Tag Archives: reform policies

Poverty, Obesity, and Schools (Part 2)

The stubborn figures on child and adult obesity in the U.S. over the past few decades added to the individual and social costs associated with higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer make being fat a major health problem. I noted in Part 1 that White House programs, federal legislation on school lunches, and city-wide health initiatives in scattered locations have recognized the sheer complexity of trying to reduce obesity in young children and adults. No one policy, no single institution solves this multi-faceted problem. Moreover, smart policymakers see that while schools (and larger educational programs) are essential  in any strategy to reduce numbers of overweight Americans, broader policy measures and other institutions play an equally large role.

The entangled roots of obesity go deeper than what an individual, family, or the neighborhood school does. It is an issue that involves a mix of political, economic, and social actions. For those who see obesity as a complex issue, their reform agenda includes proposed policies that, for example,  increase taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, disclose number of calories and color-coding of labels to help children and adults make choices, new zoning regulations that would restrict fast food outlets near schools while providing incentives for healthy food stores in under-served neighborhoods. Such proposed policies recognize the inter-connectedness of obesity to daily eating habits, socioeconomic patterns in food choices, corporate profit-making, and governmental initiatives. The example I gave of Louisville’s city-wide initiative to improve health and thereby reduce illnesses and death attributed to obesity made clear that political, social, economic, and educational institutions had to be involved in a cooperative venture. Other cities from Boston (MA) to Columbus (OH) bring together public and private agencies (including schools) to reduce obesity in adults and toddlers even before they arrive at school.

The point here is that a health problem such as obesity requires, at the least, collaboration among a city’s institutions to even begin addressing it. It takes a city to help its citizens, young and old, lose weight. Putting the task on one institution–say the health department or the schools or soda pop companies is myopic and self-defeating. Yet that short-sighted focus on a few institutions is precisely what has occurred when it come to reducing poverty in the nation.

In the mid-1960s, the federally launched War on Poverty’s major weapon was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (re-authorized as No Child Left Behind in 2002). Federal funds went to districts and schools with high percentages of low-income students to raise their academic achievement, graduate high school, get jobs, and, in time, be better off economically than their parents. The hope was vested in schools as the primary agency to lift the poor into the middle class. Not new of course, this “educationalizing” of social and political problems–think desegregation since the 1950s, national defense during the Cold War between the 1950s-1980s. and since the 1980s  schooling tied to a stronger economy. As for poverty as a problem, reformers see public schools playing a central role in reducing its effects.

Consider the “no excuses” school reformers of the past decade (see here) who believed in their heart of hearts that teachers and principals in public schools can not (and should not) use a family’s low-income as an excuse for poor student performance. Schools are, these reformers—hedge fund managers to superintendents to political leaders– have said repeatedly, can and must rescue low-income students from their poverty-stricken zip code. While these bumper-sticker sayings sound like an either/or choice, even at the height of the media storm there were some  smart “no excuses” reformers who saw that re-segregated neighborhoods, multi-problem families, the disappearance of jobs, and crime had negative effects on young children entering school and staying there through high school graduation. These savvy reformers called for more community institutions to be involved in socializing and educating those who were caught in the cycle of poverty. New ideas that embraced an ecumenical view of countering and overcoming poverty have been in play for decades but seldom rose to first choice among the current generation of “no excuses” reformers. But these community-wide alternatives for reducing ill effects of poverty on individuals, families, and neighborhoods are larger than fingering schools.

For example, in the 1990s, private and public monies created the Harlem Children’s Zone (see here and here) a multi-service array of school, medical, and social services located in that part of New York City. While President Barack Obama launched a federal grant program to replicate HCZ in other cities in 2010, it has not happened. Each city is different and getting public agencies, private foundations, neighborhood activists, parents, and school officials to come together is hard to do and sustain.

Similarly, community schools where public and private agencies come together in low-income and working class neighborhoods to provide an array of services to families–sometimes called wraparound schools–has been around since the 1930s, revived in the 1960s, and continues in the 21st century (see here, here, and here). These community schools, like the HCZ, pursue an all-inclusive strategy of reducing poverty akin to the obesity-reduction approach. Such programs recognize the problem as complex, one demanding a comprehensive approach rather than holding one community institution–public schools–accountable for solving the socioeconomic problem.



Filed under school reform policies

Schools and Obesity (Part 1)

Recent articles trumpet that rates of children and adult obesity are not getting better (see here and here). In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched an anti-obesity campaign “Let’s Move” to reduce rates of childhood obesity. While the campaign has gained traction results have been disappointing. As she said recently: “Right now, one in three kids in the U.S. is overweight or obese – for African American and Hispanic kids, the rate is nearly 40 percent. And obesity is now one of the leading causes for preventable death and disease in the United States.”

The “Let’s Move” campaign has cultivated close ties with large corporations (e.g., Wal-Mart) to persuade large companies to sell healthy product, directed media attention to overweight children and perils to their health as adults, and gained bipartisan support for a federal law in 2010 that mandated free-and-reduced price meals for 21 million children containing more healthy ingredients like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy products . The First Lady has gone to schools highlighting healthier lunches, bans on sugary sodas and fast food, and increased physical activity during the school day. She exercised with children and ate the nutritious meals served at lunch-time. While schools have been an important of the campaign, they have not been a wholly exclusive part of “Let’s Move” for the past five years. Note the words: “important” and “wholly exclusive” in referring to the role of schools in this and similar anti-obesity campaigns. As has national socioeconomic problems in the early 20th century such as Americanizing waves of eastern and southern European immigrants, seeking racial equity in desegregation since 1954 and, since the early 1980s, a stronger economy through tougher standards, accountability, and testing, the U.S.’s obesity problem has not become “educationalized.” Schools are part of any solution to obesity, campaigners assert, but the epidemic of obesity reaches into homes, stores, and the structures of a market-driven capitalism.

Why is that?

As rates of obesity in both children and adults trend upward–the U.S. has the highest per-capita rate among developed nations–and its effects on health have shown up in higher rates of diabetes,cancer, and heart diseases, obesity, especially among minority and low-income families, is seen as a multi-layered, complex phenomenon rooted in family habits, social class, cultural patterns, and corporate profits gained from marketing and selling fast foods and sodas. (Some of these long-term effects and complexity of obesity is captured in the sci-fi film WALL-E about morbidly fat earthlings circling the planet on ships waiting for it to be habitable). Focusing on public schools, then, would be short-sighted, incomplete, and diversionary from disentangling the many threads that have created a society that over-eats and under-exercises.

The entangled roots of obesity reach far beyond being an individual or even a school problem. It is a community and national issue that involves a mix of political, economic, and social actions (e.g., large food purveyors lobbying Kentucky’s legislators to permit use of food stamps for buying fast food restaurants like Taco Bell) is captured in recent proposed policies to reduce numbers of overweight children and adults. For example,  increased taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, more calorie disclosures and color-coding of labels, new zoning regulations that would restrict fast food outlets near schools while providing incentives for healthy food stores in underserved neighborhoods.

That obesity is a multi-faceted problems anchored in cross-cutting factors that go well beyond schools is picked up by some cities that have launched comprehensive programs to improve the inhabitants’ health. Consider Louisville (KY). With foundation help and public funds, the metropolitan area has taken on the task of improving the health of its residents. The Project lists socioeconomic factors that affect a community’s health (e.g., social support for family, jobs, education, income, community safety); health behaviors (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, obesity); clinical care (e.g., access to physicians, dentists, and health screenings); and the physical environment (e.g., parks, roads, air and water quality). Like other cities engaged in such an effort, policymakers see the complexity of obesity as a health problem rooted in many factors that have to be addressed, one of which is schools.

That wisdom about the problem of obesity has yet to emerge among those reformers who see schools as the prime mover in decreasing poverty and economic inequalities. I take up how obesity and poverty as major problems facing the nation have contrary strategies in Part 2.


Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Content vs. Skills in High Schools: 21st Century Arguments Echo 19th Century Conflicts

Did you ever remember a melody and could even hum it but cannot, for the life of you, recall the words? That happens a lot to me. I thought of that as I read more and more about “soft skills” as an essential for 21st century students eventually entering the workplace. Working in teams, being able to motivate others, persevere at tasks, navigate organizational tricky waters, and lead–these are the skills that high schools today should teach youth.

Hey, what about content? What about intellectual acuity to develop and display a substantive argument anchored in facts? As David Brooks says in a recent op-ed: “Ultimately, what matters is not only how well you can collaborate in groups, but the quality of mind you bring to the group.”  “The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom,” he writes, are “based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy.”  Soft skills, he concludes, have to be taught “alongside factual literacy. The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed. The rules have have to be learned before they can be played with and broken.”

Brooks’ argument for learning has been made by earlier generations of reformers who wore the late-19th century clothes of Progressives and Traditionalists. Here is where my humming tries to recapture the lyrics of the song. The language reformers then used may sound off-key  to 21st century ears, but the conflict over what subjects and skills should be taught in schools rang loud and clear over a century ago.

Listen to this math teacher lecture his colleagues:

The laboratory method has … the flexibility which permits’ students to be handled as individuals or in groups. The instructor utilizes all the experience and insight of the whole body of students. He arranges it so that the students consider that they are studying the subject itself, and not the words, either printed or oral, of any authority on the subject. And in this study they should be in the closest cooperation with one another and with their instructor, who is in a desirable sense one of them and their leader.

 Instructors may fear that the brighter students will suffer if encouraged to spend time in cooperation with those not so bright. But experience shows that just as every teacher learns by teaching, so even the brightest students will find themselves much the gainers for this co-operation with their colleagues.

 …[T]he student might be brought into vital relation with the fundamental elements of trigonometry, analytic geometry and the calculus, on condition that the whole treatment in its origin is and in its development remains closely associated with thoroughly concrete phenomena. With the momentum of such practical education in the methods of research in the secondary school, the college students would be ready to proceed rapidly and deeply in any direction in which their personal interests might lead them (1631286).

E. H. Moore, exiting President of the American Mathematical Society, trained a generation of mathematics professors at the University of Chicago. He was an advocate of tying together both content and pedagogy. He urged that school math lessons cover two instructional periods (rather than one) so teachers and students would have sufficient time to both understand the beauty of math and apply it to their daily lives. He wrote this article in 1903.

The either/or conundrum pops up again and again over the decades. Across science, math, English, and social studies, classroom teachers weigh in on whether they are content-driven or skills-driven in teaching. The dichotomy afflicts all academic subjects and it is, of course, a false one but one that generates far more emotional heat than light, nonetheless. For example, many content-driven teachers also know about “pedagogical content knowledge” which means that in teaching history, math, science or any academic subject, the teacher knows the usual misconceptions and skill gaps that most students have, say, in teaching evolution or quadratic equation or the American Civil War. Such teachers blend knowledge of their content with those cognitive skills students need. And many teachers are just as familiar with the “soft skills” that current reformers tout. Those smart teachers blend “soft” and “hard” skills embedding both in the content that they teach using their knowledge of the subject to sequence how and what they teach. Not easy to do but many teachers have done so.

No either/or choice. There is a continuum with skills (hard, soft,etc) at one end and content knowledge at the other end. Most teachers–K-12 or higher education–would place themselves somewhere along that continuum. I, for one, put myself at the center tilting a tad toward the skills side. Wherever teachers  place themselves on that continuum, the stark and simplistic question of content vs. skills will arise again and again–as it does in Brooks’ op-ed–even though it ignores past conflicts over the same issues and obvious ways that many teachers manage both content and skills. The false dichotomy is a simple-minded way of avoiding the complex decisions that knowledgeable and skilled history, science, English, and math teachers go through in planning and teaching the day’s lesson.


Filed under school reform policies

Evidence-Informed Policy: Looking at Post-Katrina New Orleans Schools

In the past few weeks as the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approached, a veritable gale of first-hand observations and research reports swept through the media about improvements in New Orleans public schools. In reading those reports, however, researchers and pundits have warred with one another over the degree to which the Orleans Parish schools have improved over the past decade.

A revolution had occurred, say some researchers and politicians (see here and here) Others say no. Changes have surely occurred with nearly all schools being charters but these top-down changes have created a fragmented system, minimized citizen participation and spent more private and public money than Orleans Parish had ever seen (see here  and here). Moreover, student test scores have dramatically improved, say researchers and policymakers (see here and here) No, others reply, results are mixed and some students had even been overlooked (see here).

In the cacophony of research reports and political statements, sorting out the sizzle—charter-dominant district, more money, new teaching force–from the steak—are students learning more and doing better than before Katrina–is very hard to do. Listening to elected politicians talk non-stop about an improved better city and schooling while citing research studies require large doses of salt before swallowing. Why? because squabbling researchers point fingers at one another’s designs, methodologies, and interpretations of findings in their reports (see here). Getting consensus in research findings is like a unicorn appearing. In a democratic society where facts and figures are highly valued in making public policy, educational researchers quarreling with one another confuse policymakers in one sense but also give them the latitude to pick-and-choose among research reports that best fit their beliefs and stated policy positions.

None of this back-and-forth is trivial. The stakes are high for students and parents in Orleans Parish as they are for champions and critics of school reform. Disputes over the successes and failures of post-Katrina public schools, for example, have become proxy battles over the worth of charter schools across the nation. Is New Orleans a proof-of-existence that urban districts can fire all of its teachers, abolish attendance zones, have nearly all of its schools become charters, and succeed? If so, then can what occurred in New Orleans be scaled up to other big cities where poor and minority students reside (see here)? Answers to these policy decisions lurk in the background of the hype over the resurrection of the Big Easy’s schools.

Yet for those policymakers and practitioners that call (or yearn) for evidence-based policy, the swirl of research reports on the 10th anniversary of Katrina is hardly a god-send. Big questions go unanswered.  And this is where the dilemma over evidence-based policies arises. Federal, state and district policymakers prize using evidence to buttress their policy recommendations. Rational decision-making calls for attending to research and evaluation studies. Yet those very same policymakers value highly getting their choices politically approved by media, foundation officials, and, ultimately voters. Popular policies open the doorway to re-election. Thus these conflicting values of rationality and popularity have to be managed.  All of this is much harder to do when research studies reach contrasting conclusions.

Contested educational research, of course, is stale news; conflicting accounts of the same phenomenon have been common for the past century. From the value of intelligence tests in the early 20th century to the New Math in mid-century to small high schools a decade ago and the worth of laptops as an instructional device–need I continue?–have yielded research findings that some researchers and policymakers have embraced but many have scorned. University-based social, behavioral, and natural  scientists historically have looked down upon the applied research that educational academics have produced. Teachers have criticized educational researchers for decades in asking questions that they find irrelevant to their classrooms. Add further the belabored arguments researchers have had over the design of studies, the methodologies used, and interpretation of findings. Such criticism of educational research has been so common in the U.S. that many critics have come to agree with historian of education Carl Kaestle when he asked in 1993: ” Why is the reputation of educational research so awful?”

Kaestle, along with earlier and subsequent critics of educational research, pointed to how studies have been unhelpful to policymakers, shifting priorities among multiple goals driving tax-supported public education, the politicalization of research, the lack of federally subsidized research and development producing usable knowledge for policymakers and practitioners, and the fragmented ways of informing the public and practitioners of what exactly has been found through research. That “awful” reputation of educational research has not been helped by the back-and-forth of post-Katrina studies.

Evidence-based policy based upon research studies remains a dream. At best, evidence-informed* policy, allowing for the conflicting values of rationality and political popularity that come into play, remains a tough dilemma facing decision-makers.

Part 2 looks at the historical influence that research has had on classroom practice.


*While others may have used the phrase before and since, I ran across it in Andy Hargreaves and Corrie Stone-Johnson, “Evidence Informed Change and the Practice of Teaching” (pp. 89-110) in John Bransford, et. al. The Role of Research in Educational Improvement (Harvard Education Press, 2009)



Filed under school reform policies

A Puzzle in the Teaching of History

In my forthcoming book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change, I describe teaching history and social studies in the 1960s and in 2014 in two urban high schools, one in Cleveland (Glenville High School) and one in Washington, D.C. (Cardozo High School) In the 2014 section of the book, I observed and interviewed three teachers at Cardozo who, in varying degrees of success, engaged their students in the historical approach to teaching the subject, that is, teaching students to read, think, and write like historians (see here and here). In another academically failing D.C. high school not far from Cardozo, I watched even another teacher who taught in that same tradition. Here is Kyle Greer’s  60-minute class that I observed in December 2013.


At 8:50, 10 of the 25 enrolled students were present. By 9:40, all but two of the students were at their desks. Because many students travel cross-town to reach the high school, late-comers are the norm. The course is District of Columbia history On the whiteboard are listed the agenda for the hour-long lesson, the standard that the lessons will be addressing, and the “warm-up” exercise–all required by the district administration as criteria for an “effective” lesson. Kyle Greer (a pseudonym) is a five year veteran at this high school and serves as head of the three member department (there are just over 450 low-income, minority students in the high school).

For the lesson, Greer has the students reading and annotating a journal article from Washington History entitled “D.C.’s Dual School System, 1862-1954.” He passes around a bucket of marker pens for students to use as they closely read and take notes. He tells the students: “we will model underlining main ideas,” and taking notes. He begins reading a paragraph in the middle of the article and asks after pausing: “Can we figure out the time period?”  A few respond with words and phrases that suggest World War I and what happened at the prestigious Dunbar High School in the “colored” division of the de jure segregated school system.

Then students take turns reading paragraphs with Greer interjecting questions about what each sentence means, what should be underlined (and why), and notes that students could write in margins of the handout. One student asks Greer what does it mean that the “colored”schools had double- and triple-sessions? He tosses back the question to the rest of the students and one comes up with the answer of overcrowded “colored” schools. In some of Greer’s responses to student answers, he occasionally pushes back and asks student to support what they say with evidence from the journal article.

Toward the end of the lesson, he asks students to contrast the first-hand accounts they have read about “colored” students and teachers in the DC schools during World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War II with this secondary source–the journal article–written by a historian in 2005. Three students offer what they recall of the primary sources they read, particularly in 1939 when the school board banned black singer Marian Anderson from  singing at all-white Central High School (which would have brought together an interracial audience); the concert was rescheduled for the Lincoln Memorial and students recalled what Anderson herself had said.

In scanning the class, I note that nearly all of the students, even latecomers, are reading the article–about one-quarter volunteer to read paragraphs–and using markers to underline and make notes in the margin of the handout. During the period, a wall-mounted speaker interrupts the lesson four times with announcements from the main office.

As the hour draws to a close, Greer asks the students: “what is the take-away from this article on nearly a century of segregated schools in DC?”  A handful of students respond, two reading from notes they had jotted down on their handout. Greer listens and then asks the rest of the class for their thoughts on these “take-aways.” Three respond, the last interrupted by the bell ending the class.


Why did these four teachers in two academically failing high schools in the same district teach in the historical tradition? Without any evidence that the four received direct training in teaching students to read, think, and write like historians, attributing their common use of primary sources and other approaches to district professional development is a non-starter.  And since they did not know one another except in passing, they had not collaborated removing that possible explanation. It could be a rare coincidence but is highly unlikely. One possible explanation, however, is that the district’s focus on standards and the linkage between teacher evaluation and sticking to standards influenced what these four DC teachers did.

The DC schools’ IMPACT evaluation scheme laden with rewards and penalties and visits by social studies “master educators” with follow-up conferences may have tilted history teachers toward the Social Studies Standards for their D.C. high schools. These standards include many references to historical evidence, use of primary and secondary sources, critical thinking skills, etc. (See “District of Columbia Social Studies, Pre-K through Grade 12,” pp. 29 for grades 3-5, p. 48 for grades 6-8, p. 88 for grades 9-12, at: http://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/DCPS-horiz-soc_studies.pdf )

When I interviewed the teachers in the two different high schools, each one mentioned the fear they felt about the multiple observations by “master educators” (all four teachers, by the way, received favorable evaluations, one of them sufficient to earn a salary hike). Three of the four expressed anger at the unfairness of the evaluation process because their students generally scored poorly on the DC test and student scores for the entire school were counted as a factor in being judged “effective.”

This is all guesswork, of course. Without further data on more DC history teachers in other high schools, what I observed in the classrooms of these four teachers in two different high schools could simply be an anomaly. Until such data become available, however, these similar lessons across two low-performing high schools remains puzzling.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Teaching History in an Academically Failing High School

In my forthcoming book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change, I describe how I taught history and social studies in the 1960s in two urban high schools, one in Cleveland (Glenville High School) and one in Washington, D.C. (Cardozo High School).  I returned to those very same high schools in 2014 where I observed and interviewed four history teachers at Glenville and three at Cardozo. Some of those 2014 teachers,  in varying degrees of success, engaged their students in the historical approach to teaching the subject, that is, teaching students to read, think, and write like historians (see here ). Here is oneof the three teachers at Cardozo who I observed.


On the front wall above the “smart board” Mike Topper (a pseudonym) had posted classroom rules on the first day of the semester for the 9th graders in his world history course:

  1. Be Respectful!
  2. Work Hard!
  3. Keep Head Up and Off Desk!
  4. Raise Hand to Speak One at a Time, and Stay on Topic!

Just to the side and below the “smart board” or interactive whiteboard (IWB) the teacher has printed out in large black letters a list of rewards and penalties for behavior. The title is “Four Token System.” The following items appear:

*Keep all of your tokens to receive daily rewards, weekly positive phone calls, and monthly prizes.

*Loosing [sic] tokens results in negative consequences as follows:

1st token lost—warning.

2nd token lost—no rewards. Written up in Discipline and Behavior Log.

3rd token lost—phone call home or home visit. Student completes Behavior Reflection.

4th token lost—Referral to administration.

Before the 90 minute period began, I asked Topper about the token system and he told me that it is really a “warning” system for misbehavior. He does not use tokens anymore.

The IWB is in daily use. For example, on the “smart board” is the “warm up,” an activity that the district expects its academic subject teachers to begin a lesson, often uses a question, puzzle, or proverb. As students enter the room, they know that they are supposed to take out paper and begin writing in their notebooks.

After the opening “warm up” activity, Topper told me that he usually moves into a 10-minute lecture. During the lecture, Topper said he often flashes slides from his laptop onto the IWB to illustrate points in lecture; he also would display text and worksheet assignments on the “smart board.” [i]

Today, however, there is no “warm up” exercise. The IWB contains announcements and an agenda for the lesson in a unit taken from the textbook called *Reunification of China:

*Test tomorrow

*Read ‘Print Invention’ on p. 249. Do 3-2-1

*Read ‘Young People in China’ section and answer the three questions on the page.

*Read p. 266 and do 3-2-1.”[ii]

To the side of the front “smart board” on a whiteboard are listed the daily lesson objectives, the world history standard under which the lesson falls, and what students will be able to know and do as a result of the lesson.[iii]

In the rear of the room on a sidewall is a large poster showing a pyramid with levels of cognitive skills drawn from Bloom’s Taxonomy.[iv] Next to it is a bulletin board displaying student work that received a score of 100%. On the floor next to the opposite wall sits a large box holding “interactive notebooks” for each of the students. When students enter they take their notebook from the carton; at the end of the period they put it back. Along the rear wall of the classroom sit five new desktop computers with chairs and desks.

The teacher has arranged the classroom furniture into rows of desks facing the front of the room. The teacher’s desk, with an open laptop is in a corner at the front of the room near the “smart board.”

Twelve 9th graders arrive before tardy bell. Topper, a thin young man about 5 feet 7inches is wearing a sport shirt with a multi-colored tie and dark pants He tells students in a crackly voice that he will lock the doors now because a “hall sweep” is occurring. Such “sweeps”—particularly in the week before a holiday—happen when security aides, uniformed and in civilian clothes, round up students in corridors after the tardy bell has rung. These aides take the late students to the cafeteria where an administrator records their name and then issues a pass to class. Being caught in sweeps repeatedly can lead a student to be suspended from school.[v]

After pointing to the IWB about the day’s lesson, Topper says: “Listen up! Still a little sick from yesterday and throat is sore, so don’t let me talk over you.” He continues: “The questions in the textbook you will answering are level 1 questions, not application or evaluation.”[vi]

He then looks at one student and says: “Mr. Washington, help me out and take off your hat.” He addresses all students “Mr.” and “Miss.” Student takes off cap. [vii]

Topper directs student attention to IWB and addresses each item on the lesson agenda including the test tomorrow. He asks if there are any questions. There are none. He reminds students that they will write in their interactive notebooks on clean pages and at the end of the period will turn in answers to the questions and 3-2-1s.

Eight students rise and get textbooks sitting on a shelf at the side of the room. The rest sit and chat. As students turn to textbook pages and begin writing in their interactive notebooks, a few yell out questions about items they will have to work on. One student calls out, “Topper, I need help.” The teacher walks over and listens to the student and then answers questions. Another student walks over to door, slips the wooden “bathroom pass” off the wall hook and exits classroom. A hum from students talking to one another rises in volume. Two of the chatting students have yet to retrieve a textbook. Topper tells them to begin on assignment. They begrudgingly get a text while whispering to each other as they return to their desks and open the books. Another chatting 9th grader balks and says to Topper: “Leave me alone.” He does. The student who took the bathroom pass earlier returns; another student takes the wooden pass from that student.

Thirty minutes after tardy bell all of the students are seemingly working on reading the text and writing the 3-2-1s. In the next 25 minutes, Topper takes a cell phone call by walking out of room into the hallway. When he is out of the room, seven students stop reading or writing and begin talking to one another. When Topper returns in two minutes, he walks around the room checking to see if students are on task, writing in their notebooks, and if there are any questions.

The bell rings for the daily homeroom period that occurs during this period. Homeroom is a 10-minute intermission in the school day for the principal, other administrators and students to pipe in announcements of the day’s activities, upcoming events, and names of students who must report to the office. As the words pour out of a wall-mounted speaker, few students pay attention to the announcements. When the PA system came on, Topper returned to his desk at the front of room and worked on his laptop.

After announcements end, Topper asks students to resume their work. He reminds the group that there will be a test tomorrow and that answering all of the questions will help them on the test. He tells them that their notebook pages will be collected before the bell rings ending the period. It is their Exit Pass, he says. [viii]

About five minutes before the bell, Topper says to the class to return the textbooks and interactive notebooks to the cartons on the floor near the sidewall. After returning to their desks, students get their backpacks and belongings together as they await the bell. When it rings, eight of the twelve hand in pages torn out of their notebooks to Topper who reminds them of the test the next day.

Since completing a semester of student teaching and graduating college in a nearby city, Mike Topper entered Cardozo as a first-year teacher of history. In the World History I syllabus, Topper wrote the following for the course:

The purpose … is to view civilizations from the Fall of Rome to the Age of Revolutions and think historically about how such civilizations impacted the development of the world. We will continually wrestle with questions that cannot be easily answered. In order to do so, we will develop a toolbox of ‘historical thinking skills’ that will be useful for everything inside the classroom and for being a powerful citizen outside of the classroom.[ix]

The three goals and objectives for the course would make any partisan of the historical approach beam with pride.

  1. Formulate (develop) historical questions and defend answers based on inquiry and interpretation.
  2. Communicate findings orally in class and in written essays.
  3. Develop skills in reading strategies, discussion, debate, and persuasive writing.

Topper specifies in the syllabus which historical thinking skills he seeks to develop in his 9th graders such as: being able to explain “historical significance,” find and use evidence, analyze primary sources, and figure out what is the “cause and consequence” of a significant event.

These are ambitious goals for a first year teacher anywhere, much less at Cardozo. He told me that he likes it at Cardozo “because expectations for academic work are higher than [the city where he did his student-teaching].” “Here,” he said, “administrators come into your classroom and observe what you are doing. Also ‘master educators’ [former teachers hired by the district to observe and evaluate other teachers] have already come by a few times. Here, you really need to work with kids.”


[1] As part of the district instructional guidance for and evaluation of teachers, called the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework Resources Overview, there is a template for every lesson taught in a District of Columbia classroom. See here.

In the framework, the template for the “warm up” says: “Teacher hooks students to the content, activates students’ prior knowledge, and introduces the objective.” P. 13.

[ii] The text the class uses is the 1100 page World History: Modern Times (2005) written by Jackson Spielvogel. The book contains many graphics, photos, charts, and sidebars with vignettes of historical personalities. Accompanying each unit in the book is a “Primary Source Library.” There is a classroom set of the texts along one wall for students to use when the teacher assigns pages to read and questions to ask in a lesson. The 3-2-1 is an acronym for a teaching technique that gets students to summarize a reading and think about its meaning. Students were familiar with the technique and had used it for readings in the text and in primary sources. Each student would write on one sheet of paper: “Three things you learned from reading; two things you have found interesting; one question you still have.”

[iii] When I asked two other Cardozo social studies teachers (there are four in the department) why the curriculum standard, daily objective, and what teacher expects students to learn was written on all of their whiteboards, each one independently told me that the District requires these to be listed. The lesson template mentioned above states that teachers must have the curriculum standard and daily objective displayed for all students to see. When evaluators—the school principal or D.C. “master educators” entered the room—either arranged beforehand or unannounced–it is one of the items that these evaluators expect to see.

[iv] Bloom’s Taxonomy is part of the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework (see pp. 4-6). The district expects all academic teachers to sort out the content and skills they teach and use the language of the taxonomy in stating their daily objectives.

[v] A student sitting next to me explained what the “hall sweeps” were. I confirmed this with Topper and other teachers.

[vi] Level 1 questions—factual recall of dates, events, and people—refer to Bloom’s taxonomy levels of which a poster is on a wall in the room. I assume that he has taught the levels to students earlier in the semester. Whether the students understand the clarification about the questions they are expected to answer, I do not know.

[vii] Cardozo school rules call for no cell phones during class lessons, no hats to be worn in classrooms, and students to have uniforms. Gray Polo tops and khaki pants or skirts for grades 6-8, purple Polo tops and khakis for grades 9-10, and black Polo shirts and khakis for seniors. No street clothes allowed—there are loaner shirts available to students who break rules. In the two weeks I was in the school, I noted that about half of the students wore uniforms. See Cardozo website at: http://www.cardozohs.com/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=207589&type=d&pREC_ID=408163

[viii] Exit Passes are ways that teachers can determine quickly and briefly what students know and understand in the lesson. As a form of assessment, it is often used by teachers to see whether what has been taught has been learned.

[ix] Mike Topper (pseudonym), Department of Social Studies, 9th Grade Academy, “Syllabus for World History I, 2013-2014,” p. 1. In author’s possession. I cannot give web link to syllabus because it would reveal actual name of the teacher.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Judging Success and Failure of Schools and Districts: Whose Criteria Count?

The dominant standard used by most policymakers, media editors, and administrators to judge success is effectiveness: Have you done what you said you were going to do and can you prove it? In a society where “bottom lines,” Dow Jones averages, sports statistics, and vote-counts matter, quantifiable results determine success. No Child Left Behind and its focus on standardized test scores is effectiveness on steroids.

Yet even before No Child Left Behind, policymakers had relied on the effectiveness standard to examine what students have learned by using proxy measures such as state test scores, college attendance, and other indicators. For example, in the late-1970s policymakers concluded that public schools had declined because scholastic aptitudes test (SAT) scores had plunged downward. Even though test-makers and researchers repeatedly stated that such claims were false—falling SAT scores fueled public support for states raising academic requirements in the 1980s. What mattered most to decision-makers and media were numbers that could be used to establish school rankings, thereby creating easily identifiable winners and losers.

Note, however, that test results in some instances proved unhelpful in measuring a reform’s success. Consider the mid-1960s’ evaluations of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). They revealed little improvement in low-income children’s academic performance thereby jeopardizing Congressional renewal of the program. Such evidence gave critics hostile to federal initiatives reasons to brand President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs as failures.

Low test scores, however, failed to diminish the program’s political attractiveness to constituents and legislators. Each successive president and Congress has used that popularity as a basis for allocating funds to needy students in schools across the nation including No Child Left Behind.

Popularity, then, is a second standard that public officials use in evaluating success. The spread of an innovation and its hold on the imagination of voters, has meant that fashionableness can translate into political support for reform. The rapid diffusion of special education, bilingual education, accountability, and computers in schools since the 1980s are instances of innovations that captured both policymakers’ and practitioners’ attention. Few educators or public officials questioned large outlays of public funds for these popular reforms because they were perceived, at least at first, as resounding successes.

A third standard used to judge success is assessing how well innovations mirrored what reformers intended. This fidelity standard assesses the fit between the initial design, the formal policy, the subsequent program, and its implementation.

Champions of the fidelity standard ask: How can anyone determine effectiveness if the reform departs from the blueprint? If federal, state, or district policymakers, for example, adopt and fund a new reading program because it has proved to be effective elsewhere, local implementers (e.g., teachers and principals) must follow the original program design as they put it into practice or else the desired outcomes will not be achieved. When practitioners add, adapt, or even omit features of the original design, then policymakers, heeding this standard, say that the policy and program cannot be determined effective because of these changes.

Where do these dominant standards of effectiveness, popularity, and fidelity come from? Policymakers derive the criteria of effectiveness and fidelity from viewing organizations as rational tools for achieving desired goals. Through top-down authority, formal structures, clearly specified roles, and technical expertise, administrators and practitioners can get the job done.

Within organizations where rational decision-making and control are prized, policymakers ask: Have the prescribed procedures been followed (fidelity) and have the goals been achieved (effectiveness)? Hence, in judging reforms, those who carry out the changes must be faithful to the design before the standard of effectiveness in achieving goals is invoked.

Popularity as a standard in judging success, of course, comes from the political domain. Schools are dependent upon taxpayers voting funds to operate schools. What voters determine is successful–regardless of the lack of or ambiguity in the evidence–gets renewed year after year.

The authority and therefore the power to put into place one or more of these criteria in the U.S. derive from the 50 states (see Tenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution). States establish local districts which directly govern its schools–there are about 14,000 districts in the U.S.   California has over 1,000 districts, Virginia has 227, and the state of Hawaii governs all of its schools as one district. States, then, set overall criteria for success. Most states choose effectiveness criteria with occasional bows to popularity and fidelity. Local districts run the schools and try to meet those criteria. Since 2002, however, federal legislation–yes, the No Child Left Behind Act–sets effectiveness criteria–test scores–for the states which then, in turn, demand that local districts adhere to that standard. The entire debate in the U.S. Congress to reauthorize NCLB has hinged upon who will have the authority to set the criteria for success, the federal or state government.


Filed under school reform policies