Taking the Public Out of Public Education

I recently went to a talk by my old professor and mentor, Art Pearl. Art has been a political activist, writer and teacher, focusing on issues of democratic education for over four decades. Now in his 80s, he is still teaching, writing and acting on his beliefs. He spoke about the attack on public schools, on unions, and the need for democratic education. In this column, I am going to use his talk as a springboard for expanding my own ideas on the current attack on public education and the unions representing public school teachers.

One can trace the beginning of this movement to the report, A Nation at Risk, written in 1983 written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, at the behest of then Secretary of Education Bell. The report was really a call to arms to reframe the debate about education. It made a rhetorical claim that the mediocrity of our educational system put our nation at risk—equating it with an attack by a foreign country. No evidence was provided to support this claim. In fact, while every decade throughout the history of public education, headlines have proclaimed that it is going to hell in a hand basket, and bemoaning the loss of the good old days, most evidence we have only points to continual progress, at least up through the 1990s (see The Way We Were? by Richard Rothstein, and The Manufactured Crisis by David C. Berliner and Bruce Biddle for extensive discussion and data on this topic).

School_ChoiceOne aspect of this effort to undermine public education has been to reframe the purpose of education as purely preparation for the workforce. In the past, public schools have been considered to have multiple purposes—socialization in its many forms, citizenship in its many forms, and providing students with a well rounded general education—cultural and “academic,” meeting both individual potential aims as well as societal aims. Since that report, the public media discussion of education, including the U.S. Department of Education, has cast the purpose of education purely in terms of its economic impact. They, as did the report, describe the threat of a failing educational system as a threat to our national economy. They sell education for its ability to get one a better job, a better income—using educational attainment to income correlation data. Today, one virtually never hears mention of any other purpose for schools in the mainstream media or from government spokespeople.

Even if we accepted that schools should be about job training, the economic argument used by the government and media is mostly based on lies and false information. The claim of A Nation at Risk, (one that has constantly been repeated since) is that our mediocre schools are leading to our economic downfall. However, there is no causal link in developed countries between schooling and the health of the economy (such a cause-effect link does exist in developing countries that do not already have a basically educated population). If there were such a link, why didn’t we hear those same forces cheering what a great job our schools must have been doing when we had an economic boom in the 1990s? In fact, that would have been the work force that was in our public schools during the time to which A Nation at Risk referred. If this cause-effect relationship were correct, then our schools could not have been as bad as they claimed.

In fact, the relationship between schooling and the economy in developed countries is mostly non-existent, or the reverse of that claimed. To some extent, schools do respond to the job market. For example, in the early 1990s almost nobody studied computer technology in school. The early dot-commers were often self-educated in terms of technology. However, soon colleges and universities were establishing new programs in the computer sciences, quickly filling up with students. Then when the tech bust hit a decade later, the job market was flooded with these new graduates and the recently laid off workers.

However, for the most part, having an educated workforce neither creates nor destroys jobs. We now live in a global economy where such things have more to do with larger economic forces. Job loss in the U.S. has mostly been due to outsourcing, first of manufacturing jobs, and lately other technical and professional jobs as well. The driving competitive force is that people in certain countries will work for less, often much, much less. The way we can compete with them in a free market economy is to take lower wages, less benefits, and accept other reductions in workplace quality and safety, as well as lowering environmental protections. Having better educated people to compete for these jobs will not bring them back to the U.S.

The only area of the job market that is increasing (at least in numbers that are significant in terms of the size of the U.S. workforce) is in the service sector, jobs that actually require little in the way of schooling, and certainly not a college education. However, employers of such workers do want workers who are obedient, punctual and docile—just the sort of education that children in schools serving poor and minority children are receiving, even if they do get low test scores (WalMart, for instance, is one of the largest employers in the U.S.).

While getting a “good” education may make you, as an individual, in a better position to compete for what jobs do exist, there is no evidence that a better-educated population would in any way lead to job creation. If however, schools are just job training sites, then while it is clear that I want my child to get the best education possible, it is less clear why the “public” should care or even want good schools for all. This may be especially true if all children getting a good education means they might out-compete my child for those scarce good jobs! This promotion of schools as the pathway to better jobs makes the free market and student as consumer mentality for schooling more appealing. I need only concern myself with finding the best school for my child at a price I can afford.

However, thinkers as different as John Dewey and Horace Mann from the early days of public education, to more recent thinkers as disparate as Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer, Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch, have all argued that what and how children are taught at school matters for the survival of a democratic society, not just solely for how well trained for the workforce the students will be. Schools are the place where children move from the private sphere of the family to the public sphere of the larger society. It is the habits and knowledge formed and developed in these public institutions that in part frame students’ understanding of their larger place in society. When public schooling is about preparing students to be citizens for a democratic society, then clearly we all have a stake in what it means to be an educated citizen, in what habits and understandings are promoted there, in what knowledge is imparted there.

Another connected strand to this attack on public education is an attack on unions. We have lost a large segment of our skilled workforce to other countries, and we have had several Federal administrations unfriendly to organized labor. Due to these forces, the U.S. (once the leader in organized labor) now has among the lowest percentage of unionized workers compared to any other democratic industrialized nation. However, the one place where organized labor is still strong is in the public sector. The attack on public school is part of an attack of that last bastion of organized labor, the last place where workers can speak in a unified manner as a counterpoint to the powerful voices of corporate interests.

More and more, teachers and their unions are being blamed for the supposed failure of our public school system. It is brought out in a way that connects to the general public’s emotions and immediate experience. There is a lot of current fanfare in the media that incompetent teachers are hard to fire and teachers unions block reforms (both claims central to the premise of the movie “Waiting for Superman” for instance) Do they provide evidence? Very little. An easy way to check the validity of their claim would be to compare non-union states to union states, as many states do not allow teachers to unionize. There is either no correlation or a positive correlation between states that have unions and academic success as measured by high school completion and test scores. In addition, most of the reforms that are touted as successful by the administration and think-tanks have taken place in cities with strong teachers unions.

While it may be true that it is not easy to fire poor teachers, no evidence is provided that too many poor teachers really is a major problem. Moreover, the principals I talk to all tell me that, while not being easy, they have always been able to get rid of the poor teachers they had. Is my sample of principals unrepresentative? Maybe—but then one could say that the problem is poor principals (though I hold them no more to blame than the teachers). When you make it easier to fire bad teachers, you also make it easier to fire the good ones as well. What “tenure” provides is not a guarantee of a job for life, but that the teacher cannot be fired without cause, and it puts the burden of proof for that cause on the employer. The question framed that way becomes, do we believe in due process? It is just such due process that teachers unions and the “tenure” process protect.

Charter schools and vouchers are currently the “reforms” of choice. Charter, private and parochial schools typically do not have teacher unions. These schools also bypass publicly elected school boards that oversee their vision, mission and curriculum. They often also exclude unionized or public employees for many other positions in schools—such as custodial and food services. The normal checks and balances of the democratic process are bypassed in the name of “efficiency” and the advantages of “market forces.” These forces see charter chains, and private forms of education, which answer to their own private boards, as competing for the students. Parents and children are merely consumers of this commodity, and the more effective and efficient schools will get a bigger market share. The only thing left that will be public is that it is the public’s money being used to pay for them.

This attack on the public nature of schools is in line with other current agendas of the free marketers—such as the privatization of Social Security and undermining public health care reforms. These are all part of a clear and premeditated mission to have this country run only by the dictates of the “free-market” economy (read as: run by trans-national corporations and financiers). Schooling is just one of these fronts.

The only thing that can stand in their way is a truly democratic citizenry that takes action and speaks out. That means you!

What is the Evidence?

Deborah Meier, in collaboration with her faculty at Central Park East Secondary School, developed five habits of mind that were at the heart of their school. One of those habits of mind was to ask “What is the evidence?”

I was rereading an article on Direct Instruction(1) that I have my teaching credential students read. The article ends with the claim that Direct Instruction, unlike discovery approaches to learning, has research evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. However, as educational reformer Deborah Meier keeps reminding us about such claims, we have to always ask what counts as evidence? How is achievement defined? Effective at what?

In educational research test score results almost always constitute the evidence, and more and more particularly, the scores on the standardized test mandated by each state to meet the rules of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

However, we must look at all the assumptions that are built into using such test scores as evidence of learning. The assumption that test scores are meaningful and accurate has been one that is questioned by many educational experts (see, for example, Alfie Kohn’s The Case against Standardized Testing(2), or the FairTest website for more in depth information on this topic).

CausationOne assumption is that such tests actually test what they claim to test. If what we really want to know is how people can use a skill in an authentic situation, how close to that performance are their results on a multiple choice paper and pencil test? Can you imagine if we only used the written test to decide whether someone could drive? When researchers have looked how people do at using math algorithms in school, and then how they try to solve real problems that require the same math in their daily lives, they see little connection between to the two.

Even in something that seems as basic as reading, where one does read in the test and then answer questions about it, researchers have found that often the reason students get the answer right or wrong has as much to do with their prior knowledge and cultural assumptions about the content as it does about being able to read the passage(3). And often, in the case of so called reading tests, it is not reading at all that is tested, but what are called reading subskills, which are believed by some to be precursors to skilled reading, such as recognizing certain sound or spelling patterns. However, doing well on such subskills has not been shown to be connected to comprehension of what one reads (see my article on Reading First for more on this(4)). Typical standard reading tests also test other aspects of knowledge of language, such as recognizing synonyms and homonyms. While these and others may be a good terms to understand, does knowing the terms make one a better reader, or just more knowledgeable about linguistics?

The next major assumption I want to challenge is that short term results on such tests predict long term results. This is often not the case. If early learning is speeded up in order to improve short term test results, it can result in leaving students with a shaky foundation, therefore actually leading to poorer long term results. There is a parallel in business. When financial institutions and businesses go for short term profits to please stockholders, it is often at the risk of the long term stability and interest of the company, as we have seen with our recent economic collapse. In math, teaching the rote memorization of algorithms may help students pass the next test, where each problem is presented just as you taught it, but then in the following years, without a foundation in the concepts that underlie those algorithms, such students’ abilities to understand more complex concepts and solve the more complex problems that go with those concepts will not be there, and their scores will collapse like a house of cards. This sort of short-sightedness exists in many areas of the curriculum, especially when there are large pressures to get those short term results.

Another aspect I want to challenge is whether the possible side effects have been looked at. When pharmaceutical companies tests new drugs, they are required to not just look at whether the drug cures the ailment, but also what are the possible side effects on other aspects of health. This never seems to be done in educational research. In the pursuit of raising test scores, might the new methods create other problems? We act as if the child is made up of discrete skills and knowledge, each of which can be taught and measured separately, without an effect on anything else, rather than looking at the child as a whole being. For instance, are we increasing obesity, as schools cut out recess and other activities in which students are more active to spend more time studying the tested subjects?

Even in terms of the activity we are testing, might the way we teach have an effect not just on how well one does it, but whether one wants to do it? Stephen Krashen pointed out in his book on whole language(5) that studies comparing free reading time to direct instruction of reading found the test scores were similar. However, which is more likely to lead to a love of reading—students who get to choose what they read, or those who read decontextualized texts over which they no say, and then get tested regularly on those passages? Yet, this love and desire to read is not assessed.

The last assumption I want to examine is that what we are testing is what matters most. No one questions that students should be able to read, write and do arithmetic. But if you ask parents and teachers what they mean by a well educated person, and what they want their children to get out of school, these generally are not the first ones they mention. How does the students treat others? How motivated are they for further learning? Do they like school? Do they have empathy for others? Are they likely to be civic minded and civically active?

Others questions we might ask are: how persistent is a student in the face of difficult tasks? What is their ability to put together knowledge and abilities from a variety of areas and use them in novel ways? Can they express their ideas effectively? Do they listen to the ideas of others? How and what we teach can and does have effects on these as well. There are many others each of us might think are equally or more important. Yet, these almost never get asked or taken seriously in educational research, particularity not the research that is used for policy. The very question of what is most important to assess is not even asked.

There have been a few exceptions to this trend. In the area of progressive education, for instance, I can name several. In the 1930s, there was the Eight Year Study(6) which matched students who went to high schools implementing progressive methodologies to those in traditional high schools, and then followed them through college. This study looked at a wide variety of definitions of success, finding that those who attended the more progressive schools showed better results.

David Bensman did a study of the progressive Central Park East schools, (a group of public schools in New York City serving predominantly low income African-American and Latino students) that looked not just at the test scores, but looked at college, employment, civic involvement and their impressions of the impact of the school in their lives(7). He also found that these students did much better than their counterparts who went to neighboring schools.

A friend just sent me a recent master’s thesis on the Peninsula School, a progressive independent k-6 school, comparing the graduates in regards to their high school achievement to a random sample of their high school classmates who had gone to other elementary schools—finding the students at the progressive school did better academically. Not only that, but the study also found they had better attitudes toward school and their learning experiences(8).

A study done on types of programs for second language learners, while not going beyond test scores, was at least longitudinal, using a very large sample and following students throughout the grades, found that programs that used more of the primary language, and those that used methodologies where language was taught in context embedded ways, had better results(9). This despite the fact that in the early grades the students with more English instruction and less primary language did better. Short term results were negatively correlated with long term results in this case.

Whenever someone says that the evidence proved that a certain method is better, one must ask, what is that evidence? Did the assessment really match your definition of what it means to be able to do or know that? Were the results short or long term, and if short term, what is the evidence that these short term results will add up to long term success? Also, it is important to ask what are the effects on other aspects of learning or the life of the student. And most importantly, are they assessing what really matters?


1. Tarver, Sarah G. “Direct Instruction: Teaching for Generalization, Application and Integration of Knowledge.” Learning Disabilities 10, no. 4 (2000): 201-07.

2. Kohn, Alfie. The Case against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000.

3. Meier, Deborah. “Why Reading Tests Don’t Test Reading.” Dissent, Fall 1981, http://deborahmeier.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/1981_whyreading.pdf. 457-66; and Meier, Deborah “The Fatal Defects of Reading Tests.” In The Open Classroom Reader, edited by Charles Silberman. New York: Random House, 1973.

4. Meier, Nicholas. “Reading First.” Critical Literacy 3, no. 2 (2009): 69-83. http://www.criticalliteracyjournal.org

5. Krashen, Stephen D. Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They Are Wrong: Heinemann, 1999.

6. Aiken, Wilford M. The Story of the Eight-Year Study. New York: Harper and Row, 1942.

7. Bensman, David. Central Park East and Its Graduates: Learning by Heart. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000.

8. Dinwiddie, James, and Anne M. Young. “Comparative Outcomes for Progressive School and Non-Progressives School Students.” Maasters Thesis, San Jose State University, 2010.

9. Thomas, Wayne, and Virginia Collier. “School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students.” 97. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1997. http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/65j213pt

Merit Pay

As the idea of merit pay sweeps the nation, and the federal government is pushing the idea down the throats of the states using the old carrot/stick approach, I have been thinking much about this topic. Florida is about to vote on such a bill, tying teacher pay to test scores.

Merit pay is popular in part because on the surface it has such a ring of fairness. Shouldn’t better teachers get rewarded for it? However, in reality, it is fraught with many complications and difficulties.

The issue also gets further confused as there are really two issues. One is teacher evaluation and the other is teacher compensation. Without a fair way to evaluate teachers, merit pay cannot be fair.

Some people complain that current teacher evaluation systems are poor. Usually a principal announces they will come in and observe. The principal makes notes and bases the teacher’s evaluation to a large part on this single observation. Often this happens only once every other year for experienced teachers. I would agree that this method is lacking—but that makes the idea of merit pay more, not less problematic. People also complain that bad teachers are allowed to keep teaching and impossible to fire. That is mostly a gross exaggeration. The problem is that in part it is based on that few are “fired” in the technical sense of the word that would show up on public records. That is because at least 9 out of 10 times, the teacher resigns before being fired. That is typical in any field. Certainly in any professional field I have ever heard of, the employee in danger of being fired is generally encouraged to resign, sparing the employer of the legal steps of actually firing the person, and sparing the employee of having it on their record. All the principals that I admire tell me that they can and do get rid of the teachers they think are not serving the students. While it is not easy, why should it be? If a principal could easily fire any teacher, it would make teaching a risky profession, especially for those with interesting ideas. Fear is never a good long term motivator. Teacher “tenure” (it is not actually technically “tenure”) just means that due process must be observed. Is due process a good thing or not?

But back to merit pay. Shouldn’t teachers get paid more for being better? First off, who get to decide who is better and how? Test scores seem to be the idea in vogue. That is what they are proposing in Florida, and already using in various places. However, our current testing system tests only a tiny fraction of what is important for children to know (and does so in such a poor way). In elementary schools it is rote math and reading skills. That is it. Basing pay on just that would encourage teachers even more than they already are to only focus on what is likely to be on the test, at the expense of everything else (many elementary school, due to NCLB have already reduced the curriculum to almost only these two areas). There is an axiom in the social sciences known as Campbell’s Law that says that the higher the stakes on a particular social indicator (e.g. a single test score), the more the use of that indicator corrupts the original intent, as it encourages people to manipulate the system to look good on that indicator regardless of other effects. We see that happening already—retaining students so they take the easier test; pushing kids to disappear from the system. There is the focus on the kids that show the most promise of moving from one category to the next, while ignoring others. Not to mention the examples of out and out cheating—changing test answers and such. Teachers start to resent the “low” students” the “slow” students, as they put their pay or job in danger, rather than being seen as a challenge, as the place to make a real difference.

There is also the issue of motivation. Merit pay is seen as a way to motivate teachers to work harder. When most of us think of motivation, we often think of rewards. However, the most effective motivation is actually not extrinsic rewards. The most effective motivation is the enjoyment or intrinsic reward of the activity itself. Virtually all teachers go into teaching because they want to make a difference in their students lives, to be successful teachers—not for the great pay! What psychological theory has demonstrated again and again is that the more you externally reward someone for what they find intrinsically motivating, the less motivated they become for the thing itself, as the reward replaces their intrinsic motivation. They no longer care if the results are real, as long as they get the reward. Recent studies have demonstrated that bonuses in business are actually likely to make workers less, not more productive. Extrinsic rewards actually lead to less intrinsic interest in a job well done, not more.

School reform research has shown that the most effective school are those where teachers work together closely and have a shared vision. But merit pay is likely to increase competition among teachers, discouraging collaboration. In today’s climate of limited resources, if one teacher gets a bonus, it comes from the pool that everyone gets paid from, pitting teachers against each other for these limited resources. It becomes in my self interest to sabotage the other teachers to increase my chances of getting that money, or at least not to help them.

It is a truism that teachers are underpaid. Despite that, there is no compelling evidence that teachers leave the field over issues of pay, or that more pay gets them to work harder. It is possible we might attract a higher quality pool of candidates if teacher pay was significantly higher. However, in studies of what makes teachers satisfied or dissatisfied with their job, other working conditions are much higher on the list. How they are treated, what types of autonomy they have, what types of support they receive, resources, class sizes, and leadership all rate higher than issues of pay.

Mostly, merit pay is a side show, a distraction to any real answer to solving the difficult problems of educational reform. It is another quick fix solution that can be used to undermine teachers and the unions that represent them in the move to privatize schooling.

Computer Use In Public Schools

(click here for the full published version of this article)

In this column I am going to present the results of a small study I conducted with some Masters in Education students in regards to computer use in schools. Computers have become ubiquitous in our society. Shopping and planning travel arrangements, social networking and entertainment are often done through the computer. Jobs from mathematics, the sciences, and even the arts usually require creative and skilled use of computer applications. Groups such as MoveOn have even created new forms of political organizing and activism. Blogging and other Web2 applications are changing the way people get their news. Most people now agree that our schools should therefore be preparing students to be technologically competent.

In considering what such a shift might mean for education, educational theorists interested in the topic have tended to predict one of two types of changes. Some have focused on the ability of the computer to empower students. Others have focused on the power of the computer to effectively and efficiently deliver instruction.

When personal computers were first invented, some claimed that computer technology would transform schools and education as we know it, bringing on new ways of teaching and learning that were not possible in the past. They argued that computers made the traditional role of teachers as lecturers—the sage on the stage—obsolete. Others, while not claiming the inevitability of such a change, promoted the idea that computers could be used to make constructivist, learner-centered teaching easier. With the use of such computers, teachers can and should now play more the role of guide, coach and facilitator.

Another view has been that computers would or should transform schools, not by changing our basic paradigm of learning and instruction, but as a more effective and efficient way to deliver instruction, or at least as a strong supplemental aspect to the curriculum. The idea of using technology for programmatic instruction goes back at least to the 1960s. According this view, the promise of programmatic instruction is now possible with the powerful computers of today. Computers can now assess the individual learner, and tailor the instructional pace and problem presented to that student. No longer will each teacher need to be the expert in instructional techniques, since it will be programmed into the computer. Once we have identified the steps, any skill can be taught most efficiently and effectively this way. While this approach could significantly alter the teacher’s role as deliverer of instruction or information, it does not substantially alter the role of the student.

As of yet, there is not much evidence of either of these becoming realities. There are many individual examples of teachers using computers in creative ways that do speak to the claim of a more constructivist paradigm (see Coppola’s book Powering Up for an example of this). On the other hand, these appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule (read Larry Cuban’s book Oversold and Underused for a full treatment of this). While there is some evidence that many schools are using computers in ways that match the programmatic instructional idea—that is for teaching basic skills—there is of yet little evidence that it has improved learning beyond small-scale examples.

Another issue that has concerned many in terms of technology use is the digital divide. Not surprisingly, those with more money and resources, and those of higher socio-economic-status, are more likely to have computers at home, and use them more powerfully. Potentially, public schools could be the place where those with fewer resources could get that access. However, often resources at schools mirror the resources of those in the community. Therefore, schools, rather than leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students, may exacerbate those differences.

In looking at 16 local public schools, evenly divided between primary and secondary, and between schools serving predominantly low-income or more middle and upper income students, we asked the following questions:

  • For what purposes do the students use the computer technology at the schools?
  • In regards to the above question, what differences do we see among schools? Do socio-economic factors correlate with those differences? Is the age level of students a factor?

In particular, for our analysis we divided computer use into two basic categories. On the one hand were uses we saw fitting more of the constructivist paradigm, where computers were tools the students use to enhance productivity and creativity. On the other hand were uses with skill and drill programs, or as assessment tools of basic skills, fitting the programmatic instruction model.

Our study did find that computers were used differently based on the socio-economic make up of the student body, and based on the grade level of students served. There did not appear to be any consistent factor related to quantity or quality of hardware available to students. However, schools serving middle- and high-income students were more likely to have well-trained computer technicians and teachers to help make the computers more useful. Schools that served low-income students mostly used computers for drill and practice type programs and as an assessment tool. Schools serving middle- and high-income students were more likely to be using computers in ways that built computer literacy, though still not to any large degree. We also found that high school students were more likely to use computers in ways that built their computer literacy skills than elementary students.

The data suggest that schools serving low-income students use the computers mostly for drill and practice due to pressures of the standardized testing. Most of these schools are Program Improvement schools. As such, boosting standardized test scores is their top priority. They are then likely to use the computer programs designed as test preparation. Schools serving middle- and high-income students, not being under those same pressures, may feel the freedom to use computers in ways that are more creative.

In regards to high school versus elementary student use, the findings suggest that high school students are already likely to have basic computer literacy skills, allowing teachers to assign more creative projects without having to spend much time teaching how to use the technology itself, especially among middle- and high-income student bodies.

This study suggests that if we want to create equity for students from all backgrounds we need to rethink what opportunities we provide for low-income students to use computers in ways that prepare them to be able to use them in as powerful ways as their more well-to-do peers.

Given that high SES students tend to have more opportunities and access to powerful technology at home, and that high SES students have more opportunities to use computers in ways that build computer literacy, current school practices are likely to exacerbate rather than mediate the digital divide between low and high SES students.

To change such practices a serious reconsideration of what it would take to really bridge the gap needs to be undertaken. Such an examination is unlikely at most schools serving low-income students, given the pressures on district administrators, principals, teachers on down to students, to raise short-term standardized test scores. With such pressures, almost everything else becomes at best secondary, if considered at all. Such pressures are only increasing under the current Federal policies.

It would also take an enormous input of resources. The real cost of having enough up-to-date computers, the software to use them well, the personnel to keep them running, and the professional development so that teachers would know how to use them effectively certainly does not exist in these times of economic crisis and education budgets cut to the bone.

These are real difficulties that all of us who are committed to equity face. Those of us who do work with low-income students are therefore forced to think of creative ways to overcome these difficulties. While it is true that all students need to learn to read and do basic arithmetic, it is not true that for some students this should be done at the expense of learning other things, including being powerful users of technology. The brains of poor kids do not learn and function differently than those of rich children. Therefore, we do not need to teach them in fundamentally different ways. Without being prepared with equal technological skills, this lack will be just one more division and barrier when these students leave school, leaving them less prepared not just for the world of work, but the world of social empowerment, and access to information to improve their lives and make informed decisions.

Even without a change in resources, it is possible to use technology differently than is now often the case. As the data showed, the difference in resources in the schools between types of schools was minimal. The real differences were in how they were used. These differences underscored an implicit or hidden curriculum. The use of computers as programmatic instruction treats students as passive recipients of knowledge and instruction whose job is to input the correct answer. The uses that the the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards promote, for example, ask students to be active participants in their own learning, using computers as a tool to create and convey knowledge. When these uses are promoted differently, for different types of students (which may coincide with the non-computer based instruction they are receiving), students come to view learning and the purpose of school in fundamentally different ways.

The argument for the need for this different instruction is, as mentioned earlier, the need to raise test scores. However, many schools have been effective using constructivist approaches to learning effectively with low- and high-income students alike. When we ask and support students to use their minds creatively and constructively, they not only do they do better on standardized tests of knowledge in the short term, but they also develop the abilities necessary to succeed in many arenas, in and out of school.

(click here for the full version of this article)

The Big Idea and Thematic Planning

In this essay I want to think aloud about approaches to planning and carrying out thematic instruction. Those of you who have read my previous essays know I usually have strong opinions on the educational topics I raise, be it policy, instructional pedagogy, assessment…. In this essay I am going to explore my conflicting thoughts on different approaches to such planning, particularly looking at idea of backward planning.

When teachers thought of doing a “thematic unit,” (and in the few places where they still do) they often thought about all the interesting activities that somehow would be fun or interesting connected to that theme. “We’ll study farms… I could take them to a farm. We could study different animals. We can look at the food chain. We can look at how foods are processed…”

Currently another approach is being advocated to replace this type of thematic planning. This newer approach is known generically as backward planning, or as promoted by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design. In this approach, one doesn’t start with a topic per say, but with a big idea or basic concept that one wants the students to understand. In science, this might be, for example, “the food chain” or “properties of solids,” or “the effects of humans on their environment,” in social studies, students it might be understanding revolutions. In this approach it is only after deciding on the central idea, that you decide what topic you might use to learn about that. Then after deciding the topic do we finally get to thinking about the activities that would help lead to an upstanding of the concept or big idea. We could study the food chain in ocean life, in the desert or other environments. In this approach we are studying the ocean, not so much to learn about the ocean, but as an example of the food chain. The topic is an example of a bigger idea, not the topic itself. We could pick from a variety of historical revolutions to understand revolutions in general. Once we know what main idea we want to get across, we think about how our topic and activities will help the students achieve that understanding of the big idea or central concept.

The backward planning approach may fit more easily into a discipline or subject area approach than a traditional thematic approach. The big ideas and concepts come from the what that discipline sees as core and important. It also may be easier to implement within a standards-based system. The big idea or concept can come from the list of standards that the teacher is expected to cover. It also keeps things focused. When one plans under this approach, one is constantly asking oneself, how does this advance the big idea or major concept? How does this prepare the student to be able to show they have this understanding? As one who prepares teachers to enter the field and works with others returning for further education, this has been an approach I have often advocated when I have students plan units and lessons.

Recently, I have been asking myself, what might be lost in this approach. I was brought to think about this in reading Deborah Meier’s January 2010 Column. In it she was briefly mentioning her school’s approach to thinking about a theme. What are all the types of connections that can be made to this topic? One thing leads to another. This approach has a more playful, spontaneous feel to it than the Backward Design approach. In the topic approach, the teacher has more freedom to see where things lead, where the students might want to go, to go off on tangents as the class or individuals discover new things or opportunities arise. This is connected to the second advantage which is connections. In the topical approach, one can look at how this topic connects to lots of concepts in different fields, area, disciplines. In studying ancient Egypt, we might look at Egyptian myths, the culture, fiction about Egypt, the historical implications, the science of the Egyptians, their influence on mathematics. This approach is more likely to integrate the disciplines. I like the sense of intellectual play (see my earlier column on play) that such an approach can encourage.

I just learned about an endeavor to transform teaching using this topical approach at a workshop. In this approach, called Learning in Depth, students are given a topic, such as apples, dust, or circuses, which will become their individual specialty for the rest of the k-12 school experience. “The aim is that students, by the end of their schooling, will know as much about that topic as almost anyone on earth.” The student will study this topic in whatever direction the topic and their interest takes them.

In the backward planning or Understanding by Design approach, many of those topics would be seen as moving away from the central concept that studying of it was an example of. In a topic based approach, the students become knowledgeable about a broad range aspects and connections within that topic. However, we cannot be assured that they will hit on the particular central concept that we or the discipline sees as key.

I do not mean to imply that even under the Understanding by Design approach one does not find tangents, or make connections to other areas. Quite the contrary, this approach encourages making connections. If the connections to other examples weren’t made, the topic would lose its power as an example of a big idea that would transfer to other examples. However, the connections would be focused on connections to the concept, not to the topic.

Really, in the end, maybe it doesn’t have to be either/or. Maybe sometimes we can take the Understanding by Design approach and gain from the advantages of that focus on developing a deep understandings of a concept. Other times, we can explore a topic and gain from the advantages of looking at a topic in all of its dimensions and connections to a variety of disciplines and aspects.