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Anniversary of Blog

This post marks my 13th anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and, finally, those who have taken the time to write thoughtful comments. Also to the growing number of international readers, I am grateful for your attention to one American educator’s view on school reform and classroom practice in the U.S.

As with all things, there is a history to writing this blog. My daughter Janice who is a writer in marketing communication urged me to begin a blog in 2009. She guided me through the fits-and-starts of working on this platform. I thank her for getting me started on this writing adventure.

For over 1600 posts that I have written since 2009, I have followed three rules:

1. Write about 800 words.

2. Write clearly on school reform and classroom practice.

3. Take a position and back it up with evidence.

Sticking to these rules has been no easy task. Yet after 13 years, I remain highly motivated to write about policymakers, administrators, teachers, and students–all who inhabit the policy-to-practice continuum–and all who in different ways, with varied ideas, seek to improve schooling. Even after two-plus years of school closures, re-openings, and abiding concerns over the Covid pandemic, I continue to look forward to writing twice weekly posts.

To me, writing is a form of learning and teaching. The learning comes from figuring out what I want to say on a topic, researching it, drafting a post, and then revising it more times than I would ever admit so that the post says what I want it to say. Learning also has come from the surprises I have found in the suggestions and comments readers post—“Did I really say that?” or “I had never considered that point.” Finally, I have learned a lot from simply researching the series of posts about previous school reforms and reformers that I published called: “Whatever Happened To….”

The teaching part comes from putting my ideas out there in a clearly expressed, logical argument, buttressed by evidence, for readers who may agree or disagree about an issue I am deeply interested in. As in all teaching, planning enters the picture in how I frame the central question I want readers to consider and how I put the argument and evidence together in a clear, coherent, and crisp post of about 800 words.

Because of my background as a high school teacher, administrator, policymaker, and historian of education I often give a question or issue its context, both past and present. I do so, and here I put my teaching hat on, since I believe that current school reform policies and practice are deeply rooted in the past. Learning from earlier generations of reformers’ experiences in coping with the complexities of improving how teachers taught, and how they have tried to change schools and districts, I believe, can inform current reformers about the tasks they face. Contemporary reformers, equally well-intentioned as their predecessors, too often ignore what has occurred previously and end up bashing teachers and principals for not executing properly their favored reform-driven policies.

Expressing my sincere gratitude toward readers for the blogging I have done over the past 13 years is a preface to the posts I will write in this 14th year. School reforms return again and again so I will have little trouble finding content for upcoming posts.

Again, thanks to those readers who have taken the time to click onto my blog. I deeply appreciate it.

Larry Cuban

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What Happens When a School’s Internet Fails?

That U.S. schools and classrooms have widely adopted both new technological hardware and software is not a man-bites-dog story. Desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones are available to most American students at home and in school in 2022. Common as pen and paper, these devices are used daily in U.S. classrooms. Principals, teachers, and students depend upon these devices. What happens in a school, then, when the system crashes?

In an Australian high school a few years ago, the Internet went down while university researchers were in the building for the two days that the network was down.

What happened in the school and to classroom teaching and learning when clacking keyboards went silent and screens stayed dark?

This excerpt is taken from Neil Selwyn, et. al. Everyday Schooling in the Digital Age: High School, High Tech? (New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 1-3. Neil Selwyn is a Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia. His research and teaching focuses on digital media in daily life including uses of technology in schools and classrooms.

The start of a sunny Thursday at Lakeside High School. The playgrounds and
communal spaces are buzzing as usual. At 8.50 am nobody seems to notice
that the music fails to kick in over the loudspeakers as scheduled. Piped-in music
is usually used as an initial indication that people should start thinking about
heading to their first classes. Some kids – gazing into smartphones and social
media – saunter around on autopilot, unaware they should be getting
themselves sorted. Others just hang around, beginning to sense that something
is not quite right. As the minutes tick past, an unsettled vibe begins to spread.
In the main building, the Assistant Principals’ office is uncharacteristically
empty. Next door is the staff room, where teachers and administrative staff are
making the most of their downtime. On one table, a group of young female
teachers are finishing off breakfast and updating each other on reality TV shows.
Another table of middle-aged men banter about sports. A few older teachers
are huddled in the kitchen drinking coffee and comparing lesson plan ideas.
No disquiet here, even though it is 8.58 am with classes scheduled to start
at 9 am.

A few seconds later an unfamiliar sounding bell rings. Teachers and students
look startled but then start to move with purpose along the main corridor, lined
with rusting blue lockers, hand drawn posters and laminated classwork tacked
onto the wall. It is not long before one of the Assistant Principals announces
through the loud speaker that ‘the school network has gone down’. What was
shaping up to be an ordinary school day is suddenly turned on its head

One of the immediate consequences of the network ‘going down’ was that
the computerized alarm system failed to shuffle an MP3 file to play as the daily
8.50 am mood music. Although I haven’t been researching in Lakeside for long,
a total network failure sounds like a serious disruption. For a few hours we
might have to go back to an ‘old school’ way of doing things . . . back to
when Lakeside didn’t rely on digital technology to function. Back to a non-
digital way of life?

People racing out of the staff-room are clearly treating this as a big deal.
Some teachers remain inside the staff room, moaning that they don’t know
what to do because their lessons have been planned around particular apps
and online exercises. A couple of the male teachers drop their footy
conversations and make a beeline for where the ‘IT boys’ are based in an
attempt to find out from the school’s technicians exactly how serious this
network glitch is.

I head toward my own scheduled class. It feels that the mood of the school
is quickly shifting. An odd sense of uncertainty seems to spread amongst
teachers, administrators and students. Some teachers are grumbling that they
need to trek back to the staff room to check the noticeboard for their daily
schedule. There is no ‘real time’ information coming to anyone’s mobile
device. As a drama teacher recounted a few weeks later:
Everyone was freaked out – so freaked out. They got freaked out when
the bells didn’t ring. They got freaked out when the machines didn’t work.
There was a lot of panic and crazy. . . . It’s machines. They’re likely to
break. Get it together. . . . It just makes me laugh because you’ve got to
be able to survive.

Amidst this flurry, students with their own mobile phone data plans look
a lot less bothered. Many continue to gaze into various handheld devices. An
inability to check school email or access work through the school management
system is clearly not a huge drama. Yet while these students are unfazed, others
are not coping as well. Seizing an opportunity to grab people’s attention, one
of the more ebullient Year 9 boys raises his arm for attention and shouts at
the top of his lungs: ‘The internet is broken . . . my life is broken!’

While the students who were around me at the time generally seemed
nonplussed, in later conversations the Principal points out that Year 12 students
who were due to spend their lessons preparing coursework for the final
national examinations ‘would have been bleeding’. In contrast, his own Year
8 students had been elated when they were told the classes that had been
prepared for them were not happening: ‘They were just, “Woo-Hoo!” They
don’t care . . . they were happy because their phones were okay.’
Certainly, the subsequent 2 days without the network in Lakeside were full
of incident. Yet all my conversations after the event seem to concur that this
was a crisis more for staff than students, largely because of the school’s reliance on digital technologies for the planning and delivery of lessons.

As the Principal observed:


There’s probably somewhere between 75 classrooms in this school that
are in operation every period. Half of these will be classes mediated through
a wireless network and the Internet. So you’ve got 35 classrooms that
suddenly have to go to Plan B. And if all the planning and resources are
sitting somewhere in the cloud . . . or anywhere that requires a wireless
connection . . . then they’re screwed.


Luckily I was not so troubled. On the contrary, as an academic researcher
trying to make sense of how digital technologies were being used in the school,
this failure was a gift. The network continued to be shut off for 2 whole days.
This was not a temporary malfunction. Instead, it was caused by a faulty cable
that had been installed a few days earlier by telecoms contractors working in
the street outside the school. This was not a ‘glitch’ that would be solved by
turning the system off and then turning it on again. Full service was not restored
until the following Monday morning. Until then, the shutdown proved to be
a revealing 2 days in the life of the school. Things carried on and people
improvised. Yet there was also an acute sense of what was missing and a fleeting
reminder of the extent to which even the most mundane school processes
and practices had become dependent upon digital technologies and digital
systems.


For example, many of the core processes of the school day were interrupted
during this network failure. At the start of the school day, missing students
could not be officially noted as absent or late. Electronic rolls could not be marked. Parents were not informed via the automated SMS system. During both days, administrative messages were circulated on paper or broadcast via the PA system. Coursework could not be uploaded by students and marked
online by their teachers. School librarians reported being inundated by students
complaining that ‘I can’t find any information.’ Teachers were unable to
access e-books. This might have been avoided if staff and students had
downloaded PDFs at the beginning of the year, but it turned out that most
had not got around to doing this. As the Head Librarian noted on the second
day of the blackout: ‘I think a lot of things could be avoided. It doesn’t
necessarily have to be the nightmare it is.’

Of course, school life in Lakeside continued as best it could. Some teachers
reverted to not using technology at all. Others continued to use their laptops
and office computers, whiteboards and other offline digital practices. Some
teachers revelled in discovering inventive work-arounds, remembering what
they did in the days before networks and cloud storage. Work groups passed
around files on USB sticks rather than through Google Drive or email. As the
school’s Head of Innovation put it: ‘We had to go back to remembering USBs
. . . it was almost like a bygone piece of technology.’

Yet even the most ingenious teachers found it difficult to track students
from class to class, and the school nurse was unable to keep tabs on students’
medical needs. A scheduled fire drill on Thursday made it clear that some
teachers were failing to take accurate attendance records on paper. The
exercise was abandoned after 15 minutes as no-one could be precisely sure
which students were actually meant to be in school. These were all procedures
that had taken place in Lakeside during the pre-computer age, yet ways of
doing these things without the support of digital technology had largely been
forgotten. People had fallen out of their analogue habits.

These 2 days were recalled in conversations and interviews long after the
event. The post hoc story as spun by school leaders and managers suggested
that it was teachers who had struggled to cope. Teachers and other staff told
a different story. As the drama teacher pointed out:
The hierarchy [school management] were the most panicked, which of
course they would have to be because they are responsible for everyone
getting to class on time . . . they couldn’t get messages to people. That’s
when you depend on communication, and for communication you need
to have a relationship. You can’t build relationships that are really strong
just like ‘that’.


Then, as time passed, people’s memories of an extraordinary 2 days with
no access to digital technology began to be recalled in more reflective terms.
As the school Principal reflected during the next academic year:
You know what was bizarre? After the first half a day, I actually found it
really relaxing. Next door, we both commented at the end of day two,
‘How good was that?’ Like we just had this day-and-a-half of no email
interruptions . . . it’s almost like you had licence to ignore a bunch of stuff
that you wouldn’t normally be able to ignore. I got some quite deep work
done in a calm and peaceful way.’

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Schools as Factories: Metaphors That Stick

You have seen images like these time and again:

The idea of the school as an efficient factory assembly line has a surprising history. A century ago, the notion of schools delivering finished products to a democratic society was both new and–here is the surprise–admired. Here is what Professor Ellwood P. Cubberley, of Stanford University said in the early 20th century:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.

In the midst of the progressive-inspired school efficiency movement, sparked by “scientific management,” Cubberley captured the prevailing beliefs of most school reformers then. Critics of the day, such as John Dewey, did question this efficiency-driven mindset that dominated schools then arguing that the purpose of public schooling in a democracy goes far beyond preparation for the workplace. But their voices were drowned out by champions of uniformity, productivity, and more bang for each dollar spent  in every aspect of schooling.

Over a half-century later, however, affection for the metaphor of school-as-factory shifted 180 degrees. Reformers of a later generation turned the image into an indictment. Standardization, efficiency, and up-close connections to the economy–the values earlier reformers applauded–became epithets hurled by self-styled progressive school reformers of a subsequent generation. So  recent images represent students and teachers as cogs in a constantly whirring machine:

p6_educationfactory_2a

Of course, schools-as-factories is only one of the many metaphors for schooling used since the onset of tax-supported public schools. Philip Schlechty and Ann Joslin, for example, wrote three decades ago about different images that have been used by both advocates and critics of what schools should be doing:

the school as a factory
the school as a hospital
the school as a log in a pastoral setting with Mark Hopkins on one end and a
             motivated or able student on the other end
the school as a family
the school as a war zone

All of these have a history and were used by both reformers and their opponents. Embraced by different sides of the school reform spectrum at different moments in time, these competing metaphors lagged behind or seldom appeared in policy proposals advanced by reformers. The one metaphor that has persisted over the 20th century outstripping the others, however, has been the image of the school-as-a-factory even with in its shifting from positive to negative connotations.

Why has school-as-factory stuck?

The metaphor serves the interests of both contemporary advocates and critics of standardized curriculum and instruction. Of course, current advocates avoid the vocabulary of assembly line and factory-made products. Yes, there are some advocates who even use the phrase “factory model of schooling” or “schools-as-factories” (see here). Moreover, many school reformers talk about the need for school districts to be efficiently run with superintendents behaving as CEOs.

Such reformers want schools to produce higher test scores on international tests than their European and Asian competitors. They want schools and teachers to be held accountable for what students achieve. And, most important, these reformers want schools to crank out fully prepared graduates ready to enter the labor market. These advocates want schools to build human capital, especially in urban districts, and link those schools to a growing economy.

Critics of the metaphor, however, look at curricular and instructional standardization, ubiquitous testing, and coercive accountability as harming both students and teachers.

Forty-six states initially adopted versions of Common Core standards since 2010. Of those states, five have withdrawn from these standards.

The sharp increase in snarky cartoons and irritable comments on state standards derived from Common Core ones plus support for standardized testing from both the political left and right, I believe, stem from century-old disputes over the multiple purposes that schools serve in a capitalist democracy (e.g., make citizens, prepare workers, build character). This age-old question of purposes for tax-supported public schools is seldom openly debated and too often has been lost in the rhetoric used by reformers over the past century.

And that, I believe, is the reason why schools-as-factories has stuck as an image as well as a metaphor tossed back and forth by generations of school reformers.

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Photos That Got Me Laughing

Humor is supposed to be good for both body and soul. I believe that. So I have run monthly posts that feature cartoons about various facets of schooling. Recently, I came across photos about people on subways that, for some reason, got me chuckling and hooting with laughter. Yes, I know that humor can be highly individual and what tickles me may not tickle some readers. So be it.

Here are some photos about people on below-ground transportation in big cities that got me smiling. Perhaps they will do the same for some readers.

No, the kitten did not pay a fare

One rider enjoyed fellow passengers

Crow on a ride home
Virtual reality far better than sitting in a crowded car

Between the headline of the newspaper article and the rider getting exercise, I am at a loss for a caption

Looking for a date?

Is this a photo of tech dependency in public?

Nap time (1)

Nap time (2)

Batman meets Darth Vader

Creative use of toilet plunger

Snack time (1)

Snack time (2)

Believe it or not!

Getting past the turnstiles poses a major problem

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Are Today’s Children Different than Children in the 1890s? A Rebuttal

Professor Steven Mintz of the University of Texas (Austin) replied to my post on comparing and contrasting children now with those in 1890. He has given me permission to publish his email reply.

A recent piece by the dean of historians of American education, Larry Cuban, asks a provocative question:  Are Today’s Children Different than Children in the 1890s?

His answer is “no.”  Sure, he acknowledges, the experience of childhood has changed in noticeable ways.  

▪ More children are raised in single-parent homes and experience their parents’ divorce.

▪ Most children have working mothers, which has had the ironic effect of both increasing and decreasing time spent in each other’s company (since when moms and children are together, working moms actually devote more attention and time to their children than did their 1950s counterparts). 

▪ Children do spend more time in front of screens, and their ready access to cellphones, social media, videogames, and video streaming means that most have largely unmediated exposure to adult realities.

Three somewhat inconsistent ideas now shape parenting and teaching:  

*That children’s intellectual growth benefits substantially from conscious cultivation and enrichment, and that it’s therefore a mistake to assume children will grow up naturally.

*That in order to develop into well-behaved, responsible adults, children need structure, adult supervision, and character education (now called social-emotional learning or civics education).

*That children are naturally curious incipient scientists who need and profit from opportunities to learn actively, engage in hands-on inquiry, and work collaboratively on relevant, useful tasks. 

One of Professor Cuban’s most interesting points is the ways that these three ideas have shaped children’s school-going experience. 

To his list, I’d add several other instances of change in children’s lives:

▪  Certain kinds of disabilities and disorders that were previously unrecognized have apparently become much more common, as have the prevalence of certain chronic disorders.
Here I’m not just referring to sibling rivalry (which was only “discovered” in the 1920s), but autism (which wasn’t recognized until the 1930s), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (not diagnosed or treated until 1902), dyslexia (word blindness was first identified as a problem in 1877), or peanut allergies (which only became prevalent after 1990).

▪  There has been a long-term shift from an environment in which children were expected to love and assist their parents to one where parents seek to earn their children’s love. 

▪  We have witnessed the triumph of a therapeutic discourse, which uses psychological categories to understand children’s behavior and focuses on children’s emotional interior.

Yet none of this, in Professor Cuban’s view, means that children have changed fundamentally.  In his words:

“Biologically, babies are born with the same heart, brain, and other organs that humans have had for millennia. Psychologically, children then and now have always needed to feel physically and emotionally safe and loved by those that care for them.”

We should certainly be wary of facile generalizations about how childhood has changed.  Have children’s attention spans declined?  We don’t know.  Are kids more resistant to reading?  The evidence remains unclear and contradictory.  Are children more disrespectful and impulsive?  Probably not.

But as a historian of childhood, I’d like to respectfully disagree with Professor Cuban’s insistence that children today are more or less similar to those in 1890..  I believe that today’s children do differ in meaningful ways from their predecessors. Nor is my disagreement with Professor Cuban simply a matter of terminology.  It reflects fundamental disagreements about how childhood is defined, understood, treated, institutionalized, and experienced.

Every facet of childhood has changed over the past 130 years: in the access to and the duration of schooling; in the availability of store-bought toys and commercial amusements; and in the ways that children spend their time (with much less outdoor, unstructured, unsupervised group play and much more solitary time inside their own home).

The language of childhood has also changed.  In 1890, the term adolescence had not yet entered popular parlance.  The word girl was a remarkably elastic term, which included any yet unmarried young woman even in her 20s. (Also, the word boy and girl were still used pejoratively to refer to anyone in a subordinate position.)  Nor were infants yet color coded, with girls associated with pink and boys with blue.

So, what is childhood?  It’s:

▪   A life stage defined by biology and physiology. 

To say that childhood is a biological and physiological stage does not mean that childhood’s biology is unchanging.  Not only does the age of menarche, on average, occur years earlier than in the past, but it appears that the average age of the onset of a host of psychological issues, including depression, emerges much earlier, too.

▪   A social status.

To be a child is to occupy a role and a status defined by adults, a status that is internalized, to varying degrees, by children themselves.  Today’s children, unlike their Baby Boomer predecessors, are less willing to think of themselves as kids, that is, as dependent and immature creatures who need to be cared for by adults.

▪   A developmental stage.

Beginning in the 1920s, developmental psychologists began to divide childhood into a sequence of stages (early, middle, adolescence), each characterized certain milestones, skills (involving speech, fine motor, visual motor, and dressing and grooming skills), and characteristic emotions.

Jean Piaget added another dimension of development, in cognition, which he argued evolved from a sensorimotor stage to a preoperational stage, followed by a concrete operational stage and a formal operational stage.

What we’ve subsequently discovered is that these vectors of development are not simply biological or genetic, but are influenced by shifting circumstances, institutions, and treatment.

▪  A legal category.

Childhood is a status defined by law and institutional treatment.  In 1890, the juvenile court, with its emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment, still lay another nine years in the future.  There was still wide variation across the states in whether any formal schooling was required, and, when attendance was compulsory, the age at which mandatory attendance ended.

Today, as we all well know, the legal status of children is in flux and hotly contested.  There are intense debates over the topics that can be introduced in school depending on children’s age, exposure to sex education, children’s privacy rights, and especially about the appropriateness and legality of gender-affirming care.

▪  An age-defined set of experiences.

                In 1890, childhood was not defined by schooling and leisure.  It was probably the case that a majority of children over the age of 8 or ten worked, planting and picking crops, milking cows, shepherding animals, toiling in mines and factories, tending looms, and sometimes engaging in various forms of street labor, hawking newspapers, delivering packages, or selling petty items.

                Today, in contrast, schooling and childhood are largely synonymous, with solitary play and adult supervised play far more common than in the past.

▪              A phase of life characterized by distinctive ways of thinking and behaving.

The differences between adults and children aren’t restricted to physical development or experience or a command of society’s rules, values, and roles, but in the very ways that children think, act, reason, perceive, and understand the world.

This is, of course, a truth universally acknowledged by every parent that I know, by myriad poets, novelists, artists, and filmmakers, and increasingly by scientists as well. 

You don’t need to fully agree with Piaget that children have different schemas for understanding, or that they are more prone to blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.  What’s significant is to view children’s ways of thinking not as less mature or developed than adults’, but as fundamentally different – and shaped, in part, by historical and social context. 

There’s a tendency to view children as deficient in certain ways: that they’re more impulsive, with a lesser capacity to manage or regulate emotions due to an immature prefrontal cortex, or that they’re less able to fashion generalizations or engage in abstract thinking, or that they possess an underdeveloped theory of mind, rending it difficult for them to understand that others think differently.

But we also know that infants and children’s brains are more elastic, that they’re able to form neural connections faster, making children able to master languages more rapidly

It’s certainly the case that today’s children, in certain respects, are more like their late 19thcentury counterparts than their Baby Boomer predecessors.  They’re almost as diverse demographically as children in the 1890s, even though their actual experiences across class, ethnic, racial, and gender lines today are far more uniform than was the case then.  

Around the turn of the 20th century, the experience of childhood was diverse in ways that we can scarcely imagine.  Social class and geographical location defined childhood in ways less true today.  The lives of a child on the Western frontier, in a mining or factory town, or on a farm, differed radically from that of an urban, middle-class child in terms of access to, the duration of, and the actual experience of schooling and in the availability of store-bought, manufactured toys and games.  Adult supervision was far less consistent and sustained.

Thanks to the Internet and a popular culture that is less age segmented and sanitized than it was half a century ago, even young children are much more knowledgeable about the adult world.   They’re also surrounded by the allures of consumer society, and bombarded with commercial messages by marketers who prey on the young with all the whiles previously reserved for adults.

At the same time, however, most children also have far less hands-on experienced with the world of work.

Childhood today embodies a series of contradictions:

▪ The young grow up faster than those fifty years ago, but many don’t want to grow up — that is, become stereotypical adults — at all.

▪  Children are regarded as more capable than their predecessors, yet most have few productive ways, apart from sports, to demonstrate their growing maturity and competence.

▪   Childhood is valorized as a life stage of unequaled value, but:


* Normal childish behavior is frequently labeled, medicalized, psychologized, and even pathologized.

* The notion of age-appropriate learning has eroded and replaced by the expectation that even the youngest children are capable of advanced learning.

* Advertisers marketers prey on young children with wiles once reserved for adults and eroticize young girls.

* A sixth of American children are allowed to grow up in poverty, often accompanied by ills that come with poverty: family instability, hunger, unsafe environments coupled with early exposure to violence, and chaotic or overly authoritarian school classrooms.

Three myths cloud our understanding of childhood.

The first is the myth of progress.

There is a tendency to conceive of the history of childhood as a story of steps forward over time: of parental engagement replacing emotional distance, of kindness and leniency supplanting strict and stern punishment, of scientific enlightenment superseding superstition and misguided moralism.

The second myth is the inverse of the myth of progress: that childhood is disappearing or that childhood is evolving for the worst.

This is the widespread notion that children are growing up too quickly and wildly and losing their innocence, playfulness, and malleability. 

Both the myth of progress and the myth of decline are profoundly misleading.  Historical change invariably involves trade-offs; all progress is achieved at a price and involves losses as well as gains. We are certainly the beneficiaries of dramatic declines in rates of infant and child mortality and increased control over childhood diseases. But it is also apparently the case that more children than ever suffer from disabilities and chronic conditions than in the past.

The third myth is that childhood hasn’t changed, at least not in ways that are significant.

Not so.

Since 1890, American society has become much more age conscious, age graded, and age segregated.  We have divided and subdivided childhood into ever smaller phases (for example, toddlers, preschoolers, tweens or preteens), which largely serve as marketing categories. 

We have also relegated the young to separate institutions, like schools, where they are largely cared for by specialists: teachers, pediatricians, child psychologists, and the like.

Nominally, these reforms were justified on the grounds that separate child-centered institutions would shelter and protect the young, and provided expertly designed environments where they could grow up in carefully calibrated stages.  But, of course, these environments were also instituted to insulate adults from children and insure smooth operation of the economic order.

History offers dynamic, diachronic, longitudinal perspectives that are quite different from those generally advanced by the disciplines of psychology or sociology. By treating concepts and behavior patterns as constructs, history underscores the radical contingency of all social arrangements and modes of thought. 

In addition to stressing the importance of change over time, history also emphasizes the significance of social and cultural context, which has been always been crucial in shaping the nature and timing of key life course developments that are more important, in my view, than any innate states of psychological or physiological development. History reminds us that conceptions of childhood and children’s essential nature, theories of child development, and approaches to childrearing – all have shifted profoundly over time.

The history of childhood is of more than antiquarian interest. Too often, history is regarded as preface – that is, as a source of fascinating anecdotes – or as mirror – a stark contrast to our supposedly more enlightened present. But history, including the history of childhood, is of more than antiquarian interest. With its emphasis on four C’s — change over time, the significance of context, the role of contingency in shaping historical development (and the rejection of any notions of teleology), and the ever-present reality of conflict — greatly enriches, and, at times, challenges, the insights gleaned from other social sciences.

The recognition that childhood has changed in important and irreversible ways, that the very context in which children grow up differs drastically from the past, and that the world that we’re preparing them for will be wholly unlike their parents’ is the essential first step toward realizing that education needs to undergo profound transformations – and not just at the K-12 level.

▪ We do need to treat students not as passive recipients of knowledge by as investigators, problem solvers, and creators of knowledge, who are moving from novice to expert status.

▪ We do need to give children (and their college counterparts) more opportunities to engage in active inquiry and to undertake meaningful, public projects.

▪ We do need to reimagine the relationship between students and teacher not simply as a guide on the side, but as mentor, expert advisor, feedback provider, learning architect, and educational partner.

Yes, childhood has changed.  But unfortunately, American society has not adapted to this shifting reality in commensurate ways.  This country has failed to figure out how to properly balance children’s need for independence and supervision or how to give the young more positive ways to express their growing maturity or how to overcome the rigid age segregation that does so much to distort relations between the young and their elders. This country, which claims to love children, continues to treat all too many in ways that are damaging and that are detrimental to their development.  

Childhood at its best is an odyssey of psychological self-discovery, growth, and adventure, a perilous, risk-filled, tempest-tossed journey that is among life’s greatest undertakings.  

Today, adults impose ever-increasing demands on the young for self-discipline, cognitive development, and academic achievement, even as the influence of the mass media and consumer culture has grown.

All of us who are teachers or parents need to take steps to give all children, irrespective of their socioeconomic class, nationality, ethnicity, race, or gender, experiences that combine risk, freedom, experimentation, exploration, and opportunities for accomplishment.   

We owe them nothing less.

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Are Today’s Children Different than Children in the 1890s?

News stories of a three-year old calling 911 to save a dying parent or of a teenager shooting teachers startle us over what children can now do to help and harm others. Kindergarten teachers speak admiringly of bright-eyed five-year olds who sing the lyrics of the latest rap song or tap out a note to the teacher on their parent’s computer. They are soooo smart! These same teachers speak less glowingly, however, of how their attention span is as short as a tweet or how little ones expect the classroom to be just like “Barney and Friend.”

Today’s kids do seem different than those over a century ago.

But the belief is a myth.

Biologically, babies are born with the same heart, brain, and other organs that humans have had for millennia. Psychologically, children then and now have always needed to feel physically and emotionally safe and loved by those that care for them. If they are same biologically and psychologically, what makes them seem different now?

First, social conditions have changed dramatically influencing what toddlers learn and do as they mature. Few would disagree that over the last half-century socioeconomic conditions have changed the U.S. family. The spiraling divorce rate and sharply increased numbers of working mothers in concert with periodic recessions have had an enormous impact on rearing children. Experts have pointed out repeatedly the importance of parents spending time with their children.

Parents and children also have to cope with technological changes. Experts point to how media has made it possible for children to consider adult ideas and behaviors. Researchers cite statistics about soaring rates of alcoholism, sexual activity, drug use, and teenage violence to show that distinctions between adulthood and childhood are fading. Moreover, exposure to video games, mobile phones, texting, and other nanosecond communication devices have altered attention spans in both positive and negative ways (see: BavelierGreenDye2010 ). Children do indeed spend big chunks of their days facing screens in and out of school. It is these conditions in mall-dominated suburbs and low-income neighborhoods that shape what children think and do.

Second, while socioeconomic and cultural changes such as increased divorce, televised violence, and high-tech devices may give the appearance that children are different, fundamental beliefs parents have have about the nature of children and how they should be raised have persisted. These enduring beliefs passed from one generation to another have contributed to the myth of children today being different than those over a century ago.

Child-as-blank-slate.

From birth through toddler-hood, experiences in a family and in the larger culture, parents and teachers have long believed that they are the chalk that writes on those blank slates. Toys, computers, cell phones and books proliferate in homes. The dramatic growth of child care, nursery schools, kindergarten, and the school itself in the past two centuries derive from the taken-for-granted idea that experiences outside the family are also pieces of chalk. The original idea behind the television program “Sesame Street” in the late 1960s, for example, was to give young children know-how and experiences that would prepare them for school.

Although this blank-slate model of childhood is pervasive among adults, it competes with another equally old but still popular belief: children are born bad and have to be made good.

Born Bad, Made Good

This view, solidly anchored in a Christian vision of human nature, has gained renewed thrust  among evangelical groups since the 1950s challenging the secular blank-slate view of children. It is the view that children are born sinners and need strong training especially in the family and also in the school to build habits of helpfulness, caring, self-reliance, and respect for authority. While a traditional view, philosophers and educators have challenged it often (see here).

Child as Perpetual Learner

A more recent idea about infants and children is that they are neither blank slates to be written on nor born bad but curious individuals that actively inquire, develop goals, seek to work with others, and think for themselves–if given proper support in families and schools. Children need to explore and be involved in activities that are both productive and socially useful. Schools become communities of learners who work together on relevant and useful activities under the guidance of adults. These beliefs about the nature of children and rearing them act as filters for interpreting the actions of toddlers and young children.

These beliefs also shape school reform agendas. Those who assume that children are blank slates, born bad, or individuals that constantly learn see instances of social and cultural decay around them and often turn to the schools to provide better experiences to foster desired behaviors: for the blank-slaters it might mean focusing on basic academics to handing out condoms in high schools and starting conflict resolution courses. For make-kids-good believers it might mean building more respect for authority, character education, and teaching moral precepts in lessons. For those who see children-as-inquirers, school reforms that push teachers to act like coaches rather than autocrats; and encouraging children to take far more responsibility for their learning. Of course, while I have presented these beliefs separately, there are mixes of them in most adults. Nonetheless, we seldom examine these beliefs about children’s nature or child-rearing and connect those tenets to school reform.

My point is straightforward: children are not biologically or psychologically different than earlier generations. Changed socioeconomic and cultural conditions, however, do affect young children behaviors to appear different than earlier generations. Those changed conditions also influence adults’ beliefs about rearing children and how schools should be yet thus far have hardly altered long-held beliefs about the nature of infants, toddlers, children, and youth. Thus, there is both continuity and change in beliefs when it comes to how children are at home and should be in school.

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Another School Year Begins in August

I have been struck by the lack of demands on school boards to lengthen the school year because students have fallen behind in academics because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Media reports on “learning loss” (see here and here), I would have thought, would have fanned the flames of reform-minded policymakers and parents to add days to the school calendar so that in 2022, schools would start in early to mid-August. Looking at the history of the annual school calendar may bring a tad of understanding to the question of why the familiar opening of schools after Labor Day in early September, the traditional start time for U.S. schools for nearly a century, has been steadily pushed back by more and more districts to August.see here, here, and here).

Answers include increased teacher efficiency  (more time to prepare students for standardized tests), catering to students and families (smoother closing of first semester before winter holidays) and a school year that ends in late May (reduces graduating seniors’ shenanigans in last few weeks of school). Few pundits and policymakers, however, offer the simple answer that the school calendar is (and historically has been) a political compromise.

The absence of parent cadres and media editorials pushing district school boards to increase the number of days students attend because of Covid-19 is in stark contrast to the highly-charged, crisis-ridden vocabulary of 40 years ago about U.S. students spending far less time in schools than international peers who were beating the pants off Americans on tests. 

In the 1980s, the short school year of 180 days was believed to be the cause of U.S. students’ mediocre showing on international tests. Recommendations for a longer school year (up to 220 days) came from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. In 2008, a foundation-funded report, A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk, found that the 180-day school year was intact across the nation. The length of the school year even with current earlier starts in August today remains around 180 days of school.

What about year-round schools?  There is a homespun myth, treated as fact, that the annual school calendar, with three months off for both teachers and students, is based on the rhythm of 19th-century farm life, which dictated when school was in session. Thus, planting and harvesting chores accounted for long summer breaks, an artifact of agrarian America. Not so.

Actually, summer vacations grew out of early 20th- century urban middle-class parents (and later lobbyists for camps and the tourist industry) pressing school boards to release children to be with their families for four to eight weeks or more. By the 1960s, however, policy maker and parent concerns about students losing ground academically during the vacation months— in academic language, “summer loss” — gained support for year-round schooling. Cost savings also attracted those who saw facilities being used 12 months a year rather than being shuttered during the summer. Nonetheless, although year-round schools were established as early as 1906 in Gary, Indiana, calendar innovations have had a hard time entering most schools. Districts with year-round schools still work within the 180-day year but distribute the time more evenly (e.g., 45 days in session, 15 days off) rather than having a long break between June and September. As of 2015, about four percent of the nation’s 100,000 public schools had a year-round calendar. Almost half of the year-round schools are in California. In most cases, school boards adopted year-round schools because increased enrollments led to crowded facilities, most often in minority and poor communities —not concerns over “summer loss” in academic achievement.

What about lengthened school day? Since the 1990s, especially in urban districts, children and youth coming to school earlier and leaving later with the addition of after-school programs has extended the school day in districts across the nation.

In the past half century, as the economy has changed and families increasingly have both (or single) parents working, schools have been pressed to take on childcare responsibilities, such as tutoring and home work supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 a.m. for parents to drop off children and have after-school programs that close at 6 p.m. PDK/Gallup polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before-and after-school programs. Instead of the familiar half-day program for 5-year-olds, all-day kindergartens (and prekindergartens for 4-year-olds) have spread swiftly in the past two decades, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Innovative urban schools, such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), run longer school days. They routinely open at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. and also schedules biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.

If reformers want a success story in fixing school time, they can look to extending the school day, although it’s arguable how many of those changes occurred because of reformers’ arguments and actions and how much from economic and social changes in family structure and the desire to chase a higher standard of living. According to recent studies, high-quality after school programs improve children and youth attitudes, behaviors, and achievement (see OSTissuebrief10-1    ) .But those schools still run on 180-day schedules.

After thirty years of reform furor over long summers and insufficient time in school, reformers of that generation can look today at increasing numbers of  districts opening in mid-August yet many others still hanging on to an early September opening.  Extended day with child care and after-school programs have spread across the nation’s schools. For those school reformers then and now who still believe that more time in school leads to higher performance on tests, the results are, at best, mixed.

Even with reformers intense pressure to get U.S. students schooled for longer periods of time, pushback from parents, voters and taxpayers have kept the number of school days in session and vacations pretty close to what they have been for decades.

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How Do Teachers Learn about Their Colleagues’ Teaching? Listening to Students

In previous posts, I have described and, yes, promoted teachers observing colleagues they admired and respected as practitioners. Such observations are direct ways of learning how colleagues teach and applying what has been learned to one’s practice. But there are also indirect ways teachers learn about how colleagues teach.

