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Stellar Principals

Principals have graced the covers of Time magazine. They have been profiled in books. They have won awards for their schools. Yet “great,” “good,” “effective,” or “stellar” means different things to parents, teachers, the administrators themselves, and students much less district, state, and federal policymakers who make the rules and allocate dollars.

John Caporta, principal of Red Mill Elementary School for 26 years, retired in 2019

For many patrons of a school, a “great” principal is someone who does it all: Helpful to teachers while honoring their autonomy to teach; responsive to parents while buffering teachers from their demands; listening to students’ problems while not intruding on parents’ turf or reversing teachers’ decisions. Finessing all of these contrary demands is, to many observers, a sign of “greatness.”

School boards who hire principals, however, expect “great” principals to be strong instructional leaders who supervise teacher lessons and evaluate their classroom performance, shrewd managers who squeeze a dollar out of every dime spent on the school, and astute politicians who can steer parents, teachers, and students in the same direction year after year.

Now pause and re-read the last two paragraphs. If you were nodding in agreement as you scanned what various stakeholders expect of their principal, you might conclude that the job is impossible.

Yes, contradictory demands and expectations are part of the DNA of the principalship. Those principals who are labeled “great” or “good”—and there are many who have earned that label—come to understand the paradoxes and dilemmas they face and have to manage. The “great” ones figure out what their strengths are, which values they prize, and plow ahead on those things they do best and figure out solutions to problems they have to face whether they like it or not: working with teachers in their classrooms, managing the budget and staff relations, scrounging funds for the school, insuring that district curriculum shows up in daily lessons, raising test scores, turning in reports to the district office, dealing with parents’ complaints—the list of tasks is unending for the principal.

Those who earn the title of “great” such as Deborah Meier and John Youngquist have forged out of conflicting roles and stakeholder demands an identity as an “instructional leader who can turn around a school,” or a “manager with a heart who runs a tight ship,” or some mix of the two. Politicking, unfortunately, remains a dirty word among most educators. And most principals who can mobilize teachers, parents, district administrators, and foundation officials to move in the same direction are allergic to the label of being “great” politically.

Nonetheless, every “great” principal–even the rare super-star–has to parlay a meld of these three roles into a unique blend that carries his or her signature–for at least five or more years. These principals are “good” at their job just as teachers who follow best practices are “good” at their work. But are these “good” principals also “successful” ones? The distinction between “good” and “successful” is as important for principals as it is for teachers (February 28, 2010).

Like with teachers, the past three decades of standards-based testing and accountability policies has put a premium on test scores and, for principals, the role of instructional leadership. The current ideology of schools producing graduates who can enter college and then the labor market fully equipped to work in a knowledge-driven economy has pumped up the role of instructional leadership. In earlier years, concerns for the whole child’s wellbeing, active learning, and project-based lessons competed with more traditional conceptions of teaching and learning. No more. Now it is 24/7 test scores.

District officials inspect school-by-school test scores. In some places, principals receive bonuses for gains in student achievement. In other districts, principals are directed to do frequent walk-throughs of teachers’ classrooms. In short, just as the pressures for higher test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance have squished notions of “good” and “successful” together for teachers, the same as occurred for principals. So a “good” principal is now someone who lifts student achievement to higher levels.

Yet other aspects of a principal’s job remain. The contradictory demands from students, teachers, parents, and district officials continue. Managing daily crises and prosaic duties while politicking different stakeholders continue. Even when “good” and “successful” principaling has been chopped, grated, and mixed together into a recipe for raising test scores, there is no rest for the weary principal on the verge of “greatness” or one simply plodding along to survive.

So the media and grateful patrons of schools will bestow the label of “stellar” upon certain principals. That label, deserved as it may be, nonetheless, is one carved out of the current hothouse context of testing and accountability, blending “good” and “successful” principaling into a Kool-aid concoction that can be drunk but not savored by principals who have to, by the DNA of the job, daily instruct, manage, and be political.

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Chemistry Lesson in Russian Secondary School (Mary Sue Burns)

Mary Sue Burns, a chemistry teacher at Pocohontas school district near Beckley, West Virginia was a Fulbright Teacher for Global Classrooms in 2014. She observed a chemistry lesson at the Michurinsk Lyceum in a city southwest of Moscow. Michurinsk Lyceum is a high school where nearly all of the students went on to university. She wrote about her experiences in her blog

My question was “How is effective STEM (Science. Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education implemented in Russia?”  Answering this question became more complex than I anticipated. I went with a definite preconceived vision of what effective STEM education looks like.

My priorities for my students were, and remain, to promote higher order critical thinking, problem solving skills, collaboration skills, active inquiry, and creativity. I measure their success, and therefore my own, by their college and career readiness. In West Virginia, only a small percentage of my students are subjected to a standardized test specifically in the content of the courses I teach. And even, then, there is minimal personal consequence.  Ironically, I suspect the Russian students would do better on our state tests. However, keep in mind that our state, like most, does not have the budget to adequately test the objectives we value. So, our tests are only one small indicator, limited primarily to recall questions.

For a little perspective, here are some images of my students:

Here are the supporting questions I [was] asked along with some of my observations:

How do societal values impact decisions? Just as in the US, many Russians see a university education as a gateway to a better job and a better life. Thus getting in and getting funding for this is valued. What is different is that the Russian student’s future is dependent on the results of the national exam. Grades, teacher recommendations, community service, special talents, special initiatives, extracurricular dedication……none of this matters. So, they work hard towards passing this one exam in the subject of their interest, say chemistry for example. They may spend after school sessions in private tutoring for exam preparation. The exam must be heavily weighted with detailed factual content. These students could repeat facts, and give lengthy speeches on the properties of elements. My students would not be able to recite this information.

What is the role of experiential learning? I observed a chemistry lab at the a city. A lab assistant (a school employee, not the teacher) set up all the equipment and measured out all the chemicals in advance of the class. At the appropriate moment, the teacher led the students in the steps of the experiment (which was to view the production of carbon dioxide by reaction of calcium carbonate and hydrochloric acid). The students executed the lab in pairs, all pairs adding the reactants, sealing the test-tube with the stopper, and positioning the outtake tubing in limewater, in perfectly choreographed unison. They did not wear goggles. They did not clean up; the lab assistant would do this.

I also observed a robotics activity with younger students. The activity was to build vehicles out of Lego parts using different gear ratios. Each group of students followed a set of directions with a prescribed set of gears. It seemed like kind of a speed contest. Each group consisted of two girls and two boys. For the most part, a boy seemed to take charge of the construction and relegate the rest of the group to searching for parts, even though several girls tried to budge in on the construction. I asked the teacher if she ever had a group of only girls. She did not think that would be a good idea because then they might be at a disadvantage. The students raced the completed vehicles. The teacher explained why one was the best (at least I think that is what happened).

How is student engagement supported? If you have to pass a high stakes exam and your entire future depends on it, then you are engaged!


How are instructional materials utilized? Every classroom was equipped with a teacher computer station and smart board. The teacher presented material and then quizzed students via the smart board. Internet resources were used as well as teacher-made presentations, and text provided presentations. Students used the smart boards, as well, to respond to teachers’ questions and to do their own presentations. The text books were small, but jammed with information. Students were expected to read, at home, and be prepared to repeat information. Sometimes worksheets were also part of the homework. The computer lab was used exclusively for programming classes. Internet activities were not done at school. Students seemed to have internet access at home and they used it there to complete research assignments.

What teaching strategies predominate?

Direct instruction was a predominate strategy. My host teacher, Yaroslava, participated in an exchange program to the US and spent several months observing, collaborating, and teaching in California. While there, she incorporated a variety of strategies into her English teaching repertoire which she now enthusiastically uses with her students. There are four other teachers in her department which she fondly refers to as “my girls”. She is clearly an inspiration to them urging them to try alternative strategies and to present at regional conferences. They are excited about this divergence from straight direct instruction and recognize the benefits for their students’ English proficiency. That being said, they are still bound to that national exam and feel that any time spent on more interesting activities must be quickly and efficiently made up in order to remain on target for that.

Do I have any conclusions? I have described what it looked like to me. As for any conclusions, I am still trying to process my ideas on this. I am left thinking that, if I were a chemistry teacher in Russia, I would probably have to change my ways. I currently tell my students not to memorize things that are easy to look up and that there are often multiple paths to the solution of a problem.  When chemistry students at Michurinsk were doing a problem using a strange step by step prescription that involved way too much work, in my opinion, their teacher explained that they needed to do it that way in order to be successful on the national exam. So, if success on that exam is the goal and the student’s future depends on it………. Well there you have it.

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Schooling around the World (Part 4)

This post looks at how the Russian Federation organizes its schools and what Russian classrooms look like.

Like France with its Ministry of Education and a national system of schooling, Russia also has a highly centralized form of schooling. The Russian Federation’s Ministry of Education funds, staffs, and governs 85 regions throughout the country. This system of age-graded schooling is as follows:

Structure of the education system in Russia (Zawacki-Richter & Kourotchkina, 2012) 

For a description of the funding and operation of the nation’s schools including comparisons with European countries’ systems, see Wikipedia entry.

Going from the general to the specific, what do primary, elementary, and secondary classrooms look like? A sampling of photos offer clues of how Russian teachers organize their classrooms and teach lessons.

What similarities and differences appear between American, French, German, and Russian classrooms?

Children attend a lesson in a school in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. Russian schools, which switched to online classes in late March when the coronavirus pandemic swept the country, have reopened this month. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Moscow public school chemistry classroom of 14 year-old students Rus047
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – SEP, 1, 2014: First-grade students and teacher are in school classroom at first lesson of school year.

Novosibirsk, Russia – May 26, 2018: Elementary school students study in classroom
 — Photo by vorobevaola

A class called the “Basis of Secular Ethics” is popular among fourth grade students complying with Russia’ new mandate to take a religion class. (Photo by Matthew Brunwasser.)

Student teacher Irina Vinogradova points to a map of the ancient world on the big screen, as she delivers a history lesson at School No. 1580 in Moscow, Nov. 10, 2020

Moscow, Russia – September 2017: Classroom with pupils in school uniform. Teacher leading a lesson.
Stock Photo ID: 378527374
Copyright: Mikhalitskaia

CHAPAEVSK, SAMARA REGION, RUSSIA – OCTOBER 24, 2018: School kids in the classroom sitting at their desks listening to the teacher

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Schooling around the World (Part 3)

In an earlier post, I profiled how France age-graded its schools and showed an array of classroom photos illustrating varied ways that teachers organized their furniture and the diverse students in these schools. In this post, I apply a similar template for public schools in Germany.

How schools are organized in Germany

There are 16 German states in the nation and these states operate the public schools. While there is some variation in organization and operation across the states, schooling is standardized insofar as children being sorted into different tracks by aptitude, interests, and achievement usually by the fifth grade or age 10–see below.

As one description goes:

The German “educational system is basically a three-class system that divides students into three different tracks: (1) Gymnasium for bright students headed for college, (2) Realschule for the next step down, kids headed for average or better white-collar positions, and (3) Hauptschule for the bottom tier, generally aimed at the trades and blue-collar jobs. By the age of 10 most pupils in Germany have been put on one of these three educational tracks [that move students into vocational jobs and higher education]. But it has become easier to switch tracks, and this is now more common in Germany than it used to be.”

Note that the “Gesamtschule” or comprehensive high school, is another track for students. It resulted from a major school reform that swept the German states in the 1960s. In these schools, students have more choices in courses.

Photos of elementary and secondary school classrooms follow:

Secondary school classroom in Germany after returning to school following Covid-19 pandemic

Teacher Francie Keller welcomes class 3 in the Lankow primary school to the first school day after the summer holidays in Schwerin, Germany, 2020

“Teacher Julia Rakow wears a protective face mask as she leads a class in the origins of German poetry at Sophie-Charlotte Gymnasium high school during the coronavirus pandemic on September 03, 2020 in Berlin, Germany (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images).”

Primary school classroom

“Timur Kumlu, left, with his first graders. “We must educate so that they develop a personality with common roots,” he said.Credit…Gordon Welters for The New York Times”

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Is Charter School Teaching Similar To Or Different From Teaching in Regular Schools?

Since 1991 when Minnesota launched the first charter schools, the movement to create publicly funded charters freed from district rules where parents can choose to send their children has spread to 40 states (and the District of Columbia) enrolling 3.2 million students (nearly eight percent of all public school students) in nearly 8,000 schools (2020). Most charter schools are located in urban districts with one-quarter to one-third of all students enrolled in charters. In some cases such as New Orleans, the majority of children and youth attend charter schools.

The theory driving charter schools is that schools unchained from district policies (including union contracts) for three to five years  would have legal, budgetary, and organizational autonomy to steer its own course and, through innovative changes, increase the quality of schooling. Moreover,  charter schools would be held accountable to the market—parents and students choose to attend—and to stipulations in the charter itself to perform well academically and be fiscally responsible. If there were serious lapses, charter renewal would be forfeited ( WP-01).

A flexible curriculum, eager teachers, parental choice, accountability, and public funding would combine to create innovative schools where a new organization, hard-working teachers using different pedagogies, and satisfied parents would add up to higher student achievement than would have occurred in regular public schools. That is the theory.

After three decades, charter schools continue to grow albeit slowly. Parental demand for school choice remains. There is evidence that charter schools compared to regular ones differ in organizational practices (e.g., block scheduling, extended school day, teachers staying with same students two or more years; small group instruction).

Most school reformers view teaching practices as predictors of student achievement. So an obvious question to ask is: have teachers in charter school, freed from district rules and prescriptions, practiced their craft differently than their peers in public schools?

What evidence there is says that with even more autonomy and flexibility for teachers in charter schools there is little difference between their classroom practices and peers in public schools. Researchers who examined studies of pedagogy across charter and non-charter schools concluded that

“as charter schools implement innovations in governance, management, and other organizational practices, charter schools are embracing curricular and instructional approaches already in use (original italics) in other public schools that are considered as traditional ‘basic’ approaches to instruction” (Goldring-Cravens_2006).

Those findings surprised me.

Such findings leave holes in the theory embedded in charter schools. Like their counterparts in regular public schools, charter school teachers mainly use teacher-centered classroom practices such as lectures, scripted lessons, textbooks, worksheets, homework, question/answer/evaluation exchanges seasoned by certain student-centered practices such as small group work, student discussions, project-based learning, internships, and independent learning.

Keep in mind that when I use the phrase “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” instruction I do not infer that such teaching practices are either positive or negative, appropriate or inappropriate, effective or ineffective. I am reporting what many researchers, including myself, have documented in classrooms.

When one looks at Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) where all 255 elementary and secondary schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving nearly 115,000 students (2020) are charters, teaching approaches are  unmistakably teacher-centered. KIPP is not, of course, representative of all charter schools in its teaching practices. Aspire, Green Dot, and other charter management organizations have schools in their networks where teaching practices vary considerably but still work within the tradition of teacher-centeredness. Note that these elementary and secondary school charters are geared to preparing children and youth for college. That is their unvarnished mission.

College prep begins early in these charter elementary and secondary schools; frontal teaching, direct instruction, extended day, and no-nonsense approaches to student behavior are the norm. So any variation among teachers in different networks of charter schools falls within a narrow band of teacher-centered practices—again when I use that phrase I imply neither acceptance nor rejection, appropriate nor inappropriate, nor effective or ineffective.

KIPP charter schools, then, to a large extent, duplicate the prevailing patterns of teaching in regular public schools. That is the answer to this post’s question.

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Whatever Happened to Recess in U.S. Elementary Schools?

Nothing much has happened to recess in most U.S. elementary schools.

Recess began in 19th century one-room schoolhouses and continues into the third decade of the 21st century. As in most European and Asian schools, recess breaks have become traditional in the elementary school’s daily schedule when children to socialize, choose sides for games, climb jungle gyms, and simply talk with friends.

Yet the tradition of recess has become controversial in recent decades as pressure to raise U.S. students’ performance re-opened older debates over the academic worth of giving students a break from classroom work.

In 2016, for example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed legislation that would have guaranteed daily recess to the state’s elementary school children “because part of my job as governor is to veto the stupid bills. That was a stupid bill and I vetoed it.” The bill Christie vetoed required a 20-minute daily recess period for grades K-5. Governor Phil Murphy who followed Christie signed into law mandatory recess of at least 20 minutes in all New Jersey elementary schools.

In 2017, the Florida state legislature revoked an earlier law that abolished recess in elementary schools. The Florida lawmakers required all elementary school students to have 20 minutes daily of uninterrupted recess.

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind (2001) and the national love affair with standardized testing, squeezing in more academics during the school day has seen many districts reduce break time elementary school children have had. In 2007, for example,

[T]he Center on Education Policy at George Washington University found that 62% of school districts had increased the amount of time spent on English language arts or math in elementary schools since 2001, while 44% of school districts had cut down on time spent on other subjects. The survey showed that 20% of school districts had reduced recess time.”

The core issue, of course, is the limited school time available for classroom teachers to cover the district curriculum while managing 25-30 students as they complete academic work, follow school rules, have lunch, traverse school hallways, and, yes, engage in recess. But there are other, more hidden reasons, for building breaks into the school day.

Recess prepares students for the workplace. One of the over-riding aims of tax-supported public schools is to familiarize children with the world of work. Because office, factory, and professional employees get coffee breaks during their workday, recess in elementary school students’ work day mirrors the adult world they will enter in later years.

Leaning upon the all-purpose reason used to justify policies since the report (1983) A Nation at Risk appeared, some researchers have justified recess by showing linkages between children taking breaks during the school day and increases in reading and math standardized test scores (see here and here). Yet such justifications are hardly persuasive–recall New Jersey Governor Chris Christie above comment–since purported academic gains are marginal, at best.

The point is that the rationale for elementary school children to have a period of time away from sitting at desks, following teacher directions, working in large and small groups on academic tasks is not whether it would improve district standardized test scores or raise letter grades students receive. Or even help children able to socialize with peers. Recess simply gives children relief from the work of schooling preparing them for what adults experience in their blue, white, or pink-collar jobs.

Yes, here again is evidence of one of the key purposes of tax-supported public schools. Children spending six hours a day in classrooms interrupted by a 20-30 minute break mirrors the adult workplace that they will enter after completing secondary school and college. No need to justify recess beyond that.

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Teaching in a French School (Renee Z. Wang)

What is it like to teach in France? No one account, of course, can capture an entire system of schooling in any nation but one American teacher’s description offers a clue. Here is a blog post from Renee Z. Wang who worked in a French School 2016-2017.

Hi everyone,
As I mentioned earlier, I’m working as an English language assistant at the middle school level. I assist the six English language teachers at my school with their classes. Today I’ll tell you more about my job and the French public school system, which is quite different than the American public school system!

First off, the grade levels and schools are divided differently in France. The main organizational differences are: 1) Schooling is not mandatory until age six (vs. age five in the US), 2) Middle school is four years, 3) High school is three years, and 4) Grade levels are not named in a consecutive order….

In addition, the French school system (and French government in general) is highly centralized and organized. There are 30 public school systems in France, and each is managed by an Académie. And yes – there is lots of paperwork and things that need to be done with them and your school…. After all, they are part of the infamous French bureaucracy! Even absence requests by teachers must be submitted through them, even though the absence is only occurring at the school level. There is an upside to all this, though – everything is well documented, and a strong institutional support system exists for efficiently implementing changes on a large scale.

But what does this look like in a classroom setting? Well, for one thing, notebooks here are extremely neat! Students take notes in straight lines measured by a ruler (so students write with a ruler in hand!) even though gridlines already exist in their notebooks, and everything is color-coded. ​Hand-outs are also carefully pasted in with glue.

Everyone also writes in perfect cursive, and one of the English teachers here even noted to their class that Americans write in a special, “detached” font after I wrote on the board.

In addition, students must carry around a Carnet de Correspondance or Carnet de Cor for short. This does not exist in American public schools. This booklet contains a student’s parent contact information, absence and late slips, and serves as the main communication tool between parents and teachers. If a teacher wants to tell a parent something, like setting up a meeting, they write their request in the Carnet de Cor, which is then shown to the parents by the student. Then, the parents must write their response in the book, and then this response is shown to the teacher by the student. The Carnet de Cor also has the student’s picture on the front, and must be shown to a faculty member at the school entrance to enter, and even to leave, the school grounds. ]

In addition, students must line up outside the classroom in two lines before they are let into the room by the teacher. And once they enter, they must stand quietly behind their desks with their chairs pushed in before the teacher allows them to sit down. Then they have about one minute to take everything out of their backpacks and be ready for class! Everyone takes out their required pencil cases, notebooks, and textbooks. French teachers are also more strict about students facing forward in their seats, and not having anything on their laps. 

Another big difference is the level of parental involvement at school. Parents are much less involved in day-to-day schooling, and it is rare to see a parent inside the school grounds. Parents do not come in to host art or math docents, like in the U.S., and largely contribute to their children’s education outside of formal school hours…. 

The daily schedule is very different as well. The day starts at 7:30 am, and then adjourns for lunch at 12:30 pm. Lunch then lasts for two hours and all students leave campus. This school does not have a cafeteria, so the large majority of students go home for lunch. (Students here were shocked to hear that Americans only have 30 minutes to an hour for lunch, but they understood the schedule a little more once I told them school normally gets out at 3:30 pm.) Class starts up again at 2:30 pm, and then school finally finishes at 5:30 pm. They only have a ten-minute break in the mid-morning, and do not have a 30-minute morning recess like Americans. 

For readers who want a film version of teaching 14 and 15 year olds in a secondary school or college, they could see “The Class,” released in 2008.

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Schooling around the World (Part 2)

In Part 1, I asked the question whether or not the ways that U.S. schools have organized (i.e., the age-graded school) and the dominant ways that teachers teach in American classrooms (i.e., teacher-centered instruction) are unique to the U.S. So in a series of posts over the next few weeks, I will sample how different nations organize their systems of schooling and offer photos of classrooms and descriptions of lessons to see how actual students and teachers appear.

The organization of schools in other countries and photos of lessons suggest a strong similarity to the U.S.’s age-graded structures and classroom organization. While diagrams of a nation’s schools are helpful to readers in getting a sense of how each country organizes their public schools and while snapshots do convey how classroom furniture is arrayed, the importance of wall clocks, and national flags, neither charts nor photos tell viewers the ways these teachers teach multiple lessons thereby revealing patterns in teaching. Finally, snapshots fail to show student learning since they capture a mere instant of what a class is doing. So charts and photos can inform but they have definite limits.

Another shortcoming to relying upon photos is that I may have used non-representative samples of a nation’s classrooms, given that I pulled photos from the Internet. But those photos are all I have at the moment. I do invite readers to offer other photos and text that challenge the generalizations I make about school structures, given the limited evidence I offer.

In this post, I will focus on one country–France–and offer photos of “typical” public school classrooms over the past few years including the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

France has a centralized system of schooling for its 13 million students. A Ministry of Education establishes the curriculum for all levels of schooling and allocates both staff and funds to the 31 regions or academies headed by a rectuer responsible to the national Ministry of Education.

The historically high degree of uniformity in curriculum and instruction has lessened in recent years as the Ministry of Education has delegated to local regions, curricular discretion. Moreover, local variation in schooling and classroom lessons–Brittany in the northeast of France and Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea–Inescapably exists.

In France, education is compulsory for children between the ages of three and 16 and consists of four levels:

Students are required to attend school from age six to sixteen. All schooling between kindergarten and university is free except for private schools where parents pay fees. Seventeen percent of French children attend private schools.

Schools open in September and end in June with two weeks of vacation every few months. Also, most French schools are open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesdays are often a half-day. The school day usually runs from eight AM to four PM. French students usually have over an hour for lunch and many go home to eat.

Class sizes in public schools vary. For instance, in primary grades, one teacher and a teaching assistant typically will be in charge of 25 children; in secondary school, teachers commonly have 30 or more students.

Even with these similar features, there are differences in schooling across France (e.g., urban/rural, small/large schools, heavily immigrant/mostly middle and upper middle class, public/private). Thus, what some authorities call a “typical” lesson may simply be what they believe (or want to believe) is a common instance of classroom teaching. Readers should keep that in mind.

Here are a few photos of “typical” elementary and secondary classrooms in France.

Second grade classroom

Secondary school classroom

During pandemic, students wearing protective masks sit in a classroom in a middle school in Bron, France (Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images)

Arabic-language students at the Claude Monet high school in Paris. Here, the teacher opens the lesson by using LinkedIn to show students how many jobs are open to them if they speak Arabic.Credit…Sara Farid for The New York Times

Some 12 million French children returned to school for the first day of the new academic year on September 2, 2021. © Jeff Pachoud, AFP

High School classroom Paris France

A classroom in Nice, southern France. (File photo/September 2020) © Reuters/Eric Gaillard
Students listen the teacher during the first day of school for the 2021-2022 year at Gounod Lavoisier’primary school, Lille, northern France, Thursday, Sept.2 2021.
A teacher uses an interactive whiteboard in a classroom at Germaine Tillion primary school, on September 4, 2012 at the start of the new school year in Lyon, eastern France (Photo credit should read JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images).

Schoolchildren listen to a teacher showing how to use “GraphoLearn”, an application on a digital tablet, to learn to read, in a primary school on January 8, 2018 in Marseille, southern France. (Photo credit should read BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP via Getty Images)

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Schooling in the U.S. and around the World (Part 1)

For many years in my books and this blog, I have argued that two dominant patterns of organizing schools and teaching lessons capture the primary mechanisms of how U.S. schools its young both in the past and now.

First, the structure of the age-graded school replaced the one-room schoolhouse, the primary way of organizing schooling since the 18th century.

These one-room schools enrolled children and youth from six to seventeen and older. Rote teaching and learning with constant student recitations of text to the sole teacher were common. But as cities in the young nation grew and a constant flow of immigrants flowed into cities, the one-room schoolhouse could not accommodate large numbers of students. State educational policymakers of the day sought a more efficient, lower cost way of organizing tax-supported public school.

The emergence of age-graded schools in mid-19th century Massachusetts built to house students in grades 1 through 8 coincided with the spreading industrial economy and factory system. In the decades after the Civil War, this school structure became common across New England and Midwestern states,spreading into Southern states following 1865. One-room schools gave way to a different, seemingly more efficient way of educating young Americans.

This age-graded structure seemed to educational leaders of the day as the best way to achieve the primary purposes of tax-supported public schools: turn children and youth into literate adults who had not only absorbed civic and social values held by the local community but also displayed those values daily in the home, workplace, and town square.

The bricks-and-mortar age-graded building placed children of the same age in a room (e.g.,seven year-olds in the second grade) with one teacher stationed in each of the eight grades. At the end of the school year, each teacher would decide which students would be promoted to the next grade and which ones would be held back.

By 1900, the age-graded school had become the dominant way of organizing schooling across every state in America. Even when subsequent innovations in funding and organizing schools arose (e.g., charter schools in the 1990s), age-graded schools were so taken for granted, that few reformers ever challenged this structure. It remains so in 2022.

The second pattern of schooling in the U.S. that has emerged from the 18th and 19th centuries is how teachers taught students. Teacher pedagogy is linked intimately to the organizational structure of the age-graded school and the curriculum that state and local boards of education require teachers to teach. I have identified teacher-centered instruction as the prevalent pattern of teaching.

This way of teaching is where the individual teacher makes the bulk of classroom decisions in seating students, managing class behavior, determining who can talk or leave the room, and, finally, deciding what content and skills found in the state curricular guides will be included in each daily lesson. Even with a dearth of sources and fragmentary data, a few historians, including myself, have documented this prevailing way of teaching.

Beginning in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, however, challenges to that main way of teaching arose. Progressive educators in these decades sought a “New Education,” ways of teaching that permitted students to participate in classroom lessons and decide, based on their interests, what should be learned. Called student-centered instruction, educational reformers of the day–called “progressive educators”–sought ways of teaching that would incorporate students’ aptitudes and interests into those chunks of curricular content and skills that states and districts required teachers to teach. Here, again, historians have not only documented the presence of this new way of teaching that challenged the dominant practices of teacher-centered instruction but also made clear that the prevailing pattern of how teachers taught remained in place during these decades with only a small fraction of teachers ever embracing versions of the “New Education.”

These two patterns, that is, the prevailing organization of the age-graded school and dominant teacher-centered way of instruction, characterized U.S. public schools in the past. They do so as well in 2022. Moreover, these patterns are central to understanding what goes on in schools and classrooms in the U.S.

But suppose I am wrong. Suppose there are fundamental patterns of organizing public schools and teaching lesson in the past that I have missed or ignored. That is surely possible since historians have to deal in scattered sources, fragmentary evidence, and skewed sampling.

Since I do read extensively about education, past and present, however, I have yet to find other patterns that educators in the U.S. have evolved (I invite readers who have observed or participated in different ways of organizing schools and teaching to comment).

Or perhaps I am incorrect because there are other ways to organize classrooms and teach elsewhere in the world of which I am ignorant.

This latter possibility of my being unaware of other patterns in organizing schools and teaching approaches in other nations is one I want to explore. I may be incorrect in claiming these historic patterns of schooling and teaching in the U.S. are present in other nations. In the next post, I begin to look at other countries’ systems to see whether the patterns I have identified in the U.S. appear elsewhere.

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Golden Age of Schooling?

Writers have often described certain decades in a nation’s history as a “golden age” such as the “Golden Age of Ancient Athens” and, later of “Ancient Rome” (see here and here).

What about America? Has the U.S. had a “golden age?”

Some writers have claimed that the post-World War II decades of the 1950s through the early 1970s were a “golden age” (see here and here). These were the years when Americans found jobs in an expanding economy, started families, bought small homes in blossoming suburbs and sent their sons and daughters to spanking-new schools.

The federal government spent money on World War II veterans’ education, making home mortgages affordable, and building the nation’s interstate highway system. This massive spending sparked and sustained an economic boom through the 1950s and 1960s. It was a time when a man who had an eighth grade education and a steady job could buy a car, a small home for his family, and take them on a vacation.

A billboard from the 1950s
Tract homes became available to Americans in the 1950s

Typical school built in the 1950s

And there are writers who have claimed that these years were also a “golden age” for U.S. education. Colleges expanded dramatically as high school graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased in these decades. The quest for higher education opened portals to higher-salaried jobs and careers.

HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES RISE

Not  until the 1930s, did getting a high school diploma seem within reach of most U.S. teenagers. Until then, most dropped out. By 1940, about 40 percent of high schoolers graduated. And a decade later, just over half of high school students completed high school. The percentage climbed to 84 percent in 2000 and two decades later it was 91 percent (see here).

DROPOUT RATE DROPS

In 1960, just over one in four high school students had dropped out. A decade later that number had fallen to 15 percent. (see here). In 2019, the rate was 5 percent.

COLLEGE ATTENDANCE INCREASES: About 30 percent of American students attended college in 1950. That percentage increased to 52 by 1970 (see here and here). In 2019, two out of three high school graduates entered college.

Yes, Americans went to school in droves during these years. The numbers testify to expanded and extended schooling. But was it a “golden age” for all students?

Not for African American children and youth who were forced by law until 1954 and by iron-clad custom to attend separate and inadequate schools throughout Southern, Midwestern, and Western states in following decades. Nor for Latino boys and girls required to attend segregated schools in Southwestern states.

What was it like to go to school in these years? Some classroom photos offer clues.

The girl in the lower-left of the photo tells you that the photo is posed. A scene from the all black Thomy Lafon School in New Orleans (Photo by Robert W. Kelley//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) 2/2/1947-Uno,Virginia- Teacher Jackson is reading to his pupils here. All of them were born in Uno and come from ten families that make up the entire population of the village. White children go to school at nearby Orange.
Upper-grade elementary school classroom, 1950s

Athens, Tennessee Junior High School, 1959-1960
High School typing class, 1950s

Viewers can tell that many of these photos were posed. Nonetheless, student and teacher clothes, hair styles, furniture arrangements, and segregated schools in these decades illustrate what some classrooms looked like in the 1950s.

What about classrooms in the 1970s?

A sampling follows:

An elementary school teacher in Cambridge (MA) sits among students and reviews lesson, 1972

Children get instructions from teacher Barbara Friend during seventh grade French class at Junior High School 211 in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, New York, in 1972.

Snapshots of high school life in the 1970s

High school class watching televised educational program, 1970s

All of these classroom photos from the 1950s to the 1970s suggest common furniture arrangements, shifting fashions in clothes and hair styles but continuing teacher centrality.

There were, of course, exceptions to these arrangements in these decades.

Gifted children at President Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, work with small computers, rabbit skeletons, and microscopes in 1973.

FEB 23 1973, Varied Activities hold attention of Children in Open Space Classroom; Teacher standing here in classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Denver (CO) area is Mrs. Susan Leigh.; (Photo By Bill Peters/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

A Golden Age of Schooling in the 1950s through the 1970s? Maybe to some looking back through the hazy mist of time and maybe to those who need to believe in the past being far better than the present. Or maybe not.

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