Can Historians Help Reformers Improve Schools?

I wrote this piece a decade ago. I believe it continues to be relevantfor both historians, policymakers, practitioners, and parents who unrelentingly seek to improve schools in their district, state, or nation.

Historians are divided over what can be learned from history. When policymakers (and public school students) ask about the usefulness of history they want guidance from the past to avoid making mistakes now; some even want predictions.

Historians who believe that the past can inform policy argue that even if “lessons” cannot be extracted from the past, policymakers can surely profit from looking backward. They say scholars can aid contemporary policymakers by pointing out similarities and differences between previous and current situations. Or, of even more help to policymakers, historians can redefine existing problems and solutions by observing how similar situations were viewed by a previous generation. Finally, without stooping to offer “lessons,” historians can alert policymakers to what did not work, what might be preferable and what to avoid under certain conditions.

Other historians reject the notion that history can, or even should, serve the present. These historians point to their obligations as professionals to be disinterested in contemporary policies. Scholars must bring to bear their knowledge of the past and their craft in handling documents without paying attention to the present moment. Not to do so can corrupt their professional impartiality. Moreover, these historians point to the uniqueness of a past event—say, the war in Vietnam–that is seldom identical or even sufficiently similar for policy makers to compare with a current explosive situation such as in Iraq or Afghanistan. More specifically, there are contemporary situations for which no historical analogy can be drawn: To what can the collapse of Soviet communism be compared? Or the cascade of oil spills since the late 1980s?

Historians bothered about reading the present into the past also argue that policy-driven colleagues ask questions that are too tightly tethered to contemporary issues and heavily influenced by the scholars’ values and experiences. Some policy-oriented historians, for example, ask: Why do public schools seemingly fail to improve student achievement? They then search the past for answers to a question that few educators, parents, or policymakers ever asked in 1880, 1920, or 1950. Historians uninterested in connecting the past to current policy issues call scholars who seek to influence reformers presentists, researchers who read the present into the past, and, in doing so, distort history to fit contemporary situations. Historians should write history for history’s sake.

At times, I have leaned toward those who claim that scholars must disengage from contemporary policy issues when investigating the past because history seldom teaches explicit lessons. Still, more often than not, I find myself in the camp of policy-relevant historians. As a teacher, superintendent, and policymaker for a quarter-century before becoming a professor, my values and experiences shaped the questions that I have asked over the last two decades–many of which connect policy to practice.

The path I have chosen, however, has been troublesome. The tug of reading the present into the past is strong and unyielding even when I scrutinize high school yearbooks from 1910 in the dank basement of a district office. Resisting the temptation to select only those historical records and incidents that fit the contemporary scene or bolster a bias is a constant struggle. I have to constantly remind myself to take the past on its own terms, to welcome the document that challenges my beliefs or to spend more time investigating an event that undermines thoroughly what I had found. Juggling professional duties to the craft and discipline with insistent impulses to shape stories that fit particular contemporary policies consistent with my values is–in a trite phrase–hard work.

None of this would surprise colleagues deeply committed to both scholarship and improving schools. It is unsurprising because the public school, a core institution in a market-driven democratic society, has had a checkered history of being drafted again and again to uplift the lives of individual students and improve a society blessed by prosperity and freedom yet wracked by social ills and inequities. Historians of education, perhaps more so than other historians, particularly if their formative experiences included working in schools, have had to contend with this dilemma of hewing to scholarly obligations while seeking improved schools.

The compromise I have worked out draws from historian David Tyack’s conclusion that contemporary decisionmakers already have a picture of the past in their mind. Accurate picture or not, they will formulate policy based on those blurred images of the past. Like Tyack, I believe that more accurate renderings of the past than currently exist can inform the present not by prescribing particular policies but in helping educational decision makers, again in Tyack’s words: “not only to use a sense of the past (which they do willy-nilly) but also to make sense of it.” (“Historical Perspectives on the School as a Social Service Institution,” 1979, p. 56)

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How Have Teachers Taught: A Look Backwards

So much policy making aimed to improve classroom lessons is anchored deeply in myth and memory. Both morph into one another as policymakers (aka “reformers) filter their children’s tales of what occurs in classrooms festooned with iPads and Chromebooks through their recollection of what went on in their elementary and secondary classes. Oh yeah, policy makers consult with researchers and look at classroom studies, and ponder the changes that new technologies have made in how teachers teach but these results, again, are sorted through memories of writing an essay for that English teacher or the 5th grade quizzes that constricted one’s intestines. So I do not discount the power of myth and memory to shape policies aimed at getting teachers to teach better even after a decade of new technologies being tamed by teachers to become part of their instructional repertoire.

What is too often missing from the mix of data, Golly Gees over new software and remembrances are accounts by historians of education who have documented–albeit in fragmentary ways–what actually went on in classrooms over the past century. Some historians, including myself, have tried to recapture yesteryear’s classrooms (see here, here, and here). This post initially published in 2009 has been updated.

In How Teachers Taught (1984) and Hugging the Middle (2009), I collected 9,000 urban and rural classroom reports between 1890-2005 on common features of teaching. I examined how teachers organized classroom space, grouped students, and structured tasks for students. I found the following classroom patterns:

Between the 1890s and 2005, the social organization of the classroom became informal. In the early 20th century, dress-clad women and tie-wearing men facing rows of 50-plus bolted down desks controlled every move of students. They gave permission for students to leave their seat. They required students to stand when reciting from the textbook or answering a question. Teachers often scowled, reprimanded, and paddled students for misbehaving.

Over the decades, however, classroom organization and teacher behavior slowly changed. By 2005, few classrooms had rows of immovable desks. Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades, so students faced one another. Jean-wearing teachers drinking coffee smiled often at their classes. Students went to a pencil sharpener or elsewhere in the room without asking for the teacher’s permission. The dread and repression of the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s sneer slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms where teachers were more informal in language and dress, and had a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.

By 2005, most elementary and a lesser number of secondary teachers had blended student-centered and teacher-centered classroom practices into hybrids. As the social organization of the classroom becoming increasingly informal, most teachers mixed practices drawn from both traditions.

Grouping. Over time as class size fell from 60 to 30 or less, the student-centered practice of dividing the whole group into smaller ones so that the teacher could work with a few students at a time on reading while the rest worked by themselves slowly took hold among most elementary school teachers. Although variations in grouping occurred among high school teachers in academic subjects, small group work occurred much less frequently.


Classroom activities. A similar pattern occurred with assigning different tasks. “Learning centers,” where individual children would spend a half-hour or more reading a book, playing math games, or drawing and painting, slowly took hold in kindergarten and the primary grades spreading to the upper elementary grades. Learning centers, however, seldom appeared in secondary schools.


The use of student-projects that tie together reading, math, science, and art—think of a 4th grade class divided into groups or working individually on Native American life—became a standard part of elementary school teachers’ repertoire. In secondary schools, projects appeared in vocational subjects and periodically in science, English, and social studies classes.

Between the 1890s and early 2000s, then, teachers created hybrids. In elementary schools, particularly in primary classrooms, richer and diverse melds of the two traditions appeared with far fewer instances surfacing in high schools—allowing for some variation among academic subjects–teacher-centered pedagogy.

Even as classroom organization moved from formal to informal and hybrids of the two teaching traditions multiplied, teacher-centered pedagogy still dominated classroom life. As Philip Jackson noted in his study of suburban teachers, while teacher smiles replaced “scowls and frowns” and current “teachers may exercise their authority more casually than their predecessors,” still “the desire for informality was never sufficiently strong to interfere with institutional definitions of responsibility, authority, and tradition (p. 129).”

One only has to sit in the back of a kindergarten or Advanced Placement calculus class for ten minutes to see amid teacher smiles and many kindnesses to students which teaching tradition dominates. Teachers change students’ seats at will. They ask questions, interrupt students to make a point, tell the class to move from reading to math, and praise or admonish students. Controlling student behavior had shifted over the decades from scowls and slaps to indirect approaches that exploit the teacher’s personality and budding relationships with students but still underscored the fundamental fact of classroom life: teachers use their authority to secure obedience from students for teaching to occur.

In light of my findings for classroom instruction between 1890-2005, the two teaching traditions, at opposite ends of a pedagogical continuum, seldom appeared in pure form in classrooms. In schools across the nation where great diversity in children, academic subjects, and teachers were common—even amid “wars” fought in newspapers over phonics and math—teachers created hybrids of subject matter lessons albeit more so among elementary than secondary school teachers. In short, teachers hugged the middle between student-centered and teacher-centered lessons.

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Amid a formidable array of new devices and software used by teachers across the nation in hundreds of thousands of classrooms, the two teaching traditions and their hybrids persist. Were policymakers, wannabe reformers, and anxious parents informed of this history of teaching–and the work of other historians of education who looked at classroom lessons–would their knowledge be useful in designing policies–in concert with classroom teachers–aimed at instruction? I believe so.

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Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals

I published this post originally on May 18, 2014. Since then the regular media run pieces on the disappearance and revival of cursive writing. I am re-printing this post (and adding to it) since new proposals to resuscitate cursive writing have appeared. As reported in the New York Times, 24 states now require different forms of cursive writing with seven that have adopted policies since 2013.

Schools as “museums of virtue”* and schools as engines of change have been dominant and conflicting metaphors in the history of school reform. In the mid-19th century, tax-supported public schools pursued Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic–the three Rs. Basic literacy–being able to read the Bible, write one’s name, know elementary ciphering, and absorb family and community values–were the primary reasons for creating public schools. In a predominantly rural society, one-room schools sought to preserve the virtues of Protestantism, instill basic literacy, strengthen patriotism, and social custom through the three Rs.

One hundred and fifty years later, public schools are not only expected to instill the traditional three Rs and socialize children into dominant societal values but also expected to be responsible for the “whole child” and change society for the better. There has been an unrelenting expansion of traditional  three Rs to now include a suite of literacies:  scientific , numeracy, technological, and civic. The notion of schools as “museums of virtue” still exists but now competes with the idea that schools were (and are) engines of political, social, and economic changes that could (and should) transform the nation. That conflict can best be seen in the demise of cursive writing and the recent spread of K-12 students learning to code.

Goodbye Cursive

Recent articles (see here and here) have documented the slow death of a traditional subject in the elementary school curriculum for well over a century. Since the 1970s, teaching penmanship, usually in the second or third grades, declined. With 45 states adopting Common Core Standards in which there is no mention of cursive writing has hammered the last nail into the penmanship tradition. Well, not quite.

Efforts to prevent the extinction of an endangered school subject in North Carolina, Indiana and a few other states have led to legislative mandates that penmanship be taught in elementary school. That delaying action, however, will not alter the eventual disappearance of handwriting from the curriculum.

Arguments for dropping cursive handwriting include irrelevance–block printing is now acceptable in replacing cursive, typing is far more efficient than handwriting, standardized tests do not require handwriting–and its difficulty for many students to learn who will not use it much in the rest of their lives. Finally, teaching handwriting takes up valuable time in the second and third grades that could be better spent on acquiring Common Core content and skills and preparing for high-stakes standardized tests.

Arguments for keeping handwriting, while clearly in the minority, stress tradition and heritage for students writing by hand–reading key documents in the history of the nation, notes students themselves take, and an older generation’s continued use of cursive writing.  Moreover, cursive handwriting helps students develop reading, communication , and hand-eye coordination, experts say. There is a transfer-of-learning, what curriculum subjects, then and now, promise will occur.

Even with a few states mandating the teaching of handwriting in school, mournful taps will eventually be blown for penmanship skills. Like the teaching of traditional grammar and diagramming sentences or having students take wood and metal shop courses in junior high school some teaching practices and course-taking have disappeared from the crowded classroom and curriculum as times change. Modern substitutes for these extinct subjects and skills, however, eagerly step into the empty slots. And have to deal with the issue of transfer-of-learning also.

Enter Coding

Even before the current craze for teaching young children how to write code for computer software (see here, here, and here), the appearance of desktop computers in the early 1980s led quickly to teaching students how to use the keyboard and even write code (remember Basic?).

Keyboarding, like typing, was simple to learn. Computer scientists at that time, however, thought that teaching young children how to write code–I am still referring to the 1980s– would unleash children’s creativity and expression while teaching them to think sequentially and critically.  Using constructivist ways of teaching, children would be able to transfer knowledge and skills from learning to program to  other subjects in the curriculum. This innovation would transform traditional teaching and learning. Beliefs in transfer-of-learning through teaching coding and transformation of the traditional school led to the introduction of Logo in U.S. and British public schools.

The brainchild of Seymour Papert (who had worked with Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget) and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Logo had children using programming language to command a robotic “turtle” on a computer screen. The MIT team sought to teach young children how to face and solve problems, learn geometric concepts, and bring creativity back into the classroom. The designers saw Logo as a student-centered, progressive innovation that would transform teaching, learning, and the institution of schooling. As one former Logo teacher recalled:

[Logo] was a departure in terms of the pedagogical style… we have a term that is now fairly widely used in this country, “constructivism”. Logo was exactly that, the notion of people constructing

knowledge based on their experience of the world and playing with what they already know and working with other people, and the notion that the teacher should be a helper rather than a dictator

or instructor in the old-fashioned sense..

Logo and its “turtle” swept across many schools here and abroad.

Yet within a decade, the glamor of young children commanding turtles to move across screens evaporated. Although Logo continues to exist, few schools now use the programming language or sustain the culture of learning that Logo promised.

The underlying assumption driving Logo was that students learning skills of programming and being creative would transfer when those students would tackle other cognitive skills and knowledge across the school curriculum. This is a variation, as one reviewer of Seymour Papert’s books put it, of Logo as Latin.

Briefly, those who staunchly argue for the cognitive benefits of learning Latin (e.g., increases English vocabulary, sharpens thinking, and increases SAT scores) assume that studying the language will transfer to English grammar, literature, public speaking, and produce collateral benefits. The research literature on these supposed benefits stretches back to the early 1920s and has disappointed champions of the language time and again (see Timothy Koschmann, Logo as Latin)

Failure of transfer-of-learning and school after school changing Logo to meets its institutional imperatives led to the demise of Logo in public schools.

I believe that those current advocates for teaching children to code have ignored this history, the power of schools as institutions to adopt and transform innovations and, most important, the limits of transfer-of-learning.

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*”Museums of virtue” come from Willard Waller’s essay on “The School and the Community” in William Goode, et. al., Willard Waller on the Family, Education, and War (University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 257. David Tyack introduced me to the writings of Willard Waller and referred to schools as museums of virtue in many essays and books.

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The Dilemma of the Xmas Tree in Mixed Marriages (Hannah Ingber)

Hannah Ingber works at the New York Times. This appeared December 24, 2019.

The first time I had a Christmas tree was 1987, the one year my father was married to Susan. I was 6 and remember my father having to climb a ladder to decorate it.

The second time was last year. This tree was much smaller and looked a bit sad. It tapered off at the end and didn’t stand straight. My husband bought it, loaded it into our Honda CRV and put it in the corner of the dining room when I wasn’t home because he knew I would object to it. I kept the room’s pocket doors closed as much as possible all that December, but he would come downstairs and open them. The smell of the tree would linger outside the room. I won’t lie — it was a really nice smell.

