“Lack of Computers in Schools May Be a Blessing”–OECD Report (Part 1)

The above headline comes from the Irish Times (September 15, 2015) reporting on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study: “Students, Computers, and Learning.” Other online and print media headlines on the OECD report capture in simple words different aspects of the report: “Schools Wasting Money on Computers for Kids” or “Putting More Technology in Schools May Not Make Kids Smarter.” Of course, headlines are compressed sentence fragments seeking to convey the essence of the study.

But media DNA requires going for the sizzle, not the steak.

I have read the report’s Executive Summary, looked at the tables of over 60 countries tracking changes in computer access and use, student performance, and national expenditures between 2009 and 2012. Measuring student performance (ages 15 and 16) was the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that covers countries in Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America.

Here are some of the takeaways I gathered from the study.

*Increased access and use of computers in over 60 countries between 2009 and 2012 has yet to translate into improved PISA scores in reading, mathematics. or science in these nations (p. 15).

*The thinking and writing skills necessary to navigate the Internet successfully in a digitally-dominated society can be taught and learned with “conventional … pedagogies and tools.” (pp. 15-16).

*”In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching” (p. 17).

As the array of headlines indicate there are different interpretations that can be extracted from the OECD research report (including mine). Surely, the notable increase in access to devices and software is an accomplishment just as increased student and teacher use of both in lessons. What is newsworthy to me, of course, is that one-leg of the three-legged stool justifying buying these devices since the 1980s was academic improvement. The other two were that the new technologies would transform teaching and get students ready for an information-driven labor market. The academic improvement leg has wobbled badly since then from the scarcity of evidence to support the claim of improved achievement. The OECD report severs improved test scores from the list of reasons to buy tablets, laptops, hand-held devices, and accompanying software. What about the other two legs of that stool justifying purchase of new hardware and software?

Transforming teaching from teacher-directed to student-centered has been a pipe dream. Yes, those teachers already inclined to develop student-centered lessons or already doing them latched on to computers (whether in labs, or with 1:1 laptops and tablets) to do better what they were already doing. But “transforming” teacher-centered instruction to student-centered for most teachers–given the constraints of the age-graded school and work demands placed upon teachers–has not occurred.

The third leg of that stool has been preparing students for an information-based society (and labor market). That reason has become the over-riding public justification policymakers give  for buying a trove of hardware and software in the past decade. Note that I used the word “public” in the prior sentence. Covert reasons for buying high-tech devices and software is simply the political pressure on school boards and superintendents to keep up with adjoining districts and reassuring parents and local voters that their children and youth are using up-to-date tools in school and being prepared for all those high-paying jobs in the computer industry, finance, engineering, robotics, etc. ,etc. Keeping up with the Jones may not have started with schools but it surely has infiltrated policy decisions when it comes to new technologies.

The shift to justifying outlays of so much public money for tablets, interactive whiteboards, and glamorous software shows up in the mania for requiring high school students to take computer science courses (see New York City). The spread of coding camps and teaching kindergarteners to write code (see here and here) are also part of this rationale for buying more and more devices and software with scarce education dollars.

So within the past decade, the three-legged rationale justifying district decisions to buy laptops, tablets, and new software has been demolished. No more hype about improving academic achievement. No more words about revolutionizing teaching. What remains is the strictly vocational aim of preparing this generation of students for jobs. As has occurred time and again during surges of school reform—inserting new technologies into classrooms is simply another reform–the deeper and more important issue gets side-stepped; What are the overall purposes of tax-supported public schools in a democracy?

The OECD report offers U. S. policymakers a rare opportunity to step back and ask why are we spending so much money on devices and software when the results in so many nations, including the U.S., show such little return on investment? In Part 2, I look at the response thus far to this report.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Teaching History at Mission High School (Kristina Rizga)

This is the third excerpt taken from Kristina Rizga’s new book Mission High. With her permission I have excerpted descriptions of math  and English lessons. In this post, Rizga describes a history lesson that Robert Roth, a long time community activist and veteran social studies teacher, taught.

“Your essay on the Mendez v. Westminster case was so powerful,” Roth says as he rests his arm on Maria’s shoulder in the hallway one chilly winter morning in 2011. “You really nailed it this time.” He concentrates on Maria’s face. Roth is dressed in a black, long-sleeved shirt, black jeans, and black shoes. His closely cropped hair has lost most of its pepper.

“Huh? Me? Thanks, Mr. Roth.” Maria stops for a brief moment to soak in the praise before she walks through the classroom door. Clenching a thick bundle of tissues in her hand, she looks out an open window for a moment, smiling.

The J-Church train outside shrieks along the rails near the school. Maria closes the window before settling into her desk. Propping the classroom door open with his right hand, Roth scans every face in the morning rush of students flowing through the hall.

“Have you been avoiding me, Pablo?” Roth shouts. “I saw you near the cafeteria yesterday and you didn’t even say hello.” Pablo smiles reluctantly. “Am I going to see you after school today to look over your outline?”

“Yes, I will be there,” Pablo heaves a long, dramatic sigh, with arms akimbo.

“How are you doing, Darrell?” Roth turns his head toward a tall student walking into his classroom. “Are you coming to see me after school today for a test review?” Darrell nods in agreement as he joins the rest of the students.

Ten minutes after the bell rings, Jesmyn slowly cracks open Roth’s classroom door, peeking through with one eye before she tip-toes inside. The class is quiet. Students are writing. Everyone is working on the “Do Now,” a fifteen-minute review exercise on topics students studied in the last class. Today there are three “short identifications,” events or ideas students have to describe in their own words in no more than three sentences. There is also a short, one-page essay in which students have to discuss the significance of a historic event and connect it to other topics they have already studied.

“I’m late. I know, I know,” Jesmyn whispers to Roth as she moves toward her desk in the front row. She sits down, planting her legs widely on the floor. She puts her red glasses on and reads the instructions on the board, “Test Review. Twenties and the Start of the Great Depression (15 pts).”

“Look at you, kiddo!” Roth walks over to Jesmyn and says quietly, “Showed up even though you are upset about being late,” he smiles. Her pinched lips relax into a smile.

Roth gives Jesmyn a sheet with instructions and whispers, “Respond to each of these questions. Briefly explain the Scopes Trial, who was Henry Ford, and the assembly line. Then a short essay on who supported Prohibition and why.”

“Whoa, this is too much, Mr. Roth!” she exclaims out loud. “How much stuff do I need to write for each?”

“As short as you can,” he whispers back. “Just include the most relevant information. You can look in the textbook, but you must use your own words. If you copy, you don’t learn. But you don’t need the textbook. Just get started, and you’ll see that you know much more than you think.” Jesmyn exhales a long breath and writes her name on a blank piece of paper. Roth is setting up the projector while students are writing.

“Two more minutes, everyone!” Roth interrupts.

“No!” Destiny and Jesmyn protest.

“See, this is my problem.” Roth enters the middle of the classroom. “You don’t listen to me. I say two more minutes and you say, ‘Leave me alone, I’m writing!’”

“OK, Destiny,” Roth says five minutes later. “Tell me one group that supported Prohibition and why.”

“Women’s groups concerned with domestic violence,” Destiny replies confidently.

“Great. Jesmyn?”



“They didn’t want drunk workers.”

“That’s exactly right. Who else?”

“Church groups, because they felt it was a sin to drink,” Maria adds.

Jesmyn jumps in with her hand up: “Oh, gangsters rise in Chicago because of Prohibition.”

“That’s a really good point. Why is this happening?” Roth probes.

“They get into the business of bootlegs, and Al Capone had the law on his payroll,” Jesmyn rushes to explain.

Darrell raises his hand and adds, “Anti-immigration groups also supported Prohibition.”

“That’s true. Why are they doing that?” Roth inquires.

“They say immigrants are drunks and are destroying American morals and should not be allowed here,” Darrell explains.

“That’s right,” Roth nods his head.

“Mr. Roth, what’s a bootleg again?” Marvin jumps in.

“Emilio, could you answer Marvin’s question?”

“Selling something illegally.”

“That’s right. And I know that none of you are bootleggers,” Roth smiles. “Oh, no. You don’t copy CDs. No, I’ve never seen that.”

“All kidding aside,” Roth continues, as he moves back to the center of the room again. “We’ve been studying the Twenties for a while, and this will be on the test in a few weeks. Remember, if we are doing something in class, it will be on my test. I’m studying with you. You have my e-mail and my phone number. Come see me after school if you need help with any of these topics we went over today.”

Roth turns on the projector and a black-and-white photograph appears on the projection board: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936).

“What do you see here?” Roth asks while students flex their wrists.

Darrell raises his hand and answers, “A mother who is moving around and struggling to feed her children.”

“There is something very thoughtful about this picture,” Marvin says.

“That’s so true,” Roth chimes in. “What do you see that makes you say that?”

Darrell raises his hand again. “Children are tired and hopeless, but the mother doesn’t look hopeless.”

“What makes you say that?” Roth probes.

“Children turned their heads away, like they are ashamed,” Maria comments. “But the mother is not ashamed. You see perseverance and determination in her eyes.”

“Exactly,” Roth jumps in. “As Maria pointed out, this photo is not exploitative. Lange shows us both the struggle and the inner strength of the mother.” More of Lange’s photographs appear on the projection board. As students take turns describing what they see, Roth reviews previous material—the Dust Bowl, the Bonus Army, the beginning of Social Security—and connects it to the faces students see in the black-and-white stills. After the Lange introduction, he moves into the center of the classroom.

“OK, Emilio, you gotta sit down,” Roth scans the room quickly. “And put the phone away, please.”

“Jesmyn, are you ready to present?” She nods and comes up to the front of the class.

“How many of you have heard of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921?” Jesmyn asks her classmates. Two hands go up. A few weeks earlier, Roth had offered students their choice of preselected research projects that were not in the textbooks or required by the state standards. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 had jumped out at Jesmyn right away. She admired her boyfriend’s grandmother, Edna Tobie, and knew that she was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. So one Sunday Jesmyn had spent the whole day at Tobie’s house talking to her and her sons about life in Tulsa before the violence broke out. Tobie had described how despite the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow laws, black people in Tulsa created a proud, self-sustaining community with jobs, churches, and two newspapers.

The next day Jesmyn had stayed up until 2:00 a.m. summarizing her findings and preparing for the presentation. She wanted her classmates to know that despite centuries of slavery and exclusion, black people always found ways to survive and thrive. She wanted them to care about Edna and the Tulsa community as much as she did after hearing Edna’s story. As she wrote, she looked up more precise words in the thesaurus, trying to craft more moving sentences. She reviewed drafts on lined, three-hole-punched paper and threw them on the floor if she wasn’t satisfied. Each new draft felt a little better, more refined, and engaging, and sounded more like her.

“Tulsa had the second-largest African American community in the United States at the time,” Jesmyn says to the class. “More than ten thousand African Americans lived in the Greenwood District. There were black-owned businesses, two newspapers, churches, and a real sense of pride in people. The riots started with a rumor that an African American man had raped a white woman. These rumors were typical at the time. Hundreds of white men attacked the community. They burned it down. Mrs. Tobie’s mother was ten at the time, but she remembers holding her mother’s hand, looking at their burned-down neighborhood filled with white ash, smoke, and people crying.<el>The local government didn’t come to defend Tulsa residents from the violence. No justice was served then or later. Mrs. Tobie explained to me that because no justice was served, some older folks blame it now for the young men’s distrust of the government. Young men don’t trust that the police are there to protect them either. It made me realize that even though it happened a long time ago, there are deep, deep scars in Tulsa. Mrs. Tobie and her sons couldn’t stop talking about it even though they weren’t even alive then.”

“I want to be a social worker one day and work in my community,” Jesmyn reflects in the conclusion of her presentation. “It is important for me to understand where deep scars come from.”

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Filed under how teachers teach

Guiding Principles on Teaching, Learning, and Reform

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters. So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

  1. No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.
  2. Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.
  3. School structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare  students for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.
  4. Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise. 

These are some of the principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. They offer criteria by which I can sort through reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.


Filed under Reforming schools

Teachers Helping Teachers Through the Web

One of the key pieces of wisdom I have learned over my years in classrooms, as a superintendent, and historian of education is that teachers learn most from other teachers they respect.  Not high-priced consultants who fly in, talk, and catch an early flight out. Not software publishers who sponsor 1-day workshops. Not district-led professional development seminars on scheduled days. Just the simple fact of teachers reaching out to peers in their school or across town for help with a lesson, a student, or figuring out a district policy.

Teachers teaching teachers is hardly new. Programs where experienced teachers in a school work with newcomers to the classroom are familiar in most districts. Professional learning communities ( or “communities of practice”) that spring up in schools where teachers of the same subject or at grade levels share materials, experiences, and help one another out.  Instead of being a last-ditch (and inexpensive) effort in districts, smart administrators have cultivated such programs and communities knowing full well that local talent is both admired and respected by teachers in need of help.

Since 2006, a web-based marketplace, TeachersPayTeachers, offers lessons, exercises, and transportable ideas that teachers can review, buy,and share lessons created by other teachers. With Yelp-like reviews from teacher-users, the online market-place has turned some entrepreneurial teachers into money-makers while helping other teachers. Altruism and business sense come together nicely. According to CEO Adam Freed, 12 teachers have become millionaires and nearly 300 teachers have earned more than $100,000. He says that on any given day, according to the article, “1.7 million lesson plans, quizzes, work sheets, classroom activities, and other items [are] available, typically for less than $5.”

Take  veteran teacher Laura Randazzo  at Amador High School in Pleasanton (CA). for example. She has created free and for-sale ready-to-use lessons for other English teachers. She sells and gives away those lessons on an online marketplace called . A recent New York Times article featured a Randazzo question in teaching Othello: “What kind of tunes do you think Iago, the villain … would listen to if he had an iPhone?” The sub-title of her website is: “On a Mission to Prevent English Teacher Burnout.”

“What started out as a hobby has turned into a business,” Randazzo says. She has generated over $100,000 in sales through TeachersPayTeachers.

In response to other teachers who buy and use her lessons she has started a YouTube channel to demonstrate how to teach such concepts as irony. According to Randazzo, her “customers” find her lessons and advice helpful because she faces similar issues in her classroom. “That is what ground-level teachers,” she says, “are able to do that textbook publishers can’t.” And I would add consultants who parachute into districts, out-of-town experts, and vendor-hired specialists to Randazzo’s list.

None of the above is a blurb for either the website or Laura Randazzo. Teacher getting help from other teachers is essential for the improvement of classroom practice. None of the lessons bought or created have been vetted by researchers except for those entrepreneurial teachers who have affirmed that these activities, these exercises, and ideas have worked in their classrooms. Here is the wisdom of practice monetized.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

The Play (Selma Wassermann)

Selma Wassermann, professor emerita from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has written widely and extensively from a pedagogically progressive view about reading instruction, science teaching, getting students to reflect in classrooms, and teacher use of case studies in lessons. She has been an elementary school teacher and reading specialist for many years in the New York area before earning her doctorate in education. She brought a barrelful of child-centered knowledge and skills to her graduate students—even returning to teach at an elementary school while on a sabbatical. In the late-1960s, she and her family moved to Vancouver, Canada where she became a founding faculty member at Simon Fraser University. She retired nearly two decades ago and has continued to write for Kappan, Childhood Education, and other journals. She has also become a software designer and CEO of Wrinkled Pants creating iPad apps called  the My Word Reader for children. In addition to all of that, she also writes stories about growing up in Brooklyn. “The Play” draws from her elementary school days and the impact that one of her teachers had upon her.

She smiled a lot when she spoke to us, but it was not a smile that showed any human warmth. She smiled for punctuation and for eliciting our choral response.

“Isn’t that nice boys and girls?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeeessssss, Miss Stellwagon.”

“Aren’t you glad about that?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeessssss, Miss Stellwagon.”

She saw her work with us as her personal burden: training East New York street urchins to use the King’s English.

“Jack in the booox,” I practiced, watching my unruly tongue flick out, off cue, in the little hand mirror. “Awl shuttt uppp tyyytte.” When it was my turn to come up to her desk, her cold hard smile formed around her thin cold lips and I knew I was the source of great displeasure.

When we were well into the spring of the school year, she told us we were to give a play, so that she might show off to the rest of the school her success in teaching us to speak. We sat very still, sweaty hands folded politely, as she explained behind the joyless smile that every one of us was to have a part.

“And who would like to play the King?” Sweaty hands danced in the air and collapsed, deflated, after she named her choice. “Bobby will make an excellent King, don’t you think, boys and girls?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeeesssss, Miss Stellwagon.” But none of us had truth in his or her heart.

“And now, who would like to play the part of the fairy godmother?” Smile.

I thought I would explode with longing, as my had shot up, waved and then fell with my hopes, as Shirley Laskin was named. I felt my overweight body, dressed in Irma Kelbanoff’s cast off clothes, like a pennance and knew that I’d never be named. Never.

She continued to name the characters in the play, and selected the most attractive children first, from a flurry of handwaving hopefuls who didn’t have a chance because her mind had been made up long in advance. She knew who she wanted but continued to tease us with the possibility that we might be chosen. We, unsuspecting, continued to play her cruel game.

The characters with speaking parts had now all been chosen and I sat nervously, my ugly brown shoes tripping on Irma’s too long dress, biting my thumb nail, hoping for a miracle. To be unchosen is the great pain of Grade 4. The unchosen were the detritus of classroom life.

“Now, who wants to play the role of the announcer?” Smile.

Melvin Taub and I were the only ones who would brave yet another rejection. We shot our hands up. She took all of me in, from Irma Kelbanoff’s sagging dress, down to the world’s ugliest brown shoes, and without smiling, turned to Melvin. It was my last chance to be chosen and I’d have cheerfully knocked Melvin off to increase my chances to move out of the rejects.

Her eye fixed on me again.

“Do you think you can do this? It’s an important part you know. Smile

I almost cried out loud with my reassurances. I could. I could. Oh, please. I could.

“You need a white blouse and pleated skirt for this part. Do you have one?”

“Oh, yes,” I lied. “Yes. I have one.”

“All right then.”

I never gave another thought to Melvin, who landed up as one of a large chorus of elves, that nondescript group of back-stage castoffs. As it turned out, a far luckier fate than mine.

That afternoon I told my mother the hard news. I had a part in the class play. The Announcer. I had to have a white blouse and a pleated skirt. The teacher said so.

My mother fell into her quiet fury, the worst expression of her anger. There was no money. There could be no blouse and skirt. I would have to give up the part and the teacher would have to choose someone else.

She didn’t understand that that was impossible. To give up after having been chosen was simply, totally impossible. I cried. I wailed. I sulked. Never did I think that the cost of a new white blouse and pleated skirt was a week’s food budget; that we ate lung stew because lung cost five cents a pound and that was what we could afford. So we went to war, my mother and I, using every verbal weapon we owned. I told her that she was a bad mother. She said that I was too fat to wear a pleated skirt and would look like a baby elephant. We knew exactly where to aim — the most vulnerable and tender parts of the psyche. When my father came home, we were both casualties.

My parents spoke quietly for a long time and after supper my mother took me to the shop around the corner and outfitted me in a week’s food budget worth of white blouse and pleated navy skirt.   She was right about one thing. I did look like a baby elephant.

