Tag Archives: school reform

How Many Teachers Teach a New Kind of History?

Policymakers continually seek to change the content of what teachers teach (e.g., Common Core standards) and how they teach (e.g., direct instruction, project-based learning). After adoption of new Common Core aligned textbooks and scads of professional development workshops in different pedagogies, how much change has occurred in how teachers teach lessons? That is the first question that has to be answered. Subsequent and crucial questions that have to be answered like who (e.g., policymaker, researcher, teacher) determines whether the change is, indeed, a change in what teachers do and whether the desired changes have led to increased student achievement come later.

But even answering the first question, superficial as it may be, is (and has been) a hard nut to crack. Take, for example, the teaching of history. In earlier posts (see here) I pointed out tensions between teaching for “heritage” and teaching with a “historical” approach. Strains between these two approaches have persisted for well over a century in the teaching of history. In earlier reform movements such as the New Social Studies of the 1960s, the conflict was apparent. Since the late-1990s, a slowly growing movement to have students learn, through extensive use of primary sources, how historians read, think, and write has spread across the nation. To determine whether this approach to content and pedagogy in the teaching of history is working is to ask the straightforward question: how many teachers regularly use lessons crafted to simulate how historians read, think, write, and come to understand the past?

Answering the question is tough because no national studies of nearly 60,000 social studies teachers in the U.S. have been done since the mid-1990s that cover their classroom practices. But there are data pieces, fragments, even slivers that might be assembled into a chipped mosaic from which emerges a fuzzy picture of how teachers are teaching history now.

Here are a few other shards. Data on materials that teach students how to read, write, and think like historians come from Advanced Placement courses that have been taught since the mid-1950s. The Document-Based Question (DBQ), a way of analyzing a primary source, was created as part of the Advanced Placement exam in 1973. One of the authors said: I want students to “become junior historians and play the role of historians for that hour” that they worked on the DBQ. For those able, college-going students who took AP history courses, then, they were clearly exposed to materials and tasks that replicated the work of historians. [i]

So those high school teachers in high schools who teach AP history courses–they have at least one section of students and teach other history classes as well–already use hybrids of teacher-centered instruction for a College Board, textbook-bound curriculum heavily geared to how historians read, think, and write. The vast majority of history teachers, however, do not teach AP courses.

Another sliver of data is to consider the large-scale effort undertaken on a shoestring by the Reading Like a Historian Project at Stanford University under the leadership of Sam Wineburg. That project has recorded nearly 2 million viewers (all 50 states and 127 countries) who downloaded these free curriculum materials since they were first posted in 2009. Just in 2014, there were more than 630,000 visits to the website to copy over 100 different lessons for U.S. and world history courses. Moreover, Wineburg and his team are now providing professional development to history teachers in big city and suburban school districts on how to use these lessons and do classroom assessments. [ii]

Downloaded lessons, though, do not necessarily transfer to classroom use. Finding out the degree to which these lessons and similar ones designed by teachers themselves are used weekly, occasionally, or not at all requires studies of classroom practices among history teachers. I have not yet located such studies. Thus far, no researchers have documented how widespread is (or has been) the use of these lessons or similar materials with students is.[iii]

What little data there are about the degree to which history content and pedagogy have moved from textbook-bound conventional pedagogy to the inquiry, primary source-driven historical approach come from scattered small reports of social studies teachers, again through surveys rather than direct observations, interviews, and examination of classroom materials. Like the above fragments, they add a few more chipped tiles to the mosaic of teacher use of these materials and approaches.

One national study (2004), for example, used a random sample of social studies teachers to determine the purpose for and the classroom use of primary sources. The authors concluded that although respondents agreed with the importance of using historical sources and having students do historical inquiry, “…teachers’ actual use of both classroom-based and web-based primary sources was somewhat low.” [iv]

A similar report of social studies teachers in one Virginia county to determine the purposes and use of historical primary sources found that teachers “report that they are only occasional users of historical primary sources; however, when they do use these sources, they obtain them primarily from textbooks and the web.”[v]

I have one more shard to add to the blurred mosaic picture that emerges from bits and pieces. Over the past five years, I have visited 13 teachers observing 17 lessons and examined classroom materials classrooms mostly in Northern California as part of different studies I was doing on technology use and at the invitation of these teachers. Clearly, the sample was non-random, but I offer it as another isolated piece of evidence. Six of these 13 teachers (three of whom taught Advanced Placement history) used primary sources and questioned students to get at historical thinking on a particular topic. [vi]

Finally, over the years, researchers have published individual case studies of novice and experienced history teachers who taught students to inquire into the past using primary sources to teach students to read, think, and write as historians. In many instances, such teacher case studies were exemplars of how to convert textbook-bound lessons into ones that included historical thinking. These studies made a simple point that as hard as it may appear to social studies teachers to alter their teacher-centered pedagogy, given the contexts in which they teach (e.g., state tests, accountability regulations, age-graded school, and poverty-ridden neighborhoods), this approach to teaching can be done within the framework of existing public schools, including those located in cities. None of the case studies declare that the profiled teachers and lessons are the norm for history teachers although authors imply they should and can be. It is clear that these teachers are exceptions, not the rule. [vii]

So what is the answer to the question: how many teachers teach a new kind of history? No one knows.

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[i] Mike Henry, “The DBQ Change: Returning to the Original Intent,” College Board AP Central for Educators at: http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/members/homepage/10467_print.html?type=popup

[ii]Email from Joel Breakstone to Larry Cuban (in author’s possession), January 23, 2015; Theresa Johnston, “Stanford-developed History Lessons for Grades 6-12 Adopted Worldwide,” GSE News, Graduate School of Education, March 17, 2014 at: https://ed.stanford.edu/news/stanford-developed-history-lessons-grades-6-12-adopted-worldwide

[iii] Thus far, New York State has included document-based questions into its statewide assessment of social studies (including the Regents exam). When more states include such items in their tests, I would expect increases in the number of teachers who build into their daily lessons how to analyze primary sources, bias, and corroborating sources. See: http://www.archives.nysed.gov/education/showcase/dbq.shtml

[iv] David Hicks, et. al., “Social Studies Teachers’ Use of Classroom-Based and Web-Based Use Historical Primary Sources,” Theory and Research in Social Education, 2004, 32(2), pp. 213-247. Quote is on p. 232. The response rate to this random sample was 40 percent.

[v] John Lee, et. al., “Social Studies and History Teachers’ Uses of Non-Digital and Digital Historical Resources,” Social Studies Research and Practice, 2006, 1(3), pp. 291-311. Quote is on p. 296. Response rate from teachers was 70 percent.

[vi]I observed nine lessons from six teachers at Gunderson High School in San Jose Unified School District during 2009-2010; one lesson of a teacher at Mission High School in San Francisco Unified School District in 2013; two lessons of one teacher at Roosevelt High School in the Washington, D.C. public schools; four lessons of four teachers at Aragon High School in the San Mateo Union High School District in 2014; one lesson of one teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in the Fremont Unified School District in 2014.

[vii] Here is a sampling of individual case studies and collections of cases that describe various teachers using inquiry to investigate the past in ways that historians do: Robert Bain, “ They Thought The World Was Flat? “ Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History,” in Suzanne Donovan and John Bransford (Eds.) How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005), pp.179-213; Bruce Lesh, “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011); Bruce VanSledright, The Challenge of Rethinking History Education New York: Routledge, 2011); Sam Wineburg and Suzanne Wilson, “Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History,” in Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), pp. 155-172.

 

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Some Thoughts about Change, Innovation, and Watching Paint Dry

Let’s face it, in the U.S. change is far sexier than stability. Words like “innovation,” “revolution,””disruption,”and, of course, “reform” have replaced the 19th century common word of “progress.” With so much evidence about war, civil war, torture, poverty, in the world, the concept of “progress” is a hard sell. But not the idea of change. Especially, technological change. From iPhones to Chromebooks to driverless cars to controlling all home appliances with clicks on smart phones, Americans will line up outside stores days in advance to buy the next new thing.

Stability, continuity, day-after-day routines hardly excites Americans or makes films (except perhaps Andy Warhol creations). Stability is, you guessed it, ho-hum, prompting open-mouth yawns. No pizzaz, no cheerleaders, no drum rolls accompany calls for more stability in daily routines or in life. Political leaders from U.S. presidents to local school board members promise to turnaround the status quo. Particularly, when the topic is tax-supported, compulsory public education for children and youth ages 6-16 across the U.S. For the past thirty years, civic, business, and philanthropic leaders have targeted U.S. public schools for their mediocrity, as compared to international economic competitors. Calls for “transformation” of school governance, curriculum, organization, and instruction have rolled off the tongues of politicians, CEOs, and superintendents. What policymakers,  practitioners, parents, and researchers too often overlook or ignore is the dual purposes (and paradox) of compulsory public education in a democracy. Tax-supported public schools are expected to conserve and change.

Consider public opinion polls on what schools should do for U.S. children and youth. One illustrates the rich array of collective and individual purposes that parents and taxpayers expect schools to achieve. In order of importance, the top five purposes were as follows:

*Prepare youth to become responsible citizens;

*Help young people become economically sufficient;

*Ensure a basic level of quality among schools;

*Promote cultural unity among all Americans;

*Improve social conditions for people.[i]

The numerous and competing goals would not have surprised education scholars who have documented these public expectations for children attending schools. In the late 1970s, John Goodlad and associates conducted a major study involving 38 urban, suburban, and rural schools in seven states across the country. Their “Study of Schooling” examined the historic goals of U.S. schools and those they found stated in district, state, and school documents. There were 62.[ii]

Of course, I do not need to lean on public opinion polls to assert that public schooling’s socializing role remains a powerful expectation among parents and taxpayers since schools historically have been agents of preserving civic and moral values. Go into any preschool or kindergarten classroom and see how the teachers train young children to take turns, wash their hands before eating, to talk things through rather than hit one another–you get the picture. For older students, what they should learn in class has prompted battles over school prayer and ugly spats over whether “creationism” or “intelligent design” should be taught in high school science courses.

Historically, public schools have been expected to both conserve community values and traditions while simultaneously giving children and youth the knowledge and skills to make changes in their lives, communities, and yes, in those very values and traditions they absorbed. Some commentators see this as the ongoing conflict between the school’s traditional purpose of transmitting the dominant culture and the purpose of becoming a modern institution in step with the ever-changing society. That dual purpose of public schools has been often lost in current and past reformers’ enthusiastic embrace of schools becoming modern change-agents solving grave national problems.

This conflict in values prizing both continuity and change help explain the laundry list zealous reformers and ardent supporters of the traditional purposes have compiled about change and stability in public schools.
*Schools are resistant to change;
*Schools adopt one fad after another
*Schools change at a glacial pace;
*Schools move at warp speed in embracing innovations.

The contradictory complaints go to the paradox of what parents, voters, policymakers, and practitioners expect of schools and what seems to happen after reform-driven policies are adopted. Even after many changes are introduced into districts and schools, abiding routines and practices persist. Some social scientists call this phenomenon “institutional stasis” and “dynamic conservatism” where the Siamese twins of change and stability keep the organization in balance. In public schools it is not change or stability; it is both at the same time. Coping with this paradox of reform requires policymakers and practitioners to recognize the conflict embedded in the two-fold function of tax-supported public schools and then to—I use a metaphor here–master the art of jiu-jitsu in bringing opposites into harmony in a gentle, supple, and gradual way, a task that few policymakers achieve.

Educators often get flummoxed when they are expected to preserve community and national values while simultaneously being asked to make changes in school organization, curriculum, and instruction in order to solve larger economic and social problems harming the nation. Repeated criticisms of public schools over decades arise from this misunderstanding among fervent reformers of the public school’s basic role to both conserve and change.

Transmitting the dominant values and beliefs in the culture is far less sexy a proposition–more like watching paint dry–than “disrupting,” transforming,” and “revolutionizing,” public schools.

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[i] Lowell Rose and Alec Gallup, ” The 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools”Phi Delta Kappan, September 2000, p. 47.

 

[ii] John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984), pp.50-56.

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Technology Enthusiasts, Pragmatists, and Skeptics among Practitioners and Policymakers: Where Are You?

I wrote this post five years ago this month. In it, I mentioned two recently published books that divided advocates of and opponents to technologies in schools into two camps: enthusiasts and skeptics. For the past few months I have been thinking anew about those policymakers, pundits, and practitioners (including blogging students and parents) who write about technology. I want to broaden the familiar continuum of positions on technology in schools beyond those at either pole. I want to include a rich array of those who inhabit the middle. So here is a revised and expanded post.

In reading Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America (2009) by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, they, like many other writers on technology, create a continuum of advocates and critics of technology in schools. At one end of their continuum are the “Technology Enthusiasts” and at the other end are the “Technology Skeptics.

Collins and Halverson do not bash either the cheerleaders or doubters at either end of the continuum although many of those gleeful about school technologies do dump on those who express doubt with the position they take. The authors cite points for each side but clearly believe that the world has become digital and schools as they are currently operated will be undercut and overwhelmed by home schooling, cyberschools, charters, private learning centers, workplace learning, and distance education. “These new alternatives,” they say, “will make us rethink the dominant role of K-12 public schools in education as children and adults spend more time learning in new venues” (p.4). Thus, the “digital revolution” will alter the nature of schooling completely by making learning life-long and, in their words, mere “schooling” will finally become “educational.” Maybe.

The problem I have with such scenarios—and, God knows, there have been such claims for decades from Nicholas Negroponte, Seymour Papert and many others (see here and here)—is that these peeks into the future carry the assumption of inevitability—it’s gonna happen and no one can stop it—and no middle ground for folks who may say: “wait a minute, let’s look at this again.”

Seldom do these futurists acknowledge in either their celebratory or dismal predictions that while many parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers inhabit either the Enthusiast or Skeptic pole, many others cluster in the middle of the continuum. Many of those–more often than not, teachers and principals rather than policymakers–who hug the middle know that present and past school uses of technologies show great promise for student learning but contain serious flaws; sometimes they even wince at especially foolish claims made by one or the other side. Overall, however, most writers and actual players in the school technology game, especially policymakers, believe technologies in or out of school will ultimately benefit students and teachers.

Those middle-of-the-roaders, however—let’s call them Pragmatists— may tilt toward the Enthusiasts in their heart-of-hearts, but in practice, shy away from the unrealistically rosy future digital millennials imagine. Pragmatists see merit in the arguments and evidence laid out by the Skeptics and have doubts about the too bright and too dark futures that advocates at both end of this continuum forecast. These Pragmatists see the institutional limits of schooling, the varied purposes that schools serve in a democratic society, and the inevitable glitches that arise. They do not worship at the shrine of technology.  If push comes to shove, those in the middle might tilt toward the Enthusiasts’ side but would not pooh-pooh Skeptics or call them names.

These Pragmatists are neither unvarnished fans of the newest software application—some Enthusiasts have yet to meet one they didn’t like–nor doom-saying Skeptics who claim that any new device shoves teachers further down that road of dumbing down the art and science of teaching, isolating individuals from one another and confusing students by equating information with knowledge.

I believe that most teachers are Pragmatists and most policymakers are Enthusiasts. As schools have been the pushed into  trying out the most recent technological innovations, teachers have learned over time that some devices and software can be very helpful in reaching their objectives and some applications cannot (or will not) be helpful. More and more teachers have incorporated new technologies into their daily lessons  since the early 1980s. Using mixes of traditional teaching with new technologies (e.g., smart boards, tablets, laptops) have led to increasing instances of “blended learning.” Such teachers using mixes of old and new classroom approaches illustrate Pragmatists in action.

Where do you fit on the continuum?

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The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice–The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 2)

In  the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the phrase “scientifically based research” is mentioned 110 times. Not a typo. Evidence-based practice, a variation of the NCLB phrase, and data-driven decision-making are popular among policymakers, administrators, and researchers. What is common to all of these phrases is the idea that systematic inquiry into a question or problem–either through evaluation or research (or both) will yield solid data useful to educators in making and implementing policy.

Yet the historical record is rich in evidence that research and evaluation findings have played a subordinate role in making educational policy. Often, policy choices were (and are) political decisions. This is not a criticism of politics or even ideology in schooling but a recognition that tax-supported public schools are political institutions where stakeholders with competing values vie for resources.

There was no research or evaluation, for example, that found establishing public schools in the early 19th century was better than educating youth through private academies. No studies persuaded late-19th century decision-makers to import privately-funded kindergartens into public schools. Ditto for introducing desktop computers into schools a century later.

So it is hardly surprising, then, that many others, including myself, have been skeptical of the popular idea that what policymakers and teachers should do is pursue unrelentingly evidence-based policy-making and data-driven instruction. The strong belief persists among educators that when policy and practice are anchored in scientifically researched findings, then and only then, rational and effective policymaking and classroom teaching can occur.

As Part 1 indicated, that has hardly been the case when it comes to monies spent on charter schools and classroom technologies then and now. Why is that?

Political and practical reasons, not research and evaluation, often guide policy decisions–or as two scholars put it: “evidence-based decision-making is sometimes framed as an antidote for ideology-driven decision-making [when] people make decisions precisely by drawing on what might be considered ideology … as a fundamental part of the decision-making process.”

Politically smart state and local policymakers believe–here is where ideology enters the picture–that buying new tablets loaded with software, deploying them to K-12 classrooms, and watching how the devices engage both teachers and students will work; it is considered “best practice” because, well, “we believe in it.” The theory is that student engagement with the device and software will dramatically alter classroom instruction and lead to improved  achievement. The problem, of course (you no doubt have guessed where I am going with this) — is that evidence of this electronic innovation transforming teaching and achievement growth is not only sparse but also unpersuasive even when some studies show a small “effect size.”

When the research pantry is nearly empty and evidence for raising student test scores or transforming teaching is sparse, how do  policymakers and administrators justify buying new devices and software?

Here are three reasons that I see spurring decision-makers to allocate scarce dollars for new technologies.

First, keeping up with the rest of the changing world. Call it “modernization” or recasting schools as less like museums and more like fast-paced companies using technology in daily work. No more jokes about educators being technological slow-pokes. Use of new technologies is considered modern, being with-it, even an unadulterated “good” that all children and youth in age-graded schools should embrace.

Second, because new technologies are highly valued in the culture, school boards and their superintendents feel strong pressures to keep up with other sectors–both public and private–undergoing technological changes. If those leaders do not act, they fear that taxpayers and voters will lose confidence in public schools. And public confidence is like money in the bank since tax-supported public schools are politically and fiscally dependent on the good will of taxpayers.

And there is a less obvious third reason for school leaders to purchase new technologies: increase efficiency in testing and scoring results. Schools have to have computers because eventually U.S. students will be taking state tests online. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s recent fiasco with iPads was triggered by demands to implement the standardized testing required by adoption of the Common Core standards.  Just as the move from quill pens to pencils to computer-adaptive-testing required no research studies but were done on grounds of cost-saving efficiency, so it was when the LAUSD School Board and Superintendent authorized buying iPads.

Note that the three reasons I offer are political–not in any negative sense–but ones that are practical and realistic in the world that policymakers inhabit. Research findings to support the promises that school leaders make for the “good” that high-tech purchases will achieve, are simply not there. And that pattern of pursuing innovations without much evidence or data to support the decisions that school boards and superintendents make is plain to see.

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The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice: The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 1)

When it comes to policymakers calling for data-based decisions and evidence-based practice, the purchase and use of tablets, laptops, interactive whiteboards and academic software miss that call miserably. The fact is that no substantial basis in research findings or existing data on the academic effectiveness of classroom technology warrant the boom-town spread of classroom devices. If so, how come so much money is being spent?

In a New York Times‘ op-ed piece Susan Pinker lays out a once-over-lightly sad story of how technology for low-income children here and abroad has failed. The op-ed format, however, falls short in presenting the full array of evidence of either minimal effect,  no-effect, or even negative effect of technology upon student academic achievement.

Since 2010, laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards, smart phones, and a cornucopia of software have become ubiquitous. Yet has academic achievement improved as a consequence? Has teaching and learning changed? Has use of devices in schools led to better jobs? These are the basic questions that school boards, policymakers, and administrators ask.

The answers to these questions are “no,” “no,” and “probably not.”

Test scores, the current gold standard policymakers use to determine academic achievement, show little evidence that using new hardware and software have improved students’ performance on tests.[i]

The evidence of transforming traditional teaching practices is equally underwhelming. Nearly all teachers now use these devices. Lessons using interactive whiteboards or carts filled with laptops or tablets are common across elementary and secondary schools. How teachers use laptops or tablets, however, vary from unimaginative to creative, from daily to occasional to non-use.[ii]

These powerful computers have yet to alter traditional ways of teaching that have marked classrooms for years. Laptops, desktops, tablets, and interactive whiteboards continue to support the dominant teacher-centered approach to instruction rather than promoting the hoped-for student-centered approach. Teachers have expanded their teaching repertoire to incorporate new software and hardware to do what they have been doing all along. No surprise there since for decades, teachers have mixed old and new practices in their lessons. New technologies have found a niche in most classrooms but their impact is much smaller than what was initially promised. In effect, new hardware and software have strengthened, not altered, prevailing teaching approaches.[iii]

Finally, the question of computer use in schools prepares students for jobs. Whether using soon-to-be-obsolete hardware and software helps students gain  jobs in a knowledge-based labor market is “probably not.” Most applicants for private sector entry-level jobs–except for software engineers and programmers–learn new hardware and software in a matter of days, not months or years. Few studies of high school graduates getting jobs requiring computer skills even exist.[iv]

Given these answers, why do district policymakers, administrators, and business leaders beat the drum for more and better devices and software in schools? Part 2 answers that question.

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[i] Jason Ravitz, et al., “Cautionary Tales about Correlations between Student Computer Use and Academic Achievement, “ April 2002, paper presented at annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans; Larry Cuban, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013), pp. 43-45.

 

[ii] Mark Windschitl and Kurt Sahl, “Tracing Teachers’ Use of Technology in a Laptop Computer School,” American Educational Research Journal, 2002, vol. 39(1), pp. 165-205; Larry Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013).

 

[iii] Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009); Larry Cuban, Inside the Black Box, pp. 155-171.

[iv] Anyone familiar with the level of hardware and software used in schools over the past thirty years has seen extraordinary changes in software programs and hardware miniaturization. What software students in the 9th grade in 1985 were using was gone and forgotten five years later; ditto for 2010 and now. Preparing students for jobs in a labor market prizing information usage and rapid communication means constant changes in what software and hardware students will use in schools, a condition that districts find themselves a few steps behind every year. Thus built-in obsolesence of machines and software make it difficult to plan on current students being prepared for jobs. Current interest in teaching all students to learn to code recognizes the constant turnover in technological equipment and skills. See, for example, Nick Wingfield, “Fostering New Tech Talent in Schools,” New York Times, September 30, 2012.

 

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A Reform That Missed Its Target Once and Then Hit The Bullseye Later: How Come?

It happens all the time. A reform comes along that is popular and it is adopted.  But somehow the reform doesn’t stick. It shuffles off not to be seen again until decades later, the same reform reappears and, lo and behold, it is everywhere.

For older readers, offering four year-olds the chance to get quality child care–then called preschools– a half-century ago was the reform du jour. That was when federally-funded Head Start began in 1965 but enrolled only a tiny fraction of eligible low-income children. Progressive reformers wanted all children to receive similar services. There was sufficient bipartisan momentum then to get the U.S. Congress to pass the Comprehensive Child Development Act that would have provided programs for preschoolers. President Richard Nixon, however, vetoed the bill in 1971 saying that the Act would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Gone but not forgotten.

Nearly two generations later the U.S. President, Congress, state governors and legislatures, the Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce stump for all-day or universal preschool (or both) as part of K-12 systems. Illinois, Georgia, Florida, and Oklahoma have Universal Prekindergarten. The rationale that investing in early childhood education now will pay big social dividends later has become a “truth” accepted by most Americans. And in 2013, 28 percent of all four year olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool programs across the country. That percentage will go up. It is popular in a demographically changed society where both parents and single mothers work in full- and part-time jobs.

A similar pattern of widespread adoption of a reform in one decade, its slow-motion disappearance and its resurrection in a later generation has occurred with accountability.

Craig Peck* has recaptured nicely the turnaround story of accountability appearing in New York City in the 1970s, exiting the school district shortly thereafter, and then three decades later, under mayoral control, a reflowering of a full-scale program that assigned A-F grades for individual school performance.

How come?

The answer is the same as it was for preschools in the 1960s: the political, economic, and social context for school reform then and now had changed.

Consider New York City (NYC) schools in the late-1960s and then in 2002.

In 1969, the politically appointed NYC Board of Education created a school accountability committee that included a wide range of community activists, educators, and parents. Decentralization of authority to smaller sub-districts and community control of schools urged by minority communities was in the news monthly. Figuring out how to hold these community districts accountable was near the top of the Board of Education’s agenda.

Based on the committee’s recommendations, the Board of Education signed a contract with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to produce a plan that could be implemented in the system. In 1972, ETS  delivered its accountability plan.  After several years of off-and-on work toward putting the plan into practice, little progress occurred as reports of insufficient funds surfaced. Changeover in superintendents beginning in 1970, now called chancellors, brought in leaders whose to-do lists had accountability low on their agenda. In 1978, Frank Macchiarola dropped the ETS plan completely.

Fast-forward to 2002. The state legislature gave newly elected New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg full  control of the school system taking away the authority of the Board of Education to set policy and hire chancellors. The Mayor replaced the Board of Education with the Panel for Educational Policy, a body to which the mayor had appointed the majority of members. Upon appointing Joel Klein as the school system chancellor in July 2002, Bloomberg was clear with his Chancellor that he wanted a school district where the Chancellor, district officials, principals, teachers and students were held accountable.

Within five years of the Mayor’s pronouncement, officials had designed and put into practice an accountability system where each public school received a published A-F letter grade based predominantly on student test score growth. Clear to the hundreds of principals was the fact that the school’s grade would also be used to evaluate them  annually.

Craig Peck points out how the political, economic, and social context had changed  between the early 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century. He underscores how the  standards-based curriculum, testing, and accountability became the commonly accepted theory of action driving school reform. That reform-driven framework plus four factors explain how accountability did not stick in the 1970s but now dominates current thinking and practice in New York City schools.

*Money–private and public resources were slim in the 1970s but became far more available under mayoral control;

*Power–bottom-up community activists and parents in the earlier decade were replaced by a strong top-down coalition of mayor, chancellor, and business leaders;

*Media attention–press and public relations were present in 1970s but has now become an essential managerial tool to advance reform;

*Principals–school-site leaders were one of a number of key actors in the 1970s when no one person was held responsible for system performance. After subsequently giving up tenure in the position for increased pay, principals became solely responsible for students’ academic performance decades later.

Peck’s explanation of how accountability as a strategy for turning low-performing schools into high-performing ones appeared and exited in the 1970s and then reappeared three decades later to dominate school reform in one city–is persuasive. Context and timing matter when it comes to school reform.

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*Craig Peck is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Peck was a Stanford University graduate student who I collaborated with in completing a project investigating high school use of desktop  computers in 1998.

 

 

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Leave No Pound Untouched: Fighting Obesity in Schools

I wrote this post over five years ago. I updated it with some minor changes. The war against obesity continues in and out of school.

What might policymakers do if they were dead-set in reducing the number of fat kids?

Imagine civic, business, and foundation leaders so worried about the social and individual costs of health problems that overweight children would face as adults that they wanted schools to fight a war on fat. Imagine, further, that these policy elites, riding the current moral crusade against obese children, wanted to solve the problem now. Would they follow Singapore?

Since the early 1990s, Singapore had operated an obesity-reduction program called “Trim and Fit.” School officials identified overweight young students and compelled them to join a “health club.” In these “clubs,” teachers instructed chubby students to run, jump rope, and do other exercises. They received “calorie cash” coupons for school meals that would not exceed the number of calories stamped on the ticket. Lunches were monitored to reduce soft drinks, French fries, and fast foods. Teachers measured students’ height, weight, and body mass monthly. The government awarded cash to schools that found new ways for students to shed pounds.

SingaporekidsAccording to government records, these “health clubs” and incentives reduced the proportion of overweight students from 14 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2003. Serious drawbacks arose, however. The head of physical education at the elite Singapore Chinese Girls’ Primary School said that “to keep them in the club for a long time is bad for their self-esteem because there’s a stigma tied to it.”

In 2007, the government ended the program even after substanial reductions in overweight children, because policymakers–spurred by parents and educators–concluded that the psychological costs to “club” students of being bullied and teased unrelentingly outweighed (yes, a bad pun) program gains.

Singaporean culture, centralized national authority, and a decided preference for social control nearly guarantee that this program would not fly in the U.S. So consider another possibility.

Imagine that President Obama recently signed the Leave No Pound Untouched Act, a variation of No Child Left Behind, to prevent increased incidence of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other crippling diseases associated with obesity. OK, it is a huge leap in imagining but humor me.

The Act gave government officials the authority to use the Physical Fitness Test (it does exist) as a lever to reduce fatness. Adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards would be set and, if met, schools would be identified as “fit and trim.” Those schools that failed to meet standards would be rated “unfit” and if those schools continued to fail, they would be closed. State, district, and school officials would make public all of the above information, particularly the poundage gap between trim and unfit schools.

In schools eager to meet standards, principals and teachers would identify those students close to their expected body mass index or just a few pounds overweight. These students would have the best chance to pass the Physical Fitness Test. Extra physical education sessions would be scheduled for them to practice body curls, push-ups, and pull-ups. All vending machines for candy, sugary sodas, and chips would be replaced with ones dispensing carrots, celery sticks, and sugarless candy. Low-calorie, tasty lunches would be served daily. healthy vending machine

Even were this implausible scenario of a moral crusade and federal law to occur in the U.S., the spread of obesity among children would continue unabated, particularly among low-income minority families, since the causes of obesity are hardly located within schools between 8AM and 4 PM.

Consider other causes. The lack of concerted federal action since the 2001 Surgeon General’s Call to Action on obesity (updated by a subsequent Surgeon General in 2010) underscore the inherent conflicts between food industry profits and federally-led campaigns promoting healthy eating. Moreover, the hours children watch television, how little or how much money families have to spend on food, and a dozen other reasons anchored in personal, social class, and cultural norms encourage obesity. Schools, at best, are only a finger in a badly leaking dike.

Direct action focused on changing adult behavior similar to past and current anti-smoking campaigns is needed, not schoolhouse lessons, changing vending machines, and nutritious lunches. Muscular action from the Surgeon General’s office, anti-obesity groups lobbying for legislation to tax high-calorie soft drinks, and banning fast food industry ads targeted at minors are some measures that have a chance to stem the tide of fat spilling over the nation. Expecting schools to reduce obesity  repeats the dismal history of foisting national problems onto schools and substituting talk about nutritious lunches in schools and less sugary sodas in vending machines for direct action.*
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*A recent study showed a large drop in obesity rates among children between ages 2-5 or those mostly out of school. See here.

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