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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!

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"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.’

 

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'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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Palimpsest of School Reform: Personalized Learning

Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).

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 Personalized learning, i.e.,tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student, has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and now. The School of One, AltSchool, and different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago. Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized learning–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

What I do in the rest of this post is clarify the original text of Progressive education a century ago, fast-forward to the 1960s when that Progressive impulse surfaced again, and leap ahead to the early 2000s for the current effort to personalize learning, connecting it to the Progressive reforms decades earlier.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and his embrace of science.

School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers”  during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured everything that was nailed down or moved. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives”and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neoprogressive reformers, borrowing from their  earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.”   Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.

As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and individualized learning, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”). The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to others in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade.

Personalized Learning Today

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging the cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.

But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

Tensions arise over end-of-year testing, meeting annual proficiency standards, and judging school performance on the basis of student scores. Few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized learning” in their schools have yet taken note of these conflicts.

Current innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered learning,   and “blended learning”  are written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education.  Efficiency in teaching students (faster, better, and at less cost) while teachers individualize instruction combines anew the two wings of the century-old Progressive education movement.

 

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Cartoons about Blogging and Bloggers

For this monthy feature, it is time to use the sharp pen of the cartoonist on those of us who blog. Teachers, principals, superintendents, academics, and policy analysts blog daily, weekly, and monthly. There are thousands of bloggers out there. Clicking the “publish” button and seeing one’s words out in cyberspace wreaking havoc, being ignored, clamoring for eyes fixed on one’s precious words–well, for those readers who blog, prepare to wince at some of these and maybe, just maybe, smile. Enjoy!

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'I blog, therefore I am.'

‘I blog, therefore I am.’

 

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High School Student Use of Computers: A Survey

Getting data from high school students on what computer devices they have, how often they use them, and for what purposes is uncommon.

In 2014-2015, a Northern California high school teacher, Sara Denniston (pseudonym), (see here and here) surveyed 211 of her history students about their daily use of computer devices, the devices they use, and whether they like to read online. For questions on the survey she constructed the choices that students picked. She gave me permission to use the results of her student survey. All numbers below are percentages.

How many digital devices do you have access to? (desktop, laptop,smart phone, tablet, iPod Touch)

one         two          three           four          five

6               33              36              16             8

Of those digital devices, 84 % of the students had smart phones.

 

Your attitude toward reading online?

 “I prefer reading online” “Reading online is OK but I prefer reading on paper”    “I hate reading online
               35            60                   5

 

How much time do you spend online each day ?

Less than an hour 1-2 hours 2-4 hours Five or more hours “too many”
4 30 40 10 15

 

How comfortable are you with finding info online and navigating websites?

Very competent/comfortable Somewhat comfortable Not comfortable at all
84                  15               1

 

 

What do these data tell me?

First, are the responses from 211 students representative of all high school students? This Northern California high school has nearly 1800 students with about half white and half minority (Asian and Latino). Nearly 20 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch–a measure of poverty used in U.S. public schools. Over 95 percent attend college after graduation. About one-third of the students take Advanced Placement exams with well over 80 percent of test-takers qualifying for college credit. So the students surveyed here represent high-performing students from middle- and upper-middle-class families determined to see their sons and daughters get a college degree. But what about students who attend academically low-performing schools in largely poor communities?

And that is my second point. Were this high school teacher’s survey given to students in schools that are de-facto segregated and poor what might be the results? A recent Pew Research Center survey of teenager use of devices, for example, found:

Nearly three-quarters of teens have or have access to a smartphone and 30% have a basic phone, while just 12% of teens 13 to 17 say they have no cell phone of any type. African-American teens are the most likely of any group of teens to have a smartphone, with 85% having access to one, compared with 71% of both white and Hispanic teens. These phones and other mobile devices have become a primary driver of teen internet use: Fully 91% of teens go online from mobile devices at least occasionally. Among these “mobile teens,” 94% go online daily or more often. By comparison, teens who don’t access the internet via mobile devices tend to go online less frequently. Some 68% go online at least daily. African-American and Hispanic youth report more frequent internet use than white teens. Among African-American teens, 34% report going online “almost constantly” as do 32% of Hispanic teens, while 19% of white teens go online that often.

Does the high use of hand-held devices among minority teens, then, mean that the digital divide outside of schools no longer exists? Maybe. Yet in most of these schools–but not those that have Bring-Your-Own-Devices (BYOD)–you see the common sign in hallways and classrooms:

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In most urban, low-performing schools, administrators and teachers see hand-held devices as serious distractions to the central task of improving academic achievement. Thus, de-facto segregated, low-performing schools are unready for BYOD. Unready also for another reason.

That reason is my third point. Do students learn more, faster, and better with BYOD? Cost-efficient as BYOD may appear to be does not mean that it is cost-effective. Advocates of BYOD cannot say with any degree of confidence that students learn more by having 1:1 access to their devices in classrooms. What is of greater importance, of course, are those crucial factors that come into play in determining whether students have learned: the teacher’s expertise and experience, her pedagogy, the socioeconomic background of students, the culture of the school and other influences. With all of the pluses and minuses accompanying 1:1 laptops and tablets, researchers and practitioners still tiptoe around the unanswered question: How much and in what ways do these devices contribute to students’ academic achievement?

Learning about students’ ownership of devices, how often they go online, what they like and dislike about using mobiles and tablets through surveys is helpful information to teachers. But such helpful information does not touch the important issues of how best to integrate devices and software into daily lessons and whether such integrated use increases students’ academic achievement.

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Cartoons on Reading and Writing

For this monthly’s cartoon feature, I have collected ones that get at the overarching purpose of schools to produce children and youth who can read and write well. Some of the cartoons may get you to smile, some may get you to scratch your head, and, maybe, just maybe, some will get you to laugh. Enjoy!

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