Category Archives: school reform policies

Teaching in Charter Schools (Part 1)

Charter schools are three decades old. Advocates for wider parental choice of schools lobbied state legislatures and local school boards to authorize a different way to organize a tax-supported, independent public school with its own school board and a charter that included the freedom to create innovative organization, curriculum, and instruction. Accountable to its independent board, charter schools have enormous latitude in what they can do insofar as school culture, organization, curriculum, and classroom lessons. This flexibility and the charter mandate to innovate, advocates claimed, would create constructive competition with regular public schools. Having charter schools, then, would lead to a general uplifting of performance for both types of schools. That was the heralded promise of charter schools thirty years ago.

Beginning in the early 1990s, state after state began authorizing charter schools and charter management organizations that operated clusters of schools. By 2020, nearly thirty years later, there were 7500 charter schools with over 200,000 teachers teaching 3.3 million students. Charter schools have become established institutions mostly in urban districts (58 percent) and have slowly expanded into suburbs and rural districts.

What has become obvious in this 30-year history is that charter elementary and secondary schools have far greater flexibility than regular district schools in altering what happens in classrooms and buildings (think of charter school organizations that have built unique school cultures such as: KIPP, Aspire). Yet even with that mandate, separate governance, and the charge to innovate most charter schools have replicated the traditional age-graded organization. Ditto for the curriculum since accreditation–a must for any newly organized school–requires abiding with state curriculum standards and skills that must be taught (see here and here)

Does that replication of regular school organization and curriculum extend to the classroom? Does teaching in a charter school with its separate governance and flexibility harnessed to a mission to innovate, differ at all from teaching in a non-charter school? This post offers an (but not the) answer to that question.

I have observed dozens of charter school classrooms over the past decade. I have seen both extraordinary, ordinary, and yes, a few disastrous lessons. While I can not vouch for what students learned in the lessons I have observed, I surely have seen some charter school teachers give their all.

Consider Kate Goddard who teaches world history at one the Summit Charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The young, slim teacher stands on the chair in the middle of the classroom to be heard above ninth grade students clustered in the four corners of the portable classroom. The students are chattering about the reasons they agree or disagree with the statement Katie Goddard, the teacher, put on the “smart board.” The statement students considered–“There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery”– drove them to different corners labeled “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree.” The teacher asks students in each corner why they agree or disagree with statement. After a few students give their reasons, some classmates change their minds and migrate to different corners making the classroom a swirl of movement.  This activity occurred in the middle of a 95 minute block in World Studies where Goddard was introducing a new unit on Imperialism.

Goddard had begun the 95-minute class with a Warm Up question: “Should the U.S. pay reparations to black Americans whose families have been slaves?” and, after telling them to put away their cells and Chromebooks, gave them two short op-ed pieces on opposite sides of the question. One op ed argued that who should pay and who should receive reparations for enslaving Africans were contested and confused. The other op ed argued that the British should pay reparations to Kenyans for what they did in colonizing that African nation.

She asks the 24 ninth graders to “read and chunk the text” for each opinion piece. She reminded the class to read each paragraph and write a one-line summary of each paragraph and indicate whether they agree or disagree with the op ed. As students write in their notebooks, Goddard, holding a clipboard, walks around the classroom of 13 tables, each seating two students facing the “smart board,” answering questions and checking to see what students are writing. Goddard asks students to hold up fingers indicating how much more time they want to finish task. Some hold up one, others two and three. For those who had finished she offers two options for them to do.

She then asks students to share with partner their summaries and opinions. As students start talking to one another, Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember in working together you need to turn to your partner, move your body to face one another and listen carefully to what your partner says.” Students resume talking.

When she sees that nearly all students have completed the task, she asks students for their summaries of the two articles and which one they agree/disagree with most. Students are initially reluctant to commit to a position but as a few offer their opinions, Goddard teases out the reasons embedded in arguments for and against reparations. And this is the moment when the teacher asked all the students to take a position on the statement and go to a corner of the room: “There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery.”

This Warm Up and debate about reparations were initial activities in the lesson introducing Imperialism. By starting with the contentious contemporary question of reparations for slavery, Goddard would move to instances of European countries colonizing the Congo in Africa and India in Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and consider the human costs of taking over these countries.

The agenda for the day, written on the white board, listed the sequence of topics for the hour-and-a-half session:

  1. Reparations
  2. Slavery op eds
  3. Criteria
  4. Imperialism op eds
  5. Exit ticket

After the Warm Up and during the four-corner debate, Goddard gets deeper into the reparations question by introducing statements such as: “slavery ended a hundred years ago so the U.S. government should not pay any money to African Americans now.” One student points out that the U.S. government has already paid reparations when they gave sums of money to Japanese Americans for being in internment camps during World War II. Another points out that the money went to those who were still alive. Voices are raised and tone becomes adversarial among students agreeing and disagreeing. Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember our norms. The second your tone becomes combative, you don’t listen. Our goal is to listen to one another.” After more restrained back-and-forth in which the teacher specifically calls on students who have heretofore not entered the discussion, Goddard asks class if they want to shift corners.

About one-third of the students move to another corner.

Teacher now asks students to return to their tables and turn to the next question: When are reparations necessary? She asks class to open Chromebooks and come up with criteria to answer the question. She reminds class that there is no correct answer, that you have different opinions but you need examples and facts to support your opinion. Goddard moves around the room asking and answering questions at each table.

After about 10 minutes, Goddard asks students to put lids of laptops down and says that “we are going to study Imperialism and you are going to write an op-ed by the end of the unit. “The question you will answer,” she says, is “do former imperializing countries have a responsibility to give foreign aid to the countries they imperialized?”  She links the earlier discussion of reparations  to Imperialism and then previews the next 12 lessons on the “smart board,” going over each one briefly. She then puts up a slide that defines Imperialism as “the process of taking over another country through diplomacy or military force.” Goddard asks students to come up with their definition of imperialism by using the Playlist of sources (documents and videos)–she gives the class the link–that she assembled for them on the Congo, India, and other colonized countries. In coming up with their definitions, she urges students to talk to their partner. After pairs have come up with their definitions from Playlist, she then asks them to brainstorm what they would need to know about imperialism to determine if reparations are necessary.*

With clipboard in hand, teacher moves through the classroom checking to see which students are unclear about the task or having difficulties in answering questions.

As time winds down to end the class, Goddard summarizes what they have done, connecting discussions on reparations to new unit of Imperialism.

The criteria I use in judging the quality of a lesson are: clear and coherent organization, mixed activities, level of student participation, frequent verbal interaction between teacher and students and among students, and finally, a summary of the lesson.*

In my opinion, Goddard’s lesson met these criteria fully. As I left this charter school World History lesson , I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw and experienced. Was Goddard typical or atypical of charter school teachers I observed in the Summit network of schools?

The next post looks at another charter school lesson that I observed.


*One criterion missing is what students learned. I had no observable way of determining whether students learned what the teacher wanted in that lesson.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

I Taught Online School This Year. It Was a Disgrace (Lelac Almagor)

Lelac Almagor (@MsAlmagor) is in her 18th year of classroom teaching; she teaches fourth grade at a public charter school in Washington, D.C. This essay appeared in the New York Times, June 16, 2021.

Our prepandemic public school system was imperfect, surely, clumsy and test-crazed and plagued with inequities. But it was also a little miraculous: a place where children from different backgrounds could stow their backpacks in adjacent cubbies, sit in a circle and learn in community.

At the diverse Washington, D.C., public charter school where I teach, and which my 6-year-old attends, the whole point was that our families chose to do it together — knowing that it meant we would be grappling with our differences and biases well before our children could tie their own shoes.

Then Covid hit, and overnight these school communities fragmented and segregated. The wealthiest parents snapped up teachers for “microschools,” reviving the Victorian custom of hiring a governess and a music master. Others left for private school without a backward glance.

Some middle-class parents who could work remotely toughed it out at home, checking in on school between their own virtual meetings. Those with younger kids or in-person jobs scraped together education and child care — an outdoor play pod or a camp counselor to supervise hours of Zoom classes. With schools closed, the health risks and child care hours didn’t disappear. They simply shifted from well-educated, unionized, tax-funded professional teachers to hourly-wage, no-benefit workers serving only those who could afford to pay.

The families with the fewest resources were left with nothing. No child care, only the pallid virtual editions of essential services like occupational or speech therapy.

If they could work out the logistics, their kids got a couple of hours a day of Zoom school. If they couldn’t, they got attendance warnings. In my fourth-grade class, I had students calling in from the car while their mom delivered groceries, or from the toddler room of their mom’s busy day care center.

Home alone with younger siblings or cousins, kids struggled to focus while bouncing a fussy toddler or getting whacked repeatedly on the head with a foam sword. Others lay in bed and played video games or watched TV. Many times each day, I carefully repeated the instructions for a floundering student, only to have them reply, helplessly, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” their audio squealing and video freezing as they spoke.

Even under optimal conditions, virtual school meant flattening the collaborative magic of the classroom into little more than an instructional video. Stripped of classroom discussion, human connection, art materials, classroom libraries, time and space to play, virtual school was not school; it was busywork obscuring the “rubber-rooming” of the entire school system.

Some educators sneered that the parents who complained just wanted free babysitting. But I’m not ashamed to say that child care is at the heart of the work I do. I teach children reading and writing, yes, but I also watch over them, remind them to be kind and stay safe, plan games and activities to help them grow. Children deserve attentive care. That’s the core of our commitment to them.

I am still bewildered and horrified that our society walked away from this responsibility, that we called school inessential and left each family to fend for itself. Meanwhile nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers all went to work in person — most of my students’ parents went to work in person — not because it was safe but because their work is essential. Spare me your “the kids are all right” Facebook memes. Some children may have learned to do laundry or enjoy nature during the pandemic. Many others suffered trauma and disconnection that will take years to repair.

I don’t know the first thing about public health. I won’t venture an opinion on what impact the school closures had on controlling the spread of Covid. What I do know is that the private schools in our city quickly got to work upgrading HVAC systems, putting up tents, cutting class sizes and rearranging schedules so that they could reopen in relative safety. Public schools in other states and countries did the same.

More of our public school systems should have likewise moved mountains — repurposed buildings, reassigned staff, redesigned programming, reallocated funding — to offer consistent public schooling, as safely as possible, to all children.

Instead we opened restaurants and gyms and bars while kids stayed home, or got complicated hybrid schedules that many parents turned down because they offered even less stability than virtual school. Even now, with vaccinations rising and case rates dropping, some families remain reluctant to send their kids back to us in the fall. I can’t help thinking that’s because we broke their trust.

Does virtual learning work for some kids, in some circumstances? Sure. So does home-schooling, or not attending school at all. But I am profoundly relieved that most districts, including my own, plan to shut down or restrict the online option.

