Tag Archives: 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Reforming the Teaching of History Then and Now (Part 1)

The following posts are drawn from my forthcoming book on “Teaching History Then and Now: Stability and Change in Urban High Schools” (Harvard Education Press). If readers want specific citations and pages for quotes, contact me and I will send them the citations.

Both participants and researchers have told the story behind the 1995 U.S. Senate vote of 99-1 in favor of a resolution condemning new history standards produced by historians, curriculum specialists, and teachers.

Senator Slade Gorton (WA) summed up the essence of the conflict over what content from the past should students learn by asking his colleagues:

Is it a more important part of our Nation’s history for our children to study—George Washington or Bart Simpson?….With this set of standards, our students will not be expected to know George Washington from the man in the Moon. According to this set of standards, American democracy rests on the same moral footing as the Soviet Union’s totalitarian dictatorship.

Rush Limbaugh, popular radio show host, chimed in with his rebuke of the standards’ focus on historical thinking and interpreting the past by telling his listeners: “History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened.” The authors of the standards, he went on, “try to skew history” by saying “Well, let’s interpret what happened because we can’t find the truth in facts…. So let’s change the interpretation a little bit so that it will be the way we wished it were.

What Gorton and Limbaugh wanted students to learn was a commemorative version of the past—the familiar “heritage” view–rather than one where students apply historical thinking. Historian Gary Nash and colleagues stated the issue this way:

Should classrooms emphasize the continuing story of America’s struggle to form a ‘more perfect union,’ a narrative that involved a good deal of jostling, elbowing, and bargaining among contending groups? A story that included political tumult, labor strife, racial conflict, and civil war? Or should the curriculum focus on successes, achievements, and ideals, on stories designed to infuse young Americans with patriotism and sentiments of loyalty toward prevailing institutions, traditions, and values?

Nash and his colleagues who drafted the standards wanted content invested with historical thinking skills (e.g., grasp of chronology, differentiating between facts and interpretations, analyzing sources, considering multiple perspectives) and students crafting meaning from the past. Or as a sympathetic U.S. Congressman put it: “History isn’t like math where two plus two equals four. It’s a lot more than facts, and they don’t always add up to the same sum.”

Those who created the New History Standards also wanted students to be patriotic but not in the traditional sense of unquestioned loyalty to the U.S. They wanted, according to scholar Joel Westheimer, a “democratic patriotism” that saw the past as a struggle to put constitutional and Judeo-Christian ideals into practice.

Or as teacher union leader Al Shanker, a member of one group who advised Nash and his colleagues, put it:

The struggle to define our democracy still continues and it will as long as our country does. It has helped turn abstract principles like equity, justice, individual rights and equality of opportunity into political movements, laws, programs, and institutions—concrete things. And if our children walk away from an American history course without understanding this, the history they have studied is a travesty.

The conflict over what students need to know and how they should study the past and its political purpose—citizenship transmission–is, of course, a familiar conflict fought by earlier generations of historians, teachers, and voters. Another way to capture those conflicting traditions of teaching, ones evident in the New Social Studies of the 1960s and occurring again in the 1990s, is to consolidate the contending ways of teaching into the heritage and historical approaches to creating a usable past for students to learn.

The heritage approach uses the past to recreate the present to “tell ourselves who we are, where we are from, and to what we belong.” Beyond the U.S. flag in every classroom and Pledge of Allegiance, examples of the heritage purpose at work in schools are lessons that focus on the Founding Fathers of the Revolutionary period and heroes such as Davy Crockett, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony to recoup from the past a legacy that all American students should know. In the hands of some legislators— recall Senator Slade Gorton–pundits –recall Rush Limbaugh– textbook authors, and teachers, the heritage purpose comes close to an official story encased in state standards with knowledge aimed at inspiring pride in the U.S., loyalty toward country, and achieving the overall purpose of inculcating “good” citizenship.”

In mapping out those competing strategies for teaching history evident during the New Social Studies in the 1960s, champions of the heritage approach sought to transmit their version of citizenship. The key word is “transmit” which often is translated to mean teacher lecture, student note-taking and teacher-directed lessons. The fact, however, is that “transmitting” citizenship can mean using different pedagogical approaches in classroom lessons. That diversity in pedagogies became clear during a decade of federally funded Teaching American History grants.

The heritage strategy became official federal policy in 2001 with the passage of Teaching American History legislation sponsored by Senator Robert Byrd (WVA). The law made available over $120 million dollars a year in TAH grants to universities and school districts to teach U.S. history and improve student achievement. As the Federal Register put it:

Students who know and appreciate the great ideas of American history are more likely to understand and exercise their civic rights and responsibilities. Their understanding of traditional American history will be enhanced if teachers make the study of history more exciting, interesting, and engaging. Students need teachers who have a thorough understanding of American history as a separate subject within the core curriculum, and incorporate into their teaching effective strategies to help students learn.

With over a thousand TAH grants made in nearly a decade costing almost $900 million, many universities and school districts worked with thousands of veteran and novice teachers across the country. Anecdotally, teachers gave positive marks to university professors increasing their historical knowledge and opportunities to develop lessons in summer and yearlong TAH programs. When it comes to evaluating these decade-long efforts, however, the verdict was damning. The external evaluators examined 16 programs. They found no evidence that these programs raised student achievement, or that teachers used their class-friendly lessons that they had developed after they returned to their schools or that project directors created district networks of teachers to implement lessons.

But the heritage approach has then and now contended with the historical approach. History is not a single account of the past but many accounts. The goal is to equip students with the intellectual and academic skills that historians and citizens use daily. Historians seek verifiable truth as they sift evidence to answer questions and interpret what happened in the past; they reduce bias in their accounts by closely examining their own values as they closely read and analyze sources.

In history classrooms, it means that students investigate the past through different sources and produce stories and analyses from many accounts consistent with the evidence they have before them. In doing so, students gain skills of sniffing out biased sources, evaluating documents, and providing multiple perspectives on an event or person. They think, write, and discuss different views of what happened.  Students learn that history is an interpretation of the past, not a telegram that yesteryear has wired to the present. In short, they become historically literate.

This historical approach was integrated into those standards denounced by the U.S. Senate and eventually junked in the mid-1990s. So unlike the purpose of transmitting a national story that heightens students’ appreciation of country, the historical approach combines the purposes of working as historians do and engaging in reflective inquiry. Champions of the historical approach claimed that they helped students become “good” citizens. Of course, these competing aims in teaching history are an incarnation of that paradox facing public schools of having both to conserve community beliefs, values, and traditions and simultaneously prepare student with the knowledge and skills to change those very same traditions, values, and beliefs.

The resounding defeat of the New History Standards in 1995 was hardly the end of the tensions between the heritage and historical approaches in teaching children and youth. An echo of that media-hyped conflict was heard in 2014 after the Educational Testing Service (ETS) announced that it had revised the “Framework and Examination” for the Advanced Placement United States History course. Keep in mind that AP courses in history exemplify the historical approach to teaching the subject with students handling primary sources (“document-based questions”), interpreting facts and writing accounts that interpret the past.

In Jefferson County, Colorado’s second largest school district, school board members Julie Williams and her colleagues, part of a politically conservative majority elected to the school board in 2013, objected to the new ETS “Framework” for the AP course in U.S. history; the school board voted to have their own homegrown AP course for 10th graders. The Williams-led majority on the five-member board said that the AP Framework “rejects the history that has been taught in the country for generations. It has an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing while simultaneously omitting the most basic structural and philosophical elements considered essential to the understanding of American History for generations.” Instead an AP U.S. history course needs to “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.”

The board action triggered protests from over 1,000 students who walked out of their schools over a 10-day period protesting what they and supportive parents called censorship of content taught in schools. Heated school board meetings where parents on different sides of the issue tangled and raw feelings about the proper content for the course in U.S. history erupted throughout the county.

The Jefferson County protests have died down. No “war” erupted. The conservative majority on the school board backed away from dumping the revised AP course and substituting another one that taught the benefits of “free enterprise” and “patriotism.” But the incident reveals anew that the heritage approach to history content remains alive among voters, taxpayers, parents, teachers, and students.

Part 2 describes the onset of another national effort to engage U.S. students in the historical approach to studying the past.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Fixing Schools Again and Again

School reform over the past century has skipped from one big policy fix to another without a backward look at what happened the first time around. Or even whether the reforms succeeded. Since World War II, U.S. public schools have been in one crisis or another (see here, here, and here). Reform-minded policymakers have offered rhetoric-wrapped cures time and again without a glance backward. If amnesia were like aphrodisiac pills, policymakers have been popping capsules for years. Memory loss about past school reforms permits policymakers to forge ahead with a new brace of reforms and feel good. Since World War II, U.S. public schools have been in one crisis or another.  What have school reformers targeted?

Current and decades-old Big Policy “solutions” for problems in U.S. schools have sought one or more of the following:

*Fix the students (e.g., early childhood education, family education, teach middle class behaviors and attitudes to students from low-income families)

*Fix the schools (e.g., more parental choice in schools, longer school day and year, reduced class size, higher curriculum standards, more and better tests, accountability for results, different age-grade configurations; give autonomy to schools)

*Fix the teachers (e.g., enlarge the pool of recruits for teaching, better university teacher education, switch from teacher-centered to student-centered ways of teaching, more and better classroom technologies)

Public and policymaker affections have hopscotched from one solution to another then and now and in some instances, combined different fixes (e.g., extending school day, raising standards and increasing accountability for schools and teachers, promoting universal pre-school, pushing problem-based learning).

The evidence to support such skipping to and from has been skimpy, at best. But one should not criticize policymakers for having insufficient evidence prior to imposing new reforms. After all, tax-supported public schools are political institutions and voters, taxpayers, and parents are willing (or unwilling) participants in supporting ideologically based school reforms such as lifting state caps on number of charter schools and expanding testing. Regardless of evidence.

Asking policymakers and practitioners to use evidence-based innovations when a wide range of stakeholders in public schools have to be informed and consulted is, well, asking far too much. Ideologies and political power matter far more than research-derived evidence. Very little evidence, for example, accompanied the New Deal economic and social reforms to combat the Great Depression in the 1930s. Nor did much evidence accompany the launching of Medicare or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 1960s. And very little evidence drove federal oversight of U.S. public schools in No Child Left Behind (2002). Reform-driven policies are (and have been) hardly research-based.

Rather than the constant call for evidence-based policy and practice, perhaps a more realistic standard that federal, state, and local policymakers might use is making policy that is informed by evidence. Such a standard at least acknowledges the political and ideological environment in which pubic schools operate in the U.S.

Yet were such a standard to be used, forgetfulness of past reforms and frequent leaping from one kind of fix to another would still continue. Why is that?

For the past two centuries, political and economic leaders have turned to public schools to solve national social, political, and economic problems. This “educationalizing” of U.S. problems has included racial segregation (e.g., the Brown decision in 1954), national defense (National Defense Education Act in 1958), and inequality issues (e.g., War on Poverty in the 1960s). So the frequent turning of civic, business, and foundation leaders to public schools to fix national political, economic, and social issues has become a nervous tic afflicting national and state policymakers. It explains the jumping from one policy solution to another that veteran school-watchers have noted often.

But political ideologies do shift over time. Just as the dominant Progressive movement between the 1890s and 1940s pervaded the language, curriculum guides, and actions of early-to-mid-20th century policymakers, practitioners, and parents, in the decades following World War II, Progressive ideas and practices declined (except for a brief resurgence in the 1960s) as politically conservative ideologies aimed at fixing the nation’s ills came to dominate reform agendas. And since the mid-1980s, increasing U.S. economic competitiveness in global markets has been the driving force behind U.S. school reform. International tests have been used time and again to compare U.S. students to their European and Asian peers. Fixing  school structure from curriculum standards to time in school to expanded parental choice have been on reformers’ agendas for decades now.

Yet even the current conservative ideology of public schools helping to grow a strong economy may be shifting as parents, Republican legislators and teachers push back against too many standardized tests and coercive accountability. Concerns over federal over-reach in local schools have been central to the contested renewal of No Child Left Behind.

Returning more power to states and local districts to solve problems is clearly in the air (yes, another  structural fix for school problems). Progressive lyrics and melodies of decades past are on the playlists of school reformers. Charter schools, universal preschool, better teacher education, personalized instruction, blended learning, problem-based instruction—often driven by technology-enthusiasts—have the makings of a new Progressive agenda.

This generation of reformers, however, has yet to take a hard look at earlier school reforms that sought to “solve” problems by fixing children, schools, and teachers. My advice to reformers is to nail up on a wall the quote of Andre Gide, Nobel Laureate in literature (1947):







Filed under school reform policies

Long Distance Runners Make the Best Reformers

In 1971, John Gardner, then head of Common Cause, a grassroots organization dedicated to keeping government open and accountable, hired a young staffer to work on cleaning up the dirty money that flowed into Presidential campaigns during Richard Nixon’s term of office. Fred Wertheimer lobbied U.S. senators and congressmen and women to put limits to campaign spending and to keep the donations open to public inspection. At that time, Gardner told Wertheimer, “reform is not for the short-winded.” Over forty years later, Wertheimer continues to work on cleaning up campaign financing and says about Gardner’s advice: “He never told me it was 41 years and counting.”

School reform (championed by the political right, center, or left), like campaign financing, is for long distance runners who have overcome short winded-ness. I made that point when analyzing short-term superintendents like sprinters Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. and John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified. But short-windedness also applies to the long-haul necessary for incremental school reform in districts to accumulate into something that matters in the lives of students and teachers.

Like building a house, putting in a foundation, wall framing, putting on a roof, wiring and plumbing are done in increments that end up being a finished house. So it is for school reform. Most zealous reformers–be they policymakers, school boards, philanthropists, CEOs–know that in their heads but seldom practice it. Building a house, of course, means the purpose and direction of change is obvious. Not so, for school reform.

District policymakers, administrators, and activist parents–stakeholders–seeing themselves as “agents of change”– seldom ask: change toward what end? Change in of itself becomes the desired outcome, not the district’s long-term direction (e.g., prepare students for an information-driven economy, build decent adults engaged in helping themselves and others). And that is why the short-winded are attracted to school reform. From charter schools to “disruptive innovations” to delivering computer devices en masse to students and teachers, rarely is the question asked: Do these new things take us in the direction that we want to take tax-supported public schools in a democracy? If yes, how? If no, why invest scarce resources in them?  Sprinters worship speed and seldom ask these questions; they want to make grand changes fast and cheap. Marathoners have the time and energy to ask the questions and figure out how to get from here to there in chunks, not all at one time. They seek quality–“good”–over fast and cheap.

I have written a few times about long distance runners as urban superintendents (see here). District marathoners means serving at least a decade in the post. Consider Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with political, economic, and demographic challenges over which they had no control. Moreover,  because they were mostly minority districts there were continuing problems of low achievement and test score gaps between minorities and whites that were tough to solve. Criticism often stung. Yet these marathoners quietly and steadily chipped away at these problems.  Their teachers, by and large, were supportive of their school chiefs’ efforts even when local teacher unions disagreed with parts of each one’s reform agenda. These urban superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Then there are a few smaller urban districts that have shifted from mostly white to mostly minority and, in doing so, have still maintained academic achievement even though school boards have changed membership, budget crises occurred, governance shifted, and states required districts to alter programs. In such an ever-changing political context rife with socioeconomic problems, these superintendents hung in, starting new programs here, bolstering older programs there. They worked closely with teachers either within collective bargaining contracts or through meet-and-confer. They not only knew that teachers and teaching were central to student improvement but acted again and again to help teachers do what they did best. In these smaller districts, they worked incrementally towards overall district goals amid demographic shifts and ever-increasing state requirements. One such district prided itself on long-winded superintendents who, with its school board, achieved enviable student outcomes over decades.

The urban district is Arlington (VA).  Since the late-1970s, through shifts in school board governance–Arlington went from appointed to elected board members–and long-serving superintendents, the district has established and maintained a reputation for academic excellence (however measured) as it has changed gradually from a majority-white to majority-minority district. Between 1974 and 2015, for example, the district has had only five superintendents. The current superintendent has been in the post since 2009 and was recently selected as Virginia superintendent for 2014. Public participation in an array of citizen committees including parent involvement in school site decision-making have become an Arlington tradition. Although collective bargaining is banned by the state, teacher and administrative unions have worked closely with district leaders in achieving the school board’s strategic plan. Incremental changes aimed at achieving desired student outcomes have been executed decade after decade to achieve that vision. Sure, there are organizational, curricular, and instructional issues that bother both parents and teachers and need attention. But for an urban district, that kind of continuity in district leadership, public participation, and sustained high academic performance is uncommon.

As John Gardner said: “reform is not for the short-winded.”


Filed under Reforming schools

High Performing Minority Districts: An Anomaly?

For the past half-century, efforts to improve largely minority and poor schools have occupied the best minds and received substantial private and public monies. Recall the Effective Schools movement of the 1980s and the federally funded Comprehensive School Reform program in the 1990s.  In the past quarter-century, however, there has been a shift from federal and state officials and private donors looking at individual schools to focusing on districts as the key site for academic improvement. This shift in attention from the individual school to the district marks a return to what has been the historic  pattern of improving schools.

Turning around failing urban districts through law (e.g. No Child Left Behind), federal grants (e.g., School Improvement Grants in the Race To The Top program), and cash prizes (e.g., The Broad Prize in Urban Education) are only the most recent of many well-intentioned efforts. There are, of course, urban districts, large and small, poor and minority, that have been high performing academically but in most of these cases, they were like shooting stars—brilliant for a time, maybe enough to snatch an award, and get cited in a study then poof, gone from sight (see here for Chicago and Atlanta as high achieving districts). The suspension of the one million dollar Broad Prize in Urban Education (2015) underscores how enormously difficult it is for urban districts to maintain improved academic performance. There are, then, very few urban, largely minority districts that have sustained high academic achievement (whatever the metrics) for a decade or more through demographic shifts and school board and superintendent turnover. I did say “very few” so there are some.

Examples might help. The Minority Student Achievement Network  of small cities and first-ring suburbs with 3,000 to 33,000 students has academically high performing districts with sustained improvements using multiple measures. Federal Way (WA), Evanston (IL), Brookline (MA), and Arlington (VA) have demonstrated reductions in the white/minority achievement gap, rising test scores, high graduation and low dropout rates. These districts, to the best of my knowledge have gone unresearched and unevaluated by independent agencies and scholars.

The significant and unaddressed policy question is: How can a largely minority urban school system sustain high student performance in its schools, and classrooms for decades?

Unfortunately, district improvement remains a black box into which hunches, anecdotes, and personal experiences are tossed in the hope that dedication, hard work, and luck will turn failure into success. The absence of relevant research on long-term, high achieving urban districts has been painfully, even embarrassingly, obvious. Looking at a few urban districts that have had sustained success in raising and maintaining high academic achievement over time is a research strategy that can have substantial policy payoff since it is the district that has capacity and resources to make key governance, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes.

Some analysts have identified urban districts that have raised and sustained students’ achievement (e.g., Long Beach, California and Aldine, Texas—both past Broad Prize winners) but independent in-depth, longitudinal studies of those districts have yet to be done. A few researchers have discovered such urban districts that have achieved academic success over longer periods of time. David Kirp (Improbable Scholars, 2013) did that for Union City (NJ); Jane David and Joan Talbert researched Sanger (CA) over the past decade (Turning Around a High-Poverty District, 2013). These qualitative case studies of districts with about 10,000 students each documented various factors that researchers believe answer the how-they-did-it question (e.g., superintendent tenure, school board continuity, funding, principal leadership, district culture). What configuration of factors might explain the decades-long high academic performance of these and other districts, I cannot say now. Until researchers investigate systematically such high performing districts, no policymaker, practitioner, or parent would find out whether patterns that have been studied would compliment, challenge, or amend what has occurred in the few urban districts that have already been examined.

But there is one important factor that would need to be added to the research agenda for such studies.  When investigating uncommonly successful urban districts, the classroom impact of policies on teachers goes unreported. Little systematic examination of the link between adopted policies and actual classroom lessons has been done beyond occasional teacher surveys. In any study of high performing, largely minority districts, I and other researchers should examine academic subjects to determine the impact of system policy on classroom content and pedagogy over time. Recently, I have studied the teaching of history over the past half-century in two urban districts. “Teaching History Then and Now: Stability and Change in Classroom Instruction” (forthcoming from Harvard Education Press). Were I to do such a study of successful urban districts, I would not only look at demographic, political and organizational factors that may explain continuity in academic achievement over time but also inspect what happens in classroom lessons to see what links, if any, exist between district policy and classroom practice.

Investigating urban schools that have sustained academic achievement over time is surely worthwhile but limited since such a school may be a few blocks away from a school that continually fails its students. It is the stable, high-performing district as the unit of reform that offers the most gain for the largest number of students that needs to be studied and analyzed.




Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

The Day of Three Miracles (Education Realist)

 For over thirty years, market-driven policies to improve schooling in the U.S. such as standards, testing and accountability have had at their core the belief that both academic excellence and equity–two prized values in this culture–can be achieved at the same time. From No Child Left Behind to Core Curriculum standards, these values advance this belief that both are simultaneously achievable. What Jack Schneider calls “excellence for all” approach to school reform. When value-driven policies meet school and classroom practice, when resources are limited and choices have to be made, however, dilemmas occur because values often conflict and resources are limited. Choices have to be made. Education Realist describes such tensions when academic excellence and equity collide in this story about a high school math department.

Education Realist is a math and history teacher. I have visited this teacher’s classes in math and history on two occasions, and have come to respect the method and curriculum I’ve observed. Education Realist, who wishes to remain anonymous, is also one fine writer who explores tensions and dilemmas that teachers face. Here is one.

A colleague who I’ll call Chuck is pushing the math department to set a department goal. Chuck is in the process of upgrading our algebra 1 classes, and his efforts were really improving outcomes for mid to high ability levels, although the failure rates were a tad terrifying. He has been worried for a while that the successful algebra kids would be let down by subsequent math teachers who would hold his kids to lower standards.

“If we set ourselves the goal of getting one kid from freshman algebra all the way through to pass AP Calculus, we’ll improve instruction for everyone.” (Note: while the usual school year doesn’t allow enough time, our “4×4 full-metal block” schedule makes it possible for a dedicated kid to take a double year of math if he chooses).

Chuck isn’t pushing this goal for the sake of that one kid, as he pointed out in a recent meeting. “If we are all thinking about the kid who might make it to calculus, we’ll all be focused on keeping standards high, on making sure that we are teaching the class that will prepare that kid–if he exists–to pass AP Calculus.”

I debated internally, then spoke up. “I think the best way to evaluate your proposal is by considering a second, incompatible objective. Instead of trying to prepare every kid who starts out behind as if he can get to calculus, we could try to improve the math outcomes for the maximum number of students.”

“What do you mean?”

“We could look at our historical math completion patterns for entering freshmen algebra students, and try to improve on those outcomes. Suppose that a quarter of our freshmen take algebra. Of those students, 10% make it to pre-calc or higher. 30% make it to trigonometry, 50% make it to algebra 2, and the other 10% make it to geometry or less. And we set ourselves the goal of reducing the percentages of students who get no further than geometry or even, ideally, algebra 2, while increasing the percentages of kids who make it into trigonometry and pre-calc by senior year.”

“That’s what will happen with my proposal, too.”

“No. You want us to set standards higher, to ensure that kids getting through each course are only those qualified enough to go to Calculus and pass the AP test. That’s a small group anyway, and while you’re more sanguine than I am about the efficacy of instruction on academic outcomes, I think you’ll agree that a large chunk of kids simply won’t be the right combination of interested and capable to go all the way through.”

“Yes, exactly. But we can teach our classes as if they are.”

“Which means we’ll lose a whole bunch of kids who might be convinced to try harder to pass advanced math classes that weren’t taught as if the only objective was to pass calculus. Thus those kids won’t try, and our overall failure rate will increase. This will lower math completion outcomes.”

Chuck waved this away. “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. There’s nothing incompatible about increasing math completion and setting standards high enough to get kids from algebra to calculus. We can do both.”

I opened my mouth…and decided against further discussion. I’d made my point. Half the department probably agreed with me. So I decided not to argue. No, really. It was, like, a miracle.

Chuck asked us all to think about committing to this instruction model.

Later that day, I ran into Chuck in the copyroom, and lo, a second miracle took place.

“Hey,” he said. “I just realized you were right. We can’t have both. If we get the lowest ability kids motivated just to try, we have to have a C to offer them, and that lowers the standard for a C, which ripples on up. We can’t keep kids working for the highest quality of A if we lower the standards for failure.”

Both copiers were working. That’s three.


I do not discuss my colleagues to trash them, and if this story in any way reflects negatively on Chuck it’s not intentional. Quite the contrary, in fact. Chuck took less than a day to grasp my point and realized his goal was impossible. We couldn’t enforce higher standards in advanced math without dooming far more kids to failure, which would never be tolerated.

Thus the two of us collapsed a typical reform cycle to six hours from the ten years our country normally takes to abandon a well-meant but impossible chimera. …


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, school reform policies