Tag Archives: reform policies

Kludge: A Metaphor for Technology Use in Schools


  1. (electronics engineering) An improvised device, usually crudely constructed. Typically used to test the validity of a principle before doing a finished design.
  2. (general) Any construction or practice, typically inelegant, designed to solve a problem temporarily or expediently.
  3. (computing) An amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.

Any definition of “kludge” that you pick among the three above–I lean toward the second one but I do like the third as well–fits what has occurred over the past three decades with the introduction of desktop computers into schools followed by laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with scads of accompanying software. Computing devices and accompanying software have been (and are) adds-on to education; all were initially introduced into U.S. manufacturing and commerce as productivity tools and then applied to schooling (e.g., spreadsheets, management information systems). Software slowly changed to adapt to school and classroom use but the impetus and early years applied business hardware and software to schooling. That birth three decades ago of being an add-on tinged with business application has made it a “kludge.”

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to speed along more efficiently the improvement of U.S. schools to strengthen the economy. The push for more business-flavored high-tech in schools has become the “kludge,” that is, “an improvised device, usually crudely constructed” and “typically inelegant” that has become “an amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.”

I say that because the evidence thus far that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, solved any of the problems is distressingly missing. Student academic achievement surely has not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream of high-tech advocates that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) has yet to materialize in the nation’s classrooms. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school do not necessarily step into better-paying jobs. Thus, high-tech infusion in schools designed to solve problems “temporarily” or “expediently” has become a “kludge.”

Nowadays, the rationale for using tablets and hand-held devices in classrooms has shifted to their potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to achievement), the necessity for all students to take tests online, and the mirage of exiting students marching into high-tech jobs. From flipped classrooms to blended learning, to personalized lessons, the hype continues even in the face of sparse evidence. This approach, then, remains a “kludge” that policymakers, entrepreneurs, and vendors continue to push for solving teaching and learning problems.

Fortunately, there are district officials, school principals, and classroom teachers who avoid the “kludge” effect by reframing the problems of teaching and learning as educational not technical (e.g., getting devices and software into the hands of students and teachers) or grounded in economic reasons. The problems are educational (e.g., how will these machines and software be used to help students understand essential concepts and apply necessary skills)—see here, here, and here. They know in their heart-of-hearts that learning is not about the presence of technology, it is about teachers and students interacting with subject-matter and skills and using paper, pencil, tablets, and Google docs to achieve learning goals. Learning is about teachers using these technological aids to get students to say “aha” about what they have learned, to acquire confidence through practice of skills.

But the “kludge” effect–add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools–continues to dominate policy action. Escaping the origin of technologies imported into schools is very hard to avoid. Technologies in schools remain a band-aid promising solutions to ill-framed problems. Too often it functions as another Rube Goldberg invention to solve the wrong problem.




Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

The Puzzle of School Reform Cycles

Anyone over the age of 40 who is familiar with public schools knows that similar reforms come again and again as if policy makers suffered amnesia. Consider, for example, the fundamental (and familiar) question that has launched periods of reform like changing seasons: Should all students study the same content and acquire the same skills?

The policy question was asked initially in the 1890s–a politically conservative era–and answered yes (see here and here). Then two decades later after World War I, policymakers working in a liberal political climate, asked the question and answered no. Students should be able to choose whether they want to go to college, work in white- and blue-collar jobs (see here and here). Then in the late 1950s in the middle of the Cold War–a politically conservative era, the policy question arose again and the answer was yes; all students should study rigorous subject matter in math, sciences, and social studies (see here and here). Between the 1960s and the 1970s, policymakers asked the question again, and answered it yes at one time and no at another (see here and here).

And since the early 1980s ( a Nation at Risk report being a marker of that politically conservative era) the curriculum standards, testing, and accountability movement now including the Common Core standards, all students are expected to learn the same content and skills.

In each instance since the 1890s, then, as times became conservative and liberal, school curricula cycled back and forth between all students studying the same content and skills and students (and their parents) being able to choose what content and skills they want to focus on.

Similar reform cycles on how best to teach (teacher-centered or student-centered) have marked policy debates then and now (see here). Ditto for how best to organize districts and schools–centralized authority in district offices or delegate authority to school sites (see here). Again and again these cycles of reform have occurred. How come?

Before turning to an answer to this question, keep in mind that cycles are part of our lives. There are animal and plant life cycle of birth through death. There are seasonal cycles of weather. And there are non-biological and non-climate cycles as well. Economists have documented business cycles of boom and bust. Political scientists have pointed to electoral cycles of liberalism and conservatism. Historians and health care scientists have focused on cycles in medicine and medical education alternating in the past century between care for the patient and producing research-based physicians. So public schools are surely in step with other institutions insofar as having periodic cycles of reform.

The beginnings of any answer to the question of “how come”? is found outside of public schools. Like all cliches there is a grain of truth at the core of the trite saying that when the U.S. has a cold, public schools sneeze. Historically, economic, political, demographic, and cultural changes in the larger society reverberate across tax-supported public schools because they are at their core political institutions that respond to both conservative and liberal movements. Each of the above reform cycles in curriculum, pedagogical, and organization occurred at moments when conservative or liberal ideology gained more adherents and elected officials congenial to those ideas.

The most obvious example in the lives of current U.S. educators has been the linking of the economy to school reform beginning in the late-1970s and lasting until the present day–although changes are in the air (see below). Two economic recessions (1973-1975 and 1980-1982) when high unemployment (9% and 10% respectively) led to the Republican twelve year hold on the Presidency (Ronald Reagan, 1980-1988, George H.W. Bush, 1988-1992). The issuing of A Nation at Risk laid out an agenda of school reform around high curriculum standards, tougher graduation requirements, testing, and accountability that tightly coupled schools to a stronger economy. For three decades, then, this politically conservative (both Republicans and Democrats) ideology of harnessing public schools to build a strong economy has brought the U.S. education to a Common Core Curriculum and preparing students to be “college and career” ready. This generation of school reformers has answered yes to the question: Should all students study the same content and acquire the same skills?

My answer to the question of cycles of school reform, then looks to the periodic shifts in political ideologies among policymakers and the populace, often prompted by social, economic, and cultural changes.

But there may be a shift in the offing. America may be moving to the left side of the political spectrum after decades on the center-right. Growing parental and educator protests against testing and Common Core standards point to a slowly evolving popular movement against federal intervention into local schools. Moreover, policymakers signaled shifts in the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind (2002) into Every Student Succeeds Act (2015). The law devolves responsibility for low-performing schools back to the states.  Far more acceptance of social-emotional learning, project based teaching, concern for the “whole child” may be further markers of a turn to the liberal bend of the historic political cycle.

If the nation has a cold, public schools sniffle.


Filed under school reform policies

Flawed Assumptions about School Reform Strengthening the U.S. Economy

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
John Maynard Keynes

For years I have seen Keynes’s quote and thought little of it. In the past week, however, this economist’s reflection of nearly a century ago pinched me and got me thinking about school reform in the U.S. for the past three decades. Taken for granted is the rationale that U.S. students don’t measure up to international students; low test scores are signs that U.S. students are unable to enter successfully the new information-driven workplace. Moreover, jobs have disappeared. The new economy requires different and far more complex skills than the industrial-based one since the late-19th century. Students need to learn more, faster, and better. And graduates equipped with those skills–schools growing “human capital” is the jargon –will get high-paying jobs benefiting themselves and the economy will be stronger in the global marketplace benefiting society. That has been the rationale for over thirty years of school reform.

And here is where the influential ideas of “defunct economist[s]” enter the picture. Turn back the clock to A Nation at Risk (1983). The idea of the U.S. losing its global technological, scientific, and economic position was due, the report claimed, to the mediocrity of U.S. schools. Data showed that U.S. schools were failing. Evidence cited in the report pointed to low test scores of U.S. students compared to international students, high numbers of high school dropouts, low curriculum standards, and low salaries for teachers. The call for strengthened curriculum standards and tougher graduation requirements would lead, the report said, to a stronger economy.

Harnessed to the then dominant economic concept of  “human capital,” the public school’s job is to increase students’ knowledge and skills geared to a fast-changing world where information and services drives the economy. Those students equipped with high-tech and thinking skills will be more productive workers thus contributing to economic growth. Few policymakers challenged economists’ confidence in public school investments building a stronger economy.

Since then, beliefs in the growth of new technologies powering economic growth and productivity have led to state and federal laws–influenced strongly by economic thinking of “human capital,” economists–that called for far more intervention into local schools. No Child Left Behind (2002) crowned that intervention with the U.S. Department of Education monitoring state test results for students grades 3-8 and then naming, shaming, and blaming schools and districts that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress. A culture of testing, enhanced by students’ increased access to computers, produced an industry of test prep, narrowed the curriculum, and strengthened traditional teaching. All of this increased policy activity turned the assumption that a stronger schooling would lead to a stronger economy into a fact.

These ideas continue to motivate research by current economists who produce studies (see here and w21770)  that show state investments in schooling produce not only economic gains for individuals but also strong gains in the Gross Domestic Product. Suppose, however, that these policy assumptions that have driven school reform for over three decades are wrong.

Consider the following. The assumption that economists made about the importance of U.S. students acquiring more knowledge, skills, and expertise in computers has severe holes in it, given the depressed salaries of college graduates since 2000 and growing income inequality in the U.S.

As Paul Krugman put it:

Something else began happening after 2000 …. After decades of stability, the share of national income going to employee compensation began dropping fairly fast. One could try to explain this, too, with technology—maybe robots were displacing all workers, not just the less educated. But this story ran into multiple problems. For one thing, if we were experiencing a robot-driven technological revolution, why did productivity growth seem to be slowing, not accelerating? For another, if it was getting easier to replace workers with machines, we should have seen a rise in business investment as corporations raced to take advantage of the new opportunities; we didn’t, and in fact corporations have increasingly been parking their profits in banks or using them to buy back stocks.

Big corporations (including hedge funds) have failed to invest in commerce but they have used their market power politically to change the rules of the games. Krugman again:

Rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence, via campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door. Political influence in turn is used to rewrite the rules of the game—antitrust laws, deregulation, changes in contract law, union-busting—in a way that reinforces income concentration. The result is a sort of spiral, a vicious circle of oligarchy.

Economists Krugman, Robert Reich, and others see the prevailing ideas of new technologies powering economic growth and productivity–the theories that have fueled the “human capital” thrust to school reform for over thirty years–as flawed. The concentration of U.S. economic power into fewer and fewer corporations (e.g., banking, transportation, agriculture, media) generating profits that have been used to increase their political leverage leaves the current agenda of school reform, based on previous ideas of investing in “human capital” stranded on a deserted island. Lost and failed.

If only current school reformers can give serious thought to the questioning of the socioeconomic assumptions that ground current U.S. policies and practices, then, perhaps the reform palette can shift from painting with Common Core standards, extensive state and local testing, and coercive accountability to project-based teaching, socio-emotional learning, arts and the humanities, wraparound community services, and concerns for the whole child.

I end with another John Maynard Keynes quote: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”





Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

A Tale of 2 States: Lessons to Be Learned (Frederick Hess and Sarah DuPre)

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Sarah DuPre is a Research Assistant in Education Policy at American Enterprise Institute

U.S. News and World Report, “Knowledge Bank” ,  Dec. 14, 2015

Whether you agree or disagree with their characterizations of Washington, D.C. and Hawaii as “success” stories–the sole metric used is the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress–is less important than the lessons they extract from these two “success” stories. These lessons are anchored in the power of context shaping reform, a lesson that historians have found again and again in their inquiries into past school reforms.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act wisely returns to the states much of the authority for directing school improvement that the federal government had assumed in the past 15 years. Some states are ready to roll, but plenty are searching for potential role models. Fortunately, at least two such candidates are easy to find.

Earlier this fall, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” provided a snapshot of student achievement across the land. Amidst generally disappointing results, there were a few bright spots. Washington, D.C., and Hawaii, led the nation in aggregate national assessment improvement over the past decade. From dismal depths in 2005, the two have climbed their way to respectability. In a new report for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, entitled, “Laggards to Leaders in K-12,” we take a deeper look at what has transpired in these locales that can help account for their outsized gains.

The District’s bold approach to reform is the more familiar story. In 2007, the city council voted to give control of the schools to the new mayor, Adrian Fenty. Fenty appointed the dynamic Michelle Rhee as chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools. Under Fenty and Rhee, the District negotiated a radical new contract with the Washington Teachers Union that allowed teachers to earn more than $100,000 a year with just nine years of experience – in return for an end to traditional tenure protections. D.C. Public Schools also streamlined the central administration, adopted a pioneering new teacher evaluation system, revamped a broken special education system and shuttered excess schools. This preliminary work set the stage for a phase two, led by Rhee’s one-time deputy and eventual successor Kaya Henderson, which focused on engaging families and recruiting, retaining and developing talented teachers and school leaders.

Even as these dramatic changes were occurring within D.C. Public Schools, the D.C. charter sector was flourishing. Today, it enrolls about 45 percent of District students. Charters thrived with an ecosystem of organizations that helped to attract and support effective schools. Those efforts were coupled by a statutory shift that gave the D.C. Public Charter School Board oversight of all local charter schools, and allowed them to help poor-performing charters either improve or close.

Hawaii’s story is strikingly different. It is not an account of controversial leaders or bold policies but of culture and collaboration. As a small island state with only 180,000 students and a single school district, Hawaii makes it possible for state leaders to have a direct connection to the schools – and direct control over what happens – in ways that are not feasible in larger states. That personal touch was augmented by leadership stability; Hawaii has had just two state superintendents in the past 14 years.

The District’s bold strategies would have limited applicability in Hawaii because the state couldn’t overhaul its teaching force even if it wanted to. As one official observed, “We’re an island. We get 100 Teach For America teachers a year. Pretty much all our other new teachers come out of the University of Hawaii. If we fire them, it’s not like we’ve got replacements.” Hawaii’s strategy focused on granting more power to local schools and encouraging instructional alignment across grade levels (extending up to the university system). The small size leadership features a lot of conversation and shared commitment, frequently spearheaded by the Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education, which connects leaders in K–12, higher education, business, philanthropy and government. That trust and familiarity played a key role in Hawaii making notions like “data-driven decisions” and “local control” much more than empty slogans.

Although the District and Hawaii approached school improvement in vastly different ways, both states have made great strides. That suggests it may be worth paying particular attention to a few key similarities:

Persistence Counts. Both states pursued the same approach to school reform for more than a decade. In the churning, fad-filled world of K–12, this makes these states unique.

There Are Lots of Ways Policy Can Help. Advocates tend to fall in love with particular policy prescriptions, but the experience of these states should make clear that policy can spur and support improvement in many different ways. The District benefited from charter school legislation and bold changes to teacher evaluation and pay. Hawaii made do with none of that, because its small size and close-knit culture gave outsized power to informal mechanisms.

It’s About People, Stupid. Education reform tends to treat educators in fairly impersonal terms. But when one talks to key stakeholders in these states, what’s evident is how much time and effort they’ve spent working to humanize their initiatives – not just for children, but for the educators too. While these states are all committed to data-driven decisions, leaders talk about the importance of recognizing and encouraging professionals.

All School Reform Is Local. Successful school reform is inevitably a product of politics, structure, culture and history. This means that what works in one place may not work in another. The D.C. reforms were possible only due to mayoral control. Hawaii’s culture-first approach may work well for an insular, consensus-oriented island state organized as a single district, but not in another context. The lesson is a counsel not of despair but of hope – lots of strategies can work, but they need to be adopted and executed with an eye to local realities.

For those states struggling to set a direction for schools as they regain the reins under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the District and Hawaii provide a disparate but complementary pair of intriguing, instructive models


Filed under school reform policies

Politics of Math Education (Christopher Phillips)

This op-ed appeared in the New York Times, December 3, 2015.

Christopher J. Phillips teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University and is the author of “The New Math: A Political History.”


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

“I Gave My Students iPads–Then Wished I Could Take Them Back” (Launa Hall)

Massive district buying of tablets and other devices for students across the nation is an unvarnished fact. So too are the claims that access to tablets transform teaching and learning (see here, here, here, and here).

Amid all of this hullabaloo, not many teachers raise their voices to either question the expenditures or see pitfalls that administrators and policymakers either ignore or fail to see in their adoring distribution of tablets and laptops. Occasional stories do emerge from individual teachers and administrators who do, indeed, question the large expenditures of limited resources and what is gained and lost by putting tablets in the hands of individual students. Such pieces get easily drowned out by the roar of approval from parents, school board members, administrators and technology funders and organizations that have dominated print, visual, and social media.

Launa Hall is an elementary school teacher in Arlington (VA) public schools and is collecting her essays for a book. This op-ed appeared in the Washington Post, December 2, 2015.

I placed an iPad into the outstretched hands of each of my third-grade students, and a reverent, tech-induced hush descended on our classroom. We were circled together on our gathering rug, just finished with a conversation about “digital citizenship” and “online safety” and “our school district bought us these iPads to help us learn, so we are using them for learning purposes.” They’d nodded vigorously, thrilled by the thought of their very own iPads to take home every night and bring to school every day. Some of them had never touched a tablet before, and I watched them cradle the sleek devices in their arms. They flashed their gap-toothed grins — not at each other but at their shining screens.

That was the first of many moments when I wished I could send the iPads back.

Some adult ears might welcome a room of hushed 8-year-olds, but teachers of young children know that the chatter in a typical elementary classroom is what makes it a good place to learn. Yes, it’s sometimes too loud. These young humans are not great conversationalists. They are often hurting someone’s feelings or getting hurt, misunderstanding or overreacting or completely missing the point. They need time to learn communication skills — how to hold your own and how to get along with others. They need to talk and listen and talk some more at school, both with peers and with adults who can model conversation skills.

The iPads subtly undermined that important work. My lively little kids stopped talking and adopted the bent-neck, plugged-in posture of tap, tap, swipe.

 My colleagues and I had tried to anticipate all sorts of issues before the new tablet initiative rolled into our third-grade classrooms last year. What happens if the children lose them? Break them? Forget their passwords? How will we clean the screens? Charge them all at once? Which lessons lend themselves well to iPads, and which ones don’t? We had meetings, made plans and did our best to embrace the new — both because we had a sense of the potential and because asking questions about the efficacy of one-to-one classrooms (with a computing device for each child), or wondering aloud whether more tech for little kids was supported by research, was not only unwelcome, it was illogical. The money was spent (more than $100,000 for each grade), and the iPads were happening.

Our planning helped, but there was so much we didn’t anticipate: alarms going off randomly throughout the day, bandwidth issues that slowed our lessons to a crawl, username issues followed by password issues followed by hundreds of selfies. All these things sucked instructional time. This at a school serving many students new to English or otherwise behind in their communication skills. They couldn’t afford to lose a single minute of learning. So I wrote lessons two ways: one in case enough iPads were working and one if too many weren’t. I tried to harness the benefits and overcome the avalanche of distracting minutiae the devices brought.

Veteran teachers of tablet-friendly classrooms will tell you that these were simply rollout problems. They may mention how tablets can help teachers tailor lessons to each child, or how they can provide an instant snapshot into whether a child understood a concept. They talk about apps that connect classmates to one another and to students across the globe, that foster creativity and a sense of newness that makes over a stale classroom.

Those early-adopter teachers are right: Tablets are portals to a million possibilities. Even with my rookie stumbles, my students did wonderful things. They made faux commercials that aired on our school’s morning news; they recorded themselves explaining math problems; they produced movies about explorers, complete with soundtracks. I recorded mini-lessons for my students to watch at home, so we could “flip our classroom” and discuss the information in small groups the next day. And I knew we were just getting started.

But did the benefits offset what was lost?

Sherry Turkle, the author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” writes about how we are sacrificing connections, one quick check of our screens at a time. Her research finds that college students, with their ubiquitous phones, “are having a hard time with the give-and-take of face-to-face conversation.” Eight-year-olds with iPads have the same struggles, minus any filters or perspective people might gain as they age. At the same time I was trying to encourage my students to appreciate the subtleties of human interaction, the iPads I gave them threatened to overwhelm their understanding.

Turkle writes that just the presence of a phone, even one turned off or flipped over on the table between speakers, gets in the way of conversations — we only bother with discussions we don’t mind interrupting. Switch the setting to a classroom, and we may only engage in learning that we don’t mind interrupting. It can be hard for kids to sustain their attention in a small group discussion when their own personal portal beckons from the back of the room.
One of my saddest days in my digital classroom was when the children rushed in from the lunchroom one rainy recess and dashed for their iPads. Wait, I implored, we play with Legos on rainy days! I dumped out the huge container of Legos that were pure magic just a couple of weeks ago, that prompted so much collaboration and conversation, but the delight was gone. My students looked at me with disdain. Some crossed their arms and pouted. We aren’t kids who just play anymore, their crossed arms implied. We’re iPad users. We’re tech-savvy. Later, when I allowed their devices to hum to glowing life, conversation shut down altogether.
I knew that the lure of the screen would continue at home each night. Many of the students had screens at home already, but this one was different: It was their very own, it was portable, and it carried the stamp of approval of teacher, school and district. Do the adults in their homes still feel the authority to tell them to put that screen away and go outside and play?

Districts all over the country are buying into one-to-one tablet initiatives, and for younger and younger students. These screens have been rebranded “digital learning devices,” carrying 0the promise of education success for millions of our communities’ education dollars. Yet there is some evidence that tablets can be detrimental to learning.

A study released in September by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development looked at school tech initiatives in more than three dozen countries (although not the United States) and found that while students who use computers moderately show modest gains over those who rarely do, heavy technology use has a negative impact. “Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics,” the report concluded.

We have also known for years — at least since the 2012 report “Facing the Screen Dilemma” from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood — that screen time for younger children in particular comes with a huge opportunity cost, depriving them of hands-on learning, time outdoors and “face-to-face interactions with caring adults.” Digital-savvy parents in Silicon Valley made news way back in 2011 for enrolling their children in steadfastly screen-free schools. They knew that their kids would be swiping and clicking soon enough, but there are only a limited number of childhood years when it’s not only really fun to build with Legos, it’s also really good for you.

 Some proponents of one-to-one initiatives portray “analog classrooms” as gray spaces where bored teachers hand worksheets to uninspired kids — and tablets are the energizing cure. The One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit that helps school districts go digital, says on its Web site: “Research is clear that to ensure student success, education must move from a teacher-centric to a learner-centric approach. One-to-one programs create the opportunity for authentic personalization of teaching and learning for each student.”

But jumping from the “sage on the stage” teaching model to a screen for each kid skips over critical territory in between, where children learn from, and build their social skills with, one another. Classrooms run by worksheets won’t be magically transformed with tablets, and classrooms where teachers skillfully engage their students don’t need screens — and the extra baggage they introduce — to get great results.

Teachers striving to preserve precious space for conversation are not lazy, or afraid of change, or obstructionist. They believe that if our dining tables should be protected for in-depth discussion and focused attention, so, too, should our classrooms. They know that their young students live in the digital age, but the way children learn has not evolved so very fast. Kids still have to use their five senses, and, most of all, they have to talk to each other. My students already had so many challenges and so much ground to cover. We put tablets in their hands and made their loads that much heavier.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Failing Students and the “At Risk” Label (Part 2)


“I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy. I was deprived. (Oh not deprived but rather underprivileged.) Then they told me that underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary.”

Jules Feiffer  (1965)


In the previous post, I laid out the history of phrases used to describe students who did poorly in the age-graded school since the late-19th century. “At risk” is the current phrase. Like previous ones, the words have fixed upon mostly poor and minority students. The phrase has replaced “culturally deprived,” “socially disadvantaged, ” “educationally disadvantaged,” ones that policymakers, educators, and media outlets have constructed and used over the past half-century.  In this post, I describe and assess the widespread use of “at risk” for urban and rural poor and minority students.

Origins of Label

Some researchers see the phrase coming from epidemiology where individuals with heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, and other ills display “at risk” factors. These individuals are “at risk” in displaying certain factors such as smoking, carrying around too much weight, exercising little, and genetic inheritance. It is a medical framing of the problem. Education is like medicine and student failure or poor academic performance is the disease. Children have “risk factors.” Keep in mind that the focus, then, is on the individual child. After all, seldom do I read or hear of a policymaker, researcher, or journalist calling a school, district, or state “at risk.” The label is intended to refer to individual and groups of children and youth that share similar characteristics, not the resources allocated or structures within which children learn or the community factors that impinge on both the teaching and learning. As past phrases of “culturally deprived” and “disadvantaged” has become synonymous with children of immigrant, migrant, and indigenous families who are mostly poor and minority so has “at risk.” In short, the medical reframing of the problem of academic failure as children being “at risk” is the latest incarnation of earlier labels all of which target the individual student (see here, here, and here).

Effects of Labels

In schools as in life, labels have consequences. I see two: stigma and focus on the individual rather than the structures in and out of the school.

Stigma comes from labeling. Labeling individuals occurs because they deviate from the norm, i.e., students who fail in age-graded schools (see here). There are advantages to assigning labels to individual children (see here). And there are serious negatives (e.g., affects teacher expectations of what individual students can and cannot do). This is where stigma enters the picture (see here). The stigma has spilled over many immigrant children then (and now) but also includes those with disabilities–a label is required by law to receive services–and, of course, those called “at risk” (see here).

The stigma of “at risk” becoming focused on mostly minority and poor students has proved to be a problem for high-achieving students who take multiple Advanced Placement courses and routinely earn “As” in their high school courses. When clusters of such students from upper-middle class families commit suicide, experts point out a series of “at risk” factors different then those attached to minority and poor students: parental pressure to achieve, academic stress, high and unremitting anxiety, One student put it this way:

And what about … the girl taking a summer immersion program to skip ahead and get into AP French her sophomore year? And that internship your best friend has with a Stanford professor?) You can’t help but slip into the system of competitive insanity … We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick … Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?

“At risk,” it appears, can logically apply to all students. But policymakers, educators, and journalists have glued it tightly to mostly poor minority children and youth.

Focus on the individual is another effect of the “at risk” label. As in the instances of “culturally deprived” and “disadvantaged,” the “at risk” label is for individuals and the families from which they come. Such labels clearly reflect the dominant societal value of individualism where each person is responsible for his or her good or bad actions. So for over a century, labels have come and gone but the clear thread running through all of these phrases is that the individual is both the cause and solution to poor performance. Not organizations.

The age-graded school reinforces the historic labels for poor and minority students. With its mechanisms for sorting, segregating, and ultimately driving out certain students who fail to keep pace with peers, the graded public school contributes unintentionally to the problem of children identified as “at risk.”  Working in partnership with social and economic forces in a larger culture marked by racial discrimination, unemployment, inadequate housing, and a social safety net that is barely adequate, the graded school is ill-equipped to erase these social effects; it is an organization that, through no ill intent on the part of the people who work within it, is designed to fail children who have been labeled at risk.

Historically, then, expert-derived labels for failing students that target individuals and families as the source for that failure tightly coupled to the dominant age-graded school has accounted for reproducing failures of the very students that these labels were created to help.




Filed under school reform policies


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