A Significant Error in Policy Thinking

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the imminent re-opening of schools in the next few months, I re-visit a post I published nearly a decade ago about a significant error that policymakers have committed repeatedly in actions taken about teachers, teaching, students, and learning. The current crisis offers officials and practitioners an opportunity to reconsider past thinking about schooling. 

As a result of inhabiting a different world than teachers, policymakers make a consequential error. They and a cadre of influentials confuse teacher quality with teaching quality, that is, the personal traits of teachers—dedicated, caring, gregarious, intellectually curious—produce student learning rather than the classroom and school settings.

Both are important, of course, but policymakers and their influential camp followers have accentuated personal traits far more than the organizational and social context in which teachers teach daily. So if students score low on tests, then who the teachers are, their personal traits, credentials, and attitudes come under close scrutiny, rather than the age-graded school, the regularities in daily practices that accompany this organization, neighborhood demography, workplace conditions, and resources that support teaching. The person overshadows the place.[i]

In attributing far more weight to individual teacher traits rather than seriously considering the situation in which teachers teach, policymakers (I include civic and business leaders) end up having a cramped view of teaching quality. Quality teaching is complex because an essential distinction is masked: the difference between “good” teaching and “successful” teaching. Both “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of quality instruction and student learning. To lead us through the thicket of complexity, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson’s analysis of quality teaching.[ii]

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching. “Successful” teaching, however, is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the

Fenstermacher and Richardson point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning. “Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching.

In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning. In making this mistake, policymakers unintentionally snooker the public by squishing together ”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, support of family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. “No excuses” reformers (see above) glide over these other factors critical to learning. Current hoopla over paying teachers for their performance based on student test scores is an expression of this conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning and the ultimate deceiving of parents, voters, and students that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.

Not only does this policymaker error about quality classroom instruction confuse the personal traits of the teacher with teaching, it also nurtures a heroic view of school improvement where superstars (e.g., Geoffrey Canada in “Waiting for Superman,” Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver”, Erin Gruwell of “Freedom Writers”) labor day in and day out to get their students to ace AP Calculus tests, become accomplished writers, and achieve academically in Harlem schools.

Neither doctors, lawyers, soldiers, nor nuclear physicists can depend upon superstars among them to get their important work done every day. Nor should all teachers have to be heroic. Policymakers attributing quality far more to individual traits in teachers than to the context in which they teach leads to squishing together “good” teaching with “successful” learning doing even further collateral damage to the profession by setting up the expectation that only heroes need apply.

By stripping away from “good” learning essential factors of students’ motivation, the contexts in which they live, and the opportunities they have to learn in school–federal, state, and district policymakers inadvertently twist the links between teaching and learning into a simpleminded formula thereby mis-educating the public they serve while encouraging a generation of idealistic newcomers to become classroom heroes who end up deserting schools in wholesale numbers within a few years because they come to understand that “good” teaching does not lead automatically to “successful” learning. Fenstermacher and Richardson help us parse “quality teaching” into distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning while revealing clearly the error that policymakers have made and continue to do so.


[i] Mary Kennedy,”Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality,” Educational Researcher, 2010, 39(8), pp. 591-598.

[ii] Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson, “On Making Determinations of Quality in Teaching,” Teachers College Record, 2005, 107, pp. 186-213.


Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Schools Re-open in Israel

After nine weeks of closure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that schools be re-opened within 48 hours. On May 3rd the first phase of re-opening occurred. A national system of schooling, the Ministry of Education had issued numerous guidelines and directives for opening schools balancing health and safety with the need to get children learning and parents back to work.

But guidelines and directives are one thing; it is up to principals and teachers to do the daily work. Or as one teacher put it: “You can’t just turn on the faucet. You have to organize the school, disinfect the building, organize small groups, prepare lesson plans …. The most talented principal can’t do all this in the time allotted.”

And parents worried.

On the first day that Israel’s schools reopened nine weeks after closing to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Kalanit Taub’s 8-year-old daughter stayed home.

As a third-grader, her classes were among the first wave of those to resume. But her 10-year-old brother’s classes hadn’t yet resumed, and Taub was recalling how both children had been exposed to the virus at school back in March.

“If there is another exposure, what will we do?” she asked. “My husband and I are back to working at our workplace. Can we put the whole family in quarantine again? That would be hard. Can we put an 8-year-old by herself in a room for a week or longer while she is quarantined? If she gets sick, who would take care of her?”

The phased re-opening initially invited back children in first through third grades and students in the last two years of high school. Parents decided whether they would send their children to schools. Classes are capped at 15 (Israeli class sizes typically run near 30) and in daily session for five rather than the usual six hours a day. Children older than 7 must wear masks (see here and here). Keep in mind that about one-in-four Israeli students attend schools run by ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups.

Yet only 60 percent of enrolled children showed up on May 3rd. Some cities continued the shut-down; other cities complied. Below are some photos of children and teachers in schools and classrooms.

Israeli students wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the Coronavirus. 1st-3rd graders returned to school this morning, with keeping social distance inside of hte classrooms, wearing face masks (exempted for 1st graders) and showing off doctor’s notes at the entrance to assure they are healthy on May 3, 2020 in Jerusalem. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** למידה מרחוק חינוך חופש תלמידים לומדים מושב אפרת מסכות חזרה ללימודים
Ultra orthodox jewish kids study at an Ultra-Orthodox school founded by Rabbi Shmuel Stern in Jerusalem on May 6, 2020. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** תלמוד תורה בית ספר חרדים ילדים קורונה וירוס חרדים תלמוד תורה
High school class
Israeli high school class
Handing out masks to students
primary grade students
Israeli students at the Orot Etzion school in Efrat wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the Coronavirus. 1st-3rd graders returned to school this morning, with keeping social distance inside of hte classrooms, wearing face masks (exempted for 1st graders) and showing off doctor’s notes at the entrance to assure they are healthy. May 3, 2020. Photo by Gershon Elinon/Flash90

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How Dutch schools reopened with no pupil distancing (Linda van Druijten)

Linda van Druijten leads De Boomhut and OBS De Klaproos, a primary school and special educational needs school in Arnhem, Netherlands. This article appeared May 22, 2020 in TES, a British digital education company serving teachers and schools

On the first day, we had bubbles. Delicate, transparent bubbles floating across the playground.

Before we had opened, our 432 primary school pupils, our 152 pupils with special educational needs, our parents and all our staff had fears. But we spoke openly about these fears. We spoke as a community about how we would tackle these fears. And as a staff, we came up with creative ideas. Like bubbles.

School would be a very different place when the children returned – for a start, all pupils had to be dropped at the school gate. So, on day one, we brought out a bubble machine. Rather than being upset, or concentrating on the unusual nature of the school, the children looked up, were captivated, and wandered into school without an issue.

If I have one tip from the opening of Dutch schools for my English colleagues, it is: get yourself a bubble machine!

Dutch school reopening

Schools have been “open” here in the Netherlands since 11 May. We are allowed half groups – our classes have between 28 and 32 pupils, so on a given day we can have groups of 15 children in each class.

Unlike in the UK, the Dutch government told us that the children do not have to socially distance from each other, as we can see the rates of infections for under-12s are so low – there is such a small risk in them being in contact with each other.

So the children can play and touch each other; they can have normal friendships. We have a Group A and a Group B – half our pupils are in school and the other half continue remote learning, and they rotate across the week, one day on, one day off.

But the children do have to be 1.5 metres from the adults when in school, and the adults have to be 1.5 metres from each other. This is not always easy.

Social distancing

Those over 7 years old understand it all, and are pretty good at it. And we have very little reason to break that distance. But with the younger children? It’s not always possible.

At the beginning, my teachers said to me, if a child fell down and cut their knee, we would have to call an ambulance so people in proper protective equipment could assist that child. But we thought about it very long and hard, and we agreed we would pick up the child, and break the social distance.

And if a child cries, you can’t explain why you cannot comfort them – we decided we would comfort that child.

Low-risk strategy

The risks in both instances are so very low that we felt as a staff group that this was something we were willing to do.

It was the same with masks. At first, many staff members wanted to wear masks. But we discussed it over three or four weeks and we decided that we actually didn’t want to do that. If we wear masks, the children cannot see our expressions and none of us wanted to teach like that.

For all these things, we have a word for it in Dutch that means “safe but not safe”. Yes, the precautions are advisable, but they do not really keep us fully safe.

We have had no substantial absence problems. Less than 1 per cent of the children did not come in, so almost all our parents brought their children back into school.

Teacher anxiety

We did have some teachers who were anxious. They were worried about their vulnerable relatives, for example. For some of our anxious staff who had vulnerable family members, we reduced their pupil groups – we explained to parents that this was better than no teacher at all. We did this in our special education school.

As for the life of the school, learning is happening and the children are adapting. We started with very thorough routines. Handwashing, disinfectant, constant cleaning of door handles and toilets. After the first week, though, we relaxed. It is important that we are aware, but not to get too paralysed by the anxiety. We take it seriously, we remain watchful of symptoms, but we get on with our job; we are teachers and we want to teach!

Back to full classes

The Dutch government has now said that all children will be able to come back on 8 June. There is some anxiety again about this, but we will get through that the way we did before, by talking it through and agreeing on how to manage it as a staff.

What is clear is that all the teachers are happy to be back. They say that they don’t feel like teachers unless they are in the classroom with their pupils. That we can now do that is the most important thing – like the bubbles, it helps us to focus and gets our mind away from the fact that things are still not quite normal.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, leadership

Schools Closed for Five Years: The Prince Edward County Story (Part 2)

That the 2020 pandemic closed public venues including schools for three to six months across 13,000 districts in the country startled American families upending familiar daily routines. Most Moms and Dads had never experienced such a turnabout in their daily lives. Then many Americans learned of earlier influenza and polio epidemics when public officials closed schools during the first half of the 20th century.

But the vast majority of Americans know next to nothing about a Virginia county in 1959 that shut down its public schools until 1963.

That is what happened in Prince Edward County when an all-white school board, refusing a court order to desegregate, shuttered its schools and using public funds for vouchers and tax credits created a private white-only academy for students. That decision left black children and youth with no access to public elementary and secondary schooling for five years.

What did black families do when the doors to their schools were locked?

Black leaders, parents, students, and a few whites protested. The white-controlled Board of Supervisors and the County Board of Education, nonetheless, kept the schools closed.

Some families sent their sons and daughters to relatives elsewhere in Virginia where at least segregated schools were open, to families in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and on the East coast. Other parents, including some whites, dug deep in their pockets and funded small, part-time schools taught by volunteers meeting in churches and homes. Most black students, however, did not attend any school until the 1964 school year. They stayed home. Many worked in the tobacco fields with their parents.

The federal government finally got involved after the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Attorney General Robert Kennedy took immediate interest in the situation. He said:

We may observe with much sadness and irony that, outside of Africa, south of the Sahara, where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.” 

Robert Kennedy assigned Department of Justice officials to find ways to open County schools to black children and youth. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court found the vouchers that the Prince Edward County Board of Education issued to only white families to pay tuition to the private Academy were unconstitutional.

Federal officials then founded the Prince Edward Country Free Association of Schools. They needed one million dollars to provide schooling for black children and youth for one year. Because of missing years of schooling, students had reading and math levels scattered across the grades. The new schools would have to be ungraded so that students could move from one level to another after mastering content and skills.

Funded by donations from black and white families in other parts of the U.S., and foundation grants led to the creation of a high school and elementary/middle school housed in the previously all-black Robert Moton High School. A newly installed superintendent, Neil Sullivan who had led an affluent suburb near New York City and knew about non-graded schools, called for teachers around the country to staff these federally-run schools; dozens from all parts of the country volunteered. He assembled a biracial board of trustees and a similarly integrated faculty. As one account put it:

On Monday, September 16, 1963,the Free Schools opened and greeted 1,578 students,including four white students. The new student body took their education very seriously and in one instance refused to go home when the water supply from their school broke leaving them with no bathrooms. The students volunteered to just go in the woods rather than miss more school. The students faced an immense challenge catching up. Many of them had little instruction or opportunities to practice skills while the schools were closed for four long years. Many students and teachers got to school early, stayed late and even met on the weekends to try to catch up. Meanwhile, both students and staff were harassed on a regular basis by white supremacists but nothing would stop them from getting their education.

And many black students never returned to school. They found jobs in the fields, joined the military, got married and had families. Others were so far behind when schools re-opened that they came for a short time and dropped out. One journalist interviewed middle-aged janitors and tenant farmers in 2004 who had missed school decades earlier and found some whose futures were crippled by illiteracy.

Academic studies tracked former students into middle-age to determine the socioeconomic and political costs these men and women paid as a result of the school closure. Researchers looked at income levels, job histories, voting practices, and other indicators and compared those who could not attend school at all with those who received some schooling during the shutdown . Outcomes for the unschooled over decades showed dramatic differences with those Prince Edward students who had attended schools elsewhere (see here, here, and here).

School closures, then, is an instance of a man-made disaster quite different from natural disasters like the current Covid-19 pandemic. No hurricane or viral spread caused the Prince Edward County to shutter its schools. Racial rancor did.

Major differences between natural and man-made disasters are earmarks of the Prince Edward County story. The length of time out of school in the Virginia county differs with current estimates of months lost to American children rather than years. The power of schooling to affect adult earnings, behaviors, and civic actions becomes highlighted by this exceptional example. Looking to the past dredges up important instances when man-made disasters took a grave toll on one group of Americans.

In 2020, there are three schools in the still rural Prince Edward County–an elementary, a middle school, and a high school. Ranked in the bottom half of the state in academic performance, the district has just over 2,000 students. Black enrollment is 64 percent (2017).

Elementary School
Middle School
High School

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Schools Closed for Five Years: The Prince Edward County Story (Part 1)

Natural disasters have closed schools over the past century. Earthquakes and hurricanes destroyed Christchurch, New Zealand (2011) and New Orleans (2005). The Influenza pandemic in 1918-1919, polio epidemics in the 1940s, and currently the coronavirus-19 have achieved the same result in country after country across the globe.

