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Spilling the Beans on “Personalized Learning”

Years ago, I met Larry Berger at a conference. I had been impressed with the digital tools his company called Wireless Generation had developed to assess student learning and increase teacher efficiency. We talked briefly at the time. My hunch is that he neither remembers the conversation or my name.

Since that time, his career soared and he is now CEO of Amplify, a technology company once owned by Rupert Murdock’s News Corporation but since sold to Amplify executives who now run it. The company creates and develops curricular and assessment software for schools.

Rick Hess, educational policy maven at the American Enterprise Institute had invited Berger to a conference on the meaning of “personalized learning.” Berger could not attend and he asked a colleague who did attend to read a “confession” that he had to make about his abiding interest in “personalized learning.” Hess included Berger letter to the conferees and it appears below.

Until a few years ago, I was a great believer in what might be called the “engineering” model of personalized learning, which is still what most people mean by personalized learning. The model works as follows:

You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn.

Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.

Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment.

Then you make each kid use the learning object.

Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn’t learn it, you try something simpler.

If the map, the assessments, and the library were used by millions of kids, then the algorithms would get smarter and smarter, and make better, more personalized choices about which things to put in front of which kids.

I spent a decade believing in this model—the map, the measure, and the library, all powered by big data algorithms.

Here’s the problem: The map doesn’t exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library.

To be more precise: The map exists for early reading and the quantitative parts of K-8 mathematics, and much promising work on personalized learning has been done in these areas; but the map doesn’t exist for reading comprehension, or writing, or for the more complex areas of mathematical reasoning, or for any area of science or social studies. We aren’t sure whether you should learn about proteins then genes then traits—or traits, then genes, then proteins.

We also don’t have the assessments to place kids with any precision on the map. The existing measures are not high enough resolution to detect the thing that a kid should learn tomorrow. Our current precision would be like Google Maps trying to steer you home tonight using a GPS system that knows only that your location correlates highly with either Maryland or Virginia.

We also don’t have the library of learning objects for the kinds of difficulties that kids often encounter. Most of the available learning objects are in books that only work if you have read the previous page. And they aren’t indexed in ways that algorithms understand.

Finally, as if it were not enough of a problem that this is a system whose parts don’t exist, there’s a more fundamental breakdown: Just because the algorithms want a kid to learn the next thing doesn’t mean that a real kid actually wants to learn that thing.

So we need to move beyond this engineering model. Once we do, we find that many more compelling and more realistic frontiers of personalized learning opening up.

Berger’s confession about believing in “engineering” solutions such as “personalized learning” to school and classroom problems, of course, has a long history of policy elites in the 20th and 21st centuries seeing technical solutions to school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction flop. After the post-Sputnik education reforms introduced curricular reforms in math and the natural and social sciences, cheerleaders for that reform confessed that what they had hoped would occur didn’t materialize (see here). After No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, for example, one-time advocates for the law confessed that there was too much testing and too little flexibility in the law for districts and schools (see here).

“Buyer’s remorse” is an abiding tradition.

I have a few observations about contrition and public confessions over errors in thinking about “personalized learning.”.

First, those confessing their errors about solving school problems seldom looked at previous generations of reformers seeking major changes in schools.They were ahistorical. They thought that they knew better than other very smart people who had earlier sought to solve  problems in schooling

Second, the confessions seldom go beyond blaming their own flawed thinking (or others who failed to carry out their instructions) and coming to realize the obvious:  schooling is far more complex a human institution than they had ever considered.

Finally, few of these confessions take a step back to not only consider the complexity of schooling and its many moving parts but also the political, social, and economic structures that keep it in place (see Audrey Watters here). As I and many others have said often, schools are political institutions deeply entangled in American society, culture, and democracy. Keeping the macro and micro-perspectives in sight is a must for those seeking major changes in how teachers teach or how schools educate. Were that to occur the incidence of after-the-reform regret might decrease.




