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Teachers as Both the Problem and Solution to Improved Schooling: The Perpetual Paradox

Has anyone noticed that much of the blame pundits shower on teachers and unions for blocking school reform and tolerating low-performing students is usually followed by perky pay-for-performance plans, revising teacher evaluations, and other solutions wholly dependent upon teachers embracing those very changes? Framing teachers as both the problem and the solution is a tough conundrum to unravel. Teachers, however, are not the only ones to grapple with the paradox of being blamed for a problem and then be expected to turn around and solve the very same problem.


Consider medical care. Patients, insurance companies, and federal officials criticize physicians and hospitals for errors in practice and ignoring the accelerating cost of providing health care. Tough questions are asked: Which hospitals are best and worst for cardiac surgery or for treating children with cystic fibrosis? Why do doctors commit many errors (illegible handwriting on prescriptions, incomplete charts, etc.)? Should doctors get paid for how often they treat patients or how well they treat them (see here)?

In an era of rising health care costs, voter reluctance to increase taxes, holding doctors publicly and personally responsible for outcomes and containing costs have spurred market driven reforms that have swept over the practice of medicine heretofore immune to such debates. For-profit hospitals and private insurers compete for customers, magazines publish rankings of best U.S. hospitals, and insurance companies link doctors’ practices to their pay. Such instances of business-inspired reforms seek improved delivery of health care to Americans.

These market-driven solutions for health care problems—let’s call them reforms–have raised serious issues of trust between doctors and patients over the degree to which private insurance companies or physicians control medical practice. Deep concerns over doctor-patient relationships and practitioner autonomy get entangled in volatile policy debates over the quality and cost of national health care thus sharply spotlighting the contradiction of more than a million medical doctors and nearly 6,000 hospitals getting singled out as being a serious problem while looking to these very same people and institutions to remedy the health care crisis.

Public school teachers

Teachers have also been framed as both the problem and solution for low-performing students, particularly the achievement gap between white and minority students. Expanding parental choice through charter schools, advocating higher pay for administrators and teachers who can show student gains in test scores, promoting more competition among schools are only a few of the packaged ideas borrowed from the business community. This shared paradox among medical and school practitioners of being bashed and then expected to solve the problems for which they are bashed is like a virus that has infected two social institutions critical to the nation’s future. No vaccine, however, exists for this virus. And it is here to stay.

So what, if anything, can be done to ease the pinch of the paradox? Keep in mind that there is no solution to the paradox but it can be better managed.

Managing the paradox

1. Were national and state leaders to openly acknowledge that blaming teachers as a group for the ills of poor schooling and then expecting those very same awful teachers to turn around and work their hearts out to remedy those ills is simply goofy. Over 3.5 million teachers do the daily work of teaching; they teach reading, wipe noses, find lost backpacks, write recommendations, and grade tests. No online courses, charter schools, vouchers, home schooling, or any other star-crossed idea that entrepreneurial reformers design will replace them. So blaming and shaming teachers into working harder is no recipe for improved student learning. Surely, like any group of professionals, teachers have to be prodded and they have to be supported. Prodding they get a lot of; support is where these so-called leaders fall down badly.

2. De-escalating the virulent rhetoric about unions and incompetent teachers would be a reasonable first step. Lowering the noise level from 24/7 cable, the Internet, and talk radio is as hard to do as it is to get bipartisan support among Republicans and Democrats over raising the federal debt ceiling in a polarized political climate. Respect for teachers, never high in the U.S. to begin with, has unraveled even further with constant bashing. But hard as it is to ratchet down the noise level, it is not impossible. Calling out pundits and uninformed critics publicly will surely add to the cacophony but is an essential first step.

3. Move away from critics’ obsessive concentration on unions and the small number of incompetent teachers. Some readers may recall the ado over New York City’s “rubber room” where teachers accused of misconduct or with no school assignment whiled away the day reading newspapers, doing crosswords, and talking with one another. Far better, in my judgment, is a renewed focus on the structures that keep even mediocre teachers from improving. Such structures as classroom evaluation procedures, hit-and-miss professional development, daily load of students to teach, number of courses taught, and the age-graded school—all influence how teachers teach and what happens in classrooms.

None of these structural changes in of themselves, of course, can end the conundrum of blaming teachers for untoward student outcomes and then depending on them to fix the problem. But at the very least, focusing on these structures rather than blaming teachers would take a might important step toward a deeper understanding of the paradox of teachers as both the problem and solution to school improvement.



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Do No Harm: the Case of U.S. School Reform

My personal view is policymakers should be risk-averse when it comes to changing public school systems. To alter the institutional structure of U.S. schools radically without sufficient evidence that the ‘reforms’ would be successful is to put our children at risk … careful experimentation and evaluation should proceed on a limited basis before wide-scale institutional changes are introduced such as vouchers, magnet schools, and charter schools.