Fourteen years of teaching in three urban high schools taught me many things about teaching. I learned, for example, a lot about my fellow teachers not by watching them teach–I had no time to do so with a daily schedule of five 50-minute classes to teach–but by listening to students.

Every day, a number of students from my five classes came to my classroom before the school day started, during the one period of the day free of students in which I had to grade homework and plan, visited with me as I ate my bag lunch, and dropped by after school as I realigned desks and chairs in the classroom and erased chalkboards.

I was not an especially popular teacher but nonetheless there were always some current and past students who would come by to check on homework assignments, turn in late work, and or just wanted to chat. I found those moments both satisfying and educational. Satisfying in the sense that these students felt comfortable in telling me about their daily lives, dreams and fears. They taught me a lot about the mostly Black working and middle class families from which they came and the ever-changing neighborhoods in which they lived.

Educational in the sense that students also told me about teachers in the school they liked and disliked and why. Which teachers they admired and would turn in required assignments and which teachers they thought were just adequate or even poor, the latter being ones they would do the least amount of work to pass the course.

And this is how I learned a bit about how my colleagues taught.

How accurate these student descriptions of my colleagues were, I cannot say. Some readers could call it gossip and they would not be entirely wrong. Teachers who read this blog surely know that practitioners also gossip about their students.

I often heard co-workers in the faculty lounge (a large room where teachers ate their lunches, spent their “free” periods, and marked homework assignments and tests) talk about their students. I heard teachers praise and criticize students and gripe about the school and district administrations. Teaching issues such as discipline and textbooks occasionally arose but not enough for me to get any sense of how my colleagues taught their lessons. While student comments made me curious about how another English or biology teacher taught, there was no time to schedule a classroom visit to indulge that curiosity.

Most of all, then, over the course of a school day, I would hear snippets of how my students experienced lessons in colleagues’ classrooms. As sparse as that information was, students’ comments and gossip about fellow teachers’ lessons, I found, gave me a keyhole perspective into how my colleagues taught. Yet those tiny packets of information reduced my isolation from other teachers.

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Watching Colleagues Teach (Part 2)

For nearly all teachers, watching colleagues teach is an uncommon event. As valuable as it may be for a teacher to compare and contrast a lesson of a well-respected co-worker with how she teaches daily, it happens infrequently. Teachers, as I and others have pointed out, are solo practitioners insulated and isolated from one another in buildings. One tactic of professional development that is inexpensive in dollars but carries great return-on-investment is increasing opportunities for teachers to observe one another. Such professional development offers the possibility of solo practitioners becoming collaborative ones.

Because the logistics of arranging a common time for a few teachers or even one’s self to observe another teacher requires at the minimum the colleague’s assent to be seen and a time slot acceptable to observers and the teacher, in a tightly scheduled school-day that is a major obstacle in an already crowded elementary or secondary school day. Of course it does occur from time to time as Jennifer Gonzalez’s described her experiences. This post offers a few examples of this simple but complicated way of improving teaching.

On occasion, an individual teacher arranges with a respected co-worker to observe each other’s lesson. Informal and practical, the colleagues work out the details visit each other’s classrooms and then find the time before, during, or after the school day to confer.

And sometimes groups of teachers do the observing. They take notes and confer after the end of the lesson among themselves and–if it can be arranged–with the teacher who taught the lesson.

Beyond individual teachers working out the logistics to observe one another in their school, there are districts that encourage groups of teachers to engage in classroom observations. Similar to what happens in hospitals when groups of novice and experienced physicians do “medical rounds,” “instructional rounds” aim to get teachers to examine closely how a lesson unfolds in another teacher’s class and discuss with other practitioner-observers what they saw. And what they may consider or not for their own classroom. It gets teachers to inquire and ponder the art and craft of teaching while avoiding judging the worth of the lesson as an evaluator would do.

There is nothing magical about teachers observing one another during the school day. Like any tactic used to improve teaching, it can be exhilarating for those teachers deeply committed to reflecting on their practice when observing an equally skilled colleague teach. And teacher observations can also lapse into the mundane if inquiry and questioning (without evaluating) are absent from the post-observation discussion.

As an inexpensive way of professional development–no out-of-town expert being paid $10K to give a lecture–classroom observation is expensive in another way: time. A teacher spending at least an hour or so in an already crowded daily schedule to observe a lesson and confer later is an expenditure that many teachers think twice about, given the physical and emotional labor spent in teaching students each day.

So in most districts, especially urban ones, watching colleagues teach remains an uncommon and time-expensive way of trusting teachers to improve how they teach on their own. Some districts hire substitutes to allow such observations but the practice remains atypical.

Uncommon as it may be, encouraging teachers to collaborate by observing one another lets these solo practitioners to learn from one another through comparing and contrasting their ways of teaching lessons. Doing so reduces teacher isolation and insulation baked into the age-graded structure of one teacher with one group of students in classrooms arrayed along hallways plowing through a packed daily schedule. From solo practitioner to collaborative practitioner, then, becomes more than a dream. Such a return on investment may far outstrip the time costs.

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Cartoons on Schools Opening for 2022

Yes, it is that time of year when school supplies are bought, clothes laid out for the first day of school, and moans and groans over the end of summer. Here are some cartoons to encourage smiles and, perhaps, a chuckle over the annual rite of returning to school.

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