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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Why Many Top-Down School Reforms Fail: Elementary Math in One District

Examples of top-down mandates from district, state, and federal policymakers without significant teacher or community involvement are legion.

*Los Angeles Unified contracted with Apple to spend one billion-plus dollars for iPads for every student to use a newly-developed curriculum and eventually take Common Core tests in 2013. It belly flopped with lots of splashes offering little help to teachers and students.

*No Child Left Behind (2002-2016), a bipartisan law sailed through the U.S. Congress, got signed by President George W. Bush, and landed on state and district superintendents’ desks soon after. The U.S. Department of Education through individual states became a super-school board determining which local schools met or didn’t meet “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests. Schools that failed could be closed if AYP went unmet for five years. After protests from teachers and parents about too much testing–an opt out movement by parents who pulled their children out of school during test days swelled–too much shaming of students and their schools gradually accumulated in the first decade of the century.It was clear to legislators and the President, Barack Obama, that the law had to be changed. Not until 2016, however, did the Every Student Succeeds Act shift authority for evaluating schools that succeeded and those that failed schools back to the states (see herehere, and here).

*State math, reading, and science standards since the 1960s come and go with minimal teacher and community involvement (see here and here).

So what?

In a series of posts I have raised questions about the concept of “failed” school reform by looking at the different clocks used to measure “success” of a reform, how time itself is a factor in making a judgment, the varied criteria used to make decisions about “failure,” and who uses these criteria to make the judgments. In this post, I want to point out how easy it is for a district school reform to be declared a “failure” by media, parents, and practitioners through errors that policymakers commit. And how such errors could have been easily avoided.

When policymakers decide to adopt a new computer-driven program promising math lessons customized to fit every student without substantial involvement of teachers and parents, the ingredients of a recipe for a “failed” reform are in the pot to be stirred. It is a story anchored in decision-makers ignoring the very people who have to accept and implement the instructional reform. It is a sad story because such a “failure”–like some of the ones mentioned in the beginning of the post–could have been avoided had policymakers been attentive to the political dimensions of adopting and implementing a school reform.

Consider the experience of “Teach To One,” a personalized learning program adopted by the Mountain View Whisman School District in the heart of Silicon Valley to improve math test scores in 2016. Teach To One has received media attention and has been described as a technologically advanced way a district can close the achievement gap in math between minority and white students by tailoring individual lessons to the strengths and weaknesses of each student (See herehere, and here). The District of just over 5,000 students located in 10 schools adopted the program for all sixth graders in the two middle schools.*

The following chronology captures the onset and demise of the reform.

August-September 2016–Deeply buried in a thick document called the Local Control Accountability Plan for 2016-2017 are two lines of text that announce: “Based on middle school math achievement data, the District will pilot a blended learning program – Teach to One in 6th grade at both middle schools.” In effect, the Superintendent mandated an initiative that few parents and teachers knew about prior to its announcement in August. In addition, funding necessary for the innovative math program was to come from District funds and a private donor who pledged to subsidize the program.

Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, Cathy Baur, began sending out to parents in early September a weekly description of the program (in both English and Spanish) to parents. Attached to these weekly reports are a series of Frequently Asked Questions.

The September 9, 2016 parent letter said in part:

Dear Sixth-Grade Families,

Middle school is a critical time for students to learn and refine the math skills they need to succeed in high school and beyond. Our goal is to effectively meet the diverse needs of each student. Personalized learning is crucial to both challenge and support students at their own levels as they enter middle school math.

MVWSD is using Teach to One, by New Classrooms. Teach to One (TTO) is customized daily math instruction based on a student’s learning strengths and needs. Each day, a student learns mathematics skills and concepts in a variety of instructional approaches with peers ready for the same skills or concepts.

Teach to One is off to a good start.

During the first weeks, students learn the routines and procedures of the program, and are exposed to the different learning sessions including teacher-led instruction, peer-to-peer lessons, small group collaborative lessons, and independent technology based lessons.

During the learning sessions, students have been completing a variety of other diagnostic activities aligned with sixth-grade standards. Next week, students will begin their first unit of personalized lessons based on all of the information collected. Each student’s skill library will be populated with individualized lessons.

Homework is assigned every Monday through the TTO portal.The homework is based on the skills listed in the portal for that particular Monday. Your child may have already been introduced to that skill before and may have been practicing, or your child was introduced to that skill on Monday. Either way, the homework will be given out on Mondays and then collected the following Monday.This will give your child time to practice those skills in class, practice them on the homework and get extra help if needed.

These weekly letters ran through December 2, 2016.

December 7, 2016. In a letter to Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph and Assistant Superintendent Baur signed by over 175 Graham and Crittenden parents representing about 500 sixth grade students (an uncommon number of parents in a relatively small district to voice a specific curricular concern) protesting Teach To One, students’ difficulty in grasping math concepts and skills through the mostly online program, and minimal teacher-led instruction.

December 7-15. The Superintendent sent out a survey to 6th grade parents and students asking for their opinions on Teach To One.

Late-December. Private donor reneges on pledge to fund Teach to One which would cost over $500,000.

December 20, 2016. After examining the results of the survey that showed large majorities of parents opposing the program, Superintendent Rudolph sent out a letter to Graham and Crittenden Middle School parents that pointed out the pluses and minuses of Teach To One and the District’s next steps in paring back the program:

So what comes next?  As a District we operate as a learning organization. We have heard from some about abandoning the program completely, and from others who would like to continue to improve the delivery of this innovative program. Taking all factors into consideration, the District will make changes to the program, beginning Jan. 9 for the remainder of the year, to strike a better balance between technology-assisted and teacher-led instruction.

Teach to One will be reduced to 50% of class time. The other 50% of time students will work with a teacher on the level of Eureka Math appropriate for them. Students are assigned strategically for their Eureka math instruction based on the results of a variety of assessments. This will prepare students to be on target to exit eighth grade having completed Geometry, Algebra I or eighth-grade math.

In order to ensure that students deepen their knowledge before moving to a higher level, we will provide more traditional instruction time and modified TTO programming.

Teachers and administrators developed a new schedule for their individual sites, and details about the specific schedule will be communicated by each middle school principal on Jan. 3.

This pilot process is an important one that allows us to identify the strengths and weaknesses of Teach to One for all students, so that we may make changes in a thoughtful, methodical manner. Thank you for your support and patience.

January 12, 2017. In an abrupt turnaround, however, Superintendent Rudolph notified parents that he was ending the Teach To One Program (see here). In the letter, Rudolph said:

After careful consideration and evaluation, we took research-based, technology-assisted learning [Teach To One] and brought it into our classrooms as a way to better tailor instruction to individual students. From the beginning of the year, the classrooms were closely monitored.  We communicated program highlights by email weekly, and we talked with and corresponded with parents regularly. As always, we are open to feedback as reflected in the adjustments to pacing and instruction that we made mid-year to continue to support and improve student learning.

What went well: TTO has important advantages. Students, especially at Crittenden, said they have benefitted [sic] from Teach to One’s individualized learning and innovation. Teachers had access to daily data about their students’ progress and appreciated TTO’s ability to differentiate math instruction for all students. TTO is flexible and personalized, and helped many students reinforce skills that they might have missed in previous grade levels, as well as provided extra challenge to those who needed it.

What didn’t go well: There were technology problems. We heard the desire for a better balance between teacher-led instruction and Teach to One to provide students a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. There were concerns that students needed more exposure to grade-level and foundational concepts before advancing to higher-level skills.  The rollout did not go as well as hoped; administrators, teachers and students were learning alongside one another.

What’s changed significantly in the last 10 days:

On January 5th and 6th we received more data from internal teacher assessments and recent Northwest Evaluation Association Measure of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) data from TTO.  This latest data demonstrates that close to 52 percent of our students are on grade level {55.51% (Graham) and 48.24% (Crittenden)} with 51 percent of our students demonstrating growth equal to or above the national average, which is a drop from 58% of students entering the 6th grade on grade level on CAASPP.  However, the former data (teacher-administered assessments) demonstrates students performed at a higher level on the two tested standards RP1 (Ratio and Proportional Relationships standard 1) and RP3 (Ratio and Proportional Relationships standard 3) compared to their peers from the previous years (RP1 61% proficient compared to 49% at the end of the 2015-16 school year and on standard RP3 60% proficient compared to 49% at the end of the 2015-16 school year).

At the heart of our decision-making, the most important factor is if our instructional programs are meeting the needs of all of students. With conflicting data points, it is hard to ascertain if TTO is having a positive impact on student performance because the latest data reports show the results are mixed. Some students aren’t performing as well as we had hoped…. 

In light of the additional data received on January 5th and 6th, effective immediately, the District will discontinue using Teach to One.  Instead, students will have teacher-led instruction with Eureka Math. Meanwhile, teachers, coaches and administrators will work on a plan to include technology to supplement math instruction. We are committed to personalized learning, but can’t continue a program that does not meet the needs of all of our students.

Thus, within less than six months, a highly touted national math innovation, Teach To One, went from administrator excitement to parental protest to dumping the program.

The district reverted to its existing Eureka math program, a carefully sequenced, teacher-directed program that is aligned closely with the national Core Curriculum standards adopted by California in the early 2010s. Many district elementary teachers were already familiar with the program and have used the modules publishers provided. Eureka is the primary elementary math program in 2021.


*Robin Colman, a middle school parent, who reads this blog emailed me in 2017 about her deep concerns for the new “Teach To One” project that the superintendent had mandated for the two middle schools. In addition to her emails, I used as sources newspaper articles, District parent and student surveys, and exchanges of correspondence between district administrators, parents.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...