School reform and signs of the times

The cover article of this month’s Phi Delta Kappan is titled “Conspiracy Theory: Lessons for Leaders from Two Centuries of School Reform” (James Nehring). It presents a similar argument to the one that I presented above with an emphasis on longstanding cultural factors that obstruct school reform today. His six historical factors are:

1. The tendency to view schools as factories.

2. The tendency of community fears to drive school activity.

3. The tendency to impose plans that look great from above and make little sense at the ground level.

4. The tendency of the system to crush promising innovation.

5. The tendency of schools to say less to all legitimate requests.

6. The tendency to promote favored groups to the detriment of others.

The article pulls examples from 100-150 years ago of both progressive and regressive tendencies in school organization. It’s always fascinating to read quotes from that long ago that sound like they were written yesterday. It reminds me of a Life Magazine cover I have in my office. It decries the urgent state of teacher pay and training and shows an “Oregon science teacher with handmade prop.” The date is 1953!

In the Kappan article, Nehring compares language used to describe schooling before and after the industrial revolution. In the early days of industrialization, schools are describe as factories that produce products through an assembly-line method, much as they are today. Standardization and performance are primary. In stark contrast, earlier language is agrarian in nature: children are cultivated, learning environments are groomed. Nehring wonders whether a return to agrarian language would more closely match what we know is more effective teaching.

Fast-forward to the present, and we see a lot of speculation on the new face of learning in an information age. While I will argue that we still very much rely on industrial manufacturing, let’s consider for a moment an educational environment whose families are largely rooted in an information age economy. It may be the case that a world of networked information stores and communication vehicles leads to the kind of wide-open, globally-based information education that some bloggers propose. Yet, this could be another educational blunder if one considers that the optimal educational environment still bears more similarity to the metaphors of cultivation and individual attention than to global interconnectivity and information retrieval.

Teachers understand individual relationships best, and even the most technologically savvy warn of the increasing depersonalization of computer-based environments. Though Second Life or blogging may create an educational environment in which there is constant connectivity and tons of messages flying back and forth among students and teachers, this does not necessarily produce the nurturing, reflective learning environments required for proper education.

Can technology enhance nurturing teacher-student relationships and individual attention to educational progress? Definitely. I think of multi-year electronic portfolios in Elgg or Drupal and individual teacher comments on assignments in Moodle. I don’t think of class blogs or social networks. In this case, more connectivity does not necessarily mean better. Let us remember what makes for good teaching and focus on technology tools that enhance these aspects.


  1. Zach Lipton says:

    What a fascinating post. I haven’t read the PDK article (though I’ll need to go see if I can pull a copy from the library now that you’ve got me worked up about it), but it reminds me a lot of a paper I wrote a couple years back on the rise of "progressive education" (what we would call traditional education nowadays) in the early 20th century, when big business began to play a role in shaping the educational system.

    Schools started to go on the Gary Plan (based on the model created in Gary, Ind.) where the new assembly-line method of education you discuss was literally called "platoon schooling" and scientific management was brought to the schoolhouse, leading to the "crushing of innovation" and "saying less of legitimate requests" and the other factors Nehring notes.

    In one case (and unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find too much in the way of details on this), a group of predominately Jewish students on the Gary Plan at P.S. 171 in NYC believed that the quality of their education was being decreased under the new plan so that they would make better workers for industry. Between 1,000 and 3,000 students rioted until the school restored its traditional method (read: more agrarian, less factory-oriented) of teaching. Clearly, the anti-progressive movement lost out in most of the country, but it’s interesting to realize that most of the structure of modern schooling arose out of a relatively recent, and extremely controversial, revamp of the educational system.

    I suppose I should post my paper online at some point; I’m continually fascinated by the rapid change in educational methods during this period.

    While I know you’re obviously thinking K-12, some of the very tools you’re skeptical of at that level seem to make a great deal of sense in the college level, where a class blog can be very useful in enhancing teacher-student relationships. I am currently taking a large lecture course called Networks, a brand new course (i.e. the professors are one step ahead in writing and having published the papers they assign us for reading) with around 150-200 students. For the course, we have a class blog and a requirement to write 2-3 posts during the course of the semester relating articles or papers that we’ve read to the course material. Every week or so, one of the professors summarizes the blog discussion on a digest blog. The effect, for me anyway, is to make the large course seem much more personal and to provide for an easy form of student-faculty interaction. Obviously, such a model would be silly in a small seminar where people should be talking to each other face-to-face. The real question for me is how you teach students to blog in a reflective way that promotes real learning rather then the simple exchange of messages.

    A similar model might work with office hours as well. It’s pretty common for very few people to show up for instructors’ office hours except right before a test or a particularly difficult assignment. I wonder how many more people would come by for more informal chats about course material (the kind of chats from which significant learning can arise) if office hours were held in Second Life, especially with a rich platform incorporating whiteboarding and the like. I bet it would certainly lead to more interactions and relationships, but not necessarily meaningful educational ones.

  2. Zach Lipton says:

    Since I’m sure you’ve got tons of spare time, here’s the aforementioned paper:

    If nothing else, the section on the Carnegie Unit is pretty interesting stuff. Essentially, the modern system of units and departments was popularized by a side effect of Andrew Carnegie’s desire to create a pension system for teachers (now TIAA-CREF).

    All the best,


  3. rkassissieh says:

    Great to hear from you, Zach, and a wonderful addition to my article summary. Be sure to read David Tyack and Larry Cuban if you want to learn more about what they term "The History of School Reform." The Stanford School of Education was instrumental in making visible this historical lens for me.

    Yes, my lens is definitely K-12, where students see their teachers practically every day. I can see how an email message or blog comment from a professor in a large lecture course would feel a little like being touched by God. Seriously, though, I find a lot of enthusiasm for this in the blogosphere, though it’s worth noting that there is also a backlash to students having laptops open during class and podcasting lectures enabling students who would prefer not to show up for classes.

    Fundamentally, technology can be used in so many different ways. I am sure that there are ways that it can help make teaching and learning more personal rather than less. The more obvious of these involve streamlining the bureaucracy of class mechanics, so that face-to-face time can be spent doing important things. But connective tools can certainly help, especially outside of class time when students would otherwise be on their own.

    I will read your paper. The link between Carnegie Units and TIAA-CREF is completely new to me! Oh, how little we know of our own history.

    Take care, and drop me a line to let me know how Cornell is going so far.

  4. Vinnie Vrotny says:


    You are wonderfully articulate and thoughtful. I too, have shared similar thoughts. It is the personal connections and relationships which have the most impact. If the new methods of communications can help to forge new relationships, than we are for the better. But meet space, that is where the action is.