The Dilemma of Entrepreneurial Teachers with Brand Names

Read the page one story in New York Times on North Dakota elementary school third grade teacher, Kayla Delzer, who according to the reporter is one of the “tech-savviest teachers in the United States.”


Reporter Natasha Singer says:

Her third graders adore her. She teaches them to post daily on the class Twitter and Instagram accounts she set up. She remodeled her classroom based on Starbucks. And she uses apps like Seesaw, a student portfolio platform where teachers and parents may view and comment on a child’s schoolwork.

Ms. Delzer also has a second calling. She is a schoolteacher with her own brand, Top Dog Teaching. Education start-ups like Seesaw give her their premium classroom technology as well as swag like T-shirts or freebies for the teachers who attend her workshops. She agrees to use their products in her classroom and give the companies feedback. And she recommends their wares to thousands of teachers who follow her on social media.

“I will embed it in my brand every day,” Ms. Delzer said of Seesaw. “I get to make it better.”

The journalist goes on to point out conflicts of interests and ethical confusion when entrepreneurial teachers such as Delzer working in resource-poor community institutions–where many teachers across the nation have to get supplies and classroom staples by opening their wallets or begging from donors (or both)–have ties to high-tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (GAFAM).

After reading the article, I asked myself: what larger issues does the story of Kayla Delzer illustrate?

To reporter Singer, Delzer is an instance of the blurred boundaries tech gurus like this teacher faces in helping students, other teachers, and districts to integrate software and hardware in creative ways and at the same time, earn extra money.

Private gain (e.g., GAFAM seeking  future customer base; teachers earning dollars beyond their salary) vs. public good (e.g., teachers as civil servants paid from the community purse to prepare students for citizenship, college, and career). That is the value conflict that the Times reporter hits.

The story of Kayla Delzer surely shows a gifted teacher entering the swamp of conflicts-of-interest as private corporations generously give of their largess to schools while ensnaring hungry, resource-poor teachers with freebies and name-brand products. Important and accurate as these ethical quandaries are, however, there are larger issues that the story of Kayla Delzer typifies.

First, there is the growth of a tiny subset of teachers– recall that there are over three million teachers across 13,000-plus districts in the U.S.–who are entrepreneurial and achieve brand-name status sufficient to be labeled “rock stars” among educators.

Second, GAFAM is just a recent incarnation of a historic tension between private gain and public good in U.S. public schools.

Entrepreneurial teachers

If I define an entrepreneur as someone initiating activities and taking risks to improve what they do (organizing, managing, and teaching a class), there have always been entrepreneurial teachers in U.S. classrooms.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, enterprising teachers found resources, scrounged materials, and took risks in using new techniques and products on their own time and on their own dime so that their students could learn in innovative ways.

From Jesse Stuart in rural Kentucky in the 1920s and 1930s to fifth grade New York City teacher, Gloria Channon, who started an open classroom in the 1960s in a heavily bureaucratized system to Kayla Delzer in 2017, these teachers took initiatives and risks as they tried out new ways of organizing their classroom and teaching in different ways. Every school faculty then and now could point to at least one teacher in the school who was a master at gathering instructional and non-teaching items for the classroom, trying out new ideas with students, and risking both money and reputation to do things better.

Now with the Internet and social media, there is far more evidence of entrepreneurial teachers documented in blogs, Facebook postings, and start-up businesses. From Teachers Pay Teachers to Google Certified Innovators , the notion of teachers being entrepreneurial in a market-driven economy where Silicon Valleys across the U.S. (Northern California, Austin, New York City, Boston) spread a culture of  hustle, workaholism, and money should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, the Kayla Delzers among millions of teachers are the one percenters who wrestle with the dilemma of serving children and becoming a money-making brand name.

Public Good vs. Private Gain: The Dilemma

Business dealings with public school work have been entwined for well over a century. After all, without businesses voting for tax levies, local chambers of commerce endorsing district budgets, and schools outsourcing key functions to the private sector,  tax-supported public schools would be in serious trouble. Both business and schools are joined at the hip.

Yet commercialization of instructional materials, seeing students as future customers, ads on buses and in sports stadia have been around for decades (anyone remember Channel One?). And criticism of too much commercialization (see here and here) has appeared often. Tensions have ebbed and flowed over the years at too much business involvement in steering the curriculum to satisfy employers, district board favoritism toward particular companies, and similar complaints (see here and here).

The history of U.S. public schools documents, then, the close relationship between for-profit enterprise seeking private gain and the public goods that  tax-supported schools and their trustees seek for children and youth compelled to attend school.

The story of Kayla Delzer displays these larger issues and the choices that she and other entrepreneurial teachers face in deciding whether public interest trumps private gain.







Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Teachers Designing Reforms That Stick: The Interactive Student Notebook (Part 2)

Some school reforms are like shooting stars–a flash, a fiery tail, and they are gone. Some school reforms are like a slow-setting glue, once in place they are hard to dislodge. Interactive student notebooks typify the unglamorous glue, not the glittering but fleeting star.

Part 1 defined an interactive student notebook and described its origins in high school social studies classrooms. Part 2 describes the spread of ISNs across grade levels and academic subjects, explores the influence of ISNs on student achievement, and elaborates why teacher-designed classroom innovations often spread and stick in teacher repertoires than top-down mandates directing how teachers should teach.

Remarkable spread of ISNs across academic subjects and grade levels

Fifteen years after History Alive had been published, ISNs had spread to English, science, math, and foreign language teachers. And they tailored  ISNs to their discipline. Some of these teachers wrote articles, others did blog posts about how they used the approach in their lessons (see here, here, here, and here). Teachers also bought commercial versions of ISNs through the Internet.


The convergence of scholarly ideas (e.g. multiple intelligences, right/left brain) with many existing teacher beliefs on cultivating students’ creativity and thinking skills combined to give teachers at all levels the sense that ISNs are imminently practical and can be added to their teaching repertoire. Moreover,the technique was easily adapted to both subject and student’s age. Finally, ISNs were low-tech and portable to other subjects. The ease of fit for all academic subjects accounts for these notebooks migrating to middle and elementary school teachers where, again, teachers modified the technique to fit young children and pre-teens (see here and here).

The portability of ISNs being used across academic subjects and for different aged students is evident. Much less evident, however, is its iffy influence on student’s measured achievement.

Do ISNs improve academic achievement?

No one knows if they do. Like digital technologies, researchers have separated out one technique–laptops or ISNs–from a bundle of  approaches that a teacher uses over the course of a lesson. But then researchers attributing gains or losses in students’ academic achievement to that specific technique be it use of tablets or interactive notebooks is a fool’s errand. Why is that so?

The causal linkages between teaching and student learning include a host of factors including teacher attributes, relationships between and among students and the teacher, students’ motivations, abilities, and interests, the instructional materials used, the structure of lessons, school organization–I could go on but these will do for now–make it nearly impossible to disentangle one of these factors and suggest that it causes achievement to rise or fall. Student outcomes derive from multiple interacting factors, not just one or two. The whole of teaching is far more than its individual parts.

Yes, researchers can show correlations between, say, use of tablets and test scores, but, of course, an association is merely an association. After all, roosters crow at sunrise; they do not cause the sun to rise. So while a few studies have been done (e.g., masters and doctoral theses) to make a causal linkage between ISNs and student outcomes, they suffer from the weaknesses noted above (see here, here, here, and here)

Even with little to no evidence that ISNs improve students’ academic achievement, why have ISNs not only spread to a remarkable degree in less than two decades but also appear to have become a permanent part of the repertoires of tens of thousands of teachers?

Over time, teacher-designed classroom reforms stick

In Part 1, I made three statements and answered the initial two.

  • The history of U.S. teaching documents that teachers have altered their daily practices often (see Part 1 for evidence and sources for the history of teachers making changes in how they have taught over the past century)
  • Most teachers have added to their repertoire of classroom approaches a little at a time based upon their daily experiences in teaching and what they learn from trusted colleagues (see Part 1 for how teacher Lee Swenson’s version of an ISN became embedded in a history textbook in the late-1990s that sold well in many districts and schools across the nation and migrated into other academic subjects and grade levels as teacher networks and writings spread the word to other teachers)
  • Reforms aimed at teachers’ lessons that have the most sticking power are neither top-down policy mandates nor research studies but ideas that teachers design, borrow, adapt, and put into practice.


ISNs are not the only teacher-designed techniques that have had a long life. In the 1920s and 1930s in Denver (CO), between 30-40 percent of all Denver teachers were involved in revising the curriculum for all levels of schooling. Under three long-tenured superintendents who believed in the tenets of progressive pedagogy they set up an infrastructure for teachers to actually create units and courses for Denver teachers to use in their classrooms. These committees of teachers, curriculum supervisors, and academics created a district wide- curriculum that became the Denver elementary and secondary curriculum for over two decades (see here, chapter 3).

Consider that teachers have not only embraced selected research studies that have practical effects on their students (e.g., Bloom’s taxonomy, multiple intelligences, direct instruction, and use of projects in classroom instruction) but also adapted such ideas to the content and skills they teach regularly (see here ). Borrowing and adapting are second nature to teachers.

Finally, ISNs are practical for those teachers whose dominant instructional approach is teacher-centered. Organizing information in thoughtful and creative ways is what students have to do when teachers teach lessons aligned to the Common Core standards (or any curriculum standards), use digital or print textbooks assign homework, give tests, and record grades. Low-tech ISNs permit students to use imagination to grasp the deeper meaning of the information and concepts they are learning within teacher-centered lessons.*

For all of these reasons, I believe that teacher-designed materials and those borrowed by teachers to used in their lessons stick and become part of teachers’ repertoires.


*Mike Goldstein in commenting on Part 1 suggested that Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (2010) is another instance of a bottom up reform. Lemov, a charter school founder, teacher, and principal, studied exemplars of “effective” teaching and wrote his book. Surely, the popularity of the practical book among tens of thousands of new and veteran teachers (including teacher educators) both in the U.S. and internationally has soared. Documenting widespread use of some or all of those 49 techniques (or 62 in Teach Like a Champion, 2.0) in actual classrooms, however, has yet to occur. Keep in mind also that Lemov’s books reinforce teacher-directed instruction, one factor that attracts many teachers who read the book.








Filed under how teachers teach

Teachers Designing Reforms That Stick: The Interactive Student Notebook (Part 1)

Policymakers and reformers seeking changes in classroom practices seldom recognize or acknowledge the following points I will make in the next two posts.

  1. The history of U.S. teaching documents that teachers have altered their daily practices often.
  2. Most teachers have added to their repertoire of classroom approaches a little at a time based upon their daily experiences in teaching and what they learn from trusted colleagues.
  3. Reforms aimed at teachers’ lessons that have the most sticking power are neither top-down policy mandates nor research studies but ideas that teachers design, borrow, and put into practice.

The canard that teachers resist change and use the same old arsenal of techniques year in and out often comes from reformers and policymakers who press visions of classroom that  they believe should happen in lessons (e.g., “personalized learning,” new math and science standards, project based learning, and “discovery” lessons) and end up seeing adaptations and bastardized versions of innovations that disappoint  both designers and champions (see here and here).

To the first point that historically teachers have altered their daily practices, first-hand accounts by teachers, histories of teaching over the past century, and journalist accounts record such changes (see here , here, and here). For the latter two points I offer one unnoticed example of a classroom technique that many teachers have voluntarily added to their repertoire of practices over the past four decades: the interactive student notebook (ISN)

Part 1 of this two-part post describes what the ISN is and one version originating in the early 1970s in a Northern California high school social studies department.

Part 2 reports on the slow but steady spread of ISN across other academic subjects and its advance into middle and elementary schools. Closer to quiet ripples from a dropped coin in a pool than highly touted innovations entering a district complete with strobe lights, a bass beat, and lots of testimonials from selected teachers and administrators, many teachers over time have quietly and without fuss integrated ISNs (including digital versions) into their daily mix of whole group, small group, and independent activities.

What are interactive student notebooks? Today, there are many versions of spiral-bound ISNs in use across the country. Over the past four decades, teachers in thousands of  elementary and secondary classrooms and across academic subjects have put into  practice the concept and use of the ISN.  When I entered “interactive student notebook” in a Google search box, I got over five million hits (August 27, 2017).

No teacher that I know of, however, has taken out a  patent on a specific design of this teaching tool. While there is great variation in how teachers use ISNs in their classrooms (see here, here, and here), there are common features to ISNs that I will illustrate below. 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.

Early advocates of ISNs were enamored with research findings on learning styles, multiple intelligences, and neuroscience  about right brain/left brain differences (logical and analytic vs. creative). But as cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists came to find in succeeding years it was not either/or but both/and (see here and here). Myths or not, these research findings resonated with many teachers looking for a practical way for their students to organize and thoughtfully process information from teacher lectures, textbooks, and other instructional materials.

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:


For science, one student made this for the left page.


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

To the best of my knowledge, ISNs began with teachers experimenting about how best to help students understand content, grasp skills (especially critical thinking ones), and simultaneously be creative in learning both. In their classrooms, they relied upon teacher-centered instruction (e.g., lectures, discussions, homework, textbooks, and periodic tests).

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 a 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 and got his first (and only) 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 Hill and 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 policymaking from the bottom up, not the top-down.



*Lee Swenson and I have known each other since the mid-1980s. As a teacher at Aragon, he attended workshops sponsored by the Stanford/Schools Collaborative in those years. 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 together 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 his experiences and written materials in how he and Don Hill developed  ISNs for their courses.


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Atlanta Educators Reflect on Lessons From Personalized Learning Initiative (Jenny Abamu)

This story appeared in EdSurge August 11, 2017.

“Jenny Abamu is an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covers technology’s role in both higher education and K-12 spaces. She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Masters degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.”

Five years into a massive transition to a personalized learning model, educators at Fulton County School District in Georgia say they’ve learned a lot about what personalized learning is—including that it’s not about technology.

Back in 2012, ambitious district officials in Fulton County revealed a five-year plan. Through a special-purpose local option sales tax, the district hoped to raise over $200 million to add 65,000 devices in schools by 2017. There was a catch, however: school leaders had to commit to implementing personalized learning models as a prerequisite to receiving laptops and iPads. District leaders even went so far as to dub the hardware “personalized learning devices.”

“At first we thought this was just going to be a hoop we have to jump through in order to get these devices,” admits Daniel Hodge, a personalized learning coach at Barnwell Elementary School in Fulton County, echoing the concerns and confusion shared by other Fulton County educators in an interview with EdSurge. Hodge says his work was originally focused on the tech. It was even in his job title—instructional technology support. “But as we started to do things, we realized it was so much more,” he says.

Working with the consulting organization, Education Elements, the district identified seven tenets of personalized learning: varied strategies, direct just-in-time instruction, choice and voice, mastery-based assessment, choice for demonstrating learning, flexible pacing, and co-plan learning.

District leaders then divided schools into five groups and set them up with coaches. Before teachers could receive the devices, they needed to work with the coaches to adopt at least three of the seven principles into their school model. These principles would guide the school’s professional development and curriculum.

Many teachers hoped that transitioning to this new model would cause students would take ownership of their learning since students had more choices about the pace of a lesson and the content they chose to learn.

But the students in Hodge’s school seemed less engaged. “They were supposed to have more ownership,” Hodge says, but instead, learning looked more passive. Testing scores dipped. “We were wondering why students were just not getting it. They were supposed to have ownership of their learning,” says Hodge. “We were like, wait a second, students chose this, and they’re giving teachers less quality than when teachers were leading them,” he says.

Educators were also confused about what personalized learning was supposed to be.

“A lot of teachers thought [personalized learning] was going to mean taking the teacher away from the front of the classroom and de-emphasizing direct instruction,” Hodge says. They expected inquiry-based learning over direct instruction; adaptive software instead of say, worksheets. “We were expecting those things to bear a lot of the weight” of instruction, he adds.

Chanel Johnson, a STEM program specialist in Fulton County, echoes Hodge’s concerns, noting that many of the teachers saw personalized learning as a type of technology that would replace the work of teachers in the classroom.

“We talked about personalized learning, and then we talked about devices, so teachers had the impression that personalized learning meant technology,” says Johnson. “It should have been communicated better that personalized learning is a pedagogy, a way of instructing children—and not a way to use technology better.”

Hodge’s “ah ha!” moment came when he realized the most important “tool” of personalized learning was, in fact, a much older education concept: the “gradual release of responsibility” model, something articulated in the early 1980s and based on theories that go back to Jean Piaget. “It doesn’t matter if you’re standing up in front of the class and giving kids packet of worksheets,” or if you use adaptive software, he says. Instead, the key to personalized learning “is the idea of the teacher transferring ownership of learning to students so they can become self-directed learners.”

The district paid for Hodge to take a six-month course on personalized learning, but he stresses that there are no experts. “When someone says they’re an expert in ‘personalized learning,’ you have to look at their background. People use [PL] as a noun—that’s super detrimental. It’s not a package or end game—it’s a process, a verb. It’s something that’s done. You personalize learning.”

To combat these misconceptions both Hodge and Johnson are working to reconstruct their message by separating technology from the pedagogy with teachers, a difficult task with the two ideas tied together at the district level. However, Hodge says he will remain on his “soap box” until teachers in his schools understand that they must gradually transition students into self-directed learning, whether or not they’re using technology.

“In order to effectively personalize students’ learning the teacher at some point must transfer ownership of learning to students,” says Hodge.

Hodge says he is willing to open up his school so people can come in and learn from their mistakes. Hosting what he describes as “Learning Walks,” Hodge invites parents, teachers, administrators into his teachers’ classrooms so they can offer feedback and support—hoping his transparency can encourage others to share their successes and failures.

“I think a lot of people are scared of letting people know that it didn’t work for them. That is our biggest weakness in all of this,” says Hodge. “Personalized learning has great sound bites and images, but when they try it, and it doesn’t work, they get very insecure about it. What I have learned and what is going to strengthen our work moving forward, has come from iteration and talking about what’s not working.”

Two years into the journey, Hodge feels upbeat about the directions he sees. “School’s just starting. I feel like this year, we’re in a really solid place. Our understanding is better. And it’s a better time to roll it out on larger scale because we know what we’re talking about.”



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“The Past Is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past”: Charlottesville, 2017

Novelist William Faulkner had it right.

For all of those nay-sayers about the value of knowing the past, the events that took place in Charlottesville recently in protests and counter-protests over the taking down of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee got an object lesson in how the past is never dead. Moreover, views of what happened in the past, informed and uninformed, have consequences. History matters.


Understanding that iconic symbols (e.g., flags, statues) do not have one history but multiple histories dependent upon the beliefs and experiences of ethnic and racial groups is a flash of insight that seldom occurs in classrooms. If anything, Charlottesville is a “teachable moment” for elementary and secondary students returning to school in August and September. Will teachers take advantage of the opportunity? Some will and some won’t. How many of each I surely do not know.

What I do know is that using the Charlottesville violence over the removal of a statue is controversial. The history of teachers dealing with disputed issues has been pock-marked with incidents of teacher firings, censorship, and fear of school board and community retaliation for lessons that take up contentious questions (see here,herehere, and here). Historically, there are teachers who skirt such questions and censor themselves for fear of blow-back from administrators and groups of parents who do not want their sons and daughters to take up, read, or discuss topics that conflict with their values. So teachers are often stuck.

Here’s the dilemma.

Teachers know they are obligated to have students–who are compelled to attend school–think and talk through contemporary issues roiling the community that go to the very core of schooling in a democracy where diverse opinions and values are debated and decided. After all, young children and teenagers will ask teachers about what they see on TV and hear in the home when such events occur.

Teachers know that learning the rules of evidence and distinguishing between facts, opinions, and untruths are required tools for children and youth to navigate daily life. Such knowledge and action is non-partisan. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions,” said Daniel Moynihan, “but not to his own facts.” Knowing that distinction goes to the very core of schooling in a democracy.

Yet, teachers also prize their autonomy. They relish the simple and powerful fact that they can close their classroom door and choose what to teach for the next hour as long as it is consistent with district and state curricula.

Managing controversial topics in elementary and secondary classrooms, then, in a polarized political climate is hardly a walk in the park. Especially, at a time when top political and business leaders state unequivocally that white nationalists and neo-Nazis spout hatred that leads to violence (see here and here).

So how do teachers having their own red-to-blue political beliefs and personal/religious values yet honoring their professional commitment to getting their students to think through volatile issues manage this dilemma?

University of Wisconsin (Madison) scholar Diana Hess has laid out choices that teachers can make to manage this dilemma in coming to grips with controversial issues in their classrooms such as Charlottesville.

Four Approaches to Controversial Issues in the Curriculum


It is not a controversial political issue: “Some people may say it is controversial, but I think they are wrong. There is a right answer to this question. So I will teach as if it were not controversial to ensure that students develop that answer.”


Teach toward a particular perspective on the controversial political issue: “It is controversial, but I think there is a clearly right answer and will try to get my students to adopt that position.”


Avoid the controversial political issue: “The issue is controversial, but my personal views are so strong that I do not think I can teach it fairly, or I do not want to do so.”


Teach the matter as genuine controversial political issue: “The issue is controversial and I will aim toward balance and try to ensure that various positions get a best case, fair hearing.”

Clearly, President Trump–the teacher-in-chief in our democracy– flip-flopped in his statements on who and what caused violence at the protest (see here). He aimed for “balance” but offered “denial.”

He would, I believe, urge teachers to treat “Alt-right” and “Alt-left” groups as both being responsible for the violence. Yet, most teachers would see the President’s “balance” as much a “fake” as it is to teach “creationism” and evolution side-by-side. “Balance” means to get at the assumptions and values, distasteful as they may be, driving the protesters and anti-protesters and analyzing both within the context of current American values. That is not what the flip-flopping of the President’s position over four days encouraged among the nation’s teachers.

Top political and business leaders, however, took a strong moral stance on white supremacists and nationalists protests and violence. They urged teachers, I believe, to use the approaches of either “privilege” or “avoidance.” And there are teachers who would take that moral stance with their students (see here and here).

Educators have produced statements and lessons that cover these various approaches (see here, here, here,  and here). So individual teachers at all levels of schooling have to decide whether or not they will deal with this controversial issue. If they decide to explore the Charlottesville statue controversy, continuing strife over Confederate symbols, First Amendment freedom of speech, and the like, they at least have the autonomy to make such a decision once they close their classroom door. And they do have to decide because the dilemma they face in dealing with controversial issues in their classrooms will not go away.









Filed under how teachers teach

Cartoons on Beginning of School Year


Yep, it is that time when children and youth return to school. This month’s cartoons celebrate that momentous time celebrated every year by parents and cartoonists. Enjoy!

























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Fads and Fireflies: The Difficulties of Sustaining Change

I have written a lot in the past 50 years about the history of classroom practice, uses of technology in lessons, policymaker decisions, and school reform that is faddish and permanent. From time to time I will look through my writings to see what I said then and what I think now. I find that common themes (not necessarily the same words) appear again and again over the decades.

In some respects that bothers me. Am I a Johnny One Note who says the same thing over and over again without questioning the one note? Even with the life and professional experiences I have had over the decades in and out of schools, do I still play the same strings on my harp? Yes and no.

The “yes” part is that themes that are woven into the articles and books I have written deal with abiding issues in the history of a politically vulnerable institution embedded in every community throughout the U.S.  Issues such as “good” teachers, “good” schools, how to improve lessons, get better principals and superintendents, and make the “system” better have tracked the history of American schooling for at least two centuries. Every generation, “reforms” arise to deal with those issues.

The “no” part is that the contexts for school reform change over decades and what is important at one time is often less important at another moment of reform. Yet if contexts shift, still many of the same reforms get recycled and appear again. Puzzling but accurate and, in my opinion, in need of explanation.

I try to deal with the “yes” and “no” of being a Johnny One Note in an interview I did 17 years ago with journalists at Educational Leadership about the history of school reform and other persistent issues that accompany efforts to improve U.S. schools.

This is what I said then. In looking at it in 2017, I stick by what I said in the interview that follows. A Johnny One Note?

John O’Neil of the journal Educational Leadership conducted this interview and it appeared in April 2000, v. 57(7), pp. 6-9



Educator and historian Larry Cuban reflects on why reforms are proposed and what happens when they are brought to the complex laboratory of schools.

With a background that includes teaching and serving as a school superintendent, as well as training as a historian, Larry Cuban is uniquely positioned to analyze the past century’s many waves of school change. He is author of several books, among them Teachers and Machines and Tinkering Toward Utopia. He is coeditor, with Dorothy Shipps, of a new book due out this year, Reconstructing the Common Good in Education: Coping with Intractable Dilemmas.

In this interview with EL staff members John O’Neil, Holly Cutting Baker, Carol Tell, and Marge Scherer, Cuban returns to a central theme of his research: School reforms are a product of the cultural, political, and economic forces of their times. Although critics have charged that schools are too faddish, too prone to bend to the current “reform du jour,” Cuban’s view is that the implementation and sustainability of school reforms are heavily influenced by public deliberation and discourse. After all, “schools reflect what the public wants,” Cuban reminds us.

On the whole, do you think that schools are too resistant to change or too faddish?

Our society is faddish. Schools as one institution experience these fads. Think of the corporate sector, for example. Total quality management didn’t start in the schools, it started in corporations! Medicine, the fashion industry, the media—all are subject to these gusts of innovation.

People are highly critical of schools because they seemingly bend to every new fashion, but when we begin thinking about it, we could easily say that schools are one of the most democratic institutions we have. Schools reflect what the public wants.

In what ways?

Schools are extremely vulnerable to pressures from different constituencies. So if members of a school board or a cadre of parents say that schools ought to have tutors or a new writing program, school boards have a hard time saying no. This is so especially because there is often a lack of scientific evidence that shows that one kind of innovation is clearly superior to another.

When David Tyack and I wrote Tinkering Toward Utopia, 1   we used the metaphor of fireflies. We were speaking about the way that changes or reforms so frequently appear, shine brightly for a few moments, and then disappear again.

What innovations have the most staying power?

The innovations that have the best chance of sticking are those that have constituencies that grow around them. For example, when Title I funds were first appropriated in 1965 as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, this program quickly got a lot of support from constituents, ranging from educators to parents to members of Congress. So Title I and many of the other titles of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have stuck around, even though there has been controversy over whether Title I funds were being used effectively. Another example is the constituencies that have come together to support special education.

What else besides a constituency helps sustain a change in schools?

One of the biggest factors seems to be that the reform reflects some deep-rooted social concern for democracy, for equity, or for preparing students to lead fulfilling adult lives. Basically, schools reflect cultural, political, social, and economic changes in the larger society. The school is not an institution apart—if anything, schools tend not to be at the forefront of change in the society. They tend to reflect what the elites and coalitions of parents and taxpayers believe is important. Because of how the nation came about, there is an enormous stake in schooling as a way to improve the life chances of any child—we don’t depend on hereditary privileges being passed from generation to generation.

Can you give some examples of social changes that have promoted lasting changes in schools?

Take the example of kindergarten. The nation was industrializing rapidly, and urban living for families, particularly immigrant and poor ones, had become more difficult. Kindergartens were introduced to public schools in the 1870s; before that, there were private kindergartens that were mostly aimed at middle- and upper-income families in the Midwest and New England and other places. Public kindergartens were introduced as a way of “preserving” childhood before kids encountered the rigor of grammar school or high school, as well as of teaching parents how to live in the cities. And kindergarten slowly spread, so that by the 1960s, kindergarten was a mainstay.

This gradual growth came not only from the formation of constituencies but also from a general belief that the earlier a child learns in formal situations, the better chance that child will have at academic and financial success. Public schools have always been looked at as an escalator for social mobility, and parents have always wanted to give their children an edge. So this notion of an early start gradually became fixed, and no one today would think of banning kindergarten or preschool.

Another example is the growth of high schools, and the development of “comprehensive” high schools that provided different curricula for diverse students. Up to the turn of the century, schooling for most children ended after grade 8. But by World War I, the comprehensive high school had been introduced and enrollment expanded. Labor laws kept children in school longer—and out of the workforce, where they were competing with adults. The democratic belief that every child has a different employment future pushed school administrators to provide different curricula for different students. The high school was called comprehensive because it had a job future in mind for every kid coming to school and was seen as a very democratic institution because of the equality of economic opportunity that was presumed to be embedded in the different curriculua.

What characterizes reforms that don’t stick?

The reforms that have the least potential for sticking are those that try to bring about changes in teaching, primarily because those innovations are often proposed by policymakers and officials who know little about classrooms as work places.

A lot of people think that because they’ve been in schools, they understand teaching, but the true complexity of the classroom is not clear to them. So what happens is that non-educators often will propose teaching innovations, and they may be successful in getting new laws and policies approved, but these policies will not necessarily be implemented. Attempts to change teaching and learning have often had a very short-term or inconsequential effect.

In Tinkering Toward Utopia, we make a clear distinction between policy talk, which is the current rhetoric in the media; policy action, which means that programs or innovations are adopted; and policy implementation, which relates to what actually occurs in the classroom. It’s important not to confuse these very different levels, but that frequently happens.

An obvious example is what’s going on with the teaching of reading. People were led to believe that many classrooms were being taught through whole language because there was a lot of talk about it among educators and in journals and in the media. Actually, most classrooms were not teaching reading through whole language; most teachers were using combinations of phonics and whole language to begin with. The evidence about the takeover of reading instruction by whole-language enthusiasts was very slim, but it was a great talking point for public officials who wanted to make a major issue out of it. So there’s an important distinction between the policy talk and the policy implementation, and we shouldn’t forget that.

You’re working on a new book about school technology. What can you say about how technologies are being used in the average classroom?

Computers have become one of the tools teachers use, and many teachers have in their repertoire instructional strategies that use technologies. But I think that these will still be peripheral—I don’t see the evidence that they’ll affect the core practices of teaching.

Why not?

First, I reject the argument that’s been made that teachers are resistant or incompetent or lack expertise or are technophobes. In the research we’ve done, we’ve found that teachers and students are using computers—both groups that we interviewed said that they use computers at home all the time. That made us refocus our attention on what goes on in school to try to explain the infrequent and limited use of computers for instruction even in those schools where there are abundant technological resources.

What we see is that the structure of school—for example, in the high school, where you have grades organized by age and departments—works against a lot of the changes that have to be made for technology to be used in more imaginative and creative ways. So there are institutional kinds of concerns that have to be raised about the structures of elementary and secondary schools that I think come between teachers and their use of the technology.

Another reason we’ve found in our research that the technologies themselves have flaws. Time and time again, we found teachers scrambling to cope when the server was down, or the cascading effects of new software on two-year-old machines would cause the computers to metaphorically “blow up.” And schools can’t keep investing capital costs to purchase newer computers all the time. These are the realities facing teachers. You can’t expect a teacher to have a contingency lesson B when lesson A, which relies on using the computer, doesn’t work. That’s why teachers continue to use the textbook, the overhead projector, the chalk. They’re reliable. They’re flexible.

As you know, some analysts have said that to achieve true change in public education, we have to look to reforms that challenge the status quo of school governance. That’s one of the arguments made in support of vouchers or charter schools. What are your impressions of these as an impetus for change?

Well, changes in government do not automatically mean changes in teaching and learning. That’s often forgotten in the heat of slogans and bumper stickers about vouchers or charter schools.

To the degree that the schools can provide more choice within the public sector for parents and for children, I think that’s a plus. When I was a school superintendent in Arlington, Virginia, we encouraged more alternatives. And I believe in that. But vouchers, which call for using public funds for private uses, give me pause. The use of private funds or public funds for private purposes will ultimately decrease the amount of resources for public schools. And I think that’s unconscionable.

Basically, tax-supported public schools were set up in this country to build citizens, to help kids become literate, to strengthen their moral character, and, ultimately, to help them succeed in the workplace. So schools serve many essential social functions. They are institutions designed to promote democratic purposes and the common good. But the idea is that they are public. Vouchers assume a marketplace metaphor that suggests that every parent, every teacher, every school will compete to improve. Well, who’s going to be concerned about the public good? The advocates for marketplace competition and for breaking up the public monopoly forget that. Schools were set up to develop citizens who care for a community, who can contribute to that community. You don’t have that when you go to the local supermarket. You’re in there to get a product and get out.

Some surveys suggest that people have lost faith in public schools. What’s your view?

Schools are part of the larger national fabric of institutions. There has been a general erosion of faith in government institutions, period. So maybe there’s been some loss of faith, but I think that core faith that Americans have about education is still there. People believe deeply in the ability of schools to solve societal problems and to help children reach their potential. Think of that parent who wants her 2-year-old to get into a great preschool program that’s going to be the escalator to Harvard or Stanford. Think of the recent immigrants—the first thing they want is to have their kids enrolled in school. So I believe the core faith is there. It’s been rocked, but not shattered.

We’ve talked about the ways reforms have changed schools—what about the ways schools change reforms?

Schools, like other institutions, adapt most changes to reflect the unique environment. Think about kindergarten, where the change—as it first emerged—was to promote the emotional, intellectual, and social development of children through play and exploration. Well, kindergartens are now becoming boot camps for the 1st grade. This trend began, by the way, in the 1930s and 1940s, although it accelerated greatly in the 1960s and 1970s. Preschools have become more like kindergartens, and both now aim to get kids ready for that 1st grade.

Another example is what’s going on right now with social promotion and accountability. The “reform” was to hold kids accountable for meeting learning goals, and a lot of policymakers were adamant that social promotion needed to end. Students who didn’t get satisfactory scores on tests should be held back.

But when these proposals collide with the complex reality of teaching and learning, there are often counter-movements, and schools must adapt again. I read recently that three states are now moving to lower their cut-off score for holding children back or denying a diploma. This is consistent with what occurred during the last great wave of testing—the competency movement of the mid-1970s. As soon as it becomes apparent to middle-class parents that their kids are not going to be promoted, or will have to attend summer school, official positions of school boards start to crumble.

Again, does this mean that schools have failed to “reform”? My answer is that schools as democratic institutions are continually adapting to these external pressures and, in doing so, maintain old practices as they invent new ones.


1   Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology