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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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After 20 years, a Teacher Reinvents Her Classroom Using Technology (Nichole Dobo)

Nichole Dobo, a reporter, writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a journalist has focused on education. This post appeared on October 15, 2014. The Hechinger Institute is a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education

Teacher Valyncia O. Hawkins knew she needed extra time with students who arrived in her classroom behind grade level, but slowing down the whole class risked boring the more advanced students. But even after 20 years as a teacher, Hawkins still didn’t have a good method to keep everyone moving forward. The 21 children in her classroom at Anne Beers Elementary School shared the label of fifth grader, but they arrived with different needs. It was clear she was losing some of them. It was disheartening.

“When I would stand and talk they would be bouncing off the walls,” Hawkins recalled.

Convinced there had to be a better way, this D.C. Public Schools Teacher took a fellowship with the CityBridge Foundation in 2013 to research and develop a new teaching method. She traveled to see other schools in states such as California and New Jersey, and she noticed technology offered a solution. It inspired her to create a new method of instruction. And in the process she found her zeal for teaching returned.

Today, she is no longer standing in front of the room for a whole class period, trying to keep everyone on the same page. She developed a new style of teaching that gives students a mix of technology and small-group instruction. Online tools, most of them free, helped her customize lessons for students. She periodically checks progress through the year to adjust.

“I am meeting them where they are,” she said.

That’s not to say she found a method that is easier. It requires a lot of advance planning. She must craft several lesson plans for one class period.

On a recent day, when students arrived the first task was correcting the punctuation on two sentences projected on a smart board. Everyone gathered at the front of the room, composition books in hand, and they got to work fixing run-ons. They had four minutes to do it. Hawkins knew some students would move quicker, and her new teaching method meant she was prepared for it.

After answering correctly, students grabbed laptop computers and got to work on more challenging problems provided by online lessons that allowed them to work at their own pace.

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This allowed Hawkins to work with students who took longer to arrive at the right answer.

“After we add a period is the ‘I’ lowercase?” Hawkins asked the smaller group who remained.

“No,” a student responded, a few moments later.

“Right, it is capitalized because you are always important,” Hawkins said.

A blended learning classroom gives children a mix of online and in-person instruction, and some say it offers more personalized learning. There are many ways teachers can do it, but Hawkins created something that is her own model. There is a lot of movement in her classroom, with many students breaking off to work on lessons at their own pace after the starting the class together. Groups of desks offer places for children to gather to work on laptops. A small couch near the front allows for comfy seating for small group-instruction at a smart board. Singular desks in corners welcome children who seek solitude while they work.

The children are often allowed a measure of independence. For instance, they can choose from several vocabulary lessons. They can wear headphones. Or not.

Student JaNaia Jackson, 10, said her favorite lessons in English are finding the theme and main idea, she said. She notices that some of her peers like to take the computers off and work quietly on their own. Others like to stay near each other. There are other perks, such as getting to write with a tool that is preferred over a pencil and paper.

“I love to type,” she said. “I just love to work on typing.”

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Right now, Hawkins is the only educator using this model of teaching in her school. In other D.C. schools, the district is coordinating blended-learning experiments.

Hawkins has noticed students are more engaged and there are fewer behavioral issues, something other D.C. educators said they have noticed with this model of instruction. The novelty of the technology isn’t the only factor, Hawkins said. Personalized instruction that allows students some freedom to explore keeps them from getting bored or frustrated.

“It just helped me feel like I was contributing to the learning of the students,” Hawkins said. “It helped address those students who don’t necessarily follow the norms.”

That’s not to say the transition was easy or the results perfect. Hawkins considers her classroom a work in progress. She continues to remodel it to fit the needs of the school day and her students.

This year, for example, she had to re-organize her blended classroom because she now teaches English language arts to all fifth graders in the school. Before, she taught multiple subjects to the same 20 students all day. The new schedule means she has more students, so she is customizing plans for about 63 children who transition in and out of her room for English class. The new schedule has also shortened the class-time window. (That’s not to say there is less time for English and language arts at the school — writing instruction is now included across other subjects, such as science class.)

Another challenge: Managing the multiple online platforms, such as quizzes, learning games and online grade reporting for parents. Data on the websites she uses aren’t connected so Hawkins has to juggle them to monitor how her students are progressing.

But those obstacles haven’t sent Hawkins back to the familiar way of teaching. She continues to find a way to navigate, and it often means finding low-cost, or free, help.

Volunteer students from Georgetown University spend time in her classroom as aides to help with things like transitions between the groups and the inevitable technical issue, such as a misplaced log in for a computer. And plastic milk crates Hawkins snagged in the cafeteria are the perfect size for storing student folders that organize personalized learning materials. To organize online resources, she puts links on a free website that she’s used for the classroom for a long time. Students are in one of five groups based on their ability level. Each group has a “playlist” of lessons. They access it in the classroom, and it’s available at home for the students who have Internet access.

On Tuesday, most students worked independently on computers in the classroom to answer a question about the class word of the day, “persistence.” Meanwhile, Hawkins stood in front of about 10 students with the word projected on a smart board. The students were asked to define the word. They wrote in composition books, pencils in hand and dictionaries by their side.

Hawkins challenged students to explain how the word “persistence” was subtly different than the examples they were giving, which would better fit the word “repetition.” She called the entire classes’ attention, including the faster-moving students who had been working independently. They had a joint class discussion, and together everyone arrived at the answer.

“Even though you know there is trouble ahead you have persistence,” Hawkins said.

 

 

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Another Educated Guess about Philanthropy and School Reform

Every reform movement leaves a residue in public schools. Consider the “best” elementary school in any U.S. city during the 1890s before the Progressive education reforms cascaded over public schools in the early 20th century.*

The “best” elementary school (often called “grammar” school) of the 1890s, situated in a middle-class part of the city, had at least eight large classrooms–one for each grade–where teachers taught all the subjects to groups of 40-50 children sitting in rows of bolted down desks.

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The teacher’s task was to cover the entire prescribed curriculum during the school year, have students recite–often standing up–portions of the textbook, and repeat what has been learned on periodic tests. At the end of the semester, teachers would decide which students would get promoted and which ones would be held back. In immigrant neighborhoods of the same city, elementary school buildings, curriculum and pedagogy were the same but what differed was that not all immigrant children  attended school and those that did often dropped out by the end of the third grade and worked in sweatshops, peddled newspapers, picked up off jobs on the street, or worked in industrial jobs that needed quick and small hands and feet.

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Much of that “best” 1890 elementary school changed with the slow penetration of progressive education reforms over the next forty years. The reform movement looked to the “whole child” beyond absorbing what the teacher said and what was contained within textbooks. The physical, social, psychological, emotional, and general well being of the student was at the heart of the progressive ideology of reform in these decades. By 1940, the “best” elementary school building now had more than a dozen classrooms, a lunchroom, auditorium, outside playground, suites of rooms for a visiting doctor to examine students and a separate room for an on-site nurse, a social worker, and, if space permitted, a psychologist who would administer individual intelligence tests. The curriculum still contained reading, math, and science and a new subject called “social studies,” but the content itself and new textbooks were geared to real-world examples rather than traditional content taught in the late-19th century.

Trinity Lutheran School 03-14-2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In progressive classrooms, movable chairs and desks replaced the rows of bolted down ones. Kindergartens where five year olds would work and play in large airy, furnished rooms with a reading area, sand box, artist corner, and blocks became part of the age- graded school. While textbooks still reigned supreme in the upper grades, additional books and materials appeared in classrooms. Many elementary school teachers began dividing up their entire class–still in the 30+ student range–into reading groups where a teacher would assign tasks to the rest of the class while she–by now teachers were mostly single women–would work with handful of students on a reading or math lesson. Instead of straight recitation from the text, often in unison, the “best” teachers in this “best” elementary school would guide a whole-group discussion of a topic calling on individual students who raised their hands to respond to teacher questions but no longer had to stand and recite memorized passages.

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Since the early 1950s, when progressive schools came under political attack and a new wave of reforms swept across U.S. schools, deposits of these earlier reforms remained in elementary schools even after  the word “progressive” became a naughty word in the lexicon of school reformers. An informed observer walking into a “best” elementary school in 2014 would see vestiges of a much earlier progressive movement to improve schools.

Now fast forward to the first decade of the 21st century after thirty years of market-driven and donor-supported school reform. Vestiges of these decades of reform, like earlier progressive reforms, I am guessing, will be quietly incorporated into public schooling. Charter schools will survive, standardized testing will persist but be scaled back, a downsized version of a national curriculum standards will be in evidence, routine use of technologies will show up in classrooms, reduced  accountability regulations will be around but penalties will be fewer. While a high regard for student outcomes will persist, other outcomes of learning in the arts, humanities, and emotional growth will emerge.

Other current reforms such as evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, ending tenure and seniority, calling principals CEOs, and children learning to code will be like tissue-paper reforms of the past (e.g., zero-based budgeting, right- and left-brain teaching) that have been crumpled up and tossed away.

Also the idée fixe of schools concentrating on producing human capital first and civic engagement second or third will persist but lose its potency slowly as popular pushback against too much standardized testing and a national curriculum grow in momentum.

I have seen many waves of school reform in my adult life as a teacher, administrator, and researcher. As a researcher, I have studied both 19th and 20th century school reform movements. In each movement then, bits and pieces of prior school reforms stuck. For contemporary policymakers and philanthropists who have invested much time, energy, and monies into these market-driven reforms and are alive, say 20 years from now, I would guess, will not break out the champagne for these remnants.

 

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*Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School (New York: Vintage Press, 1961); David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue (New York: Basic Books, 1982)); Someone Has To Fail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform (New York Simon & Schuster, 2000).

 

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Teaching World and U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 4)

In earlier posts, I have described and interpreted how a high school history teacher taught history in a failing school (see here and here). In Part 3, I described a veteran history teacher in the same school and the four lessons he taught when I observed him in November 2013. Gary Hart (a pseudonym) taught world and U.S. history. In all of the lessons I watched, the sequence of activities unfolded in the same order: students signing in when they entered, sitting and talking until Hart caught their attention directing them to answer questions on the white board, the teacher supervising their  answering questions with scattered students chatting and having to be admonished repeatedly before settling into the task. In each class, Hart used worksheets drawn from the textbook covering particular pages and then supervised students by walking around as most (but not all) students completed the task. At the end of the period, Hart collected  both students’ answers to questions on the whiteboard and the worksheet. Occasional interruptions for dealing with cell phones and PA announcements jiggled the routines during the four lessons. Nonetheless, the activities occurred in this sequence.

Overall, what I saw in the four lessons I can sum up briefly.  Most students were disengaged from the content of the world history unit on late-19th century imperialism in Africa. A climate for learning content and skills of thinking was absent in each and every class I observed. A few students would answer questions asked by the teacher but the Q & A was, at best, dispirited. Surely, except for occasional disruptions, there was compliance; most of the students did as he directed. There is no question in my mind that the teacher had prepared lessons drawn from the textbook and knew that content thoroughly. His skills in managing the class were evident although there were moments, especially over cell phone use and persistent chatting, that became dicey.

If Mark Allison, his veteran colleague, (see here) went beyond the textbook and engaged his classes in African American history and they responded to questions on the photos he presented even asking questions from time to time, I saw no such engagement in these four world history and U.S. history lessons.  Clearly, these two teachers got compliance from their students, at least the ones that attended, and one of them went beyond compliance by creating a reasonable facsimile of a learning climate and interest in the Civil Rights movement.

So what sense do I make of what I observed? As in an earlier post, I return to contextual factors that I believe influenced Hart’s teaching.

First, the contextual factors. In Part 2 of these four posts,, I laid out how student backgrounds come to influence in positive and negative ways how students respond to history lessons. Nearly all students in the school, for example, are eligible for free and reduced price meals–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement. Ill health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences take their toll. Poverty is not an excuse for either behavior or achievement; it is, however,  an abiding factor that cannot be ignored.

Also the organization of Greenwich as an age-graded high school with departments and its place in the district affected what happened in classrooms.

For example, classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance, Hart did reasonably well given the organizational factors within which he labored. School and district policies made low attendance and high tardiness a school norm. Moreover, Greenwich has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal had been notified that the school would be restructured which meant teachers that teachers  would have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” often erodes teacher motivation to teach at the top of his or her game.

There is another contextual factor that matters for Hart and his colleagues. The state has adopted the federally funded Race To The Top program of teacher evaluations in order to secure additional monies. And that means 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation depends on the student standardized test scores.

That bothered Hart a great deal. He complained about the unfairness of a system that based half of his evaluation on student test scores. Because Greenwich students did poorly on these tests year after year there was no way that he could reach the highest category (“Accomplished”) when the principal evaluated him  even if he taught stellar lessons. For Hart, the evaluation system was skewed against him and his fellow teachers.

While these contextual factors surely played a part in what and how Hart taught, there were individual factors that mattered also. Hart claimed that he rewarded students with pizza parties and displayed work of successful students. That he did all of that, I have little doubt. However,  in the four lessons I observed, he lacked passion for the lesson content and the activities that he designed. In every lesson, he marched the group mechanically through routines in which students were clearly disengaged. The 40 minute lesson was something both students and teacher endured.

For 2014-2015, the “reconstitution” year, the principal chose Mark Allison and not Gary Hart to teach at Greenwich.

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