Washington Irving’s short story about the 18th century ne’er-do-well Dutch-American farmer in the Catskill Mountains of New York who drank whiskey and then fell asleep for 20 years has become part of American literature, the arts, and idiom.
The story of Rip Van Winkle also made it into comic books;
OK, Larry, you’ve made the point that the fictional Rip Van Winkle has become part of American culture since Washington Irving’s story was published over two centuries ago. What’s the connection to modern public schools?
Suppose a teenage Rip Van Winkle had gone through school and graduated in the mid-1970s. He then went to a party and afterwards fell asleep in his car. Rip then awakened in 2023.
I know that this is a far-fetched connection to the story but stick with me.
In what ways had U.S. public schools changed and remained stable since Rip attended schools in the 1970s?
Some changes are obvious. There are fewer school districts in the nation now then a half century ago (e.g., 18,000 then and 13,800 now). Number of students attending public schools went from 46 million in 1970 to just over 50 million in 2018. And high school students that graduated? in 1970, it was 80 percent climbing to 85 percent in 2018.
Federal and state legislation to improve schools has become a staple of reform. On the federal front there was a decided press for school improvement: President’s Clinton’s pushing of curriculum standards in the 1990s; President George H.W. Bush with No Child Left Behind (2002); President Barack Obama’s Push for Common Core standards and Race To the Top programs. At the state level, prodded by Congressional infusions of new money and redirection of earlier funds, nearly all states adopted higher high school graduation standards, increased state testing, and developed an array of incentives and penalties for school districts to vie for and avoid.
And teachers and schools? There were just over 2 million public school teachers in 1970 and a half-century later, there were 3.1 million million. The number of age-graded elementary and secondary schools went from 166,600 in 1950 to just under 100,000 a half-century later. As for getting teachers into classrooms in these decades, there was little change. Districts hired teachers and assigned them to schools where principals placed each teacher in a classroom to work with anywhere from 20-40 or more students during these decades.
What about publicly-funded charter schools? An innovation from the 1990s, charter schools were touted as competitors to regular public schools? Charters would prod conventional public schools to both change and improve. In 2023 there are 7,800 charters enrolling over 3.5 million or 7.5% of all public school students. In other words, after 30 years of hype and drama over charter schools, 92,5 percent of American children and youth still attend regular public schools three decades after charters initially appeared.
Numbers of course, can only suggest the growth and changes that have occurred in this large decentralized system of U.S. schooling since its mid-19th century origins. Thus, these data, offer a mere outline, a partial picture of U.S. public schools over the past half-century. Adding more detail to these fragments are the school issues that grabbed headlines in the 1970s and a half-century later in the 2020s.
Our teenage Rip Van Winkle reawakened in 2023 would have recognized these issues. And probably Rip would have recognized his peers even if they dressed differently as they posed for photos.
Some photos of students from a half-century ago:
And what about the dominant issues of the day? As reported in the media of that decade, the major issues boiled down to the following:
*Desegregation and busing
*Equal access to schools for the disabled
*Criticizing and banning textbooks
*The growth of Black studies in schools
*Decline of U.S. schools
With the Convid-19 pandemic beginning in early 2020 and school closures for weeks and months across the country, those closures and re-openings dominated media. With the coronavirus still active and reopened schools for past two years, sorting out the major issues of student “learning loss” and pandemic-connected problems from issues that received less attention is more difficult but not impossible.
Photos of children and youth in 2020s:
Apart from pandemic-related events, as reported in the media, major issues over the past decade (2010s-2020s) identified by Education Week and the Washington Post are:
*Underfunded public schools
*Teachers banned from discussing certain topics (e.g., race and social class) with their students
*More parental influence and control over curriculum
*Guns and violence in schools
*Teaching about climate change
*Student learning loss from pandemic
Some issues from the 1970s remain salient in 2023. And some are new. Media attention has shifted over decades–which is what media does since its over-riding goal is to capture eyeballs and ears. Evanescent media attention, however, does not mean that the problem has disappeared. Only that the spotlight has shifted. While media attention to each of these has flowed and ebbed over the years, the stability of many of these issues is noteworthy. Even to our teenage Rip van Winkle.
From time to time I have published posts that take a look at innovations that policymakers and practitioners hailed as “transforming” or “revolutionary” insofar as altering how districts conduct business, schools work, teachers teach and students learn. Not only hyped in the media and by word-of-mouth, these innovations spread across thousands of schools in the U.S. as their brand became known. Each turned out to be a reform du jour.
Such stories are a reminder of the ever-changing topography of U.S. schooling. Historians of education are like geologists who inspect strata of rock formations for what flora and fauna existed in earlier times and what accounts for their appearance and seeming disappearance. But most important of all, is how the birth and disappearance of an innovation affects the present.
For this post, I examine the “Open Classroom” that mushroomed in schools and districts in the late-1960s through most the 1970s. To describe the innovation, I ask some of the questions that Jane David and I used when we wrote Cutting through the Hype (2010) and added a few that answer: “Whatever happened to ….”
If some readers are curious about particular reforms they experienced and now seem to have disappeared, please send me your thoughts.
The “open classroom,” an innovation that swept over U.S. schools between the late 1960s and early 1970s (see here and here), caused a few waves only to disappear from schools by the end of the decade with nary a ripple since. But appearances can be deceiving.
Where did the idea originate?
U.S. educators who visited British schools in the late-1960s spread the gospel of “open classrooms” in the Plowden Report (also called “open education” and “informal education”). Policymakers, academics, practitioners, and student-centered reformers watched teachers teach and listened to headmasters about the child-centeredclassroom that echoed in the ears of U.S.visitors as Deweyan progressivism clothed in 1960s apparel. Americans returned to their classrooms, schools, and districts filled with the optimism that accompanies true believers and began instituting open classrooms in big city and suburban districts (see here).
What is it?
Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs, cushions, and chairs moved 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 (see here).
In both Britain and the United States, open classrooms contained no whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum. The best of the open classrooms had planned settings where children came in contact with things, books, and one another at “interest centers” and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher. Teachers structured the classroom and activities for individual students and small work groups. They helped students negotiate each of the reading, math, science, art, and other interest centers on the principle that children learn best when they are interested and see the importance of what they are doing.
Consider the scene from a 3rd-grade open classroom in a New York City elementary school described by two proponents, Walter and Miriam Schneir, in a 1971 New York Times Magazine article:
What is most striking is that there are no desks for pupils or teachers. Instead, the room is arranged as a workshop.
Carelessly draped over the seat, arm, and back of a big old easy chair are three children, each reading to himself. Several other children nearby sprawl comfortably on a covered mattress on the floor, rehearsing a song they have written and copied into a song folio.
One grouping of tables is a science area with . . . magnets, mirrors, a prism, magnifying glasses, a microscope. . . . Several other tables placed together and surrounded by chairs hold a great variety of math materials such as “geo blocks,” combination locks, and Cuisenaire rods, rulers, and graph paper. . . . The teacher sits down at a small round table for a few minutes with two boys, and they work together on vocabulary with word cards. . . . Children move in and out of the classroom constantly.
Some photos of Open Classrooms in the 1970s:
“Gifted children at President Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, work with small computers, rabbit skeletons, and microscopes. California was one of 10 states that had full-fledged education programs for the gifted in 1973.“
“Taped individual programs with headsets, open classroom, Granada Community School, Belvedere-Tiburon, California. Photo: Rondal Partridge. Source: Robert Propst, High School: The Process and the Place, ed. Ruth Weinstock (New York: Educational Facilities Laboratories, 1972).”
What Problem Did Open Classrooms Intend to Solve?
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 traditional teaching through lectures, textbooks, and tests. Such teaching turned off students to authentic learning and could be transformed through “open classrooms” where student passions, interests, and curiosity could unfold through projects, learning centers, integration of different subjects, and multi-age groupings.
Richly amplified by the media, “open education” in its focus on students learning by doing resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms as just the right kind of solution to what ailed traditional public school teaching and learning.
Did Open Classrooms Work?
Depends on how one defines “work.” If the common measure of “work” is increased test scores on standardized tests, then the answer is somewhere between “maybe” and “no.” After all, the progressive/constructivist approach to teaching and learning, classroom organization, and student participation sought to increase student outcomes such as independent thinking, problem-solving, increased creativity, and others that few available tests then (and now) measured. Researchers and teachers who believed in the principles of informal education and adopted the innovation, adapting its organization and techniques to the students in their classrooms, more often than not, concluded that Open Classrooms worked (see here and here)
What Happened To Open Classrooms?
“Open classrooms” peaked in the mid-1970s and within a few years the innovation moved from the center of the public radar screen to a mere blip on the edge. There were both external and internal reasons for the shrinking of “open classrooms.”
Public concerns over a lagging economy, rising unemployment, and the Vietnam War grew into a perception, again amplified by the media, that academic standards had slipped, desegregating schools had failed, and urban schools had become violent places. School critics’ loud voices and rising public concern over these messy problems melded into “back-to-basics” policies that toughened the curriculum, increased the teacher’s authority, and required more work of students. Public perceptions of “open classrooms” tilted toward low academic standards and high emphasis on what today would be called “social emotional learning.”
Because there were different definitions of what exactly an “open classroom” was and how it worked, teachers varied in which parts of the innovation (e.g., multiple learning centers, flexible time schedule, student choices) they would adopt and adapt. Thus, putting the innovation into practice differed from classroom to classroom in a school, from school to school, and from district to district.
Then there was the increased workload of teachers to find materials, integrate different academic subjects into units, reorganize space and furniture in their classrooms, and shift in their beliefs about how best students learn. Much was expected of the teacher.
Consider also the students. Increased student choice depended a great deal upon their motivation, interests, and aptitudes. Most students relished the increased role that they played in their learning but there were (and are) many students who needed prodding and would avoid choices that gave them more work to do.
Both internal and external reasons combined to remove the “open classroom” innovation from public attention and practitioner interest.
Times have changed. Standards-based curriculum and test-based accountability where test scores, and dominates talk about schools, there are many teachers, particularly in the primary grades, who continue learning centers and similar activities. “Open education” is still present in schools founded decades ago such as the Los Angeles Open Charter School, Salt Lake City’s The Open Classroom, the INDIGO program in Santa Clara County (CA), and many others. There are elementary school teachers and principals who still work quietly but keep their heads low to avoid in-coming shells of criticism from colleagues and parents. They blend learning centers with whole class instruction and worksheets.
