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Where Do Ideas of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Come From? (Part 1)

A few weeks ago, I published posts about “Success” and “Failure” in schooling that have a chance of becoming my next project (see here, here, and here). I asked for comments and received very helpful ones. I have continued to work on these concepts by exploring a set of questions that are becoming the spine of what may  (or not) turn out to be a book

I seek answers to these questions:

1. What is “success” and “failure” in schooling?

2. Where do these ideas of “success” and “failure” come from and how do they spread?

3. Who defines “success” and failure?

4. What does “success” and “failure” look like in practice?

5. So what?

I am now trying to answer the second question. I have drafted my answer in the next few posts. I have not included citations here but have them listed elsewhere. If readers want to know sources I used for a particular statement or quote, please contact me. I welcome your comments.


Where do concepts of “success” and “failure” in schooling come from?

Notions of success and failure in contemporary society are anchored in a market-driven democracy where core values of individualism, community, and equal opportunity have shaped the American character. In 1931, a historian captured these core values in what he called “The American Dream:”

The American dream that has lured tens of million of all nation to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as men and women, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere, though very imperfectly even among ourselves.

Less than a decade later, a Swedish sociologist and his team studying “The Negro Problem” in the U.S. identified these same values as the “American Creed,” embedded in principles drawn from the founders of the nation, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution. Subsequent social scientists came to similar conclusions about basic American values. These values–individualism, community, and equal opportunity–espoused in the Creed and the Dream, then and now–have been in tension with one another.


Individual Americans seek to achieve personal success in a highly competitive economic system embedded in a democratic government. They want higher social status, and a better life for themselves and those they love. In following their personal interests and passions, they want the freedom to choose–excuse the cliché–come hell or high water. And even if they choose unwisely and fail, so be it.

As one team of sociologists–identifying themselves as Americans put it three decades ago:

[W]e are united … in at least one core belief, even across lines of color, religion, region, and occupation: the belief that economic success or misfortune is the individual’s responsibility and his or hers alone.

One national survey (2011) found that nearly six-in-ten Americans say pursuing one’s goals without state interference is more important than the government making sure that people are not needy.

No surprise then that generations of fathers and mothers have taught their sons and daughters basic lessons: Work hard. Make smart choices. Learn to compete. And rewards will come. American child rearing practices aimed at making children into independent adults who could take care of themselves in a highly competitive world while making  wise choices has been the ideal for middle and working class Americans.

The growth of individualism began early in the early years of the nation.  Foreign travelers visited America often. French aristocrat Alexis De Tocqueville and a colleague toured the United States for nine months in 1831 and in Democracy in America, Tocqueville commented about individualism as an American character trait:

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.

And a decade after Tocqueville, a born-and-bred New Englander, Harvard graduate, poet and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay on “Self-Reliance.”

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thous foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.

Fast forward to Andy Grove, longtime CEO of Intel who in 1999 extolled individualism in managing one’s career:

Your career is literally your business. You own it as a sole proprietor. You have one employee: yourself. You are in competition with millions of similar businesses: millions of other employees all over the world. You need to accept ownership of your career, your skills and the timing of your moves. It is your responsibility to protect this personal business of yours from harm and to position it to benefit from the changes in the environment. Nobody else can do that for you.

No surprise, then, in a nation where the individual rights and choices are highly prized that the word “self” gets used often in our culture as in: self-interest, self-sufficiency, self-help, self-discipline, self-made, self-educated, self-absorbed, self-actualization, self-esteem and so many more.

Part 2 takes up the other core values of equal opportunity and community.



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Cartoons on Families Raising Kids

For this month, I have scoured the web for loving descriptions, cartoons and instances when families interact with their kids. Cartoonists have always had fun examining kids and their parents. Enjoy!

































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What Are Success and Failure in Schooling? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I pointed out that judging “success” and “failure” in business and war is hard to do. Both are entangled with one another containing contradictions and complicated enough to provide neither  easy nor swift judgment. In this post, I look at providing health care in hospitals and schooling the young as further instances of a difficulty in determining “success” and “failure” even when relying on measures of performance.

The U.S. health care system is a model of inefficiency. It is by far the most expensive system in the world, consuming 18% of our gross domestic product. The results in terms of almost all quality measures, from life expectancy to childhood mortality, are in the lower half of the industrialized nations of the world.

Robert Pearl, M.D. 2015


This grim view of U.S. health care delivered by hospitals and physicians costs a lot yet delivers well below what most other nations give their citizens in health care. This framing of the problem leans decidedly toward picturing the nation’s hospitals and medical practices as failing to deliver what other nations do at lower cost. “Success” is not the first word that comes to mind in how the problem of health care is defined by those who agree with Dr. Pearl.

Yet when looking at success and failure with patients in hospitals it should be easy to figure out. As in business and the military, performance in meeting health care goals and objectives is everything.

Ranking systems using metrics that capture percentages of readmission and deaths, timely and effective care, complications that develop, use of imaging, patient satisfaction surveys, and other measures lead to judgments about high and low quality of hospital care.

Apart from ranking systems, there are the personal encounters that patients and their families have. Surgeons, for example, cut out cancers and oncologists administer chemotherapy to kill remaining cancer cells to achieve remission. Many patients return to better health than they had when the disease ravaged their body. Ditto for other medical clinicians who work in hospitals. Those are the successes.

But there are the failures. The operation was a success, but the patient died is an oft-told joke dating back to mid-19th century physicians. While old it does suggest difficulties of defining success and failure in hospitals.

For example, some diseases have no reliable treatments. For those children and aged who have such diseases, the prognosis is grim. And for many elderly patients who have multiple chronic conditions, surgery, chemotherapy, new treatments and drugs still fall short and patients die.

Then there are medical errors in diagnosis and treatment that kill patients in and out of hospitals. And do not forget that some hospital patients contract infections while there leading to longer stays and even death.

So success and failure are  uneasy concepts when it comes to doctors treating patients in hospitals.

Who runs hospitals has further complicated providing health care to Americans as Pearl’s opening quote suggests. With just over 6,000 hospitals in the U.S.—a number that has been decreasing over the past few decades—decisions about health care are increasingly made by non-doctors, mostly  corporate leaders.

Where a generation ago, medical staff made hospital decisions balancing quality health care and efficient operations, now more non-profit community hospitals are led by non-medically trained CEOs deeply committed to breaking even and having revenues that come from patients, private insurers, federal, state, and local governments exceed expenditures (about 20 percent of U.S. hospitals are for-profit and seek a positive return to their investors). The tension between reducing costs, increasing efficiencies, and hitting the quality measures of successful health care continue to be fraught with conflict. Thus, judgments of success and failure are seldom clear-cut.


For the past half-century, the multiple goals that American schools are expected to achieve (e.g., engaged citizens, graduates prepared for the workplace, strong character, move up the social escalator) has been compressed into one salient measure: high scores on U.S. and international standardized tests. Schools that score high and have high percentages of high school graduates who move on to college are crowned “successes” and drape their schools with award banners. Schools with low scores, percentages of students graduating high school and even fewer attending college are deemed failures, subject to criticism, imposed changes, and even closure.

Yet schools tagged as “successes” have groups of children and youth (e.g., ethnic and racial minorities, low-income) who fail year after year to keep pace with their classmates. Failure within success?

Or consider the high test-scoring elementary school that is closed nonetheless because the school board decides it is costing too much to keep the low-enrollment school open. Enrollment trumped high academic performance. The “successful” school gets mothballed; children go to a neighboring school. Successful yet closed?*

Moreover, there are schools in the “failure” category that plug along year after year with declining test scores, high dropout rates, and few graduates attending college. These schools persist in their failure to perform even with severe criticism and reform piled upon reform. In spite of persistent failure, they continue to open their doors every September. Successful failures?

Furthermore, from time to time, schools once labeled “failure” turnaround and score high on standardized tests and receive awards. Failures then become successes?

These examples are puzzling to those who believe “success” and “failure” based on performance are easy both to identify in sustaining businesses, the military waging war, providing hospital-based health care, and schooling the young. Such puzzles arise when it comes to defining and capturing both “success” and “failure in institutions that serve the American public.


  • In Arlington (VA), where I served as superintendent (1974-1981), I recommended to the School Board in 1975-1976 the closing of very small elementary schools (200 or less students) even though they scored well on state tests. The Board approved the recommendations.






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Cartoons on Addiction to Technology

The following collection of cartoons on technology addiction come from a blog post at Examined Existence. I selected the ones that had not appeared on posts that I had published on the same topic. Enjoy!













































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Branding Teachers in Other Countries: Private Gain and Public Good (Tom Hatch)

“Thomas Hatch is a Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST). He previously served as a Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching where he Co-Directed the K–12 Program of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) and established the Carnegie Knowledge Media Laboratory.  He is also the founder of, a twitter feed and blog that provides access to news and research on educational policy and educational change around the world.”

This post appeared September 13, 2017 on his blog



New York Times’ reporter Natasha’s Singer’s recent article on “brand-name” teachers, created quite a stir.  Reaction in the Times and elsewhere in the US focused on “topdog” teacher Kayla Dalzel and what EdSurge called the “murky relationship between edtech developers and the educators who tout their products.” For me, the emergence of “brand-name” teachers in the US (and “super tutors” and “celebrity tutors” in places like Singapore and Hong Kong) also highlights both long-standing tensions between private gain and the public good and the way that cultural and economic context shapes education systems.

The discussion reminded me of a conversation I had this summer with Pekka Peura, a Finnish high school math and physics teacher who could be described as an “entrepreneurial teacher.” Peura takes advantage of Finland’s celebrated autonomy for teachers by regularly trying out new ideas in his classroom.  At first, he simply experimented with changing his homework assignments, giving all the assignments to students in 7 week blocks rather than every single day, and letting students decide when and how to complete their work. Now he doesn’t use exams (almost unheard of in the highly exam-driven context of Finnish high schools and in math and physics courses in particular), and he doesn’t do any grading – the students evaluate themselves. Peura explained that he made these changes in his classroom in order to create learning activities and environments where students want to work hard and can evaluate and direct their own learning.

Peura surprised me, however, when he told me that, at the same time, he works systematically to build his reputation and “brand” among educators in Finland. He does that by making his teaching visible and sharing his plans and tools (like a seven week plan for teaching vector calculus) in his own blog, Facebook page, and YouTube videos, as well as in a new book, Flipped Learning, by Marika Toivola, Markus Humaloja, and Peura (the book will be published in English this fall).

Peura’s efforts to “build his brand” have paid off. His Facebook page now has 13,000 members, and he regularly receives invitations to speak at conferences and visit other schools and other countries. He’s gained access to other noted educators and those who wield power and influence in education, and his books and other works certainly have a bigger audience than he would otherwise have had.

Since my Norwegian and Finnish colleagues consistently emphasize the importance of equity and common identity – and not building an “individual brand” – Peura’s approach seem more American than Nordic. But Peura has always had a larger goal in mind: changing the traditional, academic focus of the whole Finnish education system.  As Peura explained, building his reputation is a key means of encouraging other teachers take advantage of the autonomy offered in the Finnish education system and to pursue and share their own efforts to change conventional instruction. “We just need a lot of teachers that are creating their own books, and blogs and leading their own subjects,” he told me.

From Peura’s perspective, Finnish teachers need to go public precisely because it is so counter-cultural. Although the Finnish education system is well-known for supporting teachers’ autonomy and independence, Finnish teachers are not particularly prone to collaborate or share their work. Furthermore, although many know the Finnish education system is high-performing, as Saku Tuominen (an expert on innovation and founder of HundrED) regularly points out, few people can name a single innovative educational tool or practice developed in Finnish classrooms (but everyone seems to know that Angry Birds was launched in Finland).

Given these circumstances, Peura explained to me that he feels that he not only needs to go public with his own work, he needs to help build an audience that is interested in hearing from educators and to encourage other educators to make their work and ideas public as well.  As he put it, “if you have some good tools or ideas to share, there is no one to share with unless people will listen to you.”

At the same time, Peura makes it clear that the relationship between commercial enterprises and classrooms in Finland is also dramatically different from the US.  As he wrote to me:

In Finland we don’t promote companies very easily. I don’t know any teacher, who gets money from some company to advertise them. But it is familiar that some companies give technology hardware or software for free for some classrooms to test them. But we give fair feedback, if the product doesn’t work in the classroom, it is said out loud.

