Category Archives: school reform policies

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.

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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.

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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

There’s No Erasing the Chalkboard (Kim Kankiewicz)

There are critics who maintain that teaching has hardly changed over the past century. Such critics know little of the history of schooling, particularly how teachers have taught. Teaching requires tools just as learning does. As long as there have been age-graded schools with one teacher and and a group of students distributed through a building, teachers and students needs tools, i.e., technologies, to instruct and learn. Enter the slate blackboard in the early 19th century. Classroom technologies from the slate blackboard to present-day student-held computer devices have altered incrementally, not fundamentally, how teachers teach. This guest post documents the changes that have occurred in a historic and basic classroom tool, one that long ago went by the name: blackboard. And do not forget chalk and erasers accompanying this ubiquitous technology.

Kim Kankiewicz is a Seattle-based writer who has published articles in Pacific Standard, Salon, The Washington Post, and McSweeney’s. This piece appeared in The Atlantic, October 13, 2016.

In 2015, the construction crew renovating an Oklahoma high school uncovered an unusual time capsule. Beneath newer wall coverings, the workers discovered slate blackboards marked with schoolwork and colorful chalk drawings from 1917. Multiplication problems appeared beside a treble staff denoting an A-major scale. A spelling list, written in cursive, included the words “whoa” and “notion.” Drawings of Thanksgiving turkeys and a girl blowing bubbles adorned the spaces between the lessons.

Reports of the discovery spotlighted the chalk, acknowledging the blackboards merely as surfaces for the drawings. But slate blackboards, and the green chalkboards that replaced them, are themselves relics of a bygone era. Even small schools in rural communities, like the elementary school I attended in Nebraska in the 1980s, have exchanged chalkboards for whiteboards and interactive Smart Boards.

I never considered the chalkboard’s prominence in my education until I visited my old school in 2015. It shouldn’t have surprised me to find a whiteboard where the chalkboard had been, but the change was startling. No matter how young, most parents today still conjure the image of a chalkboard when they imagine a K-12 classroom. In popular culture, chalkboards are a visual shorthand for school. They appear in stock photography accompanying articles about education and in movies and television shows set in schools.

By the end of the 1990s, whiteboards outsold chalkboards by a margin of up to four to one. Even digital whiteboards—computerized display boards with interactive features—outsold chalkboards by the turn of the millennium. Since then, chalkboards have all but disappeared from schools. Why, then, do they remain such potent symbols for education? Perhaps it’s because of what they represent: the idea of stable knowledge in a rapidly changing digital age.

* * *

In the early 1800s, slate blackboards represented change. For centuries, students had used handheld tablets of wood or slate. Teachers moved about their classrooms, writing instructions and inspecting students’ work on individual slates. When the Scottish educational reformer James Pillans became the rector of Edinburgh High School, in 1810, his use of a blackboard was revolutionary. He explains in an 1856 memoir, Contributions to the Cause of Education:

I placed before my pupils, instead of a crowded and perplexing map, a large black board, having an unpolished non-reflecting surface, on which was inscribed in bold relief a delineation of the country, with its mountains, rivers, lakes, cities, and towns of note. The delineation was executed with chalks of  different colours.

Widely recognized as the inventor of the blackboard, Pillans doesn’t specify how he constructed the apparatus. Popular lore, as recounted in Lewis Buzbee’s Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom, holds that he connected several handheld slates to form a single large surface. Pillans used his innovation to teach Greek as well as geography, noting, “The very novelty of all looking on one board, instead of each on his own book, had its effect in sustaining attention.”

By the mid-19th century, blackboards were in common use. As is the case for all technology, they came with a learning curve. Manuals like Josiah Bumstead’s The Black Board in the Primary School (1841) and William Alcott’s Slate and Black Board Exercises (1842) helped teachers adopt blackboards as instructional tools. The manuals offered lessons like this one, from Bumstead:

            The teacher, after making a single mark on the board, thus inquires,

                        How many marks have I made?

            Adding another mark,

How many marks have I made?

Slate blackboard manufacturing began in the U.S. by the 1840s, and rail travel soon made it possible to ship blackboards across the country. In a single year during the 1890s, 11 factories near Slatington, Pennsylvania, produced nearly a million square feet of slate blackboard, according to mineral industry statistics published in 1898.

Green chalkboards first appeared in the 1960s. Generally made of porcelain enamel with a steel base, these chalkboards are lighter and more durable than slate, and thus easier to ship. They were ubiquitous in American classrooms for three decades, until whiteboards began to replace them.

Whiteboards had been available for decades before educators embraced them. In the 1960s, catalogs for hardware retailers advertised the wet-erase Plasti-Slate, an “always-fresh writing board for home or office.” The corporate world got on board when dry erase markers became available in the 1970s.

But whiteboards didn’t start appearing in schools until the 1990s. The reason for their adoption? Computers. Late-century articles heralding the advent of the classroom whiteboard all cited the effect of chalk dust on computers as the impetus for eliminating chalkboards. Chalk dust was a rising concern as the average number of computers in public schools increased from a ratio of one computer for every 30 students in 1988 to one for every five in 1999. By that year, chalkboards were scarce enough that the Chicago Tribune interviewed fifth graders who had never seen one in real life.

* * *

Enthusiastic adopters appreciated the whiteboard’s smooth surface and the contrast between dark-colored markers and white background. They said good riddance to dust on their clothes and the squeaky sound of chalk against chalkboard. Other educators held onto their chalk. My mother, who became a teacher in 1971, was a chalkboard devotee. When the middle school where she taught was renovated in 2001, teachers

were asked to choose between chalkboards and whiteboards. My mom opted for a chalkboard and used it until she retired in 2012, at which point the district installed a whiteboard.

For teachers like my mother, the chalkboard’s appeal is largely aesthetic. My mom found chalkboards easier to clean and considered their green color more calming than white. (This perceived calming benefit is among the reasons chalkboards remain popular in Japan, where they are still present in 75 percent of K-12 classrooms.) Likewise, my mother enjoyed the feel of the chalk in her hand and liked how her handwriting looked on the chalkboard.

Of course, handwriting itself is disappearing from school curriculums, made less relevant by the same digital technologies that have rendered the chalkboard obsolete. As author Anne Trubek observes in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, handwriting is increasingly valued more as an art than a practical skill. Brides hire calligraphers to address their wedding invitations, graphic designers study lettering books, and restaurants display hand-lettered menus—typically written on chalkboards. These days, most chalkboards are sold to restaurants, not to schools.

The link between whiteboards and digital culture helped many U.S. schools adopt  smartboards. By 2014, 60 percent of K-12 classrooms had interactive whiteboards, a figure that’s expected to increase to 73 percent by 2019. Interactive whiteboards, or IWBs, are a topic of debate in education journals and among teachers. Proponents cite their potential to engage tech-savvy kids, encourage class-wide participation via remote clickers, and expand access to lesson materials. For example, my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher delivered a geography lesson that would have astounded James Pillans. Projecting a Google Map of the state of Washington onto the whiteboard, he zoomed in on various regions and alternated between map and satellite views. He used Street View to conduct virtual tours of points of interest, like the State Capitol, in Olympia, and the University of Washington campus.

But critics question the academic benefit of such features over the tried-and-true functionality of chalkboards. At a cost of up to $5,000 per classroom, schools invest far more in installing interactive whiteboards than in training teachers to use them. Detractors regard IWBs as glorified chalkboards that at best replicate teacher-centric instruction and at worst idle in sleep mode most of the day. Indeed, the new building where my son attends middle school does not have interactive whiteboards because in the old building teachers were not using them.

* * *

Used to their potential, interactive whiteboards are not so much display surfaces as portals to a vast array of information. In the internet era, information proliferates more rapidly than we can access it. Knowledge feels vast and messy, something to be explored and revised; computer-powered whiteboards become students’ connection to the scrappy, idea-driven world of technology. As Ken Robinson puts it in his TED talk on creativity in schools, education is “meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp.”

Exciting as that may be, perhaps it also makes us uneasy. IWBs are unlikely to replace chalkboards or whiteboards as symbols any time soon, because chalkboards still remind us of a time when it was possible to believe that everything a child needed to know was containable on a flat surface. They represent a view of knowledge as finite, something to be transmitted and received. They’ve even lent a name, “chalk and talk,” to the traditional teaching style derived from this view of knowledge.  

My daughter hopes to become a teacher. The very idea makes me imagine her at the front of a classroom writing on a chalkboard, but of course this is fantasy. Teachers of the future are perhaps likelier to use robots than chalkboards. (Some worry that teachers will be replaced by robots, though scientists assure us this will not happen.) Wall-mounted display boards will be unnecessary for teachers who use technology to interact with students remotely. Creators of such technology understand the power of the past to reassure us about the future. A leading vendor in the e-learning market reveals as much in its name: Blackboard.

A photo history of classroom “blackboards.”

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Why Our Many Big Plans to Raise Educational Standards Will Never Work (Jay Mathews)

Jay Mathews is a veteran journalist for The Washington Post who has covered education for more than three decades. He has written books on Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles high school math teacher and KIPP charter schools. This article appeared in the Post April 17, 2021.

As one of our most celebrated education reforms — the Common Core State Standards — sinks into oblivion, will we finally give up on big-time top-down plans to save our schools?

I bet we won’t. We can’t help ourselves, even with convincing proof from an intriguing new book that any further outsized attempts to raise achievement with better standards will fail, as all the others have.You can feel the exasperation in every word as Tom Loveless, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, sums up his main conclusion in “Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding the Failure of Common Core.”

“The idea of standards-based reform should be abandoned. It doesn’t work,” he wrote.

Those of us who put our faith in bottom-up reforms, with individual teachers raising standards for each child, can find some hope here. “It could be that standards that take place organically — essentially, that evolve between parent and child in the home or between teacher and student in the classroom — produce good outcomes, but standards that occur through exogenous force or pressure — in this case policy-induced expectations — have no effect,” Loveless wrote.

Loveless taught elementary school for nine years near Sacramento before getting a doctorate and exploring the education system’s upper reaches. He has become one of our deepest and clearest scholars, a fine writer happy to buck trends. This book offers not only the truth about standards reform but is also one of the best short histories of American education I have ever read.

Loveless’s early uncertainty about Common Core led to interesting late Friday conversations over beers with friends who were passionate supporters, he wrote. He noted many smart people shared the belief of then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan that Common Core was “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education.”

A decade later, Loveless wrote, “scant evidence exists that Common Core produced any significant benefit.” Tens of billions of dollars were spent. Yet studies describe only “small effects, ranging from about plus or minus one-tenth of a standard deviation — or three or four points” on one of the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

Conservatives fought the plan in 40 states and the District because it replaced local initiatives. Progressives opposed it because it put so much emphasis on tests.

At the beginning, Common Core won widespread support in polls of teachers and parents. But it gradually became clear they did not realize how much it would complicate classroom routines and homework.

Of course, it would have to be implemented correctly, its many supporters said. However, few appreciated how vital and difficult that would be. “Saying that standards depend on implementation is a bit like saying skydivers’ enjoyment of the day depends on their parachutes opening,” Loveless wrote.

Common Core requirements such as “close reading of texts” sounded good until they were explained. A New York state teaching guide cited by Loveless said close reading meant students should first read the Gettysburg Address cold, with no background to prepare them. That approach forced them “to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students.” That was at odds with much research showing that the more background students had, the more they understood. It also implied that school was a track meet and not a learning experience.

The selling of Common Core included two little white lies. Supporters insisted that it “was not a curriculum — a choice that would be left to state and local officials — and that it did not dictate instructional strategies, a decision left to teachers,” Loveless wrote. But if learning standards “are truly a change from the status quo,” he wrote, “they cannot be achieved without fundamentally changing K-12 curriculum and instruction.”

Studies show that teachers often wrongly interpret new instructions or standards as close to what they are already doing. “The system has too many layers — state, district, schools, classrooms — to guarantee smooth organizational transmission,” Loveless wrote.

He said if we shelve standards-based reform forever, educators may instead experiment with reforms that can be adjusted for different teachers and different students. We can develop different and better testing systems.

Loveless takes a speculative journey at the end. What if, he asked, all that money spent on Common Core had been devoted to “discovering new, more powerful ways of teaching and creating new, more effective curricula?”

“Fractions are like a gigantic wall that kids hit in fourth, fifth and sixth grades; some crawl over, but many do not,” he wrote. What if that Common Core money had instead funded “dozens of experiments to discover new curricular materials and new ways of teaching fractions, field tested new programs in randomized trials, and then disseminated the findings broadly?”

Makes sense to me. Too much sense. Will we ever support a plan as modest as getting our kids safely through fractions? That doesn’t sound like us, particularly with our schools in such a mess because of the pandemic.

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Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Getting Ed Tech Wrong Would Be a Bitter Pandemic Legacy (Rick Hess)

Rick Hess is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of Education Policy Studies.

The public view of education technology has evolved over the past 12 months. When schools shut down last spring, frustration with the availability of devices, amount of instruction, and quality of teaching seemed nearly universal. During this past year, there appeared to be some rough consensus that virtual learning—while mostly still mediocre—has clearly improved from last spring.

But that’s all in the past. What I’m far more interested in, looking forward, is how bad ed-tech habits that formed during the shutdown risk compromising instruction and even slowing the return to school next fall.

After all, examples of misused technology are manifold at the moment. There’s the much-derided “Zoom in a room,” where schools nominally reopen their doors for kids—but then have kids sit in a classroom, masked and socially distanced, with Chromebooks and an “adult monitor” (read: babysitter), while the teacher instructs remotely from home. To no one’s surprise, kids find this tedious and stultifying, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that students would rather be home—where they can go maskless, relax, and grab a snack.

There are also the reports that thousands of districts are looking to do four-day weeks in the fall to allow for cleaning, amidst evidence that this is nothing more than hygiene theater running amok. As Robin Lake and Georgia Heyward have observed, “There is real danger that school systems and teachers are getting attached to the four-day week and may lobby to retain the schedule next school year, even after students are largely vaccinated.” They make the obvious point: “We cannot afford to throw away an entire day of learning and student support based on a false scientific premise.” Yet, this schedule is made far easier to justify by the fig leaf of “asynchronous” instruction, which excuses haphazard instruction by allowing for the comfortable illusion that schools are full time.

And there seems to be a newfound comfort with the idea that learning on Chromebooks or iPads is utterly normal. I’ve heard from dozens of parents and teachers who are troubled by the expectation in some schools, even in the earliest grades, that students will spend most of the school day involved in app-based instruction. In fact, I suspect that growing comfort with remote learning helped explain the slow roll on returning to school, as two-day-a-week and four-days-plus-an-asynchronous-day seemed more acceptable because . . . technology.

All of this seems wildly off-base. The point of getting kids back into schools is not so they sit six feet apart and stare at a screen—it’s so that they can interact with classmates and teachers, develop friendships, and receive mentoring. If the ubiquity of digital tools makes schools move more slowly to reclaim the humanity of the schoolhouse, that’s a big problem.

It also misses the point about what technology does well. Tech isn’t a replacement for the human face of schooling; at its best, it augments and supplements it. The goal is to give teachers more time and energy to get to know their students, to put a hand on a shoulder, to ask the right question, to engage a disengaged learner. It’s hard to do all that in the best of circumstances—it’s that much tougher when schools are using tech to normalize remote learning, asynchronous days, or eyeballs glued to devices.

The true potential of ed-tech lies in its ability to do the routine stuff more effectively and efficiently so that educators can devote more time to the human stuff. But rather than seeking ways to use tech more humanely, schools appear headed in the opposite direction right now—relying on tech in ways that threaten to suffocate the human core of the schoolhouse. It’d be a bitter irony if the big result from the COVID-inspired push to universalize access to ed-tech is the entrenchment of the pandemic’s worst, most dehumanizing classroom practices.


Filed under technology use