Techno-Optimism Meets Schools: Schools Win (Part 1)

From Thomas Edison’s words on film revolutionizing teaching and learning in the early 1900s to the acclaim accompanying desktop computers overhauling K-12 schools in the early 1980s to MOOCs in the 2010s transforming higher education to BrainCo–software that tracks and uses students’ brainwaves in 2019–enthusiasm for the latest technological innovation is boundless.  Every ill has a cure, every problem has a solution, and every school needs the latest software to boost students’ math test scores (Dreambox) or make English-speaking students fluent in French (Duolingo).

Anyone over the age of 40 recognizes this repetitive hype and dashed expectations when it comes to the promise of new technologies in schools. What is often missed in this familiarity with exaggerated claims for new technologies (i.e., access and use of new hardware, software, and now social media) is that schools do, indeed, end up extensively using the new stuff. They domesticate the technology to fit what already exists.

In other words, techno-optimists win in getting much of their hardware and software into schools and classrooms but lose badly in seeing that what occurs as a result falls far short of their dreams of faster, more, better, and personalized teaching and learning. And schools win by having access to new technologies while tailoring their use to fit the “grammar of schooling.”

Nearly three decades ago, I wrote a few pieces on this techno-optimism (see here and here) when it comes to public schools and posed three scenarios then. In the intervening decades, each of these scenarios have real-life evidence that they occurred. Yet one in particular–here’s the spoiler–exists now.

Here are the three scenarios I sketched out in 1992.

The techno-optimist’s dream: electronic schools of the future now. These are schools with sufficient numbers of machines, software, assorted accessories, and wiring to accommodate varied groupings of students in classrooms, seminar rooms, and individual work spaces. The dream is to make teaching and learning far more productive through project-based learning or competency-based instruction than it now is. Machines and software are central to this dream. They are seen as liberating tools for both teachers and students to grow, communicate, and learn from one another. Teachers are helpers, guides, and coaches to students being tutored and interacting both with teachers and machines.

The strategy for achieving the vision is to create total settings that have a critical mass of machines, software, and like-minded people who are serious users of the technologies. Examples of such schools range from cyber-schools to regular elementary and secondary schools fully stocked with devices, software, experienced teachers, and highly-motivated students.

The cautious optimist’s scenario: slow growth of hybrid schools and classrooms. In this scenario, putting computers into classrooms will yield a steady but very slow movement towards fundamental changes in teaching and schooling. Advocates of this scenario see it occurring inexorably, much like a turtle crawling towards its pond. It is slow because schools, as organizations, take time to learn how to use computers to guide student learning. It is inexorable because believers in this scenario are convinced that the future school will mirror a workplace dominated by computers and telecommunications.

The evidence for this scenario is a small but growing body of research. For example, introducing a half-dozen computers into a classroom or creating microcomputer labs, over time, alters how teachers teach (that is, they move from whole-class instruction to small groups and individualized options) and how students learn (they come to rely upon one another and themselves to understand ideas and practice skills). Thus, the classroom organization might shift, albeit slowly, from one that is wholly teacher-directed to one in which students working with peers at machines begin to take responsibility for their learning.

In schools where computer-using teachers and hardware have reached a critical threshold, different organizational decisions get made. Teachers from different departments or grades move towards changing the regular time schedule. Schoolwide decisions on using technologies become a routine matter as do decisions on nontechnological matters. Hybrids of the old and the new, of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, proliferate.

The preservationist’s scenario: maintaining while improving schools. In this scenario, policymakers and administrators put computers and telecommunication technologies into schools, but they end up largely reinforcing existing ways of teaching, learning, grouping for instruction, and curriculum. While some teachers and schools use these technologies imaginatively and end up being profiled by the media, most uses are fitted to what already occurs. New technologies become ways of tinkering towards improvement. The vision embedded in the preservationist’s story is one of schools maintaining what they have historically done; providing custodial care, sorting out those who achieve academically from those who do not, and giving taxpayers as efficient a schooling as can be bought with the funds available.

There is much evidence for this scenario. Some examples: mandating a new graduation requirement on computer literacy or students, adding courses to the curriculum on computer science, creating a computer lab for all the school’s machines, scheduling teachers once a week to bring their classes to the room where an aide helps students use software connected to their daily lessons, placing one computer in each classroom, and buying software that is part of a textbook adoption.

In this scenario, computers are seen as occasional helpers for the main business of teaching students. Adapting these tools to help teachers and students do what they are supposed to do in schools ends up with new technologies reinforcing what schools have done all century.

Writing in 1992, I asked: Which of these scenarios is likely to occur?

The least likely is the electronic school of the future. While such schools will be built, they will remain exceptions and, in time, will probably disappear as the next generation of technology, invariably cheaper and improved, comes of age. Thus, although such schools exist now, few will spread to most other districts. Recent experiences of schools adopting instructional television, language laboratories, and programmed learning in the 1960’s and 1970’s have taught policymakers to be cautious. In districts that built new schools, purchased and installed the hardware and software for those technologies, administrators found in less than a decade that the machinery was either unused by teachers, became obsolete, or could not be repaired after breakdowns. The constant improvement of advanced technologies makes it risky for districts to make large capital investments in new hardware beyond a model program or demonstration school.

The cautious optimist’s and preservationist’s scenarios are basically the same story of computer use in schools interpreted differently. Each stresses different facts and derives different meanings from those facts. Preservationists argue that schools will remain largely as they are because of millennia-old cultural beliefs held by most adults about teaching, learning, and knowledge that form the core of modern American schooling: Teaching is telling, learning is listening, and knowledge is what is in books. Most taxpayers expect their schools to reflect those centuries-old beliefs. Such strongly held beliefs seldom disappear when Apple [products] … show up in school.

Preservationists also point out that the popular age-graded school persists through reform after reform. Age-graded schools, the dominant form of school organization for over a century and a half, have self-contained classrooms that separate teachers from one another, a curriculum distributed grade by grade to students, and a time schedule that brings students and teachers together for brief moments to work. These structures profoundly influence how teachers teach, how students learn, and the relationships between the adults and children in each classroom. They are especially difficult to change. For these reasons, preservationists argue, schools tailor technological innovations to fit the contours of prevailing cultural beliefs and the age-graded school.

Cautious optimists, however, take the same facts and give them a sunny-day spin. The optimists’ version of the story displays much patience in making schools technologically modern. Conceding the many instances of technologies being used to reinforce existing practices, optimists shift their attention to the slow growth of technological hybrids, those creative mixes of the old and the new in schools and classrooms. These hybrids of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, the optimists say, are the leading edge of a movement that will bring schools more in sync with the larger society. Thus, the current reasons for the fumbling incorporation of high-tech machines into schools–not enough money to buy machines, teacher resistance, inadequate preparation of teachers, and little administrative support–will gradually evaporate as hybrids slowly spread and take hold. It is a scenario anchored in a long-term view of decades rather than months or years. While I find the preservationist’s story convincing, I lean more to the optimist’s version.

In Part 2 takes up techno-optimists’ promises and how school do tame new technologies–in other words, reform the reform–as the latter two scenarios suggest.







Filed under technology, technology use

How My Thinking about School Reform Has Changed Over the Decades (Part 2)

A few years ago, Richard Elmore asked me to write a piece about how my ideas have changed over the years. Daily experience in schools as a teacher, administrator, and researcher (and the reflections and writing that I did about those experiences)  altered key ideas I had about the nature of reform and how reform worked its way into districts, schools, and classrooms. He included my piece in a book called I Used to Think… And Now I Think (Harvard Education Press, 2011).  Both posts appeared originally in 2013. There is light editing in Part 2. Part 1 appeared a few days ago.

I used to think that structural reforms (e.g., creating non-graded schools; new district and school site governance structures; novel technologies; small high schools with block schedules, advisories, and student learning communities) would lead to better classroom instruction. And now I think that, at best, such structural reforms may be necessary first steps toward improving instruction but are (and have been) seldom sufficient to alter traditional teaching practices.

In teaching nearly 15 years, I had concluded that policies creating new structures (see above examples) would alter common teaching practices which, in turn, would get students to learn more, faster, and better.

I revised that conclusion, albeit in slow motion, as I looked around at how my fellow teachers taught and began to examine my own classroom practices. I reconsidered the supposed power of structures in changing teaching practices after I left the classroom and began years of researching how teachers have taught following the rainfall of progressive reforms on the nation’s classrooms in the early 20th century and similar showers of standards-based, accountability-driven reforms in the early 21st century.[i]

Still, the job of policymakers is to rely upon  structures. Their strong belief that  structural changes will alter traditional classroom practices is in the DNA of policymakers. Moreover, class size changes, national curriculum standards, small high schools, deploying 1:1 laptops, and other structural changes are visible to both patrons and participants. Such visibility suggests vigorous action in solving problems and has potential payoff in votes and longer tenure in office.

As I write, this generation of policymakers invokes that faith in visible structures. They tout changing urban districts’ governance from elected school boards to mayors running the schools. Federal and state policymakers champion new structures to evaluate and pay teachers for their success in raising students’ test scores. And, of course, they beat the drums loudly for new structures expanding the supply of schools from which parents can choose such as charters, magnets, and other publicly funded alternatives. And do not forget the founding of high-tech schools where every student has individual access to the latest devices and software. Entrepreneurial policymakers assume that these new structures will lead to teachers altering their classroom behaviors and, thereby, improve student learning.

Yet my research and that of others deny the genetic links between structures and teaching practice. Like others, I have concluded that working directly on individual and collective teacher norms, building broader and deeper teacher knowledge and skills in  classroom instruction—not big-ticket structural changes—have a far better chance of improving teaching practices. Getting policymakers to shift their emphasis from creating new structures to attending to capacity-building and classroom routines, however, will be most difficult since evidence from studies that contradict conventional policymaker wisdom has a long history of being ignored.


I used to think that the teacher was critical to student and school success. And now, I continue to think the same way. I have not changed my mind about the centrality of the teacher to student learning and school performance. The years I spent in classrooms as a teacher, the years I visited classrooms as a superintendent, and the years I studied classroom teaching have strengthened my belief in the powers teachers have in influencing their students’ minds and hearts. The tempered optimism I have today about schooling children and youth rests in this belief in teachers who have made and continue to make a difference in individual student’s lives.

That a scrum of research studies and policymaker pronouncements in the past few years have affirmed teachers’ influence in students’ academic performance and actual lives supports the faith that I and many other educators have had in teachers. Facts and faith merge nicely.

Yet the current anti-teacher union rhetoric so popular among the entrepreneurial class and the continuing condescension of so many policymakers toward career teachers who have chosen to remain in classrooms erode both faith and facts; they eat away at any gains in respect teachers accrued in the past decade.

These I-used-to-think and now-I-think reflections extracted from nearly a half-century of experience- and research-produced knowledge get at the heart of public schooling in America, especially in cities. That many (but by no means most) schools with skilled and knowledgeable teachers can promote civic, scientific, math, and other forms of literacy, preparation for college, independent decision-making, and thoughtful deliberation in children and youth is central to what schools can do in a democratic society even in the lop-sided three-tiered system of schooling (see Part 1) that perpetuates long-standing societal inequities.


[i] See How Teachers Taught, second edition (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993) and Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009). Other researchers had reached a similar conclusion about reform-driven structures having little influence on classroom practices. See, for example, Richard Elmore, “Structural Reform and Educational Practice,” Educational Researcher, 24(9), 1995: pp. 23-26.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

How My Thinking about School Reform Has Changed Over Decades (Part 1)

Six years ago, I posted this two-part series about changes in my thinking about school reform. It generated many comments from readers. I return to these posts because I want to see if there have been further changes in my thinking about the never-ending deluge of school reform particularly after the spread of “personalized learning” initiatives have become ubiquitous.  I offer it again since I have many new followers that may not have seen these earlier posts.

Reflections on my thinking about school reform came with a request from colleague Richard Elmore who asked me to write a piece about how my ideas have changed over the years. Daily experience in schools as a teacher, administrator, and researcher (and the writing that I did about those experiences)  altered key ideas I had about the nature of reform and how reform worked its way into districts, schools, and classrooms. He included my piece in a book called I Used to Think… And Now I Think (Harvard Education Press, 2011). I have divided the piece into two parts. Part 1 follows. 


I used to think that public schools were vehicles for reforming society. And now I think that while good teachers and schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in individual children and youth, schools are (and have been) ineffectual in altering social inequalities.

I began teaching high school in 1955 filled with the passion to teach history to youth and help them find their niche in the world while working toward making a better society. At that time, I believed wholeheartedly in words taken from John Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed” (1897): “… education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”

And I tried to practice those utopian words in my teaching in Cleveland (OH) through the early 1960s. While in retrospect I could easily call this faith in the power of teaching and schooling to make a better life and society naïve or unrealistic, I refuse to do so because that passionate idealism, that innocence, about the complex and conflicted roles that schooling plays in a democratic, market-driven society gave meaning and drive to the long days I worked as a teacher, getting married, starting a family, and taking university classes at night toward a masters degree in history.

That confident belief in the power of schools to reform society took me to Washington, D.C. in 1963 (I arrived on the day of the civil rights March on Washington) to teach returned Peace Corps volunteers how to become teachers at Cardozo High School. I stayed nearly a decade in D.C. teaching and administering school-site and district programs aimed at turning around schools in a largely black city, a virtual billboard for severe inequalities. I taught history to students in two high schools. I worked in programs that trained energetic young teachers to work in low-performing schools, programs that organized residents in impoverished neighborhoods to improve their community, programs that created alternative schools and district-wide professional development programs for teachers and administrators. While well intentioned federal and D.C. policymakers attacked the accumulated neglect that had piled up in schools over decades, they adopted these reform-driven programs haphazardly without much grasp of how to implement them in schools and classrooms.

I have few regrets for what I and many other like-minded individuals did during the 1960s. I take pride in the many teachers and students who participated in these reforms who were rescued from deadly, mismanaged schools, and ill-taught classrooms. But the fact remains that by the early 1970s, with a few notable exceptions, most of these urban school reforms I and others had worked in had become no more than graffiti written in snow. And the social inequalities that we had hoped to reduce, persisted.

Since the early 1970s, a succession of superintendents and elected school boards have descended upon the D.C. public schools determined to fundamentally change that benighted district. Even after reforms aimed at the governance, curriculum, instruction, and organization of schools were adopted, even after the glories of parental choice, charter schools, and market competition have been championed as cure-alls for urban district ills—after decades of unrelenting geysers of reforms, schooling in D.C.—now under mayoral control–and most other urban districts remain educational disaster zones and a blight on a democratic society.

