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The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, Part 3

Practitioner time. If media time (see previous post) often looks like speeded-up Chaplinesque frames from 1920s films, then think of practitioner time as slow motion. One example should suffice.

As computers spilled into schools during the 1980s, news media carried stories of an imminent revolution in teaching and learning. Districts bought machines like popcorn, placing them in classrooms and labs.

In schools saturated with computers, some teachers were using machines for lessons a few hours a week. Even after media predictions of an impending revolution in teaching and learning, however, most teachers remained casual or non-users.

By the early-1990s,  in characteristic hastiness, media had already pronounced the “computer revolution” dead on arrival. That judgment was premature. Over decades, a slow growth in teacher use of computers has registered on the practitioner clock rather than the media’s and policymakers’ faster tick-tock of  months and a few years. With the ubiquity of tablets and laptops, computer devices are in the hands of first graders and Advanced Placement physics students. With the hyped-up push for “personalized learning” and online instruction,  the media clock is ticking as is the policymaker clock when policies for rebuilding district computer infrastructures for school teacher andstudent access. Devices have become part of the unfolding of daily lessons across the nation’s classrooms. “Failure?”

Lag times between different clocks is also evident when student learning is considered.

Student learning time. Reformers want students to learn more, better, and faster. But this student-learning clock doesn’t tick fast. It is a very slow-moving, difficult to read, and the numbers are out of order.

Because school-based learning cannot be separated from home-based learning (including high-tech devices), learning may show up years after formal schooling ended since children learn at different rates. Finally, school-based learning contains both intended and unintended effects. Most students, for example, learn to read, calculate, and write sufficiently to pass tests and leave school with credentials. But students learn much that goes untested: taking turns; handling anger in public situations; dealing with schoolyard bullies; not snitching; the rudiments of sex beyond formal lessons; and scores of other useful social knowledge and skills beyond the classroom curriculum. With all of these caveats about the student time zone, how can this clock be read at all?

Think of two hands on this clock. The big hand marks teacher grades and the annual standardized paper-and-pencil tests taken periodically during the school year. As standardized tests have become primary means of estimating student academic performance over the last four decades, the big hand is noted most often by media and policymaker clock-watchers. When a new program is launched in a flurry of publicity, test scores are inspected swiftly to determine effectiveness.

The second hand on this clock is much slower because of all the complications noted above. With the lag time of learning stretched over a student’s school career and the difficulty of sorting out intended from unintended effects, the second hand creeps across the face of the clock at a snail’s pace and often goes unnoticed.

Reading different clocks may help travelers, but it is unclear how reformers knowing that there are separate ones for media, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and student learning is practical. I offer two reasons why anyone interested in improving classrooms and schools across the U.S. should consider the metaphor of different clocks to get at the truth, not the myth of failed school reform.

(1.) Paying more attention to slower-paced clocks could shift public debate to substantial matters of classroom teaching and learning. The point of the tsunami of policy talk and attention given to charter schools, pay-for-teacher performance, and new technologies in recent years was to improve what happens between teachers and students. Yet somehow that purpose got lost in the media and policymaker time zones. Because public attention was riveted on those fast-paced clocks, impatience with the slowness of bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning time led to premature and inaccurate judgments of reform failure.

(2.) Those seeking school reform need to expect that important changes occur in slow motion.

The media clock, for example, is watched more closely by policymakers who respond to electoral cycles. The media clock not only identifies what policymakers ought to consider but also certifies that what is reported is legitimate and worthy of policy attention. Moreover, because fast-moving media clocks register more failures than successes–after all, a publicly funded flop will attract readers and viewers–reforms that get adapted and prove successful over time as recorded by the bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning clocks are less eye-catching, less newsworthy, and often over-looked.

As a consequence, concentrating on media time strengthens the belief that most school reforms fail. Policymakers come to assume that belief without fully questioning it. Public and practitioner faith in improving schools flags. Teachers and activist parents ask: What’s the use of trying anything different? Such a belief destroys professional and lay-reformer self-confidence and, worse, is inaccurate.

Slower clocks have become seriously devalued by policymakers. But such slow-motion time counts far more for students and their teachers than the faster-paced, high-profile media time or election-driven policymaker time. Reformers need to heed this fact–“The time-line of reform is longer than the shelf life of reformers.”*–and make it clear to those outside of classrooms and schools.

For these two reasons, those committed to school improvement need to ignore the myth of failed reforms and pay attention to other clocks that record the long journey of school improvement.


*Louise Waters, CEO of Leadership Public Schools, February 1, 2011


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The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, Part 2

In 1990, Seymour Sarason published The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. A decade later, Diane Ravitch’s Left Back:A Century of Failed School Reforms hit booksellers. Now, not a week goes by that failures of public school reform are dissected, tallied, and trotted out as exhibits for wannabe reformers. The next two posts re-frame school reform as looking at different clocks to show that the concept of reform  “failure”  has to include who makes the judgment and when.


In some upscale hotels over the registration desk, clocks show times across the globe.  Different time zones alert travelers to what time it is in the city they wish to call.

There are such clocks for school reform also. Different reform clocks record the different speeds of reform talk, policy adoption, what happens in classrooms, and what students learn. Were these clocks in public view, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers would see that changes in policy talk and action have occurred but at different speeds, some far too slow for impatient reformers to notice. Framing reform as being recorded by different clocks gives a glimpse into the myth of reforms constantly “failing.”

The myth, of course, has a history. It is anchored in commission reports (e.g., Nation at Risk), books (e.g., Left Back), and studies (e.g., Spinning Wheels) over the last century that document flurries of curricular, organizational, and instructional reforms. The myth also comes from the feverish rhetoric of entrepreneurial reformers who see failure everywhere in order to sell their particular product (e.g., “personalizing learning,”charter schools).

Yet the hyped policy talk, books, and documents seldom distinguish between major reforms that have stuck such as kindergartens, comprehensive high schools, coed and desegregated schools and those that have disappeared (e.g., educational radio and television, The Platoon School). Historians and thoughtful observers, however, have learned that school reform has a series of clocks that move at different speeds.

Media time. This is the fastest reform clock of all, ticking every day and week. What is  eye-grabbing and controversial registers on the media clock. Tweets, blogs, social media–and don’t forget newspaper and TV headlines–document immediate events and opinion, shaping and legitimizing what policymakers put on school reform agendas. Condom distribution in high schools, for example, received strong media exposure as a school policy aimed at solving teenage pregnancies. Policymakers talk about online technologies that will revolutionize teaching and learning.  In watching only the media clock, however, policymakers may wrongly conclude that what happens in one school happens everywhere and that what is reported actually occurred. And what didn’t happen in media time was evidence of “failure.”

Policymaker time. This clock chimes every year campaigns for national, state, and local offices crank up to re-elect incumbents or bring fresh faces to public posts. In some places, policymaker clocks tick faster when annual budgets or referendums come up for voter approval.

To offer a recent example, federal policymakers have defined schools as an arm for the economy. Since the 1990s, higher academic standards, copying corporate business practices, and advocating charters have been converted by top officials into campaign slogans. Presidents George H.W. Bush and son, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have pushed for world-class standards, charters,  and business-inspired reforms to raise students’ performance.

Policymaker time, then, runs on election cycles. “Failure” takes time. No Child Left Behind lasted nearly 15 years before it was replaced by Every Student Succeeds Act (2016).

Other clocks measure whether the overblown reform hype and adopted policies have turned into action, have been implemented. Enter the bureaucratic time zone.

Bureaucratic time. This clock records administrative actions aimed at putting policy decisions into practice. Often the hands of the faster media and slower policymaker clocks make a complete turn just as the bureaucratic clock passes the first hour. The lag between policymaker time and bureaucratic time occurs because of the complexity in converting policy into feasible, clear procedures for principals and teachers who do the actual work of schooling. The bureaucratic clock chimes when new rules are announced, revised budgets presented, and increased departmental coordination occurs. An example of how the hands on the bureaucratic clock are reduced to a crawl can be seen in desegregation.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) banned legally segregated schools. Studies recorded the tortured progress of judicial policymaking as state governors and local school boards across the South wrestled both peacefully and violently with implementing the decision—a school reform–between the 1950s and 1980s.  States and districts, prodded by federal court orders, slowly embraced open enrollment, busing, and other remedies for desegregating schools. Over time, district attendance boundaries were redrawn; schools were closed; magnet schools were opened. By the mid-1990s, a full four decades after the Brown decision, Southern and Southwestern schools had largely desegregated (except in big cities where re-segregation has occurred).Since then, de facto, not de jure re-segregation in many urban, suburban, and rural districts has returned.

The media, policymaking, and bureaucratic clocks, then, are seldom in sync. Important details that can spell the difference between “successful” and “failed implementation” take considerable time to craft and put into practice. Often political, demographic, and other non-school factors create greater lag time between the clocks making judgments of “failure” premature.

There are other clocks as well. The next post takes up practitioner and student learning clocks.


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Cartoons on New Year Resolutions

As we come to the end of 2016, I offer cartoons poking fun at the perennial practice of resolving to do better next year–whatever “better” means. Enjoy!












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Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions (The Onion)*

September 28, 2011

Vol/ 47, Issue 39, Science, Technology, and History

WASHINGTON—With the United States facing a daunting array of problems at home and abroad, leading historians courteously reminded the nation Thursday that when making tough choices, it never hurts to stop a moment, take a look at similar situations from the past, and then think about whether the decisions people made back then were good or bad.

According to the historians, by looking at things that have already happened, Americans can learn a lot about which actions made things better versus which actions made things worse, and can then plan their own actions accordingly.

“In the coming weeks and months, people will have to make some really important decisions about some really important issues,” Columbia University historian Douglas R. Collins said during a press conference, speaking very slowly and clearly so the nation could follow his words. “And one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if turned out to be a good idea or not.”

“It’s actually pretty simple: We just have to ask ourselves if people doing the same thing in the past caused something bad to happen,” Collins continued. “Did the thing we’re thinking of doing make people upset? Did it start a war? If it did, then we might want to think about not doing it.”

In addition, Collins carefully explained that if a past decision proved to be favorable—if, for example, it led to increased employment, caused fewer deaths, or made lots of people feel good inside— then the nation should consider following through with the same decision now.

While the new strategy, known as “Look Back Before You Act,” has raised concerns among people worried they will have to remember lots of events from long ago, the historians have assured Americans they won’t be required to read all the way through thick books or memorize anything.

Instead, citizens have been told they can just find a large-print, illustrated timeline of historical events, place their finger on an important moment, and then look to the right of that point to see what happened afterward, paying especially close attention to whether things got worse or better.

“You know how the economy is not doing so well right now?” Professor Elizabeth Schuller of the University of North Carolina said. “Well, in the 1930s, financial markets—no, wait, I’m sorry. Here: A long, long time ago, way far in the past, certain things happened that were a lot like things now, and they made people hungry and sad.”

“How do you feel when you’re hungry? Doesn’t feel good, does it?” Schuller added. “So, maybe we should avoid doing those things that caused people to feel that way, don’t you think?”

Concluding their address, the panel of scholars provided a number of guidelines to help implement the strategy, reminding the nation that the biggest decisions required the most looking back, and stressing the importance of checking the past before one makes a decision, not afterward, when the decision has already been made.

While many citizens have expressed skepticism of the historians’ assertions, the majority of Americans have reportedly grasped the concept of noticing bad things from earlier times and trying not to repeat them.

“I get it. If we do something bad that happened before, then the same bad thing could happen again,” said Barb Ennis, 48, of Pawtucket, RI. “We don’t want history to happen again, unless the thing that happened was good.”

