Category Archives: school reform policies

Technology Use in Two High Schools: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles (CA) and MetWest in Oakland (CA)

Readers who follow this blog know that I have been working on a book about “success” and “failure” in schools. As part of that book, I visited two California high schools, Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified School District and MetWest in Oakland Unifed School District. Both are small high schools. SJHA has just over 500 students and MetWest has 160. Both schools enroll predominately Latino and poor youth, most of whom are the first in their families planning to attend college. Both small high schools are neither charters or magnets. They are regular public high schools in their districts. More detailed descriptions of the unique character of each school can be seen here and here.

I observed classroom lessons, interviewed teachers and administrators and read documents and media accounts for each school. From these on-site visits I described classrooms and use of technology in each school.  These are my reflections on what I observed about access and use of mobile and desktop devices at both schools.


Technological devices played a minor role in classroom lessons. Tablets, laptops, and desktop computers were easily accessible throughout each school. Chromebooks sat on carts in most classrooms. Students were used to using devices when teachers directed them to work on assignments or do readings that were already loaded onto the machines.

Except for cell phones. At MetWest, I saw teachers collect all cell phones in a large basket or container at the beginning of every lesson; students retrieved their devices at the end of the period. Outside of class, students used mobile phones when they were in the school’s large atrium, before and after class and during brunch and lunch breaks.

At SJHA, district cell phone policy is explicit in banning these devices but gave individual schools latitude in enforcing the ban. SJHA’s website laid out those restrictions on classroom use and consequences except when teachers ask students to use them for a specific lesson.*

In one English class, according to a newspaper report in 2015, teacher Priscilla Farinas told her 31 students:

“This is the one and only time I will have you take out your cellphones,” she said, instructing the students to share their definitions of “privilege” via text message as part of a lesson on “The Great Gatsby.”

Students immediately grabbed their mobile devices. Their texts populated a screen in the front of the classroom. Every student appeared focused on their schoolwork…. “We’re trying to keep you engaged,” Farinas said. “This is part of a larger lesson: ‘There’s a time and a place to use the cellphone.’ **

That was in 2015. In February 2019, only one SJHA teacher I observed used a cell phone during a class period. She used a phone app to generate student names randomly for questions she would ask about the scene in Hamlet they were studying. Apart from this teacher, no SJHA teacher I observed asked students to use their cell phones during lessons..

As I reflect on teachers’ and students’ use of these devices in both schools they were seldom in the foreground, they were in the background of lessons. Sure they were present but used when they were integral to a lesson much as paper, pencil, and erasers would have (and were) used. Except for cell phones, then, electronic devices were pervasive in both schools but played a minor role in classrooms I observed.


*District policy for SJHA banned the use of cellphones but gave schools latitude in enforcing ban. AT SJHA the policy was:

We understand that cell phones are important for personal communication and, at times, aid in student organization and learning. However, they can also be a major distraction to your education. Should you choose to bring your devices to school, you are to use them responsibly and appropriately according to the following guidelines.

  • Electronic devices can be used before school, after school & during lunch/passing periods
  • Electronic devices must be silenced and out of sight during class
  • Devices may be used in class for instructional purposes when explicitly permitted by the teacher
  • Students leaving the classroom for any reason, must leave their device with the teacher while they are gone

Students are subject to the following consequences when they violate the Electronics/Cell Phone Policy:

  • 1st Violation: Device taken away for the remainder of the day. Student may pick up in the Main Office after school
  • 2nd Violation: Device taken away for remainder of the day. Parent/guardian notified and required to pick up device between 7:30am-3:00pm
  • 3rd Violation: Device taken away for remainder of the day & will receive 3 BEHAVIOR stamps. Parent/guardian notified and required to pick up device between 7:30am-3:00pm
  • Additional Violations: The device will be taken away. Student & parent/guardian must attend meeting with counselor and administrator to receive the device.


**Daniela Gerson, “Cellphones Make a Comeback in the Classroom, with Teachers’ Support,” Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2015.