I hope this means that we are renewing our collective commitment to true public education. Just as before, we will have to fight to make our schools safer, more equitable and more flexible. Just as before, coming together will be messy and complicated. Children, families and teachers will all need time to rebuild relationships with our institutions.

But we’ll be back together, in the same building, eating the same food. We’ll find that the friend who helps us in the morning might need our help in the afternoon. We’ll have soccer arguments at recess and patch them up in closing circle. We’ll sing songs, tell stories, plant seeds and watch them grow. That’s schooling in real life. That’s what public school is for.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Whatever Happened to Teaching Grammar?

Like cursive writing, the formal teaching of grammar was a mainstay in elementary school language arts and secondary school English programs since the founding of tax-supported public schools in the early 19th century. The history of teaching grammar rules and how students should talk and write go back to ancient Greece and Rome and subsequent centuries in Europe and, of course, the 13 colonies under British rule in the 17th and 18th centuries.

No more.

While many school districts in the U.S. have teachers who continue to teach grammar and syntax in connection with writing, especially in those districts committed to following Common Core curriculum standards, grammar instruction, especially memorizing rules and diagramming sentences, has faded from classroom lessons over the past half-century. How come?

This post provides a partial answer to that question.

When did grammar instruction in public schools begin?

Even before the colonies shed British rule, grammar instruction was a staple of private academies and the earliest “public” schools in the 17th and 18th centuries. After the Revolutionary War, schools relied upon grammar instruction as a key part of the school curriculum. One survey, for example, of texts used in New York state schools in 1804 showed:

13 spelling, 28 reading, 16 grammar, and one composition textbook were being used in the state’s schools. By 1832, there were 45 spelling, 102 reading, 48 grammar, and five composition textbooks in use. Of these, five spellers, ten readers, and three grammars were thought to be in general use by significant numbers of teachers

What problems does grammar instruction seek to solve?

For centuries there have been rules for how children and adults should speak and write. Speaking and writing incorrectly, that is, breaking the formal rules, were signs of poor child rearing and inadequate education. Acquiring the knowledge and skills of appropriate speaking and writing became a mark of both a superior education and social class standing. It was the job of public school teachers to teach the young standard ways of speaking and writing as solutions to inexorable changes in the labor market, culture, and society. Language was always a social marker and getting labeled as speaking and writing improperly was for many Americans in the late-19th through the 20th century, a stigma. Knowing and using mainstream grammar rules helped many move up the socioeconomic ladder.

What does grammar instruction in elementary and secondary schools look like?

One teacher uses a pizza design to get at parts of speech for seventh and eighth graders:

For those schools implementing Common Core curriculum standards, there is emphasis on writing, say, narrative, argumentative, and information essays. Then there is familiar kinds of grammar rules lodged within these standards. Here is a sampling of ninth grade standards for grammar instruction:

Conventions of Standard English:

Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Use parallel structure.*

Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.

Spell correctly.

Knowledge of Language:

Write and edit work so that it conforms to the guidelines in a style manual (e.g., MLA Handbook, Turabian’s Manual for Writers) appropriate for the discipline and writing type….

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:

Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 9-10 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.

Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., analyze, analysis, analytical; advocate, advocacy).

Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, or its etymology….

Interpret figures of speech (e.g., euphemism, oxymoron) in context and analyze their role in the text.

Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

A brief look at the elementary school worksheets teachers used to teach grammar suggest the thrust of grammar instruction during these decades.

Does grammar instruction work?

While grammar continued to be taught formally in elementary and secondary schools, scholars and professional organizations often published studies and statements that made clear how teaching grammar in of itself had little to no effect on students’ use of language and writing.

See, for example, the 1963 statement of the National Councilof English Teachers:

In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing (p. 37).

In 1984, George Hillocks published a meta-analsis of studies on the teaching of grammar. He concluded:

The study of traditional school grammar (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing.

Nonetheless, with the inclusion of grammar in the English Core Curriculum standards since 2010, instruction in the rule driven content, downsized and harnessed to improved writing, continues.

To what extent does grammar instruction continue in U.S. schools?

The isolated teaching of grammar rules for writing and speaking has declined greatly (e.g., diagramming sentences).

But the integrating of grammar into writing in elementary school lessons in language arts and secondary school English classes continues, spurred by the Common Core curriculum standards and the huge amount of research findings on the futility of teaching grammar rules divorced from writing.

I wanted to close this post with a survey of teachers who continue to incorporate grammar into their lessons but I have yet to find any recent poll of U.S. teachers and the degree to which they teach grammar.

If any readers know of such surveys of teaching practices in elementary and secondary classrooms, please contact me.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Why Has Teacher-Directed Instruction Largely Remained Stable over the Past Century? (Part 4)

This series of post examined the remarkable stability over time of certain teaching practices that I have labeled, teacher-directed instruction. What I offer is an explanation, not a verifiable fact, about this dominant pattern of classroom teaching in public schools over the past century. I ended the previous post with a question:

Do these schools and teaching practices, shaped as they are politically, culturally, and educationally, meet the needs of the larger society which initially established and have continually supported tax-supported public schools?

No surprise that my answer is yes. After all, since the beginning of tax-supported public schools in the early decades of the 19th century, taxpayers and voters (once only white males but in 2021 inclusive of anyone meeting the age requirement), public schools, criticized as they have been decade after decade, nonetheless remain a prized community institution in rural, suburban, and urban America. In this post, I want to elaborate why I answer ” yes” to the question. I lean heavily upon the work of historians of education, David Tyack and David Labaree.

What David Tyack called the “Grammar of Schooling,” that is, the combination of the age-graded school organization shaping both teacher and student behavior and what the larger society expects of its public schools–a point that David Labaree stresses–explains the long-term practices of teacher-directed classrooms–which can also be called the “grammar of instruction.”

I want to unpack the above sentences.

Because it is taken-for-granted, as common as the air we breathe and seemingly as essential to schooling Americans as solid sleeping is to decent health, few reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, donors, researchers, and parents challenge the age-graded school organization and its daily grammar of instruction including teacher-directed instruction. Let me explain.

Since the late 19th century, the age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) has become the mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers, voters, and readers of this blog have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma. In proceeding through their student careers, Americans experienced teacher-directed instruction as the way to teach lessons.

If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a “success” it is the age-graded school and its grammar of instruction. In providing access to all children and youth, longevity as a reform, and global pervasiveness, the age-graded school is a stellar success.

Think about its longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Within a half-century, it had begun to replace one-room schoolhouses in urban and rural schools.

Or consider access. Between 1850-1913, over 30 million Europeans crossed the Atlantic and settled in the U.S. The age-graded school and its underlying grammar of instruction have not only enrolled millions of students over the past century and a half, assimilating immigrants into Americans, sorting out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduating over eighty percent of those entering high school, but also been the accepted way that a school must be.

Why have most U.S. school reformers, donors, and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization and its enduring ways of teaching generation after generation that influences daily behavior of nearly 4 million adults and well over 50 million children or one-sixth of all Americans in the early 21st century? Surely, habit and tradition play a part in the longevity of the age-graded school and its accompanying teacher-directed instruction. The lack of recognizable and durable alternatives that have been around sufficiently long to compete with the prevailing model is another reason for its spectacular stability.

What is too often ignored in explaining the durability of the embedded grammar of schooling in the age-graded organization, however, is the widely shared social beliefs among parents, educators, and taxpayers about what a “real” school is. After all, nearly all U.S. adults—save for the tiny number who are home schooled—have attended both public and private age-graded schools. Learning how and when to take turns, listening to the teacher, following the prescribed curriculum, reading textbooks, doing homework, taking tests–all of that abides within the grammar of schooling. Adding, subtracting, and multiplication are learned in primary grades, the nation’s history in 4th, 5th , 8th , and 11th grades is what a school is and does. Teacher-directed instruction and age-graded schools are American as apple pie and the Thanksgiving holiday.

This scaffolding of tradition–nearly two centuries of age-graded schools–powerful social beliefs among policymakers and parents about what “real schools” should be, and multiple public and private goals for tax-supported schools combine to make the “grammar of schools” and its teacher-directed instruction seemingly invulnerable to alternative ways of organizing schools and teaching lessons.

Consider the spread of charter schools in cities (e.g., New Orleans, 93 percent of schools; Detroit, 55 percent; Washington, D.C., 46 percent),  where charter advocates are free to organize the school, governance, curriculum, and instruction, nearly all are age-graded (see here for one exception).

The grammar of schooling with its teacher-directed instruction as the norm, then, is historical, ubiquitous, and thoroughly accepted by Americans as the primary way of schooling children since the late-19th century. It does (and did) meet two essential requirements of the U,S, system of schooling. First, the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling achieved the social aims of tax-supported schools, that is, fulfilling American ideals of individual liberty, equality and merit) and, second, providing a practical and efficient way of moving millions of students through a system that supports the larger economy by signaling which students in school can go on to higher education and which enter the job market upon graduation (see here and here).

So this is why I believe that U.S. age-graded schools, their grammar of schooling including teacher-directed instruction, shaped as both are (and have been) historically, politically, culturally, and educationally, have met (and continue to do so) the needs of the larger society on being legitimate and eminently practical in achieving American social aims. And that, to me, explains the extraordinary stability of teacher-directed instruction.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Why Has Teacher-Directed Instruction Remained Largely Stable over the Past Century? (Part 3)

The answers I provide for why classroom practices have remained largely stable over decades, even when counting modest changes teachers have made in routine activities, are hardly exhaustive. Nonetheless, these answers cover the major ones offered in the literature on school reform.

*What keeps teacher-directed instruction largely stable are teaching traditions dating back centuries that are reinforced by those who enter and stay in teaching, supported by popular social beliefs, and fortified by the age-graded school structure.

Moreover since the nature of teaching is conservative—i.e., transmitting knowledge, skills, and values to the young—the occupation has attracted people who believed that such practices were not only socially responsible but also worked for them when they were students.

Historical traditions of teacher-directed instruction to transfer knowledge, skills, and values from one generation to another stretch back millennia.  Former students who decide to become teachers pick up instructional habits they saw in their teachers and then incorporate them into their teaching the next generation. Traditional forms of teaching persisted not only through habit but also because teachers and parents viewed these practices as both efficient and effective. Furthermore, district and principal authority curb teacher authority outside the classroom.  No teacher, for example, can tell a student that the class is too large and must go to another teacher. 

Thus, the age-graded school with self-contained classrooms, a curriculum delivered to students chunk-by-chunk, annual tests, and yearly promotion to next grade governed teachers and students. This structure arose during the industrialization and urbanization of the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries and remains the dominant form for organizing schooling in the 21st century.

Once teachers close their doors, however, district and principal power over the teacher wane. While the age-graded school structure surely limits teacher discretion, self-contained classrooms permit teachers to exert a constrained autonomy. Teachers rule over their classrooms.

For example, teachers determine how to manage a crowd of students; they decide on which lessons they will continue to teach and which they change; they choose to use old technologies and try out new ones; they experiment with new materials while using ones that had worked in earlier lessons; they engage students in familiar activities and switch to different ones they discovered or learned about. This age-graded structure does permits limited autonomy for both stability and change to co-exist in the same classroom but at the same time isolates and insulates teachers from one another hampering collaboration across grades and departments.

Historic traditions of teaching renewed each generation by those who learned those traditions as students and now teach in age-graded classrooms are further fortified by popular beliefs held by large proportions of taxpayers and voters about teaching and learning in a “real school” (Metz real schools). Most Americans believe that a “real school” is where teachers teach in age-graded, self-contained classrooms (e.g., first graders learn to read; 8th and 9th graders take algebra) and where children and youth do what they are told. That is how students learn. Such beliefs sustain traditional forms of teaching, grant a limited amount of autonomy to teachers, and keep a complex system of many interacting parts working day in and day out.

Thus, traditional teaching, the people who enter teaching, the age-graded school, and pervasive social beliefs about what “real” teaching and “real” schools are combine to explain perennial stability in classroom practice periodically seasoned by teacher-crafted changes.

*What has kept (and keeps) classroom practice largely stable has been teacher resistance to reform.

Teacher resistance can be both active and passive: (1) many teachers actively prize what they do daily in classrooms and believe, for example, that teacher-centered instruction is more effective than student-centered instruction and judge efforts to use a new technology or curriculum to transform one to the other as uninformed. (2) Teachers resist by being minimally compliant and making small changes or do as little as possible short of insubordination because altering classroom routines substantially demand far too much teacher time, energy, and skills, given the onerous workplace conditions—class size, schedules, support staff—and the predispositions of those entering teaching. Active or passive teacher resistance keeps classroom practice on an even keel.

* What keeps teaching stable are fundamental errors in policymaker, beliefs, thinking, and actions in designing and converting policies into classroom practice.

The fundamental error in thinking policymakers make is two-fold. They believe that redesigning, dumping, or replacing key school structures—governance, organization, and curriculum–will alter teacher instruction and student learning. Secondly, they believe that public schools and classrooms are complicated not complex systems.

As a result of these beliefs, many policymakers approach structural change like mechanical engineers in designing solutions to solve system problems in schools and classrooms. They see systems as complicated structures that can broken down into discrete segments and re-engineered through algorithms and flow charts to perfection—like piloting a Boeing 737–rather than as a complex, dynamic, and yes, messy, multi-level system—structure of the aircraft, air traffic controllers adapting constantly to varying weather conditions, aircraft downtime, and daily peak arrivals/departures of flights.

Surely there are structures and patterns of behavior in helping professions such as medicine, social work, and education. And just as surely these complex systems contain much uncertainty and unpredictability as hundreds of interacting and interdependent relationships and events at each level of the system (e.g., classroom, school, district) respond in varying ways to an ever-shifting environment. Unintended consequences (e.g. the accumulation of individual teacher decisions about new science lessons across the district meant that only 55 percent of teachers used newly-prescribed materials) lead to unexpected outcomes (e.g., science test scores go down). Re-engineering complex organizations like schools to alter classroom patterns of teaching and learning is doomed to failure.

Policymakers treating school system structures like clock-work gears and cogs issue directives seeking school and classroom reforms. They believe that administrators and practitioners will carry out these marching orders as directed in flow charts and policy manuals. Too many loose connections, unmapped but interdependent relationships, unpredictable events, and ambiguous directives combine into a web-like complex system confounding what policymakers seek, what administrators request, and what teachers end up doing.

So even within the complex system of K-12 schooling where much remains unpredictable and interdependent, one oasis of stability remains in practices that classroom teachers have used for decades constantly adapting these practices to each generation of students that sit at their desks and listen to person in charge.

Even these photos plus the above explanations leave a deeper question unanswered.

Do these schools and teaching practices, shaped as they are politically, culturally, and educationally meet the needs of the larger society which initially established and have continually supported tax-supported public schools?

That question ties together the history of change and stability of teacher-directed classroom practices and the persistence of a grammar of schooling to what society expects from and is willing to pay for mass public schooling. Part 4 answers that question.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

How Has Teacher-Directed Instruction Changed over the Past Century? (Part 2)

Yes, even traditional teaching in public schools has changed. Incremental alterations in teacher-directed lessons have occurred over the past century. In the technologies used during lessons, managing student behaviors in large to small groups, crafting in-class assessments, and many other instances of common teaching practice, teachers have adapted and adopted innovations that have altered their teaching.

These incremental changes, however, are not the fundamental shifts in teaching that Progressive, constuctivist, and student-centered learning boosters have sought over the past century. Except in scattered classrooms and schools across the country, some teachers and principals have created fundamentally different classroom practices, say, from teacher-directed to student-driven (see here, here, and here), but most classrooms in the U.S.–or anywhere else in the world, for that matter–continue to have teacher-directed lessons.

Why is that?

Some researchers look at the constancy of teacher beliefs over time to answer the question. Those researchers point to novice teachers’ experiences as elementary and secondary school students coming through a system where teacher-directed lessons were standard fare. Much as their parents had experienced when they were in public school. These researchers reason that newbie teachers’ perceptions and judgements but most important their intentions of what to do, thereby shape the classroom practices they use during lessons. But disentangling a teacher’s knowledge, experience, intentions from core beliefs is extremely difficult for researchers to do, especially when it comes to potentially clashing beliefs (see here).

Take for example, when a teacher believes in her heart-of-heart that her lessons have to be rich in content and skills that lean on what her low-income students of color bring to the classroom from family and neighborhood. Delving into the community and family become lessons. Her teacher-education courses and prior beliefs about differences among students emphasized the importance of being responsive to differences in students’ cultures. The teacher wants to teach lessons that include students’ cultural differences in language, beliefs, and behavior.

Yet that very same teacher may deeply believe that many of her low-income children, for example, bring to school academic deficits that need careful attention and ultimate erasure. Her job is to bring children up to school standards regardless of students’ background. These beliefs clash within a teacher’s mind and only gets resolved as that teacher creates lessons that outflank the conflict. Not an easy task but many teachers do exactly that in teacher-directed lessons.

In addition to the constancy of teacher beliefs shaping their lessons there are the social expectations that parents and community have about what and how teachers should teach. The idea of a “real school,” one where teachers are in charge, expect students to obey directions, prize academics, assign homework, and give tests regularly continues to be the core idea that most parents and tax-paying citizens have about schools. They expect schools to stick to the familiar script of schooling as they knew it.

I do not criticize such views; they are what I have encountered in my experience as a teacher, administrator, superintendent and researcher. And also as a parent of two daughters (see here and here).

Thus, teacher beliefs and social expectations are factors that keep teacher-directed lessons as common fare for students past and present. Yet for some teachers those beliefs and expectations are not iron cages imprisoning teaching practices. There are teachers who do have different beliefs or shift in the ones they have, bend social expectations, and alter their traditional teacher-directed lessons.

Elizabeth Mack , high school science teacher:

When I first began teaching, I literally taught from the book. This is not the most engaging way to teach science. As a science teacher I wanted to do at least one lab per week. However, I was struggling with everyday classroom management, keeping up with grading, and trying to develop lesson plans.

Unfortunately, I did not have enough time in the day. Instead of doing one lab per week, I was lucky to have students complete one lab per unit. I am not proud of this. I should also mention that I took my first teaching job while still earning my credential. Basically, I was working full time, going to school full time, and was a full time mom and wife. Needless to say, my plate was overflowing. With that said, I believe my students did learn and were as engaged as they could have been with the lessons I was able to put together.

As a lifelong learner, I will continue to change what I do as my student population continues to change and as curriculum changes. Some strategies I will always use, like a daily warm up activity. Others were useful to me once, but I got tired of doing them or found them to be less effective than I had hoped. One such strategy that I loved for a long time, but gave up when I switched to high school is an exit ticket system. At the middle school I worked at, it worked great. I found that I just do not have the time for it in high school. I still believe it is an effective strategy.

Nyree Clayton-Taylor, elementary school teacher:

[Clayton-Taylor] … feels lucky that her school’s administration supports her use of hip-hop in the classroom, but she says it wasn’t always that way.

When I first started 19 years ago, I did encounter some backlash; some principals didn’t like it.” Clayton-Taylor recalls one principal who asked her to take down a display she had set up with posters featuring hip-hop artists that were designed to motivate her students. The display also featured the covers of hip-hop books and poetry that related to academic subjects her students were learning. Undaunted by her principal’s request to remove the posters, Clayton-Taylor left them up and invited the principal into her classroom to observe her lessons. “When he saw what I was doing with it, he understood that I was teaching the standards.

Despite early push-back, Clayton-Taylor found success with her approach, saw her students thrive and continued using hip-hop in her teaching. Others have taken notice of her work. In fact, Clayton-Taylor has received widespread recognition for her teaching and was selected as the 2019 Kentucky Elementary Teacher of the Year. But the problem of opposition—whether from colleagues, school or district leaders, parents or other members of the community—is familiar to many educators who seek to adopt new approaches and practices.

Both of these teachers add another reason beyond teacher beliefs and social expectations explaining why teacher-directed classes remain so stable. The classroom is part of the school and the school is part of a district and both create an organizational context that strongly influences what kind of teaching occurs.

The next post takes up the power of the organization in shaping how teachers teach.

1 Comment

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

An Enduring Puzzle about Teaching in the U.S. (Part 1)

Historians of education often pose puzzling questions about the past. Sure, some historians answer narrow but important questions such as: How and why did Head Start become a national early childhood program in the mid-1960s? Or why did platoon schools spread across the U.S. before World War I?

Answering these questions are not the journalistic five Ws: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. No, such questions as: why the standards, testing, and accountability movement to reform schools surged in the 1980s?–require revealing the context of the locale and the times and by documenting both changes that occurred and continuity of ongoing patterns of schooling.

In my career as a historian of education, I have delved into, skittered around, and tap-danced my way through various answers to questions about policymakers trying again and again to alter what teachers do in their lessons, how teachers changed their teaching over time, the continuity of classroom practices, and school and societal factors that touched teachers’ daily lessons. I do confess that I am a Johnny one-note when it comes to classroom teaching and teachers.

So now that my next book, Confessions of a School Reformer (Harvard Education Press) will appear this year, I am returning to, yet again, a puzzling question about teaching that I have bitten into many times but have not yet been satisfied with the answers I tasted.

That puzzling question is: While classroom teaching has changed since the 1890s yet with all of these changes teaching has remained relatively stable How come?

Why is this question puzzling?

Count the changes that have occurred in teaching. First, consider the dramatic shift that occurred in the upgrading of standards for training and certifying teachers. From needing a high school diploma to teach a century ago to the requirement of a master’s degree and courses in education, subject specialties, and teaching methods, teacher expertise has grown. How teacher dress, how they moved from formality to informality in classroom lessons, how teachers group students, the expanded sources available to teachers to incorporate into lessons–I could go on but the point is clear that who teaches, what is taught, and how lessons unfold have changed over the past century. Yet not enough to satisfy many school reformers.

Consider that critics of schooling who believe that the best form of instruction is student centered rather than teacher-centered have argued for many years that teachers have hardly moved their dominant practices to more learner-driven approaches. Project-based teaching and practices that allow students to make classroom decisions, and curricular content that touches, no, impinges upon their lives, critics have argued, need to be part of daily lessons. Observers of classrooms, surveys, videos, and first-hand accounts by teachers continue to make clear, however, that teacher-directed instruction remains front-and-center in most teachers lessons (see here and here).

Yet, many teachers assert that they use student-directed approaches in their lessons and observers have documented such approaches in their classrooms (see here and here).

So there is some evidence drawn from teacher surveys and observations that teachers, have indeed, slowly and decidedly altered how they teach, albeit seldom to the satisfaction of reformers pressing for student-centered instruction (see here, here and here).

That there has been movement in changing how most teachers teach, especially since the 1960s, that movement–more often occurring in elementary than secondary schools, in some academic subjects (e.g. English and social studies) but not others (e.g., math)–is undeniable. Nonetheless, classroom observers who visit post-pandemic classrooms would continue to see that most classroom lessons are teacher-directed.

What explains this remarkable stability in teacher-directed lessons across time and across grade-levels and schools enrolling children from both affluent and poor families?

Both practitioners and researchers identify specific individual and organizational factors that shape teaching behaviors and account for the constancy in classroom instruction: Teacher beliefs, social expectations, and the age-graded school structure.

I take up each of these in subsequent posts.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Remote Instruction in My Family

Beginning in early March 2020 when the pandemic struck, my 10 year-old grand-daughter who lives with her Mom in a large city in the Northwest stopped going to school. A fifth grader, she has since received instruction at home from two teachers. She uses a school-issued tablet loaded with Microsoft Teams software (instead of Zoom). In April 2021, she returned to in-person learning for two hours a day, four days a week .

In early May, I stayed with them a week and they returned with me to stay at my home for another week. In that period of time, I sat in the bedroom or dining room while she worked on her lessons–yes, she gave me permission to do so.

What follows is what I observed about how the two teachers taught and how my grand-daughter responded to that approach. Keep in mind that this is an N=1. I will not be generalizing to all children and youth either in this Northwest city’s schools or other districts that went completely remote during the pandemic. I am just describing what I observed.

Teaching approach

The fact that instruction is remote (I avoid the word phrase “remote learning” because I cannot verify whether what was transmitted from teacher to student and student to teacher was actually learned) is, of course, crucial.

The very medium of instruction, that is, from either a school classroom or a kitchen, teachers teach at a distance unintentionally encouraging the dominant mode of classroom instruction in the U.S., that is, teacher-directed (see here). For those teachers who want student-directed learning, that is, for children to participate more in lessons, to make decisions, and to work with class-mates in small groups, well, the screen medium makes that especially difficult, if not impossible. Whole group instruction occurs over Zoom or Teams as does independent learning but not small group activity except for those teachers who have mastered the intricacies of different teaching platforms.

What I saw of these two teachers working with my grand-daughter’s class was the enormous amount of work they put into finding videos, worksheets, questions, and activities that this fifth grade class could cope with. They spoke in what I call teacher-voices that were friendly and demanding. They appeared to me as being well prepared, creative in ways, and determined to cover the fifth grade district curriculum to prepare these 10 and 11 year-olds to move into the sixth grade.

Student response

What I observed during these instructional sessions–two hours long–was an antsy, responsible 10 year-old trying her darndest to pay attention and do what the teacher requested. It was hard, however, as she moved from the bed in her Mom’s room to the floor and then to the kitchen table ending up on the rug in the sun room. Her attention span expanded and shrunk before my eyes as this active youngster tuned in and tuned out within a few minutes. She secretly watched online YouTube videos when there were lapses in teacher directions, technical difficulties with the hardware connections or software glitches.

She completed every assignment that the teacher gave and submitted it electronically only after her Mom checked out the work, particularly the math problems. That was part of the regimen that my grand-daughter followed when she logged into the daily lessons four days a week.

The district finally began in-person classroom instruction for K-5 children in mid-May 2021. My grand-daughter went for two hours a day four times a week relishing the contact with other children albeit only a dozen or so classmates were there. While I did drive her to school and pick her up afterwards during the week I was visiting, I did not observe her in class.

Learning loss?

Media reports on students’ learning loss during school closures and installation of remote instruction underscore the academic content and skills that students missed while at home or in hybrid settings of in-person and distance instruction (see here and here). Experts predict that such erosion in test scores, especially for low-income minority students including English Language Learners, will show up when standardized tests resume in 2021-2022.


The science of predicting “learning loss” of children after weeks and months away from formal in-person instruction (apart from summer vacations) remains dicey. What is not picked up by standardized tests, of course, is what students learned outside of school, at home, on the street, in the neighborhood, from extended family members, excursions, watching TV programs (beyond cartoons), and work-for-pay. Many young and older teens , for example, entered the job market as vaccinated population increased and businesses re-opened. Small businesses including restaurants, amusement parks, and service-driven industries gobbled up teenagers to fully accommodate customers (see here).

Standardized tests are woefully inadequate tools to assess what is learned outside of school. My grand-daughter, to cite only one example, carefully wearing her mask whenever outside or in shops, read many books taken out from the neighborhood public library, went camping with her Mom and friends numerous times in the waning months of the pandemic. She visited family in California staying over a month in the Monterey area, beachcombing, drawing, and building paper mache projects. She became technically proficient with the tablet she used for school, her mother’s smart phone, and anything else that had a swipe screen or dashboard. She built robots out of paper and cardboard installing triple A batteries in them so that cute robot dog could march across the living room floor. She built houses, again of paper, to make a village in which she put bakeries, grocery stores, a bank and a post office. She drew a map of the village as well. And she did far more than I can include here.

Did she learn a lot from remote instruction during the pandemic? I cannot say. But I can say–from observation and conversations–that she learned a lot informally. Can that learning be captured by existing assessments? Hardly.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

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.

1 Comment

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Seating Students in Classrooms: Clues to Understanding How Teachers Teach

Angela Watson is an experienced elementary school teacher, coach, and blogger (see here). She offers pros and cons of various ways to arrange a classroom leaving it up to readers which configuration of desks best reflects their beliefs in teaching and learning and the realities of managing a crowd of students.

At a time when the nation is returning to full-time face-to-face instruction after 18 months of pandemic schooling, thinking about organizing and, perhaps, changing classroom furniture becomes a possibility. Why? Because how to furnish and arrange furniture in a classroom is a peek into the heart and mind of a teacher’s ideology of how students learn best and watching them at the same time.

Watson offers teachers various options to consider. Moreover, she recommends changing seating arrangements over the course of the school year as classroom norms evolve, content and skills shift, and relationships with students mature.

Although she speaks to mostly elementary school teachers, I have seen thousands of middle and high school classrooms where seating arrangements vary including options that Watson evaluates.

She describes the seating organizations she uses:

  • Stadium Seating (or Angled Rows with Desks Touching)
  • Modified U (or Horseshoe)
  • Groups (or Teams)
  • Combination (desks in various positions)

Watson offers her analysis of these seating arrangements.

Stadium seating (angled rows with desks touching)

Pros: Enables the teacher to see what every child is doing, gives all students a clear view of the front of the room, can take up less floor space than other arrangements, makes it easy for students to work in pairs or move their desks into groups for cooperative work

Cons: Does not work well with a large number of desks because students will be too far away, less effective in terms of management when more than two rows are used, less suitable for classrooms that use cooperative learning methods for the majority of the day


Yes, I do think that placing your students’ desks in rows is a perfectly acceptable classroom arrangement!  I like having desks in angled rows (also called stadium seating) because all the kids are facing me. This helps me see if they’re on-task and makes it easier for them to concentrate.

Because the students’ desks are touching one another (and not completely separated), the angled rows mean that students can work with partners without having to move their desks because they are sitting right alongside one another. When it’s time for group work, they can easily shift the desks to work together in fours, or sit at tables in the back of the room or on the floor.


The advantage of angled over straight-facing rows is that the angle makes it easier for students to see and leaves space in the front of the room for a rug, open area, overhead projector cart, podium, table, and so on. The photo above shows the angled style in a different classroom, this time with a projector cart in the middle instead of a rug and the desks pulled much closer to the front of the room. This room is larger than the one above, and I rarely had students move their desks for group work: they did partner work with the person next to or behind/in front of them, and then for group work, they moved to sit at the tables and rug areas you see placed around the classroom. They absolutely loved this because it gave them the opportunity to get out of their desks and sit some place different!

Pros: Allows you to fit many desks into a small space, students talk less during teacher-direct and independent activities when they are further apart from their friends, make partner work simpleCons: Spreads children out considerably so that it can be hard to address them all, makes group work harder because the desks can’t easily be moved around


As shown above, I began one particular school year with 22 desks in a modified horseshoe shape, leaving a small break in the middle and sides of the desk arrangement to use as walk-through spaces. This created a large center space that I could stand in to see each student’s work….


Pros: Can save floor space even with many desks, supports cooperative work.

Cons: Promotes off-task behavior, distracting for many students.


This was an arrangement I wasn’t able to use when I had close to 30 kids in my class, because when children were facing one another at their desks, it was just too much work to keep them from talking during teacher-directed instruction and independent work times. However, I have found that there are some smaller classes of children who can handle sitting in groups, and it also worked well when I taught in schools that promoted a lot of collaborative learning. This arrangement shows 3 groups of 5, with 2 kids who could not handle the groups sitting by themselves off to the side. I loved having the groups angled like this because all the kids could see the board and I could stand in one spot and see everyone’s face and work area….


During my last year in the classroom, I got rid of the desks and switched to tables! I had been wanting to do this for years, and when I stepped foot in the room in August and saw how the custodians had stacked all those desks in a corner, I realized how much more room I would have. I had all the desks removed and replaced with tables (oh, yes, the custodians looooved that idea), and I was THRILLED with the results. You can read more in my blog post Tables vs.Desks. I do keep desks for children who have a hard time working in close proximity to others. The desks are situated near the tables: if a child has issues, he simply moves the desk back a few feet and gets himself together, then rejoins the team later….

What’s missing from Watson’s account are ways that elementary and secondary teachers arrange student seating in art rooms, science labs, maker spaces, writing workshops, and music instruction. See below:

Deerfield Middle School

Between Angela Watson’s experience with organizing seating arrangements in her elementary school classroom and the range of classrooms within secondary school buildings with diverse curriculum, teacher-design for seating groups of students within 750–1200 more square feet gives insight, tiny as it may be, into how teachers believe it is best to teach and how students best learn.


Filed under how teachers teach