“When you think about it, a lot of things have happened already,” Ennis added. “That’s what history is.”

In Washington, several elected officials praised the looking-back-first strategy as a helpful, practical tool with the potential to revolutionize government.

“The things the historians were saying seemed complicated at first, but now it makes sense to me,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who reversed his opposition to oil-drilling safety regulations after checking past events and finding a number of “very, very sad things [he] didn’t like.” “I just wished they’d told us about this trick before.”


*The Onion satirizes news. The above “article” pokes fun at prevailing, strong ahistorical attitudes in the U.S. when it comes to major decision policy decisions See here.


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Personalized Learning at Weller Elementary School (Milpitas, CA)

In the Spring of 2012, teachers at Weller Elementary School, along with other schools in the Milpitas Unified School District, presented blueprints for re-designing their schools to Superintendent Cary Matsuoka, his top deputies, and the teachers’ union. The Superintendent’s group chose Weller’s  redesign for its school as one of two pilots for “blended” and “personalized learning” to be put into place using rotation of upper-grade students through the Learning Lab for a few hours a week and for the lower grades, in-class rotation of activities, including online software, supervised by the teacher. Soon after, Milpitas voters approved a bond referendum that produced funds for building new schools, remodeling older ones, and buying new technologies for teachers and students to use.

All of this occurred during the tenure of Weller principal, Raquel Kusunoki.

As a young child, she and her family immigrated from the Philippines to the Bay area. Kusunoki eventually became a credentialed teacher. She has been the Weller principal for four years after serving as assistant principal at the school and then teaching  for 13 years in San Jose Unified District elementary schools. As she told me about her years at Weller, “my umbilical cord is connected here.”

With nearly 450 students (K-6), Weller has a diverse cultural mix. Sixty percent of the students are Asian (including Filipino), 29 percent are Latino, four percent are African American and four percent are white (2015). Of that enrollment, 44 percent are English Language Learners and 47 percent are eligible for free and reduced price lunch–the poverty indicator.

On October 19, 2016, I spent the morning at Weller interviewing the principal, observing  two teachers’ lessons, and then meeting with a group of 6th graders and five teachers who have been closely involved in Weller’s “blended learning” design.

I first went to Richard Hart’s combined 5th and 6th grade class. While they have access to the Learning Lab at scheduled times, when in their classroom, Hart’s class rotates activities between whole group instruction, small group, and individual work in language arts, math, and online units that Weller teachers had designed in their summer experience with Summit Base Camp.

It is 8:30. There are 32 students in class sitting at pods of four, pushed together desks scattered throughout the room. The walls have displays of students’ work— hand-drawn architectural drawings of community centers, part of a recent unit. There is a Chromebook cart in the room and shelves of books along the walls. There is also a printer and TV monitor in the room.

All students are engaged in different activities. On the whiteboard is an agenda for the day’s work showing that students will work on their “Myths” project and their PLPs. As I move about the room, I see 10 students working on their Personalized Learning Plans. They are doing their self-assessment of what they have completed and what they still have to finish in their “myths” unit. Others have their tablets open and are reading, taking notes, conferring with classmates. Some students have ear buds when they have videos to see. Each student has a playlist (much of which has been created by Weller upper-grade teachers) for the “myths” unit to read, watch videos, do worksheets, etc. They take notes and when they have completed their playlist, they check with the teacher and then, if teacher approves, students take the assessment (see below).

Hart walks around the room talking with individual students as they work on their PLPs and sees where they are in the project on “myths.” When students want teacher’s help, they raise their hands. Hart carries his Apple laptop in hand and sees what is on screen of each 6th grader (he is using gScholar to track individual student’s work). Teacher does question-and-answer with each student as he moves around the room. Hart often leans over and shows a student what he has on his screen tracking the student’s completion of work.

I see some students going up to an whiteboard easel and sign their names when they finish a topic. Their names and topic signal the teacher that he will have to see the notes each student has taken, approve what student has done,  and then permit student to move to assessment for that part of the unit. After one quickie conference with a student, I see Hart do a fist bump with student who completed the task.  I also see one English Language Learner working online by herself.

As I scan the classroom close to 9AM, room noise is minimal  with the murmuring of the teacher in conference with a students or a pairs of students talking about a task. After walking through the room, I note that no students are off-task.

I then go to Juhi Sharma’s combination 5th grade class. Twenty-seven students sitting in the room arrayed 3-6 at tables in no particular order. Student work covers walls. White boards on three sides of room contain instruction, daily agenda, and goals.

One white board has instructions for her 5th graders in the morning and 6th graders in the afternoon:

5th PLP—activity Chap. 2 Review/test
PLT—Focus Area” Math (Personal Learning Time when students can choose to work on different topics)
WorkShop: Powers of 10

6th—Complete Checkpoint 1 (PLP)
Complete 6.2 & 6.3—(refers to chapters in textbook Go Math)

On the front whiteboard, the schedule for that week is displayed.
8:00 HR/PE  (home room and physical education)
9:00 Math
10.00 RTI (program called Response to Intervention used to identify students needing academic or behavioral support)
11:00 Recess/Lunch
12:00 Math
1:00 Science
2:00 Clean Up

As I look around the room, I see 10 students sitting in two rows facing another teacher, Beverly McCarter, who is teaching place value. The title of the workshop is :”Powers of Ten.” McCarter gestures to a chart on the whiteboard showing place value as she explains the concept and gives examples and then asks students to use place value as she poses questions. Sharma will do similar math workshop with a portion of McCarter’s class at another time.

As I scan the room, the rest of the class is working individually as I saw in Richard Hart’s class.  Sharma walks around with laptop in hand asking and answering questions and monitoring work (like Hart, she uses gScholar to see where the class and individual students are). I see that Sharma does a high-five slap of hands with student after he shows her that he is finished. When students have completed a topic, they write their names on a whiteboard. Once Sharma approves notes of each student, they move on to assessment–in this instance class is working on multiplication and fractions. Looking over the shoulder of one student’s PLP, I see that he has finished and passed all of topics but one. He is using his Personal Learning Time to finish up.

As noise in room increases from “Powers of Ten” workshop finishing up and the 10  students returning to their tables, writing their names on whiteboard and conferring with others at their tables, Sharma says, “voices, please.” Class quiets down and she says “thank you.”

After 35 minutes, I look around the class and see students working on different tasks during PLT, going from their Chromebook screen to writing in their notebook, and working on assessments they can submit and then move on to next task.

Five minutes later, Sharma announces that one student has passed all of his unit tasks. There is scattered applause from students.

A buzzer sounds ending the class.

I then go to another room for a half-hour meeting with a group of sixth graders and five teachers. The principal selected the teachers and the teachers selected the students. Because Weller has had many visitors from the Bay area, state and from across the country, the 6th graders and teachers were well-prepared for my easy questions.

I asked students what they liked most and liked least about the PLPs. I did the same with the teachers. In both instances, there was many positive statements about the process salted with occasional complaints from the students. Nothing substantial, weighty, or surprising did I hear.


On November 8, 2016 I returned to Weller to see two primary teachers do their in-class rotation of activities in small groups, large groups, and independently, again, using Chromebooks for individual work on content and skills.

Third grade teacher Jackie Dang is in her third year teaching. As I enter her room, I see  21 students arrayed at seven tables, each holding 2-4 students. In the rear of the room, there is a circular table where Dang sits with one 3rd grader listening to the child reading. High on one wall are large photos of every child in the class, big enough to see from anywhere in the room. On another wall is a set of posters about what a “mind-set” is and its importance (the teacher told me later that she taught five lessons on “growth mindset” at the beginning of semester). And on another wall are posters of the branches of the U.S. government.

growth-mindset-weller    dang-class-weller

The class has just finished a rotation of activities.  One group of nine students with their Chromebooks open are taking a quiz on readings they completed. Ten students are sitting on the multi-colored rug with rubik cube colors—red, orange, green, blue–writing in notebooks, reading on the topic of the day, watching videos.

After Dang finishes with one student, she calls up another. She listens as student reads story to her and then hands the little girl a work sheet that gets at comprehension of story. The questions on the worksheet asks student to make predictions based on what she read and then to write short sentences to summarize the story.

As I walk around the room, I see that all of the students are on task. From time to time, the teacher wants everyone’s attention to announce something. She sings: bump,de-bump-de-bump. Students stop what they are doing and repeat the syllables. One one of these occasions, the teacher says that two worksheets were turned in that did not have names on them. Two boys come up and collect their papers from the teacher.

Before calling up another student, Dang walks around the room checking on what each student is doing. She returns to her table, summons another student. The girl  reads to teacher and teacher goes over worksheet she had turned in.

I walk over to a third grader who is typing in her Chromebook. I ask what she is doing and she tells me that she belongs to the “typing club” in class. I look at the screen where there are printed sentences. The nine year-old types letters to match the words of the on-screen sentence. As she does, the screen lights up showing the fingers of each hand hitting the keyboard letters. The  screen simultaneously shows the percent of the letters and words that are accurate and the speed at which she is typing. After she finished, the screen flashes that she has attained 95% accuracy at a speed of 30 words per minute. The screen also shows what the requirement was for this exercise, 80% accuracy at 25 words per minute; a nearby student had 100% accuracy at six words per minute.

As the activities come to an end, Dang sings bump,de-bump-de-bump. Students stop what they are doing. Dang announces that class will come to the rug to begin a social studies lesson on government. After they settle in, Dang moves to a whole group discussion by reviewing words they learned in the last lesson: symbol, vote, laws, legislative, and judge. Students raise hands to answer her review questions.  After going over these words, she asks them to work in groups to write five sentences on strips of cardboard that uses each of the words they just reviewed. Dang  creates groups by counting off students 1 through 6 and then directs each numbered group to different parts of rooms to begin writing the five sentences on cardboard strips

At this point I leave the room and go down the corridor to John Duong’s 4th grade class. A former Weller student who was hired by the principal, he is in his fourth year as a teacher. There are 31 students in the room. The agenda for the day is on little black board in the front of the room:


Ellis/Angel Island trip,




End of day. 

Rows of tables sitting two students per table face the front of the room. At the rear of the room are 30 Chromebooks lying flat on desks facing a wall.

When I entered the class, students were working on immigration and creating a brochure for immigrants coming to either Ellis or Angel Islands (Ellis Island admitted 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Europe; Angel Island admitted immigrants from Asia at roughly the same time). The class was going on a field trip to Angel Island the next day.

Duong was leading a whole group question-and-answer on which island students should  choose as immigrant entry point to the U.S. for their brochure. Students had a handout of directions and items to be included in a brochure for each island.

On the whiteboard, Duong projected the sheets students had to complete. On each sheet students were asked to compare and contrast the two entry points for immigrants. Venn circle for each island appeared on whiteboard with an overlapping part for the two circles.  Students had already read excerpts and seen videos about each island and immigration from Europe and Asia on the Chromebooks and were now ready to complete these sheets. After their field trip to Angel Island, they would return to lessons on completing a brochure for immigrants from Europe and Asia coming to America.

As the whole-group discussion came to an end, Duong directed the class to divide up into their pre-arranged small groups to complete the Compare and Contrast worksheet.

As the small groups went to work, I spoke with students near me and asked what they were doing with the Venn circles and why. They explained the task accurately to me. In the next 10 minutes, the noise level rose and at one point, the teacher got everyone’s attention and asked them to work quietly. The noise level fell to a murmur.

At this point, I left the lesson, met briefly with principal Raquel Kusunoki and exited Weller.

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The Less Reported Findings of 2015 TIMSS and Explaining the East Asian Outstanding Performance (Yong Zha0)

This post appeared November 29, 2016. Dr. Yong Zhao’s works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He currently serves as the Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon, where he is also Weinman Professor of Technology and Professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership.

TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) beat PISA by two weeks. It just released its 2015 results. Within hours of the release, Google News has already collected over 10,000 news stories reacting to the results from around the world, some sad, some happy, some envious, and some confused. The biggest news is, however, nothing new: Children in East Asian countries best at maths. They were the best 20 years ago when TIMSS was first introduced in 1995. They were the best in all subsequent cycles.

Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan are the top performers. In 4th grade, the lowest East Asian country is 23 points above the next best country, Northern Ireland for 4th grade, the same gap as was in 2011, and in 8th grade, a whopping 48 points lead ahead of the next best country, Russia, a 17 point increase from 31 in 2011. (See below).



Much of the coverage is about how well the East Asian students performed and conversation will be about what lessons we can draw from the East Asian education systems. Frankly I am not sure what, if anything, can be learned these studies but below are a few observations I have after a quick read of the 2015 math report. These findings are less likely to be covered by the media and talked much by pundits.

  1. East Asian parents are not “very satisfied” with their schools. In 4th grade, only 7% of students’ parents in Japan reported that they were “very satisfied,” the lowest of all participating countries, 17% for Korea, 47% for Chinese Taipei, 55% for Hong Kong, and 58% for Singapore, all below the international average of 59%. The US, Australia, and England did not have enough participation to be reported.
  2. East Asian schools do not necessarily put a “very high emphasis” on academic success. According to the principals reports, in 4th grade, only 3% of Japanese students’ principals put a “very high emphasis” on academic success, 7% for Hong Kong, 11% for Singapore, 12% for Chinese Taipei, and 26% for Korea, compared with 19% for Canada, 18% for New Zealand, 14% for the US and England, and 12 for Australia. In 8th grade, English schools top the world in emphasis on academic success with 26% of students’ principals reported so, while Jan had only 2%, Hong Kong 6%, Chinese Taipei 7%, Singapore 10%, and Korea 17%. The U.S. has 8% and Australia 14%, on par with Canada’s 13%. Teacher reports show a similar pattern.
  3. East Asian teachers are not “very satisfied” with their jobs. In 4th grade, Japan is at the bottom with only 23% of its students’ teachers reporting “very satisfied,” Hong Kong is third from the bottom, with 33%. Singapore has 37%, while Chinese Taipei has 46%. Korea is the exception with 55%. Countries reporting the most “very satisfied” teachers are Iran, Qatar, Oman, and United Arab Emirates. In 8thgrade, the situation seems to worsen: Japan, England, Singapore, and Hong Kong are bottom four education systems with the lowest percentage of students whose teachers are “very satisfied.” Korea is better, but not by much, with 38%, compared to 44% in the US, 50% in Australia, and 57% in Canada.
  1. East Asian students do not have a “high sense of school belonging.”Japan, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei are the bottom three with 41%, 46% and 46% of 4th grade students reporting a “high sense of school belonging.” Korea is slightly better with 52% and Singapore with 56%. The international average is 66%. The percentage for England is 77%, Canada 66%, and the U.S. 64%. Australia has 62%. The 8thgraders in East Asian systems follow a similar pattern.
  2. East Asian students do not necessarily receive more classroom instruction compared to the U.S., Australia, Canada or England. In 4thgrade, for example, Korea spends the least amount of time at 100 hours, Chinese Taipei spends 128 hours, Japan 151 hours, Hong Kong 159, Singapore 201. The International Average is 157 hours. In comparison, the U.S. spends 216 hours, Australia 202 hours, Canada 196, and England 189 hours.
  3. East Asian systems are not the top users of computers in math lessons.The top 5 are New Zealand, Denmark, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, and Georgia in 4th grade and Sweden, Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Chile in 8th grade in terms of availability of computers for students to use in math lessons. Student use of Internet for schoolwork shows a similar pattern.
  4. East Asian students receive the least engaging math lessonsin the world. In 4th grade, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Denmark, and Singapore have the lowest percentages of students reporting that they experience “Very Engaging Teaching.” The same pattern is found in 8th grade. Only 8% of Korean students reported having “Very Engaging Teaching.” Japan has 10%, Chinese Taipei 23%, Hong Kong 26%, and Singapore 33%. The International Average is 43%. Canada, the US, England, and Australia all have more engaging lessons.
  1. · East Asian students DO NOT “very much like learning mathematics”. In 4th grade, the bottom 5 countries (in reverse order) are Korea (19%), Chinese Taipei (23%), Japan (26%), Finland (28%), and Croatia (29%). Hong Kong and Singapore are slightly better with 35% and 39% respectively, below the international average of 46%. U.S. students seem to like learning math more with 42% and England has 50% of its 4th graders like learning math. In 8th grade, the similar pattern holds, with Slovenia, Korea, Japan, Hungary, and Chinese Taipei having the least proportion of students reporting “very much like learning mathematics.”
  2. East Asian students have very little confidence in mathematics. Korea, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong have the lowest percentage of 4th graders reporting “very confident in math, all below 20%, while the International Average is 32%. The situation is about the same for 8th graders: Japan has 5% saying “very confident,” Korea 8%, Chinese Taipei 9%, Hong Kong 10%, and Singapore 13%. The international average is 14%. Canada, Israel, Norway and the US have the most confident 8thgraders.
  1. East Asian students don’t value math much.Again, four out of the five East Asian education systems are at the absolute bottom of the ranking in terms valuing math. Only 10% of 8th graders in Chinese Taipei, 11% in Japan, 13% in Korea, and 19% in Hong Kong “strongly value mathematics.” The percentage for Singapore is 34%, way below the international average of 42%. The U.S. is above the international average with 44%.

The bottom line and the big question:

So compared with most of the students participated in the TIMMS 2015 study, they have less engaging math lessons, they spend less time studying math in schools, they like math or value math less, and they are less confident in math, how did the East Asian students achieve the best scores?

The answer may lie outside schools. To me, the answer has to be chopsticks, something common to all these East Asian students interact with on a daily basis. To improve math scores, we should all begin using chopsticks.*


*This tongue-in-cheek conclusion explaining the “success” of East Asian students on the TIMMS 2015 study  is a warning to all of those past and current observers–in and out of education–about drawing silly conclusions about improving U.S. schools based on students’ performance in international tests.


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The Palimpsest of Progressive Schooling (Part 4)*

Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).


Personalized learning, i.e.,tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student, has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and in the second decade of the 21st century.

Recent posts on the AltSchool (Parts 2 and 3) and different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–-a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–-have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago. Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective (and deeper understanding) to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized learning–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of a science of education.

School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured buildings, teacher performance, and student achievement. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives” and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neo-progressive reformers, borrowing from their earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.”   Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.

As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and more interaction with the “real” world, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”).

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to other stations in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade as a new generation of reformers promised “back to basics” (see here).

Personalized Learning Today

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” today resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging  cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” (and the many definitions of each) is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.

But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

Except for  AltSchool and other private schools, tensions arise in public schools over end-of-year testing, meeting annual proficiency standards, and judging academic performance on the basis of student scores. Few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized learning” in their schools have yet faced these conflicts in the DNA of this popular reform.

So current innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered learning,   and “blended learning”  are written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education.  Efficiency in teaching students (faster, better, and at less cost) while teachers individualize instruction through use of digital tools combine anew the two wings of the century-old Progressive education movement.


*This post is an updated version of the one that originally appeared June 9, 2015.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school leaders, technology use, Uncategorized