24 February 2014

Why we think 1970s Open Education failed, and considering what the truth really is...

There are some of us who remember a time, both in the US and the UK, when education seemed to be in search for humanity. In this period test scores mattered less than accomplishments, students became far more involved in, and responsible for, educational decisions, responsibility was something it was assumed children and adolescents could handle, and pedagogy began to meet students where they were. It was a time when teachers and even administrators began to rebel against the American factory schools and the British Disraeli-designed colonial education system.

1975 Open Classroom

Today we are taught that this period was a chaotic failure, but the truth lies elsewhere, and the reason we are told of this "failure" can be keenly instructive.

Little Rock, Arkansas in school integration crisis of 1957 - before
Robert Kennedy touring
eastern Kentucky, 1968
We tend now, after years of political conservatism, to look back at the 1960s and 1970s as a time of dangerous and ineffective turmoil, of assassinations, riots, disruptions, inflation, and the decline of traditional values. Thus we rarely understand the accomplishments. But between 1960 and 1976 a vast number of Americans, including Women, African-Americans, and even some Latinos and Gays,were liberated from those traditional values, with earthshaking changes made in legal racial segregation, legal limitations of women's educational opportunities, job opportunities, and pay, legal exploitation of farm workers, legal arrests for consensual sexual activity between adults. The now much maligned War on Poverty lifted tens of millions of Americans - mostly white Americans to be clear - from "developing world" levels of poverty, by redistributing income from the Northeast and West Coast to states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. When Republicans now say that the American poor have a lot more than the poor elsewhere, that is only true because of The Great Society program, its welfare structures, Medicaid, Medicare, and rural electrification.
"Still, a broad range of researchers interviewed by The New York Times stressed the improvement in the lives of low-income Americans since Mr. Johnson started his crusade. Infant mortality has dropped, college completion rates have soared, millions of women have entered the work force, malnutrition has all but disappeared. After all, when Mr. Johnson announced his campaign, parts of Appalachia lacked electricity and indoor plumbing." (Lowrey, The New York Times, 2014)
And in those years Americans made "old age" much less miserable by increasing income and supporting health care, ended the nation's first ongoing "peacetime" military draft, began enforcing actual rights in the criminal justice system, began allowing the wide use of contraceptives, put men on the moon, invented and built the internet, began cleaning up an environment toxified by years of industrial abuse, began making cars safer, more efficient, and less polluting, forced a corrupt US President to resign, limited the ability of the government to legally spy on citizens without warrants obtained openly, and radically expanded educational opportunity from pre-school through graduate schools.

Poverty rate with/without "Great Society" programs
Graphic, Washington Post (2014)
Maybe not a "golden age," but few periods have seen anywhere near that level of national accomplishment.

Among those accomplishments was broad progress against a systematized and legalized "achievement gap." Whereas in 1960 US classrooms, despite increasing numbers of Dewey-influenced classroom designs with large windows, movable furniture, and doors to the outside, were generally a one-size-fits-all environment of desks in rows, the teacher standing at the front with her or his blackboard, and mind-numbingly boring readers and textbooks turned to the exact same page by every student, by the late 1970s many, many students were experiencing something quite different - from Cuisinaire Rods for math, to Bank Street Readers, from desks grouped into table-like settings to new choice in secondary pathways, from New Math and Whole Language reading to a dramatic widening of the literary canon, from massive changes in dress codes and disciplinary codes to a few radical experiments in grading.

before... the Leave it to Beaver classroom

Classroom Discipline 1950s - as relevance and connection are beginning to be considered

These changes combined with racial integration and the massive expansion of very low-cost (or even effectively free) state university systems to radically alter opportunity in America.

Led by New York (State - expanding from about 35,000 students in 1959 to over 400,000 in 1975 - and City) and California, public universities expanded massively in this period, "In the year before Rockefeller became governor, New York State budgeted $44.5 million for the state university. In 1973, Rockefeller’s last year in office, SUNY state purposes budget was $464.4 million."
At the heart of all of this, however, was an inclusiveness previously unavailable in American or British classrooms, an inclusiveness born of abandoning both the "Protestant Church" classroom model (pews in rows, worshippers staring straight ahead, minister up front as the single focus, everyone in the same book, on the same page, at the same moment), and the "factory school" model (cells and bells).
"What is most striking is that there are no desks for pupils or teachers. Instead, the room is arranged as a workshop.

"Carelessly draped over the seat, arm, and back of a big old easy chair are three children, each reading to himself. Several other children nearby sprawl comfortably on a covered mattress on the floor, rehearsing a song they have written and copied into a song folio.

"One grouping of tables is a science area with . . . magnets, mirrors, a prism, magnifying glasses, a microscope. . . . Several other tables placed together and surrounded by chairs hold a great variety of math materials such as “geo blocks,” combination locks, and Cuisenaire rods, rulers, and graph paper. . . . The teacher sits down at a small round table for a few minutes with two boys, and they work together on vocabulary with word cards. . . . Children move in and out of the classroom constantly." - The New York Times Magazine 1971, as quoted by Larry Cuban
If this sounds a great deal like what progressive school systems are attempting to create today, well then you can understand the ongoing appeal of "human education" to those constantly and continually seeking to undo the industrial education model, from John Dewey to Marie Montessori to John Holtto Neil Postman to Alfie Kohn. Actually, this battle goes back much further, to the initial struggle between those who believed in William A. Alcott's humanistic schools of the 1830s and 1840s, and those who believed in the Prussian Model of factory preparation and compliance training imported by Horace Mann in the 1840s and Henry Barnard in the 1850s.
"Mann grew up in Massachusetts during the early part of the 19th century, where religious tension between Protestants and Catholics dominated public life. Parochial schools, in his view, only reinforced these divisions. The Prussian model, on the other hand, was designed to build a common sense of national identity.

"Applied back home, Mann thought, large groups of students learning together would help to blur the divisions among religious groups and establish a more unified and egalitarian society. And as that model became the American blueprint, Mann's vision ultimately became the foundation for our national system of schooling.

"Mann's vision also made sense for the industrial age in which he lived. The factory line was simply the most efficient way to scale production in general, and the analog factory-model classroom was the most sensible way to rapidly scale a system of schools. Factories weren't designed to support personalization. Neither were schools." - Joel Rose, The Atlantic, 2012
The alternative vision, beginning with Alcott, had children moving about, wondering, investigating, and established multiage environments with children learning from each other. Even the technologies Alcott pushed into American schools - the individual student slate and the big "Black-Board" - were designed to elicit student independence and collaboration. The slate allowed children to lower the cost of failure by not making writing the permanent thing it was with ink. The Black-Board allowed students to gather together on a large surface to work. The individual student desk allowed children to get up and move when they needed to, without kicking each other as happened with benches, "To some children, five minutes would be long enough ; and to most, ten minutes would he the full extent of what would be useful," Alcott noted about sitting still.

So, this tension between industrial education - education as a combination of filtering the population into "useful careers" and education as a method of instilling moral rules on the poor and different - and human education, where children were expected to be children, learning, playing, exploring. And the power in this battle has shifted back and forth over the 180 years of public (state) education.

There isn't any set of age limits in the theories behind the humanistic vision, nor limitations of income class or rural/urban - though in the years since the Reagan Administration the practice is far more common among the wealthy than the poor, and far more common in elementary than secondary. At the peak of political acceptance the concepts reached from kindergarten through high school, with the idea that freedom and responsibility were built in tandem, and that maximum freedom worked most effectively for those whom "regular school" had failed: "The School without Walls was a public school that accepted many of the young people for whom there was really no place anyway, who had already suffered debasement at the hands of parents, other school officials, welfare officers, truant officers, police officers. Parkway offered immunity to truants and “misbehavers” and instead of operating like a waiting room, in which students become accustomed to confinement until the time is right to release them on the assembly line, the school most radically unleashed these young people upon the city itself, asking them to recognize it and use it as their own," writes Sasha Moniker of Philadelphia's legendarily effective Parkway Program. In New Rochelle, New York, the Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study - a creation of local teacher Alan Shapiro, NYU professor Neil Postman, and New Rochelle High School Principal James Gaddy, could boast that, "Ninety-seven percent of a 1980s 3I graduating class attended four-year colleges and universities, compared to a regular-school continuing-education rate that was much lower despite including vocational schools and military service," and despite a very high rate of special needs and behavioral issue students. "The traditional dynamic of student as recipient of the teacher’s knowledge was replaced by the question of what kind of experience will be valuable when studying a particular subject. Fundamental to such a situation is the premise, shared by [Elizabeth Cleaners Street School] and Parkway, that teachers are students and students are teachers," writes Moniker, and this altered the essential colonial structure of school - the missionary structure of the classroom in which teachers attempted to 'save and enlighten' those 'in the dark' - and which thus allowed a vastly wider range of students to find success. Even in this over-tested century, "Vicki Gustavson, president of the Connecticut Association of Alternative Schools and Programs and a teacher at the Wallingford Alternative High School, said there was a shorter day — and no clocks or bells — at her school. “Alternative schools are really the grass-roots effort to make sure that no child is left behind because these students would have fallen through the cracks and dropped out of high school,” she said" in The New York Times, and, in the same article, "The [Great Neck, NY] Village School chooses students based largely on referrals, transcripts and their individual needs, and tends to attract an unusually large percentage of special education students — about 50 percent— even though it does not offer special education services beyond that of a traditional high school. Mr. Goldberg said that students with learning disabilities and social and emotional issues often found their problems exacerbated by the stress of a traditional high school."

