If I were in charge…

People sometimes ask me what I think needs to be done with the schools. This is really a two part question for me. One part is the policy side—what should or should or should not be required. The other part of the question is what are my ideas of what a good school and good teaching look like, which does not imply I believe in mandating those ideas even if I could. For this blog I will look at the former, and discuss the latter in my following blog.

miketest4What I would change is the mandating of curriculum (so called Standards). The mandating of standards for education in a democracy can only be justified in the case of an overwhelming consensus on such standards. There is no evidence for such a consensus, and lots of evidence that these is considerable controversy over both what such a curriculum should look like and whether there should be one at all. While I have my views on what I think all children should learn, I do not see it as my, or anyone else’s place to impose those beliefs on others, much less an entire nation.

Along with that is we need to get rid of high stakes mandated standardized testing. Standardized tests have so many problems, not the least of which is that they impose a standardized curriculum. If a certain test is required , and there are high stakes for how one does on that test, then teachers must teach to it, and students must gear themselves to it as well. That means standardized curriculum. Standardized tests are also, by definition, culturally biased—they have to be normed, which means an automatic bias to the dominant group. That is just a fact of psychometrics. And, as the test makers have admitted, their reliability for individuals is not all that great, and yet they are used to judge individual students. I also do not accept their validity for much more than a test taking skills, schools skills, and one’s zip code.

What I do support is a strong public school system. One thing such a system needs is at the very least equalized funding, and really more funding is need for those who live in poverty and have other strikes against them in life to at least begin to equalize some of the built in advantages those that are well to do and of the dominant culture can give easily to their kids without schools.

I also would not allow schools supported with public funds to select students. The only selection that can be justified is to balance in terms of demographics to more equally represent the community. Such balances do matter. It does matter that we are raised and schooled with those that represent the larger society. Schools of choice are great if the choice is the choice of the students and the parents and not of the schools. One way charter schools often get around this is counseling students out with such phrases as “Your child would/does not fit here.” I would ask of anyone stating that, “Do you have a better school for my child than this one?” If they cannot honestly find a better fit for that child, one that all parties agree to, then they have no place making such statements.

I would give local schools and localities autonomy over what and how to teach. But they would have to publicly justify their decisions, allow for public input and make their results public. What kind of results would vary, but again, they need to justify why they think the results they have used demonstrate a well educated democratic citizen. There would need to be some sort of democratic governance, but that can look different in different places.

These are the main things I see that are justifiable at the national or state level. Others you can think of?

The second part of the question is what do I think good teaching and schooling look like, which I will explore in my next blog.

School Deform

Regarding the current moves of so called school “reform” at the national level. The aspect of this is toward a nationally standardized curriculum (i.e. Common Core). And it is standardization, not standards that are being mandated—make no mistake about it. Standards refer to the quality of something. There is little about quality in the national curriculum—rather what is mandated is the content. The only mandate about quality is about competition—that students have to score above certain cut off scores (and teachers being paid according to those scores). But scores do not equal quality—they equal quantity. These scores tell us virtually nothing about the qualities of the work that students (or teachers) can perform, certainly not about work that matters beyond testing.


What mandated curriculum means is that what we want from public schools is a standardized citizenry. It really is that simple. We cannot teach innovation, creativity, and certainly not democratic citizenship in a school system where one answers to test scores on a curriculum to which those carrying out and engaging in that curriculum have virtually no say.

Those that are enacting this know that those with resources have a way out—schools for the rich still allow for creativity and self governance. That is what the privatization movement, along with the charter school movement is about (at least in part). This, as we know of everything else that is privatized, leads to a system in which the quality is based on one’s ability to pay for it. Those with the most resources can and do pay for schools that still allow for creativity, choice and abundant resources.

So really, the question is simple—if we want a system that teaches one group of children (and their teachers) to be obedient and standardized, and another group educated to be creative and powerful, then we should continue these current reforms. If we want democracy, then we need to democratize schools, and give them the resources and freedom that the rich seem to feel their own children deserve. It really is that simple. Have we or have we not given up on the idea of democracy?

Schools and the Business Model

Policy makers and the current so-called reformers talk about the need to run our public educational system more like a business. From what I see, that is being done, with the same disastrous results.

We see businesses paying their CEOs exorbitant salaries while reducing their labor forces and cutting the wages of those who actually do the work. Often these CEOs are hired irrespective of their knowledge or experience in the field or of whatever product or service that company is engaged in. Then when their policies fail, they are paid huge sums to buy out their contracts, while a replacement CEO is paid even more.

In education we see the same rise in wages for superintendents, especially of large school districts, while cuts are being made everywhere else. Often these new leaders come with no educational backgrond at all, their only experience being in the business world. And when they fail, they too see their contracts paid off while a new superintendent is hired at a higher salary.

In business more attention is being paid to short term profits to give investors a quick return on their money, often at the cost of long-term quality or stability.

In education we see schools forced to find ways to get short term test score gains per Federal and State mandates, which are often made at the cost of building a solid educational foundation and understanding.

In business companies engage in cooking the books to make their profits look better than they might actually be, and we read about these scandals almost daily. In education we see districts and schools cooking the books and engaging in practices to make their test scores and other data look better and we act just as surprised as the same scandals appear in education.

In business quick profits are the goal, at whatever cost, legal or illegal. In public schools better test scores are the legal tender to be attained at whatever cost.

Schools are learning to act more like contemporary businesses. In business such practices have taken the world’s economies to the brink of disaster and brought us the worst recession since the Great Depression, while the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Such practices and mindset are doing the same to our public educational system, widening the gap between the quality of education for rich and poor.

One might notice that it is practically unheard of for the private schools where the elite send their children to use the rhetoric of business practices to describe their own schools.

Standards-Based Education

Currently in education there is a lot of talk about standards-based education and the need for high standards. I will discuss in this column where that concept came from and how it has been distorted from its original use.

The idea of a standards-based educational system came from the work of Ted Sizer (1932–2009). In the early 1980s he was involved in a nationwide study of high schools that resulted in his book Horace’s Compromise (and later Horace’s School and Horace’s Hope). In Horace’s Compromise, Sizer describes the work of a typical teacher, and how no matter how willing, well-meaning, and hardworking, the teacher cannot meet the needs of the over hundred students he sees everyday, and how students by the same token cannot do deep quality work while jumping from one subject to another each with a different teacher and mostly sitting there being expected to soak up facts and concepts. In other words, the lack of real quality learning going on in schools was not the fault of teachers or students, but the design of the institution and the compromises teachers and students made with each other to survive in such an institution.

Sizer proposed that instead of students being rewarded for successfully passing a certain number of courses, and being in school a certain amount of time, they be required to demonstrate the knowledge and abilities of a successful high school student through some sort of performance assessment where students actually showed they could apply what they had learned. He also posited certain attributes that schools would need in order to carry out such an education. What came out of that directly from Sizer and likeminded educators was an organization, the Coalition of Essential Schools, which holds a set of ten common principles that schools doing such work adhere to. This organization supports schools in trying to make the changes to move toward applying these ideas. According to Sizer, how schools would measure this success, and how each school would carry out those principles in practice, needed to be locally decided.

This idea of Sizer’s that students should graduate by being measured against a set of standards rather than just seat time became popularized in the 1990s. However, in many ways the concept got turned on its head. For one thing, the term “standards” took on a new meaning from its usual everyday meaning of a level of quality. Instead “standards” became laundry lists of facts and concepts, both broad and discrete, to be learned, as well as levels of performance. These standards, rather than being locally decided as Sizer proposed, have been mandated by State authorities (and now we are moving to National mandates). In most states these laundry lists of standards are typically so long that one expert declared that it would take over 20 years if students were just exposed to the material for each standard, and much more if they were really expected to master them.

The other distortion is that meeting these standards is measured by standardized tests. Performance has come to mean not what Sizer had in mind—the ability to carry out real world tasks that used the knowledge and abilities that schools decided were important—but how one “performs” on a standardized test. These standardized tests are designed to test students’ recall of a random sample of what is on that laundry list of facts and concepts. High standards have come to mean high scores on such tests.

Sizer’s idea was that graduation by standards should free up schools to look and act differently, and free up students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways. The current practice of “standards” has meant the standardization of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment of the students, as well as their teachers, schools, districts and states by the use of standardized tests.

So far there is no evidence that the current use of standardized curriculum and the high stakes use of standardized tests has improved the quality of education. The achievement gaps these so called reforms were to solve are as great or greater than before these changes. Graduation rates are overall no better, and we do not hear high school teachers claiming that students are coming in more prepared than they used to be. So far the only response the education establishment has offered to this lack of results is that we need more standardization, more tests, and higher stakes.

On the other hand, Sizer’s ideas of standards without standardization have also been tried out, at times with astounding success. One of the first schools to implement Sizer’s ideas was Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) a public school of choice in New York’s East Harlem. Deborah Meier, building on her work at Central Park East Elementary School, collaborated with Ted Sizer on how to meld his ideas and hers to develop a secondary school on the Coalition principles. They came up with a school where students studied fewer topics, and worked with fewer teachers more intensively. All faculty and administrators worked as advisors who stayed with students over time and met with their advisory group daily. Students took part in internships in real world professional settings. The standards of the school were upheld through a series of portfolios and defenses of those portfolios in front of a committee. Students graduated, not after a prescribed number of years or prescribed number of completed courses, but when they had successfully passed and defended those portfolios. The standards of Central Park East were built around certain “Habits of Mind” that the faculty believed were important in all facets of life and in all disciplines. To a large extent, the demonstration of the use of those habits was the rubric used to decide if the portfolio or defense of the work met the schools standards. The students of CPESS had success at graduating high school and going on to, as well as succeeding in, college far beyond their demographic equivalents in other public high schools in New York (see David Bensman’s fascinating book Central Park East and its Graduates which documents his study of CPESS alumni).

After CPESS, a whole network of such schools sprung up all over New York City, and to some extent nationwide. Schools such as Urban Academy, the International High Schools, the Met schools, High Tech High, and Boston Arts Academy, to name just a few, continue in this tradition of high standards without standardization, of depth of knowledge over coverage, and of the importance of relationships with students as essential to successful education. While each of these school looks very different, in each school one will see students who are passionately following their own interests while being held to a common set of high standards in a non-standardized curriculum. These schools have shown that they help students beat the odds in terms of graduation and getting into college. Even more importantly, these schools produce graduates with positive attitudes toward learning and their ability to shape their own futures and contribute to the larger society.

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

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.

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Best Practices

The term “best practices” has become popular over the last decade. For me the term is problematic in a number of ways. First, it leaves off the essential question: “best” for what? Despite statewide standards and the current move toward national standards, we do not all agree on the aims and purposes of public education. Far from it, as I have discovered every time I teach a new group of teacher candidates.

The other problematic assumption is that there is a best method for whatever our purpose is. While there are practices that are generally more effective then others, human beings and the teacher/students relationship, not to mention all the other contextual variables, are so complex that no one practice is likely to always be the best, if even effective at all.

Let us consider an analogy. Let us say I want to find the “best” shoe size, so I can provide all my students with the right shoes. I do a controlled study, and find that when I give size 10 shoes, more students have shoes that fit them than any other size. Now I can mandate that everyone be given size 10 shoes. But men’s and women’s feet are different you complain. Okay, I may need to do some differentiation. Women get a women’s size 8 1/2. How about ethnic groups? Mexican Americans tend to be smaller. Okay, Mexican-Americans men get a size 9…..

We can all see the utter absurdity of this. But this is what we are doing to our school children, especially to the most needy and disadvantaged school children. I spend a lot of time in a lot of different schools as a researcher and as a supervisor of student teachers. In schools that are considered “Program Improvement” under No Child Left Behind, I see teachers mandated to give lessons where every child is on the same page at the same time doing the same exercises, often not just in the one classroom, but in every class at that grade level. There is a pacing guide to keep up with. The students must move on, whether they got it or not (and do it whether they already know it or not). A few “differentiated” students may be allowed to get special help (by missing out on some other activity, or after school). Extensive data is kept on how the students are doing, with unit tests every few weeks that are diagnosed, often through sophisticated computer programs, Students’ scores get displayed in staff lounges (part of the data driven philosophy). Yet the teacher really cannot make much use of the data, since no matter what it says, they must keep to the pacing guide. This is seen as “equity” under NCLB. All children are afforded the same curriculum, the same instruction. After all, this curriculum has been designated as “research based,” since it uses strategies that the Reading Panel found to be most effective. We must have equally high expectations for all! Most of you probably think I am exaggerating. I assure you I am not. If you think so, find a school that has been designated as a “Reading First” school, and serves predominantly low income students. Maybe it is different in your state, but here in California, what I described above, I have seen over and over again.

The problem is that educational experts are being asked the wrong question: Which is the best method? Such a question was asked of the recent federal National Reading Panel—to come up with the best method for teaching reading. Textbook publishers created the materials that are used by “Reading First” schools, supposedly based on the recommendations of this Reading Panel. However, such one-size-fits-all thinking is equally absurd for teaching as it is for shoe size. Instead we need to be asking, what is the best way to support classrooms and teachers where each child will be best supported to learn in the most effective way? No two children are the same, and even the same child may need something different from day to day.

The best schools, schools that succeed with large percentages of students, are ones where teachers work together collaboratively getting to know the students. In these school they devise curriculum that allows all students to find ways into it, no matter what their learning differences styles and abilities are. These schools honor these differences, while expecting, cajoling, pushing, all students to do their best.

What is Education For?

Our nation is preoccupied with the issue of improving our schools. Claims of falling standards and achievement abound (these claims are dubious if one actually examines the data. Richard Rothstein’s book The Way We Were is an excellent refutation to that claim). Even if one accepts that the educational quality of our schools is lacking (which I accept, even if not the claim that it is declining), an important point is often left out of this issue: What are we educating for?

There appear to be two main goals that drive current educational reforms. Implicit in current reforms is that higher test scores equal better educated citizens. I come to this conclusion since it is only such test scores that are used to rate states, districts, and schools, and even nations as to their educational success. And at that, it is often only test scores in Language Arts and Mathematics that are examined. By relying exclusively on standardized test scores, it is implicitly saying that those are the only important goals. We see the effect of this when other subjects receive little or no attention, as is true in many elementary schools. Subjects such as arts, music, and even social studies and science are often ignored in elementary schools. This is especially true of schools serving the poor and students of color. It has gotten to the point that some schools are doing away with recess, and even being built without play areas (while we regularly read about the obesity epidemic sweeping our country)! It is not only the subjects that are taught, but how they are taught that this goal affects. The ability to think deeply, critically and creatively, to put the knowledge to use, is often ignored, as those skills are not directly tested, and teaching to such abilities is seen as taking away time that could be used to prepare students for the tests. Again, this is especially true for those not from the dominant culture, or those who are poor—those who are more likely to fail the tests.

The second goal is the rhetoric we hear from government, corporate, private think-tanks and media sources. These groups almost exclusively connect educational attainment to the national economy and to personal economic gain. However, even if we agreed with those aims, the claims as to the cause-effect relationship between education and the economy are somewhat questionable. The claim that increased schooling in a developed country improves the economy is not an excepted theory among educational economists. In fact, it is likely to be the reverse. Schooling responds to needs in the economy, and not the the other way around. When the computer industry boomed, lots of students went into the computer sciences. When the bust years came, they didn’t, and those that had often found themselves unemployed. Training more highly qualified engineers will not help them compete with engineers in India who will work for $7,500 a year, at a time when even highly technical jobs can be outsourced.

Will more schooling at least help one individually? There is strong evidence that years of schooling and degree attainment is highly correlated to income. There is some evidence that at least part of that correlation is not causal—that is, it may be that those who come form higher socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to have both more schooling and higher incomes, and it is their background that is the cause. However, even if we accept the premise that it is causal, at least to some degree, it is not clear that it is the content or quality of schooling that matters. Schooling may simply be a sorting mechanism for employers to screen applicants. This is the meritocracy argument. The best will rise to the station in life that they deserve. It is not clear if the actual knowledge and skills learned in school directly relate to the knowledge and skills needed in the workplace. Ask your doctor how much of medical school was useful? Or a lawyer about law school. Or a teacher about their education courses. Most will tell you that very little was useful, and the real skills were learned on the job. More schooling may be needed in our economy due to the fact that as more people graduate from high school, employers need to up the ante, and require a B.A. to differentiate candidates and reduce the pool. As more people have B.A’s, the same employers start asking for at least an M.A. to apply.

There is considerable debate whether schools do this sorting fairly. There is considerable evidence that again, students of color and the poor suffer discrimination in this system. Even if they don’t, should it be the job of a public institution to sort children for the sake of private employers? Is it the right of the government to force all citizens to take part in this sorting mechanism? Does it serve a compelling public (rather than private) purpose? None come easily to my mind.

Let us now examine the purpose of schooling as giving students the knowledge and skills for employment. Even if schools did do this, should it even be the job of public schools to train workers for private industry? What gives the government the right to compel 13 years of attendance in school during such a precious period in one’s life, if it is solely to meet the needs of the private sector? Why shouldn’t this be an individual choice, paid for either by the families who valued such training or the companies who wanted such workers?

Having read up until now you might think I am questioning the usefulness of public school. You would be wrong. I am questioning the current implied and stated goals. If we look back historically, the arguments for public schooling were made in large part based on two other goals. Going back to Thomas Jefferson, many argued that a democracy required an educated populace that could weigh evidence and make informed decisions. As Dewey said, if we are all the ruling class (which is the assumption of a true democracy) then we all need an education worthy of the ruling class. Anything less would be anti-democratic. Another argument was that in a country made up of people from so many different cultures and backgrounds, we needed a place where they would all become citizens of the United States and learn to accept each other’s differences. As an advocate for democracy, it is these latter goals that I find more convincing.

Such goals imply a different kind of learning and teaching than is common in many public schools. It requires focusing not on the rote learning of basic skills and the memorization of historical and scientific facts, but rather the ability to use those skills and facts to weigh evidence, come to conclusions, better understand one’s world, and even to take action, action that both fulfills one individually but also helps the nation or world improve upon our democratic ideals. We don’t know exactly what knowledge and skills will be needed either for the economy of the future nor to solve the problems that our society will face. We do know it will take the ability to work with others, find the necessary information, and to think both critically and creatively. It will also require tackling consciously and overtly issues of difference; of being able to take on different perspectives, understand other points of view, and to have empathy for those different than oneself. This type of education needs to go beyond the idea that we all should respect each other despite our difference, but to understanding the roots, causes and costs of prejudice and discrimination. It needs to get at not just the past wrongs that have been overcome, but the ongoing problems in our society and the world at large.

It is the goal of educating our youth for their place in a pluralistic democratic society that, for me, is a compelling reason to have a public school system for all of our children.

If you would like to join me in working toward these goals, you might inform yourself about, and join, one or more of the educational reform organizations featured on my Education Links page.