What Are Success and Failure in Schooling? (Part 3)

If only policymakers, practitioners, and parents agreed upon what “success” and “failure” mean for schooling. No such agreement exists leading to miscommunication and contradictions. Just as there are complications in figuring out the meaning of these common words in business, military operations, and hospital care, so it is for the nation’s public schools (see Parts 1 and 2).

Recall that for the past half-century, there has been an on-going controversy between political conservatives and liberals over whether the nation’s schools are failing or have failed (note the difference between using the present tense–they are failing–as opposed to present perfect tense–they have failed; the latter is a judgment closing the door while the former offers, even invites, hope for improvement). What makes determinations of failing U.S. schools perplexing is that on Gallup polls parents give low grades to the nation’s schools (47 percent satisfied in 2017) but express  higher satisfaction (79 percent in 2017) for the local school their sons and daughters attend.

I date the current controversy’s origin to the late-1970s with the official bemoaning of the drop in  Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) scores. Concerns for the declining quality of public schools accelerated with the A Nation at Risk report (1983) that linked U.S.’s public schools to an economy that must compete globally. U.S. students doing poorly on international tests was to policy elites a forbidding sign of decline in quality of the nation’s public schools.*

The Report’s recommendations prompted changes in state graduation requirements and beefed up academic plans for public schools. Many initiatives throughout the 1980s and 1990s came from business leaders, political liberals and conservatives, academics and think tanks. They viewed the nation’s schools as crucial to a strong economy and in need of major curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms to get students to measure up to their international counterparts.

Over the past three decades, expanded parental choice in the form of vouchers, charter schools (especially in poor and minority neighborhoods) and business-inspired plans of setting national goals and holding schools accountable for student outcomes entered public schools (see here, here, and here).

Both Republican and Democratic Presidents supported these reforms (except for vouchers which Democrats opposed and charters over which Democrats split). These reforms created higher curriculum standards, more testing, and accountability in state after state. The capstone bipartisan effort was the federal law No Child Left Behind (2001-2016).

NCLB called for all public school students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014 and established a federally-driven testing and accountability system managed by the states to insure that students scored well on standardized tests. Schools meeting their numerical targets set by the law would be rewarded and those falling short would be penalized. By 2011, the weaknesses of this federally-driven system had become obvious to legislators–48 percent of U.S. schools had been labeled “failing.” In 2016, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act and President Obama signed off on a law loosening federal regulations on accountability (but not testing or publishing of racial and ethnic statistics) and giving states far more latitude in designing reforms (see here).

As the polarized political climate worsened, right-of-center supporters of vouchers and charter schools coalesced supporting policies that would rescue the nation’s failing schools. Ditto for left-of-center critics increasingly challenging the charge that U.S. schools have failed or are failing. These critics on the political left pointed to national reports, improving test scores, and the trash-talking about failing schools a “manufactured crisis” (see here, here, and here).

Some critics went further and charged that reformers with a politically conservative bent who sought more vouchers in schools and expanded numbers of charter schools  were trying to “privatize” public schools (see here and here).

Thus, the controversy that began four decades ago over whether U.S. schools are “succeeding” or “failing” continues with another generation of politically polarized reformers split over how best to improve the nation’s schools.

What complicates the debate over schools are errors in policy thinking and different perspectives being ignored. I offer a few examples of these errors in making sense of this ongoing controversy over all public schools failing.**

#In analyzing the four-decade debate, I have found repeatedly that advocates and opponents of either schools as “failures” or “successes” do not distinguish whether they are talking about all public schools or really have largely minority and poor urban schools in mind. The confusion can be cleared up–but seldom is–if one sees the nation’s schools as a three-tiered system of schooling based upon performance and socioeconomic status.

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Scarsdale (NY) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 60 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet state standards and send most of their graduating classes to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being closed. Occasionally, stellar principals and staffs will lift such schools into the second tier but that is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S maintains social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth .

But too few members of the policy elites see these crucial differences in the U.S. system of schools and instead mush together potatoes, onions, green beans, and zucchini into one sticky veggie stew.

#A second error is that the concepts of “success” and “failure” become “either/or thinking,” “good vs. “bad” ways of making policy and running schools. As if there are no degrees of “success” or “failure” in either children learning, teacher outcomes, school, and district performance. Omitting the in-between, the gray, surely makes decisions less complicated and simpler to make but such decisions are mistaken. Not distinguishing between, for example, between partial or complete “success” and “failure” or sudden or gradual, or sustained and precarious are just a few ways of avoiding dichotomous thinking.

