Tag Archives: school reform

Hype on Steroids: Self-Driving Cars and School Technologies

A full week of mainstream and social media swept across the nation about the death of a Tesla car owner killed in Florida using the self-driving option. With the auto-pilot function turned on, the Tesla driver collided with a tractor-trailer and became the first known fatality in the industry’s surge to produce self-driving cars. Google and Tesla and 30 other companies (e.g., Honda, Ford, GM,Toyota) compete for what is hyped as the “next big thing”; such cars, they claim, will “disrupt” the century-old personal transportation market.

A Morgan Stanley Blue Paper announced in 2013:

Autonomous cars are no longer just the realm of science fiction.They are real and will be on roads sooner than you think. Cars with basic autonomous capability are in showrooms today, semi-autonomous cars are coming in 12-18 months, and completely autonomous cars are
set to be available before the end of the decade

Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk said the self-driving function on the Tesla meant that “[t]he probability of having an accident is 50 per cent lower if you have Autopilot on” …. “Even with our first version, it’s almost twice as good as a person.”

Skeptics have tossed in their two cents (see here and here; for rebutting skeptics, see here) but when it comes to questioning new technologies in U.S. culture, skeptics are alien creatures.

While the hype pumping up self-driving cars can lead to accidents and deaths, no such serious consequences accompany promoters of technological innovations who have promised increased teacher efficiency, improved student achievement, and the end of low-performing schools for the  past half-century.  Need I mention that Google has a “Chief Evangelist for Global Education?”

Nothing surprising about hype (even when  injected with steroids)  in a consumer-driven, highly commercial society committed to practicing democracy. Hype is hype either for self-driving cars or for school technologies. Parsing the hyped language and images becomes important because real-life consequences flow from these words and pictures.

 

Consider these advertisements championing new technologies since the 1950s.

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Over-stated claims are  commonplace when it comes to pumping up the benefits of the “next big thing.” Early adopters of new technologies discover the bugs in new hardware and software soon enough.  Glitches, however, seldom dissuade this crowd from peering around the corner for its replacement.

Does hype serve any social and political purpose other than to stimulate consumers to buy the product? I believe it does.

1. Over-the-top statements strengthen the popular belief that change is “good” for individuals and society overall. Not only is change “good” for Americans but in the technology industry and culture of school reform, change morphs into improvement. In Silicon Valley argot, “making the world a better place,” means a new product, a new service, a new app will improve life (a parody of this oft-repeated phrase can be seen here)

Equating change with improvement is a cognitive error. Surely, an improvement implies a change has occurred but because the change has happened, improvement does not necessarily follow. A moment’s thought would quickly squelch equating change with improvement. Stepping on a scale and seeing that you have gained five pounds while on a low-carb diet is clearly a change but not, in your view, an improvement. Think of a divorce in a family. The spouse initiating the divorce sees the split as a change for the better but for the others involved including children, few would see it as an improvement with two homes, living with different parents or weekend visits. Change occurs constantly but improvement is in the mind of the beholder.

Consider whether a new app that has a “smart” button and zipper that alerts you if your fly is down or another app that locates rentable yachts are improvements to one’s life (see here). To those individuals who buy and download these apps they appear as improvements promising a better life but to others, they appear as trivial indulgences that hardly make the “world a better place.”

School reformers who believe that changes lead to improvements in teaching and learning, for example, often refer to gains in student test scores, increases in teacher productivity (i.e., less time to do routine tasks), and other measurable outcomes as evidence of  better schooling. Reformers holding divergent values (e.g., higher civic engagement, student well-being), however, would differ over whether test scores, et. al. are improvements. Quite often, then, the definition of improvement depends upon who does the defining and the values they prize.

2. Hype over new technologies raises questions about the existing institution’s quality.  Consider current health care where millions still lack health insurance, emergency rooms are over-crowded, wait time to see specialists physicians increases, and patients get less and less time when they do see their doctors. Hyping the “next big thing” in medical technology becomes a direct criticism of existing health care. Think of “hospital in a box,” or patient kiosks placed in pharmacies, where ill people go to the kiosk for video conferencing with one or more doctors about what ails them. Such new technologies raises implicit questions about access to adequate health care and to what degree the relationship between doctor and patient is important in improving health.

Or consider the thousands of lives lost on the nation’s roads to accidents and human error in driving. Self-driving cars, once prevalent on the nation’s highways will, promoters claim, dramatically reduce the 32,000 deaths in car accidents while increasing worker productivity since with self-driving cars owners can complete other tasks that heretofore would have not been done. Self-driving cars raises anew questions about the lack of adequate public transportation and a society committed to one-person-per car.

And hype for technological innovations in schools for “personalized” or “adaptive” learning pictures the existing system as factory-like  whole-class, age graded, teacher-dominated instruction that ignores, even neglects individualized lessons, student-centered learning, and reconfigured classrooms.

3. Hype shrinks the time to show results to immediately. Most software products in the educational arena, for example, take time for teachers and students to grasp, understand, and use them in lessons. Education proceeds by short not long steps. Hyping these products leave the distinct impression that unless the desired result hasn’t happened in a few months then someone (note the beginnings of blame) has failed to do it right. And it ain’t the software developer.

4. Software and hardware developers come to believe their own hype. The cliche of “drinking the Kool-Aid–applies here and such self-deception occurs. And when it does, CEOs of start-ups and other companies start making short-cuts to get products into schools and stores. Those short-cuts increase software glitches, highten arguments with consumers of the products, and diminish faith in the innovation.

These outcomes of hype are not justifications for its ubiquity. They  help me understand the role that it (and its cousin, “magical thinking”) perform in U.S. society.

 

 

 

 

 

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Using Computers To Transform Teaching and Learning: The Flight of a Butterfly Or a Bullet?*

As regular readers of this blog know, I have embarked on another project examining “best cases” of teachers, schools, and districts integrating computers into daily activities.  After four months of classroom observations, interviews with teachers and principals, and much reading I have begun to think of this project as a possible book. Much remains to be done, however, before it becomes one. In the fall, I will visit more classrooms and schools to do observations and interviews. I will do more reading of national surveys, case studies, and rigorous inquiries into what teachers and students do with devices. But the makings of a book are there in my mind.

So here is part of a proposal that I have sent to a publisher to see if they are interested. Subsequent posts will elaborate on other parts of this book proposal.

Overview and Rationale for Proposed Book

For over 30 years, I have examined the adoption and use of computers in schools (Teachers and Machines, 1986; Oversold and Underused, 2001, Inside the Black Box, 2013). I looked at the policy hype and over-promising accompanying new technologies in each decade. The question I asked was: what happens in schools and classrooms after the school board and superintendent adopt a policy of buying and deploying new technologies to improve schooling? This is the central question for any reform-minded policymaker, entrepreneur, parent, and practitioner because if teaching practices fail to change in the desired direction embedded in the policy then the chances of any changes in student performance are diminished considerably. Thus, in pursuing the issue of changes in classroom lessons in books, articles, and my blog, I moved back and forth between adopted policies for using computers, their classroom implementation, and shifts in teaching practices.

I described and analyzed computers in schools and classrooms across the U.S. including the highly touted Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay area. I tracked how these advocates and donors were often disappointed in how little school and classroom practice changed, anemic results in student achievement, and uncertainties in getting the right jobs after graduation, given the claims accompanying these devices and software.