Most high school teachers, however, continue to use teacher-centered practices leavened slightly by informal practices that have crept into their repertoires. The “open classroom,” then, was not a hula-hoop fad but another skirmish in the nearly two-century long ideological war in the U.S. over how best to make children into good adults and a better society.
So the “open classroom” has clearly disappeared from the vocabulary of educators but readers should expect another variation of “open education” to re-appear in the years ahead. As I read and listen to the rhetoric of “personalized learning” initiatives, the high-tech approach to student engagement and participation suggests such a return. So deep-rooted traditional and progressive ideas about classroom teaching and learning and the best knowledge to instill in the next generation still appear (and will continue to reappear and fade) among taxpayers, voters, teachers, and parents.
*Open classrooms are not the same as “open space” schools. The latter buildings had large open spaces for both teachers and students to have lessons. Often these open spaces were partitioned off by bookcases and temporary walls to lessen interior noise. While they were initially popular in many districts, over time interior walls were constructed and eventually “open space” schools, resembled regular public schools.
Open classrooms can occur in both “open space” and conventionally built multi-story schools with linear hallways and adjacent classrooms.
In this [Social Science Research Network] paper, Ethan Mollick and Lilach Mollick (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania) say that in the current debate on the uses and abuses of ChatGPT and other large language models (LLMs), educators haven’t paid enough attention to some important classroom applications. The authors identify five pedagogical strategies that are not used enough in classrooms because they are time-consuming and hard to implement – and show how the new bots can be helpful:
• Generating examples to help students understand difficult and abstract concepts – The best way to explain new and challenging material is to give students a number of examples. “If students are presented with only one example,” say Mollick and Mollick, “they may focus on the superficial details of that example and not get at the deeper concept. Multiple examples of a single concept can help students decontextualize the idea from the example, leading to better recall and understanding.”
Ideally, examples provide a real-world context, anchor abstract ideas in an analogy or story, ground concepts in engaging details, reveal complexity, highlight nuances, help students think critically, and support the transfer of learning to new situations. These demanding criteria show how difficult it is for teachers to generate enough high-quality examples. That’s where the bots come in. All a teacher needs to do is specify the concept, ask for varied examples, and describe the grade level of students and the style of writing required. Click on the full article below for examples on the concept of opportunity costs.
Of course the teacher needs to evaluate the examples generated: Are they factually correct? Are they relevant? Do they have enough detail? Will students find them interesting? Do they connect the abstract to the concrete? Having narrowed down to a good list of examples and presented them to a class, the teacher might then ask students what the examples have in common, have them compare and contrast several, and ask which different aspects of the concept each example highlights.
• Providing varied explanations and analogies to address student misconceptions – Clear explanations are central to good teaching, helping students build mental maps and achieve deeper understanding. But good explanations must be built on students’ prior knowledge, take into account likely misconceptions, plan a step-by-step approach with organizational cues so students can follow along, and provide concrete details and analogies. LLMs can tackle these exacting demands, quickly generating explanations and analogies for a specific grade level and level of understanding. See the article link for a suggested explanation of the concept of photosynthesis for elementary students.
• Producing low-stakes tests so students can practice retrieving information – Checking for understanding is a proven method of cementing material in long-term memory. But generating high-quality tests, quizzes, and mid-lesson “hinge” questions (to see if students are ready to move on to a new topic) is “an effortful task,” say Mollick and Mollick. LLMs can quickly generate diagnostic retrieval exercises. See the article link for examples of quizzes on U.S. history and high-school biology.
• Assessing students’ knowledge gaps to guide instructors’ next steps – The best way for teachers to know what to do next is asking students questions like these:
– What is the most important idea or concept covered in class today?
– Why do you think this idea is important?
– What is the most difficult class concept so far?
– What did you struggle to understand?
– What concept or problem would you like to see explored in more detail?
LLMs can be asked to digest students’ responses to questions like these (perhaps in the middle of a class) and quickly generate an analysis of responses. See the article below for key points and areas of confusion on a lesson on BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement).
• Creating distributed practice exercises to reinforce learning – “Students need to practice retrieving information not just once but multiple times during a course,” say Mollick and Mollick. It’s also important for students to continuously make connections among the different concepts and skills they’ve learned. But even when students know about the value of distributed practice, they continue to “cram” for tests at the last minute, which means teachers must be intentional about distributing practice. To do so, teachers need to know:
– What are the most important topics for students to remember?
– Which connections between topics are critical and should be practiced often?
– How often and when should students retrieve previously learned material?
– What is the best spacing of assessments to allow just the right amount of forgetting?
– When have students had enough practice?
LLMs can be very helpful designing and scheduling quick quizzes spread out over days, weeks, and months, providing an effective way to lodge concepts and skills in students’ long-term memory. See the article link for examples of distributed practice during a unit on the Enlightenment and the American Revolution.
Hard to believe the media storm since this computer program was released less than six months ago. What is it? What can it do?
One useful definition I have found comes from the high-tech company, Oracle:
[A] chatbot is a computer program that simulates and processes human conversation (either written or spoken), allowing humans to interact with digital devices as if they were communicating with a real person.
