Thirty Fifth Anniversary: A Nation at Risk



In the late-1970s, at a time when Japanese and German products began outselling U.S. cars and electronics and an economic slump loomed, corporate leaders expressed deep concerns over weaknesses in the economy and the lack of skilled employees. The industrial workplace was moving toward an information-driven society where a workforce needed different knowledge and skills. These were also the years when U.S. students came up short on domestic and international test scores. Appointed by the then U.S. Secretary of Education, a national commission turned in a report (1983) to President Ronald Reagan about the poor quality of U.S. schools and recommended a new direction to achieve a competitive workforce. Responsibility for mediocre test scores and by inference responsibility for a weak economy and a non-competitive workforce, was laid upon schools. As A Nation at Risk stated:

We conclude that declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted.
Schools, therefore, must reform to produce both excellent graduates in an equitable way who are ready to work in an information-driven economy. No mention of societal and economic inequalities that spilled over the schools decade after decade. Schools, then, must change in order to defend the nation and lead to economic prosperity. Unless there was widespread school reform immediately, then inequalities will worsen.

A Nation at Risk answered the question of which fork U.S. public schools should take by recommending higher curriculum standards, standardized testing, and accountability for results. If implemented, these recommendations, they claimed, would produce better schools, knowledgeable and skilled graduates, and a stronger economy. The U.S. could then be again a globally competitive nation.

The report triggered federal, state, and district reforms that continue to this day. Between the 1980s through Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), U.S. schools have focused on getting more students to graduate high school fully equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to enter higher education and the work place. Schooling has become the handmaiden of the economy. This is the second time that such a marriage has been arranged–or to switch metaphors, the same fork in the road taken.

Hit the rewind button and return to the 1890s.

Listen to Theodore Search, President of the National Association of  Manufacturers in 1898:

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce.    (quoted here, p. 29)

Over a century ago,  business leaders and progressive educators, holding this vision of schools helping the economy prosper, reorganized school system governance of large, politically appointed superintendents and patronage-ridden school boards by creating small, non-partisan, corporate-like school boards that hired professional managers. These policy elites invented junior high schools and created large comprehensive high schools where they installed newly developed vocational curricula to prepare students for an industrial labor market. They compiled test scores that compared students from one district to another so taxpayers would know that their monies were being spent efficiently (see here and here).

In short, these early 20th century educational entrepreneurs copied successful business practices and used findings from the latest scientific studies to change public school goals, governance, organization, staffing and curricula to tie more closely public schools to the nation’s economy. Many of those changes still exist today.

Now, push the fast-forward button to the 1970s when U.S. products were losing to foreign competitors. Another generation of business leaders linked weak sales in the global marketplace to declining scores on international tests and poor schooling. The economy was changing and schools were failing to keep pace. So A Nation at Risk seeking a revived economy looked to schools, as did policy elites over a century ago.

It is now 35 years since the report appeared. And what is the verdict of this second round of business-inspired reforms aimed at making schools responsible for serving the larger economy.

From Milton Goldberg, former staff director of the Commission that produced A Nation at Riskcame the following judgment:

There have been positive changes in the education system since “A Nation at Risk” was published. There is now general acceptance of higher standards and expectations for student learning and achievement. We’ve seen new emphasis on the quality of teaching, as exemplified by the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The numbers of students taking the new basics curriculum defined in “A Nation at Risk” has increased exponentially. The growth of charter schools demonstrates the willingness of states and school districts to seek organizational changes for improved student performance.

A Harvard University professor sees the results differently,

The report, published years before many young teachers today were even born, was groundbreaking in emphasizing the importance of education to economic competitiveness and the failings of American schooling in comparison with international competitors. It presented a utilitarian and instrumental vision of education, and argued that schools, not society, should be held accountable for higher performance, and that performance should be measured by external testing—assumptions that underlay the state standards movement in the 1980s and 1990 and persist today in federal policy through No Child Left Behind.

On the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, journalist Richard Rothstein had this to say:

A Nation at Risk therefore changed the national conversation about education from the Coleman-Jencks focus on social and economic influences to an assumption that schools alone could raise and equalize student achievement. The distorted focus culminated in the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002, demanding that school accountability alone for raising test scores should raise achievement to never-before-attained levels, and equalize outcomes by race and social class as well.

A Nation at Risk was well-intentioned, but based on flawed analyses, at least some of which should have been known to the commission that authored it. The report burned into Americans’ consciousness a conviction that, evidence notwithstanding, our schools are failures, and warped our view of the relationship between schools and economic well-being. It distracted education policymakers from insisting that our political, economic, and social institutions also have a responsibility to prepare children to be ready to learn when they attend school.

There are many reasons to improve American schools, but declining achievement and international competition are not good arguments for doing so. Asking schools to improve dramatically without support from other social and economic institutions is bound to fail, as a quarter century of experience since A Nation at Risk has demonstrated.

From the political left to right, views of the report’s influence on existing school policies differ. Contemporary views of the report and the reforms it spurred mirror the three decade-plus arguments from liberals and conservatives over the best course to follow then and now.  All points of view do agree, however, that school reform rose on the political agenda for the following decades and remains close to the top even now 35 years later.

So for the second time in U.S. history, schools have been tapped to serve the larger economy while banishing educational inequalities. As before, schools become again another game of Whac-A-Mole.



Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Public Schools and Educational Inequality: Some Further Thoughts (Part 2)

With A Nation at Risk report issued in 1983 and subsequent shifts in policy such as higher curriculum standards, more testing, and accountability for results at school and district levels, the problem of U.S. students’ poor performance on domestic and international tests was clearly laid at the doorstep of schools. Responsibility for mediocre test scores was solely laid upon schools. As the report stated:

We conclude that declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted.
Schools, therefore, must reform to produce both excellence and equity. No mention was made of societal inequalities that spill over the schools. Schools, then, must improve in order to defend the nation economically and become prosperous once again. Unless school reform occurred, then inequalities will worsen.
That was then. There are now critics who claim that schools still worsen educational, economic and societal inequalities even after 35 years of standards, tests, and accountability, yet these current critics seldom ask (or answer) the fundamental question driving tax-supported public schools: Are children and youth, especially those who are disadvantaged by poverty better off going to school or staying at home? *


There have been unfortunate instances where the question has been answered. Consider that Prince Edward County (VA) officials closed its schools in 1959 to resist the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision. White children and youth went to a series of newly established private schools while most black students did not attend public schools save for a few privately funded ones. Prince Edward County schools reopened in 1964 to both black and white students.

The results for black students of five years being locked out of their schools? Terrible.

While private efforts sparked by President John F. Kennedy created “Free Schools” for the African American students barred from attending their segregated public schools, most children and youth could not afford to pack up and leave the county for schools elsewhere in Virginia; they simply stayed home and worked or did nothing. Subsequent low academic achievement, diminished chances for jobs, and dampened aspirations for higher education in the two years the schools were closed were obvious with little relief from the erratic, under-funded, and partial schooling they received in 1962-1964 when the County re-opened its schools (see here and here).

The absence of schooling for black children and youth in Prince Edward County for five years resulted in a far deeper and worse educational inequality than what had already existed in the Jim Crow school district prior to 1959. Schooling matters.

Another example of children not attending school being worse off than those who do, particularly for low-income minority families occurs with three and four year-olds who could attend preschool and those who do not.  Social scientists Steven Barnett (2006), James Heckman (2007), Greg Duncan (2013), and Stephen Raudenbush (2015) have collected and analyzed research findings that document the favorable outcomes to individual children, families, and society of providing universal preschool for three and four year-olds, especially for those children coming from low-income families (see here, here, here, and here).

Add all of the above to those researchers who have documented “summer loss” in academic achievement–see previous post–and what accumulates is a large body of evidence that schools can indeed moderate educational inequalities that exist between middle- and low-income children and youth in public schools. Using a different framework and research findings, then, shows that schools can reduce (but not eliminate) educational inequalities. And that is where I stand.

The answer to the “so what?” question is that persuasive evidence that public schools overall worsen educational inequities is lacking. Surely, there are instances of schools serving largely poor rural and urban families that fail miserably and their students emerge barely educated or drop out (see here, here, and here). But such schools are not the norm.

Nor is the norm those “no excuses” schools and a host of charter and regular public schools enrolling mostly poor and minority children and youth that have shown great promise using the familiar metrics of gains in test scores and sending nearly all of their graduates to higher education (see here, here, here, here).

Yes, tax-supported public schools in coping with the basic facts (noted in previous post) vary in their efforts to moderate existing educational inequalities. No great surprise. While schools matter in easing educational inequalities, the larger picture is that schools reflect those inequalities already existing in the larger society. The cliche is so true: when the U.S. has a cold, schools sneeze.

Thus, political attention must also be paid to the larger structures that shape the economy and society and inevitably influence schooling in the U.S. Growth of inequalities in wealth, the tax code strewn with loopholes that advantage the wealthy, unequal employment opportunities, segregated housing, and limited availability of a social safety net are forces that create the educational inequalities that mark U.S.schools. In the periodic spasms of reform that shake public schools, these structural factors seldom get noticed by political and policy elites.



*I exclude the rise of home schooling in the U.S since the 1970s. About three percent of U.S. students are homeschooled. Evidence of its impact as compared to students in public schools is unclear since many families schooling their children at home often use public schools for course work, sports, and other activities (see here and here).


Filed under school reform policies

Public Schools and Educational Inequality: Some Thoughts* (Part 1)

Do tax-supported public schools replicate or even worsen educational inequalities? Past and present critics of schools would answer “yes” (see here, here, here, and here).

But maybe they are wrong. Maybe public schools are either neutral or even ease inequalities over a student’s career in age-graded schools. Maybe public schools have been blamed unfairly for what is a societal problem and not a “school” problem. And even stranger in light of today’s full-bore indictment of schools, maybe they moderate societal effects and give the most disadvantaged children and youth a boost rather than a boot.

This argument over whether schools increase, have little impact, or even decrease educational inequalities has raged for decades among policymakers, pundits, and researchers (see here and here). Yet these arguments often skip over basic facts of U.S. schooling that few would dispute.These facts provide an essential context for those taking any position in this ongoing argument.

First, how much time does the average U.S. student spend in and out of school?



Because ways of calculating time in school vary, estimates range from 13 percent to the 20 percent in above pie chart (see here). Contending estimates still underscore that U.S. children and youth spend the vast majority of their time away from school at home and in the neighborhood. This fact, then, makes clear that most influence on what students do behaviorally and academically in school comes from home and community. Of course, 13-20 percent of a year’s time in school can make a difference in the lives of children and youth. But the fact remains: 80-87 percent of a year those kids are at home.

Another essential fact concerns the high correlation between parents’ education and income and their expectations for children’s achievement and test performance (also see here).






Out-of-school factors such as parental level of education and annual income influence students’ academic achievement. Multiple studies over the past century have established this steel-linked chain between parents’ socioeconomic status and their children’s school performance on standardized tests (see here, here, here, and here).

And when parents are asked which factors influence their children’s academic attainment, they clearly pointed to themselves.



And do not forget money. The huge variation in state and local funding of public schools establishes the base from which educator salaries (the bulk of a district’s expenditures), facilities, equipment, maintenance, and scores of other costs occur. Because most state and local money supporting schools come from property taxes, comparing Massachusetts and Mississippi, for example, spending per pupil gets at national variation. Recent teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma underscore not only the importance of money but the unequal allocation of resources across states.

Ditto for districts within states. Those districts fortunate to be located in high wealth areas   (e.g., Arlington, Virginia; Scarsdale, New York; River Forest, Illinois) get far more money to spend on schools than those in low wealth districts (Roanoke, Virginia, Rochester, New York, or Springfield, Illinois). Note  further that federal funds only account for a dime out of every dollar states and local districts spend on public schools.  So money matters particularly when it comes to providing equal spending. Another basic fact that often goes unnoticed.

These inescapable facts, however, have failed to clarify past or contemporary debates over the role of the school when it comes to reducing educational inequalities. Or get critics to modify their positions.

Having spent decades in urban and suburban schools as a history teacher, superintendent, and researcher I have placed myself along the continuum of this policy argument somewhere in the middle, tilting toward schools moderating educational inequalities but neither eliminating achievement gaps nor lifting families out of poverty. Some schools can reduce inequities by providing well-funded  compensatory actions (e.g., preschool, differentiated curriculum, effective teachers, individualized instruction, longer school days, etc.).

Where I stand is anchored in my experiences within schools, research I have done, and intuition. While I believe that some schools can (and do) moderate educational inequities–they make a difference in children’s lives–for many years, I lacked  a conceptual framework, language, and data to make a coherent case for the position I have taken.

Data came first. In 1966, the federal government published a school survey study it had commissioned sociologist James Coleman to conduct.  Coleman’s conclusion was succinct:

One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

This conclusion, underscoring the above essential facts of U.S. schooling, has been confirmed repeatedly in the past half-century (see here, here and here). None of these data, however, have stilled critics who have argued (and continue to do so) that public schools not only reproduce but worsen inequalities.

OK, home, neighborhood, and peers have outsized influence on what students achieve in school. But can schools with 13-20 percent of time that children and youth attend during the year moderate that huge effect? Or can inadequate funding of schools be overcome? Yes, to a limited extent.

How do I know?

The familiar framework for looking at what schools do is to view academic achievement narrowly as measured by test scores. Student scores capture the effects of schooling within this narrow framework. And historically, using these test scores, a yawning achievement gap between white and minority students has remained nearly the same for decades. Moreover, as some policymakers have pointed out, “dropout factories” in urban school districts exist. And low-income minority five year-olds entering school are already at a disadvantage compared to middle-class white kindergartners.

There are other frameworks, however. Schools account for how much is learned (e.g., acquiring cognitive skills, getting along in groups, etc.) that go beyond what standardized tests measure. There are also studies, for example, that capture what students learn (including those standardized tests) while in school as opposed to when they are out of school (e.g., summer breaks, going or not going to preschool). One measure of impact, then, is researchers examining how much students learn in school compared to when they are not in school, such as summers and three- and four year-olds who stay home (see here and here). And the evidence shows that students do pick up cognitive and other skills while in school thus having an impact and compensating for out-of-school factors.

Such a framework of comparing attending public school to not attending using in- and out-of-school data may influence the continuing debate over the role of schools in either worsening or improving educational inequalities but it will not end it. But it does give me the framework and data, a way of seeing how schools can influence students academically beyond what I have experienced in classrooms and schools, researched reforms, and intuition.

So what?

Part 2 takes up that question.


*I thank Professor Douglas Downey (Ohio State University) who gave a recent seminar at Stanford University for getting me to re-examine this contentious and on-going debate over the role of schools in influencing the large gaps in the distribution of wealth in the U.S. over the past century.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Assessing My Writing: A Look Backward

A month ago, a colleague wrote to me and asked me to write about my career as a practitioner/scholar over the past half-century. I accepted. Part of the request was to include what I have written about policy and practice as a historian of education that contributed to both research and practice.

Sure, there are metrics that suggest what a “contribution” may be. There are Google scholar and Edu-Scholar rankings. There are Web of Science citations. All well and good but influence or impact on practitioners and researchers? Maybe yes, a bit here and there. And maybe no, not a trace. Rankings and citations are, at best, no more than fragile, even shaky proxies of a “contribution.”

I thought about these metrics a lot and decided instead to describe those works that gave me the most satisfaction in writing. This is not false modesty. What I think may be a contribution, others may yawn at its banality. What I think is a mundane article,  I will receive notes from readers about how powerful the piece was in altering their thinking. Writing to me is a form of teaching: some lessons fly and others flop.

So what follows is my self-assessment of those writings that gave me the most satisfaction and feeling of pride in doing something worthwhile.  Others would have to judge whether what I have written over the past half-century has contributed to what practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and the general public—audiences I have written for—know and do. In all instances, what I offer are publications that were prompted by questions that grew out of my teaching and administrative experience and what I learned as a researcher. Both have played a huge part in what I chose to research, write, and teach.

How Teachers Taught (1984, 1993)

This study of three different generations of reformers trying to alter the dominant way of classroom teaching (1900s, 1960s, and 1980s) was my first historical analysis of teaching. The question that prompted the study came out of my visits to Arlington (VA) public school classrooms over the seven years I served as superintendent in the 1970s and early 1980s. I kept seeing classroom lessons that reminded me of how I was taught in elementary and secondary schools in Pittsburgh (PA) in the 1940s. And how I taught in Cleveland (OH) in the 1950s. How could that be, I asked myself? That question led to a three-year grant to study how teachers taught between 1880-1990.

I used district archives, photographs, and first-hand accounts to cover a century of policy efforts to shift teaching from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction. I documented the century-long growth of classroom hybrids of both kinds of classroom instruction. Few historians, sadly, have since pursued the question of how reform policies aimed at altering teachers’ classroom behavior actually get put into practice.

 The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership (1988)

Here again, a question that grew out of my being in classrooms as a teacher and a district administrator nudged me. What I saw and experienced in classrooms and administrative offices looked a great deal alike insofar as the core roles that both teachers and administrators had to perform. Was that accurate and if so, how did that come to be? So I investigated the history of teaching, principaling and superintending. I saw that three core roles dominated each position: instructional, managerial, and political. I compared and contrasted each with vivid examples and included chapters on my experiences as both a teacher and administrator.

Reform Again, Again, and Again (1990)

The article that appeared in Educational Researcher looked at various cycles of change that I had documented in How Teachers Taught and The Managerial Imperative. The central question that puzzled me was how come school reform in instruction, curriculum, governance and organization recurred time and again. I was now old enough and had experienced these reform cycles.

I presented a conceptual framework that explained the recurring reforms. My prior studies and direct school experiences gave me rich examples to illustrate the framework.

Tinkering toward Utopia (1995)

David Tyack and I collaborated in writing this volume. We drew heavily from the “History of School Reform” course we had been teaching to graduate students and each of our prior studies. In only 142 pages (endnotes and bibliography excluded), we summed up our thinking about the rhetoric and actuality of school reform policies in curriculum, school organization, governance, and instruction over the past two centuries in the U.S.

Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001)

In 1986, Teachers and Machines: The Classroom use of Technology since 1920 was published. In that study, I looked at teacher access and use of film and radio in classrooms during the 1920s and 1930s, educational television in the 1950s and 1960s and the first generation of desktop computers in the early 1980s. The central question driving that study was: what did teachers do in their lessons when they had access to film, radio, television, and later computers?

The question derives from the larger interest I have had in school reform policies and the journey they take as they wend their way into classroom practice. Like new curricula, governance changes, and shifts in how best to organize schools, grasping at new technologies that promise deep changes in how teachers teach is simply another instance of school reformers using policy mandates to alter classroom instruction. In short, adopting new technologies is simply another thread in the recurring pattern of school reformers seeking classroom changes during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Fifteen years after Teachers and Technology appeared, computers had become common in schools. So in Oversold and Underused, I asked: to what degree were teachers in Silicon Valley schools using computers in their classrooms, labs, and media centers for lessons they taught? Such questions about classroom use go beyond the rhetoric surrounding new devices and software. I wanted to see what actually occurred in classrooms when districts adopted policies pushing new technologies into pre-school, high school, and university classrooms.

Teaching History Then and Now (2016)

The question that prompted this study came out of writing for my blog on how I taught history in two urban high schools in the 1950s and 1960s. I wondered how history was taught in those very same high schools a half-century later. Those personal questions led to reconstructing my teaching a half-century ago from personal records and archives I found at each school and then traveling to those very same schools to do observations and interviews with current teachers of history.


These publications have given me great satisfaction in writing. Converting questions and ideas into words on a screen or jottings on a piece of paper is what I have done since I published my first article in 1960 in the Negro History Bulletin. Have I written things that have never left my home and remain in closets and bottom drawers? You bet. But writing, a different way of teaching, remains important to me and as I long as I can I will write about the past as it influences the present, especially policies that aim at at altering how teachers teach.

Yet the act of writing historically remains mysterious to me. Why do the words flow easily and excite me in their capturing illusive ideas and rendering them in a graceful way and other times what I see on paper or on the screen are clunky sentences, if not clumsy wording? I do not know. Immersed in writing about policy and practice historically (as it has been for me in teaching in high school and graduate seminars) has given me highs and lows over the years and much satisfaction. While I may not understand the mystery of writing, I remain most grateful to Clio, the muse of historians.


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Cartoons on Teaching English

For this month I have turned to cartoonists who draw on their experiences in English, reading, and language arts lessons. Enjoy!


























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America’s Best Charter School Doesn’t Look Anything Like Other Top Charters. Is that Bad? (Richard Whitmire)

“Richard Whitmire is the author of several books, most recently “The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools.” Whitmire is a member of the Journalism Advisory Board of The 74.”

This article was in The 74; it appeared March 27, 2016.


This is my second visit to the East Boston campus of Edward Brooke Charter Schools. During a previous stop,  I sat down with co-director Kimberly Steadman. She was helpful, but I’ll have to admit I walked away wondering: Why is this (arguably) the nation’s top-performing charter? I still don’t get it.

A year later I returned, still looking to answer that question. I arrived a few days after the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to allow Brooke a high school so students from its current three schools can transition into a high school run with the same philosophy and results.

Said state Commissioner Mitchell Chester: “It would be hard to overstate the track record of educational performance (at Brooke).” Keep in mind, this green light to expand happened in Massachusetts, a state in the throes of the nation’s most bitter fight over charters.

This time I sat down with Steadman’s husband, and co-director, Jon Clark, who founded Brooke. Even an hour into the interview I was worried once again: Am I going to walk away and still not understand Brooke’s secret sauce (a horrible cliché, but it gets to the heart of it) that makes them the best charter school in Massachusetts, a state that boasts the nation’s top-performing charters?

Among charter founders, Clark is unique. Quiet, studious, not given to bragging, not out to conquer the world by sprinkling charters in every state or even outside Boston. He’s prone to crediting his wife more than himself and offers only general clues to watch for as I start my classroom observations. It’s all about the teaching, he advised me.

What school leader doesn’t say that?

At the moment, the advice didn’t seem particularly helpful. At the end of the day am I going to climb into a cab to head back to Boston’s Logan Airport still puzzling over how Brooke takes in a student population that’s almost entirely low income and entirely minority, and turns them into scholars with test scores that match students enjoying the privilege of growing up white in a wealthy Boston suburb?


1458920497_9289.jpgSome top charters talk about closing achievement gaps; Brooke actually does it.

Here’s the challenge about Brooke: It’s a group of K-8 schools, essentially a mom-and-pop charter, a creation of Clark and Steadman. Aren’t the nation’s best charters supposed to emerge from prestigious charter management organizations such as KIPP and Achievement First?

There’s more to the challenge. Unlike many top charters, especially Rocketship charters out of California, a blended learning pioneer (creating personalized learning by leaning on computer-based instruction) that I followed for more than a year while writing a book, “On the Rocketship,” Brooke mostly eschews computer learning. No blended learning to be seen anywhere.

Why? Clark has yet to find a software learning program that impresses him. Brooke’s entire emphasis is on teacher quality. Why would you subtract from teacher time by sending students off for laptop instruction?

The challenge goes on. Unlike many “no excuses” charter groups which adopt a highly scripted instructional style that could be set to a metronome, Brooke is pretty laid back. There’s no heavy “culture” pressure here.

“Our kids do well on tests because they love reading”

At Brooke, elementary students have carpeted squares they sit on for up-close-and-personal sessions with the teacher, but if a student happens to spill over into the next square there’s no command-and-control correction coming from the teacher, as I have seen in many “no excuses” charters. Yes, they file quietly through the hallways when changing classes, but nobody has to hold their hands behind their back or cupped in front of them.

In fact, if you suddenly forgot that every single student there comes from a non-privileged background, you could easily imagine you were in a private school where the students are somehow just naturally curious and well behaved, interested in every comment made by a fellow students.

Sounds intriguing, right? But how do they do it? I’m mid-way through my day-long stay here, and I still don’t have a real clue. Clark doesn’t make me feel any better when he advises me to watch classrooms for evidence of Brooke’s twin pillar philosophy in action: “challenged” and “known.” Challenged I get. But “known?”

The first insight into my unanswered question came as I tagged along with teacher Heidi Deck after she walked her fourth-graders across the street in very blustery conditions to physical education. One unique thing about being a Brooke teacher, she said, is that the instruction always starts with an unfamiliar problem, something the students haven’t seen before.

Deck went on to describe flipped instruction. In most math classrooms, teachers present a problem, demonstrate the solution and then have the students practice. It’s dubbed the “I do-we do-you do” method of instruction. Rinse and repeat.

Not at Brooke. Here, teachers start by presenting a new problem and then invite the students to solve it on their own, armed only with the tools from previous lessons. “We really push kids to be engaged with the struggle,” explained Deck.

Next, the teacher invites students to collaborate with one another in trying to solve the problem, which is followed by more individual attempts to solve it. Then there’s a classroom discussion about different ways students tried to solve it, with teachers doing their best to draw out solutions from the students. Ideally, they carry the weight of the instruction, learning from one another.

“The kids have to do the logical work of figuring something out rather than repeating what the teacher does,” said Steadman, who acts as the chief academic officer.

That posits math instruction more in the real world. Aren’t we always coming up against unfamiliar challenges, from calculating the wisest purchase to computing taxes?

And there’s another advantage: There’s no panic when Brooke students come across a math problem on the state exam they’ve never seen before. Instead they ask: What are the tools I already have to solve this?


Here’s another intriguing feature about Brooke: The reading scores here are as high as the math scores. That may not sound unusual, but it is. At almost any other top charter I visit that serves high-poverty students the math scores tend to soar while the reading scores are barely any better than neighborhood schools.

Why? The explanation always offered is that math gets taught in classrooms; literacy is more rooted in home life. Plus, in charters that rely on using computerized blended learning, the math software is great; the literacy software usually mediocre or worse.

The reason the math and reading scores align at Brooke comes down to a simple-but-radical approach to literacy: Reading is taught not as something mechanical (you will never see a reading worksheet at Brooke) but as something to be loved. In a traditional school, including charters, a child struggling with reading gets special help in breaking down the process into small pieces, with teachers searching for deficits that need correcting.

Brooke emphasizes phonics as much as any school, but on a broader level. A struggling reader at Brooke first gets asked: Why don’t you love reading? To the Brooke teachers, finding a way to unlock that love is as important, or more important, than isolating mechanical deficiencies.

“The goal is to get kids to love text so they become lifelong readers,” said Steadman. “Our kids do well on tests because they love reading.”


Yet another observation about Brooke. Visit any school in the country, charter or traditional, and the classroom walls will be full of colorful posters, student work and the daily academic goals. It wasn’t until about the third classroom I dropped in on that I noticed something different: At Brooke, the walls have that regular art but slathered over that are huge, jumbled tear sheets revealing classroom discussions about math, religion, history, a novel, pretty much anything.


These posters are chock-full of teacher scribbles of student comments, kind of like those Hollywood movies about math savants who fill blackboards with calculations. It all feels rich and creamy.


Take Deck’s fourth-grade classroom: The back wall is covered with tear sheets revealing elaborate graphs created with orange, blue, purple and green markers. There’s one labeled: Comparing decimals. Another: Divisibility rules. Another: What do I do with a remainder? On a side wall, two charts that break down a novel’s inner workings are partially covered by a tear sheet spelling out the players in the underground railway.


The complex wall arts points to one thing: Some serious and enthusiastic scholarship took place here. Here’s something else you notice about Brooke: There are a lot fewer students walking through the hallways. Actually, this is a pretty big difference (I may have saved the best for last.)


Brooke does something with its middle school grades that few others do. They structure them on an elementary school model, keeping students mostly in self-contained classrooms with the same teachers throughout the day. All those in-school shuffles between math, reading and science, prompted by soul-deafening buzzers. Not happening here.

Interesting story how that happened, and it’s all about Steadman. Or, to put it more precisely, it’s all about her husband, Clark,  listening closely to Steadman, who arrived at Brooke in 2004 as a seventh-grade math teacher. Her prior experience had been as a fifth- grade math teacher. But really, she asked herself, how different could it be teaching seventh grade? As it turned out, a lot.

At that time Brooke’s older grades operated like a traditional middle school, where students changed classes to see teachers who specialized in math, reading or science. So Steadman taught nothing but math, class after class — and didn’t like it.

Aside from not getting to know the students that well, she missed the teacher collaboration she enjoyed in elementary schools where all the teachers who taught, say fourth grade, got together to plan what all fourth-grade classes should be studying that week. Wondered Steadman: Why should middle school be different?

After Steadman launched the elementary program, Brooke undertook an internal teacher survey that revealed something interesting: Elementary grade teachers reported more satisfaction than the middle school grade teachers. Why? Because of the teacher-to-teacher collaboration.

“It’s one of my big beliefs about how people work,” she said. “They like having thought partners, people they can talk to about the work they do. Being verbal about your work makes it more purposeful.”

So why not shift the middle school grades to the elementary school schedule? After a one-year successful pilot with fifth grade, Brooke flipped all its older grades  to the self-contained model. Thus, teachers instruct all subjects, drawing on heavy collaboration with same-grade teachers. That guarantees a deeper relationship with the teacher, and also cuts down on the time students spend shuffling from class to class.

But the biggest benefit may be teacher satisfaction. Said Clark: “If you ask any teacher at Brooke to name the biggest thing that pushes you to get better, I think they would answer it’s having a smart colleague to co-plan with and look at data with.”

That self-contained model also helps explain the “known” part of the Brooke twin pillars philosophy: All students should feel well known by Brooke teachers, something more likely to happen in the nurturing self-contained classrooms.

All the above factors, woven together, account for the high performance at Brooke. Which raises this question: If the nation’s top charter school is headed in a direction different from other high-performing charters, is that a problem?

My answer: Only if you think all charter schools are supposed to look alike.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

“Experience Rich, Theory Poor:” The Plight of Practitioners?

I heard the phrase “experience rich, theory poor” on a podcast interview between New Yorker editor David Remnick and writer Malcolm Gladwell. The phrase immediately triggered memories of my returning to graduate school in the early 1970s after being a high school history teacher and a school district administrator in the Washington,D.C. schools for 16 years.

That phrase captured my thoughts about the coursework I took the first year on organizational theory, the politics of education,and the history of education. I had gained enormous and varied experiences in teaching history to mostly black high school students in Cleveland (OH) and the District of Columbia. I knew chapter and verse of how classrooms operated, what happened in schools on a daily basis, and the strengths and weaknesses of admired and trusted colleagues. I had accumulated rich experiences in running a school-based teacher education program and then a district-wide staff development program. If my professors and peers asked me what I knew about schooling in big cities, I had stories and specific cases that I could easily draw from to illustrate point after point about the nature of teaching and administering in big city schools.

What became clear to me that first year of graduate school as I digested assigned readings, listened to professors lecture, and heard seminar discussions is that stories and pithy examples unembedded in theoretical frameworks left an experienced practitioner such as myself unable to go beyond the stories I would tell. I lacked the language of theory, conceptual frameworks, analysis, and generalizations. Without knowing theories that helped me make sense of my experiences, I drew conclusions, advanced generalizations, and made predictions about improving schools often saying: this is what works in these schools and districts because I was there and know from first-hand experience.

Such statements fell flat with my professors. In two years of coursework, I learned the importance of having conceptual frameworks to help me make sense of what I experienced. For me, then, connecting theories to my work as a teacher and administrator gave me a new vocabulary but also a deeper understanding of an institution in which I had worked for many years.  Those theories equipped me with different perspectives on not only how classrooms, schools, and districts worked but also their contexts and what I could do about the mistakes I had made and failures I had experienced. The theories I learned and then later used made graduate school and the Ph.D enormously worthwhile when I served as a superintendent for seven years.

But I was also wrong.

Yes, the phrase “experience rich and theory poor” applied to me in graduate school. But in the years during my superintendency and, subsequently as a university researcher for two decades I came to see that I, like the teachers and principals I worked with, had theories deeply embedded in what I did but could not articulate those causal concepts rooted in my beliefs, desires, and intentions. Sure, I lacked the language but I was rich in both experience and theory but just didn’t know it.

Parsing the theory buried in, say a teacher’s practice, can happen when actual classroom actions are looked at closely. Consider the common  teacher practice of giving re-takes of tests (see my recent post).

Here is what middle school teacher Baptiste Delvalle does with his students:

Here’s how I explain it to my students. If you’re asked to meet a deadline in a future job, and you’re late or have poor-quality work, you might get fired. If you’re in a relationship and don’t show up to the dates, you might get dumped. If you cross the road without looking, and a car comes zooming by, you don’t get a second chance. I prefer that they get a bad grade and learn to give it their best shot on the first try, rather than to hear years from now that they’re still struggling.

Delvalle’s beliefs in how the “real” world works–you do this and that happens–leads him to tell students ” you don’t get a second chance” in taking a test because that is not how life is outside school walls. You do the best you can first time out.

I do not know where his theory of action about “real” life comes from, but it seems to be a mix of observations he accumulated growing up from which he learned lessons, parental teachings, reflections on real-life experiences, possible religious beliefs, and other factors. Delvalle’s practice of prohibiting re-taking tests, then, has buried within it a theory of action about how the world works. It is tacit theory embedded in the practice.

Now consider Lisa Westman’s practice of permitting re-tests for students. A veteran of 15 years in classrooms, Westman sees the same world that Delvalle sees but interprets it differently.

In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.

Westman argues that students should be able to re-take tests as a way for students to achieve mastery of content and skills since most formal written, oral, or real-life tests in life can be re-taken until they are passed.

In Westman’s practice of students’ re-taking tests, lies her theory of action. Like Delvalle, I do not know the beliefs and values nor the experiences she had with her family, growing up, and teaching but it is clear that she sees “real” life differently than Delvalle. For her, preparing students for life means that they will make mistakes; failures will occur. Students equipped with knowledge, skills, and values will figure out what to do and how to do something better. Thus,  buried within the practice  is the tacit theory that students can correct mistakes and experience both success and failure in subsequent tasks by re-taking tests.

These teachers are both rich in experience and theory—-more tacit than explicit—-but theory no less. Dredging up the implicit theory buried in practical decisions teachers and administrators make is surely hard work but revealing to those practitioners who dig away.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach