Tag Archives: classroom practice,

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.

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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.

using-technology-to-increase-student-engagement-in-math1-2-638

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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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Students as Digital Rebels, Wanderers, and Pioneers (Craig Peck, et. al.) Part 2

Craig Peck and his colleagues studied two high schools in Southeastern U.S., one–Downtown–was urban and minority while Newlands was mostly white and suburban. Part 1 described student and teacher use of school and personal devices in Downtown high school. The full text including citations is in DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools.

We discovered that, as the old ways of schooling such as bell schedules, paper tests, and seats in rows intersected with tech-savvy, [personal media device-or] PMD-equipped teenagers, a “digital disconnect” (Selwyn, 2011) surfaced between digital youth and their brick and mortar schools. This situation produced a setting fertile for cultural incubation similar to the creative tensions present in an examination of technology in two American high schools a decade past (Peck, Cuban, & Kirkpatrick, 2002).

In that case, nascent ICT integration in schools helped foster the development of two types of students: “Open Door” students who improved academically and gained social acceptance through technology, and “Tech Gods” who played a crucial role in helping technology coordinators maintain the schools’ technology infrastructures.

Roughly 10 years later, during our study at Newlands and Downtown, we recognized three new types of students emerging in addition to the Open Door students and Tech Gods profiled a decade earlier. Two of these new classifications, Digital Rebels and Cyber Wanderers, included students from across the socioeconomic status spectrum. The other group was more homogeneous: eLearning Pioneers were primarily White, high-achieving students at Newlands High School. …

Digital Rebels

….We encountered students who utilized their PMDs as means to rebel, overtly or surreptitiously, against school and teacher rules. Skilled students sent text messages routinely during lessons. Without the teacher’s (or at times, the observer’s) knowledge, these students used their clothing and objects for cover; some typed responses in their pockets without looking at their device. A few students pushed the bounds further by setting up proxies on school computers to bypass school district filters and access popular social media sites. In addition, students who possessed mobile phone data plans (or shared those of their parents) could use their PMDs to access any online social media they wished, given that the school district’s Internet filters could not block such activity on proprietary wireless networks.

A White male 10th grader at Newlands High School proved particularly adept at evading classroom rules against PMD usage. He explained that he was able to type text messages without looking, so he only had to read incoming messages. He stated, “I’m normally a two-hander with my phone, but if I was just sitting here like this I could send a message just fine [in my pocket].” He later revealed that he did in fact send a text message during his interview, unbeknownst to the researcher. He also explained that he possessed skills that would have enabled him to help fix instructors’ ICT issues, much like the Tech Gods profiled in a study a decade ago (Peck et al., 2002). But he also revealed that he was reluctant to share such knowledge: “I don’t speak up about it. . . . Not big on fixing things like that.” When asked to explain his reluctance to provide technology aid to his teachers, he remarked, “Don’t want to help the teachers—it’s time off class . . . ‘cause they’re going to have to call someone to fix it.”

This Digital Rebel, in essence, seemed to express a willingness to undermine a lesson through silent inaction.

At Downtown High, an 11th-grade African American female student described when and how she text-messaged during a lesson: “Well if I’m in class and I get a text, usually I wait until the class is working on some kind of work, but it’s mostly after the teacher explains it.” She estimated sending about 100 text messages on a typical day, with far fewer during the actual school hours. In fact, she described concerns with having PMDs in schools.

In her own words, “There’s cheating. They give the answers during text messages. Or if someone’s planning to have a fight, they’ll just do it through the phones. They’ll text and meet up there and everyone will know where to go. And that kind of blocks the way of it being broken up [by adult supervisors], which is kind of dangerous.”

In this sense, seemingly innocent acts of rebellion could actually transform into significant acts of danger.

Teachers possessed limited means to fight back against the apparent digital insurrection. As we shadowed students throughout their school days, teachers confiscated student PMDs that had been used in ways that disrupted instruction. Yet, most often the teachers simply returned the devices to the students at the end of the period, seemingly satisfied to have induced a brief respite in their ongoing digital communications. Other teachers ignored student PMD use or adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” approach of benign neglect. Still other educators did go to great lengths to disrupt student technology use.

In one case at Downtown High School, a coach made all her players turn in their phones to her at the beginning of school as a tactic for preventing PMD-inspired confrontations during the day; a student participant revealed that a friend of hers circumvented this deterrent by carrying multiple mobile phones: one to turn in to the coach, and the others to keep and use. In another case at Downtown High School, two teachers used personal funds to purchase cell phone blockers in the hopes of eliminating student PMD usage during class time. Administrators subsequently sent all teachers a memorandum forbidding this solution. The principal explained that the blockers interfered with the administrators’ cell phones, which constituted a safety issue. The principal added that any teacher using the cell phone blockers would be held personally liable in the event that aid was delayed to a sick or injured school constituent.

An administrator at Newlands discussed how the possible release valve provided by a student-appropriate PMD use policy did not always lead to student acceptance of usage rules. She explained,

“One student told me, ‘You know, this is a new world and this is a new age.’ And I had to [confiscate his cell phone] because he refused to give it up in gym. And he just said, ‘It’s a new world, a new age.’And I explained the policy and I said I realized that. And he said, “You check yours all the time, too.”. . . It is a new world and we have to start to identify and look at all that we are trying to impose on students. Is it old values? It’s not the same.”

Such technology-fueled conundrums carried over to her relations with her own teenage son. She described some of the virtues of PMDs: “I know that any time I want him, I know I can get him.” She still struggled like many parents with what she called the “trust issue,” stating that she needs to know who he is texting, or, as she stated it, “making sure that when you text—who you’re texting, what are you texting, making sure I know all that.”

A White male 11th grader at Downtown High School perhaps best summed up the dilemmas regarding PMD use and access that educators face today. He stated,

“You’re never going to stop it, there’s no way you can. I mean, [there are] people that know computers. They know technology, it’s like they could do it all on the back of their hand, sleeping. I mean, they know their ways around technology. I mean you just give a guy a new technology and let him play with it a couple of days and he’ll figure it out like nothing…..”

Cyber Wanderers

During our research, we also met students for whom, much like the Open Door students profiled in a previous study (Peck et al., 2002), technology proved essential. One such student from Newlands explained,

“Main reason I love this school is because: Wi-Fi throughout the whole school, which is great. You can go on the web like during lunch or whatever. I’ll be in the library during lunch and I’ll open up my laptop and whatever, browse the web and everything. Sometimes, most of the time when I’m in math or English I’ll write my notes and write my essays on my laptop.”

By this student’s own testimony and that of his teachers, technology enabled his academic success and social adjustment. Some students in our study, however, became so immersed in or overwhelmed by new media technology that they meandered between the real and virtual worlds. To such students, whom we dubbed Cyber Wanderers, the lure of technology presented a possible danger: They could succumb to ICT as a powerful distraction rather than seize it as a powerful tool, or use ICT to engage in an environment that offered the potential for anonymous hostility.

At Newlands, for example, we met an African American 10th-grade male student who was an avid online gamer, explaining that sometimes “people will wind up cursing when I do something wrong or mess up.” Conversely, he admitted using the screen name “heartless jerk” in an online gaming forum and “made one member quit” because of his harsh comments.

We also encountered a White male 10th-grade student at Downtown High School who checked his phone during our interview to discover, to his surprise, that he had sent 18,287 text messages the previous month alone. He described his text messaging as almost instinctual:

“Well I start sending text messages usually ‘cause I haven’t talked to somebody in a while and [there are] some certain people you know that I maintain a constant texting conversation with. You know and I’ll just text them sometimes to ask them something in particular and sometimes just to start up a conversation, so it’s just kind of I realize that I’m you know, starting a conversation but I don’t really think about it, if that makes sense . . . I just kind of do it.”

He also seemed cognizant that his text messaging had serious consequences:

“My texting has probably gotten in the way of some learning . . .In Algebra 2 . . . if you don’t get it at the beginning it kind of puts you in a hole. . . . So I’ve kind of had to play catch up here.” Adding to his issues, he explained, “[I] definitely play a lot of video games while texting . . . in a way that kind of runs into a problem sometimes.” Cyber Wanderers such as these could find themselves thoroughly lost in electronic worlds while being inattentive to the formal curriculum.

eLearning Pioneers

In the media center of the predominantly White and affluent Newlands High School, a small group of female students spent a fair portion of their days immersed in online learning. Loosely monitored by the school’s media coordinators, youth whom we called eLearning Pioneers sat at computers and studied advanced Chinese or AP computer science while most other students throughout the school attended traditional classes. During one typical period during a school day, each of three students sat individually at one of the 30 desktop computers arranged around the media center; two of the students were engaged in online learning activities. The online courses could be noticeably self-paced. A staff member who participated in our research reported that one of our study’s students took a virtual 8-month-long biology course; the student expended little effort for 6 months before completing all assignments successfully over the final 2 months of the allotted course time.

The eLearning Pioneers at Newlands included another of our study participants, a White 10th-grader who took two AP classes and a math class online in the school media center and attended two regular classes before going home. For her online courses, message boards and email provided the central means for teacher–student and student–student interaction. She noted,

“In online classes . . . generally speaking, you pace yourself. Especially with my English class . . . she gives you the assignments and she gives you a syllabus for where you should be. But you turn them in at your own pace and you take tests when you can . . . you have a tab that you can click on and go to your ‘My Grades.’ It has the assignment, and what grade you got, and out of what and all the assignments you’re going to need to complete for the rest of the year . . . it’s easier to keep up with things. You know, like, I’m supposed to post to the discussion board today. You go and do that.”

 

Our shadowing of our participant during a typical day neatly captured the hybrid nature of her educational experience. In AP environmental science, she sat with 18 classmates and completed a written unit examination; once finished with the test, the class watched a nature DVD played with the teacher’s laptop computer and broadcast by digital projector. Our participant returned to the media center to complete an assignment for her AP computer science course, which was offered through the state’s virtual public school program. She returned to a classroom with 20 students to engage in a lesson for Latin II, during which the teacher led students through a line-by-line translation of a text excerpt. Our research subject then departed from campus, with designs on completing an assignment for her AP English course offered through another state’s virtual education program. Her AP English instructor, whom our student had met only virtually but described as “amazing,” posted pictures of her own children, wanting to connect more personally with her students. Our subject reported,

“I’ll do an assignment and I’ll turn it in, like an essay or something,and then she’ll send me feedback and say, ‘This was good but your introduction’s a little weak.’ Or ‘You need to do this.’”

We wondered whether our participant—an independent, self-motivated eLearning Pioneer—offered a glimpse into the American high school future (Christensen et al.,)

 

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Digital Youth in Brick and Mortar Schools (Craig Peck, et. al)*

 

University researcher Craig Peck and colleagues including a high school teacher studied two schools in southeastern U.S. to see the interplay between students, teacher use of technologies and students’ personal media devices during the school day. In the two high schools (one urban and the other suburban), these factors interacted in complex ways that go well beyond what advocates for schools becoming more high-tech have either promised or foresaw. As part of the research design and methodology, the researchers shadowed ten students through their school day. To illustrate those interactions and display that complexity, the researchers offer a snippet of one student’s day in the urban, largely minority high school. The full text of the article published in Teachers College Record, May 2015 is in (DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools)

 

One Friday morning in late spring, the instructional day began at Downtown High School, located in a large Southeastern United States school district. African-American 11th-grader Joanna Miller and 19 other students entered room 321 for their Small Business course, a technology-infused elective, and took seats in front of desktop computers. The session began as a guest speaker, a 1961 Downtown High School alumnus who had retired from a career as a lawyer and business person, described his work experiences, discussed resume tips, and offered motivational words.

The course instructor transitioned the students into the day’s assignment: They completed computer-based multiple-choice responses regarding business term definitions and reviewed for a test that coming Monday on creating a personal “business image.” The teacher monitored student progress through a program on his computer that provided a real-time screen shot of each student-assigned computer.

This system allowed him to lock individual computers or the entire group to provide updates or check that everyone was on task. At one point, a student tried to access a popular social media website through a proxy but had the action blocked by the monitoring program. The teacher’s computer-based monitoring of the students actually seemed rather laissez-faire. At one point, several students were engaged in completing the assignment, while a few others were completing work for other courses, surfing the web, or, at intermittent moments, quickly texting on their personal media devices. Joanna, in fact, used her computer to complete the assignment’s multiple-choice responses. She explained to the researcher how she preferred the online format because it allowed her to retake questions she answered incorrectly.

After the bell rang, signaling time to move to the next period, Joanna continued on with her school day. She encountered instructional technology along the way, including when fellow students used a computer-interactive whiteboard for problem demonstrations in mathematics. In other courses like English, decades-old practices predominated as students sitting at desks arranged in traditional rows completed a photocopied crossword puzzle regarding a classic play. In Latin, the instructor engaged students in a discussion regarding Celtic mythology and read a myth from a book. In this sense, her instructional day offered Joanna a mix of technology-rich and technology-free experiences. Despite the varied nature of instruction, one technology pervasive throughout the day was student personal media devices.

Downtown High School rules specifically prohibited students from bringing technology like cellular phones and digital music players to school. In classrooms and in the halls, however, headphones dangled from ears and tiny keyboards met eager text-typing thumbs as students routinely, if often surreptitiously, indulged in their favored virtual electronic communication modes.

In some cases, educational spaces became contested domains. In math, the teacher confiscated Joanna’s cell phone (which a classmate was using) and two others. The teacher returned the devices at the end of class with a stern admonition against further use. In Joanna’s Latin course, meanwhile, instruction in the aged language competed against modern times as one student in particular showed a remarkable affinity for modern multitasking. Shielding her personal media device beneath her desk, the student quickly tapped out text messages. She also used a pen to write notes to secretly pass onto classmates and, for good order, offered periodic comments to the larger discussion pertaining to Celtic mythology.

In part 2, Craig Peck and his colleagues describe the different kinds of students they encountered and their use of technology based on interviews and following students into classes in both the suburban and urban high schools.

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*Craig Peck is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was one of my graduate students who assisted me on a study of teacher and student technology use at two Northern California high schools in 1998-1999

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High Performing Minority Districts: An Anomaly?

For the past half-century, efforts to improve largely minority and poor schools have occupied the best minds and received substantial private and public monies. Recall the Effective Schools movement of the 1980s and the federally funded Comprehensive School Reform program in the 1990s.  In the past quarter-century, however, there has been a shift from federal and state officials and private donors looking at individual schools to focusing on districts as the key site for academic improvement. This shift in attention from the individual school to the district marks a return to what has been the historic  pattern of improving schools.

Turning around failing urban districts through law (e.g. No Child Left Behind), federal grants (e.g., School Improvement Grants in the Race To The Top program), and cash prizes (e.g., The Broad Prize in Urban Education) are only the most recent of many well-intentioned efforts. There are, of course, urban districts, large and small, poor and minority, that have been high performing academically but in most of these cases, they were like shooting stars—brilliant for a time, maybe enough to snatch an award, and get cited in a study then poof, gone from sight (see here for Chicago and Atlanta as high achieving districts). The suspension of the one million dollar Broad Prize in Urban Education (2015) underscores how enormously difficult it is for urban districts to maintain improved academic performance. There are, then, very few urban, largely minority districts that have sustained high academic achievement (whatever the metrics) for a decade or more through demographic shifts and school board and superintendent turnover. I did say “very few” so there are some.

Examples might help. The Minority Student Achievement Network  of small cities and first-ring suburbs with 3,000 to 33,000 students has academically high performing districts with sustained improvements using multiple measures. Federal Way (WA), Evanston (IL), Brookline (MA), and Arlington (VA) have demonstrated reductions in the white/minority achievement gap, rising test scores, high graduation and low dropout rates. These districts, to the best of my knowledge have gone unresearched and unevaluated by independent agencies and scholars.

The significant and unaddressed policy question is: How can a largely minority urban school system sustain high student performance in its schools, and classrooms for decades?

Unfortunately, district improvement remains a black box into which hunches, anecdotes, and personal experiences are tossed in the hope that dedication, hard work, and luck will turn failure into success. The absence of relevant research on long-term, high achieving urban districts has been painfully, even embarrassingly, obvious. Looking at a few urban districts that have had sustained success in raising and maintaining high academic achievement over time is a research strategy that can have substantial policy payoff since it is the district that has capacity and resources to make key governance, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes.

Some analysts have identified urban districts that have raised and sustained students’ achievement (e.g., Long Beach, California and Aldine, Texas—both past Broad Prize winners) but independent in-depth, longitudinal studies of those districts have yet to be done. A few researchers have discovered such urban districts that have achieved academic success over longer periods of time. David Kirp (Improbable Scholars, 2013) did that for Union City (NJ); Jane David and Joan Talbert researched Sanger (CA) over the past decade (Turning Around a High-Poverty District, 2013). These qualitative case studies of districts with about 10,000 students each documented various factors that researchers believe answer the how-they-did-it question (e.g., superintendent tenure, school board continuity, funding, principal leadership, district culture). What configuration of factors might explain the decades-long high academic performance of these and other districts, I cannot say now. Until researchers investigate systematically such high performing districts, no policymaker, practitioner, or parent would find out whether patterns that have been studied would compliment, challenge, or amend what has occurred in the few urban districts that have already been examined.

But there is one important factor that would need to be added to the research agenda for such studies.  When investigating uncommonly successful urban districts, the classroom impact of policies on teachers goes unreported. Little systematic examination of the link between adopted policies and actual classroom lessons has been done beyond occasional teacher surveys. In any study of high performing, largely minority districts, I and other researchers should examine academic subjects to determine the impact of system policy on classroom content and pedagogy over time. Recently, I have studied the teaching of history over the past half-century in two urban districts. “Teaching History Then and Now: Stability and Change in Classroom Instruction” (forthcoming from Harvard Education Press). Were I to do such a study of successful urban districts, I would not only look at demographic, political and organizational factors that may explain continuity in academic achievement over time but also inspect what happens in classroom lessons to see what links, if any, exist between district policy and classroom practice.

Investigating urban schools that have sustained academic achievement over time is surely worthwhile but limited since such a school may be a few blocks away from a school that continually fails its students. It is the stable, high-performing district as the unit of reform that offers the most gain for the largest number of students that needs to be studied and analyzed.

 

 

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