Category Archives: technology use

Can Educators Teach Students To Spot Fake News (Frederick Hess)

Following up on my recent post, Whatever Happened to Current Events, this op-ed by Frederick Hess who interviewed Stanford University Professor, Sam Wineburg, goes to the crucial intersection of children and youth learning how to sort accurate from inaccurate information. Digital literacy in dealing with mainstream and social media, according to Wineburg, spans all academic subjects that children and youth take during their student careers of 13-plus years in schools.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies and writes about K-12 and higher education. This article appeared in Forbes magazine April 13, 2021.

One of the great educational conundrums of the moment is how to help Americans navigate a digital landscape filled with fake news, dubious claims, and rank disinformation. Educators, like the rest of us, are searching for practical strategies. That’s what makes Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg so interesting.

Wineburg, Stanford’s Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, studies how people judge the credibility of digital content. A former history teacher with a PhD in education psychology, he’s perhaps the nation’s leading scholar when it comes to helping people figure out what’s actually true on the Internet. I recently had the chance to talk with him about his work and the practical lessons it holds.

Wineburg approaches his work with a simple guiding principle: “If you want to know what people do on the Internet, don’t ask them what they would do. Put them in front of a computer and watch them do it.”

He recounts a 2019 experiment studying how high school students evaluate digital sources, in which 3,000 students performed a series of web tasks. One task asked students to evaluate a website about climate change. Wineburg notes, “When you Google the group behind it, you learn that they’re funded by Exxon—a clear conflict of interest. Yet, 92 percent of students never made the link. Why? Because their eyes remained glued to the original site.” In other words, looking into the source of information is essential to judging its veracity—and yet, students didn’t make that leap. 

In another study, Wineburg compared how a group of PhD students and Stanford undergraduates stacked up against fact-checkers at leading news outlets in New York and Washington when it came to assessing the credibility of unfamiliar websites. He says that fact-checkers speedily “saw through common digital ruses” while trained scholars “often spun around in circles.”

Why? Wineburg concludes, “The intelligent people we’ve studied are invested in their intelligence. That investment often gets them in trouble. Because they’re smart, they think they can outsmart the Web.” The result is that when they see a professional-looking website with scholarly references, they conclude it’s legitimate. “Basically,” he says, “they’re reading the web like a piece of static print—thinking that they can determine what something is by looking at it . . . On the Internet, hubris is your Achilles heel.”

Fact-checkers employ a different approach, one that Wineburg terms “lateral reading.” This involves only briefly looking at a website, then leaving it to search for background information on the organization or group behind the original site to determine if it is worth returning to. “In other words,” he says, “they learn about a site by leaving it to consult the broader Web.”

The problem for educators, according to Wineburg, is that this goes against the grain of how teachers usually teach students to evaluate a text. Usually, students are taught to read carefully and fully, and only then render judgment. “Yet, on the Web, where attention is scarce, expending precious minutes reading a text, before you know who produced it and why, is a colossal waste of time,” Wineburg says.

In fact, the usual methods teachers use for addressing online credibility are mostly unhelpful. Wineburg laments that we often approach the subject like a game of twenty questions. We ask, “‘Is the site a .org?’ If so, ‘It’s good.’ ‘Is it a .com?’ If so, ‘It’s bad.’ ‘Does it have contact information?’ That makes it ‘good.’ But if it has banner ads? ‘It’s bad.’” The problem, he says, “is that bad actors read these lists, too, and each of these features is ludicrously easy to game.”

To help teachers wrestling with all this, Wineburg and his collaborators have created a “digital literacy curriculum” with 65 classroom-ready lessons and assessments, a complementary set of videos, and an online course on “Online Civic Reasoning” done with MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab. Wineburg notes that all of these materials are free and can be downloaded by registering at sheg.stanford.edu.

Wineburg thinks we should be teaching these skills from “the moment we give [kids] a smartphone” and that “we’re deluding ourselves” if we imagine that schools adding “an elective” will be enough to “drag us out of this mess.” Rather, he wants educators to ask: “How, in the face of our current digital assault, do we rethink the teaching of history, science, civics, and language arts—the basics?”

Ultimately, Wineburg says, “On every question we face as citizens—to raise the minimum wage, to legalize marijuana, to tax sugary drinks, to abolish private prisons, you name it—sham sources jostle for our attention right next to trustworthy ones. Failing to teach kids the difference is educational negligence.”

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, research, school reform policies, technology use

My Next Book

I will have a new book published by the end of this year called Confessions of a School Reformer. How an idea becomes a book even after all I have written, remains mysterious to me. In reconstructing the process which often means demystifying what occurs and making it appear linear and logical, I remain uncertain of exactly how I got the idea and how that idea morphed into a book proposal and then a contract with a publisher and voila!, the book appearing on my doorstep.

Here is what I believe occurred.

I had finished Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools (2020) and was thinking of my next project (yes, I need to have projects to look forward to). The theme of Chasing Success was how ideas of success and failure in public schools have a long history in American life and showed up repeatedly during three major reform movements that blanketed the 20th and 21st centuries. I wrote the book but I could not get these surges of reform that roiled the nation and schools, and to my surprise, my entire life, out of my head.

A century ago, the Progressive movement swept across the nation’s schools and faded away by the 1950s only to be followed by the widespread quest for equality central to the civil rights movement that then gave way in the late-1970s to business-inspired reforms tying school improvement to the nation’s changing economy. The latter efforts resulted in the standards, testing, and accountability reforms that have marked the closing years of the 20th century and have continued into the opening decades of the 21st century. 

But I was stuck intellectually. I didn’t know what to do next. Slowly, I became unstuck as I began thinking of my life as a child, as a teacher, superintendent, and professor. I am in my late-80s and realized—not in any epiphany or dream—that I had actually experienced all three of these 20th century reform movements: I had attended elementary and secondary schools in the latter-years of the Progressive movement. I had been a history teacher during the civil rights era, and, finally, I served as a district superintendent during the early years of standards, testing, and accountability reforms, and then as a professor doing research on this reform movement that remains intact in 2021.  Could I tie my personal experiences to these larger movements? Were my life experiences affected by these national reforms? The answers to these questions have become Confessions of a School Reformer.

How that sequence of events happened, however, remains mysterious to me.

And now I am trying to figure out what to do next. No dreams or epiphanies have yet occurred. But I do know that I want to write about the act of teaching because it has been central to my life as professional and as a person. I wanted to take a deep dive into teaching, its successes and failures, its uncertainties about outcomes for both teacher and students, and how it actually occurs daily in the nation’s classrooms.

I usually start with a big question that has no easy answer to it. I think a lot about that question and hope that the outline of a possible answer appears. It seldom does in any organized fashion. I have a few insights drawn from my direct experiences of teaching in high schools, leading university seminars, and teaching one-on-one with family members and friends. Also, over the past decades as a researcher in classrooms and schools, I have learned a great deal through observations and interviews. But how exactly to pull together all of that experiential and research-produced knowledge and say something that might illuminate the complex act of teaching for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and wannabe reformers, well, that continues to puzzle me.



So I sit at the dining room table surrounded by the best books in my home library about teaching to see if dipping into them and deciphering my notes on page margins, something will magically form in my mind and become my next project. So which books do I have on my table as I prepare to click away on my laptop?



*Williard Waller, The Sociology of Teaching (1932)

*Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (1968)

*Seymour Sarason, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (1971)

*Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher (1975)

*Rebeccas Barr and Robert Dreeben, How Schools Work (1983)

*Richard Elmore, Penelope Peterson, Sarah McCarthey, Restructuring in the Classroom (1996)

*David Cohen and Heather Hill, Learning Policy (2001)

*Mary Kennedy, Inside Teaching (2005)

*Jack Schneider, From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse (2014)



Also staring back at me are histories of teachers and teaching in my home library that document both change and stability in classroom teaching over the past two centuries

Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (1984)

Barbara Finkelstein, Governing the Young (1989)

Richard Altenbaugh, The Teacher’s Voice (1992)

Kate Rousmaniere, City Teachers (1997)



I am sure that scholars and practitioners reading this post have in their home libraries different books or would point to some in public libraries about teachers and teaching that do not appear here. No surprise since there is much scholarship and personal accounts missing from my list that others would swear by. So be it. Yet this is how I start.

Perhaps there are shortcuts in shaping my next project to pose a serious, worthwhile question that sinks its hooks in me–as other projects have done–but I don’t have such time-savers or single click alternatives to outflank the mysterious and circuitous journey I have traveled in writing book then and now.

So faithful readers of this blog, you now have a sense of how I go about shaping a project that, I hope, will become my next book. Should you have suggestions for books and articles to read, please send them along.

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Filed under how teachers teach, research, technology use

A Few Thoughts about Classroom Technology Then and Now

Two decades ago, research I had done on schools and classrooms in Silicon Valley during the 1990s was published as Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms.  In 2018, The Flight of a Butterfly or Path of a Bullet, another book researching 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers who had integrated technology appeared. Since then, I have visited many classrooms where teachers used electronic devices seamlessly in lessons until the pandemic hit. Then remote instruction became the primary medium of teaching and learning.

What similarities and differences do I see between the two periods of intense activity in getting hardware and software into schools and classrooms?

The similarities are easy to list.

*At both times, policy elites including donors and computer companies urged districts and schools to get desktops and laptops into classroom teachers’ and students’ hands.

The hype then and now promised that students would learn more, faster, and better; that classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized–the word today is “personalized”; and that graduates would enter the high-tech workplace fully prepared from day one.

*Teacher and student access to the new technologies expanded.

For example, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Silicon Valley companies and philanthropists gave desktops and laptops to schools while districts also purchased loads of personal computers. The influx of machines was often distributed within schools to computer labs and media centers (formerly libraries) with most teachers having at least one in their classroom and a couple for students in academic classes. Some software, mostly adaptations of business applications, were given to schools and also purchased. Students had far more access to desktops in labs and classrooms a few times a week, depending upon availability and the lesson content, than ever before.

Nearly twenty years later, that expansion of access student access to digital devices and software is nearly ubiquitous. Most labs have disappeared in leiu of classroom carts holding 25-30 laptops or tablets. Many districts now have a device available for each student. As access has increased, so has teacher and student use in lessons.

What about differences?

* Goals for using digital tools have changed.

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve, reformers thought. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to accelerate the improvement of U.S. schools and to thereby strengthen the economy.

The preschools and high schools that I visited and observed in action in 1998-1999 (including schools across the country) pursued these goals. The evidence I found, however, that increased access and use of these technological tools had, indeed, achieved those goals was missing. Student academic achievement had not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) had not materialized. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school did not necessarily step into better-paying, entry-level jobs.

But in the past decade, those initial goals in the 1990s generating the expansion of access to digital tools have since shifted. Seeking higher academic achievement through using digital tools is no longer a goal. Instead, new devices and software now have the potential for engagement (educators assume that engagement leads directly to higher academic achievement) through “personalized learning.” Moreover, the technology and software are essential since students take state tests online (and during the pandemic were a necessity). And the continuing dream of graduating students marching into high-tech jobs, well, that goal has persisted.

*Combined similarities and differences across time.

The Path of a Butterfly describes and analyzes the observations I made and interviews I conducted in 2016 of 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons. I found both similarities and differences with the earlier study I did and prior historical research on how teachers taught in the 20th century.

These Silicon Valley teachers that I observed in 2016 were hard working and used digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were now in the background, not foreground–as were the previous generation of teachers using devices in computer labs and media centers.

The lessons these 41 teachers taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in how they managed administrative details quietly and effortlessly in taking attendance and communicating with students, colleagues, and parents. They saved time and were more efficient using these digital tools than the earlier generation of teachers. For their lessons, they used these tools to create playlists for students, pursue problem-based units, and assess student learning during the actual lesson and afterwards as well. All of this work was quietly integrated into the flow of the lesson. I could see that students were intimately familiar with the devices and how the teacher wove the content of the lesson effortlessly into the different activities. They surely differed from their comrades who I had observed two decades earlier.

But I also noted no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of their lessons such as setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, and assessing student understanding. The format of lessons appeared similar to the earlier generation I observed 20 years ago and experienced peers a half- and full century ago whose classrooms I had studied through archival research.

These contemporary lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Sure, the content of lessons had changed–students working with DNA in a biology lesson differed from biology classes I had observed earlier. But the sequence of activities and what students did over the course of a lesson resembled what I had seen many times earlier. Again, stability and change in teaching emerged clearly for me as did the pervasive use of digital tools.

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The History of the Future of Education (Audrey Watters)

From Audrey Watters’s self-description:

I am an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.

“It’s a long story,” I often say. You can catch snippets of it, if you pay attention. I’ve got a CV if you care about such formalities. And I wrote an FAQ if that helps.

I love science fiction, tattoos, and, some days, computer technologies. I loathe mushy foods and romantic comedies. I’m not ashamed to admit I like ABBA and dislike Tolkien. I am somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve not finished Ulysses, and I’ve never even started Infinite Jest. I prefer cake to pie, unless we’re talking pastry projectiles. I pick fights on the Internet. I’m a high school dropout and a PhD dropout. I have a Master’s degree in Folklore and was once considered the academic expert on political pie-throwing. I was (I am?) a widow. I’m a mom. I have a hard stare that I like to imagine is much like Paddington Bear’s and a smirk much like the Cheshire Cat’s. I am not afraid.

I travel as much as I possibly can. “Home,” at least according to my driver’s license, is Seattle, Washington.

My essays have appeared in multiple places, but mostly I write on my blog Hack Education. I’ve published four collections of my public talks, The Monsters of Education Technology (2014), The Revenge of the Monsters of Education Technology (2015), The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology (2016), and The Monsters of Education Technology 4, as well as a book arguing that students should control their digital identities and digital work, Claim Your Domain. I’m in the middle of writing my next book, Teaching Machines, which will be published by MIT Press.

I was a recipient of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University School of Journalism for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Watters’ post on the future of education was a talk delivered at Ryerson University. The post appeared February 19, 2015

It’s a refrain throughout my work: we are suffering from an amnesia of sorts, whereby we seem to have forgotten much of the history of technology. As such, we now tell these stories about the past, present, and future whereby all innovations emerge from Silicon Valley, all innovations are recent innovations, and there is no force for change other than entrepreneurial genius and/or the inevitability of “disruptive innovation.”

This amnesia seeps from technology into education and education technology. The rich and fascinating past of education is forgotten and erased in an attempt to tell a story about the future of education that emphasizes products not processes, the private not the public, “skills” not inquiry. The future of education technology therefore is the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities because the history of education technology has always been the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities. Or so the story goes.

I’ve been working on a book for a while now called Teaching Machines that explores the history of education technology in the twentieth century. And this year I’ve started a series on my blog, Hack Education, that also documents some of this lost or forgotten history. (I’ve looked at the origins of multiple choice tests and multiple choice testing machines, the parallels between the “Draw Me” ads and for-profit correspondence schools of the 1920s and today’s MOOCs, and the development of one of my personal favorite pieces of ed-tech, the Speak & Spell.) See, I’m exhausted by the claims by the latest batch of Silicon Valley ed-tech entrepreneurs and their investors that ed-tech is “new” and that education — I’m quoting from the New York Times here — “is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology.” Again, this is a powerful and purposeful re-telling and revising of history designed to shape the direction of the future.

Of course, these revisionist narratives shouldn’t really surprise us. We always tell stories of our past in order to situate ourselves in the present and guide ourselves into the future. But that means these stories about education and education technology — past, present, future — really matter.

I’m particularly interested in “the history of the future of education,” or as what Matt Novak calls his blog, the “paleofuture.” How have we imagined the future of teaching and learning in the past? What can we learn by looking at the history of predictions about the future, in our case about the future of education? Whose imagination, what ideologies do these futures reflect? How do these fantasies shape the facts, the future?

This is perhaps one of the most cited examples of the “paleofuture” of education technology.

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This 1910 print is by the French artist Villemard and was part of a series “En l’an 2000” (“In the Year 2000”) from around the World’s Fair and the new century that was packaged in cigar and cigarette boxes. Here we see the teacher stuffing textbooks — L’Histoire de France — into a machine, where the knowledge is ostensibly ground up and delivered electronically into the heads of students. Arguably this image is so frequently cited because it confirms some of our beliefs and suspicions (our worst suspicions) about the future of education: that it’s destined to become mechanized, automated and that it’s designed based on a belief that knowledge — educational content — is something to be delivered. Students’ heads are something to be filled.

The other prints in this series are pretty revealing as well.

I’m fond of the flying firefighters.

In these images, we see the future imagined as humans conquering the sky and the sea, as more and more labor is done by machine.

It’s worth noting that quite often (but not always) the labor we imagine being replaced by machine is the labor that society does not value highly. It’s menial labor. It’s emotional labor. The barber. The housekeeper. The farm girl. So it’s interesting, don’t you think, when we see these pictures and predictions that suggest that more and more teaching will be done by machine. Do we value the labor of teaching? And also: do we value the labor of learning?

Thomas Edison famously predicted in 1913 that “Books will soon be obsolete in schools” – but not because books were to be ground up by a knowledge mill. Rather, Edison believed that one of the technological inventions he was involved with and invested in – the motion picture – would displace both textbooks and teachers alike.

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks,” Edison asserted in 1922. “I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.”

100% efficiency. Efficiency. What does that even mean? Because unexamined, this prediction, this goal for education has become an undercurrent of so many predictions about the future of teaching and learning as enhanced by technology. Efficiency.

It gets to the heart of that Villemard print too: this question of how we get the knowledge of the book or the instructor into all students’ brains as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The future: cheaper and faster. More mechanized. More technological.

This is the history of education technology throughout the twentieth century. It is the history of the future of education.

Radio. Radio Books. Lectures via television (This image is from 1935). Professor as transmitter. Students as receivers.

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“The Push-Button School of Tomorrow”(from 1958):

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From Popular Science in 1961, a prediction that by 1965, half of all students will use teaching machines.

The Autotutor or “Automated Schoolmarm” (from the 1964 World’s Fair):

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Also from 1964, the Answer Machine:

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From a 1981 book School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow):

“If we look further into the future, there could be no schools and no teachers. Schoolwork may not exist. Instead you will have to do homework, for you will learn everything at home using your home video computer. You’ll learn a wide range of subjects quickly and at a time of day to suit you. … The computer won’t seem like a machine. It will talk to you just like a human teacher, and also show you pictures to help you learn. You’ll talk back, and you’ll be able to draw your own pictures on the computer screen with a light pen. This kind of homework of the future will be more like playing an electronic game than studying with books. …Eventually, studying a particular subject will be like having the finest experts in the world teaching you. Far in the future, if computers develop beyond humans in intelligence, then the experts could in fact be computers, and not human beings at all!”

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1981. 2015. A very similar fantasy of the future.

I didn’t have this book growing up, but my brother had something similar: The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog, published in 1982. We spent hours pouring over its pages, imagining what our “whole future” would entail. Flying cars and moon colonies.

Education is, quite arguably, caught in a difficult position when it comes to these sorts of predictions about the future – and it’s a position that makes education seem intransigent. See, education is – almost necessarily as we have the system constructed today – trapped by being both backwards-facing and forwards-facing. That is, education institutions are tasks with introducing students to domains of knowledge – all of which have history, a past – all the while are tasked too with preparing students for the future – a future in which, according to some stories at least, knowledge is still unknown and undiscovered. As such, there is this inevitable panic and an inevitable tension about education, knowledge, conservation, and innovation.

Image credits

This image from 1982 was part of a series about the future of computers commissioned by Alan Kay when he went to work for Atari. Here we see some of the earliest visions from Silicon Valley of the personal computer in the classroom. The future of education here is technological. It is branded. It is game-based. There are still desks in rows and clusters. And students still rebel.

When we look back at all these predictions from the past about the future of education – the history of the future of ed-tech– the point (my point) isn’t that our education systems are reluctant to change. My point is not that schools have failed to fulfill the sci fi imagination. Indeed, I’d argue that schools have changed a lot over the last hundred years thanks to the law, not to technology: mandates for desegregation for example that would not have come from “code.” My point is that the imagination about the future is so very intertwined in our notions of the past and the present. And if we let Silicon Valley, for example, erase the history of education technology, if we allow Silicon Valley to dictate the present terms for education technology, then we are stuck with its future, its corporate, libertarian vision. The same could be said, of course, of the imaginations of other powerful institutions: Hollywood’s vision of the future, Hanna Barbera’s, Harvard’s.

All the visions of the future of education, the future of teaching, the future of work, the future of learning are ideological. They are also political. As we hear the visions of politicians and entrepreneurs, as we listen to the visions of the rest of today’s speakers, we need to remember that. Predictions about the future are not neutral. They are not objective. They are invested. Invested in a past and a present and a future. Invested in a certain view of what learning looks like now, what it has looked like before and what – thanks to whatever happens in the future – what it might look like going forward.

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Opening Up the Textbook (Sam Wineburg)

Sam Wineburg is a professor of education and history at Stanford University, He along with Susan Ramiraz and Peter Stearns authored Human Legacy, a high school world history textbook.This appeared in Education Week, June 5, 2007

History textbooks have long merited special scorn. Thicker than a Duraflame log (and weighing more), today’s books feature pages that rival news Web sites (think CNN) for busyness and clutter. Artwork with multiple call-out boxes, tricolored pictures with captions of “How to Read Me,” and pointers to end-of-chapter test questions cued to state standards (with special editions produced for your state) dominate the text like the bun that smothered the patty in that famous burger ad.

Years ago, when I first started teaching future history teachers, I urged them to do what I had done as a young teacher: Ditch the book in favor of primary sources. Now, with Google, the job of finding sources is infinitely easier than in my day.

I soon found, however, that of my yearly crop of 30 future teachers, maybe one was practicing anything remotely like what I preached. The vast majority were just trying to survive. Enough desks for each student, a working computer (Apple IIs do not count), a blackboard: This was a high bar. But in 2004, things got better in California. That’s when Eliezer Williams et al. v. State of California, a class action filed on behalf of the state’s poor children, was settled, requiring Sacramento to spend $138 million to buy every child basic learning materials—including textbooks.

I quickly realized that by exhorting my novice history teachers to renounce textbooks, I was failing to teach them to use the one classroom tool—flawed, problematic, overly flashy, and did I mention how heavy they are?—they could expect to find once they got there.

So, I revamped my Methods of Teaching History course. I now begin with a lecture called “Textbooks Are Your Friends.” True, I admit, textbooks are often written in that third-person voice that makes Muzak sound scintillating. But this is not the main problem. Even lively textbooks pose a threat. The main problem of history textbooks is not how they’re written.

The main problem is their very existence.

History’s complexity requires us to encounter multiple voices. A single voice can spellbind us with gripping narrative. But “history” has at its root the Greek istor: to inquire. True inquiry admits no easy answers. The textbook achieves its synthetic harmony only by squelching discordant notes. That’s Muzak, not history.

Which is exactly what I told the two executives from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston who asked me to write a feature called “Reading Like a Historian” for their new high school series. “Well,” I said, munching gnocchi over dinner, “to read like a historian means challenging your book’s narrative. It means uncovering places where interpretations are treated as facts and facts as timeless truths.” Pouring more chianti, I told my hosts that no attempt to teach students “how historians read” can coexist with a textbook’s voice-from-on-high narrator (even higher than mine was at that moment).

My hosts nodded. “That’s why we want you to write it.” I nearly choked on my ciabatta.

Two months later and contracts signed, I got to work. To write these “Reading Like a Historian” essays, one each for every chapter of a U.S. and world history textbook, I drew on 20 years’ experience as a researcher of historical cognition, in which I have spent approximately 1.2 gazillion hours interviewing, probing, taping, transcribing, coding, analyzing, writing about, and generally hanging out with people who call themselves historians. All of this in an attempt to identify something common and generative to how historians—rather than, say, literary critics, electrical engineers, or horse whisperers—read.

Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny.

Together, my 70 essays span 5,000 years of human history. Some directly challenge the main text’s interpretation of key events and offer alternative accounts of, say, the 1929 stock market crash or al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers.

In other essays, I alight on conclusions that the main text announces en passant and ask, how does the book “know” what it claims to know? For example, we are told that skilled Egyptian workers, not Hebrew slaves, built the pyramids. What gives historians the chutzpah to demolish in one sentence 40 chapters of Exodus and three hours and 39 minutes of Cecil B. DeMille?

Still other essays take up the issue of historical argument. (It’s a secret to many students that historians argue. To them history sprouts from the ground. Historians merely transcribe.) For example, the book alludes to views about why the Industrial Revolution occurred in 18th-century England. My essay throws these explanations into bold relief, pitting the now-fashionable “contingency theory” (available coal plus that unique Western ability to colonize, enslave, and reap profit from cheap cotton) against the more traditional “brilliance of the West” theory (Remember? Scientific inquiry, stable legal and economic institutions, a culture that prized initiative, thrift, and powdered wigs). These arguments are never resolved, but become thicker and more nuanced with each pass. This thickening—not consensus—constitutes progress.

What each of my essays tries to do is help students see their textbook itself as a historical source. In order to do this, students have to yank those iPods from their ears long enough to hear how language works, how it massages our understanding even before we’ve reached the first “fact.”

In a chapter on the Crusades, the text describes the contest between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted: “Although Richard won several battles against the Muslims, he was not able to drive them out of the Holy Land or take Jerusalem. In the end, he had to admit a draw and return to England.” Pausing on this sentence, I raise the issue of positionality—not by quoting Derrida to 10th graders, but by taking the concept literally. What direction does the text point you in? With whom are you marching? Positioned at Saladin’s back, how would you change the narrative?

Similarly, I try to get students to think about how narratives begin, for historians know that beginnings shape interpretive structure, and that any story of consequence yields multiple openings. The textbook introduces American involvement in Southeast Asia with the 1954 Geneva Peace Conference. Until then, the narrative suggests, the conflict in Vietnam was largely a French affair.

In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.

My essay provides readers with alternative starting points: January 1944, when, writing to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that “Indochina should not go back to France,” a colonizer that had “milked it for one hundred years”; the foggy days after the Allied victory, when Ho Chi Minh appealed to Harry Truman (by writing eight letters—some not declassified until 1972) expressing a desire for “full cooperation with the United States”; or August 1945, when Truman met Charles de Gaulle and laid the groundwork for $15 million in military aid to an American-advised and American-equipped French force at Dien Bien Phu. Each of these options fundamentally changes the texture of the ensuing story.

The goal of “Reading Like a Historian” is not vocational, but liberal, as in the trivium of the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. I am most interested in those qualities of mind that history is able to cultivate long after the details of the Tang dynasty or the Treaty of Ghent have faded.

Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny. Stories create entire worlds. But these worlds become oppressive and all-encompassing if we view them as God-given, rather than the products of our own hands and, thus, open to question and scrutiny.

Listen, I have no illusions about the little feature I have written. But I took on this assignment because I believed in its basic idea. Including at least one other voice in the same book—a printed court jester who pokes at readers, reminding them to slow down, to listen to words, to notice how the text spins them, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-like, in a given direction—is more than another frill in today’s frilly world of textbook publishing. When students hear a second voice questioning the first, they learn that maybe their job is not to memorize after all. Maybe their job is to find their own voice.

We live in an information age. But it is also an age of boundless credulity. In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.

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Photos on Schooling during the Pandemic

Meghan Gallagher at The 74 Million gathered photos that capture some of the effects of the pandemic year when schools were shuttered and then slowly reopened. I have selected a few of them for this post. All 52 can be seen here.

Children play in front of a school in Orlando, Florida on March 20, 2020 that was closed due to the coronavirus but will begin distance learning on March 30. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A teacher from P.S. 124 in New York City conducts remote classes on her laptop from her roof. (Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – APRIL 1: High School language arts teacher Emily Olin held her three-year-old daughter Genevieve on her lap as she distance taught her classes from her home in Minneapolis, Minn., on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Olin never imagined life like this “u2013 teaching her students virtually while tending to her own kids at the same time. There is joy, but also great anxiety in making sure everybody gets what they need daily. (Photo by Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – MARCH 29: A child dribbles a basketball at Waterfront Park in downtown on March 29, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Out of the concern of COVID-19 all of the city’s playgrounds are closed until May. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 22 : A young girl sits inside a painted circle for social distancing on May 22, 2020 In Madison Square Park in New York City. New York City is currently in its ninth week of lockdown and governmental guidelines on wearing a mask in public and social distancing are in effect. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA, UNITED STATES – 2020/07/28: A protester holds a placard that says Keep Educators Off Of Ventilators before the Monroe County Community School Corporation school board meeting in Bloomington,Indiana is experiencing a 73-percent increase in new Coronavirus infections, but local schools were due to resume in-person classes next week on August 5th. However, while some want their kids back in school, others fear schools will be a daily super spreader event, and asked the local school board to delay classes until more data is available on the spread of the virus in the community. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Seventh graders (from L) Mia Friedlander, Ella Kingsrud, Taylor Credle, Hannah Cooper and Bella Rocco follow instructions online by tutor Robin Lorch from an iPad placed on a ladder in a home garage on August 27, 2020 in Calabasas, California. – As parents across the United States come to terms with remote learning this fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, many are opting for so-called “learning-pods” to help their kids, and themselves, get through the school year. Also known as “pandemic pods”, they are popping up all over the country and consist of small groupings of children typically living in the same neighborhood who gather at each other’s homes to learn together with a tutor or teacher. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Students wearing protective masks have their temperatures checked before entering Logan Jr. High School in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. The Illinois State Board of Education has “strongly encouraged” a return to full, in-person instruction in the fall, as long as the regions are in Phase 4 of reopening. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MILFORD, MA – SEPTEMBER 11: School children are spaced apart in one of the rooms used for lunch at Woodland Elementary School in Milford, MA on Sept. 11, 2020. Milford is one of the first school districts to re-open in the state, with a hybrid model, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – OCT. 13: Students wear masks while participating in an activity with their dance pod organized by Dance Mission Theater in the Mission District of San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday, October 13, 2020. Several arts pods have popped up in San Francisco, funded by foundations for low-income kids since COVID-19 pandemic has shut down regular in-person schooling. (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
CALABASAS, CA – NOVEMBER 09: Guadalupe Duran at Lupin Hill Elementary School sprays a electrostatic disinfecting solution in the school library between the morning and afternoon “cohorts” at Lupine Hill Elementary School in Calabasas as one of the first elementary schools to open up under in L.A. County. This in the Las Virgenes Unified School District, which was the first public school system in Los Angeles county to win waiver approvals. Lupine Hill Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020 in Calabasas, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times
PASADENA, CA – NOVEMBER 12: Karen Carter teaches 4&5 year olds at Bushnell Way elementary school in Highland Park. Carter has turned her dinning room into a classroom. Carter holds an online class from home on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020 in Pasadena, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Reiffton, PA – December 11: Exeter High School basketball cheerleaders in the stands wearing masks. High School Boys Basketball, the Berks Catholic Saints vs. the Exeter Eagles at Exeter High School in Reiffton Friday night December 11, 2020. Exeter won 60-49. Everyone, including the players coaches and officials, wore masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 / Coronavirus. At midnight on Friday Pennsylvania will impose statewide restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, including the suspension of high school sports until January 4th. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 17: Parents and students protest at the Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020 in Santa Monica, CA to demand that the children be let back to school as soon as its safe. They are protesting the decision by the district to not reopen the schools this year even if the COVID-19 case rate drops later this year. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – FEB. 6: Hundreds of people rally outside City Hall after marching to SFUSD, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif. People protested against remote education and demanded schools to reopen in-person education. (Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

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Whatever Happened to Monitorial Schools?

When, where, and why did these schools appear?

Deep concern for the untended and mostly poor English children of factory workers and others flocking to cities for jobs led Joseph Lancaster to found schools that would gather and help the unschooled. Lancaster opened his Royal Free School in London during the 1790s. The dearth of teachers for these students pushed Lancaster to design schools that accommodated large numbers of children in huge rooms under the guidance of one paid teacher who would then supervise older students–“monitors” as they were called–who actually taught younger children. Often called “charity schools,” these early Lancastrian schools, as they became known, spread throughout England and crossed the Atlantic to the U.S, often sponsored by the Society of Friends or Quakers–social reformers of the day both in England and America.

When Lancaster visited the U.S. in 1818, there were many “monitorial schools.” Historian Dell Upton found that “Lancasterianism was adopted up and down the Atlantic seaboard as the official pedagogy of emerging public schools in New York City (1805), Albany (1810), Georgetown (1811), Washington, D.C. (1812), Philadelphia (1817), Boston (1824), and Baltimore (1829)….”

These “monitorial schools,” then, were reform-driven schools aimed at educating poor children in Bible reading, work, and citizenship to lower threats of crime and civil disorder from unschooled children who would soon become adults. Middle- and upper-class families including the Quakers had the funds to educate their own children, however, through tutors and privately-funded academies.

What were monitorial schools like?

There are written accounts of what Joseph Lancaster did in England when he started such schools for poor children in the early decades of the 19th century. When monitorial schools crossed the Atlantic Ocean and opened in U.S., historians have plumbed archives to locate accounts of students, teachers, and visitors to these schools (see here, here, and here). Apart from these historical accounts there are pen-and-ink drawings and paintings of what the school looked like.

By having one teacher supervise a huge room of children through older students (called “monitors”) who themselves had gone through such a school primarily memorizing texts and rote recitation and pursuing the same methods with their younger students, the cost of schooling was inexpensive compared to private instruction at that time.

In the second and third above drawings of monitorial classrooms, note that students have their hands clasped behind their backs. Historian Carl Kaestle quotes a boy in such a New York City school in the 1820s. “The monitors then unanimously gave the order, ‘Hands behind!! One the instant every boy has his left palm enclosed in the right behind his back, in aa sort of hand-cuffed state, and woe be to him who is not paying attention when the order is given, or is tardy in obeying it” (Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, p.43).

Did monitorial schools work?

They surely “worked” in gathering many urban poor children into buildings giving them a taste of literacy for little cost to the community. Philanthropic and religiously-inspired reformers underwrote these “monitorial” schools in the hope that there would lead to social stability in communities avoiding the record of over 100 food riots over the price of flour and essential food that erupted in English cities between the 1750s and early 1800s and occasionally took place in American cities.

What happened to monitorial schools?

Criticism from parents and educators of the day about how little children and youth learned within the monitorial system got harnessed to a growing reform movement in the 1830s and 1840s that looked to schools as an economic and social instrument to make America stronger. A reform-driven awareness grew that all children, not just poor ones, had to master basic skills and literacy in order to enter the workplace and carry out civic duties from serving on juries to voting led to a large-scale and widespread reform movement . School reform was part of larger efforts to improve American society such as crusader-inspired reforms aimed at abolishing slavery, improving prisons (newly created “reform schools” for younger law breakers), extending rights of women, and levying taxes on all families to support a “common school” for all children within a community. By the 1840s, the eight-grade “grammar school,” an organizational innovation imported from Prussia, appeared across New England and slowly spread through pre-Civil War America. Monitorial schools disappeared.

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 4)

Why have U.S. public schools rebounded from natural disasters like Covid-19?

Answer: Americans’ social beliefs both in the importance of schooling, what a “real” school looks like, and the long-term efficiency of the age-graded school organization with its “grammar of schooling” explain why public schools gradually reopened its doors.

American confidence in tax-supported schools giving all children an equal shot at getting educated (albeit marred by continuing inequalities), receiving a diploma, and entering the labor market has been sustained through economic booms and busts, through war and peace, through closures from disasters and reopenings. [1]

While public support for tax-supported schools has wavered over the decades, it remains a trusted institution that a majority of parents support. In answer to the question: How satisfied are you with the quality of education your oldest child is receiving? Since 1999, the percentage ranged from a low of 68 percent to a high of 82 percent in 2019 saying they were “completely” or “Somewhat Satisfied.” Parents registered a drop from 2019 to 2020—the poll was done during the pandemic—of 10 points, from 82 to 72 percent satisfied.[2]

Public confidence in schools is embedded in the common picture held by most Americans of what a “real” school is like. A “real” elementary school, for example, has a teacher for each grade who manages and teaches the group for up to six hours a day. In a “real” school, students listen to teacher directions, and become literate in language and arithmetic.  A “real” elementary school has a playground, lunchroom, and allows a morning and afternoon recess for the children. Between kindergarten and the sixth grade, children follow school rules, learn to negotiate the system of explicit and implicit norms, do homework, pass tests, and graduate to the next level of schooling.

A “real” high school has daily schedules for students to attend 50-60 minute periods of instruction. In a “real” high school, subject-matter teachers stand at their doors in long hallways as students pass from one class to another; teachers sit behind a desk as students enter to study algebra, English, biology, Spanish, or history. Teachers lecture, guide large group discussions, and have small groups work on academic tasks. Textbooks, homework, and tests are ubiquitous. After school clubs and sports engage students once the final period of the day ends. That is what a “real” high school is. These features of elementary and secondary “real” schools is what historians of education have called the “grammar of schooling.”[3]

Of course, in the U.S.’s decentralized system of schooling, there is much variation in how much money is spent per student, age and architecture of buildings, the racial and ethnic makeup of the student body, and other differences. Amid those variations, nonetheless, tax-supported schools historically have grown into a standardized “real” elementary and secondary school across the nation.

Initially, in urban schools by 1900 and then across consolidated rural schools by the 1960s, age-graded school organization with its basic rules and norms guiding both teachers and students through the school year became dominant. In that half-century, the eight-year grammar school has morphed into over 100,000 age-graded public schools that now enroll 4 year olds to 18 year-old graduating seniors.  Student careers that once were limited to a few months a year attending one-room schoolhouses now spend 13-15 years in age-graded organizations. [4]

Reformers have attacked this age-graded structure and its “grammar of schooling” repeatedly for the ways it isolates and insulates teachers and students from one another, establishes standardized behavioral and academic norms, encourages competition for letter grades, and moves students in lockstep through elementary and secondary schools. Yet continued American confidence in “real” schools continues thereby explaining, in part, the resiliency of this institution since the mid-19th century.

While former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden called for schools across the country to reopen (their White House pronouncements were no more than exhortations since U.S. Presidents cannot order public schools to either shut or open their doors). The process was slow, bumpy, and marked by two steps forward, one step backward.

Neither the White House nor any national agency offered scientifically sound guidance for in-person classrooms in 2020.  The lack of reliable knowledge on the virus and course of disease combined to political and economic pressure from parents, state officials, and employers within a thoroughly dispersed system of national schooling surely account in part for the sporadic and helter-skelter reopenings that did occur.[5]

No one can ignore the fact that U.S. public schools are decentralized.   In nearly all 50 states (except Hawaii) responsible for schooling the young delegate each state delegates its operational authority to school districts. Thus, there are now 13,000-plus districts in the U.S. (there were 200,000 in 1910) that use federal, state, and local funds to operate schools as they see fit. Given this official system of decentralization, some states and districts reopened completely, others stuck to remote instruction for the entire school year, and even others shifted to a hybrid approach.Yet schools did reopen to both applause and criticism. [6]

So within a society where public confidence in a decentralized system of tax-supported schools continues to run high, where high expectations reign for what “real” schools can do for both the nation and individual students, a national pandemic shuttered the economy and closed community institutions. Schools—with all of their strengths and inequalities–slowly and steadily rebounded in 2021 from this once-in-a century crisis. They are resilient institutions.

Such signs of resiliency as the capacity for absorbing unplanned and planned changes, regaining stability after natural disasters, continued innovations under uncertainty, and withstanding hardships–clearly emerged as this institution slowly returned to its familiar organization, Common Core curriculum, and customary instruction.

The dark side of resiliency

Up to now I have implicitly suggested that institutional resiliency is positive. Businesses, universities, health care systems that adapt to adversity, bounce back from disasters, and retain their flexibility are seen as stalwart institutions that serve patrons well. That many schools have recovered and now have in-person instruction across the nation surely is a plus for the economy and parents who sought relief from being at-home teachers.

But there are negatives to resiliency as well.

Constant and unrealistic talk of what public schools can do to improve society undermines confidence in what public schools can do. Since the end of the 19th century, for example, fervent reformers have repeatedly called for public schools to be agents of societal change. By educating children the “right” way—the word is in quote marks because visions and versions of “right” differed then and now—schools can banish community ills, solve national problems, and create a better society. Such dogged visions for schooling to alter the community and larger society have been ultimately disappointing in results. Worse yet, such rhetoric has bred cynicism about what schools can actually do.

When John Dewey said In his “Pedagogic Creed” (1897), “I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform,” he called for schooling to be an instrument for large change in society. That call has remained a bedrock belief among Progressive reformers since the 1920s. [7]

When President Lyndon Johnson drafted the nation’s schools in ending poverty in the mid-1960s—think The Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the belief among White House and top policymakers was that better schools can move poor boys and girls into the middle class and make a “Great Society.” [8]

Certainly schools educate individual children but they can also turn those children into adult reformers who lead the march to a better, more equal society. Today, calls for schools to press for social justice continue the Deweyan rhetoric.[9]

In addition to decades of unfulfilled rhetoric and empty words eroding confidence in what tax-supported schools can do, the “dark side of resiliency” also points to excessive patience with, even neglect of, severe institutional problems that have needed attention but in the name of maintaining political and social stability have gone untreated much less unsolved.

Consider that the history of educational and economic inequalities in American society that pervade U.S. public schools has been documented since the Civil War. The civil rights movement during the 1950s to 1970s, for example, resulted in federal court decisions and legislation ending legal segregation and many Jim Crow practices. Yet residential segregation continues in the 21st century reproducing segregated neighborhoods and schools in both cities and suburbs. So when data show that Black children are five times as likely than white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity or that Black children are more than twice as likely than white children to enroll in high-poverty schools, few expresse surprise over this fact, a truth that has been around for over a century? [10]

Persistent patience with racial, ethnic, and social class differences in America becomes all too tangible when one confronts the three tiered school system that had become apparent for decades. Even after federal and state legislation, philanthropic infusions of dollars, and much wringing of hands, this durable segregated system of schooling remains painfully obvious to current policymakers, parents, and practitioners. So another negative to resiliency is apologetic forbearance with inequalities that are plain to see, such as the nation’s three-tier system of public schooling..

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Fairfax County (VA) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 60 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet and occasionally exceed state standards and send most of their graduating seniors to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of closure. Occasionally, stellar principals and staffs will lift such schools into the second tier but that is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S, rife with inequalities, maintains social stability yet, and this is a mighty big “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth.

Because the three-tiered system of schooling has existed for well over a century, it has had a persevering resiliency that has withstood federal, state, and philanthropic interventions. An abiding example of stable inequality that continues into the 21st century.

Even during calls for transforming academically low-performing schools into citadels of high performance—such as occurred during the Obama years (2009-2017), the three-tiered system plodded on. Because of residential segregation and inadequate state and federal funding, inequalities are preserved in amber within the three-tier system of U.S. schooling, an arrangement that has soldiered on revealing the  dark side of resiliency.[11]

Unflagging rhetoric promising that schools can reform society has endured for decades as had the three-tier system of schooling that marks American society. These tenacious, futile fantasies of schools overhauling society and abiding patience with unequal schooling structures make up the dark side of resiliency.

*******************************

Yes, public schools have survived major disruptions ranging from hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and pandemics. Yes, they are resilient institutions that have contributed socially, economically, and politically to a stable American society for nearly two centuries. Both in the past and present, school districts drafted the technologies of the day to provide schooling during and after natural disasters. 

In the most recent disruption, public schools have bounced back from Covid-19 as students, parents, and employers welcome reopened schools in 2021. Tax-supported public schools are surely resilient institutions in both positive and negative ways.

With all of their imperfections, public schools remain high in public regard as they once again adapted to emergencies and adopted new ways of teaching and learning including remote instruction. While schools rapidly reorganized teaching by pivoting to distance instruction, no district has seriously considered reorganizing the century and a half old model of schooling, the age-graded school. And that structure remains steadfast and central to the conduct of schooling in 2021. A final sign of enduring resiliency.


[1] Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[2]Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[3] Mary Metz, “Real School: A Universal Drama amid Disparate Experience, Journal of Education Policy, 4(5), pp. 75-91; David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[4] William Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century,” University of Chicago Law Review . 2010, 77 (1), p177-199.

[5] Derek Thompson, “The Whole Truth about Kids, School, and Covid-19,” The Atlantic, January 28, 2021; Susan Dominus, “Where the Schools Stayed Open,” New York Times Magazine, February 14, 2021, pp. 32-40.

[6] David Cohen and James Spillane, “Policy and Practice: The Relations between Governance and Instruction,” Review if Research in Education, 1992, 18, pp. 3-49; John Meyer, et. al., “Centralization, Fragmentation, and School District Complexity,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 1987, 32(2), pp. 186-201; the 200,000 school districts in 1910 come from Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century.

[7] John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” School Journal, 1897, pp. 77-80 at: http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm

CITE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE SCHOOLS

[8] Wikipedia, “The Great Society,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Society

[9] Brenda Alvarez,, “Why Social Justice in Schools Matter,” neaToday , January 22, 2019 at: https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/why-social-justice-school-matters

Jeanine Harmon, “Social Justice: A Whole-School Approach,” Edutopia, February 18, 2015;Crystal Belle, “What Is Social Justice Education Anyway?” Education Week, January 23, 2019.

[10] Horace Mann Bond, Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1994); James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC:: University of North Carolina Press,  1988). Emma Garcia, “Schools Are Still Segregated, and Black Children Are Paying the Price, “ Economic Policy Institute, February 12, 2020.

[11] Grace Chen,  “What Is the Race To the Top and How Will It Benefit Public Schools?” Public School Review, November 11, 2019 at: https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/what-is-race-to-the-top-and-how-will-it-benefit-public-schools

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 3)

In part 3 of this series, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades as incremental, not fundamental changes in classroom instruction.

*In 1981, 18 percent of schools had computers; in 1991, 98 percent had them.

*In 1981, 16 percent of schools used computers for instructional purposes. By 1991, 98 percent did so.

*In 1981, there were, on average, 125 students per computer; in 1991, there were 18. [i]

In these years, using classroom computers was a glistening novelty that policymakers, parents and vendors urged schools to buy and use. The beliefs then were that increased use of these seemingly magical machines would improve teaching by getting students to learn more, faster, and better. Moreover, using these devices would provide job entrée into companies that were quickly moving from analog to digital and the rapidly growing occupations of programmers, engineers, and technical support.

There was an initial Golly, Gee Whiz moment when computers appeared in school libraries and special rooms called “labs” in the 1980s.  Then, as prices for the devices fell, teachers and boosters of the technology crowed about better lessons. New software promised gains on test scores (keep in mind that the 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of high stakes standardized tests and accountability machinery).

Fast-forward two decades and the picture of access to technology in school and at home had leaped to near universal. In 2015, 94 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had a computer at home and 61 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had home Internet access. The percentages of children with computer and Internet access at home  were higher for children who were older, those whose parents had gone to college and those whose families had higher incomes. Also, higher percentages of children who were white (66 percent), Asian (63 percent), and of two or more races (64 percent) had home Internet access than did Black (53 percent), Hispanic (52 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native children (49 percent).[ii]

By 2020, as tablets and laptops sold for a few hundred dollars each, student and teacher access to a full range of electronic devices in classrooms unfolded although connecting to the Internet was spotty, lagging in rural and urban schools.  Near universal access is one thing, however, classroom use is another.  

A buying boom had brought laptops and tablets into nearly all schools, save for many urban schools serving low-income, minority students. Federal pressures to hike test scores through No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) multiplied.

By 2020, most districts had either placed mobile carts of laptops in classrooms or distributed devices to each student. By this time, most elementary and secondary teachers had learned to quietly integrate these devices into daily lessons. [iii]

In short, the once innovative device decades earlier had been widely embraced as a tool tailored now to the curves and straight lines of age-graded classrooms. The adopt-and-adapt phenomenon described with earlier reforms has turned up again with computers.

Keep in mind, however, that none of the reforms, including the absorption of technology devices, have altered substantially the school organization, curriculum, and instruction offered to children and youth. Some readers may express surprise at this statement. If so, they will need to distinguish between incremental and fundamental changes in schooling. [iv]

Types of Change

Surely, there have been incremental changes in schools over the past century. Inserting kindergarten into the age-graded 1-12 structure. New curriculum added (e.g., computer science and coding) and subtracted (e.g., cursive writing).  Teachers’ instructional repertoires expanded to include frequent small group activities, independent work, and using new technologies.[v]

 The major alterations in schools that did occur in the past directly resulted from social and political movements aimed at reforming public and private institutions to better serve people while righting wrongs that harmed many Americans. Such movements spilled over schools again showing interconnectedness with other societal institutions.

Consider the creating of tax-supported public schools—the Common School– was an outgrowth of mid-19th century social reforms. Taxing citizens with or without children to create public schools in villages, towns, and cities, engineered by Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and other reformers, was a fundamental change in what had largely been multi-aged one-room school houses and individuals securing one-to-one private instruction. These Common School reformers latched on to a more efficient structure for schooling the growing numbers of students flocking to tax-supported schools: the eight grade grammar school. [vi]

Similarly the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, and the standards, testing, accountability movement of recent decades have produced federal and state laws that protected Americans, extended first class citizenship to those who suffered second-class treatment, and sought to tie together more closely the economy and education. Each of these politically driven reform movements saw schools as places that needed improvement. [vii]

In most cases, however, calls from movement-driven reformers for transforming “traditional” age-graded schools in the 20th century that would create entirely different ways of educating the young have fallen as flat as punctured balloons. Incomplete, partial, or non-existent implementation of fundamental alterations in governance, funding, structure of and processes in age-graded schools have marked most district systems. In fact, efforts to install fundamental changes often became a series of adopted incremental ones.

Think of such past calls for reforms to turn around failing urban schools or to establish personalized instruction in every classroom. Rhetoric about transforming schools has far outpaced concrete policy action. Incremental changes have surely occurred but few academically failing schools have turned from low-performing to high-performing and most students continue to be taught with familiar classroom pedagogies in a mix of large and small groups across the nation.

Of courses, there were proposed fundamental changes that occasioned media reports. Magazines and newspapers carried pieces on non-graded schools, open-space and open classroom schools, cyber schools that had customized instruction to the needs of individual students. Pilot projects and demonstration schools appeared but then in a few years vanished.

Districts absorbed and tailored changes to fit their schools. Schools adapted changes as principals entered and exited and older teachers retired and younger teachers came aboard. The age-graded school with its persistent malleability, however, remained intact.

Testing the resilience of public schools, 2020-2021

Face-to-face instruction slowly resumed in U.S. schools for the simple reason that voters and taxpayers (including parents, of course) have historically expected both change and stability from their schools.  The turn-on-the-dime move to remote instruction was an astonishing swing yet continued teaching of Common Core academic content and skills remained a constant. But that dramatic shift in teaching and learning and a return to familiar schooling was only one of the many expectations Americans have of this public institution.

Schools, after all, are custodial institutions intimately tied to the economy insofar as permitting Moms and Dads to work either at home, the shop, or the office. Beyond feeding and housing the young, these familiar community institutions socialize children into the dominant cultural values ranging from social and civic norms–taking one’s turn, cooperating with others, pride in American democracy–to earning necessary credentials to succeed in an stratified society. In doing so, schools replicate, even reinforce norms of excellence, competition, and socioeconomic and racial inequalities that pervade America in 2021.[viii]

Reopened schools, then, again reveal those norms and still untouched inequalities but also worry parents (and teachers) about risks to the health of children and school staffs. Nonetheless, fulltime remote instruction—except for those cyber schools expressly established for those who seek credentials using that medium–will shut down, albeit in slow-motion.[ix]

Why slow-motion?

Depending upon how far vaccinations extend into the population– not clear by the start of March 2021—schools will slowly move beyond complete closures and reliance upon remote instruction (19 percent) to partially open (35 percent) or hybrid arrangements of children attending a few days a week with combined online instruction at home to full restoration of in-person schooling (35 percent). [x]

Predictions of when all U.S. schools will reopen fully range from summer to fall 2021. No one knows for sure because too much remains either unknown or uncertain about the paths that variants of the initial coronavirus will follow, whether existing vaccines will cover mutations, and, of equal importance, how long vaccine-conferred immunity lasts.

Even with these uncertainties and unknowns, public schools closed for months and slowly resuming in-person instruction have shown their resilience once again in both organization and measured use of technologies to continue instruction under unusual conditions:  All students and teachers masked; fewer students in classrooms; those students present have plexiglass separators and partitions to keep them six feet apart; many teachers concurrently teaching students sitting in their classes with students facing screens at home; no large groupings such as in lunchrooms and auditoriums. Under these conditions, face-to-face schooling resumed under uncommon restraints. Again, tax-supported public schools bounced back.


[i] Larry Cuban, “Computers Meet Classroom; Classroom Wins,” Education Week, November 11, 1992.

[ii] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom (NCES 2017-098), Executive Summary.

[iii]Cuban, Flight of a Butterfly.

[iv] Larry Cuban, “Why So Many Structural Changes in Schools and So Little Reform in Teaching Practice?”, Journal of Educational Administration, 2013, 51(2), pp. 109-125. Also see Cuban, “Parsing the meaning of School Reforms (Part 1) at: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/parsing-the-meaning-of-school-reforms/ For a critique of my distinctions between incremental and fundamental changes, see Leonard Waks, “The Concept of Fundamental Educational Change,” Educational Theory, 2007, 57(3), pp. 277-295.

[v] David K. Cohen and Jal Mehta, “Why Reform Sometimes Succeeds: Understanding the Conditions That Produce Reforms That Last,” American Educational Research Journal 54(4), pp. 644-690.

[vi] Lawrence Cremin,, American Education: The National Experience. (New York: Harper Collins, 1980); Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); Michael Katz, Reconstructing American Education. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987); David Angus, et. al., “Historical Development of Age Stratification in Schooling,” Teachers College Record, 1988, 90(2) pp 211-36

[vii] Larry Cuban, Confessions of a School Reformer (forthcoming).

[viii]Jean Anyon, “Education, Ideology, and the Hidden Curriculum,” The Journal of Education, 1980, 162(1), pp. 67-92; David Labaree, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[ix] Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, et. al..” Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019,” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, May 2019.

In 2017-18, 501 full-time virtual schools enrolled 297,712 students, and 300 blended schools enrolled 132,960. Enrollments in virtual schools increased by more than 2,000 students between 2016-17 and 2017-18 and enrollments in blended learning schools increased by over 16,000 during this same time period.

Thirty-nine states had either virtual or blended schools. There were four states that allowed blended schools to operate but still have not allowed the opening of full-time virtual schools. A total of six states have full-time virtual schools but do not currently have full-time blended learning schools.

Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs were more than four times as large as other virtual schools. Virtual schools operated by for-profit EMOs enrolled an average of 1,345 students. In contrast, those operated by nonprofit EMOs enrolled an average of 344 students, and independent virtual schools (not affiliated with an EMO) enrolled an average of 320 students.

Although private (profit and nonprofit) EMOs operated only 34% of full-time virtual schools, those schools enrolled 64.4% of all virtual school students.

Just under half of all virtual schools (46.5%) were charter schools, but together they accounted for 79.1% of enrollment. While districts have been increasingly creating their own virtual schools, those tended to enroll far fewer students

 (p.8)

[x] Christensen Institute, “Fall 2020 National Online and Blended Learning Survey,” at: https://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/OnlineBlendedLearning_data_2021.pdf

Survey was completed October 2021.

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Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series of posts, I described the times that public schools have closed because of the influenza pandemic a century ago, polio epidemics during the middle decades of the 20th century, and the disruption of schooling in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Of note, then, is that on all of these occasions the age-graded school withstood disasters and adapted, essentially remaining the primary way of organizing school for instruction. Also of note is that districts mobilized technologies of the day for emergencies (except for New Orleans) and downsized classroom usage of technology when crises had passed. Part 2 looks more closely at the uses of technology in classroom lessons.

Technology in age-graded schools before, during, and after disruptions

Only three times in the past century has technology been the primary medium of instruction. One was planned and two were unplanned occurring after natural disasters.

The planned use of technology as the primary medium of instruction occurred in the mid-1960s. Research studies comparing lessons taught via television and those by teachers in classrooms concluded at the time that learning—as measured by standardized tests—was equivalent.  So the idea that this brand-new technology might upend traditional instruction captured U.S. educational decision-makers.

 In one ambitious innovation, the federal government established television  as the primary means of instruction in American Samoa. Daily lessons aimed at each elementary and secondary age-graded classroom would appear on a monitor placed at the front of the classroom. A teacher would then follow up the televised lesson. This centralized, top-down imposition of technology lasted in Samoa and many districts until the mid-1970s when it was largely abandoned.[i]

Unplanned reliance of technology occurred twice. The first happened during the polio epidemic of 1937 in Chicago described above. Once schooling resumed, radio lessons lost its central, albeit temporary, place in teaching Chicago students.

The second unplanned dependence upon technology occurred in 2020 when Covid-19 swept across.13,000-plus districts, closing over 100,000 public and private schools and keeping home over 50 million students. Within a few weeks the dominant medium of instruction became home computers and smart phones. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, after three months of shuttered schools, 93 percent of people living in households with school-age children reported some form of distance instruction going on in their homes. Access to devices and the Internet depended upon income levels, however, another sign of historic economic inequalities plaguing public schooling. [ii]

Within a few months, as more and more scientific data became available about children and youth being less infectious than adults, more and more schools reopened under strict protocols of improved ventilation, mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing. By winter 2020-2021, hybrid forms of schooling combining in-person with remote instruction appeared in many public schools. Apart from big cities, suburban and rural districts, following health and safety guidelines, reopened. Vaccinations of teachers across the country occurred through winter 2021—as I write– reducing flare-ups of friction between teacher unions, parents, and district school boards over health and safety issues. [iii]

As most students returned to face-to-face instruction, have home laptops and desktops gone dark as remote instruction vanished, repeating what occurred with radio after the polio epidemic in Chicago?

Schools change yet remain stable during Covid-19

Remote instruction is here to stay.  Flickering screens in bedrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms will continue but in a much reduced fashion. In schools, technological infrastructure and student use will be, as before, an important but partial piece of daily lessons. And this is yet another marker of the resilience of schools to adopt changes and then adapt those alterations to the existing situation. In short, schools fight to remain the same as they absorb big and small, planned and unplanned changes. Those who study institutional change call this historical pattern “dynamic conservatism.” [iv]

And this pattern has occurred many times.

Consider kindergartens. Following the Civil War, industrialization and urban growth exploded. Family life, particularly among poor immigrants seeking jobs in cities, turned grim. To escape poverty, both parents had to work often leaving young children to fend for themselves. Left alone in crowded tenements, many children took to the streets.

At this time, some middle and upper-income mothers had introduced private kindergartens in the Midwest and New England for their own children. Borrowing the principles of play from German school reformer Frederich Froebel, these private kindergartens used blocks, sand boxes, art corners, and other ways of captivating four and five year-olds to spend a day learning rather than in the street.

Slowly, a movement led by these mothers and other Progressives of the day to get city districts to add kindergartens to their age-graded schools in order to remove very young children from the street gained political support. Especially since another purpose for these early public kindergartens was to teach immigrant parents how to best raise healthy children in densely populated, often unclean, neighborhoods. These reformers succeeded in gaining urban superintendents’ endorsements of tax-supported public kindergartens so that by the 1960s, kindergarten had become a mainstay of public schools, now relabeled K-12. 

Early childhood educators were trained within the Progressive tradition to see kindergartens as places where children could learn through play. Focus on learning to read and basic arithmetic operations were tasks for first grade, not kindergarten. Noteworthy is that when public schools adopted this reform in the early decades of the 20th century one purpose for kindergarten disappeared: teachers making home visits to help low-income parents better rear their five year-olds.

Gradual growth in school districts adding kindergartens came not only from the formation of constituencies politically tied to this reform but also from a shift in public attitudes that kindergartens were more than play. Five year-olds can learn academics. The emerging belief among policymakers and many but not all parents was that the earlier a child learns basic skills, the better chance that child will have for academic success as they move through the grades and, as economists pointed out– greater earnings as adults. [v]

Most parents view public schools as an up-escalator for social mobility that give their children an edge. Kindergartners who learned to read as five year-olds became stars in many parents’ and teachers’ eyes as they aced first grade. Even with this tension between play and academics, no contemporary reformer or parent would gain supporters for a campaign to ban kindergartens. Not for the first (nor last) time, public schools had embraced a reform modifying it to the contours of the existing age-graded school. The same practices occurred with the introduction of innovative technologies into public schools since the 1980s.

In Part 3, I describe and analyze the growth and spread of computer devices over the past four decades. [vi]


[i] Audrey Watters, “Teaching by Television in American Samoa: A History,” at: http://hackeducation.com/2015/06/06/american-samoa-educational-tv

Researcher Wilbur Schramm reviewed about 400 studies and concluded: “A striking fact has been presented here-the fact that about as much learning seems to take place in a TV class as in an ordinary class.” Schramm, “Learning from Instructional Television,” Review of Educational Research, Apr., 1962, Vol. 32, No. 2), pp. 156-167. Quote is on p. 164. Schramm also published Bold Experiment: The Story of Educational Television In American Samoa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1981).

[ii]Kevin McElrath, “Schooling during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” U.S. Census Bureau, August 26, 2020.

[iii] Education Next surveyed a representative sample of parents with children in late-2020 and found 53 percent of all students using distance learning and 19 percent in some form of hybrid situation between home and school. Twenty-eight percent were attending in-person. Michael Henderson, et. al., “Pandemic Suvey Finds Perverse Pattern” Students are More Likely To Be Attending School in Person Where Covid Is Spreading More Rapidly, “ Education Next Poll 2020 at: https://www.educationnext.org/pandemic-parent-survey-finds-perverse-pattern-students-more-likely-to-be-attending-school-in-person-where-covid-is-spreading-more-rapidly/

Teacher unions in big cities resisted an early return of their members to classrooms. A strike was averted in Chicago, for example. Kate Taylor, “Chicago Teachers Tentatively Agree to Return to Classrooms,” New York Times, February 7, 2021

[iv]Donald Schön, Beyond the Stable State. Public and private learning in a changing society (New YorK: W.W. Norton, 1973).

[v] National Science Foundation. “Learn more in kindergarten, earn more as an adult.” Science Daily. August 12, 2010.

[vi] For a history of kindergartens, see Nina Vandewalker, The Kindergarten in American Education (New York: Macmillan, 1908); Barbara Beatty, Preschool Education in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

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