The next day at school the class went in a long, single line to the auditorium for the first rehearsal. Miss Stellwagon, pinching an edge of cloth from the shoulder of the leader’s dress, held her at arm’s length as she led the file down to the front of the hall. We occupied the two first rows on the right, just under the permanently fixed sign: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Miss Stellwagon organized a tableau of look-alike, gunny-sacked elves rear stage and admonished them in advance about any bad behavior. Walking authoritatively to centre stage, she pointed her index finger at me and beckoned me with it to come up and begin the announcement.

With equal amounts of nervousness and eagerness to please, I rushed from my seat toward her, the toe of my brown shoe catching the lip of the platform step. In a thud that echoed in my heart for the next twenty years, I fell face down at the feet of my fourth grade teacher, pleats billowing, rump exposed.

She looked down at me, her eyes cold and unforgiving. The words, carefully chosen and precisely formed in perfect King’s English fell from that cold, hard mouth, like stones. “Get up and return to your seat. You could never be the announcer for our play. Suppose you fell during the actual performance? You would make the entire class a laughing stock.”

I watched from my seat as Melvin Taub replaced me, my humiliation packed in my suitcase, to last for all time.


Filed under how teachers teach

Research Influence on Classroom Practice (Part 2)

Educational researchers have debated among themselves for decades the degree to which past and current studies have had an impact upon how teachers have taught and students have learned. Such debates over research findings reshaping practical work have not occurred among physicians or engineers, for example. Those who work daily with patients can see how research studies and clinical trials have influenced their diagnoses and treatments of illness. Research results have also had profound effects on how engineers solve problems and make new products. So what is it about educational research and the practical art and science of teaching that seemingly makes it impervious to the plentiful studies completed by researchers?

Many scholars have investigated the answer to the question and have come up with very different answers. Educational psychologist Robert Travers, for example, studied the past century of research and practice and with great certainty entitled his book: How Research Has Changed American Schools (1973). Yet his earlier and contemporary fellow psychologists (e.g., E. L. Thorndike, W.W. Charters, Julian Stanley), as Mary Kennedy points out, expressed deep disappointment of how little research had affected schools and classroom practice. Historian Carl Kaestle’s “The Awful Reputation of Educational Research” is another chord in that melody. This back-and-forth over the value of educational research to working teachers continues today. When it comes to teachers over the past generation, however, it presents a puzzle.

Over half of U.S. public school teachers have master’s degrees. Many courses that these teachers took to earn their degrees in disciplines or in education included reading and analyzing research studies. And many of these teachers wrote a master’s thesis or research papers to complete the requirements for the degree. For those teachers without an advanced degree, most have been exposed to recent research in their discipline or educational specialty through professional development workshops, media articles, or may have even participated in classroom research projects. So most teachers have been either consumers or creators (or both) of research.

But that familiarity with research seldom stills the frequent and intense rhetoric from policymakers, researchers, administrators, and lay reformers who ask teachers to use “evidence-based practice” identified in research studies. They want teachers to incorporate results of scientific studies into their lessons on fractions and decimals, phonics, photosynthesis, and the causes of the Civil War.

Yet in light of so many teachers exposed to research in their graduate programs, an expanding empirical base for effective programs, and a large population of teachers familiar with the ins-and-outs of research, so little of that knowledge has filtered into classroom practice. Decade after decade, critics have characterized teacher use of research as sparse.

This marginal use of research by classroom teachers, however, has not occurred for lack of trying. State, federal, and private efforts over decades have spread the results of research studies to teachers. Consider, for example, the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) that began in 1966. It contains over a million documents most of which are studies freely available to anyone. The National Diffusion Network (NDN) disseminated research on programs that worked in classrooms between 1974-1995. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) started its Educational Research and Dissemination program for classroom teachers in 1981.

Here, then, is a puzzle. Highly educated teachers familiar with research joined to mighty efforts to change that situation over decades, and yet the bulk of the nation’s teacher corps seemingly ignore scholarship easily accessible to them.

There are reasons galore for why this puzzle exists. For some critics of academic research, the primary reason is that most studies answer questions teachers seldom ask. So many studies are largely irrelevant to those issues that bite at teachers daily. Other critics see the reason located in teachers themselves who are so immersed in a culture of practice where experience and stories carry far more weight than findings from scientific studies. And then there are those who point to the age-graded school and the structural constraints (e.g., tight schedules that leave little time for teachers to meet and discuss instructional issues, number of students taught) that fix teachers’ attention on daily logistics rather than applying results of scientific studies. Age-graded schools are largely inhospitable places to apply research. Whatever the reasons, most teachers, critics say, ignore the fruits of research studies that could be used to enhance both teaching and student learning. Instead most teachers rely on experience-based practice, that is, the authority that comes from their knowledge and skills gained through prior experience and the wisdom of respected colleagues.

The situation, however, is not as grim as critics would have it. Those familiar with the history of teaching know that certain ideas baked in academia, have, indeed, been sold and adopted by teachers and put into practice in their classrooms. From teaching young children to read to the National Writing Project to  Success for All, instances of academic research sorted and installed into teachers’ repertoires shreds the claim that educational research has no influence on practice. And that fact is an important clue to unraveling the conundrum.

Consider the work of Jack Schneider, a historian of education who wrote From the Ivory Tower to the School House (2014). In this book*, he does what gifted songwriters do: create a new melody or rearrange a familiar one, add fresh lyrics and end up enthralling listeners. He does so by artfully building an original interpretation about teacher use of research. His “song” will surprise teacher educators, policymakers, researchers, and lay reformers baffled over the puzzle of teachers knowledgeable about research yet seldom adopting scientific findings to improve their classroom practice.

The central question that drives the book is straightforward: what explains that some scholarly ideas, and not others, appeared in classrooms practices? He answers that question by examining Bloom’s Taxonomy, Multiple Intelligences, The Project Method, and Direct Instruction, concepts stamped made-in-academia. Schneider travels back and forth in time from a century ago to the recent past to identify the features of those ideas that made them accessible and useful to teachers in their daily work. Four factors distinguish those research findings that enter classrooms: teachers see the significance of the concept and studies for their students; the research findings accord with teachers’ beliefs and aspirations for their classrooms; the results of the research can be put into practice in their classrooms now not in the distant future–what Schneider calls “occupational realism”; finally, the new ideas harvested from research are “transportable,” they can be conveyed in plain language and the new structures called for are do-able within the confines of the classroom. In making the case for the essential features that he identifies, Schneider also recognizes that luck is an ingredient to the success story—being in the right place at the right time.

Not only does Schneider make the case for the key features of those four ideas that tie together their successful research-to-practice journey, he also takes four very similar research-driven concepts—The Affective Taxonomy, Triarchic Intelligence, Project-based Teaching, and Behavioral Analysis also baked in and sold from the ivory tower—that missed their way into classrooms. He shows that some features of research characterizing the successful transplanting of ideas and practices were missing-in-action in these comparable ventures.

The author also makes clear that the journey from robust research findings into teacher repertoires often get translated and adapted into versions that range from recognizable to distorted fun-house mirrors. Unintended consequences also flow from the zig-zag path that these ideas take from academia to the classroom.

So this is where I end up in the century-long debate over the influence of educational research on classroom practices. Yes, university-generated research has, indeed, influenced teaching practices to a degree but far from what has been promised or intended. Were reform-minded researchers and policymakers, however, to consider carefully teacher beliefs, aspirations, and questions, the conditions under which they work, and then join teachers to build cooperatively further knowledge and skills—then the chances of researchers’ answers to teacher questions might have an easier journey into classrooms.


*Full disclosure: I wrote the Foreword for Schneider’s book from which a few of the above paragraphs were taken.


Filed under how teachers teach

Evidence-Informed Policy: Looking at Post-Katrina New Orleans Schools

In the past few weeks as the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approached, a veritable gale of first-hand observations and research reports swept through the media about improvements in New Orleans public schools. In reading those reports, however, researchers and pundits have warred with one another over the degree to which the Orleans Parish schools have improved over the past decade.

A revolution had occurred, say some researchers and politicians (see here and here) Others say no. Changes have surely occurred with nearly all schools being charters but these top-down changes have created a fragmented system, minimized citizen participation and spent more private and public money than Orleans Parish had ever seen (see here  and here). Moreover, student test scores have dramatically improved, say researchers and policymakers (see here and here) No, others reply, results are mixed and some students had even been overlooked (see here).

In the cacophony of research reports and political statements, sorting out the sizzle—charter-dominant district, more money, new teaching force–from the steak—are students learning more and doing better than before Katrina–is very hard to do. Listening to elected politicians talk non-stop about an improved better city and schooling while citing research studies require large doses of salt before swallowing. Why? because squabbling researchers point fingers at one another’s designs, methodologies, and interpretations of findings in their reports (see here). Getting consensus in research findings is like a unicorn appearing. In a democratic society where facts and figures are highly valued in making public policy, educational researchers quarreling with one another confuse policymakers in one sense but also give them the latitude to pick-and-choose among research reports that best fit their beliefs and stated policy positions.

None of this back-and-forth is trivial. The stakes are high for students and parents in Orleans Parish as they are for champions and critics of school reform. Disputes over the successes and failures of post-Katrina public schools, for example, have become proxy battles over the worth of charter schools across the nation. Is New Orleans a proof-of-existence that urban districts can fire all of its teachers, abolish attendance zones, have nearly all of its schools become charters, and succeed? If so, then can what occurred in New Orleans be scaled up to other big cities where poor and minority students reside (see here)? Answers to these policy decisions lurk in the background of the hype over the resurrection of the Big Easy’s schools.

Yet for those policymakers and practitioners that call (or yearn) for evidence-based policy, the swirl of research reports on the 10th anniversary of Katrina is hardly a god-send. Big questions go unanswered.  And this is where the dilemma over evidence-based policies arises. Federal, state and district policymakers prize using evidence to buttress their policy recommendations. Rational decision-making calls for attending to research and evaluation studies. Yet those very same policymakers value highly getting their choices politically approved by media, foundation officials, and, ultimately voters. Popular policies open the doorway to re-election. Thus these conflicting values of rationality and popularity have to be managed.  All of this is much harder to do when research studies reach contrasting conclusions.

Contested educational research, of course, is stale news; conflicting accounts of the same phenomenon have been common for the past century. From the value of intelligence tests in the early 20th century to the New Math in mid-century to small high schools a decade ago and the worth of laptops as an instructional device–need I continue?–have yielded research findings that some researchers and policymakers have embraced but many have scorned. University-based social, behavioral, and natural  scientists historically have looked down upon the applied research that educational academics have produced. Teachers have criticized educational researchers for decades in asking questions that they find irrelevant to their classrooms. Add further the belabored arguments researchers have had over the design of studies, the methodologies used, and interpretation of findings. Such criticism of educational research has been so common in the U.S. that many critics have come to agree with historian of education Carl Kaestle when he asked in 1993: ” Why is the reputation of educational research so awful?”

Kaestle, along with earlier and subsequent critics of educational research, pointed to how studies have been unhelpful to policymakers, shifting priorities among multiple goals driving tax-supported public education, the politicalization of research, the lack of federally subsidized research and development producing usable knowledge for policymakers and practitioners, and the fragmented ways of informing the public and practitioners of what exactly has been found through research. That “awful” reputation of educational research has not been helped by the back-and-forth of post-Katrina studies.

Evidence-based policy based upon research studies remains a dream. At best, evidence-informed* policy, allowing for the conflicting values of rationality and political popularity that come into play, remains a tough dilemma facing decision-makers.

Part 2 looks at the historical influence that research has had on classroom practice.


*While others may have used the phrase before and since, I ran across it in Andy Hargreaves and Corrie Stone-Johnson, “Evidence Informed Change and the Practice of Teaching” (pp. 89-110) in John Bransford, et. al. The Role of Research in Educational Improvement (Harvard Education Press, 2009)



Filed under school reform policies