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What We Can Learn from Closure of [an All Girls] Charter School That DeVos Praised as ‘Shining Example’ (Claire Smrekar)

“Claire Smrekar is associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. Smrekar earned her doctorate in Education Policy at Stanford University in 1991. She conducts qualitative research studies related to the social context of education and public policy, with specific focus on the impact of desegregation plans and choice policies on families, schools, and neighborhoods. She is currently studying the effects of private school markets and demographic trends on school voucher plans. Professor Smrekar’s work has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Danforth Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the W.T. Grant Foundation, and Peabody College.

Smrekar is the author of numerous journal articles, book chapters, and reports. She is the author of three books: “The Impact of School Choice and Community: In the Interest of Families and Schools (1996),” State University of New York (SUNY) Press; “School Choice in Urban America: Magnet Schools and the Pursuit of Equity” (1999), Teachers College Press; and “From the Courtroom to the Classroom: The Shifting Landscape of School Desegregation” (2009), Harvard Education Press.

Smrekar’s research interests include the social context of education and the social organization of schools, with specific reference to family-school-community interactions in public, military-sponsored, non-public, and choice schools.”

This article appeared January 15, 2018 in The Conversation.


When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and first lady Melania Trump visited Excel Academy Public Charter School last spring, DeVos praised the school as a “shining example of a school meeting the needs of its students, parents and community.” Melania Trump called the charter school “an exceptional example of a school preparing young women both academically and personally so that they may succeed in a global community.”

The visit made international headlines due to the fact that it also featured Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan. In terms of publicity, a school could not ask for a better platform.

Unfortunately, we now know the praise the school got during its brief time on the world stage did not match its poor performance.

On Jan. 11, the DC Public Charter School Board voted unanimously, 6-0, to shut down the Pre-K-8, all-girls school at the end of the current school year. The board action wasn’t because of some sudden turn of events after Secretary DeVos, Melania Trump and Queen Raina paid their visit. Instead, records show, it was because the “trend for student performance over the past several years has been negative, despite any benefits that may have occurred from learning in an all-girl setting.”

Excel Academy charter school now joins the 200 to 300 charter schools that are shut down each year across the nation due to poor performance, financial shortcomings and low enrollments.

The Excel case magnifies how the cost of charter school failure is born by parents and their children, communities, educators and local residents. Indeed, many of the 700 or so girls who currently attend Excel must now scramble to find another school by next fall.

The closure of Excel represents a prime opportunity to focus on what we know about school choice and to move the discussion beyond ideological and partisan debates.

This is particularly crucial since between fall 2004 and fall 2014, overall public charter school enrollment increased from 900,000 to 2.7 million students. During this same period, the percentage of public school students who attended charter schools increased from 2 to 5 percent, and the percentage of all public schools that were charter schools increased from 4 to 7 percent. In addition to increasing in number, public charter schools have also generally increased in enrollment size over the last decade.

In 2017, the number of students enrolled in charter schools surpassed 3 million nationwide and the number of charter schools reached 6,900.

This past September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded US$253 million in grants through the Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Program to states and nonprofit charter management organizations. This level of funding is consistent with the level of federal support for charter schools in previous years.

Given all these developments, there is no better time for an honest discussion about what the research shows about charter school performance.

As the author of several books on school choice and a researcher who is currently examining the impact of choice policies on families, schools and neighborhoods, there are five points I would highlight that are based on the research on charter schools.

  1. The performance of charter schools as a whole varies widely. This is the most consistent finding across charter school evaluations. It serves to heighten the importance of continuous monitoring of how charters are authorized – and how they perform – as the number of charter schools continue to multiply across the nation.
  2. Similarly, the impact of charter middle schools on student achievement is a mixed bag based on various factors. In other words, you can’t say charter middle schools are better or worse than traditional public schools. It all depends. One study examined student performance in 36 charter middle schools across 15 states, and found that charter schools were “neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.” The study also found that “charter schools serving more low income or low achieving students had statistically significant positive effects on math test scores, while charter schools serving more advantaged students – those with higher income and prior achievement – had significant negative effects on math test scores.”
  3. The first three years of charter schools predict academic performance, financial viability and sustainability. In other words, it’s pretty much do or die for new charter schools. This finding underscores the need to be proactive. It suggests charter authorizers should work with new charter schools at the start – actually, well before the doors open. The proactive approach stands in stark contrast to a “wait to fail” posture where a school lingers and lurches toward the final days of operation. Is this educational malpractice? Maybe so.
  4. The overall performance of charter schools has increased between 2009 and 2013. This increase was driven in part by the presence of more high-performing charters and the closure of low-performing charter schools. Thus, while the recent decision to close Excel may be unfortunate for its students, it might ultimately be good for the overall quality and performance of the public charter school sector as a whole.
  5. Students who attend charter high schools are more likely to graduate than students who attend traditional public high schools. They are also more likely go to college and earn a higher income. “Maximum annual earnings were approximately $2,300 higher for 23- to 25-year-olds who attended charter high schools versus conventional public schools across the state of Florida,” concluded one recent study conducted by Vanderbilt University, Mathematica and Georgia State University.

As new charter schools continue to open at a rapid pace while others are shut down, charter school operators and supporters should pay close attention to what took place at Excel, which first opened its doors in 2008. This is particularly true for new charter schools that may be struggling academically.

Darren Woodruff, chair of the DC Public Charter School Board, explained how many of the steps that Excel planned to take to turn things around were too little too late.

In a written statement, Woodruff said Excel’s recent changes – including the planned addition of a chief academic officer and a school turnaround plan – all represent “welcome steps that ideally would have been implemented when the first indications of decreased student performance became evident.”

“However,” Woodruff said, “without these steps more fully in place and clear data on their impact, this Board lacks convincing evidence that Excel represents the best opportunity for these young girls that we all care so much about.”

The lesson for charter school leaders and advocates is that these kinds of things need to be in place on day one. This is especially important since the research shows the first three years of a charter school are so crucial.



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Cartoons on Grading

A recent post on this blog dealt with a teacher who gave every student he taught an A. It turned out badly for that teacher. Tests, report cards and grading have a long history of conflict between teachers and students, between students and parents, among students–well, any reader who has attended school anywhere in the world has had experience with tests, grades and report cards. Including cartoonists. Here are some that tickled me. I hope you enjoy them.






































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Whatever Happened to Mayoral Control?

On the ever-changing agenda of reformers seeking to alter the landscape of U.S. schooling, how schools have been governed ranked in the middle and seldom rose to the top. Locally elected school boards, established in the early 19th century, became a democratic way for lay people, that is, taxpayers and parents, to make policy and efficiently manage fiscal affairs, teachers, and administrators. From time to time, reform efforts to abolish local school boards for their inefficiencies, bad decisions,and occasional corruption occurred in the early 20th century, after World War II and, most recently in the 1990s and early years of the 21st century (see here and here).

While the number of school boards governing districts in the U.S. has decreased significantly from the 100,000 a century ago (there are now 13,000-plus among which there are about one thousand in California, 300 in Kansas, and one in Hawaii), locally elected school boards continue to make policy in districts.

Except for a few big city districts where severe criticism of elected school boards over lack of improved student outcomes insofar as test scores and graduation rates have come into play. Beginning in the early 1990s, a reform movement to have urban mayors run districts either by abolishing elected school boards or appointing majorities of its members has flourished. Where such governance changes occurred, mayors  folded the district superintendent into their cabinets thus making the city’s elected chief responsible for improving schools much as he or she governs the police, transportation, and sanitation departments. The reform push for mayoral control of big city schools has been largely motivated by making one person accountable to the electorate for the quality of school performance.

Where and When Did the Idea Originate?

Historically, mayors in a few cities have controlled schools since the 1950s (e.g., Baltimore City, Maryland; Jackson Mississippi). Beginning in 1991, Boston’s mayor appointed the school board and superintendent. Other cities followed: Chicago (1995), Cleveland (1998), Philadelphia (2001), New York (2002), and Washington, D.C. (2007). Between 1999 and 2005, Detroit’s mayor appointed most school board members until a city referendum returned authority to voters to elect their board. Also mayors in some medium size cities such as Harrisburg (PA) and Providence (RI) copied their larger cousins.

What Problems Did Mayoral  Control Intend To Solve?

In the aftermath of A Nation at Risk report (1983) and rising economic concern over the future workforce being predominately minority and lacking skills, reformers’ attention, including corporate leaders, shifted to big city districts where there were largely minority enrollments with high dropout and low high school graduation rates combined to small percentages of graduates attending college.

Mayoral control advocates believed that shifting governance from unresponsive elected school boards to mayorally appointed school boards and superintendents would make mayors fully accountable for the successes and failures of public schools. If voters disliked school outcomes, they could dump the mayor and get someone else.

Being accountable meant that heretofore unsolved problems of low academic achievement, low attendance rates, and high school graduates unprepared to enter the workforce could be improved through innovation and applying practices drawn from successful corporate firms (see here and here).

If the primary problem with urban districts was school board passivity in confronting low academic performance of students, then the solution was to change governance from elected boards of education to mayoral control of the schools.

What Does Mayoral Control Look Like?

It varies by city. In Boston where Mayor Tom Menino appointed Tom Payzant in 1995, Payzant served over a decade (Menino was re-elected four times providing a buffer for his superintendent). The Superintendent was part of the city administration. Payzant retired in 2006 to great applause for improving Boston’s schools.

In Detroit, it was a disaster. The state legislature permitted Mayor Dennis Archer to take over the schools. Years of political partisanship and racial conflict ensued and the district showed little improvement. In 2006, city voters restored an elected school board. In 2011, of 21 cities assessed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Detroit schools were the “worst.”

Variations continue. In Chicago (where Arne Duncan was appointed by the mayor and served eight years before becoming U.S. Secretary of Education in 2009), school performance received mixed reviews. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley who had appointed Duncan as CEO of the district said in a 2006 press conference, “Together, in 12 years we have taken the Chicago Public School system from the worst in the nation to the national model for urban school reform.” Not so, according to others.

In New York City where Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Joel Klein as Chancellor in 2002, significant changes occurred with closure of low-performing schools, sharp increases in newly established charter schools, expansion of school choice and steady improvements in rates of high school graduation, falling numbers of students dropping out of school, and rising test scores.

Does Mayoral Control Work?

The above record of variation in mayoral control across different cities suggests that the answer to the question of whether this change in governance “works” is, at best, mixed. While some researchers have claimed that mayors appointing school boards and superintendents is correlated with academic improvement (see here and here), the jury is still out on the question. And the question depends greatly on how “work” is defined and who does the defining.

For example, a number of big city superintendents from both mayorally controlled districts and districts with locally elected school boards have initiated what they call “portfolios” of options for parents to choose schools for their sons and daughters–neighborhood, charter, magnets, and alternative schools.

Portfolio school district” is a broad term based on a simple set of ideas: a district that
provides schools in many ways—including traditional direct operation, semi-autonomous
schools created by the district, and chartering or contracting to independent parties—but
holds all schools, no matter how they are run, accountable for performance. In a portfolio
district, schools are not assumed to be permanent but contingent: schools in which
students do not learn enough to prepare for higher education and remunerative careers
are transformed or replaced. A portfolio district is built for continuous improvement via
expansion and imitation of the highest-performing schools, closure and replacement of
the lowest-performing, and constant search for new ideas.

This is a natural experiment–those big cities experimenting with “portfolios” and those districts opting for other strategies– that researchers could explore (see here and here).

What Has happened to Mayoral Control?

The short answer is that mayoral control of urban districts continues to exist. Criticism, however, persists. Critics point to the shredding of locally elected boards and the loss of ways for parents  to express their points of view and, most importantly, the lack of clear student improvement. These criticisms trail efforts to spread mayoral control to other large and moderately large school districts in the U.S (see here and here).



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Why I Left Silicon Valley, Ed Tech, and “Personalized” Learning (Paul Emerich)

“Paul [Emerich] is a National Board Certified Educator and International Education Consultant. His writing has been featured in a number of prominent education publications, such as EdSurge, TeachThought, and the International Literacy Association’s “Literacy Today,” and his teaching practice has been featured in several national publications, such as Pacific Standard Magazine and the New Yorker. In his spare time, Paul also blogs for the Huffington Post.”

This post appeared January 15, 2018.

I started this blog five years ago now. I can’t believe it’s been that long. It’s taken me from Chicago to San Francisco and back. But somewhere over this five years–over the course of this journey on which I’ve so appreciated you following me–I started to lose some of my inspiration.

It started somewhere towards the end of my fifth year teaching, which also was the end of my first year working for a personalized learning start-up and network of private schools in Silicon Valley.

I had gone into the school year with unrelenting energy, thrilled to be opening a brand new micro-school and to work on technology tools that were intended to personalize my students’ learning. The idea sounded exhilarating: I was set to work with real engineers on a technology platform for the classroom. It would allow me to send individualized “cards” to a child’s “playlist.” These cards would house activities tailored to each of my children so that they could, in theory, learn at their own pace and at their own level. It sounded like the greatest idea ever known to man.

But it wasn’t long before the challenges of this brand of personalized learning set in.

Not only were we a brand new school, encountering the issues that new independent schools generally do, but in addition to that, we were tasked with the never-before-done vision of individualizing every child’s education. The workload was immense and unsustainable, and even when I felt like I was doing what we set out to do–curate educational playlists of cards that were specifically chosen for them–I didn’t feel like it was entirely effective. It was isolating with every child working on something different; it was impersonal with kids learning basic math skills from Khan Academy; it was disembodied and disconnected, with a computer constantly being a mediator between my students and me.

It seems like a lot of new information is coming out now–information I wished I’d known a few years ago. When I began working in Silicon Valley, personalized learning was very new. No one really knew what it meant, and as a result, it led to us having unrealistic expectations for what we could really achieve in the classroom and what was actually best for kids.

Most recently, Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at NYU, wrote about 5 risks posed by the increasing misuse of technology in schools, one of which being the ongoing threat of personalized learning. Additionally, Syndey Johnson, assistant editor of EdSurge Higher Ed, wrote that personalized learning practices promoting hyper-individualized technology could actually have negative effects on student learning.

Interestingly enough, I noticed this within my first year, well before these resources were made available. I noticed that we didn’t have the data to back up our approach. I noticed that my results in the first year were no better than those of mine in public school, and in some cases, worse than my results in public school. And simultaneously, I noticed that I was more burnt out than I had ever been–and with half the class size I’d had the year before.

Risk-taking means failing, and I think that’s okay to a certain point. When I got to the end of the school year that first year, hardly recognizing myself or the classroom that I came to every day, I realized that I had failed. I did my best to be kind to myself, to acknowledge the risks I’d taken, and to communicate the fruitful learnings of failure to my superiors.

After all, we tell our children it’s okay to fail, despite how crushing it may feel sometimes. And failure in this context felt absolutely crushing to me.

I should have known better, I thought to myself.

With time, I forgave myself and tried to learn from my mistakes. I moved away from hyper-individualized learning. I implemented more class-wide practices, learned more about the workshop model, and tried to hone my assessment practices so that I could meet the needs of individual learners sustainably through small-group work and more systematized feedback.

And while I felt as though I had begun to learn my lesson, slowly navigating away from hyper-individualized, industrialized personalization and more towards a humanized classroom that focused on student-driven practices, formative feedback, and engaging, project-based learning, my company traipsed forward with ultimately the same sexy theory: that personalization meant hyper-individualization, and that big data and a playlist would provide that.

I look back now, and I wish I would have said more. I wish I would have been even more outspoken. But I know how outspoken I was. I know how much I said. I shared my experience and my feelings so much that my words became white noise: an inconvenient truth that my superiors did not want to hear.

It broke my heart, to be frank.

I was so inspired by the company at the outset, excited to be in a private organization that truly valued teachers as 21st century knowledge workers. But as every month passed, my naïvete became resoundingly self-evident. This company I had joined was just that–a company. And their primary concern was not the children’s education: their primary concern was monetizing the tools. Their primary stakeholders were the investors who’d invested a great deal of money in this–albeit interesting–idea.

I’ve been gone from San Francisco for over half a year now, and my time in Silicon Valley is becoming but a distant memory. And as a result, you might wonder why I’m writing about this now.

I’m writing about this now because it’s still important.

I started a new job this past fall in Chicago. Upon my arrival, I was almost immediately known as the “personalized learning” guy. People knew about my resumé, my associated work, my blog, and other places I’d published online. When I discovered this, fear coursed through my veins. I was worried that, yet again, the same expectations would be placed upon me–to build 21 individualized curricula for 21 individuals. Luckily, my team and my superiors shared my vision for personalized learning–a vision that is less a trending fad and more focused on student agency and engineering a learning environment where all learners are welcome and able to succeed. And with that alignment, I shared my experiences and my learnings around personalization with my families within the first weeks of school.

I share this now publicly because I want teachers around the country to know that the vision for personalized learning that Silicon Valley preaches does not work. We proved it time and time again. Hyper-individualization does precisely what the emerging body of research says it does and more: it isolates children, it breeds competition, it assumes that children can learn entirely on their own, and it dehumanizes the learning environment, reducing the human experience of learning down to a mechanistic process, one where children become the objects of learning as opposed to the subjects of their own educational narrative.

Moreover, I share this now because I don’t want to see this pressure put on teachers–well-intentioned, hard-working teachers who already have trouble meeting the needs of the children in their classrooms. It breaks my heart to see this pressure being put on teachers, and it breaks my heart even more to know that I was once a part of the proliferation of this brand of personalized learning.

But I now can share what I wish I would have known some three-and-a-half years ago.

We must walk away from this hyper-individualized brand of personalized learning. We must walk away from its reductionism, assuming that education is simply an arrangement of individualized playlist cards or isolated experiences. We must run from the idea that technology is necessary to make the classroom a more personal and humanized place, because what personalizes the classroom is not fancy technology and big data: truly knowing children is what personalizes and humanizes a modern classroom.

Within the last year of my time in Silicon Valley, I spoke with an engineer about an idea he had. He fantasized about the notion that artificial intelligence (AI) technology could, in fact, play a role in personalized learning in the near future. I pushed back immediately, knowing full well the engineer would assure me that AI could very well do some of the jobs that teachers do now. And surely he did. He told me that, some day, the “future Paul France” would look back and see that AI could, in fact, do some of the jobs I do now.

I believe him. I’ve seen what’s possible in Silicon Valley, and I don’t doubt the ventures to which ambitious humans set their minds. That said, I’d never want a computer to do what I do. What I do requires curiosity, compassion, and heart. What I do requires a yearning to contribute to something greater than myself.

I’m sure that an engineer well-versed in AI would tell you that this–curiosity, compassion, heart–that it’s all theoretically possible. And I’m sure it is. But technologists know that good technology is only built to fulfill needs that didn’t previously have solutions. Curiosity, compassion, and a love for learning are needs that are already accounted for.

They are accounted for by teachers–not computers.


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Program Success or Failure? A Note from the Past

Here is a story about a program I taught in and directed over 50 years ago.  What I experienced raised puzzling questions about what constitutes program success and failure that I thought I could answer then but cannot do so now.

In the mid-1960s, I taught in and later directed a federally-funded teacher training program located in Grimke elementary school, Banneker and Garnet-Patterson Junior High Schools, and Cardozo High School in Washington, D. C. The Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, as it was then called, prepared returned Peace Corps Volunteers to teach in urban schools. The “interns,” as they were called, taught for half-days under the supervision of master teachers, took university seminars on-site after-school, and in evenings and late-afternoons developed curriculum materials and worked in the community. At the end of the year the “interns”  were certified to teach in the District of Columbia and were on their way to earning a master’s degree in their field through two local universities (see here and here).

An independent evaluation confirmed that 61 interns had completed the training between 1963-1967. Of the 56 who had finished (two had died and three left the program to raise families), 42 (or 75 percent) were teaching in urban schools, other federally-funded programs, or overseas–one goal of the program. The on-site training, the supervision by D.C. teachers, and after-school seminars seemed to be a fruitful mix for channeling trained rookies into the system. The evaluation and praise for the program led the D.C. School Board to fund and rechristen the program as the Urban Teacher Corps–another goal of the pilot program.

Getting a school board to use its limited monies to continue a federally-funded pilot program meant that school officials saw its worth in meeting District of Columbia goals. That is a mark of success in any playbook of school reform then and now.

Consider further that the program model of training new teachers became the poster-child for a federal initiative to train teachers nationally for high-poverty urban and rural schools. The National Teacher Corps legislation (1966) adopted the model used at Cardozo, Banneker, and Grimke for training teachers on-site but rather than fund districts, federal officials funneled monies to universities that took responsibility for awarding degrees (see here and here).

Surely, the pilot program achieved two of its goals: three of four interns became full-time teachers after completing the program. And the program was adopted by an urban district using locally budgeted funds. Accomplishing both goals suggests program effectiveness, a sign of clear success. That the pilot program became the model for a National Teacher Corps further cements the sweet smell of success.

There is a “however” to this seeming success story that needs to be mentioned. After the Urban Teacher Corps became part of the D.C. schools, the Board of Education fired its superintendent and in 1970 appointed Hugh Scott its first black superintendent. During Scott’s brief administration (he resigned in 1973), he dismantled the Urban Teacher Corps. Together the federally-funded pilot program and locally-funded UTC existed for just under a decade.

Similarly, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the National Teacher Corps disappeared as federal monies for education went to the states in bloc grants. The NTC had lasted just over a decade.

The disappearance of both teacher-training programs within ten years suggests failure even though they could be fairly characterized as successes in achieving their primary goals. Success or failure? If it is either/or then determining whether the program should go down in the books as a successful reform in districts recruiting and training new teachers and then have it disappear raises questions about how does one define program success—achieving goals? Longevity? Or are there gray areas in defining success that seldom get attention?

I want to add one other piece to the puzzle and finish the story.

On the cusp of leaving the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, I asked a professor at the University of Maryland to find out if the students in classes of elementary and secondary school interns achieved less, about the same, or more than students who had non-intern teachers. While raising student achievement was not an explicit goal for the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching or the Urban Teacher Corps there was an assumption (which I shared), that well trained teachers would eventually lead to better teaching and better teaching would lead to higher student  achievement.

The professor designed a study where students in classes taught by interns were matched with students taught by regular D.C. teachers. With no district-wide standardized test available, the professor used the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as the outcome measure of teaching in reading, math, and other skills. About a year later, the professor called me up and said he had the results. We met for coffee and he showed me what he had found.

In both elementary and secondary classrooms of interns and regular teachers, students in regular classrooms did marginally better than those in intern classrooms. While the percentile scores in both sets of classes were fairly low compared to the national average,  I was still shocked. I had believed that the teacher-training program I taught in and eventually directed was so strong that even in one year with “interns” D.C. students would do well academically. I was wrong.

Although standardized testing was becoming common–the year is 1968–as a consequence of the Coleman Report (1966) and the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) which required outcome measures to hold districts accountable for the federal dollars they received, I knew little then about the design and methodology the professor had used to evaluate student achievement.

Of course, now I realize that there were flaws in the evaluation design—it was not a random sample of students or interns; the test questions covered content and skills that students had not yet reached in the D.C. curriculum; only one year was covered–still I was shaken by the results.

So I come to the end of my story and the puzzle of defining success that still has its hooks in me. Here is an example of a pilot program that initially appeared as a success in achieving its primary goals. The Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching baptized later by the D.C. administration as the Urban Teacher Corps had the distinct smell of success. Adding to the fragrance was the founding of the National Teacher Corps. Yet within a decade these teacher training programs disappeared.

And, finally, as an after-thought, I discovered that students achieved less well in  classes taught by interns than did students in regular classrooms. Even though raising student achievement was not one of the goals of these programs, the results turned my assumptions inside out. Reform outcomes are seldom tidy.

Why this story? It is part of a puzzle that policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and political leaders still cannot resolve when it comes to determining success or failure of a particular reform. And it is one that I continue to work on.












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Sharp Decline in High School Graduation Exams Is Testing the Education System (Jay Mathews)

This article appeared December 31, 2017 in the Washington Post.

“Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.”

In this new year, we are experiencing a drastic change in the way U.S. students are assessed. A national movement led by educators, parents and legislators has greatly cut back high-stakes standardized testing in public schools.

Five years ago, 25 states had standardized high school exit exams whose results affected graduation. Now, only 13 states are doing that. A report by the nonprofit FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing has revealed this shift and chronicled efforts to reduce many other kinds of testing.

It’s a breathtaking turnabout, but without much celebrating. National dissatisfaction with our schools hasn’t changed much. It is at 52 percent, according to the Gallup Poll, about where it was in 2012 when 25 states had exit tests. That may have something to do with another development even more important to our schools’ futures.

In December, the Collaborative for Student Success, in partnership with Bellwether Education Partners, reported on state efforts to install creative programs to boost achievement, as encouraged by the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Those efforts are failing miserably, according to 45 experts (including many teachers) who peered deeply into the state plans required by the new law. “States largely squandered the opportunity . . . to create stronger, more innovative education plans,” the report said. “Most states did not indicate specific steps to improve underperforming schools, nor did they describe concrete, rigorous interventions that underperforming schools should implement.”

You may say: So what? Who needs the states or the feds to improve our schools? Educators, parents and students working together can get it done.

In some cases, that is true. In every chapter of our long national education story, innovative teachers, often with parental help, have instituted deeper, livelier, more demanding lessons. As the country has become more affluent and its families more ambitious, the better our schools have become.

But that has been a slow process, with frustrating ups and downs. The rash of standardized testing after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in the early 2000s did not raise achievement averages very much, but the Collaborative for Student Success study indicates that reducing exit tests is not likely to bring much improvement, either. Other high-stakes exams that affect grades, such as finals written by teachers, will continue to have a big impact on students’ lives.

The 13 states that have high school exit exams are Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Public high schools in other states must still give state tests, even if they don’t affect diplomas.

Parts of Maryland and Virginia, along with the District, make up the very education-conscious Washington area. That region continues to have the highest concentration of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge testing in the country. Those are nongovernment programs mostly out of the reach of the legislatures and boards that have reduced exit tests.


The effort to raise school standards since I left high school in the 1960s has been a carnival ride. The growing use of the SAT to measure high schools in the 1970s brought a backlash, as did the landmark 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report, the 1990s standards movement, the federal No Child Left Behind law in the 2000s and the Common Core State Standards in the past decade or so.

We love making schools more accountable. Then, we hate the idea. This new decline of exit tests will almost certainly be followed by another burst of outrage and a renewed campaign to raise achievement. The Collaborative for Student Success study notes that many states “proposed graduation rate goals that far exceeded proficiency rates by 20 percentage points or more, creating the potential for states to graduate students that are not adequately prepared for their futures.”

That’s the way it goes, back and forth, learning advancing in some places, languishing in others. Fortunately, our schools are still attracting many energetic and creative teachers who want to make a difference. As always, that will be what saves us.



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