The Hypocrisy of the Carnegie Unit

Here’s the thing about the Carnegie Unit — about the whole traditional system of education that’s being challenged right now by proficiency learning:

The Carnegie Unit’s a sham.

Here’s why.  Right now, we pretend to award credit to students based on time.  But there is no meaningful requirement for how much time.  Sure, kids are required to attend high school for four years.  They have to take four years of English, three of math, and three of science — plus a year of phys ed, a year of health, and two of social studies.  But within those big blocks of time, kids are free to be absent as often as they want.  Public schools have no minimum number of days or hours that you must attend.

But what about truant policies?

At anywhere I’ve ever worked, they don’t mean a thing.  Sure, we put strongly worded policies in the handbook, but we don’t follow them.  They’re so hazy and — more often — so flexible that they might as well not exist.  I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in where students who’ve missed whole months of class are leaning on the administration and teachers to let them pass.  Some of this, in the lower grades, is pure social promotion.  But most of it, in high school, comes from a place where real compromise is needed: there is a strong cultural pressure to pass from grade to grade with your peers and to finish high school in four years (even if you are not ready).  No one wants to fall behind or to repeat.  But there is also a chronic attendance problem, especially among low income students.  It comes from illness, from work conflicts (yes), and from family obligations.  Early in my career, I tended to dismiss it.  I don’t miss days — neither should you.  Suck it up.  But the reality is much more nuanced and even heart-breaking.  I need to stay home this week to care for my mom.  My dad left the house and I need to take care of my little brother.  I was sick and we can’t afford to go to the doctor.  I’ve been bullied and don’t want to come to school.  There’s so much more there than meets the eye.  You shouldn’t just swing the axe of truancy and be done with it.

And we can’t anyway.  Public schools, I’ve found, unless they’re willing to risk being seen as unfeeling and harsh (and risking more kids simply giving up and dropping out) really have no recourse.  A kid’s gone for two weeks, comes back and says, “I was sick” and what can you do?  Request a doctor’s note every time, for every kid?  Go to the mat with parents about a kid really being sick the whole time?  (I’ve done that; it’s not pleasant.) What if a kid misses a few classes to go to France on a field trip?  Or to volunteer at the local elementary school?  What are you supposed to do?  Say, “No, you can’t do that”?  Penalize the kid?  What would that make you?

My latest challenge has been “appointments.” Kids will sidle up to you on Day One and inform you, “I will be missing class every Friday” (we only have class two or three times a week, so this is a big miss) “because I’ve got an appointment.” So right there she’s missing 40% of class time.  What are you supposed to do?  She’s not lying.  Most of the time, you quickly understand that her appointment is related to serious emotional challenges, which are often readily apparent.  And you know that these appointments, sometimes quite a distance away, are hard to schedule.  What are you going to do?  Draw the line and say, “No, please miss some other class”?  Draw the line and say, “You’ll pay a serious grade penalty” and then go eight rounds with her irate parents, and your own administration (which, if you work at a halfway progressive and compassionate school, will strongly discourage this sort of attitude on your part)?

No.  Instead you tell her, “Of course.  I understand.  Say no more.  But I will expect you to make up the work.”

But deep down, even if she makes up all “the work,” you know she’s missing a lot.  All of the peer interaction, all of the discussion and debate, all of the off-the-cuff learning, all of the communal creation of knowledge and the chance to be challenged face-to-face.  She’s not there for any of it, and there’s nothing you can do.  The cruel irony of course is that it’s always the students who need this practice the most who have these “appointments” during school time.

And we as a school have no leg to stand on because of all the school that is missed because of commitments from within the school itself.  Once, just once, I would like to hold an English test during a soccer game.  “Sorry, Coach,” the kids would say, “I’d like to play in the championship, but I’ve got to leave early for English class.” My, how the tables would turn!  Both semesters last year, my last period classes were gutted because of sports commitments.  One school I worked at pulled band kids from class biweekly for “sectional” practice.  Others siphon kids off for clubs, projects, concerts, field trips, assemblies (a real challenge for middle school teachers), or meetings with counselors and specialists within the school.  What can you do?

The numbers add up.  Anywhere I’ve taught, it’s not unusual, when you count up not only whole-class absences (which are reported) or partial class absences (which are not) for students to miss more than 15 school days per year, a rate that qualifies under the federal definition of “chronic absenteeism.” That’s 8% of school missed, right there.  It goes higher.  Every year I’ve always got a crop of at least three or four kids who miss about 20% of their classes (roughly 40 school days a year).  That happens more than you’d think.

This effects how you teach.  It’s part of the reason our system is the way it is.  Absences will kill you as a teacher.  It is so much work to get absent kids their materials, particularly if that involves catching them up.  You could sink all your time into keeping track of who is late with what, or who missed what (and often, that’s what happens).  Kids will email, or stop by, and say, “What’d I miss?” and that eats up more time than you’ve got.  They’ll need a list of assignments, materials.  You’ll put it online ahead of time, but they won’t understand what it’s about.  You’ll say, “check with a classmate” but you know that’s not a good system.  You’ll tell them to turn in work within two weeks, but they won’t, and you’ll end up chasing them down.  They’ll sit in class when they return — they couldn’t catch up or do work, after all, they were sick — and look bored because they have no idea what’s going on.  They’ll start chatting, pull people off task.  “You really couldn’t do any work while you were out for two weeks?” you’ll wonder.  But what are you supposed to do?

So you change your approach.  You become conscious, all the time, of incentivizing attendance.  It’s partly from a management standpoint, but it’s also from a “what you value” standpoint.  You know that if kids aren’t in class, they aren’t practicing the skills of discussion.  They aren’t grappling with the content.  They aren’t, most of the time, doing much at all.  It also comes from a place of fairness — namely, fairness to the kids who do show up.  If your policies are too compassionate toward the absent kids, you actually make it more attractive to stay home and make up the test on your own time, in a week when you’re good and ready, than to show up on test day, without extra studying time.  Take a day off, your system tells them, and work on the big essay at home over the weekend.  The kids who come to class on the due date, with their essays done, they’re the suckers.

This is especially a problem with presentations.  Kids will mysteriously be absent on presentation days.  Then they’ll be absent again next class.  Then they’ll come back in a week and a half (I am not even joking; I see this all the time) after you’ve moved onto the next unit, and tell you they’re not ready because they were sick the whole time.  It goes on and on.

That’s not fair to the kids who were there — but in trying to be compassionate people, in trying to recognize that time truly can be a variable, that is the message that we inadvertently send to students.

So you change your grading.  You grade participation.  You grade classwork that cannot be made up.  Sometimes you even come out and grade attendance (I have never done this, but many college classes do).  You know it’s not enlightened to grade compliance, but you also want to send the message that showing up is important. 

After all, isn’t showing up kind of important at, say, any job, ever?

But in the end, no matter what we try to do as educators (and I have tried everything), it is impossible to ensure every student attends every class.  It all comes back to the fact that the Carnegie Unit is a sham.  We have no meaningful requirement of how much time a student must spend in high school. 

If we did have a meaningful seat time requirement, it would say, “You must take four years of English class.  For each year, you must attend at least 90% of your classes.”

But that’s impossible.  How would we enforce that?  And what about the kid who was there, but not there — daydreaming?  What about the kid who disappears to the bathroom to text his girlfriend for 15 minutes every class?  How could you account for this time?

The fact is, time has always been a proxy for learning.  It’s easier to use time as an administrative tool for measuring learning than it is to agree on a system of measurement to actually measure learning.  But even the true use of time as a requirement is almost impossible.  The Carnegie Unit is not a requirement; it is at best a recommendation.  


And so that is why what we’re trying now, this proficiency learning, this experiment, is deeply instructive.  It puts the lie to the old system of time by forcing us to look closely at what it promised to be, and what it really was.

But the new system still must answer to these same challenges.  If anything, kids will be even more inclined to skip now that we are removing the unenlightened practices of yore, like grading compliance and attendance.  Proficiency promises that students will be a) so thrilled with the new ways of teaching (project based learning!  a personalized learning experience!) that they will be chomping at the bit to come to school, and b) so focused on attaining proficiency that they’ll realize on their own that, since it’s all about competency, they’d better show up.  Teachers will be forced to design assessments that you cannot pass if you don’t attend class.  Otherwise, well, to paraphrase a speaker who once chided us for being angry when kids reach for phones, your classes might just be a waste of time.  

Meanwhile we’ll be using the transferable skills to grade all the other compliance-y stuff — like doing the work, and taking responsibility.  Kids will have to prove they have these qualities, or else they won’t be able to graduate.

It’s a good change, an idealistic direction to go in.  But will it work?  I don’t see any way this will make it easier to catch kids up who miss class.  I don’t see any way this fixes the in-class content they miss.  And if anything, the new goal of time being a variable, and of endless re-takes on tests and quizzes only further incentivizes sporadic attendance.  The new goal of flexible pathways does the same thing.  We risk having the same old truancy battles, but fought over in the transferable skills, which risk seeming like fluff if we’re not careful.

The old system was wrong, but it was a solid, time-tested kind of wrong.

Is the new system better?  I’ve worked too long and hard at real, intractable problems embedded in the school system itself to say anything much beyond this:

I’ll believe it when I see it.


Time is a Variable

Amazing, isn’t it, how much difference a sense of humor makes?

This fall, we were sitting in a staff meeting, groping our way through the dark, trying to understand how to teach in a proficiency-based classroom.  As usual, we were all confused.  We had been talking about how, in a proficiency system, “Learning is the constant and time is the variable.” Now a coworker was making an impassioned speech about the impossibility of something or other.  Things were getting tense.

“You know what your problem is?” another coworker piped up.  “You’re still hung up on this western concept of time.  Proficiency learning means you’ve gotta move away from that.”

Everyone laughed.  It was a great moment of relief.

But every joke contains a kernel of truth.  The unspoken truth here was the idea that proficiency learning, with its insistence that we move “off the clock” requires us to do things that often seem to run counter to common sense.

Treating time as a variable for instance.  Let’s take a look at this idea for a moment and tease out the implications.


First of all, let me say at the outset that I agree with the move in this direction.  Education has needed this change for a while now.  For too long we’ve been content to pass kids along who haven’t really learned.  We’ve needed this reminder, this proficiency learning, to remember that compliance is not learning.  Sitting still in a seat for four years is not learning.  We must have clearer learning targets for students too, and real clarity about what they must know and do.  It cannot be a mystery.

But there were reasons behind what we did.  It’s just like Ted Sizer’s classic 1984 book, Horace’s Compromise.  Public schools, as a friend of mine sometimes says, are only set up to be just so good.  The old system, which was unjust, which we needed awakening from, was an inherent compromise between too little time, to few resources, and too many students.  Let’s not forget that proficiency learning was born in the 1960s as mastery learning (called learning for mastery at first) — researcher Benjamin Bloom’s answer to the inherent compromise of between the ideal (a one-to-one tutor for each kid) and the reality (25 students for each teacher).  Bloom designed a system which allowed for — not true personalization (where a teacher really meets with kids to find out where they are and tries to weave their interests into the curriculum), but personalized *pacing*.  He had kids moving at different paces, taking what he termed “formative” and “summative assessments” (still our words), all graded and monitored by a teacher.  You’d have to score 90% on an assessment before moving on; if you didn’t, you’d receive tutoring until you could.  Time as a variable.

It was honest, but it was a compromise.  Once you open up time as a variable, once you’re not cutting the cord at the end of a unit and moving everyone on, pretty soon you’ve got 25 kids in 25 very different places.  It’s a teaching nightmare.  How do you balance reteaching the kids who need this with introducing hard new material to kids who need that?  You can’t do that easily in clipped little tutoring moments during class.  You can’t do drive-by introductions to the quadratic formula, or to The Scarlet Letter.  You need carefully planned lessons — simply not deliverable during brief interactions.

Plus, with 25 kids in different spots, you quickly lose any sort of class community.  But these common learning experiences should be a fundamental part of teaching students to work with others, and an integral part of creating a cohesive classroom.

And then there’s another awkward fact.  Kids expect to be keeping up with their peers.  It’s very discouraging to be stuck in the mud in Unit 2 while your peers are racing through Unit 17.  It’s more humiliating, I believe, to be taking longer than to be merely scoring lower on tests.  At least your low grades are theoretically private.  But if you’re still stumbling on beginning-of-the-year stuff?  That’s public — and that’s embarrassing.

Put another way:  it’s far more humiliating to graduate from high school a year late, marching across the stage with a bunch of younger kids, than it is to graduate with a low GPA, which no one knows about.  So we make trade-offs as educators.   My wager is a lot kids would drop out rather than suffer the humiliation of graduating later.  But that’s exactly what proficiency says.  Time is a variable.  Take longer than four years if you need to.  That’s totally fine.

(Yeah . . .   if you live in some other country than America.)

Let’s not forget too that high school is a cultural institution, not just a place to learn.  And the public has it ingrained in their heads that kids graduate from high school in four years.  The push to get across the finish line in Year Four is a cultural weight like almost no other.  We’ve created an inflexible model: finish high school in four years, or you fail at life.  Say what you want, but that’s what it is.  No cute, progressive rhetoric will easily reverse this.

So how do you deal with the reality that all kids learn at different rates?  One answer has ALWAYS been tracking.  Put all the kids who need more time in their own class.  That way, the teacher can give them the help they need, because they’re in similar places.  You can still have class cohesion.  AND you can target them more clearly.

And . . .  we all know how that goes.

Okay, so maybe tracking’s ills are well document (WELL documented).  So maybe instead of that, you give the kids who need it more time by keeping them in regular classes, but also putting them into special support classes, too, where they get extra time to master the material.  Okay, fine.  But — tracking again.  Plus, now their schedules are so locked up with support classes that they can’t take anything they’re interested in, any art classes, or PE, or have any free time to work on their homework.  That’s not an easy decision either.

Maybe what you do instead is to “personalize” education by hooking all the kids up onto specialized computer software that uses algorithms to tailor the curriculum toward exactly what they can do.

That’s the temptation of all proficiency or competency-based instruction: to turn instruction into discrete little pieces, micro-badges to be accomplished, then moved on from.  It just lends itself well to that.  That’s why you see competency learning included in so many online learning programs, so strongly associated with “personalized learning,” which has its roots in blended, online learning.


The awkward question behind all of this, of course, is, “Isn’t the ability to complete something in a given time period essential in the ‘real world’?” After all, no matter what job you end up working, I can pretty much assure you can NOT show up late the first day and expect your boss to say, “Don’t worry.  Time’s a variable.”

The idea of there only being a finite amount of time to complete material is connected to a very old American tradition of self-reliance.  We respect people who can get it done under pressure of not enough time.  It’s where our respect comes from for athletes who perform when “there’s no time left on the clock.” It comes, too, from our insatiable competitiveness as Americans, from our economic competitiveness.  Produce more goods in less time.  Make change — now.  Get it done more efficiently.  Take shorter lunch breaks, get in early, stay late.  Time’s -wasting.  Time’s not a variable; time’s precious.  Can you imagine any state governor anywhere, actually saying, “Yes, please, children, take longer than four years in high school.  We’re more than happy to wait until you’re truly ready to join the work force.  And we’re happy to keep paying, too”?

Me either.

Time’s not a variable.  We’re a nation that’s always on the clock.


Lastly, the notion of the old system — of giving everyone the same length of time (60 minutes to master a math lesson, 180 days to pick up Algebra, four years to learn what you need to know in high school) is something we do because we consider it fair.  We Americans pride ourselves on equality of opportunity.  Everybody gets the same chance.  Within that system, some people may get better grades than others.  But everyone, theoretically, had the same opportunity.  Time is our measurement of that.

This sense of distributive justice — everyone had the same opportunity — is very deeply ingrained in us as Americans, and, I believe, as human beings.  If you can’t learn what you need to know in that time, that’s on you.  I’m not sure, but that sounds very American to me.

And it strikes me as a tall, tall order to imagine getting away from that.

Learn Your History, Reformers

When I was in high school, I hated history class.  All that dry history in all those heavy textbooks felt dead to me, obsolete.  Hardly surprising, of course — like many teenage boys, I had about as much empathy as a piece of scrap metal.  But the older I get, the more vital and urgent studying history seems.

That’s because I’m realizing more and more how alive is the past, how still it shapes us in ways we hardly understand.  I think sometimes of George Santayana’s famous dictum about those who cannot remember the past being doomed to repeat it but I think even more often of William Faulkner’s: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”

I think about this a lot, for instance, when I reflect on how to be an American means to be intimately tied up with racial discrimination in ways that we can barely begin to untangle.  We’ve made progress, but the past still haunts us.  We’re not past it yet.

I remain committed to the idea that the only way out of the grip of the past is to understand it.