In a nation were supreme faith in the power of schooling to produce individual success, where getting an “education” is the first item on the to-do list of native-born and immigrant families, sudden and sustained school closures carry huge psychic and social costs for both students and their families.

Short-term effects on children and youth range from “summer loss” in academic achievement to distaste for online instruction to angst and depression from prolonged lockdowns and absence of contact with friends. Effects on students and families are unrecorded for previous epidemics and are just now becoming apparent, particularly for single Moms and families with two working parents.

Long-term effects of these natural disasters remain unknown. And this is why the five year loss of public schooling for black students in Prince Edward County as a result of a man-made disaster–while far longer than school closures flowing from the pandemic–becomes relevant as a historical instance of learning what happens later to children and youth when they have lost five years of their schooling.


In 1951, in rural Prince Edward County, Virginia, Robert Moton high school student Barbara Johns led a walkout of black students protesting the conditions in the overcrowded building (housing 450 students rather than less than the 200 it was built for). This neglected, racially segregated high school in Farmville–the County seat of about 8500 residents–was not only at double its capacity but also lacked a library, science labs, and cafeteria.

“We held two or three classes in the auditorium most of the time, one on the stage and two in the back,” former Moton principal M. Boyd Jones told journalist Bob Smith in 1961. “We even held some classes in a bus.” Some classes met in tar-paper shacks, which the school board funded rather then build a new school. When it rained those shacks leaked, and when it got cold the potbelly stoves failed to keep children warm.

Teacher Vanessa Venable recalled students searching the woods before class for kindling to use in the shacks’ stoves to heat the buildings. In an interview Venable said, “I remember asking the Superintendent for toilet tissues for the outdoor john. He looked at me as if I was crazy and said, ‘Mrs. Venable, they don’t know how to use it anyway. Get a Sears catalogue.'”

The high school was indeed separate but hardly equal to the all-white high school also located in Farmville.

After the walkout, civil rights lawyers convinced the black parents who had sued the all-white County school board to join black litigants in Topeka, Kansas and other jurisdictions in a case that was moving toward the U.S. Supreme Court called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown that state laws establishing separate schools on the basis of race were unconstitutional. While the Court urged states to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed,” many Southern states (including Virginia) where de jure school segregation and Jim Crow laws had been in existence for over a half-century did little to nothing in the aftermath of the decision (see here and here).

Virginia’s response orchestrated by Democratic Senator Harry Byrd’s political machine, a long-time advocate of segregated schools, launched “massive resistance” to the court decision. The Virginia legislature, controlled by the Byrd machine, threatened to stop funding any county or city district in the state that desegregated its schools.

In 1959, federal and state courts declared “massive resistance” to the Brown decision unconstitutional. For the first time, a Democratic governor refused to support pro-segregation bills moving through the legislature. Then a federal district court judge ordered the Prince Edward County school board to move students from the all-black Robert Russa Moton high school to the nearby all-white high school. The all-white County school Board of Supervisors joining the state movement toward “massive resistance” refused to fund the public schools. The School Board then closed all of its schools and funded and built a private all-white academy. On the first day of the fall semester, yellow school buses took nearly 1500 white students to the private academy and left 1700 black students without a school to go to.

The public schools did not re-open until 1963.

Part 2 deals with the effects on black students of no public schooling for five years.


Filed under raising children, Reforming schools, research

Cartoons on Sheltering-in

Two months and counting of being at home during the pandemic. Cartoonists have had full license to comment upon what it is like to stay home with kids and pets, wear masks, and keep physically distant from friends and extended family. As states loosen restrictions, a new “normal’comes into view. Perfect recipe for cartoonists to wield their pens. Enjoy!


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About a Teacher (Robert Pondiscio)

Robert Pondiscio, author of How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, And The Battle Over School Choice, is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.This appeared in Education Next May 7, 2020

Few vocations have suffered more in the hands of Hollywood mythmakers than teaching. This is curious. Schools offer a familiar and fertile setting, and teaching is inspiring, aspirational work. There is rich potential for drama in student backstories or in a good teacher’s ability to change a child’s life trajectory. And say all you want about how teachers should be the guide on the side not the sage on the stage, there is a performative aspect to teaching that ought to lend itself to character-driven, compelling storytelling.

All of the elements are there. So why is it so hard to make a good teacher movie?

Mostly, it’s because, when the subject is school, filmmakers have never been able to resist swinging for three-run homers with one man on base. The clichés are legion: the inspiring maverick (Dead Poet’s Society) who unlocks the hidden brilliance of rowdy students (Stand and Deliver) while pushing back doggedly against the system’s low expectations (Lean on Me). Even worse is the subgenre of white savior teacher movies (Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds) set in inner-city schools. We’re so conditioned by these tropes that when struggling musician Hanan Harchol tells his father over breakfast in a New York City diner in the opening scene of About a Teacher that he’s taking a job as a high school film teacher “to support myself while I’m making my art,” we smirk.  Oh Lord, it’s Mr. Holland’s Opus. Here we go again.

To be sure, About a Teacher, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, follows the same story arc as other formulaic plucky teacher movies: a teacher of inner-city kids uses art to inspire students to tell their stories. But it makes a virtue of its small budget and human scale. The vast majority of the film is set inside the classroom, in the tiny apartment Harchol shares with his wife, or in diner conversations with his father. There are no big stars, no soaring soundtrack, no gritty mean street tableaus or tear-jerking grand finale. The movie it most closely resembles is The Class, a 2008 French film that was praised for its documentary style and verisimilitude.

The intimacy of the film enhances its credibility. It’s mostly about Harchol’s effort to master his craft and his struggles with student indifference and energy directed at anything other than what he’s trying to teach.  It’s nearly painful to watch him try and fail to get students to comply with even the smallest requests. The movie should carry a trigger warning for teachers who will be reminded of how draining it is to be a new and poorly prepared teacher.

Harchol’s interactions with his fellow faculty members will likewise bring knowing smiles (or grim nods) from teachers. You know these people: the overconfident colleague who tells the novice not to smile until Thanksgiving to show students he means business. The veteran who won’t even acknowledge the new guy since he won’t last (the opening credits note that 41 percent of New York City teachers leave within five years).  The humorless scold who has mastered behavior management but not her subject. The edgy and cynical banter in the faculty lounge. Harchol himself is the guy whose out-of-control class you walk past and feel sorry for. An officious supervisor is played to such icy perfection by Leslie Hendrix that when we learn she has been protecting and defending Harchol behind the scenes, it strains credulity. When she shows up in his classroom it is only to demand lesson plans and paperwork. Her professional development sessions are redolent with acronyms, bureaucratese, and demands for “higher order questioning” and pedagogical techniques that she seems not even to understand.

The only useful tips he gets come from a younger teacher, Ms. Martinez (Aurora Leonard). “Do you like your students? Do you talk to them?” she asks. It is only when Harchol starts to relate to his students as people (the movie is not 100 percent free from teacher movie clichés) that his and their performance begins to improve.

As Harchol, Canadian actor Dov Tiefenbach succeeds a little too well at being overwhelmed and frustrated. He is so lacking authority, presence, and the ability to project confidence, so physically overmatched by the job, that when he finally gets his feet under himself—in his third year in the classroom, not the third day—it seems implausible that he could have lasted so long without quitting or getting fired. The cognitive dissonance is only resolved at the end of the film with a montage of the real Harchol, who wrote, directed, and produced the semi-autobiographical film, with his students, many of whom won scholarships and cash prizes for their films and worked on About a Teacher. He looks the part.

Hollywood hasn’t nailed the teacher movie and perhaps never will. Classroom life is full of compelling characters and drama, but the scale is intimate, the pace deliberate and contemplative, not epic or explosive. The narrative arc of a teacher’s year unfolds slowly through hundreds of small actions and interactions. This puts filmmakers in a bind. Show too little, you reduce everyone to a tintype and character development feels forced and formulaic. Show too much and things slow to a crawl. There’s a rhythm to actual classroom life that is difficult to capture in two hours.

About a Teacher is not a perfect teacher movie, but it improves on the genre with its small scale, intimate focus, and attention to detail. It turns out that it takes a teacher to make a decent movie about a teacher.


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Teaching Remotely During the Pandemic

Cartoonists have acerbic pens. read some stories. In the New York Times, kindergarten teacher Rachel Miller in Georgetown, Massachusetts described teaching her class from home.

Last week, I ran my first virtual small-group kindergarten class. We read a book, practiced our letters and sounds, and did some math; all this to the tune of a dying, chirping fire detector, the clanging of dishes being put away, a dog barking and radio silence from the child whose audio wasn’t working. One student would disappear and return carrying her cat, then lie down on the couch, while another wriggled and squirmed, clearly uncomfortable in his too-big chair.

It was every bit as awkward and wonderful as I’d imagined. Not only did I see my kids, but I saw my kids in one of the most authentic ways possible: at home, in their space, with their families (and pets). Don’t get me wrong. Virtual teaching and learning is less than ideal. But I’m beginning to get a glimpse into the lives of my students outside of school in a way that has never been possible. Also, they saw my dog walk by in the background, and it dawned on them that teachers have houses and families, too.

In public schools across the United States, we rush and race to get through content to prepare students for a standardized test. All of it feels (dare I say, is) inauthentic and procedural, but on that Thursday, as I sat in my kitchen with three of my kindergartners, in all of its awkwardness and discomfort, all I felt was gratitude. I saw their smiling faces and knew that they were OK.

Inside Higher Education interviewed Kim Yi Dionne, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside about her teaching and research.

“I have done exactly zero writing,” said Kim Yi Dionne, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside. That doesn’t mean Dionne hasn’t been working in the last few weeks, however. She’s been transitioning her courses to remote formats and helping more senior colleagues do the same. How do you lecture via Zoom, they’ve asked her. How do you schedule office hours on Google Calendar?

As a scholar of public health, Dionne had the mental jump on many of her peers: she foresaw campus shutdowns weeks ahead of time and began to prepare. She was lecturing online and telling students not to attend class in person if they felt uncomfortable doing so, or ill, before it became official policy. Dionne also gave her graduate teaching assistants clear guidance on how to adapt their winter quarter grading, for their benefit as much as undergraduates’. Don’t sweat the details, she told her TAs. Focus on whether each student demonstrated learning, tried but didn’t quite get it and so on.

Dionne is also thinking about research projects — including those inspired by the present public health crisis.

But mostly, she said, “I’ve been trying to triage and think what responsibilities do I need to bow out of in order to make the next couple of months work.”

Dionne is convinced her own children, ages 7 and 12, will be out of school until the end the academic year. In the meantime, she is managing their homeschooling — no easy feat with two children who are several grades apart.

Dionne’s partner is also working from home and contributes; he does most of the after-school stuff and cooks dinner during the week.

The pandemic also coincided with Dionne earning tenure, so there’s less pressure on her to publish — for now.

Still, Dionne and others have noted that COVID-19 disruptions will disproportionately affect the careers of female academics given that women, on average, take on more household and child-rearing duties than men. And women already face bias in personnel decisions, especially in certain fields.

Such descriptions of the major shift from face-to-face teaching to distance learning are common in mainstream and social media in these strange days. What happens when schooling resumes during the summer and fall, few experts can say with any certainty. Don’t blame them, however,

Medical experts are in the same boat when it comes to knowing for sure all of the features of the actual coronavirus and its hit-and-miss effects across the world and within countries. Count the paradoxical outcomes thus far. Some tropical countries are spared, others have spikes in cases and deaths; developed countries with national health care systems the envy of the world get hit hard, others do not. Densely populated cities suffer enormous casualties while others escape with far less illness and fatalities.

Why the differences? Geography? Culture? Demography? Luck? No one in authority or any expert can say with confidence. Which means that opening businesses, schools, and “normal” activities is a roll of the dice. So why should teachers be any different in figuring out what to do while schools are closed and when they will re-open?


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, higher education, how teachers teach

The Class Divide: Remote Learning at 2 Schools, Private and Public (Dana Goldstein)

Dana Goldstein is a New York Times journalist who writes about how education policies impact families, students and teachers across the country. She wrote “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.” This article appeared May 10, 2020

For Rachel Warach’s class, the 133rd morning of first grade, numbered on a poster board behind her, was similar to all of the previous mornings.

Her students from across Chicago spent 15 minutes working quietly on math problems and writing in their journals. They split into small reading groups, with Ms. Warach bouncing between them to offer feedback. Later, there was an Earth Day discussion of “The Lorax” and a math lesson on sorting everyday objects — rolls of tape, coins, pens — according to shape.

There was a break for lunch and recess, followed by Hebrew class. All as Oisabel sprawled on the floor, Shira snuggled against her mom, and a father whispered to his son, “Can you take that blanket off your head, please?”

This is first grade at a private school determined to make remote education during the coronavirus as similar as possible to what it looked like before the pandemic. Chicago Jewish Day School provides four hours and 15 minutes of daily live instruction, including yoga, art and music. Students even do messy baking projects over Zoom, with parents as sous chefs.

It bears little resemblance to the more typical experience that Jacob Rios is having in Philadelphia, where he attends first grade at a public school, Spruance Elementary.

Jacob did not see his teacher via video screen until late April; the district spent the first several weeks of the shutdown focused on training staff members to use remote teaching tools, distributing laptops to students and getting meals to low-income families, which make up a majority of the district’s population.

Now Jacob’s teacher, Dolores Morris, meets with her students each morning for an hour — Jacob’s only live video instruction, according to his mother. About 11 of the 26 students in the class attend daily, Ms. Morris said.

A close look at these two very different first-grade classes in two of America’s largest cities shows how the coronavirus pandemic has done nothing to level the playing field of American education, and instead has widened the gaps that have always existed.

About 10 percent of American children attend private schools, not all of which have been leaders in online education. And there are disparities in the public system, too, where some schools have done much more than others to get online instruction up and running effectively. But what the pandemic has made clear is that remote education, especially of the youngest students, requires a rare mix of enthusiastic school leadership, teacher expertise and homes equipped with everything children need to learn effectively.

At Chicago Jewish Day School, students who need extra help are being tutored in phonics via Zoom, or meeting remotely with a social worker. The school has sent home books, dry-erase boards, markers and other needed supplies. Parents have provided the rest: internet access, iPads, and quiet study nooks in well-appointed homes filled with pianos, books and tasteful wooden play kitchens.

The system has been up and running since mid-March.

Remote learning at the Chicago school is not perfect. There are spotty Wi-Fi connections, stray emojis in the chat panel and children who wander away from the screen. But there is little doubt that in a nation of over 100,000 shuttered schools, these children continue to receive a luxury good — one whose list price is $28,000 per year.In Ms. Morris’s class in Philadelphia, Jacob is one of the more fortunate students. His mother, Brenda Rios, sits by his side to help him with assignments. She is off work from her usual part-time job preparing meals at a preschool. Because so many parents of the other students are essential workers — prison guards, cleaners, nursing assistants — Ms. Morris knows they may not be available to offer hands-on support. Still, she is trying to look on the bright side. “I’m thanking God that I can at least see their faces,” she said.

That is rare in the world of coronavirus-altered learning. The Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank, examined the remote learning policies of 100 public school districts and charter networks nationwide. It found that just 22 of them are requiring real-time teaching — and just 10 of those systems are teaching live in all grades, including early elementary school.

The country’s three largest districts, in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, are not requiring teachers to do any live video instruction, though some individual schools are choosing to do so.

It is a different story in many private schools, both independent and parochial. Although associations said they did not have any hard data on the average number of hours that students in their networks were receiving live instruction, examples from around the country typically show a gap with public schools.

The reasons are clear: Private school students are more likely to live in homes with good internet access, computers and physical space for children to focus on academics. Parents are less likely to be working outside the home and are more available to guide young children through getting online and staying logged in — entering user names and passwords, navigating between windows and programs.And unlike their public-school counterparts, private schoolteachers are generally not unionized, giving their employers more leverage in laying out demands for remote work. Some public school unions have won strict limits on video-teaching requirements, arguing that it can be difficult for educators to teach live from home when many are also taking care of their own children, whose schools and day cares are also closed. In Philadelphia, Ms. Morris, a 42-year veteran, is in her last semester before retirement, and it looks nothing like the farewell she expected. Nevertheless, she has thrown herself into learning the technology to teach remotely. Often, she is texting and emailing with parents while simultaneously interacting with her students via Google Classroom.

A recent Monday morning was devoted to a phonics lesson on the sound “oy.” Ms. Morris used Google Classroom to display vocabulary words on slides — “enjoy,” “soil,” “annoy” — and Jacob’s mother, Ms. Rios, helped him complete an online activity identifying the various spellings of the sound.

Ms. Rios, home alone with three sons, said she appreciated Ms. Morris’s dedication to her students at a difficult time. Still, the transition online had been rocky. At first, Ms. Rios was not sure how to operate the district-provided Chromebook. Since then, much of the day’s activity has revolved around worksheets and compliance checks, which can be maddening to submit online.

For one art lesson, Jacob watched a video about Vincent van Gogh, then had to fill out an “exit ticket,” writing what he had learned about the painter. Like any first grader, Jacob needed help to craft complete sentences on the computer. Then, after submitting his answer, Ms. Rios was required to click to another screen to report that he had finished the activity.

Sometimes during live lessons, Ms. Rios can see via the video feed that another child is confused — they have not opened the right window or clicked on the right link — and does not have an adult nearby to help them follow along.“I was almost in tears today,” she said. “It’s excruciating to watch that — a child who wants to learn and isn’t able to.” Ms. Morris, too, is frustrated by the limitations of online learning, especially by the fact that she cannot always see students’ reactions while she is presenting material to them, to check that they understand. She can tell that using the system is difficult for first graders, because even some strong students are submitting blank assignments, meaning they most likely did the work, but their answers did not get recorded.

In Chicago, there are many reasons the Jewish Day School was able to handle the transition to remote learning so well. The school closed for students ahead of most others in Illinois. That allowed administrators to spend several days, before the building shut down, training staff members on how to use online tools.

The school’s curriculum is based around hands-on activities and discussion, which means young children learning from home do not need to be as adept at typing as in schools that assign more structured, written worksheets.

And crucially, families in the school are generally stable economically and available to closely supervise their children’s education.

 Given the possibility that schools will remain at least partly closed in the fall, Chicago Jewish Day School is now marketing itself as a leader in remote learning, with a slick video aimed at parents. School leaders hope to increase enrollment at a time when requests for financial aid may go up as donations decrease because of the economic downturn. Already, 57 percent of families at the school receive some assistance with tuition.

Parents in Ms. Warach’s class said they had been pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of online first grade.Among them is Caroline Musin Berkowitz, a nonprofit manager, and her husband, a legal analyst. They are both working from their apartment while taking care of their two young children. Having 6-year-old Shira engaged with school for most of the day, sitting across from her parents at the dining room table with headphones on, provides some respite. The family has no qualms about re-enrolling Shira in the fall, even though they are not getting the exact experience they thought they were paying for.

“We made a choice to go with private school over public school for so many reasons,” Ms. Musin Berkowitz said, “and the idea of a global pandemic and school moving to online was not one of them.”

Now, she added, “I can’t even describe how beneficial it’s been.”


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Reform as Conserving What Is Good in Schooling (David Tyack)

David Tyack was professor of education and history in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University between 1969-2000. He died in 2016. Author of scores of books and articles, his One Best System (1974) has become a classic history of urban schooling. He and Larry Cuban wrote Tinkering toward Utopia (1995). This commentary appeared in Education Week June 23, 1999.

David Tyack, 06/1995

At a time when a pandemic has upended daily life including the closing of nearly all schools since mid-March 2020, school reform talk has accelerated to hyper-drive for altering existing practices and upending traditional ways of schooling well beyond health and safety measures. I thought that Tyack’s points in this commentary made over two decades ago, might be useful to consider during this momentous crisis.

The word “conservationist” has an honorable ring when citizens struggle to preserve wild nature or fine old buildings. When people work to preserve what is good in education, however, they are often dismissed as traditionalists or stand-patters. When real estate developers propose paving over wetlands, environmental activists protest. But when educational innovators want to transform educational practice, few ask what might be lost in the process. Government requires environmental-impact statements for construction projects, but not student- and teacher-impact reports for educational reforms. Who will be there to defend endangered species of good schools, or good educational programs, from the relentless, if zig-zag, march of educational progress?

Believers in progress through educational reform often want to reinvent schooling. The dead hand of the past has created problems for rational planners to solve in the future. Inspired by the progress syndrome, innovators often exaggerate defects to motivate by alarm, try to wipe the educational slate clean, and then propose a short time frame for their favorite projects, hoping to see results before the next election or job opportunity or grant proposal.

The word progress pops up everywhere, even in the rhetoric of conservatives who want to blame schools for economic problems. During the Reagan administration, the official American report on education for UNESCO was called “Progress of Education in the United States,” while the major tool for measuring achievement bears the name of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The ideology of progress through change obscures what a “conservationist” strategy illuminates: It is at least as important to conserve the good as to invent the new. It is easy to become so obsessed with what is not working–the cacophony of bad schools–that one forgets what makes many schools sing. Good schools are hard to create and nurture, for they require healthy relationships of trust, challenge, and respect, qualities that take time to grow. When teachers, students, parents, and administrators create such learning communities, a conservationist strategy seeks to preserve what makes them work, to sabotage ignorant efforts to fix what ain’t broke, and to share knowledge about how to grow more such places.

As I’ve talked with diverse people across the country, I’ve asked them what was their most positive experience in school. They may have forgotten whatever fad was sweeping education or the teenage culture, but they remembered key relationships, especially with teachers. They spoke, often with great warmth, about teachers who challenged them to use their minds to the full, who kindled enthusiasm for a subject, who honed their skills on the playing field with relentless goodwill, who were there to support them in times of stress or sadness, and who knew and cared for them as individuals.

When teachers were asked what were their greatest satisfactions in their own work, almost nine in 10 said helping students to learn and grow as social beings. It’s a sign of a school worth conserving when the best memories of its former students and the best rewards of its teachers are well-aligned. Such schools have grown not just in favored and prosperous places, but also in economically deprived but culturally strong communities, as Vanessa Siddle-Walker has shown in her studies of Southern black schools.

Conservationist does not simply mean conservative (though it can mean that). Conservationists in education would probably span as wide a political spectrum as those in the ecology movement, who range from radical members of Greenpeace to genteel Republicans active in the Audubon Society. Conservationism is an attitude, a habit of mind, not a political orthodoxy. It analyzes as well as advocates. It seeks to moderate the pendulum swings of policy that decree that schools should be larger (or smaller), that more (or fewer) courses should be elective, or that governance should be more (or less) centralized.

Many different sorts of people could take part in preserving what they find valuable in education. Intrinsic in the work of school board members, for example, is the duty to be trustees of the past as well as planners of the future. Teachers, parents, students, and administrators know first-hand what works in their schools and what they believe should be preserved, though endangered from time to time by fiscal retrenchment or a change in policy climate.

The conservationist cannot look only backwards, for preservation involves planning for the future as well. The work of the educational conservationist, like that of the defender of wild animals, is a challenging one. It takes resources and smarts and political savvy to preserve Mongolian Gazelles or good schools.

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Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies