Category Archives: technology use

Creating New Schools: Regression To the Mean (Part 2)

In 2003, Microsoft Corporation went into a partnership with the Philadelphia public schools to build and staff a brand-new high school called “The School of the Future” in the middle of a West Philadelphia low-income, African American neighborhood. Microsoft would supply the technological expertise and the district would staff and operate the school. The mission: prepare youth to go to college and enter the high-tech information-saturated workplace prepared to get entry-level jobs and launch careers.

In 2006, this shining new eco-sensitive, high-tech school, adjacent to a large park and the city’s zoo,  costing $62 million opened for 750 students. Students were chosen by lottery. The founders and district leaders were committed to educating students–called “learners”–to use software-laden laptops using a Microsoft developed portal rather than printed textbooks. A shining new media center, science labs galore, and especially equipped classrooms supported interdisciplinary projects and team-driven projects driven by students’ interests. The facility sparkled. As did the hopes and dreams of the teachers, “learners”, and parents.



In 2012, School of the Future graduated its first class of 117 seniors–three years after it opened and every single one was admitted to college. But it was a rocky ride for these largely poor and African American graduates and subsequent classes.

Frequent changes in principals, unstable funding from district–the state had taken over the Philadelphia schools–mediocre academic achievement, and troubles with technologies–devices became obsolete within a few years–made the initial years most difficult in reaching the goals so admirably laid out in the prospectus for the school.

In 2018, the School of Future remains in operation but even with its surfeit of technology devices and software SOF has slowly become similar to traditional schools elsewhere in its district in its goals, policies, and practices (see here, here, and here).

As Richard Sherin, principal or “Chief Learner” since 2014 said:

At one point this school functioned very much through technology….Where our innovation is now is to get back to the fundamentals of what an educational academic program is supposed to be like, and how you get technology to mirror or augment that.

Part of those “fundamentals” is having a regular school day of seven 56-minute periods like most high schools with an 11-minute hiatus for what used to be called “home room.” Textbooks have returned as have paper and pencil. While project-based learning occurs in different academic subjects, state standards, yearly testing, and accountability have pressed both administration and faculty to focus on getting better-than-average test scores and graduating most of their students–SOF exceeds other district high schools in the percentage they graduate.

This slippage from grand opening of a futuristic school to one resembling a traditional high school is common in public schooling as it is in other institutions.

Why is there this slow movement back from a school built for the future  to the traditional model of schooling as seen in New York’s Downtown School (Part 1) and here in Philadelphia’s School of Future?

I have one but surely not the only answer. Designers of future schools and innovations overestimate the potency of their vision and product and underestimate the power of the age-graded school’s structure and culture (fully supported by societal beliefs) that sustain traditional models of schooling. That see-saw of underestimation vs. overestimation neatly summarizes the frequent cycles of designers’ exhilaration with a reform slowly curdling into disappointment as years pass.

The overestimation of a design to alter the familiar traditional school has occurred time and again when reformers with full wallets, seeing how out of touch educators were as changes in society accelerated, created new schools chock-a-block across the country in the 1960s such as “free schools” and non-graded schools  (see here and here).

Within a decade, founders of these schools of the future had departed, either  burned out or because they had ignored politically the two constituencies of parents and teachers who had to be involved from the start but were not. These well intentioned reformers also ignored how the structures and culture of the age-graded school have been thoroughly accepted by most parents and teachers as “real schools.”

Designers of reform seldom think about the inherent stability of the institution that they want to transform. They seldom think about the strong social beliefs of taxpayers, voters, teachers, and parents who have sat in age-graded schools and who sustain generation after generation the “grammar of schooling.”

From daily schedules of 50-minute periods to the fact that teachers ask questions far more than students during lessons to the use of textbooks, homework, and frequent tests–these features of the “grammar of schooling” or what Seymour Sarason in The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change,  called the “regularities” of schooling–persist generation after generation. While they exaggerate the reform they champion, they neglect  the influences of organizational structures and cultures.

Some designers give up. They realize that their grand visions cannot be accommodated by public schools quickly so they create schools of the future in private venues such as “micro-schools” or  the Khan Lab School and the like.

The notion of mindful incremental change over a lengthy period of time in the direction of gradually building a “school of the future” is anathema to fired-up, amply funded designers who see their visions enacted in one fell swoop. Thus, disappointment arises when futuristic schools slip back into routines that designers scorned. Regression to the mean smells like failure to these reformers who underestimated the power of the “grammar of schooling.”









Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

Lessons I Have Learned about School Reform and Technology


On June 13,  2018. I was a member of a panel held at Mission High School during San Francisco Design Week. Software developers, and others who see themselves as designers of ed-tech products that will improve schools attended this panel discussion. The moderator asked each of us to state in 7-8 minutes “what hard lessons have you learned about education that you’d like to share with the ed-tech design community?” My fellow panelists were two math teachers–one from Mission High School and the other a former teacher at Oakland High School, three product designers (one for the Chan/Zuckerberg Initiative, another for Desmos, and the lead designer for Khan Academy) who have been working in the ed-tech industry for years. In attendance were nearly 60 young (in their 20s and 30s) product designers, teachers, and ed-tech advocates .

Elizabeth Lin, a designer for Khan Academy, organized and moderated the panel. She began with a Kahoot quiz on Pokemon and Harry Potter. Audience members had the Kahoot app on their devices and entered the pin number to register for the quiz. For the record, I knew none of the answers having have never played Pokemon or, as yet, cracked a Harry Potter book. 

When my turn came to speak, I looked around the room and saw that I was the oldest person in the room. Here is what I said.

Many designers and school reformers believe that in old age, pessimism and cynicism go together. Not true.

As someone who has taught high school history, led a school district, and researched the history of school reform including the use of new technologies in classrooms over the past half-century, I surely am an oldster. But I am neither a pessimist, nay-sayer, or cynic about improving public schools and teachers making changes. I am a tempered idealist who is cautiously optimistic about what U.S. public schools have done and still can do for children, the community, and the nation. Both my tempered idealism and cautious optimism have a lot to do with what I have learned over the decades about school reform especially when it comes to technology. So here I offer a few lessons drawn from these experiences over the decades.


Teachers are central to all learning.

I have learned that no piece of software, portfolio of apps, or learning management system can replace teachers simply because teaching is a helping profession like medicine and psychotherapy. Helping professions are completely dependent upon interactions with patients, clients, and students for success. No improvement in physical or mental health or learning can occur without the active participation of the patient and client—and of course, the student.

Now, all of these helping professions have had new technologies applied to them. But if you believe, as I do, that teaching is anchored in a relationship between an adult and a student then relationships cannot be replaced by even the most well designed software, efficient device, or virtual reality. There is something else that software designers often ignore or forget. That is that teachers make policy every time they enter their classroom and teach.

Once she closes her classroom door, the teacher decides what the lesson is going to be, what parts of top-down policies she will put into practice in the next hour, and which parts of a new software program she will use, if at all.

Designers are supposed to have empathy for users, that is, understand emotionally what it is like to teach a crowd of students five or more hours a day and know that teacher decisions determine what content and skills enter the classroom that day. Astute ed-tech designers understand that, for learning to occur, teachers must gain student trust and respect. Thus, teachers are not technicians who mechanically follow software directions. Teaching and learning occur because of the teacher’s expertise, smart use of high-tech tools, and the creation of a classroom culture for learning that students come to trust, respect, and admire.

Of course, there are a lot of things about teaching that can be automated. Administrative stuff—like attendance and grade books—can be replaced with apps. Reading and math skills and subject area content can be learned online but thinking, problem solving, and decision-making where it involves other people, collaboration, and interactions with teachers, software programs cannot replace teachers. That’s a rosy scenario that borders on fantasy.


Access to digital tools is not the same as what happens in daily classroom activities.

In 1984, there were 125 students for each computer; now the ratio is around 3:1 and in many places 1:1. Because access to new technologies has spread across the nation’s school districts, too many pundits and promoters leap to the conclusion that all teachers integrate these digital tools into daily practice seamlessly. While surely the use of devices and software has gained entry into classrooms, anyone who regularly visits classrooms sees the huge variation among teachers using digital technologies.

Yes, most teachers have incorporated digital tools into daily practice but even those who have thoroughly integrated new technologies into their lessons reveal both change and stability in their teaching.

In 2016, I visited 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons.

They were hard working, sharp teachers who used digital tools as easily as paper and pencil. Devices and software were in the background, not foreground. The lessons they taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in creating playlists for students, pursuing problem-based units, and organizing the administrative tasks of teaching.

But I saw no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of a lesson. Teachers set lesson goals, designed varied activities, elicited student participation, varied their grouping of students, and assessed student understanding. None of that differed from earlier generations of experienced teachers. The lessons I observed were teacher-directed and revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Again, both stability and change marked teaching with digital tools.


Designers and entrepreneurs overestimate their product’s power to make change and underestimate the power of organizations to keep things as they are.

Consider the age-graded school. The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) solved the 20th century problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to move masses of children through public schools.  Today, it is the dominant form of school organization.

Most Americans 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 around age 18.

The age-graded school was an organizational innovation designed to replace the one-room schoolhouse in the mid-19th century—yes, I said 19th century or almost 200 years ago. That design shaped (and continues to shape) how teachers teach and students learn.

As an organization, the age-graded school distributes children and youth by age to school “grades. It sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks, and, after passing tests would be promoted to the next grade.

Now, the age-graded school dominates how public (and private) schools are organized. Even charter schools unbeholden to district rules for how to organize, have teachers teach, and students learn are age-graded as is the brand new public high school on the Oracle campus called Design Tech High School.


Ed Tech designers are trapped in a trilemma of their own making.

Three highly prized values clash. One is the desire for profit—building a product that schools buy and use. Another is to help teachers, students, and schools become more efficient and effective. And the third value is that technology solves educational problems.

Many venture capitalists, founders of start-ups, and cheerleaders for high tech innovations cherish these conflicting values.

I’m not critical of these values. But when it comes to schools, product designers with these values in their search for profit and improvement underestimate both the complexity of daily teaching and the influence of age-graded schools on teaching and learning. Those who see devices and software transforming today’s schooling seldom understand schools as organizations.

I don’t believe that there are technical solutions to teaching, to running a school, or governing a district. Education is far too complex. These are the “hard” lessons I have learned.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Skeptic or Cynic? An Interview

Two years ago, I had just begun research on The Flight of a Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet?: Using Technology To Transform Teaching and Learning (2018). Mary Jo Madda, then Senior Editor at EdSurge, interviewed me for a podcast and column in EdSurge. I had been observing lessons of exemplary teachers who had integrated technology into their daily lessons seamlessly. The edited interview appeared here in February 2016.

Q: Larry, thanks for sitting down with us. You’ve a lot of references and titles—you’re a researcher, a professor, a former teacher, a blogger. But who do you consider yourself first and foremost?

