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The Morphing of an Innovation into Classroom Practice: Kindergartens in U.S. Schools (Part 1)

School reformers, mostly middle-class white women, invented kindergartens in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. The innovation of the “Kindergarten” was an import relying on the ideas and practices of a 19th century German reformer named Frederich Froebel. Using his ideas, civic-minded women created kindergartens in response to concerns about so many urban children left on their own daily as immigrant parents worked long hours in factories and sweatshops.

By the 1920s, many school districts had installed this innovation into their grammar school thus converting the 1-to-8 age graded school into the now familiar K-6 elementary school.

The history of kindergartens revealed tensions between play and learning basic academics such as reading, adding numbers, following directions, working in a group and treating one another well. These tensions unfolded in training kindergarten teachers how they should teach. That debate over whether kindergartners should spend more time on play or academics continues in 2023.

While many districts adopted kindergartens, in 1920 just over 10 percent of eligible five year-olds entered kindergartens. by 2020, eighty-four percent attended kindergartens. No surprise, then, that this innovation has become a familiar experience for five year-olds in the U.S.

The 1879 Grand March of Boys and Girls in New York City’s Free Kindergarten, established by the Society for Ethical Culture. Credit: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Granger.

Free Kindergarten for Colored Children of New York City, 1901. Credit: Free Kindergarten Association for Colored Children, Sixth Annual Report.

From these beginnings of an innovation, throughout the 20th century, school districts added kindergartens to their elementary schools. Nearly 85 percent of five year-olds attend public kindergartens in 2020.

Current kindergarten rooms in the U.S. look like this:

Kindergarten students in Robin Bryant’s class are learning how to add and subtract (SanFrancisco Bay area school)

Kindergarten in Penn Manor School District (PA)

Paraprofessional Kristina Wilcox, left, and instructor Marissa Reitan, second from right, work with kids in a preschool class at East Ridge Elementary in Ogden (UT) on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

Kindergarten classroom in Albany (NY) elementary school

What does a day in kindergarten look like to both teachers and students. Following examples offer partial answers to the question. You Tube videos of kindergarten teachers in across the country follow.

I apologize in advance for the ads that accompany these videos and descriptions. As anyone who uses the Web knows, ads are part of the territory within which researchers work.

One school district describes what a typical school day should be like for kindergartners. Here is the URL since the description is too long for this post:

With the introduction of the innovative kindergarten nearly a century and a half ago, going to school in the U.S. in 2023 means that five year-olds enter the wider world beyond the family. And it is in these spacious rooms with colorful furniture, rugs, chairs, and learning centers (including a bathroom) that the nation’s children face the continuing tension between how much time in a day should be devoted to play vs. how much time should be devoted to learning to count, read, and time teaching children how to behave in groups.



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Teaching High School and Using Technology (Jerry Brodkey)

This post is a “golden oldie,” one that has garnered thousands of viewers. I republish it because the issues Jerry Brodkey raised in 2010 about teaching and machines continue in 2023.

Jerry Brodkey taught social studies and math at Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California. Brodkey began teaching in 1975. Recently, he has been teaching Algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus in a Palo Alto private high school. He continues to find teaching to be challenging, enjoyable, and always intense. His undergraduate degree was from Rice University (BA 1974), and graduate degrees from Stanford University (MA 1976, Ph.D. 1987).

A front page New York Times article on January 20, 2010 was headlined: “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online”. The article details the results of a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation that the typical 8 to 18 year-old spends more than 7.5 hours a day on electronics, plus another 1.5 hour texting and another half an hour on the cell phone. Students are immersed in their electronic world.

Many schools are integrating more and more technology into the curriculum. At the school where I teach, many teachers are switching to “Smart Boards”, a sophisticated piece of technology that looks like a white board but is actually linked to a computer and the Internet. Our school district has invested heavily in technology and the trend is exploding upwards.

As a veteran teacher, the trend bothers me. In my opinion, what should happen at schools, what can makes school valuable and unique, is to provide young people experiences they can’t get anywhere else. Instead of more technology, let’s use less. Instead of emphasizing technology that is often expensive and soon outdated, perhaps schools can take a different, newer (really older) approach.

Schools offer teachers and students an opportunity to do what is almost never done in society. In schools we can gather together a group of twenty to thirty people and have them listen, discuss, analyze, and share differing points of view. Schools provide a rare chance to read, debate, write, and quietly think. We don’t need expensive technology to learn how to ask excellent questions, articulate ideas, and be forced to defend our thoughts.

School hours are precious. My students and I need to learn and consider and develop together. This is what makes my students’ and my school experiences unique. This is what makes my calculus class in room D-10 at Menlo-Atherton High School different than a calculus class students could easily take online. In the classroom the students interact with me and with each other. My students see what happens when people are frustrated, or tired, or thinking creatively. They see what happens when people laugh together, learn together, are confused together. They spend real time with friends and individuals who are like them, and also different than them. They listen to me and to each other, they ask questions, they have to communicate clearly in a real setting. They respond directly to me and to each other and see the effects of their words, the power of their tone of voice, the inflection of a comment or question

Technology can, of course, do amazing things. Any tool can be used properly or improperly. Unfortunately, with devices like Smart Boards, images come and go, and the teacher is often looking at a computer screen for part of the class. Smart Boards and similar technologies reinforce the idea that knowledge resides in things. We don’t need Smart Boards, we need smart people. Answers to all questions do not reside in the Internet, even if it is just a click away.

In my math classes, starting at the Algebra II level, we use graphing calculators to graph functions. They are a remarkable tool, a mini-computer students hold in the palm of their hands. Graphing calculators can graph complex functions in an instant. I do use them in my calculus classes, but I use them sparingly. When I use them, I like to slow down and ask students the following:

What does this graph represent? Is this a good graph? What makes a good graph? How could it be made better? Why are we even bothering to make a graph of this function? What are the limitations of this graph? What are the assumptions? How much data do we need to make a good graph? If we have a certain number of data points, can we assume the rest of the data follows this pattern? What are the limitations of the electronic graphing calculators we use? Do these limitations come into play in this problem?

If all goes well, we have a very good discussion.

We don’t need more technology in my classroom. I have a precious 50 minutes with them each day for 180 days. That is time when real, not virtual, relationships may grow. Each moment I am looking at my computer screen or Smart Board takes away from the time I am directly interacting with my students. Each time I walk down the hall and see a teacher at a computer, or each moment when I am at mine, I feel it is an opportunity lost. For me, more technology is not the answer. It only detracts from what I am truly trying to achieve as a teacher.

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This Will Revolutionize Schooling!

I needed to write a post yesterday morning. I had on my desk a few ideas from articles I had cut out of newspapers, suggestions that friends and family had sent to me, and some older posts that I had revised and updated (I began writing twice-weekly posts for this blog in 2009).  

Before I decided which of these items I would publish, I checked my website to see how many views I had overnight, what comments had come in and whether they needed responses from me, and, of course, dumping the spam that had collected overnight. I also checked to see who had clicked onto the site for that is a way I find out who is reading posts and a chance for me to pick up different ideas. And that is how I found today’s post.

One reader had downloaded my monthly cartoon feature on technology for kids and adults to her website and also gave me a link to a video called “This Will Revolutionize Education.” Done by Derek Muller,* that title caught my eye. I watched it. And I was pleased by Muller’s accuracy, brevity, and elan in taking apart that common phrase used time and again by wannabe school reformers eager to put the next new device, teaching method, or curriculum into classrooms. Yet in a few years, those eager reformers’ plans have led to no “revolution” in teachers’ classrooms. More often than not, the innovation has disappeared and is mercifully forgotten.

As a historian of school reform, I have written more than I want to remember about those rose-colored, feverish innovations that appear time and again promising to transform teaching practices. That fads occur and recur in schools is certainly obvious to informed observers of U.S. schools. Historian Diane Ravitch wrote about faddishness in American schools two decades ago.

This video is seven minutes long and it vividly captures the hollowness of previous boosters’ claims that a particular innovation “Will Revolutionize Education.” But far more important the video zeroes in on the centrality of the teacher to student learning beyond conveying information which new technologies are superb in doing.

At a time when blended learning, flipped classrooms, student use of computer devices, and “disruptive” innovations are reported in media about U.S. schools, what Derek Muller presents is worth seeing.

So here’s the YouTube video: “This Will Revolutionize Education:”

Click on:


*For more on Derek Muller, see:,Saves%20the%20World%20since%202017



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Winter Holidays Cartoons

Every year I offer holiday cartoons that tickle me. I hope they do the same for you. Enjoy!

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Teaching High School Social Studies Nearly Seventy Years Ago

When I began teaching U.S. and world history in 1956 at Glenville High School (Cleveland, Ohio), there were some technological aids that I had available and used often in the five classes I taught daily. Seven years later, when I left Glenville to teach at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C., I had added a few more items to my technological repertoire.

At no time in those years, however, did I ask myself whether these technologies were productive, (i.e., did they get students to learn more, faster, and better?) or efficient  (i.e., did I teach more, faster, and better?). They were available, I tried them out in lessons, and I used them to help me teach the content and skills that I wanted students to learn. Period.

Between 1956-1967, every day I used the blackboard, the textbook, and the ditto machine to make student hand-outs (ah, just typing in the phrase brings back memories of smelling alcohol and having purple stained fingers from handling those “spirit masters”). For the blackboard, I even used different colored chalk to make diagrams and draw pictures to make points about the lesson.

Every few weeks, I would use a film-strip projector and film strips that were available in the social studies department or the district’s audio-visual department located downtown.

Once a month or so, I would borrow a film from the city’s library or the district’s media collection and use a 16mm projector available to my five colleagues in the Glenville social studies storeroom.

Using a film projector was a hassle and time-eater. I had to sign up for the projector because there was only one for the entire social studies department, get it from the department storeroom, and then wheel the cart and projector into my classroom. Then I had to thread the film onto the projector reels, preview it so I could prepare a study-guide for students. Finally, I would show it to the students and keep my fingers crossed that the machine wouldn’t break down.

Teaching five history classes a day with a total load of 150 students kept me busy from the moment I got to school at 7:30 AM to the end of the seventh period at 3 PM. Sometimes after school, students came to my room to ask about assignments or just talk with me. This 20-something teacher in the late-1950s would go home bone-tired.

What shaped the ways that I taught were the organizational context and beliefs that I had about teaching and learning. The organizational context of the age-graded school influenced heavily what I did daily in room 235 at Glenville High School. But not only did the age-graded high school with departments and self-contained classrooms influence what I did every day in my classroom, but also my beliefs about how history should be taught, what my Glenville students (mostly Black) should learn, and truth be told, which historical topics I enjoyed teaching.

All of these factors shaped what I did in daily lessons. While the organizational context remained the same for the years I worked at Glenville, my beliefs slowly changed as I experimented with new content, varied classroom tasks, and yes, used technologies of the day. And those technologies became integral to my daily lessons. They helped me do what I felt was necessary to communicate important knowledge and help students acquire essential skills.

Looking back to the late-1950s and early 1960s during my first teaching assignment from the vantage point of 2022 surely makes my teaching seem, well, paleolithic. With current accessibility to desktop computers, laptops, tablets, mobile devices and apps galore in and out of schools, both teachers and students now have a potpourri of electronic devices and software that an earlier generation of teachers raised on scarcity of “new”technologies, lacked.

Here’s the issue that bugs me: while teachers in the 21st century are far more prepared in academic content than teachers over a half-century earlier were and new hardware and software are available to teachers, the organizational context of the American high school remains the same as it was nearly 70 years ago. Because organizational context has a powerful but not determinative effect on classroom practice, teaching high school social studies, I believe, looks similar to how I taught nearly seven decades earlier.

If I am wrong, I sure hope that high school principals, university supervisors, and current high school social studies teachers will correct me.


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Key Questions I Get Asked about Technology in Classrooms

Over the years, readers and graduate students have asked me about the work I have done on school reform and classroom technologies. I answer those questions here but first some background.

I began doing research and writing on teacher and student uses of technology in the early 1980s when personal computers appeared in classrooms. That writing turned into Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920 (1986). I then began working on a larger study of teacher and student uses of new technologies in preschool and kindergarten, high schools, and universities. That became Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms (2001). When Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability appeared in 2009, one chapter dealt with teacher and student uses of technologies across four school districts.

Those writings on teaching and technology labeled me as a skeptic. And some comments on these books were testy. Promoters of new technologies, be they vendors, practitioners or policymakers, would curtly dismiss doubts I and others raised by calling us “Luddites.”

No more. Public scorn for anyone who would probe the prevailing beliefs in the magical efficacy of computers in schools has become unfashionable.  I have found educators and non-educators who deeply believed in classroom computers as engines of learning, willing to listen to critics when concerns were raised about the many goals of schooling in a democracy, getting new devices into the hands of children, and insufficient research to support expansion of these technologies. I find these changes encouraging but hardly a game-changer.

Why? Because in my experience, there are far fewer skeptics than true believers in new technologies. Perhaps because I am in the minority, the questions that I have gotten asked over the years are personal often seeking elaboration of why I have explored technology and school reform and what technologies I use. Here are some of those questions:

1. Why did you begin writing about technology in classroom lessons? In the late-1970s, I began doing research and writing about the history of classroom instruction. In 1984, I published How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1980. In that book, I tracked the repeated (and failed) efforts of progressive reformers over a century to change classroom practice in urban, suburban, and rural classrooms from teacher-centered to student-centered lessons. In doing the archival research, seeing photos of teachers teaching, and reading accounts of how teachers taught different lessons, I saw the classroom use of different technologies from blackboards, stereopticons, and textbooks to overhead projectors, films, radio, and instructional television. The idea that reforming teaching was linked to the introduction of new technologies intrigued me. What stuck in my mind was a basic question:

Was introduction of new technologies another way that reformers had in moving teaching away from traditional lessons?

I found out through researching classrooms past and present that the answer was yes.

2. Do you personally use any electronic technologies?

At home I have a desktop and laptop computer, plus an iPhone. The desktop I use at home; the laptop when I travel, and the iPhone daily. I use all of them for personal and professional work such as this blog.

Please do not ask me how many times I check my email.

3. When you taught high school social studies and graduate seminars at Stanford University, did you use technologies in your classes?

Yes, I did. In my classroom, I developed a hybrid of teacher-centered instruction. I used (daily and weekly) both old and new technologies between the 1950s and 1980s in high school teaching. Films (16mm), film strips, overhead projectors, and videocassettes. Ditto for the two decades that I taught at Stanford. After retiring in 2001 and until 2013, I taught seminars where I used my laptop and LCD displays in seminars for examples of points to make, quick polls of students, video clips, etc. I did not, however, do PowerPoint presentations.

4. If you are (and have been) a regular user of technologies, why are you skeptical of their use in classrooms?

Like past electronic technologies, vendors and enthusiasts have hyped them to solve problems from low academic performance to motivating students tired of traditional teaching practices. Hype is over-promising; over-promising inexorably leads to disappointment; disappointment builds cynicism. I am allergic to hype. And I detest cynicism, especially when it blankets teaching in public schools.

But most of all, administrators didn’t buy hyped technologies to solve problems teachers identified and considered important to their lessons (e.g., large class sizes, wide range of student achievement in a class; lack of relevant instructional materials). Initially, school boards purchased devices to prove to taxpayers and voters that the district is keeping up with the times while wanting to get students to learn more, faster, and better. Whether these new technologies indeed produced more, faster, and better learning–well–no one knew then or knows now.

Also many early technologies were experiments–alpha and beta versions–used to find out whether they work in classrooms and help students learn. Combine hype and experimentation and the results often become a toxic combination.

Thus, when new technologies were (or are) adopted by school boards and district officials want teachers to use devices and software in classroom lessons, teachers have to ask hard questions that most district officials avoid:

*Are the new technologies essential to reaching my lesson’s objectives?

*Are the new technologies effective in achieving desired student outcomes?

The money spent on new technologies without much evidence of their efficacy in teaching students means that other options such as investing in more teachers, classroom aides, and professional development are foregone. That lack of evidence for a new technology leads to inefficient and ineffective policy making.

Given these reasons, when a new technology is announced as “the next new thing” and then applied to teaching and learning in public schools, I remain a skeptic.

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Teaching All Students To Code

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce. Theodore Search, National Association of Manufacturers, 1898

Coding should be a requirement in every public school…. We have a huge deficit in the skills that we need today versus the skills that are there. Tim Cook, CEO Apple speaking to President Donald Trump at White House, 2017

Goodbye to old vocational education preparing youth for jobs in an industrial economy. Hello to the new vocational education of teaching computer science and coding to all U.S. students

Public schools have experienced two spasms of vocationally-driven reform. One created the  “old vocational education” in the early 20th century endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers (see above quote) and now the “new vocational education” a century later, endorsed by high-tech CEOs spreading the gospel for teaching children to learn to code and take computer science courses. Then and now, policymakers saw an intimate connection between a strong economy and strong schools. And that is why Theodore Search and Tim Cook could easily have sat down and had a cold beer together.

And were I to join Search and Cook in drinking beers, I would ask each: what is the purpose of having taxpayers with or without children pay to have public schools? Their answer, given the above quotes, would be: prepare children and youth with the knowledge and skills necessary to gain successful entry to the labor force in an ever-changing economy.

Fine, I would say, but there have been and continue to be other important purposes driving legislators to tax property and income to fund schools and make attendance compulsory.

Consider these non-vocational but often-stated aims for tax-supported public schools:

*Schooling children to be proud, fully-rounded citizens who give back to their communities.

*Reinforcing community values and strengthening individual character.

*Helping students fulfill their individual potential (see here and here).

Preparation for the workplace is not the only goal for public schooling. Yet that has been the primary purpose for most reformers over the past four decades. And a century ago, reformers had also elevated workplace preparation to be the overarching purpose for tax-supported public schools.

Beginning in 1917, the federal government appropriated monies for states to spend on vocational training for industrial and commercial jobs. This support made the NAM version of vocational education dominant in public schools for three-quarters of a century. Since the 1980s, however, vocational education has largely disappeared as a formal choice in the curriculum. Career and technical academies and scattered high school courses do pinch-hit and offer some choice to those students uneager to spend four additional years sitting in college classrooms (see here and here).

With the morphing of the “old” vocational education into career and technical education, a shiny new vocationalism is being highly touted for all U.S. students. Yes, I refer to the shrill cries for more computer science in the curriculum and the teaching of coding to children and youth (see here and here).

You do not need a Ph.D. to figure out that the past forty years (I use A Nation at Risk report in 1983 as a benchmark) have forged strong links between the economy and public schooling. The primary purpose for K-12 schools in recent decades has been crisply defined as preparing each child for college and career. Completing college, of course, is basically geared to getting decent paying jobs. So becoming college-ready means that higher education is really a vocational school and a ticket to a decent paying job. Advocates for coding and requiring computer science as a subject seek to expand the K-12 curriculum (or replace other content and skills) by adding a C to the three Rs.*

Today, high tech entrepreneurs and CEOs lament the need to outsource coding to other countries and import software engineers from India and elsewhere (but do it nonetheless on special visas) pointing to the lack of U.S. graduates skilled in programming, systems analysis, and computer support. The growth rate and salaries in such jobs continued to escalate.

Roughly half of the jobs in the top income quartile — defined as those paying $57,000 or more per year — are in occupations that commonly require applicants to have at least some computer coding knowledge or skill, according to a recent analysis of 26 million U.S. online job postings by job market analytics firm Burning Glass and Oracle Academy … In simple terms, coders write the instructions that tell computers what to do; in-demand programming languages include SQL, Java, JavaScript, C# and Python.

Who advocates for all students to take computer science courses and learn coding?

Backers of coding are a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley firms and donors who see the necessity of coding and computer science being part of the required curriculum in U.S. schools as it has in over 15 European nations and Israel (see here and here). The United Kingdom, for example, introduced computer science and coding in 2012 (see here,here,and here).

As in the U.S., the rationale for such reforms go beyond the smell of vested interest insofar as hiring skilled software developers and programmers. Recently, the reasons for such changes have broadened. As one advocate put it: “Learning how to code allows kids to do their own thing, be creative and secure a job in an area where there will be a huge shortage.”

The champions of coding and the subject of computer science in the U.S. have already succeeded in lobbying policymakers to insert coding and computer science into state curriculum standards and graduation requirements (see here and here). Over half of all U.S. high schools offer computer science and coding.

Like a century ago, the “new” vocationalism with its emphasis on skills for an information-driven society has become the primary purpose for tax-supported schooling.


*The national commission that produced the 1983 Nation at Risk report recommended that a half-year of computer science be a requirement for high school graduation.

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Writing Tinkering toward Utopia

To understand tax-supported schooling in the third decade of the 21st century, an awareness of the history of school reform is essential. That many teachers, school administrators, and professors in schools of education have read Tinkering suggests that others may share that opinion. If so, I would find that personally gratifying as I believe my co-author would have.

David Tyack and I began writing this book in the late 1980s; it was published in 1995. Nearly three decades later, Tinkering’s subject matter, if sales are a indicator, remains relevant to public schools in 2022.

Every book has a back-story. Here is Tinkering‘s.

After leaving the Arlington (VA) superintendency in 1981, I spent two decades at Stanford University teaching and writing about school reform. Being a professor gave me the precious time to pursue questions about policy and practice that I lacked as a high school teacher and superintendent.

Why, for example, did the classrooms in which I sat in the late-1940s as a student seem so similar to the ones I observed in the 1980s as a superintendent? Why did some reforms stick and others disappear like bird-tracks in sand? Why so much drama about getting new technologies into classrooms? Why is it so hard to fundamentally improve schools with large numbers of poor children? Why do schools focus on test scores rather than other, larger civic and social goals? These policy-driven questions bugged me.

In returning to Stanford University as a professor, I easily resumed the connection I had forged with David Tyack when I was his student a decade earlier. Then it was an advisor/advisee relationship, but after my return to Stanford, it blossomed into an enduring collegiality and strong friendship.

We worked well together on both the personal and professional levels. He delved into the history of past policies designed to alter institutions and worked through their anticipated and unanticipated consequences. While I pursued a similar strategy, I was also keenly interested in tracing the varied histories of contemporary policies aimed at changing classroom practice. Our intellectual interests converged when we taught a course on the history of school reform between 1987-1997. In that team-taught course the ideas in Tinkering toward Utopia were developed, tried out on graduate students, refined, and eventually became the book.

The intellectual give-and-take between two historians of education who were excited about a subject, taught it together, and eventually collaborated in writing Tinkering, was a fascinating process. Here is what I remember of our working together on the book between 1989-1993:

Shortly after we developed and taught a graduate course called “The History of School Reform,” Tyack received a Spencer Foundation grant to do a history of school reform. By 1991, we had prepared a rough outline of the book and had divided up the chapters according to the research we had done and wanted to do on this book.

During this time Tyack and I met weekly for bike rides. We would drive to the base of Kings Mountain Road in the village of Woodside, park the car, and bike up 5.5 miles to Skyline Drive. Usually, it would take us an hour and a half, including water breaks, to do the climbing and about a half-hour for the descent to the parking lot and car.

During those 90-odd minutes of climbing Kings Mountain we talked through particular chapters, mentioning sources to use, and noting the perspectives of other historians of education. As we climbed to Skyline, there was much heavy breathing, numerous breaks, and other occasions to talk as we pedaled upward. The ride down was fast but we continued to talk as we rode down the mountain with brakes squealing.

On the way home, in the car we would continue the discussions of different points in a chapter, particularly sources that each of us should look into. After I got home, I drafted a memo of the key ideas we had discussed, what views we had expressed, sources we mentioned, and any interpretations that had molded our give-and-take during the bike ride. I sent the memo to Tyack and within a day, he would amend, add, and occasionally delete points. Then I would type up the final copy of the memo on a chapter that would become a guide to each of us working on those sections that we had agreed to do. We mapped out the entire book on those bike rides. Harvard University Press published Tinkering toward Utopia in 1995.

Collaborating with David Tyack on this book made research and teaching come together seamlessly for two scholars while forging even more closely a deep and lasting friendship that we enjoyed for over three decades. David Tyack died in 2016.


*For those readers unfamiliar with Tinkering toward Utopia the following reviews may help in getting a sense of the book. See here, here, here, and here.

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Pass or Fail Jorge? A Teacher’s Dilemma

Today, she must tell the principal who has to be held back. What should she do with Jorge?

Jorge is a year older than everyone else in her fourth grade class; he had been held back once. In reading and math he is still at least a year below grade level but he has improved a lot in each subject. He does his homework turning in papers often filled with smudges and wrong answers. In class, he raises his hand to answer questions, occasionally getting the right answer. He never stops trying. He is the most anxious-to-please eleven year-old the teacher has ever had. But he is at the bottom of the class academically.

Sometimes Jorge would get so frustrated with a lesson that he would get into fights. Once, he was suspended for talking back to the teacher. Yet she remembers how Jorge, speaking Spanish to a newly arrived Mexican boy, taught him to play kickball. No one else had done that. She recalls how he would gracefully settle arguments between classmates and figure out elegant solutions to problems the class was having with other fourth graders during recess. But none of these talents had raised his low test scores.

What should she do with Jorge?

Failing him simply on the basis of below-grade level work in reading and math might satisfy the principal and superintendent in the small district that she holds her students to academic standards. Both administrators constantly tout high academic standards to repair our country’s economic health. Yet it is easy to talk about rigorous standards in the abstract but hard when Jorge is sitting ten feet away from you and obviously intent upon finishing long division problems you assigned.

Does flunking Jorge help maintain academic standards? Will he become an example to other students to work harder out of fear of repeating a grade?

The teacher then asked herself what would it mean to Jorge to repeat the fourth grade. Would this help Jorge learn to read better? All of his friends would be in fifth grade and he would be with classmates two or more years younger than him. Would he feel even dumber than he says he feels now when he fails a test? The teacher knows that those who yell loudest about the importance of academic standards seldom worry about how repeated failures corrodes the spirit of a child.

Would promoting him be any better? Fifth grade reading and math are even more demanding than fourth grade work. Jorge would simply fall further behind. Yes, he would be with his friends and he won’t be the tallest in the class anymore but he would need so much help just to stay even with his classmates. But the district has cut back on reading and math specialists services so there is no additional help for Jorge.

Jorge’s teacher is faced with the persisting dilemma built into the DNA of today’s schools: annual promotion or retention. Sure, teachers want students to reach district standards. Yet these same teachers know from experience that flunking a student seldom helps him (more boys than girls get retained in grade) do well in school in subsequent years. Research supports practitioner wisdom.

Holding back children in the early grades often leads to increased absenteeism, troublesome behavior in later grades, and eventually dropping out. If the purpose of retention-in-grade is to help students improve academically, researchers have found few such benefits.

But such research findings mean little to many superintendents and principals: social promotion, they say, will produce unskilled graduates unable to get into college or get jobs. Schools must separate achievers from non-achievers. If students do not perform academically, fail them.

Is there no other way out of this dilemma?

Some schools have gotten around this bind facing Jorge’s teacher by grouping children by age rather than grade. Instead of kindergarten, first and second grades, a primary unit of five-to-eight year olds gives students time to catch up on their academic and social skills over a three-year period rather than forcing a yearly promotion decision. Such faculties know what every decent gardener knows: all begonias don’t grow at the same rate. Some need more time and care to flourish.

Still students move from elementary to middle school and then on to high school. What to do with students still below district academic standards? Some school districts provide direct help students not yet ready for the next level of schooling. Other districts ungrade upper-level units. They believe that it is not only intelligence but also maturation and student effort that count in getting students to catch up with peers..

But Jorge is in a district that doesn’t have such ungraded units and continues to cut back on services. His teacher still faces the dilemma. She knows in her heart that Jorge has fine personal qualities that might shrivel were he to repeat the grade. Yet the boy is far behind academically. With a shrug of helplessness, the teacher puts a check in the column marked “retain” next to Jorge’s name.


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Whatever Happened to Programmed Learning?

As the above photos suggest, “programmed learning” (or “programmed instruction”) made a huge splash in media during the 1950s and 1960s.* It was an innovation that grabbed policymakers and tech-driven school reformers. Yet by the 1970s, it had largely disappeared from the rhetoric of school reformers. Then in the 1990s with the installation of computer labs and widespread student access to these devices, policymakers and tech-enthused school reformers resurrected “programmed learning.” With increased availability of desktop and laptop computers in schools, much drill-and-practice software used in schools leaned heavily on programmed learning techniques. Often called “computer-assisted instruction,” programmed learning became front-and-center. Although programmed learning goes by different names, the theories that drove it decades earlier remain alive and well in the software that many schools and individual teachers use for lessons. Here, then, is a curricular and instructional innovation that has zig-zagged through schools for over 70 years.

What was (and is) “programmed learning?”

Programmed learning materials are usually pieces of software aimed at instructing students to digest certain content and skills. In many instances, prior to using the software, students are given a pre-test to determine how much they already know about, say, the American Revolution; after completing the pre-test, students work their way through the programmed learning software on the same topic. Drawn from textbooks or other source adapted to computers, the learning program presents new content and skills in a logical, step-by-step sequence. The learning program is broken down into slivers of knowledge or steps. After users complete each step, they are given questions to test their comprehension. After entering answers, students are then immediately given the correct answer on the screen. This means that students know swiftly how they fared on questions and whether they have learned the prescribed material.

Here is an example of a page in a linear programmed instruction book aimed at teaching English grammar (Joseph Blumenthal (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1962).

Driven by psychological theories of positive reinforcement, that is, a focus on rewarding students for doing a classroom task well (e.g., gold star on homework; letting students who aced an exam skip a homework assignment) and following classroom rules for behavior (e.g., scheduling a classroom party for a month), programmed learning rewarded students immediately by revealing correct answers to questions. Teacher-made versions of programmed learning have become ubiquitous in elementary and secondary classroom worksheets that teachers use weekly in all academic subjects.

Teachers use worksheets for drill-and-practice in knowledge that students have covered. Students complete these worksheets during the lesson or as homework. Many teachers create their own worksheets while just as many buy commercially produced ones that fit the content and skills they are teaching. Most worksheets, however, lack the immediate feedback to students that programmed learning promised. If worksheets are done in class, teachers or small groups of students can determine whether answers were correct or not during the lesson. But more often than not, students’ worksheet answers have to wait until the teacher sees those answers or when teachers have students see the correct answers as part of the lesson. That separation in time between students answering questions and finding out which answers were incorrect undermines the immediate feedback promised in the theory and practice of programmed learning.

Here is an example of a math worksheet for a primary grade classroom;

Here is a worksheet for high school biology lesson on the brain:

By the 1970s and 1980s, programmed learning had become part of the kit bag of techniques that teachers could use in other highly hyped school reforms aimed at individualizing (or “personalizing”) instruction. For example, within the hype surrounding “competency based education” (CBE) and “computer-assisted instruction” (CAI) rested the guided drill and practice worksheets that earlier generations of teachers had students complete. Thus, with worksheets, teachers adapted a version of programmed learning that students filled in by hand or tapping away on computer keyboards.

And that is what happened to programmed learning.


*In 1928, psychologist Sidney Pressey created the first teaching machine using programmed learning. The dream of “teaching machines” has morphed into computer-assisted instruction.

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