Few readers would ever guess that those words came from economist Alan Krueger in 2001. Krueger had analyzed huge databases on schooling in the U.S. responding often to both economic and educational policy questions with this sober and, in my judgment, wise opinion.

That advice from an economist who then was highly respected by elected officials and CEOs cautioned federal, state, and local policymakers to pump the policy brakes rather than recklessly speed down a crowded street; he wanted decision-makers to be “risk-averse.” He wanted proposed changes in schools to be determined by careful research and evaluation. He wanted school reform to do no harm to students.

Few contemporary educational policymakers, corporate leaders, state governors, U.S. presidents or even pundits counsel deliberateness or worry about negative fallout from reforms. They want schools to change course, meet the demands of the 21st century and, as New York Times columnist David Brooks put it recently:

“This moment of disruption [Covid-19 school closures] should be a moment of reinvention. It should be a moment when leaders rise up and say: Let’s get beyond stale debates over charters, vouchers, gender neutral bathrooms and the like. We’re going to rethink the nuts and bolts of how we teach in America.

The headline for Brooks’ op-ed was: “America Should Be in the Middle of a Schools Revolution.”

None of this policy chatter about wholesale school reform is new, of course. Scholars Milbrey McLaughlin and Richard Elmore over three decades ago called school reform “steady work.” While school-hating has gone in and out of fashion, risk-averse reform has been reviled as too little, too late and inconsequential. Calls for massive innovations and overhauling curriculum and classroom instruction even after Covid-19 rippled across the nation in the early 2020s.

Consider what a few corporate executives recently said schools should be doing.

Here’s a Vice-President at Sales Force:

To build a pipeline of strong early-career job seekers, K-12 schools should put systems in place to promote collaborative learning and communication, which will help students develop the necessary interpersonal skills that will help them succeed in the workforce.

A top executive at Southwest Airlines had this to say:

Problem solving requires teamwork, and the only way to learn teamwork is if you’re on a team. Almost every opportunity in life, especially in the working world, requires working with others. By students involving themselves in sports, projects, or school activities, they’ll hone these skills.

Over and over, advice from corporate executives is for schools to teach problem solving and teamwork. These are reasonable expectations, in my judgment, but the problem is that Americans expect their schools to do many other things beyond problem solving and teamwork. Schools not only are expected to make children and youth literate but build character, and graduate patriotic, college going Americans.

For nearly two centuries, Americans have debated which of these multiple goals should be primary. School reform has been pervasive and ongoing. It has become America’s business and has been since the first tax-supported public schools opened their doors in the mid-19th century.

For example, give Google the question: What should U.S. schools be doing? Such a question gets at the multiple goals Americans expect their taxes to pay for in schooling the nation’s young. When prompted, Google returned (May 2, 2023) over two billion results in a few seconds. Answers to this goal-centered question come from students, teachers, administrators, parents, CEOs and other business leaders, academics and taxpayers with no children in public schools. So there is no shortage of suggestions for school improvement among Americans.

Among avid reformers who seek transforming school policies and classroom practice, being risk averse, as Krueger counseled, is seen as honoring tradition–equivalent to doing nothing.

And that is a shame for few reformers can anticipate the paths major school reforms take once adopted. The Hippocratic oath charging doctors to do no harm applies just as well to educational policymakers and practitioners in adopting new policies and putting them into practice in America’s schools and classrooms.


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A Fairy Tale?

Once upon a time, there was much unemployment, poverty, and homelessness in the land. Leaders tried one thing after another to end these grim conditions. Nothing worked. In the midst of these bad times, however, a small group of educators, upset over what our youth were learning in high schools decided to take action.

Schools were dull places. Students listened to teachers, read books, and took exams. Schools were supposed to prepare students for life but much of what they studied they forgot after graduating. Worse yet, what they had learned in school did not prepare them to face the problems of life, think clearly, be creative, or fulfill their civic duties. Complaints to school officials got the same answer repeatedly: little could be done because college entrance requirements determined what courses students took in high school.

So to give high schools the freedom to try new ways of schooling in a democracy, a small band of Progressive reformers convinced the best universities to waive their admission requirements and accept graduates from high schools that designed new programs.

Dozens of schools joined the experiment. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students created new courses and ways of teaching teenagers to become active members of the community and still attend college. For eight years, these schools educated students and universities admitted their graduates. And then a war came and the experiment ended. After years passed, few could recall what these schools and colleges did.

A fairy tale? Nope.

Between 1933-1941, thirty high schools in the country and over 300 universities and colleges joined the experiment sponsored by the Progressive Education Association.

Called “The Eight Year Study,” each high school decided for itself what curricula, schedules, and class sizes would be. There were no college admission requirements or must-take tests. Old lesson plans were scrapped. One school sent classes into the West Virginia coal region to study unions. Science, history, art, and math were often combined in projects that students and teachers planned together.

Needless to say, there were stumbles also. A few principals blocked the experiment. Some school faculties divided into warring factions. And some district school boards dropped out of the Study.

While there was much variation among high schools, there were also common elements. Many of the large public high schools (of the 30, fifteen were private) created small schools within the larger one. Principals increased the authority of teachers to design and steer the program; teachers crossed departmental boundaries and created a core curriculum (math/science and English/social studies), set aside three hours a day for teams to work with groups of students, and planned weekly units with students.

What happened to these students when they attended college? To find an answer, evaluators established 1,475 pairs of college students, each consisting of a graduate from an experimental school and one graduate of another high school matched as closely as possible as to age, sex, race, social class, and academic performance. They then compared their performance in college.

Evaluators found that graduates of the thirty schools earned a slightly higher grade average and more academic honors than those who attended regular high school. Furthermore, the “guinea pigs,” as they were called, were more precise in their thinking, displayed more ingenuity in meeting new situations, and demonstrated an active interest in national and world issues than their matched counterpart.

What these startling results showed over 80years ago was that there was no one single best way of schooling teenagers. The fears that parents and taxpayers had about experimenting with high school courses, organization, and teaching proved hollow in “The Eight Year Study.”

The results of these studies appeared during World War II. The war effort swallowed up any further interest in experimenting with high school programs. Whatever the reasons, “The Eight Year Study” lapsed into the obscurity of scholarly footnotes. Later generations of reformers seldom inquired or cared about this large-scale, non-federally funded experiment that showed convincingly that schools, given the freedom to experiment, could produce graduates that not only did well academically in college but, far more important, displayed an active interest in civic affairs, were resourceful in handling new situations, and could think clearly.

So what does this 80 year old experiment say to us in the in the 21st century about school reform?

1. When engaged teachers, administrators, and students are given the freedom to experiment and the help to do it, they will come through.
2. There is no one best way of schooling youth.
3. Students can graduate high school who are academically engaged, involved in their communities, and thoughtful problem-solvers.
4. Standards of excellence that work in schools are not necessarily imposed from top-down but ones set and put into practice locally by adults and students.

Since the late-1980s, federal and state decision-makers have driven school reform. Policymakers set standards, test, and punish low performance. What “The Eight Year Study” demonstrated is that locals–districts, schools, and practitioners—have the expertise and can be trusted. When locals are trusted they can get engaged and produce results that still stagger us looking back over three-quarters of a century.

And that is no fairy tale.


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The “Leave No Pound Untouched” Act

Public schools have been drafted again and again to fight national problems (e.g., segregated schools, teenage pregnancy, cigarette smoking, drinking alcohol, and drug use). Courses have been added to the curriculum to combat these and many other national problems. Social beliefs that schools must be part of any solution is deeply embedded in the American psyche and schooling practices. Consider obesity.

What might policymakers do if they were dead-set in reducing the number of fat kids?

Imagine civic, business, and foundation leaders so worried about the social and individual costs of health problems that overweight children would face as adults that they wanted schools to fight a war on fat. Imagine, further, that these policy elites, riding the current moral crusade against fat children, wanted to solve the problem now. Would they follow Singapore?

Since the early 1990s, Singapore had operated an obesity-reduction program called “Trim and Fit.” School officials identified overweight young students and compelled them to join a “health club.” In these “clubs,” teachers instructed chubby students to run, jump rope, and do other exercises. They received “calorie cash” coupons for school meals that would not exceed the number of calories stamped on the ticket. Lunches were monitored to reduce soft drinks, French fries, and fast foods. Teachers measured students’ height, weight, and body mass monthly. The government awarded cash to schools that found new ways for students to shed pounds.

According to government records, these “health clubs” and incentives reduced the proportion of overweight students from 14 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2003. Serious drawbacks arose, however. The head of physical education at the elite Singapore Chinese Girls’ Primary School said that “to keep them in the club for a long time is bad for their self-esteem because there’s a stigma tied to it.”

In 2007, the government ended the program even after substanial reductions in overweight children, because policymakers–spurred by parents and educators–concluded that the psychological costs to “club” students of being bullied and teased unrelentingly outweighed (yes, a bad pun) program gains. Singaporean culture, centralized national authority, and a decided preference for social control nearly guarantee that this program would not fly in the U.S. So consider another possibility.

Now here is where I want readers to join me for a moment in an imaginary leap of schools fighting childhood obesity. Imagine that President Joe Biden signed the Leave No Pound Untouched Act, a variation of No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002, to prevent increased incidence of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other crippling diseases associated with obesity.

Yes, it is a huge leap in imagination but humor me.

The Act would give government officials the authority to use the Physical Fitness Test (it does exist) as a lever to reduce fatness. Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards would be set and, if met, schools would be identified as “fit and trim.” Those schools that failed to meet standards would be rated “unfit” and if those schools continued to fail, they would be closed. State, district, and school officials would make public all of the above information, particularly the poundage gap between trim and unfit schools.

In schools eager to meet standards, they would lengthen physical education classes. Principals and teachers would identify those students close to their expected body mass index (BMI) or just a few pounds overweight. These students would have the best chance to pass the national Physical Fitness Test. Extra physical education sessions would be scheduled for them to run laps on ball fields, practice body curls, push-ups, and pull-ups. All vending machines for candy, sugary sodas, and chips would vanish and new ones dispensing carrots, bananas, celery sticks, and sugarless candy would appear. Low-calorie, tasty lunches would be served daily.

Even were this implausible scenario of a moral crusade and federal law to occur in the U.S., the spread of obesity among children would continue unabated since—here’s the punchline—underlying causes of childhood obesity can just barely be attacked by schools for the six or so hours children and youth attend school. Those causes begin in the family and are pronounced by the time five year-olds enter kindergarten.

The historical record offers little confidence in federal or state intervention when it comes to obesity. Consider, for example, the lack of concerted federal action since the 2001 Surgeon General’s Call to Action on obesity. Squishy inaction underscores the inherent conflicts between food industry profits and federally-led campaigns promoting healthy eating.

Moreover, the hours children watch television, how little or how much money families have to spend on food, and a dozen other reasons anchored in social class, family interactions, and cultural norms encourage obesity. Schools, at best, are only a finger in a badly leaking dike.

Direct action focused on changing adult behavior similar to past anti-smoking campaigns would be needed, not indirect efforts such as schoolhouse lessons, providing nutritious lunches, and installing vending machines with non-sugary snacks. While surely helpful in concert with national ad campaigns, more muscular political action from the Surgeon General’s office, anti-obesity groups lobbying for state and federal legislation to tax high-calorie soft drinks, and banning fast food industry ads targeting minors would be some measures that might have a chance to stem the tide of fat spilling over the nation.

Imagining schools as front-line warriors in a war on fat–as has occurred in the past with other social issues, however, would only repeat the dismal history of foisting complex problems onto schools and substituting illusions for direct action.


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How Much Time Should Children Spend Watching Screens at Home?

I begin with the statement that, like teaching, there is no one best way of parenting. Good parenting comes in all sizes and colors.

Saying that, however, does little to help those parents who, surrounded by mind-altering noise hyping new technologies, face the persistent dilemma of deciding which high-tech devices they should allow their preschoolers to use. And once decided, how much time should young children use devices at home (preschoolers also watch screens with a teacher and aide in the room).

The value of having children handle devices and become technologically proficient competes with the value of active children playing and working with others and not passively watching television or playing the same game hours on end on gadgets. Values conflict. What devices and how much time to allow?

Boy and girl smile while playing video game on laptop.

Parents have three choices in managing the dilemma of how much screen time and high-tech devices should their children use at home and at school. Doing nothing and going with the flow–acceding to their son’s or daughter’s request for the newest device is what many parents do. A second option is to make deliberate choices based on parents’ values–rules for television watching, ditto for cell phones. A third choice is to decide on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, combinations of these choices get made as children get older and parents experience untoward events (e.g., unemployment, divorce, illness, death).

Parents of infants, toddlers, and young children must decide daily because of the array of screens that their children have access to as no other generation has ever had. Although I know this from reading articles and watching younger colleagues and friends raise their children, nonetheless, the facts of how much screen time young children spend with computers, television, and games still surprised me.

In 2011, a survey of parents reported that:

“[K]ids ages 2  through 5 watch more TV (including DVD and videos) than kids ages 6 through 11 do. And between the ages of 7 and 9, children shift to more interactive pastimes: 70% of 8-year-olds play video games, whereas less than half of 6-year-olds do…. Computers are accessed even more frequently with 85 % of parents reporting that their children use them. But the oldest medium we inquired about remains the favorite: 95% of 3-to-10 year-olds watch TV.”

In 2019, Common Sense Media found that 8- to 12-year-olds in the United States use screens for an average of 4 hours, 44 minutes a day, and 13- to 18-year-olds are on screens for an average of 7 hours, 22 minutes each day ( The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens , 2019 ). These numbers don’t count time using screens for schoolwork or homework.

What do professionals recommend?

Like parents, professional opinion can be arrayed along a continuum. At one end are those teachers (e.g., Waldorf educators) and scholars (e.g.,  Jane Healy) who advocate little exposure for infants, toddlers, and young children. The Alliance for Childhood, a group of educators and parents, for example, publishedFool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood” in 1999 (see researcher Doug Clements estimate of that publication– Critique Fool’s Gold).

At the other end of the professional continuum on technology are those school staffs who have yet to meet a high tech device they didn’t adore. They buy up iPads as if it were Halloween candy. And in the middle range are most early childhood educators who try to figure out what is best for infants, toddlers, and young children in a world where keeping up with changes in high-tech communication and information is nearly impossible.

Take the National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC)–a group of educators and parents committed to the intellectual, psychological, emotional, physical, and creative growth of children. They published a position statement on technology in 1996. In 2010, a draft of a new position paper was published for comment (4-29-2011-1 ). They, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, urge parents (and teachers) to be thoughtful and deliberate in the use of high-tech devices that are matched to the age and intellectual and psychological development of the child.

So where are we in helping parents with young children and early childhood professionals decide what to do in the midst of new technologies aimed at young children as toys and learning machines much less school professionals buying iPads for preschoolers?  Spread across a continuum are groups and individuals who question any use for toddlers to those who urge thoughtful, case-by-case use, to those who queue up to buy the latest learning gadget.

The good news is that there are choices that parents can make if they know what they value and calculate the tradeoffs in making decisions–actually negotiating compromises among themselves and with their children–on any one high-tech device; the bad news is that conflict-filled dilemmas in raising the young have no simple solutions; they can be only managed again and again.


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Cartoons about Teachers and Students Asking Questions during Lessons

Anyone who has taught elementary or secondary school students know that questions are a huge part of teaching. I include both student and teacher questions. From an English teacher asking a student to use the word “inescapable” in a sentence to the student asking: “May I go to the bathroom?” questions pervade classroom lessons.

But exactly how many questions do teachers ask? A two-decade old research article summarized research on teacher questioning.

Research has shown that teachers ask a high frequency of questions. In 1960, Floyd (1960) developed a study
with 40 elementary teachers and found that these teachers asked 93 percent of all classroom questions. Also during
the 60s, Schreiber (1967) found that fifth grade teachers asked about 64 questions each during 30-minute social
studies lessons. Later, Levin and Long (1981) conducted a review of effective teaching research and concluded that
teachers asked 300-400 questions per day. Cotton (1988) suggested that teachers spend half of the class time asking
questions. These numbers confirm the results obtained by Stevens in her precursor study about classroom
questioning conducted in 1912. This author also found that teachers dominated the verbal interaction in class, asking
in average 400 questions each day. Stevens (1912) concluded that 80% of the class time was spent with the teacher‟s
questions and the students‟ answers. In 1994, Graesser and Person (1994) found that the teacher‟s questions
corresponded to 96% of all questions raised in class. These authors also concluded that a teacher asks, in average, 69
questions per hour, what corresponds to 30000 questions per year! In 2002, Kerry reinforced these numbers, noting
that if teachers ask an average of 43.6 questions per hour, in an average career they are likely to ask about 2 million

So for this month, I have gathered a bunch of cartoons about teacher and student questions during lessons. Some are biting, some are funny, and some reveal the importance of asking questions. Enjoy!

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Classroom Assessment, Student Feedback, and Chatbots (Brent Dukor)

Brent Duckor, a former high school teacher at Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, currently serves as a teacher educator at San Jose State University. He is the author of several books on formative assessment.

I invited Brent to write a fuller response to a comment he made about a post written by Todd Finley about ways that teachers could use chatbots to help them teach.

Many people imagine that AI tech will change how they prepare to “do classroom assessment” and give feedback to students. There is lots of excitement at the moment around “time saving” devices and “smart” planning tools to make our lives easier.  In the era of chatbots, teachers may appreciate having a virtual assistant in the overcrowded, under resourced classroom. 

Students, of course, will appreciate the virtual study buddy too. AI will change how they “do classroom assessments” in ways we’ve only begun to imagine. AI will help our students save time as they increasingly learn “how to plow” through the plethora of homework assignments, lesson prompts, and unit tasks we throw at them six periods a day. Art, music, history, English, math, science, ethnic studies, even physical education projects will benefit from finding other peoples’ “solutions” to the work. AI will be a time saver indeed as students learn to show us responses from their “new and improved” study buddies.

The question is: What do these “innovative” and “smart” technologies have to do with the real, authentic work of teaching and learning centered on feedback? Feedback after all is dialogic. It has to do with teachers (and students!) sizing up gaps in current performances as it relates to future ones. 

Feedback relies on exchanges of information that aren’t faked or worse, plagiarized by a machine that gives us the illusion of “student first draft” responses. Learning is about generating first drafts and rethinking, revisiting, and revising during the learning cycle. Rich feedback is oral, written, and even nonverbal and it can’t be reduced to an algorithm’s response, partly because that response isn’t ours. It lives in a one dimensional plane. It amounts to handing in work to “just get it done.”

We know a lot about the power of feedback in our classrooms (Hattie & Clarke, 2019). There is more to learn, for sure.
But we go too far when we offer up “possibilities” for using AI to save time with building assessment tools (or using machines to respond to them).

We’ve known for decades that generating rubrics, answer keys, tests, quizzes, and assessment task descriptions are necessary but not sufficient for generating exchanges of information focused on “next steps” during the learning cycle. Yes, chatbots can give us tools and answers but not much is gained in this brave new world. Unless you believe feedback is the same as generating or retrieving the “correct answer” from a machine.

If only that fanciful thought and tech-driven panacea were correct. In the meantime, here’s another perspective on feedback for all.


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Did the Federal Government Ever Train Public School Teachers?

The answer is yes. Beginning in the mid-1960s through the 1970s, the National Teacher Corps (NTC) was federally funded, and through the nation’s universities, trained thousands of teachers for urban and rural schools serving largely poor and minority children. Here is that story.

What was the NTC and when did it begin?

In the mid-1960s, I taught in and later directed a federally-funded teacher training program located in Washington, D.C. at the Grimke elementary school, Banneker and Garnet-Patterson Junior High Schools, and Cardozo High School. The Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, as it was then called, prepared returned Peace Corps Volunteers to teach in urban schools. The paid “interns,” as they were called, taught for half-days under the supervision of master teachers, took university seminars on-site after-school, developed curriculum materials and worked in the community. At the end of the year the “interns”  were certified to teach in the District of Columbia and were on their way to earning a master’s degree in their field through two local universities (see here and here). Three-quarters of the intern teachers we trained at that time became full-time teachers in the District of Columbia schools and other districts.

Within a few years, this district-based model of training new teachers became the poster-child for a federal initiative to put teachers into high-poverty urban and rural schools. Amid President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” education figured large–through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965); it remains a mainstay of funding schools enrolling poor children in 2023. The belief then that minority and low-income students needed committed, smart, and well-trained teachers led Senator Gaylord Nelson from Idaho (his administrative aide’s wife taught at Cardozo High School) and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy to seize the Cardozo Project model of training teachers and expand it into a national program within the Higher Education Act of 1966 (see j-1748-5959-2009-00212-x-3.pdf).

The National Teacher Corps legislation adopted the model but rather than fund districts, federal officials would funnel monies to universities that collaborated with nearby school districts which took responsibility for awarding degrees (see here and here).

What problems did the NTC seek to solve?

How to get more and better teachers into low-income, largely minority, low-performing schools?

In the mid-1960s, the high turnover of experienced teachers and absence of well-trained teachers in largely minority and poor schools had become obvious. The belief driving policymakers and donors was that young, committed, and better trained teachers working in both schools and the community could raise students academic achievement levels, reduce high dropout rates, and increase the number of high school graduates going to college. Thus, the NTC would help solve the problem of insufficient numbers of “good” teachers by recruiting, training, and supporting teachers committed to better teaching and learning in largely low-performing urban schools.

Another problem was that universities time and again were turning out unequipped novices to deal with urban teaching and getting minority children and youth to academically achieve. Alternative ways of attracting and educating a more racial and ethnically diverse crowd of newcomers to the profession by having school-based training linked to university seminars (also held on site) attracted both donors and federal funds in these years. Solving the problem of inadequate university-based teacher education was part of the agenda of NTC (see 0042085911400340.pdf)

What did NTC do in training teachers?

Between 1968-1970, the federal government awarded National Teacher Corps grants to many universities. One went to the University of Southern California collaborating with seven school districts in the metropolitan Los Angeles area with large enrollments of Black and Mexican-American students. According to the federal General Accounting Office report on the project, of the 88 intern teachers that completed the program, 72 (82 percent) were teaching or had contracts to teach in predominately minority schools.

The GAO report (1971), described the USC program in the following manner.

Corps members were organized in teams, each consisting of a team leader and four to seven interns. In most cases the entire team was assigned to a particular school. In some instances the team members were assigned to more than one school,

Team leaders were responsible for the supervision of interns constituting the team. Their duties included acting as liaisons between the interns and school and university officials; coordinating and planning with the interns their individual and team activities; demonstrating teaching techniques to interns; and evaluating the performance of interns.

Program coordinators in two of the participating school districts informed us that team leaders had worked diligently in performing these functions and generally had been effectively utilized. The program coordinator in another school district stated that the performance of three team leaders was inconsistent in that they had been effective in some areas of responsibility but not in others. He stated that the fourth team leader assigned to his district had utilized his time effectively in meeting all the responsibilities of a team leader and had initiated a program designed to identify Mexican-American students who appeared to have college potential and to encourage them to develop their academic capabilities.

Interns generally worked at the schools to which they had been assigned for 3 days a week during their first year of internship and for 4 days a week during their second year. The interns spent 2 days a week attending classes at USC during the first year and 1 day a week during the second year, Interns also devoted varying portions of their time after school and in the evenings to participating in education-related community activities.

They generally started by observing classroom instruction during the earlier phases of their assignments to schools and later served as assistants to regular teacher. During their 2 years of internship, they sometimes were assigned to work in cooperation with more than one regular teacher and taught one or more subjects to children in various grade levels.

While assigned to regular teachers, the interns worked with individual, or small groups of, children…. In many cases such instruction was given to children who had language difficulties or disciplinary problems or who were slow learners. In schools in five districts, the interns either introduced or expanded the teaching of English as a second language or the teaching of regular classwork in Spanish to children who spoke little English or who came from homes where English was not the predominant language.

No doubt that there much variation in these NYC programs across the nation creating difficulties in evaluating the entire NTC (see evaluations of NTC here and here).

What happened to the NTC?

With the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, one of his first bills sent to Congress consolidated federal grants for particular programs (including the National Teacher Corps) into bloc grants sent to states, letting each state determine which programs would be funded. With the move to bloc grants, NTC largely disappeared except for occasional states that continued the program.

Since then a few efforts to create a national cadre of well-trained teachers given close and sustained support in their internships and then being licensed and hired by urban districts have surfaced. But none have gained federal support for the past four decades.

For some researchers and policymakers, the appearance of Teach for America in the early 1990s, an organization that identifies liberal arts college and university graduates who want to teach, briefly trains them, and finds slots for them in big city school systems has been compared to the National Teacher Corps (see here and here).

While TFA does received federal funds through AmeriCorps, its training regime was then only a eight week-summer program followed by minimal supervision of their first and second years (TFA-ers made a two-year commitment). Other criticisms of TFA insofar as producing “skilled” teachers and improving instruction as measured by student test scores are quite mixed, often coming from former TFAers (see here and here)

In my judgment, TFA is a weak facsimile of NTC. While occasional voices for creating another NTC have been heard, nothing substantial has materialized for the past half-century.

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Whatever Happened to Teacher-Led Public Schools?

Groups of teachers founding charters, taking over failing schools, or simply creating different ones is a smart idea.

Searching the Internet, I have found a tiny number of teacher-led schools (often with no principal) that have been created over the past few decades. Los Angeles, Detroit, and other districts have authorized teacher-run schools yet there are still less than 100 across the nation (of about 100,000 public schools).

It is worthwhile innovation that needs much support to spread since teachers can design, implement, and administer such schools as well as if not better than policymakers hiring  principals and high-paid consultants.

After all, one doesn’t have to know too much history of U.S. public schools to remember that teachers ran their own schools when rural one-room schoolhouses prevailed a century and a half ago and before principals (remember the first school leaders were called principal-teachers). Nonetheless, there are some facts that cannot be ignored.

First, some teacher-run schools will fly and some will crash.

Second, as these teacher-run schools get established, they will be a small (but nonetheless, important )contribution to the necessary mix of schools needed to improve school districts.

New schools including charters come from state and local policymakers who decide that such schools can alter what usually occurs in traditional schools. Such teacher-led schools, politicians and policymakers believe, can mobilize many teachers (Teach for America graduates, deeply committed novices and a chunk of mid-career professionals) and parents to form democratic cooperatives (mostly charters) to run schools. But such groupings fall far short of a majority of teachers–there are over 3.5 million in the U.S.–since most teachers went into teaching to teach in classrooms, not to organize and govern schools.

So what? Sure, some teacher-run schools will flop. Designing new schools and running them is as complicated and risky as starting any new venture as edupreneurs say repeatedly. Failure is common. And, sure, most teachers didn’t enter teaching to run schools but to teach children and youth. So these ventures, like homeschooling and charters, will always be a tiny fraction of public schools.

The over-riding reason for having teachers organize and govern schools, especially in urban and rural poor districts, is that having a mix of different kinds of schools (charter organizations like KIPP, Green Dot, Summit, Aspire, along with hybrids of high-tech and traditional classrooms, magnets, community schools that offer wraparound services, etc.) offer diverse ways of organizing and governing schools with possibilities for teaching children differently and well.

Offering a menu of choices is sensible when you do not know for sure which ways are best to get minority and  low-income children to learn, achieve, and succeed in school. And, the fact remains that we do not know how to school, much less educate, the diversity of low-income children that enter public schools. Moreover, no researcher I know can answer the question whether teacher-run schools outperform academically regular schools in districts where such unique schools exist.

A menu of choices is also democratic when different definitions of “good” schools compete with one another. To many parents and policymakers, a traditional school–a “real” one–is “good.” That is, students in each grade determined by age, one credentialed teacher in a classroom, students sitting in rows of desks, same state curriculum, bells ending lessons,  textbooks, homework, testing, and after school clubs and sports.

To other parents, a teacher-led school that organizes itself around multi-age groups with similar performance levels who work on student-generated projects that probe deeply into content and skills can be “good.”  And even other parents and teachers judge schools to be “good” that seek social justice by problem-solving and working closely with community groups. There are even other parents who see cyber-schools as “good” because each student can work at his or her pace and meet performance objectives.

Both sensible and democratic, the creation of alternative schools can (and has) become experimental laboratories for the vast majority of public schools to borrow and implement new ideas. Teacher-led schools add to the menu of potential “good” schools in the two-century old decentralized system of U.S. public schools.


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School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct

School reformers now (and in the past) are (and have been) divided among themselves. Federal, state, and local authorities eager to improve schools often seek similar goals. They want students who are literate, can think clearly, have requisite skills and knowledge to start a career,  and  contribute to the larger community. Yet these well-intentioned reformers constantly split over which of these goals should have precedence and especially, they divide over how to achieve the goals they prize. All of those splits make the business of teacher and school improvement dicey.

That reformers fight among themselves, of course, is hardly new. For generations, educational conservatives have fought progressives over the purposes of schooling, what content and skills had to be taught, how teachers should teach, and how students should learn. Whether it was the 1890s, 1960s, or the 1980s, ruptures between school reformers occurred again and again (see here, here, and here).

And so it is today over how best to educate poor white and minority children, whether Common Core state standards are a boon or bane, and do charter schools help or hinder children’s and youth’s academic achievement.

Yet whether school reforms come from the political right, center, or left championing  particular changes often leads the most well-intentioned of reformers to commit mistakes again and again. It is those repeated mistakes, generation after generation, that have been so obvious to historians, lay observers, and critics that I turn to now.

Historian and sociologist Charles Payne included in his book, So Much Reform, So Little Change (2008) a “School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct.” He did so because he and other researchers ( I include myself), have had direct experience with each item in the Pledge. This device of a constructed Pledge seeks to alert wannabe reformers and active federal, state, and local policymakers who authorize changes to think first, consider what else has been done, and not ignore the past:

Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct

I will not overpromise.

I will not disrespect teachers.

I will not do anything behind the principal’s back.

I will not take part in any partisan or personal feuds.

I will not equate disagreement with “resistance.”

I will not put down other programs.

I will not expect change overnight.

I will take time to study the history of reforms similar to mine.

I will not try to scale up prematurely.

If I am not in the field myself, I will take seriously what field workers tell me.

I will give school people realistic estimates of how much time and money it takes to implement my program.

U.S. and international readers who have either participated in reforms or been the target of planned changes will nod their heads in agreement with many of these statements. Each reader may have his or her favorite part of the Pledge backed-up with a story to illustrate the folly reform-driven policymakers engage in when they plow ahead in mandating classroom changes.

While I agree with each item of the Pledge (and can offer additions as well), a few favorites are:

I will not disrespect teachers.

I will take time to study the history of reforms similar to mine.

If I am not in the field myself, I will take seriously what field workers tell me.

Much of my professional life as a practitioner and scholar has been devoted to teaching, writing, and researching  how policies get translated (or not) into classroom practice. And as well I have written about the many errors and miscalculations that policymakers made in formulating, adopting, and putting into practice the reform du jour.

If anything, I have focused a great deal on the importance of teacher participation in making and implementing policy aimed at classroom curriculum and teaching practices. David Tyack and I have written in Tinkering toward Utopia (1995) about the crucial importance of teachers being seriously involved in thinking through and adapting school and classroom reforms. We have argued that policymakers, past and present, too often have ignored what teachers think and do. They have used a top-down, outside-in strategy to improve teaching and learning. Tyack and I have advocated an inside-out strategy to school reform where policymakers go well beyond token representation of teachers be they state curriculum standards, buying and deploying new technologies, or restructuring low performing schools.

Listening and working with teachers to create and implement changes in classrooms will hardly rid the nation of current struggles between conservatives and progressives over the degree to which public schools should serve the nation’s economic interests. Those battles, nay, even wars, mirror the deeper conflicts, past and present, over the purposes schools serve in a capitalist-driven democracy.

In these wars, the voices and experiences of teachers have been largely ignored over the past four decades (recall the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). An outside-in strategy to make public schools an arm of the economy has dominated policymaker thinking. To make lasting changes in teaching and learning, reform-driven policymakers have to figure out an inside-out strategy where teachers, the very people who put policy into practice, are working allies, not uninvolved enemies.


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