How Covid-19 Froze School Reform (Part 2)

What was school reform like before Covid-19 ( BC)?

Since the mid-1980s, U.S. public schools had been enthralled with and institutionalized a series of reforms that are now called the “standards, testing, and accountability movement.” It is nearly three decades long.

Recall that the Progressive movement began in the 1890s and, depending upon the historian one reads, lasted until the 1920s or through World War II. The other reform movement that flowed across the schools had a shorter life-span. The civil rights movement spilling over public schools is usually dated by the 1954 Brown decision and peters out by the mid-1970s. Soon to be overtaken by the “standards, testing, and accountability” reforms that readers know so well.

Civic and corporate leaders allied with enthusiastic donors turned public schools in the 1980s to building human capital essential to fostering economic growth and stronger competition for global markets. Their overall strategy was (and still is) to apply a business model of competitiveness, innovation, and efficiency to public schools that fixed attention on the bottom line of test scores and return-on-investment in high school graduates entering and completing college.[i]

These leaders and foundation officials over the past three decades have created beefy portfolios of reform ventures including changes in funding and structural innovations such as vouchers, charter schools, common curriculum standards, testing and accountability including using student scores to determine district and school “success” and “failure.”

No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) collected converted state initiatives into federal policy under Republican President George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. This cobbled together strategy emerged from ideas tossed up by business and civic leaders and entrepreneurial policymakers who cherry-picked anecdotal and statistical evidence from here and there to convince Americans that the result would be strong schools, strong students, and a strong economy.

A jerry-built reform strategy of ventures flung together helter-skelter add up to a movement to improve public schools through expanded parental choice of public schools and instilling market competition into a quasi-monopolistic institution. For-profit companies taking over low-performing public schools (e.g. K-12 Inc., Edison Inc–now defunct), non-profit charter schools (e.g., KIPP, Aspire, Summit Schools, Green Dot), and, under NCLB, requiring districts to meet their Adequate Yearly Progress targets or be closed. NCLB had a legislative do-over in 2016 and is now called Every Student Succeeds Act.

This standards, testing, and accountability regime existed Before Covid-19 hit. With the closing of schools in March 2020 and the stunning shift to remote instruction and uncertainty when most U.S. students will return to face-to-face instruction, these reforms in curriculum standards, annual tests, and accountability mechanisms to insure responsibility for student outcomes are frozen in place. Even state tests for the upcoming school year, if U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has her way.

Alfie Kohn believes that the pandemic is a pivot point for school districts to pull back from standardized tests, how colleges admit students, and reassess grades that teachers are required to give. Part of me wants to join Kohn in his belief that the pandemic can trigger deep and important changes.Part of me, the part that has studied school reform, however, says that it is possible but improbable that such changes will occur.

Another major reform strategy existed before Covid-19 struck. Giving all teachers and students access to instructional technology (e.g., laptops, tablets, etc.) and expecting their use in daily lessons, technology-driven reformers saw these devices and an array of software as ways of improving both teaching and student learning.

Technology reforms Before Covid-19

Since the early 1980s with the appearance of desktop computers in schools, questions about their presence in classrooms have been debated. Access to, use of, and results from new technologies have been central issues for a motley coalition of  high-tech vendors, technophile educators, and policymakers eager to satisfy parents and voters who want schools to be technologically up-to-date with other institutions. And this coalition has surely been successful in increasing teacher and student access to desktop computers, then laptops, and now tablets and smartphones.

First, a quick run through the initial goals and current ones in putting new technologies into the hands of teachers and students. Then a brief look at access, use, and results of the cornucopia of devices in schools.

By the  mid-1980s, there were clear goals and a strong rationale for investing in buying loads of hardware and software and wiring buildings . Those goals were straightforward in both ads and explicit promises vendors and entrepreneurs made to school boards and administrators.

*students would learn more, faster, and better;

*classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized;

*graduates would be prepared to enter the high-tech workplace.

By the early 2000s, evidence that any of these goals were achieved was either scant or missing. It became increasingly clear that promised software in math and English (to meet NCLB requirements) fell far short of raising students’ test scores or lifting academic achievement. The promise of algorithms and program playlists tailored to each student’s academic profile (often called “personalization”) had faltered then and even now remains a work in progress (see here, here, and here).

As for the goal that learning to use hardware and software applications would lead to jobs in technology became another casualty of over-promising with few returns to high school graduates. That jobs were hardly automatic for those students who knew spreadsheets and BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) in the 1980s and 1990s became obvious to students with diplomas in hand. By the 2010s, teaching coding to children and getting the subject of computer science into the high school curriculum spread across U.S. schools.

Those initial goals and rationale for flooding schools with new devices, lacking substantial evidence to support them, have now shifted to another set of reasons for computers in schools:

*Devices are essential since all standardized tests and other student assessments will be on computers.

*Learning to use machines and applications in schools–including coding–will give a leg-up for graduates to get entry-level jobs in most businesses and industries.

*The dream of “personalizing” instruction–in-person teaching and software tailored to individual differences in each and every child–can now become a reality with every student having a device at school and at home.

The constant chasing of a technological solution to a teaching and learning problem captures the BC experience of school reform.

And it is here that BC technology reforms slide over to DC–During Covid Reforms. I take up the nation’s school districts embracing remote instruction as a temporary replacement for in-person schooling in Part 3.


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How Covid-19 Froze School Reform (Part 1)

Face-to-face schooling without minimal risk from getting infected with the coronavirus will be dicey until an approved vaccine shown to have high effectiveness and sufficient immunity is available to over 50 million students and nearly 4 million teachers.

Already two school years in the U.S. have been seriously impacted (March 2020 through January 2021). Effective vaccines, at best, will be available to Americans sometime in 2021. Shaking out data on which of the many vaccines being developed work best and provide mid- to-long-term immunity will occur throughout the calendar year of 2021. In short, until there is scientifically determined confidence that particular vaccines immunize children and adults at least three school years will be shot.

In such a stretch of time, forget about school reform. What Americans want is a swift return to “normalcy” and a new definition of “success”: Not high test scores, rates of graduation or admission to college, no, “success” will be just opening simply schoolhouse doors and having teachers teaching lessons.

Whoa! What about the sudden and massive turn to remote instruction for K-12 children and youth throughout spring and fall 2020? Isn’t that a reform?

No, it is not. Reforms are intentionally-designed changes aimed at improving what happens in schools. The immediate and national embrace of remote instruction was a necessity-driven, unsought change that upturned regular schooling? Yes, it is a change but not a reform.

The shutdown of schools threw educators for a loop in shifting from in-person to distance instruction. No one I know–even the most ardent cheerleader for online instruction–wanted nearly all U.S. students to work at home staring at screens during spring time and in the fall to the Xmas holidays.

Schooling, as Americans have surely known it, has, indeed, been “disrupted” But not in the way that Harvard’s Business School Professor Clayton Christensen had predicted over a decade ago.

As an Education Week journalist recalled recently: …the spread of technology-based innovations in K-12 bears little resemblance to the ambitious claims that outsiders have been making for years. Back in 2008, for example, innovation guru Clayton M. Christensen predicted in his much-hyped book Disrupting Class that half of all high school classes would be online by 2019, radically transforming the nature of public education.

No one, of course, could have (or did) predict a viral plague that still has no treatment (as I write in September) driving public schools to rely on distance instruction. Not half of “all high school classes,” as Christensen said, but nearly all U.S. students in 2020 are sitting in kitchens, living rooms, or bedrooms listening to their on-screen teachers and then tapping away at their keyboards to meet with small groups on-screen, and submitting their assignments. That is “disruption.”

Not in any planned, intentional way–the usual definition of a school reform–educators have mandated in over 13,000 school districts across the country the switch to remote instruction. School boards and superintendents were utterly dependent upon the expertise of health officials who themselves were uncertain about the nature of the catastrophic plague that had, by early September, already infected over five million Americans and killed nearly 200,000.

I cannot recall a historical case of such massive and quick change in schooling except for New Orleans. Surely, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 decimated parish schools; the state moved quickly to redesign the district by converting nearly all district schools into charters. These schools opened a year or so later. Students’ learning losses after being out of school for year or more were large (see here). Yet, according to some researchers, these schools’ test scores and graduation rates have improved (see here).

Funding and school organization definitely changed in New Orleans. The decades-long reform idea of parental choice dominated post-Katrina schooling. No other district in the U.S. that I know of has experienced such total and rapid change. If readers know of such Katrina-like transformations, please let me know.

Except for how New Orleans teachers teach. My hunch is that the rise in test scores and graduation rates mirrored teachers’ intense focus on insuring that students would do well on state tests. Which, if my guess is accurate, means a pedagogy close to traditional teacher-directed instruction dominated lessons. In all of the studies I have looked at regarding New Orleans after Katrina, I have yet to find one that takes up the simple question of: how do most New Orleans teachers in these charters teach? Again, if readers know of such studies of teaching in New Orleans, please let me know.

Covid-19’s rapid spread across the nation led to the warp-like speed of shifting from face-to-face classroom interactions to Zoomed remote instruction. Unlike most reforms that are introduced in a few classrooms or as pilot projects to determine what bugs have to remedied, online instruction smacked everyone between the eyes immediately.

Is, then, this embrace, reluctant as it may be, a school reform? Necessity, not ideology, school planning and systematic trials, drove the dramatic change. Because U.S. schools before Covid-19 were already managing different reforms, the coronavirus halted ongoing efforts to improve schooling, putting current ones in a deep freeze.

In subsequent posts I will take up the array of school reforms in BC (Before Covid), DC (During Covid), and AC (After Covid).


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Are Students “Consumers”?(David Labaree)

David Labaree is a professor emeritus at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. He blogs on schooling, history, and writing.

Observers of American education have frequently noted that the general direction of educational reform over the years has not been forward but back and forth. Reform, it seems, is less an engine of progress than a pendulum, swinging monotonously between familiar policy alternatives. Progress is hard to come by.

However, a closer reading of the history of educational change in this country reveals a pattern that is both more complex and in a way more troubling than this. Yes, the back-and-forth movement is real, but it turns out that this pattern is for the most part good news. It simply represents a periodic shift in emphasis between two goals for education — democratic equality and social efficiency — that represent competing but equally indispensable visions of education.

The bad news is that in the 20th century, and especially in the past several decades, the pendulum swings increasingly have given way to a steady movement in the direction of a third goal, social mobility. This shift from fluctuation to forward motion may look like progress, but it’s not. The problem is that it represents a fundamental change in the way we think about education, by threatening to transform this most public of institutions from a public good into a private good. The consequences for both school and society, I suggest, are potentially devastating.

Let me explain why. First we’ll consider the role that these three goals have played in American education, and then we can explore the implications of the movement from equality and efficiency to mobility.

The first goal is democratic equality, which is the oldest of the three. From this point of view, the purpose of schooling is to produce competent citizens. This goal provided the primary impetus for the common school movement, which established the foundation for universal public education in this country during the middle of the 19th century. The idea was and is that all citizens need to be able to think, understand the world around them, behave sociably, and act according to shared political values — and that public schools are the best places to accomplish these ends. The corollary of this goal is that all these capabilities need to be equally distributed, and that public schools can serve as what Horace Mann called the great “balance wheel,” by providing a common educational competence that helps reduce differences.

Some of the most enduring and familiar characteristics of our current system of education were formed historically in response to this goal. There are the neighborhood elementary school and the comprehensive high school, which draw together students from the whole community under one roof. There is the distinctively American emphasis on general education at all levels of the educational system. There is the long-standing practice of socially promoting students from grade to grade. And there is the strong emphasis on inclusion, which over the years has led to such innovations as racial integration and the mainstreaming of special education students.

The second goal is social efficiency, which first became prominent in the Progressive era at the turn of the century. From this perspective, the purpose of education is not to produce citizens but to train productive workers. The idea is that our society’s health depends on a growing economy, and economy needs workers with skills that will allow them to carry out their occupational roles effectively. Schools, therefore, should place less emphasis on general education and more on the skills needed for particular jobs. And because skill requirements differ greatly from job to job, schools need to tailor curricula to the job and then sort students into the different curricula.

Consider some of the enduring effects that this goal has had on education over the years. There is the presence of explicitly vocational programs of study within the high school and college curriculum. There is the persistent practice of tracking and ability grouping. And there is the prominence of social efficiency arguments in the public rhetoric about education, echoing through every millage election and every race for public office in the past half-century. We are all familiar with the argument that pops upon these occasions — that education is the keystone of the community’s economic future, that spending money on education is really an investment in human capital that will pay big dividends.

Notice that the first two goals are in some ways quite different in the effects they have had on schools. One emphasizes a political role for schools while the other stresses an economic role. One pushes for general education, the other for specialized education. One homogenizes, the other differentiates.

But from another angle, the two take a similar approach, because they both treat education as public good. A public good is one that benefits all members of a community, which means that you cannot avoid being affected by it. For example, police protection and road maintenance have an impact directly or indirectly on the life of everyone. Likewise, everyone stands to gain from a public school system that produces competent citizens and productive workers, even those members of the community who don’t have children in public schools.

This leads us to something that is quite distinctive about the third educational goal, the one I call social mobility. From the perspective of this goal, education is not a public good but a private good. If the first goal for education takes the viewpoint of the citizen and the second takes that of the taxpayer, the third takes the viewpoint of the individual educational consumer.

The purpose of education from this angle is not what it can do for democracy or the economy but what it can do for me. Historically, education has paid off handsomely for individuals who stayed in school and came away with diplomas. Educational credentials have made it possible for people to distinguish themselves from their competitors, giving them a big advantage in the race for good jobs and a comfortable life. As a result, education has served as a springboard to upward mobility for the working class and a buttress against downward mobility for the middle class.

Note that if education is going to serve the social-mobility goal effectively, it has to provide some people with benefits that others don’t get. Education in this sense is a private good that only benefits the owner, an investment in my future, not yours, in my children, not other people’s children. For such an educational system to work effectively, it needs to focus a lot of attention on grading, sorting, and selecting students. It needs to provide a variety of ways for individuals to distinguish themselves from others — such as by placing themselves in a more prestigious college, a higher curriculum track, the top reading group, or the gifted program. In this sense the social-mobility goal reinforces the same sorting and selecting tendency in education that is promoted by the social-efficiency goal, but without the same concern for providing socially useful skills.

Now that I’ve spelled out some of the main characteristics of these three goals for education, let me show how they can help us understand the major swings of the pendulum in educational reform over the last 200 years.

During the common school era in the mid-19th century, the dominant goal for American education democratic equality. The connection between school and work at this point was weak. People earned job skills on the job rather than in school, and educational credentials offered social distinction but not necessarily preference in hiring.

By the end of the 19th century, however, both social efficiency and social mobility emerged as major factors in shaping education, while the influence of democratic equality declined. High school enrollments began to take off in the 1890s, which posed two big problems for education — a social-efficiency problem (how to provide education for the new wave of students), and a social-mobility problem (how to protect the value of high school credentials for middle-class consumers). The result was a series of reforms that defined the Progressive era in American education during the first half of the 20th century. These included such innovations as tracking, ability testing, ability grouping, vocationalism, special education, social promotion, and life adjustment.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s we saw a swing back from social efficiency to democratic equality (reinforced by the social-mobility goal). The national movement for racial equality brought pressure to integrate schools, and these arguments for political equality and individual opportunity led to a variety of related reforms aimed at reducing educational discrimination based on class, gender, and handicapping condition.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, the momentum shifted back from democratic equality to social efficiency — again reinforced by social mobility. The emerging movement for educational standards responded both to concerns about declining economic competitiveness (seen as a deficiency of human capital) and to concerns about a glut of high school and college credentials (seen as a threat to social mobility).

However, another way to think about these historical trends in educational reform is to turn attention away from the pendulum swings between the first two goals and to focus instead on the steady growth in the influence of the third goal throughout the last 100 years. Since its emergence as a factor in the late 19th century, social mobility has gradually grown to become the dominant goal in American education. Increasingly, neither of the other two goals can make strong headway except in alliance with the third. Only social mobility, it seems, can afford to go it alone any longer. A prime example is the recent push for educational choice, charters, and vouchers. This is the strongest educational reform movement of the 1990s, and it is grounded entirely within the consumer-is-king perspective of the social-mobility goal.

So, you may ask, what are the implications of all this? I want to mention two problems that arise from the history of conflicting goals in American education — one deriving from the conflict itself and the other from the emerging dominance of social mobility. The second problem is more serious than the first.

On the issue of conflict: Contradictory goals have shaped the basic structure of American schools, and the result is a system that is unable to accomplish any one of these goals very effectively — which has been a common complaint about schools. Also, much of what passes for educational reform may be little more than ritual swings back and forth between alternative goals — another common complaint. But I don’t think this problem is really resolvable in any simple way. Americans seem to want and need an education system that serves political equality and economic productivity and personal opportunity, so we might as well learn how to live with it.

The bigger problem is not conflict over goals but the possible victory of social mobility over the other two. The long-term trend is in the direction of this goal, and the educational reform initiatives in the last decade suggest that this trend is accelerating. At the center of the current talk about education is a series of reforms designed to empower the educational consumer, and if they win out, this would resolve the tension between public and private conceptions of education decisively in the favor of the private view. Such a resolution to the conflict over goals would hurt education in at least two ways.

First, in an educational system where the consumer is king, who will look after the public’s interest in education? As supporters of the two public goals have long pointed out, we all have a stake in the outcomes of public education, since this is the institution that shapes our fellow citizens and fellow workers. In this sense, the true consumers of education are all of the members of the community — and not just the parents of school children. But these parents are the only ones whose interests matter forth school choice movement, and their consumer preferences will dictate the shape of the system.

A second problem is this: In an educational system where the opportunity for individual advancements is the primary focus, it becomes more important to get ahead than to get an education. When the whole point of education is not to ensure that I learn valuable skills but instead to give me a competitive social advantage, then it is only natural for me to focus my ingenuity as a student toward acquiring the most desirable grades, credits, and degrees rather than toward learning the curriculum.

We have already seen this taking place in American education in the past few decades. Increasingly, students have been acting more like smart consumers than eager learners. Their most pointed question to the teacher is “Will this be on the test?” They see no point in studying anything that doesn’t really count. If the student is the consumer and the goal is to get ahead rather than to get an education, then it is only rational for students to look for the best deal. And that means getting the highest grades and the most valuable credentials for the lowest investment of effort. As cagey consumers, children in school have come to be like the rest of us when we’re in the shopping mall: They hate to pay full price when they can get the same product on sale.

That’s the bad news from this little excursion into educational history, but don’t forget the good news as well. For 200 years, Americans have seen education as a central pillar of public life. The contradictory structure of American education today has embedded within it an array of social expectations and instructional practices that clearly express these public purposes. There is reason to think that Americans will not be willing to let educational consumerism drive this public-ness out of the public schools.

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More Cartoons on Re-Opening Schools

For this month, I found enough cartoons that tickled me (or at least got me to smile) at a time when I need being tickled, given the pandemic. I selected cartoons that deal with re-opening schools and the anxieties they arouse among parents, teachers, and students. Enjoy!


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Confessions of a School Reformer (Part 6)

This is the last post of a series drawn from “Confessions of a School Reformer,” a book I am now writing. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 describe my entry into classroom teaching beginning in 1955 and ending in 1972.

In August 1968, no longer teaching at Roosevelt High School, I resigned from the full-time job I had at federal Commission on Civil Rights (CCR). No job did I have for 1968-1969.

Treading water

For the next few months, I was at home. With no more salary checks from either the DC schools or CCR, Barbara found a job as an administrative aide to a Rabbi at a nearby congregation. I stayed home with Sondra and Janice, walking them to school in the mornings, writing, doing household chores and making occasional dinners. I thought that with my name as an urban educator, an expert on multiethnic instructional materials, and author I could drum up sufficient business as a consultant to provide enough cash to cover monthly mortgage payments and expenses. I was wrong.

After sending out many letters advertising my talents and experiences, few requests dribbled in. Of those that came in, most asked me to speak or consult for free. My work on Scott Foresman textbooks brought in a few advances from the publisher. Between my paltry earnings and Barbara’s job we were just barely covering monthly expenses. Apart from worrying about money, I was thoroughly enjoying the time I spent with Barbara and my daughters.

Then in December, I heard from Associate Superintendent of Instruction, Norman Nickens of the DC schools that he wanted to see me. I had gotten to know Nickens when I directed the Cardozo Project and he headed the Model School Division in 1964, a sub-system within the District aimed at reforming schools in the Cardozo area. With the release of the Passow Report in 1967, a devastating evaluation of the entire school system by a cadre of professors from Teachers College, Columbia University, the Acting Superintendent and his successor deputized Nickens to oversee that the Report’s scores of recommendations would be put into practice. Within a few years, Nickens had become the go-to person within the District for reforming the Washington public schools.  [i]

As a respected insider, Nickens was politically smart and knew what buttons to push and levers to pull to get things done within the ever-growing District bureaucracy. Even though I was an outsider who sought changes in the schools, we had developed a mutual respect for one another. He had understood the importance of bringing in a new generation of teachers prepared to work in urban classrooms. And of even greater importance he knew how crucial it was for the District to improve systematically the teaching corps and administrative team. [ii]

Nickens had persuaded the new Superintendent to create a district wide Office of Staff Development in 1968. Nickens asked me to apply. Interviews went well and in January 1969, I became the first Director of Staff Development. I now had an office at the Presidential Building on 12th St., district headquarters for the D.C. schools.

From classroom history teacher at Roosevelt High School to central office administrator responsible for the professional development of thousands of new and experienced teachers and principals was a big leap for me. No longer a classroom reformer who believed that new racial curriculum materials would make a difference in teaching and learning, and no longer a school-wide reformer concentrating on recruiting and training new teachers for an urban district, now I was in a district position poised to strengthen the entire teacher corps of a large urban district.  The key unit of change, where reform mattered most, had shifted in my mind as I went from Glenville to Cardozo to Roosevelt from the classroom to the school and now to the Presidential Building.[iii]

Office of Staff Development

The two years in the District office fully opened my eyes to how the splintered governance of the D.C. schools both complicated and obstructed the already difficult tasks of schooling mostly Black and poor students. Moreover, add to the mix a dollop of fierce racial politics in administrative appointments and how bureaucracies clogged the arterial flow of resources into schools and classrooms. The District of Columbia schools was a textbook case of fragmented governance and unhelpful bureaucracy.

My responsibilities as Director brought me in close touch with the members of the newly elected Board of Education, two superintendents, and an array of both innovative and foot-dragging time servers among central office administrators.

I learned first-hand how the bureaucracy worked amid the fractured city governance of appointed Commissioners who chose Board of Education members being tossed. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a mayor and council to run the city government. A year later, an elected Board of Education became a reality. One catch, however, bothe appointed and elected bodies had to make annual trips to the U.S. Congress, hat in hand, to get funded. In doing so, the superintendent and his retinue including elected Board members had to swallow hard the guff that Congressional representatives dished out..

From my journal, December 16, 1969

Another example of how difficult it is to run the D.C. schools….is the calculated crap that eats up time, energy, and resolve. Consider that [Congresswoman from Oregon] Edith Green, chairing the subcommittee on education investigating higher education asked Ben [Acting Superintendent Benjamin Henley] to testify on the teacher training needs of the 1970s. I wrote up Ben’s statement emphasizing that urban school systems will have to assume more responsibility for training and re-training. We [superintendent, associate superintendent, director of personnel, and I accompany Superintendent Henley] go over to Rayburn Building for hearings. Green convened session with [Al] Quie [from Minnestota] and [Albert] Steiger [from Wisconsin]. Questions were rambling, unconnected, and strangely vacuous for a Committee dealing with higher education.

A pattern emerged. Questions on violence in schools were asked by Green. Then Green asked Ben to stay for the testimony of Bolling Air Force Base parents who were complaining about the terrible time their children were having in Southeast [D.C.] schools. Apparently, the parents had gotten to Green who scheduled Ben to be a witness, making the point that violence is in the schools while satisfying the military parents. An arrogant use of power.

Then Congressman Steiger questioned Ben on Georgetown schools [a largely white neighborhood in D.C.] to which Black kids were being bussed. He tsk-tsked the “deterioration” of education and had great “sympathy for the white parents” who withdrew their children from these schools. It was a snotty, arrogant remark that could easily be labeled racist. Ben, as vigorously as he could, disagreed with the Congressman.

This divided authority for the D.C. schools was a recipe for continual conflict within the system. And the recipe worked. The splintered  authority crippled both the elected Board of Education and its appointed superintendents. I learned how things got done officially and unofficially, and the importance of informal and prior relationships inside and outside the bureaucracy. That racial politics was in this stew goes without saying. I also learned how the annual trek to the Hill was crucial for maintaining (but not necessarily improving) the District and, of equal importance, how divorced the Presidential Building at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue housing the Board and administrators were from what happened in schools and classrooms. [iv]

From my journal, July 7, 1969:

How to reform schools, if indeed it can be done. After six months in the system at the level I am, I can see all of the difficulties I had barely perceived and wrote about but they are now more sharply in focus and more complicated which means, I guess, less open to quick, simple changes. My belief that good people working in concert could effect the “right” changes (sounds so much like Lincoln Steffens’ prescription for corrupt-ridden municipal government at the turn of the century) is much more open to question. Not that good people aren’t around but that the distrust and the inertia that is its by-product is so damn pervasive. Good-will, good ideas, energy, and vigor create the froth of reform but don’t seem to get to the substance, i.e., change in behavior. It’s so frustrating.[v]

Within a year of my arrival, however, a newly appointed City Council and an elected Board of Education—dependent upon funding from the Council–clashed over the budget. As the Office of Staff Development’s budget grew and the budgets of a dozen or more District of Columbia curriculum supervisors shrank, these veteran supervisors–offended by the reduction of their influence and smaller budgets–reached out to their friends within city government. Soon their complaints about OSD taking over many of their traditional functions and reduced funding blossomed into racial politics as these downsized supervisors, nearly all of them Black, quietly lobbied the mostly Black Council members to get rid of OSD, led by a white manager.

Tense negotiations between the Board of Education and City Council for the 1971-1972 budget produced deep cuts in the Office of Staff Development’s budget. I saw the cuts at aimed at me. After many conversations with my wife and a politically astute deputy who I had appointed, I decided to resign in order to keep OSD alive. The following year the City Council restored full funding to OSD. By then I had returned to teaching history at Roosevelt High School.

I taught history at Roosevelt until 1972 when I and my family moved to Stanford University so I could get a Ph.D. After working closely with superintendents in D.C., all of whom had advanced degrees, I believed I could do the job. I needed a doctorate. After getting the Ph.D. in 1974, the Arlington County School Board, a Virginia district across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. hired me to be their superintendent. I served there for seven years and returned to Stanford in 1981 as a professor until 2001 when I retired.

[i]Norman Nickens, “The Ineffectiveness of Education Reform,” Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1972 at:

Teachers College Professor Harry Passow directed the Study. The first finding was damning:

Despite some examples of good quality education, of dedicated and creative profes-sionals at all levels, of a pattern of improving financial support and of efforts to initiate new programs, education in the District is in deep and probably worsening trouble. Unlike most large city systems which have a core of “slum” schools surrounded by a more affluent: ring, the District has a predominance of so-called “inner-city” schools.These schools include large concentrations of economically disadvantaged children, a largely re-segregated pupil population, a predominantly Negro staff, a number of over-aged and inadequate school buildings and inappropriate materials and programs.

A. Harry Passow, “Creating a Model Urban School System: A Study of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools,” (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, June 1967), p. 2.

[ii] Larry Cuban, “Reform in Washington:The Model School Division, 1963-1972″(U.S.Department of Health, Education .and Welfare, Office of Education,December, 1972).

[iii]During the years I was at Cardozo High School working on the Project (1963-1967) teaching at Roosevelt High School twice, working at the Commission on Civil Rights, and finally administering a District-wide program (1967-1972), I kept a personal journal chronicling my activities and thoughts.  The Journal helped me considerably in recalling specific people and instances.

[iv]Steven Diner, “The Governance of Education in the District of Columbia: An Historical Analysis of Current Issues.,” Studies in D.C. History and Public Policy Paper No.2. at:

 Mary Levy,  “History of Public School Governance in the District of Columbia: A Brief Summary,” at:

[v] Personal Journal, vol. 7, May 23, 1969 to January 31, 1971. Entry for July 7, 1969.

 In describing these experiences within a large educational bureaucracy and the coming face-to-face with the politics of governing schools is not the  same as understanding their import on my thinking.  Not until I was at Stanford University working on my dissertation about urban superintendents in 1973-1974 did I come to realize that teaching and administering in D.C. for nearly a decade had shaped my framework for understanding urban schools both organizationally and politically.

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Confessions of a Reformer (Part 5)

This series of posts is called “Confessions of a School Reformer,” a book I am now writing. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 describe my entry into classroom teaching beginning in 1955 and ending in 1972. So this post continues Part 4.

The King assassination

On April 4th, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis (TN) where he was supporting sanitation workers’ demands for higher wages and better working conditions triggered explosive anger across the country. Civil unrest broke out in over 100 cities across the U.S. Protests, looting, fires swept the nation.

In Washington, D.C., the 14th St. business corridor, a few blocks from Roosevelt High School where I taught, was picked clean and burnt.  A news article described the scene.

As night fell, angry people began to pour from their houses into the streets. Headed by the black activist Stokely Carmichael, crowds surged along 14th Street, ordering businesses to close. Carmichael tried to keep control, but things quickly got out of hand. A rock was thrown through a store window. Then a trash can was hurled. Someone used lighter fluid to start a small fire in a tree. As firefighters doused it, someone in the crowd yelled, “We’ll just light it again!”[i]

Over four days of violent disturbances, 13 people died and damages or destruction occurred to nearly 1200 residential and commercial buildings. The President called in the National Guard. Just barely a 100 yards from our house, Barbara, Sondra, Janice, and I stood at the corner of 16th and Holly Sts. to watch troop-filled trucks and tanks move down the broad avenue toward heavily damaged areas in the city.  [ii]

Like so many other families in D.C., we were distraught. Schools closed. Businesses shuttered their windows. Everything shut down, TV reports of shootings shook all of us. Since grocery stores in the damaged areas were either wiped out or picked clean, many families in those areas needed food. St. Stephen’s Church organized food drives and volunteers to take bags of groceries to families near 14th St. For two days these volunteers, including me, drove to apartment buildings and residences to drop off groceries.

King’s assassination altered dramatically what happened in my morning Roosevelt classes and what occurred in the afternoons at CCR. At school, there was much absenteeism and when even smaller classes convened, feelings were raw and silence was common during lessons. The school held a memorial service for Dr. King. Ever so slowly, my students re-entered discussions. In the Negro History class, where there had been many free-wheeling discussions of racism in American society, three students displayed their anger at whites including their teacher over the next few weeks.  Sullen aggressiveness was the order of the day from many (but not all) students.

At CCR, divisions among the multiracial staff became even worse than it had been. Hateful looks and whispered comments about whites were frequent and often went unanswered. The sadness and anger over the loss of an exceptional leader whose views of making Blacks full citizens had broadened to include fighting poverty, connecting capitalism to inequalities, and the blood-letting Vietnam  War were evident in the weeks to come. My own inexperience within a bureaucracy and working half-days increased my uncertainty over what exactly should be the Unit’s agenda for school desegregation. What could the U.S. ever do to rid itself of racist structures and behaviors ricocheted in my mind. My questions and stumbling, uncertain efforts to ease the racial antagonisms shaped the following months of work at CCR. My inability to come up with a viable agenda of research and, more important heal the open racial divide that had been simmering before I became Director and now erupted within our Unit led, after many discussions with Barbara, to my quitting a few months later.  No other job awaited me.

[i]  Wikipedia, “1968  Washington, D.C. Riots,” at:,_D.C.,_riots

Denise Wills, “People Were Out of Control,”: Remembering the 1968 Riots, Washingtonian, April 1, 2008 at:

[ii] Wikipedia, “1968  Washington, D.C. Riots,” at:,_D.C.,_riots


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“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 4)

This series of posts is called “Confessions of a School Reformer,” a book I am now writing. Parts 1, 2, and 3 describe my entry into classroom teaching beginning in 1955.

The Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching (1963-1967)

The pilot project, initially funded for one year, was a teacher-driven, school-based, neighborhood-oriented solution to the problem of low-performing students. It was an attempted reform of schools by creating a different model of preparing sharp, skilled teachers on-site and involved in the local community to turn around low-performing segregated schools. This school-based reform model rejected the traditional university-based teacher education programs wholly separated from impoverished neighborhoods that had failed for decades.[i]

Master teachers in academic subjects trained returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach while drawing from neighborhood resources. Once trained, the reform theory went, these ex-Peace Corps volunteers would become crackerjack teachers who could hook listless students through creative lessons drawing from their knowledge of ghetto neighborhoods and personal relationships with students and their families. As a result, more Cardozo students would go on to college, fewer would drop out. That was the reform model.

As luck would have it, the Project got funded each year in last-minute negotiations between federal and district agencies. I continued to teach at Cardozo High School, eventually directing the program until 1967. I recruited Cardozo teachers to be master teachers—we called them “affiliates”–to train interns.

By 1965-1966, applicants included Peace Corps returnees, civil rights activists who had worked in the South, and veterans of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) who had worked on community projects in fighting poverty.  It was a feisty mix of teachers and community activists who were active in D.C. civil rights protests and the growing anti-Vietnam War.

In early 1965, the project sponsored a conference for D.C. teachers on improving instruction and connections between schooling and civil rights. The first of its kind, the conference was held on Howard University’s campus and attracted nearly 100 D.C. teachers and activists. For the keynote address, I got Staughton Lynd, a Spelman College professor who had directed the Freedom Summer (1964) where more than 40 schools were set up in Black communities. Workshops on teaching Basic Track students (the lowest academic track in the D.C. schools at the time), links between poverty and schooling, teaching social studies during civil rights protests, and developing curriculum materials to use in lessons.

That was a high for me to bring together District teachers (including current and former Project teachers) for a conference on curriculum and instruction tailored to D.C. students at a time when civil right activists pressed for multi-ethnic materials and murmurings of Black Power began to emerge.  My civil rights involvement had moved from a focus on classroom teaching to the conditions of D.C. schools and how to improve them.

If the conference was a high, the low I experienced was the continual coping with uncertain funding each year. Tortuous conversations with federal and D.C. agencies opened my eyes to how politically and bureaucratically thorny it is to engage students and involve parents and residents while negotiating with top-level local and federal administrators. The complex network of relationships inside and outside of the district and the intersection between school, students, community, and organizational bureaucracies became hurdles to leap in order to get teachers to spend afternoons and evenings working with families in federally funded neighborhood centers near Cardozo.

It took four long years for me and other advocates to convince the D.C. superintendent and school board that recruiting and training Peace Corps returnees benefited the district for not only for contributions to teaching and student learning but also because the program lessened the annual scramble to staff all of its classrooms. The superintendent finally agreed to take over the program in 1967 re-naming it the Urban Teacher Corps and expanding it from recruiting and training 50 new teachers a year to over a hundred annually.[ii]

After this exhilarating but exhausting experience at Cardozo, I saw my job of getting the teacher education program incorporated into the regular D.C. school budget as being done. I returned to teaching U.S. history at Roosevelt High School, another D.C. high school, further north on 13th St.

[i]In 1966, the U.S. Congress had authorized the National Teachers Corps, based on the model we created at Cardozo High School. I served on the Advisory Board for the National Teacher Corps.  In 1971, after four years of recruiting and training teachers in the Urban Teacher Corps, a new Washington, D.C. superintendent abolished the program. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan ended federal funding for the Teacher Corps.

[ii] Maxine Daly,”The Teacher as Innovator: A Report on Urban Teacher Corps,” Journal of Negro Education, 1975, 44(3), pp. 385-390.


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“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 3)

Continuing story of my teaching history at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH), 1956-1963

Then I got married in 1958.  Evenings which I had used for grading homework and preparing lessons and weekends for completing graduate papers were no longer as available as when I was single. Fatigue and the growing awareness that I could have a life outside of Glenville brought me face-to-face with choosing how to combine the demands of work and being with Barbara and eventually my two daughters, Sondra and Janice. Threading that needle was never easy for me as a teacher and later, as an administrator.

In seven years of teaching, I had created in fits and starts, with many stumbles, a home-grown history course than I had neither expected when I arrived at Glenville in 1956.  I was an unheralded, unknown classroom reformer creating a different American history course in a de facto segregated school.

I came to believe that any teacher could adopt and adapt lessons tailored to their students, especially economically disadvantaged students in segregated schools. My belief in engaging classroom materials turning around such students and schools grew out of those lessons I had created. If more teachers and schools did what I did, I believed, then urban schools would improve. Although my reform-driven belief turned out to be too narrow and too demanding of teachers given the working conditions they faced, the ideas I offered and practiced in my classrooms of getting students to connect the racial-inflected past to the present, I hoped would help my students understand what was happening in the South with Freedom Riders and student sit-ins in segregated restaurants and bus boycotts. Without fully knowing it myself, my belief in the power of education to reform society, as Dewey put it, lay behind the materials I developed and classroom activities I managed.  That is my small part in the civil rights movement.

In the next decade working in Washington, D.C. my work as a classroom reformer developing curriculum materials and lessons to engage minority students continued. Events, however, spilled over public schools. A generational and organizational split over Black Power reshaped the Civil Rights movement. Urban riots in Los Angeles, Newark, Detroit and other cities over police brutality, inadequate housing, few jobs, and segregated schools broke out year after year in the mid-1960s. Anti-Vietnam War protests spread. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead by a white sniper. Civil unrest—looting and fires–in over 100 cities leap-frogged across the nation. Governors and mayors called in the National Guard to quell disturbances and bring order to cities.

All of these events inexorably seeped into school lessons and activities. In these years, I began to see a much larger picture of the nexus between the worlds outside and inside schools and how the complexities of school reform stretched far beyond my students in one classroom.

Cardozo High School 1963-1967

After seven years at Glenville and going part-time for a doctorate in American history at Western Reserve–I had already written chapters for a dissertation on black leadership in Cleveland–two job offers came to me in 1963. One was to teach U.S. History at a Connecticut college with the understanding that I would complete my dissertation and another was to move to Washington, D.C. and work in a federally funded teacher-training project located in an all-Black high school.

The job was to be a “master teacher.” That is I would teach two classes of history and train four former Peace Corps Volunteers who had just returned from two years abroad in the craft of teaching social studies. Yes, I was ambitious, I wanted recognition and approval but I had a family now and was uncertain what to do with these competing offers.  I was at a fork in my career and had to choose.

I took the one-year job in 1963 at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C.. My previous work in developing racial content in instructional materials at Glenville, I would guess, helped the director hire me.   It was a big risk to move Barbara and toddler Sondra for only a year to D.C. but I was eager (and pushy) to join like-minded educators drawn to Washington in the Kennedy years. Career ambition drove my decision-making.

Federal policymakers in those Kennedy-Johnson years (John F. Kennedy was assassinated a few months after the project began and Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson became President) had framed the problem of low-performing urban students dropping out of school as having too few skilled and knowledgeable teachers who could create engaging lessons to motivate teenagers to go to college and prevent them from dropping out of school. The solution to the problem was neither added funding nor more jobs for unemployed nor better and inexpensive housing. The solution was: prepare better teachers.[i]


So easy to forget that the District of Columbia, the seat of government for the United States, was a segregated city until the late-1950s.  Schools had been divided into two administrative divisions, White and Colored since the early 20th century.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Bolling vs. Sharpe decision in 1955 desegregated the D.C. schools consolidating the two administrative divisions into one school system. The slow movement of white families out of Washington to the emerging suburbs in Maryland and Virginia accelerated as desegregation slowly proceeded. By 1960, Black students were 70 percent of D.C.’s enrollment. And at Cardozo High School, the “castle on the hill” over 95 percent were Black.

On that 13th St. hilltop, Cardozo students looked out large windows and saw both the nation’s Capitol and the Washington Monument. The neighborhood at that time had a mix of middle- and working-class and poor Black families. [ii]

By the early 1960s, however, the neighborhood was changing. Percentages of families on public assistance, unemployment, and students not living with both parents had grown. Crime escalated. While mostly white- and blue-collar families sent their sons and daughters to Cardozo, the neighborhood had acquired a reputation of being poor and neglected. Local media labeled the Cardozo neighborhood as a Black ghetto and “slum”, terms that students, teachers, and parents bitterly resented.[iii]

In the early 1960s, the school had over 2,000 students of whom less than 10 were white. Nearly all faculty were Black and ranged from a core of dedicated, well- qualified teachers to the usual time-servers who counted the weeks until retirement. Like all D.C. high schools at the time, the track system sorted students on the basis of IQ test scores and performance into the Honors, College Preparatory, General and Basic tracks.  At Cardozo there were very few Honors and College Preparatory tracks when the Cardozo Project arrived and settled into room 111 in fall 1963.[iv]

[i]A more detailed description of Cardozo High School and the Project can be found in Larry Cuban, Teaching History Then and Now (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2016), pp. 43-70.

[ii]“Central High School (Cardozo Senior High School” D.C. Historic Sites at:

[iii] Eve Edstrom, “Slum Children a New Challenge to Peace Corps Group,” Washington Post, September 8, 1963, E2; Maxine Daly, “Urban Teacher Corps, 1963-1968, (Washington, D.C. Public Schools of District of Columbia, Office of Staff Development), May 1968, p. 4.

[iv] That organizational approach to schooling lasted until the track system was abolished by a U.S. court decision in 1967. See Alexander Bickel, “Skelly Wright’s Sweeping Decision,” New Republic, July 7, 1967 at:

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“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 2)

Glenville High School, 1956-1963

My memory of teaching over a half-century ago is filled with holes. In thinking back to the time when I began teaching at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH), I can remember some events, some students, some teachers, and my first principal but there is much I cannot recall. Slivers of memory remind me of what I did daily in my five U.S. and world history classes over the seven years that I taught there. And even those fragments are disconnected.  What helps me from sentimentalizing my memories are yellowed copies of actual lessons I taught, student papers with my comments on them, old spiral-ringed gradebooks listing students and their marks, occasional articles about one or more classes of mine in the student newspaper, and photos of me teaching in the annual yearbook. That’s it.

I do recall my shock when I had lunch with Glenville principal Oliver Deex just before I had to report for teaching in September 1956. I was startled to find out that Glenville’s student body was over 90 percent Black—the word then was Negro. He gave me a once-over-lightly account of segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the increasingly Black East Side and the all-white West Side, separated by the Cuyahoga River. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the growth of ethnic and racial ghettos.[i]

Segregated Cleveland

Patterns of ethnic and racial segregation in Cleveland had developed early in the twentieth century, when neighborhoods became easily identifiable as Italian, German, Polish, Jewish, and Black. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, upwardly striving immigrant Jewish families clustered in the Central, Scovill, and Woodland Avenue neighborhoods close to downtown. By the 1920s, many of these families began to move eastward into the Glenville area in response to an influx of Southern Black migrant families seeking better housing. The result was the gradual transformation of these areas into a Black ghetto. By the 1930s, Jewish businesses, synagogues, hospitals, and charitable institutions services dotted 105th Street, one of Glenville’s main thoroughfares, and Glenville High School became nearly 90 percent Jewish in that decade.[ii]

Residential segregation (homes on sale often had racial covenants in their deeds) and in-migration of Blacks after World War II again created overcrowded housing in already racially segregated neighborhoods. Upwardly mobile Black families entered the Glenville area in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As that occurred, more and more Jewish families moved into the eastern suburbs of Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid, and Beachwood. Middle-class Black families increased their presence in the Glenville area, so that by the time I arrived, Glenville High School and the adjacent junior highs and elementary schools were already over 90 percent Black.[iii]

Classroom teaching

Although my teacher preparation at the University of Pittsburgh was steeped in the Progressive tradition of student-centered instruction, if an observer had entered my high school history classes in those initial years they would have easily categorized my instruction as wholly teacher-centered. Students sat in rows of movable chairs with tablet arms facing the front blackboard and my desk.

I planned detailed lessons at home for the five classes. In my written lessons, which I would follow religiously in the early years, I would carefully list the questions I would ask for whole-group discussions, lecture on the text and additional readings Iassigned to the class, all the while orchestrating a sequence of activities aligned to the questions. Over 90 percent of instructional time was spent teaching the whole group.

Toward the end of my first year at Glenville, I realized, albeit slowly, that teaching five classes a day with multiple lessons (I taught world history and U.S. history), grading homework from over 150 students, and learning the ropes of managing groups of students a few years younger than me not only wore me out–I was also taking late-afternoon and evening graduate history courses at Western Reserve University– but drove me to rely on lectures and the textbook far more than I anticipated.

Slowly, however, I became dissatisfied about how I was teaching. I routinely lectured, watched maybe half of the students take notes and the other half stare into the distance or try to look attentive. Some fell asleep. I asked students questions about the textbook pages I assigned and got one-word answers back. Occasionally, a student would ask a question and I would improvise an answer that would trigger a few more students to enter in what would become a full blown back-and-forth discussion. It was unplanned and brief but mysteriously disappeared in the snap of a finger. Periodic quizzes and current events topics one day a week altered my routines but student disengagement persisted.

After six months, I realized that I did not want to teach history mechanically drowning students in forgettable facts that left me drained and dissatisfied at the end of a long day. I wanted to break out of that pattern. But did not know how to do that yet.

These were the years before the civil rights movement had traveled northward. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the midst of his Montgomery ministry; Rosa Parks had just triggered the boycott of Jim Crow buses in that city. After nearly a year teaching, I became more aware of how Cleveland’s racially segregated neighborhoods had blanketed schools like Glenville with malignant neglect. But it was slow going for a white teacher who gradually learned from his students and Black colleagues what was happening outside of school. Slow as it was, I began to see my work inside the classroom where students took notes and participated in discussions connected to students’ lives outside school.[iv]

That insight occurred as I grew Intellectually. Oliver Deex, my principal was midwife to expanding my mind. A voracious reader and charming conversationalist, Deex introduced me to books and magazines I had never read: Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others.

He often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. In his office after school, we would talk about what I read. I have no idea why he took an interest in the intellectual development of a gangly, fresh-faced, ambitious novice, but his insistent questioning of my beliefs and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching.

The next year, I decided to experiment with different content to break out of those instructional routines that numbed me by the end of the day. For two of my five classes, I began to design lessons that differed from the assigned U.S. history text (David S. Muzzey’s History of Our Country published in 1955 had no entry for “Negro” in the index). Drawing from my University graduate history courses, I began to type up excerpts from primary sources, duplicate them on the department’s one ditto machine, add questions and assign them to those two classes–the thought of doing this for all five classes overwhelmed me; two seemed do-able. [v]

For example, in a textbook chapter on the 13 colonies in which Muzzey’s History of Our Country dismissed the origins of slavery as unimportant, I would copy readings that included descriptions of slave auction and bills of sale and historians’ accounts that spelled out the issues surrounding the introduction of Africans into the colonies. I would add questions to these readings that called for students to analyze both primary and secondary sources. In addition, the librarian gathered the few books on Negro history that we had in our school and nearby libraries and put them aside in a special section for my two classes.

By my third year at Glenville, I had found that gaining students’ interest in U.S. history was only half the struggle. I was now using these materials in all five classes. Student response to non-textbook ethnic materials, however, was mixed. The novelty of studying Black figures and broader issues of race triggered deep interest in maybe half of the students in the classes. But many students felt that such content was sub-standard because their texts didn’t mention the information contained in their readings and, moreover, they complained openly that other history teachers didn’t have readings and used the textbook more than I did. Some students even asked me to return to the text. I was surprised at first that some students wanted me to return to the deadening routine that left me and most students anesthetized. Then I realized that using textbooks in high school was all that they knew.

Overall, however, I judged student response as sufficiently positive for me to continue and, truth be told, I was excited about the readings and ways of getting students to think about the past that I had developed. I saw that students studying a  past in which racial content and practices were important enabled both students and me to make connections between then and now that had been missing when I began teaching.  Sure, I was weary at 3:30 PM, but now I looked forward to the next day of teaching.[vi]

Within four years, I had expanded my repertoire beyond weekly use of ethnic and racial subject matter. I slowly introduced new content and direct instruction in skills into my U.S. history classes. As I learned the methodology of the historian in my graduate courses, I designed more lessons on analyzing evidence, determining which sources of information were more or less reliable and assessing what makes one opinion more informed than another. A later generation of scholars and practitioners might have labeled my uncertain baby-steps in changing the content of lessons,  “teaching historical thinking.” [vii]


[i] Leonard Moore, “The School Desegregation Crisis of Cleveland, Ohio, 1963–1964,” Journal of Urban History 28, no. 2 (2002): 135–147. Within the school, I quickly learned from experienced colleagues that the district personnel department customarily assigned young, white, inexperienced teachers to mostly minority schools to see if they would survive. 

 [ii] Kenneth Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870–1930 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 157–173; David Van Tassel (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 595–599.

[iii] Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape, 170–171.

[iv] A reader knowledgeable about Progressive thought in the early 20the century could easily point out that such a connection I had come to realize was within Progressive educators’ thinking decades earlier.

[v] For the reference to David Muzzey’s U.S. History textbook, see Larry Cuban “Jim Crow History,” Negro History Bulletin, 1962, 25(4), pp. 84-86.

The ditto machine (or “spirit duplicator”) came into schools in the 1940s. It did not need electricity to run and was cheap compared to a mimeograph machine. The machine was basically a crank-turned drum to which I attached a stencil that I had typed up. I inserted paper in the tray, and turned the handle until I had enough copies for my lesson. The finished copies were purplish with the distinct fragrance of alcohol (which was in the drum). The purple type ran occasionally and after producing many copies my hands were often bluish. With the invention of the electronic copy machine in the 1970s, ditto machines became another footnote in classroom teaching.

[vi] In 1962, I was asked to present at a national conference of social studies teachers on the ethnic and racial content lessons I had created. A member of the audience, Ted Fenton, came up to me afterwards and asked me if I would write a volume for his Scott,Foresman series on problems in American history. I said I would and in 1964, The Negro in America appeared in the series (it came out in a second edition in 1971 re-titled The Black Man in America.. It was the first book that I had published.

[vii] Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” Phi Delta Kappan, 1999, 80(7), pp. 488-499; Roy Rosenzeig, “What Is Historical Thinking Matters,” at:


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“Confessions of a School Reformer”(Part 1)

I am drafting chapters for my next book with the above title. I described the idea of the book and my experiences in the Pittsburgh schools during the Progressive reform era (see the five-part series “We Are All Reformers”on this blog).

In alternating chapters, the book will describe and analyze each of three reform movements during my lifetime and then trace my life in and out of school as a student, teacher, administrator and researcher who experienced these reforms for over three-quarters of a century.

Since 1939 when I entered first grade until 2020, three major reform efforts have swept across American public schools: the Progressive movement (1890s-1940s); Civil Rights movement (1950s-1970s), and business-inspired standards, testing, and accountability movement (1970s-present).

I have completed a draft chapter of my years as a teacher (1955-1972) in three school districts during the Civil Rights movement. I begin the multi-part series with this post. Comments appreciated.

As a teacher I was not a civil rights activist. While I did participate in a few marches, I was never arrested at a demonstration. Nor did I join any organizations at the forefront of the movement. I did work, however, for a few months at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a federal agency committed to desegregated schools in the 1960s. It was a disaster (see below).

While my wife Barbara and I contributed to civil rights groups and moved our family into an integrated Washington, D.C. neighborhood, my public involvement in civil rights activities was close to nil. But not so in schools. For the most part, then, where and when I was involved in civil rights grew directly out of whom I taught and what I did in my classes at Cleveland’s Glenville High School and Washington, D.C.’s Cardozo High School. 

I was a classroom teacher who worked in de facto segregated Black schools in two cities. As a white teacher teaching history to Black middle- and working-class students who already had experienced segregated schools, racial discrimination, and institutionalized racism on a daily basis—preparing uncommon lessons and instructional materials about the American past was the civil rights road that I traveled in the years I taught at these two high schools.

Becoming a Teacher

After graduating Taylor Allderdice High School (see Part 4), I attended the University of Pittsburgh (hereafter Pitt) for four years while living at home. The first in my family to attend college, I tried pre-med but biochemistry proved my undoing. I drifted into other pre-professional courses and then eventually entered Pitt’s School of Education.

In the early 1950s, the School of Education contained professors imbued with the Progressive ideas of teaching and learning that had dominated the field for decades. I took courses in which I read John Dewey and absorbed the ideology of Progressivism. I cannot remember if I had read his Pedagogic Creed but at the time his sentence: “… [E]ducation is the fundamental method of social progress and reform,” I believed when I entered the classroom.[i]

 In social studies methods courses, I developed a series of lessons organized around a topic in accordance with the Unit Plan laid out in Henry Morrison’s textbook, The Practice of Teaching in Secondary Schools (1926).  I worked at various jobs to fund my schooling but always turned in on time assignments on organizing lessons, assessing students, and orchestrating small group collaboration while figuring out what tasks to give those students who chose to work independently.  Progressive vocabulary and ideology were in the air that we breathed.  And I inhaled a lot.[ii]

My final year in the School of Education required me to student-teach.  When I showed up at Peabody High School, the two middle-aged teachers assigned to supervise me spoke with me for about a half-hour and then gave me their copies of the required textbook and student attendance rolls.  I seldom saw them for the rest of the semester. I taught two classes in U.S. History at Peabody High School while working full time at the U.S. Post Office. 

Turns out, I learned, that teaching is part performance.  That wowed me.  What I remember is that every day was a dramatic show and I had to be ready. My lines had to be memorized. I had to get audience participation. Before each class, I could feel my stomach muscles tense. I was wired for action.

I could write that I entered teaching to improve the lot of under-educated children, to serve the community, or a similar noble sentiment. While such motives may have been buried within my psyche—and I believe they were–what really appealed to me initially was performing with a captive audience and the challenge of conveying to others what I believed to be crucial information, ideas, and skills.

I graduated in 1955 with a major in history and a minor in biology. That summer I applied for a dozen jobs in social studies and was turned down for each one. One month after school started, I found a one-year job teaching biology and general science in McKeesport, a city 20 miles from home. The students I was expected to teach had had a series of daily and weekly substitutes and when they saw me in early October, their eyes glazed over believing me to be another teacher who would leave in a few days or a week. I stayed until June. Any rookie year of teaching is hard but I did survive.

From collecting animal specimens for biology class in Schenley Park’s Panther Hollow to preparing late-night lessons on mass and volume, I barely made it. McKeesport Tech had no wet labs, a few microscopes, and hardly any instructional materials. Thus, I gathered salamanders in nearby creeks. I built pulleys and simple machines. I scrounged cardboard boxes and whatever else I could find at home or buy cheaply at the store.

None of my Pitt education courses coated with Progressive ideology and dressed up with student-centered lessons applied to my flailing efforts to do a journeyman job teaching biology and general science. What did help me survive was Gene Surmacz, the chemistry teacher who had been there for three years. He saw my floundering and asked if I needed help in teaching biology. He gave me lessons that he had used when he taught the course and set aside time for coaching me. He was my life preserver that year

But I wanted very much to teach history and the social studies. Every week I looked for postings of vacancies across Western Pennsylvania and even Ohio. I applied for any social studies spot I could find. And just before school opened in 1956, I heard from the Cleveland public schools (signaling me that I was at the bottom of their last barrel of newbies) that I should report to Glenville High School immediately to teach social studies.  At 21, I left home to start a career in teaching.


[i]John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, (New York: E.L. Kellogg & Co., 1897), p. 16.

[ii] When I began writing this section one phrase kept returning in my memory, “The Morrison Plan.”  So for these paragraphs I looked up who Henry Morrison was, his career (teacher, district and state superintendent, professor), and the text that I used in the methods courses. See “Henry C. Morrison,” Wikipedia at:


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