Tag Archives: policy to practice,

Why the History of School Reform is Essential for Policymakers, Practitioners, and Researchers

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

James Baldwin, 1965

The quote from essayist, novelist, and civil rights activist James Baldwin captures the essential truth about the importance of the past in our living each day of each year and making sense out of what we encounter. As it (was) and is true now about white-black relations, so it is true of coming to grips with the history of school reform in the midst of grand efforts to envision the high school of the future and “personalized learning” through technology.

There is, of course, nothing wrong about these aspirations for fundamental change in a two-century old institution. What is awry is the staggering amounts of money invested in altering these community institutions harnessed to the conscious indifference to the past when similar efforts by earlier generations of  just as dedicated reformers unfolded. As Baldwin pointed out:  “history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

Seems to me that current well-funded efforts to launch and sustain such changes upon U.S. schools should, at the minimum, be informed by similar experiments that occurred in the past.

Were well-intentioned reformers now to tap that wisdom and study the history of similar reforms it would not lead to pessimism, throwing in the towel, or similar acts of giving up. It would, I believe, lead to more informed strategies and outcomes for current reforms. A greater concern for solid incremental changes, implemented fully, that accumulate into moving an institution from here to there. But that is not the case now.

The current crop of school reformers, both on the political right and left, have a full agenda of Common Core standards, test-driven accountability, expanding parental choice through charters, spreading virtual teaching and learning, and ridding classrooms of ineffective teachers based upon students’ test scores. These reformers have their eyes fixed on the future not the horrid present  where schools, in their charitable view, are dinosaurs. These reformers are allergic to the history of school reform; they are ahistorical activists that carry the whiff of arrogance associated with the uninformed.

*They do not know what happened in schools when political coalitions between the 1890s-1940s  believed that there was a mismatch between student skills and industrial needs.  Vocationally-driven schools cranked out graduates who could enter skilled and semi-skilled industrial and white-collar jobs (See Benavot voc ed and Kanter voc ed). That was then. The current vocational drive to get all students into college and equip them with 21st century technological skills that no employer could turn away might give reformers pause in learning of the strengths and limits of that earlier reform-minded generation’s impact on vocational education.

*They do not know what happened in past efforts in various cities throughout mid-to-late 19th century schools in introducing widespread testing, evaluation of teachers based on those scores, and accountability. See here and Testing in 20th century.

*They do not know what happened when previous efforts to introduce innovative technologies into schools stumbled, got adapted in ways unforeseen by reformers, and even disappeared. See history of technology and here.

*They do not know how personalized learning is the most recent incarnation of many determined past efforts to get around the lockstep of age-graded schooling by differentiating teaching and individualizing learning (see here and here).

Uninformed reformers forget James Baldwin’s wisdom as they unknowingly forge ahead with their grand plans to transform public schools.

“the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

Practitioners, researchers, and policymakers look at school reform through a grimy windshield; they have yet to see clearly that ignoring previous reform efforts only means that they unknowingly re-invent changes that have an influential history already deeply embedded within their shiny reforms.

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After Adopting Computers, Why Is Schooling Yet To Be Transformed?

Today, robots build autos, assemble electronic devices, put together appliances, and make machinery. Automation has eliminated most bank tellers, white collar clerks and secretaries, salespersons, and dozens of other occupations. U.S. Agriculture has become industrialized and family farms have largely disappeared in the last two generations. Whole industries have been transformed by the advent of the computer. Moreover, from drafting plans for buildings to doing legal research to managing insurance claims, computers and software algorithms have either replaced people or reduced numbers of employees. Business leaders of large and mid-size companies seek increased productivity and lower costs in producing products and services. None of this is new. Greater efficiency, higher productivity and increased profit margins. But not in schools.

Surely, since the early 1980s when desktop computers appeared in public schools, administrators have applied business software to personnel, purchasing, transportation, food services, and assembling big data sets for managers to use in making decisions. And, yes, cuts in school employees have occurred. But these efficiencies have yet to transform classrooms.

If the inner workplace of schooling, the classroom, came late to the surge of automation, robots, and personal computers, then that helps to explain, in part, why so many teachers and principals in the past have perceived these powerful devices as an add-on to their work, something else that policymakers, parents, and administrators expected teachers to do in classrooms. The advent of higher curriculum standards, high-stakes testing, and coercive accountability since the mid-1980s pressured teachers to concentrate on content and skill standards that were tested. I said, “in part,” because this perception of an additional task (OK, burden) differs greatly from private sector employers who eagerly automated occupational tasks and transformed professional work (e.g., engineers, architects, financial analysts, online marketers).

Beyond the perception of a burden foisted onto teachers as a partial explanation, surely, minimal student access to computers in the 1980s and much of the 1990s also accounts for the snail’s pace of adoption and use. Yet many teachers and principals were early adopters and enthusiasts for applying new technologies to classroom tasks. Much evidence from teacher surveys, direct observation of lessons, bloggers, and researcher accounts clearly establishes that, as hardware and software became available in classrooms, many practitioners became regular users of new technologies in their classrooms.

What puzzles many policymakers, reformers, and vendors, however, is that while computer accessibility and use have spread, no transformation in teaching and learning has occurred leaving contemporary classrooms seemingly similar to ones a half-century ago.

I have some thoughts on why this slowness of change and the deja vu feeling of classroom familiarity over decades is puzzling.

First, districts, schools, and classrooms are not command-and-control organizations (e.g., NASA, IBM, U.S. Army) where top leaders decide policy, employees put policies into practice pronto, and crisp outcomes measure effectiveness. Schools are complex, relationship-bound networks of adults and children seeking multiple goals (e.g., literacies, socializing the young into community values, civic participation, vocational preparation, and solid moral character). They are loosely coupled organizations—the journey from school board policy to a kindergarten classroom is closer to a butterfly path than a speeding bullet. In such organizations,savvy about how the system works, subject and skill expertise and trust are essentials to the building of relationships and getting things done from the classroom to the superintendent’s office. Well-intentioned reformers seldom see these organizational differences between command-and-control companies and schools as important. They are.

Second, public schools are not profit-seeking organizations. They are community-building institutions that not only perform crucial social and political tasks for the larger society but also promise parents an individual escalator for their sons and daughters to acquire success. Organizational cultures that pervade the best schools (e.g., intellectual achievement, caring, collaboration) differ dramatically from for-profit companies. Change-driven reformers overlook these cultural differences.

Third, teaching is a helping profession. Doctors and nurses, teachers, social workers, and therapists are helping professionals whose success is tied completely to those who come for their expertise: patients, students, clients. All patients, students, and clients enter into a relationship with these professionals that influence but do not determine the outcomes either in better health, learning, and personal growth. Professionals depend upon those who they help for their success–no doctor says I succeeded but the patient died. No teacher says that I taught well but the student didn’t learn. No therapist says that I listened well, gave superb advice but the client didn’t improve. Both need one another to reach goals they both seek. And it is the relationship between the professional and patient, student, and client that matters. Not net profits at the end of the fiscal year. Policymakers and high-tech companies eager to transform practice through new technologies ignore the essential fact that these professionals are not there to become rich or famous, they are there to help others.

And this is how I am beginning to make sense out of the puzzle why new technologies, successful in overhauling many industries, have yet to transform teaching and learning.

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Reforms That Stick: How Schools Change

There is a strongly-held myth many academics, policymakers, and reformers repeat weekly: schools hardly ever change. Those who believe in this myth often cite the large literature demonstrating failed innova­tions in schools or point at calcified bureaucracies and stubborn teachers and principals who block reform after reform (see here and here). Like all myths, this one has a factual basis. There have been many failures to transform schooling in the U.S.  From open-space schools to vouchers, there have indeed been vain attempts to alter the course of schooling.

Such a myth is useful for those who beat the drums that U.S. schools are broken. After all, they seek changes that meet their view of what constitutes a “good” education. “Troubled” schools is the basis for the profound pessimism that presently exists over the capacity of public schools to improve. So it is a politically useful myth, but it is inherently mistaken nonetheless.

The fact is that over the last century there have been many organizational, governance, curricular, and even instructional changes in public schools. Such changes have been adopted, adapted, implemented, and institutionalized. In most instances, these changes departed from what reformers in past generations wanted but they were changes nonetheless. Many of these changes have been incremental, that is, additions to existing structures and processes of schooling. However, a few of these changes have been fundamental, altering substantially public schools. Consider the following changes in U.S. schools over the past half-century:

  • Creation of small high schools;
  • Increased qualifications for teachers and administrators;
  • Decreased teacher/student classroom ratios;
  • Increased choices of schools, curricula, and programs available to parents;
  • New subjects in curriculum (environmental studies, advanced placement courses biology, calculus, history, etc.);
  • Use of small-group and individual approaches to classroom organization and instruction;
  • Public school desegregation of black children since 1954;
  • Increased access of children with disabilities to public school classrooms since the early 1970s.

Why has such a myth about the incapacity of schools to change become mainstream wisdom?

The basis for this myth about public schools seldom changing is due, in part, to reform-driven observers and participants failing to get what they wanted, ignoring past reforms,  overlooking how schools absorb innovations and transform them into stable routines, and failing to distinguish between the core of schooling and the periphery.  Amnesia, myopia, and sour grapes are congenital defects afflicting reformers. I will argue that there are clear lessons that can be both learned and applied by reform-minded policymakers, researchers and practitioners in understanding how changes get converted into institutional routines. And how some changes are at the center of the existing U.S. system of schooling and some migrate to the periphery but still exist.

How Fundamental Changes Become Incorporated as Incremental Ones

The kindergarten, junior high school, open-space architecture, and the use of computers, for example, are instances of actual and attempted fundamental changes in the school and classroom since the turn of the century that were widely adopted, incorporated into many schools, and then, over time, were marginalized into incremental changes.

How did this occur?

A familiar example is the curricular reform of the 1950s and 1960s, guided, in large part, by reform-inspired academic specialists and funded by the federal government. Aimed at revolutionizing teaching and learning in math, science, and social studies (spurred in part by a popular perception that Soviet education was superior to American schools, as evidenced by Sputnik), millions of dollars went to producing textbooks, developing classroom materials, and training teachers. Using the best instructional materials that scholars could produce, teachers taught students to understand how scientists thought and experienced the pleasures of discovery, how mathematicians solved math problems and how historians used primary sources to understand the past. Published materials ended up in the hands of teachers who, for the most part, had had little time to understand what was demanded by the novel materials or, for that matter, how to use them in lessons.

By the end of the 1970s, education researchers were reporting that instead of student involvement in critical thinking, problem solving, or experiencing how scientists worked, they had found the familiar teacher-centered instruction aimed at imparting knowledge from a text. There was, however, a distinct curricular residue of these federally funded efforts left in the textbooks published in the 1970s. The attempt to revolutionize teaching and learning evolved, in time, into new textbook content (see here, here, and here). Reformers were sorely disappointed at the small returns from major efforts.

Another way that fundamental changes get transformed into incremental ones is organizationally shunting them from the core of schooling to the periphery of the  system. For example, innovative programs that reduce class size (e.g., dropout prevention), integrate subject matter from diverse disciplines (e.g., gifted and talented programs), and structure activities that involve students in their learning (e.g., vocational programs) often begin as classroom experiments, but, over time, migrate to the periphery of the system. The schools have indeed adopted and implemented programs fundamentally different from what mainstream students receive. Yet it is the outsiders—students labeled as potential dropouts, vocational students, pregnant teenagers,those identified as gifted, at-risk, and disabled—who participate in the innovative programs initially. Thus, some basic changes get encapsulated, like a grain of sand in an oyster; they exist within the system but are often separated from core programs (see here and here).

Such conversions of fundamental changes into incremental ones occur as a result of deep-seated impulses within the organization to appear modern and to convince those who politically and financially support the schools that what happens in schools is up-to-date, responsive to the wishes of its patrons, but yet no different from what used to happen in the “real schools” that taxpayers remember from their youth—schools containing homework rows of desks in classrooms, and teachers who maintain order. Thus, pervasive and potent processes within the institution of schooling preserve its independence to act even in the face of powerful outside political forces intent upon altering what happens in schools and classrooms (see here, here, and here). Reformers seeking to “transform” schooling see such adaptations as failure; less self-interested observers see this as how organizations adapt politically to their environment.

So, to sum up what I have asserted thus far:

  1. Schools have changed a great deal.
  2. These changes have been in virtually all areas of governance, organization, curriculum, and classroom instruction.
  1. Most of these changes have been incremental; only a few have been fundamental.
  1. Many of these changes were adopted, implemented, and then became institutionalized. Some fundamental changes were incorporated into the core of the mainstream school system as incremental innovations, but many others became permanently lodged at the periphery of the system.
  1. Over time, many changes in schools preserve the overall stability of schooling.

With all of these changes that I have detailed, why is there this myth that schools are so resistant to change?

The answer, I believe, is located in cultural attitudes that Americans have toward the idea of change. Most Americans see change as a good thing. Annual changes in car styles and clothes are matched to a political system of annual, biennial, and quadrennial elections and a passion for moving from one place to another cherish the new and different. These attitudes are strong, abiding, and fed continually by a consumer culture that stresses new products, rotating name brands, and the search for different experiences.

Because the dominant belief is that change is good, planned change is viewed as even better. Anchored in evolutionary ideas that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and wedded to historic values of the American culture, the idea of progress has been honed to sharpness by generations of theorists, policymakers, and publicists. Planned change in schools (i.e., reforms) spill over public schools again and again because schooling is seen as a public good that also benefits individuals climbing the ladder to success. High expectations for what diplomas and degrees can do to one’s life chances drive Americans.  But U.S. schools are vulnerable to socioeconomic pressures coming from outside schools. After all, tax-supported public schools are political institutions. When changes occur and differ from what that generation of reformers sought, the label of failure gets glued to public schools.

With the rhetoric of failed U.S. schools driving the past 30 years of reform–recall A Nation at Risk–high expectations for schooling to bolster the economy over the past 30 years, reforms have flowed over U.S. schools. Many have stuck as incremental changes. Other changes have morphed into programs lodged at the periphery of schooling. Schools have indeed changed. Only disappointed, myopic and amnesiac reformers hang onto the myth of unchanging schools.

 

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Draining The Semantic Swamp of “Personalized Learning”–A View from Silicon Valley (Part 1)

No surprise that a catch-phrase like “personalized learning,” using technology to upend traditional whole group  lessons, has birthed a gaggle of different meanings. Is it  updated “competency-based learning?” Or “differentiated learning” in new clothes or “individualized learning” redecorated?  (see here, here and here). Such proliferation of school reforms into slogans is as familiar as photos of sunsets. “Blended learning,” “project-based teaching,” and “21st Century skills” are a few recent bumper stickers–how about “flipped classrooms?”– that have generated many meanings as they get converted by policymakers, marketeers, researchers, wannabe reformers, and, yes, teachers into daily lessons.

For decades, I have seen such phrases become semantic swamps where educational progressives and conservatives argue for their version of the “true” meaning of the words. As a researcher trained in history, since the early 1980s, I have tracked policies as they get put into practice in schools and classrooms.  After all, the first step in science is to observe systematically the phenomenon or as Yogi Berra put it: “You can observe a lot by watching.” The second step is to describe and tell others what was seen and explain it.

Over the past few months, I have visited eight schools and 17 teachers in “Silicon Valley,” that near-mythical stretch of the Bay area in Northern California encompassing San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland and their environs. I went into schools and classrooms that administrators, policymakers, researchers, and others identified for me as “best cases,” or exemplars of integrating use of technology into daily lessons. Many, but not all, told me that they had integrated technology into their lessons to “personalize learning.”

The questions I asked myself while observing a class was simply: What are teachers and students doing when computer use is integrated into a lesson? Toward what ends is such use aimed?

Teachers and principals invited me to observe.  There were no tours or group visits. I went to each school and talked with principals, various teachers, and read online documents describing the school. I sat in 90-minute lessons, listened to students in and out of class–even shadowing a student at one school for a morning–and took copious notes.  I sent drafts of my classroom observations to teachers to correct any errors in facts that I made. Then I published accounts of my observations  in my blog in March, April, and May 2016.  Although I am far from finished in this project, now is the time for that second step (see above). I need to make sense of  what I saw at the epicenter of technological optimism. So this is an initial pass at figuring out what I saw as I sloshed through the semantic swamp of  “personalized learning.”

The “Personalized Learning” spectrum

When I visited the schools, administrators and most teachers told me that they were “personalizing learning.” What I saw, however, in classrooms and schools was a continuum of different approaches–which I call the “personalized learning spectrum”–that encompassed distinct ways of implementing technology in lessons to reach larger purposes for schooling. Let me be clear, I value no end of the spectrum (or the middle) more than the other. I have worked hard to strip away value-loaded words that suggest some kinds of “personalized learning” are better than others.

At one end of the continuum are teacher-centered lessons and programs within the traditional age-graded school using behavioral approaches that seek efficient and effective learning to make children into knowledgeable, skilled, and independent adults who can successfully enter the labor market, thrive, and become adults who help their communities. These approaches (and ultimate aims for public schools) have clear historical underpinnings dating back nearly a century.

At the other end of the continuum are student-centered lessons and programs that seek student agency and shape how children grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically. They avoid the traditional age-graded arrangements that they believe have deadened learning for over a century. Their overall goals of schooling are to convert children into adults who are creative thinkers, help out in their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults. Like the other end of the spectrum, these approaches have a century-old history as well.

And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrids mixing behavioral and cognitive approaches aimed at turning children into adults who engage in their communities, are creative, thoughtful individuals who succeed in the workplace.

Such a spectrum has been around for many decades with different names such as “Progressive-to-Traditional,” “Teacher-centered to Student-centered, etc. A glance at the rear-view mirror about the history of these continua helps me make sense of what I saw in my observations..

Looking back a century

What today’s reformers promoting “personalized learning” have to remember are their yesteryear cousins among Progressive reformers a century ago. Then, these reformers wanted public schools to turn children and youth into thoughtful, civically engaged, whole adults. Those early Progressives drank deeply from the well of John Dewey but ended up following the ideas of fellow Progressive Edward Thorndike, an early behaviorist psychologist and expert in testing.*

If one wing of these early progressives were pedagogical pioneers advocating project-based learning, student-centered activities, and connections to the world outside of the classroom, another wing of the same movement were efficiency-minded, “administrative progressives,” who admired the then corporate leaders of large organizations committed to both efficiency and effectiveness–Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, General Motors. Thorndike at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Ellwood P. Cubberley at Stanford and other academics, in alliance with the new field of educational psychology, borrowed heavily from business leaders. They counted and measured everything in schools and classrooms under the flag of “scientific management.” They reduced complex skills and knowledge to small chunks that students could learn and practice. They wanted to make teachers efficient in delivering lessons to 40-plus students with the newest technologies of the time: testing, film, radio. They created checklists for teachers to follow in getting students to learn and behave. They created checklists for principals to evaluate teachers and checklists for superintendents to gauge district performance including where every penny was spent.

A century ago, this efficiency-minded, behaviorist wing of the progressive movement overwhelmed the pedagogical progressives passionate about students developing and using a range of cognitive and social skills. Thorndike trumped Dewey.

Now in 2016 behaviorists and believers in the “whole child” wear the clothes of school reformers and educational entrepreneurs. They tout scientific studies showing lessons tailored for individual students produce higher test scores than before, or that project-based learning creates independent, creative, and smart students.

What exists now is a re-emergence of the efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” from a century ago who now, as entrepreneurs and practical reformers want public schools to be more market-like where supply and demand reign, and more realistic in preparing students for a competitive job market. Opposed are those who see schools as places to create whole, knowledgeable human beings capable of entering and succeeding in a world far different than their parents faced. The struggle today is between re-emergent, century-old wings of educational progressives. It is, then, again a family fight.

Part 2 will place some of the classroom lessons and schools I observed and have documented elsewhere along that continuum.

______________________

*A current dust-up between Progressives and Conservatives over school reform (see Rick Hess’s summary of back-and-forth bloggers here) misses entirely the intra-reformer struggle among Progressives a century ago and how the conservative, efficiency-driven wing (e.g., Edward Thorndike, et. al.) of those early Progressives triumphed over the liberal, student-centered, reconstructionist wing (e.g., John Dewey, George Counts, et. al.) who sought to make  schools student-centered and agents of societal reform. David Tyack tracked this split fully in The One Best System and with co-author Elisabeth Hansot in Managers of Virtue. The split that Hess and others see today is hardly new. It is a resurgence of that old struggle among Progressives but now reincarnated in an age of standards, testing, and accountability. The  split among current school reformers is over  both equity and efficiency with one wing labeled “Progressives” and the other “Conservatives.” Current “Progressives,” imbued with social justice, want schools to be agents of social and political change and student-centered. They use both behaviorist and cognitive approaches to “personalize learning.”  “Conservatives” want contemporary reform policies (e.g., charters, standards and accountability) to be sustained because they advance equity and blend technology to create both student- and teacher-centered experiences. They, too, want learning to be “personalized” and create  both behaviorist- and cognitive-driven lessons.  Such clashes  track earlier differences among reformers a century ago. The conflict today, as then, tries to answer the age-old question: Is the job of public schools in a democratic and capitalist-driven society to solve larger economic, social, and political problems that the nation faces or focus on building whole human beings who can thrive and succeed in a highly competitive society?

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The Wrong Way to Teach Math (Andrew Hacker)

Struggles over how best to teach math (or science, history, and English) have marked decade after decade of school reform. Mental discipline vs. learning by doing and other dichotomies have characterized the professional and lay public’s back-and-forth over teaching this subject. These public debates over how best to teach math and other subjects not only have a long history but also mirror the unending struggle over the role that schooling “should” play in a society anchored in democratic capitalism. In the past thirty years of school reform aimed at marrying public schooling to economic growth, the “should” of teaching algebra, geometry, and calculus has tilted toward mental discipline because of the apparent necessity of getting a college degree in order to land a decent paying job. Andrew Hacker’s article raises again the unending issue of connecting school subjects to the real world that students inhabit rather than what adults believe should be studied for its abstract and economic benefits.

This op-ed appeared in the New York Times, February 27, 2016. Andrew Hacker teaches political science and mathematics at Queens College and is the author of the forthcoming book “The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions,” from which this article was adapted.

HERE’S an apparent paradox: Most Americans have taken high school mathematics, including geometry and algebra, yet a national survey found that 82 percent of adults could not compute the cost of a carpet when told its dimensions and square-yard price. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently tested adults in 24 countries on basic “numeracy” skills. Typical questions involved odometer readings and produce sell-by tags. The United States ended an embarrassing 22nd, behind Estonia and Cyprus. We should be doing better. Is more mathematics the answer?

In fact, what’s needed is a different kind of proficiency, one that is hardly taught at all. The Mathematical Association of America calls it “quantitative literacy.” I prefer the O.E.C.D.’s “numeracy,” suggesting an affinity with reading and writing.

Calculus and higher math have a place, of course, but it’s not in most people’s everyday lives. What citizens do need is to be comfortable reading graphs and charts and adept at calculating simple figures in their heads. Ours has become a quantitative century, and we must master its language. Decimals and ratios are now as crucial as nouns and verbs.

It sounds simple but it’s not easy. I teach these skills in an undergraduate class I call Numeracy 101, for which the only prerequisite is middle school arithmetic. Even so, students tell me they find the assignments as demanding as rational exponents and linear inequalities.

I’m sometimes told that what I’m proposing is already being covered in statistics courses, which have growing enrollments both in high schools and colleges. In 2015, nearly 200,000 students were taking advanced placement classes in statistics, over three times the number a dozen years ago. This might suggest we are on the way to creating a statistically sophisticated citizenry.

So I sat in on several advanced placement classes, in Michigan and New York. I thought they would focus on what could be called “citizen statistics.” By this I mean coping with the numbers that suffuse our personal and public lives — like figures cited on income distribution, climate change or whether cellphones can damage your brain. What’s needed is a facility for sensing symptoms of bias, questionable samples and dubious sources of data.

My expectations were wholly misplaced. The A.P. syllabus is practically a research seminar for dissertation candidates. Some typical assignments: binomial random variables, least-square regression lines, pooled sample standard errors. Many students fall by the wayside. It’s not just the difficulty of the classes. They can’t see how such formulas connect with the lives they’ll be leading. Fewer than a third of those enrolled in 2015 got grades high enough to receive credit at selective colleges.

Something similar occurred when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching created a statistics course for 19 community colleges in 2012. It was advertised as an alternative to remedial algebra, with its sadistic attrition rates. In Statways, as it was called, here is some of what students were asked to master: chi-square test for homogeneity in two-way tables, line multiple representation of exponential models. Even with small classes and extra suppor t, almost half of the students got D’s or F’s or dropped the class.

The Carnegie and A.P. courses were designed by research professors, who seem to take the view that statistics must be done at their level or not at all. They also know that citizen statistics is not the route to promotions. In the same vein, mathematics faculties at both high schools and colleges dismiss numeracy as dumbing down or demeaning. In fact, figuring out the real world — deciphering corporate profits or what a health plan will cost — isn’t all that easy.

So what kinds of questions do I ask my students…?

I … ask them to discern and analyze changing trends. Each January, the National Center for Health Statistics releases its hefty “Births: Final Data.” Its rates and ratios range from the ages of parents to methods of delivery. I ask students to scan these columns, looking for patterns. They found, for example, that women in Nebraska are averaging 2.2 children, while Vermont’s ratio is 1.6. Any theories?

Other tables focus on changes over time. Fertility rates for white and black women in 1989 stood at 60.5 and 84.8 per thousand, a discernible difference. By 2014, they were 59.5 and 64.5, a much smaller gap. There’s a story here about how black women are reconfiguring their lives.

Finally, we talk about how math can help us think about reorganizing the world around us in ways that make more sense. For example, there’s probably nothing more cumbersome than how we measure time: How quickly can you compute 17 percent of a week, calibrated in hours (or minutes, or seconds)? So our class undertook to decimalize time.

Imagine if we had a 10-day week, each day consisting of 10 hours each. The class debated whether to adopt a three-day weekend, or to locate an “off-day” in midweek. Since a decimal week would have 100 hours, 17 percent is a flat 17 hours — no calculator required. You have to think both numerically and creatively if you want to, say, chuck out our current health care system and model the finances of a single-payer plan.

Mathematicians often allude to “the law of the excluded middle” (a proposition must be true or false). The same phrase could be applied to a phenomenon in our own backyard. We teach arithmetic quite well in early grades, so that most people can do addition through division. We then send students straight to geometry and algebra, on a sequence ending with calculus. Some thrive throughout this progression, but too many are left behind.

The assumption that all this math will make us more numerically adept is flawed. Deborah Hughes-Hallett, a mathematician at the University of Arizona, found that “advanced training in mathematics does not necessarily ensure high levels of quantitative literacy.” Perhaps this is because in the real world, we constantly settle for estimates, whereas mathematics — see the SAT — demands that you get the answer precisely right.

Indeed, it often turns out that all those X’s and Y’s can inhibit becoming deft with everyday digits.

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Looking Anew at How Teachers Teach

Today, reformers from both ends of the political spectrum push Common Core Standards into classrooms. They champion charters and more parental choice of schools. They want teachers to be evaluated  on the basis of student test scores. Policymakers, philanthropists, and vendors send tablets to classrooms. Look at these reforms as blood relatives fixed on changing how teachers teach so students can learn more, faster, and better. An old story to be sure.

Why old? Two traditions of teaching have competed with one another for millennia.  Each has had a grab-bag of names over the centuries: conservative vs. liberal, hard vs. soft pedagogy, subject-centered vs. child-centered, traditional vs. progressive, teacher-centered vs. student-centered, mimetic vs. transformational.

Each tradition has its own goals (transmit knowledge to next generation vs. helping children grow into full human beings);  practices (teacher-centered vs. student-centered); and desired outcomes (knowledgeable and skilled adults ready to enter the labor market and society versus an outcome of moral and civic engaged adults who use their knowledge and skills to help themselves and their communities). No evidence, then or now, has confirmed advocates’ claims for either tradition. These are choices anchored in beliefs. While posing these traditions as opposites, I, Philip Jackson,  and others have pointed out that most teachers, including the very best, combine both ways of teaching in their lessons.

Educational battles have been fought time and again over these traditions in how teachers should teach reading (phonics vs. whole language), math (“new” vs. traditional), science  (learning subject matter vs. doing science) and history (heritage vs. doing history). Yet even at the height of these public wars fought in words and competing policies, teachers  taught lessons that combined both traditions.

Since the early 1990s, however, states have embraced standards-based reforms, accountability measures, and mandated testing with No Child Left Behind (2002-2015), Common Core standards and tests (since 2010), and Every Student Succeeds in 2016. How, then, in the past quarter-century of standards and accountability-driven schooling have teachers organized instruction, grouped students, and taught lessons?

For those who listen to teachers, the answer is self-evident. Classroom stories and teacher surveys have reported again and again that more lesson time is spent preparing students for high-stakes tests.  And what is taught has narrowed to what appears on tests.

Such stories and research studies describe classroom instruction, particularly in largely poor and minority schools, as more teacher-centered, focused on meeting prescribed state standards and raising test scores. Teachers have felt pressured to drop student-centered activities such as small group work, discussions, learning centers, and writing portfolios because such activities take away precious classroom time from standards-based curriculum and test preparation.

To confirm or challenge these stories and surveys, I  and others have gone into scores of classrooms across the nation. I can sum up the evidence during these years of strong state and federal backing for standards-based reform and accountability into the following statements:

*Teacher-centered instruction has increased in those districts and schools that performed poorly on state tests.

Where state and federal authorities threatened districts and schools with restructuring or closure for low student performance, shame and fear drove many administrators and teachers to prepare students to pass these high-stakes tests. Teachers spent time in directing students to get ready for the skills and knowledge that would be on the state tests. Yes, a shift in classroom practices occurred with more whole group instruction, more seatwork, and more teacher-directed tasks such as lectures and worksheets in secondary school classrooms

All were aimed at improving student performance on state tests. The record of that improvement, however, is, at best, mixed.

*Even with that shift to more teacher-centered instruction, hybrids of the two teaching traditions still prevailed.

As an historian of teaching practices, I have written about how teachers decade after decade have combined both teacher- and student-centered instruction in both elementary and secondary school classrooms.

Even with the current concentration on standards and testing, blends of teacher-centered and student-centered practices still prevail. In short, teachers have had a degree of autonomy—some more, some less–to arrange their classrooms, group for instruction, and choose among different activities for the lessons they taught even in the midst of being labeled failures and school closure threats.

On the whole, then, since the early 1990s when standards, accountability, and testing came to dominate U.S. classrooms, there is a tad more teacher-centered instruction but mixes of the two traditions remained very much present.

Even so, research-backed efforts to add further fuel to the embers that  have burned over the centuries glow between Progressives and Traditionalists are found in the push for Direct Instruction. Often scripted materials for teachers to follow with their students, researchers have found time and again that such instruction shows gains in student test scores ( here, here and here). Yet from Distar to Open Court, elementary school teachers in particular, have been reluctant to embrace such materials.

The struggle over how teachers should teach continues. Policymakers, researchers, practitioners, parents, and, yes, students need to know that both constancy and change have occurred in teaching over many decades. Knowing that these competing traditions of teaching–whatever label is given to each one–turn up in classrooms in 2016 call up anew the persistent progressive and conservative beliefs that have divided policymakers, practitioners, and parents for decades.

 

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

New Project in Technology Integration in Schools and Classrooms (Part 2)

In Part 1, I laid out my reasons for shifting my focus from disappointments and failures in uses of new technologies to best cases of such use in districts, schools, and classrooms. I also laid out two puzzles that have bugged me for a long time that may find solutions in describing and analyzing exemplars of technology fusion into schools and classrooms. In Part 2, I want to share my current thinking about how I plan to do the project in the next year or so and the obstacles that I see in front of me.

How do I plan to do the study?

The design of the project is a series of case studies drawn from districts and schools. The methodology I will use is interviews with district administrators, school principals, and classroom teachers. Also I will directly observe lessons, sit in on meetings on technology integration, and related professional development. Analysis of district, school, and classroom documents will provide the context of goals, strategies, assessments, and outcomes at different levels of schooling. Finally, describing the history of the district and schools insofar as access and use of new technologies over past quarter-century. All of these data make up each case study.

Where will I do the study?

I have chosen Northern California because it is the epicenter of techno-optimism about new technologies transforming the direction and nature of  both K-12 and university education. Major high-tech firms located there such as Google, Apple, Oracle, Intel, and others have launched major initiatives in both software and hardware that focus on improving the practice of schooling. Some of these firms have designed specific educational software, trained teachers, and offered products directly to schools (see here, here, here, and here). Specifically, I will focus on the Bay area which includes “Silicon Valley”–an area that covers San Jose through San Francisco. Early adopters and unvarnished fans of technology are in ample supply. A pervasive ideology across the region is anchored in taken-for-granted beliefs that new technology improves every aspect of daily life. Cultural norms among established firms, start-ups and wannabe entrepreneurs prize innovation, accept failure as part of life, and turn out beta versions of the “next new thing”daily. That ideology and culture is in the water Northern Californians drink and in the air they breathe. So exemplars of technology infusion in K-12 schools, powered by  hallowed beliefs in the power of new technologies to alter habits and institutions, would surely exist here.

Thus far, one high school district and one charter management organization in Northern California have invited me to do this research this Spring. Where I go after February and March, I am uncertain. So far, so good.

What obstacles do I anticipate?

The first barrier I have to get around is defining exactly what is meant by “technology integration” or “technology infusion.” Not an easy task. Multiple definitions abound (see here and here). Moreover, standards used to inspire action and then judge to what degree “technology integration” occurs in a district, school, or classroom vary widely (see here, here, and here). Rather than pick one among many definitions, I plan to find out how teachers, principals, and district administrators I interview and observe in action define technology integration and determine to what degree it is occurring in their locations.  Moreover, I will have an array of standards for technology infusion from which to choose such as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), National Education Association (NEA), National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and similar organizations.

Another barrier is determining whether the example I describe and analyze in a district, school, or classroom is “good” technology integration. Why an obstacle? Because conceptions of “good” teaching and learning vary among educators and non-educators. Furthermore, because I am not looking at students’ test scores and other common measures of success to determine “goodness,” I cannot say that what I find out about “technology integration” can be attributed to student outcomes, be they high, plateauing, or low.

Then there is the problem of the design and generalizing from what I find. Doing case studies and figuring out to what degree I can generalize about “technology integration” becomes an issue to think through because the sample (districts, schools, and classrooms) is both small and unrepresentative–they are, after all, exemplars of integration. One way around the issue of generalizing is, of course, comparing what I find with other district and school case studies elsewhere in the U.S. The issue is a perennial one when doing case studies.

Add even another obstacle to the list. “Technology integration”–a desired change–is a reform. District policymakers want teachers to alter how and what they teach in order for students to learn more and better than using conventional classroom approaches. In most districts, such a “reform” is often part of a larger package of desired changes that district policymakers seek (e.g., Common Core standards, school-site decision-making, revised budget formulas). Thus, sorting out the effects of “technology integration” on teachers and students becomes very tricky because it is one of many initiatives undertaken in a district or a school. The temptation to attribute any degree of success–however defined–to, say, schools and teachers integrating technology into their daily routines is a common error (see here, here, and here ). I want to avoid making that mistake.

The list of obstacles is incomplete and this post is running too long. If viewers have any suggestions for me as I begin this work—particularly around obstacles that I anticipate–I welcome your advice and counsel.

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Filed under technology use