Tag Archives: classroom practice,

Data-Driven Teaching Practices: Rhetoric and Reality

Much has already been written on the U.S. obsession with standardized test scores.  Add to the obsession the passionate belief that policymakers who gather, digest, and use a vast array of numbers can reshape teaching practices.

I refer to 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 performance data that can be used to make instructional decisions to increase academic performance. Data-driven instruction, advocates say, is scientific and consistent with how successful businesses have used data for decades in making decisions that increased their productivity.

Not a new idea. Teachers had always assessed learning informally before state- and district-designed tests. Teachers accumulated information 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.

In the 1990s and, especially after No Child Left Behind became law, the electronic gathering of data, disaggregating information by groups and individuals, and then applying lessons learned from the analysis to teaching 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.

Now, principals and teachers are awash in data.

How do teachers use the massive data available to them on student performance?  Studies of teacher and administrator usage reveal wide variation and different strategies. In one 2007 study of 36 instances of data use in two districts, researchers 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. There were fewer instances of collective, sustained, and deeper inquiry by groups of teachers and administrators using multiple data sources (e.g., test scores, district surveys, and interviews) to, for example, reallocate funds for reading specialists or start an overhaul of district high schools. 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.

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.

Another study offers little relief to those advocates of data-driven school and classroom decisions.

In a 2014 study of three districts, researchers used the concept of “sensemaking” to understand why responses from district office administrators, principals, and teachers to data-driven instruction differed. They concluded that the roles these educators play (district administrators, principals, and teachers) and their ideas about what data mean and toward what ends data should be used matter greatly in making decisions for the district, school, and classrooms.

For example:

“In one district, there were clear divisions among roles … regarding perspectives on data. For example, central office members felt that data should be thought of holistically, with each form of data providing another dimension or “piece of the puzzle” about students…. Rarely did central office members discuss data in terms of specific educational practices. Rather, they emphasized understanding about the needs, motivations, and histories of students.”

 Principals in this district, however, “saw data more specifically in terms of practice. They saw data as being important to meeting individual students’ needs. One described this as choosing “the right kids to work with on the right objectives at the right time.” They also saw data as supporting programmatic decisions, such as when designing interventions for struggling students or making course scheduling decisions.”

 And when it came to teachers in this district “the general sentiment … was that “data” were about testing…. Teachers at different levels named different tests, with the common thread being that teachers were required to give students assessments, but not to systematically reflect or act upon their results. In other words, these teachers viewed “data” as being about compliance and reporting information to central office, not necessarily ‘use.’”

 In another district, “teachers presented yet another view about data…. The general sentiment from teachers was that ‘data’ were about testing. These teachers, unlike [those in the other districts] did not focus on any particular test. Teachers at different levels named different tests, with the common thread being that teachers were required to give students assessments, but not to systematically reflect or act upon their results. In other words, … teachers [in this district] viewed ‘data’ as being about compliance and reporting information to central office, not necessarily ‘use.’ [for altering practices]”  

Thus far, then, not an enviable research record on data-driven (or informed) decision-making either being linked to classroom practices and student outcomes.

Numbers may be facts. Numbers may be objective. Numbers may smell scientific. But numbers have to be interpreted by those who do the daily work of classroom teaching. Data-driven instruction may be a worthwhile reform but as now driving evidence-based educational practice linked to student achievement, rhetoric notwithstanding, it is not there yet.





Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Teachers Helping Teachers Through the Web

One of the key pieces of wisdom I have learned over my years in classrooms, as a superintendent, and historian of education is that teachers learn most from other teachers they respect.  Not high-priced consultants who fly in, talk, and catch an early flight out. Not software publishers who sponsor 1-day workshops. Not district-led professional development seminars on scheduled days. Just the simple fact of teachers reaching out to peers in their school or across town for help with a lesson, a student, or figuring out a district policy.

Teachers teaching teachers is hardly new. Programs where experienced teachers in a school work with newcomers to the classroom are familiar in most districts. Professional learning communities ( or “communities of practice”) that spring up in schools where teachers of the same subject or at grade levels share materials, experiences, and help one another out.  Instead of being a last-ditch (and inexpensive) effort in districts, smart administrators have cultivated such programs and communities knowing full well that local talent is both admired and respected by teachers in need of help.

Since 2006, a web-based marketplace, TeachersPayTeachers, offers lessons, exercises, and transportable ideas that teachers can review, buy,and share lessons created by other teachers. With Yelp-like reviews from teacher-users, the online market-place has turned some entrepreneurial teachers into money-makers while helping other teachers. Altruism and business sense come together nicely. According to CEO Adam Freed, 12 teachers have become millionaires and nearly 300 teachers have earned more than $100,000. He says that on any given day, according to the article, “1.7 million lesson plans, quizzes, work sheets, classroom activities, and other items [are] available, typically for less than $5.”

Take  veteran teacher Laura Randazzo  at Amador High School in Pleasanton (CA). for example. She has created free and for-sale ready-to-use lessons for other English teachers. She sells and gives away those lessons on an online marketplace called . A recent New York Times article featured a Randazzo question in teaching Othello: “What kind of tunes do you think Iago, the villain … would listen to if he had an iPhone?” The sub-title of her website is: “On a Mission to Prevent English Teacher Burnout.”

“What started out as a hobby has turned into a business,” Randazzo says. She has generated over $100,000 in sales through TeachersPayTeachers.

In response to other teachers who buy and use her lessons she has started a YouTube channel to demonstrate how to teach such concepts as irony. According to Randazzo, her “customers” find her lessons and advice helpful because she faces similar issues in her classroom. “That is what ground-level teachers,” she says, “are able to do that textbook publishers can’t.” And I would add consultants who parachute into districts, out-of-town experts, and vendor-hired specialists to Randazzo’s list.

None of the above is a blurb for either the website or Laura Randazzo. Teacher getting help from other teachers is essential for the improvement of classroom practice. None of the lessons bought or created have been vetted by researchers except for those entrepreneurial teachers who have affirmed that these activities, these exercises, and ideas have worked in their classrooms. Here is the wisdom of practice monetized.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Burned Out Teachers (Part 2)

There are three ways to reduce the kind of burnout that so many K-12 teachers, particularly in low-income minority schools such as Spanish teacher Alli Baugher at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. experienced. Change the work conditions or change yourself (or both).

Change working conditions. The age-graded school was a mid-19th century innovation imported from Prussia and planted in the U.S. Within a half-century, the innovation slowly and irrevocably replaced the one-room schoolhouse throughout the nation. Erecting a “grammar school” housing eight grades with separate classrooms where teachers teach six year-olds in one room and ten year-olds in another reorganized the very nature of schooling in the U.S. The principal and teacher would determine whether each student had learned that portion of the curriculum allotted to that grade in one year’s time most often through tests. If the student passed the various tests he or she advanced to the next grade; if not, the student was held back for another year or assigned to a different room.

The age-graded school has defined “normal” academic progress within elementary school, junior high school (now middle school) and high school ever since. The age-graded school also  has shaped how teachers taught. By the 1930s, for example, in the high school the daily workload of teachers was to teach five or six 45-60 minute classes of 25-30 students. Thus, this organizational innovation embedded within ever larger brick-and-mortar buildings has had enormous influence on how students learn and how teachers teach.

Since the 1980s, school reform has focused on raising curriculum standards and graduation requirements, increasing standardized testing, and imposing accountability rules that contain both rewards and penalties. All of these reforms have intensified teachers’ intellectual, emotional and physical workload leading to high attrition rates among teachers, especially in urban districts threatened with school closure or state takeover.

Altering the age-graded organization and teachers’ working conditions conditions is one way of reducing large numbers of teachers exiting schools, especially in low-income, largely minority schools. Abolishing age-gradedness—having K-3 units for children ages 5-9—grouping and re-grouping children by performance in math, reading, and academic subjects rather than age–means that students’ mastery of knowledge and skills determines progress in school, not sitting at a desk for 36 weeks. While it may appear obvious, few efforts, if any, have occurred over the past century to alter the age-graded school. In the 1960s, non-graded elementary schools sprouted across the country with “open” classrooms and “open-space” schools. The sprouts shriveled, however, within a few years and migration back to the traditional organization occurred. Today, enthusiasts for online courses tout the benefits of students learning at their individual speed and not bend to the demands of a “normal” school year. Yet even these cheerleaders for online instruction accept the age-graded structure.

The fact is that moving away from the age-graded school would have an enormous influence on teacher working conditions and how students learn. Few such efforts, however, are on reformers’ agendas. Which means that avoiding burnout and exiting the profession is up to the individual teacher.

 Individual teacher renewal. Effectiveness in every people-serving occupation (e.g., teaching, therapy, nursing, clinical medicine) requires developing relationships with those served be they clients, patients, or students. In teaching, the building and sustaining of relationships with children and youth are essential for student learning. Such work, over time, while satisfying and rewarding drains one’s  energies and commitment. Renewal—repotting—is essential.

Teaching is energizing but also exhausting work. Each day teachers spend the rich intellectual, physical, and emotional capital that they have accumulated over the years on their students. Because of that loss in capital, teachers need to re-invest in themselves by doing what expert gardeners do with favorite potted plants.

Because plants can become pot bound, that is, the roots of the plant become cramped and form a tightly packed mass that inhibits growth they need to be re-potted in different soil and larger pots so they can flourish. Yes, re-potting entails risks and often causes stress but staying potted in the same place means little intellectual growth, diminished enthusiasm for students, even a slow slide into habits that get teachers through the day.

For teachers, re-potting may mean shifting to another grade, tossing out old lessons, introducing new ones, taking a short or long break from the classroom and doing something else that engages one’s passions.

Changing the organization of the age-graded school is not on the agenda of the current generation of efficiency-driven school reformers. Current reforms from Common Core standards to charter schools to accountability, if anything, reinforce with steel rebar the age-graded school. Thus, sad to say, it is up to individual teachers to take charge of their personal renewal.



Filed under Reforming schools

Policy Influences Practice But Does Practice Influence Policy?

The past half-century has seen record-breaking attempts by policymakers to influence how teachers teach. Record-breaking in the sense that again and again (add one more “again”) federal and state policymakers and aggressive philanthropists have pushed higher curriculum standards in math, science, social studies, and reading decade after decade. With No Child Left Behind and its coercive accountability mandates, teaching has surely been influenced, even homogenized (following scripts, test prep, etc.)  in those schools threatened by closure or restructuring.  Now with Common Core standards, the push to standardize math and language arts instruction in K-12 (e.g., close reading for first graders) repeats earlier efforts to reshape classroom lessons. If past efforts are any indicator, then these efforts to homogenize teaching lead paradoxically, to more, not less, variability in lessons. But this increased variation in teaching seldom alerts policymakers and donors in their offices and suites to reassess the policies  they adopt.

The take-aways from this post are first, policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons, and, second, teachers are policymakers.

Policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons

Consider math standards. An unusual research project in the early 1990s examined California’s major policy effort–a new math curriculum framework– to lift the low floor in both math content and instruction in 1,000 school districts. Policymakers wanted to rid the state of teaching math mechanically and instead have students grasp a deeper understanding of math concepts.  The ambitious policy gave detailed instructional guidance to teachers and new  textbooks and materials aligned to the framework to hundreds of thousands of California teachers. The policy aim was to improve the teaching of math in the state by standardizing new content and ways of teaching students concepts and algorithms through use of manipulatives and other materials.

David K. Cohen and Deborah Ball  led a team of researchers who observed math lessons and interviewed teachers. The research uncovered enormous variation among teachers in putting the math framework into everyday classroom practice.

Extensive variation after a policy demanding standardization? Cohen and Ball explain why his teams observed such different lessons within a policy that tried to homogenize math teaching.

Any teacher, in any system of schooling, interprets and enacts new instructional policies in light of his or her own experience, beliefs,
and knowledge. Hence to argue that government policy is the only operating force is to portray teachers as utterly passive agents without agency. That is unsupported by our investigations. Even the most obedient and traditional teachers whom we observed not only saw and enacted higher level policies in their own way, but were aware and proud of their independent contributions.

Cohen described a fourth grade teacher’s lessons over an extended period of time. Entitled “A Revolution in One Teacher’s Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” the word, the case study limns a veteran teacher incorporating selected elements of the new policy into her traditional ways of teaching from the math content to the use of small groups and manipulatives. “Revolution” in the title is tinged with irony.

Thus, what Cohen and Ball underscore is the discretion, the autonomy that teachers have to adapt whatever new policy comes from the state or district office to the constraints within which they teach students. Teachers are not passive recipients of policy but active participants in the policy-to-practice journey. Few policymakers understand that. Studies of classroom lessons implementing Common Core standards, I believe, will also show wide variation not uniformity.

Teachers are policymakers

As gatekeepers to their classrooms, teachers are de facto policymakers. They decide what content to teach and what practices to use in teaching daily lessons. Yet top federal, state, and local decision-makers prize the policy formation and adoption stages as the be-all and end-all of getting teachers to change their classroom practices. The final stage of implementation is rhetorically important but top decision-makers too often move to the wings and do little to build teachers’ knowledge and skills to put new policies into practice. That is a serious mistake because teacher wherewithal and judgment are crucial ingredients to successful student learning. Building and cultivating both among teachers charged to put policies into practice is essential yet are either overlooked,  purposely ignored, or under-funded.

As policy gatekeepers, however, teachers are seldom included in the loop when new policies are formed and then adopted. Only when policymakers see the critical importance of the implementation stage do they bring teachers in—often too late because teacher ideas and perspectives have been excluded from the first stage of policy formation. It is the same error that high-tech entrepreneurs eager to improve schooling and teaching make when they create devices and software for teachers and students to use, get administrators’ approval to pilot the hardware and software without a nod to teachers ideas and the realities they face. After all, the real customers, the users, are teachers, not administrators. Like CEOs of tech companies, policymakers engage in beta testing with reforms in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. And teachers then get blamed when policies flop.

The policy-to-practice path continues to be a one-way street. Yet evidence of variation in teacher lessons has been constant in the past and continues now showing again and again that teachers act as policymakers. That path should be a two-way thoroughfare.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Here Again: The Old Chestnut about Technology Increasing Student Achievement

There are many reasons why school boards buy hardware and software (see here)  still the old chestnut that “students will achieve more academically with ________ (put your device or software du jour here) lingers on in the minds of enthusiasts as a sweat-filled dream. Sure, vendors and consultants paid by high-tech companies produce “white papers” or research studies that tout gains in students’ academic performance. No longer authoritative reports, “white papers” have become marketing tools. Like sponsored advertising in the media, such “white papers” want to sell readers on the merits, not the complexities of either teaching or learning in using devices. And there are reports by professional associations that cherry pick individual studies.  Yet those policymakers, superintendents, district administrators, principals, and teachers who swear that their decisions are driven by evidence and research embrace a desert mirage whenever they  cite a “white paper” or say “research shows” or the “evidence is clear” in buying the newest device or software. Over the years, I have seen fewer such claims by educators but they still exist.

Although some sellers of more technology in classrooms have retreated in their claims that students will get higher test scores if this or that is bought, a new bait-and-switch approach exists. Now, vendor claims are that tablets, for example, and the software loaded on those devices will “engage” students.


Motivating students through new hand-held appliance, i.e., engagement, has become a code word for higher achievement. But “engaged” students may or may not learn what is intended or score higher on standardized test scores (see here). “Engaged” students is surely one ingredient but in the complexities of classroom teaching, other factors enter the equation and need to be weighed. Consider the structure of the classroom, teacher relationships with students,  varied ways of teaching, students’ individual grit,  and other factors–parents’ socioeconomic status–account for higher (or lower) academic achievement. Anyone who says publicly that student engagement triggered by new hardware and software will produce higher achievement is selling snake oil.

An earlier comprehensive review of journal articles and conference presentations on the use of tablets in schools (see here)  concluded that:

upon reviewing a large body of studies and research work, no solid evidence decisively confirms that the iPad has a positive academic effect on the learning outcomes. This is mainly due to the scarcity of pedagogy-wide and long enough research works.

Now comes another comprehensive, independent, and critical review of 33 studies that focused on tablets used in K-12 schools across the curriculum and around the world. See: Hassler_Major_Hennessy_2015._Tablet_use_in_schools_A_critical_review_of_the_evidence_for_learning_outcomes-FC4

Of the 23 studies included in the final tally covering different subjects and different grade levels:
• 16 reported positive learning outcomes;
• 5 reported no difference in learning outcomes; and
• 2 reported negative learning outcomes.

Because of the disparate nature of the studies, sample size, and other factors, the authors pessimistically concluded:

While we hypothesise how tablets can viably support children in completing a variety of
learning tasks (across a range of contexts and academic subjects), the fragmented nature of the
current knowledge base, and the scarcity of rigorous studies, make it difficult to draw firm
conclusions. The generalisability of evidence is limited and detailed explanations as to how, or why,
using tablets within certain activities can improve learning remain elusive.

Many practitioners familiar with the use of new devices in schools have said repeatedly that such studies reveal little because student academic achievement and other important student outcomes are not about gadgets but is about the teacher and how she or he uses these devices in lessons. Unfortunately, such on-the-ground wisdom seldom infiltrates policymaker decisions. The old chestnut of technology improves engagement and achievement continues to live  regardless of the evidence. For those champions of tablets and other hand-held devices with their associated software who pride themselves on using only the “best practices” anchored in research and data-driven decisions, well, they best ignore these studies in their “white papers” and find other reasons to boost new devices in schools.




Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Reforming the Teaching of History Then and Now (Part 1)

The following posts are drawn from my forthcoming book on “Teaching History Then and Now: Stability and Change in Urban High Schools” (Harvard Education Press). If readers want specific citations and pages for quotes, contact me and I will send them the citations.

Both participants and researchers have told the story behind the 1995 U.S. Senate vote of 99-1 in favor of a resolution condemning new history standards produced by historians, curriculum specialists, and teachers.

Senator Slade Gorton (WA) summed up the essence of the conflict over what content from the past should students learn by asking his colleagues:

Is it a more important part of our Nation’s history for our children to study—George Washington or Bart Simpson?….With this set of standards, our students will not be expected to know George Washington from the man in the Moon. According to this set of standards, American democracy rests on the same moral footing as the Soviet Union’s totalitarian dictatorship.

Rush Limbaugh, popular radio show host, chimed in with his rebuke of the standards’ focus on historical thinking and interpreting the past by telling his listeners: “History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened.” The authors of the standards, he went on, “try to skew history” by saying “Well, let’s interpret what happened because we can’t find the truth in facts…. So let’s change the interpretation a little bit so that it will be the way we wished it were.

What Gorton and Limbaugh wanted students to learn was a commemorative version of the past—the familiar “heritage” view–rather than one where students apply historical thinking. Historian Gary Nash and colleagues stated the issue this way:

Should classrooms emphasize the continuing story of America’s struggle to form a ‘more perfect union,’ a narrative that involved a good deal of jostling, elbowing, and bargaining among contending groups? A story that included political tumult, labor strife, racial conflict, and civil war? Or should the curriculum focus on successes, achievements, and ideals, on stories designed to infuse young Americans with patriotism and sentiments of loyalty toward prevailing institutions, traditions, and values?

Nash and his colleagues who drafted the standards wanted content invested with historical thinking skills (e.g., grasp of chronology, differentiating between facts and interpretations, analyzing sources, considering multiple perspectives) and students crafting meaning from the past. Or as a sympathetic U.S. Congressman put it: “History isn’t like math where two plus two equals four. It’s a lot more than facts, and they don’t always add up to the same sum.”

Those who created the New History Standards also wanted students to be patriotic but not in the traditional sense of unquestioned loyalty to the U.S. They wanted, according to scholar Joel Westheimer, a “democratic patriotism” that saw the past as a struggle to put constitutional and Judeo-Christian ideals into practice.

Or as teacher union leader Al Shanker, a member of one group who advised Nash and his colleagues, put it:

The struggle to define our democracy still continues and it will as long as our country does. It has helped turn abstract principles like equity, justice, individual rights and equality of opportunity into political movements, laws, programs, and institutions—concrete things. And if our children walk away from an American history course without understanding this, the history they have studied is a travesty.

The conflict over what students need to know and how they should study the past and its political purpose—citizenship transmission–is, of course, a familiar conflict fought by earlier generations of historians, teachers, and voters. Another way to capture those conflicting traditions of teaching, ones evident in the New Social Studies of the 1960s and occurring again in the 1990s, is to consolidate the contending ways of teaching into the heritage and historical approaches to creating a usable past for students to learn.

The heritage approach uses the past to recreate the present to “tell ourselves who we are, where we are from, and to what we belong.” Beyond the U.S. flag in every classroom and Pledge of Allegiance, examples of the heritage purpose at work in schools are lessons that focus on the Founding Fathers of the Revolutionary period and heroes such as Davy Crockett, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony to recoup from the past a legacy that all American students should know. In the hands of some legislators— recall Senator Slade Gorton–pundits –recall Rush Limbaugh– textbook authors, and teachers, the heritage purpose comes close to an official story encased in state standards with knowledge aimed at inspiring pride in the U.S., loyalty toward country, and achieving the overall purpose of inculcating “good” citizenship.”

In mapping out those competing strategies for teaching history evident during the New Social Studies in the 1960s, champions of the heritage approach sought to transmit their version of citizenship. The key word is “transmit” which often is translated to mean teacher lecture, student note-taking and teacher-directed lessons. The fact, however, is that “transmitting” citizenship can mean using different pedagogical approaches in classroom lessons. That diversity in pedagogies became clear during a decade of federally funded Teaching American History grants.

The heritage strategy became official federal policy in 2001 with the passage of Teaching American History legislation sponsored by Senator Robert Byrd (WVA). The law made available over $120 million dollars a year in TAH grants to universities and school districts to teach U.S. history and improve student achievement. As the Federal Register put it:

Students who know and appreciate the great ideas of American history are more likely to understand and exercise their civic rights and responsibilities. Their understanding of traditional American history will be enhanced if teachers make the study of history more exciting, interesting, and engaging. Students need teachers who have a thorough understanding of American history as a separate subject within the core curriculum, and incorporate into their teaching effective strategies to help students learn.

With over a thousand TAH grants made in nearly a decade costing almost $900 million, many universities and school districts worked with thousands of veteran and novice teachers across the country. Anecdotally, teachers gave positive marks to university professors increasing their historical knowledge and opportunities to develop lessons in summer and yearlong TAH programs. When it comes to evaluating these decade-long efforts, however, the verdict was damning. The external evaluators examined 16 programs. They found no evidence that these programs raised student achievement, or that teachers used their class-friendly lessons that they had developed after they returned to their schools or that project directors created district networks of teachers to implement lessons.

But the heritage approach has then and now contended with the historical approach. History is not a single account of the past but many accounts. The goal is to equip students with the intellectual and academic skills that historians and citizens use daily. Historians seek verifiable truth as they sift evidence to answer questions and interpret what happened in the past; they reduce bias in their accounts by closely examining their own values as they closely read and analyze sources.

In history classrooms, it means that students investigate the past through different sources and produce stories and analyses from many accounts consistent with the evidence they have before them. In doing so, students gain skills of sniffing out biased sources, evaluating documents, and providing multiple perspectives on an event or person. They think, write, and discuss different views of what happened.  Students learn that history is an interpretation of the past, not a telegram that yesteryear has wired to the present. In short, they become historically literate.

This historical approach was integrated into those standards denounced by the U.S. Senate and eventually junked in the mid-1990s. So unlike the purpose of transmitting a national story that heightens students’ appreciation of country, the historical approach combines the purposes of working as historians do and engaging in reflective inquiry. Champions of the historical approach claimed that they helped students become “good” citizens. Of course, these competing aims in teaching history are an incarnation of that paradox facing public schools of having both to conserve community beliefs, values, and traditions and simultaneously prepare student with the knowledge and skills to change those very same traditions, values, and beliefs.

The resounding defeat of the New History Standards in 1995 was hardly the end of the tensions between the heritage and historical approaches in teaching children and youth. An echo of that media-hyped conflict was heard in 2014 after the Educational Testing Service (ETS) announced that it had revised the “Framework and Examination” for the Advanced Placement United States History course. Keep in mind that AP courses in history exemplify the historical approach to teaching the subject with students handling primary sources (“document-based questions”), interpreting facts and writing accounts that interpret the past.

In Jefferson County, Colorado’s second largest school district, school board members Julie Williams and her colleagues, part of a politically conservative majority elected to the school board in 2013, objected to the new ETS “Framework” for the AP course in U.S. history; the school board voted to have their own homegrown AP course for 10th graders. The Williams-led majority on the five-member board said that the AP Framework “rejects the history that has been taught in the country for generations. It has an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing while simultaneously omitting the most basic structural and philosophical elements considered essential to the understanding of American History for generations.” Instead an AP U.S. history course needs to “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.”

The board action triggered protests from over 1,000 students who walked out of their schools over a 10-day period protesting what they and supportive parents called censorship of content taught in schools. Heated school board meetings where parents on different sides of the issue tangled and raw feelings about the proper content for the course in U.S. history erupted throughout the county.

The Jefferson County protests have died down. No “war” erupted. The conservative majority on the school board backed away from dumping the revised AP course and substituting another one that taught the benefits of “free enterprise” and “patriotism.” But the incident reveals anew that the heritage approach to history content remains alive among voters, taxpayers, parents, teachers, and students.

Part 2 describes the onset of another national effort to engage U.S. students in the historical approach to studying the past.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Core Dilemmas Facing Preschool and Kindergarten Teachers (Part 1)

Private kindergartens became public ones at the end of the 19th century. It is a reform that has stuck.

Yet what early childhood teachers do everyday in their kindergartens has been a mystery for years. Mary Dabney Davis’s study, published by the National Education Association, was the first systematic examination of kindergarten teaching practices.

To get a sense of dominant teaching practices, Davis analyzed stenographic reports of observations done in 131 kindergartens.. These descriptions of 449 lessons in these kindergartens form the basis of the analysis. Of the selected kindergartens, three-quarters were located in public schools. Geographically, the sample was drawn from 34 states from every region of the nation. Nearly 40 percent of the children were immigrants and 3 percent were black.

While uncommon efforts were undertaken to get a cross-section of teachers, it was not a random sample since the list of participants was drawn from the records of the National Educational Association and classrooms were chosen on the basis of the superintendent’s or principal’s recommendation of teachers who were both exceptional and average. Nonetheless, what Davis did represents a giant leap beyond the fragments of data and anecdotes that researchers and policymakers have had available.

Davis constructed a five-point scale that tried to measure degrees of control in the classroom. At one end is the teacher-directed control and, at the other, student-directed control. Headings for each point on the scale are as follows:

  1. The teacher plans and directs the program activity
  2. The teacher carries out her plan with the cooperation of the children
  3. The children suggest and carry out the plans under teacher guidance
  4. The children make the plans and program under pupil leadership with teacher guidance
  5. The children make the plans and program without teacher guidance

To analyze and rate these descriptions, Davis went through all of them and rated each on the scale. Of the 449 lessons, Davis found the dominant modes of practice to be number 1 with 32 percent and 2 with 52 percent. She found 14 percent of the lessons were in 3 and 2 percent were in 4. No lesson was rated a 5.

To supplement these data she secured additional information on classroom practices from a survey of 535 kindergarten teachers and 162 administrators on subject matter, activities, aims, and teacher methods. This survey corroborated the observations of classrooms being largely teacher directed with different activities being more or less student-centered.

To give a clearer sense of what a kindergarten session was like, Davis assembled typical schedules that emerged from the stenographic reports of kindergarten practices.

From a public school with large enrollment of immigrant students, the typical schedule was as follows:

8:10-9:20 Self-adopted activity

9:20-9:30 Period for replacing material

9:30-9:50 Conversation. Discussion of problems in connection with work, health habits, nature study, the need for being careful in crossing streets, and so on.

9:50-10:10 Luncheon

10:10-10:20 Rest

10:20-10:30 Games and rhythms

10:30-10:45 Songs and stories


And from a large public school, the schedule was as follows:

8:50-9:00 Inspection

9:00-9:15 Conversation and greetings

9:15-9:55 Group work

9:55-10:10 Housekeeping

10:10-10:35 Games

10:35-10:50 Milk

10:50-10:55 Rest

10:55-11:30 Varied activities as, Monday and Tuesday, music and dramatization; Wednesday, stories and rhythms; Thursday, stories and music; Friday, stories and rhythms

Cryptic as these schedules are and confining as they appear when combined with the analysis of 449 lessons and a survey of experienced kindergarten teachers, these examples of two calendars suggest in a crude way how teachers constructed various classroom compromises in trying to finesse the core curricular and instructional dilemma facing preschool and kindergarten teachers: should the content of kindergarten focus more on the child’s social and emotional needs or should the content of kindergarten get children academically ready for the first grade (i.e., language, science, arts)?

This teaching dilemma showed up in the survey where teachers were asked what the aims of kindergarten were. Davis could find no consensus among teachers. She found a mixture of goals that sought “social behavior and habit formation; development of skill and technique (motor and physical, intellectual and thoughtful); factual information and aesthetic appreciation.”

Similarly, another dilemma presented itself to Davis as she went through the 449 lessons. Teachers were conflicted over authority. Teachers who believed in a developmental perspective encouraged identifying and using children’s needs to guide children in planning each day. Yet to guide children to act as independent individuals, teachers must exert authority in the child’s behalf. How much to leave to children to decide and how much for teachers to direct created tensions within teachers.

The core dilemma, however, that emerges from the stenographic reports involves choices between academic and behavioral preparation for the primary grades and holistic activities that blend reading, writing, arithmetic, and other skills matched to the students’ intellectual, social, and emotional maturity. Davis states that integrated skill work appeared naturally in quartering apples, counting napkins, and straws needed for lunch or writing on the blackboard the names of the fruit and vegetables that the children brought to school.

The two dilemmas were not made easier by the isolation of kindergarten from the primary grades. She found only three kindergartens in 137 schools where explicit cooperation occurred between the first grade teachers and kindergarten teacher.


Viewers, please note that Mary Dabney Davis completed her analysis of 449 classroom observations and the teacher survey in 1924.

Of course, dilemmas facing early childhood teachers nearly a century ago are still around now. Part 2 takes up those persistent dilemmas facing preschool and kindergarten teachers. For viewers who want a full account of the kindergarten school reform, beginning in the late-19th century, and citations omitted from above post, see here.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach