How Can Teachers Improve Their Teaching? Watch Colleagues Teach (Part 1)

Public school teachers are solo practitioners. Each one governs a separate classroom in a school. When bells chime to begin class, elementary school teachers close their doors and face 25 or more students six-plus hours a day, five days a week, 36 weeks a year; secondary school teachers interact for roughly the same amount of time each day with about 150 students as they march through the school year. Principals seldom get into their classroom to watch a lesson more than once or twice a year. Solo practitioners, then, are self-reliant, work alone, and have minimal supervision. The classroom, then, is a teacher and her students interacting as they go through a 40-50 minute lesson. Working in isolation from colleagues, however, in a demanding time-driven setting makes getting better as a teacher a task that is both ongoing and demanding for both novices and experienced practitioners.

Improving one’s craft comes from many sources (e.g., taking graduate courses, self-evaluation of lessons, school-based staff development, and peers). One often overlooked way of teachers learning new ideas and techniques is to observe colleagues whose craft and humanity they admire, respect, and trust. Teacher Jennifer Gonzalez described how she adopted and adapted techniques she had picked up from a colleague she observed. She is an exception. Most teachers seldom observe colleagues and tap into expertise just across the hall.

In U.S. elementary and secondary schools, of course, teachers gather during faculty meetings and special occasions such as district mandated professional development running half- or full days to improve how they engage students in the hard work of learning. But such required days of district professional development are seldom planned and implemented by teachers. Nor when planned by district administrators do they include classroom observations.

Surely, observing a fellow teacher elsewhere in the school or the district for a few lessons followed up with a discussion–without making judgments of a “good” or “bad” lesson—offers a splendid opportunity to learn new and, perhaps, better ways to carry off a reading, math, or science lesson while interacting with students. Teachers learning from teachers is an under-used resource in “professional development,” the jargony term for teacher improvement.

Ah, “professional development.” Depending upon available monies, district administrators schedule a few such days during the school year of lectures and workshops or school principals set aside an hour or so during the week at faculty meetings for staff to gather, listen to experts, and even schedule time for teachers to interact and share lessons. Yet of all the items on an administrator’s to-do list, teachers learning from one another remains near the bottom of tasks remaining to be done.

The fact is that in nearly all elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. (there are nearly 100,000 public schools), most of those 3 million-plus teachers are isolated and insulated from one another during the school day. They have little to no time to watch a colleague teach and discuss the lesson afterwards.

Just like medical doctors. The vast majority of physicians, once the medical version of a solo practitioner, have historically been solo practitioners owning their practice. Over time, however, they have become salaried employees just like teachers. Since the early 1980s, doctors practicing alone fell from four out of ten to just over one of ten. Yet even as salaried employees working in large clinics or hospitals, physicians still work in separate offices where one doctor observing another work with a patient remains a rare event.

U.S. teachers, then, are salaried solo practitioners in schools as small as 250 or as large as 3,000 students. In separate classrooms, they teach lessons and listen to individual students before, during, and after the school day. Being a solo practitioner six or more hours a day is unrelenting, enervating and, truth be told, a deeply and personally rewarding job. District school boards and administrators, of course, know this but too often ignore an inexpensive and available tool to improve teaching.

So why does the common approach to professional development often omit teachers observing each other’s lessons? An answer to the question begins with the prevailing way that U.S. schools across 13,000-plus districts organize themselves to accommodate the unforgiving fact that over 50 million students between the ages of 5-16 must attend school.

The age graded school and its demanding schedule of a teacher in each classroom staying with one group of children for an entire day except for recess,lunch, and physical education in elementary schools and for secondary school teachers teaching five periods out of a seven- or eight-period day–help explain the lack of time teachers have to observe nearby lessons. Reorganizing the daily schedule to permit teachers to observe and conference with one another and getting teachers to participate is a big deal that some school leaders and cadres of teachers may consider but more often than not, forego. The unforgiving, schedule-driven day in nearly all age-graded schools is a structure within which teachers work and students learn. Altering that structure to permit teachers to learn from one another during the school day is tough but not impossible. Doing so, then, is not a matter of “can’t;” it is, understandably, a matter of “won’t.”

And so being solo practitioners has its merits. But without professional interactions among teachers through observations and conferring over how they plan, enact, and assess their lessons–while avoiding judgments about “good” or “bad” teaching–a possible path to improved teaching is marred by structural potholes and detours.

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What Do Teachers Know about How Colleagues Teach? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, Jennifer Gonzalez described why she observed other teachers and what she learned. This post continues her description and analysis.

Here are some reasons why:

Reason 1: Seeing Each Other Succeed

Because teaching is such a complex act, the variations in how we do it are endless. We discipline differently. We set up our space differently. We perform strategies in different ways. It’s highly likely that someone else in your building is better at something than you are. By watching the way our colleagues teach, we pick up tricks and techniques that we can take into our own rooms.

On the receiving end, there’s something really satisfying about having a peer notice something you’re doing right. In our work, we rarely get positive feedback on the things we try so hard to perfect. I have definitely never had a student approach me after class and say, “Girl, that anticipatory set was off the hook!” The teachers in my school asked, “Who am I to tell someone else what they’re doing wrong?” And here’s my answer: You are experts. You are experts because you have been there, tried that, had the same struggles. So many people don’t understand what it’s really like to be a teacher. But you do. That’s your expertise. Put a state senator in my class, have him compliment me on incorporating the Common Core in my lesson. Nice, but doesn’t mean a whole lot. Now, a compliment from you? You know. You tell me you liked the gesture I used to illustrate a difficult concept? That’s gold to me. Your feedback means more. So how about we all start holding our own opinions in higher esteem, okay?

Finally, there’s the bonding: Watching another person deeply involved in the work they’re trained for helps you get to know them on a completely different level. And though we work together, we usually follow parallel, rather than intersecting lines. We rarely ever actually see each other teach. And it’s a shame, because every time I’ve observed a colleague, my admiration for them has grown, and each time, I felt a little closer to them. This is something we could use more of in every workplace — educational or not.

Reason 2: Seeing Each Other Fail

How can seeing each other fail be a positive? To start with, we return to the subject of bonding.

The hardest part of letting other people watch you teach is the possibility that you’ll screw up. Then you’ll be embarrassed. Because of this fear, we think we should postpone observations until we are super-prepared, until we have the perfect lesson ready to go.

Here’s the irony in that: You being perfect makes other people hate you a little, and themselves a lot. Or maybe it’s the reverse. Anyway, achieving something close to perfection is pretty damaging in a lot of ways. Conversely, letting people see some of your flaws creates greater intimacy. It makes them realize that their own flaws are not so weird. When I go over to someone’s house and it’s spotlessly clean, I feel kind of jealous and insecure. But crumbs on the counter and shoes in the hallway? On a gut level, I’m more comfortable. In this place, my psyche tells me, I won’t be judged. The same goes for your teaching: If you let someone else see you screw up, they will probably be more comfortable having you observe them. What happens next is you both start to take more risks, try new things. You cultivate a spirit of experimentation and learning together, rather than struggling to out-perfect each other.

Apart from the bonding aspect, failure can lead to constructive criticism, which will help you grow. Someone once said that the real benefit of marriage is having someone in your life who will regularly call you on your crap, who will hold up a mirror so you can face your flaws and outgrow them. In our work, we can do for each other what spouses do on their good days: Gently point out areas for improvement and support each other through the growing pains.

Reason 3: The Intangibles

Every time I observe another teacher, I discover something I’m not even looking for. In my first year, I spent one class period observing Sue, another 6th grade language arts teacher. I was there to see how she conducted a writer’s workshop, but something else she did made a much bigger impression on me.

That first month, I obsessed about establishing order in my classroom: I thought I had to have them all in their seats when the bell rang, pencils sharpened, quiet, ready to learn. If I told them to take out their writing folders, they should have them out and ready in less than 20 seconds. But every time, three or four kids would just drag through the process, or they’d get off-task, or they wouldn’t hear me at all, lost in daydreams. None of the precision I was hoping for. And I got tense about it. I scolded and nagged. And I felt insecure, like less of a teacher, the only one the kids didn’t respect.

So there I was in Sue’s class, and the first thing I noticed was that when she told them to get their writing folders out, they moved slowly, too. And one kid got up and sharpened his pencil, even though they should have already done that. And another one walked up to Sue to ask her something privately – another aberration in the plan! – and through it all, she just sat on her stool at the front of the room, mellowed out, waiting. For me, this was nothing short of a miracle. I had never considered not freaking out to be an option.

So much of what we gain from watching each other teach falls into this “intangible” category: attitudes, pacing, small calibrations that make things work a little better. And it happens especially when you observe people who teach the same students you teach. If you are in elementary, go along with your students to specials every now and then and see how that teacher deals with them. In middle school, arrange to have your class covered on a test day so you can observe someone else on your team. Seeing your students with another person gives you ideas you never would have come up with on your own.

Bonus: A United Front

Lastly, there’s one more beneficial side-effect that comes from peer observation: having your students see you together. Something powerful happens when students see their teachers together. You become larger than the sum of your parts, stronger not only in number, but because this simple show of cooperation tells them you are united, which is an important message to send to kids. In the same way that children feel more secure when their parents are getting along, students feel something similar when they see us support each other.

This principle applies all the way through college, and could be more significant at that level. Adult students may be more likely to challenge their instructors, perhaps because there’s less of an age difference, or because their life and work experience could result in a lack of innate respect for your position. The occasional presence of another professor or instructor in the room reminds students you are part of a larger group that has some authority, that others have your back.

Getting Started

You don’t have to wait for your school to set up a formal system of peer observation to start watching other teachers. In fact, the more spontaneous visits often yield the most interesting insights. Ask another teacher if you can grade papers in the back of his room during your planning period. Or if time is short, just come in for the first fifteen minutes.

And let your peers know your door is open. Some schools have instituted a “pineapple welcome” program, encouraging teachers to occasionally hang a picture of a pineapple — a traditional symbol of welcome — outside their doors, to let peers know it’s a good time to drop in….

To make observations go more smoothly, consider these tips: Decide ahead of time if feedback will be given. Some people are more likely to let you observe if you’ve agreed in advance that you won’t offer any commentary on what you see. Sure, they won’t grow from that arrangement, but it’s a step some people need to get more comfortable with the process. If you have agreed to provide feedback, always start with positives. When you do offer criticism, just point out one or two very specific things, and be descriptive rather than judgmental: When you did ______, these students did _______.

And be cautious about participating. It’s tempting sometimes to pipe up with a comment – after all, you’re likely one of the most engaged people in the room – but resist that urge and wait to be invited. I’ve seen teachers who overdo this and end up hogging all the airtime to the detriment of the students.

I still prefer to teach with the door closed, because cutting out distractions is high on my list of needs. And if it’s important to you, by all means keep yours closed too, but close them only in the literal sense. You can have an open-door policy and still have a closed classroom door: Just let your peers know when they are welcome.

Ours is a delicate, nuanced art, and though books and workshops offer all kinds of interesting ideas for how we can improve that art, the resources that lie behind every door in your school can offer something even richer, if you’re brave enough to let each other in. 

Gonzalez urges peer observation when a teacher believes it will aid her. And, as she says, peer observation has helped her considerably as a solo practitioner. But she is in a small minority of the three million-plus teachers in the U.S. who have opened their doors to colleagues to learn more about their teaching.

Peer observation is one of the ways that teachers learn about how their colleagues teach. And seeing other teachers who you respect, even admire, is a way of improving one’s own practice. But given the organizational and political barriers inherent to public schools, a teacher seeking improvement on her own needs bravery, even courage, as Gonzalez points out, to arrange observing a colleague.

The next post takes up other ways that teachers come to know how other solo practitioners teach.

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What Do Teachers Know about How Colleagues Teach? (Part 1)

If my experiences as a high school history teacher between the mid-1950s through the early 1970s is any guide, the answer is “very little.” If my seven years of experience as a district superintendent who visited classrooms weekly, the answer again is “very little.” And the answer then was straightforward: no time.

From scanning the Internet for surveys of classroom practice and teacher accounts, I suspect but cannot prove, the uncommonness of teachers observing one another in 2022. Why is that? The simple answer is time.

Elementary school teachers are responsible for teaching one class for the entire school day. While there are instances of schools where, say, three third-grade teachers plan lessons together and teach 90 children in large and small groupings as well as independent work allowing planning time for each of them–most elementary school teachers close their doors when the first bell of the day rings and spend the entire day alone (save for lunch) with their 25-30 students.

Secondary school teachers usually carry a teaching load of five classes (including multiple lesson preparations). In these classes, most secondary teachers see anywhere from 125 to 150 students a day. They march through a schedule of seven or eight periods where they will have at least one “free” period, that is, no students and, of course, lunch.

Yes, there are exceptions to these daily grinds. Some schools have block schedules where teachers spend an hour to hour and a half with groups of students. Nonetheless, nearly all public schools insure that teachers spend the day with the students assigned to them.

So even before answering the question this post poses, a prior question is: when can teachers find the time during a very busy day with their own students to drop in watch a colleague teach? They cannot. Unless teachers arrange beforehand with the principal for a substitute or have other teachers give up their “free” periods to cover their colleague’s absence, they cannot see colleagues teach. End of story.

Time for teachers to teach each day is tightly scheduled. Having an additional teacher added to the staff who can float and cover classes for teachers to observe colleagues would loosen the bonds somewhat. While a few school districts (there are 13,000-plus districts in the U.S.) fund “floater” teachers, most do not.

So let’s say that there are such districts allowing teachers to visit colleagues’ classes, what can teachers learn from one another?

Teacher Jennifer Gonzalez offers her experiences as an answer to this post’s question and goes one step further in recounting what she learned from observing colleagues.

I have always taught with my classroom door closed. Officially, it’s because I have trouble with distractions, which is not a lie: Just ask my family how often I yell for quiet when I’m trying to figure out my next Quirkle move.

The unofficial reason is that I don’t really want other people watching me teach. Alone with my students, I’m a different person: I let my guard down in a way that I never do with co-workers, even people I’m comfortable with. My students get the most relaxed, funniest side of me, the side I’m not sure my colleagues would appreciate or approve of. It’s not that I do anything inappropriate – not really, anyway – but I am definitely more likely to say “booger” and “crap” when my door is closed. For that reason, I’d rather not have guests in my room.

Apparently I’m not alone. In my sixth year of teaching, our principal wanted us to learn strategies that were just being introduced by Marzano and company. Everyone got a copy of the book, we had meetings where the strategies were explored, and we collaborated on how to implement them into our lessons.

Oh, and he also wanted us to observe each other using the strategies in our teaching.

People FREAKED OUT. Not about having to read another book or try new strategies. It was the peer observation. Lost their ever-loving minds. “I don’t want someone else in my room looking for mistakes!” They said, all in a tizzy. “And I don’t want to be the observer either! Who am I to tell someone else what they’re doing wrong?”

Eventually, because it was mandated, they had to get over it. But their initial response showed a lack of understanding for how truly amazing peer observation can be. If we can get past the discomfort, opening our doors to other teachers can be a fantastic source of professional development.

In the next post, Gonzalez recounts the reasons she observed colleagues.

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Confessing Mistakes Is Very Hard To Do: I Tried To Link Changing School Structures to Improve Classroom Practice

Economist Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve (1987-2006), presided over decades of economic prosperity and recession believing that a market-based economy needed little government regulation. When “irrational exuberance” occurred, the structure of market forces would correct economic bubbles, he and gazillions of fellow economists believed. Not so for the Great Recession of 2008. Triggered by the sub-prime mortgage debacle, the international banking, credit, and financial institutions froze thereby losing trillions of dollars of wealth in the blink of an eye.

Greenspan testified before a U.S. Congressional committee and admitted that he had erred in believing that self-correcting market structures and federal regulations were enough to avert a major recession. That kind of after-the-fact admission of error is rare among economists and, I might add, educational reformers.

I have a far less dramatic and consequential mistake to confess. As an ardent public school reformer in classrooms, schools, and districts, I believed that structural reforms (e.g., creating non-graded schools; new ways to govern district and school sites; restructuring high schools into academies) would lead to better classroom instruction. After teaching for nearly 15 years, I had concluded that such new structures would alter common teaching practices which, in turn, would get students to learn more, faster, and better. That was my theory of action for many years. I was wrong.

I slowly began to revise that belief as I looked around at how my fellow teachers taught and began to examine my own classroom practices during and after flurries of school reform in the districts in which I taught. Then after I left the classroom and began researching how teachers have taught in the early 20th century and, later, during the standards-based, accountability-driven reforms in the early 21st century, I, like others, grew skeptical of the power of structures to change teaching practices.

Still, the job of policymakers is to traffic in structures. Why? Because reform-driven policymakers concern themselves with scale. Changing one child at a time, changing one teacher at a time, changing one school at a time is incredibly inefficient when there are limited resources. While it is steady work, it is slow and has to adapt to differences across and within thousands of school districts.

So changing many students, teachers, and schools introduces economies of scale and efficiencies. Thus, policymakers marry the creation of structures to scaled-up reforms that, they believe, will alter traditional classroom practices. In the DNA of policymakers, this belief in structures causing classroom changes is especially salient since over the past few decades showers of research studies from value-added assessments to twins in different classrooms reaffirm the importance of teacher knowledge, skills, and experience in shaping students’ academic achievement and behavior. The prevalent belief even after the Covid-19 pandemic and nearly total shutdown of schools persistes that correct structures will steer changes in classroom practice.

So when policymakers advocate portfolios of schools in urban districts, Common Core standards, small high schools, and deploying 1:1 laptops in every classroom, they believe in their heart of hearts that these major changes will work. Best of all, such scaled-up changes are visible to both parents and voters, evoking images of muscular reform with potential payoff in longer tenure in office.

Because many policymakers today believe that visible structures will eventually revamp classroom practice, they tout changing urban districts’ governance from elected school boards to mayors running schools (e.g., New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago,and Boston). Federal and state policymakers have championed new structures to evaluate and pay teachers for raising students’ test scores. Denver, Washington, D.C. and other cities have negotiated contracts with unions to install these new salary schedules. And, of course, policymakers beat the drums loudly for new structures to expand the supply of schools (e.g., charters and magnets) from which parents can choose. They point to New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles as stellar examples of districts with portfolios of choice among schools.

Entrepreneurial policymakers believe that these new structures will lead to teachers altering their practice and, thereby, improving student achievement. Yet my research and that of others deny the linkages between popular reform-driven structures and teaching practice.

Like others, who have seen structural reforms come and go, I have concluded from my experience and research that working directly on individual and collective teacher norms, knowledge, and skills within classrooms and schools—not big-ticket structural changes in districts—have a far better chance of improving teaching practices. Of course, this is slow-motion Mom-and-Pop-store-one-school-at-a-time work that policymakers, eager for efficient supermarket models and swift implementation, find this too costly and inefficient; such granular changes are too hard to swallow when across-the-board reform–getting more bang (e.g., higher test scores) out of the buck–is their gold standard.

Getting policymakers to shift their emphasis from creating new structures to focusing on school and classroom practices one school at a time, however, will be most difficult, even when policies fail and when studies contradict policymakers’ beliefs. Besides, there there has been a long history of such results being ignored. Yes, it is very hard to admit error.

Alan Greenspan’s public confession of error—he admitted that he rejected fellow economists’ warnings of the dangerous housing bubble–remains uncommon. Few national and state educational policymakers have neither questioned their underlying beliefs nor unvarnished enthusiasm for current or past structures altering classroom practices. Finally, few have ever admitted that they were mistaken.

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Inside the Black Box of the Classroom

Insider books and films about financial finagling (e.g., “Wall Street,”) baseball (e.g.,Michael Lewis’s Moneyball), the drug trade and police (e.g. HBO’s, “The Wire”) portray in vivid and compelling ways what it is like to be Gordon Gecko or Billy Beane or detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon. These “insider” accounts, both fiction and non-fiction, draw the reader and viewer into the details of buying and selling bonds, building a baseball team, and daily police work. Revealing (and sometimes simplifying) complex processes is what insider accounts do.

Where, however, are the insider accounts  of classroom teaching? Not in the wonderful heroic accounts of teachers in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Up the Down Staircase” (1967), “Stand and Deliver“(1988), “Freedom Writers” (2007). The narrative arc of these films go from the trials of teaching in tough situations to teary endings. Readers can insert their own favorites but the genre is filled with tales of teachers nearly succumbing to student resistance only to overcome one barrier after another to reach a soaring ending that brings out handkerchiefs. No sarcasm intended since I felt goosebumps and teared up at many of these films.

My candidates for descriptions of classroom teaching that approach “insider” accounts would be the French film “The Class” (based upon a book written by a teacher who is also in the film),  “Prez”  the former cop who becomes a Baltimore (MD) middle school teacher in HBO’s “The Wire,” and Philip Jackson’s study of elementary school teaching, Life in Classrooms. Readers will have their own favorites that go beyond the heroic teacher genre and capture the ups-and-downs of daily classroom teaching  (I would appreciate knowing which accounts readers prize).

Because there are so few classroom accounts that on-the-job teachers can point to and say, “yes, that is what teaching is all about,” and so many inaccurate, over-the-top, and even sloppy representations of teaching, the classroom has become a “black box.”*

I use “black box” as a metaphor for what happens daily in classrooms that remains unknown to outsiders–except for occasional films, television, and media reports–yet seems so familiar since policymakers, researchers, parents, and taxpayers have attended school. The fact is that what occurs in classrooms is largely unknown or tinged with nostalgia because memories fade and children reports of school activities are, at best, laconic, hiding more than revealing what occurs. Like that popular ad for Las Vegas tourists: What happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.

Teacher memories also fade. While many retain records of daily interactions, lessons, and materials for awhile, most do not. Sure lessons are traded on the Internet, but the traffic is a fraction of what transpires in classrooms.Moreover, those written lessons fail to capture what actually occurs. As a colleague once said, teaching is like dry ice evaporating at room temperature. So some researchers collect classroom artifacts, document interactions, and observe dynamics to restore what has evaporated and capture what happens in the “black box.”

The lack of documentation and transparency about the complex mechanics and inter-relationships that occur daily in schools and classrooms—the black box–make it tough to unpack and understand. But there have been efforts to get inside elementary and secondary classrooms through, for example, videotaped lessons. Videos of lessons  in Germany, Japan, and the United States appeared in the 1990s. In the “Measures of Teacher Effectiveness” project and similar efforts, researchers capture in real time what teachers and students do. Such real-time descriptions of classroom lessons help. But far more data converted into knowledge about what happens in classrooms during 50 minute lessons needs to be captured and analyzed by teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers, and researchers in order to open the “black box” and see  the complex realities of teaching and learning. Inside teaching should be as familiar as inside baseball.

Why? Because school reformers and policymakers generally recognize–as parents have always noted–that teachers are the single most important in-school factor to students’ well-being and achievement.  So what happens in classrooms matters greatly yet so little is known publicly about the process of teaching and learning.

Another reason is that advocates for particular policies from pay-for-performance plans to most recently NCLB (2002-2016) and its extension, Every Child Succeeds (2016-), rely upon correlations to see into classrooms. Consider a Fordham Foundation report on declining test scores among high achievers. The report uses trends in test score data to conclude  that two of five “high flying” students fall in performance. They point to the effects of NCLB on teachers and teaching. Such associations, as one researcher pointed out, use a  “black-box approach that assumes a link between its findings and NCLB-related policies.” But none of these correlations reveal neither jot nor tittle of how teachers teach.

For these reasons, getting reliable and valid insider knowledge of classroom lessons are essential.

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Whatever Happened to J. Lloyd Trump?

School reformers’ names are often forgotten. Except for John Dewey who died in 1952. His name continues to resonate among supporters and opponents of his ideas about school, society, curriculum, and teaching. But Dewey is an exception, not the rule.

Save for historians of education, few educators could recall the reforms Superintendent William Wirt engineered in Gary (IN) in 1906 that made him a nationally known reformer. His Platoon Schools became the basis of the modern elementary school. Or former teacher, superintendent, and professor David Snedden whose writings helped establish the modern vocational high school during the early decades of the 20th century. Seldom do their names pop up a century later.

And even recent school reformers’ names disappear from media and conversations. For those high school principals and teachers, for example, who cut their teeth on reform as novice educators in the 1970s and 1980s, the name Ted Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools would be remembered. But in 2022, few 30-something high school teachers or principals could say anything about Sizer’s ideas and accomplishments as teacher, principal, college professor or reformer.

And that is what happened to J. Lloyd Trump (1908-1985). Trump was a nationally known secondary school reformer in the 1960s and 1970s. A prolific writer, professor at the University of Illinois, and active in national educational organizations for decades, Trump was the go-to person for high school reform. Today, he would be known only to the few scholars who track the history of high schools in the U.S.

While Trump’s favored reforms to redesign the secondary school (e.g., team teaching, large group instruction mixed with small groups and independent student work, and flexible scheduling) would still ring bells with many current national and state educational policymakers, principals, and high school teachers, dropping his name today would cause puzzled expressions and shrugs. Trump is forgotten–except that he shares a similar name with a former U.S. president (no relation, however).

So in the multi-layered history of school reform, individual policymakers, practitioners, and researchers have lent their names to sustained efforts to improve tax-supported public schools. Yet within a few decades, their names slipped from sight although the ideas and the reforms they pressed for have often remained alive and well. Names come and go, memories soften, but reforms these men and women fought for remain on the radar screens of a current generation of high school reformers.

That includes reforms J. Lloyd Trump championed in the 1960s and 1970s. Here is one summary of his influence:

During the 1960s and 1970s, Trump’s contemporaries
saw him as the leading authority on change in secondary
education. His early work to redesign secondary schools
became known as the Trump Plan. Thousands of schools in
the U.S. and Canada implemented its basic elements: team
teaching, use of teacher assistants, large-group instruction,
small-group instruction, independent study, flexible scheduling, and attention to the individual differences of students and teachers. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Trump
served as project director of the [National Association of Secondary School Principals] Model Schools Project (MSP), a national effort in some 36 American and Canadian schools to bring comprehensive, research-based change to middle-level and high school education.

For the many high schools that adopted the Trump Plan, daily schedules changed. No more a succession of 50-minute periods. Scheduling under the Trump Plan meant that blocks of time were set aside for whole group instruction, small group work, and periods when students would work independently. Trump also created “flexible modular scheduling” as a way of redesigning the high school experience for both students and teachers.

According to critics of the Trump Plan, however, deep concerns developed among those high school leaders who had adopted the innovation. Administrators worried that too many students had scheduled stretches of time where they were supposed to work alone or in pairs but could not manage that independence.

Today, were one to mention the “Trump Plan” in high schools, an association with former President Donald Trump would probably occur, not the efforts of this nationally known but forgotten school reformer over a half-century ago.

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How Will Covid-19 Influence School Reform in the U.S.?

Jeffrey Young produces and hosts Ed Surge podcasts and is managing editor of EdSurge. He interviewed me in January 2022. Here is an edited version of that interview.

It turns out emergency remote instruction is far from new. Back in 1937, when a polio outbreak plagued the U.S., Chicago Public Schools produced lessons that were broadcast on local radio stations.

The system helped keep students learning during a three-week shut-down. But it didn’t lead to a revolution in radio teaching. Will things be different now in a health crisis that is longer, and the technology of the internet and iPads and smartphones are more robust?

Questions about what we can learn from the history of education are familiar to Larry Cuban, a longtime education historian and school reformer. He looks back over nearly a century of change in his new book, “Confessions of a School Reformer.”

The book is part history, part memoir, as Cuban looks back over his career and the various reform movements he was part of, and offers some reflections and thoughts on where things might go after this current period of disruption.

Cuban is an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University. He started his career teaching high school social studies for 14 years. At one point he directed a teacher-education program that prepared returning Peace Corp volunteers to teach in inner-city schools. And for 7 years he served as a district superintendent of schools for Arlington County Public Schools outside of Washington, D.C. Over the years he’s weighed in on big issues in school reform in books and on his blog, which has the straightforward title: “Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice.

EdSurge connected with Cuban last week to ask about whether he thinks online education is here to stay in schools.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/1198881901&color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true

EdSurge: I’m curious about your book’s title, “Confessions of a School Reformer.” What are you confessing?

Larry Cuban: It comes from a turn-of-the-20th-century reformer who was a progressive, and he wrote a book, “Confessions of a Reformer” [by Frederic C. Howe]. … I was very taken with that book because as a progressive reformer, [Howe] was very active and made substantial contributions in the early 20th century to progressive thought and actions—particularly across different states. And what he confessed to was that, ’Hey, this is a much bigger, more complex thing than I ever thought it was.’ That’s one of the confessions I make in my book. Schooling is intricate, and very complex. And when I say schooling, I mean the governance, the organization and the curriculum and the actual teaching, all of that together is far more complex than most people think.

I spend a lot of time trying to unravel that complexity because everyone has been a student once, and they think schooling is not that complex.

You note at one point in the book that you’re a “scarred” school reformer, and I’m curious what that, what those scars are. What does that mean?

As I moved through the different phases of my career—as a teacher, a school site administrator, as a district administrator and then as a professor—I had to give up certain ideas that I thought were terrific, but I saw that they didn’t materialize, or they had what I would call unanticipated consequences that were perverse.

[For instance,] while I continue to believe it’s important that teachers develop their own curriculum, I don’t think that that’s a panacea, as I used to. And I used to think that you change the school and then that will make the difference in a district and a state and a nation. And while I still think that’s very important—whole school reform—it’s not the answer I once thought it was. I’ve gone through these phases, and that’s where the scars accumulate.

What is your advice to a reformer just starting out today?

The first thing I would say is teach. You have to be able to have had the experience of being the teacher if what you are seeking is to alter teaching.

There are many policy makers who have not taught a day in their lives. The closest they came to classrooms were when they sat behind desks and faced teachers. I add a shaker full of salt to anything such a policymaker recommends about teaching because they have never experienced it.

What do you see as the legacy of COVID 19 in various school reform efforts, and where do you think things go from here?

I don’t see COVID producing a lot of reforms. If anything, it produces this huge public and professional need to resume schooling as it was. I think basically schooling has much more stability than change in it. And that’s the historian’s point of view.

There have been changes in schooling over the last century, but stability has been dominant from my point of view. And I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of stability. I think COVID has reminded us that all parents want is a return to face-to-face teaching and to let the teachers teach the lessons that they had before school closures. Let them do what they do best.

As for those that say that online instruction will be the next big reform, I don’t accept that. I think [emergency] remote instruction is now part of the toolkit for administrators and teachers, when things shut down—there are going be other shutdowns–[recent district experiences with remote instruction will come in handy].

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Is Teaching in Charter Schools Better or the Same as Regular Schools?

What has become obvious in the 30-year history of charter schools is that elementary and secondary charter schools have far greater flexibility than regular district schools in altering what happens in classrooms and buildings.

Yet even with that mandate of separate governance and the charge to innovate in both organization and instruction, most charter schools have replicated the traditional age-graded arrangement. Nearly all charter schools are K-6 or K-8 elementary or 9-12 high schools. Ditto for curriculum since accreditation–a must for any newly organized school–requires abiding with state curriculum standards and skills that must be taught.

Does that replication of regular school organization and curriculum extend to teaching practices? Does teaching in a charter school with its separate governance and organizational flexibility harnessed to a mission to innovate, differ at all from teaching in a non-charter school?

I have observed dozens of charter school classrooms over the past decade. I have seen extraordinary, ordinary, and yes, a few disastrous lessons. I have looked at the few studies of classroom teaching in charter schools. This and subsequent posts take a stab at answering the question in the title.

Consider Katie Goddard who in 2016 taught world history at one of the Summit Charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. I took notes on the lesson I observed her teach.

The young, slim teacher stands on the chair in the middle of the classroom to be heard above ninth grade students clustered in the four corners of the portable classroom. The students are chattering about the reasons they agree or disagree with the statement Katie Goddard, the teacher, put on the “smart board.” The statement students considered–“There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery”– drove them to different corners labeled “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree.” The teacher asks students in each corner why they agree or disagree with statement. After a few students give their reasons, some classmates change their minds and migrate to different corners making the classroom a swirl of movement.  This activity occurred in the middle of a 95 minute block in World Studies where Goddard was introducing a new unit on Imperialism.

Goddard had begun the 95-minute class with a Warm Up question: “Should the U.S. pay reparations to black Americans whose families have been slaves?” and, after telling them to put away their cells and Chromebooks, gave them two short op-ed pieces on opposite sides of the question. One op-ed argued that who should pay and who should receive reparations for enslaving Africans were contested and confused. The other op ed argued that the British should pay reparations to Kenyans for what they did in colonizing that African nation.

She asks the 24 ninth graders to “read and chunk the text” for each opinion piece. She reminded the class to read each paragraph and write a one-line summary of each paragraph and indicate whether they agree or disagree with the op-ed. As students write in their notebooks, Goddard, holding a clipboard, walks around the classroom of 13 tables, each seating two students facing the “smart board,” answering questions and checking to see what students are writing. Goddard asks students to hold up fingers indicating how much more time they want to finish task. Some hold up one, others two and three. For those who had finished she offers two options for them to do.

She then asks students to share with partner their summaries and opinions. As students start talking to one another, Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember in working together you need to turn to your partner, move your body to face one another and listen carefully to what your partner says.” Students resume talking.

When she sees that nearly all students have completed the task, she asks students for their summaries of the two articles and which one they agree/disagree with most. Students are initially reluctant to commit to a position but as a few offer their opinions, Goddard teases out the reasons embedded in arguments for and against reparations. And this is the moment when the teacher asked all the students to take a position on the statement and go to a corner of the room: “There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for slavery.”

This Warm Up and debate about reparations were initial activities in the lesson introducing Imperialism. By starting with the contentious contemporary question of reparations for slavery, Goddard would move to instances of European countries colonizing the Congo in Africa and India in Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and consider the human costs of taking over these countries.

The agenda for the day, written on the white board, listed the sequence of topics for the hour-and-a-half session:

  1. Reparations
  2. Slavery op-eds
  3. Criteria
  4. Imperialism op-eds
  5. Exit ticket

After the Warm Up and during the four-corner debate, Goddard gets deeper into the reparations question by introducing statements such as: “slavery ended a hundred years ago so the U.S. government should not pay any money to African Americans now.” One student points out that the U.S. government has already paid reparations when they gave sums of money to Japanese Americans for being in internment camps during World War II. Another points out that the money went to those who were still alive. Voices are raised and tone becomes adversarial among students agreeing and disagreeing. Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember our norms. The second your tone becomes combative, you don’t listen. Our goal is to listen to one another.” After more restrained back-and-forth in which the teacher specifically calls on students who have heretofore not entered the discussion, Goddard asks class if they want to shift corners.

About one-third of the students move to another corner.

Teacher now asks students to return to their tables and turn to the next question: When are reparations necessary? She asks class to open Chromebooks and come up with criteria to answer the question. She reminds class that there is no correct answer, that you have different opinions but you need examples and facts to support your opinion. Goddard moves around the room asking and answering questions at each table.

After about 10 minutes, Goddard asks students to put lids of laptops down and says that “we are going to study Imperialism and you are going to write an op-ed by the end of the unit. “The question you will answer,” she says, is “do former imperializing countries have a responsibility to give foreign aid to the countries they imperialized?”  She links the earlier discussion of reparations to Imperialism and then previews the next 12 lessons on the “smart board,” going over each one briefly. She then puts up a slide that defines Imperialism as “the process of taking over another country through diplomacy or military force.” Goddard asks students to come up with their definition of imperialism by using Playlist of sources (documents and videos)–she gives the class the link–that she assembled for them on the Congo, India, and other colonized countries. In coming up with their definitions, she urges students to talk to their partner. After pairs have come up with their definitions from Playlist, she then asks them to brainstorm what they would need to know about imperialism to determine if reparations are necessary.

With clipboard in hand, teacher moves through the classroom checking to see which students are unclear about the task or having difficulties in answering questions.

As time winds down to end the class, Goddard summarizes what they have done, connecting discussions on reparations to new unit of Imperialism.

The criteria I use in judging the quality of a lesson are: clear and coherent organization, presence of mixed activities, frequent verbal interaction between teacher and students and among students, and finally, a summary of the lesson.[i]

In my opinion, Goddard’s lesson met these criteria fully. As I left this charter school World History lesson, I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw and experienced.


 

[i] In the half-century that I have observed teachers teach in public elementary and secondary schools, I have developed these criteria for judging a lesson.  I know that other teacher supervisors and academic specialists would have different standards and benchmarks but in the interest of transparency, these are the criteria I used. Note that one criterion is absent: what did students learn? As an observer, more often than not, I could not determine what and how much students learned during the lesson. Had I observed a sequence of lessons and seen students’ written and oral work, I might have been able to judge student learning. That was not the case for the observations I describe here.

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Cartoons on Schooling during Covid-19

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What Really Matters in My Math Classroom (Jerry Brodkey)

Jerry Brodkey has been a public secondary school teacher since 1975, and has taught most of the subjects in Social Studies and Mathematics. He has also taught for years in private schools. He now teaches remedial algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus.  His undergraduate degree was from Rice University (BA 1974), and has graduate degrees from Stanford (MA 1976, Ph.D. 1987).

 He has written guest posts for this blog on “smart” boards and stress on high school students.

A few days ago I was sitting watching my 8th grade math students graduate from middle school. I like to sit off to the side at each graduation, listening as each student’s name is called, thinking of each as an individual, seeing each for perhaps the last time. 

These students, and all students, have been through too much these last three years  –  three years of disrupted life and education.  The pandemic, covid tests, masks, fear, social isolation, anxiety, over a full year of zoom learning, social media, hurtful texts, economic disruption for their families, inflation, college admission worries (yes, even for middle school students), George Floyd, January 6th, the Ukraine, Buffalo, now Uvalde.

It is amazing they are graduating and moving forward. 

I’ve been teaching for a long time. I started in 1975 and taught in public high schools until 2015. I retired for one year, missed teaching, and then found a wonderful nearby middle school where I’ve now been for six years. Even after almost fifty years, teaching continues to be challenging, exciting, and intense.

There is so much discussion and debate over math education.  What really matters, what makes a difference? After all of my years teaching it continues to get clearer and clearer to me.

Achievement matters. Each student needs a basic understanding of mathematical ideas.  Each student needs a strong foundation, not only for artificial reasons like college applications and success in schools, but more importantly for understanding an important part of the world. How can complex problems be broken down and solved? What does information and statistics tell us? What does it mean to prove a theory or hypothesis?  What ideas and insights from the past help us solve today’s challenges?

Parents and students worry about math grades and acceleration. I repeatedly tell them learning math is not a race.  The key is to build a strong foundation and create a desire to keep learning.

I tell students and parents there is no magic in learning math. I’m pretty traditional. I tell parents and students:  To achieve real success –  Have excellent attendance. Do all your homework. Ask questions. Get help fast.

What doesn’t matter? The choice of textbooks doesn’t matter much to me. Most are good enough, none perfect.  If I don’t like a problem set or how a topic is presented, I’ll choose another approach. I’ll ask colleagues what they do.  I’ll create my own problem sets. Debates over textbooks are noise.

Common Core? Back to Basics? Group learning? Individualized instruction? Programmed Learning? More  or less technology in the classroom? Standardized tests?  Block schedules or daily classes? Take calculus in 11th grade or 12th grade? Accelerate in 4th or 5th grade? Heterogeneous classrooms or group by ability? Inservice programs? District speeches? . All these debates? Most of these don’t matter much. Perhaps they are useful but  mostly they are noise, noise, noise.  A balanced approach probably works best.

So what matters most? –  Each individual is a unique individual, and the classroom is  a unique group experience. A baseball team has 162 games, a teaching year about 180 days of instruction.  I taught many of my graduating 8th graders for two consecutive years  – approximately 350 hours. There will be ups and downs for each individual, and for each class as a group.

As a teacher, I can help create a classroom tone that fosters achievement and learning.  As a teacher I can form a relationship with each student, creating a sense of trust.  I can help create a safe classroom where learning can happen.  I can do my very best every day, helping students understand new and complex ideas.  I can be patient and flexible.I can draw upon   my past experiences to find different approaches that work for different students. I can listen. I can model learning.

I have no illusions about what I can and can not do.  I know students will, as years pass, forget me and forget much of what they learned.  Who remembers their middle or high school math teacher?  Perhaps I can gently shape their path through school and beyond. Perhaps I can slightly alter the trajectory of their future experiences. Perhaps I can help them through the difficult times they are now experiencing.

I’m thinking about my students as individuals. Some are constrained by negative attitudes and behaviors.  I listed these below.  Each period each day I try to move my students’ attitudes and behavior  to the left column from the destructive right side.   It is a long process, never-ending.  

STUDENT ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIORS

POSITIVE                                                             NEGATIVE

I can                                                                      I can’t

I don’t understand, so I will ask for help                I am afraid to ask for help

I believe I can be a good math student                 I will never be a good math student

It’s hard, but I can do it                                          It’s hard, I’ll never be able to do it

I’m engaged in learning                                         I’m  withdrawn,hiding, I want to be invisible

The math classroom is a safe place                     The math classroom is a scary place

I did poorly on this test, but I will figure it out         I did poorly on this test and I want to forget it                 

There is joy in learning, a sense of wonder            I fear what will come next

I never have understood this but will now               I never understood this and never will

get some help                                                         

If  the teacher calls on me, I’ll try, and it is OK         I am terrified the teacher might call on me

if I make a mistake

I have a sense of real accomplishment                    I’m  frustrated and confused

What’s Important? It’s important  my students deeply believe :

I want to learn more –  I can learn more  – more math, more everything

I’ll carefully listen to each graduate’s name. I have my own sense of wonder. Each student has enriched my life and the lives of their classmates. Each is a miracle. Each matters.

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