From my point of view it is really important NOT to connect your name-brand with some one company, because we are a very small [community] and teachers know each other, especially if you are a well known teacher, and it eats into your credibility as a change maker. And one thing that is also quite common in Finland is that we try to seek open/free solutions, so if there is a free and a commercial product/solution, we promote the free one. It is crucial for your credibility to promote commercial products only if it’s the best and only solution for some problem. 

There are teachers like Kayla Dalzel and Pekka Peura all over the world, and all have to contend with the tensions between personal gain and the public good, but the context is different.  In this case, when it comes to the US and Finland, it all comes down to trust.  In Finland, they trust teachers.  In the US, we don’t.

We sometimes forget why that’s the case.  As Peura points out, trust, visibility and reputation are inextricably linked everywhere, but Finnish educators work in a system designed to build trust in teachers. US educators do not.


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Cartoons and Stories of Students and Lawyers

For this month, I am combining those often repeated howlers that students write  on tests and say in class with a selection of actual back-and-forths between trial lawyers and witnesses. I wed these student stories/cartoons with courtroom exchanges to show that both children and professionals err and miscommunicate creating humor as they do. Enjoy!















The following excerpts are from Charles Sevilla, Disorder in the Court: Great Fractured Moments in Courtroom History (1999). These exchanges between lawyers and witnesses have been taken from court documents.

q: : what was the first thing your husband said to you when he woke up that morning?
a: : he said, “where am i, doris?”
q: : and why did that upset you?
a: : my name is susan.


q: : And where was the location of the accident?
a: : Approximately milepost 499.
q: : And where is milepost 499?
a: : Probably between milepost 498 and 500.


q: : Trooper, when you stopped the defendant, were your red and blue lights flashing?
a: : Yes.
q: : Did the defendant say anything when she got out of her car?
a: : Yes, sir.
q: : What did she say?
a: : What disco am I at?


q: : Do you know how far pregnant you are now?
a: : I’ll be three months on November 8.
q: : Apparently, then, the date of conception was August 8?
a: : Yes.
q: : What were you doing at that time?


q: : Do you recall the time that you examined the body?
a: : The autopsy started around 8:30 p.m.
q: : And Mr. Dennington was dead at the time?
a: : No, he was sitting on the table wondering why I was doing an autopsy.
q: : Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?
a: : No.
q: : Did you check for blood pressure?
a: : No.
q: : Did you check for breathing?
a: : No.
q: : So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?
a: : No.
q: : How can you be so sure, Doctor?
a: : Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar.
q: : But could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?
a: : It is possible that he could have been alive and practising law somewhere.


A carpenter was giving evidence about an accident he had witnessed.
q: : How far away he was from the accident.
a: : The carpenter replied, “Twenty-seven feet, six and one-half inches.”
q: : What? How come you are so sure of that distance?
a: : Well, I knew sooner or later some idiot would ask me. So I measured it!


q: : I show you Exhibit 3 and ask you if you recognize that picture.
a: : That’s me.
q: : Were you present when that picture was taken?


Q: How old is your son-the one living with you.
A: Thirty-eight or thirty-five, I can’t remember which.
Q: How long has he lived with you?
A: Forty-five years.


Q: What gear were you in at the moment of the impact?
A: Gucci sweats and Reeboks.


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Atlanta Educators Reflect on Lessons From Personalized Learning Initiative (Jenny Abamu)

This story appeared in EdSurge August 11, 2017.

“Jenny Abamu is an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covers technology’s role in both higher education and K-12 spaces. She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Masters degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.”

Five years into a massive transition to a personalized learning model, educators at Fulton County School District in Georgia say they’ve learned a lot about what personalized learning is—including that it’s not about technology.

Back in 2012, ambitious district officials in Fulton County revealed a five-year plan. Through a special-purpose local option sales tax, the district hoped to raise over $200 million to add 65,000 devices in schools by 2017. There was a catch, however: school leaders had to commit to implementing personalized learning models as a prerequisite to receiving laptops and iPads. District leaders even went so far as to dub the hardware “personalized learning devices.”

“At first we thought this was just going to be a hoop we have to jump through in order to get these devices,” admits Daniel Hodge, a personalized learning coach at Barnwell Elementary School in Fulton County, echoing the concerns and confusion shared by other Fulton County educators in an interview with EdSurge. Hodge says his work was originally focused on the tech. It was even in his job title—instructional technology support. “But as we started to do things, we realized it was so much more,” he says.

Working with the consulting organization, Education Elements, the district identified seven tenets of personalized learning: varied strategies, direct just-in-time instruction, choice and voice, mastery-based assessment, choice for demonstrating learning, flexible pacing, and co-plan learning.

District leaders then divided schools into five groups and set them up with coaches. Before teachers could receive the devices, they needed to work with the coaches to adopt at least three of the seven principles into their school model. These principles would guide the school’s professional development and curriculum.

Many teachers hoped that transitioning to this new model would cause students would take ownership of their learning since students had more choices about the pace of a lesson and the content they chose to learn.

But the students in Hodge’s school seemed less engaged. “They were supposed to have more ownership,” Hodge says, but instead, learning looked more passive. Testing scores dipped. “We were wondering why students were just not getting it. They were supposed to have ownership of their learning,” says Hodge. “We were like, wait a second, students chose this, and they’re giving teachers less quality than when teachers were leading them,” he says.

Educators were also confused about what personalized learning was supposed to be.

“A lot of teachers thought [personalized learning] was going to mean taking the teacher away from the front of the classroom and de-emphasizing direct instruction,” Hodge says. They expected inquiry-based learning over direct instruction; adaptive software instead of say, worksheets. “We were expecting those things to bear a lot of the weight” of instruction, he adds.

Chanel Johnson, a STEM program specialist in Fulton County, echoes Hodge’s concerns, noting that many of the teachers saw personalized learning as a type of technology that would replace the work of teachers in the classroom.

“We talked about personalized learning, and then we talked about devices, so teachers had the impression that personalized learning meant technology,” says Johnson. “It should have been communicated better that personalized learning is a pedagogy, a way of instructing children—and not a way to use technology better.”

Hodge’s “ah ha!” moment came when he realized the most important “tool” of personalized learning was, in fact, a much older education concept: the “gradual release of responsibility” model, something articulated in the early 1980s and based on theories that go back to Jean Piaget. “It doesn’t matter if you’re standing up in front of the class and giving kids packet of worksheets,” or if you use adaptive software, he says. Instead, the key to personalized learning “is the idea of the teacher transferring ownership of learning to students so they can become self-directed learners.”

The district paid for Hodge to take a six-month course on personalized learning, but he stresses that there are no experts. “When someone says they’re an expert in ‘personalized learning,’ you have to look at their background. People use [PL] as a noun—that’s super detrimental. It’s not a package or end game—it’s a process, a verb. It’s something that’s done. You personalize learning.”

To combat these misconceptions both Hodge and Johnson are working to reconstruct their message by separating technology from the pedagogy with teachers, a difficult task with the two ideas tied together at the district level. However, Hodge says he will remain on his “soap box” until teachers in his schools understand that they must gradually transition students into self-directed learning, whether or not they’re using technology.

“In order to effectively personalize students’ learning the teacher at some point must transfer ownership of learning to students,” says Hodge.

Hodge says he is willing to open up his school so people can come in and learn from their mistakes. Hosting what he describes as “Learning Walks,” Hodge invites parents, teachers, administrators into his teachers’ classrooms so they can offer feedback and support—hoping his transparency can encourage others to share their successes and failures.

“I think a lot of people are scared of letting people know that it didn’t work for them. That is our biggest weakness in all of this,” says Hodge. “Personalized learning has great sound bites and images, but when they try it, and it doesn’t work, they get very insecure about it. What I have learned and what is going to strengthen our work moving forward, has come from iteration and talking about what’s not working.”

Two years into the journey, Hodge feels upbeat about the directions he sees. “School’s just starting. I feel like this year, we’re in a really solid place. Our understanding is better. And it’s a better time to roll it out on larger scale because we know what we’re talking about.”



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