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Why Many Top-Down School Reforms Fail: Elementary Math in One District

Examples of top-down mandates from district, state, and federal policymakers without significant teacher or community involvement are legion.

*Los Angeles Unified contracted with Apple to spend one billion-plus dollars for iPads for every student to use a newly-developed curriculum and eventually take Common Core tests in 2013. It belly flopped with lots of splashes offering little help to teachers and students.

*No Child Left Behind (2002-2016), a bipartisan law sailed through the U.S. Congress, got signed by President George W. Bush, and landed on state and district superintendents’ desks soon after. The U.S. Department of Education through individual states became a super-school board determining which local schools met or didn’t meet “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests. Schools that failed could be closed if AYP went unmet for five years. After protests from teachers and parents about too much testing–an opt out movement by parents who pulled their children out of school during test days swelled–too much shaming of students and their schools gradually accumulated in the first decade of the century.It was clear to legislators and the President, Barack Obama, that the law had to be changed. Not until 2016, however, did the Every Student Succeeds Act shift authority for evaluating schools that succeeded and those that failed schools back to the states (see here, here, and here).

*State math, reading, and science standards since the 1960s come and go with minimal teacher and community involvement (see here and here).

So what?

In a series of posts I have raised questions about the concept of “failed” school reform by looking at the different clocks used to measure “success” of a reform, how time itself is a factor in making a judgment, the varied criteria used to make decisions about “failure,” and who uses these criteria to make the judgments. In this post, I want to point out how easy it is for a district school reform to be declared a “failure” by media, parents, and practitioners through errors that policymakers commit.And how such errors could have been easily avoided.

When policymakers decide to adopt a new computer-driven program promising math lessons customized to fit every student without substantial involvement of teachers and parents, the ingredients of a recipe for a “failed” reform are in the pot to be stirred. It is a story anchored in decision-makers ignoring the very people who have to accept and implement the instructional reform. It is a sad story because such a “failure”–like some of the ones mentioned in the beginning of the post–could have been avoided had policymakers been attentive to the political dimensions of adopting and implementing a school reform.

Consider the experience of “Teach To One,” a personalized learning program adopted by the Mountain View Whisman School District in the heart of Silicon Valley to improve math test scores in 2016. Teach To One has received media attention and has been described as a technologically advanced way a district can close the achievement gap in math between minority and white students by tailoring individual lessons to the strengths and weaknesses of each student (See here, here, and here). The District of just over 5,000 students located in 10 schools adopted the program for all sixth graders in the two middle schools.*

The following chronology captures the onset and demise of the reform.

August-September 2016–Deeply buried in a thick document called the Local Control Accountability Plan for 2016-2017 are two lines of text that announce: “Based on middle school math achievement data, the District will pilot a blended learning program – Teach to One in 6th grade at both middle schools.” In effect, the Superintendent mandated an initiative that few parents and teachers knew about prior to its announcement in August. In addition, funding necessary for the innovative math program was to come from District funds and a private donor who pledged to subsidize the program.

Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, Cathy Baur, began sending out to parents in early September a weekly description of the program (in both English and Spanish) to parents. Attached to these weekly reports are a series of Frequently Asked Questions.

The September 9, 2016 parent letter said in part:

Dear Sixth-Grade Families,

Middle school is a critical time for students to learn and refine the math skills they need to succeed in high school and beyond. Our goal is to effectively meet the diverse needs of each student. Personalized learning is crucial to both challenge and support students at their own levels as they enter middle school math.

MVWSD is using Teach to One, by New Classrooms. Teach to One (TTO) is customized daily math instruction based on a student’s learning strengths and needs. Each day, a student learns mathematics skills and concepts in a variety of instructional approaches with peers ready for the same skills or concepts.

Teach to One is off to a good start.

During the first weeks, students learn the routines and procedures of the program, and are exposed to the different learning sessions including teacher-led instruction, peer-to-peer lessons, small group collaborative lessons, and independent technology based lessons.

During the learning sessions, students have been completing a variety of other diagnostic

activities aligned with sixth-grade standards. Next week, students will begin their first unit of personalized lessons based on all of the information collected. Each student’s skill library will be populated with individualized lessons.

Homework is assigned every Monday through the TTO portal.The homework is based on the skills listed in the portal for that particular Monday. Your child may have already been introduced to that skill before and may have been practicing, or your child was introduced to that skill on Monday. Either way, the homework will be given out on Mondays and then collected the following Monday.This will give your child time to practice those skills in class, practice them on the homework and get extra help if needed.

These weekly letters ran through December 2, 2016.

December 7, 2016. In a letter to Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph and Assistant Superintendent Baur signed by over 175 Graham and Crittenden parents representing about 500 sixth grade students (an uncommon number of parents in a relatively small district to voice a specific curricular concern) protesting Teach To One, students’ difficulty in grasping math concepts and skills through the mostly online program, and minimal teacher-led instruction.

December 7-15. The Superintendent sent out a survey to 6th grade parents and students asking for their opinions on Teach To One.

Late-December. Private donor reneges on pledge to fund Teach to One which would cost over $500,000.

December 20, 2016. After examining the results of the survey that showed large majorities of parents opposing the program, Superintendent Rudolph sent out a letter to Graham and Crittenden Middle School parents that pointed out the pluses and minuses of Teach To One and the District’s next steps in paring back the program:

So what comes next?  As a District we operate as a learning organization. We have heard from some about abandoning the program completely, and from others who would like to continue to improve the delivery of this innovative program. Taking all factors into consideration, the District will make changes to the program, beginning Jan. 9 for the remainder of the year, to strike a better balance between technology-assisted and teacher-led instruction.

Teach to One will be reduced to 50% of class time. The other 50% of time students will work with a teacher on the level of Eureka Math appropriate for them. Students are assigned strategically for their Eureka math instruction based on the results of a variety of assessments. This will prepare students to be on target to exit eighth grade having completed Geometry, Algebra I or eighth-grade math.

In order to ensure that students deepen their knowledge before moving to a higher level, we will provide more traditional instruction time and modified TTO programming.

Teachers and administrators developed a new schedule for their individual sites, and details about the specific schedule will be communicated by each middle school principal on Jan. 3.

This pilot process is an important one that allows us to identify the strengths and weaknesses of Teach to One for all students, so that we may make changes in a thoughtful, methodical manner. Thank you for your support and patience.

January 12, 2017. In an abrupt turnaround, however, Superintendent Rudolph notified parents that he was ending the Teach To One Program (see here ). In the letter, Rudolph said:

After careful consideration and evaluation, we took research-based, technology-assisted learning [Teach To One] and brought it into our classrooms as a way to better tailor instruction to individual students. From the beginning of the year, the classrooms were closely monitored.  We communicated program highlights by email weekly, and we talked with and corresponded with parents regularly. As always, we are open to feedback as reflected in the adjustments to pacing and instruction that we made mid-year to continue to support and improve student learning.

What went well: TTO has important advantages. Students, especially at Crittenden, said they have benefitted [sic] from Teach to One’s individualized learning and innovation. Teachers had access to daily data about their students’ progress and appreciated TTO’s ability to differentiate math instruction for all students. TTO is flexible and personalized, and helped many students reinforce skills that they might have missed in previous grade levels, as well as provided extra challenge to those who needed it.

What didn’t go well: There were technology problems. We heard the desire for a better balance between teacher-led instruction and Teach to One to provide students a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. There were concerns that students needed more exposure to grade-level and foundational concepts before advancing to higher-level skills.  The rollout did not go as well as hoped; administrators, teachers and students were learning alongside one another.

What’s changed significantly in the last 10 days:

On January 5th and 6th we received more data from internal teacher assessments and recent Northwest Evaluation Association Measure of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) data from TTO.  This latest data demonstrates that close to 52 percent of our students are on grade level {55.51% (Graham) and 48.24% (Crittenden)} with 51 percent of our students demonstrating growth equal to or above the national average, which is a drop from 58% of students entering the 6th grade on grade level on CAASPP.  However, the former data (teacher-administered assessments) demonstrates students performed at a higher level on the two tested standards RP1 (Ratio and Proportional Relationships standard 1) and RP3 (Ratio and Proportional Relationships standard 3) compared to their peers from the previous years (RP1 61% proficient compared to 49% at the end of the 2015-16 school year and on standard RP3 60% proficient compared to 49% at the end of the 2015-16 school year).

At the heart of our decision-making, the most important factor is if our instructional programs are meeting the needs of all of students. With conflicting data points, it is hard to ascertain if TTO is having a positive impact on student performance because the latest data reports show the results are mixed. Some students aren’t performing as well as we had hoped…. 

In light of the additional data received on January 5th and 6th, effective immediately, the District will discontinue using Teach to One.  Instead, students will have teacher-led instruction with Eureka Math. Meanwhile, teachers, coaches and administrators will work on a plan to include technology to supplement math instruction. We are committed to personalized learning, but can’t continue a program that does not meet the needs of all of our students.

Thus, within less than six months, a highly touted national math innovation, Teach To One, went from administrator excitement to parental protest to dumping the program.

The district reverted to its existing Eureka math program, a carefully sequenced, teacher-directed program that is aligned closely with the national Core Curriculum standards adopted by California in the early 2010s. Many district elementary teachers were already familiar with the program and have used the modules publishers provided. Eureka is the primary elementary math program in 2021.


*Robin Colman, a middle school parent, who reads this blog emailed me in 2017 about her deep concerns for the new “Teach To One” project that the superintendent had mandated for the two middle schools. In addition to her emails, I used as sources newspaper articles, District parent and student surveys, and exchanges of correspondence between district administrators, parents.


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The Sickness in Our Schools: Corona and the Logic of Human Capital (Ethan Hutt)

Ethan Hutt is a professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thanks to David Labaree for posting this on his blog.

An old New Yorker cartoon has come to my mind repeatedly over the last nine months as I’ve talked with colleagues, students, and the occasional reporter who has called to ask what the pandemic will mean for American education. The cartoon depicts a Godzilla-like monster rampaging through a city. Smoke billowing in the background, the monster holds a decapitated skyscraper in one claw and the other is about to create a matching pair. On the city street below, it’s mayhem. Cars have been swallowed up by a wave of people fleeing in panic. In the foreground, at the head of the fleeing crowd, an exasperated man in a suit and tie yells out to his colleague, “Just when citywide reading scores were edging up!” Nothing ruins a joke like explaining it, but every detail of the cartoon is perfect: the man ruing the unfortunate timing of the beast’s arrival (as if there was an ideal time to destroy a city); his absurdly qualified lament (“reading scores” not even reading and math!; “edging up not even “improving”!); and, of course, the inability of the unfolding scene to shake his usual fixations. The overall effect is perfectly calibrated satire: What better way to mock America’s ritualized hysteria over minor fluctuations in standardized test scores than to set them against the backdrop of an actually unfolding catastrophe?

Godzilla Cartoon

Of course, what makes satire funny is the perceptive over-exaggeration that highlights the absurdity of something that normally passes without comment. Surely, if we were really faced with a Godzilla-sized disruption to our daily life, Americans, or at least our elected officials, would forgo our usual concerns in favor of some new perspectives, right? The upending of our normal expectations would be a moment for sober reflection or bold reimagining, no? Based on the events of the last few months (and counting), I’m suddenly not so sure. Consider the following headlines that have recently appeared in American news outlets: “New York City Teachers Worry about ‘Covid Slide’”; “Yes, Teachers are Still Being Evaluated. Many Say It’s Unfair”; “Georgia School Superintendent Blasts Federal Decision to Resume Testing During Pandemic”; and “Student Test Scores Drop in Math Since Covid-19 Pandemic.” This final headline, from the Wall Street Journal, comes complete with a subhead that includes the kind of tortured test score parsing that even a satirist might consider overkill. “Readings skills are modestly behind in some grades in an analysis of widely used tests for elementary and middle school students” (emphasis mine). These headlines bespeak a general refusal to budge from our normal concerns about maintaining annual standardized test scores — a refusal that, I think, offers the first important clue about what Corona “means” for educational research.

The unwillingness to break from our current paradigm and the insistence from our research colleagues that conducting “normal science” during a once in a century pandemic is both appropriate and can provide insight (as if these findings and effects could be generalized to other moments) suggests how deeply wedded we are to our current ways of seeing.

Astute scholars have noted the trend toward the “medicalization” of education research during the Cold War, a move in which the system itself becomes naturalized and researchers content themselves to monitoring key system indicators in the hopes of discerning the “effects” of various disruptions and interventions. It is, perhaps, poetic then that a global pandemic would provide the example par excellence of the consequences of this development: Despite the radical disruption of school routines, of modes of learning, and of the lives of children and their families, education researchers only have space to categorize school responses and quantify learning loss. Now, it would seem, is not the time for deep reflection and systematic reform — to ask about root causes of inequality or what “public” can be served in the absence of collective sacrifice — but instead for a demonstration that this, too, can be described, explained, and, perhaps, addressed through our commitment to standards and test scores. Does anyone seriously doubt that the next release of PISA/TIMSS scores will include a whole series of analyses explaining how changes in the league tables should be understood as indicators of the ineffectiveness/effectiveness of a nation’s Corona response?