#Another error is forgetfulness about the historic multiple (and changing) mission of tax-supported public schools. Presently and for the past four decades, the highest priority for public schools is to produce graduates ready for an ever-changing labor market in a fluid, growing economy. Schools serve the economy. Yet in other periods of schooling, becoming a contributing member of a school and adult community, building strong moral character, and graduating thoughtful problem solvers were front and center as the mission of public schools.

In each instance of these multiple goals for public schools shifting over time, definitions of what is a “success” or “failure” vary depending upon what policymakers and reformers see as the prime target that schools must hit. Those policymakers advocating that schools must go beyond preparing all children and youth for college and engage students in using their knowledge and skills acquired in school to become active members of the community, serving the old and the young and helping to build strong relationships between differing groups would have different metrics for “success” and “failure” beyond test scores and percentages of students going to college.

As I see it, this continuing controversy over U.S. schools “failing” over the past 40-plus years between and among political conservatives and liberals has been worsened by  policy elites’ errors in trying to improve U.S. schools. These errors,  I believe, have confused defining “success” and “failure” and consequently had mercurial effects upon reform after reform applied to public schools.


*The current reforms launched since the late-1970s are, of course, part of a historical continuum.  Earlier generations of reformers have assailed the failure of public schools beginning in the late-1890s–John Dewey’s cohort–extending through the post-World War II generation who pointed to schools lacking in rigorous academic content and skills before and after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. And on and on the soap opera of school reform marched forward to the present moment (see here, here, and here)

**I offer a few of these policy errors here reserving others for subsequent posts.





Filed under school reform policies

Scaling Up to Mediocrity: The Myth of Grow or Die (Part 1)

In this and subsequent posts I will look at the popular policy solution to improving chronically failing schools by pinpointing “good” schools that year after year do well and then policymakers and donors pressing the leaders of those schools to “scale up.”  What the phrase means–borrowed from the practical world of business–is that an elementary or secondary school deemed successful (using typical measures of high test scores, low dropout rates, students graduate and nearly all get admitted to college) receives pressure and funding to replicate what made that school “successful” across dozens of other schools (see here and here).

After all, in the business world, the mantras are “grow or die” and “bigger is better.” So a successful business–reaping profits annually–can create franchise outlets just like the mother business that started it all–think McDonalds, Roundtable, and 7-Eleven. The franchisee receives the brand name and a way of operating the business daily. In business and schooling, “scaling up” is both popular and seen as essential—see N-gram of the growth of this phrase in U.S. published materials since the 1920s.

These posts will argue that schools deemed “successful” by popularly accepted measures can (and do) lose by expanding their reach through trying to duplicate their “success.” Further, I will argue that there are individual “successful” schools that should continue as they are improving what they do yearly and avoid the Ebola virus of replication.

Grow or Die

Why do policymakers and donors prod “successful” school experiments to scale up? Because they  assume that “successful” schools can be exported to other settings and when that occurs school officials get economies of scale and increases in productivity. It is “good” education at lower cost. Goodbye chronically failing or mediocre schools. Scaling up, then, is a solution to the persistent problems policymakers have identified over the past three decades: failing U.S. schools.

“Scaling up” is the mantra that entrepreneurial policymakers, venture capitalists and donors pushing cash into schools not only expect from any “success” that their monies have produced but also demand of those who achieved “success.” The direction goes like this: You did a great job here, now do the same here, here, and here. If not, we can’t keep funding you. In public and private schools across the country, experimental schools get hosannas and media attention but experience strong pressures to expand.

This process of “scaling up” has a long history going back to the Platoon School  before World War I and the Dalton Plan in the 1920s when innovative, school wide programs spread across the U.S. Failure to replicate these innovations in other schools was an old story a century ago.

In the 1990s, “scaling” up “successful” models of schooling re-appeared and, sad to say, the high hopes of those deeply committed entrepreneurs a quarter-century ago went the way of their older cousins. This first post will look at Tesseract schools “scaled up” by Education Alternatives, Inc. and the scaling up of Edison schools. Both for-profit companies took their brand name and models of pedagogy, curriculum, and school organization that “worked” in one setting and tried to replicate them in districts that each company had contracted with.

Tesseract School

In 1991, South Pointe elementary school of 500 children opened in Miami (FLA). The Dade County School Board had contracted with Education Alternatives, Inc., a for-profit company, to operate the school using the Tesseract model. Developed by businessman John Golle in Minneapolis in two private schools, the model, as described by an enthusiast, had the following components:

The Tesseract model stresses active learning in every subject and true ownership of

learning by students. Teachers work with students to “plan, do, and review” their

learning activities. Teachers are gentle and nonintrusive and work with students to learn

how to learn, and learn how to make choices. No subject is fragmented–it is whole

language, and whole social studies. No workbooks or xerox sheets are used. Students

work together, learn about each other’s learning styles, confer, and review and make

presentations. Education is personal. Every student at South Pointe has a “mentor,”

either a parent or a recruited senior citizen. Teachers, mentors, and students together

develop the student’s personal education plan.

The Dade County Board ended the contract when test scores had not risen after a few years. EAI and the Baltimore City School Board contracted in 1992 to run a handful of schools. The School Board canceled the contract in 1996. In 2000, EAI, now called Tesseract filed for bankruptcy.

Edison Schools

Entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of Channel 1–a for-profit venture in public schools that eventually nose-dived–founded the Edison project in 1992. He and his partners believed that they could get students to learn more and better than regular public school could and, at the same time, return a tidy profit to investors. According to an evaluation report:

Edison schools are organized by grouping 2 or 3 grade levels into academies. Within the
academies, the students are organized into multigrade houses of 100-180 students. The
students in each house are largely taught by the same team of teachers throughout the
time they are in that academy.


Edison Schools Inc. has a curriculum that includes reading, math, history/social studies,
science, writing, and world language as the core subjects, with classes in character and
ethics, physical fitness and health, music, dance, visual art, drama, and practical arts and
skills offered at various levels. Four methodological approaches to instruction are
reportedly used in the classrooms: project-based learning, direct instruction, cooperative
learning, and differentiated learning.


Edison Inc. was the first for-profit school-management company to be traded on a stock exchange. They got contracts from urban school districts (e.g., Wichita, KN; Philadelphia, PA, Ravenswood, CA) to  use their model of a “good” school to convert failing schools into “good” ones in other districts  but stumbled into one political difficulty after another  with unions, parents, and administrators (see here and here).

Their stock had reached a high of $40 a share in 2001 and then, as problems piled up, dipped to 14 cents later in the same year. Dissatisfied with Edison, districts began canceling contracts for financial, political, and managerial reasons. By 2005,  there were still 153 schools for over 65,000 students but the company was already dumping their school management business and had turned to  securing contracts to  provide tutorial services and other products districts wanted. By then, Whittle had found private lenders who aided him in converting the publicly traded company back into a private one.


Both business-driven models of Tesseract (EAI) and Edison Schools grew but died. They scaled up and nose-dived after a few years giving investors the Willies.

Are there stories of “successful” schools growing into networks and thriving? Yes. Think of the KIPP model (1994) that has grown into over 200 schools nationally with 88,000 students in almost a quarter-century. Or Aspire (1998) with 40 schools enrolling 16,000 students in two states. Or Summit Charter Schools network (2003) has eight high schools in California’s Bay area and the state of Washington. Slow and steady with careful attention to selection and training of staff, constant program monitoring, and building cultures that sustains the ideology of the school have led to some scaled-up schools. But it ain’t easy. The scaling up took a great deal of donor money, long-term stability in top staff, and exceedingly fine-tuned attention to each new school’s adoption of a torch passed on by the founders to the next generation.

So should a private school located in a predominately minority and poor neighborhood that has been, by all popular measures, a stellar school for over 20 years spread? Part 2 offers an answer to that question.





Filed under school reform policies

What Are Success and Failure in Schooling? (Part 1)

For the past two years, I have researched and written a book on Silicon Valley classrooms, schools, and districts that are “best cases” of technology integration. I published over a dozen posts on the blog of classroom observations I made in Silicon Valley schools during 2016.

I am in the last phase of wrapping up this project. Next week I will send in the page proofs that the publisher sent me to find typos and other errors. The book will come out next spring. The title is: The Flight of the Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet: Using Technology to Transform Teaching and Learning.

Doing the research and writing this book I found very satisfying. Now, what’s next?

For the past few months that I have gone over the copy-edited manuscript that the publisher sent and now these page proofs, I have begun searching for a question that puzzles me and for which I have no ready answer. This is not an easy process. Many false starts and diversions. It is a process I have gone through many times. I have learned to trust the muddling, zig-zag path that I follow. I believe that some  question will emerge and get its hooks into me. So for the next few posts I will try out a possible project to see if has “legs,” as some say. Comments are welcomed


There can be no success in the absence of failure

Henri Varenne and Ray McDermott, 1999

We always learn more from failure than success. Success teaches us nothing.

Henry Marsh, 2017


Success and failure are entwined like a DNA helix. You can’t have one without the other. Yet determining what is success and failure in schooling the young, sustaining businesses, waging war, and providing hospital health care is both uncertain and even contradictory. There is a constant thread that ties success to failure in the helix and that is organizational performance in achieving its goals. Yet even defining high- and low- performance in an organization can be dodgy. Consider the opening and closing of businesses.


After five years, about half of all new businesses have and shut their doors. For companies that have survived longer than five years, even decades, closures still occur. In the past decade retailers such as Borders book stores, The Limited clothing, Thom McAn shoes, Blockbusters video, Circuit City electronics, and A & P groceries have gone belly up.

Bankruptcies and closure for new and old firms means failure; companies lacked the cash to continue. Those whose revenues exceeded expenditures year after year survived. And survival means success. Correct? Not quite.

A surprising percentage of those closures made money and still closed their doors. They met the performance standard by which businesses are judged—net annual profit–and still shut down. For example, many small retailers who want to retire or try something else close by selling their profitable business to someone else. Other companies close by getting bought out or merging with a larger firm.

And even other successful businesses, such as restaurants  that have served customers  for over a decade (60 percent of new restaurants shutter their windows in the first three years) decided to sell their restaurant or simply close down.

Also consider that some U.S. companies that have been by most metrics successful (Best Buy, Walmart, McDonalds, and Starbucks) have failed to make a dent in other countries even closing stores they had opened.

And there is the puzzling case that some businesses fail to make a profit and are considered successful. Consider those high-tech businesses such as Amazon that initially failed to bring in sufficient sales to keep the company financially afloat—the over-riding goal of a new company—yet venture capitalists and eager investors plowed cash into these profit-poor companies in their early years before they became the behemoth businesses they are now. No profit yet successful?


Winning wars—World War II (1941-1945)—and losing wars—Vietnam (1955-1975) are based upon armed forces’ performance in achieving its mission. In World War II, for the U.S. in concert with its allies, the mission (or over-riding goal) was securing unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, Japan, and Italy. That military mission was achieved by the end of 1945. Yet the U.S. armed forces lost many bloody battles in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific along the way. Losing battles but winning a war?

In Vietnam, the U.S. government’s mission changed over the two decades from supporting the French in holding its colony and preventing a Communist takeover of the country to supporting a new state of South Vietnam (after the French exited) and helping that nation repel North Vietnam’s army and supporters within South Vietnam, the Viet Cong. Beginning under President John Kennedy, U.S. military advisers were sent to aid the South Vietnamese (for history of war, see here, here, and here)

U.S. advisers were insufficient to stop the infiltration of North Vietnamese army and indigenous insurgents who were helped by Chinese and Soviet arms and money so President Lyndon Johnson eventually sent a half-million U.S. soldiers into the country to fight both the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of North Vietnam.

All of this to stop the Communist North from taking over South Vietnam. Why? The belief was that, like falling dominoes. Were South Vietnam to fall, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma would turn Communist as well and would endanger U.S. interests in Asia.

Through the administrations of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the public was told repeatedly that the U.S was winning the war and achieving its goal of halting the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, even as U.S. officials shifted from helping the French to protecting South Vietnam from North Vietnam through bombings of Hanoi to starting peace talks in 1969 with the North. Those peace talks led to the U.S. beginning to withdraw its forces in 1973 and finally leaving in 1975. Within a few years, the North had swept through the South consolidating the nation into one Vietnam. Declarations of “success” from U.S. Presidents ended in failure.

Fifteen years later Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. U.S. President George H.W. Bush, to protect the free passage of oil from the Gulf, ordered armed forces to free Kuwait from Iraqi control. The Persian Gulf War of 1991 swiftly liberated Kuwait from Iraqi forces which retreated back to Baghdad. The brief war reduced the influence of Saddam Hussein in the region. The mission was accomplished. This short, limited war had few U.S. casualties and was a clear-cut “success” for the military following the failure of the previous war in Vietnam.

Just over a decade later President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. The mission driving the invasion in 2003 was to get rid of “weapons of mass destruction” held by Saddam Hussein. No such weapons were ever found.

The mission was successful militarily, however, in routing the Iraqi army, taking Baghdad, and deposing Saddam Hussein. However, it was a diplomatic failure in that no “weapons of mass destruction” were found and the subsequent occupation of the country and Sunni insurgency against the elected Shiite government surprised both military and diplomatic planners.

A protracted civil war between the elected Shiite government and the Sunni minority led to another change in mission under Presidents Bush and Obama by initially increasing the numbers of troops sent to the country. Over the course of the invasion and occupation, U.S. troops won key battles in cities controlled by insurgents yet diplomatic efforts to create an independent, democratically elected, and inclusive government strong enough to defend itself against Kurdish and Sunni insurgents ultimately failed.

President Bush began withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2008 and President Barak Obama presided over the final exit except for advisers to assist Iraqi forces, in 2010.

As one retired U.S. Colonel put the military effort in Iraq in these years: “We have not won it. We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome.”

The invasion of Iraq and a near decade long occupation can hardly be considered a “success” even with the destruction of the Iraqi army and ousting of Hussein especially in light of the strong influence Iran subsequently gained in the Iraqi government and persistent turbulence—the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)–in the Middle East, specifically the civil war in Syria and its triggering of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe. That successful U.S. military intervention in 2003 morphed into a diplomatic and political failure.

So winning many battles in Vietnam and Iraq yet failing on diplomatic and political fronts resulted in the U.S. losing these limited wars, except for liberating Kuwait in 1991.

Part 2 will look at “success” and “failure” and its idiosyncrasies in providing health care in hospitals and schooling.



Filed under school reform policies

Cartoons on Addiction to Technology

The following collection of cartoons on technology addiction come from a blog post at Examined Existence. I selected the ones that had not appeared on posts that I had published on the same topic. Enjoy!













































Filed under Uncategorized

Whatever Happened to Behavioral Objectives?

Not much. They are still around but often goes by an alias.

Introduced in the early 20th century, behavioral objectives are like  wallpaper in a favorite room that is stripped and then re-papered with wallpaper of a different hue but closely resembling the discarded debris. In short, the phrase has different names today (e.g., performance objectives,  learner outcomes, competencies-based outcomes) but remains common across the educational domain as well as in business, medicine, and other professional work. They are now a permanent fixture of organizations but not called “behavioral objectives.”

Where Did the Idea Originate?

The efficiency-driven wing of early 20th century progressives, inspired by management innovator Frederick Taylor, educational psychologist Edward Thorndike, and other university-based academics saw the rational design of lessons as important. In the 1930s and 1940s, Ralph Tyler of the University of Chicago and head evaluator of the Eight Year Study championed behavioral objectives and scientific ways of assessing student and school outcomes. The advent of teaching machines and the work of B.F. Skinner advanced the breaking down of specific knowledge and skills into constituent parts that could be taught and measured. Instructional designers began pressing K-12 educators to adopt the idea of “behavioral objectives” as early as the late-1950s. They advocated that educators must state clearly and objectively exactly what they wanted students to learn, the conditions under which the students will learn specific content and skills, and how these educators will know students have indeed learned what was intended.

Psychologists who championed instructional design, many of whom were trained as behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner, Robert Gagne‘, Benjamin Bloom, Robert Mager,and others in the 1940s and 1950s–along with Tyler–see above–produced articles and books throughout the 1960s that laid out how teachers should and could compose and specific objectives for their lessons in terms sufficiently clear to determine whether or not students had learned what was intended in the lesson (see here).

What Are Behavioral Objectives?

Sometimes called “learning” or “performance” objectives, Robert Mager laid out the three parts that every behavioral objective must contain: what the learner will do (not the teacher or instructional materials), the conditions under which the learner performs, and the criteria to judge how well the learner has performed the task.

Examples of such objectives across academic subjects are:

*The students will be able to classify the changes of state matter undergoes when given a description of the shape and volume.

*Given four works of short fiction of contrasting genres, the student will analyze and
match each work with its correct genre.
*Using the washingtonpost.com Web site, the student will correctly identify and print out two examples each of a news article and an editorial regarding a topical new item.
*Given twenty examples of incorrect verb tense usage, the student will identify and correct a minimum of sixteen instances.


Sometimes, behavioral objectives can be put into words that young children can understand such as:



What Problems Did Behavioral Objectives Intend to Solve

Because behavioral objectives drive a lesson, according to those championing “performance” or “competency learning outcome”, these objectives are too often stated as to what the teacher does rather than what the student will do and learn . Even when objectives are phrased as what students will do, they use language that is ambiguous and hard to demonstrate that learning occurred.

Examples of such lesson objectives are easy to find: “teacher will read story to kindergartners,” “I will define the lunar cycle for students,” “teacher will interpret the meaning of Paradise Lost,” “students will develop a three-dimensional form through using wire and wood.”

Or consider unit on colonialism in America that listed the following objectives:

Students will understand how learning U.S. history will help them
reach their goals.
Students will get an overview of U.S. history from colonization to the
Civil War.
Students will use maps to understand the process of colonization.
Students will learn about the geography of each group of colonies
and how geography affected their economies.
Students will review two persuasive essays about the centrality of
money in America and write responses.


The following “do” and “don’t” chart captures both what they are and the problem they seek to solve.




Do Behavioral Objectives Work?

No one knows for sure. If “work” means their ubiquity in lesson and unit plans across the country, the answer is yes. But if “work” asks about their effectiveness in improving the quality of a lesson or what students learn, such research is slim to sparse. Linking academic improvement to the quality of behavioral objectives is, well, nigh impossible (see here, here,  and here).

What Happened To Behavioral Objectives?*

Not too much. Under different labels, they are everywhere in curriculum manuals, district budgets, proposals to donors, and government agency programs.

In visiting classrooms throughout Silicon Valley in 2016, I often saw listed on a whiteboard, the agenda for the day. Usually, the first item was the lesson objective. For example, in an Advanced Placement Physics class at Los Altos High School that I observed in September 2016, the teacher had written on the whiteboard the following objective for the lesson: Students will be able to (SWBAT) create instructional videos using whiteboard animations in order to demonstrate problem solving skills and provide instructional support to peers.

For those eager to “personalize learning,” one way is to list the skill and content competencies that students will learn at different paces, usually through software, in a unit and lesson. These competencies are behavioral objectives in disguise (see here, here and here).

Educators may not call them “behavioral objectives” today but they are commonly built into daily lesson plans, student assessments and teacher evaluations.


In a later post, I will describe a parallel innovation within private and public organizations called “Management by Objectives” (MBO). Authored by management guru Peter Drucker in the mid-1950s, it spread rapidly in the late-1960s in federal agencies under the Nixon administration aimed at holding agency officials accountable for outcomes they had specified. By the early 1970s, MBO has become the organizational reform du jour among private and public sector leaders. By the early 1980s, it had become passe’.

If behavioral objectives were for teachers, MBO was for CEOs, federal and state agency heads, middle managers in the private sector and principals, superintendents, and school boards in K-12 and higher education. In K-12 schools, MBO and behavioral objectives were joined at the hip in laying out a format for the introduction of accountability for assessing student, school, and district outcomes.




Filed under how teachers teach

Is Homework Compatible With Personalized Learning? (Autumn Hillis)

Autumn Hillis works with middle schools in the middle Tennessee region as an open educational resource curriculum specialist. She has taught at the middle school and high school level for six years with a focus in life and physical sciences. She is also currently working with Tennessee universities to train Tennessee science educators about personalized and project based learning.”

This post appeared in EdSurge, October 3, 2017

Differentiating content and instruction for each individual learner was once considered the pedagogical holy grail. Yet it could be tiresome. Offering three tiers of worksheets, four centers with varied ways to access content, or five levels of text was what defined a master teacher. But just as continual development of the iPhone eventually renders older prototypes obsolete; so too are new educational technologies pushing us past differentiation towards personalized learning.

Transitioning to a personalized learning environment doesn’t happen overnight—it’s a process. There are parts of the shift that feel impossible at first like moving into the passenger’s seat during lessons, managing new technologies and analyzing what seems like an endless amount of data. But in time these impossibilities become like second nature and new challenges arise. We start asking deeper questions and setting loftier goals for ourselves as educators.

In 2013, when I began rethinking some of the practices I once thought of as tried and true, one of the biggest shifts for me was the realization that the topics I found interesting were not necessarily the most engaging for my students. I had to set aside the pride I felt for my personal knowledge—and my love of talking—so that I could start listening to my students and discover what was meaningful for them.

By fall of 2015, I had come leaps and bounds with making my classroom student centered, and personalizing instruction during class time. But this nagging question kept bringing me down: What message does it send our students when we only personalize learning from 8AM-3PM, and then send everyone home with the same worksheet for homework?

Homework has been an area of controversy amongst practitioners for years, with strong evidence of both benefits and drawbacks. While I have never been interested in inundating students with extra practice outside of school hours, I do believe that some concepts and skills require extensive independent practice.

After combing through research presenting data for and against homework, one argument really resonated with me. Too often, parents cannot help students who are struggling through an assignment that they are not prepared for. This can lead to frustrating nights when a family could be enjoying their time together. The one thing I knew for sure was that if I was going to give homework, I needed to develop a solution to give students the independent work time they needed without creating unnecessary stress. I decided to experiment with creating assignments that would mirror the individualized experience students were receiving in my class.

Experimenting with new classroom techniques is daunting. Creating multiple resources for one concept, developing systems for managing the paperwork, and giving feedback in a timely manner are challenging enough for a small class—but with classroom sizes bulging with 33 to 36 students, these tasks are completely overwhelming. In 2015, when I began investigating how to personalize homework, I knew that I’d need to leverage technology if I wanted to make it sustainable. I taught 130 students a day, so efficiency was key.

As a first experiment, I started with an eighth grade science unit on the periodic table of the elements. Typically, I gave homework two or three nights a week, and graded the assignments for accuracy and completion. I checked each answer to make sure students weren’t just blowing off my homework. Homework responsibility accounted for 15% of each student’s grade, so while there was some accountability, we weren’t spending much time reviewing the material covered by the extra practice. I was inadvertently sending the message to my students that these assignments were busy work. So I decided to shake things up a bit.

After presenting some introductory concepts, I gave my students a short formative assessment with six questions that they could grade independently. Unknown to them, I had divided the questions up into two parts. If students missed the first three questions then they were struggling with concept A; if students missed the last three questions, then they were struggling with concept B. I recorded each student’s grade and took note of which questions they had missed. From this data, I offered them several choices of activities they could complete for homework. Some were activities that I created through Google Classroom or Google Forms, and others were from websites such as ReadWorks and BetterLesson.

In addition to the options I provided, I also invited and encouraged my students to find their own resources, with one caveat—they had to submit an “Internet Resource Quality Check” that I gave them. This quality check was designed to measure quality, rigor, and safety of alternative resources. Students were expected to submit proof of their practice for alternative resources as well as the ones I provided.


This sequence continued through the remainder of the unit. My students would take a formative assessment after completing each concept to see if they had mastered it and complete homework to reinforce areas of struggle. Students could also retake their assessments after completing their homework to determine their level of success in mastering challenging concepts.

Perhaps the greatest shift was that homework was no longer graded for accuracy or completion. The accountability for completing homework became the formative assessment score signaling mastery or the need for more practice. My students immediately respected the fact that they were not being asked to complete busy work.

At the conclusion of the unit, students took my summative assessment. I compared this data with scores I had collected in a unit that did not have the personalization of homework or independent practice, and the results were telling.


At the end of the unit, I asked my students if we should use this new homework structure moving forward, and I received an overwhelmingly affirmative response. Apparently, they were motivated by the prospect of not having to do an assignment if they demonstrated mastery on their assessments. They also reported less struggle at home because they weren’t being asked to tackle material that was outside of their current grasp.

This experiment changed my practice substantially. It helped me recognize that tailoring instruction and independent practice inside and outside of the classroom are equally important. Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way about developing personalized homework.

Take It Slow

Much like personalizing classroom instruction, creating personalized homework takes time. I didn’t put pressure on myself to create all of my personalized homework assignments in one sitting. I started with two or three choices and added more over time. I collaborated with my local colleagues and those in my virtual PLC (professional learning community) to develop and add to the resource bank I already had.

Shift Your Perspective

Grading 130 homework assignments a day is unsustainable. Shifting my perspective to view homework as independent practice to support classroom instruction, rather than something that needed to be constantly graded for completion helped. Homework became an opportunity for students to practice a skill in order to master content at their personal pace. If homework wasn’t completed, and they couldn’t show mastery on the assessment, then they continued to work on that concept before moving on. Eventually, students learned that giving me their best effort regardless of the grade was beneficial to them as well.

Feedback That Counts

Giving consistent, personalized, specific feedback, especially on homework, is more powerful than giving a grade. I held bi-weekly conferences to celebrate successes and discuss areas for growth, and used the private comment feature available in Google Classroom to give specific feedback on student work. This encouraged my students to go back and review their work rather than simply look for a score, and it allowed them to communicate with me about their progress by responding.

Accept Technological Support

The teacher-to-student ratio makes managing a personalized learning environment tough enough without adding homework into the mix. The right technology can help us become more efficient with delivering choices, developing personalized content, managing work submission, providing feedback and grading student work. The best tools are those that students can use seamlessly from home—that way classroom instruction and independent practice are working in sync.


My district does not support a one-to-one device-to-student ratio so I quickly learned to always have a non-tech assignment option. Some students cannot complete assignments that are only available online due to limited accessibility to devices or internet connectivity. In the best-case scenario, I include multiple non-tech options because the element of choice is key to personalization.

In 2017, I plan to continue investigating the impact of personalized homework on student growth. My new role as an open resource curriculum specialist offers me an opportunity to work with other teachers to continue finding new ways to tailor homework and make it more personal. My hope is that as device and internet access improves—and as technology continues to advance—both independent and collaborative homework will become more meaningful for students, and the ability to scale personalized feedback to students will become more manageable for teachers.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

A Few Teachers Speak Out on Technology in Their Classrooms

I am fortunate to have many readers who are classroom teachers. I have published posts over the past year about my research on teachers identified as exemplary in integrating technology into their lessons. Some of those posts triggered responses from teachers. I offer a few of those comments here.

Louise Kowitch, retired social studies teacher from Connecticut:

….The impact of technology can vary greatly depending on the subject matter (among all the other things you’ve addressed). While some pedagogical practices are universal, when “doing the work of the discipline”, content-specific practices,and by extension the impact of technology, might vary widely.

I mention this to say that as someone who lived through the IT revolution in the classroom (from mimeographs, scantrons, and filmstrips to floppy disks and CD-ROM, and finally to smart boards, Skype and Chromebooks), by the time I reached three decades as a full time classroom teacher, I was spending MORE time on my lessons and interacting with students, than less. Some tasks were indeed more efficient (for example, obtaining and sharing maps, artifacts, art, primary sources). Others, like collecting data about student performance for our superintendent, became arduous, weekend long affairs that sucked the life out of the joy of teaching.

That said, I loved how Chromebooks and Smartboards freed up my instruction to empower students to do their own research and conduct substantive debates. For example, a simulation of the post WWI debates over the Treaty of Versailles from the perspectives of different countries – something I had done before Chromebooks – became a powerful lesson for students in the art of diplomacy, the value of historical perspective, and the grind of politics, as a result of THEIR OWN RESEARCH, not my selection of primary sources. This was MORE time consuming (2 weeks of instructional time, not 8 days) and LESS EFFICIENT, but MORE STUDENT CENTERED and COLLABORATIVE.

Was it “better” instruction? Yes, if the point was for kids to experience “the art of negotiation”. No, if it meant having to drop a four day mini unit on elections in the Weimar Republic that I used to do after the WWI unit. Something is lost, and something is gained. Like you, I grapple with it’s a zero sum game.

Garth Flint,  high school teacher of computer science and technology coordinator in Montana private school:

My question has always been what effect does the increase in classroom tech have on the students? Do they do better through out the years? How do we measure “better”? We have an AP History teacher who is very traditional. Kids listen to the lecture and copy the notes on the whiteboard.
About the only tech he uses are some minor YouTube videos. His AP test results are outstanding. Would any tech improve on those results? At the middle school we have a teacher who uses a Smartboard extensively. It has changed how he does his math lectures. But he is still lecturing. Has the Smartboard improved student learning? I do not know. I have observed teachers that have gone full tech. Google Docs, 1-1, videos of lectures on line, reversed classroom, paperless. Their prep time increased. Student results seemed (just from my observation, I did not measure anything) to be the same as a non-tech classroom. It would be interesting to have two classrooms of the same subject at the same grade level, one high tech, one old-school and feed those students into the same classroom the next year. Ask that next year teacher if there is a measurable difference between the groups.


Laura H. Chapman, retired  art teacher from Ohio:

“So answering the question of whether widespread student access and teacher use of technologies has “changed daily classroom practices” depends upon who is the asker, who is the doer, and what actually occurs in the classroom.”

Some other questions.
Who is asking questions about the extent of access and use of technology by students and teachers and why? Who is not asking such questions, and why not?

Is there a map of “daily classroom practices” for every subject and grade/or developmental level such that changes in these practices over time can be monitored with the same teachers in the same teaching assignments?

Are there unintended consequences of widespread student access and teacher use of technologies other than “changes in daily classroom practices?” Here I am thinking about the risky business of assuming that change is not only inevitable but also positive(e.g., invigorates teaching and learning, makes everything moe “efficient”).

Who is designing the algorithms, the apps, the dashboards, the protocols for accessing edtech resources, who is marketing these and mining the data from these technologies, and why? These questions bear on the direct costs and benefits of investments and indirect costs/benefits…. Continue reading


Filed under how teachers teach, technology