First things first. To most Americans, how teachers teach and what they include in daily lessons once the classroom door is closed remains as mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle.
Well, not quite since every American knows from childhood and teen years what a classroom is like, what teachers typically do, and how schools smell. Yet beyond remembrances of classroom lessons–not many, however, since memories of particular lessons disappear swiftly–there has been (and is) little direct observation of what elementary and secondary school teachers do in any of the many lessons they teach over the course of a school day. Hard to believe that what we know about teaching daily often comes from our dredged-up memories, what our children and friends’ children recount of their days in school, and, finally, rumors of what is taught and how it is taught. Moreover, not too much comes from educational researchers, except for occasional surveys of teaching practices (see here and here)
I state all of this because of the recent brouhaha over “critical race theory” being taught in classrooms. Instigated by mostly Republican national and state political leaders (see here and here), there is no there, there. Largely because there are no data, past or present, on what content teachers do actually teach daily in schools, districts, and states. Statements about actual teaching of the theory are no more than hot air and excited panting.
Sorry, but I have to repeat that: there are no data, past or present on what content teachers do actually teach daily in schools, districts, and states.
Finding teachers who have taught “critical race theory” is nearly impossible not because of fear but simply because it seldom appears in actual lessons.
Surely, teachers refer to state and district curriculum guides, use textbooks, and assign homework that give clues to what content and skills they include in their lessons, but beyond that, all we know is what teachers say they are teaching, students recollect from lessons, and administrators aver is being taught. And “critical race theory” whatever it is (see here and here), rarely, if at all, enters teachers’ vocabulary much less the content of a lesson. In the hundreds of classrooms I have observed in the Bay area over 20 years, maybe one, perhaps two, came even close to mentioning or discussing it in a lesson.
Many times in the past have deep cultural splits among Americans, in this instance about race, been fought out within the nation’s public schools (see here and here). Until evidence of teaching practices are collected about whether or not or to what degree “critical race theory” is taught in U.S. schools, the current hysteria about the theory being actually taught is no more than another instance of political bluster wrapped around another educational kerfuffle.
Over the past decade, thoughtful observers seeking improvement in public school teaching and student learning have advanced concepts of “ambitious teaching” and “deeper learning” (see here, here and here). Both raise the low bar that earlier reformers had set to initiate and adopt reforms aimed at classrooms such as adopting new reading programs, using innovative textbooks, or loading on student computers dazzling pieces of software. It was a low bar to these advocates because they sought a more thoughtful form of teaching that gets students of all ages to inquire, question, and poke at contradictions across all academic subjects. These champions of ambitious teaching and deeper learning believed that lessons, be they teacher- or student-directed, can go beyond the superficial and stimulate students’ curiosity and achieve learning goals heretofore thought impossible.
What is ambitious teaching?
A phrase that cropped up often over the past decade, ambitious teaching comes out of earlier reform traditions when teachers aspired to elicit and develop student ideas out of the content and skills regularly taught in lessons. Getting students to think aloud, take on difficult academic tasks, and investigate the world outside of school walls were aims. In such lessons, teachers not only elaborated student ideas but also applied them to practical situations in which they were familiar. All of this is packed into the phrase, “ambitious teaching.”
A more formal (and obtuse) definition comes from three scholars:
Ambitious teaching requires that teachers teach in response to what students do as they engage in problem solving performances, all while holding students accountable to learning goals that include procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive dispositions.”
What problems does ambitious teaching solve?
Reform-minded teacher educators and scholars of critical thinking believe that expecting teachers to teach ambitiously would result in fewer textbook-driven lessons which leave many students bored and compliant, leading, many observers believe, to underlying schoolwide problems. What adherents of ambitious teaching seek are more lessons that question textbook statements and explore and explain contradictions between what students know, what they experience and what they are expected to learn. Too many lessons, reformers claim, are dull, mechanical, and result in fake student responses that teachers label as “learning.”
What does ambitious teaching look like?
Researchers offered this example of ambitious teaching:
Imagine walking into a middle school classroom where students are working on a statistics unit in which they are investigating patterns of association between two quantities. While students enter the classroom, the teacher gives each student a sheet of paper that contains [a detailed photo of a] shoeprint….
The teacher explains that when investigators find shoeprints at the scene of a crime, forensic scientists can use the prints to identify suspects. She asks students to consider how a footprint could help someone solve a crime. After a brief discussion, students conclude that a shoeprint can indicate the type of shoe that a suspect wore, as well as the size of the suspect. The teacher explains that the students are going to investigate the relationship between shoe size and height so that they can determine the height of the suspect. While students work in pairs, measuring each other’s height and shoe length, theteacher monitors the activity and asks and answers questions as needed to support students’ efforts. When pairs finish measuring, they add their data (red dots for girls and green dots for boys) to a large graph—with the x-axis labeled as shoe length and the y-axis labeled as height—posted in the front of the room. When all the students have added their data points to the graph, the teacher asks students to talk with their partners about the patterns that they notice. After a few minutes, the students share their observations, which the teacher records: for example, no two people have the same shoe size and height, most girls have smaller feet and are shorter than the boys, tall people have bigger feet than short people, the data go up from left to right, and the data are kind of linear. The teacher tells students that their next step is to find a line that models these data—a line of best fit. She directs students to a Web-based applet, where they plot the class data in two-pair teams, guess at a line of best fit, and check their guesses. (An applet that supports this investigation is at http://illuminations.nctm.org/Activity.aspx?id54186.) The class concludes with a lively whole-group discussion, during which teams share their findings regarding the line of best fit, discuss the meaning of the slope and y-intercept in context, and consider how confident they are that the equation will be a good predictor of a person’s height based on a shoeprint. In the final five minutes of class, students complete an exit ticket in which they indicate how tall they think the suspect is and present their reasons.
Does ambitious teaching work?
While some evidence appears to support the correlation between ambitious teaching and higher achievement test scores, there is very little evidentiary support for such labeled practices primarily because the phrase has varied definitions and researchers often pick and choose among the diverse definitions for this form of teaching. At best, the answer to the question is: “perhaps.” See here and here.
What happened to ambitious teaching?
While less cited in the general literature on teaching, it remains strong within the math and science academic community and occasional groups of practitioners. In surveying the landscape of ambitious teaching, it appears to me that it is far more apparent among university and college teacher educators than rank-and-file district administrators and teachers. So the dream of ambitious teaching lives on but has yet to be widely shared or practiced within U.S. public schools.
“Jennifer Oldham is a Denver-based independent journalist who specializes in coverage of government, inequality, and the environment.” This article appeared in Education Next, Summer 2021
Step into Nicole Reitz-Larsen’s classroom in Salt Lake City’s West High School and see students grooving to “Single Ladies” or zigzagging to execute one of LeBron James’s handshakes. You might think it’s a dance class. It’s not.
Reitz-Larsen is teaching computer science through movement. The former German-language and business instructor found that linking difficult concepts such as algorithms and the binary system to students’ interests helps the students grasp a topic that many were leery about before they stepped into her class.
“I’m always thinking about how to sell it to my students,” said Reitz-Larsen, who learned how to teach the complex subject in three months after administrators asked her to pioneer it at West. “You have those kids who say, ‘I’m never going to use this.’”
Young people who are glued to their phones and laptops for many of their waking hours are often apathetic when it comes to figuring out what makes their devices tick. About one of every three girls and half of boys think computer science is important for them to learn, according to a 2020 Google/Gallup, Inc., survey of 7,000 educators, parents, and students.
The finding came four years after President Barack Obama declared that computer science is as essential for K–12 students as reading, writing, and arithmetic. The announcement gave momentum to a computer-science-for-all movement and propelled industry-backed nonprofits such as code.org to the forefront of debates about what should be taught in schools. Joe Biden, both as vice president and during his 2020 presidential campaign, emphasized his support for having K–12 students learn the subject.
The effort is part of a broader attempt to overhaul and update the U.S. education system. Proponents argue that it’s time to amend the public-school curriculum to reflect life skills demanded by the ever-changing Information Age. Such a reframing is necessary, they say, to ensure students can compete for positions focused on cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and mobile-app development.
After Obama’s high-profile endorsement of code.org’s mission, the organization joined educators and other advocates to help persuade state legislatures to allocate millions of dollars toward new laws that advance its vision that “every student in every school has the opportunity to learn computer science.”
Some states made more progress than others. Thirty-seven adopted computer-science standards for K–12, and 20 required all high schools to offer the subject. In Nevada and South Carolina, the discipline is now a graduation requirement. New York City committed to making the subject available at every K–12 school by 2025. New rules such as these helped drive about 186,000 students to take Advanced Placement computer-science tests in 2020, nine times more than in 2010.
A 2020 report from code.org found that 47 percent of the nation’s high schools teach computer science. Despite a growing belief among parents, administrators, and students in computer science’s benefits, and millions of dollars allocated to offering it in K–12 schools, gaps in access and participation among Black, Hispanic, and white students persist.
Today, computer-science-for-all leaders acknowledge they’ve hit a plateau and that they need more-widespread buy-in from lawmakers and educators and increased funding to overcome disparities in the U.S. education system that fall along racial and socioeconomic lines.
“Early on, we got all these early-adopter states, school districts, and teachers raising their hands, and there was a frenzy of activity. Now we’re moving into people being told to do it,” said Ruthe Farmer, chief evangelist for CSforAll, a New York–based nonprofit. “The skepticism around how we’re going to get this done is still there.”
Constraining the movement’s growth are a scarcity of well-qualified teachers, particularly in math and science, and competition for resources in cash-strapped school districts. Hard-fought progress was also stalled by the coronavirus pandemic, when states such as Colorado and Missouri reallocated or froze funding dedicated to broadening access to the subject in K–12.
At the same time, Covid-19 laid bare long-standing inequities in access to laptops and high-speed broadband connections necessary to expand availability across cultures and to English language learners, rural students, and those with disabilities.
As advocates remain focused on quantifying computer science’s inroads into public schools, there is a dearth of research that evaluates the effectiveness of different instructional methods for developing such skills. Assessments with which to measure curriculum quality, reach, and relevance are also largely absent.
What’s more, there is no consensus on a robust definition of computer science, with some principals assuming courses that teach office skills will suffice. Some advocates now say it’s time to step back and reassess whether computer-science education really is “for all.”
“We are going really, really fast in trying to get computer science into schools and there absolutely is an urgency,” said Julie Flapan, director of the Computer Science Equity Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“We have to have conversations about what’s good for computer science and what’s good for kids. We wrestle with these tensions,” added Flapan, who is also co-director of the CSforCA Coalition. “We need to be mindful about not creating unintended consequences.”
The tradeoffs of adding the subject in K–12 schools are now becoming apparent. In California, computer-science enrollment growth came at the expense of social studies, English/language arts, foreign language, and arts courses, researchers found. The field’s supporters stress the subject must be taught alongside, or integrated into, other core courses, rather than replacing them.
“I don’t think math class or computer science should be an either-or situation,” wrote Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, via email. “Students need math, and they need computer science in today’s world.”
Or Do They?
Some scholars, though, reject the notion that all K–12 students should learn computer science, comparing the movement to other industry-driven efforts to add vocational training to public schools that led to agriculture, shop, and home-economics classes.
“Why would you teach coding to little kids, or even big kids, unless they want to be programmers?” said Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.
“Because schools are politically vulnerable, this current push for coding for all, for computer science for all, is part of a historical trend to alter schools’ curriculum to meet the needs of a vested interest,” added Cuban, author of The Flight of a Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet? Using Technology to Transform Teaching and Learning.
The debate over the merits of computer science for all in K–12 schools is also occurring globally, said Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. He said teaching coding is not useful for K–12 students because coding languages change often.
“There is a debate about this that is similar to the one in the U.S.—you have here in Europe a technology industry that is very much pushing for these skills,” said Schleicher, “and educators are pushing back and saying they don’t want to teach for today’s workplaces; they want to teach for tomorrow’s workplaces.”
Schleicher said he does believe that students should learn how to think computationally, particularly as that kind of thinking applies to data science and artificial intelligence. But, he said, using computers just to teach with the tool of the day, like a pen in the 17th century, or a typewriter in the 1900s, is a “time-bound phenomenon” with little relevance for students’ futures.
These arguments point up a fundamental challenge for proponents of the computer-science-for-all movement: defining what the subject is and how it should be taught.
What Is Computer Science?
There is consensus on what computer science is not—basic computing skills such as Internet searching, keyboarding, and using a spreadsheet—but no universal agreement on what it actually is. There are many different definitions, largely because decisions about what and how students are taught are made at the state, district, and school level. New York emphasizes digital literacy; Texas incorporated the discipline into its technical career standards.
Many proponents of the computer-science-for-all movement, which began in the early 2000s, spend considerable time trying to dispel the notion that it’s solely about learning coding.
Coding languages used in developing software are a tool for computer science, educators say, just as arithmetic is a tool for math and words are a tool for verbal communication. At its core, computer science is about learning how to create new technologies, rather than simply using them, advocates stress. It strives, for example, to teach students how to design the software that will make the spreadsheet.
Just as important as coding, backers add, are foundational concepts such as computational thinking. This approach to computer science provides students with a way to solve problems by breaking them down into parts, and it can be integrated across subjects as early as kindergarten.
In some states, computer-science standards overlap with math standards and involve concepts such as sequencing, ordering, and sorting. Standards can also include science concepts such as devising a hypothesis, testing it, refining it, and perhaps redesigning an experiment after “debugging.”
Just as students should learn how to read, analyze, and write text effectively, they need exposure to computer science to become informed digital citizens who understand how technology impacts their everyday lives, said Yasmin Kafai, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
Kafai, co-author of Connected Code: Why Children Need to Learn Programming, said that a big part of the world nowadays is the digital public sphere, “where we interface through machines.”
“We want to provide students in K–12 with an understanding of what that actually is—it’s a designed world, and it makes a difference when you understand how it’s designed,” she added. “It helps to understand its limitations.”
Such skills might help young people feel comfortable working with large amounts of data and empower them to push back against the negative impacts of technology.
After defining what computer science means for their districts, administrators need to decide what outcomes they hope to achieve for their students, advocates say. They acknowledge that in the early years of computer-science education, they overemphasized its role in training future programmers. With a shortage of tech workers in many regions, workforce development has been a powerful argument for offering computer science.
Jobs in computer and information technology are among the best paying in the United States, with the median annual salary for these occupations clocking in at $91,250 in May 2020, more than twice the median annual pay for occupations overall. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that such jobs will be among the fastest growing in the next decade. Yet the vocational approach to computer science turns off some administrators, who believe that K–12 education is more than just training young people for jobs.
“We’ve been using the workforce argument a lot when we talk about expanding computer-science education,” said Leigh Ann DeLyser, co-founder and executive director of CSforAll. “Yet the national survey of school administrators from NCES shows that less than half of school administrators see workforce development in the top three priorities for student education. We were putting out a message that was completely mismatched from what administrators thought was the purpose for kids to be in school.”
CSforAll has worked with more than 146 public school districts serving about 2 million students to conduct mapping exercises that helped administrators shape their computer-science curricula to match their school’s vision for what their students should get out of the subject.
Just like states’ definitions of computer science, visions that undergird state standards vary widely. In Nevada, it’s about civic engagement. In Indiana, school reform. In North Dakota, cybersecurity.
These values and others expressed in state guidelines, such as equity, literacy, innovation, and personal fulfillment, are key to developing curricula that appeals to all students, according to a CSforAll study.
Computer-science curriculum choices abound, with both commercial programs and free options available. While apparently no one tracks which curricula are used most often, the free introductory courses offered by code.org are very popular and currently used by about 1.3 million teachers.
Schools have also widely adopted curricula offered by Project Lead The Way, Codelicious, and Code Monkey. Some curricula feature easy-to-use block-coding programs, such as the MIT-developed Scratch and Google’s Blockly, that allow programmers to drag and drop blocks containing instructions to create animated stories and games.
Some curricula integrate computer science into other subjects. Bootstrap aligns programming concepts in game design with algebra. Project GUTS helps students create scientific models using web-based software.
Advocates suggest it’s best to cultivate students’ interest in computer science in elementary school, citing research that the earlier children are exposed to the subject the more likely they are to want to take it in middle and high school. Teaching computer science in younger grades is still not common, however.
To broaden access to the subject for high school students, researchers developed more basic curricula. Exploring Computer Science, which includes web design, data analysis, robotics, and programming through Scratch, is used by districts in Los Angeles, Spokane, Chicago, and New York City, among others.
Another course, AP Computer Science Principles, was designed, like Exploring Computer Science, in part to interest more women and minorities in the discipline. Teachers can use a variety of curricula to teach the AP course that includes lessons on how to design and program “socially useful” mobile apps, write and talk about ideas, and collaborate with peers. In 2016–17, the course’s first year, AP Computer Science Principles attracted more students than any other AP course debut in history.
Even as more schools and teachers use such wide-ranging curricula, determining their quality is difficult, noted Allison Scott, chief executive officer at the Kapor Foundation, an Oakland nonprofit that researches diversity in technology. “I think there is still a lot we don’t know about the effectiveness of computer-science curriculum overall, due to a few key challenges,” Scott wrote via email, “including the lack of consistent assessments for computer-science courses and the lack of information on the curriculum landscape.”
A December 2020 report from the College Board found that students who took computer-science principles were three times more likely to choose the major in college than peers who didn’t take the course—16.9 percent versus 5.2 percent. Even so, the nonprofit has no information on which curriculum was used in AP classes—it endorses a range of options for teachers to choose from—and whether any resulted in better outcomes, Scott wrote.
Researchers who study how computer-science curricula is used in elementary and middle schools found that teaching approaches range from very scripted lessons to open-ended ones where students are asked to create projects on a blank page.
“In our study, we found really big gaps in learning—for some kids you give them a blank screen and they are not going to push themselves,” said Diana Franklin, an associate professor in computer science at The University of Chicago. “The way people are teaching and the curriculum they use is not sufficient—there is room for improvement.”
Instead of randomly clicking on blocks in an open-ended approach to coding, she said, students first need to be given an example project that uses prompts to walk them through the steps of programming something on the screen and that requires them to write down their observations and predict what will happen with each step.
To track students’ progress and understanding of the material, the discipline needs written assessments that are validated, Franklin said. Such tests would allow schools to publish computer-science successes, she added. To help students score well on such assessments, schools would be incentivized to improve their curriculum, she added.
The Teaching Gap
Often, it’s difficult to implement a computer-science program district-wide, and it falls to teachers to promote the subject in individual schools. Many find the discipline intimidating because they weren’t trained in it in college. If teachers don’t fully understand the content, they won’t be able to teach it well, said Anne Ottenbreit-Leftwich, an associate professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University Bloomington.
More than one in three public school teachers interviewed for the 2020 Google/Gallup study said the quality of computer-science instruction that students received in school was fair or poor. Researchers who study the subject said that, often, quality suffers because teachers are expected to add computer science to their already jam-packed schedules.
“We have unfair expectations for our teachers—we say they have to have every student this far on literacy and students this far on math,” Ottenbreit-Leftwich said. “There is not enough time in the day for professional development for computer science, then there is not enough time to teach it.”
Teachers who volunteer to teach the discipline or are assigned the responsibility often receive several weeks of training.
“We are very much behind the curve in growing the numbers of computer-science teachers,” said Melissa Rasberry, a consultant with the American Institutes for Research who serves as principal investigator for CSforAll Teachers. “Very few programs are university based—you could count them on one hand at this point.”
After teachers are trained, they often find that few students understand what their computer-science classes are about. Stereotypes abound around which groups are suited to excel in the discipline.
“I believe that youth today understand that it is mostly white and Asian males who fill the ranks of the tech industry,” wrote Margolis, the UCLA researcher, via email, “and that this negatively impacts their sense of identity and agency in this field.”
Equitable access to computer science in K–12 schools has proved among the thorniest challenges for the computer-science-for-all push, even as proponents say it’s at the heart of the movement.
Disparities in computer-science course participation are difficult to pin down, since most states don’t collect demographic data on student enrollment in such courses, code.org’s 2020 report found. The number of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students taking AP computer-science exams remains low across many states, with several states reporting zero Black or Hispanic female students sitting for such tests in 2020.
From California to New York, advocates recount how they celebrated hard-fought gains in getting courses introduced in high schools, only to see them populated largely by students from middle- and upper-income families. Chicago Public Schools moved the needle on equity, but only by requiring that all students obtain computer-science credits to graduate.
“We set forth with a goal of changing the face of computing to make sure generally more girls, and more Black and brown kids, were taking computer science, and we’ve seen that,” said Lucia Dettori, an associate dean at DePaul University and a founding member of the Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science. “But I know from talking to people around the country that just adding the class doesn’t mean more people are taking it.”
Educators are working with nonprofits such as Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, and Latina Girls Code to engage a wider range of students. Researchers found that many girls and students of color are looking to use technology for a larger social purpose.
Extracurricular activities such as Hour of Code, Computer Science Education Week, and robotics competitions helped to expose nearly 7 in 10 middle and high school students to the topic, Gallup found. Such programs can nurture interest in the discipline and perhaps prompt parents and students to demand that it be made part of the curriculum, advocates say.
At Salt Lake City’s West High, Nicole Reitz-Larsen is constantly searching for culturally relevant ways to draw more 7th through 12th graders into her computer-science classes. Like teachers nationwide, she recently turned to CodeScty, which uses hip hop to “develop core competencies in computational thinking and coding,” according to their website.
She also enticed students on their way to eat lunch outside, or in the cafeteria, or in commons area, to participate in “robot challenges.” In one instance, students programmed robots to play in hallway soccer games on “fields” created with painter’s tape on shower curtains.
“People walking in the hallways, or other classes, would want to see what my students were doing, and it would interest them in checking out the class,” Reitz-Larsen said, adding, “we never have enough desks for students.”
The educator also works with code.org to train fellow teachers nationwide and answers their questions about how to develop engaging curricula and convince their colleagues that computer science should be more than an elective.
“It’s been eight years since we started teaching it at West, and it’s taken that long to convince counselors in my school that anyone can do computer science,” said Reitz-Larsen. “Now, whoever is in the hallway, I have the same representation in my classroom—I purposefully make sure students are comfortable in my classes, and I tell them to bring their friends.”
When the Rubik Cube appeared in the early 1980s, I tried twisting and turning the colors to get them all aligned. I failed. Finding out that there are 3 billion possible ways to turn the cube’s corners, edges, and center to get the solution comforted me not a bit. Nor did knowing that one out of seven people on the planet (yes, the planet) have tried to solve the puzzle. Especially after I read that the speed record–established in November 2015–for solving the puzzle is now under five seconds (not minutes nor hours, but seconds). A blindfolded participant (yes, blindfolded) in the China Championship (2015) solved the Rubik Cube in 21 seconds. I gave up. And I have not tried since. This is the end of my confession of failure to solve the Rubik’s Cube.
Now what does the Rubik Cube have to do with school reform then and now? The Rubik Cube is complicated; school reform is complex. I and many others have pointed out the distinction between complicated and complex. This post offers another distinction, one that is crucial for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers to consider before adopting and implementing policies in school curriculum, organization, governance, and pedagogy that touch children and youth. That distinction is: changing school structures and culture to reshape classroom pedagogy is far harder to do than solving Rubik’s Cube.
Like the Rubik’s Cube, there are many moving parts to altering what teachers do in their classrooms such as school structures, culture, and interactions (many of which can not be predicted) between and among adults and children, and life outside of school. These moving parts have to work in sync in order for students to benefit. When it occurs, it is a beauty to behold. But most of the time the moving parts do not mesh.
Because reformers believe that reforming a school is a matter of providing the right incentives to motivate children and adults, laying out clear and measurable objectives, planning the tasks to be done step-by-step, executing those tasks efficiently, measuring results, evaluating the outcomes, and correcting errors. Then repeat the cycle. But reforming a school goes beyond clever design, putting the right people in the right slots, efficient execution of tasks, and measuring results. There are no algorithms for “good” high schools. Which is why reformers get stumped by the complexity of altering a school and what teachers do.
What makes it hard (i.e., complex) to create and sustain a “successful” school–however measured–is that there are no algorithms–as there are for the Cube–to get from here to there. Space flight to the moon, shuttles to a space-station orbiting the earth, and preparations for an eventual mission to the planet Mars are enormously complicated efforts that have been planned and executed (albeit with a few disasters) flawlessly. But complicated does not equal complex. There is no Mission Control for school reform in a decentralized national system of schooling. One example of the complexity of school reform will illustrate what I mean.
Take the U.S. high school. Begun in the mid-19th century, subsequent reforms created the comprehensive high school with college prep, commercial, and vocational curricula housing 1500 or more teenagers in the 1920s. Since then the institution has been praised and attacked every single decade for nearly a century. Policymakers have adopted reform-after-reform: from many curricula in the high school to everyone-goes-to-college; from conventionally organized schools with 50-minute periods and academic departments to ones that are re-organized (e.g., hour-and-a-half block for periods, subject matter departments disbanded, team teaching); from 1500 to 2000 or more students to small high schools (e.g., 500 students or less); from dominant teacher-centered pedagogy to more personalized and individualized ways of teaching (e.g., project based learning, student-centered teaching, online instruction)–see here,here, and here.
Some reforms stuck, many did not. No surprise then that the high school that parents and grandparents once attended would be familiar to them even now. Altering school structures and cultures is tough to do because high schools are complex organizations situated in a mercurial, ever-shifting political, social, economic, and technological environment. Surely, there have been changes in size, curriculum offerings, use of technologies, and instruction but these changes–actually political responses to clamor among those who make policy, pay taxes, vote, and demand changes–preserved the essential organizational arrangements (e.g., age-graded school, subject matter departments, hour-long periods of instruction, etc.) and, truth be told, how most teachers teach.
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine some of the moving parts and myriad interactions that have to occur in designing a very different kind of high school aimed at those students who want to go to college and succeed economically in the U.S. Here are the elements that I would imagine have to be in place and occur for such an imagined (and complex) high school.**
*Recruit and train teachers who have the subject matter knowledge and skills to work with youth before, during, and after the school day.
*Recruit and train school site leaders who have the expertise and skills to lead a school and be a pillow and sandpaper simultaneously with teachers, students, and parents.
*Every student takes a college prep curriculum, aligned with district standards, that enables them to enter any higher education institution in the state.
*Every student has access to non-academic subjects that cultivate the mind, heart, and sensibilities.
*Equip all students with the knowledge and skills not only to enter college but have the wherewithal to persist through four years and get a bachelor’s degree.
*Organize the school day, week, and month that provides students with sufficient time in and out of class to learn the prescribed material and core cognitive skills to master a subject, acquire the essential skills of planning and assessing their progress in each course they take, receive tutorial help when student skill levels are below par, and time for students to receive mentoring from teachers they trust.
*Build a culture of respect, safety, and focus on collaboration and learning for both youth and adults.
*Create a decision-making process that is inclusive, self-critical, and strong enough to make further changes in all of the above.
*Do all of the above efficiently within available resources.
Note that the design takes-for-granted the age-graded high school structures of administrators, academic departments, and teachers in self-contained classrooms. Note further that none of the elements of the design favor any particular pedagogy–neither teacher- or student-centered lessons or hybrids of both.
Easy as it is to list the components of such an imagined design, there is much that goes unmentioned. Nowhere, for example, do I note the required interactions (both routine and unexpected) between and among students, teachers, administrators, and parents that occur daily. Nor have I listed the unanticipated changes that occur regularly within political institutions such as schools (e.g., budget cuts, parental crises, student suicide, illness of a highly-respected administrator; spike in teacher turnover, or maybe a pandemic). All of the design pieces and these elements are moving parts that have to come together at a moment in time to work. Friction, mishaps, and stumbles occur all the time as people and events interact. Longevity of such designs are rare. A short, happy life of such high school reforms is the norm.
Is high school school reform easy as a Rubik’s Cube? Hardly. Wannabe reformers believe there are algorithms that lead to success. There are none.
**Some readers may ask: where do these features come from? The answer is that decades of research and experience with high school reform from the effective schools research of the 1980s and 1990s, the federally-subsidized research on Whole School Reform, and both research and experience gained from the small high schools movement form the basis for generating these features. Also there is the evidence drawn from small high school models launched and sustained within urban charter schools across the nation such as by Aspire, Kipp, Green Dot, Leadership Public Schools, and Summit Charter Schools. Finally, my experiences as a high school teacher for 14 years, a superintendent of a district for seven years, a trustee for a charter school organization for three years, and a researcher studying successful and failing high schools have given me a framework for analyzing and imagining high school improvement.
Colleen Connolly is a freelance multmedia journalist. She interviewed a group of teachers about their classroom experiences using face masks. This appeared on Chalkbeat, Jun 4, 2021.
Heather Meierteaches band to students in 6th to 8th grades in the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colorado
Band practice in Heather Meier’s middle school class looked quite a bit different this last year than it did in the past. First of all, she estimates that the class of sixth graders was about half the size it usually is. “There might have been some parents who were like, ‘no, that doesn’t seem like a good idea this year,’” Meier said.
Students and staff in the St. Vrain Valley School District in Firestone, Colorado, had to wear masks at all times while at school — including when they were playing their instruments. Luckily, scientists at the nearby University of Colorado Boulder conducted a study last fall about aerosols and instruments, and their findings helped Meier come up with ways to teach students in person safely.
Flutes could slide through the side of a mask, though it was a lot harder to play that way. For the rest of the wind instrument players, Meier cut small slits into surgical masks — just big enough to fit the instrument through. Bell covers were placed over horns or other openings to prevent COVID from spreading that way.
The safety measures worked out relatively well, but sometimes Meier had to revert back to video, particularly when it came to assessment. “So much of learning a band instrument is being able to see the way your lips and your mouth are shaped to make the instruments work, to make sure they aren’t playing it incorrectly or forming bad habits,” she said.
The school district hasn’t announced whether masks will be required next year, but Meier hopes it will be safe enough to go without — unless kids are feeling sick. Now that they have the bell covers and special masks, she wonders if they should keep them around for occasional use.
“I was in Japan a couple years ago as part of a band thing, and the culture of mask-wearing as a courtesy to others is kind of a nice thing,” she said. “I’d be OK if that stuck around. But I certainly hope that if enough people are vaccinated, and it’s safe to do so, it would be nice to teach band in a way that is more rewarding for the kids.”
Kathryn Vaughn teaches art to pre-K to 5th graders at Brighton Elementary in Covington, Tennessee
One of the only problems Kathryn Vaughn encountered from wearing a mask as an elementary art teacher was that her students couldn’t always hear her. The mask muffled her voice.
But early on in the pandemic, she had an exchange on Twitter with Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter. The two started talking, and Cash ended up sending Vaughn supplies for her classroom, as well as a microphone and headset. Problem solved.
“I look like Britney Spears when I’m teaching, which is amazing,” Vaughn said.
Over the last year, the bigger issue for Vaughn has been the mask policy in her school district in Covington, Tennessee. At the start of the school year last August, all students and staff were required to wear masks. A few months later, they dropped the mandate. By December, cases were climbing rapidly, and it was reinstated. Then two weeks before the school year ended, the district revoked the mask mandate again.
Vaughn, who was vaccinated in January, said she wishes they would have kept the mask mandate the whole year. It would have made her feel safer, and it also would have given some uniformity to the rules for her students. As soon as the mandate was lifted, almost no one wore masks voluntarily in the school, she said.
“The kids were telling other kids, ‘you don’t have to wear that anymore, we’re not doing that,’” Vaughn said. “And I was like, ‘well, you could do that if you want to protect yourself because you’re not vaccinated. Let’s not judge other people’s choices.’”
The day after she received her first vaccine dose, Vaughn found out she was pregnant. She still wears a mask as a precaution and plans to do so at the start of the next school, even though she doesn’t expect the district to go back to requiring it.
“I don’t ever want to teach through a pandemic again, but my major thing was I knew I could keep myself as safe as possible by keeping my mask on and keeping my window open and ventilating my room with air,” she said.
Christina Sarraino teaches students with social and emotional challenges at Lorain High School in Lorain, Ohio,
Before the pandemic, Christina Sarraino was used to running up and down three flights of stairs at Lorain High School several times a day. But what was once moderate exercise between classes became almost “suffocating” in a mask, she said.
“(The mask) really does make a difference, but I don’t want to take it off and make a big deal about it because then they do,” she said, referring to her students.
Sarraino is an intervention specialist who teaches high schoolers with social and emotional challenges. Some of them have intellectual disabilities or autism, too. For Sarraino, one of the hardest parts about teaching in-person this year was enforcing mask use.
“We did have a couple meltdowns because of the face masks to be quite honest,” she said. “We had kids with sensory issues, and the mask irritates that. I would try to explain why we’re doing it: to protect you, to protect your family, to protect our families. Explaining all of that and trying to get to academics and their social and emotional needs, with everything going on, was difficult.”
Sarraino was diligent about keeping her own mask on at all times, but she found she had to make compromises with her students, allowing them breaks without the masks to eat snacks and drink water as long as they were at least six feet apart.
Her district has not made a decision about whether they will require masks next year. In the meantime, Sarraino is encouraging her students to get vaccinated if they are eligible and hoping that the possibility of a mask-free year next year will be an incentive.
“I teach science generally,” Sarraino said, “and we try our best through science to really dispel any of the conspiracy theories that we hear — and we hear quite a few — to try to get the kids to not be afraid of the vaccinations.”
Sharity Keith, 11th and 12th grade teacher, at Boca Ciega High School, St. Petersburg, Florida
After nearly 20 years of teaching, Sharity Keith planned to make a career change last year. But when the pandemic closed everything down, she decided to stay for one more year, teaching reading to 11th and 12th graders who failed Florida’s state assessment and needed to catch up.
Since the beginning of the school year, Keith has simultaneously taught students remotely on video and in-person in the classroom, which essentially doubled her work — to 70 and 80 hours a week at times. Talking so much through a mask every day left her voice permanently hoarse, she said. In the beginning, she was so fearful of catching COVID that she wouldn’t take her mask off at all at school, meaning she didn’t eat or drink water until she got home. Keith said she loves teaching and may come back to it, but this year left her exhausted.
“I wouldn’t say the pandemic is why I’m leaving,” Keith said, “but I think the pandemic has highlighted for me what I already knew, which is that teaching is simply not valued by the community.”
Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg, where Keith teaches, required students and staff to wear masks all year. Keith was grateful for that, but the masks added another layer of challenges. Many of her students are English language learners, and the masks made it harder for them to understand each other. Some of them eventually stopped showing up, she said.
Keith also teaches phonics to some students, and she found it difficult to enunciate through her mask and exaggerate the sounds: mmmaaa, bbbbaaa, pppaaa. “For a lot of my kids, it was like, ‘this is embarrassing,’” Keith said. “‘Here I am at the age that I am and this is what we’re doing.’”
Keith did her best to keep up their spirits by making jokes and celebrating when they passed their tests, but motivating them was a constant challenge. Caring for herself was, too. By the end of the year, she was comfortable enough to take her mask off to eat a little bit at school, but her voice is still not back to normal, despite regularly using throat spray to soothe it.
“I don’t think I’m going to talk at all this summer,” she joked.
Yvette Andino is a bilingual school counselor at two public schools in Queens, NY
One of the biggest parts of Yvette Andino’s job as a school counselor in Queens is showing kids what emotions look like as facial expressions. This last year, Andino worked with some students virtually and others in person, where masks were mandatory.
“There are some emotions I couldn’t show with my mask, like anger and sadness or the surprised feeling or shocked feeling,” Andino said. “You kind of form your mouth like an ‘O,’ like ‘oh, shoot’ or ‘oh, man.’ That was really hard for them to learn.”
Andino works primarily with elementary students who speak English and Spanish. Some of them are on the autism spectrum or have speech impairments. For these students, she had to get creative. Working with them in-person, Andino showed videos or drew pictures. If that failed, she stood 12 feet away from them in her office and briefly lowered her mask to show her own facial expression. She tried using a clear face shield in the beginning, but they gave her tension headaches and weren’t as effective as masks at stopping the spread of COVID.
For many of Andino’s students, it took three times as long as it normally would for them to learn how to recognize and understand certain emotions, but they eventually got there, she said.
In New York City public schools, face masks will still be required at the beginning of the next school year, officials have said, but guidelines are changing all the time. If given the choice to wear a mask, Andino is not sure what she would do.
“I would love to live in a world without masks,” she said, “but if it is for safety and it’s an option, I think I would ask the students. Some will straight out tell me they prefer masks or they prefer I show them my facial expression. They’ll tell you if they’re comfortable or not.”
I observed a math classroom at another Summit charter school. Here is what I recorded in my notes.
The Precalculus class began at 10:40 and ended at 12:15. Ethan Edwards is in his third year of teaching at Summit. He was a math major at University of California, Santa Cruz and got his credential to teach at the University of California, Davis before coming to Summit. He, like other Summit teachers who have been at the high school beyond one year float to different classrooms in the building; first-year teachers have one classroom the entire day. So at the beginning of the block 2 class, he and a few students are shoving tables into rows facing the front to get ready for his class. Four tables sitting two students each in three rows accommodated the 24 students who arrived. Like all Summit classrooms, there was an LCD projector and screen at front of room that showed slides as the teacher clicked keys.
The agenda for the day is on the screen.
“* Warm Up Analysis
* Essay Overview
*Independent work time + workshop
*Goal: finish paragraph
Since the class will be visiting University of California, Davis for the next two days, Edwards flashes slides of buildings at Davis that they will see. He asked students to turn in forms for trip later in the day. He explains the housing arrangements–4 students to a room. There were ripples of excitement and nervousness about the trip, especially after he announced that there will be four students to each car in driving to Davis. Students look around, start signaling one another to share same car. Edwards says: “I can feel the tension in the room over who I will be with in car for the trip.” That lowers the murmuring and tension. There were a few questions from students. He reassures students by saying that it is a short car trip to the university. Teacher then segues to lesson.
“I want to talk about how we are going to predict tuition increases through 2020 from the data set I gave you. We will be doing scatter plots and writing different regression equations.” Edwards proceeds to explain the making of regression curves (linear, exponential, and polynominal)–the central point of the lesson–using the white board as he writes down key concepts. He goes over “key features” of such data and equations and how it gets displayed as outliers, intercepts,slope, rate of growth, and residuals. In every instance, he defines them and brings into the explanation particular students who respond to his choral questions (these are questions directed to the entire class and have no student name attached either before or after the question is asked). Students do contribute. Teacher draws on the white board examples of each concept thereby defining the terms for class. He brings the explanation of what students will work on to a close, saying: “So, I just talked a lot about some high level stuff.” He asks, “Are there any questions?” No one asks a question.
Teacher then turns to spread sheet of data on tuition costs for two schools. “So you are going to look at how to use this spreadsheet to come up with functions to predict increases in tuition costs through 2020.” He passes out data set and asks students to pair with partner to go through the data.
Before students open their Chromebooks to look at spreadsheets and begin work, Edwards goes over with whole group, step-by-step, how they are to create a linear regression equation. Does same for exponential and then polynominal equations. During his explanation, he asks choral questions of class to check for understanding. A few students respond to each query. When hearing one or two responses that match the question, he picks up on the answer and continues the explanation. After he finishes going over the three regression equations, he asks: “are there any questions about how to use the data spreadsheet to create these equations?”
No student asks a question.
He returns to explaining where students should input data. He then directs students to open their Chromebooks.
“I am going to give you guys 30 minutes to start to work in pairs on spreadsheet to make proper equations.” He discusses due date for when they will turn in their work.
For next 30 minutes Edwards moves up and down aisles to answer questions, check on what each student is doing, and help individual students who are having trouble with task. At this point I had leave the classroom because of another appointment elsewhere in the school.
How typical are these two lessons of charter school teaching? Reviewing studies of charter school teaching over the years, I do believe they are typical of the range of lessons I have observed. Were there awful lessons (e.g., teacher had little control of the students during the lesson, the content of the lesson was well below what students could achieve, much incoherence in and ill-organization of lesson)? Not at all. I did see a few such lessons but overall, the level of competent teaching I observed was about the same as I have observed in regular public school classrooms. Keep in mind, however, that charter school teachers have a much larger band of autonomy in which to author and implement lessons in their classrooms. That increased discretion available to charter school teachers surely appeared in some instances but, overall, given my limited observations, less than I would have predicted.
What evidence there is beyond my observations says that with even more teacher autonomy and flexibility in charter schools there is little difference between their classroom practices and peers in public schools. Researchers who examined studies of pedagogy across charter and non-charter schools concluded that:
as charter schools implement innovations in governance, management, and other organizational practices, charter schools are embracing curricular and instructional approaches already in use (original italics)in other public schools that are considered as traditional ‘basic’ approaches to instruction (Goldring-Cravens_2006).
Such findings leave holes in the ambitious theory embedded in charter schools. Like their counterparts in regular public schools, charter school teachers mainly use teacher-centered classroom practices such as lectures, scripted lessons, textbooks, worksheets, homework, question/answer/evaluation exchanges seasoned by certain student-centered practices such as small group work, student discussions, project-based learning, internships, and independent learning.
Keep in mind that when I use the phrase “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” instruction I do not infer that such teaching practices are either appropriate or inappropriate, effective or ineffective. I am reporting what many researchers, including myself, have documented in classrooms.
When one looks at Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) where all 109 elementary and secondary schools in 20 states serving over 30,000 students are charters, teaching approaches are unmistakably teacher-centered. KIPP is not, of course, representative of all charter schools in its teaching practices. Aspire, Green Dot, and other charter management organizations have schools in their networks where teaching practices vary considerably but still work within the tradition of teacher-centeredness.
Note that these elementary and secondary school charters are geared to preparing children and youth for college. That is their unvarnished mission. College prep begins early in these charter elementary and secondary schools; frontal teaching, direct instruction, extended day, and no-nonsense approaches to student behavior are the norm. So any variation among teachers in different networks of charter schools falls within a narrow band of teacher-centered practices—again when I use that phrase I do not suggest that such practices are neither appropriate nor inappropriate, neither effective nor ineffective.
Until more evidence comes from direct observation of lessons in charter schools, teaching practices in charters and public schools appear more similar than different. To the degree that teaching practices shape student achievement, such results throw doubt upon the effects charter schools have upon students.
Charter schools are three decades old. Advocates for wider parental choice of schools lobbied state legislatures and local school boards to authorize a different way to organize a tax-supported, independent public school with its own school board and a charter that included the freedom to create innovative organization, curriculum, and instruction. Accountable to its independent board, charter schools have enormous latitude in what they can do insofar as school culture, organization, curriculum, and classroom lessons. This flexibility and the charter mandate to innovate, advocates claimed, would create constructive competition with regular public schools. Having charter schools, then, would lead to a general uplifting of performance for both types of schools. That was the heralded promise of charter schools thirty years ago.
Beginning in the early 1990s, state after state began authorizing charter schools and charter management organizations that operated clusters of schools. By 2020, nearly thirty years later, there were 7500 charter schools with over 200,000 teachers teaching 3.3 million students. Charter schools have become established institutions mostly in urban districts (58 percent) and have slowly expanded into suburbs and rural districts.
What has become obvious in this 30-year history is that charter elementary and secondary schools have far greater flexibility than regular district schools in altering what happens in classrooms and buildings (think of charter school organizations that have built unique school cultures such as: KIPP, Aspire). Yet even with that mandate, separate governance, and the charge to innovate most charter schools have replicated the traditional age-graded organization. Ditto for the curriculum since accreditation–a must for any newly organized school–requires abiding with state curriculum standards and skills that must be taught (see here and here)
Does that replication of regular school organization and curriculum extend to the classroom? Does teaching in a charter school with its separate governance and flexibility harnessed to a mission to innovate, differ at all from teaching in a non-charter school? This post offers an (but not the) answer to that question.
I have observed dozens of charter school classrooms over the past decade. I have seen both extraordinary, ordinary, and yes, a few disastrous lessons. While I can not vouch for what students learned in the lessons I have observed, I surely have seen some charter school teachers give their all.
Consider Kate Goddard who teaches world history at one the Summit Charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The young, slim teacher stands on the chair in the middle of the classroom to be heard above ninth grade students clustered in the four corners of the portable classroom. The students are chattering about the reasons they agree or disagree with the statement Katie Goddard, the teacher, put on the “smart board.” The statement students considered–“There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery”– drove them to different corners labeled “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree.” The teacher asks students in each corner why they agree or disagree with statement. After a few students give their reasons, some classmates change their minds and migrate to different corners making the classroom a swirl of movement. This activity occurred in the middle of a 95 minute block in World Studies where Goddard was introducing a new unit on Imperialism.
Goddard had begun the 95-minute class with a Warm Up question: “Should the U.S. pay reparations to black Americans whose families have been slaves?” and, after telling them to put away their cells and Chromebooks, gave them two short op-ed pieces on opposite sides of the question. One op ed argued that who should pay and who should receive reparations for enslaving Africans werecontested and confused. The other op ed argued that the British should pay reparations to Kenyans for what they did in colonizing that African nation.
She asks the 24 ninth graders to “read and chunk the text” for each opinion piece. She reminded the class to read each paragraph and write a one-line summary of each paragraph and indicate whether they agree or disagree with the op ed. As students write in their notebooks, Goddard, holding a clipboard, walks around the classroom of 13 tables, each seating two students facing the “smart board,” answering questions and checking to see what students are writing. Goddard asks students to hold up fingers indicating how much more time they want to finish task. Some hold up one, others two and three. For those who had finished she offers two options for them to do.
She then asks students to share with partner their summaries and opinions. As students start talking to one another, Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember in working together you need to turn to your partner, move your body to face one another and listen carefully to what your partner says.” Students resume talking.
When she sees that nearly all students have completed the task, she asks students for their summaries of the two articles and which one they agree/disagree with most. Students are initially reluctant to commit to a position but as a few offer their opinions, Goddard teases out the reasons embedded in arguments for and against reparations. And this is the moment when the teacher asked all the students to take a position on the statement and go to a corner of the room: “There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery.”
This Warm Up and debate about reparations were initial activities in the lesson introducing Imperialism. By starting with the contentious contemporary question of reparations for slavery, Goddard would move to instances of European countries colonizing the Congo in Africa and India in Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and consider the human costs of taking overthese countries.
The agenda for the day, written on the white board, listed the sequence of topics for the hour-and-a-half session:
Slavery op eds
Imperialism op eds
After the Warm Up and during the four-corner debate, Goddard gets deeper into the reparations question by introducing statements such as: “slavery ended a hundred years ago so the U.S. government should not pay any money to African Americans now.” One student points out that the U.S. government has already paid reparations when they gave sums of money to Japanese Americans for being in internment camps during World War II. Another points out that the money went to those who were still alive. Voices are raised and tone becomes adversarial among students agreeing and disagreeing. Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember our norms. The second your tone becomes combative, you don’t listen. Our goal is to listen to one another.” After more restrained back-and-forth in which the teacher specifically calls on students who have heretofore not entered the discussion, Goddard asks class if they want to shift corners.
About one-third of the students move to another corner.
Teacher now asks students to return to their tables and turn to the next question: When are reparations necessary? She asks class to open Chromebooks and come up with criteria to answer the question. She reminds class that there is no correct answer, that you have different opinions but you need examples and facts to support your opinion. Goddard moves around the room asking and answering questions at each table.
After about 10 minutes, Goddard asks students to put lids of laptops down and says that “we are going to study Imperialism and you are going to write an op-ed by the end of the unit. “The question you will answer,” she says, is “do former imperializing countries have a responsibility to give foreign aid to the countries they imperialized?” She links the earlier discussion of reparations to Imperialism and then previews the next 12 lessons on the “smart board,” going over each one briefly. She then puts up a slide that defines Imperialism as “the process of taking over another country through diplomacy or military force.” Goddard asks students to come up with their definition of imperialism by using the Playlist of sources (documents and videos)–she gives the class the link–that she assembled for them on the Congo, India, and other colonized countries. In coming up with their definitions, she urges students to talk to their partner. After pairs have come up with their definitions from Playlist, she then asks them to brainstorm what they would need to know about imperialism to determine if reparations are necessary.*
With clipboard in hand, teacher moves through the classroom checking to see which students are unclear about the task or having difficulties in answering questions.
As time winds down to end the class, Goddard summarizes what they have done, connecting discussions on reparations to new unit of Imperialism.
The criteria I use in judging the quality of a lesson are: clear and coherent organization, mixed activities, level of student participation, frequent verbal interaction between teacher and students and among students, and finally, a summary of the lesson.*
In my opinion, Goddard’s lesson met these criteria fully. As I left this charter school World History lesson , I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw and experienced. Was Goddard typical or atypical of charter school teachers I observed in the Summit network of schools?
The next post looks at another charter school lesson that I observed.
*One criterion missing is what students learned. I had no observable way of determining whether students learned what the teacher wanted in that lesson.
Over the past few months, I have “learned” how to interact with robots over issues that I have raised about lousy services I have paid for. Robots answer my questions. And robots call me often. Not a pretty exchange, from my point of view. So this month’s feature cartoons will deal with the slow but steady robotization of human contacts. Enjoy!
Lelac Almagor (@MsAlmagor) is in her 18th year of classroom teaching; she teaches fourth grade at a public charter school in Washington, D.C.This essay appeared in the New York Times, June 16, 2021.
Our prepandemic public school system was imperfect, surely, clumsy and test-crazed and plagued with inequities. But it was also a little miraculous: a place where children from different backgrounds could stow their backpacks in adjacent cubbies, sit in a circle and learn in community.
At the diverse Washington, D.C., public charter school where I teach, and which my 6-year-old attends, the whole point was that our families chose to do it together — knowing that it meant we would be grappling with our differences and biases well before our children could tie their own shoes.
Then Covid hit, and overnight these school communities fragmented and segregated. The wealthiest parents snapped up teachers for “microschools,” reviving the Victorian custom of hiring a governess and a music master. Others left for private school without a backward glance.
Some middle-class parents who could work remotely toughed it out at home, checking in on school between their own virtual meetings. Those with younger kids or in-person jobs scraped together education and child care — an outdoor play pod or a camp counselor to supervise hours of Zoom classes. With schools closed, the health risks and child care hours didn’t disappear. They simply shifted from well-educated, unionized, tax-funded professional teachers to hourly-wage, no-benefit workers serving only those who could afford to pay.
The families with the fewest resources were left with nothing. No child care, only the pallid virtual editions of essential services like occupational or speech therapy.
If they could work out the logistics, their kids got a couple of hours a day of Zoom school. If they couldn’t, they got attendance warnings. In my fourth-grade class, I had students calling in from the car while their mom delivered groceries, or from the toddler room of their mom’s busy day care center.
Home alone with younger siblings or cousins, kids struggled to focus while bouncing a fussy toddler or getting whacked repeatedly on the head with a foam sword. Others lay in bed and played video games or watched TV. Many times each day, I carefully repeated the instructions for a floundering student, only to have them reply, helplessly, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” their audio squealing and video freezing as they spoke.
Even under optimal conditions, virtual school meant flattening the collaborative magic of the classroom into little more than an instructional video. Stripped of classroom discussion, human connection, art materials, classroom libraries, time and space to play, virtual school was not school; it was busywork obscuring the “rubber-rooming” of the entire school system.
Some educators sneered that the parents who complained just wanted free babysitting. But I’m not ashamed to say that child care is at the heart of the work I do. I teach children reading and writing, yes, but I also watch over them, remind them to be kind and stay safe, plan games and activities to help them grow. Children deserve attentive care. That’s the core of our commitment to them.
I am still bewildered and horrified that our society walked away from this responsibility, that we called school inessential and left each family to fend for itself. Meanwhile nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers all went to work in person — most of my students’ parents went to work in person — not because it was safe but because their work is essential. Spare me your “the kids are all right” Facebook memes. Some children may have learned to do laundry or enjoy nature during the pandemic. Many others suffered trauma and disconnection that will take years to repair.
I don’t know the first thing about public health. I won’t venture an opinion on what impact the school closures had on controlling the spread of Covid. What I do know is that the private schools in our city quickly got to work upgrading HVAC systems, putting up tents, cutting class sizes and rearranging schedules so that they could reopen in relative safety. Public schools in other states and countries did the same.
More of our public school systems should have likewise moved mountains — repurposed buildings, reassigned staff, redesigned programming, reallocated funding — to offer consistent public schooling, as safely as possible, to all children.
Instead we opened restaurants and gyms and bars while kids stayed home, or got complicated hybrid schedules that many parents turned down because they offered even less stability than virtual school. Even now, with vaccinations rising and case rates dropping, some families remain reluctant to send their kids back to us in the fall. I can’t help thinking that’s because we broke their trust.
Does virtual learning work for some kids, in some circumstances? Sure. So does home-schooling, or not attending school at all. But I am profoundly relieved that most districts, including my own, plan to shut down or restrict the online option.
I hope this means that we are renewing our collective commitment to true public education. Just as before, we will have to fight to make our schools safer, more equitable and more flexible. Just as before, coming together will be messy and complicated. Children, families and teachers will all need time to rebuild relationships with our institutions.
But we’ll be back together, in the same building, eating the same food. We’ll find that the friend who helps us in the morning might need our help in the afternoon. We’ll have soccer arguments at recess and patch them up in closing circle. We’ll sing songs, tell stories, plant seeds and watch them grow. That’s schooling in real life. That’s what public school is for.
Like cursive writing, the formal teaching of grammar was a mainstay in elementary school language arts and secondary school English programs since the founding of tax-supported public schools in the early 19th century. The history of teaching grammar rules and how students should talk and write go back to ancient Greece and Rome and subsequent centuries in Europe and, of course, the 13 colonies under British rule in the 17th and 18th centuries.
While many school districts in the U.S. have teachers who continue to teach grammar and syntax in connection with writing, especially in those districts committed to following Common Core curriculum standards, grammar instruction, especially memorizing rules and diagramming sentences, has faded from classroom lessons over the past half-century. How come?
This post provides a partial answer to that question.
When did grammar instruction in public schools begin?
Even before the colonies shed British rule, grammar instruction was a staple of private academies and the earliest “public” schools in the 17th and 18th centuries. After the Revolutionary War, schools relied upon grammar instruction as a key part of the school curriculum. One survey, for example, of texts used in New York state schools in 1804 showed:
13 spelling, 28 reading, 16 grammar, and one composition textbook were being used in the state’s schools. By 1832, there were 45 spelling, 102 reading, 48 grammar, and five composition textbooks in use. Of these, five spellers, ten readers, and three grammars were thought to be in general use by significant numbers of teachers…
What problems does grammar instruction seek to solve?
For centuries there have been rules for how children and adults should speak and write. Speaking and writing incorrectly, that is, breaking the formal rules, were signs of poor child rearing and inadequate education. Acquiring the knowledge and skills of appropriate speaking and writing became a mark of both a superior education and social class standing. It was the job of public school teachers to teach the young standard ways of speaking and writing as solutions to inexorable changes in the labor market, culture, and society. Language was always a social marker and getting labeled as speaking and writing improperly was for many Americans in the late-19th through the 20th century, a stigma. Knowing and using mainstream grammar rules helped many move up the socioeconomic ladder.
What does grammar instruction in elementary and secondary schools look like?
One teacher uses a pizza design to get at parts of speech for seventh and eighth graders:
For those schools implementing Common Core curriculum standards, there is emphasis on writing, say, narrative, argumentative, and information essays. Then there is familiar kinds of grammar rules lodged within these standards. Here is a sampling of ninth grade standards for grammar instruction:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1.a Use parallel structure.*
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1.b Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.…
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.3.a Write and edit work so that it conforms to the guidelines in a style manual (e.g., MLA Handbook, Turabian’s Manual for Writers) appropriate for the discipline and writing type….
Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 9-10 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.4.a Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.4.b Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., analyze, analysis, analytical; advocate, advocacy).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.4.c Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, or its etymology….
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.6 Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.
A brief look at the elementary school worksheets teachers used to teach grammar suggest the thrust of grammar instruction during these decades.
Does grammar instruction work?
While grammar continued to be taught formally in elementary and secondary schools, scholars and professional organizations often published studies and statements that made clear how teaching grammar in of itself had little to no effect on students’ use of language and writing.
See, for example, the 1963 statement of the National Councilof English Teachers:
In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing (p. 37).
In 1984, George Hillocks published a meta-analsis of studies on the teaching of grammar. He concluded:
The study of traditional school grammar (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing.
Nonetheless, with the inclusion of grammar in the English Core Curriculum standards since 2010, instruction in the rule driven content, downsized and harnessed to improved writing, continues.
To what extent does grammar instruction continue in U.S. schools?
The isolated teaching of grammar rules for writing and speaking has declined greatly (e.g., diagramming sentences).
But the integrating of grammar into writing in elementary school lessons in language arts and secondary school English classes continues, spurred by the Common Core curriculum standards and the huge amount of research findings on the futility of teaching grammar rules divorced from writing.
I wanted to close this post with a survey of teachers who continue to incorporate grammar into their lessons but I have yet to find any recent poll of U.S. teachers and the degree to which they teach grammar.
If any readers know of such surveys of teaching practices in elementary and secondary classrooms, please contact me.