Creating New Schools: Regression To the Mean (Part 2)

In 2003, Microsoft Corporation went into a partnership with the Philadelphia public schools to build and staff a brand-new high school called “The School of the Future” in the middle of a West Philadelphia low-income, African American neighborhood. Microsoft would supply the technological expertise and the district would staff and operate the school. The mission: prepare youth to go to college and enter the high-tech information-saturated workplace prepared to get entry-level jobs and launch careers.

In 2006, this shining new eco-sensitive, high-tech school, adjacent to a large park and the city’s zoo,  costing $62 million opened for 750 students. Students were chosen by lottery. The founders and district leaders were committed to educating students–called “learners”–to use software-laden laptops using a Microsoft developed portal rather than printed textbooks. A shining new media center, science labs galore, and especially equipped classrooms supported interdisciplinary projects and team-driven projects driven by students’ interests. The facility sparkled. As did the hopes and dreams of the teachers, “learners”, and parents.



In 2012, School of the Future graduated its first class of 117 seniors–three years after it opened and every single one was admitted to college. But it was a rocky ride for these largely poor and African American graduates and subsequent classes.

Frequent changes in principals, unstable funding from district–the state had taken over the Philadelphia schools–mediocre academic achievement, and troubles with technologies–devices became obsolete within a few years–made the initial years most difficult in reaching the goals so admirably laid out in the prospectus for the school.

In 2018, the School of Future remains in operation but even with its surfeit of technology devices and software SOF has slowly become similar to traditional schools elsewhere in its district in its goals, policies, and practices (see here, here, and here).

As Richard Sherin, principal or “Chief Learner” since 2014 said:

At one point this school functioned very much through technology….Where our innovation is now is to get back to the fundamentals of what an educational academic program is supposed to be like, and how you get technology to mirror or augment that.

Part of those “fundamentals” is having a regular school day of seven 56-minute periods like most high schools with an 11-minute hiatus for what used to be called “home room.” Textbooks have returned as have paper and pencil. While project-based learning occurs in different academic subjects, state standards, yearly testing, and accountability have pressed both administration and faculty to focus on getting better-than-average test scores and graduating most of their students–SOF exceeds other district high schools in the percentage they graduate.

This slippage from grand opening of a futuristic school to one resembling a traditional high school is common in public schooling as it is in other institutions.

Why is there this slow movement back from a school built for the future  to the traditional model of schooling as seen in New York’s Downtown School (Part 1) and here in Philadelphia’s School of Future?

I have one but surely not the only answer. Designers of future schools and innovations overestimate the potency of their vision and product and underestimate the power of the age-graded school’s structure and culture (fully supported by societal beliefs) that sustain traditional models of schooling. That see-saw of underestimation vs. overestimation neatly summarizes the frequent cycles of designers’ exhilaration with a reform slowly curdling into disappointment as years pass.

The overestimation of a design to alter the familiar traditional school has occurred time and again when reformers with full wallets, seeing how out of touch educators were as changes in society accelerated, created new schools chock-a-block across the country in the 1960s such as “free schools” and non-graded schools  (see here and here).

Within a decade, founders of these schools of the future had departed, either  burned out or because they had ignored politically the two constituencies of parents and teachers who had to be involved from the start but were not. These well intentioned reformers also ignored how the structures and culture of the age-graded school have been thoroughly accepted by most parents and teachers as “real schools.”

Designers of reform seldom think about the inherent stability of the institution that they want to transform. They seldom think about the strong social beliefs of taxpayers, voters, teachers, and parents who have sat in age-graded schools and who sustain generation after generation the “grammar of schooling.”

From daily schedules of 50-minute periods to the fact that teachers ask questions far more than students during lessons to the use of textbooks, homework, and frequent tests–these features of the “grammar of schooling” or what Seymour Sarason in The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change,  called the “regularities” of schooling–persist generation after generation. While they exaggerate the reform they champion, they neglect  the influences of organizational structures and cultures.

Some designers give up. They realize that their grand visions cannot be accommodated by public schools quickly so they create schools of the future in private venues such as “micro-schools” or  the Khan Lab School and the like.

The notion of mindful incremental change over a lengthy period of time in the direction of gradually building a “school of the future” is anathema to fired-up, amply funded designers who see their visions enacted in one fell swoop. Thus, disappointment arises when futuristic schools slip back into routines that designers scorned. Regression to the mean smells like failure to these reformers who underestimated the power of the “grammar of schooling.”









Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

Creating New Schools: Regression To the Mean (Part 1)

Historians have a unfortunate reputation for being wet blankets. Reformers propose a new idea or a program aimed at transforming what children or youth do in schools and some historian will say: “Hey, that ain’t new. It was tried in the 1890s and lasted less than a decade.”

The historian is nearly always accurate in the facts that similar or even identical innovations did occur before but those very same historians too often forget to add that the contexts then are not the same contexts now. Times change. Teaching machines in the 1950s, for example, are surely similar to widespread “personalized learning” in the present decade in seeking individualized learning but the 1950s and 2010s were politically, economically, technologically, and socially very different.

Historians, then, can see the similarities in innovations but must note the differences in how the innovation began and played out over time in two different contexts. In doing so, such historians can inform current school reformers on the policy strengths, defects, and outcomes–both anticipated and unanticipated–in previous efforts suggesting where there are potholes and bends in the road that have to be noted and avoided by contemporary policymakers. While there are no “lessons” or an easy “usable past” that historians can tell policymakers, historians can point out similarities and differences that can help decision-makers, practitioners, and parents in current policy debates and actions.

There is also another reason for historians to draw upon the past to inform decision-makers about consequential policies; those innovators who come up with an idea and put it into practice already have a view of the past and they act on it. They already have views and identities shaped by history. Those views and “facts” may be uniformed, naked of accurate information of what happened in earlier years but it is, nonetheless, a view of the past that entrepreneurs and policymakers–who are eager to create schools that will best prepare the young for an uncertain future–hold.

Essayist and novelist James Baldwin said it all in 1965.

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

As always, historian David Tyack put it crisply: Policymakers do not have a choice about whether to use history. They do it willy-nilly. The question is: How accurate is their historical map?

And the historical maps used by entrepreneurial innovators inspired to transform traditional schooling into futuristic venues–“learning spaces”–that better prepare students for an information-saturated world where yesterday’s careers are obsolete and today’s jobs disappear each year bear little resemblance to what happened before.  These techno-utopians believe that, while the task will be difficult and complicated, they can succeed where previous efforts failed because, well, they are smarter, know exactly what to do and how to do it, have more technological tools, and pocketfuls of cash. In short, they are arrogant–they know better than those who do the work daily in schools and ignorant of past similar efforts where just as smart, well-intentioned reformers put into practice innovations a generation ago.

All of this occurred to me as I finished reading Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism an ethnography about a New York City public middle school that opened in 2009. Amply funded by exceedingly idealistic and optimistic technology entrepreneurs, students would create gaming software, work on high-tech projects in teams, and learn in spaces similar to start-up companies. This would be a school where coding and digital media production practices  across the curriculum became routine, where pedagogy was redesigned to be game-like, and where the school would “cultivate student agency, creativity [and] improvisational problem-solving capacities” (p.98). In short, a media technology, student-centered school of the future.

Christo Sims who was there as a researcher when the public school opened with a sixth grade class spent three years at Downtown School–a pseudonym–and described the thinking that produced the school, its policies, and practices.

Things didn’t work out the way the designers intended, however.

Consider how school-made rules for controlling student movement and reducing noise appeared. Sims asks reader to consider how school leaders and teachers broke down  classroom lessons into step-by-step procedures and set activities. Sims notes that in some classrooms rows of desks facing the front of the room replaced tables and chairs arranged in circles with students facing one another. He documents that as lessons ended, teachers organized students into “quiet, forward-facing, single-file lines before they left the classroom” and then “teachers  marched students down the hallway to their next class” (p.97). Furthermore, teachers and students became time-minded, both having a sharp awareness of completing an activity in a given amount of time. This, according to Sims, this student-centered ideal school turned into practices eerily similar to a traditional school.

One part of the school year did come close to the aspirations of the school designers. Called “Level Up,” a week-long period, three times a year, when the school completely altered their daily schedules, classroom lessons, and interactions. School leaders issued a challenge to teams of students to work on. The first “Level Up” week students were challenged to build a Rube Goldberg machine out of common materials (popsicle sticks, paper clips, rubber bands, plastic bags,etc.) that parents and teachers had provided. Another week-long session had students writing and producing short plays based on fairy tales that they had “remixed” from music, videos, photos, and art.

These interludes during the school year were moments when the school designers’ rhetoric of student agency, participation, and involvement matched what occurred in the school. Students chose which kind of machine or “remixed” fairy tale to create, worked on it together and turned in a product that they exhibited to the rest of the school. But these interludes were three weeks out of a 36-week school year.

After close observation and participation in the school for three years, Sims concludes that: “While the reformers championed student agency and creativity, students had very little say about what they could do, and most of what they were supposed to do was quite similar to the very schooling practices that reformers criticized and aimed to replace” (p.94).