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Tapping Into the News to Teach Math (Forrest Hinton)

“Forrest Hinton is a math instructor at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a STEM-focused public boarding school for high school juniors and seniors in Durham, North Carolina. He teaches a wide range of core and elective math courses in his department and for programs like Summer Accelerator and ENC STEM. He also serves as the coordinator of the Teaching Contemporary Mathematics Conference. In his work, he inspires students to critically examine and improve systems by using analytical tools from mathematics and statistics. He is strongly committed to making the study of advanced mathematics more accessible to students who have traditionally been underrepresented in the field.”

This article appeared in Edutopia, June 7, 2019


“Why should the people who work hard and earn more money foot most of the tax bill?”

“People at the bottom need their dollars more than those at the top.”

These are snippets of a political debate that many would expect to read in The Washington Post. They wouldn’t expect to hear these ideas in a high school math class. Yet these are the types of ideas I regularly hear in my classroom. Sure, my students solve equations and graph curves like all students, but they also apply the math we’re studying in real-world activities that are open-ended, complex, and collaborative in order to get them excited about the possibilities of using math. One way they do this is through math debates—passionate arguments about the data sets they analyze and the mathematical models they create.

Connecting Math to Current Events

The student debate highlighted above comes from an activity about federal income taxes that I use in my precalculus and modeling course to introduce piecewise-defined functions, which use different formulas for different input values. My goal is to convince students that studying piecewise-defined functions is worthwhile. In calculus, my students do math debates around state transportation as I introduce them to the mean value theorem. Math debates around real-world issues allow them to explore, ask questions, and be creative with the math.

Most students don’t know much about the topics I introduce. I teach students about the fundamentals through a brief discussion. For the federal income tax activity, I generally ask questions like “Why does the federal government need revenue?,” “What are the different ways that the federal government collects money from citizens?,” “What is a progressive income tax and how does it work?”

Next, I have students read a news article that explains some of the debates surrounding the current event I introduce. While Congress was writing a bill to reform the federal tax system in late 2017, I had my students read an article from The New York Times about some of the proposed changes.

Diving Into the Math

At this stage students are invested, and they’re ready to engage in problem-solving. I divide students into small groups of two or three. For the federal income tax example, I gave students two data tables from the IRS—from 2017 and 2018—which show the marginal tax rates for the seven tax brackets. With that data they built two piecewise-defined functions. A citizen’s personal income is the input, and the output is the total amount of income tax that person owes to the federal government. I leave out deductions and tax credits from the analysis to keep things simple and to allow students to clearly examine one aspect of income tax policy. Once students have built their two income tax functions, I ask them to graph the functions with an online graphing calculator, like Desmos.

Before students can debate, they need to understand how their math translates to the topic I’ve introduced them to. For example, with federal income tax, they need to understand how the mathematical properties of the functions translate into policy decisions about tax brackets and marginal tax rates.

To explore this, in their groups or through whole-class discussion they describe some of the graph’s important characteristics using precalculus terminology like continuity, domain, and slope. I also have them interpret each characteristic of the graph in the context of income tax policy. I want students to clearly see the connections between precalculus concepts and political choices.

Some students notice that for each piecewise-defined function the slopes of the line segments increase from left to right. They explain that the slope represents the marginal tax rate for each bracket and that the increasing slopes show that we have a progressive income tax in the United States.

Getting Into the Debate

Before starting the debate, it’s important to lay out expectations. I encourage students to listen to one another carefully and then ask questions in ways that seek to understand others’ ideas and perspectives before challenging them. For example, if a student believes that a peer made an erroneous assumption in reaching a conclusion, she might ask, “What are some of the core assumptions underlying your argument?” Part of the expectations around these math debates is that students’ proposals will be challenged so that they have to clearly explain and strongly justify their positions. I play devil’s advocate when students aren’t adequately challenging the ideas put forward.

The debate revolves around a final problem. For example, my students debated about their ideal federal income tax function, which I had them sketch as a graph. This is the most fun part! Some libertarian students sketch a horizontal line, which means that every citizen would pay the federal government the same amount in taxes. Other libertarians and some conservatives sketch a single diagonal line, which represents a flat tax rate for all citizens. Finally, some conservative, moderate, and progressive students suggest that the current progressive income tax system is fine the way it is or that it should curve upward more or less steeply.

Of course, there are no universally accepted “right” answers to the debate. Math can help us analyze trends and outcomes in public policy, and it can also clarify tradeoffs, but it will never be able to tell us what is “fairest” or “most effective.” It can’t make our decisions for us.

Whether or not some of my students become U.S. senators or IRS tax analysts, all of them are future voters and participants in our democracy. My hope is that, through math problem-solving activities like this one, they will be informed and engaged “mathemacitizens” on tax policy and on all of the other issues that impact the well-being of our people.

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Another OOPS! Philanthropist Sees The Light… Finally

Here is a “mea culpa” from Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who made his fortune in technology companies. Hanauer gave much money to transform schools so that they could become engines of equity erasing economic and social inequalities (and poverty as well) that bedevil American society.

Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.

This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.

Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools—if we modernized iour curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools—American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.

But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong. And I hate being wrong….

To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income.

For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.

Hanauer’s open apology for misconstruing cause and effect between the larger society and public schools–a basic proposition that educators and non-entrepreneurs and venture capitalists  over the age of 25 learn–appears sincere but, for me, unconvincing. Why? Because Hanauer is only the most recent of well-intentioned philanthropists who underestimate the complexity of public schools in a market-driven democracy and see schools driving societal change. They donate large sums of money to transform schools.


Foundation officials often consult with smart people before giving away money to schools and districts but they seldom ask people who do the daily work or experienced practitioners who know the system from the inside (see for example the history of the Annenberg Challenge in the 1990s and Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar gift to Newark (NJ). Or consider the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation.

The Gates Foundation gave over a billion dollars to make high schools smaller beginning in 2000. They stopped funding small high schools in 2008. In 2009, they began funding Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching in multiple districts across the country. No more funding after 2016 (see here, here, and here). My initial reaction was, hey, these foundation officers had not thought through carefully the complexity of schooling or the familiar perverse consequences that accrue to “innovations” that do belly-flops.

Critics of current donors often point to how philanthropists have supported centralizing school governance (e.g., mayoral control, state takeovers of districts and schools, No Child Left Behind). They note that the inevitable companion of consolidated authority is increased top-down regulation of schooling in cities and states. And that regulation, they claim, has seen the growth of explicit federal and state accountability mechanisms. The critics are correct.

Yet as venture philanthropists have advocated market-friendly ventures in public schools and approved of centralized local, state, and federal policymaking, donors themselves have escaped responsibility for errors they committed in grant-making. Like the Ebola virus, donors dread federal and state regulation of their publicly subsidized foundation activities. The fact is, however, that they have no accountability for their own “oops!” or dumb mistakes.

When foundation grants fail to achieve the objectives officials sought, philanthropists turn their backs, shrug, and walk away. They have no responsibility to districts, individual schools, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. They shrug when anticipated consequences of their “gifts” harm districts, schools, teachers, and students. But donors are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office. Yet as anyone knows from personal experience, admitting error is crucial to insights into a problem and, ultimately inventing better ways to solve it.


At least, venture capitalist Nick Hanuaer owned up to his mistake in thinking that transforming public schools will erase societal inequities. I do not know of other donors who have the guts to admit that they erred in their thinking and gift-giving when it involved public schools.




Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

In Classrooms: Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 5)

Brenda Arias teaches chemistry first period of the day—from 8:30 to 10:21. First period of the day is longer than other classes that run about an hour and a half). This is her fifth year at Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA). While she taught physics the first four years, she is now teaching chemistry.  (Earlier posts about SJHA are here, here, here, and here.)

The 31 students—the largest class I have observed at SJHA–are mostly 10th graders. They are having breakfast at the beginning of the first period of the day. Two students had gone to the cafeteria and brought back milk, juice, cereal, and egg sandwiches to class. Students picked what they wanted and they spread out among lab tables to eat and talk. This occurs every morning across the school.

After breakfast, students toss trash in a can and pick up Chromebooks to take back to their lab tables. All tables holding 2-3 students face the white board and teacher desk—also a lab table. As Arias takes roll, I look around the room and see the “Habits of Mind” and “Common Core Mathematical Practice Standards,” college banners and the obligatory Periodic Elements chart for a chemistry room. A teacher aide is in the room because there are a half-dozen students with disabilities that will need help with the lesson. He circulates and talks to particular students about the tasks they have to work on.

Arias tells class what’s due today and during the week. “I need you to look at me,” she says. “I need you to focus.” Most of the class will be taking a 20-minute practice test for a later exam that will improve their low scores the first time they took the test. All of the practice questions and answers are loaded on the Chromebook and students begin working. Some students work with partners and others in small groups or alone at different tables. A nearby student shows me the questions and correct answers on her screen as Arias walks around the room checking students’ work and answering questions. I scan the class and see everyone clicking away on their devices.

Arias then asks class to close Chromebooks and return to their seats. She tells class that they must have the practice test completed by Thursday or “you get….” She pauses and a number of students say: “a zero.”

She then segues to next part of lesson. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going over 4.3 homework. Log on to 4.3 and we will go over 7, 10, and 11 because I made mistakes and want to correct them.” A loud hum arises in class. Arias says, “Everyone calm down. If you didn’t do homework, what will you get?” Class responds: “A zero.” Students also know that teacher gives them three chances to do homework correctly. The number the teacher calls (4.3) out corresponds to a text chapter on gases and solids accompanied by worksheets, eventual homework assignments.

She goes over the incorrect answers on the whiteboard at front of the room and asks class to correct them. On one of the corrections about the temperature of a gas compared to a solid, she says, “My knucklehead move was the wrong answer.” She says, “I’m sorry. Everyone makes mistakes.”

Teacher asks students to pair up and make corrections. As they do, they are completing homework on the Chromebook. The students I observed in the class pay attention to what the teacher said and respond to her requests. I saw no students who rested their heads in the crooks of their arms on desks, students playing with devices, or whispered, sustained conversations among the 10th graders. I left the chemistry class after an hour there to go to another lesson.


Since Social Justice Humanitas Academy opened in 2011, its student enrollments have stayed consistent. SJHA has 513 students (2019) enrolled in 9th through 12th grades. On race and ethnicity (2015), 95 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent African American and one percent each for Caucasian and Native American. Of that number 12 percent were English Learners. Special education students were 10 percent of enrollment. And 88 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch (the poverty measure for LAUSD schools).

And some of the academic results were sufficiently eye-catching to attract media attention.

* Graduations rates increased between 2011 and 2015 from 83 to 94 percent. Both exceed LAUSD and state rates of graduation.

*Ninety-six percent of students have an individual graduation plan.

*Seventy-five percent of students passed all college required courses.

*Suspensions sunk to 0.2 percent in 2014.

*Six Advanced Placement courses are offered (English language, English literature, analytic geometry/pre-calculus, macroeconomics, Spanish language, Spanish Literature).

While tests scores in reading and math fall above and below state averages, overall, the school’s record in graduation and college attendance and its social activism, community participation, and teacher-powered decision-making have made it a candidate for awards. In 2019, SJHA received the Gold Recognition award for being a School of Opportunity from the National Education Center for Policy.






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In Classrooms: Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 4)

Social Justice Humanitas Academy is located in the city of San Fernando within the Los Angeles Unified School District. According to the website,

Our mission is to achieve social justice through the development of the complete individual. In doing so, we increase our students’ social capital and their humanity while creating a school worthy of our own children.

These mission statements act as a guide to all decision making” for a school that opened in 2011 on a new campus. Consider the school’s demographics and academic profile.

Since SJHA opened in 2011 its demographics have stayed consistent. SJHA has 513 students (2019) enrolled in 9th through 12th grades. On race and ethnicity (2015), 95 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent African American and one percent each for Caucasian and Native American. Of that number 12 percent were English Learners. Special education students were 10 percent of enrollment. And 88 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Since March I have published on this blog a series of classroom observations about a school that seeks social justice, advocates student activism, and self-actualization (see here, here, and here). In this post and the next I describe two additional lessons I observed.

Shaved pate, wearing a white shirt, blue tie and grey slacks, English teacher Robert Martinez immediately turns to the white board as the period begins—right after lunch, mind you–and directs the 24 ninth graders’ attention to what he has written on it: “Community Cultural Wealth: A Review.”

The students, sitting 2-4 at a table facing one another, look at the whiteboard as Martinez launches a whole group discussion through a series of slides on Community Cultural Wealth. From time to time, he calls on students to read a slide by addressing the student as Ms. Rodriguez or Mr. Montero.

Earlier classes have dealt with fixed and growth mindsets, grit, and three forms of capital: “Aspirational Capital, Familial Capital and Navigational Capital.” Martinez says, “I use these Capitals to resist and overcome oppression.” Then he asks the class what is “oppression.” A few students offer answers. He then defines the word and refers to the book they are currently reading, Always Running (full title is La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA by Luis Rodriguez).

Whole group discussion continues as teacher moves through slides and students read about Aspirational Capital (hopes and dreams) and Navigational Capital (the different communities beyond family that each student interacts with). On the slide for Aspirational Capital, Martinez points out the upcoming trip to California colleges as a experience they will have that looks to the dreams they have for themselves—many are the first in their family to consider college.

Martinez intersperses reading of slides and occasional questions from students with comments such as: “Ultimately this (different forms of capital) is for you to see yourself, what mindset you have. Make the jump and get out of your comfort zone,” he says. To one student who reads a slide correctly, the teacher compliments her: “College level, girl.”

As I look around the room, I see that about half of the class has notebooks out and are taking notes.

Phone on desk rings and teacher answers. Hangs up and directs a student to go to office. Teacher returns to definitions of different forms of Capital. On Familial Capital, Martinez states: “You know the people who hold you back. You may be in a toxic relationship and have to ask yourself, ‘Do these people have my back?’ “

Some students yell out questions and statements after teacher makes comments about a slide. When he asks for students to calm down, class responds immediately and gets quiet.

After completing the slides on different forms of Capital, Martinez shifts to next part of lesson when he will divide class into groups of 4-6 students to read Chapters 7 and 8 of Always Running. He chooses which students will be in one group and directs them to read Chapter 7 and does the same the other groups asking them to read Chapter 8.

He directs both groups to fill out worksheet on each form of Capital. He passes out the worksheets and asks students to jot down what transpired in each chapter and link examples to different kinds of Capital. Then he says he will reassemble both groups so that each group will present information on their chapter to the other group. Each specific example drawn from the chapter and written on worksheet will get one point, he says. He then announces: “Read for 20 minutes and complete chapter.”

Groups turn to task of reading and completing worksheets. I scan classroom and see that individual students in each group are reading. Martinez walks around monitoring students reading. At this point, I exit the classroom to see another teacher.





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Respect for Teaching: One Teacher’s Story

To be a teacher is honored in name, with awards, and fond memories of former students. Sometimes, however, those honors and memories are betrayed, albeit inadvertently, by bureaucratic rules that reveal disrespect for teaching. 

I describe here an incident that occurred to me nearly 50 years ago when I worked in the Washington, D.C. schools. I was a teacher who became an administrator and then chose to return to the classroom, Sure, five decades ago is ancient history so readers will have to judge whether the attitudes embedded in organizational procedures that I experienced are contemporary or merely a historical curiosity.

I wrote the following piece for a Washington, D.C. alternative newspaper in 1971.


I have taught off and on for nearly fifteen years. When not teaching, I have been an administrator…. I directed an experimental teaching project called the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching 1963-1967. [Afterwards] I taught half-time while writing a book. The following year, in the hope of working with others who shared my interest in [reform], I returned to administration as the Director of Staff Development in the Washington,  D.C. schools. That lasted two years since the budget and program [were] gutted … by the D.C. Council….  At that point [1970] I decided to return to the classroom rather than occupy a desk [downtown].

It was an uncommon decision I discovered. To understand why, you have to appreciate the nagging guilt that haunts administrators about leaving the classroom. Talk to most central office administrators … and you will inevitably hear how important it is ‘to stay in touch with kids. That’s where the action is. How I miss it.’  When I would ask why not return to the classroom, I would hear: ‘I would like to, but, you know, the money, and well, I like to make decisions, and well, I needed a change.’

Shortly after I was appointed director of staff development, I suggested at an [administrative] meeting that [their] perceptions … and sense of urgency might be considerably sharpened if [they] would teach one or two weeks and then return to [their] desks. The idea was beaten down. I began to see that administration was as much an escape from the … classroom as it was a search for status, authority, and dollars….

[Yet]  administrators deeply believe that the classroom is the backbone of education. Thus, when an administrator decides to teach, one would expect some encouragement from colleagues, perhaps a bit of support, and an easy transition. How naive I was. Disbelief, punishment, and shame dogged each step of my return to teaching….

When my colleagues found out [that I would be returning to the classroom], a wall of silence appeared. Except for some close associates, the response–-when people chose to talk to me–was disbelief. They seemed to suggest by smile, smirk, or wink that I must be waiting for a good offer….For the most part, I was ignored.

In hallways when passing someone, eyes turned away…. Within two months, a series of actions, unmalicious in intent, initiated and executed in a most efficient bureaucratic manner occurred that created within me a sense of shame and failure.

The first shock came [over] salary. To teach meant taking a one-third wage cut… The Board of Examiners* informed me that my four years of administrative experience meant nothing in dollars and cents. Of my ten years of prior teaching, only seven met the standards set by D.C….

Next … I received a notice that said I was “demoted without prejudice.” The phrase is semantically correct. I am now on a lower rung of the school ladder and being there was my choice. [But} demoted sounded like grade school, like being pushed back to a lower group because you are dumb and misbehaving. The phrase is from the language of failure.

Then the Board of Examiners informed me a week before [I returned to the classroom] that I could not receive a regular … contract because I had never taken a college course in teaching at the secondary school level. With well over a decade of classroom experience in three different cities, with five years experience in preparing teachers to work in [D.C.] schools, with a book and numerous articles on teacher education–I am told that unless I take a course on Teaching in the Secondary School within two years I will not be able to teach in D.C.

After a pay cut, a demotion, and then a threat, I felt like I had committed a crime. What had I done wrong?

The unintentional but very destructive way a school system punishes administrators and teachers from moving freely back and forth between classroom and central office reveals [that] the stated value is: teaching is cherished; the real value is that teaching is [tough work] and unimportant; anyone with sense will get the hell out of it and the quicker, the better….


Civic and business leaders and politicians often praise teachers. Awards for excellence in teaching abound. Yet often overlooked is the disrespect for teaching that too often hides in organizational rules.


*The Board of Examiners no longer exists. Those functions have been assumed by the Office of Educator Licensure in the Office of the State Superintendent, District of Columbia.


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Whatever Happened to the Core Knowledge Program?

No, I do not refer to the Common Core standards.

I mean the Core Knowledge program that unfolded in U.S. schools in the decade following the 1987 publication of University of Virginia Professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

The book, the creation of the Core Knowledge Foundation and subsequent publication of curricular sequences across academic subjects taught in elementary schools produced a reform that again brought to the surface the historical struggle over what kind of knowledge and skills are worth teaching and learning in tax-supported public schools.



Hot embers of previous traditional vs. progressive wars in the early 20th century and then in the 1950s over the importance of phonics vs. whole language in reading, exposure to disciplinary knowledge rather than students creating their own meaning  re-ignited in the last decade of the century after Hirsch’s book and the spread of Core Knowledge programs in schools.




What Problems Did the Core Knowledge Program Intend To Solve?

According to Hirsch and advocates for Core Knowledge, the current concentration on building skills–“student will be able to do…”–has handicapped children and youth by ignoring the importance of teaching systematically sequential knowledge as a way of developing reading comprehension, problem-solving, inquiry, and most important understanding the world. Core Knowledge tries to solve this endemic problem in U.S. schooling. As one description put it:

The Core Knowledge Sequence identifies that knowledge base in the core subjects. For example, the American history portion of the Core Knowledge Sequence includes specific events and aspects of history such as the Boston Tea Party, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Underground Railroad; it does not include an objective such as “identify a sequence of events in history.” The Core Knowledge Sequence does indicate study of significant people, stories, and issues, including William Penn and the Quakers, Susan B. Anthony and the right to vote, Jackie Robinson and the integration of major league baseball, Cesar Chavez and the rights of migrant workers, Dorthea Dix and the treatment of the insane, Sojourner Truth and women’s rights, and Chief Joseph and the ordeal of the Nez Perce Indians. The American history sequence does not include an objective such as “explain how various cultural groups have participated in the development of the United States.” As the students learn about specific people and events, teachers can guide them to deeper understanding and teach them to apply problem-solving and other analytical skills to what they have learned.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues that educational Progressives such as Dewey wanted children to construct their knowledge, learn by doing and come to understand the world. Such Progressive ideas have ruined American schools, according to Hirsch, by ignoring the importance of children having intellectual capital, that is, a broad and deep base of knowledge to understand core ideas and the present moment.

Diane Ravitch, a member of the Core Knowledge Foundation board, reviewed  another of Hirsch’s books in 2006 and located his place in the historic struggle between Progressives and traditionalists:

In his assault on the precepts of progressive education, Hirsch enters a battle that has been waged for over a century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, almost every high-school student studied Latin. Teachers and parents believed that the study of Latin taught certain skills that could be transferred to any other pursuit or activity, such as precision, judgment, logical thinking, clarity, and so on. It was, in the words of its defenders, a valuable form of mental gymnastics, intended to improve one’s faculties. The same argument was made for algebra and other areas of advanced mathematics. The first generation of education psychologists (such as Edward L. Thorndike of Teachers College) took aim at this belief and sought to demonstrate through their studies that “transfer of training” was a myth, and that there was no reason at all to study Latin or any subject that was not immediately useful.

Progressive educators were heartened by Thorndike’s work and concluded that “you study what you study, and you learn what you learn.” In other words, what was the point of learning Latin or algebra or even history since they had no demonstrable utility? ….

In this century-old debate, the great error of traditionalist educators was their failure to defend cultural values in education, that is, the importance of knowledge. By making the case for Latin or history dependent on “transfer of training,” they lost the debate. The culturally important studies such as literature, history, and foreign language never should have been defended for their value in “training the mind,” but for their importance in shaping an educated, civilized human being.

Hirsch now makes that case, and it is a very important contribution to American education. He shows that research is now firmly on the side of those who advocate knowledge as the goal of learning….

What Does a Core Knowledge Program Look Like in Practice?

In elementary schools, Core Knowledge is used for part of the day. Scheduled times are allocated to lessons in language arts, science, social studies, and math. For the rest of the school day familiar activities including art, drama, and physical education occur.

Deanna Zarichansky, Assistant Principal at Trousdale County Elementary School in Hartsville, TN, describes   the program.

Our district adopted Core Knowledge [Language Arts] at the beginning of this school year [2017]. This has been the single most powerful curriculum implementation I have seen in my 16 years of education. We are a small district with a high rate of poverty, with many students who enter school with little to no experiences with literacy. Our school is charged with the difficult task of educating students who come to us with little vocabulary and limited knowledge of the world around them.

At first glance, many teachers were rather skeptical that their students could be successful with themes such as The War of 1812 and Astronomy. These same teachers soon became strong supporters of the program. The students began to use vocabulary and content knowledge they were being exposed to by Core Knowledge in conversations and in writing. Walking down the hallways of our school, you can hear chatter about the Earth’s atmosphere, Rosa Parks, Machu Picchu, and paleontologists. Many second grade students wanted to dress as gods and goddesses for Halloween. They collect rocks on the playground and discuss how they were formed. Parents often tell stories of their children combing through the cabinets and discussing what is healthy and what they shouldn’t be eating, catching their children peeking out of the window looking for the North Star, and rousing dinner conversations about the Civil War. Our librarian shared that students are choosing to check out more nonfiction than ever before.

The walls of our school used to be decorated with holiday items and have now been replaced with diagrams of constellations and descriptive paragraphs about Human Body Systems. This curriculum has changed the culture of our school. It has allowed equalization for students who are now exposed to deep knowledge building about the world around them.

Bridgit McCarthy, a third grade teacher at New Dimensions, a public charter school in Morganton, North Carolina, describes her unit on Rome.

Today in social studies, we assassinated Julius Caesar!

My students’ faces registered shock, sadness, and a sprinkling of outrage, all nicely mixed with understanding.

How mean!  Why would anyone kill their ally? I bet his wife feels sad.

JC helped get France for them—except it was, you know, Gaul back then. Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.

These comments show comprehension and recall—a good start. Here’s one of the most telling comments from our class discussion; notice how it combines historical knowledge and understanding with a bit of empathy.

Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings waaaay back—like in last week’s … lesson.

These quotes demonstrate comprehension of rigorous content and use of sophisticated vocabulary. They came from third graders.

Yes, the words “stuff” to describe political change, and “sad” to describe a distraught wife may smack of 8 and 9 year olds and, but “plebeians” and “ally”? I would have expected such vocabulary from the middle school students I used to teach. This is my first year teaching third grade; I’ve been delighted to see how eager younger students are to dig into history and science content….

The assassination and subsequent discussion came about two-thirds of the way through our Core Knowledge Language Arts unit on ancient Rome. That unit takes about three weeks, starting with the basic question “What Is Rome?” and then introducing students to legends and mythology, daily life in Rome, and major wars and leaders. It ends with Rome’s lasting contributions.


I am thrilled with what students are saying and writing as we progress. While I always have high expectations in my classroom, I was a bit nervous when we started the ancient Rome unit. The objectives are complex, the vocabulary is challenging. The content itself includes a great deal of geography and culture, plenty of politics, and an assumption that Core Knowledge kids already knew quite a bit about ancient Greece.

The opportunity to check and refresh some of that knowledge of Greece was an early order of business. In CKLA, second graders spend several weeks on ancient Greece with two back-to-back units: The Ancient Greek Civilization and Greek Myths. In the third-grade unit on Rome, a review of the Greek gods and goddesses was the introduction to a lesson on their Roman counterparts. Seventeen of my twenty students attended second grade at New Dimensions, and sixteen attended first (which has a unit on Early World Civilizations), so I was curious to see how much they would remember.

In theory, recall of these facts of Greece ought to come fairly easily. According to one student, they spent “forever” on ancient Greece—and they loved it. In our school, teachers combined the CKLA materials and additional teacher-created materials to really immerse students.

As a result, my third graders had no problems here. Building on their existing knowledge of other cultures’ gods and goddesses made the new material easier to access. I also didn’t have to “teach” polytheism because the very idea that people had separate deities for different aspects of their lives was old hat to them, having explored it in first grade with Mesopotamia and Egypt and again in second with ancient Greece. The three students who didn’t attend New Dimensions in second grade did need a little more support. I helped them do some additional reading and partnered each one with a student who has been at New Dimensions since kindergarten. Because the unit lasted a few weeks, these new students had time to catch up by learning about Greece and Rome together.

Do Core Knowledge Programs Work?

As for many school reforms over the past century, answering the “effectiveness” question–does it work?–is no easy task. The first major issue is answering the question of whether Core Knowledge was fully implemented in classrooms. If not completely implemented, then judging outcomes become suspect. Many of the early studies of Core Knowledge in schools were mixed, some showing higher test scores and some showing no positive effects (see here, here, here, and here). The Core Knowledge Foundation has a list of studies that they assert show positive outcomes. What is so often missing from research on reforms such as Core Knowledge are descriptions of the contextual conditions in which the reform is located and researchers saying clearly: under what conditions does this program prove effective? That is too often missing including the research on Core Knowledge schools.

What Has Happened to Core Knowledge Programs in Schools?

There is now a network of 770 schools using the Core Knowledge Program (there are about 90,000 public elementary schools in the U.S.).

When the Common Core standards initially were published in 2010, Hirsch criticized the standards as having insufficient content. After reviewing the next set of standards and grade-by-grade sequence, Hirsch decided that there was sufficient content and the Core Knowledge Foundation aligned its sequence to the Common Core Standards.

Hirsch commented on this alignment of the program to Common Core Standards:

“This could be bigger than any other reform I can think of. We’ve had a hell of an incoherent system. It’s been based on a how-to theory, and not enough attention has been paid to the build-up of knowledge. This is a moment when we really could change the direction.”



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, research