What a chatbot can do is rapidly unfolding. Oracle describes a chatbot this way:
You’ve probably interacted with a chatbot whether you know it or not. For example, you’re at your computer researching a product, and a window pops up on your screen asking if you need help. Or perhaps you’re on your way to a concert and you use your smartphone to request a ride via chat. Or you might have used voice commands to order a coffee from your neighborhood café and received a response telling you when your order will be ready and what it will cost. These are all examples of scenarios in which you could be encountering a chatbot.
This recent computer program and AI (Artificial Intelligence) has also come in for jabs and humor. These cartoons got me to grin, chuckle, and even laugh out loud (I am trying to avoid LOL). So enjoy!
I have written posts for this blog about use of ChatGPT by both public and private school teachers and students (see here, here and here). I will continue to do so since this computer program introduced late last year has not only generated a storm of attention but also raised serious questions about its positive and negative worth for both K-12 teachers and university professors, especially when it comes to “cheating.”
It is much too early to evaluate the chatbot’s impact on classroom practices but it is important to record responses from early users since it is, as pundits say, a game-changer. But no one knows exactly what game it will change and the dimensions of those changes. So I offerhere a post from a professional writer who describes her experiences with the popular chatbot.
True confession: I haven’t written in my blog for almost a year (after writing regularly for 13 years). Cue the shame, sadness, and other emotions. There are several reasons why I put the brakes on–but I found a way to get back to writing: ChatGPT.
I know, I’m not the first or last to get on the ChatGPT train, but felt compelled to see how this little AI show-off performs: how it would frame up my situation with very little information, and also assess if I had serious competition (see my analysis after).
Prompt to ChatGPT: Write a 300-word blog post about why I stopped writing in my business blog for almost a year after 13 years
After writing in my business blog for 13 years, I suddenly stopped posting new content for almost a year. I know many of my followers have been wondering why, so I want to take a moment to explain what happened.
To start, I was facing a growing sense of burnout. Writing blog posts had become a chore, and I found it difficult to come up with new ideas that I was passionate about. I felt like I was repeating myself and wasn’t making the impact I had been hoping for. This led me to take a step back and evaluate what I wanted to achieve with my blog.
At the same time, my business was undergoing some major changes. I was pivoting my focus from one area to another, and I found that my blog was no longer aligning with my new goals and direction. I didn’t want to just keep posting content for the sake of it, I wanted to make sure that my blog was helping me achieve my goals and support my business in a meaningful way.
Additionally, I was facing some personal challenges that made it difficult for me to focus on writing. I won’t go into the details here, but let’s just say that it was a challenging time in my life.
So, I made the decision to take a break from writing in my blog. I needed to recharge and refocus, and I wanted to take the time to think about what I wanted my blog to be in the future.
Now, almost a year later, I’m ready to start writing again. I’ve taken the time to reflect and have a clearer vision for my blog and what I want to achieve with it. I’m excited to share new content and connect with my followers once again.
In conclusion, taking a break from my blog was the best decision I could have made. It allowed me to step back and evaluate my priorities, and gave me the time and space to refocus and reignite my passion for writing. I’m grateful for your patience and understanding, and I look forward to sharing new content with you soon.
Thoughts and feelings:
First thought: Wow! Overall, I was impressed with how fully it can compose content on a topic in a semi-conversational way. It’s got a mind of its own (even though it’s actually just machine learning and web results on steroids).
Here’s where I think ChatGPT succeeds and fails:
I was astounded at the speed at which the words filled up the browser window (if only mere mortals could think and type that fast!) After all, it’s finding “blog absence apology tour” content at a mind-blowing pace.
I provided very little background information in the prompt, so to fill up 300 words, ChatGPT made up the reasons I didn’t write for almost a year. And while they were surprisingly believable, they weren’t true.
The writing style, while sounding human-ish, has a detectable generic, superficial level. Some examples: “I found that my blog was no longer aligning with my new goals and direction.” But it never explains what those goals or direction are. Or “In conclusion, …” No one writes like that (save for high school essays). Lastly, it doesn’t explain what the personal reasons were that I bailed on the blog. Is that because it couldn’t find results? Or was the word count coming to a close?
But the biggest failure for me was that it didn’t sound even remotely like MY writing. Rather, it has the personality of a…ChatGPT. I don’t feel threatened by it as a writer. It can get the juices flowing, but requires a lot more work to get up to professional and personal writing standards of a living, breathing being: the nuances of language and thinking on a page that give it, dare I say, that human fingerprint.
All that said, thank you, I’m grateful to trusty ChatGPT for serving as my excuse to get back to my blog, and even better, doing the dirty work.
Why did I ditch my blog for 11 months? A combination of writer’s block, being busy, and other assorted reasons, which to quote ChatGPT, “I won’t go into details here.” 😉. So yeah, technology got me over the hump, but now it’s up to this human to continue the writing.
Living in the heart of Silicon Valley–where bullet-proof coffee, gluten-free muffins, and traffic gridlock prevail–I am surrounded daily by unrelenting optimism about the promise of technology making our lives better. I would guess, then, that fellow Valley-ites, if given the above choices, would pick “smart phones.” *
Were they to do so, they would be wrong. According to economic historian Robert Gordon, between 1870-1970 standards of living rose far more dramatically than the half-century since 1970. As he puts it:
The century of revolution in the United States after the Civil War was economic, not political, freeing households from an unremitting daily grind of painful manual labor, household drudgery, darkness, isolation, and early death. Only one hundred years later, daily life had changed beyond recognition. Manual outdoor jobs were replaced by work in air-conditioned environments, housework was increasingly performed by electric appliances, darkness was replaced by light, and isolation was replaced not just by travel, but also by color television images bringing the world into the living room. Most important, a newborn infant could expect to live not to age forty-five, but to age seventy-two. The economic revolution of 1870 to 1970 was unique in human history, unrepeatable because so many of its achievements could happen only once.
And since 1970 and the advent of computer technology in daily life? Gordon says:
… economic growth since 1970 has been simultaneously dazzling and disappointing. This paradox is resolved when we recognize that advances since 1970 have tended to be channeled into a narrow sphere of human activity having to do with entertainment, communications, and the collection and processing of information. For the rest of what humans care about—food, clothing, shelter, transportation, health, and working conditions both inside and outside the home—progress slowed down after 1970, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
Thus, an unheralded, stunning century of innovation and economic growth produced the telegraph, telephone, television, house lighting, automobile, airplane travel, and, yes, indoor plumbing. These inventions networked the home and workplace in ways that raised living standards and increased workplace productivity considerably. It was in that same century that medical advances reduced infant mortality and lengthened life of Americans dramatically.
The half-century since 1970 has surely seen innovations that have enhanced these earlier inventions but the template for economic growth was laid down for that fruitful hundred-year period. In past decades, new technologies have clearly expanded communication and entertainment, making life far more instantaneous, convenient and pleasurable. But social media, immediate communication, and constant access to photos, video clips, and films have not increased the standard of living as had the decades between 1870-1970. This is the argument that Gordon makes in the Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016).
What does Gordon’s argument and enormous evidence he compiled (the book is 762 pages long) have to do with the current school reform movement prompted in large part by A Nation at Risk that appeared in 1983?
Recall that the highly influential report that CEOs, philanthropists, and political leaders have embraced was driven by an economic rationale–the human capital argument–for improving U.S. schools:
If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all—old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority.
Linking school reform to economic growth and competition, the Report spurred a generation of reformers to raise curriculum and performance standards for both students and teachers, increase testing, and create accountability frameworks that included rewards and penalties in subsequent decades. Marrying school reform to the nation’s economic growth–the human capital rationale for schooling (see here and a rebuttal here)–occurred, according to Robert Gordon, at roughly the same moment–1970s–when the “special century” of inventions, innovations, rising standard of living and productivity no longer flowed but ebbed.
In other words, reforms aimed at getting U.S. students to perform better on international tests for the past three decades–think No Child Left Behind (2002), expanded parental choice in schools via charters, more computers in schools, and Common Core state standards were of little influence on growing a strong economy, raising median income, or lessening inequality, according to Gordon. These reforms, while aiding low-income minorities in many instances, overall, contributed little to improving productivity or raising standards of living.
Of course, Gordon and others (including myself) see schools as crucial in a democracy for many reasons. But one of them is not better schools leading to economic growth, an enhanced standard of living, and workplace productivity especially since that standard of living had dramatically improved between 1870-1970. Gordon, like others (see here and here), have begun to undermine the dominant rationale for school reform since the early 1980s: the belief that public schools’ primary focus must be economic in preparing a skilled and knowledgeable workforce.
That prevalent human capital rationale has ignored for more than a quarter-century other historic aims of schools: civic engagement to keep democracy vital, independent decision-making, and a well-rounded schooling that enlarges children’s and youth’s potential and sensibilities. Preparing the next generation for the workforce remains as an abiding goal, of course, but not the dominating one it has been for four decades. And that is why Gordon’s argument and evidence is useful for those seeking to build a political coalition of policymakers, practitioners, researchers, civic and business leaders, and parents who question the shotgun marriage of schools to a growing economy.
Gordon, like some other economists and policymakers, recognize that economic growth has slowed down, productivity has lessened and inequalities have risen. All of these have occurred because the “special century” has ended and because “the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by (1970)… already been achieved along so many dimensions. including food, clothing, housing, transportation, entertainment, communication, health, and working conditions” (p.641). In his final chapter, even with his argument that the “special century” ended decades ago, Gordon does see policy interventions that can help reduce current economic inequalities and lowered productivity. He lists ten such interventions such as raising the minimum wage, more progressive income tax reform–earn more, pay more– and eliminating many deductions, and encouraging high-skilled immigrants to come to U.S.
For education, however, only three of the ten interventions appear–investing in preschools, state and federal school financing rather than local taxes, and reducing student indebtedness in higher education. Not a word about dominant school reforms over the past two decades–adopting Common Core standards, expanding standardized testing and accountability structures, increasing access to and use of digital technologies in schools, and creating charter schools (see p. 648).
In questioning the dominant beliefs in current school reform as essential to economic growth, Gordon’s argument and evidence are useful to those politically active decision-makers, teachers, parents, and researchers who know that a democracy needs schools that do more than prepare children and youth for the workplace.
* At a coffee shop near Google campus in Mountain View (CA), I overheard one software engineer say to a friend: “I lost my phone and didn’t find it for two days. I thought my life was over.” For the wordplay of “bullet-proof coffee” and “gluten-free muffins,” I thank Janice Cuban.
We have the opportunity to completely reform our nation’s schools. We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges here. We’re talking about a fundamental re-thinking of how our schools function—and placing a focus on teaching and learning like never before…. With the first decade of the 21st century now history, we’ve committed to securing the vitality of our nation by transforming the way we teach our students. U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, 2010
Transform the quality of work life for teachers, administrators, and support staff by transforming a school system’s organization culture, its reward system, job descriptions, and so on, to align with the requirements of the new teaching and learning processes…. Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Jal Mehta, 2021
Three Ways Technology is Transforming Education Qualcomm ad in Education Week, February 9, 2022
If you enter “school reform” in a Google search you will get just over a half-billion hits. But were you to type in “transformed schools,” you would get 1, 400,000,000 hits (as of March 12, 2023). When it comes to school reform, as the quotes above indicate, the word “transform” hits the jackpot of over-hyped words in reformers’ vocabulary.
The dictionary meaning of the verb and noun (see here and here) refers to dramatic changes in form, appearance, and conditions. Often used as an example is the metamorphosis of the butterfly.
But “transform” applied to institutions is less biological, less genetic and far more hand-made. Humans manufacture changes. But not just any change. In the world of school reformers, “transform,” implies not only dramatic changes but ones that make better schools. Also implied is that “better” means fundamental or radical, not incremental or tinkering changes. Moreover, these fundamental changes are instituted speedily rather than slowly. Here are some images that capture the range of meanings for the verb and noun when applied to individuals and organizations:
This post, then, is about this over-used, pumped-up word and its implications especially how meaningless it has become in policy-talk. Keep in mind that historically there have been proof-positive “transformations.” One-room rural schoolhouses in the 19th century changed into brick-and-mortar age-graded schools with scores of classrooms by the end of that century. A few decades later, reformers launched the innovative comprehensive high school. Previously about 10 percent of students had graduated high school in 1890; over a century later, about 85 percent graduated the comprehensive high school. Those are “transformations” in school organization and structure that strongly influenced teachers and students in schedule, curriculum, and instruction (see here and here).
Think about the Brown v.Board of Education decision (1954) and the subsequent Civil Rights Act that enforced school desegregation. With court-ordered desegregation in district after district, by the mid-1980s, more black students in the South were going to schools with whites than elsewhere in the nation. That was a “transformation.” With subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that returned authority to local districts in assigning students to neighborhood schools (thus, reflecting residential segregation), re-segregation is now apparent (see here and here).
Yes, I have gotten allergic to the word “transform” when it is applied to schooling. That allergy has prompted me to ask any policymaker, researcher, practitioner, high-tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist, or parent using the word, certain questions about what they mean.
1. What does “transform” mean to you?
Sometimes I use above images (e.g., like a before/after photo of an overweight man? A butterfly?) to prompt the picture of the change that resides in the head of the person I’m asking the question.
2. What are the problems to which “transformed” schools is the solution?
Is the problem U.S. academic achievement falling behind other nations? Or is it the long-term achievement gap between whites and minorities? Or is it the technological backwardness of schools compared to other industries?
3. What exactly is to be transformed? School structures? Cultures? Classroom teaching? Learners?
Public schools as an institution are complex organizations with many moving parts, some being tightly coupled to one another while some are often unconnected to one another. What, then is the target for the “transformation?”
4. Transform to what? what are the outcomes that you want to achieve?
This is the key question that gets at what the believer in “transforming” schools wants to be better. It reveals the person’s values about the place of schooling in a democratic society and the kinds of teaching and learning that are “good.” Also the question shows clearly the multiple and divergent goals that policymakers, parents, teachers, administrators, and wannabe reformers seek. Of all the questions, this cannot be skipped.
5. How fast should the “transformation” be?
Nearly always, believers in “transformed” schools believe in speedy action, grand moves while the window of opportunity is open. Not in making changes slowly or in small increments.
6. How will you know that the “transformation” will be better than what you already have?
Ah, the evaluation question that captures in another way the desired outcomes, the picture of a better school.
So, if readers want to end the promiscuous use of a word leached of its meaning in policy-talk, I suggest asking these questions. To do so, may lose you an acquaintance or colleague but, in the end, both parties gain a larger and deeper sense of what the words “transform schools” mean.
And maybe I will stop sneezing when the word comes up.
Here’s a story about the different worlds that U.S policy makers and teachers live in and how that fact may well affect what gets past the classroom door.
A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He came lower and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.” The woman below replied, “You’re in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You’re between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude.”
“You must be a teacher,” said the balloonist. “I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?” “Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I’ve no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I’m still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help at all. If anything, you’ve delayed my trip.”
The woman below responded, “You must be a policymaker.” “I am,” said the balloonist, “but how did you know?”
“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have no map, and no compass. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise, which you’ve no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”[i]
Here is the takeaway from the story.
Historically, federal, state, and district policymakers have determined school reforms in the U.S., especially those changes directed toward improving how teachers teach and how students learn. Once decided upon, these policy decisions flow downward to principals and then teachers. In many instances, this journey from policy to classroom practice has disappointed policymakers.
Often, policymakers complain about partial or distorted implementation of decisions. They see that their ideas of what a “good” school is, what effective teaching and learning are, and the importance of using new technologies for classroom lessons have been ignored by practitioners. These policymakers, however, wear blinders and fail to see that teachers are gatekeepers who decide what ideas and practices get past the classroom door. Policymakers and teachers live in different worlds.
This issue of teachers and policymakers living in different worlds is reflected in the questions that each asks. Consider the questions that policymakers often ask when adopting a new policy aimed at improving what occurs in what and how teachers teach:
* Will the new policy cost more, less, or the same as the existing policy?
* Will the new policy be more, less, or the same in achieving instructional and curricular objectives than the current policy?
* What incentives and sanctions are there to reward and penalize principals and teachers charged to implement new policies?
* How can what works in some schools get picked up by other schools across, districts, states and the nation?
Teachers, however, ask very different questions especially after policymakers have decided that teachers, to cite one example, should use more, faster, and better technologies in their lessons.[ii]
* How much time and energy will we have to invest in learning the new devices and accompanying software?
* Will the time spent learning to use the new technology yield a comparable return in student learning?
* What evidence is there that the new technology will help students meet district standards and score better on tests than without these devices and software?
* When glitches in integrating hardware and software occur—and they will occur—will on-site professional and technical help be immediately available.
Note how different these questions are from ones policymakers ask. Because policymakers largely ignore teacher questions, the policy-to-practice journey often stops at the classroom door where teachers, as gatekeepers, ultimately decide what gets put into lessons and what gets put into the closet.
As researchers have established, the teacher is the most important in-school factor influencing learning. Policymakers agree with researchers on importance of teachers in putting classroom reforms into practice. [iii] If so, should not teachers’ ideas, beliefs, values, and questions get respectful attention and action from decision-makers? The answer is obviously yes, but in most instances, other than consulting a few teachers, token representation on advisory groups, or occasional visits to schools, policymakers pay little attention to what teachers think or even more importantly, to the gate-keeping function they perform.
No dark motive rests behind policymakers largely ignoring that teachers determine what policies enter their classrooms. I believe that policymakers wear blinders (or perhaps suffer myopia) by living in their insulated world. Inhabiting this separate world becomes a major hazard on the road from policy to practice.
[i] Louise Locock and Annette Boaz, “Research, Policy and Practice – Worlds Apart?” Social Policy and Society, 2004, 3(4), pp. 375 – 384.
[ii] Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin, Steady Work (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1988), pp. 5-14.
[iii] The primacy of the teacher as the significant in-school factor in getting students to learn is embedded in the experiential wisdom of parents who seek out particular teachers, move to different districts, get in lotteries for charter schools, and seek out vouchers. Researchers have said as much over the decades. From the work of William Sanders in Tennessee to John Hattie’s meta-analyses to the recent findings of the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, all—and others—reaffirm what students, parents, and principals have said for years. See: William Sanders and Sandra Horn, “Research Findings from the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) Database: Implications for Educational Evaluation and Research,” Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, 1998, 12(3) pp. 247-256, 1998; John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (London: Routledge, 2011); Thomas Kane, Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project (Seattle: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013).
Teachers use OpenAI’s ChatGPT for lesson planning and to generate creative ideas for classes, according to the first national survey of teachers and students about ChatGPT and technology, released today by the Walton Family Foundation. While much attention has been given to the potential for students to cheat using ChatGPT, teachers surveyed by Impact Research have a much different view of the technology, with the majority seeing an opportunity for it to help accelerate learning.
Key findings include:
Within two months of its introduction, a 51% majority of teachers reported using ChatGPT, with 40% using it at least once a week, and 53% expecting to use it more this year. Just 22% of students said they use the technology on a weekly basis or more.
Black (69%) and Latino (69%) teachers reported a higher rate of usage.
Teachers are nearly four times more likely to have allowed students to use ChatGPT (38%) than caught them using it without their permission (10%). Only 15% of students admit to using the program without their teachers’ permission.
The majority of students (63%) and teachers (72%) agree that “ChatGPT is just another example of why we can’t keep doing things the old way for schools in the modern world.”
Most students think it can help them become better students (68%) and help them learn faster (75%). Teachers agree: 73% say ChatGPT can help their students learn more.
“Educators are innovators,” said Romy Drucker, Director of the Education Program at the Walton Family Foundation. “They recognize the urgency of this moment and want to use every tool at their disposal to meet each students’ unique needs.”
In Illinois teacher Diego Marin’s 8th grade math class, ChatGPT helps provide differentiated support for students at all levels. “ChatGPT is like a personalized 1:1 tutor that is super valuable for students, especially in the math space,” said Marin.
Most teachers (71%) and students (65%) agree that “ChatGPT will be an essential tool for students’ success in college and the workplace,” as many school districts are banning or limiting access to the technology in schools.
“As a young person, I see my future as in some ways limited by computers and algorithms, knowing there are jobs [that can be] replaced by automation,” said Kentucky high school junior Zachary Clifton. “But this is an algorithm I can take advantage of and use it to advance myself … It’s something I can use responsibly and will use responsibly moving forward.”
The survey, which highlights perspectives from more than 2,000 K-12 teachers and students ages 12-17, offers a stark contrast from current debates about ChatGPT in schools. The majority of students (68%) and teachers (73%) agree that ChatGPT can help them learn more at a faster rate. According to the survey, 64% of teachers plan to implement the technology more often, from lesson planning, to creating new ideas, to using it as part of curriculum.
Few policymakers or wannabe policy wonks look backward to see what happened to earlier reforms similar to theirs. Whether the past decade constitutes a historical overview, scholars can debate. As a historian, my preference is to take a longer look backwards—say a half-century or more. Nonetheless, Rick Hess’s look backward over the past decade is helpful in underscoring the power of mainstream and social media in shaping national, state, and local education policy agendas.
The fact of the matter is that what gets talked about in school reform, that is, both mainstream and social media, often ends up on policymakers’ desks. Keep in mind, however, that what lands on decision-makers’ desks doesn’t necessarily turn into policies nor end up in classrooms. Especially, those policies aimed at altering teachers’ behavior. Such policies often fail to enter classrooms. School reformers, then, too often get caught up in the rhetoric of the moment, ignoring this issue of constant gaps between making policies, getting them adopted, and insuring that they get implemented in classrooms.
Given all of that about the difference between making policy and changing classroom practice, looking backward at media coverage of educational topics reveals again how public schools often become a policy arena where national and local political struggles get worked out.
Today, it is the state of Florida’s position on an Advanced Placement course on African American history that has dominated media headlines for the past few weeks. Tomorrow, it may be studying and doing something about climate change, or alleviating mental health issues afflicting children and youth. I believe that it worthwhile, then, to examine media coverage of schools since the beginning of the 21st century. Rick Hess does that in this post.
“Rick Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.” This commentary appeared in Education Week, January 24, 2023
At the end of last year, my colleague Ilana Ovental and I took a deep look into the media coverage of education during the pandemic. Part of that analysis asked whether—and how—coverage changed over time. So, we used Lexis Nexis to track the attention devoted to leading K-12 topics over the past couple decades. If you want to see the results for yourself, check it out here.
I was struck by how neatly the past two decades can be broken out into three (or perhaps three and a half) eras of school reform—a framing that can help us understand where we are and how we got here. Especially in a time when pandemic, political strife, hyperactive news cycles, and culture war can make six months seem like a lifetime, it’s worth taking a moment to step back in search of context….
[T]he 21st century seems to order itself pretty neatly into a series of successive eras. The first of these, spanning roughly the length of the Bush administration (2001-2009), was the decade long rise and fall of No Child Left Behind. It took a couple years for NCLB to settle into the public consciousness, but, before long, it was the ubiquitous framing for all matters K-12. “Achievement gaps” became the lingua franca of advocates and funders; “AYP” (adequate yearly progress) became the measure of success.
By the dawn of the Obama years (2009-2017), amid concerns about excessive testing, high-stakes accountability, and a “race to the bottom,” NCLB had started to collapse under its own weight. In response, there was bursting interest in Obama’s Race to the Top, though attention to that was dwarfed by the rapid ascendance of its most controversial element: the Common Core State Standards.
The emphasis on testing and accountability shifted to academic standards. There was heated debate about new math, the status of fiction, and whether standards were a stealth mechanism for increasing federal control. Talk of “international benchmarking” and “systems interoperability” became the mantra for would-be reformers and enthusiastic funders.
So, we’d gone from federally driven testing and accountability to federally encouraged/subsidized/mandated (choose your verb) efforts to standardize reading and math standards. And then—as Checker Finn and I observed last year in “The End of School Reform?”—these efforts ran afoul of the populist wave that swept the nation in the 2010s. From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to the Trump/MAGA phenomenon, there was a multipronged attack on established institutions.
Thus, it’s not all that surprising that no new program rose to prominence as the Common Core lost altitude. Instead, there emerged a half-peak for school choice—perhaps the single education reform most aligned with a populist skepticism of institutional power. At the same time, this was less a case of choice exploding to prominence and more a case of steady growth amid something of a vacuum. Even with the determined, controversial efforts of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, school choice got barely half the media attention that NCLB and Common Core did at their peaks.
And more recently, we’ve seen the explosive, culture clash-fueled rise in attention to race-based curriculum and pedagogy (all playing out under the banner of critical race theory). Whether this third, culture war-driven wave will have the staying power of the wonkier previous waves remains to be seen.
Looking over two decades, I see the larger shift from slow-building policy debate to the rapid emergence of cultural conflict being noteworthy, even if I’m not sure what to make of it. For starters, I’ve no idea whether it’s a cyclical thing or something more permanent, or whether it tells us more about shifts in the schooling, media, public debate—or something of each.
One final thought: After doing this work for several decades, I can’t help but notice how seamlessly advocacy groups, associations, and other activists will pivot to reflect the zeitgeist of the day. So, in 2007, mission statements were all about “closing achievement gaps.” Five years later, they’d morphed into celebrating the importance of common standards. Today, the language has morphed again.
Some of this, I’m sure, is inevitable and even healthy. But chasing currents can also make organizations look unprincipled, feed cynicism, and leave them chasing every spin of the wheel. Keeping in mind that these tides ebb and flow might just give educators, leaders, and advocates more confidence to hold tight to the things they really value and more pause when they feel that pressure to chase the crowd.
*I have added dates and links to many of the events and movements that Hess cites.