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Student’s View of Use of Computers in a High School (Audrey Mullen)

Audrey Mullen is a sophomore at Presentation High School in San Jose, CA. “She started Kite Reviews, an all-student consulting service that provides user reviews of your edtech products. She’s worked with Brainpop, All Can Code, and Readorium.” Her opinions about teacher and student use of iPads and software offer one person’s on-the-ground view. Rare to get such perspectives. This appeared in EdSurge‘s weekly post September 25, 2015.


 The Good

Teachers Do Some Walking

I sit in the back of class when I can. As result, I see everyone’s iPad screens. Every day around the tenth minute of class, the screens start switching to social media. I see photos of friends at the beach or ugly selfies. You think we’re taking notes because we don’t look up and we seem serious. But we’re Snapchatting across the room or even the world. It’s like yawning; one person starts and soon everyone is doing it.

Teachers: Walk around during class. Stroll to the back of the room. If you could see what I see . . .


Give Us Games (aka, Make Learning Fun)

It is the final round of Jeopardy in Ms. T’s sixth period biology class. Winner takes all. It’s getting heated. With two minutes until the bell rings, it all comes down to the final question. “Cells” for 200 points or “Human Body Systems” for 250? We choose to go big. As Ms. T asks the question, our hearts race. She asks, we answer . . . we win! The bell rings, and we leave the room knowing no other class that day will be as fun or educational. And I think it’s educational specifically because it’s fun.

Teachers: If you make our hearts race, even a little bit, you are doing something very, very right. Come up with creative and engaging games. I Googled for ideas. There are millions.


Be Crazy, Hyper-Organized With Your Technology And We Will Love You For It

Mrs. C. was no one’s favorite teacher. She wasn’t nice, she wasn’t mean.

She just didn’t have much personality. I probably would have forgotten her by now except for one thing: SHE WAS ORGANIZED LIKE NO ONE YOU’VE EVER MET. Mrs. C. was an Organization Queen. She put the entire semester on the calendar. Most teachers at my school do it by unit. Then . . . this was incredible . . . she put EVERYTHING on Canvas. I love Canvas; we all LOVE Canvas (see below). This seemed impossible: All the homework assignments, all the grades, everything was always right there.

The challenge for students is that some teachers rely on technology; others refuse to use it. We’re caught in the middle. Most teachers are in-between and it gets confusing very fast. But in this class, there were never any surprises. I was and still am grateful.

Teachers: Keep all your information in one place. Don’t go scattering it around in different apps. Whether it is Canvas or another learning tool, please make sure you know how to use all the features to assign work.



The Bad

A Cat Is Not a Dog; An iPad Is NOT A Computer

The iPad is a wonderful thing. But here’s what drives me crazy: Teachers expect it to replace the computer. Have you ever typed directly on an iPad? Kill me. Almost every word is a typo. Then those typos get auto-corrected. You end up with Marie Antoinette saying, “Let’s then ray bake You see my issue.

And don’t get me started on keyboards that connect to the iPad. The only good ones are super expensive, and they get destroyed in your backpack. Remember, even with all the cool new tech in schools, you still have me carry 45 lbs of books over my shoulder. Last year, my Logitech keyboard lasted 3 weeks before keys started to fall off. My Dad said it was my fault and wouldn’t get me a new one. After every other keystroke, “[ “ would appear. Sentences looked like, “Marie[ Antoinette, s[aid[[, let th[[em eat[ cak[e.” It was possibly the most frustrating thing ever. Did my teachers care? Not a bit.

Teachers: On behalf of millions of students everywhere, I beg: Don’t make us type on an iPad.

Pick Your Poison! Stop Juggling between Paper and Digital

What gets my goat? When teachers can’t decide between distributing online copies or physical copies. Make a decision. Stick with it. Be strong. Do I need a physical binder for this class, or not? Is last week’s assignment sitting on Google Drive, or is it in my backpack, where things go to die? I understand when a digital-first teacher gives me a hard-copy study guide; it’s because this specific test won’t be online. But when teachers constantly and randomly alternate between worksheets that are digital and paper, Audrey no buena.

I had this teacher, Mrs. F. She would make us do all our homework online. We would download it off Google Drive, then fill it out using Notability. This was all good. Until we had to turn it in. She had us print it out . . . every day, every assignment. See, Mrs. F. didn’t like grading online. Which is fine, but then you should make the commitment to only do paper and limit online.

Teachers: Don’t flip between online and hard copies. It’s hard enough to manage in one class, and a disaster when half my teachers do it.


When Good Personalization Goes Bad: R.I.P. Collaboration?

I went to ISTE 2015 in Philadelphia, where I participated on a panel called “Youth Voices in Edtech.” My biggest takeaway from this huge teacher conference was the focus on individualized and personalized learning. It’s not something we students think about. It sounds great for the most part, until you realize that everyone is off doing their own thing. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned group work?

There have been times where I have nearly murdered my fellow group mates while doing a project. In most projects there is always one person in the group who doesn’t do any of the work and everyone else has to overcompensate to make up for it. These are “work anchors”. But with each work anchor you learn a little more. A little about teamwork and cooperation. More than if you were working by yourself. It is crazy how we as students are losing the life skill of working together as each solo activity is assigned.

Teachers: I’m not exactly sure why this worries me. It is pretty deep. If you spend too much time trying to individualize my learning, will I stop knowing how to work with others? My goodness, at home we don’t even watch TV together. My sister and I go to our bedrooms, and binge on our own Netflix shows. Kids are already living individualized experiences. What I think we need more of are skills to collaborate.

Put Away the Phone

I was born in the age of technology, in the heart of it, in Silicon Valley. Technology is inseparable from my life. Most of us got phones as sixth grade started. We noticed it quickly got to the point where we were no longer hanging out together; we were just checking our social medias in the same room. So we hacked a solution. Now at lunch, we stack our phones like a Jenga puzzle. Whoever grabs hers first has to buy everyone ice cream. It’s a win-win situation.

Teachers: Save us from ourselves. Don’t go crazy with phone rules and regulations because we won’t follow them. Instead just stick with the basics–no phones during school hours.

More Please: Four Tools That Save My Life

There are some iPad apps that are simply horrible. (I’m talking to you, Google Slides). But others have been sent by God himself to help students learn. Here are four examples of the best of classroom tech.

Khan Academy: I have friends who don’t see eye to eye with me on Khan Academy. They still believe it’s the same math-only website their teacher made them use four years ago in sixth grade. Guys, please join us in 2015. Khan Academy has science, language arts, programming, and much more. I like to think of it as my partner in school. If a teacher’s lecture is hard to understand, I pop onto Khan. Often I only need 30 seconds. I visit the website maybe 20 times a week. I think I need to credit Khan Academy for 0.5 points of my 4.2 GPA (shameless bragging).

Quizlet: No one puts down Quizlet. Ever. It’s a life saver. We have the ability to share “quizlets” (short practice tests and flash card sets) with any other student, which makes our lives 1,000,000 times easier. It’s fast and simple. (Note to programmers: Make it simple! I don’t want to think about your technology; I want to be using it.). For my bio final last spring, a classmate made two quizlets and shared them with everyone. One had all the test questions we saw during the semester. The other was a vocabulary review. She was our hero.

Canvas: Have you ever seen the average high-school kid’s backpack? It is where Hope goes to die. Papers flying everywhere, sticky food wrappers crumpled at the bottom.

Then there’s Canvas, which is the opposite of the dark hole of my backpack. Canvas makes life easier. Last year, three of my seven teachers used it. This year, it’s six out of seven, and I heard the school is making it mandatory second semester. Everyone hopes so. Teachers, if you are still using Google Docs to turn in assignments, please remove yourself from the last decade and join 2015. It is efficient, easy and incredibly organized. Ten out of ten kids will recommend it.

Notability: And then God said, “let there be Notability.”

Notability is possibly my favorite edtech app of all time, and that is saying something.