After leaving D.C., my work as a superintendent, professor, and researcher into the history of school reform and teaching led me to see that the relationship between public schools, reform, and society was far more entangled than I had thought. I came to understand that the U.S. has 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 white suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), San Ramon Valley (CA), Montgomery County (MD) 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 50 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA; Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, CA) 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 reprimanded, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, and rural areas where large numbers of poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being shut down because they are on federal and state lists of failing schools. Occasionally, a stellar principal and staff will lift a school into the second tier but staying there is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S., schools cannot remedy national economic, social, and political problems or dissolve persistent inequities. Schools in these tiers cannot be the vanguard for social reform—ever. Public schools, I concluded, are (and have been) institutions for maintaining social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “yet,” good teachers and schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth even in the lowest tier of schools.

The irony, of course, is that many current policymakers from President Obama through local school board presidents and superintendents still mime John Dewey’s words and act as if schools can, indeed, reform society. In President Obama’s 2010 State of the union speech, for example, he said, “in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”

So nearly a half-century of experience in schools and the sustained research I have done have made me allergic to utopian rhetoric. Both my experience and research have changed my mind about the role of schools in society. I have become skeptical of anyone spouting words about schools being in the vanguard of social reform—even from a President I admire. Yet, I must confess that in my heart, I still believe that content-smart and classroom-smart teachers who know their students well can make significant differences in their students’ lives even if they cannot cure societal ills.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies

So What? The Importance of Knowing about “Success” and “Failure” in American Schools (Part 2)

No one interested in school reform from either the political right, center, or left can come to grips with changing tax-supported public schools without fully understanding the centrality of the age-graded school organization and its “grammar of schooling.” For within that organization and the rules, norms, and social beliefs that govern daily life are definitions of “success” and “failure” that dominate both teacher and student actions six or more hours a day, five days a week, and 36 weeks a year.And have done so for nearly two centuries.

This excerpt comes from the final chapter of my forthcoming book: Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in America Schools.”

David Tyack and I defined the phrase “grammar of schooling” in this way.

By the ‘grammar’ of schooling we mean the regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction. Here we have in mind, for example, standardized organizational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students and allocating them to classrooms, and splintering knowledge into “subjects”. Continuity in the grammar of instruction has frustrated generations of reformers who have sought to change these standardized organizational forms. [i]

What is the connection between a “grammar of schooling” and linguistic grammar? Both have structures and rules that are seldom made explicit. Both operate in regular patterns. Neither has to be consciously specified to run smoothly.

Regularities, the essence of a “grammar of schooling,” govern age-graded schools. Students are divided by ages from pre-kindergarten through senior high school. In elementary schools, a single teacher in a classroom teaches the content and skills in five or more subjects prescribed for that grade. Students stay with that teacher most of the school day. The teacher judges the performance and behavior of each student deciding which will be promoted or retained for the next grade. [ii]

The comprehensive high school is also age-graded—ninth graders are mostly 14 years old and seniors are 18 or so. Organized into departments, subject-matter teachers take attendance, assign homework, enter grades in report cards and determine whether a student passes or fails.

Then there is the Carnegie Unit, a defining feature of the high school. The Carnegie Unit is a single credit awarded for each academic subject based upon time spent sitting in classrooms for a school year. Beginning in the ninth grade, the number of academic credits a student collects is counted toward graduation.[iii]

What has kept the “grammar of schooling” in place for so long?

The answer to the question is straightforward. Popular social beliefs that the age-graded school, free to all, is a “real school.” It rewards merit and provides a ladder to achieve personal “success” for generation after generation of children and youth.

This trust in the school as a meritocracy where the smartest and hardest working students will garner kudos is pervasive. Of equal importance is the widespread belief among parents that schools are escalators to financial and social “success.” Social mobility is an aspiration of both native-born and immigrant parents for their sons and daughters. Getting diplomas and degrees from public schools and colleges is the way for each individual to “succeed” in society. Taxpayers and voters expect schools toinstill and display these values. This web of social beliefs has sustained the age-graded school even when concerted reform efforts sought to alter the “grammar of schooling.”[iv]

A second reason for the durability of the “grammar of schooling” is that state and district curriculum standards, tests, and accountability mechanisms are fastened to the age-graded school. State standards are grade and subject specific spelling out what content and skills should be learned in first grade and tenth grade, for example. No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) tested students in math and reading in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. These policies continue in the Every Student Succeeds Act (2016- ) but leave decisions to state not federal officials. These state and federal policies act as an iron cage reinforcing popular beliefs that the age-graded school and its pervasive “grammar” are a ”real school” and the only way to educate the next generation.

Efforts to change the “grammar of schooling.” These powerful social beliefs have persisted before, during, and after major challenges to the age-graded school occurred. In the early 20th century, for example, reformers attempted to break the tight grip of the elementary age-graded school and the “grammar of schooling.” The Dalton Plan in a small Massachusetts town and the Winnetka Plan in an affluent Chicago suburb (see Chapter 1) sought to individualize instruction to fit the strengths and limitations of each student. In individual contracts between teachers and students (the Dalton Plan) and in the Winnetka Plan that dispensed with age-grading teachers taught differently. And in doing so, the Plan tried to reduce the untoward classroom effects of the “grammar of schooling.” Each of these reforms did gain a foothold in U.S. schools, spread, but ultimately disappeared. [v]

For high schools, a similar pattern occurred. Initially, selective public high schools appeared in the 17th century in New England (the Boston Latin Grammar School was founded in 1635). By the early 19th century, the handful of these elite schools attended by students from affluent families, grew larger as tax-supported public high schools opened on the eastern seaboard. The innovation spread through New England and the Midwest before and after the Civil War. Few families sent their sons and daughters to these schools since the workplace and farm provided jobs for those leaving school at ages 12 and up. In the 1890s, for example, only one out of ten 17 year-olds was enrolled in a tax-supported public high school. [vi]

But with child labor laws being enforced and the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, youth stayed in school. Administrative and pedagogical Progressives created the comprehensive high school with multiple curricula and services for all students, not just those academically inclined (about 30 of 100 seventeen year-olds graduated in 1930). This innovative organization—still age-graded– made it possible for most American teenagers to enter the ninth grade and get a diploma by the end of the 12th grade. By 1950, nearly 60 of 100 seventeen year olds graduated.[vii]

With the spike in enrollments and rising graduation rates in districts with comprehensive high schools, concerns over too much catering to students’ varied interests and sinking academic performance surfaced in the 1950s leading critics to question the thoroughness of the high school curriculum and softening of standards. Few students, for example, took advanced math courses, physics, and Latin compared to selective high schools in the early decades of the 20th century. Criticism of U.S. high schools mounted particularly after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision triggered protests over segregated schools across the country. The Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 also sparked a U.S. curricular reaction in the New Math, and an array of innovative science courses. Top policymakers and power elites began asking whether U.S. high schools could be both excellent and equal—a question that is still being asked and sidestepped in 2019.

That question fueled the next half-century of reform. During the 1960s and 1970s educational policymakers responding to political and social tremors in the culture shuttled back-and-forth trying to equally conserve values and alter society while accommodating both excellence and equity. Civic and business leaders pressed policymakers to increase equal opportunity through busing to desegregate schools, opening up advanced classes to all students, and relaxing graduation requirements. But a slow growing economy and rising discontent over Germany and Japan outselling U.S. companies in the 1970s led a later generation of business, civic, and educational reformers to press schools to turn out skilled graduates who could enter the workplace able to compete with workers in other nations.

The A Nation at Risk report (1983) in scorching language pointed to low graduation requirements, soft academic subjects, and U.S. students’ poor scores on international tests.[viii]

That report and subsequent policy actions in the 1980s and 1990s ended up with nearly all states increasing their graduation requirements and tightening academics in the comprehensive high school. This pattern of seeking academic excellence for everyone without limiting opportunity for heretofore neglected groups has remained a tenet of school reformers for the past half-century.

No Child Left Behind (2001-2015), a bipartisan federal law, and its successor Every Student Succeeds (2016- ) continue the mantra that both excellence and equity can be achieved in U.S. public schools. Of course, both excellence and equity have drawn (and continue to do so) deeply from core American values of individualism and equal opportunity. No surprise to readers, then, that these state and federal education laws made regulations and provided money to districts across the nation that were spent in, yes, age-graded schools. These curricular and regulatory reforms including more student tests ended up reinforcing the age-graded high school and instead of loosening the “grammar of schooling,” it added steel bars. [ix]


[i]David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 85.

 [ii] Decades ago, Seymour Sarason called my attention to the taken-for-granted “regularities” that dominate public schools in The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971).

 [iii] The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “What is the Carnegie Unit? “ at:

[iv] Megan Brennan, “Seven in 10 Parents Satisfied with Their Child’s Education,” Gallup News Alerts, August 27, 2018 at:

David Cohen and Barbara Neufeld, “The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education,” Daedalus, 1981, 110(3), pp. 69-89.

 [v] Frank Grittner, “Individualized Instruction: An Historical Perspective,” The Modern Language Journal, 1975, 59(7), pp. 323-333; Wikipedia, “Dalton Plan” at:

[vi] William Reese, The Origins of the American High School (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

 [vii] Cohen and Neufeld, p. 75.

 [viii] National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, 1983 at:

[ix] Jack Schneider, Excellence for All (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011). Historians of education David Tyack and Diane Ravitch, from contrasting perspectives, have documented reforms of the late-20th century in their books. See: David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) and Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies

So What? The Importance of Knowing about “Success” and “Failure” in American Schools (Part 1)

The next few posts are drawn from the final chapter of “Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools.” The book is scheduled to come out in March 2020.

So What?

Why should readers care about defining individual and institutional “success” and “failure” in U.S. schools? Why should readers care about the past and present existence of American core values stuffed with notions of “success” and “failure” and how schools transmit these values? Finally, why should readers care about two uncommon public schools (MetWest High School in Oakland, California and Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified District) that display these shared values and yet expand familiar definitions of organizational “success” in ways that most U.S. schools do not?

My answer to these “So What” questions is that definitions of institutional and individual “success” and “failure” applied to U.S. schools show up daily in the taken-for-granted institution called the age-graded school. Within the age-graded school, judgments of “success” and “failure” are inherent in student, teacher, principal, school board, and superintendent actions, memos, and social media. In age-graded schools numbers and subjective decisions identify winners and losers through student report cards, teacher evaluations, and district accountability ratings.

But even of greater importance is that amid this organization’s extraordinary stability in American life, over a century of school reform has tried to overhaul it, even replacing the institution to make it better at what it does and end damaging judgments rendered upon children, teachers, and schools.

For nearly two centuries, this school organization has been both the disseminator of societal definitions of “success” and “failure” and displays of individualism, community, and equal opportunity. The age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” has had a vise-like grip on how and what teachers teach and students learn. Determining individual winners and losers from kindergarten through twelfth grade, distinguishing between those who are normal from those who deviate from the standard, those who gets promoted and those who goes to summer school are inherent to this organizational structure and the rules that govern it. Persistent efforts aimed at substantially altering what happens in schools and classrooms, especially those with mostly children of color, have crashed on the shoals of the age-graded organization and its abiding “grammar of schooling.” Intermittent reform efforts to transform this organization through alternative forms of school organization, individualizing instruction through new technologies, and nifty management techniques again and again have lost their way or faded into the background seldom diminishing popular support for this age-old structure.

So my answer to “So What?” is that if (and yes, this is a big “if”) one wants to understand individual and organizational “success” and “failure” in American daily life, if one wants to alter common patterns of schooling, teaching, and learning that sort student winners from losers, then what has to be done is substantially alter the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

In the Introduction and Chapter 3 I have briefly described and analyzed the age-graded school and repeated reform attempts to rework that organization and its underlying “grammar of schooling.” Yet the fact remains that the age-graded school’s capacity to school hundreds of millions of children and youth for nearly two centuries, its longevity and its global ubiquity–I would be stingy to avoid the word—has been a clear institutional “success.”

This school organization has stayed the course for decades because of its universal access and strong popular support generation after generation. It is anchored in the American imagination and culture as a “real school” where young children attend at age 5 (now ages 3 and 4 in many districts) and leave at ages 17 or 18. It is the place where American values are displayed and taught.[i]

Nearly all Americans have gone through public or private age-graded schools. Strangers on airplanes and buses can connect when they talk about their schools. They remember how a school smells and looks. They still complain about school lunches. They can recount their best and worst teachers. Report cards, honor rolls, tests, and homework are as common as eating scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast. Yet the age-graded school is neither an iconic nor admired organization such as Ford and IBM were and Apple, Amazon, and Google have become.

No song or poem has immortalized the age-graded school. Still, it remains the most influential institutional mechanism that shapes for good or ill children’s knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behavior over a dozen or more years. Ditto for those adults who work within these organizations.

As pointed out earlier, reforms aimed at improving how it works have poured over the age-graded school and it has changed over time. Adding kindergarten and pre-kindergarten to the elementary school and increasingly community colleges to the secondary level has led to near-universal access into this institution. Accommodating children with disabilities, giftedness, and educational disadvantages who deviated from the norm, the age-graded school has demonstrated flexibility by responding to political coalitions of parents and activists who fought for the above changes.

But abandoning the organization or moving to non-graded schools are fundamental changes, not incremental ones, and have been rare over the past century. Thus, the stunning continuity and popular acceptance of the age-graded school means that the “grammar of schooling,” has remained in intact.


[i] The phrase “real school” comes from Mary Metz, “Real School: A Universal Drama Amid Disparate Experiences,” Journal of Education Policy, 1989, 4(5), pp. 75-91.

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How To Build Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust (Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis)

For those K-12 educators and higher education professors who bite their nails over whether automation will replace teachers with robots who make out seating charts, answer student questions, explain the causes of the Civil War, do shortcuts on solving quadratic equations, wipe kindergartners’ noses, and hug crying 3rd graders bullied during recess—stop biting your nails. AI will not replace you.

This op-ed appeared in the New York Times September 7, 2019.

“Gary Marcus, the founder and chief executive of Robust AI, and Ernest Davis, a professor of computer science at New York University, are the authors of the forthcoming book “Rebooting AI: Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust,” from which this essay is adapted.”

Artificial intelligence has a trust problem. We are relying on A.I. more and more, but it hasn’t yet earned our confidence.

Tesla cars driving in Autopilot mode, for example, have a troubling history of crashing into stopped vehicles. Amazon’s facial recognition system works great much of the time, but when asked to compare the faces of all 535 members of Congress with 25,000 public arrest photos, it found 28 matches, when in reality there were none. A computer program designed to vet job applicants for Amazon was discovered to systematically discriminate against women. Every month new weaknesses in A.I. are uncovered.

The problem is not that today’s A.I. needs to get better at what it does. The problem is that today’s A.I. needs to try to do something completely different.

In particular, we need to stop building computer systems that merely get better and better at detecting statistical patterns in data sets — often using an approach known as deep learning — and start building computer systems that from the moment of their assembly innately grasp three basic concepts: time, space and causality.

Today’s A.I. systems know surprisingly little about any of these concepts. Take the idea of time. We recently searched on Google for “Did George Washington own a computer?” — a query whose answer requires relating two basic facts (when Washington lived, when the computer was invented) in a single temporal framework. None of Google’s first 10 search results gave the correct answer. The results didn’t even really address the question. The highest-ranked link was to a news story in The Guardian about a computerized portrait of Martha Washington as she might have looked as a young woman.

Google’s Talk to Books, an A.I. venture that aims to answer your questions by providing relevant passages from a huge database of texts, did no better. It served up 20 passages with a wide array of facts, some about George Washington, others about the invention of computers, but with no meaningful connection between the two.

The situation is even worse when it comes to A.I. and the concepts of space and causality. Even a young child, encountering a cheese grater for the first time, can figure out why it has holes with sharp edges, which parts allow cheese to drop through, which parts you grasp with your fingers and so on. But no existing A.I. can properly understand how the shape of an object is related to its function. Machines can identify what things are, but not how something’s physical features correspond to its potential causal effects.

For certain A.I. tasks, the dominant data-correlation approach works fine. You can easily train a deep-learning machine to, say, identify pictures of Siamese cats and pictures of Derek Jeter, and to discriminate between the two. This is why such programs are good for automatic photo tagging. But they don’t have the conceptual depth to realize, for instance, that there are lots of different Siamese cats but only one Derek Jeter and that therefore a picture that shows two Siamese cats is unremarkable, whereas a picture that shows two Derek Jeters has been doctored.

In no small part, this failure of comprehension is why general-purpose robots like the housekeeper Rosie in “The Jetsons” remain a fantasy. If Rosie can’t understand the basics of how the world works, we can’t trust her in our home.


Without the concepts of time, space and causality, much of common sense is impossible. We all know, for example, that any given animal’s life begins with its birth and ends with its death; that at every moment during its life it occupies some particular region in space; that two animals can’t ordinarily be in the same space at the same time; that two animals can be in the same space at different times; and so on.

We don’t have to be taught this kind of knowledge explicitly. It is the set of background assumptions, the conceptual framework, that makes possible all our other thinking about the world.

Yet few people working in A.I. are even trying to build such background assumptions into their machines. We’re not saying that doing so is easy — on the contrary, it’s a significant theoretical and practical challenge — but we’re not going to get sophisticated computer intelligence without it.

f we build machines equipped with rich conceptual understanding, some other worries will go away. The philosopher Nick Bostrom, for example, has imagined a scenario in which a powerful A.I. machine instructed to make paper clips doesn’t know when to stop and eventually turns the whole world — people included — into paper clips.

In our view, this kind of dystopian speculation arises in large part from thinking about today’s mindless A.I. systems and extrapolating from them. If all you can calculate is statistical correlation, you can’t conceptualize harm. But A.I. systems that know about time, space and causality are the kinds of things that can be programmed to follow more general instructions, such as “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” (the first of Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics).

We face a choice. We can stick with today’s approach to A.I. and greatly restrict what the machines are allowed to do (lest we end up with autonomous-vehicle crashes and machines that perpetuate bias rather than reduce it). Or we can shift our approach to A.I. in the hope of developing machines that have a rich enough conceptual understanding of the world that we need not fear their operation. Anything else would be too risky.






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Seating Charts and the Grammar of Schooling

In EdSurge, Kevin Behan, a product manager at GoGuardian (a for-profit software company creating programs for classroom management and other educational tasks)  wrote an opinion piece (August 17, 2019) about the importance of seating charts. He (or EdSurge) titled the op-ed: “Create a Culture, Not a Classtoom: Why Seating Charts Matter.”

After all it is the beginning of another school year and one of the early tasks every teacher in the age-graded school is to determine where students will sit. Those decisions have to do with a mix of questions circulating in a teacher’s head: Where do I seat kids who I think need close supervision? Should I separate close friends? Or should I let students choose where to sit in the spirit of giving students agency?

The fact remains that it is the teacher who decides. Just as the teacher determined the arrangement of furniture in the room from rows of desks to horseshoe half-circles with tables facing one another across an empty space in the center–I could go on since there are many variations of these desk patterns but I won’t.  Arranging furniture and seating students are important early decisions in establishing the teacher’s authority and ground rules for appropriate student behavior.

Thus, the classroom seating chart is one of the plethora of rules that govern the grammar of schooling embedded within the age-graded school. This larger framework of  seeing teaching in public schools as part of a complex system of norms for both teachers and students does not appear in this op-ed.

Using the seating chart to fashion a classroom culture is surely useful advice. Yet not seeing how the age-graded school as an organization imposes boundaries and rules within which both teachers and students work misses the teacher’s limited autonomy–after all, no teacher is allowed to pick the students she has in her fourth grade classroom–that teachers do have. Teachers have constrained discretion in deciding how desks are arranged and where students sit, what content and skills go into lessons, and when to compliment or sanction students. That limited autonomy occurs within the age-graded school. Overall, however, this historic school organization remains an agent of the state.

 Students, for example, are compelled to attend school between the ages of five or six until they are 16 or 17 in nearly all states. Compulsory attendance means that schools have legal responsibility for their health and safety while in school. Students have to be supervised and teachers have to know who is in school or absent. One of the functions of the seating chart is to take daily attendance. And that attendance converts into dollars since state funding of schools is dependent upon how many students come to school each day.

Thus the mundane seating chart that millions of students and teachers are familiar with is part of the interconnected and complex governance, organization, and grammar of schooling that touches both teachers and students over the course of the school day and year.


Kevin Behan, August 17, 2019 wrote the following.

The start of a school year means a new seating chart for each classroom—full of students that the teacher likely hasn’t met. Without knowing the students, how does a teacher know where to assign their seats?

This question comes up each summer as teachers strive to create the best learning environment possible. From my experience in the classroom, I’ve found that seating chart choices can be critical to how students engage with one another and the teacher.

Today, the influx of digital tools and new instructional models means that the traditional classroom settings of “quiet students, talking teacher” may no longer apply. Already, some teachers are letting go of tradition and allowing flexible seating in classrooms to give students freedom to choose where they want to sit. For others, placing students into assigned groups for cooperative learning can produce the optimal learning environment.

As each teacher develops their own style of seating students, their process involves weighing several factors to create their ideal classroom arrangement. But how does a teacher know what’s best for their classroom and which student dependencies should factor into these decisions?

Prep and Plan

The seating chart is an underrated tool that can help turn a good learning environment into a great one.

The lead times for seating chart planning range from the moment the teacher receives the class roll to the first day of class. Some teachers wait until getting to know the students before assigning seats, with open seating in earlier weeks and a solid chart after seeing how students interact, focus, and learn. This reactive approach can work better for teachers who enjoy flexibility and adaptability.

Others take a proactive approach, often by asking previous teachers of those students for their feedback. While this warrants extra legwork at the beginning, polling fellow teachers about their previous students can sometimes help identify when seat placements are beneficial to how an individual student engages in class.

Consider Preferences

Options for seating arrangement type vary, from row-and-column grids to two-person tables to stadium seating. Some draw inspiration from their favorite popular hangout spots, like Starbucks. (But others warn against turning flexible furniture design into a fad.)

For more traditional layouts—whether in rows or in the form of a semi-circle arrangement—past research suggests that students who sit toward the center tend to participate more in classroom discussions.

Although a fixed seating chart does make it easier to remember students’ names, a teacher might decide to change up the layout regularly for a variable learning experience, some as often as every day and others about once a month. That’s not to say that change is necessary for everyone. As long as a classroom is functioning harmoniously, a fixed seating chart can remain unchanged throughout the year. If something doesn’t work, then the teacher can adjust until an arrangement sticks.

Other Factors and Dependencies

There’s more to a seating chart than telling a student where to sit, as many other considerations must be taken into account. Learning disabilities, academic performance, and vision problems could necessitate students being placed in the front of the classroom to ensure better learning and higher engagement.

Social considerations and partner compatibility are important to consider because some students work well with others, even if their socialization can be distracting. It’s common for friends to ask to sit together and not unusual for a teacher to separate them to avoid over-socialization. What they might later learn is that the friends complement and challenge each other in a positive way. Being open and malleable as a teacher creates opportunities for students to learn from each other collaboratively.

Clustering students into groups can also lead to learning environments that foster student collaboration. Previous studies conducted by psychologist and John Hopkins research director, Robert Slavin, points to positive outcomes from cooperative learning, in the form of students learning more, enjoying school and the subject, and feeling more successful.

Create a Culture, not a Classroom

It is integral for teachers to find a layout that suits their preference and instructional style, in ways that make them most engaging and effective. But it is also important to create an environment where students can support each other.

Grouping high level and low level learners together is useful in facilitating peer coaching, and heterogeneous groups can help each other in the learning process. In my experience, this method has been the most effective way to encourage a positive exchange for collective learning in a classroom community.

The seating chart is an underrated tool that can help turn a good learning environment into a great one. While there is no clear model for where to place students, if done correctly, a well-thought-out seating chart fosters an effective classroom environment that allows students to maximize their learning potential.




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