We can already see this logic unfolding among scholars and policymakers. Among the most radical suggestions proffered in the wake of the pandemic is for districts to use this disruption to end the practice of social promotion and strictly enforce the existing learning standards — even if it means retaining the vast majority of students in their current grades. An alternative suggestion, in a similar vein, offers that districts engage in a widescale “do-over” and simply pretend the last year never happened. Under this scheme, when society returns to normal sometime in 2021 (hopefully), everyone will simply resume where they left off in the Spring of 2020. This proposal raises the charge that standards are contextless or disembodied to a whole new level. Here the standards would not only exist out of time but take part in actively erasing it — as if a literal year of human development could only count if it happened in accordance with the pre-planned standards. And people used to critique Cold War analysts for being unable to cope with uncertainty! To my knowledge they never sought to deny the passage of time.

My own counter-proposal is that rather than hold the students back a year to accommodate the standards, we move the standards to accommodate the students. This can be done quite simply by moving every standard and accompanying standardized test up one grade. The 5th grade standard will now be used on 6th graders; the 6th grade standard on 7th graders, et cetera up through the system. In this way the “learning loss” problem can be nullified at the stroke of an administrative pen.

Though made in jest, at least my suggestion acknowledges the essentially arbitrary character of the standards. If we can rewrite standards with each panic over PISA scores or each time business leaders or retired military brass or graying public officials declare our nation is at risk, then why can’t we unilaterally adjust our standards in the midst of a pandemic? Sadly, as of this writing, the proposal has yet to gain traction. It was probably too much to hope for that a Cold War logic that managed to outlive the Cold War itself could be done in by even a global virus. It would seem, therefore, that standards and test scores are set to endure as are the ensuing debates about the “real” size of the pandemic “learning losses” and its unique contribution to the achievement gap.

Though at least part of what Corona means for education research is an opportunity to conduct “business as usual,” there are other places where cracks in the prevailing Cold War logic of educational research and policy may be beginning to show. The elaborate machinery America has built to establish standards and conduct annual testing — the ones we remain so wedded to — have long been justified and powered by our deep faith in schools as the wellsprings of human capital. “As our schools go,” our leaders say, “‘so goes the economy.” Given that this statement has become an axiom in public policy for at least the last half century, it has been interesting to watch the pitched battle playing out in cities and states across America over which “public” spaces should be given highest priority to reopen among the set of bars, restaurants, gyms, salons, and schools. Despite compelling evidence that schools pose the smallest health risk and bars and restaurants the highest, in city after city, it has been bars and restaurants that have been allowed to reopen while schoolhouse gates remain tightly locked. Exasperated education scholars (many of them parents) have taken to Twitter to lobby for inverting this order using the hashtag #SchoolsBeforeBars — but with little effect. The insistence that students stay at home while diners and bar patrons are encouraged to return has led one commentator to quip, “Can the kids go to school in restaurants?”

None of this response might seem hard to explain given the immediate economic hardship faced by business owners and the speculative, long-term economic benefits of children returning to school, but it is worth remembering how insistent Americans have been for decades — centuries even — that we must resist direct economic social aid to those in need and instead deliver our assistance in the form of schooling and educational opportunity. Even the last economic meltdown generated not a moratorium on home foreclosures but a push to institute “financial literacy” courses in schools, implying that it was unbalanced checkbooks and not exotic financial investment vehicles that led to the global recession. Corona might be the first widescale social problem where there has not been an immediate attempt to educationalize the problem — at least not yet.

Treating the human and economic toll of the pandemic as a social problem instead of a morality tale of individual responsibility might create space not only for an appropriately sized governmental response but also for an opportunity for educationalists to engage in a bit of self-reflection about the broader purpose of our enterprise. No longer encumbered by concerns about the responsibility to secure the economic futures of our children and our country, we might be able to engage in the kind of conversations that are usually crowded out by concerns about “economic competitiveness,” “college readiness,” and “21st century skills”. We might, for once, actually have conversations about justice, virtue, self-realization, or citizenship in which the disagreements are not scored or adjudicated in terms of the value and cost of human capital.

Should the legacy of Corona be the ebbing of human capital considerations and the reemergence of value considerations of a different sort, the historical irony would be considerable. After all, it was an expansive view of the state “police power” — the right of the state to restrict personal liberty in order to protect and promote the health, safety, morals, and welfare of the people — that was initially used to justify compulsory schooling (and compulsory vaccination!) in 19th century America. The invocation of the common good to direct public energies to the education of individual citizens ultimately had the unintended consequence of solidifying ideas about the importance of individual educational opportunity at the expense of a broader view of social welfare. But now, in the present day, it would be the inability or unwillingness of the state to exercise its police power to mitigate a global pandemic that has produced such an untenable situation that discussions of the social, economic welfare of society and education policy must finally be disentangled!

I confess that this possibility remains remote even as our “war against Corona” becomes among the deadliest of America’s martial conflicts. Even so, it is fun to reimagine how an alternative caption to the New Yorker cartoon might take aim at such a prospect critiquing not only our obsession with test scores but our faith that schools could solve the economic destruction wrought by the monster. “At least he likes skyscrapers not school buses!” the man might quip. Or “I hope the schools can still open on Monday!” Or, the most true to current policy, “Thank goodness we’ve equalized educational opportunity for some students in certain parts of the city!” If any of these captions were to materialize, we could thank the Corona for helping us diagnose our core educational maladies.

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How Have Public School Teachers Taught? (Part 2)

At first glance, the snapshot of a reading lesson in a rural one-room schoolhouse in the 1880s, a New York City first grade classroom in 1939 and a California high school U.S. History lesson in 2016 have little in common. A historian recounts what a county superintendent observed and wrote about in visiting one-room schoolhouses, The next classroom vignette is a retired professor’s deep dive into her memory of a hated primary school teacher, and the other is an observer’s account of a high school history lesson. Moreover, the three lessons are aimed at different age groups of students.

These accounts do share, however, one feature. That feature will be central to the book I am writing on the practice of teaching then and now. Separated in time, school level, and place, all of these lessons are instances of teacher-centered instruction.

Spanning more than a century, across elementary and secondary school grades, and varied locations, teacher-centered instruction has dominated how teachers have taught (and as this book claims), how they teach now.

There is ample historical data to back up the first part of the statement. In How Teachers Taught (1984) and Hugging the Middle (2009), I collected 9,000 urban and rural classroom reports between 1890-2005 on common features of teaching. I examined how teachers organized classroom space, grouped students, and structured tasks for students. I found the following classroom patterns:

Between the 1890s and early 2000s, the social organization of the classroom became informal. In the early 20th century, dress-clad women and tie-wearing men facing rows of 50-plus bolted down desks controlled every move of students. They gave permission for students to leave their seat. They required students to stand when reciting from the textbook or answering a question. Teachers often scowled, reprimanded, and paddled students for misbehaving.

Over the decades, however, classroom organization and teacher behavior slowly changed. By 2005, few classrooms had rows of immovable desks. Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades allowing students to face one another. Jean-wearing teachers drinking coffee smiled often at their classes. Students went to a pencil sharpener or elsewhere in the room without asking for the teacher’s permission.

The dread blanketing the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s sneer slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms where teachers were more informal in language and dress, and had a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.

By the early 2000s, most elementary and a lesser number of secondary teachers had blended student-centered and teacher-centered classroom practices into hybrids. As the social organization of the classroom becoming increasingly informal, most teachers mixed practices drawing from both traditions.

Grouping. Over time as class size fell from 60 to 30 or less, the student-centered practice of dividing the whole group into smaller ones so that the teacher could work with a few students at a time on reading while the rest worked by themselves slowly took hold among most elementary school teachers. Although variations in grouping occurred among high school teachers in academic subjects, small group work occurred much less frequently.

Classroom activities. A similar pattern occurred with assigning different tasks. “Learning centers,” where individual children would spend a half-hour or more reading a book, playing math games, or drawing and painting, slowly took hold in kindergarten and the primary grades spreading to the upper elementary grades. Learning centers, however, seldom appeared in secondary schools.

The use of student-projects that tied together reading, math, science, and art—think of a 4th grade class divided into groups or working individually on Native American life—became a standard part of elementary school teachers’ repertoire. In secondary schools, projects appeared in vocational subjects and periodically in science, English, and social studies classes.

Between the 1890s and early 2000s, then, teachers created hybrids. In elementary schools, particularly in primary classrooms, richer and diverse melds of the two traditions appeared with far fewer instances surfacing in high schools—allowing for some variation among academic subjects–teacher-centered pedagogy.

Even as classroom organization moved from formal to informal and hybrids of the two teaching traditions multiplied, teacher-centered pedagogy still dominated classroom lessons. As Philip Jackson noted in his mid-1960s study of suburban teachers, while teacher smiles replaced “scowls and frowns” and current “teachers may exercise their authority more casually than their predecessors,” still “the desire for informality was never sufficiently strong to interfere with institutional definitions of responsibility, authority, and tradition.”[i]

And since the early 2000s, one only has to sit in the back of a kindergarten or Advanced Placement calculus class for ten minutes to see amid teacher smiles and many kindnesses to students which teaching tradition dominates the early decades of the 21st century.

Teachers still change students’ seats at will. They ask questions, interrupt students to make a point, tell the class to move from reading to math, and praise or admonish students. Controlling student behavior had shifted over time from scowls and slaps to indirect approaches that exploit the teacher’s personality and budding relationships with students but still underscore the fundamental fact of classroom life: teachers use their authority to secure obedience from students for teaching to occur.

[i] Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1968), p. 129.

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How Have U.S. Public School Teachers Taught? (Part 1)

The following series of posts come from a chapter in my next book.

Historian Wayne Fuller describes a reading lesson that a rural Illinois county superintendent observed in a one-room schoolhouse. [i]

…[S}hortly after his entrance to into one schoolroom, he heard the teacher say to the leader of the fifth-reader class: ‘Mary, your class may read.’ Whereupon, Mary, followed by four girls and a boy, moved to a crack in the floor that served as a recitation line. There they faced the school and each read a stanza from the ‘Mariners’s Dream.’ When the students stumbled over a word the whole class pronounced it aloud, but when the class was finished reading, no questions were asked and no explanation given.

At that point, the county superintendent took over and asked one of the girls to begin at a certain point and read to the first period. Instead, almost without stopping to catch a breath, she read to the end of the paragraph and the boy’s hand went up to correct her.” She did not stop at ‘Hindoostan,’ he said.

Selma Wassermann remembers her first grade classroom in the New York City Public Schools, 1939[ii]

Miss Stellwagon, my first-grade teacher was my “first teacher.”* She taught me about favorites (I was not one) and about talking in class (I was one). She taught me about keeping young children at arm’s length, lest their poverty rub off on the teacher’s middle class self. She taught me that discipline meant humiliation and loss of self-esteem, which diminished you. She taught me that even if you tried to please the teacher, unexpressed standards and expectations would kill your chances of being chosen for a part in the play. She taught me that what I enjoyed most (reading) could be made excruciatingly painful, when the same story was read orally, line by line, up one row and down the other, until all meaning and pleasure were extinguished. She taught her slum children “the King’s English….” She taught us to sit still without moving, for 3 hours in the morning and 2 in the afternoon no matter what physical urges came upon you—for to move, or speak, or ask to go to the bathroom would incur a wrath that was terrifying. We waited for spring, for the trees to bloom, for the windows of the classroom to be open, for the end of the term, for the end of Miss Stellwagon.

“And now, boys and girls, I have some very good news for you. Guess who your teacher is going to be next term?”

“Who?” we shouted in excited anticipation.

“I am,” she said, her mouth forming into that bird’s beak smile.

“Aren’t you pleased?”

“Yeesss, Miss Stellwagon,” we chanted, our hearts sinking. Two years with Miss Stellwagon left such an imprint that I can remember it still—the smell of the room (chocolate-covered graham cracker cookies mixed with chalk dust), the bleak beige of the unadorned walls with only back-and-white alphabet cards to divert the eye, the steam coming in staccato spurts out of the vent on the radiator, the perfect handwriting on the blackboard, the door with the little window, offering a tantalizing glimpse of the outside, where real life ran counterpart to our still-life experiences. I didn’t know it then but Miss Stellwagon’s teaching would be pivotal in my own professional development, my loathing of her so intense that I could only become her antithesis.

I observed Gabriel Stewart, U.S. History teacher, at Los Altos High School, in 2016Stewart, wearing a maroon polo shirt over a muscled upper body with dark slacks, is a 19 year veteran teacher* at Los Altos High School** (and baseball coach). In this hour and a half lesson, he had set aside time to give a practice 75-item multiple choice test on early 19th century political and social changes and then rehearse a Document-Based Question (DBQ) in the remaining 45 minutes. The Advanced Placement course is geared to the spring exam.

The furniture arrangement is five rows of desks facing the front whiteboard with the teacher’s desk in one corner. Bulletin boards are filled with newspaper articles, maps, announcements and photos. On one side of the room, sheets of paper carried previous AP classes’ records in passing the AP exam (getting a three or higher).

During the practice test, students filled in a Scantron sheet recording their answers to multiple choice questions. Stewart walks around the room and from time to time tell students how much time remained to finish the test. Early finishers turned in their filled-out Scantrons and worked on laptops at their desks. After 45 minutes, Stewart asks for sheets from a few remaining students.

The school’s student-produced video announcements come on the screen and for next five minutes those in the class are rapt and listening, laughing at the student anchor’s one-liners and funny events scheduled for the next week. 

After the announcements Stewart asks students to take out their devices and go to the DBQ they will work on for the rest of the period.  When he starts speaking there is a rising level of talk, and a few students say “shush” and the class quiet’s down.

There are six documents in this DBQ that the students are examining.  The task is for the class to write an essay agreeing or disagreeing with the statement: “Reform movements in the United States sought to expand democratic ideals.”

The documents students analyze are quotes from leading figures in various early 19th century reforms such as Charles Finney, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William Lloyd Garrison, a chart about growth of political parties in the first half of 19th century, and a contemporary political cartoon on the temperance movement.

I scan the class and do not see any students off-task.

The teacher asks the class to work on filling in the DBQ practice chart with each document. “See if you can knock out the 6 items in 10 minutes.” Students turn to a partner sitting next to them or across a row and begin reading each excerpt and filling in chart. Teacher walks around to check what pairs and trios are doing on their screens.

After about ten minutes, Stewart takes some student questions about the timed AP exam next semester.  The teacher says that time is crucial, he begins snapping fingers in time, saying: “Remember you are paying $93 and you spend four hours taking the test.”

Now, Stewart turns to next task of writing a “coherent essay.” He asks them to begin with a thesis statement for the essay. Again, he stresses the importance of time and how each student has to figure out how long it will take to read the document, get at its essence, and begin writing a sentence that summarizes the excerpts. “You can work together,” he says.

Stewart then asks students to write thesis statement for the essay: “Reform movements in the United States sought to expand democratic ideals.”

I scan the class and see that all pairs and trios are talking to one another, clicking away on their screens, and occasionally asking the teacher a question as he walks the perimeter of the class.

A few minutes later, school-wide chimes sound ending the class period and Stewart reminds class of assignment as students pack up and leave. Three students linger and ask content questions about the various reformers. Stewart listens and comments. Students exit after five minutes.

[i]Wayne Fuller, The Old Country School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 203.  A book rich in first-hand accounts of rural one-room schoolhouse teachers is Barbara Finkelstein, Governing the Young: Teacher Behavior in Popular Primary Schools in 19th Century United States (Philadelphia: The Falmer Press, 1989).

[ii] Selma Wassermann, professor emerita from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has written widely and extensively from a pedagogically progressive view about reading instruction, science teaching, getting students to reflect in classrooms, and teacher use of case studies in lessons. A former New York City classroom teacher and reading specialist, the following excerpt comes from her book, This Teaching Life (Teachers College Press, 2004)

[iii] I have known Gabriel Stewart since he was student in my social studies Curriculum and Instruction course in the Stanford University  university teacher education program nearly 25 years ago. I have not seen him teach since he was in that program although we have seen one another on occasion since we live in the same neighborhood.  When I visited Los Altos high school in 2016 to see other teachers, I had stopped into his classroom to say hello. Hearing about my observations, he then invited me into his AP U.S. History class.

Los Altos high school has over 1900 students (2015) and its demography is mostly minority (in percentages, Latino 28, Asian 21, African American 2, multiracial 2, and 45 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 22 percent. Fourteen percent of students are learning disabled and just over four percent of LAHS students are English language learners. See here, here, here, here, and here.

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Whatever Happened to Digital Textbooks?

The promise of students carrying lighter backpacks accompanied the promise technology advocates and educators made in shifting from printed to digital textbooks (also called e-books).

A few years ago, I predicted that digital textbooks would be common across school districts. While there have been some movement toward switching to digital textbooks, I was way off in my prediction.

What happened?

What are digital textbooks?

In most cases, they are digitized versions of printed texts. These digitized texts are licensed so they are sold to districts and can be downloaded from publisher websites to school, teacher, and student devices.

Promoters of digital textbooks point to the following advantages:

“Cost – Although e-readers may come with a fairly large price tag, the savings between digital and traditional textbooks adds up quickly.

Faster Searches – Instead of thumbing through pages of text, students can find the passages they are looking for with fast keyword searches.

Supplemental Information – Students have the ability to add to their knowledge warehouse by simply performing online searches for additional information as they are reading.

Environmental Friendliness – Digital textbooks save trees and never end up in landfills like traditional textbooks.”

They also underscore the reduced weight students will have to lug around. Young children and youth will have to tote only the laptop or tablet in their backpacks.

What curricular and instructional problems do digital textbooks solve?

None that I can detect. Like all textbooks, digital ones deliver the state and district curriculum that teachers are expected to teach their students at all grade levels. While boosters of digital texts promote them as ways students learn more, faster, and better I have found no evidence that students learn more or less from using digital textbooks than printed ones. If readers of this post know of such research, please let me know via your comments.

Where have digital textbooks been adopted?

While most states allow districts to use money for printed texts to be used for digital ones, larger states, such as Texas, California, and Michigan, have already moved forward in funding districts converting to digital texts.Digital texts seem to be more apparent in secondary than elementary schools although they are evident at both levels. For elementary schools, see short video on digital texts in Omaha (NE) elementary schools..

Why was my prediction so far off?

I fell for the hype about digital textbooks being cheaper and easily accessible to students and teachers without allowing for the innate conservatism of public school officials and teachers in slowly, if at all, adopting a change to a basic classroom practice, that is, using a textbook for daily lessons (see here)


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Teacher as Classroom Politician

Besides managing a classroom of 20 to 30 or more students while teaching lessons every day, teachers also do politicking. Teachers using ClassDoJo, a free software application, is just another instance of teacher thinking and acting politically. More about teachers using ClassDojo as a political act later in the post.

I do need to explain that for teachers to survive and thrive in their classrooms especially during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, they have to be practicing politicians.

Historical context for teachers acting politically

For decades, educators have winced at using the word “politics” linked in any way to their work with children and youth in schools. A few words about the history behind the aversion to the word.

At the beginning of the 20th century, progressive reformers divorced partisan politics from the conduct of schooling. Governance reforms led school boards to dump party hacks from their ranks and recruit business leaders and civic-minded professionals to serve. Civil service regulations ended the buying and selling of school jobs. Partisan politics was banned from schools and classrooms.

Not only because of the progressive movement a century ago but also because separating politics and schools became embedded in professional training of teachers, the power of that norm remains strong today. It should come as no surprise, then, that few, if any, teachers take public stands on educational reforms except through their unions and professional organizations. When they do speak out, it is as private citizens. Individual teachers are expected to implement policies that school boards, governors, state legislatures, and Congress–authorize. They are NOT expected to campaign publicly as teachers in the district to get particular policies adopted.

Now, here is the rub. None of what I just said means that teachers do not engage in politics. They do–inside the school–because teachers influence what students do in their classrooms, what other teachers teach, and what parents consider important. None of these micropolitics, however, crosses the line of partisanship.

Teachers as classroom politicians

Teachers, of course, do not like to talk about being “political.” Euphemisms like “working with parents,” “kissing up to superiors,” “Gathering support for the new program”—as I have heard them over the years–are favored constructions in their vocabularies.

But it is politicking, whatever you call it.

And when it comes to classrooms, teachers—expected to keep classroom order, cover curriculum standards, get students ready for tests, wipe noses and give students a shoulder to cry on–allocate their time and energy to instruction while nervously glancing at the wall clock. They negotiate compromises with students over behavior and achievement, and bargain with other teachers, parents, and school administrators for more resources to help their students. In short, they act politically.

Determining who gets what, when, and under what circumstances to achieve desired objectives is the classic formula for political behavior. And that is what teachers do.

Consider the popular classroom management tool ClassDojo. As long as there have been tax-supported schools–nearly two centuries now–states asked parents to send their young children to school; over a century ago, states passed compulsory attendance laws that required parents to send their sons and daughters to be in school or be penalized.  States invested teachers with the authority to direct students to learn required content and skills in order to graduate school. Teachers sought through their lessons to achieve goals set by local school boards and ones that they believed important.

To motivate students who had to be in class to learn and to gain their compliance and cooperation, for teachers then (as they are now) were dependent upon students for their own classroom success, early  19th century teachers developed systems of rewards and penalties (e.g., to divvy out “goodies” to students for compliance in doing their work and behavior and to use canes, paddles, and slaps when students didn’t comply).

As time passed, teachers came to rely less on using switches, twisting ears, and humiliation and more on praise and tangible rewards, again intermittently administered as they decided who of their students should get what in order to get student compliance in behavior and cooperation in covering lessons’ content and skills.

Those past actions by teachers to achieve classroom goals fits the definition of politicking in deciding who gets what, when, and under what circumstances.

Teachers using ClassDojo to motivate their students while gaining compliant behavior and cooperation become the most recent incarnation of past generations of teachers who used behavioral management systems fitting the times and context.

So what? Why is it important to establish that teachers act politically in their lessons, classrooms, and schools?

Here is why: micropolitics in classroom and school are essential not distasteful tasks that practitioners perform. To reach the goals they want to achieve—literacy, civic engagement, job preparation, moral development (and, yes, compliant and cooperative students)–-every teacher and principal, in different ways and in different proportions, performs three basic roles: They instruct, manage, and politick. The simple recognition of political behavior as a natural part of working in places called schools would help both professionals and lay people to understand the real world that practitioners inhabit every single day.


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Why Do U.S. Schools Do What They Do? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I offered the short rather than long answer to the above question. U.S. public schools, a national but decentalized system with 50 states and territories operating separate school organizations, still end up following similar policies in nearly identical organizations in 13,000-plus districts across the country.

Although a decentralized system, U.S. schools in Montana and Massachusetts, the Carolinas and California, and Alabama and Arizona, use as its primary organizational unit the age-graded school (e.g., K-6, K-8, middle school and high school). It is the one and only form of organizing schools common to rural, suburban, and urban districts across the nation.

Although decentralized, the age-graded school organization nonetheless imposes a strong commonality across American city, county, and state schools.

Part 1 covered two factors, that is, the dispersed system of U.S. schooling and the age-graded organization with its “grammar of schooling” that makes public schools so familiar to one another across space (different states and districts)–and across time (schools decades ago and now).

And there is a third important factor that I take up here.

Most major reforms come from outside the schools. These externally-driven reforms stem from larger political, social, and economic problems that policy elites believe schools can ameliorate if not solve. Powerful as these externally-driven reforms are, existing goals, policies, and practices change slowly and incrementally as the abiding “grammar of schooling” tames reforms.

Policy elites, for example, drafted public schools in the late-1950s to make America stronger during the Cold War with the Soviet Union by churning out more scientists and mathematicians. When weak economic growth and stiff economic competition with Japan and Germany occurred during the 1970s, civic and business leaders urged schools to create more “human capital”— academically prepared students who could score higher on international tests and enter the job market prepared for a post-industrial America.

In the early decades of the 21st century, having schools become vehicles for reducing societal inequities (e.g., end re-segregation of schools in most cities, expand numbers of minority teachers in schools with mostly white faculties; abolish tracking in secondary schools) and increase social justice has been on reformers’ agendas. The history of school reform in 20th century America, then, is a history of policy elites “educationalizing” societal problems and claiming fundamental changes in schools when only incremental ones occurred.

The rhetoric of “fundamental” seldom matched aspirations of reformers in each generation who sought alterations in what and how teachers taught. None of the advertised “fundamental” reforms, however, altered the existing “grammar of schooling.”

In most instances, what happened to externally-driven policies is that schools and teachers adapted the often over-hyped instructional innovation, curricular additions, or organizational changes to the contours of the local age-graded school.

More, faster, and better teaching and learning through technology, for example, began with placing one computer on a teacher’s desk in the early 1980s, then locating desktop computers in libraries then setting up separate computer labs and eventually buying laptops for each student. Now in 2021, media centers (once libraries) have rows of computers while classrooms have carts with 25-30 tablet computers stacked and ready for student use.

Yet the dominant ways teachers  organize their classes, arrange activities, and teach lessons continue as before but now they use devices and software to achieve the same ends. In short, schools adopt reforms and adapt them to fit the prevailing “grammar of schooling” embedded in age-graded schools.

There are also internally-driven reforms initiated by administrators and teachers. Without fanfare and below media radar, bottom-up governmental, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes have altered many aspects of schooling.

From teacher-run schools to block scheduling of the school day, to teacher-initiated courses, to teachers adapting lessons–changes have happened often unnoticed by mainstream media because they occur over time with no drum rolls or press releases. None of these bottom-up changes, however, significantly modified the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

Most external and internal reforms occur in schooling largely through incrementalism.

That has been the prevailing pattern of change in public schools, not fundamental change (e.g., shifting from property taxes to income and sales taxes to fund public schools; replacing age-graded structures with non-graded ones; replacing teacher-centered with student-centered instruction; ending segregated schools). Such overhauls have been attempted but seldom have stuck in schools to the continual disappointment of each generation of fervent reformers.

Policymakers and entrepreneurs often use the rhetoric of fundamental change, but end up with shrunken policy versions of the changes they seek. When put into practice, they become incremental replacements (e.g., the new math, new biology, and new physics curricula in the 1960s turn into different sets of textbooks for students).

When fundamental changes in schools do actually occur, more often than not, they come from beyond the schoolhouse door such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ended de jure racial segregation in U.S. schools yet for decades political coalitions blocked desegregation plans until the U.S. Supreme Court decided upon the constitutionality of each plan thereby incrementalizing the high court’s decision. And since the 1990s, state and local inaction has led to de facto segregation in most cities and suburbs. Or Katrina, a hurricane that fundamentally altered New Orleans schools drastically, created a reconfigured public school system of nearly all charter schools. Yet these charter schools remain age-graded and practice the familiar “grammar of schooling.”

Incrementalism differs in both scope and pace. In small steps over years, instruction, curriculum, school organization, and governance changes. Over the past century, for example, classroom lessons that relied wholly on whole-group instruction have shifted slowly to a mix of whole-group, small-group activities, and independent student work. Curricular additions from Advanced Placement courses to ethnic studies to sex education have been added to high school curricula.

Expanded school organization now includes pre-schoolers. Even in funding and governing public schools, charter schools and mayoral control of big city school systems have gradually spread since the 1990s across the educational terrain. Since then many urban high schools are smaller enrolling around 500 students rather than the usual 1500 or more students. Moreover, standardized testing of students has increased. These are only a few of the organizational changes in schools that have occurred over the past quarter-century.

And do not forget how larger cultural changes in dress, attitudes toward drugs and sex that slowly unfolded during and after the 1960s showed up in schools. Female teachers wearing jeans instead of dresses, male teachers no longer wearing ties and sports coats. Teachers drinking coffee in class, and displaying far more informality with students in classrooms than in the 1950s.

Many of these incremental changes have no noticeable direction toward a long-term goal. They pop up when societal and governmental pressures from business and civic leaders, taxpayers, parents, and practitioners call for certain changes (e.g., more state tests, altering attendance boundaries, initiating and abolishing dress codes, adding ethnic studies courses to curriculum, increasing 45-minute classes to hour-long ones).

Such small steps, more often than not, do not add up to a fundamental change. A long-term vision of making small changes that will move classrooms, schools, or districts in a clear direction to overhaul the existing structures and activities is rare. It is uncommon because cultural changes in the larger society seldom occur in one fell swoop. Few tectonic plates shift dramatically; movement is in inches rather than yards.

There are, of course, individual teachers who moved from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction on their lessons over a decade. Just as there are individual schools where once students moved in lockstep progression from one teacher-directed activity to another to schools where students make independent choices, work closely with peers, and see their teachers as coaches. And there are some districts that, over time, in bite-sized increments, moved from rigid top-down policymaking to more decentralized decisions that include principals and teachers in formulating, adopting, and implementing new ideas (e.g., Long Beach Unified School District, California). Incrementalism can be patchy, fragmentary and direction-less or it can be, over time, a collaborative movement inching toward a desired goal.


In moving from goals to policy to classroom practice, stability and change have marked tax-supported public schools in the U.S. for two centuries. American schools and classroom teaching have been fashioned by social, political and organizational factors. Local dependence upon property taxes and the decentralized system of school governance and funding in the past two centuries have accounted for economic and racial inequities in schooling. The perennial age-graded district school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the unswerving vehicle for adopting, adapting, and implementing state and local cultures into goals and policies and then into classroom lessons. Finally, the constant flow of problems in the larger society–including huge gaps in the distribution of wealth and grossly unequal funding of schools–has created patterns in school reform that often get converted into ad hoc, but again, incremental changes in both schools and society.

Reform-minded policymakers, parents, practitioners, and researchers, at the minimum, have to understand these three historically-driven forces before undertaking what they would characterize as meaningful and substantive changes in goals, policies, and classroom practices.


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Why do U.S. Schools Do What They Do? (Part 1)

There is a short answer and a long answer to the question. Here is the short answer.

What teachers teach and students learn in American classrooms are (and have been) shaped (but not determined) by three larger forces in American society:

First, there is the decentralized system of governance and funding of schools over the past century.

Second, the age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the reliable and trusted vehicle for moving state and local policies into classroom lessons.

Third, the constant flow of social, political, and economic problems in the larger society often get converted into reform efforts to improve schooling, classroom practice, and the larger society.

I expand on each of these three forces–yes, this is the short answer– that have created both stability and change in tax-supported public schooling because in combination, these largely unseen, taken-for-granted factors have indelibly marked the journey that educational policies have taken as they have moved from federal, state, and district suites into teachers’ daily lessons. This is the Big Picture that both educators and non-educators too often lose sight of.

  1. For the past two centuries, the U.S. has had a decentralized system of governing public school. That is, there are 50 states, 13,000-plus school districts, nearly 100,000 schools with 3.5 million teachers in charge of nearly 51 million-plus students.

There is no national ministry of education or federal authority as there is in France, Sweden, and, China determining what schools must teach, which teachers to hire and fire, and when schools begin and end each year.

This decentralized, state-driven system also unequally funds districts within a state (e.g., poor Buchanan and wealthy Arlington Counties in Virginia) and accounts for lopsided differences between states—think Mississippi and New York–across the nation. Racially discriminatory practices from banks redlining areas (e..g., avoiding investment in largely Black or Latino areas) to white families leaving recently integrated neighborhoods in cities for nearly all-white suburbs causing even more residential segregation in both cities and inner-ring suburbs.  These funding disparities and discriminatory policies affect the quality of brick-and-mortar school buildings, selection and retention of teachers, and students’ access to instructional materials including new technologies.

Funding public schools comes from three sources: state, local district, and the federal government. The latter provides less than 10 percent of all funds for schools. Because property taxes are the largest source of local and state funding inherent inequities occur simply because there are high wealth districts such as Arlington County (VA) and Beverly Hills (CA) for example–that out-spend dramatically low-wealth districts –Buchanan’s largely white County (VA) and mostly black Compton (CA)–in per-student spending.

That system of state and local governance in which states provide unequal amounts of money to districts even when adjusted for high- and low-wealth, however, does not slow down the flow of state policymaking where districts are expected to put those policies into practice. Federal policies, especially between 2002-2015 with No Child Left Behind  (the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2016 shifted NCLB mandates to state authorities) also enter the mix of what states, districts, and schools are expected to do. Moreover, district boards of education are swayed by local issues that parents and elected officials bring to them such as school lunches,  segregated schools, busing schedules, inappropriate history textbooks, and student dress codes.  School boards adopt policies that parent groups and business leaders seek and superintendents recommend. For these federal, state and local policies to get implemented in schools and classrooms, however, one organizational structure in existence for nearly two centuries–—the age-graded school—is (and has been) the primary vehicle for principals and teachers to turn policies into classroom lessons across this vast decentralized system.

  1. The age-graded organization converts national, state, and district policies into classroom lessons.

Those national and state goals and policies are aimed at both changing and conserving what happens in thousands of schools presided over by principals and hundreds of thousands of individual teachers located in separate classrooms who are responsible for groups of 25-35 students. Classroom teachers ultimately decide which of the goals, policies, and curricular content and skills assigned to be taught in fourth grade or high school physics turn up in actual lessons.

Thus, the insulation of individual teacher located in these separate age-graded classrooms allows  teachers a constrained autonomy in determining what of a curriculum guide or textbook will be taught. After shutting their classroom doors, they can (and do) decide what and how to teach a lesson. Teachers, then, are both gatekeepers and classroom policymakers.

State and local decision-makers can promote innovations and predict splendid outcomes in their policy talk. They can recruit resources and adopt policies that offer shrunken versions of the hyperbolic policy talk, and they can even mandate that teachers put these adopted policies into classroom lessons. Beyond mandates, incentives, or even threats, however, they can do no more. Age-graded school structures with separate classrooms assigned to individual teachers in of themselves both isolate and insulate teachers from their bosses—remember those classroom doors can be closed. Teachers retain limited autonomy.

No state superintendent of education or official in the state department of education, no district superintendent or central office administrator, even the school principal can predict, be certain of, or verify that teachers are teaching (and students are learning) what they are supposed to. Thus, teachers are “street-level bureaucrats” who decide what’s best for their students every day and operate out of the sight line of administrators.

In short, what happens in classrooms is loosely tied to what goals and policies the state  determines, school districts desire, and principals expect to happen. Teachers decide what occurs in their lessons once the tardy bell rings; and it is teachers who have to deal with unpredictable events that inexorably arise during lessons. These age-graded structures and the rules that govern them—daily schedules, taking attendance, periodic tests, nightly homework, report cards, waiting one’s turn, permission to go to bathroom, honor rolls–are called the “grammar of schooling. And that “grammar of schooling” shapes how and what teachers teach and students learn. Its direction is conservative in keeping the school looking like a “real” school that parents and grandparents attended. Yet over time as policy-driven reforms have spilled over public schools that “grammar” has incrementally changed what occurs during lessons in order to preserve teaching practices.

Part 2 takes up the rest of the story.

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The Myth That Better Schools Will Reduce Inequalities in Wealth and Health

No secret now that U.S. inequalities in the distribution of wealth has reached the highest levels since the 1920s.

Nor is it a secret that racial disparities in health–infant mortality is three times higher for black women than women of other races and American Indians have the highest suicide rates–still plague Americans.

What’s the connection between stark inequalities of wealth and health among Americans and schools? It is that for over a century school reformers, like die-hard fanatics who perseverate in the face of one failure after another, believe that U.S. schools can solve national problems, including inequalities in wealth and health through producing graduates primed to get jobs in an ever-changing labor market. Yet school reform has yet to solve major U.S. problems.

The source for these steel-hardened beliefs in school reform can be found in Americans’ expectations for tax-supported public schools. Schools are expected to produce public goods in the form of skilled graduates, citizens, and solutions to problems such as weak economic growth due to inadequately skilled graduates, urban and rural poverty, ill health, and unemployment. Parents also expect that access to good public schooling will put my children on a social escalator to financial success, health, and a better life–a private good.

Yet strong tensions are embedded in this public good–schooling for all–and the private good–I want my kids in the best schools to get the best jobs. Since educational credentials have become the gold standard for attaining financial success, and since everyone cannot go to Harvard or Stanford or graduate with MBAs and Ph.Ds., conflicts between getting access to education–a public good– and at the same time gaining advantage for one’s own children–a private good–have bedeviled school reformers for the past two centuries.

David Labaree’s “Someone Has To Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling” makes the persuasive case that school reforms stumble repeatedly over these tensions between public access and private advantage and, in the long run, these failed school reforms harden rather than soften larger social inequalities in public schools. How does that occur?

Because reformers persistently see schools solving larger social, political, and economic problems–they “educationalize” problems. They look to the school, an inherently conservative institution, to remedy persistent problems of racial and socioeconomic segregation, inadequate medical care, crippling poverty, crime, unemployment, and [insert your favorite national problem here]. And in their ever-optimistic but continually failed efforts for schools to solve major societal problems, reformers end up hardening social inequalities by unintentionally reproducing these inequalities in schools and supplying well-intentioned programs for gifted and talented students, Advanced Placement courses, and digital technologies including computer courses in largely minority and poor urban schools across the nation. Evidence again and again shows that such programs fail to show positive results and harden already existing socioeconomic differences. That occurs because these programs are quickly launched with few experienced teachers and students having the requisite skills while the same programs where the capacities of teachers and students have been nourished and grown over many years are plentiful in largely white, affluent districts (see my post on three-tiered system of schooling, June 20 2010)

High-profile exceptions to this pattern of failures exist. Recent growth of small urban high schools in big cities have offered far more students than ever before a chance to enter higher education; KIPP, Green Dot, Aspire and charter schools give choices to urban parents where none existed; wraparound social and educational programs like Harlem’s Children Zone offer hope to both parents and children. These and similar programs may achieve short-term success with their students staying in school and going to college. But their very existence is water poured into a bucket full of holes when it comes to larger societal issues of slow economic growth, poverty, racial disparities in health  and mal-distribution of wealth.

What to do? Recognize publicly that schools as a social institution is an indirect and inappropriate tool to remedy national problems. Once acknowledged, political leaders and legislatures can adopt and implement strong, direct, and appropriate measures  to reduce inequalities that are available such as progressive tax policies and earned income tax credits,  family support policies, universal health insurance as exist in many other nations. Movement toward such direct measures will get a conservative political institution such as public schools out of the business of solving problems indirectly and ineptly.

Will it happen? Not until sufficient voters and groups are mobilized to recognize the limits of schooling and then sort out what schools can and cannot do.


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Cartoons on Returning to School–2021

Reopening schools during and after the Covid-19 pandemic offered cartoonists enough material to run their inkwells dry. Here are a few that brought a smile to my face. Hope they will do the same for you. Enjoy!

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