I would call myself a teacher at different levels. I’ve taught in high schools, I’ve taught at the university, and I teach through my writing. You teach through writing because you’re getting ideas out there, and if it’s a post on a blog, you’re getting comments and you can have a back-and-forth. It’s not the same as a face-to-face interaction, but it’s the next best thing. You’re starting a conversation, and you never know where it’s going to go… I call writing a form of teaching because it’s another way to get ideas out in the arena and have interactions with people.

Speaking of your writing, when I talked to some of my team members, they said they like reading your blog because they sense a note of “fresh cynicism” when it comes technology. So, your honest opinion. The growing interest in edtech—how do you feel about it?

What’s happened is that the interest in classroom technologies has accelerated and expanded, but remember—the desktop computers came out thirty years ago. The first Apple, the Atari, those Macs came out in 1981-84, and it exploded. But the access on the part of teachers and students was very, very limited for the first 15-20 years. In the 1990s with laptops coming out, it really accelerated.

But I think what has given edtech a huge push has been the larger reform ideology, which is informed by business interest and trying to increase public schools efficiency and effectiveness. That was triggered a lot by the Nation at Risk Report (1983), where basically the CEOs of the nation combined with civic leaders said, “American schools are lousy.” They used international test scores as proof. Well, technology was going through the economy and changing the job structure and industries. So, the application of technology to public schools seemed natural.

When the money became more and more available, and as the technology improved student access, you had not an “explosion” but rather an “evolving” interest in technology that fit in with the reform ideology.

So the two—reform ideology and technology—mutually catalyzed each other?

Exactly. It started with the assumption that public schools were failing… and that the application of efficiency devices and attitudes were what schools needed. And we’re still there!

The pattern of hype leading to disappointment, leading to another cycle of overpromising with the next technology, has a long history to it.

In all of this history, do you see more evidence of failure with technology or promise with technology?

Well, I’m not a cynic, as your colleagues say. I’ve never been a cynic. I wouldn’t be in education. To be cynical means that the disappointment is so severe, and you have no energy to do anything about it. I’m skeptical. Being skeptical is very different. Skepticism and curiosity are very close in my mind.

I’ve been skeptical of technology because the early technologies in schools that I studied began with the film. That morphed into radio, instructional television, and then the computer. By looking at all the hype that surrounded each one of these, the access to those early ones was very limited. When I started teaching history in high school, there was one 16mm projector in the department’s store room, back in 1956. The pattern of hype leading to disappointment, leading to another cycle of overpromising with the next technology, has a long history to it. If I cite MOOCs… that’s just the most recent incarnation of hype in technology.

There are a long of things about teaching that can be automated. A lot of teachers’ administrative stuff—like attendance and gradebooks—can be very helpful. But to replace teachers? No.

I get the question constantly of whether technology will ever replace teachers. Can teachers and edtech coexist peacefully?

If you look upon teaching as a helping profession like medicine, social work, psychotherapy… those are completely dependent upon interaction. Now, all of those have had new technologies applied to them. But if you believe that teaching is anchored in a relationship between an adult and a student, then that can’t be replaced.

Now, there are a lot of things about teaching that can be automated. A lot of teachers’ administrative stuff—like attendance and gradebooks—can be very helpful. But to replace teachers? No. That’s a rosy scenario that borders on fantasy.

Look, you’ve got cyber charter schools, and some of them are for-profit. There’s a lot of evidence that shows that they’re trying to eat at the trough of public funding. But the nonprofit virtual schools and a lot of online schooling provide services for different groups of people that are isolated or have full-time jobs. I think that’s terrific! But that will not replace teaching. When I was a superintendent, personnel was 70% of the budget. The dream of cutting back on that, of making education less expensive, now that’s hardly talked about publicly. But that’s part of the rhetoric surrounding online instruction in schools.

Now, let’s talk about where you are right now. Back in January, you laid out your reasons for shifting focus from disappointments and failures in use of new technology to best cases of such use in districts and classrooms. Why the change?

Well, I’ll be a skeptic until I go into the ground. But in reading about teachers who are using technology, another way to find out about the strengths and shortcomings of edtech is to look at best cases. The disappointments and failures won’t go away because technology is so embedded in our culture as a positive good that there will always be overpromising. I’m more interested in the best cases, and I want to see them at the classroom level, at the school level, and at the district level. There are individual teachers who are exemplars that anyone who loves technology would embrace. But whether you can scale it up to a school, that’s harder… and then at a district, that’s even more difficult.

I’ve been in this area for 30 years, and I know a lot of people. Currently I’m in the San Mateo High School District, and I’ve been observing some teachers. And then I’ve contacted Dianne Tavenner, founder of Summit Public Schools, who was a former student of mine. When I had this idea, I contacted her and she welcomed me in. And then another friend of mine runs an upscale, private Catholic school. She was talking about the cultural principles that motivates a Catholic school, and whether technology reinforces that, undercuts it… I think that’s very interesting.

You know, it’s funny. I came here expecting I was going to get a lot of answers, but I’m coming away with more questions!

Well, that’s the difference between skepticism and cynicism. Cynics have the answers; I don’t have answers. I have a lot of hunches.

I don’t believe that there is a technical solution to teaching, to running a school, to governing a district. Education is far too complex.

What’s fascinating is that we just featured Dianne Tavenner on the EdSurge podcast in a debate about personalized learning. That must be coming full-circle for you! And I have to ask—do you believe in personalized learning with technology involved?

Well, I want to see it at work at Summit. I had a nice conversation with Dianne and CAO Adam Carter, and I was really taken with the fact that they came to [technology] very late as a way of dealing with an issue that crept up on them. [Years ago] they graduated all these kids to go to college, and just over half are finishing. What I admire about what Dianne and the staff is doing was that they said, “Let’s take a look at what we’re doing to see how we can strengthen the experiences of kids while they’re here, so that they’ll have the skills and attitudes necessary to finish college.” And that’s where personalized learning comes in.

Before I let you go, my final question has to do with entrepreneurs and investors—the people that are making and funding the tools. You’ve mentioned technology not being the be-all, end-all. But are tools being made without the users in mind?

Well, that’s been a pattern in the industry. There are some startups and firms that are user-friendly. Dianne told me that Facebook sent four software engineers over to Summit, and the engineers started with “We don’t know what you guys know, so we have to learn from you.” That’s very rare in my experience.

Getting back to your question, I see it as a fundamental dilemma. There is a clashing of two highly-prized values. There’s the desire for profit—you’re not going to give a small company $10 million unless you believe there’s a 1 in 10 chance that it’ll pay off. The other is the highly-prized value that technology is indeed the answer to educational problems. People believe that deeply. A lot of venture capitalists believe that. People who do startups in the education realm believe that. I’m not critical of that—that’s a belief system. But when it comes to schools, the complexity of teaching and the complexity of relationships is not often thoroughly understood by those folks.

I don’t believe that there is a technical solution to teaching, to running a school, to governing a district. Education is far too complex.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Personalized Learning: Panel Discussion

I was part of a panel at the annual conference of Education Writers Association held in Los Angeles, May 16, 2018. The panel included:

April Chou, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; Heidi Vazquez, Compass School/Highlander Institute; myself, with Jenny Abamu, journalist from EdSurge, moderating the panel.

The moderator asked three questions of all panelists and then specific ones addressed to each panelist. Here are both sets of questions and my answers to each one.


How do you define personalized learning?

I do not have a clear-cut definition for several reasons. First, in a nation of decentralized schools of 50 states, over 13,000 school districts, 100,000 schools, and nearly four million teachers there is no Ministry of Education that says what personalized learning is. All definitions depend upon where you sit. Inevitably, then, with this fragmented governance of schools, definitions of any school reform will vary.

I cannot give you a crisp definition for another reason: historically, there have been many efforts to get teachers to tailor their instruction to individual students. The best that I can do is to say that PL is a current incarnation of those past reform efforts to customize learning within the confines of the dominant structure of the age-graded school.

Finally, add to this mix, that those educators, donors, and political leaders pushing personalized learning also seek to alter drastically how teachers teach, that is, move teachers 180-degrees from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered instruction.

For all of these these reasons, I cannot give you a crisp or singular definition of PL other than another attempt to individualize instruction within the age-graded school.

Do you see personalized learning scaling nationwide?

Already has. With mainstream and social media and the ubiquity of inexpensive tablets and laptops plus software, various versions of personalized learning appear in most districts across the nation.

The problem in making sense of the constant reference to PL in a decentralized system of schooling is to distinguish between policy talk, policy adoption, and policy implementation.

In policy talk the rhetoric of PL is already national albeit with varied definitions hand-made in districts and schools. With mainstream and social media and donor support, it has become the school innovation du jour.

When it comes to policy adoption and allocating money and staff, however, many—but not all–districts, adopt some off-the-shelf or home-made version of personalized learning, calling it “blended learning,” “teaching for mastery,” project-based instruction, and similar names.

But when it comes to putting the policy into classroom practice, far less has occurred simply because for many educators PL already seemed to fit what teachers were currently doing, inadequate staff development of teachers, insufficient hardware, software, and technical help, and uncertainties over what student outcomes should be in light of the press for meeting state curriculum standards, frequent testing, and accountability sanctions.

So PL talk differs from adoption of programs and adoption differs from classroom implementation in answering the question of whether personalized learning is nationwide.

What is one piece of advice you would give reporters who are covering this topic?

I have two bits of advice. First, when doing a piece on PL, ask district people who authorized the program what their definition of PL is and what they would consider a “successful” PL program. Then I would go into classrooms and ask teachers what their definitions of PL were and how they would know they were “successful.” finally, I would ask various students in different classes the same questions.  The noticeable gap between these points of view is the beginning of any story about educational innovations, including PL.


  1. Based on your research, how have you seen schools pursue different versions of personalized learning in the past?

The basic structure of U.S. education for nearly two centuries has been the age-graded school. In a decentralized system, it has dominated school organization. You cannot understand the current passion for PL without grasping the enduring structure of age-graded schools in the U.S.

Unlike the historic one-room schoolhouse where children of all ages mixed, in the age-graded school, six year olds are in the first grade, nine year olds are in the third grade and 12 year-olds are in sixth grade. There is a separate teacher for each class and that teacher is expected to teach the content and skills assigned to that grade level. The daily schedule, homework, and tests are tailored to each grade. At the end of the school year, each student is promoted to the next grade or required to repeat the same grade. This step-by-step progression through the grades is considered “normal.” Because of this organizational structure and large classes, historically teaching to the whole group was common.

For generation after generation of students, these in-school experiences have become familiar features and Americans have come to think of the age-graded school as “real” schools.

Yet, over a century ago, educators had seen the weaknesses of this age-graded structure. Critics saw the structure as overlooking differences among children. While most students kept to the “normal” pace during the year, some grew bored with the slow pace, others failed and were held back, and even others dropped out,.

So beginning in the early 20th century, Progressive educators came up with attempts to individualize instruction within the age-graded school so that all students would succeed. From providing special classes for gifted and handicapped children to teachers dividing their classes into small groups for part of the day to innovations such as the Winnetka, Gary, and Dalton plans in the early decades of the 20th century to adopting teaching machines in the 1950s to today’s ala carte menu of personalized learning approaches—each generation of school reformers tried to customize teaching and learning within the confines of the age-graded school.

Because of the dominant age-graded school structures, differentiating teaching practices and lessons to accommodate individual differences among students has been and will continue to be part of the history and contemporary experience of teachers and students in public and private schools.

  1. While putting together your book, you observed personalized learning teaching methods in several classrooms, what are the different types of PL that you observed?

To make sense of what I observed in 41 classrooms in Silicon Valley schools during 2016-2017 and what I know historically about instructionally-guided reforms over the past century, I constructed a spectrum of classrooms, programs, and schools that include varied ways that “personalized learning” appear in customized lessons aimed at achieving particular goals for schooling the young.

Let me be clear, I place no value for either end (or the middle) of the spectrum. I do not suggest that some kinds of personalized learning are better than others. Moreover, this spectrum does not suggest the effectiveness of “personalized learning” or achievement of specific student outcomes.

At one end of the continuum are classrooms that use online and offline technologies daily. Program leaders at this end of the spectrum use phrases like “mastery learning” and “competency-based education.” They want students to successfully enter the labor market and become adults who help their communities.

The format of these lessons typically call for a lot of whole group instruction, some small group work, and much online activity where students work independently.

Examples of schools and programs at this end of the continuum would be the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire,  USC Hybrid High School CA, and Lindsay Unified School District (CA). While these examples are at this end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another They differ in organization and content from one another.

These schools and districts are at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using online and offline lessons anchored in discrete skills and knowledge tailored to the abilities and performance of individual students. Specific behavioral outcomes guide what is expected of each and every student. The knowledge and skills are packaged by software designers and teachers and delivered to students in daily and weekly chunks. Students use applications that permit them to self-assess their mastery of the specific knowledge and skills embedded in their lessons. Some students move well ahead of their peers, others maintain steady progress, and some need help from teacher as they move individually through a sequence of math, science, and reading skills.

At the other end of the spectrum are student-centered classrooms programs and schools using multi-age groupings, asking big questions that combine reading, math, science, and social studies while integrating new technologies regularly in lessons. These places seek to cultivate student agency and decision-making. They want to shape how individual students grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

These programs seek learning that comes out of student interests and passions. The overall goals of schooling at this end of the continuum are similar to ones at the competency-based end: help children grow into adults who are creative thinkers, help their communities, enter college, succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults.

For example, there are over 60 Big Picture Learning schools across the nation where students create their own “personalized learning plans” and work weekly as interns on projects that capture their passions. Or High Tech High in San Diego that centers its instruction around project-based learning. And private schools such as San Francisco-based AltSchool, and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) fit here as well.

Lesson formats in schools at this end of the continuum commonly call for a blend of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently. At this end of the continuum, these online and offline lessons bend noticeably toward small group and individual activities with occasional whole group instruction.

There are many such schools scattered across the nation. Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum, much variation exists among these schools anchored at this end of the continuum.

And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrid programs and schools. In this diverse middle are teachers, schools and programs that provide blends of whole group, small group, and independent activities in lessons. From customized online lessons to team-led projects and teacher-led discussions, these schools, in their quest to personalize learning tilt toward the competency-based, teacher-directed end while others lean toward the student-centered pole. But they occupy slots in the middle of the continuum. Examples from my research would be the Summit Charter School network in Northern California, Teach To One (a math program), and most of the 41 teachers I observed and interviewed in six different districts in Silicon Valley.

While choices were given to students within these classrooms for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, for the most part, major decisions on projects were in teachers’ hands. That is why I placed these teachers, programs, and schools in the center of the continuum, rather than the student-centered end.

Finally, I did notice that wherever  these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts  fall on the spectrum of personalized learning with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization.

  1. In your book, you say personalized learning focuses on growth, but that clashes with state and federal accountability measures that require students to know certain things at each grade level. Talk about the benefits and drawbacks of what a widespread adoption of personalized learning and how it could conflict with the goals of policymakers or civil rights groups.

Here is the conflict in simple terms. Personalized learning is rooted in the belief that individual students should progress through content and skills until they have mastered it regardless of how long it takes. Lessons are customized to fit each student.

Standards-based testing and accountability, however, believes that students should know content and skills by a certain time and demonstrate that knowledge on periodic tests. Lessons are taught to entire class.

These beliefs conflict so that even as policy talk and adoption of personalized learning programs has spread nationally, teachers and principals in most districts have to wrestle with the degree to which they integrate PL into their lessons while meeting obligations to district, state and federal accountability deadlines.Lessons are driven by content and skill standards periodically measured by tests.

Consider that schools trumpeting their alignment of lessons to Common Core standards and personalized learning in the same breath have their students take state tests with multiple choice questions that assess how much knowledge and skills listed in the curriculum standards they have learned. That tension exists but seldom arose in my discussions with teachers, principals, and superintendents implementing PL.



Filed under technology use

Khan Lab School (Part 2)

The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs….It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active processing of information.

Salman Khan, The One World Classroom (2012)


From Francis Parker to John Dewey to Ella Flagg Young, to Vito Perrone to Deborah Meier to Theodore Sizer, complaints about the “old classroom model” have echoed through university lecture halls, academic monographs, oodles of conferences and, now, in education blogs. Criticism of existing public schools has spawned generation after generation of reformers looking for ways to alter the dominant “factory model,” “assembly line,” or “batch processing” way of schooling over the past 150 years.

Their target has been the historic structure of the age-graded public school with its  buildings divided into hallways lined with box-like classrooms where teachers distribute slices of curriculum grade-by-grade using whole and small-group instruction, homework, tests daily. The regime ends in June with either students being promoted to the next grade or being retained in the grade for another year.

Imported from Prussia in the late 1840s, that generation of reformers touted it as an innovation that was superior to the one-room schoolhouse. And it was. Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, the age-graded public school took in millions of immigrants from western, eastern, and southern Europe. These immigrants became Americanized through schooling and the workplace.

But there were critics of the age-graded school then and now. In 1902, John Dewey warned educators that “the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child … really controls the whole system.” That “machinery of instruction” is what David Tyack and I called the “grammar of schooling” in Tinkering toward Utopia.

So Salman Khan joins a queue of reformers targeting the “old classroom model” in starting a brand new school unlike traditional public schools. There is a direct line from John Dewey’s Lab School (1896-1904) to progressive public and private schools in the 1920s to small “free” schools popping up in the mid-1960s, the small schools movement in the 1990s and now currently micro-schools gussied up with new technologies . The lineage is anchored in the quest to create settings where students learn from one another regardless of age, pursue their intellectual curiosity and passions at their pace, and where knowledgeable and skilled teachers  guide students to reach their individual potential.

Consider micro-schools. The one-room schoolhouse of yesteryear is the model for micro-schools. Small—anywhere from 25 to 150 students of mixed ages–with a few teachers committed to integrated content and skills such as multi-subject projects on climate change, answering big questions on why countries go to war, producing a newspaper, and connecting daily to the world outside of the school. Learning is active occurring in small groups and independent (a.k.a. “personalized learning”).

Dispensing with grade levels, traditional pedagogy, tests geared to state curriculum standards, and using space and furniture differently than in regular schools. Micro-schools vary in their origin–public (charters, school-within-a-school to free standing ones) and private. Most, however, are largely private and charge tuition in the tens of thousands dollars (see here, here, and here).  They also vary in their challenge to the “grammar of schooling” ranging from individually paced mastery-based learning to wholly project-based and experiential programs–some schools even combining these features.

New York and San Francisco-based Alt/Schools, for example, are privately-funded micro-schools that charge tuition and create schools with different systems unlike those found in nearly all public schools. No “machinery of instruction” in Alt/Schools (see here, here, and here). The policy Nirvana of “going to scale,” that is, creating more Alt/Schools and lowering the cost of schooling per student, however, has stumbled.

Is the Khan Lab School also a micro-school? Yes it is.

KLS is a Lab School in the tradition of challenging the dominant “grammar of instruction” in public schools going back to the first one operated by John Dewey (and later wife, Alice) at the University of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century.




The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets.  Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change. Highly touted at the time as the premier challenge to traditional public schooling, conflicts between the University’s leadership and the Deweys led to their departure in 1904 (see here and here)

While KLS is not affiliated with any university as was Dewey’s Laboratory School–it is an extension of private, non-profit Khan Academy–KLS remains committed to both “research-based instruction and furthering innovation in education” and, at the same time, putting into practice the ideas of its founder.

The tradition of challenging the dominant structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” continues to this day with micro-schools in Silicon Valley and elsewhere illustrating anew that such reforms to the traditional “machinery of instruction” have resided, for the most part, in private schools where tuition runs high and students bring many economic and social advantages school. In a profound way, the high cost of these private schools and the resources available to their founders in experienced teachers, aides, technologies, space, and materials show clearly the prior conditions necessary not only to operate such schools in public venues but also what is needed to contest the prevailing “grammar of schooling.”



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

The Khan Lab School in Silicon Valley (Part 1)


Thomas is nine years old.* It is 9:45 AM during Advisory time, one of the first blocks of time in daily schedule (there are seven such blocks in the Lab School day that runs from 9AM-4PM). In a large open space, he, like 18 other students scattered across the ample room, is sitting alone at a desk typing on a Chromebook. Three adults– they are teachers but called in KLS argot, “Advisors”–are working with individual students a half hour at a time reviewing their daily “Playlist” (see below) and Goal Tracker (see below). The other students are reviewing their daily “Playlist” that need attention. During this block of time, individual students arrive at and depart from the three “Advisors” for their one-to-one review of their work, ideas, and what’s on their minds.

I approach Thomas who is in Independence Level 2 (there are currently six such levels at KLS) and ask if I can sit down and find out what he working on. He says “yes.”

Thomas tells me that he is working on the school newspaper and he volunteered to write an article about student responses to a proposed school rule concerning email among students. The proposed rule is that students will look at email once a day and when they do they can only keep two tabs open at the same time. His deadline, he tells me, is tomorrow morning.

I asked Thomas why was this rule proposed. He said that students were looking at email too often during the day and keeping multiple tabs open and that distracted many students from tasks they had to work on. Thus far, he has interviewed 12 other students from each of the six levels in the school–there are no designations of 1st grade, 4th grade or 6th grade  just different ages running from 5 to 16.

Thomas showed me what he written on his screen thus far. I asked him what he thought of the rule. He said he liked it because it forced him to focus on what goals and tasks he expects to work on–he showed me his Goal Tracker. I then asked whether he would include his opinion in the article he was writing.

“No,” he said. I asked why. He said he was a reporter and reporters do not enter their opinions into what they are writing. He reports what fellow students said about the proposed rule. I thanked Thomas for his time in answering my questions.

I then walked over to meet Heather Stinnett,** a Lead Advisor who had just sat down with Nancy, a nine year old. Nancy said it was fine if I sat and listened to what they discussed. Heather starts the 30-minute discussion asking Nancy about her weekend and what she did. Then Heather segued to Nancy’s Goal Tracker, a digital way of tracking what Nancy is doing and how she is progressing in reaching her goals. Heather shows Goal Tracker on her screen and Nancy pulled out her Chromebook and clicked rapidly to have her Goal Tracker on screen. This constant self-assessment is built into daily schedule, i.e., Playlist, and time with each student’s advisor. (for a sample, see Goal Tracker)


Advisors also follow up on the other end by serving as accountability partners to ensure students accomplish their goals. Students reflect on their goals each week when they sit down for their one-on-one advisory meetings and they update their goals accordingly.

Then they turned to Nancy’s Playlist, a schedule that Nancy follows during the day (Here is what a generic daily Playlist looks like). They discussed where Nancy was on Zearn (online math software) and the written reflection Nancy had decided to do. She showed Heather the reflection and then read it to her. I watched while Heather took notes on paragraphs that Nancy read to Heather from the screen. Heather complimented Nancy on wording, grammar, and thoughtfulness. I left to visit another Advisor and student at work.

For student accounts of their day at KLS over the past three years, see here, here, here, and here.


Khan Lab School is a private school with around 140 elementary and secondary school age students of whom 80 are in the Lower School. Tuition runs from $28,000 to $33,000 depending on whether child is in Lower, Middle, or Upper school.

Established in 2014 by Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, it is an avowedly experimental school that Khan and colleagues built to transform traditional schooling into  experiences for children that mirrors the ever-changing world that they will enter. As Khan wrote in The One World Schoolhouse (2012), “The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs….It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active (original italics) processing of information.”

As viewed by KLS leaders, the differences between regular schools and the Lab School look like this:


Renting space set aside for business offices in Mountain View (CA), the school is furnished with modern office furniture adapted for children who spend most of their time in an open space yet can go to scattered nooks. Closed spaces for Content Specialists in reading, writing, math, world language, and computer science accommodate up to 8-12 students. How the space and furniture were arranged is intimately connected to pedagogy, mastery-based learning, collaboration among and between students and adults, and schedule (see here).





In the Lower School, I spent one morning in early May observing one-to-one advising, Content Specialists teaching language arts and other subjects, and students working independently on the mastery-based curriculum and their projects (worked on during Studio block of time).  I also spent time with Orly Friedman,** Head of the Lower School and Interim Head of School, who oriented me to the space and the program that day (Friedman describes the school in a brief video here).

At KLS, teachers perform one of two roles. One is Content Specialist in a content area–math, writing, world language, reading or computer programming. The other is as Advisor–30 minute one-on-one conversations about student’s life, current work, issues that need addressing, and review of where student is on his or her Goal Tracker. This splitting of the teacher’s role is uncommon in private and public schools–most teachers have to do both at the minimum–and at KLS, I was told that it plays to what each teacher does best and likes to do.

I went into an English Language Arts Specialist’s small, snug room where Katherine James was already into the 45-minute session she is teaching with seven children, ages 7-9.



Students are reading Ian Whybrow’s Little Wolf’s Book of Badness. When I arrived, each of the students was already reading in the book and Katherine was working one-on-one with students asking questions about the book and listening to each student’s answers.

As the session comes to an end, Katherine reminds students to work on their questions  reflecting on the section they read in Whybrow’s book. She lines up the seven children and then dismisses them one-by-one to go to the next activity. No bells ring to end a session with the Content Specialists.

Students’ self assessments and teacher judgments are frequent activities. There, are however, no report cards. Because KLS groups children by how well they demonstrate knowledge and skills in various areas–Independence Levels 1-6–rather than being first or third graders, the staff has developed rubrics or ways of knowing how well students are doing in a subject or skill and when individual children have reached a particular independence level (see here ). These KLS assessments go to parents twice a year.

There is much more to the KLS that can be captured in a description of one morning there. KLS has numerous digital documents describing their mission, beliefs, faculty, schedule, and activities at their website. In this post, I have included student and teacher accounts of their experiences in KLS. Additionally, others have written about the school that offer glimpses of it at different times since it was founded nearly five years ago (see here, here, and here).

Part 2 will deal with KLS as another example historically of private, micro-schools and their effort to break the “grammar of schooling.”






*All student names are pseudonyms.

** I use actual names of Advisors, Specialists, and Head of Lower School.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

Can You Be a ‘Good Teacher’ Inside a Failing School? (JennyAbamu)

This article appeared in EdSurge, April 2, 2018

“Jenny Abamu is an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covers technology’s role in both higher education and K-12 spaces. She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Masters degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.”


Here’s a popular movie plot: Great teacher goes into a troubled neighborhood and turns around a low-performing school. Educators love the messages from these films, and even children are inspired. Unfortunately, many school districts never find the Coach Carters or Erin Gruwells who bring such happy endings. In fact, in a broken district such as Detroit’s, schools in hard-bitten neighborhoods sometimes go from “turnarounds” to closure.


Fisher Magnet Upper Academy is a middle school located within one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, stricken with poverty and crime. In 2013, local news reports named the area the third most violent zip code in America. In 2016, Fisher was named one of the 38 campuses at risk of closure after the Michigan legislature passed a bill saying any school ranked at the bottom 5 percent of state campuses for three years in a row would be subject to consequences.


Despite a relatively new building, constructed in 2003 as part of a former superintendent’s turnaround project, Fisher has suffered from consistent low performance—falling far below state standards on exams and adjusted growth targets designed specifically for the school. During the 2015-16 school year, only 0.7 percent (3 out of 451) of students met state standards in math, and only 4.5 percent met English Language Arts standards.

Carl Brownlee, a former United States Marine officer, is a middle school social studies teacher at Fisher Magnet Upper Academy. He has been teaching at Fisher for over 10 years. He believes changes in academic performance can happen in a struggling school like Fisher but says he has only seen it happen in the movies.

“The only person I have seen that had the ability change this type of climate and culture was Joe Clark, or Morgan Freeman in that movie, ‘Lean On Me,’” says Brownlee. That doesn’t mean he thinks improvements are implausible, though. He says: “I think there were some good ideas that movie that you could translate into schools.”

Brownlee believes that he is a good teacher, in spite of what test scores may reflect. And he feels as though his students have been slighted by ineffective teachers in the past. So he plans to stay at Fisher, where he hopes to bring advanced teaching skills to students that other educators may ignore.

“My children are being cheated because they are not given the same experiences as their counterparts in other schools, and that’s not fair,” says Brownlee. “That’s one of the reasons I stay where I am at.”

As students trickle in Brownlee’s classroom on a Friday morning, he stands by the door to greet each of them. He instructs them to grab their work folders and get into groups. The 6th, 7th and 8th graders entering Brownlee’s class in their uniforms are respectful, quiet and—though naturally distracted from time to time with whispers and giggles—appear to be on task. They ask questions and support one another as they move around in groups through learning stations Brownlee has set up in class.


Technology has a role to play in Brownlee’s effort as well. Using the free version of tools such as Edmodo, Kahoot, and Google Forms, Docs and sometimes Slides, Brownlee varies his lessons on topics such as Chinese history and the Missouri Compromise. He opens up classes with hip-hop education from Flocabulary, then goes into worksheets, videos, group assignments, and desktop assignments—incorporating cell phone apps and music in the activities. He constantly walks around the room, refocusing off-task students and offering feedback on their work. His classroom does not fit the “before” image in most romanticized school turnaround stories.


“The skill sets that I have, I like to use them with these young people instead of going to another school where you might get the test scores that people are asking for,” Brownlee continues, noting that he is not looking to teach the “ideal student” in an exemplary school. “My kids don’t come from that, so I try to hang in there and do my best. They need it. They deserve it.”’

By “doing his best” Brownlee means constantly learning, often looking for resources outside of the district for support. He is also trying to incorporate more personalization into his classroom, noting that the State Department of Education has embraced the implementation of such instructional models.

Since Fisher does not have enough Chromebooks for every student, teachers share a cart of laptops that travel from class to class. Teachers also combine technical and non-technical ways of personalizing instruction. For Brownlee, part of personalization means gauging the social and emotional well-being of students each morning, so he knows how to approach them throughout the lesson.

“Are they ready for school work? You might have [a student] come in who just had a loved one die the night before. We have had that on many occasions. They still come to school,” explains Brownlee. “You can’t just go into teaching when they come into the classroom if you don’t know where they are at.”

To meet students where they are, Brownlee has a couple of go-to tools. He uses apps such as Quizlet to encourage students to learn independently. In addition, he uses Edpuzzle when students are having a hard time with particular topics in class. The app allows them to rewatch annotated video lessons.

“I have done it with several of our resource students,” Brownlee explains, noting how one struggling 7th-grader has been showing improvement since using apps like Edmodo and Edpuzzle. “He comes to class every day, and you can see that he is trying. He wants to understand what is going on. He likes to look at the videos, and his effort is starting to show in his work. You get a little joy when you see them getting it.”

Brownlee also has digital portfolios that he uses to track student mastery and growth, something all teachers in his school incorporate. Yet, he notes that this method has yielded mixed results, particularly since many teachers serve a large number of students–and struggle to keep records up to date.

Brownlee works with 198 students daily and admits its difficult for him and other teachers to add student work to the portfolios consistently. “It’s just very difficult when you have so many students to try to personalize for each one,” he says. “You can tailor for each student, but only to a certain extent.”

Despite the difficulties, Brownlee has not given up trying to tailor instruction for his students. He makes time to celebrate the small gains he sees students making, like the lessons he teaches that students remember long after they graduate. But he admits that there are days that he gets tired, particularly noting the difficulties keeping up with changes in the district.


His district has flipped between state and local control over the years and has had a number of different superintendents and principals; most of them bring new initiatives with them. This school year Brownlee has a new superintendent and a new school principal, but real-world challenges facing students in and out of his school continues. He is cautiously hopeful that things can in improve, but the familiarity of changes that don’t yield academic results is haunting— causing him to work overtime with his happy-ending out of sight.

“No matter what you do you are still going to be accountable for the test score. It does not matter if the students just came from another school or district. It does not matter if they came to you four grades behind, if that child’s family is impoverished, or if the child has any type of learning disability that may be undiagnosed,” says Brownlee. “It is more like a professional football team. If the team does not win, it is the coach’s fault, and the coach is fired.”



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use