What Makes a Great School? (Jack Schneider)

Jack Schneider is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is  “a historian and policy analyst who studies the influence of politics, rhetoric, culture, and information in shaping attitudes and behaviors. His research examines how educators, policymakers, and the public develop particular views about what is true, what is effective, and what is important. Drawing on a diverse mix of methodological approaches, he has written about measurement and accountability, segregation and school choice, teacher preparation and pedagogy, and the relationship between research and practice. His current work, on how school quality is conceptualized and quantified, has been supported by the Spencer Foundation and the Massachusetts State Legislature.

The author of three books, Schneider is a regular contributor to “The Washington Post” and “The Atlantic” and co-hosts the education policy podcast “Have You Heard.” He also serves as the Director of Research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.”

This piece appeared October 23, 2017.

 

What are the signs that a school is succeeding?

Try asking someone. Chances are, they’ll say something about the impact a school makes on the young people who attend it. Do students feel safe and cared for? Are they being challenged? Do they have opportunities to play and create? Are they happy?

If you’re a parent, getting this kind of information entails a great deal of effort — walking the hallways, looking in on classrooms, talking with teachers and students, chatting with parents, and watching kids interact on the playground.

Since most of us don’t have the time or the wherewithal to run our own school-quality reconnaissance missions, we rely on rumor and anecdote, hunches and heuristics, and, increasingly, the Internet.

So what’s out there on the web? Are our pressing questions about schools being answered by crowdsourced knowledge and big data sets?

As it turns out, no.

There’s information, certainly. But mostly it doesn’t align with what we really want to know about how schools are doing. Instead, most of what we learn about schools online — on the websites of magazines, on school rating sites, and even on real estate listings — comes from student standardized test scores. Some may include demographic information or class size ratios. But the ratings are derived primarily from state-mandated high stakes tests.

The first problem with this state of affairs is that test scores don’t tell us a tremendous amount about what students are learning in school. As research has demonstrated, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores — about one-third of what student and family background characteristics explain. Consequently, test scores often indicate much more about demography than about schools.

Even if scores did reflect what students were learning in school, they’d still fail to address the full range of what schools actually do. Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking. School quality is multidimensional. And just because a school is strong in one area does not mean that it is equally strong in another. In fact, my research team has found that high standardized test score growth can be correlated with low levels of student engagement. Standardized tests, in short, tell us very little about what we actually value in schools.

One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality. We talk about schools as if they are uniformly good or bad, as if we have complete knowledge of them, and as if there is agreement about the practices and outcomes of most value.

Another consequence is that we can make unenlightened decisions about where to live and send our children to school. Schools with more affluent student bodies tend to produce high test scores. Perceived

as “good,” they become the objects of desire for well-resourced and quality-conscious parents. Conversely, schools with more diverse student bodies are dismissed as bad.

GreatSchools.org gives my daughter’s school — a highly diverse K–8 school — a 6 on its 10-point scale. The state of Massachusetts labels it a “Level 2” school in its five-tier test score-based accountability system. SchoolDigger.com rates it 456th out of 927 Massachusetts elementary schools.

How does that align with reality? My daughter is excited to go to school each day and is strongly attached to her current and former teachers. A second-grader, she reads a book a week, loves math, and increasingly self-identifies as an artist and a scientist. She trusts her classmates and hugs her principal when she sees him. She is often breathlessly excited about gym. None of this is currently measured by those purporting to gauge school quality.

Of course, I’m a professor of education and my wife is a teacher. Our daughter is predisposed to like school. So what might be said objectively about the school as a whole? Over the past two years, suspensions have declined to one-fifth of the previous figure, thanks in part to a restorative justice program and an emphasis on positive school culture. The school has adopted a mindfulness program that helps students cope with stress and develop the skill of self-reflection. A new maker space is being used to bring hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math into classrooms. The school’s drama club, offered free after school twice a week, now has almost 100 students involved.

The inventory of achievements that don’t count is almost too long to list.

So if the information we want about schools is too hard to get, and the information we have is often misleading, what’s a parent to do?

Four years ago, my research team set out to build a more holistic measure of school quality. Beginning first in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, and then expanding to become a statewide initiative — the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment — we asked stakeholders what they actually care about in K–12 education. The result is a clear, organized, and comprehensive framework for school quality that establishes common ground for richer discussions and recognizes the multi-dimensionality of schools.

Only after establishing shared values did we seek out measurement tools. Our aim, after all, was to begin measuring what we value, rather than to place new values on what is already measured.

For some components of the framework, we turned to districts, which often gather much more information than ends up being reported. For many other components, we employed carefully designed surveys of students and teachers — the people who know schools best. And though we currently include test score growth, we are moving away from multiple-choice tests and toward curriculum-embedded performance assessments designed and rated by educators rather than by machines.

Better measures aren’t a panacea. Segregation by race and income continues to menace our public schools, as does inequitable allocation of resources. More accurate and comprehensive data systems won’t wash those afflictions away. But so much might be accomplished if we had a shared understanding of what we want our schools to do, clear and common language for articulating our aims, and more honest metrics for tracking our progress.

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, testing

Standardized Teaching? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I made the point that the structure of the age-graded school, introduced in the U.S. in mid-19th century, has become the taken-for-granted way for organizing schools ever since. One-room schoolhouses, the heretofore dominant way of structuring schools, went the way of the dodo bird. A century ago there were nearly 200,000 one-room schoolhouses, now less than 200 exist in the U.S. today.

Originally, the age-graded school building contained classrooms for grades 1 through 8. Over the decades, 1-8 expanded to pre-K through grade 12. To accommodate larger number of schools and students, architects designed one- and two-story elementary school buildings spread out over nearly an acre and secondary school buildings with multiple floors and corridors on each floor off which classrooms and offices were located. This model became standard. And within the building resided the standardized classroom.

068restoredcouncilring.jpgCharlesDrewElementarySchool.jpg

ThinkstockPhotos-453449525-jpg.jpg

Each classroom contained an American flag, a wall clock, paintings or photos of U.S. Presidents, desks and seats–initially bolted to the floor but now movable–arranged in rows facing the teacher’s desk or, in elementary schools, round tables sitting pairs and trios of students. Going into current elementary and secondary school classrooms in Bangor (ME) Butte (MT) or Bakersfield (CA) becomes a deja vu experience for many who do not know of the many changes that have occurred in the design, furniture, and arrangements that teachers have made in their classrooms in every generation.

These standardized classrooms within the age-graded schools became sites where children and youth previously unknown to one another gathered and were housed for six hours a day with one or more adults. Children learned directly and indirectly how to behave in organizations, obey authority, feel pride toward the country, and live under rules. Students learned how to negotiate bureaucracies, work with others different from themselves, become members of a community, and compete to be number one (see here here, and here).

 

Image result for photos of bolted down desks in 19th century classrooms

 

 

 

Image result for photos of bolted down desks in 19th century classrooms

 

 

Over decades, classroom organization and teacher behavior also slowly changed. By 2018, Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades, so students faced one another. Jean-wearing teachers drinking coffee smiled often at their classes. Students went to a pencil sharpener or elsewhere in the room without asking for the teacher’s permission. The dread and repression of the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s sneer slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms where teachers were more informal in language and dress, and had a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.

Image result for teachers working with small groups photos

 

 

The constancy of the age-graded school too often masks these incremental changes as classrooms became standardized. Has a similar process occurred in the standardization of teaching?

Yes, it has.

Within age-graded structures (separate classrooms with groups of children that have to be controlled, curricular chunks covered in each grade with texts, periodic tests, a daily schedule) certain kinds of teaching fit better than others. David Tyack and I called those “structures” and the constraints for both teachers and students, the “grammar of schooling.”

And within this “grammar of schooling,” there is a “machinery of instruction,” as John Dewey put it. It is a “grammar of instruction” that fits tidily within age-graded school structures.  Like the standardized age-graded school, the “grammar of instruction” has had continuity and change over decades for both teachers and students. And central to that “grammar of instruction” have been two traditions of teaching that extend back centuries.

Each tradition has had a grab-bag of names: conservative vs. liberal, hard vs. soft pedagogy, subject-centered vs. child-centered, traditional vs. progressive, mimetic vs. transformational, and teacher-centered vs. student-centered.

Each tradition has its own goals (transmit knowledge to next generation vs. helping children grow into full human beings);  practices (teacher-centered vs. student-centered); and desired outcomes (knowledgeable and skilled adults ready to enter the labor market and society versus an outcome of morally and civically engaged adults who use their knowledge and skills to help themselves and their communities). No evidence, then or now, has confirmed advocates’ claims for either tradition. These are pedagogical choices anchored in beliefs. While posing these traditions as opposites, I, Philip Jackson,  and others have pointed out that most teachers, including the very best, combine both ways of teaching in their lessons.

Educational battles have been fought time and again over these traditions in how teachers should teach reading (phonics vs. whole language), math (“new” vs. traditional), science  (learning subject matter vs. doing science) and history (heritage vs. doing history). Yet even at the height of these public wars fought in words and competing policies, teachers taught lessons that combined both traditions.

Since the late-1980s, however, states have embraced standards-based reforms, accountability measures, and mandated testing (e.g., with No Child Left Behind 2002-2015, Common Core standards and tests since 2010, and Every Student Succeeds in 2016).

How, then, in the past quarter-century of standards and accountability-driven schooling have teachers organized instruction, grouped students, and taught lessons?

For those who listen to teachers, the answer is self-evident. Classroom stories and teacher surveys have reported again and again that more lesson time is spent preparing students for high-stakes tests.  And what is taught has narrowed to what appears on tests.

Such stories and research studies describe classroom instruction, particularly in largely poor and minority schools, as more teacher-centered, focused on meeting prescribed state standards and raising test scores. Teachers have felt pressured to drop student-centered activities such as small group work, discussions, learning centers, and writing portfolios because such activities take away precious classroom time from standards-based curriculum and test preparation.

To confirm or challenge these stories and surveys, I  and others have gone into scores of classrooms across the nation. I can sum up the evidence during these years of strong state and federal backing for standards-based reform and accountability into the following statements:

*Teacher-centered instruction has increased in those districts and schools that performed poorly on state tests.

Where state and federal authorities threatened districts and schools with restructuring or closure for low student performance, shame and fear drove many administrators and teachers to prepare students to pass these high-stakes tests. Teachers spent time in directing students to get ready for the skills and knowledge that would be on the state tests. Yes, a shift in classroom practices occurred with more whole group instruction, more seatwork, and more teacher-directed tasks such as lectures and worksheets in secondary school classrooms

All were aimed at improving student performance on state tests. The record of that improvement, however, is, at best, mixed.

*Even with that shift to more teacher-centered instruction, hybrids of the two teaching traditions still prevailed.

As an historian of teaching practices, I have written about how teachers decade after decade have combined both teacher- and student-centered instruction in both elementary and secondary school classrooms.

Even with the current concentration on standards and testing, blends of teacher-centered and student-centered practices still prevail. In short, teachers have had a degree of autonomy—some more, some less–to arrange their classrooms, group for instruction, and choose among different activities for the lessons they taught even in the midst of being labeled failures and threats of closing down schools.

On the whole, then, since the late-1980s when standards, accountability, and testing came to dominate U.S. classrooms, there is a tad more teacher-centered instruction but mixes of the two traditions remained very much present.

Yet, the struggle over how teachers should teach continues. Policymakers, researchers, practitioners, parents, and, yes, students need to know that both constancy and change have occurred in teaching over many decades. Knowing that these competing traditions of teaching–whatever label is given to each one–turn up in classrooms in 2018 call up anew the persistent fact that larger societal issues (e.g., strengthen the economy through better schooling) penetrate tax-supported public schools time and again mobilizing advocates of teacher- and student-centered practices, beliefs that have divided policymakers, practitioners, and parents for decades.

So there is no standardized teaching model forged in the past that exists in U.S. classrooms today. Blends of the two teaching traditions of teacher- and student-centered instruction within the “grammar of schooling” have become over time the closest to “standardized teaching” that exists now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

________________________________

* For either of these two traditions within the “grammar of instruction” (I will use the phrases teacher-centered instruction or student-centered instruction) I hold no brief. Depending on the age and background of students, the content and skills to be taught, and other factors either form of instruction can be used (as well as mixes of the two). Neither form of teaching in its pure form is demonstrably better than the other in producing desired outcomes.

 

6 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

How Much Do Educators Care About Edtech Efficacy? Less Than You Might Think (Jenny Abamu)

Jenny Abamu is a reporter at WAMU. She was previously an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covered technology’s role in K-12 education.

She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Master’s degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College.”

 

This article appeared in EdSurge, July 17, 2017

Dr. Michael Kennedy, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, was relatively sure he knew the answer to this research question: “When making, purchasing and/or adoption decisions regarding a new technology-based product for your district or school, how important is the existence of peer-reviewed research to back the product?” Nevertheless, as part of the Edtech Research Efficacy Symposium held earlier this year, Kennedy created a research team and gathered the data. But, to his surprise, the results challenged conventional wisdom.

I hypothesized that the school leaders we talked to and surveyed would say, ‘Oh yeah, we privilege products that have been sponsored by high-quality research.’ Of course, we found that that wasn’t exactly correct

Michael Kennedy

“I hypothesized that the school leaders we talked to and surveyed would say, ‘Oh yeah we privilege products that have been sponsored by high-quality research,’” says Kennedy. “Of course we found that that wasn’t exactly correct.”

With a team of 13 other academics and experts, Kennedy surveyed 515 people from 17 states. Out of those they surveyed, 24 percent were district technology supervisors, 22 percent were assistant superintendents, 7 percent were superintendents, 27 percent were teachers, and 10 percent were principals. Within this diverse group, 76 percent directly made edtech purchases for their school or were consulted on purchase decisions. This was the group Kennedy expected would put its trust in efficacy research. To his team’s surprise, however, about 90 percent of the respondents said they didn’t insist on research to be in place before adopting or buying a product.

In contrast, respondents prioritized factors such as ‘fit’ for their school, price, functionality and alignment with district initiatives; these were all rated by those surveyed as “extremely important” or “very important.” In the report, one of the administrators interviewed is quoted saying, “If the product was developed using federal grant dollars, great, but the more important factor is the extent to which it suits our needs.” Kennedy also noted other statements made him pause.

“Research, according to one of the quotes I received was the icing on the cake,” says Kennedy “Having a lot of research evidence, like the type demanded by the feds, was cool but not essential. I found that to be pretty surprising and a little bit troubling.”

The consumer is the one who is going to have to demand the market changes. If school districts say, ‘I am not buying with without any research evidence,’ that would be the only thing, I think, the business community will listen to.

Kennedy defines randomized control trials, a research methodology that tries to remove bias and external effects as much as possible from the experiment, as the gold standard of research. Though this type of extensive and carefully planned research is expensive, the federal government does offer funds to support groups willing to go through the process. However, without schools demanding such research, Kennedy says while the government has made a way, but there is no will—and that could dry up funds.

“The consumer is the one who is going to have to demand the market changes. If school districts say, ‘I am not buying with without any research evidence,’ that would be the only thing, I think, the business community will listen to,” says Kennedy.

So what explains theme educators who did put research at the top of their list? Kennedy speculates it’s a question of exposure to quality research and district funding.

“Some people who responded to our survey had doctorates, other had advanced degrees, and they understand the value of research,” says Kennedy. “Some respondents are from districts that are very well-funded, and they have the luxury of being picky. Other districts have very limited budgets, very limited time and they are going to what is cheapest and easiest.”

Whether rich or poor, all school districts do have to answer to their tax bases, who often foot the bill for edtech purchases. Schools that cannot show academic gains are often under more scrutiny from outside forces, including parents and local officials. However, Kennedy notes that the complicated nature of education and all the variables that can affect student achievement water down any accountability that can be placed on edtech product purchase decisions made by the school districts.

“I suspect they will look at how are we teaching reading and math because technology is often used as a supplementary tool,” says Kennedy. “I hear parents say they want more technology, but they don’t know what they want. They think any tech is good tech, and I think that myth has pervaded as well. It’s a wicked problem, a layered contextual kind of issue, that will take more than the field can do to fix.”

5 Comments

Filed under research, school leaders, technology use

The Standardized Classroom (Part 1)

Once upon a time in a nearby land there were one-room schoolhouses.

clark6.jpg

 

These one-room schools worked well enough for farm families but in towns and cities, they did not. Too many children to school and too few schoolhouses. Also it was too hard for the teacher to get four year olds and 13 year-olds in one room to learn the entire curriculum.

What made the situation worse was that many people from other lands came to this country who wanted to send their children to school–after all it was free for the youngest ones. Also many rural families migrated to towns because there were jobs that paid far more than they earned on the farm. So more and bigger schools were needed because the leaders of the land believed that public schools were essential to build a patriotic populace, a strong nation and a job-rich economy.

Then a band of reformers found a new kind of school that had worked well in another country and brought it to this nearby land. This kind of school had eight rooms in one building,  When children came to the school they were sent to different rooms in the eight-room building according to their ages. Six year-olds in one classroom and nine-year olds in another. For the few older students who wanted more schooling, there were high schools.  And that is the beginning of the age-graded school in this nearby land.

VHE_Education_Postcard.HamiltonHS.Cartersville.1999.17.1225.jpg

 

No fairy tale this origin story of the age-graded school (see here and here).

The structure of the age-graded school contained separate classrooms with one teacher for those of a certain age who was responsible for covering one portion of the curriculum tailored to that age group. And this change–a structural reform that has lasted until now–from one-room schools to that graded school is the beginning of the standardized classroom.

What do I mean by a standardized classroom in the late-19th century?

In creating the structure of the age-graded school, reform-minded policymakers sought consistency in how schools should be built, operated, and–within classrooms–what teachers should teach and how. To policymakers, creating uniformity in schooling meant both efficiency (saving taxpayer dollars) and effectiveness (achieving goals). Thus, the structure of the age-graded school made it possible to create uniform furniture, curriculum standards,  norms for children behavior, and similar ways of teaching young children and youth in every classroom.

So between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, standardization in schooling spread across the nation (see here and here). Architectural designs of school buildings standardized the size of classrooms, the number of windows in them, the arrangement of student and teacher desks, the circulation of air, and heating. All became uniform as school reformers sought consistency across an entire school (except for those children of color who went to segregated, dilapidated, under-funded schools in these decades)–see here and here.

monroe_elementary.jpg

Regularity in buildings sought homogeneity for both children and adults. Qualifications for who became teachers were raised and before a person could teach they had to meet minimum standards of knowledge and skills to teach. Such standards for the physical dimensions of the school, the curriculum, and for those who instructed children promised equality to those who attended tax-supported public schools

And standardization within the classroom occurred as well. Early to mid-20th century visitors to American classrooms would see a U.S. flag, paintings of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a wall clock and rows of bolted-down desks.

19th-century-classroom.png

 

 

jue6mjvzx1jqsihzocrq-1024x573.jpg

So what has the physical design of standardized classrooms including the arrangement of furniture and artifacts meant for both students and teachers over the past century?

*Rows of bolted down desks facing a blackboard and teacher desk and common textbooks for each academic subject communicate to those who inhabit that room who does most of the talking and who does most of the listening.

*Wall clocks mean keeping to a schedule of classes (e.g. 45 minute to hour long lessons) signaling changes in subject and moving to another room. Schedules are important because school is seen as a preparation for the adult work world where white-collar and blue-collar employees either punch time cards or are punctual. Clocks also mean that learning is measured by how long students attend classes during the school year.

*The American flag and the daily reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance are clear signs that loyalty to country is a primary obligation.

All of these artifacts become part of the “hidden curriculum” in age-graded schools and classrooms for transmitting to the next generation cultural values of obeying authority, adhering to institutional rules, independence, cooperation, the importance of time in the workplace, patriotism and pride in country (see here and here). Academics called this political, economic, and cultural socialization of the young.

Even so, there were  architects who railed at such school designs. Here is William Greeley’s view of such schools in 1922:

Probably the object is to produce a standardized American by the use of new,
standardized desks, in a standardized room with standard air at a standard temperature,
under standardized teachers…. Until a perfect form has been evolved, to standardize is to stifle further development.

Not all policymakers or architects agreed with this critic but Greeley recognized that a building housing age-graded classrooms has plans for those adults and children who inhabit it. This is the case with schoolhouse design.

What about classrooms in the 1950s? 1970s? Now? Have classroom physical dimensions and furniture changed over the past century?
Yes, they have. Another piece of evidence to rebut those who say schools have never changed. But those aspects of the school’s “hidden curriculum” that instill cultural values,  workplace compliance, and civic competence convey have remained stable.

*Movable chairs, desks, and tables introduced in the 1930s in many urban and suburban districts.

ruth_stewart_5th_grade_class_1954.jpg

*Introduction of specialized rooms and space for school curriculum and after-school activities (e.g., art, music, science and computer labs, athletics, community services)

59c56d349926e.hires_.jpg

Amid changes, stability in classroom design, arrangement of furniture, and political and workplace symbols continue (e.g., clock, American flag)

lead_720_405.jpg

Thus, the origin, spread, and frequent changes in the standardized classroom.

What about teaching? Has that become standardized also? Part 2 answers that question.

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Whatever Happened To Service Learning?

Fads come and go in education as any teacher or administrator over the age of 30 knows. Service learning, however, was not (and is not) a fad. Defined broadly as K-12 students providing “community service” it has been in public and private schools for over a century. But it did have its faddish moments in the 1980s and 1990s–see Ngram. And it remains popular among policymakers and practitioners who see schools’ primary duty as developing “good” citizens. But issues of what exactly is service learning, who benefits most–students? community?–and toward what ends–individual giving back? solving community problems?–persist.

What is service learning and when did it begin?

Like most school innovations, service learning has had multiple meanings since it was introduced into schools in the 1970s. Policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have various definitions. Distinguishing between students doing community service and school-based service learning has made definitions hard to pin down for decades.

Community service (e.g. students visiting  the elderly,  cleaning up parks, feeding the homeless, volunteering in hospitals and early childhood day care centers) has been an feature of schooling for over a century. And it remains so. In a 2008 survey of principals, 60 percent of elementary schools had students engaged in both voluntary or required community service activities while 74 percent of middle schools and 86 percent of high schools did also.

For all the diverse definitions, service learning in K-12 schools comes down to a planned experience integrated into the regular curriculum that contains goals and opportunities for students to reflect on what they do (e.g., internships, field studies, science projects in community) and what they are learning (see here, here, and here).

Some examples:

*Angie started her senior year behind on the service hours her high school required for graduation. She scrambled to find something she could fit in between volleyball, applying to colleges, and hanging out with friends. She signed up to help out with a shelter for homeless families run by the local Catholic Charities office. She thought it would be something easy, like serving meals or playing with the kids…. Angie was eventually assigned some of the hands-on tasks she had expected, such as sorting through donated children’s clothing for usable items and helping school-age homeless children with homework. But each week the program staff also engaged her and fellow youth volunteers in an activity aimed at raising their awareness of the needs of the families they were serving and the reasons for their homelessness. At first it was just discussing several of the readings they were assigned. Later on they were given a chance to interview current and former shelter clients about their lives and take field trips to affiliated agencies working to help homeless families find jobs, housing, and treatment for drug and alcohol addictions. At several points, volunteers were asked to write a reflection about how their volunteer work was going and what they were learning about themselves, their clients, or their society. Angie was genuinely disappointed when her service project ended in December. She had found new friends among her fellow volunteers, and became e-mail pals with several of the children she worked with. She wrote an article for her school paper on the effects of the economy on vulnerable families and organized a showing of artwork created by the homeless children she worked with at a local gallery.

*Middle school students wanted to honor the local heroes who had a positive impact on their community. To prepare, the youths took a bus tour of their ethnically diverse neighborhood, heard folk stories retold by local residents, and wrote their own stories. The students then interviewed local heroes and compiled those interviews into a book. They honored the local heroes at an awards banquet and gave readings of the book at their school. The book was then donated to a local resource center. To reflect on their work, each student wrote both an essay on why we need heroes and also an evaluation of the project. The class celebrated their success with a gathering that included community-building activities and food from their cultural heritages.

What problems does service learning aim to solve?

Embedding service learning in the curriculum and having students engaged in the community seeks to reduce the gap between the classroom and the world outside the school. Sometimes called “experiential education”, doing field studies, pursuing community projects, and having internships as part of school-based service learning contrasts sharply with students’ common experience in academic subjects. Service  learning, then, offers an antidote to the familiar transmission of content and skills from teacher and text in most classrooms.

Then there is the historic mission of tax-supported public schools to prepare the young to act as engaged citizens once they graduate. With the turn toward academic excellence as measured by test scores beginning in the late-1970s, concerns grew that schools were declining in their mission to develop civic competence in students who graduate. Falling turnout of young voters each time local, state, and federal officials ran for office (except for 2008) and drops among 18-25 young adults in community involvement were often cited as bellwethers of schooling failing in its mission to produce involved citizens.

Service learning programs have sought to remedy that problem. What exactly is a “good”citizen,however, remains contested by advocates for service learning.

Does service learning work?

When definitions of an innovation vary, expect the answer to this question to be, well, ambiguous. Often one hears: “depends upon what you mean by ‘work’….” And so it is for service learning. Much of the initial research focused on results from service learning experiences in K-12 schools such as improved attendance to test scores. A few such studies showed correlations, especially for low-income, minority students (see here). Other studies claim that service learning has had a positive effect on the personal development of youth and ability to connect to culturally diverse groups (see here and here).  The most recent analysis of past studies of service learning (2011) concluded that there were:

significant gains in five outcome areas: attitudes toward self, attitudes toward school and learning, civic engagement, social skills, and academic performance.

Nearly all of these studies yield positive correlations but they remain associations and fall well below the threshold of showing that service learning caused these outcomes. As readers of this blog know, few innovations have been launched and sustained because of what “research says.” Political factors weigh far more heavily than research studies in determining the introduction or continuation of a program. And so it has been for service learning.

What has happened to service learning?

Since the 1970s when service learning in schools, distinguished from volunteering for community service, there was a spike in attention and action in the 1990s but over the past decade there has been a drop in actual school-based service learning programs. The most recent statistics I could find showed a drop in the percentage of schools offering service learning from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2008. What the percentage is in 2018, I do not know. It remains a clear presence in many schools across the nation.

No fad, then, is service learning. While it has ebbed and flowed over nearly a half-century, it is here to stay.

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

XQ Is Taking Over TV To Make the Case That High School Hasn’t Changed in 100 Years. But Is That True? (Matt Barnum)

“Matt Barnum is Chalkbeat’s national reporter covering education policy and research. Previously he was a staff writer at The 74, the policy director for Educators for Excellence – New York, and a middle school language arts teacher in Colorado.” This article appeared September 6, 2017

Here is a classic example of how the debate over reforming schools confuses policymakers, donors, practitioners, and parents. What does the word “change” mean? The concept of “change” is the fuel that drives school reform policies past and present. But policymakers and donors seldom ask: what kind of “change” do we want? Incremental? Fundamental? Nor do these well-intentioned but ill-informed decision-makers ask the essential question:   change toward what ends? 

 

Education policy rarely makes national television. But on Friday night, a special focused on redesigning America’s high schools — and featuring Tom Hanks, Jennifer Hudson, and Common — will be taking over the airwaves of ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX.

The broadcast, “XQ Super School Live,” is an extension of XQ, a project of the Emerson Collective, the organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs…. In the last year, XQ has awarded $100 million to innovative schools across the country, including some with a heavy emphasis on technology.

The goal: to call attention to how high school “has remained frozen in time” and to support promising alternatives.

“For the past 100 years America’s high schools have remained virtually unchanged, yet the world around us has transformed dramatically,” intones the familiar voice of Samuel L. Jackson in a video promoting the TV event.

It’s a view U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shares. “Far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago, and the world today is much different,” DeVos recently said while visiting a Florida charter school.

But is it true? Is it really the case that high schools haven’t seen major change over the last century?

Chalkbeat asked several education historians for their take. They said no, schools have changed — in some respects significantly — over the last several decades.

However, XQ has a point in saying that the basic setup of schooling has remained largely intact, they said.

“The ‘grammar’ of high schooling has stayed fairly static,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “Kids take seven or eight subjects, the major subjects have stayed fairly static, [students] move from room to room, school begins around 7 or 8 and ends around 3.”

“I can understand why in a lot of ways, in terms of structure, it feels like high schools haven’t changed,” said Ansley Erickson, an assistant professor of history and education at Columbia University Teachers College. But, she said, there has been a massive transformation of high school from an institution for a chosen few into a mass institution for virtually all teenagers in the country.

“To say that high school hasn’t changed might potentially miss that major transformation,” Erickson said.

Zimmerman largely agreed.

“If by this claim [XQ] is asserting that high schools today share some fundamental elements with high schools 100 years ago, I’m with them,” he said. “But that’s very different from saying nothing has changed.”

Like Erickson, he pointed to the “birth of mass high school” as a major change. “It’s not until the 1930 that the majority of adolescents attended high schools, and it’s not until the 1950s that the majority graduate from one,” Zimmerman said.

He also pointed to several ways the content and structure of American high school has changed, and sometimes changed back: the development and decline of vocational tracks; an increased emphasis on “life skills” followed by a greater focus on academics post-Sputnik; the diversification of high school offerings (into what some have called the ”shopping mall” high school) followed by the rise of small high schools.

Jack Schneider, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, was more scathing in his assessment of XQ’s assertion.

“Ahistorical claims about outmoded schools are designed to persuade us that public education is run by incompetents,” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “If that’s the case, maybe disruption is the cost we need to bear in pursuit of progress. But the truth is that the schools have been constantly evolving over time, in ways large and small.”

In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, Schneider elaborated on what has changed:

“A century ago, teachers were largely untrained and oversaw very large classes in which rote memorization was the rule. Students brought their own books from home and the curriculum varied from school to school. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common and classical languages still maintained a strong foothold. Students of color, when educated, were largely denied equal access, and special education did not exist. It was a different world.”

In recent years, America’s graduation rates have been rising and dropout rates have been falling. National test scores have generally been flat, overall, for high schoolers. (There remains significant debate about the causes of those trends, including the impact of changing student demographics and graduation standards.)

History aside, the key policy question today is whether high schools would benefit from the kind of dramatic rethinking XQ is encouraging.

The underlying assumption of XQ is that the relatively static nature of some aspects of high school suggests the answer is yes. But the fact that these methods have been persistent could also mean just the opposite.

“There are other moments when people have said we need to reconceptualize high school,” said Erickson. “This is not the first one of these.”

12 Comments

Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

Facing the Trilemma of Classroom “Data Walls”

Over the past few years I have visited many classrooms. In elementary schools, I have seen pasted on a wall or cork board, “data walls” that look like these:

21efa15c6a81bcac8dd070eaa6377bd0.jpg

 

 

aHR0cDovL25tdXNkLWNhLnNjaG9vbGxvb3AuY29tL3VpbWcvaW1hZ2UvMTI2NDg2MjA0MDg0My8xMjIwNzEwMjU4MjgyLzEyNjcyODAyNzg4NTRfd25wNzAwLmpwZw==.jpg

Usually, students have numbers or aliases assigned to mask their identity. Of course, most students find out who is who.

Whether to use these “data walls” to spur individual students to improve their academic performance or have data displays for the entire class without individuals being noted or not have them at all in a classroom but use individual and class data only among teachers or school leadership teams has been debated in blogs, media, and journals for the past decade (see here, here, here, and here).

With the onset of the mantra “data driven instruction” largely stemming from the accountability features of the federal law, No Child Left Behind (2002), school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers have heard time and again the importance of gathering, analyzing, and using test data school-wide to improve instruction and in classrooms for students to plan individual strategies. Let’s call that “retail” data.

“Wholesale” data are school-by-school and district numbers that are aggregated  and sent to administrators, teachers, and parents. Those data may (or may not) become a basis for policy changes.

The focus on test scores since the early 1980s–remember A Nation at Risk report–has given critics the argument that NCLB further narrowed both curriculum and instruction by holding teachers and schools accountable for results. Concerned about the shame attending students’ low performance on district and state tests, teachers glommed onto “retail” data as a tool for improving student test scores with one outcome being the building of “data walls.”

And here is the trilemma that teachers face. On the one hand, most teachers prize a holistic view of student performance (e.g., intellectual, social, psychological growth) and find that tests students are required to take seldom capture the content, skills, and behaviors that teachers seek for their students. They want their students to grow in more ways than answering accurately multiple choice questions.

Teachers also embrace their professional obligations so they must give those tests.

Teachers also desire professional autonomy but  are held accountable by school, district, and state officials for their students reaching proficiency and higher on the reading and math portions of tests they must give. Consequences of low student scores fall upon teachers and students (e.g., scores are used to evaluate school, teacher, and student performance; rewards and penalties accompany scores on tests). Teacher autonomy to go beyond the test, such as to teach cooperation, respecting others, and making judgments, is seriously diminished given the available time.

Thus, the clash of values that teachers hold dear: holistic development of children and youth, obligation to mind what school and district officials require to be done in classrooms, and professional autonomy to do what is best for student learning.

When faced with such trilemmas, there is no one best solution to such a common but sticky situation. Teachers do what other professionals in medicine, law, criminal justice system, social work, and therapy do: because three highly prized values come into conflict and there is no way to fulfill one without harming the others, teachers figure out good enough compromises that partially fulfill what they seek. They know that accepting trade-offs among these cherished values is inevitable–they construct compromises. Then they manage these jerry-built compromises. In short, they satisfice to satisfy.

For schools and teachers, “data walls” are satisfices. It is a compromise that satisfies the value of professional autonomy–teachers create and tailor the displays of data in their classrooms. “Data walls” meet the professional obligation of doing what the district and principal wants, i.e., focusing on improving students’ grasp of content and skills on the state test. Finally, “data walls” touch at least the intellectual growth of students. Surely, these trade-offs do not fully satisfy all teachers–many do not have “data walls”–but it is a compromise that helps explains the spread of these classroom practices.

There are, of course, other uses of “data walls” that side-step the personal trilemma that classroom teachers face. Such “data walls” could be used at the school level by principals and leadership teams that use test data to pinpoint what skills need to be re-taught at particular grades or seek changes in instructional strategies that teams of teachers within or across grades could manage (see here and here).

Which way to use”data walls” at a time when public officials and educational policymakers prize student and school test scores is hardly a cut-and-dried problem with an easy solution. If teachers and administrators probe at the underlying values embedded in using “data walls” they will see the conflicting values and search for a compromise with trade-offs that satisfice and satisfy tailored to their particular district and school. Not an easy task but essential for improvement at a highly-charged moment in time when far too much is not only expected but laid upon public schools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

%d bloggers like this: