Tag Archives: reform policies

Why Is Schooling, After Adopting Computers, 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.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Policy-to-Practice Metaphors: Chain of Command, Pasta, or Medley Relay Races?

Metaphors can get people to think about the essence of organizations and how they work.

Take the U.S. Army’s command-and-control structures, generals believe that their decisions can steer what infantry platoons do in the field. Yet the metaphor of the “fog of war” and a history of misunderstanding orders at the company and platoon levels during battles suggest that even in command-and-control structures,decisions moving down the chain of authority may turn out far differently than intended. Novels and memoirs from War and Peace to Jarhead, films from The Longest Day to Platoon, and officer and enlisted men reports make that point.

School district organizational charts resemble military organizations with structures showing authority flowing downward from the board of education to teachers. Here also, the belief that policymakers can frame problems, adopt solutions, and steer classroom practice prevails. Yet school districts are hardly command-and-control operations since new policies get interpreted and re-interpreted by different actors at each link of the supposed chain of authority as they proceed downward into classrooms.

And it is in classrooms where teachers make decisions about what the policy is and which parts, if any, get implemented. What was intended by policymakers may well turn out to be something quite different. The metaphor of a linked chain for putting educational policies into practice is inapt. A better image than links in a chain is pasta to represent the policy-to-practice journey. Consider the following two examples.

Mrs. O., a veteran California second grade teacher in the late-1980s had embraced a new math curriculum aimed at replacing students’ rote memorization with mathematical understanding. A researcher observed Mrs. O teach and interviewed her many times. She saw herself as a success story, a teacher who had revolutionized her mathematics teaching. But classroom observations revealed that her practices were really old wine in new bottles. Yes, Mrs. O was now dividing students into groups–an innovation–but the groups memorized rules taken from the new text. In short, Mrs. O’s blended traditional and innovative practices to create lessons that transformed the state policy directive into something quite different from what policymakers had intended.

Interactive whiteboards. Replacing traditional classroom chalkboards, TV monitors, and DVDs, these wall-mounted electronic devices connect a desktop computer and projector to a whiteboard where teachers can click keys to show videos, visit websites immediately, and call upon other sources of information. A stylus permits teachers and students to write on the whiteboard to do math problems, point out aspects of lava flows from erupting volcanoes, and allow teachers to record their lessons as digital video files for students to review at a later time.

Promoters have hailed interactive white boards as a technology that will transform teaching and learning.

A reporter described Spanish teacher Crystal Corn’s high school class in Cumming, Georgia: “[Corn’s students] … use a stylus at the whiteboard to match pictures and vocabulary words, they use it to visit Web sites that feature news from Spanish-speaking countries, and they even made a music video and played it in class on the whiteboard. This school year, Corn plans to use the interactive whiteboard to hold videoconferences with classes in other countries.”

Sounds terrific. But over years, I have observed nearly 30 classrooms using interactive whiteboards in different districts. I saw versions of Mrs. O again and again. Consider the dozen high school math teachers that I observed using whiteboards daily. Nearly every one began the lesson with a “brain teaser,” or “warm-up,” reviewed homework problems, had students use the stylus on the whiteboard to show how they solved particularly difficult ones, introduced new material, asked if students had any questions, then assigned new problems for homework. In short, these math teachers in different cities used traditional math lessons with an innovative high-tech device. Yet those teachers spoke rapturously about how these interactive whiteboards had enhanced their teaching. Hello, Mrs. O.

So what if the policy-to-practice continuum is best captured by the image of spaghetti than iron-welded links in a chain? The answer is again found in the four questions I have raised in previous posts:

  1. Was the policy aimed at altering how teachers teach fully implemented?
  2. Did teaching practices change as a result of the implementation?
  3. Did those changed teaching practices lead to changes in student performance?
  4. Did those changes in student performance achieve school and district goals?

There is a catch, however, to answering the second question. I do not know if Mrs. O and those math teachers using their interactive whiteboards captured their typical teaching practices before the researchers sat down in the back of their rooms. Perhaps the new curriculum policy and high-tech device did. We won’t know until more systematic classroom observations occur. Very little occurs now in districts. School policymakers facing their own “fog of war” can only guess how teachers teach daily.

Yet teachers make daily policy decisions in their classrooms. When teachers work collaboratively within schools and districts, when policymakers work closely with teachers to make decisions that touch classrooms, when teachers run their own schools as in Minnesota, links-in-a-chain and pasta metaphors are inappropriate. More apt may be metaphors of organizational collaboration such as a team white-water rafting or a medley relay of swimmers in a meet. Seldom are those images used.

Links in a chain? Pasta? Medley relays? Without more documentation of that journey from policymaking suites to, say, a 5th grade classroom lesson, rival metaphors will continue to vie for attention in capturing truly what happens in schools.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

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.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Summer is Over, School Begins in August

At this time of year, journalists and bloggers write about the new fact of schools starting before the first weekend of September, the traditional start time for U.S. schools for nearly a century.  A few writers (and parents also)  ask why the date for the end of summer vacation keeps creeping backward into August (see here, here, and here). Answers include increased teacher efficiency  (more time to prepare students for standardized tests), catering to students and families (smoother closing of first semester before Xmas and getting out of school in late May which reduces graduating seniors’ shenanigans in last few weeks of school), while preserving other vacations during school year such as in February and April.

Current talk about shorter summers, however, is empty of the highly-charged, crisis-ridden vocabulary of 30 years ago about U.S. students spending far less time in schools than international peers who were beating the pants off Americans on tests.  In the 1980s, the short school year of 180 days was believed to be the cause of U.S. students’ mediocre showing on international tests. Recommendations for a longer school year (up to 220 days) came from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. In 2008, a foundation-funded report, A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk, found that the 180-day school year was intact across the nation. The length of the school year even with current earlier starts in August today remains around 180 days of school.

What about year-round schools?  There is a homespun myth, treated as fact, that the annual school calendar, with three months off for both teachers and students, is based on the rhythm of 19th-century farm life, which dictated when school was in session. Thus, planting and harvesting chores accounted for long summer breaks, an artifact of agrarian America. Not so.

Actually, summer vacations grew out of early 20th- century urban middle-class parents (and later lobbyists for camps and the tourist industry) pressing school boards to release children to be with their families for four to eight weeks or more. By the 1960s, however, policy maker and parent concerns about students losing ground academically during the vacation months— in academic language, “summer loss” — gained support for year-round schooling. Cost savings also attracted those who saw facilities being used 12 months a year rather than being shuttered during the summer.Nonetheless, although year-round schools were established as early as 1906 in Gary, Indiana, calendar innovations have had a hard time entering most schools. Districts with year-round schools still work within the 180-day year but distribute the time more evenly (e.g., 45 days in session, 15 days off) rather than having a long break between June and September. As of 2011, over 3,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public schools had a year-round calendar enrolling about four percent of all students. Almost half of the year-round schools are in California. In most cases, school boards adopted year-round schools because increased enrollments led to crowded facilities, most often in minority and poor communities —not concerns over “summer loss” in academic achievement.

What about lengthened school day? Since the 1990s, especially in urban districts, children and youth coming to school earlier and leaving later with the addition of after-school programs has extended the school day in districts across the nation.

In the past half century, as the economy has changed and families increasingly have both (or single) parents working, schools have been pressed to take on childcare responsibilities, such as tutoring and home work supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 a.m. for parents to drop off children and have after-school programs that close at 6 p.m. PDK/Gallup polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before-and after-school programs. Instead of the familiar half-day program for 5-year-olds, all-day kindergartens (and prekindergartens for 4-year-olds) have spread swiftly in the past two decades, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Innovative urban schools, such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), run longer school days. They routinely open at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. and also schedules biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.
If reformers want a success story in fixing school time, they can look to extending the school day, although it’s arguable how many of those changes occurred because of reformers’ arguments and actions and how much from economic and social changes in family structure and the desire to chase a higher standard of living. According to recent studies, high-quality after school programs improve children and youth attitudes, behaviors, and achievement (see OSTissuebrief10-1    ) .But those schools still run on 180-day schedules.
After thirty years of reform furor over long summers and insufficient time in school, reformers of that generation can look today at increasing numbers of  districts opening in mid-August yet many others still hanging on to an early September opening.  Extended day with child care and after-school programs have spread across the nation’s schools. For those school reformers then and now who still believe that more time in school leads to higher performance on tests, the results are, at best, mixed.
Even with reformers intense pressure to get U.S. students schooled for longer periods of time, pushback from parents, voters and taxpayers have kept the number of school days in session and vacations pretty close to what they have been for decades.



Filed under Reforming schools

Charter Schools: 25th Anniversary and More to Come (Part 1)

Charter schools are here to stay. Since 1991 when Minnesota became the first state to charter new schools free of most state education regulations, 43 states and the District of Columbia have now authorized 6400 charter schools run by non-profit and for-profit organizations. As of 2014 charters house nearly three million students or about six percent of the U.S. public school enrollment. These charters are public schools governed by separate boards of parents, teachers, entrepreneurs, etc. Charters receive state funds for each student enrolled equivalent to state funds for a regular public school next door. These new and largely autonomous organizations are accountable to their boards (not the  elected school board of the district in which they are located) to fulfill the aims stipulated in the charter they received.

From zero to six percent of total U.S. students in charter schools in 25 years doesn’t sound like a cat video going viral but in institutional terms it is a solid sign that charter schools have become part of daily scene in U.S. public schools and are here to stay. Released from most state regulations and  unionized teachers, charter schools have been expected to create innovative curriculum, instruction, and organization and compete with traditional public schools for students. From that innovation and competition, state legislators expected across-the-board improvement in all public schools.

Publicly-funded charter schools have found a special niche among urban districts. Two-thirds of charter school students are minority (across the country the percentage is half); 56 percent of all charters are located in cities; the rest are in rural and small town districts–many of which are poor with only a tiny percentage found in affluent suburbs (see here and here).

Currently, in New Orleans, Detroit, and the District of Columbia charter schools are a majority (or near majority) of their public schools from which parents choose (14 districts have at least 30 percent of their enrollment in charter schools).  As long as there are urban and suburban schools that fail their students (as measured by test scores, graduation rates, well-being of students, etc.), expanded parental choice that now includes magnet schools, alternative schools, districts with portfolios of options, and yes, charter schools will become as familiar as the morning Pledge of Allegiance in the nation’s classrooms.

Expanded parental choice through vouchers and charters (the former has existed since the 1970s but is largely absent from most school districts while the latter has slowly and steadily grown over the past quarter-century) has become one of the planks in a reform platform to bring innovation and improvement to what critics call a moribund and failed traditional system of schooling. Major foundations such as Walton, Gates, Broad, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund have contributed hundreds of millions to promote charter schools and organizations that manage clusters of schools–Charter Management Organizations or CMOs which are not-for-profit and Educational Management Organizations or EMOs that are for-profit (see here). Donors see charters as a way of ridding the nation but especially big city schools of an obsolete model of schooling that fails to prepare U.S. children and youth for either college or an ever-changing workplace. Foundation officials, many urban parent groups, and civic and business leaders support the expansion of charters. Opponents have been teacher unions, groups of parents railing at loss of funds for regular public schools, and other groups who see a lack of accountability to dump those charters who are fiscally and academically failing (here and here).

Warring research studies from camps promoting and opposing charters have unceasingly argued for the past quarter-century whether charters are academically outperforming traditional public schools. It has become a trivial question because there is so such diversity among charter schools.  Some charters (e.g., KIPP and Summit Schools) send nearly all graduates to college ; others are close to closing their doors or have been shut down ; some charters are for-profit such as cyber schools, and dozens of other models. Lumping them altogether  to answer a generic question: which form of public schools is better academically?—is not only goofy but unanswerable. What is clear, however, after 25 years is a lack of  systemic oversight and accountability of charters for poor fiscal and academic performance in various states (see here).

What is also clear is that the promised autonomy to become innovative and competitive with other public schools, the promise of the original mandate for charters, has yet to appear in charter schools and classrooms (see here and here).

These charter school wars will ease over time.  More CMOs will regulate their schools. More state charter laws will increase oversight of school performance. More state caps on the number of charters that can be authorized will disappear. Charters will become a familiar dot in the U.S. educational landscape. Part 2 explains why charters will stick as a reform.




Filed under school reform policies

America’s Not-So-Broken Education System (Jack Schneider)

Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross. He is the author of From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse and Excellence For All. This appeared in The Atlantic Online June 22, 2016.


Everything in American education is broken. Or so say the policy elites, from the online learning pioneer Sal Khan to the journalist-turned-reformer Campbell Brown. As leaders of the XQ project succinctly put it, we need to “scrap the blueprint and revolutionize this dangerously broken system.”

This, they explain, is the sad truth. The educational system simply stopped working. It aged, declined, and broke. And now the nation has a mess on its hands. But there’s good news, too. As Michelle Rhee’s group, StudentsFirst, declares: Americans can “work together to fix this broken system.” All it takes is the courage to rip it apart.

This is how the argument goes, again and again. The system used to work, but now it doesn’t. And though nobody inside schools seems to care, innovators outside the establishment have developed some simple solutions. The system can be rebuilt, reformers argue. But first it must be torn down.

American education has some obvious shortcomings. Even defenders of the schools can make long lists of things they’d like to change. But the root of the problem is not incompetent design, as is so frequently alleged. Nor is it stasis. Rather, it is the twofold challenge of complexity and scale. American schools are charged with the task of creating better human beings. And they are expected to do so in a relatively consistent way for all of young people. It is perhaps the nation’s most ambitious collective project; as such, it advances slowly.

For evidence of this, one need look only to the past. If the educational system had broken at some point, a look backward would reveal an end to progress—a point at which the system stopped working. Yet that isn’t at all the picture that emerges. Instead, one can see that across many generations, the schools have slowly and steadily improved.

Consider the teachers in classrooms. For most of American history, teachers received no training at all, and hiring was a chaotic process in which the only constant was patronage. To quote Ted Sizer on the subject, the typical result was one “in which some mayor’s half-drunk illiterate uncle was hired to teach twelfth-grade English.” There were other problems, too. As late as the 20th century, for instance, would-be educators generally had little if any student-teaching experience prior to entering classrooms, and they received no preparation for teaching particular content areas. Even as recently as mid-century, prospective teachers had no background in adolescent cognition and received no training in how to work with students from diverse backgrounds. All of that has changed. Does that mean that today’s system of teacher education is without flaw? Hardly. There’s lots of work yet to be done. But there is also no question that the average teacher in the U.S. today is better prepared than the average teacher from any past period.

The same is true of the school curriculum. Sure, it’s somewhat arbitrary and, at least for some students, insufficiently challenging. But Americans are regularly told that the modern curriculum is a relic of the past and that it has grown increasingly out of date. That simply isn’t true. Prior to the 20th century, high schools focused heavily on Latin and Greek, required coursework in subjects like zoology and mechanical drawing, and rarely offered any math beyond algebra. In 1900, the average school year was 100 days long—40 percent shorter than the current school year—and classes were commonly twice as large as contemporary ones. And well into the 20th century, girls and students of color were regularly offered a separate curriculum, emphasizing domestic or industrial training. Do students still read books? Yes. Do they sit in desks? Typically. Do teachers still stand at the front of the class? For the most part. But beyond that, there are more differences than similarities. Again, this doesn’t mean that present practices are ideal—but it does mean that Americans should think twice before dissolving into panic over what is being taught in modern classrooms.

Finally, consider the outcomes produced by the educational system. Critics are right that achievement scores aren’t overwhelmingly impressive and that troubling gaps persist across racial, ethnic, and income groups. Yet scores are up over the past 40 years, and the greatest gains over that period have been made by black and Hispanic students. They’re right that the U.S. finishes well behind exam-oriented countries like Taiwan and Korea on international tests. But scores are roughly on par with countries like Norway, which was named by the United Nations the best place in the world to live; and students from low-poverty states like Massachusetts outscore most of their global peers. Critics are right that 40 percent of college students still don’t graduate. But almost half of all American high-school students now head off to college each year—an all-time high. And whatever the doom-and-gloom about schools failing to address workforce needs, it’s worth remembering that the U.S has the strongest economy in the world—by an enormous margin.

Are the schools perfect? No. But they are slowly improving. And they are certainly better today than at any point in the past. So why the invented story about an unchanging and obsolete system? Why the hysterical claims that everything has broken?

Perhaps some policy elites really believe the fake history—about a dramatic rise and tragic fall. The claim that the high school “was designed for early 20th-century workforce needs,” for instance, has been repeated so frequently that it has a kind of truth status. Never the fact that the American high school was created in 1635 to provide classical training to the sons of ministers and merchants; and never mind the fact that today’s high schools operate quite differently than those of the past. Facts, it seems, aren’t as durable as myth.

Yet there is also another possible explanation worth considering: that policy elites are working to generate political will for their pet projects. Money and influence may go a long way in setting policy agendas. But in a decentralized and relatively democratic system, it still takes significant momentum to initiate any significant change—particularly the kinds of change that certain reformers are after when they suggest starting “from scratch.” To generate that kind of energy—the energy to rip something down and rebuild it—the public needs to be convinced that it has a looming catastrophe on its hands.

This is not to suggest that educational reform is crafted by conspirators working to manufacture crisis. Policy elites are not knowingly falsifying evidence or collectively coming to secret agreement about how to terrify the public. Instead, as research has shown, self-identified school reformers inhabit a small and relatively closed network. As the policy analyst Rick Hess recently put it, “orthodoxy reigns” in reform circles, with shared values and concerns emerging “through partnerships, projects, consulting arrangements, and foundation initiatives.” The ostensible brokenness of public education, it seems, is not merely a talking point; it is also an article of faith.

Whatever the intentions of policy leaders, this “broken system” narrative has had some serious unintended consequences. And perhaps the most obvious of those has been an increased tolerance for half-baked plans. Generally speaking, the public has a relatively high bar for replacing something that works, particularly if there is a risk of failure, and especially when their children are concerned. Historically, this has been the case in education. A half century ago, for instance, the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll asked public-school parents what the schools were doing right. The response: Almost everything. The standard curriculum, the quality of teachers, and school facilities came in first, second, and third on the list. Not surprisingly, when parents were asked in another PDK/Gallup poll if the schools were “interested enough in trying new ways and methods,” 42 percent responded that the schools were striking the right balance. Twenty-one percent felt that the schools were “too ready to try new ideas,” and 20 percent felt that the schools were “not interested enough.”

When it comes to replacing something broken, however, the bar for intervention is much lower. Doing something, even if it fails to live up to expectations, is invariably better than doing nothing. Only by doing nothing, Americans are told, can they fail. Thus, despite the fact that there is often little evidence in support of utopian schemes like “personalized online learning,” which would use software to create a custom curriculum for each student, or “value-added measures” of teachers, which would determine educator effectiveness by running student test scores through an algorithm, many people are willing to suspend disbelief. Why? Because they have been convinced that the alternative—a status quo in precipitous decline—is worse. But what if the schools aren’t in a downward spiral? What if, instead, things are slowly but steadily improving? In that light, disruption—a buzzword if ever there was one—doesn’t sound like such a great idea.

A second consequence of the “broken system” narrative is that it denigrates schools and communities. Teachers, for instance, have seemingly never been more disillusioned. Roughly half of teachers report feeling under great stress several days a week, job satisfaction is at a 25-year low, and almost a third of teachers say they are likely to leave the profession within the next five years. Parents, too, have never had less confidence in the system. According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, roughly 80 percent of Americans give grades of “C,” “D,” or “F” to the nation’s schools—a far larger total than the 56 percent who issued those grades three decades ago. This, despite the fact that 70 percent of public school parents give their children’s current schools an “A” or a “B” rating. In other words, despite people’s positive direct experiences, the barrage of negative messaging has done serious damage to the public school brand. Consequently, many anxious parents are now competing with alarming ferocity for what they believe to be a shrinking number of “good” schools. As research indicates, they have exacerbated residential segregation in the process, intensifying racial and economic inequality.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of the “broken system” narrative is that it draws attention away from real problems that the nation has never fully addressed. The public-education system is undeniably flawed. Yet many of the deepest flaws have been deliberately cultivated. Funding inequity and racial segregation, for instance, aren’t byproducts of a system that broke. They are direct consequences of an intentional concentration of privilege. Placing the blame solely on teacher training, or the curriculum, or on the design of the high school—alleging “brokenness”—perpetuates the fiction that all schools can be made great without addressing issues of race, class, and power. This is wishful thinking at its most pernicious.

This is not to suggest that there is no space for criticism, or for outrage. Students, families, and activists have both the right and the responsibility to advocate for themselves and their communities. They know what they need, and their needs have merit. Policymakers have a great deal to learn from them.

Still, it is important not to confuse inequity with ineptitude. History may reveal broken promises around racial and economic justice. But it does not support the story of a broken education system. Instead, the long view reveals a far less dramatic truth—that most aspects of public education have gotten better, generation by generation.

The evolution of America’s school system has been slow. But providing a first-rate public education to every child in the country is a monumental task. Today, 50 million U.S. students attend roughly 100,000 schools, and are educated by over 3 million teachers. The scale alone is overwhelming. And the aim of schooling is equally ambitious. Educators are not just designing gadgets or building websites. At this phenomenal scale, they are trying to make people—a fantastically difficult task for which there is no quick fix, no simple solution, no “hack.”

Can policy leaders and stakeholders accelerate the pace of development? Probably. Can the schools do more to realize national ideals around equity and inclusion? Without question. But none of these aims will be achieved by ripping the system apart. That’s a ruinous fiction. The struggle to create great schools for all young people demands swift justice and steady effort, not melodrama and magical thinking.



Filed under school reform policies

The Failure of U.S. Schools as “Guardians of Democracy”

“If 50 percent of a school district‘s graduates could not read, we‘d fire the superintendent. Yet regularly less than half our graduates vote. In our ―accountability era, no superintendent has been fired for failing in this core mission of our ―’guardian of democracy.’ ”

The  quote comes from a paper written by Michael Johanek in 2011 about the century-old history of civic education in the U.S.. However,  since the early 1980s business-minded state and federal reformers “re-purposed”  K-12 schools into building  a stronger, globally competitive economy through higher academic standards, increased testing, and tougher accountability for student results; the traditional goal of civic education has become a “Second Hand Rose.” That has been the case for the past three decades.

Relegated to applause lines in graduation talks, making students into citizens who are engaged in their communities gets occasionally resuscitated by national commissions, occasional reports and books, and pronouncements from top officials (see here, here, and here), but the sad truth is that until the dominant  rationale for schooling the young shifts from its current economic purpose to its historic role as “guardian of democracy,” only   fleeting references to the civic purpose of schooling will occur.

I do not know whether such a shift will occur in the immediate future. I surely want it to occur.  Trimming back the prevailing economic purpose for tax-supported schools and correcting the current imbalance in preparing children and youth for civic participation is long overdue. Consumerism  has enveloped public schools over the past three decades. The role of schools to teach democratic values and skills and insure that students have opportunities to practice the skills and values in their communities has been shoved aside. Were such a political change to occur,  it will be gradual as more and more parents, taxpayers, and policymakers come to see the harmful imbalance among the multiple aims for schools in a commerce-driven democracy. Were that political shift in purposes to occur, the crucial question of what kind of a citizen does the nation want will re-emerge as it had in earlier generations of school reformers.

That question of what kind of citizen has been around since tax-supported public schools were founded two centuries ago. No one answer has sufficed then or now because there are different ways of viewing a “good” citizen (see here and here). Nor has any answer in the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s–when schools were expected to prepare students to participate and engage in the community–sufficed. Arguments over the kinds of citizenship that should be practiced in and out of school, the threadbare quality of the programs, and frequent conflicts over whether teachers should deal with controversial topics within the school day arose time and again (see here, here and here)

Professors Joel Westheimer and Joe Kahne, knowledgeable about the history of civic education in U.S. and Canadian schools, have been wrestling with these different views and have come up with a conceptual map laying out three types of citizen: personally responsible, participatory, and social justice oriented  (WhatKindOfCitizenAERJ).   Westheimers recent book, What Kind of Citizen, summarizes these different views.

Personally Responsible Citizen

The core assumption for this kind of citizen is that to “solve social problems and improve society, citizens must have good character; they must be honest, responsible, and law-abiding members of the community.” Such a citizen would, for example, donate blood, recycle, and contribute food to a food drive.

Participatory Citizen

The core assumption here is that “to solve problems and improve society, citizens must participate and take leadership positions within established systems and community structures.” Such a citizen would, for example vote, serve on juries, form a street Neighborhood Watch to combat crime,  help organize a food drive, join the town’s recycling committee, and help register voters.

Justice-oriented Citizen

For this kind of a citizen the basic assumption is that “to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must question, debate, and change established systems and structures that reproduce patterns of injustice over time.” This kind of citizen would analyze the current structures and culture that create, say, hunger, homelessness or an epidemic of drug overdoses; the person would write letters, meet with local officials, and join committees seeking out ways of solving these problems.

For decades, these different views of a citizen have been embedded in the curriculum, especially in the 1930s and 1960s, and taught in schools. One kind of citizen, however, is not better than the other. In a democracy such divergent views of  citizenship are normal. Of course, these differences also lead to the larger question of what kind of democratic society do parents, voters, and taxpayers want their schools to work toward. No such debate, unfortunately, exists now.

But some public and private schools over the decades, surviving reform wave after wave, have practiced their version of preparing children and youth for citizenship. Often mixes of the above views of citizenship has emerged over time.

A few examples in 2016 are:

Sudbury Valley School–1968 (Framingham, MA)

Jefferson County Open School–1969 (Colorado)

El Puente–1982 (New York City)

Mission Hill--1997 (Boston, MA)

Bell Gardens High School –pp. 22-23 of report and here (Los Angeles, CA)

Westside Village Magnet School (Bend, Oregon)

That such schools (and these are a sampling) enact different forms of citizenship laid out above by Westheimer and Kahne is a proof point that schools enacting democratic practices exist. In these schools, student exercise responsible behavior in and out of school, participate in and out of school in various civic institutions from restorative justice programs to community service, and analyze causes of socioeconomic problems while working to reduce their effects in their communities. These schools, with much variation among them, embody different answers to the question: What kind of  citizen?

But such schools are scarce in the current market-driven reforms harnessing schools to the economy. Whether a swell of popular opinion will rise and crest into political action to reassert the fundamental civic aim for tax-supported public school, I cannot predict. But I sure hope it will.







Filed under Reforming schools