Tag Archives: policy to practice,

Data-Driven Teaching Practices: Rhetoric and Reality

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

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

Not a new idea. Teachers had always assessed learning informally before state- and district-designed tests. Teachers accumulated information from pop quizzes, class discussions, observing students in pairs and small groups, and individual conferences. Based on these data, teachers revised lessons. Teachers leaned heavily on their experience with students and the incremental learning they had accumulated from teaching 180 days, year after year.

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

Now, principals and teachers are awash in data.

How do teachers use the massive data available to them on student performance?  Studies of teacher and administrator usage reveal wide variation and different strategies. In one 2007 study of 36 instances of data use in two districts, researchers found 15 where teachers used annual tests, for example, in basic ways to target weaknesses in professional development or to schedule double periods of language arts for English language learners. There were fewer instances of collective, sustained, and deeper inquiry by groups of teachers and administrators using multiple data sources (e.g., test scores, district surveys, and interviews) to, for example, reallocate funds for reading specialists or start an overhaul of district high schools. Researchers pointed out how timeliness of data, its perceived worth by teachers, and district support limited or expanded the quality of analysis. These researchers admitted, however, that they could not connect student achievement to the 36 instances of basic to complex data-driven decisions in these two districts.

Wait, it gets worse.

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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





Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Guiding Principles on Teaching, Learning, and Reform

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters. So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

  1. No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.
  2. Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.
  3. School structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare  students for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.
  4. Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise. 

These are some of the principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. They offer criteria by which I can sort through reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.


Filed under Reforming schools

Policy Influences Practice But Does Practice Influence Policy?

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

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

Policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers are policymakers

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

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

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


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

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

Then and Now in Reforming the Teaching of History (Part 2)

A half-century ago, academics led an effort to reform the teaching of history and the social studies in a movement called the New Social Studies (NSS). Since the mid-1990s, again professors, social studies curriculum specialists, and classroom history teachers have focused upon creating usable lessons that introduce students to historical thinking and writing textbooks for novice and career teachers. Similar in ways that the New Social Studies during the 1960s created instructional units, current efforts, however, go well beyond those materials in using teacher-friendly digital lessons and assessments tailored to the age-graded school conditions that teachers face daily, a factor missing in the earlier movement. [i]

One of the leaders of this movement is Professor Sam Wineburg at Stanford University. Trained as an educational psychologist at Stanford in the late-1980s, Wineburg worked under the tutelage of Professor Lee Shulman who, after receiving Carnegie Foundation grants to assess teaching and learning across subject areas, recruited able graduate students. Wineburg’s peers included Suzanne Wilson and Pam Grossman both of whom have gone on to illustrious academic careers. As has Wineburg. [ii]

Appointed assistant professor of educational psychology in 1989 at the University of Washington’s school of education, Wineburg launched a career that garnered teaching awards and research grants. He worked with teachers in the Seattle public schools in various projects including creating materials for students to read and think like historians. He published articles in both psychological and historical journals that generated even more grants.

In 2002, he joined the faculty of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education working with doctoral students, beginning social studies teachers, historians, and psychologists. Wineburg’s previous work with Roy Rosenzweig at George Mason University moved him toward incorporating digital historical sources into units and lessons for teachers to use. [iii]

Wineburg expanded his agenda by starting the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). His doctoral students designed lessons that dipped into primary and secondary sources showing teachers and students how to read and think like historians. One doctoral student developed document-based lessons on the Civil War for middle school teachers in San Francisco and in her dissertation designed an intervention for history teachers in five high schools. These ideas and practices of historians also found a home in the Curriculum and Instruction courses that he and doctoral students taught for entry-level social studies teachers in the Graduate School of Education. Finally, Wineburg created a network of partners and resources (e.g., Library of Congress, American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, National Council for the Social Studies) that covered both the discipline and teachers across the country.[iv]

From the collaborative work with doctoral students and teachers, SHEG increased production of teacher-friendly lessons in U.S. history and world history demonstrating how historians read documents, evaluate sources, and interpret historical events ranging from Pocahontas in 17th century colonial America to the Nanking Incident during Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. Posted on the Internet, these lessons permitted teachers to download them free. In early 2015, the Stanford History Education Group topped 2 million downloads. And they have added coaching services and professional development workshops for social studies teachers in San Francisco, Los Angeles city schools, and Lincoln (NE).[v]

With recognized standing in psychology and history, Wineburg bridges both worlds of research and classroom practice. Moreover, Wineburg is familiar with prior movements in the social studies, one of the New History a century ago led by James Harvey Robinson, the New Social Studies in the 1960s, and the movement to alter history teaching  since the mid-1990s. Rare, indeed, can scholars bridge disciplines and practice while retaining a deep familiarity with past and present social studies reform efforts.

Wineburg’s comparisons and contrasts of current efforts to the New Social Studies a half-century earlier offers glimpses of how he sees the past and present moments in altering how history teachers teach.

As for the relation between Reading like a Historian and the New Social Studies, obviously there’s a great deal of overlap. I cut my teeth on the Amherst history project materials and Charles Seller’s “As It Happened,” a textbook made up of almost exclusively primary sources. The whole issue of inquiry comes from the movement. So, in a sense, we owe a tremendous debt to our predecessors.

Wineburg then pointed out the differences between NSS and his current efforts.

First, all of our materials come with extensive scaffolding. We ‘tamper’ with history … by actually changing primary sources (and still calling them ‘primary’). We built this approach in high schools in San Francisco’s Mission [district] where 99% of the kids are native Spanish speakers and reading at 4th or 5th grade levels in the eleventh grade but often thinking (original italics) at college levels…. So our approach from the start had to deal with the reality of teachers in urban schools. Our lessons don’t go for a week either; each is tailored to a fifty-minute class. And we recognize that teachers simply don’t have the time to surf the net in search of documents or the appropriate graphic organizers to accompany a lesson. We provide everything.

Second, the New Social Studies did little in terms of testing their ideas in any kind of formal research setting. Lots of great stories; not much by way of rigorous evaluation. We field tested this work in San Francisco using a quasi-experimental design. And we continue in on-going field testing.

Third, we focus on explicit teaching of cognitive skills in a way that would have been foreign to the ‘discovery’ ethos of the 60s. I am a Vygotskian by heart and temperament. We provide teachers with guidance in how to explicitly model the cognitive skills they use when they interpret a document. We don’t want classrooms to [be] guessing games. If students don’t know how to ‘source’ a document, their teachers need to model it for them … making their own thoughts and hunches audible so that kids can have an explicit model of what a skilled reader does with a difficult text before trying to decode it themselves.

Fourth, we have taken up the issue of … formative assessment. When I co-directed the DOE’s [U.S. Department of Education] National History Education Clearinghouse, I got into a lot of hot water (original italics) when I basically blew the whistle on Teaching American History grants that were dedicated to ‘critical document analysis’ but then were testing kids with multiple choice items on battles of the Revolutionary War. It seemed like their two only options in the social studies testing world [were] multiple choice tests or 10-12 DBQs [document-based questions]. Neither was a useful tool for quick on-going formative assessment that gave teachers insight into what their kids were thinking and the processes they used. So with Rich [Shavelson] and Ed [Haertel]’s help, I took up the assessment mantle….That, too, is different from the New Social Studies.[vi]

In citing the similarities and differences between Stanford History Education Group and the New Social Studies of the 1960s, Wineburg made certain critical decisions over the past decade in SHEG coaching and materials to extend their use in classrooms beyond the shelf life of earlier NSS.

The first strategic decision Wineburg mentioned is shaping SHEG materials to the urban teacher’s work conditions within age-graded schools, the students they face daily, and the overwhelming demands of meeting standards, accountability and testing requirements. He and his colleagues adapted lessons to workplace conditions. In effect, he acknowledged the deep “grammar of schooling” shaping teacher behavior and worked within its boundaries.[vii]

Designing well scaffolded 50-minute lessons, as he points out, for teachers to use with students reading on different levels diverged from NSS leaders decades earlier who, more often than not, pitched their secondary school materials to “able” students except for Edwin (Ted) Fenton who realized that error in 1965 and launched his “slow learner” project. In addition, Wineburg built in formative assessments and highly interactive digital materials within SHEG lessons adding further appeal of these materials to teachers.[viii]

Another strategic decision was to align the lessons to the Common Core state standards in literacy. Wineburg realized that if these SHEG lessons containing cognitive skills embedded in how historians analyze sources, detect bias, and interpret facts were to last beyond NSS materials, they had to be tightly coupled to the Common Core standards’ focus on literacy skills. The standards in reading embraced most of the skills (e.g., how to “source” a document, how to corroborate the accuracy of a source) contained in SHEG-produced lessons. By fastening these materials to the standards’ literacy requirements and their accompanying tests, chances of a longer life span for this historical approach to teaching increased. [ix]

Beyond strategic decisions, Wineburg made a personal decision in teaching, writing, and scholarship. Over the past few years, he decided to reach beyond the specialized (and small) audiences he had written for in psychology and history journals to the larger audience of social studies teachers. In speeches and articles, Wineburg talked about his “crisis of faith” in academic research, making clear that he no longer believed published research in peer-reviewed journals with readership in the low thousands would improve teaching practices. Working more directly with schools and teachers was a new direction he charted for himself and SHEG.[x]

Now whether all of these strategic and tactical decisions will sustain SHEG lessons for more than a few years I cannot say. Nor can I say anything about the effects of these lessons on students since no studies have yet been done to determine their effectiveness. I can say that Wineburg and his colleagues have digested lessons from an earlier NSS generation of reformers and have made adaptations that have a reasonable chance of continued use among history teachers.


[i] Beginning in the mid-1990s, both academics and teachers completed research studies and described classroom lessons using the historical approach. For academics, see, for example, Peter Sexias, “Parallel Crises: History and the Social Studies Curriculum in USA,” Curriculum Inquiry, 1993, 25(3), pp. 235-250; Terri Epstein, “Makes No Difference If You Are Black or White? African-American and European-American Adolescents’ Perspectives on Historical Significance and Historical Sources,” 1994, Paper Presented at Annual Meeting of American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA; Linda Levstik and Keith Barton, “ ‘It Wasn’t a Good Part of History:’ National Identity and Ambiguity in Students Explanations of Historical Significance,” Teachers College Record, 1998, 99(3), pp. 478-513; Jere Brophy and Bruce VanSledright, Teaching and Learning History in Elementary School (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997); Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001); S. G. Grant, History Lessons: Teaching, Learning, and Testing in U.S. High Schools Classrooms (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003).

Teachers who have written about their work include Bob Bain, “Into the Breach: Using Research and Theory to Shape History,” in Peter Stearns, Peter Sexias, and Sam Wineburg (Eds.), Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History (New York: New York University Press, 2000); Bruce Lesh, ‘Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer’: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011).

Occasionally, an academic became a classroom teacher and studied how students learned history. See, for example, Suzanne Wilson, “Mastodons, Maps, and Michigan: Exploring Uncharted Territory While Teaching Elementary School Social Studies,” Elementary Subjects Center Series, No. 24 (East Lansing, MI: Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University, 1990).

[ii] Wineburg’s dissertation (the committee was Lee Shulman, historian David Tyack, and psychologist Dick Snow) dealt with how students and historians read history texts.

Suzanne Wilson has been the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University since 1991; Pam Grossman began at the University of Washington in 1988 in Teacher Education and became full professor there until 2000 when she went to Stanford University in that year, staying until 2014 when she was appointed Dean of Education at University of Pennsylvania.

I focus on Sam Wineburg for two reasons. First, he is clearly a thought leader in reading and thinking like a historian. Other academics and teachers cite him repeatedly. His early work in the field, awards given by professional associations, and influence as a writer and speaker have been substantial. Second, as I knew Ted Fenton in the early 1960s and his work and mine coincided when I was at Cardozo High School, I also have known Wineburg for over a quarter-century. When he was a graduate student at Stanford University, I was one of the historian-subjects he interviewed for his dissertation. We have stayed in touch over the years and since his return to Stanford in 2002, we have had many conversations about career, the status of history education, writing, and his work in the field. For this chapter, I interviewed Wineburg (January 15, 2015). I also have emails he sent to me (he has given me permission to quote from them), articles he and doctoral students have written, textbooks, and videos of interviews and speeches he has given.

See Wineburg resume at https://ed.stanford.edu/faculty/wineburg

[iii] In 2008, “Why Historical Thinking Matters,” an interactive presentation on the Battle of Lexington that Wineburg and his colleagues had designed won the American Historical Association’s James Harvey Robinson Prize for an Outstanding Teaching Aid.

[iv] Avishag Reisman, “The Document-Based Lesson: Bringing Disciplinary Inquiry into High School History Classrooms with Adolescent Struggling Readers,” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 2011, 44(2), pp. 233-264 and “Reading Like a Historian: A Document-Based History Curriculum Intervention in an Urban Classroom,” Cognition and Instruction, 2012, 30(1), pp. 86-112. Partners of the Stanford History Education Group are listed and described on website. See: https://sheg.stanford.edu/partners

Wineburg’s Curriculum and Instruction Course taught to social studies teachers in the Secondary Teacher Education Program at Stanford University is at: https://gse-step.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/educ268_2014_0.pdf

[v] On the number of downloads and where they originated, email communication from Joel Breakstone January 23, 2015 (in author’s possession).

[vi] Email from Sam Wineburg to Larry Cuban, June 15, 2013 (in author’s possession). Richard Shavelson and Ed Haertel were colleagues of Wineburg and experts on assessment and tests.

[vii] David Tyack and William Tobin, “The ‘Grammar’ of Schooling: Why Has It Been So Hard To Change?” The American Educational Research Journal, 1994, 31(3), pp. 453-479.

[viii] Without federal funding, Fenton launched the “slow learner” project in 1967, a four-year social studies curriculum for grades eight through eleven. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston published the eighth grade text, The Americans. Fenton papers, Carnegie Mellon University, Box 4, folder 22.

[ix]See Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano, Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Press, 2013). A large yellow circle is stamped on the cover saying “Aligned with Common Core State Standards.”

[x]Sam Wineburg, “Choosing Real-World Impact over Impact Factor,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 26, 2013; Interview with Wineburg, January 15, 2015.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

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.




Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

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