Archives for category: Real Education

Arthur Camins has had a fruitful career as a teacher, science educator, and technology expert. He writes here about the kind of education he hopes his grandchildren will have.

He begins:

Persistent inequity and underfunding, especially after decades of emphasis on test-based accountability and privatization, largely unopposed increases in racial and socioeconomic segregation, and four years of leadership by an active opponent of public education bring us to a moment of choice for K-12 public education in the United States: Change or give up on the needs of most of America’s children.

I usually write what I hope are persuasive essays about education policy and other social justice issues. However, the divisiveness of the last election demonstrates that we can’t argue or campaign our way to lasting fundamental change through presidential elections.  The change we need begins with building relationships through shared multiracial conversation and struggle.  

Today, I offer my hopes for my two grandchildren and the rest of the children with whom they will grow up and live as adults. Maybe these can be conversation starters with others about their own hopes.  That is what I think we need to do so that we can work together to push for our hopes for America’s children in the coming years no matter who serves as America’s chief education officer.  

I hope they will go to schools where they and their classmates are cared for, known, valued, and respected.

I hope they will experience and learn empathy and respect and that their circleextends across our great diversity to encompass all people.

Please read the rest of the article.

What are your hopes and dreams for your children?


Teresa Thayer Snyder was superintendent of the Voorheesville district in upstate New York. She wrote this wise and insightful essay on her Facebook page. A friend sent it to me.

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply. 

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.

I sincerely plead with my colleagues, to surrender the artificial constructs that measure achievement and greet the children where they are, not where we think they “should be.” Greet them with art supplies and writing materials, and music and dance and so many other avenues to help them express what has happened to them in their lives during this horrific year. Greet them with stories and books that will help them make sense of an upside-down world. They missed you. They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. They did not miss the reading groups. They did not miss the homework. They missed you.

Resist the pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to “fix” kids and make up for the “lost” time. The time was not lost, it was invested in surviving an historic period of time in their lives—in our lives. The children do not need to be fixed. They are not broken. They need to be heard. They need be given as many tools as we can provide to nurture resilience and help them adjust to a post pandemic world.

Being a teacher is an essential connection between what is and what can be. Please, let what can be demonstrate that our children have so much to share about the world they live in and in helping them make sense of what, for all of us has been unimaginable. This will help them– and us– achieve a lot more than can be measured by any assessment tool ever devised. Peace to all who work with the children!

Jan Resseger is always worth reading. She thinks deeply about the issues and synthesizes brilliantly.

In this post, she asks and answers what’s at stake in the election tomorrow for our nation’s public schools.

She believes that therere is a chance for fresh thinking about how to help schools instead of punishing them.

If Joe Biden is elected President, I believe our society can finally pivot away from an artificially constructed narrative about the need to punish so called “failing” public schools, and away from the idea that school privatization is the key to school improvement. During Betsy DeVos’s tenure, our two-decades old narrative about test-and-punish education reform has faded into a boring old story fewer and fewer people want to hear anymore, but nobody has proclaimed an alternative.

Will Biden liberate our students, teachers, and schools from the grip of twenty years of oppressive, destructive, stifling federal policies? Or will he feel loyal to the failed ideas of Race to the Top? Will he encourage the states to repeal VAM? Will he grant blanket testing waivers for this spring? Will he urge Congress to rewrite the “Every Student Succeeds Act” to eliminate the annual testing mandate? We will find out later, and we will push as hard as we can for genuine change.

A regular reader who uses the name “Retired Teacher” posted this wise comment. I couldn’t agree more.


So-called choice is mostly a marketing scheme designed to make parents believe they are getting a better school for their children. Research has shown that choice generally does not improve education, and in many cases the quality of education is worse. Choice is a way for corporations to gain access to public dollars at the expense of public schools. It makes the wants of a few take priority over the needs of many. It is impossible to fund parallel systems and a public system for the same dollar. More underfunded schools are not a way to improve education.

The privatization of education has failed. It is time to consolidate resources and invest in quality education with supports and services designed to address the needs of poor students. A well resourced public school can offer wrap around services including medical, dental, mental health and social services that provide resources and guidance for struggling poor students and their families. With greater efficiency built in, community schools can do a much more effective addressing the needs of students that live in poverty. It is only when primary needs are met can we begin to address students’ academic needs.

Public schools bring people together. Our society is more fragmented than ever, and privatization further erodes the bonds of community. Well funded public schools that professionally serve all students help to build unity and connection within the school community and the community at large. We need to learn to appreciate each other and work together for the betterment of all our people. We do not need “islands of opportunity” for a few. We need investment in all our young people.

David Gamberg recently retired as superintendent of schools in two adjoining towns on New York’s Long Island—Southold and Greenport—where he was beloved for his child-centered approach to schooling. In this article, he calls for new thinking and the courage to break free of the obsession with standardized testing and punitive accountability. He announced his retirement in January, not knowing what was about to happen to schools across the nation and the world.

He understands that the status quo of high-stakes testing and demoralizing punishment has failed.

He writes:

I argue that the emphasis must be on capturing the hearts and minds of our students, and not primarily seeking to make up for lost ground academically as noted by education author Alfie Kohn. We must abandon any pretense that the metrics used in recent years to judge, sort, and separate students, teachers and schools through a ranking system based on data that focused on math and ELA standardized testing will serve them well in the near future.

Therefore, the first step is an immediate cessation of the current accountability system, based primarily on the use of high stakes, standardized testing in grades 3-8 that has preoccupied students, teachers, administrators, Boards of Education, families, and school communities since the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002.

Will our educational leaders have the courage and wisdom to change their focus to students, not their test scores? To humans, not rankings?

Dr. Michael Hynes is the Superintendent of the Port Washington School District in New York and a friend of Sir Ken Robinson.

The Legacy and Impact of Sir Ken Robinson

The world lost an inspiring and incredible human-being on August 21, 2020. Sir Ken Robinson, the gifted author and educator, and one of the world’s leading thinkers made an incredible impact on everyone he met. You may know him from his famous TED Talk entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity”. It happened to be the most viewed TED Talk of all-time. To think people cared to watch an 18-minute discussion about school and creativity more than 66 million times shows us what an amazing orator he was. More important, it highlights his ability to connect with people who cared about what he had to say.

Most people know him from his multiple TED Talks. Not many knew that he led an incredibly multifaceted career before he hit TED stardom. Sir Ken was Director of the Arts in Schools Project, an initiative to develop arts education throughout England and Wales. He also chaired Artswork, the UK’s national youth arts development agency. Sir Ken was also professor emeritus of education at the University of Warwick. In 2003, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his services to the arts. I’m just scratching the surface of his esteemed career but this gentleman was also Senior Advisor for Education & Creativity at the Getty Museum. His contributions to the field of education and the world are vast.

I could go on and on about his legacy and his ideas concerning creativity. He deeply cared about the education system our children and teachers are “trapped” in because he felt it needed to be transformed. His quotes are legendary. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

2. “Creativity is as important as literacy”

3. “Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves.”

I was blessed and fortunate to work with Sir Ken a few years ago and stay connected ever since. This past April I had the pleasure and honor of spending time with him for his new podcast series related to teaching from home. Sir Ken is like that old friend you don’t see for a while; and then when you do meet up again, it’s like you saw them yesterday. He made you feel like your work and ideas mattered. Sir Ken had the uncanny ability to use his humor to draw people in and then use his superpower of connecting with you to seal the deal.

I saw that someone penned, “Sir Ken’s loss offers everyone in the field of education an opportunity to honor him by reflecting and acting on his wisdom.” As Pasi Shalberg, another icon in the field of education wrote me earlier today, “His words would have been heeded now more than ever. We must carry his message forward, Mike.” I couldn’t agree more. We all must carry his message forward every single day.

In one of his last TED Talks, Sir Ken discusses how life is your talents discovered. He concluded his talk by saying, “Nothing is more influential as a life well lived.” I can’t think of another human-being that I know of who has lived a life more well lived than my dear friend. The world lost a great man but his ideas will live on.

Favorite video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MSgCut1Ils when he speaks to the Dali Lama.

Evie Blad of Education Week writes that a Biden-Harris administration may forge a new path on education issues. They have pledged to increase funding, regulate charters, and back away from standardized testing. They also have pledged to support the right to collective bargaining. This heartens advocates of public education, but frightens the corporate reformers who have controlled education for 20 years.

Twenty years of failed education policy is enough!

Democrats for Education Reform and the Center for American Policy, both committed to high/stakes testing and charters, are worried.

As he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden pledged that, if elected, his education department would be a sharp departure from that of President Donald Trump.

Rather than promoting private school choice, as the Republican incumbent has, Biden pledged to dramatically increase federal aid to schools, including ambitious calls to triple the Title I funding targeted at students from low-income households and to “fully fund” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But, as Biden accepts his party’s nomination this week, there also are signs that his potential future administration wouldn’t return lock step to the education policies of President Barack Obama. And some of a Biden administration’s education policy goals could take a back seat to the pressing matter of helping schools navigate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which may alter their operations and threaten their budgets for years to come.

Though he’s campaigned heavily on his experience as Obama’s vice president, Biden has departed on some key issues from that self-described supporter of education reform. Obama’s education department championed rigorous state education standards, encouraged states to lift their caps on public charter schools to apply for big federal Race to the Top grants, and offered charter school conversions as an improvement strategy for struggling schools.

By contrast, Biden called for a scale-back of standardized testing at a 2019 MSNBC education forum, and he criticized their use in teacher evaluations, a key policy goal of the Obama administration. Under the leadership of Biden’s campaign, Democrats formally introduced a party platform this week that criticizes high-stakes testing and calls for new restrictions on charter schools.

How much Biden’s policy would depart from the last Democratic president’s is up for debate. But the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law Obama signed at the end of his last term, may offer levers to make some policy changes.

“Your job as a vice president is to toe the line of your boss,” said Julian Vasquez Heilig, the dean of the college of education at the University of Kentucky and a board member of the Network for Public Education, a progressive advocacy group. If Biden chooses, “he can be his own person on education.”

Praise and Concern

That suggestion of a new direction has won praise from groups like national teachers’ unions, which called for the resignation of Obama’s long-serving education secretary, Arne Duncan, when Duncan advanced a push for teacher evaluations and other reforms.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García called Biden and his running mate and one-time rival for the nomination, California Sen. Kamala Harris, a “dream team” that “respects educators and will listen to those who know the names of the kids in the classrooms.”

But Biden’s priorities, and the absence of discussions of school improvement during the Democratic primary, have also been met with concern from some education groups.

“If we only talk about the money side of the equation, that’s not enough by itself,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform. “That’s where we need our president to be a leader and hold those institutions accountable.”

The organization, which supports charter schools and data-driven school accountability efforts, has praised Biden’s push for more resources, but it has sounded the alarm about other changes recommended in the party platform.

That platform language reflects some of Biden’s comments during the primaries. In recorded interviews with the NEA, for example, he said a lot of charter schools are “significantly underperforming” and that charter schools “cannot come at the expense of the public school.”

Neither Biden nor Harris included language on charters in their plans as candidates. But the platform language-created with input from a “unity task force” assembled by the campaigns of Biden and Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders-calls for a ban on federal funding for “for-profit charter businesses.”

The language also calls for “conditioning federal funding for new, expanded charter schools or for charter school renewals on a district’s review of whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students,” which has alarmed charter advocates who say the publicly funded, independently managed schools already face sufficient accountability.

Charter schools are largely governed through state and local policy. But a presidential administration can help shape public debate on the issue. And a Biden administration could scale back support for charter schools in its discretionary grant priorities and regulations or in its proposed budgets.

Time for fresh thinking! Time to build strong child-centered, community-based schools and throw off the obsession with standardized testing and privatization.

Catherine O’Neill Grace is a senior associate editor at the Wellesley College alumnae magazine, where this article was published. The article reminded me of why I loved college, lo those many years ago. My freshman poetry professor was Philip Booth, who was a poet. He was also very handsome, and I think that every young woman in his class had a crush on him. I know I did.

Ms. Grace writes:

Back in November, long before our world was overturned, I sent an email to Dan Chiasson, Lorraine C. Wang Professor of English at Wellesley. The subject line read: “I’m Nobody.”

I was writing to ask if I could audit ENG 357: The World of Emily Dickinson in the spring. I admit it felt a bit audacious to refer to one of Dickinson’s most famous poems.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

But Chiasson replied, “Catherine, with that subject line, how can I say no??”

“I’m Nobody!” is the first poem I remember knowing. Perhaps it actually was the first; perhaps I learned it later, and it effaced other, simpler rhymes. It hardly matters. Because what I remember, what I still embrace as “first poem,” is this Emily Dickinson verse, written in Amherst, Mass., circa 1861, and listed as #288 in the Thomas H. Johnson edition of her poems, published initially in 1960.

So in January, I bought a fresh copy of Johnson’s 770-page The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and slipped diffidently into my first college-level English class since the 1970s. Room 338, on the third floor of Green Hall, was chilly that day. Every seat was filled, and we sat elbow-to-elbow and notebook-to-notebook as class began.

Reading my notes from those first weeks, I see that our class explored Dickinson family biography, read excerpts from essays about 19th-century material culture and attitudes to death, about the intellectual life of Amherst, Mass., and about the role of the Civil War in Dickinson’s work. We went online to interpret her handwriting and her use of punctuation—those dashes!—amid the riches of the Emily Dickinson Archive, an open-source website of the poet’s handwritten manuscripts. We speculated about the unsolved mystery of her withdrawal from the world into her bedroom on the second floor of the Dickinson homestead. We began to call her Emily, addressing her as one might a friend rather than with the traditional English-major trope of “the speaker,” or “the narrator.”

And in every single class, we worked as a group—auditors included—reading the poems aloud, dissecting their diction and dashes, their moments of violence, their verbal puzzles, their humor, and their reverence for nature. Together, we were discovering what Chiasson calls “one of the most thrilling and idiosyncratic minds in literature.”

This was heady stuff for me; I could feel long-closed doors in my mind and imagination creaking open. I loved being around the energy and commitment of the students, their willingness to risk their own interpretations of Emily’s work and life. I loved Chiasson’s quirky erudition, his references ranging from the metaphysical poets to pop culture and TV, sometimes in a single sentence.

There was a Tuesday in early March warm enough to allow us to hold class outside, declaiming Dickinson in the amphitheater behind Alumnae Hall. We were looking forward to an April field trip to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst; to a 5 a.m. silent meeting in May on the shores of Lake Waban to listen to the birds’ dawn chorus; to a final gathering at our professor’s house to watch episodes of the cult favorite streaming TV show Dickinson.

But everything changed. In mid-March, we left Wellesley’s campus, and as Emily wrote in #303, “then shut the door.”

Two weeks later, we reconvened. Chiasson fired up Zoom and set up a retro blog for posting poems and commenting on them. Everyone started a journal. ENG 357 was back, stripped down and reconstituted digitally. And we went straight back to the poems. From around the country, seated in bedrooms and on back porches, in kitchens and home libraries and one auditor’s piano studio, we re-entered the world of Emily Dickinson. There was palpable joy in being together again, even digitally.

“I’m sure it has occurred to you that our interiors—our bounded environments, however large or small, and wherever we find ourselves—are suddenly our entire worlds; our predicament or opportunity mirrors Dickinson’s,” Chiasson wrote to the class.

It felt to many of us that Dickinson was teaching us how to live richly within the boundaries of our new world. Reviewing my notes from our very first class, I read that after Emily’s retreat to her room, her letters and poems became her social life. Read “Zoom” for “letters” and that was true for the 22 of us in ENG 357, too.

“I can’t help but feel Dickinson’s language as visceral reminders of the now,” Paige Calvert ’20 wrote in the class blog. “Today feels like I’m putting ‘new Blossoms in /my/ Glass,’ taking out what has sat in my bed with me for two weeks and finding something new, something that wishes to be renewed, rejuvenated. Do others feel similar? This return to Wellesley, although digital, brings me a new sense of calm that I haven’t had in quite a while. The line that honestly made me tear up this morning was: ‘We cannot put Ourself away.’ Because somehow that’s exactly what I feel has happened to me. I feel like I have put away a part of myself for this time of transition, and only now have I woken up and decided to come back, come out, come ‘to Flesh’ once again. It’s really truly remarkable how Emily’s words can continue to have such impact—and now, when we are at home, turning to art, music, literature, poetry, theater to make us feel human—Emily’s poems are some of the best.”

Sara Lucas ’22 wrote, “This time trapped in a smaller world has been teaching me the wonders of knowing one space very intimately. I’m so used to being out and about that I’ve never noticed the small worlds existing right in my childhood bedroom or my parents’ backyard. I think of Emily as I watch a hummingbird drink from our rain-filled eaves, as I track an ant’s path over the brick steps to our front door, or as I contemplate the green leaves of the old oak tree outside my bedroom window. I think of the acuity and wonder with which she took in her limited surroundings, and I strive to do the same.”

When I signed up for ENG 357, I thought I would learn more about the work of a poet I had loved since childhood. Little did I know that I was signing up for a wise, maddening, observant, and challenging guide to our post-pandemic solitude. Take, for instance, this undated poem, #1695:

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself—
Finite Infinity.

In 2016, Chiasson wrote in a New Yorker book review, “This is an extraordinary time to read Dickinson, one of the richest moments since her death. The publication of Envelope Poems and the growing collection of Dickinson’s manuscripts, available online and in inexpensive print editions, coincides with an ambitious restoration of the Dickinson properties in Amherst. …”

How much more extraordinary it would be to read Dickinson in spring 2020, none of us could possibly have foreseen. Yet the slight, evasive, white-clad poet finding her voice in her bedroom in Amherst turned out to be a perfect companion. We were each alone in our rooms, but with Emily we were together.

Catherine O’Neill Grace, a senior associate editor for this magazine, is riding out quarantine at her home in Sherborn, Mass., in the trusty New England company of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Louisa May Alcott. She and the other ENG 357 auditors and a few students are continuing to meet virtually to read and discuss Emily Dickinson.

The versions of the poems printed here were published in 1891 and 1924 respectively and are in the public domain.

David Berliner has devoted his life to the study of education. He has achieved the pinnacle of his profession as a researcher and statistician. He is currently Regents Professor Emeritus at the College of Education at Arizona State University. His list of honors is too long to mention. I welcome his original contributions to the blog and am honored to present them to you. His title for this post is: “Learning Losses Associated with the ‘Required Curriculum’ Can Be Easily Offset by Gains in Learning in the ‘Not-Required Curriculum.'”


Parents currently worry that their children have not or will not learn enough by participating in the non-standard styles of schooling associated with our pandemic. Some worry, particularly, that their children will not test well if they miss too much of what we have come to regard as “regular” schooling. The regular or standard school curriculum differs slightly by state, but it is what teachers try to deliver in each grade. It is the curriculum designed to prepare children for their states’ tests, and for the SATs and ACTs taken near the end of high school.

The pandemic also has teachers and administrators worrying about safety, and the arrangements needed for instruction as our crisis continues: In-class? On-line? Hybrid? What? Educators are afraid that the reputation of their schools could suffer, if their students don’t test well because of missed schooling, or because instruction appears not to be as effective on-line as it is when it occurs in classrooms, the historic and preferred mode of delivering instruction. In addition, a reduction in test scores could easily reduce housing values in the school catchment area, eventually changing the pool of students that they work with. Worry, worry, everywhere, and no solution apparent.

But much of this worrying can easily be relieved. Think of it this way: If we stop worrying about learning the “required stuff” in the ordinary, test-prep oriented curricula now in place in most American schools and districts, and instead started thinking about learning, just learning good stuff, the problem disappears. The issue for every parent and every educator should be about students learning. Period (cf. Westheimer, 2020).

Learning, growing, forming beliefs that are factually based, gaining deep insights into particular subject matters, extending ones’ horizons, and mastering something complex is really what is important. Surely, we can all agree that there is a plethora of ‘stuff’ worth learning out there, things that are of interest, utility, or beauty. Much of this is not found in the standard/ordinary school curriculum. If we can accept that there are countless worthwhile things to learn that are not in the accepted/normal/required/test-prep school curriculum, we might worry less about our students, as long as they are learning many of these other acceptable things. Actually, some of these other things may not just be acceptable, but quite desirable to learn.

I simply can’t get as distressed, as so many others do, when we believe kids are missing the “proper” time in their development to learn gerunds and the role of apostrophes, long division and simple algebra, or the date the constitution was signed. These certainly may all be worthy goals in our youths’ passage to a competent adulthood through our public schools. But what if a good part of the thinking and learning they are engaged in during these unusual times is, instead, based on a project the student chooses, or is assigned and willingly accepts? What if they had a topic to study and become highly knowledgeable about? And what if students must eventually report on their project or topic of study?

Even first graders are quite capable of learning sophisticated information about, say, dinosaurs. In fact, many of them do this spontaneously, and are quite capable of knowing more about dinosaurs and the lives they led than the vast majority of adults (Chi and Koeske, 1983). Sophisticated domain knowledge, the knowledge of experts, can easily be learned in a child’s study of rainfall, global warming, dog breeding, or a hundred other topics. What if our children began to learn these other good things, as well as whatever on-line instruction a teacher or school provides during the pandemic? Would America’s children lose anything? Or, might our students actually gain from such experiences?

On-line contact with their classroom teacher is likely not to be for the six hours per day that the child experiences during regular classroom instruction. But on-line contact about projects or topical areas will allow teachers to individually assist, tutor, critique, and advise on each project or topical area studied. After a semester or a school year, the child should be ready to present a project or topical inquiry to an audience of peers, teachers, and parents.

The beauty of these kinds of inquiries is that there would be little down time for students during education in this time of pandemic. Students will be learning about something of interest to them, though just not necessarily everything that is in the state required curriculum for their age group. Since not everyone is likely to have access to the full, required curriculum for their grade, the validity of any test scores at that grade level is greatly compromised and thus of little use. No attention should be given to invalid tests of the “required stuff” for students of a certain age and grade. But I certainly do want a way for students to learn “good stuff,” when limited in their getting access to the “required stuff”. Learning something in depth, and sharing it with others, may be an excellent replacement to the losses in learning the “required stuff” that are likely to occur in this pandemic.

Let us take a closer look at project based learning. Imagine if one or a few students had some months to turn in a project on whether: the climate is changing in their community, the air or water in their community is breathable or drinkable, their schools are adequately funded, their food is safe to eat, or a robot could be built to help the school cafeteria staff. Or the students investigated the causes of homelessness or asthma, or the need for public transportation in their community. There exists an endless supply of challenging projects, local and otherwise, worthy of study. Many will be appropriate for a particular age group, and some will require sustained effort over a moderately long time period to master the material at an age appropriate level.

A project not only teaches an individual, but if done with another it can substantially remove the feelings of loneliness that many of our students are feeling because of virus-caused school shutdowns. Moreover, two things are frequently noticed when students present their research projects or topical research to peers, teachers, and parents. First, students show evidence that they have learned how to organize and reorganize their ideas to prepare presentations from which others could learn. Second, their presentations regularly demonstrated that deep learning in the domain of study had taken place. The remarkable educator Debbie Meier (1995) describes successful schools where this has happened on a regular basis. The schools she describes didn’t wait for a crisis to incorporate the idea that children can direct their own learning with some adult scaffolding. Her experience and the testimony of others who studied her schools, convincingly established that students can and do dig deeply and happily into subject matter that they want to learn and share with others!

Topics to study. What if students negotiated with their teachers a topic: Birds, automobiles, penguins, glaciers, honey bees, artificial intelligence, the civil rights movement, internment camps during WWII, comets, and so forth. The topics investigated by a particular student might be of interest for them, or even assigned. The students’ job is to become expert in that topic and present a talk on that topic at the end of the school year, conveying to their classmates and others what is exciting and important to know about that topic. A version of how this approach might work schoolwide and across grades is described by Kieran Egan (2011), a most creative philosopher of education.

If learning from projects and topical studies as I have described was made more salient in the educational experiences of our youth, while the ordinary/standard curriculum was taught whenever and however it could be taught, what might happen?

We actually have some data related to this kind of arrangement. It comes from a classic, long-term, highly creative study conducted many years ago (Aikin, 1942). As the push to standardize the American curriculum gained traction, history has forgotten this study. But it is still quite instructive.

Students in 30 unique high schools, “progressive” schools, were studied. These 30 schools had agreed to let their students take a non-standard curriculum. The students studied some of what the school wanted them to, as current on-line instruction is meant to do. But these students also received high-school credits for choosing to study, think, write about, and to build, almost anything they wanted. The high school gave them credits for doing some highly unusual, self-determined projects and papers, few of which would have been approved had these students been subject to the standard high school curriculum of their time.

The students of these progressive schools, taking a very non-standard high school curriculum, went on to about 300 colleges and universities that had agreed to monitor and document their progress and achievements. They were also to monitor students’ deficits as well, since they had not been “properly prepared” for their college experience. They clearly had not studied the regular, standard, state sanctioned curriculum, so how could they compete in college?

From Aiken (1942) and the High School Journal (November-December, 1942), we learn that when each of the progressive school graduates was matched with a traditional school graduate who shared many similar background characteristics, the graduates of “progressive” schools showed: more leadership; joined and led more clubs; were rated as thinking more clearly; demonstrated a better understanding of democracy; had greater interest in good books, music, and art; got slightly better grades in college than those from traditional schools; and won more academic honors (e.g. Phi Beta Kappa, and honor roll designations). A special sub-study of the graduates of the six most progressive schools, what traditionalists thought of as the “wildest”, revealed that those students were superior to their peers from the other progressive schools! Thus, they scored well above the traditionally educated students on all the indices used for comparison. These poor students, deprived of the regular curriculum, achieved the highest college grades, and were rated the highest in intellectual drive, highest in thinking ability, and highest in extracurricular activity participation.

All I have written on this topic, above, now comes to this: The scholars reporting on the 8-year study said that the belief that students must have a prescribed school curriculum is not tenable. Studying almost anything in depth and breadth, with some (but not necessarily a lot of) teacher support, and reporting it out, prepares a child for the highest levels of scholarship at the next levels of their learning. There were no apparent negative effects from studying “this”, instead of “that”, if it was studied well. Learning seriously, deeply, and sharing that knowledge through papers and presentations (perhaps with power-points and YouTubes, maybe via film, television, music or art,) to one’s peers, parents, and the school faculty, apparently has no long-term ill effects, when compared to learning the “required” curriculum.

So to all the worried parents, teachers, and school administrators concerned that our youth will not learn about gerunds and the role of apostrophes, or long division and simple algebra, or the date the constitution was signed, “on time,” relax! Let us instead make sure our children are learning though projects and topics that capture their fancy during the time they have open. That should more than suffice for what they might miss of the traditional curriculum.

Aikin, W. (1942). The Story of the Eight-Year Study. New York: Harper.

Chi, M. T. H., & Koeske, R. D. (1983). Network representation of a child’s dinosaur knowledge. Developmental Psychology, 19(1), 29–39. https://doi.org/1031037/0012-1649.19.1.29

Egan, K. (2011). Learning in Depth. A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons from a small school in Harlem. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

The High School Journal, Nov.-Dec., 1942), 25 (7), 305-309.

Westheimer, J. (2020, March 21). Westheimer: Forget trying
to be your kid’s substitute school teacher during
COVID-19. Ottawa, Canada: Ottawa Citizen.

Andy Hargreaves, a scholar of international renown, participated in a virtual seminar in South Korea about post-pandemic education.

His 20-minute presentation is brilliant, pithy, and compelling.

Look for it on this YouTube video. He starts at about 22:00 minutes and concludes at about the 43:00 minute mark.

He urges South Korea and the rest of the world not to “return” to austerity, competition, high-stakes testing, and education that is subservient to GDP, but to pursue a very different path.

To learn about that different and very alluring vision of the future, take 20 minutes of your time, watch and listen.