Teaching and Learning How to Teach and Learn

Winter 2008 Interaction

When Stanford officials went on the road in recent years to keep in touch with alumni and get their support, they were struck by the similarity of responses to queries about what’s important these days to Stanford graduates.

Education. It’s a crisis.

L.A. Cicero
lab detail

So the university last year launched a $125 million initiative, part of The Stanford Challenge, stressing teachers, policy and leadership. The underlying missions of the initiative, according to its co-directors, theoretical physicist Helen Quinn and education Professor Kenji Hakuta, are interdisciplinarity and reaching out from the university into the community.

Stanford’s School of Education is a good place from which to launch such a venture. There are 17 doctoral programs and 11 master’s degree programs, along with the teaching credential program. There are a multitude of research centers and institutes addressing such areas as pedagogy, policy, technology and management. A point of pride for the school is that scholars and policy experts are deeply involved with teacher training, and graduate students are not divorced from the communities they will one day serve.

At the heart of this marriage of theory and practice are children.

“Kids do really well in preschool, and then they fall apart in public schools,” said Dorothy Steele, director of the Stanford Integrated Schools Project, run by the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE). “Our whole approach is to try to get an understanding of what’s going on in classrooms from the people who are in there.”

School is hard. Not because the subjects are hard, which they might well be, but because school has become, for many children, a series of insurmountable obstacles. In what follows, we review a series of obstacles and look at how Stanford faculty, researchers and students are working to make them less formidable.

The definition of adequacy

First, there has to actually be a school, a physical location that is safe and clean and equipped with things like roofs and bathrooms and pencils. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that education was not a fundamental right and therefore that being practically deprived of education did not constitute a violation of the 14th Amendment. What with equal access to education, the principle established by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, no longer a permissible argument, legal advocates turned to the concept of adequacy.

This is the narrative told by William Koski, the Eric and Nancy Wright Professor in Clinical Education at the Law School, and Rob Reich, associate professor of political science. According to their recent study, adequate isn’t good enough. If not for reasons of constitutional weight, then for reasons of sound public policy, it is a mistake to consent to a system in which the state systematically provides superior educational opportunities to some children and not to others based primarily on wealth and neighborhood.

This is a debate engaging not only law, political science and ethics, but also economics, as it all comes down to fiscal policy. In ruling that education was not a 14th Amendment, or equal protection, matter, the high court (in the 1973 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez case) allowed education to be financed by property taxes. That means there is nothing inequitable about, say, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto each financing their schools with property taxes. No longer would the federal courts enforce “Robin Hood” tax-sharing rules, by which the rich were required to subsidize the poor.

State courts, the reformers’ next stop, often did order greater equity in school finance; California’s Serrano v. Priest was one example, but a series of subsequent rulings, laws and voter initiatives undermined it. Then, in 1989, the Kentucky state supreme court ruled (in Rose) that the state’s entire public school system violated the state constitution. To define an adequate education, the court enumerated seven learning goals that have served as a touchstone ever since, and dozens of similar cases followed nationwide. Koski calls this “remedial litigation,” a decisive shift away from equity.

Over the past two decades, Koski said recently at the Ethics@Noon speaker series, the bar of what “adequacy” means has dropped lower and lower. He and Reich argue that applying uniform criteria (such as test scores) with no regard for the norm of equality in essence ensures failure for many schools. Education, they say, is a “positional good,” that is, more education places one on a better plane than less education. And holding the inputs bar low but adequate has little impact if the wealthier schools can fundraise to bring it up to an acceptable level. Mere adequacy, then, ensures inequality, or at least makes it more likely.

Education finance reformers and litigators, with no high court precedent to guide them at this point, must figure out some definitions. Does equality refer to inputs (finance and other resources) or outputs (test scores)? The old system stressed the former; the current one stresses the latter. Are schools to be compared to each other or to some allegedly neutral and fixed external measure? Is it acceptable if the lowest-ranked child is getting an acceptable but vastly inferior education? And how can public funding link these two worlds?

“In the end,” Reich said, “the relevant question for citizens and policymakers seems to be whether the state’s obligation to provide education is exhausted once absolute educational deprivation has been eliminated. If that is the case, then adequacy is the right framework. But we are arguing that the state’s obligation goes beyond just the production of adequate schools. Inequalities in resources and outcomes undermine equal opportunity, and only the equality paradigm will be able to address these relative deprivations.”

Language barriers

Many children receiving a less-than-adequate education have no idea what their teachers are saying because they don’t understand English or don’t hear it at home. It is impossible to figure out how many children are in this situation; Census figures say there are 660,000 households in California that are “linguistically isolated,” meaning no one over the age of 14 speaks English “well” or “very well.” In Santa Clara County, that applies to around 10 percent of all households. Those households are not equally distributed among schools throughout the county, some of which have as many as 98 percent Latino pupils.

Virtually none of those children are in bilingual classrooms, which were outlawed in 1998 with the passage of Proposition 227. Somehow, they have to learn both English and their school subjects.

L.A. Cicero

“In this country we’ve killed immigrant languages, and then we teach them expensively,” said Guadalupe Valdés, director of the Ravenswood English program.

The Ravenswood English program tries to make that possible. Stanford students and local volunteers provide children at East Palo Alto schools up to the fourth grade with what program director Guadalupe Valdés describes as rich, comprehensible English, meaning the learners can guess intelligently and figure out meanings by using the context.

“This state is facing a crisis,” said Valdés, the Bonnie Katz Tenenbaum Professor of Education and a member of the K–12 Initiative steering committee. “Schools are in denial. They are facing an enormous problem with no easy solutions. Some schools are trying programs where kids simultaneously learn the subject and English. But if test scores go down, schools become desperate.”

Ravenswood English, she says, is unique. The program, a volunteer effort based at the School of Education, allows kids to simply hang out with English-speaking adults after school. No tutoring, just lots of listening, “reading” together, questions and answers, songs and games.

Valdés began her academic life as an applied linguist in a Spanish department. What fascinates her, she said, is bilingualism as a human condition.

“How do bilinguals work? What makes them tick, which languages suffer?” she asked. “In this country we’ve killed immigrant languages, and then we teach them expensively.” It may appear that Spanish is linguistically alive and well in the United States, she said, but that impression is a false one. Though a recent Pew study showed that just over half of foreign-born Hispanics say they speak only Spanish at home, by the third generation only one-quarter speak Spanish, a process masked by the presence of new immigrants.

One of the country’s premier experts on bilingualism in general, and English acquisition in particular, is Kenji Hakuta, co-director of the K–12 Initiative and an experimental psycholinguist. He, Valdés and other Stanford researchers have developed an online version of the required California Cross-Cultural Language and Academic Development (CLAD) certification to help train California teachers to teach students with limited proficiency in English. From there, they partnered with education Professor Roy Pea, founder of Teachscape, an education research and development company, to make high-quality instructional videos for English teachers.

“This gives us the potential to prepare teachers. We don’t have enough teachers in California with the necessary expertise,” Valdés said.

“Kenji Hakuta moves so well at the state and national level” on matters concerning bilingualism and the education of English-language learners, she said. “He knows what’s going on with policy; he effectively uses large databases. I give him the vignettes to get the policymakers’ attention. I can humanize numbers. I can say, ‘Look at Tomás.’”

The testocracy

So the children are enrolled in an adequate school and they are beginning to understand their teacher.

Now they have to take tests. They become part of what Prudence Carter, associate professor of education, calls the “testocracy.” The tests, mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program, will determine their schools’ funding and the children’s own future.

“Title I federal education funds have diminished, and they are linked to perverse incentives, a brutal reward-and-punishment system based on test scores,” Koski told the Ethics@Noon audience. “Teachers won’t work in low-scoring schools, which makes homeowners leave. Real estate agents are wild for test scores.”

And, as everyone knows, there is an achievement gap. Non-white and poor kids score worse than white and well-off students. And the longer they stay in school, the wider the gap gets.

Sarah Capitelli

Scenes from the program, with, from top, Stanford undergraduates Miguel Ortega and Julie McKinney.


One person who is not surprised by the growing gap is Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education, a leading expert in school reform and recently named one of Barack Obama’s top education policy advisers. At a recent symposium to celebrate the 10th anniversary of CCSRE, she showed some remarkable footage of Oakland high school students recounting how many substitute teachers they had had that year. Actually, they had only substitute teachers.

They go to what she calls “apartheid schools.” If teachers were properly trained and paid, she maintains, we’d be a big step ahead. In her mind, teacher quality counts for more than race or class in explaining the gap.

Another Stanford faculty member devoting his research time to the racial achievement gap is Sean Reardon, associate professor of education. Among his projects is one examining huge amounts of data from Bay Area school districts to track achievement rates since the federal courts lifted desegregation orders 10 years ago. So far, it looks like black students’ achievement suffered once segregation was allowed to reestablish itself; Reardon says it’s the first time a causal link has been demonstrated between school segregation and academic outcome.

“The debate about No Child Left Behind is really a debate about how to think about the achievement gap,” he said. As a faculty researcher with the Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice, Reardon and his associates collaborate with school districts to establish the important research questions. The districts give them the data, and the scholars figure out what it says.

Science as casualty?

Race and poverty aside for the moment, one of the clear casualties of the testocracy is the virtual extinction of science instruction in elementary school. Reading and math, the barometers of NCLB, have displaced other subjects. A recent survey of Bay Area elementary school teachers by the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California-Berkeley showed that 80 percent spent less than an hour each week teaching science. About 16 percent said they spent no time at all on science; these were teachers whose schools had missed the NCLB benchmarks and were trying to catch up.

This is a matter of particular concern to Helen Quinn, co-director with Hakuta of the K–12 Initiative. Quinn, all of whose university degrees were awarded by Stanford, is a professor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. For 20 years she has worked with and run programs in area schools. As she explains it, science-teacher education “is the other half of what I do.”

Logically enough, science education was singled out from the start as a priority of the K–12 Initiative. As Hakuta put it, “It would be very weird if Stanford didn’t have a science-teaching emphasis. We think we can do some useful things.”

Already, Stanford’s Office of Science Outreach is running programs to train future and current science teachers, and bringing promising teachers and high school students into Stanford labs over the summer to work with mentors.

Quinn, a former president of the American Physical Society, was clear in pointing out that the K–12 Initiative, in emphasizing teachers, is not simply emphasizing curriculum.

“People think that if there’s a problem, you just need a good curriculum,” she said. “But teachers are constrained by curriculum. Right now, there’s no science curriculum in elementary schools, even though that’s where you need it the most. Maybe we can develop a wonderful course, but where’s the place for that course? A good science course is not the issue—the issue is having the time to teach it.”

The legacy of Brown

But, of course, one can’t put aside race and poverty. On the 50th anniversary of Brown, education reformers at Stanford and elsewhere acknowledged that the landmark ruling has failed to provide equal educational opportunities for all American children. The promise has not materialized. De facto segregation and prejudice, it turned out, survived even when legal segregation did not.

According to Carter, whose degrees are in economics and sociology, “we are in a crisis moment” and must not romanticize Brown. Even in so-called good schools, she said, black students are performing worse than a few years ago.

“Should we implement a better Brown?” asked Darling-Hammond at the CCSRE event. “Or implement a new form of Plessy?” referring to Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case that institutionalized separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites. It was a controversial suggestion, but she immediately pointed to the well-known case of East Palo Alto, where Ravenswood High closed in 1976 as a result of a desegregation order. Dispersed among area schools, two-thirds of the city’s black students ended up dropping out.

Nearly 30 years later, Stanford launched a small public high school in East Palo Alto. It has graduated three classes so far; 90 percent of the enrolled students graduate. Almost all go to college.

At the heart of the achievement gap and of education finance reform are the twin legacies of race and class. In an age of low taxes, rollback of federal protection laws and economic globalization, the poor and the non-white can easily and quickly get left behind. Indeed, Koski, Darling-Hammond and others might argue that it would be very surprising if they kept up.

Affirmative action, along with desegregation orders, was one of the chief compensatory mechanisms for structural inequities. But that too is no longer in the toolbox of many reformers, having been removed by voter initiatives or judicial rulings.

The 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court (in a 5-4 vote) ruled that the University of Michigan Law School was permitted to take race into account, is likely to be the last such ruling in a long time. (Indeed, at the end of last term, the court essentially undid Grutter in a case involving schools in Seattle and Louisville.)

One of the expert witnesses in Grutter was Claude Steele, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences and director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Steele, a professor of psychology, has drawn widespread acclaim for his theory of stereotype threat, which posits that students’ performance will suffer if they are afraid of confirming negative stereotypes.

Stereotypes are pervasive throughout society, he said, “but schooling is where it takes the heaviest toll.” Situations such as tests—precisely the events that schools today are judged on—can bring out the very worst in even (or especially) the very best students. The point here is that though remedial legal action of whatever sort may be a good and necessary thing, social identity is a psychological phenomenon that manifests itself in specific circumstances.

Steele and his collaborators therefore have developed programs to mitigate the impact of negative racial stereotypes in schools. “The aim,” he told the PBS show Frontline, “is to create learning situations, schooling situations, where people can feel secure.”

Identity and safety in the classrooms

One such effort is the Stanford Integrated Schools Project, directed by Dorothy Steele, who also is executive director of CCSRE. The project grew out of an interdisciplinary research group spearheaded by Steele and Hazel Markus, the Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences.

“We said, ‘Look, what can we do that could help derail the presence of stereotypes?’” Dorothy Steele said. “People love to use the [achievement] gap as a measure. It’s a reasonable measure, but my answer is that the gap is such a narrow piece of evidence about learning and development. Focusing on it is like going to the pediatrician and taking only the height and not examining eyes and ears. It’s a single measure, and we punish children with it.

“We’re trying to see if there are things teachers can do that would make a difference in spite of all the inequalities out there.”

Her research group is working with East Bay schools on what they call “identity safety,” collecting all the data they can to figure out what actually transpires in the classroom.

“We have a lot of data now,” Steele said, “and from that, we learned that there’s a constellation of things that, when teachers do them, kids do better.”

State Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell got that message in November at a Sacramento event (reported by the San Francisco Chronicle) at which kids told teachers what it’s like to be a pupil.

Encourage us, they told teachers. Keep the noise down. Take an interest in us. Look us in the eyes.

Small things, in other words. Real things. Stanford students are in classrooms throughout the Bay Area learning those things. They’re in charter schools run by Stanford, they’re running tutoring programs, they’re collecting data and talking to school teachers. The aim is to make theory meet practice and to have both be deeply informed by an array of disciplines.

Referring to the education and race discussion group at CCSRE, Dorothy Steele spoke of her work as a privilege.

“There’s something about this group,” she said. “It’s like Motown and R&B, or like the Impressionists; there are periods of understanding, of getting a hold of something. It’s not the genius of one person, it’s the privilege of working in this fertile place together.”

Pilot Projects Funded by the Stanford Initiative on Improving K–12 Education

1. Bartholomew’s World

An innovative approach to teaching Latin and medieval science or natural philosophy using primary sources.

Rega Wood, research professor of philosophy
Hester Gelber, professor of religious studies

2. Ecology: Learning by Doing and Making a Difference

A hands-on project with high-school students and faculty to explore the use of technology such as digital pens, software and field equipment in ecological research.

Rodolfo Dirzo, Bing Professor in Environmental Science
Cindy Wilber, education coordinator, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve

3. Promoting Data-Driven, Evidence-Based Practices That Help to Attract, Develop and Retain High-Quality Teachers in Urban School Districts

Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor in the School of Education and co-director, School Redesign Network
Susanna Loeb, associate professor of education and director of the Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice

4. Taking Design Thinking to School: Approaches to Integrating the Design Process in K–12 Teaching and Learning

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design and the School of Education will partner to explore how design thinking and design processes can best affect teaching and learning in K–12 environments. (See accompanying article.)

Shelley Goldman, teaching professor of education
Bernie Roth, professor of mechanical engineering

5. Innovations in Literacy Tutoring

This project will conduct, expand and evaluate a reading tutoring program in two East Palo Alto schools: Costaño Elementary School and the Stanford-sponsored charter school, East Palo Alto Academy.

Connie Juel, professor of education
Paula England, professor of sociology

6. Ravenswood Writing Centers

This project aims to enhance the writing and communication skills and the leadership abilities of culturally and linguistically diverse high school students and to offer curricular training at East Palo Alto High School, Summit Preparatory Charter High School, Hillsdale Comprehensive High School and, eventually, other schools in the surrounding area.

Arnetha F. Ball, professor of education
Andrea Lunsford, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of English
Clyde Moneyhun, director, George and Leslie Hume Writing Center
John Tinker, lecturer, Program in Writing and Rhetoric

7. Teaching Historical Thinking: Teacher Preparation and Curricular Intervention

Using the STEP approach to history and social studies, this project will train teachers to implement a four-month literacy-based history curriculum beginning in fall.

Sam Wineburg, professor of education and, by courtesy, of history

8. Youth Participatory Media Culture: Evolving Online Journalism and Broadcast Journalism to Develop Media Literacies and Engage Broader Student Communities

This project will develop new partnerships between Stanford faculty and researchers and Palo Alto High School’s award-winning online news and broadcast journalism program, concentrating on new media and youth participatory media culture.

Roy Pea, professor of education
Brigid Barron, associate professor of education
Ted Glasser, professor of communication