Tag Archives: school reform

Physics Teacher Speaks Out on Technology (Alice Flarend)

“Alice Flarend is a National Board Certified Teacher and is the physics teacher at Bellwood-Antis High School in Pennsylvania.  She holds a B.S and M.S in Nuclear Engineering from University of Illinois and University of Michigan respectively. Alice caught the teaching bug while doing engineering doctoral work at the University of Michigan and has been teaching for over twenty years.  She is currently working part time on a Science Education Ph.D at Penn State.  She plans on remaining in her classroom to be a bridge between the worlds of higher education  and public K-12 schools.”


Technology will revolutionize the classroom! I have been hearing these promises for most of my 20 year physics teaching career and yet there is scant high quality evidence for it. Cyber schools show little learning (https://credo.stanford.edu/pdfs/OnlineCharterStudyFinal2015.pdf). The OECD found “no appreciable improvement in student achievement” with large scale investments in computer technology. (http://www.oecd.org/edu/students-computers-and-learning-9789264239555-en.htm). Computer technology seems like such a natural fit in the classroom. Why has it not been the game changer that it should be?

I claim that most educational applications of technology ignore what we know about basic learning theory. Technology is viewed as the whole toolbox, table, chairs and school rather than a tool itself.

We know that humans individually construct their knowledge and this construction is heavily influenced by a person’s prior knowledge and experiences. We also know language is the primary vehicle by which knowledge is constructed (http://ac-journal.org/journal/vol5/iss3/special/jones.pdf). Contrast this with most uses of technology where the learner passively watches multimedia presentations, clicks through an online textbook or manipulates a meaningless simulation. The learner appears to be active, but we commonly mistake clicking with thinking.

A useful analogy for learning is the construction of a building. Tools and materials are needed but are useless unless there is an architectural design that is structurally sound and suited to the owner. Technology can provide the materials and can be tools, but the teacher is needed to design instruction for their students. The teacher is the architect and the contractor. The idea that people are pondering whether we will even need teachers in the future illustrates the misapplication of technology.

To illustrate this disconnect, a personal story helps. Early in my career I participated in a summer-long institute on teaching physics using inquiry. That experience really changed my teaching.

Back in my classroom, student learning did improve, but not to the degree that I expected. They were highly engaged in hands-on experiments and problem solving. I appeared to be doing everything right. However, my students were still not achieving deep conceptual understanding. They still needed me to tell them the physics even though they had just correctly answered questions during the lab. What was I doing wrong? I found the missing piece at the beginning of my doctoral program in science education when I completed classes on learning theory. I was using lots of tools but without a sufficient plan. I was not explicitly using their prior knowledge so my students looked at this new information wearing the lenses of their old ideas. I was not giving my students opportunities to talk and to write deeply about the science. My students were doing without thinking.

This brings me back to technology. Technology can provide efficient access to content but it teacher must manipulate the technology to fit the student, the curriculum. Google can provide factual information on almost any topic, but without design, those facts remain a pile of useless lumber. A simulation could be effective at addressing a common scientific misconception. The students could use it to test their prior knowledge, gather data to find a pattern or model a complex scenario. Without a design, however, the students will “play” but fail to develop a robust understanding. Too often the lesson is built around the technology rather than the technology helping to build the lesson.

Large-scale technology products with their all encompassing content, assessment and monitoring give the illusion of building knowledge. The program, however, cannot deviate from its code. A student must choose everything from a pre-generated list. There is no chance for spontaneous conversation about a meaningful detail that addresses a student’s unique prior knowledge. There is no sharing of examples from a student’s life that can then be discussed to expand beyond the textbook example. Without even trying, meaningful conversations occur in face-to-face classrooms. They must be “allowed” in digital settings.

Online discussion boards may seem a substitute for these conversations, but there is not the give and take needed for successful construction. Missing is the intonation, the emotions, the smiles and frowns, which are all a part of effective human communication. Google Docs can help kids co-construct knowledge but there must be a rich, teacher-constructed prompt requiring the knowledge of the entire group. If it can be answered or created by a single person, there is no need of a sharing tool.

I do hope that technology will help students learn. But, there will be no game-changing tech revolution. Let’s instead use it as a tool in rich lessons that help our students construct deep understandings rather than choose a lettered answer.




Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Technology Evangelists, Skeptics, and Those in the Middle

In a recent post from EdSurge (November 5, 2015), the following graphic was shown:



The text in EdSurge accompanying the graphic said:

Everyone loves a good metaphor–and this week, New Jersey principal Jon Cohen made us think with this “pencil metaphor” graphic posted via Twitter, describing the educator spectrum of edtech lovers and resistors [sic]. Where does your school fall? Do you have a lot of leaders, or or are you struggling to convert the “erasers”? We bet this newsletter can help you “sharpen” your skills, even though we all … suffer a few breaks now and then!

EdSurge evangelizes for more and better high-tech use in schools. They ask entrepreneurs and hard-core advocates of more devices in schools to listen to both students and teachers before marketing their particular mousetrap to the world. But this post is not about EdSurge. It is about two graphics, the one above and one below.


I begin with the pencil graphic. While titled “Integrating Technology in Schools” it slams all those teachers and principals who do not leap on the latest high-tech bandwagon careening through school boards and superintendent offices. The graphic assumes that all high-tech innovations are positive for both teachers and students. Those who wait and ask questions are labeled “resisters.”

The “leaders” and “sharp ones” at the pointy end of the pencil are the early adopters, implying that they are both smart and astute about teaching and learning while those further down the pencil’s shaft–the “wood” and “hangers on”–are way behind the curve as adopters. Then those at the “ferrule” and “eraser” end of the pencil are active resisters, even enemies, of using tech in the classroom. This is, of course, nonsense but it does mirror many an evangelist’s view of teachers and students using (and not using) devices and software in schools and classrooms. The title is a misnomer since nothing here is about “integrating” high-tech into school routines or classroom lessons.

The pencil graphic, at best, is a warped version of Everett Rogers‘ “diffusion of innovation” graph that he had published in his 1962 book (it is in its 5th edition now). Diffusion of Innovations has been a staple of those interested in institutional and sector innovation across agriculture, medicine, health care, business, and, naturally, education for over a half-century. But, at worst, the pencil graphic is an unfunny indictment of those teachers, students, and parents who raise questions, express skepticism, and lay out reservations about the wisdom of mindlessly adopting the next new thing produced for schools and classrooms.

Now, look at Roger’s graph of adopters. Rogers avoided the loaded words used to describe adopters except for “laggards.” in the U.S., few teachers would puff out their chest after being called a “laggard.” Rogers was aware that the graph he constructed prized innovation–that it is “good” to adopt a new idea, practice, or technology– and possibly from that core assumption, the word “laggard” snuck into the categories. The five categories Rogers created roughly map onto the “pencil” but note the far more negative and positive language in the pencil graphic.

For each category, there are many examples among teachers. The sixth grade teacher who bought and brought into her school the first Mac machine was an innovator. The first teacher in a building who designed a piece of software just for her class is another innovator. Early Adopters are those teachers who first tried out email, spread sheets, iPods, iMacs, laptops, and tablets in their classrooms shortly after they heard about them or the district technology director invited teachers to demonstrations of the hardware and software. As the number of teachers seeing colleagues using devices and software spread, more teachers asked those early users how it worked, for what kinds of lessons they were used, and even watched the tools being used in lessons. In many schools, two-thirds of the teachers (Early and Late Majority) became occasional (weekly or monthly) to daily users. In short, these teacher-users became the middle of Rogers’ graph. In every school, however, there were non-users and reluctant participants–“laggards,” in Rogers’ phrase.

Seldom did the categories and percentages of “innovators” to “laggards” map perfectly onto specific schools or districts. What Rogers built was a map for researchers and practitioners to use in understanding how innovations–again, a positively charged concept in U.S. culture–spread across sectors and in institutions. It is a heuristic, not GPS directions for innovators.

Evangelists would find the “pencil” to their liking because of the shared assumptions under-girding the clever graphic. Those assumptions are dominant in the U.S. where if you do not have the latest device or software, eyes roll or snide comments get said. Evangelists for technology seldom engage in reflection because they are true believers. True believers seldom entertain questions or skepticism because they are often taken as an attack upon bedrock principles.

And for teachers, principals, parents who ask questions or raise issues about the new technologies, they risk being called resisters, an epithet that in U.S. culture, enamored with innovation and technology, is akin to the Scarlet Letter.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

More Magical Thinking about Technology in Schools

I watched the World Series and saw both New York Mets and Kansas City Royal fans wearing hats, shirts, and displaying signs designed to get their teams to win. I saw similar clothes and painted faces on soccer fans during the World Cup. The belief, the intuition that these caps and jerseys would get their teams to win borders on superstition. And most fans would agree. Yet, yet, yet just maybe wearing the stuff, painting the face, and holding signs aloft would be just the thing that would snatch defeat from the other team. As a recent op-ed put it: fans “have an powerful intuition and, despite its utter implausibility, they can’t just shake it.”  The contradiction is aptly caught in the title of the opinion piece: “Believing What You Don’t Believe.”

This is no rant, however, about how emotion trumps reason or how thinking thoughts (or fans waving signs) will produce the desired outcome. Nor will this post elaborate how our cognitive “slow” and “fast” thinking ways do not always work in sync or that our “slow thinking” will correct the impulsive move where we have “trusted our gut. ” In this post, I again look at how local, state, and federal policymakers, high-tech entrepreneurs, and CEOs of major corporations engage in “magical thinking.” Inhabiting a technocratic mind-set, these leaders who rely on experts  believe that more and more use of high-tech tools will provide the adrenaline shot for U.S. schools to match international rivals’ test scores and lead ultimately to a larger share of the global market for U.S. goods and services.

I offer two examples of high-tech industry and civic leader aspirations to link all public schooling to the job market and larger economy that highlight this phenomenon: MOOCs and every child learning to code and taking computer science courses.


Massive Open Online Courses burst on the scene three years ago with claims that such courses offered free to anyone on this planet with an Internet connection will–here come the key words–“revolutionize” and “transform” higher education.  John Hennessey, President of Stanford University, said a “tsumani is coming.” Equity and excellence, values that both liberals and conservatives cherish, will be fulfilled. Nothing of the sort happened (see here, here, and here). In the Gartner “hype” cycle, MOOCs are buried in the “slough of disillusionment.” All within three years. High-tech hyperactivity has compressed time into bytes.



Coding and Computer Science

Young children learning to code in elementary schools while their older brothers and sisters take computer science in high school is currently in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” in the above hype cycle. Consider that the British government has gone even further than the mania gripping the U.S. by mandating in its national curriculum that all UK children learn to code and take computer science in their secondary schools (see here and here).  The UK “computing” curriculum is, of course, a national experiment in further vocationalizing public schooling to tie education to the economy. With no national curriculum in the U.S. (Common Core state standards is a pale, decentralized version of such an effort), the surge of interest in coding (e.g., Year of the Code, next month’s celebratory week of Computer Science, coding boot camps), much of it financed by tech industry giants, has seized the spotlight of attention. That attention has shifted from every student having access to computers in school–very close to being a fact in the U.S.–to using these devices in classroom lessons. From kindergartners getting lessons on coding to online courses to blended learning to flipped classrooms, the mania for computers in schools has corralled both public and private funding as the high-tech solution to students becoming equipped with 21st century skills.

To be clear, I do not refer to those tens of thousands of teachers and principals who, with care and thoughtfulness, have slowly integrated their devices and software into lessons to teach content, skills, and creativity. They keep their heads down and often escape the mania I refer to above.

So is there anything intrinsically wrong with pushing coding and computer science in U.S. schools? After all, both are being sold to school boards and parents as ways of teaching logic, thinking skills, as well as preparation for future jobs.  So on the surface, nothing appears to be unseemly. Underneath the surface, however, are two matters that often go unnoted by advocates of coding and computer science.

First, the original trio of goals for computers entering schools and classrooms since the early 1980s were improving academic achievement of students, altering the traditional patterns of teaching and learning, and preparing the next generation for the labor market. Nowadays, few champions of computers in schools even mention academic achievement or talk of “transforming” teaching and learning through laptops and tablets. But the vocational goal does remain in the current joy for teaching children and youth to write code and create algorithms.

Second, is the historic pattern of focusing on public schools as a national problem to be solved (think segregated schools, national defense, drug and alcohol addictions as problems that schools could “solve”) and seeking another “technical” solution to its ills. In this instance, injecting coding and computer science, online instruction into K-16 schooling. Such a technocratic strategy aims to alter traditional curriculum and lessons for one over-riding purpose to get ready for an ever-changing, fast-moving job market and economy.

So here again within a few years, “magical thinking” about the power of technical products to tie schools to the economy via coding and computer science has arisen even in the face of the dramatic shift in goals for these high-tech products over the past three decades and the failure of MOOCs to gain traction in higher education since 2012.

The feel-good attitude of World Series and World Cup fans who wear jerseys and hats believing that to do so will help their teams win is alive and well in the high-tech community.







Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Reimagining the U.S. High School: An Open Letter to Laurene Powell Jobs (Part 1)

Dear Mrs. Laurene Powell Jobs:

I commend you for initiating a national challenge to transform the comprehensive high school into a Super School and putting $50 million on the stump for experts, parents, practitioners, and academics to compete for in creating better high schools than exist now. Reinventing the high school should generate an enormous range of suggestions for your expert panel to consider after the national round of open meetings end in November. What you are launching is worthwhile especially if it were to spark a national conversation about the goals of tax-supported public schools in a democracy where the economy has shifted from industrial-based to an information-driven one. Whether that conversation (and debate, I hope) will occur depends greatly, I believe, on you and your associates knowing about how high schools have, indeed, changed over the past century and, of equal importance, the checkered history of efforts to “transform” the U.S. high school. That historical knowledge should be one ingredient in considering different groups’ proposals inspired by your challenge.

The most recent serious effort to alter the comprehensive high school was when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured over $2 billion into creating small high schools 15 years ago, an effort that the Gates Foundation shut down in 2009. Yet “small high schools” persist–it is one of the changes in high schools that I refer to above–because they personalize instruction for many students heretofore ignored in conventional comprehensive high schools.

Knowing that public high schools have changed in small and big ways over the past century is essential in making wise funding decisions. The original comprehensive high school in the 1920s with its diversified curriculum catered to the broad range of student interests and aptitudes. It was an innovation that “transformed” the previous academically narrow high school of the 1890s. Since then, repeated efforts to reform the reform have occurred. In the 1950s, for example, former Harvard University president, James Bryce Conant, called for an overhaul of the high school; a decade later, attacks on the sterile comprehensive high school produced a flurry of alternative and “free” high schools. Ted Sizer launched the Coalition of Essential Schools in the late 1980s with its nine “common principles” and hundreds of those high schools exist across the nation. In the early 1990s, a privately funded venture called the New American Schools Development Corporation, later shortened to New American Schools, spread “whole school reform” models to elementary and secondary schools throughout the U.S. As one advocate put it: those seeking grants from NASDC will have to “cast aside their old notions about schooling–to start with a clean sheet of paper, and be bold and creative in their thinking, and to give us ideas that address comprehensive, systemic change for all students for whole schools.” And in the early 2000s, the Gates Foundation underwrote the move to downsize large comprehensive high schools into small ones. My point is that the high school you want to “transform” has changed many times in past decades. It has never been frozen in amber.

In all of those previous reforms, fundamental questions divided those seeking major changes in the comprehensive high school  then and now.

*What should students learn?

*Should all students learn the same thing?

*how should students best learn?

*Who should decide answers to these questions?

Every attempt to “transform” the comprehensive high school since the 1920s wrestled with these questions. Each generation of reformers came up with answers only to see that a subsequent generation of reformers supplied different answers to the same questions. Knowing that history and the particulars of past efforts to “transform” the high school is essential to the current generation of reformers that you seek to inspire, Mrs. Jobs.

I write this open letter to you not to depress you or your staff about earlier efforts to “revolutionize” high schools.  Historians have gained a bad reputation by pointing out previous failures in trying to reform government, medical practice,  the criminal justice system, and yes, public schools. What historians do know is that economic, political, and social contexts change and when past reformers bent their minds and hearts to “transforming” the public high school in the 1920s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, and since the 1990s those times differed greatly one from the other. History as a wise observer once said, surely doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. Which brings me to my one suggestion.

Among your retinue of experts to advise you on funding proposals, I ask that you include a historian of education who knows the past and its rich collection of previous attempts to bring the high school into alignment with a society undergoing profound economic, political,and social changes as is occurring here and now. There are many fine historians of education. A short list might include Jonathan Zimmerman, William Reese, Geraldine Clifford, John Rury, Diane Ravitch, Carl Kaestle, Ellen Lagemann, and David Labaree. I hope you will tap their knowledge and insights.

Knowing about past high school reforms, I believe, will inform your decisions about which grants to approve amid current controversies over Common Core standards and increased state testing. If you want to increase the probability of success in this venture, such historical knowledge can arm you and your staff sufficiently to make wise decisions when it comes to “transforming” U.S. high schools.


Larry Cuban




Filed under Reforming schools

OECD Report: Puzzles To Solve (Part 2)

In this post, I will sketch out two puzzles that emerge from the OECD report, “Students, Computers, and Learning.” The first arises from the gap between high PISA test scores and low use of computers in school in particular countries. The second puzzle is trying to explain the inattention that media both mainstream (newspapers, magazines, network news) and side-stream (opinion and curated blogs, Twitter) has paid to this report.

Puzzle 1: Students from countries that score high on PISA in 2012 spend less time in school using computers than European and North American students.

International test comparisons have driven the past thirty years of school reform in the U.S. Doing poorly on international rankings has prodded reformers to call for U.S. students to copy Asian and Scandanavian countries in their language, math, and science lessons. The OECD report on computers in 60-plus countries’ schools, however, offers empirical data that raise serious questions about one sturdy pillar of U.S. school reform: more access to and use of high-tech devices and software will improve teaching and learning.

Consider that 15 and 16-year old students in Singapore, Korea, Japan, China (Hong-Kong and Shanghai),  have scored higher on PISA (first, second, third, fourth, and sixth) than the U.S. (twelfth) yet–this is one big “yet’–have less access to computers in their schools and spend less time in school on the Internet (pp.18- 22). Thus, the report concludes: “PISA results show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education” (p.15).

How come? Why the disparity in the above countries between access and use of computers in schools (all of the above countries have very high rates of computers in homes) and scores on PISA. No cause and effect do I suggest. This is a puzzling correlation that goes against the non-stop championing of school reformers who tout the virtues of getting more and more devices and software into U.S. classrooms. The OECD report does suggest one tantalizing (and possible) reason, however. Maybe, just maybe, the thinking and writing skills necessary to navigate the Internet and read with understanding web articles and documents, as the OECD report says, can be just as well taught in conventional lessons without use of tablets, laptops, and top-of-the-line software (pp. 15-16). The puzzle remains.

Puzzle 2: Media attention to the OECD report has been minimal, especially in high-tech rich areas.

The report appeared on September 13, 2015. “Warp speed” news in the 24/7 media cycle guaranteed immediate reference to the report. And a flurry of articles in U.S., European, and Asian news outlets appeared (see here, here, here, and here). Within days, the report had been picked up by bloggers and occasional tweeters. Many of the articles and news briefs leaned heavily on OECD press releases and statements in the document by Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills for OECD. In the U.S., national and regional newspapers and network TV stations ran pieces on the report (see here, here, and here).

In those areas of the U.S. where high-tech businesses are crucial parts of the economy (e.g., California’s Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, Boston, Massachusetts) barely a passing reference to the OECD report. None at all (as of 9/22) appeared in news organizations in the San Jose-to-San Francisco corridor. Of course, it may be a matter of time–I scoured Google’s references to the OECD report for only 10 days after it appeared. In the face of the ever-hungry news cycle, however, if the OECD report went unnoticed after it appeared, chances that the report’s findings on computer access, use, and academic performance turning up later are slim, given the media imperative to produce fresh news hourly. There may well be analyses in magazines, journals, and the blogosphere that appear weeks or months later but after 10 days, the report will be stale and forgettable news.

Here’s what’s puzzling me: National coverage in the U.S. of the OECD report was spotty. While the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post ran pieces on the report, The New York Times has not made reference to it. And in the nation’s hot spots for birthing hardware, software, and apps in northern California, Texas, and Boston, barely a mention. How come?

I can only speculate about the little attention that this eye-catching report on the connections between computer access, use, and performance has attracted at a moment in time in the U.S. when entrepreneurs and vendors promise efficient and effective management of resources and student improvement in reading, math, and science. Across the nation more and more school districts are spending scarce dollars on tablets, laptops, and software. My hunch is that the mindsets of high-tech entrepreneurs, vendors, media executives, foundation officials, and school district policymakers  contain deep-set beliefs in the power of technology to make fundamental changes in every sector of society, including schools. When occasional reports like the OECD one  appear that challenge the beliefs, it is occasionally noted but not taken seriously or simply ignored. Academics call this inability to absorb information running counter to one’s beliefs, “confirmation bias.” My hunch is that the OECD report has been largely dismissed by ever-scanning mainstream and side-stream media editors, journalists, and bloggers precisely because of this bias toward the power of computers and technology to whip schools into academic shape.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

“Lack of Computers in Schools May Be a Blessing”–OECD Report (Part 1)

The above headline comes from the Irish Times (September 15, 2015) reporting on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study: “Students, Computers, and Learning.” Other online and print media headlines on the OECD report capture in simple words different aspects of the report: “Schools Wasting Money on Computers for Kids” or “Putting More Technology in Schools May Not Make Kids Smarter.” Of course, headlines are compressed sentence fragments seeking to convey the essence of the study.

But media DNA requires going for the sizzle, not the steak.

I have read the report’s Executive Summary, looked at the tables of over 60 countries tracking changes in computer access and use, student performance, and national expenditures between 2009 and 2012. Measuring student performance (ages 15 and 16) was the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that covers countries in Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America.

Here are some of the takeaways I gathered from the study.

*Increased access and use of computers in over 60 countries between 2009 and 2012 has yet to translate into improved PISA scores in reading, mathematics. or science in these nations (p. 15).

*The thinking and writing skills necessary to navigate the Internet successfully in a digitally-dominated society can be taught and learned with “conventional … pedagogies and tools.” (pp. 15-16).

*”In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching” (p. 17).

As the array of headlines indicate there are different interpretations that can be extracted from the OECD research report (including mine). Surely, the notable increase in access to devices and software is an accomplishment just as increased student and teacher use of both in lessons. What is newsworthy to me, of course, is that one-leg of the three-legged stool justifying buying these devices since the 1980s was academic improvement. The other two were that the new technologies would transform teaching and get students ready for an information-driven labor market. The academic improvement leg has wobbled badly since then from the scarcity of evidence to support the claim of improved achievement. The OECD report severs improved test scores from the list of reasons to buy tablets, laptops, hand-held devices, and accompanying software. What about the other two legs of that stool justifying purchase of new hardware and software?

Transforming teaching from teacher-directed to student-centered has been a pipe dream. Yes, those teachers already inclined to develop student-centered lessons or already doing them latched on to computers (whether in labs, or with 1:1 laptops and tablets) to do better what they were already doing. But “transforming” teacher-centered instruction to student-centered for most teachers–given the constraints of the age-graded school and work demands placed upon teachers–has not occurred.

The third leg of that stool has been preparing students for an information-based society (and labor market). That reason has become the over-riding public justification policymakers give  for buying a trove of hardware and software in the past decade. Note that I used the word “public” in the prior sentence. Covert reasons for buying high-tech devices and software is simply the political pressure on school boards and superintendents to keep up with adjoining districts and reassuring parents and local voters that their children and youth are using up-to-date tools in school and being prepared for all those high-paying jobs in the computer industry, finance, engineering, robotics, etc. ,etc. Keeping up with the Jones may not have started with schools but it surely has infiltrated policy decisions when it comes to new technologies.

The shift to justifying outlays of so much public money for tablets, interactive whiteboards, and glamorous software shows up in the mania for requiring high school students to take computer science courses (see New York City). The spread of coding camps and teaching kindergarteners to write code (see here and here) are also part of this rationale for buying more and more devices and software with scarce education dollars.

So within the past decade, the three-legged rationale justifying district decisions to buy laptops, tablets, and new software has been demolished. No more hype about improving academic achievement. No more words about revolutionizing teaching. What remains is the strictly vocational aim of preparing this generation of students for jobs. As has occurred time and again during surges of school reform—inserting new technologies into classrooms is simply another reform–the deeper and more important issue gets side-stepped; What are the overall purposes of tax-supported public schools in a democracy?

The OECD report offers U. S. policymakers a rare opportunity to step back and ask why are we spending so much money on devices and software when the results in so many nations, including the U.S., show such little return on investment? In Part 2, I look at the response thus far to this report.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Guiding Principles on Teaching, Learning, and Reform

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters. So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

  1. No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.
  2. Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.
  3. School structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare  students for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.
  4. Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise. 

These are some of the principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. They offer criteria by which I can sort through reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.


Filed under Reforming schools