Notability is an app that’s sole purpose is to be an easy and organized place to take notes (shocking). Unlike Google Docs, with Notability you can write the notes with your own handwriting–which makes it a great tool to fill out worksheets with. Also it syncs up with Canvas and Google Drive so that it is super easy to turn in home work.


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Principal Eric Guthertz of Mission High School in San Francisco (Kristina Rizga)

This is the fourth and final excerpt taken from Kristina Rizga’s new book Mission High. With her permission I have published descriptions of math, English,  and history lessons. In this post, Rizga describes the principal of the school. Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.


As the head of a school at which students carry passports from more than forty countries, Eric Guthertz probably has one of the most multicultural closets of any principal in the nation. Dressed in his usual getup this morning—slim-fitted, button-down shirt, dark grey slacks, and a large, black walkie-talkie pinned on his belt—Guthertz shows off dozens of his favorite clothing items that he wears throughout the year for various cultural events. Hanging on the wall in his office that doubles as a closet, there are several guayaberas—formal men’s shirts worn in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean—which he wears to the students’ Latino Club celebrations. There is a traditional Moroccan cream-colored shirt with black buttons that a student from Morocco gave him. The Black Student Union gave him a traditional kufi hat and scarf from West Africa. His favorite piece is a dark navy, three-piece suit that students from the Chinese Club gave him five years ago.

In Guthertz’s universe, hustling to find funding to keep Mission’s cultural clubs and events alive is as important as improving test scores. As an educator with twenty-seven years of experience in inner-city schools, Guthertz is convinced that multicultural and student-run clubs, after-school programs, and extracurricular activities not only engage more students in the core academic subjects, they also teach crucial skills for success after high school: familiarity with different cultures and worldviews, experience working through cultural misunderstandings with respect and common sense, and the ability to see diversity as an asset of a community….

Guthertz’s convictions come at a price. The continuity of school funding—and with that the job security of teachers and staff who run many of these programs—depends on the school’s ability to show consistent growth in standardized test scores. In 2009 Guthertz almost lost his job to secure SIG (School Improvement Grant) funding for the school, as part of President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. The $4 billion education funding package awarded competitive grants to states that agreed to meet a set of principles, such as using standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, easing restrictions on the number of charter schools, and restructuring or closing low-performing schools (as measured by test scores). Race to the Top offered hard-to-resist financial “carrots” during the economic recession to low-performing schools like Mission in exchange for “sticks.” Mission High had to choose between firing a principal, firing half of the teachers, closing the school, or replacing it with a charter school. The district found a loophole to avoid all of these scenarios. Guthertz had been a principal for less than two years and could be listed as a recently “replaced” principal. In 2012 the school’s score on the Academic Progress Index (API) dropped by one point (out of the total of one thousand maximum points any school in California can receive on its API, which is calculated primarily based on standardized test scores), and the school faced the loss of close to $1 million, about 12 percent of its annual budget.

The district appealed the decision and requested recalculation of the scores, which came back with a one-point gain, saving the jobs of at least seven teachers, Guthertz says.

Despite these external pressures to prioritize test scores in math and English, Guthertz refuses to tell educators at Mission to “teach to the test” at the expense of giving up rich curriculum or hands-on projects, field trips, and music and art classes, or of closing student clubs and elective courses. He is convinced that such a pedagogical stance pays off, and he has data about his school to prove it. College enrollment went up from 55 percent in 2007 to 74 percent in 2013. While the API index fluctuates from year to year, there has been an overall gain of 86 points since 2009. School attendance has been rising. The graduation rate went from the lowest in the district, at 60 percent in 2008, to 82 percent in 2013, on a par with the district average. The graduation rate for African American students was 20 percent higher at Mission than the district average in 2013. While the rest of the country is embroiled in a debate over how to reduce suspensions, Mission High has reduced its suspensions, from 28 percent in 2008 to 3.9 percent in 2014. In the yearly student and parent satisfaction survey of 2013, close to 90 percent said they like the school and would recommend it to others….

While Guthertz and his team spend at least half of their time building a healthy and inclusive school culture outside of the classrooms, most of the work that helps students develop as mature and compassionate adults happens in the classrooms, Guthertz says, echoing Pablo’s view. That’s why teacher-leaders and the administrative team regularly observe classrooms and comb through reams of data, paying particular attention to the number of referrals and suspensions, as well as the number of Fs and Ds desegregated by ethnicity and race, to see which students and teachers need extra support. When teachers struggle, Mission High provides one-on-one coaching by successful and experienced educators [at the school]. Teachers meet regularly to plan units together and analyze student work collectively. As a result, unlike most inner-city schools, Mission High has very low attrition among teachers—by district and national standards. Mission High is the only school in the district that teaches high numbers of African American, Latino, and low-income students and is no longer considered a “hard-to-staff” school, according to the San Francisco Unified School District’s chief communications officer, Gentle Blythe. “Mission High is famous at the district because it is known as a learning community and good, supportive place to work,” Dayna Soares, who has now been teaching math for two years, tells me. “It’s hard to get a job here.”

The Mission High School museum maintains a deep archive of historic photographs of the school and its people, athletic trophies, and articles, as well as newspaper clippings featuring alums. There are portraits of Nobel Prize–winning Maya Angelou, Grammy-winning Carlos Santana, and the award-winning chef Charles Phan. The museum is full of multigenerational stories, like the sister and brother security guards, Iz (or “Izzy” as the staff call her) and Ed Fructuoso, who both graduated from Mission High and still work here. Ed’s daughter, Reign, recently graduated from Mission High. Principal Guthertz’s daughter, Eva-Grace, started at Mission in 2014.

Almost every week a former graduate or a family member of a former graduate comes to Mission High to look at the graduation photos dotting the hallways and other memorabilia the school has been archiving in the museum, Guthertz tells me one morning in May 2014, as we walk down the hallway toward Mission High’s school museum. Just last week Veronica Gomez—the granddaughter of Mission alumnus Ronald Gaggero—came to see the school her late grandfather used to talk about when she was a little girl. Gomez told Guthertz that her grandfather dropped out of school in 1960 to enter the workforce just two months before he graduated. His girlfriend—who became his wife of forty four years—had gotten pregnant. Gaggero became a successful owner of several small businesses in San Francisco and raised three children with his wife, but he always told his granddaughter that his biggest regret was not getting his diploma. Guthertz and his team invited Gomez to attend the graduation of Mission High’s class of 2014 and presented her with an honorary high school diploma for her late grandfather.

Mission High serves an often overlooked but vital role in the community. It is a central meeting ground and celebration space for the predominantly working-class parents whose children go there, as well as a repository of its collective memories and community pride. The yearly choir and Latino Club performances bring out hundreds of parents. When in December 2014 the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown—unarmed black men killed by police officers who were later acquitted—sparked national protests across the country, Mission High’s Black Student Union organized a community event for students and parents in the city. The Gay-Straight Alliance, as well as Teachers for Social Justice, hold their national gatherings at Mission High….

Guthertz loves giving personal tours, including stops at the museum, to any outsiders who come to Mission, because he can show all of the qualitative and quantitative factors besides test scores, which he believes tell a more accurate story about the place that he has called home for thirteen years—first as an English teacher and now as an administrator. “We sent more African American students to college this year than any other school in the district,” he says as we enter Mission High’s school museum. “Our achievement gap in grades is almost half of that in the district, thanks to the hard work of our teachers.”

“Sorry, I talk too much,” Guthertz stops himself midsentence. “My father was a PR man,” he adds. “I probably get it from him, but we have such amazing students and teachers here. The best in the city, in my opinion.”



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Reimagining the U.S. High School (Part 2)

“The XQ Institute is in service of parents and pioneers, entrepreneurs and teachers, business leaders and administrators, youth and education experts—who are joining a movement to rethink America’s schools. Together, we can use our knowledge, rigor, and creativity to create a new model for school itself.”

“What if we could scrap the blueprint, change the model and truly innovate? What if you’re the one who helps America rethink high school?”

“This is a challenge to empower all of America to change high school. Together, we can transform communities and build schools that inspire new possibilities.”

“The system of public high schools in America really hasn’t undergone any kind of serious transformation in 100 years,” [ Super School Project CEO, Russlyn H.] Ali said. “It was built for an economy and a system that is no more.”


From these quotes taken from the website for Super School Project, Laurene Powell Jobs and chief executive Russlyn Ali are interested in transforming the existing high school. No proposals for tinkering accepted here. Change is an ambiguous word that needs to be parsed. The Super School Project is not in the market for “incremental changes” to the high school of 2015. They want “transformational,” “revolutionary,” or fundamental change. What’s the difference?

Incremental changes aim to end the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of existing structures and cultures of schooling including classroom teaching. By structures, I mean the goals, funding, facilities, and the age-graded school that are (and have been) basic building blocks of the system of tax-supported schooling in the U.S. By cultures, I mean the norms, expectations, and beliefs in the classroom, school, and district that color daily activities.

Promoters of incremental change view the basic structures and cultures of schooling as largely sound but in need of improvements. There are inefficiencies and ineffective practices that undermine the productivity of the system. The old car, to use a familiar metaphor, is sputtering and rusting but solid. It needs a paint job, tires, brakes, a new battery, and a tune-up—incremental changes. Once improved, the system will work as intended.

Examples of incremental changes in schools would include adding new courses to high school curriculum; introducing new tests; adopting pay-for-performance for teachers and principals; decreasing class size from 30 to 25; Each of these changes, of course, seeks increased efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

In the classroom, incremental changes would include the teacher introducing a new unit in her math course that she had never taught before. Perhaps a teacher who designs a behavioral modification plan with rewards and penalties for good and bad classroom behavior. Or a teacher who decides to use the mobile cart with 30 laptops for one of her classes.


None of this for the Super School Project. The founder and CEO reject any change smelling of incrementalism. The project seeks “fundamental changes,” designs that will go far beyond tinkering.

Fundamental changes aim to transform—alter permanently—those very same structures and cultures. The idea behind fundamental change is that the basic school structures and cultures are irretrievably flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul or replacement, not incremental improvements. That old car is a jalopy far beyond repair. We need to get a new car or consider other forms of transportation.

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then the late-19th century innovation of the kindergarten is an instance of fundamental change. Other examples would be broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, desegregation). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas. That is what the Super School Project seeks for tax-supported public schools now anchored in an information-driven economy.

Applied to the classroom, advocates of fundamental change would transform the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to one who guides students to their own decisions, who helps children find meaning in their experiences, and urges them to learn from one another. These reformers seek to upend traditional teaching where the teacher talks, students mostly listen, use a textbook for the main source of knowledge, and pass tests that determine how much has been remembered. They want classrooms where teachers organize activities that help students learn from subject matter, one another, and the community. Assessment is less taking multiple-choice tests and more working on real world tasks.

Efforts to transform high schools have a long, tortured history (see here and here). Even when fundamental changes do occur at a moment in time such as the creation of tax-supported academic high schools in the late 19th century, the innovative comprehensive high school of the 1920s or the “open classroom,” those deep and powerful changes seldom last as past efforts have shown for the following reasons:

Many changes intended to be fundamental become incrementalized. Often the rhetoric of a planned change clearly intend to make profound shifts in the current school. Recall the words surrounding charter schools, 1:1 laptops, and small high schools in past decades. Promoted by corporate leaders and public officials these innovations sought fundamental changes. Yet once they left the designers’ hands and entered schools and classrooms theses changes were either piecemeal ones where certain portions of the design were implemented and other parts were not.

Because so much work is involved in mobilizing support and resources for fundamental changes there is far more success in talking about major reforms than in adopting the planned changes. And there is even more of a gap between officials’ actions and what principals and teachers actually put into practice. Because of these gaps between talk, action, and implementation, intended fundamental changes get incrementalized and become just another spoke in the organizational wheel.

Far more incremental than fundamental changes get institutionalized in schools. It is simply easier organizationally and psychologically to add to a system than go in a different direction. Increasing requirements for high school graduation is easier than dropping the Carnegie unit which is the very basis for counting credits toward graduation and school accreditation. Shipping computers to schools and buying software is far easier than altering dominant teaching practices. Creating charter schools is actually easier than charters seeking non-graded organizations and introducing project-based learning.

These are lessons from the past that the Super School Project should keep in mind as their staff and consultants consider the high school of the future.


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Cartoons on Kids and Parents in School and at Home

Here’s a selection of cartoons that amused me about the return to school this month in the U.S.  I also included cartoons that picked up on the foibles of parents and kids in this high-tech society. Enjoy!




























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Sixth Anniversary of This Blog

Dear Readers,

This post marks my sixth anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank those readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and finally those who have taken the time to write thoughtful comments. Over one million viewers from around the world have clicked on to the blog since August 2009. Not exactly viral but, for me, most gratifying.

For the 720 posts I have written since 2009, I have followed three rules:

  1. Write about 800 words.
  2. Write clearly on school reform and classroom practice.
  3. Take a position and back it up with evidence.

For anyone who blogs or writes often knows that sticking to these rules has been no easy task. Yet after six years, it has been very satisfying. I remain highly motivated to write about policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students–all who inhabit the policy-to-practice continuum–and all who in different ways, with varied ideas, seek to improve schooling.

To me, writing is a form of teaching and learning. The learning part comes from figuring out what I want to say on a topic, researching it, drafting a post, and then revising it more times than I would ever admit so that the post says what I want it to say. Learning also has come from the surprises and mistakes I have found in the suggestions and comments readers post—“Did I really say that?” “Oops!, Sorry, “Wow! that is an unexpected view on what I said,” or “I had never considered that point.”

The teaching part comes from putting my ideas out there in a clearly expressed logical argument, buttressed by evidence, for others who may agree or disagree about an issue I am deeply interested in. As in all teaching, planning enters the picture in how I frame the central question I want readers to consider and how I put the argument and evidence together in a clear, coherent, and crisp blog of about 800 words.

Because of my background as a high school teacher, administrator, policymaker, and historian of education I often give a question or issue its historical context. I do so, and here I put my teaching hat on, since I believe that current policy-driven reforms and their journey into schools and classrooms are deeply rooted in the past. Learning from how earlier generations of reformers coped with the complexities of improving schools and districts, I believe, can inform current reformers about the tasks they face. Contemporary reformers, equally well intentioned as their predecessors, in too many instances ignore what has occurred previously and end up stumbling and repeating errors that occurred before. These frustrated reformers then blame teachers and principals for not executing properly their reform-driven policies.

Historical context is important in understanding the cornucopia of policy-driven reforms that have spilled over public schools for over a half-century. For those unacquainted with that history, in every decade since World War II, policymakers have sought to use public schools as engines of reform to solve national and local problems.

From ending racial segregation in schools to defending the nation against the Soviet Union to ending poverty to growing a strong economy, national leaders have turned to public schools to end vexing problems. This steadfast belief in education curing national problems has trumped time and again political action to alter deep-seated economic, political, and social structures that have created and sustained many of the problems afflicting the U.S. That reluctance to look beyond public schools as the solvent for national problems is just as evident in 2015 as it was in 1950.

In subsequent posts, I will look anew and historically at the policy-to-practice continuum in my continuing effort to persuade viewers that adopted policies are merely words unless put into practice. And because too many policymakers are inattentive to what has occurred in past reform efforts and what occurs daily in classrooms, chances of successful implementation approach nil. It is that journey from making policy in suites to K-12 classrooms that has occupied me for decades. And so I continue for another year.

Again, viewers, thank you.


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Cartoons on Preschool and Kindergarten

For this month’s cartoon feature I have a bunch of cartoons on early childhood education. In the past few week, I have written two posts (see here and here) on the dilemmas inherent to kindergarten teaching so I conclude the series with these exaggerated views of schooling the very young that flow from cartoonists’ pens (if they still use pens). Enjoy!




"I don't think I can express what I have to say in just colored paper and glue."

“I don’t think I can express what I have to say in just colored paper and glue.”


'Jason goes to a progressive school. He's in his kindergarten's MBA track.'

‘Jason goes to a progressive school. He’s in his kindergarten’s MBA track.’






'First the birth canal, and now preschool! Where does this all end?'

‘First the birth canal, and now preschool! Where does this all end?’








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Persistent Dilemmas in Kindergartens Then and Now (Part 2)

In Part 1, I described a 1924 study of kindergarten teachers’ lessons. Mary Dabney Davis analyzed 449 kindergarten lessons from across the country, offered typical daily schedules, and reported teacher responses to a survey she had designed. Teachers in the 1920s faced questions about how much academics and how much play to include in their kindergartens and to what degree teachers should direct lessons and to what degree children should be self-directed. A century later, these dilemmas persist.

Consider New York City schools welcoming of 50,000 four year-olds to prekindergarten in 2014. Journalist Ginia Ballafante summarized crisply the dilemma facing over 4,000 pre-K teachers:

“How the city’s educators will cultivate an environment of thrilling … learning while aiming to reduce the enormous word deficits many children come to school with and at the same time keep the tensions and pressures of high-stakes testing from filtering down to the world of tiny people with Pixar lunchboxes remains one of the most significant and least explored questions around the expansion of prekindergarten. How they will nurture the distinct kind of teaching skill required to execute play-based learning successfully is yet another.”

And she was right on the mark. If kindergarten is the new first grade as some critics point out, then prekindergarten threatens to become boot camp for kindergarten.

First, let me establish that kindergarten is, indeed, becoming the new first grade. In a recent study looking back at how kindergartens have changed in the past 15 years under a regime of testing and accountability, researchers found the following:

*The percentage of teachers who indicated that incoming kindergarteners need to know most of their letters or count to twenty doubled. In 1998 less than one-third of kindergarten teachers agreed that children should learn to read in kindergarten. By  2006 that number had more than doubled to 65 percent.

*Time spent on reading and language arts rose from 5.5 hours to 7 a week.

*There was no change in percent of time spent on math instruction but there were significant drops in teaching time spent on social studies, science, art, and  physical education.

The onset of testing five year-olds has commenced: 25 states mandate assessing 5 year-olds. So how to get young children up to speed to do well on these tests has accelerated the move toward academic instruction for kindergarteners with the pressure inevitably seeping down to three year olds.  This shift toward academic instruction has put the spotlight on exactly how much of school experiences for three-to-five year-olds should be play and how much academic work in light of the demands of testing for determining first grade for young children and teacher evaluation.

Two Bank Street College educators (New York City), however, do not see a conflict between work and play for young children. “This is a false choice,” they say. “We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.” They continue:

“As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time.”

What does play look like in a room filled with three- and four year-olds?

“When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

 In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.”
Work and play become one. “Play, they say, “has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school.”
That play and work are intimately connected and that learning in young children is not put into silos but are as one means that there is no dichotomy, no dilemma. It is a classic case of reframing what appears as a dilemma into a problem that can be solved. That is what these educators are trying to do. “Trying” is the operative word, however.
When private kindergartens became public in the late-19th century, the competing values of developing the whole child and preparing 3-5 year-olds for the first grade were evident. Until the 1980s, academics were subordinate to socializing young children and learning through play. But in the past thirty years, that balance has been re-set as most parents, policymakers, and political leaders have pushed schools to meet higher academic standards, become accountable for student outcomes, and responsive to market forces. In this business-oriented climate, schools have become academic engines for children and youth to compete for jobs and strengthen the overall economy.  And the dilemma kindergarten teachers faced nearly a century ago persists today.



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