The Downtown School continues to operate in 2018. And so does the historical paradox of creating schools for the future that end up resembling present-day schools. A well-funded redesigned school where well-intentioned, optimistic reformers reject the traditional model of teaching and learning only to slide inexorably into the kind of schooling similar to what they found lacking is not rare but common in the history of public schooling.

Smart, well-funded idealists thought (and continue to think) that creating a brand-new school with a novel curriculum and state-of-the-art technologies would be free and clear of traditional space, schedule, parents’ social beliefs about what a “real” school is, and the inherent asymetrical power relationships between teachers and students that have marked tax-supported public schools for at least two centuries. The Downtown School that Christo Sims describes may well be an instance of “regression to the mean,” a statistical phrase all to common in the performance of organizations and individuals. That movement to the middle of a continuum is what Part 2 explores.



Filed under school reform policies

No, Educators and Policymakers Shouldn’t Just ‘Do What the Research Shows’ (Rick Hess)

…. I routinely advise policymakers and practitioners to be real nervous when an academic or expert encourages them to do “what the research shows.” As I observed in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, 20th-century researchers reported that head size was a good measure of intelligence, girls were incapable of doing advanced math, and retardation was rampant among certain ethnic groups. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “That wasn’t real research!” Well, it was conducted by university professors, published in scholarly journals, and discussed in textbooks. Other than the fact that the findings now seem wacky, that sure sounds like real research to me.

Medical researchers, for instance, change their minds on important findings with distressing regularity. Even with their deep pockets and fancy lab equipment, they’ve gone back and forth on things like the dangers of cholesterol, the virtues of flossing, whether babies should sleep on their backs, how much exercise we should get, and the effects of alcohol. Things would be messy if lawmakers or insurers were expected to change policies in response to every new medical study.

In truth, science is frequently a lot less absolute than we imagine. In 2015, an attempt to replicate 97 studies with statistically significant results found that more than one-third couldn’t be duplicated. More than 90 percent of psychology researchers admit to at least one behavior that might compromise their research, such as stopping data collection early because they liked the results as they were, or not disclosing all of a study’s conditions. And more than 40 percent admit to having sometimes decided whether to exclude data based on what it did to the results.

Rigorous research eventually influences policy and practice, but it’s typically after a long and gradual accumulation of evidence. Perhaps the most famous example is with the health effects of tobacco, where a cumulative body of research ultimately swayed the public and shaped policy on smoking—in spite of tobacco companies’ frenzied, richly funded efforts. The consensus that emerged involved dozens of studies by hundreds of researchers, with consistent findings piling up over decades.

When experts assert that something “works,” that kind of accumulated evidence is hardly ever what they have in mind. Rather, their claims are usually based on a handful of recent studies—or even a single analysis—conducted by a small coterie of researchers. (In education, those researchers are not infrequently also advocates for the programs or policies they’re evaluating.) When someone claims they can prove that extended learning time, school turnarounds, pre-K, or teacher residencies “work,” what they usually mean is that they can point to a couple studies that show some benefits from carefully executed pilot programs.

The upshot: When pilots suggest that policies or programs “work,” it can mean a lot less than reformers might like. Why might that be?

Think about it this way. The “gold standard” for research in medicine and social science is a randomized control trial (RCT). In an RCT, half the participants are randomly selected to receive the treatment—let’s say a drug for high blood pressure. Both the treatment and control groups follow the same diet and health-care plan. The one wrinkle is that the treatment group also receives the new drug. Because the drug is the only difference in care between the two groups, it can be safely credited with any significant difference in outcomes.

RCTs specify the precise treatment, who gets it, and how it is administered. This makes it relatively easy to replicate results. If patients in a successful RCT got a 100-milligram dosage of our blood pressure drug every twelve hours, that’s how doctors should administer it in order obtain the same results. If doctors gave out twice the recommended dosage, or if patients got it half as often as recommended, you wouldn’t expect the same results. When we say that the drug “works,” we mean that it has specific, predictable effects when used precisely.

At times, that kind of research can translate pretty cleanly to educational practice. If precise, step-by-step interventions are found to build phonemic awareness or accelerate second-language mastery, replication can be straightforward. For such interventions, research really can demonstrate “what works.” And we should pay close attention.

But this also helps illuminate the limits of research when it comes to policy, given all the complexities and moving parts involved in system change. New policies governing things like class size, pre-K, or teacher pay get adopted and implemented by states and systems in lots of different ways. New initiatives are rarely precise imitations of promising pilots, even on those occasions when it’s clear precisely what the initial intervention, dosage, design, and conditions were.

If imitators are imprecise and inconsistent, there’s no reason to expect that results will be consistent. Consider class-size reduction. For decades, advocates of smaller class sizes have pointed to findings from the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project, an experiment conducted in Tennessee in the late 1980s. Researchers found significant achievement gains for students in very small kindergarten and first-grade classes. Swayed by the results, California legislators adopted a massive class-size reduction program that cost billions in its first decade. But the evaluation ultimately found no impact on student achievement.

What happened? Well, what “worked” on a limited scale in Tennessee played out very differently when adopted statewide in California. The “replication” didn’t actually replicate much beyond the notion of “smaller classes.” Where STAR’s small classes were 13 to 17 students, California’s small classes were substantially larger. STAR was a pilot program in a few hundred classrooms, minimizing the need for new teachers, while California’s statewide adoption required a tidal wave of new hires. In California, districts were forced to hire thousands of teachers who previously wouldn’t have made the cut, while schools cannibalized art rooms and libraries in order to find enough classrooms to house them. Children who would have had better teachers in slightly larger classrooms were now in slightly smaller classrooms with worse teachers. It’s no great shock that the results disappointed.

Research should inform education policy and practice, but it shouldn’t dictate it. Common sense, practical experience, personal relationships, and old-fashioned wisdom have a crucial role to play in determining when and how research can be usefully applied. The researchers who play the most constructive roles are those who understand and embrace that messy truth.


Filed under research, school reform policies

Bottom-up Reforms: Teachers (Part 3)

School is no longer an educational experience, but a constant struggle to survive.

Dr. Virginia Uribe, speaking at Phillips Andover Academy, 1991

People don’t want to sit next to you in class; they don’t want to work with you on group projects because [they think],’oh, you’re funky’.

A Massachusetts high school student who identifies as transgender


These quotes come from a forthcoming history written by high school teacher Stephen Lane about a teacher-led, bottom-up reform that incrementally over the past half-century yielded in one state a massive change in school awareness, programs, and culture involving harassed and bullied minority groups: gay teachers and students.

Lane documents the national scorn and abuse that gay adults and youth endured since the 1950s, the protests against gay-bashing in the 1970s inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, and the emergence of a teacher-led, school-site movement in the 1990s that gradually in small actions reduced the isolation and abuse that afflicted both gay teachers and students in the Boston area and the state of Massachusetts.

The slow, uneven tide of gay victories in gaining rights that other Americans had through state legislatures and courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) in the 1980s and through the early aughts of the 21st century gradually seeped into schools with the formation of gay-straight alliances in colleges and high schools and a growing acceptance of what became known as the LGBT  (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movement (see here, here, and here).

Not only were these political actions occurring as more and more Americans saw clearly the inequities that their fellow citizens (and members of families) endured, but the fear and bullying of  gay teachers and student occurring in schools stirred both to organize to support one another and educate non-gays that they were human beings endowed with the rights and privileges that their peers enjoyed.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Massachusetts, private and public school teachers working with a coalition of reformers, Lane writes, organized gay-straight alliances that eventually spread across the state and helped pass the Massachusetts Safe School Act that included LGBT students and teachers. Republican William Weld, established in 1992 the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian youth, a group that published a year later its report Breaking the Silence: Making Schools Safe for Gay and Lesbian Youth. The report recommended policies to protect students from bullying,  training for teachers to recognize and stop harassment, and establishing support groups. Most important the Governor provided funding to create these school-based support groups–called Gay-Straight Alliances–with trained teachers to lead them across the state.

As Lane puts it:

The existence of openly gay teachers and students and of Gay-Straight Alliances, has helped generations of students and parents get used to the idea that homosexuality is a normal part of mainstream society. Schools have helped condition individuals and communities to a new reality.

With the support of the Governor and funding, the state department of education geared up to work with districts to make schools safer places for both students and teachers.

Lane concludes:

...[T]he chain of events is quite clear: the state department of education implemented reforms that were based entirely on models developed by teachers working at their individual schools. It is a process that began with teachers seeking to address the problem directly in front of them,and ended with a statewide program to support LGBT youth, key elements of which have been copied by many other states.

Lane points out that much remains to be done insofar as LGBT youth are concerned in secondary schools in Massachusetts and across the country. But a beginning, he argues, was crafted and led by teachers.

Lane’s story of what happened in Massachusetts in the 1990s shows again that larger social, economic, and political forces in society impinge on schools triggering inexorable changes but not until a teacher-led coalition of students, parents, and legislators acted politically did conditions that gay teachers and youth faced gradually change in the state’s schools.  Surely, in 2018 all is not a Panglossian Eden for LGBT youth and teachers in Massachusetts or across the nation. But it is definitely better for this generation than it was in the 1970s and subsequent decades.

Here, as in the previous posts in this series, is a teacher-led bottom-up, incremental, and political movement that slowly moved across the Bay State’s districts and schools changing policies and behavior to create more accepting, respectful, and safer conditions for gay teachers to teach and students to learn.

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Lessons I Have Learned about School Reform and Technology


On June 13,  2018. I was a member of a panel held at Mission High School during San Francisco Design Week. Software developers, and others who see themselves as designers of ed-tech products that will improve schools attended this panel discussion. The moderator asked each of us to state in 7-8 minutes “what hard lessons have you learned about education that you’d like to share with the ed-tech design community?” My fellow panelists were two math teachers–one from Mission High School and the other a former teacher at Oakland High School, three product designers (one for the Chan/Zuckerberg Initiative, another for Desmos, and the lead designer for Khan Academy) who have been working in the ed-tech industry for years. In attendance were nearly 60 young (in their 20s and 30s) product designers, teachers, and ed-tech advocates .

Elizabeth Lin, a designer for Khan Academy, organized and moderated the panel. She began with a Kahoot quiz on Pokemon and Harry Potter. Audience members had the Kahoot app on their devices and entered the pin number to register for the quiz. For the record, I knew none of the answers having have never played Pokemon or, as yet, cracked a Harry Potter book. 

When my turn came to speak, I looked around the room and saw that I was the oldest person in the room. Here is what I said.

Many designers and school reformers believe that in old age, pessimism and cynicism go together. Not true.

As someone who has taught high school history, led a school district, and researched the history of school reform including the use of new technologies in classrooms over the past half-century, I surely am an oldster. But I am neither a pessimist, nay-sayer, or cynic about improving public schools and teachers making changes. I am a tempered idealist who is cautiously optimistic about what U.S. public schools have done and still can do for children, the community, and the nation. Both my tempered idealism and cautious optimism have a lot to do with what I have learned over the decades about school reform especially when it comes to technology. So here I offer a few lessons drawn from these experiences over the decades.


Teachers are central to all learning.

I have learned that no piece of software, portfolio of apps, or learning management system can replace teachers simply because teaching is a helping profession like medicine and psychotherapy. Helping professions are completely dependent upon interactions with patients, clients, and students for success. No improvement in physical or mental health or learning can occur without the active participation of the patient and client—and of course, the student.

Now, all of these helping professions have had new technologies applied to them. But if you believe, as I do, that teaching is anchored in a relationship between an adult and a student then relationships cannot be replaced by even the most well designed software, efficient device, or virtual reality. There is something else that software designers often ignore or forget. That is that teachers make policy every time they enter their classroom and teach.

Once she closes her classroom door, the teacher decides what the lesson is going to be, what parts of top-down policies she will put into practice in the next hour, and which parts of a new software program she will use, if at all.

Designers are supposed to have empathy for users, that is, understand emotionally what it is like to teach a crowd of students five or more hours a day and know that teacher decisions determine what content and skills enter the classroom that day. Astute ed-tech designers understand that, for learning to occur, teachers must gain student trust and respect. Thus, teachers are not technicians who mechanically follow software directions. Teaching and learning occur because of the teacher’s expertise, smart use of high-tech tools, and the creation of a classroom culture for learning that students come to trust, respect, and admire.

Of course, there are a lot of things about teaching that can be automated. Administrative stuff—like attendance and grade books—can be replaced with apps. Reading and math skills and subject area content can be learned online but thinking, problem solving, and decision-making where it involves other people, collaboration, and interactions with teachers, software programs cannot replace teachers. That’s a rosy scenario that borders on fantasy.


Access to digital tools is not the same as what happens in daily classroom activities.

In 1984, there were 125 students for each computer; now the ratio is around 3:1 and in many places 1:1. Because access to new technologies has spread across the nation’s school districts, too many pundits and promoters leap to the conclusion that all teachers integrate these digital tools into daily practice seamlessly. While surely the use of devices and software has gained entry into classrooms, anyone who regularly visits classrooms sees the huge variation among teachers using digital technologies.

Yes, most teachers have incorporated digital tools into daily practice but even those who have thoroughly integrated new technologies into their lessons reveal both change and stability in their teaching.

In 2016, I visited 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons.

They were hard working, sharp teachers who used digital tools as easily as paper and pencil. Devices and software were in the background, not foreground. The lessons they taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in creating playlists for students, pursuing problem-based units, and organizing the administrative tasks of teaching.

But I saw no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of a lesson. Teachers set lesson goals, designed varied activities, elicited student participation, varied their grouping of students, and assessed student understanding. None of that differed from earlier generations of experienced teachers. The lessons I observed were teacher-directed and revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Again, both stability and change marked teaching with digital tools.


Designers and entrepreneurs overestimate their product’s power to make change and underestimate the power of organizations to keep things as they are.

Consider the age-graded school. The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) solved the 20th century problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to move masses of children through public schools.  Today, it is the dominant form of school organization.

Most Americans have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma around age 18.

The age-graded school was an organizational innovation designed to replace the one-room schoolhouse in the mid-19th century—yes, I said 19th century or almost 200 years ago. That design shaped (and continues to shape) how teachers teach and students learn.

As an organization, the age-graded school distributes children and youth by age to school “grades. It sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks, and, after passing tests would be promoted to the next grade.

Now, the age-graded school dominates how public (and private) schools are organized. Even charter schools unbeholden to district rules for how to organize, have teachers teach, and students learn are age-graded as is the brand new public high school on the Oracle campus called Design Tech High School.


Ed Tech designers are trapped in a trilemma of their own making.

Three highly prized values clash. One is the desire for profit—building a product that schools buy and use. Another is to help teachers, students, and schools become more efficient and effective. And the third value is that technology solves educational problems.

Many venture capitalists, founders of start-ups, and cheerleaders for high tech innovations cherish these conflicting values.

I’m not critical of these values. But when it comes to schools, product designers with these values in their search for profit and improvement underestimate both the complexity of daily teaching and the influence of age-graded schools on teaching and learning. Those who see devices and software transforming today’s schooling seldom understand schools as organizations.

I don’t believe that there are technical solutions to teaching, to running a school, or governing a district. Education is far too complex. These are the “hard” lessons I have learned.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Bottom-up Reform: Teachers (Part 2)



First, West Virginia teachers in February 2018 went on strike and lobbied state legislators for higher salaries and more money for public schools. These protests were then followed by teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado. In full view of the nation, low-salaried teachers struck to get higher pay and lobby legislatures to allocate more money to public schools.






These states (except for Colorado) barred unions from collectively bargaining with district school boards; they were right-to-work states–there are 28 that ban unions. Still these teachers organized walk-outs from schools and bus trips to state capitols to persuade legislators to increase funding for public schools. Enough was enough, these teachers said to those who make educational policy for state systems.

These state-wide protests bubbled up from classrooms, schools, and districts and spread like a flash fire. Most of these legislatures increased spending for salaries and allocations for districts–see article about Oklahoma. Teacher-led flash fires, yes. Unions involved? Not directly, because collective bargaining was banned in these states. But indirectly through  the American Federation of Teachers (under one million members) and the National Education Association (nearly three million members) which had organizations in these states.

If there is one clear example of teacher-led changes that was bottom-up, incremental, and political–no political actions occurred in the spread of student interactive notebooks in Part 1 of this series–then these state-wide protests resurface the late-19th century’s efforts of teacher Margaret Haley’s campaign to organize Chicago teachers.

The decades surrounding the beginning of the 20th century were when Haley and a cadre of fellow teachers organized the Chicago Teachers Union to stop administrators’ arbitrary dismissals of teachers, raise salaries, and make pay equitable between male and female teachers (see here and here).

Teacher unions spread across the country with states in the Northeast and West eventually becoming the most organized regions. The NEA, however, had admitted administrators to their ranks since its founding and initially frowned on teachers copying private sector industrial unions of the day; in the late-1960s, however, NEA barred administrators from the organization moving gradually to become the largest U.S. union representing teachers.

A bottom-up reform? Yes, here are mostly women teachers who dominated the profession listening to “Maggie” Haley in the early 20th century and Al Shanker later in the century to organize into unions that would fight for equitable salaries, better working conditions and the right to bargain with school boards over policies affecting teachers and their classrooms. While NEA and AFT were private organizations supported by dues-paying teachers, union lobbying–and state and federal legislation–got many states to recognize the right of teachers to collectively bargain with boards of education–Wisconsin being the first to do so in 1959. Over time, unions became an actor in formulating and adopting state and district policies that raised pay, improved schools as both workplaces and places to learn, and established due process in district decisions about firing teachers.

Incremental? Yes, throughout the 20th century, unions gained collective bargaining in bite-sized chunks, made advances in securing protections from capricious dismissals, gained a single salary schedule for teachers–elementary school teachers earned less than secondary school teachers–and equal pay for male and female teachers. Slow but steady progress occurred over the decades amid threatened and actual strikes (in many states teachers strikes were prohibited). In some instances, unions retreated and in other cases, lost out to state decisions that banned collective bargaining but teacher unionism became a mainstay in state and local school policymaking (see here, here, and here).

Political? Yes. With extensive lobbying of school boards, city councils, and state legislatures—unions mandate that new members must pay dues that permit political activity–states and districts modified policies involving teacher pay, educational funding, school improvements, and due process in evaluating teachers’ performance. And state legislatures and district school boards have changed policies over time. Unions also acted politically through running slates of local and state candidates who endorsed union agendas, protests and strikes–even in states that banned work stoppages–to secure their rights and particular changes.

So bottom-up, teacher-led reforms that seek incremental policy changes toward desired goals combined with political action capture the origin and growth of teacher unions  over the past century.

In part 3, I turn to another teacher-led, bottom-up reform that involved political action and ended up providing safer schools for both teachers and students.






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Bottom-Up School Reform: Teachers (Part 1)

So easy to forget that teachers have changed incrementally how they have taught in their classrooms.

So easy to forget that in the age-graded school, teachers have discretion to decide what they will do in organizing the classroom, teaching the curriculum, and encouraging student participation.

So easy to forget that once teachers close their classroom doors, they put their thumbprints upon any top-down policy they are expected to put into practice.

In the constant drumroll of criticism that teachers and schools are stuck in the Ice Age and have hardly changed, the facts of teacher autonomy and incremental change are often forgotten in a state’s or district’s pell-mell rush to embrace the reform du jour. Historically there is much evidence that teachers –essentially conservative in their disposition– have changed (and do alter) classroom routines bit-by-bit including both the format and content of lessons even within the straitjacket of the age-graded school (see here, here, and here).

Over time, in response to personal, community, and social concerns, most teachers add to or delete from the content and skills they are expected to teach. Additionally, they try out ideas that colleagues have suggested, a principal recommended, or ones that have come from their reading or that they saw in someone else’s classroom or heard at a conference. The classroom has been a venue for teachers’ steady change over the past century.

And so too has the school been an arena for incremental change often mirroring changes in the local community and larger society. Groups of teachers anxious about deteriorating discipline in their building approach the principal with a draft plan for the entire faculty to put into practice. Collaboration among teachers and with the principal emerge as a few teachers decide to pilot a piece of free software in behavioral management of their students. Some teachers form a reading group to explore a particular teaching innovation they have heard about. Of course, politically astute principals identify teacher leaders in their school and persuade them to investigate a school-wide change that she believes will help the school improve (see here, here, and here).

Both the classroom and school as venues for steady change can be the beginning of  what I and others have called bottom-up reform, that is, changes bubbling to the surface with district leaders embracing the initiatives crafted in classrooms and schools and adopting  changes in practice as new policies.Bottom-up is the opposite of top-down policies authorized by those federal, state, and local officials who make decisions.

Every U.S. and international reader of this blog knows what top-down change is. Even in a decentralized system of schooling in the U.S. with 50 states, 13,000-plus districts, over 100,000 schools, three and a half million teachers, and over 50 million students, most policies aimed at classrooms–new curriculum standards, taking standardized tests, buying brand-new laptops and tablets–come from federal, state, and district policies. Top-down not bottom-up policymaking has been the rule.

In acknowledging the rule, however, it is wise for policymakers and practitioners to recognize and remember that classrooms and schools are also crucibles for smart changes tailored to students in the here and now. Putting policies into practice is the teacher’s job. Teachers are the gatekeepers who determine which policies or parts of policies get implemented, a fact that too many decision-makers fail to get.

Historically, then, there have occasional bottom-up changes originating in classrooms and schools–often affected by external events–that have trickled upward to inform district and state policymakers. But most classroom changes stay localized in a particular school or network of schools rather than spreading across the educational landscape.

Three examples of teacher-led changes, however, come to mind in this three-part series of posts.

First, is an unnoticed classroom tool called the “interactive student notebook” developed by a few San Francisco Bay area teachers in the 1970s and 1980s that has spread into many U.S. classrooms.  When I entered “interactive student notebook” in a Google search I got over 40,000,000 hits (June 1, 2018).

The over-riding purpose of ISNs is to have students organize information and concepts coming from the teacher, text, and software and creatively record all of it within a spiral notebook in order to analyze and understand at a deeper level what the information means and its applications to life.

In an ISN, students write on the right-hand page of a notebook with different colored pens and pencils information gotten from teacher lectures, textbooks, videos, readings, photos, and software. What is written could be the familiar notes taken from a teacher lecture or the requirements of doing a book report or the steps taken when scientists inquire into questions. These facts and concepts can be illustrated or simply jotted down.

The left-hand page is for the student to draw a picture, compose a song, make a cartoon, write a poem, or simply record emotions about the content they recorded on the right-hand page.

The ISN combines familiar information processing with opportunities for students to be creative in not only grasping facts and concepts but also by inventing and imagining other representations of the ideas. Both pages come into play (the following illustrations come from teachers and their students’ ISNs that have been posted on the web.


A student studying pre-Civil War politics over slavery put this on the right-hand page.


A student taking science put this on the right-hand page.fee9361f6eb82cbbb167a0e270032cd4--interactive-science-notebooks-science-journals.jpg

And for the left-hand side, a student studying North American explorers did this one:



And another student drawing and diagram for the road to colonial independence in

America on the left-hand side looked like this:



Origins of ISNs

While there may be other teachers who came up with the idea and developed it for their classes, one teacher in particular I do know embarked on such a journey and produced an interactive student notebook for his classes. Meet Lee Swenson.

A rural Minnesotan who graduated from Philips Exeter Academy and then Stanford University (with a major in history), Swenson went on to get his masters and teaching credential in a one-year program at Stanford. He applied for a social studies position in 1967 at Aragon High School in San Mateo (CA). Swenson retired from Aragon in 2005.

Beginning in the mid-1970s and extending through the 1980s, Swenson, an avid reader of both research and practice, tried out different ways of getting students to take notes on lectures and discussion, and write coherent, crisp essays for his World Study and U.S. history classes. He worked closely with his department chair Don Hill in coming up with ways that students could better organize and remember information that they got from lectures, textbooks, other readings, and films and portray that information in thoughtful, creative ways in their notebooks. They wanted to combine the verbal with the visual in ways that students would find helpful while encouraging students to be creative.  Better student writing was part of their motivation in helping students organize and display what they have learned. Swenson and Hill took Bay Area Writing Project seminars. Swenson made presentations on helping students write through pre-writing exercises, using metaphors, and other techniques. It was a slow, zig-zag course in developing the ISN with many cul-de-sacs and stumbles.*

Both he and Don Hill began trying out in their history classes early renditions of what would eventually become ISNs by the late-1980s. In each version of ISN’s Swenson learned from errors he made, student suggestions, and comments from other teachers in the social studies and English departments in the school. Swenson made presentations at Aragon to science, English, and other departments, schools in the district, and social studies conferences in California and elsewhere.

By the mid-1990s, Swenson had developed a simplified model ISN that he and a small group of teachers inside and outside the district were using. The model continued to be a work in progress as teachers tweaked and adapted the ISN to their settings. By the end of that decade, a teacher at Aragon that Swenson knew joined a group of teachers at the Teacher Curriculum Institute who were creating a new history textbook.

Teachers Bert Bower and Jim Lobdell, founders of TCI, were heavily influenced by the work of Stanford University sociologist Elizabeth Cohen on small group collaboration and Harvard University’s cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. They wanted a new history text that would have powerful teaching strategies that called for student-teacher interactions. They hired that Aragon teacher who had worked with Swenson to join them; the teacher introduced them to the ISN that was in full bloom within Aragon’s social studies department. They saw the technique fitting closely to the framework they wanted in their new history textbook. TCI contacted Swenson and he became a co-author with Bower and Lobdell  for the first and second editions of History Alive (1994 and 1998).

By 2017, TCI had online and print social studies (and science) textbooks for elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. One of the many features of the social studies books was “[T]he Interactive Student Notebook [that] challenges students with writing and drawing activities.” On their website, TCI asserts that their materials are in 5,000 school districts (there are 13,000-plus in the nation), 50, 000 schools (there are over 100,000 schools in the U.S.), 200,000 teachers (over 3.5 million in the country), and 4.5 million students (U.S. schools have over 50 million students).

From teacher Lee Swenson and colleagues’ slow unfolding of the idea of an interactive student notebook in the 1970s in one high school, the idea and practice of ISNs has spread and has taken hold as a technique that tens of thousands of teachers across the country include in their repertoire. Classroom change from the bottom up, not the top-down.

That is the first example. However, what’s missing from ISN is the political component where districts and states ask all teachers to implement ISN. This political piece added to the habit of incremental classroom changes makes bottom-up approach a powerful force for widespread change.

Part 2 describes a second teacher-led, bottom-up change that was both incremental and political becoming a national teacher union movement that trickled upward to reshape relations between teachers and district officials across the U.S.

Part 3 is a post describing a third teacher-led change, beginning in the 1970s, that was both incremental and political reshaping district and state policies about the treatment of particular groups of students and teachers in U.S. private and public schools.



*Lee Swenson and I have known each other since the mid-1980s. As an Aragon teacher, he attended workshops sponsored by the Stanford/Schools Collaborative. In 1990, Swenson and I began team-teaching a social studies curriculum and instruction course in Stanford University’s Secondary Teacher Education Program. We taught that course for a decade. Since then we have stayed in touch through lunches, dinners, long conversations on bike rides, and occasional glasses of wine. He has shared with me his experiences and written materials in how he and Don Hill developed  ISNs for their courses.







Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

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