There have been, however, occasional bright spots in individual teachers thoroughly integrating laptops and tablets into their practice and moving from teacher- to student-centered classrooms. And there were scattered instances of schools and districts adopting technologies wholesale and slowly altering cultures and structures to improve how teachers teach and students learn. I documented those occasional exemplars but such instances of classroom, school, and district integration were isolated and infrequent.

What slowly became clear to me over the years of studying the use of computers to improve how teachers teach and students learn and attain the overall purposes of public schooling is that policymakers have avoided asking basic questions accompanying any policy intended to reshape classroom practice. I concluded that those questions and their answers are crucial in understanding the role that computers in schools perform when it comes to teaching and learning.

This conclusion is behind my writing this book.

Reform-driven policymakers, entrepreneurs, researchers, practitioners, and parents have sought substantial changes over the past three decades in classrooms, schools, and districts to transform schooling while improving student outcomes. Yet, too often, they either avoided the inevitable steps that need to occur for such changes to materialize in schools or hastily leap-frogged over important ones. Four simple questions capture the essential steps in going from adopted policy to classroom practice.

  1. Did policies aimed at improving student performance get fully, moderately, or partially implemented?
  2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?
  3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?
  4. Did what students learn meet the intended policy goals?

These questions apply to innovations aimed at improving student academic performance such as creating small high schools and launching charter schools to states and districts adopting Common Core standards, competency-based learning and project-based teaching. Most importantly for this book, these questions pertain to making new technologies from laptops to hand-held devices not only accessible to every student but also expecting teachers to regularly use computers in lessons.

The questions emphasize the critical first step of actually implementing the adopted policy. Policies are not self-implementing. They require resources, technical assistance, staff development, and administrators and teacher to work together. This is especially so for teachers who are gatekeepers determining what enters the classroom door.

So without full or moderate implementation of a policy aimed at improving student performance, there is not much sense in pursuing answers to the other questions. Evidence of putting the policy into classroom practice is essential to determining the degree to which a policy is effective (or ineffective).

Once evidence of a policy’s implementation in schools and classrooms is available then the question of whether teaching practices have changed arises. This question gets at the nexus between teaching and learning that has been taken for granted in U.S. schools since the introduction of tax-supported public education nearly two centuries ago: Change teaching and then student learning will change. This is (and has been) the taken-for-granted belief driving reformers for the past century. Determining the degree to which teaching practices have changed in the desired direction and which have remained stable is essential.

The third question closes this circle of teaching producing learning by getting at what students have actually learned as a consequence of altered teaching practices. In the past half-century, policymakers have adopted measures of desired student outcomes (e.g., test scores, graduation rates, attendance, engagement in lessons). They assume that these measures capture what students have, indeed, learned. If teaching practices have changed in the desired direction, then changes in student outcomes (i.e., learning) can be attributed to those changes in classroom practices.

The final question returns to the immediate and long-term purposes of the adopted policy and asks for an evaluation of its intended and unintended outcomes. Immediate purposes might have concentrated on student test scores and graduation rates. Long-term purposes, the overall goals for tax-supported public schools, refer to job preparation, civic engagement, and producing independent and whole human beings.

These questions establish clear linkages between reform-driven policies and teaching practice. They steer this proposed book.

What if, however, policymakers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and parents looked not only at failed uses of classroom computers but also exemplary instances that have actually altered teaching practices to achieve policy ends? Examining how such “best cases” happened and their stability (or lack of it) might unlock the crucial next step of assessing changes in teaching practices and student outcomes.

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*The sub-title is a quote used by Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (1968), pp. 166-167.

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Part 2: Draining the Semantic Swamp of “Personalized Learning” : A View from Silicon Valley

In Part 1, based on what I have seen in 17 teachers’ classrooms in eight schools, I tried to explain what I observed by offering a “personalized learning” continuum. As small as the sample is–I will continue with the project in the Fall and add more classrooms and schools–I wanted to take a first pass at making sense (for myself and readers) of what I saw in schools located at the heart of technological enthusiasm, Silicon Valley. Let me be clear, I value no end of the spectrum more than the other. I have worked hard to strip away value-loaded words that suggest some kinds of “personalized learning” are better than others.

This “personalized learning spectrum,” I pointed out, is anchored in the tangled history of school reform, the family fight a century ago among those Progressives who were efficiency-driven and behaviorist in their solutions to problems of teaching and learning and fellow Progressives who sought student agency,  growth  of the “whole child,” and democratic schooling solving societal problems. Both wings of educational Progressives tried to uproot the traditional whole-group, direct instruction model dominating public schools then and since.

The efficiency-driven, behaviorist wing of the Progressives was victorious by the 1930s and has largely dominated school reform since. Innovations appeared each decade trumpeting the next new thing that would make teaching and learning more efficient and effective. In the 1950s, it was “programmed learning machines” (launched by behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner); in the 1970s, it was “mastery learning” (anchored in the work of University of Chicago psychologist Benjamin Bloom) followed by “competency-based” learning in the 1980s. Each of these innovations, in different guises, continue to be found in schools in 2016. In all instances, past and present, psychologists and school reformers broke down knowledge and skills into its small, digestible parts so students could learn at their own pace through individualized lessons and teacher use of “positive reinforcement.” Extrinsic rewards from teachers and, later, software programs, guided students along paths to acquiring requisite skills and knowledge. Promoters of these innovations claimed that these approaches were both efficient and effective in getting students to acquire prescribed content and skills, graduate,  enter the labor market, and become civically engaged adults.

Challenges to this dominant approach to teaching and learning occurred periodically from the student-centered, “whole child” wing of the Progressives who championed project-based teaching, student participation, and collaborative learning to achieve the same desired ends. While these determined efforts to individualize lessons to match academic and ability differences among students and create more student agency in lessons and units rose and fell over the years (e.g., the 1960s, 1990s) incrementally increasing within more and more schools, the dominant efficiency-driven whole-group, teacher-directed approach prevailed.

What has happened recently, however, is that those efficiency-minded school reformers, filled with optimism about the power of new technologies to “transform” teaching and learning, have appropriated the language of “whole child” Progressives.  Imbued with visions of students being prepared for a world where adults change jobs a half-dozen times in a lifetime, these efficiency-minded reformers tout schools that have tailored lessons (both online and offline) to individual students, turned teachers into coaches, and where students collaborate with one another thus reflecting the changed workplace of the 21st century. Efficiency-minded reformers’ victorious capture of the vocabulary of “personalized learning”  has made parsing the present-day world of school policies aimed at making classrooms havens of “personalized learning” most confusing to those unfamiliar with century-old struggles over similar issues.

Now consider the “personalized learning spectrum,” my first pass at making sense of this world I observed in Silicon Valley. At one end are teacher-centered lessons and programs tailored for individual students to progress at that own speed. Such “personal” instructional materials and teaching seek efficient and effective learning using a behavioral approach rich in positive reinforcement that has clear historical underpinnings dating back nearly a century. At the other end of the continuum are, again, century-old efforts to create student-centered whole- and small-group lessons and programs that seek student agency and shape how children grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically.  And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle of the range are hybrids mixing the two approaches. To get at this spread in 2016 within the eight schools I visited and 17 teachers I observed, I will give examples drawn from earlier posts on this blog and instances elsewhere in the U.S.  of each end of the spectrum and ones that inhabit the center.

At the behaviorist pole of the spectrum where skill-driven lessons tailored to differences among students cluster, different public schools and districts* drawn from across the nation exist such as  New Hampshire Virtual Learning CharterUSC Hybrid High School, and Lindsay Unified School District (California). While these examples inhabit the behaviorist end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another–USC Hybrid High School differs in organization and content from New Hampshire Virtual Learning Charter. Yet I locate these schools and districts at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using existing online lessons (or crafting their own) anchored in discrete skills and knowledge, aligned to the Common Core standards, and tailored to the abilities and performance of individual students. Even though these schools and programs have appropriated the language of student-centeredness and encourage teachers to coach individuals and not lecture to groups, even scheduling student collaboration during lessons, their teacher-crafted playlists that vary for each student accompanied by assessments of skills and knowledge locates them here. And, finally, these programs seek the ends of thoughtful, fully engaged, and whole human beings–the same as other programs along the spectrum. And they still operate within the traditional format of K-8 and 9-12 age-graded schools

In the middle of the spectrum would be classrooms, schools and districts that have blended learning models (there are more than one) combining personalized lessons for individual students and teacher-directed classroom lessons such as ones taught by Aragon High School Spanish teacher, Nicole Elenz-Martin  and second-grade teacher Jennifer Auten at Montclaire Elementary School in Cupertino (CA) into blends of teacher- and student-centered lessons. Urban Rocketship schools in Silicon Valley, for example, has students working on online math and literacy software geared to questions  students will face on tests. They sit in cubicles for part of the day followed by chunks of time spent in classrooms where teacher-directed lessons occur.

The middle school math program I observed called Teach To One located in an Oakland (CA) K-8 school has different “modalities” that place it also in the center of the spectrum as well, tilting a bit toward the behaviorist end with its numbered math skills that have to be mastered before a student moves on. Also in Oakland is James Madison Middle School using a rotational version of blended learning for its 6th through eight graders.

I would also include teachers in the two Summit Charter schools I observed (Summit Prep–here–and Summit Rainier–here) who combined project-based teaching, online readings and self-assessments, individual coaching and collaborative work within 90-minute lessons. While Summit schools in which I observed teachers had explicitly committed itself to “project-based learning,” the projects were largely chosen by the teachers who collaborated with one another in making these decisions for all Summit schools; the projects were aligned to the Common Core state standards. While choices were given to students within these projects for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, major decisions on projects were in teachers’ hands (the nine classes I observed at Summit schools were, for the most part, lodged at the second stage  (see here) of putting project-based learning into practice. This is why I placed these teachers and schools in the center of the continuum.

Such schools mix competency-based, individual lessons for children in large cubicle-filled rooms with teacher-directed lessons, project-based teaching. Like those at the behaviorist end, these programs lodged in the center of the spectrum contain differences among them. Yet they all work within the traditional age-graded school organization.

At the pole opposite the behaviorist end is the student-driven, “whole child” set of arrangements that prize multi-age groupings, high student participation in their learning through working on projects that both student and teacher develop, cultivate cross-disciplinary linkages, and dispense with age-graded arrangements (sometimes called “continuous progress”). Many of these schools claim that they “personalize learning” in their daily work to create graduates who are independent thinkers, can work in any environment, and help to make their communities better places to live. There are less than two-score of these schools nationally.

For example, there is High Tech High in San Diego that centers its instruction around project-based learning (and, from documents and exhibits, seem to be at the fourth stage of PBL). The teacher-led Avalon charter school in St. Paul (MN) relies on PBL implementing it through individualized learning plans. The Mission Hill School in Boston (MA), The Sycamore school in Claremont (CA), the Open Classroom at Lagunitas Elementary in San Geronimo (CA), the Continuous Progress Program at Highlands Elementary in Edina (MN)–all have multi-age groupings, project-based instruction, and focus on the “whole child.” And there are private schools such as The AltSchool, a series of small private schools located in big cities and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) fit here as well. They say that they, too, “personalize learning.” Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum and in the middle, much variation exists among these schools harbored here.

In the few months I observed schools and classrooms in Silicon Valley, I saw instances of technology being integrated into lessons and school programs aimed at achieving larger purposes of public schooling mentioned above. However, I saw no examples among these schools of multi-age groupings, advanced stages of project-based teaching, and other features listed above for this end of the continuum.

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These two posts are my first effort to make sense of the uses of technology to “personalize learning” that I have seen over the past few months in Silicon Valley schools and classrooms. Highly recommended to me as instances of teachers and schools that integrate technology seamlessly into their daily work, I found that their uses of technology to teach content and skills through “personalizing Learning” fell into types of programs that I could array along a continuum. All of these schools sought similar ends of producing graduates who could be problem-solvers, find jobs in a competitive labor market and become engaged in their communities.

I would appreciate comments from viewers about this first pass at understanding what I observed in these classrooms and schools. I welcome comments on the clarity (or lack of it), coherence (or lack of it) and helpfulness (or lack of it) of this spectrum in draining the semantic swamp of “personalized learning.”

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*None of the 17 teachers I observed taught wholly online so I do not include any examples here. Many of the teachers I watched, however, used a combination of online resources, teacher-directed lessons, and small-groups to “personalize learning” while conveying prescribed knowledge and skills aligned to Common Core standards adopted by the state of California.

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Substance Beats Flash: District Superintendents and Minority Achievement Network (S. David Brazer and Robert G. Smith)

A former high school principal, David Brazer is Associate Professor (Teaching) and Faculty Director of Teaching Leadership Programs at Stanford University; former superintendent of the Arlington (VA) public schools, Robert Smith is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at George Mason University. They co-authored Striving for Equity (2016).

 

 

The contemporary education reform climate seems to value flash over substance, grand ideology over hard work, and narrow quantitative impact over steady progress in nurturing environments. Lost in all this noise is the steady effort of school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, students, and parents striving to make the most out of school-age years, from pre-school through high school graduation. The gross exaggerations of “the schools are failing” or “this will revolutionize education” are exposed by the deliberate, effective approaches to improving student achievement of 13 superintendents who tell their stories in Striving for Equity: District Leadership for Narrowing Opportunity and Achievement Gaps (Harvard Education Press, 2016). They pursued results rather than headlines.

Instead of chasing a “best practices” holy grail, these superintendents worked with their communities—both within and around their inner-ring suburban school districts—over long periods of time, following a series of steps that adhered to their commitment to equity and reflected their practical experiences as education leaders. They began by helping parents, teachers, and board members understand that inequities were embedded in their districts’ student outcomes. Most of them were ahead of their time, recognizing opportunity and achievement gaps long before these terms were widely used. Publicizing the data demonstrating achievement differences between the majority population and students with disabilities, in poverty, speaking languages other than English, or identifying as non-white helped these superintendents rally their communities to their gap-closing agendas.

Many of the tactics superintendents employed were pedestrian in nature—funding pre-school, unifying elementary curricula, and keeping their boards educated on the nature of the problem and district progress. Other actions were more complicated, such as providing professional development so that teachers were better equipped to implement curricular changes and reach changing student populations. Additionally, these superintendents also took substantial risks when they focused their professional staffs on understanding unintended bias and institutionalized racism, dismantled entrance requirements for their districts’ most challenging courses, or addressed poverty by taking programs into housing projects or working with health insurance companies to provide coverage for impoverished students. There were no magic bullets or secret sauces, just sensible policies and procedures that focused their agendas to narrow opportunity and achievement gaps for all of their districts’ students.

We identified this group of dedicated superintendents based on their membership on the Governing Board of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN). MSAN, as the name suggests, is committed to success for students who stand outside the majority population on at least one dimension. All of the superintendents valued MSAN for its ability to bring together colleagues and their students from across the country to share ideas and stimulate each other’s thinking about how to address the persistent gaps that dog public education. They attribute many of their good ideas to stimulation that came from MSAN meetings, but no one believed that MSAN provided specific tactics to be implemented. Instead, sharing successes and setbacks and learning from peers, superintendents tended to focus on the principles undergirding shared initiatives rather than trying to replicate particular recipes or procedures. This approach led to innovations adapted and tailored to their specific school districts.

The common experiences of these superintendents highlight central challenges of the job for those who seek to have schools and school systems live up to their equalization potential in US society. The superintendents continually balanced competing demands on resources, shifting politics, and the need to demonstrate progress so that they could remain in their posts long enough to see the effects of their carefully crafted changes and programs. Not all of them stayed more than four or five years, but those who did were able to demonstrate important transformations in their school districts that were making a difference for students long marginalized in their systems. Their examples point to two important factors that are uncommon in public school districts today: 1) longevity in the superintendent role supports long-term improvement, and 2) meaningful reform is multi-faceted, requiring strategy, time, and resources to take hold.

Each of the 13 superintendents pointed with pride to major accomplishments that narrowed achievement gaps in their school districts. None, however, could claim to have closed any of the gaps they identified. Any educator who has tried at any level to help a child succeed will understand that moving the needle on achievement is a thorny, baffling process with many stumbling blocks. Long after the fad or reform du jour has passed from the scene, superintendents, teachers, principals, and other educators dedicated to equitable student outcomes will be chipping away at the gaps in their schools and districts, eventually eliminating minority status as a predictor of student achievement. These superintendents lead the way to that more promising future.

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Integrating Technology In Classrooms: Teach To One in a Oakland Charter School

“Personalized learning” joins “disrupted” and “transform” as popular hyped words used by policymakers, entrepreneurs, superintendents, online enthusiasts, and wannabe reformers. As with the other catch-phrases, “personalized learning” means different things to different people (see here, here, and here). What all do share is a commitment to another often-hyped but less attractive phrase: “competency-based learning” or individualized mastery learning that has nearly a half-century of experience in U.S. schools. Now, with digital tools available and a climate hostile to the “factory-system of schooling”, the capacity to convert “personalized” learning into daily school work has spread.

So, no surprise that when “personalized learning” is translated into practice, the concept appears in different forms. Rocketship schools, AltSchool, Agora Cyber School, and the rural Lindsay Unified School District in California’s Central Valley blazon their “personalized learning”  (or “competency-based learning”) placard for all to see. It is a marketplace where different brands compete for the shopper’s attention. Within this branding competition sits Teach To One.

Teach To One is a middle school math program that re-arranges traditional classroom space and furniture, tailors daily lessons for individual students, and uses different forms of teaching (“modalities” is their favored word) within a 90-minute period. The program grew out of a venture in New York City called School for One that got rave reviews (see here). Two of its founders left and created a non-profit that markets Teach To One; it is now in 28 schools in eight states teaching math to 10,000 students. Teach To One has received rave reviews in its early growth years (see here and here).*

On May 15, 2016, I spent an hour and a half shadowing Lupe (a pseudonym), an eighth grade student at ASCEND charter school** in Oakland where she and about 100 classmates (sixth graders were on a field trip) received their daily math instruction through Teach To One. The Director of Teach To One, Winona Bassett (a pseudonym) briefed me on the first-year program, answered a number of questions I had and found the student I would shadow. She explained to me the different “modalities” I would see during the morning.

What I observed are clear instances of both teachers and students seamlessly integrating technology in a lesson on scientific notation. The math skill of scientific notation is listed on the online Portal  (for a video explaining the Portal, see here) The Portal shows the playlist and the skill the student is working on for that day  (it is numbered A 280–“I will solve real world problems involving numbers in scientific notation”). The Portal (see here) also includes each student’s all important Exit Slip which contains multiple choice questions that the student has to answer. It is an assessment of grasping and applying the skill. One Exit Slip question, for example, asks: “A website had approximately 300 thousand visits in 2010. The number of visits rose to 6.31 X 10¹° in 2011. In scientific notation, how many more visits were there in 2011 than in 2010?” The student has four choice from which to choose. The central server in New York City reports to the staff how well or poorly each students has done on the questions. How many were missed, how many correct. Using the Portal, students (and their parents) can see exactly how they are faring on each skill, how much work they have to do and whether they have “room for growth, are almost there, and great and perfect”  (Teach To One calls these skill levels “Foundational, Core, and Extension”). Lupe is working on a skill that is “at grade level.” This version of “personalized learning” also is “competency based.”

The student’s answer to these Exit Slip questions each day determines what the student will work on the following one. All Exit Slips are sent electronically to New York City, graded, and “using, ” in the Director’s words,  “algorithms and human judgment,” the next day’s Exit Slip is sent back within hours  to the director and teachers of the program. Through accessing the Portal, students then know what they will work on the next day and whether or not they are progressing or regressing (or mastered) each skill. All math skills are aligned with Common Core standards in a highly flexible physical environment unlike a traditional classroom.

The physical space. Taking over the school’s library, the large space is demarcated into four separate rooms each with a sign of a local university (e.g., San Jose State, San Francisco State). Each room is designed with Teach To One space consultants. has long tables–each movable chair clearly numbered–capable of seating up to six students.

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There is much noise from different segments of the room since library shelving units separate the spaces. Students, teachers, and aides went about their business amid ebb and flow of sound across the divided space. One space is used for a teacher-directed lesson on scientific notation (see below), another space is used for students to use their Chromebooks to work on the individually designed lesson on scientific notation (based on their results of work the previous day recorded on their online Exit Slip–see below); the third space is for collaborative work between and among students and teachers. The fourth space is used for a teacher-directed lesson on circumference. This morning, the seventh and eighth graders are distributed between the four “rooms” spending a half-hour in each space before moving on to the next “modality.” For each segment of the 90-minute class, students sit at different tables with different classmates.

The students. Ages 13-14, these seventh and eighth graders, mostly Latino boys and girls (see demography of ASCEND below) range in size from large to pint-sized, exhibiting varying stages of puberty. They are filled with energy, zest, and seriousness mixed with playfulness. As an old white man on a cane, I stand out among them and when I sit at a table next to the student I am shadowing, many ask my name and what I am doing there. I tell them that I am shadowing Lupe and will write about the class on my blog. I tell them my name and one student yells out: “Larry, the Cable Guy.” The name sticks as I move from one “modality” to another. As I observe them in each “modality,” I see students using their Chromebooks and reading from the screen and writing in a large notebook. There is much back-and-forth between students about the task they were working on and playful kidding with each other as they exchange information about friends, how each looked. etc.

ASCEND students have a dress code. They wear tee-shirts or hoodies  marked with an ASCEND logo on the front; on the back of the tee-shirt is printed one-liners  called the Six Ways to ASCEND:

•”Take Charge of Your Own Learning”

∗Be kind and considerate

•Help Each Other

•Persevere

•Be Responsible for yourself, your family, and your community

•Be reflective”

The teachers. For the 50 students there this morning, there are two credentialed teachers and two teaching assistants. I watched both teachers in their different spaces for 30 minute periods. Chimes ring during the 90 minutes they take math signaling students when to switch “modalities”(e.g., go from 10-minute Math Advisory–like a “homeroom”–to a teacher-directed lesson, etc.) and when they must complete their Exit Slip, and when they move to their next ASCEND class.

The first teacher I observe is doing what the program calls “Live Investigation.” An experienced teacher, Julia Kerr (a pseudonym) has 10 students at three tables. For 30 minutes she conducts a recitation/whole group discussion/Q & A on converting standard notation to scientific notation. She begins with a matrix of four cells on the whiteboard, each cell holding the following symbols: +, -, x, ÷  .  Students open their  notebooks and draw the matrix. She then asks students: “what are the rules when we add decimals?” She calls on students by name.

At my table, there are two boys and two girls. They have their Chromebooks open and have taken out their notebooks and pens. As they exchange information and gossip, they move easily between Spanish and English. One of the boys is a big, non-stop talker who prods the much shorter, slight boy with jokes and comments about others in the class. The smaller boy laughs but hardly responds back. The two girls say nothing to the larger boy’s comments. The teacher who scans the class constantly sees what is happening and admonishes the boy by name. He quiets down and returns to his Chromebook and notebook.

Teacher asks: “What do you do when when you multiply (3.4 X 10-²) by (6.2 X 10−³)?” A few students raise their hands and reply. She builds on their responses and gives examples to tie down point. She then moves to subtraction part of matrix. Kerr moves around room while talking and insuring that everyone is on task. When one student yells out an answer to one of her questions instead of raising hand and waiting for teacher to call upon him, she looks directly at him and says: “You have a warning.”***

Teacher moves through each cell of matrix giving examples and asking students by name to respond to her questions about how to convert standard to scientific notation. They use their calculators on the Chromebook and move easily back and forth between paper and screen. As she walks around, students show her their screens and notes they have taken.

Chimes ring a five minute warning. Kerr begins to sum up by asking students to “pay attention.” She goes over rules students should follow in doing conversion and asks a student–the large boy at my table–to “do it for me.” He does. Then she asks students to work with partner to review each other’s work. They do. No back-and-forth at my table. All work. Kerr puts up on whiteboard another example of converting from standard to scientific notation. Chimes ring and the 10 students disperse to work in a different “modality.”

I asked Lupe what she got out of the class. She told me that Ms. Kerr helped her understand better what scientific notation is. She will use her notes when she works on her Exit Slip. When I asked if she can convert standard to scientific notation, she paused, hesitated, and murmured something I could not hear. She smiled and we went to the next class.

In this “modality,” Lupe and classmates will work individually in their Chromebooks, consult their notebook, ask veteran teacher Donald Percy (pseudonym) questions about scientific notation that they are stuck on. There are 24 students in the room. They open their Chromebooks and notebooks. Most dig right into the task. Some are clearly stuck. Percy sees this whether they raise their hands for help or not. He moves easily in and around the tables, questioning a student, making suggestions, and going to white board to show what a student is stuck on and what the student needs to do. At my table there is one boy and four girls. The boy cracks jokes and one girl occasionally laughs. He is working from another sheet of paper and answering questions on paper. It is his “Independent Practice” handout. While some students who work at Independent Practice use Chromebooks for their handouts, some do not. I learn later from the Director of the program that he is having a very hard time with previous skills and the current scientific notation. The girls at my table generally ignore him and proceed to move back-and-forth from notebook to Chromebook. Percy works with three boys at another table who need help. He goes to the whiteboard and writes down examples, explaining how to go from standard to scientific notation. Chimes ring signaling that everyone transitions back to 10-minute Math Advisories to complete there Exit Slip.

Those at my table begin doing so. Quiet descends in the room. Students click away on the questions they have to answer, given where they are in mastering the skill. Some consult their notebooks. Before the chimes ring, the teacher praises the entire group for their diligent work and then asks students as they leave to plug in their Chromebooks to recharge them. They do. In a few minutes, this session ends and students move to their next ASCEND class.

I met with the Director to debrief. I was curious about the switching between paper and screen and she explained that this was a teacher decision, not a company one, since teachers wanted a record, “evidence” was the word she used, that staff could assess and then compare what they see on paper with students’ progress through the competency-based math curriculum via Exit Slips. She explained to me the rapid electronic turnaround between New York City servers and staff, Teach To One accessibility to distant staff, and the ups-and-down of being a first year program. Her enthusiasm was infectious and I thanked her for setting up the shadowing of a student.

 

 

 

 

_________

*Joel Rose, one of the founders of School of One who joined with Christopher Rush to start-up New Classrooms, contacted me in March 2016. He wanted to discuss Teach To One with me. We met for coffee talking about his vision of schooling, “personalized learning,” and his work in expanding New Classrooms. Afterwards, I asked him if he could arrange my visiting its Oakland Unified School District site in ASCEND charter school. He did.

**ASCEND is a Oakland public charter school that opened in 2001. The charter serves 430 students in grades K-8 with 24 students in every class. Students are 80% Latino, 8% Asian, 6% African American, 5% Multi-Racial, and 1% Filipino (2015). Poverty rate in school, determined by number of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, is 95 percent (2013).

***the classroom disciplinary policy is ASCEND’s. Verbal warning first. Then with another violation, name goes on whiteboard. Next time a check mark next to name. After two check marks, detention, and with three check marks, student goes to principal. I learned this from the student I shadowed and classmates. None of the students knew of anyone who had been ejected from their math class.

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Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

What Has Done More to Improve Living Standards: Indoor Toilets, Air-conditioning, or Smart Phones?

Living in the heart of Silicon Valley–where bullet-proof coffee, gluten-free muffins, and traffic gridlock prevail–I am surrounded daily by unrelenting optimism about the promise of technology making our lives better. I would guess, then, that fellow Valley-ites, if given the above choices, would pick “smart phones.” *

Were they to do so, they would be wrong. According to economic historian Robert Gordon, between 1870-1970 standards of living rose far more dramatically than the half-century since 1970. As he puts it:

The century of revolution in the United States after the Civil War was economic, not political, freeing households from an unremitting daily grind of painful manual labor, household drudgery, darkness, isolation, and early death. Only one hundred years later, daily life had changed beyond recognition. Manual outdoor jobs were replaced by work in air-conditioned environments, housework was increasingly performed by electric appliances, darkness was replaced by light, and isolation was replaced not just by travel, but also by color television images bringing the world into the living room. Most important, a newborn infant could expect to live not to age forty-five, but to age seventy-two. The economic revolution of 1870 to 1970 was unique in human history, unrepeatable because so many of its achievements could happen only once.

And since 1970 and the advent of computer technology in daily life? Gordon says:

… economic growth since 1970 has been simultaneously dazzling and disappointing. This paradox is resolved when we recognize that advances since 1970 have tended to be channeled into a narrow sphere of human activity having to do with entertainment, communications, and the collection and processing of information. For the rest of what humans care about—food, clothing, shelter, transportation, health, and working conditions both inside and outside the home—progress slowed down after 1970, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Thus, an unheralded, stunning century of innovation and economic growth produced the telegraph, phone, television, house lighting, automobile, airplane travel, and, yes, indoor plumbing. These inventions networked the home and workplace in ways that raised living standards and increased workplace productivity considerably. It was in that same century that medical advances reduced infant mortality and lengthened life of Americans dramatically.

The half-century since 1970 has surely seen innovations that have enhanced these earlier inventions but the template for economic growth was laid down for that fruitful hundred-year period.  In past decades, new technologies have clearly expanded communication and entertainment, making life far more instantaneous, convenient and pleasurable. But social media, immediate communication, and constant access to photos, video clips, and films have not increased the standard of living as had the decades between 1870-1970. This is the argument that Gordon makes in the Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016).

What does Gordon’s argument and enormous evidence he compiled (the book is 762 pages long) have to do with the current school reform movement prompted in large part by  A Nation at Risk that appeared in 1983?

Recall that the highly influential report that CEOs, philanthropists, and political leaders embraced was driven by an economic rationale–the human capital argument–for improving U.S. schools:

If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all—old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority.

Linking school reform to economic growth and competition, the Report spurred a generation of reformers to raise curriculum and performance standards for both students and teachers, increase testing, and create accountability frameworks that included rewards and penalties in subsequent decades. Marrying school reform to the nation’s economic growth–the human capital rationale for schooling (see here and a rebuttal here)–occurred, according to Robert Gordon, at roughly the same moment–1970s–when the “special century” of inventions, innovations, rising standard of living and productivity were ebbing.

In other words, reforms aimed at getting U.S. students to perform better on international tests for the past three decades–think No Child Left Behind, expanded parental choice in schools, more computers in schools, and Common Core state standards–was of little influence on growing a strong economy, raising median income, or lessening inequality, according to Gordon. These reforms, while aiding low-income minorities in many instances, overall, contributed little to improving productivity or raising standards of living.

Of course, Gordon and others (including myself) see schools as crucial in a democracy for many reasons. But one of them is not better schools leading to economic growth, an enhanced standard of living, and workplace productivity especially since that standard of living had dramatically improved between 1870-1970. Gordon, like others (see here and here), have begun to undermine the dominant rationale for school reform since the early 1980s: the belief that public schools’ primary focus must be economic in preparing a skilled and knowledgeable workforce. That prevalent human capital rationale has ignored for more than a quarter-century other historic aims of schools: civic engagement to keep democracy vital, independent decision-making, and a well-rounded schooling that enlarges children’s and youth’s potential and sensibilities. Preparing the next generation for the workforce remains as an abiding goal, of course, but not the dominating one it has been for over three decades. And that is why Gordon’s argument and evidence is useful for those seeking to build a political coalition of policymakers, practitioners, researchers, civic and business leaders, and parents who question the shotgun marriage of schools to a growing economy.

Gordon, like some other economists and policymakers, recognize that economic growth has slowed down, productivity has lessened. and inequalities have risen. All of these have occurred because the “special century” has ended and because “the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by (1970)… already been achieved along so many dimensions. including food, clothing, housing, transportation, entertainment, communication, health, and working conditions” (p.641). In his final chapter, Even with his argument that the “special century” ended decades ago, Gordon does see policy interventions that can help reduce current economic inequalities and lowered productivity. He lists ten such interventions such as raising the minimum wage, more progressive income tax reform–earn more, pay more– and eliminating many deductions, and encouraging high-skilled immigrants to come to U.S.

For education, however, only three of the ten interventions appear–investing in preschools, state and federal school financing rather than local taxes, and reducing student indebtedness in higher education. Not a word about the dominant school reforms in 2016–Common Core standards, standardized testing, technologies in schools, charter schools, accountability (see p. 648).

In questioning the dominant beliefs in current school reform as essential to economic growth, Gordon’s argument and evidence are useful to those politically active decision-makers, teachers, parents, and researchers who know that a democracy needs schools that do more than prepare children and youth for the workplace.

_______________

* At a coffee shop near Google campus in Mountain View (CA), I overheard one software engineer say to  a friend: “I lost my phone and didn’t find it for two days. I thought my life was over.” For the references to bullet-proof coffee and gluten-free muffins, I thank Janice Cuban.

 

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Filed under school reform policies, technology

“Transforming” Public Schools: Enough already with an Overhyped Word!

We have the opportunity to completely reform our nation’s schools. We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges here. We’re talking about a fundamental re-thinking of how our schools function—and placing a focus on teaching and learning like never before…. With the first decade of the 21st century now history, we’ve committed to securing the vitality of our nation by transforming the way we teach our students.  U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, 2010

 

Transform the way teachers teach and how children learn by replacing group-based, teacher-centered instruction with personalized, learner-centered instruction….

Transform the quality of work life for teachers, administrators, and support staff by transforming a school system’s organization culture, its reward system, job descriptions, and so on, to align with the requirements of the new teaching and learning processes….

Transform the way in which educators’ create change by replacing piecemeal change strategies with whole-system change strategies.... Francis Duffy, 2010

 

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.    Andrew Zucker, 2012

 

Harness Technology to transform your School: With technology, anything is possible and today’s students experience and use technology every hour of every day. Shouldn’t your classrooms have the technology products and solutions to help your students move forward?    Advertisement for conference on technology held by HB Communications, 2016

 

 

If you enter “school reform” in a Google search you will get 12, 100,000 hits. But were you to type in “transformed schools,” you would get 111,000,000 hits (as of May 17, 2016). When it comes to school reform, as the quotes above indicate, the word “transform” hits the jackpot of overhyped words in reformers’ vocabulary. Another highly touted word that has become puffery is “disrupt” as in “disrupting schools through technological innovations” (which got a measly 1,430,000 Google “results” on May 19, 2016). But for today, one overrated word is enough.  I will concentrate on “transform”

The dictionary meaning of the verb and noun (see here and here) refers to dramatic changes in form, appearance, and conditions. Often used as an example is the metamorphosis of the butterfly.

butterfly-cycle

 

 

But “transform” applied to institutions is less biological, less genetic and far more hand-made. Humans manufacture changes.  But not just any change. In the world of school reformers, “transform,” implies not only dramatic changes but ones that make better schools. Also implied is that “better” means fundamental or radical, not incremental or tinkering changes. Moreover, these fundamental changes are instituted speedily rather than slowly. Here are some images that capture the range of meanings for the verb and noun when applied to individuals and organizations:

Physical-Transfomations

 

maxresdefault

 

transformation-site-logo

 

This post, then, is about this over-used, pumped-up word and its implications especially how meaningless it has become in policy-talk. Keep in mind that historically there have been proof-positive “transformations.” One-room rural schoolhouses in the 19th century changed into brick-and-mortar age-graded schools with scores of classrooms by the end of that century. A few decades later, reformers launched the innovative comprehensive high school. Previously about 10 percent of students had graduated high school in 1890; a century later, about 75 percent graduated the comprehensive high school. Those are “transformations” in school organization that strongly influenced teachers and students in schedule, curriculum, and instruction (see here and here).

Think about the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) and the subsequent Civil Rights Act that enforced school desegregation. With court-ordered desegregation in district after district, by the mid-1980s, more black students in the South were going to schools with whites than elsewhere in the nation. That was a “transformation.” With subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that returned authority to local districts in assigning students to neighborhood schools (thus, reflecting residential segregation), re-segregation has reappeared (see here and here).

Yes, I have gotten allergic to the word “transform” when it is applied to schooling. That allergy has prompted me to ask any policymaker, researcher, practitioner, high-tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist, or parent using the word, certain questions about what he or she means.

1. What does “transform” mean to you?

Sometimes I use above images (e.g., like a before/after photo of an overweight man? A butterfly?) to prompt the picture of the change that resides in the head of the person .

2. What are the problems to which “transformed” schools is the solution?

Is the problem academic achievement falling behind other nations? Or is it the long-term achievement gap between whites and minorities? Or is it the technological backwardness of schools compared to other industries?

3. What exactly is to be transformed?  school structures? Cultures? Classroom teaching? Learners?

Public schools as an institution are complex organizations with many moving parts, some being tightly coupled to one another while some are often unconnected to one another. What, then is the target for the “transformation?”

4. Transform to what? what are the outcomes that you want to achieve?

This is the key question that gets at what the believer in “transforming” schools wants to be better. It reveals the person’s value about the place of schooling in a democratic society and the kinds of teaching and learning that are “good.”  Of all the questions, this cannot be skipped.

5.  How fast should the “transformation” be?

Nearly always, believers in “transformed” schools believe in speedy action, grand moves while the window of opportunity is open. Not in making changes slowly or in small increments.

6. How will you know that the “transformation” will be better than what you already have?

Ah, the evaluation question that captures in another way the desired outcomes, the better school.

So, if viewers want to end the promiscuous use of a word leached of its meaning in policy-talk, I suggest asking these questions. To do so, may lose you an acquaintance or colleague but, in the end, both parties gain a larger and deeper sense of what the words “transform schools” mean. And maybe I will stop sneezing when the word comes up.

 

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What Guides My Thinking on School Reform: Pulling the Curtain Aside *

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. But I do embrace certain principles that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. And also this blog for the past six years. 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.

Context matters. Suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible because the setting in of itself influences what happens in the school and classrooms. There is no  reform I know of aimed at improving classroom teaching and student performance that should be applied across the board (e.g., school uniforms, teaching children to code, project-based learning). Policies and programs delivered to teachers need to be adapted to different settings.

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 teachers’  tool kits. 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., online “personalized” lessons, project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.

Small changes in classroom practice occur often and slowly; 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.

Age-graded 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. Teachers adapt to this dominant 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 lesson to get students ready 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, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.

Yet adding new structures to shift the center of gravity from prevailing teacher-centered lessons to student-centered ones (e.g., “personalized” learning, project-based instruction) while retaining the larger organizational structure of the age-graded organization fails to alter daily classroom practices.

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 ala 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 principles guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning.

_____________

*This is a revised version of a post that appeared September 15, 2015.

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Recycling Poverty, Segregated Schools, and Academic Achievement: Then and Now

A recent spate of reports and books  linking family poverty, segregated schools, and academic achievement (see here, here, and here) have concluded that school improvement (insofar as test scores are the measure) has hit a wall. Over the past decade, test scores have plateaued in reading and math or even fallen (see here and here). After thirty years of reform after reform, achievement gaps between high- and low-income schools run to four or more grade levels between schools within and across districts (see here and here)   How come?

Researchers have pointed out for decades that the largest influence on school achievement (as measured by test scores),  has been family socioeconomic status. No surprise now with the release of new data on test scores that the same findings about poverty and segregation shape student achievement. Such findings have been around since the massive Coleman Report (1966) and have appeared regularly every decade since. With such findings appearing again and again,  the question asked a half-century ago is the same questions now: Can schools make a difference when socioeconomic conditions (e.g., poverty) clearly play a large role in determining academic achievement?

Those who say “yes,” then and now, have urged upon elected decision-makers different reform policies from better teachers and teaching, more parental choice in schools, higher standards, more testing, accountability, new technologies in schools, and larger investments in education. “No excuses” school leaders, acknowledge that poverty exists but  “good” schools can overcome zip codes.

Those who say “no,” then and now, have pointed out consistently meager outcomes in academic achievement and constancy in test score gaps between minorities and whites. These naysayers have urged those very same decision-makers to improve schools but politically work on reducing poverty in the U.S. (see here) because of the powerful effects of family background on student academic outcomes. The back-and-forth between reformers who see successful schools as the  solvent for poverty and their critics who see family and neighborhood poverty as factors that cannot be washed away by the solvent of schooling. That debate has been reignited in 2016 by recent reports documenting gaps in achievement and few test score gains.

Here’s the rub, however. Much has been written (again by researchers) that policymakers seldom use social science research to make decisions. Instead, they define crises that must be solved and use research to support solutions  they have already decided (see here, here, and here).  Research studies are dragged in to bolster agreed-upon policy directions. At best, then, these research findings get smuggled into the debate after a new policy has been decided. Making policy, then and now, has been far more about political will, mobilizing coalitions to back solutions, and the power to decide what should be done to end the crisis than leaning on rigorous research findings. Educational policy, then, is politics writ small.

Consider what happened to the Coleman Report (1966)–mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. James Coleman, a highly respected sociologist and his team surveyed pupil expenditures, quality of facilities and teacher certification because federal officials then were sure that low student achievement, especially in urban minority and poor districts  was due to inequitable allocation of resources. Instead, the Coleman Report showed a weak correlation between resources and achievement but a strong  association between family background and student test scores.

When government officials saw results that challenged their assumptions about the “problem” of low achievement, they kept these findings under wraps for months until the results leaked out (see here). These results gave plenty of ammunition to critics of the “War on Poverty,”  the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), and federal agencies pushing for more desegregation in the nation’s  school districts. All of these initiatives had the political muscle of  President Lyndon Johnson behind them. Educational policy and political will were joined at the hip then.

The Coleman Report’s controversial findings, however, gave a shot of adrenalin to opponents of these new policies and ventures in the early 1970s, particularly the huge increases in federal spending to end poverty and improve schools.  Opponents of desegregating residential communities in order to have blacks and whites attend school together found sustenance in these results also (see here). Schools remained a battleground in these years as the “War on Poverty” became a historical footnote.

So these current policy research findings, either supporting those who say “yes” or those who say “no” to the question of schools making a difference even amid strong socioeconomic influences, like similar studies in the past will revive the same old question that has divided the nation for the past half-century. But the research findings will not answer the question.

Results from 2016 studies such as Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon’s may recapture the argument used by earlier policymakers that investing more money in school improvement might be a fool’s errand, given the results from earlier reforms. Rebuttals to this line of argument come from social scientists  who urge expanded investment in pre-Kindergarten, and those, like Reardon and other researchers who point to the tiny fraction of high poverty, segregated schools that somehow perform beyond what researchers would have ordinarily predicted. Ditto for charter school proponents and advocates of “no excuses” schools who point to the high graduation rates, college admissions, and yes, high test scores that they have racked up and, according to their advocates, deserve more money and political support.

What’s missing now in 2016 from this brew of research, policy solutions, and advocacy, however, is what was present a half-century ago, a muscular political coalition, a sizable group of elected policymakers with the will to provide a popularly supported response to this conundrum that has divided this nation for decades over the role of schooling in a capitalist democracy.

 

 

 

 

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Rubik Cube, School Reform, and Summit Charter Schools (Part 2)

In part 1, I made the point that while solving a Rubik’s Cube is complicated, designing and implementing a school reform is complex. In that post, I offered nine different yet interacting moving parts that I believe has to go into any reform aimed at improving high schools for preparing youth to complete college. They are:

*Recruit and train teachers who have the subject matter knowledge and skills to work with youth before, during, and after the school day.

*Recruit and train school site leaders who have the expertise and skills to lead a school and be a pillow and sandpaper simultaneously with teachers, students, and parents.

*Students takes a college prep curriculum, aligned with district standards, that enables them to enter any higher education institution in the state.

*Students have access to non-academic subjects that cultivate the mind, heart, and sensibilities.

*Equip all students with the knowledge and skills not only to enter college but have the wherewithal to persist through four years and get a bachelor’s degree.

*Organize the school day, week, and month that provides students with sufficient time in and out of class to learn the prescribed material and core cognitive skills to master a subject, acquire the essential skills of planning and assessing their progress in each course they take, receive tutorial help when student skill levels are below par, and time for students to receive mentoring from teachers they trust.

*Build a culture of respect, safety, and focus on collaboration and learning for both youth and adults.

*Create a decision-making process that is inclusive, self-critical, and strong enough to make further changes in all of the above.

*Do all of the above efficiently within available resources.

 

These different features–drawn from different bodies of research (see Part 1)— of a structural design are within designers’ and implementers’ control. They can be built and put into practice. While fragile and easy to fall apart without attention and care, these interacting parts are essentials, I argue. Note, however, is that I mention no computers. Part of the complex design of these high schools is to use powerful software applications and content seamlessly in achieving desired outcomes. Technology is not central to achieving desired outcomes; it is, however, an enabling condition that surely helps both adults and youth reach the outcomes they seek.

What is beyond the reach or control of designers and implementers, however, are the unpredictable events that inexorably occur in and to schools because they exist in political, social, and economic environments within which both are wholly dependent upon those who fund schools. Consider just a few examples of the unanticipated occurrences that influence teaching practices and student outcomes: district and states cut funds, parental crises send students into  spirals of despair, illness of a highly-respected administrator slows implementation of an innovation; a clutch of veteran teachers exit school in one year.  Such events–and I have hardly listed all of the contingencies that could occur–if coming in clusters or sequentially (or both) can damage quickly the culture that has grown within the structures and, if left unattended, destroy the school. These schools, after all, are fragile creations that can only take so much shaking before they fragment and disappear. The history of successful schools, however, defined, has shown, time and again (see here), that creating and sustaining such schools is as dicey as predicting the locations and consequences of the next El Nino.

A charter network in Northern California has been working and re-working a design containing these moving parts for nearly 15 years. Over the past two months I have visited two of its seven charter schools in the Bay area and in those two schools have watched nine teachers across different academic subjects teach 90-minute lessons.* I have also interviewed administrators. The network of Summit charter schools has been written about often and positively (see here, here, here, and here). In all instances, these teachers I observed had integrated the software they had loaded onto students’ Chromebooks, the playlists of videos and links to articles for units that teachers created, and students’ self-assessment exercises seamlessly into the daily lessons with varying degrees of student engagement.

The cliched statement said over and over again by advocates of new technologies in schools: “It is not about technology, it is about learning,” captured what I saw. The overall aims of Summit students acquiring academic content, cognitive skills, “habits of success,” and the know-how of students assessing their own progress–all of that involved online work during and after lessons. Clearly, the school did not have to use Chromebooks and extensive software to reach the schools’ overall goals and each student’s personal ones. The technology did enable, however, the process of learning to be more efficient, more timely, and give real-time feedback to students. In the words of one of the teachers who emailed me his thoughts on using the available technology**:

Technology and the model we are currently using at Summit has transformed my classroom and changed me as a teacher….  As we have relatively recently embraced a model that puts students as drivers of their own learning further into the center of their academic experience,  we have moved the teacher further outward, acting more as a facilitator than a traditional teacher much of the time. This could make some teachers feel uneasy and others even disillusioned at the perceived prospect that all the knowledge students need is online and the essence of the teacher-student relationship has been subsumed by the technology. Having now helped develop the curriculum for this model, used it and iterated on it for nearly three years, I view this model as a powerful, mostly positive way to educate young people….

I am now able to provide a much wider variety of experiences to my students because I have access to a wealth of data about both their learning performance and preferences. Changes in my practice that took days or weeks based on our previous assessment cycles are now reduced to days, hours or even minutes. That said, as we iterate to improve the academic tools we use, we also need to be equally mindful, innovative and proactive in building and maintaining the ethical and character culture(informed by a knowledge of adolescent development)that marks an excellent high school education from a merely good one. Moreover, we need to similarly work on building a more powerful, authentic sense of common purpose with the varied backgrounds of our families and communities that overlap with our school community. This requires tremendous empathy and solidarity, and I feel it is the greatest challenge ahead of us….

Such a culture that this Summit teacher speaks of is not engineered by new software or machines. The culture and structures that support it are built by administrators’ and teachers’ hands, hearts, and minds. It is a work-in-progress. It is complex with many moving parts. And it is fragile.

What is missing, of course, from this description of Summit’s complex design and its execution is any evaluation of what students are learning (In my observations, I focused on what teachers did in their classrooms), whether all Summit high schools (or just the two I observed) are succeeding (however measured) in achieving its goals, or whether you need all (or just a few) of the features outlined above. There is a great deal absent from this limited account of lessons I observed.

But I did learn a few things very well.  If the Rubik Cube can be solved in either seconds or minutes with algorithms, I am confident that building and sustaining an improved high school for minority and poor youth is a long-term affair, lacking algorithms, that needs smart and patient leaders, and years to accomplish. Such schools are live inventions that keep adapting to their environment as problems arise and fade.  But these works-in-progress are vulnerable and delicate creations. They need constant attention.

 

 

 

 

 

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*Diane Tavenner, a founding teacher at Summit Prep and director of Summit Schools Network and Chief Academic Officer, Adam Carter–also a founding teacher at Summit Prep–picked the two schools. In both schools, I interviewed the principals (called Executive Directors), and they suggested various teachers I should visit. Because of scheduling difficulties, I could not see all of those recommended to me. So in both schools, I reached out to other teachers, introduced myself and asked them if I could observe their classes. Of the nine teachers who permitted me to spend a 90-minute block, I had selected five to have a broad coverage of academic subjects and grades 9-12. All nine lessons taught by English, social studies, science, math, and foreign language teachers have been published on this blog on: March 13, 2016, March 16, March 21, March 23, March 29, April 1, April 6, April 12, April 18.

**In my possession. It was a confidential exchange between this teacher and myself.

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use