Growing up, I considered not having a Christmas tree (except in the Year of Susan), not wearing red and green in December, and not decorating our front lawn in lights as much a part of my Jewish identity as celebrating Passover and going to Hebrew school on Thursdays.

My husband and I began to fight regularly over having a tree after our children arrived. Though he was raised in California as a Hindu, he said that decorating a tree was among his happiest childhood memories, that it symbolized home and family. I countered that a tree in our living room felt so unsettling, so out of place, so unbearable.

Couldn’t we just have a shrine to Krishna instead?

You would think that such a disagreement would have been settled before we chose each other as life partners. I’m not sure why it wasn’t, or why we didn’t each see it as a big red flag. Perhaps we both thought the other would give in. Clearly neither of us realized how important the presence, or lack, of a tree was to the other.

He claims I once agreed to get a tree. I had no recollection of that. So I suggested a compromise: We could celebrate Christmas each year in California with his family. He said that wasn’t the same — he wanted the tree in our home.

By last December we had decided to divorce but were still living together (it wasn’t just the tree, but more on that another time). Shortly after, my husband sneaked the tree in.

Our boys, ages 2 and 4, were thrilled. They were too young to see any contradiction with being raised by a Jewish mother and Hindu father — and celebrating the birth of Jesus.

They got more than just the tree. They consumed Christmas-themed cartoons on the PBS Kids app with joy. When they spotted a beautifully decorated tree cookie at the local bakery, they chose it without hesitation. I didn’t even try suggesting, “How about that lovely silver star?” They had spent an evening decorating a tree at home. They might as well eat the cookie.

(I grumbled to the cashier, “My Jewish children are getting a Christmas tree cookie.” She didn’t share my unease.)

I moved out last February and now have a charming little home in the next town over. This year, my boys and I spent a weekend decorating it with menorahs and colorful dreidels. We even threw in a Hanukkah snow globe. We, too, can be festive.

I don’t get a ton of information out of my kids, but I’m pretty sure that they helped their father decorate a Christmas tree in his home. I can no longer fight them having a tree; I can only hope they make fond memories with their father. They’re so young that they’re unlikely to remember a winter without a tree.

Sometimes I tell myself that this is all O.K., that maybe it’s a blessing in disguise — my boys don’t need to grow up with the December angst that my sister and I had. When they attend elementary school and the teachers instruct them to write letters to Santa, they won’t feel left out. They won’t feel the need to educate their middle-school teachers the way I did. (Mr. H., if you’re reading, no, not everyone celebrates Christmas.)

My boys will have the dreidels and afikomen hunts and Purim carnivals, but not the December chip on their shoulder. That’s a good thing, right?

Possibly.

To me, being Jewish, not just lox-and-bagels Jewish, is about being different. It’s about being part of a tribe of people whose holidays include tales of ancient Egypt and Pharaoh. It’s about surviving pogroms and cattle cars, and learning that when others are being persecuted we have a moral obligation to speak up and interfere.

Being Jewish is about holding on dearly to one’s sense of self, even if it means secretly lighting Shabbat candles in the basement or having classmates throw pennies at your feet. Or just not getting to sit on Santa’s lap.

I wish I could say that my children will grow up with a Christmas tree (every other weekend) but still identify with being Jewish in the same way I do.

Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it.

When our older son, Isaac, was 2 or 3, I wanted him to have a clear understanding of his cultural background and heritage, and I wanted him to be proud of who he is. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and telling him, “Mommy is Jewish, Daddy is Indian, and you and Aarav are both.” Isaac would light up.

And as he got a little older, he’d repeat it. He would stumble over the relatives and their correct identities. “Grandma B. is Indian,” he’d say about my Jewish mother.

But he always got the last part right: “Me and Aarav are both.”

When I chose to marry my husband, I saw bringing together two cultures as a positive. I knew challenges could show up, but I didn’t dwell on them.

It has shaken me to my core to know my boys may not end up being Jewish the way I am. But I also know I have to move on. Frankly, I need to get over the damn tree.

My boys are different from me, and that has a special beauty to it. They are “both.” And while I will do everything I can to instill in them the same love for Judaism that I have, who they are and what “both” looks like will ultimately be up to them.

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GreatSchools Ratings Are Skewed (Matt Barnum, Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee)

Ranking and evaluating schools across the country is a blood sport. Superintendents prize high ratings for their schools and look closely at those labeled below average. Realtors advertise homes by including highly ranked schools as part of the appeal for the property. And parents ready to move into a new neighborhood look at schools with “A” grades and avoid schools “average” or worse. The premier organization that rates schools today is an independent, nonprofit founded in 1996 by Bill Jackson called GreatSchools. This Chalkbeat report points out that ratings of schools enrolling largely minority students get lower ratings than schools housing wealthier and white students. This report appeared December 5, 2019.

What’s the right way to judge a school?

Across the country, states and school districts have devised their own systems of letter grades and color-coded dashboards based on test scores and graduation rates. But arguably the most visible and influential school rating system in America comes from the nonprofit GreatSchools, whose 1-10 ratings appear in home listings on national real estate websites Zillow, Realtor.com, and Redfin. Forty-three million people visited GreatSchools’ site in 2018, the organization says; Zillow and its affiliated sites count more than 150 million unique visitors per month.

GreatSchools’ stated mission is to help all parents, especially those who are low-income, make more informed decisions about where to send their children to school.

But GreatSchools ratings effectively penalize schools that serve largely low-income students and those serving largely black and Hispanic students, generally giving them significantly lower ratings than schools serving more affluent and more white and Asian students, a Chalkbeat analysis found.

And yet, according to GreatSchools’ own data, many schools serving low-income, black, and Hispanic populations are doing a good job helping students learn math and English. But those schools still face long odds of getting an above-average rating on GreatSchools — likely because their students are arriving far behind.

The result is a ubiquitous, privately run school ratings system that is steering people toward whiter, more affluent schools. A recent preliminary study found that as the site rolled out an earlier version of its ratings, areas with highly rated schools saw increases in home prices and rises in the number of white, Asian, and better-educated families. After three years, the study found, property values in those areas increased by nearly $7,000, making it more difficult for low-income families to buy into the areas.

As parents decide on where to live, “these scores really were on the top of the list of almost all of the parents that I talked to,” said Sharique Hasan, the Duke researcher who authored the study of GreatSchools. “They wanted to be in a school district with schools that were rated a 9 or a 10.”

GreatSchools revamped its ratings in 2017. Chalkbeat’s analysis shows that the correlation with demographics has declined somewhat as a result of the shift — but is still substantial.

GreatSchools rejects the notion that its ratings contribute to segregation. “On the contrary, we believe that information drives equity. Parents, especially low income parents, deserve to know how their schools are doing,” said its CEO Jon Deane. “There are real issues at play here, but keeping parents informed, so that they can act on behalf of their children, isn’t the issue.”

Here is the paradox at the heart of GreatSchools ratings: They are available to all, which means they can help low-income families choose a school or pressure officials to make improvements. But they can also help affluent families cement access to areas other families cannot afford, while bolstering stereotypes that schools in certain neighborhoods are uniformly of poor quality.

“I think GreatSchools has a lot of responsibility to think deeply about how their platform is being utilized or not in relation to patterns of segregation,” said Francis Pearman, a Stanford professor who has studied the relationship between school choice and housing. “The notion that a quality school is necessarily one that is white and affluent is a problematic stance.”

Two decades in, GreatSchools rates public schools in every state

When Bill Jackson started GreatSchools in 1996 as a project of a Silicon Valley business association, he personally visited schools in the Bay Area and talked to principals about how their schools worked.

“We wanted to build a public appetite for a view of school quality based on a school’s own conception of what’s important,” Jackson told Education Week in 1999, a year after the organization became an independent nonprofit.

As GreatSchools expanded, first across California and then nationwide, that approach proved unsustainable. Fortuitously, the organization gained a new source of information: test scores for nearly every public school in the country, thanks to new requirements in federal education law. “The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act put a lot of wind in the sails of GreatSchools,” Jackson, who served as CEO until 2016, says now.

Around the same time, charter schools and other school choice policies were gaining traction. More choices meant information about school quality was more valuable — and sparked concerns that such information might be most accessible to well-connected parents.

By democratizing that information, which otherwise might have lived only in unwieldy spreadsheets on government websites, “GreatSchools had intentions to provide some equity,” said Janelle Scott, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

GreatSchools also partnered with real-estate websites, starting with Zillow in 2012, to embed its ratings, since schools are often crucial in homebuying decisions. GreatSchools, a nonprofit, draws a licensing fee from those partnerships, which accounts for less than 20% of its revenue, according to a spokesperson. Most of its funding comes from philanthropic dollars, including foundations supportive of school choice.

The Walton Family Foundation, for instance, has poured nearly $25 million into GreatSchools since 2004, citing the need to help low-income families choose among schools and advocate for better ones. (Walton is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

At the same time as GreatSchools was growing, all the new data from state tests had kicked off debates across the country about how to use it. Proficiency rates don’t take into account where students started, or how much schools helped them learn. Researchers developed ways to isolate the “value added” by a school, but those metrics proved controversial too, because they also rely on test scores, can be difficult to understand, and may bounce around from year to year.

Jackson recalled experimenting with different approaches, including directly accounting for poverty. But this didn’t resonate with families: “I’ll never forget one parent in Redwood City when we did a focus group who said, ‘So you mean this is a good school for poor kids?’”

So proficiency rates would remain the primary ingredient in the GreatSchools formula — which meant most schools serving students from low-income families would continue to rate poorly.

Jackson, though, said the organization did try to ensure the ratings got into the hands of less-affluent families. In addition to real estate websites, GreatSchools ratings are embedded on GoSection8, a site for people using federal housing vouchers. GreatSchools says that its own website is fully accessible in Spanish, is written in an easy-to-understand manner, and allows for clear comparisons among nearby schools. Some of this came on the advice of Innovate Public Schools, an advocacy group that works with low-income families and has supported the growth of charter schools.

GreatSchools also sees itself as a tool for those parents to demand better from their schools and their school systems. Jemima Hernandez, a San Jose parent, uses GreatSchools ratings to recruit parents as a volunteer for Innovate.

When families see the often-low ratings their children’s schools get, “They can’t believe it,” she said. “Then they start to talk to you.”

But GreatSchools was dogged by criticism that its scores were crude measures of school quality that penalized schools for serving low-income students.

When the organization overhauled its ratings in 2017, it included a host of new metrics. A GreatSchools representative said at the time that the new ratings would “more accurately reflect what’s going on in a school besides just its demographics.”

It was a striking acknowledgement of the flaws in the prior system. The new ratings also marked the start of a new approach for GreatSchools.

Two years into this new system, Chalkbeat took a closer look.

We examined the ratings of elementary and middle schools in Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, New York City, Phoenix, and San Francisco, combined with several of each city’s suburbs.

The results are striking. On average, the more black and Hispanic students a school enrolled, and the more low-income students it served, the lower its rating.

The average 1-10 GreatSchools rating for schools with the most low-income and most black and Hispanic students is 4 to 6 points lower than the average score for schools with the fewest black and Hispanic students and fewest low-income students.

In most places, only a tiny fraction of schools with the most low-income and most black and Hispanic students score a 7 or better, the number that earns an “above average” label from GreatSchools. (New York City was a notable exception. There, a relatively large number of predominantly black and Hispanic schools — particularly charter schools and especially Success Academy schools — earned above-average ratings.)

Chalkbeat focused on metro areas because families tend to choose schools and homes locally. GreatSchools argues that only statewide comparisons are appropriate; in six states where GreatSchools provided data, a substantial connection between student poverty and school ratings remained — though in some cases it was smaller than the connection in the metro area Chalkbeat focused on in the same state.

Chalkbeat’s analysis also confirmed that the ratings’ connection with demographics is weaker than it was a few years ago, thanks to new factors included in the ratings. The most notable addition, for schools in states that calculate it, is test score “growth,” or how much students progress in a year compared to others who started at a similar level. Most researchers say growth scores are a more accurate way to measure a school’s performance, and accounting for growth is also where schools serving students who arrive behind can shine.

“The ability to look at growth, college readiness, equity — these subratings that we have — really helped elevate schools that have higher [low-income] populations,” said Deane, GreatSchools’ CEO.

Differences by race and income persist, though, and they are quite large. Probably in part because many schools serving low-income students of color are genuinely struggling. But it remains difficult even for seemingly successful schools serving many low-income black and Hispanic students to score well, too.

Take Denver’s Knapp Elementary School, where most students are Hispanic and come from low-income families. Educators there describe Knapp as a collaborative place where they are respected and asked to push themselves to help students, nearly two thirds of whom are learning English as a second language.

Knapp has won statewide accolades for its ability to help its students improve on state tests. By fifth grade, Knapp’s share of students reading on grade level is higher than the district’s.

Principal Shane Knight, who is in his seventh year at Knapp, is proud of the school’s environment and its academic success. “If you come into Knapp, you feel that level of genuine care for kids,” he said.

Under GreatSchools’ formula, Knapp is rewarded for its students’ growth, earning a 9 out of 10 in that category. But overall, Knapp still earns a 4 — and a “below average” label.

On real estate websites featuring GreatSchools, users encounter the overall score, not the details. And if you type Knapp’s ZIP code into GreatSchools’ search bar, the school won’t even appear initially, because the site prioritizes schools with higher overall ratings. The schools that do show up are in a different Denver ZIP code and in most cases have whiter, more affluent student bodies.

Knapp fares poorly on two other, less widely used third-party rating sites too. SchoolDigger gives the school 2 of 5 stars, while Niche awards it a C. Those sites don’t consider student growth at all.

The low ratings frustrate Knight, who worries families who might help integrate the school will overlook it.

“Are you going to choose a house in the neighborhood where Knapp is? Maybe if the rating is good, but if the rating’s poor, I’m going to look to a different neighborhood,” he said.

Why is Knapp’s rating mediocre? GreatSchools’ formula.

Growth, where Knapp scored a 9, counts for only about 25% of its overall rating. Proficiency rates remain the biggest factor: 45%. There, Knapp earns a 3, because most of its students don’t meet the proficiency bar on state tests.

The rest of the formula isn’t even based on Knapp’s students. That’s the “equity” score, which is supposed to gauge test score gaps within a school. But Knapp is too homogenous — racially and economically segregated — for an equity rating to be calculated, GreatSchools explains. So the site assigns it the average equity rating of other schools in the state with similar proficiency rates: a 2, which counts for nearly 30% of Knapp’s overall rating. (Carrie Goux, a spokesperson for GreatSchools, said about one in 10 schools nationally receive such adjusted equity ratings.)

In a sense, GreatSchools penalizes Knapp for being segregated, even as GreatSchools ratings could make it more difficult for the school to attract a diverse student body.

Knapp is not alone in the Denver area. Among 88 schools that serve predominantly low-income, black and Hispanic students, just one scored above average on GreatSchools’ overall rating; looking at growth alone, 25 of them scored above average. That likely reflects the fact that low-income students of color arrive to school with lower achievement levels due to numerous factors, including the effects of poverty and racism.

Knapp’s scores highlight the challenges that high-poverty schools face in attaining a high rating, but also GreatSchools’ difficult balancing act. Some argue that proficiency should be a major factor in school ratings, as it is now in the GreatSchools formula, to hold all students to high standards.

Goux, the GreatSchools spokesperson, said the organization works to ensure all facets of school performance are visible. “We have displayed the sub-ratings prominently so parents can see how schools are doing across several important measures,” she said, pointing to data showing that these sub-ratings are widely viewed on GreatSchools’ site. “We know parents engage with the sub-ratings and are looking past the Summary Rating to understand schools on multiple levels.”

Goux also said that school searches can be easily adjusted across a number of dimensions — including distance and academic growth — to match a user’s interests.

Finally, she pointed to six schools in other cities that have a high share of low-income students and also earn high ratings. Most of these examples, though, are atypical in that they require at least some students to perform at a certain academic level to enter or remain enrolled.

Tomas Monarrez, an education researcher at the Urban Institute, says GreatSchools’ approach doesn’t provide an accurate picture of how a school is performing. The enduring connection between poverty and GreatSchools ratings in Denver and beyond “is evidence that these measures of school quality are contaminated.”

“Are these schools good because they are actually providing value for these kids?” he said of highly rated schools. “Or are these schools just enrolling more privileged populations?”

GreatSchools now — and in the future

What GreatSchools shows users matters, because millions encounter the ratings each year in their search for homes and schools, both on GreatSchools’ site and on real-estate sites.

Alex Robinson is among them.

She used the website to pick a new school for her son, a second grader; it helped her realize that a charter school she hadn’t considered was a short drive from her home in South Los Angeles. The school was rated a 5, whereas many other schools in the area scored only a 1, she said, and her son is doing well after the switch.

“GreatSchools ended up being my best resource,” said Robinson.

Other research has shown that GreatSchools ratings can affect where families who receive housing vouchers choose to live — an indicator that low-income families are using the scores to pick schools, too. Families offered GreatSchools ratings ended up in areas where schools earned an average rating of 4, as opposed to 3.7, a modest but real improvement.

The study, and Robinson’s story, are victories for GreatSchools, which argues that it offers a nuanced overview of school quality that is accessible to all families.

Still, labeling schools in poor communities and communities of color as bad could make it even tougher to create integrated schools, which research has found benefit students. “Segregation operates through stigma,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies race and education.

Plus, there’s the research showing that the expansion of GreatSchools across the country has made residential segregation somewhat worse. (Notably, though, that study was done prior to the ratings shift in 2017, and there does not appear to be any research that looks specifically at GreatSchools’ effect on school segregation.)

“We show that broader access to information increased segregation because high-income families could more readily leverage school ratings to move to neighborhoods with better schools,” wrote researchers Sharique Hasan and Anuj Kumar. “In this case, knowledge was indeed power, but only for the powerful.”

Of course, there are many other powerful, longstanding forces in the way of more integrated schools.

A primary one is entrenched residential segregation, the product of government policies that have restricted who can live where and who can accumulate wealth. Potential changes to enrollment rules and school zone lines that would integrate schools often prompt backlash from more advantaged parents. Racism and bias may stop white families from choosing schools with more students of color.

While the Fair Housing Act forbids real estate agents from steering potential homebuyers of different races to different neighborhoods, a recent Newsday investigation found that many agents on Long Island were doing just that, sometimes using schools as a vehicle to do so.

These issues long predate GreatSchools. Still, some lawyers consulted by Chalkbeat said the fact that the GreatSchools ratings are so correlated with race raises questions about whether their use by real estate companies could run afoul of the Fair Housing Act, because the ratings effectively nudge families away from communities with more black and Hispanic residents.

“It’s a legal gray area,” said Morgan Williams, the general counsel for the National Fair Housing Alliance. “I would discourage real estate service providers from providing information that may be used as a proxy for the racial demographics of a neighborhood.”

(Spokespeople for both Zillow and GreatSchools said their respective sites encourage families to look at multiple factors and visit schools in person; a spokesperson for Realtor.com said the ratings are among many data points it offers to homebuyers.)

Yet even some critical of GreatSchools say it would not serve parents to eliminate or obscure  data about school performance.

“Making that information easier to attain enables [parents] to isolate themselves more if they wish to do so, which is worrisome,” Monarrez of the Urban Institute said. “But I would also be worried about taking that possibility and saying that’s a reason for information not be put out there at all.”

Could GreatSchools do things differently? It could put more weight on growth. There are some signs that families would choose more integrated schools and districts if offered that information.

Myron Long, who is starting a charter school in Washington, D.C., says emphasizing growth measures can shift widely held perceptions of schools serving students of color. “It changes the narrative behind schools and how we talk about them,” he said. “It has the opportunity for parents to see there are more options in the schools that they choose.”

But that approach has its own drawbacks. Several states, including California, don’t calculate growth scores, impeding efforts to make ratings depend on them more. And encouraging more affluent families to go to high-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods could have unintended consequences, such as displacing other students.

Meanwhile, any changes could anger affluent communities that have benefited through property values from the way the ratings are currently calculated. Changes could also encourage skepticism among those with deeply ingrained notions, perhaps biased ones, about what is and isn’t a quality school. That could mean GreatSchools loses credibility with a powerful constituency of families.

For its part, GreatSchools says it remains engaged with questions about how to measure school quality.

Last month, dozens of researchers and policymakers gathered at MIT to talk about school choice. Several speakers made the same point: Judging a school’s quality by looking at overall student performance is misleading.

Usually, school ratings say more about peers than schools, MIT Professor Parag Pathak told the audience. “That may actually end up further segregating schools,” he said.

“Peer ‘quality’ is not school quality,” Josh Angrist of MIT explained later.

Watching from the audience was Deane, GreatSchools’ CEO. His takeaway? “A strong reinforcement” of data that shows how much students learn over time, he told Chalkbeat.

“The question is, are we moving in the right direction towards providing the information that is going to give us a broader picture?” he said. “We feel an incredible responsibility to provide that information to the users as best we can. So of course we’re going to continue to evolve.”

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More Cartoons about Teachers and Teaching

Surely, I have emptied the pool of cartoons on teachers and teaching? Nope. Here is a batch that I have not run before. Enjoy and a happy holiday to all of my viewers.

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The Paper Rocket: Thoughts on Improving ‘Hands-On’ Learning (Doug Lemov)

This piece comes from “Doug Lemov’s Field Notes,” a blog that he writes about current issues and practices in schools. Author of Teach Like a Champion, he is a managing director of Uncommon Schools, a network of over 50 charter schools serving 20,000 students in various cities on the East coast. This post appeared November 13, 2019.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my littlest what was going on in Science. It’s her favorite class so it doesn’t take much to get some chatter going. She announced with no small amount of excitement that they were going to be building and flying rockets later that week. “Oh, cool,” I said, “Are you studying air resistance? Or aerodynamics?” That sounded super-geeky, so I re-phrased: “You know, what sorts of things might make a rocket fly better.”

“I’m not really sure,” she said, “We haven’t yet,” which was interesting because the rocket flying was just three or fours days away. If it was to demonstrate some ideas they had learned it was getting late to learn them.

If there’s one thing that most parents seem to want for their kids in school it’s hands-on learning. If there’s one thing many teachers believe will make them be the right sort of teacher it’s hands-on learning. At meet-the-teachers night, if a teacher says, “We’ll be doing lots of hands-on projects in my class this year,” everyone is happy. Parents imagine their kids up to their elbows in learning. Teachers imagine them building rockets and suspension bridges in the future, based on the inspiration of that November morning in 6th grade.

It’s about the time that a term becomes an article of faith like that, that I start to worry, however. Hands-on learning is a term with little correlation to value. Can be good; can be not-good. It’s as good as its design. And the key to the design, as with so many things in education, is knowledge. Which is unfortunate because teachers often overlook knowledge.

I was thinking about that because this morning I asked Little how the rocketry went. “GREAT,” she said. They had made them out of paper and gone out to the soccer field to fly them. “Our team won!”, meaning that her group’s rocket had stayed aloft the longest. “Double-cool,” I said, “What made your rocket work so well?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure,” she said. “I think maybe our wings. They looked different from other people’s.”

“Oh,” I said. What had they tried to do with them? How were they different? Silence.

If their wings had been better, in other words, it had been a lucky guess, which was fun and memorable but not all that instructive. They hadn’t been testing an idea–“Hey, since we know X, let’s see if…” It wasn’t an application of knowledge in other words. (Or at least if they were supposed to be testing specific things they’d learned, Little wasn’t aware of it. Full disclosure: There’s some precedent for that. :))

I should be clear: I am not knocking the rocket experiment. It was lovely and fun and inspiring and real. Those are some of the reasons my daughter loves science. I’m glad her teacher did it.

But it also reminded me of a thousand hands-on activities I’ve seen in schools that are designed to introduce a topic, to fascinate and awaken curiosity but that kids engage in relatively superficially because they don’t really know what’s going on.

They watch the bottle explode or the water turn suddenly to ice but they don’t know why. They’re intrigued but they’re not learning because their perception is uninformed. They don’t know what they are looking for so they don’t see it. It’s not a demonstration of something they know. It fascinates more than it teaches. Fascination is great but an activity can do both.

If my daughter had had more knowledge to use apply and test, she would have had a framework to think about and describe or speculate on why some rockets flew better than others: we had larger wings with more surface area. Or maybe it was the size of the nose cone that created less air resistance. That’s informed observation. The hands-on is an application of or testing of knowledge. When there is no background knowledge its closer to play. My daughter had loved the rockets and had ostensibly succeeded, but in the end she had essentially no thoughts on why her rocket worked. Sure you can unpack it and explain it later but it’s still an opportunity missed to have students “perceive” knowledge at work.

The value of hands-on in other words correlates to how much students know when they engage in it. To use hands-on activities before we’ve taught overlooks the differences between how experts and novices learn. An expert learns more from an experience than a novice because she understands and can process what’s happening. Students are almost always novices but the closer they are to knowledgeable the better.

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