Tag Archives: classroom practice,

Kids as Tour Guides: Integrating Student-Created Media into History Class (Kerry Gallagher)

Kerry Gallagher , a veteran middle school and high school history teacher posted this project she did with her ninth graders. It appeared Feb 20, 2015 on EdSurge.

Why do we travel? How do we choose a place to put down roots? What draws us there? Today, when we plan to travel or relocate, we do research. We find out about the climate, people, culture, and economy that we are about to dive into.

I wanted my students to experience that kind of research process, and to arrive at an answer relating the question of why people are drawn to places. After all, project-based learning should allow students to experience authentic processes while learning content. But I also wanted them to show their learning through a product that professionals typically publish: tourism commercials.

And so, that is what we did.

Step 1: Frame the Task

In our early North American colonies unit, students learned about the cultures and economies of the 17th century colonies. What was the draw? Why did Europeans take the risky trek across the volatile Atlantic Ocean to put down roots in a place so far away? It was time for my students to start investigating.

First, I showed the ninth graders real tourism advertisements I found on YouTube; they watched clever ads from across the continent in California and from their home turf in Massachusetts. Then we talked, in small groups and as a class, about what made each place attractive. Some of the items on the list had to do with the places themselves: lots to do, beautiful scenery, welcoming people, while other students mentioned aspects of the video production: bright colors, upbeat music, cheerful narrative script.

Step 2: Start the Research

Small groups of 2-3 students chose an early North American colony from New York in the North to Georgia in the South, and started digging for information about founding leadership, religion, economy, climate, and culture. Students used articles from our school subscription databases and books from the classroom and school libraries.

When students gathered their information in Evernote or Google Drive, they shared it with me for extra input and approval. Once I reviewed their work and pushed them deeper with some guiding questions, a real vision of their colonies became clearer.

Step 3: Pulling it Together

This next step is a great opportunity for interdisciplinary learning, for those teachers who are interested in it.

As students began writing their scripts, they were instructed to use what they learned about persuasive techniques from their English classes. My colleague Kate Crosby even pointed me toward a handy guide to the Aristotelian Appeals ethos, pathos, and logos they’d used in her freshman English class, making this a truly interdisciplinary endeavor. They also had to consider who their commercial might target: families? young men just starting out? the wealthy? the religious?

Once the script was crafted, students looked for images to represent their colony and used iMovie to put together their commercial and Airdrop to share it with me. Finally, I uploaded the videos to my YouTube channel, specifically created for student projects.

Step 4: Hosting a Viewing Party

Students showed their final commercials to one another in the classroom. No information was given to the audience prior to the screening, but while watching, other students were given varying information to look for: economy, culture, religion, leaders, and method of persuasion utilized. The audience told the creators what they learned from the video, and the creators confirmed or clarified the details.

Step 5: Reflect, Report, Publish

Any great project can’t be complete without reflection, so my students share their learning on blogs. The benefit of this medium is that the final work can be a mix of written expression illustrated with images and video clips.

  • Kirsten’s post about her New Jersey ad is a great example. She wrote about the process we went through in class, what she learned about New Jersey, embedded her video, and concluded with an analysis of persuasive techniques employed.
  • Olivia’s post on Georgia was also well put together and her group’s video production quality was perhaps the best of the class. See the video below. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SJxYaDpSL4

This journey brought my students through required curriculum, but also gave them experience with the real process people must go through before traveling to a destination or developing marketing material. When real world skills are combined with rich content, the best of project-based learning happens.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

You Cannot Tell Wisdom: What You Don’t Learn in Teacher Education Programs and Teach for America

By the fifth year of my teaching in Cleveland’s Glenville High School in the early 1960s, I had learned one of the most important lessons a teacher can learn in an urban high school. I carried the precept with me to Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in Washington, D.C., and any teaching I have done ever since, including Los Altos and Menlo-Atherton high schools in northern California and, yes, Stanford University.  That lesson was not in the curriculum of the undergraduate teacher education program I had taken. Nor can that lesson be easily learned in  the two-year stint  that Teach for America novices serve.

OK, what is that lesson? Never ask permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.

