Tag Archives: school reform

The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, Part 2

In 1990, Seymour Sarason published The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. A decade later, Diane Ravitch’s Left Back:A Century of Failed School Reforms hit booksellers. Now, not a week goes by that failures of public school reform are dissected, tallied, and trotted out as exhibits for wannabe reformers. The next two posts re-frame school reform as looking at different clocks to show that the concept of reform  “failure”  has to include who makes the judgment and when.

Clocks?

In some upscale hotels over the registration desk, clocks show times across the globe.  Different time zones alert travelers to what time it is in the city they wish to call.

There are such clocks for school reform also. Different reform clocks record the different speeds of reform talk, policy adoption, what happens in classrooms, and what students learn. Were these clocks in public view, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers would see that changes in policy talk and action have occurred but at different speeds, some far too slow for impatient reformers to notice. Framing reform as being recorded by different clocks gives a glimpse into the myth of reforms constantly “failing.”

The myth, of course, has a history. It is anchored in commission reports (e.g., Nation at Risk), books (e.g., Left Back), and studies (e.g., Spinning Wheels) over the last century that document flurries of curricular, organizational, and instructional reforms. The myth also comes from the feverish rhetoric of entrepreneurial reformers who see failure everywhere in order to sell their particular product (e.g., “personalizing learning,”charter schools).

Yet the hyped policy talk, books, and documents seldom distinguish between major reforms that have stuck such as kindergartens, comprehensive high schools, coed and desegregated schools and those that have disappeared (e.g., educational radio and television, The Platoon School). Historians and thoughtful observers, however, have learned that school reform has a series of clocks that move at different speeds.

Media time. This is the fastest reform clock of all, ticking every day and week. What is  eye-grabbing and controversial registers on the media clock. Tweets, blogs, social media–and don’t forget newspaper and TV headlines–document immediate events and opinion, shaping and legitimizing what policymakers put on school reform agendas. Condom distribution in high schools, for example, received strong media exposure as a school policy aimed at solving teenage pregnancies. Policymakers talk about online technologies that will revolutionize teaching and learning.  In watching only the media clock, however, policymakers may wrongly conclude that what happens in one school happens everywhere and that what is reported actually occurred. And what didn’t happen in media time was evidence of “failure.”

Policymaker time. This clock chimes every year campaigns for national, state, and local offices crank up to re-elect incumbents or bring fresh faces to public posts. In some places, policymaker clocks tick faster when annual budgets or referendums come up for voter approval.

To offer a recent example, federal policymakers have defined schools as an arm for the economy. Since the 1990s, higher academic standards, copying corporate business practices, and advocating charters have been converted by top officials into campaign slogans. Presidents George H.W. Bush and son, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have pushed for world-class standards, charters,  and business-inspired reforms to raise students’ performance.

Policymaker time, then, runs on election cycles. “Failure” takes time. No Child Left Behind lasted nearly 15 years before it was replaced by Every Student Succeeds Act (2016).

Other clocks measure whether the overblown reform hype and adopted policies have turned into action, have been implemented. Enter the bureaucratic time zone.

Bureaucratic time. This clock records administrative actions aimed at putting policy decisions into practice. Often the hands of the faster media and slower policymaker clocks make a complete turn just as the bureaucratic clock passes the first hour. The lag between policymaker time and bureaucratic time occurs because of the complexity in converting policy into feasible, clear procedures for principals and teachers who do the actual work of schooling. The bureaucratic clock chimes when new rules are announced, revised budgets presented, and increased departmental coordination occurs. An example of how the hands on the bureaucratic clock are reduced to a crawl can be seen in desegregation.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) banned legally segregated schools. Studies recorded the tortured progress of judicial policymaking as state governors and local school boards across the South wrestled both peacefully and violently with implementing the decision—a school reform–between the 1950s and 1980s.  States and districts, prodded by federal court orders, slowly embraced open enrollment, busing, and other remedies for desegregating schools. Over time, district attendance boundaries were redrawn; schools were closed; magnet schools were opened. By the mid-1990s, a full four decades after the Brown decision, Southern and Southwestern schools had largely desegregated (except in big cities where re-segregation has occurred).Since then, de facto, not de jure re-segregation in many urban, suburban, and rural districts has returned.

The media, policymaking, and bureaucratic clocks, then, are seldom in sync. Important details that can spell the difference between “successful” and “failed implementation” take considerable time to craft and put into practice. Often political, demographic, and other non-school factors create greater lag time between the clocks making judgments of “failure” premature.

There are other clocks as well. The next post takes up practitioner and student learning clocks.

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Building More Affordable Housing Nearby (Mareesa Nicosia)

 

Mareesa Nicosia is a senior reporter at The 74. This post appeared December 4, 2016

This post offers another way to improve schooling for minority and poor children that acknowledges the strong links between neighborhood, housing, social services, and academic progress in schools. Patterned on a charter school in Atlanta, Kennedy Elementary School in Omaha needs not only additional funds (which they are receiving from donors) bu also a holistic (and generous) vision of what schools serving children of color require.

Class doesn’t start until 8 a.m. at Howard Kennedy Elementary School, but students line up an hour early every day, intent on getting in the doors in time for breakfast.

That’s how it’s been since school started in August, when Principal Tony Gunter poked his head out the front door around 7 a.m. and was startled to see a few dozen students standing on the steps, itching to get inside.

They’ve waited every morning since, Gunter told The 74 in a recent interview, until the doors open and staff welcomes them warmly inside, trading handshakes and high-fives as music courses through the halls.

Not long ago, though, there was little enthusiasm from students, their families — and staff, for that matter. The pre-K–5 school is located in North Omaha’s Highlander neighborhood, for decades one of the poorest, most segregated and most violent areas in the city of 440,000.

Roughly 97 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; about 22 percent are English-language learners, and 29 percent are refugees, higher than the district average in each case, according to 2015–16 data. While students have made gains on state test scores in recent years, the school had long been one of the worst-performing in Omaha, which serves about 52,000 students, and one of the lowest-ranked in Nebraska.

Enrollment has dwindled since the city tore down two thirds of deteriorating public-housing projects nearby. Its population of slightly more than 200 students is well below the building’s 600-student capacity, officials said.

But this year, Omaha Public Schools officials and their nonprofit partners are pushing the reset button — and drawing on the success of a charter school in Atlanta for inspiration.

Kennedy Elementary is at the center of an ambitious neighborhood-redevelopment project run by the 75 North Revitalization Corp., an Omaha nonprofit backed by Susan “Susie” Buffett, of the Sherwood Foundation, and her father, Warren Buffett. The organization and its donors are pouring about $10 million over the next five to 10 years into an initiative to transform the school, said Othello Meadows, 75 North’s executive director.

Gunter, the principal, said it’s the beginning of a long-term effort at Kennedy Elementary to raise standards for academic success and provide the resources students and staff need to meet those higher standards.

In the months since students returned, they’ve seemed to welcome the new level of rigor, Gunter said.

“[The kids] are just so hungry for knowledge. They are enjoying school, and it’s not like it’s easy,” he said. “We’re pushing them to really persevere through the things that they don’t know … or in areas of weakness in literature and math. When they say, ‘I don’t know it,’ or ‘I can’t do this,’ we’re really pushing them through to keep trying, and once they get it, we celebrate.”

At the same time, a $90 million construction project is underway to create hundreds of new mixed-income apartments and homes within walking distance of Kennedy Elementary. A community recreation center, dubbed “The Accelerator,” is also in the works. The idea is to surround the school with safe and affordable housing, recreational space and access to job training and health care for adults. A holistic approach to supporting families, with a high-performing school as the hub, is how the neglected Highlander community can begin to thrive, Meadows said.

“The best neighborhoods are the ones that kind of catapult you to success, [to] self-actualization,” Meadows said. “Whatever it is that somebody brings for themselves or wants to pursue, the neighborhood is actually an asset to pursuing that, and a lot of times that starts with a high-quality early-learning and preschool experience, followed by high-quality K-12 and college experience.”

The project is modeled on the work of Atlanta’s Purpose Built Schools, a national nonprofit network of neighborhood redevelopment projects with schools at their core. The organization opened its flagship K-5 Drew Charter School in Atlanta in 2000 (it recently added grades 9–12); since then, it has spawned similar efforts in cities like New Orleans, Houston, Charlotte and Birmingham. Most recently, it partnered with a group in Tulsa, Okla.

Students at Drew Charter School largely outperform their peers in Atlanta Public Schools and throughout Georgia, state data from 2013–15 show. That success hasn’t gone unnoticed — in fact, it led the Atlanta Public School district to seek out the organization’s help. Purpose Built Communities started managing several of the district’s lowest-performing schools this year.

In Omaha, changes at Kennedy Elementary began with a staffing overhaul this summer. Just 23 percent of certified staff were rehired for the 2016–17 year, a district spokesperson said.

Seven new positions have been created, including a social worker, a school psychologist, reading and math intervention specialists and a dean of literacy, according to a district spokeswoman. Another dean oversees science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) instruction, which is the focus of the new, project-based curriculum.

The 75 North funding primarily supports salaries for Kennedy teachers to work extended hours this year under a contract variance approved by the union. Classes started August 10, a week earlier than other elementary schools in the district, and the school day runs 45 minutes longer.

Ashley Hawthrone, one of the handful of employees who stayed at Kennedy Elementary amid the transition this year, said the new layer of support staff will intervene earlier when the most vulnerable students show signs of distress — and not just with academics.

Many students come to class having witnessed violence in their homes and their community, said Hawthrone. She’s spent the past six years teaching first grade and sixth grade and started a new role as school counselor this year.

“I think we’ve created a climate conducive for learning. We’re teaching to the whole child,” Hawthrone said. “We recognize that our students come with a lot of baggage, and we’re able to address those academic needs as well as those social and emotional needs.”

The district is working with outside partners to set up a health center at the school next year so students can get vision screenings and dental services.

Outside the school, plans call for construction of 300 rental and for-sale units, including multi-family apartment buildings, single-family homes and townhouses to be completed by 2020. The first 30 rental units are expected to be ready for occupancy in early 2017, Meadows said, with dozens more opening later in the year.

Meadows, who grew up in Omaha and was practicing law in Atlanta when he learned about Purpose Built Communities, said his community’s collective challenge in the coming months and years will be to remain focused on improving student achievement — and keep complacency at bay when the “honeymoon phase” at Kennedy inevitably fades.

“We really want to focus on trying to build up this well of resolve so that when those disappointments happen, when things don’t go exactly as planned, the attitude, the belief, the strength that is there right now remains,” he said in an interview in October.

The Omaha teachers union is a key player in the buy-in. The Omaha Education Association was initially “very reluctant and very nervous” about the prospect of the charter-school-inspired changes, said Chris Proulx, a physical education teacher who was union president from 2010 through the summer of 2016.

(Nebraska is one of the handful of states that has no charter law — the result of sustained resistance by teachers unions and state school board members — though some parent advocacy groups are now pushing lawmakers to support a bill in 2017. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has also indicated his support for charter schools.)

After Proulx visited the Drew Charter School in Atlanta last year and shared his observations with colleagues, the 2,600-member organization eventually signed off on a one-year contract variance to cover the longer work hours, Proulx said.

For now, donors are providing $1 million to $1.5 million annually to cover the added labor costs, Meadows said. If all goes as planned, the contributions will trickle off over time and the school district will be fully responsible for sustaining the changes, should they prove to be successful.

“Kennedy only has the flexibility that the district’s willing to give it,” Proulx said.

During the past three and a half years under Superintendent Mark Evans, the district has largely supported reform initiatives like the Kennedy school partnership: In 2015, the board approved the project in an 8–0 vote, the Omaha World Herald reported.

How the tone from the top may change next year remains to be seen. Evans announced he will retire at the end of this school year, and several newly elected board members will help to select a new superintendent in the spring.

Gunter, meanwhile, is navigating the sometimes tricky task of making sure Kennedy’s veteran educators and the new, young teachers hired this summer learn from one another and work as a team, in an environment where differences in race and socioeconomic status might easily spark friction.

Gunter worked at Omaha Public Schools for 16 years before leaving to work as a development executive for K-12 education at Apple. He returned to the community he calls home when the principal position at Kennedy became available and spent much of the 2015–16 school year observing how Drew Charter educators worked in Atlanta.

In creating a new school plan, he drew on his own experience growing up in North Omaha, he said, where many of his classmates had absentee parents, caught up in drugs, alcohol and violence, who didn’t bother to ensure that their children made it to school each day.

His own parents valued education and pushed him to excel in school, Gunter said, but “it wasn’t easy.”

“As a kid, every choice that I made every moment every day [could] determine the outcome of my future.”

The odds still aren’t great for Omaha’s black youth. Far fewer black male students in Nebraska graduate from high school (50 percent) than white males (86 percent), according to a 2015 report by the Schott Foundation.

But there’s optimism about the future, in Gunter’s view. And he makes that known every morning as he and his staff cultivate the high-energy atmosphere that students walk into as they head to the cafeteria for breakfast.

“We set the pace,” Gunter said. “We set the tone, and everyone that’s walked in this building [this school year] has told me that ‘Man, this place is different.’ There’s just a sense of excitement here, that people want to be here.”

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The AltSchool: Progressivism Redux (Part 2)

[Progressive schools] as compared with traditional schools [display] a common emphasis upon respect for individuality and for increased freedom; a common disposition to build upon the nature and experience of the boys and girls common to them, instead of imposing from without external subject-matter and standards. They all display a certain atmosphere of informality, because experience has proved that formalization is hostile to genuine mental activity and to sincere emotional expression and growth. Emphasis upon activity as distinct from passivity is one of the common factors….[There is] unusual attention to …normal human relations, to communication …which is like in kind to that which is found in the great world beyond the school doors.

John Dewey, 1928

Were John Dewey alive in 2016 and had he joined me in a brief visit to the AltSchool on October 20, 2016, he would, I believe, nodded in agreement with what he saw on that fall day and affirmed  what he said when he became honorary president of the Progressive Education Association in 1928.

The AltSchool embodies many of the principles of progressive education from nearly a century ago–as do other schools in the U.S.  Just as Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago (1896-1904) became a hothouse experiment as a private school, so has the AltSchool and its network of “micro-schools” in the Bay area and New York City over the past five years (see here, here, here, and here). Progressive schools, then and now, varied greatly yet champions of such schools from Dewey to Francis Parker to Jesse Newlon to Alt/School’s Max Ventilla believed they were already or about to become “good” schools.

One major difference, however, between progressives then and now were the current technologies. Unknown to Dewey and his followers in the early 20th century, new technologies have become married to these progressive principles in ways that reflect both wings of the earlier reform movement (see here).

In this post, I want to describe what I saw that morning in classrooms–sadly without the company of Dewey–and what I heard from the founder of the AltSchool network, Max Ventilla.

Alt/Schools

There are five “micro-schools” in San Francisco. I visited Yerba Buena, a K-8 school  of over 30 students whose daily schedule gives a hint of what it is about. I went unescorted into three classes –upper-elementary and middle school social studies and math lessons (primary classes were on a field trip to a museum)–which gave me a taste of the teaching, the content, student participation, and the level of technology integration. I spoke briefly with two of the three teachers whose lessons I observed and got a flavor of their enthusiasm for their students and the school.

For readers who want a larger slice of what this private school seeks to do (tuition runs around $26,000 for 2015-2016) can see video clips and read text about the philosophy, program, teaching staff, and the close linkages between technology in this and sister “micro-schools” (see Alt/school materials here)

Since I parachuted in for a few hours–I plan to see another “micro-school” soon–I cannot describe full lessons, the entire program, teaching staff or even offer an informed opinion of Yerba Buena. For those readers who want such descriptions (and judgments), there are journalistic accounts (see above) and the AltSchool’s own descriptions for parents (see above).

Yet what was clear to me even in the morning’s glimpse of a “micro-school” was that theoretical principles of Deweyan thought and practice in his Lab School over a century ago and the evolving network of both private and public progressive schools in subsequent decades across the nation was apparent in what I saw in a few classrooms at Yerba Buena. One doesn’t need a weather vane to see which way the wind is blowing.

But there was a modern twist and a new element in the progressive portfolio of practices: the ubiquitous use of technology by teachers and students as teaching and learning tools. Unlike most places that have adopted laptops and tablets wholesale, what I saw for a few hours was that the use of new technologies was in the background, not the foreground, of a lesson. Much like pencil and paper have been taken-for-granted tools in both teaching and learning over the past century, so now digital ones.

What I also found useful in looking at a progressive vision of private schooling in practice was my 45-minute talk with the founder of these experimental “micro schools.”

Max Ventilla

The founder of AltSchool has been profiled many times and has given extensive interviews (see here  and here). In many of these, the “creation story” of how he and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.

In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He sees beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wants to do well by doing good.

His conceptual framework for the network and its eventual growth is a mix of what he learned personally from starting and selling software companies and working at Google in personalizing users’ search results to increase consumer purchases (see here). Ventilla sees the half-dozen or more “micro-schools” in different cities as part of a long-term research-and-development strategy that would build networks of small schools as AltSchool designers, software engineers, and teachers learn from their mistakes. As they slowly get larger, key features of AltSchool–building personalized learning platforms, for example–will be licensed to private (see here) and eventually public schools.

Ventilla mixes the language of whole child development, individual differences, the importance of collaboration among children and between children and adults with business ideas and  vocabulary of “soft vs. hard technology,”  “crossing the threshold of efficacy,” “effects per costs,” and scaling up networks to eventually become profitable.

Progressivism–both wings (see Part 1) are present in AltSchool’s collecting huge amounts of data about students and  engineers (on site) with teachers using that data to create customized playlists for each of their K-8 students across all subject areas . Efficiency and effectiveness are married to progressive principles in practice.

That is the dream that I heard from Max Ventilla one October morning.

Part 2 will describe my visit to a nearby micro-school, South-of-Market (SOMA) where 33 middle school students (6th through 8th graders) attend.

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Revisiting Progressivism: Then and Now (Part 1)

Since January, I have visited classrooms, schools, and districts in Silicon Valley to see exemplars of technology integration. Posts appeared regularly over the past months describing individual elementary and secondary school teachers teaching lessons that put technology in the background, that is, laptops and tablets were as mundane as paper and pencil, in order to reach the content and skill goals they have set.

I intend to complete all of my observations and interviews by early December. Then I will re-read everything I wrote, reflect on what I have seen, read about “best cases” elsewhere in the U.S., and talk to people across the country whose work intersects with mine, place all of this in a historical context, and finally begin tapping away on my keyboard.

Oh, do I wish that the process in the above paragraph were so linear. But it ain’t. I have thoughts and intuitions now that have accumulated with every visit to schools and classrooms. This blog is a place where I can try out these thoughts before getting hip-deep in my analysis of what I have observed over a year and tackle the writing of a book. So here goes.

Recently visiting the private San Francisco AltSchool and two public elementary schools in Milpitas (CA) have triggered my pausing to write down emerging thoughts. Those three schools pushed me to mentally scroll through all of the classroom lessons I have observed since  January. Those visits occasioned much thinking about John Dewey and Edward Thorndike intellectual leaders in the progressive movement that was the dominant reform between 1900-1950. I saw many parallels then and now between deepened interest and practice of student-centered learning and the persistent quest, again then and now, for efficient operations in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

What I am thinking about is the periodic blossoming of yet another progressive reform surge anchored in the principles of student-centered learning and increasingly efficient schools of the earlier movement but this time fueled by new technologies and much money that make possible what has been considered impossible during recent market-oriented reforms concentrating on standards, testing, and accountability.

Since I have a blog where I can try out these intuitions and thoughts publicly, I will be writing a multi-post series  showing links that I see between past efforts of progressives to reform schools that were then thought to be “too traditional and teacher-directed” and increasing numbers of contemporary reformers operating again on progressive principles that the current “factory-model”used in public schools—need I point out these schools were a product of an earlier reform movement?–have to be replaced with child-driven, experience-laden, highly efficient schools connected to the real and ever-changing world.

So I begin with that earlier progressive school reform movement.

In the decades between the 1890s and 1940s, “progressive education” in the U.S. was the reigning political ideology of schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives in those years. First, student-centered instruction and learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives” who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement cited John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of science as the royal road to achieving “good”schools, as defined by each wing of the movement.

Educators, including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these progressives created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, designed protocols to follow to make a school building efficient, and measured anything that was nailed down. A “good” school was an efficient one, they said.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” –adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency. These reformers were kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives.” The latter wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant child-centered learning in schools. Their version of a “good” school was one where the “whole child” was at the center of curriculum and instruction and learning through experience was primary. These progressives made a small dent in U.S. schools but the efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early 20th century.

That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful information to inform policy decisions about district and school efficiency and effectiveness has continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” the application of scientific management to schooling, appears in the current romance with Big Data, evidence-based instruction, and the onslaught of models that use assumption-loaded algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.

Even though the efficiency wing of early 20th century progressives has politically trumped the wing of the movement focused on the whole child and student-centered pedagogy, it is well to keep in mind that cycles of rhetoric–wars of words–and policy action on efficiency-driven and student-centered progressivism have spun back-and-forth for decades. The point is that while most policymakers are efficiency driven and have succeeded in dominating public school policymaking for decades, that political domination has hardly eliminated educators and parents committed to holistic, student-centered schooling.

Even now at the current height of efficiency-driven, top-down standards and testing, schools committed to educating the whole child have persisted (see here and here) within regular public schools as well as charter schools that label themselves as progressive (see here and here). The progressive impulse with its two wings lives on in 2016.

Which brings me to the private AltSchool and two public elementary ones in Milpitas (CA) that I visited recently. In subsequent posts I will take up those schools.

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Why the History of School Reform is Essential for Policymakers, Practitioners, and Researchers

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

James Baldwin, 1965

The quote from essayist, novelist, and civil rights activist James Baldwin captures the essential truth about the importance of the past in our living each day of each year and making sense out of what we encounter. As it (was) and is true now about white-black relations, so it is true of coming to grips with the history of school reform in the midst of grand efforts to envision the high school of the future and “personalized learning” through technology.

There is, of course, nothing wrong about these aspirations for fundamental change in a two-century old institution. What is awry is the staggering amounts of money invested in altering these community institutions harnessed to the conscious indifference to the past when similar efforts by earlier generations of  just as dedicated reformers unfolded. As Baldwin pointed out:  “history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

Seems to me that current well-funded efforts to launch and sustain such changes upon U.S. schools should, at the minimum, be informed by similar experiments that occurred in the past.

Were well-intentioned reformers now to tap that wisdom and study the history of similar reforms it would not lead to pessimism, throwing in the towel, or similar acts of giving up. It would, I believe, lead to more informed strategies and outcomes for current reforms. A greater concern for solid incremental changes, implemented fully, that accumulate into moving an institution from here to there. But that is not the case now.

The current crop of school reformers, both on the political right and left, have a full agenda of Common Core standards, test-driven accountability, expanding parental choice through charters, spreading virtual teaching and learning, and ridding classrooms of ineffective teachers based upon students’ test scores. These reformers have their eyes fixed on the future not the horrid present  where schools, in their charitable view, are dinosaurs. These reformers are allergic to the history of school reform; they are ahistorical activists that carry the whiff of arrogance associated with the uninformed.

*They do not know what happened in schools when political coalitions between the 1890s-1940s  believed that there was a mismatch between student skills and industrial needs.  Vocationally-driven schools cranked out graduates who could enter skilled and semi-skilled industrial and white-collar jobs (See Benavot voc ed and Kanter voc ed). That was then. The current vocational drive to get all students into college and equip them with 21st century technological skills that no employer could turn away might give reformers pause in learning of the strengths and limits of that earlier reform-minded generation’s impact on vocational education.

*They do not know what happened in past efforts in various cities throughout mid-to-late 19th century schools in introducing widespread testing, evaluation of teachers based on those scores, and accountability. See here and Testing in 20th century.

*They do not know what happened when previous efforts to introduce innovative technologies into schools stumbled, got adapted in ways unforeseen by reformers, and even disappeared. See history of technology and here.

*They do not know how personalized learning is the most recent incarnation of many determined past efforts to get around the lockstep of age-graded schooling by differentiating teaching and individualizing learning (see here and here).

Uninformed reformers forget James Baldwin’s wisdom as they unknowingly forge ahead with their grand plans to transform public schools.

“the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

Practitioners, researchers, and policymakers look at school reform through a grimy windshield; they have yet to see clearly that ignoring previous reform efforts only means that they unknowingly re-invent changes that have an influential history already deeply embedded within their shiny reforms.

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“Truthful Hyperbole”

*My history teacher is so old, she lived through the Civil War.

*My dog is so ugly, he saw himself in a mirror and ran away.

*My teacher is so mean, she eats first graders for lunch.

*My sister uses so much makeup, she needs a paintbrush to put it on with (see here)

Yes, these statements are hyperbole. They are exaggerations. Stand-up comics use hyperbole often in the one-liners they deliver and the shaggy dog stories they tell. It is also a rhetorical move seeking to make a point through overstating. Awareness of exaggerated statements has risen dramatically in the 2016 campaign for the U.S. presidency. Republican nominee Donald Trump acknowledges that he exaggerates to make a point. In Art of the Deal (1987), Trump said:

I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.

Journalist Tony Schwartz ghost-wrote Art of the Deal and reveals how the phrase “truthful hyperbole” originated with Trump thirty years ago in developing New York City real estate projects.

So the phrase “truthful hyperbole” has entered the presidential campaign leaving most of us unclear on what is fact and what is fiction. Of course, in previous presidential campaigns, other candidates have made exaggerated claims but now journalists and pundits have enjoyed a Trumpian cornucopia.

To be direct, “truthful hyperbole” is as oxymoronic as “accurate exaggeration.” While in the next two months campaign talks, presidential debates, and TV ads will surely add to the list of examples of “truthful hyperbole,” such exaggeration surrounding school technologies contains many examples (I was going to write a “gazillion” but did not want to add to the list).

“Truthful Hyperbole” in Computers in Schools 

Remember MOOCs?

Massive Open Online Courses beginning in 2012 were going to “revolutionize” universities making degrees accessible to anyone with an Internet connection (see here and here). Well, the obituaries have already appeared less than five years later (see here and here). Surely, MOOCs still exist–the truthful part–although the hyperbole has been cremated.

Remember the introduction of iPads?

As one headline put it in 2012: How the iPad is Transforming the Classroom.

Or an online newspaper article from the San Jose Mercury News:

As teachers, administrators, parents and students continue to argue about how best to incorporate digital technology into the classroom, Apple (AAPL) strode into the center of the debate Thursday with a promise to transform the classroom the same way it changed music with iTunes and the iPod.

Then there is the commonly used word “transformation” to describe what will happen with the onslaught of technologies in classrooms.   It is “truthful hyperbole” in action.

For computer technologies:  Among ourselves, we educators and policymakers discuss the transformation of schools, recognizing how great the changes in these institutions need to be.  Unfortunately the public does not like the term “transformation,” probably for the same reason many people dislike the idea of transforming the health care system.  The public fears that something familiar and important will be lost as institutions are transformed.  In fact, we know that the United States faces greater risks if our schools fail to improve fast enough than if they change too slowly.

Computers, the Internet, online courses, smart phones, cameras, interactive whiteboards, and other digital tools play an important role in improving and, yes, transforming schools.  The role of technology in schools will increase, and as we use these new tools wisely, they help make schools more effective and engaging. (2012)

For online learning: What does stand to happen in K-12 education is a transformation, where the schools of tomorrow look radically different from schools of today as a result of disruptive changes in subsystems beneath them, i.e. classes, after-school services, etc. Schools may become community hubs where students come to collaborate, work online, get mentoring, tutoring, and individualized help – a stark contrast from the whole group instructional model of today where whiteboards and desks reign supreme. (2016)

For adaptive or “personalized” learning: How Computer Technology Will Transform Schools of the Future (2014)

And on and on. The hyperbole attached to the use of technologies in classrooms are exaggerations anchored in magical thinking, not fact. When it comes to hyperbole, the “truthful” part is a casualty of rhetorical overkill.

 

 

 

 

 

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Charter Schools’ 25th Anniversary: Why This Reform Has Lasted (Part 2)

In investigating school reforms that have taken place over the last century and a half, I have divided them into incremental and fundamental changes (see here and here). Incremental reforms are those that aim to improve the existing structures of schooling; the premise behind incremental reforms is that the basic structures are sound but need improving to remove defects. The car is old but if it gets fixed it will become dependable transportation. It needs tires, brakes, a new battery, and a water pump–incremental changes. Fundamental reforms are those that aim to transform, to alter permanently, those very same structures; the premise behind fundamental reforms is that basic structures are flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul, not renovations. The old jalopy is beyond repair. We need to get a completely new car or consider different forms of transportation–fundamental changes.

If new courses, new staff, summer schools, higher standards for teachers, and increased salaries are clear examples of enhancements to the structures of public schooling, then the introduction of the age-graded school (which gradually eliminated the one-room school) Progressive educators’ broadening the school’s role to intervene in the lives of children and their families (e.g., to provide medical and social services) in the early 20th century, and more recently the introduction of charter schools in the 1990s are examples of fundamental reforms that stuck.

The platoon school, classroom technologies from film and radio to laptops and tablets, project-based learning, and charter schools, however, are instances of attempted fundamental change in the school and classroom since the early 20th century that were adopted, incorporated into many schools, and, over time, either downsized into incremental ones or slipped away, leaving few traces of their presence. Why did some incremental reforms get institutionalized and most of the fundamental ones either became just another part of the “system” or simply disappeared?

Some scholars have analyzed those hardy reforms that survived and concluded that a number of factors account for their institutionalization (see here and here).

They enhance, not disrupt existing structures. Many prior reforms added staffing, particularly specialists, to deal with the variety of children that attended schools. Separate teachers for children with disabilities, math and reading teachers, counselors to help children pick courses to take and to prepare for college and the job market. Similarly, additional space for playgrounds, lunchrooms, and health clinics enhanced the school program. charters remain age-graded schools just like traditional neighbors. Moreover, after 25 years some charter school heads are working out cooperative arrangements with district school boards that help one another (see here and district_charter_collaboration_rpt).

They are easy to monitor. These reforms were visible. They could be counted (e.g., hot lunches, health clinics, year-round schools, and charters. Such easy monitoring gave taxpayers evidence that the services were being rendered and changes had occurred.

They create constituencies that lobby for continuing support. New staff positions such as special education teachers and counselors created demands for administrators and supervisors to monitor their work. Newly certified educators, imbued with a fervent belief in their mission, argued for more money. Consider that the spread of charter school and competition for state funds flowing to school districts created interest groups (e.g., charter advocates) that lobbied donors and state officials for more funds. Commercial interests serving new programs (e.g., for-profit cyber schools, vendors of computer products) championed charters. Finally, parents persuaded by the influence of the services and programs on their children joined educators to create informal coalitions advocating the continuation of these reforms.

This answer to the question of why some reforms stick has a superficial neatness that omits some reforms that fail to fit nicely into the above categories (e.g., desegregation of schools since 1954). Moreover, there is a static quality implied in the notion of reforms that attained  longevity, that is, such reforms were incorporated into public schools and remained as they were as if frozen in time. Those fundamental reforms that became incrementalized and stuck, however, continued to change as they adapted to ever-shifting demands and resources.

Studies of non-school organizations offer richer clues that go beyond the crisp, static answers suggested here. For example, the theories of Robert Merton, Philip Selznick, Alvin Gouldner, and their students produced numerous studies of organizations founded in the heat of reform movements whose original goals have been transformed over decades although their names remain the same. The imperative for organizational survival vibrates strongly in Selznick’s (1949) analysis of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Mayer Zald and Patricia Denton’s (1963) investigation of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

Other studies, closer to public schools, also document adaptability in organizations founded to end social ills. These institutions maintained their professed goals yet shifted in what they did operationally in order to survive. David Rothman’s (1980) analysis of 19th century reformers’ inventions of rehabilitative prisons, juvenile courts, and reformed mental asylums records the painful journey of institutions established in a gush of zeal for improvement of criminals, delinquents, and the mentally ill; within decades, the reformers ended up pursuing scaled-down goals that maintained the interests of those who administered the institution. Barbara Brenzel (1983) analyzed a half-century’s history of the first reform school for girls in the nation (State Industrial School for Girls in Lancaster, Massachusetts). Here, again, the initial goals of reforming poor, neglected, and potentially wayward girls through creating family-like cottages and separating younger from older girls gave way to goals that stressed order and control.

The point is that there are institutional reasons why some reforms are like shooting stars that flare and disappear and some reforms stick. Organizational and political reasons (e.g., vague and multiple goals, innovations that fit existing structures, are easy to monitor, and have active constituencies) explain how schools and districts adapt their goals, structures, and processes to an uncertain, ever changing environment to incorporate new ideas and practices.

And that is why charter schools will be around for the next quarter century.

 

 

 

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