Stability and Change in Our Environment, Organizations, and Individual Lives (Part 1)

Over the past few months I have posted drafts of different sections of the book on technology integration in Silicon Valley schools that I have been working on since the beginning of this year. These two posts comes from my final chapter on stability and change in our lives and schools.

Over the past millions of years (not a typo, millions) Earth’s polar ice caps extended into equatorial South America, Africa, and Asia. Over time, these ice-bound regions receded and moderate to tropical climate in non-polar regions returned. Using the time scale of millions of years, there has been much continuity and change in climate on Earth.

Human organizations do not have that enormous time span but one in particular, the Roman Catholic Church, has existed for almost two thousand years. Within the Church, sects have arisen and broken away (e.g., the Protestant Reformation). Other groups protesting Church rules have formed and, over time, have become incorporated into the Church. Over the last millennium, Popes banished heretics, sponsored Crusades, survived the break away of German and English Catholics to form Lutheran and Anglican churches in the 16th century, and continue to oversee the lives of over a billion Catholics across the globe. In almost two thousand years, the Church has had long periods of stability punctuated by both swift and slow-motion years of change.

And in a single lifetime of 70-plus years for individual human beings, constancy and change mark one’s personality and character as a person moves from infancy to childhood, adolescence, becoming an adult, and then into old age.

Using different time scales, continuity and change characterize the environment we live in, the organizations that influence our lives, and what individuals experience in their life span of eight to nine decades. From millions of years to millennia to decades, stability and change are abiding partners.

Climate change. While there are nay-sayers that global climate has not changed significantly beyond the usual cyclical trends that have characterized weather patterns for millennia, physical and natural scientists have concluded that human actions such as industrialization, particularly burning fossil fuels, across the globe have increased the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, ocean warming, and melting polar caps. Increased floods tornados and hurricanes, expanding arid land across continents, and rising water levels have only added fuel to what has turned into a political debate across the globe. No question that climate change itself has become an economic and social issue engaging both the political right and left. [i]

International climate accords to restrict fossil fuel use and increase alternative power sources in both industrialized and developing nations have been signed over the past few decades. But those international agreements (e.g., Rio Earth Summit in 1992; Kyoto Protocol in 1997; Paris Agreement, 2015) are voluntary and enforcement shifts as government leaders come and go in the major countries (e.g., President Donald Trump ending regulations in 2017 that President Barack Obama had made). [ii]

Going beyond the politicization of climate change are the cycles of change and continuity in climate patterns in the past millions of years. Evidence drawn from drilled ice core samples in Greenland and Antarctica along with samples from Devil’s Hole (Nevada) reveals alternating periods of warming and cooling. At least eight glacial and interglacial ages lasting from 80,000 to 120,000 years affirm both change and constancy in global climate. Warming and cooling eras have marked Earth’s history over millions of years. Currently in an interglacial period that has lasted thousands of years, human actions since the 1750s—when industrialization anchored in fossil fuels accelerated–have independent of the tilt of the planet, the sun’s influence, shifts in ocean currents, and other factors, caused accelerated melting of the polar ice caps, shrinking of glaciers, warming of the atmosphere and rising ocean levels to create changes in weather patterns across the globe.[iii]

When looking at the Earth’s climate on a time scale of millions of years, eras of stability and change emerge clearly. Moving from millions of years to millennia, from interactions between planet’s geology, sun, oceans, and climate to human-created organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, a similar pattern of continuity and change appear.
Roman Catholic Church. Nearly two thousand years old, this man-made organization has also experienced periods of swift and slow change interspersed with decades, even centuries, of equilibrium. Like all organizations, the Church was (and is) located in a larger society in which political, social, cultural, and demographic changes spill over its organization influencing what happens within its confines. [iv]

The early Church’s fight against Roman worship of many gods proved successful over a few centuries when Emperor Constantine’s adopted Christianity in the fourth century. From that point through the Middle Ages, the Church exerted a holistic and sustained hold on the lives of kings, nobles, and common people in the Holy Roman Empire. With the Protestant Reformation and growth of nationalism throughout Europe especially after the French Revolution and the onset of industrialization the Church’s influence shrank as nations shied away from too close a connection with the principal religion in Europe and eventually the rest of the world. Separation of church and state within nations spread in the 19th and 20th centuries across the globe.

Even after corrupt Popes, explosive heresies, the Protestant Reformation, mishaps covering centuries, and two World Wars the Roman Catholic Church, an absolute monarchy overseeing a centrally controlled, hierarchal institution, has persisted through adapting to unforeseen shifts in the world they inhabited. Through these centuries, Church authorities experienced stability and unpredictable changes, century after century, that threatened their very existence as they negotiated how to maintain basic principles and practices during both tranquil and turbulent times. If longevity is a marker for organizational success, then the survival of the Church for nearly two millennia is a gold medal winner.

How do organizations constructed by human hands maintain continuity amid explosive and unpredictable changes? Many do not survive major changes. Governments, businesses, and universities appear and disappear. Failure to live more than a decade is the norm. Change overwhelms many organizations. Some, however, survive and thrive.

One common pattern among institutions like the Church that have lasted for centuries is to domesticate those internal and external groups that challenge its authority—as did once the Franciscans and Dominicans and groups labeled as heretics. After negotiations between Popes and their opponents, former heretics would swear allegiance to the Church and become part of it.

In effect, as resisters would adapt to the Church, the leaders would create an enclave within its institution where former opponents could operate and become advocates of papal authority. This pattern of enclaving tamed reformers seeking to alter Church principles and teaching while accommodating ideas and practices of former opponents; such co-optation occurs in many other institutions as a strategy to both adapt to change while maintaining continuity in goals and direction of the institution.[v]

Climate change on Earth and the Roman Catholic Church exhibit long-term patterns of change and stability in their histories. Time scales vary dramatically but the constancy of change interrupted by periods of stability occurs both in nature and human-contrived institutions. So, too, for the individual life span. The time scale in years shrinks from millions on Earth to millennia in the Roman Catholic Church to decades in a human life but the same twosome of continuity and change holds.

Continuity and Change in Human Behavior. While researchers quarrel over what causes individuals to be who they are and behave as they do in infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age there is general agreement, based on scores of longitudinal studies, that both change and continuity occur within a human life span.

By five years of age, for example, physical and cognitive growth spurts have changed toddlers and young children physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Such swift growth of infants into early childhood, researchers have established, shapes personality, behaviors, and attitudes sufficiently that predictions—with different levels of probability–can be made, for example, about a child’s height, intelligence, personality traits, and achievement as an adult. Thus, early development changes become stable features of youth and adulthood. While continuity becomes a pattern as an individual gets older, changes fueled by genes, peer influence, and life events, still occur but with far less impact on traits formed in the first five years of development. These studies confirm also that growing children’s interactions between these features and the environment (family, neighborhood, school) play an important role in their development with peers and workplace as they move into adolescence and adulthood.[vi]

Hence, developmental changes and stability in a range of human characteristics between infancy and adulthood, influenced by the settings in which children and adults experience, typify the seven to nine decade life span of individuals.

Since the mid-1960s, such studies of child development have had concrete implications for schooling. Policy emphasis on early childhood education, especially for poor children of color, beginning with three- and four year-olds, federally funded Head Start, and kindergarten through third grade have occupied researchers, civic and business leaders for decades.[vii]

Continuity and change and the inevitable tensions they embody, I argue, occurs on a global scale through climate change, within longstanding organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, and individuals. But none of this is self-evident.

Were one to take a step back and ponder the changes that have occurred in one’s lifetime—I was born in 1934—the political, social, economic, and technological changes over the past eight decades seem staggering. In a culture, where change is highly prized and techno-optimism about the future is baked into the national DNA, everything appears in flux. The key words in the last two sentences are “ seem” and “appears.” Except if one were to take a historical perspective and apply a time frame that stretches out over a century or more. Then the “seem” and “appear” dissolve.

Consider walking into a frame house owned by a middle-class family in New York City in 1870. It would have a kitchen with a fireplace serving as both furnace and oven, bedrooms with fireplaces, a parlor to entertain guests, windows, doors, furniture that would be faintly familiar to our 21st century eyes except for the outdoor latrine that serves the entire family and a stable for horses to transport the family.

Fast-forward three generations and walk into a middle-class family’s home in 1940. Flush toilets replaced outhouses, washing machines replaced hand-wringers, gas-fired stoves replaced hearths, electric lights replaced candles. On a table would be a rotary dial telephone and outside the house parked by the curb would be the family car.[viii]

Now skip ahead another three generations to the early 21st century. Surely, there have been many changes since the 1940s in how we live, work, travel, communicate, and get medical treatment but the obvious changes in communication, transportation, home appliances, and opportunities to work in 2018 have been incremental ones to the existing technologies in each of these areas. Smart phones, faster planes, safer cars, and interlocked home computer networks appear so dramatically different from the 1940s so it is understandable but nonetheless inaccurate to ignore the basic continuity in new technologies enhancing older ones, not replacing them. [ix]

After all, a smart phone combines in one device fast and frequent communication, quick access to information, taking photos, and recording conversations. Yet all of these were available in separate devices half-century ago. Faster and more fuel-efficient jets carry passengers to their destinations than previous lumbering four engine prop planes but aircraft transported passengers then also. Or consider health care. Technological advances in medical diagnosis and treatments through echo cardiograms, MRIs, and an array of pills that would stun an earlier generation still depend upon a doctor listening to a patient, taking a history, and figuring out what tests the patient should take and what therapies to recommend based on the test results.

Think a moment about driver-less cars and trucks as the most recent manifestation of new technologies altering transportation. Current state laws governing car accidents have yet to adapt to automated transportation. There are product liability laws that will have to adapt to robotic transportation. Who, for example, is responsible for parking and traffic tickets? Whose fault is it when injuries and deaths occur involving driverless cars? But the laws carry within them continuity—manufacturers continue to be responsible for the safety of their products—and adaptations to technological changes will occur as they have when autos replaced horse-drawn transportation. [x]

These changes in communication, transportation, and medical practice are incremental bolstering underlying patterns that already had existed for decades. Mistaking a smart phone or a fast jet for a “revolutionary” change in our lives is common hyperbole in a culture where techno-optimism reigns. The inflated language misses the constant updating of practices that have existed for many decades.

Consider further that continuity persists in the social and economic sectors. While legal segregation of races and ethnicities has been banned since the 1950s, these separations in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods continue. As do racial disparities in distribution of income.

Sharp inequalities in wealth and income that existed in the early 20th century shrank during the Great Depression and World War II but have returned to those earlier levels in the past three decades. Yes, striking shifts in manufacturing and factory jobs have occurred while service and technological occupations have mushroomed.

Similarly, the state and federal regulations that have reigned in corporate influence on public policy such as government regulation, the U.S. tax code, and health care since the 1990s has decreased measurably in the early 21st century. Stability and change are constant. [xi]

Finally, consider the laws that govern our lives. The law, then and now, serves a dual function—social stability and adaptation to social change. The essence of a democracy is where rule of law, not rule by officials’ arbitrary decisions dominate daily life in the U.S. Governmental actions often end up adapting to changes while insuring continuity. [xii]

All of these examples of stability and change in laws governing our lives, climate change, organizations, and our individual lives can be applied to teaching and schooling in the U.S. The 41 Silicon Valley teachers across nine schools in five districts that I observed and interviewed in 2016 combined both continuity and change.


[i] Naomi Oreskes, “Beyond the Ivory Tower: Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science, 2004, 306 (5702), p. 1686; NASA, “Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming,” April 2017 at:

On political polarization, see Pew Research Center, “The Politics of Climate,” October 4, 2016 at:

[ii] European Council, “International Agreements on Climate Actions,” June 2016 at:

Coral Davenport and Alissa Rubin, “Trump Signs Executive Order Unwinding Obama Climate Policies,” New York Times, March 28, 2017.

[iii] Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[iv]Sources I used for this section are: Michael Knowles, et. al, “Roman Catholicism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016 at:;

Roger Finke and Patricia Wittberg, “Organizational Revival from Within: Explaining Revivalism and Reform in the Roman Catholic Church,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2000, 39(2), pp. 154-170.

[v]Henry Mintzberg and Frances Westley, “Cycles of Organizational Change,” Strategic Management Journal, 1992, 13 (special issue), pp. 39-59.

[vi]Benjamin Bloom, Stability and Change in Human Characteristics (New York:John Wiley and Son, 1964); Avshalom Caspi, et. al., “Personality Development: Stability and Change,” Annual Review of Psychology, 2005, 56, pp. 453-484.

[vii] Benjamin Bloom, “The New Direction in Educational Research: Alterable Variables” The Journal of Negro Education, 1980, 49(3), pp. 337-349; James Heckman, “Early Childhood Investments Substantially Boost Adult Health,” Science, March 28, 2014, 343(6178), pp. 1478-1485.

[viii]Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[ix] Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015

[x] Claire Miller, “When Driverless Cars Break the Law,” New York Times, May 13, 2014.

[xi]Sean Reardon, et. al., “ Brown Fades: The End of Court-Ordered School   Desegregation and the Resegregation of American Public Schools,”

Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 2012, 31(4), pp. 876-904; Rodney Hero and Morris Levy, “The Racial Structure of Economic Inequality in the United States: Understanding Change and Continuity in an Era of ‘Great Divergence,’ “ Social Science Quarterly, 2016, 97(3), pp. 491-505.

[xii] Newton Edwards, “Stability and Change in Basic Concepts of Law Governing American Education,” The School Review, 1957, 65(2), pp. 161-175.


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Research Counts for Little When It Comes to Adopting “Personalized Learning”

The K-12 sector is investing heavily in technology as a means of providing students with a more customized educational experience. So far, though, the research evidence behind “personalized learning” remains thin.

Ben Herold, Education Week, October 18, 2016

The pushers of computer-based instruction want districts to buy products and then see if the product works. Students and teachers are being used for marketing research, unreimbursed research. Districts are spending money based on hype and tests of the educational efficacy of an extremely narrow range of products as if this is a reasonable way to proceed in this era of extreme cuts in budgets.

Laura Chapman, comment on above guest post, May 21, 2017

Both Ben Herold and Laura Chapman are correct in their statements about the thinness of research on “personalized learning” and that districts spend “money based on hype and tests of the educational efficacy of an extremely narrow range of products….”

In short, independent studies of “personalized learning,” however, defined, are rare birds but of even greater importance, are subordinate to decisions on buying and deploying software and programs promising to tailor learning to each and every student from kindergarten through high school. To provide a fig leaf of cover for spending on new technologies, policymakers often use vendor-endorsed studies and quick-and-dirty product evaluations. They are the stand-ins for “what the research says” when it comes to purchasing new products advertising a platform for “personalized learning.”

Why is research nearly irrelevant to such decisions? Because other major criteria come into play that push aside educational research either independent or vendor-sponsored, on technology. Policymakers lean far more heavily upon criteria of effectiveness, popularity, and longevity in spending scarce dollars on new technologies championing “personalized learning.”

Criteria policymakers use 

The dominant standard used by most policymakers, media editors, and administrators to judge success is effectiveness: What is the evidence that the policy of using new technologies for classroom instruction has produced desired outcomes? Have you done what you said you were going to do and can you prove it? In a society where “bottom lines,” Dow Jones averages, Super Bowl victories, and vote-counts matter, quantifiable results determine effectiveness.

Since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), federal and state policymakers have relied on the effectiveness standard to examine what students have learned by using proxy measures such as test scores, high school graduation rates, college attendance, and other indicators. For example, in the late-1970s policymakers concluded that public schools had declined because scholastic aptitudes test (SAT) scores had plunged downward. Even though test-makers and researchers repeatedly stated that such claims were false—falling SAT scores fueled public support for states raising academic requirements in the 1980s and adding standardized tests to determine success. With the No Child Left Behind Act (2001-2016) test scores brought rewards and penalties. [i]

Yet test results in some instances proved unhelpful in measuring a reform’s success. For example, studies on computer use in classroom instruction show no substantial gains in students’ test scores. Yet buying more and more tablets and laptops with software programs has leaped forward in the past decade.

Or Consider the mid-1960s’ evaluations of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). They revealed little improvement in low-income children’s academic performance thereby jeopardizing Congressional renewal of the program. Such evidence gave critics hostile to federal initiatives reasons to brand President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs as failures. [ii]

Nonetheless, the program’s political attractiveness to constituents and legislators overcame weak test scores. Each successive U.S. president and Congress, Republican or Democrat, have used that popularity as a basis for allocating funds to needy students in schools across the nation including No Child Left Behind (2001) and its successor, Every Student Succeeds Act (2016). Thus, a reform’s political popularity often leads to its longevity (e.g., kindergarten, new technologies in classrooms).

Popularity, then, is a second standard that public officials use in evaluating success. The spread of an innovation and its hold on voters’ imagination and wallets has meant that attractiveness to parents, communities, and legislators easily translates into political support for reform. Without the political support of parents and teachers, few technological innovations such as “personalized learning” could fly long distances.

The rapid diffusion of kindergarten and preschool, special education, bilingual education, testing for accountability, charter schools, and electronic technologies in schools are instances of innovations that captured the attention of practitioners, parents, communities, and taxpayers. Few educators or public officials questioned large and sustained outlays of public funds for these popular reforms because they were perceived as resounding successes regardless of the research. And they have lasted for decades. Popularity-induced longevity becomes a proxy for effectiveness. [iii]

A third standard used to judge success is assessing how well innovations mirrored what designers of reforms intended. This fidelity standard assesses the fit between the initial design, the formal policy, the subsequent program, and its implementation.

Champions of the fidelity standard ask: How can anyone determine effectiveness if the reform departs from the design? If federal, state, or district policymakers, for example, adopt and fund a new reading program because it has proved to be effective elsewhere, teachers and principals must follow the blueprint as they put it into practice or else the desired outcomes will go unfulfilled (e.g., Success for All). When practitioners add, adapt, or even omit features of the original design, then those in favor of fidelity say that the policy and program cannot be determined effective because of these changes. Policy adaptability is the enemy of fidelity. [iv]

Seldom are these criteria debated publicly, much less questioned. Unexamined acceptance of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity avoids asking the questions of whose standards will be used, how they are applied and alternative standards that can be used to judge reform success and failure.

Although policymakers, researchers, practitioners have vied for attention in judging the success of school reforms such as using new technologies in classroom instruction, policy elites, including civic and business leaders and their accompanying foundation- and corporate-supported donors have dominated the game of judging reform success.

Sometimes  called a “growth coalition,” these civic, business, and philanthropic leaders see districts and schools as goal-driven organizations with top officials exerting top-down authority through structures. They juggle highly prized values of equity, efficiency, excellence, and getting reelected or appointed. They are also especially sensitive to public expectations for school accountability and test scores; they also reflect societal optimism that technologies can solve individual and community problems. Hence, these policy making elites favor standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity—even when they conflict with one another. Because the world they inhabit is one of running organizations, their authority and access to the media give them the leverage to spread their views about what constitutes “success.” [v]

The world that policy elites inhabit, however, is one driven by values and incentives that differ from the worlds that researchers and practitioners inhabit. Policymakers respond to signals and events that anticipate reelection and media coverage. They consider the standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity rock-hard fixtures of their policy world. [vi]

Most practitioners, however, look to different standards. Although many teachers and principals have expressed initial support for high-performing public schools serving the poor and children of color, most practitioners have expressed strong skepticism about test scores as an accurate measure of either their effects on children or the importance of their work.

Such practitioners are just as interested in student outcomes as are policymakers, but the outcomes differ. They ask: What skills, content, and attitudes have students learned beyond what is tested? To what extent is the life lived in our classrooms and schools healthy, democratic, and caring? Can reform-driven programs, curricula, technologies be bent to our purposes? Such questions, however, are seldom heard. Broader student outcomes and being able to adapt policies to fit the geography of their classroom matter to practitioners.

Another set of standards comes from policy and practice-oriented researchers. Such researchers judge success by the quality of the theory, research design, methodologies, and usefulness of their findings to policy and student outcomes. These researchers’ standards have been selectively used by both policy elites and practitioners in making judgments about high- and low-performing schools. [vii]

So multiple standards for judging school “success” are available. Practitioner-and researcher- derived standards have occasionally surfaced and received erratic attention from policy elites. But it is this strong alliance of policymakers, civic and business elites, and friends in the corporate, foundation, and media worlds that relies on standards of effectiveness, fidelity, and popularity. This coalition and their standards continue to dominate public debate, school reform agendas, and determinations of “success” and “failure.”

And so for “personalized learning,” the effectiveness criterion lacking solid evidence of student success, gives way to the political popularity criterion that currently dominates policy debates over districts buying tablets and laptops to get teachers to put the new technological fad into classroom practice.


[i] Patrick McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006)

[ii]Harvey Kantor, “Education, Reform, and the State: ESEA and Federal Education Policy in the 1960s,” American Journal of Education, 1991, 100(1), pp. 47-83; Lorraine McDonnell, “No Child Left Behind and the Federal Role in Education: Evolution or Revolution?” Peabody Journal of Education, 2005 80(2), pp. 19-38.

[iii] Michael Kirst and Gail Meister, “Turbulence in American Secondary Schools: What Reforms Last,” Curriculum Inquiry, 1985, 15(2), pp. 169-186; Larry Cuban, “Reforming Again, Again, and Again,” Educational Researcher, 1991, 19(1), pp. 3-13.

[iv]Janet Quinn, et. al., Scaling Up the Success For All Model of School Reform, final report, (Santa Monica (CA): Rand Corportation, 2015).

[v] Sarah Reckhow, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Frederick Hess and Jeff Henig (eds.) The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy, and Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvrd Education Press,, 2015).

[vi] Linda Darling Hammond,”Instructional Policy into Practice: The Power of the Bottom over the Top,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990, 12(3), pp. 339-347. Charles Payne, So Much Reform, So Little Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008). Joyce Epstein, “Perspectives and Previews on Research and Policy for School, Family, and Community Partnerships,” in(New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 209-246.

[vii] Anita Zerigon-Hakes, “Translating Research Findings into Large-Scale Public Programs and Policy,” The Future of Children, Long-Term Outcomes of early Childhood Programs, 1995, 5(3), pp. 175-191; Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin, Steady Work (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1988);


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Cartoons about Professors

Everyone who is a teacher and administrator has graduated college. They have had professors as teachers. Those educators who have advanced degrees have even more experience with professors as both teachers and researchers.

Now is time to have those cartoonists with sharp pens take a look at those in higher education who have had us as students. Enjoy!















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The Fundamental Dilemma Within Any Instructional Reform

Over five years ago I wrote a post on a new teacher’s dilemma. In that post I defined what a dilemma was and distinguished it from a problem. Then I presented an instance of a dilemma in a novice’s classroom and asked readers what they thought. I have written about dilemmas often in this blog (see here and here).

Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I want to dig deeper into one facing all policymakers, past and present, intent upon altering how teachers teach from kindergartens to Advanced Placement courses. Whether teachers are new or experienced, whether they are white, African American, Latino, or a first generation college graduate in their family the tension between policymakers seeking to change traditional classroom practices and classroom teachers who are expected to put new instructional policies into practice–has been a constant.

In concrete terms, the dilemma is basically that those who adopt instructional policies aimed at changing how teachers teach (e.g., turn-of-the-century Progressives advocating student-centered learning, the highly touted Reading First program that the federal government mandated and monitored a decade ago; current deploying of tablets and software to every teacher and child in district schools asking that teachers drop old ways of teaching and embrace new ones such as “personalized learning.”

In short, new instructional policies a  century ago and now assume that teachers are part of the problem–why else adopt a policy seeking improvements in teaching practices? How, then, do those in authority, then, get people perceived as causing the instructional problem to implement new classroom-aimed policies? Now that is a conundrum.

After all, policymakers (e.g., school board members, state legislators, U.S. Secretaries of Education) who make the consequential decisions do not teach. They seldom enter classrooms. Teachers teach.

Policymakers, however, are not powerless in getting teachers to put new instructional policies into practice. They have more than words at their disposal. They can mandate changes, monitor what happens in the classroom, and hold teachers accountable for student outcomes. Using state standards, increased testing, and using penalties in a coercive accountability system is what occurred under No Child Left Behind (2001-2016).

Policymakers also possess less regulatory, more enticing policy tools that can nudge teachers in the direction of altering daily teaching practices. Some policy instruments decision-makers can dangle in front of teachers contain incentives and push them into  implementing a new instructional policy. These tools range  from putting cash on the stump for schools to share, hiring new staff, introducing new curriculum materials, and erecting an infrastructure of technical assistance and professional development. Depending on the context, such tools can entice teachers to try out, say, a new reading or math program in their classrooms.

These policy tools are, as expected, limited since it is up to the teachers to take advantage of the resources policymakers put in front of them to change how they teach. Teachers must volunteer, choose to move in step with the new instructional policy, and modify how they render their lessons to students. Teacher autonomy is a highly prized value among educators and the public.

And some teachers do embrace the direction their decision-makers want.  They do so because the incentives are indeed attractive. They do so because a segment of teachers are not only sympathetic to the direction policymakers want teachers to move, say, student-centered teaching, but have believed and practiced those ways of teaching in their classrooms. Both policy tools and teachers’ prior beliefs create a cadre of teachers–I would estimate one out of four teachers–who are more than willing to go along with the new instructional policy and make some of the suggested changes in planning and implementing daily lessons.

What about the rest of the teachers? It is a slog for policymakers to make in-roads into that larger population of teachers. Time and commitment matter.

In different districts over the decades, evidence of top decision-makers’ commitment to five-plus years for putting the new instructional policy into practice pops up. It is rare, however.

In these instances, policymakers have committed ample resources to help teachers gain more knowledge and skills to put the new policy into practice, have built an infrastructure of professional development with on-site coaches and others to help teachers collaborate in working out lessons and seeing others teach in ways consistent with the policy.  Such districts that have made such commitments probably raise the population of teachers from one in four to just over half of all teachers. When that tipping point arises, the new instructional policy has become standard practice in most classrooms. Whether that policy adapted to the contours of the district and modified time and again is faithful to the original intentions of those original decision-makers is doubtful.

And then there are those many teachers who continue to practice as they have believing deeply their ways of teaching are superior to the instructional policy adopted years earlier by peers.

So the story of putting a new instructional policy into practice is a conundrum filled with fundamental tensions that won’t go away. Policymakers decide that instruction has to move in a different direction suggesting that teachers themselves have contributed to the instructional problem. Then policymakers put those very same teachers who are seen as part of the problem into the position of solving the problem they have made in their classrooms.   And that is the fundamental dilemma facing those top officials who advocate for “personalized learning,” the ambitious teaching embedded in Common Core standards in English and math, and similar instructional reforms.


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Starting With the “Why” in Personalized Learning (Betheny Gross)

In 2015, The Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, kicked off a multi-year, multi-method study of systemic efforts to support schools implementing personalized learning. We’ll produce reports that explore many of these topics in depth as the project progresses, but we want to give educators more immediate feedback. In this “Notes From the Field” series, we share noteworthy anecdotes and early impressions from our school visits, interviews, and teacher survey. These posts should be taken as observations from informed and thoughtful partners; we hope they help launch productive conversations and reflection–Betheny Gross

This post appeared April 12, 2017

Last spring, on our first visit to 35 schools committed to personalized learning, teachers often told us they weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing to personalize learning. Revisiting the same schools this fall, we realized a more fundamental issue was at play: many teachers didn’t seem entirely sure why they were personalizing learning in the first place.

The teachers we interviewed certainly had clear goals for their students: to be ready for college and career, to be lifelong learners and successful adults. And most described the specific objectives for knowledge, skills, and attitudes their students would need to reach these goals. But only rarely could teachers tell us how the activities they do to personalize learning would deliver on these objectives. The problem is, without starting with that end in mind, it’s nearly impossible to build a coherent personalized learning (PL) approach.


In policy parlance, the teachers—and their schools—didn’t have a well-formed theory of action about PL. A theory of action explains how and why a certain intervention or approach is supposed to work. It helps get everyone on the same page about what they are doing and why. And it shapes the goals teachers and schools shoot for so they can see if their efforts are helping students achieve them. Operating without a well-articulated, well-understood theory of action leaves teachers sailing without a rudder and without a defined destination. And that can mean fuzzy or haphazard mix-and-match attempts at personalizing student learning—attempts that aren’t explicitly driven by what teachers want their students to know and be able to do when they leave school.

Take one PL goal: giving students the power to have more control over their learning, or “student agency.” A simple theory of action might look like this:


To support student agency, many teachers in the classrooms we visited had created “choice boards” to give students multiple options for engaging with a unit’s content. These choice boards can be incredibly time consuming to create, take considerable effort to explain to students, and be challenging to juggle once students get going. One middle school social studies classroom let students choose one of five characters (from architect to playwright) from history, each with its own route through the unit. While the students seemed to enjoy getting to choose a persona, many activities across the five routes were identical or similar (not personalized). But most importantly, this teacher—like many others we interviewed—seemed unsure of whether these choices were actually helping her students sharpen their decision-making skills, improve their engagement, or advance their confidence and ability to take responsibility for their own learning and lives—all goals the teacher had for her students.

To be sure, we catch pieces of the logic behind PL when talking with teachers. But more often we hear notes of frustration and confusion (and sheer exhaustion) as teachers try to redesign their classrooms and instructional approaches with little guidance beyond a broad directive to make these approaches more personal, tailored, and student-driven. Teachers are attracted to PL’s core ideas: meeting students where they are, letting students progress at their own rate, and offering students rich and relevant learning experiences, for example. But they appear to need more clarity not just in what they are doing but why they are doing it. Mapping the school’s theory of personalizing learning—and using it as a guide—could help. Here are a few ways to start this process:

  • Start at the end and work backwards. Schools should ask: What do we want students to be able to do when they leave the school? What learning experiences do they need to reach these goals? What do we need to do in classrooms and schoolwide to create those experiences? What support do teachers, principals, and other staff need to create such classrooms and experiences? Map out the answers to these questions and make them the basis of the school’s theory of action.
  • Let the theory of action be a guide. Schools should share their theory of action with the community to help everyone understand it; help teachers, students, and parents own it; and reinforce the theory by constantly referring back to it.
  • Reality-test the theory. A theory of action is an ideal vision of how something is supposed to work, not how it works in reality. Schools should ask: What assumptions does this theory make? (Are we assuming our staff will be stable enough to roll out the required professional development? Is this reasonable?) What needs to happen for us to just get to Step One? (Do we need to build capacity? Engage parents? Build students’ foundational skills?) Who beyond our own staff will need to help us succeed? (Does this plan rely on waivers to the contract from the teachers union? Are they willing and able to do so?) The answers will help schools and teachers identify what and who they need to support their PL initiative.
  • Use the theory to evaluate progress and revise practice. By mapping the theory of action, the initial and final indicators that schools are working toward will become clear. Using the student agency example, an interim indicator might include some qualitative or quantitative account of data-focused discussions with students, or a student engagement survey to gauge the extent to which students feel they have agency in their work. A final indicator could be an assessment of students’ ability to stay on track and complete a long-term project.

Even for schools already knee-deep in PL, it’s never too late to step back and make sure everyone in the building understands why they are doing it.

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Know-It-All School Reformers

Listen to Michael Mann, a climatolgist at Penn State University who talked about the science behind global warming and rising sea levels.

Any honest assessment of the science is going to recognize that there are things we understand pretty darn well and things that we sort of know. But there are things that are uncertain and there are things we just have no idea about whatsoever. (Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise, 2012, p. 409).

Ah, if only federal and state policymakers, researchers, and reform-minded educators would see the “science” of school reform in K-12 and higher education in similar terms. “Science” is in quote marks because there is no reliable, much less valid, theory of school reform that can predict events or improvements in schools and classroom instruction.

Still, for K-12 children and youth there are “things we understand pretty darn well.”

*We understand that socioeconomic status of children’s families has a major influence on students’ academic achievement.

*We understand that a knowledgeable and skilled teacher is the most important in-school factor in student learning.

*We understand the wide variability in student interests, abilities, and motivation.

*We understand that children and youth develop at different speeds as they move through the age-graded school.

Then there are “things that we sort of know.” Such as some schools with largely low-income, minority enrollments out-perform not only similarly-situated schools but schools that serve families from middle- and upper-middle income schools.

Or that the more educational credentials graduates collect over time, chances are they will earn more in their lifetime than those who fail to finish school and college.

Or that curriculum standards can outline what students have to learn but the tests–and the rewards and penalties tied to those tests–measuring whether students have reached those standards have a powerful extensive influence on what teachers teach and what students learn.

And there are “things that are uncertain” in schooling children and youth. Consider that over the past quarter-century, the dominant goal for public schools has been college preparation. This is a political decision driven by fear of unskilled U.S. graduates unable to work in ever-changing companies which will fall behind in global competition. The primary way of insuring that administrators and teachers achieve that goal has been regulatory structures of federal and state accountability accompanied by high-stakes incentives and penalties. This also is a political decision for the same reason given above.

Uncertainty has arisen because some parents, researchers, teachers, and policymakers have contested both the goal and structures. Why? Because so many high school graduates have failed to meet college admission standards. Because so many who do go to college drop out after a year or two. Because costs of going to college climb annually and student indebtedness increases. Because K-12 curriculum standards and accountability rules have narrowed what is taught to that which is tested.

And now with the federal government ceding power to the states in the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), uncertainty arises anew about what different states will do now that the accountability ball is on their side of the net.

Thus, conflicts over the goal and accountability have created many doubts about the wisdom of these reforms especially in light of mounting evidence that overall academic achievement or the achievement gap between whites and minorities remains pretty much stuck where it was when the reforms were enacted.

And there is uncertainty over the value-added to student learning from new technologies ranging from children using 1:1  iPads or laptops to students learning online. Or whether the highly touted outcomes promised with “personalized learning” will occur.  Uncertainty increases ambivalence among policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and parents over whether deploying expensive hardware, software, and professional development, has little effect, or even diminishes academic achievement.

Finally, “there are things we just have no idea about whatsoever.”  Can anyone predict with any confidence the probability, for example, that Common Core standards and their accompanying mix of state tests will yield higher student academic achievement, propel college ready students into higher education, have them graduate, and get jobs that will grow the U.S. economy?

No one can.

The fact is that few who style themselves as school reformers in positions of authority sort out publicly what they know from what they don’t know. Or say out loud their doubts about reform proposals under consideration or which have just been launched. Name me a top-level decision-maker who has publicly stated his or her qualms about the worth of a reform they championed. Instead, policymakers and pundits talk from their bully pulpits and deliver overconfident predictions often overstating what will happen and underestimating the difficulties and complexities of making changes.

Unlike Michael Mann, a scientist who publicly says what is known, unknown, and when uncertainty is present, reform-driven educators and non-educators, working with little theory and even less scientifically gathered evidence, bang the drum daily for transforming schools, teaching, and learning. They do so without telling recipients what they know, do not know, and what is uncertain in these innovations or revealing to any extent what are the political, social, and economic costs of putting the reform into practice. School reform is filled with ambiguity, guesswork, and a startling lack of transparency.


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The Rear-View Mirror on Personalized Learning

Pupils are working on their own. The second and third grade reading class of 63 pupils … is using a learning center and two adjoining rooms. Two teachers and  the school librarian act as coordinators and tutors as the pupils proceed with the various materials prepared by the school’s teachers and … developer, The Learning and Research Development Center at the U. of Pittsburgh. Each pupil sets his own pace. He is listening to records and completing workbooks. When he has completed a unit of work, he is tested, the test is corrected immediately, and if he gets a grade of 85% or better he moves on. if not, the teacher offers a series of alternative activities to correct the weakness, including individual tutoring, There are no textbooks. There is virtually no lecturing by the teacher to the class as a whole. Instead, she is busy observing the child’s progress, evaluating his tests, writing prescriptions, and instructing individually or in small groups of pupils who need help.*

The school is Oakleaf elementary near Pittsburgh (PA) and the time is 1965. Implemented across all grades, the innovative program was called Individually Prescribed Instruction or IPI (el_197203_tillman-2, p. 495).

Over a half-century ago, before there were smart phones, laptops, and tablets, university developers and school-site practitioners championed IPI as a program where students move through materials at differentiated paces until each achieved mastery of the content and skills to then continue on to the next unit of study.  Observers found students engaged in the process, pleased with the prompt feedback, and delighted that each could move at his or her pace rather than wait for the entire class to move to the next lesson. Here was the apex of student-centered learning. The algorithms of the day made it possible for students to learn independently, find out how they were doing swiftly, go from easy to difficult content on their own, ask teachers for help, and avoid the dominant teacher-centered repertoire of whole group-lecture, discussion, textbook chapters, quizzes and exams that took days to return—you get the picture.

In 2017 looking in the rear-view mirror, IPI in 1965 sounds familiar to those of us who enter schools and  see contemporary lessons where students learn content and skills independently on their tablets and laptops that machine learning algorithms have matched to each student’s proficiency level. Today, it is called “personalized learning.”

Look further into that rear-view mirror. IPI in 1965 was a more sophisticated version of psychologist B.F. Skinner’s “teaching machine” in the 1950s that evolved from “programmed learning” engineered by psychologist Sidney Pressey in the 1920s.


From our perch in 2017, we can see that IPI was a prototype for subsequent “personalized learning” and online learning once electronic devices and sophisticated algorithms became widespread in K-12 and higher education in the past decade. The DNA of present-day blended learning (e.g., Summit charter schools, Rocketship’s Learning Labs, Teach to One  and MOOCs in  higher education) stretches back nearly a century from IPI to  “programmed learning,” to “teaching machines.”


Sure there have been earlier renditions of self-paced, individualized learning  nearly a century ago. So what?

At that time and now, those various incarnations of individualized, self-paced learning sprang from competing ideologies of what children and youth should learn and how they should learn it. Student-centered vs. teacher-centered ways of teaching and learning (and mixes of both) have competed for time and space in K-12 schools for the past  century. Variations of teacher-centered instruction (e.g., lecture, discussion, textbook, worksheets, quizzes and tests) has won time and again and continues to dominate classroom lessons.

Connecting students to the real world, students working in small groups and individually, teachers acting as guides and mentors, and a host of other student-centered activities that blend different subjects and skills (e.g., math, science, art, and poetry) moved to center stage of public attention on different occasions (e.g., progressive curriculum and instruction in the 1920s; open classrooms in late-1960s). But after a brief fling in the reform spotlight student-centered learning receded to the wings in past decades.  Of course, there have been hybrids of both where many teachers hug the middle of the spectrum of instruction mixing old and new ways of teaching, but advocates for each pedagogical ideology continue to contest one another even today when K-12 battles erupt over Common Core standards, different kinds of math and science content, and now, “personalized learning.”

The answer, then, to my “so what” question is that pedagogical ideology of student-centered learning that drove earlier versions of individualized, self-paced instruction have reappeared in the highly touted “personalized learning” programs proliferating across the nation.

And in reappearing, questions similar to ones raised by earlier and contemporary generations of reformers emerge.

How is the interactive connection between a machine and a learner similar to and different from  the relationship of teacher and student?

Do algorithms embedded in the skills and content that dominated IPI then and now drive “personalized learning” programs today make a difference in what and how students learn once they reach “mastery” of the program?

Do programs like IPI and current incarnations of “personalized learning” capture the essence of student-centeredness when students participate in small groups, make independent choices, interact with peers to solve problems, and become involved in real-world activities and decisions?



*Thanks to Justin Reich and Dan Meyer for pointing me to IPI as a past reform mirroring the present.


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