With mindful experience in classrooms, teachers learn that they are gatekeepers to what enters and exits their rooms. While there is so much that teachers have no control over in teaching such as the students they have, the room within they teach, the schedule they follow through the school day, events occurring inside and outside the school, and school organization–they do have a  margin of precious autonomy once they shut the classroom door. As gatekeepers to the classroom, teachers learn in fits and starts, by trial and error, that they determine what and how content gets taught. They learn to convey attitudes and values about life and learning within the confines of that 900 square feet classroom. Yes, that freedom is constrained. Nonetheless, that autonomy can make teaching influential in the lives of children and youth, jump-start learning for both teacher and students, and fashion the art of performance in classrooms.

And in learning how to teach and work with colleagues in my schools over the years and extract a small measure of freedom outside of my classroom, my hard-earned organizational lesson came into play.

As I taught history to five classes a day in the initial years at Glenville High School, it became clear to me that I needed more than what the school and district could supply me with–reams of paper, machines that would make copies of readings for my students, and access to people who could help me reach my students in ways that I could not. I began to locate paper, machines, and people, sweet-talked my way into gathering them by bending school and district rules. A case in point, I found reams of paper unused in another department’s store room at the end of the school year and appropriated them for my Fall classes. After school began, the principal called me into his office and showed me telephone messages and memos he had received from district officials demanding an explanation for my “unprofessional behavior.”

My relationship with the principal was a warm, supportive one in which he judged me as a hard-working teacher who was part of a cadre in the urban school that helped students graduate and enter college. So he faced a dilemma in having to do something stern without alienating an entrepreneurial teacher, given all of the district complaints about my “unprofessional behavior.” I, too, faced a dilemma. In a scarcity economy which is what urban schools are insofar as supplies and resources, teachers had to be enterprising beyond dipping into their wallets to buy things for their classes. I scrounged, begged, and borrowed to the hilt with colleagues but it wasn’t enough. And yet I didn’t want to stop because what I was doing with my classes seemed to be paying off in increased attendance and motivation. Yet my boss was upset.  I had to mollify him and the district officials pestering him to do something to stop my apparent “unprofessional behavior.” So after much thinking about how schools worked and what I had learned about authority structures in schools and districts, I asked the principal to forgive my indiscretion.

I apologized after the fact for not asking permission. He reported to his superiors that I had apologized for my actions and that ended the incident.  And that lesson I learned from my experiences over five years as a teacher I continued to practice when working in urban schools, as a superintendent, and professor. I consider that lesson wisdom I had gained from teaching at Glenville.

Sure you can tell such wisdom to novices but they lack the organizational savvy to make sense of it. They lack the mindfulness drawn from pondering one’s experiences in a school and classroom. And I would guess that TFA-ers don’t learn that lesson in their summer training or in the two years they spend as classroom teachers. What a powerful lesson I learned as a young teacher: do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.




Filed under how teachers teach

From Policy to Practice: Chains or Pasta

Metaphors are shortcuts for understanding complicated concepts: Time is money. The mind is a computer. Each metaphor powerfully illuminates and enriches an idea. Which metaphors come to mind when districts try to put reforms into classroom practice to increase student learning? The common (and inaccurate) metaphor is a chain with many links. A more apt one would be spaghetti.

In the U.S. Army’s command-and-control structures, generals believe that their decisions can steer what infantry platoons do in the field. Yet the metaphor of the “fog of war” and a history of misunderstanding orders at the company and platoon levels during battles suggest that even in command-and-control structures,decisions moving down the chain of authority may turn out far differently than intended. Novels and memoirs from War and Peace to Jarhead, films from The Longest Day to Platoon, and officer and enlisted men reports make that point.

School district organizational charts resemble military organizations with structures showing authority flowing downward from the board of education to teachers. Here also, the belief that policymakers can frame problems, adopt solutions, and steer classroom practice prevails. Yet school districts are hardly command-and-control operations since new policies get interpreted and re-interpreted by different actors at each link of the supposed chain of authority as they proceed downward into classrooms.

Consider former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, He got the state legislature to eliminate the elected school board and give him control of the schools in 2002. He appointed lawyer Joel Klein Chancellor and through that school official commanded the school district. The Mayor said: “there is a direct link from the teacher’s desk in the classroom, right to the mayor’s desk in City Hall.” For political rhetoric, it is a great one-liner but , truth be told, school decision-making in New York City, Fargo, North Dakota, and Los Altos, California doesn’t work that way.

The supposed command-and-control chain of authority from a mayor or a school board to classroom have many links (mayor=superintendent=district office=principals=teachers=students), but influence doesn’t always flow downward from the top. Sometimes it flows from the bottom up. Sometimes, teachers get rid of principals; sometimes principals do the opposite of what district administrators seek; sometimes students don’t do homework. Moreover, other important factors such as incidence of family poverty, race and ethnicity of enrollments, size of district, and history of reform in the city gum up the chain metaphor. Finally, in far too many instances, policymakers’ assumptions about the desired reform are simply mistaken.

And it is in classrooms where teachers make decisions about what the policy is and which parts, if any, get implemented. What was intended by policymakers may well turn out to be something quite different. The metaphor of a linked chain for putting educational policies into practice is inapt. A better image than links in a chain is policy-to-practice pasta. Consider the following two examples.

Mrs. O., a veteran California second grade teacher in the late-1980s had embraced a new math curriculum aimed at replacing students’ rote memorization with mathematical understanding. A researcher observed Mrs. O teach and interviewed her many times. She saw herself as a success story, a teacher who had revolutionized her mathematics teaching. But classroom observations revealed that her practices were really old wine in new bottles. Yes, Mrs. O was now dividing students into groups–an innovation–but the groups memorized rules taken from the new text. In short, Mrs. O’s blended traditional and innovative practices to create lessons that transformed the state policy directive into something quite different from what policymakers had intended.

Interactive whiteboards. Replacing traditional classroom chalkboards, TV monitors, and DVDs, these wall-mounted electronic devices connect a desktop computer and projector to a whiteboard where teachers can click keys to show videos, visit websites immediately, and call upon other sources of information. A stylus permits teachers and students to write on the whiteboard to do math problems, point out aspects of lava flows from erupting volcanoes, and allow teachers to record their lessons as digital video files for students to review at a later time.

Promoters have hailed interactive white boards as a technology that will transform teaching and learning.

A reporter described Spanish teacher Crystal Corn’s high school class in Cumming, Georgia:

“[Corn’s students] … use a stylus at the whiteboard to match pictures and vocabulary words, they use it to visit Web sites that feature news from Spanish-speaking countries, and they even made a music video and played it in class on the whiteboard. This school year, Corn plans to use the interactive whiteboard to hold videoconferences with classes in other countries.”

Sounds terrific. But over the past three years, I have observed nearly 20 classrooms using whiteboards in four different districts. I saw versions of Mrs. O again and again. Consider the half-dozen high school math teachers that I observed using whiteboards daily. Nearly every one began the lesson with a “brain teaser,” reviewed homework problems, had students use the stylus on the whiteboard to show how they solved particularly difficult ones, introduced new material, asked if students had any questions, then assigned new problems for homework. In short, these math teachers in different cities used traditional math lessons with an innovative high-tech device. Yet those teachers spoke rapturously about how whiteboards had enhanced their teaching. Hello, Mrs. O.

So what if the policy-to-practice continuum is best captured by the image of spaghetti than iron-welded links in a chain? The answer is again found in the four questions I have asked many times about whether the policy was fully implemented and whether teaching practices had changed. The catch is, of course, that I do not know if Mrs. O and the whiteboard examples capture typical teaching practices when it comes to implementing curricular and high-tech policy decisions. We won’t know until more systematic classroom observations occur. School policymakers facing their own “fog of war” can only guess how teachers teach daily.

Yet teachers make daily policy decisions in their classrooms. When teachers work collaboratively within schools and districts, when policymakers work closely with teachers to make decisions that touch classrooms, when teachers run their own schools as in Minnesota, links-in-a-chain and pasta metaphors are inappropriate.

More apt may be metaphors of organizational collaboration such as a team white-water rafting or a relay team running hurdles. But those metaphors are seldom used to capture the policy-to-practice road into classrooms. Pity.



Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Will Teaching and Learning Become Automated? (Part 3)

Part 2 of this series described the spread of software-driven automation across the economy in the past half-century. I used examples of automated flights, driverless cars, and electronic medical records. I did not mention that now software programmers have written precise instructions for clinicians to diagnose X-rays and MRIs, provide legal documents—called “discovery–for a trial, and  design ships and skyscrapers across the globe through CAD–computer-aided-design. The shift to automating the work of professionals has been stunning.

Driving this change is the market imperative to cut costs, raise productivity, and increase profits. That imperative, married to remarkable gains in applying artificial intelligence to professional tasks, has swept across the private sector. To those enamored with technology, spreading automation means progress. And there has been that kind of “progress” in K-12 schooling as well.

Advanced software to handle administrative work in K-12 districts have been put in place to manage payroll, personnel, purchasing, and similar tasks. Systematic collection and analysis of student personal and performance data has also multiplied over the past two decades. Automated processes, then, are hardly foreign to administrators. Nor to the three million-plus K-12 teachers who have latched onto software to help them keep tabs on students, assign grades, and manage their behavior. It is in the realm of teaching and learning in classrooms, however, that automation has stumbled.

No, I have not forgotten about online tutorials, screens filled with skill-driven worksheets, and the onset of automated grading of essays. Such software has helped many teachers.

But claims from technological enthusiasts that “progress” means classroom teachers will be obsolete in the 21st century are, at best, premature, or, at worst, mindless. It is this conceit that super-duper software will eventually, not today but in some future tomorrow, automate teaching that I take up in the final part of this series.


The onslaught of automation in the private sector and its seeming success in industrial, commercial, and professional work has given strength to those who see smart software conquering hitherto unassailable occupations like teaching and medicine. In schooling, the advance of automation has raised anew the most basic question of purpose: Toward what ends should schools strive? And exactly what role do teachers play in reaching those ends?

The purposes of tax-supported schooling

What technophiles forget, neglect, trip over—pick a verb–are the multiple purposes for tax-supported schools in a democracy. They and many others futurists err—my verb choice—in equating access to information with becoming educated. The purpose of schooling is reduced to acquiring information.

But information is, I hate to repeat the obvious, not knowledge. Googled facts do not add up to knowing something. Surely, knowledge depends upon accurate information but without context, interpretation, and experience facts are forgotten quickly. That obvious distinction between information and knowledge has been skipped over in the current passion for more classroom software to automate teaching.

Tax-supported public schools have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose historic job has been to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

Until three decades ago, these diverse purposes for tax-supported public schools were obvious; now those purposes have been narrowed to job preparation; the other purposes are mentioned when diplomas are handed out. Engaged citizenship, contributing to one’s community, and living worthwhile lives remain in the shadows. Few policymakers, philanthropists, technology futurists have challenged (or are willing to challenge) the swelling embrace of automated instruction that promise transforming schools into information factories.

Teacher roles

The community–taxpayers, voters, families, and businesses–expects teachers to help children acquire multiple literacies, prepare for  the labor market, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

Effective teaching, like work in other helping professions such as medicine, social work, and religious counseling is anchored in relationships. Those student/teacher relationships convert information into knowledge and, on occasion, knowledge into wisdom about the self and world. Teachers, then, from preschool through high school  are far more than deliverers of information.

In classrooms, they set and enforce the rules that socialize the young to act consistent with community norms. They set an example of adult behavior becoming for some students exemplars to model. They create classroom cultures that can encourage individual achievement, cooperative behavior, and independent decision-making. I may have left some roles off the list but readers who remember their student days can supply others that have gone unmentioned.

Obviously, not all teachers are stellar in performing these complex roles. Like doctors,  therapists, nurses, social workers, and clergy engaged in the helping professions variation in performance occurs. The key point is not the variation but the public and professional expectations that teachers do more than give information to their students. And in performing these multiple roles in classrooms, teachers have to decide moment-by-moment what to do.

Teachers make thousands of decisions in planning, conducting lessons, and assessing how well students are doing. Hundreds of those decisions are made in the nanosecond during teacher/student exchanges in daily lessons. Many decisions are moral ones in that they involve her authority as teacher, parental expectations, and student behaviors. Decisions over right and wrong are ever-present in classrooms. Teachers sort out conflicts daily among students over truth-telling and differences between parental values and school norms. They make both moral and intellectual decisions.  No software program that I know has algorithms that either make instantaneous decisions when events pop up unexpectedly or split-second moral decisions.

So, because of multiple purposes for schooling and the daily press of classroom decisions, I believe that automation of teaching is not around the corner. Were teaching to be defined as wholly the delivery of information, then teaching could be software-driven. But, oh, what a loss it would be to the intellectual and moral lives of students and a democracy that depends upon tax-supported schools to educate the next generation.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

The School of the Future: Automated Classrooms? (Part 1)

Technological fantasies of the future school have been around for decades. Here’s one from 1910. Note all of the information going into students’ heads comes from textbooks fed into a wood chipper.









Or another from 1963 cartoon called “The Jetsons.”












Or this one in 1982 predicting that the future school will be monopolized by the then dominant company Atari.











And then “Meet The Classroom of the Future” in 2015 at David Boody Intermediate School (IS 228) in New York City.










Modeled after the School of One, an  innovative program that began in New York City a few years ago, sixth-to-eighth grade students work at their individual skill levels based on data collected from state and  school tests, diagnostic assessments, and past performance. From this data bank, software installed on laptops presents individual lessons tailored for each student to work through on the screen daily. These individual lessons become the day-to-day “playlist” for each student in various subjects. Teachers monitor, adapt, and enrich  lessons for each student.  The blended learning program at IS 228 touts “personalized instruction” for  over 800 students (2012) who apply to its varied magnet programs.

The journalist who described his visit to IS 228 began the article by saying: “The classroom of the future probably won’t be led by a robot with arms and legs, but it may be guided by a digital brain.” Describing a sixth grade math class at David Boody Intermediate School,  the classroom of the future  “may look like this: one room, about the size of a basketball court; more than 100 students, all plugged into a laptop; and 15 teachers and teaching assistants.”

Who’s in charge of the teachers, students, and laptops? “Beneath all of the human buzz,” the journalist said, “something other than humans is running the show: algorithms.”

Whoa! Algorithms? Yes, algorithms, those coded step-step procedures that drive Google searches, determine what is displayed on Facebook pages, and generate pop-up ads on each of our screens.

Back to the description of IS 228:

Algorithms choose which students sit together. Algorithms measure what the children know and how well they know it. They choose what problems the children should work on and provide teachers with the next lessons to teach.

Step-by-step instructions written in code, of course, is nothing new. Over a century ago, machines to generate electricity and make cars were programmed to run on instructions. Robotic machines began manufacturing scores of products in the 1960s.  A half-century later, software contains coded instructions to read X-rays, transfer millions of dollars in stock and bonds, prepare tax returns, guide driver-less cars and pilot jumbo jets across oceans. It is called automation and has added new jobs unheard of before while slicing away old familiar jobs.

In schooling, automation entered classrooms with  teaching machines in the 1950s, Scantron grading of tests in the 1970s, and software in the 1980s and 90s to help teachers take attendance, manage point systems to grade students in their classes, and communicate with students and their parents. In the last decade and a half, new software helps teachers do an incredible range of tasks from behavioral management (ClassDojo) to grading essays (Pearson WriteToLearn) (see  EdSurge for new products that they claim help teachers across K-12 grades).

The work that teachers do daily and what students experience in bricks-and-mortar buildings, however, is far from becoming thoroughly automated. Even with the hyped talk of classroom robots and predictions of schools of the future that go well beyond what occurs at David Boody Intermediate School in New York City, from kindergartens to physical education classes to Advanced Placement course remain far from automated. To fully see what happens in other sectors of society that have become far more, even dramatically, automated one has to look beyond schooling children and youth. In Part 2, I describe the extent of automation in transportation, medicine, professional, and business institutions. Part 3 will return to the question of automating classroom teaching.




Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Leave No Pound Untouched: Fighting Obesity in Schools

I wrote this post over five years ago. I updated it with some minor changes. The war against obesity continues in and out of school.

What might policymakers do if they were dead-set in reducing the number of fat kids?

Imagine civic, business, and foundation leaders so worried about the social and individual costs of health problems that overweight children would face as adults that they wanted schools to fight a war on fat. Imagine, further, that these policy elites, riding the current moral crusade against obese children, wanted to solve the problem now. Would they follow Singapore?

Since the early 1990s, Singapore had operated an obesity-reduction program called “Trim and Fit.” School officials identified overweight young students and compelled them to join a “health club.” In these “clubs,” teachers instructed chubby students to run, jump rope, and do other exercises. They received “calorie cash” coupons for school meals that would not exceed the number of calories stamped on the ticket. Lunches were monitored to reduce soft drinks, French fries, and fast foods. Teachers measured students’ height, weight, and body mass monthly. The government awarded cash to schools that found new ways for students to shed pounds.

SingaporekidsAccording to government records, these “health clubs” and incentives reduced the proportion of overweight students from 14 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2003. Serious drawbacks arose, however. The head of physical education at the elite Singapore Chinese Girls’ Primary School said that “to keep them in the club for a long time is bad for their self-esteem because there’s a stigma tied to it.”

In 2007, the government ended the program even after substanial reductions in overweight children, because policymakers–spurred by parents and educators–concluded that the psychological costs to “club” students of being bullied and teased unrelentingly outweighed (yes, a bad pun) program gains.

Singaporean culture, centralized national authority, and a decided preference for social control nearly guarantee that this program would not fly in the U.S. So consider another possibility.

Imagine that President Obama recently signed the Leave No Pound Untouched Act, a variation of No Child Left Behind, to prevent increased incidence of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other crippling diseases associated with obesity. OK, it is a huge leap in imagining but humor me.

The Act gave government officials the authority to use the Physical Fitness Test (it does exist) as a lever to reduce fatness. Adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards would be set and, if met, schools would be identified as “fit and trim.” Those schools that failed to meet standards would be rated “unfit” and if those schools continued to fail, they would be closed. State, district, and school officials would make public all of the above information, particularly the poundage gap between trim and unfit schools.

In schools eager to meet standards, principals and teachers would identify those students close to their expected body mass index or just a few pounds overweight. These students would have the best chance to pass the Physical Fitness Test. Extra physical education sessions would be scheduled for them to practice body curls, push-ups, and pull-ups. All vending machines for candy, sugary sodas, and chips would be replaced with ones dispensing carrots, celery sticks, and sugarless candy. Low-calorie, tasty lunches would be served daily. healthy vending machine

Even were this implausible scenario of a moral crusade and federal law to occur in the U.S., the spread of obesity among children would continue unabated, particularly among low-income minority families, since the causes of obesity are hardly located within schools between 8AM and 4 PM.

Consider other causes. The lack of concerted federal action since the 2001 Surgeon General’s Call to Action on obesity (updated by a subsequent Surgeon General in 2010) underscore the inherent conflicts between food industry profits and federally-led campaigns promoting healthy eating. Moreover, the hours children watch television, how little or how much money families have to spend on food, and a dozen other reasons anchored in personal, social class, and cultural norms encourage obesity. Schools, at best, are only a finger in a badly leaking dike.

Direct action focused on changing adult behavior similar to past and current anti-smoking campaigns is needed, not schoolhouse lessons, changing vending machines, and nutritious lunches. Muscular action from the Surgeon General’s office, anti-obesity groups lobbying for legislation to tax high-calorie soft drinks, and banning fast food industry ads targeted at minors are some measures that have a chance to stem the tide of fat spilling over the nation. Expecting schools to reduce obesity  repeats the dismal history of foisting national problems onto schools and substituting talk about nutritious lunches in schools and less sugary sodas in vending machines for direct action.*
*A recent study showed a large drop in obesity rates among children between ages 2-5 or those mostly out of school. See here.


Filed under school reform policies

Updating Data-Driven Instruction and the Practice of Teaching

The following post appeared May 12, 2011. Since then it has been the most read post I have written–nearly 28,000 views. I am updating it with a few changes in language and additional studies and comments that were not in the original post.

I like numbers. Numbers are facts: blood pressure reading is 145/90. Numbers are objective, free of emotion. The bike odometer tells me that I traveled 17 miles. Objective and factual as numbers may be,  still we inject meaning into them. The blood pressure reading, for example, crosses the threshold of high blood pressure and needs attention.  And that 17-mile bike ride meant a  chocolate-dipped vanilla cone at a Dairy Queen.

Which brings me to a school reform effort centered on numbers. Much has already been written on the U.S. obsession with standardized test scores. Ditto for the recent passion for value-added measures.  I turn now to policymakers who gather, digest, and use a vast array of numbers to reshape teaching practices.

Yes, I am talking about data-driven instruction–a way of making teaching less subjective, more objective, less experience-based, more scientific. Ultimately, a reform that will make teaching systematic and effective. Standardized test scores, dropout figures, percentages of non-native speakers proficient in English–are collected, disaggregated by  ethnicity and school grade, and analyzed. Then with access to data warehouses, staff can obtain electronic packets of student test data that can be used for instructional decision-making to increase academic performance. Data-driven instruction, advocates say, is scientific and consistent with how successful businesses have used data for decades to increase their productivity.

An earlier incarnation appeared four decades ago.  Responding to criticism of failing U.S. schools, policymakers established “competency tests” that students had to pass to graduate high school. These tests measured what students learned from the curriculum. Policymakers believed that when results were fed back to principals and teachers, they would realign lessons. Hence, “measurement-driven” instruction.

Of course, teachers had always assessed learning informally before state- and district-designed tests. Teachers accumulated information (oops! data) from pop quizzes, class discussions, observing students in pairs and small groups, and individual conferences. Based on these data, teachers revised lessons. Teachers leaned heavily on their experience with students and the incremental learning they had accumulated from teaching 180 days, year after year.

Both subjective and objective, such micro- decisions were both practice- and data-driven. Teachers’ informal assessments of students gathered information directly and  would lead to altered lessons. Analysis of annual test results that showed patterns in student errors  helped teachers figure out better sequencing of content and different ways to teach particular topics.

In the 1990s and, especially after No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, the electronic gathering of data, disaggregating information by groups and individuals, and then applying lessons learned from analysis of tests and classroom practices became a top priority. Why? Because stigma and high-stakes consequences (e.g., state-inflicted penalties) occurred from public reporting of low test scores and inadequate school performance that could lead to a school’s closure, negative teacher evaluations, and students dropping out.

Now, principals and teachers are awash in data.


How do teachers use the massive data available to them on student performance? Researcher Viki Young studied four elementary school grade-level teams in how they used data to improve lessons. She found that supportive principals and superintendents and habits of collaboration increased use of data to alter lessons in two of the cases but not in the other two. She did not link the work of these grade-level teams to student achievement.  In another study of 36 instances of data use in two districts, Julie Marsh and her colleagues found 15 where teachers used annual tests, for example, in basic ways to target weaknesses in professional development or to schedule double periods of language arts for English language learners. Researchers pointed out how timeliness of data, its perceived worth by teachers, and district support limited or expanded the quality of analysis. These researchers admitted, however, that they could not connect student achievement to the 36 instances of basic to complex data-driven decisions  in these two districts.

Yet policymakers assume that micro- or macro-decisions driven by data will improve student achievement just like those productivity increases and profits major corporations accrue from using data to make decisions. Wait, it gets worse.

In 2009, the federal government published a report ( IES Expert Panel) that examined 490 studies where data was used by school staffs to make instructional decisions. Of these studies, the expert panel found 64 that used experimental or quasi-experimental designs and only six–yes, six–met the Institute of Education Sciences standard for making causal claims about data-driven decisions improving student achievement. When reviewing these six studies, however, the panel found “low evidence” (rather than “moderate” or “strong” evidence) to support data-driven instruction. In short, the assumption that data-driven instructional decisions improve student test scores is, well, still an assumption not a fact.

Numbers may be facts. Numbers may be objective. Numbers may smell scientific. But we give meaning to these numbers. Data-driven instruction may be a worthwhile reform but as an evidence-based educational practice linked to student achievement, rhetoric notwithstanding, it is not there yet.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies