Even More Photos of Schools Reopening

OK, I admit that seeing photos of how educators the world over are wrestling with the same problem of how to school children and youth in the wake of a pandemic–is, in a word, addictive for me. So here are more photos from Germany, Netherlands, and Japan of schools that just re-opened.

With a virus about which much remains to be figured out and with no treatment or vaccine, how to care for health and safety of children and adults is primary. So questions need to be answered now as governments open their schoolhouse doors.

1. How many students to be allowed in a classroom at any one time?

2. How will students and teachers daily be protected by washing hands and disinfecting surfaces?

3. How to maintain physical distance during the school day?

4. Feeding students?

I could go on but will stop here. Readers can easily supply more questions.

So here are the photos:

A teacher welcomes students before the start of their high school graduation exams, during the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the Gymnasium Steglitz school in Berlin, Germany, April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt
Teacher Birgit Steinbach welcomes students before the start of their high school graduation exams, during the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the Protestant grammar school in Kleinmachnow, Germany, April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
23 April 2020, North Rhine-Westphalia, Übach-Palenberg: Pupils, one of them wearing a protective mask, work on computer science tasks in the basic computer science course of the Abitur year at the Carolus-Magnus-Gymnasium. Barely six weeks after the closure of day-care centres and schools due to corona infections in North Rhine-Westphalia, the schools will reopen on Thursday for exam candidates. Photo: Jonas Güttler/dpa (Photo by Jonas Güttler/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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The School Year Really Ended in March (Susan Dynarski)

Susan Dynarski is a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. This article appeared in the New York Times May 10, 2020.

School-age children across America are struggling to learn under challenging conditions. Some, no doubt, have made real progress.

But it’s time to admit that, for the vast majority of students, online learning and work sheets are no substitute for trained teachers in classrooms.For most children, the school year effectively ended in March.

If the country doesn’t recognize this fact and respond accordingly — with large federally funded programs to reverse the losses — we will do great harm to a generation of children who will learn less than those who went before them. They will read and write more poorly and be less likely to graduate from high school and college. The resulting shortage of highly trained workers will hamper the economic recovery and intensify earnings inequality.Educators, parents, students and schools are doing what they can in a harrowing situation. But for most students it isn’t nearly enough, and the United States will need to marshal enormous resources to get education back on track.

About a third of the school year has been sacrificed to the pandemic. Consider that a year of U.S. public education costs about $400 billion. That implies that about $133 billion may be needed to make up for lost instructional time.*

That’s a lot of money, roughly equivalent to the cost, in today’s dollars, of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after the devastation of World War II. But the disruption to American society created by this pandemic has no parallel in modern history.It has exposed and intensified enormous gaps in schools’ and families’ capacity to support children’s learning. Many families, especially in rural areas, lack access to broadband internet service. Parents and multiple siblings may share a single computer, if they have one at all. A quiet place to study may not exist in a small, crowded apartment.

Parents who must leave home to work have limited time to supervise children’s schooling. The same is true for parents who must work from home, who have infants or who are caring for the sick. As Cleveland’s schools prepared to close in late March, teachers set out to speak with every student’s family about remote learning. They were initially able to reach 60 percent of parents. After trying for a few more days, they were still unable to connect with the family of one out of 10 students.

Most children will return to school without the skills and concepts they were meant to master this spring. Many will have lost ground, and will need to relearn an entire year’s worth of material.

This is what the United States will confront as schools reopen. Fourth grade can’t start in September with the usual curriculum if students missed half of third grade. They will need to compensate with more time spent on learning.

One option is summer school, in places where it is safe to reopen by summer. Another is extended school days and weeks, with the extra hours devoted to bringing children up to speed.

Students may well need to engage in social distancing for a long while. To keep down crowding, students could rotate days spent in teacher-led classrooms. On days children are not in classrooms, they could work with tutors in small groups (online, if that’s what health officials recommend).The federal government can tap unused energy and talent by funding a big domestic volunteer effort for our schools, in the style of AmeriCorps. There will be far too many unemployed college students — and graduates — in the coming years, because recessions always hit young workers the hardest. Young people could be paid a stipend to tutor, troubleshoot technology for online classes, assist teachers (virtually or in person) and disinfect classrooms. High school students who typically work during the summer and after school could be paid to attend classes themselves. Even after schools restart, there are likely to be rolling closures while the pandemic unfolds. Online instruction will still be needed and should be as effective as possible. Some schools and teachers have made the online transition successfully, but most need technical and pedagogical support.

States can’t possibly foot the bill for an effort on this scale. State tax revenue is plunging, and the states are generally barred from running deficits. Nor is this a project for a nonprofit, a foundation or a private outfit like Kickstarter. The federal government needs to step in.

The return on this investment would be substantial. First, paying for all this would stimulate the economy because teachers and young people would quickly spend what they earned. And then, the economic payoff would keep coming for decades in the form of a better-educated, more productive society.

The setbacks in education aren’t universal: There are exceptions, of course. Some lucky parents have had the time and resources to closely supervise their children’s schooling. Some gifted children are adept at independent learning and have kept up with their studies. But this is not the norm, and it should not be expected.Society is now built around the assumption that school-age children go to school. Few families have a stay-at-home adult who can step into the shoes of a professional teacher. A recent paper by two economists at the University of Chicago estimates that just 37 percent of American jobs can be regularly done from home. I home-schooled my kids for a few years, and it wasn’t easy. A lot of luck made it possible: a flexible work schedule, a well-paying job, a supportive spouse, a comfortable home, healthy children, and my own good health and education. Few families have the resources to pull off home schooling. Yet it is now being expected of all parents — including those who hold multiple jobs, are raising children alone, earn the minimum wage and may not have finished high school.

Unless the United States takes action to restore the education that so many children have lost, it will suffer as a society. There is likely to be rising inequality in our schools, with widening gaps in achievement and spiking dropout rates. This surging inequality will then spill into the work force, with the well educated commanding higher salaries because of their scarcity and the poorly educated earning even less because their numbers have grown.

The future I fear is one in which a privileged minority of children are well educated, using private resources like tutors, private schools and home schooling, while the vast majority that depend on the public schools are left even further behind.

School-age children across America are struggling to learn under challenging conditions. Some, no doubt, have made real progress.

But it’s time to admit that, for the vast majority of students, online learning and work sheets are no substitute for trained teachers in classrooms.For most children, the school year effectively ended in March.

If the country doesn’t recognize this fact and respond accordingly — with large federally funded programs to reverse the losses — we will do great harm to a generation of children who will learn less than those who went before them. They will read and write more poorly and be less likely to graduate from high school and college. The resulting shortage of highly trained workers will hamper the economic recovery and intensify earnings inequality.Educators, parents, students and schools are doing what they can in a harrowing situation. But for most students it isn’t nearly enough, and the United States will need to marshal enormous resources to get education back on track.

About a third of the school year has been sacrificed to the pandemic. Consider that a year of U.S. public education costs about $400 billion. That implies that about $133 billion may be needed to make up for lost instructional time.

That’s a lot of money, roughly equivalent to the cost, in today’s dollars, of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after the devastation of World War II. But the disruption to American society created by this pandemic has no parallel in modern history.It has exposed and intensified enormous gaps in schools’ and families’ capacity to support children’s learning. Many families, especially in rural areas, lack access to broadband internet service. Parents and multiple siblings may share a single computer, if they have one at all. A quiet place to study may not exist in a small, crowded apartment.

Parents who must leave home to work have limited time to supervise children’s schooling. The same is true for parents who must work from home, who have infants or who are caring for the sick. As Cleveland’s schools prepared to close in late March, teachers set out to speak with every student’s family about remote learning. They were initially able to reach 60 percent of parents. After trying for a few more days, they were still unable to connect with the family of one out of 10 students.

Most children will return to school without the skills and concepts they were meant to master this spring. Many will have lost ground, and will need to relearn an entire year’s worth of material.

This is what the United States will confront as schools reopen. Fourth grade can’t start in September with the usual curriculum if students missed half of third grade. They will need to compensate with more time spent on learning.

One option is summer school, in places where it is safe to reopen by summer. Another is extended school days and weeks, with the extra hours devoted to bringing children up to speed.

Students may well need to engage in social distancing for a long while. To keep down crowding, students could rotate days spent in teacher-led classrooms. On days children are not in classrooms, they could work with tutors in small groups (online, if that’s what health officials recommend).The federal government can tap unused energy and talent by funding a big domestic volunteer effort for our schools, in the style of AmeriCorps. There will be far too many unemployed college students — and graduates — in the coming years, because recessions always hit young workers the hardest. Young people could be paid a stipend to tutor, troubleshoot technology for online classes, assist teachers (virtually or in person) and disinfect classrooms. High school students who typically work during the summer and after school could be paid to attend classes themselves. Even after schools restart, there are likely to be rolling closures while the pandemic unfolds. Online instruction will still be needed and should be as effective as possible. Some schools and teachers have made the online transition successfully, but most need technical and pedagogical support.

States can’t possibly foot the bill for an effort on this scale. State tax revenue is plunging, and the states are generally barred from running deficits. Nor is this a project for a nonprofit, a foundation or a private outfit like Kickstarter. The federal government needs to step in.

The return on this investment would be substantial. First, paying for all this would stimulate the economy because teachers and young people would quickly spend what they earned. And then, the economic payoff would keep coming for decades in the form of a better-educated, more productive society.

The setbacks in education aren’t universal: There are exceptions, of course. Some lucky parents have had the time and resources to closely supervise their children’s schooling. Some gifted children are adept at independent learning and have kept up with their studies. But this is not the norm, and it should not be expected.Society is now built around the assumption that school-age children go to school. Few families have a stay-at-home adult who can step into the shoes of a professional teacher. A recent paper by two economists at the University of Chicago estimates that just 37 percent of American jobs can be regularly done from home. I home-schooled my kids for a few years, and it wasn’t easy. A lot of luck made it possible: a flexible work schedule, a well-paying job, a supportive spouse, a comfortable home, healthy children, and my own good health and education. Few families have the resources to pull off home schooling. Yet it is now being expected of all parents — including those who hold multiple jobs, are raising children alone, earn the minimum wage and may not have finished high school.

Unless the United States takes action to restore the education that so many children have lost, it will suffer as a society. There is likely to be rising inequality in our schools, with widening gaps in achievement and spiking dropout rates. This surging inequality will then spill into the work force, with the well educated commanding higher salaries because of their scarcity and the poorly educated earning even less because their numbers have grown.

The future I fear is one in which a privileged minority of children are well educated, using private resources like tutors, private schools and home schooling, while the vast majority that depend on the public schools are left even further behind.

___________________

*The costs that Professor Dynarski refer to only include instruction for the school year 2016-2017. The table shows that $619 billion was spent that year for public schools. So the federal tab for making up one-third of a school year is much higher than noted here.

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The Disappearing Social Safety Net: Public Schools

Sondra Cuban and I jointly wrote this post.

Sondra Cuban is a Professor at Western Washington University and an educational sociologist studying the trajectories, aspirations, and struggles of women immigrants. She is the author of Deskilling Migrant Women in the Global Care Industry (2013) and Transnational Family Communication: Immigrants and ICTs (2017).”

One of our greatest social safety nets has vanished in the blink of an eye. Before the pandemic, schools were societal safeguards in having legal custody of children and youth six to 12 hours a day, granting credentials, and providing meals, social and medical services.  Now with schools closed, the importance of schools to not only parents but all citizens has become obvious.

This is the first time in a century since the flu pandemic of 1918 that government has decommissioned public schools. They are ghosts standing in our communities, unused, with yellow tape around playground bars and slides. Uncertainty over re-opening dates breeds anxiety as superintendents fumble to communicate with teachers, parents and families during the crisis.

Turn on the television to see the absence of leadership at the very top. The U.S. Department of Education website only has flow charts posted in March for whether  schools should close. No one in authority knows when they will reopen other than in the fall, creating a quiet storm in every community about what to do with children and their wellbeing as well as the health of families.

Early responses came from state governors. Because the virus spreads rapidly in crowds, gatherings of 10 or more people were prohibited. Schools, sporting and entertainment events, and businesses closed. The economy ground to a halt. By mid-March, 45 governors had acted shutting down businesses and schools for the rest of the academic year. Yet they’ve given little guidance to school systems or details about what is to happen in the interim. Furthermore, libraries, partners in literacy to schools, are also closed. Another loss.

By late-March, it has become clear that school districts were caught with their pants down.  In a recent American Enterprise Institute survey schools in the U.S., less than half (43 percent) of the districts had a plan for shifting from face-to-face instruction to online instruction and home teaching. Two weeks later the percentage had gone to 71.  But a PDF plan is far from what actually happens. Individual school (there are 13,000-plus districts with 100,000 schools in the U.S.) principals, teachers, and staff contacted parents and students through email and phone.

Schools in these districts with plans put some version of a remote education program into place. Often, however, no clear instructions were sent telling whether all students had to go online or whether participation was voluntary. For example 35 percent of the schools doing online instruction offered materials and expected students to participate. Nearly two-thirds did not.

With the shift to distance instruction, access to computers and the Internet revealed anew the digital inequities that mirror societal inequalities. Many big cities had to distribute laptops and tablets to students—they were either delivered or picked up at local schools. New York gave out 300,000; Chicago announced 100,000 computers; San Diego. 40,000.  But distributing computers does not guarantee teaching and learning in the home because many families lack adequate broadband and WiFi access.

Moreover, computers and distance learning is, at best, a pale substitute for in-person teaching and student learning. Many private schools including those that avoided leaning on electronic devices before the pandemic (e.g., Waldorf) have continued their curriculum delivery online but this doesn’t mean that the quality of education has remained the same or that learning is happening.

Also beyond computers, big city districts fed children and families. San Diego, for example, provided nearly 400,000 meals.

The AEI survey also showed that by the first week of April, 91 percent of the school had plans for feeding students. When the survey asked for specifics beyond plans, results showed that two-thirds of the schools had meals available for daily pick up at the schools. School delivery to students’ homes or at bus stops were occurring in 30 percent of the schools. Mostly in urban districts, these meals are crucial to families when parents have been laid of from their jobs.

As the crisis unfolds and national leadership staggers from one policy to another (forget the U.S. Department of Education providing any direction), governors of large states have filled the vacuum but so much remains to be done before the health of Americans can be securely protected and the economic engine revved up again. And what of schools?

One clear lesson about tax-supported schools that has emerged so far from the response to the pandemic is that public schools are an essential part of the nation’s social safety net for the poor and working and middle class Americans. Public schools, often taken for granted, have become crucial contributors to supporting Americans beyond teaching and learning.  

Even with social security, Medicare and the American Affordable Care Act of 2010, ragged holes in the safety net continue to let middle-age and younger working and middle-class Americans slip through. Now public schools, often unnoticed, have become crucial contributors to supporting Americans beyond textbooks, tests, and homework.

If there is one group of Americans who have seen this previously taken-for-granted role for public schools most clearly it is the children’s caregivers, especially working and single Moms. Working mothers do their jobs remotely while being required to organize daily schedules for children to use online lessons or packets sent by the teachers, or they create their own curriculum from the Internet. Ironically, many parents have previously tried to reduce screen time for their young children and now schools require even more screen time to complete lessons. 

Juggling their paid work assignments–for those not furloughed by their employers–while monitoring school tasks children are expected to complete easily slides into a three ring circus during the day. “Some days,” one single Mom said, “I feel like I’m melting.” Other parents have to leave children home alone in order to go to work and they worry about them all day.

In districts where schools expect parents, untrained to teach and not compensated by the government, to supervise lessons or figure out how to sustain their child’s attention while the dog yaps for his walk, well, those working parents have come to really appreciate–no, downright admire–what teachers do daily.  During this pandemic-caused lockdown, the crucial role of public schools as another part of the national social safety net has becomes all too apparent.

In the economic recession that surely will follow in the months after Covid-19 eases (and we hope disappears), district budgets will be further trimmed even as relieved parents bring their sons and daughters to re-opened schools.  Tax-supported public schools have shown how woven they are into the social safety net that is supposed to allow all Americans to not only survive natural and viral disasters but also protect them sufficiently to thrive in the aftermath of such calamities. 

We hope that heightened respect, even admiration, for tax-supported public schools, will result from what this 2020 pandemic has wrought.  And that added respect for school in this society will morph into political and financial support for a community institution that has too often been a public punching bag.

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Schools Re-Opening in Other Countries

As most of the 13,000 districts in the U.S. plan for re-opening schools, a few photos of re-opened ones in other countries may give readers a sense of what’s in store for American parents preparing to send their sons and daughters to school.

Schools re-open in different parts of China.

TOPSHOT – Students sit in a classroom as grade three students in middle school and high school return after the term opening was delayed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, in Huaian in China’s eastern Jiangsu province on March 30, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

*Thanks to Laura Chapman for sending me this photo of Chinese first-graders with hats that keep classmates at a distance

In Vietnam:

In Israel:

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 *** Local Caption *** למידה מרחוק חינוך חופש תלמידים לומדים מושב אפרת מסכות חזרה ללימודים

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

In Denmark:

My guess is that re-opened U.S. schools will vary greatly in arranging classroom space (as these photos illustrate) but there will be constants of mask-wearing and attempts to physically distance students in classrooms– good luck on hallways and cafeterias–until vaccines are available.

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School Principals As Reformers

Sometime ago, I taught a one-day session for 30-plus secondary school principals in the San Francisco Bay area. The subject was “Principals as Change Leaders.”

Seems like a contradiction in terms at first since these principals from affluent suburbs and inner cities are often caught in the middle between bosses who tell them to implement district policies in their schools and teachers who want to be buffered from intrusive parents and unpredictable youth. Keeping the ship afloat and passengers happy seems to be the major task, not leading change. But it isn’t a contradiction because these principals—ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-50s and running small high schools, large comprehensive high schools, and middle schools–were mid-career, savvy about organizational politics, and wanted to improve their schools.

So if you are caught in the middle where you look upward to your bosses for direction, sideways to your teachers who do the daily work with students, and outward to parents many of whom believe they know more than you do about schooling–how exactly do you make changes, much less lead others?

They knew well the instructional, managerial, and political roles that they had to perform (see here and here). What they wanted to discuss was not these roles but how do you lead change amid contradictory demands from parents who want particular changes, bosses who expect policies to be put into classroom practice when you are utterly dependent upon teachers to get the daily work done, and, of course, teachers who seek support and resources, not reforms designed by others.

So before we turned to case studies of principals in action, I spoke briefly on principals as reformers. Here is what I said without the pauses, uhhhhs, and hmmmms:

Leading change begins in your head. Knowing which questions you have to ask about the change you want to make in the school and sharing your answers to those questions with staff, parents, and students is the single most important leadership act you can perform.

Exactly what are those questions?

1. What theory of action is driving the change you want to make?

Every change has an implicit theory guiding it. Behind placing carts of 30 tablets in each classroom, for example, is the theory that using these devices will produce more, faster, and better learning in students. Laying out the theory explicitly to those who are expected to make the changes is a minimum obligation of a leader who aspires to be trustworthy, honest and transparent with those he or she serves.

2. What are the problems you seek to solve? What are your goals? What assumptions are built into the change? What strategies do you intend to use in solving those problems?

Every change is a solution to a particular problem. For example, the problem of low test scores in reading, math, and science on the state test converts easily into the goal of raising the percentages of students being proficient in reading, math, and science.

Every change has implicit assumptions built into it that need to be made explicit. Consider the popular change of creating professional learning communities (PLCs) among teachers. One assumption is that PLCs where teachers observe one another, receive coaching, read and discuss books, will get teachers to alter routine teaching practices.

And then there are the strategies to put the change into practice. Take, for example, the common strategies used in creating small urban high schools of shifting to block schedules to gain instructional time and establishing advisories of 15-plus students for discussion of non-academic issues. Assumptions underlying those two structures are that more instructional time will lead to more learning and advisories will make school more personal, more motivating hereby leading to engaged students who will want to learn and achieve. These assumptions are seldom examined publicly.

3. What capacities (knowledge and skills) are needed to carry out the change? Who has them? Where to get them?

No elaboration needed for this question since if it goes unasked then the chances of most teachers implementing the change go down drastically.

4. What school and classroom changes have to occur for the policy to be completely implemented?

If changes aimed at improving student performance are NOT spelled out explicitly for classrooms (e.g., changes in how teachers teach, the content of lessons, student behavior), then kiss your change goodbye. Without changes in classroom practices, not much worthwhile will happen.

5. How will you know that changes worked in the short-, mid-, and long-term?

This question asks you have to figure out and state for teachers, parensts, and students in specific terms the results consistent with the changes that can be reasonably expected over the next months and years.

Before moving to the case studies of principals who sought changes in their schools, I did a Q & A where the principals challenged these five questions, asked for evidence to support the claims that I made. They asked me whether hard-working principals caught in the middle of performing three roles for their bosses, teachers, and parents could, indeed, ask and answer those questions I posed. I answered their questions the best that I could but to their last question, I said quickly and emphatically “yes.”

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A School Experiment to Remember

Between 1933-1941, thirty high schools in the country and over 300 universities and colleges joined an experiment sponsored by the Progressive Education Association.

Called “The Eight Year Study,” each high school decided for itself what curricula, schedules, and class sizes would be. There were no college admission requirements or must-take tests. Old lesson plans were scrapped. One school sent classes into the West Virginia coal region to study unions. Science, history, art, and math were often combined in projects that students and teachers planned together.

Needless to say, there were stumbles also. A few principals blocked the experiment. Some school faculties divided into warring factions.

While there was much variation among the schools, there were also common elements. Many of the large public high schools (of the 30, fifteen were private) created small schools within the larger one. Principals increased the authority of teachers to design and steer the program; teachers crossed departmental boundaries and created a core curriculum (math/science and English/social studies), set aside three hours a day for teams to work with groups of students, and planned weekly units with students.

What happened to these students when they attended college? To find an answer, evaluators established 1,475 pairs of college students, each consisting of a graduate from an experimental school and one graduate of another high school matched as closely as possible as to age, sex, race, social class, and academic performance. They then compared their performance in college.

Evaluators found that graduates of the thirty schools earned a slightly higher grade average and more academic honors than those who attended regular high school. Furthermore, the “guinea pigs,” as they were called, were more precise in their thinking, displayed more ingenuity in meeting new situations, and demonstrated an active interest in national and world issues than their matched counterpart.

What these startling results showed over 80 years ago was that there was no one single best way of schooling teenagers. The fears that parents and taxpayers had about experimenting with high school courses, organization, and teaching proved hollow in “The Eight Year Study.”

The results of these studies appeared during World War II. The war effort swallowed up any further interest in experimenting with high school programs. Whatever the reasons, “The Eight Year Study” lapsed into the obscurity of scholarly footnotes. Later generations of reformers seldom inquired or cared about this large-scale, non-federally funded experiment that showed convincingly that schools, given the freedom to experiment, could produce graduates that not only did well academically in college but, far more important, displayed an active interest in civic affairs, were resourceful in handling new situations, and could think clearly.*

So what does this half-century old experiment say to us in the in the 21st century about Progressive school reform?

1.When engaged teachers, administrators, and students are given the freedom to experiment and the help to do it, they will come through.
2. There is no one best way of schooling youth.
3. Students can graduate high school who are academically prepared, involved in their communities, and thoughtful problem-solvers.
4. Standards of excellence that work in schools can be set and done locally by adults and students—not imposed from the top-down.

In 2020, federal and state decision-makers and policy elites drive school reform. They set standards, test students, and hold schools and students accountable for their performance. What “The Eight Year Study” (recall that it was sponsored by the Progressive Education Association) demonstrated nearly a century ago is that there are locals–districts, schools, and practitioners—who have the expertise and can be trusted to design and implement different ways to organize schools.

Am I suggesting that this is what all U.S. high schools should do? No, I am not. There are, for example, schools in largely poor urban and rural areas—both minority and white—that can use far more state and federal aid in supplying experienced teachers and coaches, reducing class size and expanding community services. And, yes, even the freedom to try different ways of organizing schools for better teaching and learning.  

If only those who govern and fund schools could learn the essential lesson that every parent with more than one child and every experienced teacher and principal has learned over the years:

*There is no one best way to learn.

*There is no one best way to teach.

*There is no one best way to organize schools.

Amen.

_____________________________

*Additional sources for the Eight Year Study are:

William Wraga, Democracy’s High School: The Comprehensive High School and Educational Reform in the United States. University Press of America. pp. 61–65.

Craig Kridel and Robert Bullough Jr. (2012). Stories of the Eight-Year Study: Reexamining Secondary Education in America. SUNY Press.

Wikipedia

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School Reform Metaphors: The Pendulum and Hurricane

Consider that a pendulum swing returns almost to the same spot it left.

Although there is motion, there is little change. Yet anyone who remembers what the mid-1980s were like and what is currently going on with schools closed during the pandemic and re-opening in the Fall knows that both schools and society have indeed gone through serious changes in the economy, technology, demography, and pandemics. So the metaphor of a school reform pendulum masks major changes in both society and schools.

Furthermore, the pendulum metaphor implies that policymaker talk about school reform is what happens in classrooms. Yet there is a huge gap between policy talk and classroom practice when it comes to school reform.

Over the last quarter-century, researchers who have gone into classrooms have concluded that there are enduring practices that teachers use in organizing a class, maintaining order, asking questions, concentrating on basic skills, using texts, and testing students. Over many decades, even as new curricula and technologies (e.g., laptops, interactive whiteboards, smart phones) enter and exit classrooms these practices, with occasional alterations, persist.

A second research finding is that policymakers can legislate changes in teacher practices all they want but teachers, once they close their classroom door, will modify only what they believe will benefit children and is consistent with their beliefs. In short, public officials–from the superintendent to the President of the United States–cannot mandate what they believe matters in a classroom. In fact, the teacher is the policy gatekeeper, not the district superintendent or board of education.

Yes, of course, some policies teachers will embrace willingly. For example, many teachers endorse moving more computers into classrooms as long as they get the help to use those machines. But policies that are suspect in teachers’ minds (e.g., evaluations and salary  based upon student test scores) or ones that are forced upon them without much regard for their opinions (e.g., a new reading program), have little staying power in classrooms. The trend, regardless of what particular fad policymakers talk about, is small modifications over time in stable teaching practices.

Does the flawed pendulum metaphor for school reform apply today? Yes, in that boosters of charter schools, new technologies, and national curriculum standards, for example, claim that these reforms will influence how teachers teach and students learn. When state and local test scores drop (or go up) critics (and boosters) leap to the conclusion that charters or pay-4-performance plans, or Common Core curricula caused those declines (or increases). Ignoring the stability in teaching practices over time or examining the test itself, class size, the impact of family background on academic performance, school reformers (both from the left and right) skip to the easy conclusion that the newest reform  caused the decline (or rise) since teachers adopted “new” practices.

So what? Suppose many school-watchers have inaccurately assumed that what public officials say is happening in schools is what teachers actually do. Suppose further that critics have also ignored the clear trend of stability in teaching practices. Such insights might deserve, at best, a yawn.  Of what importance is it, then, to the public to make these distinctions between hyped policy talk and enduring classroom practices?

First, differentiating between listening to the sizzle rather than tasting the steak is seldom applied to school reform. Policy talk, the sizzle, is important because, in a democracy, it registers what issues need to be addressed. But teaching practices, the taste of the steak, is what matters in the classroom. To improve teaching practices over time, we need to see what actually goes on in the classroom and pay less attention to pendulum-like swings in policy talk.

Second, because talk about school reform moves at a quicker pace than what happens in classrooms, it is smart to appreciate teachers for being slow in responding to calls for faddish shifts in practice. Now, that may sound un-American to savor the virtue of patience in considering an innovation but as new programs and proposals have spilled forth, it has become clear that they range from goofy to wise. Teacher deliberateness does both the public and students a favor by judging carefully the worth of any particular innovation.

As the pandemic passes. the immediate future will yield a bumper crop of school reform proposals. Watch out for the rhetoric. That is what makes headlines and one-liners for TV anchors, documentaries, and bloggers but carries little weight in determining classroom practice.

Perhaps the pendulum is the wrong image to capture the differences between reform talk and what happens in classrooms. Perhaps the metaphor of a hurricane is better. The hurricane whips up twenty-foot high waves agitating the surface of the ocean yet fathoms below the surface fish and plant life go undisturbed by the uproar on the ocean’s surface. Whichever metaphor makes sense, no longer should we confuse what public officials say schools are doing with what happens in classrooms.

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Cartoons on Interactive Whiteboards

What seems like a century ago with the initial lockdown–actually on March 3rd–I posted on my blog an inquiry about the initial popularity and then seeming loss of enthusiasm over placing interactive whiteboards (IWBs) in classrooms. The post garnered many views. I then thought whether cartoonists had penned jabs at this supposed technological marvel.

Pickings, however, were slim. What follows are a clutch of cartoons that at least got me to smile. Enjoy!

‘When does the screen saver come on?’

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Why Are Lecturing and Questioning Still Around?

The lecture is 800 years old (Lecture).

Teachers questioning students is millenia-old.

Yet these staple instructional practices while criticized–often severely by pedagogical reformers are alive and well in charter schools, regular public schools, and higher education. And they exist amid a revolution in teachers and students using high-tech devices in and out of the classroom.

Are these ways of teaching simply instances of traditional practices that stick like flypaper because they have  been around for a long time–inertia–or have these practices changed with the times because they are useful ways of communicating knowledge and learning?

LECTURE

Lecturing has been panned by pedagogical reformers for decades.  Over and over again, critics have said that lectures are inappropriate because students forget the facts and learn better when they interact with teachers. Furthermore, with so many high-tech ways of presenting information, prepared talks are obsolete. Yet lecturing remains the primary way professors teach undergraduate courses, high school teachers present information, gurus, and officials across business and government communicate with followers (e.g., TED talks, podcasts, U.S. Presidents speaking from the Oval Office).

If lecturing is so bad for learning and seen as obsolete, how come it is still around? Surely, it is more than inertia or hewing to a sacrosanct tradition of  transmitting knowledge. With new technologies and media (e.g., the printing press, television, computers) no longer is the familiar (and medieval) dictation of text to students necessary. Yet the lecture persists.

As Norm Friesen argues (see The Lecture ) , the persistence of the lecture as a teaching tool for 800 years is due “to its flexibility and adaptability in response to changes in media and technology ….” Lecturing is performing, a way of conveying knowledge in a fresh way, a way of bridging oral tradition and visual culture that teachers, professors, and so many others have continually adapted to new media. The expansion of online learning in higher education and during the 2020 pandemic have not lessened lecturing. Savvy lecturers now use PowerPoint, YouTube, and elaborate technical aids such as Elluminate Live, Prezi, and Zoom to turn talks into live performances. But not all professors and teachers are tech-savvy; lecturers span the spectrum running from thought-provoking talks to eye-glazing tedium. So continuity and change have marked the path the lecture has taken over the centuries.

TEACHER QUESTIONING

Socrates, according to Plato, was one sharp questioner. The persistence of teachers questioning students, seldom in the Socratic tradition, is familiar to both kindergartners and graduate students.

In U.S. classrooms, patterns of teachers questioning students based on what is in the text began with the creation of mid-19th century age-graded schools and self-contained classrooms; teachers were expected to complete chunks of the curriculum by a certain time. Students reciting text easily morphed into teachers asking students specific question after question–what became known as the grammar of instruction.

*A researcher (p.153) cited an 1860 book on teaching methods: “Young teachers are very apt to confound rapid questioning and answers with sure and effective teaching”

*A classroom observer in 1893 described a teacher questioning her students’ knowledge of the text: “In several instances, when a pupil stopped for a moment’s reflection, the teacher remarked abruptly, ‘Don’t stop to think, but tell me what you know.’ ” Persistence of Recitation, p. 149)

*Between 1907-1911, a researcher using a stopwatch and stenographer observed 100 high school English, history, math, science, and foreign language lessons of teachers who principals had identified as superior. She found that teachers asked two to three questions per minute (pp. 41-42).

Many other studies document the historical use of questioning as the basis of classroom lessons.

What is not recorded in many of these studies is the teacher’s ever-present follow-up to a student’s answer: “correct,” “very good,” “incorrect,” “well done.” When a student’s answer is not what the teacher expected or wanted, the teacher will prompt the student with another question or give a clue to the right answer. In effect, teachers judge the quality of the answer and then move on to the next question. Using sociolinguistic theory researchers have analyzed these persistent forms of questioning as a cycle of Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE).

IRE is pervasive in classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school seminars. Not the only form of questioning, but it is inextricably tied to the transmittal of information–a task that remains central to teaching, past and present.

Then there is the “Essential Question” that many school teachers and professors use to frame a unit they teach in order to get their students to figure out answers. Examples:

*Is there ever a “just” war?

*How can I sound more like a native speaker?

*What do good problem solvers do, especially when they get stuck?

*What is the relationship between fiction and truth?

Such questions are the basis of units that look very different from content-driven units in a textbook.

And that is why lecturing and questioning have persisted as pedagogical tools. They are flexible and adaptable teaching techniques. With all of the concern for student-centered inquiry and using tougher questions based upon Bloom’s taxonomy, one enduring function of schooling is to transfer academic knowledge and skills (both technical and social) to the next generation. Deeply embedded social beliefs that transmitting knowledge is a primary purpose of schooling remain strong and abiding. So lecturing and questioning will be around for many more centuries.

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When Schools Re-Open

The above photos are not from any re-opened U.S. schools. They were taken a few days ago in Denmark. The first European country to re-open its schools. The following New York Times article written by Patrick Kingsley appeared April 17, 2020.

The cluster of red brick buildings in a remote part of southern Denmark looks unremarkable from the outside, but this week, its classrooms housed some of the rarest people during the pandemic in today’s Europe.

Schoolchildren.

On Wednesday, 350 pupils returned to classes at the Logumkloster District School for the first time in a month, as Denmark became the first country in the Western world to reopen its elementary schools since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It has turned the Danish education system into a laboratory for whether and how schools can function in an age of contagion.

“It is a new world,” said Tanja Linnet, the school’s head teacher, as pupils arrived early on Thursday morning. “We used to make plans for if there was a terrorist attack here — but never this kind of attack.”

Other European countries have also gently eased restrictions on certain businesses and sporting activities in recent days.

But by allowing hundreds of children to congregate once again at thousands of schools across Denmark, the government has taken the boldest step toward something resembling normal life, in a measure that will be watched carefully around the world.

“That’s the dilemma of the whole world,” said Finn Christensen, the school’s deputy head. “When to open up?”

Denmark’s approach contrasts with that of Spain, where most children have not been outside in five weeks. With more coronavirus infections than any other country in Europe, Spain forbids children to even take a short walk on the street or exercise near their homes.

For the children at the Logumkloster District School, their return was often simply an exciting experience, after a month cooped up at home.

“It is so nice to see my best friend again!” said Maja Petersen, a 7-year-old first grader coloring the red bits of the Danish flag.

To stop the spread of infection, parents weren’t allowed inside. Teachers couldn’t gather in the staff room. The children each now had their own desks, marooned two yards away from their nearest neighbor. During recess, they could play only in small groups. And by the time the school shut again at 2 p.m., they had all washed their hands at least once an hour for the past six hours.

“We usually jump and hug and fight and give each other high fives,” said Zakarias Al-Tibi, 10, pointing dolefully at his best friend, Jannik. “But we can’t do that any more.”

From an economic perspective, the argument for reopening schools is straightforward. It allows parents who are employed to focus more on their work, said Carl-Johan Dalsgaard, a professor of economics who is one of the four leaders of an independent body that provides economic advice to Danish policymakers.

“You are dramatically less efficient when you have to home-school your children and take care of them every day,” Professor Dalsgaard said.

But the medical reasoning is more contested.

The World Health Organization has cautioned countries like Denmark against reopening their societies too quickly for fear of reviving the pandemic before it is properly stamped out. The number of active cases in Denmark has dipped in recent days (it has recorded more than 6,870, with 321 deaths), and it has a far lower reported death rate than many countries in Europe. But death statistics can be incomplete during an outbreak, and disease experts warn the pace of new cases can easily pick up again.

Elsewhere in Denmark, these concerns led some parents to create Facebook groups protesting the reopening of schools, fearing their children were being sacrificed to save the Danish economy.

In the village of Logumkloster, where there have been no known victims of the virus, only a few parents decided against sending their children back to school. But several were conflicted about it.

“Our first reaction was: Isn’t it too early?” said Cynthia Paulsen, a cleaner whose 14-year-old son, Arthur, was among those requested to return this week. “Is this the right thing?”

Jesper Hansen initially opted against returning his 6-year-old, Noah Bendig, who uses his mother’s surname. Mr. Hansen had no work to return to, having lost his job as a recovery driver at the start of the crisis. What if Noah passed the virus to his younger brother, who has kidney problems?

But by and large, parents at Logumkloster have been won over by the careful way that Ms. Linnet, the head teacher, and her staff have refitted the school at just a few frantic days’ notice.

The school’s floors have been covered with new markings, showing pupils how far apart they have to stand. Hand-washing has become a part of the school routine — the first stop for all pupils at the start of every day, and then on the hour thereafter. Tea ladies have the new task of touring the school with disinfectant, cleaning each door handle at least twice during school hours.

These changes have been guided by the government, but the government’s instructions have sometimes changed on an hourly basis. “Sometimes, we get an order at 9, and then at 10 we get a new one,” said Mr. Christensen, the deputy head.

And it’s unclear how long these emergency measures will last. “Is it for a week or two, or a month or two?” Ms. Linnet asked. “We don’t know.”

For now, the library has been closed. Teachers aim to do as much teaching as possible outdoors. And instead of arriving through a single entrance, pupils must enter through several side doors, depending on the location of their classroom.

The only time on Thursday that the students gathered was to sing “Happy Birthday” to the Danish queen, Margrethe II, who turned 80. But even then they were all outside, standing at two-yard intervals on the grass.

One of them was Noah Bendig. After keeping him home on Wednesday, Mr. Hansen decided to take his son to school on Thursday, reassured by how smoothly the opening day had gone.

“I think the school has control over everything,” he said.

For some parents, the most comforting change has been the division of the school’s population into small, independent silos. Classes have been divided into two or three subgroups, with each new grouping given its own room and designated teacher.

Those teachers now work with only one small group throughout the day, rather than several bigger ones, and their students play only with children from their own class.

For Maja Petersen, the first grader, that makes the return to school bittersweet. On the one hand, Maja can see her best friend, Melanie, again. But they can really only do just that — see each other. They’ve barely been able to chat, since they were divided into separate classes.

“It’s a new situation in a known environment,” said Maja’s teacher, Lene Thorup. “Comforting but also a challenge.”

That applies as much to the teachers as it does the children.

The increase in the number of classes means teachers have more to do and fewer assistants to help them do it. If they need a brief break, they can call on a small three-person team to mind their classrooms for a few minutes. But they can no longer rely on a teaching assistant to shoulder their burden for longer periods, since the assistants are often now teaching their own classes.

“We’ve been told to have as few teachers per pupil as possible,” said Mr. Christensen.

Stressful though these measures are for the teachers, they have won over wavering parents.

Despite her earlier misgivings, Ms. Paulsen sent Arthur to school on Wednesday, after being persuaded by a phone call from Arthur’s teacher and a conversation with Arthur himself.

“He’s happy to be back,” she said. “We’re happy he’s back.”

“Things have to start somewhere,” she added. “And we have to trust in the government and the school.”

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