Scaling Up “Successful” Reforms (Part 1)

Recently a journalist contacted me to discuss the closure of a Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis after five years and the jeopardy of the charter network’s expansion from its original Yuma (AZ) location (see here and here; YouTube marketing video here).

We talked about the historic difficulties of “scaling up” innovations in public schools. I offered some examples of how hard it is to take a “successful” innovation and grow it quickly elsewhere in the name of efficiency (economies of scale) and effectiveness (to help more children and youth). In many instances, pressure to “scale up” from pilot projects to networks of schools seeded in different locations came from ambitious school officials, impatient donors, and entrepreneurial investors. Too often they overlooked the common teacher practice of adapting an innovation to the specific setting, a practice that is as old as teaching itself. Classroom adaptations, of course, alter the innovation.

After we got off the phone I recalled other innovations over the past 60 years that tried to “scale up” from pilot projects. Many stumbled in their expansion, especially those aimed at altering how teachers traditionally teach, for  reasons that contemporary reformers might heed before thinking big.

One that came to mind was the Higher Horizons Project in New York City between the late-1950s through the mid-1960s.

A 1964 report summarized the program’s origin in a pilot junior high school and then its rapid expansion to scores of other city schools.

Higher Horizons originated as a program to uncover latent ability among culturally deprived children and to provide the gifted children with remedial instruction and “enrichment” experiences, such as trips to art galleries, concerts, and the theater. The ultimate object was to lift the aspirations of gifted youngsters from the slums by encouraging them to believe in their ability to advance their station in life through education. Success of the experiment is indicated by the fact that a relatively large percentage of the participating pupils have completed high school and gone on to college.

The program has now been opened to any child who can benefit from it, whether or not he has more than average ability. Each school is free to choose any part of Higher Horizons that fits the particular needs of its students. In general, the program provides extra teachers or “curriculum assistants,” remedial classes (especially in arithmetic and reading), activities that draw parents into closer relationships with the schools, and field trips and other excursions for cultural enrichment.

In “scaling up” New York City school officials extended the mission of the program to nearly all students responding, in part, politically to the growing civil rights movement in the city protesting segregated schools and funding inequities.  In broadening the program to many more schools and permitting schools to pick and choose pieces of the innovation, district officials spent little time or attention upon school-site implementation or how teachers taught. Moreover, they provided less money and staffing to newly-labeled Higher Horizon schools than in the pilot junior high school. Subsequent evaluations of the scaled-up program showed little to no gains in academic achievement or school improvement (see here and here).

What New York City officials did in the 1960s to “scale up” a promising demonstration program and spread it to many other schools to increase both teacher and school efficiency and effectiveness has occurred many times over the past half-century and continues to exist in 2017.

Consider, for example, Rocketship charter schools, a network that began in 2005 in one K-5 San Jose elementary school enrolling mostly poor Latino students. Co-founder John Danner, who had made his wealth in selling a Silicon Valley start up, became a middle school teacher and then afterwards established a cluster of schools, using mostly Teach for America newcomers. The idea was to alter dramatically how elementary schools are structured and, at the same time, use online lessons in reading and math. The school divided children’s time between a large chunk of time sitting in cubicles–the “Learning Lab”–doing online lessons supervised by teacher aides and another chunk of the school day in classrooms with teachers doing regular lessons (see here  and here,). In accepting the prestigious McNulty Prize in 2010, Danner said:

Today, we have three flourishing schools in San Jose, California; in just five years, we intend to increase that number to 30 schools, and in 10 years, we will have built out a national network of hundreds of successful schools.

Danner left Rocketship in 2013 when there were seven schools in the San Jose area, a school in Milwaukee, and plans for a school in Nashville. By that time, Rocketship had secured approval to open 30 schools in Santa Clara County in five years.

In 2017, however, there are 14 Rocketship schools in the Bay Area, Milwaukee, and Nashville including one that opened last year in Washington, D.C.

Going to the scale that the co-founders of the charter network sought has been an arduous process marked by program shifts, slow growth, and the inevitable stumbles that accompany expansion of programs aiming to alter school structure and traditional teaching.

Which brings me back to the journalist’s question about the Carpe Diem charter that closed in Indianapolis. Part 2 of this post analyzes why “scaling up” is so hard to do.

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Cartoons on Teaching English

Over the years, I have run cartoons on teaching different subjects from math, science to social studies. This collection of cartoons looks at the teaching  of English in K-12 schools (and teaching in general) and its effects on students, pupils, or whatever word you want to describe the young who must attend school. Enjoy!



































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“The Fart-Free Classroom” (Jerry Heverly)


After the previous post on the teachers being practical politicians, Jerry Heverly commented on it and sent along a post he had written illustrating the inexorable dependence of teachers upon their students and the inherent dilemmas teachers face in exerting power, fostering relationships with students and managing their behavior. In effect, teachers have to engage in  practical politics by working out with students compromises to the dilemmas they face in order to get students to learn.

Heverly granted me permission to use this post. He is a veteran San Leandro High School English teacher and written extensively about his experiences teaching over the years. This post appeared March 28, 2012.


“Mr. Heverly, you can’t tell somebody not to fart!”

I was trying to get my students to read, something I struggle with every day.

“It’s like a natural thing. You can’t stop it. People can die from that.”

This was “Sustained Silent Reading”, basically a time for my students to pick a book or magazine and read.

I try very hard to get my students to like reading. My room is lined on two sides with books I’ve accumulated.  My bookcases are a kaleidoscope of colors. I have novels by Jack London, picture books of African-American history, a history of football, teen romances; anything I can find that might appeal to a 15 year old.

I was trying to keep the room quiet. It wasn’t working.

It’s a tight rope I walk every day. If I want a quiet, organized room I must devise rules and enforce them. But therein lies the rub.

“No food or drink in the classroom.”

“Wear your pants over your underwear.”

“Don’t throw things in class.”

“Don’t use profanity in the classroom.”

“Don’t use anti-gay slurs.”

“Keep your hands to yourself.”

“No paper airplanes.” Etc., etc. etc.

And, yes, no intentional farting.

To get through the day I must “manage” my students’ behavior. It’s the crucible of most teachers. Books are written about it. Teachers are evaluated based largely on how–or whether–they do it.

To outsiders or to those rare teachers with overpowering personalities it seems obvious; adults are there to be in charge, kids are there to obey.

But there’s a fundamental contradiction in the process that doesn’t get acknowledged enough. To teach my students I must have a good relationship with them. I must be a combination of entertainer, coach, father-figure, and guru.

Yet every time a kid violates a rule I must cast off those other roles and become a cop. And each time I police their behavior I make those other roles increasingly unbelievable.

If the stars align and most of my students are quietly working on whatever the day’s tasks are, I can stay in character as Mr. Rogers.

But the rules of school say that students must be tracked; good kids in one room, fractious kids in another room. And in any class of disaffected teens there will be some kids who hate quiet and orderliness. They crave attention; they resent the teacher’s power.

Which means someone will challenge those rules.

It makes my day seem like the navigating of a ship on a rough sea. If I punish a behavior I anger at least one student (and generally more than one, since that student has friends). That anger leads to more bad behavior and more punishments. Act as cop too much and you can permanently and irretrievably alienate 35 students. Do that too little and you can’t expect learning to happen.

I want my classroom to be a safe, amusing, interesting, serious place. To make that happen I now realize I must face the fact that each day is a new negotiation with 160 individual personalities. It’s not an easy thing to face.



Filed under how teachers teach

Teachers as Practical Politicians

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

I do need to explain that in 2017 for teachers to survive and thrive in their classrooms, they have to be practicing politicians.

Historical context for teachers acting politically

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

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

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

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

Teachers as classroom politicians

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

But it is politicking, whatever you call it.

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

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

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

To motivate students who had to be in class to learn and to gain their compliance and cooperation, for teachers then (as they are now) were dependent upon students for their own classroom success, early  19th century teachers developed systems of rewards and penalties (e.g., to divvy out to students for “good” work and behavior as she saw fit and to use canes, paddles, and slaps).

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

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

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

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

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



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Managing Crowds: ClassDojo (Part 2)

ClassDojo is a recently-developed software platform (2011) that, according to the founders of the company, is used in 90 percent of schools in the U.S (see here). In the past five years, however, ClassDojo has become much more than a free digital tool to motivate students and manage classroom behavior. It is a platform that allows teachers to communicate with parents by posting photos and letting parents comment on what they see; students can also post photos and videos about what they are doing in school. With parent and student communication integrated with the classroom behavior tool, a social media platform is emerging.

The company has expanded beyond the initial behavioral management software and moved into the business of producing videos on “mind set” and empathy starring “Mojo the friendly monster” to construct a communication network where students, parents and teachers are knitted together closely.

And the future? With its network of parents, teachers, and students, ClassDojo will grow into an enterprise marketing far more than a motivational and behavioral tool to manage classroom crowds.

As one ClassDojo board member said: “This company has a greater market share than Coke in the U.S.” The future, according to one of the founders of ClassDojo, is coming into view when he asked:

Your entertainment bundle is Netflix. Your music bundle is Spotify. What is your education bundle?

That may be the future that the company seeks in spurring a revenue flow—ClasDojo is free to teachers and the company is just beginning to earn revenue from its videos. But it is the original software program promising to help teachers manage student behavior so that they can smoothly, without distraction or student misbehavior, carry off a lesson in reading or math within the allotted time. And that is the focus for this post.

Managing a crowd of students with ClassDojo

Across the country, teachers have glommed onto the digital platform as a way of managing 20 to 30 students daily. Whatever admirers and critics say, ClassDojo is a management tool aimed at engaging students and keeping their academic and emotional behavior on track during class time. It is the most recent of tools (think of teachers using dunce caps, corporal punishment for inattention and bad behavior, public shaming, dispensing praise and handing out M & Ms for good behavior) that teachers have historically used to motivate and control the behavior of their charges during periods of instruction.

While there is much variation in how teachers use ClassDojo,  one reporter described  typical ways the software is used in two New York state classrooms right next to one another.

Greg Fletcher, an amiable third-grade teacher at Hunter Elementary School, in Hunter, N.Y., uses a variety of old-school techniques to get his young students to settle down to their studies in the morning.

But when those fail, he turns to ClassDojo, a popular — and, in some quarters, controversial — behavior tracking app that I wrote about in an article on Monday.

“Let’s all sit like third graders,” Mr. Fletcher said one morning last month when I visited his class. Among the 13 third graders, all but a couple of boys sat.

“Let’s all get Mona Lisa quiet,” Mr. Fletcher tried again.

Mr. Fletcher was standing in front of an interactive white board on which he had projected ClassDojo. The program allows teachers to create a virtual classroom, with the real name and a cartoon monster avatar for each student, and then select behaviors — like “following directions” or being “off task” — for which they can award points to students or deduct them.

Teachers use the system to keep a running tally of each student’s score and to communicate with parents about their child’s progress. They can adapt it to their own teaching styles — and the temperaments of their students.

Mr. Fletcher, for instance, publicly displays ClassDojo’s scoreboard in his classroom. That means not only do his students know the moment he awards or deducts a point, they can simultaneously see the scores of everyone in the class.

That morning, one student in a Star Wars T-shirt was having trouble settling down.

“If I see the back of your head,” Mr. Fletcher said firmly, “it’s going to cost you a point.”

The boy immediately sat.

“I always let them see what is happening,” Mr. Fletcher explained, “when it’s a positive or when it needs work.”

the reporter then went to the classroom next door.

….Sharon Sofranko, whose shares responsibility with Mr. Fletcher for teaching third grade, was also using ClassDojo — but in private mode. At the start of the school year, she said, she had publicly displayed the scoreboard in her classroom, but it distracted her third-graders.

“Some kids were upset,” she said. “Some kids would find that they had 20 points less than someone else.”

Now she walks around the classroom with the app open on her phone, privately awarding and subtracting points without her students being able to see their own scores or those of their classmates.

If she wants a particular student to pay more attention to, say, raising his or her hand before speaking, she takes that student aside for a private chat.

“I actually do think it’s fairly effective,” Ms. Sofranko said.

Here is what ClassDojo staff said after the above article, including criticism of the reward and penalty system embedded in the software, appeared:

Teachers use ClassDojo to give students positive feedback on skills like leadership, persistence, teamwork and curiosity, and then communicate that feedback with parents. Over 90% of the feedback teachers give to students on ClassDojo is positive. Teachers use ClassDojo to communicate success with parents, and to give students a chance to excel outside an increasingly narrow framework of academic assessment.

There has been much praise and criticism of this technological tool. Praise comes from teachers who use the software (see here and here) and parents (see here and here). Criticism comes from those concerned about student information being sold to marketeers or privacy being abridged (see here), teachers who despise the  system of rewards and penalties (see here), and academic pundits who have seldom entered classrooms to see ClassDojo being used (see here).

Much of the praise and criticism of the platform centers on the issue of teachers using extrinsic rewards (e.g., points) and penalties (e.g., deduction of points) to reinforce positive behavior rather than encouraging intrinsic motivation of students to learn. While I have read copiously (and understand as a former high school teacher) the contemporary back-and-forth argument about the values of both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards,  the debate skirts the deeper and central issue that explains why so many teachers across the country, without asking anyone’s permission, download the application.

What has unlocked so many classrooms to ClassDojo is that it can be a helpful modern tool to manage a crowd of children compelled to be in 900 square feet rooms for about six hours a day to learn what teachers have to teach while at the same time keeping parents informed of how their sons and daughters are doing in class. Too often some basic facts about tax-supported public schooling in the U.S. are overlooked.

Fact 1: K-12 students have to attend school.

Fact 2: Students move from grade-to-grade based upon teacher judgment, marks on tests, and report card grades.

Fact 3: Teachers depend upon students to obey directions. Without students’ motivation and cooperation with teachers, little learning occurs.

Fact 4: Over the last century, teachers have used mixes of rewards and penalties to gain student compliance and cooperation.

Classroom management, then, is an imperative deriving from compulsory attendance, the structure of the age-graded school, what the community expects students to learn, and teacher judgments about student performance.

Teachers need every tool they can grab to help them corral student energy and fight apathy, increase kindness and decrease mischievousness, encourage passion and discourage inertia. ClassDojo is the most recent incarnation of a tool that teachers believe will help them manage the crowd they see daily. In 2017 teaching and learning in an age-graded school remains a complex phenomenon that few experts acknowledge or too few teachers publicly comment on.





Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Managing Crowds: ClassDojo (Part 1)

There you stand trying to get the attention of your thirty-four students. Each one is so different from the others that it would take hours to list their physical, mental, emotional, and cultural differences. Yet, your job is to impart to this group a very specific body of information and skills in a prescribed amount of time using prescribed texts and materials — and you are to keep them quiet, attentive, and on-task after you give them an assignment. It is totally impossible to do hour-after-hour, day-after-day.

Further, you are to take into consideration that the students come from many different subcultures and families with very different philosophies of life, religious beliefs, and ethical-moral standards. In your presentations you must understand and anticipate these enormous differences and must be careful not to say anything that may contradict what their parents or subculture believes. Since, even though in each subculture, there are major differences in interpretation, you must not offend any of them. Of course, this is also impossible!

Every second of every minute of every hour you are faced constantly with split second decisions in what you say and do depending on what the student or students are really doing or not doing. You are expected to plan for and have alternative lessons for the majority and specific other lessons for the gifted and for the slower students. If you don’t you may see this on your evaluation….

You are expected not to tolerate the bored, the depressed, the apathetic, or the hostile student, but you are allowed to deal with them only in very limited ways. These often do not take into consideration the situation as it unfolds in which you have made the best possible response. Since those who will judge you weren’t there, they can easily second-guess you and see how you should have responded – from their limited view of it….

 The point is that you are dealing with an enormously complex situation in which there are many, quite legitimate, reasonable, and educationally sound ways to respond in these split second decisions.          Robert Rose (2011)


Yes, teaching is complex. Many factors deriving from the teacher, students and their families, school structures and demands come into play during every minute of a lesson. Robert Rose captures an important slice of those interacting factors shaping the act of teaching. One factor in particular accounts for the daily complexity of teaching: the organizational structure in which teachers work.

Consider first that both elementary and secondary school students have to attend an  age-graded school. Sitting in classrooms for up to thirteen years (K-12), children learn to live in a crowd where resources are limited (e.g., teacher praise and reproof), impulses have to be controlled (e.g., no yelling out, no hitting), and frequent delays (e.g., taking turns to speak in a discussion, waiting for teacher to recognize student) they see up close the asymetrical power between teacher and student displayed during a lesson. These are the are facts of classroom life. It is, as Philip Jackson put it a half-century ago, “The Daily Grind.”

Part of that Grind is the constant interactions between teachers and students. Elementary school teachers,for example, have 20-30 students in their classroom for five to six hours a day. They teach multiple and different lessons daily seeing students before, during, and after school. One researcher found, that elementary teachers engage in “as many as 1000 interpersonal exchanges each day.”

To survive and thrive in 900 square feet classrooms holding 20 to 30 students, teachers, then, must learn to manage crowds. To do so, teachers enact many roles in managing a class of children and youth who–keep in mind– must show up daily for lessons. Teachers, then, act as a “traffic cop, judge, supply sergeant,and timekeeper” to keep lessons on track covering content and skills consistent with district and state curriculum standards. Managing a crowd of 7 year-olds or 17 year-olds is the central task that every novice and mid-career teacher must master if student learning, however measured, is to occur. So managing a crowd well is both essential–in unmanageable or poorly managed classes, little to no learning occurs–and hard to do.  And that is where ClassDojo enters the picture.

Part 2 describes this digital tool intended to help teachers manage crowds.





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A Fairy Tale Reform

Once upon a time, there was much unemployment, poverty, and homelessness across our 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 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.

While there was much variation among the 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 70 years 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 half-century 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 those that are set and done locally by adults and students—not imposed from the top-down.

In 2017, federal and state decision-makers and policy elites drive school reform. They set standards, test students, and punish low performance. What “The Eight Year Study” demonstrated is that there are locals–districts, schools, and practitioners—who have the expertise and can be trusted. When locals are trusted they get engaged and produce results that still stagger us looking back nearly three-quarters of a century.


Filed under Reforming schools