Teaching at D.Tech High School: Government (Part 4)

Spencer is doing his three-minute talk. Since the semester began, every one of the 30-plus seniors in Government signs up for a day to talk about topics important to them. Topics range from singing, sharing art work, dancing, and similar interests.

Spencer chose to talk about himself. Eyes focus on Spencer as he tells about his family, life before and during d.tech high school, favorite foods and drinks (some of which he brought to share with class), and other topics. Then Spencer asks for questions. One student asks: “What is your ethnicity?” Spencer replies: “Three-quarters Chinese and one-quarter Korean.” Another student asks about the paper straw that he is using. “Do you want me to use a metal straw,” Spencer asks questioner. Laughter ripples across the room.

The three minutes are up. Spencer then asks the class for feedback on what he said and brought. A bunch of students compliment Spencer for his clarity, humor, and self-confidence in talking about himself. Spencer thanks the class and then asks for students to evaluate his introduction by raising their hands. Four is the top evaluation of performance and one is the poorest. Spencer calls out the each number and nearly all hands go up for a four. He returns to his seat and the teacher informs the next day’s student to be ready for tomorrow’s class.

Welcome to Ken Klieman’s Government class this late-September morning in 2019. The 32 seniors are sitting at tables facing the front of the room where the teacher’s table holding the LCD projector and white board are located.

Klieman, wearing a green polo shirt, grey chinos , tennis shoes, and what looks to me like a Greek sailing cap, has been at d.tech for the past two years arriving at the school in 2017. Although new to the school, he brought a quarter-century of teaching experience in Bay area middle schools.

The lesson that I observe following Spencer’s three-minute Introduction is nearly all focused upon the process of teaching and learning over the past six weeks in the class. I noted that a number of teachers I observed mention that they will be evaluating their classroom work using students’ anonymous responses to teacher-constructed surveys.

Klieman started off the lesson by having students look at scatter plot graphs that he had created from student responses to a survey about how the class operates (e.g., “Do You Know What Assignments Are and Expectations?” “Is Workload Do-able?,” class discussions, tests, teacher’s grading of students’ performance, etc.). The teacher had arrayed the graphs on tables outside of the classroom. He had also included questions that students had asked to be posted . Klieman asks students to look at their classmates’ responses, take notes, and be prepared to discuss their interpretations of the scatter plots when they return to their seats. They leave the room.

After 10 minutes, student return to their tables with post-its and scraps of paper with their notes. Klieman directs the class to take out their notebooks and title a page “Understanding Data” and put their name and date on it (they will turn this sheet in later). But before launching into students stating their views of the scatter plots, Klieman says “I am going to babble for a few minutes”

Leaning against the LCD stand, he talks about what the class has covered thus far in content and how they have worked on homework, projects, and essays. He says that in his opinion students have not experienced or are ready for academically rigorous courses in college. Deadlines are missed, extensions are continually requested to get extra time to complete essays, research papers, or projects. Other teachers, he remarks, too often say: “take more time to finish up.” He says the school has “coddled” students.

According to Klieman, he was trying to convey the importance of raising their standards through self reflection. He told me: “I often say ‘I cherish the 72 year old you, that is why I have high standards for the 17 year old you. I want the future you to have a beautiful life.’ “*

He acknowledges that there are difficulties that students experience during a major move across the entire high school from a traditional grading system to a system of grading fitted to competency based learning. Recognizing the occasional confusion and glitches in grading, he still wants students to better self-manage themselves insofar as assignments and time they allot to work on them. A few students chime in responding to the teacher’s comments. Of these, some agree with what teacher says but most keep quiet.

Klieman then returns to the task of interpreting scatter plots. He asks students to pair up and exchange observations. He directs them to write their thoughts and interpretations on the sheet of paper they titled “Understanding Data” particularly on how much and in what ways they are learning content and acquiring skills in the class so far this semester. Scatter plots offer a basis for making statements about the entire class.

After about ten minutes, the teacher segues into a whole group discussion with some students raising their hands to contribute and others entering the discussion during pauses. Klieman records what students say on a pad he is holding.

Klieman then summarizes what he has heard from students about particular Government assignments. He projects a slide onto the front whiteboard showing all of the assignments they have worked on during the semester. He stands up on his desk and asks students which of the assignments listed on the slide didn’t work and for what reasons. A number of students raise their hands and point to particular homework and essays that were unclear in what the teacher expected and also required heavy time commitments. They express concern for how grades are calculated as the competency-based learning system kicks in. As one student says: “Grades do matter.”

At the table where I am sitting, the three students there identified two assignments and write it into their notebooks. As I look around the room during this whole group discussion, nearly all of the students are either writing in their notebooks, offering suggestions or listening to what they classmates say.

As the discussion trails off, Klieman says that he will take their feedback seriously and integrate it into future assignments and workload. There are a flurry of student comments about the existing deadline of midnight to electronically submit assignments. The teacher makes clear that the deadline will move from midnight to 10PM.

