Teaching with Technology in Public Schools

Since the early 1980s with the appearance of desktop computers in schools, questions about their presence in classrooms have been debated. Access to, use of, and results from new technologies have been central issues for a motley coalition of  high-tech vendors, technophile educators, and policymakers eager to satisfy parents and voters who want schools to be technologically up-to-date with other institutions. And this coalition has surely been successful in increasing teacher and student access to desktop computers, then laptops, and now tablets and smartphones.

First, a quick run through the initial goals and current ones in putting new technologies into the hands of teachers and students. Then a crisp look at access, use, and results of the cornucopia of devices in schools.

By the  mid-1980s, there were clear goals and a strong rationale for investing in buying loads of hardware and software and wiring buildings . Those goals were straightforward in both ads and explicit promises vendors and entrepreneurs made to school boards and administrators.

*students would learn more, faster, and better;

*classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized;

*graduates would be prepared to enter the high-tech workplace.

By the early 2000s, evidence that any of these goals were achieved was either scant or missing. It became increasingly clear that promised software in math and English fell far short of raising students’ test scores or lifting academic achievement. The promise of algorithms and playlists of programs tailored to each student’s academic profile had faltered then and even now remains a work in progress (see here, here, and here).

And the goal that learning to use hardware and software applications would lead to jobs in technology became another casualty of over-promising with few returns to high school graduates. That jobs were hardly automatic for those students who knew spreadsheets and BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) became obvious to students with diplomas in hand. By the 2010s, teaching coding to children and getting the subject of computer science into the high school curriculum spread across U.S. schools.

Those initial goals and rationale for flooding schools with new devices, lacking substantial evidence to support them, have now shifted to another rationale for computers in schools: Devices are essential since all standardized tests and other assessment students take will be on computers. Learning to use machines and applications in schools–including coding–will give a leg-up for graduates to get entry-level jobs in most businesses and industries.

The shift in rationales over the past three decades is another instance of techno-optimism that has plagued K-12 schooling for at least a century (think about the introduction of film, radio, and television into schools).

Beyond the shift in goals over the years, have changes in schools occurred (but not necessarily improvements) since the introduction of new technologies into schools? The answer is yes: expanded access to hardware and software; varied uses in classrooms; and ambiguous results.

Expanded Access

In 1984, there were about 125 students for each computer in U.S. public schools. In 1996, that ratio had been reduced to 10 students per computer. According to an OECD report, in 2012, the U.S. had two students per computer.

Of course, these are national averages. variation by state, in districts and schools exist. Over the past three decades, the huge “digital divide” between schools enrolling poverty- and non-poverty students has closed considerably but continues to exist. Most families have home computers with Internet access, some do not. Nearly all children have access to computers in school when they lack devices at home. Moreover,  smartphone access among students (particularly as they get older) rises to 95 percent with some differences due to race, ethnicity, and social class. For a teacher who started teaching in 1984 and retired 35 years later, she would have seen the availability of computers steadily increase to nearly one-to-one.

Varied Uses in Classrooms

Teacher and student use of electronic devices in classrooms range from the doing online worksheets to team and individual research projects. While there are differences in classroom use noted between schools enrolling low- and high-poverty children and youth, for the most part, depending on available computers (e.g. each student has one, classroom carts, Bring Your Own Device), teachers have students do many things with the devices they have in reading, math, science, social studies, and foreign language lessons. Students watch videos. They do individual worksheets on screens. They submit assignments to teachers electronically. They report on books and projects using PowerPoint slides. And on and on.

In 2016 when I observed 41 teachers in Silicon Valley schools recommended to me as aces who have integrated hardware and software into their lessons, I saw and then described what they did. In these lessons, tablets, laptops, smart phones were in the background not the foreground of teacher and student talk and activities. Devices were used routinely as paper and pencils had been in prior decades.

Ambiguous Results

Research studies continue to report findings that leave policymakers awash in doubt over the results of spending so much money on hardware and software. To say that the results of oodles of studies about outcomes of computer use in schools are mixed is to repeat a well-worn cliche about educational research (see here, here, and here).

With these fuzzy results, doubts emerge for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers about all of the monies spent for making new technologies available to teachers and students

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This condensed history of new technologies in public schools is my take on what has occurred. Others may interpret the past differently than what I presented here. Whatever interpretation readers may tilt toward, one policy question, however, remains from this swift recounting of the past decades.

Could funds that went for hardware, software, professional development of teachers and administrators, wiring of buildings and installation of Wifi, and replacement of obsolete hardware have been better spent on increasing capacity of teachers to teach effectively or reduction of class sizes, or other policy alternatives?

The question cannot be answered but doubts about technologies in schools, often hidden from public view, remain.

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Professor Quits Teaching Because of Students’ Use of Technology in Class

The combination of computer use, Internet, and smart phone, I would argue, has changed the cognitive skills required of individuals…. The student can rapidly check on his or her smartphone whether the professor is right, or indeed whether there isn’t some other authority offering an entirely different approach. With the erosion of that relationship [between professor and students] goes the environment that nurtured it: the segregated space of the classroom where, for an hour or so, all attention was focused on a single person who brought all of his or her experience to the service of the group.

Tim Parks, 2019

In the above epigraph taken from “Dying Art of Instruction in the Digital Classroom,” Novelist, literary scholar, and translator Tim Parks gives the reasons why he is leaving his professorship at the University Institute for Modern Languages in Milan, Italy.  Parks describes his experience with students using devices in his class teaching translation:

In the late 1990s, I had my first experience of students bringing laptops into the classroom. At that time, there was no question of their having wifi connections. Since these were translation lessons, students argued that their computers were useful for the fifteen or twenty minutes when I invited them to translate a short paragraph. They translated better on their computers, they said; they could make corrections more easily.

Nevertheless, I noticed at once the tendency to hide behind the screen. Who could know whether a student was really taking notes or doing something else? The tippety-tapping of keyboards while one was speaking was distracting. I insisted laptops be kept closed except for the brief period of our translation exercise.

When the University renovated classrooms with laptops at each desk, Parks requested an “old fashioned” classroom and got it until the University had no more such classrooms for Parks to use. Bad as that was for Parks’ struggle with students using laptops during translation lessons, the advent of the smart phone did him in.

I continued to fight my fight and keep the laptops mainly closed, and I was holding my own pretty well I think, until the smartphone came into the classroom….

So I have thirty students behind computer screens attached to the Internet. If I sit behind my desk at the front of the class, or even stand, I cannot see their faces. In their pockets, in their hands, or simply open in front of them, they have their smartphones, their ongoing conversations with their boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, or other friends very likely in other classrooms. There is now a near total interpenetration of every aspect of their lives through the same electronic device.

To keep some kind of purpose and momentum, I walked back and forth here and there, constantly seeking to remind them of my physical presence. But all the time the students have their instruments in front of them that compel their attention. While in the past they would frequently ask questions when there was something they didn’t understand—real interactivity, in fact—now they are mostly silent, or they ask their computers. Any chance of entering into that “passion of instruction” is gone. I decided it was time for me to go with it.

So Parks retired.

Is Parks’ experience as a professor in a Milan university who vainly tries to cope with students use of electronic devices common? I cannot answer for the European professoriate but there is data on U.S. faculty attitudes and actions when it comes to computers in classrooms..

There have been U.S. professors who have complained about student use of laptops and phones in their classrooms (see here, here, and here). Yet few leave the privileged job as Parks has done. Is he an anomaly, a singleton, or is he in one of the familiar categories that capture the range of classroom use by both professors and K-12 teachers?

For example, Everett Rogers divides users of innovation, in this instance, classroom technologies into groups. Put Parks in the laggard category.

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A recent survey of U.S. faculty attitudes toward technology use in their classrooms, however, would place Parks in a tiny minority of just over 10 percent of faculty. That same survey puts 90 percent of tenured professors describing themselves as early adopters or inclined to adopt when seeing peers using classroom technologies effectively.

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I cite Tim Parks’ experience as a professor to illustrate the many changes–I do not use the word “improvements”–that have occurred in higher education’s embrace of classroom technologies. That embrace has been duplicated and enlarged among K-12 teachers. I take up access, use, and results of putting technology in public schools in the next post.

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Whatever Happened to Madeline Hunter?

I used to think teachers were born, not made … but I know better now. I’ve seen bumblers turned into geniuses, while charismatic characters turned out happy illiterates.” Madeline Hunter, 1991

A former teacher and elementary school principal, and professor of educational administration and teacher education at University of California, Los Angeles, Madeline Hunter developed a model of teaching that combined instructional techniques applied to all academic subjects across elementary and secondary school classrooms. Called Instructional Theory into Practice (ITIP), the teacher-centered, direct instructional model was anchored in, according to Hunter, psychological learning theory and educational research. Academic content was important as were specific student objectives on what they were to learn and the sequence of techniques teachers were to use to reach those content and skill objectives (see here and here).

Hunter’s gift was to convert this model of “mastery teaching” into seven key features that every teacher had to cover within a lesson.  A common template for a “Hunter Lesson” looked like this:

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Administrators and teachers adopted this design for lessons across the country at a time when pressure for students to learn more, faster, and better in reading, math, and academic subjects had increased. Higher curriculum standards and more standardized tests raised the stakes for both teachers and students. So Hunter lesson plans spread.

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In the late-1970s and 1980s, professors taught this research-based model of “effective teaching” to their students; some school superintendents and principals mandated teachers to use the lesson template even including it in annual evaluations, and districts mounted extensive professional development programs.

In Pittsburgh (PA), for example, between 1983-1989, staff development center at Schlenley High School brought nearly one thousand teachers in 11 other district high schools to spend eight weeks learning the Madeline Hunter approach to lessons, content knowledge in their discipline, and ways to improve their teaching through seminars, observations of master teachers, and conferences. After eight weeks, teachers returned to their high school assignments. District evaluations posted high teacher satisfaction with the experience, evidence of many difficulties after they returned to their classrooms in implementing the approach, and teacher reports of gains in student test scores.

Checklists of lesson features appeared and were applied in tens of thousands of classrooms. Schools and classrooms became “Hunterized” (see here and here).

What Problems Did the Hunter Lesson Plan Intend To Solve?

The perceived lack of rigor in teaching content and skills became identified as a problem just before and after A Nation at Risk was published in 1983. To get students to learn more, teachers had to increase their skills of implementing lessons that demanded more of their students and doing it in ways that engaged even the most reluctant of them. The problem of students not learning enough–as international tests had displayed–encouraged the adoption of ways to get teachers to achieve “mastery”and  be more “effective” in their instruction.

What Did Hunter Lesson Plans Look Like in Practice?

David Kirp observed a lesson using the Hunter template in Los Angeles elementary school enrolling mostly poor and minority students in 1990.

In Karen Dawson’s class of second- and third-graders, 20 children are sitting on the carpeted floor. Each has a small wooden board, piled high with loose beans and tubes of 10 beans called bean sticks. “Boys and girls,” Dawson announces, sounding like Mister Rogers, “we’re going to practice putting beans together. When you’re ready to go, put your hands on top of your head.” Forty hands shoot skyward.

The lesson is about adding tens, made concrete with the bean sticks, and ones, represented by the individual beans. Dawson proceeds according to pure Hunter technique, using the seven-step lesson plan with positive reinforcement for right answers and attentive behavior. Step one is a quick review; then comes step two, an account of what’s to come.

“Yesterday, we practiced trading beans for bean sticks,” Dawson says, “and today I’m going to trick you sometimes. Sometimes you’ll trade, sometimes not.”

Dawson calls out problems–“Build this number: 16,” then “Build nine”–and translates them into beans and bean sticks herself. These are the third and fourth steps, what Hunter calls explanation and “modeling,” with the teacher identifying the main concepts and demonstrating them.

After solving a few problems herself, Dawson asks the questions, then calls on students to check for their understanding. This is step five. Doing things this way rather than singling out a child before posing the question, Hunter says, means all the minds are in gear. If problems surface at this point, the lesson can be retaught.

Dawson walks among the youngsters, reviewing each student’s work individually. Most have it down pat, and the teacher says “great job” to Beatriz, Kimiko and Diana, naming them for praise as Hunter urges.

“How do we add three plus four?” she asks Josh, a shy boy who puts his hands together prayerfully. “Can you tell me the answer? Right, that is the answer. Now build six.”

This question-and-answer session is what used to be called recitation. Hunter labels it “monitored practice,” step six, with the teacher catechizing students on what they have been taught. The seventh step invites the youngsters to solve problems on their own.

Kirp comments are critical of the lesson revealing his bias on how this teacher should have taught the lesson.

The point of this math lesson is not to encourage creative thinking. Dawson never asks the students how they got from nine plus six to one bean stick and five beans. Nor does she invite students to see that the beans could represent pennies at the store or miles traveled in the family car. Instead, this lesson seems designed only to elicit the right answer.

Did Hunter Lesson Plans Work?

For anyone following this blog, I have written over a dozen posts on “Whatever Happened to….” Those readers know that my answer to this question often is either “it depends” or the findings of research studies are mixed. Implicit in the hype and reality of Madeline Hunter lesson plans, however, is that if they are followed carefully and executed correctly student academic achievement will increase. That is, test scores will rise. On that point, results are, indeed, mixed (see here, here, here, and here)

What Has Happened to Hunter Lesson Plans in Schools?

As one would expect with school innovations, the teaching reforms Hunter favored in planning and executing lessons ran into much criticism over its emphasis on direct instruction, relative neglect of student agency in making choices, and the behaviorist cast to teaching that she advocated (see here, here, and here).

By the mid-1990s a few years after Hunter died, the lesson plan template, professional development workshops, and teacher education professors advocating the approach diminished and by the early 2000s, ITIP and lesson plan templates seemingly fell of the edge of the reform table.

Yet in the past decade, evidence of Hunter’s influence can still be seen in the continuing support for direct instruction and teachers–both new and veteran–using versions of the lesson template that Hunter had created (see here, here, and here,).

While the adjectives (“Madeline Hunter”) are mostly gone, the noun (lesson) continues to be the core of what a teacher plans and does in her classroom. The lesson is the meat-and-potatoes of teaching. And for over a century, teachers used lessons to conduct teacher-directed classroom work (see here, here and here).

A lesson before Madeline Hunter appeared on the educational landscape and after she left still contained goals and objectives for the 50-90 minute lesson, a review of the previous lesson, the key questions that were to be asked, what instructional materials (texts and software) were to be used, activities (whole group, small group, and independent) students engaged in, and assessments to determine how much students understood. The lesson was the map for the teacher-directed class.

And it was Madeline Hunter’s lesson plans and approach in the 1970s and 1980s that enhanced the dominant teacher-centered instruction that characterized U.S. schooling for nearly a century. Sure, the lyrics and melody may have changed here and there, but it was still the same song.

Yet in the past decade, evidence of Hunter’s influence can still be seen in the continuing support for direct instruction and teachers–both new and veteran–using versions of the lesson template that Hunter had created (see here, here, and here).

The Madeline Hunter approach to teaching and her lesson templates added to and strengthened familiar ways that teachers had taught before, during, and after her name-brand disappeared.

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School Principals I Have Known

Although I have never served as a principal, I have been a student under three elementary and secondary school principals and worked for six high school principals as a teacher. As a district superintendent, I supervised and evaluated nearly 35 elementary and secondary school principals. Since the 1980s, as part of school-based research studies I have completed, I observed at least 20 different principals do this crucial (and often overlooked) job. So from below as a student, above as a superintendent, and next to as a researcher, I have seen principals up close and personal.

I have written in this blog about the core roles that principals must perform (see here, here, and here). In this post, I describe my experiences with one of those six principals I worked—I was going to write “under”–but decided that a better word for my experience with Oliver Deex is “with.” Those years with Deex helped shape me intellectually, grounded me in practical classroom experience, and gave me a perspective on school reform. How common my experience as a teacher was with this unusual man, I do not know.

First, some personal background.

I was the third son of Russian immigrants. I saw that my brothers who had to work during the Great Depression to provide family income and then serve the country in World War II lacked the chances that I had simply because I was born in the 1930s and they were born in the 1920s. Because sheer chance made me the youngest, I did not serve in World War II; because I had polio as a child, I could not serve in the Korean War. So I finished college in Pittsburgh and became a teacher in the mid-1950s, landing a job on Cleveland’s East side. I had been hired to teach high school history a few days before Labor Day–the traditional end of the summer and beginning of school. I hurriedly packed and drove to Cleveland.

Meeting with Oliver Deex, Glenville High School’s new principal at a local deli the weekend before school opened in 1956, was a new experience for me. I had never met with a principal one-on-one since I was a student in high school and the reasons then had nothing to do with my teaching responsibilities.

Talking with Deex, I was startled to find out that the school was over 95 percent black—the word then was Negro—and that he, too, was a tad nervous moving into his first high school principalship after leading a nearby junior high school. He told me  about segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the expanding black ghetto on the East side and the pristine white ghetto on the West side with the Cuyahoga River separating the two. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the city’s numerous ethnic and racial ghettos.

Although I had grown up in Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, my memories of being one of a handful of white children in the neighborhood  elementary school were unpleasant and not calculated to instill sensitivity. Moreover, in 1955, I saw the popular film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Glenn Ford as an idealistic high school teacher—yes, I identified with Ford—and Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier as cunning adolescents smoking in bathrooms and becoming lethal toward teachers such as Ford. The film shook me up as did the music: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” played loud and continuously throughout the film.

Haltingly, I asked him questions about how many classes I would be teaching—five, he said. How large the classes were—between 25-30, he said. Then, he asked questions of me since he knew nothing about his new hire which is why he invited me to the deli. I told him about my background and eagerness to teach history. From that initial conversation with Deex, a working relationship evolved  between  a principal in his late-50s  and a 21 year-old rookie teacher.

In the first few years, I was a politically and intellectually naïve teacher pushing my unvarnished passion for teaching history onto urban students bored with traditional lectures and seatwork. At Glenville High School, I designed new lessons and materials in what was then called Negro history (see here). My success in engaging many (but not all) students in studying the past emboldened me to think that sharp, energetic teachers (yes, like me) creating and using can’t-miss history lessons could solve the problem of disengaged black youth. My principal supported my efforts by getting me a ditto machine, paper, and speaking to downtown district officials about what I was doing.

A former stock broker who after the crash of 1929 turned to education to support his family, got his degrees, taught, and then entered school-site administration, Oliver Deex was a voracious reader,  charming conversationalist, and skeptical of district office policies aimed at school improvement. I was a college graduate but had never seen Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others magazines. Why he took this interest in me, I have, until this very day, no idea. But he did.

His insistent questioning of my beliefs and ideas and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching. Our monthly get-togethers to discuss books and articles left me with a great hunger for ideas and intellectual growth the rest of my life. And not only me.

Deex often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing more and more Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. This group of teachers and one counselor stayed together as an informal group for the seven years I taught at Glenville and even morphed into a social group around making investments and bringing spouses into the mix of teachers.

Oliver Deex took an intellectual interest in me and supported me in my efforts to get a masters in history, apply for a one-year fellowship at Yale, and scrounged funds from the school budget and downtown officials to advance what I was doing in my classes.

Today, Deex would be called a “mentor.” He supported, prodded, and encouraged a young teacher to grasp ideas and apply them to life and teaching. It was not part of his job description and surely went unnoticed by his superiors. But it had enormous influence on my life and career.

I suspect that many principals across the country do the same with rookie teachers today. I hope that those teachers would honor their mentors as I do here in this post.

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Metaphors for School Change

For a quarter-century, I have taught graduate students, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members about the complexity of the word “change.”

The embrace of planned change (one can substitute “reform,” “progress” or “improvement”) as an unvarnished good, particularly in public schools, is understandable in the U.S. The idea of change in of itself is highly valued in the culture and daily life (e.g., fashions, music. and automobiles get re-worked annually. Reinventing one’s self is common. Moving from one place to another is a national habit. Standing in line overnight to buy the most recent technology is unremarkable. Change is equated with moving forward to material or spiritual success (or both). Opposition to whatever planned change is proposed in a family, workplace, school, or community is often clothed in negative labels such as “resistance” or “supporting the status quo.”

Moreover, most Americans do not distinguish between different kinds of planned change such as incremental (or first-order) and fundamental (or second-order). The latter term is also called “transformational” or “radical”. Surface and deep changes do differ (see here, and here).

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While getting most adults to grasp the concept of change as being highly prized in American culture is easy enough, differentiating between these kinds of planned change (and the how “change” morphs into “reform” among policymakers), is much harder. I believe that making these distinctions is crucial to understanding intentional change especially in education. I have worked hard to do so. But it has been a challenge to me as a teacher and writer.

Over the years I have used the image of a jalopy.

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Incremental change means sanding and re-painting the old car. Getting a tune-up, new tires, and replacement car seats for the torn ones–you get the idea.

Fundamental (or transformational or radical) change, however, refers to giving up the car and getting a different kind of transportation–biking, bus or rapid transit, walking, car pooling, etc.  This metaphor for distinguishing between kinds of change was adequate but not sufficient in getting students and practitioners to not only see the differences but apply both to their organizations.

So I have constantly looked around for a better metaphor. I may have found one. An article about health care in the New York Times captures the differences between incremental and fundamental changes by using the metaphor of an old home than a jalopy.

Bear with me. Here is what a house might look like with all of the various health care plans Americans have that needs improvements (CHIP in lower left corner refers to Children Health Insurancee Program).

 

Journalist Margot Sanger-Katz, introduced the above drawing with these words:

Imagine the United States health care system as a sort of weird old house. There are various wings, added at different points in history, featuring different architectural styles.

Maybe you pass through a wardrobe and there’s a surprise bedroom on the other side, if not Narnia. Some parts are really run down. In some places, the roof is leaking or there are some other minor structural flaws. It’s also too small for everyone to live in. But even if architecturally incoherent and a bit leaky, it still works. No one would rather be homeless than live in the house.

Congressional Republicans in their strenuous efforts to end Obamacare have, as of two years ago, failed 70 times. They have no plan yet.

The current crop of Democrat candidates and leaders in Congress, however, have a raft of plans that try to re-do the above house incrementally and fundamentally. For example, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives put forth a plan that would incrementally alter the above “weird old house.”

About this drawing, Sanger-Katz said:

The most limited Democratic plan, championed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, would deal with the house’s biggest structural issues. It would lower the cost of health insurance for more people and fix some glitches in Obamacare’s design — the home construction equivalent of patching the roof, fixing a saggy porch and repainting. Residents could remain in the house while such minor repairs took place. These changes would not cost a ton of money. The house would still be weird. There would still be some people without a place to live.

 

Then there is the plan that former Vice-President has set forth that does more than Pelosi’s to the house.

 

Mr. Biden, too, would patch the roof and upgrade the windows. But he’d also put on a big new wing: an expansion of the Medicare program that would allow more people to join, sometimes called a public option. Everyone living in the house can stay while the renovations take place, though there might be disruptions. It would cost more, more homeless people would now fit in, and some living in the weirder wings might move into the new addition. People would pay for housing through a mixture of taxes and rent.

All of the above are incremental changes. re-painting, fixing the porch, adding here and there, the house is certainly improved. But the renovated house is still recognizable albeit in far better shape than it was.

Then there are the health insurance plans–Medicare for All–proposed by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The drawing is different now since these plans propose fundamental changes.

 

Sanger-Katz described this plan (Senator Kamala Harris’s plan is a variation of this) as follows:

Bernie Sanders wants to tear down the weird old house entirely and build his dream home. It would be enormous and feature many wonderful amenities. When done, there would be no homeless people at all, and everyone’s bedrooms would look exactly the same. The weirdness would be gone. But the entire old house would be gone, too, which some people might miss, and there could be unanticipated cost overruns in the construction. Some people might not enjoy the aesthetics of a modernist villa. While no one would have to pay rent in exchange for housing there, most people would have to pay more in taxes so the government could maintain the property.

This would be a fundamental change, no more a “weird old house” but a completely transformed one.

OK, what do you think of the “weird old house” metaphor as compared to the jalopy in explaining incremental and fundamental changes in schooling?

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Why Can’t All of Education Look Like This? (Greg Toppo)

From time to time, readers say “Enough, Larry,  about the ubiquity and longevity of age-graded schools and their rules and rhythms or the ‘grammar of schooling.’ ” A few say it is too pessimistic about school reform and plays down efforts to alter the dominant age-graded organization.

Sure, I get defensive and reply that I am a realistic, no, I am a tempered optimist about what thoughtful, passionate educators create in making an age-graded school a “good” one even within a severely flawed, larger political and socioeconomic system that maintains under-funded, re-segregated schools across the nation.  

Then I may go on to point out pieces I have written about the need to have many “grammars of schooling,” not just one. I also write about those uncommon instances of districts and schools, past and present–public and private–that have not only instituted major efforts to alter the prevailing model of schooling but also sustained them over time. I write about such efforts because I  know what has occurred before in school reform.

None of this criticism of age-graded schools or efforts to incrementally improve or even overturn the abiding model is new. A century ago, a wing of the educational progressive movement produced schools that challenged the then dominant model. John and Evelyn Dewey wrote about such innovative schools in Schools of To-Morrow (1915).  There has been this back-and-forth volleying between ardent supporters of the age-graded school and its critics ever since. The following article is within that tradition.  I believe that such efforts will continue long after this blog disappears.

And from that constant creation of different ways to teach and learn within age-graded schools, I sustain my hope. A hope tempered by my experience and research, to be sure, that students in such schools will learn and grow into adults who appreciate that tax-supported public schools are not only politically vulnerable institutions shaped by the larger socioeconomic structures and culture but also a precious public good. Is that the best you can do, Larry? Yes, it is.

This article appeared in The 74 on September 17, 2019

 

In 2013, attorneys at the California Innocence Project, weighed down by a backlog of casework, turned for help to an unusual group: humanities students at High Tech High Chula Vista, a nearby charter school.

The students, all juniors, trained on a past case handled by the San Diego nonprofit, which reviews pleas from prisoners who maintain they’re innocent. Then, in teams of three or four, the students reviewed prisoners’ files and ultimately presented them to Innocence Project attorneys, with a recommendation to either champion a prisoner’s case or take a pass.

The project lives on with a new group of students each year, buoyed by a strain of progressive education philosophy that says students learn best with real work that resembles what they will likely encounter outside of school. It has been kicking around K-12 education for decades but has yet to be widely adopted. In recent years, however, the idea has quietly gained ground as more schools try project-based learning and subscribe to a philosophy known as “deeper learning.”

But does it work?

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor emeritus David Perkins calls it “playing the whole game.” He sees it as an alternative to schools’ traditional approach, which often presents students with atomized, decontextualized pieces of a subject. He conceived of the idea after thinking about the most meaningful experiences he had in high school, which were mostly “outside of the conventional curriculum”: drama, music, science fairs and the like. These and other large scale endeavors, he said, “seemed more meaningful and I reached out for opportunities.”

Laid out most fully in his 2010 book Making Learning Whole, the idea goes something like this: Let students do something big and useful, from start to finish — perhaps a simplified version, but keep it intact. Give them extra help and lower stakes and they’ll work harder, learn more and come up with creative applications and solutions that adults couldn’t imagine.

Though it has yet to be widely adopted outside of project-based schools, “playing the whole game” has quietly thrived for generations in another context: afterschool activities, from team sports to debate club, drama productions and marching band.

“We know intuitively that when we get really serious about a domain of education, it looks more like this,” said Jal Mehta, also a professor at Harvard’s education school.

When students go out for the baseball team, they get an attenuated version of baseball, but they go out each time and play the entire game. “It’s not ‘baseball appreciation,’” Mehta said. Likewise with just about anything that takes place after school.

Afterschool activities also offer a system that supports teachers. Imagine, for instance, a classroom art teacher who wants to mount an exhibition of student artwork. She’d need to figure out how to give students longer blocks of time to complete the pieces; find an exhibition space, and arrange it for exhibition night. Finally, she’d need to get people to attend.

“Now imagine you’re that same teacher and you’re directing a play after school,” Mehta said. “Basically, you need the same things.” But in most schools, these pieces are already in place: long rehearsal blocks, a dedicated performance space, and the expectation that students will annually mount a version of a big Broadway musical and the community will show up to see it. All of that support, he said, is already built in.

“The question we should ask ourselves is: If that’s the kind of method we use when we really want someone to learn something, why don’t we use those methods the rest of the time, for the rest of the students?” Mehta said.

Chris Lehmann, principal and co-founder of Science Leadership Academy, a small public high school at the edge of Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood, said afterschool experiences have another plus: They have student choice “baked-in.”

“You’re getting the kids somewhere they want to be,” he said, “so you already have an advantage there.” These experiences are also usually built around a performance of some sort, with a natural structure, deadline and audience.

Mehta said the best examples he has seen during the school day are in science classes. In one school, instead of “imbibing scientific knowledge that was discovered long ago by famous scientists,” sophomores learned about the scientific method and designed rudimentary experiments — he remembers one that asked whether studying while listening to music through earbuds produced better or worse results.

“That’s not an earth-shattering question, but it’s a real question,” he said. In the process, students learned how to develop a hypothesis, gather data, review the literature and write up their results. By 11th or 12th grade, they were doing more advanced work, including partnering with nearby labs, he said. But students credited the sophomore-year course for getting them excited about — and familiar with — experimentation. “It was the place where they really learned how to do science,” he said.

Sarah Fine, who directs High Tech High’s graduate teaching apprenticeship and who last spring co-authored a book about deeper learning with Mehta, said the larger goal of “playing the whole game” is a kind of authenticity that often eludes students, especially in high school. “Ultimately, school is a contrived situation. There’s no way around that,” she said.

Fine recalled a student once saying to her, “‘Ms. Fine – school is just fake.’ He’s right – school is fake. We are designing experiences for the sake of kids’ learning.”

Yet the goal of the Innocence Project work isn’t necessarily to make students into lawyers. It’s to give them the sense that there’s “some professional domain that has rules and rhythms to it,” as well as a base of knowledge, she said. “It just has to feel real enough to kids — it has to be resonant enough with the real world that it compels them to feel like it’s worth engaging with.”

The students who reviewed prisoners’ cases “talked about feeling like they sort of had people’s lives in their hands,” Fine said. “And that is not a feeling they’d ever had in school before, that something they were doing had real consequences for people beyond themselves.”

Rebecca Jimenez, 18, who graduated last fall from High Tech High Chula Vista, said the Innocence Project gave her sense of working on “an important cause.”

The more research she did on each prisoner’s plea, the more engrossed she became. “I wanted to keep reading and understand the person’s story,” she said. Eventually, she and her classmates would research a case that resulted in a judge throwing out a 20-year-old murder conviction and handing down new charges against the suspect’s nephew.

Novices vs. experts

One important aspect of “playing the whole game,” Mehta said, is interacting with professionals in the real world. “If you do an architecture project and you have real architects examining your work, that’s project-based learning. But it’s really powerful project-based learning because you’re not only showing students something about architecture. It gives them a conception: ‘I could be an architect.”

But Tom Loveless, a California-based education researcher and former director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, advises caution. “Generally speaking, I think we should be skeptical of the whole idea,” he said.

For one thing, playing the whole game confuses novices with experts. “A novice can’t ‘play the whole game’ because a novice doesn’t know the whole game. In order to learn most games, you have to learn the bits and pieces that go into knowing the whole game. And with project-based learning in general, the idea is that you’re giving kids projects to do in order to learn about a particular topic.”

That’s a mistake, Loveless said, since students typically require “a tremendous amount of background knowledge” before they can execute a respectable project on, say, World War I. Without deep background knowledge, he said, “you have a lot of novice learners kind of sharing their ignorance and having a shared experience out of their ignorance — and there’s no guarantee … that they’re necessarily going to gain knowledge, because you’ve left all that in the hands of the students themselves.”

Harvard’s Mehta said “playing the whole game” actually demands more of teachers, implicitly asking them to be not just familiar with a subject but to remain, in a sense, practitioners. Just as we’d expect a good drama director to direct community theater on weekends, so do these schools expect the same of subject-matter teachers: English teachers who publish poetry or novels, or art teachers who sell their paintings, and so on.

Loveless said he hasn’t seen good evidence that students will necessarily enjoy school more if it’s inquiry-based. “It could be that exactly the opposite is true. It could be that actually what kids like is a lot of structure to the presentation of learning. They like the teacher taking responsibility for that.”

A bigger problem, he said, may be that because project-based learning tends to minimize the importance of prior knowledge, “playing the whole game” might work better in wealthy areas or in private schools, where students arrive with a measure of background knowledge about, for instance, World War I or how defense attorneys work. Elsewhere, it’s a riskier strategy.

SLA’s Lehmann would disagree. His school boasts that it draws students from every ZIP Code in Philadelphia, and he can easily bring to mind the challenges that his students — past and present — bring the day they set foot on campus as freshmen.

A 2016 metareview was cautiously optimistic about project-based learning, saying the evidence for its effectiveness is “promising but not proven.”

Ron Berger of EL Education, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group for project-based learning, pointed to a 2016 study by the American Institutes for Research that found students in high schools that subscribed to “deeper learning” were slightly more likely to attend college — about 53 percent vs. 50 percent in other high schools. AIR also found that 22 percent of students at “deeper learning” schools enrolled in four-year colleges compared to 18 percent for their peers elsewhere.

But the schools had little to show in terms of college retention — in both “deeper learning” schools and others, only 62 percent of alumni remained enrolled in college for at least three consecutive terms; about half enrolled for at least four consecutive terms.

Berger said the modest college-going results shouldn’t be the final word on these schools’ success. For one thing, he said, many of them are works in progress: his non-profit, originally a partnership between Harvard’s education school and Outward Bound USA, has spent years pushing project-based schools to improve the quality of their projects, requiring field research, participation of outside experts and “an authentic audience,” among other factors. That’s not always a given, he said.

Where these conditions persist, Berger said, “the schools feel different,” with students able to articulate what they’re learning and why they’re there.

“It’s visceral,” he said. “When you walk into a building and kids are more polite, more mature, engage with you right away and want to tell you about their learning, [they] have a sense of social responsibility – it’s hard to collect quantitative data on this.”

‘Why do I need to know this?’

Lehmann, the Philadelphia principal, embodies this attitude perhaps as well as any secondary educator in America. In conversation with his students, he reminds them endlessly about how much they’ve grown and matured since he met them as freshmen. He has become well-known among educators for his head-on challenge to the notion that the job of high school is to get students ready for what comes next.

“School shouldn’t be preparation for real life — school should be real life,” he said. “We should ask kids to do real things that matter.”

Most significantly, Lehmann asks teachers to rethink the idea that high school is a “moratorium” for young people, a kind of holding pen where they wait out adolescence.

“‘Why do I need to know this?’ should be a real question,” he said. “And the answers we should search out for kids should not be ‘someday’ answers: ‘If you want to major in this you might seek out this information,’ but rather, ‘Why do I need this information now to be a better human being? To affect change in the world?’”

For Jimenez, the High Tech High graduate, playing the whole game changed everything. Early in her high school career, she thought she might major in business. “It sounded really cool and had money attached to the name,” she joked.

But Jimenez liked the work at the Innocence Project so much she spent the entire month of May 2018 interning there — High Tech High juniors undertake month-long internships each spring. “During school, if I want to do something, I might as well be doing something that might actually make a change,” she said.

Now a freshman at the University of California, Riverside, Jimenez is studying political science and plans to attend law school. A first-generation college-goer, she wants to work someday for the Innocence Project.

“It would be great to be back in that environment,” she said.

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More Cartoons on Teachers and Students

As the school year begins–yes, more and more schools open in August but many of the 13,000 districts in the U.S. still open after Labor Day–I cannot resist picking cartoons about the on-going relationship between teachers and students (and their parents) in the ever-present age-graded school. Here are some more. Enjoy!

 

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