S. policymakers call it an “implementation” problem. According to Evans it is more complicated than just “implementation” as he describes the divide between teachers and researchers in the United Kingdom.

This post comes from his blog, theeducontrarian. It appeared April 25, 2021. I have lightly edited Evans’ post For the full text and references please go to the above link.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that cognitive science has, and will continue to have, a fairly limited impact on educational standards.

It is not that I reject the findings of this branch of psychology (although many of the studies, we are beginning to realise, may fail to replicate), or that I think we should turn our backs on the discipline. On the contrary: we should glean all we can from this, and other disciplines, which offer something to our understanding of education. My concern is that the implementation of cognitive science – or indeed any research in social psychology – is problematic.

There are many reasons why the application of knowledge from research, or theory, to the classroom is difficult. I will explore just one of these reasons here, which is the problem of the particular.

Access to water

The economist Esther Deflo tells the story of the effort to bring clean water to homes in Tangier in 2007. The firm responsible for this effort spent considerable amounts of money building a large network of pipes and installing taps and toilets in homes across the city. To access this infrastructure, households were offered interest-free loans to fund the cost of connecting their home to the supply. The incentive to take this offer was high (the benefits and convenience of clean, fresh water every day without carrying it from pumps). To many in poorer households in Tangier, the cost was high, but not unaffordable. The rational choice was to take the loan, and yet less than 10% did.

The designers of the programme no doubt felt that they had done everything they could to deliver clean water to thousands of households. The behaviour of those given this opportunity was mystifying; that is until they moved away from their drawing boards and observed what was happening on the ground.

What they found was that, to access the loan, numerous pieces of documentation were required. This meant that people needed to copy original documents and take these to the municipal offices. However, in most communities there was no access to photocopying facilities. When the team looking into this problem visited houses and offered to copy documentation and submit on their behalf, take up increased to 69%. The grit in the mechanism was enough to almost grind it to a halt.

The economist as plumber

Deflo points out the importance of detail in policy delivery, but suggests this detail is often overlooked by the designers of solutions. Her field of expertise is economic development, but the message has wider appeal. She admits that the role of engineer is an important one for economists faced with solving real-world problems. However, there is also a need for economists to be plumbers. Why plumber?

Plumbers try to predict as well as possible what might work in the real world, mindful that tinkering and adjusting will be necessary since our models give us very little theoretical guidance on what (and how) details matter.

The engineer will design the pipes but it is the plumber who must fit them. It is the process of fitting that reveals the messiness and diversity of reality. The plumber’s craft is in making elegant designs fit around the existing installation, to solve a particular problem, in a way that meets the expectations of the customer. The plumber’s skill is rooted in compromise and the particular, not ideals and generalisations.

For those charged with solving problems at scale, there is a tendency (a necessity) to simplify both the reason and the solution. It is expedient for there to be a single (or limited number of) root causes, an understandable causal mechanism, and a trigger – an intervention- which will set off a chain reaction to address the problem.

Duflo’s contemporary and collaborator, Abhijit Banerjee, labels the simple solutions that we long for ‘buttons’. These buttons fire up the machine. The machine metaphor is convenient to policy makers because it casts the social system as being reducible to components whose interaction can be understood, therefore whose faults can be fixed. This simplification – this denial of the complex reality – is problematic enough. But more than this, Banerjee argues, policy makers might even assume that the machine runs on its own or does not run at all (it is either functioning or stalled) and the task is therefore to leave it alone or to fire the cylinders. ‘The reason we like buttons so much,’ he says, ‘is that they save us the trouble of stepping into the machine… we avoid having to go looking for where the wheels are getting caught and figuring out what small adjustments it would take to get the machine to run properly….’

The devil in the detail

To illustrate my somewhat pessimistic point, let us turn to cognitive psychology, which is the subject of my opening critique.

I use cognitive science as an example not because it is alone in being subject to the detail dilemma but because it is currently ‘quite the thing’. I keep hearing about the various ways research findings are being rolled out in schools. In particular, retrieval practice – the idea that long-term memory will benefit from an intentional effort to recall information, bringing it to the forefront of your mind, thus strengthening neural pathways in the brain – has been seized upon by many.

I should state at this point that the ‘evidence’ behind retrieval practice appears to me to be about as robust as you can get in the field of cognitive science. Furthermore, rather than being an inaccessible, abstract concept, one can easily imagine practical applications in the classroom.

It is these two features – evidential support and ease of application – that has made retrieval practice a popular policy subject in schools, but also a useful example for illustrating the ‘problem of the particular’. Retrieval practice should work as a method by which to improve teaching and learning – it could be one of our best shots.

I’ve heard of various approaches for rolling out retrieval practice. However, I’m not interested in critiquing the method. My own view is that policies whereby, for example, all teachers are told they must do five retrieval questions at the start of every lesson is at the crass end of the spectrum, whilst coaching which promotes a more nuanced and appropriate adoption of retrieval practice are more palatable and likely to change practice in useful ways.

Rather than be distracted by arguments about how best to improve teaching practice, I will instead focus on the peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, and details of the classroom that may act as grit in the wheels. I will leave you to imagine how this grit may disrupt the various policy approaches you have experienced.

So, what are the details which may disrupt? You may wish to skim the following list to reach the conclusion, but I offer it to make the point that classrooms are very gritty places.

Disrupting a regularity. The regularities of behaviour in classrooms happen for a reason and we disrupt them at our peril. Take, for example, the act of taking a register [calling the roll of students in attendance]. For some teachers this is a habitualised and effective mechanism for establishing order and signalling the start of the lesson. The replacement of this routine with another – say a retrieval starter – will have an opportunity cost that must be accounted for. New pedagogical approaches should not only be judged by their efficacy, but in comparison to what is foregone.

2. Practical constraints. If we ask all teachers to line up pupils outside before they enter the lesson we disadvantaged those for whom this is not physically possible. Similarly, classroom layout, the availability of equipment, the peripatetic room changes for some teachers, the number of text books available, and numerous other practical constraints will inhibit delivery and effectiveness.

3. Competence. It sounds obvious, but it is a factor often overlooked: some teachers are more competent than others and all have aspects of their work which they are better in than others. The support, preparation and rehearsal required will vary across the cohort of teachers. Those who go in ill-prepared to try something new will be most likely to fail and be least likely to embed the practice – therefore those who most need to improve will be those least likely to.

4. Local priorities. All teachers have pressing problems which, in their minds, are worthy of their attention. For some it is getting class 11A to behave, for others it is meeting their performance management target, impressing the observer, or ensuring a student gets the grade they need to get into their chosen university course. Our problem may not be their problem. By making it their priority, what attention do we displace from their pressing problem?

5. Relationships. The teacher’s relationship with their class will be a key determining factor in the success of any new practice. Does the teacher feel psychologically safe to take risks?

6. Timing. Is this the right time to adopt the ‘proven practice’?

7. Interdependence and group norms. The relationship between colleagues will affect a teacher’s response to pedagogical intervention. Are they competitive or collaborative? What are the group norms around teaching adaptation?

8. Pupil experience. How does the pupil perceive the change? Have they noticed the sudden flood of retrieval practice? Do they perceive that this change in the regularities of their lessons is imposed upon them and the teacher, or a small adjustment of the like that their teacher makes all the time?

9. Administrative barriers. What is the turnaround time for ordering mini whiteboards? How long is the queue at the photocopier this morning?

10. Feedback loops. Teachers receive signals about the effect of their actions continuously. These signals are rarely, if ever, in relation to whether a particular action on their behalf has improved learning. And yet, any change in teaching practice encouraged by a school will (we assume) be with the intent of improving learning. Unfortunately, teachers adapt according to more visible and immediate information: how did the pupils react?; did they get the answers right?; did I run out of time to cover what I wanted to cover? Reinforcing signals will determine future behaviour such as whether new approaches become embedded in a teacher’s practice.

11. Habits. The adoption of a new habit also often involves the abandonment of another.

12. Instrumentalising behaviour. Tools may not be used for the purpose we intended ·  them to be used for. Teachers will likely adapt a tool to meet their emerging priorities. If they want to satisfy themselves that their teaching is working, they will instrumentalise assessment to this affect by posing questions that can be answered. If they want to quieten a chatty class, they will insist on silence for retrieval practice exercises. These are not always conscious choices. If you hand someone with food stuck between their teeth a paper clip, they may use it as a toothpick.

13. The diversity of children. We conveniently call them a ‘class’, but that is about all a group of pupils have in common.

14. Workload barriers. For the teacher who has all their lessons filed on PowerPoint, ready to roll out, the insistence of the inclusion of retrieval exercises will mean changing every resource. For newer teachers who rely on borrowing resources from others to get through the week, our intervention could mean they work even later into the evening.Random events. Broken projectors. Wasps. A burp. At early stages of adoption, it does not take much to sour enthusiasm for a new approach. Sustainability. Doing something a few times is quite different from doing it continuously. Novelty fades. Variety suffers. Other initiatives are rolled out.

15. Performance anxiety. It doesn’t take much to undermine confidence. Some ill-judged feedback from an observer may be enough. Equally, misjudged praise or misunderstood expectations can lead to a superficial adoption of a method without an understanding of the conditions which may lead to success.

We could look at the above as implementation issues to be accounted for in policy design, but that is a false way to view them. Firstly, it assumes that we know ahead of time what might happen to derail implementation of a pedagogical approach, but we usually don’t. Secondly, we cannot proactively mitigate the variety of obstacles in the path of our teaching intervention. Even if we could anticipate what might happen, we often have no means by which to prevent it. the classroom environment is mischievous and spontaneous….

it is a very long road from ‘it worked somewhere’ to the conclusion you need – ‘it will work here,’ and it is not an easy one to traverse.Where does this leave us? Well, not without hope or purpose. We can roll our sleeves up and get down and dirty in the machine. If school improvement isn’t messy, you ain’t doing it right. I don’t believe it is possible, or desirable, for those in too senior positions to do too much tinkering. There is a role for engineers and a role for plumbers. However, the engineers need to not be too precious about their creations and give license to the plumbers to make things work on the ground. Practice needs to be improved up close,  case by case. If we get too distracted by high level solutions we will miss the important detail that keeps things moving forward on the ground….


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The Complexity of Teacher Decision-making

In the previous two posts (see here and here), I have argued that parents as well as grandparents, uncles and aunts who became home-bound teachers during pandemic-driven closures of schools have come to both appreciate and understand teaching as never before.

Sitting with a 10 or 14 year-old at the kitchen table figuring out how to answer the math word problems or parsing teacher-assigned paragraphs in a U.S. history text were generally unfamiliar tasks that stay-at-home parents had to do regularly when schools shut down. Parents pleading with or ordering their children to complete their homework before the home-bound children sat down at the screen to begin the next session of remote instruction is not what many felt they had to do once their children were of age to traipse off to the schoolhouse. But now they do. And many, if not most, parents see teaching hardly like what they had recalled from their own years in school but far more difficult than they had anticipated.

At-home teaching with one or more kids for maybe two hours a day parents have discovered, is hard work involving many decisions. Parents come to realize that to teach means depending upon the student to be motivated enough to respond and engage with the teacher. Hard enough as that is with one or more kids at home, parents do not face, for example,a third grade classroom filled with 30 eight year-olds for six hours a day for thirty-six weeks.

But most parents, grand-parents, uncles, and aunts are not teachers and their only memories of being a student were when they attended school decades earlier. For these ad-hoc teachers who are largely unfamiliar with the complexity of classroom teaching and especially, the rat-a-tat flow of teacher decisions during a lesson and other readers, I describe that often chaotic but essential process again stressing that teachers are dependent on students for interaction, engagement, and, ultimately learning. Teachers are not sole actors on a stage performing; they are part of a relationship where both sides depend upon one another. Later posts fill in the larger picture of teachers situated in a complex system of tax-supported public schooling.

Teacher decision-making before the lesson

To teach, one needs a college degree and able to meet state requirements for a license. Those state requirements dictate what universities offer in teacher-training programs. And nearly all teachers are college- trained to plan lessons for the particular content and skills they will teach. Training occurs in university education programs or alternative pathways to state certification as well as in the classroom as student-teachers or interns.

Depending upon how many years they have been teaching, both kindergarten and high school physics teachers plan their day’s lesson that morning, the night before, or even a week or month earlier. Typically, any day’s lesson is part of a week- or month-long unit of instruction geared to district and state standards. More experienced teachers have files of previous years’ lessons or know the content and skills to be taught so well that they keep plans in their heads (and occasionally wing it) while novice and early-career teachers usually have paper lessons sitting on their desks or on laptop screens. Thus, before a lesson is taught, a teacher’s plan includes a bunch of intended objectives, ways of reaching those desired ends through different activities, and how she will assess whether the lesson succeeded.

What complicates classroom decision-making are the myriad intentions (i.e., goals and objectives) teachers have ranging from managing the group of students to focus on lesson, getting students to learn, keeping the lesson moving since there is only so much time available, and avoiding distractions while teaching. With multiple intentions, diverse students, and limited time, conflicts and contradictions inevitably arise.

Teacher decision-making during lessons

When students appear in the classroom, planning shifts to actual decisions in real time made according to the original plan and, too often, as events unfold, on the fly. Improvising occurs when the lesson veers from the plan because of student responsiveness (or lack thereof), unanticipated events popping up, or the teacher suddenly realizing that there is another way of making the central point of the lesson. Or all three may occur in an unexpected trifecta of events.

Researcher Mary Kennedy interviewed 45 teachers at length for her study Inside Teaching. Here is what a 5th grade teacher told Kennedy about what she is thinking when teaching a lesson:

You learn to carry lots of things in your head–where the lesson is going, what you’re going to say next, who is paying attention to you, there’s a problem here. You’re carrying lots of things–I’ve got to watch the clock because at ten o’clock we have got an assembly–…. You have all of these thoughts going on–I think sometimes it affects how I speak to people because it comes out disjointed when I am having a conversation, because another thought comes in,and it rushes out, and there are all these thoughts bombarding all the time. I think that’s part of being a teacher, because you have to carry all this stuff in your head. You can write out nice little note cards and have all thing organized, but then there’s always something–the assembly is 10 minutes late because they were late getting–all these things, so you learn how to adjust and be flexible and how to carry these things around, partly through practice, I guess (p.56).

Non-teachers, then, would be amazed at the total number of decisions teachers make during a 45 to 55 minute lesson, the frequency of ad-lib, unplanned decisions, and the seemingly effortless segues teachers make from one task to another. In questioning students, starting and stopping activities, watching the clock, and minding the behavior of the class as if teachers had eyes in the back of their heads, decisions tumble out one after another.

In distinguishing between planning lessons and actual classroom teaching–what academics call “interactive” teaching– researchers found that teacher-driven routines governed the total number and frequency of decisions. However, these routines for managing groups of 25-35 while teaching content and skills—taking attendance, going over homework, doing seat-work, asking questions–were unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected (e.g., upset students, PA announcements, student questions, equipment breakdown). thus, spontaneous, unplanned decisions had to be made. Both the expected and unexpected pile up teacher decisions.

*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.

*Researcher Philip Jackson (p. 149) said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.

In short, teaching because it is a “opportunistic”–neither teacher nor students can say with confidence what exactly will happen next–requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

Effective teachers, then, like top jazz musicians and NBA basketballers, improvise, decide on the spot–as they deal with both the routine and unexpected in the art of teaching.

Teacher decision-making after the lesson

Depending on how experienced a teacher is, post-lesson evaluation–another form of decision-making– occurs either formally when teachers write notesr to themselves on what happened during the lesson and judging what seemed to work and what didn’t in their initial plans. New teachers are encouraged by their mentors and former university teachers to do so. More experienced teachers may jot down a sentence here and there for the next time they will use this lesson. Post-lesson decision-making is judgmental. Some teachers may ask their students–another teacher decision–to rate the lesson on what they remembered or learned in class.

Hence, teachers engage in complex decision-making before, during, and after a lesson is taught. Non-teachers like parents during pandemic closures know little of this complexity in individual teacher decision-making or the organizational complexity in which teachers live daily.


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Parent as Teacher during the Pandemic

Renee Enyart, 28, was across the room from her sixth-grader when it happened. She glanced over and saw her daughter Emi, who was virtually attending science class at their home in Winter Haven, Fla., reaching for her laptop’s power cable. Suddenly, a sharp voice rang out from the speakers. “It was just an instant scolding: ‘I told you to look at the screen. You know what you’re supposed to be doing. I shouldn’t have to tell you guys,’ ” Enyart recalled.

Tears sprang into Emi’s eyes. “I didn’t know she was unmuted, and I just told her, ‘Go ahead and let it die.’ Because it just annoyed me — she was still paying attention. She was grabbing our charger, trying to be present in the class,” Enyart said. “I was actually kind of glad that the teacher did hear it, because for a second it was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ She instantly apologized.”

From a survey of parents six months after schools closed:

*In the early days of the pandemic, the majority of parents (78%) were educating their child at home.

Only about half (55%) of parents felt prepared to educate their child at home and 50% of parents felt overwhelmed by responsibilities to educate their child at home.

Two out of every five parents met the criteria for major depression (40%) and criteria for moderate or severe anxiety (40%).

Nearly 1 in 4 parents (24%) indicated that their child was fearful or anxious.

Over half of parents (58%) who utilized free/reduced-cost breakfast or lunch programs reported that they were no longer able to receive them during the pandemic.

090220 Riverdale, Ga. – Asia Mitchell (center), mother of seven, hairstylist, and soon-to-be tech support agent for Sprint, plays a game with her eldest daughter, London (upper left), 10, while on lunch break from virtual school at their Riverdale, Ga. home Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Siblings Paris (lower left), 7, and Sydney (right), 4, look on. PHOTO BY BITA HONARVAR

The worn but useful cliche that the parent is the first teacher who a child encounters remains true for those months that U.S. public schools have been closed. The research showing the strong influence of parental engagement with their children over schooling pays off in higher academic achievement than those parents who are less engaged (see here and here).

And then suddenly in March 2020, parents, uncles, aunts, adult cousins were drafted into an army of unpaid teachers to carry on remotely on screens what paid teachers were earnestly trying to deliver over laptops in kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms.

So what have we learned about parents as teachers in the past year?

*For the most part, they are stressed over the additional responsibility of not only parenting but also making sure that their sons and daughters are learning the required content and skills that teachers would ordinarily deliver in classrooms.

*Parents have learned teaching even one, two, or three children ain’t easy. They have increased respect for the act of teaching and expertise that teachers have in teaching individuals, small groups, and the entire class of 25-35 students.

*Teaching and parenting are emotional labor. Parental authority and children compliance with teacher-directed work delivered via screen has the potential to stretch and fray the emotionally charged parent/child bond, one that is the very basis for trust which is basic to all human relationships.

Thus, when Mom asks Tiffany to complete the worksheet that the teacher has on the screen and instead Tiffany gets on the couch and picks up the iPhone to check messages, friction erupts. And then adding pandemic math problems or reading assignments requiring students to do further research on the Internet further stretches the emotional bonds between child and Mom. No surprise that stress over home schooling has increased during the pandemic.

And many teachers have realized the new roles that parents have to play when instruction is remote.

Listen to Natasha, a 36-year-old high school science teacher in Nashville. She told a Washington Post reporter that she used to have a say in whether a student slept through class or not. Now, she said, she doesn’t.

“Since the kids aren’t in the classroom, [we’ve had] to rely on the parents,” said Natasha, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her career. She said it can be difficult for teachers to know whether kids are working. “If a student doesn’t have their camera on, I don’t know if they’re taking notes, if they’re laying across the bed asleep.”

Natasha knows that it is am adult’s job to enforce rules. Because students are now learning in their homes, parents have to enforce rules. And not every parent is either prepared or around to do it.

“As parents, when we send our kids to school, we feel assured that, you know, [teachers are] professionals, and they’re going to get the job done,” Natasha said. “But now, a lot of things that typically parents don’t have to be concerned about in the education process, they now do have to deal with.”

Natasha summed up well the shift in the parent/teacher role that occurred during Covid-19 closures of schools.

Pandemic or not, teachers need parents.


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Can Educators Teach Students To Spot Fake News (Frederick Hess)

Following up on my recent post, Whatever Happened to Current Events, this op-ed by Frederick Hess who interviewed Stanford University Professor, Sam Wineburg, goes to the crucial intersection of children and youth learning how to sort accurate from inaccurate information. Digital literacy in dealing with mainstream and social media, according to Wineburg, spans all academic subjects that children and youth take during their student careers of 13-plus years in schools.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies and writes about K-12 and higher education. This article appeared in Forbes magazine April 13, 2021.

One of the great educational conundrums of the moment is how to help Americans navigate a digital landscape filled with fake news, dubious claims, and rank disinformation. Educators, like the rest of us, are searching for practical strategies. That’s what makes Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg so interesting.

Wineburg, Stanford’s Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, studies how people judge the credibility of digital content. A former history teacher with a PhD in education psychology, he’s perhaps the nation’s leading scholar when it comes to helping people figure out what’s actually true on the Internet. I recently had the chance to talk with him about his work and the practical lessons it holds.

Wineburg approaches his work with a simple guiding principle: “If you want to know what people do on the Internet, don’t ask them what they would do. Put them in front of a computer and watch them do it.”

He recounts a 2019 experiment studying how high school students evaluate digital sources, in which 3,000 students performed a series of web tasks. One task asked students to evaluate a website about climate change. Wineburg notes, “When you Google the group behind it, you learn that they’re funded by Exxon—a clear conflict of interest. Yet, 92 percent of students never made the link. Why? Because their eyes remained glued to the original site.” In other words, looking into the source of information is essential to judging its veracity—and yet, students didn’t make that leap. 

In another study, Wineburg compared how a group of PhD students and Stanford undergraduates stacked up against fact-checkers at leading news outlets in New York and Washington when it came to assessing the credibility of unfamiliar websites. He says that fact-checkers speedily “saw through common digital ruses” while trained scholars “often spun around in circles.”

Why? Wineburg concludes, “The intelligent people we’ve studied are invested in their intelligence. That investment often gets them in trouble. Because they’re smart, they think they can outsmart the Web.” The result is that when they see a professional-looking website with scholarly references, they conclude it’s legitimate. “Basically,” he says, “they’re reading the web like a piece of static print—thinking that they can determine what something is by looking at it . . . On the Internet, hubris is your Achilles heel.”

Fact-checkers employ a different approach, one that Wineburg terms “lateral reading.” This involves only briefly looking at a website, then leaving it to search for background information on the organization or group behind the original site to determine if it is worth returning to. “In other words,” he says, “they learn about a site by leaving it to consult the broader Web.”

The problem for educators, according to Wineburg, is that this goes against the grain of how teachers usually teach students to evaluate a text. Usually, students are taught to read carefully and fully, and only then render judgment. “Yet, on the Web, where attention is scarce, expending precious minutes reading a text, before you know who produced it and why, is a colossal waste of time,” Wineburg says.

In fact, the usual methods teachers use for addressing online credibility are mostly unhelpful. Wineburg laments that we often approach the subject like a game of twenty questions. We ask, “‘Is the site a .org?’ If so, ‘It’s good.’ ‘Is it a .com?’ If so, ‘It’s bad.’ ‘Does it have contact information?’ That makes it ‘good.’ But if it has banner ads? ‘It’s bad.’” The problem, he says, “is that bad actors read these lists, too, and each of these features is ludicrously easy to game.”

To help teachers wrestling with all this, Wineburg and his collaborators have created a “digital literacy curriculum” with 65 classroom-ready lessons and assessments, a complementary set of videos, and an online course on “Online Civic Reasoning” done with MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab. Wineburg notes that all of these materials are free and can be downloaded by registering at

Wineburg thinks we should be teaching these skills from “the moment we give [kids] a smartphone” and that “we’re deluding ourselves” if we imagine that schools adding “an elective” will be enough to “drag us out of this mess.” Rather, he wants educators to ask: “How, in the face of our current digital assault, do we rethink the teaching of history, science, civics, and language arts—the basics?”

Ultimately, Wineburg says, “On every question we face as citizens—to raise the minimum wage, to legalize marijuana, to tax sugary drinks, to abolish private prisons, you name it—sham sources jostle for our attention right next to trustworthy ones. Failing to teach kids the difference is educational negligence.”

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Whatever Happened To Current Events Lessons?

Nearly all social studies lessons that I taught between the 1950s and 1970s contained at least one weekly lesson on “current events.” In these lessons, I tried to connect contemporary happenings to past events I was covering in my U.S. history and world history classes. Moreover, for at least five years, I used cut outs from Time magazine covers portraying world leaders in the 1950s–China’s Mao, Ghana’s Nkrumah, France’s De Gaulle–positioned on a wall ledge to link a particular event that occurred that week to those faces on Time covers.

By the mid-1960s, I had learned to incorporate national events (e.g., civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War) into U.S. historical topics such as slavery and Reconstruction and anti-war activism during the Mexican and Civil Wars. Even with those linkages, I still would set aside at least one weekly lesson to connect the past to the present by focusing on “current events” through newspaper articles, political cartoons, and local events in the city. And throughout those years, most other social studies teachers maintained a current events lesson (see here and here)

Looks like those kind of lessons, however, are waning. Except for those instances where national attention is riveted such as the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, or sexual harassment allegations against men in powerful positions as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, current events (data are scant on social studies and other subject matter teachers teaching such lessons) appear fleetingly in classrooms except in traditional Civics and Government courses required for high school graduation.

Current efforts (see here) to increase media literacy across the curriculum and combat “truth decay” are underway. Also there is support for schools and teachers to analyze media included in Common Core curriculum standards. Such efforts may (or may not) help resurrect “current events.”

When did current events lessons begin in social studies classrooms and why?

The Progressive school reforms of the early 20th century including the teaching of “Civics” in addition to traditional history courses. By the late-1920s, Civic courses were geared to not only understanding local, state, and federal governments but also to social action and solving community problems. Civics became the study of current happenings in American democracy. Ninth grade Civics courses in what were then called junior high schools became the norm by the 1930s as did senior high school course called Problems of Democracy (David Jeness, Making Sense of Social Studies (Macmillan 1990), pp. 84-88).

As for its ubiquity in social studies classrooms, in one late-1990s survey of National Council of Social Studies members , 95 percent of teachers said that teaching current events ranged from important to essential (Mary Haas and Margaret Laughlin, “Teaching Current Events: Its Status in Social Studies Today,” 2000), p. 11

What problems did “current events” in social studies try to solve?

In the early 1900s, traditional history courses were divorced from contemporary issues. That was the central problem according to Progressive educators. They sought to solve that problem by creating present-oriented “social studies” courses. The introduction of “social studies” courses into the curriculum was a reform aimed at getting students to become civically engaged. Progressives of the day wanted children and youth to connect history to contemporary social, political, and economic issues in order for them to understand what the pressing problems were and then to not only learn about them but even go about attacking them as students and later as adults. These reform-minded enthusiasts for civic learning depended upon teachers and textbooks (and later community service) to link the past to the present and do something constructive about persisting local and national issues (see here and here).

What are examples of current events lessons?

Teachers wrote into the New York Times about their current events lessons:

Kellyn McNamara, Charlotte, N.C., Middle and High School

I am designing an Earth and environmental science class in which students will connect a current event or issue to each unit’s content. For instance, for Unit 1, Earth as a Planet, students will explore the history of space exploration (and its funding), and prepare for a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate in which they will argue either for federal funding of space exploration, or for privatized space exploration.

*Heidi Echternacht, Princeton, N.J., Elementary School

Our second-grade class explored community all year last year. First, we interviewed and drew portraits of each other in class. Then we interviewed people who worked at school and drew their portraits for a community art show. Next, we expanded into Princeton and toured the town, interviewing chefs, firefighters and the mayor, and had an art show in the town library featuring our interviews and portraits.

After that, the kids decided to invent their own town they called 2ndton. They wanted to have stores, use money and hold court to solve problems, so we did. They wanted to pay taxes, so we did that, too. We were going to have an election for mayor, but they decided against it in case people’s feelings got hurt. Finally, we started our own newspaper and wrote about topics ranging from biographies of people in the New Jersey Hall of Fame to national news about Donald Trump and the Women’s March. We reported world news, primarily through covering the Olympics. We had subscribers and delivery routes that were coordinated by students

*Elizabeth Misiewicz, Ridgefield, Conn., Middle School

Last year, my students wrote speeches on topics they were passionate about that they could tie to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. They delivered these five- to six-minute speeches while also managing a Google slide presentation (like a true TED Talk!) before an audience of around 100 people made up of parents, teachers, staff and administrators.

As middle schoolers, my students are growing into their identities and trying to find their places in the world. This project essentially said to them, “Your opinions are important, and you deserve to be heard.”

*Larry Bowler Jr., Warrington, Pa., High School

A textbook cannot duplicate the current nature of politics and the global economy. As often as three times a week, my students read articles culled from The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. Traditional teaching via a textbook and testing does not engage the student of today with the tools they need to understand the ever-changing world. Students are into the now, and we as teachers must keep up with our charges, who are different learners from the ones we were as kids.

I hope to start the coming school year by letting my students know that the new normal of meanness and disrespect, from the president on down, is not, in fact, normal. Civility must be demonstrated in the classroom, if nowhere else.

Did teaching current events through civics and government courses and weekly lessons work?

Hardly. While there is scattered evidence that students who used magazines and newspapers in their social studies classes scored “significantly better” on the 1998 Civics National Assessment of Educational Progress than students who did not use such materials, that’s about it. Moreover, evidence is lacking for those students who have taken Civics and Government courses whether they were civically active either in school or after graduation.

While there is some evidence that education overall–that is, going to school for 13-plus years–may have such effects, no consensus has formed on the question (see here ). Finally, those periodic tests given to both students and adults about their knowledge of history, government, and civic duties over the past century continue to indict schools for lack of properly educating students about being civically engaged.

Why have current events lessons waned?

Beginning in the late-1970s and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the movement to raise curriculum standards, increase testing, and hold teachers and schools accountable for standardized test results pressed U.S. educators to narrow the curriculum to what was tested (e.g., reading, math) and constrict other academic subjects including social studies (see Jennie Biser, “Current Events and the Classroom: An Investigation into Teachers’ Integration of
Current Events in the Secondary Social Studies Classroom,” in “Studies in Teaching, 2008 Research Digest,” Wake Forest University, Department of Education, pp. 19-24).

Another reason–and I speculate here–is that some current subjects are controversial (e.g., Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump Presidency, #MeToo) and many social studies teachers shy away from raising volatile issues in classroom lessons.


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How Teachers Handle the Death of George Floyd (Dan Levin)

Dan Levin writes for the New York Times. “He was a foreign correspondent covering Canada from 2016 until 2018. From 2008 to 2015, Mr. Levin was based in Beijing, where he reported on human rights, politics and culture in China and Asia. @globaldan This article appeared April 7, 2021.

At this point in the school year, Lacrissha Walton typically focuses her social studies lessons on the 50 U.S. states and their capitals. But last week, the Minneapolis teacher scrawled a question that had nothing to do with geography on her fourth-grade classroom’s whiteboard: “Have you watched the Derek Chauvin trial?”

While the murder trial of Mr. Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd, might not appear to be age-appropriate instruction for 9-year-old students, Ms. Walton said she felt compelled to use the event as a teachable moment. All of her students had seen their city consumed by protests in the months that followed Mr. Floyd’s fatal arrest, and some had seen the widely circulated video, filmed by a teenager, that captured his violent, slow-motion death.

“No little kid should watch that,” Ms. Walton said. “But when it’s plastered all over the news, they have questions.”

In Minneapolis, educators have grappled over the last few weeks with how to address the trial with their students, with some using jury selection or witness testimony as an opportunity to explore the complex issues of race, policing and the criminal justice system. Teachers have cautiously given students the chance to ask questions and share their opinions during class. And school administrators and counselors have scheduled talking circles, where children can open up about how the trial has rekindled feelings of racial trauma and fears of potential unrest.

When Ms. Walton, who teaches at Lucy Craft Laney Community School, where most of the students are Black, asked her class what it knew about the trial, the children effortlessly explained who Mr. Chauvin was and his role in Mr. Floyd’s death. They knew that the person who runs the courtroom is called a judge, and their voices rang out in unison when asked to describe the 12 people who would render judgment: “the jury.”

After Ms. Walton asked which students thought Mr. Chauvin was guilty, plenty of small hands shot up. Asked why, a girl named Keyly laid out a devastating assessment of the defendant’s actions at the heart of the trial.

“He put his knee on George Floyd’s neck,” she said. “And George Floyd said he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe several times, and the police officer didn’t listen to him at all.”

The adult nature of the televised murder trial, marked by graphic videos and emotional eyewitness accounts, poses a challenge for educators. In Texas, a teacher at a majority-Black high school last week showed freshmen a livestream of the trial in class, including footage of Mr. Floyd’s arrest, and required them to act as mock jurors, prompting complaints from parents who said the project was assigned without their consent.

Ms. Walton said she received approval from the school administration to show brief parts of the court proceedings in class, but because of the trial’s traumatic elements, she was careful to not let her students see and hear anything too graphic or disturbing.

Across Minneapolis, where nearly seventy percent of public school students are nonwhite, discussions about the trial have occurred in school classrooms and online learning. Kristi Ward, the principal for third through eighth graders at Lake Nokomis Community School, said months of conversations about racial justice, along with the city’s more recent efforts to fortify the courthouse, made it impossible to ignore. And so she has worked with her staff on developing ways to prompt meaningful discussions with their students, who are 60 percent white, even if difficult questions are raised.

“We have to engage even if we’re uncomfortable and we don’t have the answers,” she said. “I’m telling them to stay on top of the trial to make sure they’re understanding the facts, and then just leaning into the conversation rather than pulling away.”

Tom Lachermeier, who teaches social studies at North Community High School, where the student population is 90 percent Black, called the trial “living history.” Mr. Floyd’s death, he said, rippled among those who attend the school, located in a neighborhood long ensnared by poverty and the city’s worst gang violence.

After the Minneapolis school board voted in June to end its contract with the Police Department, North Community High’s head football coach, Charles Adams, lost his day job as the school’s in-house police officer. Mr. Lachermeier acknowledged that many schools around the country have avoided the court proceedings entirely, but he said that as a white man, he knew he had to address the trial with his students.

“Me not saying anything about it says a lot,” he said. Before the trial, he covered the daily proceedings of jury selection during class time, and listened as many of his students expressed fears that Mr. Chauvin would be acquitted. Students have been on spring break since the trial began, but he said he discussed the first days of it with the softball players he coached.

Kyree Wilson, 16, a junior in Mr. Lachermeier’s United States history class, said those lessons motivated her to watch hours of the trial on YouTube during her time off from school. “It’s a real eye-opener,” she said of the trial, and the cases outlined by the defense lawyers and prosecutors, though the gut-wrenching witness accounts were “kind of hard to sit through.”

As Mr. Floyd was facedown on the pavement, handcuffed, Kyree was two blocks away, passing out fliers for a modern dance company, she said. She could hear the commotion from the growing crowd that had gathered, though she did not learn about what had happened until she returned home later that day. Over the summer, she attended protests, and she said she hoped that Mr. Chauvin was found guilty.

But the more Kyree has learned from the trial, the more she has become convinced that a conviction would do little to stop police brutality, she said. “The justice system is very broken and it’s used against African-Americans,” she said. “This situation makes me afraid of adulthood and growing up in America.”

Although the trial commenced while Lake Nokomis Community School in South Minneapolis was on spring break, Amanda Martinson, a sixth-grade math teacher, said her students knew it would soon begin. So she devoted some time in class to address their questions and concerns, she said, recalling some who mentioned the helicopters flying over the city, and a video sent by one student of military vehicles driving down their street.

“A lot of our students are nervous about what might happen throughout this trial because of everything that happened after George Floyd” was killed, Ms. Martinson said. “Kids are afraid of fires, and loud noises at night, and any kind of unrest.”

In Ms. Walton’s fourth-grade class, the trial has also served to impart lessons on important civic concepts like the right to protest and the workings of the court system. “One day they might have jury duty,” she said. “So you’re entitled to your opinion but when you’ve got to work with 11 other people, how are you going to do that?”

Shortly after class ended one day last week, Janiyah, 9, said her mother took her to a Black Lives Matter protest last summer. She described a mix of anger and sadness that she said she felt when she learned how Mr. Floyd had died. Though she has not seen the video of his fatal arrest or spoken to her mother about Mr. Chauvin’s trial, Janiyah grasped the outsize impact it could have in the nation’s fight for racial justice.

“I really hope they watch it,” Janiyah said of police officers who might have a fatal encounter with a Black person, “and then understand that one of the costs is they might go to jail.”


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How Teachers Taught: A Look in the Rear-View Mirror

Much present and past policy making to make better classroom lessons is anchored deeply in myth and memory. Both morph into one another as policymakers (aka “reformers), many of whom are parents, connect their children’s tales of what occurs in classrooms filled with iPads and Chromebooks to memories of what went on in their elementary and secondary classes.

Sure, school boards and superintendents consult with researchers and look at classroom studies, and ponder the changes that new technologies have made in how teachers teach but even research findings are sorted through memories of writing an essay for that English teacher or the 5th grade quizzes that constricted one’s intestines. So I do not discount the power of myth and memory to shape policies aimed at getting teachers to teach better even after a decade of new technologies being tamed by teachers to become part of their instructional repertoire.

What is too often missing from the mix of data, Golly Gees over new software and remembrances are the few accounts by historians of education who have documented–albeit in fragmentary ways–what actually went on in classrooms over the past century. Some historians, including myself, have tried to recapture yesteryear’s classrooms (see here, here, and here). Glimpsing what occurred in classroom lessons a century or more ago gives readers a sense of what has remained stable and what has changed in how teachers teach.

This post initially published in 2009 has been updated.

In How Teachers Taught (1984) and Hugging the Middle (2009), I collected 9,000 urban and rural classroom reports between 1890-2005 on common features of teaching. I examined how teachers organized classroom space, grouped students, and structured tasks for students. I found the following classroom patterns:

Between the 1890s and 2010, the social organization of the classroom became informal. In the early 20th century, dress-clad women and tie-wearing men facing rows of 50-plus bolted down desks controlled every move of students. They gave permission for students to leave their seat. They required students to stand when reciting from the textbook or answering a question. Teachers often scowled, reprimanded, and paddled students for misbehaving.

Over the decades, however, classroom organization and teacher behavior slowly changed. By 2010, few classrooms had rows of immovable desks. Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades, so students faced one another. Jean-wearing teachers drinking coffee smiled often at their classes. Students went to a pencil sharpener or elsewhere in the room without asking for the teacher’s permission. The dread and repression of the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s scowl slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms with teachers more informal in language and dress, and exercised a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.

By 2010, most elementary and a lesser number of secondary teachers had blended student-centered and teacher-centered classroom practices into hybrids. As the social organization of the classroom becoming increasingly informal, most teachers mixed practices drawn from both traditions.

Grouping. Over time as class size fell from 60 to 30 or less, the student-centered practice of dividing the whole group into smaller ones so that the teacher could work with a few students at a time on reading while the rest worked by themselves slowly took hold among most elementary school teachers. Although variations in grouping occurred among high school teachers in academic subjects, small group work occurred much less frequently.

Classroom activities. A similar pattern occurred with assigning different tasks. “Learning centers,” where individual children would spend a half-hour or more reading a book, playing math games, or drawing and painting, slowly took hold in kindergarten and the primary grades spreading to the upper elementary grades. Learning centers, however, seldom appeared in secondary schools.

The use of student-projects that tie together reading, math, science, and art—think of a 4th grade class divided into groups or working individually on Native American life—became a standard part of elementary school teachers’ repertoire. In secondary schools, projects appeared in vocational subjects and periodically in science, English, and social studies classes.

Between the 1890s and early 2000s, then, teachers created hybrids. In elementary schools, particularly in primary classrooms, richer and diverse melds of the two traditions appeared with far fewer instances surfacing in high schools—allowing for some variation among academic subjects–teacher-centered pedagogy.

Even as classroom organization moved from formal to informal and hybrids of the two teaching traditions multiplied, teacher-centered pedagogy still dominated classroom life. As Philip Jackson noted in his study of suburban teachers, while teacher smiles replaced “scowls and frowns” and current “teachers may exercise their authority more casually than their predecessors,” still “the desire for informality was never sufficiently strong to interfere with institutional definitions of responsibility, authority, and tradition (p. 129).”

One only has to sit in the back of a kindergarten or Advanced Placement calculus class for ten minutes to see amid teacher smiles and many kindnesses to students which teaching tradition dominates. Teachers change students’ seats at will. They ask questions, interrupt students to make a point, tell the class to move from reading to math, and praise or admonish students. Controlling student behavior had shifted over the decades from scowls and slaps to indirect approaches that exploit the teacher’s personality and budding relationships with students but still underscored the fundamental fact of classroom life: teachers use their authority to secure obedience from students for teaching to occur.

In light of my findings for classroom instruction between 1890-2005, the two teaching traditions, at opposite ends of a pedagogical continuum, seldom appeared in pure form in classrooms. In schools across the nation where great diversity in children, academic subjects, and teachers were common—even amid “wars” fought in newspapers over phonics and math—teachers created hybrids of subject matter lessons albeit more so among elementary than secondary school teachers. In short, teachers hugged the middle between student-centered and teacher-centered lessons.


Amid a formidable array of new devices and software used by teachers across the nation in hundreds of thousands of classrooms, the two teaching traditions and their hybrids persist. Were policymakers, wannabe reformers, and anxious parents informed of this history of teaching–and the work of other historians of education who looked at classroom lessons–would their knowledge be useful in designing policies–in concert with classroom teachers–aimed at instruction? I believe so.


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Are Social Studies Teachers Politically Biased?

A journalist I have known for decades and have great respect for recently asked me a question that required me to think, click on a bunch of websites, and re-read the work of a popular historian who died in 2010.

The Washington Post‘s Jay Mathews has written about education for nearly a half-century.* He emailed me the following question:**

Hi Larry—I hope you are well. In any of your wonderful excursions into actual classrooms, have you ever tested the thesis that US history teaching has gotten kind of lefty in recent decades? I think it’s untrue but I have no data.—jay**

Here is my response to Mathews:

Hi Jay,
Hope you and your family are in good health.

When I got your query, Jay, I looked up the most obvious “lefty” influence insofar as textbooks and readings are concerned: Howard Zinn and his People’s History.

The Poynter Institute  did a piece on Zinn’s influence on teaching U.S. history in 2015 (see: []  ). There is no data on how many teachers in U.S. public schools use the book, popular as it has been since published in 1980. While many teachers to prove their lefty credentials cite Zinn’s work–critics like Sam Wineburg have demolished his credibility as a historian. There is far more rhetoric from a minority of teachers, I believe, citing Zinn than actual lessons using the latter’s concepts in class.

Now my own experiences in visiting history classes over the past decade (I did write a book called Teaching History Then and Now), support your hunch that those who charge that teachers are turning politically progressive has little basis in what I have observed. The only exception I came across was in Oakland when I visited a bunch of history lessons at one high school that was clearly pushing a progressive agenda but not using  Zinn’s book insofar as I could tell.

Overall, then, my experiences support your hunch.

Stay well, Larry

My answer to Jay’s question is short and missing much information. What got me to look at the question more deeply were the comments of national politicians on teachers turning to the political left in their teaching. For example, the question of whether left-of-center political ideology has influenced social studies teachers in what and how they teach is self-evident to some who position themselves right-of-center. Consider former Senator Rick Santorum (PA) who said in a speech to the National Rifle Association In 2015:

Do you know the most popular textbook that’s taught in our high schools in America is written by a man named Howard Zinn, who is an anti-American Marxist, and that is the most common textbook?

Then recall that in 2021, President Donald Trump created the 1776 Commission “to support patriotic education….” Trump said:

Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.

Trump continued to say that schools must end the “[c]ritical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history”, which he said was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country,”

Historians of education and informed educators know full well that tax-supported public school teachers have been pushed back-and-forth repeatedly over the past century to achieve the political ends of various groups. The central tendency, however, of most teachers is to not foist their political views, right or left of the political center, on their students (see here).

None of that knowledge entered former Senator Rick Santorum’s statement. Fact checkers at the Washington Post and other mainstream media outlets (forget fact-checking when it comes to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media) would have added inches to Pinocchio’s nose in assessing his 2015 statement about the prevalent use of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in teachers’ classes across America. Why the added inches to the nose?

First, because no one really knows how social studies teachers teach U.S. history. There are about 200,000 social studies teachers in the U.S. (2012). We know little about how they teach daily. There are a few surveys, case studies, and interviews of these teachers but few–let me stress “very few”– direct observations of what lesson plans, texts, supplementary readings, and activities they engage in during actual lessons (see here, here, and here). No one can say with even a moderate degree of confidence how social studies teachers teach except in one area–nearly all of these teachers use a textbook approved by the district and state. And that is my second point.

For better or worse, textbook teaching is pervasive (see here and here). That is not a negative or positive statement. Given that the majority of public school teachers in secondary schools face anywhere from 125-150 student each day–yes each day–having a common source of information for groups of students becomes a necessity, especially at a time when district and state curriculum standards appear on tests that cover content and skills students are expected to know.

Not only are textbooks used as a basis for most lessons taught by social studies teachers but also a high proportion of these textbook-bound teachers use supplementary materials to enhance, elaborate upon, and dispute what is in the text. Importantly, many teachers seek out sources for students to consider beyond the text. The 1619 Project created by the New York Times and made available to schools (see below photo) is a recent instance of getting at multiple perspectives beyond the textbook.

Nonetheless, social studies texts are inevitably shaded by political, economic, and social biases (see here and here).

So I now I return to Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States which, by the way, I have yet to find on any list of textbooks researchers examined for bias. For a book supposed to be so influential upon social studies teachers’ mindsets, it is missing in action when scholars list the texts they analyze for bias.

There is one exception that I have found. A recent article looked directly at teachers who were not only members of the Zinn Education Project (at time of the survey there were 35,000 members) but also responded to researchers’ online survey (n=378) that they used the book in their lessons often, sometimes, and occasionally. Of those who took the online survey, 120 volunteered to do follow-up interviews. In a second stage of the study, the researchers identified 14 of the volunteer interviewees who used A People’s History frequently and were willing to describe their classroom practices (p.91).

And what did the researchers find from their survey and interviews of social studies teachers using the Zinn book?

The most common reasons that teachers gave for using APH (A People’s History) included developing students’ critical thinking skills, engaging students in the classroom, and exposing students to different voices in history. All of these reasons, however, were couched in an overall dissatisfaction with both traditional ways of teaching history and district- or school-provided textbooks.

Most teachers saw APH as a pedagogical resource that allowed them to accomplish curricular and pedagogical goals in their classrooms that would have been difficult to do otherwise. The most common reasons that teachers reported for using APH were (1) because students found it to be an interesting, engaging alternative to their textbooks; (2) APH allowed them to “dig deeper” into historical events than their textbook allowed; (3) APH was a useful comparative tool alongside narratives found in both the textbook and other supplemental sources; and (4) APH illuminated the “hidden voices” of history not traditionally found in their textbooks.

While this cluster of themes around APH as an alternative pedagogical source to their textbooks was
present in most interviews, interview data indicated that it was very rare for teachers to report using APH to meet Zinn’s articulated goals of empowering students to take action

Severely limited data on actual lessons taught by U.S. social studies teachers, their common use of state-approved textbooks for lessons (and the absence of A People’s History from such lists), and the reasons why a small group of teachers use the book undermine completely what former Senator Santorum and former President Donald Trump had to say about “lefty” tendencies in U.S. social studies’ classrooms.


“Jay Mathews is an education columnist for the Washington Post, his employer for nearly 50 years. He is the author of nine books, including five about high schools. His 2009 book Work Hard. Be Nice about the birth and growth of the KIPP charter school network was a New York Times bestseller. He created and supervises the annual Challenge Index rankings of American high schools. He has won several awards for education writing and was given the Upton Sinclair award as “a beacon of light in the realm of education.” He has won the Eugene Meyer Award for distinguished service to The Washington Post.”

**Mathews gave me permission to publish his email.


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