Klieman says: “I care about the whole you. I want you to get sleep. Having a midnight deadline is not in line with the central value of nurturing good life habits. That is why I am non-negotiable on 10 p.m….. I am not going to bend.” The teacher ends this segment of the interactive discussion by saying: “Hey, I’m your third base coach urging you to get to home plate safely.”

As the period is coming to an end, he asks students to hold up one-to-five fingers (more fingers, more positive rating) as to the worth of looking at scatter plots, discussing workload and particular Economics assignments, and offering suggestions. He then asks students to turn in the sheet of paper they filled out.

After the class packs up and leaves, three students stay behind and they sit with Klieman to discuss particular assignments and upcoming projects. After another 10 minutes, they leave. He and I discuss a few items I did not understand about the lesson. I thank him for letting me observe the lesson.


*This sentence comes from Klieman after he reviewed the draft I had sent him.

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Teaching at D.Tech High School: Chemistry (Part 3)

I enter the classroom after Greg Fenner has begun the lesson. Thirty-one students sit at eight scattered tables in a large room adorned with the essential Periodic Table of Elements. A cart filled with tablets sits at one side of the room. Each table seats four students comprising a team for activities and homework that the teacher assigns during a lesson.

Sporting a trim beard and mustache, Fenner wears jeans, blue T-shirt and tan desert boots. He also has a cloth shoulder strap holding a small pouch.  Perched on his head is a pair of goggles. A graduate of a Bay area university’s teacher education program, this is Fenner’s fourth year at d.tech. He lives in San Francisco and often bikes to the city train station, rides to a stop a few miles away from d.tech high school and completes the commute on his bike.

Today is lab day.  Students will be studying chemical reactions using hydrochloric acid and baking soda. They follow instructions in their textbook, Chemistry in the Earth System, a text linked to Next Generation of Science Standards adopted by California.

Lab workbook exercise

A table near where I am sitting holds eight lab trays filled with a thermometer, flask, measuring cylinder, filter paper, beaker, and one pair of goggles. Fenner explains what the strength of the acid is and the importance of being careful when using it in the experiment. He explains students will mix it with sodium hydrogen carbonate (baking soda). He gives safety instructions to the class before one student from each team comes up to get a tray to bring back to the table. As team members come up to the table, he repeats that students carrying trays should say aloud “I am behind you” and not to make sudden moves.

There is also a Teacher Assistant in the class who is a senior. John took the course last year and wants experience helping students in the course as they do lab experiments. He is seeking a summer internship in a university chemistry lab. As Fenner does, John moves from table to table to see that students have all of the equipment for testing the interaction between acid and a carbonate. They answers student questions about the experiment.

Within a few minutes each team is at work as outlined on the sheet in the book. At a table near me, one student dons the goggles, another picks up the flask of hydrochloric and measures the temperature of the acid. Another does the measuring of the hydrocarbonate. One student takes notes that will be used to complete the assignment. They follow the step-by-step instructions determining the reactions, weight, and temperature of the mix of two ingredients.

Fenner and John move from table to table observing each team’s progress in following directions. They ask and answer questions. As I scan the class, every team seems engaged in carrying out the assignment.

Fenner interrupts the teams to put on whiteboard the chemicals being used, their interaction using familiar equations. He explains the rationale for the experiment and its linkage to the rest of the unit on mass and energy. Many students jot the equations down.

Teams return to task and I watch another table near me as students complete each step, write down the answers, discuss among themselves what the reactions were and any changes they noticed. I do not see any cell phones being used or students off-task.

Fenner reminds students to turn in electronically the results of each team’s investigation. Students pack up and leave class. There are no chimes or bells. A few students linger to ask Fenner questions. I move onto the next teacher’s lesson.


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Students in History Class Debate Impeachment (Burch)

Journalist Audra Burch sat in a world history class recently and described history teacher Chris Dier’s lessons on impeachment. The article appeared October 23, 2019. I follow this description of the lesson with some questions that occurred to me.

It was impeachment day in Mr. Dier’s world history class at Chalmette High School. Andrew Johnson, the first impeached president, was on the lesson plan. So was Richard M. Nixon, who avoided facing such a fate by resigning. Bill Clinton, who also was impeached but never convicted, was part of the discussion.

But most of the class was centered on the latest president to face possible removal from office: Donald J. Trump, who is on social media just as much as some of Chris Dier’s students.

At Chalmette High, located in a conservative Louisiana parish, the students in Mr. Dier’s class recently confronted the merits of the case against Mr. Trump, who stands accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate his chief Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Dier saw the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against Mr. Trump as an opportunity: a real-time lesson in civics and political science for his students.

So, for two 90-minute class periods, Mr. Dier’s seniors pretended to be members of Congress, but without the bluster and sniping — dutifully obeying the signs on the walls about how to respectfully agree to disagree.

“We have never studied anything that was unfolding live,” said Grace Bartholomae, one of the students. “This is history.”

To help his students understand the details of the inquiry, Mr. Dier assembled a bit of a crash-course lesson plan, including an excerpt from the whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s 30-minute phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, along with a reconstructed transcript of the conversation.

The idea was to try to answer the same questions voters are asking themselves about potential impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.

Is Mr. Trump being unfairly cast as corrupt? Has he brazenly weaponized his office for personal gain? Did he seek the aid of a foreign power to interfere in the next election? What are high crimes and misdemeanors anyway?

And is the rarest of constitutional consequences, impeachment by the House and then possible conviction and removal from office by the Senate, worth the trouble a year before the next election — the first in which the students in Mr. Dier’s class, most of whom are 17 years old, will be eligible to vote?

Chalmette High is in St. Bernard Parish just southeast of New Orleans, along the Mississippi River. Surrounded by water and built largely upon fishing and oil refineries, the parish lost more than half of its population after Hurricane Katrina destroyed nearly every home. The rebuilding brought more diversity, and today, of the 1,972 students at Chalmette High, about 52 percent are students of color.

Mr. Trump handily carried the parish in 2016 with about 65 percent of the vote, but the students in Mr. Dier’s class did not always share their parents’ conservative views.

Mr. Dier, 31, teaches in the same classroom where his mother, also a world history teacher, taught five years before. He had planned to tackle impeachment later in the semester, but when the Democrats began an inquiry last month, he moved those lessons up on the calendar to follow a study of the Vietnam War.

He said the point was not just to study this particular impeachment inquiry, but to push his students to engage as informed citizens at a time when many Americans do not understand basic civics.

Only 39 percent of adults can name all three branches of government (a jump from 32 percent last year) and 25 percent can name only one branch, according to a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This year, congressmen in Florida and Georgia introduced a $30 million bipartisan bill to improve the quality of civics education in elementary, middle and high schools across the country.

Another challenge for teachers, Mr. Dier said, is the fear of being accused of bringing too much politics into the classroom. His has shelves stuffed with books on political science and history, and posters of Ben Franklin, Helen Keller and Malcolm X.

“I think social studies teachers are hesitant to teach controversial topics, past and present, due to hyperpolarization or pushback from parents,” he said. “Almost all of my students will be voting in the next election; they deserve teachers who do not shy away from current events because of our partisan climate.”

If anything, Mr. Dier added, “our partisan climate means students need to be challenged more to learn how to navigate it.”

He figured the best way to explore impeachment in a neutral way was sticking to the Constitution and the established facts of Mr. Trump’s actions. That meant having the students, in a condensed version of the impeachment process, study how the founding fathers framed impeachment and the step-by-step procedures in the House of Representatives and Senate.

Mr. Dier divided the class into four groups and instructed them to read the material they had been given, including the call transcript and the whistle-blower complaint.

The students huddled in separate corners of the room reading aloud. Before long, “bribery,” “treason,” “quid pro quo” and other impeachment watchwords floated above the din of the discussions.

The students did not share the same opinion on the matter. To some, the phone call was a clear violation; others struggled with the degree of wrongness. A handful of students — a number that would grow by the end of the lesson — fully supported Mr. Trump.

“Abuse of power is subjective,” insisted Hunter Wheaton, who questioned whether the country was ready for the ugliness of impeachment, which would require majority support in the House.

Even though she felt impeachment and removal from office was unlikely, Jenna Riess said that the inquiry would reveal what the president had done wrong, and that voters would “use that in the next election and vote for a better candidate.”

After the discussion, Mr. Dier polled the 21 students. This time there were three groups: those who supported impeachment (12), those who did not (four) and those who remained undecided (five).

The undecideds sat quietly in the center of the classroom, and the two opposing groups prepared their strongest arguments.

Chance Beck, speaking for those who supported impeachment, said Mr. Trump’s action set a bad precedent. “It’s not morally or politically correct for a president to be able to use national power or national aid that we give to Ukraine for a personal favor,” he said. “I believe he should be impeached and convicted and removed to make the case that this will not be tolerated.”

Trinity Frey, representing those against impeachment, argued that it was not clear the phone call was inappropriate and that it was unrealistic to expect enough of the real-life Republican senators to support Mr. Trump’s removal.

Though what he did might be considered morally wrong, she said, it was simply not severe enough for him to be taken out of office.

After hearing from both sides, the undecideds had to make their move.

“Centrism is canceled,” cracked Ms. Bartholomae, in the lightest moment of the exercise.

One by one, each of the five students joined one of the two groups, greeted by cheers.

Three of the five joined the anti-impeachment group. They said the stakes were too high and the evidence was too thin. “Show me where this says it’s illegal,” said Jihad Thabata, who questioned whether the call amounted to misconduct.

In a closing statement about whether Mr. Trump should stay in office, Alexis Resendez coolly argued that members of Congress should respect the choice made by voters in the 2016 election.

Ayla Hoey rebutted that the transcript may seem subtle, but Mr. Trump “knew the power he had over other countries. Even if it seems like Ukraine is not being pushed, he knew what he asked for was going to get done.”

In that final round, a two-thirds majority voted in favor of removing Mr. Trump.

The tally: 14 to 7.


Some questions that occur to me after reading this article.

*Most history teachers steer clear of controversial subjects especially current issues such as the House impeachment hearings of President Trump. Considering what Chris Dier did in his lessons on impeachment, according to this reporter’s account, were they nonpartisan? If yes, how so. If no, what sections were partisan?

*Should history teachers keep politics out of the classroom?

*Should teachers worry about pushback from parents?


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Teaching at D.Tech High School: English (Part 2)

Wearing a tie, button-down shirt, and slacks, Nathan Pierce, a veteran of 19 years in classrooms of which the last  four have been at d.tech, begins his senior English class with digital slides on one of the walls in a spacious room holding 30 students. He directs his students to look at agenda for the day and the upcoming project of shadowing someone in the middle of their career.

Desks are pushed together to form a long row on both sides of the room with a space in the center where a podium/table with Pierce’s LCD and class handouts are piled. Students face one another allowing for much interaction in this horse-shoe arrangement of furniture and space.

It is first period of the day, following the Advisory when students met with their teachers between 8:45-9:15. No bells or chimes mark beginning or end of the period.


Welcome to Design Tech High School, hereafter d.tech, in the San Mateo Union High School District.  Authorized as a charter in 2014, the school has moved quarters three times, the last occurring in 2018 when they leased a new building located on the campus of Oracle, a for-profit technology company.  The high school cost $43 million to build and Oracle agreed to rent the building to the charter school for one dollar a year. While d.tech has its own school board and is independently operated, this is the first public high school located on a corporate site.

The d.tech building houses about 550 students. Admission to the school is by lottery with priority given to families residing in Sequoia Union and San Mateo Union high school districts. For students living outside of those districts, a waiting list is available.

Demographically in 2018, the largest racial group is white (48 percent) followed by Asian and Filipino (24 percent), Latino (14 percent), African American and multi-racial (13 percent). Females are 42 percent of the enrollment. Fifteen percent of the students are poor as measured by families eligible for free and reduced price lunch. Ten percent of students are identified as special education. I could find no data on percentage of students who are English Language Learners.

Insofar as academic achievement on standardized tests, data are limited. On state standardized tests, d.tech students scored 71 percent proficient (state average is 49 percent) and in math d.tech students were 62 percent proficient (state average 38 percent). For the two standardized tests for college admissions, the average highest score for the SAT was 1270 and for the ACT was 26.  Seventy-seven percent enter four-year institutions and 16 percent go to two-year community colleges.

What draws students to this charter school is its commitment to design principles anchored in intellectual analysis of problem finding and solving and empathy for those who seek solutions to their problems. D.tech’s mission is clearly stated:

We believe that the world can be a better place
and that our students can be the ones to make it happen.

And design thinking makes that mission concrete, according to Ken Montgomery, co-founder and Executive Director of the school,

“Design Thinking is not just a human-centered problem solving process. It is also a capacity building strategy. By teaching design thinking all four years at d.tech, students are able to identify and solve problems, develop a sense of optimism and self-efficacy, and have creative impact on their environment to make the world a better place.”


Return now to Nathan Pierce’s senior English classroom. The lesson I observe on this late-September morning moves swiftly over the 54-minute period. All students have Chromebooks at hand. Some lids are open; some are not. Cellphones are on desks or in pockets.

In this lesson, there are three parts. The first section of the period is about the Career Shadow project due in December. The first page of the handout describes the project.


Pierce goes over each piece of information on the above first-page of the hand-out. He points out experiences of last year’s class who did this very same project. He describes how one student shadowed an airline pilot; another a trainer of guide dogs.  Teacher emphasizes that who each student chooses may lead to an internship of a possible summer job. He then asks: “Is there a way to game the assignment?” A student responds: “Shadow your parent.”  Or, Pierce, adds: “Pick someone you have known for years.”

Pierce then goes on to say that if students try to “game” the project, they should know that “I talk with each student about who they are shadowing and I can tell whether you are gaming the assignment or not.” He then points out the importance of trying to meet someone in a career they know little about but tickles their interest. “Meeting a stranger,” Pierce says, “is hard but past students have done so and learned a great deal.”

Then teacher brings lecture/discussion to a close by urging students to pick someone soon and begin scheduling the shadow. A student asks if they can do the shadow on a school day. Pierce says: “Yes and no”. On regularly scheduled days filled with academic classes, shadowing wouldn’t work but on Lab Days when students schedule their own time slots for working on assignments that is a possibility, he says.

Pierce then segues to second part of lesson by saying: “Let’s switch gears. I’ve been talking too long.” He directs class’s attention to the ongoing unit for students on writing a screenplay. He has laid out a detailed unit outline–a tutorial– filled with with videos to watch on each step of writing a script, assignments to turn in, and where to find answers to their questions (see here). All of these directions and assignments and playlists are loaded onto students’ tablets. How the unit will be graded is also included:

The Basics of grading this assignment

* The Script (20pts – you and I grade)
*Collaboration(20pts – production team grades)
* Production (20pts – I grade)

Pierce is ready to show a video “Spec Scripts” and tells students to watch an “Indy Mogul 101” tutorial. The video begins. Students appear to be engaged as the video goes over each step of formatting the script. When montages are described, Pierce stops the video and  explains further what it is with examples. Video resumes and discusses action scenes. Teacher stops the video and says when it comes to action scenes “keep it simple and easy to read.” Pierce points out that the upcoming 101 video blogger (see above) recommends Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill as examples of action scenes. The video continues with the actual formatting of a screen play. Pierce asks for questions and a few students ask about further details on parts of screen play. He answers them.

The final part of the lesson is independent work time. After student questions are answered, Pierce tells students that the rest of the period is for them to work on their screen play or plan for Career Shadow assignment. About a dozen students leave the room and got to hallways or alcoves to work by themselves or in pairs or trios.

I leave classroom and go into alcove where a trio is working and ask them what they are doing. One replies that they are figuring out which of the story lines for their screen play they should choose. They had presented the three to the class last week and got feedback so now they have to decide. I then move to a student who is working alone and ask her what she is doing. She has decided for her screen play to use a heroic archetype–she shows me sheet where 12 kinds of heroes are used in screen plays. her story, she tells me, is of a poor boy who wants to become rich. He goes fishing with his father and one of the fish he catches (and secretly keeps for himself rather than share with father) is a magical one.  The fish can fulfill the boy’s wishes. There is a demon, however, who also wants that very fish too. The demon comes after the boy and there is a struggle. She tells me that is as far as she has gotten so far. I ask her, what kind of hero is the boy–there are 12 archetypes. She tells me he is a “transcendental,” explaining that he is a hero with a tragic flaw.

Just after 10:10 these students in hallway and alcove pack up and students in the room leave for their second period class. I thank Nathan Pierce and ask if he could send me links to videos, handouts, and description and requirements for screen play project. He does send me the links that evening.

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Design Tech High School (Part 1)

It is 8:30 AM. I am standing with 30 faculty and staff meeting in a circle in a large room called the Design Realization Garage (more about this space below). This is a daily faculty meeting. Everyone is standing and as Melissa Mizel, Director of the school, holding an open laptop in one hand, makes announcements, describes activities that will be occur during the day, and then asks assembled group if individuals have anything to add. A few teachers speak up: one needs a projector in 205, another announces a special activity in a class, and the counselor tells the group which colleges will be on campus today. Just a few minutes shy of 8:45, Melissa asks for any more announcements. There are none and she says “we are adjourned.” every person in the circle turns to the next person and gives a high five. The stand-up faculty meeting is over.

Design Tech High School, hereafter d.tech, is a charter high school in the San Mateo Union High School District. Students are admitted by lottery. Authorized as a charter in 2014, the school has moved quarters three times, the last occurring in 2018 when they moved into a new building located on the campus of Oracle, a for-profit technology company.  The high school cost $43 million to build and Oracle agreed to lease the building to the charter school for one dollar a year. While d.tech has its own school board and is independently operated, this is the first public high school located on a corporate site.*


Students participated in the design of the building. You enter the school into a well-lit, expansive atrium that is the centerpiece and assembly hall for student gatherings, lecturers, and classes.



Hallways are broad, lit by both natural and artificial light, and places where students work in small groups and independently. Tables, desks, cushions are arrayed in these spaces which also have alcoves.



Then there is the Design Realization Garage, a two-story, 6,000square feet of workshop space devoted to teachers and students designing projects, building prototypes, and making things.




The D.tech building houses about 550 students. Admittance to the school is by lottery with priority given to families residing in Sequoia Union and San Mateo Union high school districts. For students living outside of those districts, a long waiting list is available.

Demographically in 2018, the largest racial group is white (48 percent) followed by Asian and Filipino (24 percent), Latino (14 percent), African American and multi-racial (13 percent). Females are 42 percent of the enrollment. Fifteen percent of the students are poor as measured by families who qualify for free and reduced price lunch. Ten percent of students are identified as special education. I could find no data on percentage of students who are English Language Learners.

Insofar as academic achievement on standardized tests, data are limited. On state standardized tests, d.tech students scored 71 percent proficient (state average is 49 percent) and in math d.tech students were 62 percent proficient (state average 38 percent). For the two standardized tests for college admissions, the average highest score for the SAT was 1270 and for the ACT was 26.  Seventy-seven percent enter four-year institutions and 16 percent go to two-year community colleges.

What draws students to this charter school is its commitment to design principles anchored in intellectual analysis of problem finding and solving and empathy for those who seek solutions to their problems. D.tech’s mission is clearly stated:

We believe that the world can be a better place
and that our students can be the ones to make it happen.

And design thinking makes that mission concrete, according to Ken Montgomery, co-founder and Executive Director of the school,

“Design Thinking is not just a human-centered problem solving process. It is also a capacity building strategy. By teaching design thinking all four years at d.tech, students are able to identify and solve problems, develop a sense of optimism and self-efficacy, and have creative impact on their environment to make the world a better place.”

So the three stand-up faculty meetings that I attended with announcements of special events and details about the daily program ending with the high-five hand slaps at first seemed far removed from the mission of the school. As Montgomery told me, these meetings reflect a “bias toward action” which is part of the design thinking philosophy driving the school and linked to the school’s goals. Because there are (and have been) many changes in program, staff requested that there be daily meetings to “get an update on anything new for the day.”

Connecting this mission and goals to program features such as offering an Innovation Diploma along with the traditional high school one, scheduled Lab Days every week, two week Intersessions, and a competency-based grading system became clearer to me as I spent time in classrooms, hallways, and advisories.. Subsequent posts take up classroom lessons and each of these program pieces.


*While there have been private schools established by Henry Ford, Elon Musk,  and others to train and educate children and youth as Natasha Singer reports, an independently operated public high school on a corporate site is unique…thus far.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies, technology

Hooked on Social Media, the Brain, and School Lessons

…the typical social media user spends 10 to 20 minutes on an app after opening it. With 56% of respondents claiming they log onto Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and other networks more than 10 times per day, that means half of America could be spending more than three hours of their day on the networks.


And not only teens or millenials. Also the much older Baby Boomer generation. Sounds addictive yet researchers have not helped us answer the question: why?800-2.png

On the one hand, neuroscientists and journalists have argued that unrestrained access to information and communication have rewired the brain. The brain is plastic altering itself  in response to the environment and creating new neural pathways that ancestors lacked. So multi-tasking has become the norm and, better yet, we are more productive and connected to people as never before.

On the other hand, there are those neuroscientists who concur that the brain is plastic but it has hardly been rewired. Instead, complete access to information and people–friends, like-minded enthusiasts, and strangers–unleashes brain chemicals that give us pleasure. Or as one psychologist put it:

What the Internet does is stimulate our reward systems over and over with tiny bursts of information (tweets, status updates, e-mails) that … can be delivered in more varied and less predictable sequences. These are experiences our brains did not evolve to prefer, but [they are] like drugs of abuse….

To these researchers and journalist, the Internet and social media are addictive.

So these are competing views emerging from current brain research. Most studies producing these results, however, come from experiments on selected humans and animals. They are hardly definitive and offer parents and educators little about the impact on children and youth from watching multiple screens hours on end.

And nothing is mentioned about the  issue that both neuroscientists and philosophers persistently stumble over. Is the brain the same as the mind? Is consciousness–our sense of self–the product of neural impulses or is it a combination of memories, perceptions, and beliefs apart from brain activity picked up in MRIs? On one side are those who equate the brain with the mind (David Dennett) and on the other side are those who call such equivalency, “neurotrash.”

Yet even with the unknowns about the brain, its plasticity, and the mind, much less about what effects the Internet has upon young children, youth, and adults–“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” asked one writer–many school reformers have run with brain research with nary a look backward.

Consider those school reformers including technology enthusiasts who hate current school structures with such as passion that they call for bricks-and-mortar schools to go the way of  gas-lit street lights and be replaced by online instruction or other forms of schooling that embrace high-tech fully. Cathy Davidson, Duke University professor, to cite one example, makes such a case.

[T]he roots of our twenty-first-century educational philosophy go back to the machine age and its model of linear, specialized, assembly-line efficiency, everyone on the same page, everyone striving for the same answer to a question that both offers uniformity and suffers from it. If the multiple-choice test is the Model T of knowledge assessment, we need to ask: What is the purpose of a Model T in an Internet age?

Others call for blended learning, a combination of face-to-face (F2F in the lingo) and online lessons.

There’s this myth in the brick and mortar schools that somehow the onset of online K-12 learning will be the death of face-to-face … interaction. However this isn’t so — or at least in the interest of the future of rigor in education, it shouldn’t be. In fact, without a heaping dose of F2F time plus real-time communication, online learning would become a desolate road for the educational system to travel.

The fact is that there is a purpose in protecting a level of F2F and real-time interaction even in an online program…. The power is in a Blended Learning equation:

Face-to-Face + Synchronous Conversations + Asynchronous Interactions = Strong Online Learning Environment

Then there are those who embrace brain research with lusty (and uncritical) abandon.

Students’ digitally conditioned brains are 21st century brains, and teachers must encourage these brains to operate fully in our classrooms…. If we can help students balance the gifts technology brings with these human gifts, they will have everything they need.

So where are we? In an earlier post I quoted  cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, a frequent blogger and associate editor of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education. He offered three bullet-point facts for those educators caught up in brain-based research*:

#The brain is always changing

#The connection between the brain and behavior is not obvious.

#Deriving useful information for teachers from neuroscience is slow, painstaking work.

Willingham ended his post by asking a key question:

“How can you tell the difference between bonafide research and schlock? That’s an ongoing problem and for the moment, the best advice may be that suggested by David Daniel, a researcher at James Madison University: ‘If you see the words ‘brain-based,’ run.’ “


*The link to the Washington Post op-ed no longer works; the article has been deleted. I apologize to readers for not being able to supply link. However, Willingham has an article where he cites the myths about connections between neuroscience and schooling (see here).


Filed under how teachers teach, technology, technology use

Breaking the Cycle of Reforming Again and Again (Thomas Hatch)

In a recent article in International Education News, Professor Tom Hatch, Teachers College, Columbia, offered a reasonable and do-able way for policymakers,  parents, and voters to outflank the seemingly inevitable cycle of school reform that researchers, policy analysts, and historians of education have documented for decades. Hatch sets out ideas that prompt questions about which reforms best fit the particular setting. These ideas are anchored deeply in historical and contemporary policy making. The questions Hatch proposes flow from these ideas and can (and must) be asked of policy makers, researchers, political officials, and donors or anyone proposing the next best reform in school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction.

Such questions need to be asked openly. And answers need to come from those who have the authority and money to put proposed reforms into practice.


…. Building on Cuban’s work with his colleagsue David Tyack in Tinkering Toward Utopia  and further analyses by David Cohen and Jal Mehta in “Why reform sometimes succeed”, my colleagues and I have been looking at some of the reasons that so many policies and reform initiatives fail to produce the fundamental changes in schools and classrooms that they seek. In a nutshell, this work suggests that too often the goals, capacity demands, and values of reform proposals do not match the common needs, existing capabilities, and dominant values in the schools and districts they are supposed to help.

Admittedly, this is a simple heuristic, but it provides one quick way to anticipate some implementation challenges and to explain how reform initiatives evolve. Although this example is drawn from the US, the basic approach to identifying the challenges of improvement and implementation can be applied in many settings outside the US as well.

Is there a fit between reform proposals and the needs, capabilities and values “on the ground”?

 Asking a succinct set of questions provides one quick way to gauge the “fit” between reform proposals and the conditions in the schools and communities where those proposals are supposed to be implemented:

  • How widely shared is the “problem” that the initiative is supposed to address?
  • What has to change for the initiative to take hold in schools and classrooms to have an impact?
  • To what extent do teachers, administrators and schools have the capabilities they need to make the changes?
  • How likely is it that the key ideas and practices of the initiative will be consistent with socio-cultural, technological, political, and economic trends in the larger society?

What’s the problem the initiative is designed to solve and who has “it”?

When problems are widely shared by many of the stakeholders involved, initiatives that address those problems are more likely to be seen as necessary and worth pursuing – a key indicator of whether those “on the ground” are likely to do what the initiative requires.  

In the case of the teacher evaluation reforms, proposals for changing evaluation procedures grew along with concerns that the emphases on accountability and teacher quality in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 were not yielding the desired improvements in outcomes in reading and mathematics (which was also predictable even before NCLB passed into law but that’s a different blog post…). Those concerns came together with increasing interest in looking at growth in student learning through “value-added” measurement approaches and with the observation popularized by the New Teacher Project’s report on “The Widget Effect” that almost all teachers were given satisfactory evaluation ratings.

For whom was the system of teacher evaluation a problem? Policymakers, funders, and some administrators seized upon teacher evaluation as a critical problem. These “policy elites”, however, are those primarily engaged with managing the education system; but “fixing” teacher evaluation did not appear to be at the top of the list of concerns for many teachers, parents, and students, or for major stakeholder groups like teachers’ unions. As a consequence, considerable resistance should have been expected.

What has to change? To what extent do teachers, principals, and schools have the capabilities to make the changes?

The more complicated and demanding the changes are, the more difficult they will be to put in place.  Simply put, the likelihood of implementing a policy or improvement initiative effectively drops the more steps and the more convoluted the plan; the more time, money, resources, and people involved; and the more that everyday behaviors and beliefs have to change.

At a basic level, the “logic” of the teacher evaluation reforms seemed fairly straightforward:

If we create better estimates of teacher quality and create more stringent evaluation systems…

…. Then education leaders can provide better feedback to teachers, remove ineffective teachers, reward more effective teachers…

… And student learning/outcomes will improve

However, by unpacking exactly what has to happen for these results to be achieved, the complications and predictable difficulties quickly become apparent.  Among the issues:

  • New instruments have to be created, criteria agreed upon, new observation & assessments deployed, and trainings developed
  • Principals/observers have to have time for training and to carry out observations/assessments
  • Principals and other observers have to be able to give meaningful feedback,
  • Teachers need to be able to change their instruction in ways that yields measurable improvements on available assessments of student performance

Of course, these developments are supposed to take place in every single school and district covered by the new policy, and, at the school and classroom level, these new procedures, observation criteria, and feedback mechanisms have to be developed for every teacher, at every level, in every subject.

In addition to highlighting the enormity of the task, this analysis also makes visible critical practical and logistical issues. In this case, for example, the new evaluation procedures are supposed to be based to a large extent on measuring growth of student learning on standardized tests. Yet, the policy is also supposed to apply to the many teachers who do not teach “tested subjects” and for whom standardized tests are not adequate for assessing student learning and development.

But even if all the logistical and practical problems are addressed, to be effective, the policy still requires administrators and teachers to develop new skills and knowledge: Administrators have to improve their ability to observe instruction and to provide meaningful feedback (in many different subjects/levels); Teachers have to know how to use that feedback to make appropriate changes in their instruction that lead to improved performance on available measures. Further, even if administrators were able to put in place new evaluation procedures and develop the capabilities to deploy them, using the results to sanction or reward individual teachers conflicts with the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and norms of behavior in many schools.

(Among others, Michael McShane draws on Pressman & Wildasky’s 1984 book Implementation to highlight the issues related to reform complexity; David Cohen, Jim Spillane, and Don Peurach have written extensively about the need to develop a much stronger “infrastructure” to support the development of educator’s knowledge and skills and to improve instruction across classrooms and schools; and Rick Hess cites James Q. Wilson’s work to stress the difficulty in counteracting local incentives and prevailing institutional cultures.)

How do the proposed changes fit with the values, trends, developments at the time?

Changes proposed that reflect enduring values as well as the socio-cultural, political, technological, and economic trends can take off in concert with other developments in society.  Conversely, conflicts over basic values and shifts in trends can also mean that support and public opinion may wane relatively quickly before changes have time to take root.

In this case, the teacher evaluation policies evolved as conflicting trends were emerging. On the one hand, the new approaches to teacher evaluation fit with long-standing concerns about the efficiency of education as well as with the development of new technologies, new approaches to data use, and interest in performance accountability among leaders in business, government and other fields. On the other hand, those policies also had to be implemented in a context where concerns about academic pressure and the extent of testing were growing among many parents and educators and where advocates for local control of education were becoming more concerned and more vocal about their opposition to the development of the Common Core Learning Standards.

What would you predict?

This quick survey provides one view of the challenges faced by efforts to change teacher evaluations:

  • A lack of a shared problem
  • Requirements for massive, complex, and coordinated changes at every level of the education system
  • Demands for the development of new knowledge, skills, attitudes and norms of behavior
  • In a context of conflicting trends and values

Under these circumstances, the prognosis for effective implementation was never good.  Of course, the hope was that the new policies could kick-start or set in motion many of the desired changes that could encourage the kinds of interactions between administrators and teachers that would improve student learning. Given the challenges laid out here, the fact that some aspects of teacher evaluations across the US appear to have changed could be seen as remarkable. In fact, the NCTQ report makes clear that states and districts did respond to the policies.  In particular, many more states are now requiring multiple observations of some or all teachers and more than half of all states now require that all teachers get annual summative feedback.

However, the NCTQ report also explains that elements of the policy critical to the basic logic are falling by the wayside. Ten states have dropped requirements for using “objective evidence of student learning” (though 2 states have added such a requirement), and “No fewer than 30 states have recently withdrawn at least one of the evaluation reforms that they adopted during a flurry of national activity between 2009 and 2015.” The Education Week coverage also notes that states like New Mexico have rolled back tough accountability provisions. New Mexico had instituted a student-growth score that accounted for 50% of a teacher’s overall rating but has since dropped that requirement after “more than a quarter of the state’s teachers were labeled as ‘minimally effective’ or ‘ineffective.’ Educators (including highly rated teachers) hated the system, with some burning their evaluations in protest in front of the state education department’s headquarters.”

Notably, this analysis also highlights that the policies were largely indirect: The were esigned to develop an elaborate apparatus to measure teacher’s performance – with the hope that those changes would eventually affect instruction. Yet there was relatively limited investment in figuring out specifically what teachers could do to improve and the kind of feedback and support that would make those improvements possible. Under these circumstances, one could anticipate that many districts and schools would make some effort to introduce new observation and evaluation procedures, but that those new procedures would be grafted onto old ones, shedding the most complicated and controversial propositions in the process (providing another example of what Tyack and Cuban describe as a process of “schools changing reforms”).

The lesson from all this is not for the advocates to lament this rollback or the critics to revel in it.  Nor is it to abandon ambitious visions for rethinking and transforming the school system we have because the work that needs to be done is difficult or controversial.  The point is to use our knowledge and understanding of why changing schools is so difficult so that we can design improvement initiatives that take the predictable stumbling blocks into account.  It means building common understanding of the key problems that need to be addressed, coming to terms with the concrete changes that have to be made in classrooms and schools, and building the capacity to make those changes over time.


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Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies