How and Why I Research Exemplars of Technology Integration

For over 30 years, I have examined the adoption and use of computers in schools (Teachers and Machines, 1986; Oversold and Underused, 2001, Inside the Black Box, 2013). I looked at the policy hype, over-promising, and predictions accompanying new technologies in each decade. The question I asked was: what happens in schools and classrooms after the school board and superintendent adopt a policy of buying and deploying new technologies to improve schooling. In books, articles, and my blog, I moved back and forth between policy and practice.

In these decades, champions of new technologies in schools believed deeply that the traditional goals of tax-supported public schools (i.e., building citizens, preparing graduates for a labor market, and making whole human beings) could be achieved through new electronic devices. They believed that hardware and software would, if not transform, surely alter classroom teaching, improve students’ academic performance, and prepare graduates for an entirely different workplace than their parents faced.

In research during these decades, I described and analyzed computers in schools and classrooms across the U.S. I tracked how these high-tech advocates and donors were often disappointed in how little school and classroom practice changed in the direction they sought, the anemic results in student achievement, and uncertainties in getting the right jobs after graduation, given the claims accompanying these new technologies.

I also documented occasional instances where individual teachers thoroughly integrated laptops and tablets into their practice and moved from teacher- to student-centered classrooms. And there were scattered cases of schools and districts adopting technologies wholesale and slowly altering cultures and structures to improve how teachers teach and students learn. While isolated and infrequent, nonetheless, I found these occasional exemplars of classroom, school, and district integration as important, if not, puzzling in their isolation from mainstream practices. In doing all of this research I became intimately familiar with nearly all that had been written about computers in schools.

Literature on computers in schools

Researchers, policy advocates, practitioners have created an immense literature on access, use, and effectiveness of computers in schools and districts. It is, however, a literature, particularly on effectiveness, that is stacked heavily at the success and failure ends of a continuum. Success refers to studies, reports, and testimonials to how computers have improved teaching and learning. The clustering of such work forms a peak at one end of the literature continuum.

Failure refers to those works where studies and reports show disappointing results, even ineffectiveness in altering how teachers teach and helping students learn more, faster, and better. Such documents form a peak at the other end of the literature spectrum. I have contributed to this end of the continuum.

Academics call this clustering at either end of the spectrum, a “bimodal distribution” with the center of the continuum housing many fewer studies than either pole. In short, the spectrum has two peaks not the familiar normal distribution called the bell curve.

Consider success stories. Between the 1990s and early 2000s, researchers, commission reports, and reporters accumulated upbeat stories and studies of teachers and schools that used devices imaginatively and supposedly demonstrated small to moderate gains in test scores, closing of the achievement gap between minority and white students, increased student engagement, and other desired outcomes. These success stories, often clothed as scientific studies (e.g., heavily documented white papers produced by vendors; self-reports from practitioners), beat the drum for more use of new technologies in schools. Interspersed with these reports especially since the first decade of the 21st century are occasional independent researcher accounts of student and teacher use documenting new technologies’ effects on teachers and students.

At the other end of the continuum is the failure peak in the distribution of this literature. This peak consists of studies that show disappointing results in students’ academic achievement, little closing of the gap in test scores between whites and minorities, and the lack of substantial change in teaching methods during and after use of new technologies. Included are tales told by upset teachers, irritated parents, and disillusioned school board members who authorized technological expenditures.

Hugging the middle between the twin peaks on this continuum of school technology literature are occasional rigorous studies by individual researchers and meta-analyses of studies done over the past half-century to ascertain the contribution (or lack thereof) of computers to student and teacher outcomes.

Even with these meta-analyses and occasional thorough studies, the overall literature oscillating between success and failure has yet to develop a stable and rich midpoint. I would like my study to occupy the center of this continuum by documenting both exemplars and failures of going from policy-to-practice in using new technologies in classrooms, schools, and districts.

Such a bimodal literature results from questions researchers, policymakers, and practitioners asked about access, use and effects of new technologies. Most of the reports and studies were interested initially in answering the questions of who had access, how were they used in lessons, whether the devices “worked,” that is, raised test scores and influenced academic achievement. The resulting answers created each peak.

So in 2016, I visited nearly 50 teachers, a dozen schools, and three districts that the media, experts, colleagues, and I identified as exemplars of integrating technology into daily lessons, school culture, and district infrastructure.

