Top-down School Reforms without Community or Teacher Involvement (Part 1)

Examples of top-down mandates from district, state, and federal policymakers without significant teacher or community involvement are legion.

*Los Angeles Unified contracted with Apple to spend one billion-plus dollars for iPads for every student to use a newly-developed curriculum and eventually take Common Core tests in 2013. It belly flopped with lots of splashes offering little help to teachers and students.

*No Child Left Behind (2002-2016), a bipartisan law sailed through the U.S. Congress, got signed by President George W. Bush, and landed on state and district superintendents’ desks soon after. The U.S. Department of Education through individual states became a super-school board determining which local schools met or didn’t meet “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests. Schools that failed could be closed if AYP went unmet for five years. After protests from teachers and parents about too much testing–an opt out movement by parents who pulled their children out of school during test days swelled–too much shaming of students and their schools gradually accumulated in the first decade of the century.It was clear to legislators and the President, Barack Obama, that the law had to be changed. Not until 2016, however, did the Every Student Succeeds Act shift authority for evaluating schools that succeeded and those that failed schools back to the states (see here, here, and here).

*State math, reading, and science standards since the 1960s come and go with minimal teacher and community involvement (see here and here).

So what?

In a series of posts I have raised questions about the concept of “failed” school reform by looking at the different clocks used to measure “success” of a reform, how time itself is a factor in making a judgment, the varied criteria used to make decisions about “failure,” and who uses these criteria to make the judgments. In this post, I want to point out how easy it is for a district school reform to be declared a “failure” by media, parents, and practitioners through errors that policymakers commit.And how such errors could have been easily avoided.

When policymakers decide to adopt a new computer-driven program promising math lessons customized to fit every student without substantial involvement of teachers and parents, the ingredients of a recipe for a “failed” reform are in the pot to be stirred. It is a story anchored in decision-makers ignoring the very people who have to accept and implement the instructional reform. It is a sad story because such a “failure”–like some of the ones mentioned in the beginning of the post–could have been avoided had policymakers been attentive to the political dimensions of adopting and implementing a school reform.

Consider the experience of “Teach To One,” a personalized learning program adopted by the Mountain View Whisman School District  in the heart of Silicon Valley to improve math test scores in 2016. Teach To One has received media attention and has been described as a technologically advanced way a district can close the achievement gap in math between minority and white students by tailoring individual lessons to the strengths and weaknesses of each student (See here, here, and here). The District of just over 5,000 students located in 10 schools adopted the program for all sixth graders in the two middle schools.*

The following chronology captures the onset and demise of the reform.

August-September 2016–Deeply buried in a thick document called the Local Control Accountability Plan for 2016-2017, are two lines of text that announce: “Based on middle school math achievement data, the District will pilot a blended learning program – Teach to One in 6th grade at both middle schools.” In effect, the Superintendent mandated an initiative that few parents and teachers knew about prior to its announcement in August. In addition, funding necessary for the innovative math program was to come from District funds and a private donor who pledged to subsidize the program.

Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, Cathy Baur, began sending out to parents in early September a weekly description of the program (in both English and Spanish) to parents. Attached to these weekly reports are a series of Frequently Asked Questions.

The September 9, 2016 parent letter said in part:

Dear Sixth-Grade Families,
Middle school is a critical time for students to learn and refine the math skills they need to succeed in high school and beyond. Our goal is to effectively meet the diverse needs of each student. Personalized learning is crucial to both challenge and support students at their own levels as they enter middle school math.
MVWSD is using Teach to One, by New Classrooms. Teach to One (TTO) is customized daily math instruction based on a student’s learning strengths and needs. Each day, a student learns mathematics skills and concepts in a variety of instructional approaches with peers ready for the same skills or concepts.
Teach to One is off to a good start.
During the first weeks, students learn the routines and procedures of the program, and are exposed to the different learning sessions including teacher-led instruction, peer-to-peer lessons, small group collaborative lessons, and independent technology based lessons.
During the learning sessions, students have been completing a variety of other diagnostic
activities aligned with sixth-grade standards. Next week, students will begin their first unit of personalized lessons based on all of the information collected. Each student’s skill library will be populated with individualized lessons.
Homework is assigned every Monday through the TTO portal.The homework is based on the skills listed in the portal for that particular Monday. Your child may have already been introduced to that skill before and may have been practicing, or your child was introduced to that skill on Monday. Either way, the homework will be given out on Mondays and then collected the following Monday.This will give your child time to practice those skills in class, practice them on the homework and get extra help if needed.
These weekly letters ran through December 2, 2016.
December 7, 2016. In a letter to Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph and Assistant Superintendent Baur signed by over 175 Graham and Crittenden parents representing about 500 sixth grade students (an uncommon number of parents in a relatively small district to voice a specific curricular concern) protesting Teach To One, students’ difficulty in grasping math concepts and skills through the mostly online program, and minimal teacher-led instruction.
December 7-15. The Superintendent sent out a survey to 6th grade parents and students asking for their opinions on Teach To One.
Late-December. Private donor reneges on pledge to fund Teach to One which would cost over $500,000.
December 20, 2016. After examining the results of the survey that showed large majorities of parents opposing the program, Superintendent Rudolph sent out a letter to Graham and Crittenden Middle School parents that pointed out the pluses and minuses of Teach To One and the District’s next steps in paring back the program:

So what comes next?  As a District we operate as a learning organization. We have heard from some about abandoning the program completely, and from others who would like to continue to improve the delivery of this innovative program. Taking all factors into consideration, the District will make changes to the program, beginning Jan. 9 for the remainder of the year, to strike a better balance between technology-assisted and teacher-led instruction.

Teach to One will be reduced to 50% of class time. The other 50% of time students will work with a teacher on the level of Eureka Math appropriate for them. Students are assigned strategically for their Eureka math instruction based on the results of a variety of assessments. This will prepare students to be on target to exit eighth grade having completed Geometry, Algebra I or eighth-grade math.

In order to ensure that students deepen their knowledge before moving to a higher level, we will provide more traditional instruction time and modified TTO programming.

Teachers and administrators developed a new schedule for their individual sites, and details about the specific schedule will be communicated by each middle school principal on Jan. 3.

This pilot process is an important one that allows us to identify the strengths and weaknesses of Teach to One for all students, so that we may make changes in a thoughtful, methodical manner. Thank you for your support and patience.

January 12, 2017. In an abrupt turnaround, however, Superintendent Rudolph notified parents that he was ending the Teach To One Program (see here ). In the letter, Rudolph said:

After careful consideration and evaluation, we took research-based, technology-assisted learning [Teach To One] and brought it into our classrooms as a way to better tailor instruction to individual students. From the beginning of the year, the classrooms were closely monitored.  We communicated program highlights by email weekly, and we talked with and corresponded with parents regularly. As always, we are open to feedback as reflected in the adjustments to pacing and instruction that we made mid-year to continue to support and improve student learning.

What went well: TTO has important advantages. Students, especially at Crittenden, said they have benefitted [sic] from Teach to One’s individualized learning and innovation. Teachers had access to daily data about their students’ progress and appreciated TTO’s ability to differentiate math instruction for all students. TTO is flexible and personalized, and helped many students reinforce skills that they might have missed in previous grade levels, as well as provided extra challenge to those who needed it.

What didn’t go well: There were technology problems. We heard the desire for a better balance between teacher-led instruction and Teach to One to provide students a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. There were concerns that students needed more exposure to grade-level and foundational concepts before advancing to higher-level skills.  The rollout did not go as well as hoped; administrators, teachers and students were learning alongside one another.

What’s changed significantly in the last 10 days:

On January 5th and 6th we received more data from internal teacher assessments and recent Northwest Evaluation Association Measure of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) data from TTO.  This latest data demonstrates that close to 52 percent of our students are on grade level {55.51% (Graham) and 48.24% (Crittenden)} with 51 percent of our students demonstrating growth equal to or above the national average, which is a drop from 58% of students entering the 6th grade on grade level on CAASPP.  However, the former data (teacher-administered assessments) demonstrates students performed at a higher level on the two tested standards RP1 (Ratio and Proportional Relationships standard 1) and RP3 (Ratio and Proportional Relationships standard 3) compared to their peers from the previous years (RP1 61% proficient compared to 49% at the end of the 2015-16 school year and on standard RP3 60% proficient compared to 49% at the end of the 2015-16 school year).

At the heart of our decision-making, the most important factor is if our instructional programs are meeting the needs of all of students. With conflicting data points, it is hard to ascertain if TTO is having a positive impact on student performance because the latest data reports show the results are mixed. Some students aren’t performing as well as we had hoped…. 

In light of the additional data received on January 5th and 6th, effective immediately, the District will discontinue using Teach to One.  Instead, students will have teacher-led instruction with Eureka Math. Meanwhile, teachers, coaches and administrators will work on a plan to include technology to supplement math instruction. We are committed to personalized learning, but can’t continue a program that does not meet the needs of all of our students.

Thus, within less than six months, a highly touted national math innovation, Teach To One, went from administrator excitement to parental protest to junking the program.

Part 2 will examine how limited teacher and parent involvement in a curricular and instructional change directly affecting students in one district becomes an ingredient in reform failure.


*Robin Colman, a middle school parent, who reads this blog emailed me about her deep concerns for the new “Teach To One” project that the superintendent had mandated for the two middle schools. In addition to her emails, I used as sources newspaper articles, District parent and student surveys, and exchanges of correspondence between district administrators, parents.


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Judging Success and Failure of Reforms in Classroom Practice

The dominant standard used by most policymakers, media editors, and administrators to judge success is effectiveness: What is the evidence that the policy has produced the 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. 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, comprehensive high school, Platoon School).

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 long-term political support for reform. Without the political support of parents and teachers, few innovations and reforms would 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. 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]

Where do these dominant standards of effectiveness, popularity, and fidelity come from? Policymakers derive the criteria of effectiveness and fidelity from viewing organizations as rational tools for achieving desired goals. Through top-down decisions, formal structures, clearly specified roles, and technical expertise, administrators and practitioners can get the job done.

Within organizations where rational decision-making and control are prized, policymakers ask: Have the prescribed procedures been followed (fidelity) and have the goals been achieved (effectiveness)? Hence, in judging reforms, those who carry out the changes must be faithful to the design before the standard of effectiveness in achieving goals is invoked.

But where do these beliefs embedded in these criteria come from? The growth of professional expertise in the private and public sectors, or what Donald Schön calls “technical rationality,” is grounded in the natural, physical, and social sciences and located in corporate training and professional education programs at universities. Rather than favoring practitioner expertise derived from schools and classrooms, public officials and researchers use this scientifically grounded knowledge to evaluate the degree to which reforms are effective. [v]

Contrary to the effectiveness and fidelity standards, popularity derives from the political nature of public institutions and the astute use of symbols (e.g., tests, pay-for-performance, computers) to convey values. Schools, for example, are totally dependent on the financial and political support of local communities and the state. Taxpayer support for, or opposition to, bond referenda or school board initiatives is often converted into political capital at election time. Whether an innovation spreads (e.g., charters) and captures public and practitioner attention becomes a strong basis for evaluating its success.[vi]

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 can be used to judge reform success and failure.

Although policymakers, researchers, practitioners have vied for attention in judging the success of school reforms, 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. 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.” [vii]

So it is no surprise whose criteria are applied become harnessed to the how they are applied within K-12 organizations. For the most part, decisions flow downward. Elected leaders in coalition with top civic figures often take innovations directed at school improvement, package and deliver the reform (e.g., curriculum, instruction, school re-organization) to classrooms through official policies and procedures. While there are other ways for reforms to enter schools such as from the local school community and teachers and principals—from the bottom up—the top-down political decision to impose a reform on the organization from federal, state, and district leaders has been the dominant pattern in the history of school reform. [viii]

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. [ix]

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. [x]

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.”


[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]Donald Schon, “From Technical Rationality to Reflection in Action,” in Roger Harrison, et. al. (editors), Supporting Lifelong Learning: Perspectives on Learning, vol. 1, pp. 40-61.

[vi] David Labaree, “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals,” American Educational Research Journal, 1997, 34(1), pp. 39-81; Amanda Datnow, “Power and Politics in the Adoption of School Reform Models,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 2000, 22(4), pp.357-374.

[vii] 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).

[viii] 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.

[ix] 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);

[x] Thomas Reeve, “Can Educational Research Be Both Rigorous and Relevant,” Educational Designer, 2008, 1(4), at:

Burke Johnson and Anthony Omwuegbuzie, “Mixed Methods Research,” 2004, Educational Researcher, 2004, 33(7), pp. 14-26.


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Cartoons on Leaders

This month I hope you will enjoy a dozen or so ways of picturing leaders in and out of school. If they get you to smile, let me know.













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Judging Reform “Success” and “Failure”: The Gary, Indiana Case

In previous posts about the label “failure” attached to school reform, I laid out an argument that making such a judgment is tricky. Who makes the judgment and what clock they listen to matters in judging “failure” or “success.” In this post I look at a K-8 school reform from a century ago and ask you whether it was a “failure.”

In 1906 in a town built by U.S. Steel on the shores of Lake Michigan, a new superintendent introduced an educational innovation that hundreds of school districts adopted in the next decade. Visitors traveled thousands of miles to meet Superintendent William Wirt, sit in classrooms of cheerfully decorated schools, and marvel at how children of immigrants learned during the day while their non-English speaking parents attended classes at night. Even though U.S. Steel owned the property and employees largely ran the town, the educational experiment converged with company interests in providing what observers called a productive education for both white-collar and blue-collar employees.

Progressives of the day, imbued with the revolutionary ideas of John Dewey and Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, wrote articles and books praising the combination of work and play, of school and community, of efficiency and civic-mindedness, that put the name of Gary, Indiana on the early twentieth century map of school reform.

The Platoon School (or Gary Plan) was introduced in a remodeled elementary school holding children from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. Administrators divided the student body into two groups or “platoons.” One platoon would be in the classrooms or auditorium while the other would be in the basement where there were woodworking, printing, and other shops; upstairs in music, art, and play rooms; or outside on the playground. During the day, each platoon would change places, giving each child academic, practical, recreational, and aesthetic experiences while using the entire facility. Most urban elementary school children in 1906 stayed the entire 6-8 hour school day in a self-contained classroom with one teacher; Gary pupils worked with many teachers during an eight-hour day, even receiving released time for religious instruction.

Moreover, because Superintendent William Wirt believed in tying the city of Gary to schools, adults (many of whom were recent immigrants working in the steel mills) would attend evening classes to learn English, hear lectures, and use various shops to learn industrial skills. Such a work-study-play-community school arrangement—a revolutionary shift in school organization and curriculum—made it possible to have many more students attend school since the schedule permitted all available space to be used by students during the day and adults at night. The Gary innovation spread swiftly across the nation. Educational pundits of the day applauded its success.

In 1918, however, two educational experts completed a study of the Gary schools. It praised some aspects of the platoon plan but raised serious questions about the quality of academic work and weak student performance on achievement tests. Soon after, national interest in the Gary Plan ebbed considerably. By the mid-1920s, the innovation had receded and virtually disappeared from the national scene. In Gary, it lasted in some form or another into the 1940s (see here and here)

Today Platoon Schools are largely forgotten. Yet the ideas of using buildings fully, offering a diversified curriculum combining academic subjects, practical tasks, and play in which students move to various parts of the school building, and having the school as an educational, social, and recreational center for adults have become mainstream features of elementary schooling. The Platoon School foreshadowed the modern elementary school.

Was the Platoon School a success, then, because it became popular in the media and spread swiftly to hundreds of school districts? Or was it successful because it lasted for over four decades in Gary and evolved into the modern elementary school? Or was the reform a failure? After all, the Gary Plan soared in popularity, matured, and then vanished from the national scene. Few present-day school reformers would recognize the name or remember the program. The Gary story suggests the puzzling ambiguity of, if not confusion in, determining the “success” and “failure” of school reforms.

I argue that most highly touted school reforms today (e.g., charters, pay-4-performance, KIPP schools) are like the Platoon School. They are adopted and, as they are implemented, undergo changes that transform them in ways that few of the designers of the original reform could predict, or even claim ownership.

Because schools change reforms as much as reforms change schools, judging an innovation’s success or failure is no easy task. Such doubts, however, have hardly prevented policy elites (then and now) from rushing to judgment in employing their standards of judging success. Media amplify elite opinions, often framing the reforms as winners and losers. As a result, some promising reforms that evolve too slowly for impatient policymakers and media pundits are aborted while others that are earmarked as winners by opinion-setters in the horserace for public attention often fade and disappear. I argued that the judgment of “failure” is anchored in the time-scale each group uses–their “clocks” (see here and here)

The crucial piece to evaluating school reforms is asking : What standards are used to make judgments? Whose standards are they?  In subsequent posts I answer these questions.


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The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, Part 3

Practitioner time. If media time (see previous post) often looks like speeded-up Chaplinesque frames from 1920s films, then think of practitioner time as slow motion. One example should suffice.

As computers spilled into schools during the 1980s, news media carried stories of an imminent revolution in teaching and learning. Districts bought machines like popcorn, placing them in classrooms and labs.

In schools saturated with computers, some teachers were using machines for lessons a few hours a week. Even after media predictions of an impending revolution in teaching and learning, however, most teachers remained casual or non-users.

By the early-1990s,  in characteristic hastiness, media had already pronounced the “computer revolution” dead on arrival. That judgment was premature. Over decades, a slow growth in teacher use of computers has registered on the practitioner clock rather than the media’s and policymakers’ faster tick-tock of  months and a few years. With the ubiquity of tablets and laptops, computer devices are in the hands of first graders and Advanced Placement physics students. With the hyped-up push for “personalized learning” and online instruction,  the media clock is ticking as is the policymaker clock when policies for rebuilding district computer infrastructures for school teacher andstudent access. Devices have become part of the unfolding of daily lessons across the nation’s classrooms. “Failure?”

Lag times between different clocks is also evident when student learning is considered.

Student learning time. Reformers want students to learn more, better, and faster. But this student-learning clock doesn’t tick fast. It is a very slow-moving, difficult to read, and the numbers are out of order.

Because school-based learning cannot be separated from home-based learning (including high-tech devices), learning may show up years after formal schooling ended since children learn at different rates. Finally, school-based learning contains both intended and unintended effects. Most students, for example, learn to read, calculate, and write sufficiently to pass tests and leave school with credentials. But students learn much that goes untested: taking turns; handling anger in public situations; dealing with schoolyard bullies; not snitching; the rudiments of sex beyond formal lessons; and scores of other useful social knowledge and skills beyond the classroom curriculum. With all of these caveats about the student time zone, how can this clock be read at all?

Think of two hands on this clock. The big hand marks teacher grades and the annual standardized paper-and-pencil tests taken periodically during the school year. As standardized tests have become primary means of estimating student academic performance over the last four decades, the big hand is noted most often by media and policymaker clock-watchers. When a new program is launched in a flurry of publicity, test scores are inspected swiftly to determine effectiveness.

The second hand on this clock is much slower because of all the complications noted above. With the lag time of learning stretched over a student’s school career and the difficulty of sorting out intended from unintended effects, the second hand creeps across the face of the clock at a snail’s pace and often goes unnoticed.

Reading different clocks may help travelers, but it is unclear how reformers knowing that there are separate ones for media, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and student learning is practical. I offer two reasons why anyone interested in improving classrooms and schools across the U.S. should consider the metaphor of different clocks to get at the truth, not the myth of failed school reform.

(1.) Paying more attention to slower-paced clocks could shift public debate to substantial matters of classroom teaching and learning. The point of the tsunami of policy talk and attention given to charter schools, pay-for-teacher performance, and new technologies in recent years was to improve what happens between teachers and students. Yet somehow that purpose got lost in the media and policymaker time zones. Because public attention was riveted on those fast-paced clocks, impatience with the slowness of bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning time led to premature and inaccurate judgments of reform failure.

(2.) Those seeking school reform need to expect that important changes occur in slow motion.

The media clock, for example, is watched more closely by policymakers who respond to electoral cycles. The media clock not only identifies what policymakers ought to consider but also certifies that what is reported is legitimate and worthy of policy attention. Moreover, because fast-moving media clocks register more failures than successes–after all, a publicly funded flop will attract readers and viewers–reforms that get adapted and prove successful over time as recorded by the bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning clocks are less eye-catching, less newsworthy, and often over-looked.

As a consequence, concentrating on media time strengthens the belief that most school reforms fail. Policymakers come to assume that belief without fully questioning it. Public and practitioner faith in improving schools flags. Teachers and activist parents ask: What’s the use of trying anything different? Such a belief destroys professional and lay-reformer self-confidence and, worse, is inaccurate.

Slower clocks have become seriously devalued by policymakers. But such slow-motion time counts far more for students and their teachers than the faster-paced, high-profile media time or election-driven policymaker time. Reformers need to heed this fact–“The time-line of reform is longer than the shelf life of reformers.”*–and make it clear to those outside of classrooms and schools.

For these two reasons, those committed to school improvement need to ignore the myth of failed reforms and pay attention to other clocks that record the long journey of school improvement.


*Louise Waters, CEO of Leadership Public Schools, February 1, 2011


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The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, Part 2

In 1990, Seymour Sarason published The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. A decade later, Diane Ravitch’s Left Back:A Century of Failed School Reforms hit booksellers. Now, not a week goes by that failures of public school reform are dissected, tallied, and trotted out as exhibits for wannabe reformers. The next two posts re-frame school reform as looking at different clocks to show that the concept of reform  “failure”  has to include who makes the judgment and when.


In some upscale hotels over the registration desk, clocks show times across the globe.  Different time zones alert travelers to what time it is in the city they wish to call.

There are such clocks for school reform also. Different reform clocks record the different speeds of reform talk, policy adoption, what happens in classrooms, and what students learn. Were these clocks in public view, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers would see that changes in policy talk and action have occurred but at different speeds, some far too slow for impatient reformers to notice. Framing reform as being recorded by different clocks gives a glimpse into the myth of reforms constantly “failing.”

The myth, of course, has a history. It is anchored in commission reports (e.g., Nation at Risk), books (e.g., Left Back), and studies (e.g., Spinning Wheels) over the last century that document flurries of curricular, organizational, and instructional reforms. The myth also comes from the feverish rhetoric of entrepreneurial reformers who see failure everywhere in order to sell their particular product (e.g., “personalizing learning,”charter schools).

Yet the hyped policy talk, books, and documents seldom distinguish between major reforms that have stuck such as kindergartens, comprehensive high schools, coed and desegregated schools and those that have disappeared (e.g., educational radio and television, The Platoon School). Historians and thoughtful observers, however, have learned that school reform has a series of clocks that move at different speeds.

Media time. This is the fastest reform clock of all, ticking every day and week. What is  eye-grabbing and controversial registers on the media clock. Tweets, blogs, social media–and don’t forget newspaper and TV headlines–document immediate events and opinion, shaping and legitimizing what policymakers put on school reform agendas. Condom distribution in high schools, for example, received strong media exposure as a school policy aimed at solving teenage pregnancies. Policymakers talk about online technologies that will revolutionize teaching and learning.  In watching only the media clock, however, policymakers may wrongly conclude that what happens in one school happens everywhere and that what is reported actually occurred. And what didn’t happen in media time was evidence of “failure.”

Policymaker time. This clock chimes every year campaigns for national, state, and local offices crank up to re-elect incumbents or bring fresh faces to public posts. In some places, policymaker clocks tick faster when annual budgets or referendums come up for voter approval.

To offer a recent example, federal policymakers have defined schools as an arm for the economy. Since the 1990s, higher academic standards, copying corporate business practices, and advocating charters have been converted by top officials into campaign slogans. Presidents George H.W. Bush and son, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have pushed for world-class standards, charters,  and business-inspired reforms to raise students’ performance.

Policymaker time, then, runs on election cycles. “Failure” takes time. No Child Left Behind lasted nearly 15 years before it was replaced by Every Student Succeeds Act (2016).

Other clocks measure whether the overblown reform hype and adopted policies have turned into action, have been implemented. Enter the bureaucratic time zone.

Bureaucratic time. This clock records administrative actions aimed at putting policy decisions into practice. Often the hands of the faster media and slower policymaker clocks make a complete turn just as the bureaucratic clock passes the first hour. The lag between policymaker time and bureaucratic time occurs because of the complexity in converting policy into feasible, clear procedures for principals and teachers who do the actual work of schooling. The bureaucratic clock chimes when new rules are announced, revised budgets presented, and increased departmental coordination occurs. An example of how the hands on the bureaucratic clock are reduced to a crawl can be seen in desegregation.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) banned legally segregated schools. Studies recorded the tortured progress of judicial policymaking as state governors and local school boards across the South wrestled both peacefully and violently with implementing the decision—a school reform–between the 1950s and 1980s.  States and districts, prodded by federal court orders, slowly embraced open enrollment, busing, and other remedies for desegregating schools. Over time, district attendance boundaries were redrawn; schools were closed; magnet schools were opened. By the mid-1990s, a full four decades after the Brown decision, Southern and Southwestern schools had largely desegregated (except in big cities where re-segregation has occurred).Since then, de facto, not de jure re-segregation in many urban, suburban, and rural districts has returned.

The media, policymaking, and bureaucratic clocks, then, are seldom in sync. Important details that can spell the difference between “successful” and “failed implementation” take considerable time to craft and put into practice. Often political, demographic, and other non-school factors create greater lag time between the clocks making judgments of “failure” premature.

There are other clocks as well. The next post takes up practitioner and student learning clocks.


Filed under school reform policies, Uncategorized

The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, (Part 1)

Were the “Open Space” schools of the 1960s and 1970s a reform failure?.

Instead of self-contained, four-walled classrooms of about 900 square feet holding one teacher and 25 students that opened up into long hallways, school boards hired architects to design schools without walls with large open spaces—sometimes called pods– where teams of teachers would teach multi-age children, collaborate with one another nearby and come up with innovative lessons that would engage students and sustain academic achievement. The newly designed physical structure would alter traditional age-graded schools in organizing students (e.g., multi-age groups rather than separating children and youth by age) how teachers worked together (e.g., team teaching rather than teachers assigned to separate classrooms) and how they taught the required curriculum by tailoring instruction and learning to the differences among students in abilities and their needs (e.g., small groups, individual work, and crossing subject boundaries with thematic units rather than whole-group instruction, textbooks, homework, and tests). Student-centered teaching, not the familiar teacher-centered lesson–would become the norm, open space reformers assumed.[i]

e3 Civic High 4.jpg

Open space architecture and enthusiasm for innovative grouping of children, teaching, and learning customized to individual students spread rapidly across the U.S. In the Washington, D.C. area, for example,

The District of Columbia schools spent $163 million in the 1970s to build 17 open space schools. In the same decade, Arlington County (VA) spent $25 million to convert 13 traditional schools into open space facilities. Montgomery County (MD) spent $32 million to build t 21 open space schools and Fairfax County (VA) spent $48 million on 13 buildings that combined both open and closed space. [ii]


Yet within a decade, these open space schools had put up partitions, built walls and went back to self-contained classrooms where again traditional lessons reigned. By the end of the 1980s, open space schools were a prime example of a seemingly “failed” reform. [iii]

Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century. Open space architecture in brand new building and refurbished older buildings has reappeared. Fueled by the ubiquity of computer devices and rhetoric about new technologies in practice such as “blended learning” and “personalized instruction” new schools have been erected that have flexible space—common areas for clusters of classrooms, small conference rooms, and space for individual students to read alone, work on devices to see exercises and do exercises and write. Multiple-sized spaces have returned in many buildings for both students and teachers to use new technologies in daily lessons. These new spaces again promised that teachers would shift from traditional lessons to student-centered ways of teaching that differentiated instruction and involved children and youth in daily activities. [iv]


Does this historical recounting of the once innovative open space architecture in schools in the late-1960s mean that it was a “success” for a brief moment in time—a shooting star—but eventually “failed” because walls and self-contained classrooms returned by the 1980s? Or have open space schools “succeeded” in that they returned and have been adapted to the technological context of the 21st century?

This example of a once highly touted school reform disappearing and returning–and I can name many others including “new” technologies–raise serious questions about the time scale policymakers, researchers, and practitioners use to judge reform “success” and “failure.”

Subsequent posts take up how the concept of time itself prompts premature judgments of “failure.”


[i] Open space schools refers to the interior architecture of the school where large , medium, and small spaces can be used to accommodate large-group, small-group, and independent work by students and teachers. Often confused with open space schools are “open education” and “open classrooms.” Although these pedagogical reforms are linked, they are independent of one another.

Open education surged in popularity in the late-1960s as a British import of progressive way of teaching primary and upper-grade children through small-group and independent work, much student decision-making in choosing the “learning centers” they would move through during the school day in traditional age-graded classrooms. The role of the teacher was closer to a coach and guide rather than engaging in teacher-directed lessons, using textbooks, administering quizzes and exams, and assigning nightly homework. Many advocates of “open education” also promoted open space schools to get rid of the age-graded school thus linking the two reforms. See Larry Cuban, “The Open Classroom,” Education Next, 2(4), 2004, pp. 69-71.

[ii] Judith Valente, “Open Space Classes: Results Doubtful?,” Washington Post, December 11, 1979 at:

Howard Libit, “ ‘Innovation’ Still Besets Some Schools: 1960s Trend to Open Space Failed Quickly,” Baltimore Sun, October 8, 1995 at:

[iii] I served as superintendent in the Arlington (VA) Public Schools between 1974-1981. I visited schools and classrooms a few days each week and by the end of my first year, I noticed that in at least a half-dozen open space elementary schools built in the late-1960s and early 1970s, partitions made of book cases, newly installed accordion separators, and plastered walls had been erected to re-create separate classrooms for K-6 teachers.

[iv]Michael Horn, “Tear Down This Wall! A New Architecture for Blended Learning Success,” EdSurge, June 29, 2015 at:


Filed under school reform policies