I try to live this in my teaching.  I try to teach my students about the complex history of pernicious influences: of marketing, of discrimination, of pervasive cultural attitudes.  You can’t get past something until you know it.  That, to me, is the gift of a liberal education.

(This is why I’m always confused when I hear English teachers say they’d like to do more “interdisciplinary” teaching.  How are you really teaching anything at all if you are NOT incorporating history into your lessons?)

I am struck by how few would-be school reformers have a sense of history.

Here’s one of the favorite pitches I’m starting to see from ed reform groups.  This one comes courtesy of a group called XQ, which markets itself as “an open call to the nation to rethink and redesign the American high school.” They link a video on the front page of their website that makes an argument I see being used more and more by reformers:

In the last 100 years . . .

. . .  cars have changed a lot

. . .  phones have changed a lot

. . .  and everything else has changed a lot, too.

But our schools have stayed EXACTLY the same!

Often I see references to “factory model of education” or the Carnegie Unit, or to the Committee of Ten.

Why, goes the argument, are our schools so obsolete?

Then comes the pivot:  We need change right now, urgently.  Not small, incremental change, but big, bold, radical change.  Then, buzzwords: innovate, equity, disrupt, achievement gap, college and career ready.  In this video:  “learn by doing,” “focus on the future,” “spark curiosity,” “build community,” and “unleash potential,” “solve real world problems,” and “ask students what they think.”

Next you’ll get the call for whatever method they’re pushing.  Sometimes it’s school choice or charter schools.  Other times it’s “greater accountability” (although that seems to be easing out of fashion).  Right now it’s usually some version of “personalized learning” — which basically means anything at all.  That’s mainly what this video is selling: Hey, no more seat time!

And guess what, they’re not pushing an idea.  They’re not evil overlords.  They’re asking us to “reimagine education” . . .  you know, by organizing a competition that pits cash-strapped schools against each other by dangling huge piles of dough.  Wait a second . . .  I think I remember something like this.  Could it be that the winning bids are supporting some of the ideas that XQ is pushing, like personalized learning?  Hmm.  I think I remember this plan — didn’t we have some kind of “competition” like this . . . and it got us more testing and teacher evals tied to test scores?  And isn’t XQ headed by Russlynn Ali, former former assistant secretary at the US Department of Education under . . .  Arne Duncan?  Funny.  Feels like we’ve been down this road before.

Now, look.  There is nothing wrong with this.  Education always needs reforming.  Teachers and educators always need pushing.  We should always be evaluating what we’re doing.

But if you want to reform something, first you need to know what’s going on.  And that sort of simplistic, “Can you believe how OLD these schools are” rhetoric does not generate in me much confidence that you have any clue that you know what you’re doing.  (Neither, for that matter does naming your think tank, “XQ.”)

Before you break out the old “schools haven’t changed in 100 years” argument, do your homework, or at least start asking some questions.  Here are some:

–Wait, have you been to a school?  Most schools look quite different than even 30 years ago: projectors, screens, laptops, and (dammit!) cell phones.  Classrooms are full of kids getting distracted by their cell phones.  XQ is bankrolled in part by Steve Jobs’ widow, so . . . . thanks for that, Steve!

–Hmm, maybe some schools still look like that because they’re starved for money, compared with, you know, phone and car companies you also show?

–Or . . .  maybe there’s a good reason schools not all schools are totally wired up with technology?  Maybe it’s because there is some a-historical need to keep kids focused, reading real-live books, and talking to other, real-live human beings.  Maybe you don’t need or even want a whole lot of tech to do that?  Think about how different a living room might have looked 100 years ago compared to now:

1918:  You might have seen a family sitting around a wood stove together, talking, telling stories, and perhaps reading aloud to each other.

2018:  Yeah, they’re all on devices.

Is that new picture any better?

–What about the idea of personalization?  Isn’t that something teachers have been working for years and years trying to do?  We had other names for it, of course, like giving “choice” and “differentiating” or “incorporating students’ interests,” but how does that balance against the kinds of communal experiences that we also know kids need, too?  How does that balance against the high-stakes standards that are still very much in the air (you know, the ones we got after “competing” for Race to the Top money)?

It’s always weird when age-old ideas, like building in choice to your lessons, come back repackaged as some wildly new and innovative thing.  Has to be sort of like when someone who has been making due just fine is suddenly told that she needs to buy the latest and greatest product to finally make it possible for her to do just the thing she has always done well on her own.  That’s not called reform; that’s called marketing.

Learn your history.  Ask yourself: why have so many reformers failed, proposing exactly what you’re proposing right now.  Wait, you didn’t know that they have?  Yep, exactly the same thing, including the same promises that sweet, sweet tech would fix everything.  Your ideas are as old as student-centered learning, as old as John Dewey, or the Dalton Plan, or the Eight Year Study, or Progressive Education, or schools without walls, or open classrooms, or Mastery Learning, or a thousand other movements and methods that have washed over the shores of schools, mostly for the good.

But if you believe that all these great movements failed (which I don’t, but which you evidently do), then . . .  why was that?  How exactly will yours be different?

It’s always ironic when those people who would reform education have not learned to do their homework.

You have to learn about the past before you hope to change the present.  Because the present is not just influenced by the past, it’s often another iteration of the past, come around again.  The old battles are fought, we forget about them, we swing too far the other way, then we come back.  We try the same stuff again, we pick up old toys and play with them.  We tinker, in Larry Cuban’s great phrase.  The cycle continues.

That is what Faulkner meant.  The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.  It’s present, it’s happening right now, repeating itself anew in ways many of us are asleep to.

Too often reformers, in their zeal, fail to adequately study the thing they’re trying to change, underestimate how vast and alive something like public education really is.  They don’t know it.  And they don’t know its history either — history very much alive in the ever-present debates about student-centered vs. teacher-centered, about the importance of time in learning (and how best to measure it), about the need for organization vs. flexibility.  These debates roil, and the past repeats itself, and shapes the present in ways the reformers don’t see.  They travel down the same roads as their predecessors, not caring to realize the obstacles that await: the strength of traditional school as a cultural institution, for instance.  The sheer size and scope of managing 800 teenagers and 70 teachers in a single building.  The innate conservatism of many teachers and parents when it comes to that cultural institution of school.  The past’s grip on all of us.

If you want to make change, real, lasting change that outlives the videos and the money and the PR, you can’t underestimate history.  And you cannot misunderstand it.

Because then you’re doomed to — well, you know the rest.

Teachers Need Better PR

Over the past year, as I have begun to read more about education, I’ve become more conscious of what I would term the “Reform Industry” in the United States: the web of companies, foundations, philanthropies, and advocacy groups that insist that public education is 1) in crisis, and 2) must adopt whatever their chosen idea is right NOW.  Because I have this remarkable fellowship opportunity this year to drive school change (thanks to the Rowland Foundation), I’ve gotten to be in both worlds at once: the world of day-to-day public school teaching, which was all I’d ever known before, and the world of policy, school change, and school reform, a more rarefied place I’d rarely spent much time in.

In doing so, I’ve started to see how much educational policy in the United States is shaped by people who don’t teach now and in many cases never have.  Or certainly not for any stretch of time, and not in anything remotely resembling a public school.

It strikes me that many of the reform groups calling for major changes to public education — those who would seek to charter-ize or privatize education, break unions, tie evals to test scores, push software — are often strikingly ignorant about what exactly goes on in most public schools.  They’re not privy to the tremendous successes happening every day, the ingenuity of individual teachers and students, and — dare I say something so heterodoxical — the wisdom of the way the public education system itself is set up.

(I know, I know — how dare I?  We need RADICAL change — RIGHT NOW!)

Even as someone trying to enact very SMALL change in a small public school where I have actually worked for the past eight years, I am struck by how continually surprised I am at the good work going on IN MY OWN SCHOOL that I had no idea about.  For example, it wasn’t even until this year, as I started stepping outside my own classroom, that I really understood some of the innovative alternative programs our school offers for students.  We have several programs in particular that, when I started explaining them to people I’ve begun meeting from other schools in Vermont drew amazed remarks.  I’d never thought much about them before, but everyone else was quite impressed.  These programs, these bright, creative teachers are content to go along every day, keeping a low profile even in their own building, content to keep their successes where they belong: among themselves and their students.  They know.  The wider world, including teachers just across the hall, often do not.

This happened to me again this fall when, interested in studying promising literacy practices, I stumbled into some remarkably high-quality ones going on in the elementary schools right in my own district, staffed by driven, experienced professionals, well versed in research, and, in one, case, a nationally-sought-after writer and workshop leader.  Who would have thought?

I keep learning about the wisdom within the system.  It’s when I propose something crazy and someone tells me, “We already have that; it’s called . . . ”


Now here’s the thing.  If this sort of thing is still surprising to me, in my own school, just imagine how little the wider public or the policy-makers and string-pullers know about our successes?

Public schools have a PR problem.  It’s very difficult to simultaneously teach well and also promote yourself.  You’re so busy trying to prep, grade, instruct, contact parents, deal with kid problems — that you don’t have a lot of time and creativity left over to promote all this great work you’re doing.  There are always a few teachers who sort of do this — they put up pictures of their kids doing some project on social media.  But it’s a drop in the bucket.  I’m reminded of this whenever I try to communicate with parents about what we’re doing.  Most teachers I know are *great* salespeople.  Anyone who can convince teenagers to read Thoreau is by definition pretty darn good at the dark arts of persuasion.  But when it comes time to go the next level and promote our work beyond the classroom (say, to our students’ parents in any kind of consistent way), well . . .  I’m usually too exhausted to even start.

Compare this then to the other side — to the public school “reformers” — the philanthropists, advocates, and think tankers who’re constantly trying to remind us that public education is in crisis and needs to do exactly what they want it to do, right now.  On our side, we’ve got a bunch of tired, overstressed teachers with state college degrees and sensible shoes.  They’ve got cellars full of writers and spinners, loaded down with fancy MBAs and Advocacy degrees, some with a year or two slumming it in a TFA school, white saviors, now setting to work building whole shinning castles in the sky: websites, conference presentations, white papers, articles, policy presentations.  They’ve got the money too — Gates and Zuckerberg and all the venture capitalists who do things like throw $175 million at a new start-up ed company like AltSchool, founded in 2013 by some ex-Google workers.  The only thing we’ve got 175 of is essays tonight to grade.  This fight’s not fair.

It doesn’t help that journalists who write about education don’t usually talk to real teachers either.

I don’t think the answer is for teachers to do better PR, although I do wish we could.  Instead, I’m starting to think that the answer is that more teachers need to stay abreast of what’s going on out there in the bigger world beyond their classrooms — the world of advocacy, the world of policy.  We need to do more to call these know-nothings on their you-know-what, to push back and remind them that we’ve got a lot of hard-won wisdom too, and that sometimes things are what they are not because of mediocrity or complacency, but because the business of educating a diverse citizenry with public financing is a complex negotiation.  As a bonus, maybe we can remind them that the history of education is littered with the graves of would-be reformers who underestimated entrenched problems.

You can’t fix a thing until you understand it.  That much I am beginning to appreciate this year.  And how complex a thing is even a single, local public school — how varied, how churning, how constantly alive and changing.  And how vast and broad is this country — some schools still paddle their kids, while others wire them up to computers all day and send them out into the ether, while others are palaces, and some, just across town, have bars on the windows.  How broad an wide the world is, and the schools in it.

But we must let them know — we need them.  We need reformers and critics and the unconverted — because they are right.  We do need to get better.  We can always do better.  That’s part of the dream of a nation devoted to forming a more perfect union.  But that means that we must ensure they understand us first.  We must hold THEM accountable, too — to ensure that those outside our schools have a clear picture of exactly what’s going on inside.

Because in the end, informed reform is the only effective reform.

How Much Can Schools Control?

One of the great debates in education for the past (who knows how many) years is this:  How much can schools really control?

We Americans are ambivalent about schools.  We don’t want our kids in school for a whole year, don’t want them studying too much, but we also believe that education is the silver bullet for a host of societal problems.  We tend to agree with Mark Twain: “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” But we also put schools front and center of the debate whenever we’re feeling anxious about whether we’re still the top country in the world.

We don’t want too much school, but we do believe school can change everything.

A lot of our politicians see schools not just as a silver bullet but as a quick fix.  Too much urban poverty?  We just need better schools to teach better skills so kids get better jobs).  Too much obesity?  Get those kids eating better school lunches and moving around more in gym.  American democracy is fraying?  Teach those kids some civics!  For politicians, schools are at least a lever they can control.  It’s much easier to call for education reform in a city than it is to address the wider, amorphous underlying societal problems.  One writer I admire, a former teacher, once wrote something akin to, “A Common Core set of national education standards is fine, but I want a Common Core of three solid meals for each child every day.” Poverty, physical health, fraying democracy . . . those are huge and intractable issues, blurry and obscured and tied up closely with even deeper problems (like race and class) . . .  and progress is slow-going, incremental.  Much easier to call for ed reform than . . . whatever that other stuff is.

So here’s where it gets tricky for educators.  We got into this profession because we KNOW it can make a difference.  In fact, we know it can be THE difference.  So in a way, we like it when our society puts schools at the heart of the debate about societal reform.  We want to believe that we ARE the silver bullet.

But we’re also painfully aware of what we’re up against.  Teaching is an endless job, and the process of becoming a professional teacher is, in some way, a process of making peace with the idea that you can’t help them all.  In fact, you might only be able to really help one or two of them a year.  Or you might not be able to truly help any of them as deeply as you’d like — because even one or two can take up so much of your time and energy that you won’t be able to help the 124 others.  Or you’ll burn out.  You’ll wash up somewhere a year or two down the road (it often doesn’t take very long) sitting in your classroom, utterly depleted and disheartened, filling out applications to law schools.  This happens over and over and over to young teachers.  I’ve seen it.  The ranks of my own grad school class have thinned from the profession.  It’s an endless job.  There is always more you could be doing, and if you’re someone who cares at all, you’ll go through every day of teaching with a painful awareness of this, watching every day, as hurt kid after hurt kid files in and out of your classroom without getting enough of your help.  If you stay in the game long enough, you’ll see them graduate like this too, year after year after year.

I think about this a lot.  I think about it every time I hear someone talk about “equity” — the new buzzword in education.  Equity means giving each person what they need.  This implies that we can give anyone what they need.  Apart from a privileged few, I’m not so sure.

Sometimes you try to help a kid, you put yourself out there, maybe even devote a lot of yourself to one kid, and they throw it back in your face.  Sometimes the parent does it too (with or without the kid on board).  This is no reason to desist, but I’d be lying if I said that these experiences don’t take a toll.

Sometimes you pour so much of yourself into a child that you’re sure you’re making a difference, only to see that child start skipping school, or get pregnant at 17, or develop a drug problem, or not follow through on college applications and then just sort of slide into the kind of economic struggle and disenfranchisement you’d hoped to lift them out of.

This is especially true I think if you teach high school.  Sometimes I think that in ninth grade, the potential for all students still feels wide open.  Sometime around the end of tenth grade and the start of the eleventh, that same potential can start to feel more and more closed off.  You feel how powerful is the gravity of whatever home life they have.  It pulls them back in.  I didn’t appreciate this when I first started teaching.  Teachers hear kids tell them about their dreams, especially young teachers who, because they are new and because they are often open to these experiences, tend to bring out those “fresh start” confessions in kids.  I heard a lot about poor Vermont farm kids who wanted to be doctors or writers when I first began teaching.  I thought, “Here I am, making these dreams come true.” But a few years later, you see these kids working in convenience stores, or having their own children, totally unprepared, and you realize that you weren’t the only one educating them.

Other times, you don’t even think you’re reaching out or doing anything that special, and some kid you had a few years ago contacts you out of the blue to tell you about what a difference you made for him.  This happens too, if you teach long enough.

You just don’t know.

All this adds up to the mixed feelings we teachers have about education’s power.  We are at once in awe of our effect, but also painfully aware of our own limitations.

For people who are helpers by nature, it’s a weird position to be in.  Nobody holds doctors responsible for the country’s unhealthy eating habits.  Nobody holds lawyers responsible when there’s more crime.  Our effects are hard to measure.  Whenever we teachers hear about increased test scores, we laugh.  Test scores don’t tell you anything meaningful, particularly if they’ve been prepared for at the expense of real learning.  Whenever we hear about the great schools in Denmark, we say, sure, but tell us about the broader societal context.  What are their social supports for hunger, poverty, and discrimination?  Whenever we see “miracle” charter schools, we wait for the other shoe to drop.

As teachers, we want to feel important, and we know that we are, but we also understand that we’re just one piece of a much larger puzzle — one that holds no easy answer to piece together, and one for which our skill of assembly is hard to measure.

All this adds up to it being hard for teachers to ward off outsiders who proclaim that we aren’t doing well, that we need Higher Standards, or Better Methods, or even Better Teachers.  We hear all this and we listen to it — much more than we should, often — because we’re genuinely aware of how much better we could be doing.  It doesn’t matter if our state is dramatically underfunded.  We are self-critical people.  We think, “Well, I could be giving up my planning period, or working weekends.”

It’s hard for us to make the argument that, “no, we don’t need Dramatic Bar-Raising Exercise X because we really don’t have that big of an effect on kids anyway compared to the wider society or to their parents.” You can’t say that.  It sounds like an abdication of responsibility.  And it’s a self-defeating argument to make for people who NEED to get up in the morning and believe that we can change lives, that every kid has a chance.  You have to wake up thinking that way, because otherwise this job is impossible.  Without that optimism, that basic faith in each kid getting a shot through education, you’ll never be able to push through.

It’s hard to hold those two contradictory ideas at once.  But that is the tension that all teachers live with:  How much do we control?

Passing Along My Birthday

In a week and a half, I’ll be 37.  My birthday’s coming up and I could not be more excited.

That’s unusual for me.  Because as sad as it is, if I’m being honest, my birthdays stopped being interesting around the time I turned 22.

It’s hard to imagine you’ll ever get to this point; when you’re a kid, your birthday is VERY important.  It’s the party, the presents, the favorite meals.  It’s all about you.  It’s your day.

Plus, it’s fun to get older.  Being ten feels more grown-up than being nine.  Turning 16 is a big deal.  So’s 18, and 21.  (“Now I can drink and drive!” a friend once proclaimed.)  But after that, unless you’re biding your time to take a run at Ted Cruz, ticking off another year on the calendar seems less and less exciting.  There’s not a lot of difference between 35 and 36, is there?

Of course, some adults still retain a child-like glee on their birthdays.  I had a coworker who (half-jokingly) encouraged family and friends to celebrate her for a whole 30 days.  “I don’t just have a birthday, I have a birth-month,” she explained.  That sounds fun.

But it’s not my style.

When I was growing up, my parents downplayed their own birthdays.  They didn’t insist my brother and I get them presents, or hold a big celebration.  Sometimes I imagine they must have paid for a babysitter and gone to a restaurant, but it was subtle, nothing like the big fuss they raised every December 10th for me: the pinatas, the sledding parties, one year a surprise with all my friends waiting in the dining room.  For a long time, I had trouble even remembering when my parents’ birthdays were, something I actually think says less about what an ungrateful jerk I am and more about how far they went to keep the focus off them and on their children.  The opposite of self-centered.

I think that’s how it should be.

Soon enough, I’ll get to find out.

In four days, on December 2nd, my wife and I are expecting our first child, a boy.

There is a chance, if he comes late, that he could be born on December 10th.  There’s a chance that we could share a birthday.

I cannot even picture the range of emotions I would feel.

But even if we don’t share a birthday — even if he’s born tomorrow, or on Sunday, or on some other day — I bet I’ll feel an even stronger connection to whatever day he’s born than I ever felt to December 10th.  Because this time I get to realize the true meaning of a birthday: the celebration of bringing human life into the world.  And that, at any time, is a tremendously hopeful moment.  I have been reminded of this fact over the past few months, astonished at the outpouring of goodwill from friends, and coworkers, and family members toward my wife and me.  I have been thrown surprise baby shower parties by eighth graders who strung the room with balloons; by colleagues, English teachers, who piled the table so high with books; by a house full of family members, two generations about to become three.

I’ve found myself thinking this over the past few months:  I can’t wait to pass all this on to him.  This world — to see it through new eyes and to share all that I know.  I have thought about this as I read my favorite books, climb my favorite mountains, or run into my favorite people.  I can’t wait show you this.

I can’t wait to pass along the magic of the December birthday to him.

Maybe even the magic of December 10th.

I’m about to turn 37 and I couldn’t be more excited.

So, What is Personalized Learning (and Where Did it Come From)?

One of the popular new terms in education, certainly in Vermont but also nationally, is “personalized learning.” For the past two years everyone has been talking about it in my school and state.  Same goes for its sister term, “personalized learning plan.”

About a year ago, I began to realize that not only was everyone talking about personalized learning, but they were using it to mean wildly different things.  That’s a problem when the law requires it to be practiced (as it has in Vermont since 2013).

So what is personalized learning?


For starters, here’s a pretty classic take from Katrina Stevens, a Deputy Director in the Office of Educational Technology at the D.O.E.  She lists ten different organizations . . . with ten different definitions of personalized learning.

“[T]his is a common occurrence in the early stages of disruptive innovation in any field,” she assures us, eventually concluding, “We hope that the field can converge around a definition that accounts for the key aspects.”

Two weeks ago EdWeek devoted an entire issue including some great articles to this question.  But even though they did a nice job highlighting the wildly disparate ideas teachers and policymakers are throwing around, I wanted to get to the heart of the matter and find out where exactly this term came from in the first place.

Where It Came From

Most educators’ first exposure to “personalized learning” came in 2012, during the second wave of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative.  After the (shall we say) mixed results of the original 2009 Race to the Top, Arne Duncan realized that targeting whole states with monolithic, top-down dictates might not be the most nimble way to enact change.  So instead he rebaited his hook and began dangling his piles of cash in front of individual school districts in return for their adopting wacky new ideas that Duncan and his cronies had cooked up.  Guess what the first one was:

Absolute Priority 1: Personalized Learning Environments (PLE).

To meet this priority, an applicant must coherently and comprehensively address how it will build on the core educational assurance areas to create learning environments that are designed to significantly improve learning and teaching through the personalization of strategies, tools, and supports for students and educators

There was only one problem.  No one, including some pretty important stakeholders, had ever heard of “personalized learning”:

The American Association of School Administrators is seeking clarification on the idea of “personalized learning plans.” These are the name of the game since all applicants must make them a central part of their plans. AASA has some questions about what exactly the department has in mind.  The definition within the criteria is vague and not common in the school/educator community.

Hey, no big deal, guys.  It’s just that we kinda, sorta need to know a few little details:

The group wants to know how these plans are actually different from techniques such as differentiated learning, Response to Intervention, or individualized instruction . . .  The group also is wondering if schools will have legal liability for personalized learning plans, like they do for individualized education programs for students in special education.

Good questions.  So here we are, trying to drive change, and we’re not just pushing some newfangled idea, but a genuinely brand-new term that no one has ever heard of.  How could it work?

That was 2012.   One year later “personalized learning plans” were required by law in Vermont.


It’s always neat when educational reform people invent a new term out of thin air.  It usually means they’re trying to repackage something — like the way that what we now call “proficiency learning” used to be called “competency learning” — and before that, “Outcome-Based Education” (and before that, “Mastery Learning”).  Nothing wrong with a little rebranding, right?

In this way, “personalized learning” is really a softer way of saying “blended learning” — which in itself is a euphemism for computer-based learning.  When I began teaching in 2010, small-town Vermont students still had to physically switch to larger regional high schools if they wanted to take more varied courses (which they often did); three years later, even kids at the mid-sized school I taught at were diversifying their course load (or recovering credit) by taking online courses.  Three years after that, the first adaptive software program made its way into our curriculum.  So the learning-by-tech was always there, it was just a question of to what extent it would be permitted by official school and state policy.

But think like a tech company.  Facebook didn’t vacuum up all our data by leveling with us about what they’re doing.  No.  You can’t just come out and call what you’re doing “computerized learning” or even “blended learning”; that makes people nervous.  We want our kids to have access to technology, but we don’t want Big Brother Mark Z teaching our kids; we want real human interaction with skilled educators and with diverse peers.  A little credit recovery here or an online Latin class there is one thing; learning math and English in front of a screen is another.  Plus, we’re suspicious of data-mining.  In short, there’s really no way a state as liberal and right-thinking as Vermont would ever wave into law anything that sounds too tech-heavy.  So you’ve got to rebrand it.

And everyone likes education that is “personalized,” right?  That sounds progressive, child-focused.  Plus, it sounds plausible: like some kind of sensible use of technology to personalize; our Amazon accounts give us recommendations, right?  Our YouTube accounts do it.  Why not some small slice of our schools, too?  Play up the individualizing and play down the screen-time.  To this day, this split exists in teachers’ understanding of “personalized learning: either student-centered and progressive, or tech-focused, using adaptive software in concert with more traditional instruction.  It’s all things to all people — a big tent that waves everybody inside.

And don’t underestimate the impact of a fresh, new term.  The AASA was right to question how Personalized Learning differs from the familiar buzzwords of yore:  differentiation, individualized instruction, or Response to Intervention.  The main thing is, those terms have been tried already.  Most educators who started teaching when I did tried and tried to “differentiate”; it was a great idea, but it was really hard work — endless, really.  Teachers have such an inherently impossible mission that more often than not they’ll hunt eagerly for new ideas from self-proclaimed “experts” — particularly if the solutions seem time- or labor-saving (a favorite false promise of tech device after tech device that educators have fallen for). Personalized learning has that allure: “Maybe, finally, we could truly personalize instruction . . .   if we just had the right technology.  And now we do!” Don’t fall for it. It’s happened before.

But we did fall for it.  We are.

If you have any doubts about what this is, look at the backers.  Not surprisingly, a big player pushing personalized learning has been iNacol — The International Association for K-12 Online Learning.  Even they struggle to explain it clearly, with a whole page on their website devoted to trying to define personalized learning, one that reflects the schism between traditional individualized learning and learning-with-tech:

With student-centered, personalized learning, we can identify students’ unique needs and address them. Teachers possess powerful tools to personalize instruction and utilize real-time data for feedback to intervene exactly where each student needs it most. It is about optimizing learning every day and maximizing the amount of learning per unit of time.  (Emphasis mine.)

Want to bet they’re not talking about the subtle skills of interpersonal communication?  Reading between the lines, you can see they’re talking about adaptive software that can tailor a lesson to a specific student based on an algorithm.

There’s just enough progressive-speak in here to a) make them NOT sound like tech pushers, which they know educators and parents are suspicious of, and b) make them sound like they almost know what they’re talking about:

The shift toward personalization changes the dynamic between the teacher and student. Educators take on new roles as mentors, coaches and facilitators, and power and control shifts to the students. By giving students ownership over their learning and grounding learning in their interests and passions, they feel valued, motivated and in control.

Keep in mind, at the time this was written, nobody even knew what “personalization” meant.  But iNACOL is already promising that it’s going to “change the dynamic between teacher and student.”

In case you were doubting their progressive credentials, they even cloak themselves in the garb of social justice:

We strive to disrupt the structural inequities driving the systems we’ve inherited. Access to high-quality, appropriately designed learning models and technologies can and should drive equitable opportunities and outcomes.

(That’s another hot term right now: equity.)

But in the end, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning is really interested in one thing and one thing only:

‘School’ is no longer defined merely as a physical space . . .  Anytime, anywhere learning that bridges formal and informal learning experiences is connected through the effective use of advanced technologies. Digital learning modalities combined with competency-based progressions prove fundamental to modernizing education systems that meet each student’s unique needs.

That, I think, is what “Personalized learning” was originally intended as.  You can’t come out and say that, of course, but this term would not exist unless edu-tech advocacy groups were pushing a new model designed to sell software.  In this approach, kids are hooked up to algorithm-based programs with the teacher hovering nearby as a “consultant.” All kids have “personalized learning plans” — an idea that fits with our age of online social media profiles and which sounds promising, but which might also act the same as any other online profile — platforms for data companies to harvest students’ personal information.  

The whole system is lubricated by competency-based (or “proficiency-based”) credits, which  are the merit badges that students can collect while working online. Think about it: in order to allow students to secure credit for learning that is not taking place in a traditional class setting, you’ve got to get rid of that cumbersome seat time requirement.  So you hide your arguments for new tech toys in progressive-speak about the restrictiveness of the Carnegie Unit and how a student’s age should not be the deciding factor in when she graduates. You want to free up the market to splash your tech products around? Then you’ve got to get schools to give up the old rules and the old system.  You do that by serving up reheated John Dewey with a dash of social justice (“structural inequities”) — and of course a lot of talk about how schools haven’t changed at all in 100 years. The right-wingers will like the bottom-line-style insistence on every student attaining competency/proficiency and all that talk about breaking up the traditional school model (when it comes to education, Republicans are generally far less “conservative” and more radical than Democrats).  And the left-wingers like the “student-centered” language about personalizing instruction — something they also liked about differentiated learning, and Response to Intervention — but this is less jargon-y AND it’s something new. Educators, meanwhile, love anything that seems remotely student-centered, especially on the heels of the Standardized Testing Era, which treated each kid about as individually as a prison inmate. Plus, teachers are generally a desperate lot, always looking for a new tool to help them do what they already know is an impossible job.  Besides, when you get it passed as law (like in Vermont), teachers have no choice in the matter. Again, we’ve seen worse.

I also think this has a lot to do with the nexus of edu-tech advocacy companies (such as Summit Learning, backed by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) and the policy makers of the Democratic Party under Barack Obama and Arne Duncan.  There has, for a long time, been an alliance between Democrats and Silicon Valley. There are some signs that that friendship may be slowing, as lawmakers grow more focused on the challenges of regulating private companies that have, for all intents and purposes, privatized the public square.  There is also a growing exasperation with Mark Zuckerberg, I think, as well as an increasingly push from younger voters for a certain ideological purity, one more and more hostile to the political influence of large corporations, even those once seen as countercultural and progressive. We’re already seeing backlash against the more overtly tech-heavy examples of personalized learning, like the protests against the Zuckerberg-backed Summit Learning led by parents in Cheshire, Connecticut and even by students just recently in New York City.


So that, I think, is where we got personalized learning: from educational reformers with painfully little real knowledge of how schools run, pushing “disruptive” online learning technologies.  They invoke just enough progressive talk to slip through, and — viola! Vermont, perhaps the most progressive state in the country, mandates it all — flexible pathways, personalized learning plans, and proficiency based learning.

They did all this just a year after the term first came to national prominence, when nobody, not even national educational groups, knew what it was.  We still don’t.

Not long ago, I had the chance to visit Clayton High School, a public school just outside St. Louis, Missouri that, since 1966, has provided the English department with the equivalent of 40% more teachers than a normal public school.  This extra staff has allowed each teacher to teach just 60% of a normal student load, and to meet individually with each student ten times a year for twenty minutes each, making an additional 200 minutes a year of individual writing instruction.  This is true face-to-face “personalized learning,” in which experienced teachers react to and teach individual students in ways no computer ever can. These teachers at Clayton challenge, inspire, and bond with their students in conferences outside of class, and in doing so they have created the strongest English program I have ever seen.  Yet this conferencing schedule is a significant amount of work, to the extent that while no other department in the school enjoys such a program, no other department wishes to. Furthermore, the program is a tremendous expense, to the point that years ago, in its infancy, the school administration had to choose between this English program and new lights for the football stadium.  To this day nearly every year the expense comes under close scrutiny by the school board. It’s great work — if you can get it.

We must never forget that there are no easy answers in education if we are to truly “personalize” our teaching.  If the United States truly valued this already, we would have smaller classes than the 30 or 35 that swell inside many American classrooms.  We must also not make the mistake that generation after generation of reformer has made — imagining that some new technology will magically relieve us of the challenge of teaching individual human beings, who are as diverse as the leaves on every tree in the forest.  Although algorithms do their best to approximate, and everywhere in the media companies micro-market to us, still no computer can know an individual child as well as a skilled teacher can, something the student cries from Summit Schools make painfully clear. We must also not make the mistake of thinking that computers — even highly intelligent ones — can read our children well enough to know or to inspire them.  There is a big difference between being recommended a new song by an algorithm in YouTube and being recommended a new song by a friend who knows our tastes well. The former recommends to us what we already know we want, the latter shows us what we never knew we did.

I believe a good teacher can do the same for us too.

Let us keep this in mind as we make what we will of “personalized learning” and its ilk.  

There will surely be more of it to come, under many new and different names.  

The Origin of the Workshop Model

The Origin of the Workshop Model

One of the most influential approaches to teaching English / Language Arts for the past 30 years has been the “workshop” method — sometimes called “writing workshop” or “reading workshop” or “that Lucy Calkins thing that my district forces us to do under threat of torture.” While this approach only occasionally touches American high schools, it has been hugely influential in American middle and especially elementary schools, many of which teach literacy primarily through this approach.  

Because it’s so prevalent, it’s easy to forget that the workshop model was once hugely innovative, a provocative departure from traditional teaching.  I can remember my own sixth grade teacher using this approach back in 1993, then seeing it again when I began teaching in 2007. Eleven years later, at the NCTE conference two weeks ago, I heard seminars promoting it.   Today it remains at once passe but also cutting edge and progressive, depending on what grade level you teach. It has both hardened into orthodoxy and also remained elusive, hard to do well; pre-packaged and consumerized, yet innately responsive and individual.  It is, in a word, influential.

So where did it come from?


I had been wondering about this question for quite some time.  Fortunately at the NCTE conference, I happened to pick up a fascinating book, Children Want to Write.  It is a retrospective on the career of former UNH professor Don Graves.  Graves was a middle school teacher, a principal after his second year of teaching (!!), and an influential writer/researcher.  What I had not realized was that Graves contributed more to the field of children’s writing instruction that anyone else in the 20th century.  Don Graves didn’t invent the modern writing workshop, but he was the major force in its birth — and he did it by accident. He did it alongside a talented young researcher whose fame later eclipsed his own.  He received tremendous criticism at the time, some of it founded, some of it not. He did not mean to found a new method of teaching. Like so many discoveries, Don Graves’ happened partly by accident.


Graves started teaching seventh grade English in 1956.  Two years later, he became principal of the school, and found himself teaming with the school janitor to discipline students.  One of their most ingenious solutions was to catch a boy who’d been climbing up to the ceiling of the boys bathroom to unscrew a water valve by coating the handle in purple residue from carbon copy paper.  Graves and the janitor simply looked for the boy with the purple fingers. By 1973, Graves had won the NCTE’s award from promising research, for his study of second graders. During this time he joined the UNH faculty and came in contact with Don Murray, war veteran, college flunk-out, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and already then a hugely influential writing professor who’d begun cracking open the teaching of writing in order to understand how to teach it.  Murray, particularly in his 1969 book, A Writer Teaches Writing, sought to push writing instruction past the formalism that dominated public schools and colleges, as co-editor of Children Want to Write Tom Newkirk writes:

At the time . . .  writing instruction was tightly regulated . . .  Topics were assigned, all errors were marked, outlines were required for all longer papers, a five-paragraph structure was imposed, all papers were graded, and there were no readers other than teachers. In lower grades, teachers listed the words to be used on the blackboard.

Murray and Graves were appalled by this overregulation, believing that it stunted the expressive possibilities of writing, not to mention that it killed the joy. It imposed a compliant student role, rather than the role of the writer. It ignored the most necessary condition for writing – having something to say to someone . . .

In many ways, the educational system at the time Don Graves began his research was one that taught both reading and math in conscious, systematic ways, but not writing.  Graves’ major accomplishment was to adopt Don Murray’s “process” approach to writing instruction in the elementary classroom — to teach young children to write like professional writers.

And so it was that in the early 1980s, Graves, alongside his research assistant, Lucy Calkins, began the Atkinson Study, based at Atkinson Academy in New Hampshire, a K-5 school believed to be the oldest co-ed school in the country.  This became the laboratory, the incubation site, where the writing workshop first took form.

What’s interesting is that creating a new model of teaching was not Graves’ goal.  The Atkinson study was designed to research children’s writing processes and to report observations and recommendations.  Instead, as Graves, Calkins, and the Atkinson teachers began taking the techniques of advanced creative writing seminar workshops and trying to fit them to elementary classrooms, many of the practices of the modern writing workshop began to develop: the mini-lesson, the “Author’s Chair,” pre-writing activities, and the writing-conference-in-progress.  

It was this last technique that was particularly revolutionary.  No longer were teachers the high priests of grammar, the arbiters of quality, the assigners of topics, but instead listeners — Graves was a great one — who tried to understand where children were coming from in order to specifically tailor their lessons to just what each student needed.  This idea of teaching the individual child, rather than simply aiming at a roomful of children, was particularly influential. Graves initially advised teachers to do most of their teaching in individual conferences — a truly radical way to approach instruction. Indeed, one of the biggest innovations of Atkinson Academy teachers — and later of teacher-researchers like Nancie Atwell in Maine — was to design classroom systems that kept children engaged and gave teachers the freedom to be able to circulate the room to conference.

Graves reported his new findings in his groundbreaking 1983 book, Writing: Teachers and Children at Work.  Several other influential books were published a few years later by teacher-researchers in the Graves orbit — In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, and The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins, which described the application of the ideas of the Atkinson study to middle school and elementary classrooms, respectively.  

Curiously, the workshop approach rarely caught on in high school English classrooms.  This has had the effect of making the workshop approach, even 35 years later, feel cutting edge when applied to secondary curriculums.  Just last year, teacher-researchers Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher published 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents, a book that updates Graves’ writing workshop methods for modern high school classrooms.  

On the other hand, the writing workshop has not only caught on in elementary schools, it has if anything become de rigueur.  In my school district a fair number of elementary educators have attended seminars at Teachers College at Columbia University in Manhattan led by Graves’ former researcher, Lucy Calkins.  Calkins has created a corporate empire based on marketing and teaching the workshopping method, and predictably for someone so influential, she has been criticized for promoting a one-size-fits-all model of literacy instruction.  Teachers I know who’ve attended her seminars have joked about her resistance to criticism of any kind. This is particularly ironic, given the nature of writing workshop:

[Calkins] was known as a champion for flexible, creative teaching, uniquely attuned to children. “If we adults listen and watch closely,” she wrote in 1986, “our children will invite us to share their worlds and their ways of living in the world.”

And while this impulse continues to inform aspects of her approach, she has tended over time to become increasingly focused on enforcing her own methodology; many of her techniques limit children’s genuine engagement with reading and writing. This insistence on only one way to do things, not surprisingly, has translated into a demand that teachers quiet their own impulses, gifts, and experiences, and speak in one, mandated voice.

It’s hardly surprising, of course, that what was once vital, new, and fresh can become locked into orthodoxy later on, especially when so much money is involved.  Calkins was once paid a no-bid $5.4 million contract to revamp literacy instruction in 100 New York high schools over three years, and often charged $1,200 just to send one of her instructions into schools for a single day.  

I’m also struck by how, despite its prevalence in elementary schools, the writing workshop is so often taught without its most important component: conferencing with individual students, due to the ongoing challenge of fitting these moments into a chaotic classroom.  I’ve met many elementary teachers who would love to conference, but can’t, and I remember Calkins specifically pointing out this danger in her 1986 book about writing workshop. Kittle and Gallagher do it too, repeatedly, in their new book. It’s always the place that’s easiest to cut corners.  It feels so difficult, so time-consuming, and sometimes, so ineffective (we rarely get through more than 5 or 6 conferences in a session). And yet — all good teachers of the workshop method, going back to Graves and Murray, agree: it is the most important element of the whole set-up.

In this day of faux-individualization — whether through airy goal-setting sessions (“personalized learning plans”), or through the shortcuts of technology (“blended learning” or “personalized learning”) — we often boast about teaching individual students, yet we forget how hard that really is: how time-consuming, how apparently inefficient and unsystematic, and how it requires us to slow down and really listen to where a child is.  Calkins calls this “researching” — and this was at the heart of the Atkinson study: listening to children, trying to understand where they are, and only then making decisions about how to teach them as individual skills. It’s not for nothing that conferencing has been called the least efficient but most effective form of instruction.


So that, in short, is where the modern writing workshop comes from.  If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend that same book that I just read:  Children Want to Write, a story about Don Graves’ career, edited by Tom Newkirk and Penny Kittle.  It comes with a DVD (remember those?) of remarkable videos from the Atkinson study, showing Graves and Calkins interviewing young children about their writing process.  From this study grew the seeds of a national movement, one that influenced a wide, wide variety of American children, over several generations.

I hold this study up as a model of the type of work all educators should be doing: of listening to and reacting to individual students, of forming new, adaptable solutions to classroom conditions in order to grow and change and to integrate new ideas.  It’s very different than the sort of top-down approach fostered over the past twenty years in American education, one in which politicians or policymakers, most of whom lack direct classroom experience, attempt to foist large-scale change on American classrooms under penalty of law, with the goal of increasing standardized test scores to further a political agenda or political career.  The writing workshop evolved out of a very different model: a partnership between university researchers and public school teachers and, yes, students, all of whom conspired to create something that had never been seen before in schools.

Whether this approach will ever catch on wide-scale in high schools I think is doubtful, though it is beginning to happen more and more.  I am only just beginning to put this question in my sights this year and to ask why workshopping never took hold. One clue I found in the new book about Graves comes from one of the most trenchant criticisms of the Atkinson study, by Chicago professor and researcher George Hillocks, who published a meta-study of writing research in 1986 that I very much hope to read in the next few weeks.  Hillocks criticized what he called Graves’ “natural process” that allowed writers to develop freely with minimal teacher intervention as being unreliable. I just quickly scanned the report and found this:

Throughout the research by Graves and his colleagues, for example, changes in writing behavior tend to be attributed to natural development. For example, in discussing four types of revisers, Calkins (1980b) claims that “transition revisers” (one of the types) “had developed higher standards for themselves” (p. 339), the implication being that higher standards are developed internally as the natural result of efforts to write. One result of such inferences is that the researchers recommend that instruction be largely reactive, allowing children to write when and what they wish, with minimal intervention from the teacher. But the i. “…ence that children developed higher standards for themselves and by themselves may be wrong. Without controls for instructional variables, there is no way to establish the causal relationship.

According to Children Want to Write, Hillocks contrasts Graves’ “natural process” unfavorably with Hillocks’ own approach, the “environmental mode” — which instead of just letting kids choose topics and structures and write about whatever they want like the workshop model, emphasizes entering each unit “with a carefully designed set of gateway activities” designed to scaffold and support students, while still allowing them to write about meaningful topics, and to make their own mistakes.  

Frankly, this approach sounds much more like my own approach in the high school classroom, one that blends the process writing approach of Graves, the conferencing and the listening from the teacher (and, because these are older students, from each other) with the more prescriptive, traditional approach that sees everyone enter the same genre study unit, hear the same time-tested mini-lessons, and generally move much more closely at the same multi-draft pace than it sometimes seems a pure workshop model allows (in which students can start and end various drafts, write about different topics, and just generally be in very different places.  Perhaps that’s not fair — Newkirk and Kittle suggest Hillocks is not fair to Graves, but I’m interested to read.

It’s sometimes hard to imagine adopting a full-on workshop model in high school partly for the reservations I’ve expressed above.  The workshop — particularly the writer’s notebook — while making a lot of sense, still give me a feeling of students being adrift.  I am much more comfortable providing a bit more guidance — structured brainstorming and creative writing activities in class designed to pull out solid ideas, rather than taking down the nets and really letting students collect ideas totally on their own.  I am not expressing this well, but it’s a reservation I still have as a high school teacher about the workshop model that Graves ushered into elementary and middle schools: it feels just a little too free. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher have written admirably about their efforts to situate the workshop in high school settings, so surely it works, but if I’m being honest, it still feels like a leap of faith.


Either way, the workshop model is now — as it was in 1983 — a tremendously promising model of instruction.  Since then it has been developed for reading in addition to writing. It stands more than anything as exactly the sort of researcher-practitioner collaboration that we need in order to innovate.  It also represents a “bottom-up” model that goes against the grain of the educational reform of the past twenty years. This practice was started by teachers and by professors who’d been teachers.  It was developed in close partnership with schools and with children — really listening to them and understanding what they needed, right up close. A standardized test can never do that. A personalized learning software program, a computer, can never do that.  Only a human being with an extraordinary mind and ability to really hear what a child is saying — someone like Don Graves — could pull that off.

Here’s to the innovators.

Where Does This Stuff Come From?

It’s amazing how little we know about the words that shape our lives.

It’s fascinating to me that many of the basic terms fashionable in Vermont education — terms that so dominate my professional life right now, cause me late nights trying to restructure my gradebook, long meetings with coworkers trying to redesign curriculum, and philosophical debates with colleagues and students trying to get our minds around — terms such as “personalized learning,” or “proficiency-based learning,” or “personalized learning plan” — are terms whose origins I haven’t the faintest understanding of.

Suddenly, with the passing of Act 77 in 2013, the word rippled down through schools that everything was changing.  We started throwing around all these new terms, we had to change schools, and nobody knew where any of this came from.

We all thought this was alright.

Question the changes, we did.  But understand where they came from?  We simply didn’t have time.

And yet, five years after this law was passed and reverberated around our state, I find myself curious to learn where it all began.

It’s fascinating.

The other day, during some free time, I began investigating.  What I’m fast discovering is that the story of educational history in the United States is a story of constant churn: of ideas come up with and then quickly employed on huge, vast scales, only to be abandoned almost immediately, only to reappear a decade later under a slightly different name.  It’s a big, glorious mess.  And it’s a lot of fun to untangle.

More than that, I think this is important work.  Many of the terms that are quite literally shaping our children’s futures now in Vermont have quite nebulous origins.  It’s important to study where these “innovations” came from, and who was in the room for their adoption, in order to understand precisely what we’re looking at.  The careful study of history can liberate you by helping you understanding more clearly your influences.  The more perspective you can gain on a reform or movement, the more accurately you can judge or question or modify it.

So over the next week, I’d like to do that with a few of our current educational concepts here in Vermont.  I want to take a deep dive the best I can, to find out where they came from, and why we adopted them.

I’ll start first with “Personalized Learning.”

On Competition in Education

Last week, I spent an afternoon with some of Vermont’s best educators talking about the topic du jour: proficiency based learning (PBL).

We discussed a reservation that our students have about PBL: they can’t separate themselves as well under a 1-4 system as under the old 0-100 system.  There’s a big difference between an 80 and an 89. But under the new system, those are both ranked as a “3”: no difference. There’s a huge difference between a 70 and an 89. But under the new system, those might be scored as a 2 and a 3, respectively.  To students, there’s not a lot of difference between a 2 and a 3.  In their minds, why try so hard?

Like it or not, we are a nation obsessed with competition.  It’s hardwired into our DNA. We’re obsessed with the idea that America is a meritocracy.  If you work hard, take risks, and make the most of yourself, you’ll prosper.  There’s no rigid caste system, only open, unfettered competition.  The sky’s the limit.  That’s the American Dream.

Of course, it’s a dream steeped in a long, complex story of racial hypocrisy.  There is, in fact, a rigid caste system, and the playing field is about as level as the north face of the Matterhorn.  Some players show up without shoes.  Some players aren’t thrown the ball.  Some aren’t even allowed into the game.  But that doesn’t mean we’re not still obsessed with competing.  Capitalism is the name of our desire — free markets, survival of the fittest, the up-by-your-bootstraps, the self-made, the self-reliant.  We worship at the feet of Adam Smith and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  We may lie to ourselves about how fair it all is, but deep down, it’s who we are.

It’s tied up, of course, with our obsession with equality.  We have high-minded and noble ideals about all Americans being created as equal.  This too is bound up in an infinite web of hypocrisy and hidden, system discrimination.  And yet, even this high-minded goal is inextricably tied to competition.  We want to believe that everyone is equal . . .  but for the purposes of being able to compete in the same no-holds barred capitalist arena.

Look at our language in education.  It’s all about “giving students a chance to compete in the global marketplace.” Look the major moments that have driven our perception of public schools: Sputnik (economic / scientific competition with the Russians), a Nation at Risk (economic anxiety about Japan), the standards reform movement (more economic anxiety).  Any reformer worth his salt from the last 30 years has loved to point to our international test scores as evidence that, in our former Ed Secretary Arne Duncan’s words, “South Korea kicks our butt in everything educationally”  or as former DC schools chief Michelle Rhee said, “You know what you should not like? The fact that China is kicking our butts right now.  Get over feeling bad about the federal government and feel bad that our kids are not competing.”   

Hell — the word “competitiveness” is right there in the mission statement of the Department of Education:

“[Our] mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

Look at that.  Nothing about fostering a democratic republic.  Nothing about preserving freedom and liberty. Nothing about living fulfilling lives, or nurturing empathy and understanding between citizens.  It’s all about competition. You might say that’s practically our national educational goal.

So why are we surprised when our students — who we’ve trained to value competition — object to a new grading system that deemphasizes it?  We can certainly *say* that we want to give rid of GPAs and tracked classes and a traditional 1-100 scale, but what I’m suggesting is that competitiveness is so integral to who we are as a nation that any educational system that doesn’t satisfy that need is doomed to fail.

In the end, there’s a lot that’s good about PBL, but like many reformers, we in Vermont are in danger of trying to make change too quickly.  We must be honest with ourselves about what Americans really value about education — and how we can turn this desire for equality of competitive opportunity to our own ends.  PBL can, if done correctly, help everyone compete more effectively — by ensuring that all learners are proficient before graduation.  But we’ve got to make sure that we recognize the reality of the system we’re operating in.  Let’s not forget that PBL was voted down in Maine because of these same competitive anxieties.  We’re a different state than Maine, but not that different.  We’re still Americans. 

And Americans love to compete.