Open education, the open classroom and the schools-without-walls, succeeded when teachers understood the idea, had time to learn this radically new format, and were given the time, space, and resources to build a new system. The chaotic failures were the result of the opposite - unprepared teachers dumped into vast undifferentiated rooms by incompetent administrators, and schools where the political will to truly embrace universal access to learning did not exist.
"By itself, dividing a classroom into interest areas does not constitute open education; creating large open spaces does not constitute open education; individualizing instruction does not constitute open education. . . . For the open classroom . . . is not a model or set of techniques, it is an approach to teaching and learning.

"The artifacts of the open classroom–interest areas, concrete materials, wall displays–are not ends in themselves but rather means to other ends. . . . In addition, open classrooms are organized to encourage:
• Active learning rather than passive learning;
• Learning and expression in a variety of media, rather than just pencil and paper and the spoken word;
• Self-directed, student-initiated learning more than teacher-directed learning." - The Open Classroom Reader, 1973, Charles Silberman as quoted by Larry Cuban
So, did "Open Education" fail? That's a key question - because it is that assumption which lies behind every teacher, administrator, politician, or parent who says, dismissively, "we tried that before." But to answer the question, perhaps we first must decide whether the purpose of education is social reproduction and wealth preservation, or if it is to expand opportunity for the widest range of children and for society itself.

Because in terms of expanding opportunity, no period can touch the years between 1965 and 1985, the high water mark of alternative education and humanistic educational theories. The mixture of changed pedagogies, racial integration, and aggressive anti-poverty efforts - all of which began to be dramatically undone once Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" entered its second four years - altered, fundamentally, the achievement gap which leaders like Barnard, Elwood Cubberley, and Woodrow Wilson had built into the system.

The data to prove this comes in many forms - in the success of the graduates from the period, those who built the new American information age. In the way the US adapted to a completely changed economic reality with the leadership of the much maligned "Generation X." And in the data itself, the longitudinal test results over the past 40 years.

Alumni of Chicago's Metro High School (1970-1989)

As these changes took many forms, the opportunities opened, and thus the achievement gap closed. Children and adolescents were no longer dissed the minute they entered school, and "at risk" students, whether at risk due to poverty, race, or disability, found an educational system far more willing to meet them where they were. Is it any surprise there was success?

1960 Reader
1972 Reader

OK, still doubt this? Let's look at the data:
"Actual research on the effectiveness of alternative education in the 1970s was thin at best, and much of it was comprised of self-studies and impressionistic data. A review of research on alternative schools by Daniel Duke and Irene Muzio in 1978 concluded that data in 19 evaluations and reports examined did not permit any generalizations about the effectiveness of these schools in educating students. What was clear from the research, however, was students' attitudes about themselves and about school were more positive in alternative settings than in the conventional schools they had previously attended. Other reviews of research on alternative schools in the late 1970s drew the same conclusion. Studies also indicated that positive changes in student' attitudes about schools contributed to higher attendance rates and lower incidence of dropout in alternative schools, particularly among "special needs" students, those "at risk" of failure and/or dropout." (Neumann 2003, p.186)
If I take this paragraph and break it apart based on what I understand about educational research, I see that, back in the 1970s, studies of "alternative educational environments" were often "self-studies" - like, I suppose, those done by Robert Marzano and Robert Slavin in this century - and that they failed to include enough "numbers" - of course in a time of relatively few standardized tests, outside of New York State - but that the clear indications were the same as those claimed - but not quite yet substantiated - by the KIPP Foundation which has caused the federal government to pour millions into that program.

But we can get to numbers if we must, despite schools which were notoriously hard to describe via numbers.

Despite that difficulty, however, the numbers, through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we can find evidence much more clear than that for almost anything on the Department of Education's "What Works" Clearinghouse.

The school without walls, Philadelphia's Parkway Program, by John Bremer, Michael Von Moschzisker (1971)

For those whose elementary experience began to be radically different in the mid-1960s and 1970s, the gains at the end of high school - for those traditionally "filtered out," were both remarkable and unmatched. For those at the top, nothing went down.

For those entering their high school senior year, the smallest reading achievement gap
was achieved by those entering school in the mid-1970s, the high point of open education theories.
Four years later, as Reaganism began to have influence, the gap had widened.
The same evidence is clear in mathematics, the much maligned "New Math" led to the
smallest historic racial achievement gap.
The same curve is obvious among those reaching middle school, the growth in achievement for those "at risk" was greatest with "New Math" and "Whole Language" and open classrooms, and it pushed that stubborn "achievement gap" to historically low levels.

For children entering school between 1970 and 1978 the reading achievement gap
was cut in half on the NAEP measurements by age 13, to a level not matched since.
For both African-American and white students, the 1970s were clearly the high point of achievement. Now the political narrative we hear is quite different, but that's why, here, I am using their "facts" and not just the observational data which indicates happier, more engaged, more likely to stay-in-school students.

The peak of equality of outcomes (17-year-olds in the darkest line), came for those
students most impacted by the open education movement.

Is every bit of the above debatable? Well, of course. Its especially debatable within the context of my argument. I have three things going on - racial integration, open education, and dramatic anti-poverty programs all coalescing, and augmented by a fourth, the rapid expansion of very inexpensive university opportunity, so, what was the most important factor? Was there a most important factor?

But what seems difficult to argue is what is often argued - that the educational paradigms of the 1970s proved to be a complete failure - or that open education was a failure - or that open education represented a decline in educational standards. None of the quantitative data supports that view at all. Neither does any of the observed qualitative data.

So when people say, "we tried that before," perhaps it is time to say in reply, "yes, and it worked."

- Ira Socol


Antonio Bernal said...

I was a high school language teacher for 23 years. I believe strongly in rote learning and uniforms. I don't see how this contradicts the Metro approach-- in our class we- the students- rewrote the classics and performed them in modern dress, while I filmed them into a complete, edited movie. I had them work collaboratively and give presentations to the rest of the class. Our essays were published in the local newspaper. Space does not permit me to go on. My only point is that emphasizing the free inductive approach should not obviate the need for discipline and the equal standards expressed by deduction. You have to have both.

Bob Carnein said...

I agree with Antonio. I taught college from 1970 through 2007. What I saw was a gradual decline in students' knowledge, critical thinking skills, and respect for knowledge, along with a big increase in cynicism. At the same time, increasing cultural relativism resulted in our current culture of ignorance and pride, exemplified by the trash media and fundamentalist religion. Antonio's last statement is exactly right.

irasocol said...

Mr. Bernal, Mr. Carnein,

I admit that I am, by nature, a Qualitative Researchers, but I need to point out that I offer data, both qualitative and quantitative and you both respond with political - and perhaps religious - opinion which you do not back up with even one bit of student data.

So I have to say that I do laugh at your expressions of outrage, "students without uniforms!" - surely no one has ever become a success without wearing a uniform at school! "Cultural Relativism!" - surely diversity has destroyed that lovely all-white all-Protestant education of the 1950s and that has prevented the US from becoming a knowledge economy.

The simple fact is that all of what you object to actually works for our children and our society. What it fails to do is to function as a wealth preservation system for those who inherit their wealth.

Ira Socol

Hal O'Leary said...

I have nothing but the highest praise for Ira Socol. I would only wish that, just as he points out that the question of "how" in evaluating education should not be considered until the question of why is posed and answered, that he might have told us why human education failed. It was by design. It failed to produce the indoctrinated sycophants needed for the neurotic society and industry it serves.