Tag Archives: dilemmas of teaching

One Burned-out Teacher’s Journey (Kavitha Cardoza)–Part 1

Kavitha Cardoza, Special Correspondent, WAMU Radio, Washington, D.C. interviewed an experienced District of Columbia high school Spanish teacher. This interview appeared April 3, 2015

Teachers in D.C. schools are under immense pressure to improve students test scores. Their job security depends on it. At the same time, teachers who do well can make tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses. Alli Baugher is dedicated, high-achieving teacher who’s dealing with burnout after just eight years on the job.

Explain what it was like starting at Ballou.

So I remember coming into Ballou my first year this very idealistic, recent college graduate and every year there would be these teachers that would leave and there was always this sense of pride for those of us that had stayed. And even in our first year, when it was just so hard and we were lesson planning till 10-11 p.m. at night and then baking cookies early in the morning for our students and just being ridiculous but we were still like “at least we’re fighting the good fight.” And I always thought it was so funny that in my third year of teaching, I was considered a veteran at Ballou. I was department chair. By my 7th year in a school of over 100 adults working there, there were only 10 that had been there longer than me. And I just found that crazy.



So tell me what happened

I was very confused. I worked very hard, I’d developed a rapport with my students, I had good working relationships with the other teachers in the building, I trust and respect my principal, and I feel really good about the fact that we have this new building, we have just so many exciting things in our future, but I am miserable. Coming home every day crying. I feel like I can barely do anything but collapse on the couch at the end of the day.

And then I started getting panic attacks during school. But I didn’t know what was happening to me and then it started happening more frequently. I was convinced that I could push through it, that I was a lifer, that I was committed to Ballou and to my students. And so over winter break I saw several therapists. I was very mindful of taking time to relax and to re-energize myself so that I could be a better teacher again when I came back.

Because not only was I having these panic attack experiences, I was also snapping at my students, I was losing my patience and it was almost like there was this little version of me over my shoulder going, “What are you doing? Who is that person, that monster, that you’re becoming with your students?” Because its the last version of myself that I ever want my students to see. I didn’t want them to go home, having not felt like I cared about them, that I thought they were wonderful. That I thought that they were really really capable and smart because so often the teacher is the one person that you can guarantee or hope to guarantee is going to tell them something positive about themselves that day.

And in that first week back at school before class even started, actually it was like 8:40 a.m. in the morning, I had just an awful panic attack that I had to go to the ER. I was able to describe this experience and what happened to me to friends and family that every day as teachers, our students are coming into the classroom with all of this pain and anger and they’re coming in hot with all of this stuff going on in their heads. And the only way to respond to that appropriately as a teacher is soaking it up like a sponge and just responding with kindness and patience and love and I think that my sponge was just really full.

There’s a big difference to me seeing you now and when I saw you in the classroom where you were just glowing. I feel a tremendous sense of sadness from you.

I started teaching at Ballou when I was 21 years old. So it was a quarter of my life. If anyone asked me “Who is Ally Baugher?” I would have said “I am a teacher and I teach at Ballou and let me tell you about all of my children.” Losing Ballou was very much like losing my identity. I felt like I’d let my students down, for some of my children just getting to school it was them overcoming incredible obstacles and I was saying, “I’ve had a couple panic attacks and I’m the one giving up.” I was really really hard on myself.

What we often forget is that teacher retention is also important because so many of the best programs in our schools are teacher driven. One perfect example there was a story probably five or six years ago about a teacher at Ballou who started a lacrosse team and it was this big news and everyone was excited about and the students loved it. And then she left and all of the kids came back the next year saying, “Are we going to have a lacrosse program still? Who’s going to do it?” And they were really still excited about this program but it was discontinued because there was no one there to run it.

When you started feeling the way you did, did you speak to your principal? I think DCPS would say they have several programs to retain teachers, you could teach part time and then do a hybrid model of some kind of management, they pay teachers more compared to a lot of urban school districts, they have recognition ceremonies, what about all those efforts?

 I think that the focus at Ballou, I felt like was so often on struggling teachers. I did reach out to several admins during the fall, and they were supportive, absolutely were supportive and I don’t fault them in any way for my needing to leave. I think one of the problems in the way that we approach teacher retention, one of the programs you mentioned was splitting time between some more leadership position while also teaching, so often our answer, our response, to teacher retention is moving them into non-teaching positions. We want you to be a teacher/mentor and we’re going to move you into an administrative position or a teacher/mentor position or someone leading professional development, that means that those best teachers are no longer in the classroom. And I think for a teacher retention program to truly work, the goal should be to keep our best teachers in front of students for a full schedule of the day. And that’s the big difference.

I think it’s important to note that this is not a story about Ballou, it’s not a story about DCPS, it’s not a story about me. My story is not unique and I talk to teachers time and time again that say, “I need to figure out how to make this job sustainable because I want to keep doing it and I want to keep working with these children. But, I’m tired.”

When so many people ask me about how I handle my job, they would assume it’s because of these “terrible kids” but they are just wonderful, they are my favorite part of my job, was. Any teacher will tell you that working with children no matter how challenging they are is the best part of my job. I feel like in order to improve teacher retention, there needs to be, especially for teachers working in high-risk communities, there needs to be a very deliberate break where teachers have an opportunity to still work in the field of education as a teacher’s assistant. Right? So that I’m given the opportunity to support another teacher and what they’re doing but don’t have the nightly responsibilities of lesson planning and filling out paperwork and making phone calls and all of those things. But also to reinspire them, to reignite them, to send them back to their schools that same idealistic excited change maker person that I was my first and second year.


Part 2 of this post raises issues of what can be done to reduce such losses to students and the community.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

A Difficult Fact: Public Schools Are Political Institutions

By training, education, and experience school practitioners have a hard time with the simple fact that tax-supported public schools are political institutions. I have worked with teachers, principals, district administrators, superintendents, and school board members for decades and their responses to the idea that schools (and schooling) are fundamentally political has largely been negative. Although teachers and principals wince when I raise this point and give specific examples of acting politically in classrooms and schools, they remain unpersuaded. Superintendents do see that a substantial portion of their work is political–building coalitions to support policies recommended to the school board, negotiating with groups inside and outside the district to reach a satisfactory compromise to a dilemma, seeking out new resources for implementing policies, and figuring out how best to deal with obstreperous  board members. They acknowledge that these are, indeed, political actions they engage in but for many school chiefs their facial expressions and words show the dislike for what they have to do.

Why is this? My guess is that the idea of politics quickly morphs into what most educators and most Americans associate with partisan politics as engaged in by Republicans and Democrats. But no such party politics occurs in districts. What educators ignore is that the non-partisan politics occur within schools and districts all the time. School politics are concerned with the exercise of power and influence in classrooms, schools, and districts to reach desired school goals.

A second guess is that U.S. schools  knew intimately partisan politics. Between the 1870s and early 1900s, political parties saw schools as just another agency to reward loyal party members with jobs and contracts. The Progressive movement in the late-1890s through the 1920s introduced civil service reforms–you had to show that you had the credentials and experience to be government employees–and over decades removed schools from party politics. Such politics are specifically banned today. Those are my guesses as to why educators too often get sniffy over attaching the word “political” to what they do in schools.

It is foolish, however, to deny that schools are political institutions established to reach desired community goals including how to live and act in a democracy. School boards,  administrators and teachers are agents hired to achieve those community-inspired goals.  Consider that taxing property owners and levying sales taxes on everyone regardless of whether they have children or not to run public schools means that schools matter a great deal to the community. Moreover, compelling parents to send their children to school between the ages of 5-6 to 16-17 underscores how important schools are to the survival and growth of the community. When one looks carefully at those goals public schools have for children and youth, it is easy to see what community values are embedded in each and every goal from being literate to being fair.  Schools are the political tools a community (and parents) have to enact its goals.

I offer a framework for seeing this fundamental truth of schooling as a value-driven, political enterprise, one that inevitably creates and harbors conflict.

Making policy and putting policies into practice in schools and classrooms are value-driven:

Every goal in each and every district has a value buried in it. Take reducing the achievement gap for an example. Raising test scores of minority students is highly valued by parents, administrators, and the general public. No progress in reducing the test score gap is seen as failure in achieving that prized value.

Or consider the familiar district goal of increasing the number of high school graduates attending college. Getting a college degree is prized because graduates earn more over a lifetime than those earning a high school diploma.

Or note that some principals are dead-set on becoming instructional leaders in their schools—that is their personal goal often put into their professional development plan they discuss with their superintendent. These principals believe instructional leadership is good. They value it highly.

I cannot think of any formal goal for public schools, principals, and teachers that does NOT have a value in embedded in it.

Because policy-and-practice is value-driven, and values differ, conflict between groups and individuals is inevitable.

 There are many values Americans agree on and teach their children such as respect for others, fairness, and loyalty to family and group. And there are many other values taught in families derived from religious beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions that differ from one family to another.

And consider further that when it comes to tax-supported public schools where parents are compelled to send their children, yet even another set of values enter the picture. School goals include cultivating patriotism, following rules, thinking for one’s self, engaging in democratic practices, preparing for the job market, and building character. Some taxpayers and parents, for example, want schools to reinforce parental authority and keep children in line while others want schools to build independence, cooperation, and individual decision-making in their children. And then there are those who want both in the same school. Sometimes school and family values converge and sometimes they diverge. Which is when conflicts arise.

Because of value differences, parents, teachers, and students inevitably disagree on practical items such as dress codes, the Common Core standards, raising school taxes, evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, charter schools, and dozens of other issues. Conflicts are common over the values embedded in policies and actual practices. Sometimes these value conflicts rise to the surface in public meetings and sometimes they do not. But they are there, nonetheless, because tax-supported public schools are–yep, I am going to say it again–political institutions. Educators need to accept this inexorable fact.




Filed under school reform policies

Teaching is a Grind (Bill Ferriter)

This post appeared April 23, 2014 on Bill Ferriter’s blog, “The Tempered Radical.” On his blog, he describes himself as follows: “Bill Ferriter has about a dozen titles—Solution Tree author and professional development associate, noted edublogger, senior fellow of the Teacher Leaders Network—but he checks them all at the door each morning when he walks into his sixth- grade classroom” in Raleigh, North Carolina.”

Teaching is a Grind.

I’m sitting in a dirty McDonald’s restaurant right now.  It’s the same dirty McDonald’s restaurant that I’ve spent the better part of the past 15 years sitting in.  Stop by and you are almost guaranteed to find me in a booth near the back — next to the filthy bathrooms and just inside the door where the sketchy teens are chain-smoking Marlboro Reds.

I come here after school and on the weekends to crank out writing for part time projects.  Sometimes I’m blogging.  Sometimes I’m putting together #edtech or #ccss lessons that I’ll use in my classroom AND in professional development workshops that I deliver during  those legendary “vacations” that teachers get.  Sometimes I’m answering emails sent by school leaders who need a bit of advice on how to move their buildings forward.

Always I’m tired.  Finding energy AFTER a full day at school ain’t easy.  

I walk into my classroom at 6 AM every morning and spend the first two hours planning, grading and answering email.  From 8:00-1:30, I work with 140 of the most engaging eleven year olds you’ve ever met.  They are simultaneously beautiful and demanding, though.  Meeting needs, answering questions, calming worries, celebrating successes and soothing hurt feelings are all wrapped around delivering the content in my curriculum.


I spend the last two hours of my day in meetings — with parents, with peers, with special educators, with principals, and with professional developers.  On good days, I might even get a few more minutes of planning before picking my daughter up from school.

As soon as my wife gets home at 4:30, however, I head to McDonald’s to start my second job.  Most nights, I work until 7:30.  Most Saturdays and Sundays, I work from 6:30 until noon.

Always, I’m worried about making ends meet because my family literally relies on my part time income to pay our bills.

Living in a state that ranks 46th in the nation for teacher pay — a full $10,000 behind the national average — means I’ve GOT to generate part time revenue in order to financially survive.  If the content that I create on nights and weekends doesn’t resonate — if I can’t convince SOMEONE to buy my ideas or my time — we’d be flat broke.

The hacks that harp on the horrors of the public education system would probably revel in this reality, wouldn’t they?  They’d argue that the stress of my poor salary has pushed me to be a better teacher. “Competition blah-blah-blah.  Pay for performance blah-blah-blah.  Cushy teaching jobs blah-blah.  Wasting our tax dollars blah-blah.”

And in a way, they’d be right:  While a part of me is constantly improving my practice because I know that improving my practice means improving the lives of my students, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m also constantly improving my practice because I’m hoping that someone will see me as an expert and hire me as a consultant so that I can cover next month’s day care bill for my four-year old daughter.

Long story short:  Teaching is a grind.  

On a good day, the grind feels like a noble sacrifice because I know that my work has made a difference for the kids in my class and the families in my community.  On a bad day, the grind feels like professional masochism.  I guess that’s the uncomfortable truth for those of us who have chosen a career that has always been undervalued and — more recently — been unappreciated.

The question is how long can I keep on grinding?


Six weeks later, Ferriter posted the following on his blog:


It’s no secret to regular Radical readers that I often get worn down by the grind of teaching.  Wrap the public criticism piled on teachers at every turn up with the crappy policies that have stripped the joy out of the public school classroom and you have a profession that leaves me wondering more and more every year.But there IS joy in teaching — and this week, it came in the form of a pile of birthday cards from my students:

Such a small thing, right?  But to me, it meant everything.  

The kids thanked me and teased me and joked about my hairline and the fact that I’m apparently older than dirt.  Some snuck the cards into my room and left them for me to discover on my desk.  Others came in groups of two or three to share creations that they had worked on together.

They worked on their cards during homeroom, during our school wide enrichment block and during their classes.  My guess is that they missed a ton of content, distracted by the simple act of celebrating one of their teachers.

I missed a ton of content, too:  At the end of the day, I ignored the four thousand email messages sitting in my inbox and smiled my way through a pile of special memories from a group of kids that I care about.


Filed under how teachers teach

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

The Dilemma of Fast, Cheap, and Good: You Can Only Pick Two

Teachers, principals, researchers, and parents face dilemmas daily. For readers of this post, the most common they face is the tension between personal and professional values—spend time with family and friends vs. spend time at work. Because time is limited, you cannot do it all–choices have to be made. Compromises and tradeoffs are inevitable. From CEOs to software designers to single Moms to marketing consultants, these dilemmas are ever present.

For entrepreneurs, start-up innovators, policymakers, principals, and teachers who initiate projects there is a another dilemma that won’t go away. The dilemma is choosing among three competing values: do the project fast, do it cheap, and do it “good.” Why do you have to choose? Because resources are limited–time, people, money–you can only do two. You cannot have it all.













Constraints that won’t go away require choices. You want to have the highest quality project, i.e., “good,” but to get that, it takes time and time often means that costs rise. It won’t be cheap. Film director Jim Jarmusch captures the tensions that exist between speed, quality, and price (not only in dollars but in time and people). These tradeoffs in managing the dilemma derive from not only high-tech start-ups aimed at the school market  but also apply to classroom teachers,  principals, superintendents, and school boards as well.

Consider the Los Angeles fiasco of buying and distributing Apple iPads (see here and here). The Superintendent and school board thought they could get “good” by doing it “fast” and “cheap.” They failed miserably. The superintendent resigned. A year later, the fallout from these decisions still rock the district.

Now consider teachers who want to begin project-based learning (PBL) in their classrooms. What comes across in their accounts is that they didn’t implement it all at once but started a piece of project based learning–say getting students to ask questions–and worked on it before expanding it to an entire lesson (see here and here) . They chose “good”  over “fast.” They invested their time incrementally to learn how best to pull off project-based learning. Those investments of teacher time add up and make it expensive in teacher time but workable with students in a lesson.

For a classroom, putting an innovation into practice is one thing, expanding the innovation to an entire school is another. To build project-based learning across an entire high school is also done in increments and takes longer (see here)   The switch from one pedagogy to another or installing a new way of teaching across all subjects courts failure when done in one fell swoop. In those high schools where teachers put into practice PBL, more often than not, it occurred in chunks. Two steps forward, one step backward. Trial and error. And it takes time.  “Good” trumps “fast.” Implementation involving teacher time in picking up expertise at every step of the way, however, is seldom cheap.

The same constraint-ridden dilemma of choosing among “good,”fast”, and “cheap” and then putting the program into practice incrementally applies to a district also. Look at a largely minority district with nearly 25,000 students that has, over thirty five years–yes, for more than three decades–sustained academic improvement, reduced the achievement gap between minorities and whites, and introduced many organizational, governance, curricular, and instructional changes slowly, carefully, and incrementally in those years. The urban district is Arlington (VA).  Since the late-1970s, through shifts in school board governance–Arlington went from appointed to elected board members–and long-serving superintendents, the district has established and maintained a reputation for academic excellence (however measured) as it has changed gradually from a majority-white to majority-minority district. Between 1974 and 2015, for example, the district has had only five superintendents. The current superintendent has been in the post since 2009 and was recently selected as Virginia superintendent for 2014. For an urban district, that kind of continuity in leadership borders on extraordinary.

Using pilot programs to introduce innovations slowly and evaluating outcomes, the district has approached implementation of new ideas and practices incrementally in order to offer quality programs to students. Fast and cheap rollouts of technology, new curricula, and different organizations seldom occurred.  For  example, in 2006, school officials introduced the a Spanish Immersion program in the elementary schools.Teachers were recruited, selected, trained to offer the instruction. Students spent 90 to 135 minutes weekly in Spanish beginning in kindergarten and then eventually instruction extended into the upper grades. At each step of the way, district officials communicated with parents, listened to their concerns and those of teachers, and made changes as the program was rolled out. Spanish Immersion language programs are currently in 17 out of 22 Arlington County elementary schools. Over a decade, then, a new program was introduced incrementally and is considered by school officials, practitioners, and parents. “Good” trumped “fast.” Costs in administrative and teacher time, professional development,and instructional materials surely added up and the dollar cost would appear large until those costs are amortized over a decade and the number of students served.

Classes using new pedagogies, schools putting instructional innovations into practice, and total district changes have to deal with iron-clad constraints–“fast,” “cheap,” and “good”. Choices have to be made because no one can have it all. With continuity in leadership, a commitment to careful implementation in bite-sized increments, the dilemma can be managed successfully.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

The Day of Three Miracles (Education Realist)

 For over thirty years, market-driven policies to improve schooling in the U.S. such as standards, testing and accountability have had at their core the belief that both academic excellence and equity–two prized values in this culture–can be achieved at the same time. From No Child Left Behind to Core Curriculum standards, these values advance this belief that both are simultaneously achievable. What Jack Schneider calls “excellence for all” approach to school reform. When value-driven policies meet school and classroom practice, when resources are limited and choices have to be made, however, dilemmas occur because values often conflict and resources are limited. Choices have to be made. Education Realist describes such tensions when academic excellence and equity collide in this story about a high school math department.

Education Realist is a math and history teacher. I have visited this teacher’s classes in math and history on two occasions, and have come to respect the method and curriculum I’ve observed. Education Realist, who wishes to remain anonymous, is also one fine writer who explores tensions and dilemmas that teachers face. Here is one.

A colleague who I’ll call Chuck is pushing the math department to set a department goal. Chuck is in the process of upgrading our algebra 1 classes, and his efforts were really improving outcomes for mid to high ability levels, although the failure rates were a tad terrifying. He has been worried for a while that the successful algebra kids would be let down by subsequent math teachers who would hold his kids to lower standards.

“If we set ourselves the goal of getting one kid from freshman algebra all the way through to pass AP Calculus, we’ll improve instruction for everyone.” (Note: while the usual school year doesn’t allow enough time, our “4×4 full-metal block” schedule makes it possible for a dedicated kid to take a double year of math if he chooses).

Chuck isn’t pushing this goal for the sake of that one kid, as he pointed out in a recent meeting. “If we are all thinking about the kid who might make it to calculus, we’ll all be focused on keeping standards high, on making sure that we are teaching the class that will prepare that kid–if he exists–to pass AP Calculus.”

I debated internally, then spoke up. “I think the best way to evaluate your proposal is by considering a second, incompatible objective. Instead of trying to prepare every kid who starts out behind as if he can get to calculus, we could try to improve the math outcomes for the maximum number of students.”

“What do you mean?”

“We could look at our historical math completion patterns for entering freshmen algebra students, and try to improve on those outcomes. Suppose that a quarter of our freshmen take algebra. Of those students, 10% make it to pre-calc or higher. 30% make it to trigonometry, 50% make it to algebra 2, and the other 10% make it to geometry or less. And we set ourselves the goal of reducing the percentages of students who get no further than geometry or even, ideally, algebra 2, while increasing the percentages of kids who make it into trigonometry and pre-calc by senior year.”

“That’s what will happen with my proposal, too.”

“No. You want us to set standards higher, to ensure that kids getting through each course are only those qualified enough to go to Calculus and pass the AP test. That’s a small group anyway, and while you’re more sanguine than I am about the efficacy of instruction on academic outcomes, I think you’ll agree that a large chunk of kids simply won’t be the right combination of interested and capable to go all the way through.”

“Yes, exactly. But we can teach our classes as if they are.”

“Which means we’ll lose a whole bunch of kids who might be convinced to try harder to pass advanced math classes that weren’t taught as if the only objective was to pass calculus. Thus those kids won’t try, and our overall failure rate will increase. This will lower math completion outcomes.”

Chuck waved this away. “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. There’s nothing incompatible about increasing math completion and setting standards high enough to get kids from algebra to calculus. We can do both.”

I opened my mouth…and decided against further discussion. I’d made my point. Half the department probably agreed with me. So I decided not to argue. No, really. It was, like, a miracle.

Chuck asked us all to think about committing to this instruction model.

Later that day, I ran into Chuck in the copyroom, and lo, a second miracle took place.

“Hey,” he said. “I just realized you were right. We can’t have both. If we get the lowest ability kids motivated just to try, we have to have a C to offer them, and that lowers the standard for a C, which ripples on up. We can’t keep kids working for the highest quality of A if we lower the standards for failure.”

Both copiers were working. That’s three.


I do not discuss my colleagues to trash them, and if this story in any way reflects negatively on Chuck it’s not intentional. Quite the contrary, in fact. Chuck took less than a day to grasp my point and realized his goal was impossible. We couldn’t enforce higher standards in advanced math without dooming far more kids to failure, which would never be tolerated.

Thus the two of us collapsed a typical reform cycle to six hours from the ten years our country normally takes to abandon a well-meant but impossible chimera. …


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, school reform policies

Some Thoughts about Change, Innovation, and Watching Paint Dry

Let’s face it, in the U.S. change is far sexier than stability. Words like “innovation,” “revolution,””disruption,”and, of course, “reform” have replaced the 19th century common word of “progress.” With so much evidence about war, civil war, torture, poverty, in the world, the concept of “progress” is a hard sell. But not the idea of change. Especially, technological change. From iPhones to Chromebooks to driverless cars to controlling all home appliances with clicks on smart phones, Americans will line up outside stores days in advance to buy the next new thing.

Stability, continuity, day-after-day routines hardly excites Americans or makes films (except perhaps Andy Warhol creations). Stability is, you guessed it, ho-hum, prompting open-mouth yawns. No pizzaz, no cheerleaders, no drum rolls accompany calls for more stability in daily routines or in life. Political leaders from U.S. presidents to local school board members promise to turnaround the status quo. Particularly, when the topic is tax-supported, compulsory public education for children and youth ages 6-16 across the U.S. For the past thirty years, civic, business, and philanthropic leaders have targeted U.S. public schools for their mediocrity, as compared to international economic competitors. Calls for “transformation” of school governance, curriculum, organization, and instruction have rolled off the tongues of politicians, CEOs, and superintendents. What policymakers,  practitioners, parents, and researchers too often overlook or ignore is the dual purposes (and paradox) of compulsory public education in a democracy. Tax-supported public schools are expected to conserve and change.

Consider public opinion polls on what schools should do for U.S. children and youth. One illustrates the rich array of collective and individual purposes that parents and taxpayers expect schools to achieve. In order of importance, the top five purposes were as follows:

*Prepare youth to become responsible citizens;

*Help young people become economically sufficient;

*Ensure a basic level of quality among schools;

*Promote cultural unity among all Americans;

*Improve social conditions for people.[i]

The numerous and competing goals would not have surprised education scholars who have documented these public expectations for children attending schools. In the late 1970s, John Goodlad and associates conducted a major study involving 38 urban, suburban, and rural schools in seven states across the country. Their “Study of Schooling” examined the historic goals of U.S. schools and those they found stated in district, state, and school documents. There were 62.[ii]

Of course, I do not need to lean on public opinion polls to assert that public schooling’s socializing role remains a powerful expectation among parents and taxpayers since schools historically have been agents of preserving civic and moral values. Go into any preschool or kindergarten classroom and see how the teachers train young children to take turns, wash their hands before eating, to talk things through rather than hit one another–you get the picture. For older students, what they should learn in class has prompted battles over school prayer and ugly spats over whether “creationism” or “intelligent design” should be taught in high school science courses.

Historically, public schools have been expected to both conserve community values and traditions while simultaneously giving children and youth the knowledge and skills to make changes in their lives, communities, and yes, in those very values and traditions they absorbed. Some commentators see this as the ongoing conflict between the school’s traditional purpose of transmitting the dominant culture and the purpose of becoming a modern institution in step with the ever-changing society. That dual purpose of public schools has been often lost in current and past reformers’ enthusiastic embrace of schools becoming modern change-agents solving grave national problems.

This conflict in values prizing both continuity and change help explain the laundry list zealous reformers and ardent supporters of the traditional purposes have compiled about change and stability in public schools.
*Schools are resistant to change;
*Schools adopt one fad after another
*Schools change at a glacial pace;
*Schools move at warp speed in embracing innovations.

The contradictory complaints go to the paradox of what parents, voters, policymakers, and practitioners expect of schools and what seems to happen after reform-driven policies are adopted. Even after many changes are introduced into districts and schools, abiding routines and practices persist. Some social scientists call this phenomenon “institutional stasis” and “dynamic conservatism” where the Siamese twins of change and stability keep the organization in balance. In public schools it is not change or stability; it is both at the same time. Coping with this paradox of reform requires policymakers and practitioners to recognize the conflict embedded in the two-fold function of tax-supported public schools and then to—I use a metaphor here–master the art of jiu-jitsu in bringing opposites into harmony in a gentle, supple, and gradual way, a task that few policymakers achieve.

Educators often get flummoxed when they are expected to preserve community and national values while simultaneously being asked to make changes in school organization, curriculum, and instruction in order to solve larger economic and social problems harming the nation. Repeated criticisms of public schools over decades arise from this misunderstanding among fervent reformers of the public school’s basic role to both conserve and change.

Transmitting the dominant values and beliefs in the culture is far less sexy a proposition–more like watching paint dry–than “disrupting,” transforming,” and “revolutionizing,” public schools.


[i] Lowell Rose and Alec Gallup, ” The 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools”Phi Delta Kappan, September 2000, p. 47.


[ii] John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984), pp.50-56.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, Reforming schools