Category Archives: school reform policies

Whatever Happened To the Edison Schools?

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

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

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

When and How Did Edison Schools Begin and Grow?

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

What Problems Did the Edison Schools Seek To Solve?

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

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

How Were Edison Schools Organized and Operated?

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

According to a RAND evaluation report:

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

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

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

Did Edison Schools Work?

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

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

What Happened to Edison Schools?

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

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

Where Are The Edison Schools Today?

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

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

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



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

How Beliefs in School Reform Evolve Over Time

School reform is steady work. As a teacher, administrator, superintendent, and university researcher for over six decades in working to reform classrooms, schools, and districts, it should come as no surprise to readers that what I thought about reform in the mid-1950s as a teacher, what I believed school reform was when I ran a district in the 1970s and 1980s, and how I conceptualize reform today as a retired professor has changed. Looking back at my strongly held beliefs on reforming schools then and how, I can see how they have morphed into quite different views about school reform.

There may be wisdom in this “confession” about evolving beliefs about school reform. And even if some readers were to think so, I am well aware that wisdom cannot be told to others because reflecting on one’s direct experience more often than not trumps others’ advice. So I offer these reflections on how one educator’s beliefs about reform changed over time to get readers to ponder what their beliefs once were and are now about teaching, learning, and, yes, of course–reforming schools.

Changes in reform beliefs over time is surely common especially as educators accumulate different experiences. What may be uncommon is to document those changes and then reflect on those changes in beliefs.

And that is what I have done in the final chapter of my next book. What I present below is a draft–not a final version so I am open to comments–of a section of the chapter that describes how my beliefs about school reform have evolved over time.

I begin by returning to my first job teaching history at Cleveland’s Glenville High School between 1956-1963. What I discovered about reforming both teaching and the classroom curriculum convinced me then that engaged teachers creating lessons with multi-ethnic and racial content tailored to student interests could get Black students to participate and learn in de facto segregated city schools. That belief in sharp, committed teachers wielding relevant content and skills getting students to not only engage but also learn I carried to the District of Columbia’s Cardozo High School to train new and committed teachers to teach in similar ways. 

Turns out I was only partially correct. I came to see after being a teacher in Cleveland for seven years and then a teacher and administrator for another nine years in D.C. that my view of reform was blinkered, even myopic. I had not even imagined that classroom and school reform was a political process.

 In moving from the granular classroom at Glenville to the school at Cardozo and then the district office of the D.C. schools, my view of reform expanded to encompass the politics of getting something to happen at a school or in a district. Mobilizing resources and people to focus on a particular idea or program took bureaucratic moxie and forging relationships with like-minded people inside and outside schools. I began to see different units or sites for reform—classroom and school—nested within one another and that both had to be altered in order for reforms to have the most effect in classrooms.

And that view further enlarged when I administered a district-wide staff development program from my office in the Presidential Building in D.C. My experiences within a large bureaucracy with budgetary ties to the D.C. government and links to the U.S. Congress forced me to see how relationships, resources, and reform were intimately bound together. I came to a broader view that the Washington public schools were nested within the federal bureaucracy comprising an even larger political system in need of change for schools and classrooms to get better. The intersecting of various systems became clear to me in ways that I had not known as a teacher at Glenville High School.

The second confession comes from my years as Arlington County superintendent.

I entered that post saturated with experiences in Washington, D.C. classrooms and central office and filled with ideas learned at Stanford about organizations and how they worked.  Experiences with racial divides and political infighting at administrative headquarters in the D.C. system echoed in my mind.

In Arlington, I presented myself to the community and teachers as someone who prized the art and science of classroom teaching. These ideas, echoes, and presentation ran smack up against serious political problems over a largely white district shrinking in enrollment while becoming increasingly minority and fearing a loss in academic quality. The fact is that even after my experiences in the D.C. bureaucracy, taking courses at Stanford in politics of education, I was inexperienced, even naïve, about the political role I played as superintendent.

Chapter 6 described how the Arlington County School Board and I in our first few years amid constant political conflicts over closing schools reframed problems in ways that would restore community faith in its schools. A key part was tightening up organizational links between what happened in classrooms, schools, and the district to students’ academic outcomes. My staff and I developed a management mechanism that applied to all principals and district administrators called the Annual School Plan. And here is where I come to my next confession.

The Annual School Plans were successful in concentrating the entire staff’s attention on students’ performance so that within three years I began to see organizational, curricular, and instructional changes that I believed could lead to a mindless conformity, ultimately producing a system geared to cranking out high test scores and operating with less imagination and creativity.  And that worried me because I was very proud of the high level of teacher competence and creativity across Arlington classrooms.  While I did not dial back the push for higher test scores to meet local and state standards–the political climate looked for the numbers to rise–my concerns over growing uniformity grew.  I regret that I could not articulate the peril of mindless standardization.

And yet there was even a larger picture that I slowly became aware of as I reflected on the intersection between classroom, school, district systems and the larger society.  As a researcher at Stanford, I went into many California districts and came to grasp better how the politics of state and federally driven school reforms did and did not translate into district and school programs. I came to realize that a district system was itself nested within larger socioeconomic, political, and caste-like structures (e.g., market-driven society focused on individual action, economic inequalities, racist structures) all of which hemmed in what superintendents, principals, teachers and students could do in improving classroom, school, and district performance. I realized that social and political coalitions (i.e., civil rights movement) struggled to change those societal structures and in some instances made incremental improvements. This larger picture of public schools nested in America’s economic, political, and cultural milieu occasioned pessimism about school reform but in the end, tempered optimism over what needed to be changed and what can be done.

Writing in 2020, all of this seems self-evident.  But it wasn’t to me in 1956 when I began teaching. What I have described is the growing awareness of school reform as a political process and the complexity of schools as I moved from teacher and administrator to researcher—the journey of a toddler, so to speak, to an adult. I was not stupid, just innocent and unaware of how difficult it was to grasp the inter-connectedness of politics, relationships, resources, and systems. I had to pull together my experiences in schools and think about them time and again.

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Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies

Another “School” of the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

She said, Where did you find it?

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

What’s it about?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A man. How could a man be a teacher?

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

A man isn’t smart enough.

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

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

He knows almost as much I betcha.

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

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

And all the kids learned the same thing?

Sure, if they were the same age.

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

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

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

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

Margie looked up. Not yet, mamma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the teachers were people…

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

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


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Classrooms of the Future?

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

  Or another from 1963 cartoon called “The Jetsons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the description of IS 228:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Will Pandemic Changes in Schooling Be Temporary or Permanent?

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

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

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

I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Does the Pandemic Help Us Make Education More Equitable? (Pasi Sahlberg)

“Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator who has worked as a schoolteacher, teacher-educator, researcher, and policy advisor in Finland and has studied education systems and advised education leaders around the world..”

I have excerpted Sahlberg’s description of how Finland’s and Australia’s schools responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. For readers who wish to see the entire article, it appeared in Educational Research for Policy and Practice online October 31, 2020.

Australia and Finland, the two homes of mine at the moment, are not just geographically as

distant from each other than possible, but they are also very different societies with distinct

histories, traditions, values and cultures. Australia is sunny and hot. Finland is,many believe,

snowy and cool. The Australians prefer things big and fast. The Finns think small is beautiful.

In other words, Australia is fire, Finland is ice. These cultural distinctions make education

in these two countries and how each react to external shocks such as the current pandemic,

very different from each other. Here is how.

Most school facilities were closed for majority of primary and secondary school students in

Finland starting March 18 until May 14 this year due to the government’s measures to prevent

the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early childhood and care centres (kindergartens)

remained open and children of essential workers and those with severe special educational

needs in first three grades of primary schools had an opportunity to attend school if parents so

preferred. During the remote learning phase, one-third of children were in kindergartens and

less than 10 per cent of all basic school (grades 1 to 9) students went to school as usual. Since

education governance in Finland is decentralised and 310 local authorities run and, to a large

extent, also fund the schools, these authorities were responsible for the practical execution of

the transition from face-to-face teaching in schools to remote distance learning mode from

homes. After the remote learning period in mid-May was over almost 90 per cent of school

children returned to school and more than half of children in early childhood education and

care were back for the last two weeks of May before their summer holidays.

The speed and scale of disruption came as a surprise to Finnish schools as it did to

others around the world. Before March some schools had prepared emergency strategies for

minor situations, but no one was prepared to such a massive external crisis as the COVID-19

pandemic. However, Finnish schools had two particular positive features on their side in

shifting literally overnight from contact teaching at school to remote learning from home.

First, according to the Finnish National Agency for Education (2020), three quarters of

Finnish schoolteachers at the time of the (partial) school closures had digital teaching and

learning facilities available in their schools. Vast majority of teachers were also familiar with

using these facilities in teaching, although the confidence to do that well varied from school

to school.

Second, the National Core Curricula that is the foundation for schools’ own curriculum

planning have emphasised self-directed learning through projects and real-life problemsolving

that have made many students familiar with independent study and self-assessing

their own learning (Sahlberg 2021). Again, there are differences from school to school in

how successful this practice has been. Teachers have been mostly concerned about those

children who require more direct support in their learning that has been not so easy to

arrange through virtual arrangements.

Early research findings shed light on how children, teachers and parents or guardians

have experienced interrupted schooling in Finland. A large national study that is currently

underway by the Universities of Helsinki and Tampere is exploring how remote teaching

and learning in Finnish schools went from principals’, teachers’, parents’ and children’s

perspectives (Ahtiainen et al. 2020). The first findings in this study confirm the anecdotal

evidence gained during April and May, as well as trends found in other surveys. According

to about half of 860 principals and little less than half of over 5000 teachers who took

part in this study, students with special educational needs were not receiving appropriate

support from teachers and schools during the remote learning period, compared with normal

times previously. Approximately a quarter of students (N _ 56,000) and over 40 per cent of

parents (N _ 36,000) believed that they received less support from their school while they

were learning from home, than what they would have received in school previously. About

one in five lower secondary school students said that they had difficulties with technology or

internet connectivity, and the same proportion of students confessed they stayed up too late

every night with digital gadgets or social media.

A closer look at how students have experienced the school closures reveals an important

finding. Whereas authorities and other adults are afraid that children will stop learning or

that there will be losses in their lifetime earnings, not all children seem to think like this. In

Finland, for example, over 60 per cent of 10- to 16-year-old students said that they enjoyed

learning remotely most of the time and that most of them learned at least the same “amount”

or even more compared to what they thought they had learned at school (Ahtiainen et al.

2020). If these tens of thousands of students are right, then perhaps we need to rethink what

we mean by learning and how it should be measured and recognised at school.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Australian education systems in different ways.

School buildings were closed for varying periods of time after the first school term break

in April. Remote learning arrangements lasted from one week in Northern Territory and

South Australia, to nine weeks in Victoria (that has the second interruption of schooling

at the moment of writing). School education in Australia is, in general, more centralised

and governed by common standards compared to Finnish education system. Teaching and

learning are influenced by frequent standardised tests (such as NAPLAN) and school-leaving

examinations that often narrow the role of teachers and students, when it comes to the

assessment of student learning. Not surprisingly, one prominent discourse in the media and

among many parents has been the question of how the negative impact of remote learning

on students’ test score and examination results could be mitigated. Various “catching up”

measures have been suggested to do that, especially for disadvantaged students who are

thought to lose the most in these measurements.

Compared to Finland, Australia’s education system as a whole has two interrelated features

that makes it more fragile to sudden external shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic. First,

one-third of students in Australia attend non-government schools that are independently

governed and often better resourced than many government schools. Vast majority of at-risk

students attend government schools. Second, inequality is more prevalent inAustralian school

system compared to Finland and many other OECD countries. For example, performance

gap between the highest and lowest deciles in OECD’s PISA 2018 survey was significantly

wider in Australia (OECD 2019). Furthermore, disadvantaged students are often concentrated

into disadvantaged public schools that is harmful for equitable outcomes at the level of the

education system.

Early results of a large national survey of 10,000 teachers in Australia reveal similar but

also different reactions in schools to disrupted teaching and learning, compared with what

has been reported in Finland (Wilson et al. 2020). Similar to Finland, four of five teachers

were worried about their students with special educational needs. Just about a quarter of

teachers thought they were confident that students were learning well under remote learning

arrangements and just over 40 per cent were confident that themajority of their students were

positively engaged with online learning. Only one-third of Australian teachers felt satisfied

with assessment during remote learning compared to 95 per cent of teachers in Finland who

said they were able to assess students’ learning when they were learning from home.

The Grattan Institute in Australia concluded that the most disadvantaged students suffered

themost during school closures (Sonnemann and Goss 2020). “Disadvantaged students often

have a home environment that is not conducive to learning and get less help from parents

compared to their advantaged peers” (p. 9), according to their report on the impacts of

COVID-19 on school education. Poorer internet access, fewer digital devices and lack of

quiet place to study at home were often the common factors in disadvantaged homes.

The culture of schools in Australia is much more about conformity where schools often

are compliant rather than creative in responding to sudden changes in their environments.

National assessment programme for literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) in primary and sec-

ondary schools serves as a yardstick to compare schools’ performance with one another. But

it also amplifies the existing educational inequities when parents who can afford to pay for

education can choose the school with higher NAPLAN scores (and often more affluent student

socio-economic make-up) for their children. Interestingly, when NAPLAN tests were

cancelled this year due to school closures, some parents were concerned about how they would know what

their children have learned at school. Most teachers, however, according to Wilson et al. (2020), were more

worried about students’ health and well-being. Uncertainty of the future of national assessments in Australia

raises questions of whether schools should focus on “catching up” to be prepared for the next year’s tests, or

care more about children’s well-being and health during the pandemic, even though their learning progress

may be affected….


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Teachers Who Make a Difference

A few years back, Mike Rose’s wrote a post about his high school English teacher. It was a beautiful piece that captures the ineffable moment 40 years earlier that Rose was ready–he did not know it, of course, at the time–to dig deeper into literature and the pushing and prodding he got from Jack McFarland, his young English teacher. McFarland’s teaching, Rose said,  changed “the direction of my life.”

Rose’s post reminded me of letters I had received from former high school students, those I had trained as teachers in Washington, D.C., and from doctoral advisees at Stanford. A glow of satisfaction would come over me whenever I read such  letters that asserted my influence in their lives. I suspect that Jack McFarland might have experienced such a glow when reading Mike Rose’s post. As I read the compliments and how much the student attributed to me in shaping his or her life’s work, however, a small doubt, surely no more than a speck, flashed over me. That doubt had to do with the tricks that our memories play on us in selectively remembering what we want to remember.

For example, I cannot forget many teenagers and young adults who I did not, perhaps could not, reach. That is, students who sat in class (or attended sporadically) and sailed through the course without ever connecting to the content I taught, the questions I asked, the projects I assigned. Seldom did any of those students write me a note years later. So I might have been a fine teacher for some students who wrote me years later but I had to remind myself that there were many others who saw me as, well, just another teacher whose assignments and class activities ranged from inane to boring and had to be tolerated to get the high school diploma or the doctorate. That is one reason for that speck of doubt.

Another reason for doubting my memory is a tendency to give credit to others you admire and respect as human beings for your accomplishments. We give credit to parents, siblings, dear friends, and yes, teachers. Much of it is deserved. And much of it is sheer gratitude for the shared experience. So doubt arises also from the gracious but nonetheless false attribution of results to someone else.

Having given two reasons why I enjoy those glowing letters written by former students but still entertain doubts about whether I made the difference in their lives that they attribute to me, I want to briefly mention a teacher I had who I believe did shape my thoughts and actions at a particular point in my life. Sounds like a contradiction but bear with me.

While I did have elementary and secondary teachers who, at different times, inspired and motivated me, I am thinking of the time when I went to graduate school. I was in my late-30s with a wife and family and wanted to get a Ph.D in order to become a district superintendent.

I have written about David Tyack and his influence upon me as a scholar, teacher, and human being while I was a graduate student and, later, as his colleague for two decades (see “Becoming A Superintendent: A Personal Odyssey, February 9, 2011).

Now I would like to remember Jim March. From Jim March, I took courses on leadership and organizations. Eventually,I asked Jim to serve on my doctoral committee.

At first, I found Jim intellectually intimidating. He was a theorist of organizations who drew from the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and political science. By the time I met him, he had authored books with Herbert Simon and Richard Cyert, giants in the fields of organizational sciences and statistics. Jim was also a poet and a wonderful conversationalist. Although March had never taught in public schools, he knew them as organizations and helped me make sense of nearly two decades of teaching and administering programs in school districts. From Jim, I  learned the importance of seeing organizations from multiple points of view, of learning to live with uncertainty, of the tenacious hold that rationalism has upon both policymakers and practitioners, and of understanding that ambiguity, conflict, and randomness is not only the natural order of organizations but of life itself. Those two years at Stanford, working closely with Tyack and March turned out to be first-rate preparation for the next seven years I served as a superintendent. And living a full life ever after.

Am I over-attributing what I have achieved to particular teachers? Perhaps. But so what.

The points I make are straightforward:  What we learn in and out of school that sticks with us comes from  an intellectual and emotional joining of minds and hearts with adults who we respect and admire when we are ready–ah, that is the key word–to take in who they are and what they teach. Although we live in a culture that worships the independent individual, we learn that each of us is  beholden to others–family, friends, and, yes, teachers from infancy to the day that the coffin is lowered into the ground. We learn that we stand on the shoulders of others. Giving credit to those people who have helped us along the way, even attributing to them powers that rest within ourselves, simply reminds us that living a full life requires leaning upon others.


Filed under higher education, how teachers teach, research, school reform policies

What I Learned from a High School Student

Individuals writing about what they learned from former teachers is common. It is uncommon, however, for teachers to write about what they learned from former students. I do not mean those many instances when tech-savvy students helped teachers solve hardware and software problems. I mean the kinds of learning that doesn’t come from only books but from the questions students ask and the thoughts they express in and out of class.

I learned from Carol Schneider, a 16 year-old junior in my U.S. history class at Glenville High School in Cleveland. The year was 1958. I was a 23 year old teacher beginning my third year of teaching at Glenville. I relished teaching six classes of U.S. history a day in this largely black high school. By the end of the day, I was bone-tired (yeah, I shudder to think what teaching four straight classes, a break for lunch, then two more in the afternoon would do to my body and mind now). I went to Western Reserve University (soon to become Case Western Reserve) two evenings a week to get my Masters degree in history and had begun to prepare classroom lessons in what was then called Negro history. I  created readings to supplement the history textbook that said little about slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crowism. Of my six classes, three responded very well to the readings (do any readers remember the purple-stained hands that came from using the school’s “spirit master” or ditto machine?). The other three classes, well, they were much less enthused. Carol was in one of those responsive classes.

Carol who came from a working class family steeped in left-wing political ideology was keen about history and had read widely. Within a few weeks, Carol and a cadre of friends were the stars of that class. They would come in during my 35-minute lunch period and after school to continue talking about ideas raised in class and school issues. For a novice teacher, this was heady stuff.

One afternoon, Carol brought in a book that John Wexley had written (1955) about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case. She asked me to read it and wanted to know what I thought of it. The Rosenbergs had been indicted and convicted of treason in 1951 for passing atom bomb secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II. They were executed in 1953.

I had known of the case through newspapers and magazines. The Wexley book clearly argued that the Rosenbergs had been innocent of the charges; they were not spies and were wrongly convicted and executed. I read the book within a week and was stunned by the amount of evidence that Wexley had compiled from the court record and independent sources. Moreover, he had arrayed the evidence into a persuasive argument that the Rosenbergs had been framed. I totally accepted Wexley’s portrayal of the case, remembering the outrage I felt at the miscarriage of justice. I also recall some discussions Carol and I had during lunch and after school about the case itself and the material that Wexley had compiled. Whenever I would raise concerns about Wexley’s sources or portions of his argument–some parts sounded too pat for me–Carol would rebut my points and counter the concerns. She would then ask me questions about Wexley’s statements that she doubted. We had an intellectual give-and-take that, up to that time, I had never experienced with a student. I remember speaking to my wife and friends about the Rosenberg case and the Wexley book. For the first time as a teacher, discussions, even debates with a student rippled through my life.*

There is another encounter I had with Carol after she graduated from Glenville. I and my family had moved to Washington, D.C.  I taught in a program training returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban schools. After directing the program for two years, I returned to classroom teaching at Roosevelt High School. By that time, Carol, in her early 30s, had become a social studies teacher, gotten married,  and moved with her husband and family to D.C where he worked for the U.S. Department of Justice. She was assigned to Roosevelt also. In 1971, Carol and I team-taught a U.S. history class–at least that is what my memory bank registers. I remember the semester we worked together as intellectually exciting. Our paths parted after 1971 when I went to graduate school and she and her family eventually moved to Madison, Wisconsin. We would exchange annual holiday cards. In the 1990s, when my daughter went to the University of Wisconsin I re-established contact with Carol. By that time she was a member of the Madison school board–a post she served in for 18 years, retiring in 2008.

What did I learn from Carol? I admired Carol’s intellectual and political engagement, her feistiness as a high school junior who questioned mainstream beliefs. We had rousing discussions about ideas in a book that, at the time, went against the grain. What I came to see in retrospect was that I, at age 23, was ready to challenge conventional wisdom. She helped me do so.


*In 2008, a convicted Soviet spy who had served 17 years in prison admitted that Julius Rosenberg  had been a courier  for the USSR but that Ethel was not involved. By then, a consensus among historians, using decoded cables from the Soviets, emerged that Rosenberg had been a Soviet spy.

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Whatever Happened to the Winnetka Plan?

When and how did the Winnetka Plan begin and grow to become a nationally known lighthouse for Progressivism?

A small wealthy suburb of Chicago in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Winnteka leaders embraced the ideas of John Dewey and the “New Education,” an off-shoot of the then spreading Progressive movement. As the authors of a history of the Winnetka schools put it:.

In May, 1919, they hired Carleton W. Washburne as the superintendent of schools. It was this 29-year old educator who would bring their ambitious dreams for their schools to a reality. As the architect of “The Winnetka Plan,” Washburne’s innovations – individualized instruction, hands-on learning, attention to the development of the whole child, a focus on research and development of curriculum materials, and a thoughtful and comprehensive program of staff development – were the pillars of his philosophy of progressive education and continue to be cornerstones of today’s Winnetka Public Schools.

Variations of the Winnetka plan spread to other districts in the state and the nation eager to be viewed as Progressive. Washburne wrote in journals and authored books on the Plan. He spoke often about Winnetka schools at conferences in the U.S. and Europe.

This photo and those of classrooms below come from Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Education: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930-1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

What was the Winnetka Plan?

The “common core” (Superintendent Washburne’s phrase) in reading, math, and other subjects usually occurred in the morning as students worked in whole group, small groups, and individually in mastering the “essentials” in reading, math, science, etc. at each student’s grade level. Using diagnostic tests to assess where each student was in subject/skill levels, teachers created customized “workbooks” and individually tailored materials fitted to different levels of achievement for individual students. Assessment tools determined when each student attained mastery and could move ahead to next skill/subject matter within the grade level.

Afternoons were set aside for “creative group activities.” Here is where students participated in art, literature, music appreciation, crafts, drama, and physical activities. With no fixed achievement standards in these activities, each student could perform as they desired since no specific goals or mastery tests existed.

What problems did Washburne and the Winnetka Plan seek to solve?

Simply put, Washburne and other Progressives including Frederic Burk at San Francisco State Normal School where Washburne studied knew that all children did not learn at the same rate nor did they learn in the same way and thus teaching had to recognize that variation among students. In short, the age-graded school where the expectation was that all students would learn at the same pace and in the same way was the problem. The solution to this structural straitjacket confining teaching and learning was the design and implementation of the Winnetk Plan.

What were Winnetka Plan classrooms like?

The following photos of Winnetka classrooms between the 1920s and 1950s offer a glimpse of the district’s approach. Some of the photos were taken in the Crow Island Elementary School (1940) designed by internationally known architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Washburne and others committed to Progressive teaching and learning insured that building space and furniture provided the environment in which Progressive teachers could work with students.

What Happened to the Plan?

The Progressive spirit animating the district continues to this day. In 2019, the district celebrated the 100th anniversary of Carleton Washburne’s coming to Winnetka.

Over 12,000 residents live in Winnetka in 2020. As it was a century ago, it remains affluent and white (95 percent) serving just over 1,500 kindergarten to eighth grade children in five schools, all of which are (and have been) ranked highly in Illinois every year.

Carleton Washburne served the district from 1919 to 1943 before leaving Winnetka to work with setting up schools in Italy during World War II and afterwards. His successors, working under Progressive-minded school board members basically continued the Plan as Washburne had conceived it adding and trimming aspects of the program as the context for schooling changed in the following decades.


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

A Week in the Life of a Baltimore School Returning to In-Person Classes (Erica Green)

New York Times Journalist Erica Green spent a week in a Baltimore school where in-person instruction resumed. It is rare to get such a peek inside a big city district school during the pandemic–nearly all large urban districts are shuttered and rely upon remote instruction. This article appeared November 28, 2020

Zia Hellman prepared to welcome her kindergarten students back to Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School this month the way any teacher would on the first day of school: She fussed over her classroom.

Ms. Hellman, 26, dodged around the triangular desks, spaced six feet apart and taped off in blue boxes. She fretted about the blandness of the walls, fumbled with the plastic dividers covering name tags and arranged the individual yoga mats that replaced colorful carpets. Every window was open for extra ventilation, chilling the air.

“I wonder how they’re going to react to all of this,” she said, hands on her hips, scanning the room for the last time. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel, but it feels right.”

Ms. Hellman was among about two dozen teachers and staff members required to return to work on Nov. 16 for the first in-person instruction in Baltimore City Public Schools since March. The city was the first large school district in Maryland and the latest among urban districts in the country to tiptoe into one of the highest-stakes experiments in the history of the nation’s public education system: teaching face-to-face in a pandemic.

Returning to the classroom has not been easy; neither has remote learning.

Educators looking to get back in front of students have had to navigate conflicting guidance from politicians and public health officials. Some teachers’ unions have refused to return to buildings until the virus abates, ostracizing colleagues who dare break with them. On the other hand, the country’s most vulnerable children have sustained severe academic and social harm from the remote-learning experiment. Parents, navigating their own economic and work struggles, are increasingly desperate.

Ms. Hellman has yearned to be back in her school building in northeast Baltimore since September. She also understands the risks.

 “I feel like I’m a bit in ‘The Hunger Games,’” Ms. Hellman said. “I didn’t volunteer as tribute, I was chosen as tribute. But I want to be here for my students.”

Superintendents, meantime, have had to navigate a firestorm of political pressure, parental preference and the weight of a once-in-a lifetime public health crisis.

“Superintendents have always had to deal with conflicting interests, but it’s never been this kind of life-and-death balance,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large, urban public school systems across the country. “To have interests and decisions changing week to week, day to day, makes this situation unlike anything public education has ever faced.”

For Sonja Santelises, the chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, the decision to reopen 27 schools on Nov. 16 to about 1,200 academically at-risk students — such as kindergartners, special education students and English-language learners — last week was not a choice but an obligation. She made the call on the advice of the city’s public health commissioner.

“If I were to cling to one-liners or seek to score political points like some people want, I would choose not to see those families who need options, who need translators, those refugee families who walked miles to get their children an education,” Ms. Santelises said. “I will not do that.”

Baltimore reduced the number of planned building reopenings to 27 from 44 as the virus surged in certain parts of the city. But the local teachers’ union is calling for buildings in Ms. Santelises’ district to stay closed until they are deemed absolutely safe or a vaccine is widely available. It has pressured individual teachers against volunteering to go back and encouraged parents to boycott.

Those tensions reverberate across the country, where schools are grappling with the pandemic in widely varying ways, with some closing this month after opening earlier this fall even as others like in Baltimore just now are trying to reopen.

“We’re not just being obstructionist; we’re obstructing the district from putting people’s lives at risk,” said Diamonté Brown, the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

More than 70,000 schoolchildren left Baltimore classrooms in March, when the coronavirus outbreak in the United States was declared a pandemic. Since then, school leaders have focused on temporary measures. They bought computers and internet-access devices, sent worksheets to students’ homes, staffed their cafeterias and buses to serve meals to their communities, and waited for direction from local and federal health officials that never really came.

But now, with the pandemic threatening to derail the education and prospects of a generation of children, district leaders are feeling pressure to move on their own.

In Washington, D.C., internal testing data shows steep declines in the number of kindergartners through second grade students meeting literacy benchmarks, The Washington Post reported. In Houston, huge numbers of middle and high school students are failing their first semester, according to The Houston Chronicle. Even affluent, high-performing districts like Fairfax County, Va., a Washington suburb, are reporting alarming rates of middle and high school students failing classes, particularly English-language learners and students with disabilities — two populations that a recent Government Accountability Office report found were poorly served by remote learning.

Among the most alarming statistics are the significant enrollment declines that districts across the country are experiencing, particularly among kindergartners. Public education is out of reach for some families without internet access or with home lives that are unconducive to remote leaning. Some families have simply given up.

Ms. Hellman, in her fourth year of teaching kindergarten, understood what returning to the classroom would mean. She would not be able to see her 92-year-old grandmother. She might be subject to “corona-shaming” by colleagues, family and friends who have stayed away from work. She was putting herself personally at risk.

But, she reasoned, “I’m young, I’m healthy.”

At 9:15 a.m., each of the six students whose families had opted for in-person learning in her classroom received temperature checks. Two minutes later, one student was excitedly holding his mask up to show her its design.

“I love your mask,” Ms. Hellman told him, “but I think it would be cuter on.”

At 9:30, all the students were allowed to remove their masks to snack on Cinnamon Toast Crunch and applesauce. “It’s only 10 minutes,” she told them and herself, “and the windows are open.”

By 10:30, things had settled down, and she was just a teacher. Students were practicing writing their letters. By 11, they were preparing for recess by singing to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”:

My mask is on my face.

My mask is on my face.

Masks keep you and me safe.

My mask is on my face.

“The purpose of the first day is to feed them, have fun and send them home,” Ms. Hellman said. “We need them to come back the next day.”

Not only did her six in-class students return that next day, but so did 19 of her students learning virtually. So did Brandon Pinkney, the school’s principal, who was showing her classroom to a parent who was considering sending her son back.

In the 24 hours since in-person classes resumed, Mr. Pinkney was fielding inquiries from parents intrigued by what they were seeing in the classroom through their children’s computer screens at home.

He canvassed the building, popping his head into different classrooms and mentally reconfiguring the spaces, just in case. He was hoping to reserve an extra desk for a student who told him bluntly that he was done with “that virtual stuff” but would return if the school reopened.

“I know he’s in the streets,” Mr. Pinkney said. “If I don’t see him this week, I’m going to get him.”

Many staff members in the school said they had only returned to the building because it was Mr. Pinkney’s voice on the line, telling them that they had been chosen.

He promised transparency and support, and that was enough for Rachael Charles. A special-education teacher with two teenagers at home, she wasn’t as easy to persuade as Ms. Hellman, who acknowledged that as a young, childless teacher, she did not face the same choice between her life and livelihood.

With the Black community disproportionately affected by the virus, Ms. Charles, who is African-American, had been working out over the summer, taking vitamins and alkaline water, just in case. But she still explored taking a leave of absence.

“I love my students dearly, but I’m coming back into the classroom to take care of children when no one is taking care of mine,” she said.

Safety risks aside, Ms. Charles wondered if she would be able to be the teacher that her students remembered. “I’m very hands-on, and it’s hard to have them right in my reach and not support them the way they need,” she said.

When a student with a slight physical disability struggled to pull his mask down to eat lunch, she initially stood outside his blue box, encouraging him. “Under your chin, you can do it.”

But before long, her hand was on his mouth, and she pulled it down herself.

Downstairs, Mr. Pinkney was in a hallway with a group of clinicians debating whether to do virtual or in-person special education assessments.

“It doesn’t make sense to do them virtually when we have assessment rooms here,” he said. “They’re cleaned every hour on the hour.”

“Every hour?” a skeptical voice could be heard asking over a speakerphone.

“On the hour,” a voice chimed in from nearby.

That voice belonged to Donice Willis, the school custodian. A 66-year-old grandmother of 11, she had never stopped working during the pandemic, and she could not wait for children to return to the building.

She said she knew that she was among the highest risk groups for the coronavirus. She hopes to retire at 70, but she said she had relinquished control of that goal to the same higher power she hopes is protecting her from Covid-19.

“You’re going to go one day from something,” Ms. Willis said. “If God gives me 70, I’ll take it.”

When a maskless student walked out of a classroom she was preparing to clean, she barely flinched: “Put your mask on, pookie,” she said.

‘Hold the Line’: A Superintendent Stands Firm

Around dismissal time on Nov. 18, a Wednesday afternoon, news broke that New York City had reached a coronavirus positivity threshold of 3 percent, which would result in another shutdown of in-person instruction. The city’s schools had been open for less than two months. Within the hour, Washington city officials announced that talks between district and union officials had fallen apart.

Teachers in Baltimore wondered how their city leaders would react. Maryland’s positivity rate was above 6 percent.

Ms. Santelises stood her ground. The science was strong that transmission rates in schools remained low, she said. A teacher had emailed, “hold the line.”Ms. Hellman focused on how well her new normal was going. She was wearing two masks now, and she did not have to remind her students to keep theirs on as much. She gushed over how her in-person students waved at her remote pupils. Her only concern was that her remote learners were missing the banter and nonverbal cues her students were getting in the classroom.

“Today was better,” she said. “It just feels like this is how it is, and it’s only been three days.”

Then came the reality check. Shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Mr. Pinkney emailed the staff to say someone had reported Covid-like symptoms, and two classes had been sent home to quarantine.

“Oh my God,” Ms. Hellman said. “It’s here.”

Mr. Pinkney followed protocols, alerted classmates and staff members, and submitted the case to the district.

Ms. Hellman felt defeated.

“Covid doesn’t care what day it is,” she said. “It doesn’t care that you have a shield in front of your face, it doesn’t care if you have a mask on most of the day, but not 10 minutes while you’re eating.”

Baltimore announced that same day that schools that had begun offering in-person instruction would not resume it after Thanksgiving until Dec. 7, amid warnings about holiday gatherings and travel. Some of the private schools in the area had done the same.

The actions of Baltimore’s private schools during the pandemic have weighed heavily on Ms. Santelises. Those students have clearly had an educational advantage, and one of them is her daughter. Two of her other children attend public charter schools that are closed.

“As a mom, I’m living the difference, and the inequity is astounding” Ms. Santelises said. “I’m saying goodbye to one every morning at the bus stop, and I’m watching the difference it makes. I see my daughters’ faces looking at me at home, like: ‘You all aren’t even going to try?’”

The announcement of the new delay spurred members of the teachers’ union to protest, and members marched to different buildings calling for the district to shut down the buildings for the rest of the semester. By the end of the week, at least 15 staff members had tested positive for the virus, the union said.

Ms. Brown, the union leader, said the district was insulting teachers who had been working around the clock to deliver quality instruction to their students at home.

“There’s more to education than teachers standing in front of students teaching a lesson,” she said.

On Friday, Ms. Hellman was still standing in front of students. As the day drew to a close, she helped a student draw what he was thankful for. A week in, she was crossing into her students’ blue boxes without much thought.

Outside, as the students played together while awaiting their parents, the directions were even more relaxed: “You can take your mask off, but don’t get too close,” Ms. Hellman said.

Sharrea Brown embraced her 5-year-old daughter, Paige Myers. Over the course of the week, Ms. Brown had watched Paige’s mood improve. At home, the frustrated child would yell “You’re not my teacher!” when she tried to help.

Paige said she was nervous about the “bad germ,” so she has a message for other children who want to go back to school: “Keep your mask on.”

Ms. Brown was hopeful that with school open, she could also resume some normalcy. She took a leave of absence from her job in March, and her unemployment was stretching only so far.

“Christmas ain’t looking too good,” Ms. Brown said. “But she’s good,” she said of her daughter. “She’s almost back to feeling like herself again.”


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