Insofar as a research strategy over the past 30 years, that is, capturing instances of schools that failed to implement fully teachers using computers regularly, academics would say that I was “sampling on the dependent variable.”

What that means is that I was investigating cases where the aim of the reform was to substantially alter how teaching was done, that is, fully integrating devices in teaching daily lessons, and that aim fell far short of being achieved. The point of this kind of sampling is to extract from multiple cases the common features of these disappointing ventures and inform policymakers and practitioners what they needed to avoid and how they could overcome the common hurdles (e.g., barriers to putting computers into lessons like preparation of teachers, insufficient student access to devices).

The are, however, dangers in synthesizing common features of failures when you take a step back and look at what you are doing. By investigating only those cases of “failure,” there is no variation in the sample. The “wisdom” gained from looking at failures may bear little relationship to, for example, the “wisdom” gained from looking at success stories. The common features of failure extracted from exemplars to explain why the initiatives flopped often fall apart after a few years.

See, for example, in the education literature, the research on Effective Schools in the 1980s and 1990s (see here and here). Schools profiled as successes in one year turn out to have sunk into failure a few years later (see here).

Also see a companion literature in business with similar effects in Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies (New York: Harper Collins, 2006) and Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (New York: Harper Business, 2011).

In other words, without knowing about those cases where teachers did change how they taught when using new technologies, the barriers I identified in “failures” may have been accurate or just as well been inaccurate without having any comparisons to make. By looking only at instances of where technology use in schools failed to transform teaching, I overlooked cases of where technology did succeed in altering classroom practice. To “sample on the dependent variable,” then, is a bias built into the research design.

So for 2016, I have been looking at cases of technology integration–“successes.” I am “sampling on the dependent variable” again but I am fully aware of the bias built into this year’s study. In writing this book in 2017, however, I will pull together what I have learned from both the “failures” I have studied over the decades and the “successes” I have found this year. I will be able to compare both cases of those classrooms and schools that nose-dived and those that soared in integrating devices into lessons.


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Classroom Seating: A Clue to Teacher Beliefs about Learning (Angela Watson)

Angela Watson is an experienced elementary school teacher, coach, and blogger (see here). She offers pros and cons of various ways to arrange a classroom leaving it up to readers which configuration of desks best reflects their beliefs in teaching and learning and the realities of managing a crowd of students.

How to furnish and arrange existing furniture in a classroom is a peek into the heart and mind of a teacher’s ideology of how students learn best and watching them at the same time.

Watson offers teachers various options to consider. Moreover, she recommends changing seating arrangements over the course of the school year as classroom norms evolve, content and skills shift, and relationships with students mature.

Although she speaks to mostly elementary school teachers, I have seen thousands of middle and high school classrooms where seating arrangements vary including options that Watson evaluates.

There are several basic desk arrangements that I like to rotate between:

  • Stadium Seating (or Angled Rows with Desks Touching)
  • Modified U (or Horseshoe)
  • Groups (or Teams)
  • Combination (desks in various positions)
I’ve never had all my students’ desks separated, as that takes up too much space and isn’t conducive to the teaching methods I use, so I can’t give advice on that arrangement. I’ve tried pretty much everything else you can think of, though! Check out the classroom arrangement ideas blog post for tips on fitting everything into your classroom and making room for all the key areas (teacher desk, computers, rugs, centers, etc.)

Stadium seating (angled rows with desks touching)

Pros: Enables the teacher to see what every child is doing, gives all students a clear view of the front of the room, can take up less floor space than other arrangements, makes it easy for students to work in pairs or move their desks into groups for cooperative work

Cons: Does not work well with a large number of desks because students will be too far away, less effective in terms of management when more than two rows are used, less suitable for classrooms that use cooperative learning methods for the majority of the day


Yes, I do think that placing your students’ desks in rows is a perfectly acceptable classroom arrangement!  I like having desks in angled rows (also called stadium seating) because all the kids are facing me. This helps me see if they’re on-task and makes it easier for them to concentrate.

Because the students’ desks are touching one another (and not completely separated), the angled rows mean that students can work with partners without having to move their desks because they are sitting right alongside one another. When it’s time for group work, they can easily shift the desks to work together in fours, or sit at tables in the back of the room or on the floor.


The advantage of angled over straight-facing rows is that the angle makes it easier for students to see and leaves space in the front of the room for a rug, open area, overhead projector cart, podium, table, and so on. The photo above shows the angled style in a different classroom, this time with a projector cart in the middle instead of a rug and the desks pulled much closer to the front of the room. This room is larger than the one above, and I rarely had students move their desks for group work: they did partner work with the person next to or behind/in front of them, and then for group work, they moved to sit at the tables and rug areas you see placed around the classroom. They absolutely loved this because it gave them the opportunity to get out of their desks and sit some place different!

Pros: Allows you to fit many desks into a small space, students talk less during teacher-direct and independent activities when they are further apart from their friends, make partner work simple

Cons: Spreads children out considerably so that it can be hard to address them all, makes group work harder because the desks can’t easily be moved around
As shown above, I began one particular school year with 22 desks in a modified horseshoe shape, leaving a small break in the middle and sides of the desk arrangement to use as walk-through spaces. This created a large center space that I could stand in to see each student’s work….


Pros: Can save floor space even with many desks, supports cooperative work.

Cons: Promotes off-task behavior, distracting for many students.


This was an arrangement I wasn’t able to use when I had close to 30 kids in my class, because when children were facing one another at their desks, it was just too much work to keep them from talking during teacher-directed instruction and independent work times. However, I have found that there are some smaller classes of children who can handle sitting in groups, and it also worked well when I taught in schools that promoted a lot of collaborative learning. This arrangement shows 3 groups of 5, with 2 kids who could not handle the groups sitting by themselves off to the side. I loved having the groups angled like this because all the kids could see the board and I could stand in one spot and see everyone’s face and work area….


During my last year in the classroom, I got rid of the desks and switched to tables! I had been wanting to do this for years, and when I stepped foot in the room in August and saw how the custodians had stacked all those desks in a corner, I realized how much more room I would have. I had all the desks removed and replaced with tables (oh, yes, the custodians looooved that idea), and I was THRILLED with the results. You can read more in my blog post Tables vs.Desks. I do keep desks for children who have a hard time working in close proximity to others. The desks are situated near the tables: if a child has issues, he simply moves the desk back a few feet and gets himself together, then rejoins the team later….


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Billionaire Blunders: Appointing Education Chiefs Who Know Little about Public Schools

Anyone remember Cathy Black? Don’t think so. In 2011, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire and New York City Mayor appointed the 66 year-old head of the Hearst magazine chain–a “superstar manager,” he said–to head the 1.1 million student district. Neither having the requisite three years of teaching experience or a master’s degree or professional degree in administering schools, the state commissioner waived these requirements in order for Black to become Chancellor.*

The uproar that followed over a choosing a Chancellor who knew little about public schools–her children were educated in private schools–led to Bloomberg firing Black 95 days after she took office (see here and here).

Then there is Betsy DeVos, billionaire President Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. Raised in a wealthy family–her father was an auto parts manufacturer in Michigan–she attended private Christian schools, married into the Amway fortune, sent her children to Christian private schools, and became a philanthropist and fervent advocate for vouchers and for-profit charter schools in Detroit and the state of Michigan. She has had no experience as a manager of a large organization (see here and here; for more positive views of DeVos, see here here, and here)

The recent Senate hearings where she was cuddled by the Republican majority of Senate and grilled by the minority Democrats revealed a great deal about DeVos’s thinking about public schools and the direction that federal monies and regulations should move. A zealous advocate for school choice in Michigan through vouchers and for-profit charter schools, she sees more parental choice as the direction for the U.S. Department of Education. Rapid-fire questions from Democrats on the Senate Committee revealed the following (see here and here)

*lack of knowledge that it is federal law protecting the rights of disabled children and youth and it cannot be left to the states to enforce, as she said.

*lack of knowledge of the difference between tests showing student proficiency and tests showing student growth over time.

*refusal to say that while public schools should be held to account for student outcomes, charter and voucher-accepting schools should not be held to the same standard.

Uninformed as DeVos is about education policy aimed at 50 million public school  children and youth in the U.S. and inexperienced as she is in managing anything beyond a family foundation, DeVos was approved in a Republican controlled Committe, in a party-line 12-11 vote. Her endorsement from the split Senate committee will gain the full Senate’s approval where Republicans have a majority. DeVos will become the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

Unlike Mayor Bloomberg’s recognition that he erred in appointing Cathy Black as Chancellor in 2011, imagining President Donald Trump withdrawing the nomination is, well, unimaginable.

Critics claim that both President Trump and Secretary DeVos will press hard for expansion of vouchers and for-profit charters with federal dollars. And that as Frederick Hess says may well be the kiss of death for a bottom-up movement of more parental choice in schools especially in rural and urban poverty areas (home schooling, vouchers, and charters). Perhaps.

Nonetheless, here we have two billionaires who made decisions that were (and are) mistakes. They made bad judgments. Being a billionaire does not protect you from blundering.

Of course, mistakes are essential to learning. Such blunders can lead to corrections that lead to success. None of us is free of error. Here is what basketball super star Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls had to say about learning from mistakes.

I have taken more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I have failed over and over again in my life; and that is why I succeed.

One billionaire corrected his mistake. The other billionaire won’t.


*Bloomberg had appointed a non-educator, Joel Klein in 2002. Both the Mayor and new chancellor shared a similar agenda. Klein had gone through the New York City schools and had managerial experience in the U.S. Department of Justice.


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Lack of Community and Teacher Involvement Leads to Abandoned Math Innovation (Part 2)

The old adage of “success has many fathers, failure is an orphan” rings true in the aftermath of a district in the heart of Silicon Valley abandoning a highly-regarded, “personalized learning” innovation called Teach To One (see Part 1).

Finger-pointing and blame dances among various actors in this all-too-familiar story of reform failure. Chances are that blame will finally come to rest on the superintendent and board for keeping the program under wraps and not fully planning with teachers and parents for the roll-out of the personalized math program for all sixth graders in the District’s two middle schools.

Full planning means describing and explaining the program  to teachers and parents prior to launching the pilot for hundreds of students, taking small groups of teachers and parents to visit the sites where the innovation was operating, and involving teachers and parents from the very beginning of the program and asking for their suggestions.

But why go to these lengths to insert a highly touted innovation into one part of the school system?

Answer: The history of reform is littered with the debris of once glittering innovations that top district leaders unilaterally decided upon and delivered to schools. Such failures conspicuously lacked teacher and parent involvement.

Ignoring both is a recipe for failure. Why? Because schools are political institutions highly dependent upon these two groups to provide critical support and muscle for any instructional policy aimed at altering how teachers teach and students learn enter classrooms.

A primer on schools as political institution.

Tax-supported public schools were established to reach desired community goals including how to live and act in a democracy. School boards,  administrators and teachers are agents hired to achieve those community-inspired goals.  Consider that taxing property owners and levying sales taxes on everyone regardless of whether they have children or not to run public schools means that schools matter a great deal to the community. Moreover, compelling parents to send their children to school between the ages of 5-6 to 16-17 underscores how important schools are to the survival and growth of the community. When one looks carefully at those goals public schools have for children and youth, it is easy to see what community values are embedded in each and every goal from being literate to being fair.  Schools are the political tools a community (and parents) have to enact its goals.

The fundamental truth is that schooling is a value-driven, political enterprise, one that inevitably creates and harbors conflict. Here is what I mean.

Making policy and putting policies into practice in schools and classrooms are value-driven:

Every goal in each and every district has a value buried in it. Take reducing the achievement gap for example. Raising test scores of minority students is highly valued by parents, administrators, and the general public. No progress in reducing the test score gap is seen as failure in achieving that prized value. In Mountain View Whisman District, top administrators embraced Teach To One as a way to reduce the gap in math test scores.

I cannot think of any formal goal for public schools, principals, and teachers that does NOT have a value in embedded in it.

Because policy-and-practice is value-driven, and values differ, conflict between groups and individuals is inevitable.

 There are many values Americans agree on and teach their children such as respect for others, fairness, and loyalty to family and group. And there are many other values taught in families derived from religious beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions that differ from one family to another.

And consider further that when it comes to tax-supported public schools where parents are compelled to send their children, yet even another set of values enter the picture. School goals include cultivating patriotism, following rules, thinking for one’s self, engaging in democratic practices, preparing for the job market, and building character. Some taxpayers and parents, for example, want schools to reinforce parental authority and keep children in line while others want schools to build independence, cooperation, and individual decision-making in their children. And then there are those who want both in the same school. Sometimes school and family values converge and sometimes they diverge. Which is when conflicts arise.

Because of value differences, parents, teachers, and students inevitably disagree on practical items such as dress codes, the Common Core standards, raising school taxes, evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, charter schools, and dozens of other issues.And in Mountain View Whisman, how best to teach math to sixth graders. Many parents, students, administrators, and teachers–largely uninformed of the District’s decision– disagreed with the way Teach To One de-emphasized teacher-directed, whole group instruction.

Conflicts are common over the values embedded in policies and actual practices. Sometimes these value conflicts rise to the surface in public meetings and sometimes they do not. But they are there, nonetheless, because tax-supported public schools are–yep, I am going to say it again–political institutions. Educators need to accept this inexorable fact. And act on it when introducing innovations into classrooms.


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Top-down School Reforms without Community or Teacher Involvement (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The September 9, 2016 parent letter said in part:

Dear Sixth-Grade Families,
Middle school is a critical time for students to learn and refine the math skills they need to succeed in high school and beyond. Our goal is to effectively meet the diverse needs of each student. Personalized learning is crucial to both challenge and support students at their own levels as they enter middle school math.
MVWSD is using Teach to One, by New Classrooms. Teach to One (TTO) is customized daily math instruction based on a student’s learning strengths and needs. Each day, a student learns mathematics skills and concepts in a variety of instructional approaches with peers ready for the same skills or concepts.
Teach to One is off to a good start.
During the first weeks, students learn the routines and procedures of the program, and are exposed to the different learning sessions including teacher-led instruction, peer-to-peer lessons, small group collaborative lessons, and independent technology based lessons.
During the learning sessions, students have been completing a variety of other diagnostic
activities aligned with sixth-grade standards. Next week, students will begin their first unit of personalized lessons based on all of the information collected. Each student’s skill library will be populated with individualized lessons.
Homework is assigned every Monday through the TTO portal.The homework is based on the skills listed in the portal for that particular Monday. Your child may have already been introduced to that skill before and may have been practicing, or your child was introduced to that skill on Monday. Either way, the homework will be given out on Mondays and then collected the following Monday.This will give your child time to practice those skills in class, practice them on the homework and get extra help if needed.
These weekly letters ran through December 2, 2016.
December 7, 2016. In a letter to Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph and Assistant Superintendent Baur signed by over 175 Graham and Crittenden parents representing about 500 sixth grade students (an uncommon number of parents in a relatively small district to voice a specific curricular concern) protesting Teach To One, students’ difficulty in grasping math concepts and skills through the mostly online program, and minimal teacher-led instruction.
December 7-15. The Superintendent sent out a survey to 6th grade parents and students asking for their opinions on Teach To One.
Late-December. Private donor reneges on pledge to fund Teach to One which would cost over $500,000.
December 20, 2016. After examining the results of the survey that showed large majorities of parents opposing the program, Superintendent Rudolph sent out a letter to Graham and Crittenden Middle School parents that pointed out the pluses and minuses of Teach To One and the District’s next steps in paring back the program:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s changed significantly in the last 10 days:

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

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

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

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

Part 2 will examine how limited teacher and parent involvement in a curricular and instructional change directly affecting students in one district becomes an ingredient in reform failure.


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


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Judging Success and Failure of Reforms in Classroom Practice

The dominant standard used by most policymakers, media editors, and administrators to judge success is effectiveness: What is the evidence that the policy has produced the desired outcomes? Have you done what you said you were going to do and can you prove it? In a society where “bottom lines,” Dow Jones averages, Super Bowl victories, and vote-counts matter, quantifiable results determine effectiveness.

Since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), federal and state policymakers have relied on the effectiveness standard to examine what students have learned by using proxy measures such as test scores, high school graduation rates, college attendance, and other indicators. For example, in the late-1970s policymakers concluded that public schools had declined because scholastic aptitudes test (SAT) scores had plunged downward. Even though test-makers and researchers repeatedly stated that such claims were false—falling SAT scores fueled public support for states raising academic requirements in the 1980s and adding standardized tests to determine success. With the No Child Left Behind Act (2001-2016) test scores brought rewards and penalties. [i]

Yet test results in some instances proved unhelpful in measuring a reform’s success. Consider the mid-1960s’ evaluations of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). They revealed little improvement in low-income children’s academic performance thereby jeopardizing Congressional renewal of the program. Such evidence gave critics hostile to federal initiatives reasons to brand President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs as failures. [ii]

Nonetheless, the program’s political attractiveness to constituents and legislators overcame weak test scores. Each successive U.S. president and Congress, Republican or Democrat, have used that popularity as a basis for allocating funds to needy students in schools across the nation including No Child Left Behind (2001) and its successor, Every Student Succeeds Act (2016). Thus, a reform’s political popularity often leads to its longevity (e.g., kindergarten, comprehensive high school, Platoon School).

Popularity, then, is a second standard that public officials use in evaluating success. The spread of an innovation and its hold on voters’ imagination and wallets has meant that attractiveness to parents, communities, and legislators easily translates into long-term political support for reform. Without the political support of parents and teachers, few innovations and reforms would fly long distances.

The rapid diffusion of kindergarten and preschool, special education, bilingual education, testing for accountability, charter schools, and electronic technologies in schools are instances of innovations that captured the attention of practitioners, parents, communities, and taxpayers. Few educators or public officials questioned large and sustained outlays of public funds for these popular reforms because they were perceived as resounding successes. And they have lasted for decades. Popularity-induced longevity becomes a proxy for effectiveness. [iii]

A third standard used to judge success is assessing how well innovations mirrored what designers of reforms intended. This fidelity standard assesses the fit between the initial design, the formal policy, the subsequent program, and its implementation.

Champions of the fidelity standard ask: How can anyone determine effectiveness if the reform departs from the design? If federal, state, or district policymakers, for example, adopt and fund a new reading program because it has proved to be effective elsewhere, teachers and principals must follow the blueprint as they put it into practice or else the desired outcomes will go unfulfilled (e.g., Success for All). When practitioners add, adapt, or even omit features of the original design, then those in favor of fidelity say that the policy and program cannot be determined effective because of these changes. Policy adaptability is the enemy of fidelity. [iv]

Where do these dominant standards of effectiveness, popularity, and fidelity come from? Policymakers derive the criteria of effectiveness and fidelity from viewing organizations as rational tools for achieving desired goals. Through top-down decisions, formal structures, clearly specified roles, and technical expertise, administrators and practitioners can get the job done.

Within organizations where rational decision-making and control are prized, policymakers ask: Have the prescribed procedures been followed (fidelity) and have the goals been achieved (effectiveness)? Hence, in judging reforms, those who carry out the changes must be faithful to the design before the standard of effectiveness in achieving goals is invoked.

But where do these beliefs embedded in these criteria come from? The growth of professional expertise in the private and public sectors, or what Donald Schön calls “technical rationality,” is grounded in the natural, physical, and social sciences and located in corporate training and professional education programs at universities. Rather than favoring practitioner expertise derived from schools and classrooms, public officials and researchers use this scientifically grounded knowledge to evaluate the degree to which reforms are effective. [v]

Contrary to the effectiveness and fidelity standards, popularity derives from the political nature of public institutions and the astute use of symbols (e.g., tests, pay-for-performance, computers) to convey values. Schools, for example, are totally dependent on the financial and political support of local communities and the state. Taxpayer support for, or opposition to, bond referenda or school board initiatives is often converted into political capital at election time. Whether an innovation spreads (e.g., charters) and captures public and practitioner attention becomes a strong basis for evaluating its success.[vi]

Seldom are these criteria debated publicly, much less questioned. Unexamined acceptance of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity avoids asking the questions of whose standards will be used, how they are applied and alternative standards can be used to judge reform success and failure.

Although policymakers, researchers, practitioners have vied for attention in judging the success of school reforms, policy elites, including civic and business leaders and their accompanying foundation- and corporate-supported donors have dominated the game of judging reform success.

Sometimes  called a “growth coalition,” these civic, business, and philanthropic leaders see districts and schools as goal-driven organizations with top officials exerting top-down authority through structures. They juggle highly prized values of equity, efficiency, excellence, and getting reelected or appointed. They are also especially sensitive to public expectations for school accountability and test scores. Hence, these policy making elites favor standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity—even when they conflict with one another. Because the world they inhabit is one of running organizations, their authority and access to the media give them the leverage to spread their views about what constitutes “success.” [vii]

So it is no surprise whose criteria are applied become harnessed to the how they are applied within K-12 organizations. For the most part, decisions flow downward. Elected leaders in coalition with top civic figures often take innovations directed at school improvement, package and deliver the reform (e.g., curriculum, instruction, school re-organization) to classrooms through official policies and procedures. While there are other ways for reforms to enter schools such as from the local school community and teachers and principals—from the bottom up—the top-down political decision to impose a reform on the organization from federal, state, and district leaders has been the dominant pattern in the history of school reform. [viii]

The world that policy elites inhabit, however, is one driven by values and incentives that differ from the worlds that researchers and practitioners inhabit. Policymakers respond to signals and events that anticipate reelection and media coverage. They consider the standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity rock-hard fixtures of their policy world. [ix]

Most practitioners, however, look to different standards. Although many teachers and principals have expressed initial support for high-performing public schools serving the poor and children of color, most practitioners have expressed strong skepticism about test scores as an accurate measure of either their effects on children or the importance of their work.

Such practitioners are just as interested in student outcomes as are policymakers, but the outcomes differ. They ask: What skills, content, and attitudes have students learned beyond what is tested? To what extent is the life lived in our classrooms and schools healthy, democratic, and caring? Can reform-driven programs, curricula, technologies be bent to our purposes? Such questions, however, are seldom heard. Broader student outcomes and being able to adapt policies to fit the geography of their classroom matter to practitioners.

Another set of standards comes from policy and practice-oriented researchers. Such researchers judge success by the quality of the theory, research design, methodologies, and usefulness of their findings to policy and student outcomes. These researchers’ standards have been selectively used by both policy elites and practitioners in making judgments about high- and low-performing schools. [x]

So multiple standards for judging school “success” are available. Practitioner-and researcher- derived standards have occasionally surfaced and received erratic attention from policy elites. But it is this strong alliance of policymakers, civic and business elites, and friends in the corporate, foundation, and media worlds that relies on standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity. This coalition and their standards continue to dominate public debate, school reform agendas, and determinations of “success” and “failure.”


[i] Patrick McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006)

[ii]Harvey Kantor, “Education, Reform, and the State: ESEA and Federal Education Policy in the 1960s,” American Journal of Education, 1991, 100(1), pp. 47-83; Lorraine McDonnell, “No Child Left Behind and the Federal Role in Education: Evolution or Revolution?” Peabody Journal of Education, 2005 80(2), pp. 19-38.

[iii] Michael Kirst and Gail Meister, “Turbulence in American Secondary Schools: What Reforms Last,” Curriculum Inquiry, 1985, 15(2), pp. 169-186; Larry Cuban, “Reforming Again, Again, and Again,” Educational Researcher, 1991, 19(1), pp. 3-13.

[iv]Janet Quinn, et. al., Scaling Up the Success For All Model of School Reform, final report, (Santa Monica (CA): Rand Corportation, 2015).

[v]Donald Schon, “From Technical Rationality to Reflection in Action,” in Roger Harrison, et. al. (editors), Supporting Lifelong Learning: Perspectives on Learning, vol. 1, pp. 40-61.

[vi] David Labaree, “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals,” American Educational Research Journal, 1997, 34(1), pp. 39-81; Amanda Datnow, “Power and Politics in the Adoption of School Reform Models,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 2000, 22(4), pp.357-374.

[vii] Sarah Reckhow, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Frederick Hess and Jeff Henig (eds.) The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy, and Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvrd Education Press,, 2015).

[viii] Linda Darling Hammond,”Instructional Policy into Practice: The Power of the Bottom over the Top,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990, 12(3), pp. 339-347. Charles Payne, So Much Reform, So Little Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008). Joyce Epstein, “Perspectives and Previews on Research and Policy for School, Family, and Community Partnerships,” in(New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 209-246.

[ix] Anita Zerigon-Hakes, “Translating Research Findings into Large-Scale Public Programs and Policy,” The Future of Children, Long-Term Outcomes of early Childhood Programs, 1995, 5(3), pp. 175-191; Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin, Steady Work (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1988);

[x] Thomas Reeve, “Can Educational Research Be Both Rigorous and Relevant,” Educational Designer, 2008, 1(4), at:

Burke Johnson and Anthony Omwuegbuzie, “Mixed Methods Research,” 2004, Educational Researcher, 2004, 33(7), pp. 14-26.


Filed under school reform policies

Cartoons on Leaders

This month I hope you will enjoy a dozen or so ways of picturing leaders in and out of school. If they get you to smile, let me know.













Filed under Uncategorized