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Measuring Teacher Productivity: Fool’s Errand?

The following post is one of a small group I have written over the past 13 years that have attracted the most readers. This one originally appeared in 2014. I have revised and updated it.

Over the next month or so, I will revise other posts that have drawn the most viewers.

The dream of more data not only enabling better individual choices but also to measure how productive employees are has accompanied the growth of digital technology. The tacit promise is that the more you know, the better decisions you can make and secure the desired results. Reams of data spill forth at the click of a cursor to help each of us decide on a job, buy a home, go to college and whether to get that fascinating gadget. And measuring productivity is also common among corporate employers, be they Apple, Amazon, and Google, baseball managers, or on a humbler level, even school district superintendents and principals.

In the quest to determine how much work employees do at their jobs, some companies use “bossware.” Software programs track the strokes employees make on their computer keyboards (see here and here). Managers monitoring who their staff interact with including clients and colleagues try to measure how productive they are. Call center employees, financial consultants, and accountants have become familiar with “bossware.”

Has such digital oversight, however, invaded schools and classrooms?

The short answer is “not yet.” The longer answer is a “maybe” accompanied by a raft of ongoing initiatives to track both teachers and principals in their daily activities and interactions with students including proposals to place cameras in classrooms (see here).

But measuring teacher productivity is a far tougher task than digital enthusiasts initially thought. Consider that once the teacher closes her door, the classroom becomes unknown to outsiders. It is a black box to district supervisors, building principals, and parents. As a result, many district leaders, site-principals, and researchers have to depend upon teacher self-reports, including logs, of their planning activities and classroom practices. Such teacher surveys and logs are helpful but they are self-reports vulnerable to skewed estimates. Thus, the gold standard for determining teacher productivity remains direct observation of lessons using protocols that are both reliable and valid.

But school principals do not spend most of their time sitting in classrooms observing their teachers. If a school of 500 students, for example, has 25 classroom teachers, the principal, who is expected to manage the school’s entire staff, meets with parents and even occasionally teaches a lesson while reporting to her district supervisor— has barely enough time to visit the bathroom. So it is no surprise that any single teacher in the school sees her principal no more than once or twice in her classroom during the 36-week school year. And for that district curriculum specialist in math or social studies, it would be closer to once every few years.

Teachers-observing-other teachers or peer observation does occur in a few districts but remains a seldom used practice across the nation’s schools. Moreover, the primary point of peer observation is not to determine productivity nor evaluate performance; it is to offer colleagues varied ways of approaching lessons.

Such infrequency of classroom observation of lessons makes directly measuring a teacher’s productiveness, nearly impossible. Yet even were weekly or monthly observations of classroom lessons possible (and, given the current structure of schooling, this is hypothetical, distant from the reality existing in U.S. schools) what measures would one look for to assess a teacher’s productivity?

Consider the following list of possible measures to get at teacher productivity:

*Student test scores on district and test tests (providing such tests measured the curriculum that teachers taught).

*Percentage of student homework turned in;

*Hours teachers spent planning lessons, classroom teaching, and assessing student work;

*Degree to which students interact with teachers before, during, and after lessons;

*Students and teachers’ perceptions of classroom climate in which lessons are taught;

The above measures combine actual products of teaching (the first two) and the process of teaching (final three). To get at teacher productivity, then, one needs to consider both what teachers do before, during, and after their lessons and what work students produce along with their perceptions of their teachers.

Teacher productivity, then, is linked to measurable student outcomes. Of course, teacher effects on students’ goals, effort, and attitudes toward learning–important outcomes surely connected to teacher actions–are missing from this list because reliable and valid measures of these outcomes are seldom used in schools and districts to assess teacher productivity.

So, in light of the above difficulties, is it a fool’s errand to measure how productive teachers are in teaching lessons? Frequent readers of this blog know that my answer will be “no” to this rhetorical question.

And I say “no” because not only do administrators want to know about how productive their teachers are but so too do parents and taxpayers want that information. But most of all, teachers themselves want to know.

Each teacher already has a sense of their productivity and knows when, and under what circumstances, they hit singles, doubles, triples and homers and when they strike out with their students. Teachers know well that they have some influence, even control, over their 20-30 elementary school students they see for six hours daily (out of the 16-18 they spend at home) and the 125 students that high school teachers see for an hour or so each day; but that influence and control are limited not only because they see students a small portion of the day but also because teachers depend completely upon their students for learning to occur.

Thus, teacher productivity is one factor among many that shape what and how students learn. It is important for teachers, administrators, and parents to gather such data and assess that productivity to grasp the question of effectiveness. Measuring teacher productivity, then, is not a fool’s errand.

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High Tech: Addiction or Dependency?

The following post is one of a small group I have written over the past 13 years that have attracted the most readers. This one originally appeared in 2010. I have revised and updated it.

Over the next month or so, I will revise other posts that have drawn the most viewers.

The New Yorker cartoon about the decrease in Neanderthal communication when the technology of fire was invented pokes fun at the current hullabaloo over users’ addiction to smart phones, iPads, and laptops. As this cartoon does.

Recent media stories have played out two sides of an ancient argument. Consider ancient Greek philospher Socrates’ take on the invention of writing: “[it] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

Whenever access to new technologies increased the flow of information such as the printing press, telegraph, telephone, computer, and now smart phones, there were those who argued that such technologies reduced communication among friends and family, eroded a sense of community, increased isolation of individuals, and even made people dumb.

For example, recent articles on new technologies have claimed that PowerPoint reduces analysis to simple bullet pointsGoogle makes us stupid, and Twitter compresses our attention span to that of a gnat. Moreover, these electronic technologies hook users to such a degree that civility and communication among friends and family are sacrificed to repeated fixes of email, Facebook, Twitter, and text messages.

Finally, there is a scary cognitive side to this argument. Neuroscientists claim that new technologies, particularly, social media and the geyser flow of information have changed how we think and behave. In short, our brain on computers undergoes re-wiring as we use daily–nay, hourly–laptop, and desktop computers, smart phones, and other electronic devices. Experience, then, alters the brain.

The other side of the argument is two-fold. First, cognitive scientists question seriously the trademark multi-tasking that gadget users trumpet repeatedly and the re-wiring of the brain. Studies, they say, have made them skeptical of these inflated claims.

Second, the metaphor of drug addiction is rhetorical overkill. The proper word is “dependent,” not addicted. Addiction is associated with individual choice to smoke, drink, and take drugs. It connotes personal weakness. Yet consider the spread of popular technologies as they have become habitual features of the culture. Think indoor plumbing, telephone, cars, planes, and television. They have become daily patterns in our lives. In short, Americans have become dependent on once “new” technologies. And that is normal. Addiction, however, is abnormal.

Dependency on technologies comes from job expectations (the charter chain of schools called KIPP issues cell phones to all of its teachers; many companies require employees to be available 24/7), family responsibilities (staying in daily touch with Mom or Dad), friends’ acquisitions (oooh, she has an iPad), augmented communication for the disabled, and dozens of other sources. All these pressures normalize the use of new technologies creating dependency on apps and high-tech hardware for both good and ill.

Now here is the kicker that undermines both sides of the argument. Recent surveys have established that children and youth spend nearly eight hours a day looking at media (cell phones, desktop and laptop computers, Mp3 players, television, etc.) not counting screen time in school. Except for the Alliance for Childhood and pediatricians, few, if any, civic leaders, business groups, and educational policymakers have questioned the ubiquity of 1:1 laptops, iPods, Kindles, and smart phones in schools. For those who rail at Moms talking on cell phones while toddlers scream for attention, for those who point fingers at colleagues being hooked on gadgets or addicted to cell phones, why have they not called a halt to giving each child a computer, given the huge amounts of screen time viewed daily? For those who fear that young, easy-to-mold brains get rewired as these devices are used daily in schools, where are the protests, the letters to the editor, the concerned citizens at school board meetings?

If re-wiring the brain and addiction to high-tech gadgets are rhetorical overkill–even hype–and the word “dependency” is more appropriate as technology continues to shape our daily habits for both good and ill, then perhaps it is time to ask publicly whether the school should be a willing, even eager, partner in deepening that dependency on gadgets with screens.

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Meeting and Exceeding Student Expectations of Teachers: A Way to Achieve “Good” Teaching

The following post is one of a small group I have written over the past 13 years that have attracted the most readers. It originally appeared in 2013. I have revised and updated it.

Over the next month or so, I will revise other posts that have drawn the most viewers.

Go into most public school classrooms and you will see a sign, usually in the front of the classroom, listing what the teacher expects of students in classroom behavior.

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Experienced teachers advise new ones to make these rules explicit and enforce them from day one. Folk wisdom among veteran teachers is that expecting these behaviors and equitably acting on the rules will lead to an orderly classroom, the prerequisite for any intentional learning to occur. So most new and experienced teachers, believing this advice and wanting a well-managed classroom, list classroom rules early in the semester. A few adventurous (and experienced) teachers have students construct the rules since students are well aware of acceptable classroom behavior from previous teachers.

In addition to classroom behavior, what teachers expect of students academically influences achievement. Researchers have established that when teachers have high or low expectations of what their students can achieve–especially low-income and minority students–those expectations color what students do achieve (Journal of Teacher Education-1987-Good-32-47).

The point is that teacher expectations of student behavior and academic performance matter.

What is often missing from the advice given to teachers, however, is what goes on in students’ heads as they see a new teacher (novice or veteran) for the first time. Students also have an informal list of what behaviors, knowledge, and skills they expect of their teachers. And just like teacher expectations, student expectations matter.

Expectancy theory, as academics call it, involves motivation and choice–if I expect something I want to happen, I will choose that action that best achieves what I want. And that is true of students’ motivation and their choosing what to do (or not do) in a classroom or lesson.

Beginning in kindergarten (or preschool), over the years students develop views of what a “good” teacher (and teaching) are.  By the time, students are in high school, they have implicit models in  their heads of who “good” teachers are and what they do in organizing and teaching a class.

By “good”  high school teacher, for example, most students mean one who mostly leads a teacher-centered, subject-driven academic class. For students meeting teachers for the first time, “bad” means the teacher tries to be friends with students, uses techniques (e.g., abandoning the textbook, peer grading of quizzes) that are seldom used by other “good” teachers. They tolerate student misbehavior.  In short, “bad” teachers cannot maintain minimum order in the classroom.

None of this is means that students’ pictures of “good” teachers are correct. Only that students already have  images of what they believe is institutionally “good” for them.

So if a novice teacher  (or veteran who transfer to another school) believes that students have blank slates when they meet each other for the first time, they are whistling the wrong tune. Let me give examples of student expectations of teachers that I have encountered over the years as a teacher and, later, as district-based teacher educator and superintendent of schools.

*”Good” teachers know more facts and concepts of the subject they teach than students.

*”Good” teachers answer student questions clearly and correctly.

*”Good” teachers take time to explain complicated content.

*”Good” teachers do not publicly humiliate students.

*”Good” teachers assign homework.

*”Good” teachers clamp down on late-comers to class

*”Good” teachers break up fights between students and protect weak students from being bullied.

*”Good” teachers do not permit students to copy from one another when expecting each student to do his or her work.

*”Good” teachers do not let students sleep in class.

For novices and veterans new to a school to ignore what students have learned about teachers and teaching for many years sitting in classrooms is ultimately condescending since teachers are dismissing important student beliefs and knowledge. It also makes much harder the long-term task of developing strong relationships with the class as a whole and individual students–both essential for academic learning to occur.

There is a catch, however, when new and veteran teachers meet student expectations.

To do only what students expect is to be trapped by their traditional expectations of what a “good” teacher is. The tightrope act teachers have to negotiate is to initially meet what students expect–“good” teaching–then move beyond those beliefs to begin reshaping student expectations of “good” teaching. Getting students to appreciate and learn from a larger repertoire of classroom approaches while teachers develop personal relationships essential for learning to occur is no easy task. Many, but by no means all, experienced teachers reach that level. But it is tough to do.

So, the essence of what I suggest for new and veteran teachers meeting their students the first time is straight-forward: know what students expect of “good” teachers and teaching, meet those expectations,  and then, once strong relationships with the class have been formed, move beyond students’ beliefs so they can enlarge their picture of what “good” teachers and teaching are.

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Data-Driven Instructional Practice

I like numbers. Numbers are facts: blood pressure reading is 145/90. Numbers are objective, free of emotion. The bike odometer tells me that I traveled 17 miles. Objective and factual as numbers may be, we still inject meaning into them. The blood pressure reading, for example, crosses the threshold of high blood pressure and needs attention.  And that 17-mile bike ride meant a  chocolate-dipped vanilla cone at a Dairy Queen.

Which brings me to a school reform effort centered on numbers. Much has already been written on the U.S. obsession with standardized test scores. Ditto for a recent passion for value-added measures.  Turn now to those policymakers who gather, digest, and use a vast array of numbers in order to reshape teaching practices.

Yes, I am talking about data-driven instruction–a way of making teaching less subjective, more objective, less intuitive and experience-based, and more scientific. Ultimately, a reform that will make teaching more systematic and effective. Standardized test scores, dropout figures, percentages of non-native speakers proficient in English–are collected, disaggregated by  ethnicity and school grade, and analyzed. Then with access to data warehouses, staff can obtain electronic packets of student performance data that can be used to make instructional decisions to increase academic performance. Data-driven instruction, advocates say, is scientific and consistent with how successful businesses have used data for decades in making decisions that increased their productivity.

An earlier incarnation of data-driven instruction appeared a half-century ago.  Responding to criticism of failing U.S. schools, policymakers established “competency tests” that students had to pass to graduate high school. These tests measured what students learned from the curriculum. Policymakers believed that when results were fed back to principals and teachers, they would realign lessons. Hence, “measurement-driven” instruction..

Of course, teachers had always assessed learning informally before state- and district-designed tests. Teachers accumulated information (oops! data) from pop quizzes, class discussions, observing students in pairs and small groups, and individual conferences. Based on these data, teachers revised lessons. Teachers leaned heavily on their experiences with students and the incremental learning they had accumulated from teaching 180 days, year after year.

Both subjective and objective, such micro- decisions were both practice- and data-driven. Teachers’ informal assessments of students would lead to altered lessons. Analysis of annual test results that showed patterns in student errors  helped teachers figure out better sequencing of content and different ways to teach particular topics.

In the 1990s and, especially after No Child Left Behind became law in 2001, the electronic gathering of data, disaggregating information by groups and individuals, and then applying lessons learned from the analysis to teaching became a top priority. Why? Because stigma and high-stakes consequences (e.g., state-inflicted penalties) occurred from public reporting of low test scores and inadequate school performance that could lead to a school’s closure.

Now, principals and teachers are awash in data.

How do teachers use the massive data available to them on student performance?  Studies of  teacher and administrator usage reveal wide variation and different strategies. In one study of 36 instances of data use in two districts, researchers found 15 where teachers used annual tests, for example, in basic ways to target weaknesses in professional development or to schedule double periods of language arts for English language learners. There were fewer instances of collective, sustained, and deeper inquiry by groups of teachers and administrators using multiple data sources (e.g., test scores, district surveys, and interviews) to, for example,  reallocate funds for reading specialists or start an overhaul of district high schools. Researchers pointed out how timeliness of data, its perceived worth by teachers, and district support limited or expanded the quality of analysis. These researchers admitted, however, that they could not connect student achievement to the 36 instances of basic to complex data-driven decisions  in these two districts.

Yet policymakers assume that micro- or macro-decisions driven by data will improve student achievement just like those productivity increases and profits major corporations accrue from using data to make decisions. Wait, it gets worse.

In 2009, the federal government published a report ( IES Expert Panel) that examined 490 studies where data was used by school staffs to make instructional decisions. Of these studies, the expert panel found 64 that used experimental or quasi-experimental designs and only six–yes, six–met the Institute of Education Sciences standard for making causal claims about data-driven decisions improving student achievement. When reviewing these six studies, however, the panel found “low evidence” (rather than “moderate” or “strong” evidence) to support data-driven instruction. In short, the assumption that data-driven instructional decisions improve student test scores is, well, still an assumption not a fact.

Numbers may be facts. Numbers may be objective. Numbers may smell scientific. Numbers, however, do not speak for themselves. We give meaning to those numbers.

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The Difference between “Complicated” and “Complex” Matters

The following post is one of a small group of posts I have written over the past 13 years that have attracted the most readers. It originally appeared in 2010. I have revised and updated it.

Over the next month or so, I will revise other posts that have drawn the most viewers.

What’s the difference between sending a rocket to the moon and getting children to succeed in school? What’s the difference between a surgeon extracting a brain tumor and judge and jury deciding guilt or innocence for a person accused of murder?

Answers: sending a rocket to the moon and surgeons extracting brain tumors are complicated tasks while getting children to succeed in school (or, for that matter, raising a child) and navigating the criminal justice system are complex.

According to York University (Ontario, Canada) business professor Brenda Zimmerman, complicated procedures like brain surgery and rocket launchings require engineer-designed blueprints, step-by-step algorithms, well-trained staff, and exquisite combinations of computer software running carefully calibrated equipment. Think rocket landing on the moon in 1969, doctor-controlled robotic arms doing brain surgery, and the U.S. “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning, smooth implementation of policies, and a clock-like organization that runs efficiently and effectively. Work is specified and delegated to particular units. Here, for example, is a 2021 flow chart school officials in Amphitheater Unified District (Tucson Arizona) are expected to use in deciding whether or not students who returned to school were sick.

Certainty about outcomes is in the air the organization breathes. Complicated systems use the most sophisticated math, technical, and engineering expertise in mapping out flow charts to solve problems.

Yet even those sophisticated systems fail from time to time such as the Challenger shuttle disaster, Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, the 2010 BP oil leak, and the U.S. ‘s National Security Agency inability to detect cyber espionage by Russia in 2021.

Complex systems like criminal justice, health care, and schools, however, are filled with hundreds of moving parts, scores of players of varied expertise and independence yet missing a “mission control” that runs all these different parts within an ever-changing political, economic, and societal environment. The result: constant adaptations in design and action. Recall the U.S. President, Congress, lobbying groups, and scores of interest groups trying to get a reform health care bill into law during 2010 in the midst of a slow recovery from the quasi-Great Depression of 2008. Or consider how the Covid-19 virus closed down large and small businesses, urban and suburban schools, and federal and state courts for months

Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply are inadequate to get complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings. See the complexity of the U.S. and other countries dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan in this slide.

Or consider how the criminal justice system to avoid gridlock created plea bargains. Interdependent parts of the system (police, defense lawyers, district attorneys, and judges) adapted to overflowing court dockets.

Health care, criminal justice, and school systems even with their façades of command-and-control mechanisms, policy manuals filled with procedures for subordinates to follow are constantly buffeted by unpredictable events—picture a hospital emergency room, a kindergarten class of wailing and reclusive 5 year-olds, and judges doing arraignments one after the other.

So what if schools, hospitals, and courts resemble spider webs of interconnecting strands than carefully designed and well-oiled machines?

One practical outcome of this distinction is approaching planned change differently. Those who run complicated systems (e.g., airplane and automotive industrialists, investment bankers, computer hardware and software CEOs) introduce change by laying out a detailed design of what is to be changed, step-by-step procedures to implement the change and overcome any employee resistance, and reduce variation in performance once change is implemented. Highly rational, mechanical, and smooth.

The problem for those who inhabit complex systems like schools is that change, conflict, and unplanned changes occur all the time. So do adaptations because of the web-like independent and interdependent relationships that make up the system.

But what happens when smart people try to graft procedures from complicated organizations onto complex systems?

Trying to toilet train a 3-week old baby is an absurd example of the thinking that occurs when a complicated solution (designing a flow chart for teaching toilet training) meets a complex problem (a baby that feeds continually, sleeps 20 hours a day, and soils her diapers repeatedly). Inevitably, the toilet training flow chart gets adapted again and again until the baby is ready to be toilet trained—a year or more later. Or consider a less absurd example of the pay-for-performance plans imported from complicated business systems to be installed in complex school districts. Such policies will get adapted repeatedly and, over time, will become unrecognizable to both designers and administrators.

So what? You have made the distinction between complicated and complex, Larry, but what is the significance in the difference between complicated and complex? The answer to the so-what question is: At the minimum, reform-minded policymakers need to know that working in a complex system means adapting to changes, dealing with conflicts, and constant learning. These are natural events, not aberrations. Know further that reform designs borrowed from complicated systems and imposed from the top in complex systems such as schooling will hardly make a dent in the daily work of teachers whose job is convert policy into action.

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Split on Screens (Jesse Pearson)

Jesse Pearson is middle school humanities teacher at Marin Horizon School in Mill Valley, California. He is also an alumnus of the school.

Not long after we returned to the classroom for in-person learning in October 2020, my cellphone rang in my desk drawer. My students made the same ooh-you’re-in-trouble noises they make when a classmate is summoned to the front office. They reveled in catching me break my own rule about phones in the classroom. We laughed for a moment at my hypocrisy before I directed their attention back to the Google Slides presentation on the 60-inch flatscreen mounted to the wall behind me. We read a 2017 piece in The New Yorker—a mocking sendup of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus.” Satisfied that they understood my lesson, I instructed my eighth graders to open their school-issued MacBooks, go to Google Classroom, and begin working on an assignment about satire. 
 
This, after a rollicking Spanish class in which they played Kahoot! games and watched online videos about something called Súper Lápiz. Earlier, our science teacher had them using power tools to build a Rube Goldberg machine, after which they entered their progress in digital science notebooks. Math lessons were delivered on smartboards. For social studies classes, students used an app called Canva to design an infographic about the three branches of government. In arts class, they used WeVideo to edit public service announcements. 
 
Then school was over for the day. As they made their way to the pickup line, students reflexively produced their own phones. They checked TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. They texted their parents asking to walk home with friends. They made roster moves on fantasy football teams. On their walks and rides home, they were selecting Spotify playlists, updating social media profiles, and playing video games. When they reached home, they would put their phones down, open their laptops, launch Google Docs, and finish the satire assignment they’d begun in my class. 
 
That night at home, I cracked open my own laptop to do some grading and planning, and it hit me: From the time most of my students wake up to the time they go to bed, they spend, at best, 45 consecutive minutes not interacting with technology. In the span of 18 months, technology, which, to be certain, was already a ubiquitous tool for education, became something more. It became a lifeline. Students are just now emerging from a period in which tools that had formerly been optional became essential. Where once a classroom could be a refuge from screens, the pandemic created a world in which, for most kids, the screen became the classroom. One of the least talked about byproducts of the pandemic is the fact that our elementary, middle, and high school students will undoubtedly be the most digitally literate and technologically capable generation in history.

Seeing the Good

This year, all of my students are in front of me. None of them are Zooming in or watching videos or picking up weekly assignment packets in sanitized folders. Yet, in some ways, little has changed. 
 
I, too, became dependent on technology, and I’m finding it harder than I expected to break my dependence. Google Classroom, for example, has made my teaching life immeasurably easier. I deliver every assignment over the platform. I can share a link to any text or video or image or slide I’ve used during a lesson. For students, who turn in every assignment in Google Classroom, the platform is consistent and familiar. They know what to expect. Nothing gets lost. I can give feedback and grades from anywhere, anytime. My feedback is not only more timely, it’s more precise. If anything I’ve written is not clear, the student can respond in real time. I, a proud Luddite, confess that the adoption of and adaptation to technology that I had so resisted for my entire career has, without question, made me a more productive teacher. Moreover, I believe it’s often made my students feel more successful.
 
I found myself wondering, in the dull blue glow of my screen, is any of this a bad thing? And if it is, are any of us prepared to do anything about it?
 
As someone old enough to know the difference between VHF and UHF, my natural impulse is to wring my hands and lament the erosion of meaningful human interaction that was already occurring, but has, to my new way of thinking, become inexorable and permanent in a post-COVID world. And I’m fairly sure that’s the right reaction. But, so what? 
 
My instinct is to preach the importance of making art by hand, writing plein air poetry, doing math with manipulatives, researching at the library, and taking notes by hand on index cards. But how can I do that when my own practice has become so interconnected with and dependent upon technology? The very tools that have lightened my teaching load have become an impediment to the kind
of educational experiences I profess to value. 
 
All of which creates a dilemma for me, and I suspect for many of my fellow teachers. If it’s true that technology has made teaching better, learning easier, and education more accessible, shouldn’t we want more of it, not less? If ubiquity of technology will be the defining element of not only this generation’s educational experience, but also their professional and interpersonal experiences, shouldn’t teachers be embracing it, not working to reverse it? The easy answer to all of these questions is, of course, yes. Which is why I’m almost sure it is the wrong answer. 

Happy Returns

My students scolded me when my phone rang while I was teaching because somewhere deep inside them was a latent awareness that a classroom is a sanctuary. A school is a cathedral. And while they would gladly stare at their phones all day if we let them, they are depending on us to provide them with a daily respite, however brief, from the omnipresence of technology, from the fallacy of constant connection. COVID-19 taught this generation that to be without technology is to be cut off from the world, from school and their friends, and from everything they value. It’s our job to teach them that that doesn’t have to be the case. 
 
It is OK for kids to learn that technology makes life easier. But we should not allow them to mistakenly think that it always makes life better. I’ve resolved to make my lesson plans model this belief system. Yes, it is easier to put all my lessons and materials online. It is easier for kids to do their work on laptops and turn it in to the cloud. It is easier for kids to see their grades on their phones. Which means that we’re all going to have to work a little harder. It means getting materials off the screen and into students’ hands. It means taking pens and paper, books and journals, meter sticks and paint brushes out of cupboards and bringing them back into the classroom. It means that students will produce work that exists in the real world, work that can be seen and touched and felt. All of which means that students will be more inclined to collaborate, comment, and connect. Which was the very reason we were all so desperate to get back to teaching in-person in the first place. 
 
Now that we’ve returned and our students have emerged from their tech silos, it is incumbent upon teachers to reintroduce them to a world and a way of learning that many of them have forgotten. Indeed, until my students scolded me, I think I may have forgotten it, too.

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Anniversary of Blog

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

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

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

1. Write about 800 words.

2. Write clearly on school reform and classroom practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Cuban

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Photos That Got Me Laughing

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

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

No, the kitten did not pay a fare

One rider enjoyed fellow passengers

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

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

Looking for a date?

Is this a photo of tech dependency in public?

Nap time (1)

Nap time (2)

Batman meets Darth Vader

Creative use of toilet plunger

Snack time (1)

Snack time (2)

Believe it or not!

Getting past the turnstiles poses a major problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three somewhat inconsistent ideas now shape parenting and teaching:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what is childhood?  It’s:

▪   A life stage defined by biology and physiology. 

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

▪   A social status.

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

▪   A developmental stage.

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

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

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

▪  A legal category.

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

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

▪  An age-defined set of experiences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Childhood today embodies a series of contradictions:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Three myths cloud our understanding of childhood.

The first is the myth of progress.

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

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

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

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

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

Not so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We owe them nothing less.

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

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

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

But the belief is a myth.

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

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

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

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

Child-as-blank-slate.

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

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

Born Bad, Made Good

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

Child as Perpetual Learner

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

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

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

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